Category: Commentary

Waking Up From The Dream Job

A three-dimensional rendering of a tesseract.

This is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to write in my life. After nearly a quarter century of continuous work (more than half my adult life) as the Editor of NewMusicBox and also eventually as Composer Advocate for what was originally the American Music Center and which in 2011 became New Music USA, I am resigning from my full time work here to devote more of my energies to being an educator. I have accepted a full time faculty position as Assistant Professor of Musicology at The New School’s College of Performing Arts (which includes The Mannes School of Music).

Back in the 1990s, I was one of the myriad aspiring composers in New York City (where I grew up) and, after getting a Master’s Degree in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University (which I did after teaching English as a Second Language in NYC public high schools for several years, my first job after my undergrad studies at Columbia), I balanced my compositional activities with a four-day-a-week day job at a music publicity office in order to pay bills. The roster of clients there included Meet The Composer (whose founding director John Duffy became something of a mentor to me and who at one point gave me his entire LP collection) and the Finnish recording label Ondine (which frequently collaborated with an organization called the Finnish Music Information Centre, which is how I learned about the International Association of Music Centres [IAMIC], before I even knew there was an American Music Center, even though it was then just four blocks away from where I had been living for most of my life). But the American Music Center (AMC) would soon become the most important place in the world for me.

While working for that PR firm, I had written a handful of articles for various publications and created repertoire lists of contemporary music that I distributed to programmers at NPR-affiliated radio stations, a personal project for which I was not paid but for which I was written up in Billboard magazine at one point. As a result of some AMC board members knowing about me through some of these activities and the more official ones that were part of my “day job,” I got on the radar of Richard Kessler, a visionary who had been recently appointed AMC’s Executive Director and who wanted to completely transform the organization from a passive library to an active advocate for new music in the United States. Central to his vision was for AMC to host a newly created web magazine exclusively for American new music and he wanted to bring on someone to come up with a format for this thing and to then serve as its “Editor and Publisher.”

I met with him even though I had absolutely no experience in publishing, had only written that handful of articles, and did not know all that much about this relatively new thing called the internet other than using AOL and surfing UserNet comments about contemporary music. (It was the ’90s afterall.) But it must have been clear how passionate I was about contemporary music and how willing I was to always defend it and evangelize for it. He ultimately offered me–and I unhesitatingly accepted–a full-time job (5 days a week, often much more than that) at a lower salary, put my own music on the back burner to some extent, and began work at the American Music Center on November 16, 1998. For most of the last nearly 25 years, I considered it a dream job–a vital role in the ecosystem of contemporary music in the U.S.A. and something that could raise the profiles of all the extraordinary people involved in making this music in all its wild varieties, which was far more important to me than focusing just on my own music.

I believed strongly, and still do, that practitioners should be the people who speak and write about this music since they have the most intimate knowledge of it, the greatest passion for it, and need their own outlet to disseminate information about it. I also believe that the strength and significance of NewMusicBox in our field is because by design it is a collaborative project and, for most of the time I have served as its titular Editor, I was thankfully mostly not alone in my endeavors, always working non-hierarchically with others who frequently had more strength than I did proofreading, juggling various pieces of content to always maintain a balance, keeping us on track with deadlines, and on and on. This first quarter century of NewMusicBox would never have been possible without the efforts of Nathan Michel, Jennifer Undercofler, Molly Sheridan, Amanda MacBlane, the late Randy Nordschow, Trevor Hunter, and Alexandra Gardner who were as devoted to NewMusicBox while they were part of it as I have remained all these years. There were also a great many interns, some of whom I have still stayed in touch with and not all of whom I can remember (for which I apologize). But I want to at least give a shout out to Sam Birmaher, Anna Reguero, Aurelian Balan, Jonathan Murphy, and Daniel Kushner for the high level of work they did while involved with NewMusicBox as well as to Johanna Keller, founder of the Goldring Arts Journalism program, the first master’s program of its kind to teach journalists to cover the arts, who sent interns our way every summer until she retired. I almost forgot to mention some of the web design artisans I realize in retrospect that I frequently frustrated with my often not very practical ideas, among them Stacie Johnston, Lisa Taliano, and Eugene Takahashi who once during a phone call with me at 2 A.M. claimed that he would have to invent a four-dimensional internet to do some crazy thing I’d asked him to do. NewMusicBox has been at its most effective when a small team of people worked on it together, brainstorming (and sometimes even passionately arguing about) who and what to feature and why, as well as getting in the weeds and carefully copyediting and coding every word, photo, audio, or video file that was then disseminated to the general public.

And it’s been quite a ride as anyone who has ever ventured into our quadranscentennial content stream would hopefully agree. I’ve been proud of so much of what we’ve published from artist/writers based all over the country and am grateful to everyone who has ever written for us. I’m also glad that all this material is still available for people to read online now and hopefully in perpetuity. And I hope that this content will continue to be constantly refreshed with new content curated by future NewMusicBox editors who will also always insist on pushing the envelop. Of course, since they’ve been a hallmark of NewMusicBox since its inception and I have been intimately involved with most of them, I’m proudest of our in-depth conversations with significant members of our community which were originally called “In The First Person,” subsequently rebranded as “NewMusicBox Covers,” and which have continued to this day, now as SoundLives podcasts. I treasure every one of them and hope that others will continue to do so as well. What many people may not realize is that the back stories of these one-of-a-kind encounters were sometimes as intense as the edited talks we published. I’ll never forget Randy and I showing up at Ornette Coleman’s Midtown loft, entering his unlocked apartment, and waiting for him to appear there nearly half an hour later, but then immediately plunging into a heady conversation about sound being a way to express emotions more than being a vibration. Or Glenn Branca refusing to put out his cigarette directly underneath a no smoking sign, despite Alex’s and my own visible discomfort in the rehearsal studio where we were recording which had no ventilation. (He had refused to let us come to his home.) Or Maryanne Amacher wanting to take a sample of my blood and mix it with hers for an audio project. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Or, to give a more recent example, Pamela Z describing putting a trunk full of bones through airport security (it was a prop for a performance) and my worrying the whole time that the internet was going to suddenly drop during our Zoom before the punchline (since it’s frequently spotty in my neighborhood and kept going in and out that day); thankfully it didn’t!

However, last year when I was asked to develop my own curriculum for an undergraduate contemporary music history class I would then teach at The New School as an adjunct and told that I could and should cover all genres of music, it was an offer–like the offer to create a web magazine for contemporary American music and then be responsible for maintaining it–I couldn’t refuse. As luck would have it, I was asked if I’d be interested in teaching that class by someone who had already changed the course of my life once and was inadvertently about to do so again, Richard Kessler, who is now the Executive Dean of The New School’s College of Performing Arts and the Dean of the Mannes School of Music. We had had some contact with each other over the many years since he left AMC, but I truly had only a glimmer of awareness about the range of activities going on there. I was wowed by a 2017 performance of Robert Ashley’s Dust by Mannes students just three years after Ashley died. The following year’s Mannes Orchestra world premiere of Julius Eastman’s only recently rediscovered second symphony in Alice Tully Hall was a watershed event. I’d hear from time to time that someone significant in our community was teaching a class there which made me more curious. After doing some deeper digging I realized that many of my personal musical heroes from the past also had ties to either Mannes or The New School, or both, either as faculty or students, or both–e.g. Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Henry Cowell, Johanna Magdalena Beyer, John Cage, Bohuslav Martinů, and salsa pioneer Larry Harlow (who got an M.A. in philosophy there!), to name just a few of the music folks. Needless to say I wanted to be a part of it too somehow, though it was incredibly humbling, so I again said yes.

Thus far I’ve taught three sections of that music history class and last semester I was additionally assigned a graduate seminar on minimalism and postminimalism which I also developed from scratch, talk about deep dives. It’s been hard work, though it has been completely worth it because I feel I’ve had a really huge impact on many students and the students I’ve taught there thus far have been a constant source of inspiration to me as well. But leading such a double life was ultimately not sustainable. So when I learned from an email message sent to all the part-time faculty at The New School that there were nine full time faculty positions that were open, I interviewed for a position (something I hadn’t done in 25 years!) with representatives from all the divisions in the College of Performing Arts. I learned earlier this month that they hired me. Having a full-time faculty position will hopefully give me even more opportunities to develop curricula for which my goal, just like at NewMusicBox, is for it to always be as broad as possible.

But that doesn’t mean I’m retiring from the contemporary music scene. Far from it. I still plan to be heavily involved both in the United States and abroad, wearing nearly as many different kinds of hats in it as I always have (even though I will always refuse to wear corporeal hats). I will still serve as Vice President of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) and, in late November, will be attending the ISCM’s first-ever World New Music Days festival on the African continent, which has been in the works for several years. And in late December, I will be at The Midwest Clinic International Band, Orchestra, and Music Conference in Chicago and then at the Chamber Music America conference in New York City in January, as per always, and will also attend as many new music concerts as time allows wherever I am. I plan to explore other avenues for writing about music whenever and wherever as well. And I also plan to write some more of my own music, something I managed to do a fair bit of again during the worst phase of the pandemic, but which, because of all the other stuff I’ve been doing, has become harder to find time for during our current seemingly (let’s hope) post-pandemic era.

I gave this essay the title “Waking Up From a Dream Job” which might be interpreted by some as tragic or, at the very least, terribly melodramatic. That is not my intent. Partly I just love a catchy title, and so I couldn’t resist coming up with one (that I hope is) for one last time on this site. (Actually there are few other pieces of content by other writers I’m editing that are still in process, so it’s not exactly the last time; stay tuned for those.) Admittedly it does feel like waking up after an extremely long and amazing dream. But even though I rarely get a full night’s sleep and don’t plan to anytime soon, I still have many other dreams to dream and hope to continue to dream along with others about this crazy thing that for a lack of a better term we still and will probably always call new music. May it never be boxed in.

Oteri holding a three-dimensional simulacrum of a tesseract.

Oteri is still mesmerized by the tesseract which was the original logo of NewMusicBox. (Photo by Trudy Chan.)

GLFCAM — Rain, unreal and biblical

Images of Gabriela Lena Frank with GLFCAM and New Music USA logos

Yesterday, after almost a month of rain and floods here in California — unreal and biblical — Jeremy and I enjoyed several hours of very welcome sunshine. What struck us was how much life there was everywhere, a testament to how the earth wants to grow, to exist in health, to be a paradise even after the stresses humans have imposed on it. We found groves of matsutake mushrooms that are currently drying in front of our fireplace, and I fried up cat’s ear leaves (a bit like sweeter dandelion greens) for dinner. New yarrow, lavender, and Cleveland sage went into bedtime tea for little old lady me, and magenta and purple potatoes that had been washed out of their wine barrels by the storm are on the counter now, waiting to be baked. The ground has a spongy spring to it, no longer brittle and hard from our years-long drought. The dogs have been boinging around, no longer cooped up inside, loving all of the fresh smells and chasing insects.

That was yesterday. For most of the month before, as Jeremy was frantically diverting water flows on our Boonville property to minimize damage to our structures, including our new fire break pond, I was laid up with my first, and hopefully last, slipped disc. The timing couldn’t have been worse, to really see how out of shape I am when a couple hours of gardening put me in such straits. In these fires we’ve been suffering the past six years, the very young, the very old, and the disabled have been the ones to perish first; I had my first frightening glimpse of physical vulnerability as being able to evacuate quickly, to carry scared pets or precious belongings, to be mentally alert and not distracted by pain, is an imperative. I also felt much guilt that Jeremy, exhausted and covered in mud, had to help me out of bed, take care of meals, and scan the weather reports for lifts in the rain so he could drive whatever roads were precariously open to get me meds.

A scary powerful brain-chemistry-changing (!) muscle relaxant got me feeling better and I’ve been cautiously doing back exercises, with a view out my large studio windows to our valley, thinking: I want to be able to walk and run on that land, even if it’s burning or flooding, but hopefully, neither of those. I’ve since formed a small women’s group to walk several days a week, and I think we might even pump a little iron when our garage gym is complete. This is in addition to two neighborhood fire safety groups we belong to, an active local foods group, and of course, the local youth music program we’re trying to encourage through GLFCAM. Formerly pretty solitary when I was still a Bay Area urbanite, the reality of the climate crisis has had me creating more local community than I have ever done. That’s not necessarily comfortable for me but I think the crisis will only be effectively addressed en masse, including with our immediate neighbors.

I owe you music, but I’ve held your attention long enough and will send that along another time. Have a beautiful and safe week, all!


Images of Iman Habibi with GLFCAM and New Music USA logos

More than anything, our climate change studies have helped me gain tremendous perspective, to understand climate change from the vantage point of the individuals experiencing and digesting it, and to hear of their struggles, worries, and aspirations as they ride the rogue waves of this crisis. And while it is necessary to learn about the experiences of those most immediately affected by climate change in various parts of the world, I am equally interested in the stories I have heard from every one of you. As a fellow musician, I often find your thoughts and solutions to be more easily applicable in my own life.

In the wunderschönen month of May, the foliage in Ontario transitions (over a few days) from lifeless frozen grey to a tropical rain forest with a hundred shades of green. We have been experiencing many temperature oddities this year, a very mild winter, followed by an erratic April and May that swung between 25-30 (centigrade) degree temperatures, and freezing cold, setting many records along the way for the hottest and coldest days for the time of year. As I type, we are in the middle of a heat wave warning. This year, we are participating in a campaign called “#NoMowMay“: Those with a lawn are encouraged to mow less, and to not mow at all in the month of May, a critical time especially for butterflies, bees and other bugs to feast on wild flowers. The campaign was initiated by Plantlife, and caught on quickly around the world and has been circulating widely on social media. Sadly, we seem to be the only people participating in our neighborhood. Next year, I hope we can have a #NoMowMay sign put in our yard, both to let the neighbors know why our house looks like a meadow, and to spread the word and hopefully encourage others to consider doing the same.

Thanks to this initiative, we discovered all sorts of new wildflowers in our own backyard, which we had cut in previous years before they had a chance to appear. We now share our home with a beautiful Eastern Bumble Bee who lives in a screw hole on the stairs to our house, and feasts on the wildflowers, as well as many varieties of butterflies (pictures of our yard-meadow, the Bumble Bee enjoying a Solomon’s seal, and a mourning cloak butterfly having a seat in our yard attached). As you may know, there has been a significant reduction in the population of many butterfly and bee species in recent years, and they are fighting for survival by changing their breeding patterns.

I am also continuously thinking of ways in which we can make our practice, as musicians, more green and sustainable. The hardest part has been to identify the priorities, the areas needing the most immediate attention (apart from the obvious one being frequent long-distance travel). Like many of you, I have also been receiving strong resistance from organizations when I suggest alternative approaches in their plans going forward. It boggles my mind: many of them imply that they are short on funds coming out of the pandemic, perhaps as an excuse to offer subpar rates, yet they are unwilling to consider more economical solutions. It has been my hope that we might be more able to ask for a hybrid of in-person and virtual appearances going forward, and support local musicians, but at this stage, most organizations seem to be tired of the virtual platform, and very eager to go back to an in-person format, start traveling/touring, and collaborating with international names again.

Please feel free to send me your thoughts!

GLFCAM — Sustainable practices: the discipline of rest

Multiple images of Dustin Carlson with the Guest Editor logo for GLFCAM and New Music USA

I have been playing the guitar now for over 25 years. The pursuit has always been one of attempting to unite my soul’s expression with the physical act of touching an instrument, in between my soul and the guitar exist the two realms of my mind and my body. Cultivating a musical mind has meant ear training, learning theory, learning the sounds of various musical traditions, histories, what is a downbeat? what is a swing feel? what does it mean to bounce? what does it mean to resolve on the 10th beat of a 12 beat cycle, harmony, counterpoint, subdividing rhythms, study and endless study. The practice of touching an instrument, endless hours sitting with the guitar, playing notes that sustain, playing notes that move quickly, stretching fingers to play the cool chords, making my thumb play in 5 while my index middle and ring fingers play in 4, or any other polyrhythms; micro coordination, how to make a rasgeo of sextuplets sound like a thick wave of sound crashing into the 3rd pulse of a solea. This stuff takes time and many many repetitions, intense focus that overrides the body’s stubborn habits. Intense focus can result in wear on the hands, which are attached to the wrists arms elbows shoulders back and hips. My hands and myself have known overwork and overuse.

Over the years I have had many bouts with injury, tendonitis, tendonosis, burn out, soreness. Through this I have learned many ways to maintain the mind-body; dance, yoga, weightlifting, physical therapy, psychoanalysis meditation etc. Recently I had a week with many gigs rehearsals and opportunities to perform music with people who have more experience than me. As a result I came to a day where I had to force myself to do nothing because I had been working too hard. Whenever these moments happen I experience what I recognize as an inevitable embodiment of a mind that does not want to rest. A mental state where pursuit, ambition, perfection, improvement etc. become a relentless obsession. The body is an amazing mirror of the mind, and though I was pursuing my vitality through my art, my flesh was becoming slow and tired and clumsy. (Obviously one can’t play an instrument in a delicate and soul touching way with clumsy flesh.)

As a musician I feel that I have been cultured to believe in hard work, achievement, etc. “Become an excellent musician so that you can receive attention, money, respect, or even more dire so that you can survive, make a living, not have to work a side hustle that (potentially) crushes your soul.” The artistic purpose of “personal-achievement” seems divisive and destructive to me. Lately I have been reflecting a lot on how my own performance and creation practice can be less interested in achievement or personal gain; accolades etc. and more interested in being a catalyst for connection and gathering. The myth of progress is not one that serves me well.

So I have been pondering questions related to my musical practice.

Can the music draw people and and inspire them to engage with their soul response? Can the performance create a space where the people share those responses with each other? Can the press coverage be about community more than it is about virtuosity or mastery of craft? Can the compositions lean towards playability? Can I nurture my performers’ strengths instead of demanding them to overcome weaknesses or transcend the limits of their technique or instrument? Can my craft be so solid that is can just serve expression? Can I leave the myths of “cutting edge” “technical mastery” “virtuosity” “eliteness” alone and pursue concepts that create space for listening, a shared sense of time, sensation. 

I’ve been interested in the concepts of intention and transmission. What is the intention behind my practice, compositions, performances. Why am I starting this band, writing for this ensemble? What am I offering these performers and listeners? What am I saying to this interviewer? What am I telling people about the work and its intent? How can I set myself and collaborators up to transmit something that draws people into their own creativity, and that draws them towards each other?

Recently I began study with a guitarist names Nino de Pura. What I encountered in my studies with this master of guitar technique is that there is a playful way to deepen one’s technique. Studies can be explorations of a physical (musical) gesture, a fascination with a concept that is eluding the composer or the player/practitioner. He has an incredible technique that delivers intense musical sensation, explosive, emotive, very powerful. But his manner of teaching is very relaxed, demonstrative, fun, and his physicality when playing these incredible passages is totally relaxed. Of course, while studying with him in Sevilla Spain I have often felt that I need another lifetime to pursue this craft, that I am attempting to learn something that will continue to elude me beyond the years I have left. But the spirit of enjoyment and exploration is something I can practice immediately and for the remainder of my time creating music.

GLFCAM — Finding Purpose

Photo of Michael-Thomas Foumai embedded in banner branded for the GLFCAM Guest Editor Series.

Just out of school in 2014, I witnessed childhood friends, relatives, and peers who pursued non-musical careers make tangible changes and developments to improve their communities. Writing music gave me great joy, but I questioned if there was a purpose for it that was equally wholesome. The question lingered, could composing music enact change as a doctor treating a patient, an attorney representing a client, or a senator voting for public policy?


I returned to my roots and joined the faculty at the University of Hawaiʻi. Teaching fulfilled what I perceived to be a greater purpose, but that was just a part of a larger mission. Then in 2017, I began composing music about the Polynesian Voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa. I had primarily avoided exploring my Polynesian roots (out of shame for ignorance). Still, as I learned of the ingenuity of the ancient Hawaiians, skilled navigators capable of sailing more than 2000 miles of the deep ocean with only the stars and currents of the sea to guide them, I was compelled to know more and to tell these stories with music.

With finite resources aboard the canoe, conservation ensured the crew’s survival, and this continued on land. Isolated in the Pacific, the Hawaiian Islands are a much larger canoe. By extension, today, our planet is an island, an island earth in a vast sea of universal darkness. For over a thousand years, the ancient Hawaiians thrived sustainably, untouched by the known world. However, with anti-Hawaiian policies in the years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, a wealth of indigenous knowledge was nearly erased from history, dismissed as primitive and treasonous. Today, with 90 percent of food and resources imported, Hawaiʻi is unsustainable.


In his decades leading the Hōkūleʻa voyages, Master Navigator Nainoa Thompson witnessed the corrosion and inflammation of Earth’s circulatory system, from the bleaching of coral reefs, the continent of floating garbage in the Pacific, and vanished Polynesian islands from sea level rise. The dire state of the planet pushed Thompson to send a worldwide message that our world is in trouble. Thompson recalls the words of Astronaut Charles Lacey Veach (1944-1995):

“You can never believe the beauty of island Earth until you see it in its entirety from space,” recalls Veach. He was the world’s greatest optimist, but he always felt a great concern over the imbalance between human needs and the limited resources of our small planet, over the danger of exponential population growth and depletion of natural resources to support that growth. He would talk about how the 21st century was going to be very different from the century we’re leaving. There would be great challenges ahead; there would be places on this planet that are going to be, by our own definition of quality of life, extremely substandard.

On one of his shuttle flights, a fellow crew member woke Lacey up and told him to look out the window–they were passing over the Hawaiian Islands. Lacey could see all the Islands, and he could see his whole spirit and soul here. He saw the entire planet in one vision. “The best place to think about the fate of our planet is right here in the islands. If we can create a model for well-being here in Hawai’i, we can make a contribution to the entire world.”

Hōkūleʻa sparked a new sense of purpose deeply tied to my own identity. There were stories to tell and a purpose and role for me as a composer to represent these stories through concert music. Moreover, venturing into the voyaging communities demonstrated a real possibility for creating summit-like performances, an opportunity to forge strategic partnerships with industry leaders, sponsors, and lawmakers and have them in one place.


Shortly after, I was encouraged to join a leadership cohort comprised of individuals from all segments of the community called the Pacific Century Fellows. I had no idea what to expect from the program that was based on the White House Fellows. I was stepping outside my comfort zone; alums from this program included a sitting senator, the then governor, and executives from the private and public industries. I felt grossly out of place, but what I had learned from Hōkūleʻa and the Composing Earth initiative, pushing for social change and solving the climate crisis, cannot be done alone. The program gave me behind-the-scenes access to Hawaiʻi’s different issues and working sectors, such as tourism, renewable energy, military, recycling, homelessness, agriculture, and criminal justice; it became clear that, like climate change, everything is connected.


My cohort embarked on a trip to Hawaiʻi Island (Big Island) in the final months of the program. On our last day, we traveled to a Loʻi (Taro Farm) at the Hale O Kalo in Waipio Valley. The cultivation of Kalo (breadfruit) is a staple of sustainable Hawaiian agriculture. Knee-deep in the cool fudge-like mud of a taro patch, bent over and pulling Kalo from its roots, I was closer to the Earth than I have ever been, literally reaching into the ground and connecting with the sustainable past of our ancestors.

The road into the valley is steep and treacherous. It’s a narrow mountainous path slowly eroding from constant heavy pedestrian and significant vehicle traffic, the mark of over-tourism. The nearby black-sand beaches and lush manicured green farms of the Taro farmers is a haven for tour companies cashing in on busing in tourist. Crops suffer, and irrigation infrastructure is contaminated when vehicular traffic moves through privately owned farmland, but tour companies assert legal precedent for access. When the Hawaiʻi Island mayor closed the road to Waipio and restricted it to residents (mainly farmers), tour companies sued, and the local media portrayed the story as an infringement on rights. The appetite for capitalizing on natural resources is not new in Waipio or the entire Hawaiian Islands. However, this demonstrates the hurdle with profiting enterprises and the assertion of entitlements, and it is salt in the womb. Business and commercial interests led to the Hawaiian Kingdom’s demise; it continues with our planet.


Exploring my roots with Hōkūleʻa and joining the leadership cohort confirmed the necessity of going beyond music, seeking out, reaching out, learning, and listening. The Waipio trip became the story of my Composing Earth work, music that represents environmental themes through the lens of Hawaiʻi. My journey towards music citizenry began with a personal search, and this has remained with the need to specifically create Pacific work.

Recently, I joined the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra as the Director of Artistic Engagement and Composer in Residence. This position has given me a platform to voice, design, and curate symphonic programming to push for representation and social issues front and center. But there’s work to cultivate and expand an audience to connect with music as more than just entertainment but as an enriching metaphor; work that is part of the larger campaign to use music as an agent for connection and education. The tools to effect change are already here, and as a composer I have chosen to add my voice to our counterparts in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields advocating for carbon-reducing policies. Music has a purpose to serve. We have the scientist in our musicians, the technology in their instruments, the engineers in our composers, and the mathematics of our music to send a unified message to Mālama Honua (to care for our island earth).

GLFCAM — Wrong. I would love to be that

Photos of Gabrela Lena Frank embedded in banner branded for the GLFCAM Guest Editor Series.

I’ve been compiling a list of questions that I’ve received over these past 18 months in various interviews, panels, etc., since I began publicly communicating my environmental alarm in earnest, not just casually. I’ll share two such questions I’ve received, one that comes up a lot, innocently, and one that has come up just once, hostile.

Innocent: “What projects do you have coming up?”: I love this one. It’s a customary way for interviews to end, and without being explicitly asked about the crisis, I have an opening to talk about my concerns. “Well, my husband and I are deep in fire preparation mode. I just spent two symphony commissions on a fire-resistant stucco exterior for the home, water tanks, etc, etc.” or “I have to confess that for all of my work studying my mom’s culture, what really consumes me is the climate crisis and the perils it poses. How will music connect communities fractured by environmental collapse… etc, etc.”

And the hostile: “What if you’re wrong?” This was asked when I did a virtual Zoom panel about “composing in the anthropocene” for a group in Europe not too long ago. We had a few hundred people in the webinar audience, and I was rather unclear about what I was supposed to address. A scientist spoke before me, impressive but unsettling, with a presentation about people becoming cyborgs after a violent era of survival of the fitness weeding out climate deniers as well as believers. I was rather taken aback by how impersonal and fantastical, both, that presenter’s talk was, and felt like a fish out of water.

Nevertheless, I spoke about my own feelings and experiences, the actions I was taking with my platform, such as it is, and how much I was learning from peers similarly concerned, including you all. It was horribly early for me, around 6am PT at this point to accommodate the time zones, but I gave it my best. And when I got this question, which was posed to me and not to the scientist before me (??), precluded by what can only be called a cynical exposition on music as a prestige object, for a brief moment, I did hesitate.

Then this, from the transcript, my answer:

“Listen. If I’m wrong, and that’s a big if, I’ll shout it from the rooftops, and post all over Facebook. I’ll get on the radio and take out a billboard. I’ll happily confess that fires, floods, derecho winds, bee die-offs, diminishing crops and heat waves are at best a figment of our imagination and at worst, boringly normal. I’ll call up journalists who have profiled me to recant, newspapers across the US, filled with relief that my family and I are not in danger after all. Scholars later will describe this phase in my compositional output as my ‘Era of Great Disillusion’ or ‘Wow, Was She Wrong.’ But until I’m proven wrong, wrong to believe in the science and the evidence of my eyes, wrong to celebrate my neighbors coming together for our mutual survival, this is what I’ve got, all I’ve got. I believe in the science, and I believe in the music. In the process, I have finally fallen in love hard, with Mother Earth, appreciating what I have now that I’m in danger of losing so much. Wrong. I would love to be that.”

And so it goes. Sometimes in panic, comes a moment. I delivered the above with a smile and a laugh, although it reads strong in the transcript.

GLFCAM — The Tale of Hillman Estates

Photos of Matthew Evan Taylor embedded in banner branded for the GLFCAM Guest Editor Series.

The green and white, two-story ranch house on Dandridge Road in the Hillman Estates neighborhood of Birmingham, AL was built by Herman (Steeplejack) A. Taylor Sr. and Earnestine C. Taylor in 1968. Steeplejack, a brick mason’s helper and the first black officer in the steel workers’ union for the US Steel plant in the Ensley district, and Earnestine, an art teacher in the suburban school district of Bessemer, AL, were the picture of the typical middle-class Black family – a two-income unit with a high school-aged son ascending the ladder of the American dream. The house they lived in prior to Dandridge Road was a mile away on what was then known as Avenue K. Herman Junior remembers that first house fondly, especially the Woods.

For this story to be told appropriately, it’s important to hear about the Avenue K house and then circle back to Dandridge Road. The Taylors lived on that street, also known as the Jefferson Highway, for most of Junior’s childhood. He remembers going into the Woods with the neighborhood kids to play, hunt, catch crayfish for pets at the Ditch, whatever else kids of the 50s and 60s would do. Rumor had it that the city would be building a playground there. Imagine the kids’ excitement when they started hearing trees being cleared and the land being leveled. The playground they found was filled with huge piles of concrete slabs, stacked somewhat haphazardly. What perfect structures to climb and roughhouse on. Then the flood lights were erected. Great for target practice for bats. Childhood resilience is truly remarkable.

The construction continued, the result being an industrial complex, serviced by the nearby railroad tracks, with a huge parking lot. New rumors began to circulate; the worst one being that there was an order to shoot-to-kill anyone who is shooting at the bats swarming the floodlights. Meanwhile, the very same floodlights pointed directly into the bedrooms of the families living along Avenue K.

Their homes now destroyed, and food sources eradicated, the rodents and other creatures in the Woods began invading the homes along Avenue K. Junior remembers that his father would set gopher traps for the huge rats that would forage in the house. He was especially impressed by the sound of the murderous snap of the trap and then the ominous scraping that told him that the rat was still alive and dragging the trap.

Clearly, the Taylors needed to find a new place to live. As the story goes, Steeplejack was on the train back from a meeting out of town, reading a newspaper. In the paper, there was a picture of a house. When he got home, he showed the paper to Earnestine and announced, “This is our house!”  Steeplejack didn’t want to move too far away; some of the houses along Avenue K were occupied by friends of his from the steel mill, and he generally liked the area. Hillman Estates was nearby and offered many things, the biggest being a quiet street and little chance for industrial construction in their backyard. The plot he found was flat with three- to four-foot-tall fire anthills, “looked like [the termite mounds of] the Serengeti,” Junior recalls. The Taylor building project was soon followed by other new homes in Hillman Estates, and a vital bedroom community was established. The quiet streets of this neighborhood would eventually become the haven for Junior’s son. . . me. 

My earliest memory is December 1982, my second birthday, which we celebrated at the Dandridge Road home. My grandmother, the art teacher, had made a banner and gotten a delicious cake. My father was there, too, on holiday from his work as a general practitioner in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, FL. The small gathering is the warm core of my happy memories of my childhood. A child of divorce, I often stayed with Grandmamá and Granddad. Eventually, I became friends with other kids in the neighborhood, who would always come by to check to see if I was in. The barbecues, summer fun, and Christmas were all quite idyllic for me. Hillman Estates was a come-home-before-the-street-lights-come-on type of neighborhood.

It was also a convenient neighborhood. There was a butcher shop and great grocery store within 3 miles of the house, and the swanky Western Hills Mall another half-mile beyond that. It featured Sears, JC Penny, and Parisians (a Macy’s-style Birmingham-based clothing store that eventually merged with Saks 5th Ave.) Grandmamá could do her holiday shopping, pick up meals for the week, and catch a movie within a 5-mile radius. Within the community, the neighbors spoke across their lawns as they watered their plants, and invited each other over to grill or watch a game. My grandparents’ house became a hub of activity, especially when my grandfather started helping his steel worker pals with their asbestos class action settlements.

As the years passed, the residents got older and the kids went off to college or elsewhere. I still loved going there, it was where I felt safest, but troubling things started happening. By the time I was in college, the butcher shop had closed, meaning the local Piggly Wiggly had to pick up the slack. The meat and fish was often rancid by the time my grandmother was finally able to cook them. Western Hills Mall started losing business and slowly died. There would be fits and starts of development, but never anything that was sustainable. Soon, the only viable food options were fast food restaurants; the only stores were pawn shops, and the only entertainment was what we could see on cable.

What I describe here is not all that surprising. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that this is the common life cycle of communities of color: built during a time of prosperity, eventually it is depleted of tax dollars and services and stores run away.  What interests me about this are the subtle impacts on the climate this process represents.

That area of Birmingham is under a regime of apartheid – food, employment, and services. It is primed to become the next area involved in regentrification. But for the residents that are still there let’s consider what this all means. What used to be a 3-mile drive, is now an 8 to 10-mile drive that involves driving on the interstate, just to get good groceries. The same increase in mileage applies for anyone that worked in white collar jobs near the mall. Clothes/gift shopping, and entertainment are now 10-15 miles away. All of this adds up to more gas consumed. Gas prices fall, encouraging more gas consumption. Residents in this area, through no fault of their own, have now seen their collective carbon footprint increase significantly. Of course, this process isn’t just happening in Hillman Estates and surrounding areas, it occurs throughout the Birmingham metropolitan area, mostly in Black neighborhoods. And in each of these neighborhoods, the process is a feedback loop, until property values are rock-bottom and new development is encouraged, often by the city.

To me, this story of the house on Dandridge leads to a question: how do we ask communities to change their behaviors to be more environmentally conscious when doing so requires a complete reordering of protocols families implement to survive, let alone thrive? As I see it, this is a particularly U.S. American issue, and one that is often met with condescension, microaggressions, and gaslighting. In this scenario, the people most effected by the cycle I describe have had their agency stolen from them. How can they prevent the trickle of businesses leaving the area? What is an achievable and sustainable model for encouraging local business to provide viable alternatives to national brands? Where can these people turn for answers?

My posts always seem to raise more questions than answers. What I hope is that I am able to provide another perspective, somewhat outside the mainstream. The coalition we have to build has to be able to answer questions like what I ask for the residents of Hillman Estates, before it’s too late.

Naming The Future

A list of names going in multiple directions

My name has a few different meanings, depending on who it is that knows it. My mother told me I was named after her doctor, Donald Lee. I was the last baby Donald Lee delivered before retirement and it felt fitting to my mother. To him, my name might have meant the end of an era, or the beginning of one.

I had a hard time accepting my name when I was younger because it felt so White and so old on my young, Black frame. Amongst my classmates—Brittney, Takeisha, Kimberly, Latoya, Michelle—I felt like an oddball. I’d only met old White women named Donna. The day I met a young Black Donna at an IHOP was the day I met with a major symphony orchestra timpanist to talk about an unfair situation that affected my career as a percussionist. It was January 2020, and I wouldn’t be able to follow up the conversation with a former teacher until after the worst of the pandemic. I was stuck for two years in an unfinished-business limbo, two years evenly split.

A lot happened the day I met my first Black Donna. Facing for the first time a conversation that I had been needing to have for ten years—a conversation with an old, White man about how I felt he had derailed my music career, and why me being a woman and Black was at the center of it. Meeting Donna, my waitress at IHOP, meant that the name Donna existed in more ways than one.

To the musician, my name can mean music. It can mean Charlie Parker, or it can mean be-bop. It can mean a time in history that meant something to so many people. It could mean Miles Davis depending on one’s religious beliefs (I believe in the Bird). When I tried and failed to play “Donna Lee” for the first time in 4th grade on a set of bells, I began to think that my name meant something intricate, something people can’t do without practice, not even me.

Or it can mean a literal translation. The translation of Donna in Italian is “an Italian lady.” It is a nobility title, a reference to the lady’s class: Donna is in the aristocracy. If I were in Italy, I would be called Donna Donna Lee. In all honesty, I found refuge in that. It made me feel better when I was treated like an inferior, like I didn’t have enough class to be in the spaces classical music placed me.

After a classmate of mine told me that I am also a Donna (in spirit) in addition to being named Donna, that my name fits me, I was joyful. Not because of what is Italian in it, but because of what is Black in it.

My classmate is a Chiambeng. Chiambeng means “sound the bell,” he explained to me. A writer currently getting his MFA in fiction at Columbia University, Thomas Chiambeng explained to me the Cameroonian legacy of his name—how he is identified as it, by it.

“In the beginning, before the invasion of words, they studied music,” he began.


Families had their own identities specific to the music they played. They might be gifted in healing, or experts over roots and herbs. One family knows the plants, another family knows the animals—raising the animals, domesticating them. All these skills were passed down, and everyone knew what a family was good at. To generations growing up in a family, skills became natural. There weren’t schools to learn music so those ordained, in a sense, to pass it down—the composers—they played during village festivals over bonfires and other public events, passing down both the music and the natural ability to play and hear it. A child could find themself playing the harp or inventing an instrument from the back of a tree—a hollow log—and start playing. The patterns played and the emotion of one’s voice mixed with the tone of the music to pass their message, it changes accordingly.

Passing the message of someone’s death is different than passing the message of someone’s birth, similar to how we intone our voices. People intoned the music differently. And there is hierarchy in the music. Personality, status—a princess, for example, is born, and the sound of the music indicates a royal birth. A king’s message has its own tone, and a queen or prince just as well. There were bright, joyful rhythms and melodies for wedding announcements, grief-stricken music for funeral announcements. They communicated with swells of emotions massaged into a strum of a harp, a striking of tom-toms, or a rhythmic yet melodic wooden keyboard.

Houses weren’t compacted together, but spread across large expanses of farmlands, and by bushes, and by narrow paths. A gong is heard from the path to send a message in such a way that those on their farms and far away bushes knew exactly what it meant, even if they didn’t necessarily hear the inflections of the voice singing along with it. Through the rhythmic and melodic patterns, neighbors heard their voice.

The beauty of it is how people got to understand it. There are so many languages that divide Africans, meaning inter-kingdom communications depended on the compositions of Black composers in the past. Chiambengs are the family of the gongs, their name rooted in this music of the past. That hypersensitivity of the music meant that it was more than sound, more than who they were identified as (family of the bells), and by (playing the gong)—this hypersensitivity meant what instrument their family identified with (the name itself).

“They don’t do any of this anymore,” Chiambeng says, but he knows this was custom because he was taught the family history of it. Being taught has given my own name new meaning just as well. Imagine my elation when I came to understand that my name is the title of a Charlie Parker tune. After growing up listening to the jazz of my father, a saxophonist, and of my brother, a saxophonist, encompassing four decades of jazz. Even more, that the be-bop era is my father’s favorite. Add the complexity of then learning that I wasn’t named after that tune, but after my doctor who delivered me last as I was the last child of my mother, the youngest of 8—intentionally.

And yet despite these impactful meanings, the one that meant the most was meeting another Black Donna—both the timing of it and the shared identification of it. I wasn’t alone anymore.

But sometimes I learn names too late. It wasn’t until after leaving the conservatory I attended in New York City pursuing a B.M. in Classical Percussion Performance that I learned the name Julia Perry (1924-1979). I learned about both her and the percussion ensemble piece she wrote, and that the Manhattan School of Music percussion ensemble played and recorded it under the director Paul Price in 1965. I learned that at Spelman College, an HBCU in Atlanta, Georgia. Homunculus, C.F. for 10 percussionists (1960) is the piece, which means there were 10 highly trained percussionists most likely not of color performing repertoire by a Black woman. Duncan Patton, the recently retired principal timpanist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and faculty member at Manhattan School of Music (MSM) for over 30 years says that of the small handful of Black percussion students who apply to MSM each year, three have enrolled in his 30 years of teaching.

Perry’s 5-minute Homonculus sneaks up on you, starting with what could be a percussion version of strings tuning on stage. Snare drum and woodblock softly tussle with one another, both trying to tune to an evasive A440. The piece grows—matures, matriculates—from scrapes on cymbals, a hide-and-go-seek marching of the timpani, and tom-toms to plucked strings on harp introducing the melodic: xylophone, vibraphone. Celeste and piano drive snare drum and woodblock to a determined end.

Yet while I was at MSM, I didn’t feel as though I belonged, hadn’t felt that way for over a decade. Not because I didn’t love it, wasn’t one of the best, didn’t live and breathe it every day for most of my life, but because oftentimes (not all the time), I stood to the side and watched close relationships amongst percussionists rather than having any, treated like an outsider, sometimes aggressively as inferior.

At Interlochen Arts Camp when George (let’s just call him George for now) put his mouth to my ear and whispered a chant while I played a Bach partita on marimba in the practice room.

“You suck. You’ll never be able to play this. You’ll never be any good,” his lips occasionally brushing the black skin of my earlobe in repetition. “You suck. You’ll never be able to play this. You’ll never be any good,”—the sharp sting on the ‘s’ of suck and ‘n’ of never.

I kept playing, remaining locked into the only two lines of the piece I could play without needing to stop just to drown him out. Up until then, I hadn’t yet learned how to play a fugue, layers unfolding what it means to feel free. What first seems like a melody trapped in repetition opens and opens like a surgeon cutting into a chest cavity. First skin, then tissues—fat tissues padding and protecting—then rib cage, heart, blood vessels. Each more complex than the next.

Classical music, and even more, Johann Sebastian Bach, wasn’t supposed to belong to me, but I had made it mine. I had forced it into my hands, those first two lines, the only two lines I could play and didn’t know I memorized until my mental practice room built a fortress all about me. George had invaded my only refuge. He tried to take it, colonize it, gentrify it: he came, he saw, he attempted to conquer, but failed. Failed because Black composers like Julia Perry existed and Black composers exist in the future.

George was competitive, as we were all trained to be, but George had something extra, something personal. Winning something ahead of him was like a personal offense to him. He could have lost to someone to whom he would bow gracefully and accept his defeat, but he lost to me instead, treating it as though I made his mother cry and maybe I did. Maybe his line of ancestry, maybe the mitochondria only traced through the line of mothers going genealogically back to wherever they came from were pained to see me taking what they had already taken from me.

Interlochen wasn’t just about enjoying our crafts. We were given a window to see and understand that there were people all over the world who were better than us, and who we were better than. Every week we competed for chairs in the orchestra, drilled to focus our craft on triumphing over someone else. But to win the international concerto competition was the goal, the ultimate prize, an uncontestable recognition of superior skill that George wasn’t being trained to accept. Instead, he wanted to train me to not feel deserving of my achievement.

George was jealous. We all were in one way or another. George was also filled with rage for not just that he was beat, but by whom he was beat—because he was beat, like everyone else, in a myriad of ways. Did he taunt everybody?


I didn’t know Julia Perry’s name for over a decade after this collision with superiority. Imagine what it meant to learn that Donna is an Italian lady, an aristocrat—of noble birth. Then imagine what it meant to learn Julia Perry’s name, that she composed for percussion, that my percussion ensemble, the one I played with for two years before transferring to Spelman College—imagine what it was like for me to learn that I am of noble birth as an African American rather than as a translation for an oppressive aristocrat in Italy.

I did, however, feel like I had been translated. Take the name Donna out of time, put the genealogical name on a new me, then translate my translated name and what you end up with is a Black composer in the future. It was through my instrument that I found new meaning in my name like my classmate Thomas from Cameroon described to me. Just like what my name might have meant to the doctor that birthed me, the end of an era or the beginning of a new one, learning Julia Perry’s through my instrument was the beginning of a new era for me.

I am be-bop. I am classical. I am the daughter of a mother who is trained in classical flute and a father on jazz saxophone. I am the sister of a bassist, a trumpeter, a saxophonist, and a guitarist. I am a family legacy—third time soloist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I am a percussionist and as a writer, a Black composer in and of the future.

GLFCAM — Following the Interspecies Gaze in Shaun Tan’s Illustrated Stories

Four iterations of a photo of Timothy Peterson branded with New Music USA and GLFCAM Guest Editor logos

I’ll never forget my first encounter with Shaun Tan’s work. Back in 2015, I was enrolled in an undergraduate seminar on migrant literature, and one of the texts on the course syllabus was his wordless graphic novel, The Arrival (2006). This genre was new to me, and I found myself spellbound by Tan’s illustrations, which paint the story of a father’s immigration to an imaginary metropolis. On some level, I think the idea of telling a story with images alone reminded me of the challenge that composers face when writing instrumental music: how can we weave a narrative without words? Sure, certain images can conjure up specific ideas more easily than sound, but they still leave plenty for the viewer’s imagination to fill in. And here lies, for me, one facet of Tan’s artistry: he always incorporates an element of mystery into his graphic novels; even those that do feature text. You sense that there is a message in them somewhere, but it may not make itself immediately known; rather, it waits patiently for you. Since reading The Arrival, I’ve delighted in Tan’s other works, including Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008), Tales from the Inner City (2008), Lost & Found (2011), and Rules of Summer(2013). His stories have made me laugh and cry and never fail to leave me in a state of awe and reflection.

Beyond this visceral response, I’m drawn to the environmental themes that pervade much of Tan’s work. In Tales from the Inner City, he stages a series of unusual encounters between humans and animals in urban environments. Many of the tales in this collection illustrate the hubris, egocentrism, and shortsightedness that so often define our interactions with other creatures and the natural world at large. Others, however, open a window into the wondrous possibilities that might transpire if we were to find the humility and wisdom to revere and learn from other animals. When GLFCAM commissioned me last year to compose a song cycle for Mexican countertenor César Aguilar as part of its Composing Earth initiative, I sensed that I would be revisiting Tales from the Inner City for inspiration.

Throughout 2021, I joined other GLFCAM composers, Gabriela, and climate scientist Rob Davies in monthly discussion groups about the climate crisis. Our conversations centered on a series of books, articles, and documentaries that GLFCAM and Dr. Davies curated to catalyze our climate education. One hard truth that we discussed is the fact that anthropogenic climate change has ushered in a period of mass extinction: every year, one-in-a-million species should expire naturally, yet the current rate of extinction – accelerated by such factors as human population growth, meat production, and deforestation – is estimated to be 100-1,000 times greater. In response to this tragic development, National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore began documenting at-risk species with magnetic (yet unadorned) portraits as part of the Photo Ark project. Nat Geo writes, “No matter its size, each animal is treated with the same amount of affection and respect. The results are portraits that are not just stunningly beautiful, but also intimate and moving.” Sartore adds, “It’s the eye contact that moves people. It engages feelings of compassion and a desire to help.”

Tan’s Tales from the Inner City and Sartore’s Photo Ark both raise for me the notion of the interspecies gaze. What do intimate encounters with other animals engender in us? Empathy? Disgust? Something more uncanny? How does the setting of these encounters affect our response? These are some of the questions that led me back to Tan’s stories as I researched text to musically set for my Composing Earth commission, which is set to premiere in the fall of 2023. With GLFCAM’s assistance, I was thrilled to secure Tan’s permission this past spring to feature three of his stories in my song cycle. I’d like to share with you my reflections on these inspiring texts, each of which will comprise a different movement of my cycle.

“Orca” is a tale about an urban community that magically suspends a whale from the sky. “It was just so beautiful up there, so inspiring,” recalls the narrator wistfully. At first spellbinding, the sight of the orca gliding across the city’s illuminated night sky loses its charm as people find themselves unable to tune out the heartbreaking, resonant calls of the whale’s mother, which “penetrated all concrete, steel, and urban clamor.” The city dwellers feel ashamed of themselves and promise to return the whale to its mother, but their remorseful vows prove hollow: “We just don’t know how to get it down. We never did.” Musically, I find inspiration in this story’s heights-versus-depths imagery and evocation of different timbres (e.g. underwater sounds, mechanical sounds). At its core, I feel that “Orca” reflects three problematic ways in which humans relate to the natural world. First, how we all too frequently fail to consider the environmental impact of our actions. Second, when we do become aware of our impact–often only after the signs, like the orca’s mother, wail at us–the promises that we make to right our environmental wrongs tend to lie dormant, regardless of our intentions. Finally, “Orca” speaks to many people’s perception of animals as creatures that exist for our own pleasure. This human tendency, as Tan suggests in “Orca,” can instill in us a feeling of delight in the natural world, but this feeling does not necessarily translate into the reverence and respect for nature that might otherwise lead us to more sustainable ways of interfacing with our environment.

In “Butterfly,” a massive, rainbow swarm of butterflies (also known, more poetically, as a “kaleidoscope”) descends upon a city. Enchanted by this wondrous event, everyone stops what they are doing and gathers in the streets to “[wait] for the weightless blessing of tiny insects.” People’s worries fly away. Time seems to stop. (I’ll note here that this evocation of flight, lightness, and stillness lends itself beautifully to music.) Later, once the butterflies depart, people revert to their “factory settings,” desperately searching for reasons why the butterflies came in the first place and what their visit meant (“Was this an omen of something good or bad? A plague?”). At the risk of beating meaning out of a story that warns against “prying things apart for cause and effect, sign and symbol,” I feel that “Butterfly” speaks to certain obstacles that we face as we confront the climate crisis. First, our routine lifestyles–reliant on fossil-fueled energy and embedded in an unsustainable and inequitable profit-driven economy–no longer serve us or the planet on which we all ultimately depend for our survival. In Tan’s story, the kaleidoscope of butterflies snaps everyone out of their routines; they only succumb to their habitual worrying, intellectualizing, and problematizing in the butterflies’ absence. Though these mental tendencies (engrained in so many of us as we grow up) often go hand-in-hand with critical thinking (a tool that we desperately need in order to face the climate crisis), they can also lead to paralysis and inaction. We’re known to think more creatively when we’re playful, curious, and fully present, and Tan’s butterflies invite us into this mindset.

In “Snail,” a tale that will serve as the final movement of my song cycle, the narrator recalls the arrival of gigantic snails in an unnamed city and the outrage that they initially provoked. When night falls, the snails make love in plain sight in the city’s streets and alleyways. (Snails, I learned, are hermaphroditic creatures with an elaborate and languorous mating ceremony; in the narrator’s words, “the slowest of slow dances…”) All corners of society – politicians, religious leaders, naturalists – used to cry out against this open, uncouth display of affection, yet a century later, at the time of this story’s telling, everyone has grown to cherish the snails: “We would be so sad if they ever went away, leaving us all alone with our small ideas about love.” I read “Snail” as a satire on our practice of imposing human mores (e.g. notions of sexual normativity, productivity, public vs. private property) on other species. “Snail” also invites reflection on the rate of societal change: how long does it take for dominant cultural attitudes to shift? When we consider the climate crisis and the cultural (r)evolution that it requires of us, we cannot afford to wait the century that it takes the humans in “Snail” to coexist with their mollusk neighbors and absorb their lessons. If, however, we relinquish our knee-jerk hostility to lifestyles that differ from our own, our future on this planet promises to shine much brighter.

GLFCAM — New Day

Mirror images of Iman Habibi with branded GLFCAM Guest Editor and New Music USA logos

(Note: The following essay was originally shared as a Weekly Musing as part of the Composing Earth program on June 21, 2021.)

It has been years since I truly celebrated Norouz, the Persian new year, which welcomes the rebirth of nature with the spring equinox. Norouz is a remnant of a millennia-old Zoroastrian Iran, which in so many of its cultural and technological achievements, strove for the sustainable life we seek today. The architecture was ever so carefully designed to harness the power of nature (wind, sun, and water). The literature, going as far back as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, makes clear a distinction between biaban (wilderness) and abadi (urban center), with the latter being shielded with a greenbelt, moistening the air, preventing the expansion of the desert, protecting people from the wildlife, and the wildlife from people. The avestan vision of pardis, from which the English word paradise was later derived, could be summarized as a walled reserve, in which an ideal equilibrium between humans, animals and plants could be achieved (read more on these here, if interested).

The spirit of this celebration got lost on me somewhere along the process of immigration, and while the tradition is alive, its powerful symbolism seems lost on much of the Iranian populace today. An Islamic Iranian government doesn’t have much interest in people’s Zoroastrian roots, rarely educating them on its meaning. Not fully understanding the power of its symbolism as a child, I realize it wasn’t the Norouz itself that was meaningful to me, but the people who truly loved and cherished it, and as I saw less and less of the people who formed my childhood memories of Norouz, the excitement for the festivities faded in me. The Persian culture is so replete with traditions, and one ancient belief has it that whatever one does on the first day of Norouz, the day following the spring equinox, that activity will represent what one does for the remainder of the year. The moral may be: seize the day! Just as accomplishing that first task in the morning can propel you to accomplish the next and so on, if you use your time well on the first day of the year, that may just give you the momentum you need to make it through the rest of the year.

So I want to start my Weekly Musing by telling you how much I appreciate you all, and the time we have together. I spent two quality hours of my Norouz meeting with you last Saturday, discussing something we all care so deeply about, and I couldn’t be happier if this was to be the type of discussion I have all year. I feel I have just begun this journey. But already, I find the lessons of Amitav Ghosh, Kate Raworth, Rob Davies and David Wallace-Wells finding their way into my day-to-day life, forming my understanding of the world around me and my relationship with art. Twice over the past five days, once during a virtual rehearsal and another time while guest lecturing to the chamber piano students at The University of Michigan, I found myself explaining my take on gradualism and catastrophism as could be translated to music, and the need to keep an open mind as we explore new narratives. I found myself talking about a sustainable ecosystem, Raworth’s doughnut, one that takes balance, justice, and our finite resources into consideration. Last month, I received an invitation to speak at Earth Day Boston 2021, after the organizers took interest in the connections I made between climate change and the classical music industry in an interview, ideas I continue to absorb from our ever-amazing mentor, Gabriela!

What I am learning from these experiences is quite heartwarming to me! There is an immense thirst; a thirst for learning more about climate change, a thirst for finding the most effective ways to take action, a thirst for leading a more sustainable lifestyle at micro and macro levels, and a thirst for translating it all to music and to express it in the form we know best. When climate change entered the conversation during my guest lecture at Michigan, it quickly derailed (in a good way) our enthusiastic discussion about piano, chamber music, and collaboration with composers. The students were interested in learning more about climate change, how it can be incorporated in their lives, their career, and in their art. They were interested in learning about what GLFCAM is doing, through this study and in its climate commitment, and how that model can be translated to what they do.

It is not the traditions that made Norouz meaningful to me, but the people cherishing those traditions. And while I am finding little practical hope in realizing the solutions proposed to climate change, I find renewed energy in the unification of people under this cause. So I thought for this season of renewal, it may be apt to share some people-led projects and links I have been collecting, mostly related to carbon capture, that have given me some hope!

Ocean-based Climate Solutions in Santa Fe is working on a cool project increasing the levels of phytoplankton in the oceans to remove carbon dioxide biologically. Project Vesta is working on weathering volcanic minerals and using wave energy to lock up CO2 in the form of limestone at the bottom of the ocean (one has to wonder though, what ultimately happens to the CO2 trapped at the bottom of the ocean in this way)? This Norwegian cement factory is trying to go carbon neutral by figuring out a way to capture its own emissions! Climeworks uses subscription-based public donations to directly capture carbon from the air. And of course, there is the expansive project Drawdown, about which we will be reading later!

Norouz has been a uniting tradition, and is celebrated by more than 300 million people worldwide. Among them are the Parsis, Iranis, Baluchs, Pashtuns, Baltis and some muslims of India and Pakistan. Amidst a decades-long ongoing conflict between them, India and Pakistan, two countries highly affected by climate change, are leading the way in fulfilling their climate goals: India is the only G20 nation on track to meet its Paris Climate Goals, and Pakistan is a decade ahead of its goals to meet UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13. If two countries involved with an external conflict and plagued by domestic terrorism can turn their focus to climate change, perhaps there is hope that the rest of the world can too!