Category: Commentary

Confronting Our Complicity: Music Theory and White Supremacy

A photo of a wrecked classroom with paint peeling from the ceiling, desks turned over and broken.

For many students, the traditional music theory core curriculum is an undesirable and yet unavoidable part of their college music experience. It becomes something to be suffered through, survived rather than savored. A critical source of this frustration is the disconnect between their musical lives inside the classroom and those outside it. Despite the fact that the majority of our students do not listen to Western art music regularly, nearly all of the core curriculum is based on it. Consequently, as students progress through their degree, they must endure the constant friction between the music they want to study and the music they have to study, between music they value and what music theory as an institution values.

In “Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy,” I described how a theory curriculum devoted to a single style is inherently limited and inherently limiting. When we restrict ourselves to Western art music, we forgo the opportunity to speak about basic yet essential musical elements such as groove, timbre, improvisation, and post-production in styles where these are powerfully foregrounded.

Why then do we as a discipline remain so averse to change? Despite the passage of time, the evolution of taste, and the advent of new styles, new techniques, and new technologies of music creation, the topics we teach and the examples we use rarely reflect this. Instead, today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students, as those our teachers used as students, as those our teachers’ teachers used as students. The theory curriculum at too many institutions remains largely standardized and largely stagnant.

This is a problem.

Our unwarranted privileging of Western art music—a style constructed by white people as white, despite the historical and ongoing participation of people who aren’t—enables the dismissal of other styles of music and the people associated with those styles through unfavorable and unfair comparisons. How do we reconcile this with our many statements extolling the virtues of diversity, equity, and inclusivity? Why do we continue to rely on a deeply flawed pedagogy?

We continue to rely on the traditional pedagogy for three interrelated reasons. First, given our extensive training in Western art music, we’re reluctant and often unable to divest ourselves from its contents. Second, because institutions prioritize research over teaching, we prioritize research over teaching. Finally, we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness of the curriculum because we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness in our lives.

When we rationalize our use of the traditional pedagogy by appealing to its contents, we attempt to transform a subjective preference into an objective truth. The specific set of skills that one acquires through studying Western art music becomes the necessary set of skills for any consequential study of music. But basing an entire core curriculum on any single style requires making major concessions about the musical elements we can talk about and the informed ways we can talk about them. Being able to harmonize chorales “correctly” means nothing if you’re looking to get up, get into it, and get involved. Conversely, asking if you can take it to the bridge won’t help you avoid parallel fifths.

Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why. Simple historical inertia—the replication of what we were taught as students—isn’t sufficient. If we appeal to “art for art’s sake,” we need to be explicit about whose art and, consequently, for whose sake. We need to talk about the metrics being used to determine what counts as art, who selects these metrics, and their reasons for doing so. We need to talk about how white male identity politics has shaped Western art music.

Our decision to use the traditional pedagogy is also motivated by how this impacts our careers. Institutions place a disproportionate weight on research relative to teaching, and this incentivizes perpetuation in the classroom, rather than innovation. Because the classical style is highly codified and relatively easy to teach, we can allocate more time and energy to research while still hitting established learning goals. Unfortunately, our longstanding pedagogical dependence on Western art music has conditioned us to expect certain results without asking if they matter, much less how they do, or to whom.

Contingent faculty have even less institutional incentive—and often less agency—to challenge the curriculum at the schools where they teach. The instability of employment and higher turnover rates means that any traction for innovative pedagogy is hard to establish and harder to maintain. In general, changes to the status quo, when they occur, tend to be fairly isolated.

Nevertheless, theory’s established historical pedigree does not absolve us from the moral necessity of questioning what it is we’re actually doing in the classroom. Well-established marginalization is, after all, still marginalization, and the generation of predictable results does not in itself mean that we are teaching our students what they should be learning. The bald assertion that the traditional pedagogy provides any and all necessary and fundamental knowledge needs to be defended, and I don’t believe it can be.

We present music almost exclusively by dead white European men under neutral course titles like “Basic Musicianship,” allowing the two to conflate into a tautological definition of what qualifies as “Real Music,” and re-inscribing racial and gender hierarchies in the process. We present Western art music as an unassailable good and our teaching of it as unassailably good. We present Western art music as an intellectual art form, a high art form, a better art form, and we do this in the service of an ideology that positions white identities, ideas, and ideals as superior.

We want to continue using the traditional pedagogy without acknowledging how it upholds white supremacy because we don’t want to acknowledge how we uphold white supremacy. We consistently downplay or deny the privileges whiteness provides and we consistently downplay or deny the ways we protect those privileges.

Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. Studying Western art music is not racist in itself. Teaching Western art music is not racist in itself. Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist. Requiring all students to use a white lens to approach, understand, and critique music is racist.

As Michelle Ohnona and I wrote in “Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom,” we need to engage with music and with the social and cultural mechanisms that shape it. We need to look past individual intent and acknowledge the cumulative impact of supporting a pedagogy that holds that a core curriculum based solely in Western art music is acceptable. To present this status quo as the natural order of things, without critique, is to uphold white supremacy.

The 2020 presidential election once again laid bare the ongoing thrall of white grievance and the pervasiveness of white supremacy. We can’t be impartial about this—oppression within education is a reflection and a reinforcement of oppression within society, and when we fail to address injustice, we ensure its continuance. Let us push back against the claimed inevitability of this insupportable curriculum.

The best thing we can do for our students is to embrace an engaged, transformative pedagogy in which, as bell hooks eloquently writes in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, “our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students.” This requires at least a realignment and probably a rethinking of what higher education is supposed to be.

With a transformative pedagogy, we recalibrate our classrooms into spaces where we acknowledge the humanity of our students and are explicit about how the work we do in the classroom relates to their lives outside of it. We talk openly with students and with each other about racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and other forms of identity-based oppression. That this call to arms isn’t a new one only underscores its urgency. That these discussions aren’t necessarily easy only underscores their urgency.

As we teach students how to hear, interact with, and think about music, let’s also teach them to think critically, ask questions, self-reflect, and to care enough to do so. Let’s open their ears, eyes, and minds to voices and people that have been marginalized, to the stories that surround and support the notes, to the unheard music. We need to teach the humanities as a practice you take out into the world.

As with any enterprise involving the sowing of seeds, some will germinate immediately, some only after the passing of several years, and some not at all. This is okay. Now is the time for planting.

Black Mystery School Pianists

A close up of a piano keyboard with broken/warped keys going in various directions.

In viewing the history of jazz piano as it has influenced me, I find various tributaries and streams and ways of being that have contributed to my understanding of the jazz piano language and to finding my way through all of this. I have come to see a subgroup of jazz pianism that has influenced me as something I call the Black Mystery School of Pianists. Like all categories, there is an illusionary aspect of it and phenomena go in and out of each other, but the category does denote something. It’s a way I have viewed the work of certain practitioners of the art of jazz piano and I have followed offshoots of this branch. There are many pianists that might fall in and out of this category that are not mentioned here. The list is an outline that defines aspects of a certain attitude and is not meant as any type of dogmatic statement.

So what do I mean by a Black Mystery School pianist? Well, obviously the word “Black” is in here, so for the purposes of looking at this tree, all of the practitioners I will mention except for one will be Black. That is not to imply a non-black person cannot enter this realm. I am just outlining a code—that there is a definitive tree-like formation that has seemed more often than not to go down a certain path. The word “mystery” is here also which implies a secret code, passed through an underground way of passage, a language outside the mainstream and, yes, outside the mainstream of jazz, even though the father of this school Thelonious Monk’s image has been subsumed into the mainstream of jazz after a long period of incubation.

Mystery School posits an alternative touch—something that does not directly fall within the mainstream’s easily digestible paradigm of being able to play the instrument, even though the practitioners of the Mystery School are obviously highly skilled virtuosos whose touch, language, and articulation are extremely hard to copy. In some ways, in the subconscious of the jazz idiom, the Mystery School is a counter strike to the psychological space of any variant of an Art Tatum approach of playing, filtered down to Oscar Peterson, and then watered down to something like André Previn as a prevailing way of viewing piano playing. And I say that despite Monk’s roots in stride piano. Mystery School pianists have developed profound ways of generating sound out of the instrument grounded in a technique they invented and one that cannot be taught in school. It is a code that somehow gets passed down.

The Mystery School seems to have a subconscious urge to resist academic codification of any sort. Despite however great artists and jazz musicians they are, and this is not meant as a pejorative, jazz students can go to jazz schools and learn to play like Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock, but there is something completely elusive in the sound world of Randy Weston, Mal Waldron, and the legendary Hasaan Ibn Ali that defies the jazz academy.

The other major aspect of the Mystery School is the iconoclastic nature of it. As in the ultimate example of Monk, the artist carves out a niche for themselves within the world of the jazz universe. That niche is a worldview or a planet. The artist in utmost stubbornness will stick to that vision with a fuck the world attitude—that the world will have to come to this vision of the piano and, if it doesn’t, then so be it. This vision is extreme in its iconoclastic nature, although some mystery school pianists, like Mal Waldron, have done gigs like backing singers (e.g. Billie Holiday, etc.). The phrasing and rhythm employed in the code that these players utilize is of such nature as to not be able to fall under the hands of a jazz student who is studying, say, Brad Mehldau.

Another aspect of the Mystery School is despite Monk being the spiritual father, the descendants tend not to play Monk tunes. They develop their own body of work. And I say this despite some great interpretations of Monk music by Mal Waldron through the years.

Next, let’s look at who is not in the Mystery School according to this very particular way of looking at things. This is important because this is such a specific delineation of a slice of something that it is not a platform to just throw a bunch of great jazz pianists in. It is very specific. So first, Ellington is not in, although he is a big influence on the pianism of Monk, Randy Weston, and Cecil Taylor. Also Ellington’s piano work on the album Money Jungle is on the level of the greatest piano playing ever. It is playing that could never be reached by someone with the mindset of a post-Tatum pianism, and no one who comes out of a bebop or post bebop mindset could ever get to the language there. Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly, or Tommy Flanagan—as great as they all are—could never generate the energy/sound fields that the piano work on Money Jungle does. So that is to say Ellington had a unique homemade style that is as idiosyncratic as any. But Ellington doesn’t fall into this school because there is a posture and an attitude inherent in the code that he does not quite embody and his relationship to the mainstream of his day does not exactly delve into the stance and attitude of the Mystery School.

Bud Powell does not make it in the school because he is too tied to the classic idea of the development of bebop. That might seem a paradox being that Monk is also considered a founding father of bebop—but isn’t that one of the main things that gives juice to Monk’s legacy, that he is a founding father of bebop but at the same time set up a parallel universe of his own music that in some ways seems like it is counter to some of the assumptions of bebop? There is that aspect of the Mystery School that sets itself up as counter to bebop. Of course, Bud Powell is one of the greatest pianists ever to sit at the keys. But that does not put him in this particular school, although Bud is transcendental.

I also do not include Mary Lou Williams. Bud and Monk used to go over her place–she helped them both with touch on the piano. She usually did not go for the oblique, though.  But she is a tremendous jazz pianist.

If you use the word “mystery,” and the math of the pyramids come to mind, then you could not think of a more profound player than Horace Silver, because his playing is undergirded by a code of this sort. But he does not make the school because he is in a different head-space. I look at him as a super gifted post-Bud Powell player who developed his own unique style and attack within those parameters and then went on to help invent hard bop. But his stance doesn’t have the punk attitude that the Mystery School can have, and I don’t think he would have ever been comfortable with the idea of being an underground language.

Erroll Garner could never be in this school, though strangely enough his playing could be very idiosyncratic at times, and is obviously homemade. But the areas of American culture that he was an actor in does not allow entry into this club. (I have an aunt who thought Erroll was the greatest pianist ever, but she went to her grave saying Monk could not play the piano.)

I have wrestled with whether Elmo Hope belongs in the group. I am not sure. I go back and forth for different reasons. If he is, a lot of it would be because of his influence on Hasaan Ibn Ali, who is another extreme of an ultimate example of this.

Most free jazz pianists do not make the list because the Mystery School is not about free jazz per se. And I say this despite the fact that most free jazz pianists feel a relationship with Monk, despite Monk’s problematic relationship with free jazz. But Cecil Taylor makes the list because he is a contemporary of Randy Weston and Mal Waldron and it is fascinating to see those three artists as branches off the Ellington/Monk piano branch. You could not find three artists as different as these three masters, yet they get their nourishment from some of the same sources.

McCoy Tyner does not make the school, because the Coltrane universe is a cosmology in and of itself and must be dealt with that way apart from everything else. I say that despite the fact that McCoy was influenced by Hasaan Ibn Ali and use to go over to his house in Philadelphia and soak in things.

So who is in the Black Mystery School of Piano?

Monk

Herbie Nichols

Mal Waldron / Randy Weston / Cecil Taylor / Andrew Hill

The legendary Hasaan Ibn Ali

Sun Ra / Horace Tapscott


A Spotify playlist of devoted to the 9 pianists cited above.
Some further words about a few of these artists and their praxis…

Herbie Nichols was a contemporary of Monk who also was a writer and one of the first people to write about Monk’s music. Nichols was tremendous, but his music never received the fame that Monk’s did. Nichols is every bit as much of a father of this school as Monk. There have been several revivals of Nichols’s music in recent years. Perhaps, when the history of this school is written, he will take his proper place.

Andrew Hill is as iconoclast as iconoclast can iconoclast. He seems to directly be in the Monk line of the pianist/improviser as composer and, in his way, has as unique and powerful an application of that archetype as Monk. He has some of the stance of Monk in attitude and was obviously liberated by Monk’s use of space, but Hill has his own language and way of doing it on the piano. His universe is his own planet—completely. Hill is in line with Waldron and Weston as far as taking up some aspect of a post-Monk mantle –but what makes Hill so interesting is he is a parallel universe to Cecil Taylor.

Of course being a Black Mystery School pianist does not necessary equal avant-garde. But Hill fits in both in the sense that his posture can be seen as a post-Monk conceptualist/iconoclast – but he also mollifies the Cecil Taylor monopoly on the perception of free-jazz piano in that if a free jazz pianist gets tired of getting compared to Cecil they can get inspiration from Hill and claim him as more of a direct influence. Andrew Hill’s elliptical phrasing seems like a direct extension of his elliptical mind. Hill is someone who managed to slip through all the cracks and defy any category though it is obvious what he comes out of. In some ways his playing is the ultimate fuck you to everything and everyone.

Hasaan Ibn Ali might be the most isolated of any one here. A Philadelphia-based pianist who never could get gigs even in his home town and who recorded only one album, which Max Roach brought him in the studio for. The album is this category in its purist form.

I include two big band leaders in this list: Sun Ra and Horace Tapscott. One is East Coast; the other West Coast. As far as their piano playing, both of their playing contains the geometry and the architecture that goes with this category. That is what puts them here, and that is something that is there or not; it cannot be faked.

As an aside, I also include Ran Blake in this school even though I use the word Black and Ran is a Caucasian. Ran is an offshoot of someone who is influenced by Monk and Ran is a spiritual brother to Mal Waldron. In another way, Dave Burrell can dip in and out of this school. I have heard Burrell approach one of the most organic synthesis of Monk tunes done in a free jazz way, not that that is what the Mystery School is about, because it is not about playing Monk tunes, but Burrell understands all of this.

The late Geri Allen also had a complete understanding of all of this and she was so gifted that she could embody aspects of this. Her relationship to the mainstream jazz audience of her time was a relationship that did not allow her to fully inhabit this space. But she was an offspring of the language and had a beautiful relationship with Mal Waldron. She once took me aside at a festival in France and told me I was one of the only pianists she had ever heard who could channel Mal Waldron. Even though I like to think of myself as a complete original, I took that as the highest compliment.

The pianist Rodney Kendrick had a close and direct relationship with Randy Weston and has spent time with Monk. His sound completely embodies this school. Rodney, who is a friend, completely disagrees with my way of looking at this in this piece. Maybe it takes someone who is contextualized within the avant-garde world like myself to see things this way. Maybe Rodney’s relationship with Barry Harris, who is the antithesis of this approach, taints his view. However Rodney comes out of this and no one like him exists at this time on the planet.

To end this, classificatory schemes are illusionary and don’t always comport to reality. But I have talked about this school before in interviews and people always get something out of it and ask me to go deeper. I am not trying to lay out any dogma, just talking about a way I saw some things that contributed to abstractions I made that enhanced my creative life. Even if you don’t buy into the complete format as presented, you should check out the work of all the artists discussed here.


A Spotify playlist of most of the other pianists cited in this article. Should they be included in the Black Mystery School of Pianists or not? You decide.
[Ed. note: We also invite you to further explore the extraordinary music of Matthew Shipp who turned 60 earlier this month and marked this milestone by remaining extraordinarily prolific despite the difficulties we have all faced in this pandemic year. Shipp’s discography is a treasure trove and this playlist only scratches the surface. We also encourage you to read and watch this 2005 conversation with him on NewMusicBox. – FJO]


A Spotify playlist highlighting some of the gems in Matthew Shipp’s extensive discography.

Multiple Voices: Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³)

The twelve participating musicians in the M3 initiative during a Zoom meeting.

[Updated December 14, 2020] On December 6 and 12, two concerts from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem presented over Zoom, both at 7:00 EST, offered listeners their first opportunity to hear six world premieres that are the result of a new initiative called Mutual Mentorship for Musicians, M³ for short. The two concerts were hosted by M³ “Editor in Chief” Jordannah Elizabeth, who also guided post premiere Q&As with the audience. M³ is a revolutionary new model for mentorship which was created by co-founders Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa in March and launched in June 2020 at the height of the pandemic. The founders describe M³ as “a think tank for new ways to connect, collaborate, support, create, and empower womxn musicians worldwide including BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+, and musicians of all abilities across generations.” To celebrate these first two concerts of this new initiative, we asked the twelve initial participating musicians about why they decided to participate in this opportunity and how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. New Music USA is funding the next round of M³ collaborations. – FJO

The twelve initial participants in M³ are:
Romarna Campbell
Caroline Davis
Eden Girma
Val Jeanty
Maya Keren
Erica Lindsay
Lesley Mok
Tomeka Reid
Sara Serpa
Jen Shyu
Anjna Swaminathan
Sumi Tonooka

Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³) World Premieres: Duo Concerts & Conversations Pt.1

Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (M³) World Premieres: Duo Concerts & Conversations Pt.2



Romarna Campbell playing a drum set

Romarna Campbell (photo by Peter R. Fischer)

Romarna Campbell

On New Year’s Eve 2019, I remember being excited for 2020 and making all the 2020 puns I could; it was the year of 20/20 vision. In my opinion 2019 had been a pretty rough year and I was excited to start afresh, so to speak. By mid-March of this year all the optimism had completely dissipated. From the moment I landed back in the UK to quarantine, it just seemed to go from bad to worse. And in the middle of this, I was being forced to learn some hard truths myself, personally and artistically. How do I interact with my friends and peers? How can I offer support when I felt like this is a time that I’ve probably needed the most support? How do I create without being surrounded by immensely creative beings? How do I collaborate? Is music even important anymore?

It was in the midst of this doubt and fear that Jen contacted me about M³ and it felt like this little beam of excitement and happiness. Yet, I could never have envisioned what M³ would really do for me. I remember tentatively turning up for the first meeting via Zoom and instantly I experienced complete warmth and honesty from everybody and felt inspired. I wanted to play again. I wanted to write again. Music became important again. Although we have had to conduct the whole process via Zoom, with a 5-hour time difference and the lag or cameras not working properly and being entirely at the mercy of technology, music and this community that has been created prevailed over all of these obstacles.



Caroline Davis standing in front of shrubbery

Caroline Davis (photo by Alex Free)

Caroline Davis

Some are born into tribes, but the creative process of re-defining ourselves places us in new ones. This year has presented some pretty severe obstacles—the pandemic, the persisting face of race, gender, and class biases, the political climate, the encroaching climate crisis. All seem to divide us into factions while at the same time allowing us to connect with individuals who are ready and willing to fight for the cause.

The initiative dreamed up by Jen and Sara has gifted me safe spaces with which to unpack all of these obstacles and more. The group space gives perspective, while the smaller meetings have opened intimate ways of interpreting and designing poetry, melody, and video production, through sending messages, phone calls, and meetings on Zoom. With each passing meeting, my mind sees how each of us would handle situations differently, leaving me confident to approach my creative and professional endeavors with more vigor. The creations haven’t felt prescribed or scheduled in any sense; rather, they are journeys that we are all on in this tribe, which, in the end will emerge most naturally.



Eden Girma standing outside

Eden Girma (photo by Maeve Moayedi)

Eden Girma

Why say yes to M³? There is the easy answer of how could I possibly refuse any opportunity to work with the brilliant Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa? But also, I think I responded instinctively from a yearning for a holistic musical community, one that certainly predated the pandemic, and was only intensified through it.

Particularly, there seem to be so few models for intergenerational artistic communion; I’ve spoken with many friends who are also aspiring artists, and who have shared such deep desires for something akin to mentorship or apprenticeship. There is so much about the artistic landscape and industry that is utterly nebulous, especially for those (like myself) who do not come from artistic families or see themselves, their background, represented meaningfully. In the midst of cacophony and silencing discrimination, how does one find their voice? How does one survive, when attempting to employ their voice for artistic meaning and financial security? How, through our artistic practice, might we carry forward the legacy of those who fought, died, for a more just and equitable world? There is no handbook, no well-worn path, only the stories and experiences of those before us to gather any idea. So, this was one way in which M³ really struck me: as an avenue for such needed dialogue between youth and elders. To be honored with the presence and insights of such powerful and resilient women—and to also have my own perspectives celebrated and valued as something of worth—is indescribably enriching.

How is this program affecting my practice? I think, if anything, to have this vibrant community in my life right now has invigorated so much of my spirit. Given the bleakness of this time, frankly it has felt life-saving. I can perceive the growth, shifts of relationships with others and also with myself, due to the space we are creating now. What is evolving due to this program is a collective awareness and compassion and confidence that invariably influences my work by way of influencing my deeper self. And I believe that the interpersonal and internal changes occurring now will affect my practice for years to follow.



Val Jeanty holding drumsticks and sitting on a wooden floor near a window surrounded by large drums

Val Jeanty (photo by Richard Louissant)

Val Jeanty

As a collaborator/artist, working with “Women” has always been a major goal of mine.
This creative collaboration/ mentorship has been such a blessing during these intense and uncertain times. It’s a great source of inspiration and support, and it connects me to women that I’ve always wanted to collaborate with.



Maya Keren outside among greenery near a large yellow flower.

Maya Keren (photo by Lilly Dupuis)

Maya Keren

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how deep, structural change actually comes about. In moments like this one it’s easy to see change as something that is sparked spontaneously from the heat of a charged moment. But looking further, we find that social change comes about from a lineage of resistance—from decades of folks fighting not just for survival but for the right to live beautiful lives.

I’ve been reflecting on several linked movements—the fight against white supremacy, especially by radical Black feminists, the queer liberation movement, the development of creative improvised music—and how these movements all required groups of people who trusted each other to come together and create their own momentum outside of the systems that oppressed them. For me, Mutual Mentorship for Musicians feels like a continuation of this tradition. We are this little underground intergenerational family giving each other love and support to bolster ourselves against a society that leaves very little space for the voices of non-cis-male, queer and BIPOC artists. Our group completely reconstructs the foundations of our musical ecosystem; it imagines a community free from patriarchal, capitalistic, and white supremacist ideals and presents one based upon vulnerability, communal support, and compassion. And M3 does this while also meeting the current moment; over Zoom we have tuned in from Portugal, the UK, and all over the US.

The current limitations have challenged us to create new forms of community-building and art-making that take advantage of the digital format, from using the Zoom chat function to hype each other up to combining exquisite-corpse style audio recording with film editing for our joint projects. I’m so excited to continue this model of artistic collaboration and mentorship and I truly believe structures like these will create profound systemic change in our musical community and beyond.



Erica Lindsay sitting in front of a piano

Erica Lindsay (photo by Paul Tsang)

Erica Lindsay

The aspect of this initiative that I was not expecting, but feel so grateful for, is the intergenerational energy generated from our talks and sharing of perspectives. It is fertile ground for synergist transformations. It also has been a great experience to have the opportunity to collaborate with other artists that one might not have had the chance to do so otherwise, and to become more familiar with a whole new generation of amazing musicians and composers who have a strong and unique voice to contribute to the music.

Thank you Jen and Sara for spearheading the development of this creative community. I envision it expanding and growing stronger through the years. We need new spaces, new visions, new methods to communicate with and to support each other. If there was ever a time for transformation of the arts, the business, the culture, it is now. The breaking down of the normal, that this pandemic has created, let it become a crack that a new reality can be born through.



Lesley Mok against a white background

Lesley Mok (photo by Luke Marantz)

Lesley Mok

Black American Music, and the creative music it has informed, is inherently political. In a time where white supremacy, corporatization, and militant fascism seem to undermine the core values of our existence, it’s crucial we ask ourselves: how can the music, the process of collaboration, and the spaces we work within, actually reflect the times we’re living in?

History has shown us the capacity for change when we create spaces that reflect the diversity of our creative ecosystem. Groups like the AACM, the Black Artists’ Group, and the Pan-African Peoples Arkestra have focused on building community and social consciousness, and have done so outside of existing corporate structures. To me, M3 is an extension of this work, bringing together BIPOC womxn to foster support, love, and growth through adventurous music-making.

M3 has allowed me the space to be truthful and vulnerable in an otherwise white, male-dominated, cis-heteronormative space. I’m grateful to Jen and Sara and all my fellow M3-ers for nurturing this space, and for allowing the fullest expression of ourselves.

I’m reminded of this quote by Joshua Briond: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but rather individuals and classes repeat history.” Mary Lou Williams, Abbey Lincoln, Nicole Mitchell, Susie Ibarra, Amina Claudine Myers, Terri Lyne Carrington, Fay Victor, Matana Roberts… and all those who’ve illuminated the way, thank you…The fight for liberation continues!



Tomeka Reid playing the cello

Tomeka Reid (photo by Joel Wanek)

Tomeka Reid

When I was asked to be a part of this group, I was initially on the fence. While I was concerned about my gigs disappearing for what I realized at that point would be the rest of the year and into 2021, I also felt that there was a kind of pressure to still do, to be active…so many wonderful organizations were shifting quickly to create much needed lifelines for the artist community but honestly all I wanted to do was just be and process all that was and had been happening so quickly!

Over the years, I think I have felt a kind of exhaustion of always having to adapt to some new (mostly digital) change or update and I felt like, while the moment was indeed financially challenging, this might be the moment and rare opportunity that forces all of us to just slow down, reflect, reevaluate. To just simply stop. Is it okay to just not do for a while? Thus, I was weary to commit to something, especially something that I knew would be conducted expressly online and that would require an online performance as well. I was still very much resisting that reality, lol!

But Jen and Sara curated a wonderful cast of intergenerational womxn artists and I have really enjoyed sharing and getting to know them all, some of whom I have met prior to COVID life and others whom it will be exciting to meet in person someday! It’s been a great space to hear how others are managing in this current climate. Everyone is extremely supportive of where everyone is at this current moment. It’s been a welcome positive space to be a part of in this moment that has felt so fragile, confusing and disillusioning. I am grateful that this space has been created for us to just be.



Sara Serpa sitting with her left hand on the side of her face.

Sara Serpa (photo by Heather Sten)

Sara Serpa

It has always interested me how we, as artists, can create alternative structures that connect us as opposed to alienate/divide us, where the artist is free and does not have to conform or compete in order to be successful. This mutual and intergenerational mentorship initiative proposes the idea that we all learn from each other, instead of the original top-down mentorship structure. The absence of the traditional hierarchical system is liberating, and has allowed me for a personal transformation that initially was subtle. Now, as time goes by, this seed is growing and expanding to all relationships I nurture. The meetings have opened my mind to different ways of interacting with my peers: supportive instead of competitive, honest instead of performative, transforming instead of conforming.

I didn’t have this kind of support when I was growing and studying to be a musician, and just the fact that is right happening now, when we are all forced out of work and the world seems to be falling apart, has helped me going through the uncertainty of the moment. Zoom has limitations. Nothing can replace the act of being/ playing/ listening together in a room. However, each meeting is invigorating and inspiring and shows me that we are all more connected than I initially thought.

I feel incredibly fortunate for being able to communicate and interact with this group of womxn on a regular basis. I don’t want it to end in December! Each time we meet is different – the honesty, creativity and vulnerability each one of us brings into our projects or meetings stays with me during the periods we don’t meet, inspiring me to use different approaches to challenges that seem to always exist no matter the generation we belong to. The fact that each artist has such a unique and original way of expression makes me dream about the possibilities of expanding these kinds of dialogues to as many artists as possible. I am beyond grateful for this work and to be doing it with Jen—a work in progress of imagining, restructuring, discussing and hopefully transforming our artistic landscape, in which kindness, generosity and respect prevail.



Jen Shyu with her hair in front of part of her face and a guzheng (classical Chinese zitrher) leaning against her right shoulder.

Jen Shyu (photo by Daniel Reichert)

Jen Shyu

The night after our eighth M³ meeting, I dreamt that one of my students taught me a very specific way to move my hands and legs that would enable me to fly up the stairs without ever having to step down. The infinitely linked staircases in the dream hung in the air like in an M.C. Escher drawing. The room was hardly a room, but rather a greenhouse full of sunlight with no walls. Perhaps it was so big that I didn’t feel the walls around me.

I woke up. The dream still fresh in my half-sleeping body, I tried out the hand and leg movements in my kitchen, which will surely become new movements in a new dance. This process is a metaphor for what these M³ meetings have meant to me, whether in our full cohort of 12 or in our smaller groupings. We’ve been exercising our vision-building and integrating that envisioning into our everyday lives. Personally, I’ve infused those dream states into my reality not only as an artist, but as a human being and a citizen of the world. I’ve learned from each cohort member how I can better do this, from how each artist speaks, lives their art, articulates their ideas so clearly, and creates such profound work. The issues and situations that we have talked about, all happening in real time, have continually moved me and shaped my psyche. These are issues I rarely discussed openly on such a deep level with other womxn artists when I was in my 20s or 30s. Those conversations usually happened one-on-one and rather secretly, in the context of male leadership or in relationship to men, as I usually found myself as the only woman or one of two women in any given musical setting.

My concept of “mentor” has also changed. I have many mentors, most who influenced me in life-changing ways, but also some who placed their limitations on me, telling me I couldn’t be a “jack-of-all-trades,” for example. Obviously, I rebelled. Another interaction which challenged my idea of “mentor” was just after a breakfast with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell at the Ojai Festival in 2017, where I had performed solo the day before. Little did I know it would be the last time I would see Muhal before his passing four months later. As we were walking to the elevator, I told Muhal, “I just want to thank you for being such a generous mentor to all of us all these years.” He stopped me and said, “Now wait. I don’t like this word ‘mentor.’ Because it implies someone is higher than the other, like there’s a hierarchy. I prefer the word ‘exchange.’ Like I want to know about those Taiwanese folk songs you’re into.” I was stunned and humbled. This short conversation initiated the idea of “mutual mentorship” in my head, and when Sara and I began developing the manifestation of this idea, it was one of the concepts that inspired M³, which has been absolutely shaped by our inaugural cohort members every step of the way.

We always try to take a screenshot at the end of our meetings, capturing our time together which began on the Summer Solstice of this tumultuous year of 2020. These are magical snapshots of our lives colliding at different points in our careers, painting a picture of the work that needs to be done and how we’ll continue to grow this energy exponentially outward for the rest of our lives.



Anjna Swaminathan sitting on a rock at a beach by the water.

Anjna Swaminathan (photo by Molly Gazay of Diabla Productions)

Anjna Swaminathan

Truthfully, I was initially reluctant to join M3. This of course has nothing to do with the brilliance and camaraderie that Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa offer or the beauty of the kind of mentorship they sought to cultivate. However, in the early stages of the pandemic, I was trying to feel secure in my ongoing projects and commissions and felt “too busy” for this. The feeling of community and catharsis that this group would offer was terrifying to me because it would push me to confront the fragility of our existing musical ecosystem.

As my colleagues lost gig after gig, I clenched harder to my lingering commitments, trying to convince myself that the pandemic couldn’t destabilize me. It was likely a triggered response. In March 2019 almost exactly a year before we became aware of the virus’s toll on New York City, I started experiencing severe chronic pain symptoms, which forced me to part with my instrument (the violin). I went through many of the same motions that our entire community of artists is going through now. I stopped performing. I stopped improvising with my community. I stopped traveling due to the toll it took on my back and the radiating neurological pain I was experiencing. And to make everything worse, I had also developed a psychosomatic response in my immune system that manifested as frequent respiratory illnesses, that kept me constantly washing my hands and fearful of touching my face. Fortunately, I found home in composing and felt safe to heal while still creating music.

I suppose, when the pandemic started, I wanted to be privileged enough to stay grounded. I got attached to not experiencing an existential crisis — even going so far as to create an alliance for patrons to connect to starving composers and performers from my oh-so-charitable high horse. I needed to hold on to this, and when I saw Jen’s email, my internal response was, “I’m totally fine! This should go to someone who actually needs community.” Of course, though fearful, I said yes to Jen, because I knew that every encounter I’ve had with Jen has taught me to confront my fears. I heard her voice saying something like, “go towards the things that frighten you and figure out why.”

Since we began our meetings, I’ve been so deeply grateful. For one, in these meetings, we speak at length about how these illusions of security were wound up in capitalistic, white supremacist, and heteropatriarchal structures. Many of us spoke of scarcity in our initial meetings. Feeling that there weren’t enough spaces where we could truly be ourselves, artistically, politically, and spiritually. We spoke about tactics to navigate existing power structures and to find our voices within them. And as these conversations have progressed, I’ve witnessed and experienced cosmic intergenerational healing. There are days when mentors in their 60s nurture and comfort mentors in their 20s. On other days younger mentors radicalize their experienced mentors. And on most days it is like a wild game of volleyball, each of us bouncing this radical and dynamic energy off of one another, working together to elevate in abundance rather than falling into scarcity. In the course of the past few months, the security of commissions and projects has dwindled. Yet, I feel renewed with a different kind of security. I feel connected to this ageless, timeless creative energy within me. With the love and encouragement of this community, I am exploring the widest and wildest extremes of artistic play. This group, in replacing power and hierarchy with love and radical vulnerability, has kindled a security in me that feels everlasting. I think back to this feeling of fragility in our musical ecosystem. Of course, it is fragile. It wasn’t working for musicians. This group is planting seeds of abundance, of communication, and of vulnerability that I know will transform music-making and fortify intergenerational mentorship for years to come.



Sumi Tonooka holding her left hand above her left eye in a salute or viewing pose and holding her right hand in front of her chin.

Sumi Tonooka (photo by Karen Sterling)

Sumi Tonooka

I know it’s cliché to reference the Lotus Blossom that grows out of the mud. But that is precisely what M3 is, something beautiful, and exquisite that has arisen out of these chaotic, dark and troubled times…2020, whew, and it’s not over yet!

Saying yes to Jen and Sara who had the initial vision for M3 was easy, especially considering the dynamic group of invited persons to take part. I loved their idea and vision to collaborate, with a choice group of artists that represent the broadest spectrum of sexual identity, genre, and generations among women, to produce new music together as composers and players. We meet bi-monthly via Zoom, to support each other with our diverse creative processes. The duos and quartets were formed randomly and provide an even more intimate window to share and build. M3 has provided a means of support, caring and creativity that I am so grateful to be a part of, especially now! There is a way in which we have bonded and we are learning so much from each other. There is chemistry and momentum moving forward with love and mutual respect at its core. We are doing all this through the rather limited technology on Zoom of all things and this has surprised me!

I’m a child of the 60’s and 70’s. I was raised by radical left wing bi-racial parents during a very tumultuous time in this country. My parents lived through World War II, the Great Depression, the McCarthy era. My mother, who was Japanese American was imprisoned in Internment camps during World War II because of her race. My father who was African American, was a union man, a Marxist, a factory worker. My parents’ philosophies were woven into the fabric of their children’s lives. I cooked breakfast for the Black Panther breakfast program in Mantua Philadelphia when I was 12 years old! My family marched against the Vietnam War, when the country was unified, sick, and tired, but not too tired to protest.

The current struggles of our times is something not new to many of us, it’s an old fight. I am disheartened, angry and depressed at the level of anti-blackness in our culture, the systemic racism in our institutions and prison system and the fact that Black mothers, still fear for their son’s lives, but I am relieved to see the current revolution for racial injustice and people of all races engaged so actively across the globe uniting in solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too movement, the Climate crisis, and more.

Nina Simone, whom I greatly admire, said that artists must address their times. We can look to artists like her to learn exemplary ways in which artists can respond to injustice. Nina was black, beautiful and bold and knew it. Her musical expression contained her fury, love, and soulfulness, fighting for freedom and equality. We can look to artists like John Coltrane whose humanity and protean musical expression and legacy is a constant reminder of what it means to be free as an artist and a great human being.

The fight goes on, as it must until we reach a level of humanity, understanding, and acceptance, a more spiritual ground of love for one another. It might be that we have to keep going round and round until we get it right. The human realm is complex and flawed and ugly and beautiful.


The concert poster for the two upcoming performances featuring photos of the twelve participating musicians and the host.

Dec 6 @ 7pm EST, National Jazz Museum in Harlem event link HERE
Dec. 12 @ 7pm EST, National Jazz Museum in Harlem event link HERE
M3 Eventbrite links (linked from the above links):
https://tinyurl.com/m3Concert1
https://tinyurl.com/m3Concert2
Facebook link HERE

Remember the Uncomplicated Joy

A fisheye lens photo of Methods Body (John Niekrasz on drumset and Luke Wyland on electric keyboard) performing in a cabin.

By John Niekrasz & Luke Wyland (a.k.a. Methods Body)

This is a weird year to drop a debut record. We live in Portland, Oregon, a city that has seen more than its share of upheaval lately. In January, after three years of composing and recording, we’d found great label support, honed our live set, ordered vinyl, and booked tours. Then, our record announcement fell on the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Two months later, the record was released just days before George Floyd’s murder. We wept for the world as we went through the motions working on promo and music videos, and the world showed us growing fascism, worst-ever wildfires, and forced sterilizations of the most vulnerable people. Every week of 2020 has shown us something far more important, far more worthy of attention than a record of new music by two white men.

We’ve had the rare fortune of being able to put our most precious energies into our art for decades. We’re lifers. We always thought this in itself was a radical practice: fighting for a life outside of the accumulation of capital, spending our efforts building a community for the arts, and trying to share with our friends and audiences a sense of hope, joy, and inspiration, or offering a new definition of beauty that’s lightyears away from the Gucci-Kardashian-Bugatti-sphere.

But it’s not enough. The same hard questions we asked ourselves after the 2016 election have come roaring back with renewed relevance and force. Are we doing any good? Why should niche art music based on microtones and polyrhythms be important? Should we be taking up any space at all?

This year, Portland has been locked down with protest curfews and insane wildfire smoke. One of our housemates was injured by illegally deployed police impact munitions. We had friends of Color buying bulletproof armor or not leaving their homes out of fear of attacks by Proud Boys. And these immediate threats piled on top of our perennial concern: will the American West, and, really, much of the world, continue to be habitable under this kind of worsening climate damage?

We’re learning a lot from our partners and friends. We have it pretty good and so we have a responsibility to re-educate ourselves around justice, mutual aid, and proper communication. We’re supporting our friends in the streets, we’re giving money to liberatory causes, trying to center others’ voices. And, of course, we’re heartbroken. We’ve lost our own lifeblood. We’re not doing the thing we love and have built our lives around: we’re not performing.

Methods Body (Luke Wyland on electric keyboard, left, and John Niekrasz on drumset, right) performing in front of rows of ceiling to floor bookshelves

Methods Body performing in a bookstore (Photo by Jacob Heule)

Our entire “industry” has essentially disappeared. The downtown venue where we first met and played together in 2007 announced it will not reopen. The same goes for our favorite DIY neighborhood spot that has been hosting challenging music for years. How many brilliant ensembles will fold? How many artists are giving up on their dreams this very moment?

The impetus to get to work on our next record is still here, if muddied. We’re both noticing that our expectations for our music have changed drastically. The music we were making even eight months ago feels suspect. Something different is required now. We’ve had the privilege of being together, taking refuge in our instruments, playing and chasing our weaknesses. Trying to remember the uncomplicated joy of just spending time at an instrument. Fighting to feel like it can matter. We find solace in hearing from other musicians who are forging ahead with hope: Ed Rodriguez, Amirtha Kidambi, Holland Andrews, Chris Williams, and many others.

After the last inauguration, John did some speculative fiction about a future in which we might need to assemble resistance cells to oppose fascism. The music in Claimed Events Pt. 2, Overheard is built upon a bit of that writing:

My friends, however, claimed events would identify them, but to
overhear and accept only one month to prepare us in a very
small room with rubble in one corner

John plays the rhythm and melody of this phrase in a drum ostinato that is eventually taken up by the vocals of Holland Andrews. Luke and Holland improvise over this structure.

One of our collaborators, UVA art professor Lydia Moyer, shot some tests for a dance-theater project inspired by images of Civil War battle smoke. Moyer sent us some complex, smoke-choked imagery and the resonances with our present reality were breathtaking—civil war seems, again, a distinct and terrifying possibility; the US has deployed more toxic gas against its own citizens during a respiratory pandemic than in all the years since Vietnam; COVID is out of control. When Moyer and Leeri synched their imagery to a track on our debut, Claimed Events Pt. 2, Overheard, the result was harrowing and beautiful.

Of course, art will adapt and go on in new and unpredictable ways. Poets and musicians here have been supporting the Black Lives Matter protests by performing in the streets. The Fixin’ To, a local venue that’s been shuttered for months, is experimenting with limited capacity patio shows, so we gave an outdoor performance for a few physically distanced (and chilly!) friends this month. We’re starting work on our next record. And we will rise up with others to ensure the voice of the compassionate majority is heard.

Methods Body (Luke Wyland on electric keyboard, left, and John Niekrasz on drumset, right) performing in a dimly lit club

Photo by Taylor Ross

We Can Change the Country, Essay (2020)

A masked Darius Jones conducting a rehearsal of We Can Change the Country at Roulette on October 26, 2020. (Photo by Kenneth Jimenez.)

The killing of Ahmaud Arbery enraged me. The killing of Breonna Taylor broke my heart. The killing of George Floyd crushed me. My awareness of these three murders happening within such a close timeline really shook me to my core. It felt as if 2020 was hunting season for Blacks in this country. But then I remembered that 65 years ago, the attorney of Emmett Till’s confessed murderers warned an all-white jury that if they voted to convict, “Your forefathers would turn over in their graves.” Was this what the Framers intended?

As the pandemic raged like a biblical plague through Black and Brown communities, those in power downplayed the severity of the crisis. Death and despair circled around us, I became overwhelmed and fell into a depressed state. During this time, I came across James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “We Can Change the Country” and marveled at how many themes expressed in the essay paralleled the current moment:

“New York is a segregated city. It is not segregated by accident; it is not an act of God that keeps the Negro in Harlem. It is the real estate boards and the banks that do it. And when you attack that, that’s where the power is. For example, I ask all of you to ask yourselves what would happen if Harlem refused to pay the rent for a month. We’ve got to bring the cat out of hiding. And where is he? He’s hiding in the bank. We’ve got to flush him out. We have to begin a massive campaign of civil disobedience. I mean nationwide. And this is no stage joke. Some laws should not be obeyed.”

– James Baldwin

As protest and civil disobedience grew throughout the country in response to the murder of George Floyd, I, like many others, felt the twinges of hope and possibility. The streets were filled with people of all ages, colors, and creeds marching together to bring about change. Honest conversations about systemic racism and police brutality ventured into mainstream society. People all over the world took notice and staged their own protests in solidarity with what we were fighting for in this nation.

But, even as something beautiful and transformative was taking place, white supremacist groups, bad cops, and outside provocateurs began to infiltrate the protests to make them seem violent and criminal in nature. The bully pulpit was used to portray anti-fascism as bad for democracy, ignore acts of white supremacist violence, and label Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization. During a global pandemic, those in power made wearing or not wearing a mask a political statement.

I felt as if I was living in a never-ending nightmare.

Then John Lewis died, Chadwick Boseman died, and RBG died. The COVID-19 death toll reached 215,000 and continues to climb. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, face evictions from their homes, and it goes on and on. All the while people in power dance on stage and say, “It is what it is.”

“We are living, at the moment, through a terrifying crisis, and let me try to put it in the cruelest and most abrupt terms that I can. Let us say that a hundred years ago, when I was technically emancipated from the land and given over to the landlords and the bosses – let us say that I was happy in my place and that I loved doing all that singing and dancing down on the levee. Now I, and my father and my grandfather, to say nothing of my grandmother and her mother, never for a moment believed that we were singing and dancing down on the levee because we were so happy, and not for a moment does any black man that I’ve encountered believe that he really was what the country said he was. But what has happened is that the country (by ‘the country’ I mean our government and most of our citizens) believes that I was happy in my place. They believe it so strongly that now they have the courage to ask, What does the Negro want? Well, I know what the Negro wants, and any man who is able to walk and talk knows what the Negro wants. If you know what you want, then you know what I want.”

– James Baldwin

In my piece, entitled We Can Change the Country, I create a compositional environment where a multiverse of boxes and zones carries the sonic textural language of varying perspectives. The instrumentation for the piece is ten voices, violin, bass, banjo, fife, drums, conductor, and film. Everyone is wearing masks, the vocalists are placed in social distancing circles, the musicians are spread six to twelve feet apart from one another, and a film beams light and images on the performers and the space. We Can Change the Country creates an environment of sensory overload as an attempt to reflect the mania-by-design of these past four years.

Just like this composition, America is a game where the rules and instructions are not the same for everyone. The majority of our so-called leaders currently in government don’t want to actually find solutions to people’s immediate needs and the systemic problems that created them.

Masked performers during a rehearsal of Darius Jones's We Can Change the Country at Roulette on October 26, 2020.

From the October 26, 2020 rehearsal of Darius Jones’s We Can Change the Country at Roulette. (Photo by Darius Jones.)

As the composer or Framer, I created the role of the conductor (leader) who oversees the implementation and direction of the musical content given throughout this piece. The conductor’s overall role is to create an environment where the performers (citizens) can be successful in their endeavors. For any given performance of this piece, the conductor’s (leader’s) own ideas and desires around the musical content will ultimately determine how the piece is interpreted. I as the composer (Framer) have relinquished control over this aspect of the piece. The overall quality of the performance (community) is dictated by the performers’ (citizens’) relationships to one another, their perspectives on the piece (Constitution), and the content (Rights) within. From my perspective, the Constitution is a living document similar to a guided improvisational score, but meant for a society.

This piece pulls text from the POTUS to Octavia Butler to Lalah Hathaway to a voter standing in line waiting to vote and puts them all together in one place, just like social media. My approach to the text is to create a timelessness within language. To present wisdom alongside madness and see which one will be heard through the noise is extremely fascinating to me.

The following statement is included in the Composer Notes for all of my social justice game pieces: This is not a composition; it’s a protest. This is not a performance; it’s a demonstration. This is a political work of art. I wrote it to express the hypocrisy of a nation that continues to deny its history, a history that has and will continue to define our future.

Even though this piece will be presented virtually this statement still stands firm. Transitioning to a purely virtual medium is tough, but in some ways, I look at it as an opportunity to create a truly ritualistic experience for the performers, while witnesses peer through boxes and screens to experience something that might terrorize or tantalize.

We are more than entertainers. Art, like protest, has a way of changing our molecular structure and our brainwaves. It opens our hearts and forces us to confront our empathy. It has the power to change the world and the world knows it.

As I write and amend this document, I realize that as a composer, and more so as a Black man in America, code switching is a constant interruption to my process, even as it affords access. My work is about combating apathy and fear. We Can Change the Country is not a neutral work of art.

A sneak preview of Darius Jones’s We Can Change The Country which will be livestreamed from Roulette Intermedia on Monday, November 2, 2020 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Videography by Kenneth Jimenez.
We Can Change the Country was commissioned by Roulette and made possible with funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and New Music USA.

On Performing Fluxus in 2020

Karl Ronneburg's performance of Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano"

In the bright and halcyon days of early 2020, my team at Fifth Wall Performing Arts planned something we thought would be fun: a spring concert of Fluxus-inspired works performed simultaneously by our friends in New York City and Ann Arbor. Each location would be livestreamed to the other, where we’d hoped the broadcasts would create a new sense of what Fluxus artist Dick Higgins called an “intermedia” space. These, of course, were the days before Zoom became a household name, before livestreamed concerts became the unfortunate norm. We’d had the venues booked, the artists lined up, and even an endorsement from Meredith Monk—but it was not to be. Like every concert in the spring, summer, and beyond, our Fluxus Fest was cancelled.

So, I took the opportunity to learn more. Though I first became seriously interested in Fluxus back in 2016 through the wild and wonderful world that is Dick Higgins’s “Danger Music” series, the COVID-19 pandemic forced upon me the time and space to begin correspondence with the LA Phil’s 2018/19 Fluxus Festival Curator, Christopher Rountree, as well as Fluxus scholar Natilee Harren. Their feedback, in addition to my own research, led to the remounting of our Fluxus Fest 2020 as a five-week virtual festival—one which finds Fluxus surprisingly suited to confronting the challenges of our time.

So, some questions: What is Fluxus? And, why Fluxus? Why now?

Fluxus was an art collective and movement in the ’60s and ’70s whose artists took up the direct legacy of John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and the Dadaists. In fact, some of the origins of Fluxus can be directly traced to John Cage’s 1958 Composition class at the New School in New York City—on the first day, Cage defined music simply as “events in sound-space”. Among the students in the classroom that day were Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, George Brecht, Larry Poons, Allan Kaprow, and Al Hansen. Soon thereafter, Brecht began making what he called “Event Scores”, which, instead of musical notes, simply contained a list of printed instructions to realize a piece.

By 1962, the students from Cage’s class were joined by George Maciunas (a Lithuanian-American who coined the term “Fluxus”), and variously included Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Wolf Vostell, Emmett Williams, Ben Patterson, Takako Saito, Henry Flynt, La Monte Young, Meiko Shiomi, and more—though “membership” in Fluxus was often contentious. Some claimed that Maciunas at one time or another kicked out all but two or three of them, while others say that he had no right to kick out anyone and never did.

The group was active in the USA, as well as Germany, Denmark, France, and Japan, and were an incredibly diverse collective for the time: Dr. Natilee Harren writes that “Participants included artists who were women, who were queer, who were African American, who were from East Asia, and yet these identities were treated with an uncommon fluidity and criticality for the time. An a-national, polyglot community, Fluxus artists were citizens of the world; they traversed a self-defined international network, and the spirit of generosity and exchange in their work countered Cold War paranoia and the retrenchment of national boundaries.”

Simultaneously irreverent and spiritual, Fluxus artists pushed the boundary of what art could be and who it was for. The format of the Event Score in particular is interesting because of the way it delegates collective authorship to the performers of a work—a concept familiar to classical musicians, but one uncommon in the visual or written art world, where most Fluxus artists originated. By using text instructions, however, Fluxus artists broadened the scope of the score beyond music to include actions, concrete or abstract, that could be performed in contexts far beyond the concert hall. Though some view Fluxus as an Anti-Art movement (and it certainly contained Anti-Art elements), for the most part Fluxus was about decentralizing and revolutionizing the way we think about art. Again, Natilee Harren: “Fluxus artists looked for value in the commonplace, believing that art can be anywhere and belong to anyone. Rather than eliminating art, they sought to dissolve its boundaries in order to infuse everyday life with heightened aesthetic awareness and appreciation.”

PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART. Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON-ART REALITY to be fully (the word fully is crossed out) grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes, and professionals.

From George Maciunas’ Fluxus Manifesto

 

This brings us back to 2020. Spring rolls around, the world shelters-in-place, and life as we know it is over. How can Fluxus address this?

Fluxus as Practice

One of the most famous Fluxus pieces is Alison Knowles’ 1962 Proposition #2: “Make a Salad”. And that’s all there is to it. You just make a salad. I live in a 2-bedroom apartment with my brother, and though we don’t like much of the same foods, we both love salad. I spent a lot of time with him these last 7 months during the pandemic, and salad-making has become kind of a ritual that we perform several times per week. Proposition #2 begs the question: once you know that it exists, are you performing it every single time you make a salad? Thanks to Alison Knowles, I noticed this ritual with my brother, was able to pinpoint it as such, and now my salad-making has a certain kind of mindfulness that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Furthermore, to survive in the Time of Corona, many of us adopted new rituals and had to follow new instructions. Ben Patterson’s 1964 Instruction #2 reads: “Please Wash Your Face”. Fluxus asks, how different are these instructions from signs in public places asking you to “Wash Your Hands”, or to “Please Wear a Mask”? Are hand-washing diagrams not a kind of choreography, not a kind of graphic score? Fluxus reminds us that the daily events we do without thinking are performances, that any time we follow instructions, we are performing a score. Or, as said by Alison Knowles in a 2012 panel discussion: “My belief is that every person who gets up and goes into their day and does their work is coming from some unrecognized belief system that maybe they’ve picked up as a five-year-old, or they don’t look at it anymore. But to address that and work with it is powerful.”

Fluxus as Protest

In many ways, Fluxus is protest music, where the dissonance is always cognitive. Ben Vautier, for example, is known for his artistic practice of signing anything he could get his hands on, a statement on the hegemony of authorship in art not dissimilar to the practice of tagging by graffiti artists. Fluxus works have additionally retained their power today as political statements: for example, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a group of 10 women performed a variation of Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piecein pantsuits in Madison Square Park while the Electoral College cast their votes. Natilee Harren writes: “Indeed, the best Fluxus and Fluxus-related work exposes how our lives are scored, orchestrated, or performatively designed for better or for worse, in both utopian and dystopian fashions.”

Fluxus pieces can also be powerful statements of identity. For example, in the first performance of my Fluxus festival, a trans woman friend of mine performed Yoko Ono’s Laundry Piece, going through her laundry basket to tell us about the clothes inside. A more guttural statement of identity might be Dick Higgins’s Danger Music #17 (to be performed on October 17), which reads: “Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!!”.

Fluxus as Community:

Finally, Fluxus’ power is in its ability to build community. The barrier to entry to perform a Fluxus piece is low (and the streaming technology widespread enough) that my team could reach out to my friends and colleagues across the country to perform Fluxus and Fluxus-inspired pieces from home, embracing the locations we are all in. We put together a five-weekend series, featuring over 30 artists from around the country, and I can’t be more thankful. I wrote my own Fluxus piece, Phone Call#2: “Catch up with a friend”, that I performed on October 10th as a statement of the power of this community and the power of Fluxus to create simultaneous mindfulness and disruption. In fact, Fluxus was an inspiration for the core mission of our company, Fifth Wall Performing Arts: to not just break the “fourth wall” by acknowledging the audience or the stage, but to break a newly-made-up “fifth wall” as well: acknowledging the artists themselves as human beings and not just characters or performers. When we perform Fluxus, we are performing as ourselves, bringing attention to our actions and their consequences. This opens up the traditional boundaries of performance as an artistic ritual, linking audiences with artists as people, vulnerable and in need of connection as we all are.

The week 4 video featured here begins with a clip from Hannah McLaughlin and Raquel Klein’s performance of Gift of Tongues by Emmett Williams (1962): “Sing meaningfully in a language made up on the spot”, performed simultaneously with Danielle Mumpower’s interpretation of Disappearing Music for Face by Mieko Shiomi (1966): “Change gradually from a smile to no-smile.” The clip then cuts to a portion of James Vitz-Wong’s original “I swear this is research” Piece: “Perform a recital while in virtual reality.” This was presented alongside Carlos Durán, Karl Ronneburg, and Grey Grant’s performance of Orchestra by Ken Friedman (1967): “Everyone plays different recordings of a well-known classical masterpiece. [We chose Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.] Each member of the orchestra starts and stops playing different sections of the recording at will.”–performed simultaneously with one repetition of Corey Smith’s performance of Bean Snow by Anne Tardos (1994): “Read the text slowly and deliberately, using a normal tone of voice. Bean snow. Bean snow beans. Bean snow beans about themselves. Bean snow themselves. Bean snow beans about themselves. Bean snow.”

I’ll leave you with a 1960’s vision of community and social distancing: Dick Higgins’s Danger Music Number Three: “Divide a large pack of incense among those present in a moderately large room. Ask each person to burn his or her [or their] incense, without flame, all together. Darkness throughout.”

The logo for Follow Fluxus is a series of boxes which each have printed on them one letter: "F," "o," "l," "l," "o," "w," "F," "l," "u," "x," "u." and "s."

The Flauto d’Amore Project: A New Language for New Communication

Flauto d'Amore

How does a nearly forgotten Baroque instrument generate a wave of connection through the antipodes of the world in 2020?

On this last January 1st many of us (including, most obviously, me) were cheering to the new decade, the return of the Roaring Twenties, to a year charged with bearings of hope of change, evolution, liberation. Our expectations were far more glamorous than PJs and Zoom with a pinch of confined existentialism. 2020 took the most dramatic stumble in its incipit, from which it seems to not be able to recover yet, as in one of those grandiose slips down the stairs that keep bouncing you down and down for an apparently infinite time. And yet, the stubborn beauty that forces itself out of any circumstance has revealed itself in the form of resilience, connection, and creativity – despite the situation, or most probably because of it.

The experience I had through my living-room-directed Flauto d’Amore Project during the pandemic lockdown has been a journey of overwhelming inspiration, and of constant wonder.

When I began the Flauto d’Amore Project in 2018, my goal was to bring new life to an instrument that fell into the cracks of history in the 19th century, and lost its opportunity at any modern or contemporary repertoire. Considered the true voice of flute playing by J.J. Quantz, who in his monumental Versuch on woodwind playing writes that the sound of the flute “should resemble the voice of the alto rather than the soprano, and mimic the chest sound of the human voice,” the flauto d’amore was a companion instrument to the viola d’amore, oboe d’amore, and even the clavicembalo d’amore that were all the rage throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. It was beloved and regularly utilized by major Baroque composers (François Couperin, J. S. Bach, Telemann, Graupner, and Hasse to name a few), as well as by Romantic salon virtuosos. One of the most mesmerizing dances from Aida was scored by Giuseppe Verdi for three flauti d’amore (in 1871!).

The flauto d’amore lived on for centuries thanks to its fascinating, unmistakable sound, and yet, just as great artists at times unjustly fade away from the memory of the public, this instrument’s popularity waned as the flute system revolution occurred toward the end of the 19th century. Theobald Böhm, the father of the modern flute, invented the alto flute in G, which ended up replacing the flauto d’amore in the general flutist’s arsenal, despite its very different characteristics.

It takes visionary minds to bring new life to buried potential: in 1989 the vision of Italian flute scholar Gian-Luca Petrucci (if you are noticing a last name correspondence, yes – it is my father), and that of Albert Cooper, a legendary flute artisan of the 20th century, came together, and the flauto d’amore was reborn, through the very first modern system prototype, dreamt up and designed to give new resonance to a long muted voice.

The Flauto d’Amore Project was created in synergy with composer Nathan Hudson with the goal of creating a space for direct collaboration between composers and performers in the exploration of a sound that had, so far, no precedents in new music. It became clear from the very start that the most unique element of this initiative would have been the feeling of mutual wonder at the discovery of the potential of the instrument in the most disparate genres and styles. Working closely with wildly different composers for the mapping of an elusive instrument, a totally uncharted territory, yielded results that bewildered performers, audience, and often the composers themselves.

With the wildfire quality of good ideas, this one sparked up on the New York subway, on a bumpy evening ride on the uptown A train. By the time my final stop came, the structure was there, and in the morning we started making calls. We looked at the composers who were closer to us, those whose intellect and craft we most respected, and who we’d know would sit down to listen to what in the years became to be known as “The Spiel” – the explanation ab ovo about the instrument etc., which you have in fact just read in digital form. We gave the very first rough version of The Spiel to Gleb Kanasevich, Max Grafe, and Liliya Ugay who, together with in-house Nathan Hudson, formed the OG pioneer group in the exploration of the instrument. The first premiere recital happened a few months later, and offered the NY audience a very first taste of a new sound through four entirely different lenses. Since then, we have added to our roster of composers Erin Rogers, James Young, Nirmali Fenn, Clint Needham, Howie Kenty, Chris Bill, Flannery Cunningham, Sunny Knable, Roger Zare – and across the pond Italian composer David Fontanesi, who scored the second movement of his Academic Concerto for flauto d’amore.

Ginevra Petrucci performing on the flauto d'amore at a live in-person house concert, prior to the pandemic.

Back when there were live in-person indoor concerts.


When the pandemic hit, we wanted to have this instrument become a communal element for artists stuck in their studios all over the world to find creative stimulation, and to come together through a remote collaboration to explore something new, removed in so many ways from their physical reach, but present in their imaginations as a trigger of exploration.

In mid March we launched a call for scores through social media, asking that composers with no limitations in age, geography, background, style, or education write a 1-2 minute piece for flauto d’amore, pledging I would record and premiere them within 48 hours of receiving them. Here we saw the unexpected happen – yet another unexpected in the year of expectation-shattering: we had over 30 artists from all over the US, as well as from the heart of Europe and all the way from Thailand shower us with pieces – which made for a very busy month of daily video-recording and premiering. (Since I recorded all pieces on a rolling basis, I was able to premiere a piece every day!)

In their inherent differences, the pieces all showed a yearning for the creative process, for new inspiration, and for the experimentation of a sonic ground unexplored, non experienced, remote in all senses – but enticing, captivating, challenging, desired. We had established composers such as Joe Sferra from SUNY Potsdam, Italian academic scholar Federico Favali, Iranian-born Rouzbeh Rafie, David Mastikosa from Bosnia-Herzegovina; with Eric Malmquist we envisioned a remote-duet for Baroque and modern flauto d’amore, which we put together with Leighann Daihl Ragusa who owns a Baroque flauto d’amore (still in A, but tuned at A=415 Hz). We had a cohort of talented composers from Bangkok (miracles and mysteries of Facebook algorithms!). We collaborated with Lebanese poet Hyam Yared for Marco Buongiorno Nardelli’s electronic piece based on her work and featuring fragments of her recitation. We joined forces with the New York Composer’s Circle for a feature collaboration with selected composers from the collective. We even had a little venture into blues with a composer offering their original tune for flauto d’amore, trumpet, and bass.

Receiving, practicing, recording and premiering this outpour of works in a time when physical movement was confined and our mind felt compelled to reimagine its potential within constrained boundaries, has been one of the most inspiring experiences of our careers. The sense of invisible connection with artists at the corners of our suffering globe, coming together through one communal element, connecting their energies to create some beauty at times of hardships, has made me (and I would say, all of us) feel more “together” than we would have felt during normal times. The feedback we received from a great number of the composers involved in this project showed that relief was offered and absorbed, energies were exchanged, beauty and hope were created.

The cover image for the Flauto d'Amore project's recording "Creativity Quarantine"

Once we closed the call for scores, we re-recorded all the pieces in higher audio quality in order to issue two Bandcamp albums, Creativity Quarantine Volumes I and II. We donated the proceeds from the two albums to the New Music USA Solidarity Fund, and proceeded then to publish a vast selection of the works in two collections for the Flauto d’Amore Editions, so to make this music available to a wider public (including versions for standard flute and alto).

During the same period we also had a chance to take part in Gabriela Lena Frank’s initiative #GLFCAMGigThruCOVID, where I had the luck to be paired with the wonderful composer Aida Shirazi, whose style and aesthetic really shone in her “Miniature” for unaccompanied flauto d’amore.

The arts community has come together in ways that would have seemed far fetched if discussed over our last New Year’s Eve champagne toast. It was – it is – an uproar of desire of making art to erase, to elevate, to heal, to empower. The New Twenties are still roaring after all.

a flauto d'amore

The flauto d’amore looks almost identical to a regular flute, if you disregard the slightly larger size.

“Calls for Scores” – The Teenage Years of a Composing Career

A road with two designated lanes, labelled 1 and 2, for racing with the words "100m Sprint"

I will be the first one to admit that I pay attention and regularly submit to calls for scores. I check pages like TheComposersSite and the American Composers Forum “Opportunities” pages every week, and I would guess that I submit between 20-30 calls for scores on average per year and have been doing so for a few years. I am used to the email that arrives in my inbox saying, “We received more submissions that ever before.” Or “The panel was overwhelmed and inspired by the music they were able to experience.” Or some other sugar-coated line before stating my music wasn’t accepted. I keep telling myself, “If I want to have a successful career as a composer, I need to make a name for myself, and one of these days the right call will come at the right time or the right person will be on the right panel to commission me for something else down the road…”. There must be some sort of synchronicity in the works! These thoughts devolve into the absolute need to submit to as many opportunities as possible; otherwise how else will I ever build my career as a composer and artist?

How do we tilt the scales in our favor and go from a “young” or “emerging” composer to an “established” composer? (I still have many questions about what an “emerging” composer is, but we can save that for another article.) What is the role of submitting to calls for scores and competitions in the grand scheme of building a career? Are there wholesome and compassionate ways that calls for scores and/or composition competitions can support artists even if they don’t win the “big prize”? Are there other paths by which composers can earn name recognition and build their careers without having to rely on luck of winning these calls?

In short, how do we develop from this seemingly “teenage” part of our career and move on to becoming fully-fledged professionals?

Some of these calls have been very successful for me as well as having been positive and fruitful interactions. For example, I was recently selected to compose a new work for Ensemble 20/21 in conjunction with the Curtis Institute of Music and We the Purple Project for Democracy. I also have an upcoming commission from the C4 Choral/Composer/Conductor Collective for their IGNITE Commissioning Competition. In both of these cases, the communication has so far been constant throughout the process, and all parties have shown excitement and support for the upcoming projects.

But other times, these positive responses to calls can initially seem like a success, but they can slowly start turning down a much darker path.

In spring 2020, I received a notification of a successful application for a 10-to-20-minute opera. Having never written for opera, I jumped at the chance to get some experience writing for this medium while having an organization/ensemble who was willing to support my exploration. I had even paid a $10 application fee to submit to the initial call because of how much I wanted to write for the opera medium. I was a bit surprised when I saw how many other composers received a similar notice and were involved on the same email, but I continued to be optimistic and excited to write this work. I was also able to work with a libretto created by a dear friend of mine who has a lot of experience in opera and theatre, so it seemed like everything was lining up for this to be the perfect chance to have guidance and mentorship along this journey.

Fast-forward to COVID-19 times in May 2020, when the score was supposed to be due. We received a few emails mentioning that due to the pandemic, the deadline had been extended to June 5. I was also working on an orchestra piece, a solo percussion piece, graduating from my Master’s degree, getting married, and had one or two other projects along the way in May. Needless to say, I was grateful for the extension. I submitted my completed, 18-minute opera on June 5, 2020.

Fast-forward again, now to mid-August of 2020, and I still hadn’t received any type of response from the opera organization. I sent an email checking in only to realize that I accidentally submitted my materials to one of the other composers on the email chain back in May instead of to the submissions’ address, which was absolutely my mistake. (Side note: please use the “BCC” option for emails when addressing other composers in big calls such as this —I was in such a frenzy to submit the piece on time, and things happened due to another person using the “reply-all” feature). But what I cannot understand is why they had not reached out to me prior to this. They were so adamant about deadlines in the spring, but there was never any follow-up as to whether or not I had completed or submitted anything. Furthermore, when I sent my materials to the right address, their response was vague and mentioned that they never would have noticed my missing work if I had not reached out first. Initially, they said they were going to pay me a “small stipend” for the work. In this most recent email, the “small stipend” ended up being $25 USD. However, I also paid a $10 application fee, which I only decided to do because of how much I wanted to find an opportunity to write for opera and fortunately had the means to do so. That basically means I was paid $15 total, which equates to $0.83 per minute of music that I wrote, and that does not include any funding for the librettist who contributed her work as well. I found out later that this was a small organization just getting started and run by passionate musicians, but having that knowledge up front as well as the stipend amount would have given me a chance to reconsider my application.

I wish I could say this is my only call for scores nightmare, but unfortunately, there is another that comes to mind. A few years ago, I was informed that my music was going to be performed for a percussion festival at a university in my home state. This was again exciting for me because my family would be able to attend the concert in person, including an uncle of mine who wasn’t able to travel to any of my shows previously due to his health. They asked for the music months in advance of the festival. I planned to fly out for the concert to visit family and enjoy the weekend of music, and luckily, I was able to save some money by staying with my brother who lived in that town at the time. In any case, the stipend they provided me didn’t even cover my flight, but it was worth it for me to spend time with my family and have them experience my music in person. As it turned out, the festival was disorganized from the moment I arrived. Many details on planning were made at the last minute, and it took months to receive my stipend after the fact. The worst part, though, was that they apparently lost my music along the way of preparing for the festival. Nobody asked me for the music again, and I was not told of this incident until the dress rehearsal the day before. The musicians were essentially sight-reading my music. Of all concerts to have this happen, of course it had to be the one where family members were actually in attendance.

Although this may have up to this point seemed like an anecdotal rant, these experiences (as well as countless conversations with another dear friend about the financial inequities within our music-making systems) are bringing more and more doubt into my mind concerning these unnecessary “steps” that seem to be invisible prerequisites in order to be accepted as a “serious” or “professional” composer. There is no one method, and I have learned that nothing is a linear path in knowledge, but why do we feel such a need to have these calls for scores on our CVs and resumés?

I have decided the best comparison I can think of for submitting to calls for scores is like being a teenager who has a driver’s license and car but still lives at home and is not financially independent. They feel independent enough to drive themselves around, but they are also still relying on family income, housing, and general support to keep afloat. How can we grow out of these teenage years of wanting to build a career as a composer and develop meaningful collaborations that will sustain us as creative artists as well as nurture our communities?

The larger question at hand: How can calls for scores be more equitable and worthwhile for all parties involved? How can we transform this process of gatekeeping into a holistic and compassionate way of building community and lifting up those wanting to work in these artistic fields?

While this is certainly not nearly a comprehensive list of suggestions, I have a few that I would like to offer. These ideas allow other career-building skills and connections to occur and start to critically evaluate and continually revise the system with equity in mind, even if an individual’s call for scores submission is not accepted:

1. Make all calls for scores or proposals free, without application fees, or include (and publicize!) waivers for artists who are unable to afford the fee (I highly recommend the fabulous NewMusicBox article, “Dissing the Competition,” by Alex Shapiro from 2018, where she shares a deeper insight and analysis to fees for calls and competitions). If you require composers to attend in person or participate in workshops, etc. but are unwilling to support their trips or time financially, this is also exclusionary.

If you are planning to pay a separate panel to review the works in the call, please anticipate this into your own working budget instead of passing the buck onto the composers. There are too many voices who need to be heard and may not be able to afford either your fee or to take time away from their paying jobs to attend a rehearsal/workshop/performance without compensation.

2. All details of commissioning fees, anticipated number of performances, rehearsals, workshops, etc. need to be established in advance to the best of your ability. Providing a written contract is also necessary to avoid any issues throughout the project.

Nobody would have been able to anticipate the devastation that COVID-19 has brought upon the artist community with cancellations, financial losses, and shutdowns of venues, but please do your best to be honest and forthright with composers from the start.

3. Please follow through with your statements if you tell composers that you will offer them feedback on their submissions. (This has also happened: I didn’t receive feedback even though it was offered and I requested it.) I understand that there is no way to truly anticipate a high volume of submissions for a call, but even a short sentiment from the ensemble can be helpful feedback for a composer and can leave them with reassurance that their work matters.

4. Feature a playlist of composers whose music you appreciated from the call for scores and want to share with your larger community. Even a recognition such as this could be meaningful from a well-known ensemble. (This was a collaborative idea created by a colleague and friend, Louis Raymond-Kolker, and myself in a conversation about a particular call for scores.) For example, discovering an artist via a playlist from a major string quartet could lead others to want to collaborate with said artist in the future.

Better yet, take this idea and share the playlist directly with other local ensembles, organizations, and institutions. You could even include these composers in educational outreach programs by teaming the composers up with schools in the area for teaching sessions with the classes. These are all additional professional opportunities that you are offering to the composer to further their own careers as well as the ensembles’ educational goals (if applicable). This in turn will also build the composer’s network of professional contacts that they may be able to interact with down the road.

5. If you are asking a composer to write a new piece for your call that has never been performed (which I am strongly against), please make a point of sharing their work in some way after the fact, even if it is not selected. For example, readings of each of the pieces would be an excellent way to turn it into a collaboration and learning opportunity for the composer and ensemble, and again you can team up with other similar ensembles or creative artists in the area to help with the readings and further cultivate a community. Writing a piece specifically for a call is a LOT of free work that you are asking the composer to gamble with, and if they decide to apply to the call, they at least deserve recognition for writing something brand new for you.

I believe there is a silver lining to every opportunity that I apply for; however, my faith in this particular system is quickly fading. These calls lead us to believe that they are just part of the path towards a professional career, but instead the gatekeeping can be more detrimental to a composers’ financial and emotional well-being. I do believe that we can change the system to become a more collaborative process where artists at any point in their careers can grow and benefit.

I look forward to finally being able to not only drive my composition career on my own, but also to move past those teenage years and allow genuine collaborations to happen in order to move my own career towards independence from this system. As I have the privilege to be able to begin this transition, it is my responsibility to continue to engage in conversations and create pathways in order to make this a more accessible career; if we can create pathways for composers from all walks of life we will all certainly benefit from a new structure and, most importantly, the music, individuals, opportunities, and communities that flourish in this reconstructed system.

Why Artist-Driven Change is Exactly What We Need Right Now

Pile of printed scores of pieces by BIPOC composers, including works by TJ Anderson, Errolyn Wallen, Tania León, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Michael Abels, and others, plus a laptop displaying a PDF score.

Hi. I’m Adam. Long time reader, first time writer. I’m a white cis-gender gay male, I play the piano, and I live in NYC. In other words, I’m not that special. There are lots and lots of people like me in NYC and frankly, everywhere around the world. Other qualities I’m hoping you identify with: I take this pandemic very seriously and have no issues wearing a mask and physical distancing, I’m dealing with crushing depression related to the cessation of nearly all of my artistic work, and oh yeah, I strongly believe that Black Lives Matter. If you’re reading this, you’re probably with me, and I’m grateful that there’s a baseline of support for BLM in our community.

Over the last six months, and stretching forward indefinitely, our professional landscape has become unrecognizable. Nobody really knows what to do, and as presenters scramble to figure out how to adapt, performers have more autonomy than ever creating and presenting programs in unusual ways. There are inherent challenges with the predominantly livestream model, but there is also an opportunity to be more nimble and adaptive than usual since concerts aren’t programmed and announced as early as they would be in the before times.

As presenters figure out how to adapt, performers have more autonomy than ever creating and presenting programs in unusual ways.

Our individual agility is perhaps the biggest upside in this often demoralizing artistic landscape. On a broader level, there are a lot of conversations happening right now about institutional racism, inclusion, diversity, etc. But regardless of what institutions we’re associated with, we all exist outside of institutions, too. If you think BIPOC composers deserve more representation in programming, begin that change today. We have an opportunity to look ourselves in the mirror and think about what we can do right here, right now, for ourselves and for people we know or want to know.

This Spring, as I watched with horror new flurries of violence towards people of color, I began to question myself… do I present music that reflects my values in terms of racial diversity and equality? If I go through my repertoire, I can identify works that are by BIPOC. But can I honestly say it’s a significant part of my rep? No. I was ashamed and embarrassed to confront my shortcomings. As I thought about how I can best be an ally, voices in my head whispered “Do we really need to hear more white people playing music by BIPOC and congratulating themselves?” I have loved getting to know the music of Julius Eastman, for example, but the titles of his works make me uncomfortable (I understand that that is part of the intent), and I’ve felt as though I may not be the right person to champion his music.

But really, why? What am I scared of? I don’t want to be someone who tokenizes race or color. I don’t want to appropriate works by BIPOC and present myself as a white savior. I’m terrified of inadvertently demonstrating disrespect for artists that I’m trying to support, because I’ve seen it happen time and time again at the hands of others. (This is not meant as a personal attack on my many colleagues who have been out there doing this work already… it’s just an abstract observation.)

I’m terrified of inadvertently demonstrating disrespect for artists that I’m trying to support.

This, however, is not the time for me to be governed by fear. When I think about the baseline fear that many BIPOC have in our artistic spaces about being labeled “difficult” or “argumentative,” or the discomfort of erasure and whitewashing they carry every day, I realize I have to just buck up and do what I think is right, knowing full well that I will err and need correction from others with a different perspective.

Here’s one pathway to start:

  • Continue to self-educate. Reading, thinking, and discussing has never been more important. Crucial reads, among many, many others, include Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, and Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility.
  • Listen when others speak. If we only look to others to confirm our existing worldview, we have no hope to grow. If you disagree with what someone says, keep listening. Your response may change.
  • Buy music. Lots of music. Shopping can be an ethical act. Choose wisely. We all have budgets, but once needs are met, what feels better than supporting an artist by buying a new score or recording?
  • Learn music. As a performer or a listener, expose yourself to new things. Diversify what’s around you. If you don’t like it, that’s okay. I don’t particularly like a lot of music that’s on my shelf, but I keep it there because it’s my job to know what’s out there and how things interrelate.
  • Share what you’re passionate about. Whether it be telling a friend about a composer or piece that’s new to you, programming your concerts differently to reflect your priorities, or posting links to social media, don’t hold your new knowledge in.
  • Lay the groundwork for more. If you are able, set aside a little cash every month to support the development of new art. That may include contributing to crowdsourcing campaigns, or it may be commissioning new works. Recognize your power. If you can buy a latte, you can support artistic development on some level.

In that first week of June I spent about 15 hours researching databases, lists, and personal websites as a jumping off point for BIPOC composers with whom I was unfamiliar. I ordered about 80 scores, sight unseen, so that I could be surrounded by unfamiliar things to explore. I’ve been lucky to have conversations with some of the composers as a part of that discovery phase, too. I’m still early in the process of reading through the scores I’ve amassed, but that work is probably my favorite part of the job.

Someone close to me asked when I shared my plan “but what are you going to do with the bad pieces? Don’t you want to make sure they are good before you spend money?” That’s a great question, and one that comes up a lot when we are examining inclusive programming. But you know what? I have played a lot of what I might consider to be bad pieces (though there isn’t really a binary here) by white composers. Every single composer writes “bad” music at times. It’s natural and a part of the process, not to mention incredibly subjective. I think of it this way: I’m a pretty good cook, but there have been more than a few dinners over the years I’ve had to toss and order a pizza instead. And that is perfectly fine.

I’m a pretty good cook, but there have been more than a few dinners over the years I’ve had to toss and order a pizza instead.

By studying music of BIPOC composers regardless of where they are in their career or development, I can hopefully support their growth as well as their bank accounts. Also, what I perceive as a less-developed piece may speak to another artist who champions it and makes it shine in a way I wasn’t imaginative enough to accomplish. My job as a pianist includes reflecting back to composers what they’ve put on the page with complete commitment and amplifying to audiences what I believe in with my whole heart. Those are separate responsibilities, but they are inextricably linked and crucial to the development of any new work.

I think it’s important to note that my ideas here are by no means revolutionary or unique. Countless before me (and hopefully after me) will engage with this work. But perhaps none have written about curation as a reflection of community thought with more academic prowess than George Lewis. I also had a long list of colleagues review this essay, point me towards new resources (including George’s article), and help me refine my statement. This is all part of the process, and something we need to continue to normalize.

My ideas may not be new, but my commitment to aligning my actions to my ideals is, and I’m late to the party. Institutional change is a slog. Individual change can begin as soon as you imagine it. It won’t end… probably ever. But the roadblocks are movable and our excuses are weak. Let’s listen more, support more, and amplify what resonates so that we can all grow together in a more just and equitable world.

 

How Audition Requirements Exclude

Guitar near open window

“I guess no music schools will accept the repertoire that I’m playing for my graduation recital, right?” My student paused, and then gazed back into his webcam. “I can take a year off, I guess.” His voice, heavy with frustration and disappointment, trailed off.

“Yeah,” I replied, not really thinking about it. “Most schools require Bach and Sor, at least. You might have to take a year off to learn that repertoire—”

I stopped, suddenly considering my own reaction to my student’s question. We both sat silently for a moment, considering the personal, artistic, and financial implications of a gap year. We both knew this wasn’t a feasible option. Even over Zoom, his posture seemed to collapse under the weight of this potential setback. No—this couldn’t be the answer.

My student, Matthew Briehl, is currently working on repertoire for his graduation recital at Arizona State University, where I’m an assistant professor. He’s committed to learning and highlighting the music of Black composers, and—with my enthusiastic approval—he has made the decision to only program works by composers of color on his graduation recital. His dedication demonstrates a level of initiative that few students possess. As an educator, this is something that I seek to encourage and cultivate within my studio. Yet, by encouraging my students to seek out works by underrepresented composers—an initiative that most music schools would seem to support, at least based on their recent statements—I’ve inadvertently disadvantaged those who aspire to apply for graduate study, festivals, competitions, and other opportunities.

By encouraging my students to seek out works by underrepresented composers, I’ve inadvertently disadvantaged them.

In response to recent tragedies and the subsequent protests and public outcries, most major conservatories have made statements that condemn systemic racism and affirm allyship with individuals identifying as Black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). These institutions have publicly declared intentions to create “a welcoming home for African American colleagues [and] all people of color” (Yale School of Music); to “tear down systemic racism and injustice” (The Juilliard School); to “embrace diversity, inclusion and equity” (Cleveland Institute of Music); and to “forge a new path of systemic inclusion” (San Francisco Conservatory of Music). There are many more I could include—I’m sure you’ve encountered similar language in statements issued by other leading performing arts organizations.

To be clear: These are admirable, worthy goals, and I’ve chosen these schools as examples because of their prominence. Many institutions have already detailed specific actions that will lead to measurable changes in both culture and curricula. But, in exploring these lists, I have yet to see any mention of audition repertoire. Institutional change is necessary, yes; but, if admissions requirements already exclude BIPOC, then institutional changes will remain surface-level and will do little to improve diversity and representation within our industry.

For auditioning classical guitarists, most music schools require: a piece by Bach; a major piece from the classical or romantic era; a 20th century work; and, occasionally, a contemporary piece. Among the programs I know of there isn’t one audition repertoire list that places emphasis on music by BIPOC and/or female composers. It is important to recognize that these lists often determine the repertoire that students select to learn during their most artistically formative years. Why take on additional repertoire that won’t contribute to educational and/or professional advancement?

I’ve been guilty of perpetuating this problem, too. I acknowledge that I have been complicit in this area of systemic exclusion, and I intend to create meaningful change within my own program. Previously, I have based my audition requirements on those of other US-based guitar programs without giving sufficient thought to the kind of program I seek to cultivate and the values I intend to uphold. But, my student’s recent comment forced me to recall my own days of learning and perfecting repertoire that I didn’t really relate to. As a Korean woman, it was exceedingly rare that my prepared audition repertoire could include music written by anyone I could identify with. As a performer, I’ve upheld a commitment to performing music by diverse composers. Further, I commission new works in an effort to expand the classical guitar’s contemporary repertoire so that it better reflects our current time and audience. As an educator, I strive to promote these values, and I intend to do better.

A zoom screenshot of a guitar lesson. Matt playing guitar and Jiji following along with the score.

One of Matthew Briehl’s guitar lessons with Jiji Kim over Zoom.

I’m proud of my students who seek out repertoire composed by BIPOC and women composers, and I’m grateful to my student who compelled me to confront a significant blind spot. I’m committed to making a change, and I want to show him that his voice and experience matter. We can—and must—become more inclusive.

You might argue: “Cool idea, but isn’t it a CLASSICAL guitar program?” Yes, it is a classical guitar program; however, in this context, the descriptor “classical” describes an instrument and specific style of playing. What does CLASSICAL really mean? And, why is our definition so exclusive?

What does CLASSICAL really mean? And, why is our definition so exclusive?

I often perform pieces that require live processing using Max/MSP and Ableton. Many wouldn’t define these works as strictly classical; however, these pieces make significant demands on the artistry and technique that I’ve only obtained through “classical” training. I teach my students the artistic and educational value of investing in contemporary works that represent the time in which we live, particularly works that incorporate technology. I also encourage my students to commission new works and engage in mindful programming—sometimes, you might have to exert a little more effort, but I assure you, BIPOC composers have contributed incredible, worthwhile works to the classical guitar repertoire. They’re there if you look for them.

Further, it’s important to recognize that classical works in the traditional canon often do not represent the background or experience of a student, particularly those who identify as BIPOC. This isn’t to say that the canon doesn’t hold educational or artistic value—I continue to teach these works, and I do not seek to condemn their validity or diminish their significance. Rather, I argue that we can and should expand opportunities for our students to engage with works that hold personal significance. We need to recognize that exclusive audition repertoire lists and recital requirements severely limit these opportunities.

How can I make requirements a better reflection of our current time?

Our industry and institutions have so much to gain if we truly open ourselves to the diverse voices that exist—and have existed for centuries!—within classical music. So, I challenge my colleagues across the country to examine their required repertoire lists for both auditions and graduation recitals. Ask yourselves—who do these lists exclude? Who do these lists benefit or advantage? How can I make these requirements a better reflection of our current time? How can these lists further institutional and/or industry goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion?

I pledge to make the following changes to my own audition requirements at Arizona State University:

Master of Music

  • Three solo works demonstrating different musical styles and techniques at an advanced level (any era). *It is strongly encouraged to play at least one composition by a BIPOC or a female composer (e.g. Casseus, Bebey, Snijders, E. Giuliani, Lutyens, Tower, Holland, Coulanges, C. Assad, Kruisbrink, León, etc)
  • Applicants can also choose to demonstrate one (1) of their own compositions or an arrangement *optional
  • OR a curated (themed) recital program could be submitted directly to the guitar faculty

Doctor of Musical Arts

  • Four solo works demonstrating different musical styles and techniques at an advanced level (any era). The chosen works may all be by BIPOC or female composers. *It is strongly encouraged for a Doctoral applicant to include one piece by a BIPOC and a female composer. (e.g. Casseus, Bebey, Snijders, E. Giuliani, Lutyens, Tower, Holland, Coulanges, C. Assad, Kruisbrink, León, etc)
  • As per the Master’s audition requirements, original compositions/curated (themed) programs would be accepted as well

Here are some examples of current audition requirements at major music schools within the United States:

Final Audition Requirements: A transcription of a work written before 1750; A classical or romantic work (including the Segovia repertoire) written for guitar; a 20th century work written for guitar.

Live audition repertoire: All compositions must be performed from memory; 1. two contrasting movements of a J.S. Bach suite, partita, or sonata (includes Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV998); 2. two etudes by Heitor Villa-Lobos; 3. A complete work of any period; 4. Two contrasting works: one Renaissance, Classical (Sor, Giuliani, Regondi, Mertz, etc.) or 19th Century; one by a 20th century composer of any style.

I would like to mention that Manhattan School of Music includes a female composer Joan Tower and a Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu as examples of pieces to play for the auditions.

Graduate MM Audition - Choose any three of the following (or works of an equivalent level): A major work by Bach; Elegy or any two pieces from Bardenklange, op. 13#1-11 by Mertz, or two etudes by Regondi, or a sonata or fantasy by Sor, or a major work by Giuliani; Three etudes by Villa-Lobos, or a major work by de Falla, REspighi, Torroba, Martin, Ponce, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, José, Tansman, Rodrigo, Turina, Ohana, Britten, Walton, Bennett or Berkeley; A work written since 1975, e.g., Takemitsu, Henze, Carter, Nørgård, Petrassi, Tower, Ginastera, Sculthorpe.


Celebrating Holland, Bebey, and Casseus

If you have no idea where to look or even begin, please refer to the resources included at the end of this article. Amazing people have dedicated a lot of time and effort to simplifying the process of identifying composers of color. In the paragraphs below, I’ve highlighted three BIPOC composers.

Amazing people have dedicated a lot of time and effort to simplifying the process of identifying composers of color.

Justin Holland (1819-1887) was an African American classical guitarist, composer, and arranger from the 19th century. Justin Holland’s classic method book is perfect for beginners. Referring to methods of Sor and Aguado, he says “They are poorly adapted to the use of beginners. All of the great Masters (Sor, Aguado, Giuliani) … Some omit elementary explanations, some harmonics, others have no mention of the great number of musical embellishments constantly occurring music…” Which I totally agree with. These Sor and Aguado books lack many important rudimentary explanations––so, if you don’t have a skilled teacher, these very popular method books can be a disaster for young guitarists. The first 15 pages of Holland’s method book carefully explain what it takes to play the instrument (fret visual mapping, posture, etc.) and to learn music (music theory, how to count time, etc). His original work Andante demonstrates his immense talent, and you can also see that he was a skilled arranger (Prof. Ernie is an amazing artist).

 

Francis Bebey (1929-2001) was a Cameroonian composer, guitarist, and writer. His works are very impressive—I especially love his composition Black tears. There is a lot happening in this piece––chromatic harmonies and African rhythms—and the emotions keep shifting to such different places, high then low, it’s dissonant for a moment and then it’s not—we are jolly for a moment—ah—not anymore. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a piece, and it requires a tremendous level of musicianship to execute well. Black African Music is not meant just for the ear but for all the senses and faculties of the body. It reflects Africa’s vision of the world on earth and the world beyond, a world of change and movement, a world in permanent search of betterment and perfection.” (Bebey 1974) I’ve listened to this piece over and over again, and I’m in love with it.

Matt and Jiji holding up copies of a published collection of guitar music by Frantz Cassius,

Frantz Casseus (1915–1993) was a Haitian-born composer, guitarist, and arranger who emigrated to the United States in 1946. He was also the teacher of Marc Ribot (who is one of my favorite guitarists and who wrote a great article about Casseus). He had an active performing career which sadly came to a halt in the ‘70s due to tendonitis in his left hand. His composition Haitian Dances from the mid-20th century incorporates classical writing combined with Haitian folk songs and jazz. It’s one-of-a-kind and absolutely gorgeous, and I’d love to see this piece valued as a 20th century major work. This quote from Ribot sums up the perpetual problem Casseus faced during his career: “… [He] lived as a black man in a United States whose southern racists wouldn’t let him stay in the hotels where he performed and whose northern liberals had difficulty accepting his work as classical, preferring to hear it within a “folk” context when they heard it at all.” (Ribot 2003). Let’s not be those “northern liberals”—it’s fantastic, worthwhile music.

As educators, we have the responsibility to engage in difficult dialogues.

As educators, we have the responsibility to engage in difficult dialogues; beyond this, we need to adapt and move forward as society makes progress. We can’t just shout the buzzwords “diversity, inclusion, and equality!” and then not take initiative when we have opportunities to do so. We cannot continue to dismiss diverse voices because they don’t adhere neatly to our “classical” definitions. I’m planning to do better. Are you with me?


I’d like to thank Liz Lerman and Deanna Swodoba for inviting me to ASU’s transformation group and for helping me to recognize systemic abuse. A million thanks to my student Matthew Briehl who has inspired me to make changes. And another million thanks to my dearest friend Hilary Purrington who has generously helped with this article. 


References

Bebey, Francis. “The Vibrant Intensity of Traditional African Music.” The Black Perspective in Music, vol. 2, no. 2, 1974, pp. 117–121.

Ribot, Marc. “Frantz Casseus. BOMB Magazine, January 2003.

Further Resources 

guitarmusicbyblackcomposers.com

www.musicbyblackcomposers.org

Grenier, Robert. “La Mélodie Vaudoo. Voodoo Art Songs: The Genesis of a Nationalist Music in the Republic of Haiti.” Black Music Research Journal 21, no. 1 (2001): pp. 29-74.

www.earlymusicamerica.org/resources/resources-for-diversity-in-early-music-repertoire