Category: Articles

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.

In Search of Robert Palmer

A black and white photo of a Caucasian man with his left arm bent beside his head

It was after midnight, the recording session was in two days, and the AirBnB I had booked wasn’t nearly as close to downtown as it had promised. The last time I came to Ithaca, New York, to look through Robert Palmer’s archive—months ago, just before my first Palmer recording session—I stayed in a nondescript house just next to the Cornell campus, its walls breathing generations of college students. I had easily grabbed my key out of an unlocked mailbox in the entryway.

AirBnB KEY

This place, however, was somewhere in the fields surrounding Ithaca, farm country that betrays nothing of the fabled town just a few miles down the road. I stumbled in the dark trying to find the host’s key using my iPhone flashlight. It wasn’t the first time I wondered what the hell I was doing out here, hours from New York City, upsetting my schedule, eating Burger King and keeping the receipts—for what? To see if such-and-such note had a sharp next to it? Well, yes. And to snoop through his letters.

By 1 a.m. I was in bed, absorbing the soft intrusiveness I always feel when staying in an AirBnB, when I heard a pounding at the door. I thought it might be my imagination until it came again. Pounding. This is how I die, I thought. For Robert Palmer. The pounding came again. I crept to the door. “Yes?” Am I ready to die in Ithaca? A man’s voice answered, saying I had left my rental car’s lights on. I went outside to meet him. He held a can of Bud Light Lime-A-Rita. The car was dark. “I guess they go off automatic,” he said.

Perpetually an underdog, most biographical summaries written during his lifetime acknowledge how seldom Palmer’s music ever saw performance even then, and yet I’m one of a motley crew of artists who have been drawn to his work.

Robert Palmer lived between 1915-2010, mostly in upstate New York. He produced more than 90 works, was a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, and the first American composer published by Edition Peters, the publisher later associated with John Cage and the most experimental of modernists. His star rose in the 1940s and ’50s after a string of energetic, introspective, “metaphysical” works, as Aaron Copland called them, driven by a strong emotional current and built with complex counterpoint and layers of tight rhythmic structures. Hindemith meets Bartók meets Brahms meets Lou Harrison meets…

The relative obscurity that followed his promising debut is as puzzling as one wishes to make it. It could be as simple as his reputation soaring just as the focus of contemporary music shifted toward the seductions of serialism, chance, and minimalism, with Palmer eclipsed and his listeners fractured amidst a world of new curiosities. He might never have been as famous as mid-century tonalists such as William Schuman, David Diamond, or Roy Harris (a brief teacher of his), but they all suffered relatively the same fate.

Perpetually an underdog, most biographical summaries written during his lifetime acknowledge how seldom Palmer’s music ever saw performance even then, and yet I’m one of a motley crew of artists who, since the late 1930s, have been drawn to his work. Pianist John Kirkpatrick, himself skyrocketing to fame after premiering Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, became a kind of pen pal, coach, and the first real ambassador of Palmer’s music, to whom the earliest scores are all dedicated. Palmer, at the time, was an Eastman School of Music graduate and grocery store clerk.  Copland included him on his famed 1948 list of seven composers who were “the best we have to offer,” which also included Cage, Lukas Foss, and Leonard Bernstein. Elliott Carter called Palmer’s music “firm and definite; its dissonance resembles that of younger Europeans whom we never hear in this country,” while describing its “impressive seriousness and great musicality.” Yvar Mikhashoff, a pianist equally at home with the pioneers of American music as he was with David Lang, recorded and commissioned Palmer, while Palmer’s piano music was also performed by classically-bent virtuosos like William Kapell and Claudio Arrau. Julius Eastman played Palmer’s Three Epigrams on his Town Hall debut (the piece was mentioned in the resulting New York Times review) and later approached pianist Joseph Kubera to play his Sonata for Two Pianos. “Robert Palmer’s the man,” Joe remembers him saying. Kyle Gann blogged about him in 2014, and one year later Steven Stucky wrote a memorial in his honor on this very website.

I first heard Robert Palmer’s music as a teenager on a scratchy live recording … I would dance to this piece in front of the mirror as if singing into a hairbrush.

I first heard Robert Palmer’s music as a teenager on a scratchy live recording by the aforementioned William Kapell, the first pianist I ever fell in love with, playing the Toccata Ostinato (1945). I would dance to this piece in front of the mirror as if singing into a hairbrush. Despite the poor sound quality, the subdued applause, and an electrifying but imperfect performance that ended with an exasperated cluster across the keys—and how I hoped that the score called for such an ending (it doesn’t)—I was hooked. Long before finding a score required but a few clicks, I hunted for months, and when the music finally appeared in the mail, I already felt like a detective discovering clues. It turns out that Palmer had dedicated the piece to Kapell before the pianist’s tragic death in a plane crash. I later discovered that he played it perhaps only twice, including that recorded performance. It looked fiendish to play. I didn’t touch it for years.

When I decided to finally hunker down and learn the Toccata, it was to serve as an encore for an otherwise meditative recital program. People would approach me after the concert wanting to know nothing about the proper program, but only about Palmer, my encore. Realizing I had nothing to tell them, I started to scratch around for even the most basic information. So began the trip down the rabbit hole that found me, years later, in a bed somewhere outside Ithaca as a stranger pounded on the front door with a Lime-a-Rita.

I scoured the internet for Palmer paraphernalia. He wasn’t unpublished, after all, and several scores remain in print by Presser, Peer, and Peters. But many scores—including some of the most interesting—are out of print or were never published at all. I later discovered in his letters that Palmer attempted to publish his sublime Second Piano Sonata, composed in the mid-1940s, as late as the 1980s, with no luck. It’s a masterpiece, and as of this writing remains in his own hand in the Cornell manuscripts archive.

I ordered whatever works I could find online and began having others scanned from Cornell. Each one seemed like a revelation, some incredible secret that I had personally discovered (of course I hadn’t) and was eager to share. These pieces, as I saw it, should have been part of the core American piano repertory. The music was as difficult as it was exhilarating to play. I would fall back from the piano after certain pieces laughing, sweating and exhausted, like stumbling off of a roller coaster. After others I’d sit in stunned silence, my eyes welling and my heart aching. I could already tell that the payoff in learning this music would be worth the work, and started programming Palmer’s music whenever I could. Realizing that so little had been recorded, I also started thinking about making an album, though like most of my big ideas, I didn’t know how or where to start.

In 2015 I visited Yale to sift through Palmer’s materials in John Kirkpatrick’s archive. In his letters to Kirkpatrick, I met a man who, sentence to sentence, swung from insecure to confident, pious to prideful, who would confess his demons as much as guard them. He scorned allies, Copland and Carter in particular, for their so-called “decadent” tastes, all too ready to burn important bridges on artistic principle. He casually mentioned in one letter that the military had permanently disqualified him from service “for psychological reasons,” and in the same breath reported that this would free him up creatively for the coming year. That, along with his vague, coded language about intimacy and a kind of crippling shyness has led at least one researcher (in a book about Kirkpatrick, as it were) to queer Palmer. Looking through the same letters and many more, and being quite familiar with the closet myself, I’m not totally convinced. Still, it came as a relief when Palmer’s stoic facade, which seemed so unlike his heart-on-his-sleeve, red-blooded music, began to melt. Suddenly the music, and my attraction to it (and to him), made a little more sense.

But I still couldn’t figure him out nor ascertain why his work vanished from concert halls. Should Palmer have better networked his way into history? Is that a thing? Or was he just happy enough teaching at Cornell, in the country’s first PhD composition program, which he indeed had created? It’s a life that satisfied him, after all—“I liked teaching!” he said in a late interview—even if it was a life that may not have satisfied others. Copland wrote, “Too much of [Palmer’s] energy has gone into his teaching… but teaching is a familiar disease of the American composer.”

Or perhaps he was just too scattered and immature for the limelight, destined “to be permanently a child,” as he phrased it in one anguished letter. (This, too, has been read as a code for queer.) Kirkpatrick, in a conspicuously missing letter, had apparently challenged him on his decision to marry so young. Palmer wrote back, “I hope you will be more specific in exactly how… I am young for 24. It will help me to help myself, and I am the only one who can help.” For Palmer, self-betterment and musical perfection seemed to go hand in hand. He did mature and did change, at least stylistically, perhaps to the disappointment of others. Many, including myself, have sensed that the breathless momentum and passion of his music, the quality that attracted such early attention, began to cool as he, well… grew up. I read several letters in which performers pined for the old days when Palmer’s music came out as a flood of notes, impulsive and intense, with hardly a rest. Did he feel like he “overshared” in his earlier works, and thus distanced himself in later ones? Did he feel the intellectual heat from his contemporaries, a self-imposed pressure to “smarten up” music that, I assure you, was already tied in intellectual pretzels? Or did his style… simply change? We all change! And sometimes audiences drift.

Eventually I approached a record label about Robert Palmer. There was no strategy to my label choice; I simply knew the name. They said yes, and I was elated. I filled out a grant application and the label applied for it on our behalf. We got the grant, and I was elated again. The label, however, also required a “sponsorship fee”—not unusual in classical music. I’d heard about this from other artists but naively thought it couldn’t possibly apply to my Palmer project. It did, and the grant funds didn’t even cover that cost, leaving me with less-than-zero to pay for the actual recording. Whenever anyone asked, I’d say the Palmer album was stalled. In truth, I considered it dead.

A couple years went by when one Sunday evening I volunteered to turn pages for Joseph Kubera, now a friend, at a private New World Records pre-recording concert. Paul Tai, the director of the label, asked about the state of the Palmer project, which I had told him about in its earliest days. I explained the situation, knowing by now that New World would have been the perfect home for the album. “Ask them to release the project,” he suggested, regarding the original label. I laughed at the idea. They’d never go for that, I argued, and besides, the grant funds had surely expired. “Ask your granter to extend the deadline,” he suggested again. He made no promises, and it all seemed quite crazy, but also I had nothing to lose. I reached out and, to my astonishment, both the label and granter agreed to my requests. Once the coast was clear, New World took over. Legendary producer Judith Sherman signed on, and we would record at the American Academy of Arts and Letters with Steinway providing the pianos. My brilliant friend Daniel Johnson would write the liner notes, and in a perfect full-circle moment, Kubera agreed to play the Sonata for Two Pianos that Julius Eastman had once asked to play with him. He used Eastman’s score, his fingerings still penciled in. The album went from doomed to best-case scenario.

By summer 2018, I had the program learned for what would be the first of two recording sessions—the second taking place in the fall—and went to Ithaca to finally visit the Palmer archive.

Palmer materials

I hadn’t sat with Palmer’s actual papers since my visit to Yale three years earlier. It was worth the drive, the overnight stay, the upturned schedule, and the loss of practice time, because where else could I see that he wanted me to “slam [the] hell out of” that one chord in the First Piano Sonata (1939/40)?

slam the hell out of it

Where else could I see Ned Rorem’s West Village address scrawled on a program at the Tanglewood premiere of Peter Grimes?

Ned Rorem notes

Where else could I feverishly snap pictures of scores that exist, as of this writing, only in that archive, or see Palmer’s self-penned autobiography?

Palmer's self-penned autobiography

I slowly drove by what was once his humble home, where he had lived since moving to Ithaca in the early 1940s. I wondered if the people inside knew a composer once lived there, one of Copland’s “best we have to offer.”

Palmer's house

I met his old friends, folks who still called him Bob. “This guy’s recording Bob’s music!” said one of them to a co-worker. I met his daughter and son-in-law, and listened to their stories—like the time Palmer accidentally received a royalty check for the other, “Addicted to Love” Robert Palmer. He was furious, they said, but couldn’t have been surprised to see the royalties this other Palmer earned. Despite apparent urgings, the composer Robert Palmer resisted adding his middle name to separate himself from the pop star. “He hated his middle name,” his daughter told me, and I recalled seeing in the archive that Palmer had crossed a line through his middle name when editing an encyclopedia entry that included it, just as his Wikipedia entry currently does.

Palmer has remained to me throughout this process a kind of mystery, and I’ve tried to strike a balance between respectful and nosey when it comes to fleshing out the man.

A week later I was sitting at a grand piano on the darkened stage at the American Academy of Arts and Letters on the first morning of the first recording session of the first-ever album devoted solely to Palmer’s piano works. Judy’s voice came through a speaker a few feet from the piano. “Ready when you are!” It was a long way from dancing in front of the mirror to Toccata Ostinato.

RECORDING right here

Palmer has remained to me throughout this process a kind of mystery, and I’ve tried to strike a balance between respectful and nosey when it comes to fleshing out the man. When his daughter and son-in-law met me for smoothies after my first Cornell visit, I confessed that it felt funny talking to her after having spent the afternoon reading the passionate letters her father wrote her mother during their courtship, often marked by his paralyzing loneliness. When she alluded to her father being complicated, I didn’t ask for details, though I recently asked her over email about his favorite Christmas traditions, his favorite restaurant, his politics, his religious beliefs. Did he teach her piano?

But considering the many people I’ve prodded for memories, few say very much, maybe because Palmer himself didn’t say very much. “He was quiet till he got going,” clarified his son-in-law, “Then watch out.”

I regret not putting a few follow-up questions to composer Steve Stucky when we met one morning for breakfast to talk about Palmer, about a year before Stucky’s own untimely passing. I wish, just a couple of times, I’d asked, “What do you mean by that?”

I wish when I first heard Palmer’s music as a teenager that I had reached out, instead of functioning under the assumption that all composers were famous and needed no advocates, let alone fan mail. And I’d already learned Toccata Ostinato in 2010, the year Palmer passed away. He had suffered a stroke and couldn’t speak, “but he could still play the piano,” I was told. In my imagination I might have found a way to tell him, in those last years, that I loved his music and would find a way to share it. He might have liked that.

Palmer’s last big project was a Concerto for Two Pianos, Double Strings, Double Percussion and Symphonic Brass. Despite National Endowment for the Arts funding and dreams of a Pulitzer, the project was abandoned in a stack of sketches. But I remember staring at those numbered pages, black with pencil—even a stage scheme—thinking: He’s the only one who knew what this all sounded like.

Palmer Concerto

Part of my impulse to record Palmer’s work, particularly as the new music community challenges itself, rightly, to gaze beyond the white male composer archetype (of which Palmer certainly qualifies) is because the life of Palmer, and fate of Palmer, and the puzzling, inscrutable, what-happened-ness of Palmer, is something every creative person I know wrestles with every day. We rage against our work vanishing in the face of indifference, but mostly feel our way in the dark, finding our AirBnB keys with an iPhone flashlight in the middle of nowhere. Palmer’s story would be a cautionary tale if only we knew what we were cautioning against. Meanwhile, I’m hard-pressed to think of a composer who lived as strongly by his own creative convictions.

The life of Palmer, and fate of Palmer, and the puzzling, inscrutable, what-happened-ness of Palmer, is something every creative person I know wrestles with every day. We rage against our work vanishing in the face of indifference.

Whether our work is well established, gaining attention, facing oblivion, or long forgotten, we in the new music community find ourselves adrift in the same capricious tide of history. Part of our shared role in this community is to show up however we can for each other—to listen, perform, share—even as we all see and do things so differently. I look at Palmer’s life and work and am reminded that an artist’s greatest, and maybe only, power comes in giving shape to the fire inside them and tossing that work, over and over, into the void of the future. Maybe someone will someday be perfectly positioned to catch it. Or maybe not. Maybe the work will spin into the orbit of concert programming, or land on a recording for posterity, or wait for discovery in an archive. Or maybe not. People may listen to my Palmer album—perhaps some teenager will dance to it in front of their mirror like I once did to Kapell—and maybe some of the pieces, still in manuscript, will finally be published. Or maybe not. It could all—even this article—sail completely under the radar, as his work has for so long.

But just as Palmer created work nevertheless, we create work nevertheless—all of us giving shape to that fire inside us. And this act of creation, this calling, this need that exists in the present, far outweighs the promise of our work’s hypothetical future. Showing up, listening, connecting and realizing how alike and fragile we all are, is at least one way we can honor our shared humanity as artists, especially when our lives can feel so isolated, and like one unreasonable creative act after another. I spent more than a decade searching for Robert Palmer and made an album of his music when no one asked for it. But in my mind, I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t imagine being the only one who knew what this all sounded like.


Robert Palmer: Piano Music is available now on New World Records.

The Impossible Dream: Scoring My First Documentary

A smoky, black and white perspective shot of a man in a beanie

I didn’t grow up watching movies. I never liked sitcoms or reality shows. Ever since I was little, I always had a strong aversion towards watching TV because I always felt it to be meaningless mind poison. Playing, learning, and listening to new music have always been my favorite forms of entertainment and my main sources of enjoyment. Gradually, as I continued to explore different worlds of music, I found myself more and more fascinated by soundtracks. The more I listened to them, the more intrigued I became by the story, characters, and context of the movies themselves. I needed to know what was driving all of the passion behind the scores. I gradually came to see how music has the power to transform stories and make characters feel larger than life. Since this realization, it has been my mission to create music that supports the narrative of humanity’s beautiful stories. It’s incredibly fulfilling to create music that supports a theme or character by playing up aspects of the situation or personality that might not be so obvious to the audience. It was only a few months ago when I scored music for my very first documentary, The Impossible Dream, that I realized this was my path. This was the first opportunity I had to do what I want to spend my career doing.

The Impossible Dream, directed by Javid Soriano, is a documentary that portrays creativity, poverty, and addiction in San Francisco, as experienced by Tim Blevins, a homeless opera singer and Juilliard graduate living in the Tenderloin. The film, intimately capturing Tim’s journey of survival and redemption on the streets, has received support from The Sundance Institute, the Independent Filmmaking Project (IFP), and Skywalker Sound and Music Labs, among other film institutes/foundations around the country. The moment I heard about this project, I could not contain my excitement. I, along with other third-year TAC students, had the opportunity to collaborate with the director to not only score the documentary but also to arrange, perform, and record unique accompaniments for the classical repertoire that Tim sings in the film. When I found out that we could “try out” for as many scenes as we wanted to, I immediately attempted to write for all 13 scenes in one sitting. After about an hour, I stepped back and recognized that I was only human, so I settled on focusing all my energy and efforts on a select few scenes that really spoke to me. I ended up scoring three scenes, one of them being the “Comeback Scene.”

The Comeback

In the “Comeback Scene,” Tim goes through a hero’s monologue, explaining how real heros aren’t beyond getting their asses kicked every once in a while. He describes how, when it looks like they’re at the end of their ropes, they get back up and start working harder to make a comeback. Through sweat and blood, real heroes are reborn. I felt moved by Tim’s confidence, and wanted to highlight both the struggle of Tim’s daily routine and his unyielding determination. I decided that a bouncy staccato string bed with a striving legato violin line climbing up to the highest register of the instrument would work best to play up Tim’s perseverance. The director came back and noted that he’d like to hear a tinge of darkness to emphasize the sense of painful struggle that Tim will have to endure to overcome. I agreed with him; I had made the music a bit too positive and had missed the humanizing element in the story. I then altered the harmony to better fit the spirit in his monologue and the scene was instantly brought to life.

The Finale

Another scene I scored was “The Finale.” It’s the last and one of the more emotionally intense scenes in the documentary. This one was especially unique because in the very final cue of the scene Tim goes into singing Colline’s “Coat Aria” from La Bohème. On top of composing the music to accompany Tim’s singing, the director had also asked me to write in the style of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. These tricky notes combined with the pressure of scoring the grand finale scene caused me to experience a massive mental block. After days of trying different compositional techniques for this cue, I completely ran dry of ideas. Feeling defeated, I sat down in the studio and pulled the session up on the monitors. I watched the picture playback a few times, still trying to come up with any form of solution my mind could muster up at this point. I then decided to try a different route. Instead of thinking anything at all, I let out a deep breath, closed my eyes, placed my hands on the MIDI keyboard, and let my intuition take over. I completely surrendered, leaving whatever would happen next to be purely instinctual. I felt the weight of Tim’s story and his rich voice flow through me. I felt his pain, bravery, and heroism. I felt music that represented both Tim’s charismatic nature and hardship. For the first time in my life, I composed from the heart instead of through some learned technique. The next day, the director reviewed my work and wrote back that it was “chilling at the end.”

The entire experience of composing for The Impossible Dream was a transformative one. Never had I thought that a film project could come into my life and completely change the way I think about composition. Through this process, one of the many things I learned was that sometimes thinking less and trusting more is the best way to go. I see media like TV and film in a different light now. I see it as a medium to explore the narrative of our humanity. It’s this process of sharing our stories, our lives, and our dreams that makes it so compelling, and music can participate by highlighting these aspects. Music may be just a series of tones and pitches at different intervals, but when constructed in a thoughtful way, it can evoke even the subtlest of feelings, sometimes indescribable ones. Composing music for this story confirmed that this is what I see myself doing for the rest of my life.

Do you need a doctorate in composition?

A person taking notes, with a white mug in the background
Do you need a doctorate in composition? No, you don’t. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value.

In the nearly twenty years that I have been teaching composition at universities and conservatories, the most common question I am asked by students not already in doctoral programs is which ones they should apply to. The assumption of these young composers is that the next logical or expected step in the progression of their musical development is to seek an advanced degree in a field where the degree itself is becoming both more ubiquitous and less powerful.

When I ask young composers why they want to earn a doctorate, the almost inevitable response is, “Because I want to teach.” That is indeed an admirable reason to do so. Additional issues such as performance and networking opportunities and some abstract sense of the recognition and approval that a doctorate will bestow are also often mentioned. While there is some merit to these expectations, I believe they are mostly misguided.

For decades, the availability of full-time, tenure-track composition jobs has been dwindling, with the decrease greatly exacerbated by the onset of the 2008 financial crisis. During this time, administrators in higher education facing smaller budgets due to reduced state funding, shrinking endowments, and less generous alumni donors sought to make up the difference. They did so by employing larger pools of part-time adjunct faculty who could be paid far less than their full-time counterparts with few or no benefits and no job security. As the financial markets later soared to record levels of growth, the number of full-time professorships did not follow. Consequently, the majority of my colleagues who teach composition or related music courses do so in the precarious conditions described above. These teachers are extremely qualified and dedicated; their students are lucky to work with them. But for anyone trying to eek out a living on the wages earned as an adjunct or short-term contract instructor (particularly in an expensive metropolitan area where new music activity is concentrated) struggles significantly. These exploitative teaching positions are often spread out over multiple campuses requiring travel and the time spent counseling students, correcting homework and papers, and dealing with university bureaucracy steals precious time needed to compose. Anyone considering a doctorate for the reason that they want to teach should be aware of these realities and that the competition for the few stable jobs that are offered is extremely fierce.

library

Image: Vlad Kutepov

A more immediate financial consideration for young composers seeking a doctorate is the cost of the degree and the means needed to live during the years that it takes to complete the classwork, exams, and dissertation. While many universities and conservatories offer composer fellowships that waive tuition and offer a modest stipend, usually in exchange for teaching, these are limited, often to just a couple a year. Of course, these cannot accommodate the hundreds of qualified students who apply for composition doctorates every year and many students are faced with the possibility of large debts after completing their studies. No student should be put in this position and I strongly advise against paying for these degrees. While it is not uncommon for young professionals to leave graduate school with substantial debt, the fields outside the humanities more consistently offer starting salaries beyond living wages in addition to health and retirement benefits. Because there are very few such opportunities available to recent composition graduates, it makes no sense to accrue a large debt that may take decades to repay.

There are also some young composers who feel that they have not received sufficient preparation in order to enter the field. They believe that an advanced degree will provide the training and knowledge that they lack. A graduate program in composition would serve these students well but not at the expense of crushing debt that would be shouldered if the student needed to pay for tuition. In these cases, I recommend that students seek out individuals for private lessons. Because there are so many highly-qualified musicians that do not have full-time academic jobs, many are willing to teach privately. The cost of these lessons is a fraction of graduate tuition and offers much more flexibility with regard to teachers and scheduling.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community.

In my experience, no ensemble, soloist, or presenter has ever reconsidered a commission or programming opportunity for a composer due to a lack of academic credentials. It seems true that certain prizes and fellowships give some limited weight to one’s academic background, but it is always subsidiary to the music under consideration.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community. By interacting and collaborating with fellow musicians, pooled talents and resources sum to much more than individual parts. I always encourage young composers to attend as many concerts as possible and politely and humbly engage the performers and audience members during and after the show. Chance and sought out connections can yield deep, meaningful, and even lifetime relationships that can have profound creative and intellectual impact.

I understand that for many the access to such communities may be limited due to geographical or financial constraints. Additionally, it can be socially and professionally daunting for some to join circles to which they do not already belong. In these circumstances the communities may be created from within, as has often been the case in the past. Some examples include the artists that formed Der Blaue Reiter, the Scratch Orchestra, and the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

There are positive attributes of academic programs, to be sure. Especially when coming from a place where interactions with like-minded musicians are limited, enrolling in a music program can provide incredible stimulation and camaraderie with peers and mentors. Opportunities to work with fellow students and guests in performances and presentations are extremely valuable, as is the teaching experience that comes with fellowships. The positive impact that access to a dedicated music library can have on a developing composer is undeniable. And hopefully the courses and private instruction will enlighten and expand one’s own musical outlook.

So while there is value in attending a graduate program in composition, it is not a panacea for career advancement and future job security. It is wise to consider what one wants and realistically what a composition doctorate can offer before assuming that it is the only path forward.

Opening Concepts—The Themes That Shape Each Year’s Edition of Classical:NEXT

A woman in a red and black plain strapless dress singing, She is holding the microphone in her right hand and turning her head toward it

With only four weeks to go until Classical:NEXT, I am taking this opportunity to breathe and reflect, a rare thing to do as general manager during the crunch phase of production. I currently feel like I’ve run a full marathon already and am getting my last energy together for the final sprint.

I wonder where this last year has gone and if we are really opening the doors for the eighth time? As it approaches, you always have to ask: Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was packing my bag for another week of sleepless nights during Classical:NEXT? But then I think back on the last year and I realize how many places I’ve been to and how many people from numerous countries I have had the chance to speak with, and it feels like even more than 12 months have passed. In my head, I am time-traveling back while also thinking a month ahead, to the moment we began and I see all the people filling the home of Classical:NEXT, which has been at Rotterdam’s de Doelen for the past five years. I find myself feeling overexcited, not only to see everyone again, but in realizing that “wow, they actually kept their word to come to Rotterdam!” This of course fills me with pride and gratitude, and I realize: This whole year of effort and hard work was worth it, just for this particular moment of reunification.

After raising my glass to the visitors at the welcome reception, I’ll already be looking forward to the first sounds of our opening concert. The Opening is, after all, THE thing people speak about during the days of Classical:NEXT. You can sense the hunger of the hundreds of art music people, and it’s a clear reminder that there remains no substitute for people meeting each other in person. It’s a very uplifting moment to see people reuniting, and this family-like atmosphere gets stronger and warmer each year. It reassures me and makes me feel that we are doing something right in creating an international community with deep bonds between people who share the same passion.

The opening night reception for Classical:NEXT in 2016 (Photo by Eric Van Nieuwland)

The opening night reception for Classical:NEXT in 2016 (Photo by Eric Van Nieuwland)

Each year we adapt to an ever-changing art music landscape, reflected by the Opening. While the hosts vary—from different institutions, export offices, or collectives—the focus changes with each edition and we can see how selected curators now go above and beyond with their Opening concepts. We are aware that the Opening is a powerful moment and tool, so we use it cautiously. It does not simply signal the beginning of our global music meeting, but sets the tone for the entire event, bringing to the stage the spirit of this gathering, underlining the intercontinental and innovative perspective. They are also a draw for the international media, garnering the most of their attention.

Each year we adapt to an ever-changing art music landscape.

The Canadian-hosted Opening in 2015, at our debut in Rotterdam, set the bar high for the following years. I can still remember the very beginning like it was yesterday, with the fearsome, deep-throat singing and improvisation of Inuit punk Tanya Tagaq kicking off the event. It was as if her voice came from the earth’s core – a unique and unforgettable moment. As a display of Canada’s connectivity and cultural diversity, the variety-packed Opening showcased the excellence of its multifaceted scene with a double keynote speech between Martin Hoffman of the Berlin Philharmonic and Yannick Nézet-Séguin of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra, and a video speech by soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan.

In 2016, the Classical:NEXT Opening helped celebrate the 50th anniversary of de Doelen with “Dutch Mountains,” an interdisciplinary event that highlighted innovative and vibrant music from The Netherlands. Founder and music director of New World Symphony Michael Tilson Thomas served as the video keynote speaker, with double bassist and creator of London’s Chineke! Orchestra Chi-chi Nwanoku adding to the list of prominent names in attendance.

For the sixth edition in 2017, instead of showcasing a country, we felt the urge to set the topic ourselves and featured a small selection of the many projects and people from around the world that focus on inclusion. The performances offered examples of what society can achieve through music, with the Chineke! Orchestra and Afa Dworkin from the Sphinx Organization leading the way and Marin Alsop contributing via video keynote.

In 2018, Classical:NEXT featured a French focus, working closely with Le Bureau Export. It was in this year where I realized that our “missionary tours” are so important. Classical:NEXT, in a way, took the international community on a trip to France and successfully introduced delegates to the supposedly “inaccessible” French market. And we set a new record in French attendance that year.

For this year, our opening “Hear it New!” curated by National Sawdust will be a very special moment I’m sure, particularly in light of the fact that we announced it jointly to colleagues and friends at their home base in NYC at our annual Classical:NEXT Meet’n’Greet in January. While there, I attended outstanding concerts at National Sawdust in Brooklyn and witnessed a way of “tuning in” the audience with a meditation practice. Inspired by this experience, we decided to incorporate a meditation practice of Pauline Oliveros’s “Deep Listening” program in our own Opening and I am very excited to see if it resonates with and inspires the audience the way it did with me.

I’m very proud of the collaboration between women-led National Sawdust and Classical:NEXT.

Additionally I’m very proud to see that our headline for this year’s edition “21st Century Polyphony: More Voices, Greater Symphonies,” will be perfectly reflected in our collaboration between women-led National Sawdust and Classical:NEXT and will mirror our ongoing commitment to giving a voice to groups that are often underrepresented in leadership, on the podium, or in audiences.

With this year’s Opening, we kill two birds with one stone. While matching the focus of giving a voice to underrepresented groups, we also highlight the importance of the United States and the need to be connected in order to bring the perspectives and the artistic content across the pond. “Hear it New!” was therefore a natural choice. America is known as the land of endless opportunity and a field for experimentation in general, whereas other countries sometimes tend to choose stability over taking risks. America is upfront in creating new ideas and this is something that the wider art music community can undoubtedly learn from to free new ideas and unleash an endless stream of new possibilities.


The “Call for Opening Hosts” for Classical:NEXT 2020 is open once again and the team is excited to get new proposals within the next months. More information is available here – https://www.classicalnext.com/programme/opening/hosting.