Category: Articles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imani Mosley Out of the Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different Cities Different Voices: New Orleans

DCDV banner image with overlay of photos of New Orleans

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

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

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

Ashley Shabankareh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Naveen Venkatesan, Unsplash


JASON MARSALIS – percussionist, bandleader

Jason Marsalis playing the vibraphone at a performance.

Jason Marsalis

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

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

Listen to a Performance by Jason Marsalis:

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

Listen to Jason Marsalis’s New Orleans Artist Recommendation:

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

 


HELEN GILLET – singer/songwriter, cellist

Helen Gillet surrounded by various cellos.

Helen Gillet (photo by Jason Kruppa)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to Music featuring Helen Gillet

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

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

Listen to Helen Gillet’s New Orleans Artist Recommendation:

Lilli Lewis Project: “We Belong”


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

Clint Maedgen

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

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

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

TRUMPET MAFIA concert:


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

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

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

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

Here is the video playlist:

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

Here is ELI AND THE SUGAR STATIC

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

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

Clint Maedgen: Hindsight & Shadows

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

Clint Maedgen: Shadows & Colourburst

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

 


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

Delaney Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to Delaney Martin’s New Orleans Artist Recommendations:

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

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

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

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

 


DYLAN TRẦN – composer and Marketing Coordinator at New Orleans Opera

Dylan Trần

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to Music by Dylan Trần:

Dylan Trần: String Quartet No. 1 on Việt Themes

Listen to Dylan Trần’s New Orleans Artist Recommendation:

Lilli Lewis: “Incantation: Wind”


 

Listen to the Different Cities Different Voices playlist on Spotify:

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

 

Photo: Mana5280, Unsplash

Writing Music for Developing Instrumentalists and Singers

close up of a trumpet

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

“I can’t afford it.”

“We don’t have all of those parts.”

“I’m out of time to look.”

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

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

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

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

 

Pick Your Parameters

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

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

 

Make It Affordable

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

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

 

Make Some New Friends, Reconnect with Old Friends

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

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

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

 

Different Cities Different Voices: Chicago

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

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

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

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

Chicago city skyline

Max Bender / Unsplash


DAVE REMPIS – Saxophonist & Bandleader

Dave Rempis (photo by Cengiz Yar)

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

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

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

Listen to Music by Dave Rempis:

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

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

Listen to Dave Rempis’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:

Tomeka Reid’s album Shards and Constellations

 


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

Taalib-Din Ziyad

Taalib-Din Ziyad

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

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

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

Listen to Music featuring Taalib-Din Ziyad

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

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


OLIVIA BLOCK – Media Artist & Composer

Olivia Block

Olivia Block

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to music by Olivia Block:

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

Listen to Olivia Block’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:

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

 


CRAIG DAVIS PINSON – Composer, Guitarist & Educator

Craig Davis Pinson

Craig Davis Pinson

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

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

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

Listen to music featuring Craig Davis Pinson:

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

Listen to Craig Davis Pinson’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:

“Prism Unabridged” from Imelda Marcos’s album Tatlo

 


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

Jackie Taylor

Jackie Taylor

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

Listen to Music by Jackie Taylor:

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

Listen to Jackie Taylor’s Chicago Artist Recommendation:

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


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

Jennie Oh Brown

Jennie Oh Brown (photo: Marc Perlish)

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

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

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

Listen to Music performed by Jennie Oh Brown:

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

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

 


Listen to the Different Cities Different Voices playlist on Spotify:

 

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

 

Chicago City Skyline

Lance Anderson / Unsplash

Choral Singing on the Brink of Delta

Concinnity singing with masks on at Twain House in May 2021

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

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

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

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

Photo by Sarah Kaufold (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoom Tips for Private Music Instructors

Private Music Teachers in Unchartered Territory

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

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

Keep Students Connected

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

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

Integrate Manipulatives

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

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

Change Their Angle

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

Use Their Metronome

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

Assign Something Unconventional

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

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

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

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

Recruit a Family Audience

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

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

Conclusion

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

Wanted: Orchestral Scores by Composers Not Named Beethoven

A page from the manuscript of Emilie Mayer's First Symphony

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.

It is true that with a bit of determination and more than a few disposable dollars, these scores can be acquired: Musikproduction Hoeflich offers in its “Repertoire Explorer” series an edition of Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade for a reasonable 18€; I eagerly bought it, but I’d have to think twice about requiring my students to purchase a copy unless I could find a way to make it a primary text for my course. In contrast, one must shell out over 150€ for the Hoffman/Heitman edition of Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3, rendering it highly impractical at best for classroom study.

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:

Textbook 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) 402 3 0.75% 3 0.75%
Blatter, 2nd Ed. (1997) 174 3 1.72% 4 2.30%
Kennan and Grantham, 6th Ed. (2002) 241 1 0.41% 1 0.41%
TOTALS 817 7 0.86% 8 0.98%

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.

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.

Do You Hear What I See?

Allen Otte's set up for Begin Again (photo courtesy Allen Otte)

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

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.”

Hear Otte’s response to Brün’s Orchestra Model One here.

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's drawing of a group of jazz musicians playing instruments and singing.

Robin Holder: Five Spot 2, stencil monotype, 22″x30″ (2005), image courtesy Kentler International Drawing Center.

Hear Kowalski’s response to Five Spot 2 here.

While the ensemble was an enjoyable addition to the project, one standout is fairly minimal, as Otte responds to art by Mary Judge using just an amplified pencil.

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

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.

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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.