Category: Articles

Music Unbound

ripples of influence

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.

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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

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

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

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.

Ethical Artistry: Changing our Approach & Evaluating our Efforts

Compass

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!

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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.)

Program 1:
Violinist 1

Beethoven, Sonata No. 3
Franck, Sonata in A Maj
Anonymous Living Composer, World Premiere
Moszkowski, Suite in G Maj
Sarasate, Navarra

Program 2:
Violinist 2

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.

Stones in balance

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.

Michael Mikulka: Midwest Clinic

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:

  1. They often emphasize quantitative thinking, not qualitative thinking.
  2. 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.

Jack of All Trades or Master of Them All? Cross-Genre Creative Gambling

Multiple streams

In the earliest days of my career, I was told to specialize. “Pick a genre,” they said. “Narrow down. You can’t do it all.”

I never did pick.

To date, my favorite thing that has ever been said about me was in an American Composers Forum profile. They wrote that I was “blowing a creative space for [myself] so big you could drive a truck through it,” which felt significant because it was the first time I felt like someone saw this an advantage, not something to be corrected. Back in the Renaissance, artists who were fluent in multiple mediums were admired, yet somewhere along the road that shifted to conversations about “defining your brand.” I spent a long time in college being told that my diverse interests were a result of indecision—a failing on my part, rather than a deliberate creative choice (which is what it always was).

Choosing to work across genres brings with it a unique set of challenges from a career development standpoint, yet it offers a far broader realm of possibilities from a creative one.

Several years down the line, however, I understand why I was warned against it, and feel obligated to any younger composers navigating the shallows of similar aesthetically open-minded waters to report back from further offshore. Choosing to work across genres brings with it a unique set of challenges from a career development standpoint, yet—in my opinion—it offers a far broader realm of possibilities from a creative one.

To get the cautionary side out of the way, everything that my teachers and industry mentors warned me of proved to be true several times over. It’s simply much harder to get multiple careers off the ground, for all of the reasons you might think. You are building two (or more) creative lives simultaneously when it is hard enough to build one. It takes twice the financial investment. Twice the time. The people in the various corners of these industries are different. There are different metrics for success, different methods of financing projects, and different approaches to press strategy.   It’s also hard to convince people early on that your vision is decisive. And there is a perpetual creative whiplash that happens when bouncing between projects. From an artistic perspective, it’s a commitment to becoming multilingual, since pop songs, film scores and concert works are very different art forms and learning to do them all well requires significant investment in honing one’s craft. If you are writing songs, you also have to learn to manipulate words and define your perspective as a writer of text, which is in itself a lifetime’s undertaking.

Yet on the flip side, having a breadth of skill sets makes you vastly more employable (that most lofty of artistic goals). Being able to wear a lot of hats (playing in theater pits, orchestrating, copying, taking on scoring projects and concert commissions, etc.) kept me working consistently early on, and I am certain that what some of my teachers deemed a lack of focus is actually responsible for having kept me afloat during those early years after graduating from college. There’s an important line between being a jack of all trades and an employable, well-rounded musician.

Ultimately, however, the most enticing thing about working in multiple mediums has for me always been the boundless creative possibilities that it offered. With eclecticism comes the opportunity to be in conversation with oneself about genre and to have different kinds of collaborative relationships with those working in these various fields. It also offers potential for borrowing influences in the hope that they will fuse into something unusual.

Within my own work, which I include solely because I am currently navigating these waters and it’s the example that I know most closely, I am starting to see how these diverse influences can cross-pollinate. Previously when asked about working across genres, I would stick to a simple response: namely that I hope my songwriting has a drama to it that hints at my concert background, and that my concert work has a sense of immediacy and a commitment to melody, but that they are very separate. Yet as I continue along the road, I realize that the ties among them are more specific.

On the songwriting front, for example, I recently put out a song called “Time Slips Away” from a new artist project called DELANILA. While unequivocally a rock track, it borrows from the scale of orchestral music (film and concert), while also employing specific techniques and traditions that I learned in conservatory.

Lyrics, form, and arrangement were crafted, for example, with art song “word painting” in mind: the lyric “inconsequential, it slithers like a snake” is accompanied by a synth line that slinks its way upwards like a serpent, while “time slips away” returns at the top of each verse—not quite word painting, but an attempt to evoke boredom and repetition by mirroring lyrical content through form. I also borrowed, as many film composers and songwriters have done, from that classic textbook example of Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima in the outro, which consists of players glissing and staggering their way upwards from the lowest note on their instrument to the highest. And, when I got stuck on a bridge, found my way out of the hole by thinking back to those most basic composerly discussions we have about developing our ideas and “writing economically.” I solved the problem by taking synth and bass lines from the verses and made them swoop and build upon one another to a conclusion. The loose “piece in two halves” form itself is also one that I’ve explored in chamber music.

I also have an early concert piece that I wrote, called Mehr Licht, that finds its way as a sample (a pop technique in itself, though I am hardly the first classical musician to use it) into virtually everything I do. On its own, it sounds like this:

Here it is in part, played backwards as the intro on an old EP:

And on a newer version of the same song:

Here it is again on a different piece from another forthcoming project:

It’s also currently finding its way into a film score. And then here it is again on a piece that I wrote recently for PUBLIQuartet:

Out of the Tunnel is also an example of how my rock background found its way into the DNA of a concert work. Its first movement (see below) is propulsive and energetic, imbued with a rock spirit, while improvisation—so central to being a guitarist—played a role in how I developed the project with the quartet. This included giving them groove-based musical “cells” to play with during workshops, as well as leaving space for Curtis Stewart, one of the ensemble’s violinists, to have a big wailing solo moment. Film scoring influences also crept their way into the accompanying programming.

Ultimately I believe that genre has the potential to become just another tool with its own tricks and traditions that can be deployed as needed along the road to creating art that, one hopes, is unique. Yet beyond that, the question of whether or not to pursue multiple styles of music has for me always tied in to broader discussions of what it means to create art that is progressive, and how exactly anyone is supposed to get there. In my opinion, the most interesting artists are always the ones who bring something slightly foreign to the form in which they are working, widening its palette rather narrowing it. And this fundamental question was always what kept me from following my teachers’ advice. If you don’t study and pursue multiple disciplines and have broad creative interests, how can you ever hope to create something new? I could never wrap my head around how “narrowing down” would answer that question, and so I never did.

Art is most interesting when it is open ended, and to me at this point these various forms and genres don’t feel any different from one another. The techniques vary but the goals of communicating honestly with people are the same, and I think it’s possible for them to all live in the same house. You may not see it yet. But the structure is there.

Artist Financial Profile: Dr. Lisa Neher, Composer & Performer

Lisa Neher

Preface

Since my first Artist Financial Profile featuring Tony Manfredonia, I have been receiving some wonderful messages via Twitter and Facebook responding to the article. Many people seemed relieved and/or encouraged to see a case study of a specific musician’s income—a small chapter in an evolving theoretical Guide to Musician Finances. Some people also mentioned that they have been questioning their own rat-race struggle to achieve financial security in the arts and that the first article helped them start to consider next steps.

Whatever your takeaway, these articles are meant to be helpful. As an author and interviewer, I am trying to display the incomes of these fearless people without emotion or criticism, so that we may all simply look at how they have used money to live and as nothing more than the tool it is.

Let’s break down the taboo some more. Here is Dr. Lisa Neher:

Introductions

Lisa Neher is a composer and mezzo-soprano currently based out of Portland, Oregon. She received her DMA in vocal performance and pedagogy from the University of Iowa in 2016 and has been working as an adjunct professor of voice, a private voice teacher, a composer, a performer, and a composer-performer. Originally from South Seattle, Lisa moved to Iowa City for her DMA and then to Cedar Rapids to live with her partner, prior to her most recent move to Portland.

Lisa and I spoke over a slightly troubled Skype connection and probably raised more questions than we answered about the money taboo, positioning, realistically “making it,” adjunct teaching, and the ins and outs of working with your PRO. As a “continually emerging” composer myself, I think Lisa speaks for many of us when she wonders how feasible a life as a composer-performer really is.

Lisa, like my other interviewees, has agreed to share her finances with our NewMusicBox readers. We hope that this uncommon practice is informative and valuable to the new music community as we all navigate these mysterious seas together. When I asked her how she felt about sharing her finances, Lisa was honest with her reply:

It makes me feel nervous about having a conversation in an article…but also I’m mad about that nervousness…so I’m like, “Let’s talk about it. This is dumb. It’s hurting all of us.”

The Problems of Moving

For 2018, Lisa’s income as a composer/performer/teacher was affected by her move to a new city. The move was purposeful: Lisa wanted to be in a larger music scene for her own career advancement. Her partner was the first one to get a job that initiated the move. Being a freelancer, Lisa spoke about the difficulty in making connections in a new town, without prior contacts and established support systems. As a private voice teacher, it is almost impossible to build a studio of students from the ground up without being there. Some work was done in advance, like sending introductory emails to local high school and middle school conductors at the start of the school year, but it was easier to reconstruct her private student base by actually being in Portland. Lisa felt fortunate to be sharing fiscal responsibilities with her partner, which allowed her more transition time. She explains that she “would have handled the lead up to the move differently” if she had been on her own.

As a freelancer, much of Lisa’s work and income are built from personal connections and networking face-to-face. Maintaining the normal day-to-day hustle while moving home bases is ultimately problematic. Where do you find the time to network in your new city while you finish up your work in your old town? Moving in June left the summer pretty barren. Adjunct positions for the fall had been filled, and many people do not seek out private lessons until the school year starts up again. Once the fall came around, Lisa was able to start up her studio and get on the radar of professors at Lewis & Clark College to do some temporary adjuncting and subbing for music history courses.

Lisa’s Income

Lisa’s made about $25,560 in 2018 and it breaks down like this:

$12,200 Collegiate adjunct teaching (mostly private voice, some coursework) at three different colleges and universities

$6,500 Teaching private voice lessons (only $500 of that income total was earned in the fall)

$2,160 Composing income (which includes commissioning fees, plus about $120 in ASCAP royalties and $30 from the sale of a score)

$4,700 Performance income (as a mezzo-soprano soloist or ensemble member)

The median household income for Portland is $71,931. During our discussions, Lisa suggested that $60-70k a year is her personal income goal to live comfortably. Keep in mind that Portland, Oregon, is on the high end of the national average (the median income in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is $54,465), and this income is household, which 50% of the time indicates two earners.

It is important to note that Lisa’s 2018 income could have looked much different if she had stayed in Cedar Rapids. Understanding that the bulk of her work was between January and June of 2018, with a bit of extrapolating, it is possible that Lisa’s yearly income could have been closer to $45k – $55k with the same sort of work. Moving to Portland mid-year drastically affected her teaching studio and her potential adjunct income. (She also notes that the adjunct teaching schedule in Iowa, though a great opportunity, was not sustainable for her well-being.)

This is a lesson for freelancers thinking of moving: consider the costs of starting over again. As Lisa expressed in her interview, if it were just her as a single person, she would have had to network in the new city (Portland) far more intensely and have secured an adjunct or arts administration job prior to the move to make moving fiscally possible.

Concerns of Sustainability

Lisa had a lot of concerns about the musician’s eternal hustle. Discussions in new music circles seem to focus on the abundance mindset, networking, creative productivity, and other entrepreneurial tactics. Thought leaders like Garrett Hope (Portfolio Composer), Jennifer Rosenfeld (iCadenza), Dale Trumbore, and Angela Myles Beeching paint an optimistic picture full of ways to advance one’s career. Sometimes this information can be overwhelming, and we start wondering how much one can do in a single day. Lisa is concerned about burn out and for good reason. Is this lifestyle sustainable? Can one meet their income goals without having to become famous, or without having to develop a high-end teaching system or coaching business? We want to believe it’s true, but the sheer amount of things one must do to succeed seems daunting, especially when stacked against actual income.

Freelancing as a composer and a vocalist also has its particular challenges. Lisa expressed a certain “fixed” cost for much of the work she does. Small to medium-sized choirs and ensembles that hire her as a performer only have so much wiggle room for negotiating her artist fee. When teaching private voice lessons, she can only flex rates so much depending on the going rate of the area. Many times, for gigs, she has to either accept the fee at the rate the organization offers it, or not take the gig. Lisa also found that her peers don’t like talking about those fees, maybe because they are lower than where they should be.

“With gig work, there seems to be a specialized kind of not talking about [money].”

ASCAP and Performance Royalties

For each of these financial profile articles, I am trying to find a small focus area within what are pretty natural conversations during the interviews. With Lisa, there was a lot of mystery surrounding performance royalties. As I have been writing this piece, Lisa started to get more sizeable royalty checks from her PRO. I felt that readers would benefit from learning about her experience with increased performances of her works and submitting performances to ASCAP.

As Lisa was discussing the mound of performance documentation she submits, and all of its tediousness, she was ultimately wondering if the work put into claiming performances was worth it. She speaks for us all when she says: “ASCAP royalties… I can’t predict what will get royalties and what won’t.” No matter which PRO organization we are personally affiliated with, I am sure many of us feel this way.

I myself recently submitted a ticket to ASCAP asking about how payouts worked, specifically for educational concerts, and what I learned was (quoting from the email I received): “Performances given under Educational licenses are credited or not credited according to a random sample by date used only in the Educational field. Only performances that take place on sample dates will be credited.“ Luckily, we were also able to get some clarification from ASCAP thanks to a phone call with Cia Toscanini, vice president of concert music. Here is a summary of our conversation about performance royalties for both education and professional concerts.

The email I received above is accurate. Concert programs from educational performances (at colleges, universities, schools, etc.) are collected from licensees and ASCAP members and compiled in a year-long survey. Then a sample survey is done of all concerts within a specific time range and performance royalties are paid out from those performances that fall within the sample. ASCAP samples October 1 through September 30; publisher royalties are paid out in the following March, and writer/composer royalties are paid out in April. In Lisa’s case, some of the publisher royalties were not paid because the performance was not claimed as a publisher. Don’t worry, she still has time to correct that. Toscanini stressed that everyone should register as both a writer and a publisher, and claim performances as both, to receive maximum benefit.

The census for professional concerts (non-educational) is different in that every performance is collected and paid, so long as they are claimed by an ASCAP member or submitted by a licensee and the licensee is up to date on their payments. ASCAP has primers for members that are basically an extremely thorough checklist for concert music performance claims. They can be found here. BMI offers similar resources.

Lisa was generous enough to share her ASCAP royalty activity, especially upon the good news that she received more this year. Here’s the breakdown, for those wondering how it might work out:

In 2018, I was paid $64.03 as a publisher and $64.03 as a composer = $128.08 for 1 performance of my large mixed chamber ensemble piece Twister by Durward Ensemble at Kirkwood Community College in August 2017.

Note that these payments came about three-quarters of a year later. Lisa also registered as a composer ($50 one time fee) and a publisher (another $50 one time fee), so that she received 100% of the royalties for her activity, instead of just 50%. For those wondering, Lisa only gave her publishing company a name for ASCAP (D.C. Al Platypus) and has not set up a truly separate business.

As I was writing this article, Lisa was excited to do even better this past year (2018) with her ASCAP royalties. She also was willing to share these figures:

I just got payment, in April of 2019, for two other 2017 performances, but this will go into tax year 2019 (which begs the question, what took them 18 months?)

October 2017, my marimba solo Icy Celestial Bodies was performed at Cedar Rock House in Quasqueton, Iowa; November 2017, Icy Celestial Bodies was performed at University of Northern Iowa in a faculty concert; November 2017, my marimba duo Thaw was performed at the Sacramento State Festival of New Music in California.

For these performances, I was paid $506 as a composer and $391.26 as a publisher. No idea why those numbers are different.

After speaking with Cia Toscanini, we figured out that a few things affected Lisa’s ASCAP income. First, some of the performances were not claimed as both a writer and a publisher. It is important to do both to receive 100% of the royalties. Delayed payment from the yearly schedule as previously described, usually comes from licensees not paying their fees on time, delaying the payout for the creators.

Lisa also claimed six other performances in 2017 with no royalty payouts. It is possible that these payments are still in the queue somewhere, waiting fee collection, or that they were not part of the sample survey. Only two of those were performed in an educational setting, unless the libraries and museums that were performance spaces were part of an educational institution.

ASCAP does have a messaging system built in to the member section of their website (as I am sure does BMI), and they will get back to you via email when you ask questions. It is worth asking, as performance royalties can be a great side income early on, and as your performances increase, have the potential to become a substantial part.

Continue the Discussion

If this article series speaks to you, I urge you to begin building your network of financial confidantes. Before you have to invoice someone, before you negotiate commissioning fees, before you set your rates, talk with your colleagues and mentors, if they are willing. Find like-minded individuals in similar situations and talk actual dollars. You may be surprised. You may find reassurance. Hopefully you will both be encouraged to protect your worth.

Financial knowledge and literacy doesn’t happen overnight. Tackle one thing at a time, when you can. I know my interview with Lisa has encouraged me to register with ASCAP as a publisher—I’m not sure why I was holding back! But I will save figuring out the royalty distribution formulas for another day.

Stay informed, and be an advocate for your artistic and financial worth. The next article in the series will feature the ensemble loadbang, to give us some financial insight into the nonprofit ensemble world. For all of those interested in freelance life with a performing ensemble, it should be a very interesting interview and a fun article!

Ethical Artistry: Falling Short—Logistics, Programming, and the Moral Complexity of Well-Intentioned Decisions

Planning

This post is the second 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 is here; Part 3 and 4 will follow in the coming weeks.

(Fair warning: this is the longest article in the series, so you may want to skip around. I cover calls-for-scores; age limits; rehearsal time; venues; thematic programs; and demographics. The final portion takes a closer look at the Philadelphia Orchestra’s choice to add female composers to their 2018-19 season and ethical issues that arise.)

In a recent Facebook thread, composer Ryan Olivier (professor of composition at Indiana University South Bend) asked for help compiling a list of ensembles who specialize in new music repertoire. Ryan had already tallied approximately 50 groups on his own list, and more responses poured in, listing dozens and dozens of ensembles working in every sphere to champion new music.

Ryan Olivier FB thread

It was exhilirating at first, reading Ryan’s thread. I thought of the many groups and artists large and small, supporting projects of all kinds. It reminded me that even in our specialized field—one that can feel lonely and isolating at times—there is a larger community out there that is optimistic and passionate about contemporary music. In fact, most colleagues I’ve come into contact with in the field are creative, eager collaborators who support one another.

However, thinking more about Ryan’s post, I felt conflicted.

On the one hand, our vibrant community aspires to promote positive moral virtues: everything from championing new music, to creating databases cataloging works of living composers, to running calls-for-scores, to devising projects and fellowships promoting under-represented composers, to founding large advocacy and service organizations such as New Music USA, New Music Gathering, the American Composers Forum, to others who sponsor forums, infrastructure, and opportunities. All of this helps new music thrive and stay relevant in modern culture.

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On the other hand, in spite of our enthusiasm and good intentions, we’ve seen persistent ethical problems in our field. This includes pragmatic issues, such as the way we review work (and the bias, nepotism, or inconsistency that can occur on panels); to other major philisophical challenges, such as our field’s long history of demographic exclusion and gender bias. (I’ve footnoted just a handful of the many insightful articles discussing these issues.)[i]

We, as a musical community, really do strive to promote positive virtues in our work! We have passionate discussions on Facebook and Twitter, and we see nuanced conference lectures and articles emerging on these topics, yet clearly problems persist, as evidenced by these ongoing discussions.

So why do we keep falling short? I believe that our hearts are mostly in the right place, but that in our zeal to launch a new initiative, or in our constant stream of work running an ensemble, or in the haste of trying to pull off an ambitious project, we often undercut our good intentions.

Here in Part 2, I’m going to dive into many specific issues we’ve all encountered in the field, pointing out some ethical pitfalls lurking behind decisions we frequently face.

Ethical Pitfalls in Logistics & Programming

How do performers, ensembles, festivals, administrators, or curators connect with composers and their music? If you are a curator, do you go on Soundcloud/YouTube listening binges? Are you the spread-sheet type, tallying “bucket lists” of repertoire you hope to perform? If you’re a composer, do you wildly shotgun your music to all competitions far and wide? Do you focus on teaming up with the same set of performers for every piece? Do you have any strategy at all?

There are a lot of ways our music can come into contact with others, but there isn’t a lot of consistency in our field at large for how we evaluate works and provide opportunities for composers. (Sometimes it seems like every ensemble has their own method!) And, no matter what processes we use—from an open call-for-scores, to a competition format with specified prizes and a panel of judges, to a curatorial model that asks individual artists to build programs—we often face a series of similar challenges if we care about promoting works fairly.

Calls-for-Scores: Submission Fees, Review Process, and Transparency[ii]

Calls-for-Scores are a major way to connect composers with ensembles and vice-versa. Many of us have participated in them, some on both sides as submitters and reviewers. Ensembles offering calls-for-scores are usually genuinely interested in promoting composers, but, even with virtuous goals, choices along the way can negatively undermine our good intentions.

Is there a submission fee involved? What type of prizes and opportunities are included with the call-for-scores, and does this justify the fee? (This is a question for both organizers and composers submitting!) It takes a lot of work to run a call-for-scores, and outside judges are often compensated, so sometimes a fee is necessary. Is your organization transparent on your website about why you are charging a submission fee? (I hope this is not a fundraiser!)

Some groups waive a submission fee, if it limits opportunities for otherwise-qualified composers to apply because of financial constraints. This is noble! However, is this approach being consistently applied to all applicants? I know some groups who formally list (and collect) a submission fee in their general call for scores, but also selectively waive its enforcement as they see fit with certain composers in their close circle. (Not cool!) Apply your policies with consistency! It is extremely unfair to require only some composers to pay.

Has your ensemble been realistic about the number of submissions you might receive? Do you have a process in place to ensure…submitted scores are…reviewed in a similar manner? Are you transparent about this process?

Another big issue: how have you structured the review process? Has your ensemble been realistic about the number of submissions you might receive? (Hint: it could be hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds, depending on what opportunity you are offering.) Do you have a process in place to ensure that all of the submitted scores are being reviewed in a similar manner? Are you transparent about this process in your application materials?

pile of scores

Fee or no fee, it takes a lot of time and effort for composers to submit their work, and it is disheartening when bias or inconsistency plays a role in the evaluation process. As an ensemble, think about whether the evaluations should be anonymous or not. Also, can you split up the listening into multiple rounds? Maybe in the first round all pieces will have a similar-length excerpt played and judged. There is no perfect process, but try to at least give each piece the same fair shake!

I was very frustrated sitting on the review side of a call-for-scores one year, as a vague email went out to our rather-large group of performers, encouraging us to access a Dropbox folder where multiple hundreds of scores had been submitted. We were told that we could listen to any number and portion of recordings we chose, and that any comments we left about any pieces would help narrow the batch down to the winners. This group really aspired to champion living composers, and eventually performed dozens of new works on their season, yet their selection process had no consistency or fairness, and hundreds of composers who had paid a submission fee and spent time sending materials weren’t evaluated with similar criteria.

Bottom line: it’s great if you want to curate with a call-for-scores, but make sure to put some real thought into how your ensemble’s selection process can promote the values you stand for!

Age Limits in Programming

There have been wide discussions in our field about age limits. Does having an age-limit minimum or maximum discriminate against those outside of the range? Or does the age limit try to promote a particular initiative (for example, encouraging 10-14-year-old musicians to start composing)? Is it feasible for your group to have multiple age categories? (I think the American Modern Ensemble has a well-thought-out system with two age-based categories, and a third general category open to all.)

Here’s a more subtle question: Do you care about absolute age, or the number of years applicants have trained in composing? Depending on your ensemble’s goals, these questions matter. Let’s consider a hypothetical example.

Imagine two 19-year-old musicians, Jim and Jenny. Jim is a sophomore trumpet major who started composing lessons on the side when he entered college. Jenny is a sophomore composition major, who trained in composition at pre-college for three years. If your ensemble seeks to celebrate your city’s musical youth, then an absolute age category (say, “under-21”) meaningfully promotes Jim’s and Jenny’s work. But, if your ensemble is looking to evaluate and perform works of beginner, intermediate, and advanced composers, age limit categories place Jenny and Jim side-by-side, when in fact Jenny has 5x the experience.

Ultimately, whether age feels artistically and ethically relevant to you is one issue; making sure your policies are promoting this consistently is another!

Rehearsal Time

Most people reading NewMusicBox care about supporting living composers and their music.   Have we thought about the rehearsal demands that bold new works require? Are our rehearsal processes supporting or undermining our larger goal of promoting new music?

This is a really tricky issue! Anyone running an ensemble sees how performers are learning a constant stream of challenging works (new and old), while juggling jam-packed schedules of gigs, teaching, and travelling. There are always budget considerations (even in ensembles with high pay scales) as we determine how much rehearsal time we can afford to pay for any given project, and how many pieces can fit into that schedule. And, as pointed out by Patrick Castillo in a recent NewMusicBox article, there are often other organizational limitations we might rarely consider, including the very spaces in which we work.

Sometimes we make sacrifices: either we program a smaller number of challenging new works, so we can devote more rehearsal time; or, we program more works, but they each receive much less detail in rehearsal; or, we specifically choose works based on their relative ease of rehearsal and performance demands, rather than purely on their artistic merit.

In truth, most ensembles end up considering many of these factors as they make final programming decisions, and in the best cases you can strike a balance where a relatively large number of new works are featured, with each still being artistically ambitious and receiving enough rehearsal to be polished.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency. From left to right: Lisa Kaplan, Yvonne Lam, Nick Photinos, Matthew Duvall, Michael Macceferri, and former member Tim Munro.

However, we have all seen the flipside. It can be frustrating when a performer is improvising your piece on stage, because they didn’t leave enough time to learn it properly. It can be equally frustrating as a performer if a composer or administrator hasn’t put you in a place to succeed, because they gave you the music too late or didn’t schedule enough rehearsal time.

If we devote substantial resources of money, time, and promotional effort to commissioning a new work or organizing a major project, we have an obligation to make sure the music is thoroughly rehearsed and polished before it is brought to life.

There is also a further ethical consideration we tend to overlook: if we devote substantial resources of money, time, and promotional effort to commissioning a new work or organizing a major project, we have an obligation to make sure the music is thoroughly rehearsed and polished before it is brought to life. Otherwise, we undercut our great intentions of supporting new music, and we have also wasted many of the resources we devoted to the project—resources that could have meaningfully benefited any number of other projects!

Project Partners & Venues

Depending on your project goals (see Part 1: “Why am I doing this?” & “Who do I hope to impact?”), certain pragmatic choices you make about collaborators and venues can amplify or detract from your project’s aspirations.

When we choose to work with a specific ensemble or performer, many factors go into the decision. Artistic goals, budget, and availability all play a part. But, just as important is gauging an ensemble’s genuine interest in partnering for a project.

Is this just a gig for them, or are they are really excited about it? How does their ensemble identity and their skill set fit with the project specifics? Remember, prestige isn’t the only important factor; sometimes the best artistic pairings have more to do with passion and commitment to a project, rather than any absolute criteria in performing ability and repertoire.

The most prestigious venue isn’t always the best one to showcase the music you’ve chosen…Which spaces will really help your curation shine in its intended way?

The same general principle is true of venues. Have you thought about spaces best suited for your project? The most prestigious venue isn’t always the best one to showcase the music you’ve chosen. Think about everything from acoustic specifics to lighting and atmosphere, and consider which spaces will really help your curation shine in its intended way.

Also, do logistical factors of venue location, ticket price, and concert time prejudice access to your event to a select audience? Is there a significant portion of potential concert attendees who will be excluded by one of these aspects?

Concerts or Festivals with a Theme

Let’s say your ensemble wants to program music with a specific theme. What do you gain and what do you lose with this approach? Consider some specifics of your theme, and why you are drawn to it. Also consider how your theme might include some pieces, but exclude others.

One popular theme I’ve seen is regional composer festivals and concerts. In these cases, only those from a certain geographic area are eligible to participate. On the plus side, there can be good funding to sponsor artists from a specific region (yay!) On the minus side, composers outside of the region are excluded (boo!).

Sometimes a local or regional festival can strengthen ties and promote artists working in the same area, showcasing a spotlight on local creators. But, does this gain outweigh the fact that local audiences might already have access to artists in their area? Does your theme allow the project to showcase some composers from outside the region, as well?

What about programming themes based on social causes or movements? When planned carefully, these themes can be a powerful tool to give voice to under-represented composers and pieces within larger, holistic, artistic planning. If approached haphazardly, myopic programming may do little to shine a meaningful light on a social cause, or worse, it may end up excluding many composers (including those it aspires to promote).

Have you seen approaches more successful and convincing? Or some which left you wanting more? I’ve been particularly impressed with ensembles who take strides to balance their programming, year after year: regularly featuring living composers; working to commission new works and also to give second or third performances of other recently composed works; sometimes curating mini-festivals that celebrate a specific social demographic (e.g. all-female composers; or all African American composers); sometimes curating mini-festivals that celebrate a single composer or aesthetic movement; etc.

I’ve found myself less than impressed with ensembles who don’t consistently promote living composers, or those who claim to promote diversity by featuring a single composer from an under-represented group, while not featuring the work of any other living composers (from any demographics). Real diversity in programming is something many of us aspire to, but it involves careful planning and thinking. Is diversity truly achieved along the lines of any single criteria? Is it accomplished by a single project initiative like a festival of “X” composers or “Y” aesthetic movement? We can probably safely say no.

If we really care about diversity in our programming and musical work, we have to be committed to the “broad view” (see Part 1) and consistently take a look at the projects we pursue over the long haul. Some spreadsheets and quick demographic tallies of season programming can be helpful tools (as we’ll see in Part 3) to assess whether we are a little too zoomed in on a specific niche of repertoire and have unintentionally left out whole branches of composers without being aware.

Recognition is an Important First Step; A Measured Response is Second

Recognizing the moral complexity of these many decisions we face in the field is an important first step. Do our artistic actions align with our stated intentions? Of equal importance is the second step: coming up with a measured response (not a knee-jerk reaction) to the tough questions we are asking. At times, we rush our decisions when an issue feels urgent, but this can do more harm than good, or it can fail to address deeper issues.

At times, we rush our decisions when an issue feels urgent, but this can do more harm than good, or it can fail to address deeper issues.

Let’s consider an example, which will serve to finish Part 2 and lead us to Parts 3 and 4. This centers on the complex and delicate issue of representing diversity in our programming.

Imagine that you are an ensemble or organization that presents concerts to the public. It has come to your attention through public feedback and discourse that you’ve had a fairly big “blind spot” over the years: you’ve programmed contemporary music only marginally, and within that you’ve rarely featured composers of color or female composers. What do you do?

A lot of us would want to spring into action to remedy the situation, and surely there are some short term steps you can take. It would be a good start to rethink your season programming and look for spots where you can insert repertoire by living and under-represented composers. But don’t be too quick to pat yourself on the back. This immediate fix only addresses your blind spot on a very local and short-term level.

What about the larger issue of diverse programming? One major factor in the push to include more works by under-represented composers is that, historically, they haven’t had the same opportunities to work and succeed in our field. So, if you are serious about addressing this issue, it takes increased commitment in the long term—considering not only the numerical quotas and statistics of works we program in a single season, but also the general quality of opportunities we are providing at large.

A few months ago a scenario very similar to this one played out in a very public way. NPR media published a stirring article (“The Sound of Silence”) talking about the lack of diverse programming in major American symphony orchestra seasons. If you missed it, critic Alex Ross summed it up in a succinct, but damning tweet:

Alex Ross tweet

Responding to the intense scrutiny, the Philadelphia Orchestra actually re-worked some of their concert season, adding pieces by Anna Clyne and Stacey Browne, appointing Gabriela Lena Frank as a composer-in-residence, and scheduling a reading session in partnership with the American Composers Orchestra of six emerging female composers (who had previously worked with ACO).

These steps were an important short-term fix, and the orchestra knows the work is not done. Philadelphia Orchestra Artistic Administrator Jeremy Rothman was quoted in a follow-up article as saying, “We acknowledge there is still a great imbalance…At the same time, it’s certainly more productive than ignoring the conversation. When it’s pointed out, we are right to be responsive.”

So what are the larger ethical issues at stake in a case like this? One obvious problem is in demographic disparity. This is, to a large degree, a numerical or “quantitative” issue. The orchestra’s response had a meaningful impact in this regard, as they quickly restructured their season to feature nine female composers in some capacity, instead of zero. (And there may be a greater quantitative ripple felt, if other young female composers can look up to these nine as role models, and feel inspired to pursue orchestral composing as a result.)

Yet, other ethical issues should not have been overlooked. One major aspect of the discussion about female composers is that there are hundreds of talented and qualified female composers working in the field; so if we’re not programming them, it means we’re not taking the time to look broadly at their work (and at the work of all living composers) in the first place.

Where does the Philadelphia Orchestra fall on this issue? Are they committed to looking widely or not? I was not privy to artistic talks on these matters, but I do know that many other orchestras around the country have started public initiatives to review the work of emerging composers.[iii] Has the Philadelphia Orchestra considered anything like this?

Even in the case of this season, the orchestra agreed to feature six mid-career female composers in a reading workshop. But, they relied on the American Composers Orchestra, as a partner in the selection process. Going forward will we see more independent committment to exploring works of living composers from Philadelphia directly? When we feel the need to act urgently with short-term solutions, we may not address other long-term issues that are just as important.

Another issue: what steps are being taken within these major institutions to support and encourage composition education? Other orchestras (including ”Group 1” peers like the LA Phil and NY Phil) have pursued young composer programs in their education departments, giving students opportunities for mentorship and interaction with orchestra musicians. If (and hopefully as) more major institutions really commit whollistically to supporting composers by establishing education programs for students, supporting emerging composers with calls-for-scores or readings open broadly (not just to those previously selected by another organization), and taking a careful look at quantitative programming for established composers featured on their subscription season, we won’t end up with more NPR articles like “The Sound of Silence”[iv] because there is a wealth of amazing music out there that will end up being featured!

At the end of the day, when facing complex ethical dilemmas, it is not enough that we care; we must also take extra steps to ensure a complete outcome. This is where we often fall short as individual artists and larger institutions. The good news is, if we commit to ensuring a complete outcome, our institutions can transform and become a major platform for the opportunity and dissemination of vital creative work.


[i] There is a large archive of articles going back many decades on these subjects, and recently NewMusicBox and passionate individual artists in our field have been trying to shed light and start meaningful dialogue on these complex issues. Here are a few great articles: on issues of systemic racism in music by Anthony R. Green and Jack Curtis Dubowsky; and issues of gender bias and exclusion by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Kristen Kuster, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Rob Deemer (who includes links to many other articles in his work).

[ii] For those interested in running a call-for-scores or a competition, you may want to ask the advice of colleagues and ensembles who have organized these before, and you may also want to check out: https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/so-you-want-to-host-a-composition-competition/.

[iii] Some orchestras have run their own calls-for-scores and workshops for emerging composers for many years, including the Minnesota Orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra, the Nashville Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and others; and many other orchestras including the Colorado Symphony, the San Diego Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and many regional orchestras, have teamed up with the Earshot Network to sponsor calls-for-scores and workshops.

[iv] I am optimistic the orchestra heard the message and that they are trying to address some of these issues on a deeper level (not just with a short-term fix).  They recently appointed two female conductors to their staff roster, and according to a recent press release, current Philadelphia Orchestra “Music Alive” Composer-in-Residence Hannibal Lokumbe has been active, both in taking music into community venues as part of his residency, and also helping to lead some “Composer’s Umbrella” workshops.  I’m hoping these, and other initiatives, will endure and feature more prominently in future seasons.

Do it right or do it right now?

Still from Infoxication

Arguments in favor of quality and procrastination

Several years ago, I shared a bill with a musician who spent the entirety of his 45-minute set improvising with what can only be described as an arsenal of toneless extended techniques interspersed with episodes of heavy breathing. Setting aside my own proclivities for melody and my firm position on the ‘downtown’ side of any remaining stylistic divide, the show was objectively monotonous, self-indulgent, and under-baked—the equivalent of a musician jamming alone in his living room with his eyes closed, except in this case for a paying, open-eyed audience. One that grew increasingly restless.

The catchall advice that we are given as composers and musicians, and to which I can only assume this man had pegged his creative philosophy, is to just “do it right now.” Just get up. Just perform. Just write. Get it done. Throw it down on the page and move on to the next one. Don’t over think. Don’t look back. What matters is that it’s finished. And that you are “staying busy.” In many ways I agree with this advice and think a great deal can be learned by generating in sheer volume, getting up on any stage we can, producing continuously and seeing where the road winds. Improving by rote practice while throwing as many darts as possible and hoping that some hit the bull’s-eye. It’s a legitimate approach. Especially early on.

After a certain point, however, this advice starts feeling too much like a reductive sound-byte for my liking and I think it’s prudent to take a step back, focusing instead on “doing it right” rather than “doing it right now,” and avoiding the inevitable feeling of running in circles that arises when saying yes to every single opportunity that comes along. The evening with that improviser still lingers in my mind because, while I respect the chutzpah it takes to get up and perform a show off the cuff, it is so antithetical to everything that I have been working towards in recent years.

Waiting for perfection to come knocking ensures that you will never act, yet conversely, not striving to get close to it guarantees that you will produce mediocre work.

“Doing it right” likely means different things to different people, but for me it has meant taking on fewer projects so that I can do them better, pursuing larger, long-term undertakings as both a composer/musician and producer, and being deliberate about how what I do choose to do fits in with how I hope to shape the arc of my career. “Doing it right” is trying to do everything to the absolute best of my abilities at all times, pushing everyone I am surrounded by to do the same, and being detail-oriented. The stage, literal or digital, is after all a privilege, and I think you owe your audience the respect of trying to make that show as good as it can possibly be. “Doing it right” is empowering.

In this quest for quality, however, the question of when exactly to pull the trigger and launch big, self-driven projects comes up often, and I think about the “do it right” vs. “right now” duality constantly in relation to my own work. Sitting on material or ideas until they are “perfect” is, after all, a dangerous game. Waiting for perfection to come knocking ensures that you will never act, yet conversely, not striving to get close to it guarantees that you will produce mediocre work. Icarus should get close to the sun, yet never quite touch it. The hard part is in determining how close one should attempt to fly, while balancing both thoughts in one’s head and making smart decisions regarding when it’s time to say “go.”

Sadly I don’t have any revelatory answers to this problem. However for me, the guiding principle is always “what will serve the art best,” the answer to which is not always “doing it right now.” Projects where other entities are setting the deadlines, there are commercial interests and complex timelines involved, or jobs are structured on a “for hire” basis are obviously a different conversation (honor those commitments “right now!”), but for my own self-driven creative projects, the obstacles that come up along the road to making “good art” always wind up orbiting this fundamental question. They arise on the creative side (ex. “this song needs a better guitar sound”), as well as the logistical one (“I only received partial funding for this project” or “the engineer I like is busy”), as well as a murky-waters conflation of the two (“how do I pay for the studio and the good engineer so I can get a better guitar sound”). Case-by-case solutions don’t always reveal themselves immediately, and, in trying to “serve the art best,” sometimes I think it’s a good thing to take one’s time, letting big projects marinate and giving them space to bloom into their optimally realized form.

For me, the guiding principle is always “what will serve the art best.”

One such instance in my own career, which I include not as a universal flag-bearer for “doing art right” so much as an example of patience (and persistence) eventually proving a virtue, was an immersive multimedia performance project called Infoxication that I made with Roya Sachs, Ashley Jackson, and a team of about 40 people. Infoxication took us a few years to realize, went through more creative iterations than I care to count, switched presenters, and lost and regained its funding. It was almost a centerpiece of Google’s Pixel launch. Then it wasn’t. It was going to run for a while. Then not quite so long. We thought people might quit. (Fortunately, they didn’t.) And along the way, we had many conversations about scaling the project down to a small concert that could fall within our immediate reach.

Yet something in our gut told us that our original idea deserved better, and we persevered. Eventually the project wound up at Spring Place in New York City, with generous financial support from their team as well as Google and New Music USA, and collaborators including PUBLIQuartet, Dušan Týnek, Heather Hansen, Inbal Segev, and Bentley Meeker. The end result was something we are all proud of: a sci-fi Sleep No More meets The Office performance ‘installation’ inspired by the information age, replete with dancers on Chromebooks dressed as office drones climbing on the walls, and devastatingly good performances. It. Was. Awesome. Sold out beyond capacity. And one of my favorite things I’ve done. Our team still reminisces about how special it was. Not bad for a little project that almost went into the garbage.

There have, of course, been countless instances along the way in which “doing it right now” was the right decision, wherein projects less belabored in their development quickly coalesced into something special. Another collaboration with Ashley springs to mind, in which I wrote a piece for her in a few weeks, she premiered it, played it again at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!, and I insisted she record it for an album right away despite her hesitation. In that instance, I simply knew she could pull it off and that we had the right recording circumstances to do it.

For me, the hard part is always in determining which projects are which, and when the stars are close enough in alignment that it’s best to just jump off the proverbial diving board (not to mention when to mix your metaphors). Personally, the answers I try to seek for myself when steering my own projects are very simple:

  • If the project has real potential and you will regret not taking time to elevate it, wait and “do it right”
  • If the project is close enough that it can be completed now without significant sacrifices in quality, and the imminent opportunity is something that you will regret passing up, “do it right now.”

Ultimately, however, there is no one-size-fits-all guideline, the argument over whether less or more is more and how best to strategize your way to a successful career isn’t one that can be resolved, and there are examples of great creators who adhere to both philosophies. It’s also something that shifts project by project as well as over time. And, as noted, it’s a conversation that only applies to those fortuitous circumstances in which we are calling all the shots.

Overall, I believe that quality, however and whenever it’s possible to attain, will always speak for itself, that there is value in taking one’s time, and that what some might flippantly dismiss as procrastination is often actually meaningful development—though obviously the line between the two requires thoughtful navigation. “Doing it right now” can be equally slippery, since a carpe diem attitude is essential to finishing any project, yet in itself can be an excuse and means of self-sabotage. Simply not trying that hard or not taking the time to do something well can make it easier to feel like you didn’t really fail. Immediate action and constant activity permit that figurative shoulder shrug: “Well, at least I tried.”

In the end, perhaps really, truly “trying” is all we should ever stake our bets on: attacking projects decisively, aiming high, holding ourselves and our collaborators to a lofty standard, and being sure of what we want to say. The “right” vs. “right now” pendulum will swing back and forth indefinitely, and it’s only through developing intuition, self-awareness, familiarity with the people you are working with, and sheer trial and error that anyone can reliably decide when is the “right time” to take action. Maybe all we can say definitively is that “now is the time to do it right.”

Teaching the Music of Now: A Mission, a Project, and a Conference

Research on Contemporary Composition Conference

Most of us who teach music history at the college level want to develop a curriculum that brings students right up to the present day. We know that the story of Western art music doesn’t end with the last chapter of the textbook, and we worry about accidentally teaching students that innovation and creativity in the field of composition are things of the past.

Many of us also seek to resist the canon. As historians, we are aware that the “important” composers enshrined in our textbooks are less significant than the diverse and complex musical landscapes in which they flourished. We are also increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that those “important” composers are almost all white men whose work was facilitated by their ability to take advantage of socioeconomic structures (and, in many cases, the invisible labor of their wives).

Finally, some of us are actively committed to introducing our students to the work of living composers. We are interested in expanding and challenging our students’ tastes, bringing new audiences to contemporary music, and helping students to understand how the art music economy works today.

The last chapter of the textbook was no particular help. I concluded the semester with the nagging concern that I had just taught my students about the end of art music.

These goals and concerns certainly occupied my thoughts the first time that I taught 20th- and 21st-century music history. It was 2013, and I was in my first semester as an instructor at the University of North Georgia. I taught a fairly conventional class that traced the emergence of major stylistic movements and focused on new ideas about how and why to write music. When I arrived at the end of the 20th century, however, I faltered. Where was this story going? The last chapter of the textbook—a scattershot survey of composers and works up to the early 2000s—was no particular help. I concluded the semester with the nagging concern that I had just taught my students about the end of art music.

In 2014, I set out to remedy this error. I designed a new research project for my students to complete over the course of the semester. Instead of asking students to research and write about music from the past, I paired each with a living composer. (I started with a roster of my own friends and acquaintances, although this project has since grown to incorporate a large number of composers whom I have never met.) Each student interviewed their composer and studied one of their compositions. At the end of the semester, students gave in-class presentations in which they introduced their colleagues to the composer and work, examined the economic and creative contexts of the composer’s labor, and positioned the work within the current musical landscape.

I was very pleased with the initial round of presentations. I saw my students doing their best work and making deep personal connections with the music they had studied. The next year produced similar outcomes. In 2016, therefore, I scheduled a Saturday symposium, put up posters, and invited the entire department to come see the talks. Although attendance was hardly overwhelming, the event sparked the imagination of my colleague, composer Dr. David Peoples. Why not develop a real conference around the topic of research on living composers and their work?

In November of 2017, the first annual Research on Contemporary Composition Conference (ROCC) took place on our Dahlonega campus. The one-day event brought scholars and composers from across the country and from abroad to present their work alongside my students. In addition, afternoon and evening concerts featured new compositions by members of the NACUSA Southeast chapter. In 2018, ROCC was expanded to two days and the event included an invitation for composers to submit electronic compositions or scores for performance. Participants enjoyed hearing about each other’s work and discussing their research, but they were particularly enthusiastic about the conference’s pedagogical component.

In 2019, therefore, we hope to include presentations by undergraduate students from other institutions, and I would like to strongly encourage music history educators to become involved with this endeavor. If you want to assign my research project in class, you can access the assignment here. However, we welcome undergraduate submissions on any topic related to contemporary composition, whether the work is completed independently, as a summer project, or as a senior thesis. We also continue to welcome submissions from scholars and composers. This year, ROCC will take place on October 26 and 27. The call for submissions can be found here.

Pursuing undergraduate research is a recognized High-Impact Practice—a pedagogical approach that has been proven to boost graduation rates and increase student success. I have demonstrated that this particular project has a positive impact on students’ knowledge of and personal investment in the work of living composers. Yet perhaps most importantly, my students tell me that participating in ROCC is a transformative experience. It changes the way that they think about themselves as musicians and scholars.

By completing original research and sharing it with the broader community, students don’t just learn music history—they help to write it.

By completing original research and sharing it with the broader community, students don’t just learn music history—they help to write it. Each develops a unique perspective and knowledge base that empowers them to shape the conversation taking place around contemporary composition. This is a thrilling experience. Too often, music history students are expected to memorize and regurgitate narratives that have been uncovered and enshrined by “real” scholars. When they become scholars themselves, they don’t just learn about the subject under investigation. They learn about the role of the historian and analyst. They learn that scholarship is subjective, contentious, slippery, and incomplete.

Researching contemporary music also teaches students something important about history. A survey course can easily convey the impression that “great” music is a finite resource generated by a handful of genius composers, each of whom built upon the achievements of the last, and that the composers who have been forgotten failed to earn a place in the repertoire due to their own shortcomings. Concert programming, performance curricula, and popular discourse all serve to reinforce this message. When students become researchers, however, the picture changes.

First, they encounter the extraordinary diversity of ideas, styles, values, objectives, and careers pursued by composers. If there is so much variety today, how can the past have been as monotonous as they are led to believe? They immediately understand that music has always been created from diverse perspectives.

Second, they gain first-hand experience with the vagaries of permanence. They see how a lucky break can thrust one artist into the limelight, while others of equal merit continue to work in the shadows. Where is the guarantee that the “great” composers of today will be remembered? The notion that permanence must be equated with genius becomes ludicrous.

Finally, by leading students to engage with contemporary music, educators can easily begin to address the diversity problems that plague the music history curriculum. There are plenty of non-male and non-white composers creating all kinds of music today, and it is not difficult to bring their voices and sounds into the classroom. Of course, this does not free us from our responsibility to address historical inequalities and to incorporate the contributions of sidelined composers from all eras. It is, however, an excellent place to start.

Ethical Artistry: Are we really asking ourselves these tough questions?

Outdoor string quartet performance

A little background: For more than two years, I worked to co-curate the Intricate Machines project with composer Phil Taylor and the Aizuri Quartet. Along the way, we had many discussions ranging from the pragmatic details of venue and budget, to deep artistic conversations about musical values. Our process challenged many of the assumptions we had about concert curation and presenting routines, showing us that no single set of guidelines apply to every project, and that decisions we made at every stage—from instrumentation to venue to repertoire—encompassed “lessons” that weren’t unique to us, or even to concert curation in general; instead, they were part of larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists.

So here we are. In a nutshell, over the next four weeks I will discuss the types of projects we pursue and who they benefit (Part 1); I will illustrate the complexity of certain decisions we face when running ensembles and curating concerts (Part 2); I will consider various ways we tend to evaluate our work (Part 3); and, I will argue that our efforts really do matter in terms of how we affect and reach others through our artistry (Part 4).


Pursuing Projects, Finding the Balance, & Reckoning with Artistic Guilt

It came as a surprise when I realized I’d been organizing, presenting, and performing contemporary music concerts for more than a decade. Sometimes these were really special projects near and dear to my heart, but more often they were rather pedestrian, fulfilling some calendar quota at a summer festival or university.

From a very young age musicians get lulled into the routine of these events, from holiday concerts in grade school to those tedious group studio recitals.

Later, in universities and conservatories, we perform degree recitals where our artistic choices are filtered through a rubric of academic requirements. They are often structured with a sort of formula or routine. For example, if you do a quick google search for “voice recital degree requirements,” dozens of similar rubrics pop up. (Here are a few from the University of North Texas and San Francisco Conservatory.)

These sorts of prescriptive recital curricula have strong educational value, ensuring that any student working through a degree program will develop targeted skills. Voice students, for example, will have practiced singing works in different languages, different mediums (e.g. art song, aria, oratorio, etc.), and different historical periods, and this will help in a variety of professional areas where they may later work.

Yet, in spite of their pragmatic design and pedagogical value, our students easily conflate that ticking off these sorts of checkboxes is the essence of what we are meant to do as artists. In fact, these recitals are not an end unto themselvesthey are meant to develop our skills so we have the versatility to pursue other far-reaching artistic endeavors!

When I first started curating concerts outside of school, I struggled to make this distinction. I was swept along in the entrenched patterns I trained under, and it was all too easy to keep my head down and just go with the flow—Hey, just tell me where/when the gig is and I’ll be there!rather than asking if my concerts and artistry were really reaching people in powerful ways.

Crowd Out w/David Lang

A performance of crowd out for 1000 untrained voices by David Lang, performed in Chicago, 2014
David T. Kindler, courtesy of Chicago Humanities Festival and Illinois Humanities

If we’re not careful, we can easily take for granted the ways in which our concerts provide a vital point of connection to a public audience that may or may not have an intimate knowledge of the musical world we inhabit. Because of this, we not only have a chance to connect to our audiences, but an obligation to help guide their concert experience in meaningful ways. If we don’t embrace this responsibility and challenge, we miss the opportunity to showcase the beauty and relevance of our unique artistic world, or worse, we risk turning people off from it.

Our concerts provide a vital point of connection to a public audience.

Why Am I (Are We) Doing This?

This is one of the toughest artistic questions we face, and one easy to run from when we curate a project. It is often easier to follow the steps of a well-defined rolelike gigging as a freelancer, enjoying the active musicking of performing in a community choir, or working as an employee in a professional ensemblethan it is to invent or craft our own projects.

But, at other times we do choose to step outside of these defined roles, pursuing projects in which we invest our own time, money, and mental energy. In these cases, what is the driving force? Is it a career boost? Is it a musical opportunity we don’t have elsewhere? Is it part of curatorial duties we fulfill with an ensemble? Is our project centered around an aesthetic idea, or a collection of repertoire and artists? Is the project fulfilling a social or cultural need in the community? Or maybe it’s a combination of these (and other) factors.

Understanding and deeply connecting to your project’s underlying artistic goals can inexorably guide your work. Your belief and passion is the basis around which others will connect to your ideas. Whether your project centers on a social movement, a set of composers, or even a vague artistic notion that you imagine but struggle to articulate in words, your conviction becomes a rallying cry that can reach others and transform them.

One of the most memorable concerts I ever attended was dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Fase (1982), a choreographic rendering of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, Come Out, Violin Phase, and Clapping Music staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the 2006 BAM Next Wave Festival.

 

For those unfamiliar with Fase (and with early Steve Reich), this setting lasts over 50 minutes, as each of the four Reich scores is played in its entirety. Unlike many of Reich’s later works, these early pieces are extremely limited in their materialrepeating a few small musical cells over and over and over, in phasing repetition. Keersmaeker’s choreography is similarly minimal and repetitive, focusing on a few gestures and movements that cycle again and again, closely mirroring the musical architecture in long, unvaried, stretches.

In other words: it’s long, extremely intense, and fairly boring in the sense that it provides very little variety or reprieve. But, for me, it was also nothing short of brilliant and inspiring!

Keersmaeker’s work had such conviction and dedication to its concept. Meanwhile, Keersmaker and Dolven performed with virtuosity, focus, and determination, sweeping me up in the experience, in spite of the fact that it was long and psychologically intense![1]

This was the type of concert experience that illustrated the visceral power of art and made me want to be a composer. Today, curating my own projects, I try to harness the type of conviction I saw in Fase as I craft projects to try and reach others.

Your convinction becomes a rallying cry that can reach others and transform them.

Unfortunately, as much as conviction can positively guide our artistry, a lack of conviction in programming ideas can also detract negatively. Sometimes our programming can be sort of lazy and half-hearted (e.g. going through the motions, checking off the boxes, etc.). At other times, we feel indifferent, making curatorial choices that are sort of random, or which we feel are minimally relevant. Perhaps scariest of all, we can take a nihilistic view that no programing decisions we make will really matter or affect others in a meaningful way.

I can’t force you to be morally optimistic, but I think a lot of us as artists and listeners have experienced moments of powerful personal reflection and transformation at a concert, and these moments seem to fly in the face of artistic pessimism. Whether it is towering sound giving us chills and goosebumps, or the depths of a haunting piece that ravages our emotions, or some unique communal experience we felt while participating together in a live musical event, it often feels like these revelatory moments result from musical conviction, not from coincidence.

In a word, if we ask ourselves, “Why am I even doing this?” and spend some time really thinking about our answer, I suspect it might guide us towards a sense of conviction that will reach others in a powerful way.

Who Does My Project Benefit? Be Honest, Not Guilty.

As artists, it is important to have autonomy and freedom. And, pursuing any kind of curation or concert project takes a lot of work. So we shouldn’t feel guilty about pursuing projects that deeply interest us, or that will benefit our career in an obvious way. (After all, we’re the ones putting the work inwriting grants, calling venues, renting equipment, and so on!) Furthermore, many of us see the value of projects oriented towards community or social justice, but are reticent to involve ourselves if we feel the projects won’t meaningfully contribute to our own artistic life and goals.

We shouldn’t necessarily feel guilty about any of these positions, but we also should be willing to face the music and admit that some projects we pursue primarily benefit ourselves, and some more widely engage with others.

Wrestling with this balance is largely the crux of what Elliot Cole discusses in his article “Questions I Ask Myself.” Cole notes how much of our musical work as contemporary composers is often structured around personal gain and value systems defined by the specialization of our field, rather than being focused on what it provides to communities outside of the field. Cole’s honesty, and his willingness to engage with these questions, are important steps to take in measuring the impact of our artistry. Are we lost in a monotonous flow of formulaic concerts and accepted practices for artistic work? And are we putting too much weight on awards-based paradigms as the main criteria of evaluating artistic work?

In thinking about many of Cole’s specific questions, and about my general query of who our concerts benefit, we might bear in mind two important considerations. First, we should evaluate our artistic efforts and impact according to a broad and long-term view. In a lifetime spent in the arts, we have a chance to pursue certain projects for ourselves, focusing on individual growth, career gain, and other personal considerations, while other initiatives we pursue primarily benefit others as we provide education, access to music, community engagement, and so on.

Second, the purposes and impacts of any one project can be manifold, meaning the event you are investing so much time and effort into can ideally benefit you and others at the same time. In fact, many times we start a project focused on its benefit to our career or artistry, but as it grows, we may find ways for the project to have a wider outward impact.

When Phil Taylor, the Aizuri Quartet, and I began work on the Intricate Machines project, our passion for presenting five powerful, recent, string quartet works guided many decisions. Audiences on our tour connected deeply to our conviction for the music, which had spawned the project in the first place. But the project also evolved over time, and we ended up leading composer guest talks at five different universities, as well as multiple outreach events with the Aizuris coaching teenage and collegiate string musicians. In the end, our project benefited our careers, while also impacting audiences and communities on a wider level.

If you look at your own career (or ensemble or series, etc.) what balance do you strike? Are your projects exclusively career oriented? Or, are you devoting substantial time towards community ventures, but putting your artistic growth on hold as a result? Is there a middleground you can find?

Maybe the core of the amazing artistic project you are pursuing (e.g. a recital, recording, commission, etc.) can stay the same, but you can find additional ways for the project to impact (or be accessed by) communities that might not otherwise experience it. Or, maybe the community project you spend so much time on can start to include repertoire or curation that will simultaneously benefit your career in a direct way.

These ideas and suggestions take time to pursue, and they may not apply to every project. But, when we take extra steps to think deeply about our artistic work, we often improve both the quality of our projects and the scope of their impact.

For me these two central issues—conviction in concert programming (“Why am I doing this?”) and audiences who are potentially impacted (“Who does my project benefit?”)—are an important litmus test. Some groups are striking a great balance in their work, while others, it seems, are hardly taking these issues into consideration.



1. I think others experienced the work in a similar way. John Rockwell, writing for the New York Times remarked, “It is dry, austere and long, the movements inevitably lacking the shimmering resonance of…Mr. Reich’s scores. But in its intensely focused way it’s still a masterpiece.”

How to Exist: 20 Years of NewMusicBox

An interview takes place in a study-type room, with a man sitting on a couch, another man with his back to us sitting in a chair, and a woman in a blue dress behind the camera filming

Forgive me if I begin this look back at twenty years of NewMusicBox and its times by opening a different, older, but resolutely print magazine. In October 2000, about 18 months after NMBx’s founding, The Wire, the UK-based magazine for new and exploratory music, reached a milestone of its own: issue number 200. It marked the occasion with a directory of 200 “essential websites”: sites for record labels, venues, artists, discussion groups, and more. Nearly two decades later, the idea of trying to write down any sort of meaningful index to the web seems extraordinarily quaint; but at the start of the century, before Google transformed how we think about information, such things were not uncommon. Back then—and I’m just about old enough to remember this—it still felt as though if you put in a few days’ work, you could pretty much get a complete grasp of the web (or at least of that slice of it that met your interests).

Within The Wire’s directory, among a collection of links to 18 “zines,” sits NewMusicBox. Here’s Christoph Cox’s blurb:

Run by the American Music Center, an institution founded in 1942 [sic] “to foster and encourage the composition of contemporary music and to promote its production, publication, distribution and performance in every way possible,” NewMusicBox’s monthly bulletins do this admirably, and, with recent issues exploring topics as various as the relationship between alternative rock and contemporary classical, the funding of new composition, and the world of microtonality, regular visits are worthwhile.

NMBx’s presence on this list isn’t surprising. (Although I hadn’t looked at this issue of The Wire for many years myself, I was confident the site would be in there.) The online magazine of the AMC (and later New Music USA) has always been close to the forefront in online publishing. What is surprising—and just as telling—is that aside from a few websites devoted to individual composers (Chris Villars’ outstanding Morton Feldman resource; Eddie Kohler’s hyperlinked collection of John Cage stories, Indeterminacy; Karlheinz Stockhausen’s homepage-slash-CD store-slash-narrative control center stockhausen.org), almost no other sites in The Wire’s catalogue are devoted to contemporary classical music or modern composition. The sole major exception is IRCAM, whose pioneering, well-funded, and monumental presence (especially through its ever-expanding BRAHMS resource for new music documentation) gives an indication of the level NMBx was working at to have achieved so much so early on.

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Although NMBx was at the forefront of online resources in 1999, the idea of an online publication for contemporary American music had been circulating at the AMC for some time. A long time, in fact. In 1984—just two years after the standardization of the TCP/IP protocol on which the internet is built, and when the web was still called ARPANET—the AMC’s long-range planning committee wrote, “The American Music Center will make every effort to become fully computerized and to develop a computer network among organizations concerned with contemporary music nationwide.”[i] This seems like an almost supernatural level of foresight for an organization that was still at that time based around its library of paper scores. That is, until one recalls the number of composers, especially of electronic music, who were themselves at the forefront of computer technology. One of these was Morton Subotnick, a member of the AMC board and one of new music’s earliest of early adopters. Deborah Steinglass, currently New Music USA’s interim CEO, but back then AMC’s Director of American Music Week (and soon to become its Development Director), recalls a meeting in 1989—the same year that Tim Berners-Lee published his proposal for a world wide web—in which Subotnick introduced the potential of computer networks for documenting and sharing information to the board, whose members were astonished and incredulous.[ii]

From its beginnings, NMBx was about making composers heard.

Yet they were moved to take it seriously. Carl Stone, another composer-board member who was involved from an early stage, reports that early models were an ASCII-based Usenet or bulletin board-type system that would allow users to exchange and distribute information nationwide.[iii] This idea evolved quickly, and ambitiously. A strategic plan drawn up in 1992 and submitted in January 1993 states that during 1994, the Center would “create an online magazine with new music essays, articles, editorials, reviews, and discussion areas for professionals and the general public.” Alongside Stone and Subotnick, the early drivers of this interest in technological innovation included fellow board members John Luther Adams, Randall Davidson, Ray Gallon, Eleanor Hovda, Larry Larson, and Pauline Oliveros.

This is not to say that everyone at the AMC was an early adopter; Stone says that one of his main tasks was “to keep driving the idea of an online service forward. While it might seem obvious today, there was significant resistance to an online service in some quarters. Some people felt it would be dehumanizing, expensive. They couldn’t see the coming ubiquity of computers in our daily life.” A key role in maintaining this drive, Steinglass tells me, was played by the AMC’s Executive Director Nancy Clarke. Clarke, a music graduate from Brown University, had worked as a music program specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts before coming to the AMC in 1983. According to Steinglass, Clarke was very interested in technology and was sympathetic to the predictions of Subotnick and others. It was she as much as anyone who pushed for and implemented an online presence for the AMC.

The fruit of these discussions (and several successful funding bids written by Steinglass) was the launch of amc.net in the first half of 1995: the same year as online game-changers such as eBay and Amazon, but months before either. In fact, the AMC’s website (designed by Jeff Harrington) proved to be one of the world’s first for a non-profit service organization, a testament to the vision and ambition of Clarke, Stone, Subotnick, and the rest of the AMC board. By June 12, according to a letter from Clarke to the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust (one of the site’s funders), it was already receiving a respectable 20,000 hits a month.

Yet the goal of a web magazine devoted to contemporary American music—meaning all sorts of non-commercial music, from jazz to experimental, as well as concert music—remained incomplete. In that same June letter, Clarke lists the services amc.net was providing: they include a catalogue of scores held in the AMC’s library; a compendium of creative opportunities (updated daily); listings of jazz managers and record companies; a forthcoming database of composers, scores, performers, and organizations; and that mid-’90s online ubiquity, the guestbook. But no mention of a magazine.

The idea was reinvigorated in 1997. Richard Kessler arrived as the AMC’s new executive director and amplified the need for the AMC—and indeed other music information centers like it—to do more than offer library catalogs and opportunity listings. “We’re supposed to be about advocacy,” is how he describes his thoughts at that time. “And not just [for] composers, but also performers and publishers and the affiliated industry.”[iv] To achieve this, Kessler reasoned, the AMC needed to switch its attention away from its score library and towards ways to give a voice to composers across the spectrum, particularly those working at the margins of the established scene. “There are composers out there who, if they’re not published, people don’t know who they are or what they’re doing,” he says.

Planning documents and funding applications produced shortly after Kessler’s arrival in July 1997 discuss the development of “a twice-monthly web column” that would provide “first person” perspectives on American music by experts and practitioners within the field.[v] At this stage an online magazine does not seem to have been in anyone’s mind, although it was suggested that these columns would be supported by chat forums, links, and other materials. Kessler was clear about what he wanted this publication to do, whatever form it might finally take: it should give “a palpable, well-known voice to the American concert composer, broadly writ. I also wanted it to affirm the existence of those artists. Can you play a part in ensuring that those artists will exist in that [online] space? Not only for people to discover them, but also for the artists themselves to feel like they do exist.”[vi]

By late spring 1998, the “American Music: In the First Person” proposal had evolved into an idea for a multi-part online newsletter. Planning documents from May of that year introduce the idea of a monthly internet-based publication “serving as a communications and media vehicle for new American music.”[vii] These documents are aimed more generally at creating an “information and support center for the 21st century,” but the presence of the magazine is regarded as the “linchpin” in that new program.

After this, things moved quickly. On July 1, a conversation between Kessler and Steve Reich was published on the AMC’s website. This was the first of a series of interviews entitled “Music in the First Person” (and which still continue under the title of “Cover”): it is interesting to note how the “first person” of the title shifted from the author of a critical essay or column, as proposed in May, to the (almost always a composer) subject of an interview. In the same month, Frank J. Oteri was approached—and interviewed—for the job of editor and publisher of the planned magazine, a position he took up in November. NewMusicBox published for the first time the following year, on May 1, 1999, featuring an extended interview with Bang on a Can, an extensive history of composer-led ensembles in America written by Ken Smith, “interactive forums,” news round-ups, and information on recent CD releases.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments. The original “Music in the First Person” interviews that began in 1998 were published with audio excerpts as well as text—a heavy load for dial-up era online access. A year later, the April 1, 2000, interview with Meredith Monk introduced video for the first time. And on November 22, 2000, NMBx released its first concert webcast(!). This was a recording, made by then-Associate Editor Jenny Undercofler a week before, but the first live webcast came only a little later, on January 26, 2001—almost eight years before the Berlin Philharmonic’s pioneering Digital Concert Hall. The innovations continued: with its regularly updated content, comments boxes, and obsessive (and often self-referential) hyperlinking, NMBx was a blog almost before such things existed, and certainly long before anyone else was blogging about contemporary concert music. Composer and journalist Kyle Gann and I started our respective blogs in August 2003, although it was a little while before I wrote my first post about new music; Robert Gable beat us both by a month with his aworks blog. In fact, Gable introduced our particular blogospheric niche to the wider world in a post he wrote for NMBx in October, 2004; within weeks, Alex Ross had joined the fun, and the rest is …

Many early innovations were brought to the table by Kessler, who saw potential in webcasts, discussion groups, and more, but this is not to say that the early plans for NMBx didn’t also feature some cute throwbacks. Among them, plans for link exchanges (links to your work having a great deal of currency back then), and elaborate content-sharing schemes with external providers before YouTube, Spotify, and Soundcloud embedding made such things meaningless.

From its beginnings, NMBx (and the wider organization of AMC) was about making composers heard. In the late 1990s what this meant and how it might be achieved was still seen through a relatively traditional lens. One funding application mentions that in spite of recent advances in technology and society, “many of the challenges that faced the field decades ago remain more or less unchanged.” It goes on to list them:

  • the need for composers to identify and secure steady employment
  • the need to educate audiences and counter narrow or negative perceptions of new music
  • the need to instill institutional confidence about the importance of new music—whether from orchestras, opera companies, publishers, media, or record companies
  • the need to encourage repeat performances of new music
  • the need to secure media coverage of new music[viii]
At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version.

At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication and information sharing. In the same year as NMBx was launched, I joined the New Grove Dictionary of Music as a junior editor and ended up part of the team that oversaw Grove’s transition from 30-volume book to what was then one of the world’s largest online reference works. For several years after 1999, we were focused on making a website that was as much like the book as possible. (This was harder than you would imagine: Grove’s exhaustive use of diacriticals, for example, made even a basic search engine a far from simple task.) As far as maximizing the opportunities of the web went, this extended largely to adding sound files (that were directly analogous to the existing, printed music examples) and hyperlinks (analogous to the existing, printed bibliographies), along with editing and adding to the existing content on a quarterly basis.[ix] My experiences at Grove were echoed in NMBx’s office. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version; one planning document (perhaps trying to assuage the fears of the screen-wary) reassures that “anyone who wishes to download a copy of the magazine for printing and reading at a later date will be able to do so free of charge.”[x]

Clip from Billboard, 2001

Just a few years into the new century, however, things began to change in ways that hadn’t been anticipated, even by those at the forefront of technological application. Blogging in particular had revealed two powerful and unexpected abilities of the web: to complicate our understanding of truth and to amplify the functions of style, personality, and connections within the new media economy. In the second half of the decade, these were supercharged by the arrival of social media.

This changed what it meant to be heard. Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers—becoming audible through major performances, broadcasts, and publishing contracts—but about telling personal stories of identity and representation, and about shining a light outside of the mainstream. These changes were anticipated early on at NMBx—the forum discussions from that very first “Bang on a Can” issue centered on the subject of audience engagement—and continue to be reflected in its features.

Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers but about telling personal stories of identity and representation.

Oteri and Molly Sheridan, who replaced Undercofler as associate editor in 2001, have guided NMBx to its 20th birthday—a remarkable continuity of leadership for any publication, online or off! Along the way, they have directed many stages in its evolution—including several site redesigns—and launched many innovations. The major facelift came in 2006, and with it a move from monthly “issues” to a rolling schedule of articles and blog posts that was more in line with the stream-based style of the growing web. By now, NMBx was essential online reading for anyone interested in contemporary American music, and hot on the heels of this redesign came another enduring innovation: the launch of Counterstream Radio in March 2007. Advertised on its press release as “Broadcasting the Music Commercial Radio Tried to Hide from You,” Counterstream caught a mid-noughties trend for online radio stations, but has endured better than some others.

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Yet although Frank (currently composer advocate for New Music USA, in addition to his NMBx work) and Molly (now director of content for the organization more broadly) have always had a strong idea of the best direction for NMBx, the debates in its pages are often sparked by practitioners themselves. (From the beginning, readers were invited to participate in forum discussions around a wide range of field issues or tied directly to individual posts; some of my strongest early memories of NMBx are of the lively conversations that would take place below the line.) To that extent, the site remains focused on what composers want to read; and judging by some of the recurring themes in NMBx’s 20-year archive of articles and blog posts, what composers want to read seems to be: how to get your work heard; how to create (even write for!) an audience; and how to engage with modernity and/or technology.

Even more importantly, there have also been, from the start, debates about representation. Concert music has been slow to confront its problem with race, for example, but it has been part of the conversation at NMBx for years: perhaps appropriately, since as changes in representation have come, one must hope that new music will lead them. Musicologist Douglas Shadle’s recent article on “Florence B. Price in the #Blacklivesmatter Era” is a valuable contribution, but even more pertinent has been the voice NMBx has given to living composers of color—from the early interview with Tania Léon in August 1999 through to the most recent of all featuring Hannibal Lokumbe, with many opinion pieces like Anthony Greene’s “What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers” along the way.

NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well.

In areas like these, NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well. As someone involved in the world of new music not as a creator but as a critic, observer, and occasional programmer, features like these are immensely valuable to keeping an eye on my own privilege, and to pushing me to open up the margins of my own understanding. Greene’s observation that “new music has done very little to change the expected optics of classical music, which is why new music’s identity problem is what it is today” is a powerful caution against complacency.

To take another example of those optics, the subject of gender representation and the problems faced by women in the contemporary music world were first addressed pre-NMBx, beginning with Richard Kessler’s February 1999 interview with Libby Larsen. They have remained in the foreground ever since, suggesting that the question remains current, but very much unresolved. A search for “gender” in the NMBx archive brings up almost 200 items, yet this isn’t even everything—it leaves out Rob Deemer’s widely read 2012 list of women composers, for example. (Forty-one items have also been tagged with the word “diversity,” though this list is not a free-text search, and only goes back to 2012.) The debates at NMBx wove in and out of conversations in the wider world. In 2002, guest editor Lara Pellegrinelli—who had recently written for the Village Voice about the lack of women musicians involved in Jazz at Lincoln Center—published a series of posts by women musicians, each headed “How does gender affect your music?” (Jamie Baum’s response: “When asked if gender has had an influence on my compositions, my reaction was of surprise—surprise that I hadn’t been asked that question before, not in 20 years of performing.”) Blogger Lisa Hirsch’s extended article of 2008, “Lend Me a Pick Ax: The Slow Dismantling of the Compositional Gender Divide,” added essential concert and interview data to the debate, highlighting the difference between post-feminist fantasy and harsh reality; and composer Emily Doolittle, with Neil Banas, offered an interactive model to highlight “The Long-term Effects of Gender Discriminatory Programming.” A widely derided column in the conservative British magazine The Spectator of 2015 (“There’s a Good Reason Why There Are No Great Female Composers”) prompted a suitably damning response from blogger Emily E. Hogstad (“Five Takeways from the Conversation on Female Composers”) that deftly drew together several moments across both new and historical music, and in the wake of 2012’s International Women’s Day composer Amy Beth Kirsten enriched the discussion with a call for the death of the “woman composer.” This last article attracted more than 100 comments and extensive debate, but the one that attracted so much interest it briefly crashed NMBx was Ellen McSweeney’s “The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals in New Music Leadership and Innovation,” a nuanced response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and its applicability to the world of new music. Tying questions of both race and gender together was Elizabeth A. Baker’s remarkable intersectional cry, “Ain’t I a Woman Too,” from August last year.

Perhaps most indicative of all was Alex Temple’s 2013 piece, “I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?” Temple’s article (originally published on her own website) is explicitly a follow-up to other NMBx contributions on gender, two of which are mentioned in its opening paragraph. It adds layers of nuance to the debate, both around the question of male/female binarism, as well as the question of whether compositional style can be gendered. No, says Temple to this latter, but:

I have noticed that certain specific attitudes toward music seem to correlate with gender … While I don’t think of my work as specifically female, I do think of it as specifically genderqueer. Just as I often feel like I’m standing outside the world of gendered meanings, aware of them but never seeing them as inevitable natural facts like so many humans seem to do, I also tend to feel like I’m standing outside the world of artistic meanings.

In its combination of raw experience and careful self-reflection, Temple’s article is exemplary but not unique to NMBx; an equally honest and unmissable piece, this time on musico-racial identity, is Eugene Holley, Jr’s “My Bill Evans Problem.” For those of us—including me, I confess—who have found ourselves under-informed about trans issues, Temple’s article provided a welcome introduction: not only to the terms of that discussion, but also for its possible ramifications for artistic creativity and self-expression (articles published since, including Cas Martin’s “An Ode to Pride Month,” have added layers of their own).

The continuing presence of articles like these brings us back to the core purpose of NMBx as the AMC envisioned it back in 1997: to allow composers to feel like they exist. In 2019 that is not only a question of allowing composers to feel like they exist as composers, within the framework of institutional support and recognition, but as people, within the framework of a more humane, more complete understanding of what we are as a society. In recent years, one or two online publications have found ways to discuss difficult social questions within the context of contemporary music; it’s rarer still to see it done with the same level of peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge and experience. NMBx, built in the best days of the web, was there before them all.


In the twenty or so years since we started to pay attention to it, the internet has concatenated every part of our private and public lives. Art, culture, sport, business, and gossip no longer appear separately, like supplements in our weekend newspapers, but together, on the same screen as dinner plans, memes, and conversations with our friends. Since the advent of Twitter, different things have become even more closely braided within the same scroll-stream, units differentiated only by the volume at which they declare themselves from our screens: #ClimateCatastrophe, #FiveJobsIHaveHad, #WorldPenguinDay read three hashtags in close proximity on my TweetDeck right now.

This is not altogether a bad thing. In the 1980s and ’90s, before this whole online thing really took off, musicologists and critics would fret about the disassociation of classical “art” music from life, and of musicology from society. Popular music was better at inserting itself into and complementing people’s lives. Film, literature, and theater were also good at it. Yet music, it was argued, was somehow still regarded in the abstract. It was partly in response to this that the scholarly movement that came to be known as New Musicology was born, having as its aim the study of music within its social context, music as a social creation. Today, music inhabits very much the same space as everything else in our lives (just as music is increasingly made out of the components of those lives). NMBx’s blogs and features, which place the day-to-day stories of actual new music composers at the center of the discussion, are a perfect reflection of this. The internet, with its indifferent reframing of everything as #content, has played no small role in this change in how we see the world. Few people talk of New Musicology now. Not because its premises were wrong, but because they have become standard practice. In this, as in so much else, NewMusicBox has long been ahead of the curve. Here’s to existing, always.


Thanks to Jeff Harrington, Richard Kessler, Debbie Steinglass, and Carl Stone for sharing with me their recollections and documentation of the early days of NMBx and amc.net.

[i] Quoted in American Music Center, 1992: “The Arts Forward Fund: Request for Proposal,” n.p. (“Proposal Summary”).

[ii] Deborah Steinglass, email to the author, April 5, 2019. According to Steinglass, Subotnick “also talked about the future of transportation, and how the US would have highways filled with electric vehicles none of us would actually have to drive.”

[iii] Carl Stone, email to the author, April 10, 2019.

[iv] Richard Kessler, Skype interview with the author, April 5, 2019.

[v] I am grateful to Richard Kessler for sharing these and other documents with me, and for permission to quote from them.

[vi] Kessler, Skype interview.

[vii] American Music Center, 1998: “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century: An Action Plan.”

[viii] American Music Center, 2000: “A Proposal to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Support an Online Information and Communications Infrastructure for New American Music,” page 10.

[ix] I am happy to report that since my time at Grove – or Oxford Music Online as it is now known – these ambitions have expanded greatly.

[x] American Music Center, “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century,” page 5.

The Importance of Women Role Models in This Industry

Two women posing on an orchestra stage together

Recently, I overheard a conversation between two educators about the lack of young girls interested in playing jazz music. One asked the other why it seemed like there weren’t as many girls as boys interested in playing instrumental jazz. The other person replied, “Well, where are the women jazz mentors?” Together, they concluded that it wasn’t that men aren’t able to properly mentor young female jazz instrumentalists, it just seemed that because of the lack of apparent women role models, young girls might get the idea that “maybe playing jazz music isn’t for me.” Overhearing this conversation led me to question why this seems like the case. And if this is the case, where are the women mentors in jazz, or—looking more broadly—in most genres of music? For me, having amazing female mentors and role models was and still is crucial to my growth as an artist.

Having amazing female mentors and role models was and still is crucial to my growth as an artist.

An Unsuspected Mentor

In the fall semester of my sophomore year, I took a composition class called “Tools, Techniques, and Analysis” taught by our school’s game audio composition guru Lennie Moore. Our first few assignments had been uniquely challenging, including tasks such as building templates, creating sound logos, and composing short exercises in different modes. As the semester progressed, I started to get nervous. I had looked ahead at the syllabus before the semester began and foresaw the heavy scoring-to-picture assignments coming up, something I attempted to do in the past and had fell flat on my face in failure. I knew my demise was approaching. Then the day came when our next assignment was to re-score a 35-second commercial for Ace Combat 5, a flight combat video game. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Thirty-five seconds, how hard could that be? Just fake it or something.” But I was practically immobilized with anxiety by the thought of having to score even a second of music to picture. That’s when I booked a tutoring session with Daria Novoliantceva, who was the official TAC department tutor at that time. That single tutoring session completely changed the trajectory of my path. I walked in with only three or four sketch tracks and a poor description of a concept written down. I explained to her what I wanted the music to be like and how frustrated I was with my inability to translate that into sound. She heard me out and replied, “Oh, that’s easy, here’s how you do it,” and proceeded to create the sounds I had envisioned in my mind. I remember thinking, “Is it that? Is this really that easy or is she just a musical genius?”

After that session, I religiously booked an appointment with her every week. Her insight was incredible; I was perplexed by how easily music came to her. I was amazed by how she could sit down at a piano and her fingers could effortlessly find the right keys to fit the emotion. She showed me her favorite production tricks as well as different ways to smoothly blend electronic elements into my orchestral writing. Any sort of sound or emotion that I wanted to express, she could say, “Oh you can do this!” and show me. Each lesson would consist of us excitedly ping-ponging ideas back and forth, in a never-ending cycle of inspiration. My idea would inspire a solution from her, which would spark another idea from me, and so on. Our lessons felt magical. Above all, I was impressed by her knowledge of and passion for music, her deep dedication to teaching, and her humility on top of everything else that came so naturally to her. Throughout our tutoring sessions, Daria helped me crawl out of my own cave of fears and into the light of my own compositional voice. She taught me the language of creating sound in a way that I’d never thought about before. Daria was, is, and always will be one of my biggest role models. I am eternally grateful for her teachings.

My Role Models

Another kind of mentor I’ve had the luxury of meeting on this journey was Penka Kouneva, my mentor for the Game Audio Network Guild Scholars program. She illustrates the picture-perfect image of a working professional who is deeply submerged in a successful career as a game music composer, and at the same time is willing to share her rich knowledge with a younger generation. She instilled in me the importance of being an enduring player in this industry and to keep my head in the game if this is something I’m truly serious about. She also invited me to a fancy networking breakfast meet-up with other established women in the game audio industry, a memory I won’t soon forget.

And of course, there is my beloved advisor, teacher, and spirit guide MaryClare Brzytwa.

With her patience like that of a wise sage, she somehow always knows just the right amount of force to push with and just the right things to say to nurture. Amidst my confusion phase, when I started heavily contemplating different career paths, instead of jumping in to stop me, she simply stepped back and let me figure it out by myself. She is always operating for the highest good of her students. By constantly creating a flow of new opportunities for her students, she stretches our minds while simultaneously being the role model of a brilliant, creative, and entrepreneurial-minded woman that we all could only strive to be like in the future.

Inspired By Successful Women

On April 23, the women of the TAC program organized a concert entitled “The Future is Female.” This concert was fully produced, engineered, composed, conducted, and performed by women in the program. I had the opportunity to produce a series of video interviews with accomplished women in the industry, such as audio directors, business owners, and mixing and mastering engineers. In an interview with Piper Payne, owner and chief mastering engineer at Neato Mastering, she points out:

There are all these social media posts that go out that are like, ‘Where are all the women? There aren’t enough women in the industry,’ and ‘They’re not very active on the forums or the social stuff.’ Well, guess what? We’re working! We’re busy. We’re here in our studios making records. We’re not spouting off about how we’re better than somebody else on the internet.

When I first started on this path, there was a small part of me that felt like maybe I didn’t belong here. That small part of me was immediately shut down and proven wrong when I opened my eyes to all of the extraordinary women around me in this industry. People may think that there aren’t working female mentors and industry professionals, but I’m here to tell you from first-hand experience that they’re everywhere – and they’re probably busy working in the studio or the office. If not there, then they’re out kicking some ass or conquering the world. We need to spread awareness that there are indeed women working full-time in this industry, and success in this field is achievable. Meeting these women has significantly altered my perspective on my own reality: what is possible for me and where I see myself in the future. Without them, I wouldn’t be anything like who I am today.