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Three years after the events in question, I wrote a song cycle about the arrest and trial of members of Pussy Riot. Even as I did so, it seemed both ill-timed and too late. It had been two years since I had written my opera about the housing bubble crisis, however, and I felt like my overall output (especially my political output) had been pathetic. Plus, I wanted to write something cool and distantly relevant for the Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, a female a cappella quartet that commissions new music.
My introduction to Quince came through soprano Liz Pearce. I met Liz at the 2012 Bowling Green New Music & Art Festival thanks to my friend Jonn Sokol, who had recently written a piece for Kayleigh Butcher, another member of the group. He mentioned that Liz liked singing contemporary works, and since I liked writing vocal works, maybe some kind of collaboration would hopefully work out. (Actually I was hoping something would work out, too.)
Later on Liz asked if she could stage my Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens during the 2014 BGSU MicrOpera show. I enthusiastically said yes, and she staged a brilliant show. I loved working with her, and she loved working with me, and I told her that I would love to work with her again, and that maybe I could write something for Quince. (More like, I strongly hinted that I would like to write something for Quince.)
It was good timing—they were looking for new repertoire at that time, so I quickly texted my librettist Kendall A and asked if she would be interested in a project. She responded with “Pussy Riot song cycle” and I instantly Facebook-messaged Liz.
Me: HOLY S***. Librettist is leaning toward basing a piece off the Pussy Riot story in Russia.
But I still wrote the piece. My librettist wrote eight poems, and I told her how cool I thought it would be to juxtapose songs influenced by punk music (since Pussy Riot is a punk-rock band) and those influenced by church motets (since Pussy Riot was arrested in a church). She tinkered with her words. I listened to The Clash and Hildegard for inspiration. And so, the song cycle Prisoner of Conscience was born.
In the back of my mind, I couldn’t quite fathom how Kendall was able to come up with the idea of the Pussy Riot Song Cycle so quickly, especially since this idea came about two years after they were front and center in our political consciousness, so I asked her. It turns out she had been following the punk band for years, way before they were arrested and put on trial. She was fascinated with the elaborate stagings of their anti-Putin protests and how they were drawing huge attention with these performances. And Kendall thought that’s what both art and punk should be about—if your surrounding overarching hierarchy is so corrupt, your art should find a way to cut through that. So when members of Pussy Riot were brought to trial, Kendall wanted to create art in honor of the spirit of the punk group, especially since they went as far as to sacrifice their own freedoms to expose the degradation of freedoms around them. She was thinking about writing an opera libretto about this and producing this show with NANOWorks Opera, but she felt that the timing wasn’t right and was waiting for an opportunity to share this work at the national level. It needed to be done right.
Now that we live in a time where there are rumors of Russia meddling with U.S. elections and the White House is doling out Fake News Awards, the piece is surprisingly relevant again. (I never thought it would be, nor did I want it to be.) Maybe my initial timing was off in creating this piece, but what I do know is this—we creators have been tasked with creating art. And if we creators are present and attuned to what is happening, we as global citizens will speak up via our music for what is right and just. If you are waiting for the right moment, the right moment is now.
I was going to give a few examples of what performers and composers have been creating in the past year, politically speaking. I was going to mention how Laura Dixon Strickling has been raising money via her recitals to support hurricane recovery awareness, since the government hasn’t helped out much. I was going to point out the Thompson Street Opera company’s production of Joshua Bornfield and Catlin Vincent’s Uncle Alex, an opera about immigrants coming to America, and note a performance of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuitalong the US-Mexico Border. But when I asked my friends via social media what music they have been creating since the 2016 November election, the response was overwhelming—it looks like you guys have been creating art this entire time.
You all have been so enthusiastic and forthcoming about your current projects that I thought the best place for this forum (outside of my Facebook wall) is via this database. Here is a public forum where we can share our works, and share with performers who also want to express how they are feeling during this time. Through our works and performances, we can be aware of what is going on around us, breathe, and collectively create something beautiful.
A couple of years ago as a New Year’s resolution I decided to take the plunge and start meditating. I’ve heard it’s healthy. I’ve heard it makes you sleep better. I’ve heard it can keep you calm. Highly productive people do it. Artists do it. Therefore I decided I’d give it a try with the hope that one day I would learn to completely clear my mind and find my bliss.
What I actually learned about meditation is that its purpose is not to clear my mind and help me find my bliss—it’s to allow me to become the almighty observer, one who lives in the present moment and merely observes their present moment thoughts and feelings. If you’re happy, it’s okay to be happy. If you’re sad, it’s okay to be sad. If you’re depressed or angry because the president’s FY 2019 budget eliminates the National Endowment for the Arts, it’s okay to feel this way too. Meditation advises us not to dwell on emotions or feelings, but rather to acknowledge them. And as your artistic guru, I would advise you to not only acknowledge your feelings, but also artistically express yourself and channel your emotions and thoughts into something creative. Just write. Just create. Be in the present moment. (Also breathe. Breathing is good.)
Just write. Just create. Be in the present moment. (Also breathe. Breathing is good.)
I look to John Cage when I feel like I should be creating mindful art. Granted, I was not introduced to Cage as a mindful composer. I was introduced to John Cage in the same way many generations of music students are taught about him: he’s the dude who created a piece about silence. We were taught that 4’33” is “the silent piece,” and we were asked (as part of an exercise) to discuss this question: is this a piece of music or not? Cage argued that there is no such thing as silence. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
I know why this is the quintessential John Cage piece: it is easy to teach. More importantly, it’s convenient. There are other pieces that John Cage wrote that experimented with silence (Sonatas and Interludes, Music of Changes, etc.), but 4’33” has made the most obvious use of silence as a piece of music.
I know that Cage was experimenting with silence in his pieces decades before the premiere of this work, but I do believe that because Cage was a mindful composer and was aware of the politics around him, there is an ounce of political protest that surfaced during its conception and performance.
A few years prior to the premiere of 4’33”, John Cage toyed with the fantasy that canned music would no longer plague the ears of a captive audience. (There was a general resentment growing against the Muzak in public spaces at the time.) Cage said during his lecture at Vassar College that he wanted “to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be three or four-and-a-half minutes long—those being the standard lengths of ‘canned’ music and its title will be Silent Prayer.” In his 2010 book about 4’33”, No Such Thing as Silence, Kyle Gann implied that maybe Cage wanted to give listeners a “four-and-a-half minute respite from forced listening.”
Wistful thinking aside, it wasn’t until 1952 that I believe Cage lost it. The Supreme Court, in its case Public Utilities Commission of the District of Columbia v. Pollak, decided that piping musical radio programming into streetcars and busses did not interfere with communication between passengers, and therefore didn’t violate their first or fifth amendment rights.
I know that 4’33” is a piece about silence, or how there is never silence all around us, but now I’m more focused on why he wrote this piece. Yes, this piece culminated his experiments in silence (in which he finally goes for it unabashedly), but I believe he (and others at the time) were just flat-out angry and frustrated that people’s right to hear and not hear music was being infringed.
Is 4’33” a protest piece?
Is 4’33” a protest piece? Yes, I believe so. This is his most controversial and hostile piece, a piece that is neither transcendent nor sacred. It resonated with him and others at the time. It lived in the present. It was mindful of the Supreme Court ruling that was issued a few months before its premiere. Cage was echoing both his and the general public’s resentment over not having agency in their musical listening, and this surfaced in his music.
So, here’s a thought: are all of our artistic offerings political in nature? When a composer writes a piece that is of its time and moment, is it a commentary on the current state of affairs? Does it reflect our thoughts and emotions? Do we want our audience to feel what we’re feeling, or to help them see how we’re seeing things? I will say this—no matter what you think or feel, write music. Create music. Be aware of the world around you. Read more. Write more, whether you are feeling angry and frustrated about an injustice in the world or if you’re feeling loved by the tiny cat curled up next to you. Do all these things, then start the creative cycle again. Be in the present moment, write in the present moment, and breathe.
The crimes and misdemeanors language perpetrates against music are many and various, but one offense is more insidious than most, simply for being so insignificant. It’s a preposition. In English, invariably, we listen to a piece of music. Never with a piece of music.
That little rut of syntax conceals a speed bump on what seemingly should be a musical express lane: the generation of empathy. Empathy is something music can and ought to steadily, even effortlessly create. Performing music, particularly in any sort of ensemble, large or small, exercises the muscles of empathy like no other. But even just listening to it should give empathy a boost, one would think. Name another art form that so regularly launches even its most historically, culturally, and ethnologically distant artifacts into newly immediate vitality, again and again.
Empathy is, perhaps, the most plausible of music’s utopian promises. The universality of musical communication dissolves the barriers of isolated viewpoints. We can gain direct access to perspectives and emotions far from our own experience. Music expands our ability to empathize, to sympathize, to humanize. It’s a great story. It’s a story I’ve told enough times, certainly. And, at those times—now, for instance—when empathy seems to be a dwindlingly scarce societal resource, it’s a story we like to tell with greater insistence, and confidence, and hope.
But what if it’s just that—a story? From another angle: what if there’s no way to listen to a piece of music and with a piece of music at the same time?
For the better part of a century, psychologists and similarly inclined scholars have made a particular distinction between empathy and emotional contagion. The former is defined in the usual way: having the experience of another person’s perception, perspective, emotional reaction. The latter is a little different: experiencing an emotional response simply because everyone around you is experiencing the same emotion. It’s an illusion of empathy, one conjured completely out of one’s own emotional memories.
The distinction is important in the study of musical perception. Here’s a recent explanation of the difference, by scholar Felicity Laurence:
It seems possible that when accounting for feelings of unity arising during shared musical experience, we may be confusing the impression of actually understanding and even feeling sympathetic towards one’s fellow “musickers” with what is in fact the experience of an emotional “wave.” In doing so, we are arguably conflating this “contagious” experience with the distinct and separate phenomenon of empathy. Emotional contagion is not inherently negative, and may indeed lead to, or accompany, empathic response. However, people engaged in musicking may seek specifically to engender, and then celebrate emotional contagion in order to reduce individual sovereignty and dissolve interpersonal boundaries. Even in an apparently benign concert performance, for example, we may be able to discern such manipulative behavior on the part of the performers and the corresponding mass response of their audience.
This description, at least, maintains the optimistic possibility (“may indeed”) that emotional contagion can pull the listener in the direction of true empathy. But others have not been so sure.
Photo by Pablo Garcia Saldana
The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, for instance, was a skeptic. And he came to doubt because of a now-familiar controversy—the shock of the new. In the early part of the 20th century, Ortega was wrestling with a problem: how to define modern music vis-à-vis the music of previous eras. “The problem was strictly aesthetic,” Ortega wrote, “yet I found the shortest road towards its solution started from a simple sociological phenomenon: the unpopularity of modern music.” Unlike music of the Romantic era, modern music had not met with wide popularity. And the reason for that was profound and inherent: “It is not a matter of the majority of the public not liking the new work and the minority liking it,” Ortega went on. “What happens is that the majority, the mass of the people, does not understand it.” After a century of Romanticism’s mass appeal, modernism was a rude awakening:
If the new art is not intelligible to everybody, this implies that its resources are not those generically human. It is not an art for men in general, but for a very particular class of men, who may not be of more worth than the others, but who are apparently distinct.
Hence the title of the essay: “La deshumanización del arte,” the dehumanization of art. And, like Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?” (which, in some respects, Ortega anticipated by thirty years), Ortega isn’t out to demonize that dehumanization. It is what it is. And a lot of what it is has to do with how art—and music specifically—does and doesn’t engender empathy.
Romanticism, to Ortega, was popular because “people like a work of art that succeeds in involving them in the human destinies it propounds.” In the case of music, the destiny propounded was that of the composer: “Art was more or less confession.” Wagner, the adulterer, writes Tristan und Isolde, an opera about adultery, “and leaves us with no other remedy, if we wish to enjoy his work, than to become vaguely adulterous for a couple of hours.”
This seems like an empathetic response. But, upon closer examination, the music of Beethoven and Wagner is “melodrama,” and our response to it just “a contagion of feelings”:
What has the beauty of music to do with the melting mood it may engender in me? Instead of delighting in the artist’s work, we delight in our own emotions; the work has merely been the cause, the alcohol, of our pleasure… they move us to a sentimental participation which prevents our contemplating them objectively.
“[T]he perception of living reality and the perception of artistic form are, in principle, incompatible since they require a different adjustment of our vision,” Ortega insists. “An art that tries to make us see both ways at once will be a cross-eyed art.” The clarity of empathy is hopelessly blurred by reflexive emotional response: “It is no good confusing the effect of tickling with the experience of gladness.”
Ortega’s analysis is subjective, speculative criticism, but some of the ideas he turns over—especially regarding genre and empathy—have, however tentatively, been put to scientific test. In one provocative study, Shannon Clark and S. Giac Giacomantonio compared that match between subjects in late adolescence and early adulthood—across the age boundary when the psychological development of empathy is thought to settle into a mature level. Clark and Giacomantonio quizzed their subjects as to their listening preferences, classifying them according to a Musical Preference Factor Scale (MPFS) developed by Peter J. Rentfrow and Samuel D. Gosling:
[I]t was shown that music genres encompassed by MPF-1 and MPF-2 are stronger in their associations with empathy than are those encompassed by MPF-3 and MPF-4. In fact, MPF-3 was negatively associated with empathy, indicating that those who have greater preferences for these genres may be lower in empathic concern. Additionally, MPF-4 was shown to have very little influence on empathy, positively or negatively, indicating that these genres of music contain little to no emotive messaging influencing empathic concern[.]
What’s more, the study hinted that “music preferences are more relevantly associated with cognitive aspects of development than affective ones.” In other words, the path to increased empathy is through thinking, not feeling. To be sure, the framework fairly smacks of unexamined stereotypes (I can think of plenty of rap music that is “reflective & complex,” and plenty of classical music that is “upbeat & conventional”). To any even slightly versatile musician, the MPFS categories (even in expanded form) can feel excessively, well, categorical. And, as with all studies of music and empathy so far, the study is far more suggestive than conclusive—the sample size is small, the data noisy. But squint your eyes, and you can just make out Ortega’s line between “objective” and “sentimental” music.
Still, Ortega’s business was philosophy, not psychology. His conception of the empathy-emotional contagion distinction was phenomenological, echoing ideas of empathy and intersubjectivity explored by Edmund Husserl and, especially, Husserl’s student Edith Stein, a fascinating thinker whose life was cut short at Auschwitz. (The philosophical consideration of empathy goes back to the Enlightenment, but it was Stein’s thesis, written at the absolute tail end of the Romantic era, that most influentially distinguished between empathy and emotional contagion.) And Ortega, it should be noted, had an ulterior motive. At the core of his analysis is his mistrust of utility. His famous Decartes-like statement of individual existence—“Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia,” I am I and my circumstances—posits existence as a contest between the self and the decisions into which the self is pushed by those circumstances. On some level, Ortega regards Romanticism as more circumstantial, more useful, than he might prefer. (Ortega’s anti-utilitarianism most shows its seams when stretched. In Ortega’s Meditations on Hunting, for example, he ends up elevating the “exemplary moral spirit” of hunting for sport over hunting for food.)
But how do you measure the utility of music, anyway? Earlier this year, I moderated a discussion panel for one of the concerts in a two-season survey of Anton Webern’s complete music, mounted by Trinity Wall Street in New York City. For a prompt, I offered a quotation from the rather contentious 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime” by the rather notorious Viennese architect Adolf Loos:
The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.
The target of Loos’s ire was Art Nouveau and its penchant for putting decadent, decorative swirls on everything from wallpaper and furniture to ashtrays and breadboxes. But Loos was Webern’s contemporary; and it feels like this quote should have something to do with Webern’s famously stripped-down rhetoric. But what, exactly, that connection is, I’m not sure.
What was it that, perhaps, Webern considered utilitarian about music, and that previous generations had excessively ornamented? Was it the utility of musical form, and how it had been ever-more-grandly ornamented with tonal harmony? Webern’s works are formal—often scrupulously so—but without the tonal indicators of form, without the harmonic mile markers and exit signs everyone had grown accustomed to over the past three centuries. At the very least, this answer hints at how Webern’s music can be so wildly expressive while, compared to tonal music, doing so little. A piece of music isn’t expressive because it adheres to sonata form, say; sonata form is useful because it gives the nebulous quality of musical expression something to which to adhere.
But, with Ortega’s essay swimming in my head, here’s another idea. Maybe the utility of music is its communication—not what it communicates, which nobody can ever agree on, anyway, but just that it communicates with such power and directness. And the ornament? Emotional contagion.
I might like this answer even better, because it dissolves so many of the paradoxes of Webern’s reception—why it’s judged cool and inscrutable, when it’s anything but; why it’s judged austere and meager, when it’s anything but; why it’s judged impersonal and inhuman, when it’s anything but. Maybe the real resistance to Webern’s music (and a lot that followed) is that, in and of itself, it refuses to let the audience off the hook. To engage with it is to experience empathy without the cushion of emotional contagion. Real empathy, the experience of a world-view other than yours, is a far different and far less comfortable thing than a safe memory of your own emotional experience.
Photo by Ali Syaaban
The whole landscape of this discussion is, admittedly, esoteric. Webern’s music is extreme. Ortega’s endpoint is a bit extreme. Academic studies of music and empathy, by nature, inhabit at least somewhat abstract spaces. (A number of investigations, for instance, have studied responses to music by autistic listeners in order to make observable effects more readily obvious.) Most of us—composers, performers, listeners—don’t live at these kind of extremes. We roam across Rentfrow and Gosling’s Music Preference Factors, mixing and matching, picking and choosing, sometimes amplifying a mood, sometimes challenging it, sometimes throwing different approaches into the blender just to see what happens. We all, at least some of the time, like to be transported into a new perspective; at the same time, we like to be guided to that place with a sense of being met halfway.
The question is whether the distance is the only thing being halved. The implication of Ortega, and Webern, and the tentative attempts to quantify such things is that, maybe, empathy and emotional contagion, rather than working hand-in-hand, as we might assume, are instead in a mutually exclusive tug-of-war. It is both a profoundly counter-intuitive idea and one that causes a surprising amount of music history to fall into logical place. And I find that just considering the idea reduces a lot of the foundation of how I think about music to sand. How would that change how we make music? What would that music sound like? How would we perform it?
Here’s another question: would we even be able to hear it?
In the introduction to the second, 1966 edition of his study Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan took the opportunity to try and clarify a tricky point: how, when a medium is superseded, the old medium becomes the “content” of the new. For example, “the ‘content’ of TV is the movie. TV is environmental and imperceptible, like all environments. We are aware only of the ‘content’ or the old environment.” Our entire historical relation to the world around us is simply an ongoing two-step between content and media:
Each new technology creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading. Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form.
The argument that atonal modernism “chased away” the audience for classical music/concert music/art music (choose your favorite flawed terminology) is practically a cliché at this point. But the bigger shift was technological. At the same time as the advent of atonality, our relationship with music was undergoing the greatest sea change in history: live performances were displaced by recorded, broadcast, or otherwise electrically and electronically mediated performances. And one can interpret McLuhan’s framework so that the primary feature of Romantic music—its flair for creating the illusion of startlingly immediate emotions—became the “content” of music once its dominant mode of consumption became electronically mediated. In other words, the phonograph, the radio, the recording studio made the emotional contagion of music the end, not the means. Considering McLuhan’s framework leads us to another counter-intuitive possibility: that, for a hundred years, the intended meaning of any piece of music has been lost in translation, its technological mediation filtering out everything but the emotional contagion.
It’s an esoteric interpretation. But it would explain a lot. It would explain why one of music history’s most zealous projects, the post-World War II determination to dismantle the legacy of Romanticism, foundered so completely. It would explain why some of the most thrilling and fascinating music of the past one hundred years, music that still can generate an electric response in the concert hall, found no traction on record or radio. And, more to the point, it would go a long way toward explaining why two generations and counting of conscious efforts to “reconnect” with audiences, of composers and performers producing music conceived in tonality and dedicated to the proposition that accessibility and clarity are fundamental to musical practice, have failed to forestall yet another political and historical moment in which our capacity for empathy has been ruthlessly and thoroughly crowded out by emotional contagion. But the notion also implies a dilemma: the music best able to engineer empathy might be that which is the hardest sell to a listener—because it is the most at odds with the way we have come to listen to music.
Like most dilemmas, it’s older than we think. The ancient Greeks were already worrying about it, forever theorizing how to channel music’s capacity for moral improvement, forever peppering those theories with observations that so much of the music that surrounded them eschewed morality for an easy emotional response. Aristotle, like so many after him, tried to square the circle with crude class distinctions, contrasting “the vulgar class composed of mechanics and laborers and other such persons” with “freemen and educated people,” resigned to the necessity of appealing to the former with “active and passionate” harmonies—since “people of each sort receive pleasure from what is naturally suited to them”—but insisting that, for education, “the ethical class of melodies and of harmonies must be employed.” (Not incidentally, this discussion takes place in the eighth and final book of Aristotle’s Politics.) But somehow I think that even Aristotle’s educated people were just as susceptible to emotional contagion as his mechanicals.
It’s not a class trait, or a national trait, or an aesthetic trait; it’s a human one. Emotion is easy; empathy is hard. We prefer listening to over listening with, a preference reinforced, perhaps, by the inescapable electronic web we’ve woven around ourselves. We keep believing that the one can lead to the other. But is that, in actuality, anything more than a feeling?
A few weeks ago, I saw an advert online that mentioned the Kronos Quartet was going to be in town to accompany a documentary at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. After writing an email to my students more-or-less stating, “You need to go to this—please GO!” (and hyperlinking their infamous stint on Sesame Street), I excitedly purchased a ticket myself and offered to drive any student who needed a ride.
The documentary was about the Kronos Quartet members themselves. After a consortium of arts organizations (including the Wexner Center) commissioned filmmaker Sam Green to create one of his “live documentaries” (which pair film footage with the live performance of the soundtrack and narration from the stage), he approached the Kronos Quartet and asked if he could not only make a live documentary about them, but also if they would perform a compilation of their greatest hits while the film about them was playing in real time.
Kronos thought this was a brilliant idea.
A Thousand Thoughts chronicles the Kronos Quartet’s 45-year history through Green’s live narration, archival footage, and interviews with various (now) well-known composers and musicians. It tells the story of their early days in San Francisco and all their efforts to transform the stodgy string quartet into something hip and cool. David Harrington, the co-founder of the Kronos Quartet, sums up both the quartet’s mission statement and the thesis of the film in this way:
I’ve always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be. But it has to be expressive of life. To tell the story with grace and humor and depth. And to tell the whole story, if possible.
While I was watching this live documentary, I realized that the Kronos Quartet was not only hip and cool, but also absolutely relevant and meaningful.
How did they do this?
While watching the film and being completely captivated by the wonderfully interwoven live narration, music, and interactions with the audience, there came a point in the story during which the quartet was hit with a slew of devastating tragedies. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who had been with the core quartet for a good 20 years, left the ensemble in 1999 when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Violist Hank Dutt lost his partner to the AIDS epidemic in 1993. And in 1995, David Harrington, the fearless leader of the group, suddenly lost his son during a hiking trip with his family. If the 1990s weren’t bad enough for the quartet personally, they too experienced the tumultuous 2000 presidential election, the 9/11 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, after the devastation of the losses Harrington and his quartet weathered, and with another controversial war brewing (one that had similarities to the Vietnam War, a war that he protested in his youth), he wondered why he was playing in a string quartet and if making music was worth it.
At that moment in the documentary, I wanted to shout to both the on-screen David Harrington and the on-stage David Harrington, “This is how I felt about the Iraq war too! This is how I feel now! We’re still supposed to make music, right? Please say yes?” And it was at this point that I paid very close attention to the film because I was hoping to discover what I needed to do as a composer when things got rough, depressing, or downright heartbreaking.
I was hoping to discover what I needed to do as a composer when things got rough, depressing, or downright heartbreaking.
In his search, Harrington had an opportunity to chat with Howard Zinn, historian and civil rights activist, about his true purpose in life. He asked, what was his role? What can a normal person (or even an artist person) do in this time to fulfill the needs of other people?
Zinn simply advised Harrington to create something beautiful.
Now, you may have heard something similar to this before. I’m certain that unavoidable Leonard Bernstein quote has resurfaced 11 times in this year alone, the one where Bernstein responds to the assassination of John F. Kennedy by stating, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
However, I’m not only talking about violence or politics here, per se. We should create beautiful and ugly music no matter what—that is our mandate. In fact, we composers and performers have always been commenting on everything and anything that inspires and influences us. Granted, we’ve been indirectly commenting on political things, too. And whether you know it or not, we are always creating a reflection and reaction to the political environment around us.
I just want us all to be aware of it. I want us to be more woke.
Early in 2015, I asked Donald Nally to join me as co-music director for a Chicago performance of David Lang’s crowd out, a work for 1000 untrained voices, written in 2014. It would be the work’s US premiere.
What is the power of a crowd?
When creating this piece, David had asked himself: What is the power of a crowd? What do we as individuals gain by joining with others? What do we lose? crowd out is his answer. Performers are scattered around a large venue, initially indistinguishable from audience members. They whisper a crowd-sourced text. Whispers turn to speech, which turns to shouts, which turns to song. Is this a celebration? A rally? Sports fans at a game? A congregation?
I approached the Chicago Humanities Festival about presenting the work, and in 2016, Illinois Humanities came on board. The work of these organizations complemented one another: Illinois Humanities, whose work brings together communities from across the state to “share ideas that matter,” would gather participants for crowd out; Chicago Humanities Festival, which presents a major annual festival of arts and ideas, would organize the day-of performance.
The project also received a $50,000 grant from the City of Chicago.
Donald Nally, co-music director
I’m interested in creative artists who are questioning how we receive information, how we interact with people. David is at the forefront of that. A piece that is by a crowd, about a crowd.
David Lang, composer
Twenty-five years ago, I was doing a project in London. I wandered through the neighborhood of Islington, where the Arsenal football team had their stadium. I was walking by right as a soccer match was about to begin. And someone was outside selling tickets. You entered this arena, there were 60,000 people, and they’re all singing, yelling, screaming. And occasionally there are these songs that every single person seems to know. A bunch of ordinary people making this music together. Everyone was welcome.
Bindu Poroori, Illinois Humanities
Crowd Out Chicago was an opportunity to develop relationships and have conversations about the state of the arts in our neighborhoods. We didn’t just want to engage with music groups, we wanted to engage with other community organizations. To be part of the conversations. None of us knew exactly what it was exactly going to look like. We just jumped in.
Heidi Hewitt, Chicago Humanities Festival
The scale, the partnership, the amount of players, that made it one-of-a-kind for us. I was a bit skeptical. I know how small Chicago Humanities Festival is, and what an undertaking it would be.
Kait Samuels, Chicago Humanities Festival
I come from a background as a stage manager in musical theater, and the largest thing involved seventy preteen tap dancers…which is its own bout of chaos. But nothing like this!
Co-director Donald Nally and I discussed possible venues for crowd out over several months. Indoor, outdoor, stadium, park, mall. All had pros and cons.
There is nothing wrong with the way that the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group produced [the premiere of] crowd out [in a shopping mall], but I had an aversion to the idea that the piece would be involved with commercial activity. We wanted to find an organic setting where a crowd didn’t feel unnatural, where one could choose to be in the midst of the performance, or find a place to observe.
All images: David T. Kindler, courtesy of Chicago Humanities Festival and Illinois Humanities
Illinois Humanities set itself an ambitious goal: draw participants from all fifty wards of the city of Chicago. Each ward would have a “member ensemble,” but all city residents would be welcome to join. Each ward-based group had its own group leader. Illinois Humanities structured each ward’s rehearsal as part-conversation, part-rehearsal.
We [contacted] choirs, art groups, after-school and church groups across the city. There were days when all we did was walk around a neighborhood, put up flyers, talk to the alderman and knock on church doors. We now know the distributions of denominations, about how people come together in different parts of the city.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna, group leader, Hubbard High School
Any time I have an opportunity to expose my students to something out of their neighborhood, that will give them a new experience, I jump on it. And I thought they might love that it is so unique and weird.
We were looking through the lens of this piece, asking what it means for people to cross neighborhood lines, what it means for people to come together, and why they might be interested or hesitant about a project like this.
Michael “Mike” Jones, group leader, Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy
A thing that was important was giving them the experience to see something new and different. To go with the kids to meet in Millennium Park. I assumed they were all youth groups. Then to understand that it was everybody, all ages, cultures, genders? It was a great melting pot. I felt really proud for my kids.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
The thing that drew me is that it was going to bring people together, to be representative of all fifty wards of Chicago.
Jefferey Thomas, Group Leader, The Hideout
It wasn’t my desire to put together a choir of really bitchin’ singers. I believed I could teach it to the most eclectic community group of people who could sing, or not sing, who were strangers.
I look at the world that we live in right now…I never said when singing in a choir, “I hate the person who is standing next to me.”
I look at the world that we live in right now, and I try to compare it to experiences I’ve had in choirs. I never said when singing in a choir, “I hate the person who is standing next to me, I don’t like them, so I’m going to wreck their part.”
The music of crowd out is unusual in that there is no musical score, but rather something closer to a script. The work is divided into eight parts, and in each part David describes waves of activity that take place across four colored groups of performers (called “strands”). For instance, the work opens in this way: “ALL 4 STRANDS: each person independently, speak in a whisper at first and gradually move to normal voice, at a normal pace, repeating sentences in order, with varying lengths of silence between each sentence: I draw deep breaths, I feel more confident and calm…”
It’s a score that you look at and are not sure how it’s going to play out. In a more conventional composition, at any given time you can say “The texture is _____.”
Theater improvisers would be great group leaders. Cheerleaders would be great group leaders. You don’t have to be a trained singer. Even an alderman would be a group leader. Community organizers and activists would be great group leaders.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
I teach high school on the south side, and my students aren’t exposed to much in the classical world, let alone in the contemporary new music world. My first reaction to the piece was, “My students are going to hate this.”
Gathering a 1000-strong choir from across the city was no easy feat.
There were five million moments when I thought it wasn’t going to happen. FIVE MILLION MOMENTS.
During the making of this piece I realized the value of having something difficult that you need a community of people to accomplish. It is something very beautiful and powerful to me, people coming together to solve a problem.
A lot of the stasis happened early. It seemed like a behemoth, and I didn’t know where to start. I was scared to have the first conversations, going in with the anxiety of “Who would want to do this?”
Kait Samuels, Chicago Humanities Festival
You can’t explain [crowd out] in five minutes. You can’t be like, “We’re going to sing ‘Carol of the Bells’ by the Christmas tree.”
I ended up with several members [from another ward’s group]. They told me that their choir dropped out. And I asked why, and they said, “They didn’t understand it.”
“What does it mean to bring this weird piece of contemporary art by a white dude and take it to a bunch of black and brown people all over the place?”
If you want to do a project in a city as ethnically diverse and segregated as Chicago is, then the first question needs to be, “What does it mean to bring this weird piece of contemporary art by a white dude and take it to a bunch of black and brown people all over the place?”
Michael “Mike” Jones
You know what I called it in my mind? Performance art. I thought it was really cool and different, and I thought, “How do I get my kids to buy in?” I told them about the piece, and you could see that confused look on their faces.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
I started [rehearsing] the singing first. It was catchy, [the students] could open their hearts to it. When I started introducing them to the text, it was tough. I teach some kids who have tough lives, and the words are isolating.
The text for Parts 4 and 7 includes these phrases, to be shouted: “I feel anxiety,” “I feel awful and I wish to be alone,” “I feel like rushing into tears,” “I feel so alone I could cry.”
That’s a problem with the libretto. It is kind of jarring. To sing those words, “I’m obsessed with being at the center of attention” in almost a plainchant way.
David Lang crowd out is very introspective, and it can be a little bit of a downer, because it’s very serious about who you are, what you lose when you’re in this crowd.
When I first started carting this piece around, it was with my implicit endorsement. A group would say, “There are things in this piece that make me feel uncomfortable,” and I felt on the defensive. I wish I’d said, “Here’s this controversial piece, that doesn’t speak to everybody. Now that you’re here, what does it evoke in you?”
Michael “Mike” Jones
[Musical Assistant] AJ [Keller] was really the deciding factor. His strength and confidence, and the way he was able to interact with the kids. Once AJ gave them background and substance, we were able to move forward. You could see them nodding their heads.
At some point in February we made our naive timeline of how things were going to shape up. By May, all fifty groups and the entire schedule should have been put together. And it was a barren wasteland in May. One thing I learned, if you’ve got to throw away the timeline, then, honey, throw away the timeline. Don’t let a piece of paper throw you on the ground. It took me a long time to come to terms with that.
One thing I learned, if you’ve got to throw away the timeline, then, honey, throw away the timeline. Don’t let a piece of paper throw you on the ground.
We didn’t know until July what the final timeline would be, and there was some mystery around what the number of participants would be. There were trust issues [between Illinois Humanities and Chicago Humanities Festival] that we had to overcome.
In May, the Fyre Festival brouhaha was happening, with people turning up and nothing there. I remember thinking, “This is what crowd out is going to be.” It’s going to be me faking for a very long time, then October happening, and people being like, “Bindu, did this fail?”, and me being like, “Yes, it did.”
I live my life going, “It’s okay if it doesn’t work this time.” A bunch of times I take similar risks, and not every one can be a home run. Once in a while I have to walk away and say, “Well, nobody died.”
Rehearsals took place at the ward level, then each group attended one of four “dress rehearsals” in the week before the performance.
At the Hideout [dress rehearsal], one person in another group criticized everything I did: “You know, there’s a space in here, and a space in here.” I thought that was wrong, to interpret it in this strict way. He was thinking of it as a “choir piece”, and that there are standards and traditions that must be observed. All the baggage that comes with performing “high” works of musical art. But crowd out is a piece for a crowd!
As we got into the rehearsal process, as we realized that people coming together were so different from one another, it meant that the piece itself took on a thousand different meanings.
The performance took place on October 1, 2017, in Chicago’s Millennium Park, in front of Cloudgate, known to locals as “The Bean.” Donald Nally directed, with the help of six assistants holding cue-cards. Before the performance, there was an hourlong rehearsal in the nearby Pritzker “bowl”.
With crowd out, we didn’t actually know how things would sound until we were in “The Bean” whispering. It was like rehearsing a wind octet without four of the players.
Michael “Mike” Jones
It was exciting from the time we gathered at our school. We took a trip to McDonalds, and the students got what they wanted to eat.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
The energy of being out with so many people! They were feeding off one another.
It was a full day of activities, of people getting to know each other. I feel like that is part of the piece.
Michael “Mike” Jones
When we were in the Pritzker, gathering, I wish that we’d had a warm up person or an emcee or a video, to get our minds working together: “Hey, everyone ready for crowd out?!”
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
The [short final] rehearsal at the [Pritzker] bowl was more exciting than [the performance], because the sound was different there and it was the first time my students heard all 1,000 people together.
We had to move quickly in our bowl rehearsal. I would have liked to run the piece, feel the form and structure of it, but we couldn’t do it. There were a lot of cooks in that kitchen.
When everyone was in the bowl it felt like it was in the 700s, but once we got to “The Bean,” it was so full. It had the power of a thousand.
Before the performance, people said, “Tell me about this piece. Can we do it?” All of a sudden, someone said, “It’s starting!” And I said to the new people, “Just stand here and watch.” They performed it without knowing the piece.
The piece began, and it wasn’t just whispering, but also commenting on the whispering from people who weren’t in the piece. And they became quieter, really listening to the whispering.
People would come up to me and were like, “Where is the choir performing?” And I’m like, “All around you”.
There were crying children, there were people trying to wiggle in front of “The Bean” to take a selfie. A woman was walking around with a cardboard cutout of Bernie Sanders. Someone overheard a tourist tell his friend, “I don’t know if I like this or I hate this, but I’m not going to forget it.”
Michael “Mike” Jones
I was surprised at the focus of everyone. The only word I can think of is “engulfing.” That’s what I tell everyone when we’re doing performances: When you get like people with the same goal in mind, you’re going to have success. No matter what your color, or age, or ethnicity, or background, the art will bring you together. Art is for all.
The gentleman with the hat, the very enthusiastic group leader [Jefferey Thomas], was just a joy to watch.
I’m wearing this crazy suit and acting like a nutball. I was so focused on my group that I couldn’t focus on the larger work. I don’t even know what the piece sounds like.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
I challenged myself to try to keep [the students] on their toes, avoiding rote monotony. When we’d do call and response, I tried to make things different.
The people shouting together were surprised at the power they had. I was reminded of David Lang’s piece Statement to the Court. He said that while writing the piece he would stand in front of his computer and just shout.
I was having a conversation with my ensemble. In [the shouting of] Part Seven, I realized that the group was mocking me. I wanted them to taunt me more, really let me have it.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
One of the first comments my students made was, “I wish we were singing more.”
The words on paper have a sense of sadness and loneliness, but when 1000 people were shouting or singing, the words were transformed.
People commented that I looked like I was having such a good time in a melancholy piece. But it’s such a joyful thing to stand in one of the great public parks and invite the direction of this love and energy.
Emotionally it felt so different from different parts of the crowd, with the amounts of casualness or non-casualness the groups were bringing.
Donald Nally crowd out is a really intimate piece. It doesn’t look that way on the page, but people came up to me afterwards and said, “I really became very emotional.”
I heard a few people say, “Oh, I’ve never been part of a flash mob until now!” It took a lot to not be like, “It’s NOT a flash mob. It is a PERFORMANCE.” But, I thought, hey, at least you’re here, and you’re excited.
It was very powerful to watch David Lang participating with a group he didn’t know, and smiling, and proud.
I went around to every single group and sang with them during the performance. I think I got to experience everyone from every ward of Chicago, from professional people to little kids. I think in a way I had the best experience.
I bet as a composer that would be amazing, to walk around your own forest of sound.
Michael “Mike” Jones
I was really proud of my kids. If they saw audience members who looked interested, they would say, “Look at this,” or “Follow this.”
It was lovely having the sign interpretation in and around the piece, and an app made it possible for deaf or hard-of-hearing people to select each “strand color” and follow along.
Illinois Humanities now has this network of cultural organizations, venues, and community groups—a little phone book to help with collaborating across the city. We’re also going to be sending out a survey, and I’m working on a report that brings together notes from the community gatherings.
The participants of Mike Jones’ Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy were spurred by their experience with crowd out to create their own version of the work.
Michael “Mike” Jones
They want to call it “singled out.”
Aquantee Hendricks, Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy
When we arrived, we were some of the only people of color there, and we thought, “It would be funny if they understood how we feel sometimes in a crowd.”
Michael “Mike” Jones
They want it to express what it feels like to be one of the few African Americans in a place. You see another African American, and you give that head nod. We’re all looking for solidarity, whether it is gender, age, race, creed, or color.
At first we were just playing around. They started thinking of concepts, the way it could look, how it could start. Incorporating pieces we already have. It started making sense.
Michael “Mike” Jones
I’m excited that it’s student driven. My hope is that it grows, and organizations like Encore [a choir of seniors] would ask, “What does it feel like to be a senior in a crowd?” Or [a group of women], “What is it like to be the only woman in a world where white men make all the decisions?”
There was a brief time in my life when I no longer wanted to be a composer.
This wasn’t because I thought writing music was difficult and laborious (it still is) or because my music wasn’t being performed at the time (it wasn’t); it was because I briefly believed that writing and creating my music was absolutely pointless and worthless. My insecurities may have ignited a quarter-life or existential crisis at the time, but I truly believed that writing and performing concert music was absolutely self-serving.
Yes, I felt selfish.
I bet you’re wondering what life-changing event made me suddenly question my supposed vocation.
When I went to college at the turn of the 21st century, I was thrilled to learn all things musical, but I didn’t know this would include so many things experiential. I was 19 when I was able to vote in my first presidential election and watched with naive bewilderment the news of Florida’s voting booth irregularities and recounts. I was 20 when I woke up on a Tuesday morning and witnessed on television the South Tower collapse in real time. I was 22 when the Iraq War began. I was incensed. I questioned everything. I donated to Greenpeace. I went to my first anti-Bush protest. I wasn’t an activist per se, but I thought I was being active while continuing on my quest to become a composer.
It wasn’t until I saw a documentary about the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the policies that followed that I questioned my future career.
It was 2004, one year after I graduated from college. I decided to take a few years off and move way across the country to Vermont (much to the chagrin and bewilderment of my parents), a place that is both literally green and Green Party-leaning.
One of my favorite pastimes during my post-college self-deemed “study abroad” was going to the Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas on Church Street in Burlington and seeing independent films with my then-partner. When the newest Michael Moore film was released, we didn’t hesitate to see it.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is a film that covers a slew of monumental events that marked the turn of the century. It covers the 2000 presidential election (suggesting that George W. Bush’s election was won due to voter fraud), the September 11 attacks, the corruption associated with trying to construct a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean (which may have been a contributing factor to the war in Afghanistan), the spread of fear-mongering post-September 11 and the creation of the USA PATRIOT Act, and how the Iraq War upended and devastated Iraqis and young American veterans alike.
I wanted to set something on fire.
I wanted to do something.
I no longer wanted to be a composer.
Is producing music pointless? Is writing concert music selfish? What does writing and performing concert music do anyway? How does it help people? How does it feed them? How does it fix greed and corruption? How does it prevent an unnecessary war? How does it stop teenagers from fighting in combat and dying?
After the last incendiary and helpless thought left my brain, I decided to write music again, but what was the point? Composing does not bring virtue nor ethics to our corrupted society, right? It does not make me or others more noble, so why do it? I accepted that I wrote music because I like manipulating time and evoking feelings, but I decided that my music would not in itself fix anything. I thought maybe my singular role in the universe would be to someday earn enough money to donate to organizations, to maybe volunteer to work at a voting booth, or to attend a good protest here and there. These are active ways to make the world a better place, I thought, and writing my music would be my way to exist and self-indulge.
I could teach a future generation of students how to write and analyze music, and while music doesn’t literally prevent wars and killings, I would be helping young adults form opinions and think for themselves.
I eventually took a steady job in Ohio in 2012 where I thought I was getting closer to my goal of being political in a more active way. I finally had a steady income stream, so I could donate to other causes. I could attend localized marches in Delaware or Columbus. I could even be on stage with Michelle Obama during a political rally. But most importantly, I could teach a future generation of students how to write and analyze music, and while music doesn’t literally prevent wars and killings, I would be helping young adults form opinions and think for themselves. This was my accepted activist role: I wouldn’t be an official activist, but I could be politically active while still indulging myself by writing my music.
It wasn’t until I met a colleague (The Chaplain) at my institution that I started to question my initial assumption that music isn’t important.
Here is what you need to know about The Chaplain: he is the most affirming person on this planet. He is genuinely thrilled to see you. After meeting him, I would run into him on campus and he would thank me profusely for writing music and sharing it with others. He would say that my music was a great service to the community. I would sheepishly say thanks, but I thought he was merely doing his job by helping me feel good about myself. Doesn’t he realize that I write concert music? That I’m not a singer-songwriter who writes protest songs?
And yet, maybe he was onto something. I merely wrote music about how I was feeling at the time, but maybe I had lots to say? Was I saying what needed to be said through my music? Does writing an opera about Paula Deen choking on a donut and dragging two angels to hell with her make a statement about our socio-political problems? Probably not. But maybe writing a couple of satires about the housing bubble and Big Oil does? Or how about writing about the importance of the Cincinnati Streetcar and the future of the Brent Spence Bridge? Maybe I had something to say and I am saying it. Maybe through my actions and music, I was being politically active in ways I couldn’t fully see. And maybe because we composers reflect on our surroundings, we often (directly or indirectly) make commentary about the political environment around us.
Sitting at her desk at the Stamford Symphony offices, Barbara Soroca is quiet, yet she is smiling as her eyes scroll down the page. A yellow legal pad of handwritten notes is tucked under her elbow.
The book she holds is Orchestral Music: A Handbook by David Daniels, a resource known to anyone who programs concerts, such as conductors, music directors, orchestra managers and music librarians. Soroca, CEO and president of the Stamford Symphony Orchestra, and her soon-to-be-successor, Russell Jones, have been using it to plan the orchestra’s 2018-19 season, hence the notes.
“I think it is important for American orchestras to play American music,” she says, placing the book off to one side. “We don’t do enough of that. At the Stamford Symphony, we certainly don’t do enough of that.”
A new endowed fund will help with that quest. The Soroca Fund for American Music, which has already raised about $150,000, will bring works by Leonard Bernstein, Copland, Charles Ives, and other contemporary composers to the stage.
Beyond the leadership, Midwest Clinic’s programming is equally in need of modernization. After my second day at the conference, I realized that not a single one of the concerts I had attended included a female composer. Now, it would be impossible to see every concert at Midwest, and I had experienced just a handful of the performances. Was it a fluke that I had missed the pieces by women? To be certain, I pored through the festival program and found that of the 500 pieces performed at the Midwest Clinic by 51 different ensembles (including bands, orchestras, jazz bands, and chamber groups), only 23 pieces (4.6%) were composed by women, and just 71 (14.2%) were written by composers of color.
But what about the band concerts on their own? With such enthusiasm for new music, surely the wind ensemble programming would be more diverse than that of the orchestras, right? Alas, of the 212 pieces performed by bands during the Midwest Clinic, only seven (a measly 3.3%) were written by women, and 26 (12.3%) by people of color.
The excerpts above are examples of how programming decisions are being made and the ramifications of not considering diversity throughout the programming process. Administrators such as Soroca and Jones are selecting their 2018-2019 season from a reference book that, while it is the best resource of its kind for traditional orchestral repertoire, is sorely lacking in its coverage of demographic diversity. It is unclear in this particular anecdote which hardcover edition they are perusing, but even if they were using the latest update of the online version of Daniels’s compendium, they would only be able to find 87 female composers out of 1,211 total names (only 16 of whom were born in 1960 or later) or 29 black composers (only four of whom were born in or after 1960).
On the bright side, they seem quite pleased with their “contemporary” programming of Ives, Copland, and Bernstein.
In the example of the Midwest Clinic, one’s disappointment with the lack of diversity is further enhanced by the fact that the Clinic has so many stringent limitations already in place for ensemble performances. In addition to mandates about the published status of the works in every program (each program is allowed only one self-published work), for example, the Clinic requires programs to balance their repertoire insofar as “for every grade 4, 5, or 6 an equal number of grade 1, 2, or 3 music must be played.” It would not be hard, therefore, to include a statement encouraging a demographically diverse program as well.
Over the years, there have been a great many calls for diversification within the concert music community, and one of the most prevalent responses from decision-makers is that they don’t know where to find under-represented composers. Inspired to address this issue and informed by the basic construct of Daniels’s book, I took the names that were included in the comments section of my NewMusicBox column “A Helpful List” and, in 2016, began to organize them. A few weeks ago, I announced that the Women Composers Database was fully operational and ready for public inspection. Using a simple Google Sheets spreadsheet, I and a team of students at the State University of New York at Fredonia had compiled a searchable and browsable database of more than 3,000 women composers that conductors, performers, educators, and researchers can use (along with a related “composers of color” database that is currently being built) to aid in their pursuit of more diverse performance programming and academic curricula.
As this project has evolved, I’ve received quite a bit of feedback and questions concerning the database. A few of the more common replies to this project that I will address in this essay are as follows:
What are the best ways to use this database?
There are already so many works and composers that deserve attention. How do we make room for diverse programming?
If the existing repertoire is what puts butts in seats, why should any ensemble risk that for the sake of diversity?
It shouldn’t matter who the composer is. We just want to play good music.
You’re not a woman. Why are you doing this?
Most large lists of composers have little to no viability when it comes to programming; conductors, directors, and performers don’t want to have to spend a long time hunting through a large number of websites hoping to find a composer who has composed works appropriate for their ensemble. In order to make the database as useful as possible, I decided to create several data points within the spreadsheet so that anyone searching for composers could focus their searches. These data points include whether or not the composers are living, what musical genres they have composed for, their race or ethnicity, and their cities and countries of residence. Users can then create multiple temporary filters to narrow down the number of composers to investigate. By clicking on the “filter” button, arrows emerge under each column. One only need to click an arrow and select “Sort A-Z” to bring any composers who are included in that column to the top.
For instance, if I first do an A-Z sort under Wind Band, that will bring all 422 of the composers who have been marked under that genre to the top. (They’ll already be listed in alphabetical order because the database is set to that by default.) If I do a second A-Z sort after that Wind Band sort—this time for black composers—now all of the black composers are up at the top, but at the very top are the black women composers who have written for wind band.
In this case, we have focused down our search from 3000+ to 400+ to nine composers who share both data points, and it wouldn’t take long for anyone to peruse that cohort for potential works. If the Brooklyn Wind Symphony, for example, did such a search, they might discover that four of those composers—Valerie Coleman, Tania Léon, Allison Loggins-Hull, and Shelley Washington—live in the New York City area, which might spark discussions for a series of featured works across a season or guest residencies or commissions over several seasons.
Once composers have been sorted into small enough groups to make research feasible, then it’s still up to the researcher to explore each of the hyperlinked websites. The primary database is, by its very nature, an omnibus document fashioned to collect as many active and notable composers as possible. From this database, we hope to create a number of secondary databases for each genre that will allow for numerous data points on each work within that genre.
A good example of this is Christian Michael Folk’s Women Composers of Wind Band Music database; this database breaks each work down by title, instrumentation (wind ensemble, brass ensemble, etc.), grade level (.5–6), duration, and date of composition, as well as links to audio or video performances available online. Christian’s database was so close to what I had envisioned that he and I have agreed to join forces and soon his entire database will be available as a separate page within the Women Composers Database spreadsheet.
Easier access to diverse programming does not immediately solve the problem.
Easier access to diverse programming does not immediately solve the problem. Diversity and inclusion within musical programming and curriculum is almost always a zero-sum endeavor; seasons have a finite number of concerts, concerts have finite durations, and semesters last only so many weeks. Any serious diversification measures will inevitably mean that less of the traditional repertoire will be able to be performed or taught.
That necessary reduction brings with it some intriguing and obvious questions: Whose job is it to make such decisions? What are the factors that allow one to decide which pieces and composers are performed less? Are there some works or composers that are non-negotiable in terms of inclusion? The answers are, of course, different for everyone, but even bringing up the questions could be seen as controversial. As we have seen in sharp relief over the past year, the reaction to diversity initiatives is rarely calm and quiet, but the risk of confrontation should not preclude the necessary conversations and actions.
If music educators aren’t exposed to diverse composers when they’re in school, the chances of them incorporating a diverse range of repertoire into their own classrooms is probably not very high.
That risk of confrontation increases when the well-being of an individual or an organization is threatened; that well-being can be financial (as with non-profit ensembles) or in terms of time or reputation (as with educators and researchers). For orchestras, for example, the perceived connection between repertoire and ticket sales is acute, but there are a number of examples just this year of orchestras that have been willing to program female composers and composers of color as part of their mainstage season at a rate much higher than the average. Last spring I compiled the 2017-18 season programming of 45 major orchestras across the country and Albany (4 composers /11% of their season), Milwaukee (5/10%), Orlando (3/9%), and Colorado Symphony (6/8%) all programmed female composers at much higher than the 2% total average rate. And while the South Dakota Symphony only programmed four composers of color, those four composers comprised 17% of their entire season (vs. the 2% total average).
Cellist/composer Jon Silpayamanant makes this point even more clearly with data from Atlanta’s High Museum, where audience demographics have been intentionally targeted:
Of the 15 shows the High presented this year, [Rand Suffolk, the museum’s director] says, five highlighted the work of artists of color, including the Atlanta-based muralist Hale Woodruff and the Kenyan-British potter Magdalene Odundo. “You can always do another white guy show,” Suffolk says, but that doesn’t mean you should.
2. Marketing Strategy
Before 2015, the High spent the vast majority of its marketing budget on the promotion of a few blockbuster exhibitions. The result, Suffolk says, was that most locals didn’t think of the museum as a place that fostered regular, repeat visits. If the blockbuster shows didn’t appeal, they had no reason to go. Now, the High spends 60 percent of its marketing budget to promote a cross-section of its exhibitions. (“There was a little bit of condescension in telling people come see this show but not invite you back for five other shows,” Suffolk notes.)
3. Admission Prices
Last year, however, the museum opted to overhaul its tiered structure and charge everyone the same price: $14.50. As Andrew Russeth has pointed out in ARTnews, the move was largely symbolic: Because it raised the price for children, it didn’t actually make the High much more affordable to families….[H]e believes the move has made potential visitors feel that the museum is making an effort to welcome them. “We’re telling people, ‘We’re listening to you, we hear we’ve gotten out of kilter with the marketplace,’” he says.
4. Diversify Docents
The High has also seen a radical change in the demographics of its docents—the people who guide students and visitors through the museum and may be the first faces they see when they enter. In 2014, the incoming class of docents was 11 percent people of color. By 2017, it was 33 percent.
5. Diversify Staff
In this area, Suffolk admits, the High still has a lot of work to do. Its staff has only become slightly less white over the past two years, from 69.6 percent in 2015 to 65.5 percent in 2017.
Repertoire-based demographic diversity issues are endemic in our educational and academic institutions, as well. If music educators aren’t exposed to diverse composers when they’re in school, the chances of them incorporating a diverse range of repertoire into their own classrooms is probably not very high. Their students will go out into the world perhaps with a love of what they think of as “good” music, but with a stunted sense of the breadth and depth of our musical universe in its totality.
That skewed sense of what is “good” is, of course, part of our human experience; we all have ideas about what is good and not-so-good based on layers and years of taste-modifying experiences. Those experiences will inevitably include being influenced by those whose opinions we respect—be they family or friends or teachers or critics or tastemakers of any sort.
Harvard musicologist Anne Shreffler recently penned a brilliant post on this concept through the lens of “masters” (a masculine title bequeathed to male composers by male conductors, historians, and critics) having transcended gender while women composers are just women who have composed. Two statements from her article make this point decisively:
Obvious reasons include institutional inertia, career ambitions, intellectual laziness, and individual bias. But there is another, less well understood reason why a virtually all-white, all-male repertory has been tolerated for so long: the widespread preconception that music has no gender, or much of anything else.
Feminists are often accused of “reducing” everything to gender. But we as a society have been judging music on the basis of gender all along, by privileging specific cultural notions of masculinity in the guise of gender neutrality.
Silpayamanant’s blog post responds to Shreffler’s essay with equally thoughtful ideas along these lines:
In “high art” we tend to hide behind the rubric that the quality matters more than the gender or color. We do that, however, without questioning the underlying assumptions of that contention. Namely, that so-called “quality” is highly subjective, culturally specific, and that systems of institutional power will favor the work of some populations over other populations and reinforce the norms that allow that privilege to exist.
When there are literally tens of thousands (likely more) of compositions in existence with no one having had the chance to listen to them all—much less do any sort of comparative analysis of them—we’re not in much of a position to even really address quality in anything other than culturally arbitrary terms.
It’s hard for us today to believe the stories we’ve read of Felix Mendelssohn’s advocacy of J.S. Bach or Leonard Bernstein’s advocacy of Gustav Mahler and their influence on the popularity of those “masters,” as both Bach and Mahler now seem to be so indelibly linked to our perceived collective musical experience. And yet, just as there are millions upon millions who have never experienced Bach or Mahler, there are many other composers—both living and dead—who should be given the opportunity for advocacy and exposure to the ever-shifting concert audience.
If there is a subset of composers today that could be said to be “most privileged,” it could be composers who are white, male, and with a tenured position within an academic institution. I will admit that, as I started this endeavor, I did not explicitly consider my own identity within that subset (with my beard and glasses, I could compete for Poster Child of Privileged Composers), but that identity has been brought up numerous times in discussions, usually in conjunction with either the need for the database or the attention I’ve received as the database has become more well-known.
Others can attest much better than I to the financial challenges and time constraints that so many women composers and composers of color face on a consistent basis—I wouldn’t presume to know. Those of us who do have time or resources or both, at least in my opinion, do have an unspoken obligation to do what we can in whatever way we can to make things better for our entire musical community, and I’m glad that I can use some of my time and resources to help move the needle for women composers in some small way.
I can say that one aspect of my position helped immensely with this project: access to talented and motivated students. I worked on this project by myself and with the help of retired composer Jane Frasier for months and only completed a fraction of what the total database currently comprises. It wasn’t until five of my students here at Fredonia—Emily Joy Sullivan, Sierra Wojczack, Samantha Giacoia, Immanuel Mellis, and Sean Penzo—expressed interest in helping with the project as part of an independent study project that it really gathered steam. They all got to dive headlong into so many composers’ websites and Google searches in order to find the pertinent information and got a spectacular education in the process (much better than if I had given a lecture on website design in class). I know they’re looking forward to continuing their work on the Women Composers Database this semester and, along with another Fredonia student, Mikayla Wadsworth, will begin to help me with a Composers of Color Database that will hopefully be ready for public use by the summer.
It’s one thing to talk and rant about the need for change, it’s another to make an attempt to do it. It is my sincerest hope that composers in this database receive more attention, advocacy, and performances as more programmers decide to make diversity a priority. Hopefully, they will find this tool useful to help make that priority a reality. If anyone has any suggestions as to how to improve the database (we’re looking at creating a more user-friendly interface later this spring), please feel free to leave them in the comments. And if you know anyone who is not yet in the database, you can use this link to fill out the information form. We update the database on a weekly basis.
However, before you can attend these competitive opportunities, you have to be accepted to them, and the first roadblock you encounter might be the high application fee. For example, it costs $75 to be considered for a spot at Tanglewood and $75-$100 for a spot at the Atlantic Music Festival. And with many of these events, you can further expect hefty participation fees ranging into the thousands. At this price point, you will also have correspondingly hefty figures in music leading your master classes and private lessons, as well as access to many other benefits including networking and community building within the new music world.
But there are many opportunities out there for musicians and composers that are both more affordable and more accessible. Some of these are specifically designed for musicians and composers, while others more broadly cater to creatives working in multiple media.
Below is a specially curated list of 24 low-cost (or free) opportunities in the USA and Canada which you may not have heard about before, but should definitely check out. Some are priced comparably low for the resources/experiences they are offering, some are completely free, and some go beyond free and actually offer stipends.
Many of these residencies accept applications from project partners or small teams. When researching them further, keep that in mind. It can be difficult to get affordable studio space and time for a group project, whether you’re working with an ensemble or working with artists in other media—or even with folks outside of the arts. Applying to attend a residency as part of a team that you build could be your chance to work with an ecologist or horologist or volcanologist on those wild and brilliant musical ideas you’ve been keeping on the dusty back shelf.
Not all of these residencies will work for everyone—for example, for those working full-time, year-round jobs, the lengthier events will likely not be feasible. Some are more competitive during the summer (when those in academia would be able to attend) but not as competitive in the fall/winter/spring. As with all opportunities, it’s a good idea to apply to at least a handful to increase your chances. My personal ratio of success is one residency acceptance for every five or six applications. So, check these opportunities out and enrich your musical education without adding unnecessarily to your financial burden.
(Note: Take notice especially of the deadline dates, as many come soon after the publication of this article. Make sure you also visit the website of each opportunity you apply to for the most accurate and up-to-date information.)
Peer-Mentored Music Workshops
Canada has in recent years become a hub for new music workshops focused on enabling peer mentoring—that is, skill/resource/talent-sharing among emerging composers and performers. They are made possible largely by the preponderance of funding opportunities for the arts at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels in Canada, in addition to those available from private funding bodies. While these grants do often require that a certain percentage of the participants are Canadian, international applicants are still very strong contenders. For example, at the 2017 Waterloo Region Contemporary Music Sessions (see below), 50% of the participants were from outside of Canada. In other words, apply apply apply!
Montréal Contemporary Music Lab (MCML) is a ten-day performance and creation workshop exploring, celebrating, and creating bonds between performers, composers, sound artists, improvisers, and mixed/multimedia artists engaged in the act of creating new music. Formed in 2011 by seven emerging musicians in Montréal, they are a collective run entirely by and for young and emerging artists.
Deadline: March 2018 (date not posted yet)
Location: Montréal, Quebec, Canada
Application fee: $0
Residency fee: $250 CAD ($196 USD)
Toronto Creative Music Lab (TCML) is a peer-mentored, eight-day workshop for early career musicians and composers, and it’s designed to foster professional development, artistic growth, collaborative learning, and community building through workshops, rehearsals, social events, panel discussions, and performance.
Waterloo Region Contemporary Music Sessions (WRCMS) is a weeklong series of workshops, concerts, panels, reading sessions, and activities designed to promote and provide opportunities for emerging and early career Canadian and international performers, improvisers, and composers of contemporary music.
There aren’t many residencies built around participants receiving mentoring from a master artist while also being more affordable and open to general applicants, so there is just one residency included here in this category. I have been grateful to attend the Atlantic Center for the Arts twice and can attest to it being world-class—it offers a wonderful community, fabulous private lodging, delicious food, and fantastic resources. It also boasts a local friendly tortoise named George (the wooden walkways are elevated above the palm forest floor so he and his friends can walk around as they please). Built in the 1970s by creative visionaries and maintained with love and generous funding from local donors, there really is no experience quite like ACA.
Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA) is an innovative nonprofit artists-in-residence program. Three “Master Artists” from different disciplines determine the requirements and basic structure of their residency, and through an online application process, they each select eight “Associate Artists” to participate in the three-week program.
Recent master artists in the field of music have included Michael Bisio, Zeena Parkins, John Gibson, Derek Bermel, Natasha Barrett, and Georg Friedrich Haas. Coming up, you can apply to spend three weeks working with composer Laura Schwendinger (apply by 1/21/18) and/or composer Maria de Alvear (apply by 5/13/18). Attend as many times as you are accepted; applications go directly to each master artist rather than to a board or jury. Individual master artists also determine both what is required in their applications and how they will run their residency, so each application is different, and each residency unique.
Deadline: Multiple deadlines throughout the year; the next one is 1/21/18.
Location: New Smyrna Beach, Florida
Application fee: $25
Residency fee: $900, but need-based partial scholarships are available.
Interdisciplinary or Collaborative
In her recent interview for the Listening to Ladies podcast, self-described New Renaissance Artist Elizabeth A. Baker emphasized the vital importance (in pursuing the goal of creative growth) of learning about the many intricate worlds of art and culture that exist outside of your specific niche. Interdisciplinary residencies are gold mines for expanding your education and getting inspiration and resources (and lifelong friends) from entirely new and unexpected directions.
ACRE (Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions) is an artist-run non-profit based in Chicago. ACRE’s residency takes place each year outside of rural Steuben, Wisconsin. ACRE offers room and board with comfortable sleeping accommodations and chef-prepared meals for 14-day sessions. Set on 1000 acres, communal studio spaces compliment access to facilities including a recording studio and tech lab. Residents can choose to participate in studio visits with a variety of established artists, curators, and experienced educators, along with workshops, lectures, concerts, reading groups, critiques, and other programming throughout each session.
Location: Steuben, Wisconsin
Application fee: $0-$50 (cost rises as deadline approaches)
Residency fee: $600, but 40% of residents receive half-scholarships
EMPAC: The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is where the arts, sciences, and technology meet under one roof and breathe the same air. The EMPAC artist-in-residence program runs year-round. A residency may be used to explore a concept, to research the artistic or technical feasibility of a certain idea, to develop computer programs or specific hardware, develop part of a project, bring a work to full production scale, or document/record an existing work.
Location: Troy, New York
Application fee: $0
Residency fee: $0
Note: Residents cannot be full-time students.
Marble House Project is a multi-disciplinary artist residency program that fosters collaboration and the exchange of ideas by providing an environment for artists across disciplines to live and work side by side. With a focus on the conservation of natural resources, integration of small-scale organic food production, and the arts, residents sustain their growth by cultivating the surrounding grounds, working on their artistic vision, and forging partnerships within the community. Applications are accepted in all creative fields, including but not limited to the visual arts, writing, choreography, music composition, and performance. There are seven sessions, and each session lasts for three weeks. The residency fee includes a private bedroom, food, and studio space.
Deadline: December 2018
Location: Dorset, Vermont
Application fee: $30
Residency fee: $200
Note: Marble House offers a family-friendly session for artists attending with their children.
Omi International Center: Music Omi invites approximately a dozen musicians—composers and performers from around the globe—to come together for two and a half weeks in a unique and collaborative music-making residency program. A singular feature of the Music Omi experience is the presentation of public performances during and at the conclusion of the residency, where collaborative work can be shared with the public. Everyone accepted to Music Omi receives lodging, including a private room, and delicious meals during his or her stay.
Deadline: January 2019 (this year’s deadline was 1/2/18)
Location: Ghent, New York
Application fee: $0
Residency fee: $0
Ample time and space to work on a project are immensely valuable resources. It is too easy to look at a successful artist from afar and call them a “genius,” while (in)conveniently forgetting the multitude of quiet hours they’ve spent honing their craft—not to mention forgetting the necessary, immense privilege required to even access those quiet hours. Historically, wealthy white cisgender men have been those most likely to find themselves with the leisure time and space to do things like compose masterpieces—servants and wives dumped the poo and arranged the households so the men could delve into their intellectual and creative pursuits.
These days we have residency models which, while still remaining inaccessible to many (including single parents, those who can’t afford to stop working at their jobs for extended periods, and those who cannot obtain financial resources to travel to a residency) have nevertheless gone some way toward opening up the quiet-time playing field to more participants.
The Anderson Center residency program is open to emerging, mid-career, and established visual artists, writers, composers, choreographers, interdisciplinary artists, performance artists, and translators. Each resident is provided room, board, and workspace for the length of the residency period in the historic Tower View Mansion.
Art Farm Artist Residency program is for professionals, emerging or established, in all areas of the arts, humanities, and areas related: offering accommodations and studio space to pursue their art in exchange for a contribution of labor of 12 hours per week to help renovate and maintain Art Farm’s buildings and grounds, as well as other projects suited to skills and temperament.
Location: Marquette, Nebraska
Application fee: $20 (click on the “writers” category; this includes music-makers)
Residency fee: $0 + 12 hrs/week working on the farm
Avaloch Farm Music Institute provides a unique opportunity for chamber music and jazz ensembles (at any stage of development) to have the time and space to: work intensively on repertoire; prepare for recordings, concerts, or competitions; work with composers on commissions; and forge or reconnect to a group musical identity. The New Music Initiative brings together ensembles working with a composer or collaborator on new material during intensive farm-wide new music themed weeks. They will also accept ensemble/composer collaborations during weeks that are not designated as exclusively New Music Initiative times. Avaloch Farm Music Institute offers free living and studio accommodations, as well as all meals, as part of the residency.
Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts residency opportunities are open to national and international artists showing a strong professional working history. A variety of disciplines are accepted including, but not limited to, visual arts, media/new genre, performance, architecture, film/video, literature, interdisciplinary arts, music composition, and choreography. Artists-in-residence receive a $750 monthly stipend to help with materials, supplies, and living expenses while in residence. An unrestricted $500 travel stipend is also provided.
Deadline: Multiple deadlines throughout the year
Location: Omaha, Nebraska
Application fee: $40
Residency fee: $0
Note: Students are not eligible.
Blue Mountain Center, founded in 1982, provides support for writers, artists, and activists. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the center also serves as a resource for culturally based progressive movement-building. During the summer and early fall, BMC offers three month-long residency sessions. These sessions are open to creative and non-fiction writers, activists, and artists of all disciplines—including composers, filmmakers, and visual artists.
Location: Blue Mountain Lake, New York
Application fee: $25
Residency fee: $0
Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts is a non-profit organization offering time and space for artistic exploration to visual artists, writers, musicians, and composers from all backgrounds, levels of expertise, media, and genres. Residency sessions of two and four weeks are offered throughout the year, depending on availability and the applicant’s ranking in the jury process.
Djerassi Resident Artists Program offers 30-day core residencies (April-November) at no cost to the artists. National and international artists in the disciplines of media arts/new genres, visual arts, literature, choreography, and music composition are welcome. The program provides core residents with studio space, food and lodging, and local transportation.
Location: Woodside, California
Application fee: $45
Residency fee: $0
Note: Students are not eligible.
The Headlands Center for the Arts Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program awards fully sponsored residencies to approximately 45 local, national, and international artists each year. Residencies of four to ten weeks include studio space, chef-prepared meals, comfortable housing, and travel and living stipends. Artists selected for this program are at all stages in their careers and work in all media, including drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, new media, installation, fiction and nonfiction writing, poetry, dance, music, interdisciplinary, social practice, and architecture.
Deadline: June 2017
Location: Sausalito, California
Application fee: $45
Residency fee: $0
Note: Students are not eligible.
Hypatia-in-the-Woods (women only): Women in the arts, academia, and entrepreneurship may apply for a residency of from one to three weeks. Nestled on several acres of Pacific Northwest second growth forest on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, the retreat center provides an ideal setting for women to find solitude and time for their creative work.
Deadline: Multiple deadlines throughout the year; the next one is 2/15/18.
Location: Shelton, Washington
Application fee: $20
Residency fee: $0
Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts offers up to 70 juried residencies per year to working visual artists, writers, composers, and interdisciplinary artists from across the country and around the world. Residencies are available for stays of two to eight weeks. Each resident receives a $100 stipend per week, free housing, and a separate studio. The Center can house up to five artists of various disciplines at any given time.
Deadline: 3/1/18 and 9/1/18
Location: Nebraska City, Nebraska
Application fee: $35
Residency fee: $0
The MacDowell Colony provides time, space, and an inspiring environment to artists of exceptional talent. A MacDowell Fellowship, as they term their residencies, consists of exclusive use of a studio, accommodations, and three prepared meals a day for up to eight weeks.
Deadline: Multiple deadlines throughout the year; the next one is 1/15/18.
Location: Peterborough, New Hampshire
Application fee: $30
Residency fee: $0
Note: Students are not eligible.
The Millay Colony is an artists’ residency program in upstate New York offering one-month and two-week retreats to six visual artists, writers, and composers each month between April and November. Each residency includes a private bedroom and studio, as well as ample time to work in a gorgeous atmosphere.
Deadlines: 3/1/18 and 10/1/18
Location: Austerlitz, New York
Application fee: $35
Residency fee: $0
The Ucross Foundation Residency Program offers the gift of time and space to competitively selected individuals working in all artistic disciplines. The Foundation strives to provide a respectful, comfortable, and productive environment, freeing artists from the pressures and distractions of daily life. Residencies last between two and six weeks and include room, meals, and studio space.
The Wave Farm Residency Program provides artists with a valuable opportunity to concentrate on new transmission works and conduct research about the genre using the Wave Farm Study Center resource library. Transmission Art encompasses work in participatory live art or time-based art such as radio, video, light, installation, and performance, as well as a multiplicity of other practices and media, informed by an intentional use of space (often the airwaves). Wave Farm artists-in-residence receive a $700 artist stipend.
Location: Acra, New York
Application fee: $0
Residency fee: $0
Note: Students are not eligible, but “exceptions may be made on a case-by-case basis for career artists who may have returned to school for postgraduate work.”
Wildacres Residency offers participants stays of one or two weeks in one of three comfortable cabins located 1/4 mile from the Wildacres conference center, where complimentary meals are available. The program has about 70 residencies available from April through October, and allows individuals the solitude and inspiration needed to begin or continue work on a project in their particular field.
Location: Little Switzerland, North Carolina
Application fee: $20
Residency fee: $0
Willapa Bay Artist Residency offers month-long, self-directed residencies to emerging and established artists, writers, scholars, singer/songwriters, and composers. The residency provides lodging, meals, and work space, at no cost, to six residents each month from March 1 through September 30 of the year.
Location: Ocean Park, Washington
Application fee: $30
Residency fee: $0
The carillon is one of the most public of instruments. Situated in bell towers in the heart of public spaces, carillonneurs perform for entire communities. Though all who wander near the tower will hear the music, most will never know who it is playing the instrument. As performers hidden from view, carillonneurs strive to convince audiences that we are not machines playing the same tunes each day; we are real humans capable of expression and dynamic variation with lots of diverse repertoire.
Of approximately 600 carillons worldwide, North America is home to 185 such instruments distributed across universities, parks, churches, cities, and even mobile carillons on wheels. Though there are many kinds of bell instruments, a carillon consists of at least 23 tuned bells and is played from a keyboard that allows expression through variation of touch. The instrument is traditionally played solo, with the hands and feet, utilizing a keyboard and pedalboard that resemble a giant piano.
The carillon was born in the Low Countries of Europe about 500 years ago. The instrument emerged from medieval bell towers that originally functioned as signaling mechanisms to the local inhabitants. The bells would communicate not just the time of day, but civil and spiritual events: calls to prayer, the arrival of visitors, warnings such as the outbreak of a fire. In the early 20th century, as technical keyboard innovations began to allow for the expression of touch, the carillon began to develop as a concert instrument. Today carillonneurs perform all kinds of music on the bells: original compositions, classical arrangements, jazz standards, pop tunes, folk songs, film music—anything and everything that our public will enjoy.
Each Instrument is Unique
Carillons come in all shapes and sizes. From 23 bells to 77 bells, these instruments range from massive tower installations that house the largest tuned bells in the world to instruments that could fit in your living room. Bells cast at different foundries throughout history each have their own unique sound; some with richer overtones, some with more resonance, a longer sound, some brighter, some warmer.
Carillons come in all shapes and sizes.
Most carillons in North America are tuned to equal-temperament, but many older instruments in Europe employ the mean-tone tuning system. Though some instruments are concert pitch, keyboards will often transpose up or down to suit the height of the tower. With transposition ranging from up an octave to down a perfect fourth, the same repertoire played on two different instruments can sound vastly different.
Just as a particular concert hall will have certain characteristics, the bell tower itself and the surrounding listening space will play a key role in the sound of each instrument. While some instruments are found in the heart of bustling cities, others are in parks or suburban neighborhoods protected from traffic noise. When towers are more open and allow the bells to be visibly seen from the ground, the strike of each bell will be heard more clearly. Alternatively, sounds will blend more in closed towers where the bells are hidden from view.
Compositions for carillon are sometimes written specifically for one particular carillon, but composers can also write in a way that ensures pieces can be effective on multiple instruments.
Musical Considerations when Composing for Carillon
The unique partials, or overtones, of bells are an important consideration. Unlike traditional Western string or wind instruments, bells have a very prominent minor-third overtone. There is additionally a hum tone that sounds one octave below the strike tone. It can be helpful to compare typical bell partials to the natural harmonic series. The following graphic illustrates this comparison for a C3 bell (one octave below middle C).
Bass bells are much richer in overtones than high bells. The chord C-E-G played in the bass bells will not sound like a major chord at all, but played in the upper register this chord will sound more “in tune.” Thinning out or spacing out chords can be more effective on carillon (C-G-E), especially when writing major chords. Minor chords and diminished chords, on other hand, will sound more natural in the lower registers of the instrument.
Decay of Sound
As a bell is struck, the strike tone is heard in the foreground, but this pitch decays quickly, leaving the hum tone and overtones to emerge. Once a bell is rung, there is no way to dampen the sound or silence the bell. Each bell will continue to ring as the vibrations naturally dissipate. (Though there is an adjustment mechanism on each key that will allow the carillonneur to hold the clapper against the bell after striking, thus muting the sound, most players will advise against this as it creates a rather ugly sound and is perhaps not good for the instrument.)
A walking bass line on a fast be-bop jazz standard will not come across as intended.
Larger bells will ring longer, up to about 30 seconds, before fully coming to rest. Smaller bells will not ring as long, sometimes only for a few seconds. Rapid harmonic changes in the bass will create a blurred sound; a walking bass line on a fast be-bop jazz standard, for instance, will not come across as intended.
Depending on the bell foundry, the same bell on two different carillons can have a very different decay of sound. For instance, English bells (Taylor, Gillett & Johnston) cast in the early-to-mid 20th century have a rather short decay of sound in the trebles, whereas French bells (Paccard) cast in the later half of the 20th century are exceptionally long sounding. Some repertoire is better suited to short-sounding bells or long-sounding bells.
The carillon has an incredible dynamic range, arguably more so than a piano. Through variation of touch, carillonneurs are able to strike each bell so softly that nobody can hear it, or loud enough to startle somebody walking by. Bigger bass bells have more dynamic range than small high bells. Higher bells, with less bell mass, can only reach a fraction of the volume of the bass bells. Thus, crescendos moving down the keyboard are often more effective than up the keyboard.
Composers and arrangers for the carillon like to “think upside down”; rather than give the singing melody line to the soprano, placing the melody in the bass bells, with the higher bells playing harmonic and rhythmic accompaniments, can be very effective.
The carillon has an incredible dynamic range, arguably more so than a piano.
Playing loud is easy; playing soft is more difficult. Due to the large keyfall (1.6-2.2 inches), playing a note pp will require the carillonneur to take time to prepare the note by moving the key partway down before striking. It can be very challenging or impossible to play fast and soft at the same time. (Exception: When playing repeated notes, the carillonneur can keep notes prepared and play rapid trills, tremolos, or ostinatos very quietly.)
Keeping the bass bells in balance with the treble bells is a consideration for both composers and performers. Loud passages in the bass will drown out figures in the upper register, but a passage in the high register marked ff will not sound loud without accompanying bass notes to give the power. On larger carillons especially, the dynamics will come from the bass.
It might sound preposterous that a good balance could ever be achieved, with bass bells weighing tens of thousands of pounds, and high bells as small as 10 lbs. But towers are actually designed to improve balance—by placing the bass bells lower in the tower, the sound of treble bells will carry farther when high up in the tower. In some towers, louvers are positioned in the openings of the belfry to magnify this effect. Louvers are angled slats that deflect sound down to the ground. These louvers will rein in the sound of the bass bells, placed lower in the tower, by deflecting their sound more sharply towards the ground. At the same time, the louvers will keep the sound of the small high bells from drifting up into the sky.
Still, it is important for composers to consider the balance of bass and treble bells. Even the biggest bass bell can be played pp when the performer is given time to prepare each note.
Audiences are also capable of improving their listening experience. If one is standing too close to the tower, the bass bells will often be heard too loud and the instrument will sound out of balance. The best listening areas are usually found further away from the tower. Every tower is different, so a general rule of thumb: Imagine the tower falls over on its side. Standing just beyond the range of the impact will result in a decent listening place, in addition to protecting you in case the tower does fall over!
Of course there’s no worry about standing too close to a falling tower if you’re listening to a “Bronzen Piano,” a mobile carillon in the shape of a grand piano that was developed by Anna Maria Reverté and Koen Van Assche which can easily be transported and played anywhere.
Most compositions are written, or made playable, for four-octave carillon.
If writing for a particular carillon, it will be important to determine the exact range of the instrument, as well as to hear sound samples to determine the musical properties of the bells. Manuals typically span the full length of the keyboard, and pedals typically duplicate the bottom two octaves of the instrument. Here are several common ranges:
Most compositions are written, or made playable, for four-octave carillon, C3 to C7, omitting the lowest C#3. Writing for this range will allow the piece to be played on most concert carillons. When writing for four and a half octaves, composers will often include substitutions for notes outside of the four-octave range, to make the piece playable on four-octave instruments.
Traditional technique asks the carillonneur to play each key with a closed fist, one note for each hand. Rapid passages of broken arpeggios that alternate hands (L-R-L-R…) are very idiomatic.
A four-note chord is easily realized with two hands and two feet. As keyboards have evolved and been made lighter over the 20th century, it has become additionally possible to play with open hands and fingers. Two notes, no more than a fourth apart, are easily playable with one hand. Passages can be difficult, though, when two-note chords are played in quick succession with one hand, especially when changes in hand position are required between the natural and chromatic keys. Clusters of three or four notes in one hand are also possible if the keys are all natural, or all chromatic.
It is possible, though unusual, to play two neighboring pedals simultaneously with one foot, provided they are both natural, or both chromatic.
Fast repeated notes are possible in the upper range with hands, but not as much in the lower range or with the pedals, as the clappers are bigger and heavier.
The keys on a carillon are much farther apart than on a piano—14 inches per octave, compared to 6.5 inches per octave. This makes rapid jumps in one hand between registers quite difficult; even jumping an octave quickly requires a lot of concentration.
Rapid jumps in one hand between registers are quite difficult.
Additionally, maintaining a large gap between the left and right hands can be challenging. Rapid independent movement in the left and right hand is best kept within two octaves between the two hands, so that the performer can better visualize both hands on the keyboard.
On larger carillons with 4.5 or more octaves, it can be difficult or impossible to play both the high register with the hands, and the lowest bass notes with the feet, at the same time. Large diagonal stretches are best kept within 3 or 4 octaves.
Carillon music is written on two staves, with the top staff for the manuals and the bottom staff for the pedals. Carillonneurs generally prefer to read the top staff in treble clef and the bottom staff in bass clef, and read 8va or 8vb beyond the third ledger line, rather than changing clef.
Rolled chords are very idiomatic to the carillon and can be noted in one of two ways:
A roll with an arrow pointing up will indicate to play all the notes open-handed, sequentially from bottom to top (1-2-3…). These open-handed rolls are usually kept to three or four notes, but five or six notes are possible if the notes are all clustered together, as long as both open hands can prepare all notes simultaneously.
A “lighting bolt” will indicate to alternate both hands with closed fists and play a broken roll. For a four-note chord, this means playing the bottom note first, then the third note, then the second, and then the fourth (1-3-2-4). A three-note chord would be played 2-1-3. Broken rolls are very idiomatic to the carillon and more traditional than the open-handed roll.
Tremolando, or tremolo, is another common carillon technique. Tremolos are often noted in early 20th-century Flemish compositions, to allow melodies in the upper registers to sing out over the bass. Tremolos are still used, though less frequently, in modern compositions, either to bring out melodies or for other effects. Tremolo is possible between two notes with two hands, or more notes with each hand playing a cluster. Carillonneurs can be very expressive with tremolo, with both speed and dynamic.
Carillonneurs can be very expressive with tremolo.
1) The absolute best resource is to find a carillonneur that will demonstrate the keyboard and the instrument. As each carillon is unique, this is essential when writing for a particular keyboard. Most carillonneurs would be very excited to hear from composers who are interested in writing for them!
2) There are two main publishers of carillon music in North America:
3) The TowerBells website has an index of all carillons (and other bell instruments) in North America, and many instruments in Europe and the rest of the world. The site can be used to generate a list of instruments by location, size, pitch, year, bell foundry, etc. A particularly useful tool is the locator that displays all the instruments on a map.
4) John Gouwens has a carillon primer available here, with several musical examples.
5) Luc Rombouts published Singing Bronze in 2014, and the book is widely considered among carillonneurs as the most valuable account of carillon history. It is available on Amazon.
Today the Federal Communications Commission voted to reclassify internet providers from utilities to information companies. This apparently simple act undoes years of bipartisan agreement on the concept of net neutrality as the guiding principle behind internet rules. Commissioner Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney appointed to his position by President Trump, has been relentless and single-minded over the past months in pursuing his goal, which is at best misguided and at worst deeply craven.
You’ve probably already heard a lot about why this reclassification is a truly terrible idea. I’ll just underline the perspective from New Music USA. Our constituency includes thousands and thousands of independent artists. We believe that the internet provides an absolutely indispensable tool for creating, distributing, and promoting the amazing array of musics that make this a potentially golden age for our sector. In a culture that so inattentively leaves the playing field so unlevel for artists, at least a neutral internet gives us a fighting chance to advance our work on the same terms as anyone else.
So who is actually in favor of this reclassification, this repeal of net neutrality? Very few, and (surprise!) they’re big corporations who stand to make billions of dollars off a newly unequal internet. Who’s against? Pretty much everyone else. Surveys show that more than 80% of Americans support net neutrality, and more than one million people called Congress in the last month alone, asking their representatives to save it. In a climate of deep and troubling divisions in our country, 80% (that’s eight-zero) agreement stands out as virtual unanimity. I’ve been truly moved the see the images of protests from all over the country, with ordinary people exercising their right to speak out and speak up for themselves. This is the country I want to live in.
If there’s good news here, it’s this: The FCC currently has the authority to do what it has just done. But Congress can step in and pass legislation that repairs the damage. There’s broad support for doing so. Lawmakers from all sides weighed in with letters to Chairman Pai asking him to delay the Commission’s vote: 39 Democrats and Independents signed onto one letter; Republican Senator Susan Collins joined another; Republican Representative Mike Coffman sent one of his own; not to mention the mountains of letters like this one from 32 House Democrats going all the way back to April.
There’s truly broad concern about the FCC action. And in that concern lies real hope to save the precious quality of an internet that’s equal for all.