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Although K-12 music standards call for students to develop skills in composition, I often hear educators express that they feel ill-equipped to support their students in this endeavor. Many music teachers do not get trained on how to facilitate composition projects in the classroom, and their own experience with composing can be quite limited if their studies placed an emphasis on performance. As a result, instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.
Though these assignments can serve a purpose, they often do little to develop a young musician’s creativity, and at times, they can even stifle students’ artistry by implying that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to compose. Instead, students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development. This is especially crucial in music programs where many students’ only access to formal music instruction is in the classroom, where their studies are typically not as individualized as they would be in a private lesson setting.
This article is a collection of actionable tips primarily from my own experience as a composer-educator and founder of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop. These strategies can be adapted to group or private lesson settings and don’t require that educators have extensive background in composition. Though these approaches are geared towards middle and high school students, many of these tips can be adapted to create lessons for students of different age groups.
Instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.
Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
Students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development.
Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece.
Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
I encourage students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities. For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.
Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
If students feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.
Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few.
Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today's world.
Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
Cultivate a practice of observation and discussion.
Eric Booth, in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, advises that we need to guide students in practicing observation before defaulting to interpretation or judgment – a discipline that we also need to cultivate in our own practice.1 This approach enables students to learn a great deal from the music that they listen to, yet it also gives them an ability to ask insightful questions of themselves while they are in the process of realizing their own ideas.
If a student listens to a new piece and responds with “This piece makes me feel as if I am watching a cartoon,” giving a follow up question such as “What about the music reminds you of watching a cartoon?” can help them to return their focus to aspects such as the instrumentation or texture of the piece.
When we model questions that focus on observation, this empowers students to practice asking themselves more insightful questions during the composition process. For instance, a student who is dissatisfied with how their melody resolves can ask themselves, “What about this melody makes it sound incomplete?” However, if they immediately judge the melody as something that is “no good,” they will likely abandon their original ideas, and the opportunity to learn from their experiences will be missed.
Even if the student ultimately decides to scrap their composition and start over, taking a moment to pause and observe what they have created so far can give them the insight needed to accomplish what they set out to write the next time around.
Focus on one element of music at a time.
In the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, one of our topics during the first week of classes is a lesson on the elements of music. When we give students the vocabulary to talk about elements such as rhythm, pitch, and texture, they become better equipped to make observations about the music that they are listening to. That way, they are less dependent on interpretations and judgment.
Even if students are having trouble finding the right terminology to use in the midst of a discussion, it can be helpful to invite them to describe what they are observing to the best of their abilities without having to utilize the proper musical term right away. The vocabulary can always be taught later, and the students’ findings can be great ways to open up conversations around new terminology.
Aside from listening exercises, composition projects that focus on a singular element of music are great for narrowing the scope of a lesson while allowing plenty of room for creativity. For example, I’ve often used the Sonic Scavenger Hunt by composer-educator Danny Clay as a starting point for students to explore the concept of timbre.
Experiment with many approaches to composition.
When students can try their hand at a variety of approaches to composing, they will eventually choose a writing process that is most inspiring to them. Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece. They may even decide to change their approach based on the result that they are trying to accomplish in a given project.
Though a new approach may be uncomfortable at first, sometimes, students can actually be inspired in unexpected ways. I’ve taught workshops where students work together to compose chance music; however, I always tell them that even if they set up a system for choosing the notes, they are always free to break their own rules and edit the piece if they are dissatisfied with the result.
After using a die, a coin, or a picker wheel to determine certain elements of a piece, often, they will become quite opinionated about which notes to change and why they are changing them–another great opportunity for conversation.
Bringing in guest composers to teach a class (either in-person or virtually) or finding videos of composers talking about their creative process can motivate students to try something new. Though some students may initially feel that processes such as rolling a die or turning their name into musical notes are not legitimate ways to write music, when they discover that there are many established composers who have created masterpieces with similar strategies, they will feel validated in their own creative process.
Many of the reasons for introducing a variety of approaches to composition also apply to experimenting with different styles of notation. Another great aspect of Danny Clay’s Sonic Scavenger Hunt is that it is a great example of a graphic score – a concept that is fit for beginners and more experienced students alike.
Students can also explore projects that don’t require any notation, such as composing a fixed media piece in a program like Audacity. Young composers tend to fixate on pitches and rhythms, but these alternatives to traditional notation can be useful exercises in developing elements such as timbre, texture, and dynamics when students might not have focused on them before.
Use technology to your advantage…
Even simpler apps, such as voice notes or a video camera that’s included with a mobile device, can be useful tools for composing. When I teach composition, I often encourage students to record their ideas as they go. That way, they don’t have to worry about forgetting concepts that they are experimenting with – a strategy that I often use in my own work before I begin to notate my ideas. Documenting the composition process can also enable students to better reflect on their experiences since it will be easier to see how the piece evolves over time.
Aside from being a way to introduce students to other artists and composers, watching and discussing videos of performances, interviews, and demonstrations can be a great way for students to witness how sounds can be created in innovative ways. For instance this performance of Zaka by Jennifer Higdon has been a great conversation starter amongst my students since it demonstrates the concept of extended techniques. Additionally, this profile of Angélica Negrón has piqued my students’ curiosity about electronic music and found sounds.
…but be mindful of where technology has its limits.
At times, introducing certain technology too early in our students’ development can encourage them to “color inside the lines” in unintended ways. I have often seen this happen to students who begin to use notation software long before they have started to get comfortable demonstrating their ideas on an instrument or writing sketches by hand, however imperfect these methods may be at first.
In a lot of notation software, such as Noteflight, MuseScore, or Sibelius, to name a few, users are asked to specify parameters such as the meter and key signature before they begin to enter the piece itself. Changing these options later on can become a barrier if students aren’t aware of how to work around these limitations or if they are not aware that their tools are imposing such limitations in the first place. This often results in melodies and rhythms that sound too “square” and pieces that can become too redundant.
One way that I counteract this is by encouraging students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities.
For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.
Save the theory assessments for another time.
When composition projects are primarily intended to examine whether your students can write an eight-bar melody in D Major, for example, they are much more likely to become fixated on whether they are choosing the “right” notes and pleasing their teacher. Instead, opt for open-ended projects that enable students to explore and define their musical tastes.
Students who feel empowered to envision and realize their own ideas will gain a sense of confidence that can be applied to any profession whether they choose to continue in their musical development or move on to other endeavors. On the other hand, if they feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.
Alice Kanack, the pioneer of Creative Ability Development, has a very helpful formula to refer to when structuring creative exercises for students:
Freedom of choice or Freedom from criticism + Disciplined practice and repetition of making choices = Creative Ability2
Whether I am teaching composition in my own studio or I am visiting another teacher’s class to do a workshop, I’ve found it much more empowering to encourage students to express their intentions and their artistic vision so that we can explore how they might accomplish what they intended. This is another reason why lessons that incorporate plenty of time for discussion and reflection are so important.
As educators, we can enable students to take creative risks and break free of a fixation on choosing “right” versus “wrong” notes by creating multiple opportunities for them to share works-in-progress. Often, I will set a short timer (e.g. 5-10 minutes) for students to respond to a prompt that is very narrow in scope. Then, they will have an opportunity to share what they came up with and express their intentions for their work as they go forward.
Even though there will often be at least one student who is too shy to share their unfinished works, I’ve found that simply inviting them to reflect on what the experience of composing was like can gain their trust. More often than not, they ultimately decide to present the music itself.
That being said, it is crucial to create a safe space for them to be vulnerable in this way, especially if they are in a group setting with their peers. All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few. This goes for all parties involved — their peers, their teachers, and even parents or guardians who are supporting them in their studies.3
Because of this, modeling what it’s like to embrace imperfection can be a powerful tool. When I give students an opportunity to work independently during class, I will often use the time to compose ideas for the same prompt and demonstrate what it’s like to share my own imperfect, unfinished work. This includes verbalizing my thoughts on how I feel about the creation at the moment. Whether I am excited about moving forward with my ideas or I feel ambivalent and want to scrap them, I make a habit of sharing these reflections with my students so that they can feel safe to do so as well.
Connect lessons to real-world experiences.
Introducing our students to living composers, whether it is via a live workshop or through pre-recorded media, can illustrate the many ways in which a career in music can take shape.
This can easily become a starting point for activities that give students a taste of what the music profession can be like. For instance, prompts such as writing a short solo for a classmate to perform can give students a glimpse into the process of writing a commission.
As part of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, Samantha Hogan, has visited our class to share excerpts from her concert works as well as selections that she wrote for games and film. After her presentation, she facilitated a lesson in which the students created music to portray characters from I Wish I Were A Butterfly, a children’s book by James Howe. This kind of activity is a great way to introduce students to the idea of telling stories with music.
Aside from empowering students to make creative choices in the music itself, encouraging students to assist in the production of their work can give them confidence to initiate their own projects later on. Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today’s world.
As you begin to apply these practices, my hope is that you will feel more confident to share the art of music composition with your students, even if you have little formal training in composition or you do not identify as a composer. Though an emphasis on observation and experimentation will take much more time than prompting students to “color inside the lines,” approaching the study of composition in this manner will offer more enriching opportunities for us to learn alongside our students, inviting them to take risks and explore new territories in their creative practice.
Eric Booth, The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible: Becoming a Virtuoso Educator (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 33.
Alice Kay Kanack, Fun Improvisation for Violin: The Philosophy and Method of Creative Ability Development (USA: Summy-Birchard Music, 1996), 15.
The ideas below came to me in a dream. Some of them seem a little unusual—I should probably apologize for that. I had a couple glasses of a very fine Barolo from the Monforte region of northern Italy before falling asleep, so maybe that played a factor. But I’m determined to share what I heard exactly as it was told to me in my sleep.
Ten years from now. . .
1. A major Silicon Valley company will announce that it has created the ‘next Beethoven’ with quantum computing technology.
2. A legitimate musical counterculture will arise, with a cadre of new artists achieving superstar status while rejecting the roles of influencer and content provider. The motto “music comes first” will be a key part of their marketing message. The movement will have a name, but that word doesn’t exist yet.
3. YouTube fans will fondly recall the days when they only had to sit through two short commercials before watching a music video.
4. Web platforms will have destroyed record labels—which will no longer play a meaningful role in building the careers of new artists.
5. A reality TV show will launch a very popular song competition. But only children under the age of 8 will be allowed to vote. The success of the show will create a popular new genre known as TDM (Toddler Dance Music). It will even get its own Grammy category.
6. Musicians will find ways to capture 80-90% of the revenue from their music. This is already happening at Bandcamp, but the trend will spread rapidly. A whole host of other platforms will emerge that give most of the money to the artist and only keep a small percentage for themselves.
7. AI-driven Robots will increasingly replace DJs at dance clubs. Club owners will insist that the algorithm is better at pleasing customers than a human being.
8. The President of the United States will launch a curated playlist on a major music platform. At first music industry insiders will ridicule it, but change their tune after 40 million people sign up as subscribers. All proceeds will go to support animal rights organizations.
9. A song composed entirely by artificial intelligence will reach the number one spot on the Billboard chart. The music video (also AI-created) will be a major contributor to its success.
10. Trombone sales will skyrocket after the instrument is implicated in a high-profile celebrity scandal.
11. Before a hot new album by a major star is released, each track will be auctioned off as a separate non-fungible token. A prominent hedge fund manager who is famous for his large portfolio of music NFTs will become personal financial advisor to many leading rappers and pop stars. His nickname on Wall Street will be DJ Blockchain.
12. Individuals who can identify rising talent will set up their web channels, and fill the role once played by the A&R department at a record label. But there’s one big difference: they can do everything themselves without a huge corporation behind them. If these talent scouts have a web channel with a few million subscribers, they will have more clout than Sony (which, by the way, currently has a pathetic 40 thousand subscribers to its YouTube channel) or most other labels. They can sign artists, showcase them online, and build their audience—acting as sole operators, but with the influence of a big business.
13. A hit song by a K-Pop band will still be in the top 40 after four years.
14. Streamed music events will generate more income than live concerts.
15. The only child of the CEO of Google/Alphabet will date a musician with no discernible talent, but who now suddenly shows up everywhere on search engine results and even wins a prominent music industry award.
16. Spotify threatens to delist every track that doesn’t get at least one thousand streams per year, unless the artist pays a stiff annual fee.
17. Record labels won’t disappear, but will live mostly off the income from their publishing catalogs (which they are in a mad frenzy to acquire right now) and the old music in their archives. They will start to fear impending copyright expirations that threaten much of their cash flow, and try (unsuccessfully) to get legislators to extend IP protection for music.
18. The most discussed movie soundtrack of the year will feature complete silence—except for 12 seconds of music at a dramatic point in the story.
19. New music industry power players will emerge in Asia and other non English-speaking regions. New York, London, and Los Angeles will still be centers of activity, but hardly as dominant as they once were. The savvier music companies will be in a mad scramble to expand their presence in Seoul, Kinshasa, Jakarta, etc.
20. The TV audience for the Grammy Awards will fall to a new low. Instead, the music event with the highest TV ratings that year will be a live broadcast of the 90th birthday concert of a famous rock/pop star.
Different Cities Different Voices is a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear their music as well as music from local artists selected by each essayist. For our latest edition we are putting the spotlight on Portland, Oregon. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
Portland’s signature "maker mindset” and love of all things handcrafted carries over into the way we approach music.
Instead of six degrees of separation, there are usually no more than two. That interconnectedness and proximity makes for some strikingly original ensembles, and has presented opportunities for me to interact with urban planners, scientists, political activists, entrepreneurs, winemakers, coffee roasters, chefs, and artisans from many fields.
During the summer of 2020, when things seemed to be at their most dire, I purchased a battery-powered amplifier and started hosting jazz concerts in my driveway.
This feels, and will always feel, at least for me, like the perfect place to compose.
The spirit of imaginative resourcefulness that keeps Portland “weird” and alive is exactly the reason the new music scene thrives.
I’ve found people in this community to be genuine and passionate. People like experimentalism and nerdiness here. It's cool to be nice here.
Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade
Amelia Lukas (photo by Rachel Hadiashar)
I relocated to Portland in 2014, hoping to shift the “hustle culture” I had adopted in New York City and create a new framework for myself that emphasized balance and a slower pace. I grew up in Boston and have since lived in London, San Francisco, and New York – all incredibly rich cultural epicenters that I fully enjoyed being a part of – but the magic and beauty of the Pacific Northwest had always beckoned. The access to nature here is incredible (something I highly value), and for a smaller city, Portland is home to a remarkable number of talented artists and musicians.
The spirit of the Pacific Northwest emphasizes innovation and social responsibility. The synchronicities, connections, and integrations that abound in this community, and its strong sense of place and presence, are extremely special. Portland’s signature “maker mindset” and love of all things handcrafted carries over into the way we approach music. Energized by creating something new, both in the music itself and in the models through which we experience it, musicians here tend to program with meaning, intention, and a desire to connect deeply with the community. For example, I’m proud to be a member of Fear No Music, an organization that highlights the music of living composers while leveraging its platforms for healing, activism, and social justice. Also, the brand new Patricia Reser Center for the Arts just offered an impeccably curated grand opening spring season featuring all kinds of new music from around the world, dissolving boundaries and emphasizing inclusivity.
Although Oregon is a state that values the arts, Portland faces some challenges, including a dearth of appropriate venues for intimate multi-media performances. Thankfully, potential barriers only serve to fuel the resourcefulness and creativity of local musicians. As the PR representative for SoundsTruck NW, I’m supporting the launch of an unconventional mobile venue that will bring live concerts and enrichment programming into neighborhoods and institutions, increasing access and connection to the arts with a focus on underserved areas. Chamber Music Northwest also adds fantastic variety to the mix with their [email protected] series, featuring shorter, early evening performances in the lobby of a major theater. These types of creative, modernized concert experiences sustain a vibrant new music scene.
As an artist whose career is split between freelance performance and running Aligned Artistry (the arts PR company I founded in 2018), the pandemic was very difficult. I lost all of my performing overnight, as did the vast majority of my clients. It was devastating and overwhelming; I applied for and received several artist relief grants, including one from New Music USA, which proved to be both financially and emotionally supportive, and for that I’m very grateful. With my performing at a standstill, I focused my energy on Aligned Artistry, working closely with each individual client to assess the best path forward, whether that involved putting agreements on hold, or creating new platforms to share work. At the outset of the pandemic, I felt a strong urge to make productive use of my time, and to try to “figure out” what the new paradigm should be and how to implement it. But a louder inner voice told me it was time to slow down and listen. Only after lots of observation, processing, and reflection did I feel equipped to break through the explosion of digital content, recontextualize my clients’ needs within this new framework, and develop what I hoped would be effective, thoughtful solutions that were also meaningful and sustainable. Through this process, I navigated very successful album releases (one of which received a JUNO Award nomination for Classical Album of the Year, solo artist – go Catherine Lee!!); helped clients secure transformative levels of funding; managed transitions to virtual seasons that resulted in exponential audience growth; and have begun to serve clients nationally and even internationally through Aligned Artistry. I’m passionate about using my knowledge and skills to help clients expand the impact of their work, and by staying the course and trusting in the process even when things became quite scary, I ultimately expanded my own impact and business. It’s my great privilege and joy to experience life as an artist, and I hope that my perspective, dedication, and uniquely aligned artistry adds to this community’s depth and resiliency.
My performance of Carlos Simon’s move it for alto flute
Recommendation: Remote Together by Catherine Lee; music for oboe, oboe d’amore and English horn with electronics, field recordings and fixed media by Canadian and American composers residing in the Pacific Northwest
Darrel Grant (photo by Thomas Teal)
I moved to Portland in 1997 to join the music faculty at Portland State University after ten years as a touring and recording jazz artist based in New York City. Ironically, I was not looking for a career change when I decided to make the move. I was seeking a sense of community and to feel like my work was making an impact. The series of serendipitous events that led to me accepting a tenure-track teaching position in Portland have always made my being here seem a bit predestined, despite my trepidation about saying goodbye to the New York jazz scene. A friend gave me an important piece of advice at the time that I have remembered ever since. “You don’t need to go in search of a scene,” he said. “Wherever you go, YOU are the scene.”
In my twenty-five plus years here, that has meant using music as a means to build connections, explore stories and history, and invest in serving the needs of this community by cultivating a practice of artistic engagement that promotes positive change. I have driven pianos deep into state forests to support the environment, arranged protest anthems, and shared the stage with Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu. I have curated live performances, started a record label (Lair Hill Records), launched jazz venues (The Typhoon Lounge and LV’s Uptown) and created a Jazz institute at Portland State. Being in Portland has also allowed me to shift outside the jazz genre as a composer. My 2012 chamber jazz commission “The Territory” explores the state’s geology and cultural history. A Black history month commission for the 100th anniversary of Portland’s Reed College spawned “Step By Step: The Ruby Bridges Suite,” a concert piece based on the life of the civil-rights icon Ruby Bridges. In 2017, I was commissioned by Portland’s Third Angle New Music to compose “Sanctuaries” a chamber opera exploring the racial and political underpinnings of gentrification and the experience of displaced residents of color in Portland, Oregon’s historically black Albina district.
The music scene here reflects a great deal about the city’s ethos. Portland’s progressive reputation attracts creative people of all stripes to the region. It is a large city that feels like a small town. Instead of six degrees of separation, there are usually no more than two. That interconnectedness and proximity makes for some strikingly original ensembles, and has presented opportunities for me to interact with urban planners, scientists, political activists, entrepreneurs, winemakers, coffee roasters, chefs, and artisans from many fields. Added to this is Portland’s DIY culture, which makes for a fertile environment in which to start and incubate new projects. On the downside, the lack of a substantial philanthropic base can make it hard to scale those projects beyond the startup phase.
Its dubious distinction as the whitest city of its size in America means Portland also has plenty of historical and cultural baggage to address. As a Black artist, I often have to look outside my own locale for artists with whom I share cultural identity. At the same time, I have had opportunities to share my voice at tables where folks are reimagining Portland’s future in terms of public space, policy and funding. These encounters have given rise to projects like The Soul Restoration Project’s Albina Arts Salon, a six-month residency in which I activated a historic space in the heart of Portland’s Black community that transformed a vacant storefront into an ongoing hub of arts and cultural activity. In all I’m grateful for the reception and recognition my work has received here. I was inducted into the Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame in 2009. And was named Portland Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association in 2019. In 2020, I received the Governor’s Arts Award, Oregon’s highest arts honor.
In many ways Portland is still reeling from the twin pandemics of COVID and racial unrest that started in 2020. Our boarded up downtown still bears the signs of protests that turned our streets into an “anarchist jurisdiction”, and the economic impacts that increased homelessness. The past two years have also brought clarity regarding the critical role the arts have to play in reimagining our cities and healing the traumas we face as communities, as well as deepening my engagement with communities of color and my own role in challenging systemic racism. Even as these efforts have drawn me back to my roots in jazz, I have been fortunate to expand my own circle with creators of color from a number of artforms . I am seeing some organizational transitions from performative acts of inclusion to meaningful equity, and I am interested to see how the city navigates the rechartering of its leadership after the vote this fall.
Here is a link to the title track for my upcoming CD entitled The New Black. This piece is both a retrospective of my early years in New York City, and a statement of identity that celebrates the joy and unfettered possibility of Black artistic expression.
This is a link to a track from the latest CD by Blue Cranes, one of my favorite bands that embodies the ethos of generosity, collaboration and genre-crossing expression that defines Portland to me. From their 2021 album Voices, this piece “Tatehuari” is a collaboration with Mexican-American vocalist/composer Edna Vazquez, with whom I created a 2018 performance project around immigration called “21 Cartas.
I moved to Portland in 2011 because my husband, George Colligan, accepted a position as Jazz Area Coordinator at Portland State University. Currently, I serve there as an adjunct on the jazz faculty as well as at the University of Portland.
As far as what makes Portland unique, there are a lot of creative, innovative artists here fusing different genres and mediums; I think that’s really exciting. One organization that is tremendously supportive of original music and projects is the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE), which operates a record label (PJCE Records) and is also associated with the ten-year-old Montavilla Jazz Festival. This local festival features a wide variety and diversity of Portland-based artists. I will be headlining it this year with my quintet, as we are about to release my seventh album, In a Heartbeat (PJCE Records).
The pandemic has been challenging for all of us, of course. Many venues closed, and we really missed social and artistic connections. I had received a grant from Portland State University to host the excellent Brazilian pianist Cassio Vianna for a concert and master class, but everything went virtual. So, I instead enlisted the help of several musicians (including Cassio) to put together a YouTube mini-series about Brazilian piano legends.
During the summer of 2020, when things seemed to be at their most dire, I purchased a battery-powered amplifier and started hosting jazz concerts in my driveway. This turned into The Driveway Jazz Series, which is now in its third year and has received grants from the Regional Arts and Culture Council. The free series is live-streamed and continues to bring the jazz community together, not just in Portland, but around the country. The pandemic really brought home to me how important it is to build community and to share music together.
Here’s a track from my most recent album (not the one that will be released in October):
And here is a recommendation for my endlessly prolific pianist/drummer/trumpeter husband! (I designed the album cover.)
Below my feet are the glistening slabs of concrete leading me towards the waterfront. From my right arrives the compounded smells of 20 different food carts, each offering tastes of their own little worlds. To my left is “Big Pink,” the iconic pink skyscraper so often seen in Portland’s skyline. In front of me about five or six blocks down is the waterfront. If I were to follow the Willamette River along the waterfront towards the north, I could find myself at Saturday Market – a site for local artisans, artists, and food vendors to show off their goods, for folks to mingle, meet, learn, and support these artists – an open-air tapestry of creation. If I were instead to follow the river south, I could eventually find myself passing Salmon Street Fountain and arrive at the Hawthorne Bridge. From there, the entire East Side.
These are paths I’ve walked countless times, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get tired of them. But at the moment I still haven’t moved – instead, I’m looking at the concrete below my feet. There are these little chunks of glass embedded in it. They’re smokey with an airy hue of purple, and offer the faintest hint of what’s below the surface. As it turns out, this smokey glass was the only source of natural light for this section of Portland’s infamous Shanghai Tunnels. Right below my feet are the remnants of Portland’s darker pasts with a present day firebrand of activism that saw 150 nights of protests against the police built on top of it. This feels, and will always feel, at least for me, like the perfect place to compose.
I’ve performed in Portland State’s recital hall, a dance studio, a grocery store, a decommissioned steam boat, the middle of several fields, street corners, a graveyard, a warehouse, living rooms, coffee houses, and many, many other places across this city. I’ve been involved with a local new music organization called Cascadia Composers since 2008. They’ve been absolutely instrumental in getting tons of new music by local composers performed, and are just some of the loveliest people. I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to work with FearNoMusic and Third Angle – two absolutely top tier new music ensembles, both of whom have been leading the way in championing new voices locally and abroad. New Music is alive and well in this city, and remarkably adaptive to our world and our collective circumstances.
For myself, I’m currently in the middle of a graduate program in Computer Science. This has been my adaptation to the last 2 years. I suffered from major burnout at the start of 2020. I couldn’t compose, couldn’t build off old ideas, nor hear anything coming from that internal ether. It just… went silent. Like so many others, I also saw major projects fall apart, plans get canceled, opportunities vanish. The trajectory of the last decade and a half of my life suddenly stagnated. This was all in conjunction with losing my day job, so I needed to find a way to stay above water, if not for myself but for my daughter’s sake. Enter computers.
I’m a long way away from being done with music. I don’t think I ever will be. I still play nearly every day, and have managed to scribble some fragments here and there. I’ve spent the last two years using the skills learned through my CS program to develop algorithmic composition tools to aid me in my creative efforts. I can generate anything from purely random compositions to poly-rhythmic/modal canons (or really any process based composition) in seconds. I’ve been able to use these tools to generate hundreds of facsimiles – there will be ideas forever, and I plan to keep on building this framework. If the last two years have given me anything, it’s the ability to adapt and evolve my creative processes.
Portland is my home. The energy of this city has always fueled me, and I think it always will.
The People They Think We Are (2018) for piano, video, and fixed media. (Me). Performed by Kathy Supové
I grew up in Seattle, so the Pacific Northwest has always felt like home to me. My husband, composer Kenji Bunch, is originally from Portland, so when we first met in New York City, we connected about this common background and shared desire to return one day. Soon after the birth of our first child, we took a leap of faith and decided to move back to be closer to our families. In a whirlwind, our Brooklyn condo sold in one weekend, I flew out and made an offer on a house, and just a few months later we found ourselves moving to Portland without any concrete work lined up, fingers tightly crossed that things would work out. We’re both so grateful to have landed on our feet fairly quickly, and were welcomed with open arms by the vibrant music community here. We’ve now been living and working in Portland for nine years, and moving home to the PNW is the best decision we have ever made. I’m currently wrapping up my eighth season as Executive Director and Pianist of Fear No Music, and my first as Program Director of Music Performance at Reed College.
Portland is well known for its vigorous DIY ethos that embraces creativity and grass-roots initiatives with a cheerful lack of regard for the credentials that traditionally grant “permission” for such undertakings. Everywhere you turn, someone is brewing their own beer, bottling their own hot sauce, writing a novel, or building their social justice-driven non-profit from the ground up. The spirit of imaginative resourcefulness that keeps Portland “weird” and alive is exactly the reason the new music scene thrives. The music community is intimate and supportive of one another. Portland new music groups mostly pull from the same roster of musicians, so we all feel like one big family and celebrate each other’s successes. And just as Portlanders love their books, there’s also a voracious appetite for experiencing live music, and open minds eager to discover new sounds and ideas.
While recognizing the tremendous difficulties so many of us faced during the pandemic, our music non-profit, Fear No Music, fared as well as we could have hoped. There were challenges at the beginning of the lockdown period, given the need for an immediate pivot to online-everything, and the steep learning curve and trial-and-error process to find the right people and resources to help solve various unforeseen difficulties. However, Fear No Music is a relatively small organization, which allowed us to be nimble enough to adapt quickly to the necessary changes, and as a result, we were able to flourish moving forward. Of course, in addition to the pandemic, the nationwide reckoning of our racial history and present-day culture has caused a tremendous upheaval in the music world, bringing long-overdue attention to composers and musicians traditionally overlooked from mainstream audiences. For our organization, this has meant an even greater push for equity and diversity in our programs and initiatives, and a move to a donation-based ticketing model for our concerts, to promote accessibility, while still maintaining excellence in our programming.
Fear No Music: Monica Ohuchi, piano, performing BQE by Hiromi Uehara:
Portland Taiko performing Dango Jiru by Kenji Bunch:
Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade
Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade
I moved to Portland from my home town of Bloomington, Indiana in 2017. I’m a multi-instrumentalist, one of those musicians that played in multiple bands for years. I was lucky enough to travel and see much of the US via touring and independent road trips. I always felt drawn to the PNW; the mystical feeling of the mountains and the dynamic landscapes appealed to me. The mist whispered something important to me. I decided it was time to move to a major city with a larger music scene to grow my band/songwriting project !mindparade. As an outdoorsy person, I thought, well, if I’m going to move my whole life, I should probably move near mountains. I’m so glad I made that choice. As soon as I honed in on Portland as a potential place to live, I began applying for jobs here, and landed an internship at a music licensing music company that I had signed to as an recording artist. I moved as soon as I had the opportunity, and threw myself into every aspect of music in Portland that I could. I didn’t really know anyone here when I arrived, and just started biking around to shows, meeting musicians.
There is a high level of musicianship in the scene here. So many great artists doing their thing, and in so many different genres of music. The city lacks a robust music industry compared to places like NYC and LA, or Nashville or Austin. That means there are less of those kinds of industry jobs, less labels, etc., but maybe that means people in music here may be in it for other reasons than money or prestige. I’ve found people in this community to be genuine and passionate. People like experimentalism and nerdiness here. It’s cool to be nice here. It seems like so many people you meet are in a band or are music fans, and that means more people to connect with. The location is incredible as well, as the surrounding nature provides endless perspective and inspiration. The city is nestled between very tall mountains and a very deep ocean.
Moving here was definitely a good choice for me overall. I was lucky to find an inspiring and engaging community. When everything stopped during the pandemic, I found myself focused on songwriting. I’ve worked up around 4 albums of !mindparade material that I am now chiseling into completion. It wasn’t necessarily a choice I made, it was most likely a coping mechanism. It was definitely a challenge to not play live for so long, which is something I’m so happy is happening again. There is really nothing else in life like live music.
Not too long ago, I received an email invitation to apply for an opportunity to work with an established ensemble. The application was a highly involved process and would make considerable demands on my time—including a trip out of state. If awarded the appointment, the position would require many obligations in addition to composing, including outreach, lectures, and a series of curated concerts.
The only mention of money? “We’re in the process of securing some grants,” the email read. Oh, okay.
I politely declined the invitation, explaining that I was already fully committed for the season in question (which was true). But, the more I contemplated the massive time commitment requested by the organization, the more troubled I became. How was it remotely appropriate to contact a person about a highly specialized, complex job—which also required a time-consuming, rigorous application process—without mentioning compensation?
This kind of treatment is rampant throughout our industry, and I know that performers certainly experience their own versions of the above scenario. Our field is plagued by an aversion toward discussing money, and this problem exists on both sides of the hiring equation. For composers, however, this issue is compounded by the very nature of our work. Because composers’ processes are diverse and often opaque, potential commissioners sometimes don’t know how to value what we do. This lack of understanding can result in a reluctance to discuss compensation and often justifies gross demands on our time and abilities.
Out of all the wacky things that composers do, money ought to be the most uncomplicated and straightforward component. When you approach a composer about a potential commission or collaboration, funding should be among the first issues you address. While it may feel distasteful to discuss money alongside your artistic vision, know that avoiding the topic—and even placing the impetus on the composer to inquire—is enormously disrespectful. Most composers wouldn’t claim to be in this business for the money, but we do expect to be treated professionally and compensated appropriately.
So. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you approach a composer and begin a conversation about a project:
Reach out to us in advance. Way in advance. Composition is a time-consuming activity. I do not write my music in “real” time, and I often plan my projects up to two years in advance. While there are exceptions, I typically can’t take on last-minute projects. Definitely reach out and ask us, but keep in mind that we’re often planning a season or two (or more!) ahead.
Be up front about the amount and source of your funding. This is critically important, regardless of your budget size. If you’re working with a low budget, unsure of your resources, or unable to pay—don’t misrepresent your financial limitations. We’ll respect your honesty, and if we can’t work with you this time, we’ll be more likely to consider future projects.
Directly address the work that you and/or your organization are putting in. Programming, performances, promotion, recording—what’s your investment? What are you contributing to make this project worthwhile for both parties?
Understand that demands on time separate from composing must be compensated. Community outreach? Masterclasses? A meet-and-greet with donors and subscribers? Great! Some musicians might offer these services for free or as part of their commitment; however, you should not make this assumption. Our time is valuable, and we need to be paid for our time.
Speaking of non-composing tasks: Address the time, effort, and expense that goes into engraving and preparing parts. This one is different for everyone—some composers consider engraving and parts preparation integral parts of their compositional process. Others don’t, and many composers outsource this work. Either way, budget both time and money to accommodate this phase.
Don’t act surprised or attempt to guilt us when we don’t offer a service for free or for a low/discounted fee. I’m frequently approached by individuals seeking music critiques, new arrangements of current works, business and marketing advice, and copyediting—with the expectation that I offer these services for free. When I indicate otherwise, I’m often met with incredulous responses like “But this will only take a few minutes!” Right, cool, but since when do you get to determine the value of my time?
Composers, I encourage you to examine how you spend your time and how you offer it to others. It is imperative to understand collaborators’ expectations before agreeing to a project (and always make sure your exact responsibilities are detailed in a contract). Guard your time, and don’t be afraid to set firm boundaries.
Time is valuable. This is something that I remember every day when I sit down to compose—truly, respect for others’ time is demanded by the very nature of my craft. The time that an audience member spends listening to my music ought to be worthwhile, and that’s the standard that I strive to uphold.
In short: We, as composers, respect your time. Please respect ours.
Because composers’ processes are diverse and often opaque, potential commissioners sometimes don’t know how to value what we do.
Out of all the wacky things that composers do, money ought to be the most uncomplicated and straightforward component.
I do not write my music in “real” time, and I often plan my projects up to two years in advance.
If you’re working with a low budget, unsure of your resources, or unable to pay—don’t misrepresent your financial limitations.
Composers, I encourage you to examine how you spend your time and how you offer it to others.
Reflections of the future as digs to uncover what the present holds, maybe as possibility, maybe as impossibility, but surely a practice that sounds an open totality, that is to say improvisation as togetherness, or maybe, consent not to be a single being. Rather than communing in formations, out of and with information as data, or bodies, or domains—sovereign authorities in general—this writing is an attempt to think through the prompt: “…our community ponder aspects of what music will be like ten years into the future,” not only towards a future, but from a future, one I can hear, but also one I might already live in, that radically shifts notions of community, time, and space, under the heading of, and through music, as thought refigured. In listening to the present as an archeological dig, as a site incomplete and still improvising itself out and in, like writing and reading onto and out-from this page, musical thinking can allow a shift in relation. When relation, to time, space, and others, becomes poetic, that is opaque and at the same time fully inseparable, then thinking with the future becomes a reflection of a future: like stars that shine from a past long gone, and mirror us into positions of futurity. It is through music that in this elaboration time is reflected, redirected, so as to allow for another kind of direction, another point of attraction, and maybe we can do away with the point as limit, and point becomes hieroglyphics of sound in motion/relation.
All of this is to say that in this essay I engage the future not as something that comes later on, that replaces a complete and whole present, but rather that the future is a method of thinking that shows something that is already here. In other words, I see the task of such a practice as the task of practicing, of playing, in the present, or maybe in front of an audience, that which I want to matter. As Marshall Allen poignantly said, “You want a better world. You create a better world.” It is thus not so much a thinking through of time but rather a thinking through of music as world-building, as space-time creation: music as a tool to be together (with oneself and with others at the same time, that is also where this distinction as contradistinction becomes irrelevant) in space-time, which is itself that music as poetics of relation. What follows is simply the elaboration of what this means because it requires, on the one hand, a radical shift, and on the other, simply a remembering. Ultimately, this writing is something like a devotional practice, maybe we can call it a meditation, or a recitation of those sincerities of sounding that remind of what is at stake, of being together (in an apartness) through writing (sounds), and a giving thanks to and for those musicians that provide a possibility for spaces to resound this.
Charles Uzor’s work 8’46” subtitled George Floyd in Memoriam is a work written in 2020, from the geopolitical space of Switzerland, shortly after George Floyd’s murder and the incipient of global Black Lives Matter protests. It consists of 7 minutes and 46 seconds of breathing sounds (no instrumental playing) followed by one minute of silence. 8’46” is the first of two works written for George Floyd since 2020 by Uzor and it demonstrates (and places petitions for such thinking) new music’s relation to such protests. Together the two works uncover music’s (and as a specific case new music’s) entanglement with and in blackness. Its title references John Cage’s 4’33” through its similarity in appearance, while at the same time pointing to global protests under the heading of this duration, which was the initial duration used in court in the trial against Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, for what later was revised to well over 9 minutes, killing him.
It is in this poetics of relation played out by composer Charles Uzor that a possibility of new music becomes amplified (and maybe refined): under the heading of this experimental practice a radical shifting of the world can take place. On the one hand the piece points with this duration, as well as its sounds, to an antiblack world, while, at the same time, speaking of another world: one announced by the work in form of the duration as symbol for the mattering of Black lives. The music becomes staging ground for a performative assertion that black lives indeed do matter. Uzor’s 8’46” reflects a sociality, in the breathing sounds made by the performers, as well as in their silences (which both appear also under the heading of a reflection of observers listening as it is in 4’33”), announced in blackness.
In this scene Music, or music we might bring forth under a heading of new music, is stage to rework our relation to the world—whether that is combating antiblack structures or a coming together in/as/with blackness. In this sense it is music and it is blackness, it is improvised sociality, that is to say a consent not to be a single being, it is an impossibility to be without being in poetic relation. Music becomes a space within which people can be themselves in a common that is founded on and with each member’s unique ways—this I’ve learned from musicians such as Cecil Taylor. In Nina Fukuoka’s Sugar, Spice, and All Things Nice this space is shaped too, and what becomes revealed is how such space-formation is always also an act of reworking spaces around this music—from the music’s seemingly more immediate institutional conditions, to larger questions for this planet. A work that takes accounts of experiences of sexism in the music-world as its basis, collected in, and as, the process of compositions in dialogues with others, Sugar, Spice, and All Things Nice’s life moves by way of the social lives entangled in the composer and the music. Music becomes entrenched in lives. Thus this work takes the task of making music as simultaneously a task of being with others in sociality, and does such alongside an aim of revealing and combating sexism—antisocial brutalities. In recounting such brutalities the performers, the composer Fukuoka, and those whose voices flow into the work, reveal this musical work (this working in and with music) as part of social lives—the music cannot be separated, it does not stand by itself because by listening to it we always engage a complex set of entanglements, lives lived in sound, music as living with things. Thus while at once bringing to the fore how women are being discriminated against in the music field the piece also points to, as example, how music has the potential to be that space which allows for flowering of lives. In addressing the problems surrounding it, the music becomes space for that which is denied: (women’s) lives lived in music. Sugar, Spice, and All Things Nice redoubles this fact in its sounding through the use of textures moving out from and in excess of words spoken, and vice versa—not even in the act of performing or listening can these lives be held.
It is in these two examples that I hear what project of futurity I want to partake in. Music as a world redrawing act, as a process of living in poetic relation with each other and oneself (which is not one any longer), that remaps this world, into something else already here, behind a wormhole, some kind of alterdestiny that was always already present but that we can maybe hear better by looking into the stars, to a future and a past as the present. As skins clash, the sound of drums brings a remembering—a reminder, remainder, and rejoining—of that which music always was, how meeting and departing are always the same—sounds in music. Sounds cease to be of relevance as moments in-between and become that which is always already stronger than itself or any self, or selves in or out of touch. It is music, that blackness beyond wholes with holes as holds. “This is the theme of the stargazers, stargazers in the sky. This is the song of tomorrow’s world, a cosmic paradise.”
I engage the future not as something that comes later on, that replaces a complete and whole present, but rather that the future is a method of thinking that shows something that is already here.
Music, or music we might bring forth under a heading of new music, is stage to rework our relation to the world
Music has the potential to be that space which allows for flowering of lives.
Sounds cease to be of relevance as moments in-between and become that which is always already stronger than itself or any self, or selves in or out of touch.
The article’s title is playing on the Sun Ra Arkestra’s record title Music From Tomorrow’s World.
1. Referencing here Fred Moten’s particular engagement with such translation by Christopher Winks of Édouard Glissant’s phrase “consent à n’être plus un seul.” In Moten’s formulation the consent is not given by a subject but is rather more something like what I would like to call a remembering of what was already there behind the veil.
2. This excerpt is from the email by Frank J. Oteri where he inquired with me as to whether I’d like to write this text.
3. Kodwo Eshun’s seminal article “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism” explores the ways in which afrofuturistic practices use the future to rework the present. To this aim he writes out from the notion of the archeological dig—his paper opens with future life-forms digging in their past, our present.
5. I have to acknowledge here the origin of this word thought as writing coming out from my conversations with Fred Moten.
6. I’m playing with Karen Barad’s brilliant neologism together-a-part that plays out so beautifully the impossibility of actually being apart or together because of, to put it very oversimplified, entanglement, which is also to say, for me, because there is no single entity to be by itself or with someone else. I’m also thinking here of the ways in which this pandemic has played out and upon this together-apart complication. I invoke with such reminder my longterm collaborator and partner Lucy Clifford with whom I’ve learned of this in grooves of sound and life.
7. This term comes from Sun Ra’s philosophical thought.
8. I’m referencing here George E. Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself, not particularly because of the title’s words but rather because of the book and what it documents: the AACM as a musical collective where music was, and still is, vehicle for lives as well as transformation of spaces and worlds.
Different Cities Different Voices is a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear their music as well as music from local artists selected by each essayist. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
Since folks from all over the world made their first post-pandemic pilgrimage to Austin for SXSW in mid-March, we waited a bit for the dust to settle so we could shine light on some of the extraordinarily creative people who are an important part of the Austin music scene all year round. – FJO
Austin is a tight knit community of musical creators and producers. There are lots of organizations in this town dedicated to presenting and promoting non-commercial music in favor of free jazz/improvisation, contemporary classical and experimental genres. Keep Austin Weird? Actively weird? Yup, we most definitely have!!!
I experience a sense of play, curiosity, and exploration that weaves together Austin’s new music scene. There’s a spirit in which all of these musics, and I am saying that deliberately as a plural, kind of comingle together. The classical music scene here feels quite naturally at home next to the indie scene and next to the country and blues and soul and rock and roll and Americana.
Craig Hella Johnson
Austin’s economic and social reality is complex and our art communities are forever adapting to the challenges and opportunities presented by these realities.
I can reasonably expect there to be a guitar to jam on in anyone’s house (or at the very least, a ukulele). There’s a vibrancy here of people just generally being excited to make art. I hope this energy can continue to flourish as Austin grows rapidly as a city (which, even without a pandemic, can be hard on creatives).
Austin offers a special and unique combination of a world-class conservatory-style music institution surrounded by (and increasingly incorporating) local and popular music styles.
I love Austin, I am Austin, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I came to Austin from Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2010 to study flute at the University of Texas. The composition department and electronic music departments especially at the UT Butler School of Music were full of creative, collaborative and bold students and professors – there used to be an annual showcase called Ears, Eyes and Feet, in which composers, choreographers and media artists from three different departments worked together to create multi-disciplinary performances. I didn’t know at the time that Austin had only a few new music ensembles playing very experimental stuff, and there wasn’t a big contemporary classical scene. However, there was some spark at UT in those few years – several of my colleagues at UT went on to start contemporary classical / new music organizations and collectives themselves (Fast Forward Austin, Density512, Tetractys, Line Upon Line Percussion), and some spectacular crossover classical groups came to town as well and stayed (Invoke Sound, Kraken Quartet), intermingling with the existing long-standing organizations that already championed experimental music and cross-disciplinary collaboration in Austin (Church of the Friendly Ghost, Fusebox Festival, and others). It felt like the beginning of a special period of growth for the Austin new music scene, and it has just continued to blossom since then. I was very moved by this year’s ATX Composers Showcase at SXSW, 12 years later, where many of these groups played on the same stage. Especially 2 years into the pandemic, it felt like a joyful reunion and celebration remembering that yes, we are committed and excited to make wild and strange music and soundscapes and improvisations in our city.
Part of the magic of Austin for me is its open mics. I’ve heard it’s not the same in other cities – they are an extremely collaborative and supportive environment with wildly talented musicians playing almost always original songs. I briefly moved away from Austin after doing my masters at UT and returned as I was starting to write my own music, and every week there were at least 4 incredibly welcoming open mics I could go to and try out my new tunes and arrangements, with a lot of the same supportive, friendly faces frequenting each one. I felt so comfortable finding and refining my musical voice in that environment, and met many friends, future collaborators and even partners. Now you can find that vibe at Mozart’s and Opa’s, with the same open incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic open mic leaders ushering in musicians new to Austin or new to writing their own stuff.
And then there’s the fact that I’ve always been able to find creative projects here. Austin’s known for lots of styles of music and its growing tech scene, but along with that there’s so much other creative activity that happens here – film, dance, visual art, improv comedy all have these vibrant communities around them. If I don’t have a project, and if I didn’t have a network of people to check and see what they were up to, I know I could always go to one of the many amazing local coffee shops and meet an artist or a musician, or if I’m in a more film/theater mood I could find a pre-production meeting happening at least one table. I also love that I can reasonably expect there to be a guitar to jam on in anyone’s house (or at the very least, a ukulele). There’s a vibrancy here of people just generally being excited to make art. I hope this energy can continue to flourish as Austin grows rapidly as a city (which, even without a pandemic, can be hard on creatives). It’s been incredibly challenging during the pandemic as early on, gigs disappeared, and then later venues – even iconic ones – have had to shut down. There is energy and determination here for collective action among artists though, and a few great organizations to support and advocate for musicians (Austin Music Foundation, HAAM), and I hope that we can continue to push for this city to financially support its artists.
I actually ended up finding a new Austin community and creative outlet during the early part of the pandemic. The Hideout Theatre, Austin’s longest running improv theater, moved all its classes and shows online within a couple of months of March 2020. At the time I had just produced and conducted a big experimental concert of improvised chamber music in person, before the shutdown. I was taking inspiration from theatrical improv and improv comedy to see how cross-genre musicians might relate to and connect with each other to improvise in large groups. The Hideout community was so full of creative determination and energy, and they invited me to experiment with livescoring narratives with groups of improvising instrumentalists ONLINE. It was a great feeling to bring many of my musician collaborators into the new improv community I’d entered. Since most of us suddenly had a lot of time on our hands, there was creative fuel and really talented people who would otherwise be busy gigging and touring and whatever, available to experiment with online performance art forms. With some incredible collaborators, I ended up taking part in some projects that really pushed virtual theatre boundaries in 2020 and 2021, and I like to think we’ll all bring the insights and the deep connection we found in those challenges into our work back in person in 2022.
You never know what kind of creative work or wonderful people you’re going to find around the corner here, and as a person who thrives with a variety of creative activities and values community, I can’t think of a place I’d rather call home than Austin. The sunshine also helps! While the various artistic communities haven’t really deeply cross-pollinated much up to this point, there’s definitely a lot of energy of coming together, and room for interweaving those communities, which is something I look forward to in Austin’s current chapter.
Kenzie Slottow: “Neverland” from the EP Hold It Up to the Sun
Austin kind of chose me through a job offer from The University of Texas. I was just finishing a doctoral program at Yale and I had an interview which I decided to do just for fun. I never thought I would actually live in Texas as I had a funky, terrible Northerner’s bias. I enjoyed the interview and had a great time visiting this city. It surprised me with all of its green and beautiful places and all the diversity of music happening. I was offered the job and the rest is history.
Austin seemed like a really great place to set up camp. Much to my delight and surprise, I worked for 10ish years as the Director of Choral Activities at The University of Texas and made many friends there. I got to know so many musicians during that time and also began Conspirare during that period around 1993. Someone told me something once which was very helpful. I remember it and live by it today: “Welcome to Austin. In Austin we take our work and passions seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.” This was fabulous input for me and I have found that to be true of Austin cultural generally. It makes it a really pleasurable place to live and work.
I experience a sense of play, curiosity, and exploration that weaves together Austin’s new music scene. There’s a spirit in which all of these musics, and I am saying that deliberately as a plural, kind of comingle together. The classical music scene here feels quite naturally at home next to the indie scene and next to the country and blues and soul and rock and roll and Americana. I think it’s just beginning to almost explode in a wonderful way just like the rest of the city.
The cancellation of SXSW trumpeted the arrival of the pandemic in Austin. For me, it meant more time at home, more time to have that interior relationship with my soul, my heart and my interests. There were times when even though it was very busy there could also be time for reflection and pause.
At Conspirare we were dedicated from the first day we knew this was happening to doing everything we could to continue to engage our artists, to offer them work that could be creative and meaningful but also to just be able pay them and help support them through this period. I feel immensely grateful that we were able to do that. Throughout the pandemic period we created concerts at great distances from one another for online presentations. It felt like the demands of this medium called us out to expand the boundaries of the choral music. I got to meet some wonderful new collaborators –editors, filmmakers, videographers, and creatives of all types. Even as we all felt the great burden of this time, we continued to make art, to express ourselves, and to support people in remembering that we are still here, we’re still alive, we still have beating hearts. There is still a need for art that continues to support us moving forward in our lives and invites us into more awareness and the deeper experience of what it means to be human, to be alive.
Craig Hella Johnson: “We Tell Each Other Stories” from Considering Matthew Shepard
Eliza Gilkyson: “Reunion”
She is a favorite singer-songwriter and a cherished friend
Omar Thomas (photo by Izzy Berdan Photography)
I moved to Austin mid 2020 to begin an appointment as Assistant Professor of Composition and Jazz Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. Prior to moving here, I had completed two separate residencies as the featured composer for the UT Wind Ensemble and the UT Symphony Band. Having participated in many composer residencies all across the country, one of the standout aspects of my UT residency was Austin itself, being a place that feels uniquely its own with amazing culinary offerings as diverse and ubiquitous as its live music venues.
Working predominantly in the wind ensemble field these days, Austin offers a special and unique combination of a world-class conservatory-style music institution surrounded by (and increasingly incorporating) local and popular music styles, while being centrally located among some of the strongest educational music programs and performing ensembles in the country. The wind ensemble field is one that is leading the way in the creation of new works for the medium, and Austin offers access to some of the nation’s leading ensembles who are willing to breathe life into these pieces on some of the field’s largest performance arenas.
The largest challenge of the past two years in my field has been navigating creating music safely (or at all) with ensembles that average forty musicians blowing air through instruments – clearly not ideal for helping to curb the spread of a respiratory virus. It has been truly amazing (and exhausting) to watch large ensemble instrumental and choral music adapt, as composers came together to create music designed to be played by any combination of very few instruments, conductors reached out via Zoom to inspirational figures within the field and beyond to keep musicians motivated as we waited for the opportunity to safely return to making music, and students took it upon themselves to use technology to not only connect with one another via virtual performances, but also to create music that capitalized on our virtual reality. We kept each other motivated long enough to make it to out current moment where we are back sharing space, art, connection, and community with one another and with audiences, grounded
by deeper gratitude than any of us has ever felt.
“I Am” performed by the Omar Thomas Large Ensemble
John Mackey: “Immortal Thread, So Weak” from Wine Dark Sea (Symphony for Band): performed by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble conducted by Jerry Junkin
Stephanie Bergara (photo by Jake Rabin)
I’m a born and raised Austinite, so for myself, working and living as an Austin musician has always just been, The Way. It was invested in to my heart and mind at an early age that musicians deserve respect. I have been consuming live music for so long, I couldn’t even tell you what my first concert was. It had just always been the thing that you do. When my son was born, just over four years ago, I knew I Austin would be home forever, or until he finishes school. I love Austin, I am Austin, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There is just a different unique energy that runs through this town in a way I haven’t quite seen anywhere else. I worked in the music industry for nearly ten years before starting my band where I got to travel the globe, and playing music has allowed me to tour in some of the greatest music cities in America. When the band travels to different places, and we tell people we are Austin musicians, that comes with it’s own branding, it’s own meaning. It’s special, it means something.
Musicians were the first members of the work force to be asked to stop working and they have been the last to be asked to come back to work in any pre-covid capacity. It’s been hard, we’ve been forced to get creative, learn new skills, leave old business models behind and be quick to adapt to change. I also chose to release my first solo effort during the pandemic, which was not ideal, but it was time. The Banda has been lucky to continue to play across the country. We’ve relied heavily on social media to stay in touch with fans and are working through mediums like TikTok to stay active with our audience. Onward through the fog, as they say.
My two selections are my song, “Rear View” —
And a song from Austin band Nané, (who’s lead singer, Daniel Sahad, passed away just two weeks ago) called “Ladybird.”
I moved to Austin about 12 years ago and have since been working across various music and art scenes as a performer, composer, administrator, and teacher. As a jazz guitarist and composer, I’ve worked with various small groups, big bands, and my own conducted group improvisation octets and chamber ensembles. Some of the more experimental and classical Austin ensembles and organizations I’ve worked with include Church of the Friendly Ghost (COTFG), Less Than 10 Music, Collide Arts, and Future Traditions Festival.
Even in my own short time here, the city has gone through dramatic changes. Like most large and mid-sized American cities, Austin has continuing––and in many cases worsening–– problems with gentrification, racism, lack of affordability, inherited and perpetuated segregation, and problems with police brutality. But, Austin is also home to a great variety of community and activist organizations fighting tirelessly against the systemic oppression of our state and sometimes local governments. As Austin booms and tremendous amounts of money comes in through tech and other industries, artists see firsthand the way that that money, and the publicity around it, doesn’t ultimately benefit the communities that give this city its cultural identity. In spite of these challenges, this city generally still takes pride in trying to celebrate inclusivity, acceptance, and counter-culture values, and the artists, ensembles, and organizations that make up our cultural landscape do amazing work. In short, Austin’s economic and social reality is complex and our art communities are forever adapting to the challenges and opportunities presented by these realities.
Austin’s music and art communities are full of the most giving, creative, and determined people I have ever met. And the way that the people of this city embrace and honor music and musicians is truly special. For example, the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) provides health insurance, dental coverage, hearing clinics, access to professional mental health services, housing assistance, and more to Austin-based musicians at no cost. When the pandemic caused the sudden collapse of the entertainment and live performance industries, HAAM and other organizations like Austin Creative Alliance, and the City of Austin itself, provided grants, groceries, and other aid specifically for artists.
The onset of the pandemic brought the momentum and direction of my work––rooted in group improvisation and interaction––to a sudden stop. Being unable to work in person with other musicians was shocking and disorienting (an experience so many of us in the performing arts world can relate to). One of the things that kept me going was the opportunity to join a wonderful group of classical new music friends forming Less Than 10 Music, a new music ensemble producing weekly virtual concerts featuring guest artists from around the country. Just having the communication and weekly concert deadlines really helped keep me going and kept me from falling too far into a sense of aimlessness. Some of the guest highlights and collaborations have included Ocelot, Nina Shekhar, Jason Thorpe Buchanan, and a masterclass with George Lewis.
So, what about the actual music scene? Well, there’s too much to possibly cover here, but I’ll do my best. Some of the many experimental performing arts organizations and ensembles include: Epistrophy Arts; COTFG; Salvage Vanguard Theater; Rude Mechs; Sonic Transmissions; Liminal Sound Series; New Media Art and Sound Summit; Fusebox Festival; dadageek; OUTsider Fest; and Six Square. In addition to year-round performances and premieres by local artists, these organizations have hosted guest artists including Henry Threadgill, Maria Chavez, The Necks, Thumbscrew, Turning Jewels Into Water, and Peter Brötzmann. Among the ensembles and organizations more closely rooted in classical new music, there are groups such as line upon line, Tetractys, Invoke String Quartet, Austin New Music CO-op, and Density 512. There are music education organizations doing great work with young musicians such as Golden Hornet, Austin Chamber Music Center, Austin Classical Guitar, and Austin Soundwaves. Larger institutions like the Blanton Museum of Art, The Contemporary Austin, and Big Medium have recently commissioned and hosted large scale sound installation works by local and international artists like Steve Parker. KMFA, our classical radio station, has a wonderful new concert and recording space where they frequently host and promote new music performances. The University of Texas Butler School of Music composition departments and Electronic Music Studios (UTEMS) do a great job fostering up-and-coming composers and performers from around the world.
Of course, Austin also has a vibrant jazz scene with various weekly jam sessions and performance opportunities. Spaces like The Elephant Room, Parker Jazz Club, and Monks Jazz Club host a year-round lineup of local and touring artists, big bands premiering new works, and live recordings. We are also blessed to have luminary jazz artists and mentors in our community such as trombonist Andre Hayward and pianist/composer Dr. James Polk, among others. Vocalist, Joshua Banbury, splits his time between Austin and New York and has recently worked with The American Lyric Theater, The National Black Theater, The Kennedy Center, and made his solo debut at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic. I’ve attached a link for him below, and I extremely encourage all to listen. Local jazz musicians frequently play and tour as band members in the pop music industry and during Austin City Limits Festival, SXSW and more. I couldn’t even begin to cover that side of the music scene, let alone our thriving dance, visual, and performing arts, food, and improv comedy scenes, in this short essay. Lastly, I can’t forget to mention the amazing Indian Classical Music scene here, supported by organizations like The Indian Classical Music Circle of Austin (ICMCA).
Recently, at a SXSW show featuring Austin composers, I was deeply moved, running into so many people I hadn’t seen in person in years. It was a wonderful experience and sparked a new sense of enthusiasm and hope for continuing my own work that had been dampened for some time. As we sort of continue to emerge from the ups and downs of the last two pandemic years, I’m feeling hopeful about who will be coming through town and what we will be creating together in the coming years.
Alan Retamozo (guitar, electronics) and Katherine Vaughn (dance)
Brightest and Best
Forgotten Folklore featuring Joshua Banbury and Kevin Sherwin
Tara Bhattacharya in the performance of Steve Parker’s Foghorn Elegy (2021) at The Contemporary Austin, Laguna Gloria. (Photo by Brian Fitzsimmons)
I moved to Austin around a decade ago to live and work with experimental composer and synthesizer player Rick Reed. His releases can be found on the local Austin music label, Elevator Bath. We were married for about four years and he was the reason I started playing the ARP Odyssey. Some of my most fruitful collaborations have been with Rick including live scoring for the films of Aldo Tambellini (at the Austin Film Society), Andy Warhol’s Batman Dracula (at Alamo Drafthouse) and composing work together for Ken Jacobs’s Nervous Magic Lantern Festival (at Anthology Film Archives and Secret Project Robot in New York City as well as First Street Studio in Austin).
I was born and raised in London, U.K. to Bengali parents and my early musical exposure is of great importance to my work. My musical training started as a child with Indian music; my mother is a well-known Tagorean artist and she taught me how to play harmonium and learn all the songs from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. Throughout school, I learnt to play flute and sang in chamber choir. Also, since I grew up around a large Afro-Caribbean Diaspora in West London, I witnessed the Notting Hill Carnival annually and became closely familiarized with the traditions of reggae and calypso. Both traditions play an important role with the rhythmic aspect of my music, as subtle as it is. By my late teens, l started to experiment with guitar feedback and radio art and started following the Onkyo music scene from Japan. Onkyo expanded my understanding of electroacoustic music, prepared instruments, and analogue synthesizers. As a curator, I brought Toshimaru Nakamura and Tetuzi Akiyama to play in Austin in 2015, which was a total dream come true.
Before I moved to the U.S.A. in the late ’90s, I worked for British guitarist Derek Bailey whose book, Improvisation, which was later turned into a Channel 4 docuseries of the same name, seen throughout many households in the U.K. when I was a child. I worked for him and his wife Karen Brookman at their label Incus Records for a few years. I was 18 years old when he convinced me to move to NYC. I did and have lived in the US for almost 25 years now. He passed away in 2005. I thought about Derek a lot during the pandemic and what he would’ve felt about it, had he been alive. He preferred playing with other people, much more than playing solo. I share a similar sentiment to him. Playing on my own is a dull activity. Not being able to play with folks because of the pandemic and hospitalization numbers going up and down so rapidly really brought down my spirit and stymied my creative output for about two years. I strive to partake in musical banter with my peers. The pandemic frustrates me because it took away those opportunities.
Also, I missed seeing live music performed. Before the pandemic you could see music every night. Austin is a tight knit community of musical creators and producers. There are lots of organizations in this town dedicated to presenting and promoting non-commercial music in favor of free jazz/improvisation, contemporary classical and experimental genres. Keep Austin Weird? Actively weird? Yup, we most definitely have!!!
When I first moved to Austin around 10 years ago, I went to a lot of Church Of The Friendly Ghost (COTFG) events at Salvage Vanguard. COTFG also organizes the NMASS festival (New Music Art and Sound Summit), a genre defying local and national festival of multimedia. This festival continues to this day. Also, throughout the years, I’ve had the great pleasure of attending new music concerts performed by folks like Panoramic Voices, New Music Co-op, Line Upon Line, and Atlas Maior etc. Organizations such as Epistrophy Arts and festivals such as No Idea and Sonic Transmissions have also brought in some of the best national and international free jazz acts to town. Also, in recent years more locally curated music labels have been sprouting up more regularly. Labels such as Astral Spirits, Aural Canyon, and Holodeck Records have done numerous tape releases throughout the years (sold in local stores) in addition to releasing material digitally on Bandcamp. Running any kind of a label is super impressive to me and an essential activity for performing artists.
The one thing Austinites were having a really hard time grappling with prior to the pandemic was gentrification. It had started to become a huge problem in our creative communities and shows very little sign in slowing down, of course. The most well-known casualty (in our experimental music community) of that “first wave” of gentrification was Church Of The Friendly Ghost, who lost their home, The Salvage Vanguard Theater in East Austin. Many smaller spaces stepped in and continued facilitating art, music, and culture. One such example is the local D.I.Y. space and stalwart, The Museum of Human Achievement, which has consistently supported locals film screenings, experimental music, theater, performance art throughout the years. Other thoughtfully curated spaces such as Dimension Gallery, Co-Lab Projects, Cloud Tree Studios, Volstead Lounge and Ground Floor Theater also carried their weight in supporting the scene. I’m so thankful to belong to this community of folks.
I hope that these venues and support for one another continues to thrive post-pandemic. Rent has sky-rocketed through Austin, TX in the last few months alone. Big music venues have shuttered through the pandemic. Finding performance spaces continues to be a consistent struggle for artists and presenters alike.
I have been a curator in Austin, TX since 2014. I have organized experimental film screenings with the Experimental Response Cinema collective under Scott Stark. I have also curated my own music events and sound installations under the name Antumbra Events + Installations. I started Antumbra in 2013 to present performance art and sound projects from across the globe.
I did manage to do some really cool and meaningful things during the pandemic. I organized my festival online called Interference Fest-Women Making Noise in December 2020. The festival headlined a mix of multimedia artists and musicians including Angel Bat Dawid and Sistazz of Tha Nitty Gritty, Yuliya Lanina, and Amanda Gutierrez w/Norman Long. I invited local and national artists to partake and every single person who participated gave it their all. I felt so honored and so amazed by everyone on it. The festival was plagued by technical difficulties and was delayed two weeks from its original date. The themes I had in mind for 2020 were care, consideration, and concern. December 2020 was a particularly bleak period during the pandemic and I wanted to bring myself and people out in the world some joy. The festival aims to be an inclusive space for free expression and artistic experimentation in all forms/genres including film, video, movement, poetry, music, sound, and even mind-body practices. Online wasn’t a perfect scenario, but it was the best I could offer, given the state of the world, at that moment. I actually organized Interference Fest in-person at North Door (now shuttered) in 2019, which was also a very heartfelt festival. I hope to resume to in-person this year. As a curator, as well as someone who is concerned first and foremost with the well-being of others, I don’t want my participants or audience members to get sick from Covid-19 and so that’s why I’m waiting to announce the dates for 2022.
Due to grief and depression from losing friends and family during the pandemic and for being isolated on my own for almost two years, I have started to learn Tai’Chi with local dancer/choreographer Heloise Gold, progenitor of Deep Listening Retreats. Her collaborator and friend was Houston-born composer Pauline Oliveros. Heloise in one of Austin’s most famed residents and her movement-based training has impacted countless artists throughout the years. I am proud to be her pupil and hope to heal from her tutelage.
Here is my collaboration with Rick Reed; a live score for Ken Jacobs’s Nervous Magic Lantern Festival at Anthology Film Archives in 2016. It was one of my proudest moments as an electronic musician:
[Ed. note: This is our third installment of “Out of the Box.” For this series, which follows New Music USA’s tenth anniversary this past November and marks the start of our second decade, we are asking a group of deep musical thinkers to ponder what the landscape for new music will be ten years from now. We aim for this series to spark important discussions in our community as well as to raise important journalistic voices from all around the country. The previous installments of this series featured essays by University of Florida-based musicologist and bassoonist Dr. Imani Mosley and Brooklyn-based violinist and arts journalist Vanessa Ague. For our third, we asked San Francisco Bay Area-based music, art, technology and culture journalist/critic Geeta Dayal to ponder possible futures for music journalism.-FJO]
What will music journalism look like ten years from now? Will the role of the music critic be obsolete? The signs are not encouraging. Many of the best writers I know have left the field behind, embarking on more lucrative careers as lawyers, businesspeople, or professors. Many magazines and alternative weeklies across the United States have folded. Other publications have cut their staff, trying in vain to create the same publication with a fraction of the workforce, overworking the editors and writers that remain. Arts sections in newspapers are becoming thinner; freelance budgets are being slashed. For the past twenty years, I’ve continued to push forward as an arts critic and journalist despite the obstacles, because I believe that I can contribute new and useful ideas to the wider culture.
The prevailing narrative is that social media and digital streaming services have taken over the space that critics once inhabited. But I would like to present a more optimistic concept of the future, which we could build by reframing music criticism’s cultural value.
Consider that the analog revival is in full swing. In 2020, vinyl record sales surged 29% to $626 million, and that number continues to rise. Vinyl record pressing plants are overloaded, with wait times of several months to manufacture an album. Vintage analog synthesizers currently fetch eye-watering prices on auction sites like eBay. In other categories besides music, “bespoke” has become a popular buzzword, along with custom-made, tailored, and personalized. In a landscape that feels increasingly automated, consumers are quite understandably in search of things that feel special.
With this renewed interest in the charms of analog technology, I propose that we also renew our interest in another time-honored innovation: music writing. In this essay, I introduce the term “analog criticism.” Criticism is an art form, created by humans, not by AI. Analog criticism refers to long, perceptive essays and reviews, thoughtfully crafted by writers who have immersed themselves deeply in the field.
Spotify and other digital streaming services supply a quick fix. Users want to listen to a song, and they want it now. “If you like this, you might also like this,” these services suggest. This, in itself, is a form of criticism — automated, digital criticism, that tells you what to listen to next. This technology has made a very small number of people very rich. While streaming services might be convenient on the go, they can also lead to a diminished musical experience. Earlier this year, Spotify came under fire by prominent rock bands such as My Bloody Valentine for listing wildly incorrect lyrics alongside certain songs. Most listeners probably didn’t notice, because very little context is provided to the listener, if there is any at all. The perfunctory descriptions next to the albums are basically ad copy, not serious writing. Album credits are often missing or incomplete, and entire hidden histories of music are lost in the process.
Analog criticism means articulately explaining why you think something is worthwhile or why you don’t like something. Algorithms can’t do that; only people can. Analog criticism means presenting an articulate, persuasive argument. Analog criticism means drawing unlikely connections and doing real research. And smart, deeply felt writing builds a true connection with the reader. A lot of major publications like the Village Voice, where I got my start, were crucial forums where critics presented vibrant, intelligent arguments on a weekly basis. You felt like you knew these writers, even if you had never met them.
Mainstream magazines and newspapers have to step up, too. These days, most publications are too influenced by ad revenue, market research and page views. Their content is based around what they think people want, rather than setting a bold new agenda. It’s reactive — a defensive stance rather than an offensive one. The great magazines of the past took clear positions. They weren’t afraid of having a distinctive voice. That energy and vitality needs to come back.
Will arts sections in magazines and newspapers still exist in ten years? While there been a lot of talk about building new models for journalism, we must also put forth a strong argument for the value of arts writing, which is often given short shrift in the journalism world. In ten years, will critics still be able to find homes for serious articles on subjects outside the mainstream—and get paid enough to make a living? Crowdfunding sites are vital for sustaining writers through these uncertain times. For me, the ongoing support from readers through Patreon helps me to continue. I predict that more of these types of platforms will proliferate, giving journalists and critics new ways to fund their work.
Criticism, at its best, is the highest form of respect we can pay to art or to music. Instead of ceding ground to streaming services and social media corporations, we should regroup and reconsider the value we bring as critics and writers. Analog criticism gives us a deeper, richer experience. The world of music, and civilization at large, deserves it.
In a landscape that feels increasingly automated, consumers are quite understandably in search of things that feel special.
While streaming services might be convenient on the go, they can also lead to a diminished musical experience.
Analog criticism means articulately explaining why you think something is worthwhile or why you don’t like something. Algorithms can't do that; only people can.
Criticism, at its best, is the highest form of respect we can pay to art or to music.
Why bother replicating environmental sounds through electronic music synthesis when recording something is faster and more accurate? What is the point of recreating something when that thing already exists. For these questions, I have a philosophical answer and a practical answer.
On the philosophical side, fabricating a simulacra of the sounds around us is at its core a meditative process, built equally around practices of listening and analysis. It pays respect to the omnipresence of the invisible and honors the complexity of seemingly simple things. It unlocks new techniques for interaction with our instruments and enriches our experience of the world apart from them: “what makes up that sound” becomes something of a walking mantra impressing itself on everything you hear.
On the practical side, a recording is a life-like portrait, fixed and unchanging. It excludes from us the agency to restructure the world it captures. It relegates our creative interactions to the realm of post-processing (i.e. filtering, adding reverb, etc.) to emphasize or hide aspects of the events captured on tape.
The technique I’ll explain in this article takes the opposite approach: utilizing filtering, reverb, etc. as foundational elements for creating real-world portraiture while retaining the freedom of dream-logic malleability. Can you record the sound of a tin room in which a prop plane idles while its engine keeps changing size? Maybe. Can you synthesize it? Definitely.
Approaching a sound with the goal of recreating it is like listening to an exploded diagram, where a sonic totality is divided into components and considered individually. It is with an ear to this deliberate listening that I share with you words that have guided my work for the past decade, passed along to me by the great Bob Snyder, a Chicago-based artist, educator and friend, in the form of his “Ear Training” synthesis exercises. He started with a simple question through which the components of any sound can be observed and serve as a roadmap for from-scratch fabrication. “Is a sound noisy or tonal, and is its movement (if it has any) regular or irregular?”
Let’s do a quick exercise: listen to a sound, any sound (a baby crying, a phone ringing), and ask yourself: can I hum it? Trace the movement of the sound with your hand in the air and observe: is it rising and falling in a pattern? The answers to these questions point toward the equipment needed to recreate them. If the sound is tonal (if you can hum it), select an oscillator; if it isn’t, choose a noise generator. There are of course plenty of sounds that have both (a howling wind, the word “cha,” etc.) but for this initial thought experiment choose a tone or noise source to best fit whatever is the sound’s dominant component.
Next, is something about the sound changing? It could be its amplitude, its pitch, its timbre, etc., but if you find yourself tracing out this motion with your hand note how your hand is moving: regularly (up and down, like a car alarm) or less regularly (like shoes clanking away in a drier). A repeating motion would point toward a looping, cyclical modulator (a low frequency oscillator, a sequencer, etc.), where irregular motion would indicate something either noise-based or a mixture of otherwise unrelated things. Either jot these observations down or keep them in your head, whatever works best for you— the important thing is to remain cognizant of them as they accumulate.
To recreate a sound from scratch is to assemble these observations as discrete instructional steps. Try not to get bogged down by the totality of the sound itself. Instead focus on these component parts: the sound is nothing more than a list of them in aggregate.
Start with the basics—tone or noise, what about it is it changing— and slowly zoom in on the details from there. Wind blowing through a grove of trees is noisy and irregular. Sometimes the leaves rustle with more treble, sometimes with more mid-range. These various noisy timbres seem to happen sequentially, rather than simultaneously, as if the branches pushed one way sound different than when the wind changes direction and pushes them the other, and so on. Study the sound, note these characteristics, think of your observations as a decoder ring.
Hopefully this provides something of an overview of the opportunities that are possible in synthesizing environmental sounds and lays out some of the aspects of sound to focus on in your listening. Now let’s try our hand at a concrete example and patch something up!
I’d like to synthesize the sounds of the beach, in particular a memory I have of an afternoon spent there as a child. We’ll begin with the sound of ocean waves from the listening perspective of the shoreline. It’s low tide and the surf is mild. The sun hangs in the air, lazily
Once we have a working version of our central sound component, I find it helpful to surround it with supporting contextual sonics. These reinforce our creation’s place in this fabricated soundscape and allow for a degree of set-dressing about which the details are entirely ours to decide. Are these ocean waves happening on a beach or are they crashing in an office? Those decisions are executed through the inclusion of these background characters.
For this patch, I’ll play it straight and set the sound stereotypically. To create the sense of a shoreline, the focus will be on a pair of hallmarks—things you might hear (and in this case things I remember hearing) while sitting on the beach and listening to the waves: the dull roar of the ocean and the whipping hiss of the wind.
In tuning these sounds I’ll be utilizing Low and High Pass filters, and doing so with an ear for how each filter type represents distance: using Low Pass filters for sounds that are far away (and whose top end has rolled off), and High Pass filters for sounds that are close-up (and whose top end is accentuated). Additionally, setting the relative level of these sounds against each other paints a portrait of attention: the sounds being focused on (in this case the waves) can seem louder than their neighbors (the wind, the ocean), and should that observation shift for any reason this balance can be adjusted accordingly.
Finally, the addition of narrative elements can lend to this sound-portrait some much-appreciated variety: if the background is always there, the things that come and go can pull us into a far more immersive listening experience.
To illustrate this point we’ll create the sound of a single-passenger plane in flight, passing overhead. Unlike our wave, wind and ocean patches, this one is definitely hummable and will require tone sources to synthesize. While there are myriad ways to go about recreating engine sonics, each essentially contains at least an oscillator and at least some timbral complexity, especially if that engine is full of moving parts! The aspects that you choose to focus on in your own engine synthesis work will depend greatly on your listening work: what about the sound jumps out to you? What is essential? In the case of the single-passenger plane, I’ll be celebrating its beat-frequency-like movement, its stereo position adjustments and the Doppler Effect that occurs as it passes from one side of the beach to the other.
Now that we have our waves, our environment and our wildcard narrative element, let’s combine them into a performance. The world we create in the mixing of these sounds is at any point re-definable: on a whim the ocean can become tiny, the wind can whip itself up into a terrifying wall, the waves can pause and hold mid-crash. While the example illustrated below is one that tilts towards accuracy it can at any moment morph into something else entirely: a far more fantastical collage of sonic impossibilities or simply the next memory that comes to mind. The fluidity of the portrait is entirely yours to decide.
Like any skill, decoding and fabricating environmental sounds is an exercise that rewards practice. I encourage you to start as soon as you finish this article. Close your eyes and whatever you hear or imagine first ask yourself: what makes up that sound? Thanks for listening.
Different Cities Different Voices is a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear music from local artists selected by each essayist. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
An Introduction by Ami Dang
(New Music USA’s Director of Development)
Ami Dang (photo by Missy Malouff)
When I think about music in Baltimore, the words that come to mind are energy, vitality, and transcendence. Baltimore is a place where truly original ideas flourish. No artist in Baltimore lives here because they’re making a lot of money or getting a lot of commissions or opportunities. These music creators live here because they’re inspired every day. This place is fertile ground for truly original artmaking.
Baltimore has a rich tradition of experimental techniques and cross-disciplinary, experiential arts that can’t be confined to one artistic medium, genre or style. Classical music joins forces with experimental film and puppetry. Dancers meander through multimedia installations featuring improvised sound art.
As Infinity Knives and Amy Reid both mention here, music concerts are typically curated in a way that brings together a plurality of voices. It’s more often that experimental hip hop, punk music, and avant rock would share a bill in one evening with a drag queen emcee-ing the show than a program featuring one type of music. Neither medium nor genre matter; innovation and experimentalism are paramount—rather than notoriety and prestige.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t share the reality of the silos that do, in fact, exist in the music community. Baltimore is a majority Black city, and the arts circles that I move in are mostly white. We have so many talented Black and queer musicians and artists—pay close attention to Jamal Moore’s account of the Black avant garde arts scene in our city—but many of them continue to struggle with a lack of support and resources. Over the past few years, the arts community has become slightly more integrated, and more queer and Black (and other BIPOC) artists have received support from local funding opportunities and various resources. However, there is still a divide that persists. As Director of Development with New Music USA, I am particularly passionate about building a more equitable future for new music—a future where artists from all backgrounds are supported so that their work can reach audiences far and wide.
It is often the artists from privileged backgrounds whose work is recognized outside of Baltimore and who are supported on a national or international level. While creativity is abundant among diverse artists of many backgrounds, we lack the music industry infrastructure, i.e. record labels, publishers, management, booking agencies, arts attorneys, publicists, marketing services, and more, that support many artists (of all backgrounds) in larger metro areas. It is simply easier for music industry professionals to witness the work of, connect with, and ultimately, support artists in larger cities due to proximity.
But ultimately, this dearth of opportunities to commodify creative product is exactly the reason that the work created here is authentic. As Allison Clendaniel touches on in her narrative below, creative work in Baltimore It hasn’t been created isn’t produced to please anyone or fit into a certain style, medium, or genre dictated by funding interests. While we reward innovative and artistically brilliant work, we cannot ignore that the funding and systemic privilege that bolster it almost always comes first. In turn, these accolades yield further recognition—and displace others who were already at a disadvantage. The arts are not exempt from systemic oppression.
Here in the US, very little unrestricted support exists for individual artists, especially compared to Europe, where artists receive government funding, healthcare, and free or subsidized opportunities to further their education. Baltimore is one of the few cities left in the United States where space is truly affordable. The abundance of empty, dilapidated warehouse and residential space that results from industry that folded decades ago provides ample opportunities for creative play, performances, happenings, space to turn dreams into reality and collaborate in large numbers.
Sadly, while Baltimore continues to be a more affordable place to live relative to most cities in the US, DIY venues have folded left and right. In the aftermath of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California in 2016, Baltimore’s warehouses began to shut down due to safety concerns, and the pandemic has further squashed opportunities and resources to revitalize non-traditional spaces as sites for creative activity. Bonnie Lander, Stephen Santillan, and others further elaborate on the changing landscape of live/work arts spaces in Baltimore in this essay.
Still, I have hope. Artists in Baltimore (or the ones who stay in Baltimore, anyway!) are resilient and approach their work in unique ways. Crisis breeds innovation! All of the artists mentioned in this article are masters of their crafts but with the Baltimore spirit—their artistry is often experimental, innovative, inspiring and doesn’t sound like anyone else.
Over the past decade and a half with urban renewal and gentrification, Baltimore remains with a large African American populace that encompasses a wealth of African American music and arts in all formats from Black Avant Garde to mainstream.
There’s not much money to be made in Baltimore, so there’s not as much influence of money on Baltimore art. That means the arts here rely on human-powered resources like time, dedication, and sheer force of will, not dollars.
Allison M. Clendaniel
Though this is true for many cities, Baltimore has a way of calling people back to make their work here, with tree-lined neighborhoods that are racially and economically diverse.
I especially love that there’s a large (and organically grown) black and queer artist base.
Tariq Ravelomanana (a.k.a. Infinity Knives)
A whole generation of arts spaces are beginning to fall to the prospect of development, and our once un-gentrifiable city is changing. As access to housing and facilities becomes restricted to those who have, Baltimore’s arts community is feeling the squeeze.
It has been a supreme privilege to be a part of such a smart, elevated, eccentric community.
Baltimore's openness to new experiences, exciting performers, and the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaborations are still inspiring to me today as they were when I first arrived.
Baltimore isn’t a big city you move to in order to “make it”, so there is a feeling of trust behind what people are doing here.
I think something that really separates Baltimore from other cities is our rawness. That goes for both performers and people who attend events.
Jamal Moore (photo by Larry Jackson)
Baltimore is the native soil where I was born and raised, and I returned in 2013 after living in Boston and L.A. for over a duration of 11 years. Affectionally called “Charm City” and colloquially “Bmore”; Baltimore is a very eccentric city filled with phenomenal creative arts that are often shadowed in the negative light due to its misfortune of urban plight. It is through my music that I have created a path of success and chose to return to Bmore to give back to the community and teach the youth of what I have obtained. On a constant basis I instruct that music can be an option and tool used to negate the systemic path of the prison to pipeline infrastructure. To always challenge oneself and not be afraid to think outside the box and feel you must stay within mainstream aesthetics.
The new music scene In Baltimore is unique compared to other cities I have traveled and toured in across the U.S. No matter which background or subgroup of artistry one is involved with, there is always cross pollination of the scenes with every artist working in all formats. Over the past decade and a half with urban renewal and gentrification, Baltimore remains with a large African American populace that encompasses a wealth of African American music and arts in all formats from Black Avant Garde to mainstream. You can always attend on any given Sunday with ideal weather, the historical Park Vibe drum and music circle in Druid Hill Park which has ran for over 50 years as a central hub for Black Arts. It is here where you get a chance to experience the sounds of exploration with artists experimenting with handmade instruments repurposed from found materials to poets, MCs and vocalists improvising over traditional rhythms from the African continent and diaspora along with hybrid rhythms or song. Often, those who are transient to Baltimore via academia isolated in school hubs may discover or learn of this community. It is here where you get a chance to explore, experiment and learn improvisation in the Black Avant Garde tradition opposite the idiosyncrasies of academia.
Since the beginning of the pandemic a few artist communities have collapsed completely while some remain ongoing in smaller spaces. The Park Vibe music circle still operates with musicians adhering to CDC guidelines. Baltimore historically always had a sensibility of Kujichagulia (Self Determination) and Ujima (collective work and responsibility) not solely restricted to the African American community but similarly across other ethnicities in the city. The pandemic may have stopped major events such as “Artscape” or “Afram” which are two major festivals highlighting art across all disciplines, but it did not stop true artists from their daily grind. It pulled everyone together closer, creating and hosting their own events in smaller gatherings especially during the warmer months.
Despite the challenges of the Covid pandemic, I personally have maintained balance and harmony. At the beginning of the pandemic, I lost a tour, contracts in education, and quite a few gigs. With all this happening at once I remained at peace and never stopped creating. Many colleagues who solely relied on live performances begin to break down mentally. It is with the pandemic that I realized from introspective meditation, to reverse the energy and take this time to go within and create more than ever, utilizing this time at full capacity. There was the notion of the world coming to a halt, yet the planet never stopped rotating and mother nature kept on with her daily routine.
Coming from a background of learning to use limited resources, making do with what you have and expand in all directions, it was easy to embrace technology with online performances. In fact, I had already done this eleven years prior when it was less common and frowned upon by colleagues that regarded it as folly. Little did they know this would be one key component of surviving as an artist later down the road.
While humanity is almost at a two-year mark of the pandemic, the direction where we are truly heading is still uncertain. One can speculate it may or may not return to what was once before. Music is a universal language and healing force of humanity and I believe, as in the beginning of the epic of creation of human existence, we will always continue to create new music and beyond in this continuum.
Here is an album I recorded with Nik Francis as The Mojuba Duo:
And here’s a local artist I recommend:
Allison M. Clendaniel
Allison M Clendaniel (photo by Sam Torres)
When I first came to Baltimore for my fancy Classical Music Degree, I was adamant about leaving it one day to find some better-funded, more legit place. Hah! The best-laid plans and all that… I’m happy to report that I’ve lived, worked, and thrived in Baltimore for 14 years and counting.
During my third year of conservatory, I realized the cut-throat academic culture was an inauthentic and uninspiring environment for me to exist within. With that awareness, I sought out the large community of art-making people living and making work in Baltimore. I was struck by the unjuried art happening within warehouse spaces around town, and when I finished my schooling, I dove in head-first. I began acting and creating theatrical sound design with a collective of DIY theatre makers, I joined a group of singers who specialized in renaissance music, started singing in a bunch of different bands, and became a session musician for rappers, rock musicians, jazzers, and the like! I feel so lucky to live in a place where anything that might pique my interest is within my reach and where I am met with open arms.The people in Baltimore are committed to serving and uplifting their communities, giving time and creative energy to create the future they want to see.
Baltimore is also a place to practice patience and compassion daily. Baltimore arts are to the left of capital — which is itself both bad and good. There’s not much money to be made in Baltimore, so there’s not as much influence of money on Baltimore art. That means the arts here rely on human-powered resources like time, dedication, and sheer force of will, not dollars. Ultimately, Baltimore creates a culture of experimentation, mutual respect, and a deeper understanding of work and the work of the folks who are deeply invested in the community. This is what drives my work as artistic director of Mind On Fire.
Mind on Fire is a notated music project I started with my co-directors Jason Charney and James Young in 2016. In the simplest terms, it’s a group of like-minded artists who want to facilitate high-quality music-making for our community. Our goal is to present all art with equal gravity and importance regardless of performance practice or history; to unify the appreciators of the Baltimore arts scene; and create a comfortable and welcoming environment for people to have new experiences. We strive for artistic excellence and be active and thoughtful members of our community, using our skills as presenters and performers to be a creative resource for the city at large.
We’ve been lucky to collaborate with many notable artists around town, not only musicians but also performance, visual, and theater artists: Wume, Infinity Knives, Ada Pinkston, Soul Cannon, and Elizabeth Downing, just to name a few. We performed amazing work from a variety of composers, including Missy Mazzoli, Jamal Moore, Alexander Schubert, Alex Temple, and so many more. We’ve been featured in the BSO New Music Festival, with Dan Deacon on stage and in film, and been lucky to work directly with The Pratt Library System, one of Baltimore’s greatest resources.
The past two pandemic-laden years have been everything all at once! I feel that I lost everything; and gained even more. It’s tough, y’know, presence is required for ephemeral art to exist. Accepting that art-making was being forced unceremoniously into a different experience entirely broke my brain for a bit. I cocooned for the better part of a year and a half, save the occasional Mind On Fire virtual event. Now, I’m beginning to emerge again. I feel like an optimized version of my former self. I have a greater understanding of how to love and be endlessly curious about my own thoughts, my own work, my own boundaries, and my own abundance!
Mind on Fire also had a helpful slow-down. Pre-pandemic, we were doing 15-20 shows a season, and frankly, I was exhausted by it and wanted to quit. We’ve been able to curate such incredible video work that likely wouldn’t have been captured in such a permanent way on one of our live shows during the shutdown. I feel emboldened by everyone’s spirit and desire for connectedness.
It’s hard to choose a single piece that best represents my work here in Baltimore. This collaboration between Mind On Fire and Infinity Knives is one of the most ambitious events we’ve put together. This piece was recorded during that marvelous period when covid numbers had subsided a bit, and holy moly! It was glorious to be in the room with everyone for a moment.
Tariq Ravelomanana: In the Mouth of Sadness
There are so many people here who inspire me. I’m wary of naming only one person because I feel like part of a large interconnected web of magical-human creators here. The person who has been most consistently present and inspiring during my time here is my collaborator, mentor, and friend, Liz Downing. Liz is the most magical, patient, and sparkling soul I’ve ever met. She’s particularly good at painting, singing, laughing, improvising, and listening. Anything Liz touches shimmers and is full of thoughtfulness. Her latest collaboration with Greg Hatem (another true Baltimore hero) is a beautiful celebration of her work. These songs are all at least 20 years in the making. You can check it out here:
Reach out to Mind On Fire if you’re ever in town. There is always something good happening!
I came to Baltimore in 1983 from a small town in Alabama to study painting with Grace Hartigan at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The Institute Graduate Program offered teaching positions for new graduates, so I stayed. During this time I began to develop relationships with people from other art disciplines. Working with a filmmaker, set designer, operatically trained singer and choreographer, we created musical art performance plays in the trio Lambs Eat Ivy, touring with sets strapped atop a Subaru. Always, I was happy to return to Baltimore, where there were loft spaces with room to create and a fertile inspiring community.
The music scene in Baltimore is metamorphic, changed and influenced by the confluence of artists moving through. Graduates from the music, visual arts, and theater departments stay around taking advantage of this creative energy, expanding their vision through collaboration. Baltimore is, during non pandemic times, a destination for touring groups with a large variety of venues. These touring groups make relationships with local musicians and all the circles become wider. Though this is true for many cities, Baltimore has a way of calling people back to make their work here, with tree-lined neighborhoods that are racially and economically diverse.
Being a musician and painter, I was able to survive during the early days of the pandemic by delving into my painting practice. Having a porch and yard, I was able to make music with neighbors. Bringing her fiddle over, neighbor Susan Alcorn, usually a pedal steel guitarist, would improv with me as I bowed my banjo and sang, for hours, even into bitter temperatures. Vocalist Allison Clendaniel and I would create sound pieces on the porch and throughout the neighborhood. Early in 2021, I began a project with arranger and instrumentalist Greg Hatem in which the core work was done, each of us in isolation, creating tracks and sending the files back and forth. The resulting album is called, Curving Tooth. Local Festivals offered online shows such as Shakemore Rock Festival, High Zero Experimental Music Festival, Mind On Fire, Black Cherry Theater Puppet Slams. These requests for entries gave me reason to film musical porch performances with comrades of “Molesuit Choir” and to develop new skills. To create work entirely in isolation, I set up a camera on a tripod in my studio and created puppets, which I made by cutting out painted characters. I had the puppets interact with each other, casting shadows on their painted backdrops, moving the puppets and singing to the soundtrack.
Though artists, musicians, writers are likely to thrive during a pandemic, the lack of a physical audience was difficult. The need to be in the physical presence and share reactions to work is a vital part of creation. This underscores the beauty of Baltimore’s live venues, Normal’s Books and Records, The Current Gallery, The Crown and so many more, which feed the community with friendships, inspiration and reason to continue.
Infinity Knives (Tariq Ravelomanana)
Infinity Knives (photo by Amanda Lee Letts)
I actually didn’t choose Baltimore. My mom and grandmother were more or less living here because it was a relatively affordable city. We were pretty poor. I moved in with them in 2005-06. I was living in Johannesburg beforehand. I’ve made the city a headquarters of some sort. I leave often and come back every few years.
I’ve always loved the mixed bills we’ve had. In a single night, you’d have a metal band opening followed by a folk band and eventually closing off with a neo-soul artist. I know this, because I was in the folk band! I especially love that there’s a large (and organically grown) black and queer artist base. The young and emerging artists are accepting of diversity and they don’t treat it as an oddity. This was not always the case a decade ago.
It took a really long time to establish myself here. Unreasonably long, considering the fact that my music hasn’t changed in the past ten years. There was a monopoly on the “scene” by mostly affluent white art people. Their music was awful. I was never made to feel welcome or appreciated. No one wants to admit it now, but people were openly racist too. I was eventually taken in by the emerging black queer dance scene where I was finally heard out.
As far as the pandemic; it hasn’t been too different for me from other working artists around the states. Fickle tour dates and delays on vinyl releases…the works. Personally, the stimulus checks and a five hundred dollar grant upgraded my equipment just enough to dip my toes into soundtrack and sound design, which is what I mainly do for money. That’s another “scene” that is oversaturated with the no-sauce and no-seasoning crowd. I’m a more than able composer, but it seems as though, like everything in the arts, is solely reserved for the connected and wealthy. Not sure if “overcomed” is the word I’d like to use, but rather improvising, or even better; ghetto rigging. A concept I’m very familiar with.
The Black Power Paradox by Infinity Knives and Brian Ennals
The Ride by Jupiter Rex
The boomerang effect has been explained to me many times. Someone leaves Baltimore for greener pastures, only to return years later with a renewed appreciation for the arts community and the opportunities it provides. I understand it because it happened to me. I returned to Baltimore in 2017 after a 9-year hiatus to explore all the facets of my artistic endeavors: classical soprano, new music performer, experimental musician and improviser, composer, concert curator and educator. Due to a mix of affordable living and a thriving, close knit, DIY artist community, Baltimore is the perfect place for a self-motivated artist who wants to create, collaborate, and belong.
In the four years since I have returned to Baltimore I have been inspired by my friends and colleagues who care deeply about their art and work as hard as they play. The local culture is brewed in experimental art and music, which means that local shows can be as wild as they are bad, and sometimes, completely mind blowing. When our city is thriving (read, not in a pandemic), there are shows every night of the week in galleries, bars, houses and warehouses across the city, often multiple per night.
Since returning to Baltimore, I have been able to upkeep an active freelance career in new opera and composition on the East Coast, even in a global pandemic. I have performed and collaborated with countless local artists. I volunteer with experimental music collective High Zero Foundation, host social justice events and concerts at the 2640 Space, and work as Assistant to the Community Chorus of Peabody. I’ve performed with local new music presenter Mind on Fire and perform as a regular chorister/soloist at Emmanuel Episcopalian in downtown.
I am grateful to live in a city where I can afford stable housing, work with dedicated artists, and have access to physical space for projects, collaborations, and concerts. But in the past few years I have seen my city suffer some unfortunate changes that many artistic communities are struggling with right now: our art spaces are closing. Most recently the live/work warehouse space that I called home since my relocation is up for sale. The H&H building in downtown has provided live/work space for artists for the past 20+ years. Huge shows, concerts, dance parties, theater, visual art, performance art, and more have happened at this space. Eclectic groups of musicians, actors, theater troupes, painters, sculptors, videographers, photographers, illustrators, composers, dancers, and puppeteers have all called the H&H home. It’s looming closure is deeply grieved by our community.
The H&H is not alone in its closing, a whole generation of arts spaces are beginning to fall to the prospect of development, and our once un-gentrifiable city is changing. As access to housing and facilities becomes restricted to those who have, Baltimore’s arts community is feeling the squeeze. It’s up to our local governments to ensure these spaces do not disappear and up to us to loudly vocalize our support for the local, underground arts scenes that bind our cities together.
Here’s a clip I made for the Red Room in Your Room improvised music series during lockdown:
My avocation as an experimental musician in Baltimore began when I was about 11 years old and was part of a larger sensibility which I could not have described at the time; a deep, eccentric interest in phenomenology of experience, a perverse (or at least highly skeptical) approach to structure, and a willingness to embrace contradictions and paradoxes as source material. How I got there is a long story beyond this short essay. The emotional center of the activity was a desire to exit the prosaic world—a dangerous motivation, and one not tied to a particular methodology or ideology.
Baltimore was and continues to be an exciting place to develop those interests. In the ’80s, as a teenager I fell into a rich avant-garde scene which was equal parts influenced by happenings/Fluxus, language writing, experimental music, and utopian political currents. As an experimental composer/performer I became one of its youngest members. Frequent collaborations with unusual figures like ultra-nonconformist tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE, instrument inventor Neil Feather, and L.A.F.M.S. transplant Peter “Pan” Zahorecz in the Baltimore of the ’80s and ’90s led to a scene that drew international figures to the city for collaboration. This was the richest and most sophisticated universe of inspired weirdos I could have asked for—though not an entirely cushy, or comfortable scene. The story of that amazing time remains to be written.
In the ’90s I became the saxophone student / protegee of Jack Wright, a crucial force in North American free improvisation, and toured extensively with him, providing a new focus in instantaneous music making and virtuosic technical considerations, which layered on to the rest of what Baltimore had given me. In turn, the networks derived from that touring formed the basis for a larger free improvisation engagement, leading to hundreds of collaborations through the ’90s and ’00s, and the formation of my record label, www.recorded.com (now on its 25th release). It was also this time that I became a philosophy student and music producer for Henry Flynt, the unusual American philosopher, founder of Concept Art, and inventor of Electronic Hillbilly Music. Both those relationships had a huge impact on the development of my sensibility.
It was during this time that I convinced my business partners in Normal’s Books and Records to let me use the storage room as a space for experimental gigs on a regular basis, which I ran by myself for the first year and was the launch of www.redroom.org, a storied experimental music space that since 1996 has presented over a thousand concerts of experimental music, along with language, philosophy, performance and film. The collective that I formed to run that space went on to realize the www.highzero.org festival, an international festival since 1999 that is both one of the most inspired institutions of free improvisation but also a crossing-ground of all the varied subcultures of experimental music. The clashing range of sensibilities, in combination with exaltation and sophistication are all hallmarks of the Baltimore scene; one with a shocking large and consistent audience for experimental culture.
Though still connected with all those activities, in the last decade, I moved on in my own work to develop the concept of “Relabi”—a cultural form based around “always slipping the pulse,” attempting something in relation to tempo that the Escher Woodcuts are in relation to depth and space. Again, paradoxes as experience-generators. The idea of confusing the issue of “is there a tempo or not” has become an obsession for me and a new form of dissonance. Expect an LP, Baltimore Relabi Style, in the coming years, full of special guest and odd gambits.
Baltimore, “the ambiguity city,” turns out to be one of the best places to care about this sort of ineffable stuff, and it has been a supreme privilege to be a part of such a smart, elevated, eccentric community. It has been exactly what I, as an individual, needed and also a major love of my life.
I came to Baltimore area by a chance, via Germany, Israel, and Canada. After I completed my studies in Neues Musiktheater with Mauricio Kagel in Cologne, I was practically stuck in Germany without being able to return home since the war in former Yugoslavia was still going on. The new music scene in Cologne was fantastically exciting, with pieces programmed at all concerts no matter how small or big the venue or who the performers or the audiences were, but the negative public opinion regarding the war in my home country was so intense that it was just impossible for me to continue living there. I got an opportunity to go to Israel, and very soon found out that although there was a great appreciation for traditional classical music, there were not many opportunities in contemporary music performance for someone who just recently landed there. I then applied for a six-month residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Canada, and it was in their library where I came across the Towson University’s graduate program in interdisciplinary theatre which accepted the students from various artistic backgrounds and gave them practical training in self-produced theatrical performances. And so I went to Towson in 1999, where I also took composition classes (mainly in electronic sound) from Dr. William Kleinsasser.
While still at TU, I was invited to join the Baltimore Composers Forum. The primary focus of the organization was to program the new music concerts featuring local composers who wrote in a variety of styles with strong classical or jazz backgrounds. There was no real connection among the members other than showing up for the concerts when their music was performed. In 2008, my colleague Keith Kramer and I took over the leadership and slightly restructured how the organization was to be run, which has remained up until the present: from the all-membership meetings where concert ideas are freely exchanged, to scheduling events in spaces other than traditional concert venues, to reaching out to other local artists and collaborating with them – the most successful dance event Sound in Motion was held last year for the 6th time. Our main focus is to reach diverse audiences and present a variety of local ensembles through our compositions, but the most significant change for us was that we gave the performers the freedom to choose which works will be performed at any event, rather than it being decided by the Board.
When the pandemic started, Baltimore Composers Forum was a little bit stuck in a limbo; as current president, I kept postponing our vocal concert for 3, then 6 months, then cancelling it altogether and switching it into a virtual event. We all had a steep learning curve in how things in this new-normal performance reality are supposed to function: from utilizing our website as a virtual stage; to dealing with the logistics of putting together a virtual vs in-person concert; to finding the musicians and videographers who felt safe enough to rehearse and film the music; to finding venues that would be open to the idea of someone filming in their otherwise shut-down spaces; to figuring out how royalties work for virtual performances, etc. Some of the online concerts, like Sound in Motion VI, were very successful, and because with each online event we were able to reach much wider audiences, even internationally, it was decided that when we get back to live concerts we should still keep one portion of our concerts virtual. As for me personally, I was juggling homeschooling my two young daughters, taking care of everyday chores, running Baltimore Composers Forum, and finding a time to compose. As many of our current members, I have moved away from Baltimore, and now am a part of our greater Maryland base that is continuing to be active in the Charm City’s new music scene. Baltimore’s openness to new experiences, exciting performers, and the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaborations are still inspiring to me today as they were when I first arrived.
I have started at the beginning of a lockdown a series of very short virtual compositions (1-2 minutes) inspired by and featuring very mundane every-day objects as a sound inspiration such as an electric toothbrush, children’s talking books, and a musical jewelry box.
The first one, titled B(rushed) Moment can be watched here:
White Noise for prerecorded text in 8 languages, musique concrète and sound effects (text by Juanita Rockwell in collaboration with Anna Maria Delinasiou) can be heard here:
I recommend my fellow Baltimore Composers Forum Keith Kramer’s Amalgam:
I grew up in Baltimore after my family moved here from the Philippines in 1982. I fell in love with art and music in my teens and have since met like-minded people here who have become longtime friends and collaborators. They are a big reason why I continue to call Baltimore home. For the past 25 years, I have been writing and performing music in both collaborative and solo settings, some of which have allowed me to tour throughout the United States and Europe. Outside of purely musical works, I have written music for theater and dance productions, art installations, and have also been a member of DIY theater ensembles as well. With the help of grants, a longtime collaborator and I were able to hire Peabody Conservatory students to play some of our compositions and I’ve also had ensemble performances made up of just friends.
One of the most important things about Baltimore for me is that the music scene feels like an actual community. Baltimore isn’t a big city you move to in order to “make it”, so there is a feeling of trust behind what people are doing here. There are a lot of people here making art and music with a pure kind of motivation. That same genuine impulse is apparent in the effort to put on events and performances, too. When Baltimore artists do become well known, they remain very much in the fiber of the community, instead of being treated differently. I think one of the reasons the community is so healthy is because of its strong vibrant DIY spirit. There are a lot of highly motivated people and many dedicated independent warehouse spaces. The importance of these cannot be overstated. I’ve been lucky to witness a wide variety of performances at these events, from English improv group AMM, to the late Baltimore Club DJ, K-Swift, to DIY ensemble performances of music by Louis Andriessen and Terry Riley, to the Sun Ra Arkestra performing at an independently funded festival, just to name a few. Outside of the DIY scene, establishments like the Peabody Conservatory, MICA, the Maryland Film Festival, as well as other smaller galleries and venues also host their own program of events, adding to the mix, and helping to create a flourishing community. The diversity and supportive nature of this community has kept me inspired and motivated to keep creating and experimenting.
The live music scene shutting down, has personally been one of the more challenging parts of the pandemic. When watching live performances was part of my routine, it added inspiration and a balance. As far as my creative practices, some personal projects were put on hold, but also some new avenues of exploration opened up. My work has always had a live element in mind, but during the lockdown I shifted my focus to experimenting with the film music medium, which also helped me build up a portfolio. I did work on some collaborative projects but found it hard to be productive when working through emails and file sharing. Fortunately my wife, Wheatie Mattiasich, is one of my collaborators, and we were able to record an album in our home studio. This work will be released on vinyl in 2023. As of late, I’ve shifted my focus back to writing live music, with the optimistic hope that shows and concerts will become increasingly safer and more abundant. I’m very much looking forward to being an audience member again, and to also be part of this city’s very communal musical dialogue.
And this is the selection I am making of another artist:
Amy Reid (photo by Kata Frederick)
I have lived in Baltimore my whole life, it’s what I call home. My practice is rooted in building community and connecting with people through music. Because of that, and being close with my family (chosen and biological), I am deep-seated here. I moved from Baltimore County to Baltimore City when I went to college at MICA and fell in love with the warehouse/nightclub music scene in 2006 and never left. It was my first time going to legendary spaces like the Paradox, experiencing Baltimore club music in person and that was really life changing. There were also underground spaces hosting bills with Beach House, Rye Rye, Future Islands, Naeem, Dan Deacon, DDM, TT the Artist and other legends in the making. During this time I became really close friends with another Baltimore musician, Abdu Ali who started throwing these amazing parties called Kahlon which hosted Princess Nokia, Juliana Huxtable, and Jungle Pussy, to name a few. These experiences fueled my passion for collaborative music making and curatorial work.
I think something that really separates Baltimore from other cities is our rawness. That goes for both performers and people who attend events. We’re not afraid to go all out, get weird, be flamboyant, and move our bodies. In my band Chiffon, we make dance music and it always took me out of my element to go to a city where it was difficult to get people moving or to be vocally receptive. Another thing I love about this city is how we have such a range of genres here, some really niche ones, and how they are all frequently represented on one bill. It’s not out of the ordinary to attend a show with a noise/electronic musician, dj playing dance music, rapper, indie band, or a combination of all of these. I think it’s also important to note that our city forces us artists to be resilient and resourceful. We don’t have a large variety of venues and we definitely have a lack of queer centered spaces. Despite all of that, I have seen the LGBTQ music scene explode which has been really exciting for me as a queer identifying musician. TT the Artist’s film Dark City Beneath the Beat does a really great job capturing the high energy, soul, and spirit of Baltimore.
The pandemic has obviously been difficult for everyone. For me, making music is how I connect with people so it has been challenging both mentally and financially. It has been two years of trial, error, and sometimes succeeding in finding ways to share space with people through music as safely as possible. In addition to being a musician, I am also an events curator. Baltimore based musician, Pangelica, and myself makeup GRL PWR–a platform dedicated to cultivating community and elevating the visibility of women, trans, queer, and non-binary artists. Every year around Halloween, we organize a grandiose drag show, SWEAT and the pandemic challenged us to find a creative way to still make this happen. We wound up renting out a space, gathering a film crew, and putting on an outdoor show with djs, local drag performers but no live audience. Airing the first virtual rendition of SWEAT was successful in gathering our community together in a celebratory digital space. Musically speaking, the virtual world opened up new possibilities for collaboration. As part of a residency at the Merriweather District in September 2020, I assembled a sample pack for a project titled Future Canopies. The pack included field recordings, improvisations and through a digital open call, I invited artists to re-interpret the samples by creating new compositions. I wound up receiving tracks from Brazil, California, New York, and beyond. This time has me reflecting on how to cross borders/boundaries and be a cheerleader for the global recognition that Baltimore City deserves.
[Ed. note: Last month, we launched a new series of articles under the banner “Out of the Box.” For this series, which follows New Music USA’s tenth anniversary this past November and marks the start of our second decade, we are asking a group of deep musical thinkers to ponder what the landscape for new music will be ten years from now. We aim for this series to spark important discussions in our community as well as to raise important journalistic voices from all around the country. The first installment of this series is a provocative essay by University of Florida-based musicologist and bassoonist Dr. Imani Mosley. Our second contributor is Brooklyn-based violinist and arts journalist Vanessa Ague.-FJO]
When I think about music 10 years into the future, the one thing that jumps out in my mind most is the perennial question of genre: How we define it and how it’ll change. Will there be any genres in 10 years? What will post-genre and cross-genre and everything in-between look like? Which new genres will emerge and take over the musical landscape? To me, genre and its evolution is one of the most fascinating aspects of music and music history. They’re imperfect descriptors, yet we cling to them. They’re constantly morphing, yet they stick to certain boundaries that contain them. People want to identify with a genre, or against a genre, and that becomes a defining part of their character. Genre encompasses more than the words that describe them. But will we someday land on words that finally feel right?
I’ve been considering this question even more lately, as I recently completed a Master’s capstone that touched on them. (Parts of this essay draw from that research and writing.) My writing is often dictated by genre, as are record store shelves and digital sales, for better and for worse. I personally find myself more and more drawn to the “post-genre” and “genre-blending” music—or, music that defies categorization yet is categorized in imperfect ways. As I think about the next ten years of music making, I hope we’ll grapple with how we define, use, and think about these signifiers. Some of the most compelling music made today, in my opinion, is born out of a conglomeration of genres and styles, and in the next 10 years, my idealistic dream would be for us to shift to talking about music in a way that foregrounds appreciation of the sound and the people who make it instead of boxes that don’t always fit.
Our struggle to find the perfect genre tags aren’t anything new, and neither is crossing over from one genre to another, or mixing them together into one. The trend of genre mixing perhaps most famously came to the fore in New York in the mid-20th century, and The Velvet Underground is one of the best known genre and medium-bending groups from those days. Their early albums, like 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, united La Monte Young and Tony Conrad’s drone composition with singer-songwriter structures; the sound became a mix of long-held tones with chugging four-four rhythms and hazy speak-sung vocals. The band’s legacy has been long-lasting: They’ve inspired many other alternative rock bands to extend boundaries, from ambient pioneer Brian Eno to shoegaze band Galaxie 500 to indie rock darlings The Strokes.
More recently, we’ve had the community of the internet to power our genre discovery. In the 2000s and 2010s, the internet would make more genres than ever before, from all over the world, available to anyone who wanted to listen. On the internet, all kinds of music became available to everyone and anyone and sounds from across the globe became easy to access. On sites like Limewire, and later what.cd, redacted, and soulseek, the music-obsessed could download as many MP3s as they wanted, taking in every single sound and throwing it back in the art they’d make later on. Today’s streaming services like Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music tried to follow suit, providing a constant stream of new music for listeners and makers (though none of these platforms support artists financially, which is another, separate issue I hope we address in the next 10 years). With such easy discovery, it’s no wonder mixing and matching in music has continued to proliferate and the barriers between genres have come down. Access has allowed us possibility.
Much of our music discovery today is centered around genre. Streaming sites make playlists geared towards specific genres and their algorithms recommend similar artists. In 10 years, I don’t see this type of recommendation changing—but I do think those algorithms will need to continue to expand and get more detailed. There are general playlists for umbrella genres like pop and experimental, but will more playlists show up that cover subgenres? Will algorithms begin to detect the smallest shifts in sound, linking together artists from completely different parts of the musical landscape? This certainly happens occasionally—Spotify in particular touts itself as a bastion for this kind of discovery—but I wonder if it’ll start to happen more as our genre barriers continue to dissolve. And, with radio and podcasting on the rise, I wonder if in 10 years we’ll see those formats become major agents for discovery again, too.
"My idealistic dream would be for us to shift to talking about music in a way that foregrounds appreciation of the sound and the people who make it instead of boxes that don’t always fit."
The trend of genre mixing perhaps most famously came to the fore in New York in the mid-20th century.
More past trends and styles will be resurrected and repurposed in the next 10 years. Perhaps there will be music that mixes baroque composition with field recordings, or medieval chant with ambient—perhaps there already is.
Genre is a way of describing what we hear so that it can be contextualized and understood. Genre isn’t going to go away for this reason—it helps us categorize and understand the world of music. But can it become more malleable?
I don’t know if we’ll ever have the perfect solution to categorizing music, but as the next 10 years continue, we’re going to hear new kinds of music that question our assumptions of what genre is and what it means, just like the past 10 years and the 10 before that.
Musically, I don’t see the impulse to mix genres and form new ones changing anytime soon. A lot of today’s genre blending seems to mix old trends that have come around in popularity again with new ones (like mixing minimalism with modern electronic dance music). More past trends and styles will be resurrected and repurposed in the next 10 years. Perhaps there will be music that mixes baroque composition with field recordings, or medieval chant with ambient—perhaps there already is. There will probably be more shoegaze-y drone and electronic dance and hyperpop variants, which are genres that seem to dominate the recent conversation around experimental music. Whatever sounds do appear, though, will likely be those that glean influence from past sounds to make something current, building on past innovation to drive it into new directions.
Will the music industry respond to future genre shifts? Today, buying, selling, awarding, and discovering music is tied to arbitrary genre tags. Many of them feel like dusty conventions we haven’t brushed off yet. In the utopian future I imagine, these tags will be determined by the album we hear, an attempt to discuss and share music from a place of how it actually sounds. After all, genre is a way of describing what we hear so that it can be contextualized and understood. Genre isn’t going to go away for this reason—it helps us categorize and understand the world of music. But can it become more malleable? With the continued breaking and reassembling of genres, the industry as a whole needs to become more open-minded about changing how we talk about, understand, and think about musical categorization. I wonder if in the future, we’ll have entirely new, as-of-yet to be discovered genre tags that actually encompass the meaning of the music outside of a convention established years ago, supported by record labels and venues and marketers who start to adopt new tools and language to talk about the music they present. Maybe those new genres will be a better representation of the artists and the art.
I don’t know if we’ll ever have the perfect solution to categorizing music, the box to box genre boxes back into. But I do know this: As the next 10 years continue, we’re going to hear new kinds of music that question our assumptions of what genre is and what it means, just like the past 10 years and the 10 before that. I hope we look for solutions that stay true to the sounds and to the artists who make them.