Category: Articles

The Collaborative Studio: Roles and Expectations

For many classical/new music projects, the recording process is seen as a conclusion—the culmination of hours of rehearsal and preparation. Instead, your time in the studio can be utilized as another collaborative opportunity to further refine a project and prepare the work for a life both within and beyond a performance. On multiple occasions I have entered a studio feeling fully prepared to record the tracks as I had written and known them for months, only to be enlightened to new possibilities and ideas from a producer or engineer. The recording studio is its own creative space that provides a new perspective not only from the process of recording, but also from the team involved in that process. Taking advantage of this unique environment can be liberating and has the potential to elevate a project to another level that may have been previously unknown.

My background as a musician began like it does for many other people: playing in bands with friends. I was a guitarist in a variety of different rock, metal, and hardcore bands as a teenager, and was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to record three albums with one of those bands. It was then that I had my first experience working with an experienced producer. Over the course of those three albums, I absorbed as much knowledge as I could about the studio experience—everything from workflow, expectations on both the performing and producing end, studio techniques, and any secrets of the trade that I could remember. These experiences stuck with me because I enjoyed the process of working in a studio, although at the time I couldn’t imagine that I would do anything other than write and perform the music. Eventually, in college, I began composing concert music, which provided me not only with a new skill set, but a fresh perspective on music entirely. The communal aspect of music-making disappeared as I continued to compose, but I was suddenly involved in all determinant aspects of how a piece would sound and be performed. These varying experiences would eventually coalesce to inform my role as a producer, a new step in my development as a musician.

The definition of a producer can vary from person to person and for each project, but there is a certain foundational mission that you can expect to be a constant. Producers help artists achieve their vision for their work. They guide the way and keep artists on track and productive while also offering outside opinions—sometimes even providing creative input. While all producers have their own strengths and tendencies that define their production style, a critical attribute of their job is the ability to decenter themselves and put artists first in their decision making.

Andrew Rodriguez in the studio

This decentralization of personal artistry can be difficult, but it has personally transformed my creative process into a much more collaborative effort. When I first began playing music, it was a way to spend time with friends and share something together. Becoming a composer changed all of that, as the creation process became solitary. The primary aspect of producing that drew me in was the ability to collaborate again, yet this time in a supporting role rather than as the central creator. Working as a producer taught me to trust in the people I was collaborating with. This practice bled over into my compositional process and has given me a new sense of comfort in communicating and workshopping ideas with my performers. Just like a performance of a concert work, a studio production involves a team, and clear communication founded on trust is crucial to achieving the desired outcome.

Just like a performance of a concert work, a studio production involves a team, and clear communication founded on trust is crucial to achieving the desired outcome.

In a modern studio session there are three primary roles: the performer, the engineer(s), and the producer. In a best-case scenario, these roles are fulfilled by different people. It has become the norm, however, for one person to embody two of these roles. Often you will find that an engineer will also serve as a producer. This is a stereotypical assumption by the general public, but in the modern age it is not entirely out of line. I can recall my first experience in a professional recording studio and being confused about who the producer was because I was unaware that having a separate engineer was an option. In some cases, performers may even opt to produce the project they are performing in.

One reason, outside of financial limitations, that the producer for a project may also serve as the engineer or even a performer is that an effective producer often has a wealth of experience as an engineer and/or a performer. These varying experiences and skill sets contribute to the producer’s impact in the studio. Having been involved in projects where I wielded dual roles (engineer/producer or performer/producer) I can say that it is not easy. Although there are overlapping skills, producing requires the ability to move between perspectives continuously. Performers and engineers have crucial jobs to execute that rely on focus and detail-oriented technical skills. A producer, on the other hand, is constantly switching between focusing on these details and recognizing how the pieces fit into the larger picture of the project. A trusting relationship with a producer can alleviate the pressure of having to focus on all aspects of the process.

Throughout the remainder of this series I will offer up some suggestions on how to be an effective producer and collaborator in the studio for those who may be new to the studio process. I will also be detailing the ways in which my formal music training has informed my production style for non-classical music, as well as how my non-classical background has informed my production of classical music. Working in a studio environment has been one of the most beneficial experiences in my musical development, and I want to encourage musicians to take full advantage of the possibilities of a truly collaborative studio environment.

New Music for Old Film

When integrated sound came to the cinema, many theaters fired their musicians and stopped showing silent films. A few hung on and offered the occasional silent film with live accompaniment as a concession to audiences or as a novelty. When home video became a reality via first VHS and later DVD, studios hired silent film accompanists such as Rosa Rio and Gaylord Carter to record new soundtracks for silent pictures. And there was a revival of interest in silent film in the 1970s and ’80s that resulted in the establishment of multiple silent film festivals around the world—and with those festivals came a range of approaches in accompanying old movies.

Some accompanists, as I’ve written about earlier in this series, have tried to recreate the accompaniments that audiences would have heard in the 1910s and 1920s. Others, however, reject the concept of using pre-existing music, either from the silent period or elsewhere historically. These musicians argue that today’s audiences have heard so much of this pre-existing music already that common musical gestures and tropes have become saturated with meaning that can interfere with first-time viewers’ experiences seeing silent film. So they compose all-new scores or improvise new scores for each film.

Organist and pianist Ben Model, who serves as the resident film accompanist for the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art, writes, “Avoid playing recognizable music if you can help it. [….] The thing to remember is that your audience may already have their own associations with a familiar piece, whether it’s ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ or ‘Handel’s Messiah’ [sic] and your use of that piece will trigger their association regardless of what yours is.” Model improvises most of his performances, although he has developed certain motifs and themes that he uses for specific films. When he’s fully satisfied with a score, he may (or may not) commit it to paper for others to use or record it with the film for distribution on DVD. While the texture and rhythms of the music may be redolent of the 1910s, it’s all original.

Ben Model’s score for the 1918 film Hey There

Composer and performer Andrew Simpson takes a similar approach to scoring silent films. In his new scores for old movies, Simpson—who also composes for the concert hall—works in an early-20th century idiom, using piano, clarinet, cello, and other instruments common to motion picture houses. He too avoids pre-existing music except for cases in which it’s particularly suitable to use a familiar piece or melody.

Andrew Simpson’s accompaniment for the 1924 Harry Langdon comedy Picking Peaches

Accompanists today are also not limited to piano- or organ-only scores, nor must they have an ensemble at their disposal. Leslie McMichael has composed multiple scores for silent film using the harp. McMichael makes a convincing case for using the harp as opposed to other instruments for a number of films, including Peter Pan from 1924: “What could be more fitting for Tinker Bell than a silvery glissando as she flies about the Darling nursery looking for Peter Pan’s shadow?”

Leslie McMichael’s score for Peter Pan (1924)

McMichael has also incorporated toy instruments, such as the toy piano and toy horns, into her scores for movies featuring children, like the Baby Peggy series of films.

Leslie McMichael’s score for Captain January, a 1924 Baby Peggy film

Drawing on Celtic and other traditional musics and their forms and gestures, McMichael has developed a wide following among silent film fans and offers a very different option for audiences used to organ or chamber ensembles accompanying film.

Other accompanists today prefer to create scores even more distant from the sounds of the past. The Alloy Orchestra describes itself as “a three-man musical ensemble, writing and performing live accompaniment to classic silent films. Working with an outrageous assemblage of peculiar objects, they thrash and grind soulful music from unlikely sources.” Their scores are for percussion and keyboards, including piano, synthesizer, and accordion, with the occasional clarinet. Much of their percussion battery consists of found objects—what the Orchestra calls “the rack of junk.”

The Orchestra creates evocative and original scores that, while playing off of silent film-era musical conventions such as exoticism and gendered motifs, are new and thoughtful and always interesting. The Alloy Orchestra has, like other present-day accompanists, committed many of its scores to DVD and Blu-Ray.

The Alloy Orchestra accompanies a scene from Son of the Sheik (1926)

The Alloy Orchestra’s score for the 1927 film The Unknown

Thanks to technology that gives even non-performers the ability to create and synchronize music with a silent film, there are countless new scores for silent movies online. A quick search on new music for silent films on YouTube results in dozens of hits, including scores created with Sibelius software, scores made with electronic instruments, and student projects.

The Motorist (1906) with new music by Jean Hasse composed for MIDI

Remo De Vico’s electronic score for a short film by Segundo de Chomón

The continuing popularity of silent film showings with live music means that there is plenty of room for experimentation in composing new scores for old pictures—at least those in the public domain, which includes all films released in the United States before 1923—and the increased availability and ease of use of video and audio technology, as well as the availability of recordings for free use through Creative Commons—like those at SFSMA means that audiences can experience individual silent films with multiple soundtracks as fits the occasion or mood.

Additional resources

Catalog of Copyright Entries: Cumulative Series. Motion Pictures 1912–1939. 1951. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. Available in full here.

Creative Commons. 2018. “Legal Music for Videos.”

Hurst, Walter E. 1989. Film Superlist: Motion Pictures in the U.S. Public Domain, 1894-1939 (vol. 1). Hollywood, CA: 7 Arts Press.

Walls, Howard Lamarr. 1953. Motion Pictures 1894–1912 Identified from the Records of the United States Copyright Office. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.

Setting the Scene with Sound: (Re)Scoring Silent Film

We all know that the soundtrack changes the way we experience a movie. One of my favorite examples of this comes from a meme that appeared about ten years ago in which participants recut classic films into new trailers in different genres. West Side Story, a tragic musical (original trailer), became a horrific zombie movie (revised trailer), and The Shining (original trailer) was turned into a feel-good family film (revised trailer). When it comes to silent film, accompanists have infinite choices. Even in the early days of cinema, accompanists could improvise, select pieces from their own libraries, follow suggestions from cue sheets, or use the scores that came with some big-budget pictures, or any combination of these. Today, some accompanists try to recreate the sound of early cinema in their own performances, while others revel in using music that has been created since then.

Buster Keaton’s 1927 comedy The General is a popular choice for showings with live accompaniment, and it has also been released in multiple versions on DVD. Set during the Civil War, the film is essentially one long chase, culminating with the famous scene of a train plunging through a burning bridge into a river.

The film is based on a real incident in which Union spies made a daring attempt to steal a Confederate train engine called the “General” from Big Shanty, Georgia, just north of Marietta. The General’s engineer and a small corps of Confederate soldiers commandeered another engine, the “Texas,” and sped off in pursuit. After an action-packed event known as the Great Locomotive Chase, the Union soldiers were stopped and the General was returned to the South. In adapting the story for film, Keaton stated, “While this picture will be designed primarily for laughs, it is my aim to make it historically correct and equally acceptable in the North and the South. It will not be a burlesque, but a comedy spectacle of certain thrilling episodes in the struggle between the States.”[1] Keaton’s intention was apolitical, claiming at the time that “you make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South.” And so Keaton plays the hero, a Confederate engineer who stops the Union soldiers and returns the engine to the South.

Buster Keaton and Marion Mack in The General

Buster Keaton and Marion Mack in The General

Because the Civil War was still highly visible in everyday life and culture well into the 1910s and 20s, many accompanists at the time relied on nostalgia for wartime songs. James C. Bradford published a cue sheet for the film that included “Alabamy Bound,” “Dixie Queen,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Maryland, My Maryland,” “Dixie,” and “Old Folks at Home.” He also suggested burlesque versions of the “Light Cavalry” Overture and “My Own United States;” other recommendations include the 19th-century works “An American Battle Scene” by Theodore Moses Tobani, which was an 1898 musical portrait of the battle at Antietam and dedicated to the Union Army; and “Memories of the War” by L. P. Laurendeau.

Numerous pieces from Bradford’s list are problematic today, but perhaps none more so than “Dixie.” “Dixie,” of course, was created for blackface minstrelsy in the 1850s. It is important to understand what it represented to people in the 1920s who might have heard it in conjunction with The General, as their reaction was likely to be quite different from what many of us think today when we hear the song. “Dixie” itself began as satire, making fun of a former slave who longs to return to the plantation, and both Northern and Southern soldiers and performers claimed the right to use it, usually with different lyrics, during the War. It became the de facto anthem of the Confederacy and remained closely associated with the “Old South.” Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie used the song in their 1921 musical Shuffle Along, and it appears to have been regarded as an uncomplicated signifier of the South in general during the ’20s and ’30s. In 1934, The Etude (one of the most popular and influential music magazines of the time) dismissed all connections between the song and white nationalism. Clearly this changed between that time and today, in part because of white Southerners’ revival of the song as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the performance of “Dixie” in any situation is extremely complex, involving issues of race and class. And so while it has become a traditional exercise in nostalgia for both the time periods of the film’s action and its cinematic release to use “Dixie” in accompanying The General, each modern use must be carefully read to determine intent and meaning: whether its inclusion is meant to represent contemporary accompanying practices; if it is representing the Confederacy, and how; or whether it appears as part of a valorization attempt on the part of a performer to present the film as political rhetoric for the Confederacy.

Today, if you watch The General at home on DVD or Blu-Ray, you can select from one of six scores included on recent commercial releases. Each of these modern accompaniments (by Carl Davis; Robert Israel (two scores: one for piano and strings and one for full orchestra); Lee Erwin; Joe Hisaishi; and the Mont Alto Moving Picture Orchestra, led by Rodney Sauer) seeks to replicate one of the many manners in which the film might have been accompanied in the cinema at the time of its release. Davis’s accompaniment is scored for full orchestra, while Hisaishi’s uses a smaller ensemble. Lee Erwin’s score is played on the Mighty Wurlitzer, the “king of cinema organs.” Mont Alto recreates a typical small theater orchestra of piano, violin, cello, clarinet, trumpet, and percussion. Screenings with live musicians can rent a newly created score by Timothy Brock for accompaniment, or hire an improvising accompanist like Ben Model of MOMA and the Library of Congress to perform.

These newer accompaniments for The General vary in their approaches to scoring the film. Composer and performer Mark Orton has gone so far to recreate a historic Civil War sound as to find, restore, and use portable, folding reed organs known as field organs as part of his orchestration, which also includes popular 19th-century instruments like the zither and its cousin the marxophone, autoharp, and harmonicas of various sizes and ranges. Although modern audiences may not be able to name these instruments, they may well associate the instruments’ sounds with music of another era and/or the South.

A field organ example:

A marxophone example:

Carl Davis’s score uses a full, modern orchestra, and is primarily composed of pre-existing 19th-century orchestral works for the concert hall, but retains traditional performance practices such as including period tunes; he gives the film’s genre as parody a nod by also incorporating minor-key version of “Dixie.” Robert Israel’s score is likely similar to what audiences would have heard at large motion picture palaces in 1927. Composed for a medium-sized orchestra with piano, Israel’s score establishes several generic themes at the beginning of the film, including a love theme, a theme for the Union villains, bugle calls, and music for hurrying and chasing. Israel frequently incorporates “Dixie,” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” as major themes. Israel mimics Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to signify some frantic physical movements and quotes Rossini’s overture to Semiramide as part of the battle sequence at the end of the movie. Although the Dukas work wouldn’t take on its iconic association with Mickey Mouse until 1940, it was often included in collections of pre-existing music for film accompaniment for suspense or “creepy” situations; Rossini was also a popular choice for exciting music for races, battles, and other high-movement scenes. Here’s an excerpt from Israel’s score from the beginning of the engine chase.

For smaller picture houses, a small ensemble may have supplied the entire accompaniment, or it could have been accompanied by an organ, like Lee Erwin’s score, or piano, such as William Perry’s improvised piano score.

Erwin’s and Israel’s scores obviously make use of pre-existing pieces. One group that seeks to eliminate the metamusical meanings older pieces can carry is Chicago’s Quasar Wut-wut. Quasar Wut-wut scored The General in 2014 and departs entirely from the previous approaches.

There are numerous other soundtracks for the film, including mash-ups of James Bond themes and other pieces written for other films; numerous piano or organ-only accompaniments; and several for small ensembles, such as an earlier Israel score and a score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Each score offers a slightly different take on the action in the clips shown here. Israel’s provides a sense of anticipation and anxiety as the engine pulls away, followed by traditional markers for drama (continuous eighths in the left hand and a melodramatic, minor-key melody), while Erwin’s mimics the sound of a train horn and a minor-key theme that deepens into the sound of more serious trouble as Keaton’s character realizes he’s alone. Perry’s score offers the same non-stop playing and agitated rhythms, but is far more light-hearted and matches the action of the soldiers and Keaton’s character, providing musical mimesis for the scene. And Quasar Wut-wut gives us a score in which the heavy percussion and basic chords of the first part of the scene give way to an ironic commentary with a lighter set of instruments as the engine pulls away, suggesting the obliviousness of Keaton’s character and the humor of the moment.

With an enormous range of extant pieces to choose from, accompanists both in the past and now have great opportunities to frame and reframe silent films in various ways, suiting them to particular audiences, settings, or their own tastes.

[1] “Details of United Artists’ Productions: The General,” Motion Picture News (May 29, 1926), 2573.

Taking a Cue: Accompanying Early Film

Starting in 1908, film industry publications frequently included regular columns by cinema conductors, composers, and arrangers such as Samuel Berg, Ernst Luz, and Clarence Sinn. These articles offered suggestions—sometimes called “musical plots”—to cinema musicians on selecting and performing music for silent motion pictures. By the 1920s, cue sheets published by movie studios and independent publishers had become ornate, including cue titles, musical incipits, length of cue, and other information. The Silent Film Sound and Music Archive currently has 65 cue sheets available for free download and will be adding another 40 later this year.

While some film and film music historians think that these cue sheets were followed closely and that accompanists frequently purchased the music recommended in them, archival materials tell a different story. Cue sheets were often modified, used merely as the basis for ideas, or even ignored. This means that although we have an idea of what some accompanists might have played for individual films, we can’t know exactly what they played for individual screenings.

Many cue sheets in Silent Film Sound and Music Archive’s holdings show notations where the performer swapped out a suggested piece with one they already knew or owned. Claire Hamack, an accompanist whose scores, photoplay albums, and cue sheets are now online at SFSMA, often made changes to cue sheets—including adding her own original music.

For the 1925 film Stella Dallas, she made notes on the cue sheet of pieces she wanted to use in place of those recommended.

Hamack’s cue sheet for Stella Dallas.

Hamack’s cue sheet for Stella Dallas.

She also changed cues for the film When Knighthood was in Flower, a 1922 movie. Hamack replaced suggested themes by William F. Peters and Massenet with Franz Schubert’s “Moment Musical,” Edwin Lemare’s “Meditation,” and other selections. She specifically wrote over the printed titles for cue 5, “While Mary dreamed,” changing it from “Serenade Romantique” by Gaston Borch to “Wakey Little Bird,” and changing the music for cue 11, “It is near to midnight,” from “Romance—German (The Conqueror)” to Grieg’s “Dawn” from Peer Gynt. The cue sheet for The Dangerous Age, a 1927 German film directed by Eugen Illés, is covered with Hamack’s notes, including notation for an alternate, possibly original, theme, and indications that suggestions were replaced with other works (“In the Gloaming” is preferred over Otto Langey’s “Dream Shadows” for cue 23). Other cue sheets, including that for My American Wife (directed by Sam Wood, 1922), also bear short passages of handwritten notation for original themes and motifs. Hamack’s audiences would have heard Hamack’s musical interpretation of the film rather than that of the studio compiler.

The cover of the cue sheet for My American Wife (1922)

The cover of the cue sheet for My American Wife (1922), showing Claire Hamack’s theme.

One great find for SFSMA was a cue sheet created by cinema organist Hazel Burnett for the 1920 film Humoresque. Burnett had an incredible musical career, beginning by playing for live theater and small cinemas in the Midwest and working her way up to being a featured organist at the famed Aztec Theater in San Antonio. (More on Burnett here.) After her death, Burnett’s granddaughter Josephine gave all of her music and other materials to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The Burnett Collection contains a wide variety of resources, including printed cue sheets and full scores, photoplay albums, sheet music, and hundreds of pieces clipped out of The Etude and Melody magazines, which Burnett used as cues. Much of Burnett’s music is marked with performance indicia that confirm that she used it in accompanying silent film.

Numerous pieces of sheet music in her collection are labeled with cue numbers and descriptive notes: Frederick Vanderpool’s “The Want of You” was used for the cue “maw asleep” in one unidentified movie, and Edvard Grieg’s popular “Ase’s Death” accompanied another unknown film’s cue 27: “Mary prostrated.” “No. 5 Molto Agitato” from Breil’s Original Collection of Dramatic Music for Motion Picture Plays is marked as “14 phone rings”, while “No. 6 Andante Misterioso” was used for “[Cue] 2[:] man enters.” Burnett wrote the titles of accompaniment-appropriate pieces on the covers of the photoplay albums that contained the pieces, often including the page number for quick access. She also interleaved pieces of sheet music and pieces cut from Melody and The Etude between pages of her photoplay albums to create original modular scores. For some, it’s impossible to know what film the cues went with, but others are much clearer.

Cues for an unidentified film or films

Cues for an unidentified film or films, Josephine Burnett Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas—Austin

Humoresque is a classic melodrama about a young Jewish violinist. Celebrated film music composer and director Hugo Riesenfeld composed an original score for Humoresque for the film’s premiere, and it was this score that was most likely performed by a cinema orchestra and organist both at its premiere and on the road tour that followed, although Riesenfeld made slight changes to the score depending on where it was being shown. While Burnett almost certainly had access to Riesenfeld’s cue sheet, she compiled a rather different score from her own personal library. She kept two pieces Riesenfeld recommended: Dvorák’s “Humoresque,” which she could hardly avoid, and Bruch’s Kol Nidre. Here’s how her first five cues compare with Riesenfeld’s:

cue sheet

Note: ‘D’ refers to a direction cue or action; ‘T’ refers to the text of an intertitle. Punctuation modernized for clarity.

You can see Burnett’s full cue sheet for the film here. The Ransom Center is currently in the process of setting up a screening of Humoresque with live accompaniment using Burnett’s cues.

Having Burnett’s and Hamack’s cue sheets offers a glimpse of how these tools were used, adapted, or jettisoned by cinema musicians, and also conveys to us how score compilers interpreted scenes and assigned music to them. Would you or I think of recommending “Hail America” by Drumm as a piece for a Tudor-era picture (When Knighthood was in Flower)? Probably not, but prolific cue sheet author James C. Bradford did, and that alone tells us about scoring for early film and how aesthetics and approaches have changed since then. You can explore all of the cue sheets in the Archive by clicking on “Cue Sheets” under “Categories.”

What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers

It has been more than six months since Helga Davis gave the keynote speech at the 2018 New Music Gathering. After a brief opener, she quoted August Gold—“If you want to know what you want, you have to look at what you have.”—and then proceeded to ask the audience to “look around the room, and see what the composition of [the] room [says] about what we want.”

Based on her challenge, we can ultimately conclude the following: if attending a music event and the people in the room of the event comprise mostly white cisgender men, then the greater collective “we” simply does not want people who are not white cisgender men to participate.

As a frequent attendee of new music events around the world, I often feel as though the presence of people who look like me is not wanted or is merely tolerated.

As a frequent attendee of new music events around the world, I often feel as though the presence of people who look like me is not wanted or is merely tolerated, but for me this feeling arises mainly from observations of concert programming. After I attend concerts of music solely by composers who fit that expected image, the message “black composers have not composed music good enough for us to play or for this stage” is inevitably evoked within me. Every time. In observing the greater world of classical music, the father of what we refer to as new music today, it is no wonder why black composers do not feel wanted. Classical music did not escape the greater social construct of racism and patriarchy, which is why composers such as Ignatius Sancho, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Blind Tom, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, and plenty more are usually only studied in non-required specialized classes. Why not, for example, include Chevalier de Saint-Georges in a general music history class? After all, his career begins before Mozart’s (who utilized one of Saint-Georges’s melodic gestures in the finale of his Symphony Concertante in E flat Major, K364), his orchestra did commission and present the world premieres of the six Paris Symphonies by Haydn (all of which Saint-Georges conducted), and his own music was highly praised during and after his life. Yet his and other black composers’ non-existence in academic institutions tells black composers that we are not wanted, no matter how much success we gain. New music has done very little to change the expected optics of classical music, which is why new music’s identity problem is what it is today. Moreover, despite the recent increase in conversation about female, non-binary, transgender, and BAME/ALAANA/diverse composers, the programming of these composers has not significantly increased.

For many of us, there is a frustration. On the one hand, if the optics of new music are sending unwelcoming messages, then the next generation of would-be black composers will most likely not pursue composition. On the other hand, the general mistrust and falsehoods that exist within the new music community are already quite high, as evinced by #MeToo-related reports, countless social media posts and private conversations/confessions, stories of professors psychologically abusing their students or mis-teaching their students through their lack of honesty and inability to convey important messages, and more. Discussions about the semantics and accrual of commissions amongst composers of all levels are few and far between, and consequently the underpayment or non-payment of composers for new works occurs more frequently than what may be imagined. Professional recommendations for opportunities do not happen nearly to the extent that they could for all composers, and all of these injustices disproportionately affect black composers. Additionally, the number of ensembles directly reaching out to black composers is not significant enough to noticeably bring these composers parity. There is also a trend that places the music of black composers mostly in themed concerts, more often than not related to social justice or for Black History Month. While this is not necessarily negative, the injustice arises when absolute music or music with non-social themes by black composers is overlooked. In sum, we are not one-trick ponies.

It must be noted that it is impossible for me to comment upon every smaller, interior facet of new music with regards to such behavior; there are certainly localities and communities which are more welcoming, open, and inclusive than others, and I would love to learn more about this work that is being accomplished. However, if the aforementioned reality is true for any composer (as it certainly is for me), then the new music community not only has the responsibility, but also the incentive, to change. How, one might ask? There are some EXTREMELY simple steps:

Anthony R. Green introduces the "Freedom Rising"

Anthony R. Green introduces the “Freedom Rising” project by Castle of our Skins at the Museum of African American History’s African Meeting House, Boston, MA; IMAGE: Monika Bach Schroeder

1) If you are an active soloist or are in or run an ensemble of any size, program music by black composers. Program all of it, not just the “socially aware” music. Program it as part of events that happen in months other than February or March. Arrange portrait concerts. Arrange a non-“social justice”-themed concert and program works by black composers which fit this theme, and don’t make a big deal about the identity of the composers. After performing these works once, perform them again, and again, and again, for many years. Make them regular works on concerts. Give them to your students to study.

2) If you do not know any music by a black composer, create a playlist and have weekly listening sessions. Listen often. Listen to music that you do not like. Find music that you like and love. Engage with it critically, but respectfully. Mention black composers in conversations; when you are talking about how cool Gunther Schuller was, don’t forget Ed Bland or Julia Perry. When you are talking about how cool Chaya Czernowin is, don’t forget Tania León and Marcos Balter.

3) Share what you know and what you have learned about black composers. Outside of sharing this information with students and in conversations, write blog posts. Write articles. Make vlog posts and podcasts. Make memes and post them on your social media channels. Share stories and information and anecdotes on social media and other platforms. Share YouTube and Vimeo videos of performances and interviews. Hold listening parties. Spread the word about helpful resources, ensembles, organizations, and other entities doing such work in a powerful, significant way. Encourage people in your community to engage with this work, and be curious.

4) Demand more from your musical sources. Write to your radio stations, to your favorite YouTube channels, to your favorite ensembles; ask your teachers to include more music by black composers in the theory classroom, in the history classroom, in your private lessons. Those who have power will not know what the demand is until the demand is made. If there is really a demand, then make it known.

5) Support black composers and the soloists, organizations, and ensembles that program their music. Castle of our Skins (of which I am a co-founder) is one of a handful of organizations whose seasonal programming regularly consists of at least 90% music by black composers (as attested by its repertoire list), and it is, contrary to popular business-model or donor-related expectations in music, a successful organization. If you are in a position to commission or create an opportunity for a composer for a project, consider reaching out to a black composer, then work with that composer, support that composer financially, professionally, and emotionally. Do not give up on that composer, because perhaps that composer already feels abandoned by the new music and classical music communities.

6) When a black composer is expressing a grievance, listen with all you have. While conversations about black underrepresentation in classical music are generally positive and well-meant, such conversations are almost pointless if they do not include the voices of black people. Trust these voices. Be critical, but respectful. Engage in exchange. Be patient. We want to talk, but “it’s a privilege to be able to critique without professional fears.”* At one point in my life, I did not have this privilege. Perhaps I still do not have it. But when our work is blatantly ignored, disrespected, not studied, and not programmed, our voice is all we have.

Lastly, remember to keep Helga Davis’s challenge within you at all times. When you are at a music event, especially a new music event, look around, see what is missing, and ask yourself what that says about what you truly want.


* My first encounter with this phrase was in the article: “Classical music’s white male supremacy is overt, pervasive, and a problem,” by Daniel Johanson, for Scapi Magazine, February 18, 2018. This article has since been removed from Scapi, but appears on other websites in various formats.

New Music for a New Art Form: Photoplay Music

When we think of the music of the early 20th century, we might think of neoclassicism, Schoenberg, the English music renaissance, jazz, and maybe parlor song or vaudeville. But the advent of the moving picture brought about the development of an enormous amount of new music composed specifically to accompany film. While it’s true that some of the music used by film accompanists was borrowed from the vaudeville hall and stage melodramas, that some film accompanists improvised their scores, and that some film studios commissioned scores from composers for individual films, the majority of cinema musicians in the 1910s and 1920s relied heavily on a new genre, called photoplay music, for creating musical accompaniments to motion pictures of all lengths. Photoplay music consisted of short, evocative character pieces that could be easily strung together to create what is called a compiled score. Photoplay music was sold as individual sheet music titles and in albums or collections of eight to ten pieces, sometimes thematically linked, like Jacobs’ Piano Folio of Tone-Poems and Reveries and Jacobs’ Piano Folio of Oriental, Spanish, and Indian Music.

The Silent Film Sound and Music Archive (SFSMA) is, as its name suggests, a repository of music that was used to accompany films before the widespread use of synchronized records or sound-on-film technology. SFSMA, founded in 2014 to help performers and scholars find silent film music in one location, identifies and digitizes printed music and related materials and uploads them to the Archive, where they can be downloaded for free. Everything is posted under a Creative Commons ODC-By (Open Data Commons Attribution) License. SFSMA’s holdings include hundreds of pieces of photoplay music composed for the new art of the cinema. Although few of the composers of this repertoire are widely recognized today, they created music that helped establish a number of common tropes that still appear in film music. Composers including Helen Ware, Theodora Dutton (Blanche Ray Alden), Erno Rapée, William Axt, J. S. Zamecnik, and many others made a living composing short characteristic pieces for the cinema. All pieces appeared in a piano version, and most also had parts, as cinema ensembles could range from three players—often piano, violin or cello, and clarinet—to forty performers with full string and wind sections.

Composers were under great pressure to continually churn out generic pieces: cinema musicians didn’t want to use the same pieces week after week for different films. At the same time, it was important that photoplay pieces for the same general action or topic had similar characteristics so that accompanists could be consistent in their musical interpretations of films. Works for “hurry” or “gallop” were quick in tempo, mimicked the sound of hoof beats or heartbeats, and employed short note values, all of which suggested the associated speed of motion given in the title. SFSMA’s holdings include more than twenty individual “hurry” pieces, all suggesting speed and urgency. Similarly, “mysteriosos” or “misteriosos” were composed for scenes of stealth, burglary, the grotesque, the eerie, and the supernatural; there are more than thirty of these in the SFSMA database. All of the mysteriosos have things in common, including tempo and texture, but each one has a different primary melody and form, allowing for variety in accompanying.

Misterioso No. 1 (for horror, stealth, conspiracy, treachery)

Misterioso No. 1 (for horror, stealth, conspiracy, treachery) by Erno Rapee and William Axt (New York: Richmond-Robbins Inc., 1923), mm. 1-7.

Misterioso No. 1 (For Depicting Gruesome Scenes, Stealth, etc.)

Misterioso No. 1 (For Depicting Gruesome Scenes, Stealth, etc.) by Otto Langey (New York: G. Schirmer, 1915), mm. 1-7.

The works of Maurice Baron (who also published under the name Morris Aborn) provide a good introduction to the repertoire composed for moving pictures. Baron composed some pieces for specific films, such as his Shakespearean Sketches—Shakespeare adaptations were very popular in silent film, providing artistic gravitas to the medium—but most of his works were designed to be used as part of compiled scores. “Batifolage,” composed in 1926, was designated for “frolics, caprice,” and “Love’s Declaration” is intended to be used to accompany romances. Baron’s “Terror!” and “Suspicions” were intended for mysteries, horror, and domestic dramas. Baron also sought to capture the time in which he lived: “Radio Message (galop)” is meant to depict the urgency and speed of a Morse Code transmission, and “A Busy Thoroughfare” imitates the buggies, cars, trams, and people in an urban area.

“Radio Message” performed by Ethan Uslan (source).

The PianOrgan series, published by Belwin, collected Baron’s pieces into albums, making it easier for accompanists to select generic works by the composer. As Morris Aborn, Baron published western music for cowboy pictures; vice-related characters and events, such as drunk characters, opium dens, and speakeasies; music for battles; music for tragedies; and music for agitated scenes.

Excerpt from Maurice Baron’s “Prelude to a Western American Drama,” performed by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra (source).

Excerpt from Maurice Baron’s “Valse Pathetique,” performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (source).

Movie-watchers today might not know or think much about photoplay music, but over the last forty years, the showing of silent films with live accompaniment has experienced a renaissance. Ensembles such as the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra use photoplay music to create scores in the same manner accompanists would have in the 1910s or 1920s. Rod Sauer, director of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, researches what music might have been used at showings of the films they accompany, but often selects different pieces that the group feels better convey the action and intent of the film. In creating a compiled score for the film Beggars of Life, for example, Sauer found that some of the music suggested for use with the film had racist connotations, such as using an upbeat cakewalk piece to accompany a scene in which a black character experiences tragedy, so he chose other photoplay pieces for the score. Educators are also using photoplay music: instructors teaching film music, film history, and popular music history have used pieces from SFSMA to demonstrate how a compiled score might be created, and students are scoring short films—both old and new—using music from the Archive.

You can find photoplay music in SFSMA in a variety of ways. If you’re interested in particular composers, you can search by their names. You can also search by “mood,” a silent-era designation that categorized music by scenario. Need a sad piece? A search on “tragic” brings up twelve pieces with “tragic” in the title or mood subtitle. Want to see a collection of similar pieces? Search “album” to find all of the collections in the archive. You can also search by clicking on “sheet music” in the Categories section, and then refining your search by mood, instrumentation, or other factor. To hear recordings of photoplay pieces in a variety of moods, click on “Video and Audio” under Categories to pull up a list of recordings made by silent film accompanist Ethan Uslan. There are hundreds of pieces in the Archive to discover and use for accompaniment or analysis, all of it once an influential force on the development of the cinematic score.

Help Me Help You: What Orchestra Managements Need from the New Music Community

In a recent tweet addressed to orchestra administrators, the American conductor James Gaffigan asked for help “to program more of the great living composers I have recently come to know and love,” and went on to propose a list of composers, aesthetically and demographically diverse, contributing to a vital contemporary music scene.

 

As both a composer and a recovering orchestra administrator (I served as senior director of artistic planning for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from 2010 to 2013, followed by an interim stint as artistic advisor for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 2013 to 2017, while the equivalent position was vacant), I felt I might have a unique, dual perspective on the question underpinning Maestro Gaffigan’s tweet: how can we all—composers, conductors, administrators, patrons, advocates—help to diversify the programming of American orchestras? And how can we in the new music community help administrators make living composers part of their orchestras’ daily diet?

Every spring, as orchestras announce their upcoming seasons, the engine of social media agita revs back up, as it, alas, inevitably will again in 2019: far too many orchestras will have programmed far too little music (if, indeed, any at all) by composers outside the canon of European men born between 1685 and, maybe, 1882. The new music community will call the industry out en masse for its myopic programming. Rinse, repeat. At best, this perennial shouting match, perhaps, moves the needle infinitesimally from one season to the next. In fact, I suspect it doesn’t much help at all.

In reflecting on what my own various professional experiences have taught me, I keep coming back to one theme: if we all had a better understanding of one another’s priorities, circumstances, concerns, and constraints, we would be in a better position to address the problem constructively. And let’s be clear: the underrepresentation of living composers in orchestral programming is a problem; none of what I’m going to discuss here should be misunderstood as an apologia for homogenous programming. Our orchestras can and must do better.

Many of us fundamentally assume that homogenous programming results from cowardice and/or lack of imagination on the part of our orchestras. The first step in constructively addressing the problem is to challenge this assumption. Certainly, there is always room for more bravery and imagination; that’s true for all of us, not just orchestra administrators. But the artistic planning, marketing, and development departments that I’ve worked with are populated by some of the most passionate and creative people I’ve ever met. They love music. They’re smart, talented people who undoubtedly could pursue a more lucrative career in the for-profit sector, but have chosen this field out of their passion for the art form. Writing them off as soulless charlatans is inaccurate, unfair, and—frankly—lazy. They are charged with synthesizing a dizzying matrix of institutional imperatives and constraints en route to executing the organization’s artistic mission. Many of the people in these positions would otherwise love to fill each season with living composers. Here are a few ways we can all help them succeed.

Become familiar with the orchestra’s work rules. I’m only half serious about this—there’s little reason for the layperson to slog through an orchestra musician’s contract—but it’s important to at least understand that an orchestra’s work rules are regulated by a union-negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement. These rules govern everything that the orchestra does, from rehearsal schedules and overtime pay to how many miles away from home a run-out concert can be before requiring an overnight hotel stay.

Alexandra Gardner was the Seattle Symphony’s composer-in-residence during the 2017-18 season. Her experience in that role prompted another tweet that caught my attention.

 

As part of her Seattle residency, Alex led workshops with LGBTQ+ youth that resulted in the creation of Stay Elevated, a collaborative work performed by musicians of the Seattle Symphony. Alex told me about her original vision for the piece: a moveable event that the audience would follow from outside to inside the museum, and that would use the space in creative ways. When the Symphony had previously produced such events, the orchestra musicians participated as volunteers. This year, for the first time, an orchestra service was used (for the civilian reader, a “service” is any rehearsal, performance, or other musician activity governed by the CBA), which meant work rules now applied, and playing outdoors and on the move were off the table.

Understanding the administrative arcana behind decisions can help all of us in the new music community be constructive, rather than reactive, advocates for the repertoire we want to hear.

It’s up to orchestras’ artistic operations departments to manage such administrative arcana. The end result can often seem to reflect an imagination deficit. It’s almost always a little more complicated.

Take, for example, two 20th-century concerti widely regarded as modern masterpieces: the Ligeti Violin Concerto and James MacMillan’s percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. Both are thrilling pieces and very effective soloist vehicles. And when they do manage to get programmed, both have broad audience appeal, not just to new music aficionados. Why aren’t they in heavier rotation with your local orchestra?

In one of the Ligeti Concerto’s most memorable moments, the oboist, clarinetists, and bassoonist play ocarinas. In the climactic ending to Veni, Veni, the orchestra players are asked to play bells “or two pieces of loud clanging metal.” In addition to renting the scores and parts to these concerti, orchestras have to acquire the ocarinas, bells, and pieces of metal, and determine whether, as per the CBA, these passages warrant doubling fees for the musicians. These costs can add up and, for a smaller-budget orchestra, become quite significant expenses. The orchestra committee might agree to hold a vote to waive the doubling fees—but if they negotiate for an extra off-day in return, the guest conductor or soloist might feel she’s left with inadequate rehearsal time and opt for a warhorse like the Mendelssohn Concerto instead.

Rehearsal for the 2016 St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere of Mauricio Sotelo's Red Inner Light Sculpture

Rehearsal for the 2016 St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere of Mauricio Sotelo’s Red Inner Light Sculpture, for violin, flamenco dancer, and orchestra. Image courtesy SPCO

There are, as Alex told me she witnessed firsthand in Seattle, “a great number of interlocking gears in motion” behind every programming decision. Understanding this can help all of us in the new music community be constructive, rather than reactive, advocates for the repertoire we want to hear.

Go to concerts! I realize it sounds simplistic, but both the easiest and most powerful way to reward adventurous programming is to show up when your local orchestra rolls the dice on a new piece by a living composer. And we can all do a better job of this.

A lot of the pressure on orchestras to program Beethoven and Mahler comes at the board level, but not for the simplistic reason you might think. While, yes, by and large, board members’ tastes probably tend a certain way, it’s not just that they hate contemporary music and demand traditional repertoire. Just as operations and marketing departments deserve more credit than they’re often given, it’s important to resist the stereotypical image of the board member as merely a moneyed dilettante wanting in artistic conviction. Many of them may not have the finer artistic discernment of the conservatory-trained among us, but let’s remember that boards consist of volunteers who have given hours of their time and thousands of their dollars, sometimes over the course of many years, to support the orchestra; and they have accepted a fiduciary responsibility to the orchestra’s institutional sustainability. They go to concerts (when I was at the SPCO, I saw almost every board member at almost every program). And they see full houses for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and empty seats for contemporary fare.

The steady graying of the average orchestra’s audience alarms boards more than any other constituency. Board members, least of anyone, want to see the institution they’ve supported for years die of old age. At one of the orchestras I served, one of our most dedicated board members would often challenge us to think creatively and strategically about how to broaden our audience reach; pointing to his own gray hair, he would warn us that too much of the audience looked like him.

And it’s just as important for the musicians to know that there’s an audience for this music. In one of my previous positions, I received an email from a musician in the orchestra—the day before the world premiere of a piece we had commissioned!—suggesting that we cancel the premiere, because he felt it hadn’t been adequately rehearsed, and, in any case, the audience was coming for the Beloved Classical Music Masterpiece on the second half, not to hear some weird new music. There’s a lot that’s wrong with this picture, but one of the most important takeaways for me was that this musician felt that new music had no audience support, so why were we even doing it?

So when your local orchestra programs contemporary music, buy a ticket, bring a friend, and show the musicians onstage and the board members in the house that adventurous programming appeals to a younger, more diverse demographic. (This may not be fair, but I’m taking it as a given that new music audiences tend to look younger than my graying board member.) By simply attending, we send a clear message that the orchestra has a future beyond Beethoven and Brahms.

Thank the orchestra for programming music by living composers. Write a letter or make a phone call. Artistic and marketing departments take audience feedback seriously.

Thank the orchestra for programming music by living composers. Write a letter or make a phone call. Artistic and marketing departments take audience feedback seriously. I can’t tell you the number of times my marketing colleagues—who, in spirit, supported diverse programming themselves—held up audience survey results to remind me that the single-most popular concert program from the Mesozoic era to the present day was “Glories of the Italian Baroque.”

But I was in the house for all three performances of our world premiere last week! Standing ovation all three nights! The lobby was buzzing during intermission! Yes, but survey says.

How I wish I could have read a letter to my management colleagues and board as effusive as what I had heard directly from the audience at the concert.

Pekka Kuusisto and Sam Amidon perform with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

Pekka Kuusisto and Sam Amidon perform with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, 2017. Image courtesy SPCO

Put a few bucks in the hat. If you’re in a position to enclose a check with your thank-you letter—even a modest gift of $10 or $25—so much the better. (NB. You’re right to think that your $10 check won’t make a significant difference to the bottom line of the orchestra’s x-million dollar budget; but you as an individual donor—especially if you are a new donor—represent a valuable asset to the orchestra as it appeals to major donors, corporations, and foundations for big-dollar support.)

Single-ticket purchases, thank-you letters, supportive phone calls, and small contributions might seem like drops in the ocean, but they can make a real difference. Imagine an artistic administrator able to stand up in front of the board, staff, and musicians at the orchestra’s annual meeting and report, “This past season, we increased our programming of music by living and under-represented composers by 15%, and we saw a direct correlation between these programs and a 3% audience growth. These programs also attracted 64 new individual donors.” If she could give this report, then read a letter or two from audience members sharing how much they value the diversity of the orchestra’s programming, what a powerful message that would send to the entire organization.

Finally, if the reader will indulge a slight left turn, here’s a pro-tip for prospective guest conductors and soloists (and their managers) looking to land a debut: include contemporary music in your repertoire proposals. So many up-and-coming conductors want to make a splash with their Bruckner 7; every young virtuoso wants to set the world on fire with their Beethoven concerto. But orchestras aren’t just looking for the most accomplished musicians: they’re looking for the most interesting musicians. An orchestra musician I worked closely with on developing programs used to insist, “A soloist should transform a concert.” For my money, the most interesting artists—the ones who can be counted on to deliver the most transformative Beethoven concerti—are the ones whose repertoire doesn’t stop at 1999, much less 1899. Approaching the literature, not as a museum catalog but as a living, dynamic continuum, invariably makes your Beethoven more interesting. Offering contemporary repertoire doesn’t mean the orchestra will necessarily ask for your Widmann or Wolfe, but it’s informative to know whether you value this music at all.

It’s much easier to distinguish yourself with something new and less familiar than with the second-best Sibelius they’ve heard in as many seasons.

Also, some perspective: does the orchestra have one of the world’s preeminent Bruckner conductors as its current music director? Did the world’s most famous violinist play the Beethoven with them last season? If so, it doesn’t matter how great your Beethoven is—truly, I know it would be great! Your exceptional artistry is why I’m on the phone with your manager to begin with—you’re setting yourself up for a difficult comparison. At the orchestras where I served, musician surveys played an important part in determining whether to re-invite debut guest artists, and the conductors and soloists who made the strongest first impressions did it with repertoire outside the standard canon. A young violinist making their debut with Sibelius typically prompts responses of, “Eh, fine, but we’ve had better.” It’s much easier to distinguish yourself with something new and less familiar—leaving the orchestra and its audience eager to hear what you can do with the standard repertoire—than with the second-best Sibelius they’ve heard in as many seasons.

The magic of our art form is its capacity for reinvention. The inheritance and transformation of tradition is the greatness of Beethoven is the greatness of Stravinsky is the greatness of Ligeti is the greatness of Matthew Aucoin and Alex Temple and Angélica Negrón. By advocating for the music of the present day—whether as artists, audiences, or administrators—we not only promote the work of living composers; we renew the vitality of the art form as a whole. I applaud Maestro Gaffigan’s efforts to champion the work of living composers. We can all do more than lay this charge at the feet of orchestra administrators. Let us all take up this cause constructively, proactively, and with gusto.

A New Music Halloween Playlist Curated By Vanessa Ague

One of the exciting ways to use the New Music USA platform is user-generated playlists. Our goal with playlists is to give you the power to curate the music you love on our site. You can now save, organize, listen to, and share videos and recordings from both projects and profiles by using playlists.

Using playlists is simple and intuitive. When you are logged in and on a profile or project page, if you see a video or sound recording that you want to add to your playlist, just click “Add to Playlist.” Once you do that, you can access your playlist at any time by navigating to “My Playlist” underneath the user tab at the top right of the page. The recordings you’ve added will now appear in your playlist.

Our friend and colleague Vanessa Ague agreed to curate a Halloween-themed playlist with works that she sourced from across the New Music USA platform. She found some great tracks that include performers such as Atlantic Guitar Quartet, Eighth Blackbird, Nadia Sirota, Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, and more! Vanessa’s picks are helping us get into the Halloween mood. Click the link and take your Halloween listening to the next level.

LISTEN TO VANESSA AGUE’S
NEW MUSIC HALLOWEEN PLAYLIST

Determining a Different Outcome

It’s easy to give ourselves a hard time about not being more successful as composers, musicians, writers, and artists. And this perception is often rooted in our self-regard and not in reality as others may see us. That is, we may have scored many successes but not perceive them as such. I used to become jealous, mildly enraged, or depressed by the success of others, and also engaged in petty schadenfreude when someone was perceived to have failed. I figure that’s why many “news” items detail the slips, failures, and inevitable aging of public figures; it enables us to compare ourselves to those once considered successful in a favorable light.

I’ve known some artists who were continually angry or at least frustrated by the cards they were dealt; one was a visual artist who had actually had a full show at the Whitney, a Guggenheim Fellowship, photos published in national magazines, and a monograph written by a highly respected art historian. Another was a composer who has had performances by a number of major orchestras. I told the artist that he wouldn’t be content until he had a Pulitzer, and the other confided in me that the day that they announced the Pulitzer each year wasn’t a very good day for him.

Somewhere along the line I decided that I was going to strive to avoid bitterness about my own career and (at least try) to appreciate what I have. Not all artists start with the same paint box of abilities, family support, timely teachers, and inspiring surroundings. But those of us who are composing and creating actively have at least found the success of drive, desire, and an inner strength to persist, no matter what our background is.

Recently, when they announced that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was going to Frances Arnold, she was interviewed on NPR about receiving the life-changing phone call early one morning. I found myself envious of that experience, until I rationalized that her success is actually my success and a success for all of us. Her advances in her field are our advances. I never felt jealous of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. It was in fact embraced as a success for the entire world, and it still is (at least if we don’t deny that it happened).

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

We are the ones who individually determine the course of our lives. As the adage from Abraham Lincoln goes (and which was later appropriated by Silicon Valley): “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” No one else is going to do it.

Recently I’ve had what I consider to be successful renderings of a couple of works for mezzo-soprano that were composed for the singer Alice Simmons, whom my wife and I met after a performance at the Tate Modern Museum in London. We became friends and eventually I wrote her a song cycle based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake that she premiered in the UK. Recently, she premiered an evening-length, multimedia event for me in Kansas. In her late 40s, Alice is reinventing her life as a performer. It’s something that she avoided for many years due to her lack of confidence. But she’s now putting herself out there and is constantly busy. She is reinventing her future and creating a different outcome, on a path that embraces the challenge of performing.

She doesn’t view herself as a success, but I see that her success lies in reinvention. And her reinvention contributes to my success in collaboration, which has resulted in a couple of lovely performances.

“Am I successful?” We determine what is successful. I’ve known musicians and composers who had a very limited definition of success, which was to write a hit song and live on the royalties or to end up getting a gig with the New York Phil. That was it. And when one person I know didn’t achieve the latter, this person drifted away from music completely—and he had a genuine shot at world-class gigs like the Phil, even if they weren’t specifically with that particular band.

So, where can your definition of success go but down if you don’t achieve one specific goal? I’ve known one person to have that sort of success and who seemed to appreciate it: banjoist, fiddler, singer, guitarist, and songwriter John Hartford. In the 1960s, he penned “Gentle on My Mind” in half an hour and, when his record was released, Glen Campbell picked up the tune and made it a very large hit—when I knew Hartford, it was the 17th most-recorded tune in history. Elvis, Sinatra, and a host of others did their own interpretations. While Hartford lived on those royalties for the rest of his life, he didn’t rest on his laurels. He composed many more songs (never again to achieve the popular success of “Gentle on My Mind”), and he toured all over performing many concerts—sometimes clog dancing, playing the fiddle, and singing simultaneously. Even when cancer ravaged his body, he kept performing and writing; I saw his penultimate performance in Asheville, North Carolina, which to me was the ultimate in success as he was still persisting in doing what he loved. By this time, he was only able to play the occasional single tone on the banjo and sing his songs fronting a backup band. Yet, to me, each note expressed a lifetime of incredible music making. He was actively involved and never failed, even if he never had another hit.

I complimented him once for not trying to reproduce the success of “Gentle on My Mind.” “Oh, but I did,” he replied. He spent three weeks composing a follow-up titled “A Simple Thing as Love,” intended to be as successful at the previous one. I love that tune, but it never caught on in the manner he’d envisioned. In spite of not duplicating his first success, he carried on practicing, writing, and giving concerts.

Our successes are self-defined and they can’t be narrowly conceived. I’ve lived out my life with a list of three goals that I made as a 19-year old when I desperately needed direction in life. I decided that my career in music would consist of teaching, composing, and performing, not necessarily in that order. I believed then and still do that a successful day was being engaged in all three of those activities. Forty years later, I’m still doing it. I consider that to be a successful career in spite of never winning (or being nominated for) a Pulitzer, never placing in the Walnut Valley National Banjo Competition, and never being named teacher of the year (or some such crap).

It doesn’t matter. At the age of 60, I’m happy in a weird sort of way. I still have moments where I envy the success of others and wish, say, I’d been endowed with a different background that would have led to a Santa Fe Opera premiere or performances with major orchestras worldwide. But then I wouldn’t have the life I have now. And who knows if I would have been happy with that other life anyway? It’s easy to confound and twist success in our minds into a perception of failure. But I’m composing every day, teaching, playing gigs, and staging concerts. I get to work with many different people, musicians and artists. And I’m left with a wide variety of stories.

It really doesn’t get much better than this. But, like servicing an old car, I know that I’m going to have to maintain and continue to develop that attitude. The specter of dissatisfaction can take over at any time. But it doesn’t have to.