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Different Cities Different Voices – Baltimore

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Different Cities Different Voices is a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear music from local artists selected by each essayist. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

An Introduction by Ami Dang
(New Music USA’s Director of Development)

Ami Dang outside playing a sitar in front of several trees.

Ami Dang (photo by Missy Malouff)

When I think about music in Baltimore, the words that come to mind are energy, vitality, and transcendence. Baltimore is a place where truly original ideas flourish. No artist in Baltimore lives here because they’re making a lot of money or getting a lot of commissions or opportunities. These music creators live here because they’re inspired every day. This place is fertile ground for truly original artmaking.

Baltimore has a rich tradition of experimental techniques and cross-disciplinary, experiential arts that can’t be confined to one artistic medium, genre or style. Classical music joins forces with experimental film and puppetry. Dancers meander through multimedia installations featuring improvised sound art.

As Infinity Knives and Amy Reid both mention here, music concerts are typically curated in a way that brings together a plurality of voices. It’s more often that experimental hip hop, punk music, and avant rock would share a bill in one evening with a drag queen emcee-ing the show than a program featuring one type of music. Neither medium nor genre matter; innovation and experimentalism are paramount—rather than notoriety and prestige.

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t share the reality of the silos that do, in fact, exist in the music community. Baltimore is a majority Black city, and the arts circles that I move in are mostly white. We have so many talented Black and queer musicians and artists—pay close attention to Jamal Moore’s account of the Black avant garde arts scene in our city—but many of them continue to struggle with a lack of support and resources. Over the past few years, the arts community has become slightly more integrated, and more queer and Black (and other BIPOC) artists have received support from local funding opportunities and various resources. However, there is still a divide that persists. As Director of Development with New Music USA, I am particularly passionate about building a more equitable future for new music—a future where artists from all backgrounds are supported so that their work can reach audiences far and wide.

It is often the artists from privileged backgrounds whose work is recognized outside of Baltimore and who are supported on a national or international level. While creativity is abundant among diverse artists of many backgrounds, we lack the music industry infrastructure, i.e. record labels, publishers, management, booking agencies, arts attorneys, publicists, marketing services, and more, that support many artists (of all backgrounds) in larger metro areas. It is simply easier for music industry professionals to witness the work of, connect with, and ultimately, support artists in larger cities due to proximity.

But ultimately, this dearth of opportunities to commodify creative product is exactly the reason that the work created here is authentic. As Allison Clendaniel touches on in her narrative below, creative work in Baltimore It hasn’t been created isn’t produced to please anyone or fit into a certain style, medium, or genre dictated by funding interests. While we reward innovative and artistically brilliant work, we cannot ignore that the funding and systemic privilege that bolster it almost always comes first. In turn, these accolades yield further recognition—and displace others who were already at a disadvantage. The arts are not exempt from systemic oppression.

Here in the US, very little unrestricted support exists for individual artists, especially compared to Europe, where artists receive government funding, healthcare, and free or subsidized opportunities to further their education. Baltimore is one of the few cities left in the United States where space is truly affordable. The abundance of empty, dilapidated warehouse and residential space that results from industry that folded decades ago provides ample opportunities for creative play, performances, happenings, space to turn dreams into reality and collaborate in large numbers.

Sadly, while Baltimore continues to be a more affordable place to live relative to most cities in the US, DIY venues have folded left and right. In the aftermath of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California in 2016, Baltimore’s warehouses began to shut down due to safety concerns, and the pandemic has further squashed opportunities and resources to revitalize non-traditional spaces as sites for creative activity. Bonnie Lander, Stephen Santillan, and others further elaborate on the changing landscape of live/work arts spaces in Baltimore in this essay.

Still, I have hope. Artists in Baltimore (or the ones who stay in Baltimore, anyway!) are resilient and approach their work in unique ways. Crisis breeds innovation! All of the artists mentioned in this article are masters of their crafts but with the Baltimore spirit—their artistry is often experimental, innovative, inspiring and doesn’t sound like anyone else.

  • Over the past decade and a half with urban renewal and gentrification, Baltimore remains with a large African American populace that encompasses a wealth of African American music and arts in all formats from Black Avant Garde to mainstream.

    Jamal Moore
    Jamal Moore
  • There’s not much money to be made in Baltimore, so there’s not as much influence of money on Baltimore art. That means the arts here rely on human-powered resources like time, dedication, and sheer force of will, not dollars.

    Allison M. Clendaniel
    Allison M. Clendaniel
  • Though this is true for many cities, Baltimore has a way of calling people back to make their work here, with tree-lined neighborhoods that are racially and economically diverse.

    Liz Downing
    Liz Downing
  • I especially love that there’s a large (and organically grown) black and queer artist base.

    Infinity Knives
    Tariq Ravelomanana (a.k.a. Infinity Knives)
  • A whole generation of arts spaces are beginning to fall to the prospect of development, and our once un-gentrifiable city is changing. As access to housing and facilities becomes restricted to those who have, Baltimore’s arts community is feeling the squeeze.

    Bonnie Lander
    Bonnie Lander
  • It has been a supreme privilege to be a part of such a smart, elevated, eccentric community.

    John Berndt
    John Berndt
  • Baltimore's openness to new experiences, exciting performers, and the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaborations are still inspiring to me today as they were when I first arrived.

    Ljiljana Becker/Jovanović
    Ljiljana Becker/Jovanović
  • Baltimore isn’t a big city you move to in order to “make it”, so there is a feeling of trust behind what people are doing here.

    Stephen Santillan
    Stephen Santillan
  • I think something that really separates Baltimore from other cities is our rawness. That goes for both performers and people who attend events.

    Amy Reid
    Amy Reid

Baltimore's harbor with several ships docked and skyscrapers in the distance.


Jamal Moore

Jamal Moore in traditional African attire playing a hard drum as his saxophone sits on a stand nearby.

Jamal Moore (photo by Larry Jackson)

Baltimore is the native soil where I was born and raised, and I returned in 2013 after living in Boston and L.A. for over a duration of 11 years. Affectionally called “Charm City” and colloquially “Bmore”; Baltimore is a very eccentric city filled with phenomenal creative arts that are often shadowed in the negative light due to its misfortune of urban plight. It is through my music that I have created a path of success and chose to return to Bmore to give back to the community and teach the youth of what I have obtained. On a constant basis I instruct that music can be an option and tool used to negate the systemic path of the prison to pipeline infrastructure. To always challenge oneself and not be afraid to think outside the box and feel you must stay within mainstream aesthetics.

The new music scene In Baltimore is unique compared to other cities I have traveled and toured in across the U.S. No matter which background or subgroup of artistry one is involved with, there is always cross pollination of the scenes with every artist working in all formats. Over the past decade and a half with urban renewal and gentrification, Baltimore remains with a large African American populace that encompasses a wealth of African American music and arts in all formats from Black Avant Garde to mainstream. You can always attend on any given Sunday with ideal weather, the historical Park Vibe drum and music circle in Druid Hill Park which has ran for over 50 years as a central hub for Black Arts. It is here where you get a chance to experience the sounds of exploration with artists experimenting with handmade instruments repurposed from found materials to poets, MCs and vocalists improvising over traditional rhythms from the African continent and diaspora along with hybrid rhythms or song. Often, those who are transient to Baltimore via academia isolated in school hubs may discover or learn of this community. It is here where you get a chance to explore, experiment and learn improvisation in the Black Avant Garde tradition opposite the idiosyncrasies of academia.

Since the beginning of the pandemic a few artist communities have collapsed completely while some remain ongoing in smaller spaces. The Park Vibe music circle still operates with musicians adhering to CDC guidelines. Baltimore historically always had a sensibility of Kujichagulia (Self Determination) and Ujima (collective work and responsibility) not solely restricted to the African American community but similarly across other ethnicities in the city. The pandemic may have stopped major events such as “Artscape” or “Afram” which are two major festivals highlighting art across all disciplines, but it did not stop true artists from their daily grind. It pulled everyone together closer, creating and hosting their own events in smaller gatherings especially during the warmer months.

Despite the challenges of the Covid pandemic, I personally have maintained balance and harmony. At the beginning of the pandemic, I lost a tour, contracts in education, and quite a few gigs. With all this happening at once I remained at peace and never stopped creating. Many colleagues who solely relied on live performances begin to break down mentally. It is with the pandemic that I realized from introspective meditation, to reverse the energy and take this time to go within and create more than ever, utilizing this time at full capacity. There was the notion of the world coming to a halt, yet the planet never stopped rotating and mother nature kept on with her daily routine.

Coming from a background of learning to use limited resources, making do with what you have and expand in all directions, it was easy to embrace technology with online performances. In fact, I had already done this eleven years prior when it was less common and frowned upon by colleagues that regarded it as folly. Little did they know this would be one key component of surviving as an artist later down the road.

While humanity is almost at a two-year mark of the pandemic, the direction where we are truly heading is still uncertain. One can speculate it may or may not return to what was once before. Music is a universal language and healing force of humanity and I believe, as in the beginning of the epic of creation of human existence, we will always continue to create new music and beyond in this continuum.

Here is an album I recorded with Nik Francis as The Mojuba Duo:

And here’s a local artist I recommend:


Allison M. Clendaniel

Allison M Clendaniel outside wearing sunglasses

Allison M Clendaniel (photo by Sam Torres)

When I first came to Baltimore for my fancy Classical Music Degree, I was adamant about leaving it one day to find some better-funded, more legit place. Hah! The best-laid plans and all that… I’m happy to report that I’ve lived, worked, and thrived in Baltimore for 14 years and counting.

During my third year of conservatory, I realized the cut-throat academic culture was an inauthentic and uninspiring environment for me to exist within. With that awareness, I sought out the large community of art-making people living and making work in Baltimore. I was struck by the unjuried art happening within warehouse spaces around town, and when I finished my schooling, I dove in head-first. I began acting and creating theatrical sound design with a collective of DIY theatre makers, I joined a group of singers who specialized in renaissance music, started singing in a bunch of different bands, and became a session musician for rappers, rock musicians, jazzers, and the like! I feel so lucky to live in a place where anything that might pique my interest is within my reach and where I am met with open arms.The people in Baltimore are committed to serving and uplifting their communities, giving time and creative energy to create the future they want to see.

Baltimore is also a place to practice patience and compassion daily. Baltimore arts are to the left of capital — which is itself both bad and good. There’s not much money to be made in Baltimore, so there’s not as much influence of money on Baltimore art. That means the arts here rely on human-powered resources like time, dedication, and sheer force of will, not dollars. Ultimately, Baltimore creates a culture of experimentation, mutual respect, and a deeper understanding of work and the work of the folks who are deeply invested in the community. This is what drives my work as artistic director of Mind On Fire.

Mind on Fire is a notated music project I started with my co-directors Jason Charney and James Young in 2016. In the simplest terms, it’s a group of like-minded artists who want to facilitate high-quality music-making for our community. Our goal is to present all art with equal gravity and importance regardless of performance practice or history; to unify the appreciators of the Baltimore arts scene; and create a comfortable and welcoming environment for people to have new experiences. We strive for artistic excellence and be active and thoughtful members of our community, using our skills as presenters and performers to be a creative resource for the city at large.

We’ve been lucky to collaborate with many notable artists around town, not only musicians but also performance, visual, and theater artists: Wume, Infinity Knives, Ada Pinkston, Soul Cannon, and Elizabeth Downing, just to name a few. We performed amazing work from a variety of composers, including Missy Mazzoli, Jamal Moore, Alexander Schubert, Alex Temple, and so many more. We’ve been featured in the BSO New Music Festival, with Dan Deacon on stage and in film, and been lucky to work directly with The Pratt Library System, one of Baltimore’s greatest resources.

The past two pandemic-laden years have been everything all at once! I feel that I lost everything; and gained even more. It’s tough, y’know, presence is required for ephemeral art to exist. Accepting that art-making was being forced unceremoniously into a different experience entirely broke my brain for a bit. I cocooned for the better part of a year and a half, save the occasional Mind On Fire virtual event. Now, I’m beginning to emerge again. I feel like an optimized version of my former self. I have a greater understanding of how to love and be endlessly curious about my own thoughts, my own work, my own boundaries, and my own abundance!

Mind on Fire also had a helpful slow-down. Pre-pandemic, we were doing 15-20 shows a season, and frankly, I was exhausted by it and wanted to quit. We’ve been able to curate such incredible video work that likely wouldn’t have been captured in such a permanent way on one of our live shows during the shutdown. I feel emboldened by everyone’s spirit and desire for connectedness.

It’s hard to choose a single piece that best represents my work here in Baltimore. This collaboration between Mind On Fire and Infinity Knives is one of the most ambitious events we’ve put together. This piece was recorded during that marvelous period when covid numbers had subsided a bit, and holy moly! It was glorious to be in the room with everyone for a moment.


Tariq Ravelomanana: In the Mouth of Sadness

There are so many people here who inspire me. I’m wary of naming only one person because I feel like part of a large interconnected web of magical-human creators here. The person who has been most consistently present and inspiring during my time here is my collaborator, mentor, and friend, Liz Downing. Liz is the most magical, patient, and sparkling soul I’ve ever met. She’s particularly good at painting, singing, laughing, improvising, and listening. Anything Liz touches shimmers and is full of thoughtfulness. Her latest collaboration with Greg Hatem (another true Baltimore hero) is a beautiful celebration of her work. These songs are all at least 20 years in the making. You can check it out here:

Reach out to Mind On Fire if you’re ever in town. There is always something good happening!


Liz Downing

Liz Downing in front of one of her paintings.

Liz Downing

I came to Baltimore in 1983 from a small town in Alabama to study painting with Grace Hartigan at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The Institute Graduate Program offered teaching positions for new graduates, so I stayed. During this time I began to develop relationships with people from other art disciplines. Working with a filmmaker, set designer, operatically trained singer and choreographer, we created musical art performance plays in the trio Lambs Eat Ivy, touring with sets strapped atop a Subaru. Always, I was happy to return to Baltimore, where there were loft spaces with room to create and a fertile inspiring community.

The music scene in Baltimore is metamorphic, changed and influenced by the confluence of artists moving through. Graduates from the music, visual arts, and theater departments stay around taking advantage of this creative energy, expanding their vision through collaboration. Baltimore is, during non pandemic times, a destination for touring groups with a large variety of venues. These touring groups make relationships with local musicians and all the circles become wider. Though this is true for many cities, Baltimore has a way of calling people back to make their work here, with tree-lined neighborhoods that are racially and economically diverse.

Being a musician and painter, I was able to survive during the early days of the pandemic by delving into my painting practice. Having a porch and yard, I was able to make music with neighbors. Bringing her fiddle over, neighbor Susan Alcorn, usually a pedal steel guitarist, would improv with me as I bowed my banjo and sang, for hours, even into bitter temperatures. Vocalist Allison Clendaniel and I would create sound pieces on the porch and throughout the neighborhood. Early in 2021, I began a project with arranger and instrumentalist Greg Hatem in which the core work was done, each of us in isolation, creating tracks and sending the files back and forth. The resulting album is called, Curving Tooth.  Local Festivals offered online shows such as Shakemore Rock Festival, High Zero Experimental Music Festival, Mind On Fire, Black Cherry Theater Puppet Slams. These requests for entries gave me reason to film musical porch performances with comrades of “Molesuit Choir” and to develop new skills. To create work entirely in isolation, I set up a camera on a tripod in my studio and created puppets, which I made by cutting out painted characters. I had the puppets interact with each other, casting shadows on their painted backdrops, moving the puppets and singing to the soundtrack.

Though artists, musicians, writers are likely to thrive during a pandemic, the lack of a physical audience was difficult. The need to be in the physical presence and share reactions to work is a vital part of creation. This underscores the beauty of Baltimore’s live venues, Normal’s Books and Records, The Current Gallery, The Crown and so many more, which feed the community with friendships, inspiration and reason to continue.

A tree-lined street in Baltimore.


Infinity Knives (Tariq Ravelomanana)

Tariq Ravelomanana (a.k.a. Infinity Knives) outside sitting on the branch of a tree.

Infinity Knives (photo by Amanda Lee Letts)

I actually didn’t choose Baltimore. My mom and grandmother were more or less living here because it was a relatively affordable city. We were pretty poor. I moved in with them in 2005-06. I was living in Johannesburg beforehand. I’ve made the city a headquarters of some sort. I leave often and come back every few years.

I’ve always loved the mixed bills we’ve had. In a single night, you’d have a metal band opening followed by a folk band and eventually closing off with a neo-soul artist. I know this, because I was in the folk band! I especially love that there’s a large (and organically grown) black and queer artist base. The young and emerging artists are accepting of diversity and they don’t treat it as an oddity. This was not always the case a decade ago.

It took a really long time to establish myself here. Unreasonably long, considering the fact that my music hasn’t changed in the past ten years. There was a monopoly on the “scene” by mostly affluent white art people. Their music was awful. I was never made to feel welcome or appreciated. No one wants to admit it now, but people were openly racist too. I was eventually taken in by the emerging black queer dance scene where I was finally heard out.

As far as the pandemic; it hasn’t been too different for me from other working artists around the states. Fickle tour dates and delays on vinyl releases…the works. Personally, the stimulus checks and a five hundred dollar grant upgraded my equipment just enough to dip my toes into soundtrack and sound design, which is what I mainly do for money. That’s another “scene” that is oversaturated with the no-sauce and no-seasoning crowd. I’m a more than able composer, but it seems as though, like everything in the arts, is solely reserved for the connected and wealthy. Not sure if “overcomed” is the word I’d like to use, but rather improvising, or even better; ghetto rigging. A concept I’m very familiar with.

Songs:

The Black Power Paradox by Infinity Knives and Brian Ennals

The Ride by Jupiter Rex


Bonnie Lander

Bonnie Lander singing

Bonnie Lander

The boomerang effect has been explained to me many times. Someone leaves Baltimore for greener pastures, only to return years later with a renewed appreciation for the arts community and the opportunities it provides. I understand it because it happened to me. I returned to Baltimore in 2017 after a 9-year hiatus to explore all the facets of my artistic endeavors: classical soprano, new music performer, experimental musician and improviser, composer, concert curator and educator. Due to a mix of affordable living and a thriving, close knit, DIY artist community, Baltimore is the perfect place for a self-motivated artist who wants to create, collaborate, and belong.

In the four years since I have returned to Baltimore I have been inspired by my friends and colleagues who care deeply about their art and work as hard as they play. The local culture is brewed in experimental art and music, which means that local shows can be as wild as they are bad, and sometimes, completely mind blowing. When our city is thriving (read, not in a pandemic), there are shows every night of the week in galleries, bars, houses and warehouses across the city, often multiple per night.

Since returning to Baltimore, I have been able to upkeep an active freelance career in new opera and composition on the East Coast, even in a global pandemic. I have performed and collaborated with countless local artists. I volunteer with experimental music collective High Zero Foundation, host social justice events and concerts at the 2640 Space, and work as Assistant to the Community Chorus of Peabody. I’ve performed with local new music presenter Mind on Fire and perform as a regular chorister/soloist at Emmanuel Episcopalian in downtown.

Living on the east coast corridor, I have also been able to travel to New York where I’ve performed and recorded eL/Aficionado by Robert Ashley, founded absurdist vocal trio Love Love Love with Paul Pinto and Kayleigh Butcher, and premiered new chamber operas with Rhymes With Opera. Additionally, in Baltimore I’ve performed with Dan Deacon at the BSO, and was featured on The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form by Matmos, as well as the Horse Lords record The Common Task.

I am grateful to live in a city where I can afford stable housing, work with dedicated artists, and have access to physical space for projects, collaborations, and concerts. But in the past few years I have seen my city suffer some unfortunate changes that many artistic communities are struggling with right now: our art spaces are closing. Most recently the live/work warehouse space that I called home since my relocation is up for sale. The H&H building in downtown has provided live/work space for artists for the past 20+ years. Huge shows, concerts, dance parties, theater, visual art, performance art, and more have happened at this space. Eclectic groups of musicians, actors, theater troupes, painters, sculptors, videographers, photographers, illustrators, composers, dancers, and puppeteers have all called the H&H home. It’s looming closure is deeply grieved by our community.

The H&H is not alone in its closing, a whole generation of arts spaces are beginning to fall to the prospect of development, and our once un-gentrifiable city is changing. As access to housing and facilities becomes restricted to those who have, Baltimore’s arts community is feeling the squeeze. It’s up to our local governments to ensure these spaces do not disappear and up to us to loudly vocalize our support for the local, underground arts scenes that bind our cities together.

Here’s a clip I made for the Red Room in Your Room improvised music series during lockdown: 

Here’s one of my favorite Baltimore bands, Wume: 

And a bonus artist, Abdu Ali: https://soundcloud.com/abduali.


John Berndt

John Berndt

John Berndt

My avocation as an experimental musician in Baltimore began when I was about 11 years old and was part of a larger sensibility which I could not have described at the time; a deep, eccentric interest in phenomenology of experience, a perverse (or at least highly skeptical) approach to structure, and a willingness to embrace contradictions and paradoxes as source material. How I got there is a long story beyond this short essay. The emotional center of the activity was a desire to exit the prosaic world—a dangerous motivation, and one not tied to a particular methodology or ideology.

Baltimore was and continues to be an exciting place to develop those interests. In the ’80s, as a teenager I fell into a rich avant-garde scene which was equal parts influenced by happenings/Fluxus, language writing, experimental music, and utopian political currents. As an experimental composer/performer I became one of its youngest members. Frequent collaborations with unusual figures like ultra-nonconformist tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE, instrument inventor Neil Feather, and L.A.F.M.S. transplant Peter “Pan” Zahorecz in the Baltimore of the ’80s and ’90s led to a scene that drew international figures to the city for collaboration. This was the richest and most sophisticated universe of inspired weirdos I could have asked for—though not an entirely cushy, or comfortable scene. The story of that amazing time remains to be written.

In the ’90s I became the saxophone student / protegee of Jack Wright, a crucial force in North American free improvisation, and toured extensively with him, providing a new focus in instantaneous music making and virtuosic technical considerations, which layered on to the rest of what Baltimore had given me. In turn, the networks derived from that touring formed the basis for a larger free improvisation engagement, leading to hundreds of collaborations through the ’90s and ’00s, and the formation of my record label, www.recorded.com (now on its 25th release). It was also this time that I became a philosophy student and music producer for Henry Flynt, the unusual American philosopher, founder of Concept Art, and inventor of Electronic Hillbilly Music. Both those relationships had a huge impact on the development of my sensibility.

It was during this time that I convinced my business partners in Normal’s Books and Records to let me use the storage room as a space for experimental gigs on a regular basis, which I ran by myself for the first year and was the launch of www.redroom.org, a storied experimental music space that since 1996 has presented over a thousand concerts of experimental music, along with language, philosophy, performance and film. The collective that I formed to run that space went on to realize the www.highzero.org festival, an international festival since 1999 that is both one of the most inspired institutions of free improvisation but also a crossing-ground of all the varied subcultures of experimental music. The clashing range of sensibilities, in combination with exaltation and sophistication are all hallmarks of the Baltimore scene; one with a shocking large and consistent audience for experimental culture.

Though still connected with all those activities, in the last decade, I moved on in my own work to develop the concept of “Relabi”—a cultural form based around “always slipping the pulse,” attempting something in relation to tempo that the Escher Woodcuts are in relation to depth and space. Again, paradoxes as experience-generators. The idea of confusing the issue of “is there a tempo or not” has become an obsession for me and a new form of dissonance. Expect an LP, Baltimore Relabi Style, in the coming years, full of special guest and odd gambits.

Baltimore, “the ambiguity city,” turns out to be one of the best places to care about this sort of ineffable stuff, and it has been a supreme privilege to be a part of such a smart, elevated, eccentric community. It has been exactly what I, as an individual, needed and also a major love of my life.

Recent Electronic Music:

A Relabi Example:

Recommended artist:


Ljiljana Becker/Jovanović

Ljiljana Becker/Jovanović wearing sunglasses standing outside a store front display featuring gold-laminated masks.

Ljiljana Becker/Jovanović

I came to Baltimore area by a chance, via Germany, Israel, and Canada. After I completed my studies in Neues Musiktheater with Mauricio Kagel in Cologne, I was practically stuck in Germany without being able to return home since the war in former Yugoslavia was still going on. The new music scene in Cologne was fantastically exciting, with pieces programmed at all concerts no matter how small or big the venue or who the performers or the audiences were, but the negative public opinion regarding the war in my home country was so intense that it was just impossible for me to continue living there. I got an opportunity to go to Israel, and very soon found out that although there was a great appreciation for traditional classical music, there were not many opportunities in contemporary music performance for someone who just recently landed there. I then applied for a six-month residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Canada, and it was in their library where I came across the Towson University’s graduate program in interdisciplinary theatre which accepted the students from various artistic backgrounds and gave them practical training in self-produced theatrical performances. And so I went to Towson in 1999, where I also took composition classes (mainly in electronic sound) from Dr. William Kleinsasser.

While still at TU, I was invited to join the Baltimore Composers Forum. The primary focus of the organization was to program the new music concerts featuring local composers who wrote in a variety of styles with strong classical or jazz backgrounds. There was no real connection among the members other than showing up for the concerts when their music was performed. In 2008, my colleague Keith Kramer and I took over the leadership and slightly restructured how the organization was to be run, which has remained up until the present: from the all-membership meetings where concert ideas are freely exchanged, to scheduling events in spaces other than traditional concert venues, to reaching out to other local artists and collaborating with them – the most successful dance event Sound in Motion was held last year for the 6th time. Our main focus is to reach diverse audiences and present a variety of local ensembles through our compositions, but the most significant change for us was that we gave the performers the freedom to choose which works will be performed at any event, rather than it being decided by the Board.

When the pandemic started, Baltimore Composers Forum was a little bit stuck in a limbo; as current president, I kept postponing our vocal concert for 3, then 6 months, then cancelling it altogether and switching it into a virtual event. We all had a steep learning curve in how things in this new-normal performance reality are supposed to function: from utilizing our website as a virtual stage; to dealing with the logistics of putting together a virtual vs in-person concert; to finding the musicians and videographers who felt safe enough to rehearse and film the music; to finding venues that would be open to the idea of someone filming in their otherwise shut-down spaces; to figuring out how royalties work for virtual performances, etc. Some of the online concerts, like Sound in Motion VI, were very successful, and because with each online event we were able to reach much wider audiences, even internationally, it was decided that when we get back to live concerts we should still keep one portion of our concerts virtual. As for me personally, I was juggling homeschooling my two young daughters, taking care of everyday chores, running Baltimore Composers Forum, and finding a time to compose. As many of our current members, I have moved away from Baltimore, and now am a part of our greater Maryland base that is continuing to be active in the Charm City’s new music scene. Baltimore’s openness to new experiences, exciting performers, and the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaborations are still inspiring to me today as they were when I first arrived.

I have started at the beginning of a lockdown a series of very short virtual compositions (1-2 minutes) inspired by and featuring very mundane every-day objects as a sound inspiration such as an electric toothbrush, children’s talking books, and a musical jewelry box.

The first one, titled B(rushed) Moment can be watched here:

White Noise for prerecorded text in 8 languages, musique concrète and sound effects (text by Juanita Rockwell in collaboration with Anna Maria Delinasiou) can be heard here:

I recommend my fellow Baltimore Composers Forum Keith Kramer’s Amalgam:


Stephen Santillan

Stephen Santillan

Stephen Santillan

I grew up in Baltimore after my family moved here from the Philippines in 1982. I fell in love with art and music in my teens and have since met like-minded people here who have become longtime friends and collaborators. They are a big reason why I continue to call Baltimore home. For the past 25 years, I have been writing and performing music in both collaborative and solo settings, some of which have allowed me to tour throughout the United States and Europe. Outside of purely musical works, I have written music for theater and dance productions, art installations, and have also been a member of DIY theater ensembles as well. With the help of grants, a longtime collaborator and I were able to hire Peabody Conservatory students to play some of our compositions and I’ve also had ensemble performances made up of just friends.

One of the most important things about Baltimore for me is that the music scene feels like an actual community. Baltimore isn’t a big city you move to in order to “make it”, so there is a feeling of trust behind what people are doing here. There are a lot of people here making art and music with a pure kind of motivation. That same genuine impulse is apparent in the effort to put on events and performances, too. When Baltimore artists do become well known, they remain very much in the fiber of the community, instead of being treated differently. I think one of the reasons the community is so healthy is because of its strong vibrant DIY spirit. There are a lot of highly motivated people and many dedicated independent warehouse spaces. The importance of these cannot be overstated. I’ve been lucky to witness a wide variety of performances at these events, from English improv group AMM, to the late Baltimore Club DJ, K-Swift, to DIY ensemble performances of music by Louis Andriessen and Terry Riley, to the Sun Ra Arkestra performing at an independently funded festival, just to name a few. Outside of the DIY scene, establishments like the Peabody Conservatory, MICA, the Maryland Film Festival, as well as other smaller galleries and venues also host their own program of events, adding to the mix, and helping to create a flourishing community. The diversity and supportive nature of this community has kept me inspired and motivated to keep creating and experimenting.

The live music scene shutting down, has personally been one of the more challenging parts of the pandemic. When watching live performances was part of my routine, it added inspiration and a balance. As far as my creative practices, some personal projects were put on hold, but also some new avenues of exploration opened up. My work has always had a live element in mind, but during the lockdown I shifted my focus to experimenting with the film music medium, which also helped me build up a portfolio. I did work on some collaborative projects but found it hard to be productive when working through emails and file sharing. Fortunately my wife, Wheatie Mattiasich, is one of my collaborators, and we were able to record an album in our home studio. This work will be released on vinyl in 2023. As of late, I’ve shifted my focus back to writing live music, with the optimistic hope that shows and concerts will become increasingly safer and more abundant. I’m very much looking forward to being an audience member again, and to also be part of this city’s very communal musical dialogue.

And this is the selection I am making of another artist:

Amy Reid

Amy Reid performing on a Moog synthesizer on a table with a Mac laptop and a bunch of plants.

Amy Reid (photo by Kata Frederick)

I have lived in Baltimore my whole life, it’s what I call home. My practice is rooted in building community and connecting with people through music. Because of that, and being close with my family (chosen and biological), I am deep-seated here. I moved from Baltimore County to Baltimore City when I went to college at MICA and fell in love with the warehouse/nightclub music scene in 2006 and never left. It was my first time going to legendary spaces like the Paradox, experiencing Baltimore club music in person and that was really life changing. There were also underground spaces hosting bills with Beach House, Rye Rye, Future Islands, Naeem, Dan Deacon, DDM, TT the Artist and other legends in the making. During this time I became really close friends with another Baltimore musician, Abdu Ali who started throwing these amazing parties called Kahlon which hosted Princess Nokia, Juliana Huxtable, and Jungle Pussy, to name a few. These experiences fueled my passion for collaborative music making and curatorial work.

I think something that really separates Baltimore from other cities is our rawness. That goes for both performers and people who attend events. We’re not afraid to go all out, get weird, be flamboyant, and move our bodies. In my band Chiffon, we make dance music and it always took me out of my element to go to a city where it was difficult to get people moving or to be vocally receptive. Another thing I love about this city is how we have such a range of genres here, some really niche ones, and how they are all frequently represented on one bill. It’s not out of the ordinary to attend a show with a noise/electronic musician, dj playing dance music, rapper, indie band, or a combination of all of these. I think it’s also important to note that our city forces us artists to be resilient and resourceful. We don’t have a large variety of venues and we definitely have a lack of queer centered spaces. Despite all of that, I have seen the LGBTQ music scene explode which has been really exciting for me as a queer identifying musician. TT the Artist’s film Dark City Beneath the Beat does a really great job capturing the high energy, soul, and spirit of Baltimore.

The pandemic has obviously been difficult for everyone. For me, making music is how I connect with people so it has been challenging both mentally and financially. It has been two years of trial, error, and sometimes succeeding in finding ways to share space with people through music as safely as possible. In addition to being a musician, I am also an events curator. Baltimore based musician, Pangelica, and myself makeup GRL PWR–a platform dedicated to cultivating community and elevating the visibility of women, trans, queer, and non-binary artists. Every year around Halloween, we organize a grandiose drag show, SWEAT and the pandemic challenged us to find a creative way to still make this happen. We wound up renting out a space, gathering a film crew, and putting on an outdoor show with djs, local drag performers but no live audience. Airing the first virtual rendition of SWEAT was successful in gathering our community together in a celebratory digital space. Musically speaking, the virtual world opened up new possibilities for collaboration. As part of a residency at the Merriweather District in September 2020, I assembled a sample pack for a project titled Future Canopies. The pack included field recordings, improvisations and through a digital open call, I invited artists to re-interpret the samples by creating new compositions. I wound up receiving tracks from Brazil, California, New York, and beyond. This time has me reflecting on how to cross borders/boundaries and be a cheerleader for the global recognition that Baltimore City deserves.

Here’s some of my music

Plus music by another local artist

The Baltimore skyline at night.

Genres Won’t Go Away But They Won’t Be The Same

Vanessa Ague Out of the Box

[Ed. note: Last month, we launched a new series of articles under the banner “Out of the Box.” For this series, which follows New Music USA’s tenth anniversary this past November and marks the start of our second decade, we are asking a group of deep musical thinkers to ponder what the landscape for new music will be ten years from now. We aim for this series to spark important discussions in our community as well as to raise important journalistic voices from all around the country. The first installment of this series is a provocative essay by University of Florida-based musicologist and bassoonist Dr. Imani Mosley. Our second contributor is Brooklyn-based violinist and arts journalist Vanessa Ague.-FJO]

When I think about music 10 years into the future, the one thing that jumps out in my mind most is the perennial question of genre: How we define it and how it’ll change. Will there be any genres in 10 years? What will post-genre and cross-genre and everything in-between look like? Which new genres will emerge and take over the musical landscape? To me, genre and its evolution is one of the most fascinating aspects of music and music history. They’re imperfect descriptors, yet we cling to them. They’re constantly morphing, yet they stick to certain boundaries that contain them. People want to identify with a genre, or against a genre, and that becomes a defining part of their character. Genre encompasses more than the words that describe them. But will we someday land on words that finally feel right?

I’ve been considering this question even more lately, as I recently completed a Master’s capstone that touched on them. (Parts of this essay draw from that research and writing.) My writing is often dictated by genre, as are record store shelves and digital sales, for better and for worse. I personally find myself more and more drawn to the “post-genre” and “genre-blending” music—or, music that defies categorization yet is categorized in imperfect ways. As I think about the next ten years of music making, I hope we’ll grapple with how we define, use, and think about these signifiers. Some of the most compelling music made today, in my opinion, is born out of a conglomeration of genres and styles, and in the next 10 years, my idealistic dream would be for us to shift to talking about music in a way that foregrounds appreciation of the sound and the people who make it instead of boxes that don’t always fit.

Our struggle to find the perfect genre tags aren’t anything new, and neither is crossing over from one genre to another, or mixing them together into one. The trend of genre mixing perhaps most famously came to the fore in New York in the mid-20th century, and The Velvet Underground is one of the best known genre and medium-bending groups from those days. Their early albums, like 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, united La Monte Young and Tony Conrad’s drone composition with singer-songwriter structures; the sound became a mix of long-held tones with chugging four-four rhythms and hazy speak-sung vocals. The band’s legacy has been long-lasting: They’ve inspired many other alternative rock bands to extend boundaries, from ambient pioneer Brian Eno to shoegaze band Galaxie 500 to indie rock darlings The Strokes.

More recently, we’ve had the community of the internet to power our genre discovery. In the 2000s and 2010s, the internet would make more genres than ever before, from all over the world, available to anyone who wanted to listen. On the internet, all kinds of music became available to everyone and anyone and sounds from across the globe became easy to access. On sites like Limewire, and later what.cd, redacted, and soulseek, the music-obsessed could download as many MP3s as they wanted, taking in every single sound and throwing it back in the art they’d make later on. Today’s streaming services like Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music tried to follow suit, providing a constant stream of new music for listeners and makers (though none of these platforms support artists financially, which is another, separate issue I hope we address in the next 10 years). With such easy discovery, it’s no wonder mixing and matching in music has continued to proliferate and the barriers between genres have come down. Access has allowed us possibility.

Much of our music discovery today is centered around genre. Streaming sites make playlists geared towards specific genres and their algorithms recommend similar artists. In 10 years, I don’t see this type of recommendation changing—but I do think those algorithms will need to continue to expand and get more detailed. There are general playlists for umbrella genres like pop and experimental, but will more playlists show up that cover subgenres? Will algorithms begin to detect the smallest shifts in sound, linking together artists from completely different parts of the musical landscape? This certainly happens occasionally—Spotify in particular touts itself as a bastion for this kind of discovery—but I wonder if it’ll start to happen more as our genre barriers continue to dissolve. And, with radio and podcasting on the rise, I wonder if in 10 years we’ll see those formats become major agents for discovery again, too.

  • "My idealistic dream would be for us to shift to talking about music in a way that foregrounds appreciation of the sound and the people who make it instead of boxes that don’t always fit."

    Vanessa Ague (Photo by Kat Lin)
    Vanessa Ague
  • The trend of genre mixing perhaps most famously came to the fore in New York in the mid-20th century.

    Vanessa Ague (Photo by Kat Lin)
    Vanessa Ague
  • More past trends and styles will be resurrected and repurposed in the next 10 years. Perhaps there will be music that mixes baroque composition with field recordings, or medieval chant with ambient—perhaps there already is.

    Vanessa Ague (Photo by Kat Lin)
    Vanessa Ague
  • Genre is a way of describing what we hear so that it can be contextualized and understood. Genre isn’t going to go away for this reason—it helps us categorize and understand the world of music. But can it become more malleable?

    Vanessa Ague (Photo by Kat Lin)
    Vanessa Ague
  • I don’t know if we’ll ever have the perfect solution to categorizing music, but as the next 10 years continue, we’re going to hear new kinds of music that question our assumptions of what genre is and what it means, just like the past 10 years and the 10 before that.

    Vanessa Ague (Photo by Kat Lin)
    Vanessa Ague

Musically, I don’t see the impulse to mix genres and form new ones changing anytime soon. A lot of today’s genre blending seems to mix old trends that have come around in popularity again with new ones (like mixing minimalism with modern electronic dance music). More past trends and styles will be resurrected and repurposed in the next 10 years. Perhaps there will be music that mixes baroque composition with field recordings, or medieval chant with ambient—perhaps there already is. There will probably be more shoegaze-y drone and electronic dance and hyperpop variants, which are genres that seem to dominate the recent conversation around experimental music. Whatever sounds do appear, though, will likely be those that glean influence from past sounds to make something current, building on past innovation to drive it into new directions.

Will the music industry respond to future genre shifts? Today, buying, selling, awarding, and discovering music is tied to arbitrary genre tags. Many of them feel like dusty conventions we haven’t brushed off yet. In the utopian future I imagine, these tags will be determined by the album we hear, an attempt to discuss and share music from a place of how it actually sounds. After all, genre is a way of describing what we hear so that it can be contextualized and understood. Genre isn’t going to go away for this reason—it helps us categorize and understand the world of music. But can it become more malleable? With the continued breaking and reassembling of genres, the industry as a whole needs to become more open-minded about changing how we talk about, understand, and think about musical categorization. I wonder if in the future, we’ll have entirely new, as-of-yet to be discovered genre tags that actually encompass the meaning of the music outside of a convention established years ago, supported by record labels and venues and marketers who start to adopt new tools and language to talk about the music they present. Maybe those new genres will be a better representation of the artists and the art.

I don’t know if we’ll ever have the perfect solution to categorizing music, the box to box genre boxes back into. But I do know this: As the next 10 years continue, we’re going to hear new kinds of music that question our assumptions of what genre is and what it means, just like the past 10 years and the 10 before that. I hope we look for solutions that stay true to the sounds and to the artists who make them.

Then, Now, Tomorrow: Collaboration in Writing Music for Student Players

(Text by Belinda Reynolds with video content by Ashley Killam)

I first wrote about the lack of works by living composers for younger players 15 years ago. Fast forward to today. Sadly, essentially nothing has changed. Contemporary music is still desperately needed in the teaching repertoire for most orchestral instruments.

Back then, I addressed the problem by creating a set of progressive level instrumental books, called CUSTOM MADE MUSIC SERIES (CMM). The 6th book has just been published by PRB Productions: CUSTOM MADE MUSIC VOLUME 6 – 10 Progressive Solos and Duos for Trumpet. Using this new CMM addition as a guidepost, I wish to share with you some tips on how to successfully compose for student players and make a lasting difference in new music for all of us in today’s challenging times.

Step One:
In approaching composing at the student level, find a collaborator who is both a player and a teacher of your chosen instrument(s). They will bring the expertise and knowledge needed to help you create a project that can make lasting change in the pedagogical repertoire. They can come from any avenue in your life – a former teacher, a colleague, a friend, a connection, anywhere! For my new project I collaborated with trumpet player/music educator/new music advocate Ashley Killam (she/her). She actually found me when she was researching composers to be listed in her open source music catalog of brass music by underrepresented composers. We wound up having a conversation about students and the trumpet repertoire and I asked her if she would be interested in being the Editor of a new CUSTOM MADE MUSIC book for trumpet. She was and thus began our project.

Watch the video below to hear Ashley’s point of view on the CUSTOM MADE MUSIC collaboration.

Step Two:
Together identify the technical gaps in the pedagogical repertoire of the instrument(s) you both wish to approach with your project. In this case, Ashley immediately knew what was needed, thanks to her extensive experience in working with music students and teachers across the country and in her studio. After a Zoom session and a few emails we decided to create a book mostly containing solos and some additional duos for three levels of trumpet players: beginners, late beginners, and early intermediate learners.

With each work I introduced the basic techniques that Ashley said were essential concepts for young trumpeters to master. I also kept all of the compositions limited to a one octave range because it was the maximum reach for most beginner players. All of these issues were addressed in composing a tasty melody for them to play. For me such challenges are creativity drivers; I believe in the motto “Limits Create Possibilities”.

Watch the video below to hear Ashley describe in more detail the ins and outs we addressed in the creation of these new compositions along with her playing one of the solos for beginner, “Carefree.”

Step Three:
Do workshops during the entirety of the creation of your composition(s). From day one I included Ashley almost as an equal partner, for I believe that bringing musicians into the creation of a new piece just makes for a higher quality composition. This is almost essential when composing for students. I learned this during my 25 years as a member of Common Sense Composers Collective, as well as with my own independent career. Ashley found this approach to be extremely rewarding, nourishing and a wonderful creative outlet for her. Together, along with her students, we ironed out the kinks and even found some new possibilities for some of the pieces. The results, we feel, are a stellar group of small pieces that young trumpet players can easily learn and gain technical skills while doing so. Take a look/listen below to one of the pieces that came to its true ‘life’, thanks to workshopping it:

Step Four:
Beta test all of your project before you bring it to its premiere and to market, so to speak. After workshopping your music, before it hits the limelight have the intended students or a similar group of learners “test” out your pieces. These young players are the final arbitrator of whether your music will or won’t work for them, regardless of what you and your collaborator have done thus far. What may seem idiomatic to a professional can sometimes seem weird and awkward to a newcomer. Ashley did this with many of her students, who gave her insights as to what articulations to finally use in some of the works.

Step Five:
Be enterprising and do tons of outreach and marketing to insure your project lives beyond the first performance/publication release. All too often a new music gem is lost into the past after its premiere because nobody pushed hard and long enough to give it a foothold in the repertoire. Compared to 15 years ago, marketing is easier than ever thanks to social media and other internet resources. Both you and your partner must utilize these tools. Urge your friends to help and reach out to all of your professional contacts that may have interest or contributions to make to your release. Outreach in the music education community is also essential, even more than ads. Get your music into the hands of teachers via networking with educational organizations, instrumental guilds, and music conventions, among other areas. Bring it to classrooms and teaching studios with creative workshops showcasing your project from the start to the finish. Folks love to know how something works before they purchase it! Once your project is ready for the public both you and your collaborator must invest in the time and effort to do these actions; creating room in the repertoire of an instrument is a long term investment. You must get fans of your project on board, those who teach the instrument(s) and those who play it/them.

I hope this presentation will inspire you to try writing at the student level. Don’t worry if you think your style is not ‘kid-friendly’. I have found that EVERY style can be student friendly if it is tested and presented in a way as to welcome the learner into its universe and not alienate them. Young players are mostly more open to the sounds of new music than their older counterparts. Your efforts will plant the seeds for long term sustainable growth of new music in both today’s and tomorrow’s professional players and audiences. In addition, it will help both your creative skills and your career trajectory as an artist. I have received numerous performances and commissions thanks to the reputation of my work in composing music for younger players. I welcome you to try this venture!

The cover for the latest volume in Belinda Reynolds's Custom Made Music Series: 10 Progressive Solos and Duos for Trumpet, edited by Ashley Killam

Belinda Reynolds, Composer
Raised in a Texan-Florida Air Force family, Belinda Reynolds (she/her) now considers herself an “adopted native” of California. Her music is performed worldwide and has been featured in such festivals as Lincoln Center’s Great Performers Series, the Spoleto Music Festival, and many more. As a Music Educator Ms. Reynolds is in demand nationwide helping children learn to create music. For more information, go to www.belindareynolds.com.

Ashley Killam, Editor
Ashley Killam (she/her) is an international speaker, researcher, and educator based in Radford, Virginia. Killam is President of Diversity the Stand and General Manager of Rising Tide Music Press. Killam’s work centers around educating musicians on the importance of making ethical and sustainable changes in performing and teaching music. For more information, go to www.ashleykillam.com.

Unbound by “Programming”: A Counter-Hegemonic Reimagining of Contemporary Performance

I had meant, at least at first, to produce here an essay criticizing programs of “Music by [Insert Marginalized Community Here] Composers.” While I’m sure there are some who in their own heart of hearts find such marked categorization validating, I personally find it uncomfortable to have my utterances branded publicly as “female music” or “queer music,” the implication being that an unbranded program constitutes “real music”: music that needs no qualifier. However, this point has been articulated before better than I ever will, and perhaps more importantly, simply shaming the one practice that seems intended to help those of us whose work does not enjoy the privilege of de facto universality in our culture seemed unlikely to provoke any meaningful alternative. Moreover, in envisioning a culture of egalitarian programming–even in watching one come to fruition–I came to realize that a solution I would really like would have to be more profoundly transformative. A hegemony of Deserving Artists with a tiny handful at the top, but who equally likely happen to be women, if anything, feels like more of an exclusion than a culture of programming all men: at least, if women were never programmed, we could blame sexism entirely for our frustration, rather than be faced with the implication that we are inadequate standard-bearers for our gender.

To put it more generally, the assumption that opportunities come to those who deserve them is inherent in any structure in which there are fewer artists who can work than who want to, or moreover in which there is an unequal distribution of opportunities within those who are actively working artists. We are simply in competition with each other whether presenting organizations intend this or not; scarce funding exacerbates this, but throwing money at the problem does not annihilate this fact, and I feel a degree of it would persist even if all artists were guaranteed a stable income. Rather, some disruption of the basic creative transaction is necessary: an option which does not require a composer to start her own ensemble and thereby insert herself into the decider-position.

“The assumption that opportunities come to those who deserve them is inherent in any structure in which there are fewer artists who can work than who want to.”

Can we foment a culture in which composers’ utterances are deemed valuable solely on the basis of having been uttered, regardless of hegemonic notions of musical quality? Certainly explicit competitions are out. (As a side note, when a competition specifically asks for submissions from “underrepresented groups,” this language rings severely hollow. Forcing us to compete for the privilege of being tokenized–in the event that any such applicants are selected at all–is in fact doubly insulting, and it might be worth someone’s time to conduct a thorough survey of how results actually change when such language is imposed.) I have often daydreamed about the possibility of a course evaluating applications by random lottery. But how, then, can music reach the audience-facing stage without this notion of deserving-quality backing it up?

The best course I have foreseen is a change in dismantling our listening hierarchies: really dismantling them, rather than moving the locus of deservingness from the art’s own nature to the artist’s character. What, for example, would it look like if every work that existed were recorded equally well and given an equal chance at reaching audience’s ears? What opportunities could be created, then, for every composer and every performer and every listener to form their own aesthetic values? I don’t mean to pitch a particular type of project as much as to posit a thought experiment and offer a gentle nudge in a new direction. What I envision, were the technical and economic barriers to such a situation eliminated, is a type of free association, in which creative communities would form without deference to a Discerning Other, and in which the bounds that force us to appease pseudoaristocratic notions of taste would cease to alienate us from our own inner creative wellsprings.

“What would it look like if every work that existed were recorded equally well and given an equal chance at reaching audience’s ears?”

As for what I think you, dear reader, “should” do right now (who am I to say “should?”): remember as you evaluate that you are never without biases, and perhaps this is most especially prevalent when you attempt to abolish your biases. While it would be wonderful if we could fully sacrifice our creative urges to some sense of collective good, maintaining the illusion of such a sacrifice (and you do sacrifice your creative urge if you choose to defer to me, even willingly, even if you were to consider me particularly deserving) constitutes a dishonesty harmful both to yourself and to those you have chosen to “support.” Ultimately, at the root of all this, I say: imagine listening differently, as if you have never taken a recommendation from someone, as if you have never suffered through a “Music Appreciation” course, as if you have never read a review in any publication: as if, instead, you are simply searching for the particular combination of factors that stirs you most deeply, in this life and in this moment.

Out of the Box: Plus C’est La Même Chose

Imani Mosley Out of the Box

[Ed. note: Last November, New Music USA marked its 10th anniversary. While we are continuing to celebrate all of the remarkable new music that has been created over the last ten years and our relationship to it throughout the coming months, we also want to start our second decade by imagining what the landscape for new music will be ten years from now. To that end, we are asking a group of deep musical thinkers to ponder this question. We aim for this series to spark important discussions in our community as well as to raise important journalistic voices from all around the country. Our first contributor is University of Florida-based musicologist and bassoonist Dr. Imani Mosley.-FJO]

Anthony Tommasini, in his final article as chief classical music critic for The New York Times, asks “so what things about classical music shouldn’t change?” It’s an interesting thought exercise that he unfurls throughout the article, reminding readers of things possibly slipping away: the sound of live acoustics, the exhilaration of risky playing, the generational work of artists and institutions. I don’t particularly have a qualm with the exercise or its examples — it’s a way, in a sense, of grounding classical music in a space and time that currently feels so unhinged, unembodied, unpracticed. But I am struck by the binary presented (even if it is to take apart a particular “problem”): that we in classical music-land are either asking what should change or what should remain the same. In approaching an essay such as this one that I was tasked with writing — what will new music look like ten years from now — I find myself running into that same binary. It is the idea that in order to assess or predict the new music landscape, one must be forced to face the conflict of change and stasis; not that things will change as most things inevitably do, but that change is not definite; stasis is.

This binary becomes murky both in theory and practice. One could say that art music throughout the twentieth century was based on change and the refutation of past practices. But as composers and performers shifted from style to style, medium to medium, our institutions became museumified, creating a dichotomy of either/or. The urge to be static rose concurrently with the urge to change. And so, in the twenty-first century, we’re presented with a choice: to look ahead or to look down. Not back or backwards, not into the past (because pastness cannot be and is not always equated with stasis), but down: down at our idle hands, down and away from our communities, down and buried in the sand. Had I been approached with discussing the future of new music two years ago, I probably would have answered differently; that our desire to look ahead would always be countered with our desire to look down. But as we enter the third year of a global pandemic, my view has shifted ever so slightly. Looking down is no longer a feasible or viable business model. It has become “look ahead or cease to exist.” And while I do not want to tie this piece so explicitly to current events, I don’t think it is possible for me to talk about the future without acknowledging what is happening in the here and now.

  • As composers and performers shifted from style to style, medium to medium, our institutions became museumified, creating a dichotomy of either/or.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • Looking down is no longer a feasible or viable business model.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • It has only been until very recently that the idea of space and place has been limited to the tangible.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • That shift away from liveness (something that I believe was on its way) is a huge step in the future of new music.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • As someone who is ensconced within the world of living composers, never have I felt as much access to them and their works as I have in the last few years.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley
  • Looking ahead may be the only feasible way forward, the only way we will have created for ourselves.

    Dr. Imani Mosley
    Dr. Imani Mosley

Music is indelibly linked to space and place. Those elements can shape, structure, and define our listening and performance practices. The rigid acoustics of a European concert hall, the grand solemnity of a cathedral, the vast possibilities of a soundwalk—these are all ways in which music moves from the theoretical to the experiential. Music thrives on the performance of the experiential, on the real. The real, dependent upon physical space and presence, has been valorized above other kinds of performance often by listeners and performers. Whereas other types of music and performing media may thrive within recordings, art music relies upon the live. This is not disputing the long history of classical music recording, but rather positioning it within a synchronous history of live performance practice. Recording obfuscates authenticity because it has to be imbued in order to be believed, as explained by Philip Auslander: “[T]he music industry specifically sets out to endow its products with the necessary signs of authenticity.” Even Pierre Boulez expressed concern about the fidelity of recording, where “the so-called techniques of reproduction are acquiring an irrepressible tendency to become autonomous and to impress their own image of existing music, and less and less concerned to reproduce as faithfully as possible the conditions of direct audition.” For a genre that existed before recording technology, its authenticity lay within the visage of liveness (one only has to look to arguments around amplification to see this concept at work); liveness becomes the real. It has only been until very recently that the idea of space and place has been limited to the tangible. Philip Auslander and Jonathan Sterne discuss a shift that occurred in the 1990s, but the advance of the internet has accelerated that shift. Space and place could become virtual, mediated, otherworldly. The late 2000s saw Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir as well as the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, emphasizing that a virtual space could still be experiential, authentic, real.

So, what happens when physical space and place are no longer available to you? The COVID-19 pandemic posed this question to musicians, composers, and institutions. What about your precious real now? Many organizations opted to make already filmed material available to a wider public, following the already existing models created by the Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and Glyndebourne. But others saw this as an untapped creative space: Opera Philadelphia created a streaming channel with new works by composers such as Caroline Shaw, Angélica Negrón, Tyshawn Sorey, and Melissa Dunphy. These composers created works within a virtual space, decidedly unreal in a sense, to make a multifaceted multimedia object, one that uses all available tools to build something unique. Like the television opera/opera on television divide, these works exist in this mediated way first, much like Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave or Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Their authenticity is not predicated on some kind of prescribed and imagined liveness; they are not meant to be experienced in that way. And more than anything, that shift away from liveness (something that I believe was on its way) is a huge step in the future of new music. This is more than just using media, electronics, and technology as tools; this is about restructuring foundational elements of art music.

I am loathe to cite this pandemic as a breaking open of anything. Music’s relationship to this moment is varied and I find the “Newton’s Annus mirabilis” approach to these last few years as demoralizing and unapt. But decisions will be made and I wonder if in ten years hence, we’ll look back at now and see those decisions as being tectonic for new music. There is an immediacy that exists in a way that has seldom been seen and with that immediacy comes freedom: freedom to create new music without the shackles of place, space, and institution. The freedom that signifies the taking back of creative power and control. As someone who is ensconced within the world of living composers, never have I felt as much access to them and their works as I have in the last few years. And I cannot imagine anyone wanting to give that up. With the virtuality of space and place comes a kind of equalizing; yes, there will always be funders, donors, money, connection, and privilege. But virtual space is limitless. I’m reminded of composer Garrett Schumann’s “I’m a composer and I wrote this music” TikToks, maximizing the medium’s penchant for virality, its visibility and algorithmic pervasiveness to introduce his music, new music to the world. And as we’re forced to turn to those virtual spaces to have as close to real musical experiences as we can get, the more we reify that aforementioned power. I do not foresee a looking down after this moment ends.

So, what does that mean for the future of new music? What happens in that next decade? I personally can’t speak to musical and stylistic changes, that’s anyone’s guess. But as a musicologist and historian who specializes in how people have reacted to music in specific cultural moments, I can guess as to how the moment will be presented to us. In schools, in our major institutions, and with individuals, we will have assessed what to let go, what will change, and what will remain static. Looking ahead may be the only feasible way forward, the only way we will have created for ourselves. Tommasini ends his article noting that he wants to “protect it [classical music], as well as shake it up.” This reads as that forced binary appearing once again and this moment now suggests that that binary may no longer be viable. We may experience another moment when we will have to let things go because they have been taken from us. And instead of approaching that moment as a deficiency, let us approach it as an abundance, as so many composers and performers are doing now. Creation not in spite of but out of a desire to. A future where change is definite.

Different Cities Different Voices: New Orleans

DCDV banner image with overlay of photos of New Orleans

Different Cities Different Voices is a new series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear music from local artists selected by each essayist.  

The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

An introduction by Ashley Shabankareh
(Member of the New Music USA Program Council)

Ashley Shabankareh

New Orleans possesses a rich cultural landscape of musical talent, with tradition and community at its core. While New Orleans is most commonly viewed as the birthplace of Jazz, it should be recognized and uplifted as the birthplace of American music. Whether it’s jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, classical, bounce, hip-hop, or brass band music, the sounds of New Orleans play a big part in our culture. Our community is close-knit, laidback, and relies deeply upon family traditions that are passed down from the older generation to the younger generation and from them to their successors.

Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, we have seen many ebbs and flows within the New Orleans community. The pandemic hit at the worst possible time of year for New Orleans – festival season – where a large portion of income is earned for those in the music and cultural economy. Like numerous communities across the world, the pandemic caused gig cancellations, which negatively impacted many whose lifestyle often is sustained from gig to gig. Numerous music, arts, and service organizations, including, but not limited to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, MaCCNO, and Culture Aid NOLA, quickly stepped in, offering grants, food relief, and other assistance to help sustain our musicians and culture bearers and work to ensure that our culture was not lost as a result of the pandemic. As the weeks turned to months, the uncertainty continued; would New Orleans’ music and culture be able to be sustained after the pandemic?

We began to see optimism within the community when live music was able to occur within outdoor spaces, including at porches and new opened outdoor venues like the Broadside and Zony Mash. As vaccine distribution began to pick up, performances began to happen indoors. We saw more and more gigs happening and the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant allowing more and more spaces to finally reopen. But then hope quickly turned to disappointment as what was anticipated to be a very robust festival season in the fall was canceled. Shortly thereafter, New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Ida, leaving the city without power for close to a month. Many were forced to leave their homes, and for some, they had to find a new home to live in due to damages caused by the storm.

However, despite the consistent hardships over the past 21 months, New Orleans saw our community grow even stronger than before. We’ve recently seen our City Council take steps towards the legalization of outdoor music in New Orleans, a huge step to ensure that outdoor spaces that opened as a result of the pandemic can legally continue to operate. New Orleans has also seen the Office of Economic Development propose an Office of Nighttime Economy, which myself and numerous other advocates hope will support cultural activity, not enforcement, to provide true equity of opportunity within the community.

As our vulnerable city continues to recover after both a hurricane and a pandemic, one thing is for sure – our community has become more vibrant and creative. In this installment in Different Cities, Different Voices, you’ll hear from 5 New Orleans musicians: Jason Marsalis, Helen Gillet, Clint Maedgen, Delaney Martin, and Dylan Trần.

[Ed. note: Listen to music by the contributors and other New Orleans-area artists throughout the essays below, and on our Different Cities Different Voices playlist.

Photo: Naveen Venkatesan, Unsplash


JASON MARSALIS – percussionist, bandleader

Jason Marsalis playing the vibraphone at a performance.

Jason Marsalis

Since I was a kid, I’ve been involved in the New Orleans music scene. Growing into adulthood, I started to see the city receive recognition that it hadn’t in previous years. A huge growth of young musicians occurred in New Orleans during the 1990s. At the same time, New York was always the place to be when it came to music. However, the dynamics of the scene changed when aspects of the music business were no longer vibrant. New Orleans has always had a connection with its traditions. Even when music changes, aspects of New Orleans groove was always in the music. However, the music in New York was deemphasizing the swing element while embracing a darker ambient sound. New Orleans was maintaining its fun element while New York was losing theirs. It was during that time I decided to stay in New Orleans.

I discovered that working in New Orleans would help me develop my “swing”; it’s an element of a groove in the music that makes the people want to dance. There are gigs that are based on the swing element that you can play in New Orleans. In New York, those gigs are not as common as they once were and many drummers haven’t developed the swing element at all because of it. Now that doesn’t mean New Orleans doesn’t have its challenges. In the past year of the pandemic, I lost my father pianist Ellis Marsalis to Covid-19. It was not only a loss for me but for the music scene as a whole. He was a teacher and leader that believed in young people playing music. He would use his bandstand as a way for younger players to grow and develop. His passing left a hole in the music scene that will have to be filled in other ways. Those ways include other people understanding how to pass on music to the next generation. As for me, even when the gigs were shut down for a year, I was able to use my creative outlet in other ways. I did more teaching, posting videos, and performing the music online. One way that I have fared with this major change is through teaching. The more music that is taught and passed on to the younger musicians, the music and all of its elements have a better chance of survival.

Listen to a Performance by Jason Marsalis:

The Jason Marsalis Quintet performs the music of Ellis Marsalis: “Three in One”

Listen to Jason Marsalis’s New Orleans Artist Recommendation:

Dr. Michael White: “Give It Up – Gypsy Second Line” Live at Little Gem Saloon

 


HELEN GILLET – singer/songwriter, cellist

Helen Gillet surrounded by various cellos.

Helen Gillet (photo by Jason Kruppa)

There were no other cellists I could see around town when I first moved to New Orleans in 2002. There were also very few women instrumentalists out and about. I was raised by strong women, so this struck me as odd. But the spirit of New Orleans music can be very welcoming to newcomers who are willing to show off their talents if they have enough sincerity, talent, and show respect to the city and the musical legacy that came before.

Sure enough, I managed to talk my way into a variety of musical contexts, convincing bandleaders I could fill the role of trombone, guitar, bass, violin, and eventually drums, synthesizer…all using the acoustic cello, and later on the looping pedal. I have learned to: “turn it up to 11” in funk bands, rock bands and even solo to play loud enough to cut through the noise of a drunken tourists yelling “Sake Bomb” as she stumbles into a Frenchman dive. Especially during the post-Katrina musical renaissance, I became a resident recording cellist around town, notably Piety Studios under the tutelage of Mark Bingham. I learned about recording music, playing in front of amazing microphones and into headphones; creating and weaving my cello parts to lift countless records for artists such as beatnik poet Ed Sanders, Marianne Faithful, Cassandra Wilson, Dr. John, Wardell Quezergue, Sonic Youth, Arcade Fire, Leroy Jones etc.

I was blessed by the city in 2004 during my first ever Jazz and Heritage Festival appearance as cellist in Smokey Robinson’s band, a decade before my first solo Jazz Festival appearance under my own name. I have been blessed by two Smokeys, the second of which was my neighbor of ten years, Fats Domino’s drummer and grandfather of funk Smokey Johnson. He became like a father figure to me, encouraging me every day to “Go lay it on ’em” and to “go get ’em killa'” — He also was instrumental in helping me figure out I had worth as an artist and how to demand more money for my music. “Girl, you know some [email protected]&*..I hope they payin’ you for what you know!” We all need a great cheerleader in our lives, especially before we learn to do it for ourselves, and I was fortunate to find the best ones just four houses down the street from me. He helped me see past my gender and just do my thing in music. I not only managed to carve out a decent living for the past 19 years I have followed my own path along the way. Thank you Smokey and thank you New Orleans!

Earning the reputation to be a first call for innovative musical projects looking for a cello player has been a wonderful privilege. Within a few years of living here, I was playing in a musical jazz arena alongside Johnny Vidacovich, James Singleton, Kidd Jordan, visiting world renown Jazz improvisers such as Frank Gratkowski, Hamid Drake, Wadada Leo Smith, Tatsuya Nakatani, Cooper More, so many more… I played in a local Medieval Band. I am fond of my yearly appearance at The New Orleans Noize Fest, playing in spontaneous Punk Bands, Rock n Roll Circus Bingo Show, Mardi Gras Indian Funk Orchestra, Southern Rock bands, with Singer Songwriters, Traditional and Progressive Jazz, Vaudevillian French bands and even a Disco band called “Bubble Bath” — I have workshopped my Belgian inspired surrealist ideas with some of the world’s finest improvisers and come up with a style that is my own. It was a natural evolution to put all my favorite grooves, melodies, and sentiments from this plethora of inspiration into my own music.

You often feel like there are just as many musicians in New Orleans as there are houses in New Orleans. Live music is everywhere, in the streets, in the clubs, restaurants, churches, sports fields, public parks, private courtyards, schools, barber shops, coffee shops, hotel lobbies, spilling out into Steamboats over the Mississippi and up over the West Bank into Algiers Point. Since the pandemic began, that spirit made its way onto people’s front porches, rod iron balconies, driveways, car ports … you name it; if you were strolling outside on any given day, you’d likely run into a live band playing a show. When music is such an important part of the fabric of a city, the musicians are put to work. I remember drummer Claude Coleman from Ween coming up to me in the artist tent at Voodoo fest in New Orleans and saying, “You New Orleans musicians are the best in the world because you play so often with so many different kinds of bands!” People often say I am very diverse, and I would say, look at any New Orleans full time instrumentalist…they are usually playing in at least 10 different style bands often and well. I am not sure where else in the world a cellist could have gotten a more diverse musical education.

I consider myself a Stoic optimist, having had to pivot many times during hard times. I understand things are likely to be tough and living is finding ways of surviving creatively. The city of New Orleans is a good place for someone like that. The outdoor music scene has exploded in New Orleans since March 2020. I was fortunate enough to have established my solo musical presence before the Pandemic hit, allowing me to live stream with my show and reach listeners eager for entertainment. Never receiving unemployment because I was working enough remotely to not be qualified, I just pushed as hard as I could to eke out a living. I played a lot of outdoor venues and during the welcomed pockets of time between waves of variants, I have even managed decent tour schedules across the USA. During long periods of staying home, I have worked on my relationship with my city, and have built a front porch worthy of live music performances and for the first time in the 14 years I have lived in my house, some of my neighbors have been able to hear my music for the first time. I am proud to be approaching my 20th anniversary living in this amazing and resilient city.

Listen to Music featuring Helen Gillet

Helen Gillet Trio: “Tourdion” from the album Running of the Bells
Tim Green: Conn-o-sax
Helen Gillet: vielle (medieval fiddle) and cello
Doug Garrison: drums with mallets

Helen Gillet: Helkiase (Solo Album)
Helen Gillet: cello, loops, vocals

Listen to Helen Gillet’s New Orleans Artist Recommendation:

Lilli Lewis Project: “We Belong”


CLINT MAEDGEN – multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, photographer

Clint Maedgen

I first moved to New Orleans in 1988. I wrote 150 songs while delivering food on a bicycle in the French Quarter from 1998 to 2005. New Orleans is an amazing place to be an artist, and this city has given me a lot. I have led my own bands over the years (liquidrone and bingo!) and also had the honor of playing saxophone and singing with the historic Preservation Hall Jazz Band for the last 17 years, and I’ve also taken thousands of photographs in the French Quarter and beyond.

New Orleans makes it very easy to be creative; it’s the kind of place where anything seems possible. This is also a town that still talks to one another, and that is a hard thing to live without if you’ve ever lived here and had to leave. The city gets in your bones in a forever kind of way, and I just couldn’t help but live here. I also still feel like a visitor here, and I am honored to be a small part of such an incredibly important place. Where would the world be without New Orleans? So many things started here, it is absolutely mindblowing.

As for the new music scene here today, I feel incredibly spoiled getting to hear so much music in the air at all times of the day and night. All kinds of music. Music is everywhere here. So many places to play, so many musicians. One of my favorite sonic experiences in New Orleans these days is to hear TRUMPET MAFIA playing on Frenchmen Street. The sound of 8 to 12 trumpets playing together has become this new electric current that is sent into the air on the regular, on Tuesday nights here lately. TRUMPET MAFIA is definitely a worldwide organization, but it’s amazing getting to hear them this much in New Orleans. Please check out these amazing musicians, and many more coming out of New Orleans today. It’s an exciting time for New Orleans music.

TRUMPET MAFIA concert:


Members of the TRUMPET MAFIA include: Branden Lewis, Ashlin Parker, and John Michael Bradford

This last year has honestly been one of the greatest years of my artistic life. I have performed well over 200 shows for my online subscribers, and through the use of Zoom have stumbled onto my new favorite interface for live performance. To me it’s like Hollywood Squares meets Austin City Limits. It is virtually the same audience every time we get together, so we have developed strong relationships in the context of these mini concerts that feel very intimate. Each person has their own square, so puppet dance parties are always a good idea. We have gotten to know each other over time, even though a few of us live in different countries.

Here is a three-minute sizzle reel of the PANDA FAM.

I wrote 24 personalized songs for my subscribers last year. I launched a deal where any member that purchased one of my French quarter doorbell throw pillows, I would write them a personalized song. Each person got to submit 10 words. That project set me free in so many ways, and I found the songs came to me quite quickly. The process reminded me of how I wrote music in the early 90s, recording onto cassette and ping-ponging between different devices to achieve a multi-track. It felt playful and wide open, And I love what it brought out in me.

Here is the video playlist:

As a group, we have collectively been raising funds to record each of the songs in the studio, with the intention of releasing the songs on vinyl upon completion. These songs have such an amazing energy to them, and as a songwriter I find myself amazed with an entirely new process to share and experience with an audience that really wants to be there.

Here is ELI AND THE SUGAR STATIC

As a photographer, my subscription-based audience has been a true blessing. Our group has also become a collectors club, and I have sold eight of my photographs this past year.

An original photograph by Clint Maedgen collaging an eye, a eye chart, and a carpet.

Clint Maedgen: Hindsight & Shadows

An original photograph by Clint Maedgen collaging abstract paintings and a silhouette of a man wearing a hat,

Clint Maedgen: Shadows & Colourburst

CONNECTION is the real currency. People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And for creators to have the opportunity to convey that message with an audience that wants to participate online, I can’t help but think that we are living in the modern day gold rush. We finally have the opportunity to cut out the middleman and the gate keepers and connect directly in a very organic and convenient way. If you love what you do and you love to talk about it and you like sharing your excitement for it, I think that this platform is perfect for all creators of all walks of life. If 500 people give you $200 a year that is a really good living for an artist. I like to imagine a world where artists perform because they want to, not because they have to. I think the answer is finally here.

 


DELANEY MARTIN – multi-media installation artist and Creative Director, New Orleans Airlift

Delaney Martin

I met New Orleans pre-Katrina, 1998, in my early twenties. Meeting her upended my life in the best way. I’d been a savvy kid living in New York and LA, reading culture magazines from Europe. Not only was none of that available for purchase in New Orleans, none of it mattered. Moreover, the culture here was not for sale. What New Orleans lacked in terms of a global art trending was more than made up by its incredible living culture that paraded–no–danced, down streets every Sunday for second line parades, rounded a corner in the flowing feathers and hallucinatory splendor of Black Masking Indians during sacred times each year, and kept late hours and a big beats in small neighborhood clubs that rivaled any famous nightclub I’d ever visited. And that was just the Black culture. Though less famous, the weirdo White kids were running anarchist circuses, inventing instruments, costuming on a Monday morning and just generally building such a specific-to-time-and-place culture that I realized that literally everything I had valued before needed to be reconsidered in the most joyous way possible.

I eventually left to go to grad school in London, but I deferred for a year. And I returned as often as I could in the intervening years. I built an art practice in London, but New Orleans continued to ground me at a distance. When Katrina hit, I was looking for a way to help. Starting in 2007 my co-founder of New Orleans Airlift and I began a sort of import export culture business, bringing folks like Big Freedia to NY for the first time or an artist like Swoon to New Orleans to work with us collaboratively alongside local creators we valued. I expanded my art practice to function as a framework for collaboration, building bigger ideas than I ever could on my own by having so many hands working towards a common goal. These days we are most known for our collaborative juggernaut Music Box Village – a collection of interactive musical houses hand built by artists in the dozens, an ever-expanding krewe exploring this idea of a performative musical architecture. This idea born of New Orleans is an ode to our city’s culture, its architecture; it’s the music you can hear coming through thin old walls or around the corner of your block, yet it is an idea that resonates around the world. We invite world-renowned musicians to compose and perform the musical houses. Part whimsy, part serious new music pursuit, the Music Box Village has become a landmark in our city, building off the rooted, but living, evolving culture that defines New Orleans.

I love creating here. I’ve created in many cities, but this is my speed. Jump in a truck with your friends, hit the wood dump, build from nothing, make make make, but all at a livable pace that prioritizes catharsis, ritual and release.

COVID allowed me to slow down. Slowing down and reflecting and moving with change is good. The pandemic of course shut down our performance schedule and was terrible for musicians. But it was growth for myself and for my organization. We pushed up against the obvious challenges by saying, well what do we have time for now. We were able to gather musicians we work with for conversation, have difficult conversations, make decisions to work on difficult projects around race and hard histories that continue to shape our lives. The pandemic created such a rare opportunity to make space for change.

That said, second lines are back. And we terribly missed dancing through the streets. It gives us life. New Orleans without its culture is a city with pretty buildings, but terrible education, pollution, crime, corruption!!! None of us would live here, but the culture trumps all of that and so we do.

Hurricane Ida – now that is a different story. We can celebrate the spirit of mutual aid that defined our community’s response to this tragedy, but it was a tragedy and more will come. New Orleans’ place on the map of the mind is huge, but Ida was a stark reminder that its place on the map may not exist into the very near future. Our neighbors in the river parishes continue to be without homes. This easily could have been New Orleans fate. We were just lucky by 20 or so miles. No amount of culture or music can save us. But we must save the culture. To be honest, we are still in this moment of Ida recovery – it’s too soon to say we’ve overcome it.

Because New Orleans is so storied musically, this idea that it is all tradition can become a perception problem from the outside, but it’s not really a problem from the inside. We know tradition here does not mean something stale or a museum culture. It’s all very alive down here, evolving, well-loved. These so-called traditional forms are understood to be more than music, but sound connected to the spirit in deep ways. There is not a snobbism about, say brass band culture, amongst new music people. It is a blessing that we get to be in this swirl. In turn, these so-called culture bearers are not closed off; they are welcoming. They are also experimental. The musicians we have in our space are not all people making new music. They are brass bands, they are Black Indians, they are superstars of the new music world, they are pop stars. What we give them is a context to work together in an unlikely setting and unlikely pairings. There is an openness. Recently we had two big players in their respective new music circles live in our town for some years: Yotam Haber, the Rome Prize-winning composer and Mikel Patrick Avery, known more as a Chicago character and perhaps most known for his work band leading for Theaster Gates’ Black Monks of Mississippi. We worked extensively with both of them, and the effect of New Orleans on their practice was profound – they wanted to dig in, not dig out. They’ve moved on to other cities and opportunities, but it was great to have their gifts here for a while and we knew that our city was a gift to them too.

Listen, clearly New Orleans is not a mecca of “new music”, but it is open, collaborative, and knows deep in its bones that we make music that matters to the world and so much of that music was the new music of its time.

Listen to Delaney Martin’s New Orleans Artist Recommendations:

Taylor Lee Shepherd: “The Blue Sea Hushed Him”, from Flight of Icarus @ the Music Box Village

So much to choose from at Music Box, but selecting this piece by my music box co-founding sound artist Taylor Lee Shepherd. He leads this project with me. We’ve built musical houses in collaboration and our Shake House is well heard on this track. But he is also the daily technical director of Music Box Village, maintaining all the musical houses by our collaborating artists, and so intimate with all the sounds. This song is from his one man show Flight of Icarus. For the show he exclusively used the sounds and interfaces of the houses, looping and building on their sounds via connected looper pedals he installed throughout the space.

Leyla McCalla: “Mèsi Bondye” from Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes

I really like this particular track. Sort of a nice spare, feminine counterpart to Taylor’s Shepherd’s piece. It also speaks to the evolving exploration of rooted music that New Orleans artists explore – in this case both Leyla’s and New Orleans’ deep connection to the music and culture of Haiti.

 


DYLAN TRẦN – composer and Marketing Coordinator at New Orleans Opera

Dylan Trần

My experience in New Orleans can be summed up in one word: opportunity. I’m a first generation American on my dad’s side, born into poverty in the Deep South. If it weren’t for the fact that Loyola University New Orleans has a free undergraduate application and ample scholarship opportunities, I’m not sure I would have been able to go to college, much less pursue a career as a composer. Even my career as a composer, at this point, is only financially possible because of my administrative position at the New Orleans Opera Association.

Throughout my undergrad I had many interests: conducting, composing, singing, film, photography, marketing, languages, history, diasporas, media, activism, sociology, etc. I had very supportive professors in all of these areas that encouraged me to develop my skills in these interests; this held true when I left school as well. This is a huge reason I have stayed in New Orleans— as my artistic career evolves, the city has allowed me to discover, create, and share opportunities to facilitate my growth and exploration.

The reasons I believe this city is so prime for making your own opportunities is a bit of a double-edged sword. There’s a famous Cajun French phrase, “laissez les bon temps rouler” (let the good times roll). That lovely, laidback vibe permeates the music scene as well, setting the scene for the biggest challenge I’ve experienced in New Orleans—outside of jazz, funk, and other popular genres, there is a lack of infrastructure for “classical” music artists. Because of this, most of my commissions come from online and social media networking, as opposed to local groups.

In a way, this lack of infrastructure creates space, an opportunity to build community and art without having to follow an extant institution’s rules—but, the work is not easy. As artists, we are no strangers to being our own advertisers, agents, accountants, etc., something I experienced intimately while I was pursuing a local singing career. As a composer, however, one of the only ways I’ve been able to create the art I want is to take on the additional titles of project manager, development officer, employee organizer, community liaison, etc.—basically running my own small business.

This may sound scary to someone who is trying to be exclusively a composer, but if you are someone in a more exploratory part of your career, New Orleans is an excellent place to do that. I don’t think there are many other places where I would have had as many opportunities to be compensated for trying new things. I’m not just talking music commissions either. I’ve been hired to direct music videos, film documentaries, write articles, run marketing campaigns, develop guest instructor lessons, be a guest speaker, etc. I did not have a huge amount of professional experience with many of these things prior, but because of the nature of the city, if you put some work in and cash in some social currency here and there, you can really explore anything!

Beyond that, I do think the “classical” new music scene in New Orleans is in a blossoming era at the moment. In terms of large organizations: the Marigny Ballet regularly performs world premieres, the New Orleans Opera Association (while not a regular commissioner of new works) is known for championing second and third performances of emerging works, and the LPO will occasionally commission a local composer to accompany an extant “canonic” masterwork. Versipel New Music is a particularly talented collective working exclusively in new music, and there is New Music On The Bayou in North Louisiana, but I am not familiar with many others locally. That being said, every year, I meet more and more composers and groups in the city, so I believe that, while the new music scene may be small at the moment, it is vibrant, growing, and will continue to flourish.

Stepping outside of strictly “classical” new music, the New Orleans musical world opens up tremendously. Some days it seems like there isn’t a genre unrepresented in the city. Hip-hop, folk, indie, jazz, rock, metal, and indigenous musics are ubiquitous in the community. More and more as of late the larger “classical music” organizations have begun to reach out and collaborate with these other genres. For example, it has happened on more than one occasion that the LPO will share the stage with Tank and the Bangas. If you are interested in exploring many genres of music, and the intersections and collaborations therein, New Orleans may be the place for you.

Listen to Music by Dylan Trần:

Dylan Trần: String Quartet No. 1 on Việt Themes

Listen to Dylan Trần’s New Orleans Artist Recommendation:

Lilli Lewis: “Incantation: Wind”


 

Listen to the Different Cities Different Voices playlist on Spotify:

The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US. Please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

 

Photo: Mana5280, Unsplash

Writing Music for Developing Instrumentalists and Singers

close up of a trumpet

“I’d love to do that with my band, but it’s too hard for us.”

“I can’t afford it.”

“We don’t have all of those parts.”

“I’m out of time to look.”

These are some of the frustrations I’ve heard in the last six months from at least four music educators and community ensemble directors who want to diversify the voices they amplify in their programming. They’re caught in a deeply frustrating bind: even if they could find a new piece and they could afford it, their students couldn’t play it—it’s too technically advanced for their developing players. And that’s saying they can find a new piece from a new voice in the slim hour of the day they’re not running between classes, lessons, planning, meetings, and fixing the jammed copier.

These artists’ and educators’ mission is to nurture as many healthy musical habits as possible and share their growth with their communities. They’re invested in programming more works by living composers, especially composers from communities of historically marginalized voices. They’re invested in their students and community members not seeing a revolving door of the same names in the top right corner of the page all the time. They’re invested in their own growth as conductors and willing to put in the score study and rehearsal planning to learn new works, and that needs to be strategic for them.

Teachers and conductors must consider the developing techniques of their players, limited budgets for their libraries, and limited time to seek out new works that are not yet available through major publishers for whom they already have vendor numbers established in their purchasing systems. These ensembles need technically and financially accessible works for their libraries from living composers.

Here is a mix of practical and philosophical ideas for how you can help.

 

Pick Your Parameters

While composers love to explore ideas at the boundaries of virtuosic technical prowess with incisive beauty, these are not the works that developing players or time-pressed joyful amateurs can hope to be successful in playing.

  • Both long works and miniatures are physically and mentally challenging. Help these players work up to great heights with works between three and seven minutes in duration.
  • Pick one area of challenge for your musical ideas to explore. You want developing players to feel invited into capability, not overwhelmed by notation. If you are going to include rhythms they will need to woodshed, put it in a key area that does not push them. If you are going to push them on tonal centers that are distant from the fundamentals of their instrument, do not push them on range, too. If you are going to introduce them to mixed meters, keep the modulations predictable and the tempo moderate, etc.
  • Offer options for instrumentation where possible. Many schools and community ensembles will not have a full concert complement for orchestra or band or the funds to hire ringers. Double reeds are not guaranteed. Include cues for important passages to instruments with similar ranges. This goes for percussion, too. They will have a glockenspiel, but not crotales.
  • Add not only text and translation for choirs, but also consider adding IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet characters) as a reference for a harried choir director.
  • Leave a little more space, if possible, around the text for developing singers to write in pronunciations.
  • Provide clear and endearing program and performance notes. These players dig them.
  • Edit to the utmost of your skill. Include curtesy accidentals. If it saves a pressed-for-time music educator rehearsal time, they will buy from you again.

 

Make It Affordable

Your work and expertise deserve a fair price. Full stop. Most schools and community ensembles aren’t able to commission; a commission would take a year of fundraising. No one should be arguing that composers should lower their rates or “do it for the exposure.” Music educators are generally aware of the work, practice, and years of collective experience go into a single composition, and they also know that they must make their dollars go as far as possible, and many an E-copy from a major publisher is between $55.00 and $75.00 USD. Many departments and ensembles have budgets in the hundreds of dollars a year, not thousands, to add to their libraries. They will have a budget review process, a public one, and need to be able to explain the value for price and direct benefit to students of their expenditures.

  • Consider having a collection of E-works that these ensembles can afford.
  • Offer collections where they do not need to purchase additional parts if one part goes missing.
  • When connections are made or orders come in, be as responsive as possible to whatever documentation process is needed for transparency to demonstrate they are good stewards of tax dollars.
  • Consider partnering with music libraries that are well connected through interlibrary loan networks to buy sections of your catalog and tell educators in your network where to check them out.

 

Make Some New Friends, Reconnect with Old Friends

Connect with Educators and Community Ensembles in your area. It’s not prestigious. These students and lifelong players don’t need your headshot and bio; they need you. And while there are many grants out there to help pay for visiting guest artists (and they should), an honored guest in their midst is only one of the ways that students and community members should connect with composers in-person or electronically. We are the people in their neighborhood; some of the time we should sit beside them, not in front of them. Not just our work, but our presence erodes symbolic assassination. Our engagement within these ensembles is one of many experiences for these musicians that normalize, that de-exoticize, the relationship between composers and performers, especially performers from low-population density areas. Don’t let the developing technique and less than perfect rehearsal discipline blind you to the big hearts of these groups. All kinds of ensembles need nurturing.

  • Join a community ensemble with a municipal or college group and participate.
  • Share your networks with the educators you meet in them.

Both music students and amateurs who play for a lifetime are looking forward to making music with you. Let’s get better connected.

 

Different Cities Different Voices: Chicago

Different Cities Different Voices is a new bi-monthly series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear music from local artists selected by each essayist.  

The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

This first series focuses on the vibrant city of Chicago, with contributions by Dave Rempis, Taalib-Din Ziyad, Olivia Block, Craig Davis Pinson, Jackie Taylor, and Jennie Oh Brown.

Listen to music by the contributors and Chicago-area artists throughout the essays below, and on our Different Cities Different Voices playlist. And from now until October 4, you can also explore Chicago’s music scene by attending the stellar Ear Taxi Festival, which is currently underway with concerts, premieres, panels, and much more – in-person at various Chicago venues and online.

Chicago city skyline

Max Bender / Unsplash


DAVE REMPIS – Saxophonist & Bandleader

Dave Rempis (photo by Cengiz Yar)

I’ve been a working saxophonist and bandleader in Chicago for about 24 years now, having moved here from Boston in 1993 to go to college at Northwestern University. Along the way I also started my own record label in 2013 (Aerophonic Records) and have presented and organized concerts and festivals including a weekly series of jazz and improvised music since 2002 at the not-for-profit Elastic Arts Foundation, where I also now serve as the Board President. Additionally, I was a co-curator and producer of the Umbrella Music Festival from 2006-2014, business manager of the Pitchfork Music Festival from 2006-2016, and am currently Operations Manager of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival.

In my time in Chicago, one person in particular set the tone and model for what this city can be at its very best. Fred Anderson – a renowned saxophonist who ran the Velvet Lounge for more than two decades – was a tireless champion of the music who provided a platform for anyone who was serious about their work. Up until he passed at the age of 81, Fred could be found working the door and restocking the bar at the Velvet every night that he wasn’t on the road, his gentle smile and demeanor setting the tone for a place that provided a supportive environment for all the artists who worked there. Fred was a legend of experimental music whose impact stretched back decades, even before his work as a co-founder of the AACM in the 1960s. Until the end of his life, he continued to persist stubbornly against so many odds, to selflessly support the artists around him by giving them a dependable place to develop their work. He even re-opened in a new location at the age of 76, after being pushed out of his longtime home by a condo development. And the list of artists who enjoyed that persistence is long – Joshua Abrams, Renee Baker, Ari Brown, Hamid Drake, Henry Grimes, Steve Lacy, Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, Avreeayl Ra, Matana Roberts, Ken Vandermark, to name only a few. As Lacy wrote on a large printed-up version of The Chicago Reader Critic’s Choice for his concert that hung in the club for years after his concert, “This Place Is a Temple.”

That spirit has infused so much of what I’ve been able to enjoy in this city in my tenure here. Artists and audiences in Chicago who experienced Fred and the Velvet Lounge have taken that example and continue to work towards building community. So many of the venues and concert series that serve as important parts of the city’s infrastructure for creative music are run by musicians who volunteer their time, overseeing concert programs that have endured for years. And they’re supported by a dedicated community of people – audience, musicians, writers, venue owners and staff – who work together through an informal network that functions at an extremely high level. This isn’t a city of hustlers, trying to out-maneuver one another onto this festival or that record label. At its best, it’s a city where pushing the artistic dialogue forward through collective action and community effort takes precedence over the purely business side of the work. That’s the lifeblood that few cities with a significant scene for adventurous and creative music can match. And it’s a place I’ve been glad to call home for almost thirty years.

Listen to Music by Dave Rempis:

The COVID Tapes album by Dave Rempis, Tomeka Reid, Joshua Abrams, Tim Daisy, Tyler Damon

All Your Ghosts in One Corner album by Kuzu (Dave Rempis, Tashi Dorji, Tyler Damon)

Listen to Dave Rempis’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:

Tomeka Reid’s album Shards and Constellations

 


TAALIB-DIN ZIYAD – Vocalist, Flutist, Composer and Arranger

Taalib-Din Ziyad

Taalib-Din Ziyad

I have deep roots in Chicago where I was born and raised. The two main reasons I have remained in Chicago is my family and the music. Chicago has one of the most diverse music scenes in the world, which creates many opportunities for good musicians to work. You can do a classical gig in the evening and a jazz gig that night. Additionally, because of the diversity of the music one can perform in one of the several variations of different music expression. For example, you can play smooth Jazz, straight-ahead Jazz, Be Bop Jazz and so forth. Basically, musicians can pretty much perform in any genre they are versed in; that is one of the beauties of Chicago’s music scene.

Chicago has provided me with great opportunities to collaborate with many world-renowned musicians and music organizations and institutions. Also, there are many teaching opportunities for those who want to share their musical talents in an educational setting. I have performed creative music all over this city in many venues and musical institutions. I have also performed in the Chicago Jazz Festival several times as well as Pitchfork and other festivals over the years. Chicago has provided a strong base for my career in music.

The music scene in Chicago has provided many outlets for younger musicians to sharpen their musical skills. There are more venues hiring young musicians to perform in their space. This allows them to grow musically and developing the necessary tools for a successful career in music. The diversity of music styles in this city, gives a young musician the opportunity to perform a variety of musical expressions while also finding their niche.

Listen to Music featuring Taalib-Din Ziyad

JazzCity: Miyumi Project Meets AACM Chicago’s Great Black Music Ensemble

Taalib-Din Ziyad’s flute solo begins at the 5:23 marker in the video.


OLIVIA BLOCK – Media Artist & Composer

Olivia Block

Olivia Block

I moved from Austin to Chicago in 1997 for practical reasons related to the relationship I was in, and because I was fascinated by all of the interesting experimental music happening here in the late-nineties. It seemed like a good choice for a new home. Having been in a band in Austin, playing live and touring, I wanted to make a change and create different, more exploratory types of music, yet I wasn’t formally trained in “classical” music at that time. I had some recording skills and experimented with a four track. I had no formal connections with institutions or even people here.

Jim O’Rourke, who lived in Chicago then, was an influential figure for me. He made innovative music, produced or collaborated on almost every experimental music album in the nineties, and was in Gastr del Sol with David Grubbs, which is, in my opinion, one of the most innovative bands in history.

I related to O’Rourke’s approach because he did not identify as an academic, although he referenced composers like Feldman and Conrad in addition to the post-rock music, bands, Drag City, etc. he worked with. I met O’Rourke after I arrived here. He introduced me to musicians in the improv scene like Jeb Bishop, Kyle Bruckmann, and many others.

These Chicago improv musicians played my scored pieces in local concerts and recording sessions, in a sort of alternative track to the world of conservatory training, scores, and commissions. Improvisation became important in my work as a result of my work with Chicago improvisers. (Later I did attend a music conservatory to receive a more formal music education, although I will always be an autodidact in my heart.) I was one of few female sound artists here in the early aughts, but I felt an openness and acceptance here.

Over time I have made meaningful connections with faculty and students at the School of the Art Institute Sound Program (where I attended classes and now teach), Experimental Sound Studio, and The Chicago Composers Orchestra (where I now serve as an advisor).

Around ten years ago, Chicago had an abundance of small new music ensembles playing more radical music than is typical for those types of ensembles. Some of those small ensembles have left the city now, but I think the spirit of adventure in new music has remained. There is still a healthy genre crossover in Chicago, and a beautiful willingness by artists to take risks and collaborate with others. Perhaps this lack of genre rigidity is related to the lack of financial imperative. Artists have to go elsewhere to make money from their art for the most part. In terms of music and art-making, I ended up staying here for so long because there was really no reason to leave. I have always had an abundance of opportunities, extremely skilled musicians and ensembles to work with, very reasonable high-quality recording studio rates, affordable housing with room for a home studio, and a large airport nearby for easy work-related travel. I have a community of like-minded, creative friends and loved-ones, and I enjoy teaching here.

Listen to music by Olivia Block:

Olivia Block’s work “October, 1984” from October, 1984

Listen to Olivia Block’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:

Haptic’s “BTWN 65, 52” from the album Weird Undying Annihilation

 


CRAIG DAVIS PINSON – Composer, Guitarist & Educator

Craig Davis Pinson

Craig Davis Pinson

For anyone paying attention to music in Chicago, it would come as no surprise that there is a stunning variety in how the people of this city make and participate in it. No less rich are the different approaches musicians often take to being part of more than one genre community or artistic discipline. Notably, these networks and cross-pollinations are mediated, to some degree or another, by factors such as privileged access to resources, institutional prestige, or subcultural community gatekeeping. Despite these barriers, an undeniable spirit of curiosity and openness persists in the creative spheres I’ve been involved in. Being immersed in this collective attitude has humbled me, as an outsider from Mexico City (another great music city), while I’ve come to know some of the people and music of Chicago over the past seven years.

When it comes to artists that deal with music and sound with a deliberately experimental attitude, Chicago is a city of house shows, DIY venues, and open-minded dive bars as much as it is one of canonized concert halls, revered jazz clubs, and prestigious art school galleries. The lines of dialogue are increasingly open between improvised music, contemporary classical, performance art, electronic music production, independent pop and rock, and adventurous folk – all arenas to which Chicago has contributed enormously. Yet artists and audiences increasingly refuse to shy away from discussing the politics of access between these spheres, most frequently along the lines of class, race, gender, and ability. A substantial amount of art that speaks directly to these issues is made here, and the fact that there is still much work to be done on these fronts is often acknowledged.

I’ve had the privilege to be able to make music as a composer within academia as well as to be welcomed into spaces that run independently of direct institutional support. Regardless of the setting, making music together with others has brought me meaningful artistic and personal experiences. While certainly not unique to Chicago, the collaborative mindset can be observed throughout the city’s history as a common value across many of its communities, and has made an indelible mark on me as a creator. It’s the driving force behind the collective composition and improvised music hybrid Fat Pigeon, a group I formed with Emily Beisel and Luis Fernando Amaya. We explore everything from free improvisation to the making of conventionally notated scores, continually searching for different modes of making music together. It also informs my improvisational practice outside of that group, the desire to write and produce indie songs together with friends, and an investment in fostering long-term close collaborations with classically-trained performers. Through these collectively-minded approaches to making and experiencing art, working in Chicago has taught me both the tremendous creative potential and the urgent necessity of striving to make music in relation to others.

Listen to music featuring Craig Davis Pinson:

“No Fate Pig II” by Fat Pigeon (Craig Davis Pinson, Emily Beisel, Luis Fernando Amaya) from the album Fang Poet I

Listen to Craig Davis Pinson’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:

“Prism Unabridged” from Imelda Marcos’s album Tatlo

 


JACKIE TAYLOR – Founder & CEO, Black Ensemble Theater, Director, Producer, Actress, Playwright, Educator & Singer/Songwriter

Jackie Taylor

Jackie Taylor

Thousands of years ago in another time and galaxy, I, Jackie Taylor, embarked on a career as a Folk Singer. This was the early ’70s and there was a huge Folk Music Market. Many, many clubs where one could be booked and sing their heart out. I had written many songs and felt that the world needed to hear them – so I hired a manager and he booked me in the Chicago folk clubs. There I was performing with my guitar, three sets a night and swallowing mounds and mounds of smoke. I quickly realized that this was not the career for me and put an end to that journey. No more playing the clubs! But I had become intrigued with the Chicago music scene. I found it warm, exciting, and inclusive. There was so much going on, folk, blues, jazz, soul and I quickly became an avid fan of the Chicago music scene. I met many musicians and joined many jam sessions – let’s fast forward to my starting the Black Ensemble Theater in 1976. I had done a lot of traveling but as an artist there was no place like Chicago. I kept writing music – but this time it was to accompany the plays that I had written. It is unbelievable that it is now 46 years later and I’m still writing plays and I’m still writing music. Chicago is a very, very special place – it is my musical home – as well as my theater home. There is no other place like Chicago. To me it was never the second city. It was and will remain my number one artistic home – where an artist can do more than just survive – they can thrive.

Listen to Music by Jackie Taylor:

“We Will Remember” (written by Jackie Taylor), performed by Dawn Bless from the Black Ensemble Theater production of The Healing

Listen to Jackie Taylor’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:

Theo Huff’s “It’s A Good Thang I Met You” from the album Now is the Time


JENNIE OH BROWN – Executive & Artistic Director of Ear Taxi Festival, Flutist, Collaborator, Entrepreneur & Educator

Jennie Oh Brown

Jennie Oh Brown (photo: Marc Perlish)

Chicago is a city that has always felt like home to me since the moment I moved here as a child. I love the culture, I love its art, I love the people and, believe it or not, I even kind of love the weather on most days. When my husband and I decided to move back to Chicago after graduate school, I was ready to invest my energy into building a career in the artistic community of this city. However, despite my eagerness, I was met with a brick wall of resistance. The gatekeepers of the field were anxious to push me out, and I was viewed very clearly as a threat to their territory of community, of tradition, and whether deliberate or not, of whiteness. However, I was neither discouraged nor impressed.

My circle of friends in graduate school included and frankly revolved around composers, and I spent a significant part of my time studying and premiering their works. Hence, I sought out and decided to immerse myself in the new music scene in Chicago. The depth of creativity and truly world class talent I discovered was completely mind-blowing. Perhaps even more impressive, these incredible artists were also fearlessly creating their own unique professional paths to sustainable careers. Over and over again, people were dreaming up projects and finding homes for them throughout Chicago. The bigger the project, the bigger the community around it.

Fast forward to today, and the pinnacle of this for me is serving Chicago as the Executive and Artistic Director of New Music Chicago’s Ear Taxi Festival alongside my stalwart colleagues Michael Lewanski, LaRob K. Rafael, Jessica Wolfe, and Justin Peters. Approximately 600 artists are being showcased throughout the neighborhoods of Chicago including: performance artists, instrumentalists, and singers; creative improvisers, contemporary classical musicians and sound experimentalists; speakers, writers, panelists and more. The festival is also providing webinars, professional development workshops, and portfolio building elements to help artists rise beyond the desolation of the pandemic. However, the festival is more than just a gathering, it’s an imperative.

Listen to Music performed by Jennie Oh Brown:

Jennie Oh Brown performs “Vidimus Stellam” written by Sungji Hong

Jennie Oh Brown performs “Plea for Peace” written by Augusta Read Thomas (also with Elizabeth Brausa Brathwaitee, Kate Carter, Dominic Johnson, and Paula Kosower)

 


Listen to the Different Cities Different Voices playlist on Spotify:

 

The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US. Please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

 

Chicago City Skyline

Lance Anderson / Unsplash

Choral Singing on the Brink of Delta

Concinnity singing with masks on at Twain House in May 2021

The resurgence of positivity rates and return of mask mandates in recent weeks has become a huge tug on the loose thread that has been holding choral directors and singers from unraveling during this pandemic.  Concert cancellations are likely to commence in the coming weeks and we should be concerned for the musicians and the small choral art organizations who support them. Even if choral music may not be your jam, over 54 million Americans sing in a choir and an even greater number enjoy watching and listening to choirs, ensembles, and a cappella groups. You may even have shared one of those inspiring virtual choirs videos during the height of the pandemic isolation. A number of choral ensembles have a mission greater than cultivating singing, such as creating community for marginalized groups or a vehicle for exploring social justice. Thus, the latest COVID trend is just one more reminder of the trauma that has perforated the choral landscape these past 18 months and decimated many small community choirs. The general public is likely unaware of the carnage or how to help.

From the start of COVID-19, choir became labeled as unsafe, with singers being inappropriately branded as “super-spreaders”. This admonishment really only presented singing groups with two options during the pandemic: go dark and wait out the storm or reimagine choir by transitioning to a virtual model. Neither option was desirable as a hiatus bred despondency for singers and virtualizing choir accelerated burnout for choir directors. But, the choral world stepped up regardless and gave tirelessly during a tumultuous time to soothe and offer connection through music by sharing it virtually. The rate at which choir directors became sound engineers/video editors by proxy in 2020 to keep their singers and community connected virtually was an impressive feat of strength. Choristers braved all types of weather and nature to safely sing and record outside. Directors employed complicated formulas to calculate air exchange rates and hepa filter strength to gauge the safety of  inside rehearsal spaces. Some musicians even harnessed long forgotten sewing skills to produce special singers’ masks for their ensembles.

From the start of COVID-19, choir became labeled as unsafe, with singers being inappropriately branded as “super-spreaders”.

All of these impressive undertakings were often accomplished with little to no financial support for these choirs, which was especially true for small community choirs and choral arts organizations who were not eligible to receive state or federal aid. It is akin to a tree still managing to grow upward when the earth has been washed away underneath. The branches continue to extend skyward, but the possibility of the tree being able to survive for long without soil foundation is debatable. 

Photo by Sarah Kaufold (2021)

Nevertheless, many choirs innovated, collaborated, and stepped out of their comfort zones in 2020 to keep the greater community engaged while singers quietly mourned the loss of “choir” from behind their home computer screens. Let’s face it: choral singing while wearing a face mask, singing outside, or recording virtually is not a particularly enjoyable endeavor for the singer.  This type of choir fits into the “better-than-nothing” category or checks the “it-makes-our-audience-happy” box.  Many choirs managed to endure, but at a significant financial and emotional cost.  It is no wonder that after navigating through the stages of grief since March 2020, many choral musicians found themselves settling into the acceptance stage of the grieving process toward the end of the year—life without choir.

Many choirs innovated, collaborated, and stepped out of their comfort zones in 2020 to keep the greater community engaged.

But then came the light at the end of the tunnel in 2021: vaccines. Virtual rehearsals over Zoom or outside/masked choir sessions concluded with the gleeful countdown of when the singers would be eligible for their shot. The possibilities of a performing season for 2021-22 seemed within reach. The vaccines did allow for a return of singing safely for the vaccinated, but only for a very short time in the early summer. We fell prey to hope that vaccines would open the door to our concert halls, but any plans for a permanent return of communal singing were dashed on the wave of the Delta variant.  If we did not express trepidation before these virus variants took hold in the US, you can bet that choral directors and singers everywhere are calculating how much more disappointment and letdown their hearts can take. Choir is not only our livelihood, it is deeply connected to our identity, health, and emotional well-being. Planning in earnest for the return of choir has become wrought with apprehension because we now know how quickly it can be taken away. Yehuda HaLevi once wrote, “Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.“ Choral singing has become capricious.

As we stand on the precipice of the 2021-22 concert season, the anxiety and unease about the future of the choral landscape is palpable. The difficulty extends beyond losing the opportunity to sing together… once again. The revenue streams we had anticipated with a return of in-person performances this season to keep our choirs afloat are uncertain once more. For many small choral organizations, ticket sales and donations to support performing activities are the main source of revenue. If performing is not available… you can surmise the outcome. Also, there are significant costs associated with creating virtual content; however, virtual concerts do not yield much in the way of revenue.  As for balancing the ventilation calculus in our rehearsal spaces and concert halls, the process and equipment is cost-prohibitive for most choirs under normal circumstances let alone after 18 months of barely scraping by. Many small ensembles rent rehearsal and performance space, which compounds the issue. As previously mentioned, most small choral organizations did not receive any state or federal pandemic aid because they do not have full-time employees nor own a venue, both of which do little to measure the impact these choirs have on their community. Although grant opportunities did exist, not everyone is chosen to receive the funding and each application requires herculean effort. 

Most small choral organizations did not receive any state or federal pandemic aid because they do not have full-time employees nor own a venue.

For many choral musicians, the thought of another virtual choir season in the wake of the Delta variant conjures feelings of dread.  The amount of hours and funding a choir director needs to invest to create one 3-minute remotely recorded virtual choir video is considerable. There is an added cost of procuring a sync license per song to place the video online, which mounts quickly, especially for those choirs committed to sharing music by living composers. In addition, the process to create the virtual choir is stressful on most choral singers as they need to sing alone, which is exposing and time consuming to get the perfect take. 

Singing in a mask to record the choir to share virtually is a possible solution, but masks are uncomfortable, vocally tiring, and hinder the choral sound.  Specialty singers’ masks exist to mitigate these issues, but they are pricey (multiply $20 by 40 singers to get an idea).  Recording outside without masks is possible, but comes with a long list of vocal production constraints and numerous recording difficulties (the wind is much louder than you think.) Most unfortunately, some choir members have recently professed they will not commit to another season of singing in a mask, virtually, or outside. The confessions of these dedicated singers suggests a trauma response to having the craft they love taken away again and provided a substitute that offers reduced benefit to the musician. If producing virtual content does not yield much, if any, revenue for the choirs and the process is not as fulfilling for the singers, what is the purpose?  The benefit of virtual content is to continue that which choirs have cultivated all along – connection, collaboration, beauty, and hope.  How do we continue with exhausted singers, directors, and coffers?

Masks are uncomfortable, vocally tiring, and hinder the choral sound.

It is as if we have reached a choral impasse in the wake of impending virus variant waves. As a society, we need the essence of choir to help evoke community and hope. Directors and choral organizations want to financially support their professional singers.  But, forging ahead for singers and community choirs is colored by trauma and compounded by financial fears. Many choral directors are currently managing their exhaustion as they desperately rework the upcoming 2021-22 season to be safe for singers and audience members. Choristers are weighing the emotional cost of virtual participation or singing in masks or outside while still working through the grief of losing choir.  In addition to considering the emotional component, choir directors and boards are calculating the extensive financial costs of the now ever-changing choral landscape.  Many choirs have committed to adapting, but may not survive the next onslaught without significant support from the community and considerable additional funding. Choirs want to offer connection for the singers, share music with the greater community, and financially support their professional musicians this next season.  But, to be brutally honest, community choirs cannot do it without additional funding, especially from local and state municipalities. The good news is that we can all be part of the solution to this problem: donate to your local choral organizations and contact your local governments requesting they dedicate funding to the arts. Alleviating some of the financial burden of sustaining choir through this next season would be the easiest way to support your local community choir.  Help replace some of the nutrient “soil” washed away with the pandemic so the communal singing in our communities can endure.

Zoom Tips for Private Music Instructors

Private Music Teachers in Unchartered Territory

Unfortunately, many of us are back to feeling unsafe when it comes to in-person learning, due to the increase in the Delta variant. Here are some tips for private music teachers who are transitioning back to Zoom learning.

Background: This article is written from the perspective of a classical flutist who has a background in instrumental music education, particularly, band. That being said, many of these tips can be adapted to other instruments.

Keep Students Connected

I am a huge advocate of taking the time to get to know your student on a more personal level. This means that you need to take a breath and keep your students connected. Learn more about their school: Are they in-person, are they online? What are they doing when they’re not so busy? While this tip may sound basic, it can mean the difference between keeping your student on Zoom or losing them to a competitor who is still offering lessons in person.

I recall the ‘Aha’ moment I had with a student when I realized that she was reading The Lunar Chronicles Series; A set of books that I had begun reading when I was her age as well. Knowing that she was into fantasy and dystopian novels helped me make more relatable allegories for her during flute lessons. Checking in is always time well spent, whether it’s about sports, family, or video games. While we can’t always physically be there, we can get emotionally closer to our students. The better the rapport you have with your pupil, the easier the transition back to online will be.

Integrate Manipulatives

Just because you can’t be with your student in person, doesn’t mean that you can’t use manipulatives. Do some research, and find things that your students can make at home. Some of my favorite tools to use for flutists include simple household items like disposable chopsticks, straws, and Smarties. Chopsticks and straws make easy fixes for weak embouchures and poor tonguing techniques. A roll of smarties (the candy) can be placed on the knuckles to check if the student’s wrist is properly lifted. Elementary students will enjoy making their percussion instruments from tubes and paper and performing new rhythm exercises on them.

Guitar students and other instrumentalists will benefit from manipulatives as well. For example, recently, when I was receiving an online bass lesson, I was instructed to hold a small object between my pinkie and ring finger. This helped me fix the position of my picking hand, without my teacher having to physically be there.

Change Their Angle

It can be very difficult to help your student hold their instrument properly when you can’t physically adjust it for them. Having your pupil periodically change their camera angle will help immensely. I remember when I was an undergrad, one of my professors was watching me during a lesson. He realized that he had only ever seen me play from one certain angle, in the same place, in his office. It wasn’t until he stood up from his chair that he realized that I was playing with a poor wrist technique. My left hand needed to be dropped so that I could play more comfortably.

Use Their Metronome

This is a tip that I learned from guitarist Samuel Rugg. Don’t teach Zoom lessons with your metronome. Lag is one of the biggest complications of teaching music lessons online. If you use your metronome, there will be two lags: One from your metronome getting to the student, and the second, in the student’s sound getting back to you. In essence, even if the student is playing perfectly in time with your metronome, you won’t hear it as such. It’s best to save you and your student some time (and headache) by having the metronome and performance coming from the same location.

Assign Something Unconventional

Students will greatly appreciate lessons that fall outside the norm. Even if they are studying cello performance, try throwing a vocal exercise or composition prompt their way. When it comes to studying music, there’s no irrelevant exercise. Everything is connected.

There are tons of great online music tools out there, too. So when it comes to Zoom lessons? Don’t be afraid to assign a bit of fun homework. For younger students, try giving them an online listening game from Classics for Kids (www.classicsforkids.com/games.html) or ask them to compose on a short melody in Chrome Music Lab (musiclab.chromeexperiments.com/).

For adult students, have them compose something on an instrument they don’t play inside of Garage band (www.apple.com/mac/garageband/). Or, get your students to work on a track together using a free collaborative music site like LoopLabs (www.looplabs.com/).

If you’d like to go more along the classical route, you can also try assigning ear training through a site like Teoria (www.teoria.com/).

Recruit a Family Audience

Many musically gifted students have had to endure the better part of two years with no on-stage performances. A couple of months back, I was teaching an intermediate flute student online. She had seemed far more engaged during this particular lesson than she had been in the previous weeks. I didn’t realize until the end of the lesson (when she turned her camera away from me) that her older siblings and parents had been listening in on us.

At first, I was spooked. I watched my internal teacher become critical: “Did I do a good enough job entertaining the family? Did I spend too much time making book references? “ But then, the mental chatter faded. I realized that recruiting family members can help fill that missing space of not having a stage. When her family was listening, she had an audience.

Conclusion

It’s a brave new world for all of us Zoom music teachers. But we’ve been here before, and we can do this again. Keep conversations during lessons light and lively, and don’t be afraid to try something a little odd. And remember: Online music is better than no music at all!