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In this post I want to talk about time: time in our musical relationships with others, and time in the creative process. I’ll start out with the Greek concepts of time, chronos and kairos, which I learned about from the author Madeleine L’Engle.
Kairos, a term for which there is no English equivalent, is often defined in opposition to chronos. For musicians, chronos is metronome time; it can be objectively and quantitatively measured. Kairos, on the other hand, happens when we lose ourselves in the creative moment, and all measures of time are lost. It is
“That time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards, because kairos has nothing to do with chronological time. In kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we’re constantly checking our watches for chronological time.”
—Madeline L’Engle, Walking on Water
These concepts have shaped my understanding of my own creative process. It’s from losing track of time while composing that I learned how much I love writing!
It’s from losing track of time while composing that I learned how much I love writing!
In the summer of 2015, I was gifted a used 25-key red Schoenhut tabletop toy piano. I got the idea to start writing little one-minute pieces and dedicating each one to a friend. Some of the dedicatees are lifelong friends and family, some are people who happened to pass through at an important moment but who I never really saw again, and some were shorter friendships. I ended up writing (and transcribing!) 55 of them, and made them into a book called The Texture of Activity. I stopped writing toy piano solos then; 55 was a good Fibonacci number, and I felt I had nothing else to say on the instrument.
6 months later, I realized I had a lot more to say! So I started my 2nd book, called Playing the Changes, which is 72 pieces. All 127 of these miniatures were written and recorded in an hour or less, and like each friendship, they are all unique.
There are so many more people I’d like to dedicate pieces to, but I wrote my very last one just a few nights ago. I knew it was time.
Sitting down at the toy piano for these pieces over the years took me through a lot of dark times and major life transitions. The toy piano is kairos for me.
As musicians, we spend our time making perfect time, playing music in time, by ourselves, with a few others, with a group of 60. We get short times with some people, and long times with others, and others crossfade in and out.
One of our most basic jobs is giving and receiving the gift of time.
One of our most basic jobs is giving and receiving the gift of time. We do so with personal practice, rehearsals, playing concerts, attending concerts, listening to recorded music, composing music to be listened to and practiced and rehearsed and played. Success in performing and writing music largely comes from the concentrated time we put into the endeavor. And success in an ensemble requires time. When you play with a chamber group or even a large ensemble with the same players over a long time (say, 10 years or more), you get to know each other’s ins and outs quite intimately. You understand how to play with each other—who’s better at drums and who needs to stick to mallets, who can sight-read fast xylophone passages and who should stick to the bass line, who has stamina in long rehearsals and who needs frequent breaks.
Perhaps I only experience perfect time when it’s least expected: The fortunate appearance of a new person in music who is introduced to you by another music friend, who then becomes a friend and a mentor, whose presence completely changes your life, and that person makes you feel like you can do anything. In this case, it’s perfect kairos.
With my kairos dudes Marc Mellits, Douwe Eisenga, and Bill Susman
As composers, we can worry if we’ve bloomed at an inconvenient time. We live in a culture where composers must be young & fresh & hip (i.e. all the “under 35” calls for scores), while composers in their 50s and beyond, unless they are already quite famous, are ignored. Maybe our composer world is in cahoots with AARP, who start mailing you things on your 49th birthday.
Just as the grand arc of life has its peaks and valleys, so does music and so do relationships. I think life in music is a lot like Steve Reich’s Drumming. There’s a beginning, and there’s an end, and everything else is four long seasons of entrances and exits, buildups and breakdowns, crossfades and phases.
Music is about finding joy in places, and bringing some happiness to other people.
If we could see the grand arc of our lives, knowing exactly how much and what kind of time we have, would we do things differently now? I think it’s about finding joy in places, and bringing some happiness to other people. That’s what music is, to me.
Time is different on the internet. We spend time differently in that realm, often more frenetically. While our time in the “real world” is spent in hourly chunks—an hour at lunch, eight hours at work, an evening out with friends—we enter and exit the internet in many short bursts. Our sessions may span from minutes to mere seconds, but they pile up to hours per day. Time passesby differently across the internet. Our capacity to focus while on it both widens and narrows, whether it is spending an entire evening on Netflix, or skirting across dozens of different webpages in a single hour. These differences, in how time is spent and felt in its passing, derive from our control of it. (This is the strangest of relationships we have to time and space.) Online information is easier and quicker to access. It is also easier to produce. Therefore, we don’t invest much time in any single piece of content. It becomes disposable. Ultimately, online content has little control over how much time we spend on it.
In music, this control over time is significant. Consider scrubber bars, the progress bars on digital media players that allow the user to jump to any given moment in a clip. These tools provide a kind of time-travel ability for a listener. It’s not a completely new ability; one can drop a needle anywhere on the side of an LP. Fast-forward and rewind functions are also possible on CDs and cassettes. But scrubbing on these mediums carries a level of randomness to it. On the internet, a media clip can be scrubbed through with maximum specificity and efficiency. The YouTube and Vimeo scrubber bars not only indicate how much time has elapsed in the clip, they also flash a thumbnail of whatever moment you place your cursor over. Scrubber bars on SoundCloud achieve a similar task for audio, as they embody an image of the clip’s waveform. These tools not only enable easy movement through musical time, they also quickly summarize information about the media clip, revealing to a user its contents before they are even experienced aurally.
The scrubber bar alters the agency of a listener. In turn, visuals, developmental structure, and interactivity relate differently on the internet than they do in live spaces.
Now, most music is meant to be listened to straight through. A listener isn’t required to utilize the scrubber bar. In fact, to do so can be a deadly temptation, especially in classical and contemporary concert music. Pausing, skipping, or taking a peek at the timecode, these can spoil hard-earned accumulations of musical tension and long-form development. But staying on a single webpage for more than just a few minutes, this is not natural behavior on the internet. The scrubber bar, like all the other tools built into a digital interface, is designed to eliminate wait time and get a user to a particular moment as fast as possible. Such goals are not often pertinent to a musical experience, yet they carry a significant effect on the aesthetics of listening to music online. The scrubber bar alters the agency of a listener. In turn, visuals, developmental structure, and interactivity relate differently on the internet than they do in live spaces. Before diving further into these particularities though, we must understand first how time in music is related to space, both physical and digital.
Spending time and experiencing the passing of time are both about personal expectations. They are also about choice. Liza Lim’s opera The Navigator is 90 minutes long without intermission. Is this too long? Not at all, certainly not for the concert hall. Audience members are expecting this length. They know when they buy their tickets and when they settle into their seats that they are going to be there for about an hour. Performance spaces govern the length of musical time. For example, classical music concerts are often one to three hours long. They usually begin with one, two, or three shorter works (five to twenty minutes), and then one long work (between an hour and ninety minutes). Artistically, there is no reason concert music cannot be made for much shorter or much longer lengths. However, such instances are often statements about length, a purposeful deviation from the normal. While a piece of concert music may be within or outside of the standard length of a concert, there is no denying that a standard length for music in the concert hall exists.
This principle is true for all performance spaces. Think about a dance club. The social function of that space, just like the concert hall, begets a standard length of time for the music it houses. A DJ set is usually one or two hours, but each song will never be more than a few minutes. In a dance club, the energy must be high and constant. Songs are best kept short and impactful, allowing for the flow of energy to be tightly controlled by the DJ. The way people enter and exit the dance club, this also begets a standard for how the music develops over time. Back at the concert hall, audience members enter before the beginning and are expected to remain in their seats until the end of the performance. Therefore, this space, with its captive audience, is well suited to have music that makes long-form motivic connections (such as the kind in a Beethoven symphony). In the dance club, development becomes less about motives and more about the flow of energy and mood. With people entering and exiting at different moments, motivic connections will not necessarily be perceived by a listener. However, many people come to the club for a dance experience with a dynamic flow of energy. Therefore, the DJ focuses less on musical motives in their set, and more on a visceral, physical continuity. This way in which performance spaces influence development illustrates how these standards around time are not arbitrary. The social context, that communal ritual that takes place in the hall, club, temple, mall, and coffee shop, carves acoustic peculiarities into the walls and ceiling of the space, reinforcing and encouraging music inside it to behave a certain way in time.
II: Time is Hard Won on the Internet
Compared to performance spaces in the “real world,” the internet is not a normal place for music.
Compared to performance spaces in the “real world,” the internet is not a normal place for music. The scrubber bar in digital media players gives listeners a particular control over their listening experience, making it markedly different from any live circumstance. On one hand, some music made for live performance becomes more difficult to listen to on the internet. It can feel unnatural to listen to a piece without pause, to not click away before the end. On the other hand, this new relationship between listener and music opens the door to aesthetic avenues rarely exploited in the corporeal realm. The visuals, development, and interactivity of music are three components drastically redefined online.
The visuals of a musical performance are straightforward in most circumstances. In a concert hall, we see the musicians performing when we listen to the music. In a temple, we often are faced with religious iconography during a liturgy. Digital standards for the visual elements in a piece of music are much broader. On YouTube or Vimeo, it’s plausible that you would see either of those two things. However, it’s just as plausible that the music would be accompanied by a produced music video, some album artwork, GoPro footage, or any number of other things. Online, where depth perception, peripheral vision, and audio playback are completely different from a “real world” viewing experience, performing musicians are not necessarily the most logical visual material to pair with a piece of music.
Sheet music is a popular visual for contemporary music online. Conduct a YouTube search of the composer “Brian Ferneyhough,” and you’ll see that a majority of recordings are paired with images of the score, rather than the live musicians. This makes sense. Through a camera lens, often much is lost from a visual of the live musicians. To look from one musician to another, or to notice different aspects of the stage and lighting, this ability is given away to the videographer. On the other hand, with a still image of sheet music, where the visual plane is two-dimensional, the agency to focus on different regions of the picture is returned to the listener. Today, there is a whole network of synchronized score-to-video creators on YouTube, such as the Score Follower channels, George N. Gianopoulos, Mexican Scores, gerubach, and many others.
Of course, it is still possible for live musicians to be engaging on video. After all, the ability to shift perspective and attention around a visual is not removed. Rather, it’s merely transferred from the listener to the videographer. Four/Ten Media invests great attention into the visual design of their videos. Consider their production of Argus Quartet performing Andrew Norman’s Peculiar Strokes. The cutting of the camera angles aligns with the momentum and focus of the music. The lighting and set design is sleek and playful, much like the aesthetic of the work. And, rather than having the traditional silent pause between movements, the camera cuts to headshots of the musicians verbally signaling each movement. These visuals are amplifying and elevating the music. In his film of Vicky Chow performing Andy Akiho’s Vick(i/y), Gabriel Gomez skirts the line between performance and music video. Over a performance by Chow on an upright piano in a Brooklyn apartment building, Gomez inserts footage of other locations and people. This material is not functional to performing the music. Rather, it adds metaphorical energy to Chow’s playing and Akiho’s composition. Like Four/Ten Media, Gomez is outfitting a live performance for a digital medium, only with an added layer of visual poetry. Videography can also take a less straightforward relationship with the music. In Angela Guyton’s video of Kate Ledger performing Ray Evanoff’s A Series of Postures (Piano), the close, hand-held, continuous shot from the camera provides a fluid visual counterpoint to the piece’s pointillistic, angular articulations.
In all of these examples, the visual component is outfitted to make each moment of the music is more stimulating, engaging, and full of information. With an increased level of interest in each moment, the listener might forgo any desire to operate the scrubber bar on the YouTube or Vimeo player. That surrender of control, which a listener voluntarily gives at the beginning of any performance in a concert hall, is now even surrendered in the digital space. Even an hour-long piece without break can retain viewership over the entire performance if the video is produced just right. However, this is only part of the picture. Just as there is music that is designed to erase the scrubber bar, there are internet-born aesthetics that acknowledge, even exploit, this tool’s function.
III: Control Varies on the Internet
The hard-won item that the scrubber bar gives to the listener is control of time, the ability to move to any moment of a piece at will. However, such tight control is not always a necessary asset to a piece of music. For the likes of Radigue, Czernowin, or Beethoven, control of time is important. These composers take large amounts of it in order to express unique, long-form ideas. They paint narrative, trigger tension and release, and accumulate powerful physical sensation. Development is the concept that requires control over time. But long-form development, at least in this conventional sense of the idea, is not always a primary component in a piece of music. Conceptual music, as well as music from meme culture, has become highly disseminated online. These types of music are not without development. Rather they structure musical time in a way that does not rely on the listener’s full experience of it.
Conceptual music like this takes up time, but it does not need to control much time.
Conceptual music from both a pre- and post-internet age has an immediacy to its temporal structure that sits easily in the space of a digital media player. Consider Patrick Liddell’s I Am Sitting In A Video Room. Following a similar structure to Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room, this piece is a sequence of the same 41-second video of Liddell, uploaded, downloaded, and re-uploaded to YouTube many, many times. Specifically, he does this 1,000 times, causing a slow incremental degradation of picture quality over time. This degradation is a type of long-form development. However, that development is present to serve the concept of the piece, not the listener’s experience of the concept. The piece is centered around the conceptual idea of quality and degradation on the internet. Such a concept is immediately clear from the start of the piece. It doesn’t matter whether the viewer watches every single moment of the 1,000 re-uploaded videos or not. The concept is expressed regardless of whether the viewer watches the whole video, skips over the middle, or never gets to the end. Conceptual music like this takes up time, but it does not need to control much time. The viewer may move around in the scrubber bar as they wish, or they may even sit and listen to every single moment of the work. Either way, the piece still effectively conveys itself, and the listener is able to receive it adequately.
This release of control is present even in pre-internet-age conceptual music. In György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique (1962), 100 mechanical metronomes are triggered all at once. The performance ends when the last metronome ceases motion. Additionally, Erik Satie’s piano piece Vexations (1893) is a single page of piano music played 840 times very slowly. Performances of this piece range from as short as eight hours to as long as 35. Like I Am Sitting In A Video Room, these pieces don’t require the audience to listen to the piece in its entirety. It doesn’t even require them to listen at the same pace as the piece’s form. One aspect of these pieces, when performed live, is that an audience may enter and exit as they wish, like a sound installation. Now, in online settings of these pieces, the scrubber bar provides an augmented version of this enter/exit freedom an audience had in live performances. Online, the ability to skip and rewind is added to this set of listener freedoms, providing a contemporary analogue for an agency that already existed in the live performance space of sound installations.
IV: Development Through Time vs. Through Network
Music from meme culture also carries an immediacy that sits well in the online space. Like conceptual music, it does not require a tight control of time in the listener’s experience. Unlike conceptual music though, which still needs time to actualize a concept, meme music relies on social networks, rather than time, to express itself. Consider the meme, “All Star” by Smash Mouth, which is slightly different from the song that is “All Star.” The song “All Star” is a standard three-and-a-half-minute radio hit from 1999, and that is all it is. However, the meme that is “All Star” is an open-ended collection of different homemade treatments of the song by the same title. Here is a treatment of “All Star” where the song’s lyrics are replaced entirely by the single phrase from the pre-chorus “and they don’t stop coming.” Here is another where the vocal line has been pitch corrected into a four-part chorale in style of J. S. Bach. Here’s even another where a man named Jon Sudano uploads dozens of vocal covers to pop songs, where he will only sing the melody of “All Star” over the given pop song. When it comes to time and development, the duration of each of these meme-pieces is ultimately inconsequential. The expression of the meme-piece does not come from time, but from the cultural baggage accumulated via the meme’s dissemination and connection to other memes. Therefore, as long as the cultural reference is communicated, the role of time in the meme is irrelevant. What is significant about a version of “All Star” that is performed on an old cell phone has nothing to do with compositional technique, harmonic content, or performance practice. Rather, such a piece prompts a listener to recall an earlier time (early 2000s pop-rock, Shrek, dial-up tones) in an absurd and emotional way.
As more iterations of the “All Star” format are created, the internet-native humor and disjointed coherence of the viral process take over the original aesthetics of the band’s song. To invoke the song “All Star” today is to reference a meme, not a mere song. This is a form of development, of evolution, that occurs outside of the individual meme-piece. It’s a form of development defined by its networked connection to other meme-pieces of similar format. It doesn’t happen over the course of any single iteration of the meme. The development is the change between iterations, between meme creators, over the course of its viral lifespan.
Self-awareness is characteristic of meme culture that has created a sort of musical catalog of its trends and moments. Adam Emond created 225 YouTube videos of pop songs where every other beat is removed. Whereas reordering the beats of a song is usually one of many treatments that are applied to a meme-song, Emond has taken an inverse approach and applied the same treatment to many different songs. ZimoNitrome has done a catalogue-work in the piece april.meme, where 24 memes trending in April 2018 were used as material to create a single two-minute video piece.
V: Surrendering Control and Opening the Door
A recording, as it exists on YouTube, is less of a performance to sit through, and more of a landscape to explore.
There is one last posture towards time that the internet encourages music to take: interactivity. Through intentionally massive lengths of time, listeners are prompted to actively use the scrubber bar as a means of exploring at their own pace. Johannes Kreidler’s piece Audioguide is a seven-hour long, non-stop theater work that exhibits this. It’s comprised of many smaller conceptual pieces, sequenced together one after another without break. While certain moments of the seven-hour work are uploaded as excerpts, the piece also exists in its entirety as a single video. This length, which is nearly indigestible in a single sitting on the internet, inevitably prompts the listener to “search around” the piece using the scrubber bar. A recording, as it exists on YouTube, is less of a performance to sit through, and more of a landscape to explore. Through incorporating massive durations, music on the internet can take on an interactive component, where the timing of the listening experience is reliant on the viewer.
Now, achieving a sense of “landscape” via extreme length is not an internet-native aesthetic. Rather, these lengthy online pieces can also be seen as a sub-category to the sound installation. In 2001, St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany began a performance of John Cage’s ORGAN2/ASLSP for organ (a piece composed in 1987). The piece is comprised of extremely long durations, and this particular performance, live-streamed 24/7, will last until the year 2640 (639 years). In the early 2000s Lief Inge began time stretching recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so that they were each 24 hours in length. Inge has been producing live installations of these time-stretches around the world ever since, as well as maintaining a constant live stream on his website. Like Audioguide, these pieces exist on a magnitude of duration beyond the average person’s attention span. However, in physical spaces, as well as live streams (where scrubber bars are not present), there is only an intention for the listener to experience a single portion of the piece. The composer still controls time as it runs through the music. The key difference between these live performances/streams and video pieces like Audioguide (as well as these next examples) is that the scrubber bar allows for the piece to be digested in a way that is more cursory, exploratory, and non-linear. Time and form there is determined by the listener rather than the composer.
Stretch videos, in the likes of Inge’s, have become an entire category of this interactivity in themselves. Hundreds of these videos exist online, time stretching the music of Brian Eno, Radiohead, Beethoven, John Williams, even computer sound effects such as the Windows startup sound. Unlike a live stream, these take the form of multi-hour videos in which a listener may move from moment to moment at their preferred pace. Though music will always be moving transiently through time, these stretch videos are the closest thing there is to exploring a piece as a static object, something to touch, observe, and walk through.
These super-long pieces of music have a second posture towards control of time: if a listener is not scrubbing through the piece, it is most likely that they are playing it as background music while they study, read, or sleep. This more passive form of interactivity imports easily into the internet space, where performing music (i.e. vibrating speaker cones) requires a near-to-nothing expense of energy. Currently on Spotify, Sleep by Max Richter is a piece designed around this very idea. The eight-hour-long ensemble piece is meant to play while a listener sleeps. Additionally, Jack Stratton of the band Vulfpeck released Sleepify in 2014, a ten-track album comprised of silence. A pun of the streaming platform Spotify, the album is meant to be played on repeat during sleep so that streaming royalties can be farmed while people’s devices are not in use. “Sleep music” like this actually has a rich history, one full of live spaces, not just online. R.I.P. Hayman was presenting sleep concerts as early as 1977, and many more artists have come since then. So while the concept of sleep music is not native to the internet, the low amount of mechanical work needed for sound to be digitally produced illustrates how sleep music fits easily into the internet space.
All in all, we’ve looked at three different postures towards the control of time on the internet. Through examining visuals, we have seen how control of time can be aggressively won over from the listener. When development becomes centered around concept and cultural reference more than around time, control of time becomes less relevant to the piece. And finally, in creating massive, interactive terrains of sound through extremely long pieces, control is given over to the listener. In surveying these aesthetics, it is also clear that music on the internet carries an extremely broad spectrum in how much effort and resources are needed to create it. The Four/Ten Media video of Argus Quartet was likely the fruit of a team of artists, editors, and technicians, as well as several thousand dollars. That piece rests on the same viewing platform as the time-stretched video of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a piece that requires only a laptop, free software, and an internet connection to create. The internet is a strange place for time. It is in this strangeness that a door is opened up to the parameter of resources.
At the beginning of this piece, the scrubber bar was presented as an anomaly to the musical experience. Like nearly all online tools, it functions to increase efficiency and deliver information faster, two imperatives that seem unrelated to the priorities of experiencing music. But beneath the goal to maximize efficiency is a deeper one to democratize resources and equalize different voices in a conversation. It is an ethic and virtue of the internet, open source and public domain. If this is true, then listening to music on the internet is not an anomaly at all. The concert hall, a dance club, and a religious temple all have social and physical peculiarities that carve and mold music to fit easily into the space’s original design. The internet is no exception to this fact. Its virtues for democratization, and its digital peculiarities such as the scrubber bar, shape and mold music. It touches music’s visuals, developmental structures, and interactivity in a way that ultimately makes composing possible for more people. More and more, the internet is being considered as a primary space for music performance and dissemination. While the initial effects of this trend are aesthetic, shaping the way time is controlled and utilized by the artist, music on the internet inevitably influences every aspect of creating music. For many, this makes the internet a strange place for music. But given just how pervasive the digital space is becoming each day, such a place may not remain strange much longer at all.
Last week, I shared the story of my first year in graduate school as a composition major, and the many transitions I went through during that time, including discovering a new identity as a musician. This post is all about my second year of graduate school, and how I learned to trust my composition teacher and become a better teacher myself. But first: the summer!
I spent most of the summer between my first and second years alone, in the dorms, in my bathrobe, writing a song cycle and a band piece. I was broke, but I slept eight to ten hours a night with regularity. I walked on the beach of Lake Michigan on sunny days, visited family up north and friends in Chicago, took my time learning a lovely and very difficult vibraphone solo in order to premiere it, and watched a ton of movies with my wonderful and hilarious roommate (a fellow grad student in the music school). Overall it was a time of resting, and it went by really fast. I gained confidence in my ability to make it through this degree and graduate, all while still maintaining a professional career and applying to doctoral programs.
Being a student made me want to teach again more than anything I’ve ever wanted.
And yet, I wondered if my new composition teacher (my third teacher of the degree) would just try to make me sound like them, as a teacher during my first year had done. Being pushed to completely depart from my own voice had given me existential anxiety, and I was afraid I’d be asked to do that again, for my thesis. A few days before classes started, I happened across the professor who was supposed to be my main composition teacher for the year ahead, and he told me that he wasn’t taking on any new students and that I had been placed in another studio. When he told me who my new teacher would be, I was surprised and excited, and thought, “Great! I don’t really know him personally at all, but I do know based on his work that there are so many things I can learn from this man.” Taking the advice of a composer who had also gone back to school in her 30s, I registered and interviewed with the Accessibility Resources Center, to get time accommodations for the Theory Comprehensive Exams and discuss other possibly needed accommodations. I have a learning disability and mental illness, which is a great cocktail for extreme heartburn and anxiety during tests that determine whether I graduate or not, in subjects that are eye-bleedingly difficult for me. I figured having a history with the ARC would be helpful for my time in a doctoral program as well, where I will certainly be in several high-pressure test situations, and where I will encounter a lot of stress.
Once the school year started, I still played in band and percussion ensemble (but less), and I took conducting lessons on top of my very full class schedule, which included Digital Synthesis, Music History Seminar, a theory class, and lessons. I was busting my butt with college applications, I had a big trip to San Francisco coming up for a world premiere, doctoral applications were all due at the same time, I had a commission due, and I needed to keep knocking out my thesis. Four weeks into the semester, I got sick and disappeared for a week. I had to withdraw from History Seminar (it was the most stressful, busy-work class) for mental health reasons, which included filling out a bunch of papers. The second semester was a breeze in comparison. My heart stopped cracking like a walnut every time I thought of teaching at my old college or heard from my students. I was ADJUSTING. My grad band staff comrades were lifesavers. We had an office all together: Percussion TA, Band Librarian, Conductor, Tech Guy, etc. We had a blast, partied together, and practiced together.
And I loved composition lessons with my new teacher. I was given some great advice from a mentor, which I kept in mind: “Keep your cards to your chest. Never let them see your whole hand.” I had plenty of practice doing this during my first year, so it was easy this time around.
There I was, age 38, second year of my master’s degree, finding out for the first time what it was like to have weekly lessons with a supportive, enthusiastic, encouraging teacher that I trusted.
Right from the beginning, I could tell my teacher and I would get along: he was a drummer too, and had been everywhere and done everything. He was one of these modest people, where you keep opening doors with them and a thousand more doors are behind those. He was very fun and funny, enthusiastic, full of ideas, and our lessons went until somebody had to leave—sometimes two hours. I checked out my hand, laid down a single card…and nothing bad happened. We kept working on music, and I decided to write a percussion trio for my thesis. I laid down another card, and asked if he would write recommendation letters for my college applications. He said yes, so I sent him my C.V. and he read it. Something new clicked; it was like suddenly he “got” the amount and variety of experience I had had in music so far. Finally! Someone took the time to get to know me and my history. So I started to trust the guy. He came up with lists of music for me to listen to and scores to read and pieces to try out or exercises to do. He saw my strengths and weaknesses and helped develop both, pushing me the appropriate amount if I needed pushing, helping me expand my sound universe. My thesis started to come together! He came to some rehearsals of the piece and was incredibly supportive at my graduate composition recital. My lessons were the highlight of the week, all year long. So there I was, age 38, second year of my master’s degree, finding out for the first time what it was like to have weekly lessons with a supportive, enthusiastic, encouraging teacher that I trusted.
Entering my master’s degree, it never crossed my mind that I would learn anything new about teaching. I had a good handle on being a teacher! It turns out there was still a lot to learn. Being back behind a student desk after eight years in front of the classroom was an eye-opener. I observed the hell out of each of my teachers. I understood everything the professors said from both a teacher’s perspective and from my own perspective as a student. The new percussion instructor became a friend, and I watched him handle the percussion studio extremely well, but in a very different way than I did when I was teaching. I had an analysis teacher who transformed material I was disinterested in into something incredibly interesting. Thinking back to when I was a teacher, I felt like this: a student’s enthusiasm is life, and a student’s apathy is death. So I did everything I could to create an atmosphere of challenging, joyful, fun learning. I knew a good teacher when I saw one. There were many here. There were also some who made the material, and the class, all about themselves. I gave unsolicited feedback to professors more than once, when I saw they were talking over the students and not listening to us. Perhaps this ruffled some feathers but I absolutely did not care, because I found out exactly how passionate I was about the joys of learning from a great teacher. It must be an enormous joy to watch a student’s music develop and blossom over time, and I discovered just how much I’d love to become someone’s composition teacher. Being a student made me want to teach again more than anything I’ve ever wanted.
Imagine you have a master’s degree in music performance from a long time ago and, alongside many exciting musical adventures since, you’ve taught at the college level for eight years (adjunct with full-time hours—you know the drill, you absolutely adore teaching and the students but the money is miserable). Looking at this situation, you … decide to quit teaching and go back to school across the country for a master’s degree in music composition!
It’s hard to imagine, right? You’d have to be completely bonkers to make that kind of a decision.
“I could never go back to school after teaching,” said many wonderful professors who used to be my colleagues.
So why did I do it?
Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, 2012
I started writing music when I was 30, and by the age of 36, my composing career was soaring. I loved writing music just as much as I loved performing and teaching. I knew I would never be bumped up to full-time at my university, and even after eight years, my pay couldn’t go up because I only had a master’s degree. Despite working as a freelance percussionist, curating concerts, writing music, and teaching, I still was hardly making enough money to get by. I was wonderfully happy in the Atlanta music scene and had established amazing friendships there, especially with the members of my chamber rock band. I had developed a life there, but it was time to leave. I was ready to take a step down in order to take a step up. I had to do something to make a better and brighter future for myself. The goal was to earn a master’s in composition to get my skills up to par, and then continue on to a DMA in composition so I would have The Piece of Paper that would allow me to teach at a college again—at a higher salary level. It’s a completely risky endeavor with no guarantees, but it’s the choice I made. And I’m happy I did. I now hold a master’s degree in composition and will be starting a DMA in composition at the University of Miami next month. I’m looking forward to the journey, no matter where it takes me.
First, though, allow me to back up two years. There I was, beginning my first semester as a new student, living in the graduate dorms with roommates—two 21-year-old German exchange students, who were hilarious and noisy and wild. Right away I embraced everything about student life, and that part of college made me very happy. My classmates became my dear friends, even though most of my new friends were the age of the students I used to teach. I learned all the cool millennial slang words. I had FUN. I took free bus rides to Brewers games, ate tons of free pizza, played in percussion ensemble and band, taught part of an online music theory class, fixed bongos and organized the percussion studio, took classes in theory and analysis and writing, studied with two different composition faculty members, heard the University Band play one of my pieces, and wrote a ton of music—including my first piece with electronics in it. I was much more focused in my classes than I was during my first master’s degree; I wanted to soak up all the new knowledge and experience that I could. I remembered what it was like to be completely bored in class, and how invigorating it was to be in the classroom with an enthusiastic teacher who made the subject matter come alive.
UWM Band Rehearses …and then the Universe exploded
I juggled a professional composing career on top of everything. My assistantship was split in half; I was both a theory TA and the percussion TA. The percussion majors were kind to me from the very first day. They brought me right into the fold and never treated me like I was “old.” Everybody thought I was in my twenties, until I told them otherwise. They were fun, talented people, and playing music with them was a joy. The performance majors in general were absolutely delightful and played my music with enthusiasm. Some of these folks will be lifelong friends and musical collaborators.
So that’s some of the FUN STUFF, but here’s the kicker. The transition from professor to student, from mostly-performer to mostly-composer, from professional in my field to student in my field (while remaining a professional) was difficult and awkward that whole first year, and especially the first semester. Five months prior, my music professors would have been my colleagues. But once I started school, I would rarely be treated like a colleague again. A few of my professors took the time to talk with me early on, and learned about my background and treated me with respect, just as I treated them, and we have great relationships. I’m so thankful for them! But most professors saw that I played in band and assumed I was a new graduate percussion major. There was a lot of assuming.
My friends and mentors were lifesavers to me during this time. A few friends from Atlanta, who were passing through town at different times, came to visit me. I was recharging myself in Chicago once a month, taking composition lessons with one of my dearest friends and favorite composers. I brought him all the music I was writing professionally, outside of school. His joyful spirit and the fact that he loved my music really lifted me up. He introduced me to one of his composition students, who saved my sanity and became a very close friend. I wouldn’t have made it through that first year without the both of them.
I was accustomed to being loved, to being known and knowing others, in my old life. There was so much mutual admiration in the Atlanta music scene. I really tried to be graceful about existing in Milwaukee, a brand new space where most people didn’t know or care about my previous 15 years as a professional musician. “They’ll figure out I’m a pro percussionist by listening to me play,” I thought. “They’ll figure out I’m a legitimate composer once they hear my music.” Still, I confess that there were days when I wanted to wear a bright green t-shirt with flashing Christmas lights on it that said in red lettering I’M 37 AND I TAUGHT COLLEGE FOR EIGHT YEARS AND WAS CO-FOUNDER AND CO-DIRECTOR OF TWO CONTEMPORARY MUSIC FESTIVALS AMONG MANY OTHER ACCOMPLISHMENTS on the front and GO TO MY (SWEAR WORD) WEBSITE AND YOU’LL SEE MY MUSIC IS PERFORMED REGULARLY ALL OVER THE COUNTRY SO STOP TREATING ME LIKE I’M AN INEXPERIENCED 22 YEAR OLD on the back, but I didn’t. I felt incredibly childish about my inner reaction. I wanted to be cool about it, on the inside and the outside. Well-meaning friends said things to me like, “Your identity is no different. You’re just in a new environment.” Easy to say when you’re living in the same environment you’ve lived in for a decade or more. The truth is, the only other time I’ve had an identity shift that intense was when I got divorced. It was hard, and weird, and very isolating.
Yet there were so many good parts to the weirdness. After performing with only professionals for ages, I got to play in a college percussion ensemble again, which was wonderful fun and so much easier than directing a college percussion ensemble! All I had to do was learn my music and show up to rehearsal to play. In rehearsals, I learned to disengage (as best I could) from Teacher Mode. I instead just sat back and enjoyed playing music with my classmates. Since I knew I’d most likely only be in the city for two years, I chose not to get my feet wet in the Milwaukee music scene outside of school, but I met some area musicians who became friends. I desperately missed playing music with proper professionals, and that was difficult. I felt isolated from the performance faculty; I felt like they were my colleagues, but not many of them felt the same way. I learned to accept that I’d be playing less because I was composing more, and that I would probably lose some of my chops. I developed some extra long-term patience, figuring out that these two major transitions: professor to student, performer-composer to composer-performer, would take time. Thankfully I had another year of grad school ahead!
The disparity in representation within new music is a longstanding and well-documented problem. We know this. Actively promoting art and artists with a clear focus on equity can help to cultivate justice in our new music communities. This too, we know. What then holds us back? Why does disparity in representation remain such a problem?
To move towards a more just society, we must look beyond the individual to the systemic level to better understand how to improve efforts to promote equity within new music. People make programming decisions based on numerous factors. While these can differ significantly from case to case, the cumulative effect, whatever the individual intentions might be, is the continued privileging of white males. In other words, the status quo remains unchallenged. This is systemic injustice.
The commonly cited explanations for monochromatic programming all contain problematic assumptions, and critiquing these will help us overcome them. For some people, the stigma that comes with accusations of “having an agenda” is enough to prevent them from doing this work. Others argue that they focus solely on programming “good” music, that they aren’t to blame for the inequality even as they absolve themselves of any responsibility for fixing it. Still others depend either on largely homogenous peer networks or on choosing already established composers when programming, both of which fail to combat this injustice. Each scenario appears neutral and yet contributes to the ongoing inequality, with white males accruing the benefit.
Advocating for issues of social justice in spaces where these conversations aren’t normally seen to belong inevitably triggers accusations of having an agenda. Outrage over the actual details of the agenda appears secondary to outrage at the introduction of the agenda and at the one who introduces it. Invoking this charged word shifts the focus from the underlying issue to the act of labeling the issue. The reframing reverses the intended condemnation—she who points out the problem now becomes the problem.
This rhetorical maneuver has very real consequences. Fear of backlash can have a chilling effect on otherwise sympathetic people, one that limits or even eliminates their willingness to engage. Those who benefit under the current systems already have little incentive to understand, much less to challenge these systems. Absorbing the constant din of “America the meritocracy,” we turn a blind eye towards inequality, instead attributing one’s situation to one’s character in a perpetual cycle of blaming the victim. The resulting inaction, whether through apathy or ambivalence, enables the structural injustice to continue.
As activist programmers, we must reject the framework that makes agenda into a term of censure and instead embrace it as a potent tool for justice.
As activist programmers, we must reject the framework that makes agenda into a term of censure and instead embrace it as a potent tool for justice. Conversations rooted in social justice aren’t normally seen to belong in areas where they are most needed. Accepting the idea that having an agenda is inherently problematic places us already on the defensive. Such arguments are disingenuous, meant to deflect critique, to divert attention, and, above all, to perpetuate the status quo.
Furthermore, the programming of (nearly) exclusively white men is likewise following an agenda. That we rarely name this as such indicates just how normalized this inequality is. Power differentials existing off-stage are reproduced onstage, and this is subsequently used to justify the offstage power differentials once again. Our social hierarchy is thus reinscribed in a vicious feedback cycle, one where white men hold the power and set the standards. When we speak about the systemic prioritization of white men, this is what we mean.
Systemic inequality persists because it is so thoroughly entrenched in our society. Their ubiquity renders these systems invisible and bestows upon them a sense of inevitability. Although we can hope that the increasing number of calls for justice in terms of race, gender, sexuality, immigration status, class, and the innumerable intersections of these and other identities signals a sincere and sustained effort to challenge discrimination, we must recognize the sheer magnitude of the uphill struggle. To challenge the hegemony of the white male within our society, we need to push. Complacency begets continuity.
Invoking “good music” as the principle factor driving decisions on what to include, even as one continues to program monochromatic music, upholds structural inequality while proclaiming an innocence about doing so. This is an attempt at absolution by those who could leverage their privileges in support of efforts to promote equity and who instead choose not to. Although “good” appears neutral on its face, an open possibility that all music can aspire to, it is used in these instances to deflect efforts to advance more inclusive programming. “I only care about the music” closes conversations. The subtext that music by composers from marginalized communities couldn’t possibly qualify as “good,” or it would already be programmed, once again blames the victim for the situation. Deny and deflect.
Too often, “good” means already established, with no critical examination of the process through which it became established. Our canons depend on an assumption of meritocracy in whose flattened narrative the survival of this music testifies to its unimpeachable quality. The forces that shape music as a social and cultural product also shape our reception of it. Institutionalization is not a politically neutral process, but is instead inexorably tied to the unequal distribution of power. “Good music” is a construct of subjective preferences, not an objective truth. “Good music” is a dodge.
It is important that we are honest with each other and with ourselves about where our choices in programming come from. Given the numerous commitments we all juggle, we collectively default to the path of least resistance, provided that the perceived repercussions appear minor. This often means programming the work of composers we’re already familiar with. Those in a position to program a concert series tend to be white men whose composer acquaintances are, likewise, white men. This setup leads to more exposure and more repeated exposure, helping these white male composers become established names in the new music scene. As a result of these feedback cycles, most of the music programmed, while undeniably good music, nevertheless remains familiar music. What is expected becomes what we get, and this becomes what is expected.
The conscious decision to program something “different” provides us with the opportunity to reflect more deliberately on what exactly constitutes “normal” and how this situation came into being. We who are white men might ask ourselves why we don’t challenge this universalization of the white experience. We might ask why the current disparities in programming are “the way things are.” We might ask what identities we expect to find on our concert programs, and why we expect these and not others. We might ask what metrics are used to determine “good music,” and why they seem to produce diversity of style but singularity of racial and gender identity. We might look outward from our new music community and see how each of these questions also applies to all other aspects of our lives as social beings. We might think more critically about how these issues intersect with our new music community in the hope that witnessing widespread injustice might galvanize us to take action in multiple areas of our lives.
Indeed, we must. Pointing out a particular instance of injustice forces people to deal with it. Once ignorance, whether real or feigned, is no longer on the table, continued inaction in the face of a known social problem becomes a conscious choice. Our naming these problems also acknowledges the real harm suffered by those directly impacted, disarming attempts to blame the victim. This is a starting point. This affects us all.
What else can we do?
If we want to see actual change in concert programs, we need to program change. Making space for music from underrepresented communities on the same platforms that dominant voices occupy declares that these marginalized voices likewise merit space, energy, and resources. These structural changes will not come from a single concert or a single season of activist programming, yet these efforts, no matter the level of their discernible impact, are important. The fumbling and faltering that comprises incremental change is still critical change. These efforts accumulate.
Although few of us are positioned to program concert seasons, we can all work within the spaces we have available to advocate for positive change.
Certainly, concert programming is subject to numerous constraints. Although few of us are positioned to program concert seasons, we can all work within the spaces we have available to advocate for positive change. We should support the organizations within the new music community that are already working to promote equity, diversity, and inclusivity. Meaningful actions include showing up to events, helping to publicize them by sharing throughout your networks, volunteering, donating, and finding still other ways to support these initiatives.
For instance, the Institute for Composer Diversity, in addition to making it easier than ever to find amazing music to program and composers to commission, has developed an equitable programming model we can use as a starting point for these important conversations. Activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished focuses attention on social justice issues at the national level, including police brutality, #SayHerName, the school-to-prison pipeline, and immigration. Several organizations promote the work of specific composer identities, including: the Boulanger Initiative, focused on music by women and women-identifying composers; Castle of Our Skins, dedicated to promoting black artistry; Quinteto Latino, whose repertoire features compositions exclusively by Latinx composers; and Imani Winds, who has a long history of expanding what we consider to be the canonic norms. Other organizations, such as Forward Music Project or New Works for Percussion Project, use commissions to promote equity within the new music community.
The injustices I’ve written about are not unique to new music, nor to music generally. Instead, they replicate recursively, touching every other aspect of our lives. To deny their presence is to perpetuate the imbalance of power. We must all be responsible curators for each community we inhabit. To overcome systemic inequality will require a sustained effort on multiple fronts. We must call attention to situations where voices are not being heard: question who is included in the program, on the stage, and in the audience—as performers, as composers, as producers, and as audience members. Ask these questions publicly. Ask them of the other spaces in our lives. Let us yearn for flourishing communities with the same fervor that we yearn for individual success. Let us #HearAllComposers.
Early on in my career, I made the mistake of writing a lot of very melodic music for performers who were more predisposed to Berio than to Berlioz. Despite everyone’s optimism and best efforts, these projects were usually stressful and rarely among my most successful.
I used to think, perhaps narcissistically, that it was exclusively the job of the players I was working with to make my music sound good—that I should write whatever my little composer heart saw fit and then leave it to them to figure it out. We are, after all, taught in class that Bach is God and that musicians are the vessels through which the deity speaks. These early projects, however, taught me that in the real world the reverse is often true, and that it’s a huge part of YOUR job, if not literally the entire job, to write something that will make the players you are working with sound great. Ideally if you are successful in doing that, you will make yourself sound far better in the process as well.
There’s a lot that can go right and wrong when collaborating with musicians in pursuit of the above. However, I’ve found for myself that there are a lot of consistent questions to ask and methods to employ along that winding road to hopefully making “Good Art” that can increase one’s chances of staying the course. Ultimately a lot is common sense and falls under a consistent umbrella: you will never be wasting time by really getting to know your players, writing for them specifically, considering the specific parameters of the project, being sure of what you want to do while remaining open to input and creative detours, and experimenting with techniques to make all that happen.
For me the solution to the above, besides planning well early on, has been to workshop music I’m working on extensively with musicians while learning to be a good collaborator—a lifelong undertaking in itself.
Before getting there, however, there are a lot of obvious questions to be asked about who I’m writing for, what their aesthetic comfort zone is and how it relates to my own, what the circumstances of the performance/session are, how many rehearsals you get, whether it’s a pick up group or not, as well as the most interesting one: is this a player(s) who wants to be challenged or not? Some musicians will get bored if you’re not writing something that stretches them. Others may feel best about music that’s easy to keep alive in their fingertips. No one wants to put the time in to play something well that they don’t feel “fits them.” For me the most exciting things always happen when you’re working with players you can push a little beyond their comfort zones and who can push you past yours.
Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.
I am a huge believer in workshops if you can do them, because they’re really the best way to get into the weeds with a piece of music and collaborator(s). If you’re writing something good, you can file that away and develop it. If you are writing something stupid, they’re a great chance to pretend that never happened and course correct. Overall they’re invaluable opportunities to try things on your “growing edge” while getting to know the strengths, styles, and limitations of the people you’re working with and figuring out how to mold your writing to their hands. This does not mean sacrificing your voice, so much as playing with how it can be bent and expanded and trying things that you don’t already know how to do, which I’ve found always leads to better and more interesting pieces than I could have written alone with Sibelius. Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.
For workshops to be successful, I’ve found that doing three is best. One with early sketches, one about 1/2 – 2/3 of the way through the composing process, and one when you are almost finished to fine-tune. They are always short (musicians are busy), I record them, and in planning for them, aim to be over prepared but leave space for sounds and ideas that are unexpected to emerge. A balance between order and chaos.
The order side is easy: parts need to be clean, any technical electronic elements must be road-tested, and the writing must be well-developed/written enough that players can feel the bones of what you are trying to say. And you should have some idea of how you want to structure and lead rehearsals, since some material is invariably better approached “cold” than others. I try to start with something easy that I know will work. You should also be as sure as you can that you’re writing idiomatically, since no matter how keen you are to expand the possibilities of the harp, if your harpist is tap dancing all over the place because she needs to be some sort of eight-footed octopus to cover her pedal changes (I know, I know, harps only have 7 pedals), you’re both going to sound like garbage. And not in the cool Shirley Manson way.
Facilitating the unexpected is harder and in itself an endlessly broad subject, but to get there some of the things I try include:
Giving players a few looping musical “cells” from the piece to improvise with, or perhaps leaving some holes or incomplete endings in musical phrases (ones that feel as though they could be jumping off points), then asking them where it “feels” (excuse the flowery language) like it wants to go. Even if they’re not improvisers, musicians obviously have a deeper and more intuitive grasp of their instrument than you do and sometimes just hearing where their hands wander naturally can give you a sense for how to better tailor your writing to their instrument and personal playing style, while still keeping it within your own language.
Coming in with specific techniques that you are interested in exploring that feel as though they could fit the music you are writing, even if they’re not developed, has also proven useful for me. Sometimes I’ll have the earliest sections of a piece formed, and then ideas for some more bombastic moments later on that I don’t yet know how to pull off. Putting some half-realized stabs at them on a page to give the general sense (something like the rough under-painting a painter might do), and then honing the details from there with a great player’s input has proven productive.
I tried all of the above, for one, with violinist Jenny Choi, who—after telling me that it felt like a section of my solo piece for her wanted to open up—gave me a crash course in barriolages before I really knew how to write them well and was a great cheerleader who encouraged me to follow the lines of what I was writing as far as I could take them. I did something similar with a piece for harpist Ashley Jackson, wherein I wanted to try some more folksy, virtuosic, uptempo writing that I wanted to explode off the page. In both cases, I had specific techniques that I wanted to try and vague ideas of where to place them, and through fumbling around in the dark was able to put all the pieces together and find moments for them to really take off. Had it not been for the input of those players, the music I wrote would sound vastly more closed off.
This also takes different forms when working with rock bands—a different, but related story. Players from this world improvise by nature, so balancing space and structure in a musical road map becomes even more important. You have to know exactly where you want to go in the big picture sense, while being open to how you get there with the details. In approaching how to work on my own record, for example, some things I tried included: bringing in a sketch of a melody or lead line and asking players to embellish, demoing a synth sound/part myself to establish a general direction and then having someone else work around or replace that, or literally just building in space for a band to jump on some sort of groove and build out an arrangement collaboratively. David Bottrill, who I co-produced my project with, also had some great tricks, my favorite of which was sitting on the floor and changing guitar pedal settings mid-performance to see if that sparked anything unexpected. It usually did.
Ultimately, it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth.
In all instances the material you are working from has to be something that feels open-ended rather than resolved, as though it could “lead somewhere.” It’s a hard line to navigate: come in with nothing/too little and players won’t know what to do. Come in with too much, and they won’t have space to try anything and will get bored.
Ultimately—and here’s where we all say ‘kum ba yah’—it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth—sentiments that were missing from those early, rocky projects of mine. Partnerships between composers and musicians work best when both parties feel stretched and challenged, everyone is receptive to ideas but in control of their voice and what they want to say, no one should be pandering or selling their ideas or talents short, and the end result is something that’s been executed well that everyone feels pride in/ownership of. It’s often messy, and along the way there are conversations about whether you should be writing to please yourself or other people, how exactly you are supposed to get there, and when to push people and when not to, all of which require different answers project by project. The hard part is knowing which is which, what the players you are working with are capable of, and what you are capable of yourself.
I think of chaotic events like an illness or a death in the family as an ambulance cutting a path through my life. No matter how congested a street is, there is always room for an ambulance; there is always room for everyone on a road to work together, move over, and create space for the ambulance to pass.
Last week, I canceled a trip to a premiere because I’d been grappling for a few weeks with the kind of anxiety that makes just leaving the house a challenge. The premiere was a multi-movement work where each composer had written a different movement; my movement was four minutes long. I figured the ensemble wouldn’t miss one composer out of many.
Still, I agonized over that decision. My flight and hotel were booked and had been booked for months. How unprofessional does it look to back out of attending your own premiere? I used to long for the day I’d be traveling around the country often, with my flight and hotel paid for by whomever was commissioning me. It was built into my definition of success: being paid to create the kind of work I wanted to create, and traveling often to go hear it. And here I was, about to cancel exactly the kind of trip I’ve worked so hard to make a part of my life.
If you’ve reached a breaking point but still feel as if you can’t prioritize your health over your work, imagine the path that a family emergency or a physical ailment would create for you.
When I’ve reached a mental or physical breaking point but no emergency is carving out a clear path for me, I remind myself that an ambulance makes its own path. If you’ve reached a breaking point but still feel as if you can’t prioritize your health over your work, imagine the path that a family emergency or a physical ailment would create for you. In any of those scenarios, you’d be forced to readjust your schedule.
On a trip to New York several weeks ago for a different premiere, I found myself in Grand Central Station on the verge of a panic attack, feeling unable to breathe and like I had little idea where I was. The year so far had felt like nothing but travel: to Boston, to Kansas City, to Minneapolis, all in the span of a month. To Portland and New York City back-to-back. And then, last week, another flight ahead of me, the fourth weekend in a row where I’d be out of town.
This year has been abundantly full of wonderful things. I’m getting married in two months. I’m releasing a book I’ve been writing for more than a year. I’ve had career-defining performances with some of the ensembles I admire most. And yet it’s this same season that has been slowly building up to where I found myself last week: with an amount of anxiety that I described, in the email I sent decisively canceling my trip, as debilitating. That’s what it had become.
In a few weeks, I’m publishing a book about anxiety in the creative process, with lessons learned from composing. It’s called Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety and Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life. I’m releasing a book about anxiety, and yet, ironically, this was the most anxious I’d felt in ten years: vice-grip chest pain matched by racing, runaway thoughts I suddenly found myself unable to control.
In the book, I’d outlined coping strategies for nearly every mental hurdle you face in a creative career, and yet I didn’t have one for this feeling: wanting to step outside of your life, just for a moment, to breathe.
I’m not talking here about an occasional day or even week where you put in long, sleepless hours or order take-out for several meals in a row in order to meet a deadline. I’m talking about how you build mental and physical well-being into your day-to-day creative life. Your mental health, your sanity, and your life are worth more than any performance, any piece, or any networking opportunity.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had a panic attack driving down the freeway. It was practically a cliché: heading down the 110 in traffic, merging over four lanes, I felt my chest constrict painfully, had trouble breathing, and went straight to the health center thinking I was having heart problems. I was sent home with a prescription for Ativan. I’d slice up the pills into tiny pieces, because taking a whole one made me too sleepy to do much of anything. Eventually, I abandoned them and aggressively pursued other tactics instead: yoga, walking, meditation, and a resignation to the fact that I was an anxious person; I would always be a bit anxious.
Having experienced both the frantic, sleepless, anxious variety of composing and the kind where I prioritize my health above all else, I can report: the second way of living is vastly preferable in every way. I am happier with the work I make. I am not happy all the time, but I take so much more pleasure in the life I’m living.
In the decade since, I’ve designed my life to look, for the most part, the way I want it to look. I am phasing out teaching piano; I am composing full-time, which has been my career goal since I was seventeen. I take on the kind of work that lights me up, that prompts a swift and gut-reaction yes. I’ve worked various part-time jobs (arranger, editor, nanny, teacher); now I’m here. I can meet friends for mid-morning coffees and work long into the evening. I can fly across the country to an artist residency for a month without worrying that I’m missing my job; my job comes with me. I can schedule premieres and school visits and a life spent driving to and from the airport. I thought I wanted that life. When I first started to get it, I thought I wanted even more of it: this life, but bigger premieres and even more travel. This is a tremendous privilege, I know, to complain about too much travel.
I don’t know about you, but on days where my anxiety is at its peak, the act of sitting down to work feels impossible and insurmountable. My daily routine prioritizes my mental health, because without it, I put myself and my art at risk.
This year, I could feel anxiety slowly compounding into something beyond my rational control. I was using every tool I had in my arsenal to counteract it, but I was also crying on the kitchen floor in front of my baffled partner. For the first time, exercise wasn’t helping; neither were yoga or meditation or any of the other usually helpful reframing techniques I use so often. I knew everything was ultimately going to be okay—These were all good things! I was so lucky to have this career! This was all what I wanted!—and that still wasn’t enough.
If you need help for anxiety or depression, seek it out. If you need to ask a friend for advice or a collaborator for an extension on your deadline, ask them. Your collaborators—fellow humans—will understand, and if they don’t, they haven’t yet realized the simple truth that it’s hard to make art at all when your health desperately needs your attention.
This idea is sprinkled throughout Staying Composed: if you need help beyond these coping strategies, seek it out. At my most anxious, it was thinking about this chapter I’d already written, the one that’s quoted in italics above, that made me finally book an appointment with my doctor. If I was going to tell other people to imagine the path an ambulance would carve through their life when they most needed a break, I’d better imagine that ambulance’s path through my own suddenly unmanageable life.
Now, I’m finally trying medication for anxiety. Three weeks out before the launch of a book that—in its very subtitle—promises to offer tips on overcoming anxiety, I am trying an SSRI for the first time. I call my mother to catch up over the weekend, tell her that I’m trying anxiety medication, and she says that the book will need an extra chapter, implying that it would be something like: Ignore All This Advice and Just Take Drugs. “But it’s not like that—” I start to protest, and she says, gently, that she was joking. Still, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite. A dear friend reminded me recently that the book is about “overcoming anxiety,” not “not having anxiety in the first place,” and I think of this often.
Your present situation might not feel like a true emergency, but you can still carve out time to prioritize your well-being. You can always cancel an event. You can always ask for an extended deadline; you might not be granted one, but you can ask. No artistic project is worth sacrificing your mental and physical health.
Several days into the new medication and finally having sought help outside of myself, the ping-ponging between things to worry about (deadline, other deadline, other deadline, wedding, house is a mess, forgot to mail out scores, forgot to book a flight, forgot to plan crucial element of wedding, when am I going to write music?!…) is already less of a spin cycle on endless repeat. Now, it’s more like a list of worries that float to the surface but can once again be rationally dismissed or silenced until a later date. I still have all of the anxious thoughts, and I’m still using the coping strategies I talk about in the book, but right now, my anxieties aren’t growing roots and taking hold in an unmanageable way.
Taking that medication isn’t a failure to “stay composed”; it’s a direct result of listening to my body and doing what was best for my mind. Canceling that trip to a premiere was crucial to regaining control over my mental health. It was the result of asking what an ambulance clearing a path through my life would look like and carving out that time as soon as I realized I needed help.
So what does it mean to stay composed within a creative life? I’ve done my best to articulate every answer I have, and I’m still discovering new answers. But above all, I am positive that sometimes staying composed means making the difficult decision to put yourself before your career—to put life before creative as you live your creative life.
Staying Composed, new book by Dale Trumbore about overcoming anxiety and self-doubt within a creative life, will be available digitally and in print on June 4, 2019. Pre-order and sign up to receive additional updates here.
This is the final post in a four-part series looking at concert curation and some of the larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists as a result. If you want to jump back, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 are here.
The first three parts of this series consider a wide spectrum of topics related to ethical artistry. Part 1 discusses the conviction with which we approach our work and who it benefits; Part 2 considers aspects of the artistic process where ethical issues arise; and Part 3 suggests that we evaluate our work both quantitatively and qualitatively, helping us adjust and adapt over time.
Thinking through these many topics, two lingering objections come to my mind:
Many subjects I’ve discussed (e.g. what pieces you program, what venue you present at, etc.), are pragmatic and relevant for artists, but not necessarily of ethical consequence.
Even if these areas involve ethics, it’s just art and music, so does it really matter?
Here in Part 4, I’ll try to persuade you that these issues really do matter in important ways. I’ll also suggest some practical steps we can each take, if we care about confronting ethical artistry more critically as a field.
Does Any of This Really Matter?
The short answer: if you care that your art affects others’ lives, then yes, this all matters.
The main takeaway from Part 1 of this series is that our artistic conviction can inspire and transform those who encounter our work. If you reject this idea and feel that art and music are, perhaps, objects or experiences we appreciate (in the same way we appreciate, say, a table, or a lamp, or a stroll in the park), but that the art and music (or the table, or the lamp, etc.) aren’t meant to provide a deeper transformational experience, then many of the concerns I’ve raised may not have ethical implications for you.
Essentially, if your artistic project is being created purely for its own merit in your mind, or if it is intended more as entertainment or a commercial commodity, not aspiring to reach and transform others in a deep way, then your careful planning of each project step may be of pragmatic concern, but not of great moral consequence (to you), since your project’s outcome on others was never of particular concern. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way! When we build a table or a lamp, we might want it to be useful to others and be something they’ll enjoy in their lives, and we might want to sell it commercially, but we are not especially concerned that the object we’ve created will have a deep moral impact on another’s life.)
When we build a table or a lamp, we might want it to be useful to others and be something they’ll enjoy in their lives, and we might want to sell it commercially, but we are not especially concerned that the object we’ve created will have a deep moral impact on another’s life. IMAGE: Rishab Lamichhane
However if, like me, you intend and indeed hope to have an impact on others’ lives with your work, or if you feel a sense of obligation to a larger artistic community regarding the types of projects you pursue, then each step along the way seems to have greater ethical relevance.
For me, art not only has the ability to affect others, this is in fact its essence and what makes it particularly redeeming and socially relevant.[i] If I hope to reach others with my conviction, and to be a conscientious member of my artistic community, aspects of my artistic process—everything in Part 2, from the type of music I program, to what composers I include or exclude based on a theme, to what venue I present at—is relevant with respect to my ethical intentions of reaching others. In fact, even beyond what I have intended, my art and process is ethically relevant on some level, because choices I make will invariably affect others.
Not all ethical categories have the same weight. I think we can agree that excluding a set of composers based on their gender, ethnic heritage, or musical style, seems especially troubling, whereas issues of venue lighting may not be that big of a deal one way or another. Yet, then again, as we think deeply about each stage of our artistic process, we realize seemingly innocuous issues—such as venue location, or lighting, or concert order—can end up limiting access to our event or affecting those who experience our art in powerful ways.
If we have a deeper overall commitment to considering and executing small details, and if this can result in more powerful artistic experiences for those who encounter our art, don’t we, as individuals and a community, have a moral imperative to consider these issues on some level?
What’s At Stake?
As an individual artist, you may feel a varying sense of personal responsibility towards others in your work. I don’t want to tell you what artistic and communal goals you should aspire to, and I believe deeply in this “broad view” idea, where some projects we pursue are centered on our personal goals, while others become a platform primarily for us to reach others. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, as NewMusicBox’s own Molly Sheridan emphasized so eloquently to me in our discussions on this series, we all play a role, both individually and communally, in the “new music ecosystem” and our commitment to ethical artistry impacts this ecosystem.
We all play a role, both individually and communally, in the “new music ecosystem” and our commitment to ethical artistry impacts this ecosystem.
As I mentioned in Part 2, I believe new music is alive and well, and it is finding support in corners far and wide across the U.S. and abroad. Yet, even in its most generous description, we can acknowledge that our work as contemporary musicians and artists is often more “fringe” than “mainstream” in terms of broad-scale popular culture. This is a major reason we have taken it upon ourselves as a community to advocate for new music, to run conferences, to start ensembles that better fit the needs of composers, and to create a culture where artists can be taken seriously even if their passions fall outside traditional paradigms.
The fact that we are largely creating this community for new music together, as individual artists and ensembles, makes our ecosystem somewhat fragile. There is no uniform set of guidelines we follow, and no corporate policy being passed down from on high. If we have competing interests, we sometimes detract from one another, and if we are not holding ourselves to high standards, the tenets we aspire to uphold may be easily eroded.
I don’t propose that we draft a “New Music Constitution” to govern the arts, but for those of us who do care about these issues, to what extent are we committed to making a difference in our work? Are we having serious conversations with other ensembles and groups in our sphere of the world? Are we willing to put in some long-term planning, and try to gradually evolve, aligning the execution of our artistic processes with our stated intentions?
Or, are we content with talking a big game about things like stylistic diversity, equality of opportunity, representation of composers from various demographics, and so on, but not actually following through in a way that is ethically consistent or impactful?
Some of us care deeply about these issues and have been looking for ways to make a difference; some want to get involved, but are seeking guidance for how and where to start; and some remain indifferent. In the new music community we foster together, if we only care about our personal careers and gigs, or if we are so caught up in a parochial view of the musical world that we are blind to a larger picture of what is out there, we won’t create the type of meaningful change that many of us are calling for today.
What Pragmatic Steps Can I Take?
Let’s say you are motivated to try and make a positive impact with ethical artistry. Here are some specific pragmatic steps you can take to keep these issues in mind in your career:
– Program with conviction
– Think about who your projects benefit
– Think deeply about the complex layers of the decision-making process
– If you see a problem, come up with a measured response, don’t just take the “easy way out”
– Keep in mind the big picture of your artistic work and try to find a balance in your efforts
– Use tools like statistics and data to help evaluate the steps you’re taking
– Always keep in mind the quality of your work and initiatives, not just their quantity
– Are my repertoire choices consistent with my larger artistic goals?
– Am I presenting a narrow range or wide variety of pieces? Is this an intentional choice?
– How does any one project fit and balance within the larger scope of my work?
– Am I favoring or neglecting composers of a specific demographic?
– As I look at data, have I had a blind spot about certain demographics or styles?
– I don’t have to change things overnight; I have a long career and can work to evolve.
– I can make some short-term changes, and also keep in mind other long-term goals.
– Is my curriculum promoting egalitarian thinking about different musics, styles, and ideologies?
– Are my syllabi/courses/ensembles promoting or neglecting composers of specific demographics?
– As I look at data, have I had a blind spot about certain demographics or styles?
– Does my institution support a narrow or wide swath of artistic thought? Is this intentional?
– Can I teach a course specifically looking at issues related to ethical artistry?
– Can I weave issues of ethical artistry into other courses like composition, entrepreneurship,
theory, music history, etc.? Can I involve non-music professors in the discourse?
– Are we actively discussing and encouraging thought about these issues with our students?
– Are we actively discussing and encouraging thought about these issues as a community?
– Do I work with living composers regularly?
– Does my ensemble provide audiences with access to living composers?
– Am I able to commit to ambitious and high-quality dissemination of contemporary music?
– Am I balancing quality and quantity in my approach to new music programming?
– Are the contemporary works I feature often varied or often similar? Is this intentional?
– Am I promoting or neglecting composers of a specific demographic or style?
– Am I making time in my routine to actively listen to new works?
– Am I soliciting suggestions from others about new composers I can discover?
– Is my ensemble promoting educational initiatives for young composers?
– Through these combined initiatives, am I creating a culture for the appreciation of new music?
– Can we commit to thinking deeply about these issues, and not settling for “the easy way out”?
– Are we making time to reach out to colleagues and have discussions about these issues?
– Are we (individually) in a position of power where we can shed light on these issues?
– Are we (as a group) able to advocate to those in power, so we focus more on these issues?
– Are we listening to broad viewpoints with an open mind, or are we tuning out those who differ?
– When we do voice our opinions publicly, are we trying to thoughtfully affect positive change?
[i] I might add that while some find this notion of art’s transformational power too idealistic, its echoes are found in a wide swath of material: everything from pop-culture references about “the beauty of music” in movies like Shawshank Redemption, to articles like “We Need Music to Surive” by musician Karl Paulnack, to the notion put forth by Gustavo Dudamel that “music is a universal human right.” In fact, going back as far as the ancient writings of Plato’s Republic, we see the argument that music is important in strengthening the moral fabric in society and that music can uniquely bring people together because “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.”
From the time I began playing music, there was a clear line defined by almost every institution, private teacher, scholarship, competition, music festival, mouthpiece option, etude book, sound concept, etc. that let me know there was such a thing as jazz music and such a thing as classical music. And while they might rub elbows at moments in history, with outliers aplenty, they were always treated as two distinctly different art forms meant for two different audiences, two different history books, two different schools of music, two different grant applications, and two different concert venues. The rules were set, the groundwork laid. Pick a side and begin. It only occurred to me much later that in order to grow artistically, one needed to shed the dogma that brainwashed not only me, but many on both sides of the field.
As a musician, composer, and listener, I have been increasingly interested in music that has blurred these lines. Jazz composers have been fearless in their willingness to draw from outside sources. Whether it’s West African music, 20th-century classical music, Indian music, or American pop music, jazz music has always had an inclination to thwart traditions in favor of moving the music forward. This element excites me, in that it consistently connects to music of our time. I still marvel at the many phases of Miles and Coltrane, who in many ways set the high watermark for jazz artists to constantly search inward and discover what is new in music within themselves. They not only pushed the genre forward but set examples for jazz musicians after them to continue to change and evolve the music that reflects the world around them. Building upon this idea, jazz musicians and composers (two titles that interestingly enough are always linked) have steadily moved this music to what it is today. I am thinking of artists such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Maria Schneider, Ornette Colman, Jimmy Guiffre, Carla Bley, and many others. With that said, listening to many modern classical composers today is as exhilarating as anything in the jazz realm. Upon hearing certain strains of modern classical composers, I often find myself with the same feeling of excitement as when listening to a modern jazz luminary, in part because I feel the creators are relating to the modern world in the way that it actually is rather than the way that it theoretically exists. They are often drawing from many other sources of music in the world that reflect who they are. This, to me, feels much in line with how jazz has forged ahead for the past 100 years.
Recently I had the great pleasure to speak with three leading voices in modern classical and jazz composition: Judd Greenstein, Amir ElSaffar, and John Hollenbeck. They had many fascinating ideas, but one thing that struck me right away was their willingness to speak about their music in broad terms—cognizant that the language that we use to speak about music often fails us but is necessary for us to move forward. No one, including myself, likes their music to be summed up in a quick two-word label, and I was hyper-aware of this when speaking with them. I would like to say that, before going forward, when I use broad terms like “modern classical” and “modern jazz” to describe music, it is only because they are the words I have, and hopefully you can be forgiving of the shortcomings these words offer.
To me, it appears that the landscape of modern classical and modern jazz music in many ways is the result of decades of drilling from opposite sides of a mountain and now, more than ever, we are meeting in an aesthetic middle. Within the past five or ten years, modern classical and modern jazz seem to not just be sharing a communion of styles, but also bridging this gap socially as well.
As Greenstein mentioned to me:
Going to a contemporary jazz concert or a contemporary classical music concert, you will see lots of people who you wouldn’t necessarily consider part of that “scene,” but everyone is listening to everyone now. The idea that you only go to the Village Vanguard if you are a “jazz” person doesn’t really apply anymore, because the kind of music that you hear there is extremely open and part of a bigger conversation about music that we are all having as a broader community of music.
You see that there is very little distinction between the way that jazz musicians operate now and the way that contemporary “classical” musicians and composers operate now. It’s not as simple today to say that there are the “jazz” fans and there are the “contemporary classical” fans. It’s much more messy today, and, I think much more interesting.
Considering this, the question I ask myself is: How are they connecting? What specifically about the actual music is being shared? In talking with Greenstein, he used the word “groove” to discuss his music. It’s a word that I wouldn’t normally associate with a classical composer, but then again, Judd is composing from a place of the here-and-now, and his music is a reflection of this. Before I go on, I want to mention that not everything Judd writes has the element of groove. He composes a vast amount of music that is quite varied and uses many techniques to convey emotion. I am only going to focus in on this one element for a minute because it speaks directly to my point. However, I was actually relieved to hear him use the word “groove,” because when I listen to pieces such as Greenstein’s Folk Music or Clearing, Dawn, Dance, what strikes me is that the way in which groove happens in the music is similar to what I hear in many modern jazz compositions. The composer notes:
[What] I am interested in is finding a groove that could almost go on forever, where the rhythm keeps revealing something new about itself and there is a sense of surprise when it starts over. And it is not just rhythmic, but usually a rhythmic element combined with a harmonic oscillation.
He went on to add:
Rhythm is one of the more memorable elements of music. It is viscerally felt in the body and that makes it something that we remember. And when you combine that with melodic and harmonic gesture, you have a building block to the piece. These pieces can imply a lot of other directions and give you a solid footing on which to come back to, which is very important for me.
Here is an example that demonstrates how Greenstein makes use of a repeating ostinato figure that gives the piece a sense of “groove.”
Clearing, Dawn, Dance, Judd Greenstein
Clearing, Dawn, Dance, page 1
Clearing, Dawn, Dance, page 11
From the beginning of the piece, a repeating ostinato figure creates the groove over a mixed meter, inciting rhythmic interest and allowing for melodious elements to float over the top. Notice at the 1:43 mark how the initial ostinato drops out but the groove continues in the flute’s new pattern and is later expanded upon in several ways. When the original ostinato figure does return at about 7:03, there is a sense that the original groove has returned with greater significance. I could make a correlation to the “hero’s journey” here, but I’ll save that for another time. A second noteworthy element is the slower-moving harmonic motion compared to the complex rhythmic ideas which will be discussed later in this article.
Many jazz composers use a combination of mixed meter and repeating ostinato figures to toy with groove in a way that adds playfulness, a sometimes unsettled feel, and often gives momentum to the music’s expression. Two examples of this are seen in works by Amir ElSaffar and John Hollenbeck that, while they are different in material ways, use a rhythmic language that, to my ears, shares a similarity in creating groove.
Hijaz 21-8, Amir ElSaffar
Hijaz, page 1
Hijaz, page 2
This piece, like Clearing, Dawn, Dance, has many layers of repeating ostinato figures playing with and against each other, as well as shifting meter ideas that allow for greater rhythmic expression. Listen for the way in which the dotted quarter notes in the bass plays against the quarter notes in the melody to briefly give an unsettled feeling, only to ground us a few beats later when the bass and the melodies line up.
Arabic, John Hollenbeck
arabic, page 1
arabic, page 2
This example by John Hollenbeck uses repeating ostinato figures layered on top of one other. Take note of how the overlapping meters add complexity and interest yet also are not overly crowded; we feel at the same time a sense of security and grounding. Lastly take note of the harmonic movement as only one modality is used throughout.
The Moire Effect is a visual phenomenon that produces a sensation of movement by overlapping patterns. This phenomenon was used by minimalist composer Steve Reich in many of his pieces such as Clapping Music (1972) and It’s Gonna Rain (1965). The phasing effect was adapted in sound by taking unison rhythms, overlapping them, and then slightly shifting one or more rhythmic elements to produce a sensation of movement or change to the listener. Much more could be said about this effect, but the point that I want to make is that one can see the similarities in the ideas of the rhythmic concept behind all three of the above pieces that are rooted in 20th-century minimalist composition techniques.
It should not come as a surprise that modern jazz music has commonality with modern classical music. As Hollenbeck states:
From the very beginning, jazz was a mixture of African music and European music, so the influence on one another was happening at the beginning. Jazz musicians were open – and are still open – to everything, and one of those things was contemporary music.
Jazz composers have always been knowledgeable about European music and have really checked it out. It makes sense that this influence would affect the music they are creating.
Not all jazz musicians would agree with this, but one could say that a major component in jazz would be innovation, or this idea of looking forward trying to get at this thing that one can’t touch.
As previously alluded to, a closer look at many modern jazz and classical compositions will illuminate similarities in the way composers use harmony. This is an observation about a subset of music, and I know I am painting with a big brush here, however I would like to point to three more examples in which the rhythmic motion of the piece is complex but the harmonic movement is intentionally slow, which allows for the rhythmic statement to be more direct and prominent. I have included an arrangement of Hollenbeck’s rather than an original, primarily because of how much I love this arrangement and its direct relationship to my points. Hollenbeck’s arrangement is so much his own that I don’t see how you could listen to it and not hear his compositional fingerprints all over it.
The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress, Jimmy Webb (arr. John Hollenbeck)
Listen to how the slow movement of the chords in the beginning of the piece acts as a grounding element while a growing complexity of rhythm begins to occur—first in the flutes, guitar, mallets, drums, and bass, and evolves into the full ensemble. The slow and consistent harmonic movement keeps the listener tied to the earth while the rhythmic action is continuously surprising. It is only later in the piece when the rhythmic action is withdrawn that harmony evolves, becoming increasingly dense, creating a symphonic texture.
Folk Music, Judd Greenstein
One can hear many of the same techniques in regard to use of rhythmic complexity and harmonic efficiency in this wonderful piece by Judd Greenstein that we found in The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress. Again, there is a complexity in the rhythm that sustains us throughout the piece against a comforting, slower movement of the harmony.
As Greenstein puts it:
When one is trying to be clear about rhythm, it can be hard if too many things are happening at once.
The reason I am drawn to simpler harmonic structures at times is because I am trying to not let the complication ruin the complexity of the piece. Doing so makes it so that one cannot draw connections and creates barriers to hearing different aspects of the pitch or rhythmic relationships that could be there if you chose a simpler harmonic structure. It’s kind of a funny thing that happens, that if you limit your pitch options, your rhythmic relations become more apparent.
I want to take a moment and single out Amir ElSaffar’s music and how unique and yet relevant it is to what I am talking about. ElSaffar has been exploring the traditions of Iraqi classical music and jazz for more than a decade. His approach to harmony has been informed by his years of study of not only jazz music, but also Arabic music and the maqam, which is a system of modes that has twenty-four notes per octave instead of the twelve notes in Western music. ElSaffar states:
There is this whole wide-open world that the maqam allows for that hasn’t really been explored. In traditional Arabic music, there is no harmonic movement that happens, which on one hand is kind of freeing because the melody takes on so much weight where you might be implying a certain tonic for a beat and half and then moving on to imply a different tonic just by the phrasing of the principle notes of the melody. So in that sense it does have the feeling that there is harmonic movement, and in one way it is, but it is due to the movement of the melody not the maqam.
What I have been interested in is how to extract chords from this phenomenon. What happens, for instance, when you are in the mode of D minor with a half flat second and the melody rests on the note F for a while? For a brief moment, this F feels tonicized. What happens if I build a chord around it? These harmonies that I have been experimenting with are actually reminiscent of modal harmonies in jazz, which is actually similar to the way maqams are built.
I am also trying to honor the integrity of the melody – creating the right texture that moves around it and is supportive, and not somehow taking away from it.
Jourjina over Three, Amir ElSaffar
I hope after listening that you can hear what I would call a conversation among styles regarding groove and harmonic movement between these pieces and these composers.
Lastly, another aspect I find interesting is that modern classical music has moved to an ensemble model that resembles many contemporary jazz ensembles. They are small groups of musicians, often unusual in instrumentation, independently funded, performing pieces that are composed by primarily living composers, many of whom are either part of the ensemble or somehow connected to the group, performing at venues that are eclectic in nature, often outside of the typical “jazz club” or “classical concert hall” to include art spaces and listening rooms.
I have a theory (that I can only back up with anecdotal evidence) that the model for a working classical musician has been slowly deteriorating for years. The odds of winning a tenured position in an orchestra are small, with many major and regional orchestras struggling to stay solvent. Fewer living wage job opportunities are available for classical musicians and yet the pool of highly skilled musicians is ever-growing as music schools around the county crank out more performers every year. It would only seem logical that musicians would form their own groups and begin writing and promoting their own music. It just so happens that jazz musicians have been doing this for many years. At some point when jazz music became more of an art music rather than functional music for dancing, musicians starting writing and performing for music’s sake, which is where I think many classical groups and musicians are finding themselves. More and more, they are making music that is independent, personal, and without regard for assimilating to a style or genre. It will be very exciting to see how these two styles of music continue to blur the lines and possibly eliminate any and all boundaries of style currently known. I asked Greenstein if he ever thought of using improvisation as an element in his music.
I haven’t found the space for it my own practice yet, but that doesn’t mean that I am averse to it. I became a composer because in this way I am a control freak and I have ideas about how things should be structured, which usually doesn’t leave a lot of room. What I think might happen is sometime within the next ten years, I will find a different way of practicing that involves more openness in this regard.
With so many composers blurring the lines of genre, a question arises regarding the implications of not only how we perceive but also teach music. Is the logic we have used to set up our music education system still viable and flexible enough to support where the evolution of music is taking us? I suspect the musicians, the composers, and the music they create will lead the way to providing answers.
This post is the third in a four-part series looking at concert curation and some of the larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists as a result. If you want to jump back, Part 1 and Part 2 are here; Part 4 will follow next week.
Changing our Approach to Avoid the Easy Way Out
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I argue that our musical world can be more rewarding and have its most substantial positive impacts when we present projects passionately and when we take a deeper look at our institutions, decision-making, and artistic processes.
Part 2 showed how simple issues can get complex pretty quickly, and that it can take real effort to confront ethical issues in a meaningful way. This “real effort” part can be a disincentive. Why spend extra time thinking through complex issues—especially if there is an easy fix in front of us? It’s often simpler to keep moving through our work and busy lives by avoiding complex questions, rather than taking time to confront them and come up with nuanced solutions.
Unfortunately, it is this “easy way out” or “path of least resistance” or “quick fix” (whatever you want to call it) that can lead us into ethical gray areas. I’ve argued that by spending a little more time sorting through the complexities of both our decision-making and execution, we can make a real difference. And there’s even better news: if you start building this “extra” planning into the framework of your professional life, it can quickly become part of your normal routine, without adding any “extra” or undue burden.
If you start building this “extra” planning into the framework of your professional life, it can quickly become part of your normal routine, without adding any “extra” or undue burden.
Let’s consider an example. You want to put on a concert! You’re excited about it, and a little scared (because you haven’t done a lot of this before), but you’re really committed to making it happen! Many of us have been in this exact position. So, we launch into what is easy and familiar: we program pieces we already know, written by composers we’ve worked with before, and we team up with a local ensemble at a cheap venue. This is sort of a “simplest variables” version of your project, and it is coming from a genuinely good place in your heart!
Now, halfway through your project, you are already many emails in (with the ensemble, venue, music rental companies, and so on), when you get the following message from a colleague: “Hey! I got your project e-blast. Looks cool! I noticed all of the composers are alumni of School X. Did School X sponsor this concert?”
Hmm. You pause. This wasn’t something you had really considered. You were turning to music you knew and loved, and maybe it’s no surprise that the composers you picked were your classmates or friends from a certain school or geographic region. And, it isn’t necessarily a moral failure on your part, but you’ve clearly been a little narrow or had a bit of a blind spot that may have held back your programming. So, what can you do about it? At this point, halfway through, overhauling the project would be a major undertaking and would add a lot of extra work as you redo many steps.
Now, imagine a variation of your original concert and idea. We’re back at the beginning. You are still passionate and excited, and you’ll still start the process with pieces you know, by composers you’ve worked with. But…you want to make sure your program is as strong and vibrant as it can be. So you’ll also make sure to take a look at a few other pieces in their catalogs, and you’re going to ask for suggestions from colleagues for other composers outside of your circle. Spend some time listening there, too. Now it’s time to contact ensembles. You should still plan to reach out to the local group you’ve worked with before, but maybe there are one or two others you can consider as well. Have you emailed them before, or even checked out their websites and work? And what about venues? Can you expand your list? Maybe another great option is out there?
If you didn’t plan in these layers at the start, they become a major burden later in a project, but at the beginning, these “extra” steps aren’t really extra at all. In fact, if we build them into the project from the outset, they sort of seamlessly integrate into the overall planning process, and they can lead to a final result that is much more impactful! In this particular hypothetical example, some extra listening at the beginning might lead to a program that includes music of a few close friends, as well as others you didn’t know before who have similar artistic work.
Here’s the big takeaway: it can be hard to accommodate a lot of ethical nuance when we are in the thick of our busy professional routines and schedules. This is often where we run into dilemmas and we don’t have time to pursue anything other than the “easy way out.” But, if we can put in a little more planning at the start of our work, and tweak our general approach, our final work will likely have a more virtuous impact, without adding more burden into our routine.
Evaluating Our Efforts: The Broad View, Quotas & Metrics, and Qualitative Concerns
Many of us care about ethical artistry, but how do we measure our efforts? And how do we balance competing demands, if it feels like promoting one set of criteria will negatively detract from another? (We looked at some of these in Part 2—e.g. should I program more pieces but know that each will have less rehearsal time?) Every case can be a little different, but here are some general tenets and tools that can aid us in evaluating our work.
The Broad View
As I suggested in Part 1, it is particularly important that we take a broad view in assessing our work. Invariably, any single project you focus on will favor certain criteria/variables over others. For example, if you present a regional composer festival, you will automatically be promoting music of composers inside that region, and excluding music outside of it. There are pluses (promoting local artists; strengthening regional ties) and minuses (not giving audiences exposure to outside composers; excluding based on geography).
It seems to me that if this is the only artistic project you pursue regularly, the minuses stand out a bit. Do you have a bit of a blind spot? But, if we take the broad view, and we consider that you pursue many projects which promote living composers of diverse styles, demographics, geographies, and so on, then the potential “minuses” of your regional festival seem to melt away in terms of the larger picture of your artistic work. (This is true for any specific programming initiative like focusing on regional composers; focusing on a certain ethnic demographic; focusing on a certain aesthetic movement; etc.).
The broad view can also provide important context. In a real-world example, I attended two concerts a few months apart in 2017 featuring two different violinists. (I’ve tried to keep any living artist information anonymous.)
Beethoven, Sonata No. 3
Franck, Sonata in A Maj
Anonymous Living Composer, World Premiere
Moszkowski, Suite in G Maj
J.S. Bach, Sonata No. 1 in G Minor
J.S. Bach, Partita No. 1 in B Minor
J.S. Bach, Sonata No. 3 in C Major
J.S. Bach, Partita No. 2 in D Minor
At first glance, neither of these programs seems especially adventurous. Are these projects that were curated with passion? Or are they run-of-the-mill violin recitals? (Maybe something in between?) The context of the broad view makes all the difference in this specific case.
Program 2 features four pieces all by the same composer (Bach), which are all in the same general style (dance suite) from the same era (Baroque). Program 1 at least has a bit more variety in that it features composers who are German, French, American, Russian, and Spanish, and it also features music of different eras (early-Romantic, late-Romantic, and the commission/premiere of a new work). Under a short-term view, Program 1 seems to have a bit more going on, since it features a living composer and a wider swath of musical material.
Yet, when taking a broad view, Program 2 was perhaps even more powerful and exciting for me to experience for a few reasons. Most importantly, the violinist performing Program 2 has dedicated a particularly large extent of his performing career to championing the music of living composers (this includes his founding of a major new music string quartet; his work as a core member of a major new music large ensemble; and his work to premiere numerous solo works). Second, the violinist performing Program 2 had worked with great conviction on this program so that it wasn’t “run of the mill.” The works were performed attacca, with thought and attention given to how one suite would elide into the next, so that the immediate transition provided a curious re-contextualization of the subsequent music. Further, the performer added contemporary techniques of ponticello bow position and harmonics in deliberate moments so as to inflect and change the intonation and color of Bach’s original score. The sum total of these curatorial decisions gave Bach’s music a peculiar freshness and challenged the listener to consider an interpretation divergent from the norm.
Thus, within the larger scope (“broad view”) of his work, Violinist 2 and Program 2 didn’t seem to be a conservative rendering of standard Bach works at all; instead, it was a refreshing approach to Baroque music from a performer whose specialization in contemporary music added new ideas and insight. Perhaps most importantly, the project revealed a passion, conviction, and thoughtfulness that resonated deeply with the audience. While Program 1 did showcase a living composer and did include thoughtful, deeply musical playing, it did less to provide a powerful curatorial experience, and more to highlight the performer’s attributes as a violinist. While neither of these programs was a statement on the diversity and talent of today’s living composers, the “broad view” provides especially important context as to the deeper artistic merit each program did or didn’t provide.
Image: Andrik Langfield
Quotas & Metrics: What They Do and Don’t Tell Us
Programming quotas and statistical metrics can be useful tools to quantify some of our artistic efforts. When we use them thoughtfully, they can help us gather meaningful information and guide our decisions; but, these statistics tools, by themselves, are not the whole story!
Imagine your ensemble is having an artistic planning meeting. You all agree you are committed to championing contemporary composers! How will this actually play out? Are there specific quantitative criteria you are considering?
Are you interested in:
the total number of contemporary works you program in a season?
the total minutes of music, regardless of how many total works?
the specific percentage of contemporary works within your larger season?
certain specific demographics (e.g. age, race, gender, nationality, etc.) of the composers?
defining “contemporary” based on decade of composition or a composer’s age?
only your own ensemble’s metrics, or how they fit within those of the larger field?
In these examples, hard statistics can be useful. If you’re coming off of a busy season where many decisions were made “off the cuff,” a statistical spreadsheet at season’s end may show where your programming tendencies lay: male vs. female composers; local vs. non-local artists; American vs. International composers; pre-2000’s vs. post-2000’s; etc. If something seems out of balance, can you pay more attention to it next season by planning ahead?
These statistics also illustrate how your programming stacks up within the field. The Institute for Composer Diversity has started keeping statistics on various U.S. orchestras, and they have provided a helpful chart (below) that shows how many works you need to program each season in order to meet a quota of 15% of works by under-represented composers.
In past years, groups like the League of American Orchestras or the Baltimore Symphony have gathered hard data, in an effort to consider how our institutions are functioning. And, individual composers have started keeping tabs in areas where they are passionate. For example, composer Michael Mikulka publishes some statistics on Facebook each year of the repertoire programmed at the annual Midwest Clinic for band and wind ensemble music.
So what do we do with all of this information? How can it be a helpful tool? And, what other factors should we consider besides quantitative data?
Sometimes these sorts of clear statistics help keep us honest. Mike Mikulka’s data, for example, shows that at one of America’s major music conventions, an overwhelming majority of programmed music is by white male composers. His data doesn’t speak for every ensemble, director, or composer working in the field, but it does show an alarming demographic disparity at a major convening. (And his statistics have been consistently similar over multiple seasons.)
In this case, the data (“works by composers of demographic X”) seems pretty black and white, and the ethical implications are obvious: whole groups of composers are under-represented.
But, as much as this data tells us, it is, in itself, a statistical summary of choices already made, not an explicit moral compass that guides our decision-making process in the future. This distinction is vital if we want this data to help us. Otherwise, we may fall prey to taking rash action that doesn’t solve the underlying problems.
As much as this data tells us, it is, in itself, a statistical summary of choices already made, not an explicit moral compass that guides our decision-making process in the future. This distinction is vital if we want this data to help us.
As we considered in Part 2, in a controversial programming debate involving a serious look at hard data, the Philadelphia Orchestra made a big quantitative shift in their season: going from 0 works by female composers to 9 works. This was an undeniably positive step in a quantitative category, but it didn’t fully address other larger ethical considerations, such as “quality of opportunity” for younger composers (male and female) to have access to orchestras. In this case, and others like it, statistical data and quotas (e.g. programing Y works, by demographic X in a single season) only partially satisfy our ethical ambitions.
This illustrates two important limitations about quotas and statistical metrics:
They often emphasize quantitative thinking, not qualitative thinking.
They require you to choose what categories you measure and value most.
If we have a clear vision of what ideals we hope to promote in our artistic work, we have a better sense of which statistics will be useful to gather and use in evaluation. And, as will become clear, no single category or criteria will be sufficient for measuring the impact of our work.
Let’s look at the metric “total number of works” by contemporary composers. If this is the main statistic we use to evaluate our programming, a group like the New York Miniaturist Ensemble, which performed more than 300 contemporary pieces during their existence from 2004-2010, did a pretty amazing job and probably outperformed (in quantity) many other new music groups. (Be honest: how many works has your own group performed in six seasons?)
However, according to NYME’s mission and approach, all of the “performed music [was] composed of 100 notes or fewer.” In this case, the sole metric of “total number of works performed” isn’t telling us the whole story! NYME still did something interesting and important that supported composers, but the single statistical category of “total works performed” doesn’t meaningfully compare their efforts to those of other groups.
This is obviously an extreme example, but there are many others where quantitative metrics only tell part of the story. For example, if the Nashville Symphony features four composers in their Composer Lab every two years, and each composer gets roughly equal rehearsal time, how does their approach compare to a group like the American Composers Orchestra whose Underwoood Readings often feature five or six composers every year, but who may not get quite as much rehearsal time since it is being divided amongst more participants? In this case, we have competing metrics: “most composers performed” vs. “most rehearsal time” for individual pieces.
What about a concert experience like the Riot Ensemble’s performance of a single 70-minute work (Solstices by Georg Fredrich Haas, exploring light and darkness) relative to Contemporaneous’s “Orbit” (a program featuring five works also exploring sound and light)? Here, data from any single metric (“total works featured” vs. “total amount of music” vs. “amount of rehearsal time for a single piece”) would tell a very different story.
The truth is, in all of these cases, groups are working hard to give living composers a voice. The point is not to praise one group over another based on hard statistics, but to point out that no single metric can tell us the whole story about the impact of our artistry! In fact, these examples serve to illustrate that quantifiable data is only part of the story. If our programming is oriented solely around meeting numerical quotas, we can easily lose sight of other considerations.
No single metric can tell us the whole story about the impact of our artistry!
Quantitative vs. Qualitative Concerns
While I do advocate using statistics to help quantify and compare our artistic efforts with those of the larger field, I caution us to use the data thoughtfully and to make sure we pay attention to other concerns that are more naturally evaluated with qualitative intuition, rather than hard data.
The issue of quantitative vs. qualitative impact is one of great complexity in ethical debates. Moral philosophers, economists, and political theorists have long scrutinized the merits of strict utilitarianism (which emphasizes helping the most people possible, or doing the most good possible) relative to other pluralist or egalitarian views (that ask us to consider the qualitative nature of the impact we are having, in addition to the total amount).
I wouldn’t stipulate that you should fall on one side of this debate versus another, but we should be cognizant of our work’s quantitative and qualitative impacts. If we are putting all of our efforts into a quality artistic experience, but overlooking hard data which points to our intuitive programming biases, we likely have a blind spot we could address. On the other hand, if we are checking off metric boxes in our programming, but presenting lackluster concerts that aren’t engaging others in vital ways, what is the deeper extent of our impact?
My biggest caution is that we not be too quick to pat ourselves on the back, just because we seem to be satisfying statistical data in our work. Sometimes this data distracts from other issues we are not addressing—like quality of artistic experience; quality of access to our work; and other factors that don’t easily show up in a pie chart. I argue in Part 1 that we have to be really passionate in our programming, and trust our intuition to pursue projects we deeply believe in. Sometimes a single concert experience we create with this passion can reach others in tremendously deep ways that are hard to quantify in hard data, but which are every bit as relevant, if not more so, than meeting a categorical quota.