Category: Articles

Diversifying Curriculum: Representation, Risks, and Responsible Pedagogy

Cayla Bellamy sitting in an empty classroom with an overlay of the NMBx ToolBox banner

Increasing diverse representation in our programming with student musicians can be an intimidating bar for those who speak, teach, and make art from a place of privilege. Oftentimes, we run into issues of concern that we are “doing it wrong.” We worry we are not serving the students or the historically underrepresented composers we are trying to include. We worry we are using incorrect terminology in discussions of equity and social justice, where the vocabulary seems to change nearly daily. We worry that our errors will make us seem ignorant, uncaring, or the “bad people.”

To move forward, I have outlined a five-step process that includes what I consider to be several steps to “doing it the least wrong.” I write you now with the privilege of a classically trained, able-bodied, neurotypical, cisgendered, White woman who feels recently redefined in the changing language of the queer community. I acknowledge the inevitability that the terms I use for historical underrepresented identities will expire or have already passed in favor and hope that my openness to discussion and intentions allow for forgiveness of mistakes in terminology. I also challenge those of us speaking and acting from privilege to release the pride that keeps our focus on our own experience. The purpose of this process is not to be seen as “good,” but rather to shift the balance of resources and power in our field and curriculum, seen or unseen.

Let’s get to it.

Step One: Identify

The identification step of this process reflects upon our concepts of “standard” repertoire for each level of our program. What does our default curriculum look like, and what has led us to those decisions? Is our default fully meeting the requirements of both pedagogical necessity and cultural inclusion? For me, this reflection begins with addressing my rationale for considering certain works “standard” for the field, which have many possible origins, including:

  • I have personally performed the works as a student at certain levels. Based on my evaluation of my own development and trust in my former teachers, I conclude that those works were appropriate and should remain central in a student’s education. 
  • I have personally taught the works, and my students benefitted noticeably from them. I have been satisfied with that decision in the past and am thankful to have “go-to” works to serve certain purposes in my pedagogy. 
  • My higher education training taught me that certain works are “staples” of the canon, and I repeat them from acceptance of and respect for that training. 
  • Many respected colleagues have programmed the works recently for students of similar ability level as mine, therefore I am willing to accept them as a new standard. 
  • My program already owns or has access to certain works in our library, and access to funding and resources is a very real challenge. I am likely to select a work I already own rather than purchase something new. 

From this point, I have my catalog of “standard” repertoire and recommend the simple (though eye-opening and potentially discouraging!) task of categorizing works by representation of marginalized identities. In order to feel like I could maintain control and have a place to start on my own curriculum diversification journey, I chose three historically underrepresented identities to label, though there are many, many to consider. At this point, foregoing labeling majority groups allows for a focus on representation of marginalized communities, though you are welcome to label all identities, should you wish. A very non-exhaustive list may include: 

  • Race: Black, Asian, Indigenous, Pacific Island, Latino/a, and any non-White (majority: White)
  • Gender Identity: female, trans, nonbinary, genderfluid, and any non-cisgendered male (majority: cisgender male)
  • Queer: LGBTQIA+ (majority: heterosexual, heteroromantic)
  • Age: younger than 25 or older than 60 (majority: American “working ages” 20s-50s)
  • Socio-Economic Status: limited access to institutional resources, self-published (majority: middle to upper class, employed)
  • Formal Training: non-classical music pedigree, self-taught, popular music background (majority: classically experienced, formally trained) 

The final component of identifying your curricular options and needs is perhaps the component with which we are most familiar. We must determine exactly the technical and musical parameters of repertoire needed for each level of student in our program. This may be the first and second band in your high school; the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in your private studio; the chamber and mixed SATB university choirs at your college; or your single string orchestra. For the start of my journey, these levels were for collegiate bassoonists – admission to a university program, sophomore to junior year barrier exam, degree recital, and graduate study. These curricular levels, which I describe by collections of “proficiency skills,” might include requirements for any or all of the following: 

  • Melodic range, frequency, or size of intervallic leaps
  • Harmonic language, key areas 
  • Rhythmic and/or metric complexity
  • Physical velocity of finger patterns, articulation, etc.
  • Stylistic consideration, genre- or era-specific techniques
  • Use of extended techniques 

After all this categorizing, I can place the works from my standard repertoire into curricular levels and easily see where I have diverse representation. I can identify, quickly and without doubt, that most of my library’s collection of underrepresented composers’ works are only pedagogically appropriate for my most advanced ensemble. Or perhaps I am most aware of music by Black composers for beginning levels, but beyond the first year, the students cease to see those voices in their curriculum. Further still, I may have sought music by young composers and collected several that all utilize avantgarde techniques or electronics, creating a false parallel between a particular identity and a specific skill to be learned. 

Use questions of “standard” repertoire, marginalized identity presence, and skill level delineations to IDENTIFY the needs within your curriculum. The key is always to use proficiency level first to guarantee pedagogical responsibility to student then begin the next step to find appropriately leveled diverse repertoire rather than simply any diverse repertoire. Here the identification step ends when you can clearly state your curriculum’s needs. 

Step Two: Research 

The research step of this process involves evaluating, potentially expanding, and intentionally utilizing a variety of resources to find repertoire to fill the curricular gaps identified in the identification step. Here, I will explore several ways to discover repertoire to potentially add to your programming rotation, recognizing that these resources change daily. Please feel free to reach out and share new resources and approaches to discovering or creating music, both with myself and your colleagues! 

  1. Network Recommendations
    I like to acknowledge the role of our professional networks in researching curriculum immediately. We know many aware and like-minded colleagues who can provide recommendations for programming.
  2. Featured Ensembles or Evaluation Lists
    Check out the programming decisions of featured ensembles at conferences and large group evaluations. What groups like yours are performing at your state music education conference, ASTA clinics, ACDA workshops, or the Midwest Clinic? The leveled large group repertoire for middle and high school ensembles is publicly available for many individual states. Leading into the next point, most of these are summarized and linked directly by publisher JW Pepper.
  3. Publisher Websites
    Many music publishers include the ability to sort publications by composer. This may be birthdates or historical eras, gender identity, race, nationality, or more. If this is not visible on their website, don’t hesitate to contact them and ask if you can access that functionality either privately or request it added to their vendor website.
  4. Consortia
    Contact your music publisher of choice and see if they are aware of consortium projects to commission new works for a particular level and type of ensemble. This may result in either a brand-new composition that has recently been commissioned and premiered or, excitingly, the potential to buy in and join a consortium for yourself or with your program.
  5. Individual Composer Websites
    If you find a composer you like but the ensemble does not seem to fit, try visiting their personal composition website or contacting them directly. They may have works you have not yet discovered or may even be willing to arrange a project you love to fit your ensemble, often for a minimal fee as compared to commissioning a brand-new work.
  6. Diversity-Specific Databases
    There exist many more databases that may be in our awareness. Begin with the Institute for Composer Diversity and use their menu bar to select your program type. Foreshadowing the final recommendation for research, you can quite simply perform an internet search for “diverse composers” and your program needs to see what arises. I found an incredible list of “Bassoon Music by Transgender, Gender Diverse, and Women Composers and/or Black, Indigenous, and Composers of Color” through this process alone.
  7. Internet Search Skills
    Finally, but not insignificantly, it’s time to up the Google game. Yes, searching for “BIPOC band composers” will provide results, but it can often be both overwhelming and focused on only the current trends in programming or popularization by organizations or publishers with wide or well-funded and sponsored online reach. At this point, I recommend taking advantage of the algorithms designed by playlist curators such as Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music. Enter the title or composer of a work you have found intriguing or inspiring for your ensemble and style of choice, and listen through the recommended radio station, playlist, or “users also liked” compilation. If an album arises, consider other works on the album, which are likely to be written by the same composer or their contemporaries or performed by the same or similar ensembles. 

While the above seven processes are certainly not exhaustive approaches, I hope they have sparked interest and awareness in the variety of ways to seek out new programming options. Incorporate processes of peer recommendation, contemporary databases, and targeted online search or algorithm platform strategies to RESEARCH repertoire to fill the gaps in your programming. 

Step Three: Test 

The process of testing repertoire for its inclusion is twofold and arguably the most critical step in ethically diversifying your curriculum. As teachers and performers both, we have many potential missteps here! After finding the repertoire, the final step before introducing it two our students and audiences hinges on two questions: 

1. Is this repertoire the next best pedagogical step for our students? 

Return to your curriculum map and set of proficiency skills, score in hand. Do the technical elements of melodic range and contour, harmonic language, rhythmic and metric complexity, and incorporations of various stylistic and expressive markers reflect a well-designed scaffolded step in your students’ development? Will they be challenged but not over-challenged? Can you explain why the students need to wrestle with and grow through this music, for reasons other than the composer’s identity? 

Music that is too easy can cast a light of “simple” on the contributions of historically underrepresented composers. Music that is too hard can do the opposite, painting entire communities of composers as “inaccessible.” Pedagogically well-placed takes priority over including solely for the act of highlighting a diverse face. Including composers solely for their minority status and not their musical contributions tokenizes them as humans and treats them as the method of representation in the abstract – a statement – rather than a unique individual deserving of representation. 

2. Are you providing direct resources or influence to those with minority status? 

The “direct resources” here are often, quite simply, payment. Have you legally purchased the score and parts, and does the composer benefit financially from your purchase? Is there a way to increase that financial contribution by purchasing directly from the composer or their website, rather than through a larger publishing company? Would you consider listing in your program where to buy music by each composer to lower the research bar for other teachers and make it easier to find and continue supporting the composer? 

To this end, I wish I could recall where I overheard the following piece of advice regarding performative allyship, as I would provide it for you in citation. If you know, please remind me! The advice was a simple statement to the following effect: if you aren’t shifting resources or power, you are performing. If the primary beneficiary from your diversified program is you, as reflected in your reputation in your field, then there is more research and testing to be done. 

With new literature in hand, TEST each work for its best use within the context of a single program, a complete semester or annual concert cycle, and the full course of a student’s curriculum with you or the larger development of your personal artistic projects. If your choices are pedagogically supported in terms of your students’ development and audiences’ experiences AND increase the volume of money directed to minority communities, it’s time to play! 

Step Four: Implement 

Implementation of diverse curriculum often seems straightforward – present the new music to students, with or without some information about the composers – but there are a few potential pitfalls in this process, and ones I have certainly tripped into in my own teaching. I recommend the following two guiding questions to ensure that we are treating composers as individuals and artists, rather than tokens of their marginalized communities. 

1. How do we present repertoire and composer information to students and audiences, and what information is included? 

This may include instructional handouts, either as preparation guides for students or listening guides to audiences; spoken introductions to works; printed program notes; brief video interviews with composers; or more. Through these, we have the option to include as much information as we like about the composer’s name, birth and death dates, nationality, race, gender identity, and any personal anecdotes we find interesting or appropriate. The point of awareness in this question lies in assumption. I recommend the following inclusions or substitutions in our traditional means of conveying composer information: 

  • Include pronunciation keys for both first and last names. 
  • Inquire about preferred pronouns for living composers, using self-written biographies as a reliable indicator. 
  • Indicate birth dates for all living composers, as well as birth and death dates for deceased composers. 
  • List nationality of origin for all composers, distinguishing from location of residence. 
  • Allow for visual representation of race by including photographs or headshots of each composer. 

Through these, we are able to include a variety of information for students to connect with or be exposed to without directing attention to the diversity of certain identities over others or tokenizing their contributions to a given program or concert cycle. 

2. What are the requirements for treating composers ethically when publicly labeling their identities? 

The simplest answer to this is to treat all works as equally significant, both musically and culturally, and all composers as equally valid, as artists and humans. This means introducing all the information above for all composers, not simply the living ones or the ones we identify as diverse in some capacity. Equally present and educate students on the historical and cultural context for all works, not only the ones from backgrounds different than what we assume our students to identify with. Create programs that incorporate composer identity, rather than utilizing their identities only as programmatic themes, such as International Women’s Day, Black or Hispanic History Month, or Pride Month. 

The core of increasing equity for historically underrepresented composers rests on two principles. First and foremost, all composers must be introduced, discussed, treated, and valued as individual human beings with complex identities and unique artistic voices. Secondly, the resulting financial gain and performance exposure must benefit the composer rather than the director or performer, ensuring that power and resources are directed toward increasing equity. This second point was previously covered in step three, the testing phase. 

Students and audiences become aware of historically underrepresented composer identities when we as instructors and performers IMPLEMENT not only the musical works into our programs but also make known composer identities equally – all names, all nationalities, all gender identities, all visible faces to see as distinct humans. 

Step Five: Normalize 

To fully normalize changes into our curriculum, we must first fully understand the process and timeline by which things become “normal” in a given culture. What are the current normalized elements of your program, and how did they become the norm? How does normalization happen? And, as is at the front of most of our first thoughts, how long does it take? 

Normalize, perhaps obviously, is the process of making normal. Normal is that which is standard, usual, typical, and follows expected patterns. We have already created a set of expectations for a variety of techniques, eras, styles, cultures, identities, behaviors, and principles of community in our programs. Normalization of anything new, then, happens when we establish patterns, make our students and audiences aware of them, and adhere to them over time. Continue to return to the proficiency requirements you set in step one of this process as guideposts for what you believe your students need to learn and be exposed to. 

An open acknowledgement of intent to change can make a big difference in setting new expectations – “in our program, we now strive to perform at least XX works per year by composers whose identities have been marginalized in the classical music/orchestral/wind band/choral community.” We name our patterns so we can adhere to them in a transparent and quantifiable way. Clarifying your trajectory establishes an expectation, and making public your measurable goals enables accountability. In my studio, this looks like individual student repertoire including at least 25% works by historically underrepresented composers and my own performance and commissioning repertoire at least 50%. 

Then, we wait. We wait actively, repeating success of reaching our measurable goals for inclusion, but we wait nonetheless. How long will normalization take? In my experience, participants in an ensemble or studio will recognize something as “the usual” when over half of them have adhered to the changes. This usually translates to half the duration of your program’s length. If you teach at a grades six through eight middle school, at least a year and a half of programming sets a new normal. At most high schools and colleges, this process takes at least two years. We must remember that a minority of time is a minority of experience.  

With time, you, your students, your colleagues, and your audiences will acknowledge a conscious dedication to incorporating historically underrepresented identities into your programming and move toward an expectation of hearing those voices. Balanced representation becomes a quantifiable standard practice of your program or career, rather than an abstract goal or temporary special focus. 

To NORMALIZE the inclusion of underrepresented composers within your curriculum and program will take time, time that is measured in more than a single themed concert or repeated program of two or three “diverse” works scattered over a student’s time with you. We must publicly state the intention of change and consistently make measurable programming shifts until most of our students and audiences recognize adherence to patterns of inclusivity and diversity. 

To combine these five steps, we have a line to draw between preparation and execution of changing curriculum. Before engaging with students, we must IDENTIFY and RESEARCH new repertoire for both its representation of minority communities and composers, but also for its suitability for our program objectives from strictly technical and musical priorities. Once this is complete, we move to TEST, IMPLEMENT, and NORMALIZE changes in our programs as a part of a transparent mission to diversify the collection of music presented to students and audiences, as well as to equitably balance the voices of historically underrepresented communities. 

In this way, we have ethically supported composers by recognizing their identities and manually overriding the biases of our classical field to prioritize humans with cultural majority status to acquire their music. We have kept our students at the front of the process in our minds, ensuring that all we bring to them is quality music by a variety of humans.

I hope that these steps and the philosophy behind them are helpful to you and your program. Thank you for your work to move the classical world forward, starting with our young musicians. I welcome you to the messy discussions of ethics and to taking the next best step. Please reach out with your stories, and I am excited to hear your music.

Standing Tall, Still To Be Seen

An empty music studio (photo by Catherine Joy)

The Oscar nominees were announced this last week and while the shortlist was full of promise, featuring both Chanda Dancy and Hildur Guðnadóttir for best score, the actual nominee list featured only men. Extremely talented male composers who write fantastic scores, without doubt, but it was frustrating to once again see no women represented when their work was obviously just as deserving. Hildur was nominated and won a number of critics’ awards and yet was not nominated by the Academy music branch. We saw a similar situation with the best director nominees. But why does this even matter? Why do we feel so frustrated and unseen?

I have often pondered this question. As a composer who happens to be a woman I long to “just be a composer” and simply focus on the music. I would infinitely prefer not to have to wrestle with these questions of equality, inclusivity, and diversity. I know many of my colleagues–be they women, non-binary individuals, or any composer who doesn’t fall into the category of “white cis-male”–also long for the same freedom; the freedom to just look away and not get involved. But there is a very important reason to continue to grapple with this issue: representation. We need to stand up so we can be seen by those coming after us.

When I was thirteen and growing up in Tasmania, Australia, I managed to win a scholarship that afforded me a place in an expensive high school that had a stellar music program. It was a girls’ school. Throughout the years we girls were challenged to be the very best and told that we could do anything. The world was open to us. At the time I was a violinist and singer. I was surrounded by many strong brilliant women in the music world. But something wasn’t right for me. I knew I wasn’t going to be a performing classical musician, and I longed to get “off the page”. When I look back now at my younger self, I see someone dying to compose. And yet it took me years to find composition. Why? Because I didn’t know it was a thing! The only composers we studied were men. The music being performed in the orchestras and played on the radio was all by men; repertoire hundreds of years old. I had no idea that being a composer was a gig available to me. Representation. It just wasn’t there. It took me decades to find out that composition was an avenue I could pursue, and when I finally found it in my 30s, I remember feeling complete relief. After decades in the music world, I had found my home. I haven’t looked back since.

One of my dear friends and mentors, Lolita Ritmanis, has a story with a similar theme. She was conducting one of her works at a concert and afterwards met up with a young girl and her mother. They expressed surprise that women could be conductors–they didn’t know. The little girl was overjoyed at the prospect. She had to see it to believe it.

I have been part of the leadership for the Alliance for Women Film Composers now since 2016. We have a directory of women composers that stands currently at around 600 individuals, which is fantastic. Yet it seems like every few months I see a social media post that says something along the lines of, “How do I find women film composers? Are there any?” I talk to filmmakers who tell me that I am the only woman composer they know. There is so much work to be done to make women composers in media, and all areas of the music world, visible. And even as we have a love-hate relationship with awards and competitions, the benefit of such things is that they draw attention to the existence of individuals. They are a vehicle to make some noise. No award competition will ever be perfect, fair, free from politics or drama. But they are avenues for young women and non-binary people, young people of all shades of melanin, to see someone up there that looks like them, and say to themselves, “I belong in this industry, too. I am represented. I’m not alone. I can do this.”

The question is how do we do this? Things are changing and this is worth celebrating. The shortlist of the Oscars is testament to that, as is the diversity we see at film festivals like Sundance and SXSW. In the world of TV, we are seeing a lot more inclusivity in the hiring of composers. This change is a result of organizations like the Alliance for Women Film Composers, the Composers Diversity Collective, and programs like the Reel Change Film Fund (of which I am a grateful recipient) which give underrepresented composers the funds to elevate a project to a higher level, which opens doors for more and greater opportunities. We are seeing studio programs like the Universal Composers Initiative which chooses a group of diverse artists to amplify and uplift. All this is exciting, but I believe we are still at the beginning of a long journey. This year’s all-male Oscar nominations for best score and best director show how far we still must go. We need to simultaneously celebrate the progress and buckle down for a long road ahead. While the change must happen in all areas, I believe it begins with women supporting women. Women uplifting and amplifying their sister creatives, voting for them, celebrating their work. Women need to lead the way.

We cannot ignore ongoing deficits in equality, diversity, and inclusivity. It is time to find all the ways we can to get loud, stand tall and call out inequality, even when it’s uncomfortable. We need to ensure a richer creative landscape for the following generation to thrive.

Composer Advocacy Notebook: In Search of the New “Normal”

The exhibition areas of the 2022 Midwest Clinic at McCormick Place in Chicago and the 2023 Chamber Music America conference at the Westin Times Square in New York City.

I’ve been attending the annual New York City-based conference of Chamber Music America in January since before the launch of NewMusicBox (which is nearly a quarter of a century) and, since 2015, have also traveled to Chicago in the latter part of December to attend The Midwest Clinic, an annual music expo focused mostly–but not exclusively–on wind bands. (It’s mostly school-based groups, but there are also military and community ensembles who perform here. And, in addition to wind bands, there are also school and community-based string orchestras, percussion ensembles, jazz big bands, and chamber groups.) What keeps me coming back to both these events year after year is the amount of focus on new music and that both attract a wide range of people involved in the music: interpreters, publishers, advocates, and–most importantly–composers from diverse backgrounds who have a very wide range of stylistic inclinations. This means there are always tons of new music-specific conversations (sadly often not the case at convenings for several other national music networks), plus there are tons of exciting live performances of new works. Once again, both events proved being worthy of my time.

Although it’s probably obvious, it needs to be pointed out that the pandemic was responsible for hiatuses of both events. (Strangely I still remember getting extremely sick right after flying back from Chicago in 2019, more than two months before the alleged North American arrival of COVID-19, which miraculously I still haven’t officially contracted, and I hope to keep it that way.)  Following the nation-wide shut down in March 2020, the Windy City’s monumental McCormick Place, North America’s largest convention center where the annual Midwest Clinic has taken place since 2009, shut its doors for well over a year. Obviously, there was no 2020 Clinic except for a somewhat surreal makeshift virtual event over Zoom. But McCormick gradually resumed business in June 2021, and by December the venue was purported to be back to “normal.” So there was a 2021 Midwest Clinic though it did not seem to attract its usual audience of over 17,000 people.

Since it always takes place in January, the much smaller CMA conference was the last major music gathering I attended before everything shut down in 2020. But for the next two years (2021 and 2022), it was deemed too unsafe to ask people from around the country (and, in fact, the world) to attend this sometimes claustrophobic-feeling event which for many years has taken place on three floors of a medium-sized hotel a block away from Times Square. Instead CMA presented virtual conferences which also took place, as it seems everything else did, over Zoom. So the gathering this past weekend was the first in-person CMA conference in three years and references to Rip Van Winkle were frequent as was an overarching sense of resilience and fortitude. As a result, this year’s CMA get together felt much more like a long awaited homecoming than Midwest Clinic did two weeks earlier. Still, neither was a “return to normal”; both events veered from their previous formulas in significant ways and overall these changes were refreshing and welcome.

Two versions of the same holiday display in McCormick Place during Midwest Clinic, before and after the reindeer lost its face.

Just about the only difference I perceived in the holiday decorations since I’ve been attending the Midwest Clinic is that at one point in 2019 the reindeer (which looks more like a moose to me) mysteriously lost its face. It was missing from the display in 2021 and 2022, but everything else was there.

Since I began attending the Midwest Clinic in 2015, the event has had pretty much the same format every single year down to the same banner photos of previous years’ honorees and even the same holiday decorations. From what I can glean, it has been exactly the same long before I began showing up. People could begin registering on a Tuesday evening, but the first event would always begin at around 8:00 A.M. on Wednesday morning. For three days there would be non-stop activities–many competing showcase concerts and panels (which they call clinics) as well as reading sessions, product showcases, and by-invitation only ceremonies (which are not printed in the program book, like the announcement of the annual Revelli Award), plus a bustling exhibition area–with all listed events usually ending by 9:00 pm in the evening. After those three somewhat overwhelming 13-hour plus days, there would be a relatively quiet final half-day on Saturday which way fewer people attended, ending with a showcase concert by a high profile wind band ending by early afternoon. (On that last day, not only is the Exhibition Hall already closed, so are almost all of McCormick Place’s food concessions making it feel like the event was already over.) Bands usually play in the same set of large rooms with one specific room, a significant walk from all other events on the schedule, reserved for jazz bands. When I first started attending this thing it felt like these groups were being segregated, but the long walk to hear them was always worth it.

This year the decorations as well as the banners of honorees were mostly the same (though thankfully, finally, they weren’t exclusively white men) as were the room assignments and the planned three and half-day structure. But there were two significant differences to the schedule, albeit only one of which was planned. Breaking its usual calendar, activities began on a Monday and were scheduled to end in the middle of the day that Thursday. But it was not to be. On Tuesday, fearing an historic winter storm which ultimately resulted in the cancellation of more than 18,000 flights nationwide, the organizers cut the event short, shutting the exhibition hall half a day early on Wednesday and rescheduling the events of the final Thursday half-day to other times where rooms were open on Tuesday night and Wednesday. By mid-Wednesday, McCormick Place seemed like a ghost town when a mere 24 hours earlier it felt like rush hour at Grand Central Station (and also, due to most folks not wearing face masks, like a massive potential super spreader event).

An assortment of tubas at the Exhibition Hall during the Midwest Clinic

There were soooooo many people at this thing, but there were also so many tubas!

As a result, I wound up attending far fewer events than I usually do and, I must confess, I felt somewhat cheated though obviously the bad weather wasn’t the fault of Midwest Clinic’s organizers. Nevertheless, from what I did attend, I was able to perceive what I believe is real positive change. While the composers of the repertoire for performances at the Midwest Clinic are still quite far away from being truly representative of the cultural and gender diversity of the population of this country, there seemed to be a real effort to foreground music by Black composers as well as by women. It must be pointed out that the the entire event is heavily driven by music publishers. In the old days, the big publishers actively promoted certain composers and their works were the most prominent. In the 21st century landscape, where self-published composers can compete in a more level playing field, there is a greater opportunity to break into this network. It is something composers like John Mackey and Johan De Meij discovered a long time ago and they still keep coming every year. Admittedly, it’s not cheap. If your music gets performed in one of the concerts, you must be represented by a booth in the exhibition hall. This is a much easier expenditure for a big company than it is for an individual. But the most clever composers have formed collectives and support each other. As a result, a much greater diversity of composers is now present there and it has made a difference.

Omar Thomas, who in 2019 became the first Black composer ever to receive the Revelli Award, was a superstar at this year’s Clinic. He was engulfed by fans when he visited the booth of the Blue Dot Composers Collective (which he is one of the seven members of) in the exhibition hall. Thomas’s 2019 band piece celebrating the bravery of trans women, A Mother of a Revolution, conducted by Cynthia Johnson Turner (another superstar) during Monday’s concert by the Brooklyn Wind Symphony, was definitely one of this year’s musical highlights. I was also completely wowed by another work on that same program by a Black composer, Kevin Day‘s Concerto for Wind Ensemble, though I wish all five movements had been played and not just three. Music by Kelijah Dunton, Evan Williams, Katahj Copley, Jessie Montgomery, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Jonathan Bailey Holland, the late Florence Price, and JaRod Hall (the winner of the 2nd Barbara Buhlman Composition Prize) was also featured. Arguably this year’s biggest star was Vietnamese-American composer Viet Cuong who had several pieces performed, most prominently the 16-minute Vital Sines (2022), for which the United States Navy Band was joined by the six members of Eighth Blackbird on both of their Monday evening concert programs as well as a panel talk the following day during which excerpts were played. Another composer making huge strides at the Midwest Clinic is Aakash Mittal, who is interesting in finding common ground between the musical traditions of India and the wind band. In 2021, he participated in a panel about Asian perspectives in wind band music after having his first wind band piece played at Midwest by the Walsh Middle School Honors Band from Texas. This time around his Salt March, his second wind band piece and a consortium commission, was yet another piece performed by the Brooklyn folks.

The audience in one of the ballrooms at McCormick Place which has been transformed into a concert hall for the Midwest Clinic.

The audience waits in anticipation just before the start of the Brooklyn Wind Symphony’s showcase.

While there’s nowhere near a gender parity among the composers featured during Midwest Clinic concerts, most programs this year included at least one work by a female composer and sometimes there were more. Back in 2015, the only two female-identifying composers listed in the program book were Julie Giroux (whom I decided I had to meet and several years later spoke with for NewMusicBox) and Keiko Yamada (who did not attend that year because I later found out she does not actually exist). In the intervening years, seeing the name of a female composer on a program, still a rarity, was often the deciding factor in determining which of the sometimes five simultaneous concerts I would attend. This year I didn’t get to hear every piece by a female composer that was performed since they were no longer such complete outliers,  but nevertheless it was gratifying to hear works by Nicole Piunno, Laura Estes, Augusta Read Thomas (her 2020 composition Crackle was another highlight of the second Navy Band concert), Kimberly Archer (who had previously composed a work that was played by the U.S. Marine Band at Joe Biden’s Inauguration), Christina Huss, Carol Brittin Chambers, Yukiko Nishimura, and, of course, Julie Giroux. Frustratingly, though, the Revelli Award continues to be exclusively a domain for male composers and this year’s winning work, Flying Jewels by Colorado State University-based James M. David, though extremely effective, was no exception. Obviously there were also some other fabulous pieces by men. I’d be remiss not to mention David Biedenbender‘s stunning sax quartet concerto Severance (of which sadly only two of the three movements were played), Jim Stephenson‘s really exciting Wildcat Run, Joel Love‘s extremely moving It is Well, and finally the late John Zdechlik‘s masterful Rondo Capriccio which is hardly a brand new work (it was composed in 1979) but I had never heard it before so it was new to me. Finally, I must call attention here to the extraordinary Cedar Falls High School Jazz One from Iowa, the one jazz group I was able to trek over to hear. I was completely captivated by every piano solo played by high school senior Colten Thomas as well as the idiosyncratic drumming of junior Kate Galyen who have both been part of the band for three years. I can’t wait to hear them in other contexts one day. Still, when the whole thing came to an abrupt end a day before it should have, it was like suddenly going cold turkey. That’s why it was great to be able to have a similarly deep, albeit very different, musical immersion only two weeks later thanks to Chamber Music America.

The members of Cedar Falls High School Jazz One on stage.

The Cedar Falls High School Jazz One on stage at the designated jazz venue at McCormick Place.

If the Midwest Clinic is a successful story of incremental change, the Chamber Music America conference is a successful story of radical transformation. Well, maybe radical transformation is a bit of an exaggeration. Still, there were enough differences in the organization of this year’s conference so that it felt like a significantly different experience. In the past, the conference had three tightly packed days of activities starting early on Friday morning and running through Sunday evening. Although for several years there have also been several pre-conference sessions starting on Thursday. This year, there were also some events on Thursday, but the official conference opening actually took place on Thursday night with the annual reception hosted by BMI which is always attended by a significant number of BMI-affiliated composers who are in town in addition to the CMA conference registrants. This event, which is one of the new music community’s great schmoozefests, used to be the culminating event of the first day. By moving it an evening earlier, it was a great way for people to just catch up with one another after, in many cases, not seeing each other for three years. (Although admittedly a drinks and small bites reception in the COVID-era is somewhat akin to a mild form of Russian Roulette. A great many folks, myself included, remained mostly masked, though it’s impossible to nosh and chat while masked, so I sat at a table in the corner instead of engaging in my previous BC-era peregrinations around the room.)

The real radical change, however, was the way that ensemble showcase performances were presented. In previous years, showcases were scheduled at the hotel on Friday and Saturday afternoons, sometimes competing against panel sessions and time to explore the exhibition hall. The beginnings and endings of showcase sets were always hectic, with folks going in and out, picking and choosing which groups they wanted to hear and it was often extremely noisy directly outside the room where the showcases took place, so sitting in the back was not ideal. (I commented in previous years that it seemed like the classically-oriented groups and the more jazz or improvisation-inclined groups attracted very different audiences with little overlap, which was extremely upsetting given CMA’s mission to bring all this music together.) But this year CMA held all the showcases at DROM, an eclectic music venue in Alphabet City that serves food and has a full bar. (An aside: the food, which was mostly Middle Eastern fare, was terrific if a bit overpriced; it was an expensive night out in New York City.) There were eight showcases on Friday night from 6:00 P.M. until around 10:15 P.M. and an additional six on Saturday morning from 11:00 A.M. until approximately 2:15 P.M.–all showcase sets were supposed to run no longer than 20 minutes but things inevitably went a bit overtime.  Still, people stayed and listened, and they listened to an incredible range of music.

Friday night’s marathon opened with a formidable Rochester NY-based artist-led ensemble called fivebyfive who were joined by Minneapolis-based electric harpist/composer Amy Nam in a performance of her fascinating CMA-commissioned …of breath and fire which also featured video footage of glass sculptures being created by Madeline Rile Smith. They subsequently performed Anthony R. Green‘s captivating … a tiny dream. I was disappointed not to hear the works by Missy Mazzoli and Edie Hill that were also listed on the program, but 20 minutes races by pretty quickly. The group was following by the stunning NYC-based Baroque ensemble Twelfth Night who did not perform any new music, but everything they played sounded new (Purcell and Fasch, plus an aria from BWV 199 by J.S. Bach for which they were joined by the mesmerizing soprano Julie Roset). The Beo String Quartet, which followed, also cancelled a piece they were supposed to perform by Missy Mazzoli, which was to be their opener. Instead they performed an work they themselves composed which was inspired by Mexican music in which at one point members of the quartet were whistling. It was much more captivating than their subsequent medley of a movement from Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet and an excerpt of Beethoven’s Opus 18 No. 1, but at least they ended with a portion of a work by contemporary Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz.

fivebyfive on stage at DROM with a video projection of glass sculptures.

CMA’s showcases at DROM began with fivebyfive joined by electric harpist Amy Nam for a performance of Nam’s …of breath and fire featuring a video projection of glass sculptures being created by Madeline Rile Smith.

The Dyachkov-Saulnier Duo also felt obliged to perform Beethoven. (In late December, Atma Classics just released the duo’s recording of his complete sonatas and variations for cello and piano, so they performed excerpts from a set of variations as well as one of the sonatas.) Mysteriously they also performed a movement of a sonata by Shostakovich, explaining that although he was Russian and Russian repertoire is taboo at the moment given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he was a dissident. And they ended with the Burlesque of the late jazz-inspired Ukrainian-born composer Nicolai Kapustin who spent most of his life in Russia. All of this music is top shelf repertoire, but if they were trying to make a statement about the situation in Ukraine, there are tons of living Ukrainian composers who work deserves a hearing. Also, why only play music composed by men? In 2023, it almost seems tone deaf. But they were certainly not the only group featured that seems out of touch with the zeitgeist. The overall lack of parity between male and female music creators throughout these showcases was as noticeable as it was at the Midwest Clinic. Duo Sonidos, which pairs violin and classical guitar, followed with transcriptions of music by Astor Piazzolla and Manuel Ponce plus a work written expressly for them by Clarice Assad which was by far the most interesting thing they played. Far more exciting was a transcription of music by another Latin American composer, Alberto Ginastera, by the Argentinian jazz vocalist Roxana Amed who performed with her quintet. Their rendition of Wayne Shorter’s Virgo was also ear opening.

The Aznavoorian Duo (sisters Ani and Marta, another cello-piano pairing) were up next and featured a program centered predominantly around Armenia (their ancestral homeland) but also included a couple of composers from other parts of lands that were also once part of the Soviet Union. They began with a transcription of a melody by the 19th century Armenian Komitas who is often considered the father of Armenian classical music and followed with a work inspired by Armenian culture from the American Peter Boyer. Again, I would have loved to have heard cello and piano repertoire by some living Armenian composers, but nevertheless I loved Ani’s tone on her cello, which was an instrument her father had built expressly for her. At this point, after more than three and a half hours of music with no intermission, I was getting pretty wiped out. But I was so glad I stayed to hear the final set featuring the Johnston Brothers, Ziggy and Miles, a guitar duo originally from Australia who are currently studying at Juilliard. Their combination of precision and duende (there’s really no better word for it even though they weren’t playing flamenco) was flabbergasting. Their opening performance of Brazilian guitarist/composer Paulo Bellinati’s Jongo was a non-stop energy jolt and the subsequent Rodrigo Tonadilla was also thrilling. Even their transcription of Debussy’s bonbon Clair de Line was revelatory. But their concluding account of Australian Nigel Westlake‘s Songs from the Forest was sublime. As they mentioned, most Americans have only heard his music for the movie Babe: Pig in the City. I know whose music I will be tracking down as much as I can of later this year.

The following morning’s collection of showcases began with Doug Beavers‘s Luna, a nine-piece conjunto which spanned Latin Jazz and full on salsa. It was a welcome wake up since DROM’s coffee wasn’t. The noticeably quieter Interwoven, an intercultural ensemble combining Western bowed strings with Chinese erhu and Japanese koto, was up next. They performed works combining Western and Eastern instruments by Americans Thomas Osborne and Daron Hagen as well as suite featuring music by early 20th century Chinese composer Liu Tianhua that was later reworked by Chen Yaoxing. More cross-cultural music followed, a duo comprised of Dutch trumpeter Eric Vloeimans and American accordionist Will Holshouser, both of whom composed repertoire they performed. I was particularly moved by Redbud Winter, a work Holshouser wrote in memory of his mother.

Members of ShoutHouse during their CMA conference showcase performance at DROM.

ShoutHouse was literally larger and louder than any other ensemble that performed during the 2023 CMA conference showcases at DROM.

Next, it was back to full throttle volume with ShoutHouse, a cross-genre nonet fronted by composer Will Healy which combines musicians with classical, jazz, and hip-hop backgrounds in performances of music mostly composed by Healy with words by spiritchild, who is the group’s MC. They also performed a piece written expressly for them by Jack Frerer. Acknowledgement should also be given to ShoutHouse’s seamless interweaving of acoustic and electronic sounds which rarely comes off so effectively in a live music performance. I was floored by Alfredo Colon‘s soloing on EWI (electronic wind instrument). They were a tough act to follow, but there were still two more sets. Tallā Rouge, a self-described “Cajun-Persian viola duo,” performed mostly excerpts including, ack, more Beethoven, though it was nice to hear their performances of music by Caroline Shaw and Dave Rimelis. Finally, the Dan Pugach Nonet, a three wind, three brass, piano-bass-drums nearly big band devoted to performing the music of drummer/leader Pugach. Most of the players had a chance to solo except for, frustrating, bass trombonist Jen Hinkle, the only woman in the group and, more frustrating, the only female instrumentalist in any of the jazz-oriented ensembles. From where I was sitting I could clearly hear her tone on her instrument and the music could have greatly benefitted from some foregrounding of that lower register. As soon as they finished playing, it was a mad rush to the chartered bus to take us back to the hotel with only a few minutes to spare before the afternoon panels began.

I have not yet written about any of the panels, some of which also took place on Friday afternoon before the showcases, figuring it was better to describe them all in one place. On Friday, I attended a panel about making concerts accessible to a neurodiverse audience. The presenter, Jenna Richards, offered some valuable insights about optimal durations, providing attendees with as much advance information as possible, and working with the performance space so it could be made less constricting than the typical rows of seats in most venues. But by focusing on presenting movements from standard repertoire rather than encouraging session attendees to commission composers who could create vibrant music designed especially for such a performance it seemed far less transformative a presentation than it could have been. Far more useful was the session led by a group of musicians associated with ChamberQUEERDanielle Buonaiuto, Aiden Feltkamp, Brian Mummert, and Mazz Swift–with the provocative title “‘Til All of Us Are Free: A Liberatory Framework for DEI in Chamber Music Organizations.” The panelists had the very crowded room of session attendees breakout into smaller groups to discuss ways in which a chamber group could diversify its audience and funder base. The group I was part of mostly agreed that such a plan must begin with diversifying the people who are performing and the repertoire being performed. But not everyone held that view. It got somewhat contentious at times. When various groups were reporting back, a member of one of the groups talked about the need to sometimes devote concerts to core repertoire which they have now decided to embellish with commentary from the stage along the lines of “imagine what kind of music would have been written had one of Bach’s daughters been allowed to compose music.” To which I felt compelled to raise my hand and counter that there were female composers who were active at that time. What about Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre? As well as Black composers. So if you’re performing Mozart, why not also include a piece by Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Obviously today’s extremely wide range of compositional voices are the most representative of world in which we currently live, but there are plenty of reasons why it is important to show that a diverse range of people writing music is not a 21st century aberration and highlighting that range offers a fuller view of the great repertoire that is all of our inheritance.

A very crowded room at the Westin Times Square with groups of people sitting together in conversation.

Breakout groups for GenderQUEER’s EDI panel at the 2023 CMA conference continued having provocative conversations long after time ran out for the session.

On Saturday, I attended a session moderated by 2023 CMA Conference Chair, flutist Jennie Oh Brown, featuring two visionary musician/administrators: tenor Nicholas Phan who also serves as the Artistic Director of the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago; and jazz singer Dwight Trible who also serves as Executive Director of the The World Stage performance gallery in Los Angeles. Perhaps the biggest insight from that session was Phan’s quip that the problem with classical music is that it “has been marketed as a luxury item for such a long time” and “that’s such a greedy way to experience this music.” Finally, I attended a very practical and informative session about touring and presenting during the pandemic which was billed as “jazz and chamber music” but everyone on the panel came from a jazz perspective–Rodney Marsalis and Morgan Pappas (from Marsalis Mansion Artists) plus artist manager Gail Boyd, a co-founder of the Jazz Coalition.  Although the situations they described, everything from unpaid fees to the uncertainty of rescheduling, are equally applicable to classical music, as well as indie rock, funk, or bluegrass for that matter. After attending The Midwest Clinic where you wouldn’t be blamed if you erroneously believed the pandemic was over, it was refreshing to hear people talk about the ongoing problems we are all still facing in trying to make music in these still extremely precarious times.

After all the heady sounds and ideas on Friday and Saturday, Sunday was a bit of a let-down. The day’s activities began with a somewhat lackluster networking breakfast that was not heavily attended. Thankfully there was an amazing concert at the hotel later in the afternoon devoted to two CMA commissions: Martha Sullivan‘s Certain Dragons performed by the dazzling vocal sextet The Western Wind; and Arun Ramamurthy‘s New Moon Suite performed by his trio consisting of Sameer Gupta on drumset, Damon Banks on electric bass, and the composer on violin performed in Karnatic style. I’m glad it was not followed by anything else, since anything else would have felt extremely intrusive after such sonic transports, but it might have been nice to have an additional panel in the morning, although I remember all too well how disappointing it was to participate in a Sunday morning CMA panel which was very poorly attended.

Sameer Gupta, Damon Banks, and Arun Ramamurthy being applauded.

The Arun Ramamurthy Trio (Sameer Gupta, Damon Banks, and Arun Ramamurthy) right after they proved that great music can happen, even in a conference room at a hotel!

Admittedly I did not attend the luncheon honoring new music soprano and educator Lucy Shelton (recipient of CMA’s 2023 Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award) and Palestinian-American composer/multi-instrumentalist Ronnie Malley (recipient of CMA’s 2023 Michael Jaffee Visionary Award). There was an extra $45 charge to attend and it was probably too late to get a ticket plus I had already paid for and attended the similarly priced networking luncheon on Friday and was somewhat worried that eating yet another meal (Friday’s was albeit a tasty Asian-themed buffet which was an improvement over previous years’ fare) on a round table surrounded by a group of necessarily unmasked people some of whom I probably did not know was probably too much of a crapshoot after having already attended the opening reception as well as eating and drinking during the ensemble showcases at DROM.

Still, overall the 2023 Chamber Music America conference was head and shoulders above most of the annual CMA conferences I’ve attended in recent memory. So a special shoutout is in order to conference chair Jennie Oh Brown as well as to CMA’s visionary and extremely articulate new CEO Kevin Kwan Loucks, who is also an active chamber music pianist. I was thrilled that during his introductory remarks to the keynote speaker Loucks mentioned that CMA is in the process of trying to secure their own performance venue which I imagine will be as galvanizing a space for the chamber music community as OPERA America’s National Opera Center has been for singers, vocal coaches, producers, composers, librettists and all the other members of the opera community. I should also write a few words about that keynote speaker, film, television and stage actor Giancarlo Esposito, whom I first became acquainted with from his performance as the intellectually rigorous tempestuous militant Buggin’ Out in Spike Lee’s 1989 motion picture Do The Right Thing. Esposito offered many pearls of wisdom during his extremely performative speech, but the two that left the strongest impression on me is that our goal as artists (whether creative or interpretative artists) should be “to bring people from one state of consciousness to another” and that the only thing “we have the ability to control is our attitude.” Finally, I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to CMA’s Susan Dadian who, as per every other conference I have attended since she joined the staff many many years ago, tirelessly kept finding me to introduce me to composers who were there whom she thought I may not yet know. I will be back again next year!

dublab — The Future of Composition: From the Ivory Tower of Academia to the Basement of Electronic Sound

Photos of Angela Rose Brussel.

I think my notion of the composer when I was younger was someone marked by some kind of solemn religiosity or supernatural genius. A puritan not concerned by worldly affairs, someone who played for kings and popes and emperors. The tortured genius and maybe their patron. It most definitely wasn’t someone admining an instagram account using equal parts trollery, humor, and brilliant broadsides against the music industry at large who had a sonic stem file collection encompassing everything from flatulence to sputtering failed-state generators.

Max Alper, more commonly known by his handle “la meme young” is without a doubt singularly unique even if just with regards to his maverick pedagogic tendencies. His hot (but totally spot on) takes such as “whatsapp voice memos are an unsung form of audio culture”  and “video games and 10+hour youtube video mixes/loops are the bridge to sonic arts that kids are inherently tuned into” show a super nuanced understanding of the millennial and gen z zeitgeist. But he’s not a sonic arts anomaly. And by that I mean that he belongs to a whole confederation of deep listeners and practitioners who inhabit a virtual landscape of infinite (and infinitesimal) proportions. That is to say, no sound is too simple or small. No composition, too unintelligible or unorthodox.

“As someone who has two feet in two doors,” said Alper, “one being the more academic music circles and one being the really deeply underground noise shit, the niche electronic and extreme kinda weirdo communities of musicians, it’s kind of interesting to me to see the chthonic bridges, or rather hearing similarities in both of these worlds, but feeling such a disconnect between them. To me it was, like, why does the underground circle feel closed off to the conservatory circle and vice versa?”

A composer, according to the OED, is someone who “writes music, especially classical music” and the example they use is “Verdi was a prolific composer of operas.” This hearkens back to my own original understanding of the designation, which was basically synonymous with 18th or 19th century Vienna, dusty attics, and gilded halls. The composer of today, though, lives in a world where information proliferates at a rate the likes of which we have never seen. The composer of today is a shape-shifting avatar, as potentially mutable and regenerative as the consumer technology and apps that are at their disposal.

When I asked Alper about the semantic baggage that the word carried, he responded cuttingly, bridging a gap that many of his more prehistorically inclined contemporaries wouldn’t dare to due to purported reverence toward what they deem a “high art.”

“The terminology itself makes being a composer seem inaccessible because we still call producers producers and composers composers at the very least in the academic setting. But what is the difference in 2022 if everybody both in PhD programs and EDM clubs are all using fucking Ableton? Why are we making these distinctions, right?”

Alper is particularly qualified to speak on behalf of what is clearly becoming a bogus classification system. An adjunct instructor of music tech while he was a graduate student at Brooklyn College between 2016 and 2018, he bore first-hand witness to how the forthcoming generation was engaging with sound. Not to mention his own deep dives into YouTube’s sidebar and the niche electronic underground. No stone seemed to be left unturned. There were field recordings captured on iPhones, hip-hop beat makers used on iPads, completely non-sequitur make-shift instruments constructed out of the throats of rubber chickens and airpods. A lot of it is not exactly conventional harmony. But it’s also not, not music. When, then, does the mememaker become the arranger? The sound archivist, the composer? The world of field recordings actually helps to shed a lot of light on this.

“Problematic fav og noise guy is Vatican Shadow,” said Alper when I asked him if a single stem field recording can be considered a composition. “He made an untouched field recording somewhere in Wisconsin and when you read the liner notes of the tape you find out that it’s where his best friend’s girlfriend was murdered their senior year in high school and it’s this tribute to her, but also suddenly it becomes true crime creepy pasta real heavy terrifying stuff. The stillness of it. Suddenly the context has informed the content and you as a listener are engaged in a totally different way. That to me is composition.”

According to the classical canon, melody, harmony, and rhythm are the hallmarks of music, of composition. But what about context? Narrative? I recently started working on my own sound pieces, for instance, in which I mash up film dialogue with music. My last attempt was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Nico Muhly, and Tuxedo Moon. Though I endeavored to use the cadence of the character’s speech and laughter as makeshift instruments, there’s no distinct melody. It’s a hodgepodge. A soundscape, which, in its most literal sense, is a combination of sounds that create or arise from an environment. But in this case it’s a synthetic environment manipulated in accordance with my own canon of aesthetics, tastes, and proclivities.

“I would say that composition is an umbrella term that includes everything from what you’re doing to Top 40 pop production all the way through homemade electronic instruments,” said Alper when I asked him if he thought what I was doing could be considered composing. “It’s really the expansion of the definition here because at the end of the day everything is being bounced to a stereo audio file for us to hear from a digital device.”

In our expansion of the definition, though, something else has happened. The tyrannical roles that melody and harmony once assumed in the classical canon of yore have now been usurped by the discordance (acoustically, socially, and otherwise) of the modern world. In other words, some music practitioners seem to be resoldering the very restrictive structures they claim to want to dismantle, railing against conventional harmony as rabidly as their academic contemporaries rail against “noise”. 17-year-old composer Alma Deutscher remarked on this dichotomy when presenting her composition Waltz of the Sirens, which was inspired by Vienna’s acoustic ecology.

“Some people have told me that nowadays melodies and beautiful harmonies are no longer acceptable in serious classical music because in the 21st century music must reflect the ugliness of the modern world. Well in this waltz instead of trying to make my music artificially ugly in order to reflect the modern world I went in exactly the opposite direction. I took some ugly sounds from the modern world and I tried to turn them into something more beautiful through music.”

Alma’s composition is not the first of its kind. But what makes it so poignant, I would argue, is the narrative that drives it and the fact that it was formulated by someone so young. It also has a great deal to do with how she chose to infiltrate the classical world. Ruled neither by the hegemony of the classical or “noise” canon, Alma displays reverence for both by digging up the dormant melodies buried in police sirens and blaring car horns. And when broken down to its sonic component parts, it really isn’t such a far cry from those earbuds being shoved into that rubber chicken’s throat.

“There are things that appeal to younger people that definitely have to do with breaking rules whether it be for humor or sound or art’s sake,” said Alper. “I think that’s the way forward. To let them do that. Let the kids be rebellious in that way. Rule breaking is a way to learn larger concepts and also push the culture forward.”

The social and political reckoning of the past few years has seen the culture being pushed forward in a myriad of ways. Paradigm shifts are transpiring on every front and consumer technology has without a doubt played a pivotal role in this. How it has manifested in the world of composition, from the basement to the ivory tower, and what it can reveal to us about the future of society, sound, and even tech-capitalism, is becoming increasingly evident.

“If we’re looking at anything related to how music is going even at the highest level of our electronic scenes we’re seeing that everyone’s broke,” proclaimed Alper when I asked him about the future of composition. The broad strokes of his reply, though, could be applied to many creative industries at large.

“I rail against over-consumption, gear acquisition syndrome, like a shit load of modular synths and pedals just because you want to make an instagram video showing off your gear. But on a more positive side, I think that technology at the most basic consumer levels, basic Droids and PCs, the costco phone, are now powerful enough to start to engage with these deep tools. We don’t need to purchase anything else.”

There is no doubt a brazen attempt amongst more and more people to live in a more equitable world. To break free from the yoke of elitism, the supremacy of the “system” and its potemkin institutions. Nevertheless, there’s still a heavy reliance on one of capitalism’s more incapacitating byproducts: built-in obsolescence.

“It’s about distinguishing what we want vs. what we need and what we need is to make sound immediately and there are ways to do that on your phone right now. And I’m hopeful that within the next decade there will be more ways to do that with regards to things that I’m not even thinking of.”

It’s difficult to conceive of a future when it feels as though our present is being so mercilessly beaten to a pulp. The surfeit of content and merchandise can also suffocate. And corporations are becoming even more virtuosic at convincing people that they don’t have enough. But perhaps the future knows a freedom we don’t, which is no preoccupation with itself at all. Just the present, a fierce determination, and working with the tools we’ve got.

Artists in Occupation

Digital collage by Olson Olberburg created during occupation in Kherson

When I wrote about musicians living through the war in Ukraine for NewMusicBox and The Sampler in March, there were already fears that Russia would target artists and other intelligentsia in areas it occupies. There is a lot of historical precedent for Russia’s attempts to annihilate Ukrainian culture. Though I understood this possibility on an intellectual level, it was hard for me to truly embrace it emotionally at that time. The idea of artists being arrested and killed seemed firmly relegated to history books and dystopian fiction.

Though reports have been trickling in for months, this reality really hit home for me when I learned of the murder of Yurii Kerpatenko, the conductor of the Kherson Philharmonic Orchestra who refused to participate in a twisted propaganda concert meant to demonstrate that peaceful life had returned to the city the Russians were occupying. I was born in Kherson and I couldn’t help imagining myself in his place. Would I have fled, resisted or buckled under the pressure? Trying to learn more about Kerpatenko and Kherson’s cultural scene at large, I interviewed a number of artists who lived through months of occupation before finally fleeing. Though none of them were targeted for being artists, their stories weave a chilling narrative of survival and resistance in a region the Russians came to “liberate” from bogeymen of their own creation.

Like virtually every person in Ukraine, the artists I spoke to woke up to sounds of explosions at 5:00 a.m. on February 24th. Southern Ukraine was occupied at lightning speed by Russian troops gathered in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. Andrii, a musician from Nova Kakhovka who prefers not to share his last name to avoid endangering relatives still left in occupation, tells me that by noon the same day the occupiers were already moving through his city. There were endless columns of tanks and other army vehicles spilling across the nearby dam and onwards towards Kherson. Until his supply of food ran out, he stayed at home monitoring the situation through various news channels and chat groups. “In the first days I felt a total disorientation; it was hard to understand what was happening around me.” He heard explosions, sometimes on the outskirts of the city, sometimes in nearby neighborhoods. “At first I was comforted by illusions of a quick end to the war or at least a de-occupation of our region, in a few days, in a week, maybe in a month.” I’m reminded of the early days of the pandemic, when we all thought it would be over in a couple of weeks, except that the residents of this tiny city could not keep out the threat moving through their streets by observing responsible social distancing rules. The threat could drop from the sky or hurl from a tank’s gun at any moment.

Two of the artists I contacted, a young couple from Kherson, came dangerously close to experiencing a missile strike directly. “When the Russian troops entered the city, they randomly shelled residential buildings,” writes Anton Kosiei, a drummer and event presenter. “Our building was hit, the section next to ours. A fire started and almost the entire section burned out. A few people couldn’t be rescued because the building was surrounded and the Russians didn’t let fire trucks through while their equipment moved by. The residents themselves were battling the flames and rescuing people under the gaze of machine guns.” Luckily, Kosiei and his girlfriend, a visual artist who works under the pseudonym Olson Olberburg, were not home when this happened. They were hiding out in an athletics school on the outskirts of the city, an island on the Dnipro River, where they spent the first two months of the occupation.

The atmosphere around Kherson was chaotic in the first days of the full-scale invasion. The residents were hearing explosions, but the Russians hadn’t yet reached the city. On the first morning of the invasion, visual artist Constantine Tereshchenko rode out on his bicycle to stock up on bottled water. “The atmosphere in the city is incredible. People try not to panic, but I feel a colossal hype. There is a feeling of intense energy, a ringing clarity. The air raid siren turns on. It’s very loud. It’s the first time I’m hearing it. It is the exact representation of what is inside each of us. The siren fills the space with anxiety.”

A painting of trees by Constantine Tereshchenko

A painting by Constantine Tereshchenko.

Unlike some other parts of Ukraine, the Kherson region was utterly unprepared for battle, though the occupiers didn’t reach the city immediately. There was intense fighting on the main bridge linking it to the eastern bank of the Dnipro. Hearing about injured civilians brought to local schools from surrounding villages and towns, Olberburg temporarily left her hideout to join the volunteers spontaneously mobilizing to gather blood donations, clothing and supplies. Throughout Ukraine and beyond, Ukrainians have been volunteering to support the war effort with unprecedented zeal.

Kherson was fully occupied by the beginning of March. About thirty volunteer fighters in the woefully underprepared territorial defense squad were slaughtered in one of the city’s parks. Residents were not allowed to collect their bodies, many of them in pieces, for weeks. The local police and most elected officials fled before the invasion even started. Treason and active sabotage is suspected. The city descended into anarchy.  Marauding began, first by local thieves and later by Russian soldiers who didn’t bring enough supplies to feed themselves. Writing in a fragmented, manic stream-of-consciousness that attempts to capture the chaos of those first weeks, Tereshchenko concludes that “what is happening is such harsh surrealism that you lose all ability to act; there’s no point.”

Another Kherson-based artist, who works under the pseudonym Marianna Tarish, attempted to escape the chaos by moving in with her parents, who have a ninth floor apartment in the same island neighborhood where Olberburg and Kosiei were hiding out in the athletics school. “Before the war, I had my own studio where I worked on my art. I practically lived there day and night. It was a very cozy place right in the center,” writes Tarish. The center quickly filled up with Russian soldiers and their tricolor flags, which Kherson residents disdainfully nicknamed “Colgate” after the toothpaste.

Tarish thought the outskirts would be safer, but before long the Russians were everywhere. She remembers a lot of enemy planes flying over the city in the first weeks of the war. “One night a rocket flew very low right over our building. I’ll probably never forget the smell of gunpowder on the balcony and its horrific whistle.” Tarish made a bed for herself in the corridor, between two walls, which made her feel safer. Two walls or not, Soviet-era concrete block apartments have not fared well against direct rocket hits.

Back in Nova Kakhovka, Andrii had neither the desire nor the required state of mind to create or listen to music. ”Everything was too stressful. I wanted to turn off the music immediately so it wouldn’t get in the way of my stressing out, though obviously this didn’t help in any way. I couldn’t read books either; it was impossible to concentrate on the meaning.” Down the river in Kherson, the drummer Anton Kosiei was stuck in a similar state of anxious waiting. ”I hoped the occupation would not last. It was scary, because there were constant battles on the outskirts. There was a feeling of uncertainty, because you didn’t know if you’ll be shot at or taken to a basement or something else. I couldn’t create music. I couldn’t even listen to it.” Since the start of the invasion, the phrase “to be taken to a basement” refers to Russian occupiers abducting and torturing civilians in makeshift prisons.

The windows of the school where Olberburg and Kosiei hid out for the first two months look out onto the Kosheva River. What would normally be a peaceful sight of natural beauty was filled with rockets and artillery barrages, with smoke and fire, as the Russians bombarded the city of Mykolaiv fifty miles away. On February 28, Olberburg painted Night Over Kosheva. “After that I couldn’t paint for a long time because my hands shook and my eyes immediately filled with tears.”

Olson Olberburg’s painting “Night Over Kosheva”

Olson Olberburg’s “Night Over Kosheva” showing fire from Russian artillery over Kosheva River.

Tarish, on the other hand, found solace in her work. During the day, she would run around looking for supplies, stocking up on food and water, covering her windows with tape so glass shards wouldn’t fly into the apartment in case the windows blew out. In the evenings, she would draw and do yoga. No longer having access to her studio, she concentrated on digital art, drawing on her tablet which she picked up shortly before the war. “I got used to the explosions, but I started smoking. I would stand on the balcony as explosions screamed and windows shook. Somewhere on the horizon, rockets launched in balls of flame, and I lit my cigarette.” Tarish started putting all her feelings into her art and this is what saved her.

A cat on a table with a paw grabbing at a small digital monitor

Marianna Tarish working on digital art in occupied Kherson with the help of her cat.

The situation at Tereshchenko’s home had its own brand of terror in those first weeks. His wife Nastia was nine months pregnant, her due date looming. There was a curfew from 8 pm to 6 am; anyone out on the streets could be shot. The ambulance didn’t come at night. “Nastia prepares to give birth at home and asks me to prepare to assist her. We both understand that birthing is one of the most sacred processes in a woman’s life. She is in a bad state. She cries a lot,” remembers Tereshchenko. “Culture is the thinnest layer of moss on the body of human existence; it was shaved off with a bulldozer; now there’s an enormous wound, blood, shit and urine.”

A few days into the invasion, Tereshchenko snapped out of his initial stupor and concentrated on his wife, trying to maintain a state of calm inside the walls of their besieged apartment. He did household chores. He polished wood. He even started to draw, “at first mechanically, by inertia, without any meaning, but this habitual activity calmed my mind and I could keep myself from being consumed.” The war receded into the background as he contemplated the horror of having to assist the birth of his child alone. A few days later, the couple made it to a maternity ward. “Nastia is on the bed screaming from the contractions. Outside the window, through the evening sky, shells fly into the city. I dance a little and sing Hare Krishna. Nastia delivers a girl, Dusia, on the 18th day of the war.” Tereshchenko’s anxiety for his daughter is all over his drawings from this time period. There are babies everywhere.

Constantine Tereshchenko’s drawings .

Constantine Tereshchenko’s drawings and daughter Dusia born in occupied Kherson.

After a few weeks, Nova Kakhovka, which is located on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, ended up well behind enemy lines. Andrii could no longer hear explosions. “The streets were unusually quiet, there were few people and even less cars because of a deficit of fuel. At night the city plunged into total darkness and an even deeper silence through which you could occasionally hear the movement of [military] equipment. The atmosphere was tense and depressing.” He tried to leave the house as little as possible, moving by bicycle through backstreets to avoid encounters with Russian soldiers who had by this point thoroughly established themselves in his hometown.

Russian troops immediately started blocking supplies from Ukrainian controlled territory. There were even reports of them seizing Ukrainian humanitarian aid and distributing it to locals as their own to demonstrate their supposed benevolence. People didn’t want to take it. Grocery stores emptied out, but thankfully it was spring and the farmers markets were still supplied by the surrounding villages. Medication and cash, however, became scarce. Because of poor internet and mobile connection, Andrii’s freelance translation work dried up. Since most businesses and government institutions were forced to shut down, unemployment has been rampant throughout the region since the start of the invasion.

The situation in Kherson was similar. According to Olberburg, “when someone found out about potatoes in large bags, about pasta or onions, they immediately called everyone who needed these things, because there was a huge deficit.” Life in Kherson started to resemble the early ‘90s, the troubled years after the fall of the Soviet Union. People were selling smuggled goods from car trunks or blankets spread right on the pavement. “There were times when there wasn’t enough flour in the city and there was no bread for a week,” Olberburg continues. “I have never eaten as much bread as I did when living in occupation, and many people will tell you this.” I think about flour shortages as North Americans obsessively baked bread during the pandemic, but the intense desire for bread in occupied territories doesn’t have the same comedic ring as our collective sour dough mania. Bread has a particular cultural significance in a population partly wiped out by an artificially induced famine, holodomor, in the early 1930s.

As the weeks went by, Olberburg began to focus on the nature in front of her, to listen to birds, to meditate. “I found it very hard until I accepted death.” I feel a chill when I read this sentence, though I’ve heard this sentiment from other Ukrainians. Though this meditation on natural beauty seemed to help her mental state, the peaceful scenery rarely appears in the work she eventually started to produce. Because her hands still shook too much to hold a brush, she turned to digital collage. I scroll through her Instagram and see a radical shift in color palette; the lush greens of her fantastical pre-war landscapes are replaced by red and orange, the fluid lines by harsh juxtapositions of ruined buildings and local monuments caught in the gaze of large blue and yellow eyes. The series of digital collages titled “Look” (Podyvys’) bears witness to the destruction around her.

Olson Olberburg’s digital collages from the series Look created in occupied Kherson.

Tarish’s art went through a similar color transformation: nearly every piece created after February 24th is full of flames. The contrast between her first piece of digital art, posted to Instagram just two days before the full-scale invasion, and the first work created after is particularly striking. The pre-war Lovebirds is all blues, pinks and purples, with a warm yellow sun glowing between the two lovers. The Invaders Must Die!, appearing right beside it, shows snarling wolves wrapped in barbed wire (to represent their own slavery) snapping at a white stork that leads a sky full of souls out of the burning landscape. Tarish frequently uses symbols in her work and after the invasion, traditional Ukrainian symbols–like the stork or the red viburnum berry clusters–become especially prominent. It’s a trend I’ve observed amongst many Ukrainian artists working today, myself included. At times of existential threat, familiar symbols become important anchors not only to the past, but also to the future. They represent survival and continuity, and carry the collective feelings of the moment, just as they have for centuries.

Marianna Tarish’s digital art created in occupied Kherson.

Eventually, the musicians also returned to work, though in private. “I could practice music in my studio, but was only able to get back to it after about two months of occupation,” writes Kosiei. He didn’t create anything new, but practiced drums. “I had to force myself so I wouldn’t lose my form. I didn’t feel like it.” When asked if his experience in the war changed his relationship to music, he muses that his playing has become “more authentic, because the war exposes you; a person can’t be anything other than themselves. I hope to retain this feeling as long as possible.” Just months before the invasion, Kosiei and his colleagues opened a new cultural space in the center of the city. Linza, which hosted a hodgepodge of concerts, theater plays, lectures and dance parties, has been shuttered since February. Continuing any public cultural activities would have attracted life-threatening attention from the occupying authorities.

After the occupiers cut off most connection to the world, Andrii in Nova Kakhovka gradually started returning to art also, watching previously downloaded movies, listening to music and reading books, but this didn’t happen until May or June, not too long before he finally fled. “Because of an absence of distractions (I couldn’t work, most of my friends had left, the atmosphere in the city was not inviting), it became possible to work on music, to finish old projects and even to create a little new stuff. Most of the time it was relatively quiet, so nothing interrupted me. The hardest thing was to get over the initial stupor, to push myself out of catatonia.”

Together with another musician working under the pseudonym Starless, Andrii released a two-track EP, Dark Corner, which documents their internal state. “The concomitant initial physical and psychological shock and pressure alternately transformed into either despair and frustration or bursts of anger and rage,” reads the album description. Andrii’s track, released under the pseudonym Kojoohar, is a harsh and bleak electronic landscape rocked by uncomfortably slow bursts that disintegrate into digital debris. It feels like something terrible happening in slow motion.

The EP’s aesthetic is not far from Starless and Kojoohar’s usual projects such as Kadaitcha, which another musician, Edward Sol, described to me as “the most famous industrial band in Ukraine.” Still, amidst the apocalyptic walls of noise, Kadaitcha explores melody, as well as moments of brightness and near tenderness, elements entirely absent from Dark Corner. 

Throughout March the residents of Kherson came out to the street to protest against the invaders. The videos posted to social media are stunning. Months later, rewatching them still brings tears of pride and horror to my eyes. Unarmed civilians draped in Ukrainian flags face armed soldiers and heavy military equipment chanting “Kherson is Ukraine!” and “Go home! Go home!” They force armored cars to turn around. The Russians shoot into the air, but no one runs. A protester shouts “Stand your ground!” in Russian, clearly debunking the insane idea that Russian speakers in Ukraine wanted Russia to “save” them.

The occupiers expected to be welcomed as liberators in this predominantly Russian-speaking region. Contrary to oversimplified representations of Ukraine in Russia and in the West, language does not neatly correlate with political affiliation or cultural identity. “The eyeballs of these apes were popping out of their balaclavas when they heard our slogans,” writes Kosiei with many smiling emojis. Despite everything he endured, he seems to get much pleasure from the memory. “They were very confused by the fact that unarmed residents were bravely pushing against armored vehicles and soldiers with machine guns.” Similar protests happened in Nova Kakhovka and the surrounding towns and villages.

Before long, Russia brought in reinforcements to control the city. The contemporary versions of Soviet KGB, Rosgvardia and FSB are special forces designed to control civilian populations. They started dispersing protests with stun grenades and tear gas, and arrested people on mass. While the threat of bombing decreased, a largely silent terror began. The special forces began targeting activists, volunteers, cultural leaders, former Ukrainian military personnel and their families. They set up checkpoints throughout the cities and towns, where soldiers check documents and phones in search of any pro-Ukrainian leanings. Even private correspondence in Ukrainian, on any subject, is suspect. Some people started carrying decoy phones, because not having a phone is also suspect.

The Russians also check for tattoos. Any Ukrainian symbolism can land you in a basement, from which you may never return. One of Kosiei’s friends was beaten up at a checkpoint simply because he couldn’t satisfactorily explain the mere existence of his tattoos. “A lot of people were ending up in prison for their pro-Ukrainian positions, or just because they didn’t like you. A few of my friends ended up there, one for a month, another for two weeks. What was done to them there…I don’t even want to talk about it out loud,” writes Kosiei. Tarish also tells me of a young man she witnessed getting pulled off the bus at a Russian checkpoint. “I don’t know what they did to him. I hope he’s alive and healthy.” It’s been long understood by those of us watching the occupation from a distance that the horrors of Bucha will pale in comparison to what emerges when the Russians are fully pushed out of the Kherson region. They’ve had more than eight months to do what they did in Bucha for one month.

The occupiers eventually showed up at the school where Olberburg and Kosiei were hiding. “One of our mornings started with a search and this was terrifying,” writes Olberburg. “In front of you, there are seven men with pointed guns and you have no idea what they are thinking, but after Bucha and Mariupol you understand that there’s no humanity in these soldiers.” After this incident, Olberburg and Kosiei moved back to their own home in the damaged apartment building.

While terrorizing the local population into submission, the occupiers staged fake video shoots for Russian propaganda TV showing locals supposedly welcoming their presence and happily taking their humanitarian aid. “We saw the Russians filming their movies about peace,” Olberburg writes with apparent disgust. The occupiers also put on warped celebrations. It was precisely for such an occasion that they attempted to coerce the conductor Yurii Kerpatenko. In an interview with TV Rain (a Russian independent TV channel now operating out of Latvia), Terentii Shevchenko, Kerpatenko’s friend and former coworker from the Mykola Kulish Theater, said that the Russians wanted to mount a concert for Kherson’s annual Day of Music to show that peaceful life had supposedly returned to the city they were brutally occupying. They needed Kerpatenko to conduct and arrange the materials for this farcical charade. After he refused, armed men showed up at his home. When he didn’t open the door, they fired right through it with machine guns, killing him and injuring his romantic partner.

Trying to learn more about this tragic hero, a true dissident, I reached out to a Facebook acquaintance, accordionist Roman Yusipey who lives in Germany. They studied folk bayan (a type of accordion) at the same music institutions in Kherson. In the early ’90s, when Ukraine was just starting to open up to the world after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kerpatenko was already participating in international competitions. According to Yusipey, when a chandelier fell on the stage during Kerpatenko’s performance in Italy, he didn’t even stop playing. “He had a strong character.” He also took composition and theory lessons. His work for folk instrument orchestra, Autumn Poem, was often chosen by conducting students for their exams. They would ask him to get up on the podium to show them how to conduct his music properly. “I liked his manner of conducting,” remembers Yusipey. “His talent already started emerging in Kherson.” Yusipey also followed Kerpatenko to the Tchaikovsky Music Academy in Kyiv, where Kerpatenko focused on conducting and arranging after completing his performance diploma. Whenever the young conductor came back to Kherson, he would bring photocopies of new scores for his former teachers and their students, which must have been a lifeline in this small city still largely cut off from the world.

Yurii Kerpatenko conducting his own arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs with Gileya Chamber Orchestra

After graduating, Kerpatenko returned to his native Kherson. He spent a few years as music director at the drama theatre and occasionally conducted the Gileya Chamber Orchestra, a well-known ensemble in the Soviet era, which had fallen on hard times during Ukraine’s shaky transition to capitalism. Just months before the Russian invasion, Kerpatenko became the main conductor at the Kherson Philharmonic Orchestra. Though none of the other artists I interviewed knew him personally, they all knew who he was and were distressed by his death. Kosiei occasionally crossed paths with him on the stage. Tarish attended theatrical performances he conducted at the drama theater. As we look through YouTube videos of Kerpatenko’s concerts, both Yusipey and I mourn the lost potential he brought to the city. I get the sense that he was an important player in Kherson’s artistic revival.

According to Yusipey, even in their school days “Yurii was very independent. He was a well-mannered, but proud person. He never bent down before anyone.” Shevchenko also described him as “principled” in the TV Rain interview. These character traits did not help him survive the totalitarian regime the Russians attempted to set up in Kherson. According to Shevchenko, Kerpatenko was vocal about his views on the Russian occupation on social media. It was important to him to explain that Kherson residents thought of themselves as Ukrainian. It seems that Kerpatenko was always politically opinionated. Before the invasion, Yusipey “lazily” followed his Facebook debates from Germany, not getting into the details. They seemed like “storms in a puddle” to him then. I think about our own vicious controversies in the classical and new music community, and how insignificant they sometimes appear in the greater scheme of things. Now Yusipey regrets not paying more attention. One of Kerpatenko’s posts seems particularly prophetic: “Putin will destroy you physically under the pretext that someone is forbidding you to speak Russian.“ What troubling trends might I be missing in my own community or the world at large?

Yurii Kerpatenko conducting Oleksandr Gonobolin’s “Adagio and Allegro” with Gileya Chamber Orchestra

None of the artists I interviewed were targeted like Kerpatenko, though it may have just been a matter of time. A few weeks after the conductor’s murder, a well-known Kherson painter, Viacheslav Mashnytskyi, disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Friends and volunteers mounted a search after finding blood and other signs of struggle at his summer cottage. There is video evidence of his participation in the protests in March. The others fled Kherson some months earlier, when life in occupation became unbearable. Fleeing was also dangerous. There were never any green corridors out of Kherson or the surrounding region. Everyone left at their own risk. Sometimes the Russians wouldn’t let people through the countless checkpoints, keeping them on the side of the road for days or simply turning them around. People were searched and risked arrest. Some were robbed. Some died trying to reach freedom as Russians shot at civilian cars on a whim. Like my grandfather and his sister, many elderly people or those with serious health conditions couldn’t face the arduous journey. My grandfather worried that he would be shot if he needed to leave the car to relieve his bladder. Those without their own vehicles also faced prohibitive transportation costs as the trains and buses stopped running. I will never forget the agonizing weeks when my younger relatives weighed the decision to stay or go. Both options seemed horrible. My kidneys hurt from the fear I felt for them.

Tarish decided to flee after three months of occupation. The Russians had cut off Ukrainian internet and mobile service. “We ended up in an informational vacuum. We couldn’t reach each other or find out any news. To have no source of truth during the war is horrible.” Russian propaganda has worked aggressively to create the impression that Ukraine had abandoned the occupied territories, that their presence is forever. They replaced Ukrainian TV and radio with Russian propaganda channels that showed their own fantasy view of the war. They would even blast Soviet-era music on the streets and stage celebrations to film for their own TV.

For Tereshchenko and his wife, the deciding factor became their infant daughter. They didn’t want to leave, but the environment in Kherson was too dangerous for the baby. On the evening they made the decision to flee, they couldn’t stop sobbing. “We were about to rob our mothers and fathers of the happiness of being grandmothers and grandfathers.” They grieved depriving their daughter of the love of her grandparents. Olberburg and Kosiei left at the end of May. “I had a strong desire to meet victory at home,” writes Olberburg, “but with every month the situation in the city became more tense. People started disappearing. My friends ended up in the basements and were tortured.” Kosiei’s friend was beaten up at a checkpoint for his tattoos. The city became dirty and filled with Russian flags, billboards and military equipment. The atmosphere was too depressing.

A drawing by Constantine Tereshchenko.

Constantine Tereshchenko’s drawing of mother and baby floating in a sea of hostile forces, the Ukrainian trident hovering above.

Andrii fled Nova Kakhovka after five months of occupation. With the arrival of the long-awaited longer range artillery systems HIMARS, the Ukrainian army started hitting Russian military targets deep behind the front line. The situation in Nova Kakhovka became particularly tense after Ukrainians hit a big munitions storage facility in the city. The explosion was terrifyingly spectacular with ammunition exploding like fireworks through the billowing flames. Starless, Andrii’s musical collaborator, had his windows blown out by the force of that blast. Heavy curtains saved him and his partner from the shards. Ukrainians living in occupation have understood the necessity of these strikes and welcomed them, but the situation became more dangerous. “A lot of people left at this point. The city emptied out.” After much hesitation, Andrii finally agreed to leave when his friend suggested they travel together.

In the first couple of months of the invasion, it was still possible to flee to Ukrainian controlled territory, but towards late April, the Russians started blocking those pathways. My relatives fled towards Odesa on one of the last days it was possible to do so. After that, the only way out was through Russia. It’s unclear why Russians work that way; perhaps they want to maintain the farce that they are offering humanitarian aid to people they are supposedly liberating from Ukrainian aggression. Sometimes they also hold the local residents hostage because they know Ukrainians will not shell their own people.

Andrii and his friend traveled through Crimea, across the now partly blown up Kerch bridge and then north to Estonia. I was anxious about them because younger guys tend to be treated with more suspicion at the checkpoints. I worried they’d get sent to a filtration camp where Russia “processes” those they deem suspicious. “Troubles pursued us at every step of the way and it felt like everything that could go wrong did. There wasn’t a single day when something didn’t happen, starting with incorrectly filled out immigration papers at the Crimean border.” Their car broke down in some backwater town, which required more interaction with locals who had their own ideas about the war. The car had to be towed to the Estonian border. The journey took over a week.

Now Andrii is renting an apartment in a sleepy suburb in Tallinn, learning Estonian and trying to find work. “I am not drawn to music at the moment. I feel quite lost, even though I’m safer than back home.” He listens to very little music too. “I think I have not accepted the thought that I should start doing something. Perhaps because of the long period of inactivity in occupation, I remain in a state of waiting.” His traveling companion works long hours at a construction site. He didn’t even have the energy to answer my questions. I doubt he’s making much music.

The artists from Kherson also went through Crimea, but headed southeast towards Georgia. “I remember how nasty it was to travel through Russia. I saw a lot of cars with big Zs on the windows and trunks,” writes Tarish. “I was afraid that they would recognize a Ukrainian in me. On the way, we stopped at a roadside cafe and on their TV they showed total lies about how they were ‘rescuing’ us.” For Kosiei it was “unbearable to see the endless columns of equipment moving towards Ukraine.” Whenever he and Olberburg were stopped by police, the officers demanded bribes when they discovered the travelers were Ukrainian. At the Georgian border, Kosiei was held for five hours by Russian FSB agents after they discovered a photo from a pro-Ukrainian blog in some shadowy folder on his phone. “They interrogated me, yelled, threatened, pressured me psychologically.” Olberburg remembers how difficult it was to look young men in the eyes after they emerged from these interrogations. I imagine that waiting for her boyfriend was its own kind of torture.

Tereshchenko had an easier time at the checkpoints thanks to his infant. Men traveling with young children are generally treated with less suspicion. He managed to transport twelve of his paintings and two drawings by taking them off their frames and rolling them into plastic plumbing pipes, which he tied to his backpack. He was questioned about them at one checkpoint, but was allowed to keep them after explaining that they were icons he painted himself. I suppose religious art is acceptable to the Russians since they are now claiming to be “de-satanizing” Ukraine in addition to “denazifying” it.

Constantine Tereshchenko’s icons.

Constantine Tereshchenko’s icons, which he carried out of occupied Kherson in a plumbing pipe.

After spending a few weeks in Georgia, where they were warmly welcomed, the artists from Kherson ended up at SWAN, an artist residency in Sweden, pulling each other to this safe haven one by one. There’s a whole group of them there trying to process and communicate their experience of the war. “The occupation really affected my mental state,” admits Olberburg. “There are days when I can’t keep myself together. On days like that I allow myself to be miserable, to cry a little, but not for too long because I have work to do. Everyone has their own front.” She’s now drawing fantastical, alien landscapes full of symbols, in black, gray and red. Fire still features prominently.

A painting by Olson Olberburg depicting flames

A painting by Olson Olberburg.

Tarish is also back to drawing and painting on paper and canvas. When asked if the experience of the war has changed her relationship to art, she says that she’s “convinced yet again of the strength and influence that art has. It is the kind of language that is understood around the world, a language that needs no translation.” Kosiei is working on a new electronic music project, which he’s not yet ready to share.

The artists are also dreaming of home. Though Russian troops have recently retreated from the city, it will not be possible to return for some time. The occupiers destroyed a lot of infrastructure as they fled. As I write this, there is no electricity, water, internet or mobile connection through most of the city. A humanitarian disaster looms as temperatures drop. They also looted everything they could carry, including medical equipment from the hospitals, computers from administrative buildings and businesses, grain and farming equipment, and even animals from the zoo. It puzzles me why anyone would want to steal raccoons and squirrels, though I’m no longer surprised at such antics. They robbed and trashed many private homes and apartments, sometimes shitting on the floor where they lived. They also mined everything. It will be a while before the city is safe enough, let alone comfortable. Nova Kakhovka, on the other side of the Dnipro River, is still occupied, though Russian presence is decreasing. I hope they won’t be able to hold it much longer.

Though the atmosphere in Kherson is jubilant, there are fears that the Russians will start shelling the city, like they did Kharkiv, Mariupol and Mykolaiv. Still, I am convinced that before long, we will all meet in our native Kherson, eat watermelons, and after attending a lecture on local history “with cocktails in hand,” we will rage at a dance party at Linza, the cultural space Kosiei and his colleagues opened just months before the city was invaded. I hope the place hasn’t been trashed like everything Russian hands seem to touch, but if it has, we will rebuild. Dress code: glam/freak/fabulous/yellow/blue/free.

“The Reed Warrior” by Marianna Tarish

“The Reed Warrior” by Marianna Tarish, showing a soldier riding a zebra from the Askania-Nova nature reserve (Kherson region), carrying a watermelon shield and wielding a reed spear in the marshes surrounding Kherson.

Different Cities Different Voices – Omaha

Omaha skyline

For our latest edition of Different Cities Different Voices, a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the United States through the voices of local creators and innovators, we are putting the spotlight on Omaha, Nebraska. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the USA, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

First, an introduction from our New Music USA program council member Amanda DeBoer.

Amanda DeBoer (photo by Aleksandr Karjaka)

Amanda DeBoer

Growing up in Omaha, my first memories of live performance include a touring Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar and the annual Omaha Community Playhouse production of The Christmas Carol (legendary around these parts). I performed in my first community theatre production when I was 13 (Brigadoon at the Ralston Community Theater), and the Dundee Dinner Theater production of Fiddler on the Roof when I was 14. After that, I lived and breathed high school show choir and theater until I moved to Chicago to study at DePaul University when I turned 18.

I moved back to Omaha for love in May 2012, and hadn’t been involved in the local music scene at all after leaving, so I didn’t have much context for what to expect. I was energized and ready build something of value in a community of artists and appreciators that often feel invisible. I was convinced (and remain convinced) that outsider art belongs everywhere and to everyone, and felt driven to dedicate my life-force to experimental performance in the middle of a very conservative part of the world. With a little luck and a badass team (much love to the originals, Stacey, Kate, and Aubrey), Omaha Under the Radar pulled off our first annual festival in 2014 with a budget of less than $8,000. For nearly 10 years, often by the skin of our teeth, we continued to showcase local and national artists at our annual festival, concert series, and educational workshops. And now, I’m both excited and heartbroken to announce that my husband and I will be moving our family to Chicago in 2023 and passing on the organization, in a new form, to my co-founder and co-organizer Stacey Barelos.

When I moved home, I quickly realized that I had much to learn. Omaha Under the Radar was curated through a free application process, and we always received a fascinating mix of applications. Since there wasn’t a big local community for contemporary classical music, we connected with theatre folks, jazz musicians, electronic artists, indie rock kids, and all sorts of people that we never would have connected with if we’d stayed siloed in one niche genre. Our goal was to feature 50% local and 50% non-local artists at every festival, to encourage a cross-pollination of individuals, to carve pathways for local artists to build connections outside Nebraska, and to put a spotlight on the artists doing beautiful, high-level work in the region.

Aside from steak and Warren Buffett, Omaha is often recognized for its indie rock scene including artists like Conor Oberst and the folks at Saddle Creek Records. There has historically been a robust jazz scene in North Omaha, where there has been an arts resurgence thanks to folks like Brigitte McQueen at the Union for Contemporary Art, Marcey Yates at Culxr House, Dana Murray at North Omaha Music and Arts, Michelle Troxclair and the folks at Benson Theater, and others. There is a small but mighty experimental music scene comprised of curious minds and musical omnivores that you will also find sitting in with rock bands and popping up at singer-songwriter open mics (shout out to Aly Peeler, the queen of Omaha open mics). It all feels loose and fluid in the way that small communities often do. Everyone borrowing and sharing and popping up in lots of projects.

Omaha artists and organizations have an outsized impact when evaluated against the resources available locally. Thankfully, some of the larger organizations like KANEKO, Nebraska Arts Council, Amplify Arts, and a handful of others have dedicated their resources to uplifting the local community. Without them, I’m not sure Omaha Under the Radar, and many other small organizations, would exist. We’re lucky to have some fantastic music and art venues like The Slowdown, The Jewell, The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Waiting Room, Reverb Lounge, Project Project, Pet Shop Gallery, and more. The independent artist community is exceptionally intrepid and inventive, finding inspiration and ways forward where there seem to be none. Starting venues in old car washes and all sorts of unlikely (and possibly ill-advised) places. Pulling events together out of thin air. Building community and growing the audience one person at a time.

As happy as I am to enter the next chapter of my life, I am also gutted to be moving on from this community. It sometimes feels like “us against the world” around here, and I’ll miss the comradery that comes with pooling our resources and building something progressive in a decidedly unprogressive place. Cities like Omaha, and the local artists that make the community vibrant, deserve to not only be seen, but celebrated and supported. The folks in this article are all artists, organizers, curators, and educators who show up for the community and build new pathways. They breathe life into any project or collaboration they are part of and make connections between people and ideas where they didn’t exist before. All cities need people like them, especially these smaller scenes which can thrive and grow based on the presence of a single person.

Mary Lawson a.k.a. Mesonjixx holding a microphone

Mary Lawson a.k.a. Mesonjixx (photo by Bridget McQuillan)

Mary Lawson a.k.a. Mesonjixx

Omaha seemed like a natural progression from Lincoln. I was considering living expenses and it was the best option for me at that time. Not only financially was I considering Omaha, but being close to family. Most of my family live and work in Lincoln.

Omaha’s music scene is different from other scenes I’ve experienced in other places because of the room that there is for growth. Omaha to me has a lot of room to grow and a lot of room for everyone to try out their ideas. There are many creative corners that have yet to be filled. Working for The Union for Contemporary Art and Hi-Fi House were such gifts when I first moved to Omaha in 2018. It was in these spaces that I was able to get to know the working artists in music and visual art. Having the opportunity to professionally develop my DIY grassroots-curatorial style at The Union has really illuminated for me how important my work as an artist/arts administrator and advocate is to me. Hi-Fi House was a safe space for me to share ideas and to speak openly about the injustices that I observed, been witness to and in ways experienced as a Black femme in music, in Nebraska. I hold both organizations and their leadership with deep gratitude and respect. Omaha needs to continue to honor these creative spaces by supporting the work and the artists that show up for them.

The challenges in the last two years have been finding how to integrate all that we learned about accessibility challenges in music and art/culture, oppressive systems at play in all of the spaces and places we want to share and enjoy art/artistic expression, humanity and our need to fight for equality for all…public school education and historical truth/FACTS!

It seems like there has been quite the dip in interest when it comes to being responsible for each other in the ways that we were being introduced to, during the first two years of the pandemic. There is no pursuit anymore to repair, reckon and confront oppressive systems that keep us in a cycle of failing each other. We need to be reminded of how necessary we all are, and how no oppression or struggle of one group of people is superior to another and that the only way to change that which does not serve us all, is to work slowly, thoughtfully and with unwavering care.

Music picks…

Mesonjixx: “August Manchester”

BXTH: “Dear Little Brother”

Keith Rodger standing near a door

Keith Rodger

Keith Rodger

I was born and raised in Omaha. Right when I was ready to move to NYC, I heard of some great individuals working on a building a recording studio, the place I was trying to find full-time work in. I stayed and helped them grow what is now known as Make Believe Studios.

I think the biggest advantage of Omaha’s music scene is that we can manifest (literally) anything more affordably. The climate and opportunities allow entrepreneurs to build businesses efficiently. There isn’t much of a “music industry” here to maintain a large creative population, but if you are an individual who works in larger markets, you can make Omaha a home-base and navigate the country with ease. There is still a ton of room for the city to grow, and that comes with establishing more businesses that focus on the music industry specifically.

Couple of examples: Bemis Center was able to acquire funding to build and operate a venue called LOW END which focuses on showcasing talent based in the experimental sound art and music realm. We’ve been able to bring artists from all around the world. This is very new to the Midwest coming from a city of our size. Bemis also does a great job taking care of the artists that come through. Midwest hospitality is a very real thing.

Make Believe Studios recently launched a software division and has teamed up with Sontec and Metric Halo to develop game changing software for audio engineers. People have been copying Sontec’s work for years but never got the official endorsement until Make Believe stepped in. They are the first and only to accomplish this.

Omaha had a very unique rollercoaster ride the past two/three years. I can say that this year was one of the busiest I’ve had in a very long time. I’ve had to say “no” more than “yes” and I think that was a reaction of businesses and projects that were paused in 20-21 then resumed this year. We didn’t come out of the situation unscathed, but having a smaller population made it much less stressful to navigate for the creative community than a major market.

Music picks…

We The People: “Misunderstood”

We The People is a group I worked very closely these past few years as an engineer and performer. Eddie Moore is one of the kings of KC. Tracks from this album ended up on the TV show “Bel Air”.

Dinner Party: “Freeze Tag”

Dinner Party is comprised of Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, and Kamasi Washington. Terrace is an Omaha native and drives a ton of influences from our jazz scene. This album was mastered at Make Believe Studios. Had a great time listening to this one being worked on.

The Real Zebos: “Indie Girls”

The Real Zebos is an Omaha based band that has really taken off. They have proven to have a strong work ethic and very creative drive to make songs that are fun to listen to. I think they will be the next to rise from the city. I had the pleasure of working on their first record. The follow up titled “no style” is where this single lives.

Ameen Wahba playing an electric guitar.

Ameen Wahba

Ameen Wahba

I chose to move back to Omaha following living in the suburbs of Philadelphia during high school because college was cheaper, I was dating someone living in Iowa, and had played bass in a band in Omaha (where my mother and grandparents live) over winter break – so, to put it simply, it made sense. I continued to live here through undergraduate and graduate school and now have built friendships and a community that feel supportive and encouraging. It is comfortable and familiar.

I think Omaha is different, particularly pre-pandemic, in that a rapper and a punk band and outsider folk artist and a singer-songwriter could be on the same bill and folks are generally like “sweet”. Because of its too-big-to-be-small and too-small-to-be-big size, the scene gets a little more porous than perhaps other (bigger) cities and I love that. I feel like I’ve been pretty privileged in this regard but, in general, I also think getting a show booked is a lot easier in Omaha than in other major cities – the barrier to entry seems less restrictive. This has been true for my solo project Little Ripple, which can be midi guitar or sampler or acoustic guitar or electric guitar depending on the set, the diminished 7th freaky pop trio I’m in called Sgt. Leisure, and the “rock music band” Thick Paint I play guitar in which is currently split between here and Atlanta. Lastly, the experimental music scene in Omaha has strong support despite what can otherwise be a consumerist and dull city culture in general, largely due to the work of Amanda DeBoer-Bartlett and Stacey Barelos in hosting Omaha Under The Radar which has hosted folks from all over the country (world?) for many years.

I think there are a lot of pros and cons to how the pandemic hit the Omaha music scene – I feel that change was necessary but I also feel that folks are still trying to make sense of it, at least myself. To be real, I was really living it up during the pandemic: sleeping 9 hours a day, running, focusing on art, and not really working. The biggest challenge for me, both before, during, after (?) the pandemic is finding an artistic community that feels authentic and cohesive, again – pros and cons. I think there are definitely strong “scenes” here but never have felt I really fit into any of them. I think, as a result of the past 2 years, folks have begun to be more intentional about building community, having lost it in some ways, and I see the little ways in which those seeds are manifesting now, which is nice. An example of this that comes to my mind is Mary Lawson (aka Mesonjixx) who is hosting shows in every day spaces around big topics, like housing justice, and partnering with the organizations and artists around these things, super inspiring.

I had entered into my career as a psychotherapist within the past 2 years so there has been some reidentification and soul-searching about who I am as an artist/therapist/person. I don’t know if I’ve really overcome these challenges yet – the more questions I ask the more questions I find. If anything, I think the work I’m doing is to be more comfortable in these challenges, in the not knowing, than any particular solution itself.

Music picks…

My recommendation is “Crybaby” by S1SW:

My shared track for myself is “see what you say” by Sgt. Leisure:

or, for a solo track, “You See” by Little Ripple:

Stacey Barelos standing in front of a painting.

Stacey Barelos

Stacey Barelos

I grew up in Omaha but moved away for a number of years, never imagining that my future would be in Nebraska. After recent visits home, I discovered that Omaha was much more vibrant than the city I had left. I decided to give it another try and was ecstatic that I did. Omaha continues to be a place that surprises. Luckily for me, I arrived at the same time as the launching of the Omaha Under the Radar festival and am so thankful to Amanda DeBoer Bartlett for the opportunity to be involved. Then in the second year of the festival, I launched Soundry, an adult education workshop that introduces people to the world of experimental music. Now in its eighth year, the program has since expanded to workshops throughout the city and region.

What’s great about Omaha is that it’s open to experimentation and discovery. Without the weight of a storied experimental music scene, Omaha is delightfully game for anything and everyone. Unique venues
that help facilitate this discovery include Kaneko, an interdisciplinary cultural center in the heart of downtown, or smaller multipurpose cultural venues such as Project, Project and the Union.

Ironically, the key to the COVID experience was and has been collaboration. While so much of my previous compositional output was created in a solitary way, I have discovered the joy of working and
creating new works with others. While this seems antithetical to the months of isolation, Omaha creatives really came together in new ways, particularly by being innovative with technology. I find now that there’s a special bond with any and all of these people and that the relationships
from that time were solidified through the struggle we shared.

Music picks…

“Joan Gets Covid” – A collaboration between myself and Jay Kreimer, a multidisciplinary artist based out of Lincoln, Nebraska.

“The Trip” by Dereck Higgins

Dereck is an Omaha legend and an inspiration for all artists in the city. His style is eclectic or as Omaha magazine states, Dereck is “Omaha’s own post-punk Prometheus”. This track is from his album Psychedelic Sound.

Dereck Higgins standing outside near trees.

Dereck Higgins

Dereck Higgins

I’m a native of Omaha and that has a lot to do with why I stayed. It’s home turf. Omaha is not widely known for anything musical but it has quite a rich history. My parents were musicians so I grew up around the likes of Buddy Miles, Preston Love and Wynonie Harris. We had guests in our home like John Coltrane (yes) and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Being exposed to a wide variety of music through my parents set me up for a long journey of listening, playing, learning and growing.

I’ve been active in the music scene since the 70’s firstly as a bass player and notably a black man playing rock music. This was newsworthy, the state is very red. I have not allowed this to deter me and as a result I have played everything from jazz to blues to rock to metal to punk to electronic to total improvisation. If anything, the small town atmosphere led to my developing into a composer as well as musician, free to pursue my interests in a non-competitive setting.

During COVID I focused on completing a new album which was released in 2021 (Future Still). The lack of gigs was noticable and I augmented my composing and recording with some commissions for dance that were performed the following year.

Music picks…

Excerpt B from AM 2: The “C” Sessions

Dereck Higgins: “Ramped”

James Schroeder: “Mesa Boy”

Alex Jochim on a street in Omaha

Alex Jochim

I am an Omaha, NE based photographer, community organizer, and gallery operator. I am the Co-Founder and Director of BFF Omaha (formerly known as “Benson First Friday”), and have also had a hand in establishing and operating the Benson Creative District, Petshop Gallery & Studios, the MaMO Gallery,
the BFF Gallery, Trudy’s artist studios, the New American Arts Festival, PETFEST, and have been involved with Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards and Benson Out Back.

I was born and bred in Omaha, attending Omaha Public Schools and then graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Although I call Omaha home, I have traveled extensively and lived part-time in many places around the world including New York City and Cadiz, Spain. What keeps me in Omaha is a sense of home, community, affordability, fun, and the possibly-hard-to-understand endless opportunities that abound in Omaha. Omaha is a very supportive community for entrepreneurs and anyone with a passion project, which has definitely played a role in my residency here.

Omaha has always had a thriving music scene, and it was definitely one of the reasons I chose to call Benson my home for many years. When I moved back to Omaha from NYC in 2009, Benson had 4 or 5 music venues and a tight-knit community that welcomed me into its arms. Seeing live music and interacting with musicians and creatives on a day to day basis was a blast – and inspired me to directly support the music scene myself and to begin supporting Omaha’s visual artists too. In 2012 I co-founded Benson First Friday, now called BFF Omaha, along with two DIY artist-run spaces: Petshop and Sweatshop. Sweatshop took off as a popular underground live music space, hosting local and traveling shows almost nightly. Sweatshop taught me everything there was to know about live music, working with musicians (if you know, you know), and overall operating a venue. To fund the space, we hosted “SWEATFEST” in 2013 and 2014, which were all-day music festivals encompassing local and national musicians, and other oddball fundraising tactics like spaghetti wrestling. The vibe was very gritty and very DIY. Sweatshop ended its run in 2015, but BFF took over the space, expanding Petshop Gallery next door, and reviving the original music festival fundraisers (in 2017 I think?) as what they are known as today: PETFEST.

PETFEST has lived on as BFF’s largest fundraiser since then, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. In August 2020, PETFEST was Omaha’s (maybe Nebraska’s?) first live music festival since the pandemic had begun. To avoid a super-spreader we limited entry to 50 tickets, required masks, moved to an all outdoor set up, encouraged social distancing, doused everyone in hand sanny, and used those contactless thermometers at the gate. Although it was a pain in the ass, it ended up being a beautiful gathering of community members and instilled hope for a revival of live music beyond the pandemic. We were determined to be present, persistent, innovative, and alleviate ourselves from the then sad solitary zoom-confined world that it was. We’ve continued to remain innovative with all of our programming over the past two years, allowing PETFEST to develop into a program beast of its own. For more on PETFEST and BFF Omaha, I encourage you to listen to an interview with myself and Zach Schmieder, PETFEST’s music booker, on Riverside Chats.

Music picks…

A Sweatshop staple from back in the day – Plack Blague: “Queer Nation”

A newer act that we’re hosting at our annual Ball – Specter Poetics: “Meet Halfway”

A band that currently practices at Petshop – Bug Heaven: “Quitter”

How to Commission New Works and Where to Find New Pieces

A montage of a photo of Kate Amrine holding a trumpet, a sheet of music, and a laptop keyboard.

I have commissioned over 30 new pieces for solo trumpet, trumpet and electronics, and chamber pieces for various groups in which I perform. (E.g. I am the co-leader of eGALitarian Brass and a member of Spark Duo). I’ve been fortunate to commission Niloufar Nourbakhsh, inti figgis-vizueta, Cassie Wieland, and Ruby Fulton – just to name a few. As a freelancer, I have premiered many new works with orchestras and other groups across New York City. I also have released two solo albums featuring new music by many incredible composers including several pieces of my own. I’m very passionate about encouraging my students and friends to find new repertoire for their instrument and I’m grateful to New Music USA for allowing me to share this process with you.

In this article, I am going to cover how to commission new music and where to find new pieces. If you have never commissioned a piece before, this article should be a good place for you to start. If you are already commissioning new pieces as a part of your musical practice, perhaps you will learn something new that you can incorporate next time. Let’s get into it.

How to commission a new work

  • Pick a composer who is most appropriate for the type of composition you are looking for

Make sure the person you are considering is great at the specific type of composition you are looking for. Some questions to ponder when making that decision – have they written this kind of music before? Do they typically write for my instrumentation? Do they have the time to spend on a new work?

  • Be specific about what you want (ex. A 5 minute trumpet and piano work)

As with any relationship, it is difficult to end up with what you want if you aren’t clear about what you are looking for. Be specific about the instrumentation, your technology capabilities, the length of the piece, etc.

  • Make sure you have an adequate time frame in mind for the commission.

Once you have a performance date in mind, make sure to allow for enough time for the composer to write the piece and to workshop the piece with them. You don’t want to push the composer to finish it in a hurry and you don’t want to run out of enough time to practice it.

  • Draft a contract with all the important details (pay, deadline, recording rights, exclusivity period for performance or recording, etc.)

Without a contract, it is easy for things to get lost, delayed, or misunderstood.  Even if you are a student, this is a great time to practice drafting an agreement with your guidelines, and ensuring that everything will come together as you had planned. Want to make sure you don’t miss anything about best practices when commissioning? Check out this guide from (the New Music USA legacy organization) Meet the Composer:

Deciding on the fee: 

If you are in a position where you can afford to pay for the new commission either through a granting organization or your own budget, New Music USA has a very handy calculator to figure out the best fee to agree on. This formula takes into account the style of music, the instrumentation, and the length of the piece and presents you with a professional level fee estimate. If you are commissioning a piece last minute or with any time crunch involved, it is always best to add more to the fee if possible.

If you are just starting out and are unable to come to a traditional agreement with financial compensation, you could discuss an alternate agreement with the composer. While many established professionals may not agree to this sort of agreement and I certainly don’t want to encourage anyone to work for free, it can be difficult both for early career composers and performers to find paid opportunities where everyone is compensated fairly. In these cases, perhaps in exchange for writing the piece, performers can commit to providing the composer with a high quality recording that can be used to further promote the work as well as guarantee that there will be several performances of the piece throughout the year which will at least enable the composer to collect performing rights revenue.

Why should I commission a new work or play music other than the standard pieces? 

  • Commissioning new pieces is more rewarding. After commissioning a new work, you receive music that you specifically are interested in, that is crafted for you and your strengths, that nobody else has played or even heard before.
  • Commissioning new works is more meaningful. It shows your audience where your priorities lie and what your interests are. This is an opportunity to build a new repertoire for your instrument that is representative of diverse voices.
  • Commissioning new works makes you unique. Nobody can play a piece that was written for you better than the way you can, because you set the standard for how it should go. Performing new repertoire or finding gems of the repertoire that are performed less often separates you from other people who play the same instrument.
  • Commissioning new works is more impactful towards future musicians. You are adding new repertoire for your instrument that will exist forever for others to perform and learn from. This is a great opportunity to fill gaps in what is truly needed in your musical corner of the world – whether that is a new work for trumpet and drum set or an opera for clown and chamber ensemble.

How to build a recital program:

I recently turned thirty and I realized that I had performed almost thirty recitals as a soloist. I love playing new music and building new programs. When building your recital or chamber program, there are many things to consider.

  • Theme

Perhaps you are looking for music by women composers or music by composers from New York City. Your theme could even be something like fanfares or music for springtime.

  • Requirements for your program

When I was a student, there were always detailed recital requirements where you needed to include one Baroque piece on every program or one piece written after 1950. Pay attention to these requirements when putting together your program. If not, you might end up needing to do an extra recital.

  • Time of year or setting

Is this program happening around a certain holiday? Is this performance in a church or a bar where the programming could be different than your school’s recital hall?

  • Equipment / technology –

Are you performing in a place without a piano? Do you have a speaker to play pieces with electronics or will the venue have one you can connect to? Have you tested your electronics prior to the performance?

  • GuestsWho will be joining you? If this performance is 100% just you, it would be wise to choose repertoire you can play for an hour with minimal breaks.
  • Length of performanceSometimes we are tasked with putting together a 60 minute program and sometimes we are asked to play two pieces on someone else’s program. How much music do you really need for this event?What to play? For a standard solo recital, that could look like this:

    2 big pieces = 30 – 40 minutes total
    1 chamber piece = 10 min
    2 smaller pieces: 10 min

    In order of the program, that could translate to:
    1 smaller piece
    1 big piece
    -intermission –
    1 smaller piece
    1 big piece
    1 chamber piece

I have seen many cases where people try to program the three hardest and most taxing pieces for their instrument and then pay the price for it by being too tired by the end of the program. Alternating larger works with smaller pieces will definitely help make sure that you don’t program the most tiring works in a row for your entire program.

If you are not able to commission a new piece but still want to play new music, then it is time to do some research. Ask other musicians who play your instrument for their suggestions on repertoire. You can also ask your teacher or other mentors for their suggestions as well. After that, you may have to do even more research and be a bit more specific about where you are looking for new music. Listen to albums of performers you admire and see what they recorded. Check out your instrument’s conferences and see what composers and new pieces were featured or recognized. Lastly, find new works in various repertoire lists for each instrument. (See below!)

I put together this list of resources on finding new repertoire. There is something for every instrument on there and a few great general new music resources. I hope you find some new music to incorporate into your programming soon.

General Repertoire Resources:


Black Music History Library – collection of books, articles, documentaries, series, podcasts and more about the Black origins of traditional and popular music dating from the 18th century to present day. 


And We Were Heard – Sheet Music/Recordings for Orchestra and Wind Band


Music by Black Composers – Sheet Music, Composer Directory and more


Programming Resources Catalog by Alex Shapiro


The Spirituals Database


McGill’s List of Resources – includes some instruments not listed below


Rowan’s List of Resources – includes anthologies, theory examples by women and more


Yale’s List of Resources – includes orchestral and vocal works


Brass Repertoire Resources:


Trombone Works by Black Composers – Massive Spreadsheet of Names and Pieces


Inclusive Repertoire for Low Brass – compiled by Joanna Hersey of IWBC


Trombone Compositions by Women Composers – compiled by Natalie Mannix 


Tenor and Bass Trombone works by People of color and Women Composers – compiled by Douglas Yeo


Trombone Rep by Black Composers


“The Contribution of Twentieth Century American Composers to the Solo Trumpet Repertoire,” dissertation by Orrin M. Wilson


Catalogue of Trumpet Works by Underrepresented Composers – by Ashley Killam


Trumpet Music by Women Composers – compiled by Amy Dunker


Works with Horn by Female Composers – compiled by Lin Foulk


Brass Quintet Literature by Female Composers – compiled by Boulder Brass


Brass Music by Black Composers


Chamber Works by Women featuring Trumpet

Woodwind Repertoire Resources: 


Flute Music by Transgender, Gender Diverse, and Women Composers and/or Black, Indigenous, and Composers of Color by Timothy Hagen

Flute Music by BIPOC Composers (click on “Flute Works” tab) by University of South Carolina

Spotlights (Black composers): Flutes by Institute for Composer Diversity


Oboe Music by Transgender, Gender Diverse, and Women Composers and/or Black, Indigenous, and Composers of Color by Zachary Pulse

Oboe Music by BIPOC Composers (click on “Oboe Works” tab) by University of South Carolina

Spotlights (Black composers): Oboes by Institute for Composer Diversity


Clarinet Music by Black Composers by Kyle Rowan

Clarinet Works by Black Composers by Marcus Eley

Spotlights (Black composers): Clarinets by Institute for Composer Diversity

101 Clarinet Compositions Written by Women Composers by Jenny Maclay

Clarinet method and étude books written by women by Jenny Maclay

Like Moons and Like Suns: Clarinet Repertoire by Women Composers Honors thesis by Sophie Press


Bassoon Music by Transgender, Gender Diverse, and Women Composers and/or Black, Indigenous, and Composers of Color by Brandon Rumsey

Bassoon Music by BIPOC Composers (click on “Bassoon Works” tab) by University of South Carolina

Spotlights (Black composers): Bassoons by Institute for Composer Diversity


Saxophone Music by Transgender, Gender Diverse, and Women Composers and/or Black, Indigenous, and Composers of Color by Thomas Kurtz

Spotlights (Black composers): Saxophones by Institute for Composer Diversity

String Repertoire Resources;

String Repertoire by Black Indigenous Musicians Of Color

Strings / Chamber Repertoire by BIPOC Composers

Music by Black Composers

Violin Music By Women, edited by Dr. Cora Cooper

The Blue Book & Green Book of Violin Tunes, edited by Bonnie Greene

Folk Strings (for solo or string ensemble), arranged by Joanne Martin

The Anthology of Afghan Folk Songs, edited and arranged by William Harvey

Underrepresented Composer Database For Viola

Repertoire for Unaccompanied Solo Violin – Compiled by Rachel Barton Pine and Dr. Megan E. Hill for the RBP Foundation

Repertoire for Violin and Orchestra – “Compiled by Rachel Barton Pine and Dr. Megan E. Hill for the RBP Foundation. . . . This list is currently limited to works for acoustic violin and traditional symphony or chamber orchestra.”

Composer/Performer Database from Bass Players for Black Composers. Site includes links to scores and media.

An annotated catalog of works by women composers for the double bass– Rebeca Tavares Furtado’s doctoral document. Annotated catalog begins on page 34.

Sphinx Catalog of Latin-American Cello Works

Cello Works by Black Composers


Percussion Pieces by Black Composers – Percussion solo and ensemble music; also includes links to other resources and the ability to suggest additions.

Percussion Ensemble Works by Women-Identifying Composers – “Compiled/hosted by James Doyle, an open document of percussion ensemble works by women-identifying composers. Detailed instrumentation lists.” (PAS)


A Seat at the Piano – Promoting inclusion in piano repertoire, this is a deep resource for pianists, pedagogues, and curious music appreciators to explore.

Piano music of Africa and the African diaspora (2007-08) by William Chapman Nyaho

dublab – Composing to the Tempo of Time: The Philosophy of Musical Transcendence in the Ancient Griot World 

Tana Yonas sitting on the floor against a wall

A whole mosaic of global folk traditions offers contemporary musicians and composers a rich palette to pull from and evolve. Though have the engines of popular music culture unknowingly skipped past the heartbeat of what makes the music of these cultures so powerful? The implications of the surge in interest in West African traditional griot music in the United States, Europe, and throughout Africa in the past decade offer much in this analysis of how cultural intersections affect the study and experience of music. In the case of the griot performers, they are born into an order of mystic historians that codify music and poetry with the intent to cultivate public knowledge within an oral tradition going back centuries. This intimate look into the soulful mechanics of the ancient griot music culture will explore their comprehensive philosophy of music composition and what leaders in their community fear are the rapidly fading temporal threads that link them to their ancestors.

To properly contextualize the ethos of griot music today, it’s important to begin with the Mandinka people of the powerful Mali Empire in the early 13th century, established by the first king, Sundiata Keita. Griots, also known as jelis in the Mande language, were not only the living scrolls of history for the royal court but also worked with a singular patron as a trusted advisor. Keita himself was advised by a griot named Balla Fasséké Kouyaté, who played the n’goni. This stringed instrument, made of a singular gourde, goat skin, and wood, is the predecessor of the beloved North American Bbanjo and was used to induce meditative states that would assist leaders in decisions regarding governance and conflict. Kouyaté’s lineage still keeps his teachings alive through a direct line of descendant masters who trace their teaching back to him.

Sirfio Sissoko is a jeli and kora player living in the United States, and his father was the great Gambian kora player Djelimady Sissoko, and his brother Ballaké Sissoko is regarded as one of the greatest living musicians playing the instrument. He shared “that at first, it was just singing. there was no instrument. But from there, they said, ‘We have to find an instrument to create a melody. To make it something nicer instead of just preaching.’ So we turned it into music so that everybody could get into it, not only the king but the society in general.”

The empire and the resulting Mande culture expanded outside the plateaus and plains and across the West African Sahel to rule over modern-day Senegal, southern Mauritania, Mali, northern Burkina Faso, western Niger, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and northern Ghana. There are currently over 11 million Mandinka people across these regions, and griots still live and work for the people in their communities. Each jeli learned in the musical tradition, commonly has one particular specialty in either singing or with a range of instruments; the kora is the most sonically distinct.

The kora is a stately instrument. Its large wooden staff towers over the player and is held together by the stubborn tension of its 21-25 nylon strings. The strings themselves are most commonly made out of fishing line. The player sits or stands with the kora directly over the center of their body, and both hands are used to play strings over a large rotund gourd that amplifies and resonates its piercing tones, producing notes with a harp-like quality. There is nowhere where the kora is more important than in the Gambia, where it’s the main accompaniment to jeli storytelling. For Sissoko, the “kora is very intimate,” he added, “It has a very soft sound. We sometimes use pickups and play with a band, but the kora is mellow. When we used to play it for the kings in the empire, it could be played in the middle of the night when they were meditating together and talking.”

Since language wasn’t ever used to record the empire’s victories, document rituals, or share the kingdom’s lore, curious researchers have had to go to the former lands of these ancient West African communities to hear these stories. Dr. Thomas Hale taught African Literature at the University of Pennsylvania and worked to document the great epics enshrined in the minds and souls of griots’ songs in the early ‘80s. Tooled with a borrowed audio recorder, he traveled to Senegal, and while on the search for history, he also witnessed the telling of an extensive catalog of songs detailing family lineages and a world of the ceremony. Griots act as “a cultural glue in two senses. To link the past to the present, and second, you can’t have any kind of function or event without them,” Hale shared. Each song is composed with an inextricable lesson, as a living repository molded by time.

The tuning of the kora itself is as malleable as it is dynamic — A likely result of the absence of written language. There are 4-5 standard heptatonic tunings, with 7 notes in each octave, although the player can adapt those tunings to suit the pitch of their own singing voice or that of an accompanying vocalist/instruments. This encourages the player to explore an endless array of options and expands what they can experiment with sonically. There would be little benefit to finding the same tuning as another player since compositions were never notated, though some standards did call for a particular scale. Whether the player was using one of the standard tunings or if they elected to create one, each string was typically tuned relative to the bass string. One standard tuning is known as Silaba, and it’s the most similar to the western major scale. The picture below illustrates the Silaba tuning and how the strings are arranged with the bass note at the bottom of the diagram.

A diagram showing the tunings of the strings of the kora as they are arranged on the instrument (on the left and right).

Lucy Durán is a London-based professor of ethnomusicology, filmmaker, and music producer and warns, “the whole notion of composition is very tricky in cultures of oral tradition.” She’s immersed herself in Mande music since the 1970s and has watched as the world simultaneously discovered and fell in love with the kora particularly. She has also produced several records for another kora master, Toumani Diabate. Even though there is a certain measure of tradition musicians are expected to adhere to, evolution is expected. And in Durán’s experience working, “with Jeli kora players and musicians, there is a certain stock repertoire. It’s a bit like the blues if you like. But then, how do you make it your own, and what are the ethical issues around that?”.

In the case of the brilliant record she named and produced in 1998 for Diabaté and Ballaké Sissoko called New Ancient Strings, they recorded “reworkings of the standard old repertoire, but in a very individual way. There was a bit of rivalry between Toumani and Ballaké, as they had grown up together and lived next door. There’s a wall that separates their houses, but they have very different personalities and different ways of playing. And they were quite competitive,” Durán Shared. One composition called “Kita Kaira” was previously played by Diabaté’s father and Batrou Sékou Kouyaté in the landmark 1970 French recording that translates to Ancient Strings; demonstrating how compositions develop in jeli music. Toumani Diabaté recorded the same song in 1988 and even gave the record the same name, and the juxtaposition of each in three different decades shows how lineage, style, tradition, competition, and musical growth relate to one another in their culture.

“Kayra” performed by Sidiki Diabaté and Batrou Sékou Kouyaté (1970)

“Kaira” performed by Toumani Diabaté (1988)

“Kita Kaira” performed by Toumani Diabaté and Ballaké Sissoko (1988)

Competition is celebrated among jeli players and can push musicians to go deeper to produce moments of ecstasy in themselves and in spectators. In the jeli tradition, these ecstatic moments can inspire players into a temporary or permanent state where they are a nagaraya, or master. Competition is only one route to mastery, but at the core is the ability to transmit history. For Sirfio Sissoko, when asked what is behind great music, he shared, “It’s the message. You have to attach the message to it. And if you can change or touch a few hearts,” then according to his tradition, you’ve succeeded. In part, this is supported by how the music is taught, and why so many musicians who primarily have a western education have difficulty learning many folk traditions, and that is certainly the case in Mande music. In classical music education, details of rhythm, pitch, and harmonic principles are written by a composer in a classically academic and predictable way. For many African musical traditions, like in the case of the jelis, special attention is placed on how the rhythm feels in the body, communal or personal history, connection to spirit, and the perceived sonic language of each instrument.

In the case of the kora, you can tell a story with the instrument alone. It is wholly possible to play the kora in a way that sounds beautiful, but it would sound like gibberish to jelis learned in the way of the instrument. Sirfio Sissoko explains, “for example, let’s say you’re having a good time in Mexico, and we are having dinner. I could create something about it, and play it with my kora. So am I speaking in my language, and I could let you know what the kora is saying.” There is an essential layer that gets stripped away when music or instruments from this culture are played out of context and without the foundation of the tradition. After all, there’s real power in music.

“They say that in the old days, the great masters could break open a door, or all the leaves would fall off the trees. It’s an acknowledgment of the power of music, and we all know that music has power. If music didn’t have power, why would the Taliban ban it? They ban it because they’re afraid of it. Why are women not allowed to sing in public in Iran? Because they’re afraid of it. Women have powerful voices and can move people,”, Durán shared. And that is acknowledged in the Malian discourse. Part of why Malian music has become such a global phenomenon so quickly was because in 2012, when a jihadist alliance announced itself in Mali and immediately banned all music, they effectively forced musicians in the country to seek exile in foreign lands in places like the European Union. This affected other communities like that of the Tuareg people, whose music saw the same rise in popularity in the same period.

The culture has shifted to take advantage of the economic opportunities that came with this, and “Now, when you look at the whole idea of who is great and who you need to sound like and who you need to learn from, it’s likely to be the person who goes on stage and plays to a full stadium; not the person who plays more lyrically and perhaps more beautifully and with more soul, but is only attracting audiences of a hundred,” shared Durán. She added that if musicians don’t have “15,000 followers, they’re a nobody.”

Children wishing to learn these instruments are traditionally taught solely by masters in the family, though most griot children now supplement those learnings with recordings and what they see on the television on their cellphones, “and the reality is that nowadays everyone learns from recordings. Most people don’t learn face to face, and there aren’t very many masters left,”, shared Durán. She added that a child might be talented, but many times they’re “a complete carbon copy of one of the popular singers of the time and singing them exactly as they’re singing on television note for note. Even dancing exactly the way.”

Though still, children learning griot music are also saturated from childhood by the hundreds of standard classic songs that officiate weddings, bless births, and console those overcome with sorrow. They join their families in their duties and are able to experience the distinct character and place of each composition, and this is a large part of what has kept this tradition intact. The compositions themselves have less concern with the entertainment value of a song and instead focus on history and how to translate that into sound. This puts the culture at odds with the undiscerning and commerce-minded algorithms that rule today’s digital world.

To many who currently stand guard to the preservation of ancient traditions globally, this is a shared and undeniable reality. All over the world, interpersonal ties and customs are being exposed to an overwhelming barrage of not only images and sounds shared on social media, but also to the values that are implicitly shared by them. This disproportionately impacts communities like that of the Mande people, whose entire culture historically rests on oral traditions, making them more vulnerable to the visuality and the predatory psychology of apps like Tiktok, Instagram, and Facebook.

A thoughtful discourse is necessary to process the influence of the quickly changing economic conditions of folk traditions, and their exposure to a popular culture that has little consideration of its influence on communities newly integrated into global forums. Sirifo reflected, “I don’t want to lose it, and I will do everything in my power to keep that fire going. It’s okay to be open to other music, but at the same time, you want to keep the sense of your instrument and the culture behind it. Unfortunately, that’s fading away so rapidly with money, fame, the big stages, and everything else. And it’s a shame.” And though Durán wholeheartedly agrees with Sirifo, she admits, “there’s always, in every musical culture around the world, a resistance of the older generation to what the young generation is doing. And I think that’s healthy. And if it weren’t like that, then music would just die. There have to be young rebels who go against their parents and their elders.”

There is an undeniable quality to the traditional style of instrumentation for the kora. The focus is not on hurried fingers dancing on its strings and begging for applause. Instead, when an intent listener hears the meditative strums of a master, there is a palatable ease to the spirit that can take them “home,”, in the most meaningful interpretation of the word. The risk of this passive erasure threatens much more than the entrancing melodies of griot traditions since, in their societies, music is the only conduit that connects them with their societal values, rights of passage, and ancestral histories.

Different Cities Different Voices – Boston

Landscape of downtown Boston

For our latest edition of Different Cities Different Voices, a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators, we are putting the spotlight on Boston. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

Ashleigh Gordon surrounded by trees.

Ashleigh Gordon (photo by Daniel Callahan)

Ashleigh Gordon

I came to Boston in 2006, doe-eyed, impressionable, and excited to start my Masters in Viola at the New England Conservatory. While I was initially attracted to the city’s quaint charm, its throughline to key people, places, and moments in history have kept me here so long. There’s no shortage of museums to get lost in, stories to recount, and histories to explore and draw inspiration from. Plenty to feed my curiosity (which is a happy coincidence as it also feeds my creativity as a performer and artistic director).

Boston also introduced me to my good friend, NEC classmate, and composer/social justice artist Anthony R. Green. As two Black, twenty-somethings interested in new music/chamber music — and who just so happened to be alphabetical neighbors come graduation time — our paths were destined to cross. With an abundance of youthful energy, collective passion, and mutual interest in exploring culture and history, we created Castle of our Skins, a concert and education series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry. A decade later, I still get to feed my curiosity and explore culture as the organization’s Artistic/Executive Director and violist.

This Small Town-Big City has more arts and culture nonprofits per capita than New York City. More than 1,500 orgs ranging from the niche and widely varied to storied and well endowed. There’s seemingly a group for just about anything and an audience to follow it. While saturated to the point of being overcrowded (especially as it relates to dollars…), Boston has a way of making room for new ideas and voices, something Anthony and I were fortunate for ten years ago when we had an idea. You can hear one of those new ideas and up-and-coming voices below.

Like in any long-term relationship, Boston and I have had plenty of “love-to-hate” you moments over the nearly two decades of knowing each other! But Boston came through to support its creative workers over these pandemic years and continues to do so. While an arduous time filled with great uncertainty and responsibility as a non-profit leader, it also proved to be a creativity-inducing period filled with experimentation, due in no small part to the support I received from Boston and beyond. It still makes space for the interesting and new while keeping its sense of history – the good, bad, and complicated – in the forefront.

Music tracks
Anthony R. Green: On Top of a Frosted Hill
performed by Ashleigh Gordon (viola) and Joy Cline Phinney (piano)

Nebulous String Quartet featuring Kely Pinheiro: Berklee Two Track I Gratitude

Oliver Caplan

An outside photo of a group of musicians with various instruments with composer Oliver Caplan standing in the middle.

Oliver Caplan (standing in the center) with the musicians of Juventas.

I moved to Boston in 2004 for my graduate studies at the Boston Conservatory. Immediately, I fell in love with the city’s sense of place, a dynamic convergence of old and new. This is mirrored in Boston’s vibrant music scene, which is known for its unique strengths in both early and contemporary music. I suspect that Boston has the most classical music per capita of any U.S. city (using “classical” in the broadest sense of the word). On the contemporary front alone, we are home to over 40 ensembles with a mission that specifically includes new music!

Navigating Juventas through the pandemic has been challenging, but also thrilling. Our ensemble members share a deep conviction that it is essential to keep making music to help our community cope through this difficult time. In March 2020, during the initial lockdown, we quickly launched “Stay Home with Juventas,” a weekly solo concert, live-streamed from musicians’ homes. Most of us had never live-streamed anything before. Later that spring, in June 2020, we were one of the first ensembles in the world to reunite musicians in the same room for a live-streamed chamber concert. Our 2020-21 season was entirely virtual, broadcast from a recording studio in Boston, with CD quality audio and high definition video feeds from six cameras. Even though it was super scary, we kept the performances 100% live to maintain the special thrill and audience connection of live performance. While constantly adapting, we found silver linings. One of our live-stream concerts was viewed by over 7,000 people, an audience that was previously unimaginable for our small organization. In June 2021, eager to welcome back an in-person audience, we designed “Music in Bloom,” an outdoor performance experience at the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill. Over 1,000 people joined us in-person for a program of contemporary music by composers that are not broadly known to the general populace. We are bringing “Music in Bloom” back for a third year in 2023. Behind these successes has been an incredible amount of un-glamorous grunt work by our team. There was a point in the pandemic when we had trouble finding a space that would let us in to rehearse. We ended up rehearsing in an unheated church, musicians bundled up in long underwear, our pianist Julia working on an extremely out-of-tune piano. This is how much everyone cared.

With my own composing, one of the deepest disappointments was the necessary postponement of a 2020 program of my choral music, a special collaboration between Juventas and the New Hampshire Master Chorale. I had just finished several new works for the occasion and found myself waiting years to hear them. But I funneled my energy into recording a new album, Watershed, with chamber music inspired by favorite walks in nature. And that choral concert is now finally happening this fall, October 29, at Tuft’s Granoff Music Center in Medford, MA; and October 30 at the Colonial Theater in Laconia, NH!

My first work sample is a live performance of Watershed, Movement II “Calm,” the title work on my new album. I wrote this piece during the pandemic as an homage to the Mystic River, a place where I find solace and inspiration.

Nick Southwick, flute
Wolcott Humphrey, clarinet
Anne Howarth, horn
Minjin Chung, cello
Julia Scott Carey, piano

My second offering is an excerpt of Michael Gandolfi’s Line Drawings, performed live by Juventas in September 2019. Michael is a backbone of the Boston music scene, and one of my very favorite composers.

Wolcott Humphrey, clarinet
Olga Patramanska-Bell, violin
Julia Carey, piano

Aliana de la Guardia

Aliana de la Guardia

Aliana De La Guardia

Boston and I chose each other. I went there for school and that’s where my closest collaborations formed. It was the exact right place for me during my young adulthood and I received the kind of mentorship I needed to become who I am as an artist. I live outside the city now, but still consider myself a Boston-based artist. I return there often to present and perform new work.

Boston is my community, so of course I’m going to be partial. I haven’t been a part of any other community to compare it to, and I don’t really feel the need. It’s a collegial community, and so many of us perform together in various different ensembles. There’s always someone you know on the gig. It’s almost like one big shifting ensemble.

For Guerilla Opera, the pandemic was problematic, but we were inventive in our own way. We’re not the type of group that presents aria concerts or song recitals. Everything is about new and experimental work development and driving those works toward a fully designed, fully theatrical performance. So we experimented with works that were smaller in scale, with one two and three performers total. We experimented with film and video projects. We re-ran past productions and introduced a whole body of repertoire to new audiences. We experimented with online programming, including a performance series, streaming programs pairing short works together, virtual meet-ups, creative workshops for artists, and we were quite busy. Every month we had at least one event to bring our community together, and that is what it was really about for us -bringing the community together.

Music Recommendations:

Scene 1 from Marti Epstein’s Rumpelstiltskin (Guerilla Opera’s January 2022 Release)

Hannah Selin: Mid-Day featuring soprano Stephanie Lamprea

Neil Leonard playing a saxophone.

Neil Leonard

Neil Leonard

I came to Boston to study at New England Conservatory.  But my journey to Boston opened so many new doors for me.  While I love the saxophone and actively play solo and ensemble concerts, my first job out of school was at an art school.  While working in the computer arts lab at Massachusetts College of Art, I became involved in transdisciplinary art, and the early development of electronic music education in the age affordable computers. Being at an art college led to me creating music for multimedia collaborations with Tony Oursler, Magdalena Campos, and Sam Durant. I produced a concert by George Lewis and participated in studio visits with John Cage. At the same time, I spent weekend nights at Wally’s Cafe in Roxbury, where I played with Greg Osby, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Terence Blanchard. Within a few years, I developed a practice as a transdisciplinary artist, and it was my work in electronic music and multimedia installation that brought me to Berklee College of Music, where I have been a professor for 30 years, and the Artistic Director of the Berklee Interdisciplinary Art Institute.

Boston is home to a unique community of musicians, artists, curators and researchers, who come from all over the world, to work in colleges and universities in the area. A steady flow of fantastic guest lecturers and artists provides me with the opportunity to experience new art works and talk with compelling creators constantly.  Through collaborations from Boston I have worked in more than a dozen countries around the world, where I have played saxophone, composed music, and presented interdisciplinary work.  Recently, Fujiko Nakaya, a Japanese artist known for her fog sculptures, and member of the influential Experiments in Art and Technology group, heard my concert Sounding the Cloud with Scanner and Steven Vitiello, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. She asked me to make the quadraphonic sound composition Lavender Ruins, for her 12-week, outdoor fog sculpture, at the ruins of Frederic Law Olmstead’s athletic pavilion where Duke Ellington gave annual free concerts. Right before the pandemic, Williams College Museum of Art invited me to create Sonance for the Precession, a sound installation that was situated on top of Hopkins Observatory, the nation’s oldest extant observatory, and provided a context to reflect on how Hindu and Greek theories of astronomy and acoustics developed through intercultural exchange. I find that Boston’s artistic community encourages the experimentation, research-based practice, and site-specific work that I have been drawn to.

Some of the best young artists in the world come to develop their practice here, particularly those interested in contemporary music and art. I enjoy helping students, contributing to this critical stage of their growth and having them become colleagues after they leave. About twelve years ago, Berklee asked me to be the founding artistic director the college’s Interdisciplinary Arts Institute. Last fall, my students performed with the Harvard New Music. Later the same semester, my students collaborated in premiering original works made in collaboration with students at MIT’s Opera of the Future lab. The same semester, Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education visited our seminar and observed a student performance. Boston has been an excellent location for helping students learn to build cultural connections between artists from diverse communities and artistic backgrounds.

The post-Covid era presents a unique opportunity for work within the arts that can support local, national and global healing. My professional practice began with the intention of collaborating with artists from around the world, and across all artistic practices. Boston is a good base to pursue this work and involve young people in process of celebrating our shared humanity through the arts.

Here’s a recording of the recent sound installation of mine at Williams College that I mentioned…

Dave Bryant: “Lime Pickle” from Night Visitors

Madison Simpson

Madison Simpson

Madison Simpson

Boston holds a lot of history for me – I was born here, and spent most of my childhood driving back and forth from New Hampshire visiting extended family. During my teenage years, I saw many concerts in Boston, and when it was time to pick a college I looked primarily in and around the city. Although I initially moved back to Boston for school and expected to move elsewhere after I completed my degree, the incredible DIY music scene here is what has made me stay.

Because Boston is, in some ways, a huge college town, there is a constantly changing flow of creatives running through its neighborhoods. My friends and I joke about the “Allston to Brooklyn pipeline”, as many of our musical collaborators have moved from the popular Boston artist’s neighborhood to NYC postgrad. However, even with these constant changeovers, there is an incredibly strong group of people dedicated to making Boston’s music and art scene great. We have independent record labels such as Disposable America, art and culture publications like Boston Hassle and Allston Pudding, and a thriving house show scene that encompasses mostly the Allston/Brighton neighborhoods but extends into Jamaica Plain and Dorchester. I’ve been very fortunate to have toured now along the east coast, out into the Midwest, and along the coast of California, and I can confidently say that Boston has one of the strongest DIY scenes in the country. I believe so deeply in this community and I’m so excited to continue to watch it grow post-pandemic.

I’m very lucky to be in two amazing bands: Sweet Petunia, my folk duo with collaborator Mairead Guy, and a rock band called Winkler. Both bands have seen great success in the DIY scene, and I’ve met many amazing people through each that I’m so happy to call my friends. With Sweet Petunia, one challenge has been carving out a space in a community that is mostly indie rock-centric. Amazingly, though, we have met a lot of people who have taken a chance on us and therefore we’ve played some really interesting, genre-diverse bills over the years. During Covid, both of my bands had members move back home to be with family, and therefore another one of the biggest challenges we faced was continuing to write and collaborate with each other long distance. The third largest problem that we have currently in Boston is a lack of small, traditional venues. With the closing of Great Scott during Covid, we lost one of the most important small venues our city had to offer. Although there are many DIY venues to play, options above that for a band that has begun to grow in following are slim. That has begun to change, though, due to the efforts of promoters like Once and Alex Pickert of Get to the Gig Boston. I believe with time we will continue to grow this aspect of our community! I’m excited to continue to live and work in Boston and to see how our DIY community continues to strengthen.

A track featuring me: “Early Morning Blues” by Sweet Petunia

A track from a local favorite: “Villain of my Mind” by Clay Aching

Composer Advocacy Journal: On The Road Again

It’s been two weeks since I returned from Aotearoa New Zealand where I was attending the overlapping International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) World New Music Days and Asian Composers League festivals in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and Ōtautahi Christchurch. But given all the things I’ve plunged into since returning, while fighting jetlag from the 16-hour time difference and the grueling 27 1/2-hour door-to-door journey back to New York City, I still haven’t been able to completely wrap my brain around everything I experienced during the 12 days I was there.

First, a little background. Part of my work for New Music USA, in my role as Composer Advocate, is to advocate for our programs and values both nationally and internationally through various member-based networks, such as the ISCM and the International Association of Music Centres (IAMIC). Prior to the global pandemic, the members of these networks met annually to compare practices for supporting and advocating for music as well as to share music with each other. ISCM meetings occur in a different city somewhere in the world every year concurrently with a multi-concert festival called the World (New) Music Days (WNMD) which features music from each of the countries represented in the network. (The “New” is in parenthesis since some hosts call the festival simply “World Music Days.”) Since 2019, I have served on the boards of both organizations but, since the pandemic, that has meant meeting on Zoom often at less than optimal hours (sometimes at 6:00 A.M. or after Midnight for me) to accommodate the time zones of all the participants. However, in May, IAMIC held its first in-person conference in three years, which took place in multiple cities in Germany (Hamburg, Bonn, and Cologne). And in August, the ISCM finally convened in New Zealand for the first time, an event that had originally been scheduled for April 2020. (Before I was elected to ISCM’s Executive Committee, I wrote several very detailed reports of these annual festivals; to get a better sense of what a WNMD is like, you might enjoy reading the last of these, my account of the 2016 Festival in Tongyeong, South Korea, in which I attempted to explain the cultural milieu of the ISCM by comparing it to the Wizarding world as described in the Harry Potter novels.)

My trip to Germany in May for the 2022 IAMIC Conference was the first time I had left the country since the pandemic, and I was filled with anxiety a great deal of the time. But aside from the discomfort of wearing a mask everywhere including on a long overnight flight, the suitcase containing clothing I had brought for the trip not catching up with me until the night before I flew back home (which offered me an experience I otherwise never would have had of very quickly shopping for overpriced poorly fitting clothing in a Hamburg department store–don’t ask), and one of the delegates getting COVID (thankfully everyone diligently tested every day and it didn’t spread further), it was an extremely worthwhile week. I am particularly proud of a panel I moderated at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn which focused on the extremely generous pandemic-era funding for creative artists based in Germany which made the delegates attending from everywhere else in the world extremely envious.

IAMIC Board of Directors and Cloud Chamber Bowls.

The IAMIC Board of Directors at the headquarters of Ensemble Musikfabrik in Cologne, Germany in May 2022. Pictured left to right are Deborah Keyser, Jonathan Grimes, Radvilė Buivydienė, Peter Baros, Diana Marsh, Stephan Schulmeistrat, Agnieszka Cieślak-Krupa, and FJO. (Note the replicas of Harry Partch’s Cloud Chamber Bowls on the far right.)

By the time August rolled around and I journeyed to New Zealand, I was a seasoned pandemic traveler. But nothing (not even having travelled there once before, 15 years ago, for a IAMIC conference) is sufficient physical or psychological preparation for a flight from the West Coast of North America across the Pacific Ocean and far down into the Earth’s other hemisphere to finally reach Auckland. It’s a 13-hour flight that, if coming from NYC, must be proceeded by a 6-hour flight to get to the West Coast as well as a massive trek between terminals which, even though there’s a more than two-hour layover, is a race against the clock, made even more challenging when masked. (In September, now that I’m back, Air New Zealand just introduced a brand new direct New York JFK-Auckland flight which lasts nearly 18 hours, though I’m not sure whether a direct flight or two long flights with a very long walk in between is worse.)

Maori sculptures surround one of the walls in the international arrival terminal of the Auckland Airport.

Among the first things visitors see after arriving in the Auckland Airport after an extremely long international flight. (They also pipe in a recording of Maori traditional chants.)

Before I continue, I’d like to offer a small disclaimer. Given the role I now have within ISCM, it seems somewhat of a conflict of interest for me to be singing the praises of the World New Music Days in an expansive report, so this should not be construed as that. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to offer some information here on each of the American pieces that were performed, offer a few observations about what made this particular edition unique (especially since it is the first one that took place in more than three years), and to give readers here a sense of what I’ve been up to recently.

Although it had to be somewhat scaled down from what had originally been planned for 2020, the 2022 ISCM World New Music Days, which took place concurrently with a festival of the Asian Composers League, was a major undertaking that seemed to happen through sheer force of will, mainly on the part of the festival’s Artistic Director, Glenda Keam, who also happens to be the President of ISCM. All in all, 20 of the submitted works that had originally been chosen for performance (among them, sadly, Katherine Balch‘s extraordinary string quartet drip music which was a submission from the League of Composers, the official ISCM USA Section), could not be presented this year, plus two additional works listed in the program (that were not from ISCM submissions) had to be cancelled. In addition, due to the ongoing uncertainties of the global pandemic, many delegates could not attend (our general assembly meetings were an often challenging hybrid of in-person and Zoom), so many of the concerts were not as well attended as they should have been. Still, as in previous editions of the WNMD, the festival offered a fascinating cross section of music by composers hailing from six continents. (Despite a fascinating exhibit devoted to Antarctic exploration in the Canterbury Museum, which was around the corner from some of the concerts in Christchurch, a viable new music scene has yet to develop there.)

The members of the ISCM Executive Committee sitting around a table, all masked.

The ISCM Executive Committee met in all day meetings during the weekend before the 2022 World New Music Days began. (Pictured left to right are David Pay, FJO, Oľga Smetanová, Wolfgang Renzl, Irina Hasnaş, George Kentros, and Tomoko Fukui.)

In both cities where the festival took place, before any of the concerts there was a formal welcome (Mihi whakatau) featuring speeches and music from members of the local Māori community, the indigenous people who have inhabited Aotearoa New Zealand long before the en masse arrival of British settlers in the early 19th century and the Māori still make up approximately 16.5% of the country’s population.  It was thrilling to hear live performances by Māori musicians on taonga pūoro (the traditional musical instruments of the Māori which have only been revived in recent decades), particularly (and, for a contemporary music festival, very appropriately) the blaring tone clusters that resulted from the simultaneous blowing of pūkaea and pūtātara, trumpet-like instruments made from wood and conch shells respectively, during the first of these welcomes which took place in the courtyard outside the School of Music at the University of Auckland. Admittedly, though, it was somewhat frustrating to listen to the speeches in Māori which were mostly left untranslated. But the solution to that is to learn the language one day! (I must point out that NZ’s overall embrace of Māori heritage and its attempt at establishing a bicultural society is extremely impressive and it has gone well beyond what I previously witnessed when I visited Wellington back in 2007. That said, apart from a few exciting compositions by composers of Māori heritage, such as Takarei Komene, whose 2019 Ngā Roimata o te Tūrama for unaccompanied mixed chorus and whistling was a highlight of a performance by the Auckland Chamber Choir, members of the Māori community did not seem to be part of the “contemporary music” scene in New Zealand. It should be pointed out, however, that the composers from New Zealand whose music was featured on the festival come from extremely diverse cultural backgrounds, ranging from Greece to East Asia.)

Māori musicians playing taonga pūoro

Here are the Māori musicians who greeted all of the ISCM delegates with marvelous tone clusters on taonga pūoro.

The first two concerts of the festival were devoted to music involving electronics. Seven fixed media works (two involving video as well as audio) were presented at the first one, in Auckland’s Audio Foundation, a sub-basement venue located in a neighborhood that is a steep walk from the University. One of the two works involving a video element was Lithuanian composer Albertas Navickas‘s fascinating Silences (2016), which featured fragments of footage of an older woman speaking accompanied by a pre-recorded ensemble which re-enforced the pitch content of her words (a la Scott Johnson’s John Somebody or Steve Reich’s Different Trains). The other was White Heron Dance, a haunting 2017 studio piece by American electronic music pioneer Alice Shields, accompanied by abstract animation (created by Thomas Barratt), which was submitted for inclusion in the festival by the Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music. It was a challenge to distinguish the other pieces since they were not clearly identified during the presentation, which perhaps was part of the gestalt of this very DIY space, but it was nevertheless somewhat frustrating. The second concert, back at the University, involved live electronics and included two works from composers based in the United States: In the Middle of the Room, Jeff Morris‘s 2017 audio-video manipulation of a song by Elisabeth Blair, submitted by ISCM’s Full Associate Member, based at Stephen F. Austin State University, which promotes the music of Texas-based composers; and PS Quartet No. 1, also from 2017, by Korean-born, Michigan-based composer Joo Won Park, in which four performers manipulate audio and video via PlayStation controllers–which was very entertaining both to see and hear. Full disclosure: the latter was the piece among six submitted by New Music USA (it was funded by a Project Grant) which was chosen for performance in the festival. (All ISCM member organizations can submit up to six pieces for consideration in each year’s WNMD and if the submissions are in at least 4 different instrumentation categories, the festival must perform one of them.)

Computer terminals with visuals and audio triggered by 4 PlayStation controllers during a performance of Joo Won Park's PS Quartet No. 1

An action shot from the performance of Joo Won Park’s PS Quartet No. 1 at the University of Auckland during the 2022 ISCM World New Music Days.

On the second day of the festival there were two concerts, both at the University of Auckland. The first was a tour de force afternoon recital by percussionist Justin DeHart, a transplant to New Zealand who originally hails from Sacramento, California. In a group of seven pieces from Canada, Portugal, and New Zealand, he demonstrated the extraordinary range of sounds that can be made by just one person striking many different kinds of objects (though at times the sounds he made were enhanced by pre-recorded electronics). The evening concert was devoted to mostly unaccompanied choral works (for one, a harp was added) performed by the aforementioned Auckland Chamber Choir, a group based at the University. The concert opened with the inventive and challenging Sonata form denatured prose (2014) by Swedish-born Norwegian-based composer Maja Linderoth (b. 1989), who was named the winner of the ISCM Young Composer Award at the end of the festival; the first time a female composer had received the award since 2011.

The next day the ISCM delegates travelled to the West Auckland suburb of Titirangi for a concert, again devoted to electronic music, in the Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery. Lukas Ligeti, an Austrian-born composer who currently divides his time between Florida and Johannesburg, South Africa, performed his Labyrinth of Stars: The Far Southeast (2014), an improvisatory solo for the Donald Buchla-designed marimba lumina. The material for the piece is derived from the composer’s earlier concerto for marimba lumina and orchestra titled Labyrinth of Clouds.  In his prefatory comments, Ligeti stated that this new version of the music was inspired by his seeing stars that are visible in this part of the world which are not visible in the Northern Hemisphere and the resultant music juxtaposed a series of diatonic ostinatos with some surprising chromatic intrusions. (I was hoping to see some of those stars, too, but most of the evenings I was there were cloudy, plus most of the time I was too close to city lights to be able to appreciate them.) That concert also featured Interdependencies (2018), a trippy live manipulation of eight interconnected tone generators by Danish composer Christian Skjødt which he said was just part one of a work that is twice as long; I’m eager to hear the rest of it one day. Unfortunately, because I failed to sign up for it in time, I missed Polish composer Mikolaj Laskowski‘s 2018 Deep Relaxation No. 4: Self-Care, an audience participatory piece involving sound objects and yoga mats that was presented twice but was limited to just 12 attendees each time.

A very large tree in Auckland NZ

While I never saw many stars in NZ, I did see this amazing tree in a park while walking from my hotel to the University of Auckland for ISCM meetings and concerts.

Later in the week, Polish-born New Zealand-based pianist Gabriela Glapska gave a very convincing recital comprised of nine works from eight countries, the most intriguing of which, at least for me, were three selections from Japanese composer Matoharu Kawashima‘s 2017 Action Music, in particular the last one in which the pianist mimics the famous opening of Tchaikovsky’s overplayed first piano concerto, ultimately closing the lid and continuing to play. I was also very taken with a duo recital by violinist/violist Andrew Beer and pianist Sarah Watkins at the hip Loft Q Theatre on Auckland’s busy Queen Street. Everything they played they turned into something extraordinary, but I really loved the brave beauty of Canadian composer Rodney Sharman‘s 2016 viola/piano duo Gratitude and Swiss composer Esther Flückiger‘s often jazzy 2017 Guarda i lumi for violin and piano and will want to hear both works again many times. (Luckily three of the NZ pieces featured on the program were on a CD of the duo I bought the last night of the festival, though I was already familiar with the 2011 miniature Tōrua by Gillian Whitehead, one of NZ’s most prominent composers, since it was one of the Encore Pieces commissioned and recorded by Hilary Hahn.)

I skipped the concluding Auckland event, a screening of a virtual concert by the Australian new music ensemble ELISION who were originally scheduled to participate in person before COVID-related travel restrictions threw a monkey wrench into the plan. But since they plan to post all their virtual performances to their YouTube channel, I hope to catch up with it when they do. Unfortunately the few other programs I wound up missing for a variety of reasons, some having to do with the complexities of navigating Auckland’s challengingly hilly terrain, were mostly not streamed and archived online. After a couple of years of virtual performances becoming a lifeline to musical experiences with the concurrent benefit of these concerts being able to attract audiences from all over world who otherwise could not have experienced them, it seems a shame not to set up even a smartphone (many of which have better audio and video reproduction capabilities than some so-called professional camcorders from 20 years ago) to preserve all performances and make them available to as many people as possible.

Tables filled with CDs and tables filled with LPs further in the back.

The days and nights were pretty tightly packed with meetings and concerts, but there was a gap of a couple of hours one morning so of course I went shopping for LPs and CDs at Penny Lane Records, which thankfully opens quite early.

Although the Festival program in Christchurch lasted a mere four days, it seems like there were twice as many concerts. This is because in addition to concerts featuring repertoire selected from ISCM submissions, there were also concerts devoted to repertoire chosen from the member organizations in the Asian Composers League. It’s far too much music to write about here in a way that won’t seem completely overwhelming, but I would like to call attention to a few things that left a lasting impression.

The Christchurch Youth Orchestra played a very short concert (only about 37 minutes) consisting of five works. Still it was nice to see and hear such a group performing on an important international music festival in front of an audience of people from all over the world and two of the works–Ogham (2018) by Irish composer Ryan Molloy and Distant Lights (2017) by Hong Kong composer Richard Tsang–contained some really exciting orchestration that I’d love to study in greater detail. Another of the pieces, Surcos a la tierra by Chilean composer René Silva, would be a big hit at The Midwest Clinic if Silva were to rearrange it for wind band. Two of the nation’s leading chamber music groups, the New Zealand String Quartet and the NZTrio, offered very wide ranging concert programs. The former, which took place in the 19th century Great Hall in Christchurch’s historic Arts Centre, a real time portal, included an intense 2015 quartet, inside voice, by Kurt Rohde, submitted by ISCM Full Associate member Florida International University, which brought everyone back into modern times. The latter concert, which took place in a posh new venue called The Piano, which was built since the massive 2011 Earthquake, did not include any American pieces, but British composer Joe Cutler‘s clever 2016 McNulty was inspired by the American TV drama series The Wire. Other works on the program included the very effective ACL-commissioned Elehiya Para sa mga Biktima ng Masaker sa Maguindanao (Elegy for the Victims of the Maguindanao Massacre) by Philippine composer Ryle Custodio, winner of the ACL’s 2018 Young Composer Prize, and the rhythmically intriguing Der Tanz by NZ composer Tabea Squire, one of the only works on the festival that was composed this year (since most of the programming was carried over from the postponed 2020 festival).

An orchestra onstage in a concert hall.

The Christchurch Youth Orchestra conducted by Helen Renaud during their performance at Margaret College’s Charles Luney Auditorium in Christchurch NZ.

Another concert held at The Piano the night before the NZTrio appeared there featured seven very different compositions including the melancholy 2009 What gathers, what lingers by American composer Anna Weesner, another Roger Shapiro Fund submission. A concert at the tiny Recital Room in the University of Canterbury’s Arts Centre, which with two grand pianos seemed like very tight quarters, offered a variety of works which explored inside the piano sonorities. I loved Lauschgut (2019) by German composer Charlotte Seither whom, as luck would have it, was on the panel I moderated at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn during the public day of the IAMIC Conference (small world). And though it was completed seven years before Putin’s invasion, Forest Cover (2015) by Ukrainian composer Mykola Khshanovskyi, in which the explosive sonorities emanating from the piano are enhanced by pre-recorded and live electronics, sounded extremely timely. Yifan Yang, a piano student at the University of Canterbury, gave a breathtaking account of it.

Charlotte Seither and Frank J. Oteri

From my panel talk with Charlotte Seither during the public day of the IAMIC Conference at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn back in May (photo by Nathan Dreessen-of the MIZ)

On the final day there was another concert in the Recital Room devoted to eleven string trios from young composers based in 11 different countries represented within the Asian Composers League. The simultaneously deft and fun handling of numerous extended techniques in bouncing, sliding, spinning (2019) by Thai composer Piyawat Louilarpprasert, who is now based at Cornell, earned him the YCL’s 2022 Young Composer Award, but I was also quite taken with New Zealand composer Glen Downie‘s almost static Two Variations on an Original Chorale (2019). The performances, by two different string trios, felt like a triathlon, particularly when Johnny Chang and Mark Bennett as well as Mark Menzies (who was a ubiquitous onstage presence at the Christchurch concerts) and Rakuto Kurano switched between violin and viola, though at one point Menzies forgot which instrument he was supposed to play. But maybe he was just joking. Either way, it was as compelling visually as it was sonically.

Taonga pūoro displayed on a table.

The taonga pūoro that Alistair Frasier performed on during his duo concert with flutist Bridget Douglas.

But the real highlight of the Christchurch events for me was the duo of Alistair Fraser and Bridget Douglas performing on taonga pūoro and Western (silver) flutes, also in the Recital Room. Particularly intriguing were Gareth Farr‘s Silver Stone Wood Bone and Briar Prastiti‘s Terra Firma, both composed in 2019, the latter of which contained passages in which it was sometimes hard to tell which instrument was playing what. It was nevertheless a shame that no members of the Māori community were involved in either the composition or performance of a group of works which were all about bridging the divide between Māori and European cultures. Is it possible that no one in that community has created any music like that yet?

A billboard with a poster that says "I WILL NOT SPEAK MAORI" in all capital letters.

Once upon a time Māori people were forced to recite the line “I will not speak Māori” as part of the Anglicization process during their early schooling. It is something that still haunts the current population of Aotearoa New Zealand.

As I wrote at the onset, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around all of this. In particular, how a festival of contemporary music can truly be representative of what is currently being created all around the world and how such a festival could reach a broader and more diverse audience. Also, are such festivals, which, in the case of the ISCM, have been going on for a century, still feasible in a world that can be shut down by a global pandemic as well as by war and the vagaries of climate change? The ISCM was created a few years after the end of the First World War in an attempt to bring the fractured world together through music, yet in the beginning that world consisted just of countries in Europe plus the United States. As time went on, the ISCM eventually brought in members from South America, Asia, Oceania, and Africa, but 2022 marked only the second time in its history that the festival took place in the Southern Hemisphere. We’re hoping, to mark the centenary of the very first ISCM festival, to meet next year in South Africa, the first time on the African continent, an undertaking which has a great many challenges. But maintaining a festival that takes place every year in a different location in the world might prove to be an even greater challenge.

Flight departures at Auckland's international terminal.

Of course, the trip back home is as long as the trip there…