Category: Articles

Upon Arrival: Experiencing My First Live Concert in Over 15 Months

It feels like old news at this point to say that I have struggled during the Covid-19 pandemic. There are days where getting out of bed has felt like a chore and where my fears, both irrational and not, have consumed me into a spiral of anxiety. There are days where practicing clarinet, writing, working on projects, and teaching my students helps me find calm. However, a cloud of ambiguity tends to dissipate that calm and instead fuels anxiety as to when my next live performance will be. Like many, I have not-so curiously wondered where in the world the end to this global health crisis is, and why it hasn’t arrived sooner.

It also feels like old news to say that the pandemic has made me reflect on my artistic practice. I have felt empowered by improvising, by creating my own layered recordings, and even by writing the words you see here, but have felt insecure about my ability to do such in a world that is healing from unimaginable loss, pain, and grief.

Within days of restrictions being lifted in New York, ads for ticket sales and tour dates began populating my newsfeed. With cautious optimism, I thought, is live music really back? I was waiting for a point where another bar would close or a party would get too out of control, forcing me to be in the confines of my childhood bedroom once again. I had already wondered where my work as an artist fits into the ever-changing world, and with the dichotomy of student versus performer I assigned to myself, I pondered whether my art would be taken seriously, even as I chose to continue my studies.

Working two jobs hasn’t given me much free time, so when I miraculously woke up to a Saturday with nothing on my schedule, I almost laughed. What should I do? Should I hang out with a friend, go get my nails done, catch up on my email? I went with the obvious choice and met up with a good friend who recently moved back to Manhattan. While sipping our coffees in the park near his apartment, I realized that there was free, live music happening in Astor Place that night, including two fellows from bespoken, a mentorship program we’re a part of that supports female and nonbinary musicmakers, who run the The Juneteenth Legacy Project. I debated whether I should go solely because I thought the more responsible thing to do would be to catch up on work, but it was Saturday, and I knew in my heart I needed to be out and about.

The energy was euphoric on the 6 train to Astor Place. With baseball fans chattering and families laughing, the subway felt far more alive in comparison to when I’ve taken it in months past. This felt familiar, reminiscent of what my “old life” resembled, but intersected with gratitude for even being in a dinky subway car with all of these strangers.

Walking up the stairs and out of the station was like a pantomime. I was immediately welcomed to the sounds of violin, piano, voice, and even electronics from The Red Stage, an outdoor pop-up space in Astor Place created by artist Rashid Johnson, blending with the hum of passing vehicles and the energetic laughter of passersby. Isn’t that fascinating – how the sounds from around us can add so much to a concert or a show? As cliché as it sounds, I don’t think I would have considered that had it not been for the pandemic. I never thought I would feel so grateful for the small sounds of people coexisting with me, yet there I was, bobbing my head along, feeling pure contentment and gratitude for sharing this space with all of these strangers. All of the fears and doubts swirling around in my mind left my body; instead, I was in awe of the artists who I only knew virtually until that day making music so beautifully and authentically. For how many people was this their first taste of live music again? Surely, not just me.

The Red Stage’s mission is to invite artists to create freely and authentically after a year of such immense anxiety. I had originally come to see the Juneteenth Legacy Project featuring Nnenna Ogwo, Erika Banks-Alvarez, percussionist Donnie Johns, and the Sterling String Quartet, and was delighted to also hear multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Celisse, violinist Ché Buford, and genre-bending artist mal sounds, whose sounds greeted me as I first arrived. What I loved was how open the environment felt, not only because of its outdoor location, but because of the programming and energy generated by the artists themselves. There was no rushing to change over artists, no “shhs” when people clapped more than once; rather, there was space for each listener, whether there for a minute or an hour, to experience movements between experimental, classical, and even pop music. The concert was about 2 hours, featuring music by H.T. Burleigh, William Grant Still, Lizzo, Ché Buford, Childish Gambino, and more.

There were about 50 people in the audience, with benches dispersed near the stage, but many, like myself, took the option to stand amongst friends and enjoy the music in our little cohorts. From time to time, a light drizzle pushed its way into the atmosphere, but most paid no mind; there was a collective feeling of gratitude for being able to hear these artists do what they do best.

The Juneteenth Legacy Project (Photo credit: Jelani Thompson)

When I think of this concert and this time I carved out for myself to experience the thing that inspires me most, music, I smile from ear to ear. All I kept thinking while the show was going on is: “This is how concerts should feel.” The vulnerability of the artists to share this music with us in such a confusing time had me thinking about the idea of being present–at an event, a dinner, and in my daily life. I want to be creating performances where people are not only called on to be present, but feel welcomed into doing so. I don’t want to be limited to one genre of music; I want to be at the forefront of all the artistic possibilities I saw, heard, and experienced that night at The Red Stage.

Joy has always been the thing I have wanted to be at the center of what I do. The idea of cultivating a space for joy, to not only feel joy while creating sound on clarinet or writing these very words, but sharing that with the world at large, is fuel for me. Being at this concert brought me back to that part of myself. The world is healing, and so am I. I have the power to spread that joy–in whatever medium, in-person or online, right here, right now.

The Art of Being True: Sonic Ritual & Favorite Quarantine Recipes

"pursuit of happiness" by Anjna Swaminathan (the back cover art for The Art of Being True)

[Ed. Note: Today we present our sixth and final installment of excerpts from an anthology of writings by the 12 participants of M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians) in advance of their next round of concerts taking place on June 12 and 13, 2021 under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum (and which have received funding from New Music USA). The anthology, The Art of Being True, is edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth; it is published in its entirety on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were also presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. – FJO]


Val Jeanty operating electronic music equipment in a performance (Photo by Wolf Daniel)

Val Jeanty (Photo by Wolf Daniel, courtesy of Roulette Intermedium)

From Val Jeanty’s essay “Sonic Ritual”

Music is pure communication and Vodou-electro is rhythmic intelligence that escapes the boundaries of the tonal. Operating as a kind of sonic communicative life-form, it incorporates a host of sampled wavelengths, rhythms and effects. Its tech-driven effects allow it to confuse the ear, blending interior and exterior realities so that, under the right conditions, it can virtually be seen, touched, and interacted with. More than just effects and inspiration, Vodou Culture has always been a powerful catalyst of change in my work, introducing powerful abstract harmonies that encapsulate new ways of thinking and bold compositions. Each rhythm has produced its own unique set of resonances and all of these sounds have – at some point – fused with and influenced one another, merging into a vibrational ocean of Haitian ancestral legacy. I continue to sample this ocean, creating new pulses and rhythms that send tentative sonic probes into unmapped realms and the ancient futures.


Tomeka Reid playing the cello (photo by Joel Wanek)

Tomeka Reid (photo by Joel Wanek)

From Tomeka Reid’s “5 Favorite Quarantine Recipes”

Sunflower Butter

I love sunflower butter and have attempted to travel with it but have often ended up having it confiscated by the TSA! Forgetting to check it in my luggage, I’d have a jar in my snack bag and because of its “creamy” nature it would get tossed! Additionally, in my efforts to limit my use of single-use plastic, I decided to learn how to make it. Using 3 cups of raw sunflower seeds, lightly toast them on high on the stove for a few minutes until browned and then put them in a food processor. Blend in 1 minute intervals. A total of 10 minutes of blending usually does the job of turning them into a nice paste or butter. You can also do this with sesame seeds to make tahini. No oil needed in either case! The oils will eventually be released from the processing. Store the butter in mason jars or some other suitable container. I can’t say too much about the shelf life because it’s usually gone after a week or two. I also don’t add anything like sugar or salt, for example, but I’m sure you could!

Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding New Music in the ’90s

In May 1989, the Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato took to the floor of the senate chambers to angrily denounce the artist Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ—which depicted a crucifix submerged in urine—as what he called a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” What made D’Amato particularly furious, and what led to his protests along with those of his fellow Senator Jesse Helms, was the fact that Serrano’s photograph had been touring as part of an exhibit indirectly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. “This is not a question of free speech,” D’Amato proclaimed, as he waved a reproduction of the exhibit’s catalog. “This is a question of abuse of taxpayers’ money.” And then, unceremoniously, he tore the catalog in half, threw it on the floor, and declared, “What a disgrace.”

Worried about similar controversies, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington preemptively cancelled a large-scale exhibit of photographs by artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who had died of AIDS earlier that year, which included several explicit depictions of gay sex acts as well as nude children. Serrano and Mapplethorpe became the scapegoats for an uproar among Republicans in Congress, who debated whether the Endowment should be defunded or significantly restricted, as well as a newly galvanized evangelical movement, who accused the Endowment of promoting profanity and pornography. Avant-garde art, and its government funding, was conscripted into the sweeping referendum on post-’60s society, waged between left and right, known as the Culture Wars.

American composers, however, seemed to have little to fear: the focus of right-wing anger was directed towards the radical photography of Serrano and Mapplethorpe, as well as the performance art of figures like Karen Finley. The music that became subject to Culture Wars controversy––such as the rock and hip-hop targeted by the PMRC and Christian fundamentalist organizations––seemed far from the world of contemporary composition. Indeed, in an October 1989 article, the young composer David Lang expounded on the apparent lack of significance of the so-called “Helms amendment”––an attempt by the right-wing senator Jesse Helms to restrict federal funding to art that was deemed obscene or indecent––for the world of new music. “Artists like to feel that their work is challenging enough to be controversial,” he wrote. “Photographers, painters, filmmakers and the like can imagine victimization at the hands of Congress as a badge of honor. They are Art-martyrs to the First Amendment.”

“With all of the excitement,” Lang fretted, “it is disturbing that so little of this controversy is aimed at composers. Are we not controversial? Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music? It is possible that we are doing something wrong.” Later in the article, Lang ultimately singled out one central culprit, what he called “A colossal loss of nerve.” As the academic avant-garde faded, Lang wrote, composers were looking to work with mainstream institutions and reach large audiences, and thus “there are a lot of people we can’t afford to offend.” Lang’s principal scapegoat was “polite music,” music “designed to impress an audience, not to provoke it. “Congress says we are dangerous,” he concluded. “It is up to us to prove it.”

David Lang fretted, “Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music?”

But in utilizing the Culture Wars as a backdrop for making a perennial argument––that composers needed to make their music more aesthetically adventurous, to re-embrace avant-garde impulses––Lang may have overlooked the very real consequences of the Culture Wars on contemporary music. New music was not only swept up in the decimated public funding landscape that Helms and the religious right set into motion. Its institutions were also the subject of their own specific controversy, within the press and among granting panels, that centered on attempts to enact multicultural arts policy and promote the work of women and composers of color.

This three-decade-old episode of an attempt to diversify the world of contemporary composition––amidst a landscape of increasing arts austerity, loud Congressional battles over avant-garde art, and public backlash from prominent composers––has much to offer today’s attempts at fostering inclusion. It is one of many stories from my recent book, Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace, which draws on interviews and archival research to reconstruct a crucial, turbulent, and oft-overlooked moment in American music.

The cover for Will Robin's book Industry


In the late 1980s, “multiculturalism” was a buzzword in the American arts world: promoted by foundation and government administrators, detested by conservatives, and made an explicit if only partly realized goal for arts institutions. In these contexts, multiculturalism was typically understood to signify the advocacy for art created by minority groups as well as outreach programs by traditional institutions to minority communities.

Multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how NYSCA should adjudicate its funding.

And multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how the New York State Council on the Arts (hereafter NYSCA) should adjudicate its funding. Established in 1960 as a public funding body for the arts in New York State, NYSCA preceded the NEA and served as a model for some of its programs. Under the direction of James Jordan—the cousin and longtime manager of Ornette Coleman—NYSCA’s Music Program increasingly supported new music, including adding a priority for programming living composers to its guidelines in 1985, and running a statewide touring program intended to grow audiences for new work. Jordan maintained a strong commitment to funding experimental jazz and the work of Black composers, and also viewed public funding as a means for new music to reach new listeners. “Can you sell experimental music?” he asked in a 1991 interview with EAR Magazine. “I think you can. But you have to sell its humanity, its spirituality…It’s the marketing that sells, whether it’s experimental or not.”

In this period, NYSCA attempted to address the issue of multiculturalism, partly in response to political pressure. In 1987, it launched a program to diversify audiences for large cultural institutions like the New York Philharmonic via funding for outreach programs. But in a series of public hearings conducted by the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, the “new audiences” programs were critiqued for subsidizing established institutions at the expense of smaller organizations within minority communities. The caucus organized a task force which produced a 1989 report, “Towards Cultural Democracy,” lambasting NYSCA for excluding people of color from its staff and panels, and for awarding grants primarily to “Eurocentric” institutions; its minority-aimed Special Arts Service Division, for example, was continuously underfunded and required lobbying simply to stay afloat. NYSCA’s panel review system was itself suspect, as its “experts” were typically only familiar with Eurocentric art forms and perspectives: “People of color are always outnumbered on panels and have little or no input in that decision-making process.”

“This is not a purely symbolic debate,” sociologist Samuel Gilmore wrote of multicultural arts funding in 1993. “Rather it is a battle over the current and future allocation of scarce artistic resources.” Public agencies were continually and rightfully pressured by their constituents to wrestle with how to allocate arts funding across different ethnic and racial demographics. As they attempted to do so—often poorly and unfairly, as the critics in “Towards Cultural Democracy” argued—they also faced critique from conservatives who felt that the organizations were abandoning the “permanent values” of the supposed canon of high art in favor of serving political interests.

The terms of this debate mirrored contemporaneous political battles over affirmative action, in which liberals argued for the necessity of acknowledging racial difference and conservatives instead made a case for purportedly “meritocratic” colorblindness. And what unfolded at NYSCA reflected national trends in arts funding; in the final years of the 1980s, as Gilmore points out, NEA programs in multiple categories steadily increased grants awarded to minority-based initiatives (though, in proportion to the agency’s total budget, such efforts still remained paltry). In 1990, President Bush’s NEA chairman described multiculturalism as an NEA priority, and language around it was incorporated into grant making guidelines.

Some of NYSCA’s new policies led to an uproar in the world of contemporary music, most vociferously voiced by the composer Charles Wuorinen. With the composer and flutist Harvey Sollberger, Wuorinen had co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962, among the earliest American ensembles specializing in contemporary composition. It was initially housed at Columbia University and received significant early funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which had been seeding ensembles and electronic music studios at universities across the country. (Michael Uy’s fascinating new book Ask the Experts tells the full story of this moment.) The Group participated in a broader network of emergent Cold War institutions, including Princeton’s PhD program in composition, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and the journal Perspectives of New Music, which codified a new support system for contemporary music, strongly underscored scientific expertise, and were backed by university and foundation patronage.

A paradigmatic modernist Cold Warrior, Wuorinen had a forbidding reputation as an advocate for serial composition. And through the 1980s, he increasingly articulated a pessimistic, neoconservative worldview, expressing concerns about populism, pluralism, and the decline of “serious culture.” In a 1988 profile in The New York Times, on the occasion of Wuorinen’s fiftieth birthday, writer Joan Peyser focused on the composer’s concerns that minimalism was overtaking twelve-tone music, driven by institutions such as NYSCA prioritizing audiences over art. Like the neocon art critics who filled the pages of The New Criterion such as Samuel Lipman and Hilton Kramer, Wuorinen traced the plight of the present moment to the late ’60s: “That was the turning point. Art became capitalized, a Good Thing, something to be brought to everyone. With that came the promoting, the merchandising, the marketing––the change from art to entertainment.”

And Wuorinen apparently told the Times that the Group for Contemporary Music’s next season might be scrapped in part because of NYSCA: the composer “says the council’s money is going to organizations specializing in Minimalist music and that members of its music committee have told him of their wish to help promote the work of women and blacks.” The composer attempted to resist such efforts, steadfastly refusing to take any such considerations into account when programming his ensemble’s repertoire.

Grant application materials, held in the New York State Archives, further clarify both NYSCA and the Group’s positions. Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about its failure to program women and minority composers. In the preceding years, the Group programmed no music by women composers, and only one work by a Black composer. Wuorinen and the Group’s staff met with James Jordan in fall 1986. In a response to NYSCA that November, the ensemble’s executive director wrote that the Group had received few scores by women or minority composers in the past, but it would issue a public call, emphasizing that women and minorities would be encouraged to apply. Still, he noted, “We will continue to select the most worthy ones for performance without respect to gender or ethnic background.”

Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about the Group for Contemporary Music’s failure to program women and minority composers.

NYSCA was set up in a similar fashion to the National Endowment for the Arts: an internal staff helped adjudicate grants, in dialogue with independent panels of peer artists. And the peer panel that voted on the Group’s funding application later that month was not convinced: “That the Group has received only one score from a woman and none from minorities in the past two seasons had more to do with the history of not performing the works of women and minorities, creating an unwelcome atmosphere.” Its annual funding was cut substantially, from $16,000 to $10,000. Other ensembles faced similar scrutiny: reviewing an application from another group, Speculum Musicae, panelists discussed the “insularity of its programming, and the lack of evidence of any real effort to include women and minorities,” and its funding was cut by $3,000. In a 1985 review meeting, administrators from the downtown venue Experimental Intermedia told a NYSCA officer that they would feature more women and minority composers going forward.

Still, the Group refused to play ball. In June 1987, the ensemble held a board meeting in which it decided that “affirmative action programs had no place in artistic endeavors,” and “agreed that The Group must continue to maintain the integrity of its programming, despite the consequences of NYSCA funding or lack of it.” Its NEA funding had been cut back, too, and its New York seasons shrunk; the Group did, however, program music by two women, Michelle Ekizian and Barbara Kolb, in 1987 and 1989.

Beginning with its 1990 handbook, NYSCA’s guidelines included a new section stating that “The Council is particularly interested in offering assistance to worthy artistic activities that serve traditionally underserved communities or populations.”  The policy advocated for applicants to increase the diversity of their staff and program for culturally diverse audiences. To evaluate these new criteria, NYSCA asked questions of applicants “relating to participation in and service to traditionally underserved populations.” There were no pre-determined answers it sought, but it wanted to see a given applicant demonstrate good-faith effort. “We don’t punish those who don’t program women, minority, and American composers,” Jordan told EAR in 1991. “We reward those who do.”

After skipping applying for NYSCA funding for two years, the Group applied again in 1990 for a modest $5,500 for a three-concert, free series comprising music by Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, Olivier Messiaen, and other composers––all of whom were white men. Responding to one of the new application questions––“Do you include artists who are representatives of minorities and special constituencies in your programming?”––the Group reiterated what had now become familiar rhetoric, that it was interested in programming minority composers “of merit” and that its artists “are selected on the basis of ability.” The peer panel reviewing the application debated whether to reduce requested funding based on its failure to address past concerns over diversity, and the state ultimately awarded $5,000. But the Group only presented one of its three proposed programs and in 1991–92, the ensemble’s thirtieth season, it ended its live concert series entirely, instead dedicating its resources exclusively to recording.

“The State Council of New York attempted to tell me what I should program,” Wuorinen told the scholar Richard Douglas Burbank around this time. “That’s why the Group for Contemporary Music doesn’t exist anymore, except on paper. The Arts Council wanted affirmative action.” He added that “They were taking artistic control from us and I wouldn’t have it.”


One peer organization in new music had no issues complying with NYSCA’s requests. Founded in 1987 by the composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, the freewheeling Bang on a Can festival brought together rock-inflected postminimalism, uptown serialism, downtown experimentalism, and world music. They had easy answers to the questions that the Group had protested. In a 1990 NYSCA application, Bang on a Can described in detail its marketing and publicity work to reach diverse audiences, and noted that “our commitment to women and minorities has been, and remains, very strong,” providing a list of more than twenty women and minority composers featured in the past four years.

Back in 1988, Lang had actually written a letter to the Times rebuking their profile of Wuorinen, in which he accused the composer and his uptown compatriots of “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad.” He added, “Only by encouraging diversity can music hope to stay vital.”

These priorities also made Bang on a Can an appealing candidate to foundations that supported diversity-focused initiatives. In 1990, it successfully applied for funding from the Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program to commission three new string quartets written by women, which the organization pitched as helping rectify the fact that “women composers are under-represented” in standard repertoire. (In terms of gender, an average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.)

An average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.

In a 1991 funding request to the Jerome Foundation, Gordon wrote that “In the past five years we have presented on our marathon concerts works by 82 emerging composers, of which 34 were by women and composers of color,” and that all of its commissioned works for 1992 were by women and people of color. He further noted that during its process for evaluating works submitted for performance at its marathons, following an initial blind review to see if the music fit the “artistic vision of the Festival,” there was a second review with a number of considerations including “whether the composer is an emerging, woman, or minority composer.” This clear acknowledgement that the organization took gender, race, and ethnicity into account in its programming would have been anathema to Wuorinen, who saw such efforts as a form of social engineering that jeopardized his notions of a modernist, individualist meritocracy.

And NYSCA program reviews and panel comments on Bang on a Can applications were consistently positive. “It is rare to find an organization which programs the works of women and minorities in representative numbers in a way that is natural to the goals of the organization,” a NYSCA staffer wrote in his evaluation of a 1991 funding proposal. As NYSCA funding for the Group for Contemporary Music was cut, Bang on a Can’s increased.


Ultimately, though, state program reviews were not what jeopardized new music in the 1990s. The decade began with massive reductions to NYSCA’s allocations, in response to the 1990 economic recession, which caused a deficit crisis in New York State. In 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo requested a 56 percent cut in NYSCA’s budget, prompting outrage in the arts community. James Jordan told EAR Magazine that the proposed cuts were the “worst shape we’ve been in during the last 20 years.” The budget was ultimately cut by 44 percent and, by 1992–93, the state arts budget was at its lowest level since the early 1970s. And new-music organizations across the board faced major state cutbacks, to which Bang on a Can was not exempt.

But some prominent composers would remember the culprit of this moment not as the recession, or a state government that deployed arts cutbacks to balance its budget, or even the paleoconservatives like Jesse Helms fighting at the national level. Invited by The Musical Times in 1994 to respond to the question “Music: the next 150 years?” Milton Babbitt took a bleak outlook, lambasting “pervasive and invasive populism” that endangered the future of what he perennially called “serious music.”

According to Babbitt, the National Endowment for the Arts “has imposed through its appointed panels a censorship of egalitarianism, regionalism, sexism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse sexism’) and racism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse racism’) which has had far broader and harsher effect than the publicized attacks and threat of censorship by a yahoo legislator and his fellow protectors of the public morality.” (“Yahoo legislator” was a reference to Helms.)

Arguing that the “NEA’s ideological correctness has trickled down to other public and private benefactors”—likely referring to NYSCA, although Babbitt does not name the Council—the composer recapped the Group for Contemporary Music’s funding woes and its cessation of live performance. And he repeated Wuorinen’s claims that the ensemble’s funding had been threatened by its failure to program music by minority composers. Instead, Babbitt argued, “There is apparently little concern that the most threatened minority groups are the composers and performers who have been on the programs and on the stage.” New music itself, in other words—rather than new music by composers from underrepresented groups—deserved affirmative action.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism. His claims of the NEA’s reverse racism and reverse sexism in panel adjudication echoed conservatism’s “colorblind” opposition to affirmative action and other social programs that attempted to address inequality. Babbitt and Wuorinen had both benefited from Cold War–era foundation and university patronage, and their approach towards modernist music’s individuality, and distaste for what they saw as a politically correct government bureaucracy that threatened it, was steeped in the rhetoric of that time. If they saw themselves as heroically embattled figures during the Cold War, they assumed an even more embattled position during the Culture Wars.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism.

And by no means did Babbitt accurately capture the state of public funding. Conservatives inflated what they disliked about the arts bureaucracy into a grand critique that assumed that the NEA and NYSCA exclusively funded the multicultural, the populist, and the obscene. At the federal level, “multicultural” arts funding was more rhetoric than reality: federal support for minority artists was largely concentrated in NEA programs like Expansion Arts, which had a much smaller budget than the Music Program.

And NEA granting for composers was indeed sexist, but in the more conventional, non-reverse fashion. In 1987, for example, composers Sylvia Glickman and Tina Davidson launched an official complaint after their Endowment proposal for a consortium commission of all-female composers was denied funding; in researching their case, they found that women had received only 9% of Composer Fellowships over the past eleven years, and that in 1987 only 3.26% of Endowment funding for the consortium and fellowship categories was awarded to female composers (a total of two grants). They noted that very few peer panelists were women, and even fewer were women composers. “The Endowment, by ignoring women composers’ excellence, effectively bars them from other funding sources, performances and continued artistic growth,” they wrote.

By 1996, the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists.

But the granting programs would not have much time to take these critiques into account––to become actually multicultural, as Babbitt and Wuorinen feared. The “yahoo legislators” soon had their say: a year after the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans won House and Senate majorities by campaigning on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” Congress slashed NEA funding by 40%. By 1996, the Endowment’s budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million, it cut almost half of its staff, and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists. By the early 2000s, public funding had been decimated at both state and federal levels.


What David Lang wrote in 1989 was not wrong: no senators took to the floor to tear up scores by Philip Glass or John Cage. New music was ultimately collateral damage in the Culture Wars, not directly targeted by congressional Republicans but still subject to the same devastating public funding cuts that the controversies over Serrano and Mapplethorpe inaugurated. But the controversies over NYSCA’s funding of new-music organizations—relatively tame in comparison to what unfolded on the floor of the senate—tapped into the same partisan rhetoric as the more famous ones that played out on the national stage, and did in fact conscript American composers into the battles of the Culture Wars.

Equally significant was what this tumultuous moment in culture indexed for American composition. When paleoconservative Pat Buchanan—who frequently railed against the NEA—ran against George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primary, he declared in his convention speech that he was launching a “war for the soul of America,” one “as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition that had flourished among institutions like the Group for Contemporary Music gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can—a transformation facilitated by the shifting priorities of funding agencies who reflected a new national climate.

As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can.

This story is part of what I call new music’s “marketplace turn,” a period in the 1980s and ‘90s in which presenters, funders, advocacy organizations, record labels, and upstart festivals pushed for American new music to reach a broad, non-specialist audience. Bang on a Can is one of the most significant victors from this period: today, with its touring ensemble, record label, and summer festival, it commands significant influence in the world of contemporary music, not to mention a multi-million dollar budget.


In her book On Being Included, Sara Ahmed cogently identifies pernicious gaps between how diversity is advertised and promoted and how it is actually enacted and exercised in practice. Here we see the enaction of relatively tame state policies to promote a more diverse world of new music inciting vehement pushback. For those currently engaged in such efforts at their own universities or within their own ensembles, the fearmongering of Wuorinen and Babbitt may not be all that surprising. Even long after the Cold War, many musicians still perpetuate ideologies of autonomy that view even the mildest forms of affirmative action as a pernicious encroachment on artistic independence.

One of the principal problems that Ahmed and others have identified is that the work of diversity—and ultimately, and more importantly, the work of anti-racism and anti-sexism—is that it is continually under-resourced, often serving as tokenistic PR instead of actual redistributive justice. The story of NYSCA in the 1980s and ’90s is thus prescient, or at least unsurprising, in this regard. Just as public granting agencies began to enact multicultural arts policies, their funding was massively cut, and, as the Babbitt essay demonstrates, some even blamed the policies themselves for those cuts.

“If you’re giving an organization $10,000, you can say, ‘In return to that we expect you to have a social face,’” David Lang recalled in a conversation we had in 2019. “If you’re cutting them from $10,000 to $1,000, you can’t say, ‘Oh by the way for this $1,000 we’d like you to change your organization’ . . . That social action, at least from government organizations, was ascendant as the funding was ascendant, and when the funding got cut a lot of steam went out.”

Similarly, in a 1996 NYSCA grant application, when asked how its programming reflected “efforts to broaden and diversify its audience,” the venue Experimental Intermedia did not mince words: “Frankly, we have to state that continued federal, state, corporate and foundation arts funding cuts have stripped most organizations to the bone. We continue our open invitation to and interest in minority artists, but there are no funds with which to explicitly address these issues beyond what it possible in regular programming.” James Jordan had claimed that NYSCA would reward organizations that programmed women and minority composers, but they were left with few resources with which to undertake new projects. Budget cuts compromised transformative change.

Today, renewed and necessary advocacy for diversity and inclusion—whether in the petitioning of major institutions to program works by underrepresented composers, the crucial labor of organizations such as Castle of our Skins, or the proliferation of equity committees—can only go so far on the limited resources of our neoliberal landscape.

Instead of petitioning a robustly funded NEA to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter.

In an era of public arts austerity, these diversity efforts often represent individual, entrepreneurial projects rather than broad social endeavors sustained by government support. Which is to say that, instead of petitioning a robustly funded National Endowment for the Arts to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter. As we continue to talk about diversity, the American people need to put our money—and, especially and crucially, our public money—where our mouths are.

Looking Out For Each Other with The Real Music Wages Database

A photo of an old card catalog from a library

I recently visited a sound art class at Vanderbilt University (over Zoom) as a guest artist. Towards the end of our conversation, one of the students asked me about what I was looking forward to in the future of my work and the fields of music and sound art. Rather than the aesthetic answer the student expected (and I could easily see myself giving a year ago), I surprised both of us by unhesitatingly responding that I was looking forward to improved arts workers’ conditions.

As excited as I am about the opera I’m currently writing or thingNY’s upcoming foray into mail art, the immediate effort I see from various communities of artists to create better working conditions and a healthier, more equitable social and economic ecosystem for the arts eclipses any individual art project or aesthetic movement in terms of my optimism for the future. From the boisterous and massive in-person protests to the quiet one-on-one conversations, from the various collective conversations on Zoom to the steady helping hand of mutual aid organizations, across the podcast interviews, slack channels, op-eds, and, yes, the astounding musical performances and recordings, a culture of community care has been dancing in a rainbow of tempos in all corners of the performing arts world. Into this spirit of sharing knowledge and resources, the New Music Organizing Caucus has created the Real Music Wages Database.

The Real Music Wages Database is an anonymous, crowd-sourced list of real wage transactions reported by musicians. We track how much someone has been paid, who paid them, and how many hours of work it involved. The more entries are added to the spreadsheet, the more discernable a true economic snapshot of the new music industry is visible. Inspired by similar crowd-sourced spreadsheets for dancers, baristas, museum workers, and adjunct professors, we created the Real Music Wages Database to help freelance music workers navigate what can be a very confusing financial landscape and give us tools to negotiate wages for ourselves, particularly in situations when we don’t have a union or an agent working on our behalf. The transparency of the database is meant to also be useful for ensembles, composers, producers, and presenters who want to get a better idea of what an industry standard might look like. The database has the potential to both identify organizations that don’t pay their performers enough as well as model how much an organization should pay their performers, ultimately encouraging equal pay rates and a living wage for musicians. (Oh man, doesn’t that sound nice?)

Starting out a career in new music and its adjacent musical scenes can be very confusing financially. For me, learning what I should be paid involved years of being paid a vast variety of amounts (or not at all) in ways that even still don’t always reflect the amount of work put in. One gig will pay my rent for two months after a week of work, while another gig will take a month of work to only pay half of my month’s rent. All of us freelancers know that part of our hustle is stitching together a living from a disparate assortment of gigs, each with its own unique equation of give and take. We’re hopeful that the Real Music Wages Database will speed up the knowledge gathering process significantly for young musicians, particularly those who don’t always feel comfortable casually asking their peers what they are being paid, as well as offer transparency for those who have been going at it for a while. In addition, the database can be a resource to other performing arts workers, like dancers and performance artists, who work with some of the same institutions, presenters, and venues that we do, but who historically have had an even harder time making a decent living, and can use the details of our experiences to uplift their own.

The database is limited in the information it gathers. For instance, we don’t ask about the tax status of the gig, or if you were given retirement benefits or health insurance. (Because let’s be real – how often does that happen?) And unlike other databases, we don’t ask about your gender or racial identity, whether you are disabled or your sexual orientation. We think tracking that kind of information is important and we fully support the reckoning over equity taking place within the new music world. However, we want to protect our community’s anonymity and felt that such a level of detailed, identifying information could sabotage those efforts.

We also wanted to make adding entries to the database quick and easy. So we decided to only ask for the most essential information and then use a system of tagging so that each person can decide what additional information would be useful for others to know. For instance, if a gig is associated with a specific university or institution that did not directly pay you; whether the gig was with an orchestra or chamber ensemble, for an opera or a wedding; whether it was for a specific series or festival; if it was a recording session; or if it involved an adjacent field, be that dance, theatre, or a religious service. The more tags are used, the more options will be suggested for you as you type into the ‘Tag’ field. This way, people can add as much information as they want and it is up to each individual to decide what they are comfortable sharing.

The database is also focused on gigs where the musician is not a generative artist. We understand how complicated the funding structures for our work as composers, sound artists, and performance creators can be. We decided that to fully measure the intricacies of our creative time for such projects would take a different set of questions. (We also encourage folks to use the NewMusicBox Commissioning Fees Calculator if it will be useful for your situation.) And finally, we especially encourage musicians to input their gigs paid for by funded institutions, particularly non-profit organizations that receive funds from foundations and governmental arts councils. A larger reckoning around funding and transparency in larger non-profit arts institutions is currently taking place and we hope this database can just be one tool in the reforming process.

The New Music Organizing Caucus (NMOC) is a baby of an organization, originally founded by composer-pianist Dorian Wallace and now spearheaded by a small group of dedicated and welcoming activist musicians. Initiated during the activist summer of 2020 that was energized by Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, NMOC holds monthly Zoom meetings where a community of new music workers come together to, as stated on the NMOC website, “advocate for decent working conditions and fair wages, provide support against discriminatory practices, share skills and knowledge, and fight for diversity, equity and inclusion in our field.” It’s a community of fellow musicians that welcomes anyone who wants to become more involved. I have met many people for the first time in these meetings, which might begin in shy awkwardness and end in refreshing sensations of solidarity. As with any volunteer organization, the more its membership wants to do, the more will happen. So far, we rely on pro bono assistance. For instance, Brian McCorkle designed the website for the database, and Sophia Richardson and Alyssa McCallion designed the logo.

The Real Music Wage Database is the first large project initiated by NMOC with an eye on other ways we can support our community and share resources in the future. The group also works to advocate for the special interests of new music in larger organizations such as the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW), and the Music Workers Alliance (MWA), as well as connect members with resources in these larger organizations. Though many of the active members are based in New York City, there are members from all across the United States. And even as in-person events begin again in the coming year, the group plans to continue meeting online so that it can serve and connect a wider geographical range of musicians.

Like many others, the reason I have more time to go to Zoom meetings for volunteer, activist organizations is because I don’t have as much work as I did before the pandemic started. (Also, I was probably working too much before the pandemic started, but that’s another story…) You might be looking at the Real Music Wages Database and thinking you’d love to input gigs when you have them again. When that day comes (and oh it will), I hope you do! In addition, it is tax season. I recently found myself adding entries as I went through my paystubs and expenses from 2020 in preparation for meeting with my tax guy. However strange it seems to me looking back on what felt like an impossibly long year, there were two and a half months of work in 2020 before the lockdown completely transformed every aspect of my life, and that is as obvious in my banking activity as it is in my sleep schedule. For the ultra-ambitious musician with free time, take a moment now to add your gigs from multiple past years. And for the slow-and-steady thoughtful freelancer, thank you for adding your gigs as you get them for many years to come. The Real Music Wages Database is as much of a useful tool as our collective music community nurtures it to be. I’m real thankful to be part of a community of folks that look out for each other.

(In full transparency, the NMOC Real Wages Steering Committee currently consists of Gelsey Bell, Nicholas Connolly, David Friend, Andrew Griffin, Marina Kifferstein, Brian McCorkle, Luisa Muhr, Pablo O’Connell, and Hajnal Pivnick. We can be reached at [email protected]. Want to be more involved? Please join us!)

The logo for the Real Music Wages database

Our Journey to Olly Wilson: Remixed and Beyond

Larry and Arlene Dunn at Kaleidosonic (Photo by Jack Lichtenstein)

Today, April 20, 2020, is Larry’s 71st birthday, which we are celebrating by releasing our recording project Olly Wilson: Remixed on New Focus Recordings. As a “Special COVID-19 Pandemic Release,” 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this recording will be donated to the New Music Solidarity Fund (NMSF), which has just set a new stretch goal to reach a total of $500,000 by May 15. The New Music Solidarity Fund was organized by 14 leading artists in the global new music field to raise money for freelance music artists who are suddenly deprived of their livelihood by the pandemic. The fund is administered through New Music USA, and has already issued 530 emergency relief grants. But the financial needs far outweigh the more than $300,000 already raised.

Today, we also started a coordinated Facebook birthday fundraiser to benefit the NMSF. We are listing this release at a low $4.00, and people who contribute any amount to the parallel Facebook fundraiser will receive a download code to get the album. This way, nearly anyone inclined to give is able to do so. But we urge you to pay whatever you can comfortably afford. This pandemic has suddenly deprived so many independent music artists of their livelihood. Providing them some emergency financial relief seems like the least we ought to do, in return for the countless years they have invested in their craft to bring such joy into our lives.

You might be asking, how is it that Arlene and Larry Dunn are releasing a recording? What is it? Olly Wilson: Remixed is a passion project, an homage to composer and musicologist Olly Wilson (1937-2018), an Oberlin Conservatory professor from 1965 to 1970, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the advent of electronic music at Oberlin, for which he was directly responsible.

Our own journey with Olly Wilson began in 2014, when International Contemporary Ensemble clarinetist Joshua Rubin included Wilson’s composition ​Echoes​ (for clarinet and electronics) on his album There Never is No Light. Josh has told us “I first performed Wilson’s music while I was a student at Oberlin. Then I had the honor of working with him directly in 2013, when I was recording Echoes for my album. He helped me find the materials I needed to perform and record the work, and to help shape my performance to his vision of the piece.” Josh continued: “My entire album’s inspiration came from the palette of sounds and ideas that originate from Echoes.” Josh’s recording sparked our first concentrated listening to Olly Wilson’s music. We were entranced by the music and intrigued by the man, who clearly carried a special spirit.

In February 2018, we attended a lecture by Fredara Hadley, then a Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Oberlin, who now teaches at Juilliard. Her lecture, “The Black History of Oberlin Conservatory,” focused on the substantial contributions of African American students and faculty throughout the Conservatory’s history. Among these, of course, was Olly Wilson, the first African American faculty member at the conservatory. We learned that, in addition to his teaching in the standard curriculum of the day, Wilson offered Oberlin’s first courses in African and African American music and culture, a signal achievement at a time when campuses across the country were just beginning to grapple with the far-reaching tentacles of racism.

In May 2019, we met with Tom Lopez, department chair of Oberlin TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) to talk about plans to celebrate the program’s 50th anniversary. We received another revelation: in the fall of 1969, Olly Wilson taught the first class in electronic music at Oberlin Conservatory (or any conservatory of music). That moment was the germination of today’s TIMARA program. As Tom unfurled the plans to celebrate TIMARA’s 50th anniversary, one particular event stood out: the Kaleidosonic Music Festival, planned for November 16, “an epic celebration of music at Oberlin. It will include musicians and ensembles from the Conservatory, the College, and the community,” as Tom described. “It will be many hours long with non-stop music — one big, long, sonic collage of ensembles, groups, and individual musicians,” he enthused. The rest came rapid fire, something like this:

Tom: Would we like to perform in Kaleidosonic?

A&L: Sure, but what?

Tom: Anything you like.

A&L: How about a text or spoken word piece about Olly Wilson?

Tom: That would be perfect!

And thus, Olly Wilson: Remixed was born. The objective of doing a spoken word piece was clear enough, but the content and substance was far from it. Soon we immersed ourselves in the hunt for all his recorded music and all his writings we could find. We quickly realized that not only was Olly Wilson a highly inventive composer, but he was a profound thinker, especially regarding the aesthetics and politics of African and African American music and culture, and he was a persuasive writer. A concept for the piece began to congeal, as we found certain works that resonated most strongly with us. Our touchstones in his music included Echoes, of course, Cetus, for which he won the first-ever international prize for electronic music in 1968, Sometimes (for tenor and electronics), and his stirring song cycle Of Visions and Truth. His written works (and transcribed interviews) that became central to Olly Wilson: Remixed include Black Music as an Art Form, The Black-American Composer, an address to an Oberlin College assembly called How Long — Not Long!, and a series of interviews with the Regional Oral History Office at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

To create our script, we extracted phrases from Wilson’s written works and then organized them into affinity groups. These groups ultimately morphed into the four movements of Olly Wilson: Remixed. The first movement, Black Music as an Art Form addresses Wilson’s refutation to the broadly held notion that there was nothing unique or distinctive about Black music that sets it apart from any other music. Next, Musical Electrons presents Wilson’s thoughts about the use of technology and electronics in the creation and performance of music. The third movement, In Oberlin portrays life in the town and the college through Wilson’s eyes. Finally, Composing While Black exposes the systemic racism that relentlessly impedes the work of an African American artist in a deeply white field like classical music, concluding with poet Claude McKay’s defiant “If We Must Die.”

As the movements came together, we started a cycle of rehearsing, rearranging, rehearsing, refining, rehearsing . . . We started to think our recitation alone was too dry, and we ought to add an Olly Wilson-inspired soundscape. We, of course, knew nothing about how to do that, but we knew someone who did: Kirk Pearson, a 2017 Oberlin grad whose work in TIMARA we had come to admire when he was a student. We contacted Kirk at his Dogbotic studio, in Berkeley, CA. He was quick to say yes. Reflecting back on the moment, Kirk says:

Olly Wilson holds a mythic status at Oberlin, but the full weight of his accomplishments weren’t clear to me until I got involved in this project. I have to admit that, despite studying in the TIMARA department, essentially Wilson’s creation, I hadn’t read any of his articles nor spent significant time with his music. To call this process eye-opening is putting it lightly. I was shocked at just how political and prophetic many of Wilson’s writings were. Wilson’s creative process was a politically indelible act in and of itself. We learn from his example that the subtle acts of sonic modulation, the generation of synthetic sound, and the splicing of tape are powerful tools for composers to reimagine, even refute, history.

Kirk dove into reading our score and the original sources to ground himself in the project while also auditioning most of Wilson’s recordings to absorb their essence. Step by step, he put shape to a soundscape attuned to the aesthetic of each movement. Kirk relates a bit of the process he employed:

The profundity of tape composition grounds much of Wilson’s electronic work, much as it forms the soundscape of Olly Wilson: Remixed. I snipped thousands of micro samples of Wilson’s music and voice, creatively mutating them through five decades worth of analog studio techniques−tape machines, Buchla modulars, vocoders, and a homemade ten-foot Slinky reverb, and more. Working with the sonic artifacts of this great composer was humbling, and I am hoping this piece helps generate interest in Wilson’s work among successive new generations of electronic trailblazers.

Premiering Olly Wilson: Remixed at the Kaleidosonic Festival in November at Oberlin’s historic Finney Chapel was an exhilarating and unique experience. It was totally chaotic, and yet also cleanly orchestrated. More than 50 separate performances were scheduled, from 7:30 to midnight, ranging from individuals to over 50 people, including marching bands, a children’s choir, the Oberlin College choir, the OSteel Band, a jazz ensemble, even bagpipes. Notable guests included composer and accordionist Peter Flint (a 1992 Oberlin grad) and experimental noise music luminary Aaron Dilloway (an Oberlin resident). Most performances were slated to last only five minutes and would bleed into each other at the beginning and end.

When we arrived at our call time, the basement of Finney was abuzz with activity−people warming up, finding a place for their coats, and talking excitedly with friends and cohorts. Soon we were being led up the tortuous path to the organ loft where we would perform our first and second movements. The MC gave us our cue as our friends in the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra (NOYO) Lab Group were wrapping up their set. We stood, turned on our music stand lights, heard Kirk’s intro, and started reciting. It was scintillating. Hundreds of people in the audience and we were the only ones performing! After completing the first movement we turned off our lights and exited to wait in a tiny, dim area behind the organ. Before emerging 25 minutes later to perform our second movement, that organ would be booming, and we wanted to protect our ears.

We performed our third and fourth movements on the floor in front of the stage, adjacent to NOYO Lab Group. By design, Kaleidosonic was full of chatter and people coming and going. But we knew people were listening, when we heard laughter at some humorous moments during our In Oberlin movement. When the time finally came, we were thrilled to hear Kirk’s arresting soundscape introduction to our fourth movement, which contains some of the most assertive and impactful text. We were sure we had succeeded when we heard loud applause at the end, and Tom Lopez agrees: “Arlene and Larry made great use of the performance space in this fully immersive event. It was very powerful to hear Olly Wilson’s words repeated in the very chapel where he gave his assembly address on racial injustice in April 1970.”

Larry and Arlene Dunn at Kaleidosonic (Scott Shaw Photography)

Larry and Arlene Dunn at Kaleidosonic (Scott Shaw Photography)

From the beginning of Kirk’s involvement in the project, we had discussed making a studio recording of Olly Wilson: Remixed. With the Kaleidosonic premiere still ringing in our ears, we descended into the TIMARA lab the following day for Kirk to record our vocal tracks. Life interrupted the process for a spell, as Larry had major surgery on his neck the very next day, followed by months of recovery. Sometime in February, Larry was well on the way to recovery and Kirk had first-cut mixes of each movement ready for us to review. A multi-step cycle of reviews and notes and revisions brought us very close to ready as March arrived. As we started to grapple with how and where we might release Olly Wilson: Remixed to the world, it turned out the word had its own plans.

Suddenly an unremitting COVID-19 pandemic was spreading across the globe, disrupting life as we know it in country after country, with a virulent outbreak sure to hit the U.S. On March 12, we decided to voluntarily stay at home except going out for food and other essentials. By March 22, the state of Ohio rolled out a stay-at-home order, just as our own community entered a “hard closure” precautionary quarantine. Across the country, music concerts, and public events of all kinds, were suddenly cancelled for the foreseeable future, wreaking havoc on musicians everywhere, especially freelance artists whose entire livelihoods depend on contracted concert appearances.

That same Sunday, March 22, Claire Chase contacted us about contributing to a new initiative she and 13 other leading artists were organizing to help funnel emergency relief grants to suddenly out-of-work musicians.   inspired our release plan: to launch Olly Wilson: Remixed as a fundraising tool, with 100% of the proceeds donated to the NMSF. When we contacted Dan Lippel about launching the project on New Focus Recordings, he enthusiastically agreed, and we started marching in sync towards our April 20 release date.

The cover for the CD Olly Wilson: Remixed features a photo of Olly Wilson in front of a blackboard lecturing to a class.

The Cover for Olly Wilson: Remixed.

We harbor no illusions that our campaign is going to fully mitigate the financial crisis for freelance musicians, much less the broad and deep economic damage of this pandemic. But we hope that it will inspire in others a generosity of spirit and hope for the future. Or, has Kirk has put it:

My studio, which sits less than a mile away from UC Berkeley, the locus of the last thirty years of Olly Wilson’s illustrious career, now boasts a framed quote from the man himself: “I am optimistic about the whole future of music.” We could all benefit from a bit of optimism right now. Wilson’s sentiment, perhaps more than ever, is a reminder of the resilience of the creative arts. While a global pandemic has uprooted our traditional institutions for making music, I have no doubt that the creative world will adapt and continue to thrive. Music will live on, and with it, our ability to call our histories into question and make a better future.

Thank you Olly Wilson. We, too, are optimistic about the whole future of music.

This is What Tuba City Sounds Like

The four musicians of a string quartet, a composer and a mentor sit in the middle of a circle surrounded by students

My father was a New York City subway track worker, one of those workers you see with the orange vests at night working on the tracks. He died from a genetic heart ailment when I was 13, leaving my mother a widow with 5 children. She went to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yards as a file clerk to support us. The only thing we knew for sure was that we were all going to college. No one in our large extended family had gone to college, none of us knew what that entailed exactly, how to get there, how it’s done, but that was my mother’s nightly narrative, “When you are in college… ” Not “if,” but “when.” I started playing flute in high school (New York City Public Schools!) and knew from day one this was what I needed to do. And I soon discovered that with a 35¢ subway token I could be at Lincoln Center in 45 minutes. And I was, if not nightly, as often as I could, sneaking in the back door of the State Theater to see New York City Ballet and New York City Opera. (Security was lax in the ‘70s.) I don’t know what gave me the nerve, but I never doubted I had every right to be there. That 35¢ token was my access to a world far from my home life. But I also knew that I could “belong” because I could pass for something I wasn’t: That the color of my skin, the way I carried myself, all meant that no one else questioned whether I had a right to be there, either. That I had, despite my background, entitlements. And, with that 35¢ subway token, I had access.

I knew that I could “belong” because I could pass for something I wasn’t … I had, despite my background, entitlements.

When people ask us why my husband and I started the Grand Canyon Music Festival, I sometimes flippantly tell them it was a rash decision made in our foolish, impetuous youth: “Let’s put on a show!” It was 1982, and I was just beginning my career as a freelance musician in New York City. Feeling burned out, I decided to take some time off to visit friends in Boston. Before boarding the Amtrak train at Penn Station I picked up a book to read. The book I grabbed off the book store shelf, Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, is, coincidentally, the story of a young musician who, feeling burned out, goes to the canyons of northern Arizona where she re-discovers why she is a musician. In the canyon dwellings of the ancient people, surrounded by broken bits of ancient pottery, she asks, “[W]hat was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself?” The pottery served a utilitarian purpose, to hold and carry the essential, scarce element of water, but the potters took the extra care, not necessary to fulfill its purpose, to make the pots beautiful. I returned from my trip to Boston and announced to my husband, “We are going to the canyons of northern Arizona.”

We started our trip at the Grand Canyon, a 4 day rim-to-rim-to-rim hike. The first day we hiked down to the canyon’s floor. I put my hot, aching feet in the cold waters of the Colorado River, took my flute out of my backpack and played. (Odd thing I’ve learned about playing in canyons: you can’t hear the echoes, but others can.) Grand Canyon National Park ranger Joe Quiroz heard the echoes, but couldn’t locate the source of the music. The next day we hiked up the canyon’s corridor floor to Cottonwood Campground. I found a spot under a washed out tree to play my flute. The ranger, Joe, had also hiked up the corridor. Hearing the music this time he was determined to find the source. When he found me, he asked if I would come into the ranger’s cabin after dinner and play a concert. That impromptu concert in the Cottonwood ranger’s cabin was the unofficial founding of the Grand Canyon Music Festival. I told Joe about our interest in exploring canyons where the ancient people had lived. Joe was the right person to ask. He knew exactly where we should go.

A school bus on an otherwise empty dirt road.

Standing in those canyons (sometimes playing my flute), thinking of the people who have lived and who continue to live there, I felt the truth of Willa Cather’s assertion that “it made one feel an obligation to do one’s best.”

Two years later, during the second season of the Grand Canyon Music Festival, we headed east out of Grand Canyon National Park, descending down from the Coconino plateau, past the Little Colorado River Gorge, towards the Navajo Nation, on our way to perform for the first time for students in Tuba City.

Our first performance was for a class of about 30 students at Tuba City High School. The students sat quietly, looking down at their desks as we played.  After the performance, we attempted the usual Q and A, hoping to spur conversation with the students. The students continued to sit quietly, looking down at their desks. This felt like more than the usual reticent high school student reaction. When the dismissal bell rang, the students rose quietly and headed to the door, where they stood, looking down. All I could think was, “They hate us.” But the teacher approached and told us the students loved it, and they wanted to speak with us, but it is rude for Navajo to approach a stranger, an elder, or anyone in authority, or to even look them in the eye. How inevitable for there to be a clash of cultures! It’s inherent in the conflicting cultural mores: The Navajo deferential, no-eye contact, stand back approach can appear suspect to the non-Native American, with their aggressive (forthright!) greeting, firm handshake, a pat on the back, a direct look in eye. What I fully appreciated for the first time, and what most non-Native Americans don’t understand, is that we are alien visitors on Native land. It is an honor to be welcomed, and a privilege to work with their youth. That was the beginning of a journey of discovery, friendships, and cultural exchanges.

A student composer working on a score in front of an electronic keyboard.

It is rude for Navajo to approach a stranger, an elder, or anyone in authority, or to even look them in the eye.

By 2000, our outreach had started to feel like Brigadoon, the town that emerges once every 100 years or so and then disappears without a trace. We would arrive once a year, present a program for the school students, and then leave: We wanted to do something that would have more of an impact. That year, Brent Michael Davids (a member of the Mohican Nation) created a chamber piece for us, with the Havasupai Guardians of the Canyon dancers. Brent had just completed a McKnight Fellowship, teaching composition to school students. He told us he had always wanted to do something like that with Native students. Brent’s arrival was a perfect confluence of the right time, right place, and right people. The next year, 2001, we launched the Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP) with Brent Michael Davids at the helm. The students Brent would be working with in Tuba City had no formal music education. We didn’t know what to expect. But the music they created was a revelation: Here were original, authentic voices. It was Native music, but it was also infused with reggae and heavy metal influences. What impressed me was the apprentice composers’ sense of form and shape. What they lacked in knowledge of formal keys and chord structures they more than made up for in an authentic aesthetic sense. I remember one of our early NACAP apprentice composers who wrote a piece in which “nothing happened.” It was repetitious, and slowly unfolded over the course of several minutes. During the workshop, the members of our teaching ensemble—the fabulous NYC string quartet ETHEL—kept asking the young apprentice composer if he wanted the piece to be faster or to move more. The composer said, succinctly and with confidence, “No.” I suggested to the quartet members that they look outside at the landscape. This slowly unfolding, patient piece, was of that landscape, something musicians from the fast-paced, nervous world of NYC perhaps, at first, didn’t have the patience for.

What the Native American apprentice composers lacked in knowledge of formal keys and chord structures they more than made up for in an authentic aesthetic sense.

One of our NACAP students that first year was a young man named Michael Begay. A senior at Greyhills Academy, a federal Bureau of Indian Education school in Tuba City, Michael was like a lot of our apprentice composers: A mostly self-taught guitarist, passionate about music, absorbing everything he could from wherever he could. After high school graduation, Michael continued his composition studies through NACAP, studying with teaching composers Brent Michael Davids, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, and Raven Chacon. He joined NACAP as a volunteer assistant composer-in-residence in 2006, working closely with Raven Chacon. He continues studying composition with Mr. Chacon, and officially joined NACAP as a composer-in-residence in 2007. When Michael tells people he is a composer he often gets the response, “I didn’t know Natives composed music.”

The Reservation system has led to persistent social inequality for Native Americans. Beginning with the Dawes Act of 1887, federal policies attempted to eliminate native practices, cultures, and communities, to “kill the Indian, save the man,” to forcibly eliminate traditional cultures. Natives were forced to leave their homelands and be relocated to reservations on lands considered worthless to white settlers. They were exiled to places that were resource deficient and isolated, resulting in concentrated poverty and loss of traditional lifestyles. Poor quality of education and healthcare, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, violence, and high suicide rates are among the legacies of the reservation system. U.S. rates of adolescent suicide are highest among Native Americans, and school dropout rates are twice the national average, the highest of any ethnic or racial group.

Navajo culture has a strict taboo against expressing or even acknowledging dark subjects.

Navajo culture has a strict taboo against expressing or even acknowledging dark subjects, like death and illness. There is no word for suicide. Navajo must avoid disorder and seek harmony in their lives, “walk in beauty,” with a connectedness to the world.

I feel the weight of that taboo when we ask our apprentice composers to talk about their music. They have generously shared with us extraordinary stories of their lives. One of Michael Begay’s early compositions was called Chiaroscuro. In his pre-concert talk about the piece he explained that he had a need to talk about the dark as well as the light, in spite of the Navajo taboo.

The Catalyst Quartet reads through a work in front of its composer at Hopi High in 2019.

The Catalyst Quartet reads through a work in front of its composer at Hopi High in 2019.

Workshops with our ensembles-in-residence and apprentice composers often start the same way. Before the ensemble begins playing the students’ work (the first reading for the ensemble and the first opportunity for the students to hear their work performed live), the members of the ensemble ask if there is anything they should know about the piece. Often the request is met with reticence. Not so in the case of Jordan Lomahoema, a student at Hopi High.

He went through his piece, The Darkened Heart, detailing, measure by measure, how he had used his composition to map out the evening of his mother’s death in a car accident.

Here is where the car speeds up (an undulating eighth note pattern), here is the squeal of the brakes and the wheels skidding on the road, ending in the crash (sul ponto descending gliss to ff). Then the silence after the crash, rests followed by a few spare notes, the peaceful sounds of the evening returning, suddenly broken up by the arrival of ambulances, sirens blaring first loud, then getting softer as they carry away Jordan’s mother. The piece ends with the return of the quiet sounds of a reservation desert evening, but now disturbed with disquieting interjections, glissandos, a lone pizzicato.

Whitehorse High School is at the northernmost edge of the Navajo Nation in Montezuma Creek, Utah. When we arrived at the school with the Catalyst Quartet in September of 2015 to begin our workshops with their NACAP apprentice composers, we were met at the door by their assistant principal, Kim Schaefer. She quietly, stoically, told us that a student had taken his life the night before. The school was in mourning. The next day, as we arrived at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, the Navajo Nation’s capital, our friend Tom Riggenbach, founder of NavahoYES, ran over to us to give us the heads up: A young man in the community had taken his life the day before.

At the world premiere performance at the Grand Canyon, Whitehorse High School NACAP composer Brevin Norton choked back tears as he dedicated his piece, This is Just the Beginning, to his two friends and classmates who had lost their lives that year.

Joshua Honawa, a joyful, engaged student at Hopi High with an amazing smile, was everywhere during our ensemble workshops, running back and forth between the music room to finish his piece and the auditorium to listen to his classmates’ workshops. I mentioned him to Hopi High’s music teacher, Tom Irwin. I was shocked when Tom told me that prior to joining NACAP Josh had been on suicide watch. He had an abusive home life, and NACAP gave him the outlet he needed, spending most of his free time in the music room, composing.

NACAP gave him the outlet he needed, spending most of his free time in the music room, composing.

In 2008 the Arizona media was filled with a horrific story: A freshman at the University of Arizona, a young Navajo woman from Tuba City, was stabbed to death in her bed by her roommate, a young Navajo woman from Chinle. The murdered student from Tuba City was best friends with one of our NACAP composers, Jessie Bilagody. That year Jessie composed Beautiful Lost Soul, a moving tribute to her friend.

When we started NACAP we wondered about how we would teach music composition to students who had minimal music instruction. We now know that NACAP is so much more than that. It is both an outlet and an entryway, a door held open, with an invitation to enter. Yes, Natives compose music. And these are voices that need to be heard.

[Ed. note: Below are recordings of six additional recent works composed through NACAP.]

Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy

A pair of eyeglasses and a pen on top of pages of music notation.

The musical case against rap is that in my view and the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody, and there is rhythm. And rap only fulfills one of these—the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, it is basically, effectively, spoken rhythm. And so it’s not actually a form of music, it’s a form of rhythmic speaking. And thus, so beyond the subjectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is it’s not music. (Ben Shapiro, 9/15/19)

During a recent episode of The Ben Shapiro Show Sunday Special, Shapiro invoked the authority of his “music theorist” father who went to “music school,” in order to dispel, in seemingly objective, fact-based fashion, the idea that rap is music. Shapiro’s criteria for what qualifies as music is absurd and his assertion that rap fails to meet this criteria is likewise absurd—but this is largely beside the point. The objective of these bad faith arguments isn’t necessarily to win or lose, but rather to perpetuate the notion that rap-as-music merits debate. Even entertaining the question undermines the legitimacy of rap by setting it apart from other musical styles about which we couldn’t imagine having such conversations.

We must reject Shapiro’s attempt to leverage the prestige of academia to do his dirty work for him. At the same time, we must consider the implications of his appeal to music theory. Shapiro wants us to focus on what music theory and music school suggest about rap-as-music—we should instead ask what his invocation of these institutions suggests about music theory pedagogy. Within these institutions, what do we learn about who and what is valued, and why?

Although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to Western art music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles.

Western art music is not a universal language. It does some things well, other things not as well, and many things not at all. And yet, although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to this style of music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles. Given this disconnect, how can we justify our near-exclusive reliance on traditional pedagogy, especially in situations where it isn’t necessary to do so? What biases do we create in our students when we declare Western art music to be mandatory knowledge for anyone pursuing formal studies in music? What biases does this reveal in us?

Let’s start with names.

Names create hierarchy. A course title like Music Theory 1: Diatonic Harmony explicitly designates harmony as the most important element of the course. Nor is this harmony in the general sense, but harmony specific to Western art music. There’s a real danger of elision, whether in perception or practice, so that music theory becomes just about harmony. Discussions of melody often come folded into larger discussions of harmony. The standard textbooks, despite grand gestures towards complete, everything-you-need-to-know musicianship, devote almost no attention to rhythm, beyond strict issues of notation. Other critically important musical elements, such as improvisation, timbre, and post-production, fail to make any meaningful appearance. This unwarranted prioritization of harmony as the essence, if not the totality, of the music theory core curriculum shapes the reality of what, within academia, is considered music, or at least music worth studying.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A myopic focus on Western art music severely distorts what music is and what music can be. The standard pedagogy relies on a value system whose metrics are based on subjective preferences but passed off as objective truths. Western art music is declared, without adequate justification, to be the necessary tool for understanding music at the most fundamental level. The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top, until recently considered the only music that merited institutionalization, perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

These are decisions made by people, no matter how compellingly they’re framed as divine decrees or natural phenomena, no matter how long-standing their historical pedigree. Teaching Western art music without acknowledging issues of canon-formation, cultural colonization, exclusion, and erasure ensures that these problems will continue. We are not exempt from interrogating the standard theory pedagogy, nor are we absolved from blame when we choose not to. The emergence of new musical styles and new technologies of music production are inconsequential—Western art music continues to be prioritized at the expense of all other modes of music creation. We need to understand this unwarranted privileging within the context of white supremacy.

White supremacy is the systemic centering of whiteness. It builds on an incorrect assumption of white racial superiority and functions to uphold white privilege. Whiteness is defined as the standard against which and on whose terms all others are measured and invariably fall short. When white is designated as normal, those who are not white are forever deemed not normal, no matter how hard they work or what they accomplish. Restricting the definition of white supremacy to a collection of bigoted individuals overlooks the myriad ways that institutionalized power in this country, whether social, political, legal, economic, or cultural, reinforces the primacy of whiteness.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral. The only reason Western art music is the benchmark by which other styles are validated or repudiated is because whites made it so. When Beyonce’s triads are as legitimate as Beethoven’s, reproducing without critique a system that excludes black music from the basic theory sequence is a political choice. This denial of the legitimacy of black music contributes to the ongoing denial of the legitimacy of black people. Injustice unchecked remains injustice.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach. Students need a broad musical foundation to prepare for advanced studies in the particular styles relevant to their interests and projected career paths. An antiracist approach to music theory recognizes that Western art music is not the pinnacle of human achievement, but simply one among many equally valid forms of artistic musical expression.

The stylistic evolution of any language depends on whose voices are seen as legitimate, on who is allowed to participate. That many of us have only recently become aware of just how pronounced the disparities in representation are within music theory testifies to the extent we have internalized the biases behind them. We who are white, who hold a disproportionate number of jobs in academia, tend not to notice whiteness because it is what we expect to find. This is a problem. Our condemnation of Ben Shapiro’s racist words does not absolve us of our own participation in and perpetuation of a racist pedagogy that normalizes whiteness. We must divest ourselves of the false conception that music can exist in a vacuum, devoid of context, independent of the people and the processes integral to its production. We must do better.

Western art music is not a universal language.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach.

As educators, we must be able to speak not just about what we teach, but also about why we teach it. We must ask ourselves who benefits from the current system, and who is harmed by it. A diverse student population in the classroom is not a prerequisite for concern about diverse student experience. Education is never politically neutral. As teachers and as students, as mentors and as mentees, our job is to question, to engage, to grow. We must all participate in our own education. We must all point out the ways that inequality and oppression manifest in what is presented as objective truth. The way things are is not the same as the way things have to be. We are each accountable for disrupting this narrative.

This is the first in a two-part series. The second essay will provide resources and suggestions for ways that we can begin incorporating justice initiatives into our music theory pedagogy.

The Artful Toy: Toy Piano Influencers and The Making of an Album

A performer at a toy piano with chopsticks

The Accidental Instrument

I did not come to the toy piano deliberately. Instead, while doing research on John Cage, I went down a rather strange rabbit hole, where I stumbled across a wonderful instrument.

The toy piano is an avant-garde musician’s dream.

The toy piano is an avant-garde musician’s dream. It’s the accidental instrument that was never meant to see anything but oncoming erratic toddler movements; it was never meant to feel anything but the thumping of tiny fists and grubby fingers. It has no musical baggage, no weighty historical performance practice, no standard repertoire. It has nothing to hold you back, to tell you you’re doing it wrong; it exists only in the present and looks to the future. Even now, 70+ years since John Cage’s seminal Suite for Toy Piano from 1948, the toy piano still feels like Duchamp’s upside-down urinal (Fountain): out of place on stage, it elicits giggles and scoffs, is the star of the show, and at least promises a memorable experience, musical and otherwise.

I bought a small Schoenhut 25-key spinet and performed Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano in 2010 in Lancaster, PA, where I had moved from New York City. It was my first time playing the instrument. In a way, the newness of the experience helped me transition from a city that I loved and had been reluctant to leave, to one I thought was quaint but wouldn’t hold me for long. I subsequently became involved in more Cage events at home and abroad, performing Music for Amplified Toy Pianos, Sonatas and Interludes, and many other works. I thought the mahogany and black toy piano wouldn’t look too out of place as a piece of decoration in my apartment after I was finished with it. I hadn’t planned on using it much after the engagements were over.

Connecting the Dots

Nine years and ten pianos later, I’m preparing a CD release show for Toy, NakedEye Ensemble’s latest album on New Focus Recordings (2019), with music focused on – yes – the toy piano. What’s fascinating to me looking back at the slow, meandering making of this album, is how tenuous yet persistent my interactions with the instrument were. Those years were an on-and-off relationship, with the toy pulling me back each time I thought I was done with it. Like an annoyingly cloying ex, it refused to let me go, coming up with new tricks and shiny things that reeled me back in. At some point, I just had to admit that I was hooked. Not only by the instrument itself, but by the limitless creativity it promised, the untethered freedom of experimentation it allowed, the audience response to it, and a community the toy had woven around itself, ever tighter and wider and richer every year.

Like an annoyingly cloying ex, the toy piano refused to let me go, coming up with new tricks and shiny things that reeled me back in.

The making of this album owes much to that community, to the people and experiences I encountered along the way. This narrative is about exploring those relationships and connecting the dots in this maximalist miniaturist’s field. So here we are.

The “Outside World”

On November 5, 2005, Kyle Gann gave a keynote address at The Extensible Toy Piano Project at Clark University, Worcester, MA. The rather serious, somber tone of the address makes me uneasy.  It’s a puzzling read. His concluding lines, especially, sound almost like an admonition:

After a century of expanding possibilities, we find ourselves in a world of limitations – some of them self-imposed, others imposed against our will. We have more reasons than ever to use the toy piano. We use it because we can … and thanks to Cage, there is precedence for taking it seriously. What we can’t seem to do with it, though, is communicate to the outside world, the world outside our composing circles, that there’s been a repertoire of toy piano music now for 57+ years.

Since Cage’s Suite, repertoire for the instrument has grown tremendously, thanks in large part to festivals like The Annual Toy Piano Festival at UC San Diego (2000-present), UnCaged Toy Piano in NYC (2008-2017), The Florida International Toy Piano Festival (2015-2018), Non-Piano/Toy Piano Weekend in Hamburg, Germany (2014-present), and the recent 100-Note Toy Piano Project (2018-19) that have at their core a call for scores. I think Gann would agree that the little instrument has come a long way in the fourteen years since his address. But have we been able to reach “the outside world,” as he puts it? Or is the community still as insular as it was in 2005? And does it matter?

The Influencers

In the toy’s short history, you don’t have to look far to find inspiration and a way forward. Margaret Leng Tan and Wendy Mae Chambers both have a direct line to John Cage. Both are still active performers, leading by example and, it seems, channeling the creative spirit of Cage. That is uniquely valuable.

Wendy Chambers appeared on national TV networks with her toy piano…

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Chambers appeared on national TV networks (CNN, PBS, Nickelodeon, BBC, CBS) with her toy piano and whimsical creations, and performed extensively in the U.S. In 1984, Alex Ross wrote in a New York Times review, that “Ms. Chambers is not only a composer, but also possibly the world’s foremost virtuoso on the toy piano.” On that program, Chambers performed works by William Schimmel, Jerome Kitzke, Daria Semegen, and Jed Distler, all of whom are still active in New York City. I heard Jerome perform The Animist Child, which he wrote for Chambers, at The DiMenna Center in 2015 on the occasion of his 60th birthday celebration. He is currently writing a new work for NakedEye Ensemble to be premiered in the Spring of 2020. Although I’ve never met Chambers, I feel a connection with her through Jerome and the toy piano.

Jay Leno standing next to Wendy Mae Chambers and her Car Horn Organ

Chambers and her Car Horn Organ on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Aug 2, 2000

I met Margaret at a Bang on a Can Festival early on when I was still a student. I found myself backstage waiting to turn pages for Tony DeMare, and she was waiting as well. We struck up a conversation, which led to her telling me about her toy pianos and then guiding me to a room where she kept her instruments and the custom-made boxes they traveled in. I was amused, amazed, and profoundly intrigued, both by her stories and her vivacity in telling them. There were boxes of many shapes and sizes, beautifully lined with plush, shiny material, and little pianos that lay in them like precious jewels. I couldn’t imagine anyone playing those diminutive instruments, but her enthusiasm was contagious, and I was captivated, at least for the duration of our conversation. I have to admit I didn’t rush out to find a toy piano or look for toy music. I wish I had. Who knows where that journey would have led me then!

I couldn’t imagine anyone playing those diminutive instruments, but Margaret Leng Tan’s enthusiasm was contagious.

However, the encounter stayed with me, and I recall it now with some amusement when students and audience members come up to me after performances to ask questions and touch the pianos. I, too, travel with a case. It is not hand-made, or beautiful like Margaret’s cases, but it is a solid metal box lined with dense foam (originally meant to house a Brompton bicycle) that can be thrown into the cargo of a plane and come out the other side with my instrument intact.

Margaret Leng Tan sitting outside with a toy grand piano.

Margaret Leng Tan

The oldest piece on NakedEye’s Toy album is Chinese composer Ge Ganru’s Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, finished the year after Gann’s keynote, and the rest of the pieces span a decade from there. Ge Ganru—described in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as “China’s first avant-garde composer”—wrote it for Margaret, “whose creative contributions,” he writes in the dedication, “made this piece possible.” It’s hard not to come across Margaret Leng Tan’s name when looking through the toy piano repertoire. As the first “professional toy pianist,” she has been crucial to the instrument’s repertoire, and NakedEye’s album recognizes her contributions by including two pieces originally written for her.

Margaret recorded Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! for a CD of the composer’s work titled Gan-ru: Lost Style (New Albion, 2009). My recording of it on Toy is the second for this piece, a decade later. Our versions are quite different. But great works accommodate the individuality of performers, and Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! has been adaptable to mine. I was fortunate to have her interpretation from which to deviate in order to find my own.

An array of toy keyboards, a toy zither, and a toy mallet instrument in a circle on the floor.

Ju-Ping Song’s instrument set-up for her performance of Ge Gan-ru’s composition Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

Classical and Pop Toy Piano

Before embarking on its illustrious solo journey, the toy piano was a quirky color instrument in both classical and pop music.

Before embarking on its illustrious solo journey with Chambers and Tan, the toy piano was a quirky color instrument in both classical and pop music. In the sixties and seventies, musicians across styles found interesting ways to include the toy’s idiosyncratic sound in their songs and scores. In recent years, the list of NakedEye instruments available for commissions has included the toy piano, along with any and all toy instruments composers may want to experiment with. It’s been a fun and engaging process. Composers Monica Pearce, Stefanie Lubkowski, Randall Woolf, Richard Belcastro, and Rusty Banks have added toy sounds to their NakedEye commissions. Composer/performers like Moritz Eggert have also explored the theatricality the toy can bring to a pianist’s performance. Eggert, in his One-Man Band 2, does so in a refreshing and hilariously over-the-top manner.

Ju-Ping Song about to sit on the keys of a grand piano with a toy piano positioned 90 degrees away.

Me playing One-Man Band (Photo by Scott Bookman.)

Perhaps the most well-known classical example is George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children (1970), where he calls for amplified piano and toy piano. In his latest cycle of works for piano, Metamorphoses Book 1 (2015-17), Crumb makes extensive use of the toy piano as well.

Neil Diamond’s “Shilo,” a song about his childhood written and recorded in 1967, is arguably the first recorded pop song to use the toy piano (toy piano in the bridge at 2m30s).

And a fun example of, perhaps, the first toy piano solo in pop music is Richard Carpenter’s instrumental version of Edward Elzear “Zez” Confrey’s Dizzy Fingers. In the song, Carpenter features the toy piano in a full 10-second solo as one of five keyboard instruments he can be seen flitting to (toy piano at 1.29s).

An Unlikely Chamber Instrument

In spite of its high-profile cameos, the toy piano was never given equal partnership in an ensemble or chamber setting – until recently.

In spite of its high-profile cameos, the toy piano was never given equal partnership in an ensemble or chamber setting – until recently. Perhaps because of its oddity, its diminutive size, or the soloistic nature of its practitioners, it seemed to be more at home going it alone, developing a repertoire to fit itself and all that was part of its tiny world. However, in the last decade or so, the miniature piano has been involved in large scale outdoor events and paired with its bigger counterpart and other “grown-up” instruments.

Wendy Mae Chambers has a reputation for taking the listening experience outdoors, and her composition/happening Kun is a perfect example of that. Written for 64 toy grand pianos and structured on I-Ching, it was performed in NYC on June 21, 2012 with 64 toy pianists and 64 toy pianos dispersed in pairs along The East River Waterfront Esplanade between Piers 15 and 16, from 4:30 pm until sunset at 8:31pm.

Margaret Leng Tan explored a more concert stage approach to the repertoire. As I researched chamber music that included toy piano, I came across Erik Griswold’s Gossamer Wings (2013), written for Margaret on toy piano, alongside a small chamber group. The three-movement piece captivated me. It was charming and quirky, but most of all, the writing balanced the chamber group against toy piano perfectly. The “tanginess” of the toy sound gives the piece an unexpected but seductive flavor, in the way a skilled bartender will mix your favorite drink but manage to surprise you with a twist. And in true NakedEye fashion, we added a little twist of our own to the piece. The original instrumentation didn’t quite fit ours, so I suggested to Erik that we substitute the violin and clarinet with electric guitar and saxophone. He immediately took to the idea. The result is a subtle electric jazz vibe married with toy piano and toy drum set for a pretty unique listening experience.

Similar chamber works for toy piano are relatively hard to find. Frank J. Oteri’s wonderfully expressive The Other Side of the Window (1995), based on seven poems by Margaret Atwood (think The Handmaids Tale and its sequel The Testaments), and scored for female voice, two flutes, toy piano, guitar, and cello, comes to mind. Richard Belcastro’s Inner Strife (2016), written for NakedEye Ensemble and scored for clarinet, electric guitar, piano, toy piano, and percussion, is another piece in which the toy plays a central ensemble role.

Organizations like The Toy Piano Composers (2008-2018), based in Toronto, with a core group of instrumentalists, curated programs that included the toy as a key ensemble instrument. Among these are works by Elisha Denburg (Rondo and Street Noise) and Chris Thornborrow (This Changing View, which has a similar instrumentation to the original version of Gossamer Wings, without percussion) that are worth exploring.

Phyllis Chen, a Taiwanese-American toy pianist and composer, has written several amazing chamber works for the small instrument. What distinguishes her from Chambers and Tan is the way she seeks both innovative and traditional collaborations with classical and non-classical instruments. I think that’s the real test of the toy piano’s future. Can it exist within the broader environment of instrumental/electronic/collaborative music?

Chen’s Lullabies (2014), for string orchestra and toy piano with music box is a good example of the instrument inserted in a classical chamber setting. Like Griswold’s Gossamer Wings, the balance in this context is critical, and the result here is mesmerizing. Glass Clouds We Have Known (2011), written for ICE, is a more contemporary setting, and includes bowls, bass clarinet, flute, electronics, and video. But the piece that I absolutely love is The Matter Within (2016), written for deconstructed toy piano and the JACK Quartet. Chen writes,

The toy piano was never presented to me as a musical instrument. Instead I stumbled upon it as an unassuming object.  For The Matter Within, I decided to return to this original place of entry to examine and distill the toy piano as a found object. By exploring its elements, hearing its raw essences and noises, the bare materials of the toy piano are exposed and brought to light.

Beyond her contributions to new classical music, Phyllis has also explored using the toy piano and toy instruments in a pop/indie context through her collaboration with Cuddle Magic. In the album they made together (Cuddle Magic & Phyllis Chen, FYO Records, 2014), the toy piano imbues the material with sounds of futuristic nostalgia – an oxymoronic dance that is both mesmerizing and disquieting. It’s a departure that is perhaps an opening to other new exciting possibilities for the toy piano.

Experimenting with toy piano, electronics, and ensemble, Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl was one of the first composers I came across in my early days of touring solo with the instrument. Kalimba (2005), his first piece for toy piano and soundtrack, has been played all over the world by many, including myself. Since then, Essl has broadened his output and added works pairing the toy piano with harpsichord, computer, live electronics, ensemble, other toys, and ring modulator.

A natural extension of the toy piano as a solo and chamber instrument is the concerto form. Phyllis Chen’s Lullabies isn’t without precedent: Aaron Jay Kernis’s’ Toy Piano Concerto (2002), Matthew McConnell’s Concerto for Toy Piano (2008), and David Smooke’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death Vol. I (2012) for toy piano and chamber orchestra, and a Vol. II (2014) for toy piano and wind ensemble, all put the toy at the center of a very large, very traditional setting where it is customary to see a full-size concert grand: a Steinway, a Yamaha, or a Bösendörfer, perhaps. But a Schönhut?

Feeding the Toy Piano

Personal development as a toy pianist is a self-propelled adventure. There’s no book, or school, or how-to manual one can follow to “learn one’s craft.” We’re all, to a certain extent, self-taught experimenters. We learn from our peers, our colleagues, other toy pianists, in person, in collaboration, and by observation. That’s what’s exciting in this field, what makes possible an album that was really never meant to be made.

There’s no book, or school, or how-to manual one can follow to “learn one’s craft” on the toy piano.

I met toy pianist and composer David Smooke at the New Music Gathering in Baltimore in January 2016. I heard him use the toy piano in a way I’d never seen before, and knew right away that I wanted to collaborate with him. In September of that year, NakedEye organized its first (of two) toy piano events in Lancaster, PA, and I invited David to be our guest. Not only did he come up to do a set, but he pulled NakedEye guitarist Chad Kinsey and me into doing free improv with him. It was a fun, eye-opening afternoon. That encounter with David opened up a new avenue to “inside toy tinkering” and gave me the tools to experiment with modifications that I would later use in future commissions.

David Smooke leaning down toward a toy piano and Chad Kinsey sitting and playing electric guitar/

David and Chad rehearsing (photo by Ju-Ping Song).

The toy piano is a visually fascinating instrument best viewed from a distance but hard to resist getting close enough to poke. Like a carnivorous flower, it draws in its prey with unassuming charm; once hooked, composer and performer have no choice but to feed it the notes it craves. Or so I like to imagine.

In 2016, Richard Belcastro wrote not one, but two toy piano-focused pieces for NakedEye: Inner Strife, for four instruments, and Knock ‘Em Back, recorded on this album, for electric guitar and modified toy piano.

Knock Em Back grew out of Ricky’s desire to write something for electric guitar that wasn’t rock-inspired or loud (like his Smoke N Wid and Nepetalactone). Enter the toy piano. The thing about the instrument is, its sonic footprint needs to be respected. It’s actually not as quiet as one would think, and, with generous acoustics, can carry far. It can also be mic’ed or amplified. But its sounds need space to resolve and dissolve, otherwise they can end up like woodpecker drill over radio static. Basically, a bombastic blur. So pairing toy piano with electric guitar was a delicate but exciting dance we were eager to try. Ricky wrote the piece and we experimented with guitar pedals and toy piano hacks to find the sounds he wanted. I think we also found a few sounds he didn’t know he wanted.

Whatever model toy one uses for this piece, the tines (the metal bars that are struck by plastic hammers to produce sound) need to be fully accessible and labeled with stickers or chalk. I’ve used alternately Schoenhut’s Model 3798, a 37-key upright with the front panel removed, or Model 379, the 37-key concert grand with the top music rack and the protective board removed.

Ju-Ping Song sitting at a toy piano and Chad Kinsey standing playing electric guitar on a stage.

Ju-Ping Song and Chad Kinsey performing Belcastro’s Knock ‘Em Back at Klub Katarakt Experimental Music Festival in Hamburg, Germany on January 16, 2019 (photo by Jann Wilken).

The first thing that comes to people’s minds when they see a toy piano is that it’s a tiny acoustic piano. But when they hear it, they realize very quickly, the similarities are only plywood deep. The diminutive instrument has more in common with the celesta or xylophone than its larger older sibling and has been humorously described as “the poor man’s celesta.” But the celesta’s rich, round bell tones are still a far cry from the diminutive toy’s (comparatively) clangy sounds. If you sped up a recording of a celesta, would it sound like a toy piano?

When I asked my friend Jan Feddersen in 2011 if he would write a piece for me on toy piano, he happily agreed and wrote Ujoforyt, which, interestingly enough, he left open “for toy piano or celeste”. It’s a virtuoso perpetual motion in the vein of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee but with the grit and rhythmic energy of György Ligeti’s harpsichord piece Hungarian Rock.

Although they aren’t exactly comparable pieces in scope, Hungarian Rock and Ujoforyt are similar in their use of the instruments’ “secondary sounds.” Both works exploit the mechanical actions of their respective instruments, adding a layer of noise on top of the overtone buzzing created by fast, rhythmic articulations. I wasn’t able to play Jan’s piece on celesta until January 2019 at Klub Katarakt. For the celesta to speak, I had to slow down the notes quite a bit. The result was a beautiful tapestry of gentle pearl-like cascades of sounds—quite a different experience.

Su-Ping Song performing on celesta photographed from the back with a log for Klub Katarakt over her head.

Me on celesta at Klub Katarakt, January 16, 2019 (Photo by Jann Wilken).

—Are your cell phones plugged into the speakers?
—Ok, now let’s call each other. Make sure your ringer is on and loud.
—No, really, don’t worry about it; it’s part of the piece.

That’s typically how rehearsals for Rusty Banks’s Babbling Tower to Tower begin. Cell phones are used as transmitters, relayers, and lo-fi sound distortion devices amplified through small, portable speakers disseminated via “stations” throughout the audience. I’ve found the ideal setup to be two or three stations, but I’ve also done it successfully with only one when cell connection was tenuous. In the score’s notes, Rusty writes,

For this piece I decided to eschew the many capabilities of the cel phone and use what might be the most neglected feature or “app” available on these devices – the actual ‘phone’ part of the cell phone. Actually, I am making use some of the limitations of cell phones, namely their low fidelity and that amount of delay it takes for sound to enter the phone, be transmitted to a tower, relayed to another tower, then back to another phone. While this low sound quality and lack of immediacy are probably things phone makers and service providers are working to remedy, there are some lovely sonic possibilities in these defects.

During the writing of Babbling, we tested all the different ways one could make cell phone calls, including over cellular data, WiFi, and via apps like Skype, looking for the least efficient calling method – the most buggy, delayed, and distorted. Basically the opposite of what you’d want in a phone. We found that calls over WiFi were too clean and didn’t have enough delay to suit our needs, whereas calls over cellular were less reliable and had distinctive sound distortion and delay we could work with. Back in 2010, we were still on 3G networks. With the introduction of 5G and faster, more efficient connections coming soon, we may need to go back and “update” (or downgrade?) Babbling.

Ju-Ping Song and two students in a reheasal room standing around a toy piano positioned on the floor. (In the background are timpani and stacked chairs.)

Rehearsing Babbling Tower to Tower with students at National Taiwan Normal University, 2012.

In 2011, Babbling Tower to Tower won the UnCaged Toy Piano Composition Competition with the theme “Music for Toy Piano and Toy Instrument(s)”.  Cell phones fit perfectly in the “toy” category. Recognition at UnCaged gave Babbling a good platform from which, for the next few years, it launched itself through people’s cell phones in many different countries.

Both Ujoforyt and Babbling Tower to Tower have had performances by other toy pianists all over the world. I’ve performed them in Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the U.S. They’ve also reached audiences in Canada, Amsterdam, Croatia, and France, thanks to toy pianists Terizija Cukrov, Justin Badgerow, Adam Marks, Phyllis Chen, Jennifer Hymer, Bernhard Fograscher, Ninon Gloger, and others. The toy piano community is global, and it’s gratifying to see new work travel and reach people far and wide.

Lineage

In an interview with Nick Galvin for The Sydney Morning Herald on August 27, 2019, Margaret Leng Tan acknowledges that “everything goes back to John Cage,” and affirms that “we are all spiritual children of John Cage, whether we know it or not.”

Who are the “spiritual children” of Cage’s toy piano legacy after Chambers and Tan?

Several younger toy pianists/composers, having dedicated most of their creativity to the toy piano, are performing/composing really exciting works for the instrument, developing the field in interesting directions. Among them, Xenia Pestova, Isabel Ettenauer, Alexa Dexa, Scott Paulson (Toy Piano Festival at UCSD, the longest-running of its kind, organized each year since 2000 around John Cage’s birthday), Elizabeth Baker (Florida International Toy Piano Festival), Jennifer Hymer (Toy Piano/Non-Piano), and Phyllis Chen (UnCaged Toy Piano) help establish a regenerative environment through organizations, festivals, events, and performances aimed at expanding the toy repertoire and reaching a wider audience.

There are now far too many toy pianists and pianists who play toy piano and composers who write for toy piano to list here. And that’s a good problem to have, I think.

In fact, everyone contributing to the field is in some significant way part of the lineage and I’m of course leaving out many names that deserve to be mentioned here. But there are now far too many toy pianists and pianists who play toy piano and composers who write for toy piano to list here. And that’s a good problem to have, I think.

Inside the Rabbit Hole

I didn’t come to the toy piano deliberately, but it’s become an important instrument in my repertoire. It’s part of the family now. Through it, I feel connected to a small but global community. The quality of the compositions is astounding and matched only by their inventiveness. The toy piano, unlike most other instruments, is not an end in itself, but an invitation to something else. And that something else is anything you want to happen. Cage wrote his Suite for Toy Piano during a period when he was writing quieter music – works for muted string piano (a.k.a. prepared piano) and his notoriously silent/unsilent 4’33”, for example. He went small, he says in Lecture on Nothing, because “when the war came along, I decided to use only quiet sounds. There seemed to me to be no truth, no good, in anything big in society.”

For Cage, finding the toy piano was a protest against world events and a turning inward. But he unwittingly (or did he know all along?) started a movement that has grown and matured, reaching far across the globe (Tokyo held its first toy piano concert in 2007, featuring Cage, Tan, Arai, Nakamizo, Amemiya, and Kawai). It is responsible for some of the most visually and sonically beautiful music ever created.  I don’t know if, fourteen years after Kyle Gann’s address, the toy music community has been able to “communicate to the outside world” in the way he seemed to think it should. The number of festivals, events, organizations, and performances devoted worldwide to the toy piano since then make me think that it has. But to me, it doesn’t matter.

I became, unwittingly, part of a make-believe world that is in truth real.

What I know is this: I went down a rabbit hole ten years ago and accidentally discovered a surprising instrument. I encountered strange and amazing people who taught me things I needed to learn, toy-related and otherwise. I became, unwittingly, part of a make-believe world that is in truth real. This album holds the story of my unexpected evolution as a toy pianist. The collection of recorded pieces in Toy exists because of some mysterious alchemy that brought them all together. Who knows where the toy piano will lead me next? I’m excited to find out. If I stay in this rabbit hole long enough, I’ll be ready for it.

The Cover for the NakedEye ensemble's CD Toy.

Cultural Appropriation in Classical Music?

A group of bicycles chained to a rack one of which is just one tire, presumably because the rest of the bike was stolen.

It was my pleasure to attend a banquet honoring my primary composition professor, Chinary Ung, on the occasion of his Grawemeyer award. Full disclosure: I was a graduate student working toward two masters degrees, one in music theory and composition (college of fine arts) and another in the anthropological study of Native American ritual and performance (college of liberal arts). Chinary’s award-winning work, Inner Voices, showcased his Cambodian heritage in an exquisite composition. At the event, the Dean of Fine Arts, Seymour Rosen, who had come to Arizona State University from his directorship at Carnegie Hall, leaned in to me and commented, “Hearing Chinary’s work is the first time I’ve ever heard culture in music.” With my best banquet decorum, I found a conciliatory smile. Inside, my jaw dropped. I had never in my entire life considered music without culture before; culture was a musical fact like gravity. I wondered, was every work ever performed at Carnegie Hall without culture? How could the whole of Western music not have culture when I was certain the music of most every other heritage on earth likely did? Why would anyone characterize Western music as so antithetical to the rest of the globe?

Why would anyone characterize Western music as so antithetical to the rest of the globe?

The discord of the incongruity stuck with me months later. The longer I thought about it on a wider scope, the more I realized, the broader issue was two-fold. First, non-Western traditions are more often than not considered unimportant and rendered invisible in Western music until, for example, a non-Western composer wins a prestigious award. One outcome of genocidal imperialism is that erasing people also erases their music, so the resultant naiveté about Native Americans may sit somewhere along the ignorance-is-bliss scale as a byproduct of ethnic cleansing. Second, there is an air of cultural neutrality in Western classical art music, where music is considered an expression of sound alone, devoid of ancestral roots or indigenous cosmology—a Western birthright that functions as the default mainstay foundation for equitable, objective, unbiased sonority. It’s an aesthetic legacy where the existential postulate, the basic idea of how life operates, denotes Western art music as culturally impartial. Though it seems ironic, acultural neutrality is a narrative the West has culturally taught itself. This perception has been reinforced by important advocates who have spun acultural threads into neutral garments worn uncritically by many conductors, performers, and ensembles. If you’ve ever taken a theory class in music school, you were most likely enrolled in “Music Theory 101,” for example, or “Pedagogy of Music Theory,” when more correctly, those courses should be identified as Western music theory. Similarly, the monolithic Western category of “World Music” impedes understanding the consummate diversity of non-Western traditions. Such illustrations are numerous and systemic.

The monolithic Western category of “World Music” impedes understanding the consummate diversity of non-Western traditions.

From a traditional Native American viewpoint, our music is not invisible and not acultural. It takes Native Americans to create our music, though those outside the cultures may not easily recognize the indigenous characteristics. The attempted erasure of indigenous people has been thorough and relentless. Still, at recent count, there are 573 federally recognized tribal nations—treatied nations—not counting the hundreds of cultures in the Alaska Native villages. We are still here.

Mohican Nation elders outdoors marching with flags at a powwow.

Powwow Grand Entry of Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation, WI, 2017

So who is Native American? It all comes down to American Indian sovereignty. The United States treatied with American Indians on a nation-to-nation level, recognizing the inherent and legal right for Natives to determine our own lives. The treaties are contracts in exchange for massive amounts of land and resources and are considered the “supreme law of the land,” on the same level as the US Constitution. So, contrary to various claims of family folklore, high cheekbones, or DNA tests, to be considered a Native American, one must be enrolled as a citizen of a specific, federally-recognized tribal nation. Because of sovereignty, in other words, only Native Americans themselves can determine our own citizens.

Nothing about traditional indigenous life is acultural. Traditional Native people know themselves to be related to the earth and to the other inhabitants of the planet, whether those others be human or non-human. Native cosmologies are not hierarchical but reciprocal and operate with existential postulates of barter-and-exchange with the environment or others, not dominion over it. Through a life-and-death process of reciprocity, extended kinship with the earth and others, and the giving and receiving of gifts, Native people strive not for ‘dominion over’ but for balance with the world.

For the West, language is a means of representing something real. But for Native languages, words create reality.

Another aspect of traditional American Indian life is the generative nature of language rather than its being representative of something. For the West, language is a means of representing something real, and words themselves stand for something by denoting it; language personifies what is thought to be ‘really real’ in Western thought. In this way, words are seen as tiny canoes that carry meaning inside them while being sent along a transmission conduit. But for Native languages, words create reality; they spawn it, and are considered generative. Indigenous languages are known to give rise to what is really real. For Native people, life moves along however life is spoken, whether enacted through speech, ceremonially performed, or reciprocated with extended kinship relations. This generative way of perceiving the world is something shared by many indigenous peoples; while these world views are not exactly the same, they bear family resemblances to each other. My primary religious studies professor, Ken Morrison, took stock of the generative nature of Native cosmologies from several indigenous perspectives:

In fact, as has been demonstrated amply for the Navajo (Gill 1977), Yaqui (Yoeme) (Evers and Molina 1987), and Lakota (Bunge 1984; Powers 1986), Native American languages encode the insight that speech is a power all persons share. As Gary Witherspoon (1977) has shown, the Navajo think of language as generative rather than, as in European convention, representative. Navajo speech does not encode realities which might exist independently, objectively apart from itself. In Witherspoon’s interpretation, Navajo words do not mirror reality. Words do not stand for, or as is often said, symbolize any reality apart from themselves. On the contrary, Navajo speech embodies the speaker’s intentionality, and extends the self beyond the body, to shape a reality coming into being… (Morrison 2000)

Most Native languages have no equivalent word for “music” or “art.”

A generative process is how indigenous music works as well, though most Native languages have no equivalent word for “music” or “art.” The closest comparison might be ‘song,’ but that still neglects the generative process at work. Songs are not fixed nouns for indigenous life, so more insight might come from a process of song-ing or music-ing. A traditional Native American view of song-ing would not conceptually match what is understood as “music” in a Western sense.

For Native Americans, the song-ings are considered voicings of the originators, and although sometimes they are communally shared, they cannot be autonomously borrowed away from the originator. Because it is regarded as a generative process, what a Native American enacts with song-ing moves life in that direction; what is sung about happens. When generative song-ing occurs, it’s like birthing out performative sequences of life. No two sequential songs are the same in the process, just as no two successive moments are identical. Indigenous cultures see music like giving birth so that each new song event is a new creation. The song being sung might be a time-honored song, but when performed it is newly reborn—it is not considered the same song.

Moreover, Indigenous song-ing stands in direct contrast to those strains of Western music that assume songs are fixed once written and codified. And because Indian music-ing is not fixed, whatever is recorded or written down is considered a leftover of the process. From an American Indian point of view, fixed music remains, simply, the observable remnants of a music-ing process.

Consider the concert hall experience and that of a powwow.

A lucid example of the Western music aesthetic versus an indigenous one would be to consider the concert hall experience and that of a powwow. In the concert hall, the quality of the sound becomes the preeminent value, conceptually superseding the players and the audience. In a concert hall, the audience and orchestra are kept in separate spaces, and the flow of activity is directed from the orchestra to the audience, which remains seated, silent, and motionless. The performers all wear black to hide any individuality, and concerts are typically appraised on the “ugliness” or “beauty” of their collective sound.

Various people assembled outdoors at a Mohican Nation powwow.

Powwow grounds of Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation, WI, 2017

At a powwow, the relationships of the participants outweigh all other features for appraising a powwow, including the sound. The performers and participants are often sharing the same space, and there is a high level of interactivity between the two groups, almost to the point of non-distinction. People walk, talk, and move all around the venue at will. The performers wear all manner of bright colors, which accent their individuality, and the general philosophy is to create positive and interactive relationships. Some singers may be better voiced than others, but the value is not placed on the sounds they make. If good relations take place, it is a ‘good’ powwow, regardless of the music. The process of enacting a powwow—the doing of it—is the intrinsic value of a powwow, which in turn values the participants and their activities deeply. It is the relational process that is paramount, not the music.

What about the mixing or sharing of cultures? Obviously, it happens all the time, just as I am simultaneously an enrolled citizen of an indigenous nation and scholastically trained as a modern composer. To be clear, I was not coerced into Western composition but picked it as my chosen career path. That decision was a consequence of mutual culture sharing and a process of balanced acculturation, very different from what we call “forced culture change,” when cultures are forced to change their cosmologies according to the existential postulates of the domineering culture.

What about the mixing or sharing of cultures? Obviously, it happens all the time.

While I chose a path of Western music, there remains part of my history that was not grown of a balanced mutual exchange, as my use of English instead of Mohican, Munsee, or Lenape reveals. My ancestors experienced rampant extermination along with forced cultural change, massive theft of land and resources, coercion to learn English and adopt Western ways, all while facing abuse and death for being indigenous. Our population of 22,000 along the banks of the Mohheconnituck (Hudson River) was reduced to about 200 souls within two generations. Without exaggeration, we barely escaped total annihilation; an eradication capitalized on by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel, The Last of the Mohicans. Forced Culture Change is basically genocide.

So yes, not all cultural exchanges are equivalent. Where adjacent cultures may mix on equal terms, there can be sharing and collaboration. But in many cases in North America where the indigenous people faced eradication and forced culture change, no such equal sharing or collaboration was possible—quite the opposite transpired. As Native Americans, we remember the major culture clashes when colonists with a hard-driving philosophy of “ownership” forced us to give up our lands, waters, resources, languages, cultures, and in many cases, our lives. We were prohibited from enacting our ceremonies under penalty of death. Native Americans today are cultural survivors of the American holocaust, the real world effects of which we still face.

Not all cultural exchanges are equivalent.

One historical co-optation of Native American song-ing in Western music was the American Indianist era, where Native American songs were codified and assimilated into written compositions by non-indigenous composers. Non-Indians composed hordes of pseudo-Indian operas, lieder, piano pieces, and all manner of musical works. Further, the American Indianist appropriations were plagued by an error of reasoning—a kind of musical Darwinism. Rather than attempting to meet indigenous people on equal terms with genuine collaboration, the Indianist composers mistook their poaching of Indian life as the discovery of a ‘primitive’ precursor to their own ‘civilization.’ Spurred on by the written transcriptions of Alice Fletcher, Ruth Underhill, Frances Densmore, and others from the late 1800s into the early 1900s, Indianists were busy gathering Indian songs (as one might pick a bushel of apples), codifying what they thought was true Indian music, and grossly misunderstanding what Indians were really doing. Therefore, we should never consider, for example, Charles Wakefield Cadman’s famous work “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters” (with an Omaha tune transcribed by Fletcher) as an indigenous song—it is not. “Sky Blue Waters” is a Cadman song.

Though American Indianists are of the past, the systemic erasure of indigenous life and music continues today. Minute cultural awarenesses break through sometimes, but often the positive changes we are desperate for are obstructed—innocently or intentionally—by the numerous gatekeepers of Western classical music. Those who share the gatekeeping power to allow-or-block indigenous participation are the consorting composers, conductors, ensembles, financial supporters, marketing executives, performers, producers, reviewers, soloists, theorists, venues, and anyone else swimming in that sizable pool. What’s more, also considering art forms adjacent to Western music, such as modern dance, ballet, theater, movies, and the like, that pool becomes an ocean. To verify the gatekeeping effect by orchestras, specifically, a quick look at the Orchestra Season Analysis published by the Institute for Composer Diversity (ICD) each year reveals how orchestras fare especially low for diversity, participation by Native Americans being among the least of all. Yet a growing number of composers who are federally-recognized Native American citizens are listed in the ICD databases of catalogued works. There are scores of professional composers indigenous to the continent, not to mention the even greater demography of indigenous musicians. It’s woefully dreadful that so much contemporary erasure of indigenous culture is propagated from within the field of Western classical music. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Roomful of Teeth employed one of their members, Caroline Shaw, who is herself non-Inuit, to use Inuit throat singing.

The recent cultural venture by the non-indigenous vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (RoT) into the world of Inuit music might serve as another case in point. It appears that RoT employed Inuits to teach them a remarkable Inuit activity known as “throat singing”, a musical game structure between two Inuit singers. Then RoT employed one of their members, Caroline Shaw, who is herself non-Inuit, to use Inuit throat singing as part of her composition Partita for 8 Voices. The striking work so excited the award panel that they honored the composer with a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. But in 2019, the prominent Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq accused Shaw and RoT of cultural appropriation using Inuit throat singing without proper acknowledgment or compensation.

Because the winning work was perhaps a mixture of many styles, including Inuit throat singing, it would be a difficult task to determine if any legal copyright infringement occurred without delving deeper into all the influences of the composition, and determining what percentage was culturally borrowed. Avoiding the individualistic legal copyright issue, and setting aside the “indigenous intellectual property” issue (an effort by the United Nations to protect the cultural knowledge and collective intellectual property of indigenous people), it does seem to my ears that some measure of cultural appropriation as likely as not occurred with respect to the Inuit culture. In his UCLA doctoral dissertation, Joshua H. Saulle identified Shaw’s partial use of “Inuit throat-singing” as one ingredient in a cultural and musical mix he characterized as “gumbo”:

Shaw’s Courante is dominated … by sounds derived from the practice of katajjak, or Inuit throat-singing. This practice is the basis for the rapid inhale-exhale gestures that form the surface texture of much of the movement, as well as the imitative hocket and gradually-unfolding, procedural structure. The third element in this musical/cultural gumbo is the 1855 hymn ‘Shining Shore’ by George F. Root, which is introduced in the movement’s second large section.

Brad Wells, RoT Founder and Artistic Director, answered Tagaq’s accusation with an anecdote published in Indy Week (Dan Ruccia, 2019) that inferred there is no distinction to be made between a mutually equitable exchange of culture versus America’s unrestrained use of forced cultural change against indigenous people, missing the genocidal backstory of Inuit life specifically, and Native American life generally:

I remember, a few months ago, talking to an anthropology professor who had studied textiles on some Southeast Asian island about how the textiles responded to Westerners coming through from the fifteen-hundreds on. The artists on those islands immediately started to take advantage of Western art aspects, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so. The question of cultural appropriation assumes that the powerful culture is the only one that is involved in the exchange, but in fact these exchanges are happening constantly. There’s an arrogance in our role, thinking of ourselves as the powerful culture and handpicking little things to use to our profit. These exchanges happen everywhere all the time, and you can’t stop them. They can enrich everybody.

Wells has failed, ahistorically and aculturally, to respond to the stern warning that forced culture change teaches.

From his assertion, it appears that Wells insisted all cultural exchange is of the mutually equitable variety that is “happening constantly.” Yet Wells has failed, ahistorically and aculturally, to respond to the stern warning that forced culture change teaches. A quick look at the RoT website reveals the ensemble is “dedicated to mining the expressive potential of the human voice. Through study with masters from singing traditions the world over, the eight-voice ensemble continually expands its vocabulary of singing techniques and, through an ongoing commissioning process, forges a new repertoire without borders.” Respectfully, considering their mission from an indigenous point of view, and acknowledging America’s long term genocidal undertaking against Native Americans, I wonder where cultural acknowledgment and respect—and collaborative equity—might fit into the RoT approach, given Tagaq’s objections. Growing a toolkit of vocal techniques gleaned from cultures around the world sounds a bit acultural to me. And combined with an effort to commission works by folks not from those cultures does sound a bit like cultural appropriation.

Setting aside the RoT discussion, there are reverential ways to collaborate that are neither tokenistic nor exploitive. If non-indigenous composers want to intersect with indigenous life, why not build collaborative relationships with indigenous artists? Despite efforts to eradicate them, for example, the Inuit remain living cultural treasures with whom to develop cultural and professional relationships. And those relations can be personally, culturally, and musically amazing.

Why not build collaborative relationships with indigenous artists?

Once, I was invited to perform throat singing onstage with Lois Suluk in Albuquerque, but as a flutist. I sometimes perform extended flute techniques on my handmade quartz flutes, including whispering, singing and playing, and vocalizing with inhaled-exhaled breathing effects. So, in 2010, I had the privilege and honor to partner in a throat singing exchange with an Inuit singer at the El Rey Theater, and I have the picture to prove it! To this day, Lois remains my colleague and friend. As a Native American myself, and as a professional composer of some experience, I absolutely affirm that relationships with indigenous people are wholly necessary for doing indigenous music of any kind, where true American Indian voices are heard.

Lois Suluk and Brent Michael Davids performing at Albuquerque's El Rey Theater in 2010.

Lois Suluk and Brent Michael Davids performing at Albuquerque’s El Rey Theater in 2010.

Indigenous and non-indigenous people, alike, might encourage each other in meaningful collaboration with living, changing, vibrant cultures in ways that remain dynamic. And conversely, misconstruing and twisting Native American music into something less than authentic is a blunder that can no longer be ignored. As further explanation, I’ve been extremely lucky to have worked firsthand with two renowned ensembles, Chanticleer and Kronos Quartet, who both carried out processes of cultural exchange and commissioning that were artistically enriching and entirely respectful.

I’m grateful to composer Chen Yi, who first introduced me to Chanticleer. Chanticleer then invited me to teach them about indigenous singing styles, exploring those techniques on their own voices, and having in-depth discussions about Native American cultures, especially my own. I explained to Chanticleer much of what I’ve written above, about existential postulates, forced culture change, song-ing, and the life-and-death reciprocity of indigenous cosmologies. Afterward, and subsequently through the years, they have commissioned several works from me; Chanticleer felt it was especially important to contract with me as a Mohican-Lenape composer to create the indigenous-inspired works they would later perform. Chanticleer’s modus operandi was to collaborate directly with indigenous composers for their indigenous-inspired commissions.

My Kronos story is very similar. David Harrington’s mother, Hazel, read a newspaper article that peripherally compared my music to her son’s ensemble. She clipped out the article and sent it to him. David visited me, and after several hours of talking over most of the explanations I’ve included above, he commissioned a new work from me that very afternoon. And over the years, I have composed three works for Kronos that intersect Native American aesthetics and Western music. Even more, I’m not the only indigenous collaborator with whom they’ve worked; Kronos has invited new commissions from celebrated Diné composer Raven Chacon and the distinguished Inuit throat singer herself, Tanya Tagaq. Kronos Quartet’s modus operandi was to collaborate directly with indigenous composers for their indigenous-inspired commissions.

We must engage in genuine relationships that do not diminish or erase cultural realities in favor of some questionable aesthetic of neutrality.

It is my firm belief that by championing a respectful cultural process as an artistic standard we not only achieve important cross-cultural understanding, but we form important intercultural relations with each other. With cultural respect comes a deeper historical context for approaching the quality of music. In order to approach composers and compositions, we must engage in genuine relationships that do not diminish or erase cultural realities in favor of some questionable aesthetic of neutrality. We must admit that quality is measured with cultural understanding, not through detached vocal craft or objectified technique. Music may be well crafted, but what is the music saying? Where are the relationships in the process? What communities are involved? What lives beyond the Western musical hegemony? Can we jettison the impossible acultural neutrality narrative in Western classical music to discover a mutually enriching exchange of culture?

Two Native American drummers rehearsing with the members of a symphony orchestra

Dakota drum group Maza Kute with Mankato Symphony Orchestra, rehearsing Davids’ “Black Hills Olowan,” 2010

The Curious Case of Keiko Yamada

A Japanese face mask on a shelf

The evening of August 31 began like most Saturday nights at the start of the fall semester. I was reviewing course plans and readings for the upcoming week, while I casually scrolled through my email. It was late, and I had long since lost whatever drive had propelled me earlier when I received an email from David Biedenbender, a friend and colleague at Blue Dot Collective, with the subject line “Larry Clark.” Curious, I clicked on the message and was presented with a top-line that read, “This is SO NOT OKAY…” above two screenshots. The first was an image from jwpepper.com of a Grade 1/2 string orchestra piece entitled Kon’nichiwa by a composer named Keiko Yamada with the description: “This piece is ‘hello,’ with a smile on your face.”

I was confused. The title and description were, at worst, innocuous, maybe trite, but they certainly didn’t warrant an all caps critique. It wasn’t until I scrolled down further to the second screenshot that I began to understand. There I found a copied message from Owen Davis, a composer/percussionist/music teacher from Flagstaff, AZ that outlined the controversy signaled in the email’s subject line. It read in part[1]:

*PSA* to all of my friends in music education and specifically the band world: Prominent composer/Arranger Larry Clark made a pen name “Keiko Yamada” to pretend to be a Japanese Female composer in order to profit from calls for diversity in music education! […] To make things worse, after being pulled from some prominent music publishers after being publicly outed for this, some publishers decided to put his real name on the score. This winter [he] is an invited presenter at the prestigious Midwest Band Clinic leading a talk on “Selecting Quality Literature” for band.

Despite the anger expressed in Davis’s account and his speculated motives, my initial reaction was disbelief. The idea that a white male composer decided to use a pseudonym that did not conform to his race or gender read almost like a bad joke—who could possibly think this was a good idea? Moreover, I thought, who needs a pen name in twenty-first-century American music publishing? Women and people of color aren’t overtly banned from publishing or self-publishing their music, and white men are especially not prevented from getting their works performed. There’s no reason to have a pen name today. And while cultural appropriation has become a topic of discussion recently, there are no prohibitions that would necessitate a fake Asian identity to write a piece like Kon’nichiwa. White male composers have been doing it for centuries and continue to do so.[2]

The idea that a white male composer decided to use a pseudonym that did not conform to his race or gender read almost like a bad joke—who could possibly think this was a good idea?

I logged onto Facebook to see if the story had developed. It had, but like most social media discussion, it was more emotionally enlightening than factually informative. Comments were flooding in, some expressing confusion, but mostly anger. While monitoring the conversations, I decided to verify the charges against Clark as best I could. I checked the Midwest Band Clinic schedule, and Clark’s clinic “In the Eyes of the Beholder: Selecting Quality Literature” was indeed happening. Then I went to the JW Pepper site. I saw more Japanese-themed titles and pieces with duel compositional credit given to Larry Clark and Keiko Yamada.[3]

At this moment, my disbelief became resentment. The thought that Clark, a former Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Carl Fischer Music, one of most prominent publishing companies for educational music in the country, had used his position to publish and promote works under his Keiko Yamada pseudonym was enraging. Because it was late and no additional information was forthcoming, I grew irritable. I told my friends and colleagues I would certainly be there at Clark’s Midwest presentation to ask him what it meant to program “quality” literature. Like many commentators, I fantasized about a confrontation, the chance to be seen and be heard. But this online back-and-forth quickly exhausted its potential, and failed to provide any release. We needed and deserved to know more.

The next day, Clark issued a statement of apology on his Facebook page.

To my friends and colleagues in the music community, I offer my heartfelt apology. Several years ago, I wrote music using the pen name Keiko Yamada. I sincerely meant no harm in doing so. It has been common for composers and authors to use pen names for centuries. Times have obviously changed, and I realized that the use of this pen name was uninformed, insensitive, and out of touch with the need for cultural appropriation and diversity in music.

In 2016, together with my publisher at the time, we decided to eliminate the use of pen names altogether. I chose to have all of these pieces changed to reflect my name as a composer. Old inventory was removed and recalled from music retailers. New versions with my name as the composer were reprinted, at my personal expense.

I accept the responsibility for my uninformed decision to use this pen name. I believe in the music as I do all of the music I write, but what I did was wrong and needs to be corrected.

I can’t change the past and am trying to make things right through my own company Excelcia Music Publishing. Cultural authenticity is paramount, and I will strive to put the composer first by seeking out composers of diverse backgrounds that better reflect the students that will perform the music. I hope that my actions going forward will demonstrate my desire to learn from my mistake.

I am sincerely sorry and will continue to be better informed and sensitive to these important issues.

When I read this, I felt deflated. What should have provided the information crucial to making sense of the emotions riled up the night before was missing. Clark’s apology failed to explain why he decided to use a pseudonym. Its absence only aggravated my frustrations. I took to social media and again found comfort in peers who felt similarly disappointed in Clark’s statement. Unfortunately, by this time, the Internet had produced its inevitable backlash. And we were confronted by Clark’s defenders who posted hurtful remarks like “I’m sorry this was a problem for you ppl [sic] are so triggered and emotional these days I don’t think you need to apologise [sic]” and “Seriously? I see no need to apologize. This world is getting way too sensitive!” Needless to say, but this didn’t help.

As the debates around Clark grew increasingly acrimonious, a series of dramatic actions took place. The Midwest Clinic canceled the Clark presentation. Music by Keiko Yamada was quickly removed from Internet shelves. Webpages disappeared. Carl Fischer issued a statement to their orchestra directors about the controversy saying, “We now realize we should have gone further by taking these publications out of circulation, an action we have since taken.” Clark reiterated his apology online. Everything regarding Larry Clark and Keiko Yamada was shut down in a mere matter of days.

The disappearing of Clark and Yamada felt vaguely like a cover-up, a way to cut debate off before more significant questions could be asked.

The responses to these actions were mixed. Some friends and colleagues were jubilant. For them, the offender had been punished, and the offending material erased. But their numbers were small, and their satisfaction generally waned in the wake of the Midwest Clinic talk cancellation, and the removal of Clark’s music from available outlets. Others, myself included, were more ambivalent. The disappearing of Clark and Yamada didn’t feel like a resolution. It felt vaguely like a cover-up, a way to cut debate off before more significant questions could be asked. Like questions that extend beyond Clark about his enablers at Carl Fisher, about the people who knew about Keiko Yamada and remained silent, and about the other potential pen names that did or may even still exist in company catalogs.

Most of all, the actions still didn’t answer the question of why Larry Clark had done what he had done. What was Clark’s rationale? What possible circumstances allowed him to think Keiko Yamada was a good idea? My initial research only produced more questions, like if Keiko Yamada’s name was used specifically for originally composed Asian-styled pedagogical orchestral music, why did Clark/Yamada arrange Albert Ellmenreich’s Spinning Song? I realized I needed to talk to Clark. Fortunately, Clark was also eager to talk, and a month after the scandal broke,[4] we were able to sit for an interview.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation I produced in the hours following our meeting. (Clark did not want a recording and has approved the text below.) Our time was limited, which prevented some follow up questions that I wanted to ask. Overall, the exchange was frank, and I appreciated his readiness to respond to all queries that I posed.


Fortunately, Clark was eager to talk, and a month after the scandal broke, we were able to sit for an interview.

Jennifer Jolley: In your initial apology you claimed that using a pen name “has been common for composers and authors…for centuries,” but that “[t]imes obviously have changed.” Looking over the pieces under the name Yamada it seems that you adopted this name in 2009, am I correct?

Larry Clark: I wrote the first piece (Hotaka Sunset) in 2004 and it was published in 2005.

JJ: Okay, you created this persona in 2004. So, then you believed it was appropriate to create the persona of an Asian woman in 2004. I guess my question is: what events or developments in the past decade caused you to reassess the decision you made in 2004?

LC: I wasn’t thinking that it was a good idea in 2004; it was flawed thinking on my part anyway. I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. When I started writing in the publishing business, I was mentored by a lot by older composers in publishing. It was really common that most of them had pseudonyms. This is not an excuse, just how it was when I started getting pieces published.

JJ: How many of these composers had pseudonyms? How many did they have?

LC: I can’t really even tell you that because I don’t know. All of the composers that I had worked with at least had one. Sometimes it had to do with market proliferation; sometimes it had to do with that you’re known as a person who writes at a certain grade level, and sometimes to be taken seriously at a different grade level you needed to use a different name.

“When I started writing, I was mentored by a lot by older composers. It was really common that most of them had pseudonyms.”

I don’t have any excuse for doing this at all. I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I realize it was super insensitive, not a really well-thought out idea. I wish I could take it back, honestly. Going forward, I realize there was no excuse. I was being ignorant and it’s appropriation. Back in 2005, no one really thought about it like they do now. Again, not an excuse.

JJ: So now I’m curious as to when you decided not to use the Yamada pseudonym anymore. What prompted you to do this? You wrote that you and your publisher worked to eliminate pen names and sought to recall inventory that didn’t list you as the composer. Why didn’t you or Carl Fisher Music make a public statement on this? The recalling of music at your own expense suggests that you thought it was at least problematic, why did you remain silent?

LC: It started to feel like it was a bad idea when things started to change culturally, and with more awareness, and political correctness. I’m super apologetic to you; I understand how this could be interpreted.

My feelings about using the pen name started to change when the pieces began to have success. People wanted to meet Keiko Yamada and possibly commission works. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do. I felt really uncomfortable about that. At first, I was not trying to keep it a secret. Musicians in the recording session were aware it was my pen name. When we started receiving requests for information I tried to be more elusive about it, which I regret greatly. I guess I just got scared, which is not a good excuse, but the truth. As the political climate changed and the country became more divided, that is when the topic came up at Carl Fischer. And that is when I began to think about the opportunities this could be taking away from real composers of diversity, and how hurtful that could be.

“People wanted to meet Keiko Yamada and possibly commission works. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do.”

We got into discussions at Carl Fischer about this, so we decided to stop. At first, we thought it would be best to get rid of all the music. That did not sit well with me, because I believed in the music. I thought it was some of my best work, and wanted it to continue, so I made the choice personally to take whatever ramifications came my way and have the pieces changed to my name. The problem is, we didn’t do a good job expressing all of that to the public, because we feared what the ramifications would be. We had concern that what has been happening would happen. I was willing to at that time take it; I wanted to have the music continued. The problem was with the execution of what was done. I was on the team; it was a company decision and that’s how it was handled. [Ed. Note: Sonya Kim has been president of Carl Fischer since 2008.] I think we would all agree that we didn’t handle it well and we didn’t handle it thoroughly and I regret that too.

In retrospect, I, together with Carl Fischer, could have been more transparent and thorough in handling the situation.

JJ: So the orchestra people/directors knew about the pseudonym?

LC: Many of the orchestra people were very upset when that happened.

JJ: Why?

LC: Because of the same reason as the band people. On Facebook there is a String Orchestra Directors Page and that information blew up then. It was split: they took sides. At the time, I asked Sonya Kim, president of Carl Fischer what are we were going to do.

JJ: I want to pinpoint something you said earlier. When exactly did Keiko’s music become successful? Can you pinpoint a year or piece?

LC: People wanted to meet me/her in either 2006 or 2007? Yes, it is Japanese Lullaby that became successful. It was selected for a lot of festival lists and was performed at Midwest, etc.

JJ: Following up on this, Keiko Yamada is a composer listed on a few Prescribed Music Lists, and I believe one of Yamada’s works was performed at the Midwest Clinic. Did you alert anyone involved that you were the composer of the works selected? Do you remember which state lists Keiko Yamada was on?

LC: Which state lists…this is very challenging to determine…

JJ: That is what I’ve been discovering.

LC: I know they were on Florida, Texas, maybe Maryland? There are a lot of states that don’t have a state list. Many of the pieces were performed at Midwest. This happened multiple times, and almost every year.

This is how we tried to alert people in 2016. The intention was not successfully executed. Carl Fischer was to alert the dealers that the names were changing to mine. The Letter asked music dealers to alert the music committees for state lists. This was sent out after these pieces were selected. Carl Fischer sent this to their dealer network, the sheet music dealers.

JJ: While the use of a pen name does date back centuries, this doesn’t satisfactorily explain your motive for using one. A pen name is a strategy employed in response to exigent circumstances such as the protection of an individual’s physical safety (dissents in unfree societies), the preemption of discrimination (Jewish actors that Anglicize their stage names), or to allow individuals access (women authors seeking the consideration of male dominated publishing houses). Given that you were a successful American composer working in a publishing house what were the circumstances that necessitated and/or motivated your creation of Keiko Yamada?

LC: Well, it was not well thought out, I had written a piece that was Japanese in style; I was having difficulty with sales in orchestra music, because I was considered more of a band composer. When they see my name they think, “Oh well, he’s a band music guy. He’s just writing band music and then writing and arranging it for strings.” I was not taken as seriously at that point as an orchestra composer.

JJ: So to clarify, this piece you’re talking about was initially a string piece, not a band piece that was later transcribed to strings?

LC: This was initially a string piece. Clarification: there are no Keiko Yamada band pieces.

JJ: I find it fascinating that publishing educational band and orchestral music was so segregated and isolated. That just boggles my mind.

“Funny story: I was chatting with Michael Colgrass once. He asked me, ‘Why don’t you write college level music?’ and I replied, ‘I’m known as the middle school band guy!’”

LC: Funny story: I was chatting with Michael Colgrass once. He asked me, “Why don’t you write college level music?” and I replied, “I’m known as the middle school band guy!”

JJ: That’s nuts because you have band pieces for higher levels.

LC: I think it’s easier to go top-down; I started writing music for lower levels first, so it’s harder to go up. There was a time at Carl Fischer where they wanted to label music as “serious vs. educational music.” I was against that.

JJ: That’s so wrong. Anyway, how did you invent the name Keiko Yamada?

LC: The name was not well thought out, not sensitive, not all those things. I thought, Yamada is a common Japanese surname. Keiko…I don’t remember. I didn’t want anything gender specific. I didn’t do enough research.

JJ: I have to say, I’m not of Japanese descent, but I’ve known a few Japanese people in my life, and “Keiko” is very much a feminine name.

LC: I realize that now; I didn’t do a lot of research. Honestly, I don’t really have a good answer for you, because it was not well thought out.

JJ: Next question. Colleagues of mine have noted that when they researched Keiko Yamada, they were confused by her online biography. Several publishers and even a young student presenting on Yamada used the birth date of another musician of the same name—it’s the first Keiko Yamada musician when you Google the name. You also contributed to this effect by having most of Yamada’s work be Asian themed (Kazoku, Kabosu, Yuki Matsuri, Rickshaw, Japanese Hoedown etc.), and then when you had Keiko Yamada arrange Albert Ellmenreich’s Spinning Song. So I guess my question is if Yamada is an innocuous pen name, why did you develop such a distinct body of work for her? Was it because these pieces are strictly orchestral in nature?

“The interesting thing is that—no excuses—I found a different voice to write in, which I enjoyed.”

LC: With regard to the birthdate and the bio, I have no idea where any of that came from. There was never a bio or birthdate sent out. Regarding a body of work, yes, the interesting thing is that—no excuses—I found a different voice to write in, which I enjoyed. I was trying not to be disrespectful or cliché to the music to Japan, I creatively sounded like a different composer I thought. Again, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re here.

Spinning Song…That was the only one that was not of Japanese influence…I don’t remember why. I don’t know.

JJ: Is it because Spinning Song fell under the purview of “orchestra music” and Keiko was strictly an “orchestra composer”?

LC: I wasn’t doing as much orchestra music under my own name because it wasn’t doing as well.

JJ: Following up on this, do you have records of how many other composers in 2016 in the Carl Fisher Music catalog were writing under their own name and an additional pen name? If so, did any of those composers use a pen name that didn’t conform to their gender or race?

LC: Actually, not with Carl Fischer. My first job in publishing was with Warner Bros. Publications in Miami in 1995. [Pen names were] used often for grade level and used often for a lot of arrangements. If someone did use pen names, it would be for Grade 2 marching band arrangements, for example if they were known more for say more difficult arrangements.

JJ: Does this still go on?

LC: I think so. I was working at Warner Bros. until 1999. I still believe some are still out there.

Actually, I have a funny story about this. I started out as a marching band arranger, and a friend of my boss Jack Bullock, who was a middle school band director, said, “I like this guy Larry Clark’s arrangements; is that a pseudonym for you?”

JJ: That’s wild.

LC: My name is so simple, it probably sounded like a pseudonym to her.

JJ: Did anyone know about some specific pseudonyms? I mean, there seemed to be a reputation that everybody was using them.

LC: There was a reputation of pseudonyms, but no one knew who they were. This was more so in the “pop” arranging scene at WB. We were doing so much so quickly. We had a couple of days or a weekend to turn around these arrangements.

JJ: Did anyone switch their gender or race with these pseudonyms?

LC: Gender or race? YES. Race, but not gender.

JJ: And this had to do with style?

LC: Did this have to do with style? It was similar to what I did, but I took it one step too far. There is one case I remember off the top of my head; it was used to be a specific style of music.

By the way my official title at Warner Bros. was Marching Band and Jazz Ensemble Instrumental Editor from 1995–1999. I worked at Carl Fischer from 1999–2018, and I started my own company in 2018.

JJ: Why did you start your own company?

“I left Carl Fischer on good terms in 2018, and will always be proud of the company and the work I did there.”

LC: I worked remotely (from my Florida home) for Carl Fischer starting in 2003. It is challenging to keep a connection with a company over a long period of time as employees come and go, and so in the last few years I felt more disconnected to the company, despite the ongoing collaboration, conference calls, trips to the headquarters, etc. It was no one’s fault, just happened, and I left Carl Fischer on good terms in 2018, and will always be proud of the company and the work I did there. With my new company I had some ideas on how I wanted to do some things differently.  Self-publishing has become more of the thing. I think it’s because composers don’t feel serviced. We’re trying to help with that.

JJ: So, speaking of Carl Fischer, your position at Carl Fisher Music from 1999–2018 was Vice President and Editor-in-Chief and an archived bio from Midwest describes part of your duties as reviewing thousands of works for publication. Between 2005–2016 did you ever promote Yamada works in your official capacities?

LC: I don’t understand your question. What do you mean by promoting works in official capacities?

JJ: Let me clarify. For example, I believe if you register as a publisher at the Midwest Clinic, you’re allowed to submit some pieces for reading sessions?

LC: The Keiko pieces were already being selected for performances, so there was no need for reading sessions. Midwest has very strict restrictions for what can be programmed on concerts. You have to have one of each grade level from a different publisher on your concert…

JJ: You have to have a march…

LC: You have to have a march, etc. for band. Midwest provides the list of performing ensembles to the publishers once they are selected.

JJ: Did you have a say as to which pieces were on which list?

LC: Yes, but we would send them a CD sampler/MP3 list that also included scores. We would send everything; including Christmas music, because some groups wanted to play those, since the convention is close to Christmas.

JJ: Because that was a good time of year to buy Christmas music, I’m assuming.

LC: Yes.

JJ: Did you ever promote Keiko Yamada’s music over others?

LC: No, we did not promote some pieces over others. We promoted the new pieces in our catalog. We would usually send out separate band and orchestra lists. We would send out CDs for all the new orchestra music and all new band music. If any of these were of interest, we would send you a full score or even a set. We would bend over backwards to get music performed as often as we could. Now it’s all in Dropbox; we have available non-printable scores. We organize it more by grade level.

And again, everything we were sending out was new. We’d send it out in the late spring/early summer for the new school year. Also, Carl Fischer would send out a cover letter on behalf of the composers. I’ve been encouraging composers in my new company to write an additional personalized cover letter in addition if they have time; most composers take me up on that and it has been very successful.

JJ: I’ve spoken with a lot of composers and music colleagues in the run-up to our discussion and there is a lot of frustration, and even anger from their points of view. In their perspectives, your apologies for your actions ignore the real-world consequences of your actions. You were already an established composer; you held a position of power in a prominent publishing company, and yet you decided to compose under the name of an Asian woman. Given the concerted push to diversify music that is occurring when you’re writing as Keiko Yamada, do you understand why many people feel you likely stole opportunities from them?

“All I can do going forward is to try to make a difference for women and composers of color.”

LC: One hundred percent. Of course, I didn’t think about this when I created the name in 2004. Again, this is not something you can take back. All I can do going forward is to try to make a difference for women and composers of color. I’ve already agreed to give every penny I’ve made from these pieces over to help underrepresented composers. I’m still waiting for Carl Fischer to give me a full accounting of how much I made with these pieces. But I also don’t want to do any of this with any fanfare, and I am not looking for any accolades. I know how upset people are, and I know how ridiculously ignorant and insensitive this was.

This is not in line with who I am. I did a very insensitive and uniformed thing; I regret doing this. I understand people may never play my music again. However, I have five boys, and they have to see me handle this the right way. A lot of people said horrible things without knowing me. I have a multicultural family. I adopted two boys from Haiti. I’m disappointed in myself; I’m embarrassed. It’s been tough.

JJ: What do you think you can offer the current conversation about diversity in music given your actions?

LC: Certainly, I’ve been trying to do this throughout my career. There are a lack of women and people of color that are composing. Today it’s even more difficult because there is even more self-publishing. It’s very difficult to find people. It’s a challenge. I’m continuing to do that. We have women and people of color in my company. You know, some people said I didn’t have enough women and people of color, but I just started my company in July of 2018, and it takes time, but I feel I can also help with this. I will have one conversation at a time and work to regain trust.

JJ: Individually?

LC: Yes. There are some people who said I did nothing wrong, but that’s not true. I did do something wrong. I want to talk to those people too. If other composers use pseudonyms, I hope they reconsider using them. I hope I can be a beacon as to what not to do.

JJ: Are there any specific people you want to talk to?

“I hope I can be a beacon as to what not to do.”

LC: Anyone who wants to listen? I would love to hear your feedback. I will be at Midwest, so if anyone wants to talk to me, they can find me.

JJ: How will they find you? Can I tell people how to find you at Midwest?

LC: Excelcia will have a booth, and I will be there, because the most important thing to me is that I don’t want my actions to hurt my fifty composers. They just had their first release. We just started.

JJ: You know, admittedly, I was a little disappointed that your Midwest session got canceled because I thought this would have given you the perfect opportunity to answer the questions we all had personally. Hopefully, by December our deep frustration and anger would be lessened a bit so we can have a constructive conversation with you.

LC: And my topic at Midwest was not to tell people which pieces they should be programming. It was how to pick literature that’s of quality, how to identify pieces with good counterpoint, good harmony and melody, which pieces used good ranges for their specific ensemble, etc.

JJ: And I get what you’re saying here; unfortunately, the word “quality” now is code for “music that has been written by cisgender white males” because “quality” has been used as a knee-jerk response to why it’s still okay to ignore and disregard music written by women and people of color. And then when people like me hear the word “quality” being used in association with programming, I instantly believe those who refuse to diversify programming state that music by others cannot be as good.

LC: I agree that the same people who tried to say I did nothing wrong were also throwing around things like “I only play quality music.” That is wrong, too, and the point of my clinic at Midwest was not to tell anyone what quality music is, but to give conductors tools to look for pieces with good craft. I understand what you are saying about the term “quality” and its implications—I will be more sensitive to that.

JJ: Here’s a question: is your new publishing company more of a distributor than a traditional publisher?

LC: It’s a regular publishing company; it is similarly done like Carl Fisher and others. We do professional recordings and distribution with all the major sheet music dealers of the world. We do a lot more on social media.

JJ: I’m thinking aloud here…is there an “in between” way in which composers who are skeptical about having you publish their works could have some sort of trial period? Admittedly, considering how I identify, I would not want you to publish my music. But let’s say, maybe over quite a few years from now, you can use your publishing company to get a person of color’s music on a Midwest reading session without having them officially sign up with your company?

LC: Midwest has strict rules: they have all these rules on how you have to have certain representation of grade levels, different publishers…it’s challenging. I recently reached out to Kaitlin Bove [the founder of the organization …And We Were Heard] to inquire how I might be able to assist the organization. I think her idea of the recordings is awesome. Here’s the interesting thing. They are finding bands to record Grade 3 and 4 pieces, but they can’t get anyone to record the Grade 1 and 2 pieces, and I said, “I’m your guy!” I’ll record those pieces—even for orchestra.

JJ: That is a great idea. I love this. We composers are so dependent on these recordings, and they’re hard to obtain.

“I was also thinking about starting a scholarship with the money I earned to help fund a composer who is a woman or a person of color going to college to study composition. And I don’t want credit for this.”

LC: Yes, I’m hopeful that she will be interested in me doing that, and I’d pay for it personally; I won’t have my publishing company pay for those recordings. I was also thinking about starting a scholarship with the money I earned to help fund a composer who is a woman or a person of color going to college to study composition. And I don’t want credit for this.

JJ: Those are all my questions, and I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me and answer my questions. Is there anything else you would like to add?

LC: I just appreciate the tone and the tenor of this interview. And I want to apologize to you personally, and I’ll personally apologize to anyone, because I know what I did hurt others and I am truly sorry for that. I also have apologized to my kids too, because I want them to see that we are all flawed beings, and we sometimes make poor decisions in life. We have to own up to those mistakes, accept the consequences, try to make amends to the people we hurt, and learn and grow in the process.  I also want them to learn from me so that they think very carefully about everything they do, and how their actions affect others.


As the conversation fades and the transcript becomes my primary reference, things are both clearer and more complex. My first imaginings of confronting Clark the night the story broke bore little resemblance to the encounter. After talking one-on-one, I have to admit, I have more empathy for Larry Clark. I relate to him as a composer and as an imperfect human being. Yet even in retrospect, the experience poses some difficulties for me.

It’s hard to stay angry with Clark, but not because his explanations of Keiko Yamada are particularly good.

On the one hand it’s hard to stay angry with Clark, but not because his explanations of Keiko Yamada are particularly good. I believe he’s deeply sorry, and his desire to learn seems genuine. On the other hand, it’s still frustrating and disappointing to read his evasions like “political correctness” or his self-presentation as a victim (“that band guy in the eyes of the orchestra world”). I find myself wanting to yell that white men impersonating Asian women didn’t just become wrong in the twenty-first century. But to be compelled to forcefully say something so obvious is exhausting and worse, it puts the responsibility on me.

And it’s here where I find some clarity to the source of conflict I feel about Clark and Yamada. Powerful people have the luxury of evolving to a point where they might consider the benefits their person and positions have accrued. But this process takes place in real time, time that is experienced very differently by people outside the establishment. How many composers during Keiko Yamada’s “career” lost opportunities because a rental or a place on a state list went to “her”? How many of those selections were motivated by a music director’s desire to diversify their concerts? How many times did a young woman or person of color feel that powerful sense of possibility in imagining someone like them writing the work they were about to play? Moreover, how do we take stock of the reverberations extending from the fact that Clark didn’t confess but rather was caught.

It’s a certain way the open booth at Midwest (which I genuinely recommend) is the perfect encapsulation of the problems and contradictions that I’m feeling: it is laudable but insufficient. The booth will likely be more therapeutic than transformative because it keeps Clark at the center and does little to address the systemic corruption of the larger music world. Indeed, the paradox of the entire Clark/Yamada affair is that Clark does deserve harsh judgment, but focusing too much on him dilutes the ability to see the broader problems. Systems are difficult things to imagine, understand, and transform. Clark’s actions warrant condemnation, but he was aided and abetted throughout Yamada’s fictitious career. A culture of silence and selfishness of vision in the highest reaches of the publishing world permitted Clark to act as he did. For the Clark/Yamada affair to be useful, there needs to be a much more comprehensive and transparent examination of catalogs in the band and orchestra world. If Clark’s claims about the pervasiveness of pen names are correct, we need an account and not just of the composers, but of the administrators and executives who facilitated this.

Composing music is hard, but being a composer is harder.

Composing music is hard, but being a composer is harder. It’s financially precarious, filled with rejection, and driven by a sense of self that is constantly under siege. To be a composer of color or a woman (or both) is beyond difficult. They are profoundly absent in concert halls today, and the situation is not much better when you look at the state lists.[5] The lingering effects of Clark/Yamada are to magnify the paranoia and cynicism too often experienced by underrepresented composers. It confirms the most extreme sense that the music world is an unfair system rigged in favor of the privileged. I guess this is why I can’t offer a succinct summation or tidy lesson learned from this mess. So in place of a conclusion I want to offer thoughts. I hope Larry Clark will continue to work for change. I also hope he knows how much work needs to be done and that there’s a real chance he’ll never balance his ledger. I want him to get to that place, but I also know that I can’t speak for anyone else. Above all, to the women and people of color, I hope you keep writing.


Notes:

1. Full Text of Davis’s message:

*PSA* to all of my friends in music education and specifically the band world: Prominent composer/Arranger Larry Clark made a pen name “Keiko Yamada” to pretend to be a Japanese Female composer in order to profit from calls for diversity in music education! This is disgusting, misleading, and just awful that we have students being subjected to not even appropriated music, but a fantasy of appropriated music. What does this accomplish? What goals of diversity and growth does this further?

To make things worse, after being pulled from some prominent music publishers after being publicly outed for this, some publishers decided to put his real name on the score. This winter he is an invited presenter at the prestigious Midwest Band Clinic leading a talk on “Selecting Quality Literature” for band. There is so much music that exists in the world of band by diverse voices – why does this still need to be published?

I don’t know what needs to happen and can’t individually leverage against this. I am not a band director, but if I was I probably wouldn’t support his work any longer. As a music educator, however, I am just really frustrated and saddened by this news.


2. For example, John Barnes Chance wrote Variations on a Korean Folk Song for concert band in 1965; this piece is standard wind ensemble repertoire and is still being performed.


3. Besides Kon’nichiwa, other titles include Tsumasaki, Koneko, Sunayama, Mystic Fawn, and Japanese Hoedown.


4. This interview took place on Monday, September 30, 2019.


5. Average Representation of Diverse Composers (Women, People of Color, Women of Color) across state lists: 6.37%; Average Representation of Women Composers of Color on sampled state lists: 0.03%. Statistics compiled by Cory Meals, Assistant Professor of Music Education at the University of Houston.