Category: Columns

Playing in Time: Chronos, Kairos, Crossfades

Clocks of various sizes all set to different times.

In this post I want to talk about time: time in our musical relationships with others, and time in the creative process. I’ll start out with the Greek concepts of time, chronos and kairos, which I learned about from the author Madeleine L’Engle.

Kairos, a term for which there is no English equivalent, is often defined in opposition to chronos. For musicians, chronos is metronome time; it can be objectively and quantitatively measured. Kairos, on the other hand, happens when we lose ourselves in the creative moment, and all measures of time are lost. It is

“That time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards, because kairos has nothing to do with chronological time. In kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we’re constantly checking our watches for chronological time.”

—Madeline L’Engle, Walking on Water

A metronome in motion

These concepts have shaped my understanding of my own creative process. It’s from losing track of time while composing that I learned how much I love writing!

It’s from losing track of time while composing that I learned how much I love writing!

In the summer of 2015, I was gifted a used 25-key red Schoenhut tabletop toy piano. I got the idea to start writing little one-minute pieces and dedicating each one to a friend. Some of the dedicatees are lifelong friends and family, some are people who happened to pass through at an important moment but who I never really saw again, and some were shorter friendships. I ended up writing (and transcribing!) 55 of them, and made them into a book called The Texture of Activity. I stopped writing toy piano solos then; 55 was a good Fibonacci number, and I felt I had nothing else to say on the instrument.

6 months later, I realized I had a lot more to say! So I started my 2nd book, called Playing the Changes, which is 72 pieces. All 127 of these miniatures were written and recorded in an hour or less, and like each friendship, they are all unique.

There are so many more people I’d like to dedicate pieces to, but I wrote my very last one just a few nights ago. I knew it was time.

Sitting down at the toy piano for these pieces over the years took me through a lot of dark times and major life transitions. The toy piano is kairos for me.


As musicians, we spend our time making perfect time, playing music in time, by ourselves, with a few others, with a group of 60. We get short times with some people, and long times with others, and others crossfade in and out.

One of our most basic jobs is giving and receiving the gift of time.

One of our most basic jobs is giving and receiving the gift of time. We do so with personal practice, rehearsals, playing concerts, attending concerts, listening to recorded music, composing music to be listened to and practiced and rehearsed and played. Success in performing and writing music largely comes from the concentrated time we put into the endeavor. And success in an ensemble requires time. When you play with a chamber group or even a large ensemble with the same players over a long time (say, 10 years or more), you get to know each other’s ins and outs quite intimately. You understand how to play with each other—who’s better at drums and who needs to stick to mallets, who can sight-read fast xylophone passages and who should stick to the bass line, who has stamina in long rehearsals and who needs frequent breaks.

Perhaps I only experience perfect time when it’s least expected: The fortunate appearance of a new person in music who is introduced to you by another music friend, who then becomes a friend and a mentor, whose presence completely changes your life, and that person makes you feel like you can do anything.  In this case, it’s perfect kairos.

Olivia Kieffer in front of a dinner table (containing plates with various food items) with MarcMellits, Douwe Eisenga, and Bill Susman

With my kairos dudes Marc Mellits, Douwe Eisenga, and Bill Susman

As composers, we can worry if we’ve bloomed at an inconvenient time. We live in a culture where composers must be young & fresh & hip (i.e. all the “under 35” calls for scores), while composers in their 50s and beyond, unless they are already quite famous, are ignored. Maybe our composer world is in cahoots with AARP, who start mailing you things on your 49th birthday.

Just as the grand arc of life has its peaks and valleys, so does music and so do relationships. I think life in music is a lot like Steve Reich’s Drumming. There’s a beginning, and there’s an end, and everything else is four long seasons of entrances and exits, buildups and breakdowns, crossfades and phases.

Music is about finding joy in places, and bringing some happiness to other people.

If we could see the grand arc of our lives, knowing exactly how much and what kind of time we have, would we do things differently now? I think it’s about finding joy in places, and bringing some happiness to other people. That’s what music is, to me.

Life in Septuple Time: A Composer Opts In to a Different Sort of Social Media

A street at the Centre Pompidou in Paris on which I calendar grid has been painted showing people walking through various days

In my first post, I presented three vignettes—Bach’s job composing for the Weimar court, a village baker, and a playground designer—as ideal visions of the artist in community. In the community I imagine, artist and audience interact at a small, human scale around shared meaning that goes beyond the art itself. This allows art to grow organically within an environment that already needs it and therefore naturally fosters it and imbues it with meaning. In my second post, I argued that the internet is a good place for this kind of community—if we abandon social media as we know it, and create new, better platforms and processes for building community online.

Alternative social media platforms like Vero and MetaFilter offer something more human-centric and less dangerous than Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Likewise, email listservs and small-group communication like SMS group text chat can be useful, though often dysfunctional. But I have not found an option that fits what I need and what I believe others need, particularly as artists helping to build culture-sustaining communities. So in this post and the next one I will present two related experiments I am undertaking, both seeking in different ways to create high-quality, high-trust, human-centric, art-incubating communities on the internet.

The first of these two initiatives, Life in Septuple Time, is a small-scale, private, peaceful social media space I am creating, centered around a thrice-weekly email I send to a limited list of friends and colleagues, with an option for group discussion using Trello software. This project, I hope, points to better ways we can do social media—in small groups with a high degree of trust, made by and for users with simple tools we control ourselves, without the advertising and algorithms that distort context and control, on our behalf, who sees what we share and how we understand each other.

Toward a Better Social Media

I felt sad to leave Facebook (though I don’t miss it).

In my previous post I was defiant about the evils of social media. But I felt sad to leave Facebook (though I don’t miss it). I have a lot of ideas and thoughts to share, and I love learning from other thoughtful people online. Also, I worried about my composerly life. Don’t we composers need to be present on social media these days? Isn’t this one of the vital ways we artists are supposed to reach our audiences? Despite these concerns, it felt good and necessary to leave the Big Social Media platforms. But rather than retreat to a world limited by physical place (as rich in meaning and connection as that can be), I resolved to seek another way to form community online—something better, something human-centric and free from coercion, something owned and operated entirely by human beings whose motives are connection, art, and meaning.

The other thing I abandoned was my good old professional email newsletter, another staple of the composerly life. I typically sent one every six months or so, to many friends and colleagues, with announcements about current projects and upcoming premieres. I received warm responses and it was a nice way to keep in touch with people occasionally. But it had begun to feel empty. It was a big list, including many people I barely knew, whom I had met only in passing. I knew that my newsletter was one of a multitude of similar ones that each person received. And whenever I announced a premiere, only a handful of those on my list lived anywhere nearby. I began to see that my newsletter failed to convey the ongoing story of my work and the things I cared about, the thinking process and context that fed and gave rise to the music I announced in each email, the things that give my work meaning. Without that, I felt more and more that these emails had little real impact, either for myself or my audience.

I didn’t like that my email newsletter was an opt-out communication.

And then there was the subtle sense of coercion I felt in my email newsletters. Though I would send each email with a note that the recipient was welcome to unsubscribe, and I was scrupulous in responding to those requests, the whole practice of publicizing my work this way began to feel like an arm-twist. Unsubscribing from a large company’s marketing email is not hard, but unsubscribing — having to take an action that says “I don’t want to hear from you” — from that nice guy you met at a conference… that’s harder. I didn’t like that my email newsletter was an opt-out communication. If a recipient wanted not to receive my email, I was asking them to confront me with their disinterest, or imagine themselves into a space where I was a faceless spammer. These kinds of emotional and interpersonal gymnastics are not good for our souls.

So with Big Social Media and my email newsletter gone, what in the world was I going to do, as a composer who wants to share his work with others — and composing aside, as a person who wants to interact and share with friends spread far and wide? In my search for alternatives, I was inspired by the model of daily email blogs like Composers Datebook and Seth Godin’s blog. These emails arrive first thing every single day, and each is very short. It’s a format that works well for me as a reader; these are the newsletters I tend to read and remember, the ones I move to the hallowed “Primary” tab in my Gmail inbox. Another trend and model that has been in my mind is the move many people are making away from large-scale social media and toward private, small-group interaction via group text chat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and similar. (Facebook is on-trend in planning to move its design toward private, small-group interaction. That would be great if their entire business model were not so harmful. I’ll be staying away.)

As I planned this new project, I had three goals:

First, I wanted my group of recipients to be small. I was intrigued by Seth Godin’s concept of seeking the “minimum viable audience.” Instead of trying to reach as many people as possible, however superficially, I wanted to seek a smaller group, for a greater chance of connecting deeply. This feels like the opposite of the goals that guided my old efforts.

Many platforms tend to seek the largest number of readers. I wanted fewer.

Second, I wanted the project to be private, with no public web presence and no possibility of popping up on a web search. Again, this is the opposite of the goals of a traditional blog, with its public URL, seeking to reach as many readers as it can, to be findable in as many ways as possible. Writing platforms like Medium or Substack tend to seek the largest number of readers. I wanted fewer.

Third, it was important to minimize coercion as much as possible, to proceed with the fullest attainable permission and active acceptance of those who participated. Instead of showing up at someone’s email inbox with my composer party and saying, “Please ignore me or throw me out if you’re not interested,” I would start by assuming disinterest and then ask people to opt in. This would be a party held at my house, with an invite and RSVP. “Let me know if you want to come, and if I don’t hear from you, you need not worry about my party descending on your mental space.” Of course, any invitation from one human to another might inherently carry a hint of obligation, but I would take pains to make clear that this was truly at-will and optional.

My Experimental Solution

With all that in my mind, I sat down in early May and made a list of everyone I knew, and set about narrowing it down. I thought about my relationship with each person and the kinds of things I wanted to share. I tried not to ask myself the traditional questions a composer might in trying to publicize his work. Instead, I asked a human question (but one that has deep impact on art-making): How personal and vulnerable do I feel I can be with this person? At the end of this painstaking process I had only forty percent of the original list.

I sent that much smaller group an email invitation. I told them I was leaving social media, where many of them followed my posts, and ending my old email newsletter that many of them had received. I invited them to my new email series, saying that I would send short emails three times a week, and that if they wanted to join me they would have to actively opt in by replying to say “yes.”

I also shared some of the themes and interests I planned to discuss in my emails, including:

  • How the modes of communication we use drive what we think and do, as much as the content of our communication.
  • How the technology we use (any tool) affects the meaning of our creative work in tricky ways.
  • What is art for? No seriously, what is it for?
  • Democratizing creative work: whys and hows (drawing from my composition teaching).
  • Creating useful things for other people, and witnessing them being used, is a core human need. When not met, it can cause deep pain.
  • Is it possible for an idea, a person, or a group to achieve broad cultural impact by being nice, by truly and completely avoiding the denigration of some other idea, person, or group?
  • Computers will never think like people, but as they get smarter they can serve us as powerful tools to help us in our human-style thinking and creativity.

In an email-averse world, I did not think many people would want three emails each week, even short ones. But people said “yes!” And in much bigger numbers than I had expected — over half of those I had invited accepted my invitation. It felt confirming to receive those “yeses,” and because I had already narrowed the list to a small number, the ending total — about twenty percent of my starting list — did not feel like too many for my goal to stay small. I have chosen not to give the exact number, with its whiff of “how many social media followers do you have?” I think many people, including myself, are sensitive to how many social media connections other people have, and how many contacts in general. Knowing these numbers invites comparison and, potentially, feelings of envy or pity. When I have mentioned my rather average number of Facebook friends to others, sometimes they say “wow that’s a lot” a little wistfully — but just as often I have seen people with many times more than I have. These numbers feel meaningless because they depend on how one seeks and accepts friends; some people limit their list to people they know well, others keep a broader list. If someone else were to start an email series like mine, I would not want them to be comparing the numbers. Perhaps a larger or smaller number suits them. What is important to me in this project is the relationship I have with each person, and the kind of communication and community I want to foster.

Those who opted out are just as vital to the project as those who opted in.

It’s also important that those who opted out are just as vital to the project as those who opted in. When someone chose not to participate, I was a little sad. (I’m only human.) But I was also glad because it meant, to me, that my plan was working, that the trust was strengthened. If there were a sense of obligation or coercion beyond my initial invitation, it would change what I chose to share, the way I could talk to people, and the way they would hear me, even what they would hear. So I am deeply grateful to my opt-outs. (Of course, the party continues and they are always warmly invited to drop by.)

Perhaps the best part of the experience, so far, is that many people have told me that they are not only interested in reading my email content, they are also interested in the project as a project. They see that it is an experiment in communication and they want to witness it and find out how it feels to be part of it. Many have told me that they would love to do something similar, to share their own thoughts and work with their own group. Already, a good friend who is on my list has begun a similar email series with the same opt-in “yes” requirement. The single proudest moment so far was when he cited my email series, in the invitation he sent, as part of his inspiration for starting his own. The more who do so—the more my experiment invites others to share their honest and vulnerable selves with trusted others—the happier I’ll be.

If it Ain’t Got that Swing… Life in Septuple Time

One more important element: I wanted my project to have an interesting rhythm and a steady beat. I have talked a lot here about social relationships and communication dynamics. But I am a composer, and I know how important rhythm is to our experience of the world. This is not just for fun (though it is fun, I think) — it’s important because of the way it affects my readers’ experience of my emails. If each email is predictable, if you can tap your foot to them, then each encounter feels calmer and more welcome, less of an interruption. Because everyone involved—the whole ensemble—can feel the beat, knows when it will land.

The daily email blog model, sending a short email every single day, felt too monotonous (a 365/4 time signature?), and I thought it would be too much to handle both for me and my readers. So I decided it should go out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, first thing in the morning always at the same time, 6am. I sent this to those on my list:

MWF makes the schedule easy to remember, and I like the spiky rhythm it gives to our 7-day week: 2 days, 2 days, 3 days; 7/8 time, two short beats and then a long, count it out loud 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3, easy breezy like this …Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance.

We already live life in septuple time, week by week. I wish every week were as fun as that Dave Brubeck song, and I hope my emails will add a gentle off-kilter beat to your weeks.

Let’s call this project: Life in Septuple Time.

Since starting the series almost three months ago I have kept up the MWF rhythm every week, sharing ideas on the themes I mentioned above. Topics range from geometric cuts I made in a slice of watermelon, to dilemmas I struggle with, to announcements of the latest premieres of my music. The people on my list respond to me individually by email to share related ideas, to offer their opinions or reactions to what I shared. It’s like a private blog with active commenting.

Since starting the series almost three months ago I have kept up the MWF rhythm every week.

With these guiding elements working together, my hopes for this project have been fulfilled so far. It’s so much better than anything I experienced on social media or with my old email newsletter. I reach people now. They read what I write. They might skip a day or a week, and that’s fine. What matters is that I have their permission and their attention. My community learns about me as an artist, and I learn about them — their lives, their needs, and what concerns they want our shared art to address. I can weave an ongoing story they can follow, make their own sense of, and respond to. It feels analogous to what I do as a composer, a sort of ongoing composition-in-email (in 7/8 time of course), which in turn fosters my musical composition. (I still announce my premieres and publications.)

Trello as Private Social Media Platform

As I knew I would, I soon began to crave discussion not just between me and each individual, but between these wonderful people I had gathered. I wanted group interaction and sharing, a sort of… what shall we call it… a media that is social. A better social media, without the intermediaries of advertisers and algorithms controlling who sees what. (It might seem a bit odd, because it’s a social media centered around me. I ask my list to suggest topics for me to write about, but mostly they have been happy for me to share my thoughts as I please).

I don’t know how many people silently visit or when, and I don’t seek to find out.

And so, I looked for an online platform that felt peaceful, where people could comment but where the layout and pace could be measured and relaxed. I settled on Trello, the popular project-management software. I invited those on my list to join me on the Life in Septuple Time Trello board, and about a quarter of them have joined (the rest opt to participate by email only). It has become a lovely private online community, by and for its participants, hosted by a human (me), no data gathering or algorithms needed. I don’t know how many people silently visit or when, and I don’t seek to find out. When someone comments, then I know they’re there — not because I gathered data on them and encroached on their personhood, but because they exercised their humanity and free will to let me know they are present.

Our Trello board for Life in Septuple Time looks like this. Each card is one of my MWF emails. People comment in the cards and chat with each other. I use colored labels to track the themes (mentioned earlier) that we cover in each discussion card.

The Trello board for Life in Septuple Time

Some Questions

What does success look like for a project like this? Does such a thing scale up? Can it? Should it? If I am not seeking a larger audience, where does this go next? What are the goals?

If I get to know a thoughtful person who wants to join, I am glad to add them. (The point is trust, not smallness for its own sake.) But my main goal, my hope, is that more people will start their own projects like this, tailored to suit them. It doesn’t have to be done the way I’ve done it, for example the MWF rhythm might be too frequent, or not frequent enough. The friend I mentioned who has started his own email list is doing it on a once-weekly basis, not thrice weekly like mine.

There are many friends whose thoughts I would gladly receive in a similar mode. I dream of a series of Trello boards (or some other suitable platform) each containing the universe of one friend’s thoughts and interests which I could follow and visit. Sounds like Facebook? On the surface, perhaps. But fundamentally, it’s a different orientation and feeling. I keep bugging my list, encouraging others to start their own series like this. I’ll join them all.

Piling in is what cheapens the entire enterprise of Facebook and the other mainstream platforms.

Would there eventually be too many to keep up with? Maybe, but unlikely. Many of the people on my list have told me they don’t want to broadcast in this way, that being in the audience feels just fine. Keeping the series going, keeping the beat steady, is much more involved than posting on Facebook, more like running a blog. It’s a commitment. Others have told me they are interested in trying something similar, but they don’t have the time. So maybe it could be more like Facebook, where everyone piles in and competes for attention! Let’s fire up some algorithms to drive engagement! Ha. To me, that piling in is what cheapens the entire enterprise of Facebook and the other mainstream platforms. So, asking for real: How could everyone who wants to do so produce such a thing, all those whose lives are too busy or otherwise impeded? And if there got to be many of these invitations, how could everyone keep up with everyone? I don’t have an answer for this yet, but I’m working on it and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

One more question for now: How will I become the World-Famous Composer I clearly deserve to be, if I stop broadcasting my work to lots of people? How will anyone know about my work if I ditch big email newsletters and avoid all mainstream social media platforms? If I instead share my thoughts privately with only a few people? Isn’t that just me, um, having friends? What happens to my Big Composer Dream?!? I hope you can hear the wink in my questions.

Fame starts small if it starts at all.

I have answers, and without the wink. First, I have my good old composerly website. It maintains a professional public presence, and people use it to purchase music for performance. Much more important, however, I’ve learned—slowly—that fame starts small if it starts at all. If my music inspires a few people and they pass it on to someone else, then perhaps someday down the line I might gain influence and reputation. But that secondary stage is… secondary. I haven’t done the first part yet, until now. I always thought I was doing it, but I wasn’t. And it’s already giving me at least 80% of the joy that fame would offer, possibly 101%. Because the joy lies in connecting with others in a genuine way.

A group of people standing in the middle of the street taking photos of oncoming vehicles.

The “Manhattan Solstice,” when the sunset aligns with Manhattan’s street grid. Viewed from West 79th Street & Columbus Avenue. (Photo by Robinson McClellan)

Not Far Enough Yet

So. My email series Life in Septuple Time tackles some of the problems with online interaction that I feel. But it’s still social media, in the sense that it primarily involves one person broadcasting outward to a group. I hope I am doing it in a healthier, more positive way than it was possible to do using Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. But ultimately I want more than broadcast: I want community. That’s why I added the Trello board as a miniature private social media space for those on my email list. It’s great, and I will keep doing it, but it’s still just broadcast, and it’s only Phase One of the larger plan I have in mind.

Ultimately I want more than broadcast: I want community.

Here’s what I ultimately crave: small, co-equal groups that include art-markers serving those who are happy to be their audience, a group gathered around shared meaning bigger than the art itself, where learning and art can grow organically. Next target: reshaping the broadcast structure of social media to create something quite different. This brings us to the second initiative I am co-creating, Terrarium, which I’ll talk about it in the next post. Stay tuned!

Playing the Brake Drum: A very short guide to percussion parts for composers who write for band

An identified person walking behind a large gong, only the person's socks are visible.

In the past two weeks, I’ve shared some of my experiences during my two years as a master’s degree composition student, and the lens through which I experienced college life as a student and mostly-composer after spending many years as a professor and mostly-percussionist.

For my third post in this series of four, I’ll turn to a lighter subject but one very near to my heart: percussion parts in band music!

A general sense of flexibility leads to good long-term relationships with band directors.

I have performed in the percussion section of bands, on and off, since the seventh grade. Over a span of 25+ years, this includes performing in a wide variety of groups, from junior high to high school, intermediate and advanced college bands, and community bands. I have seen the worst of the worst in percussion parts, and also some of the best. My experiences working with a variety of bands as a composer have led me to an even deeper understanding of the need for clear and practical percussion writing, and how a general sense of flexibility leads to good long-term relationships with directors—directors who, inevitably, are interested in programming newer music!

As composers of band music, treading the line between “serving my artistic vision of the music” and “let’s make sure the percussionists don’t want to stab me in the eye with a triangle beater” can be daunting. I hope to provide some very practical writing advice for those looking to write for band, as well as for those who may want to fix their major sins and/or minor transgressions ex post facto. I do not propose to offer actual composing advice. This is rather a cut-and-dry guide for percussion scoring in band music, and it is not comprehensive. Books are available to further illuminate percussion writing. There are points and subtleties that I will miss, and I foresee many possible arguments in the comments section, which I welcome, because it shows that composers are actually thinking about percussion instead of writing willy-nilly while thinking, “I’m sure they’ll figure it out!”

I would like to thank my Twitter friends for providing additional suggestions, many of which are included throughout this article.

The full text of Olivia Kieffer's Twitter call for comments


Auxiliary Percussion

A whirly tube

We all hate whirly tubes. They are physically unpleasant and difficult to play, they break easily, and nobody can really hear them unless at least four people are playing them at once and the rest of the band is silent. This advice goes for crystal wine glasses as well; we hate those, too.

No liquids in the percussion section, please.

Anything requiring a bucket or tub of water (a.k.a. water gong or any other thing you’ve decided needs to be dipped in water) is murder on our backs and a danger to anyone who walks on the floor. Waterphones are also unacceptable. No liquids in the percussion section, please.

There are wind chimes, and there is a bell tree. They are different. Mark trees do not actually exist; we just guess whether you actually mean wind chimes or bell tree.

When considering writing for more than eight tom-toms, ask yourself why, then pare it down to four toms.

Brake drums are beastly heavy. They can break your foot if they fall off a trap table. Consider using just one, and suggest it be mounted on a snare stand.

Pitched gongs are lovely instruments but do not belong in band. They require giant stands or multiple trap tables. We play tam-tam. Asking for more than two tam-tams is asking for trouble.

A waterphone photographed from above, which shows the filling port for the water.

A waterphone photographed from above, which shows the filling port for the water. (Wikimedia commons image by Hangklang)

Mallet Percussion

Imagine a percussion section that is bowless, and you will find a sea of happy faces in the back.

Bowing crotales is absolutely the worst. They are round. Challenge: don’t write for bows at all. Imagine a percussion section that is bowless, and you will find a sea of happy faces in the back, and you will never experience that heartbreaking moment when the note simply won’t sound.

Nobody in the history of the world will ever hear the low notes on a five-octave marimba in a band context. Moving a five-octave marimba onto a stage is a backbreaking, two-person ordeal that every composer should have to physically do themselves, over and over again, until they never write for five-octave marimba again. For marimba in general, do not score it during fortissimo tutti sections. We have to use practically diamond-encrusted mallets to be heard, which ruins the bars and sounds terrible.

While vibraphone with motor can sound truly majestic, understand that vibe motors rarely work when we need them to. We have to plug them in, and there are cords to trip over. Many bands own a vibraphone, but not many own one with a consistently working motor.


Not everyone owns a piccolo timpano. Take the time to figure out whether you need four timpani or whether you really and truly actually need five. Be aware that you may get a well-meaning roto-tom as a replacement for those high pitches.

Marcato-fortissimo low pitches on 32″ timpani distress the heads something terrible, and make the drums sound like cardboard boxes.


It’s rarely the notes that cause percussionists trouble. It’s much more often the careless instrument distribution that is so taxing.

Sometimes a full hour or more of uninterrupted time is needed simply to assign parts.

One thing composers may not completely understand is the important role the percussion part-assigner plays, and how sometimes a full hour or more of uninterrupted time is needed simply to assign parts. Countless times, I have looked at a single set of parts with resignation as I realize how much time it will take to de-tangle the major transgressions just to assign parts among the section players. This is completely unnecessary. We should see a part called “Percussion 1” and hand it to one percussionist. That’s it.

Percussion score? NO! Take the time to make actual parts for a specific number of people. Do not make two players play on the same bass drum, or the same xylophone, meaning: keep one person on xylophone or bass drum the whole time. If you choose to sin and ask the percussionists to load an enormous amount of gear and only play, say, the ratchet once, make it an incredibly special ratchet moment. What we do as percussionists matters, and the schlepping we do matters. Above all, ask yourself, “Am I assuming the percussionists will just figure it out?”  While we are certainly smart enough to figure it out, it’s better for us to spend that time practicing our parts rather than pulling our hair out trying to decipher a careless percussion score.

The schlepping we do matters.

In closing, for any composers who are now feeling the sting of condemnation or are even a bit defensive, I’d like to share the story of the absolute worst percussion scoring I have ever seen. It happened recently, and it should ease your mind. The percussion parts arrived as 14 individual parts. One for bass drum, one for triangle, one for crotales, one for snare drum…you get the picture. As the part-assigner, I was baffled. We had six players, not fourteen. Then, the composer sent a full percussion score. This score simply had a list of instruments on the front, with “Five Players plus Timpani” underneath. The score was 32 pages long and it was, once again, simply instruments stacked vertically. It took me 90 minutes, but I figured out exactly who could play what, when, and where, and there was significant instrument overlap. I shrunk the parts to horizontal (two pages to a page), double-sided printing, and bound them. I had to use highlighters for each person’s part, with arrows pointing to their next instrument change. The thing is, the parts were meticulously notated…a true paradox of care and remarkable laziness.

There is certainly much more to be said about percussion part-making! My hope is that a few of these suggestions will go a long way, and that my words combined with the Twitter posts will illuminate the (often hilarious!) variety of difficulties percussionists come across in our band parts. Godspeed, and good luck!

The Internet is Great, We’re Just Not Using it Right

An array of twelve flowerpots with budding plants

Americans idealize what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “marketplace of ideas,” a space where every member of society is, by right, free to peddle his creed. Yet the shape or even existence of any such marketplace depends far less on our abstract values than on the structure of the communications and culture industries. We sometimes treat the information industries as if they were like any other enterprise, but they are not, for their structure determines who gets heard.

—Tim Wu in The Master Switch

In my first post I proposed that the internet provides fertile soil to grow intimate, genuine communities and to foster a connected, organic kind of art-making within such communities. I want to talk more about how important the internet is to this vision, and why.

The internet is great. We’re just not using it right.

We don’t need digital detox.

We don’t need digital detox. Or more accurately, we do need a detox, but we have misidentified the toxin. Interacting online is not inherently poisonous, and online interactions are no less meaningful than talking face to face. Different, yes, but just as valuable. If we experience problems relating to each other online, I believe it’s because we’re doing it wrong.

To my mind, there are two main challenges facing us in our interactions and communities on the internet: The first is the overwhelming amount of choice. The second is the ubiquity and malignancy of the big social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). We can solve the choice problem. And we can abandon — note that I say abandon, not reform or regulate — the social media platforms which dominate and poison our online experience. Then we can begin reclaiming better ways to interact online and building new ones, as I will discuss in the next two posts. If we do these things, I think the internet can be a much happier place.

A collage of cards on each of which is printed a single word:

Image by Gerd Altmann (Geralt) via Pixabay

Choices, Choices!

A serious problem with the internet is that it opens the door to so much wonderful information and friendship that it makes it harder to choose. This is solvable if we are tough and honest with ourselves, and with each other, about making choices and saying ‘no.’ If the internet shows us more stuff, but we commit to saying ‘yes’ only to that which our human minds can successfully and fully attend, it means saying ‘no’ to more. It’s painful to live with the knowledge that there are amazing things we will never know about because we have said no. But I believe we must each be bold and proud about being choosy. If we choose to read one email but not another, it’s because we made that choice, not because email itself is bad.

If we choose to read one email but not another, it’s because we made that choice, not because email itself is bad.

I try to practice what I preach. The main news I read regularly is The Economist (because it feels centrist and I like the dry humor). Even the one magazine is too much information for my poor brain — I barely get through each week’s issue (I’m currently three weeks behind). I also follow the RSS feeds of a few blogs and news sources, but I usually skip The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, all the rest of them. So I miss out on things. It’s painful but it feels good to make these hard necessary choices, because it means that for what I do take in, I can attend to fully. To be fully engaged, to sit down and have a good meal, feels so much better than to taste from a continuous stream of samples, none of which stay long enough for me to be nourished.

amanita phalloides (young)

Two young specimens of amanita phalloides, commonly known as “the death cap,” which is perhaps the world’s most poisonous mushroom. (Photo by Stanislaw Skowron from the Wikimedia Commons)

Toxic! Wait, Social Media is Not the Internet

Many people spend most of their internet time on social media, so it is easy to conflate the two. Social media is literally embedded in our online experience — those three familiar little icons for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are on nearly every web site, every brochure and sign. But these platforms are not the internet itself. Far from it.

From 2006 until earlier this year, I was a steady Facebook user (I was also on Instagram and Twitter but didn’t post much). In the past few years I have disliked these platforms more and more. Lovely interactions take place, but overall, it didn’t feel good. I have been reading books by Jaron Lanier and Tim Wu and others about the harmful effects of the ad-based business model behind Facebook (including Instagram), Google, and Twitter. The business model depends on controlling our behavior and thinking for the benefit of their only paying customers, the advertisers. The structure of the underlying design bends our interactions toward the nasty and superficial, because these are the most profitable for advertisers. I don’t like being used. I object to my affections (and more frighteningly, my hatreds) literally being sold to the highest bidder.

So for me, and I believe for many, the internet is drastically happier when we stay off social media. It’s important to know what’s a toxin and what’s a carrier. When possible we don’t dispense with contaminated water, we root out the contaminant. We refresh the stream. I recently left all mainstream social media, and I know many others who have left. I am hoping for a mass exodus.

I object to my affections (and more frighteningly, my hatreds) literally being sold to the highest bidder.

Perhaps influenced by these problems of too much choice and manipulative social media, many mistrust the internet as a whole. You’ll hear people say things like: “Interacting online is great, but if you want to really connect with someone it’s better in person.” Certainly, there is no replacement for sitting across from a warm human being, from sharing one’s time and one’s life with living, breathing people. And there are pitfalls to written communication, times when it’s better to talk it out in person or over the phone, as you’ll know if you’ve ever sent an email when you’re angry.

But at the same time that we collectively misuse and underestimate the internet, I think we overestimate in-person interaction.

A raven with a key in its mouth sits atop an empty open birdcage on a shoreline from which a dove is seen flying away and a balloon is also visible in the distance.

Image by Ria Sopala (pixundfertig) via Pixabay

Physical Place is Exclusive

We may not notice the ways in which being together, face to face, is limited, exclusive, and shuts out possibility. Anyone too far away is left out. And by too far away, we often mean away from the place where ‘the’ discussion is happening, too far from centers of privilege. Those with physical and mobility limitations are left out of in-person relating more than those without them usually notice. Those whose lives are busy with family and work obligations are often left out. And those who are paid less for their work often need to work more hours to support themselves, and so have fewer free hours for face-to-face relating. People who earn less can be disproportionately left out.

Even when physical presence is possible, in-person interactions are exclusive by personality and communication style. Interacting face to face favors the neurotypical and those whose speech is typical and fluent, while those with different social skill sets are often left out of the discussion. Highly structured discussion methods can help with these problems, but you can see where I’m going. In-person relating can be great, but it’s not automatically better.

The Internet Can be a Profound and Joyful Place

On the internet, different dynamics exist. Not lesser or better, but different and, I believe, equal. Online communications — when handled with care — offer a remedy to the exclusivity of in-person interactions.

Things become possible online that are not possible in person.

Things become possible online that are not possible in person. Different kinds of people shine forth and different kinds of conversations take place. The online world used to be more exclusive than the face-to-face world because access to internet-enabled devices was limited. But that is quickly changing. Over half of the globe, at many economic levels, can text, chat and watch videos on their phones (a blessing in places where literacy rates are low) — more all the time. It’s almost as easy for someone in Philadelphia to chat with someone across town as in rural Africa (where, despite setbacks, internet access is growing rapidly… Facebook is trying to help with that, but for mostly the wrong reasons). When such connections prevail, two people very different in experience and perspective can, potentially, learn in fresh and valuable ways from each other.

Young uniformed Ugandan students sitting in front of computer terminals.

A solar computer class in a rural community in the Mukono District of Uganda sponsored by the Kikandwa Rural Communities Development Organization and the Maendeleo Foundation Uganda. Additional information about this initiative is available on a 2014 blog post by Robert Kibaya, Executive Director and Founder of the Kikandwa Rural Communities Development Organisation. (This above photo is reproduced here with the permission of Kibaya and Asia Kamukama, Executive Director of the Maendeleo Foundation.)

For some, online interaction will never feel, or be, equal to talking in person. I don’t seek to convince anyone to give up what they love for something they don’t trust or enjoy. But I think there is an undue bias against online communication, reinforced by the flawed forms of it that currently dominate our consciousness, and maintained by the fact that most forms of in-person exclusivity are hard to notice.

It might sound overstated to say that chatting by text can be just as good as chatting in person (though different). But this is not a radical argument, it’s a conservative one. It’s about reclaiming ancient and fundamental forms of human relating — meaningful, intimate conversations, old-fashioned communities — and pushing our technology forward to do this better, online. It’s about using some of the earliest and simplest online tools like email and discussion forums and blogs, things that already work well, and seeking new ways of using them, as well as new methods and tools, that might work even better.

So I believe that if we find better ways to use the internet, then more people can enjoy more and better conversations. With more people. Of more kinds. In more places. With people they could otherwise never reach. They can form friendships they could not have otherwise. These friendships can coalesce into communities that can help make the world a better place. This is already happening, and it needs to happen more.

My Life is Better Because of the Internet

The network of humans I cherish and depend on is spread far and wide.

All this comes directly from my own long-time experience. Both professionally and personally, the network of humans I cherish and depend on is spread far and wide. First, there’s my family: after college I moved across the country from where I grew up; not an uncommon thing for my demographic. So common, in fact, so normalized, that the pain of it is often overlooked. There was a real loss there, a lack of being part of one another’s lives. But I barely registered the emotional toll consciously until years later. Technology has helped. Texting has brought us closer, video calls mean my toddler can picture the new toy his grandparents got for their cat yesterday. The internet doesn’t fix the separation, but it heals it partway.

The internet has also been at the center of my creative and employed life. I worked for a tech company for eight years remotely. I build online courses with a friend and colleague on the opposite coast. In those cases, I meet in person once in a while with my colleagues, and it’s fun and it deepens the bond. But the relationship thrives primarily online.

My work that happens entirely online is just as deep, demonstrating what I think the internet is good for: equality of access and greater connection and community. I worked on the team that created The Morgan Library’s Music Manuscripts Online, where my daily tasks were highly tactile: I sat in the Morgan’s vault, paging through Mozart and Schumann manuscripts to capture their often confusing pagination for those who could not, like me, see them in the flesh. It’s the best of the internet: connection, democratization, reducing the inherent exclusivity of those physical manuscripts. Yes, the online viewer cannot, as I could, touch the very same paper Mozart had touched (well, not without an appointment and a plane ticket). So there is a loss. But the gain is that they can now have a personal encounter with these composers, and maybe even sense Mozart’s personality in the way he shaped each note.

Robin Muir-Miller

Robin Muir-Miller (1934-2019)

For me, the universe is divided: my little universe of physical proximity and my online universe.

Deep relationships based on written correspondence are as old as pen and paper. The internet can only make this kind of bond easier and more likely. In 2009 I heard from a poet in Australia, Robin Muir-Miller, who had found my compositions on my website. She liked my music, and I liked her poetry. We began exchanging emails about our work and before long we began collaborating as lyricist and composer. Over the course of ten years and many collaborations, we became close friends. She was in her 70s when we met, and confined to a wheelchair by her worsening MS. She became less and less able to read and type on her computer, and she died this past spring. So she was cut off from people physically, and email opened a door. We never met, never even spoke on the phone. It was a relationship between people who would never have met any other way and whose perspectives and interests matched each other unusually closely (despite some heated arguments, from which we both learned a lot). Our collaboration led to the large-scale work This Ravelled Dust: Cantata for a Nuclear Age, premiered in Toronto in 2010, which is for me one of our best and most important works. I wrote about the piece for NewMusicBox in 2011 in response to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

All of these examples are about reducing exclusivity and increasing connection and access. I want the world to lay wide open for every thoughtful soul who wants to participate. For me, the universe is divided: On the one hand my little universe of physical proximity, beautiful environs full of tactile experiences, face-to-face human intimacy, not much commuting or traveling, time freed up for living and being. On the other hand my online universe, a rich tapestry of close friendships, interesting interactions, unexpected confluences, joyful professional and artistic opportunities. My iPhone is a happy place. Everything that happens on it is about learning, creating, and human relating. I don’t need a digital detox.

Numerous cartoon renderings of various people showing lines connecting them all to each other.

Image by Gordon Johnson (GDJ) via Pixabay

Let’s Build Better Tools for Being Human Online

I have two specific goals, and I have launched initiatives to test these goals in practice. I’ll talk about those projects in my next two posts, but here is a bit about the goals.

I want to find viable alternatives to social media as we know it.

First, I want to find viable alternatives to social media as we know it. I have left the big social media platforms and I have invited others to join me. But instead of receding to my local corner, hemmed in by physical proximity, I’m looking for a place online for lay people of every sort and from every possible place, experts together with non-experts in any given topic (see Post 1 for more about experts and non-experts), to share and discuss and learn from each other within new communities. Sites like do not fit the bill because they exclude. I appreciate alternative social media options like MetaFilter and Vero, but I want specific qualities that these platforms don’t focus on in the ways I seek. I also want something different from the ways in which listservs and most online discussion forums work. I am looking for communities that are deliberately small (I love that MetaFilter values this too) — in some cases under ten people per group, in other cases perhaps a few hundred. I believe participation must be rooted in values of opting in, mutual free will, disclosure and permission. Communication online also benefits from being highly structured, with timed and scheduled interactions, in the manner of therapy groups and some online education methods. I also think social media and most current online interaction has the wrong rhythm and that this is a serious flaw — I’ll discuss that in upcoming posts.

Second, I’m an artist and, as I discussed in my first post, I seek a model in which art-making is intimate, on a person-to-person to scale. Where art is organic, growing from interactions that are already taking place about something beyond the art itself. Where art is a secondary but vital element within a community that exists for some other purpose. Where art functions by serving to express and teach the values that guide a community.

These two goals support one another. If we can find ways to push the internet forward and away from ad-based social media, then we can use it to reclaim the intimacy and strength of ancient and proven forms of human relating in small groups. When art naturally has something to serve beyond itself, it grows organically and naturally, imbued with the deep meanings of the community context in which it serves. Such art does not need to seek an audience. It has its home before it is made, and is made because it has a home.

Playing My Hand: How I Learned to Trust My Composition Teacher

playing cards

Last week, I shared the story of my first year in graduate school as a composition major, and the many transitions I went through during that time, including discovering a new identity as a musician. This post is all about my second year of graduate school, and how I learned to trust my composition teacher and become a better teacher myself. But first: the summer!

I spent most of the summer between my first and second years alone, in the dorms, in my bathrobe, writing a song cycle and a band piece. I was broke, but I slept eight to ten hours a night with regularity. I walked on the beach of Lake Michigan on sunny days, visited family up north and friends in Chicago, took my time learning a lovely and very difficult vibraphone solo in order to premiere it, and watched a ton of movies with my wonderful and hilarious roommate (a fellow grad student in the music school). Overall it was a time of resting, and it went by really fast. I gained confidence in my ability to make it through this degree and graduate, all while still maintaining a professional career and applying to doctoral programs.

Being a student made me want to teach again more than anything I’ve ever wanted.

And yet, I wondered if my new composition teacher (my third teacher of the degree) would just try to make me sound like them, as a teacher during my first year had done. Being pushed to completely depart from my own voice had given me existential anxiety, and I was afraid I’d be asked to do that again, for my thesis. A few days before classes started, I happened across the professor who was supposed to be my main composition teacher for the year ahead, and he told me that he wasn’t taking on any new students and that I had been placed in another studio. When he told me who my new teacher would be, I was surprised and excited, and thought, “Great! I don’t really know him personally at all, but I do know based on his work that there are so many things I can learn from this man.” Taking the advice of a composer who had also gone back to school in her 30s, I registered and interviewed with the Accessibility Resources Center, to get time accommodations for the Theory Comprehensive Exams and discuss other possibly needed accommodations. I have a learning disability and mental illness, which is a great cocktail for extreme heartburn and anxiety during tests that determine whether I graduate or not, in subjects that are eye-bleedingly difficult for me. I figured having a history with the ARC would be helpful for my time in a doctoral program as well, where I will certainly be in several high-pressure test situations, and where I will encounter a lot of stress.

Once the school year started, I still played in band and percussion ensemble (but less), and I took conducting lessons on top of my very full class schedule, which included Digital Synthesis, Music History Seminar, a theory class, and lessons. I was busting my butt with college applications, I had a big trip to San Francisco coming up for a world premiere, doctoral applications were all due at the same time, I had a commission due, and I needed to keep knocking out my thesis. Four weeks into the semester, I got sick and disappeared for a week. I had to withdraw from History Seminar (it was the most stressful, busy-work class) for mental health reasons, which included filling out a bunch of papers.  The second semester was a breeze in comparison. My heart stopped cracking like a walnut every time I thought of teaching at my old college or heard from my students. I was ADJUSTING. My grad band staff comrades were lifesavers. We had an office all together: Percussion TA, Band Librarian, Conductor, Tech Guy, etc. We had a blast, partied together, and practiced together.

And I loved composition lessons with my new teacher. I was given some great advice from a mentor, which I kept in mind: “Keep your cards to your chest. Never let them see your whole hand.” I had plenty of practice doing this during my first year, so it was easy this time around.

There I was, age 38, second year of my master’s degree, finding out for the first time what it was like to have weekly lessons with a supportive, enthusiastic, encouraging teacher that I trusted.

Right from the beginning, I could tell my teacher and I would get along: he was a drummer too, and had been everywhere and done everything. He was one of these modest people, where you keep opening doors with them and a thousand more doors are behind those. He was very fun and funny, enthusiastic, full of ideas, and our lessons went until somebody had to leave—sometimes two hours. I checked out my hand, laid down a single card…and nothing bad happened. We kept working on music, and I decided to write a percussion trio for my thesis. I laid down another card, and asked if he would write recommendation letters for my college applications. He said yes, so I sent him my C.V. and he read it. Something new clicked; it was like suddenly he “got” the amount and variety of experience I had had in music so far. Finally! Someone took the time to get to know me and my history. So I started to trust the guy. He came up with lists of music for me to listen to and scores to read and pieces to try out or exercises to do. He saw my strengths and weaknesses and helped develop both, pushing me the appropriate amount if I needed pushing, helping me expand my sound universe. My thesis started to come together! He came to some rehearsals of the piece and was incredibly supportive at my graduate composition recital. My lessons were the highlight of the week, all year long. So there I was, age 38, second year of my master’s degree, finding out for the first time what it was like to have weekly lessons with a supportive, enthusiastic, encouraging teacher that I trusted.

Entering my master’s degree, it never crossed my mind that I would learn anything new about teaching. I had a good handle on being a teacher! It turns out there was still a lot to learn. Being back behind a student desk after eight years in front of the classroom was an eye-opener. I observed the hell out of each of my teachers. I understood everything the professors said from both a teacher’s perspective and from my own perspective as a student. The new percussion instructor became a friend, and I watched him handle the percussion studio extremely well, but in a very different way than I did when I was teaching. I had an analysis teacher who transformed material I was disinterested in into something incredibly interesting. Thinking back to when I was a teacher, I felt like this: a student’s enthusiasm is life, and a student’s apathy is death. So I did everything I could to create an atmosphere of challenging, joyful, fun learning. I knew a good teacher when I saw one. There were many here. There were also some who made the material, and the class, all about themselves. I gave unsolicited feedback to professors more than once, when I saw they were talking over the students and not listening to us. Perhaps this ruffled some feathers but I absolutely did not care, because I found out exactly how passionate I was about the joys of learning from a great teacher. It must be an enormous joy to watch a student’s music develop and blossom over time, and I discovered just how much I’d love to become someone’s composition teacher. Being a student made me want to teach again more than anything I’ve ever wanted.

Let’s Grow Art Organically in Small Batches

A child wandering around sculptures of hippopotami and a fake rowboat in Central Park's Safari Playground. (photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy)

“On Friday, March 2, 1714, His Serene Highness the Reigning Duke most graciously conferred upon the quondam Court Organist Bach, at his most humble request, the title of Concertmaster” with the duty to “perform new works monthly.” Thus, the Weimar court capelle hired J.S. Bach to compose and present a substantial new church piece every four weeks. For his first piece written on the job, Bach played lead violin.

For years I’ve had the thought, “It would be so cool to have a job like Bach’s.”

For years I’ve had the thought, “It would be so cool to have a job like Bach’s.” I have always allowed this notion to remain vague in my mind — a rose-tinted ideal in which I would belong to some lovely community, whose purpose was larger than music itself, that would pay me a full-time salary to write music on a weekly or monthly basis. I know, Bach was constantly frustrated with his various employers, and he wasn’t always paid to write music specifically. At Weimar it only happened because he asked for that duty to be included in his contract. So it’s an idealized notion. But there’s something about its essentials, its bare bones, that appeals to me.

I recently sat down to define Bach’s job as precisely as I could, as a thought experiment: Does such a job exist today in some form? Could it, perhaps in some different context? Where do I apply?

Here’s my abstracted definition of Bach’s job at Weimar:

  • an institution/community whose primary purpose is something other than the production or presentation of artistic works, yet devotes a significant portion of its operating budget to pay a permanent full-time salary to an artist;
  • part of this artist’s job is to provide largish-scale creations on a regular and frequent basis as a *service* to the institution;
  • the service is *secondary* to the main purpose of the institution, but important enough to justify the large expense of a full-time salary;
  • the main purpose of this service is to express the communal values of the institution for the benefit and instruction of its members, *internally* (and secondarily for the institution’s reputation within the larger society);
  • Serene Highness not required, but large budget helpful.

Can you think of a job like this, in recent times? I can’t, not in the domains I know. Mainline churches? Organists often create service music, either as written compositions or as improvisations, but the creation of original music itself is not usually a contracted job requirement as far as I know. Maybe some very big churches outside the mainline denominations have salaried positions like this? Non-profit arts sector, or entertainment industry? Nope, per first line of the definition. Internal PR people in large corporate HR departments? Do advertising creatives fit parts of this definition? Possibly higher education, sort of, back in its glory days, if you focus on the non-teaching duties? There’s the U.S. Poet Laureate, but the salary seems like more of an honorarium. The UK has the Master of the Queen’s Music, one solitary composer at a time. Otherwise I’m drawing a blank.

I asked friends and colleagues about this, and the consensus seems to be that while there are many kinds of creative work that share aspects of my definition, there is no job quite like it — particularly the specific requirement to create new art regularly. A friend suggested the most surprising example, and perhaps the closest to my definition of Bach’s job. It’s this guy, the DJ for the Denver Broncos and Nuggets.

Even if you can’t think of a job exactly like this, what comes close? Does such a thing appeal to you — in most or all of those particulars — or is it just me? Please use the comments liberally. I can’t wait to hear what you think.

The remains of J.S. Bach's residence in Weimar.

The remains of J.S. Bach’s residence in Weimar (which, though the full building was mostly destroyed, is the only known surviving residence of J.S. Bach). Photo from the discontinued creative commons photo sharing site Panoramio.

I Made This. For You.

I made this bread.
I made this music.
For you.

A single simple interaction, a direct gift from one human to another. To me that is the creation of music, and many other things, at its best. As a composer of contemporary concert music, I feel out of touch with that core, person-to-person interaction. I write to fulfill commissions, but often I am still not quite sure who exactly, which specific human beings, I am writing for. As that realization has grown, I feel more and more pain.

As a composer of contemporary concert music, I feel out of touch with that core, person-to-person interaction.

I am on a mission to recapture that core interaction, that directness. I want to find the specific people I should be writing for, and to listen to them deeply. I want to write for them, to tune my music to their desires and needs and hopes, as specifically as possible.

The Artist in Community: Vignettes to Capture a Notion 

In this post I will explore the notion of Bach’s job further. What is it that makes me want a job like that? For now I will set aside the question of drawing a regular salary for creative work, although that is very important. The aspect of the job that draws me most powerfully is my longing to serve as an artist within a cohesive community, writing music for a purpose larger than the music itself. To get at that quality, here are two additional vignettes or visions that capture a kind of community where I believe art-making can flourish in beautiful ways. I invite you to read each vignette for its own sake but none of the three, including the Bach example, is a complete model on its own. Between them they capture something of the quality of interaction between artist and community that I seek.

Reckoning Desire (a short story)

There’s a short story I adore: Dalet the Thief, from The Book of the Unknown by Jonathon Keats, twelve fables of reimagined Kabbalistic saints ($5 on Kindle).

The story is about a village that has become so rich that no one bothers to practice their trades anymore. Avram the baker, Dov the shoemaker… everyone spends their time showing off expensive trinkets to each other. Dalet the town thief (his job considered vital to the functioning of the village) could be rich too, but he lacks ambition. He doesn’t steal the things people actually want. Gradually, Dalet learns to see the true desires that burn in everything, and then begins to share his newfound knowledge with others.

From my favorite scene, in which Dalet negotiates a deal with the town baker:

Avram added another gulden, and then several more. At last he emptied his purse. But it was like casting stars into sunlight. Poor Avram, his reckoning was all wrong: In matters of desire, no quantity is greater than one.

Soon, taught by Dalet to respond to desire, Avram finds himself baking again. For the first time in years, the scent of fresh-baked bread fills the village, and a long line of neighbors and friends winds to his door.

I re-read this story recently after almost ten years. At the moment when Avram begins to bake, I suddenly broke down in tears. It took me a while to figure out what had prompted those tears: I think it was a longing to connect, as deeply and directly as Avram does, with my own village, with my own small community of people who truly desire what I make. I feel like a wandering minstrel, with no village of that kind to call my own. I don’t think I will find my village until I too, like Dalet and Avram, learn to see the desires burning in those around me — and to respond.

If you read the story, I’d love to know what you think of it.

The cover of the paperback edition of Jonathon Keats's The Book of the Unknown.

A New Playground in Central Park

Our favorite playground was closed all winter for a major renovation. It’s open again now, and it’s glorious. Where we once struggled with clanky structures too high for little kids, we now lounge on rubberized hills you can’t fall off of, and the old embattled hippos look refreshed and ready for action.

The day it reopened, they were still putting on the finishing touches. Two Central Park Conservancy officials were walking around inspecting every detail, directing their crew in the placement of each final shrub, with a care and specificity that made me suspect they had a creative stake in it. They told me they’re landscape architects and that they had co-designed the new playground. It’s their brainchild, their work of art.

My toddler and I were there again later the same day (yep that’s the drill). I recognized one of the landscape architects I’d met earlier, now there in civilian clothes with her own kids. She said she had sat on a bench for a while just watching all the children as they discovered her creation, as they found marvelous ways to enjoy it, some she had planned and some she hadn’t foreseen.

What a lovely moment for an artist, to sit quietly by while one’s newest work brings joy to the humans it was made for.

The Bach example and these two additional examples emphasize a distinction I believe is vital—that the art-making not exist separately, but within a sense of motivation and meaning that holds the community together and that transcends the art itself. As my friend Ishmael Wallace put it, this involves not only artist and audience but a third presence: their union itself.

If the art I create stays too much within a circle of fellow creators, the well of joy and motivation too easily dries up.

Professional sharing within a given domain, such as new music, is vital; without the support and companionship of fellow composers and performers, I could not have become the composer I now am. But for me, if the art I create stays too much within that circle of fellow creators, the well of joy and motivation too easily dries up.

If I ruled the world, I’d put every kind of art — cooking, gardening, painting, talking, singing, and so on — into contexts where it naturally serves something beyond itself. I believe we should find ways for artists and their audiences, two complimentary energies and interests, to interact closely with each other for mutual expansion and learning.

Likewise in every domain, from science to health to economics: not only experts talking to other experts in secret languages, as sustaining and necessary as that is, but also experts talking to lay people, translating and transferring their knowledge constantly and clearly. That helps us all to understand the complex and subtle things of life as far as we’re able, and to make better decisions as a society.

If I ruled the world, I’d put every kind of art — cooking, gardening, painting, talking, singing, and so on — into contexts where it naturally serves something beyond itself.

I think the relationship of expert to layperson, artist to audience, works well when the expert or artist acts, somewhat like Bach, in the role of servant to the served. In that context the art or subject matter naturally takes on and communicates things of emotional and personal meaning, naturally connects directly with regular, everyday people who themselves do not want to make that thing. While I also believe that everyone who wants to should have the opportunity to make art in the domains that inspire them, this does not mean everyone needs to or wants to become a professional in a given domain. I cannot bake an incredible loaf of bread, and it’s not something I feel a passion to learn. But I am grateful to enjoy one made for me by a skilled expert. The more I can connect with other people with a complimentary energy to my own in a given domain — to be the audience to an expert, or to serve as an expert and artist to an audience — the better.

Three different loaves of grain bread from Franziskaner bakery in Bozen, Italy.

Franziskaner-loaf and rye whole-grain tin loaf baked by Franziskaner bakery in Bozen, Italy. (Photo by Wesual Click on Unsplash.)

I am excited to find more ways to grow art this way: organically, in small gardens, perhaps without the fertilizers of commissions, fundraising, patronage, or crowdfunding.

I think the relationship of artist to audience, works well when the artist acts in the role of servant to the served.

In all three examples I love how closely the art and its communities are woven around and within each other, the intense bonds between creators and appreciators (and those who are both).​ I long for that kind of community, that kind of integration, where art is not separate.

Let’s Grow Art Online

Where can we find fertile soil to grow art in this way? I think the internet is a good place. If we’re using the internet in the right ways, we can be intimate with each other about things like politics and art. We can learn from those far away and those different from ourselves. We can build friendships with people we would never encounter otherwise. And we can do all this without the often-unseen biases and limitations of access that are imposed by physical place (over half the globe now has regular internet access… not nearly enough but growing quickly). I believe this must happen entirely away from ad-based social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. I suspect it works best in online spaces we make and control ourselves, at small scale, using simple tools.

In my upcoming posts I’ll talk about how I believe this can work well, and I’ll present two current projects in which I am beginning to build the kind of online community I have in mind.

Playing the Changes: The Transition from Professor to Student (My First Year as a Composition Major)

A photo taken of a person's legs in heans ad sneakers, holding a black backpack

Imagine you have a master’s degree in music performance from a long time ago and, alongside many exciting musical adventures since, you’ve taught at the college level for eight years (adjunct with full-time hours—you know the drill, you absolutely adore teaching and the students but the money is miserable). Looking at this situation, you … decide to quit teaching and go back to school across the country for a master’s degree in music composition!

It’s hard to imagine, right? You’d have to be completely bonkers to make that kind of a decision.

“I could never go back to school after teaching,” said many wonderful professors who used to be my colleagues.

So why did I do it?

Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, 2012

Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, 2012

I started writing music when I was 30, and by the age of 36, my composing career was soaring. I loved writing music just as much as I loved performing and teaching. I knew I would never be bumped up to full-time at my university, and even after eight years, my pay couldn’t go up because I only had a master’s degree. Despite working as a freelance percussionist, curating concerts, writing music, and teaching, I still was hardly making enough money to get by. I was wonderfully happy in the Atlanta music scene and had established amazing friendships there, especially with the members of my chamber rock band. I had developed a life there, but it was time to leave. I was ready to take a step down in order to take a step up. I had to do something to make a better and brighter future for myself. The goal was to earn a master’s in composition to get my skills up to par, and then continue on to a DMA in composition so I would have The Piece of Paper that would allow me to teach at a college again—at a higher salary level. It’s a completely risky endeavor with no guarantees, but it’s the choice I made. And I’m happy I did. I now hold a master’s degree in composition and will be starting a DMA in composition at the University of Miami next month. I’m looking forward to the journey, no matter where it takes me.

First, though, allow me to back up two years. There I was, beginning my first semester as a new student, living in the graduate dorms with roommates—two 21-year-old German exchange students, who were hilarious and noisy and wild. Right away I embraced everything about student life, and that part of college made me very happy. My classmates became my dear friends, even though most of my new friends were the age of the students I used to teach. I learned all the cool millennial slang words. I had FUN. I took free bus rides to Brewers games, ate tons of free pizza, played in percussion ensemble and band, taught part of an online music theory class, fixed bongos and organized the percussion studio, took classes in theory and analysis and writing, studied with two different composition faculty members, heard the University Band play one of my pieces, and wrote a ton of music—including my first piece with electronics in it. I was much more focused in my classes than I was during my first master’s degree; I wanted to soak up all the new knowledge and experience that I could. I remembered what it was like to be completely bored in class, and how invigorating it was to be in the classroom with an enthusiastic teacher who made the subject matter come alive.

UWM Band Rehearses Universe

UWM Band Rehearses …and then the Universe exploded

I juggled a professional composing career on top of everything. My assistantship was split in half; I was both a theory TA and the percussion TA. The percussion majors were kind to me from the very first day. They brought me right into the fold and never treated me like I was “old.” Everybody thought I was in my twenties, until I told them otherwise. They were fun, talented people, and playing music with them was a joy. The performance majors in general were absolutely delightful and played my music with enthusiasm. Some of these folks will be lifelong friends and musical collaborators.

So that’s some of the FUN STUFF, but here’s the kicker. The transition from professor to student, from mostly-performer to mostly-composer, from professional in my field to student in my field (while remaining a professional) was difficult and awkward that whole first year, and especially the first semester. Five months prior, my music professors would have been my colleagues. But once I started school, I would rarely be treated like a colleague again. A few of my professors took the time to talk with me early on, and learned about my background and treated me with respect, just as I treated them, and we have great relationships. I’m so thankful for them! But most professors saw that I played in band and assumed I was a new graduate percussion major. There was a lot of assuming.

My friends and mentors were lifesavers to me during this time. A few friends from Atlanta, who were passing through town at different times, came to visit me. I was recharging myself in Chicago once a month, taking composition lessons with one of my dearest friends and favorite composers. I brought him all the music I was writing professionally, outside of school. His joyful spirit and the fact that he loved my music really lifted me up. He introduced me to one of his composition students, who saved my sanity and became a very close friend. I wouldn’t have made it through that first year without the both of them.

I was accustomed to being loved, to being known and knowing others, in my old life. There was so much mutual admiration in the Atlanta music scene. I really tried to be graceful about existing in Milwaukee, a brand new space where most people didn’t know or care about my previous 15 years as a professional musician. “They’ll figure out I’m a pro percussionist by listening to me play,” I thought. “They’ll figure out I’m a legitimate composer once they hear my music.” Still, I confess that there were days when I wanted to wear a bright green t-shirt with flashing Christmas lights on it that said in red lettering I’M 37 AND I TAUGHT COLLEGE FOR EIGHT YEARS AND WAS CO-FOUNDER AND CO-DIRECTOR OF TWO CONTEMPORARY MUSIC FESTIVALS AMONG MANY OTHER ACCOMPLISHMENTS on the front and GO TO MY (SWEAR WORD) WEBSITE AND YOU’LL SEE MY MUSIC IS PERFORMED REGULARLY ALL OVER THE COUNTRY SO STOP TREATING ME LIKE I’M AN INEXPERIENCED 22 YEAR OLD on the back, but I didn’t. I felt incredibly childish about my inner reaction. I wanted to be cool about it, on the inside and the outside. Well-meaning friends said things to me like, “Your identity is no different. You’re just in a new environment.” Easy to say when you’re living in the same environment you’ve lived in for a decade or more. The truth is, the only other time I’ve had an identity shift that intense was when I got divorced. It was hard, and weird, and very isolating.

Yet there were so many good parts to the weirdness. After performing with only professionals for ages, I got to play in a college percussion ensemble again, which was wonderful fun and so much easier than directing a college percussion ensemble! All I had to do was learn my music and show up to rehearsal to play. In rehearsals, I learned to disengage (as best I could) from Teacher Mode. I instead just sat back and enjoyed playing music with my classmates. Since I knew I’d most likely only be in the city for two years, I chose not to get my feet wet in the Milwaukee music scene outside of school, but I met some area musicians who became friends. I desperately missed playing music with proper professionals, and that was difficult. I felt isolated from the performance faculty; I felt like they were my colleagues, but not many of them felt the same way. I learned to accept that I’d be playing less because I was composing more, and that I would probably lose some of my chops. I developed some extra long-term patience, figuring out that these two major transitions: professor to student, performer-composer to composer-performer, would take time. Thankfully I had another year of grad school ahead!

It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die

A photo of a skeleton with left arm raised so that the left hand is close to the mouth


There comes a point in some abusive relationships where the victim wakes up out of their Stockholm syndrome and learns that they need to plan an escape. As you communicate with others and you get a taste of freedom, you learn that the force you thought was protecting you is in truth keeping you in danger.

For those who haven’t encountered abusive relationships, you may support the abuser, or wonder why the victim doesn’t just leave. But you don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where you can’t tell truth from myth.

For the victims who aren’t ready, you may have an urge to push away those of us seeking to help you and stay with your abuser, believing them to be a source of protection.

Unfortunately, not everyone can escape. But having the knowledge that your abuser is an abuser itself can be freeing. It can help you find the next step in your journey towards liberation. But you need a community to fall back on. You need people to talk to so that they can keep you safe, so that they can help you understand the truth, and so that they can teach you the abuser’s techniques and how to fight them.

My fellow musicians of color: it is time to accept that we are in an abusive relationship with classical music.

My fellow musicians of color: it is time to accept that we are in an abusive relationship with classical music.

Classical Music is Inherently Racist

In my previous articles, I laid out my experiences and reasoning for coming to this conclusion. I started with “Am I Not a Minority?” to explain the everyday racism people of color experience and how it manifests on an institutional level. If you haven’t read it already, I encourage you to explore how institutions uphold their power by choosing which minorities to give access to.

The few scraps given to minorities are overwhelmingly white–occupied by white cisgender women or LGBT+ individuals. The few PoC who are given access to institutional space are most often light skinned and non-Black while also exoticised and tokenised.

And that led me to my second article, “Escaping the Mold of Oriental Fantasy“–a personal history of isolation and colonization, of how Western classical music participates in the act of destroying culture and replaces it with its own white supremacist narrative.

Finally, I shared my attempts at reviving my culture and my tradition, along with the barriers I faced on this journey. My third article, “I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way,” chronicles the difficulties (and the near impossibility) of engaging with my own cultural musical practices in a proper, authentic way.

From three angles I shared my attempts at being an authentic composer. These articles bring to light the many ways in which the dreams of low-income people of color are obstructed in the Western classical tradition.

Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness.

Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness. It’s a combination of European traditions which serve the specious belief that whiteness has a culture—one that is superior to all others. Its main purpose is to be a cultural anchor for the myth of white supremacy. In that regard, people of color can never truly be pioneers of Western classical music. The best we can be are exotic guests: entertainment for the white audiences and an example of how Western classical music is more elite than the cultures of people of color.

A screenshot of an Instagram image from @Nikyatu with the caption "Diversity panels be like:". The image shows a series of folders and in front of it is a label that reads "TRUSTWORTHY WHITEStm 40 of our best whites"

What to Do About Our Love for Classical Music?

It’s not uncommon to love your abuser. I know the experience, and can understand how hard it is to leave. Despite all that classical music has done to me, I still can’t help but marvel at the religious splendor of Bach’s works for organ. Nor can I help but weep at Tchaikovsky’s raw expressive power.

I will forever love my favorite composers. It is possible to be critical about the way classical music is treated and to adore the individual works which inspire you at the same time. I am not making a judgment call on specific works in the canon, but instead their function in modern classical music institutions

It is possible to be critical about the way classical music is treated and to adore the individual works which inspire you at the same time.

And there is still the question of what to do about the skills these composers taught us.

I would like to return to the analogy of the abusive relationship.

Many of us have learned a lot from our abusers. Some abusers are even our parents. Their abuse can follow you wherever you go, and escaping them entirely may be impossible. Whether we like it or not, we are forever changed by our abuse.

This abuse can appear as a scar. We will need each other to heal from the trauma. But we also need to survive and nurture the spirit which requires us to create.

While most composers of color are responding to a calling, that calling is to create artwork in our own voices not to behold ourselves to the social construct of Western classical music.

We can do that using the tools we learned as classical composers without contributing to our own abuse. As I shared in my previous article, we can get to a better understanding of our own cultural traditions little by little if we just start exploring.

In order to leave our abusive relationship, we need a community.

It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die

Western classical music depends on people of color to uphold its facade as a modern, progressive institution so that it can remain powerful. By controlling the ways in which composers are financed, it can feel like our only opportunities for financial success as composers are by playing the game of these institutions.

It’s time for us to recognize that engaging with these institutions, that contributing to the belief that our participation in composer diversity initiatives is doing anything to reshape the institution of classical music, and that classical music is an agent of cultural change instead of a placeholder to prevent composers of color from forming our own cultures, is ultimately furthering colonization and prevents us from creating artwork capable of real, genuine expression.

Writing for an audience of rich white people is no longer a priority of mine.

Writing for an audience of rich white people is no longer a priority of mine. Instead, I want to create music for my community. Instead of contributing to white culture and helping them erase my own narrative, I want to use my ability to create art to keep my culture alive.

As long as people of color are making art, culture stays alive.

This mission is entirely against the nature of white supremacy, which seeks to replace non-white cultures with their own fantasies. Therefore, I will not find support in this endeavor.

Let’s Create Art for Our Own Communities

My fellow musicians of color, we need each other. While I wish to break away completely from this system that I have poured my soul into only to be diagnosed with PTSD in return, I admit that we can never fully break from classical music as long as capitalism exists.

White gatekeepers still control funding. And we are fortunate enough to have a few allies in these positions. We will need to cooperate in order to stay afloat. It is possible to engage without inflicting cultural harm. Simply knowing when you’re being tokenized is a major step in the direction towards decolonization.

Simply knowing when you’re being tokenized is a major step in the direction towards decolonization.

But while we’re getting our funding, we need to create our own communities. We need to find each other and make music together. We need to ally ourselves with artists from all walks of life in order to create the cultures whiteness has tried to take from us.

We have a massive task ahead of us. It’s not easy to connect ourselves, much less to connect our art and experiences to our own communities. But I believe that we were called to music for that purpose, not to entertain elite guests.

What Does a Post-Classical Community Look Like?

I am not advocating for the formation of a formalized group. Formalizing ourselves runs the risk of trapping ourselves within the nonprofit industrial complex. It’s essentially using the tools of our oppressors to try to liberate ourselves. Instead, we need to look at how our cultures have historically gathered, and use active decolonization as a larger community to decide how we want to organize ourselves.

I have no clue what that coalition will look like. If it were possible for one individual to organize it, it would have been done already. But as the creative minds of our generation, I am sure we can find a solution so long as we start the conversation with the belief that a future free from the constraints of classical music is possible.

Imagining a Post-Classical World

Instead of stealing from other cultures to create a facade of white supremacy, cultures from around the world are able to present the endless beauty and infinite histories of our traditions.

This freedom will extend to everyone, including white musicians who will be more prepared to handle the traditional music and practices of their own ancestors. White musicians will come to realize that they have given up a lot to be white, and that they have a culture too that they can explore. White composers can spend time analyzing their own history and influences on that history – i.e. Gregorian chants and their influence from the Middle East; Pagan and other minority religions; minority histories within Europe; or traditional Celtic, Greek, and Italian music. A lot of has been explored in European tradition, but since the Romantic era, too many works have been explored from the belief that white Western culture is superior to all others. Abandoning this vantage point can lead white composers to explore a more nuanced, more accurate history than the one presented to us.

White classical musicians don’t need to take stories from other cultures.

White classical musicians don’t need to take stories from other cultures, they can go back to the point before they came to be known as white and collaborate with other composers to explore a more accurate history and culture of their own people.

This community, this coalition based on ideology, will be run as it always has: not by the ones with the most institutional power, but those with the least. We will no longer depend on white elites to fund diversity initiatives and hope it trickles down. Instead, we will be guided by the belief that when our most oppressed are liberated, we are all liberated.

I am referring specifically to LGBT+ Black women, who manage to successfully create these spaces every day. Everything I have learned about social justice is rooted in Black liberation work by LGBT+ Black women, and it is time that we as non-Black people of color and other allies recognize that our liberation will not come without theirs.

My Plan

I have pondered on how to bring this community to fruition. It is something I have struggled with, and I want to share ways I am personally and professionally mitigating it.

Not much action needs to change upon this realization. I am still accepting commissions and am still looking for a future learning with other composers and even applying to graduate school.

By knowing how Western classical music treats me and composers like me, I do not want to limit myself and my opportunities, and I don’t think I have to. I believe you can participate in this system to get what you need without actively declaring yourself a member.

You can participate in this system to get what you need without actively declaring yourself a member.

I have gotten through the cognitive dissonance of calling for a break from classical institutions and working with them through viewing myself as someone who is outside of their system and viewing other gatekeepers in classical music not as friends or peers, but as clients who can help me in my career.

This way, I get what I need from them to further my career without putting myself in danger.

This way of thinking is a stark departure from a practice of making your clients your best friends. Many of the musicians I know interact with no one else but their circle of colleagues. I personally find that practice to be a way of implicitly making people of color feel unsafe and unwelcome. By keeping my distance, I not only keep my mental health under control, but I also get the chance to connect with my own communities and give them access to an art they never thought they needed.

Other musicians have taken different paths. Some people create community in their universities, some manipulate their positions of tokenism, and others work to find and heal with as many musicians of color as possible. You need to find what is best for you, and work with your community so that everyone is working to build and defend this coalition with their strengths.


Our movement will still have white allies present. There are those (although very few) who are willing to put themselves in danger and go against the institutions. Others are willing to work within institutions to protect and defend us people of color as we create our coalition. There are already those ready to leverage their privilege to establish a more equitable future. Because they too have learned that they will not be liberated unless everyone is liberated.

While some might argue that this coalition is impossible, that it will be stopped or that change from within is more likely, I would like to point out that this process is already happening.

People of color are done being tokens and our calling to create is not being fulfilled. We are already connecting with communities and building a future free from the confines of our boxed-in genre. Every day, people of color are conversing with each other about possible ways to combat racism in the field of music, and these coalitions form as a natural result.

In a world where we are surrounded by whiteness, we need the courage to share our voices and speak the truth.

My hope with this article is to put a name to this process. I want to use whatever platform I access to connect with musicians of color. Whiteness gentrifies, and that means that we will have white ears in the room. This article, for example, is going to be read by many white people before other people of color have a chance to read the message. But in a world where we are surrounded by whiteness, we need the courage to share our voices and speak the truth no matter how much the white institutions disapprove of our message.

If just one musician of color finds hope and inspiration to work towards a future independent of the institutions they now recognize as their abusers, I will have done my job.

So my fellow musicians of color, please reach out to me, and let’s build a future where we are liberated.

I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way

An historic drawing of a group of five Aleppo musicians performing on (from left to right) a daff, a saz, a ney, a kamancheh, and a pair of naqqāra


On March 21, 2019, Google released their first ­­­­AI powered doodle to celebrate the birthday of J.S. Bach. The AI was charged with the task of recreating a Bach harmonization of any given melody through analyzing over 300 Bach chorales. A learned musician might scoff at this idea on the premise that this is now how you learn music. But in the arrogant scoffs toward the machine’s ignorance, the musical elite forget the magic of what happened. Something which had no way to learn Bach previously, now has the ability to create art.

Do all the results sound like Bach? No, it still wasn’t the “right” way to learn and technology doesn’t have the capacity to learn functional Baroque harmony yet. But the machine knew its goal and every so often, it got close.

I spent my whole day on that machine–testing its abilities with a wide array of melodies. I spent hours exploring how the AI handled themes from Die Kunst Der Fuge and comparing its results to my own melodies. I witnessed a machine become a composer at its first opening of opportunity. Technology, which never had the option to compose in the style of Bach before, made its first steps into creating art in a style of its choosing.

I relate more to this AI than I do to theorists and academics who laud pedigree, process, and a more perfect pedagogy. I too am collecting information about an artform I cannot learn “correctly” and am creating new, more “incorrect” art by learning through whatever bits and pieces I may find.

Moving Away From Classical Music

I create music in a hostile atmosphere which will never give my voice the home it deserves.

I was never fond of the New Music scene (or whatever semblance of a scene it may have). I already discussed the racial violence and orientalism/otherism Middle Eastern and North African, along with Black and other PoC, musicians face. I create music in a hostile atmosphere which will never give my voice the home it deserves.

I started to realize in college that I was limiting myself and my potential by staying in the classical field. Instead of wasting my time educating others on the basics of inequality, I could instead collaborate with like-minded artists to create artwork that best expresses what we want to share.

I needed to be around individuals who challenged me to be better, and surrounding myself by musicians who don’t know how racism works or how to even communicate with a person of color wasn’t doing it. I needed to find artists I can work with outside the realm of Classical music.

As the realization that Classical music has and always will be racist in its core sat in, I admit that I felt weak. My love for Classical music was one-sided. If I wanted a future as a musician, I couldn’t be loyal to that one genre. I realized that my relationship with the field was abusive. I gave it all I could, and was spat on in return.

Classical music has and always will be racist in its core.

I discovered that, if it weren’t for colonization, I would be studying my own culture’s music. And would probably have more success as an artist. So I took my Bachelors of Music degree and set out on my next journey: to learn the musical tradition of my own people.

A score sample showing a melody transcribed into Western staff notation.

Reconnecting with My Culture

I am one of the lucky immigrant children. We still had family in Lebanon who we would visit. We stayed connected to our roots. While I’m not fluent in Arabic, nor can I read it well, I at least know the basics and can hold a conversation. Barring the language barrier, I managed to learn the basics of oud in Lebanon, and heard a concert there.

My ability to research Middle Eastern traditional music is limited.

But my ability to research Middle Eastern traditional music is limited. I was the only artist in the family, everyone else being working class folks who only knew baladi. There were songs I grew up with, sung by Fairouz and Umm Kulthum. I knew the Rahbani brothers, but didn’t know the names of any other composers. After all, it’s the singers we talk about in conversation, rarely the composers.

And while I was connected to people through my family, I cannot say that I feel welcome or comfortable speaking to everyone. Lebanon, like anywhere else, has a spectrum of beliefs between leftist, liberal, and conservative. And these beliefs also tend to vary depending on the region. Navigating those beliefs while growing up in a different culture means that I’m not as able to connect as quickly and easily as I would like to others in my community. Navigating issues like homophobia, language barriers, and religious differences in a manner that is safe is necessary before building community.

As I said in my previous article, colonization takes a culture’s beliefs and indoctrinates the populace so that the colonizer’s beliefs replace those of the colonized. My family didn’t know a lot about our own culture and subscribed to the belief that Western classical music was a higher form than their own music. They knew we had a classical tradition, but couldn’t help me get closer to what it was.

A reproduction of an image from a 1994 manuscript featuring a drawing of the musician Sadiq Ali Khan performing on a rebab as well as two other annotated drawings of a rebab with extensive text, in Arabic.

Initial Research

I started off a lot like that Bach AI. I was broke, needed to work as much as possible to stay afloat, and didn’t have any connections. I knew what the right way to learn was. I wanted to find a teacher or go study at a summer institute or even a school. But those options weren’t available to me.

But I also wasn’t going to let colonization win. I needed to learn however I could.

I didn’t have the lesson plan or the pedagogy. But I had a few hundred songs, a few singers, and the internet. Like the doodle, I also started with a tiny sample of a much larger, broader style. I spent hours, days, and months studying these scores. I found a website called maqamworld and I compared all the music I could find to these maqamat.

I spent all my free time, gathering these bits and pieces, trying to recreate this style like an AI.

My Limitations

I did all the research I could, but it cannot be understated how limited that time was. As soon as I graduated, I struggled to find a job. I looked around for freelance work and took whatever jobs I could.

I battled mental illness, and it didn’t really go away. A year after graduation, I talked to a psychiatrist and found out that my post-grad depression was actually PTSD. Taking care of my mental illness is itself a job.

I worked on my credit ratings and applied for a dozen credit cards. Lacking any jobs or credit, I had to use a new credit card to buy a used car. It wasn’t a lot, and I had a plan to pay it off before the 0% APR plan expired. But then I got in a car accident. And after that I was forced to leave an abusive job.

In this entire mess, I was constantly shifting between 2-3 jobs. Now I’m glad I found some stability, but a freelance workload is still not easy. Occasionally, I would add a retail job here and there.

(Some might also argue that composition is not a job, but my mental illness doesn’t care. Labor is labor, and my spoons are spent.)

All of this is to say that I’m chronically exhausted. And not just exhausted but stressed from poverty. After working more hours than full time, I still am barely paying my bills, barely covering my debts, and have almost nothing to spend for myself. And on top of all that, I still have PTSD, which means that I need to work at about half of what I’m doing now to stay healthy.

I’m sharing this information because it is a huge deterrent to learning things the right way. It means that not only can I not afford a teacher, but I can’t afford to take time off to see people’s workshops, to meet and network, to go to concerts, or do almost anything a composer does to build a career. I manage to sneak these things in when I can, but it’s very limiting.

The effects of poverty are exacerbated by my language. I would be able to learn Middle Eastern music theory much more easily if I knew Arabic. But I don’t know it well enough to study books and resources, so I’m stuck with maqamworld – which is an amazing first step, but doesn’t get you to where five terms of Western music theory would.

While colonization kept my family from knowing and believing in their culture, it kept me from being able to finance an education of my own heritage, and deprived me of the very tongue needed to speak and understand my culture. All of these limitations made learning my culture’s music properly impossible.

An historic photo of 3 Aleppo musicians performing (from left to right) on some sort of not completely identfiable frame drum, an oud, and a ney

Feeding the AI

LGBT+ composers of color might be pretty discouraged by now. If it’s not poverty, it’s sexism, if it’s not sexism, it’s homophobia, if not homophobia, racism. And I haven’t even touched on the unique issues transgender and non-binary PoC face. Or how the field is also uncaring to disabled people or that everyone’s ignoring some serious fatphobia. For minorities who face oppression from many angles, being a musician can be deadly.

For minorities who face oppression from many angles, being a musician can be deadly.

But our work is not futile. We just have to find a different path. We need to carefully think about the people who recommend us a “correct” path and recognize when those are unavailable to us. Classical music is designed to keep QPOC out, so following a traditional route means we walk right into its trap.

But we still run into the problem that learning however we can will result in something that doesn’t quite make the mark.

And that’s okay.

After I fed my AI on all the Middle Eastern music I can find, I set out to compose a piece free of unwanted Western influence. I failed with that goal, but with whatever knowledge I could, I created a piece that’s not quite traditional Middle Eastern music, but it’s also not classical either.

These conditions led me to create a piece I’m most proud of: Decolonized Arabesques.

Sure, the piece has influences from both traditions, but that doesn’t make it part of those traditions. Instead, my work came out with something entirely different. Just like the Bach AI as it gathered its own style trying to become Bach, I found a personal style trying to reject what I learned and strive for a pre-colonized ideal of what my music should be.


It still hurts, and will always hurt, that I will never be able to shake the violence Western culture has done to my culture and my discovery of it. But just because I speak English does not mean that I can’t speak about my culture. Just because I’m in the U.S. does not mean I’m not Lebanese, and just because my music resembles a Western style does not mean that it is not 100% Middle Eastern.

The voices of minorities with a colonial scar on their sound are capable of creating amazing, new, and awe-inspiring music.

Every composer has a personal voice, and the voices of minorities with a colonial scar on their sound are capable of creating amazing, new, and awe-inspiring music. We just need the support of our colleagues from all walks of life. The fringes of New Music, visual artists who love to collaborate, our friends and family back home, multi-media artists and curators. It is time we recognize that we are people free of a social order instead of begging for acceptance from classical musicians who can never love us for who we are.

Structure and Freedom in Collaboration (A.k.a. The Incomplete Non-Idiot’s Guide to Workshopping with Musicians)

A shadow image of two performers, one cellist and one pianist

Early on in my career, I made the mistake of writing a lot of very melodic music for performers who were more predisposed to Berio than to Berlioz. Despite everyone’s optimism and best efforts, these projects were usually stressful and rarely among my most successful.

I used to think, perhaps narcissistically, that it was exclusively the job of the players I was working with to make my music sound good—that I should write whatever my little composer heart saw fit and then leave it to them to figure it out. We are, after all, taught in class that Bach is God and that musicians are the vessels through which the deity speaks. These early projects, however, taught me that in the real world the reverse is often true, and that it’s a huge part of YOUR job, if not literally the entire job, to write something that will make the players you are working with sound great. Ideally if you are successful in doing that, you will make yourself sound far better in the process as well.

There’s a lot that can go right and wrong when collaborating with musicians in pursuit of the above. However, I’ve found for myself that there are a lot of consistent questions to ask and methods to employ along that winding road to hopefully making “Good Art” that can increase one’s chances of staying the course. Ultimately a lot is common sense and falls under a consistent umbrella: you will never be wasting time by really getting to know your players, writing for them specifically, considering the specific parameters of the project, being sure of what you want to do while remaining open to input and creative detours, and experimenting with techniques to make all that happen.

For me the solution to the above, besides planning well early on, has been to workshop music I’m working on extensively with musicians while learning to be a good collaborator—a lifelong undertaking in itself.


Before getting there, however, there are a lot of obvious questions to be asked about who I’m writing for, what their aesthetic comfort zone is and how it relates to my own, what the circumstances of the performance/session are, how many rehearsals you get, whether it’s a pick up group or not, as well as the most interesting one: is this a player(s) who wants to be challenged or not? Some musicians will get bored if you’re not writing something that stretches them. Others may feel best about music that’s easy to keep alive in their fingertips. No one wants to put the time in to play something well that they don’t feel “fits them.” For me the most exciting things always happen when you’re working with players you can push a little beyond their comfort zones and who can push you past yours.

Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.

I am a huge believer in workshops if you can do them, because they’re really the best way to get into the weeds with a piece of music and collaborator(s). If you’re writing something good, you can file that away and develop it. If you are writing something stupid, they’re a great chance to pretend that never happened and course correct. Overall they’re invaluable opportunities to try things on your “growing edge” while getting to know the strengths, styles, and limitations of the people you’re working with and figuring out how to mold your writing to their hands. This does not mean sacrificing your voice, so much as playing with how it can be bent and expanded and trying things that you don’t already know how to do, which I’ve found always leads to better and more interesting pieces than I could have written alone with Sibelius. Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.

For workshops to be successful, I’ve found that doing three is best. One with early sketches, one about 1/2 – 2/3 of the way through the composing process, and one when you are almost finished to fine-tune. They are always short (musicians are busy), I record them, and in planning for them, aim to be over prepared but leave space for sounds and ideas that are unexpected to emerge. A balance between order and chaos.

The order side is easy: parts need to be clean, any technical electronic elements must be road-tested, and the writing must be well-developed/written enough that players can feel the bones of what you are trying to say. And you should have some idea of how you want to structure and lead rehearsals, since some material is invariably better approached “cold” than others. I try to start with something easy that I know will work. You should also be as sure as you can that you’re writing idiomatically, since no matter how keen you are to expand the possibilities of the harp, if your harpist is tap dancing all over the place because she needs to be some sort of eight-footed octopus to cover her pedal changes (I know, I know, harps only have 7 pedals), you’re both going to sound like garbage. And not in the cool Shirley Manson way.

Facilitating the unexpected is harder and in itself an endlessly broad subject, but to get there some of the things I try include:

Giving players a few looping musical “cells” from the piece to improvise with, or perhaps leaving some holes or incomplete endings in musical phrases (ones that feel as though they could be jumping off points), then asking them where it “feels” (excuse the flowery language) like it wants to go. Even if they’re not improvisers, musicians obviously have a deeper and more intuitive grasp of their instrument than you do and sometimes just hearing where their hands wander naturally can give you a sense for how to better tailor your writing to their instrument and personal playing style, while still keeping it within your own language.

Coming in with specific techniques that you are interested in exploring that feel as though they could fit the music you are writing, even if they’re not developed, has also proven useful for me. Sometimes I’ll have the earliest sections of a piece formed, and then ideas for some more bombastic moments later on that I don’t yet know how to pull off. Putting some half-realized stabs at them on a page to give the general sense (something like the rough under-painting a painter might do), and then honing the details from there with a great player’s input has proven productive.

I tried all of the above, for one, with violinist Jenny Choi, who—after telling me that it felt like a section of my solo piece for her wanted to open up—gave me a crash course in barriolages before I really knew how to write them well and was a great cheerleader who encouraged me to follow the lines of what I was writing as far as I could take them. I did something similar with a piece for harpist Ashley Jackson, wherein I wanted to try some more folksy, virtuosic, uptempo writing that I wanted to explode off the page. In both cases, I had specific techniques that I wanted to try and vague ideas of where to place them, and through fumbling around in the dark was able to put all the pieces together and find moments for them to really take off. Had it not been for the input of those players, the music I wrote would sound vastly more closed off.

This also takes different forms when working with rock bands—a different, but related story. Players from this world improvise by nature, so balancing space and structure in a musical road map becomes even more important. You have to know exactly where you want to go in the big picture sense, while being open to how you get there with the details. In approaching how to work on my own record, for example, some things I tried included: bringing in a sketch of a melody or lead line and asking players to embellish, demoing a synth sound/part myself to establish a general direction and then having someone else work around or replace that, or literally just building in space for a band to jump on some sort of groove and build out an arrangement collaboratively. David Bottrill, who I co-produced my project with, also had some great tricks, my favorite of which was sitting on the floor and changing guitar pedal settings mid-performance to see if that sparked anything unexpected. It usually did.

Ultimately, it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth.

In all instances the material you are working from has to be something that feels open-ended rather than resolved, as though it could “lead somewhere.” It’s a hard line to navigate: come in with nothing/too little and players won’t know what to do. Come in with too much, and they won’t have space to try anything and will get bored.

Ultimately—and here’s where we all say ‘kum ba yah’—it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth—sentiments that were missing from those early, rocky projects of mine. Partnerships between composers and musicians work best when both parties feel stretched and challenged, everyone is receptive to ideas but in control of their voice and what they want to say, no one should be pandering or selling their ideas or talents short, and the end result is something that’s been executed well that everyone feels pride in/ownership of. It’s often messy, and along the way there are conversations about whether you should be writing to please yourself or other people, how exactly you are supposed to get there, and when to push people and when not to, all of which require different answers project by project. The hard part is knowing which is which, what the players you are working with are capable of, and what you are capable of yourself.