Category: Articles

Sonic Cartography

My recent sound installations include sonic maps documenting how global marketing impacts our listening. These pieces were made in collaboration with bartenders, biologists, street criers, and dockworkers. Sometimes my work focuses on a single sound encountered by chance. At other times, a site’s social and political significance inspires me to look for a collection of sounds that speak to the site’s history. The result has been a series of multichannel installations, comprising a plane of sound—including keynote voices, landscape recordings, and songs—that invite discussion of how social or economic change can be heard on site.

Listening to the sounds of a new culture when traveling can provide amazing starting points for a piece. Away from home, curiosity, serendipity, and naïveté lead me to investigate sounds that have become commonplace to the locals. In Padua, Italy, I stumbled across Bar Romeo, a small tavern in the center of town where butchers, dressed in blood-stained smocks, sang fantastic a cappella songs, directed by a tailor who conducted with a prosecco flute for a baton. My local musicologist and composer friends had never heard of the bar, located less than a five-minute walk from their offices. These specialists assumed that the noise from radio and TV had all but decimated the practice of amateur singing bars. When I took them to Bar Romeo, they were astonished and were not able to fully decipher the thick dialect and coded lyrics of the antiquated tavern songs. When I asked the butchers if they would collaborate on a work, they answered, “We’ll make an entire opera!” In the end, it turned out to be a much smaller work, but the piece, conceived by the naïve ear of a traveler, sparked a discussion about the city’s disappearing tavern songs—a tradition that spanned back decades, if not centuries.

Bar Romeo

Still frame from Bar Romeo (2006) 1-channel video with sound. Neil Leonard (sound); Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (video).

In Cuba, there is a rich tradition of popular songs about street criers (pregoneros). My father had a 78-rpm disk of Louis Armstrong singing Moisés Simons’s “El Manicero” (“Peanut Vendor”). I heard the recording when I was in elementary school and can still remember Armstrong singing “Mani!!!” then dropping the lyrics and brilliantly scat-singing in place of the original Spanish words. Simons’s lyrics feature the peanut vendor singing his pregón (cry), within the song that Simons composed for us to hear. The sheet music of “El Manicero” is reported to have sold more than a million copies. The tune helped launch the mid-20th century rumba craze in the U.S. Dozens of covers of the tune appeared on recordings. Groucho Marx whistled the tune in Duck Soup. Cary Grant sang it in Only Angels Have Wings and Judy Garland sang a bit of it in A Star is Born. Along with “Guantanamera,” “El Manicero” is one of the iconic pop songs of Cuba.

Small businesses were illegal in Cuba through most of the revolutionary era, however, causing pregoneros to discreetly hawk their goods in silence. During the substantial time I spent in Cuba starting in 1986, I cannot remember hearing a single pregonero, until one day, in 2010, I saw a distinctively oversize man riding a large tricycle down the street in Matanzas City. He pedaled under the shade of an umbrella, chanting his pregónes to sell baguettes. I started recording immediately. Next came an exterminator selling a pesticide to kill “cockroaches, ants, and mother-in-laws.” The social soundscape of the entire island had changed the minute the law permitted small businesses to re-open and processions of pregoneros, theatrically pitching products, reemerged instantly across the entire island. As a foreigner, it was striking that the locals seemed to ignore the pregoneros. Local families were focused on finding a way to afford bread or other wares. Only a foreigner had the luxury of appreciating the carnivalesque antics of the pregoneros.

10-channel sound installation with 2-channel video. Neil Leonard (sound and video).

A subsequent performance piece, Llego Fefa, that I created in collaboration with Cuban visual artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and Havana pregoneros, made the front page of Granma, Cuba’s only national newspaper. Under a lead article featuring a photo of Raúl Castro embracing Hugo Chávez, a smaller news piece on the 11 Havana Biennial declared that our work did much to restore dignity to this core ancestral tradition, which was ignored in favor of survival needs or dismissed as an accessory to what had been a black market crime.

What I present as sonic cartography in these pieces is as much of a personal narrative, created as I survey and record a site. Back in the studio, as I assemble works, my feel for the site and associations help steer the process. I recall flinching upon hearing the almost inaudible flap of a bird’s wings darting inches above my head in an estuary at dawn. Or, struggling with my limited Italian, trying to ask a horse butcher about his songs. I remember the awe I experience upon hearing a stevedore singing songs of the docks for me from his living room sofa. My personal experience and biases are in the foreground and the work feels personal. The most satisfying moments then come as visitors hear the final map and share their own associations to the same materials. More than an accurate record of the site, the work is a dreamlike map of connections exploring our shared listening experience.

Artist residencies for musicians: 5 tips on the application process

Finding affordable housing and a space to do one’s work is a task on the minds of many emerging artists; artist residencies provide a solution, freeing up time and space with low or no cost to the artist. Residencies also emphasize the importance of meaningful exchanges, providing insights into local cultures, communities, institutions, and art markets. We’ve been traveling from residency to residency for about a year and have loved our experiences through these programs: they give us clear short-term and long-term deadlines; they help us stretch our collaborative muscles by working with people from many different backgrounds; and they have helped us adopt a more interdisciplinary approach to our music and practice. Here is the best advice we can give to anyone curious about applying to and pursuing residencies.

1. Finding opportunities

There are a variety of ways to dive into all of the opportunities that are on offer out there. The easiest way to start is through these three websites: transartists.org, resartis.org, and artistcommunities.org. Together, the three websites are an index of more than 1000 different institutions worldwide. These organizations also offer support to the residencies themselves, from creating listings for visibility to fiscal sponsorship in the case of Alliance of Artist Communities.

If you’re looking for a residency opportunity and can’t find at least a handful to apply for here, you’re probably not looking closely enough. There was a day when we sat down and went through every single opportunity in these databases, seeing which ones have a piano, accept musicians, and other factors that pertained to our specific situation.

At first glance, it might seem like applying to all these residencies could add up in application costs, but the truth is that the vast majority don’t have an application fee, have a very flexible application process (as they accept artists of all disciplines), and can be applied to on a rolling basis. And with hundreds of opportunities on offer, there are approaching deadlines each month. You can always check Resartis for upcoming deadlines, or start keeping a residency deadline calendar like we do. Anytime we find an opportunity, we add it to our calendar twice with the appropriate URL: once when we think we need to start working on the application, and once when it’s due. This way, you can immediately add any residencies you hear about that sound like a good fit and then not really have to think about it again until a deadline is approaching.

2. The Anti-Résumé

The headline of a New York Times opinion piece reads: “Stand Out With an Anti-Résumé for Your Next Job Application.” Monica Byrne, a writer, has created an Excel spreadsheet of every failure and rejection she’s encountered and coined the endearing term “Anti-Résumé.” Well, we’ve become pretty extreme proponents of the Anti-Résumé. We have a spreadsheet of both rejections and positive responses. It lets us keep everything in check. In our work, we have a success rate of about 1 in 2 with applications (knock on wood). It just means we have to do twice as many applications as opportunities we’re interested in. We’d encourage anyone to take this approach, to learn from the numbers, and to make their own observations about the application process. Even if our average was 1 in 5, or even 1 in 20, we could easily persevere just having the knowledge of how much work it takes to earn a single opportunity. All in all, it takes a constant regimen of looking for and applying for opportunities to travel from residency to residency.

Passepartout Duo in California

3. Turning in a strong application

In many of these cases, you’re going to be evaluated by a non-musician against a lot of other non-musicians, and we think that’s great. Our main suggestion is that, on its own, a straight-shot video of you running through your repertoire might not be super impressive to someone who doesn’t understand your instrument or new music. The video you create, and the portfolio you present, should be as representative of your ideas as the music you’re making. We’d suggest trying to reach out to designers or videographers to help make a dynamic and engaging portfolio that helps your project speak on a visual and conceptual basis, more than just on a musical one.

Making videos has been a huge part of our work as a duo, and we think it has played a big role in making our music more accessible outside of the traditional new music spheres, besides adding a collaborative and interpretative layer to the works.

Secondly, there’s an aspect of project proposals that is very important to the application process for residencies. Constantly sending in residency applications has given us a wonderful opportunity to re-codify our ensemble’s values and beliefs on a weekly and monthly basis. With each application, we try to be even more articulate in the conceptual aspects of our work; “Why are we even doing this, and why is it important and relevant to x place in the world?” Choosing a project that has a clear local and community-based proposition, while maintaining a globally accessible concept, is probably the key. If your project pertains to a specific region, you can easily propose it to many different residencies in that same area as well.

4. Building off an “anchor” opportunity and developing it further

Eventually, there comes a point where you’ve landed a great residency opportunity that makes it worth traveling halfway across the world. Maybe it’s that there’s a healthy stipend, a world-renowned artist nearby, or a friend you’d love to collaborate with. We always strive to take these opportunities and stretch them further. Our research to dig deeper is where we make the most progress in turning one opportunity into many. Once we know we’ll have a residency lined up somewhere, we look at how we can add concerts, university engagements, and other activities into the mix.

Our first suggestion is to like every Facebook page and sign up for every mailing list in that certain music scene; it’s the easiest way to see what’s going on in the world. Getting in touch with past residents is another great way to see what is going on in the local community and how the location might impact your work.

After accumulating these contacts, we’re sending emails and calling institutions; with the residency confirmed, institutions and venues will be more eager to invite you to perform or teach. We’re always looking at cost over time too, rather than just cost per engagement. That means that with this one “anchor” opportunity in place, it frees you up to take on engagements that you wouldn’t fly across the world for, per se, but that really contribute to enriching your life and add a lot of value to the whole of the trip.

This idea of building off a single residency opportunity is what will make these experiences rich and worthwhile, and you may find that a residency is usually just the start of many larger relationships with other artists and institutions.

5. Making something while you’re there (what residencies want)

Showing the work you’ve created at the residency to the local community and your hosts is also a very important part of every residency engagement. Bringing enthusiasm and a willingness to share a window into your creative process is possibly the simplest thing you can give in return for these opportunities. For composers and other people whose work doesn’t contain a necessarily performative or exhibitable element, we’d encourage you to find an engaging way of communicating your project to your hosts and the public.

It’s great to have a community engagement project, a performance, or some kind of presentation prepared for any situation. For us, creating videos that showcase our repertoire while in residence and organizing small touring “house concerts” have been some of our most fulfilling and popular approaches. Filming the repertoire can involve the collaboration of locals, and it can portray these unique places in the world. Organizing intimate concerts can help to stretch one’s ability to present and discuss musical ideas with people who might never have been aware of new music, and meeting local people can create lasting memories everywhere you go.

In the end, our approach is summed up in three words: “just do it.” There’s not really much more to it than that; we’re always trying, failing, and experimenting ourselves with a continually evolving approach. These pointers just represent some of the things we wish we more clearly knew when starting out.

Morocco, Iceland, Finland, and Cyprus: To Change and Be Changed

Before getting into the details of how we discover and apply to artist residency opportunities, we wanted to share our thoughts on some of the benefits to performers and composers of continual travel for music. The main takeaway is that every artist residency is different in its financial burden, its scope, and its circumstance; we’d like to encourage people to take on engagements of every kind, not just those which offer stipends and plentiful resources.

Marrakech, Morocco // Flexibility

Passepartout Duo in Marrakech

In April 2017, we were in residence at Dar Slimane, in a remote location outside of Marrakech, Morocco. Part of the institution’s mission is to revitalize desertified land altered by years of unsustainable agriculture, while also supporting artists in an interesting cultural environment. There are residencies of all sizes out there, and Dar Slimane represents those of the smallest size, where just a local couple is essentially hosting artists in their home. It has a completely different dynamic from those like Avaloch Farm or Banff that musicians often turn to, but one we’ve come to cherish in its own right. Small residencies are normally run by artists themselves, and they can connect you with the local community and environment in ways that huge institutions cannot. The key lesson we learned through our experience, and the one that made participating in this residency possible, was to be flexible artistically.

For the first time, we had a circumstance that necessitated leaving our instrument comfort-zone. We knew there wouldn’t be a piano on the premises, and that we would only be in residence for two weeks. Our solution was to learn and record a piece by Christopher Adler that is scored only for instruments that could all easily fit in a carry-on suitcase. The piece was great for this situation but, better yet, it was a choice that set us on a path to seek out increasingly more portable solutions. Here’s our current traveling instrumentation, as it existed in Åland a couple months ago:

Passepartout Duo's mini set-up

Our stay in Morocco represented the first time we wondered, “Should pianists only apply to residencies that provide a grand piano? Do we need to find a five-octave marimba?” Prefaced by saying that we believe there are an incredible set of residencies all offering beautiful pianos, of course our answer to these questions is no. A recurring theme in the classical music world is to “bring classical music outside of the concert hall,” but that’s not a proposition we can pursue without changing our perception of what is needed for a performance.

Our desire to continue working within situations as culturally vibrant and influential as ours in Morocco has played an important role in how we’re approaching music now. We had a bug—not having a proper instrumentation—that has now been transformed into a feature of our ensemble: being able to travel and perform anywhere. We’d encourage anyone to extend the perimeter of their comfort zone when it comes to artist residencies. Whether it’s about being away from home, having limited resources, or stretching what is financially possible, usually the good will outweigh the bad in the end and you’ll come out with inspiring experiences that would’ve otherwise never happened.

Iceland // Think big (and then make it work)

We were in northern Iceland for a residency at Listhús art space that coincided with their Skammdegi Festival. During our nine-week stay we: recorded an EP, filmed three music videos, played on the Dark Music Days Festival, were on the Radio and TV in Icelandic, had a small house concert tour, and met a dozen other inspiring artists (from the town and abroad). We were even extras on a Netflix show. By our standards, that’s a lot for nine weeks in a completely new location. It wasn’t like we were stretched to our limits either; in the dark and cold North, we had the time to be introspective, to catch up on typical admin work, and still had plenty of energy for fun and discovery within this unique place in the world.

It did come at a price, though. Not all residencies are free, and this was the most expensive one we’ve participated in. The fee and expenses of living in Iceland can sound a bit difficult to swing for most people, but an eagerness to take on this opportunity helped us to find a way to make it work.

One of the hidden benefits of distant travel as an artist is the ability to accrue funding from grants not only from your home city/country, but also abroad. Our residency proposition in Iceland opened us up to many different funding bodies in the Nordic countries that helped us to build a project across many locations and disciplines. We were able to couple the opportunity with an advantageous festival appearance that also helped offset the cost.

Grants and funding aside, we think that giving a fee per month to an arts organization that needs it, is so much more satisfying than giving that money to a landlord. Our project in the Nordic countries quickly expanded to include festival appearances, composer commissions, and residencies in Finland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark. Although it took a leap of faith and a small initial investment, this larger project that accumulated support on the way would have never happened without the Listhús residency as a catalyst.

Fiskars, Finland // City Living and Quality of Life

Passepartout Duo in Fiskars

Fiskars, a small town outside Helsinki that is owned by the Fiskars company, is a true “artists’ village.” Funds from the company helped facilitate an influx of Helsinki-based artists to live and work in the vacant factory buildings. Though a town of just 600 or so permanent inhabitants, it is somehow an epicenter of arts and culture. Couple that with Finland’s incredible public education and social programs, and it’s hard to imagine a place with a higher quality of life for musicians.

It’s easy to think that media center cities like Los Angeles and Paris are the only places it’s possible to be a contemporary musician in touch with the vanguard, but traveling has shown us something different. Going to an artist residency somewhere halfway across the world will give you an outsider’s perspective on your own life and the current circumstances in which you live. It will also give you a window into another kind of lifestyle you may not have yet encountered.

The lesson we’ve learned this time is that the best place for you to choose to settle down may not be the city you grew up near and it doesn’t have to be automatically the city you went to school in; it’s possibly even somewhere you haven’t heard of yet.

Treis Elies, Cyprus // Local and global communities

We stayed in the small town of Treis Elies, Cyprus this past July as part of the Kammari Residency. Kammari was very recently started by a small group of Finnish/Cypriot artists and philosophers. With just 20 permanent residents, the town of Treis Elies represents a shift in Europe where small rural villages are losing residents and becoming uninhabited. With several young couples moving to Treis Elies from abroad, the village’s make-up is now a mix of an older Cypriot generation and a new very international one, not without clashes of lifestyles. The introduction of the artist residency has created a foundation for these two different cultures to interact on and this has drastically changed the sense of community within the village. In Treis Elies, meals and drinks are shared on a daily basis regardless of age, language, or background. In a place with a history such as Cyprus’s we felt this message was very powerful: that artist residencies propose the ability to change a cultural landscape.

La Casa del Herrero in Torralba de Ribota, Spain (population 188) is doing the very same thing: it represents one of three artist residencies in the same small village, and it contributes to building a vibrant and inclusive community there. Our experiences at these residencies were not only defined by the art we encountered, but also defined by memories of conversations shared over lunchtime backgammon and late-night barbecues in many languages. We learn about different cultures and communities in this way and often can draw parallels between them.

The people we know, and have met on the way, are what have made our experiences meaningful, more than the places we’ve been. It’s both for us and for these communities we encounter that we hope to start new discussions about art and create shared memories during our travels.

Morocco, Iceland, Finland, and Cyprus: it was a general openness toward going anywhere and an eagerness to share our music with anyone who will listen that brought us to these places. We’ve learned a lot along the way, and hope that by seeing these four examples you’re encouraged to travel somewhere not only because you want to go there, but also because you think it might expand your world, practice, or ideology in some way. Traveling somewhere new provides us with a thought-provoking invitation, applicable in both life and in new music: to change and be changed.

A Holistic Approach to Sound

Depending on who you talk to, “extended techniques” can be a loaded term. To one person, the presence of extended techniques makes a piece of music weird and unlistenable, while to another, their absence would indicate music that is regressive and uninteresting. In either case, ears are closed, and a blanket judgment is being made about the quality of the art using a term that should really only be a quantifier. So, first of all, I’d like to clear away some of the subjective baggage that has built up around extended techniques. The most objective way I can think of to define it is this: an extended technique is any action that produces a result outside the fundamental parameters of sound that an instrument was designed to make. This still leaves some ambiguity as to the designers’ intentions, especially when it comes to an instrument as old as mine, the violin. But it’s clear that on the violin, an execution that causes the string to vibrate with maximum consistency and overtone-rich resonance is the primary function of the instrument, which luthiers have worked very hard to cultivate over the centuries. On the other hand, playing very close to the bridge to create a broken, inconsistent sound that reinforces high overtones, while just as beautiful aesthetically, is one example of the great many techniques that fall outside the instrument’s intended function. This distinction is very important for students, since getting the string to resonate consistently is the most difficult thing to master, and is the foundation of most other physical movements on the instrument.

An extended technique is any action that produces a result outside the fundamental parameters of sound that an instrument was designed to make.

As useful as I’ve found this definition as a player and a teacher, it still sets up a dualism that I find troubling. For one thing, it would seem to support the idea that all sounds outside of the core practice of Western classical music represent an extension of that practice, and not a separate identity. To an extent I agree with this – it is very difficult to understand how to play Lachenmann if you haven’t studied Beethoven, as they are strongly connected along the lineage of German music – but this way of thinking excludes artists who have arrived at novel ways of creating sound along a different trajectory. Furthermore, by lumping an incredibly broad array of musical tools into the single category of extended techniques, the implication is that any given sound outside “normal” playing is a shallow, one-dimensional artifact, rather than a component of one of any number of deep reservoirs of practice that have just as much potential for nuanced human expression as the standard technique of the instrument’s original design.

Maestro-Scroll

IMAGE: Alexander Perrelli and Emma Van Deun

As my own practice on the violin has evolved to a point where the majority of the sounds I make on the instrument could be defined as extended techniques, I wonder if there is a better way to frame instrumental performance practice for the 21st century that, while respecting and continuing traditions, makes room for a deeper engagement with other avenues of expression. I’ve begun to think of this as a holistic approach to sound.

The idea of a holistic approach to sound started to coalesce when I was preparing to record Violin Solos, a series of improvised solo violin pieces for my debut album, Engage (New Focus Recordings, August 3, 2018). I had been working this way for a long time in various contexts, from interpreter to collaborator to improviser, but didn’t have the words for it yet. Planning and practicing for that recording session, and then working to break it all down afterward to write the liner notes for the album, gave me the impetus to look under the hood of my practice and really examine what was happening.

In thinking about my approach to sound, I kept on coming back to the idea of reservoirs. The standard, “romantic” style of violin playing that has been dominant since at least the mid-20th century and that every violin student learns is one reservoir. It utilizes the sounds that the modern violin, paired with the modern bow, were designed to produce – rich and luminous, causing the string to vibrate in a manner that is consistent and sustained. Another, equally deep reservoir encompasses the highly specific timbral study that has been so thoroughly researched by composers like Helmut Lachenmann, Mathias Spahlinger, and many others since (though on a musical level the compositions of Lachenmann and Spahlinger remain deeply connected to the same Germanic tradition that begat “romantic” string playing, on a technical level the sounds represent a radically different engagement with the instrument, requiring an entirely different skill set as a player). Another reservoir is Just Intonation, a practice that has made its way into just about everything that I do. Another might broadly be described as noise-based music. Another that is specific to my individual path would be the sounds and techniques that grew out of collaborative work with my composer colleagues in the Wet Ink Ensemble (Alex Mincek, Kate Soper, Eric Wubbels, and Sam Pluta). Far from a comprehensive list, those are just a few examples of reservoirs that have spoken strongly to me and that I have incorporated into my playing, colored by my unique experiences as a musician. Another violinist would no doubt have some similarities and some differences.

One can dive deeply into any single reservoir and find more than a complete set of tools for musical expression. I think that a piece based completely in scratch tones and pitchless noise has just as much potential to be beautiful as a piece based in fully voiced notes. It’s only a matter of whether it is done well. For me, a mode of personal expression on the violin that feels rich and fulfilling involves drawing from many of these reservoirs and then quickly cutting between them. By engaging with material in this way, the relationship to sound feels less like the ornamentation of a monolithic practice, and more like personal conversations with distinct musical entities.

A mode of personal expression on the violin that feels rich and fulfilling involves drawing from many of these reservoirs and then quickly cutting between them.

All of this reminds me of a quote from Sam Pluta’s writing about his own work, in which he proposes a type of musicmaking where “anything and everything is possible and acceptable at any moment.” It’s an attitude that embraces adventure and innovative modes of expression without demanding an outright rejection of established practices. And it represents a kind of openness to the universe that makes the music of composers like Sam and Anthony Braxton so compelling and inspiring. This isn’t to say “everything is good” – curation and self-criticism must be valued for art to be successful – but that a nondogmatic engagement with sound can yield beautiful results. Never mind whether an artist hails predominantly from one aesthetic camp or another. If there is a sound or gesture that is right for the music, do it.

The music that resonates with me tends to be aesthetically adventurous and open-minded, yet tightly curated. I’ll use a few works that were written for me by some of the Wet Ink composers as examples. Sam Pluta’s Jem Altieri with a Ring Modulator Circuit, for violin and electronics, lives mostly in a world of carefully sculpted noise, but in rare and special moments, when the music needs it, calls on the violin to produce fully resonant pitched sonorities. Kate Soper’s Cipher, for soprano and violin, winds up traversing an incredibly diverse array of musical terrain, from timbral study to art song to psycho-acoustic phenomena, all in the service of a thoroughly logical exploration of language and meaning. Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire,” for violin and prepared piano, begins with an extremely long overpressure sound on the violin, setting up expectations in the listener about the style and form of the work, which are then subverted as it is revealed that the scratch tone functions as a metaphorical well of sound from which the rest of the highly articulate and virtuosic materials for the piece are drawn. In the case of each of these works, when you pull back and take in the big picture, musical choices that are unexpected or surprising in the moment work together beautifully in the larger context.

Sam Pluta: Portraits/Self-Portraits, performed by Josh Modney and the Wet Ink Large Ensemble. This work begins with a version of Jem Altieri with a Ring Modulator Circuit scored for violin and ensemble.

A successful performance of multifaceted music like this demands a fluency of movement between strongly defined sonic identities. Another way of expressing that is that the music demands versatility. The idea of versatility loomed large as the ultimate goal of my classical training, the key to unlocking a successful career as a concert violinist. I agree with that in spirit, except that the traditional conservatory approach defines versatility very narrowly as the ability to play in the styles of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Debussy. The idea is that if you can master the techniques required to play those composers, you can play anything. As a teacher, I still think those things are important. The study of classical music is an excellent way to gain fluency in the sounds that the instrument was designed to make, and fluency in the instrument’s primary functions are critical to artistry. But those sounds represent only a small fraction of the tools necessary to thrive as a 21st-century musician.

The music that resonates with me tends to be aesthetically adventurous and open-minded, yet tightly curated.

As a classically trained violinist, I’d like to propose that we expand our concept of versatility on the instrument. What if a new versatility included improvisation, adventurous reinterpretations of antique music, deep engagement with more recent traditions on the instrument, and collaborations with artists on new compositions, sounds, and techniques? Rather than regarding all sounds as extensions of a single dominant practice, let’s treat the established norms of Western classical music as just one of many reservoirs of musical thought in a holistic approach that values many kinds of expression.

Passepartout Duo: Music on the Move

Post update 8/14/2018: After criticism highlighting our use of the word “homeless” in this post emerged, we recognized that a revision was necessary in the original article and wanted to offer an apology. We had no intention of equating our situation with that of those living in extreme poverty nor in romanticizing the idea of the struggling artist. Instead, we only meant to indicate that we currently do not have a home base and are hoping to show others a possible way to live and work as artists in a positive environment through residencies and travel. —The Passepartout Duo

A remote permaculture homestead in the Sahara Desert, a northern-Icelandic fishing community half-a-degree south of the Arctic Circle, a family home within the bustling streets of Havana, or a wooden house-building factory in the Swiss Alps: our home moves from month to month, and along the way we meet new people, discover new ways of life, and are continually inspired by the shifting circumstances in which we make music.

At this point, we’ve completely given up location-dependent life. Artistically, it has profoundly changed our practice.

At this point, we’ve completely given up location-dependent life. We have four small bags: one backpack and one instrument case each. We each have one pair of shoes and we use them for everything, until they fall apart; then, we pick up a new pair and keep going.

But it’s not just an eagerness to travel that’s encouraged us to pursue this lifestyle. Artistically, it has profoundly changed our practice and created a sustainable model in which our ensemble can operate, concertize, and continually make work that interests us and leaves us creatively engaged.

Passepartout Duo on the road less traveled

Passepartout Duo on the road less traveled

We still don’t know how to respond when a fellow artist asks, “Where are you based?” but we always manage to spark some intrigue and curiosity with our response. This series of articles is an attempt to codify the kind of lifestyle we’re currently living, while also providing pointers to anyone interested in pursuing similar opportunities.

Artist residencies have been practically and artistically indispensable to us; we created the piano/percussion Passepartout Duo in 2015 as a “long-distance music collaboration” while residing across continents, and it was only through an opportunity at the Banff Centre that our work together was able to begin. Since then, residencies have been both mile markers along the way that helped our projects take shape, and the primary way we’re able to continually travel from month to month.

The Banff Centre was a complete dream world. When we arrived, it hit us immediately how the ensemble that first only existed within this one residency application we had sent in, was now a real thing, and there was at least someone out there supporting it. Those six weeks left a huge impression on us. After we left, on the days when we felt the most behind on our work we’d daydream thinking: “What could I get done with just one more day at the Banff Centre?” At that time, it didn’t occur to us that there are hundreds of other Banff-Centre-like places out there, hosting artists and creating communities of their own.

Passepartout Duo at Banff

Passepartout Duo at Banff

Soon after, we completed the small concert tour of Europe that was the motivation for our residency, stopping in four cities and sharing what we had worked on. In some ways, this model of oscillating between small concert tours and residencies has continued unchanged in our years together as an ensemble. It has been very fruitful to reflect upon the ties between a geographical situation and the work of an artist. Everywhere we go we now wonder: “How is our work going to make a difference in this place? How is this place going to mold our work?”

The bridge between that first Banff Centre residency and this life we live now didn’t happen all of a sudden. We slowly accumulated opportunities with the original intention of being based in a city and traveling frequently, but not indefinitely. There was a point when we realized that it didn’t make sense anymore to sign a multi-year lease on an apartment, because two months after moving in, we would be traveling for nine months straight. If we’re honest, we also became skeptical about the idea of living in a major city: to take on private teaching, day jobs, unfavorable gigs, unaffordable rent, all for what amounts to probably less than a month per year of meaningful and important artistic work that truly requires your presence in that specific place. There’s also a contagious effect within the Londons and New Yorks of the world, a feedback loop that tells people “this is the greatest city on earth, and it’s the only place I can be an artist.” We were skeptical about subscribing to these ideas—and paying for them, too. We loved the time we had spent so far at artist residencies, and thought, “How can we do this more, and that less?”

And that’s where we are now. We’re booked two years out with travels and engagements all over the world. This introduction is just the first of four parts about our relationship with artist residencies, and how others can dive into these opportunities for themselves. We’ll pick it up next week by describing a few of the places we’ve been, and what we’ve learned and discovered from each.

Passepartout Duo in Spain

Ain’t I A Woman Too

The classical and contemporary music worlds have recently replaced the buzzword “collaboration” with “diversity,” and that push for broader inclusion has largely centered on women. The fundamental issue with the marketing and implementation of this very important matter of inclusion is that the faces and voices in the conversation are largely those of cisgender white women.

First off, I want to recognize how inspired I am by the many women who are addressing a number of problems related to inequality in our industry—from problematic power structures to sexual harassment to equal pay for equal work disparities. I do not discount any of the efforts that these strong women have made to move all of us forward.

However, the problem comes when the voices of those speaking out about diversity are largely homogenized. The problem continues when organizations promote “diversity initiatives” using only images of cisgender white women. What these actions and inactions tell women who look like me—women of color, and individuals for whom I am an ally, including non-binary and queer women—is that our voices and, more poignantly, our faces are not welcome in this conversation. Personally, it has the effect of taking my agency as a woman away from me. When people mention the breakthroughs of women composers, I do not identify with these achievements as a part of the evolution that paves my path in the music industry. The more I talk to other women of color hailing from nations across the globe, the more I understand how the subconscious presentation of diversity framed exclusively as a “middle-class white cisgender woman’s problem” has the ripple effect of silencing women of varied ethnic backgrounds and gender identities.

When we leave people out of important conversations about diversity, we are creating hard barriers to inclusion.

About a year ago, a friend and colleague in the composition world spoke to me strongly about how she felt that the music industry was inherently stacked against her as a woman. In a moment which she later described to me as a “much-needed check of her privilege,” I explained to her that while the world might seem difficult for her as a woman, as a black woman I have almost nothing going for me…and every small task is a fight for survival in this new music world.

As the daughter of a British mum and an African-American father, my childhood was largely influenced by my mum’s continental culture. I spent a great deal of my time in the family room listening to recordings of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and wearing out countless cassette recordings of Peter and the Wolf. My father, who was determined to give me all the resources that he could, sent me to Dale Carnegie executive training courses with upwardly mobile employees of Fortune 500 companies, while other preteens whirled around in the fanciful teacups at Disney World. At the same time that I was afforded all this privilege in my youth, I was in touch with those from humbler means, as both of my parents wanted to instill within me the idea that I learn to serve others and to be grateful for whatever I was blessed to have in my life.

While my childhood was sprinkled with the privilege of the pre-recession upper middle-class, there was still a disparity. Every time I walked outside my home and had to stand on my own without the back up of my parents, I was challenged. My parents frequently had to come to school to meet with administrators and teachers who thought that I was cheating on my papers because my command of the English language was far above my grade level. If I had been a white male child, they would likely have called me a prodigy. Instead, I was tested, writing essays under time and pressure by hand on notebook paper, with the same results each time. My vernacular and writing style were not influenced by anyone but the inner voice, which sought to express my being in the most artistic and factual manner possible.

I constantly heard from my white friends, “You’re black, but you aren’t really black.” But I was definitely black enough to be kept waiting as a child at a diner in Georgia while white patron after white patron was served before me for more than three hours. I was definitely black enough to be called a gorilla, a beast, a man, and a whole host of denigrating terms when I developed a muscular build akin to Serena Williams. I was definitely black enough to be told by multiple men throughout my life that I wasn’t “classically beautiful” and that “if only you were white with blonde hair” then I would be desirable. I was definitely black enough to be told that having people steal my music wasn’t a big deal because it had been happening to blacks for generations.

LLEAPP 2018

Elizabeth Baker steps over her gear during a performance at LLEAPP 2018
Photo by Megan Patzem

When I made the decision to pursue music, I understood at my core that I did not want to fall into the stereotypes of what “black music” was expected to sound like. I knew that my natural form of expression had another voice that deserved to be cultivated. I knew that focusing on a “classical” practice exploiting Negro spirituals would feel forced and disconnected from the Roman Catholic faith that was integral to my rearing. I often found myself recoiling into the works of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Arvo Pärt, and Arnold Schoenberg. I was a frequent loner in music school because my tracks were largely independently driven. These men gave me a place to start experimenting with a different voice. Then one day, I met a friend and colleague who would change my life in more ways than I could imagine—a person who challenged me to question my perceptions of how I was treated, making me realize that I deserved more basic respect than others were giving me in my personal and professional life; a person who made me realize that the only way to be the truest artist and most authentic version of myself would be to embrace all parts of myself, to put in the work to better myself, but to accept my humanity and stop beating myself up for not being the perfect little black girl everyone wanted me to be; and, most importantly, the person who introduced me to the work of Pamela Z.

When I first saw Pamela Z perform on YouTube, I cried.

I cried because her work is so beautiful, so powerful, so genuine that it touches the soul.

I cried because I saw the possibility of organic expression coming out of a setup that integrated electronics.

I cried because for the first time, I saw someone who looked like me expressing themselves freely, breaking the bonds of expectations that have been cast on our people for hundreds of years.

I often present experimental music workshops at schools throughout the U.S. I do this for a number of reasons, but the first being that when I step out onto a concert stage to play piano, the sonic expectation that my skin color and afro send the crowd is one deeply rooted in the traditions of Nina Simone and Alicia Keys. While I am grateful for the work that these women have done to pave the way for black women to be on the stage at all, I want to push the expectations of what black performers—and in particular, what black women—are expected to release into the sonic ecosystem of the concert hall.

When I inadvertently checked my colleague’s privilege, I brought up the point that as a black woman in experimental music or contemporary concert music in the United States, I do not fit in anywhere.

In 21st-century America, white presenters in cosmopolitan cities have told me that they do not feel as though a black woman playing piano and electronics would fill the house enough to warrant them turning the lights on for a performance.

Meanwhile, an administrator from an African-American history museum informed me that they would be cancelling my Black History Month presentation because they did not feel as though my music was “black music” and furthermore, that it was “inaccessible for regular society.”

So now as a black woman who composes and performs, I am faced with hard barriers to pursue a career in a field that I love, a field that has saved my life in difficult times, a field that has given my life meaning and purpose, space and tones that have been my blanket as I cried myself to sleep wishing that I could wake up and be a pretty white girl with all the promise and possibilities in the world in front of her.

When we see a poster for a new “diversity initiative,” it had better be a rainbow of skin tones and no professional model stand-ins because “you couldn’t find a real composer of color.”

When we leave people out of important conversations about diversity, we are creating hard barriers to inclusion. Leaving politics aside for a moment, how would it look to have the United Nations governed solely by the most Anglicized countries in the world, with absolutely no representation from Third World countries and those with more ethnically varied populations? You couldn’t exactly in good conscious call it the United Nations.

We are at a crossroads in the evolution of modern music. With the advent of resources like Rob Deemer’s Composer Diversity Database, we have the ability to reach out to others who are cut from a different cloth and to include their powerful voices and perspectives in the difficult conversations that we are having now about how to move forward. There should not be a conference where I am the “token black person.” There should not be a festival where people of color are afraid to participate because they fear that their essence will be misappropriated by white people who fetishize the “exotic.” Non-binary and queer individuals should not feel as though their very valid points about exclusionary practices centered on culture and gender identity are systematically being brushed aside or otherwise silenced by people and organizations at the top of the power structure food chain, ultimately reinforcing additional hard barriers to participation in the upper echelon of our industry. When we see a poster for a new “diversity initiative,” it had better be a rainbow of skin tones and no professional model stand-ins because “you couldn’t find a real composer of color.” When I look up major festivals of new music, I don’t want to hear that the lineup is whitewashed because “good black composers don’t exist.” And the most controversial of all, I don’t want to hear that “black people lack a place at the table of the diversity conversation because they are just falling into line with what Western Europeans have taught them.”

We can do better.

We can do better for ancestors.

We can do better for ourselves.

We can do better for future generations.

We can start today.

Fierceness Devoted to Truth—Remembering Glenn Branca (1948-2018)

Ed Note: It has been more than two months since the music community mourned the passing of Glenn Branca, but he still remains very much on the minds of many of us. Among the many composers who have been deeply affected by Branca is Michael Gordon who not only dedicated his seminal 1988 composition Four Kings Fight Five to Branca but who also, in his capacity as one of the three artistic directors of Bang on a Can, was responsible for presenting his work at BoaC’s annual marathon several times over the last 30 years as well as recording it for BoaC’s Cantaloupe Music label. So we asked Michael to share his unique memories of this unique musical creator.—FJO

In the post office on Prince Street that is now an Apple Store, I walk in and there’s a long line. I see Glenn Branca. He’s farther along in the line and he’s in an intense conversation with a woman. It’s Reg Bloor. I know that only later. I hadn’t met her then. I watch. It’s New York. Glenn Branca is in line at the Post Office. How can that be? Hasn’t he been able to commandeer the laws of physics and just get his package there?

Imagine a sound that is the black hole of sounds.

Scientists say that black holes are so dense with matter that light isn’t able to escape. Such fierce density is theorized but not experienced. Imagine a sound that is the black hole of sounds. Every possible location on the sound spectrum has been filled. There is more sound than can be heard. There is so much sound, the sound itself is creating more sound. It is an over-saturation of sound. And all that sound is a by-product of music. You hear the music and you hear imagined musics simultaneously. Perhaps they are choirs of heavenly bodies. You are at a Glenn Branca concert in the 1980s. You are at Symphony #3. I ask around for cigarettes, tear off the filters and stuff them in my ears.

It was actually earlier—the picture says 1979. Is that possible? I was going out every night to hear music. The concert said ‘experimental’ or something like that, but to me it sounded like a bunch of not-so-great bands. I can’t remember anything about it except being trapped. I can’t leave, because maybe the next thing is worth listening to. It was the final thing. It looked like another band. Four guitars? Drums, bass? Is there a keyboard? Was someone conducting? No. Branca is in front of the band, back to the audience, faster, louder. Someone with a sledge hammer starts slamming a metallic object. Dissonance. This is why I’m here! This is why I moved to New York!

Ten years later, I call Branca. Mr. Branca. I know his name is Glenn but when we talk about him, we call him Branca. “I want you to play Symphony #6 on the festival.” Branca starts yelling at me. I love this guy. I know he’s fierce, and I know that all that fierceness is devoted to truth. We do the concert. Branca is unhappy with how it went, and afterwards he locks himself up somewhere backstage. People are waiting after the show to congratulate him. Someone big is there. Was it Bowie? But Branca is miserable and won’t come out. The following night we do it again and things go well. He’s relaxed and he talks to people.

Michael Gordon and Glenn Branca (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)

Michael Gordon and Glenn Branca (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)

Branca is a sensation. He’s touring and he must be making money because he has a studio to work in. Was it in a basement? I visit him there, and he explains his theories. It must have been a while back because the paper in the printer had little holes on the sides and the numbers, lots of numbers, had that unsmoothed, undigital look. He has charts, he has graphs and more numbers. He fits in with those brainy people in Europe who think a lot. When you are at a performance, you are at a primal scream ritual. People could be throwing themselves into the flames. But in his studio, Branca is thinking about overtones. He is mapping large movements of harmonics.

When you are at a performance, you are at a primal scream ritual.

“We have an orchestra,” I tell him. “It’s called Spit Orchestra. We want to play your orchestra music.” The World Upside Down. Branca is very practical. It’s all written out, it all works, it sounds like Branca, but there are no guitars. The precise markings of overtones have been replaced with conventional signs indicating 1/8th tone or 1/4 tone flat and sharp. He explains: they can’t get any more precise than this and it sounds good. It does sound good.

I’m at LPR to hear Branca. It’s Symphony #15. The lines down the block are a distant memory. There are people seated at tables, ordering drinks. But not enough people. I am embarrassed. But not Glenn. He is as always. There are movements, about seven of them. Not sure. One of them is totally bizarre. They are throwing things through the air that make sound. It’s whimsical. It is funny. I don’t get it. After, Branca says, “Did you get it?” I didn’t get it. Later I get it. Branca has written a Scherzo. Branca must be happy.

The last time I see Branca, it’s 2015. He is playing on the festival again. The Ascension Three. Is Glenn a Catholic? Does he pray? Does he have visions? He is just as extreme as 1979. Thirty-six years later, he is extremely extreme. He has channeled those visions into sound, and the sound is still too big for human consumption. The airwaves are soaked, and there’s so much music that it’s flooding the system. The merchants at the Winter Garden complain about Branca. We’ve been there for ten years, and they’ve never complained. Branca is too much. We get kicked out of the venue for good. Branca was the last act we did there.

Glenn Branca "conducting" an ensemble of electric guitars in a performance of his Ascension at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden during the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon (Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)

Glenn Branca “conducting” an ensemble of electric guitars in a performance of his Ascension at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden during the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon (Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)

Are we going to hear this music again? I thought that then, that night in 2015, and I think that now. The Symphonies were created, and sometimes recorded, in a process that isn’t easily recreatable. Many of the musicians were taught by rote. Were scores left? Is anyone going to take this on? Even if they do, can anyone channel the energy that Branca summoned during a performance? Are these like great buildings, designed, built, destroyed? Is all we have left a picture?

In my tiny corner of the universe, listening to Branca’s music meant that your soul had been purified or purged and had knelt before God in humility and glory. And that by some upending of the laws of nature, you manage to bottle a scent of it and bring it back to earth, and turn that scent into music, and that music, which is just a sound of a scent of something holy, is all that you have and everything that you have.

Symphony #6, sub-titled Devil Choirs At The Gates Of Heaven, is all of it in a nutshell. It’s the dichotomy of Branca’s music: by excessive use of loudness, grungy guitars, microtonal tuning, dark and heavily tuned drums, maniacal energy, and erratic onstage persona, his music manages to alienate almost the entire classical music world. By excessive large scale musical form, lack of vocals, microtonal tuning, abstractness, non-narrative-ness, and complete un-commerciality, it manages to alienate almost the entire popular music world. It is a marriage of Heaven and Hell that repulses all and demands expulsion. About what kind of art can you make a statement like that?

I took comfort knowing that Branca lived a subway ride away.

I wake up and have the feeling that New York City isn’t the same. We build the Glory of Civilization on the backs of our most expansive minds. There is nothing about this city that makes it a Great City except the people who live here. Now there is one less. If I didn’t see Glenn every day, or every year, I took comfort knowing that he lived a subway ride away. It might seem strange to say that, more than anyone I know, Glenn was an uncorrupted soul. How artists hang on as they navigate through the maze of those who buy, criticize, and analyze, applaud, and ignore, is a measure of a life. To me, Glenn was a pious monk and a messenger of holy sounds, and I hope that there was a choir of angels singing for him when he arrived at the gates of heaven.


Ed. Note: In 2012, NewMusicBox published an extensive conversation with Glenn Branca. Here are some of the highlights:

Glenn Branca in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at Smash Studios in New York City
October 3, 2012—7 p.m.
Video filmed by Alexandra Gardner
Video edited by Molly Sheridan

Emotion, Through Music, As Weather

In this article, I will leave emotion ungraspable; I do not wish to speak about it definitively. Rather, I would like to focus personally on the relationship, in my life, between music and emotion, blending these two unique realms into one cohabitating discussion. What is emotion? Singularly, I do not know, but combined with music, I do have some feelings…

The secrets behind emotion have been long sought. In 1962, psychologist Robert Plutchik wrote about emotion that “there is serious question about the reliability and meaningfulness of the verbal report. In the history of psychology, it has been pointed out many times that introspecting about our own emotions often changes them.”[1] The emotional appeal of music has been equally enchanting. In ca. 397 C.E., Saint Augustine wrote, “I must testify for myself that when I am moved more by the music than by its meaning, I feel this offense should be punished, and wish I had not listened to the cantor […] But you, Lord my God, hear me, heed, look on with pity, and heal me, before whom I am made a riddle to myself, which is the symptom of my sins.”[2]

And finally, in 2008, scientist Daniel Levitin embraced mystery in his explanation of music:

Scientists are in the business of wanting proof for everything, and I find myself caught somewhere in the metaphorical middle on this issue. As a musician, I’m reminded on a daily basis of the utterly ineffable, indescribable powers of music. […] Our scientific theories have to be able to reconcile this common experience and the strong intuition that music is—dare I say it?—magical.[3]

Emotion—a thing that Robert Plutchik found impossible to scientifically report—is expressed through music in a way that a daring Daniel Levitin called “magical,” and what a conflicted Saint Augustine called a “riddle.” Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music. Like Levitin and Augustine, I am baffled too.

Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music.

In the 1970s, composer John Cage used the weather to describe artistic process, observing that “many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead, they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.”[4] Like Cage’s use of this creative and non-technical definition, I will similarly use the weather as a way to discuss emotion expressed through music. This article will move like weather. And like a forecast, I hope to address what swirls around.[5]

Swirling air represents the meeting of diverse parts. Robert Plutchik acknowledged that there is a difference between “laboratory studies of pure, momentary emotions” and the “persistent mixed emotions of clinical experience.”[6] That is to say, the real-world application of emotion deals primarily in mixtures of emotions, rather than single, pure ones. Weather on Earth is complex, too: a mixing of cold and warm fronts, rainy on some days, stormy on others, partially rainy, partially stormy, partially cloudy, or partially sunny on others still. And there is no piece of music that is all any one emotion either. Good memories can be rendered only partially good through the loss of innocence; many find a deep comfort and contentment in feeling sadness. Emotion in music is an array of moving parts.

Like weather, emotions in music swirl wildly around. As disorienting as this whirlwind may be, we must never forget how fortunate we are to have the skies, the clouds, rain, thunder, lightning, and most importantly, the sun. The sustaining love of the sun is, after all, what makes all of this possible.

Nebulous as my approach may be, I hope this discussion will enrich our understanding of music, emotion, and our own selves. While I do not claim to hold technical qualifications to discuss the weather or emotional psychology, I do intend to write from my own experience, with sincerity and imagination. In the following sections, I will attempt to bring emotions to life, expressed in music, and retold as weather.

Clouds (Sadness)

clouds

Image: Mila Young

Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.

Clouds can weigh you down: clouds can make you question the existence of the sun. When I was finishing grad school abroad, I received news from back home that my parents were divorcing. I went into a state of depression. I remember going to the practice room, taking scores out of my bag, placing them on the piano, closing the lid, resting head on my arm, and crying on my own shoulder. I would cry for hours, then pack up and leave, never touching a single key of the piano. I ended up having to reschedule my final degree recital, which in turn (through a string of incidents that would take too much space to describe), led me to an unexpected move back to the United States…

Clouds can make you question the existence of the sun.

…but clouds can also give you focus: clouds can give you a reason to not lay in the sun. When I moved back to the United States, I was left without a job, without a place to live, and without work. I was still paying rent for an apartment overseas that I was not living in, and I was struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship. I was deeply saddened by the circumstances. But, I met this dark time with fearless abandon, playing as many concerts as possible, and working tirelessly to rebuild my career in a new country. My own disenfranchisement fueled my desire to succeed.

Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.

Rain (Tears)

A cloud in the sky can lead to rain. But tears are not just a singular cause-effect; rather, it is the grand accumulation of weight that becomes simply too heavy for a cloud to hold.

I remember the first time I heard my mother sing. She sang “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. I played the chords at the piano while she sang and played the melody with her right hand next to me. I was giving her a piano lesson, and I didn’t specifically ask her to sing, she just did it on her own. My mother brought me to tears because it was a rare joy to hear her shy, untrained voice sing without the least sense of self-consciousness. The song will never again be the same to me.

Rain is a fundamental process to the recycling of the vital element of water. Although rain is the losing of something, we need it to live.

Lightning (Shock)

lighting

Image: Elijah Hiett

Often before rain is the initial shock of lightning. The electricity of a storm is stunning—when it strikes, we are unable to do anything to counter its intensity. We can’t run towards, nor away, from lightning. Shock is the arrestation of movement, it is a primal reaction to first contact with something mysterious, powerful, and possibly dangerous.

The memory of a performance of a piece I wrote, called Accord, affected me deeply. At the first massive, crashing tone cluster that interrupts the sound of a tuning violin, I witnessed a gut reaction from an audience member in the front row. The listener’s arms, shoulders, and legs seized up, and the head pulled back as the neck tightened. The hands shot up reflexively towards the ears to cover them…

I immediately felt guilt and remorse. I was responsible for this lightning strike. I wrote this gesture in hopes that it would grab people’s attention—and I succeeded—but at what cost? As an emerging composer, I had often strived to grab attention as quickly as possible, and at any cost. It is the treasure hunt for the loudest, fastest, most terrific possible sound. (Or similarly, the softest, slowest one.)

But in this treasure hunt for the most shocking sound, I inadvertently flipped a sonic middle finger to the audience member. Did this terrifying and anxiety-inducing sound make this person into a fan of my music, or new music in general? It is doubtful.

Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously.

Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously. After seeing what my music had done to someone, I vowed to strive to genuinely affect listeners for the better, rather than to use shock as a ploy to garner attention at a most hollow, visceral level.

Storm (Anger)

storm

Image: Michal Mancewicz

If lightning is the initial shock of potentially dangerous force, then the storm is the realization of that force. The storm is violent and intimidating. The storm is rain in excess.

Anger is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block.

But there is little for me to say about storms in and of themselves: I have never used anger as a motivator in listening to or playing music. I personally find within me very little creativity that is fueled by anger. For me, anger is not a profound and sustaining enough emotion to fulfill me expressively as an artist. It is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block. Anger is real, but for me, it must ultimately lead to something proud, hopeful, and ecstatic. This is the art I seek. The glorious arrival at “The Great Gate of Kiev” after “Baba Yaga” in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The “Cheerful and Thankful Feelings After the Storm” in the final movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The way Nina Simone completes the second half of the song “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life.” Anger should not go unacknowledged, but it should also be overcome with something more hopeful, peaceful, and productive.

Tornado (Disorientation)

A tornado takes the land and blows it about. A tornado is disorienting, but it can also create bliss.

I, in fact, take pleasure when I am unable to identify the key center, the meter, or the exact instrumentation of a piece of music: Since my career in music relies upon my ability to identify the aspects of music as quickly and efficiently as possible, the moments where I simply do not know give me great joy.

On one occasion, I saw this same joy in a six-year-old student who was having trouble identifying the note A on the keyboard. The student, whom I will call Lance, started on C and counted out loud up the C major scale. “C, D, E, F, G…” And when Lance reached G, he would accidentally go on to “H” and then “I” and then “J.” I stopped him just before the note E became an “L” and told him that the notes on the keyboard reset at “G,” that the next note after “G” is “A.” Perhaps I explained it poorly the first time, because when Lance tried again, he made the same exact mistake, and again, I corrected him. I wanted to let him try as many times as he needed to get it right, but Lance would get it wrong over and over again, always going from “G” to “H” to “I” to “J.” After about 15 minutes of this, I became nervous that Lance would become frustrated with his failures. But he did not. Instead, he grew happier with each try. There was something comforting to his realizing that there were such mysteries that enchant the keyboard of the piano, that after “G” some “magical riddle” occurs, leaving him in a state of wonder. Eventually, I’m sure Lance will learn to not be disoriented by the challenge of moving from “G” back to “A.” And when he does, I hope he finds a new mystery from which to achieve bliss.

Clear Skies (Innocent Love)

sunshine

Image: Crawford Ifland

I know now that the color blue in the sky is a refraction of the sun’s rays on the dust in our atmosphere. A clear day is really not clear at all—it never was. But I still have the memory of thinking how open and free the world is on a clear day.

The version of Western music that I learned, both academically and casually, was rooted in the glorification of great men, and in my youth, I fell to this template’s allure. I idolized the music of Great Men, and truly, with all my heart, believed they were better-than-human: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Wagner, Prokofiev, Morton Feldman. But, upon closer examination, Bach sounded like a neglectful husband, Mozart seemed like a dysfunctional man-child, Chopin seemed like a caustic friend; Schumann seemed mentally ill, Wagner seemed anti-semitic, and Prokofiev seemed unnecessarily mean-spirited. And, based on some recent allegations, Morton Feldman seemed to be a sexual predator. Evidence shows that all of them were people, for better or worse.

While not a note of their music has changed, the innocent love I once had for these brilliant musical minds can never be regained. My personal overcast—clouds saturated with the knowledge and wisdom of life—have now permanently shrouded the music, re-painting the images of these fallen heroes into a murkier, more realistic, shade of humanity. It is sobering to realize the skies are no longer clear, and that they perhaps never were.

Certainly, Lance can be a lesson to us: While knowledge is power, there is still great bliss in not knowing. Ignorant, innocent love is indeed powerful. But ignorance and innocence are meant to be lost. My perspective on my innocent love is so different from the emotion as I remember it. Now, my past is viewed with the special lens a more informed perspective affords. But my pure feelings of love in the past were important, and they still travel with me.

Innocent love is a type of love you can only have once, and I am thankful for the formative memories it gave me.

The Sun (Sustaining Love)

I love the sun. The warmth of the sun is essential, and we must always acknowledge this. No matter the weather, we rely on the warmth of the sun to survive. The sun is a sustaining love.

Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.

My sustaining loves in music are only a handful of composers: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, Schumann, and just individual pieces of Schubert, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and a few others. Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.

As I grow out of innocent love, I am starting to really see the true loves for who they are. Some innocent loves are not sustainable—a bright street light is no star. But, many of the musical loves that sustain me now were once innocent loves too: Not all innocent love is ignorant.

The sun is the mightiest source of inspiration. No matter the weather, we can always say, “Thank goodness for the sun.” And thank goodness for emotions. And thank goodness for music.

Rain (Tears) continued

rain with doll

Image: Rhendi Rukmana

Briefly revisiting the rain, I would like to highlight some of the musical moments in my life that have brought me to tears—a necessary physical overload of emotion.

There are so many more that have faded with time. But, at least the ones I remember can be recorded. There is a beautiful, sustaining love that runs through all of these memories—perhaps this is why I remember them, and perhaps this is why they made me cry.

  • The first time I ever heard an orchestra live: An open rehearsal of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier
  • The funeral service for my childhood friend, Shumie, who committed suicide. I do remember music, but I don’t remember what it was.
  • I was taking a piano lesson with my teacher in grad school, and had just broken up with my significant other.
  • I was in a practice room, playing a section of Jerome Kitzke’s Sunflower Sutra. It was the section titled “Canticle for Mary.”
  • After finishing the first run-through of my debut album, Rounded Binary.
  • The first time I heard my mother sing, singing “Across the Universe” by The Beatles.
  • Later, in private, after playing for my fiancee’s mother who was dying of cancer. We played and sang “Let It Be” by The Beatles.

…I have just said the unspeakable. I have shared my deepest emotions with a general public. Does this make you uncomfortable? Why? Are we, as a culture of humans, unable to plainly and unapologetically articulate our emotions with one another? Within the arts, the domain charged with expressing the beauty in humanity, why is this such a challenge? What is this barrier, and why is it there?

Conclusion

still lake

Image: Dmitry Ermakov

How and why were the sun and the stars in the sky created; how and why are emotions and music what they are? One cannot answer this without asking a more fundamental question about the origin and purpose of human existence. According to Aristotle, “the soul” is “one of the hardest things to gain any conviction about.”[7] Charles Darwin felt that in studying human expression, “close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”[8] To Oscar Wilde, “The final mystery is oneself.”[9] The list of brilliant people who were baffled by their own self is long…

The further I discuss this, the more I am baffled by the mystery of emotion, and by humanity itself. There are really no words: while experientially known, these subjects are uniquely ungraspable through discourse. So then, we must be content with beauty that is imprecise—the beauty of weather, the beauty of emotion, and the beauty of the whole of humanity—and humbly appreciate that music can in some ways express it.



1. The Emotions, by Robert Plutchik.

2. Confessions, by Saint Augustine.

3. The World in Six Songs, by Daniel Levitin.

4. In Empty Words, John Cage writes, “Many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.  In the case of a table, the beginning and end of the whole and each of its parts are known.  In the case of weather, though we notice changes in it, we have no clear knowledge of its beginning or ending.  At a given moment, we are where we are.  The now moment.”

5. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed writes, “Emotions don’t make the world go round. But they do in some sense go round.”

6. The Emotions.

7. In De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle writes, “In general, and in all ways, it is one of the hardest of things to gain any conviction about the soul.”

8. In The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin writes, “The study of Expression is difficult […] When we witness any deep emotion, our sympathy is so strongly excited, that close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”

9. De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde.

The Long-Term Effects of Gender Discriminatory Programming

Special thanks to Neil Banas for creating the interactive model below.

“We need to be patient.”

“The music will find its home.”

“Change is coming.”

“But it’s not about fame, it’s about doing the work you love!”

“Surely you don’t want people playing your music just because you’re a woman?”

“Your time will come. Her time will come. Our time will come.”

“The best music will rise to the surface!”

“Things are getting better!”

“We’re discovering it now!”

“Just be patient!”

Over the years, whenever the under-representation of women composers is discussed, I keep hearing variations on the themes above. Whether these phrases come from those wanting to encourage women composers, those downplaying the existence of sexism, or indeed from women composers ourselves trying to look on the bright side, the underlying message is, “Yes, it’s frustrating, but we just have to wait. We’ll get our turn. Things will be okay!” And on the one hand, sure, I’ll wait (while also being stubborn and persistent and working for change). I’m hardly going to give up composing because there may be a statistical likelihood that my pieces will be performed a bit less frequently than those of a male peer! But on the other hand, let’s not pretend this is reasonable or that enforced waiting doesn’t have real, long-term consequences: real consequences in terms of opportunity, real artistic consequences, real financial consequences – and ultimately, real consequences for who gets to continue being a composer.

A complicated lineage leads to and from each piece, each performance, each commission, each award, and each royalty check.

The longer I trace my own career and observe the careers of students, friends, and colleagues, the more I see the complicated lineage that leads to and from each piece, each performance, each commission, each award, and each royalty check. Piece A is premiered, then performed six more times by people who heard the premiere, one of whom commissions piece B, which he performs and sets as repertoire for his students, who go on to perform it professionally. After a couple of years, the royalties add up to enough to pay for a couple of months off teaching, during which time one writes piece C… Or piece D is commissioned by an orchestra, which premieres it. The recording is sent to a competition and wins, resulting in the commission and premiere of piece E. Another orchestra decides to perform pieces D and E and invites the composer to be composer-in-residence, which puts the composer in touch with a donor who is able to fund the creation of piece F… Over the years each piece develops its own trajectory, almost always something completely unpredictable at the outset. One finds new opportunities, new ideas, and new collaborative partners in the most unexpected of ways. But what happens if piece A is never performed? Or is performed four years late? What happens if the performer assigns a different piece to his students? What happens if piece D is never commissioned? What happens if the composer residency doesn’t take place?

It doesn’t take much of an initial difference in the rates of commissioning, performing, or promoting works by women for the cumulative effect over the years to become striking. Let’s say (and I think this is a generous overestimate) that a woman composer’s works are 95% as likely to be performed as those of a man composer of equivalent accomplishment, and that she is 5% less likely to be commissioned than her male colleague. In order to illustrate the knock-on effects of what initially seem like small differentials, we’ve made a handy, interactive computer simulation of how these play out in the long term.

 

Matthew writes new piece(s) without a commission each year.

Each of his works has a % chance of being performed the year it is written. Each time it gets performed, it has the same chance of being performed the following year.

He receives a new commission every performances (although he never composes more than pieces per year).

He receives an average of $ in royalties for each performance, and an average of $ for each commission.


Mathilda has equal experience as a composer and manages her career in the same way, except that for her, the chances of a performance are %, not %, and she receives a new commission after every performances, not .


After years, Matthew has about performances per year, and Mathilda has about (% as many). They have composed and works, respectively, of which % and % were commissioned. At this point in his career, Matthew earns $ from composing in a typical year, while Mathilda earns $.

The interactive model above was created expressly for this article by Neil Banas.
Drag mouse/finger to the left or right on the blue text to decrease or increase the number.

As you can see, what seem like small differences in the rate of performance or recognition compound yearly and can have an enormous impact over the course of a career.

Depending on the combination of our upbringing, our cultural background, our gender, and our personality, we may think of ambition as admirable or abhorrent.

Writing about our careers—and particularly about the way outside factors may or may not influence them—can make us feel very vulnerable. If we’re not doing as well as we had hoped, and we admit it, someone may jump in and say, “Well, maybe your music just isn’t good enough,” or—and I’m genuinely surprised by how often I still hear this—“I’m not sexist, but there’s just not very much good music by women.” If we are doing as well as or better than we had hoped, will celebrating our successes seem boastful? Will we hurt our friends who are doing less well? Will we “jinx” things?[1] Depending on the combination of our upbringing, our cultural background, our gender, and our personality, we may think of ambition as admirable or abhorrent. We may think of contentedness with our careers as the ultimate goal, irrelevant, or a sign of laziness. But we need this kind of scrutiny if we’re going to figure out where inequities still exist and begin to address them. If the second edition of an anthology proudly proclaims that it now includes works by women composers, but the percentage of works by women is smaller than the percentage of women who are composers, then the anthology is still part of the problem. Or if I’m teaching a class on, say, contemporary Canadian music, and 20% of the pieces I include are by women, but 24% of contemporary Canadian composers are women, then I’m part of the problem.[2]

In any case, we don’t have to look at this individually. Perhaps my career has been magically untouched by sexism: perhaps yours has been, too. The fact remains that sexism, both conscious and unconscious, affects most women’s careers. In the UK, 51% of the population is female, 36% of composition students are women, 21% of commissions go to women, and only 7% of orchestral commissions – which tend to be the most prestigious and highest paid – go to women. In the US, 22% of music theory/composition students are women, but only 14% of major orchestra commissions go to women. Twenty-four percent of living composers who belong to the Canadian Music Centre are women, but women make up only 11% of the music composition faculty working in Canada.[3]

Composing is a hard profession, but let’s make sure we’re not making it even harder for people who don’t fit the expected profile.

I’m absolutely not suggesting here that middle class, white, cis male composers have it too easy. Composing is a hard profession: even those with the most advantages may struggle to find non-exploitive work situations, social recognition, and financial stability. I want to live in a world where the arts are valued, and things are better for all of us! But in this already hard field, let’s make sure we’re not making things even harder for people who don’t fit the expected profile of a composer. Women are of course not the only composers who get left out: the farther one deviates from the straight, cis, able-bodied, white, European, middle/upper-class, male composer image that remains so dominant in the North American and European new music worlds, the more likely their works are to be overlooked. The more we recognize the impact of even seemingly small decisions about what to program, who to commission, and who to recognize, the more we can work to change things.

So, yes, here I am, and here we are, being patient. I’m not going away! But no, I will not be patient about having to be patient!


Notes:


1. I won’t say here how I feel about my own career, but if you’re curious, you can read this interview on pianist Frances Wilson’s fabulous blog Meet the Artist.


2. One can argue that women composers should be represented in proportion to the percentage of women who are (known to be) composers in a given place or time or period, or that music by women should always be 50%, or somewhere in between, but that lies outside the scope of this article. I think we can all agree that equitable programming would, at a minimum, include works by women in the same proportion as composers who are women, so I’ll stick to those figures for the purposes of this article.


3. I counted up the number of women composition professors in the first 20 Canadian music departments that came to mind. It’s possible the percentage is a bit higher or lower, but I doubt it’s off by more than a point to two.

Live Streaming 101: Why Live Stream?

When I jumped into live streaming in 2013, I had no idea what I was doing—and my first stream featured a world-renowned pianist performing in a packed hall. The Gilmore Keyboard Festival, where I am on staff, was presenting a concert to the community featuring Kirill Gerstein. Because the concert was being offered free to the public, someone at a staff meeting asked, “Can we live stream this concert?” And from the silence, I blurted out, “Yes!”

You can watch segments of the 4:3 / 480p video here:

At the time, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had been live streaming concerts for two years. Today, they are a leader in classical music live streaming, presenting around 30 concerts a year online. At The Gilmore, however, live streaming repeatedly brought up one major concern. This concern resonated throughout the office, though I didn’t believe it to be true:

If we offer the concert for free online, won’t it negatively impact ticket sales?

Despite this resistance, streaming a concert live to the internet became a small obsession of mine. With some help from the local Public Media Network, great audio engineers, and the world-class performances at The Gilmore, I managed to get our concerts online, with high-quality audio and multi-camera shoots.

As I gained experience managing small teams of videographers and audio engineers, I learned the ins and outs of the technology, the philosophy, and the social media impact. I even found ways to live stream my own new music concerts—without breaking the bank.

Building off my presentation at the New Music Gathering in Boston this year, during the month of June, I will explore why to live stream, preparing and advertising a live stream, the technology behind various live streaming set-ups, and how to begin collaborating with individuals or organizations to maximize reach and impact.

Why live stream?

If you somehow missed the memo, video consumption is, and has been, on the rise. In 2017, Facebook Live broadcasts quadrupled and 3.25 billion hours of video are watched on YouTube each month. From a marketing perspective, having video content is a no-brainer. But live streaming is a little different.

Live streaming—the act of broadcasting an event in real-time—gives us the unique opportunity to capitalize on the energy of a live performance, while enabling others outside of our community to participate. With advances in technology, it has also become increasingly easy to broadcast live video to the internet.

By live streaming our music, we gain the following:

  1. Expansion of reach and visibility (marketing, social media, locations, networks)
  2. Accessibly for both our current audience and potential future audience
  3. Increasing trust and loyalty from our fans
  4. Excellent content for later use (YouTube channel, website, grant proposals, sharing)

But what about the impact on ticket sales? This is where you need to trust your audience. I would argue that most people are cognizant of the uniqueness of a live concert experience. Given a choice and with no outside barriers, most people would choose a live event over a video version of it. By offering live streams of your events at no charge, you are trusting that the audience members you have will continue to buy tickets if they can. The benefit of the stream then becomes the ability to engage the dedicated fans who just couldn’t be there (thus allowing them to continue to participate in the experience), while also potentially reaching future audience members who are not fans—yet.

FOMO and concert attendance

Although research is limited, current case studies and surveys point to the same conclusion: after watching a live-streamed concert, viewers are more likely purchase tickets to future concerts. It’s like giving a sample of something delicious at Costco.

It’s important to note that many reports come from service providers like Livestream.com, who are trying to sell their services. Still, according to their 2017 survey, “67% of viewers are more likely to buy a ticket to a similar event after watching a live video.” The idea is simple: viewing a great live stream allows current fans to engage with a concert they would probably not have been able to attend otherwise, and allows potential fans to get a sample of a live event they may want to attend in the future. You are building community.

You’re also working off two sides of FOMO. If you’ve managed to avoid current slang and abbreviations, FOMO is the “fear of missing out.” Regardless of what one thinks about FOMO’s powers of motivation, it is a factor at work that everyone on social media experiences at some level. By live streaming your concerts, you can increase FOMO for those who are on the fence about attending your upcoming programming. On the other hand, you may also be able to dissipate some of those FOMO feelings via the live stream by giving your dedicated fans a way to participate, despite not being there.

Post-Stream Benefits

After the live-stream event (and the real-life concert), the video lives on, and some algorithms, like those on Facebook, perpetuate the views for a short while, reminding people of what they missed the night before. If you captured audience emails at your concert, you could send attendees a thank you email with a link to the video. You can also send the video to friends and colleagues who couldn’t be there.

The most important post-stream benefit is the content you’ve created. If you get the chance to clean and mix the audio and re-sync to the video, you have an entire concert to segment into individual pieces for your YouTube channel, your website, portfolio submissions, etc.

Recommendations:

  1. Make sure all content stakeholders are aware and in agreement about how the captured media will be used and distributed well in advance.
  2. Don’t repost the entire concert in full. Only keep the entire performance video up as a result of the live stream.
  3. Segment out individual pieces and create a lead in and a closer for each video, with proper credits to performers, composers, and technicians as text overlays.
  4. Develop a channel/page where all of your media lives.
  5. Use the reposting of video content to strategically activate your social media or blog/newsletter presence.

Upcoming articles

Next week, we will discuss technical preparation, advertising, basic artist agreements, and a complete guide to hosting your stream on different platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter/Periscope, and other streaming hosting services.