Category: Articles

An Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague

A sideways photo of an audience in a concert hall

Musicians, arts administrators, colleagues: It’s time we talk about autism.

No, we’re not talking about autism charity efforts, nor once-a-year concerts for autistic children, and goodness, no, not inspirational stories. Autistic people exist at all ages, all times of the year, and in rather ordinary aspects of life. We’re everywhere: We are fellow musicians, collaborators, and artists. We are enthusiastic audience members, patrons, and guests. And so it’s time you adapted a permanent framework for improving autistic accessibility in your concerts, rehearsals, and other music organization efforts.

Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Chrysanthe Tan, a real-life, autistic violinist, composer, and recording artist, and in my near-decade of working in many music spheres, I’ve noticed an unacceptable, overwhelming status quo of autistic inaccessibility. I have sat through rehearsals while on the verge of vomiting from sensory discomfort, cradled my head and rocked back and forth in my chair when rooms got too loud, and skipped many concerts due to the panicked embarrassment of not knowing attire or protocol.

While certainly upsetting, unfortunate, and uncomfortable, the lack of autistic awareness in the music world is not intentional, nor is it purposely aggressive. I know this. Ironically, that makes it even harder for me to discuss it with people. I don’t want to be too accusatory, don’t want to cause misinterpretation, don’t want to deal with defensiveness, and definitely don’t want to feel bad for requesting fairer access. It’s a whole thing. But the time has come.

I’m ready, and you’re ready too.

Over the next few weeks, I will be laying out a compassionate, no-bullshit guide to upping your autistic accessibility game as a musician or arts presenter. This information — separated into four parts — is geared toward anyone who works in or otherwise takes part in the making or presentation of music. This includes students, teachers, administrators, conductors, soloists, ensembles, producers, contractors, classical artists, pop musicians, and, well, you get the point. The information presented will be applicable to numerous contexts. It will help you increase your understanding of autistic colleagues and concertgoers–hopefully in a way that enables you to make better future judgment calls. The information will be actionable.

Here’s what to expect in this four-part series:

  • Part 1 (this post): This article serves as the introduction to the column and includes a basic primer on autism and how to treat autistic people. Having these basics down will make it easier to internalize the information in the following three parts. We only have this short time together, so it’s off to the races!
  • Part 2: Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Concerts (and rehearsal spaces). I’ll tell you what autistic-friendly considerations to keep in mind, give pointers making event invitations more accessible, and cite things to avoid in your planning. I’ll also offer tips on making collaborative spaces and relationships more autistic-welcoming.
  • Part 3: Q&A and Case Studies – In this post, I will answer specific questions pertaining to autistic accessibility in music spaces. Thus, I’ll need your questions in advance — by March 10! Please take advantage of this opportunity to ask nitty gritty, embarrassing questions and even submit detailed examples of what autistic accessibility questions you’re struggling with. Should you choose an indoor or outdoor venue? Assigned or unassigned seating? Is your event invitation missing any crucial information for autistic people? I look forward to answering and helping to troubleshoot these questions. NewMusicBox has kindly set up this form, which you can use to anonymously submit.
  • Part 4: Pro-Tips and Sample Scripts – This last post will be filled with ideas for how to be a more powerful advocate for autistic people. I’ll also include sample language for more inclusive programs, invitations, emails, interactions, and more.

A Primer on Autism and Autistic People

You’ll want to familiarize yourself with these terms and concepts before reading the rest of the series.

  1. Autism is a neurological, developmental, and pervasive way of being that can manifest in a variety of ways, including but not limited to: sensory sensitivity, communication impairments, atypical social skills, and atypical information processing and learning styles. Autism is generally referred to as a disability or disorder, though some autistics prefer not to identify it as such. Selective use of the “disabled” term is also common, depending on the context and company.
  2. Allistic refers to a person without autism. It can be used as a noun (i.e. an allistic) or an adjective (i.e. allistic people). Some people use the word neurotypical to mean the same thing, though allistic is more precise these days.
  3. Autistic Person vs. Person with Autism – You’ve probably noticed that I’ve referred to “autistic people” rather than “people with autism.” While there’s no hard and fast rule on this, autistic self-advocates tend to favor identity-first language (i.e. “autistic person”) over person-first language (i.e. “person with autism.” Calling someone a “person with autism” distances the person from the identity, implying a separation between the individual and the disability. However, many autistics consider their autism an important part of their identity and wish to embrace it in the same way that I also call myself Cambodian, Greek, and queer. If you’re truly not sure what label to use with a person, you may also default to “person on the autism spectrum.” But when in doubt, simply ask the person, and always use what they desire for themselves. You can read more about identity-first vs. person-first semantics on Lydia X.Z. Brown’s Autistic Hoya blog.
  4. Don’t brush it under the rug! – If you have an autistic friend, family member, or colleague, your instinct may be to politely ignore their autism, not treat the person any differently, and offer seemingly comforting phrases like “I see past your disability,” “Your condition doesn’t define you,” and “I hardly even notice your autism.” However, for many autistic people — myself included — this can be harmful, as it reinforces the internalized shame autistic people have learned. If you’re awkward about my autism, I’m awkward about it in turn. And if you claim not to “see it,” then I wonder if you are in denial, whether you accept me despite rather than wholeheartedly including my autism, or whether I’m inconveniencing you if I dare bring up the “A” word or state my special needs. It sucks. Please don’t default to this unless your autistic colleague or loved one specifically tells you not to acknowledge it.
  5. Autistic people are *not* the same as “everyone else” – Forget what you learned in elementary school; we are not all the same. Yes, we are all human beings who deserve love and respect, but autistic people do have unique needs and often do need special accommodations that allistic people must learn about. Acknowledging our different realities isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it can help you learn how to interact with us better, deepen our relationships with you, and increase our comfort and accessibility.
  6. Autism vs. Asperger Syndrome – A lot of people wonder if these are the same thing. Truth is, it’s confusing, so here’s the quick sum-up: Asperger syndrome used to be in the DSM-IV as a diagnosis nearly identical to autism, except with “no clinically significant delay in development of language.” In 2013, the DSM-5 removed Asperger syndrome and introduced autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a unified umbrella term to include all of the various autistic disorders instead. Thus, a person diagnosed with Asperger syndrome pre-2013 would simply be diagnosed with autism today. Because many people originally diagnosed with Asperger’s choose to maintain their given label (as is their right), it is still common to hear the Asperger label today. This whole terminology hullaballoo is quite controversial in the autism community.
  7. If you know an autistic person, you know ONE autistic person. Autism is a big spectrum, and no two presentations of it are exactly alike. One autistic person’s biggest impairment may be another’s greatest skill. Moreover, the popular media representations of autistic people tend to favor a shockingly limited set of looks and behaviors (think the main characters in Rain Man, Atypical, or The Good Doctor). All of these examples portray white, cis, straight young men. It wasn’t until more recently that professionals started to notice the signs of autism in girls and non-binary people; turns out, we often have more hidden or subtle characteristics, potentially as a result of more intense social pressures growing up. To top it all off, autistic people tend toward extremes, which often lie in direct opposition to those of other autistic individuals. For example, some autistic people are incredibly sensitive to the cold, while others cannot stand heat.

This is where I shall stop, for now. Thank you for sticking with me and for making a commitment to improving autistic accessibility in your music world. Next week, we’re getting right down to the specifics.

But in the meantime, here’s what I need from you: As I mentioned above, Part 3 in this series will be a Q&A with your submitted questions and conundrums. Thus, I need your questions! The deadline to submit is Sunday, March 10, and you can do so anonymously by using this form or by sending an email directly to [email protected]. The more context you can provide about your situation, organization, or concert, the better!

The Voice in the Machine

A photo of a person at a mixing desk using their finger to slide one of the controls

Electronic sound has been part of American musical life for over a century. As early as 1907, audiences in New York attended concerts featuring the massive early synthesizer, the Telharmonium. Just over two decades later, tens of thousands of listeners heard the theremin in concerts and radio broadcasts, around the same time that thousands of organists began playing the Hammond Organ in churches across the country.

Music historians tend to use these three instruments as examples of early technology that presaged—but were not part of—electronic music history, rarely mentioning the communities, traditions, practices, and meanings that coalesced around these instruments and their sonorities. To historians, the instruments and their popular practices simply weren’t revolutionary enough to merit inclusion. Their argument: early electronic instruments “did nothing to change the nature of musical composition or performance.” These instruments may have mattered little to composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, but their sounds and performance practices resonated with performers and audiences across the U.S.

A common thread runs through the early reception histories of these instruments: their emotional impact. Audiences heard their electronic sounds as deeply expressive, even human. In 1906 critics raved about the Telharmonium’s “delicacy of expression”; one Literary Digest writer claimed it was “as sensitive to moods and emotions as a living thing.” Two decades later, writers described the theremin’s sonority as “clear, singing, almost mournful” around the same time that Black Pentecostal worshippers celebrated the voice-like qualities of the Hammond Organ.

Today, electronic musical sounds have become so pervasive that we hardly notice them. We take their ubiquity as a matter of fact: one is hard-pressed to find much commentary on their impact or meaning. While historians often explain electronic music’s popularity as the outgrowth of the “pioneering” experimentalism of avant-garde composers such as John Cage or Stockhausen, no real evidence backs this up.

Electronic musical sound is essentially a “black box”: a technology so universally accepted that it is difficult to discern the processes that led up to its establishment. And yet occasionally, a new technology emerges that creates controversy, causing the black box to fall open and inviting us to examine why electronic musical sound seems as compelling today as it was more than a century ago.

“As tidy as a golf green”: a new(er) electronic sound and its haters

Enter Auto-Tune. In 1997 Antares Audio Technologies put Auto-Tune on the market as a Pro Tools plug-in meant to correct poorly intonated vocals. Auto-Tune’s fixes were meant to be indistinguishable to listeners, but within a year artists began using the tool in audible ways for expressive purposes. Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe” was the first high-profile instance. Studio engineers achieved the effect in this song and countless others since by setting Auto-Tune to makes pitch adjustments rapidly or even instantaneously (many artists now sing with Auto-Tune even before the production process begins). The results change not just the pitch but the timbre of the singer’s voice, rendering it machine-like and digital. Artists as varied as Kanye West, Kesha, and Bon Iver adopted the technique. T-Pain built his career on it, crafting a distinctive vocal sound that dominated the airwaves in the late aughts.

The increasing preponderance of Auto-Tune precipitated a backlash among critics and musicians that peaked with T-Pain’s popularity, and has not fully subsided. Most ground their criticisms of Auto-Tune in notions of authenticity and skill, but frequently lace their attacks with the kind of identity politics I’ve traced in the histories of earlier instruments like the theremin.

Robert Everett-Green, writing for The Globe and Mail in 2006 complained that Green Day’s recent use of Auto-Tune made punk seem “as tidy as a golf green,” and worried that as “dead-centre pitch” became the new norm, “a lot of popular music’s expressive capacities may wither away.” In a 2006 Pitchfork interview, Neko Case denied that artists used Auto-Tune as an expressive tool, declaring that its purpose was, “so you don’t have to know how to sing. That shit sounds like shit! It’s like that taste in diet soda, I can taste it—and it makes me sick.” Jay-Z’s 2009 “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” admonished artists to “put your skirt back down, grow a set man,” and “get back to rap, you T-Paining too much.”

For these detractors, and many more like them, Auto-Tune wasn’t simply the hallmark of an artistic poseur; it threatened to destroy the political, racial, gendered, and socio-economic identities of the music it inhabited and the musicians who used it. It neutered rap, turned punk’s anti-authoritarian stance on its head, and diseased everything it touched.

“Digital souls, for digital beings”

Yet some argued that rather than sap music of its authenticity, Auto-Tune honed and complicated the expressivity of the voices it inflected. While many attributed Kanye West’s sustained use of Auto-Tune on the 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak to Kanye’s poor singing skills, Oliver Wang wrote that the result was “a melancholy, intimate and decidedly quirky effort.” According to Wang, Kanye’s “ghostly, mechanical vocals enhance the album’s already despondent atmosphere,” even if the “inhuman” qualities of those vocals rendered it a “frigid, passionless despair.” Musicologist James Gordon Williams argued that T-Pain uses Auto-Tune to trouble “the binary between racially authentic sound and technologically manipulated sound,” and in so doing created an inimitable personal voice.

The theme of expressivity that recurs in the histories of the Telharmonium through Auto-Tune raises an inevitable question: Why? Why has electronic musical sonority—across time, instruments, and performers—sounded so human to so many? Is it because such sounds remind us that our lives would be completely dismantled without technology? That technology is an inextricable part of the human condition? When an Auto-Tuned voice sounds melancholic, is it because such reminders trigger feelings of dependency or inadequacy?

In his history of Auto-Tune for Pitchfork, Simon Reynolds posited that Auto-Tune is so compelling to modern listeners because its “sparkle suits the feel of our time”:

It makes absolute sense that Auto-Tuned singing—bodily breath transubstantiated into beyond-human data—is how desire, heartbreak, and the rest of the emotions sound today. Digital soul, for digital beings, leading digital lives.

Our immersion in digitality may explain the allure of the Auto-Tuned voice, but our inclination to hear the human in the machine is far from new. Technology is as old as humanity. Perhaps we have always seen—and heard—ourselves in our tools.

Beyond revolution

While Pitchfork grapples with thorny questions about technology and art, academic electronic music histories sorely lack nuanced approaches to the impact of technology on musical life. Scholars tend to treat the adoption of new musical technologies as points of rupture and revolution. In doing so, they obscure the ways musicians and listeners use technology toward more traditional ends, like expression and entertainment. This is not to say that technology does not change us, or what we do, or how we do it. Anyone who reads the news in 2019 is constantly reminded that technology shapes our lives and our world in myriad ways. It is crucial, though, that we not twist this fact into a totalizing concept of technological change, in which new tools sweep away existing values and activities. All too often, fixation on what we see as revolutionary obscures the work and impact of marginalized people.

When we pay attention to non-revolutionary popular electronic musical practices, we can begin to better understand why those practices and the sounds they produce command such lasting popularity. Mainstream electronic music historians would have us believe that electronic music owes its current popularity to the boundary breaking of avant garde composers. But from the Telharmonium to Auto-Tune, it seems there were never barriers to overcome: audiences and performers embraced electronic musical sound from the start. To the thousands of people who first experienced them, and to listeners today, electronic sounds ultimately mattered not because they were pioneering or innovative, but because they performed emotional, expressive, and cultural work that resonated with audiences. The instruments, techniques, and sonorities were new, but the ultimate ends—expression, communication, pleasure—were as old as music itself.

“Hearing” the Hammond Organ

A black and white photo of a man and an electronic instrument

The Hammond Organ was the first electronic musical instrument to become commercially successful. Just two years after it went on sale in 1935, major radio stations and Hollywood studios, hundreds of individuals, and over 2,500 churches had purchased a Hammond. The instrument had a major impact on the soundscape of both popular and religious musical life in the U.S., but it has been largely ignored by electronic music historians. Like the Telharmonium and theremin, whose own popular pasts are not widely known, the Hammond’s early history has much to teach us about how American audiences first encountered and understood electronic musical sound.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission held an entire hearing in 1937 to evaluate the Hammond’s sonority. The Commission sought to determine whether a series of advertising claims about the Hammond’s timbre were “deceptive, misleading and false.” Though many of the hearing’s participants believed their testimony would go down in history as an important reckoning of what constituted “real” and “good” musical sound, the affair is largely forgotten today. What the hearing does offer is an unusually detailed record of contemporaneous arguments over the quality and value of a new electronic sound.

The Sacred Hammond Organ

The Hammond Organ became an immediate success when it hit the market in April 1935. By the end of the year, the Hammond Clock Company (soon to change its name to the Hammond Instrument Company) had sold over 800 units; the following year, Hammond added 300 new manufacturing jobs. Profits topped $100k by the end of 1936 and more than tripled the following year, during the height of the Great Depression.

Religious institutions made up the largest share of Hammond buyers, accounting for half of all sales in the 1930s. Advertisements targeted churches on a budget, highlighting practical concerns like the Hammond’s low cost and ease of installation. Ads claimed that all could now own an instrument that produced “fine” organ music, with tones comparable to that of a “concert” or “cathedral” organ. At $1,250, a standard Hammond installation was roughly double the price of a new Chevrolet sedan in 1935, but markedly less than all but the most modest pipe organ installations.

Hammond ad that ran in Christian Herald and Extension Magazine, early 1936

Hammond ad that ran in Christian Herald and Extension Magazine, early 1936. Federal Trade Commission v. Hammond Clock Company, Respondent’s Exhibits housed in the Hammond Organ Company records (Chicago History Museum).

Religious organizations of all types bought Hammonds, from mainstream American Protestants to Catholics, as well as newer denominations like Evangelical churches. In general, though, congregations owning a Hammond in the 1930s tended to be smaller, poorer, and more rural than those that possessed a pipe organ. Many Hammond buyers had apparently not been in the market for an organ at all until the Hammond became available.

Advertising that pitted the Hammond against pipe organs stoked outrage among a small but well-organized community of pipe organ performers, designers, and manufacturers. Many of the community’s most prominent members registered their displeasure in trade journals like The American Organist. In a January 1936 survey printed in the journal, renowned organ designer Emerson Richards derided the Hammond’s sound as “hollow, dry, and dead.” In his response to the same survey, Chicago pipe organist and historian William Barnes declared that the Hammond would “not bear direct comparison with the tone of any natural musical instrument.”

Barnes and Richards spoke on behalf of an industry that had entered the Great Depression already in turmoil. Organ business boomed during the silent film era, when nearly every existing pipe organ manufacturer and many new enterprises rushed to meet demand for theater organs, but talkies decimated that market by the early 1930s. When the Hammond arrived on the scene, the pipe organ industry was reeling. Although no surviving evidence suggests that the Hammond made a measurable impact on pipe organ sales, men like Barnes and Richards quickly adopted the new electronic instrument as a convenient scapegoat for the industry’s ills.

The Federal Trade Commission Gets Involved

Eight months after the Hammond went on sale, Emerson Richards petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to act against the Hammond Clock Company. In 1936 the Commission issued a formal complaint accusing the company of advertising claims that “unfairly diverted” trade away from its pipe organ competitors. The claims at issue ranged from the concrete (the Hammond’s price point) to the nebulous (its suitability for the performance of “great works”), but the complaint and resultant hearing centered around one question: did this new electronic instrument sound “as good as” a pipe organ?

To find an answer, defense and prosecution attorneys assembled a gallery of witnesses—pipe organ experts, performers, Hammond employees, even a physicist who traveled from the University of Texas to Chicago for the hearing. Both Richards and Barnes (quoted above) acted as consultants for the Commission’s prosecutor and testified as expert witnesses. Together with the prosecuting attorney, the men performed multiple tests and demonstrations. In one challenge, “expert” human listeners tried to differentiate between a Hammond and a $75,000 pipe organ in the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. For another series of “machine” tests, physicist Dr. Charles Boner took electrical measurements of Hammond and pipe organ tones using an instrument of his own design that identified and measured the intensity of each of the various harmonics present in a single pitch. Boner then plotted the results in a series of 36 charts that visually depicted the amplitude of each harmonic present in a given tone.

Both sides attempted to spin the battery of test results in their favor. Their testimony was acrimonious and lengthy, and filled nearly three thousand pages, preserved in the Chicago History Museum and the National Archives. Evidence, correspondence, attorney’s briefs, and the like add another thousand pages to the record. Those on the side of the pipe organ interpreted the visual differences between pipe and Hammond organ tones in Boner’s charts as scientific proof of the superiority of pipe organ tones. Meanwhile, Laurens Hammond maintained the human ear could not detect the differences registered by Boner’s instrument. When Hammond held up the lackluster listening test results of expert listeners for a series of excerpts played by a Hammond employee, the prosecution accused them of deliberately registering the pipe organ used for the test to imitate the Hammond, rather than the other way around.

A Fraction of the Hearing's Transcribed Testimony in the Hammond Organ Company records

A Fraction of the Hearing’s Transcribed Testimony in the Hammond Organ Company records (Chicago History Museum)

Other Hearings

In hundreds of hours of testimony, not once did the Commission consider the experiences of performers and congregations who used the Hammond Organ for worship. When the Hammond defense attempted to submit statements of support from church organists across the country, the Commission rejected them on the grounds that “testimonials are not good evidence.”

The hearing’s final set of demonstrations starkly illustrate this exclusivity. The Commission traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to compare two organs: a famous pipe organ at Boardwalk Hall (designed by Emerson Richards himself) and the only nearby Hammond Organ, located at the African-American St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church. At St. Augustine’s, Richards played a series of scales and chords using the preset sounds of the Hammond Organ; he repeated this process, playing registrations that corresponded to the Hammond’s preset timbres, on the organ at Boardwalk Hall. Later, Richards and the famous organist Charles Courbin, who was present for the demonstrations, testified on the differences they perceived between the organs.

An unnamed figure appears in testimony, who Richards describes only as “a young colored man who sometimes plays the organ” at the church. For a brief moment, then, the hearing’s participants encountered a musician who actually played the Hammond for church services. Here was someone who might have provided testimony grounded in lived experience with the new instrument. But the lived musical life and opinions of this unidentified organist was irrelevant to the men running the hearing. He is mentioned just once in the recorded testimony. He does not speak or act. His body registered, briefly, in the official record, but his opinions—and his name—did not.

Though this organist and his musical practices failed to register as matters of concern, his presence in the record is silent testimony to the Hammond’s existence and impact outside the context of the Commission’s hearing. Historian Ashon Crawley, who is currently at work on a book on the role of the Hammond in Black Pentecostal churches, notes that the instrument’s sound was taken up as the sound of the Black Pentecostal movement itself where it was heard as a “human-like” voice. Crawley sketches an understanding of the Hammond’s sound in the Black Pentecostal church that is rich with religious and social meaning, an understanding far more complex and profound than the white men involved in the Commission’s Hammond hearing were able to imagine.

A Hollow Victory?

In July of 1938, when five Commissioners met to rule on the hearing, they agreed with the prosecution and its witnesses on nearly all points. The Commissioners ordered Hammond to cease making a number of claims, including that the Hammond could produce sonorities equivalent to a pipe organ’s, that it could “properly” render “the great works of classical organ literature,” and that it was comparable to a “$10,000 pipe organ.”

And yet, after hundreds of hours of testimony, tests, and demonstrations, the decision mattered little. Both sides claimed victory, but the hearing appeared to have no appreciable impact on either. Indeed, the Hammond seemed to expand rather than invade the pipe organ market. Until World War II, when both the Hammond Company and the pipe organ industry converted to war-time operations, Hammonds continued to sell at a brisk pace. And after a low point in 1935, a slow recovery began in the pipe organ industry, with sales and the number of pipe organ firms on the rise by the end of the decade.

Defenders of the pipe organ failed to grasp that not every church wanted or needed a pipe organ, and that the Hammond was actually well suited to many religious musical practices. We can only imagine what other kinds of testimony would exist had the Commission considered the experiences and opinions of the congregations who worshiped with a Hammond. The exclusivity was the point, though. It was the Hammond’s marketing intrusion into elite pipe organ spaces and practices that precipitated the complaint, and that elite ground was the only one the pipe organ experts believed was worth defending.

The dismissal of supposed non-expert Hammond players and listeners in the Commission’s hearing mirrors electronic music history’s failure to register the histories of early electronic instruments. Because instruments like the theremin and the Hammond first circulated in spaces outside of elite compositional spheres, their performers, practices, and receptions seem to exist outside of history altogether. In both the Hammond’s hearing and mainstream electronic music history, the cordoning off of everyday and popular music experiences drastically narrows our understanding of how electronic musical sound became meaningful and why it matters.

Plus Ça Change: Florence B. Price in the #BlackLivesMatter Era

A black and white photo of a mother and daughter

“While more and more blacks are being driven into homelessness,” a classical music fan fumed, “Mostly Mozart is rewarded with government, corporate, and media support.” The problem? No black composers on the program—not even Mozart’s great contemporary, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

We can easily imagine this critique as a sick Twitter burn from last summer, or last week. Calls to diversify classical music programs intensify regularly. But the sad truth is that many organizations are reluctant to pursue any path other than business as usual. (Others certainly aren’t.) Perhaps sadder still, the comment above dates from 1987. Mike Snell, a reader of Raoul Abdul’s music column in the New York-based Amsterdam News, wrote Abdul to eviscerate the media for not highlighting the systemic racism underpinning the lack of black representation on the concert stage.

Plus ça change.

Returning to the present: the music of one black composer, Florence B. Price, has experienced an extraordinary surge of public interest over the past year, mainly on the heels of extensive coverage of violinist Er-Gene Kahng’s world premiere recording of her two violin concertos in The New Yorker and The New York Times. Prominent U.S. orchestras, including the New Jersey Symphony, North Carolina Symphony, and Minnesota Orchestra, programmed Price’s music during their 2018–19 seasons. The Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra recently released the world premiere recording of her Fourth Symphony on Naxos Records. And more ensembles will likely take up the mantle, both in the United States and around the globe. The Chicago Symphony, for example, recently announced that it would perform Price’s Third Symphony in the 2019–20 season.

Given the longstanding historical exclusion of African American composers, Price’s sudden rise to stardom might raise a few eyebrows. Is the sudden widespread interest in Price’s music a convenient fad? Are predominantly white institutions exploiting her legacy for short-term gain—what Nancy Leong has called “racial capitalism”? These are the right questions to ask. Their skeptical slant is justified when a major trade publication can obliviously describe women composers as “in vogue.” And it would be far from the first time that white musicians bolstered their careers on the musical labor of black women, or that black women’s musical accomplishments have faced unfair scrutiny upon entering white public consciousness.

We can only speculate about how Price’s resurgent presence on the concert stage might bring about deeper structural changes over the long term. But, if we listen carefully, her unique experiences as a composer and as a black woman present us with a more immediate opportunity to name and fight racial injustice today. Mike Snell’s complaints—and those of concerned musicians before and after him—show that time has refracted these injustices to the present.

Plus ça change, indeed.

Open Our Ears

The persistence of anti-black racism in classical music spaces stems largely from the white majority’s refusal to engage meaningfully with black voices—or even to listen. In a detailed critique of the new music communities in which he has participated, composer Anthony R. Green encourages us to “trust these voices. Be critical, but respectful. Engage in exchange. Be patient. When our work is blatantly ignored, disrespected, not studied, and not programmed, our voice is all we have.” White people, even those with anti-racist sympathies, often recoil at the suggestion that they have harmed people of color and shift the discussion to defend their motivations—a phenomenon multicultural education expert Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” But the fact that Green’s observations are not new simply proves the point.

Green’s critiques revolve around the classical music industry’s propensity to pigeonhole black composers as “one-trick ponies.” This dehumanization, he argues, occurs when concert organizers think about music by black composers only during Black History Month or, in more recent years, for concerts with a social justice theme. “While this is not necessarily negative,” he adds, “the injustice arises when absolute music or music with non-social themes by black composers is overlooked.” Florence Price’s daughter, Florence Robinson, expressed similar frustrations after Price died in 1953. Artists were happy to perform Price’s arrangements of Negro spirituals, but she found no advocates for her mother’s symphonic compositions.

Once a black composer finds an advocate, however, another problem is that concert organizers do not always think through the implications of poor framing. Price’s Symphony in E Minor, which Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra famously premiered in June 1933, appeared on a program ostensibly devoted to celebrating black musical achievement.

CSO program, June 1933

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 15 June 1933

It featured tenor Roland Hayes and pianist Margaret Bonds as soloists in addition to pieces by Price and Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. But the opening number was an overture by John Powell, an avowed anti-black eugenicist. Powell’s presence was an acute indignity for Price and the other black performers, especially since Chicago’s black newspaper, the Defender, had publicly criticized Powell earlier that year.

To make matters worse, the event occurred the night after a concert celebrating American music, which had not only neglected to include any black musicians, but highlighted George Gershwin’s symphonic jazz compositions—pieces epitomizing white appropriation and presumed “elevation” of a fundamentally black style. Were African American musicians not American? The juxtaposition is startling.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 14 June 1933

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 14 June 1933

Critical comparisons between the two shows were inevitable. One critic wrote about both as a unit. “Gershwin,” she observed, “looks like his music,” while John Alden Carpenter (whose Concertino had appeared on the second program with Margaret Bonds as soloist) “took up the white man’s burden” for the evening. Price, in contrast, “was given to little communicative inspiration.” By what standard we’ll never know. And black musicians of the era were painfully aware of these racist gaffes and slights, as William Grant Still, a composer who had grown up with Price in Arkansas, demonstrated in scathing commentary published in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1950.

Fifty Years of Progress in Music

“Fifty Years of Progress in Music,” Pittsburgh Courier, 11 Nov. 1950

But what choice do black composers have in the matter given the racist status quo? Is saying no to a major opportunity a viable option, especially if it puts food on the table? In September 1940, a conductor in Detroit approached Price about setting up a performance of her orchestral music. He was “quite anxious to do something from your pen,” he told her, and asked for information about her orchestrations of black folk dances. Sensing the urgency of the situation, she sent him her abstract Third Symphony instead, along with a letter that has since become one her best-known artistic manifestos. Making sure he knew the character of the piece was unlike what he had requested, she added, “The other two movements—the first and the last—were meant to follow conventional lines of form and development.” The conductor had no choice but to program the piece, given few ready alternatives. But Price took a significant professional risk by not conceding to his original demands.

Price to Frederick Schwass

Price to Frederick Schwass, Florence Price Papers, Special Collections Division, University of Arkansas Mullins Library

As these episodes show, ignorant, racist framing of black music prevents black composers from fully expressing their artistic visions and hampers listeners from approaching a piece on its own terms. Unilateral concert planning carries the risk of reifying racist norms. Creating a just environment means working with composers to find a frame that shows their music at its best. And here we can take a cue from history as well—from a 1935 performance of Price’s Piano Concerto given by the Bronx Symphony Orchestra in which the evening’s featured black musicians had taken an integral role in planning.

New York Times, 30 Aug. 1935

New York Times, 30 Aug. 1935

#BlackLivesMatter and Classical Music

Following Trayvon Martin’s brutal murder in 2012, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tomeli inaugurated the Black Lives Matter movement to publicize the precariousness of life itself for black Americans in a violently racist society—and, of course, to rectify the injustices underpinning it.[1] The halls of classical music may seem far removed from these issues, but only because they have remained predominantly white spaces. Indeed, as historian Kira Thurman has shown, classical music (even whistling it) could not protect Draylen Mason, a young bassist from Austin, Texas, from the bomber who targeted African American homes and ultimately killed him. White people must confront this stark reality, despite the luxury of being able to avoid it.

In her reflections on Mason’s death, Kira Thurman has explained that “we don’t know how to talk about” black classical musicians because “to be black and a classical musician is to be considered a contradiction.” This insight suggests that conventional writing about classical music and musicians tends to emphasize white (male) lineage and benevolence, usually at the expense of people of color. Stating one’s position in a prominent network, for example, is meant to be a signal that talent and grit, rather than race, gender, or status, led to success. Doing the work of justice will therefore entail developing a language that breaks reliance on white patriarchal norms and captures the nuance of an individual’s full humanity.

The experience of blackness cannot be reduced to violence, but I emphasize violence here since it has experienced its own series of refractions over the past several centuries—from family separation and horrific physical abuse under slavery, to lynching under Jim Crow and decades of unchecked police brutality. The pall of violence is so pervasive that many African American parents pass strategies for navigating it to their children in a family ritual known as “the talk.” And, as black feminist theorists such as Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks have argued, black women are uniquely vulnerable.

Price was no exception, since violence had dramatically shaped both of her parents’ lives. A group of Irish bullies, for example, nearly assaulted Price’s father when he was a young man living in New York City simply for “wearing a tall silk hat” on the sidewalk. In a draft of his memoirs, Price annotated this moment as “the lynching.” Price’s mother, meanwhile, was abducted and nearly raped as a teenager in Indianapolis. Both were squarely middle-class, indicating that a relatively high socioeconomic status could not mitigate their victimization.

Conventional biographical writing about classical musicians leaves virtually no room for examining race-based experiences like these that might shape a musical career. The official biography of Price featured on the website of her current publisher, G. Schirmer, emphasizes her relationships to white institutions and teachers but elides the circumstances that brought her into contact with these individuals in the first place.

Price studied at the New England Conservatory, for example, but not because it welcomed her as an African American. Instead, her mother insisted that she take advantage of her racially ambiguous skin color to pass as a woman from Mexico and avoid unnecessary scrutiny of her African ancestry. This decision was not only a safety measure, but as historian Allyson Hobbs has shown, carried the potential to destroy families separated by the artificial color line. Likewise, though Price continued to study with prominent teachers in Chicago, as the biography states, she went to Chicago to flee from racist violence in Arkansas that culminated in an especially grisly lynching.

"Mob spokesmen asked Carter if he had any last requests. He asked for a cup of water and a cigarette, and these were granted, as was his request to say a final prayer. Members of the mob then put a rope around his neck, threw the noose end over a utility pole, and forced him onto the top of a car. One of them drove the car away, leaving Carter hanging from the pole. The mob then pumped more than 200 shots into the dangling corpse."

Description of a lynching

Further, musicologist Rae Linda Brown has shown that domestic violence caused Price’s marriage to fall apart shortly after the move, leaving her to raise her two young daughters with the assistance of a community of black women on the city’s South Side that included dear friend Estelle Bonds and her daughter, Margaret Bonds. That Price thrived in these environments says far more about her and the racist and misogynist circumstances she faced than the prestige that might have accrued from any institutional affiliations.

Justice, then, includes allowing a musician’s true self to be fully present when facing the public—to appear “at our best,” as Kira Thurman has called it. She explains that black classical musicians “embody the Brechtian concept of Verfremdung, making the familiar strange and uncanny. Our performances and our musical experiences challenge the bounds of blackness and whiteness and the histories of racial oppression that have tried to culturally and musically determine both.” Like Anthony Green, she insists that denunciations of racial profiling and critiquing structural inequality don’t have to come at the expense of aesthetic enjoyment—that violence and beauty are equally powerful. Papering over one or the other merely reifies centuries of structural inequality by sweeping it under the rug.

A Renaissance

Historical erasure is perhaps the most acute consequence of the institutional oppression and misunderstanding that Green and Thurman highlight. And here Price’s story offers another cautionary tale.

In 2009, a pair of renovators, Darrell and Vicki Gatwood, found a substantial cache of Price’s manuscripts —roughly thirty large archival boxes—at Price’s abandoned summer home near St. Anne, Illinois. These materials eventually moved to the Special Collections division at the University of Arkansas Mullins Library. This discovery and acquisition marked a true watershed for Price scholarship and advocacy, which had grown slowly but steadily with the limited materials Price’s daughter had already sent the university shortly before her death in 1975.

Florence Price’s summer home, 2009

Florence Price’s summer home, 2009 Photo: Timothy Nutt

Price’s daughter, in fact, had struggled to find performances and publication outlets after her mother died in 1953. Some people tried to help but couldn’t, and she was occasionally suspicious of opportunists seeking to capitalize unfairly on her mother’s dwindling legacy. Things took a turn for the worse in 1974 when she became too ill to manage her mother’s affairs any longer. Barbara Garvey Jackson, a musicologist at the University of Arkansas, had been in touch her and finally convinced her to send a few manuscript scores to the university, including the famous symphony premiered by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933.

With these slivers in hand, Jackson planted the seeds for a Florence Price revival by publishing a major biographical article in The Black Perspective in Music. Rae Linda Brown, a graduate student at Yale who had stumbled upon a manuscript of Price’s Third Symphony in an archival collection, soon joined her and became a new leading voice in the revival as she published numerous articles on Price’s life and music.

Over time, Jackson and Brown worked with several distinguished musicians and scholars, including Helen Walker-Hill, Mildred Denby Green, Althea Waites, Linda Holzer, Calvert Johnson, Trevor Weston, Karen Walwyn, and the Women’s Philharmonic to bring Price’s music to the public. This work culminated in Brown’s editions of Price’s Piano Sonata and First and Third Symphonies (co-edited with Wayne Shirley for the series Music of the United States of America published by A-R Editions), Jackson’s series of publications for ClarNan Editions, Weston’s reconstruction Price’s Piano Concerto, and several ensuing recordings. This extensive labor extends beyond the fact that Price’s vocal music has been a staple on vocal recitals, especially those given by African American performers, since the 1930s. Richard Heard collected many of these songs in his edition called 44 Art Songs and Spirituals.

After the St. Anne discovery, several new individuals became involved in this ongoing Price revival, most notably Arkansas-based composer James Greeson. He used materials from the new collection to form the basis for a 2015 documentary, The Caged Bird, which has screened at venues across the United States and has become a staple of educational initiatives around the country.

While researching black composers of the early 20th century, I visited the University of Arkansas in May 2016 to peruse the original Price archival collection but ended up using the entire new collection since it had opened to the public the previous year. A report on my work was broadcast over WUOL 90.5 in Louisville, Kentucky, a few weeks later. I collaborated with the station again in the summer of 2017 to host an all-Price concert at the city’s annual Muhammad Ali Festival, which featured members of the Louisville Orchestra giving a contemporary premiere of one of Price’s “lost” string quartets. The quartet segment was later rebroadcast nationally on the syndicated show “Performance Today.”

Meanwhile, other performing groups such as the Apollo Chamber Players, The Dream Unfinished, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the BBC Orchestra explored new areas of Price’s life and work.

Together, this collective but dispersed grassroots effort drew substantial new attention to Price’s life and music, which crested in the New Yorker and New York Times pieces mentioned earlier.

A White Savior?

If efforts to reinscribe Florence Price into the historical record were reaching new heights by the middle of 2018, what might the reification of structural inequality look like?

Publisher G. Schirmer announced last November that it had acquired worldwide rights to Price’s compositional catalog. In other words, the firm would serve as a clearinghouse for the publication, distribution, and licensing of Price’s scores. Previously, interested scholars or performers would have to visit the University of Arkansas to take photographs of the archival material (or pay the library for photographic reproductions) before engraving the music or performing from the manuscripts themselves.

Explaining the rationale behind the firm’s decision, promotional director Rachel Sokolow stated, “As more orchestras and presenters recognize the need to address diversity in classical music programming, we hope that Price’s oeuvre can be a valuable resource.” Citing the interest in Price that seemed to bloom after the extensive media coverage, G. Schirmer president Robert Thompson explained that it’s “important to insure that past composers like Julius Eastman and Florence Price are not forgotten, and that their legacies are living ones, celebrated through live performances and new recordings.”

On the surface, this may sound like a great idea with an ethical underpinning. Black composers like Price have obviously gone underserved for far too long. And the G. Schirmer website is far more convenient to access than a dusty archive. But, as musicologist Matthew Morrison’s work suggests, the firm risks joining the long line of predominantly white for-profit corporations hoping to circumscribe an equally white marketplace for black musical production if it overlooks the vibrant work that expanded the audience for Price in the first place.

At a glance, G. Schirmer’s official statements may seem reminiscent of what writer Teju Cole has called the “White-Savior Industrial Complex,” in which “the world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” Perhaps many organizations rushing to program Price’s music are riding an enthusiastic wave rather than redressing injustice. But Cole’s formulation also illustrates the sharp differences between how an organization perceives itself and what the historical record shows. “All [the White Savior] sees is need,” Cole writes, and “he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.” In Price’s case, performing organizations neglected her music, but even G. Schirmer itself owns a small share of the responsibility for narrowing the marketplace and creating the lack of diverse programming we face today.

To wit: Marian Anderson premiered Price’s Songs to the Dark Virgin in November 1939 at a Carnegie Hall recital, with a repeat in January. A representative from Theodore Presser jumped on the opportunity, but Price had so much leverage that she ended up going with G. Schirmer over an offer from the equally prominent Presser. In other words, G. Schirmer knew about Price and her music but offered to publish only a tiny fraction during her lifetime.

Songs to the Dark Virgin

Cover of Songs to the Dark Virgin, G. Schirmer, 1941

“When you [Anderson] introduce a song,” Price’s daughter once explained, “that is a signal for the publishers to try to persuade the composer to sign a contract for publication.” Price and Anderson worked together to capitalize on this knowledge of the system’s inner workings because Price occasionally had trouble finding publishers on her own. Ethnomusicologist Alisha Lola Jones has argued that this synergistic collaboration was a channel through which “black women empowered themselves to sound the (un)quieted, undisputed dignity of womanhood on the world’s stage” without the involvement of white benefactors.

Florence Robinson to Marian Anderson, Dec. 1966

Florence Robinson to Marian Anderson, Dec. 1966, Marian Anderson Papers, University of Pennsylvania

But Price could not rely solely on a community of women to bring her orchestral music before the public, and therefore to have any hope of publishing it.[2] This institutional neglect of her music during her lifetime explains why so many manuscripts were awaiting “discovery” after her death in the first place. Promotional brochures dating from Price’s lifetime show that her prolific catalog was public knowledge throughout the industry. ASCAP, of which Price was the first African American woman member, produced these brochures and distributed them widely.

Florence Price’s ASCAP Brochure

Florence Price’s ASCAP Brochure

Why did no one offer to work with Price or her daughter to secure a legacy—the kind of legacy that G. Schirmer is now rightly pursuing? Publishers? Conductors? Instrumentalists? Even in the supposedly vaunted world of classical music, profit-seeking considerations and their deep ties to systemic discrimination often trump ethical concerns. In the heady environment of an exciting renaissance, white organizations run the risk of refusing to acknowledge black voices, especially those of black women, virtually ensuring that these voices become unsung to their posterity.

Within the complex matrix of composers, publishers, venues, performers, audiences, and critics, we must all play a role in creating a just musical community. Or we will keep repeating the same patterns of oppression.

A Classical Postscript

As it turns out, Joseph Bologne’s music also has an esteemed but spotty publication history dating from his own lifetime in the late 18th century. Famous houses like Antoine Bailleux and Jean-Georges Sieber published him alongside J.C. Bach, Luigi Boccherini, and others. After a long publication hiatus, one of the foremost scholars of black music, Dominique-René de Lerma, worked with Peer International to publish a series of Bologne’s chamber music in 1978—a full decade before music fan Mike Snell wagged his finger at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival.

Plus ça change.


Thank you to Dr. Alisha Lola Jones and Samantha Ege for providing substantive feedback and additional sources for this essay.



1. BLM should not be confused with the Movement for Black Lives, which is a separate but occasionally overlapping organization.


2. University of York musicology Ph.D. student Samantha Ege is arguing in her dissertation that Price’s social circle did in fact offer material support for the Chicago Symphony concert once her piece became a viable option for Frederick Stock.

“Splendid Sonority and Vivid Expressiveness”: The Theremin before Sci-Fi

A photo of a female conductor circa 1930

Most people who haven’t heard of the theremin have heard it, usually in old science fiction movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (or spoofs like Mars Attacks). The instrument has a reputation as an oddball, by virtue of its unusual method of playing without touch (players control pitch and volume by moving their arms in proximity to two antennae), its notoriously slippery chromatic sound, and its association with all things alien and strange.

Yet the instrument was popular with U.S. audiences well before its appearance in sci-fi films. A significant surviving reception history documents recitals and concerts during the ’30s and ’40s, often given by women, known as “thereminists,” who played the instrument professionally or semi-professionally. Years before Hollywood cemented the theremin’s association with the alien or otherworldly, critics heard different qualities in its sonority: emotional expressiveness and excessive sentimentality.

This history isn’t widely known or taught, but it reveals much about how electronic musical sound takes on meaning and significance. While we might take for granted that the instrument’s touchless technique and new electronic timbre would naturally register with early listeners as alien and strange, contemporary reviews and commentary upend such assumptions and reveal the extent to which sonorities take on meaning in specific contexts, and in relationship to specific bodies.

A Theremin for the American Home

RCA Victor began producing the first commercial theremin in 1929 after leasing exclusive rights to the patent for a two-year term from its inventor, Leon Theremin. The company marketed the theremin as an instrument for the home, hiding its working parts—oscillators, vacuum tubes, and circuit board—in a polished wooden cabinet. Working with Theremin (an amateur cellist himself), RCA engineers shaped the instrument’s tone to evoke a cello in its mid-range and a violin at the top, sonorities they presumed would appeal to consumers.

RCA Victor theremin brochure c. 1930

RCA Victor theremin brochure c. 1930

RCA launched a campaign to familiarize audiences with the instrument’s sound. Department stores and music retailers across the country advertised demonstrations and concerts, and a series of weekly radio programs on NBC featured theremin renditions of popular repertory of the day and classical melodies like Camille Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan.” RCA marketed the instrument as a pathway to instant musical gratification for the amateur, promising that anyone could play it “without musical knowledge or training of any sort … without tiresome or extended ‘practice.’” The theremin (RCA hoped) would become “the universal musical instrument,” the piano’s heir apparent in millions of American living rooms.

Claims of universality notwithstanding, this campaign primarily targeted middle and upper-class white women, a demographic frequently associated with (and compelled to take on) domestic music-making and most likely to select music technology purchased for the home. Although men frequently played the theremin in demonstrations and broadcasts, RCA Victor’s promotional material almost exclusively pictured women playing the instrument. In Madison, Wisconsin, the local Ludlow Radio company sponsored several theremin concerts by a Mr. Lennington Shewell, but otherwise emphasized female use. The company launched a search for a “mystery co-ed” at the University of Wisconsin, alleging a gifted thereminist lived among the student body (no record of such a student survives). The local Capital Times gamely took up the publicity stunt, running an image of Ludlow’s office manager Charlotte Hilton with the instrument—although she admitted she did not know how to play it.

“Seek Mystery ‘Co-ed’ who Plays Theremin," Capital Times front page, Madison, Wisconsin, October 19, 1930

“Seek Mystery ‘Co-ed’ who Plays Theremin,” Capital Times front page, Madison, Wisconsin, October 19, 1930

Despite RCA Victor’s marketing efforts, the theremin was a flop: the company sold only 485 models and abandoned the instrument just two years after its launch. Any number of factors contributed to the theremin’s commercial failure, not least of them the instrument’s $230 price tag (roughly equivalent to $3,300 in 2018), which made it a luxury item at the start of the Great Depression.

RCA Victor’s most notorious blunder, though, was its gross misrepresentation of the instrument’s learning curve. It is incredibly difficult to play tonal melodies on a theremin: with no tactile interface and the entire chromatic spectrum available, the instrument lacks any readily apparent means to make a clear break between intervals, and requires a player’s hand to remain absolutely still in order to hold a steady pitch. Try to pick out even a simple melody on a theremin, and you’ll find yourself fighting a battle against continuous glissandi and poor intonation.

Thereminists and their critics

Despite these technical challenges, in the decades following the theremin’s commercial failure a small number of performers, most of them white women, concertized on the instrument in the U.S. and Europe. Among these, Clara Rockmore remains the most celebrated. A former child violin prodigy, Rockmore took theremin technique and virtuosity to a new level, developing a complex fingering method she adapted for each piece she performed. She carefully curated a repertoire for the instrument drawn mostly from works for violin and cello, with slow tempi and a great deal of step-wise motion that minimized the large pitch slides to which the instrument was prone. A typical program included works like Joseph Achron’s Hebrew Melody, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera, and César Franck’s Cello Sonata in A Major. Her career included national tours as the opening act for Paul Robeson and a performance with the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski.

Clara Rockmore performs “The Swan” accompanied by her sister Nadia Reisenberg

Throughout her career, critics lauded Rockmore’s virtuosic playing and sophisticated musicianship. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers in Rockmore’s hands, describing its tone as “warm” and “rich” and comparing it to the cello, violin, and human voice. They heard a “splendid sonority and vivid expressiveness” and a “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone in Rockmore’s playing. To this day, she remains influential among thereminists.

Yet critical response to Rockmore and the theremin was not universally positive. A rhetoric of noisiness threads through this early reception history, employed by (mostly white, mostly male) critics to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. During the ’30s and ’40s, when concert thereminists like Rockmore were active, critics often complained about their “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento. There is a practical explanation for such complaints: without the use of these techniques, it is next to impossible to locate pitches, or to create even the impression of accurate intonation, on the theremin.

Critics, however, did not limit themselves to practical questions about technique. Many turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking “excessive” chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. Writers for the New-York Tribune and Modern Music compared the theremin’s sonority to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena,” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such comparisons are inseparable from the (frequently female) bodies that, in concert with the theremin, produced such sounds.

A few prominent figures in the American new music community at the time were particularly vehement in their criticism. In 1932 Marc Blitzstein wrote in Modern Music that the theremin’s “tone color remains lamentably sentimental, without virility. The most perfected [model], like a cello, exposes most brutally the cloying sound.” John Cage complained about concert thereminists in a 1937 talk (later published in the collection Silence). “When Theremin provided an instrument with genuinely new possibilities,” groused Cage, “Thereminists did their utmost to make the instrument sound like some old instrument, giving it a sickeningly sweet vibrato, and performing upon it, with difficulty, masterpieces from the past. Although the instrument is capable of a wide variety of sound qualities…Thereminists act as censors, giving the public those sounds they think the public will like. We are shielded from new sound experiences.”

The deficiencies commentators like Cage heard in the theremin’s sonority were not simply a response to the sound itself, but to the bodies and performance practices of thereminists like Rockmore. Composers of Western art music have long used “excessive” chromaticism to aurally mark women, and the thereminists’ frequent use of vibrato and portamento easily mapped onto the stereotype of the overly powerful and expressive operatic soprano. Meanwhile, new music proponents like Blitzstein often attacked traditional Western repertory in gendered terms as they sought to define a properly “virile” new music of their own. And we cannot dismiss the impact that the image of a woman performing held then (and holds now): such a vision can provoke both admiration and outrage.

Clara Rockmore

Photograph of Clara Rockmore (c. 1930s) by Renato Toppo, courtesy of The Nadia Reisenberg / Clara Rockmore Foundation

“Serious” and “Beautiful” Electronic Music

It is composers like Cage who stand as towering figures in electronic music—not performers like Rockmore—and it is his take on the theremin that you’re likely to encounter in a book on the subject. Rockmore held entirely different opinions on the aesthetics of electronic musical sound. Looking back on her career in a 1977 interview with Bob Moog, she lamented that:

From the beginning of electronic instruments, the interest of composers,…builders, and performers, is that of a search for eerie, new or strange sound effects….Modern composers are shying away from melody, frankly because I don’t think they know how to write really beautiful melody….Now they make sound effects and noises when they write.

Rockmore also lamented what she saw as Hollywood’s devaluation of the theremin’s sound to a sonic cliché. She complained that Hollywood exploited the theremin for its “weird noises…you were supposed to be frightened by the sounds. That was not what I wanted to add to. I just wanted to be a serious musician…play Bach!” John Cage might have belittled Rockmore’s repertoire choices as “censorship,” but for her, playing “masterpieces from the past” was a way to confer legitimacy on her chosen instrument.

Contrasting Rockmore’s words about the theremin’s sound with Cage’s demonstrates how their relative positions of power and vulnerability influenced their discussions of electronic musical sound. Both were musicians in elite spheres—one traditional, the other avant-garde. Both worked in niche musical areas and proselytized for their chosen work. Both, at least publicly, disdained musical sounds they did not like or found threatening to their own careers.

Cage is often praised for his commitment to artistic freedom, and it is his definition of freedom—freedom from tonality, from traditional repertoire—that has been taken up and promoted by most electronic music historians. Yet in the case of the theremin, Cage argued for the restriction of performance practices, and historians use his words to explain why thereminists are not properly part of electronic musical history. Rockmore had a different take. When explaining how the theremin fit in the broader electronic music scene, she said, “The theremin is just another musical voice that the artist can feel free to do with what he can.” It is time we expand our own notions of musical freedom. Our histories will only grow richer when we do.

“Underground” Electronic Music

A black and white brochure photo of a Telharmonium

Electronic musical sound saturates our sonic world. Check the pop charts any week, and you’ll hear sounds clearly identifiable as electronic in almost every track. We expect to hear these sounds, and rarely consider their presence, let alone their significance. Given their ubiquity, it’s clear that electronic sounds matter—but how? What do they mean to us? How did they become so valuable and so popular?

If you go looking for answers to these questions in the pages of electronic music histories, you are likely to read a story like this: in the middle of the 20th century, avant-garde composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen pioneered various techniques, ideas, and sounds that eventually led to a digital revolution in the 1980s, when electronic music exploded and came to dominate popular music.

Among other problems with this narrative: popular electronic music existed well before the experiments of these “great men.” Thousands of people in the U.S. witnessed electronic musical sounds played on early electronic instruments long before the celebrated midcentury experimentalists. Each of these instruments offers a history with its own answers to questions about encounters between audiences and new electronic sounds.

Crowd in Telharmonium Hall

Crowd in Telharmonium Hall, A. B. Easterbrook, “The Wonderful Telharmonium,” Gunter’s Magazine (June 1907)

Telharmonium Hall

The instrument that first introduced U.S. audiences to electronic sound was an enormous machine that drew accolades during two short seasons in New York City: the Telharmonium. Invented by Thaddeus Cahill and installed in the city from 1906 to 1908, the instrument occupied two floors of “Telharmonium Hall” at Broadway and 39th Street. In the basement sat half an acre of machinery, including switchboards, tone mixers, and dynamos—the large electrical generators that produced the instrument’s sound. Telephone wires carried the sound upstairs where receivers, somewhat amplified by simple paper cones, piped the music to audiences. Two, three, or sometimes four performers played the instrument’s hodgepodge of interfaces, including multiple keyboards, pedals, and switches.

Telharmonium Hall opened in 1907 to critical and popular success. During its first season, tens of thousands of people attended concerts there. The hall also offered subscription services a century before streaming platforms like Spotify came to dominate music consumption. Some of the city’s most lavish cafes and hotels, among them the Café Martin and the Waldorf Astoria, became subscribers, as did private individuals like Mark Twain. The Plaza Hotel went so far as to wire every guest room for Telharmonic service.

Laudatory accounts appeared everywhere from McClure’s and The New York Times to Scientific American and Literary Digest. “It is wonderful,” said Alfred Hertz, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, “and I believe in telharmony as an art of music.” Famed tenor Enrico Caruso foresaw a musical “revolution,” and journalists agreed, predicting the end of the orchestra, a new era in musical appreciation, and the improved health and family life of Americans (at least some Americans) who would now have music, day and night, “on tap.”

Dinner from the Future

“Dinner from the Future” (depiction of an “ideal” family experiencing Telharmonium music, piped through their lamp, during dinner)

“Purer and Better”

For proponents of the instrument, the Telharmonium was an ideal vehicle for revolutionary changes in music production and consumption because of the quality of its tone, widely perceived as “pure” and even “perfect.” Purity has long been associated with whiteness. Rhetoric about racially “pure” musical aesthetics and sounds was already decades old by the 20th century, and was exacerbated by anti-immigrant policy and sentiment. “Purity” was central to a nationalist voice culture movement of teachers and musicians that thrived in the U.S. from around 1880 to 1920. Scott Carter, who has documented the movement, notes an obsession with pure vocal tones, rooted in racist beliefs about vocal clarity and anxiety over non-white immigrants.

Within the new science of acoustics, which Cahill carefully studied, purity of tone had a similar racial component. Tara Rodgers notes that acousticians like Hermann von Helmholtz equated “notions of the sine wave as ‘pure’ and ‘lacking body’ with whiteness and scientific objectivity,” and timbral variations away from this norm with “material embodiment (e.g. raced, gendered, classed) and transgressive pleasures.” Cahill designed the Telharmonium to produce and combine sine waves and to create various timbres, and touted the instrument’s tones as being “purer and better than those of the orchestral instruments.”

Journalists happily took up this talking point about the instrument’s sound, describing it as particularly pure in review after review. The Telharmonium’s audiences and commentators were almost exclusively middle- and upper-class white people, and while it’s impossible to know whether the average listener heard the instrument’s sound as pure, it is safe to say that they experienced it through the lens of their racial experience. White audiences were used to having all kinds of products marketed to them as “pure” (and therefore healthy and superior)—from soap to food to medicine. Telharmonic music was for this population: created and sold in elite white spaces, consumed by white audiences, and widely described as sounding white.

Telharmonium Performers

Telharmonium Performers, Ray Stannard Baker, “New Music for an Old World,” McClure’s Magazine (July 1906)

Insiders and Outsiders

Nowhere does a journalist or marketer make the whiteness of the Telharmonium’s sound explicit; as Jennifer Stoever points out, when whiteness is the racial default, its sonic qualities are rendered inaudible. Yet one New York Times story—“An Invisible Rival for the Hurdy Gurdy”—comes close, pitting the Telharmonium’s sound against music made by a pair of immigrant street musicians.

During the Telharmonium’s brief time in New York City, the number of Italian and Eastern European immigrants in the city and nation was rising rapidly. Then as today, overblown fears about immigrants fed—and were fed by—racist stereotypes and discourses about citizenship (at the time, these immigrants were not considered white). In “An Invisible Rival for the Hurdy Gurdy,” a pair of street musicians—“two swart Italians, man and wife”—set up their barrel organ just outside Telharmonium Hall during a performance. In the story, as the husband begins to crank “a syncopated air” out of the instrument, his wife stops him, crying, “Somebody in dis-a place ees playing da bigga org” and pointing to Telharmonium Hall. The “Sicilians,” The Times reports, “were awed. They realized that against the massive tones that came from the building their instrument offered a thin and hopelessly unentertaining substitute for such rival music—although theirs had the merit of being real.”

Yet awed as they were, the musicians themselves posed a threat to the order within Telharmonium Hall: the sounds of their barrel organ disrupted the concert. In response, the hall’s manager, who had been giving a demonstration of the instrument, directed the players to begin a performance of Robert Schumann’s “Träumerei,” assuring the audience that this would “put an end to the hand organ.” As predicted, the performance silenced the street musicians into awestruck and dumb appreciation.

Every aspect of this New York Times story carefully designates the Telharmonium as an instrument fit for white bourgeois society, using the immigrants on the street as a foil that drives the point home. The bodies inside Telharmonium Hall (both the “society folk and prominent New Yorkers” in the audience and the management) are racially unmarked, and therefore white, unlike the “swart” immigrants outside. The “great massive tones” and the comparison with the pipe organ connected the Telharmonium to Western art and sacred music traditions, while the sounds of the street musicians registered as disruptive noise rather than music. The Telharmonium’s repertory—mostly slow, lyrical “classical” and popular melodies—likewise drew on white Western traditions in contrast to the “syncopated” music of the street musicians, which easily could have been a popular ragtime tune with roots in Black musics.

Even the “unreal” status The New York Times assigned to the Telharmonium’s music appears as a (racial) merit that signals a freedom from materiality, not unlike the supposed immateriality of sine waves. In describing its sound as “unreal,” the author emphasizes the ephemerality of music emitted by hidden sources beneath Telharmonium Hall and transmitted over wire. In contrast, the physicality of the street music is almost excessive. Its means of production—the barrel organ and its player—are not only visible but conspicuous, marked as outsiders by their speech and skin.

At the Telharmonium keyboard

At the Telharmonium keyboard, A. B. Easterbrook, “The Wonderful Telharmonium,” Gunter’s Magazine (June 1907)

The End of Underground Music

After the promise of the Telharmonium’s first season, the instrument’s fortunes nosedived. Unable to navigate the enormous legal and logistical challenges of delivering music via telephone wires to subscribers across the city, the instrument’s financial backers extracted themselves from the project and Telharmonium Hall closed permanently in the spring of 1908.

Even if the Telharmonium’s backers had managed to create the infrastructure the instrument required, its success was hardly guaranteed. Despite the accolades from the white press, the instrument was notoriously inept with popular music of the day like ragtime. While the Telharmonium offered performers an array of controls for dynamic expression and timbre, Cahill seems to have thought little about how the instrument handled music that relied on rapid rhythms and clear attacks.

The Telharmonium’s history points us to a version of electronic music history rich with meaning and uncomfortable truths about how musical sound comes to matter to us. Its brief popularity suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that we have long located profoundly human qualities in electronic musical sound. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the humanity we find there is a deeply troubled one, rooted in our nation’s ongoing struggles over race, identity, and belonging.

Beyond the 88: Playing Around Inside the Toy Piano

Hand inside toy piano

In last week’s installment of “Beyond the 88” I talked about several on-the-strings techniques, after first showing how to construct a weighted, cloth-covered mute. Here in my last beginner’s guide, I’d like to move from the piano to its playful, diminutive cousin: the toy piano.

The Toy Piano: Some Preparations and Nontraditional Techniques

Yes, I realize that the toy piano is a different beast from a modern grand piano. However, in discussions with the editorial staff for my book The Contemporary Piano I was adamant that I needed to include a chapter on the toy piano. So many pianists are including the toy piano as part of their regular gigging equipment, and, truly, the instrument is coming into its own right now. Just look at the work of Margaret Leng Tan, Phyllis Chen, David Smooke, Isabel Ettenauer, Karlheinz Essl, Amy O’Dell, Elizabeth A. Baker, Xenia Pestova, HOCKET piano duo, and many, many others who are currently showcasing the toy piano in live performances and/or composing new works for it. Beyond this widespread toy piano boom that’s happening, I’m personally very fond of it, and want to do my best to encourage more composing/performing and experimenting with this instrument!

And, here’s a great argument for experimenting with preparations on the toy piano—toy pianos are a lot cheaper than concert grands, and a lot easier to repair or replace if you damage one. I bought a lovely 37-key Schoenhut “Day-Care Durable” upright at my local flea market for $25—and it came with the original mini-bench. Tell enough of your friends that you love toy pianos, and they will start finding their way to you. One of my colleagues picked one up for me at a garage sale a few weeks ago, and just brought it to the music department. (And, the lid of this “grand” was already mostly ripped off, so the first thing I did was remove the lid entirely. Suddenly it’s the perfect instrument for tone rod preparations.)

For many of these techniques or preparations, you’ll need access to the toy piano’s tone rods. Most modern toy pianos, and certainly every chromatic instrument that I’ve run across myself, uses small-diameter metal rods for their sound. Plastic (or wood) hammers are set into motion from keys, and the hammers hit these metal rods, rather than metal strings as in a piano. Different models will offer up access to the tone rods in their own ways, requiring different levels of instrument dismantling. My “travel” instrument (purchased so I would have a toy piano that I could pack in a carry-on suitcase when I was flying to the Florida International Toy Piano Festival a couple of years ago), is a Michelsonne that has a keyboard that folds flat into the cabinet of the instrument. Fold down the keyboard, and you have instant access to the tone rods and the hammers, no disassembly required. As mentioned above, my latest Schoenhut grand had a lid attached with hinges (barely) and an articulated arm that served as the “stick” for the lid. Remove the hinge screws and the ones for the arm, and the lid is out of the way, exposing almost the full sounding length of the tone rods. Other instruments may require removing a few more bits of the casing, but usually even this will mean removing only a few screws.

[banneradvert]

So, get yourself access to the tone rods.

Then try muting! Hand muting the rods is very easy. Sound notes with one hand on the keys, and press or pinch with the fingertips of your other hand on the tone rods. You can even vary the pressure of the muting fingers and change the amount of pitch and resonance remaining in the sound. For some really delicate sounds, you can also try plucking the low-register (longer) rods, or running the flats of your fingernails across the full range of tone rods.

Underpressure techniques on the toy piano are great! Play as usual on the keys, but don’t press hard enough for the hammers to strike the tone rods, or run your fingernails across the front edge or the tops of the keys, and you get the clack of your fingernail skipping across the gaps between keys, and the rattling of the plastic keys and the action.   You can also make a rattling sound on the keys by shaking a finger laterally between two of the sharps (works particularly well between E-flat and G-flat, or B-flat and D-flat, as there you have a gap of two white keys giving you a little more space to move). All of these techniques produce even more sound on a toy piano than on a piano, because the toy’s actions are more primitive and have few or no soft surfaces to deaden the sound. There’s none of the refinement of a modern piano here, so the action and the keys themselves are noisy!

There are plenty of preparations to try as well, but here are three easy ones that have a big effect on the sound:

Poster Putty

Take a small ball of poster putty, maybe about the size of a standard wooden pencil’s eraser, and press it onto the end of a tone rod. Play on the key and voilà, a muted thunk of a sound! Poster putty also lowers the pitch about a half step in addition to muting, so you can get some nice timbral contrast by alternating between an unprepared note and the very next higher note with poster putty added to it.

Mini Plastic Hair Clips

These are available from your local drug store or big box “we have everything” place, are inexpensive, and come in packs of several. Clip one of these onto a tone rod and play the key as normal. The clip takes away some of the body of the sound and narrows it to a more percussive one.

Alligator Clips

These are also easy to find, at a Radio Shack (if you can still find one of those) or from an online seller that carries electronics parts. Attach an alligator clip onto one of the tone rods and, again, play as usual. These take even more pitch and body away from the sound than the mini plastic hairclips, and the resultant sound would blend really well with a prepared piano—maybe with the strings prepared with piano tuner’s mutes? (Someone write this toy piano/prepared piano piece!)

Both the mini plastic hair clips and the alligator clips change the timbre but mostly don’t alter the pitch.

With a little work, you can also bow the tone rods. Make a bow by buying a spool of low-test monofilament fishing line. (No need for 30-lb or 50-lb test line; 12-lb or 8-lb will serve here.) Cut several strands of the line the same length (about two feet is generally comfortable to work with), and tape the bundle together at each end. You’ll also need some bow rosin. Apply bow rosin to the bundle by dragging the bundle of fishing line back and forth across the block of rosin. Then loop the bundle under one of the tone rods and, while pulling the line into contact the tone rod, also slide the line across the rod (one of your hands will get closer to you while the other moves further away, and then the reverse). You should get a delicate, sustained note from the rod. (You can even experiment with how placing the bow at different parts of the rod will bring out certain harmonics, and how bowing with the bundle arced under more than one rod can sound two notes at once.)

There are many more creative options to explore, wherever your imagination leads you from here. A few years ago, a student of mine made a robot “player” toy piano. I’ve already purchased the spare parts and bought some blank music wire stock for the tone rods in order to create a toy piano in an alternate tuning. One of my colleagues has just proposed to me a way of rebuilding a toy piano to optimize the hammer strike points, and he also has some ideas modding the instrument that may allow adjustable tuning for the tone rods. When your whole instrument cost you $25 or less, it’s easy to embark on taking the whole thing apart and to take the risk of not being able to reassemble it in anything faintly resembling its initial configuration.

So, to wrap up. It’s high time pianists got a little more comfortable with playing inside and experimenting with their instruments. Maybe you can start here at the end and get your feet wet experimenting with a toy piano, then move on to a grand piano and try some inside-the-piano techniques, some surface preparations, and some string preparations. Find a toy piano, dismantle it, and find some new sounds inside it! And, go on, pick up some plastic children’s flatware at your nearest IKEA for inserting preparations into the strings of your grand piano, and dig in!

Have fun, and find some new sounds for yourself!

Political Music, Musical Politics: A Discussion Panel with Samuel Adler, Maria Grenfell, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Catherine Likhuta

A panel of people

The intersection of music and politics is perennially fascinating. Within the world of classical music, tenacious ideas about music’s aesthetic autonomy, its purported status as timeless Art-with-a-capital-A, often rub up uncomfortably with actual musical practice. How is it that Beethoven’s music of universal brotherhood could also serve as the anthem of an apartheid nation-state?

At Bowling Green State University’s 39th Annual New Music Festival last October, composers Samuel Adler, Maria Grenfell, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Catherine Likhuta sat down with me to share their thoughts about music and politics. Political music might be music that implicitly supports or explicitly opposes the status quo, music that expresses a current socio-political reality or promotes an alternative, or more broadly—to paraphrase Jacques Rancière—music that rearranges the set of perception between what is visible, thinkable, and understandable, and what is not. Music’s use as a political tool for protest, propaganda, or resistance is well documented, of course, especially the use of popular music in the 20th century. Our wide-ranging discussion touched on a number of ideas—the place of politics in contemporary classical music, the tension between political particularity and universality, the uses of programmatic music, and recent developments in the world of classical music. Few of these topics engendered easy or definitive answers, and it’s fitting that our discussion ended on a questioning note. Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and significantly condensed.

Ryan Ebright: To what extent do you engage or have you engaged musically with political or social issues?

Catherine Likhuta: The piece of mine that was featured in the festival, Bad Neighbors, is probably my most political piece. It’s about the war in Ukraine that is still going on. The piece has two horns in a kind of fight with each other: one representing Russia and its aggression and invasion, the other representing Ukraine and its fight for freedom. My collaborator from Australia, Peter Luff, commissioned it when the war had just started in 2014. My schedule then was quite booked, so we decided to postpone it. Little did I know that when I began writing it three years later, the war would still be going strong.

Ebright: Bad Neighbors received some attention from Ukrainian and Polish media. Can you tell us about its reception?

Likhuta: A consular at the Ukrainian embassy in Australia heard about the piece through somebody in the Ukrainian community who came to the premiere. She contacted me for an interview. The day after they distributed the interview I saw the track on my SoundCloud page had hundreds of listens from all over Ukraine. Then the Polish media also distributed it, because Poles feel very close to Ukrainians in this fight. This distribution was heartwarming and important, because I wanted to share the music with people in Ukraine. Even though I left Ukraine over a decade ago, all of my family members are still there.

Aaron Jay Kernis: From about 1990 to 1995 I wrote a lot of pieces related to world events. After 9/11, I composed a piece in memory of the victims of that tragedy. More recently, my horn concerto had something to do with Obama’s farewell and his singing of the song “Amazing Grace.” But earlier on, around 1990, I was very struck by the Rodney King situation and then a series of riots that made their way through Atlanta, and the threat that similar riots were going to come to New York City. My reaction to that time made its way into my piece New Era Dance, which is actually a pretty entertaining piece but has a violent undertone. After that, my second symphony was very influenced by watching the media’s portrayal of the new weaponry that was being used in the Persian Gulf War and various mega-bombings. This element of tragedy continued in pieces like Colored Field and Lament and Prayer, which started as a reaction to genocide in Bosnia and grew into a response to the Holocaust and, more generally, the relationships between various kinds of genocide that had been perpetrated throughout the 20th century.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind with these big works. But they’re political in that they respond to human events. For me it’s kind of inescapable to need to respond to that kind of tragedy, and it doesn’t necessarily engender the potential of butting heads politically because they are tragedies that we’ve all witnessed and shared in in some way.

Ebright: The warfare and tragedies of the early 1990s seem to have continued in the new millennium. Do those earlier works speak to the present day?

Kernis: Even though those works came out of a specific time, for me the key political element is in their attempt to speak to universal experiences. War has always been with us and will always be with us. Bringing that reality into the arts, and bringing that into music—that’s been with us also since the 19th century or even earlier, with battle pieces from the Baroque era, the Eroica, et cetera.

Samuel Adler: I’m worried about doing something too of the moment, because the moment is here and then it’s lost. For example, I first heard Bernstein’s Mass during the Vietnam War, which we were all concerned about. Well, I just heard it again, and while there are some stunning musical moments, it’s completely dated and doesn’t have the effect that it was supposed to have. Mass was a bombshell of a piece. Today, it’s ho-hum. (The texts, not the music.) So you have to be very careful how you choose a subject.

The New York Chamber Symphony commissioned me to write a piece about 9/11, and I tried to do it so that it doesn’t just concentrate on that event, but becomes a larger expression of sorrow. I composed Stars in the Dust for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I was ten years old, living in Germany, when that happened. My librettist and I felt that it should be a universal statement; it’s about something that may happen to a lot of people, and it isn’t happening only at one time. We have to look at what Spinoza called “the vision of eternity” rather than the moment.

I’ve always felt that the way to get this world back on a peaceful passage is the idea of reconciliation. I was in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated, and I wrote a piece for the symphony in that week. Because I’ve always felt that we have to bring in everybody to mourn with us at the same time, I brought in tunes that people would actually recognize in America, especially in the South, where religion is so important.

Maria Grenfell: I haven’t actually written very much political music at all. My music tends to be influenced by mythology or poetry or fine arts. I’ve written a few pieces that have been requested for specific purposes, like to calm anxiety for children and adults in hospitals and to help soothe children with mental health problems, but I wouldn’t call that political.

Ebright: You draw inspiration from a diverse array of sources for your pieces—Celtic fiddle tunes, Māori legends, Salman Rushdie’s East-West short stories. Is the way in which you incorporate various cultural sources a political act or an expression of advocacy for multiculturalism?

Grenfell: No, I just find I really enjoy the diverse influences. They inform my use of colors and harmonic materials.

Ebright: What is a piece of music that you think is effective both musically and politically?

Adler: It’s been used so much that it’s almost self-evident, but the Beethoven 9th. It has had greater influence on Europe—they’ve used it as their anthem—and again, it has a kind of universal message. I’m not sure that any other piece has had that kind of influence. But we have to be very careful thinking that we can change the world with anything. If we can change one person, that’s very important. Classical music or the classical composer is no longer what he or she was—well, it wasn’t she at that time—in Beethoven’s time. When we talk about Beethoven’s Third, we always mention that it was written for Napoleon and he tore up the dedication when Napoleon made himself emperor. Well, if I write a symphony and dedicate it to Mr. Trump and don’t like what he does and tear up the sheet, nobody gives a damn!

Grenfell: Shostakovich’s 5th symphony is a really important work. What I actually find more interesting is the 4th symphony, which was in rehearsal when an article came out that criticized Shostakovich’s opera. So he put the 4th symphony away and it wasn’t performed until after Stalin’s death. I find that fascinating.

Kernis: Certainly the 5th has had an impact on its audiences from its premiere, and what we view as the kind of coded aspect. In many of his pieces, Shostakovich somehow was able to play right on the edge between populism and art, trying to navigate how not to be shot.

Ebright: The number one goal in composing.

Kernis: It’s true! But it’s a good thing we’re not in that situation at the moment. I’m seeing younger composers who are taking the chance in many works to respond to issues of the moment. They seem far less concerned with thinking about the progressive march of modernism. One of those works, The Source, is a theatrical work by Ted Hearne, who is one of the most politically active composers I know now. It’s based on transcripts of Chelsea Manning and about her court martial, and I believe at the end of the piece there was footage—the music stopped—and there was footage of a drone strike, about a ten-minute drone strike. It had this absolute edge. We were sitting there in utter horror at the innocent people being bombed, and there was nothing the music could say to that; the music would only detract from that sensation. Hearne knew where to draw that line and how to present the musical aspect of Manning’s life and its relationship to a bombing that could not be expressed in musical terms.

Adler: I think what we’re talking about is actually communicating either by theater or by words as the most effective means of political engagement. So that it’s not only with the music, except for the mention of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony…

Kernis: But you have to know! Shostakovich’s audience knew what was going on.

Adler: True, but it doesn’t mean the same to us, so it’s not a universal kind of expression. I mean, every college orchestra now plays the 5th symphony…

Kernis: But do they know what it means?

Adler: They don’t, they don’t know what it means!

Likhuta: At the same time, as a composer of mostly programmatic music, I feel like when I’m writing programmatic music, it’s kind of like a book or a movie that I want people to experience, but by means of music. In a way it’s more timeless than a movie or book because the language is more ambiguous. Listening to Shostakovich’s symphonies when I lived in Chicago, I felt like I was watching movies or reading books about these events. Maybe I could feel them a little closer to my heart because I grew up in Soviet-era Ukraine and my parents and grandparents lived most of their lives in the Soviet Union. Every person in Ukraine at the moment has grandparents or great-grandparents who went through war and famine. And Soviet movies about war, which we all watched in Ukraine growing up, use his music, or music in that style. So I think maybe Shostakovich was closer to me because of that. I never felt that it was out of my time and that it’s not something current to me. I heard that music and I could feel—as much as one can feel having a mobile phone and food and warmth and all of that—the pain of the people who were experiencing the war.

Kernis: You have an experiential context for that, a historical context. But for people who don’t have that, without words, it’s hard to have that same involvement or understanding.

Likhuta: Absolutely. The work that I originally wanted to mention, though, was Karel Husa’s Music for Prague. I heard him talk about this piece a decade ago at Cornell. He said he didn’t choose to write this piece; this piece chose him to write it. He was in the United States when the Soviets attacked the Czech Republic and he was not allowed to go back, so he felt he had to speak up through his music. Music for Prague opens with this solo in the flute, like a birdsong, and it’s a Czech folk tune about freedom, which then gets gobbled up by the orchestra. It’s political not in the sense of Democrats versus Republicans; it’s political in the sense of fighting for freedom. I think it can speak to anyone. It doesn’t have to be of that time. It speaks to me as a Ukrainian person whose country is experiencing a war, now.

Adler: That piece is also based on the most important hymn of Czechoslovakia, so it’s as if it had words. So it’s not a piece of abstract music.

Grenfell: There’s an Australian composer, Robert Davidson, who has written quite a few pieces setting political speeches for choir. They’re very funny, and he often interpolates them with video, and sort of chops them up and has lots of loops and sequences. His most successful one used a recording of Julia Gillard, who was Australia’s first woman prime minister, when she was lectured about sexism by the then leader of the opposition, who is a very conservative politician. Her response became known as “the misogyny speech.”

Likhuta: There was one about Trump recently that finished with, [singing] “I just don’t respect her!”

Ebright: I want to switch gears briefly to think about musical politics rather than political music, per se. And I also want to end on something of an optimistic note. What is one positive change within the field of classical music that you have seen during your career?

Adler: I’m the greatest optimist you’re going to find. I feel there’s more great talent in the world of classical music that ever before. The level of our student composers is at least as high as it ever was, if not higher. I see great things happening in the next generation and the generation beyond. But to answer your question: one change, in which Aaron played a role, is the reading by professional orchestras of works by early-stage or student composers.

Kernis: Most recently, I’m very encouraged to see the issue of inequality being addressed, in terms of women conductors and composers in particular.

Grenfell: It’s very encouraging that this is being spoken about openly. It’s on the table now, particularly with women programmed in orchestral concert seasons. And I also think that the opportunity to work for a short intensive period of time with a professional orchestra is absolutely invaluable. I helped set up a program that’s been going for about 11 years now in Australia called the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Australian Composers’ School. The aim is to bridge the gap between higher education and being commissioned, which is where the worst gap is. That’s where everybody falls through the cracks unless they can leap over somehow and get their first commission. Orchestras really do need to take responsibility for bringing up the next generation of composers.

Likhuta: I also appreciate how many composition professors support young composers not only in their composing, but also by showing them what being a composer is like. That it’s not easy, but it’s not necessarily as hard as somebody would think. It’s a tricky field, and today you need to learn to be an entrepreneur, to be your own producer, your own publisher, all that. And I think it’s starting to happen more.

Ebright: So, more holistic mentorship?

Likhuta: Yeah, I think that’s important. The final thing that I want to mention is that international collaborations have become so much easier now. I do at least as much work with international collaborators as I do in Australia. We can have this much wider network than we were able to have 10 or 20 years ago.

Ebright: Are there questions from the audience?

Audience member: I have a question about Beethoven’s 9th symphony, which Professor Adler held up as the paradigm of a successful political piece. In going for so broad a theme as brotherhood (which you all seem to agree keeps music from becoming dated), did not Beethoven open himself up to having that music reappropriated by vastly differing political movements such as the Nazis and the EU and the reunification of West and East Germany? How do you navigate universality without losing specificity to the point that it can be about any kind of politics?

Kernis: Your question has me ruminating on instances where a culture or country has taken a work of art and used it for its own political ends. I can’t think of so many. Recently, certain popular songs have been used without permission in political campaigns or events. But thinking back to Germany using Beethoven’s work to promote the idea that Germany was the most advanced culture—have there been many more instances?

Ebright: Rhodesia used the “Ode to Joy” as their national anthem as an apartheid state.

Kernis: That is the perfect example of the problem—the music can be used nefariously for totalitarian purposes.

Audience member: Classical music can be built upon pillars that encompass misogyny and traditionally white European culture. As a student I have mixed feelings about studying something that is so narrow in its invention and its audience. How can we see through that structure as opposed to seeing around it?

Grenfell: I think programming is really important. There needs to be more awareness and openness of what gets programmed and where things are placed in a program. Because programs tend to fall into the same patterns over and over if there’s not a conscious decision to shape it. I think it’s good that some organizations are getting called on for not including more women or ethnically-diverse composers on their list.

Adler: But you have to be very careful not to look at the past in terms of today. It was a different time; you have to take everything historically. Things change and we have to change with them, but at the same time, you can’t reject the past. There are still great works that were written in the past that speak to us. You just can’t put our aesthetics on the past.

Audience member: What’s the difference between political music and propaganda? Is propaganda just political music that you don’t like?

Adler: [laughing] Propaganda is everything bad!

Grenfell: Maybe propaganda is the kind of music that you’re forced to write or forced to hear in a certain way, whereas political music is a choice as a composer?

Beyond the 88: A No-Fear Guide to On-the-String Piano Techniques

Hand inside the piano

The beginner’s toolbox of preparations I’ve talked about in the previous two (1, 2) articles might be, in some ways, less scary to many pianists and composers than playing inside the piano because, once the foreign objects (paper, aluminum foil, glass rods, plastic straws, etc.) have been placed on or in between the strings, the pianist plays the instrument pretty much as usual. This is part of the disconnect—or the magical nature—of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. The scores for Cage’s little pieces look so musically simple, and so easy to play. Look at the beginning of Sonata V, for instance, with its right hand melody and accompanying chromatic seesawing left hand—what could be easier?

For now, try turning your sound off and just looking at the first page of the score to Sonata V in this video.

But, what’s not clear from looking at this bit of score is that, in order to play this set of pieces, Cage asks for about 2/3 of the notes of the piano to have their strings prepared by inserting or threading materials between the strings, including various kinds of bolts, screws, bits of rubber and plastic, and an eraser. So, the piece asks for a ton of prep work, but then Cage gives the pianist a simple set of pieces to play on this modified instrument, which the pianist then approaches in much the same way as if she were playing a piece of Clementi. The result, however, is otherworldly.

Now turn your audio volume back up and play the video again.

Preparations are one thing; asking the pianist to reach into the instrument and play directly on the strings, as well as on the wood and other metal surfaces inside the instrument, may seem to be another kettle of shrimp entirely. Much as I started with minimally invasive and generally safe preparations, I’m going to suggest starting with a gentle-slope approach to playing inside the piano—minimal risk of wear and tear on the instrument, with, nevertheless, big timbral results.

First of all, before reaching into the piano, thoroughly wash and dry your hands (duh).

Rule of thumb: avoid touching the soft parts inside the piano—just don’t touch the dampers or any of the felt. The dampers are really delicate and a pain to adjust correctly. The felt is easily compressed, torn, soiled with oils from your hands, or otherwise damaged, and, again, some of the piano’s felt parts are labor-intensive to replace. (And, there’s mostly no reason why you should need to touch these parts in order to play inside the instrument.)

I’m going to stick to techniques that involve playing on the strings here. There are lots of other safe inside-the-piano techniques—ways of making sounds on the metal plate, on the soundboard, and elsewhere—but for now, I’m going to introduce a handful of techniques on the strings that will provide many new timbres to explore.

A pianist can even take advantage of further “training wheels” by wearing thin cotton gloves while experimenting with many of these techniques. When I was writing my book chapter on piano harmonics, I was exploring these on my prized home piano—which, after years of dreaming and saving for, I had just purchased a few weeks before. I admit that even though I had performed inside-the-piano techniques many, many times and had always been careful with other folks’ instruments, I found myself facing potentially harming my own new pride and joy with a conscientious newbie’s extreme temerity. Touching the strings with clean hands shouldn’t do any damage, but it doesn’t take much transfer to the copper windings of the bass strings to open the door to marking the surface of the strings with tarnish. I’ve bought several pairs of these ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all-but-not-particularly-well-for-the-long-fingered-amongst-us cotton gloves for the purpose of experimenting with my new grand, and, really, here’s an investment of $1.49 that has no downside. Wearing a single glove for performance might take a little getting used to, especially if you’ll need both hands on the keyboard for part of a piece, but it is possible to play many of these techniques gloved—protecting the string but without altering the sound.

Piano harmonics  

Lots of scores call for the pianist to sound harmonics. They are quite easy to play and can be sounded with one hand playing on the keys as usual, and a fingertip of the other hand lightly touching a harmonic node of one of the strings.

I won’t go into the physics behind harmonics, or the way that sounding many of the overtones can give the player access to just intonation notes that are pretty distant from their nearest equal tempered neighbors. I’ll leave that to further reading, or your own explorations.

So, put a glove on one hand and reach that hand into the piano. Start on the bass strings, because on these long strings there are lots of partials that will ring loudly on each string. Locate the approximate midpoint of any one of the lowest bass strings, lightly touch that point with a fingertip, and set the string into motion by playing the corresponding key with a finger of your other hand. If you’ve located the midpoint, playing the key should sound the second partial, which will be the octave above the fundamental (in other words, an octave above the string ringing as a whole, here produced by the string in halves). If you want to hear the sound of a second partial harmonic in performance, there’s a repeated 2nd partial harmonic D flat at the beginning of Annea Lockwood’s Red Mesa (1993). Note that this is a high note, not one played on a bass string. Watch a performance by pianist Andrea Lodge here. If you want to get an idea of how fast a pianist can play a single line of harmonics, check out Johan Svensson’s Study No. 2 (2015) available here in a performance by Jonas Olsson.

Depending on how large the grand is that you’re using and the length of your arms, the bass strings may be long enough to require that you stand up to touch the center node of the string. Further your experiments by then slowly moving your gloved finger along the string closer to the keyboard end of the string, while repeatedly sounding the string from the keyboard. You can try to locate the third partial, which sounds a perfect fifth above the second partial you’ve already located. Keep searching for the successive harmonic overtones; one I’m particularly fond of is the 7th partial, which sounds two octaves and a minor seventh above the string’s fundamental, and is 31 cents flatter than the nearest equal tempered note. On the lowest strings of a concert grand piano, it’s possible to sound some very high partials, so there are a lot of harmonics to explore even if you restrict yourself to a single bass string. You could then experiment with playing a simple melody in harmonics on one bass string.

Once you’ve found the first several partials on one bass string and gotten comfortable with sounding those, you can easily locate those same partials on any of the neighboring bass strings.   Play a cluster of three notes by fingering the third partial on three neighboring strings and playing all three keys simultaneously. (George Crumb uses three-note clusters like this in his trio Vox Balaenae.)

Muting with the fingertips

The weighted cloth-covered mutes described earlier are a better choice if you’d like a range of strings muted and for them to remain muted for a whole passage. However, if you’d like just a few different notes muted, and would like to alternate quickly between muted and unmuted notes on the same pitch, then muting with the fingertips might be the way to go. Touch a fingertip to the string close to the end of the string and depress the corresponding key to produce a rounder and darker sound than without the mute.

Though touching the strings with your clean hands should do no harm, it is possible to tarnish the outside of the bass strings with prolonged handling (a cosmetic effect, not an aural one). But, if you’re worried, don one member of your $1.49 pair of gloves and use your gloved fingers for muting. Either way, it’s an easy technique to learn.

Composer and pianist Henry Cowell explored a lot of on-the-strings techniques in his music, especially in the first third of the 20th century. Some of Cowell’s techniques I’d classify as advanced, but a few are easy and now widely used—and are probably familiar sounds to many of us, including glissando across a range of strings, various kinds of pizzicato on the strings, and the Aeolian harp or autoharp technique.

Glissando (on the strings)

Depress the damper pedal and run a fingertip or fingernail across a range of strings, perpendicular to the strings. Experiment with the differences in sound depending on register and range for the glissando, plectrum (flesh of fingertip, multiple fingertips, fingernail(s), guitar pick of various thicknesses), and contact point on strings (a gliss at the middle of the string sounds different from one played very close to the end of the strings).

Autoharp (or Aeolian harp) technique

Cowell introduced a specialized on-the-strings glissando in his piece Aeolian Harp: finger silently a chord with one hand, then perform a glissando across all of the strings in that register with the other. Doing this will cause the strings of the chord notes to ring freely, and will add a bit of noise from the strings of the other notes in the register (which will not ring freely, since their dampers remain at rest on them). Judicious use of the damper pedal to mask the transitions will allow the player to connect one chord to another smoothly. Since actual Aeolian harps are played by the breeze, whereas an autoharp has the player choose/finger the chord with one hand and strum across a set of strings with the other, this technique is closer to autoharp playing, and I (and several other composers) use this label for it.

Pizzicato

Plucking the piano’s strings is very easy to do! Depress the damper pedal or hold down keys to raise the dampers off of the strings you want to pluck, and pluck with your fingernail or the flesh of your fingertip. Experiment with plucking near the middle of the string for a full, round sound, or near the end of the string sul ponticello for a brighter, less-focused-on-the-fundamental sound. You can get a very harp-like sound by plucking in the middle register with the flesh of your fingertip, plucking close to the middle of the string. (Just think, harp sounds without waiting 15 minutes for your harpist friend to tune their instrument. Harpist-friends: I’m only joking…I meant 20 minutes.) Try muting and plucking together! Then, muted, plucked and sul ponticello placement!

Cowell, when he started his inside-the-piano playing, referred to his new approach to the instrument as if it were a new instrument, saying that his pieces were for the “string piano.”

If you’ve stuck with me this far, I think you can hear the big, big sound world that can open up to you if you start reaching into the piano and exploring some of its resources that aren’t available just at the keys.

Even though there are many more techniques for the piano to explore, next week I’m going to move from the piano to the toy piano and delve into some preparations, inside-the-piano techniques, and even some instrument alterations for this unique instrument.

Work the Work, Daily: Community-Building, Music-Making, and Conference Culture with Tenderloin Opera Company

TOC members at PRONK

It is a dreary, late-fall afternoon when I knock on the door to Diamond’s apartment, a nice duplex in a tidy neighborhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. She opens the door and quickly says, “Jacob, you’re not going to believe this, come look.” I walk through her living room, which is usually cozy but is now filled with twenty over-stuffed garbage bags full of clothes. They were given to her to donate to the homeless and at-risk people that are her clients at the shelter and service center where she works. As winter comes in Rhode Island, these clothes, shoes, and blankets are desperately needed. We get to her bedroom where she lifts a blanket sitting on a crate to reveal a small dog. The little black terrier with wiry hair is jumping and squeaking with excitement. “I’m watching her for a few days until she can get to her new home.”

Three years ago when I met Diamond, I do not think anyone could have imagined that she would be in this situation: housed in a good apartment doing two things she loves—fostering dogs and helping the homeless. Three years ago she was herself homeless and mourning the death of her good friend Wendy Tallo. That was when she first came to a meeting of the Tenderloin Opera Company.

Tenderloin Opera Company is a homeless advocacy music and theater group based in Providence, Rhode Island. It was founded by playwright Erik Ehn and composers Lisa Bielawa and Joshua Raoul Brody in San Francisco. When Erik transplanted to Providence, he recruited local students and homeless advocates to start a new version of the group locally. I was one of them. We kept the name, Tenderloin, to honor the neighborhood in which it was founded. Now in our ninth season, TOC comprises about a dozen core members, including folks who are currently homeless, formerly homeless, homeless advocates, students, artists, and other friends. The members of TOC compose and perform one opera each year based on stories of homelessness, abuse, addiction, hope, love, and redemption. We also perform at social and political events, protests, and marches about issues related to homelessness.

We meet weekly at Mathewson Street Methodist Church in downtown Providence. The church is a hub for homeless outreach non-profits and volunteer groups and hosts a number of free community meals every week. We meet right before the meal on Friday afternoons.

“Put your bodies in the space of someone else…It’s already a whole lot.”
-Helga Davis, New Music Gathering 2018 Keynote Address

Our meetings start with a group check-in, which is perhaps the most important part of the whole enterprise. Members share their names and how they have been doing this week. During check-in, which sometimes lasts up to half an hour, we learn who among the group has gotten housing, who is back on the street, who is sick, who in the community has passed away, who is excited about a new boyfriend (usually it’s Linda), who is doing well, who is recovering, and what is going on down the street at City Hall or the State House that affects the homeless, tenuously housed, and visibly poor populations in Rhode Island.

The rest of the session is spent working on the opera. It starts with generative writing exercises. These exercises are the genius method of Erik Ehn, and we have tried our best to keep the process since he moved away two years ago. They start very simply, with everyone getting index cards and responding to prompts, such as: “List three people you saw on your way to TOC today,” “Five signs of autumn you see on the streets,” “Who has been on your mind this week?” We then read our responses and mix them up: “Take one person you are thinking about this week, and one person someone next to you mentioned, and come up with two things they talk about together,” “Take one sign of autumn you saw, and one you heard from a friend, and make two lines that rhyme.”

Out of this simple writing process characters emerge, those characters interact in a story, that story becomes a script, we make some songs out of the script, and come out with our “opera”—one a year for the past nine years. The operas are technically more like musicals: songs mixed with spoken dialogue. The music for the songs is composed primarily by co-music director Kirsten Volness, some by me, and some with the group all together at the piano.

We have fun in Tenderloin and get to know people.
A place to meet and talk and sing.
A safe space.
My one hour of sanity!
A place to let people know what’s going on in the streets.
—Collective TOC members’ answers to the question, “What is TOC to me?”

We perform the operas each spring, and songs from all the operas (“greatest hits”) at least monthly all around Rhode Island. We all create the characters and drama together, learn the songs together, and perform together. We are always on book, and our motto is “Wrong and Strong.” However, Tenderloin Opera Company performances are some of the most expressive and challenging that I have even been a part of. The music is pop-y, but odd, complex, not what you imagine songs for untrained musicians to be. Within each song are fragments of many people’s stories strung along a main narrative. There are sometimes dance routines, sometimes live sign language translation (also courtesy of Linda), and often extended rhythm vamps, opened up for members to approach a mic and tell a story.

TOC members in rehearsal

TOC members in rehearsal

TOC works are truly “operatic” in subject matter and deal with stories derived from our members’ experiences with homelessness: loss, neglect, exploitation from landlords and politicians, and police harassment, but also love, recovery, magic, and spirituality. Homelessness is deadly, and almost all of our plays involve memorial songs we write about members and friends who have passed. Their ghosts and angels inhabit our operas, as do robots, talking dogs, half-baked superheroes, and villains who curiously resemble the local politicians, authorities, and land developers whose actions threaten the lives of our members and the character of our city.

An example of how a TOC member’s personal experiences transformed into a song is the case of founding member David Eisenberger and the song “Article 134.” The story derived from Dave’s experience as a veteran and having to deal with the unfair and dehumanizing aspects of the code of military justice and veteran neglect. Its lyrics include his stories and experiences, but also a smattering of those from other group members, including dealing with a pregnant teenage daughter, relationship drama, and a collapsing marriage.

“Work the work, daily”
—from the TOC song “Ranger Juan

For almost ten years, Tenderloin Opera Company has been effective in helping our members express themselves, find friendship and fellowship, but also find resources, services, donated goods, whatever is needed in a given week. It connects our members to a broader homeless services network, 134 Collaborative, headquartered at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church. We look out for each other, make art, and perform together.

What has allowed for this success is consistency and situating our activity within the homeless and homeless advocacy community. We meet, rehearse, and perform our operas in the place where people come to serve, eat meals, and get vital services.

TOC playing a gig at People’s Baptist Church community meal, Providence 2016

TOC playing a gig at People’s Baptist Church community meal, Providence 2016

TOC On Tour: Community Art and Conference Culture

In 2016, TOC was invited to present at the New Music Gathering hosted at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. The theme for that year’s gathering was “Community,” and we performed some songs and took part in a panel discussion that included other community arts groups from around the country.

I knew it was important to bring some TOC members who were currently experiencing homelessness or were closer to it than I and the other more privileged members were. When I asked the group, Diamond insisted that she was going.

TOC members Laurie Amat, Diamond Madsen, Wendy Thomas, and Jacob Richman at Peabody Conservatory 2016

TOC members Laurie Amat, Diamond Madsen, Wendy Thomas, and Jacob Richman at Peabody Conservatory 2016

At the time, Ruth “Diamond” Madsen was at a low point. She had been in and out of homelessness and was currently staying at Crossroads, the largest shelter and transitional housing complex in Rhode Island. Among other things, she was struggling with the loss of a good friend, Wendy Tallo, who had been found hanging from a tree in a cemetery off Broad Street, one of the most hard-up blocks in Providence. The official cause of death was suicide, though word on the street was that she was murdered. Diamond wrote a poem about it that we had set to music earlier that season. This horrific event came during a dark couple of years in which there were numerous attacks on homeless and visibly poor individuals in Rhode Island, including some TOC members.

It wasn’t easy making sure Diamond could get away. I had to talk to her case manager at Crossroads to convince them that the conference and her role as speaker and performer was legitimate, and to make sure her spot at the shelter wouldn’t be given up while she was gone. The lack of trust and leeway given to Diamond was very demoralizing.

Once that was settled, we piled four TOC members and luggage in my car and sped off south on I-95. As soon as we hit the road, there was a change in Diamond’s demeanor. She was excited, singing and dancing around in her seat. Then she quieted down and started furiously thumbing at her phone. By the time we crossed the Delaware River, Diamond had used social media to contact a number of homeless outreach organizations in Baltimore. She had scheduled time for us to visit the Franciscan Center of Baltimore, to work at the kitchen there giving out meals, sort donated coats, and perform with TOC at breakfast. She did all this in a couple of hours on her phone in the car.

We spent our week in Baltimore traveling between the marble palace of Peabody Conservatory to perform and talk about homelessness and arts outreach, and the Franciscan Center on West 23rd Street to play for homeless people, hand out coats, and share stories.

Diamond was a star at both locations. After our talk and performance at NMG, she was swarmed by new fans who listened to her share her experiences and asked nervous questions about building community through new music and art.

“What’s all this about community?…You know where I am. I’m homeless. Just come be with me and you’ll be my community.”
—Ruth “Diamond” Madsen, New Music Gathering 2016

Diamond addressing crowd at NMG 2016

Diamond addressing crowd at NMG 2016

There is a disconnection between the ease with which Diamond approaches community and the way we approach it as community arts groups at conferences—just like there is often a disconnection between our rhetoric on diversity and inclusivity in the new music community and how we actually practice our art.

I was disheartened to see that many of the same discussions (“conversations,” as we often say) we had at the 2016 New Music Gathering were repeated at the 2018 NMG in Boston, without much having changed in the intervening two years. To understand this, it is worth watching Keynote Speaker Helga Davis’s brilliant, Socratic indictment of the difference between the stated aspirations and realities of the new music community.

“If you want to know what you want, look at what you have.”
—Helga Davis quoting August Gold, NMG 2018 Keynote Address

A number of times I have been invited to speak about TOC at conferences focused on the arts and community building, yet have been asked to leave my fellow TOC community members at home—to give my “notes from the field,” I suppose. Based on my own experiences at these conferences, they seem to achieve little in terms of the broad concerns they presume to address.

However, the effect that visiting the New Music Gathering had on Diamond was profound. Since the conference almost three years ago, Diamond has been continuously housed, has been awarded internships and paid trainings, and is now working at a homeless outreach center and women’s shelter in Pawtucket, RI. She attends TOC meetings almost every week and helps fellow bandmate Wendy organize clothing donations at Mathewson Street Church where we meet. She still talks about the crabs and spiked milkshakes we had at our splurge dinner in Baltimore.

Diamond enjoying crabs

Diamond enjoying crabs

Diamond: Risky Business

…and doing “Risky Business” at our hotel in Mount Vernon, Baltimore

Things were rough for Diamond when we left. But at the New Music Gathering she saw how much people valued her and her knowledge about the homeless community, and how people from different backgrounds can come together in a group like TOC to share stories and make music. The fact that she was asked to share this information and help people at both places of high privilege and extreme need made the process even more meaningful.

“EVERYBODY NEEDS A LITTLE TOC IN THEIR LIVES”
—Diamond

What my experience with TOC at the New Music Gathering taught me was that these types of meetings can make change, but only if you let people in. What if we invited more people from different backgrounds to a conference like NMG? What if we did outreach? Volunteered as part of the conference program? Held a student instrument exchange? What if we let performers of all kinds perform their own new music in the well-heeled institutions where these things are held, and also had the conference take place in community centers, schools, churches, clubs, and homeless shelters? I believe we spend way too much time locking ourselves in our privileged spaces, looking around at the people who look just like us, and asking each other why nothing changes.

“Make something with a group of people that includes people that don’t look like you…Just the invitation will begin to open a door…We’re interested in opening the door.”
—Helga Davis, NMG 2018 Keynote Address

We need to create community art that lets people in and lets everyone grow. I think we can do this by being more mobile, flexible, and accessible. Flexible in terms of where, when, and with whom we perform. Accessible not in the terms of the art we make—some TOC performances are as complex as anything I’ve seen or performed—but in terms of cost, location, and transportation options to the venue. We in the new music community will have to give up control and come out of our comfort zones.

Here’s my advice based on my experience with the Tenderloin Opera Company for almost ten years: Show up. Be consistent. Make friends. Meet in a space that is accessible to your community (geographically, economically, handicap accessible). Keep the performing group together for more than one show. Raise money to go on trips and small tours. Diamond demonstrated to me how important and impactful these excursions can be.

Prepare for it to be hard: the structures that separate us are old, powerful, and ingrained. There will almost always be something that trips us up and reveals the privilege, difference, otherness, and walls between people that your group is working to dismantle. But that’s okay. It’s necessary. Expect to be challenged. As Davis said, “Be willing to let go of your rightness of what you think you know.” If we are not able to do that, we should stop lying to ourselves about wanting to change.