Category: Columns

Escaping the Mold of Oriental Fantasy

A round, stringed instrument


“How are you going to become a composer?” My uncle said angrily, “No Lebanese person has done it. Why you?”[1]

I was sitting in the baranda of my teta’s (grandmother’s) home in the Lebanese mountains. I finished my junior year of high school and made the unalterable decision to study composition in college. It was nighttime. The family gathered to chat while my teta cut peaches for us from Jido’s (grandfather’s) farm.

Being the first generation to study in the U.S. in my immediate family, I had the rare privilege of deciding what I wanted to study.

In our culture, I had the responsibility to craft a future where I can continue accumulating wealth (and therefore stability and opportunity) for future generations of my family. In that regard, pursuing the arts was akin to refusing this responsibility. This decision caused my uncle to become tense.

“Then I’ll be the first,” I responded.

My family and I didn’t know any composers of Lebanese or Druze descent. We were all in uncharted territory.

“Hrmph,” my uncle scoffed. He reclined into his seat with eyes that clearly said “you’re making a mistake.”

An aerial view of Lebanon (photo by Nebal Maysaud)

As an aspiring composer, I knew the risks of what I was getting into. I knew that there were thousands of people like me, and that my success as a composer is not guaranteed, no matter how good I was. But I also knew that I didn’t have a choice. I had a radical something that needed to be expressed, and music was the only way I could express it.

My parents got married in Lebanon in 1994 and moved to the U.S.A. in 1995 when my mom was pregnant with me. She was 19. My father would get up to work at 3:00 a.m., and wouldn’t come home until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. My mom spent equally long days between work and caring for three children.

My parents couldn’t afford to give me lessons, or take time off work to see me perform, and were skeptical, if not hostile, toward my decision to enter a field they knew nothing about. Other musicians my age had the resources and support they needed to succeed while I had to navigate my artistic passion alone. This discrepancy between myself and my journey, and other upper class composers only grew with age.

I also had very few friends in high school, and frankly a lot of it was a blur due to my PTSD. But I distinctly remember my music being there when I had no one to confide in. Music became my life, and I had no choice but to create.

If I fail, I will be used as an example of why no one else should attempt to become an artist.

Despite everything working against me, I decided that I must pursue music as a professional. And I hold that same spirit today. As the first one in my family to major in the arts, I have a lot of eyes on me. If I fail, I will be used as an example of why no one else should attempt to become an artist. But if I succeed, that success will provide hope and comfort to other aspiring artists in the family.

Despite all of these setbacks, I was (naively) comforted by the fact that there was a hole in the new music community. My experience as a queer Lebanese composer made me unique. I had the opportunity to authentically represent my culture through music.

As I grew older, I realized that the spots for Middle Eastern representation has been filled for a while. But not by the hundreds of Middle Eastern and North African composers and artists. Instead, our stories were being controlled, and even monopolized, by white composers.

How to Colonize a Culture

A culture can be defined through a people’s land, language, beliefs, food, or art. Colonization works by limiting access to these cultural markers while also rebranding them so that the colonizing force steals the culture of those they colonize and claims it as their own.

Colonization works by limiting access to cultural markers while also rebranding them.

In action, colonization works by invading or destroying land, criminalizing the native language, making it as difficult as possible to practice the colonized religion, and restricting access to ingredients needed for the colonized people to cook their own food while rebranding their recipes as the colonizers’ own.

But in this article, I want to focus on how white culture colonizes the Middle East through art, specifically music.

Composers Use Orientalism to Further Colonize Non-Western Cultures

Europe is not the only place with a classical music tradition. Every major culture in the world has a tradition of creating music that expresses the height of human achievement.

Every major culture in the world has a tradition of creating music that expresses the height of human achievement.

Yet much of the Western world pretends that they were the only ones to compose music beyond entertainment, and use other classical traditions not as a source of inspiration to grow together, but as a resource for stealing techniques and growing their own genre at the expense of other cultures.

An excerpt from Nebal Maysaud's composition A Psalm of David which references the style of Western appropriations of Middle Eastern music with the instruction "like an 18th century Viennese composer emulating a Janissary band he heard one time"

An excerpt from Nebal Maysaud’s composition A Psalm of David

Stealing Middle Eastern Stories

Abusers don’t have the right to tell the story of their victims. Even if it’s an attempt at reconciliation. Yet white composers have been writing about and critiquing stories from the Middle East for centuries.

Western composers always had a fascination with the exotic East. A place of magic and wonder, where strange people with strange customs create fascinating stories for audiences to gaze upon.

This narrative of an “other” whose purpose is to entertain the eyes of Westerners is very much in practice today. I see plenty of composers, some prominent, praised for writing music that references the Middle East.

And the music they compose makes no reference to Middle Eastern classical music. Because such a reference would concede that the Middle East has a classical tradition. Instead, they use a few cartoonish references to an exotic Arabian land of their own creation.

Abusers don’t have the right to tell the story of their victims. Even if it’s an attempt at reconciliation.

One example is the use of augmented seconds to represent the exotic. Or using the oboe to mimic a snake charmer or other Middle Eastern instruments. (What instruments they mimic, I don’t know. The oboe sounds nothing like any Middle Eastern or North African instrument that I know of.)

Or perhaps they compose a simple melody with an old style drum beat. Or try to mimic the Baladi by composing a flashy piece that has no substance or meaning, and is instead supposed to create the effect of an underdeveloped people dancing and performing a ritual.

Written down, these examples are obvious racist caricatures, but I still see them used today in pieces where composers are lauded for their activism.

And the stories they produced are not just exotic fun, but reinforce white supremacist beliefs about non-white people.

A meme which reads: "The audacity OF THE CAUCASITY"

Presenting the Middle East as “Barbaric”

White supremacists believe that the white race is the most advanced. Which means that non-white people are inherently less intelligent, less emotionally mature, and less civilized. In other words, white supremacists look at non-white people as a step in between them and barbarians.

In order for this ideology to stick, white supremacists need evidence. They don’t have truth, but they do have power, and they use their power to manipulate non-white cultures to make them appear as though they are more barbaric than white people.

The most common way to examine this phenomenon is to look at the Middle East’s track record with LGBT+ and women’s rights. After colonization, the Western powers supported conservative despots to increase instability in the region to prevent the area from becoming communist. The far right regimes they supported enacted some of the worst human rights abuses in the world.

I recognize that Middle Eastern politics is very complicated territory. And I can’t accurately state what happened in the Middle East within a paragraph. But the West’s attempt to impose itself on the region as an act of modern colonization is well documented and researched.

These human rights abuses are now used by the West as evidence of the Middle East’s backwards values. The West is more developed because women appear to have more freedom. By hiding the fact that these regimes were initially supported by the West, they create the unreal case that feminism is a Western value that the Middle East is too barbaric to enforce.

And composers love writing music “for” Middle Eastern women and minorities without their consent, and doing so by highlighting the abuse they receive and the toils of war. The trauma these regimes place on minorities is regularly displayed in a piece of music. The effect is something profound for white people, and triggering for minorities.

Never Ending War

The sound of war is a common theme for white composers to write about. But rarely is it handled with care and research. Rarely do these pieces consider the effects they have on the victims of war.

Rarely do pieces about war consider the effects they have on the victims of war.

I remember going to a concert with my mother, immediately feeling horrified when a piece about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon played and my mom was forced to hear the very same sounds of war she witnessed growing up. White people were amazed by the piece, while my mother and I were on the hinge of panic attacks due to this senseless trigger.

In all of these pieces, the message seems to be questioning why warring factions can’t get their acts together and stop fighting. They generally suggest that these victims need saving and it’s calling on their listeners (who are white since classical music audiences are almost always white) to act as white saviors and stop the violence through their charity. While coming from a meaningful place, this narrative saves no one and actually worsens the effects of white supremacy.

And these stories also act as barriers that keep Middle Eastern composers from telling our own stories. I am expected to continue praising white feminists for their work in writing about the trauma my people face, while stories by actual Middle Eastern women are largely ignored. Here we see Western classical music saving a space for Middle Eastern representation, but maintaining a white monopoly over its presentation.


These pieces may come from a desire to help, but they ultimately reinforce colonization. They reinforce the trope of the white savior. They spread harmful false messages about Middle Eastern values. They don’t reference Middle Eastern music or traditions, but instead incorporate cartoonish signifiers of racist caricatures. Ultimately, they are not Middle Eastern stories, just exotic displays masquerading as authentic work for the Middle East.

I spent my college years learning how to navigate this environment. In a desire to be authentic, I decided to expand my knowledge beyond the Western classical music world. I needed to explore the traditions of my own people’s music so that I can keep the Middle Eastern Classical tradition alive. As you will see in my next article, discovering one’s own culture can be extremely difficult in a colonized world.


1. I apologize for not making this point clear enough: When I was in high school, I didn’t know about the hundreds of Lebanese composers before (and after) me, nor did anyone else in my family. I was not trying to make a claim about being the only Lebanese composer. Instead I wanted to show how, even within our own communities, we can feel alone and isolated from our own traditions despite it being very much alive. As I grew older and started to discover more about my own tradition, I managed to find a thriving culture of Lebanese composers and musicians, but I had to look for them first.

Am I Not a Minority?

Hands on a piano, with a heart tattoo on the left hand.


Contemporary classical music is a field overrun with socially conscious and politically liberal musicians. Moreso, the community pays great attention to the need to increase diversity for minority composers, but do people of color see those benefits? If musicians today put so much effort into increasing diversity in their programming, then why are there so few composers of color? While white minority composers see progress, people of color are left behind.

The field of Western classical music as an institution suppresses Black and brown voices while utilizing tokenism to prevent public outcry and protest.

The Problem: Western Classical Music is Rooted in White Supremacy

This article isn’t just about me. I’m not asking for personal inclusion in a field of exclusivity. Instead, I’m hoping to use my experiences as a victim of racism to highlight the fundamental institutional abuses Western classical musicians sanction on composers of color.

The fact that this field needs greater diversity is no secret. Many prominent new music organizations express a yearning for more works by minority composers. But composers of color still face significant barriers in our careers despite the overwhelming public calls for good will.

This irony might seem baffling, but Western classical music’s history of white supremacy is so deeply entrenched within the institution that increased visibility will not be effective in liberating all minority composers. Instead, a complete restructuring of how we as contemporary classical musicians view classical music is necessary.

With this article, I express nothing new. Instead, I add my account of racist experience into the ever-growing library of minority musicians who have written similar accounts to how they perceived and reacted to their own oppressions within the field of classical music.

Western classical music’s history of white supremacy is so deeply entrenched within the institution.

Artists such as Anthony Green, whose article “What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers” provides a clear example of how new music communities continue to discourage Black composers from gaining stability and stature as new music composers. And Elizabeth Baker’s article, “Ain’t I a Woman Too?” Which was a direct influence on my article, and beautifully expressed many of my own frustrations with the lack of inclusive feminism in our white-centered musical landscape.

The information I present in this article is not new, but I’m hoping it will be expressed clearly enough to help my minority colleagues understand that they are not alone in their experiences, and for more privileged readers to better understand how deep classical music’s racism really is. This article will provide the background information needed to understand the remaining articles in this 4-part series, which will more carefully analyze issues such as orientalism, class, and resistance.

Far more composers are doing good work in building sustainable futures for minority artists than are listed here, and they are heroes building a new framework that is more inclusive and more freeing than classical music’s institutions will ever be. Just because these barriers exist in classical music to keep it as white as possible does not mean that we have to accept these truths and play within their system. In fact, I want to use the information I share in this article to argue that we can and should create something better.

The Myth of the Composer-Genius

One of my good friends and colleague Evan Williams has already written a wonderful article titled “The Myth of the Composer Genius,” which I encourage you read. Dr. Williams examines the cognitive dissonance between the belief of composers being artistic geniuses chosen by God to share their gifts with the world and the reality that composers get their skill through work, practice, and opportunity.

The romantic idea of the composer-genius has been successful in keeping Western classical music a whites-only field. The conflation of “genius” and “white man” means that no minority will be viewed as a real genius, and hence not a real composer.

The romantic idea of the composer-genius has been successful in keeping Western classical music a whites-only field.

While one can argue that the definition of genius is being expanded today to mean anyone, its expansion creates a top-down approach to breaking down these barriers. A top-down approach means that you grant access first to those with the most privilege and move down. Instead, Black feminists and their organizations such as the Combahee River Collective recommend a faster, more effective bottom-up approach. This method seeks to eliminate oppression by focusing on the most oppressed first, and is based on the understanding that when the most oppressed are liberated, then everyone above them is liberated as well.

Trickle-down Social Justice

The classical music field is squarely rooted in the top-down approach. And like trickle-down economics, the idea that liberation will trickle down by giving a few more opportunities to those at the top is ultimately a myth.

Like trickle-down economics, the idea that liberation will trickle down by giving a few more opportunities to those at the top is ultimately a myth.

This approach grants most opportunities for increased diversity and visibility to minorities with the most privilege. In a white supremacist society, that would be white minorities. Specifically, white women.

First let me say that women in general have an abysmal and unacceptable representation in the Western classical music field. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra examined the repertoire performed during the 2014-2015 concert season by 22 of the largest American Orchestras and found that only 1.8% of works were composed by women.

According to The Guardian, “New statistics have shown up the ‘inexcusable’ fact that only 76 classical concerts among 1,445 performed across the world from [2018] to 2019 include at least one piece by a woman.”

It’s possible that among new music chamber groups, the statistics might be better, but there is still an undeniable bias towards men in this field.

Many of you reading this article know these statistics. And maybe you are doing good work in commissioning and performing works by women composers. But structural oppression runs deep enough that heightened visibility will not close this gap quickly enough.

In order to have a full understanding of our landscape, we need find statistics on our most oppressed. Not only do we need statistics on women, but how about women of color? Non-binary composers? Non-binary or third gender composers of color? Black composers? Black women composers? LGBT+ Black women composers?

All of these minority groups, and more, deserve to be free enough to create artworks of their own. But as it stands, the only minority group being paid much attention (and even for them, it’s not enough) is made up of white women.

Where are the Statistics on Composers of Color?

Surely if I google “statistics on composers of color” I should be able to get some results. Instead I get more statistics on women composers. And here I find the perfect metaphor for how different minority groups are conflated.

Too many organizations behave in a manner that suggests helping one group of oppressed minorities will help everyone.

Too many organizations behave in a manner that suggests helping one group of oppressed minorities will help everyone. While it is true that increased opportunities for a single group can help expand others, that situation only occurs when the single group being supported is more oppressed than the other groups. For example, increased opportunities for Black women will lead to more opportunities for other women of color. But supporting white women will not have the same effect. This belief only works when taking a bottom-up view of decolonization, not for trickle-down social justice.

This is what I mean by trickle-down social justice. By making white minorities the center of diversity attention, you have a system where the pool of privileged folks utilizing the culture and labor of PoC is growing, enabling further oppression of those with the fewest means to success while claiming a progressive, anti-racist label.

In Western classical music, people of color are ignored because organizations believe that supporting white women is enough. But people of color have no reason to trust that white women will be any less racist than white men. Dr. Monica T. Williams explains this mistrust more deeply in her article, “How White Feminists Oppress Black Women: When Feminism Functions as White Supremacy,” pointing out that “True feminism has the power to transform society, but too often what is advanced as feminism is actually White supremacy in disguise – a counterfeit we sometimes call White Feminism.”

In Western classical music, people of color are ignored because organizations believe that supporting white women is enough.

The institutional barriers that keep composers of color from succeeding are worlds apart from the experiences of white women. And one shouldn’t invalidate the other. Anyone interested in expanding access to classical music education and careers to all minorities should be mindful of the institutional barriers that keep composers of color from succeeding and work to utilize their privileges to dismantle them.

A cartoon of a mother and child, both with text bubbles. Mother says, "Brahms could be worse, Calvin." And the child replies, "Brahms could be a lot better, too!" (Image taken from the Facebook Group “Art Music Memes for Wagner Hating Teens” with permission)

Image taken from the Facebook Group “Art Music Memes for Wagner Hating Teens” with permission

The Institutional Barriers that Keep Composers of Color from Succeeding

Not all people of color are the same. We each have our own successes and failures within this field. Some would argue that the current push for diversity supports their careers while others insist that current work is not enough.

I have observed a few patterns of behavior that many people of color face. These microaggressions are a few ways in which opportunities were kept from me and other people of color.

The classical music field does not value Black and brown voices. We exist as oriental decorations to the white-centered narrative which controls the space. Classical music institutions permit us as guests, but never equals.

Classical music institutions permit us as guests, but never equals.

Western classical music’s initiatives to diversify their compositions do not challenge the system’s white supremacist roots. Despite heavily influencing white cultures, PoC are rarely allowed our own space. Exceptions are made at the expense of tokenizing the few non-white composers they allow in their space.

In my experience, I’ve had to follow a set of unspoken rules if I want to be taken seriously as a Western classical musician.

1. I am not allowed to be too “radical” in Western classical music.
2. I must depend on white funding and institutional support for my projects.
3. I must work within an institution, never against it.
4. I must never express anger or resentment at my treatment.
5. I must remain calm when harassed by a white individual.

These unspoken rules silence people of color. At the same time, they allow us enough space to exist in the presence of white musicians. It creates a shield from criticism while upholding white supremacy. Musicians of color tend to face severe consequences if they hold contempt for one of these rules.

Rule #1: I am Not Allowed to Be Too “Radical”

Those with stature in classical music institutions claim that slow change is happening. Ultimately, they decide how much change they want to see in their institutions. If this change involves them losing their stature, or diminishing the meaning of their stature (which is necessary for our liberation), then it will be deemed too “radical” and will either be ignored or ridiculed.

As minorities, any ideas which do not fit the status quo are ignored. People of color are allowed to have (monitored) voices in this field, but they must have the approval of the larger, white audience to take root.

White musicians are allowed to follow whatever ideas for inclusion they want.

But white musicians do not need approval from people of color to express their ideas and are encouraged to steal the labor of musicians of color. White musicians are allowed to follow whatever ideas for inclusion they want.

I personally have seen my work and my ideas taken by a white man, who essentially claimed credit for the work I’ve done. This practice goes further into how we treat material, where white composers are comfortable taking stories and religions from non-white cultures and appropriating them in their music.

Rule #2: I Must Depend on White Funding and Institutional Support

In a capitalist society, success is based on money. Artists need to focus on money in order to afford themselves stability. To create art without needing to profit off your labor relies on a privilege that not everyone has.

Frankly, the conversations I’ve had with classical musicians on issues of economic oppression make it obvious why “class” is in the name. The first step to being a classical musician is to amass a massive debt in exchange for education. Some might argue that it is the nature of higher education today and something everyone, regardless of what they study, goes through.

But then why are we expected to continue paying thousands of dollars for other experiences outside of our education? We live in an environment where doctoral degrees are assumed to be a necessary stepping stone toward one’s future, and universities are taking advantage of that baseless assumption by sticking a disastrous price tag on those degrees. If the field as a whole believes that higher education is necessary for a composer’s growth, then why is it inaccessible to most on grounds unrelated to merit?

Festivals serve a darker purpose: they weed out the poor to give opportunities to the rich.

Higher education barely scratches the surface. On top of spending an exorbitant amount of money on 8+ years of academic study, composers are expected to spend several thousand more dollars to attend something similar during the summer months. Summer festivals are seen as places where one can acquire prestige and network with similar musicians. But these festivals serve a darker purpose: they weed out the poor to give opportunities to the rich.

And yes, to me and anyone with my level of income, those who can afford these festivals are rich.

What’s almost worse is the expectation that lower-income folks will apply for scholarships and perform extra labor to receive (partial) funding instead of creating new avenues for opportunity. In this regard, we are expected to work within the institution to beg for funding instead of creating our own opportunities for career development.

But let’s say that despite all odds, despite being unable to afford the education and festivals, you still become a prominent composer. How will you get money? By and large, you will be steered only towards resources for minorities – which grant most of their funding and visibility towards white women.

Many of these organizations do not have anything to offer PoC; because PoC fall under the umbrella of “minority”, we end up in a position where white minorities monopolize the crumbs of tokenism within institutional structures.

Almost all of these institutions within the classical world are white-owned–even the very few designated for minorities.

The field of classical music relies on institutions, endowments, universities, people who can afford to commission new work, and other high-paying clients. Almost all of these institutions within the classical world are white-owned–even the very few designated for minorities.

Rule #3: I Must Work Within an Institution, Never Against It

If I rely on white institutions, then I can’t be too radical or else I will lose my avenues for funding. If I want funding without beholding myself to the whims of an untrustable elite, then I need to find alternatives to gaining capital outside the framework of an institution.

But rejecting an institution is perceived as being against it. After all, wouldn’t working against institutions mean that you’re against them, or the way they function? These institutions offer spaces for PoC to exist, but to suggest our independence risks exposing the foundational flaws and abuses these organizations graft onto their minority followers. They fear we will expose them for the fraudulent practice of using token visibility to shield their own white supremacist roots while claiming to be progressive.

So they work to silence the minorities who, without any more options, reject the prescribed system of tokenism in exchange for real methods of artistic creation that allow for sustenance on their own terms.

Rejecting an institution is perceived as being against it.

This silencing depends on enabling racist behavior, on pointing out whatever flaws one can find or make up about a person of color, and trusting that it will tarnish their reputation, despite those standards never applying to a white individual. The effect reverberates around the miniscule classical world, and anyone who depends on the institution, and believes in it, will have no reason not to believe it and thus shun those who work against an institution.

A meme created via with the caption "WHITE MUSICIANS WHEN POC ARE TALKING ABOUT RACISM" showing someone with their face buried in the ground.

Rule #4: I Must Never Express Anger or Resentment at my Treatment

These last two rules go hand-in-hand, and emphasize classical music institutions and their affiliates’ pervasive use of tone policing. White musicians love giving the minimum to PoC and using that exposure to shield themselves from criticism.

PoC are not allowed to complain because progress exists.

In essence, PoC are not allowed to complain because progress exists. That sliver of progress is used against those who advocate for real, substantive change.

Rule #5: I Must Remain Calm When Harassed

In that same vein, PoC are demonized when we do express anger, even when being harassed. I have these as two separate rules because rule #4 applies on a meta level where I must always at least pretend to be in a state of contentment with the institutions of classical music and their efforts to increase diversity.

But this rule is more specific.

Every time I have defended myself or matched the tone of someone harassing me, I was promptly demonized by my peers.

In my experience (and I’m sure this is the case for many other PoC as well), every time I have defended myself or matched the tone of someone harassing me, I was promptly demonized by my peers. I can think of so many examples, especially on social media, where as soon as anger is shown, as soon as white folks actually see the consequences of their constant abuses, or even evidence that there is constant abuse, the entire case is dismissed under the excuse of belligerence.

These experiences have led me to be labelled as racist, sexist, anti-semitic, transphobic, islamaphobic, and other labels which I work to fight against.


I have written very little about music, which will be covered in a later post. With this article, I wanted to show how pervasive white supremacy is in the classical music world, and explain the background into other arguments I intend to make in this series. Arguments such as the following: white composers using Middle Eastern stories in their composition is colonization; trans, non-binary, and third gender composers need their own space unique from cis-women led spaces.

It’s important to understand the baseline motives behind the way music colonizes people of color.

It’s important to understand the baseline motives behind the way music colonizes people of color. But the musical output takes it a step further. In my next article, I will explore several examples of how white Western culture steals and appropriates from other non-white cultures, and how Western classical music embodies that colonization.

Ethical Artistry: Does Any of This Really Matter? If So, What Practical Steps Can I Take?

Airport Stairs

This is the final post in a four-part series looking at concert curation and some of the larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists as a result. If you want to jump back, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 are here.

The first three parts of this series consider a wide spectrum of topics related to ethical artistry. Part 1 discusses the conviction with which we approach our work and who it benefits; Part 2 considers aspects of the artistic process where ethical issues arise; and Part 3 suggests that we evaluate our work both quantitatively and qualitatively, helping us adjust and adapt over time.

Thinking through these many topics, two lingering objections come to my mind:

  • Many subjects I’ve discussed (e.g. what pieces you program, what venue you present at, etc.), are pragmatic and relevant for artists, but not necessarily of ethical consequence.
  • Even if these areas involve ethics, it’s just art and music, so does it really matter?

Here in Part 4, I’ll try to persuade you that these issues really do matter in important ways. I’ll also suggest some practical steps we can each take, if we care about confronting ethical artistry more critically as a field.

Does Any of This Really Matter?

The short answer: if you care that your art affects others’ lives, then yes, this all matters.

The main takeaway from Part 1 of this series is that our artistic conviction can inspire and transform those who encounter our work. If you reject this idea and feel that art and music are, perhaps, objects or experiences we appreciate (in the same way we appreciate, say, a table, or a lamp, or a stroll in the park), but that the art and music (or the table, or the lamp, etc.) aren’t meant to provide a deeper transformational experience, then many of the concerns I’ve raised may not have ethical implications for you.

Essentially, if your artistic project is being created purely for its own merit in your mind, or if it is intended more as entertainment or a commercial commodity, not aspiring to reach and transform others in a deep way, then your careful planning of each project step may be of pragmatic concern, but not of great moral consequence (to you), since your project’s outcome on others was never of particular concern. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way! When we build a table or a lamp, we might want it to be useful to others and be something they’ll enjoy in their lives, and we might want to sell it commercially, but we are not especially concerned that the object we’ve created will have a deep moral impact on another’s life.)

Ethical Lamps

When we build a table or a lamp, we might want it to be useful to others and be something they’ll enjoy in their lives, and we might want to sell it commercially, but we are not especially concerned that the object we’ve created will have a deep moral impact on another’s life. IMAGE: Rishab Lamichhane

However if, like me, you intend and indeed hope to have an impact on others’ lives with your work, or if you feel a sense of obligation to a larger artistic community regarding the types of projects you pursue, then each step along the way seems to have greater ethical relevance.

For me, art not only has the ability to affect others, this is in fact its essence and what makes it particularly redeeming and socially relevant.[i] If I hope to reach others with my conviction, and to be a conscientious member of my artistic community, aspects of my artistic process—everything in Part 2, from the type of music I program, to what composers I include or exclude based on a theme, to what venue I present at—is relevant with respect to my ethical intentions of reaching others. In fact, even beyond what I have intended, my art and process is ethically relevant on some level, because choices I make will invariably affect others.

Not all ethical categories have the same weight. I think we can agree that excluding a set of composers based on their gender, ethnic heritage, or musical style, seems especially troubling, whereas issues of venue lighting may not be that big of a deal one way or another. Yet, then again, as we think deeply about each stage of our artistic process, we realize seemingly innocuous issues—such as venue location, or lighting, or concert order—can end up limiting access to our event or affecting those who experience our art in powerful ways.

If we have a deeper overall commitment to considering and executing small details, and if this can result in more powerful artistic experiences for those who encounter our art, don’t we, as individuals and a community, have a moral imperative to consider these issues on some level?

What’s At Stake?

As an individual artist, you may feel a varying sense of personal responsibility towards others in your work. I don’t want to tell you what artistic and communal goals you should aspire to, and I believe deeply in this “broad view” idea, where some projects we pursue are centered on our personal goals, while others become a platform primarily for us to reach others. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, as NewMusicBox’s own Molly Sheridan emphasized so eloquently to me in our discussions on this series, we all play a role, both individually and communally, in the “new music ecosystem” and our commitment to ethical artistry impacts this ecosystem.

We all play a role, both individually and communally, in the “new music ecosystem” and our commitment to ethical artistry impacts this ecosystem.

As I mentioned in Part 2, I believe new music is alive and well, and it is finding support in corners far and wide across the U.S. and abroad. Yet, even in its most generous description, we can acknowledge that our work as contemporary musicians and artists is often more “fringe” than “mainstream” in terms of broad-scale popular culture. This is a major reason we have taken it upon ourselves as a community to advocate for new music, to run conferences, to start ensembles that better fit the needs of composers, and to create a culture where artists can be taken seriously even if their passions fall outside traditional paradigms.

The fact that we are largely creating this community for new music together, as individual artists and ensembles, makes our ecosystem somewhat fragile. There is no uniform set of guidelines we follow, and no corporate policy being passed down from on high. If we have competing interests, we sometimes detract from one another, and if we are not holding ourselves to high standards, the tenets we aspire to uphold may be easily eroded.

I don’t propose that we draft a “New Music Constitution” to govern the arts, but for those of us who do care about these issues, to what extent are we committed to making a difference in our work? Are we having serious conversations with other ensembles and groups in our sphere of the world? Are we willing to put in some long-term planning, and try to gradually evolve, aligning the execution of our artistic processes with our stated intentions?

Or, are we content with talking a big game about things like stylistic diversity, equality of opportunity, representation of composers from various demographics, and so on, but not actually following through in a way that is ethically consistent or impactful?

The change we seek in our new music ecosystem isn’t going to occur by spouting off in anger on a Facebook thread, or even in writing an article series like this. We have to take this passion and conviction we feel, and carry it through with real-world projects that directly engage others. For me, that has been artistic endeavors like Intricate Machines and Refractions and helping curate the American Voices project; outreach efforts with Chamber Music by the Bay and the Opportunity Music Project; and pedagogical efforts to discuss socially relevant texts like Alex Ross’s “Invisible Men” or Nancy Rao’s Chinatown Opera Theater in North America. For you, it may be other areas and ideas you are passionate about.

Some of us care deeply about these issues and have been looking for ways to make a difference; some want to get involved, but are seeking guidance for how and where to start; and some remain indifferent. In the new music community we foster together, if we only care about our personal careers and gigs, or if we are so caught up in a parochial view of the musical world that we are blind to a larger picture of what is out there, we won’t create the type of meaningful change that many of us are calling for today.

What Pragmatic Steps Can I Take?

Let’s say you are motivated to try and make a positive impact with ethical artistry. Here are some specific pragmatic steps you can take to keep these issues in mind in your career:

Individual Artists:

– Program with conviction
– Think about who your projects benefit
– Think deeply about the complex layers of the decision-making process
– If you see a problem, come up with a measured response, don’t just take the “easy way out”
– Keep in mind the big picture of your artistic work and try to find a balance in your efforts
– Use tools like statistics and data to help evaluate the steps you’re taking
– Always keep in mind the quality of your work and initiatives, not just their quantity

Programming Checklist:

– Are my repertoire choices consistent with my larger artistic goals?
– Am I presenting a narrow range or wide variety of pieces? Is this an intentional choice?
– How does any one project fit and balance within the larger scope of my work?
– Am I favoring or neglecting composers of a specific demographic?
– As I look at data, have I had a blind spot about certain demographics or styles?
– I don’t have to change things overnight; I have a long career and can work to evolve.
– I can make some short-term changes, and also keep in mind other long-term goals.


– Is my curriculum promoting egalitarian thinking about different musics, styles, and ideologies?
– Are my syllabi/courses/ensembles promoting or neglecting composers of specific demographics?
– As I look at data, have I had a blind spot about certain demographics or styles?
– Does my institution support a narrow or wide swath of artistic thought? Is this intentional?
– Can I teach a course specifically looking at issues related to ethical artistry?
– Can I weave issues of ethical artistry into other courses like composition, entrepreneurship,
theory, music history, etc.? Can I involve non-music professors in the discourse?
– Are we actively discussing and encouraging thought about these issues with our students?
– Are we actively discussing and encouraging thought about these issues as a community?


– Do I work with living composers regularly?
– Does my ensemble provide audiences with access to living composers?
– Am I able to commit to ambitious and high-quality dissemination of contemporary music?
– Am I balancing quality and quantity in my approach to new music programming?
– Are the contemporary works I feature often varied or often similar? Is this intentional?
– Am I promoting or neglecting composers of a specific demographic or style?
– Am I making time in my routine to actively listen to new works?
– Am I soliciting suggestions from others about new composers I can discover?
– Is my ensemble promoting educational initiatives for young composers?
– Through these combined initiatives, am I creating a culture for the appreciation of new music?


– Can we commit to thinking deeply about these issues, and not settling for “the easy way out”?
– Are we making time to reach out to colleagues and have discussions about these issues?
– Are we (individually) in a position of power where we can shed light on these issues?
– Are we (as a group) able to advocate to those in power, so we focus more on these issues?
– Are we listening to broad viewpoints with an open mind, or are we tuning out those who differ?
– When we do voice our opinions publicly, are we trying to thoughtfully affect positive change?

[i] I might add that while some find this notion of art’s transformational power too idealistic, its echoes are found in a wide swath of material: everything from pop-culture references about “the beauty of music” in movies like Shawshank Redemption, to articles like “We Need Music to Surive” by musician Karl Paulnack, to the notion put forth by Gustavo Dudamel that “music is a universal human right.” In fact, going back as far as the ancient writings of Plato’s Republic, we see the argument that music is important in strengthening the moral fabric in society and that music can uniquely bring people together because “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.”

Ethical Artistry: Changing our Approach & Evaluating our Efforts


This post is the third in a four-part series looking at concert curation and some of the larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists as a result. If you want to jump back, Part 1 and Part 2 are here; Part 4 will follow next week.

Changing our Approach to Avoid the Easy Way Out

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I argue that our musical world can be more rewarding and have its most substantial positive impacts when we present projects passionately and when we take a deeper look at our institutions, decision-making, and artistic processes.

Part 2 showed how simple issues can get complex pretty quickly, and that it can take real effort to confront ethical issues in a meaningful way. This “real effort” part can be a disincentive. Why spend extra time thinking through complex issues—especially if there is an easy fix in front of us? It’s often simpler to keep moving through our work and busy lives by avoiding complex questions, rather than taking time to confront them and come up with nuanced solutions.

Unfortunately, it is this “easy way out” or “path of least resistance” or “quick fix” (whatever you want to call it) that can lead us into ethical gray areas. I’ve argued that by spending a little more time sorting through the complexities of both our decision-making and execution, we can make a real difference. And there’s even better news: if you start building this “extra” planning into the framework of your professional life, it can quickly become part of your normal routine, without adding any “extra” or undue burden.

If you start building this “extra” planning into the framework of your professional life, it can quickly become part of your normal routine, without adding any “extra” or undue burden.

Let’s consider an example. You want to put on a concert! You’re excited about it, and a little scared (because you haven’t done a lot of this before), but you’re really committed to making it happen! Many of us have been in this exact position. So, we launch into what is easy and familiar: we program pieces we already know, written by composers we’ve worked with before, and we team up with a local ensemble at a cheap venue. This is sort of a “simplest variables” version of your project, and it is coming from a genuinely good place in your heart!


Now, halfway through your project, you are already many emails in (with the ensemble, venue, music rental companies, and so on), when you get the following message from a colleague: “Hey! I got your project e-blast. Looks cool! I noticed all of the composers are alumni of School X. Did School X sponsor this concert?”

Hmm. You pause. This wasn’t something you had really considered. You were turning to music you knew and loved, and maybe it’s no surprise that the composers you picked were your classmates or friends from a certain school or geographic region. And, it isn’t necessarily a moral failure on your part, but you’ve clearly been a little narrow or had a bit of a blind spot that may have held back your programming. So, what can you do about it? At this point, halfway through, overhauling the project would be a major undertaking and would add a lot of extra work as you redo many steps.

Now, imagine a variation of your original concert and idea. We’re back at the beginning. You are still passionate and excited, and you’ll still start the process with pieces you know, by composers you’ve worked with. But…you want to make sure your program is as strong and vibrant as it can be. So you’ll also make sure to take a look at a few other pieces in their catalogs, and you’re going to ask for suggestions from colleagues for other composers outside of your circle. Spend some time listening there, too. Now it’s time to contact ensembles. You should still plan to reach out to the local group you’ve worked with before, but maybe there are one or two others you can consider as well. Have you emailed them before, or even checked out their websites and work? And what about venues? Can you expand your list? Maybe another great option is out there?

If you didn’t plan in these layers at the start, they become a major burden later in a project, but at the beginning, these “extra” steps aren’t really extra at all. In fact, if we build them into the project from the outset, they sort of seamlessly integrate into the overall planning process, and they can lead to a final result that is much more impactful! In this particular hypothetical example, some extra listening at the beginning might lead to a program that includes music of a few close friends, as well as others you didn’t know before who have similar artistic work.

Here’s the big takeaway: it can be hard to accommodate a lot of ethical nuance when we are in the thick of our busy professional routines and schedules. This is often where we run into dilemmas and we don’t have time to pursue anything other than the “easy way out.” But, if we can put in a little more planning at the start of our work, and tweak our general approach, our final work will likely have a more virtuous impact, without adding more burden into our routine.

Evaluating Our Efforts: The Broad View, Quotas & Metrics, and Qualitative Concerns

Many of us care about ethical artistry, but how do we measure our efforts? And how do we balance competing demands, if it feels like promoting one set of criteria will negatively detract from another? (We looked at some of these in Part 2—e.g. should I program more pieces but know that each will have less rehearsal time?) Every case can be a little different, but here are some general tenets and tools that can aid us in evaluating our work.

The Broad View

As I suggested in Part 1, it is particularly important that we take a broad view in assessing our work. Invariably, any single project you focus on will favor certain criteria/variables over others. For example, if you present a regional composer festival, you will automatically be promoting music of composers inside that region, and excluding music outside of it. There are pluses (promoting local artists; strengthening regional ties) and minuses (not giving audiences exposure to outside composers; excluding based on geography).

It seems to me that if this is the only artistic project you pursue regularly, the minuses stand out a bit. Do you have a bit of a blind spot? But, if we take the broad view, and we consider that you pursue many projects which promote living composers of diverse styles, demographics, geographies, and so on, then the potential “minuses” of your regional festival seem to melt away in terms of the larger picture of your artistic work. (This is true for any specific programming initiative like focusing on regional composers; focusing on a certain ethnic demographic; focusing on a certain aesthetic movement; etc.).

The broad view can also provide important context. In a real-world example, I attended two concerts a few months apart in 2017 featuring two different violinists. (I’ve tried to keep any living artist information anonymous.)

Program 1:
Violinist 1

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

Program 2:
Violinist 2

J.S. Bach, Sonata No. 1 in G Minor
J.S. Bach, Partita No. 1 in B Minor
J.S. Bach, Sonata No. 3 in C Major
J.S. Bach, Partita No. 2 in D Minor

At first glance, neither of these programs seems especially adventurous. Are these projects that were curated with passion? Or are they run-of-the-mill violin recitals? (Maybe something in between?) The context of the broad view makes all the difference in this specific case.

Program 2 features four pieces all by the same composer (Bach), which are all in the same general style (dance suite) from the same era (Baroque). Program 1 at least has a bit more variety in that it features composers who are German, French, American, Russian, and Spanish, and it also features music of different eras (early-Romantic, late-Romantic, and the commission/premiere of a new work). Under a short-term view, Program 1 seems to have a bit more going on, since it features a living composer and a wider swath of musical material.

Yet, when taking a broad view, Program 2 was perhaps even more powerful and exciting for me to experience for a few reasons. Most importantly, the violinist performing Program 2 has dedicated a particularly large extent of his performing career to championing the music of living composers (this includes his founding of a major new music string quartet; his work as a core member of a major new music large ensemble; and his work to premiere numerous solo works). Second, the violinist performing Program 2 had worked with great conviction on this program so that it wasn’t “run of the mill.” The works were performed attacca, with thought and attention given to how one suite would elide into the next, so that the immediate transition provided a curious re-contextualization of the subsequent music. Further, the performer added contemporary techniques of ponticello bow position and harmonics in deliberate moments so as to inflect and change the intonation and color of Bach’s original score. The sum total of these curatorial decisions gave Bach’s music a peculiar freshness and challenged the listener to consider an interpretation divergent from the norm.

Thus, within the larger scope (“broad view”) of his work, Violinist 2 and Program 2 didn’t seem to be a conservative rendering of standard Bach works at all; instead, it was a refreshing approach to Baroque music from a performer whose specialization in contemporary music added new ideas and insight. Perhaps most importantly, the project revealed a passion, conviction, and thoughtfulness that resonated deeply with the audience. While Program 1 did showcase a living composer and did include thoughtful, deeply musical playing, it did less to provide a powerful curatorial experience, and more to highlight the performer’s attributes as a violinist. While neither of these programs was a statement on the diversity and talent of today’s living composers, the “broad view” provides especially important context as to the deeper artistic merit each program did or didn’t provide.

Stones in balance

Image: Andrik Langfield

Quotas & Metrics: What They Do and Don’t Tell Us

Programming quotas and statistical metrics can be useful tools to quantify some of our artistic efforts. When we use them thoughtfully, they can help us gather meaningful information and guide our decisions; but, these statistics tools, by themselves, are not the whole story!

Imagine your ensemble is having an artistic planning meeting. You all agree you are committed to championing contemporary composers! How will this actually play out? Are there specific quantitative criteria you are considering?

Are you interested in:

  • the total number of contemporary works you program in a season?
  • the total minutes of music, regardless of how many total works?
  • the specific percentage of contemporary works within your larger season?
  • certain specific demographics (e.g. age, race, gender, nationality, etc.) of the composers?
  • defining “contemporary” based on decade of composition or a composer’s age?
  • only your own ensemble’s metrics, or how they fit within those of the larger field?

In these examples, hard statistics can be useful. If you’re coming off of a busy season where many decisions were made “off the cuff,” a statistical spreadsheet at season’s end may show where your programming tendencies lay: male vs. female composers; local vs. non-local artists; American vs. International composers; pre-2000’s vs. post-2000’s; etc. If something seems out of balance, can you pay more attention to it next season by planning ahead?

These statistics also illustrate how your programming stacks up within the field. The Institute for Composer Diversity has started keeping statistics on various U.S. orchestras, and they have provided a helpful chart (below) that shows how many works you need to program each season in order to meet a quota of 15% of works by under-represented composers.

In past years, groups like the League of American Orchestras or the Baltimore Symphony have gathered hard data, in an effort to consider how our institutions are functioning. And, individual composers have started keeping tabs in areas where they are passionate. For example, composer Michael Mikulka publishes some statistics on Facebook each year of the repertoire programmed at the annual Midwest Clinic for band and wind ensemble music.

Michael Mikulka: Midwest Clinic

So what do we do with all of this information? How can it be a helpful tool? And, what other factors should we consider besides quantitative data?

Sometimes these sorts of clear statistics help keep us honest. Mike Mikulka’s data, for example, shows that at one of America’s major music conventions, an overwhelming majority of programmed music is by white male composers. His data doesn’t speak for every ensemble, director, or composer working in the field, but it does show an alarming demographic disparity at a major convening. (And his statistics have been consistently similar over multiple seasons.)

In this case, the data (“works by composers of demographic X”) seems pretty black and white, and the ethical implications are obvious: whole groups of composers are under-represented.

But, as much as this data tells us, it is, in itself, a statistical summary of choices already made, not an explicit moral compass that guides our decision-making process in the future. This distinction is vital if we want this data to help us. Otherwise, we may fall prey to taking rash action that doesn’t solve the underlying problems.

As much as this data tells us, it is, in itself, a statistical summary of choices already made, not an explicit moral compass that guides our decision-making process in the future. This distinction is vital if we want this data to help us.

As we considered in Part 2, in a controversial programming debate involving a serious look at hard data, the Philadelphia Orchestra made a big quantitative shift in their season: going from 0 works by female composers to 9 works. This was an undeniably positive step in a quantitative category, but it didn’t fully address other larger ethical considerations, such as “quality of opportunity” for younger composers (male and female) to have access to orchestras. In this case, and others like it, statistical data and quotas (e.g. programing Y works, by demographic X in a single season) only partially satisfy our ethical ambitions.

This illustrates two important limitations about quotas and statistical metrics:

  1. They often emphasize quantitative thinking, not qualitative thinking.
  2. They require you to choose what categories you measure and value most.

If we have a clear vision of what ideals we hope to promote in our artistic work, we have a better sense of which statistics will be useful to gather and use in evaluation. And, as will become clear, no single category or criteria will be sufficient for measuring the impact of our work.

Let’s look at the metric “total number of works” by contemporary composers. If this is the main statistic we use to evaluate our programming, a group like the New York Miniaturist Ensemble, which performed more than 300 contemporary pieces during their existence from 2004-2010, did a pretty amazing job and probably outperformed (in quantity) many other new music groups. (Be honest: how many works has your own group performed in six seasons?)

However, according to NYME’s mission and approach, all of the “performed music [was] composed of 100 notes or fewer.” In this case, the sole metric of “total number of works performed” isn’t telling us the whole story! NYME still did something interesting and important that supported composers, but the single statistical category of “total works performed” doesn’t meaningfully compare their efforts to those of other groups.

This is obviously an extreme example, but there are many others where quantitative metrics only tell part of the story. For example, if the Nashville Symphony features four composers in their Composer Lab every two years, and each composer gets roughly equal rehearsal time, how does their approach compare to a group like the American Composers Orchestra whose Underwoood Readings often feature five or six composers every year, but who may not get quite as much rehearsal time since it is being divided amongst more participants? In this case, we have competing metrics: “most composers performed” vs. “most rehearsal time” for individual pieces.

What about a concert experience like the Riot Ensemble’s performance of a single 70-minute work (Solstices by Georg Fredrich Haas, exploring light and darkness) relative to Contemporaneous’s “Orbit” (a program featuring five works also exploring sound and light)? Here, data from any single metric (“total works featured” vs. “total amount of music” vs. “amount of rehearsal time for a single piece”) would tell a very different story.

The truth is, in all of these cases, groups are working hard to give living composers a voice. The point is not to praise one group over another based on hard statistics, but to point out that no single metric can tell us the whole story about the impact of our artistry! In fact, these examples serve to illustrate that quantifiable data is only part of the story. If our programming is oriented solely around meeting numerical quotas, we can easily lose sight of other considerations.

No single metric can tell us the whole story about the impact of our artistry!

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Concerns

While I do advocate using statistics to help quantify and compare our artistic efforts with those of the larger field, I caution us to use the data thoughtfully and to make sure we pay attention to other concerns that are more naturally evaluated with qualitative intuition, rather than hard data.

The issue of quantitative vs. qualitative impact is one of great complexity in ethical debates. Moral philosophers, economists, and political theorists have long scrutinized the merits of strict utilitarianism (which emphasizes helping the most people possible, or doing the most good possible) relative to other pluralist or egalitarian views (that ask us to consider the qualitative nature of the impact we are having, in addition to the total amount).

I wouldn’t stipulate that you should fall on one side of this debate versus another, but we should be cognizant of our work’s quantitative and qualitative impacts. If we are putting all of our efforts into a quality artistic experience, but overlooking hard data which points to our intuitive programming biases, we likely have a blind spot we could address. On the other hand, if we are checking off metric boxes in our programming, but presenting lackluster concerts that aren’t engaging others in vital ways, what is the deeper extent of our impact?

My biggest caution is that we not be too quick to pat ourselves on the back, just because we seem to be satisfying statistical data in our work. Sometimes this data distracts from other issues we are not addressing—like quality of artistic experience; quality of access to our work; and other factors that don’t easily show up in a pie chart. I argue in Part 1 that we have to be really passionate in our programming, and trust our intuition to pursue projects we deeply believe in. Sometimes a single concert experience we create with this passion can reach others in tremendously deep ways that are hard to quantify in hard data, but which are every bit as relevant, if not more so, than meeting a categorical quota.

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

Multiple streams

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

I never did pick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on a newer version of the same song:

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

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

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

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

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

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


This post is the second in a four-part series looking at concert curation and some of the larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists as a result. If you want to jump back, Part 1 is here; Part 3 and 4 will follow in the coming weeks.

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

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

Ryan Olivier FB thread

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Ethical Pitfalls in Logistics & Programming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pile of scores

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

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

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

Age Limits in Programming

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

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

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

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

Rehearsal Time

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

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

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

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

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.

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

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

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

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

Project Partners & Venues

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerts or Festivals with a Theme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Ross tweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do it right or do it right now?

Still from Infoxication

Arguments in favor of quality and procrastination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outdoor string quartet performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowd Out w/David Lang

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

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

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

Why Am I (Are We) Doing This?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening to and Learning From Each Other

Audience during a presentation

I live in the Neukölln section of Berlin, an area of town with a gritty, working-class history. I live surrounded by Turkish, Arabic and, as of recently, Syrian people. Yet beyond food shopping, there is little opportunity for me to meet or mingle with them, little chance for real interaction. It feels strange. Disconnected. This disconnection with other groups in my neighbourhood is indicative of society as a whole. Groups existing side-by-side, yet not communicating, not connecting. And this disconnect is reflected in its most extreme in classical music. In a city brimming with generously funded institutions for this art form, only the Komische Oper, the Pierre Boulez Saal and, at the opposite end of the budget spectrum, the Neuköllner Oper seem to be consistently and effectively reaching out to engage with other, non-German, groups.

It appears from where I’m sitting (which is often in airplanes) that the world bubbles and froths with swirling, ever-shifting configurations of populations, each grappling with short and long-term political, social, and environmental issues. How can music, and the arts, be helpful? How can it, and we, connect with these populations in all of their individual and uniquely differing diversity?

How can we connect with populations in all of their individual and uniquely differing diversity?

The arts scene in the United States is asking itself such questions. Some of the countries’ leading lights in figuring out answers will be introducing their work to the rest of the art music world at Classical:NEXT 2019.  National Sawdust, making their first foray outside the USA in a big way via the cN Opening Event, reflects the here-and-now of NYC brilliantly in their approach to curation. For example, with “The Revolution” series, where once a month, three different artists from Harlem and Brooklyn showcase three different genres, empowering community, change and activism through unity amongst the arts. Or with “The Forward Music Project” which is driven by social justice for girls and women and represents the vast diversity of the female experience.

Meanwhile, over in the windy city, the Chicago Sinfonietta, headed by Mei-Ann Chen and Jim Hirsch, seem to revel in happily adventurous program design. Concerts which look to be so much fun, so seductive, so NOT the usual sort of thing. They’ve had a concert that featured selections from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1, and Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance choreographed and performed by the Chicago-based, hip hop dance troupe, FootworKINGz. The audience engagement activities included percussive dance instruction for audience members that saw over 200 people learning how to tap and then watching contemporary dancers do it on stage. Or an LGBTQ-themed concert entitled “More Than A Letter” that featured transgender pianist Sara Davis Buechner and a gay/lesbian choir.  Audience engagement activities included Video Out, an organization that collects and shares coming out stories on video, a station where people created a self-portrait collage by using facial photos, and additional stations where local LGBTQ organizations distributed information. Or a Dia de los Muertos-themed concert that was highlighted by excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem performed by a costumed and masked choir with special choreography. Audience engagement for this concert included an ofrenda that invited all audience members to contribute an item from a lost loved one or a ribbon with their name on it, plus a three-course wine tasting with each wine tied to one of the works on the concert. At Classical:NEXT, Jim will share the recipe for the Chicago Sinfonietta’s Secret to Success Sauce in the session “Yes, We Can! – Reflect & Involve All of our Community”.

Despite regional differences, we can learn from each other.

Despite regional differences, we can learn from each other. Exactly this – listening to and learning from each other, is what I and my team are trying to help the art music world to do. What similarities can be found? Who is doing what? Which initiatives are working? Which are not? If not, why?

There is no one answer, no one solution or strategy for engaging and reflecting the artistic and listening population in any given community. There are, however, basic, universally applicable key questions to ask oneself when setting off on the quest. Questions such as “What do we believe in? What does our community care about? What issues is our city/region facing?” These sort of questions are what we all need to ask ourselves as art creators, facilitators and disseminators.

And making this kind of effort isn’t just “good” it can be rewarding in other ways, too. Regardless of where you are in the world as a music industry professional and which sector in which you work, reaching more people for your concert, recording, or streaming service is surely what you want to do, so engaging more of the actual community around you is good for your bottom line as well as good for society.

As for me when not wearing my Classical:NEXT Director hat – I’m still waiting for the answer for better mingling in Berlin-Neukölln.

The Importance of Women Role Models in This Industry

Two women posing on an orchestra stage together

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

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

An Unsuspected Mentor

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

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

My Role Models

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

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

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

Inspired By Successful Women

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

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

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