Category: Articles

Self-Published Composers Explain What They Do and Why Randall Davidson

Randall Davidson
photo courtesy of Boys Art Music

Self-publishing contemporary music is not at the glamorous end of the tide-pool. As a result, very little of my time is spent addressing the ocean of conductor/producers in the world who “might” use my music. I’m more aware of what’s close at hand, of the subtle currents that signal life or adventure or opportunity. The Internet’s intimacy and immediacy has drawn me out of my shell and a steady-stream of colleagues to my music. But the Internet’s greatest lesson has been patience, the surprise of sunken treasure found in the shallows if you’re willing to go to the time and trouble.

Self-Published Composers Explain What They Do and Why Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon
photo by Patented Photos

I basically do everything that an established publishing house does: I take orders from customers, print scores and parts, do the binding, mail the music, do the billing, report performances to ASCAP, and negotiate contracts for commissions.

The duplication of music is not that difficult – any copy place can aid in this endeavor. I do my own binding; I bought a $100 binder, which is easy to obtain, from an office supply store. The mailing process is straightforward, as long as you make sure that the music won’t be damaged in shipment (padded envelopes are great for this). When I first started, I created a standard bill on the computer which I still use today. And I’m able to fill requests for program notes, bio information, or a photo much faster than a big publishing house (this has been a consistent experience – substantial delays from the publishing houses!). I find that sometimes people need things FAST…I’m able to turn it around within a couple of hours, which is important. This way, I can make sure the order is correct and meets my customers’ requests.

The one thing that I don’t do, is advertise. I don’t have an advertising pamphlet to distribute, but then I’ve found people don’t perform music based on a piece of paper with a bunch of facts on it. They either have to know your name, have heard your music, or have been recommended by someone that they trust – no pamphlet will convince people to program your music without them having heard from a known source that your music makes an impact. I realize this may sound strange, but I depend on word-of-mouth advertising for my music to get to the public. Musicians are the best advertisement in the world. If they like a piece, they will approach you for more. If they hear a piece that excites them, they will tell others about it. I’ve been fortunate in that this method has worked successfully for me both in getting subsequent performances and in getting commissions.

In the various stages of my career, I have considered going with a publisher, but the more I thought about it, it seemed absurd to me to have to give up the copyright to my own creative work. Something about this idea has always bothered me. I understand the need for a large publisher to cover expenses (they are large, they have a lot more expenses), and sometimes they feel that in order to cover their costs they want to own the copyright. I, however, do not like the idea of giving up ownership of my work and I don’t want to have to buy copies of my own works.

I’ve also found that, as a performer and a conductor, I’ve had way too many experiences of having to wait too long to get music from the established houses. I don’t want my music to be so inaccessible. I don’t want my orchestra pieces to be too expensive for orchestras with small budgets (I ran across this a lot when I had a regular conducting gig)…the music should be affordable to anyone, from the poorest student to the small university chamber orchestra to the biggest budget groups around. This is not to say that I sell myself short by charging little or no money – a composer should be fairly compensated always. But I do make considerably more than I would if I were receiving a small percentage of the cover price or rental fees that are the standard of established publishing houses. I believe that composers should be paid, and I believe they should be paid fairly: 10-20 cents on the dollar is not my idea of fair compensation.

Finally, no one is going to represent me better than me. No one is going to be able to stay on top of things that need to get done better than me. I don’t want to have to check on others to see if they’ve mailed an order or filled a request; having to check can often take as much time as doing it myself.

Self-publishing aids me in being able to make a living as a working composer. This occurs because I collect my own publisher royalties and I have the revenue from music sales. Philip Glass once told me that if I want to make my living as a composer, I should keep the rights to my own music; I think that may have been some of the most valuable advice that I’ve ever received. That extra income definitely makes it possible to set my own hours and have more time and energy to write more music. With the incredible technologies available today, it is quite feasible to be your own publisher and artistic representative.

Self-Published Composers Explain What They Do and Why Donald Martino

Donald Martino
photo by Lourdes Awad, courtesy of Dantalian, Inc.

If not the first, I am certainly very nearly the first composer to establish by himself, for himself, and without banding together with other composers, a fully commercial publishing house which produces engraved or autographed editions in quantity by offset printing. It was the emerging tendency for the large commercial houses, out of financial necessity, to abandon engraved offset prints in quantity of new music in favor of print-on-demand “editions” (often nothing but unedited copies of the composer’s manuscript) implemented by the grossly inferior back room copy machine and then bound even less professionally with spiral bindings that, among many other things convinced me that I should strike out on my own. That “tendency to print on demand” has now become the norm for most composers and I am very glad that I got out when I did.

My company DANTALIAN, INC. was founded in 1978 out of a, by then, overwhelming frustration with my commercial publishers in virtually every domain of what I had come to expect (hadn’t we all) to be their historical responsibility. I am not going to plead the case for self-publishing by providing you with a titillating litany of complaints about a bad, perhaps in my case an unusually bad, relationship with the establishment which has long since been corrected by the action I took back in 1978 and by which I joined them. (And I will readily admit that it is very easy to criticize them until one is faced with the problems they face. Of course one has to be “the little engine that could.”) But I will say that when I founded the company, its in-house motto was ” there is no way we can do worse than they do.” We have done it much better. Our catalogue boasts over seventy items of which all except rental items are offset printed in quantity from autographed or engraved masters. Print delays do not exist. We are speedy in our response to all requests for music no matter how small the order. We advertise, promote, are liberal with complementary copies, and are very much in the black. Some of this is because we do not operate with the same constraints that impede the commercial houses nor do we have expenses of overhead and a large staff. Our mission after all is to promote the composer first, make a profit second.

Self-publishing is a huge undertaking — a full time job if one wishes to do it in a highly professional manner. To obsessive types like myself it brings enormous satisfaction in that I have complete control over every aspect of my work product. But one has to be willing to be president, manager, treasurer, editor, autographer, graphic artist, book designer, proofreader, publicity director, packer, shipper, gopher, and when all is done sweep the floors. When, you ask, do I find time to compose? Luckily I require very little sleep. And I have always found that the more excited I got about a project — composing, publishing, woodworking, playing tennis, practicing my clarinet…, the less time is needed for sleeping.

I would not recommend self-publishing to anyone who has not already achieved a certain degree of recognition. The chances are that no one will buy! Of course the problem with being an uncelebrated composer in a large commercial catalogue is that one is overshadowed by the big shots (such as they are in our art). The advantage to self-publishing is that when the potential buyer receives your catalogue, and when he tosses it in the waste basket along with all the other unsolicited mail (he may do this with the commercial catalogue, too) he remembers your name, not the publisher’s. This may seem like negative advertising; it is. But the next time you send out your catalogue this potential buyer may just take a look at it, the next time you may have a buyer, even a performer, ideally a convert, a crusader for your music.

It also takes a few items that sell and keep selling! You need a self-made subsidy — or a patron. One commercial publisher told me that there were just thirteen issues in his vast catalogue that paid the bills; all else he claimed was window dressing. DANTALIAN, INC. has its unique chorale edition for study, the 178 CHORALE HARMONIZATIONS OF J. S. BACH, which are used in hundreds of college theory classes each year, STRINGOGRAPH, used by composers and arrangers to calculate string passages, and believe it or not, a few Martino compositions that pay the bills.

Finally, there is no praise high enough for Lora Harvey Martino, DANTALIAN’S treasurer, tax accountant, investment officer, and chief financial wizard.

Self-Published Composers Explain What They Do and Why Terry Riley

Terry Riley
photo courtesy New Albion Records

For many years my written music was being handled for me by a publisher which was somewhat unfamiliar with what is needed to send out scores and parts to orchestras and other chamber groups. I supplied them with masters that were for the most part printed out from my computer notation program (Emagic’s Logic) Although this company has administered my publishing successfully in the sense of collecting publishing moneys owed to me, many mistakes were made, the most humorous being on one occasion sending out the parts to an Orchestra all bound together like a score. I decided to try working with some of the well known Publishers but after some futile discussions with both G. Schirmer and Boosey and Hawkes I decided to get up a Web page and offer my scores directly to the public.

At the moment there is also a page for CD’s with some Real Audio samples of the music, although very few of the scores are represented by audio samples. It is all being operated now by my immediate family and a student. We have to run to the copy shop to get things photocopied as we run out and it is starting to require quite a bit of space as we try to accomodate more inventory. People use the order form printed on the Web page and prepay with checks. I must say although it is a lot of work, I am enjoying the direct contact I get with people ordering my music direct and it satisfies an old desire to have a little “mom and pop shop.”

Self-Published Composers Explain What They Do and Why Amy Rubin

Amy Rubin
photo courtesy of Musicians Accord

Self-publishing has permitted me to circulate my music to a wide variety of performers throughout the United States and Europe. I send perusal scores as quickly as possible to ensembles and soloists who express general interest in my work, and in addition I answer “calls for scores” listed in professional journals. Now that my CD Hallelujah Games has been released on Mode Recordings, more people are hearing specific pieces of mine such as “Hallelujah Games” and are programming them.

The performance history of my piece “Hallelujah Games” is a good example of what I’ve been able to do as a self-published composer. “Hallelujah Games,” which was commissioned by Musicians Accord in 1995 and is a direct outgrowth of my study of West African drumming with Dr. William Anku in Ghana, is a game of improvisational choices and rhythmic challenges transformed from the culture of West African drumming to the culture of Western music chamber music ensemble playing. It has been performed throughout the United States and Eastern Europe by such diverse groups as Musicians Accord, New Ear!, Synchronicity, and has been workshopped by the Colorado String Quartet and percussionists from the New World Symphony, in arrangements for two pianos, piano and marimba, marimba quartet, and piano and guitar.

“Hallelujah Games” has no formal score, but exists as a collection of “cells” ranging in length from one to twelve measures long. Each player constructs his or her own part by selecting from about 25 cell choices which can either be played canonically, or simultaneously. Each player chooses which patterns to play, which to omit, how many times to repeat patterns, register, dynamics, articulation and where to join with or counter the other player. Thus, given all the choicemaking, every performance of the piece, by each ensemble configuration necessitates a different score created by the players at hand. I have found it useful to include suggested versions of the piece’s realization in score and recorded format when sending the score out to prospective performers. The concept of the piece requires that no definitive realization exists, meaning, also, that there is no score. Instead, as a composer, I present performers with some specific potentials of combining materials together as well as the infinity of possible choices that may come about with each ensemble’s own realization.

The issue, therefore, is what constitutes a score? As each performance is created as a result of the specific performers’ musical aesthetic, formal sense, pacing and instrumentation, the score is different for each ensemble and for each performance of the work, and ultimately becomes a concrete way to allow players the opportunity to achieve spontaneity and freedom while “owning” the material in their own way. The problem this poses is what do I, as the composer, make available to interested performers, given that no definitive score exists? I have provided players with versions created by other musicians who have performed the work, recordings of these performances, and alternative choices for realization. Should I send out a “score” which consists of individual cells, each on a separate sheet, which the players then can decide to use or not, as they create their own version of the piece? Or, should I send out versions realized by other performers to guide the new performers? Should I provide sequenced versions in audio formats for performers to sample? Do I create my own definitive version of the piece and then urge new performers to take it apart and create their own? Would a score consisting of a random collection of cells, in the manner of playing cards, work, so that each ensemble could arrange the cards in its own unique way?

Self-publishing, thus far, has allowed me to make all the above possible, but it does not provide a definitive set of materials to create the definitive version of the piece.

How do you listen to music most of the time?

I am an incurable record collector. For me, the ability to hear something whenever I want it is more alluring than most live concert experiences. And there are so musicians I want to hear whom I would never be able to hear any other way than on a recording, due to both geographic and chronological obstacles.

That said, the experience of a great live concert is pretty spectacular. And, when I’m able to zone out coughers and snorers (at classical concerts), chit-chatters and pushy waitstaff (at jazz clubs), and overall roudiness (at rock events), I have a really great time. Music that is less familiar, e.g. non-Western traditional music, makes for the most enlightening of live concert experiences because you can actually see how the sounds are being made. Music you’ve only heard on recordings offers some hidden surprises when you discover it live for the first time.

Outdoor music experiences, such as music festivals, offer a less controlled environment which may be sonically inferior to the most acoustically-perfect venues or audiophile recordings, but can be even more rewarding in so many other ways. Few musical encounters of my life can top a performance of Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony I heard outdoors at the Ravinia Festival. A similar encounter with a performance of Ives’ Fourth Symphony outdoors, while ultimately not as musically fulfilling as my old Stokowski LP, still offered a necessary communion with nature, so implicit in that composition, which a turntable or laser beam could never provide…

Does The Place Make The Space? Clubs, Recordings and Audiences and Their Impact on Jazz

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

On special occasions I take people on tours of historic bars in New York City. The rule is that we won’t go into a place unless it was open before Prohibition and remained open during Prohibition and ever since. In one evening, we are usually able to stop at four or five places, leaving plenty of other locations unvisited. I’ve attempted similar excursions in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans.

Would that a similar tour could be made of historic concert venues for American music in any of these cities! Unfortunately, performances of American repertoire are not frequent occurances at our most historic halls for classical music such as New York’s Carnegie Hall, Boston’s Jordan Hall, Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, etc. While other American musical genres have important halls, e.g. country music has the Ryman and the Grand Ole Opry, the development of jazz, a musical genre born on our soil, is directly connected to the clubs it was played in, several of which are still standing and are still open for business. While cities like Kansas City and St. Louis have bulldozed their historic downtowns, destroying all the legendary jazz clubs that were once there, cities ranging from New York to Detroit to New Orleans maintain important sonic shrines. We asked Lara Pellegrinelli to provide us with a guided tour in her hyperhistory filled with RealAudio clips of music recorded live in some of America’s most important jazz clubs.

The whole notion of doing such a hyperhistory was initially inspired by a comment I heard Don Byron make from the stage of the old Knitting Factory several years ago. He claimed that he liked playing there because he felt free to play whatever he wanted. We brought Don Byron in to talk about venues, audience expectations, recordings and many other things that have had an impact on his music which is extensively featured in RealAudio clips sprinked throughout the interview. We asked Oliver Lake, Fred Hersch, Kitty Brazelton, Mary LaRose and Nick Didkovsky how where they play affects what they play. And we ask you to tell us your ideal space for listening to music.

Hear&Now offers information on concerts in all sorts of venues around the country. But if you’d rather stay home and listen to music, our first SoundTracks for the year 2000 features recordings exclusively issued in 1999. A great deal of the music you’ll hear on them sounds nothing like the past; listen to the RealAudio samples and you’ll hear what I mean.

Finally, we begin the new year with both sad and joyous news. We mourn the passing of K. Robert Schwarz, a music critic dedicated to promoting and explicating new American music. And we celebrate being among the winners of the 1999 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards.

America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs

Lara Pellegrinelli
Photo by Melissa Richard

One minute, you’re just sitting around in some dark, dank, tiny, crowded, smoke-filled basement room with a drink in your hand; the next, you’re intently focused, completely absorbed, magically transported into the light of improvisation. That, in a nutshell, is the power of jazz, a power which moves listeners and can alter the experience of time and space.

Of course, the equation which fires up the transporter beam and determines the eventual warp factor contains many variables: artist, audience, and there’s always that choice of beverage. Certainly, venue has its place among these. Often, the best spaces have mystical properties, vibes, personalities distinctly their own. They may reflect the physical space or neighborhood surroundings; the weight of historical events which have taken place there or the owner’s personality. The greatest clubs, like the musicians who perform in them, are iconoclastic. They take on lives of their own.

When we think about jazz clubs, the stereotypic image that springs to mind is that of the smokey little room cloaked in darkness. Surprisingly few clubs of this ilk still exist across the country. Even fewer manage to book anything other than local talent. Many reasons account for their current struggle to stay alive: people have a wider range of entertainment options competing for their attention than ever before; Americans drink and smoke less than they did in past decades and drink sales were the lifeblood of most club revenue; and jazz comprises an extremely small market share within the music industry generally speaking. For CD sales, it’s only about 3 percent.

In the last decade or so, dozens of clubs have shut their doors: New York’s Bradley’s, the Village Gate, and Fat Tuesday’s; Boston’s Connolly’s; Baltimore’s The Sphinx Club; various establishments in Memphis owned by Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell (d. 1989) including Mitchell’s Hotel; Detroit’s Blue Bird Inn; and Portland, Oregon’s Hobbit, to name a few. Some, like the Royal Peacock in Atlanta and the famed Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, California, only present jazz occasionally.

A few vintage venues still exist, beating the odds, even thriving on the integrity of their bookings and a certain American predilection for “authenticity.” Chicago’s Green Mill (1910), perhaps the oldest club in the U.S. to continuously present music, was once a hangout for the notorious gangster Al Capone. It’s retained a period flavor and now hosts Chicago’s top talent, some nationally-known artists. The Village Vanguard was and continues to be New York’s shrine to jazz heavyweights past and present, from Thelonious Monk to Wynton Marsalis. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, an establishment which has periodically shut down in recent years, falls in the category of piano and organ bars of which there are a dwindling number. Some other clubs which maintain the same vibes as decades past are the St. Nicholaus Pub and the Lenox Lounge in Harlem; Ortlieb’s Jazz Haus and the Clef Club in Philadelphia.

Among its numerous applications, social Darwinism works for jazz clubs as well. Rather than become extinct, venues have adapted to the changing times and their customers’ changing needs. Preservation Hall in New Orleans was perhaps the first in a new breed of jazz club. Devoid of smoke and drink, the venue’s primary mission has been to preserve New Orleans-style jazz, one it’s upheld since the early 1960s. Instead of hiring more expensive talent, Boston’s Wally’s has evolved as largely a student venue where yet undiscovered Berklee students test their mettle. Tonic, a relative newcomer to the New York scene, has expanded traditional club offerings to include its own festival, a klezmer brunch, a film series, a songwriter series, and an open forum for discussion on various topics. The Jazz Bakery, in the Los Angeles area, is perhaps the only non-profit jazz club and presents the music in something akin to a concert setting.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is New York’s Blue Note. In an almost Disney-fied atmosphere, they present jazz as part of a tourist industry and have created franchises in other cities. Much of their business comes from food sales, as it does at Seattle’s Jazz Alley. Restaurant clubs like The Jazz Standard and Birdland in New York, Yoshi’s in San Francisco, the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, and Blues Alley in Washington DC seem to be the new standard. Happy marriages also exist between jazz clubs and hotels, which eliminates the cost of rent – Boston’s Scullers, Cambridge’s Regattabar, and New Orleans’ Horizons being prime examples.

The times they are a-changin’ and with them the American jazz club. Yet, in the best case scenario, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even with the range in types of venues, what they present, and their continual evolution – on an individual basis as well as in general – having a unique vision, serving artists and communities will always form the basis for long-term success.

How does the venue and the audience affect the music you play? Kitty Brazelton

Kitty Brazelton
Photo by Judy Schiller

Performance is dialogue. So every performance must be different. I may start with the same message but I don’t say it the same – to different people or in different environments. And I expect the same skill in flexibility from my musicians. “Listen” to the room, its shape, its attitude, and the ears and minds you’re playing for. Assume nothing. Don’t hide within the intention of your composition – it’s just a starting place, no more.

Recording is making a self-contained conversation. It will become a conversation but you don’t know who will be on the other end and when, how or where they will be listening. So you better think about what you have to say and make it balanced in shape, complete in detail, and as passionate as possible, so it can live on without you. Recording is more like painting, less of a time art, than live performance.

How does the venue and the audience affect the music you play? Nick Didkovsky

Nick Didkovsky
Photo by Pamela Farland

The venues I perform in do not affect the set list I put together for my band, Doctor Nerve. I usually do that on the train on the way to the venue. If we make last minute changes, it’s usually due to a management request like, “We’d prefer two sets instead of one, so we can sell drinks.” As for the performance itself, it can be pushed a number of directions based on a lot of environmental factors, including the space itself. We played under the Brooklyn Bridge, in the anchorage spaces there, for example. Acoustically it was a disaster, but musically it was extremely inspiring. I think I react more to the vibe of a place than the acoustics.

Audience reaction is definitely an influence on how we play. A polite, quiet audience, for example, is not a neutral audience; it can be detrimental to the energy on stage. It’s best when the audience is working as hard as we are to make the event happen. Especially when we improvise, the audience can be very present in the performance.

Recording is a radically different experience than performing live. The realtime experience is necessarily different than an experience where you have non-time-based control over content. The music we make in 60 minutes on stage takes exactly 60 minutes. The same amount of music made in the studio can take hours, days, weeks…

The biggest problem I have with concert halls is looking off the stage at the audience, and my eyes have to cross a vast gulf before I can barely make out shadowy faces in the distance. That’s not a lot of fun. With the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, at one point I suggested we turn the house lights up for the second set. Audience loved it. Everyone had a much better time. We play for people, not shadows.