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It is mid-August. In my profession (I teach college-level composition and music theory), that means it’s time to get down to the less lofty aspects of course preparation: ambitious ideas must be reborn as precise learning objectives, clear evaluation criteria, detailed weekly schedules, and finalized repertoires. As I comb the internet for pieces to use in the introductory orchestration course I will teach for the second time this fall, I am reminded of a familiar frustration: it is easy to find scores by white men, and much harder to find scores by anyone else.
Yes, IMSLP offers an ocean of free sheet music, and that’s to say nothing of the more carefully curated online resources such as Music Theory Examples by Women and the Composers of Color Resource Project. But this apparent abundance can obscure the many omissions. Looking for the full score of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade in A minor for Orchestra? The piece was composed in 1898 and begins with a stormy opening theme — a perfect example of how to subtly strengthen the melody in a passage scored for low strings. (Can you hear the lone bassoon doubling those violins?) Yet, on IMSLP, you will find only piano reductions of nearly all of Coleridge-Taylor’s orchestral works. A full score for Petite Suite de Concert, Op. 77, is the lonely exception. Curious about delving into the orchestral works of Louise Farrenc? Her three symphonies, all written in the 1840s (easily old enough to be in the public domain) are nowhere to be found on IMSLP.
I am grateful that these recent editions of long-neglected works exist, yet I can’t help but lament their inaccessibility, especially when compared to the ubiquity of freely available scores composed by white men. The simple question of why — why are Robert Schumann’s symphonies from the 1840s accessible at no cost for anyone to study and perform, while Louise Farrenc’s symphonies from the same period are behind a costly paywall? — is an important one, but it is related to a larger truth: music educators who wish to fundamentally rethink their content often face significant practical challenges in the simple matter of accessing viable learning materials. The last few decades have seen significant progress toward building web-based resources for inclusive music pedagogy, yet there remains in many disciplines a lack of adequate resources — a major disincentive for teachers wishing to move beyond inherited repertoires and perspectives. In perhaps no musical discipline is this absence more glaring than in the study of orchestration.
Orchestration as an academic study occupies a nebulous place, residing somewhere between composition and music theory, two fields which are themselves often grouped together. (As an example, I teach in my conservatory’s Composition and Music Theory program, where all music theory courses are listed under the same “MCOM” prefix.) My introductory orchestration course that starts next week will include student composers, performers, and music educators. For many of them, this class may represent their most sustained exposure to full musical scores for mid-sized and large ensembles, so the choice of composers studied in this context could profoundly influence their notions of whose music is worthy of study. (For a fascinating and bracing study on this topic, see Cora Palfy and Eric Gilson, “The Hidden Curriculum in the Music Theory Classroom.”)
Textbooks wield a special kind of power in perpetuating the canon of composers that still dominate the music academy, and music theory textbooks have been heavily scrutinized in recent years. In his Music Theory Online article, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” Philip Ewell provides a racial demographic breakdown of musical examples in seven leading music theory textbooks, in which he reveals that, “of the 2,930 musical examples in all seven textbooks, 49 were written by nonwhites. This represents 1.67% of the musical examples from all textbooks.”
Orchestration textbooks have largely avoided such critiques, but they fair no better; they are actually a bit worse. The following chart presents a racial and gender demographic breakdown of the musical examples in three well-known orchestration textbooks:
Total # of examples
# of examples by non-whites
% of examples by non-whites
# of examples by women
% of examples by women
Adler, 4th Ed. (2016)
Blatter, 2nd Ed. (1997)
Kennan and Grantham, 6th Ed. (2002)
The percentages shown in the chart are so extreme that they bear restating: fewer than 1% of the musical examples in these books are taken from pieces by non-white composers, and fewer than 1% are from pieces by women.
There is not a single example composed by a non-white woman in any of the books. In contrast, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is used in 10 separate instances, while Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony and Claude Debussy’s La Mer are each cited 9 times. The outsize representation of these familiar works extends to the disproportionate attention lavished on the expected composers. Mozart leads the way with 18 pieces featured in Adler’s The Study of Orchestration, followed by Beethoven at 17, then Ravel, Strauss, and Stravinsky at 13 each, with Tchaikovsky, Bartók, Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Wagner rounding out the tidy list of ten composers with 10 or more pieces in the Adler book.
The racial and gender identities of the authors of orchestration textbooks are even more lopsided than the identities of the composers whose music populates the book. I could not find a single comprehensive orchestration manual authored by someone other than a white man. It’s worth noting that Blatter’s Instrumentation and Orchestration includes an unusually thorough bibliography containing related resources that reflect perspectives other than those of white men, including books on the history of the orchestra (Joan Peyser, ed. The Orchestra: Origins and Translations, New York: Schirmer, 1986), volumes on instrumentation (Sibyl Marcuse, A Survey of Musical Instruments, New York: Harper & Row, 1975), and several manuals about composing for individual instruments. And the internet offers numerous excellent tutorials on composing for individual instruments, such as Heather Roche’s excellent blog on contemporary clarinet writing. Yet when it comes to lists of books and blogs on orchestration, most look like this and this.
I gave a talk at this year’s Society of Composers National Conference called “Tossing the Textbook and Decentering the Canon in an Introductory Orchestration Course.” The talk focused on my efforts to move beyond the traditional orchestral literature in my orchestration class by relying on evidence-based pedagogical practices, such as using backward design, creating the conditions for meaningful student agency, and providing and receiving effective feedback throughout the semester. The pedagogy portion of the talk was met with a shrug; I was preaching to the choir about the why. How was another matter. The issue of access to scores and the challenge of finding adequate learning materials — along with the stark demographic statistics I provided about the orchestration textbooks — sparked engaging and sometimes passionate discussion.
It is easy to find scores by white men, and much harder to find scores by anyone else.
Why are Robert Schumann’s symphonies from the 1840s accessible at no cost for anyone to study and perform, while Louise Farrenc’s symphonies from the same period are behind a costly paywall?
I could not find a single comprehensive orchestration manual authored by someone other than a white man.
We must continue to demand that new textbooks do a better job with representation.
So, what of the pieces that are old enough to be in the public domain, yet are still nowhere to be (freely) found? Why is IMSLP full of Robert Schumann’s orchestral scores but devoid of Louise Farrenc’s, replete with Gustav Mahler’s symphonies but virtually empty of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s? Farrenc’s three symphonies were written in the 1840s, but the Hoffman/Heitmann critical editions were published between 1998–2000 and thus will remain protected for decades. Unless you can get yourself to the Bibliothèque nationale de France to peruse the original manuscript of Farrenc’s Symphony no. 3, or to the Philadelphia Free Library’s Fleisher Collection to pore over the microfilm, the critical editions are the only game in town. Similarly, many of Coleridge-Taylor’s orchestral works are available only as recently published, and sometimes costly, critical editions.
These critical editions are invaluable resources; their editors deserve to be credited and compensated for their expertise. I only seek to point out that, as of today, I can choose to invest in Schott’s critical edition of Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony but I can also access many earlier editions for free. I don’t have that choice with much of the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Louise Farrenc for the simple reason that their orchestral work wasn’t thought to be worth publishing until relatively recently.
Some editors and publishers are working to make these scores more accessible. The French site ComposHer strives to increase access to scores by women composers; its recent edition of Emilie Mayer’s Faust-Ouverture is freely accessible under a Creative Commons license and includes a full set of parts. Another publisher, Serenissima Music, restores and digitizes original editions of hard-to-find pieces and posts them to IMSLP; it is courtesy of Serenissima that we have access to the full score of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Petite Suite de Concert. (Serenissima has also partnered directly with IMSLP to print and sell physical copies of some of these reprints under the Petrucci Library Press imprint.)
We should feel a sense of urgency to join these efforts to make more scores of public domain works accessible. Imagine the possibilities for cross-disciplinary student projects devoted to creating usable and accessible editions of scores for Emilie Mayer’s first and second symphonies, or modern editions of Vicente Lusitano’s book of motets, Liber primus epigramatum. These projects would bring together music scholars from various disciplines and would galvanize students and faculty toward a common and profoundly meaningful goal.
We also must continue to demand that new textbooks do a better job with representation. Though alternative learning resources exist, textbooks continue to be important and influential forces in defining the values and boundaries of a discipline. It is encouraging that W. W. Norton has contracted Rosa Abrahams, Philip Ewell, Aaron Grant, and Cora Palfy to write a new music theory textbook, The Engaged Musician: Theory and Analysis for the 21st Century (projected 2023), which Ewell describes as “a modernized, reframed, and inclusive textbook based on recent developments in music theory pedagogy.” The field of orchestration is in dire need of a similar textbook, with the backing of a publisher willing to help with the costs of reprinting copyright-protected musical excerpts by BIPOC and women composers in addition to curating selections from the public domain.
So many of our students and colleagues want to move beyond the canonic composers. Let’s keep working to get them the resources they need.
I spent my youth playing notes on a page. And if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you did too. This notation, particular for what we think of as Western music, is merely one graphic, albeit specific, representation of musical sound. And some of it is quite pleasingly arranged on the page, with calligraphy and shaped staves. But connections of music to visual art are as old as music notation itself.
Chant was notated with beautiful framing on the pages. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition translates the paintings of Richard Hartmann just as Debussy’s La Mer is a sonic response to Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa. William Grant Still took as his subject works by Richmond Barthé, Sargent Johnson, and Augusta Savage in his Suite for Violin and Piano. Gian Carlo Menotti broke through his writer’s block when he visited Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi to come up with perennial holiday favorite Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Lady Gaga was likewise inspired by the same artist’s Birth of Venus for her own “Venus.”
These visual connections give the listener a starting point for understanding, which is especially useful in the field of experimental music. What is unidentifiable sonically can trigger a memory or a feeling when it’s attached to a visual. A visual that inspires the composer or improviser is sure to also inspire audiences to a fuller and more moving experience.
A visual that inspires the composer or improviser is sure to also inspire audiences to a fuller and more moving experience.
The Kentler International Drawing Center is driving this connection home with its now-touring exhibition Music as Image and Metaphor. The Kentler Flatfiles have been accessible to Brooklyn visitors for three decades, and curators planned to bring a selection of the collection to the Bartlett’s Center in Columbus, GA this past year. This would have combined with performances by composer/pianist Michael Kowalski and percussionist/composer Allen Otte via the music department at Columbus State University.
In a dilemma familiar to many last year, by October 2020 it was decided that the plans had to change. But Kowalski and Otte did not completely abandon the concert – they instead created a lasting musical installation, able to reach far more visitors than a single performance, with an opening in January 2021. For 40 pieces from the collection, Kowalski and Otte would create individual short musical responses. 40 new pieces of music, connected to visual works, accessible in the gallery and also online. A setup that allows the visitor to absorb themselves in the aesthetic conversation, or, exist within the infinity mirror of creativity.
Both Kowalski and Otte, as well as curators David Houston and Florence Neal, were happy with the result, and now the exhibition is headed to the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi, MS this month.
Allen Otte is a member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. With the Black Earth and later Percussion Group Cincinnati he has been on the cutting edge of percussion-based chamber music. (Note: the author is a former student of Allen Otte.) Michael Kowalski was a pioneer of computer-based composition, who moved from chamber music to opera when he founded The Postindustrial Players. The two overlapped as students at Oberlin, and have collaborated before. But while being quite like-minded artistically, their approaches could best be described as opposites.
Knowing the likely answer, I asked both men if it was easier to write one 20-minute piece or 20 one-minute pieces.
Otte found the episodic nature delightful. “I could boom, you know, get an idea, make a response and not be responsible for actually much more than than the idea and the response. And in a minute or 90 seconds, it’s gone.” Percussion being an area where less is more in many cases likely made this more intuitive. “If it were twenty one minutes from me, I would have been uncomfortable,” he said. But he had expected Kowalski, who lists “composer” first among his occupations, to keep the game at a high level.
Kowalski agreed that the two are of a different mind, and thinks an attentive listener could take note of different kinds of craftsmanship happening. But that’s part of the fun, “because you don’t get in one person’s groove and stay there. It takes 45 or 50 minutes to actually hear the whole thing. If you just walk through the show and spend a minute on every piece, that’s how long it would take.”
Guests can take a tour through the exhibition, listening to pieces inspired by each piece of art. There is no stated theme, and no planned progression. The locations in Columbia and Biloxi are set up differently, with the images in a different order, so if a story can be extrapolated, it will be different than any other version of the exhibition. This includes an online visit, which can of course be in any order one likes.
In the compositional process, nearly opposite approaches were both successful.
Kowalski outlined specific procedures for himself, almost like a game:
Music as image:
Provide a soundtrack (as if the image is a film) or
Use the image as a graphic score
Or music as metaphor:
If the artist were making music, what would this image sound like? or
Enter a dialogue with the visual art
Random selection of these approaches created structure – more of a puzzle to solve and less of a blank page. And he applied these four procedures with a simple shuffle of the deck – mostly sticking to whatever process came up, no matter the image.
Otte was more intuitive, keeping a chart of the images he had an immediate reaction to, and curating himself from there: asking “whether I was doing too much of one kind of thing and whether I really ought to find a way to push myself to think about a piece in a different way.”
Both Otte and Kowalski spent time studying with composer Herbert Brün, who was a pioneer of graphic notation, and who is also represented as a visual artist in the Flatfiles. In Otte’s hands, responding to Brün’s piece was unexpectedly his most difficult assignment.
Three computer generated graphics by Herbert Brün–Orchestra Model One (1971), Ensemble Analogue Four (1974), and Web I (1971), image courtesy Kentler International Drawing Center.
“Herbert’s piece was one of the hardest ones to do and one of the last ones that I came up with,” he said. But also pointed out that throughout the project, difficulty often yielded a better result. This is possibly because some of the pictures presented a challenge, or because the challenge demanded more time be taken, and led to more self-questioning. Of Brün’s work he noted, “Well, actually, that’s the one that’s somewhat strong, that has some substance to it.”
For Kowalski, who is a white man, this challenge came in the form of an image of musicians at New York’s iconic Five Spot by biracial artist Robin Holder. His randomly selected procedure was to create a soundtrack – something that could easily have come across as an appropriation.
Five Spot 2 is one of the more literal images in the entire exhibition, so there was no way to ignore what was in it.
Five Spot 2 is one of the more literal images in the entire exhibition, so there was no way to ignore what was in it. “I had to be honest and embrace that. So that was a toughie.” So in this one case, he did break his procedural “rules,” writing what he felt was a more appropriate musical response. He also recruited an ensemble. Once again, having to think a little harder being a good impulse “that just forced me to come up with something else, maybe something better.”
Robin Holder: Five Spot 2, stencil monotype, 22″x30″ (2005), image courtesy Kentler International Drawing Center.
The museum’s notes call the music “often surprising, sometimes baffling, always illuminating.” The connection between the 40 works chosen (out of 2000 options) by David Houston and Florence Neal is up to the beholder. The same can be said about the pieces of music.
Otte felt a connection with the works by relating to what he called the performative aspect of an artist–the idea of still engaging an audience while the visual artist’s work remains still. Whereas Kowalski found a kinship with the act of creation – making a picture being analogous to making a sound. Different results, but the mindset implies a similar procedure.
All of which are ideas that can apply to other visuals when they combine with music–especially dance, where both Otte and Kowalski have a great deal of experience.
“I can only say that I’ve been, more often than not, astounded at what dancers are hearing in music and how they experience music and it’s often fascinating,” Otte said. In his experience dancers may give apologies for not “knowing” an appropriate musical term, while their assessment of the piece is generally quite insightful.
Kowalski also noted the complexity of choreography as a visual form: existing in three dimensions and moving. “If you’re sitting beyond about row 12, you’re seeing a great deal of usually very complicated forms, tracing patterns, on a fairly large stage.”
A previous collaboration between the two featured this interaction. Kowalski wrote a piece for the Percussion Group Cincinnati called Rebus, which includes choreography with flag signals. Initially composing a storyboard, once again the visual existed before the sounds. But, that piece was quite concrete – something Kowalski has always found essential working with dancers.
“Unlike musicians, dancers don’t notate, usually they don’t go into a rehearsal with a bunch of things in their head already,” he pointed out. “They work it out. It’s a very different way of working from most musicians that I know.”
There is no one right way to do a project like this. But like any collaboration, trust must be involved. If the creators are open and welcoming to each other’s vision, then brilliant combinations are possible. If we were to call the visual and the musical participants “sides” of the equation – the sides have to balance, and be somewhat open to the other’s contributions. Kowalski describes this as a tension, much like a conversation. But to be successful, each factor, visual and musical alike, must point to the other.
There is no one right way to do a project like this. But like any collaboration, trust must be involved.
“Some people dig it more visual, and then they get into the music and the other people the other way around, and I just think that’s ideal,” he explained. “I’m very happy about that.”
Despite their different approaches, both musicians planned and charted and graphed to create each of these responses. Otte describes the planning as a math problem. “The calculations that went into that final one minute; that final 60 seconds repeated for each of us 20 times in one way or another.” But also occasionally the minute of music came quickly and easily. “The ones which just came in in some burst of fun, we stuck with a few of those.”
Otte and Kowalski will be live at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum for a talk and performance of even three more premieres. Forms of falling dust is a work for prepared yang-qin by Rachel C. Walker, a former student of Otte. Another collaboration between Otte and Kowalski called How To Compose Yourself involves a fairly frenzied piano part with percussive commentary. And the concert includes a new iteration of Begin Again, a work by Kowalski whose material stretches from the year 1597 to 1977 and now to 2021. In Begin Again a treatise by Thomas Morley was interpreted on an IBM computer by Ed Miller. A 1977 rendition included the voice of soprano Marlene Rosen, and this version it will include today’s additions from Otte and Kowalski.
The act of drawing on decades of material is part of what makes the project feel so substantial. Music originally created on an IBM the size of a linen closet, being watched and heard on a phone that fits in my hand, still feels fresh and new in this context. And while these pieces of music once again come to life thanks to fresh realizations, they also have renewed meaning thanks to the pairing with another artist’s visual material.
Music originally created on an IBM the size of a linen closet, being watched and heard on a phone that fits in my hand, still feels fresh and new in this context.
The clichés about art and music would tell us that the two aesthetic forms are bound to go together. I leaned into one of these, by Jean-Michel Basquiat, in my conversation with Otte and Kowalski.
“Art is how we decorate space. Music is how we decorate time.”
“Decoration,” said Otte. “That’s a loaded word.” Kowalski objected as well.
But at the surface level he immediately conceded that music could be “delightful if it is in fact decorative and entertaining.” And Kowalski identified “entertaining” as a secret word.
“That’s the word that overlaps: ‘decoration,’” Kowalski said. “Decoration is congenial and attractive and so is entertainment when it’s any good, I think. And so I would use the word ‘shape’ instead of ‘decorate.’”
So Basquiat is possibly correct, depending on what the music has to say. Whether or not you can welcome the word “decorate” for a serious piece of music is up to you, just as whether or not a piece of art “shapes” your space. And the fact that we’ve returned to these kinds of philosophical artistic conversations is another sign that we’re emerging from the harshest closure in the history of music with our thoughtfulness intact.
Development: musical image / Michael Kowalski’s music sketches for “Untitled” by Kazuhiro Nishijima, images courtesy Kentler International Drawing Center.
As a pandemic-pivot, this project was enormously successful in that some music-making happened at all. While the music world navigates a bumpy road to a new normalcy, this project is quite possibly a model. Not just of the value of interdisciplinary connections, but also one of flexibility and access.
While the music world navigates a bumpy road to a new normalcy, this project is quite possibly a model.
Music as Image and Metaphor has visual and aural elements that are complete statements on their own. It can be experienced at an individual level, at one’s own pace. And it’s available in varying degrees of in-person participation, including online. And geographically, it has been available to viewers in the southeastern USA. While the Kentler Flatfiles reside in Brooklyn, they have been available in this form to viewers in Georgia and Mississippi. Modeling and sparking conversations – musical dialogues – that allow us to grow our audience, our depth as artists, and our own creativity.
40 Flatfiles down, 1,960 to go.
This exhibition of the Kentler Flatfiles includes pieces by the following visual artists: Herbert Brün, Beth Caspar, Phillip Chen, Abby Goldstein, Takuji Hamanaka, Keiko Hara, robin holder, Richard Howe, Hannah Israel, Mary Judge, Kazuhiro Nishijima, Ralph Kiggell, Rosalinda Kolb, Jiří Kornatovský, Robert Lansden, Simon Lewandowski, Jim Napierala, Florence Neal, Margaret Neill, Morgan O’Hara, Gahae Park, Jaanika Peerna, Scott Pfaffman, Orlando Richards, Susan Schwalb, Viviane Rombaldi Seppey, Molly Snyder-Fink, and Hugh Williams.
It feels like old news at this point to say that I have struggled during the Covid-19 pandemic. There are days where getting out of bed has felt like a chore and where my fears, both irrational and not, have consumed me into a spiral of anxiety. There are days where practicing clarinet, writing, working on projects, and teaching my students helps me find calm. However, a cloud of ambiguity tends to dissipate that calm and instead fuels anxiety as to when my next live performance will be. Like many, I have not-so curiously wondered where in the world the end to this global health crisis is, and why it hasn’t arrived sooner.
It also feels like old news to say that the pandemic has made me reflect on my artistic practice. I have felt empowered by improvising, by creating my own layered recordings, and even by writing the words you see here, but have felt insecure about my ability to do such in a world that is healing from unimaginable loss, pain, and grief.
Within days of restrictions being lifted in New York, ads for ticket sales and tour dates began populating my newsfeed. With cautious optimism, I thought, is live music really back? I was waiting for a point where another bar would close or a party would get too out of control, forcing me to be in the confines of my childhood bedroom once again. I had already wondered where my work as an artist fits into the ever-changing world, and with the dichotomy of student versus performer I assigned to myself, I pondered whether my art would be taken seriously, even as I chose to continue my studies.
Within days of restrictions being lifted in New York, ads for ticket sales and tour dates began populating my newsfeed.
I was in awe of the artists who I only knew virtually until that day making music so beautifully and authentically.
I want to be creating performances where people are not only called on to be present, but feel welcomed into doing so.
Working two jobs hasn’t given me much free time, so when I miraculously woke up to a Saturday with nothing on my schedule, I almost laughed. What should I do? Should I hang out with a friend, go get my nails done, catch up on my email? I went with the obvious choice and met up with a good friend who recently moved back to Manhattan. While sipping our coffees in the park near his apartment, I realized that there was free, live music happening in Astor Place that night, including two fellows from bespoken, a mentorship program we’re a part of that supports female and nonbinary musicmakers, who run the The Juneteenth Legacy Project. I debated whether I should go solely because I thought the more responsible thing to do would be to catch up on work, but it was Saturday, and I knew in my heart I needed to be out and about.
The energy was euphoric on the 6 train to Astor Place. With baseball fans chattering and families laughing, the subway felt far more alive in comparison to when I’ve taken it in months past. This felt familiar, reminiscent of what my “old life” resembled, but intersected with gratitude for even being in a dinky subway car with all of these strangers.
Walking up the stairs and out of the station was like a pantomime. I was immediately welcomed to the sounds of violin, piano, voice, and even electronics from The Red Stage, an outdoor pop-up space in Astor Place created by artist Rashid Johnson, blending with the hum of passing vehicles and the energetic laughter of passersby. Isn’t that fascinating – how the sounds from around us can add so much to a concert or a show? As cliché as it sounds, I don’t think I would have considered that had it not been for the pandemic. I never thought I would feel so grateful for the small sounds of people coexisting with me, yet there I was, bobbing my head along, feeling pure contentment and gratitude for sharing this space with all of these strangers. All of the fears and doubts swirling around in my mind left my body; instead, I was in awe of the artists who I only knew virtually until that day making music so beautifully and authentically. For how many people was this their first taste of live music again? Surely, not just me.
The Red Stage’s mission is to invite artists to create freely and authentically after a year of such immense anxiety. I had originally come to see the Juneteenth Legacy Project featuring Nnenna Ogwo, Erika Banks-Alvarez, percussionist Donnie Johns, and the Sterling String Quartet, and was delighted to also hear multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Celisse, violinist Ché Buford, and genre-bending artist mal sounds, whose sounds greeted me as I first arrived. What I loved was how open the environment felt, not only because of its outdoor location, but because of the programming and energy generated by the artists themselves. There was no rushing to change over artists, no “shhs” when people clapped more than once; rather, there was space for each listener, whether there for a minute or an hour, to experience movements between experimental, classical, and even pop music. The concert was about 2 hours, featuring music by H.T. Burleigh, William Grant Still, Lizzo, Ché Buford, Childish Gambino, and more.
There were about 50 people in the audience, with benches dispersed near the stage, but many, like myself, took the option to stand amongst friends and enjoy the music in our little cohorts. From time to time, a light drizzle pushed its way into the atmosphere, but most paid no mind; there was a collective feeling of gratitude for being able to hear these artists do what they do best.
The Juneteenth Legacy Project (Photo credit: Jelani Thompson)
When I think of this concert and this time I carved out for myself to experience the thing that inspires me most, music, I smile from ear to ear. All I kept thinking while the show was going on is: “This is how concerts should feel.” The vulnerability of the artists to share this music with us in such a confusing time had me thinking about the idea of being present–at an event, a dinner, and in my daily life. I want to be creating performances where people are not only called on to be present, but feel welcomed into doing so. I don’t want to be limited to one genre of music; I want to be at the forefront of all the artistic possibilities I saw, heard, and experienced that night at The Red Stage.
Joy has always been the thing I have wanted to be at the center of what I do. The idea of cultivating a space for joy, to not only feel joy while creating sound on clarinet or writing these very words, but sharing that with the world at large, is fuel for me. Being at this concert brought me back to that part of myself. The world is healing, and so am I. I have the power to spread that joy–in whatever medium, in-person or online, right here, right now.
Val Jeanty (Photo by Wolf Daniel, courtesy of Roulette Intermedium)
From Val Jeanty’s essay “Sonic Ritual”
Music is pure communication and Vodou-electro is rhythmic intelligence that escapes the boundaries of the tonal. Operating as a kind of sonic communicative life-form, it incorporates a host of sampled wavelengths, rhythms and effects. Its tech-driven effects allow it to confuse the ear, blending interior and exterior realities so that, under the right conditions, it can virtually be seen, touched, and interacted with. More than just effects and inspiration, Vodou Culture has always been a powerful catalyst of change in my work, introducing powerful abstract harmonies that encapsulate new ways of thinking and bold compositions. Each rhythm has produced its own unique set of resonances and all of these sounds have – at some point – fused with and influenced one another, merging into a vibrational ocean of Haitian ancestral legacy. I continue to sample this ocean, creating new pulses and rhythms that send tentative sonic probes into unmapped realms and the ancient futures.
Tomeka Reid (photo by Joel Wanek)
From Tomeka Reid’s “5 Favorite Quarantine Recipes”
I love sunflower butter and have attempted to travel with it but have often ended up having it confiscated by the TSA! Forgetting to check it in my luggage, I’d have a jar in my snack bag and because of its “creamy” nature it would get tossed! Additionally, in my efforts to limit my use of single-use plastic, I decided to learn how to make it. Using 3 cups of raw sunflower seeds, lightly toast them on high on the stove for a few minutes until browned and then put them in a food processor. Blend in 1 minute intervals. A total of 10 minutes of blending usually does the job of turning them into a nice paste or butter. You can also do this with sesame seeds to make tahini. No oil needed in either case! The oils will eventually be released from the processing. Store the butter in mason jars or some other suitable container. I can’t say too much about the shelf life because it’s usually gone after a week or two. I also don’t add anything like sugar or salt, for example, but I’m sure you could!
In May 1989, the Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato took to the floor of the senate chambers to angrily denounce the artist Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ—which depicted a crucifix submerged in urine—as what he called a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” What made D’Amato particularly furious, and what led to his protests along with those of his fellow Senator Jesse Helms, was the fact that Serrano’s photograph had been touring as part of an exhibit indirectly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. “This is not a question of free speech,” D’Amato proclaimed, as he waved a reproduction of the exhibit’s catalog. “This is a question of abuse of taxpayers’ money.” And then, unceremoniously, he tore the catalog in half, threw it on the floor, and declared, “What a disgrace.”
Worried about similar controversies, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington preemptively cancelled a large-scale exhibit of photographs by artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who had died of AIDS earlier that year, which included several explicit depictions of gay sex acts as well as nude children. Serrano and Mapplethorpe became the scapegoats for an uproar among Republicans in Congress, who debated whether the Endowment should be defunded or significantly restricted, as well as a newly galvanized evangelical movement, who accused the Endowment of promoting profanity and pornography. Avant-garde art, and its government funding, was conscripted into the sweeping referendum on post-’60s society, waged between left and right, known as the Culture Wars.
American composers, however, seemed to have little to fear: the focus of right-wing anger was directed towards the radical photography of Serrano and Mapplethorpe, as well as the performance art of figures like Karen Finley. The music that became subject to Culture Wars controversy––such as the rock and hip-hop targeted by the PMRC and Christian fundamentalist organizations––seemed far from the world of contemporary composition. Indeed, in an October 1989 article, the young composer David Lang expounded on the apparent lack of significance of the so-called “Helms amendment”––an attempt by the right-wing senator Jesse Helms to restrict federal funding to art that was deemed obscene or indecent––for the world of new music. “Artists like to feel that their work is challenging enough to be controversial,” he wrote. “Photographers, painters, filmmakers and the like can imagine victimization at the hands of Congress as a badge of honor. They are Art-martyrs to the First Amendment.”
“With all of the excitement,” Lang fretted, “it is disturbing that so little of this controversy is aimed at composers. Are we not controversial? Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music? It is possible that we are doing something wrong.” Later in the article, Lang ultimately singled out one central culprit, what he called “A colossal loss of nerve.” As the academic avant-garde faded, Lang wrote, composers were looking to work with mainstream institutions and reach large audiences, and thus “there are a lot of people we can’t afford to offend.” Lang’s principal scapegoat was “polite music,” music “designed to impress an audience, not to provoke it. “Congress says we are dangerous,” he concluded. “It is up to us to prove it.”
David Lang fretted, “Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music?”
But in utilizing the Culture Wars as a backdrop for making a perennial argument––that composers needed to make their music more aesthetically adventurous, to re-embrace avant-garde impulses––Lang may have overlooked the very real consequences of the Culture Wars on contemporary music. New music was not only swept up in the decimated public funding landscape that Helms and the religious right set into motion. Its institutions were also the subject of their own specific controversy, within the press and among granting panels, that centered on attempts to enact multicultural arts policy and promote the work of women and composers of color.
This three-decade-old episode of an attempt to diversify the world of contemporary composition––amidst a landscape of increasing arts austerity, loud Congressional battles over avant-garde art, and public backlash from prominent composers––has much to offer today’s attempts at fostering inclusion. It is one of many stories from my recent book, Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace, which draws on interviews and archival research to reconstruct a crucial, turbulent, and oft-overlooked moment in American music.
In the late 1980s, “multiculturalism” was a buzzword in the American arts world: promoted by foundation and government administrators, detested by conservatives, and made an explicit if only partly realized goal for arts institutions. In these contexts, multiculturalism was typically understood to signify the advocacy for art created by minority groups as well as outreach programs by traditional institutions to minority communities.
Multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how NYSCA should adjudicate its funding.
And multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how the New York State Council on the Arts (hereafter NYSCA) should adjudicate its funding. Established in 1960 as a public funding body for the arts in New York State, NYSCA preceded the NEA and served as a model for some of its programs. Under the direction of James Jordan—the cousin and longtime manager of Ornette Coleman—NYSCA’s Music Program increasingly supported new music, including adding a priority for programming living composers to its guidelines in 1985, and running a statewide touring program intended to grow audiences for new work. Jordan maintained a strong commitment to funding experimental jazz and the work of Black composers, and also viewed public funding as a means for new music to reach new listeners. “Can you sell experimental music?” he asked in a 1991 interview with EAR Magazine. “I think you can. But you have to sell its humanity, its spirituality…It’s the marketing that sells, whether it’s experimental or not.”
In this period, NYSCA attempted to address the issue of multiculturalism, partly in response to political pressure. In 1987, it launched a program to diversify audiences for large cultural institutions like the New York Philharmonic via funding for outreach programs. But in a series of public hearings conducted by the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, the “new audiences” programs were critiqued for subsidizing established institutions at the expense of smaller organizations within minority communities. The caucus organized a task force which produced a 1989 report, “Towards Cultural Democracy,” lambasting NYSCA for excluding people of color from its staff and panels, and for awarding grants primarily to “Eurocentric” institutions; its minority-aimed Special Arts Service Division, for example, was continuously underfunded and required lobbying simply to stay afloat. NYSCA’s panel review system was itself suspect, as its “experts” were typically only familiar with Eurocentric art forms and perspectives: “People of color are always outnumbered on panels and have little or no input in that decision-making process.”
“This is not a purely symbolic debate,” sociologist Samuel Gilmore wrote of multicultural arts funding in 1993. “Rather it is a battle over the current and future allocation of scarce artistic resources.” Public agencies were continually and rightfully pressured by their constituents to wrestle with how to allocate arts funding across different ethnic and racial demographics. As they attempted to do so—often poorly and unfairly, as the critics in “Towards Cultural Democracy” argued—they also faced critique from conservatives who felt that the organizations were abandoning the “permanent values” of the supposed canon of high art in favor of serving political interests.
The terms of this debate mirrored contemporaneous political battles over affirmative action, in which liberals argued for the necessity of acknowledging racial difference and conservatives instead made a case for purportedly “meritocratic” colorblindness. And what unfolded at NYSCA reflected national trends in arts funding; in the final years of the 1980s, as Gilmore points out, NEA programs in multiple categories steadily increased grants awarded to minority-based initiatives (though, in proportion to the agency’s total budget, such efforts still remained paltry). In 1990, President Bush’s NEA chairman described multiculturalism as an NEA priority, and language around it was incorporated into grant making guidelines.
Some of NYSCA’s new policies led to an uproar in the world of contemporary music, most vociferously voiced by the composer Charles Wuorinen. With the composer and flutist Harvey Sollberger, Wuorinen had co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962, among the earliest American ensembles specializing in contemporary composition. It was initially housed at Columbia University and received significant early funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which had been seeding ensembles and electronic music studios at universities across the country. (Michael Uy’s fascinating new book Ask the Experts tells the full story of this moment.) The Group participated in a broader network of emergent Cold War institutions, including Princeton’s PhD program in composition, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and the journal Perspectives of New Music, which codified a new support system for contemporary music, strongly underscored scientific expertise, and were backed by university and foundation patronage.
A paradigmatic modernist Cold Warrior, Wuorinen had a forbidding reputation as an advocate for serial composition. And through the 1980s, he increasingly articulated a pessimistic, neoconservative worldview, expressing concerns about populism, pluralism, and the decline of “serious culture.” In a 1988 profile in The New York Times, on the occasion of Wuorinen’s fiftieth birthday, writer Joan Peyser focused on the composer’s concerns that minimalism was overtaking twelve-tone music, driven by institutions such as NYSCA prioritizing audiences over art. Like the neocon art critics who filled the pages of The New Criterion such as Samuel Lipman and Hilton Kramer, Wuorinen traced the plight of the present moment to the late ’60s: “That was the turning point. Art became capitalized, a Good Thing, something to be brought to everyone. With that came the promoting, the merchandising, the marketing––the change from art to entertainment.”
And Wuorinen apparently told the Times that the Group for Contemporary Music’s next season might be scrapped in part because of NYSCA: the composer “says the council’s money is going to organizations specializing in Minimalist music and that members of its music committee have told him of their wish to help promote the work of women and blacks.” The composer attempted to resist such efforts, steadfastly refusing to take any such considerations into account when programming his ensemble’s repertoire.
Grant application materials, held in the New York State Archives, further clarify both NYSCA and the Group’s positions. Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about its failure to program women and minority composers. In the preceding years, the Group programmed no music by women composers, and only one work by a Black composer. Wuorinen and the Group’s staff met with James Jordan in fall 1986. In a response to NYSCA that November, the ensemble’s executive director wrote that the Group had received few scores by women or minority composers in the past, but it would issue a public call, emphasizing that women and minorities would be encouraged to apply. Still, he noted, “We will continue to select the most worthy ones for performance without respect to gender or ethnic background.”
Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about the Group for Contemporary Music’s failure to program women and minority composers.
NYSCA was set up in a similar fashion to the National Endowment for the Arts: an internal staff helped adjudicate grants, in dialogue with independent panels of peer artists. And the peer panel that voted on the Group’s funding application later that month was not convinced: “That the Group has received only one score from a woman and none from minorities in the past two seasons had more to do with the history of not performing the works of women and minorities, creating an unwelcome atmosphere.” Its annual funding was cut substantially, from $16,000 to $10,000. Other ensembles faced similar scrutiny: reviewing an application from another group, Speculum Musicae, panelists discussed the “insularity of its programming, and the lack of evidence of any real effort to include women and minorities,” and its funding was cut by $3,000. In a 1985 review meeting, administrators from the downtown venue Experimental Intermedia told a NYSCA officer that they would feature more women and minority composers going forward.
Still, the Group refused to play ball. In June 1987, the ensemble held a board meeting in which it decided that “affirmative action programs had no place in artistic endeavors,” and “agreed that The Group must continue to maintain the integrity of its programming, despite the consequences of NYSCA funding or lack of it.” Its NEA funding had been cut back, too, and its New York seasons shrunk; the Group did, however, program music by two women, Michelle Ekizian and Barbara Kolb, in 1987 and 1989.
Beginning with its 1990 handbook, NYSCA’s guidelines included a new section stating that “The Council is particularly interested in offering assistance to worthy artistic activities that serve traditionally underserved communities or populations.” The policy advocated for applicants to increase the diversity of their staff and program for culturally diverse audiences. To evaluate these new criteria, NYSCA asked questions of applicants “relating to participation in and service to traditionally underserved populations.” There were no pre-determined answers it sought, but it wanted to see a given applicant demonstrate good-faith effort. “We don’t punish those who don’t program women, minority, and American composers,” Jordan told EAR in 1991. “We reward those who do.”
After skipping applying for NYSCA funding for two years, the Group applied again in 1990 for a modest $5,500 for a three-concert, free series comprising music by Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, Olivier Messiaen, and other composers––all of whom were white men. Responding to one of the new application questions––“Do you include artists who are representatives of minorities and special constituencies in your programming?”––the Group reiterated what had now become familiar rhetoric, that it was interested in programming minority composers “of merit” and that its artists “are selected on the basis of ability.” The peer panel reviewing the application debated whether to reduce requested funding based on its failure to address past concerns over diversity, and the state ultimately awarded $5,000. But the Group only presented one of its three proposed programs and in 1991–92, the ensemble’s thirtieth season, it ended its live concert series entirely, instead dedicating its resources exclusively to recording.
“The State Council of New York attempted to tell me what I should program,” Wuorinen told the scholar Richard Douglas Burbank around this time. “That’s why the Group for Contemporary Music doesn’t exist anymore, except on paper. The Arts Council wanted affirmative action.” He added that “They were taking artistic control from us and I wouldn’t have it.”
One peer organization in new music had no issues complying with NYSCA’s requests. Founded in 1987 by the composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, the freewheeling Bang on a Can festival brought together rock-inflected postminimalism, uptown serialism, downtown experimentalism, and world music. They had easy answers to the questions that the Group had protested. In a 1990 NYSCA application, Bang on a Can described in detail its marketing and publicity work to reach diverse audiences, and noted that “our commitment to women and minorities has been, and remains, very strong,” providing a list of more than twenty women and minority composers featured in the past four years.
Back in 1988, Lang had actually written a letter to the Times rebuking their profile of Wuorinen, in which he accused the composer and his uptown compatriots of “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad.” He added, “Only by encouraging diversity can music hope to stay vital.”
These priorities also made Bang on a Can an appealing candidate to foundations that supported diversity-focused initiatives. In 1990, it successfully applied for funding from the Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program to commission three new string quartets written by women, which the organization pitched as helping rectify the fact that “women composers are under-represented” in standard repertoire. (In terms of gender, an average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.)
An average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.
In a 1991 funding request to the Jerome Foundation, Gordon wrote that “In the past five years we have presented on our marathon concerts works by 82 emerging composers, of which 34 were by women and composers of color,” and that all of its commissioned works for 1992 were by women and people of color. He further noted that during its process for evaluating works submitted for performance at its marathons, following an initial blind review to see if the music fit the “artistic vision of the Festival,” there was a second review with a number of considerations including “whether the composer is an emerging, woman, or minority composer.” This clear acknowledgement that the organization took gender, race, and ethnicity into account in its programming would have been anathema to Wuorinen, who saw such efforts as a form of social engineering that jeopardized his notions of a modernist, individualist meritocracy.
And NYSCA program reviews and panel comments on Bang on a Can applications were consistently positive. “It is rare to find an organization which programs the works of women and minorities in representative numbers in a way that is natural to the goals of the organization,” a NYSCA staffer wrote in his evaluation of a 1991 funding proposal. As NYSCA funding for the Group for Contemporary Music was cut, Bang on a Can’s increased.
Ultimately, though, state program reviews were not what jeopardized new music in the 1990s. The decade began with massive reductions to NYSCA’s allocations, in response to the 1990 economic recession, which caused a deficit crisis in New York State. In 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo requested a 56 percent cut in NYSCA’s budget, prompting outrage in the arts community. James Jordan told EAR Magazine that the proposed cuts were the “worst shape we’ve been in during the last 20 years.” The budget was ultimately cut by 44 percent and, by 1992–93, the state arts budget was at its lowest level since the early 1970s. And new-music organizations across the board faced major state cutbacks, to which Bang on a Can was not exempt.
But some prominent composers would remember the culprit of this moment not as the recession, or a state government that deployed arts cutbacks to balance its budget, or even the paleoconservatives like Jesse Helms fighting at the national level. Invited by The Musical Times in 1994 to respond to the question “Music: the next 150 years?” Milton Babbitt took a bleak outlook, lambasting “pervasive and invasive populism” that endangered the future of what he perennially called “serious music.”
According to Babbitt, the National Endowment for the Arts “has imposed through its appointed panels a censorship of egalitarianism, regionalism, sexism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse sexism’) and racism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse racism’) which has had far broader and harsher effect than the publicized attacks and threat of censorship by a yahoo legislator and his fellow protectors of the public morality.” (“Yahoo legislator” was a reference to Helms.)
Arguing that the “NEA’s ideological correctness has trickled down to other public and private benefactors”—likely referring to NYSCA, although Babbitt does not name the Council—the composer recapped the Group for Contemporary Music’s funding woes and its cessation of live performance. And he repeated Wuorinen’s claims that the ensemble’s funding had been threatened by its failure to program music by minority composers. Instead, Babbitt argued, “There is apparently little concern that the most threatened minority groups are the composers and performers who have been on the programs and on the stage.” New music itself, in other words—rather than new music by composers from underrepresented groups—deserved affirmative action.
Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism. His claims of the NEA’s reverse racism and reverse sexism in panel adjudication echoed conservatism’s “colorblind” opposition to affirmative action and other social programs that attempted to address inequality. Babbitt and Wuorinen had both benefited from Cold War–era foundation and university patronage, and their approach towards modernist music’s individuality, and distaste for what they saw as a politically correct government bureaucracy that threatened it, was steeped in the rhetoric of that time. If they saw themselves as heroically embattled figures during the Cold War, they assumed an even more embattled position during the Culture Wars.
Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism.
And by no means did Babbitt accurately capture the state of public funding. Conservatives inflated what they disliked about the arts bureaucracy into a grand critique that assumed that the NEA and NYSCA exclusively funded the multicultural, the populist, and the obscene. At the federal level, “multicultural” arts funding was more rhetoric than reality: federal support for minority artists was largely concentrated in NEA programs like Expansion Arts, which had a much smaller budget than the Music Program.
And NEA granting for composers was indeed sexist, but in the more conventional, non-reverse fashion. In 1987, for example, composers Sylvia Glickman and Tina Davidson launched an official complaint after their Endowment proposal for a consortium commission of all-female composers was denied funding; in researching their case, they found that women had received only 9% of Composer Fellowships over the past eleven years, and that in 1987 only 3.26% of Endowment funding for the consortium and fellowship categories was awarded to female composers (a total of two grants). They noted that very few peer panelists were women, and even fewer were women composers. “The Endowment, by ignoring women composers’ excellence, effectively bars them from other funding sources, performances and continued artistic growth,” they wrote.
By 1996, the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists.
But the granting programs would not have much time to take these critiques into account––to become actually multicultural, as Babbitt and Wuorinen feared. The “yahoo legislators” soon had their say: a year after the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans won House and Senate majorities by campaigning on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” Congress slashed NEA funding by 40%. By 1996, the Endowment’s budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million, it cut almost half of its staff, and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists. By the early 2000s, public funding had been decimated at both state and federal levels.
What David Lang wrote in 1989 was not wrong: no senators took to the floor to tear up scores by Philip Glass or John Cage. New music was ultimately collateral damage in the Culture Wars, not directly targeted by congressional Republicans but still subject to the same devastating public funding cuts that the controversies over Serrano and Mapplethorpe inaugurated. But the controversies over NYSCA’s funding of new-music organizations—relatively tame in comparison to what unfolded on the floor of the senate—tapped into the same partisan rhetoric as the more famous ones that played out on the national stage, and did in fact conscript American composers into the battles of the Culture Wars.
Equally significant was what this tumultuous moment in culture indexed for American composition. When paleoconservative Pat Buchanan—who frequently railed against the NEA—ran against George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primary, he declared in his convention speech that he was launching a “war for the soul of America,” one “as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition that had flourished among institutions like the Group for Contemporary Music gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can—a transformation facilitated by the shifting priorities of funding agencies who reflected a new national climate.
As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can.
This story is part of what I call new music’s “marketplace turn,” a period in the 1980s and ‘90s in which presenters, funders, advocacy organizations, record labels, and upstart festivals pushed for American new music to reach a broad, non-specialist audience. Bang on a Can is one of the most significant victors from this period: today, with its touring ensemble, record label, and summer festival, it commands significant influence in the world of contemporary music, not to mention a multi-million dollar budget.
In her book On Being Included, Sara Ahmed cogently identifies pernicious gaps between how diversity is advertised and promoted and how it is actually enacted and exercised in practice. Here we see the enaction of relatively tame state policies to promote a more diverse world of new music inciting vehement pushback. For those currently engaged in such efforts at their own universities or within their own ensembles, the fearmongering of Wuorinen and Babbitt may not be all that surprising. Even long after the Cold War, many musicians still perpetuate ideologies of autonomy that view even the mildest forms of affirmative action as a pernicious encroachment on artistic independence.
One of the principal problems that Ahmed and others have identified is that the work of diversity—and ultimately, and more importantly, the work of anti-racism and anti-sexism—is that it is continually under-resourced, often serving as tokenistic PR instead of actual redistributive justice. The story of NYSCA in the 1980s and ’90s is thus prescient, or at least unsurprising, in this regard. Just as public granting agencies began to enact multicultural arts policies, their funding was massively cut, and, as the Babbitt essay demonstrates, some even blamed the policies themselves for those cuts.
“If you’re giving an organization $10,000, you can say, ‘In return to that we expect you to have a social face,’” David Lang recalled in a conversation we had in 2019. “If you’re cutting them from $10,000 to $1,000, you can’t say, ‘Oh by the way for this $1,000 we’d like you to change your organization’ . . . That social action, at least from government organizations, was ascendant as the funding was ascendant, and when the funding got cut a lot of steam went out.”
Similarly, in a 1996 NYSCA grant application, when asked how its programming reflected “efforts to broaden and diversify its audience,” the venue Experimental Intermedia did not mince words: “Frankly, we have to state that continued federal, state, corporate and foundation arts funding cuts have stripped most organizations to the bone. We continue our open invitation to and interest in minority artists, but there are no funds with which to explicitly address these issues beyond what it possible in regular programming.” James Jordan had claimed that NYSCA would reward organizations that programmed women and minority composers, but they were left with few resources with which to undertake new projects. Budget cuts compromised transformative change.
Today, renewed and necessary advocacy for diversity and inclusion—whether in the petitioning of major institutions to program works by underrepresented composers, the crucial labor of organizations such as Castle of our Skins, or the proliferation of equity committees—can only go so far on the limited resources of our neoliberal landscape.
Instead of petitioning a robustly funded NEA to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter.
In an era of public arts austerity, these diversity efforts often represent individual, entrepreneurial projects rather than broad social endeavors sustained by government support. Which is to say that, instead of petitioning a robustly funded National Endowment for the Arts to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter. As we continue to talk about diversity, the American people need to put our money—and, especially and crucially, our public money—where our mouths are.
I recently visited a sound art class at Vanderbilt University (over Zoom) as a guest artist. Towards the end of our conversation, one of the students asked me about what I was looking forward to in the future of my work and the fields of music and sound art. Rather than the aesthetic answer the student expected (and I could easily see myself giving a year ago), I surprised both of us by unhesitatingly responding that I was looking forward to improved arts workers’ conditions.
As excited as I am about the opera I’m currently writing or thingNY’s upcoming foray into mail art, the immediate effort I see from various communities of artists to create better working conditions and a healthier, more equitable social and economic ecosystem for the arts eclipses any individual art project or aesthetic movement in terms of my optimism for the future. From the boisterous and massive in-person protests to the quiet one-on-one conversations, from the various collective conversations on Zoom to the steady helping hand of mutual aid organizations, across the podcast interviews, slack channels, op-eds, and, yes, the astounding musical performances and recordings, a culture of community care has been dancing in a rainbow of tempos in all corners of the performing arts world. Into this spirit of sharing knowledge and resources, the New Music Organizing Caucus has created the Real Music Wages Database.
The Real Music Wages Database is an anonymous, crowd-sourced list of real wage transactions reported by musicians. We track how much someone has been paid, who paid them, and how many hours of work it involved. The more entries are added to the spreadsheet, the more discernable a true economic snapshot of the new music industry is visible. Inspired by similar crowd-sourced spreadsheets for dancers, baristas, museum workers, and adjunct professors, we created the Real Music Wages Database to help freelance music workers navigate what can be a very confusing financial landscape and give us tools to negotiate wages for ourselves, particularly in situations when we don’t have a union or an agent working on our behalf. The transparency of the database is meant to also be useful for ensembles, composers, producers, and presenters who want to get a better idea of what an industry standard might look like. The database has the potential to both identify organizations that don’t pay their performers enough as well as model how much an organization should pay their performers, ultimately encouraging equal pay rates and a living wage for musicians. (Oh man, doesn’t that sound nice?)
Starting out a career in new music and its adjacent musical scenes can be very confusing financially.
A larger reckoning around funding and transparency in larger non-profit arts institutions is currently taking place and we hope this database can just be one tool in the reforming process.
Starting out a career in new music and its adjacent musical scenes can be very confusing financially. For me, learning what I should be paid involved years of being paid a vast variety of amounts (or not at all) in ways that even still don’t always reflect the amount of work put in. One gig will pay my rent for two months after a week of work, while another gig will take a month of work to only pay half of my month’s rent. All of us freelancers know that part of our hustle is stitching together a living from a disparate assortment of gigs, each with its own unique equation of give and take. We’re hopeful that the Real Music Wages Database will speed up the knowledge gathering process significantly for young musicians, particularly those who don’t always feel comfortable casually asking their peers what they are being paid, as well as offer transparency for those who have been going at it for a while. In addition, the database can be a resource to other performing arts workers, like dancers and performance artists, who work with some of the same institutions, presenters, and venues that we do, but who historically have had an even harder time making a decent living, and can use the details of our experiences to uplift their own.
The database is limited in the information it gathers. For instance, we don’t ask about the tax status of the gig, or if you were given retirement benefits or health insurance. (Because let’s be real – how often does that happen?) And unlike other databases, we don’t ask about your gender or racial identity, whether you are disabled or your sexual orientation. We think tracking that kind of information is important and we fully support the reckoning over equity taking place within the new music world. However, we want to protect our community’s anonymity and felt that such a level of detailed, identifying information could sabotage those efforts.
We also wanted to make adding entries to the database quick and easy. So we decided to only ask for the most essential information and then use a system of tagging so that each person can decide what additional information would be useful for others to know. For instance, if a gig is associated with a specific university or institution that did not directly pay you; whether the gig was with an orchestra or chamber ensemble, for an opera or a wedding; whether it was for a specific series or festival; if it was a recording session; or if it involved an adjacent field, be that dance, theatre, or a religious service. The more tags are used, the more options will be suggested for you as you type into the ‘Tag’ field. This way, people can add as much information as they want and it is up to each individual to decide what they are comfortable sharing.
The database is also focused on gigs where the musician is not a generative artist. We understand how complicated the funding structures for our work as composers, sound artists, and performance creators can be. We decided that to fully measure the intricacies of our creative time for such projects would take a different set of questions. (We also encourage folks to use the NewMusicBox Commissioning Fees Calculator if it will be useful for your situation.) And finally, we especially encourage musicians to input their gigs paid for by funded institutions, particularly non-profit organizations that receive funds from foundations and governmental arts councils. A larger reckoning around funding and transparency in larger non-profit arts institutions is currently taking place and we hope this database can just be one tool in the reforming process.
The New Music Organizing Caucus (NMOC) is a baby of an organization, originally founded by composer-pianist Dorian Wallace and now spearheaded by a small group of dedicated and welcoming activist musicians. Initiated during the activist summer of 2020 that was energized by Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, NMOC holds monthly Zoom meetings where a community of new music workers come together to, as stated on the NMOC website, “advocate for decent working conditions and fair wages, provide support against discriminatory practices, share skills and knowledge, and fight for diversity, equity and inclusion in our field.” It’s a community of fellow musicians that welcomes anyone who wants to become more involved. I have met many people for the first time in these meetings, which might begin in shy awkwardness and end in refreshing sensations of solidarity. As with any volunteer organization, the more its membership wants to do, the more will happen. So far, we rely on pro bono assistance. For instance, Brian McCorkle designed the website for the database, and Sophia Richardson and Alyssa McCallion designed the logo.
The Real Music Wage Database is the first large project initiated by NMOC with an eye on other ways we can support our community and share resources in the future. The group also works to advocate for the special interests of new music in larger organizations such as the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW), and the Music Workers Alliance (MWA), as well as connect members with resources in these larger organizations. Though many of the active members are based in New York City, there are members from all across the United States. And even as in-person events begin again in the coming year, the group plans to continue meeting online so that it can serve and connect a wider geographical range of musicians.
Like many others, the reason I have more time to go to Zoom meetings for volunteer, activist organizations is because I don’t have as much work as I did before the pandemic started. (Also, I was probably working too much before the pandemic started, but that’s another story…) You might be looking at the Real Music Wages Database and thinking you’d love to input gigs when you have them again. When that day comes (and oh it will), I hope you do! In addition, it is tax season. I recently found myself adding entries as I went through my paystubs and expenses from 2020 in preparation for meeting with my tax guy. However strange it seems to me looking back on what felt like an impossibly long year, there were two and a half months of work in 2020 before the lockdown completely transformed every aspect of my life, and that is as obvious in my banking activity as it is in my sleep schedule. For the ultra-ambitious musician with free time, take a moment now to add your gigs from multiple past years. And for the slow-and-steady thoughtful freelancer, thank you for adding your gigs as you get them for many years to come. The Real Music Wages Database is as much of a useful tool as our collective music community nurtures it to be. I’m real thankful to be part of a community of folks that look out for each other.
(In full transparency, the NMOC Real Wages Steering Committee currently consists of Gelsey Bell, Nicholas Connolly, David Friend, Andrew Griffin, Marina Kifferstein, Brian McCorkle, Luisa Muhr, Pablo O’Connell, and Hajnal Pivnick. We can be reached at [email protected]. Want to be more involved? Please join us!)
Today, April 20, 2020, is Larry’s 71st birthday, which we are celebrating by releasing our recording project Olly Wilson: Remixedon New Focus Recordings. As a “Special COVID-19 Pandemic Release,” 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this recording will be donated to the New Music Solidarity Fund (NMSF), which has just set a new stretch goal to reach a total of $500,000 by May 15. The New Music Solidarity Fund was organized by 14 leading artists in the global new music field to raise money for freelance music artists who are suddenly deprived of their livelihood by the pandemic. The fund is administered through New Music USA, and has already issued 530 emergency relief grants. But the financial needs far outweigh the more than $300,000 already raised.
Today, we also started a coordinated Facebook birthday fundraiser to benefit the NMSF. We are listing this release at a low $4.00, and people who contribute any amount to the parallel Facebook fundraiser will receive a download code to get the album. This way, nearly anyone inclined to give is able to do so. But we urge you to pay whatever you can comfortably afford. This pandemic has suddenly deprived so many independent music artists of their livelihood. Providing them some emergency financial relief seems like the least we ought to do, in return for the countless years they have invested in their craft to bring such joy into our lives.
You might be asking, how is it that Arlene and Larry Dunn are releasing a recording? What is it? Olly Wilson: Remixed is a passion project, an homage to composer and musicologist Olly Wilson (1937-2018), an Oberlin Conservatory professor from 1965 to 1970, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the advent of electronic music at Oberlin, for which he was directly responsible.
Our own journey with Olly Wilson began in 2014, when International Contemporary Ensemble clarinetist Joshua Rubin included Wilson’s composition Echoes (for clarinet and electronics) on his album There Never is No Light. Josh has told us “I first performed Wilson’s music while I was a student at Oberlin. Then I had the honor of working with him directly in 2013, when I was recording Echoes for my album. He helped me find the materials I needed to perform and record the work, and to help shape my performance to his vision of the piece.” Josh continued: “My entire album’s inspiration came from the palette of sounds and ideas that originate from Echoes.” Josh’s recording sparked our first concentrated listening to Olly Wilson’s music. We were entranced by the music and intrigued by the man, who clearly carried a special spirit.
In February 2018, we attended a lecture by Fredara Hadley, then a Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Oberlin, who now teaches at Juilliard. Her lecture, “The Black History of Oberlin Conservatory,” focused on the substantial contributions of African American students and faculty throughout the Conservatory’s history. Among these, of course, was Olly Wilson, the first African American faculty member at the conservatory. We learned that, in addition to his teaching in the standard curriculum of the day, Wilson offered Oberlin’s first courses in African and African American music and culture, a signal achievement at a time when campuses across the country were just beginning to grapple with the far-reaching tentacles of racism.
This pandemic has suddenly deprived so many independent music artists of their livelihood.
Larry & Arlene Dunn
Olly Wilson offered Oberlin’s first courses in African and African American music and culture at a time when campuses across the country were just beginning to grapple with the far-reaching tentacles of racism.
Larry & Arlene Dunn
We extracted phrases from Olly Wilson’s written works and then organized them into affinity groups.
Larry & Arlene Dunn
We hope that launching this recording as a fundraising tool will inspire in others a generosity of spirit and hope for the future.
In May 2019, we met with Tom Lopez, department chair of Oberlin TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) to talk about plans to celebrate the program’s 50th anniversary. We received another revelation: in the fall of 1969, Olly Wilson taught the first class in electronic music at Oberlin Conservatory (or any conservatory of music). That moment was the germination of today’s TIMARA program. As Tom unfurled the plans to celebrate TIMARA’s 50th anniversary, one particular event stood out: the Kaleidosonic Music Festival, planned for November 16, “an epic celebration of music at Oberlin. It will include musicians and ensembles from the Conservatory, the College, and the community,” as Tom described. “It will be many hours long with non-stop music — one big, long, sonic collage of ensembles, groups, and individual musicians,” he enthused. The rest came rapid fire, something like this:
Tom: Would we like to perform in Kaleidosonic?
A&L: Sure, but what?
Tom: Anything you like.
A&L: How about a text or spoken word piece about Olly Wilson?
Tom: That would be perfect!
And thus, Olly Wilson: Remixed was born. The objective of doing a spoken word piece was clear enough, but the content and substance was far from it. Soon we immersed ourselves in the hunt for all his recorded music and all his writings we could find. We quickly realized that not only was Olly Wilson a highly inventive composer, but he was a profound thinker, especially regarding the aesthetics and politics of African and African American music and culture, and he was a persuasive writer. A concept for the piece began to congeal, as we found certain works that resonated most strongly with us. Our touchstones in his music included Echoes, of course, Cetus, for which he won the first-ever international prize for electronic music in 1968, Sometimes (for tenor and electronics), and his stirring song cycle Of Visions and Truth. His written works (and transcribed interviews) that became central to Olly Wilson: Remixed include Black Music as an Art Form, The Black-American Composer, an address to an Oberlin College assembly called How Long — Not Long!, and a series of interviews with the Regional Oral History Office at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
To create our script, we extracted phrases from Wilson’s written works and then organized them into affinity groups. These groups ultimately morphed into the four movements of Olly Wilson: Remixed. The first movement, Black Music as an Art Form addresses Wilson’s refutation to the broadly held notion that there was nothing unique or distinctive about Black music that sets it apart from any other music. Next, Musical Electrons presents Wilson’s thoughts about the use of technology and electronics in the creation and performance of music. The third movement, In Oberlin portrays life in the town and the college through Wilson’s eyes. Finally, Composing While Black exposes the systemic racism that relentlessly impedes the work of an African American artist in a deeply white field like classical music, concluding with poet Claude McKay’s defiant “If We Must Die.”
As the movements came together, we started a cycle of rehearsing, rearranging, rehearsing, refining, rehearsing . . . We started to think our recitation alone was too dry, and we ought to add an Olly Wilson-inspired soundscape. We, of course, knew nothing about how to do that, but we knew someone who did: Kirk Pearson, a 2017 Oberlin grad whose work in TIMARA we had come to admire when he was a student. We contacted Kirk at his Dogbotic studio, in Berkeley, CA. He was quick to say yes. Reflecting back on the moment, Kirk says:
Olly Wilson holds a mythic status at Oberlin, but the full weight of his accomplishments weren’t clear to me until I got involved in this project. I have to admit that, despite studying in the TIMARA department, essentially Wilson’s creation, I hadn’t read any of his articles nor spent significant time with his music. To call this process eye-opening is putting it lightly. I was shocked at just how political and prophetic many of Wilson’s writings were. Wilson’s creative process was a politically indelible act in and of itself. We learn from his example that the subtle acts of sonic modulation, the generation of synthetic sound, and the splicing of tape are powerful tools for composers to reimagine, even refute, history.
Kirk dove into reading our score and the original sources to ground himself in the project while also auditioning most of Wilson’s recordings to absorb their essence. Step by step, he put shape to a soundscape attuned to the aesthetic of each movement. Kirk relates a bit of the process he employed:
The profundity of tape composition grounds much of Wilson’s electronic work, much as it forms the soundscape of Olly Wilson: Remixed. I snipped thousands of micro samples of Wilson’s music and voice, creatively mutating them through five decades worth of analog studio techniques−tape machines, Buchla modulars, vocoders, and a homemade ten-foot Slinky reverb, and more. Working with the sonic artifacts of this great composer was humbling, and I am hoping this piece helps generate interest in Wilson’s work among successive new generations of electronic trailblazers.
Premiering Olly Wilson: Remixed at the Kaleidosonic Festival in November at Oberlin’s historic Finney Chapel was an exhilarating and unique experience. It was totally chaotic, and yet also cleanly orchestrated. More than 50 separate performances were scheduled, from 7:30 to midnight, ranging from individuals to over 50 people, including marching bands, a children’s choir, the Oberlin College choir, the OSteel Band, a jazz ensemble, even bagpipes. Notable guests included composer and accordionist Peter Flint (a 1992 Oberlin grad) and experimental noise music luminary Aaron Dilloway (an Oberlin resident). Most performances were slated to last only five minutes and would bleed into each other at the beginning and end.
When we arrived at our call time, the basement of Finney was abuzz with activity−people warming up, finding a place for their coats, and talking excitedly with friends and cohorts. Soon we were being led up the tortuous path to the organ loft where we would perform our first and second movements. The MC gave us our cue as our friends in the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra (NOYO) Lab Group were wrapping up their set. We stood, turned on our music stand lights, heard Kirk’s intro, and started reciting. It was scintillating. Hundreds of people in the audience and we were the only ones performing! After completing the first movement we turned off our lights and exited to wait in a tiny, dim area behind the organ. Before emerging 25 minutes later to perform our second movement, that organ would be booming, and we wanted to protect our ears.
We performed our third and fourth movements on the floor in front of the stage, adjacent to NOYO Lab Group. By design, Kaleidosonic was full of chatter and people coming and going. But we knew people were listening, when we heard laughter at some humorous moments during our In Oberlin movement. When the time finally came, we were thrilled to hear Kirk’s arresting soundscape introduction to our fourth movement, which contains some of the most assertive and impactful text. We were sure we had succeeded when we heard loud applause at the end, and Tom Lopez agrees: “Arlene and Larry made great use of the performance space in this fully immersive event. It was very powerful to hear Olly Wilson’s words repeated in the very chapel where he gave his assembly address on racial injustice in April 1970.”
Larry and Arlene Dunn at Kaleidosonic (Scott Shaw Photography)
From the beginning of Kirk’s involvement in the project, we had discussed making a studio recording of Olly Wilson: Remixed. With the Kaleidosonic premiere still ringing in our ears, we descended into the TIMARA lab the following day for Kirk to record our vocal tracks. Life interrupted the process for a spell, as Larry had major surgery on his neck the very next day, followed by months of recovery. Sometime in February, Larry was well on the way to recovery and Kirk had first-cut mixes of each movement ready for us to review. A multi-step cycle of reviews and notes and revisions brought us very close to ready as March arrived. As we started to grapple with how and where we might release Olly Wilson: Remixed to the world, it turned out the word had its own plans.
Suddenly an unremitting COVID-19 pandemic was spreading across the globe, disrupting life as we know it in country after country, with a virulent outbreak sure to hit the U.S. On March 12, we decided to voluntarily stay at home except going out for food and other essentials. By March 22, the state of Ohio rolled out a stay-at-home order, just as our own community entered a “hard closure” precautionary quarantine. Across the country, music concerts, and public events of all kinds, were suddenly cancelled for the foreseeable future, wreaking havoc on musicians everywhere, especially freelance artists whose entire livelihoods depend on contracted concert appearances.
That same Sunday, March 22, Claire Chase contacted us about contributing to a new initiative she and 13 other leading artists were organizing to help funnel emergency relief grants to suddenly out-of-work musicians. inspired our release plan: to launch Olly Wilson: Remixed as a fundraising tool, with 100% of the proceeds donated to the NMSF. When we contacted Dan Lippel about launching the project on New Focus Recordings, he enthusiastically agreed, and we started marching in sync towards our April 20 release date.
We harbor no illusions that our campaign is going to fully mitigate the financial crisis for freelance musicians, much less the broad and deep economic damage of this pandemic. But we hope that it will inspire in others a generosity of spirit and hope for the future. Or, has Kirk has put it:
My studio, which sits less than a mile away from UC Berkeley, the locus of the last thirty years of Olly Wilson’s illustrious career, now boasts a framed quote from the man himself: “I am optimistic about the whole future of music.” We could all benefit from a bit of optimism right now. Wilson’s sentiment, perhaps more than ever, is a reminder of the resilience of the creative arts. While a global pandemic has uprooted our traditional institutions for making music, I have no doubt that the creative world will adapt and continue to thrive. Music will live on, and with it, our ability to call our histories into question and make a better future.
Thank you Olly Wilson. We, too, are optimistic about the whole future of music.
My father was a New York City subway track worker, one of those workers you see with the orange vests at night working on the tracks. He died from a genetic heart ailment when I was 13, leaving my mother a widow with 5 children. She went to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yards as a file clerk to support us. The only thing we knew for sure was that we were all going to college. No one in our large extended family had gone to college, none of us knew what that entailed exactly, how to get there, how it’s done, but that was my mother’s nightly narrative, “When you are in college… ” Not “if,” but “when.” I started playing flute in high school (New York City Public Schools!) and knew from day one this was what I needed to do. And I soon discovered that with a 35¢ subway token I could be at Lincoln Center in 45 minutes. And I was, if not nightly, as often as I could, sneaking in the back door of the State Theater to see New York City Ballet and New York City Opera. (Security was lax in the ‘70s.) I don’t know what gave me the nerve, but I never doubted I had every right to be there. That 35¢ token was my access to a world far from my home life. But I also knew that I could “belong” because I could pass for something I wasn’t: That the color of my skin, the way I carried myself, all meant that no one else questioned whether I had a right to be there, either. That I had, despite my background, entitlements. And, with that 35¢ subway token, I had access.
I knew that I could “belong” because I could pass for something I wasn’t … I had, despite my background, entitlements.
When people ask us why my husband and I started the Grand Canyon Music Festival, I sometimes flippantly tell them it was a rash decision made in our foolish, impetuous youth: “Let’s put on a show!” It was 1982, and I was just beginning my career as a freelance musician in New York City. Feeling burned out, I decided to take some time off to visit friends in Boston. Before boarding the Amtrak train at Penn Station I picked up a book to read. The book I grabbed off the book store shelf, Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, is, coincidentally, the story of a young musician who, feeling burned out, goes to the canyons of northern Arizona where she re-discovers why she is a musician. In the canyon dwellings of the ancient people, surrounded by broken bits of ancient pottery, she asks, “[W]hat was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself?” The pottery served a utilitarian purpose, to hold and carry the essential, scarce element of water, but the potters took the extra care, not necessary to fulfill its purpose, to make the pots beautiful. I returned from my trip to Boston and announced to my husband, “We are going to the canyons of northern Arizona.”
We started our trip at the Grand Canyon, a 4 day rim-to-rim-to-rim hike. The first day we hiked down to the canyon’s floor. I put my hot, aching feet in the cold waters of the Colorado River, took my flute out of my backpack and played. (Odd thing I’ve learned about playing in canyons: you can’t hear the echoes, but others can.) Grand Canyon National Park ranger Joe Quiroz heard the echoes, but couldn’t locate the source of the music. The next day we hiked up the canyon’s corridor floor to Cottonwood Campground. I found a spot under a washed out tree to play my flute. The ranger, Joe, had also hiked up the corridor. Hearing the music this time he was determined to find the source. When he found me, he asked if I would come into the ranger’s cabin after dinner and play a concert. That impromptu concert in the Cottonwood ranger’s cabin was the unofficial founding of the Grand Canyon Music Festival. I told Joe about our interest in exploring canyons where the ancient people had lived. Joe was the right person to ask. He knew exactly where we should go.
Standing in those canyons (sometimes playing my flute), thinking of the people who have lived and who continue to live there, I felt the truth of Willa Cather’s assertion that “it made one feel an obligation to do one’s best.”
Two years later, during the second season of the Grand Canyon Music Festival, we headed east out of Grand Canyon National Park, descending down from the Coconino plateau, past the Little Colorado River Gorge, towards the Navajo Nation, on our way to perform for the first time for students in Tuba City.
Our first performance was for a class of about 30 students at Tuba City High School. The students sat quietly, looking down at their desks as we played. After the performance, we attempted the usual Q and A, hoping to spur conversation with the students. The students continued to sit quietly, looking down at their desks. This felt like more than the usual reticent high school student reaction. When the dismissal bell rang, the students rose quietly and headed to the door, where they stood, looking down. All I could think was, “They hate us.” But the teacher approached and told us the students loved it, and they wanted to speak with us, but it is rude for Navajo to approach a stranger, an elder, or anyone in authority, or to even look them in the eye. How inevitable for there to be a clash of cultures! It’s inherent in the conflicting cultural mores: The Navajo deferential, no-eye contact, stand back approach can appear suspect to the non-Native American, with their aggressive (forthright!) greeting, firm handshake, a pat on the back, a direct look in eye. What I fully appreciated for the first time, and what most non-Native Americans don’t understand, is that we are alien visitors on Native land. It is an honor to be welcomed, and a privilege to work with their youth. That was the beginning of a journey of discovery, friendships, and cultural exchanges.
It is rude for Navajo to approach a stranger, an elder, or anyone in authority, or to even look them in the eye.
By 2000, our outreach had started to feel like Brigadoon, the town that emerges once every 100 years or so and then disappears without a trace. We would arrive once a year, present a program for the school students, and then leave: We wanted to do something that would have more of an impact. That year, Brent Michael Davids (a member of the Mohican Nation) created a chamber piece for us, with the Havasupai Guardians of the Canyon dancers. Brent had just completed a McKnight Fellowship, teaching composition to school students. He told us he had always wanted to do something like that with Native students. Brent’s arrival was a perfect confluence of the right time, right place, and right people. The next year, 2001, we launched the Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP) with Brent Michael Davids at the helm. The students Brent would be working with in Tuba City had no formal music education. We didn’t know what to expect. But the music they created was a revelation: Here were original, authentic voices. It was Native music, but it was also infused with reggae and heavy metal influences. What impressed me was the apprentice composers’ sense of form and shape. What they lacked in knowledge of formal keys and chord structures they more than made up for in an authentic aesthetic sense. I remember one of our early NACAP apprentice composers who wrote a piece in which “nothing happened.” It was repetitious, and slowly unfolded over the course of several minutes. During the workshop, the members of our teaching ensemble—the fabulous NYC string quartet ETHEL—kept asking the young apprentice composer if he wanted the piece to be faster or to move more. The composer said, succinctly and with confidence, “No.” I suggested to the quartet members that they look outside at the landscape. This slowly unfolding, patient piece, was of that landscape, something musicians from the fast-paced, nervous world of NYC perhaps, at first, didn’t have the patience for.
What the Native American apprentice composers lacked in knowledge of formal keys and chord structures they more than made up for in an authentic aesthetic sense.
One of our NACAP students that first year was a young man named Michael Begay. A senior at Greyhills Academy, a federal Bureau of Indian Education school in Tuba City, Michael was like a lot of our apprentice composers: A mostly self-taught guitarist, passionate about music, absorbing everything he could from wherever he could. After high school graduation, Michael continued his composition studies through NACAP, studying with teaching composers Brent Michael Davids, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, and Raven Chacon. He joined NACAP as a volunteer assistant composer-in-residence in 2006, working closely with Raven Chacon. He continues studying composition with Mr. Chacon, and officially joined NACAP as a composer-in-residence in 2007. When Michael tells people he is a composer he often gets the response, “I didn’t know Natives composed music.”
The Reservation system has led to persistent social inequality for Native Americans. Beginning with the Dawes Act of 1887, federal policies attempted to eliminate native practices, cultures, and communities, to “kill the Indian, save the man,” to forcibly eliminate traditional cultures. Natives were forced to leave their homelands and be relocated to reservations on lands considered worthless to white settlers. They were exiled to places that were resource deficient and isolated, resulting in concentrated poverty and loss of traditional lifestyles. Poor quality of education and healthcare, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, violence, and high suicide rates are among the legacies of the reservation system. U.S. rates of adolescent suicide are highest among Native Americans, and school dropout rates are twice the national average, the highest of any ethnic or racial group.
Navajo culture has a strict taboo against expressing or even acknowledging dark subjects.
Navajo culture has a strict taboo against expressing or even acknowledging dark subjects, like death and illness. There is no word for suicide. Navajo must avoid disorder and seek harmony in their lives, “walk in beauty,” with a connectedness to the world.
I feel the weight of that taboo when we ask our apprentice composers to talk about their music. They have generously shared with us extraordinary stories of their lives. One of Michael Begay’s early compositions was called Chiaroscuro. In his pre-concert talk about the piece he explained that he had a need to talk about the dark as well as the light, in spite of the Navajo taboo.
The Catalyst Quartet reads through a work in front of its composer at Hopi High in 2019.
Workshops with our ensembles-in-residence and apprentice composers often start the same way. Before the ensemble begins playing the students’ work (the first reading for the ensemble and the first opportunity for the students to hear their work performed live), the members of the ensemble ask if there is anything they should know about the piece. Often the request is met with reticence. Not so in the case of Jordan Lomahoema, a student at Hopi High.
He went through his piece, The Darkened Heart, detailing, measure by measure, how he had used his composition to map out the evening of his mother’s death in a car accident.
Here is where the car speeds up (an undulating eighth note pattern), here is the squeal of the brakes and the wheels skidding on the road, ending in the crash (sul ponto descending gliss to ff). Then the silence after the crash, rests followed by a few spare notes, the peaceful sounds of the evening returning, suddenly broken up by the arrival of ambulances, sirens blaring first loud, then getting softer as they carry away Jordan’s mother. The piece ends with the return of the quiet sounds of a reservation desert evening, but now disturbed with disquieting interjections, glissandos, a lone pizzicato.
Whitehorse High School is at the northernmost edge of the Navajo Nation in Montezuma Creek, Utah. When we arrived at the school with the Catalyst Quartet in September of 2015 to begin our workshops with their NACAP apprentice composers, we were met at the door by their assistant principal, Kim Schaefer. She quietly, stoically, told us that a student had taken his life the night before. The school was in mourning. The next day, as we arrived at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, the Navajo Nation’s capital, our friend Tom Riggenbach, founder of NavahoYES, ran over to us to give us the heads up: A young man in the community had taken his life the day before.
At the world premiere performance at the Grand Canyon, Whitehorse High School NACAP composer Brevin Norton choked back tears as he dedicated his piece, This is Just the Beginning, to his two friends and classmates who had lost their lives that year.
Joshua Honawa, a joyful, engaged student at Hopi High with an amazing smile, was everywhere during our ensemble workshops, running back and forth between the music room to finish his piece and the auditorium to listen to his classmates’ workshops. I mentioned him to Hopi High’s music teacher, Tom Irwin. I was shocked when Tom told me that prior to joining NACAP Josh had been on suicide watch. He had an abusive home life, and NACAP gave him the outlet he needed, spending most of his free time in the music room, composing.
NACAP gave him the outlet he needed, spending most of his free time in the music room, composing.
In 2008 the Arizona media was filled with a horrific story: A freshman at the University of Arizona, a young Navajo woman from Tuba City, was stabbed to death in her bed by her roommate, a young Navajo woman from Chinle. The murdered student from Tuba City was best friends with one of our NACAP composers, Jessie Bilagody. That year Jessie composed Beautiful Lost Soul, a moving tribute to her friend.
When we started NACAP we wondered about how we would teach music composition to students who had minimal music instruction. We now know that NACAP is so much more than that. It is both an outlet and an entryway, a door held open, with an invitation to enter. Yes, Natives compose music. And these are voices that need to be heard.
[Ed. note: Below are recordings of six additional recent works composed through NACAP.]
The musical case against rap is that in my view and the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody, and there is rhythm. And rap only fulfills one of these—the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, it is basically, effectively, spoken rhythm. And so it’s not actually a form of music, it’s a form of rhythmic speaking. And thus, so beyond the subjectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is it’s not music. (Ben Shapiro, 9/15/19)
During a recent episode of The Ben Shapiro Show Sunday Special, Shapiro invoked the authority of his “music theorist” father who went to “music school,” in order to dispel, in seemingly objective, fact-based fashion, the idea that rap is music. Shapiro’s criteria for what qualifies as music is absurd and his assertion that rap fails to meet this criteria is likewise absurd—but this is largely beside the point. The objective of these bad faith arguments isn’t necessarily to win or lose, but rather to perpetuate the notion that rap-as-music merits debate. Even entertaining the question undermines the legitimacy of rap by setting it apart from other musical styles about which we couldn’t imagine having such conversations.
We must reject Shapiro’s attempt to leverage the prestige of academia to do his dirty work for him. At the same time, we must consider the implications of his appeal to music theory. Shapiro wants us to focus on what music theory and music school suggest about rap-as-music—we should instead ask what his invocation of these institutions suggests about music theory pedagogy. Within these institutions, what do we learn about who and what is valued, and why?
Although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to Western art music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles.
Western art music is not a universal language. It does some things well, other things not as well, and many things not at all. And yet, although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to this style of music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles. Given this disconnect, how can we justify our near-exclusive reliance on traditional pedagogy, especially in situations where it isn’t necessary to do so? What biases do we create in our students when we declare Western art music to be mandatory knowledge for anyone pursuing formal studies in music? What biases does this reveal in us?
Let’s start with names.
Names create hierarchy. A course title like Music Theory 1: Diatonic Harmony explicitly designates harmony as the most important element of the course. Nor is this harmony in the general sense, but harmony specific to Western art music. There’s a real danger of elision, whether in perception or practice, so that music theory becomes just about harmony. Discussions of melody often come folded into larger discussions of harmony. The standard textbooks, despite grand gestures towards complete, everything-you-need-to-know musicianship, devote almost no attention to rhythm, beyond strict issues of notation. Other critically important musical elements, such as improvisation, timbre, and post-production, fail to make any meaningful appearance. This unwarranted prioritization of harmony as the essence, if not the totality, of the music theory core curriculum shapes the reality of what, within academia, is considered music, or at least music worth studying.
Western art music is not a universal language.
A myopic focus on Western art music severely distorts what music is and what music can be. The standard pedagogy relies on a value system whose metrics are based on subjective preferences but passed off as objective truths. Western art music is declared, without adequate justification, to be the necessary tool for understanding music at the most fundamental level. The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top, until recently considered the only music that merited institutionalization, perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.
The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.
These are decisions made by people, no matter how compellingly they’re framed as divine decrees or natural phenomena, no matter how long-standing their historical pedigree. Teaching Western art music without acknowledging issues of canon-formation, cultural colonization, exclusion, and erasure ensures that these problems will continue. We are not exempt from interrogating the standard theory pedagogy, nor are we absolved from blame when we choose not to. The emergence of new musical styles and new technologies of music production are inconsequential—Western art music continues to be prioritized at the expense of all other modes of music creation. We need to understand this unwarranted privileging within the context of white supremacy.
White supremacy is the systemic centering of whiteness. It builds on an incorrect assumption of white racial superiority and functions to uphold white privilege. Whiteness is defined as the standard against which and on whose terms all others are measured and invariably fall short. When white is designated as normal, those who are not white are forever deemed not normal, no matter how hard they work or what they accomplish. Restricting the definition of white supremacy to a collection of bigoted individuals overlooks the myriad ways that institutionalized power in this country, whether social, political, legal, economic, or cultural, reinforces the primacy of whiteness.
A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral.
A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral. The only reason Western art music is the benchmark by which other styles are validated or repudiated is because whites made it so. When Beyonce’s triads are as legitimate as Beethoven’s, reproducing without critique a system that excludes black music from the basic theory sequence is a political choice. This denial of the legitimacy of black music contributes to the ongoing denial of the legitimacy of black people. Injustice unchecked remains injustice.
We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach. Students need a broad musical foundation to prepare for advanced studies in the particular styles relevant to their interests and projected career paths. An antiracist approach to music theory recognizes that Western art music is not the pinnacle of human achievement, but simply one among many equally valid forms of artistic musical expression.
The stylistic evolution of any language depends on whose voices are seen as legitimate, on who is allowed to participate. That many of us have only recently become aware of just how pronounced the disparities in representation are within music theory testifies to the extent we have internalized the biases behind them. We who are white, who hold a disproportionate number of jobs in academia, tend not to notice whiteness because it is what we expect to find. This is a problem. Our condemnation of Ben Shapiro’s racist words does not absolve us of our own participation in and perpetuation of a racist pedagogy that normalizes whiteness. We must divest ourselves of the false conception that music can exist in a vacuum, devoid of context, independent of the people and the processes integral to its production. We must do better.
Western art music is not a universal language.
We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach.
As educators, we must be able to speak not just about what we teach, but also about why we teach it. We must ask ourselves who benefits from the current system, and who is harmed by it. A diverse student population in the classroom is not a prerequisite for concern about diverse student experience. Education is never politically neutral. As teachers and as students, as mentors and as mentees, our job is to question, to engage, to grow. We must all participate in our own education. We must all point out the ways that inequality and oppression manifest in what is presented as objective truth. The way things are is not the same as the way things have to be. We are each accountable for disrupting this narrative.
This is the first in a two-part series. The second essay will provide resources and suggestions for ways that we can begin incorporating justice initiatives into our music theory pedagogy.
I did not come to the toy piano deliberately. Instead, while doing research on John Cage, I went down a rather strange rabbit hole, where I stumbled across a wonderful instrument.
The toy piano is an avant-garde musician’s dream.
The toy piano is an avant-garde musician’s dream. It’s the accidental instrument that was never meant to see anything but oncoming erratic toddler movements; it was never meant to feel anything but the thumping of tiny fists and grubby fingers. It has no musical baggage, no weighty historical performance practice, no standard repertoire. It has nothing to hold you back, to tell you you’re doing it wrong; it exists only in the present and looks to the future. Even now, 70+ years since John Cage’s seminal Suite for Toy Piano from 1948, the toy piano still feels like Duchamp’s upside-down urinal (Fountain): out of place on stage, it elicits giggles and scoffs, is the star of the show, and at least promises a memorable experience, musical and otherwise.
I bought a small Schoenhut 25-key spinet and performed Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano in 2010 in Lancaster, PA, where I had moved from New York City. It was my first time playing the instrument. In a way, the newness of the experience helped me transition from a city that I loved and had been reluctant to leave, to one I thought was quaint but wouldn’t hold me for long. I subsequently became involved in more Cage events at home and abroad, performing Music for Amplified Toy Pianos, Sonatas and Interludes, and many other works. I thought the mahogany and black toy piano wouldn’t look too out of place as a piece of decoration in my apartment after I was finished with it. I hadn’t planned on using it much after the engagements were over.
Connecting the Dots
Nine years and ten pianos later, I’m preparing a CD release show for Toy, NakedEye Ensemble’s latest album on New Focus Recordings (2019), with music focused on – yes – the toy piano. What’s fascinating to me looking back at the slow, meandering making of this album, is how tenuous yet persistent my interactions with the instrument were. Those years were an on-and-off relationship, with the toy pulling me back each time I thought I was done with it. Like an annoyingly cloying ex, it refused to let me go, coming up with new tricks and shiny things that reeled me back in. At some point, I just had to admit that I was hooked. Not only by the instrument itself, but by the limitless creativity it promised, the untethered freedom of experimentation it allowed, the audience response to it, and a community the toy had woven around itself, ever tighter and wider and richer every year.
Like an annoyingly cloying ex, the toy piano refused to let me go, coming up with new tricks and shiny things that reeled me back in.
The making of this album owes much to that community, to the people and experiences I encountered along the way. This narrative is about exploring those relationships and connecting the dots in this maximalist miniaturist’s field. So here we are.
The “Outside World”
On November 5, 2005, Kyle Gann gave a keynote address at The Extensible Toy Piano Project at Clark University, Worcester, MA. The rather serious, somber tone of the address makes me uneasy. It’s a puzzling read. His concluding lines, especially, sound almost like an admonition:
After a century of expanding possibilities, we find ourselves in a world of limitations – some of them self-imposed, others imposed against our will. We have more reasons than ever to use the toy piano. We use it because we can … and thanks to Cage, there is precedence for taking it seriously. What we can’t seem to do with it, though, is communicate to the outside world, the world outside our composing circles, that there’s been a repertoire of toy piano music now for 57+ years.
In the toy’s short history, you don’t have to look far to find inspiration and a way forward. Margaret Leng Tan and Wendy Mae Chambers both have a direct line to John Cage. Both are still active performers, leading by example and, it seems, channeling the creative spirit of Cage. That is uniquely valuable.
Wendy Chambers appeared on national TV networks with her toy piano…
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Chambers appeared on national TV networks (CNN, PBS, Nickelodeon, BBC, CBS) with her toy piano and whimsical creations, and performed extensively in the U.S. In 1984, Alex Ross wrote in a New York Times review, that “Ms. Chambers is not only a composer, but also possibly the world’s foremost virtuoso on the toy piano.” On that program, Chambers performed works by William Schimmel, Jerome Kitzke, Daria Semegen, and Jed Distler, all of whom are still active in New York City. I heard Jerome perform The Animist Child, which he wrote for Chambers, at The DiMenna Center in 2015 on the occasion of his 60th birthday celebration. He is currently writing a new work for NakedEye Ensemble to be premiered in the Spring of 2020. Although I’ve never met Chambers, I feel a connection with her through Jerome and the toy piano.
Chambers and her Car Horn Organ on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Aug 2, 2000
I met Margaret at a Bang on a Can Festival early on when I was still a student. I found myself backstage waiting to turn pages for Tony DeMare, and she was waiting as well. We struck up a conversation, which led to her telling me about her toy pianos and then guiding me to a room where she kept her instruments and the custom-made boxes they traveled in. I was amused, amazed, and profoundly intrigued, both by her stories and her vivacity in telling them. There were boxes of many shapes and sizes, beautifully lined with plush, shiny material, and little pianos that lay in them like precious jewels. I couldn’t imagine anyone playing those diminutive instruments, but her enthusiasm was contagious, and I was captivated, at least for the duration of our conversation. I have to admit I didn’t rush out to find a toy piano or look for toy music. I wish I had. Who knows where that journey would have led me then!
I couldn’t imagine anyone playing those diminutive instruments, but Margaret Leng Tan’s enthusiasm was contagious.
However, the encounter stayed with me, and I recall it now with some amusement when students and audience members come up to me after performances to ask questions and touch the pianos. I, too, travel with a case. It is not hand-made, or beautiful like Margaret’s cases, but it is a solid metal box lined with dense foam (originally meant to house a Brompton bicycle) that can be thrown into the cargo of a plane and come out the other side with my instrument intact.
Margaret Leng Tan
The oldest piece on NakedEye’s Toy album is Chinese composer Ge Ganru’s Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, finished the year after Gann’s keynote, and the rest of the pieces span a decade from there. Ge Ganru—described in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as “China’s first avant-garde composer”—wrote it for Margaret, “whose creative contributions,” he writes in the dedication, “made this piece possible.” It’s hard not to come across Margaret Leng Tan’s name when looking through the toy piano repertoire. As the first “professional toy pianist,” she has been crucial to the instrument’s repertoire, and NakedEye’s album recognizes her contributions by including two pieces originally written for her.
Margaret recorded Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! for a CD of the composer’s work titled Gan-ru: Lost Style (New Albion, 2009). My recording of it on Toy is the second for this piece, a decade later. Our versions are quite different. But great works accommodate the individuality of performers, and Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! has been adaptable to mine. I was fortunate to have her interpretation from which to deviate in order to find my own.
Ju-Ping Song’s instrument set-up for her performance of Ge Gan-ru’s composition Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Classical and Pop Toy Piano
Before embarking on its illustrious solo journey, the toy piano was a quirky color instrument in both classical and pop music.
Before embarking on its illustrious solo journey with Chambers and Tan, the toy piano was a quirky color instrument in both classical and pop music. In the sixties and seventies, musicians across styles found interesting ways to include the toy’s idiosyncratic sound in their songs and scores. In recent years, the list of NakedEye instruments available for commissions has included the toy piano, along with any and all toy instruments composers may want to experiment with. It’s been a fun and engaging process. Composers Monica Pearce, Stefanie Lubkowski, Randall Woolf, Richard Belcastro, and Rusty Banks have added toy sounds to their NakedEye commissions. Composer/performers like Moritz Eggert have also explored the theatricality the toy can bring to a pianist’s performance. Eggert, in his One-Man Band 2, does so in a refreshing and hilariously over-the-top manner.
Me playing One-Man Band (Photo by Scott Bookman.)
Perhaps the most well-known classical example is George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children (1970), where he calls for amplified piano and toy piano. In his latest cycle of works for piano, Metamorphoses Book 1 (2015-17), Crumb makes extensive use of the toy piano as well.
Neil Diamond’s “Shilo,” a song about his childhood written and recorded in 1967, is arguably the first recorded pop song to use the toy piano (toy piano in the bridge at 2m30s).
And a fun example of, perhaps, the first toy piano solo in pop music is Richard Carpenter’s instrumental version of Edward Elzear “Zez” Confrey’s Dizzy Fingers. In the song, Carpenter features the toy piano in a full 10-second solo as one of five keyboard instruments he can be seen flitting to (toy piano at 1.29s).
An Unlikely Chamber Instrument
In spite of its high-profile cameos, the toy piano was never given equal partnership in an ensemble or chamber setting – until recently.
In spite of its high-profile cameos, the toy piano was never given equal partnership in an ensemble or chamber setting – until recently. Perhaps because of its oddity, its diminutive size, or the soloistic nature of its practitioners, it seemed to be more at home going it alone, developing a repertoire to fit itself and all that was part of its tiny world. However, in the last decade or so, the miniature piano has been involved in large scale outdoor events and paired with its bigger counterpart and other “grown-up” instruments.
Wendy Mae Chambers has a reputation for taking the listening experience outdoors, and her composition/happening Kun is a perfect example of that. Written for 64 toy grand pianos and structured on I-Ching, it was performed in NYC on June 21, 2012 with 64 toy pianists and 64 toy pianos dispersed in pairs along The East River Waterfront Esplanade between Piers 15 and 16, from 4:30 pm until sunset at 8:31pm.
Margaret Leng Tan explored a more concert stage approach to the repertoire. As I researched chamber music that included toy piano, I came across Erik Griswold’s Gossamer Wings (2013), written for Margaret on toy piano, alongside a small chamber group. The three-movement piece captivated me. It was charming and quirky, but most of all, the writing balanced the chamber group against toy piano perfectly. The “tanginess” of the toy sound gives the piece an unexpected but seductive flavor, in the way a skilled bartender will mix your favorite drink but manage to surprise you with a twist. And in true NakedEye fashion, we added a little twist of our own to the piece. The original instrumentation didn’t quite fit ours, so I suggested to Erik that we substitute the violin and clarinet with electric guitar and saxophone. He immediately took to the idea. The result is a subtle electric jazz vibe married with toy piano and toy drum set for a pretty unique listening experience.
Similar chamber works for toy piano are relatively hard to find. Frank J. Oteri’s wonderfully expressive The Other Side of the Window (1995), based on seven poems by Margaret Atwood (think The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel The Testaments), and scored for female voice, two flutes, toy piano, guitar, and cello, comes to mind. Richard Belcastro’s Inner Strife (2016), written for NakedEye Ensemble and scored for clarinet, electric guitar, piano, toy piano, and percussion, is another piece in which the toy plays a central ensemble role.
Organizations like The Toy Piano Composers (2008-2018), based in Toronto, with a core group of instrumentalists, curated programs that included the toy as a key ensemble instrument. Among these are works by Elisha Denburg (Rondo and Street Noise) and Chris Thornborrow (This Changing View, which has a similar instrumentation to the original version of Gossamer Wings, without percussion) that are worth exploring.
Phyllis Chen, a Taiwanese-American toy pianist and composer, has written several amazing chamber works for the small instrument. What distinguishes her from Chambers and Tan is the way she seeks both innovative and traditional collaborations with classical and non-classical instruments. I think that’s the real test of the toy piano’s future. Can it exist within the broader environment of instrumental/electronic/collaborative music?
Chen’s Lullabies (2014), for string orchestra and toy piano with music box is a good example of the instrument inserted in a classical chamber setting. Like Griswold’s Gossamer Wings, the balance in this context is critical, and the result here is mesmerizing. Glass Clouds We Have Known (2011), written for ICE, is a more contemporary setting, and includes bowls, bass clarinet, flute, electronics, and video. But the piece that I absolutely love is The Matter Within (2016), written for deconstructed toy piano and the JACK Quartet. Chen writes,
The toy piano was never presented to me as a musical instrument. Instead I stumbled upon it as an unassuming object. For The Matter Within, I decided to return to this original place of entry to examine and distill the toy piano as a found object. By exploring its elements, hearing its raw essences and noises, the bare materials of the toy piano are exposed and brought to light.
Beyond her contributions to new classical music, Phyllis has also explored using the toy piano and toy instruments in a pop/indie context through her collaboration with Cuddle Magic. In the album they made together (Cuddle Magic & Phyllis Chen, FYO Records, 2014), the toy piano imbues the material with sounds of futuristic nostalgia – an oxymoronic dance that is both mesmerizing and disquieting. It’s a departure that is perhaps an opening to other new exciting possibilities for the toy piano.
Experimenting with toy piano, electronics, and ensemble, Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl was one of the first composers I came across in my early days of touring solo with the instrument. Kalimba (2005), his first piece for toy piano and soundtrack, has been played all over the world by many, including myself. Since then, Essl has broadened his output and added works pairing the toy piano with harpsichord, computer, live electronics, ensemble, other toys, and ring modulator.
A natural extension of the toy piano as a solo and chamber instrument is the concerto form. Phyllis Chen’s Lullabies isn’t without precedent: Aaron Jay Kernis’s’ Toy Piano Concerto (2002), Matthew McConnell’s Concerto for Toy Piano (2008), and David Smooke’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death Vol. I (2012) for toy piano and chamber orchestra, and a Vol. II (2014) for toy piano and wind ensemble, all put the toy at the center of a very large, very traditional setting where it is customary to see a full-size concert grand: a Steinway, a Yamaha, or a Bösendörfer, perhaps. But a Schönhut?
Feeding the Toy Piano
Personal development as a toy pianist is a self-propelled adventure. There’s no book, or school, or how-to manual one can follow to “learn one’s craft.” We’re all, to a certain extent, self-taught experimenters. We learn from our peers, our colleagues, other toy pianists, in person, in collaboration, and by observation. That’s what’s exciting in this field, what makes possible an album that was really never meant to be made.
There’s no book, or school, or how-to manual one can follow to “learn one’s craft” on the toy piano.
I met toy pianist and composer David Smooke at the New Music Gathering in Baltimore in January 2016. I heard him use the toy piano in a way I’d never seen before, and knew right away that I wanted to collaborate with him. In September of that year, NakedEye organized its first (of two) toy piano events in Lancaster, PA, and I invited David to be our guest. Not only did he come up to do a set, but he pulled NakedEye guitarist Chad Kinsey and me into doing free improv with him. It was a fun, eye-opening afternoon. That encounter with David opened up a new avenue to “inside toy tinkering” and gave me the tools to experiment with modifications that I would later use in future commissions.
David and Chad rehearsing (photo by Ju-Ping Song).
The toy piano is a visually fascinating instrument best viewed from a distance but hard to resist getting close enough to poke. Like a carnivorous flower, it draws in its prey with unassuming charm; once hooked, composer and performer have no choice but to feed it the notes it craves. Or so I like to imagine.
In 2016, Richard Belcastro wrote not one, but two toy piano-focused pieces for NakedEye: Inner Strife, for four instruments, and Knock ‘Em Back, recorded on this album, for electric guitar and modified toy piano.
Knock ‘Em Back grew out of Ricky’s desire to write something for electric guitar that wasn’t rock-inspired or loud (like his Smoke ’N Wid and Nepetalactone). Enter the toy piano. The thing about the instrument is, its sonic footprint needs to be respected. It’s actually not as quiet as one would think, and, with generous acoustics, can carry far. It can also be mic’ed or amplified. But its sounds need space to resolve and dissolve, otherwise they can end up like woodpecker drill over radio static. Basically, a bombastic blur. So pairing toy piano with electric guitar was a delicate but exciting dance we were eager to try. Ricky wrote the piece and we experimented with guitar pedals and toy piano hacks to find the sounds he wanted. I think we also found a few sounds he didn’t know he wanted.
Whatever model toy one uses for this piece, the tines (the metal bars that are struck by plastic hammers to produce sound) need to be fully accessible and labeled with stickers or chalk. I’ve used alternately Schoenhut’s Model 3798, a 37-key upright with the front panel removed, or Model 379, the 37-key concert grand with the top music rack and the protective board removed.
Ju-Ping Song and Chad Kinsey performing Belcastro’s Knock ‘Em Back at Klub Katarakt Experimental Music Festival in Hamburg, Germany on January 16, 2019 (photo by Jann Wilken).
The first thing that comes to people’s minds when they see a toy piano is that it’s a tiny acoustic piano. But when they hear it, they realize very quickly, the similarities are only plywood deep. The diminutive instrument has more in common with the celesta or xylophone than its larger older sibling and has been humorously described as “the poor man’s celesta.” But the celesta’s rich, round bell tones are still a far cry from the diminutive toy’s (comparatively) clangy sounds. If you sped up a recording of a celesta, would it sound like a toy piano?
When I asked my friend Jan Feddersen in 2011 if he would write a piece for me on toy piano, he happily agreed and wrote Ujoforyt, which, interestingly enough, he left open “for toy piano or celeste”. It’s a virtuoso perpetual motion in the vein of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee but with the grit and rhythmic energy of György Ligeti’s harpsichord piece Hungarian Rock.
Although they aren’t exactly comparable pieces in scope, Hungarian Rock and Ujoforyt are similar in their use of the instruments’ “secondary sounds.” Both works exploit the mechanical actions of their respective instruments, adding a layer of noise on top of the overtone buzzing created by fast, rhythmic articulations. I wasn’t able to play Jan’s piece on celesta until January 2019 at Klub Katarakt. For the celesta to speak, I had to slow down the notes quite a bit. The result was a beautiful tapestry of gentle pearl-like cascades of sounds—quite a different experience.
Me on celesta at Klub Katarakt, January 16, 2019 (Photo by Jann Wilken).
—Are your cell phones plugged into the speakers?
—Ok, now let’s call each other. Make sure your ringer is on and loud.
—No, really, don’t worry about it; it’s part of the piece.
That’s typically how rehearsals for Rusty Banks’s Babbling Tower to Tower begin. Cell phones are used as transmitters, relayers, and lo-fi sound distortion devices amplified through small, portable speakers disseminated via “stations” throughout the audience. I’ve found the ideal setup to be two or three stations, but I’ve also done it successfully with only one when cell connection was tenuous. In the score’s notes, Rusty writes,
For this piece I decided to eschew the many capabilities of the cel phone and use what might be the most neglected feature or “app” available on these devices – the actual ‘phone’ part of the cell phone. Actually, I am making use some of the limitations of cell phones, namely their low fidelity and that amount of delay it takes for sound to enter the phone, be transmitted to a tower, relayed to another tower, then back to another phone. While this low sound quality and lack of immediacy are probably things phone makers and service providers are working to remedy, there are some lovely sonic possibilities in these defects.
During the writing of Babbling, we tested all the different ways one could make cell phone calls, including over cellular data, WiFi, and via apps like Skype, looking for the least efficient calling method – the most buggy, delayed, and distorted. Basically the opposite of what you’d want in a phone. We found that calls over WiFi were too clean and didn’t have enough delay to suit our needs, whereas calls over cellular were less reliable and had distinctive sound distortion and delay we could work with. Back in 2010, we were still on 3G networks. With the introduction of 5G and faster, more efficient connections coming soon, we may need to go back and “update” (or downgrade?) Babbling.
Rehearsing Babbling Tower to Tower with students at National Taiwan Normal University, 2012.
In 2011, Babbling Tower to Tower won the UnCaged Toy Piano Composition Competition with the theme “Music for Toy Piano and Toy Instrument(s)”. Cell phones fit perfectly in the “toy” category. Recognition at UnCaged gave Babbling a good platform from which, for the next few years, it launched itself through people’s cell phones in many different countries.
Both Ujoforyt and Babbling Tower to Tower have had performances by other toy pianists all over the world. I’ve performed them in Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the U.S. They’ve also reached audiences in Canada, Amsterdam, Croatia, and France, thanks to toy pianists Terizija Cukrov, Justin Badgerow, Adam Marks, Phyllis Chen, Jennifer Hymer, Bernhard Fograscher, Ninon Gloger, and others. The toy piano community is global, and it’s gratifying to see new work travel and reach people far and wide.
Who are the “spiritual children” of Cage’s toy piano legacy after Chambers and Tan?
Several younger toy pianists/composers, having dedicated most of their creativity to the toy piano, are performing/composing really exciting works for the instrument, developing the field in interesting directions. Among them, Xenia Pestova, Isabel Ettenauer, Alexa Dexa, Scott Paulson (Toy Piano Festival at UCSD, the longest-running of its kind, organized each year since 2000 around John Cage’s birthday), Elizabeth Baker (Florida International Toy Piano Festival), Jennifer Hymer (Toy Piano/Non-Piano), and Phyllis Chen (UnCaged Toy Piano) help establish a regenerative environment through organizations, festivals, events, and performances aimed at expanding the toy repertoire and reaching a wider audience.
There are now far too many toy pianists and pianists who play toy piano and composers who write for toy piano to list here. And that’s a good problem to have, I think.
In fact, everyone contributing to the field is in some significant way part of the lineage and I’m of course leaving out many names that deserve to be mentioned here. But there are now far too many toy pianists and pianists who play toy piano and composers who write for toy piano to list here. And that’s a good problem to have, I think.
Inside the Rabbit Hole
I didn’t come to the toy piano deliberately, but it’s become an important instrument in my repertoire. It’s part of the family now. Through it, I feel connected to a small but global community. The quality of the compositions is astounding and matched only by their inventiveness. The toy piano, unlike most other instruments, is not an end in itself, but an invitation to something else. And that something else is anything you want to happen. Cage wrote his Suite for Toy Piano during a period when he was writing quieter music – works for muted string piano (a.k.a. prepared piano) and his notoriously silent/unsilent 4’33”, for example. He went small, he says in Lecture on Nothing, because “when the war came along, I decided to use only quiet sounds. There seemed to me to be no truth, no good, in anything big in society.”
For Cage, finding the toy piano was a protest against world events and a turning inward. But he unwittingly (or did he know all along?) started a movement that has grown and matured, reaching far across the globe (Tokyo held its first toy piano concert in 2007, featuring Cage, Tan, Arai, Nakamizo, Amemiya, and Kawai). It is responsible for some of the most visually and sonically beautiful music ever created. I don’t know if, fourteen years after Kyle Gann’s address, the toy music community has been able to “communicate to the outside world” in the way he seemed to think it should. The number of festivals, events, organizations, and performances devoted worldwide to the toy piano since then make me think that it has. But to me, it doesn’t matter.
I became, unwittingly, part of a make-believe world that is in truth real.
What I know is this: I went down a rabbit hole ten years ago and accidentally discovered a surprising instrument. I encountered strange and amazing people who taught me things I needed to learn, toy-related and otherwise. I became, unwittingly, part of a make-believe world that is in truth real. This album holds the story of my unexpected evolution as a toy pianist. The collection of recorded pieces in Toy exists because of some mysterious alchemy that brought them all together. Who knows where the toy piano will lead me next? I’m excited to find out. If I stay in this rabbit hole long enough, I’ll be ready for it.