Category: Articles

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.

Creating and Listening in Alaska: My experience with Composing in the Wilderness

Hikers in a foggy mountain range

I moved to Phoenix in 2008 to start my master’s degree in music composition. Almost every year since then, I have made it a mission to escape the heat at least once during the summer. I have made these efforts in spite of my financial situation and—although I am ashamed to admit it—in spite of my relationships. This year, 2019, has been my “year of doing less”—so far a grand and failed effort to take stock of what I have, get to know my Phoenix-based friends and musical companions better, and dig a little deeper into what it means for me to have a very full day job and do music “on the side.” To alleviate my annual wanderlust, I applied to Composing in the Wilderness, a program founded, built, and coordinated by composer/adventurer Stephen Lias. CiTW takes composers out into the rugged expanse of Alaska to find inspiration, connect with nature on an intimate level, and bring a new piece of music from idea to performance all within a few weeks.

I was woefully unprepared.

Map of Alaska

Navigation

Before I left, I described Composing in the Wilderness as this:

It’s a program where you hike during the day in Denali National Park in Alaska, then after a few days of outdoor observation, you are thrown into a cabin to write some music, then you get a performance. Pretty cool, right?

I knew we would be interacting with scientists and park rangers, but I had no concept of the scope of that interaction. It is a similar situation to people who come to Phoenix and decide to hike Camelback Mountain in the summer, thinking it will be an easy climb. From a distance, it looks like a good day hike, but if you are not familiar with your new relationship with the sun here, it is a far different experience than expected.

“Composing in the Wilderness is not a class or a workshop, but a shared wilderness experience.” – Stephen Lias

While my casual summary is technically correct—the CiTW experience is hiking in Denali for four days, composing in cabins for four days, then rehearsals and performances in Fairbanks and Denali with Corvus, the new music ensemble in residence at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival—it is not what I expected. When I arrived at our campsite and saw the diversity of our group and the intense knowledge of our leader Christina Rusnak and Alaska Geographic educator Suan Adams, I knew that my usual trajectory and internal compass for being in a group of composers for an extended period of time would no longer work.

Q: What are the things that still “stick” with you after the experience?

A: “The creativity of exploration and motion. The incredible calm and sharpness found in wilderness. The fuzzy joy feels of humans.” – Andy Israelsen

Observation and Reevaluation

“I feel more focused in my life. My experience with CiTW has given me a confidence and sense of determination/ direction that I haven’t had before.” – Jordan Stevenson

I have been to a number of summer music festivals and experiences. My plan was to keep my engagement to a minimum so I could have my quiet and my solitude. My much deserved respite in nature from screen time and nonprofit administration. How I thought this would be feasible with nine other composers (eight participants plus our Christina Rusnak) is a mystery in hindsight. I came with prejudgements about the loose factions that would form based on who took what too seriously.

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At first, I tried to experience Alaska in the way that I thought I had earned. I was quickly plucked from my ego and reminded that the earth does not belong to me, it is not here for my pleasure or artistic exploitation, and taking joy in discovery is far more fun than worrying about my musical knowledge and professional trajectory seeming more noble or interesting than another’s.

When I challenge why I would come in with such childish assumptions, I know it was out of fear that I would not belong or be taken seriously. I am now on the older side of the typical summer music experience participant and I want to say it doesn’t affect me, but that would not be the truth. As the group skirted around icebreakers and “where are you from?”-s, the flow of my attitude began to echo that of Anchorage-based composer Andy Israelsen, who on our last night claimed “I came for solitude, but instead I found family.”

Listening at the river

Photo by Christina Rusnak

Q: What are the things that still “stick” with you after the experience?

A: “Value of unplugged time, connection with the real—people, community, people, what lies under the superficial.” —Margery Smith

Connection to the Landscape

Regardless of the connotations “landscape” holds for you, it is a larger picture or format that has the potential to reveal multitudes if you take the time to observe. The scientists, Alaska Geographic employees, and park interpreters—who very literally led us into the wilderness and peeled back the layers—allowed us to make connections to scale, sound, and history outside of the scope of music. It was entirely up to us to make our own, very personal connections to the stream of information given to our group.

Most of us honed in on the scale of the landscape (be it cricket-sized or Denali-sized) and the visual and physical limitations the wildfire smoke had on our relationship to the wilderness. I realized that I was doing myself yet another disservice by not appreciating the bug flying past my ears and the grass tickling my wrists. Every small moving part is more essential to the whole than I ever knew. Davyd Bechtkal, a leading soundscape specialist for the National Park Service, opened our ears to the physical limitations scale and landscapes place on natural sounds and the way we experience them. Listening intently to the landscape around me gave me a better understanding of how small my role in the world is, but also how to find empowerment and joy in that role, regardless of scale.

Huddle

Photo by Christina Rusnak

“NYC is a place where you don’t hang out so much. You just go and do stuff, then go and do different stuff with different people, or just hang out at home waiting for the next ‘go and do stuff’ moment. CiTW was a small compact society. We were thrust onto each other but united in orientation—we’ve all had fairly deep relationships to making music. It was fun to share the personal aspects of that to see where it matched others.” – Skip LaPlante

Natural Resources

At the end of a 24-hour Alaskan summer day, the people I met and the friendships that were forged were the most impressive resources I found. If you look back on the history of Composing in the Wilderness, you will notice a significant age range in the participants. I could have simply watched Skip LaPlante give a lecture on his repurposed musical instruments crafted in a loft in the Bowery or read an article by Christina Rusnak in an IAWM publication, but the knowledge gained would be superficial compared to having these individuals and eight other composers from separate walks of life in a space together, not distracted by technology or schedules, swapping stories.

Without this specific wilderness/composer experience, I know I would have remained very unaware of the life and career opportunities that lay bubbling in our national and state park systems. Although I’m a good 30 years younger than Skip, I fully agree with his sentiment: “I didn’t know there was such a webwork of composer residencies in wild places. … I think I’ve discovered a new society to be part of and have to work out how deeply to participate.”

Hiking

Photo by Angus Davison

Continuing the Climb

“[H]aving the experience of being out in the field as we were, with such expert guidance interpreting what we encountered, and—more importantly—contextualizing them within the larger picture of the landscape of Alaska raised my consciousness of the interdependence of natural life, from very small to very large scale, to a level which I have never before had.” —Andrew Simpson

“I haven’t traveled much, and only within Europe, so I was shocked by how different both the wildlife in Denali and the culture in Fairbanks were to what I’m used to. It really was a little like walking on another planet when all the grass was different, all the trees were different, and the Sun was a different color in the smoke.” – Luciano Williamson

Without a doubt, the experience transformed me personally and will have lasting impact on my personal life and career. And I can only assume that when founder Stephen Lias came to Denali for the first time and began to formulate what would become Composing in the Wilderness, he knew exactly how transformative such and experience would be.

Before leaving for Alaska, I kept insisting to my co-workers that I was not going on vacation. Again, a true statement, but one that turned false after my experience. My sentiment was “I am not going to have time to relax, I am going to be working very hard while I’m gone. I am not going on a cruise.” Yes, I worked hard, we all did. But I found the things that a vacation allegedly brings: mental relaxation, reflection, and unforgettable new experiences. I came back refreshed. I came back not bugged by small things. The world is so big and people are so different, it doesn’t make sense to get caught up in the minutiae. We are human and it will still happen, but I find it easier to pull back and see the true scale of something. I feel more satisfied with what I have and am more ready to allow events to happen in their own time.

Composing in the Wilderness

Photo by Angus Davison

A Guide to Composing in Your Wilderness

  1. Minimize your interaction with technology.
  2. Find a friend to adventure with you.
  3. Select at least two new places in nature (as your available time frame and resources allow) to visit. A public park, a plant nursery, a different neighborhood, a botanical garden, etc.).
  4. If you have a question, talk about it, don’t look up the answer on your phone.
  5. Set a schedule, but do not feel bad if you do not adhere to it strictly.
  6. Eat a hearty breakfast and pack your lunch.
  7. If you are tired, take a nap!
  8. Take a deep breath, enjoy yourself no matter where you are on your journey.

Reading List

Andrew Simpson: Silence by John Cage

Particularly on that first full day in the field, as we were taking our meditative time, I kept coming back to his essay on silence, and how he says that you can never find true silence anywhere in the world: there is always sound of some kind.  In a place which is so quiet, I found myself thinking about that boundary between sound and silence, and becoming more attuned to the sounds which were there—the wind traveling through the spruces (coming from a long way off somewhere to my left, then crossing the place where I sat, and then continuing onward and out of hearing to my right)—the occasional bird, and such.  That wind moment eventually made its way into my piece, but the experience of being in such a quiet place and feeling its weight, punctuated by sound, made each sound more special and noticeable.

Christina Rusnak: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

[A book] that has to do with a way of “seeing” is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. As we spoke about the indigenous Alaskans’ tie to the landscape, this one kept coming up in my mind.

Jason Gibson: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

It’s a concentration camp survival story that focuses on the psychology of those in the [Nazi] camps. It sticks out to me because I found myself searching for meaning and legitimacy during the entire experience.

Margery Smith: The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise by Garret Keizer

This was one of Davyd Bechtkal’s books that I found very interesting and made me think [I can] still hear those crunchy chips from Denali lunch breaks!

Andrew Israelsen: Silence and Walking by Erlin Klagge

Silence was written after a solo walking trek to the South pole. The book is hardly about Antarctica, rather it is a winding journey on mindfulness and a wide variety of ruminations on silence. Walking has a fantastic narrative arc as Kagge explores poetry, philosophy, and personal experiences.

Skip LaPlante: The Tuning of the World by R. Murray Schaefer and Walden by Henry David Thoreau

The first is about the sonic environment in general, really understanding what you are hearing and the second is about observing and drinking in detail.

Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is a sci-fi novel that addresses how language and views of the land and gender affect culture. It focuses on a visitor to a cold, ice-filled planet who is unable to grasp the slow pace of the people and lack of technological advancement. The visitor misses the technology they do have because it does not look like the technology he is used to. This scenario echoed with me as we learned more about how Western cultures have viewed and related to the Athabaskan, the indigenous people of Alaska.

Luciano Williamson: Musicage by Joan Retallack

It’s a collection of interviews with John Cage at the very end of his life, talking about words, art, and music, after being John Cage for a lifetime.

Jordan Stevenson: Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

“…to get you in the spirit of adventure.”

Fierce and Tender Humanity—Remembering Mario Davidovsky (1934-2019)

A photo of a woman and two men

I was reading various posts online and absorbing the news that Mario Davidovsky had died, when I received an email asking if I’d like to write a personal reminiscence for NewMusicBox. I was moved and said yes. As I thought about it in the days following, I felt I had pretty much summed up my thoughts on Mario’s music and values in an essay I wrote for celebrations of his 80th birthday. But I appreciate the chance to think more on his personality and my relationship with him, and to add to the wonderful flood of reminiscences, photos and stories about him.

Mario was a passionately involved member of society and the music world.

Composing modernist music is an esoteric activity within the general culture, but Mario made substantial connections with a great number of people. He was a passionately involved member of society and the music world. A lot of people have noted his generosity nurturing other artists, his integrity, his vehemently stated opinions, his volubility and notoriously long conversations that would range over world history, science, religion, politics.

In recent years I would call Mario for no particular reason, just to check in and chat. We talked about music and musicians, of course, but also Silicon Valley, environmental problems, branches of religious philosophy, the big cultural institutions, changing sources of funding. Mario played violin in his youth and that was certainly part of my rapport with him. Another commonality was the Jewish diaspora: both his family and mine (my grandfather) left Europe due to persecution and immigrated to countries in the southern hemisphere (Argentina and Australia respectively). He was always eager to hear about my “peripecias” after I’d been traveling and we’d compare Spain’s characteristics with South America, or the variety of Asian cultures, or one American city’s scene with another. He’d been to many of these places.

Mario Davidovsky (as a child) playing the violin

This old photo was sent to me by Mario’s nephew and Mario chuckled over it. It’s Mario playing violin, next to his mother and sisters.

By the time I really got to know Mario, he was mainly devoting his time to taking care of his wife Elaine, an elegant former dancer who was ailing for some years and passed away in 2017. He would say, “I hardly go out anymore, I’m at home always” and it was without question where he wanted to be, by Elaine’s side. But he’d also say “Tell me what’s happening! What do you see out there? Have you heard anything good?”  I would tell him about interesting concerts going on, and what pieces and programs I was playing. Often he would say “Oh yes, So-and-so was at the Conference in the 1990s” or some other decade, and proceed to describe their music then and whatever he had heard of theirs since, and any news or tidbits of rumors he’d heard about their doings.

He was often warm in his assessment of composers but occasionally he’d say, “Ay, but the music is sheeeet!”

He was often warm in his assessment of composers but occasionally he’d say, “Ay, but the music is sheeeet!” About music I was playing that he wasn’t familiar with, he’d ask “What’s it like?” I loved his challenge to express not just its basic characteristics or the inspiration behind it, but to describe from my observation what was happening in the music itself, how its elements seemed to relate.

I first met Mario in 2004 through composer Matthew Greenbaum, who had studied with and known Mario a long time. He invited violist Stephanie Griffin to perform the Davidovsky String Trio on a concert in New York and she asked me to play. I was enthralled with his music from the start. (Stephanie’s group, the Momenta Quartet, was formed from this and I played with the quartet in its first few years. They will perform the String Trio again on October 15 at the Americas Society).

Mario Davidovsky and Miranda Cuckson with John Harbison

Mario Davidovsky and Miranda Cuckson with John Harbison at Wellesley on November 8, 2015 (photo courtesy Miranda Cuckson).

I was very excited about Mario’s pieces and I soon explored and performed more: the Duo Capriccioso, Synchronisms No. 9, three of the four Quartettos, Romancero, the Biblical Songs, Chacona. I got to play all of these for him. As I said in that essay, Mario took many ideas he gleaned from his work with electronics and used them in his acoustic chamber music. In rehearsal he talked about the startling effects of simultaneities and blended sonorities, the singing passages. He emphasized abrupt shifts, saying the effect of switching from non-vibrato to vibrato should be sudden “like you pushed a button,” urging to press down very close to the bridge for noisy attacks marked “coarse!”, then asking for playing at the limits of extreme quiet. Contrasts were not only about dynamics but timbral qualities, from hits and snaps that were hard as stone to gentle, held tones of soft velvet.

For someone known for his work with technology, Mario’s musicality was very linked to older styles of playing.

For someone known for his work with technology, Mario’s musicality was very linked to older styles of playing. In modern music, glissandos are often played gradually and evenly to draw out the sliding effect, but Mario repeatedly said that his glissandos were a “real portamento,” that is, a quick slide coming at the end of the note, in the style of Fritz Kreisler or Mischa Elman. In a number of Mario’s pieces, such as Duo Capriccioso and the Quartettos, there are spurts of fast spiccato passages or arpeggiated ricochet bowings, and he’d say they should be tossed off “like in Wieniawski, Sarasate.” Sometimes as Mario listened to his music, he would sway his upper body and make expressive gesticulations, as if he were playing along. It makes me think about my former teacher, the violinist Felix Galimir, who was often described as playing like he composed the music himself. To me, Mario composed like he was playing the music himself—the character of his music came so much from the physicality of playing the instruments, even (or especially) when striving for dramatic effects inspired by electronic music.

Mario Davidovsky (Photo by Thomas Roma)

One of the few promotional images of Mario Davidovsky who was not very cooperative with photos. (Photo by Thomas Roma, courtesy C.F. Peters.)

Mario’s cultural roots were the core of his being, as was his own family. He was immersed in the music community, ready to wade into the thick of things, but if his family needed attention, he would drop everything to be with them. After Elaine passed, he said he was very lonely. There were people calling him, coming by to visit, and he was very appreciative. But he felt sad and alone without his dearest companion and I think was also, in his philosophical Jewish way, dealing with his existential sense of being a solitary soul in the world.

Mario’s cultural roots were the core of his being.

Once when I wrote him something sympathetic, he replied “I never suspected that loneliness could be so overwhelmingly infinite….God must be the utmost lonely thing in the universe—he only has himself…. At least, I have Zabars and can get some cheese and bagels!!!!”  It was a joking nudge because we sometimes ran into each other shopping at Zabar’s (indeed often in the cheese section).

I will miss his vast and loving support, his calling me “Querida Miranda” and saying “Heyyyyy!” when he recognized my voice on the phone. I hear the sounds and piquant cadence of his voice all the time now, just as I hear his fierce and tender humanity in his music.


[Ed. note: Back in 2006, we recorded an in-depth conversation with Mario Davidovsky which is one of the treasures of the NewMusicBox archives. Below is a film of highlights from that talk, but the entire transcript is also still available online. —FJO]

Mario Davidovsky in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded on February 15, 2006, 11:00 a.m., in Davidovsky’s New York City apartment
Video presentation by Randy Nordschow

Is Passion a Young Person’s Game?

A desk with scattered papers, compositions, and a computer
Look, you get older. Passion is a young man’s game. Young people can be passionate. Older people gotta be more wise. I mean, you’re around awhile, you leave certain things to the young. Don’t try to act like you’re young. You could really hurt yourself.—Bob Dylan, interview with Robert Love, AARP Magazine, February/March 2015

 

A French artist related that, in his 30s, a gallery owner told him that if he didn’t succeed as an artist by the age of 40 that he wouldn’t make it at all. He responded angrily, saying that age shouldn’t matter. “If the art is good, it’s good . . . [but] I see now that she was right,” he said matter-of-factly over a coffee in Marseille. Now in his 50s, in spite of a great deal of good work behind him, he spends his days playing boule in public lots with retired men while sipping pastis.

In the article “Blocked” by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker (June 14, 2004), Elizabeth Hardwick, a denizen of the writing world in the late 1950s, is quoted as saying: “I don’t think getting older is good for the creative process. Writing is so hard. It’s the only time in your life when you have to think.” Acocella cites author John Updike who speculates on Herman Melville’s diminished output after turning 32: “. . . basically Melville exhausted his artistic capital—his seafaring years—in ‘Typee,’ ‘Omoo,’ and ‘Moby-Dick.’ If, after those books, he wrote a couple of mediocre novels and then gave up the trade, it is no surprise.”

So, as one ages, how does one continue to “follow one’s bliss?” If it’s not passion in the 50+ age category (and, in my mind, that’s debatable) what is it that keeps us going in our work—especially if, like me and countless others, huge success hasn’t come knocking? Some days I feel like the only payoff I’ll ever have is the joy (not spoken ironically) of the daily habit of composing. Really, the important thing seems to be to work constantly and not worry about the end results; it’s best to invest your energy, enthusiasm, and—yes Bob—passion into your work.

Composer Kevin Volans, in his oft-quoted and discussed address “If You Need An Audience, We Don’t Need You,” [The Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland, June 15, 2016] states:

At least 95% of all composers get better with age. A very small minority get worse, but this is usually because of illness: . . . Yet there is more and more emphasis on and support for so-called ‘emerging composers’ —most of whom, I am sad to say, are left on the scrap heap when they turn 40. . . . I have had desperate letters from composers just over 40, who have won international competitions, and whose careers have suddenly come to a halt. Because they are no longer emerging, they are of no interest. The composers are bewildered and bereft. I think this is morally wrong. . . . Emerging, who cares? Publicists.

Daniel Grant relates the story of a gallery owner who shared that “age tends to be an issue for certain kinds of collectors and, as such, is an issue for dealers.” [The Huffington Post: “Is There an Age Limit for ‘Emerging Artists’?” August 25, 2010, updated May 25, 2011], He noted that he sees “collectors’ body language shift when they learn that [an] artist is older. . . . Certainly, one might make the argument that lengthy experience deepens one’s technical and conceptual abilities.”

Our craft takes time to mature and develop. It’s true that some great art comes out of younger artists, but sometimes it needs time. One need go no further than Stravinsky to make a case in point. His early ballet music is some of my favorite—and he was finished with those works by the age of 32. Still, I’ve always admired the fact that, as he grew older, he continued to experiment and transform as a composer. A more extreme example of the brilliance of the young is W.A. Mozart, who never did grow old (at least speaking in terms relative to our era). But, for many of us growing older, a continued concentration on craft places Malcolm Gladwell’s following statement within the realm of possibility: “. . . sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table” [October 13, 2008, “Late Bloomers,” The New Yorker].

Looking at an older generation of living composers as I write this, Alvin Lucier in his late 80s is still composing excellent and beautiful music. I was privileged to play one of three banjos (with ebows) on the premiere of his composition Hannover, with the Callithumpian Consort of the New England Conservatory four years ago. This year I released the premiere recording of a piece for solo banjo that I commissioned from Christian Wolff who is also in his 80s (Innova 005). John Zorn, in his 60s, still exhibits an originality and energy that I’ve always admired; the same holds true for Kaija Saariaho. And Augusta Read Thomas, now in her 50s, is still composing great and colorful music that’s as enthusiastically received as the music that brought her wide acclaim decades prior. But what about composers who were sensations in their 20s but then somehow disappeared from public discussion, even as their work continued. Was it a case of getting too old to be of interest to a youth-focused culture? Was a shift in body language detected in concert programmers when a name and age were mentioned?

But there are also composers in the aging category who don’t hold the legendary status of some of the above-mentioned composers who are finally finding well-deserved success combined with a craft that continues to develop. My Tennessee composer friend Jonathan McNair, who just turned 60, has been writing excellent music for years. His music is infused with wonderful musicianship honed with passion and heart. Some of his music is expressive of a large social consciousness. For years, he kept writing and teaching and now a number of musicians have discovered his music and are programming it. “I think I wrote more music in the 11-month period from May 2018-April 2019 than ever before in my life,” he wrote me. And he is confident and happy with the direction that his new compositions are going,

As a composer in his 60s, am I supposed to give up because the zeitgeist seems to favor younger composers and artists? Chances are great that many of us composers over 50 aren’t through yet. “We’re living longer than ever before,” writes Amy Gutman [“Aging is not death. Stop conflating the two,” The Washington Post, May 17, 2015.]. “In the 20th century, Americans gained a staggering 30 years of life expectancy, thanks to advances in nutrition, public health and medicine. A century ago, just 3 percent of our population was 65 or older. Today, that number is 13 percent and expected to rise to 20 percent in the next 15 years. In other words, by 2030, an estimated 1 in 5 of us will be 65 or older.”

I’ve never been bored by the subject of music; it’s been an endless pipeline of exciting ideas and discoveries. I learn a lot from looking at works by Beethoven that I don’t know. I hear for the first time events in works by Debussy or Ravel that I may have heard a thousand times, but never before noticed. That’s an advantage for me in aging—I’m a more intelligent listener; my ears are better and keep improving. And I try to stay abreast of works by younger composers. I don’t want to send my own writing in their stylistic directions, but I am interested in the transformation of our art form. As an older composer, I am set on my own path, but I want to maintain an awareness, if not open-mindedness, of what is going on around me. At least I can point my students toward composers closer to their peer group to keep an eye on.

I don’t believe that I’ll run out of material or passion if I can at least maintain my health and attitude. I’m happy to have a catalog of works good and bad that developed over several decades. For the most part I believe that I’ve gotten better as one should with practice. The daily habit is what sustains me psychologically—anything beyond that in terms of performances or royalties may just be icing on the cake.

The musician/polymath Nicholas Slonimsky interviewed by NPR on the occasion of his 90th birthday was asked what he intended to do next. He listed numerous activities including composing and writing an autobiography, eventually titled Perfect Pitch, and published in 1988 when he was 94. He, in fact, lived to be 101. Elliott Carter kept writing music up until the year he died at the age of 103.

Is passion really a young person’s game? I find myself drawn to certain quotidian habits born of a passion fostered in my 20s: composing (esp. when I don’t feel like it), practicing, and teaching. I think back to images of the young Bob Dylan in the D.A. Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back. While on tour, during the day, Dylan and his entourage are killing time in a hotel room; it’s an energetic scene: Joan Baez plays and sings in the corner, the manager Albert Grossman simply sits or fields calls, and Dylan is slamming out some sort of (I imagine) stream of conscious narrative on his typewriter. At this time, he was indefatigable and passionate with his writing and composing; performing constantly until his motorcycle accident in 1966.

I think that viability as a creative artist is self-defined regardless of age. We can’t believe an art dealer or concert promoter if they tell us we are washed up at 40. Some of us dive in early in our careers with that youthful passion that causes us to work every day. Dylan, now 77, never seems to have wavered in passion and song production over the past 60 years. And if it’s not passion, then it must be habit born of passion that continues his productivity. And as for me, I see no reason to quit stumbling to the drafting table every day; I still have ideas, and a desire to improve my work. It’s not the posterity of a large body of work that I’m trying to create, but the continued self-defined worth of an artist who still wants to compose and collaborate with excellent musicians. Thankfully, it seems that there are more of those now than ever before. Do I stop composing because the LA Phil hasn’t contacted me for a commission? Hell, no.

The Aftermath

Girl with balloon, graffiti on concrete

People often say that your life and your experiences affect your art and your inner voice. I don’t know if that’s entirely true. I think it’s more accurate to say that your experiences connect the dots that had always been there. At least, for me, that was the case.

Out of everything that has transpired over the past three years as I have processed the end of an abusive marriage and rebuilt my life in music, the most important thing that happened for me was reconnecting with myself. It was in reconnecting with myself and learning to listen to my intuition, my inner voice, and my own vision that I was able to rediscover and accept who I was, who I am, and who I will become.

As a result, the control over my writing has become profound. I have started to value myself as an artist where before I only saw deadlines and assignments. I started turning down projects that I didn’t see value in as a citizen-artist. I started only taking projects that I felt connected to.

For the first time, I have started requesting compensation for work.

For the first time, I have willingly talked to the press when asked.

I have started to attend conferences, to network, to sell my work the way that I should have been doing for years.

All of these things have led to more opportunities in the past three years than I had ever hoped to obtain. I have come to realize that conservatories can teach counterpoint, orchestration, instrumentation, and style, but what they can’t teach is what life taught me in some of my lowest moments.

When your life falls apart, you learn to build a new one. Likewise, when your vision collapses, you learn to see things through a different lens. Having to get out of my own head required a change in my artistic vision. I’m not quite sure why this was. Maybe it is because I was not allowed to express myself for so long, maybe because as a queer victim of domestic violence I felt completely alone, maybe its nothing more than my old defiance, but I have begun to embrace citizen-artistry with a new found defiant zeal.

Being voiceless, being treated like a non-equal, and facing discrimination for so long has caused me to want to address these topics in my work: inequality, discrimination, interpersonal violence, and giving a voice to the voiceless. Including Fear no more, my work addressing domestic violence and consisting of Sháa Áko Dahjinileh (Remember the Things They Told Us), Sonetos del amor oscuro and Ice Shall Cover Nineveh; all of my latest works have dealt with “voiceless stories” in some way. Evocations, which will premiere this year in Baltimore and Mexico City, uses integrated film and chamber ensemble to speak to the rampant inequality in Latin American society. In remembrance of the 40th anniversary of the first diagnosis of HIV/AIDS in North America, I am working on three works which deal directly with texts by and about HIV+ artists and writers. Death Will Lift Me By The Hair, my concerto for harp and large ensemble is based on fragments by the poet Tim Dlugos. Lessons from Provincetown will seek to preserve the stories of queer leaders, drag queens, and activists who passed during the 1980s HIV crisis by setting their stories to music. Mise en croix, which is being written for Peabody Conservatory’s Electronic Music Department will also deal directly with this topic.

It was ironically in the wake of a tragedy that I rediscovered my artistic direction. While I had been able to regain my voice, I knew that I was lucky. People do not always escape domestic violence. I was fortunate to do so alive, and I felt a responsibility to use my art to bear witness, give a voice to the voiceless, and call towards justice and social action in the small way I can.

Rediscovering myself was not only artistic, but personal as well. I lost over 100 pounds. I found a healthy, loving relationship with a wonderful man. I’ve settled into my life in Mexico and planned out my next two seasons. I still have hard days, but they are becoming few and far between.

As with any move, six months after relocating to Mexico City I am still working my way through boxes. Just a few days ago I opened a box that hadn’t been opened since 2016 and I came across three notebooks that I used for sketching. By chance, two of them happened to be for Remember the Things They Told Us and Sonetos del amor oscuro. I flipped through them, expecting to laugh at the poor choices I’d made when my life was in chaos and to be self-congratulatory about ultimately rejecting the material. Instead, I was actually quite shocked to see what, even subconsciously, made it into the final versions of those two works.

Underneath these notebooks I found my treasured score for Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which I hadn’t held since I was packing up my Baltimore apartment three years prior with a sheriff’s deputy standing guard to ensure my safety.

Appalachian Spring was the first work of symphonic music that I ever heard live, at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra when I was 7 or 8. I had known in that instant that I wanted to be a composer.

I reflected on these findings for a moment. Even before I became who I am today, even before the last three years, part of me always was artistically present, and that was visible to me in these works.

I put on my favorite recording of Appalachian Spring and read along with the score, reflecting on who I was, who I have become, and remembering the things this work had told me.

Admitting I Had A Problem

Pathway to sunset

When you know something is wrong but can’t figure out what it is, you try anything to fix the problem.

When you also suffer from crippling anxiety, then you may find yourself too scared to deal with the problem head-on. At least, that’s the vicious cycle I found myself in.

And most importantly, sometimes the problem that you think is the root cause is nothing more than a symptom.

I had not been able to make the moves or get the traction in my music career that I had wanted. I thought a change of scenery would do me good.

This was confirmed for me when, in August of 2018, I isolated myself in a hotel room in Billings, Montana, for a week to complete my oratorio for the Indianapolis Opera.

I was raised Roman Catholic but converted to Eastern Rite Catholicism in college, and when David Starkey at Indianapolis Opera had asked me for a piece, I had set a few guidelines for myself:

  1. I wanted to do a piece that reflected my Hoosier upbringing
  2. I wanted to reflect my love of Orthodox chant
  3. I wanted to use a Hoosier poet

I fell in love with the work of Kenneth Rexroth because of his innate spirituality, which I connected with on a very personal level. “Ice Shall Cover Nineveh” is particularly interesting to me. Morgan Gibson, Rexroth scholar, writes that “Ice Shall Cover Nineveh” is “more explicitly prophetic than the other cubist poems in this volume. The title alludes to a legend that the Gurgler Glacier once covered Nineveh because its citizens did not feed a hungry pilgrim who was said to be one of the Magi. The calm of mountain solitude is broken by the thought of the inevitability of death for both individuals and civilizations. In trying to make sense of such loss, the poet recommends the kind of natural piety that sustained him through periodic disillusionments. Thus the poems of In What Hour move agonizingly through historical struggles towards a transcendent view of humanity in and beyond perpetual cycles of nature.”

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It was this natural piety that gave me a cathartic week in the Montana backwoods and allowed me to finish this work. As I did, I reflected on how far I had come in my healing after the end of my abusive marriage and how far I had to go. I came to realize that I had to make more changes to deal with my depression and anxiety.

In January of 2019 I followed my gut on a two-year-long dream and decided to move to Mexico City. I was looking forward to starting over, new and anonymous, in a beautiful city that I love with all my heart. I naively imagined I would set up in my apartment, begin writing immediately, and life would fall into its place.

I was wrong.

While I had treated the symptoms of my PTSD and worked on accepting the loss of my marriage, I had never dealt with the underlying issues of depression in a medical way. I had lost weight and regularly exercised, but nothing else seemed to help.

“Me da una caja de sertralina, porfa.” One simple sentence completely changed my life. After a bad fight with my partner, and despite a previous terrible experience with psychiatric medication, I started taking Zoloft, an antidepressant, to help me regulate my moods and panic attacks.

A week later I sat down at my desk and began sketching my next work. I only got about ten seconds of music, but it was a victory beyond victories for me. For someone who was so tied up in and so consumed by anxious thoughts surrounding my writing and my work, being able to sit and focus seemed near impossible. And yet, I was able to sit and focus for a time, long enough to focus and complete sections of a work that I had been trying to write for close to nine months.

When I shared with a few people that I was starting this drug I was told a bunch of horror stories about how I’d never be able to write again, that I should find a “music counselor” (whatever that is), that Picasso/Seurat/Rexroth/Beethoven/Insert-name-of-an-artistic-juggernaut never medicated themselves, they turned their anguish into art, or any number of horrible things.

At first I responded.

“The truth is, many of the juggernauts of the past drowned themselves in opium and alcohol and every other substance under the sun trying to regulate themselves.”

“The truth is, I have to figure out a way for me to be okay.”

“The truth is…”

About two weeks after the anxiety started to fade, I realized I didn’t need to respond to other people. Responding to them didn’t do anything to change any minds, all it did was validate people’s own beliefs. I realized that I did not need to justify my medical decisions to anyone but myself.

For the first time in years, I could see that things would be okay. It became easier to tackle and take apart problems in front of me.

Most importantly, I realized relationships, work, school, art…indeed life, could be okay.

It will be okay. My life is becoming okay. Once I got help, I felt as if the last piece of the puzzle fell into place and I was able to finally move to where I needed to artistically.

This is the Album of the Future

record collection

I am a composer, performer, music producer, and avid record collector, and I am currently in a complicated relationship with physical media. Like many others, I love the tangible process of opening up a CD or LP, playing it through my home system, and studying the artwork and liner notes as I listen. I hold my own albums to this standard as I release them into the world. I pore over the details of the physical package, driving my collaborators crazy as I attempt to perfect every aspect of its design. After spending several maddening months—and often years—to make an album, the moment of finally holding the object itself is a satisfying final seal, assuring me that I’ve created something permanent.

Yet the age of streaming rages on, my closets are filled with boxes of overstock, and even my mother is more likely to listen to my music online than she is to put on a CD or LP. As much as we like to think of these discs as the sacred vessels of our musical concepts, many of us are questioning whether it is worth the time, money, space, and materials to produce the physical object.

What makes an album such a powerful statement is that the artists and producers craft a complete experience for the listener, not only through a cohesive musical idea but through its presentation: artwork, information, liner notes, and now virtually any form of media. Currently, digital platforms do not allow much room for this, confining albums to tracklists and an album cover: a thumbnail representation of something that could be physical. This has had financial repercussions—by reducing an album’s worth to the play count of its individual tracks, huge corporations have gotten away with paying artists fractions of pennies for their work.

In response to these changing tides, some of us have chosen to dig deeper into the classic formats, releasing our albums on limited edition vinyl and cassette tapes. Others search for new objects to represent their album (beer koozie with download code anyone?). Look no further than Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Music (2005), a self-contained electronic music circuit and playback device within a CD case, for an eloquent example of physicality as the concept of the album itself.

There have been many creative approaches to releasing albums as physical objects in today’s world, but that’s not what this article is about. I’m tossing any purity I have left aside, and I am wondering: What can an album be now that it no longer needs to be an object?

Florent Ghys’s “This is the album of the future” from his video album Télévision

The album has always been and continues to be a malleable form, having adapted to over 100 years of changes in technology, business, and pop culture. The very first albums were, literally, albums: bound books manufactured to contain several 78 RPM phonograph records, examples of which can be found as far back as 1908. When Columbia Records began releasing 12-inch discs in 1948, the term had already been extended past its original meaning to refer to any collection of musical tracks. Since then, our albums have contorted through a variety of formats, shapes, and sizes and now, residing on the internet, they no longer require a physical container. Artists can release albums at a faster rate and with more ease than before, and the possibilities seem to be endless for the integration of multimedia and interactive elements.

Some are skeptical as to whether some of the newer formats should be identified as true “albums.” To decide for myself, I apply a very simple litmus test: Does the artist call their work an album? If yes, then it is so. I see the changes in how music creators conceive and present this music as the indication of its evolution as a term.

I have been searching for compelling examples of albums that have extended this form within the digital world and collected them here. Some big-budget and mainstream offerings need to be mentioned, but I have chosen to focus on a few specimens from independent artists and labels, and have given them a close and thoughtful listen.

This is by no means a comprehensive survey. I invite anyone with examples of albums that should be included in this discussion to post in the comments below.

Notes from Sub-Underground

Object Collection’s Notes from Sub-Underground (2017)

One of the immediate parameters that is lifted for albums in the digital age is that of length. At one end of the spectrum, an artist can release a shorter offering and present it as a complete concept without feeling the need to fill the entirety of a CD, tape, or LP. On the other end, albums can be very long indeed. Notes from Sub-Underground, a 2016 collection of experimental music put out in the wake of the Trump election, is an awesome example of this. Produced by the music theater group Object Collection, this five-hour-plus compilation is comprised of 62 tracks representing somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 artists. The line-up includes influential experimentalists from across generations including Richard Foreman, Cat Lamb, Phill Niblock, Michael Pisaro, and Matana Roberts, as well as performing groups String Noise, Ensemble Pamplemouse, and my own group Dither.

Beginning with a call for submissions in December, the compilation was assembled in less than two months and released on Inauguration Day, 2017. Object Collection compiled the tracks, did some basic post-production work, and produced a cover and liner notes for digital distribution. Upon its release, in order to download a copy of the album, listeners would contribute an amount of their choosing through an Indiegogo campaign, all proceeds of which were donated to the ACLU. (You can now access the compilation through Object Collection’s website.) While only some of the tracks are overtly political, the collective album effort is what makes this an effective statement.

And it’s a great record. I committed to a complete listen, toggling between sessions on my home computer and on my headphones while on New Jersey Transit. Although the sequence of the tracks is not curated (the song titles are placed in alphabetical order), there is a satisfying flow to the album in its consistent inconsistency. One of my listening sessions began with Mellissa Hughes and Philip White’s “Clinging to a Cloud, an abstracted pop song comprised of autotuned melismas intertwined with synth tones and computer voices. This track flows beautifully into an excerpt from Suzanne Thorpe’s vocal collage “Constituting States,” constructed of recordings of the U.S. national anthem as sung in different languages. The voices swirl around each other and finally resolve, to be interrupted by Jonathan Marmor’s clangorous electronic piece “Easter Helicopter”. Listening to the entire project is a cathartic experience that holds true to Object Collection’s maximalist and DIY ethos.

OneBeat Mixtape 18

OneBeat Mixtape 18: Vols 1-6 (Found Sound Records, 2019)

A collective musical endeavor that approaches the album format as a series of shorter offerings comes from the Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization Found Sound Nation. To document the output from their OneBeat program in 2018, for which they enlisted 24 international artists to create collaborative works, they have produced and released a series of digital “mixtapes,” each averaging around 20 minutes in length. Their concept is to provide an extension (“B-sides”) to the golden record that was included aboard the two Voyager spacecrafts in 1971. They staggered the release of the six volumes, each referencing a stop as the ships traveled deeper into space. The entire project can be found on Bandcamp.

While the eclecticism of the tracks on each volume holds true to the idea of a mixtape, the concept and production of the recordings create a unified offering. (All tracks were produced by OneBeat and recorded during the same sessions.) “Sorabe,” the opening track of Vol 1: Earth composed by Tsanta Randriamihajasoa, groups the Malagasy pianist with Indian vocalist Pavithra Chari, Hungarian clarinetist Zolt Bartek, and Algerian drummer Younés Kati. The track is a jazz-infused tour of each artist’s musical language, emulating the idea of the earth’s bustling “acoustic and organic sounds.”

Skipping ahead, Vol 6: Heliopause is described by OneBeat as a collection of “abstract pieces perhaps only understandable by the most adventurous human ears.” While I don’t find this material to be inaccessible (especially after listening to 5.5 hours of Object Collection) this volume certainly conjures an otherworldly sonic palette that one might equate with the edge of our solar system. Beginning with the more tangible songlike opening of “Outer Space,” each track of the album continues a trajectory deeper into textural and droney soundscapes.

Florent Ghys: Télévision

Florent Ghys: Télévision (Cantaloupe Music, 2014)

There are many notable examples throughout recorded music history of a film being produced in conjunction with an album. The Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) are two of many landmark works which were released separately as film and soundtrack. As home video systems became increasingly popular in the 1980s, artists began to regularly distribute video compilations, live concerts, and documentaries as part of their output. I fondly remember the comedic band Green Jellö (popular on MTV for their heavy metal claymation video “Three Little Pigs”), who claimed in the opening credits of their Cereal Killer VHS (1993) to be the “world’s first video-only band.” (They did in fact release a soundtrack album separately from the video.)

Billing an audiovisual work as the album itself is still a relatively new phenomenon which is quickly being embraced by the mainstream, encapsulated by the success of Beyoncé’s “visual album” Lemonade (2016). Although one might question how these offerings differ from the films and videos made by their predecessors, I see this as a natural arrival point, enabled by current digital platforms: the audio and visual elements of the album are both readily available on the same interface and can be easily conceived, created, marketed, and distributed together as a unified concept.

Bassist/composer Florent Ghys dubs his most recent solo release Télévision (2014) a “video album,” and it is indeed a high-level integration of musical and visual concepts. In this case, the two elements are so intrinsically connected that it’s hard to imagine experiencing the music alone. Working in sync with both audio and video software, Ghys composed the two entities in tandem, providing a direct video corollary to virtually every musical event.

In the opening track “Beauté Plastique,” each new instrumental layer enters with a corresponding visual element, creating a complex tapestry of hockets and contrapuntal lines. The final track, “This is the Album of the Future,” features a tongue-in-cheek video collage of dated advertisements for compact disc players. (Télévision is in fact also available as a CD from Cantaloupe records.) The entire video is an absorbing and effective visual experience which kept me engaged in a way that felt more akin to binge watching a TV series or going down a YouTube rabbit hole than listening to an album of the past.

Rabbit Rabbit: Rabbit Rabbit Radio, Vols 1-3

Confronting the issue of digital distribution, another creative video-based offering comes from Rabbit Rabbit (Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi). Frustrated with online services, in 2012 the duo began a long-term project in which they released a song and video per month on their own subscription-based site, rabbitrabbitradio.com. Although they have now chosen to end their monthly output and focus on larger-scale works, they compiled their three years of work into three albums which can be listened to and watched on Bandcamp.

While maintaining high production values, these videos are intimate and homegrown, often using footage from the recording studio or home performances. They incorporate several candid and personal moments, including a living room session in which their young daughter throws a minor tantrum during the song. Family and friends feature prominently throughout the three volumes. “Paper Prison” is a documentary portrait of Bossi’s father as he discusses his rare book collection. The final track, “Merci Vielmal,” was recorded on a train while on the road with their group Cosa Brava (performed with bandmates Fred Frith, Shahzad Ismaily, and Zeena Parkins). Not only is this music captivating, but you come out of the experience feeling as if you have had a window into the artists’ everyday lives.

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition (Microfest records, 2013)

In the ‘90s, artists such as Peter Gabriel, Primus, and The Residents released CD-ROMs with game-like applications along with their albums, providing an interface for listeners to explore the songs, art, and other elements. Today, our touch-screen devices offer even more potential for interactive music applications. Bjork’s Biophilia (2011) was released as an “app album,” featuring artwork, extensive liner notes, videos, and games associated with each track. Other artists take the interactive model further by allowing the music to be generated in real time. Brian Eno’s most recent release Reflection (2017) exists both in fixed media and as an application that creates a unique and endless version of his composition.

An interesting example of a generative album experience comes from Microfest Records’s release of John Cage’s The Ten Thousand Things (2015). In the 1950s, Cage composed this set of pieces to be played independently, in any combination, or reconfigured in a variety of ways. Microfest produced The I-Ching Edition of the album which consists of a fixed version of the piece, accompanied by an application (delivered via thumb drive) that allows you to generate unique versions the composition. Each rendering is constructed from performances by pianists Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay, bassist Tom Peters, percussionist William Winant, and an archival recording of Cage himself reading his lecture “‘45 for a Speaker.” Each new version of the piece uses the same recordings, but is unique in its organization.

One of the most satisfying things about this piece is that the spoken material in Cage’s fragmented lecture describes the same compositional techniques that you are hearing in real time. The chance aspect of the application itself adds yet another layer. The creativity of this format, the top-notch performances, and the charm of hearing Cage masterfully read his lecture make for an enthralling aleatoric experience.

Ironically, many of these innovative application-based albums have fallen victim to operating system upgrades. We can still get Bjork’s album through Apple’s app store, but similar offerings from Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and Philip Glass seem to have become obsolete in less than ten years. These apps were either never updated, or they were seen by the record companies merely as short-term marketing tools. There also just haven’t been a huge quantity of app albums made, as the financial overhead required to create these programs is still prohibitive for most independent artists.

With so much trial and error required, it is not a surprise that album formats have needed to pass a high threshold of popularity and mass consumption in order to achieve longevity. This is one reason that physical albums are still relevant today—they survive as permanent objects on the sidelines of a constantly changing and merciless digital landscape.

What is the album of the future? I hope for an interface that is as accessible and navigable as the current streaming platforms, one that allows artists to configure a unique experience for their listeners, and one that empowers us to control its monetization. (Bandcamp is well ahead of the pack in this regard.) The ideal platform would not only provide easy access to music, art, text, and all types of media, but be malleable so that new elements can be integrated as they arise. The next sea change in business and technology will surely provide new and unforeseen formats for our music, and within it artists will continue to innovate, adapt, and respond.

Finding Myself in an Alternate Reality, or 12 months on Sand Hill Road

Two elevators

If you drive north from San Jose on I-280 towards San Francisco, you eventually pass the unassuming Exit 24 which takes you towards Sand Hill Road. Just past the Stanford Particle Acceleration Laboratory, Sand Hill Road is home to some of the most expensive corporate real estate in the world. (I was told a single 20×20 sq. ft. office in the same business park would rent for over $15,000 a month.) Here is the casino-laboratory where Silicon Valley’s unicorns are created: Apple, Uber, AirBnB, Lime Scooter. Some of the most ubiquitous names in our modern lexicon started on this road with funding.

During the process of my divorce, the assault trials, and the ensuing litigation which lasted approximately 20 months, I had decided for safety and financial reasons to move in with family in the Bay Area and had found a day job as a systems administrator for a local IT company. The job paid well enough that I was able to cover my bills, clear up some debt, and generally keep my head above water and start to save—something that I had never been able to do during my five-year-long partnership.

I was assigned to provide technical support three days a week to the largest and most successful venture firm in the business park. I was responsible for end-user support of computer and tablet devices used by some of the most elite of Silicon Valley’s elite.

In the beginning, I hated this world. It was everything I had grown to despise about Silicon Valley and the Bay Area: wealth in excess of anything one could possibly spend in a lifetime, a complete lack of creativity in my tasks, a boring routine, a lousy commute, and people who, on good days, were simply unpleasant, and on bad days were downright rude. Plus it had no connection to the arts and for the first time in my life I truly felt completely disconnected from my field and craft.

I hated this world until someone in my family reminded me of several things:

  1. Nothing is permanent, including this job.
  2. You are taking care of what you need to do so you can live the life you want to.
  3. Try to learn something from this job. You never know what might help you in the future.

So I opened up my mind to try to learn.

I took away three things from this place that would become incredibly important to moving my music career forward.

I knew I would never want to be a financial analyst or investor within about 30 seconds of working there, and that feeling continued. However, I did take away three things from this place that would become incredibly important to moving my music career forward, as I learned in the coming months.

Something that had always eluded me in the pursuit of music as a career was how to sell myself and my work, and now here I was standing in an office the entire purpose of which was to watch people sell themselves and then decide whether to invest in them or not.

“Sales is sales,” an old boss used to say to me when I worked for an audio firm, “and art, or audio, is nothing but sales,” and I took that to heart.

Because of the nature of my job, I sometimes had to sit in pitch meetings and provide whatever technical assistance was needed, and I came to love watching these investors in meetings. It gave me the unique opportunity to see what technical critics used to refer to as the “Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field” and allowed me to learn three valuable lessons:

Time (and Money) is Limited

Even in the world of Silicon Valley business where it seems money is endless, the reality is that time and money are in short supply. I noticed that these fund managers only invested in products or projects that spoke to them on some level. I decided to do the same, by only accepting commissions and only pursuing personal projects that I felt a true connection to in some way.

How to Construct an Elevator Pitch

I had the experience of chatting with a major investor for a few minutes. He had taken a liking to me, and we were chatting about what my life was like outside of my day job. He asked me what I did outside of work, and I had mentioned that I had gone to conservatory. Knowing this person had an interest in the Bay Area arts scene, I was hoping to chat about this for a time. Instead, he looked bored and changed the topic. It was another reminder to me how I had lost passion in my own work, and it showed. I decided to learn all I could about pitching and marketing my own work. If I didn’t believe in it myself, or show passion about what I had created, no one else would.

Passion is More Important

Time after time, I saw these products come in that (in my opinion) were not something I could see anyone in their right mind paying for, but the passion that these engineers, developers, and CEO’s brought to the table was what eventually caused the firm to, if not invest outright, advance them to the next round of decision making. It was the passion that got them continued meetings with higher and higher level employees.

My parents had hoped that by living surrounded by family I would be able to get more work done. What they believed I had come to Silicon Valley to do, make art, was not to be, but what I learned from what Silicon Valley does best—innovate—affected my work Sonetos del amor oscuro beyond what I had thought was possible.

This project, originally started after the mass shooting at Pulse, became an obsession for me. Creating something that I was passionate about was the breathing room I needed outside of my day job. By day I fixed tablet computers and by night I buried myself in this work. Building on what I had learned in my previous work Remember the Things They Told Us, I again wrote from the heart. I relied exclusively on craft and intuition without attempting to devise contrapuntal contraptions or other gimmicks to create some heady work of art as I used to do.

I lived the text that García Lorca had set down on those pages. I soaked them up, and it was in those words that I could come to terms with myself as queer. Though I had come out at the age of 22, I had not truly admitted it to myself until I began to devour this work. I always had this belief that I was more than my queer-ness and in order to fulfill that, I had always attempted to avoid trying to come off as “too queer” (whatever that meant) in my writing. The effect, however, was more like cutting my writing off at the knees. To quote the great Bill Watterson, it was almost as though I was saying to myself “you need a lobotomy, I’ll get the saw.”

Hearing this work performed live became extremely important for me because hearing the work live meant that for the first time, I would publicly acknowledge an aspect of myself that I never felt previously was important or relevant, but had come to understand in rediscovering myself that it was more integral to who I am as a composer than I realized. A recent trip to South Asia had also reminded me that it is not necessarily normal in the world to not go unpunished (if not be validated) as a queer artistic voice, and conversations with other queer friends in Mexico City reminded me that most Latinos, especially queer Latinos, do not even have a platform to bear witness in this way.

When I approached the Great Noise Ensemble with a concept recording and a partial score, Armando Bayolo graciously agreed to do the work on their “Four Freedoms” series, a series of four concerts each of which recalled one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Essential Freedoms”: freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Freedom of Expression was truly the epitome of what this work meant to me, and would begin to drive a need for me to become more of an activist citizen-artist then I had ever been before.

The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as Musical Leaders for the 21st Century

Photo credit: Steve Phillip

Our society has become increasingly characterized by its “gig economies”—short-term work, often defined by the worker herself. Recent studies have predicted the gig economy will represent 43% of the workforce by 2020, and the number will only rise. With the gig economy comes any number of difficulties, as modern workers are often compelled to be entrepreneurs, self-starters, self-motivators, and creators.

Conductors are no different. Indeed, they are well-positioned to take advantage of this new economic order, and many are already doing so, with outstanding results.

In addition to their traditional duties within established institutions, an increasing number of conductors run independent organizations, launch musical and civic initiatives, serve as catalysts for the development of new work, and use their positions to cross disciplinary boundaries. In bypassing institutional gatekeepers, these conductors have brought relevance, vitality, and an expanding number of previously unrepresented voices into the field. Indeed, the dynamic new “catalyst-conductor” could help bring the revitalization that the classical music industry so desperately seeks.

Conductors as musical leaders

The traditional role of the conductor was sharply delineated. A conductor would join a well-established institution, choose repertoire, maintain a musical vision, and lead other musicians in performance. Secondary expectations included some direct interaction with donors and audience, and marginal involvement in certain fundraising and marketing campaigns. The traditional Maestro arrived to rehearsal or performance with all logistics in place, all administrative details carried out, and focused solely on the interpretation of the repertoire he was to perform. Most of his time outside of rehearsal was devoted to score study. In his youth, the Maestro was likely an instrumentalist or composer. He attended a graduate study program and eventually found himself an apprenticeship with a more established conductor, under whom he served as an assistant before moving to an ensemble of his own.

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Many of my colleagues have thrived by following this focused route—studying standard repertory at a graduate program, attending a couple of prestigious festivals, serving as an assistant for a major professional orchestra, and then, following years of apprenticeship, winning a music directorship at an institution of their own. Some of these individuals now make great impact and bring creative programming to their newly found communities.

But while this path has become progressively more rare, other routes have emerged. In my early career, I embarked on a very different journey—one that has wholly shaped my music making today. Following college and graduate work, I was not apprenticed to a major musical institution. I never found an apprentice-based assistantship particularly attractive, but many traditional opportunities also simply did not exist for me. I was 23 years old, in Boston, surrounded by other young people, and wanting to create art. So that is what we did. I spent the first decade of my career running a new music ensemble and several small opera companies, in a cobbled-together career that involved conducting everything—from the largest standard works to tiny chamber music pieces of niche repertoire, from youth orchestras to professional choruses and community opera organizations. I performed with every small-budget musical collective around, while occasionally assisting at more established institutions. In my early years I never said “no” to a gig—if they wanted to see La serva padrona in a local ashram, I would conduct the opera barefoot to audiences who were sitting on the floor and sipping chai. If they asked me to put together a full-scale production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades in a university dining hall, there I was, moving solid oak tables onto a Harvard lawn. I was fortunate to be in a vibrant city, surrounded by other artists of the highest caliber, learning by doing.

For me, this entrepreneurial, gig-economy approach was the perfect way to hone my craft and launch a career. At the small-budget organizations I led, I was involved not only in the musical and programming activities but also oversaw marketing, fundraising, production, and other areas. I learned about all aspects of administration, moved percussion instruments, built opera sets, recruited board members, folded solicitation letters, and created budgetary spreadsheets. It was an insanely packed life that was only possible to sustain for a limited period. Throughout most of my 20s, my peak score study hours were 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., after the rehearsals and meetings were complete, emails were answered, and I could have a solid chunk of time without interruption.

Most of my teachers and mentors scolded my failure to specialize and discouraged my involvement in running organizations, launching initiatives, and collaborating with people outside of my field. They saw this as a waste of time that deterred from the development of a niche skillset. But what those teachers failed to grasp was the intrinsic value of a multi-disciplinary approach to life. My chamber music experience now informs my approach to even the most large-scale symphonic and operatic works. My administrative and production experience has shaped both my leadership style and my artistic ideas, giving me a more holistic view of my work.

And I am hardly alone. At the time, I was unaware of the countless other conductors following the same multi-faceted, entrepreneurial path. This new norm is one we should embrace and encourage, as it contains potential solutions to some of the issues facing classical music today.

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit
IMAGE: Kathy Wittman

Development of the Catalyst-Conductor

The change in the conductor’s role has not been sudden—it has developed gradually over the last few decades. The first developments stemmed from conductors’ more traditional responsibility of seeking and promoting the work of the composers of their time. In the middle of the 20th century, as the contemporary music movement largely moved out of mainstream concert settings, this role became more vital than ever before and the catalyst-conductor emerged. In my mind, the definitive originator for this change was Pierre Boulez. As a composer-conductor, Boulez had a personal stake in recognizing and supporting contemporary work. As an exceptional musician and tireless advocate, he used his position to move the field forward, founding as many as five large-scale institutions of the highest level, four of which continue to thrive today. Those organizations—IRCAM, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Cité de la Musique, and the Lucerne Festival Academy—have served as central development and training grounds for European music. I find especially impressive Boulez’s founding of these organizations after he was well into an international conducting career. Even amid an incredibly full agenda as conductor and composer, Boulez took responsibility for opening doors to his contemporaries and creating opportunities for the most innovative music making of his time. His tireless dedication to music, above all else—both in terms of his contributions to the field and his own fastidious artistry—should serve as a model for all in our industry. If the music wasn’t being performed in a traditional institution, he created his own space.

Boulez demonstrated that a conductor could use his position, broad musical expertise, and management experience to serve as an influencer and founder of necessary and critical initiatives. Countless conductors and composer-conductors have since launched exciting new music organizations of various bents (some American examples include Tania León/Composers Now, Brad Lubman/Ensemble Signal, Alan Pierson/Alarm Will Sound, Gil Rose/BMOP, and David Bloom/Contemporaneous). In Britain, a group of conductors used the same method to promote Early and Baroque repertoire, founding the influential Historically Informed Performance, or HIP, movement (John Eliot Gardiner, Andrew Parrott, Christopher Hogwood, and others).

In more recent years, an increasing number of conductors have used a similar approach in mobilizing civic change. Large institutions play a critical role in preserving tradition and providing the building blocks necessary for high-level, large-scale performance. As the public faces of these institutions, conductors are well-positioned to serve as advocates, both within our field and for non-musical causes. However, the traditional organizations we represent rely on support from foundations and individuals representing a broad political and civic spectrum, so there is always a fear that, if a “political” or “social justice” position is taken, someone will feel alienated. Indeed, as an organizational leader, I recognize many limitations on what I can advocate within the confines of an existing institution without the risk of hurting our relationship with long-standing patrons and supporters. However, those same supporters, while wishing the institution to remain on neutral ground, generally have no issue with the conductor having separate projects that support a specific social agenda.

The most recognized example of a conductor-activist initiative is Daniel Barenboim’s long-standing work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded in 1999. The orchestra brings together Israeli musicians with Palestinian and other Arab musicians in an attempt to unite individuals torn by a deep political and ideological divide. The Chicago Sinfonietta, founded by Paul Freeman, has worked to address the lack of diversity within the orchestral world. There are also conductors like Kristo Kondakçi (whose work includes a chorus for homeless women) and Joseph Conyers (Philadelphia’s Project 440 and All City Youth Orchestra), who have dedicated the majority of their musical efforts to social causes. These individuals have used positions at big-name institutions to form outside projects that affect civic change. The institutions provide them with the necessary stamp of quality and legitimacy. But by working outside the institutions—and seeking music making in new venues, for new communities—these conductors are able to make a tremendous impact on society.

Bypassing the Gatekeepers

A major positive outcome of increased entrepreneurship among conductors has been the opportunity for those who may otherwise have been overlooked to gain recognition. While I eventually found musical opportunities in more established organizations, my early career was largely defined by my work in a never-ending array of smaller, dynamic organizations, which I was able to develop and grow. And again, I am hardly alone. For some conductors, when opportunities did not materialize, starting their own ensembles served as the ideal career launching pad. Sarah Caldwell raised money, directed, conducted, and produced countless performances with the Opera Company of Boston, at a time when women were almost entirely missing not only from the podium, but also from the orchestra and the administration. Marin Alsop credits much of her success to a decision early on to start her own ensemble, an experience that allowed her to gain the skills she needed to succeed. Nicole Paiement established her place in the opera field with San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle and Eve Queler with the Opera Orchestra of New York. Alondra de la Parra is another example, founding the Orchestra of the Americas, which served both to showcase overlooked Latin American repertoire and to hone and prove her abilities before she had other opportunities to do so.

Without an established authority’s stamp of approval, it is not possible to convince others to follow unless they truly believe in your work. A conductor who is unprepared, unmusical, uninspiring, rude, or unreliable will never be able to get away with these faults without a larger-looming prestige figure or institution behind them. Likewise, audiences will not tolerate anything short of a stellar product when the emblem of a major accrediting body is not on the performance. Early-career conductors who run their own organizations are forced to prove their excellence by making great art that earns respect of its own accord. They can then bring the enormous experience gained from this challenge to their positions at major institutions, further impacting the field in a positive direction.

By forming their own ensembles and bypassing the gatekeepers of the classical music world, conductors like Caldwell, Alsop, and Paiement put large cracks into some very thick glass ceilings. Other conductors have made strides in areas of equity and diversity by overseeing educational initiatives. Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony partners with the Sphinx Organization to train a diverse body of emerging professionals, Marin Alsop’s OrchKids gives high-level training opportunities to kids from the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, and her Taki Concordia Fellowship supports emerging women conductors. In each of these situations, major conductors have used their position and expertise to create independent organizations with the purpose of filling a void.

The Future of Conductorial Entrepreneurship

Contemporary culture is built on entrepreneurship. Start-ups have defined and reshaped our social, business, and creative models. However, the structures inherent within the classical music industry have often left our field trailing behind, scrambling to keep up with the intense pace of modern cultural change. In order for classical music to thrive and move forward, we must find more ways to encourage and support individuals who are taking the difficult path of forming, running, organizing, and creating performance groups for a new era. If fully supported and embraced, conductorial entrepreneurship can be a solid pathway to increased diversity and stronger artistic leadership within classical music.

Although traditional conductor-specialists have an important place and will continue to flourish, conductor-entrepreneurs can spearhead the next wave of classical music. As mobilizers and catalysts for change, conductors from diverse backgrounds—spanning cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender boundaries—can have an opportunity to make an impact on our field, even when initially halted by gate-keeping institutions. Those who embark on this path can foster creativity and collaboration, open doors that may otherwise remain closed, increase the number of voices represented, and ultimately move classical music toward a more viable future.