Category: Commentary

GLFCAM — Reflections on Rockefeller’s Ghosts

Banner with multiple photos of Erika Oba plus New Music USA and GLFCAM logos

Back when I was an environmental studies student at Oberlin College in Ohio, many of my colleagues and mentors were involved in activism protesting mountaintop removal coal mining. It is a hugely destructive practice with wide ranging ecological and public health impacts, and the Appalachian mountains have been particularly harmed by it. 

I took a week-long trip to the Appalachian mountains with a group of student activists, and that trip was a formative experience that forever changed my perception of our energy systems and their human costs. One of our stops was at a large-scale organized protest event at a mountain site that had been blasted. As I stood on top of the barren remains of a mountaintop, I fell into conversation with an activist photographer who had made it his primary work to document the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. He asked me a bit about who I was and what I did, and I explained to him that I was a college student studying both jazz piano and environmental studies and felt myself being pulled in two opposing directions. He asked me why I couldn’t pursue both, bringing up that many, many jazz musicians were artist-activists. He explained that he hadn’t always photographed mountaintop removal coal mining, but that he felt compelled to use his skills as an artist in service of this cause, and I have never forgotten that. 

Since then, I feel like I’ve tried to navigate my way as an artist with that in mind, admittedly with varying degrees of success. The year of study and discussion that I spent with my Composing Earth cohort was invaluable in reigniting my commitment to exploring what it means to be an artist-citizen. Specifically regarding the climate crisis, one of the reassuring things that I got from all of our readings was the knowledge that we actually already have a lot (if not quite all) of the technological and design solutions to many of our current problems. The biggest hurdle continues to be cultural and political will, which is why our Composing Earth mentor, Dr. Rob Davies, has made it his mission to engage artists so that we may collectively shift the needle on cultural narratives and attitudes.  

As I worked on my Composing Earth piece, I found myself reflecting on how climate change most saliently impacts my day to day life and I kept coming back to our carbon intensive transit systems. As I worked on my piece, I pondered themes of carbon dependence, urban design, and transit futures. 

I have never liked driving, and really dislike living in a car dependent culture. I put off buying a car until I was 26, because I had hoped that I could get by without one. My sincerest wish now is that my current car will be my last car, and that by the time it ceases to run we will be in a car-free society or that we will at least have enough alternative options to not need private cars. I know this is highly unlikely, but one can hope. 

I read Crude: The Story of Oil by Sonia Shah back in my undergraduate days, and remembered it having a big impact on how I thought about energy and society, so I reread it as I worked on my Composing Earth piece. The book was published in 2006 so some of it’s a bit out of date now, but Shah writes about the history of oil in a compelling and accessible manner. 

Reading it was an important reminder that history is not an inevitable linear trajectory of “progress” but rather a series of decisions, concessions, and happenstance that have created the structures and systems in which we live. One striking historical fact was that most urban centers in the U.S. used to have robust light rail systems that were decimated mid-century to be replaced by infrastructure that favored individual car use. 

A society in which the built environment prioritizes individual car ownership is a society built around individual need rather than collective need, and doesn’t serve the needs of the young, elderly, and those who are mobility and vision impaired. The climate impact of a car intensive environment is substantial, not to mention the acute pollution from cars and refineries. Nothing about this current urban reality is inevitable. Historically we have had other models and systems, and many places in the world have robust public transit and urban design that prioritizes walkability and bikeability. 

Sonia Shah writes that “Rockefeller’s Ghost” has risen and continues to haunt us through modern day Big Oil. I titled my Composing Earth piece “Rockefeller’s Ghost” (written for solo bassoon and electronics) and as I worked on it, I thought a lot about what it means to meaningfully use my composing to address something as momentous as the climate crisis. 

In our Composing Earth meetings we discussed how some of the ways in which this will manifest will be extra-musical; the titles and themes of our pieces, program notes, preconcert talks, and interviews will inevitably be really important ways in which we communicate. It is equally important, though, to make the music itself stand strong or the rest of it won’t amount to much. In one memorable discussion, Gabriela brought up how trite it would be to create a “programmatic” work that was emulating the sounds of fire and say “this piece is about wildfires”! 

As I worked on my piece, I found that it was less about making a statement or a narrative about car culture, but more about exploring how petro-culture and the climate crisis make me feel – deep anxiety, despair, and hope for a better path forward. The use of electronics allowed for an exercise in deep listening to be a part of my process. I made field recordings of the incredibly loud, visceral sounds of traffic at three very busy intersections and layered them, stacked them, and highlighted the sounds against a solo bassoon voice. The process of composing became itself a meditation for me, and my wish is for the piece to become a space for reflection and presence for future audiences. 

It is my belief that any action starts with being present. My hope is that we may all fully inhabit our environments with open ears, that we refuse to passively accept our current systems as inevitable, and that by being present and aware we may find the agency and courage to change things. 


Let’s Take Young Audiences Seriously

John Liberatore sitting at a piano with an overlay of the NewMusicBox Tool Box logo

Who doesn’t love Frog and Toad?  One of my favorites is a story where both of the title characters sneak over to the other’s house to rake leaves, hoping to surprise their friend with the kind gesture. On the way home, unbeknownst to either of them, a gust of wind scatters the leaf piles back across both lawns.  When each character gets home, they resolve to rake their own leaves the next day, and both Frog and Toad go to sleep that night feeling happy about their act of kindness. Adrianne Lobel, daughter of Frog and Toad author Arnold Lobel, suggests that her father’s famous amphibian duo was the beginning of his own coming out.  Toad is such a curmudgeon, but Frog treats him with loving kindness, and together they bring out the best in each other. At its core, the Frog and Toad series is about what it means to love someone—a complicated message, distilled to the vocabulary of a first-grader.

Lobel has been on my mind lately because, for the past few months, I’ve been touring with the American Wild Ensemble, presenting an all-ages program we’re calling “Wild Imagination.” My contribution to this program is a 30-minute monodramatic adaptation of Arnold Lobel’s Owl at Home, a beautifully imaginative, but lesser-known entry in the Lobel treasury.  In my piece, called Owl in Five Stories, a narrator recites an animated rendition of the book, acting out Owl’s whimsical adventures with an original musical score.

Children sit and musicians perform as John Liberatore narrates in a performance of his Owl in Five Stories

From a performance of John Liberatore’s Owl in Five Stories. From left to right: Emlyn Johnson, Daniel Ketter, Tiffany Valvo, John Liberatore.
Photo credit: Jeff Burkhead. Photo used with parental permission.

Many times after a performance, an audience member has said to me some variation of the following: “You’re reaching the audience of tomorrow.”  I appreciate this sentiment, but internally I push back. I’m reaching the audience of today.  “The audience of tomorrow” suggests that, someday, the kids in the audience will grow up and go to a concert, and then they will be real listeners, not just kids. I hope the kids go to another concert someday. I hope the adults do too. But they came today, and that should count.

A room full of five-year-olds, the wisdom goes, can’t distinguish a Jessye Norman from a Florence Foster Jenkins. Their approval doesn’t count for your tenure dossier because no credible record attests that you performed at a high level, outshining your peers. A stigma forms around family programming as a result, as if it’s not worth the attention of someone with serious musical aspirations. But if we want to make our practice more inclusive and reach a broader audience, we need to perform and write music for spaces and people that don’t offer validation in the form of prestige.

Many artists, organizations, and institutions respond to this charge with excellent and innovative family programming. But this stigma still materializes in a certain brand of “family programming,” which I believe still dominates the forum. It leads to lukewarm afternoon programs of unrehearsed Classical Clichés with an itinerant, underpaid assistant conductor. It’s treated more like community service than serious programming, hardly a forum for innovation or real musical expression. It’s like Puffin Rock—it keeps kids busy, and it’s tolerable. This mindset comes to characterize family programming for a lot of us, so we don’t think much about it, or at least I didn’t until recently.

Since at least the 1960s, when children’s literature was just starting to gain recognition as a commercial market, some publishers have enforced a controlled vocabulary[1] on their authors.  Today, Lexile scores empirically calculate the exact parameters of a child’s vocabulary, and many publishers expressly limit the words authors can use. Controlled vocabulary has its pedagogical uses, for sure, but not everything directed at kids needs to be pedagogical. In 1977, interviewer Roni Natov asked Arnold Lobel about whether his own work used a controlled vocabulary. He responded:

I wouldn’t dream of it. … I think of trying to express myself in the simplest fashion I can, but I won’t stop and not use a word that is a little longer, if there’s not a simpler word. … I’ve used words like “avalanche,” and “beautiful,” because there just isn’t another word that I could gracefully exchange them for … Once [kids] bite into reading, they’ll read anything. Once they are enjoying it, nothing stops them, even if they come to a word that they have to sort of sound out and fight with a bit.

The Classical Cliché approach to family programming subscribes to a belief that kids only grasp easily-singable melodies and stock emotions, a tepid controlled vocabulary of musical meanings. Like Lobel, I’m suggesting that we move beyond this mindset, and recognize youth programming as a serious and energizing forum for creativity.

Writing in The Atlantic, George Saunders suggested that when a piece of writing moves you, the author “imagined you generously, and you rose to the occasion.”  Saunders uses Tolstoy as an example, but the same could be said about Lobel. It’s often said that a work speaks to the “inner child” within an adult. But some work speaks to the “inner grownup” within the child. Lobel imagined kids generously.  He created characters with quirks and foibles and emotions, and he told stories with complicated messages. And kids rise to the occasion.

Contrary to popular wisdom, I do believe that kids can discern a truly special performance from a mediocre one. I think kids know when they’re being talked down to. They just don’t express their feelings through the same channels as adults. In writing Owl, I never felt like I was dumbing anything down. I was preoccupied with all the same challenges and obsessions that interest me when writing any piece of music. The piece even has some of those new music bonafides like multiphonics, whistle-tones, and metric modulations. It’s a demanding score written for invested performers. The challenge of writing the piece was not so much about limiting my vocabulary, but rather one of clarity. Like Lobel said, I tried to find the simplest, most direct way of speaking in the moment. I found it hugely rewarding, and I realized that family programming is full of opportunities for composers and performers.

Five such opportunities come to mind:

One: Youth programming has a built-in and deeply appreciative audience. As a musician and university professor, I have to pick and choose what events I go to, attending to my work-life balance and various obligations.  As the father of school-age children, I face the opposite challenge. I want my children to have memorable experiences, and, well… I don’t want to deal with bored children on weekends. So while I am reluctantly turning down concert invitations as a professional, I am actively seeking them as a parent. If a family-friendly event also caters to my musical interests, you can bet that I’ll be there, and I’ll bring three kids in tow. That’s four people in the audience, instead of one. Or zero. This also addresses issues of inclusion for parents in New Music, which Emily Doolittle called attention to (from the perspective of motherhood) in her much-recommended 2017 article on NewMusicBox. Furthermore, parenthood is a much more cross-cultural experience than mine as a composer and professor. Which brings me to my next point.

Two: It’s inclusive. Much has been said about the unwelcoming atmosphere at Classical Music concerts. “No clapping between movements” is a favorite bugaboo for such editorials. Really, though, sitting in your chair with the lights dimmed, program in hand, while someone plays a piece, and then clapping while the person bows—that in itself is a set of cultural conventions that some people find alienating.[2] Regardless, any preconceived notions of concert etiquette go out the window when kids are involved.  Kids have episodes, they run around, they crinkle candy wrappers and juice-box straws… and it’s okay. The music is still wholly appreciated, even by seasoned concertgoers, and maybe a little less ossified in the process. This kind of environment goes a long way toward breaking down cultural barriers to entry in music performance. Especially when such events are offered for free, or by optional donation, family programming has far greater potential for cross-cultural and socioeconomic inclusion than traditional programming.

Three: It invests in community. It’s not just outreach or community building. The experience of the music by those present matters. But it’s also not just a concert. It’s an impression, potentially a very lasting one, upon people less inured to live performance than most listeners who hear my music. Such programming builds awareness about contemporary music among unlikely supporters, so that maybe our next underground new music festival might be a little less removed from public awareness, and a little more welcoming. More importantly, it’s an investment in the kids who see it, many of whom might otherwise never see a professional flutist up close, or learn that there’s such a thing as a bass clarinet, or that a cello is different from a violin. Who knows what impact these encounters might have? In what other context are we so poised to make such a profound impact on even one of our listeners?

Four: Reaching young audiences promotes (and requires) creative approaches to curation as well as composition. As an example, the Danish experimental music ensemble Scenatat developed a series of Concert Walks with support from the now-defunct European agency New:Aud, an organization once dedicated to connecting Europe’s premiere new-music ensembles with young audiences. Such events don’t need to be child-centric to be child-friendly.[3] In all sectors of the New Music world right now, people are engaged with the question: what can a concert be? Bringing youth and families into this discussion is a major catalyst for creativity.

For my fifth and final point, I defer to the wisdom of Frog and Toad. In “The Dream,” the last story in Frog and Toad Together, Toad dreams himself on a stage in a huge auditorium where only Frog sits in the audience.[4] A strange voice announces “THE GREATEST TOAD IN ALL THE WORLD.”

Toad took a deep bow.
Frog looked smaller as he shouted,
‘Hooray for Toad!’
said the strange voice.

Toad played the piano,
and he did not miss a note.
‘Frog,’ cried Toad,
‘can you play the piano like this?’
‘No,’ said Frog.
It seemed to Toad
that Frog looked even smaller.

As the story goes on, Toad shows off a number of astounding feats, while Frog grows smaller and smaller, until he eventually disappears. The more Toad boasts and shows off, the more he (literally) belittles Frog, and the more he distances himself from what matters, until he loses it completely. Talk about a complex message for young readers.

I’m guessing anybody trying to make a go at a career in the performing arts understands the exhaustion of perpetual one-upmanship. We are all under such pressure to “count”—to add to those dreary lists of names, venues, awards, and commissions that, if we’re lucky, render our professional bios unreadable. Yes, this is a terribly unhealthy fallacy, which I know to be irrational and destructive, but which I confess remains lodged somewhere in my composer id. The thing is, kids don’t care about any of that, and it’s just so wonderfully refreshing. They don’t care if you’re the greatest toad in all the world. They do care about sincerity, directness, and honesty. They know when someone is taking them seriously. It’s a very healthy exercise as an individual and as a community to pause and take stock of how we might try to communicate something important to children.

Many other reasons to invest in family-friendly New Music could be added to this list, some of which I have touched upon, and others which deserve their own articles: accessibility, cultural impact, activism, and even economic reasons come to mind. Fundamentally, though, each of these reasons comes back to the same point: Music, and New Music especially, is about community. Obviously, not all events, aesthetics, and messages are suitable for children. My next few projects are not expressly written for young audiences. But having spent so much creative energy over the last year with young audiences in mind, I believe I have grown as a composer and a person. I believe our community will grow stronger if we take young audiences more seriously.[5]

[1] I apologize for the irony of linking to JSTOR here, since I realize that not everyone has access to it. Still, the concept of Controlled Vocabulary is fairly ubiquitous and easily investigated through search engines.

[2] Whether or not Classical Music describes what we do, many of the readers of this blog will surely participate in events that share at least some of these conventions. It’s fine—I love these kinds of concerts! But the experience is far from universal.

[3] Quite a bit of what makes an event family-friendly has to do with presentation, and not repertoire per se. I thank Emily Doolittle for making this point, both in her aforementioned article, and in personal correspondence. In this article, I am primarily talking about the creation and performance of kid-friendly repertoire, leaving suggestions for presentation to other writers. Though as projects like Concert Walks demonstrate, content and presentation are not always separable, and family-centric programming encourages us to think this way.

[4] I sympathize with Toad’s low turnout in proportion to the size of the venue.

[5] I’d like to thank Emlyn Johnson, Daniel Ketter, and Tiffany Valvo for bringing Wild Imagination to life, and for our conversations that led to this article.

GLFCAM — Is it alright to make joyful art while the world burns? 

Multiple images of Nicolás Lell Benavides with NMUSA and GLFCAM logos

As the parent of a toddler, I love watching him learn about the world. He seems to be happiest when he’s outside. He runs his hands through soil, holds up leaves to the sky, rolls in grass, and loves to eat fruit straight off the tree. He loves silly music, and finds trash and street cleaning days thrilling, running to the window to watch the trucks. He can’t speak in full sentences yet, but we understand that he has lots of questions, and the list of things he wants to know about is only growing. He loves to help and be helped, and he doesn’t have a concept for what it means to be talented, accomplished, or even proficient. He just asks, then tries.

This year I formally finished my DMA at USC, something I’m incredibly proud of. I’m more educated than I ever have been in my life, yet it frustrates me that the more accomplished I’ve become, the more questions I have about the world. I’m approaching middle age (depending on your definition I may have already arrived) and I have to say: I miss the naivety of youth. Like Pandora’s Box, there is no undoing what I’ve learned about the world, but how I sometimes wish I could find the old creative bliss of ignorance.

At the conclusion of GLFCAM’s Composing Earth, I set out to write about the gravity of the climate crisis, focusing on the drought in the Southwest for my commission, sponsored by GLFCAM, with Edwin Outwater and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra (premiere in fall of 2024). My work, titled Acequia, will explore the ancient means of irrigating and sharing water over an ancient floodplain diverted from the Rio Grande, a system I grew up using in New Mexico. This type of irrigation on a modern floodplain gives refuge to migratory birds, fills the aquifer, and benefits native species that rely on periodic flooding. I have also, through GLFCAM, written a string quartet for the Fry Street Quartet about the threatened Sage Grouse and Sharp-Tailed Grouse, whose beautiful mating calls I recorded in Utah.

I love finding joy in my music, yet I feel an incredible anger because of the ways in which human created climate change affects the acequias and the Sage Grouse. The snow melt is unpredictable, and the irrigation season is shorter than ever. Fracking and drilling not only warm the planet but destroy habitats that the birds rely on. What is beautiful or joyful about not knowing how to fix this with my music? 

Last summer my family moved to Long Beach, and for the first time since I was a kid I was living in a house. It came with a beautiful lawn in the front yard just like every other house on the block and I swore I would rip it out and plant a native garden. I grew up helping my dad with his vineyard, field, and landscaping, but in truth I’m terrible at identifying anything but the most common house plants. 

I found out there is a grant through the state to convert your lawn to a low water garden. It’s a modest amount, but I must admit I was as excited about this as any commission I’ve ever received when I found out I was accepted – I haven’t stopped dreaming about bees and butterflies, and how excited my kid will be to see them. Before I knew it, I was looking forward to my new hobby each day, something I was objectively novice at. 

Small as our yard is, I’m finding it’s back breaking work to dig, remove invasive plants, and put in native ones. It’s slow going, but a square foot by square foot it is transforming, and it’s made for great conversation with my neighbors as they walk over to see what wild thing I’m up to with a shovel. Every time I get to work a neighbor inevitably wanders over to chat, and I’ve come to look forward to it. Recently a neighbor saw me digging up invasive grasses and she walked over to bring me lunch, commenting that she saw me working day after day and really loves watching the transformation. Much to my surprise, my joy, despite all my mistakes and the plants I’ve accidentally killed, has been an inadvertent beacon to my neighbors, friends, and family.

I frequently stand in the front yard, practicing naming the plants, knowing I’d see them “in the wild” one day. The sad thing is… most yards in this state have nothing but invasive plants, and I rarely know what they are.

I defended my dissertation on the last day of summer, Sept 21. Outside the music building as I was going over my score in preparation for my defense I looked up and saw a native plant I could name: California Fuchsia, epilobium canum. Right next to it was a Western Redbud, and then California Sagebrush, Bladder Pod, Deer Grass, California Buckwheat, Desert Globemallow, Ceanothus, and Common Yarrow! I jumped to my feet and ran to each one to be sure. They were invisible to me my entire doctorate, just living their lives, and in a flash they all revealed themselves to me, like they were just waiting for somebody, anybody to ask the question: what are you? 

I don’t know how these plants will fold into my music, if ever, but they certainly nourish my soul, and seeing them for the first time after living in California since 2006 was a life changing moment, like being a kid again. I have so many more questions now, and the list grows daily. I’ve realized one thing this summer as I wield my rusty shovel and chat with my neighbors:

The burden of hard work is lightened by the joy of learning.

I used to think my kid is happy because he is oblivious to the problems of the world, but I’m learning that he’s happy because he enjoys the challenges of the world. He isn’t motivated by answers, he is driven by questions. We should be compelled by the abundance of questions in the world and be grateful that we are here to ask them. 

Making joyful art while the world burns is a necessity, especially when that joy comes through deep questioning. My neighbors don’t care that my yard is in disarray while I work on it; they are intrigued by the story of its transformation. My orchestra piece and string quartet are in progress, scores due in a few months with premieres slated for May, but thanks to my kid and my new hobby I am learning to be comfortable with finding joy in the process, not the result. If I’m lucky, a curious neighbor or concertgoer will bring me lunch and ask me a question I won’t have the answer to, and we can bond over the privilege of being able to so much as ask.

The Worldly Clarinet

A close up of a clarinet

I was speaking with a clarinetist once about the importance of the clarinet in the Klezmer tradition, and she admitted that, as much as she admired the abilities of Klezmer clarinetists, she was hesitant to learn how to play the music because she didn’t want to appropriate a culture that isn’t her own. Her private teacher at the time, however, who was Jewish and a respected clarinet chameleon of many music styles including both classical and Klezmer, actively encouraged his students to learn Klezmer music not only to honor and preserve the clarinet’s role in the tradition but also because of the technical demands it makes on a clarinetist that aren’t typically found in traditional classical or contemporary music.

Is it appropriative to learn the music of a different culture as a classically-trained clarinetist, or is it colonialist to learn strictly Western art music?

The clarinet, like many instruments commonly found in Western music, is actually a part of many music traditions with a rich history of virtuosi around the globe. Yet, in America, clarinet students are most often admitted only to classical training programs, including orchestras and concert bands. Rare is the high school jazz band that features a clarinet, with clarinetists instead having Ticheli’s Blue Shades or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as our first foray into the world of glisses and bluesy riffs, in spite of our instrument’s history in that music tradition as well.

As clarinet students in classical training programs, we are taught the entire history and development of our instrument through a Western European lens. Our studies take us through the history of church music and the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras alongside the developments in instrument making in the 17th through 20th centuries. We learn how these components are intricately intertwined and have led us to where we are today, yet we don’t talk about the ways these developments affected and were affected by non-Western music as well. I remember being surprised to learn that the clarinet played a prominent role in Turkish music and that the Albert-system G clarinet is dubbed the “Turkish clarinet”. When learning about Italian opera in the 18th and 19th centuries, nobody had ever mentioned that Donizetti brought the instrument to Turkey. The local scene really took it and ran with it, giving us the distinct style of clarinet playing found in Turkey today.

This Western European lens is not only problematic for its erasure of clarinetists of historically underrepresented communities in the U.S. but also for the limitations it imposes on our approach to the instrument. The siphoning of instrumental music students into specialized training programs happens early on in our studies and careers. If not by the end of high school, then by the time we declare a major in university or enroll in a conservatory, we are labeled as either classical or jazz. This early distinction becomes the foundation upon which we will build our musical practice and career, yet it also defines the narrow view through which we will approach our instrument. For clarinetists starting in classical training programs, we are taught a very specific concept of sound that helps us get through our early studies of Mozart and Beethoven. It continues to serve us through Stravinsky and other works of the early 20th century and even as we are introduced to works by Berio, Carter, or Saariaho. This approach to the clarinet, however, becomes more obviously limiting as we begin to move into music that draws from non-Western traditions.

Oswaldo Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind is a piece composed for string quartet and Klezmer clarinet. The clarinet part comes with a description of a few Klezmer-specific techniques that are explicitly prescribed in the notation, but otherwise the piece is completely legible for the Western classical clarinetist. Without a concept of sound of Klezmer clarinet, it would be relatively easy for any clarinetist from a classical program to get ahold of the part and read it cover-to-cover as though it were a Brahms sonata. If you listen to David Krakauer’s recording with the Kronos Quartet, however, you can hear the nuance in interpretation that he brings to the piece through his own decades of experience in Klezmer clarinet playing.

Reena Esmail’s Clarinet Concerto, premiered in 2017, was written for Shankar Tucker, a musician trained in both Western classical and Hindustani classical music on clarinet. In her own description of the piece, Esmail celebrates Tucker’s dual-training and the possibilities it offered her as a composer. She acknowledges the limitations she would have faced in trying to write the piece in Western classical notation had she not been writing for a clarinetist adept at performing in both styles. Tucker was the perfect fit because of his familiarity with the two traditions and the musical understanding he was able to bring without it being written explicitly on the page. Esmail also acknowledges the different challenges that will likely be faced by clarinetists of different musical trainings, distinguishing between Western classical, jazz/improvisational, and Hindustani clarinetists. For the latter two groups, the main hurdle for the piece would be comfort with reading Western classical notation and working in an orchestral setting. For the former, the hurdle is the actual ability to perform the work, with the consolation, “a version that notates Tucker’s improvisations will be available at a future date.”

I’m not suggesting that we all need to become multi-genre performers and specialists of every music tradition, nor am I tackling the importance of representation in Western classical music repertoire with this. While that is an adjacent and ongoing issue, many other people are already addressing that with more eloquence and nuance than I would bring to that conversation. But perhaps alongside that battle, we should also consider the importance of sharing and celebrating the accomplishments of instrumentalists outside of the Western classical and new music traditions. We limit ourselves as instrumentalists when we fail to acknowledge the contributions of non-Western classical performers to instrumental technique and music performance.

I Am The Gatekeeper (And That’s Okay)

John Schaefer (photo credit: @thesundncekid)

John Schaefer (photo credit: @thesundncekid)

Many years ago, when “New Sounds” was still new (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth), I played a few tracks from a Japanese musician named Osamu Kitajima on the show.  At that time, WNYC-FM was still largely a classical music station; “New Sounds” was on at 11pm, when all the grownups had left, and I was accustomed to getting mail from older listeners who didn’t care to hear anything after Brahms.  But the Kitajima record provoked one elderly gentleman to write in to say that it was the best thing he’d heard since Enrico Caruso, some sixty years earlier.

I’ve been thinking about that listener and that letter recently, as news comes of AI bots developed to do the work of local radio announcers, and algorithms define what many of us listen to.  Music can do many things: it can calm you down, rile you up, move you to tears… but sometimes, music can be startling.  Those can be some of our most memorable musical experiences – the time when we heard something totally unexpected, something that took us unawares.  Look, I understand the utility of a good algorithm.  I have discovered any number of musicians and songs that I now love by clicking on something that was sitting on the bottom of the Soundcloud or Bandcamp page, or in the list of videos that runs down the side of YouTube.  But I’m willing to bet that no bot or algorithm would take an Enrico Caruso fan to Osamu Kitajima-land.

AI and algorithms work on logic.  Music, and discovery, work beyond logic, in the realm of intuition and inspiration and chance.  I was not trying to convert old opera listeners into Japanese electro-ethno-pop fans.  That example was a total fluke – the element of chance at work.  Now, with more music available to us that at any time in history, the potential for surprise, for the thrill of discovery, is greater than ever.  But when almost everything is available, where do you even start?

This is where the editors, the gatekeepers, come in.  They’ve always been there:  record companies, record stores, radio programmers, music critics.  In theory, all of these people stood between you and your freedom to choose what you’d hear next.  Each one essentially said, “you will hear this”; but the subtext was, “and if you want to hear something else, go find it yourself.”  And for many folks, that was fine; “I know what I like” is a perfectly reasonable way of approaching music.  For those listeners, a good algorithm will be decent company, and will occasionally throw in related things that offer a little of that sense of discovery.

But for more curious listeners, and especially for anyone straying far from the world of pop, that simply won’t do.  Back in the day, we were the ones decrying those gatekeepers, lamenting the major labels’ desperate search for the next Thriller, and complaining about (but still watching) the Grammys’ annual parade of commercially safe pop.  So instead we took note of the record label that consistently did interesting stuff, the critic who made room for musicians no one else seemed to notice, or the DJ who blew your mind that night when she followed It’s A Beautiful Day with Lothar And The Hand People (and yes, those are real band names).  These people were our guides, because even in the analog age, there was already more music than any one person could handle.

People like that are needed now more than ever, because when it comes to the democratization of music in the digital world, the theory differs greatly from the practice.  Yes, countless additional artists and recordings from all genres, time periods, and parts of the world have become available to us, but somehow we find the digital system behaving in ways that look suspiciously like the old analog one.

It has always been a challenge to discover experimental music, contemporary classical music, and any other type of music that is unlikely to make much headway in the commercial sector.  The further you get from the musical mainstream, the more important it is to have a guide, if only to get you started.  That was the idea behind “New Sounds” all those years ago (forty and counting): to open a door to different musical possibilities – for rock fans bored by tight playlists, jazz listeners orphaned by the loss of their music on the radio, even the classical aficionados who’d fallen asleep and forgotten to turn off the radio.  I saw it as a door, not to a room, but to a hallway full of more doors, with different sounds and traditions and ideas in each room, many of which revealed themselves to be connected – because that was how it worked for me.

Could an AI program do that?  Well, probably, eventually – if someone had the desire and the funding and the time to do it.  Of course that someone would have to know that part, or more precisely, those parts, of the music world and so that person would be the gatekeeper and this is making my brain hurt just thinking about it.

But there’s something else at work here, something specific (I believe) to radio.  You may understand on an intellectual level that other people are hearing the same thing as you; but emotionally, it feels like it’s just you and this other person who is playing music for you.  Turning on the radio means inviting someone into your home, your office, or your car, and sharing that space with them.  Late at night, if you’re alone in your room or your car, this experience is heightened.  “New Sounds” began as a late night experiment; these days, I know (again, on an intellectual level) that people are listening to it online at many other times of the day, but I have always felt like it’s still a late night show at heart.  And anyone who has ever hosted a late night radio show will tell you tales, both horrifying and wonderful, about the connections that individual listeners make with this disembodied but still clearly human presence in their life.

Now we get word that some of the big media corporations that own radio stations across the country, filling them all with programming from one central location, are realizing the importance of sounding local and are experimenting with AI as a way of “localizing” their fare.  I have no doubt that this can work, within limits.  A simulacrum of a radio announcer can impart local weather info, concert listings, and the like, and at some point I’m sure that simulacrum will sound almost indistinguishable from a human announcer reading the same material.  Tellingly, no one is yet talking about an AI bot crafting a music show and acting as a guide/companion for the listeners.  That doesn’t mean such things can’t happen, only that they’re probably years away (he said, in a burst of implausible optimism).

I guess it comes down to FOMO.  If FOMO means fear of missing out on what everyone else is doing, or listening to, or watching, then algorithms and AI might be just the ticket.  But FOMO could also mean fear of missing out on everything else – the new, the distant, the overlooked… you know, the stuff that might make you think, “that’s the best thing I’ve heard in sixty years.”  In that case, FOMO is just another term for curiosity.  And curiosity is one of humanity’s greatest traits, and perhaps one of its most undervalued.  I don’t think there’s an AI program that can recreate that.

Minding the Gap: Why Targeted Action is Still Needed

A group of women dancing underneath a veil (Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash)

I want to mark this year’s International Women’s Day with reflections on what we’ve learnt from the gender equity programs I’ve led in the UK and the US over the past 12 years. I also want to use this opportunity to celebrate the incredible women and gender-expansive creators these initiatives have supported.

Back in 2011 when I launched the UK’s first dedicated fund for women, trans and non-binary music creators, the gender gap in music was not widely recognized. Some people – including composers who wanted to be identified first as artists rather than women – did not welcome a fund which prioritized some gender identities over others. Whilst I acknowledge and understand this point of view, the results of the programs I’ve been a part of demonstrate that intentional, targeted action works for artists seeking support, and this is a fact we can’t overlook.

  • My colleagues at PRS Foundation celebrated 12 years of Women Make Music (the fund we launched in 2011) with an event and evaluation that demonstrates the ongoing importance of targeted programs for women and gender-expansive artists. This fund has supported a total of 382 creators, with 83% confirming they would not have been able to realize their activities without the fund. 98% believe that this form of support is still needed. 45.5% were women of color, highlighting that the fund’s gender equity focus also supported intersectional inclusivity.

A graphic chart showing the effect of Women Make Music on grantees as well as awards and industry recognition

  • The team now driving the Keychange initiative I co-founded with European and Canadian partners in 2017 recently shared evidence of the progress made through the Keychange gender equity pledge and talent development program. In their words, “what gets measured gets done” The pledge has now attracted over 600 signatory organizations committed to dramatically increasing representation of women and gender-expansive artists on their stages or in their organizations, 64% have surpassed their targets and this program has supported over 280 artists and industry professionals with mentoring, showcases and peer learning opportunities.

A graphic showing that 64% of pledge signatories are already achieving or surpassing their pledge targets

From the start, I stated that “success” for programs like these is the moment when they are no longer needed. Feedback from the community gathered via the reports I mention above demonstrates that we are not there yet.  Until we see widespread structural and cultural change, along with equitable investment and endorsement led by those who currently hold the most power, progress is bound to be limited.  We should also pay attention to the UN’s latest forecast  that gender equity is 300 years away if we accept that the music industry is a microcosm of broader societal issues. The UN calls for urgent, collective action in the face of “centuries of patriarchy, discrimination and harmful stereotypes.”

Many of the programs we are running at New Music USA have come about because of the way these challenges show up in music.

  • All aspects of the film industry, including directing and scoring, are heavily dominated by men, with men scoring 95% of the top 250 films at the US box office. Our Reel Change fund, developed with SESAC and composer Christophe Beck, aims to help shift this imbalance.
  • When we launched our national Next Jazz Legacy apprenticeship program with the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice, 58% of the albums in NPR’s jazz critics poll featured no women musicians at all.
  • Music by women composers still accounts for just 11% of orchestral music commissioned in the US. Our Amplifying Voices program encourages orchestras to collaborate and diversify the range of composers they commission.

In spite of these daunting statistics, the extraordinary talent of the women and gender expansive creators who are finding a way to dedicate their lives to music is something we must celebrate today on International Women’s Day, and every day, just as we do at New Music USA.

  • Listen today to this exhilarating performance by Next Jazz Legacy artists at New York’s Winter JazzFest (see below), or hear the scores of Reel Change grantees Sultana Isham, Catherine Joy and Emmolei Sankofa at festivals and on major platforms like Hulu and Amazon;
  • Look out for the increasing number of women who are being commissioned by orchestras, from Pulitzer prize-winning Tania León to Courtney Bryan, Shelley Washington and Nina Shekhar
  • Let’s give a shout-out to artists like Jen Shyu, Sara Serpa, Ellen Reid, Missy Mazzoli and Terri Lyne Carrington who are investing so much of their time in supporting their peers and the next generation;
  • Let’s celebrate the younger women and gender expansive people taking part in initiatives like Luna Lab, El Paso Jazz girls, Girls Rock Des Moines and the Afghanistan National Institute of Music.

The success of all these creators gives us a chance to imagine an alternative future for music; music that is relevant and welcoming to more people; music that may sound different, drawing from a broader range of perspectives; music that’s truly reflective of the communities it serves. That’s the future I think we all want to see.  Until then, let’s accept that targeted action is still needed and it’s one proven way of addressing the inequities that ultimately hold everyone back.

Standing Tall, Still To Be Seen

An empty music studio (photo by Catherine Joy)

The Oscar nominees were announced this last week and while the shortlist was full of promise, featuring both Chanda Dancy and Hildur Guðnadóttir for best score, the actual nominee list featured only men. Extremely talented male composers who write fantastic scores, without doubt, but it was frustrating to once again see no women represented when their work was obviously just as deserving. Hildur was nominated and won a number of critics’ awards and yet was not nominated by the Academy music branch. We saw a similar situation with the best director nominees. But why does this even matter? Why do we feel so frustrated and unseen?

I have often pondered this question. As a composer who happens to be a woman I long to “just be a composer” and simply focus on the music. I would infinitely prefer not to have to wrestle with these questions of equality, inclusivity, and diversity. I know many of my colleagues–be they women, non-binary individuals, or any composer who doesn’t fall into the category of “white cis-male”–also long for the same freedom; the freedom to just look away and not get involved. But there is a very important reason to continue to grapple with this issue: representation. We need to stand up so we can be seen by those coming after us.

When I was thirteen and growing up in Tasmania, Australia, I managed to win a scholarship that afforded me a place in an expensive high school that had a stellar music program. It was a girls’ school. Throughout the years we girls were challenged to be the very best and told that we could do anything. The world was open to us. At the time I was a violinist and singer. I was surrounded by many strong brilliant women in the music world. But something wasn’t right for me. I knew I wasn’t going to be a performing classical musician, and I longed to get “off the page”. When I look back now at my younger self, I see someone dying to compose. And yet it took me years to find composition. Why? Because I didn’t know it was a thing! The only composers we studied were men. The music being performed in the orchestras and played on the radio was all by men; repertoire hundreds of years old. I had no idea that being a composer was a gig available to me. Representation. It just wasn’t there. It took me decades to find out that composition was an avenue I could pursue, and when I finally found it in my 30s, I remember feeling complete relief. After decades in the music world, I had found my home. I haven’t looked back since.

One of my dear friends and mentors, Lolita Ritmanis, has a story with a similar theme. She was conducting one of her works at a concert and afterwards met up with a young girl and her mother. They expressed surprise that women could be conductors–they didn’t know. The little girl was overjoyed at the prospect. She had to see it to believe it.

I have been part of the leadership for the Alliance for Women Film Composers now since 2016. We have a directory of women composers that stands currently at around 600 individuals, which is fantastic. Yet it seems like every few months I see a social media post that says something along the lines of, “How do I find women film composers? Are there any?” I talk to filmmakers who tell me that I am the only woman composer they know. There is so much work to be done to make women composers in media, and all areas of the music world, visible. And even as we have a love-hate relationship with awards and competitions, the benefit of such things is that they draw attention to the existence of individuals. They are a vehicle to make some noise. No award competition will ever be perfect, fair, free from politics or drama. But they are avenues for young women and non-binary people, young people of all shades of melanin, to see someone up there that looks like them, and say to themselves, “I belong in this industry, too. I am represented. I’m not alone. I can do this.”

The question is how do we do this? Things are changing and this is worth celebrating. The shortlist of the Oscars is testament to that, as is the diversity we see at film festivals like Sundance and SXSW. In the world of TV, we are seeing a lot more inclusivity in the hiring of composers. This change is a result of organizations like the Alliance for Women Film Composers, the Composers Diversity Collective, and programs like the Reel Change Film Fund (of which I am a grateful recipient) which give underrepresented composers the funds to elevate a project to a higher level, which opens doors for more and greater opportunities. We are seeing studio programs like the Universal Composers Initiative which chooses a group of diverse artists to amplify and uplift. All this is exciting, but I believe we are still at the beginning of a long journey. This year’s all-male Oscar nominations for best score and best director show how far we still must go. We need to simultaneously celebrate the progress and buckle down for a long road ahead. While the change must happen in all areas, I believe it begins with women supporting women. Women uplifting and amplifying their sister creatives, voting for them, celebrating their work. Women need to lead the way.

We cannot ignore ongoing deficits in equality, diversity, and inclusivity. It is time to find all the ways we can to get loud, stand tall and call out inequality, even when it’s uncomfortable. We need to ensure a richer creative landscape for the following generation to thrive.

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?

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 sign up 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 Margaret 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.