Category: Articles

Different Cities Different Voices – Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh DCDV (Web Header)

Marina López

Marina López

Marina López

In Pittsburgh we live and breathe every day amongst the ruins of the furnaces in which the foundations of this great nation were forged. The people of this city tell stories about their fathers and grandfathers working at these furnaces; the hell on earth upon which the skyscrapers of New York and Chicago were born. (I highly recommend my teacher Leonardo Balada’s Steel Symphony to get a sense of what these places sounded like.)

Through the 1970s and ’80s, as the steel industry moved abroad, the city shrank and had to reinvent itself. Today, it likes to picture itself a high-tech university hub. And this intersection: this cross-pollination and tension between Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, Google, Duolingo, Carnegie Robotics; the descendants of the Polish, Irish, and Czech immigrants who were murdered at the Homestead Massacre; the black Pittsburghers that were displaced from the jazz mecca that once was Hill District; and the immigrants (like myself) who happen upon this beautiful city to pursue some version of the American dream—this is the canvas upon which this city’s artists create.

Pittsburgh has a wealth of both jazz and classically trained performers. It also has an outstanding number of music organizations and ensembles. The city is still relatively affordable, and has a strong DIY arts and music community.

I immigrated here back in 2011. I would’ve never guessed that twelve years later I’d find myself entrenched in a loving community of DIY artists, classically trained musicians, local bands, jazz performers, poets, activists, and beautiful friends.

I finished graduate school right before the pandemic hit. Like many others, I felt the inertia of my career come to a stand still as the world shut down. The past three years I’ve been getting back into the rhythm of applications and performances, and renegotiating the value of my art and my career in the larger context of my life, my home, and the current state of the world.

I think one of the biggest challenges many composers like myself face is getting our name out there when we don’t live in a major coastal cultural hub, and aren’t enrolled in the best known doctoral programs. There is a lack of access in the new music community. If you don’t have the money to attend music festivals early on in your career, you will miss out on vital connections to propel your career forward. Speaking out and finding ways to make this career path something feasible for all people of all socioeconomic backgrounds is something I’m passionate about.

Music picks…


In this piece, I mix freestyle rap with the renaissance dance form ‘la folia.’ I love deconstructing traditional musical forms. In this piece, each instrument moves through the harmonic structure of la folia at a different rhythm, creating a sonic fractal. So: Freesyle+Folia+Fractal.


My friends Gizelxanath Rodriguez and Ben Barson started Afroyaqui Music collective a few years ago. I really admire their ability to mix art and political activism in a unique jazz-fusion sound. The group is incredibly inclusive, having featured performers from every continent playing instruments from around the world.

Mai Khoi

Mai Khoi standing against a brick wall.

Mai Khoi

I am an artist-activist from Vietnam. I began my musical career as a pop star, rising to fame after winning the 2010 Vietnamese Television Album and Song of the Year Awards. But when I began pushing against government censorship and involving myself in politics, I was banned from performing in public, detained and interrogated by the police, and ultimately forced to flee to the United States. I arrived in New York City in 2019 as a resident with SHIM:NYC and moved to Pittsburgh one year later as an Exiled Artist in Residence at City of Asylum. Although the pandemic initially made it difficult to connect with other artists, once pandemic restrictions were lifted I immediately found so many talented and open-minded musicians to work with. I have made Pittsburgh my home ever since.

Pittsburgh’s new music community is friendly, welcoming, and supportive to musics and musicians of all backgrounds. Although we have a small population we have a lot of music lovers who always come out to shows. I have helped found an organization called the Pittsburgh Sound Preserve, which hosts an every-other-week Open Improvisation Lab free for members of the community and sponsors various other concert series highlighting creative music throughout the city. I love performing at venues like the Space Upstairs, City of Asylum, and the Government Center, as well as more DIY spaces like James Simon Studio, Telephone, and a variety of unique house concert stages. Pittsburgh’s low cost of living has even made it possible for me to afford a house of my own, in which I’ve been able to set up a small studio, hold rehearsals, and cook Vietnamese food for my friends and bandmates. But my favorite part about Pittsburgh is the people. Our community always comes out to support one another’s shows, and new projects and collaborations happen all the time. Pittsburgh is a college town, so we have a lot of young people alongside families who’ve lived here for decades. It’s very diverse, and in my experience, it has been the most welcoming and friendly city to immigrant artists like me.

Not everything is perfect. I still struggle to find gigs post-pandemic, and I still struggle with the language barrier and the different working culture. But I’m grateful to organizations that have supported me, including City of Asylum, 1hood Mediathe International Free Expression Project, and New Music USA. With those resources, I have been incubating an autobiographical, multimedia stage show called “Bad Activist” alongside fellow Pittsburgh artists Mark MicchelliCynthia Croot, and Aaron Henderson. I hope to bring “Bad Activist” on tour very soon, so that more people can learn about my story and experience the creative energy coming from my new, adopted hometown.

Music picks…

Mai Khôi Chém Gió: “What To Do” from Dissent

Afro Yaqui Music Collective: “Sister Soul” from Maroon Futures

Reza Vali

Reza Vali standing in front of a lake.

Reza Vali

I came to Pittsburgh with the purpose of pursuing studies at the University of Pittsburgh. After successfully obtaining a Ph.D. in composition and music theory in 1985, I taught at the University of Pittsburgh for three years. The year 1988 ushered in a new phase, as I was invited to join the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon University as an Assistant Professor of Music. My time at Carnegie Mellon University extended for 33 years, culminating in my eventual retirement as the Professor Emeritus of Composition in 2022.

Pittsburgh’s distinct character is characterized by several defining factors that set it apart from other places. First, its origins shaped by European immigrants infuse the city with an ambiance reminiscent of Europe. The architectural design and overall atmosphere lend Pittsburgh a unique European feel. Secondly, the city’s expansive green spaces, adorned with tree-lined streets and abundant parks, create a refreshing urban environment. This, coupled with a notably lower cost of living compared to major cities like New York City, contributes to a quality of life that combines affordability with a close connection to nature.

Moreover, Pittsburgh thrives as a cultural hub, mirroring the amenities found in larger metropolitan areas. It boasts an array of offerings, including symphony orchestras, ballets, operas, contemporary music, jazz, and more. Notably, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, esteemed as one of the nation’s finest orchestras, finds its home within the city’s confines.

While Pittsburgh’s artistic and cultural landscape is vibrant, navigating financial support for individual creative projects has presented its challenges. Philanthropic resources tend to favor larger institutions, leaving independent initiatives with limited funding opportunities. In this context, I express profound gratitude to my colleagues at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, whose generous support facilitated the realization of my musical aspirations. Their backing, manifested through four commissioned works, resonates as a testament to the city’s collaborative spirit and artistic camaraderie.

However, the period encompassing the COVID-19 epidemic proved to be an immensely challenging phase for me and many of my colleagues. The cancellation of numerous concerts of mine left me grappling with a profound sense of disappointment. The isolation that ensued meant that my interactions with fellow musicians were limited to the digital realm. The very essence of musical existence was compromised as we found ourselves devoid of pivotal elements – the shared rehearsals that foster creativity, the electrifying energy of live performances, and the irreplaceable connection with our audience. While the internet emerged as a vital tool during this time, facilitating virtual collaborations and performances, it became glaringly apparent that it could never truly substitute for the richness of the physical world and the genuine connections it fosters.

After navigating through the challenges of the pandemic, Pittsburgh is now reemerging into a thriving hub of musical activity. I am eagerly anticipating the opportunity to collaborate once more with numerous exceptionally talented musicians, joining forces to cultivate fresh artistic energies together.

Music picks…

Reza Vali: Segâh, Double Concerto for Persian Ney, Kamancheh, and Orchestra
Khosrow Soltani, Persian Ney
Kian Soltani, Persian Kamancheh
The Segâh Festival Ensemble, Conductor: Daniel Curtis.
Performed on January 15, 2016 at the Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh as part of the Segâh Festival of Persian and Turkish Music.

The Segâh Festival of Persian and Turkish Music was organized by the Center for Iranian Music and supported by the School of Music of Carnegie Mellon University, the Iranian Students Organization, the Turkish Students Organization, and the Hoppa Project. The conductor, Daniel Curtis, is the Director of Carnegie Mellon University Contemporary Music Ensemble.

And here is one of my favorite Pittsburgh artists, my former teacher and jazz legend Nathan Davis…

Amy Williams

Amy Williams

Amy Williams

I moved to Pittsburgh in 2005 to teach composition at the University of Pittsburgh. It felt “right” from the beginning, not just because it was 75 degrees and sunny on the February day that I interviewed (I’ve since learned that wasn’t typical). When I was teaching at Northwestern from 2000-2005, the new music scene in Chicago was really taking off. I was immediately performing (I am a pianist as well as a composer) and hearing my music in venues from Evanston all way down to Hyde Park. I was a little nervous about moving to a city that was much smaller—afraid there wouldn’t be the same kind of cultural activity and opportunity. But I was wrong about that. The smaller size meant fewer hurdles to entering new scenes and spaces. “Hi! Who are you? Welcome!”—is the predominant attitude—and that is not the case in every comparable city.

I encountered many tremendously talented composers who were also highly entrepreneurial in their efforts to program new music. These individuals have transformed the new music culture, perhaps more than institutions. David Stock (who died in 2015) started the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble in 1976 to support the exciting range of music being created by Pittsburgh composers. My colleagues at Pitt, composers Eric Moe and Mathew Rosenblum, founded the Music on the Edge series 30 years ago to bring superb international ensembles to Pittsburgh and to host major events such as the Beyond Microtonal Music Festival. The Sound Series at the Andy Warhol Museum, established in 2004 and curated by Ben Harrison, blurs genres in its aesthetically diverse programming. City of Asylum and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater are important spaces for multi-disciplinary programming. There is cutting-edge dance, theater, opera, film, and a burgeoning DIY scene with a growing number of alternative spaces.

You can’t talk about Pittsburgh without recognizing the legendary jazz tradition shaped by giants like Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, and Mary Lou Williams. That tradition remains active and influential through organizations such as the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival, and the annual Jazz Seminar at Pitt. The Pittsburgh Symphony is a world-class orchestra that has supported the creation of new works over the years. When the PSO premiered pieces by five local composers (including myself) in 2014, there was a palpable excitement in the audience to cheer on the “home team.”

Pittsburghers truly love Pittsburgh. And so they stay. Which means that they invest in the community, they create powerful cultural experiences and develop deep personal relationships. The relatively low cost of living helps emerging artists and there is a solid base of foundations that support cultural programming. That being said, more can and needs be done to make the arts accessible to broader audiences and demographics.

Pittsburgh is the city of bridges (and they’re not all yellow…). I see this as a metaphor for the music scene. There are distinct areas (communities, genres, spaces) that are clearly defined and have rich histories. But there is always a bridge to move from one area to another—through collaboration, conversation, reaching out to others.

Music picks…

Mary Lou Williams “Cloudy”

(Ed. note: Amy Williams’s orchestra piece Flood Lines references the 1938 flood in Pittsburgh and ends with a near quote from Mary Lou Williams’ tune “Cloudy”—also from 1938. You can hear an excerpt of a performance of it by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Manfred Honeck, here.)

Emily Cook

Emily Cook

Emily Cook

I first moved to Pittsburgh in 2012 to attend graduate school at Duquesne University. I grew up in rural western Illinois and arrived in Pittsburgh after studying at Lawrence University in Wisconsin and spending several months living in Chicago. Before I had started to consider graduate programs, Pittsburgh was utterly off my radar—I have David Bell, my clarinet professor at Lawrence, to thank for steering me to Duquesne and to the city.

After I began to learn my way around my new home (literally—I distinctly remember getting terribly lost on Pittsburgh’s winding, poorly signed streets several times while trying out different routes on my commute to school), I fell in love with Pittsburgh—the topography, the rich and varied musical culture, the city’s scrappy personality, and the warmth and generosity of so many of the artists I had the opportunity to study with and work alongside.

In my experience, Pittsburgh’s music scene offers a really exciting mix of artists and audiences who are lifelong or long-term residents and more recent transplants, drawn to Pittsburgh to study at one of its several excellent (but very different) university music programs or for work. Pittsburgh has a strong sense of musical history and musical identity, but the constant arrival of new voices and ideas within a relatively small scene (compared to that in New York, for example) helps balance that sense of tradition with a healthy dose of flux.

In terms of the “new music” scene specifically, one unique aspect is the extent to which there is crossover between the streams associated with “classically trained” musicians whose background primarily involves working with notated music and musicians primarily working with improvised, “experimental” music. The dialogue between these genres has certainly helped expand the artistic practice of many musicians, like myself, who come from that “classical stream,” and I am grateful for the generosity that several musicians in Pittsburgh’s more experimental spaces showed me when I was newly exploring this side of my artistic practice.

While my orchestral work and my family have meant that I’ve spent considerable time outside of Pittsburgh in recent years, one of the things that continues to tie me to the city is Kamratōn, a new-music ensemble now in its ninth season, for which I serve as artistic director. Kamratōn was really the brainchild of our violinist, Jennifer Sternick, but it was born out of a lot of conversations among several women who regularly crossed paths through our freelance work. Not only did we want an excuse to play together more often, we also wanted to try to create a work environment that reflected our values. After solidifying our personnel and developing an identity as an ensemble, our programming has often focused on improvisation and the performance of non-traditional scores, with a particular emphasis on presenting works by emerging Pittsburgh-based composers and works by women.

The pandemic gave me and many other musicians the space to think more carefully about the value of live performance, the challenge of combining a career in music with a role as a parent or caregiver (particularly when faced with the collapse of many support systems for caregivers during the pandemic), and the need to advance equity in our field, considering not only what is being performed, but who makes curatorial decisions and how people are compensated for their work. However, I’ll address this question on a personal note: the pandemic arrived a few years after I began experiencing symptoms of what I now know is a genetic condition and an autoimmune disease. Dealing with these health issues already had me doing some serious soul-searching about my future as a professional musician when Covid-19 put a sudden stop to my performance work. At that point in my life, finding a “why” was a challenge, but I ultimately emerged from that period with a renewed sense of purpose and enjoyment in my work. The experience really brought home the important role that musical performance can play in creating spaces for people to be in community together. I have no illusion that I’m always successful in this regard, but the possibility of community is really what I’m trying to create through my artistic practice, whether I’m preparing for an orchestral performance, composing or improvising, or exploring potential programming for Kamratōn.

Music picks…

This is me, performing with Dana Malinsky…

Listen to our Spotify playlist for Different Cities Different Voices which now features music from 9 different American cities….

Even Sweeter the Second Time Around

Monster Boy Lives (Veronica Wirges and Chris Long)

Life can be unpredictable at times, and that is how I came back to playing baritone saxophone after twenty years of the horn collecting dust in my attic. It was the most unlikely course of events, but I am a firm believer that those are the times to make adventurous choices. I had no idea how life-changing that “sure, why not?” moment would be and how it would end up being one of the most rewarding choices of my life.

I would like to say that the opinions I am about to express are about my personal journey and how I feel about my own evolution and self-discovery. I am fully aware of the amount of discipline it takes to execute a piece of sheet music to perfection, and I still quite enjoy hearing others perform that music. However, I am not exploring that side of my practice at this time.

I started my love affair with the baritone saxophone when I was still in diapers. My mother tells a story of how I sat down in front of this giant saxophone when I was a toddler and refused to move until the band left the stage. Every time she tried to remove me I threw a fit. Legend has it, we were there for 3 applications of sunscreen. Ten years later I found my way to the horn again, playing it through middle school and high school.

I was the best student; I practiced daily and loved pursuing the perfection of different techniques. I consumed sheet music and explored all sorts of composers and genres. I was little Lisa Simpson, with the perfect grades to match. I picked up playing piano and working with hand percussion. I did have an area of weakness, as I could not wrap my head around the concept of improvisation.

After I left high school, I got a non-music-related scholarship. Like many young adults in that transitional time, I decided to be an adult and focus on my future career path. One day, I put my horn in its case and did not return to it.

I ended up marrying a musician and helping him with his career. His process of creating music mystified me. He would stare off into space, and from that void, he would find a song. This creation from seemingly nothing, as a person who was always pinned to sheet music, was nothing short of magic to me. I watched his band swell to success and then implode on itself. I watched the loss almost destroy him.

After the breakup of his band, we decided to travel to Nashville to find him a partner for creating new music. We discussed the dream candidate for a counterbalance, a multi-instrumentalist with a background very different than his own. Someone who was possibly classically trained would pull his self-taught indie blues body of work in fresh and exciting directions. In retrospect, I should have realized that I fit all the qualifications.

It seemed we had struck out on finding someone different enough. However, we did win free tickets to the Bonnaroo Music Festival during that trip, and at Bonnaroo I watched my husband refill his creative well. We found an EDM act featuring a saxophone, Goldfish, and remarked on how a sax could be an interesting instrument to bring into his writing. Still, I was oblivious to how this related to me. A writer for stumbled upon us while he was working on a new song in a camping area, leading to her writing about a husband and wife music duo she met at the festival, which was odd as I hadn’t played an instrument in 20 years.

We then elected to launch him as a solo act, since it’s not often you have MTV’s blessing as an artist with no released music. Six months later I received a message on Facebook from a person wanting to book the duo that was featured in the MTV article. He was scouting for acts to play in Austin during SXSW. The catch was every act on the bill had a female musician. Not wanting to give up the opportunity, I decided to come back to music and join my husband on stage.

I had 8 weeks before I was expected on stage and I had several things stacked against me. I had not played in 20 years and my embouchure was gone, but also I had no idea what I still remembered about playing a horn. My husband not only didn’t write sheet music, he also didn’t know how to read it. I had crippling stage fright and a fear of heights. When I opened my case, half my pads fell out of my horn – they’d completely dried out from 20 years of extreme temperatures in my attic.

After breaking the news to my partner that he had a new partner, we went about trying to figure out how I could understand this world of music written by ear. Over the two weeks that the horn was in the shop for repairs, I learned how the music he wrote existed in repeating patterns. The dynamics that are associated with verse, chorus, and bridge. To learn how to play his music, I had to learn the logic that went behind creating these pieces. In the past, I never considered how a composer created a work, I just made sure I counted my rests and executed every note as it was written.

Although I know it may make some people cringe, we ended up creating a shorthand that served as a middle ground where we could communicate with each other. We both knew the notes by name and used a transposition chart so I would know to play an E on my E flat horn when he needed the note he knew as a G on his guitars and keyboards. My ability to read sheet music was foggy and slow, and it felt right to learn in this new notation. This new method required me to feel the rhythm by singing my parts and required me to understand where my parts fit into the wholeness of the piece. This was my first experience with grasping how each instrument danced with each other.

A sipher notation listing pitches that should be played for Chris Long's song "Ain't Worth the Dime" performed by Monster Boy Lives

My part for “Ain’t Worth the Dime”

After 8 weeks of working almost every day in this space, I had a part come to me while Chris was playing guitar. That was the first time I wrote my own part for anything. It was simple, gentle, and most importantly completed the song. It just came to me, my fingers just naturally went to those notes, and I could already hear how this countermelody would fit in the song.

During the pandemic, I spent seemingly endless days creating music with Chris as a way to cope with the isolation and anxiety of the shutdown. I lost the concept of what time it was, what day it was, or when the last time I ate was – but I rediscovered my love for other saxophones, pianos and synths, and hand percussion. I made the unreasonable purchases of a kalimba and a 1923 Conn New Wonder bass saxophone, neither of which I regret. We discovered using instruments in untraditional ways and explored manipulating sounds we recorded while urban exploring to create incredible textures and synth patches.

Music saved me during that time, and I think being able to give those two months of undivided attention to exploring the craft is how I became the artist I am today. When I was younger, I used music to show off how precise I was; how practiced and accurate each note could be executed. Now I am a different musician. I find myself thriving in grace notes and falls. I understand and live in the messiness of the composition, and my voice is a response to the other instruments in the piece. I use songs to share my story. Music has become a deeper level of connection with my partner, private conversations we choose to share with the world one song at a time.

At some point, I gave up on worrying if at my age I was too old to be trying to break into the indie music game with a baritone saxophone. The stage fright and fear of heights faded as well. We are building a diehard fanbase, signed music for representation for sync, and recently joined the Recording Academy. We are finding ourselves stepping into music festivals and events.

This has been a wild adventure of self-exploration and artistic expression. I think back and see how easy it would have been to not step up and take that chance. I see the effects it has had on my physical and mental health, I have recaptured that sense of joy I had lost. I now see how important music can be and I play every chance I get. So many people close the chapter of performing after school, and find it so intimidating to return back. I feel lucky that universe kept nudging me back to music. I hope this finds someone that needs that same nudge and this inspires them, so they can have music in their lives as an adult. It really is a different experience the second time around.

Waking Up From The Dream Job

A three-dimensional rendering of a tesseract.

This is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to write in my life. After nearly a quarter century of continuous work (more than half my adult life) as the Editor of NewMusicBox and also eventually as Composer Advocate for what was originally the American Music Center and which in 2011 became New Music USA, I am resigning from my full time work here to devote more of my energies to being an educator. I have accepted a full time faculty position as Assistant Professor of Musicology at The New School’s College of Performing Arts (which includes The Mannes School of Music).

Back in the 1990s, I was one of the myriad aspiring composers in New York City (where I grew up) and, after getting a Master’s Degree in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University (which I did after teaching English as a Second Language in NYC public high schools for several years, my first job after my undergrad studies at Columbia), I balanced my compositional activities with a four-day-a-week day job at a music publicity office in order to pay bills. The roster of clients there included Meet The Composer (whose founding director John Duffy became something of a mentor to me and who at one point gave me his entire LP collection) and the Finnish recording label Ondine (which frequently collaborated with an organization called the Finnish Music Information Centre, which is how I learned about the International Association of Music Centres [IAMIC], before I even knew there was an American Music Center, even though it was then just four blocks away from where I had been living for most of my life). But the American Music Center (AMC) would soon become the most important place in the world for me.

While working for that PR firm, I had written a handful of articles for various publications and created repertoire lists of contemporary music that I distributed to programmers at NPR-affiliated radio stations, a personal project for which I was not paid but for which I was written up in Billboard magazine at one point. As a result of some AMC board members knowing about me through some of these activities and the more official ones that were part of my “day job,” I got on the radar of Richard Kessler, a visionary who had been recently appointed AMC’s Executive Director and who wanted to completely transform the organization from a passive library to an active advocate for new music in the United States. Central to his vision was for AMC to host a newly created web magazine exclusively for American new music and he wanted to bring on someone to come up with a format for this thing and to then serve as its “Editor and Publisher.”

I met with him even though I had absolutely no experience in publishing, had only written that handful of articles, and did not know all that much about this relatively new thing called the internet other than using AOL and surfing UserNet comments about contemporary music. (It was the ’90s afterall.) But it must have been clear how passionate I was about contemporary music and how willing I was to always defend it and evangelize for it. He ultimately offered me–and I unhesitatingly accepted–a full-time job (5 days a week, often much more than that) at a lower salary, put my own music on the back burner to some extent, and began work at the American Music Center on November 16, 1998. For most of the last nearly 25 years, I considered it a dream job–a vital role in the ecosystem of contemporary music in the U.S.A. and something that could raise the profiles of all the extraordinary people involved in making this music in all its wild varieties, which was far more important to me than focusing just on my own music.

I believed strongly, and still do, that practitioners should be the people who speak and write about this music since they have the most intimate knowledge of it, the greatest passion for it, and need their own outlet to disseminate information about it. I also believe that the strength and significance of NewMusicBox in our field is because by design it is a collaborative project and, for most of the time I have served as its titular Editor, I was thankfully mostly not alone in my endeavors, always working non-hierarchically with others who frequently had more strength than I did proofreading, juggling various pieces of content to always maintain a balance, keeping us on track with deadlines, and on and on. This first quarter century of NewMusicBox would never have been possible without the efforts of Nathan Michel, Jennifer Undercofler, Molly Sheridan, Amanda MacBlane, the late Randy Nordschow, Trevor Hunter, and Alexandra Gardner who were as devoted to NewMusicBox while they were part of it as I have remained all these years. There were also a great many interns, some of whom I have still stayed in touch with and not all of whom I can remember (for which I apologize). But I want to at least give a shout out to Sam Birmaher, Anna Reguero, Aurelian Balan, Jonathan Murphy, and Daniel Kushner for the high level of work they did while involved with NewMusicBox as well as to Johanna Keller, founder of the Goldring Arts Journalism program, the first master’s program of its kind to teach journalists to cover the arts, who sent interns our way every summer until she retired. I almost forgot to mention some of the web design artisans I realize in retrospect that I frequently frustrated with my often not very practical ideas, among them Stacie Johnston, Lisa Taliano, and Eugene Takahashi who once during a phone call with me at 2 A.M. claimed that he would have to invent a four-dimensional internet to do some crazy thing I’d asked him to do. NewMusicBox has been at its most effective when a small team of people worked on it together, brainstorming (and sometimes even passionately arguing about) who and what to feature and why, as well as getting in the weeds and carefully copyediting and coding every word, photo, audio, or video file that was then disseminated to the general public.

And it’s been quite a ride as anyone who has ever ventured into our quadranscentennial content stream would hopefully agree. I’ve been proud of so much of what we’ve published from artist/writers based all over the country and am grateful to everyone who has ever written for us. I’m also glad that all this material is still available for people to read online now and hopefully in perpetuity. And I hope that this content will continue to be constantly refreshed with new content curated by future NewMusicBox editors who will also always insist on pushing the envelop. Of course, since they’ve been a hallmark of NewMusicBox since its inception and I have been intimately involved with most of them, I’m proudest of our in-depth conversations with significant members of our community which were originally called “In The First Person,” subsequently rebranded as “NewMusicBox Covers,” and which have continued to this day, now as SoundLives podcasts. I treasure every one of them and hope that others will continue to do so as well. What many people may not realize is that the back stories of these one-of-a-kind encounters were sometimes as intense as the edited talks we published. I’ll never forget Randy and I showing up at Ornette Coleman’s Midtown loft, entering his unlocked apartment, and waiting for him to appear there nearly half an hour later, but then immediately plunging into a heady conversation about sound being a way to express emotions more than being a vibration. Or Glenn Branca refusing to put out his cigarette directly underneath a no smoking sign, despite Alex’s and my own visible discomfort in the rehearsal studio where we were recording which had no ventilation. (He had refused to let us come to his home.) Or Maryanne Amacher wanting to take a sample of my blood and mix it with hers for an audio project. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Or, to give a more recent example, Pamela Z describing putting a trunk full of bones through airport security (it was a prop for a performance) and my worrying the whole time that the internet was going to suddenly drop during our Zoom before the punchline (since it’s frequently spotty in my neighborhood and kept going in and out that day); thankfully it didn’t!

However, last year when I was asked to develop my own curriculum for an undergraduate contemporary music history class I would then teach at The New School as an adjunct and told that I could and should cover all genres of music, it was an offer–like the offer to create a web magazine for contemporary American music and then be responsible for maintaining it–I couldn’t refuse. As luck would have it, I was asked if I’d be interested in teaching that class by someone who had already changed the course of my life once and was inadvertently about to do so again, Richard Kessler, who is now the Executive Dean of The New School’s College of Performing Arts and the Dean of the Mannes School of Music. We had had some contact with each other over the many years since he left AMC, but I truly had only a glimmer of awareness about the range of activities going on there. I was wowed by a 2017 performance of Robert Ashley’s Dust by Mannes students just three years after Ashley died. The following year’s Mannes Orchestra world premiere of Julius Eastman’s only recently rediscovered second symphony in Alice Tully Hall was a watershed event. I’d hear from time to time that someone significant in our community was teaching a class there which made me more curious. After doing some deeper digging I realized that many of my personal musical heroes from the past also had ties to either Mannes or The New School, or both, either as faculty or students, or both–e.g. Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Henry Cowell, Johanna Magdalena Beyer, John Cage, Bohuslav Martinů, and salsa pioneer Larry Harlow (who got an M.A. in philosophy there!), to name just a few of the music folks. Needless to say I wanted to be a part of it too somehow, though it was incredibly humbling, so I again said yes.

Thus far I’ve taught three sections of that music history class and last semester I was additionally assigned a graduate seminar on minimalism and postminimalism which I also developed from scratch, talk about deep dives. It’s been hard work, though it has been completely worth it because I feel I’ve had a really huge impact on many students and the students I’ve taught there thus far have been a constant source of inspiration to me as well. But leading such a double life was ultimately not sustainable. So when I learned from an email message sent to all the part-time faculty at The New School that there were nine full time faculty positions that were open, I interviewed for a position (something I hadn’t done in 25 years!) with representatives from all the divisions in the College of Performing Arts. I learned earlier this month that they hired me. Having a full-time faculty position will hopefully give me even more opportunities to develop curricula for which my goal, just like at NewMusicBox, is for it to always be as broad as possible.

But that doesn’t mean I’m retiring from the contemporary music scene. Far from it. I still plan to be heavily involved both in the United States and abroad, wearing nearly as many different kinds of hats in it as I always have (even though I will always refuse to wear corporeal hats). I will still serve as Vice President of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) and, in late November, will be attending the ISCM’s first-ever World New Music Days festival on the African continent, which has been in the works for several years. And in late December, I will be at The Midwest Clinic International Band, Orchestra, and Music Conference in Chicago and then at the Chamber Music America conference in New York City in January, as per always, and will also attend as many new music concerts as time allows wherever I am. I plan to explore other avenues for writing about music whenever and wherever as well. And I also plan to write some more of my own music, something I managed to do a fair bit of again during the worst phase of the pandemic, but which, because of all the other stuff I’ve been doing, has become harder to find time for during our current seemingly (let’s hope) post-pandemic era.

I gave this essay the title “Waking Up From a Dream Job” which might be interpreted by some as tragic or, at the very least, terribly melodramatic. That is not my intent. Partly I just love a catchy title, and so I couldn’t resist coming up with one (that I hope is) for one last time on this site. (Actually there are few other pieces of content by other writers I’m editing that are still in process, so it’s not exactly the last time; stay tuned for those.) Admittedly it does feel like waking up after an extremely long and amazing dream. But even though I rarely get a full night’s sleep and don’t plan to anytime soon, I still have many other dreams to dream and hope to continue to dream along with others about this crazy thing that for a lack of a better term we still and will probably always call new music. May it never be boxed in.

Oteri holding a three-dimensional simulacrum of a tesseract.

Oteri is still mesmerized by the tesseract which was the original logo of NewMusicBox. (Photo by Trudy Chan.)

Your Music, An Open Letter to My Child

A night-time photo of a baby crib and dangling baby toys (photo by Bastien Jaillot from Unsplash)

Dear T—–,

As your father, I want to welcome you to this world. I understand that you are only 16 months old, and so your ability to fully comprehend this letter may take some time. But, I wanted to write this now, while your mother’s pregnancy, your birth, and the newborn and infant days of your life are still so fresh in my memory. So much joy and suffering has already happened that I fear I will intentionally or unintentionally block out all the bad memories, and in the process, lose the opportunity to save the good ones. Or maybe I’ll just simply forget everything—the bad and the good—with the natural passage of time.

As I now attempt to bring you up to speed, to capture your essence in words, I feel overwhelmed: there is both nowhere to start and anywhere I could start. How do I write about you?

Writing about you is as hard as writing about music. What if you yourself were music? What would you be? You would be a formless soundscape of abrupt shifts and prolonged repetition, never truly starting or ending. You would be a vast array of mighty sounds that shake the earth, alongside others that are too soft to hear or even feel, yet somehow know are there. You would be an absurdist comic opera of bizarre gestures that never follow any logical syntax, yet somehow make sense through their consistency of use. You would be the saddest song on earth, filled with the fear of death itself, yet at the same time, a triumphant chorus that can inspire the will to live. Your music would be a series of paradoxes: your duration both long and short, your speed both fast and slow, your emotions filled with happiness and sadness, comfort and pain. But how do I write about this? How can you ever be captured?

The answer is I can’t. You are a beautiful thing that cannot be recorded. What I can offer, however, to you, and to anyone else who happens to read this, is a glimpse into my life as your parent, and how it has transformed my musical practice into something richer, more purposeful than I could have ever imagined.

I will start from the beginning of this journey, when your mother was pregnant. It is not my place to speak on her behalf, or share any details personal to her, but I will share my own fundamental shift during this period: it was the first time I truly prioritized my daily schedule around the life or death needs of another person. On a basic level, the months of pregnancy allowed me to build in a certain level of flexibility to my work flow. The inconsistent start and end points to my work sessions did not negatively affect my long term projects, and in some ways, enhanced and added meaning to them. While it would be nice to spend as much time as I want every day on my art, the forced breaks and unexpected interruptions often allowed me the chance to solidify my ideas and strengthen my artistic convictions. With limited resources, is this really what I want to be spending my time on? I would ask myself. Does this note actually work here, or is it a clever way to show off, to prove something to someone? Is this the music I want to be writing, and is this the type of piece I want to make people listen to with their own equally precious time? I began to really ask myself these tough questions, often. And believe it or not, your in utero needs helped me ask them more urgently than I ever had before.

And then you were born. Those early screams were some of the most gut-wrenching sounds I’ve ever heard in my life. We had to bounce, feed and change diapers day and night in order to soothe you, sometimes successfully, but most often, unsuccessfully. Most often, your voice of suffering was heard. No matter the sound buffer, white noise machines, music, vacuum cleaners, running bathwater, or noise canceling headphones, your voice would still find its way to our ears, piercing our soul and breaking our hearts. The soundtrack of life was relentlessly stressful–even the moments of silence carried an ominous expectation of the screams to return.

But there was some respite in the night. As unhealthy and unsustainable as it was, the hours of my shift with you, from 9:00pm-5:00am, were peaceful oases, in near silence and near total darkness. I sat there awake, with my phone at the dimmest setting and a piano keyboard set to the lowest volume. The only consistent light came from the small red dot on the keyboard’s on/off switch, and a small blue light that indicated the white noise machine was plugged in. You would not let me lose contact with you, so I stayed with one hand on your chest, belly or arm, and propping most of your body on my lap. With my one free hand, I would take shorthand notes on my phone’s notepad, only once an hour or so, with the screen dimmed to the lowest light setting. And I would play the piano with the same hand, only once every 15-30 minutes to check the sound of a note or chord, at the lowest possible volume. It was during this time that I realized how slow the world can move when you are forced to sit awake in silence and darkness for so many hours. Spending an 8-hour night with a single note or chord felt like an eternity, yet in the end, was just one day. Hearing you cry for 5 minutes straight felt like hearing you cry for a whole year, yet in the end, it was just 5 minutes. Perhaps it is because, for you, 5 minutes did feel like a year.

Needless to say, my musical practice changed so deeply during these newborn months. Before you came along, I practiced music efficiently: to achieve as much as possible in as little time as possible, treating time as part of the challenge. But since you came along, I now make music to pay tribute to the abundance of time, and how vast and endless any single sound has the potential to be. Surprisingly, this has made me more efficient.

An excerpt from the score for Shi-An Costello's Diminishing 5ths, a composition for violin and violoncello duo

This is the first piece I wrote as your parent.

As you grew older, your naps became more regular. And you became more interested in music. You’ve never been good at falling asleep, so when you fell asleep to music for the first time, I thought it was a miracle. Amidst the speakers blasting Yellow Magic Orchestra, and as I danced with you in the carrier, dancing hard and occasionally running to add my own live synth part to the recording, your head finally drooped over. Once you were asleep, I tried to turn the music down, or turn it off, or even just change to something different, but every time I tried, you would squirm and wake up. Nothing could change in your auditory experience before or during your nap. You couldn’t fall asleep in silence either–the smallest creak would startle you. Loud, danceable music provided the secret ingredient to your delicate balance for a peaceful nap.

This is what was playing the first time you fell asleep to music, and many times after…

You responded to the piano similarly. Abrupt changes in dynamic, articulation or range would wake you. Your naps taught me how to make music at the piano that develops gradually over long periods of time without ever changing too many variables at once. From these lessons, I now have a deeper appreciation for music with long and sustaining resonances, fixed or slowly changing pitch sets, and repetitive, subtly shifting rhythmic groupings.

This is a recently completed piece that works with the same soundscapes you liked as a newborn…

Your naps have also taught me how to listen to music carefully and more fully. Where I would have simply listened to one song or one piece by an artist I decided to look up, I now actively brainstorm in live time other artists, songs and albums that might relate to one another in sound profile. This new habit, thanks to you, has opened my ears to a wider range of music that spans time, place and genre, and a stronger ability to draw special sonic connections between them. Who would’ve thought that Selena Quintanilla is sonically similar to Dolly Parton? Or that Coldplay fits nicely with John Luther Adams’s Become trilogy? Or that drummer Tony Allen can smoothly lead into guitarist Tommy Guerrero?

These days, If I find a sound world I particularly like, and you seem to like enough, while you sleep, I will listen to the full album, and often, multiple albums in a row, sometimes even the complete works or complete discography of an artist. For example, on one such day, I went from knowing only one song of Selena Quintanilla, to listening to her complete discography in chronological order, extending my focus far beyond the day’s need for a nap. I would go as far as to say that, through your sleep habits, you’ve given me a deeper, more grounded patience for the unfolding of music itself.

Then, you began to figure out that you have a body. You started to open your eyes and really see things. You started to move your head up and down and side to side. You started to reach with your hands and flail your legs and twist and turn your torso until you rolled over. You propped yourself up onto your hands and knees, rocking forward and back. Then, you replaced your knees for your feet, and you used your hands to claw and pull yourself up. You stumbled and tried again, and tried again, and again and again. You hurt yourself countless times, but you never stopped trying (I really couldn’t believe you never stopped trying). And finally, you let your hands go and held the air with your arms, like a conductor without a baton, swaying to some imaginary music, while the music swayed with you… When you first stood up, I was horrified and worried for you. But when I think back to the memory now, it makes me so happy.

As soon as you stood on your own two feet, you started to dance. No longer did you ride along in a carrier to our dance moves, perhaps against your will, but instead you now had your own crazy dance moves to invent and share. Any new discovery, from squatting, to spinning, to jumping, you made it your own when dancing. When music anywhere came on, your body would respond, almost as if it was involuntary. You’d throw up one hand and bob your head whenever you heard a car with a subwoofer pass by. You would dance to music that wasn’t meant to be music, like a jackhammer on the street, or a thud from a neighbor’s wall.

You did the same with pitch. Whenever you heard me playing a subtly shifting, sustained texture at the piano–one of the same that helped keep you asleep as a newborn–you would sing along loudly until you matched an overtone (Ab4 and A4 were your favorite notes). The vacuum–the same one we used desperately to keep you from crying–was your singing companion, as you glissed up and down your vocal range, singing as loudly as possible, as I turned it on and off and on again.

You heard music, and your body heard it too, in virtually any sound with rhythm or pitch. You inspired me to make all sorts of wild noises with my mouth, voice and body that I would never have imagined to be a worthwhile listen. You inspired me to make music with anything and everything. In a sense, you freed me from my own sense of good and bad, right and wrong, when it comes to musical sound. I knew this to be true in theory, but never had I fully lived this mindset in everyday life until you came along and gave it validation.

All of these memories will be cherished for as long as I can remember them. And the weirdest part is that you probably won’t consciously remember any of it. It must be scary to first find out that so much has happened to you without you remembering it happening. Perhaps it is for the best that you won’t be weighed down by your earliest struggles.

Just as you have no choice in what you remember, I may not have a choice in what I forget. Perhaps it is also for the best, for me to not forget. I feel like my music will never be the same again, because of what I’ve learned while being your parent in these earliest years. I want this letter to be my expression of gratitude for you and to recognize how much you have already given to me, without even knowing it. I want you to know that, while parenthood has already been immensely difficult, your life has given me a whole new set of tools as a musician that have helped me further my craft, and take my work into new and exciting directions.

And even greater of a gift than any single tool or discovery, you have given new and deeper purpose to my music. I write music now with a sense of care and personal responsibility to the listener that I did not fully feel until now. You taught me and continue to teach me how to truly care for another, which I now believe is the most fundamental part of being both a good musician and a good person.

Rhapsody in Discomfort

A chronic pain assessment form

I’ve been a violinist for forty years and I have made a living from it since completing school twenty years ago. I’ve also been afflicted with chronic neurological Lyme Disease and co-infections for thirty-three years, and boy oh boy, does it get in the way. So, how do I deal with it, you ask?  Well, write a trio about it, of course.

I started learning the violin just before my fifth birthday through a Suzuki program in New Jersey. My teacher was Louise Butler, a Suzuki guru who studied with the Sevcik student, Scott Willitts. (I have autographed photos of Willitts, Suzuki, and Sevcik on my walls, among many others.) Playing the violin was fun and easy for me in those days. Mrs. Butler kept jumping me up to the next class, like skipping grades, and she eventually encouraged me to audition for the pre-college division at Juilliard. I refused; Saturdays were for baseball, skateboarding, and general mischief. I then studied with Janina Robinson, a Persinger student (autographed photo on the wall), Lewis Kaplan, a Galamian student (if you have an autographed photo of Galamian, please give it to me), Hall Grossman at Interlochen Arts Academy, Linda Cerone at Cleveland Institute of Music, then Fritz Gearhart at University of Oregon.

When I was about twelve, the difficulties began. First it was insomnia and depression. Pain showed up in my left shoulder at Chautauqua when I was fourteen, obviously from playing the violin so much. At fifteen, while the depression and insomnia intensified, the pain migrated to my neck and then down my spine. My parents brought me to every doctor they could find: chiropractic, physical therapy, acupuncture, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, and countless orthopedists, one of whom wanted to operate on disks L1 and L2, because they appeared to be deteriorated. It wasn’t a sure thing, so we chose not to. When I was sixteen, I was wearing a giant hard plastic brace that strapped around my abdomen from armpits to waist and had a team of shrinks prescribing pills. Playing the violin was no longer fun or easy. I started to feel like I could never get warmed up; stiff muscles got in the way of accuracy, and playing became laborious. When I’d perform, I’d shake all over, which my peers and teachers attributed to being nervous. The violin had long since become my raison d’être, so I forged ahead.

We found a notable doctor in New York City who’d written several best-selling books about how back pain was usually psychogenic. I had a few meetings with him and he said I fit the bill; I had Tension Myositis Syndrome. I’d received a PTSD diagnosis a few months earlier because of an accident my brother had, so this made sense. He said deteriorated disks are common and usually not painful. The protocol? Acknowledge that the pain was created by the unconscious mind to distract the conscious mind from the bad things that are too painful to face and do it regularly enough that the concept becomes fixed in your unconscious. We believed him.

Over the next decade or so, my back pain got worse and worse, as did the other symptoms. In my twenties, I developed tendinitis in my left wrist, as so many violinists do. I saw several doctors and was told to stop playing for two weeks, which was heart-breaking. After two weeks off, not only did the pain not subside, but it then showed up in the right wrist. At this time, I was living in Sacramento, playing concertmaster of the Sacramento Philharmonic and California Musical Theater, teaching at UC Davis, and running Sacramento School of Music, which I’d founded. I saw lots of doctors at the hospitals of UC Davis, Stanford, and UCSF; spine centers, sports medicine, pain management, hand surgeons, etc., etc. Many didn’t know what to tell me and passed me off to somebody else. Others blamed it on stress. One doc told me that I had a stenosis in my neck which might be causing the issue.

I decided to call up my former college teacher, Linda Cerone, for advice. The next day, she informed me that I could come and see the neck surgeon in Cleveland who’d recently operated on the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, and that he’d make room for me to come any day the following week. That’s exactly what I did. This doctor agreed with the stenosis diagnosis but said operating may or may not relieve the pain. I then flew to Chicago to see a very notable doctor at Northwestern who was famous for helping musicians. She said sure, I had tendinitis once, but it’s now a chronic pain disorder originating from the mind. Following that, an osteopath in California did some acupuncture on my neck and fifteen minutes later the pain in my wrists began to burn, then my arms went partially numb.

By this point, from age fifteen to twenty-nine, I’d probably seen over thirty practitioners for these chronic ailments that never seemed to heal. Most of them mentioned stress or other psychological conditions as the culprit and/or excessive violin playing. A few of them threw around the vacant term, “fibromyalgia.” Bewildered and scared, I decided to stop playing the violin until I healed. I found a body worker in California who was popular with musicians. His diagnosis was the same, so I started weekly sessions with him, combining massage with his arm-chair psychology. Whenever I was in pain, I was instructed to identify what my headspace was at the time, acknowledging that I’d created it myself.

During this time off from playing, I continued to teach. The Sacramento Philharmonic was very supportive, giving me all the time to get better that I needed. A smaller orchestra that I also played concertmaster for, was not. The conductor of that orchestra fired me because I missed a year of concerts. I filed a grievance with the musicians’ union and got the job back. After twenty months of not playing the violin and experiencing no improvement on my pain, I needed to go back to work. Most places were happy to have me back and I was thrilled to be there. That little orchestra was different. While I had unanimous support from the musicians, the conductor really stuck it to me: avoiding eye contact, refusing bows after solos, adding spontaneous solos the day before the concert to throw me off, and playing other games. I withstood this for the next ten years, still not knowing what was really wrong with me.

Throughout my thirties, all the symptoms increased. I developed tendinitis in my elbows and my knees and neither healed. The pain and muscle spasms from those injuries increased and migrated, eventually meeting up with the pain and muscle-spasms in my back and neck. I developed vertigo, brain fog, and tinnitus. One day, when I was thirty-seven, I was standing in the bathroom, too exhausted and dizzy to get in the shower. I started thinking about how easily I’d been injuring myself and how nothing ever seemed to heal. That’s when it hit me; I must have a systemic disease and this psychogenic diagnosis was bullshit.

I went to my doctors at Kaiser and exhausted all the available options. They tested me for every auto-immune disease they could. There was one day that they took out eighteen tubes of blood. The result was always, “good news, you’re perfectly healthy!” My dad said he thought I might have Lyme Disease. When I mentioned it to the Kaiser doctors, they refused to test me for it because I’d never found a tick on myself. I kept insisting, so they finally tested me. Negative. More good news.

A couple more years wore on, riddled with fatigue, depression, pain in every inch of my body, vertigo, headaches, brain fog, rashes, testicle pain, tinnitus, gut issues, metabolism issues, diarrhea, light sensitivity, sun intolerance, allergies, nerve pain, numbness, etc. Some days I could barely move. I had trouble getting places, especially in the morning.

One day, when I was thirty-nine, my friend Robin said she’d mentioned me to her nutritionist. The nutritionist suspected that I had Lyme Disease and encouraged me to call her. This doctor explained that the mainstream Lyme test, which Kaiser uses, is terribly outdated, often showing a false negative. She administered the newer tests and Eureka, I was positive for several infections! To be sure, I confirmed this diagnosis with Lyme experts up and down the West Coast. They all agreed it dated back to when I was about twelve years old. It was amazing to know that all along, my collection of ailments was caused by this disease. I’d previously been trained to believe that I’d caused all this myself; for decades, when I felt pain or other symptoms, it was accompanied by guilt and self-loathing, and it wasn’t easy to undo this.

A rendering of the Lyme disease spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi.

The Lyme disease spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi, is an obligate parasite that cycles between ticks and vertebrate hosts. In this rendering, immunofluorescent antibodies were used to identify spirochetes that express outer surface protein D (yellow and red) and were merged with an image of all the spirochetes labeled with an anti-B. burgdorferi antibody (green). Credit: NIAID (via Flickr).

Lyme Disease specifically refers to Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacterial infection contracted from a tick bite. Lyme is also an umbrella term for the forty-five other infections that are often contracted along with Borrelia. In addition to Borrelia burgdorferi, my tests showed Ehrlichia, Bartonella, Babesia, Relapsing Fever, Epstein Barr, and others. Each Lyme victim has a unique collection of these infections that wreak havoc on the individual’s immune system, causing dozens of symptoms that are often misdiagnosed.

We’ve all heard about the bulls-eye rash followed by a few weeks of antibiotics. Well, those are the lucky people. Many victims never know they were bitten, developing symptoms slowly over many years, with doctors attributing them to other conditions. When these infections go untreated, they become chronic. The bacteria burrow deeply into the victim’s muscles, nervous system, gut, and brain, protecting themselves with a biofilm and functioning like a virus. Standard treatments include supplements, detoxing, and antibiotics. There are also more experimental and invasive treatments, some of which aren’t legal in the United States. In some cases, these treatments bring short or long-term relief to patients, while many of us go on with little or no relief. Insurance companies still reject the existence of chronic Lyme because the treatments are expensive and often endless.

For five years, I tried everything my Lyme doctors wanted me to do, none of which were covered by insurance. There were days when I would take up to eighty pills. I developed “pill fatigue,” which caused me to gag the instant a pill touched my mouth. I tried various elimination diets. Towards the end of these efforts, I was on three intense antibiotics simultaneously for about nine months. An interesting thing happens when you attack Lyme with antibiotics. The Lyme actually fights back, causing the patient’s symptoms to grow exponentially worse. It’s called “herxing,” coined by Dr. Herxheimer. For most patients, this lasts a few weeks, but for a few of us, it lasts indefinitely. I did four different stints of antibiotics. Each time, the “herxing” never subsided and we had to abandon the treatment because it became dangerous. I did all the standard treatments over the course of five years, then a little over a year ago, I gave up. I decided to live my life the best I could with the diseases until a better treatment or cure is discovered.

For the past fifteen years, I’ve been living in Berkeley. I’m still Concertmaster for the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera, Concertmaster for West Edge Opera, Principal 2nd for the Berkeley Symphony, I teach violin at UC Berkeley, and I play much of the season with SF Opera. I play an enormous amount of new music. Every note I play hurts, though. Every step I take is awful. Every time I turn my head or redirect my eyes, the room spins. I sleep horribly, it takes me an hour to get out of bed, and some days I can barely walk. The disabled placard in my car helps a little. All the shakes I get when I perform are because Lyme is entrenched in my nervous system. When the “fight or flight” kicks in, which it does for all performers, my nervous system can’t handle it, causing a seizure. The brighter the stage lights, the worse the reaction is. I’ve learned that this is due to Lyme attacking my brain and eye muscles. I’ve controlled it with medication all these years so that I can get through performances. One day I didn’t take those meds and the concert was halted by an audience member because they thought I was having an epileptic seizure.

How does the disease specifically affect my violin playing, you ask? Well, the muscle stiffness keeps me from playing as accurately as I know I can and there’s always pain. There were a few days here and there when a Lyme treatment gave me relief for a few hours, and I experienced what health feels like. Once in Seattle, after cleaning out my blood with ozone, I felt all my muscles and joints relax, the oppressive fatigue lifted, and I ended up running down the street in tears of joy, like I was in a corny movie. A second ozone treatment did the opposite, so I’ve been afraid to try it again. A couple of times, while taking antibiotics, the symptoms dissipated briefly and I could get around the violin accurately with ease, feeling like I was Heifetz. It never lasts, though.

What the audience hears from me is not Dan on a good day, by the way. There aren’t any good days. The audience hears Dan struggle through each note, trying to create beauty through pain, pretending that it’s okay. Symphony and opera concerts are often excruciating for me due to the constant playing, particularly in restrictive tuxedos under hot lights. A few of the Lyme doctors, when reviewing my test results, couldn’t believe that I still played the violin. But I’m still obsessed with music and the violin is still my raison d’être. I’m fortunate and grateful to have had so much support from my family, friends, colleagues, and a few good doctors.

I first dabbled in composition when I was in high school. However, since the music field is fiercely competitive and my abilities as a violinist were decent but not amazing, I decided to forgo composition to put all my time into being a violinist. Twenty-five years later, a girlfriend asked, “Do you do anything creative?” “Uh, I’ve played the violin day in and day out for thirty-six years,” I replied. “Yeah, but you just play other people’s music, right?” Astonished and horrified, I explained the art of perfecting one’s ability to play an instrument, develop a unique tone and style, and interpret the masterworks. I then realized she was kind of right… I only played other people’s music. Ouch. My first attempts back in high school were pathetic, but after all, music composition is a craft that needs to be learned and developed just like anything else, right? It occurred to me that it’s okay to compose music that isn’t great, or even good. In fact, it’s perfectly acceptable to compose music that nobody likes. This was liberating. I began composition lessons with Cindy Cox, my colleague at UC Berkeley, and got bitten by the bug, so to speak. To date, I’ve composed eighteen pieces and am currently working on a string quartet.  And surprisingly, there are a few people who like my music!

During Covid, I created The Bow and the Brush, a project of commissioning and composing new music inspired by paintings and sculptures. When the pandemic shutdown began, and we were all stuck at home, like so many musicians, I spent my time playing solo pieces on my violin. I felt happier than most because I did this while looking at the dozens of paintings on my walls, collected over many years. Combining the two was an inevitability. I began composing pieces inspired by these paintings, then commissioning my favorite composers to do the same. The feelings I experience when viewing a painting or hearing music seem to be generated from the same place, and therefore feel connected. In my mind, the colors of paint relate to the colors of tone, and the texture of brush strokes relate to the articulation of bow strokes. In the 2022-23 season, I’ve been performing these new solo violin compositions across the United States and Europe, accompanied by projected images of the art. An album of fourteen of these pieces was recently released by MSR Classics.

“Ehrlichia,” Rhapsody in Discomfort #6 came about when Paul and Vicky Ehrlich, my compatriots in Trio Solano, asked me to write a piece for us to play. As close friends, we’d discussed Lyme often, amused by the coincidence that Ehrlichia, one of the diseases under the Lyme umbrella, was named after the Nobel Prize-winning physician, Dr. Paul Ehrlich (of no relation to the violist in Trio Solano). Composing a piece on this topic, with the title Ehrlichia, was a no-brainer, as they say. Originally, it was supposed to be funny but morphed into something that people took seriously, including me. I composed Ehrlichia during the shutdown.  It’s a little different from the other twenty-nine compositions in The Bow and the Brush because the music is inspired by my disease and the painting was created afterwards. The artist, Nancy Schroeder, is a member of the Lyme Art Association, and suffers from chronic Lyme Disease as well (Lyme Disease is named after the city of Lyme, Connecticut, where it was first discovered in 1975).

Are there other Rhapsodies in Discomfort? Oh my, yes. Initially, the title was a humorous cop-out. It’s much easier to compose a piece with little structure that is mostly ugly than a piece that is beautiful or makes sense. My first composition, “Borderline Phantasia,” Rhapsody in Discomfort #1, is for solo violin and it’s really not good. You’ll never hear it. Then came Rhapsody in Discomfort #2 “Where’s My Monet,” which is a very silly trio for two violins and cello, illustrating my deep sadness at not owning a painting by Claude Monet. Rhapsody in Discomfort #3 “Covids Я Us” is a noisy solo violin piece that involves detuning the strings and improvising while coughing. Rhapsody in Discomfort #4 “The Lump in My Throat,” is an improvised solo violin piece where I drag the bow across the instrument from scroll to tailpiece, while tapping a repeated rhythm on the body. “Timeless,” Rhapsody in Discomfort #5 is the first Rhapsody in Discomfort that I expect to be taken at least a little bit seriously. It was inspired by a set of sixteen sculptures made from antique metronomes by Sean O’Donnell, all commissioned by Arc Gallery in San Francisco. An early example of The Bow and the Brush, Timeless is a juxtaposition of chorale-like melodies created through extended techniques on the violin, over a sound collage created by countless metronomes ticking away. Ironically, the very devices used to establish time, dissolve it. I made a video of it in Arc Gallery that you can see on YouTube.

Then we have this story’s namesake. Beginning with a pizzicato tick bite, “Ehrlichia,” Rhapsody in Discomfort #6 brings the listener through the tribulations of a Lyme Disease patient. The repeated Rondo theme, representing the disease traveling through the body, is a fast moving, feverish collection of broken scales in C minor. Each digression loosely represents a different symptom experienced by the victim, and each return of the Rondo theme mutates as the disease develops. Traditional harmonies, tonal clusters, and extended techniques combine to create feelings of discomfort, exhaustion, confusion, fear, and hope. The prevailing aura of the composition is one of foreboding. Toward the end of the piece, the viola introduces intravenous antibiotics with a sequence of inappropriate C major chords. The violin takes over these chords, hammering them relentlessly in syncopation over the loudest and most aggressive statement of the Rondo theme yet. This juxtaposition represents the onslaught of antibiotics and the reactionary “herxing” of the disease. The cacophony resolves into sublime exaltation, portraying the alleviation of symptoms, followed by a passage of blissful calm and relief. Unfortunately, relapse is right around the corner.

InterMusic SF gave us a grant to record Ehrlichia and make a video. Trio Solano made the audio recording with Swineshead Productions, LLC in Hertz Hall at University of California Berkeley, the use of which was donated to the project by the music department. We commissioned Nancy Schroeder to create her painting, then made a video with Tritone Media in a patch of Tilden Regional Park that resembled the scene of Nancy’s painting. This video was shared on YouTube and created a buzz, bringing catharsis to thousands of Lyme patients, as well as prompting articles and blogs within the Lyme community. We’ve received hundreds of comments from victims who thanked us for creating this, and it thrilled us. Many said that it sounds the way they feel. It’s also brought catharsis for me. I know it’s a cliché, but I expressed the pain, and I felt better; and the audience responded. Whenever we perform it, I explain what the piece is about, although I don’t tell the audiences that I have Lyme. Many audience members tell me that “they don’t usually like modern music,” but with my explanation before the performance, they find it riveting. Both the composition and Trio Solano received Silver Medals from Global Music Awards in 2022. Ehrlichia is the only composition of mine that has received this kind of interest. The audio recording from this video will be included on the album, The Bow and the Brush Volume 2, which will be released by MSR Classics in 2024.

This article is the first time I’ve gone public about my disease. Coincidentally, I’m not the only disabled member of Trio Solano. Paul Ehrlich, the violist, suffers from focal dystonia, which attacked his bow arm beginning about fifteen years ago. Vicky Ehrlich, the cellist, had surgery on her hand a few months before we recorded Ehrlichia. The upcoming album will include a new trio being composed by Michael Panther, a San Diego-based saxophonist and composer who suffers from spina bifida. Michael and I have been friends since high school. Perhaps celebrating artists with disabilities will be an ongoing venture for me? And yes, since you asked, I plan to compose more Rhapsodies in Discomfort and encourage you to do the same.

GLFCAM — Rain, unreal and biblical

Images of Gabriela Lena Frank with GLFCAM and New Music USA logos

Yesterday, after almost a month of rain and floods here in California — unreal and biblical — Jeremy and I enjoyed several hours of very welcome sunshine. What struck us was how much life there was everywhere, a testament to how the earth wants to grow, to exist in health, to be a paradise even after the stresses humans have imposed on it. We found groves of matsutake mushrooms that are currently drying in front of our fireplace, and I fried up cat’s ear leaves (a bit like sweeter dandelion greens) for dinner. New yarrow, lavender, and Cleveland sage went into bedtime tea for little old lady me, and magenta and purple potatoes that had been washed out of their wine barrels by the storm are on the counter now, waiting to be baked. The ground has a spongy spring to it, no longer brittle and hard from our years-long drought. The dogs have been boinging around, no longer cooped up inside, loving all of the fresh smells and chasing insects.

That was yesterday. For most of the month before, as Jeremy was frantically diverting water flows on our Boonville property to minimize damage to our structures, including our new fire break pond, I was laid up with my first, and hopefully last, slipped disc. The timing couldn’t have been worse, to really see how out of shape I am when a couple hours of gardening put me in such straits. In these fires we’ve been suffering the past six years, the very young, the very old, and the disabled have been the ones to perish first; I had my first frightening glimpse of physical vulnerability as being able to evacuate quickly, to carry scared pets or precious belongings, to be mentally alert and not distracted by pain, is an imperative. I also felt much guilt that Jeremy, exhausted and covered in mud, had to help me out of bed, take care of meals, and scan the weather reports for lifts in the rain so he could drive whatever roads were precariously open to get me meds.

A scary powerful brain-chemistry-changing (!) muscle relaxant got me feeling better and I’ve been cautiously doing back exercises, with a view out my large studio windows to our valley, thinking: I want to be able to walk and run on that land, even if it’s burning or flooding, but hopefully, neither of those. I’ve since formed a small women’s group to walk several days a week, and I think we might even pump a little iron when our garage gym is complete. This is in addition to two neighborhood fire safety groups we belong to, an active local foods group, and of course, the local youth music program we’re trying to encourage through GLFCAM. Formerly pretty solitary when I was still a Bay Area urbanite, the reality of the climate crisis has had me creating more local community than I have ever done. That’s not necessarily comfortable for me but I think the crisis will only be effectively addressed en masse, including with our immediate neighbors.

I owe you music, but I’ve held your attention long enough and will send that along another time. Have a beautiful and safe week, all!

GLFCAM — Sustainable practices: the discipline of rest

Multiple images of Dustin Carlson with the Guest Editor logo for GLFCAM and New Music USA

I have been playing the guitar now for over 25 years. The pursuit has always been one of attempting to unite my soul’s expression with the physical act of touching an instrument, in between my soul and the guitar exist the two realms of my mind and my body. Cultivating a musical mind has meant ear training, learning theory, learning the sounds of various musical traditions, histories, what is a downbeat? what is a swing feel? what does it mean to bounce? what does it mean to resolve on the 10th beat of a 12 beat cycle, harmony, counterpoint, subdividing rhythms, study and endless study. The practice of touching an instrument, endless hours sitting with the guitar, playing notes that sustain, playing notes that move quickly, stretching fingers to play the cool chords, making my thumb play in 5 while my index middle and ring fingers play in 4, or any other polyrhythms; micro coordination, how to make a rasgeo of sextuplets sound like a thick wave of sound crashing into the 3rd pulse of a solea. This stuff takes time and many many repetitions, intense focus that overrides the body’s stubborn habits. Intense focus can result in wear on the hands, which are attached to the wrists arms elbows shoulders back and hips. My hands and myself have known overwork and overuse.

Over the years I have had many bouts with injury, tendonitis, tendonosis, burn out, soreness. Through this I have learned many ways to maintain the mind-body; dance, yoga, weightlifting, physical therapy, psychoanalysis meditation etc. Recently I had a week with many gigs rehearsals and opportunities to perform music with people who have more experience than me. As a result I came to a day where I had to force myself to do nothing because I had been working too hard. Whenever these moments happen I experience what I recognize as an inevitable embodiment of a mind that does not want to rest. A mental state where pursuit, ambition, perfection, improvement etc. become a relentless obsession. The body is an amazing mirror of the mind, and though I was pursuing my vitality through my art, my flesh was becoming slow and tired and clumsy. (Obviously one can’t play an instrument in a delicate and soul touching way with clumsy flesh.)

As a musician I feel that I have been cultured to believe in hard work, achievement, etc. “Become an excellent musician so that you can receive attention, money, respect, or even more dire so that you can survive, make a living, not have to work a side hustle that (potentially) crushes your soul.” The artistic purpose of “personal-achievement” seems divisive and destructive to me. Lately I have been reflecting a lot on how my own performance and creation practice can be less interested in achievement or personal gain; accolades etc. and more interested in being a catalyst for connection and gathering. The myth of progress is not one that serves me well.

So I have been pondering questions related to my musical practice.

Can the music draw people and and inspire them to engage with their soul response? Can the performance create a space where the people share those responses with each other? Can the press coverage be about community more than it is about virtuosity or mastery of craft? Can the compositions lean towards playability? Can I nurture my performers’ strengths instead of demanding them to overcome weaknesses or transcend the limits of their technique or instrument? Can my craft be so solid that is can just serve expression? Can I leave the myths of “cutting edge” “technical mastery” “virtuosity” “eliteness” alone and pursue concepts that create space for listening, a shared sense of time, sensation. 

I’ve been interested in the concepts of intention and transmission. What is the intention behind my practice, compositions, performances. Why am I starting this band, writing for this ensemble? What am I offering these performers and listeners? What am I saying to this interviewer? What am I telling people about the work and its intent? How can I set myself and collaborators up to transmit something that draws people into their own creativity, and that draws them towards each other?

Recently I began study with a guitarist names Nino de Pura. What I encountered in my studies with this master of guitar technique is that there is a playful way to deepen one’s technique. Studies can be explorations of a physical (musical) gesture, a fascination with a concept that is eluding the composer or the player/practitioner. He has an incredible technique that delivers intense musical sensation, explosive, emotive, very powerful. But his manner of teaching is very relaxed, demonstrative, fun, and his physicality when playing these incredible passages is totally relaxed. Of course, while studying with him in Sevilla Spain I have often felt that I need another lifetime to pursue this craft, that I am attempting to learn something that will continue to elude me beyond the years I have left. But the spirit of enjoyment and exploration is something I can practice immediately and for the remainder of my time creating music.

GLFCAM — Finding Purpose

Photo of Michael-Thomas Foumai embedded in banner branded for the GLFCAM Guest Editor Series.

Just out of school in 2014, I witnessed childhood friends, relatives, and peers who pursued non-musical careers make tangible changes and developments to improve their communities. Writing music gave me great joy, but I questioned if there was a purpose for it that was equally wholesome. The question lingered, could composing music enact change as a doctor treating a patient, an attorney representing a client, or a senator voting for public policy?


I returned to my roots and joined the faculty at the University of Hawaiʻi. Teaching fulfilled what I perceived to be a greater purpose, but that was just a part of a larger mission. Then in 2017, I began composing music about the Polynesian Voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa. I had primarily avoided exploring my Polynesian roots (out of shame for ignorance). Still, as I learned of the ingenuity of the ancient Hawaiians, skilled navigators capable of sailing more than 2000 miles of the deep ocean with only the stars and currents of the sea to guide them, I was compelled to know more and to tell these stories with music.

With finite resources aboard the canoe, conservation ensured the crew’s survival, and this continued on land. Isolated in the Pacific, the Hawaiian Islands are a much larger canoe. By extension, today, our planet is an island, an island earth in a vast sea of universal darkness. For over a thousand years, the ancient Hawaiians thrived sustainably, untouched by the known world. However, with anti-Hawaiian policies in the years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, a wealth of indigenous knowledge was nearly erased from history, dismissed as primitive and treasonous. Today, with 90 percent of food and resources imported, Hawaiʻi is unsustainable.


In his decades leading the Hōkūleʻa voyages, Master Navigator Nainoa Thompson witnessed the corrosion and inflammation of Earth’s circulatory system, from the bleaching of coral reefs, the continent of floating garbage in the Pacific, and vanished Polynesian islands from sea level rise. The dire state of the planet pushed Thompson to send a worldwide message that our world is in trouble. Thompson recalls the words of Astronaut Charles Lacey Veach (1944-1995):

“You can never believe the beauty of island Earth until you see it in its entirety from space,” recalls Veach. He was the world’s greatest optimist, but he always felt a great concern over the imbalance between human needs and the limited resources of our small planet, over the danger of exponential population growth and depletion of natural resources to support that growth. He would talk about how the 21st century was going to be very different from the century we’re leaving. There would be great challenges ahead; there would be places on this planet that are going to be, by our own definition of quality of life, extremely substandard.

On one of his shuttle flights, a fellow crew member woke Lacey up and told him to look out the window–they were passing over the Hawaiian Islands. Lacey could see all the Islands, and he could see his whole spirit and soul here. He saw the entire planet in one vision. “The best place to think about the fate of our planet is right here in the islands. If we can create a model for well-being here in Hawai’i, we can make a contribution to the entire world.”

Hōkūleʻa sparked a new sense of purpose deeply tied to my own identity. There were stories to tell and a purpose and role for me as a composer to represent these stories through concert music. Moreover, venturing into the voyaging communities demonstrated a real possibility for creating summit-like performances, an opportunity to forge strategic partnerships with industry leaders, sponsors, and lawmakers and have them in one place.


Shortly after, I was encouraged to join a leadership cohort comprised of individuals from all segments of the community called the Pacific Century Fellows. I had no idea what to expect from the program that was based on the White House Fellows. I was stepping outside my comfort zone; alums from this program included a sitting senator, the then governor, and executives from the private and public industries. I felt grossly out of place, but what I had learned from Hōkūleʻa and the Composing Earth initiative, pushing for social change and solving the climate crisis, cannot be done alone. The program gave me behind-the-scenes access to Hawaiʻi’s different issues and working sectors, such as tourism, renewable energy, military, recycling, homelessness, agriculture, and criminal justice; it became clear that, like climate change, everything is connected.


My cohort embarked on a trip to Hawaiʻi Island (Big Island) in the final months of the program. On our last day, we traveled to a Loʻi (Taro Farm) at the Hale O Kalo in Waipio Valley. The cultivation of Kalo (breadfruit) is a staple of sustainable Hawaiian agriculture. Knee-deep in the cool fudge-like mud of a taro patch, bent over and pulling Kalo from its roots, I was closer to the Earth than I have ever been, literally reaching into the ground and connecting with the sustainable past of our ancestors.

The road into the valley is steep and treacherous. It’s a narrow mountainous path slowly eroding from constant heavy pedestrian and significant vehicle traffic, the mark of over-tourism. The nearby black-sand beaches and lush manicured green farms of the Taro farmers is a haven for tour companies cashing in on busing in tourist. Crops suffer, and irrigation infrastructure is contaminated when vehicular traffic moves through privately owned farmland, but tour companies assert legal precedent for access. When the Hawaiʻi Island mayor closed the road to Waipio and restricted it to residents (mainly farmers), tour companies sued, and the local media portrayed the story as an infringement on rights. The appetite for capitalizing on natural resources is not new in Waipio or the entire Hawaiian Islands. However, this demonstrates the hurdle with profiting enterprises and the assertion of entitlements, and it is salt in the womb. Business and commercial interests led to the Hawaiian Kingdom’s demise; it continues with our planet.


Exploring my roots with Hōkūleʻa and joining the leadership cohort confirmed the necessity of going beyond music, seeking out, reaching out, learning, and listening. The Waipio trip became the story of my Composing Earth work, music that represents environmental themes through the lens of Hawaiʻi. My journey towards music citizenry began with a personal search, and this has remained with the need to specifically create Pacific work.

Recently, I joined the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra as the Director of Artistic Engagement and Composer in Residence. This position has given me a platform to voice, design, and curate symphonic programming to push for representation and social issues front and center. But there’s work to cultivate and expand an audience to connect with music as more than just entertainment but as an enriching metaphor; work that is part of the larger campaign to use music as an agent for connection and education. The tools to effect change are already here, and as a composer I have chosen to add my voice to our counterparts in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields advocating for carbon-reducing policies. Music has a purpose to serve. We have the scientist in our musicians, the technology in their instruments, the engineers in our composers, and the mathematics of our music to send a unified message to Mālama Honua (to care for our island earth).

GLFCAM — Wrong. I would love to be that

Photos of Gabrela Lena Frank embedded in banner branded for the GLFCAM Guest Editor Series.

I’ve been compiling a list of questions that I’ve received over these past 18 months in various interviews, panels, etc., since I began publicly communicating my environmental alarm in earnest, not just casually. I’ll share two such questions I’ve received, one that comes up a lot, innocently, and one that has come up just once, hostile.

Innocent: “What projects do you have coming up?”: I love this one. It’s a customary way for interviews to end, and without being explicitly asked about the crisis, I have an opening to talk about my concerns. “Well, my husband and I are deep in fire preparation mode. I just spent two symphony commissions on a fire-resistant stucco exterior for the home, water tanks, etc, etc.” or “I have to confess that for all of my work studying my mom’s culture, what really consumes me is the climate crisis and the perils it poses. How will music connect communities fractured by environmental collapse… etc, etc.”

And the hostile: “What if you’re wrong?” This was asked when I did a virtual Zoom panel about “composing in the anthropocene” for a group in Europe not too long ago. We had a few hundred people in the webinar audience, and I was rather unclear about what I was supposed to address. A scientist spoke before me, impressive but unsettling, with a presentation about people becoming cyborgs after a violent era of survival of the fitness weeding out climate deniers as well as believers. I was rather taken aback by how impersonal and fantastical, both, that presenter’s talk was, and felt like a fish out of water.

Nevertheless, I spoke about my own feelings and experiences, the actions I was taking with my platform, such as it is, and how much I was learning from peers similarly concerned, including you all. It was horribly early for me, around 6am PT at this point to accommodate the time zones, but I gave it my best. And when I got this question, which was posed to me and not to the scientist before me (??), precluded by what can only be called a cynical exposition on music as a prestige object, for a brief moment, I did hesitate.

Then this, from the transcript, my answer:

“Listen. If I’m wrong, and that’s a big if, I’ll shout it from the rooftops, and post all over Facebook. I’ll get on the radio and take out a billboard. I’ll happily confess that fires, floods, derecho winds, bee die-offs, diminishing crops and heat waves are at best a figment of our imagination and at worst, boringly normal. I’ll call up journalists who have profiled me to recant, newspapers across the US, filled with relief that my family and I are not in danger after all. Scholars later will describe this phase in my compositional output as my ‘Era of Great Disillusion’ or ‘Wow, Was She Wrong.’ But until I’m proven wrong, wrong to believe in the science and the evidence of my eyes, wrong to celebrate my neighbors coming together for our mutual survival, this is what I’ve got, all I’ve got. I believe in the science, and I believe in the music. In the process, I have finally fallen in love hard, with Mother Earth, appreciating what I have now that I’m in danger of losing so much. Wrong. I would love to be that.”

And so it goes. Sometimes in panic, comes a moment. I delivered the above with a smile and a laugh, although it reads strong in the transcript.

Life as a Mixing Board: The Diversification of Roles as a Composer

I have come to think of my life as a mixing board. There are a number of different channels. Mine are labeled composing, score producing, entrepreneur, teaching, community work. But the levels on those different channels are constantly changing as I move through my life. Composing is currently at 11 but now, especially after completing my term as president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers, I have brought the community work down to around 2 for a season. Teaching is at 4, I enjoy my role as Adjunct Faculty at NYU but I keep it to a limited scope. For a long while I wasn’t teaching at all, my Masters degree in Music Education seemingly a waste of time and money. But the opportunity to teach film scoring at NYU came into my life at the perfect time and now it brings me a lot of joy.

This mixing board approach gives me room for flexibility and movement as I continue to explore who I am as a creative entity. The work and knowledge I glean from one line feeds into the other avenues I pursue. It allows me room to accept the ebb and flow, and continue to grow and change as I hope I will, throughout my life. But this approach didn’t come naturally. Like so many others, for a long time I was pursuing “the thing” – the one job that would define me. That search often led me astray.

It took me a long time to figure out I wanted to become a composer. I spent decades in different aspects of the music world, and the working world in general. I remember finally finding my place in the arena of film composing and feeling an overwhelming sense of relief. I was home. That feeling continues to sustain me, especially on those tough long days.

Once I decided to pursue the career of a film composer I looked into copying and orchestration. I had been a musician my whole life but I was new to the world of film composition and I wanted to get paid to learn. I wanted to be in the room where it happened; to observe and learn the language and the movements of every aspect of how a score was created. Every step of it.

As I took on these “support work” gigs I heard a fascinating and concerning mantra. “Be careful doing orchestration work,” I was told. “If you do that you may be pigeon-holed as an orchestrator and then you’ll never get composing gigs.” It struck me as a weird caution and I have always struggled to take  on advice that is based on fear. Also, many of the people recommending that I stay away from orchestrating had orchestration credits in their very own IMDBs. Some had big ones! I became keenly aware of this pressure to become a composer – JUST a composer. If you were simply a composer, you were legit. If you were a composer plus something else? Less legit. Not the real deal.

This seemed problematic to me on a number of fronts.

1 Financial – what pays the bills?

Let’s get the money talk out of the way – the least fun but perhaps the most critical issue. The one reliable piece of information I have heard from a whole range of composers is that it takes about 5-10 years to begin to make a living from being a composer. To begin to make a living. That was certainly the case for me. If that is the reality, then how is one supposed to pay the bills in the meantime? And why is it so bad to spend that 5-10 years, not only composing, but being paid to learn all the different aspects of the craft, and in so doing hopefully becoming a better composer? Yes, you will receive credits that aren’t composer credits, but honestly, you don’t have to tell people about them if you don’t want to! You can remove those credits from your IMDB. You can decide not to put them on social media. And then, while making money in the very industry you want to be working, you can also hopefully learn a lot and become a better composer. Win, Win!

I think everyone has heard of the term “diversification of income streams.” It’s a simple concept: make money from many different areas, then if one dries up you still have other avenues delivering income. This is something that has definitely benefited me in general, especially during the pandemic, and even now, during the strike. But it hasn’t just benefited me financially.

Catherine Joy surrounded by microphones listening to a track on headphones in a recording studio.
2 Personal – what feeds the soul? 

What if you like doing more than one thing? The concept of being solely a composer is perfectly acceptable and I know a number of people who truly thrive from that singular focus. But I also know a number of people like me. We thrive from wearing different hats. It fulfills us. We are excited to compose and then excited to switch gears to do something else: put out an artist album, play gigs, orchestrate, music edit, run a business, teach, manage a non-profit, write articles. Not everyone is the same. If you are someone who benefits from a diverse working environment then it is important to allow those different aspects of yourself to be fed.

But it isn’t just about the financial and soulful benefits.

3. Time – how you spend it

When you are a person like myself, you can find that wearing multiple hats every day can help you utilize your time more efficiently. When you do one thing for too long you can experience fatigue, quickly followed by diminishing returns.

To make this point, I am going to quote from three fantastic authors who regularly tackle the ins and outs of the creative existence in their writing: Steven Pressfield, Orna Ross and Cal Newport. I encourage you to deep-dive into their work but let me just dip in briefly to bring my point home.

Steven Pressfield, in The War Of Art, talks about how he only writes for four hours a day. In a recent interview he said, “I used to be able to put in four hours, but these days two and a half is my outer limit.” I have certainly experienced this. While four hours is not my limit, I do find that after very focused composing for a string of hours, I experience diminishing returns. It is best for the project if I stop and pick up again after some rest.

But this doesn’t mean I am necessarily out of steam for the day. I have experienced how moving from composing to teaching, or writing an article like this, or producing a recording session, is perfectly doable. The change of focus and pace feels good, re-energizes me. I do a lot in one day, and because I am not in just one gear but cycling through many, pulling on different skill sets, I don’t feel overwhelmingly fatigued. Instead of doing one thing and having to call it a day once I am fully fatigued, I can financially benefit from more hours of my day by doing different things.

Orna Ross writes about the business of creativity in an excellent examination of the challenge of diversification in her blog post The Indie Author’s Three Hats: Maker, Manager and Marketeer. This post explores these different “jobs” of an author. Even if your goal is just doing one thing – writing books in the case of Ross – you still either need to take on these multiple roles (or pay someone to do it for you) in order to be successful, especially as you are initially building your reputation in your industry. Those roles include creating, marketing and business management. My sister R.J. Amos is a fantastic author, and one way she has diversified her income is not only writing books but also editing the work of others. We have a similar approach: utilizing the skills we developed in creating our own work by helping others achieve their creative goals.

I believe this is not only a smart business model but also a generous way to approach your work. By giving to others, you receive so much. “Supporting” other composers as their score producer or orchestrator has incredibly enriched my life through both the building of relationships and the experience of shared creative endeavors.

Cal Newport is an astoundingly prolific human. He is a tenured professor of computer science at Georgetown University, and a prolific author in both the commercial (New York Times Best-seller) and the research spaces. And yet he finishes work at 6 pm every day, puts the computer away and spends the rest of the day with his family. He says, “A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.” He explores how to do this in his book Deep Work. A great read, I highly recommend.

You can make the most out of the day when you are doing more than one thing. You can pull on different aspects of your skill set that may lie dormant when you are focused on one thing but become fully utilized when your focus changes.

While we are talking authors I also want to highlight the work of Gretchen Rubin. I have been reading her books and blog posts for years. She has a very interesting concept – The Four Tendencies. It is an examination of what makes you who you are and how that impacts the way you approach your work. One reason the diversification approach has been so successful for me is that it fits me as a person. To understand how best to build our working life, we have to understand who we are and how we work best.

4. Network – what brings in the work?

As a freelance creative, there is a network you develop throughout your career that brings work your way. When you are working in one area, like just composing for film, then you are building connections in that area. When you work in a number of different areas, your network is being built in all different directions. I visualize it as a web that broadens as I meet more people. More people in your network, means more real relationships, means more work. That is how it has happened for me.

I made a deliberate choice to take on multiple roles because it occurred to me that these different things I wanted to do had different audiences. I could promote myself as a composer to the film community, while promoting myself as a score producer / orchestrator / copyist to the composer community. To the education community I was a teacher with a masters degree in music education. I was very careful with my branding. Being known as a composer was most important to me, so my website reflected that work and only that work, except for perhaps a line or two in my bio. My orchestration work, which led to me founding Joy Music House (JMH), had no website for the longest time. I simply used word of mouth within that particular network. When we decided to brand as JMH, the choice of  business name used part of my own name but also allowed the brand of “Catherine Joy” to continue to be composer focused.

We have so many different avenues to advertise and brand ourselves these days, with easy access to website creation and social media accounts. It gives us a lot of flexibility as to how we choose to represent ourselves to different audiences. When you use these tools mindfully, you can precisely take control of how you are branding all the different aspects of who you are and what you do.

While I have found diversification being discouraged in the composer community, in the film community at large it seems to be widely accepted. They even have a term for it: “multi-hyphenates.” I have been to so many film events where people introduce themselves as a multi-hyphenate: a writer-director, director-editor, writer-actor, dp(director of photography)-editor. This seems to be completely accepted. The challenges of the financial aspect appear to be fully acknowledged and there also seems a real awareness that wearing multiple hats can be beneficial to the production. There is often an overlap in skill sets, but even when that’s not the case the different point of view from a different role is also welcomed as a valuable change in perspective.

As I was writing this article, I decided it was probably wise to do some research. What does science say about doing multiple jobs? This has really worked out for me, but am I an outlier?

There were a lot of articles on the benefits of the gig economy (although some of them felt a little suspicious, making you wonder if it was capitalist propaganda) and an older memoir called The Elephant and the Flea from 2001 where the author predicted that working from home would become much more prolific. Then  I came across this article in The Atlantic: “Your Career Is Just One-Eighth of Your Life.” Thompson talks about the research of Economist Dashun Wang, “In a deep analysis of the careers of scientists and artists, he found that their ‘hot streaks’ tended to be periods of focused and narrow work following a spell of broader experimentation. This is sometimes called the ‘explore-exploit’ sequence. The idea is that many successful people are like good oil scouts: They spend a lot of time searching for their space, and then they drill deep when they find the right niche.” I love this idea of oscillating between trying different things and then zeroing in once you find something that truly resonates with you. This is a fascinating article covering a lot of different aspects of the working existence; I encourage you to check it out.

I don’t have a lot of time left to delve into the intricacies of Thompson’s article but it did also talk about how younger people these days are much more willing to quit and move on. This idea of doing the one thing, forever, is going out of style, often to the benefit of the individual.

When we are young, many of us are often very sure of what we want to do with our lives. But that can change as we get older. We can feel like somehow we are betraying ourselves when we acknowledge that what once set us on fire now leaves us feeling stale. We feel like all that time, all that work, will be for nothing if we walk away. But that is not the case. As we move through our creative career lives, everything we have learnt feeds into the latest opportunity. In my experience, no skill I have developed has gone to waste and often it is utilized in a way I could have never imagined. But staying in a working environment that bleeds you dry is no way to exist.

Catherine Joy wearing many hats.

I want to leave you with one final idea: rest. Rest is so important. Giving yourself time to think, or not think at all, to let your mind wander, to even get bored. We have been talking a lot about work, and all the different kinds of work we can do, but a life that is only work is not a life well lived. As many reels and memes have been constantly reminding us: you cannot pour from an empty cup. Cheesy and oversold but still completely true.

I do have a full life in which I wear many hats, but I try to leave time for long walks, for TV, for cooking (usually while also watching TV or listening to funk music), for drinks with friends, time with family, and time to travel and see new things. I am not sure a balanced life is possible, and I cannot say I have one. But recently I saw an Instagram reel (I love watching these reels) that encouraged us to pursue contrast instead of pursuing balance. This made a lot of sense to me, and it has been what I have been talking about this whole article:  switching gears. Make sure you aren’t just shifting between different channels of work, but also between work and rest: changing from extreme focus to no focus; mind wandering, body relaxed. From in depth meetings – maybe an intense spotting session with your filmmaker – to you, on a long walk in nature, speaking to no one. From a four-hour composing sprint to zoning out in front of your favorite show while eating delicious food. From an intense recording session to an active workout session.

Find the path that fits you, who you are right now. It is important to listen to the advice of our peers, and to read about the journeys of those who have come before, but what is often so remarkable about the journeys that make headlines is that they were new, different and shocking. They were predicted to fail and a surprise in success. What often makes us successful is the very thing that makes us unique. I hope you will surprise yourself, explore beyond what you thought was possible, and live a life full of creative endeavors which bring you joy.