Category: Commentary

dublab – Who Gets to Compose?

As we launch dublab’s collaboration with New Music USA, we welcome the opportunity to feature the work of many musicians we believe represent the current landscape of contemporary music composition. Through a series of weekly editorial pieces, radio programs, live performances captured on video, and interviews, we hope we can not only shine a light on these artists and their work, but also bring up questions that are uniquely relevant to our current times.

When New Music USA approached dublab to be the first guest editors of NewMusicBox, both organizations wanted to frame this four-month collaboration under an overarching theme. After discussing various approaches, there was one question staring us right in our faces – when looking at the long history of NewMusicBox and New Music USA’s founding organizations, and the contrasting programming of an organization like dublab, it became obvious that this collaboration represented a clash of the times or juxtapositions of musical philosophies. Traditions, perceptions and the very questions at the center of it all: Who is a composer? What is a composer? And what is the role of a composer in this day and age?

  • We wanted to emphasize that all music belongs to the same tree, where the music of the past is the roots of today’s music and the music of today will be the roots of tomorrow’s music, regardless of genre or place of origin.

    Alejandro Cohen
    Alejandro Cohen
  • Hierarchies and categorizations can be practical at times, but also limiting in understanding how music creation flows, how interconnected all music is, and how it is conceived throughout history.

    Alejandro Cohen
    Alejandro Cohen
  • We can no longer refer to the archetypical image of the “ivory tower” composer when we think about an individual composing music. By that I am referring to that image you are thinking of right now of the Beethoven-looking man sitting at a table pouring what comes from the genius of his mind onto paper.

    Alejandro Cohen
    Alejandro Cohen
  • A composer’s work can use electronic arrangements from a synthesizer that resembles techno music and yet be considered a composition that ends up in a movie soundtrack, yet if a hip hop producer adds strings or samples of classical music, their music most likely won’t be funded by a grant from an arts organization.

    Alejandro Cohen
    Alejandro Cohen
  • With the emergence of social media, music streaming platforms, the democratization of music publishing and the affordability of equipment to produce quality recordings, the tools to empower those separating the “composer” from the “producer” have been getting narrower and so are the definitions that separated the two.

    Alejandro Cohen
    Alejandro Cohen
  • It is only through diversity in every sense of the word that music composition can evolve and to support the inclusion of those that may have never considered applying for a grant to fund their work.

    Alejandro Cohen
    Alejandro Cohen
  • The corridors that lead to creative paths and careers are as diverse as those that forge them; therefore, we should make sure that everyone enjoys the rewards, the respect, and the opportunities that these generate.

    Alejandro Cohen
    Alejandro Cohen

As the Executive Director of a media arts organization like dublab, we have experienced first-hand the importance of perception. Since its beginnings in 1999, dublab’s approach when it came to categorizing music was always under the self-made label of, “Future Roots Radio”. With that label we wanted to emphasize that all music belongs to the same tree, where the music of the past is the roots of today’s music and the music of today will be the roots of tomorrow’s music, regardless of genre or place of origin. Our intention was to break down perceptions of highbrow versus lowbrow music, hierarchies, and categorizations that can all be practical at times, but also limiting in understanding how music creation flows, how interconnected all music is, and how it is conceived throughout history.

I think it is necessary at times to make distinctions and label music and music creators for their place in time, in society and in history, however, with new technologies, and the sweeping changes in social dynamics of the past years, it is more evident than ever that what it used to be no longer is, and what it is, is not exactly what it is. Confusing? Yes, absolutely, but so are the times we live in. When your phone can be a flashlight, your car can be a taxi and your home can be a hotel, so is the composer of today. Technology has put in question who is a composer, and what the role of a composer is. We can no longer refer to the archetypical image of the “ivory tower” composer when we think about an individual composing music. By that I am referring to that image you are thinking of right now of the Beethoven-looking man sitting at a table pouring what comes from the genius of his mind onto paper. That image has been outdated for many years, yet we continue to embrace this perception with consequences that affect musicians and the music industry in profound ways.

In speaking of the past few years alone, composers have learned to borrow production techniques, instrumentation and elements from idioms where their creators are not necessarily seen as “composers”, but more as “producers,” “beatmakers,” “sound designers,” or simply “musicians.” Despite this, composers continue to enjoy the benefits (as they should) of such distinguished title that includes public acknowledgement in arts institutions, commissioning of jobs, and grant opportunities, to name a few. When looking into the ecosystems of musicians where their main work is related to genres considered to be part of popular music, underground culture, or nightlife entertainment, their careers rarely cross paths with the world of art institutions, grants, and commissions. This stark division between the two doesn’t go both ways: The composer’s work can use electronic arrangements from a synthesizer that resembles techno music and yet be considered a composition that ends up in a movie soundtrack, yet if a hip hop producer adds strings or samples of classical music, their music most likely won’t be funded by a grant from an arts organization. The point here is not to blame anyone or point fingers, but look at our general attitudes and the expectations we have from each other and ourselves that end up defining how we seek and provide funding, and how we judge, place value and determine what belongs where in the wide musical spectrum.

A 30-year long road is a long road to travel, but fortunately that road is getting shorter.

With all being said about the divisions described above, more than ever we are seeing conversations, collaborations and cross-pollination taking place between “art institutions” and “night clubs”. What used to take 30 years for art to travel from the streets to the museums, now seems to be acknowledged by the institutions within the lifetime of the artists, and sometimes even as immediate as it is created.

With the emergence of social media, music streaming platforms, the democratization of music publishing and the affordability of equipment to produce quality recordings, the tools to empower those separating the “composer” from the “producer” have been getting narrower and so are the definitions that separated the two. More than in the past years we are borrowing from each other and we learn to use the tools that work at every stage of our careers – from instrumentation, sound palettes, and studio techniques, to how we fund and promote our work.

Here at dublab, we welcome the opportunity from New Music USA as a way to move the conversation forward. As we look towards the end of 2022 and what is to come in 2023, we hope this four-month collaboration will serve as a place to highlight the above-mentioned differences and similarities between the traditional and the contemporary, where one ends and the other begins; or simply how it all belongs to one. Just like New Music USA reached out to dublab for its unique take on music, we look to them for guidance and perspective. It is only through diversity in every sense of the word that music composition can evolve and to support the inclusion of those that may have never considered applying for a grant to fund their work. This diversity can also uplift genres that once belonged to older generations and patrons of the arts, and in turn bring new and younger audiences to an opera house or to a classical music concert and spark a renewed interest and wave of energy that is so needed in art institutions.

A new era is upon us, whether we recognize the signs or not, and it is up to everyone that is part of this ecosystem to open up the doors to the “ivory tower” and share directions to the underground warehouse party. The corridors that lead to creative paths and careers are as diverse as those that forge them; therefore, we should make sure that everyone enjoys the rewards, the respect, and the opportunities that these generate. With these thoughts I welcome you to our collaboration with New Music USA, and I hope you find infinite inspiration in the articles, DJ sets, conversations and live performances that we will feature in the coming months on NewMusicBox.

Composer Advocacy Journal: On The Road Again

It’s been two weeks since I returned from Aotearoa New Zealand where I was attending the overlapping International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) World New Music Days and Asian Composers League festivals in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and Ōtautahi Christchurch. But given all the things I’ve plunged into since returning, while fighting jetlag from the 16-hour time difference and the grueling 27 1/2-hour door-to-door journey back to New York City, I still haven’t been able to completely wrap my brain around everything I experienced during the 12 days I was there.

First, a little background. Part of my work for New Music USA, in my role as Composer Advocate, is to advocate for our programs and values both nationally and internationally through various member-based networks, such as the ISCM and the International Association of Music Centres (IAMIC). Prior to the global pandemic, the members of these networks met annually to compare practices for supporting and advocating for music as well as to share music with each other. ISCM meetings occur in a different city somewhere in the world every year concurrently with a multi-concert festival called the World (New) Music Days (WNMD) which features music from each of the countries represented in the network. (The “New” is in parenthesis since some hosts call the festival simply “World Music Days.”) Since 2019, I have served on the boards of both organizations but, since the pandemic, that has meant meeting on Zoom often at less than optimal hours (sometimes at 6:00 A.M. or after Midnight for me) to accommodate the time zones of all the participants. However, in May, IAMIC held its first in-person conference in three years, which took place in multiple cities in Germany (Hamburg, Bonn, and Cologne). And in August, the ISCM finally convened in New Zealand for the first time, an event that had originally been scheduled for April 2020. (Before I was elected to ISCM’s Executive Committee, I wrote several very detailed reports of these annual festivals; to get a better sense of what a WNMD is like, you might enjoy reading the last of these, my account of the 2016 Festival in Tongyeong, South Korea, in which I attempted to explain the cultural milieu of the ISCM by comparing it to the Wizarding world as described in the Harry Potter novels.)

My trip to Germany in May for the 2022 IAMIC Conference was the first time I had left the country since the pandemic, and I was filled with anxiety a great deal of the time. But aside from the discomfort of wearing a mask everywhere including on a long overnight flight, the suitcase containing clothing I had brought for the trip not catching up with me until the night before I flew back home (which offered me an experience I otherwise never would have had of very quickly shopping for overpriced poorly fitting clothing in a Hamburg department store–don’t ask), and one of the delegates getting COVID (thankfully everyone diligently tested every day and it didn’t spread further), it was an extremely worthwhile week. I am particularly proud of a panel I moderated at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn which focused on the extremely generous pandemic-era funding for creative artists based in Germany which made the delegates attending from everywhere else in the world extremely envious.

IAMIC Board of Directors and Cloud Chamber Bowls.

The IAMIC Board of Directors at the headquarters of Ensemble Musikfabrik in Cologne, Germany in May 2022. Pictured left to right are Deborah Keyser, Jonathan Grimes, Radvilė Buivydienė, Peter Baros, Diana Marsh, Stephan Schulmeistrat, Agnieszka Cieślak-Krupa, and FJO. (Note the replicas of Harry Partch’s Cloud Chamber Bowls on the far right.)

By the time August rolled around and I journeyed to New Zealand, I was a seasoned pandemic traveler. But nothing (not even having travelled there once before, 15 years ago, for a IAMIC conference) is sufficient physical or psychological preparation for a flight from the West Coast of North America across the Pacific Ocean and far down into the Earth’s other hemisphere to finally reach Auckland. It’s a 13-hour flight that, if coming from NYC, must be proceeded by a 6-hour flight to get to the West Coast as well as a massive trek between terminals which, even though there’s a more than two-hour layover, is a race against the clock, made even more challenging when masked. (In September, now that I’m back, Air New Zealand just introduced a brand new direct New York JFK-Auckland flight which lasts nearly 18 hours, though I’m not sure whether a direct flight or two long flights with a very long walk in between is worse.)

Maori sculptures surround one of the walls in the international arrival terminal of the Auckland Airport.

Among the first things visitors see after arriving in the Auckland Airport after an extremely long international flight. (They also pipe in a recording of Maori traditional chants.)

Before I continue, I’d like to offer a small disclaimer. Given the role I now have within ISCM, it seems somewhat of a conflict of interest for me to be singing the praises of the World New Music Days in an expansive report, so this should not be construed as that. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to offer some information here on each of the American pieces that were performed, offer a few observations about what made this particular edition unique (especially since it is the first one that took place in more than three years), and to give readers here a sense of what I’ve been up to recently.

Although it had to be somewhat scaled down from what had originally been planned for 2020, the 2022 ISCM World New Music Days, which took place concurrently with a festival of the Asian Composers League, was a major undertaking that seemed to happen through sheer force of will, mainly on the part of the festival’s Artistic Director, Glenda Keam, who also happens to be the President of ISCM. All in all, 20 of the submitted works that had originally been chosen for performance (among them, sadly, Katherine Balch‘s extraordinary string quartet drip music which was a submission from the League of Composers, the official ISCM USA Section), could not be presented this year, plus two additional works listed in the program (that were not from ISCM submissions) had to be cancelled. In addition, due to the ongoing uncertainties of the global pandemic, many delegates could not attend (our general assembly meetings were an often challenging hybrid of in-person and Zoom), so many of the concerts were not as well attended as they should have been. Still, as in previous editions of the WNMD, the festival offered a fascinating cross section of music by composers hailing from six continents. (Despite a fascinating exhibit devoted to Antarctic exploration in the Canterbury Museum, which was around the corner from some of the concerts in Christchurch, a viable new music scene has yet to develop there.)

The members of the ISCM Executive Committee sitting around a table, all masked.

The ISCM Executive Committee met in all day meetings during the weekend before the 2022 World New Music Days began. (Pictured left to right are David Pay, FJO, Oľga Smetanová, Wolfgang Renzl, Irina Hasnaş, George Kentros, and Tomoko Fukui.)

In both cities where the festival took place, before any of the concerts there was a formal welcome (Mihi whakatau) featuring speeches and music from members of the local Māori community, the indigenous people who have inhabited Aotearoa New Zealand long before the en masse arrival of British settlers in the early 19th century and the Māori still make up approximately 16.5% of the country’s population.  It was thrilling to hear live performances by Māori musicians on taonga pūoro (the traditional musical instruments of the Māori which have only been revived in recent decades), particularly (and, for a contemporary music festival, very appropriately) the blaring tone clusters that resulted from the simultaneous blowing of pūkaea and pūtātara, trumpet-like instruments made from wood and conch shells respectively, during the first of these welcomes which took place in the courtyard outside the School of Music at the University of Auckland. Admittedly, though, it was somewhat frustrating to listen to the speeches in Māori which were mostly left untranslated. But the solution to that is to learn the language one day! (I must point out that NZ’s overall embrace of Māori heritage and its attempt at establishing a bicultural society is extremely impressive and it has gone well beyond what I previously witnessed when I visited Wellington back in 2007. That said, apart from a few exciting compositions by composers of Māori heritage, such as Takarei Komene, whose 2019 Ngā Roimata o te Tūrama for unaccompanied mixed chorus and whistling was a highlight of a performance by the Auckland Chamber Choir, members of the Māori community did not seem to be part of the “contemporary music” scene in New Zealand. It should be pointed out, however, that the composers from New Zealand whose music was featured on the festival come from extremely diverse cultural backgrounds, ranging from Greece to East Asia.)

Māori musicians playing taonga pūoro

Here are the Māori musicians who greeted all of the ISCM delegates with marvelous tone clusters on taonga pūoro.

The first two concerts of the festival were devoted to music involving electronics. Seven fixed media works (two involving video as well as audio) were presented at the first one, in Auckland’s Audio Foundation, a sub-basement venue located in a neighborhood that is a steep walk from the University. One of the two works involving a video element was Lithuanian composer Albertas Navickas‘s fascinating Silences (2016), which featured fragments of footage of an older woman speaking accompanied by a pre-recorded ensemble which re-enforced the pitch content of her words (a la Scott Johnson’s John Somebody or Steve Reich’s Different Trains). The other was White Heron Dance, a haunting 2017 studio piece by American electronic music pioneer Alice Shields, accompanied by abstract animation (created by Thomas Barratt), which was submitted for inclusion in the festival by the Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music. It was a challenge to distinguish the other pieces since they were not clearly identified during the presentation, which perhaps was part of the gestalt of this very DIY space, but it was nevertheless somewhat frustrating. The second concert, back at the University, involved live electronics and included two works from composers based in the United States: In the Middle of the Room, Jeff Morris‘s 2017 audio-video manipulation of a song by Elisabeth Blair, submitted by ISCM’s Full Associate Member, based at Stephen F. Austin State University, which promotes the music of Texas-based composers; and PS Quartet No. 1, also from 2017, by Korean-born, Michigan-based composer Joo Won Park, in which four performers manipulate audio and video via PlayStation controllers–which was very entertaining both to see and hear. Full disclosure: the latter was the piece among six submitted by New Music USA (it was funded by a Project Grant) which was chosen for performance in the festival. (All ISCM member organizations can submit up to six pieces for consideration in each year’s WNMD and if the submissions are in at least 4 different instrumentation categories, the festival must perform one of them.)

Computer terminals with visuals and audio triggered by 4 PlayStation controllers during a performance of Joo Won Park's PS Quartet No. 1

An action shot from the performance of Joo Won Park’s PS Quartet No. 1 at the University of Auckland during the 2022 ISCM World New Music Days.

On the second day of the festival there were two concerts, both at the University of Auckland. The first was a tour de force afternoon recital by percussionist Justin DeHart, a transplant to New Zealand who originally hails from Sacramento, California. In a group of seven pieces from Canada, Portugal, and New Zealand, he demonstrated the extraordinary range of sounds that can be made by just one person striking many different kinds of objects (though at times the sounds he made were enhanced by pre-recorded electronics). The evening concert was devoted to mostly unaccompanied choral works (for one, a harp was added) performed by the aforementioned Auckland Chamber Choir, a group based at the University. The concert opened with the inventive and challenging Sonata form denatured prose (2014) by Swedish-born Norwegian-based composer Maja Linderoth (b. 1989), who was named the winner of the ISCM Young Composer Award at the end of the festival; the first time a female composer had received the award since 2011.

The next day the ISCM delegates travelled to the West Auckland suburb of Titirangi for a concert, again devoted to electronic music, in the Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery. Lukas Ligeti, an Austrian-born composer who currently divides his time between Florida and Johannesburg, South Africa, performed his Labyrinth of Stars: The Far Southeast (2014), an improvisatory solo for the Donald Buchla-designed marimba lumina. The material for the piece is derived from the composer’s earlier concerto for marimba lumina and orchestra titled Labyrinth of Clouds.  In his prefatory comments, Ligeti stated that this new version of the music was inspired by his seeing stars that are visible in this part of the world which are not visible in the Northern Hemisphere and the resultant music juxtaposed a series of diatonic ostinatos with some surprising chromatic intrusions. (I was hoping to see some of those stars, too, but most of the evenings I was there were cloudy, plus most of the time I was too close to city lights to be able to appreciate them.) That concert also featured Interdependencies (2018), a trippy live manipulation of eight interconnected tone generators by Danish composer Christian Skjødt which he said was just part one of a work that is twice as long; I’m eager to hear the rest of it one day. Unfortunately, because I failed to signup for it in time, I missed Polish composer Mikolaj Laskowski‘s 2018 Deep Relaxation No. 4: Self-Care, an audience participatory piece involving sound objects and yoga mats that was presented twice but was limited to just 12 attendees each time.

A very large tree in Auckland NZ

While I never saw many stars in NZ, I did see this amazing tree in a park while walking from my hotel to the University of Auckland for ISCM meetings and concerts.

Later in the week, Polish-born New Zealand-based pianist Gabriela Glapska gave a very convincing recital comprised of nine works from eight countries, the most intriguing of which, at least for me, were three selections from Japanese composer Matoharu Kawashima‘s 2017 Action Music, in particular the last one in which the pianist mimics the famous opening of Tchaikovsky’s overplayed first piano concerto, ultimately closing the lid and continuing to play. I was also very taken with a duo recital by violinist/violist Andrew Beer and pianist Sarah Watkins at the hip Loft Q Theatre on Auckland’s busy Queen Street. Everything they played they turned into something extraordinary, but I really loved the brave beauty of Canadian composer Rodney Sharman‘s 2016 viola/piano duo Gratitude and Swiss composer Esther Flückiger‘s often jazzy 2017 Guarda i lumi for violin and piano and will want to hear both works again many times. (Luckily three of the NZ pieces featured on the program were on a CD of the duo I bought the last night of the festival, though I was already familiar with the 2011 miniature Tōrua by Gillian Whitehead, one of NZ’s most prominent composers, since it was one of the Encore Pieces commissioned and recorded by Hilary Hahn.)

I skipped the concluding Auckland event, a screening of a virtual concert by the Australian new music ensemble ELISION who were originally scheduled to participate in person before COVID-related travel restrictions threw a monkey wrench into the plan. But since they plan to post all their virtual performances to their YouTube channel, I hope to catch up with it when they do. Unfortunately the few other programs I wound up missing for a variety of reasons, some having to do with the complexities of navigating Auckland’s challengingly hilly terrain, were mostly not streamed and archived online. After a couple of years of virtual performances becoming a lifeline to musical experiences with the concurrent benefit of these concerts being able to attract audiences from all over world who otherwise could not have experienced them, it seems a shame not to set up even a smartphone (many of which have better audio and video reproduction capabilities than some so-called professional camcorders from 20 years ago) to preserve all performances and make them available to as many people as possible.

Tables filled with CDs and tables filled with LPs further in the back.

The days and nights were pretty tightly packed with meetings and concerts, but there was a gap of a couple of hours one morning so of course I went shopping for LPs and CDs at Penny Lane Records, which thankfully opens quite early.

Although the Festival program in Christchurch lasted a mere four days, it seems like there were twice as many concerts. This is because in addition to concerts featuring repertoire selected from ISCM submissions, there were also concerts devoted to repertoire chosen from the member organizations in the Asian Composers League. It’s far too much music to write about here in a way that won’t seem completely overwhelming, but I would like to call attention to a few things that left a lasting impression.

The Christchurch Youth Orchestra played a very short concert (only about 37 minutes) consisting of five works. Still it was nice to see and hear such a group performing on an important international music festival in front of an audience of people from all over the world and two of the works–Ogham (2018) by Irish composer Ryan Molloy and Distant Lights (2017) by Hong Kong composer Richard Tsang–contained some really exciting orchestration that I’d love to study in greater detail. Another of the pieces, Surcos a la tierra by Chilean composer René Silva, would be a big hit at The Midwest Clinic if Silva were to rearrange it for wind band. Two of the nation’s leading chamber music groups, the New Zealand String Quartet and the NZTrio, offered very wide ranging concert programs. The former, which took place in the 19th century Great Hall in Christchurch’s historic Arts Centre, a real time portal, included an intense 2015 quartet, inside voice, by Kurt Rohde, submitted by ISCM Full Associate member Florida International University, which brought everyone back into modern times. The latter concert, which took place in a posh new venue called The Piano, which was built since the massive 2011 Earthquake, did not include any American pieces, but British composer Joe Cutler‘s clever 2016 McNulty was inspired by the American TV drama series The Wire. Other works on the program included the very effective ACL-commissioned Elehiya Para sa mga Biktima ng Masaker sa Maguindanao (Elegy for the Victims of the Maguindanao Massacre) by Philippine composer Ryle Custodio, winner of the ACL’s 2018 Young Composer Prize, and the rhythmically intriguing Der Tanz by NZ composer Tabea Squire, one of the only works on the festival that was composed this year (since most of the programming was carried over from the postponed 2020 festival).

An orchestra onstage in a concert hall.

The Christchurch Youth Orchestra conducted by Helen Renaud during their performance at t Margaret’s College’s Charles Luney Auditorium in Christchurch NZ.

Another concert held at The Piano the night before the NZTrio appeared there featured seven very different compositions including the melancholy 2009 What gathers, what lingers by American composer Anna Weesner, another Roger Shapiro Fund submission. A concert at the tiny Recital Room in the University of Canterbury’s Arts Centre, which with two grand pianos seemed like very tight quarters, offered a variety of works which explored inside the piano sonorities. I loved Lauschgut (2019) by German composer Charlotte Seither whom, as luck would have it, was on the panel I moderated at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn during the public day of the IAMIC Conference (small world). And though it was completed seven years before Putin’s invasion, Forest Cover (2015) by Ukrainian composer Mykola Khshanovskyi, in which the explosive sonorities emanating from the piano are enhanced by pre-recorded and live electronics, sounded extremely timely. Yifan Yang, a piano student at the University of Canterbury, gave a breathtaking account of it.

Charlotte Seither and Frank J. Oteri

From my panel talk with Charlotte Seither during the public day of the IAMIC Conference at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn back in May (photo by Nathan Dreessen-of the MIZ)

On the final day there was another concert in the Recital Room devoted to eleven string trios from young composers based in 11 different countries represented within the Asian Composers League. The simultaneously deft and fun handling of numerous extended techniques in bouncing, sliding, spinning (2019) by Thai composer Piyawat Louilarpprasert, who is now based at Cornell, earned him the YCL’s 2022 Young Composer Award, but I was also quite taken with New Zealand composer Glen Downie‘s almost static Two Variations on an Original Chorale (2019). The performances, by two different string trios, felt like a triathlon, particularly when Johnny Chang and Mark Bennett as well as Mark Menzies (who was a ubiquitous onstage presence at the Christchurch concerts) and Rakuto Kurano switched between violin and viola, though at one point Menzies forgot which instrument he was supposed to play. But maybe he was just joking. Either way, it was as compelling visually as it was sonically.

Taonga pūoro displayed on a table.

The taonga pūoro that Alistair Frasier performed on during his duo concert with flutist Bridget Douglas.

But the real highlight of the Christchurch events for me was the duo of Alistair Fraser and Bridget Douglas performing on taonga pūoro and Western (silver) flutes, also in the Recital Room. Particularly intriguing were Gareth Farr‘s Silver Stone Wood Bone and Briar Prastiti‘s Terra Firma, both composed in 2019, the latter of which contained passages in which it was sometimes hard to tell which instrument was playing what. It was nevertheless a shame that no members of the Māori community were involved in either the composition or performance of a group of works which were all about bridging the divide between Māori and European cultures. Is it possible that no one in that community has created any music like that yet?

A billboard with a poster that says "I WILL NOT SPEAK MAORI" in all capital letters.

Once upon a time Māori people were forced to recite the line “I will not speak Māori” as part of the Anglicization process during their early schooling. It is something that still haunts the current population of Aotearoa New Zealand.

As I wrote at the onset, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around all of this. In particular, how a festival of contemporary music can truly be representative of what is currently being created all around the world and how such a festival could reach a broader and more diverse audience. Also, are such festivals, which, in the case of the ISCM, have been going on for a century, still feasible in a world that can be shut down by a global pandemic as well as by war and the vagaries of climate change? The ISCM was created a few years after the end of the First World War in an attempt to bring the fractured world together through music, yet in the beginning that world consisted just of countries in Europe plus the United States. As time went on, the ISCM eventually brought in members from South America, Asia, Oceania, and Africa, but 2022 marked only the second time in its history that the festival took place in the Southern Hemisphere. We’re hoping, to mark the centenary of the very first ISCM festival, to meet next year in South Africa, the first time on the African continent, an undertaking which has a great many challenges. But maintaining a festival that takes place every year in a different location in the world might prove to be an even greater challenge.

Flight departures at Auckland's international terminal.

Of course, the trip back home is as long as the trip there…

 

 

The End of the World? We’ll Compose It.

We can’t consider what new music will look like in ten years without asking, first, what the world will look like. As I write this, here in the United States, current events are trending towards the bleak. Maybe I check the news too often, but it feels like the last few years have been little else but bleak. Mass shootings continue on, unchecked, and the legacy of our country’s racist history remains deeply entrenched in, well, everything. Here in California, we face another season of fires and drought, and a statewide housing crisis. Worldwide, our climate continues to change and degrade with increasingly deadly consequences.

I’m not a political analyst or a climatologist; I don’t hold a doctorate, just a master’s degree in Music Composition. Far be it from me, then, to forecast what the next ten years will hold. But as I consider the best and worst possible outcomes for our trajectory and the role music might play, anxiety clouds my vision. Trying to make sense of an abstract future, I imagine a steep drop off. A cliff. A black hole.

What role does music play in all of it, now and in the future? And, on a more optimistic note, what about the music being written now? How is it already helping?

In normal times (Have we ever lived in normal times? Has anyone?) I want music that surprises and delights me. I want music that uses notes and rhythm and lyrics and form and texture and timing to challenge and reframe my perspective. I want to leave every concert altered in some alchemical way.

And even in the worst of times—if, say, climate change brings us temperatures better suited to Death Valley than Los Angeles, or if my country halts its slow progress towards equity and equality and instead regresses to the oppressive value systems of the 1950s—I imagine I’d want the same. Music that surprises and delights, still, but with an accurate, biting fierceness. Music that functions as an emotional tool and a rally for action and a safe haven—not all at once, but in different pieces by different artists. Music that is sometimes an escape, other times a mirror. Now and in ten years, I want to hear this music performed live as often as possible. I want to bask in it until it lives in the very marrow of me, reshaping me, readying me for whatever comes next.

This summer, I taught on faculty at Choral Arts Initiative’s Premiere Project Institute, which brings composers together for world premieres and a week of discussing the business and creative practicalities of composing for chorus. In many of the fifteen works premiered there, I found my own anxieties reflected back to me: music as mirror. Patricia Wallinga’s The Danger set government warnings about long-term radiation: instructions for future generations, telling them to avoid permanent nuclear waste sites. David Walters’s Paradise recognized the devastating effects of the Paradise Fire in Northern California, setting a former resident’s account of visiting the aftermath of the fire. Cooper Baldwin’s Libera Me (as embers singe the tide) wove Baldwin’s own words with a traditional Latin Requiem Mass text and excerpts from 2022 IPCC Report on Climate Change. The resulting piece pleads for a better future than the one we’re facing.

Other recurring themes echoed throughout the concert: staggering responses to personal and collective grief, as well as the desire for a reciprocated love. These were just as welcome as the works about climate change. After all, if we linger in despair for too long—or if we listen to nothing but one musical panic attack after another—we’ll burn out, too exhausted and stressed to accomplish much of anything, let alone create more art.

But when daily horrors are unavoidable, a well-crafted piece about anxiety or grief isn’t a source of exhaustion but a voice that whispers or shouts: You’re not alone. In Los Angeles, whenever I wake up to my blinds shaking and windows rattling, I turn to Twitter first and search “earthquake.” I want to validate my experience and make sure I wasn’t the only one who felt the trembling. There’s comfort in the knowledge that we’re collectively moving through the same fears.

In the next ten years, I believe we’ll need this communal recognition more than ever. We’ll need a musical community that offers reassurances and comforts, however small. I think of partnered grief—how a small, strange advantage to grieving with someone else is that you can trade off who is emotionally incapacitated and who is merely numb. One person reheats dinner while the other sobs on the couch. The next day, maybe, you switch roles. It may be naïve of me to think that music can hold space in a similar same way: a container for sorrow. A vessel to hold our despair, so we don’t have to carry all of it at once. But even if music can’t provide this emotional support, a community of musicians can.

My spouse and I recently decided not to have children, in part because of so many unknowns about our shifting climate—what it will look like in ten, twenty, fifty years. But whenever I’m around younger composers, at a conference or on faculty for a festival or guest-teaching at a university, I feel hopeful. I see so many of us searching for meaning and hope and accuracy and evolution. I see so many distinct ways to create our musical safe havens, our pointed critiques, our unclouded mirrors.

In an ideal world, of course, we’ll reverse the effects of climate change in the next ten years. We’ll all agree on basic human rights. We won’t ever have to carve a path through our worst fears in order to make music.

But even in the bleakest possible outcome, I’d still want to feel recognized and known. So much of the music being written today already provides that solace and recognition. I may not have faith in our world’s ability to fix what is broken, but I have faith in artists. I have faith in those who see what’s crumbling and write about it instead of turning away. I have faith in musicians, period. I don’t anticipate that changing any time in the next ten years.

  • In normal times (Have we ever lived in normal times? Has anyone?) I want music that surprises and delights me. ... I want to leave every concert altered in some alchemical way. 

    Dale Trumbore
    Dale Trumbore
  • If we linger in despair for too long—or if we listen to nothing but one musical panic attack after another—we’ll burn out, too exhausted and stressed to accomplish much of anything, let alone create more art.

    Dale Trumbore
    Dale Trumbore
  • A well-crafted piece about anxiety or grief isn’t a source of exhaustion but a voice that whispers or shouts: You’re not alone.

    Dale Trumbore
    Dale Trumbore
  • Whenever I’m around younger composers, at a conference or on faculty for a festival or guest-teaching at a university, I feel hopeful. I see so many of us searching for meaning and hope and accuracy and evolution.

    Dale Trumbore
    Dale Trumbore
  • I may not have faith in our world’s ability to fix what is broken, but I have faith in artists. I have faith in those who see what’s crumbling and write about it instead of turning away.

    Dale Trumbore
    Dale Trumbore

20 Predictions for the Music Business in 10 Years

Ted Gioia photo in Out of The Box banner

The ideas below came to me in a dream. Some of them seem a little unusual—I should probably apologize for that. I had a couple glasses of a very fine Barolo from the Monforte region of northern Italy before falling asleep, so maybe that played a factor. But I’m determined to share what I heard exactly as it was told to me in my sleep.

Ten years from now. . .

1. A major Silicon Valley company will announce that it has created the ‘next Beethoven’ with quantum computing technology.

2. A legitimate musical counterculture will arise, with a cadre of new artists achieving superstar status while rejecting the roles of influencer and content provider. The motto “music comes first” will be a key part of their marketing message. The movement will have a name, but that word doesn’t exist yet.

3. YouTube fans will fondly recall the days when they only had to sit through two short commercials before watching a music video.

4. Web platforms will have destroyed record labels—which will no longer play a meaningful role in building the careers of new artists.

5. A reality TV show will launch a very popular song competition. But only children under the age of 8 will be allowed to vote. The success of the show will create a popular new genre known as TDM (Toddler Dance Music). It will even get its own Grammy category.

6. Musicians will find ways to capture 80-90% of the revenue from their music. This is already happening at Bandcamp, but the trend will spread rapidly. A whole host of other platforms will emerge that give most of the money to the artist and only keep a small percentage for themselves.

7. AI-driven Robots will increasingly replace DJs at dance clubs. Club owners will insist that the algorithm is better at pleasing customers than a human being.

8. The President of the United States will launch a curated playlist on a major music platform. At first music industry insiders will ridicule it, but change their tune after 40 million people sign up as subscribers. All proceeds will go to support animal rights organizations.

9. A song composed entirely by artificial intelligence will reach the number one spot on the Billboard chart. The music video (also AI-created) will be a major contributor to its success.

10. Trombone sales will skyrocket after the instrument is implicated in a high-profile celebrity scandal.

11. Before a hot new album by a major star is released, each track will be auctioned off as a separate non-fungible token. A prominent hedge fund manager who is famous for his large portfolio of music NFTs will become personal financial advisor to many leading rappers and pop stars. His nickname on Wall Street will be DJ Blockchain.

12. Individuals who can identify rising talent will set up their web channels, and fill the role once played by the A&R department at a record label. But there’s one big difference: they can do everything themselves without a huge corporation behind them. If these talent scouts have a web channel with a few million subscribers, they will have more clout than Sony (which, by the way, currently has a pathetic 40 thousand subscribers to its YouTube channel) or most other labels. They can sign artists, showcase them online, and build their audience—acting as sole operators, but with the influence of a big business.

13. A hit song by a K-Pop band will still be in the top 40 after four years.

14. Streamed music events will generate more income than live concerts.

15. The only child of the CEO of Google/Alphabet will date a musician with no discernible talent, but who now suddenly shows up everywhere on search engine results and even wins a prominent music industry award.

16. Spotify threatens to delist every track that doesn’t get at least one thousand streams per year, unless the artist pays a stiff annual fee.

17. Record labels won’t disappear, but will live mostly off the income from their publishing catalogs (which they are in a mad frenzy to acquire right now) and the old music in their archives. They will start to fear impending copyright expirations that threaten much of their cash flow, and try (unsuccessfully) to get legislators to extend IP protection for music.

18. The most discussed movie soundtrack of the year will feature complete silence—except for 12 seconds of music at a dramatic point in the story.

19. New music industry power players will emerge in Asia and other non English-speaking regions. New York, London, and Los Angeles will still be centers of activity, but hardly as dominant as they once were. The savvier music companies will be in a mad scramble to expand their presence in Seoul, Kinshasa, Jakarta, etc.

20. The TV audience for the Grammy Awards will fall to a new low. Instead, the music event with the highest TV ratings that year will be a live broadcast of the 90th birthday concert of a famous rock/pop star.

Music For Tomorrow’s World

Out of the Box banner with embedded headshot photo of Jessie Cox by Adrien H. Tillmann

Reflections of the future as digs to uncover what the present holds, maybe as possibility, maybe as impossibility, but surely a practice that sounds an open totality, that is to say improvisation as togetherness, or maybe, consent not to be a single being.[1] Rather than communing in formations, out of and with information as data, or bodies, or domains—sovereign authorities in general—this writing is an attempt to think through the prompt: “…our community ponder aspects of what music will be like ten years into the future,”[2] not only towards a future, but from a future, one I can hear, but also one I might already live in, that radically shifts notions of community, time, and space, under the heading of, and through music, as thought refigured. In listening to the present as an archeological dig,[3] as a site incomplete and still improvising itself out and in, like writing and reading onto and out-from this page, musical thinking can allow a shift in relation. When relation, to time, space, and others, becomes poetic, that is opaque and at the same time fully inseparable, then thinking with the future becomes a reflection of a future: like stars that shine from a past long gone, and mirror us into positions of futurity. It is through music that in this elaboration time is reflected, redirected, so as to allow for another kind of direction, another point of attraction, and maybe we can do away with the point as limit, and point becomes hieroglyphics of sound in motion/relation.

All of this is to say that in this essay I engage the future not as something that comes later on, that replaces a complete and whole present, but rather that the future is a method of thinking that shows something that is already here. In other words, I see the task of such a practice as the task of practicing, of playing, in the present, or maybe in front of an audience, that which I want to matter. As Marshall Allen poignantly said, “You want a better world. You create a better world.”[4] It is thus not so much a thinking through of time but rather a thinking through of music as world-building, as space-time creation: music as a tool to be together (with oneself and with others at the same time, that is also where this distinction as contradistinction becomes irrelevant) in space-time, which is itself that music as poetics of relation. What follows is simply the elaboration of what this means because it requires, on the one hand, a radical shift, and on the other, simply a remembering. Ultimately, this writing is something like a devotional practice,[5] maybe we can call it a meditation, or a recitation of those sincerities of sounding that remind of what is at stake, of being together (in an apartness)[6] through writing (sounds), and a giving thanks to and for those musicians that provide a possibility for spaces to resound this.

Charles Uzor’s work 8’46” subtitled George Floyd in Memoriam is a work written in 2020, from the geopolitical space of Switzerland, shortly after George Floyd’s murder and the incipient of global Black Lives Matter protests. It consists of 7 minutes and 46 seconds of breathing sounds (no instrumental playing) followed by one minute of silence. 8’46” is the first of two works written for George Floyd since 2020 by Uzor and it demonstrates (and places petitions for such thinking) new music’s relation to such protests. Together the two works uncover music’s (and as a specific case new music’s) entanglement with and in blackness. Its title references John Cage’s 4’33” through its similarity in appearance, while at the same time pointing to global protests under the heading of this duration, which was the initial duration used in court in the trial against Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, for what later was revised to well over 9 minutes, killing him.

It is in this poetics of relation played out by composer Charles Uzor that a possibility of new music becomes amplified (and maybe refined): under the heading of this experimental practice a radical shifting of the world can take place. On the one hand the piece points with this duration, as well as its sounds, to an antiblack world, while, at the same time, speaking of another world: one announced by the work in form of the duration as symbol for the mattering of Black lives. The music becomes staging ground for a performative assertion that black lives indeed do matter. Uzor’s 8’46” reflects a sociality, in the breathing sounds made by the performers, as well as in their silences (which both appear also under the heading of a reflection of observers listening as it is in 4’33”), announced in blackness.

In this scene Music, or music we might bring forth under a heading of new music, is stage to rework our relation to the world—whether that is combating antiblack structures or a coming together in/as/with blackness. In this sense it is music and it is blackness, it is improvised sociality, that is to say a consent not to be a single being, it is an impossibility to be without being in poetic relation. Music becomes a space within which people can be themselves in a common that is founded on and with each member’s unique ways—this I’ve learned from musicians such as Cecil Taylor. In Nina Fukuoka’s Sugar, Spice, and All Things Nice this space is shaped too, and what becomes revealed is how such space-formation is always also an act of reworking spaces around this music—from the music’s seemingly more immediate institutional conditions, to larger questions for this planet. A work that takes accounts of experiences of sexism in the music-world as its basis, collected in, and as, the process of compositions in dialogues with others, Sugar, Spice, and All Things Nice’s life moves by way of the social lives entangled in the composer and the music. Music becomes entrenched in lives. Thus this work takes the task of making music as simultaneously a task of being with others in sociality, and does such alongside an aim of revealing and combating sexism—antisocial brutalities. In recounting such brutalities the performers, the composer Fukuoka, and those whose voices flow into the work, reveal this musical work (this working in and with music) as part of social lives—the music cannot be separated, it does not stand by itself because by listening to it we always engage a complex set of entanglements, lives lived in sound, music as living with things. Thus while at once bringing to the fore how women are being discriminated against in the music field the piece also points to, as example, how music has the potential to be that space which allows for flowering of lives. In addressing the problems surrounding it, the music becomes space for that which is denied: (women’s) lives lived in music. Sugar, Spice, and All Things Nice redoubles this fact in its sounding through the use of textures moving out from and in excess of words spoken, and vice versa—not even in the act of performing or listening can these lives be held.

It is in these two examples that I hear what project of futurity I want to partake in. Music as a world redrawing act, as a process of living in poetic relation with each other and oneself (which is not one any longer), that remaps this world, into something else already here, behind a wormhole, some kind of alterdestiny[7] that was always already present but that we can maybe hear better by looking into the stars, to a future and a past as the present. As skins clash, the sound of drums brings a remembering—a reminder, remainder, and rejoining—of that which music always was, how meeting and departing are always the same—sounds in music. Sounds cease to be of relevance as moments in-between and become that which is always already stronger than itself[8] or any self, or selves in or out of touch. It is music, that blackness beyond wholes with holes as holds. “This is the theme of the stargazers, stargazers in the sky. This is the song of tomorrow’s world, a cosmic paradise.”[9]

  • I engage the future not as something that comes later on, that replaces a complete and whole present, but rather that the future is a method of thinking that shows something that is already here.

    Photo of Jessie Cox by Adrien H. Tillmann
    Jessie Cox
  • Music, or music we might bring forth under a heading of new music, is stage to rework our relation to the world

    Photo of Jessie Cox by Adrien H. Tillmann
    Jessie Cox
  • Music has the potential to be that space which allows for flowering of lives.

    Photo of Jessie Cox by Adrien H. Tillmann
    Jessie Cox
  • Sounds cease to be of relevance as moments in-between and become that which is always already stronger than itself or any self, or selves in or out of touch.

    Photo of Jessie Cox by Adrien H. Tillmann
    Jessie Cox

NOTES

The article’s title is playing on the Sun Ra Arkestra’s record title Music From Tomorrow’s World.

1. Referencing here Fred Moten’s particular engagement with such translation by Christopher Winks of Édouard Glissant’s phrase “consent à n’être plus un seul.” In Moten’s formulation the consent is not given by a subject but is rather more something like what I would like to call a remembering of what was already there behind the veil.

2. This excerpt is from the email by Frank J. Oteri where he inquired with me as to whether I’d like to write this text.

3. Kodwo Eshun’s seminal article “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism” explores the ways in which afrofuturistic practices use the future to rework the present. To this aim he writes out from the notion of the archeological dig—his paper opens with future life-forms digging in their past, our present.

4. Allen, Marshall. 2019. “Out There A Minute With Marshall Allen.” PWPvideo. May 23, 2019. Audio, 5:02 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdTR-fiLfwQ).

5. I have to acknowledge here the origin of this word thought as writing coming out from my conversations with Fred Moten.

6. I’m playing with Karen Barad’s brilliant neologism together-a-part that plays out so beautifully the impossibility of actually being apart or together because of, to put it very oversimplified, entanglement, which is also to say, for me, because there is no single entity to be by itself or with someone else. I’m also thinking here of the ways in which this pandemic has played out and upon this together-apart complication. I invoke with such reminder my longterm collaborator and partner Lucy Clifford with whom I’ve learned of this in grooves of sound and life.

7. This term comes from Sun Ra’s philosophical thought.

8. I’m referencing here George E. Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself, not particularly because of the title’s words but rather because of the book and what it documents: the AACM as a musical collective where music was, and still is, vehicle for lives as well as transformation of spaces and worlds.

9. Sun Ra Arkestra, “Theme of the Stargazers.”

 

Out of the Box: In Defense of Analog Criticism

Geeta Dayal

[Ed. note: This is our third installment of “Out of the Box.” For this series, which follows New Music USA’s tenth anniversary this past November and marks the start of our second decade, we are asking a group of deep musical thinkers to ponder what the landscape for new music will be ten years from now. We aim for this series to spark important discussions in our community as well as to raise important journalistic voices from all around the country. The previous installments of this series featured essays by University of Florida-based musicologist and bassoonist Dr. Imani Mosley and Brooklyn-based violinist and arts journalist Vanessa Ague. For our third, we asked San Francisco Bay Area-based music, art, technology and culture journalist/critic Geeta Dayal to ponder possible futures for music journalism.-FJO]

What will music journalism look like ten years from now? Will the role of the music critic be obsolete? The signs are not encouraging. Many of the best writers I know have left the field behind, embarking on more lucrative careers as lawyers, businesspeople, or professors. Many magazines and alternative weeklies across the United States have folded. Other publications have cut their staff, trying in vain to create the same publication with a fraction of the workforce, overworking the editors and writers that remain. Arts sections in newspapers are becoming thinner; freelance budgets are being slashed. For the past twenty years, I’ve continued to push forward as an arts critic and journalist despite the obstacles, because I believe that I can contribute new and useful ideas to the wider culture.

The prevailing narrative is that social media and digital streaming services have taken over the space that critics once inhabited. But I would like to present a more optimistic concept of the future, which we could build by reframing music criticism’s cultural value.

Consider that the analog revival is in full swing. In 2020, vinyl record sales surged 29% to $626 million, and that number continues to rise. Vinyl record pressing plants are overloaded, with wait times of several months to manufacture an album. Vintage analog synthesizers currently fetch eye-watering prices on auction sites like eBay. In other categories besides music, “bespoke” has become a popular buzzword, along with custom-made, tailored, and personalized. In a landscape that feels increasingly automated, consumers are quite understandably in search of things that feel special.

With this renewed interest in the charms of analog technology, I propose that we also renew our interest in another time-honored innovation: music writing. In this essay, I introduce the term “analog criticism.” Criticism is an art form, created by humans, not by AI. Analog criticism refers to long, perceptive essays and reviews, thoughtfully crafted by writers who have immersed themselves deeply in the field.

Spotify and other digital streaming services supply a quick fix. Users want to listen to a song, and they want it now. “If you like this, you might also like this,” these services suggest. This, in itself, is a form of criticism — automated, digital criticism, that tells you what to listen to next. This technology has made a very small number of people very rich. While streaming services might be convenient on the go, they can also lead to a diminished musical experience. Earlier this year, Spotify came under fire by prominent rock bands such as My Bloody Valentine for listing wildly incorrect lyrics alongside certain songs. Most listeners probably didn’t notice, because very little context is provided to the listener, if there is any at all. The perfunctory descriptions next to the albums are basically ad copy, not serious writing. Album credits are often missing or incomplete, and entire hidden histories of music are lost in the process.

Analog criticism means articulately explaining why you think something is worthwhile or why you don’t like something. Algorithms can’t do that; only people can. Analog criticism means presenting an articulate, persuasive argument. Analog criticism means drawing unlikely connections and doing real research. And smart, deeply felt writing builds a true connection with the reader. A lot of major publications like the Village Voice, where I got my start, were crucial forums where critics presented vibrant, intelligent arguments on a weekly basis. You felt like you knew these writers, even if you had never met them.

Mainstream magazines and newspapers have to step up, too. These days, most publications are too influenced by ad revenue, market research and page views. Their content is based around what they think people want, rather than setting a bold new agenda. It’s reactive — a defensive stance rather than an offensive one. The great magazines of the past took clear positions. They weren’t afraid of having a distinctive voice. That energy and vitality needs to come back.

Will arts sections in magazines and newspapers still exist in ten years? While there been a lot of talk about building new models for journalism, we must also put forth a strong argument for the value of arts writing, which is often given short shrift in the journalism world. In ten years, will critics still be able to find homes for serious articles on subjects outside the mainstream—and get paid enough to make a living? Crowdfunding sites are vital for sustaining writers through these uncertain times. For me, the ongoing support from readers through Patreon helps me to continue. I predict that more of these types of platforms will proliferate, giving journalists and critics new ways to fund their work.

Criticism, at its best, is the highest form of respect we can pay to art or to music. Instead of ceding ground to streaming services and social media corporations, we should regroup and reconsider the value we bring as critics and writers. Analog criticism gives us a deeper, richer experience. The world of music, and civilization at large, deserves it.

  • In a landscape that feels increasingly automated, consumers are quite understandably in search of things that feel special.

    Geeta Dayal
    Geeta Dayal
  • While streaming services might be convenient on the go, they can also lead to a diminished musical experience.

    Geeta Dayal
    Geeta Dayal
  • Analog criticism means articulately explaining why you think something is worthwhile or why you don’t like something. Algorithms can't do that; only people can.

    Geeta Dayal
    Geeta Dayal
  • Criticism, at its best, is the highest form of respect we can pay to art or to music.

    Geeta Dayal
    Geeta Dayal

Hearing Beyond The Categories of the 64th Annual Grammy Awards

Grammy Award

As per every year, the Grammy Awards, which more than two months after a pandemic-related postponement were presented yesterday in Las Vegas, are a mixed bag. It is tempting to think of these awards as the great equalizer, since there are awards presented to recordings of such a diverse range of music. There are prizes for everything from hip-hop and heavy metal to gospel, new age, Latin jazz, musical theater, global music (an equally meaningless term that now replaces “world music”) and contemporary classical music (an oxymoron that we’re unfortunately stuck with). But sadly, there is a clear pecking order to these accolades; some recordings have been deemed more important than others.

Of course, theoretically any album could win Album of the Year and any recording artist could win Best New Artist, which is how it should be. Back in 1963, The First Family, a spoken word comedy LP by JFK impersonator Vaughn Meader–who?–walked away with Album of the Year! In more recent times, with the rare exception of jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, who received the 2008 Album of the Year for a recording mostly of renditions of songs by Joni Mitchell, and Esperanza Spalding, a musician also primarily associated with jazz, fetching Best New Artist in 2011 (which shocked many viewers, most of all the hordes of fanatical “Beliebers”), only certain kinds of recording artists–inevitably those whose music is mainstream and commercial–typically receive one of the Grammy’s most visible accolades.

Even though a great deal of so-called “popular music” is worthy and deserving of praise, it is not the only music that is, but that’s how it usually goes. Thankfully, the 2022 Album of the Year was awarded to We Are, by the Juilliard-trained Jon Batiste, which is a remarkably fluid compendium of styles incorporating rap, R&B, jazz, and even New Orleans brass bands that is at times reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s evergreen polyglot masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life (which was awarded Best Album back in 1977). But don’t expect a specifically “contemporary classical” or “jazz”-oriented record to be designated as Album of the Year any time in the foreseeable future. Plus, to add insult to injury, for several years now, awards for categories deemed less consequential by the Recording Academy (including all those “classical” music awards) have no longer been doled out during the official televised ceremony, a tactic that the Academy Awards unfortunately emulated last month when it announced the award for composer of the best soundtrack off camera. (It would have been preferable to have seen this being announced live, even if it was for yet another award for Hans Zimmer.)

Still, there are many people to celebrate among the recipients of the 64th Annual Grammy Awards, and since several that we care about deeply were excluded from the TV show and, as a result, you might have missed them, we’re shining some light on them here.

The Grammy Award that is typically a headliner for NewMusicBox, that for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, this year did not disappoint as it was awarded to a composition by Caroline Shaw (who has previously been featured on these pages). Her winning work is a five-movement percussion quartet called Narrow Sea, which was recorded on Nonesuch in a performance by Sō Percussion who are also heroes in the new music community. (This recording also received a New Music USA Project Grant.) Of course, among the other nominees for that category this year are also folks we treasure: Andy Akiho (whom we’ve also featured in NewMusicBox), the late Louis Andriessen (who, in addition to being the most influential Dutch composer, was a beloved teacher of many Americans), and an album of works composed by prior New Music USA Project Grant recipient Clarice Assad, her father Sérgio Assad, and the four members of another maverick percussion quartet Third Coast Percussion (with whom we also spoke back in 2020).

We would have also been thrilled with a win by the remaining nominee, John Batiste, who to the chagrin of some “classical music purists” was under consideration for this award for a two-minute instrumental track from We Are called “Movement 11′.” It was exciting to see that it was nominated here, a step toward breaking down the obsessive categorization of music that winds up being so exclusionary, ironically mostly toward music that falls in categories that are so rigidly defined. The Recording Academy annually gives another award called Best Instrumental Composition, for which any music except that which is deemed “classical” seems to be eligible; this year it was awarded to the late Lyle Mays, a multi-Grammy-winning pianist and composer who had worked extensively with Pat Metheny. It’s interesting as well as encouraging that Batiste was nominated for the “classical” composition award rather than this one. But it might have been even more interesting and more encouraging if, say, Shaw or Akiho had been nominated for Best Instrumental Composition.

Another encouraging sign within the Classical Grammy Awards for several years now has been a preponderance of recordings devoted to new music among the nominees and this year was no exception. It was extremely gratifying to see Jennifer Koh be recognized with the Best Classical Instrumental Solo award for her performances of solo works that she commissioned from 20 different composers during the pandemic and has made available in performances online. Although I was disappointed that Christopher Cerrone‘s terrific album The Arching Path didn’t win Best Classical Compendium, awarding the prize to Women Warriors – The Voices of Change, a live to picture symphony orchestra soundtrack to a celebration of global social justice activists featuring arrangements of music by a group of Hollywood female composers and songwriters, was another notable genre bending moment. Plus the orchestrations were done by Catherine Joy, who is a grantee of New Music USA’s Reel Change Film Fund, a five-year grants and mentorship program for composers of diverse backgrounds who have been marginalized in film composition.

It was also nice to see the Metropolitan Opera receive the Best Opera Recording for its release of Akhnaten by Philip Glass, one of the few living composers whose works have been staged there and hopefully something that will encourage the Met to present works by more living composers. And although it is not the music of a living composer, giving Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra the Best Orchestral Performance Award for their Deutsche Grammophon CD devoted to two symphonies by Florence Price makes an important statement about the importance of this early 20th century African American female composer, the first black woman to have a composition of hers played by a major orchestra and whose output is finally getting recognition nearly 70 years after her death. For this same reason, though, it was disturbing that Yo Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, two undeniably significant musicians, received the Best Chamber Music Award for yet another recording of the Beethoven’s oeuvre for cello and piano when all the other nominated recordings were devoted to music by living composers. Maybe it’s the best recording eve made of these five sonatas and three sets of variations, but it has a lot of stiff historic competition whereas none of the music on any of the other nominated recordings in this category has ever been previously recorded.

As for jazz, the late Chick Corea received yet another posthumous Grammy for Best Improvised Jazz Solo, the second year in a row that he has gotten this accolade. While Chick Corea was unarguably one of the finest keyboard soloists, the other (still living) nominees–Jon Batiste (there he is again), Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Kenny Barron, and Terence Blanchard (another member of the exclusive club of living composers whose music has been presented by the Metropolitan Opera)–are equally worthy musicians. And so are countless others who were not even nominated for this category which this year, along with Best Jazz Instrumental Album (given to Skyline, a trio effort by Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette and Gonzalo Rubalcaba), seemed to be only eligible to male musicians. At least an album by 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition winner Jazzmeia Horn was among the nominees for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, though it lost out to For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver, an album by the Christian McBride Big Band, and Brazilian pianist/composer Elaine Elias captured Best Latin Jazz Album award for Mirror, Mirror, an album of duets with (again) Chick Corea and Chucho Valdéz (who completed the remaining tracks after Corea died). All the more reason why there need to be initiatives like Next Jazz Legacy, a national apprenticeship program for women and non-binary improvisers in jazz that was launched earlier this year by New Music USA the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.

The Grammys at least are aware that women are great jazz singers and this year’s award for Best Jazz Vocal Album was given to Songwrights Apothecary Lab, the eighth studio album by Esperanza Spalding, who plays bass and piano on this album in addition to singing. Again, though it’s wonderful to see Spalding repeatedly recognized for vital work (it’s her fifth Grammy), categorizing this music limits her identity and also pigeonholes this album (a collection of 12 pieces of music that Spalding calls “formwelas” rather than songs), ultimately diminishing the significance of her ongoing post-genre accomplishments.

Several other category-defying artists were also honored, albeit through awards in specific categories. Best Folk Album was awarded to They’re Calling Me Home, the latest recording by Rhiannon Giddens, who is equally versed in bluegrass, blues, R&B, gospel, and Celtic music, and co-composed an opera that will receive its world premiere in May at the Spoleto Festival. And Arooj Aftab, whose music is a fascinating amalgam of post-minimalist classical music, jazz, electronica, and traditional Sufi music, was awarded the amorphously worded Best Global Music Performance award for “Mohabbat,” a track from her New Amsterdam album Vulture Prince. (Note: Giddens serves on New Music USA’s Advisory Council while Aftab serves on the Program Council.) One final awardee also worth mentioning here is Béla Fleck who received an award for Best Bluegrass Album even though his stylistic proclivities are rarely straightjacketed into any single genre.

So a lot of recordings of great music did get recognized yesterday, but hopefully if more people hear them as a result of this attention they will realize that these recordings contain music that is so much more than the category names that have been placed on them in order to honor them.

 

Ukraine’s Musical Front

A guitar and fiddle duo performing.

What happens to music and its makers amidst the terrors of war? Does art become more profound or utterly irrelevant to the survival of the moment? Can one keep making music under such stress? As Western orchestras, choirs, chamber groups and soloists scramble to find music by Ukrainian composers, and record renditions of the Ukrainian anthem, what is happening to the musicians who must live through this nightmare firsthand?

Life as I knew it ended on the night of February 23, 2022. My parents, my sister, and I had just sat down to celebrate some good news. We were happily raising our wine-filled glasses when my mom’s phone rang. It was her brother calling from Slovenia, at 5 am his time, voice cracking, “Zhenya, it started. They are bombing Kyiv. They are bombing every city.” His wife back in Kyiv was hearing explosions. I had never heard him cry before. Slavic men rarely cry. Still holding our wine glasses, we began frantically calling our loved ones. I can never erase from my memory the nightmare conversation with my cousin back in Kherson, a small city in southern Ukraine which is now famous all over the world because its civilian population rose up against the Russian occupying forces. Sobbing, she asked me to take care of her 18-year-old son, who is studying in Slovakia. This is not a request I ever want to hear again.

This is the unique horror of witnessing an invasion of your homeland from afar in this modern age of connectivity. By the time a piece of news hits the newspapers, we have already heard it from our relatives and friends, or through the various Viber and Telegram channels which post a constant stream of updates from all over Ukraine. I spent the first several days endlessly scrolling through them looking for mentions of the neighborhoods where my loved ones live. Air raid siren in Kyiv. Residential building hit in Brovary. Video of a stolen tank being pulled by an old tractor, the tank driver running after it. Fierce fighting for control over a major bridge to Kherson. Pictures of burned out buildings in Kharkiv. Video of civilians throwing Bandera Smoothies (formerly known as Molotov Cocktails) at a tank from the windows of a speeding car, hair almost catching on fire. Explosions. Explosions. Explosions. You are completely informed every minute of every day and utterly powerless.

This nightmare is of course nothing compared to what Ukrainians are living through back there, in Ukraine. We cheer on the Ukrainian soldiers who appear to be superhuman as they wipe out entire columns of Russian troops. We laugh in amazement at the extraordinary creativity and bravery of ordinary people who are disabling military equipment by the most ingenious means. But casualties are mounting and the destruction is catastrophic. I have never been more proud to be Ukrainian. I have never been in this much pain. It makes my muscles spasm and glues my kidneys to my ribcage. I am mostly running on adrenaline, trying to frantically do whatever I can to help from afar. There’s not much time for crying, but sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the question, “How is this our life right now?” I take a jar of soup from the fridge and after staring at it for a while, I think: “I made this before the war.”

Taras Kompanichenko in a Ukrainian military uniform with a bandura.

Here’s a photo of Taras Kompanichenko in the uniform of the territorial defense, the volunteer forces of largely ordinary people helping to protect the cities and towns of Ukraine. Taras, who is holding a kobza (a lute-like instrument that is probably the most recognizable symbol of Ukrainian culture), is officially enlisted as a musician offering psychological aid and morale boosting for the troops. He’s one of the men you see performing in the cellar in the photos below. Taras, a multi-instrumentalista National Artist of Ukraine.

Iryna Danyleiko is a folk singer and ethnomusicologist who works for the Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv and the Kyiv Laboratory of Ethnomusicology. She is also a cofounder of ЕГЕ Films, a grassroots effort to document and preserve Ukrainian rural culture. I met her in 2012 during a trip funded by the Canada Council for the Arts to reconnect with my Ukrainian roots. She took me on expeditions to villages in the regions surrounding Chernihiv, where we recorded elderly women, the last carriers of the oral singing tradition. The city itself has been bombed. There’s fighting all over that region now. I hope these women, some of whom have lived through WWII, are okay.

In addition to her extensive field work in the Chernihivshchina region, Iryna has also traveled through the areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power station, which is currently under the control of utterly insane Russian troops. Iryna and I were only a year old when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in 1986. I suffered some health consequences during the following year. The implications of Russia’s control over the still active remains is terrifying for the whole world. What kind of evil, what kind of stupidity shoots at a nuclear power station? Ukraine has multiple stations like this, including the largest one in Europe, Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, all of which are being targeted. Do those watching from afar even realize what this means?

Iryna and her singing partner Halyna Honcharenko, a doctor who is continuing to work in a hospital in Kyiv, recorded this folksong in a Chernobyl forest a few years ago. Iryna’s Facebook post from March 4, 2022 reads, “I will always remember the Chernobyl silence. The silence, which inhabited this place and enveloped it over the last 35 years, has lulled and preserved everything that surrounds it. Absolute peace. Today it’s been 9 days since this silence has been shattered. Suddenly, brutally, horrendously, foully. We will never forget. We will never forgive.”

Two women are facing each other in the middle of a forest in this still from a video posted on Iryna Danylejko's Facebook wall
The video is posted in a public Facebook post.

Iryna was among the millions of Kyiv residents who woke up to the sounds of explosions on the morning of what for them was February 24. The next day, she grabbed her three children and fled to her parents’ home in Chernivtsi, a beautiful city close to the Romanian border. A few days ago, I received a chilling voice message from her. For more than four minutes, all I could hear was the wail of an air raid siren, the relentless ringing of a bell, dogs barking, her breathing. We exchanged the following messages:

Iryna: …this is even beautiful…the first time I’m hearing it. I’m hiding my children.

Me: I love you all. Hang tight.

(a little later)

Me: I heard something similar in a small town in Kansas where every Monday they test their tornado siren.

Iryna: Good for them! Ours just got fixed 🙂 🙂

Me: Glad no one fixed the roads in the villages. Now [Russian] equipment gets stuck on them.

Iryna: Oh…our poor Chernihivshchina…I will try calling the ladies tomorrow…no more expeditions…

Even amidst this extreme tension, her musician’s soul was able to appreciate the sonic beauty of this terrifying sound. Her Ukrainian mentality noted the humor of my comparison to the American town. Her ethnomusicologist’s habits made her reach for her recorder. She’s doing a different kind of field work now. She’s documenting a different legacy. When I reached out to her asking if the last 11 days have changed her relationship to music, she sent me another recording of the air raid siren, her voice now marking the date and location: March 7, 2022, Chernivtsi.

Two musicians performing on traditional Ukrainian instruments near shelves of preserves.

Taras Kompanichenko and Oleh But singing and playing bandura and fiddle while sheltering in a cellar bunker located in a house outside Kyiv during an air raid. You can see the stereotypical Ukrainian homemade preserves behind them. People are always prepared!

Meanwhile in Kyiv, the Ukrainian-American musician and instrument maker Jurij Fedynskyj is performing with a group of musicians in the metro, at railway stations and in bomb shelters to raise the spirits of local civilians and fighters. Jurij’s family emigrated from Ukraine to the United States several generations ago. In his early twenties he felt moved to return to his ancestral homeland, to relearn the language, and to dedicate his life to the restoration of the kobzar tradition, which was deliberately destroyed by the Soviet government. Originating in the 16th century as a form of resistance to Russian imperial expansion, kobzars were itinerant musicians, often blind, who accompanied their singing with bandura, kobza, or lira. The repertoire is often spiritual, historical, or political in nature, reminiscent of some genres of the troubadour tradition in medieval France. The words to the song “A cloud rises,” which Jurij recorded in late 2019, are eerily fitting for this moment, speaking to hundreds of years of Ukraine’s fight against imperial control and oppression.

A cloud rises over the estuary,
Another from the field.
Ukraine has sunk in sorrow,
Such is its fate.

Sunk in sorrow, weeping,
Like a little child,
No one is coming to rescue her.
The cossacks are dying.

Since his arrival in Ukraine, Jurij has been preparing for this invasion. Given Russia’s current and historical stance towards Ukraine, he saw it as inevitable. Russian propaganda has been relentlessly preparing Russia’s population to accept this atrocity. Jurij and his wife settled in Kryachkivka, a village in the Poltava region, famous for its traditional singing. There they set up a workshop dedicated to rebuilding traditional instruments, scouring museums and archives for drawings and examples of instruments which had largely ceased to exist, while planting vegetables on their plot of land. Every summer, enthusiasts from all over the world gather at the Kobzarskiy Tabir-Kryachkivka (Kobzar Camp) to make instruments and share music. Year after year, I keep meaning to go. I hope there’s still somewhere to go when this is all over. Jurij formally invited me when we talked several days ago.

Jurij managed to send his wife and four children to the U.S. just days before the invasion began, but decided to stay behind to defend his homeland with music. He is with a group of musicians who perform both traditional and contemporary repertoire, creating new, living developments of this 500-year-old practice. Jurij could have ran to the safety of his birthplace, but he chose to stay in his spiritual homeland in order to continue his work. When I spoke to him several days ago, he was filled with optimism and spiritual fervor. Yes, he said, the first couple of days were terrifying and some moments of active shelling are still scary, but once he realized that he is exactly where he needs to be, doing what he needs to do, his fear vanished. “Anna, we feel amazing!” He is convinced that he is guided by God. Every day his group drives to Kyiv from their rented house in a town on the outskirts. They have a mission, in the Biblical sense. They believe that Ukraine will prevail.

A little over 300 km (208 miles) west of Kyiv in the small city of Rivne lives another modern-day kobzar or lirnyk, Andriy Lyashuk. Andriy primarily plays the lira, the Ukrainian version of the hurdy-gurdy, a stringed instrument bowed with a rosined wheel operated by a crank. In addition to several drone strings, the instrument has one or more melody strings operated by a basic wooden keyboard. Most Ukrainian examples are diatonic.

A song that Andriy recorded in 2020 also has an unsettling resonance in the current invasion. This version of the traditional spiritual song “How St. Georgiy defeated the snake” was recorded in the village Krupove in the region surrounding Rivne. It details the legend of St. Georgiy who defeated a giant man-eating snake that lived in the sea. On the first day of the invasion, a small island in the Black Sea, Zmiinyi or Snake Island, became famous the world over after the 13 border guards stationed there refused to surrender to a Russian warship, telling it to “f*ck off.” This final phrase, “Russian warship, f*ck off,” has become the rallying cry for Ukrainians all over the world.

Andriy’s wife Natalka managed to flee to Warsaw, Poland with their one-year-old son Bohuslav. “The Poles are holy people doing more for them than we could have imagined,” wrote Andriy in a text message to me. Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are forbidden from leaving the country according to martial law imposed hours after the invasion began. So Andriy has stayed behind to do what he can for his homeland. He owns a print shop, which normally prints advertising banners and posters. Now he’s printing humorous and motivational posters, banners, and stickers aimed at boosting Ukrainian morale and depressing the Russian occupying forces. The Ukrainian government has issued an official call encouraging businesses to replace their regular advertising with banners telling the Russian troops where to go, usually back to Russia in not very polite terms.

A series of stickers with illustrations and commentary in Ukrainian.

Stickers that Andriy Lyashuk is currently printing. Some translations, clockwise from top left:
1. “Love is…when the Russian tanks burn”
2. “What to do when a Russian occupant wants to surrender” (legitimate information)
3. “Ukrainian Armed Forces, hang in there! I still have to marry one of you.”

In the evenings, Andriy picks up his instrument. Like Jurij, he believes that music can be a weapon against the occupiers, acting as Ukraine’s moral-psychological front. “Many musicians have joined the ranks of the territorial defense and various volunteer organizations. In addition to that, they are using music as a powerful motivational tool, which unites us and gives us strength.” Videographers from Kyiv are currently turning one of the songs Andriy performs into a video to add to a collection of Ukraine’s heroic tradition. “Music is our front, our resistance, our future victory.” Slava Ukraini. Heroyam Slava.

If you want to offer financial support directly to Ukrainian musicians, or simply to make connections with musicians working in your sphere, please contact Anna Pidgorna at [email protected] or reach out over Facebook. Anna and her friends are currently sending money through direct transfer to Ukrainian musicians in need. Her network is mostly focused on artists working in folk, contemporary classical, and experimental electronic music.

Zori Ameliko sitting on a street in Kyiv playing a kobza.

Zori Ameliko playing a bandura on a street in Kyiv on March 4, 2022

Unbound by “Programming”: A Counter-Hegemonic Reimagining of Contemporary Performance

I had meant, at least at first, to produce here an essay criticizing programs of “Music by [Insert Marginalized Community Here] Composers.” While I’m sure there are some who in their own heart of hearts find such marked categorization validating, I personally find it uncomfortable to have my utterances branded publicly as “female music” or “queer music,” the implication being that an unbranded program constitutes “real music”: music that needs no qualifier. However, this point has been articulated before better than I ever will, and perhaps more importantly, simply shaming the one practice that seems intended to help those of us whose work does not enjoy the privilege of de facto universality in our culture seemed unlikely to provoke any meaningful alternative. Moreover, in envisioning a culture of egalitarian programming–even in watching one come to fruition–I came to realize that a solution I would really like would have to be more profoundly transformative. A hegemony of Deserving Artists with a tiny handful at the top, but who equally likely happen to be women, if anything, feels like more of an exclusion than a culture of programming all men: at least, if women were never programmed, we could blame sexism entirely for our frustration, rather than be faced with the implication that we are inadequate standard-bearers for our gender.

To put it more generally, the assumption that opportunities come to those who deserve them is inherent in any structure in which there are fewer artists who can work than who want to, or moreover in which there is an unequal distribution of opportunities within those who are actively working artists. We are simply in competition with each other whether presenting organizations intend this or not; scarce funding exacerbates this, but throwing money at the problem does not annihilate this fact, and I feel a degree of it would persist even if all artists were guaranteed a stable income. Rather, some disruption of the basic creative transaction is necessary: an option which does not require a composer to start her own ensemble and thereby insert herself into the decider-position.

“The assumption that opportunities come to those who deserve them is inherent in any structure in which there are fewer artists who can work than who want to.”

Can we foment a culture in which composers’ utterances are deemed valuable solely on the basis of having been uttered, regardless of hegemonic notions of musical quality? Certainly explicit competitions are out. (As a side note, when a competition specifically asks for submissions from “underrepresented groups,” this language rings severely hollow. Forcing us to compete for the privilege of being tokenized–in the event that any such applicants are selected at all–is in fact doubly insulting, and it might be worth someone’s time to conduct a thorough survey of how results actually change when such language is imposed.) I have often daydreamed about the possibility of a course evaluating applications by random lottery. But how, then, can music reach the audience-facing stage without this notion of deserving-quality backing it up?

The best course I have foreseen is a change in dismantling our listening hierarchies: really dismantling them, rather than moving the locus of deservingness from the art’s own nature to the artist’s character. What, for example, would it look like if every work that existed were recorded equally well and given an equal chance at reaching audience’s ears? What opportunities could be created, then, for every composer and every performer and every listener to form their own aesthetic values? I don’t mean to pitch a particular type of project as much as to posit a thought experiment and offer a gentle nudge in a new direction. What I envision, were the technical and economic barriers to such a situation eliminated, is a type of free association, in which creative communities would form without deference to a Discerning Other, and in which the bounds that force us to appease pseudoaristocratic notions of taste would cease to alienate us from our own inner creative wellsprings.

“What would it look like if every work that existed were recorded equally well and given an equal chance at reaching audience’s ears?”

As for what I think you, dear reader, “should” do right now (who am I to say “should?”): remember as you evaluate that you are never without biases, and perhaps this is most especially prevalent when you attempt to abolish your biases. While it would be wonderful if we could fully sacrifice our creative urges to some sense of collective good, maintaining the illusion of such a sacrifice (and you do sacrifice your creative urge if you choose to defer to me, even willingly, even if you were to consider me particularly deserving) constitutes a dishonesty harmful both to yourself and to those you have chosen to “support.” Ultimately, at the root of all this, I say: imagine listening differently, as if you have never taken a recommendation from someone, as if you have never suffered through a “Music Appreciation” course, as if you have never read a review in any publication: as if, instead, you are simply searching for the particular combination of factors that stirs you most deeply, in this life and in this moment.

Different Cities Different Voices: New Orleans

DCDV banner image with overlay of photos of New Orleans

Different Cities Different Voices is a new series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear music from local artists selected by each essayist.  

The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

An introduction by Ashley Shabankareh
(Member of the New Music USA Program Council)

Ashley Shabankareh

New Orleans possesses a rich cultural landscape of musical talent, with tradition and community at its core. While New Orleans is most commonly viewed as the birthplace of Jazz, it should be recognized and uplifted as the birthplace of American music. Whether it’s jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, classical, bounce, hip-hop, or brass band music, the sounds of New Orleans play a big part in our culture. Our community is close-knit, laidback, and relies deeply upon family traditions that are passed down from the older generation to the younger generation and from them to their successors.

Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, we have seen many ebbs and flows within the New Orleans community. The pandemic hit at the worst possible time of year for New Orleans – festival season – where a large portion of income is earned for those in the music and cultural economy. Like numerous communities across the world, the pandemic caused gig cancellations, which negatively impacted many whose lifestyle often is sustained from gig to gig. Numerous music, arts, and service organizations, including, but not limited to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, MaCCNO, and Culture Aid NOLA, quickly stepped in, offering grants, food relief, and other assistance to help sustain our musicians and culture bearers and work to ensure that our culture was not lost as a result of the pandemic. As the weeks turned to months, the uncertainty continued; would New Orleans’ music and culture be able to be sustained after the pandemic?

We began to see optimism within the community when live music was able to occur within outdoor spaces, including at porches and new opened outdoor venues like the Broadside and Zony Mash. As vaccine distribution began to pick up, performances began to happen indoors. We saw more and more gigs happening and the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant allowing more and more spaces to finally reopen. But then hope quickly turned to disappointment as what was anticipated to be a very robust festival season in the fall was canceled. Shortly thereafter, New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Ida, leaving the city without power for close to a month. Many were forced to leave their homes, and for some, they had to find a new home to live in due to damages caused by the storm.

However, despite the consistent hardships over the past 21 months, New Orleans saw our community grow even stronger than before. We’ve recently seen our City Council take steps towards the legalization of outdoor music in New Orleans, a huge step to ensure that outdoor spaces that opened as a result of the pandemic can legally continue to operate. New Orleans has also seen the Office of Economic Development propose an Office of Nighttime Economy, which myself and numerous other advocates hope will support cultural activity, not enforcement, to provide true equity of opportunity within the community.

As our vulnerable city continues to recover after both a hurricane and a pandemic, one thing is for sure – our community has become more vibrant and creative. In this installment in Different Cities, Different Voices, you’ll hear from 5 New Orleans musicians: Jason Marsalis, Helen Gillet, Clint Maedgen, Delaney Martin, and Dylan Trần.

[Ed. note: Listen to music by the contributors and other New Orleans-area artists throughout the essays below, and on our Different Cities Different Voices playlist.

Photo: Naveen Venkatesan, Unsplash


JASON MARSALIS – percussionist, bandleader

Jason Marsalis playing the vibraphone at a performance.

Jason Marsalis

Since I was a kid, I’ve been involved in the New Orleans music scene. Growing into adulthood, I started to see the city receive recognition that it hadn’t in previous years. A huge growth of young musicians occurred in New Orleans during the 1990s. At the same time, New York was always the place to be when it came to music. However, the dynamics of the scene changed when aspects of the music business were no longer vibrant. New Orleans has always had a connection with its traditions. Even when music changes, aspects of New Orleans groove was always in the music. However, the music in New York was deemphasizing the swing element while embracing a darker ambient sound. New Orleans was maintaining its fun element while New York was losing theirs. It was during that time I decided to stay in New Orleans.

I discovered that working in New Orleans would help me develop my “swing”; it’s an element of a groove in the music that makes the people want to dance. There are gigs that are based on the swing element that you can play in New Orleans. In New York, those gigs are not as common as they once were and many drummers haven’t developed the swing element at all because of it. Now that doesn’t mean New Orleans doesn’t have its challenges. In the past year of the pandemic, I lost my father pianist Ellis Marsalis to Covid-19. It was not only a loss for me but for the music scene as a whole. He was a teacher and leader that believed in young people playing music. He would use his bandstand as a way for younger players to grow and develop. His passing left a hole in the music scene that will have to be filled in other ways. Those ways include other people understanding how to pass on music to the next generation. As for me, even when the gigs were shut down for a year, I was able to use my creative outlet in other ways. I did more teaching, posting videos, and performing the music online. One way that I have fared with this major change is through teaching. The more music that is taught and passed on to the younger musicians, the music and all of its elements have a better chance of survival.

Listen to a Performance by Jason Marsalis:

The Jason Marsalis Quintet performs the music of Ellis Marsalis: “Three in One”

Listen to Jason Marsalis’s New Orleans Artist Recommendation:

Dr. Michael White: “Give It Up – Gypsy Second Line” Live at Little Gem Saloon

 


HELEN GILLET – singer/songwriter, cellist

Helen Gillet surrounded by various cellos.

Helen Gillet (photo by Jason Kruppa)

There were no other cellists I could see around town when I first moved to New Orleans in 2002. There were also very few women instrumentalists out and about. I was raised by strong women, so this struck me as odd. But the spirit of New Orleans music can be very welcoming to newcomers who are willing to show off their talents if they have enough sincerity, talent, and show respect to the city and the musical legacy that came before.

Sure enough, I managed to talk my way into a variety of musical contexts, convincing bandleaders I could fill the role of trombone, guitar, bass, violin, and eventually drums, synthesizer…all using the acoustic cello, and later on the looping pedal. I have learned to: “turn it up to 11” in funk bands, rock bands and even solo to play loud enough to cut through the noise of a drunken tourists yelling “Sake Bomb” as she stumbles into a Frenchman dive. Especially during the post-Katrina musical renaissance, I became a resident recording cellist around town, notably Piety Studios under the tutelage of Mark Bingham. I learned about recording music, playing in front of amazing microphones and into headphones; creating and weaving my cello parts to lift countless records for artists such as beatnik poet Ed Sanders, Marianne Faithful, Cassandra Wilson, Dr. John, Wardell Quezergue, Sonic Youth, Arcade Fire, Leroy Jones etc.

I was blessed by the city in 2004 during my first ever Jazz and Heritage Festival appearance as cellist in Smokey Robinson’s band, a decade before my first solo Jazz Festival appearance under my own name. I have been blessed by two Smokeys, the second of which was my neighbor of ten years, Fats Domino’s drummer and grandfather of funk Smokey Johnson. He became like a father figure to me, encouraging me every day to “Go lay it on ’em” and to “go get ’em killa'” — He also was instrumental in helping me figure out I had worth as an artist and how to demand more money for my music. “Girl, you know some [email protected]&*..I hope they payin’ you for what you know!” We all need a great cheerleader in our lives, especially before we learn to do it for ourselves, and I was fortunate to find the best ones just four houses down the street from me. He helped me see past my gender and just do my thing in music. I not only managed to carve out a decent living for the past 19 years I have followed my own path along the way. Thank you Smokey and thank you New Orleans!

Earning the reputation to be a first call for innovative musical projects looking for a cello player has been a wonderful privilege. Within a few years of living here, I was playing in a musical jazz arena alongside Johnny Vidacovich, James Singleton, Kidd Jordan, visiting world renown Jazz improvisers such as Frank Gratkowski, Hamid Drake, Wadada Leo Smith, Tatsuya Nakatani, Cooper More, so many more… I played in a local Medieval Band. I am fond of my yearly appearance at The New Orleans Noize Fest, playing in spontaneous Punk Bands, Rock n Roll Circus Bingo Show, Mardi Gras Indian Funk Orchestra, Southern Rock bands, with Singer Songwriters, Traditional and Progressive Jazz, Vaudevillian French bands and even a Disco band called “Bubble Bath” — I have workshopped my Belgian inspired surrealist ideas with some of the world’s finest improvisers and come up with a style that is my own. It was a natural evolution to put all my favorite grooves, melodies, and sentiments from this plethora of inspiration into my own music.

You often feel like there are just as many musicians in New Orleans as there are houses in New Orleans. Live music is everywhere, in the streets, in the clubs, restaurants, churches, sports fields, public parks, private courtyards, schools, barber shops, coffee shops, hotel lobbies, spilling out into Steamboats over the Mississippi and up over the West Bank into Algiers Point. Since the pandemic began, that spirit made its way onto people’s front porches, rod iron balconies, driveways, car ports … you name it; if you were strolling outside on any given day, you’d likely run into a live band playing a show. When music is such an important part of the fabric of a city, the musicians are put to work. I remember drummer Claude Coleman from Ween coming up to me in the artist tent at Voodoo fest in New Orleans and saying, “You New Orleans musicians are the best in the world because you play so often with so many different kinds of bands!” People often say I am very diverse, and I would say, look at any New Orleans full time instrumentalist…they are usually playing in at least 10 different style bands often and well. I am not sure where else in the world a cellist could have gotten a more diverse musical education.

I consider myself a Stoic optimist, having had to pivot many times during hard times. I understand things are likely to be tough and living is finding ways of surviving creatively. The city of New Orleans is a good place for someone like that. The outdoor music scene has exploded in New Orleans since March 2020. I was fortunate enough to have established my solo musical presence before the Pandemic hit, allowing me to live stream with my show and reach listeners eager for entertainment. Never receiving unemployment because I was working enough remotely to not be qualified, I just pushed as hard as I could to eke out a living. I played a lot of outdoor venues and during the welcomed pockets of time between waves of variants, I have even managed decent tour schedules across the USA. During long periods of staying home, I have worked on my relationship with my city, and have built a front porch worthy of live music performances and for the first time in the 14 years I have lived in my house, some of my neighbors have been able to hear my music for the first time. I am proud to be approaching my 20th anniversary living in this amazing and resilient city.

Listen to Music featuring Helen Gillet

Helen Gillet Trio: “Tourdion” from the album Running of the Bells
Tim Green: Conn-o-sax
Helen Gillet: vielle (medieval fiddle) and cello
Doug Garrison: drums with mallets

Helen Gillet: Helkiase (Solo Album)
Helen Gillet: cello, loops, vocals

Listen to Helen Gillet’s New Orleans Artist Recommendation:

Lilli Lewis Project: “We Belong”


CLINT MAEDGEN – multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, photographer

Clint Maedgen

I first moved to New Orleans in 1988. I wrote 150 songs while delivering food on a bicycle in the French Quarter from 1998 to 2005. New Orleans is an amazing place to be an artist, and this city has given me a lot. I have led my own bands over the years (liquidrone and bingo!) and also had the honor of playing saxophone and singing with the historic Preservation Hall Jazz Band for the last 17 years, and I’ve also taken thousands of photographs in the French Quarter and beyond.

New Orleans makes it very easy to be creative; it’s the kind of place where anything seems possible. This is also a town that still talks to one another, and that is a hard thing to live without if you’ve ever lived here and had to leave. The city gets in your bones in a forever kind of way, and I just couldn’t help but live here. I also still feel like a visitor here, and I am honored to be a small part of such an incredibly important place. Where would the world be without New Orleans? So many things started here, it is absolutely mindblowing.

As for the new music scene here today, I feel incredibly spoiled getting to hear so much music in the air at all times of the day and night. All kinds of music. Music is everywhere here. So many places to play, so many musicians. One of my favorite sonic experiences in New Orleans these days is to hear TRUMPET MAFIA playing on Frenchmen Street. The sound of 8 to 12 trumpets playing together has become this new electric current that is sent into the air on the regular, on Tuesday nights here lately. TRUMPET MAFIA is definitely a worldwide organization, but it’s amazing getting to hear them this much in New Orleans. Please check out these amazing musicians, and many more coming out of New Orleans today. It’s an exciting time for New Orleans music.

TRUMPET MAFIA concert:


Members of the TRUMPET MAFIA include: Branden Lewis, Ashlin Parker, and John Michael Bradford

This last year has honestly been one of the greatest years of my artistic life. I have performed well over 200 shows for my online subscribers, and through the use of Zoom have stumbled onto my new favorite interface for live performance. To me it’s like Hollywood Squares meets Austin City Limits. It is virtually the same audience every time we get together, so we have developed strong relationships in the context of these mini concerts that feel very intimate. Each person has their own square, so puppet dance parties are always a good idea. We have gotten to know each other over time, even though a few of us live in different countries.

Here is a three-minute sizzle reel of the PANDA FAM.

I wrote 24 personalized songs for my subscribers last year. I launched a deal where any member that purchased one of my French quarter doorbell throw pillows, I would write them a personalized song. Each person got to submit 10 words. That project set me free in so many ways, and I found the songs came to me quite quickly. The process reminded me of how I wrote music in the early 90s, recording onto cassette and ping-ponging between different devices to achieve a multi-track. It felt playful and wide open, And I love what it brought out in me.

Here is the video playlist:

As a group, we have collectively been raising funds to record each of the songs in the studio, with the intention of releasing the songs on vinyl upon completion. These songs have such an amazing energy to them, and as a songwriter I find myself amazed with an entirely new process to share and experience with an audience that really wants to be there.

Here is ELI AND THE SUGAR STATIC

As a photographer, my subscription-based audience has been a true blessing. Our group has also become a collectors club, and I have sold eight of my photographs this past year.

An original photograph by Clint Maedgen collaging an eye, a eye chart, and a carpet.

Clint Maedgen: Hindsight & Shadows

An original photograph by Clint Maedgen collaging abstract paintings and a silhouette of a man wearing a hat,

Clint Maedgen: Shadows & Colourburst

CONNECTION is the real currency. People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And for creators to have the opportunity to convey that message with an audience that wants to participate online, I can’t help but think that we are living in the modern day gold rush. We finally have the opportunity to cut out the middleman and the gate keepers and connect directly in a very organic and convenient way. If you love what you do and you love to talk about it and you like sharing your excitement for it, I think that this platform is perfect for all creators of all walks of life. If 500 people give you $200 a year that is a really good living for an artist. I like to imagine a world where artists perform because they want to, not because they have to. I think the answer is finally here.

 


DELANEY MARTIN – multi-media installation artist and Creative Director, New Orleans Airlift

Delaney Martin

I met New Orleans pre-Katrina, 1998, in my early twenties. Meeting her upended my life in the best way. I’d been a savvy kid living in New York and LA, reading culture magazines from Europe. Not only was none of that available for purchase in New Orleans, none of it mattered. Moreover, the culture here was not for sale. What New Orleans lacked in terms of a global art trending was more than made up by its incredible living culture that paraded–no–danced, down streets every Sunday for second line parades, rounded a corner in the flowing feathers and hallucinatory splendor of Black Masking Indians during sacred times each year, and kept late hours and a big beats in small neighborhood clubs that rivaled any famous nightclub I’d ever visited. And that was just the Black culture. Though less famous, the weirdo White kids were running anarchist circuses, inventing instruments, costuming on a Monday morning and just generally building such a specific-to-time-and-place culture that I realized that literally everything I had valued before needed to be reconsidered in the most joyous way possible.

I eventually left to go to grad school in London, but I deferred for a year. And I returned as often as I could in the intervening years. I built an art practice in London, but New Orleans continued to ground me at a distance. When Katrina hit, I was looking for a way to help. Starting in 2007 my co-founder of New Orleans Airlift and I began a sort of import export culture business, bringing folks like Big Freedia to NY for the first time or an artist like Swoon to New Orleans to work with us collaboratively alongside local creators we valued. I expanded my art practice to function as a framework for collaboration, building bigger ideas than I ever could on my own by having so many hands working towards a common goal. These days we are most known for our collaborative juggernaut Music Box Village – a collection of interactive musical houses hand built by artists in the dozens, an ever-expanding krewe exploring this idea of a performative musical architecture. This idea born of New Orleans is an ode to our city’s culture, its architecture; it’s the music you can hear coming through thin old walls or around the corner of your block, yet it is an idea that resonates around the world. We invite world-renowned musicians to compose and perform the musical houses. Part whimsy, part serious new music pursuit, the Music Box Village has become a landmark in our city, building off the rooted, but living, evolving culture that defines New Orleans.

I love creating here. I’ve created in many cities, but this is my speed. Jump in a truck with your friends, hit the wood dump, build from nothing, make make make, but all at a livable pace that prioritizes catharsis, ritual and release.

COVID allowed me to slow down. Slowing down and reflecting and moving with change is good. The pandemic of course shut down our performance schedule and was terrible for musicians. But it was growth for myself and for my organization. We pushed up against the obvious challenges by saying, well what do we have time for now. We were able to gather musicians we work with for conversation, have difficult conversations, make decisions to work on difficult projects around race and hard histories that continue to shape our lives. The pandemic created such a rare opportunity to make space for change.

That said, second lines are back. And we terribly missed dancing through the streets. It gives us life. New Orleans without its culture is a city with pretty buildings, but terrible education, pollution, crime, corruption!!! None of us would live here, but the culture trumps all of that and so we do.

Hurricane Ida – now that is a different story. We can celebrate the spirit of mutual aid that defined our community’s response to this tragedy, but it was a tragedy and more will come. New Orleans’ place on the map of the mind is huge, but Ida was a stark reminder that its place on the map may not exist into the very near future. Our neighbors in the river parishes continue to be without homes. This easily could have been New Orleans fate. We were just lucky by 20 or so miles. No amount of culture or music can save us. But we must save the culture. To be honest, we are still in this moment of Ida recovery – it’s too soon to say we’ve overcome it.

Because New Orleans is so storied musically, this idea that it is all tradition can become a perception problem from the outside, but it’s not really a problem from the inside. We know tradition here does not mean something stale or a museum culture. It’s all very alive down here, evolving, well-loved. These so-called traditional forms are understood to be more than music, but sound connected to the spirit in deep ways. There is not a snobbism about, say brass band culture, amongst new music people. It is a blessing that we get to be in this swirl. In turn, these so-called culture bearers are not closed off; they are welcoming. They are also experimental. The musicians we have in our space are not all people making new music. They are brass bands, they are Black Indians, they are superstars of the new music world, they are pop stars. What we give them is a context to work together in an unlikely setting and unlikely pairings. There is an openness. Recently we had two big players in their respective new music circles live in our town for some years: Yotam Haber, the Rome Prize-winning composer and Mikel Patrick Avery, known more as a Chicago character and perhaps most known for his work band leading for Theaster Gates’ Black Monks of Mississippi. We worked extensively with both of them, and the effect of New Orleans on their practice was profound – they wanted to dig in, not dig out. They’ve moved on to other cities and opportunities, but it was great to have their gifts here for a while and we knew that our city was a gift to them too.

Listen, clearly New Orleans is not a mecca of “new music”, but it is open, collaborative, and knows deep in its bones that we make music that matters to the world and so much of that music was the new music of its time.

Listen to Delaney Martin’s New Orleans Artist Recommendations:

Taylor Lee Shepherd: “The Blue Sea Hushed Him”, from Flight of Icarus @ the Music Box Village

So much to choose from at Music Box, but selecting this piece by my music box co-founding sound artist Taylor Lee Shepherd. He leads this project with me. We’ve built musical houses in collaboration and our Shake House is well heard on this track. But he is also the daily technical director of Music Box Village, maintaining all the musical houses by our collaborating artists, and so intimate with all the sounds. This song is from his one man show Flight of Icarus. For the show he exclusively used the sounds and interfaces of the houses, looping and building on their sounds via connected looper pedals he installed throughout the space.

Leyla McCalla: “Mèsi Bondye” from Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes

I really like this particular track. Sort of a nice spare, feminine counterpart to Taylor’s Shepherd’s piece. It also speaks to the evolving exploration of rooted music that New Orleans artists explore – in this case both Leyla’s and New Orleans’ deep connection to the music and culture of Haiti.

 


DYLAN TRẦN – composer and Marketing Coordinator at New Orleans Opera

Dylan Trần

My experience in New Orleans can be summed up in one word: opportunity. I’m a first generation American on my dad’s side, born into poverty in the Deep South. If it weren’t for the fact that Loyola University New Orleans has a free undergraduate application and ample scholarship opportunities, I’m not sure I would have been able to go to college, much less pursue a career as a composer. Even my career as a composer, at this point, is only financially possible because of my administrative position at the New Orleans Opera Association.

Throughout my undergrad I had many interests: conducting, composing, singing, film, photography, marketing, languages, history, diasporas, media, activism, sociology, etc. I had very supportive professors in all of these areas that encouraged me to develop my skills in these interests; this held true when I left school as well. This is a huge reason I have stayed in New Orleans— as my artistic career evolves, the city has allowed me to discover, create, and share opportunities to facilitate my growth and exploration.

The reasons I believe this city is so prime for making your own opportunities is a bit of a double-edged sword. There’s a famous Cajun French phrase, “laissez les bon temps rouler” (let the good times roll). That lovely, laidback vibe permeates the music scene as well, setting the scene for the biggest challenge I’ve experienced in New Orleans—outside of jazz, funk, and other popular genres, there is a lack of infrastructure for “classical” music artists. Because of this, most of my commissions come from online and social media networking, as opposed to local groups.

In a way, this lack of infrastructure creates space, an opportunity to build community and art without having to follow an extant institution’s rules—but, the work is not easy. As artists, we are no strangers to being our own advertisers, agents, accountants, etc., something I experienced intimately while I was pursuing a local singing career. As a composer, however, one of the only ways I’ve been able to create the art I want is to take on the additional titles of project manager, development officer, employee organizer, community liaison, etc.—basically running my own small business.

This may sound scary to someone who is trying to be exclusively a composer, but if you are someone in a more exploratory part of your career, New Orleans is an excellent place to do that. I don’t think there are many other places where I would have had as many opportunities to be compensated for trying new things. I’m not just talking music commissions either. I’ve been hired to direct music videos, film documentaries, write articles, run marketing campaigns, develop guest instructor lessons, be a guest speaker, etc. I did not have a huge amount of professional experience with many of these things prior, but because of the nature of the city, if you put some work in and cash in some social currency here and there, you can really explore anything!

Beyond that, I do think the “classical” new music scene in New Orleans is in a blossoming era at the moment. In terms of large organizations: the Marigny Ballet regularly performs world premieres, the New Orleans Opera Association (while not a regular commissioner of new works) is known for championing second and third performances of emerging works, and the LPO will occasionally commission a local composer to accompany an extant “canonic” masterwork. Versipel New Music is a particularly talented collective working exclusively in new music, and there is New Music On The Bayou in North Louisiana, but I am not familiar with many others locally. That being said, every year, I meet more and more composers and groups in the city, so I believe that, while the new music scene may be small at the moment, it is vibrant, growing, and will continue to flourish.

Stepping outside of strictly “classical” new music, the New Orleans musical world opens up tremendously. Some days it seems like there isn’t a genre unrepresented in the city. Hip-hop, folk, indie, jazz, rock, metal, and indigenous musics are ubiquitous in the community. More and more as of late the larger “classical music” organizations have begun to reach out and collaborate with these other genres. For example, it has happened on more than one occasion that the LPO will share the stage with Tank and the Bangas. If you are interested in exploring many genres of music, and the intersections and collaborations therein, New Orleans may be the place for you.

Listen to Music by Dylan Trần:

Dylan Trần: String Quartet No. 1 on Việt Themes

Listen to Dylan Trần’s New Orleans Artist Recommendation:

Lilli Lewis: “Incantation: Wind”


 

Listen to the Different Cities Different Voices playlist on Spotify:

The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US. Please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

 

Photo: Mana5280, Unsplash