Category: Columns

The Art of Being True: Sonic Ritual & Favorite Quarantine Recipes

"pursuit of happiness" by Anjna Swaminathan (the back cover art for The Art of Being True)

[Ed. Note: Today we present our sixth and final installment of excerpts from an anthology of writings by the 12 participants of M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians) in advance of their next round of concerts taking place on June 12 and 13, 2021 under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum (and which have received funding from New Music USA). The anthology, The Art of Being True, is edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth; it is published in its entirety on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were also presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. – FJO]


Val Jeanty operating electronic music equipment in a performance (Photo by Wolf Daniel)

Val Jeanty (Photo by Wolf Daniel, courtesy of Roulette Intermedium)

From Val Jeanty’s essay “Sonic Ritual”

Music is pure communication and Vodou-electro is rhythmic intelligence that escapes the boundaries of the tonal. Operating as a kind of sonic communicative life-form, it incorporates a host of sampled wavelengths, rhythms and effects. Its tech-driven effects allow it to confuse the ear, blending interior and exterior realities so that, under the right conditions, it can virtually be seen, touched, and interacted with. More than just effects and inspiration, Vodou Culture has always been a powerful catalyst of change in my work, introducing powerful abstract harmonies that encapsulate new ways of thinking and bold compositions. Each rhythm has produced its own unique set of resonances and all of these sounds have – at some point – fused with and influenced one another, merging into a vibrational ocean of Haitian ancestral legacy. I continue to sample this ocean, creating new pulses and rhythms that send tentative sonic probes into unmapped realms and the ancient futures.


Tomeka Reid playing the cello (photo by Joel Wanek)

Tomeka Reid (photo by Joel Wanek)

From Tomeka Reid’s “5 Favorite Quarantine Recipes”

Sunflower Butter

I love sunflower butter and have attempted to travel with it but have often ended up having it confiscated by the TSA! Forgetting to check it in my luggage, I’d have a jar in my snack bag and because of its “creamy” nature it would get tossed! Additionally, in my efforts to limit my use of single-use plastic, I decided to learn how to make it. Using 3 cups of raw sunflower seeds, lightly toast them on high on the stove for a few minutes until browned and then put them in a food processor. Blend in 1 minute intervals. A total of 10 minutes of blending usually does the job of turning them into a nice paste or butter. You can also do this with sesame seeds to make tahini. No oil needed in either case! The oils will eventually be released from the processing. Store the butter in mason jars or some other suitable container. I can’t say too much about the shelf life because it’s usually gone after a week or two. I also don’t add anything like sugar or salt, for example, but I’m sure you could!

The Art of Being True: Liberalism in Music & Stream of Consciousness

[Ed. Note: Today we present our fifth and penultimate installment of excerpts from an anthology of writings by the 12 participants of M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians) in advance of their next round of concerts taking place on June 12 and 13, 2021 under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum (and which have received funding from New Music USA). The anthology, The Art of Being True, is edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, and is published in its entirety on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were also presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. – FJO]


Lesley Mok (Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr)

Lesley Mok (Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr)

From Lesley Mok’s essay “Liberalism in Music: The Limits to Representation”

The conservatory is one of many institutions that co-opts the politics of “anti-racism” into its own non-profit industry for corporate diversity initiatives without addressing structural root causes. I’m afraid our DEI economy has created a culture of fear and shame, and consequently pride (cancel culture), instead of a practice of investing the necessary time and resources needed to disrupt the well-oiled capitalist engine that continues to churn a profit from POC workers.

My hopes in writing this is to point out the insidious nature of liberalism in creative music–both in education and in performance. Tokenization will continue to run rampant without a true effort on the part of white administrators & teachers to meaningfully include musicians of color, especially women and non-binary people in developing a curriculum, and without white bandleaders thoughtfully creating a musical context that allows them to uniquely and personally contribute to the music. It’s not enough to have us just be in the band. Representation alone will not save us.


Romarna Campbell

Romarna Campbell (photo courtesy Romarna Campbell)

From Romarna Campbell’s essay “Stream of Consciousness”

I realize that my use of the word ‘SKIN’ is a euphemism for my identity as a whole – artist, musician, Black woman, drummer, composer, producer and so much more. I also realize the loneliness that comes with the intersectionality of these terms and identities. Some days, that loneliness manifests itself as pain, other days, as bitterness, and other days simply giving up. All these terms that are used to describe me as a person can feel claustrophobic and like a steel box that I can’t get out of. How do I explain how hurtful is when someone says, “Oh, I didn’t expect you to look like that,” or “Do something more lady-like,” or laughs when I say I’m a drummer or asks me, “When are you going to get a real job?” These are not even the most offensive comments that have been said to me over the years. It hurts because I care so deeply about these things!

The Art of Being True: Remembering Philly Joe & Your Backstory Is the Real Story

[Ed. Note: Beginning on April 30 and continuing on consecutive Fridays until the next round of concerts of M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians) taking place on June 12 and 13, 2021 under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum (and which have received funding from New Music USA), NewMusicBox is publishing excerpts from each of the 12 M³ participants’ contributions to a debut anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, which are published in their entirety on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were also presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. The first set of excerpts published on April 30 are available are still available, as are the second set published on May 7 and the third installment published last week, but to read all these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]


Sumi Tonooka holding her left hand above her left eye in a salute or viewing pose and holding her right hand in front of her chin.

Sumi Tonooka

From Sumi Tonooka’s essay “Remembering Philly Joe”

My first road trip with Philly Joe Jones was a weekend gig in Washington DC. It was 1975. I was nineteen years old and he was in his mid-fifties. My mother was not happy about my taking this gig and very wary of him, and that’s putting it politely. Philly Joe Jones was the last band leader that any parent would want to see their teenage daughter go out on the road with! My mother did not trust him. She was aware of his drug use and the many notorious stories, some of which are legend. During this period, he was not at his peak of hard drug usage, thanks to the influence of his wife, Eloise, who helped him transition off of heroin. He was still a heavy drinker though and a user of multiple substances at once.


en Shyu (Photo by Wolf Daniel, courtesy of Roulette Intermedium)

Jen Shyu playing a moon lute (Photo by Wolf Daniel, courtesy of Roulette Intermedium)

From Jen Shyu’s essay “Zero Grasses and Fertility: Your Backstory Is the Real Story”

Don’t wait for your “clock” to start ticking. You might not hear it. From ages 33 to 37, I lived in Indonesia, Korea, and Timor-Leste, also traveling to Malaysia and Vietnam, except for three or four short visits to see my parents in Texas and to see my then-partner in NYC. People would always ask me in the places I lived whether I was married and had kids. My parents also wondered if I’d ever “settle down,” but I assured them that my partner and I would eventually marry. When I returned to NYC, I reunited with my partner, and though we lived separately, we readjusted to life after a bumpy long-distance road. I was waiting for my biological clock to kick in and tell me that I was ready to have kids. Perhaps because I had been putting so much creative energy into birthing my artistic work and research projects, I never felt this physical “urge” for kids. I wish I hadn’t waited for this “feeling” to just appear in my body.

The Art of Being True: Aretes of the New Cyrene & Reminder to Self

[Ed. Note: Beginning on April 30 and continuing on consecutive Fridays until the next round of concerts of M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians) taking place on June 12 and 13, 2021 under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum (and which have received funding from New Music USA), NewMusicBox is publishing excerpts from each of the 12 M³ participants’ contributions to a debut anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, which are published in their entirety on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were also presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. The first set of excerpts published on April 30 are available here and the second set published last Friday are available here, but to read all these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]


Abstract image made from various fragments of altered photographs

Photo Courtesy of Caroline Davis

From Caroline Davis’s poem ‘Aretes of the New Cyrene’

Eyes open / examining phonics, texture, phraseology of binding wounds.
Do we heal the injuries / is ours an iterative loop / or are we.
I / your lack of femininity might be addressed with a dress.
And I / you will have few roadblocks in your career due to re:dress.
And so I / I took the liberty of shaping your hips in the final edits.
Oh.


Maya Keren standing outside in front of various buildings holding a cellphone (Photo by Zora Arum)

Maya Keren (Photo by Zora Arum)

From Maya Keren’s essay ‘Reminder to Self’

In what I imagine is a common experience for many throughout this pandemic, I feel I have lost sight of my power: my sense of inner assurance; my direction; my fire. These past couple months have felt especially hard. Maybe it’s that I’m only socializing with the few people I live with in my Covid bubble as I finish up a semester of Zoom classes. Maybe it’s that I haven’t felt that rush that comes with playing and listening to live music in too many months. I’m realizing my well-being relies on a communal web far more expansive than I ever imagined. I’m familiar with the amounts of time I need with close friends and by myself, but maybe I need the embarrassed thrill of meeting new people; the same conversation with that one friend I had class with every Wednesday; the hellos and nods and gossip and flirtation and animosity. All these invisible threads holding us in silent trembling equilibrium.

The Art of Being True: Sonic Creation & Motherhood in Music

[Ed. Note: Last week, the debut anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) by the 12 participants in M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians), edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, was published on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. Beginning last week and continuing until M³’s next round of concerts on June 12 and 13, 2021 (again under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum), which has received funding from New Music USA, we are publishing excerpts from each of the 12 participants’ contributions to the anthology, 2 per week, on Fridays. Last week’s excerpts are available here, but to read all these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]


Erica Lindsay holding her saxophone (Photo by Jean M. Laffitau)

Erica Lindsay (Photo by Jean M. Laffitau)

From Erica Lindsay’s essay Sonic Creation

To express what is beyond your own understanding, or your control, is the destination. To achieve the heights of thought-free expression, to trust in something beyond – to be concerned only with staying in vibration with a higher frequency that speaks a truth inside you personally and viscerally – that is your only responsibility. Having ideas about yourself, or concepts about your musical expression has its place, but the “I” that thinks these ideas will not tune you into the vibration of Source that you are seeking.


Sara Serpa photo with an overlay of a patch of green (Photo by Carolina Saez)

Sara Serpa (Photo by Carolina Saez)

From Sara Serpa’s essay Motherhood in Music in 10 Steps

Most of the music clubs, venues and concert halls don’t allow children. I once had a musician telling me that I couldn’t bring my baby to a concert because “this scene is not for babies”. I absorbed that quietly, feeling embarrassed for even asking. Most artistic residencies for musicians refuse families and children, with only 10% of artistic residencies in the US being family-friendly. Most grants for musicians do not consider or offer childcare support. I have never seen a children’s room in a performing space. Very few music festivals, studios, or educational institutions have childcare facilities. In general, it is the mother musician who is expected to be flexible and accommodating and not the institutions.

The Art of Being True: To Speak in Memory & The Sun Itself

[Ed. Note: Back in December, in support of their debut concerts of Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (a.k.a. M³), which were presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. The next round of M³ collaborations, which has received funding from New Music USA, will take place June 12 and 13, 2021 (again under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum). In addition, today, M³ has released an anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) by each of the participants, edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. To celebrate this publication and in anticipation of the upcoming concerts, we will be publishing excerpts from each of the 12 participants’ contributions to the anthology, 2 per week, every Friday between now and June 12. To read these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]


A few of water to the horizon and an overcast sky.

Photo by Eden Girma (courtesy Eden Girma)

From Eden Girma’s poem “To speak in memory”

I call upon an ancient conversation, of blues in the horizon,
sacred arcs that line an engine’s shape
with dew, with moving water,
to lift us beyond joy or sorrow.

In life, in death,
reality, imagination.
In tapestries that float above

as knitted by our fathers – fathers, known by quiet names,
loving through a softer power,
strings of heaven woven into brutal, mortal earth.


Anjna Swaminatha walking in the water on a beach.

Anjna_Swaminatha (photo courtesy Anjna_Swaminatha)

From Anjna Swaminathan’s essay, “The Sun Itself: Expanding my Horizons as a Queer Multidisciplinary Being”

My abundance lives in intergalactic melodies sung into a frying pan sizzling with shallots, cumin seeds, cloves and bay leaves. It lives in the precarious watering schedule of my 27 plants and their alliterating names (Parachute, Parvati, Pankajam, Pita and so on). It lives in the laughter that echoes through the walls of my fiancée’s and my rainbow-colored apartment. My abundance cannot live on a page (or worse on computer software with poorly produced midi) because it was born from something far less tangible, yet far more intrinsic. It was born in the whisper of crisp winter winds coming into one ear and endless poems and songs flowing out of the other. How can I possibly bastardize this oh so divine and human abundance by fixing it onto a page?

Remember the Uncomplicated Joy

A fisheye lens photo of Methods Body (John Niekrasz on drumset and Luke Wyland on electric keyboard) performing in a cabin.

By John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland (a.k.a. Methods Body)

This is a weird year to drop a debut record. We live in Portland, Oregon, a city that has seen more than its share of upheaval lately. In January, after three years of composing and recording, we’d found great label support, honed our live set, ordered vinyl, and booked tours. Then, our record announcement fell on the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Two months later, the record was released just days before George Floyd’s murder. We wept for the world as we went through the motions working on promo and music videos, and the world showed us growing fascism, worst-ever wildfires, and forced sterilizations of the most vulnerable people. Every week of 2020 has shown us something far more important, far more worthy of attention than a record of new music by two white men.

We’ve had the rare fortune of being able to put our most precious energies into our art for decades. We’re lifers. We always thought this in itself was a radical practice: fighting for a life outside of the accumulation of capital, spending our efforts building a community for the arts, and trying to share with our friends and audiences a sense of hope, joy, and inspiration, or offering a new definition of beauty that’s lightyears away from the Gucci-Kardashian-Bugatti-sphere.

But it’s not enough. The same hard questions we asked ourselves after the 2016 election have come roaring back with renewed relevance and force. Are we doing any good? Why should niche art music based on microtones and polyrhythms be important? Should we be taking up any space at all?

  • Why should niche art music based on microtones and polyrhythms be important? Should we be taking up any space at all?

    Methods Body (John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland)
  • Our entire “industry” has essentially disappeared.

    Methods Body (John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland)
  • Art will adapt and go on in new and unpredictable ways.

    Methods Body (John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland)

This year, Portland has been locked down with protest curfews and insane wildfire smoke. One of our housemates was injured by illegally deployed police impact munitions. We had friends of Color buying bulletproof armor or not leaving their homes out of fear of attacks by Proud Boys. And these immediate threats piled on top of our perennial concern: will the American West, and, really, much of the world, continue to be habitable under this kind of worsening climate damage?

We’re learning a lot from our partners and friends. We have it pretty good and so we have a responsibility to re-educate ourselves around justice, mutual aid, and proper communication. We’re supporting our friends in the streets, we’re giving money to liberatory causes, trying to center others’ voices. And, of course, we’re heartbroken. We’ve lost our own lifeblood. We’re not doing the thing we love and have built our lives around: we’re not performing.

Methods Body (Luke Wyland on electric keyboard, left, and John Niekrasz on drumset, right) performing in front of rows of ceiling to floor bookshelves

Methods Body performing in a bookstore (Photo by Jacob Heule)

Our entire “industry” has essentially disappeared. The downtown venue where we first met and played together in 2007 announced it will not reopen. The same goes for our favorite DIY neighborhood spot that has been hosting challenging music for years. How many brilliant ensembles will fold? How many artists are giving up on their dreams this very moment?

The impetus to get to work on our next record is still here, if muddied. We’re both noticing that our expectations for our music have changed drastically. The music we were making even eight months ago feels suspect. Something different is required now. We’ve had the privilege of being together, taking refuge in our instruments, playing and chasing our weaknesses. Trying to remember the uncomplicated joy of just spending time at an instrument. Fighting to feel like it can matter. We find solace in hearing from other musicians who are forging ahead with hope: Ed Rodriguez, Amirtha Kidambi, Holland Andrews, Chris Williams, and many others.

After the last inauguration, John did some speculative fiction about a future in which we might need to assemble resistance cells to oppose fascism. The music in Claimed Events Pt. 2, Overheard is built upon a bit of that writing:

My friends, however, claimed events would identify them, but to
overhear and accept only one month to prepare us in a very
small room with rubble in one corner

John plays the rhythm and melody of this phrase in a drum ostinato that is eventually taken up by the vocals of Holland Andrews. Luke and Holland improvise over this structure.

One of our collaborators, UVA art professor Lydia Moyer, shot some tests for a dance-theater project inspired by images of Civil War battle smoke. Moyer sent us some complex, smoke-choked imagery and the resonances with our present reality were breathtaking—civil war seems, again, a distinct and terrifying possibility; the US has deployed more toxic gas against its own citizens during a respiratory pandemic than in all the years since Vietnam; COVID is out of control. When Moyer and Leeri synched their imagery to a track on our debut, Claimed Events Pt. 2, Overheard, the result was harrowing and beautiful.

Of course, art will adapt and go on in new and unpredictable ways. Poets and musicians here have been supporting the Black Lives Matter protests by performing in the streets. The Fixin’ To, a local venue that’s been shuttered for months, is experimenting with limited capacity patio shows, so we gave an outdoor performance for a few physically distanced (and chilly!) friends this month. We’re starting work on our next record. And we will rise up with others to ensure the voice of the compassionate majority is heard.

Methods Body (Luke Wyland on electric keyboard, left, and John Niekrasz on drumset, right) performing in a dimly lit club

Photo by Taylor Ross

Why Artist-Driven Change is Exactly What We Need Right Now

Pile of printed scores of pieces by BIPOC composers, including works by TJ Anderson, Errolyn Wallen, Tania León, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Michael Abels, and others, plus a laptop displaying a PDF score.

Hi. I’m Adam. Long time reader, first time writer. I’m a white cis-gender gay male, I play the piano, and I live in NYC. In other words, I’m not that special. There are lots and lots of people like me in NYC and frankly, everywhere around the world. Other qualities I’m hoping you identify with: I take this pandemic very seriously and have no issues wearing a mask and physical distancing, I’m dealing with crushing depression related to the cessation of nearly all of my artistic work, and oh yeah, I strongly believe that Black Lives Matter. If you’re reading this, you’re probably with me, and I’m grateful that there’s a baseline of support for BLM in our community.

Over the last six months, and stretching forward indefinitely, our professional landscape has become unrecognizable. Nobody really knows what to do, and as presenters scramble to figure out how to adapt, performers have more autonomy than ever creating and presenting programs in unusual ways. There are inherent challenges with the predominantly livestream model, but there is also an opportunity to be more nimble and adaptive than usual since concerts aren’t programmed and announced as early as they would be in the before times.

As presenters figure out how to adapt, performers have more autonomy than ever creating and presenting programs in unusual ways.

Our individual agility is perhaps the biggest upside in this often demoralizing artistic landscape. On a broader level, there are a lot of conversations happening right now about institutional racism, inclusion, diversity, etc. But regardless of what institutions we’re associated with, we all exist outside of institutions, too. If you think BIPOC composers deserve more representation in programming, begin that change today. We have an opportunity to look ourselves in the mirror and think about what we can do right here, right now, for ourselves and for people we know or want to know.

This Spring, as I watched with horror new flurries of violence towards people of color, I began to question myself… do I present music that reflects my values in terms of racial diversity and equality? If I go through my repertoire, I can identify works that are by BIPOC. But can I honestly say it’s a significant part of my rep? No. I was ashamed and embarrassed to confront my shortcomings. As I thought about how I can best be an ally, voices in my head whispered “Do we really need to hear more white people playing music by BIPOC and congratulating themselves?” I have loved getting to know the music of Julius Eastman, for example, but the titles of his works make me uncomfortable (I understand that that is part of the intent), and I’ve felt as though I may not be the right person to champion his music.

But really, why? What am I scared of? I don’t want to be someone who tokenizes race or color. I don’t want to appropriate works by BIPOC and present myself as a white savior. I’m terrified of inadvertently demonstrating disrespect for artists that I’m trying to support, because I’ve seen it happen time and time again at the hands of others. (This is not meant as a personal attack on my many colleagues who have been out there doing this work already… it’s just an abstract observation.)

I’m terrified of inadvertently demonstrating disrespect for artists that I’m trying to support.

This, however, is not the time for me to be governed by fear. When I think about the baseline fear that many BIPOC have in our artistic spaces about being labeled “difficult” or “argumentative,” or the discomfort of erasure and whitewashing they carry every day, I realize I have to just buck up and do what I think is right, knowing full well that I will err and need correction from others with a different perspective.

Here’s one pathway to start:

  • Continue to self-educate. Reading, thinking, and discussing has never been more important. Crucial reads, among many, many others, include Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, and Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility.
  • Listen when others speak. If we only look to others to confirm our existing worldview, we have no hope to grow. If you disagree with what someone says, keep listening. Your response may change.
  • Buy music. Lots of music. Shopping can be an ethical act. Choose wisely. We all have budgets, but once needs are met, what feels better than supporting an artist by buying a new score or recording?
  • Learn music. As a performer or a listener, expose yourself to new things. Diversify what’s around you. If you don’t like it, that’s okay. I don’t particularly like a lot of music that’s on my shelf, but I keep it there because it’s my job to know what’s out there and how things interrelate.
  • Share what you’re passionate about. Whether it be telling a friend about a composer or piece that’s new to you, programming your concerts differently to reflect your priorities, or posting links to social media, don’t hold your new knowledge in.
  • Lay the groundwork for more. If you are able, set aside a little cash every month to support the development of new art. That may include contributing to crowdsourcing campaigns, or it may be commissioning new works. Recognize your power. If you can buy a latte, you can support artistic development on some level.

In that first week of June I spent about 15 hours researching databases, lists, and personal websites as a jumping off point for BIPOC composers with whom I was unfamiliar. I ordered about 80 scores, sight unseen, so that I could be surrounded by unfamiliar things to explore. I’ve been lucky to have conversations with some of the composers as a part of that discovery phase, too. I’m still early in the process of reading through the scores I’ve amassed, but that work is probably my favorite part of the job.

Someone close to me asked when I shared my plan “but what are you going to do with the bad pieces? Don’t you want to make sure they are good before you spend money?” That’s a great question, and one that comes up a lot when we are examining inclusive programming. But you know what? I have played a lot of what I might consider to be bad pieces (though there isn’t really a binary here) by white composers. Every single composer writes “bad” music at times. It’s natural and a part of the process, not to mention incredibly subjective. I think of it this way: I’m a pretty good cook, but there have been more than a few dinners over the years I’ve had to toss and order a pizza instead. And that is perfectly fine.

I’m a pretty good cook, but there have been more than a few dinners over the years I’ve had to toss and order a pizza instead.

By studying music of BIPOC composers regardless of where they are in their career or development, I can hopefully support their growth as well as their bank accounts. Also, what I perceive as a less-developed piece may speak to another artist who champions it and makes it shine in a way I wasn’t imaginative enough to accomplish. My job as a pianist includes reflecting back to composers what they’ve put on the page with complete commitment and amplifying to audiences what I believe in with my whole heart. Those are separate responsibilities, but they are inextricably linked and crucial to the development of any new work.

I think it’s important to note that my ideas here are by no means revolutionary or unique. Countless before me (and hopefully after me) will engage with this work. But perhaps none have written about curation as a reflection of community thought with more academic prowess than George Lewis. I also had a long list of colleagues review this essay, point me towards new resources (including George’s article), and help me refine my statement. This is all part of the process, and something we need to continue to normalize.

My ideas may not be new, but my commitment to aligning my actions to my ideals is, and I’m late to the party. Institutional change is a slog. Individual change can begin as soon as you imagine it. It won’t end… probably ever. But the roadblocks are movable and our excuses are weak. Let’s listen more, support more, and amplify what resonates so that we can all grow together in a more just and equitable world.

 

The Big Pivot: Moving Urban Birds from the Park to the Internet

Two little girls seated at an outside table watching someone play cello on a smartphone.

By Jennifer Bewerse & Cassia Streb

The story is one we all know. In March of 2020 Synchromy was busy planning their Urban Birds concert when safer-at-home ordinances shut down all public events in Los Angeles. Urban Birds faced either cancellation or becoming one of the hundreds of livestream concerts flooding the internet. Synchromy had partnered with concert design team Middle Ear Project, and together, they were inspired to rethink the Urban Birds concert so that it could still be an original and engaging experience. Necessity led to inspiration.

The term “concert design” is fairly new to the classical music scene, but many of us might recognize it at work in our favorite concerts. At its core, concert design is the craft of unifying the elements of a concert into a meaningful whole. Venue, repertoire, dress, lights, all of these choices are musical choices in concert design by approaching the entire concert framework as an artistic medium.

Back to Urban Birds… When we (Middle Ear Project) began working with Synchromy in early March, they had already commissioned composers, hired performers, partnered with an outdoor venue (Debs Park, LA’s Audubon Center), and had crafted a theme of musically representing the park’s native birds. Even with all of these elements in place, they still had some specific concerns: How could they motivate people to move around the space? Why should audiences listen to short bird pieces? How could they make the event family friendly, but also enjoyable for experienced concertgoers? Middle Ear Project set out to connect the dots.

We would design the audience’s movement as musical bird watching, which would give listeners a frame of reference for moving around the space and a drive to hear as many of the short pieces as possible. We created a field guide that would act as a program, showing audience members which bird compositions they could look for. The guide would also have space for drawing or writing reflections on each piece, an especially helpful feature for young listeners with short attention spans. To make the event even more immersive for our youngest listeners, we would have a craft station styled as an outpost, where kids could make bird watching tools like toilet paper roll binoculars and a clothespin quail call.

We envisioned kids exploring the park and finding performances hidden among the plants and boulders, while contemporary music fans hiked around hoping to hear compositions by local composers and performers. All of this while the regular avian tenants of the park contributed their authentic bird calls to the scene.

Then, on April 10th, Synchromy sent out an email to tell performers and composers that because of the pandemic, Urban Birds could not move forward as planned. They were, however, committed to keeping the event alive in some capacity and, importantly, paying their artists.

Rather than create a compromised version of the live event, we were determined to create a distinct online experience.

The obvious option was to move Urban Birds online, but rather than create a compromised version of the live event, we were determined to create a distinct online experience. We went back to the conceptual framework of the concert—bird watching—and asked ourselves how we could create a virtual experience with some of the essential features of bird watching. We proposed an interactive website with features that would allow the audience to experience Urban Birds in their homes. Synchromy put their production team into action and the Urban Birds web experience launched a few weeks later.

The map of the park used for the Urban Birds project showing where each bird is located.

The performances became video recordings, which allowed the solo performers to safely present their music. The outdoor musical bird hunt became an interactive map of Debs Park and (for families looking for more of an adventure) a printable QR Code scavenger hunt. The Outpost became an activity web page with instructions for how to make binoculars and a quail call at home.

“This website version is a great idea even without a pandemic.”

Once the website was underway, Synchromy realized that Urban Birds could have an even larger scope than they first imagined. Since the launch, they’ve added more video performances to the website, and, because the online experience of Urban Birds is different enough from the live version, Synchrony still plans to present the original concert sometime in the future. In a time where the music performance industry is massively contracting, it’s exciting to have a project with so much potential for growth. As Jason Barabba, Synchromy’s Director of Artistic Planning, said, “What I found most interesting is I asked myself ‘why weren’t we planning to do this already?’ This website version is a great idea even without a pandemic. I believe this will change the way we think about everything going forward.”

Side by side images of a tree with an info marker and a girl walking holding a map and looking through a pair of binoculars.

It’s clear that social distancing will be the new normal for the foreseeable future, so arts presenters of all types are looking for ways to safely share their work. In contemporary music, we’re already familiar with creating within constraints, whether they be limited resources, shoestring budgets, unconventional venues, or skeptical audiences. We have it in us to apply our resourcefulness and imagination to this new landscape of performing.

Work from a place of making meaning, not making compromises.

While it’s true that some concerts are inextricably linked to a physical space, concerts that are built with strong conceptual purpose can be reimagined in different mediums. We need to ask ourselves not “what can we move online” but “how can a virtual presentation serve this music more fully?” Let’s keep our message, meaning, purpose, and truth at the center of our choices; work from a place of making meaning, not making compromises. The format will follow.

Visit Urban Birds at www.synchromy.org/urban-birds


Jennifer Bewerse and Cassia Streb standing in front of a tree holding a rotary telephone and an XLR cable

Middle Ear Project (Los Angeles) was founded by Jennifer Bewerse and Cassia Streb, a concert design team who has been performing, curating, and producing concerts together since 2014. They use the entire concert framework as a medium to explore ideas, share musical perspectives, and process the world around us. Learn more at middleearproject.com

For Our Courageous Workers

A screen shot of a video depicting frames of 29 different individual musicians performing on various instruments in front of their windows.

For Our Courageous Workers is a 4-movement, 11-minute long graphic piece I conceived which was composed together with Hajnal Pivnick and Dorian Wallace, realized by musicians of all levels in New York City and beyond, and performed at 7pm—the time of the daily “Cheer for Front-Line Workers”—on April 29, 2020, during the period of our COVID-19 virus “stay-at-home quarantine”.

It was intended to fulfill many purposes. To call attention to the risks that front-line essential workers face, doing the jobs that allow us to live and survive through this virus period, and to celebrate them and their work. To inspire the people of the city, isolated by necessity and decree, and bring them together through music. And to allow musicians to do what we do—make music! (For many New York musicians, accustomed to playing with others on an almost daily basis, this was the first time they had played live with others in almost two months.) Hajnal Pivnick, Dorian Wallace, and I saw our roles as being both composers and directors of a ritual, spectacle performance.

  • We chose instructions that anyone could achieve at their own level.

    Frank London, trumpeter and composer
  • Any attempt to have a synchronized rhythm or pulse would have failed.

    Frank London, trumpeter and composer
  • We have received almost 100 performance videos.

    Frank London, trumpeter and composer

The composition presented a number of challenges. We had to ensure that it was not only playable by all levels of performers, from amateurs, students, and rank beginners to the world’s finest professional, performing musicians, but would also be enjoyable to perform. To this end, we chose instructions that anyone could achieve at their own level.

It needed to both grow out of and function as an extension of the daily “Cheer for Front-Line Workers” ritual that takes place in NYC. Michael Brodeur, in the Washington Post described it as follows:

New Yorkers have established their own socially distanced approach to celebrating the efforts of health-care workers—cheering them every evening at 7 from their windows and rooftops with a clamor of pots, pans, songs and applause.

We began the piece with this clamor of pots, pans and applause, and added a jubilant major fanfare. The drummers used only cymbals, reminiscent of the explosive percussion in Chinese New Year’s celebrations. Then, instead of ending at around the time the cheer would normally subside, we went into a contrasting section.

We chose a four-section structure to give it both musical shape and a narrative focus:

1) CHEERING (for the workers);
2) REFLECTING (on the devastation and loss);
3) CATHARSIS (“a full-blown play anything, glorious, jubilant, ecstatic, cacophonic, sonic catharsis” to release pent in feelings, be they anger, grief, rage, frustration); and
4) GRATITUDE (for the workers, for our lives, families, loved ones, health, community).

Any attempt to have a synchronized rhythm or pulse would have failed, as would having the length determined by a number of bars. We defined the four movements through clock time not metronomic time. (Although, in order to give a sense of slowness, the 2nd movement has the instruction to the drummers: “Quarter note pulse = 60 bpm”. This was meant to be taken either literally or figuratively.)

A hypothetical listener hovering above the city would hear 3 minutes of Bb major, with an emphasis on the Bb major seventh chord (Bb-D-F-A), fast and explosive; morphing into 3 minutes of slow pensive D minor; a sudden eruption of 3 minutes of total noise and chaos; and a final coming together into one unified pitch and sound. E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one. In determining the home pitch for the fourth section, we debated using D (easy for the string player) or Bb (for the winds). Bb was chosen because I remembered reading somewhere that New York City vibrated to a fundamental bass tone of Bb (possibly from the electrical grid or subway vibrations).

Limiting the pitch sets for the 1st, 2nd, and 4th movements ensured that it would work as an ensemble piece (if the performer heard others playing it), while allowing players to treat it as a solo performance (if they did not).

Courageous Workers poster

My personal performance went thus: 3 minutes of free blowing Bb major jubilant energy, reminiscent of Albert Ayler’s “Bells,” accompanied by Tony Geballe’s Frithian guitar feedback drones on the next roof. 3 minutes of spiritual, meditative D minor melodies reflecting the sadness of losing so many greats to this virus. Then chaos and release! Allowing myself to vent the frustration of being led through this crisis by a mendacious, self-serving national leader, I ended up screaming uncontrollably while playing the ratchet as fast and loudly as possible—my personal catharsis. The last few minutes of unison brought me down to earth, and I realized that dozens of people in adjacent buildings, hungry for live music, were applauding.

We don’t know exactly how many people participated, but we have received almost 100 performance videos of For Our Courageous Workers. Weaving these together videos affirms that our compositional choices play out: it is a coherent work performed by musicians who for the most part could not hear each other.

I suspect that we will create a number of iterations of For Our Courageous Workers using the submitted material. But it’s going to be a while before we have something complete to share with the world. In the meanwhile, here’s a sneak peek at the first 30 seconds.

For Our Courageous Workers could not have been successful without having many participants. As the entire project went from its initial conceptualization to the performance in 10 days, we relied upon our co-sponsoring organizations—each with a wide reach into diverse New York musical communities—to get the word out to the public. We feel a deep gratitude. All of them, along with the hundreds of people who performed the piece, brought together undzer kleyn shtetl New York (our ‘little village of New York’) through sound.

[Ed. Note: To access the single-page, text-based score for the composition For Our Courageous Workers, click here.]