Category: Commentary

Our Journey to Olly Wilson: Remixed and Beyond

Larry and Arlene Dunn at Kaleidosonic (Photo by Jack Lichtenstein)

Today, April 20, 2020, is Larry’s 71st birthday, which we are celebrating by releasing our recording project Olly Wilson: Remixed on New Focus Recordings. As a “Special COVID-19 Pandemic Release,” 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this recording will be donated to the New Music Solidarity Fund (NMSF), which has just set a new stretch goal to reach a total of $500,000 by May 15. The New Music Solidarity Fund was organized by 14 leading artists in the global new music field to raise money for freelance music artists who are suddenly deprived of their livelihood by the pandemic. The fund is administered through New Music USA, and has already issued 530 emergency relief grants. But the financial needs far outweigh the more than $300,000 already raised.

Today, we also started a coordinated Facebook birthday fundraiser to benefit the NMSF. We are listing this release at a low $4.00, and people who contribute any amount to the parallel Facebook fundraiser will receive a download code to get the album. This way, nearly anyone inclined to give is able to do so. But we urge you to pay whatever you can comfortably afford. This pandemic has suddenly deprived so many independent music artists of their livelihood. Providing them some emergency financial relief seems like the least we ought to do, in return for the countless years they have invested in their craft to bring such joy into our lives.

You might be asking, how is it that Arlene and Larry Dunn are releasing a recording? What is it? Olly Wilson: Remixed is a passion project, an homage to composer and musicologist Olly Wilson (1937-2018), an Oberlin Conservatory professor from 1965 to 1970, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the advent of electronic music at Oberlin, for which he was directly responsible.

Our own journey with Olly Wilson began in 2014, when International Contemporary Ensemble clarinetist Joshua Rubin included Wilson’s composition ​Echoes​ (for clarinet and electronics) on his album There Never is No Light. Josh has told us “I first performed Wilson’s music while I was a student at Oberlin. Then I had the honor of working with him directly in 2013, when I was recording Echoes for my album. He helped me find the materials I needed to perform and record the work, and to help shape my performance to his vision of the piece.” Josh continued: “My entire album’s inspiration came from the palette of sounds and ideas that originate from Echoes.” Josh’s recording sparked our first concentrated listening to Olly Wilson’s music. We were entranced by the music and intrigued by the man, who clearly carried a special spirit.

In February 2018, we attended a lecture by Fredara Hadley, then a Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Oberlin, who now teaches at Juilliard. Her lecture, “The Black History of Oberlin Conservatory,” focused on the substantial contributions of African American students and faculty throughout the Conservatory’s history. Among these, of course, was Olly Wilson, the first African American faculty member at the conservatory. We learned that, in addition to his teaching in the standard curriculum of the day, Wilson offered Oberlin’s first courses in African and African American music and culture, a signal achievement at a time when campuses across the country were just beginning to grapple with the far-reaching tentacles of racism.

In May 2019, we met with Tom Lopez, department chair of Oberlin TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) to talk about plans to celebrate the program’s 50th anniversary. We received another revelation: in the fall of 1969, Olly Wilson taught the first class in electronic music at Oberlin Conservatory (or any conservatory of music). That moment was the germination of today’s TIMARA program. As Tom unfurled the plans to celebrate TIMARA’s 50th anniversary, one particular event stood out: the Kaleidosonic Music Festival, planned for November 16, “an epic celebration of music at Oberlin. It will include musicians and ensembles from the Conservatory, the College, and the community,” as Tom described. “It will be many hours long with non-stop music — one big, long, sonic collage of ensembles, groups, and individual musicians,” he enthused. The rest came rapid fire, something like this:

Tom: Would we like to perform in Kaleidosonic?

A&L: Sure, but what?

Tom: Anything you like.

A&L: How about a text or spoken word piece about Olly Wilson?

Tom: That would be perfect!

And thus, Olly Wilson: Remixed was born. The objective of doing a spoken word piece was clear enough, but the content and substance was far from it. Soon we immersed ourselves in the hunt for all his recorded music and all his writings we could find. We quickly realized that not only was Olly Wilson a highly inventive composer, but he was a profound thinker, especially regarding the aesthetics and politics of African and African American music and culture, and he was a persuasive writer. A concept for the piece began to congeal, as we found certain works that resonated most strongly with us. Our touchstones in his music included Echoes, of course, Cetus, for which he won the first-ever international prize for electronic music in 1968, Sometimes (for tenor and electronics), and his stirring song cycle Of Visions and Truth. His written works (and transcribed interviews) that became central to Olly Wilson: Remixed include Black Music as an Art Form, The Black-American Composer, an address to an Oberlin College assembly called How Long — Not Long!, and a series of interviews with the Regional Oral History Office at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

To create our script, we extracted phrases from Wilson’s written works and then organized them into affinity groups. These groups ultimately morphed into the four movements of Olly Wilson: Remixed. The first movement, Black Music as an Art Form addresses Wilson’s refutation to the broadly held notion that there was nothing unique or distinctive about Black music that sets it apart from any other music. Next, Musical Electrons presents Wilson’s thoughts about the use of technology and electronics in the creation and performance of music. The third movement, In Oberlin portrays life in the town and the college through Wilson’s eyes. Finally, Composing While Black exposes the systemic racism that relentlessly impedes the work of an African American artist in a deeply white field like classical music, concluding with poet Claude McKay’s defiant “If We Must Die.”

As the movements came together, we started a cycle of rehearsing, rearranging, rehearsing, refining, rehearsing . . . We started to think our recitation alone was too dry, and we ought to add an Olly Wilson-inspired soundscape. We, of course, knew nothing about how to do that, but we knew someone who did: Kirk Pearson, a 2017 Oberlin grad whose work in TIMARA we had come to admire when he was a student. We contacted Kirk at his Dogbotic studio, in Berkeley, CA. He was quick to say yes. Reflecting back on the moment, Kirk says:

Olly Wilson holds a mythic status at Oberlin, but the full weight of his accomplishments weren’t clear to me until I got involved in this project. I have to admit that, despite studying in the TIMARA department, essentially Wilson’s creation, I hadn’t read any of his articles nor spent significant time with his music. To call this process eye-opening is putting it lightly. I was shocked at just how political and prophetic many of Wilson’s writings were. Wilson’s creative process was a politically indelible act in and of itself. We learn from his example that the subtle acts of sonic modulation, the generation of synthetic sound, and the splicing of tape are powerful tools for composers to reimagine, even refute, history.

Kirk dove into reading our score and the original sources to ground himself in the project while also auditioning most of Wilson’s recordings to absorb their essence. Step by step, he put shape to a soundscape attuned to the aesthetic of each movement. Kirk relates a bit of the process he employed:

The profundity of tape composition grounds much of Wilson’s electronic work, much as it forms the soundscape of Olly Wilson: Remixed. I snipped thousands of micro samples of Wilson’s music and voice, creatively mutating them through five decades worth of analog studio techniques−tape machines, Buchla modulars, vocoders, and a homemade ten-foot Slinky reverb, and more. Working with the sonic artifacts of this great composer was humbling, and I am hoping this piece helps generate interest in Wilson’s work among successive new generations of electronic trailblazers.

Premiering Olly Wilson: Remixed at the Kaleidosonic Festival in November at Oberlin’s historic Finney Chapel was an exhilarating and unique experience. It was totally chaotic, and yet also cleanly orchestrated. More than 50 separate performances were scheduled, from 7:30 to midnight, ranging from individuals to over 50 people, including marching bands, a children’s choir, the Oberlin College choir, the OSteel Band, a jazz ensemble, even bagpipes. Notable guests included composer and accordionist Peter Flint (a 1992 Oberlin grad) and experimental noise music luminary Aaron Dilloway (an Oberlin resident). Most performances were slated to last only five minutes and would bleed into each other at the beginning and end.

When we arrived at our call time, the basement of Finney was abuzz with activity−people warming up, finding a place for their coats, and talking excitedly with friends and cohorts. Soon we were being led up the tortuous path to the organ loft where we would perform our first and second movements. The MC gave us our cue as our friends in the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra (NOYO) Lab Group were wrapping up their set. We stood, turned on our music stand lights, heard Kirk’s intro, and started reciting. It was scintillating. Hundreds of people in the audience and we were the only ones performing! After completing the first movement we turned off our lights and exited to wait in a tiny, dim area behind the organ. Before emerging 25 minutes later to perform our second movement, that organ would be booming, and we wanted to protect our ears.

We performed our third and fourth movements on the floor in front of the stage, adjacent to NOYO Lab Group. By design, Kaleidosonic was full of chatter and people coming and going. But we knew people were listening, when we heard laughter at some humorous moments during our In Oberlin movement. When the time finally came, we were thrilled to hear Kirk’s arresting soundscape introduction to our fourth movement, which contains some of the most assertive and impactful text. We were sure we had succeeded when we heard loud applause at the end, and Tom Lopez agrees: “Arlene and Larry made great use of the performance space in this fully immersive event. It was very powerful to hear Olly Wilson’s words repeated in the very chapel where he gave his assembly address on racial injustice in April 1970.”

Larry and Arlene Dunn at Kaleidosonic (Scott Shaw Photography)

Larry and Arlene Dunn at Kaleidosonic (Scott Shaw Photography)

From the beginning of Kirk’s involvement in the project, we had discussed making a studio recording of Olly Wilson: Remixed. With the Kaleidosonic premiere still ringing in our ears, we descended into the TIMARA lab the following day for Kirk to record our vocal tracks. Life interrupted the process for a spell, as Larry had major surgery on his neck the very next day, followed by months of recovery. Sometime in February, Larry was well on the way to recovery and Kirk had first-cut mixes of each movement ready for us to review. A multi-step cycle of reviews and notes and revisions brought us very close to ready as March arrived. As we started to grapple with how and where we might release Olly Wilson: Remixed to the world, it turned out the word had its own plans.

Suddenly an unremitting COVID-19 pandemic was spreading across the globe, disrupting life as we know it in country after country, with a virulent outbreak sure to hit the U.S. On March 12, we decided to voluntarily stay at home except going out for food and other essentials. By March 22, the state of Ohio rolled out a stay-at-home order, just as our own community entered a “hard closure” precautionary quarantine. Across the country, music concerts, and public events of all kinds, were suddenly cancelled for the foreseeable future, wreaking havoc on musicians everywhere, especially freelance artists whose entire livelihoods depend on contracted concert appearances.

That same Sunday, March 22, Claire Chase contacted us about contributing to a new initiative she and 13 other leading artists were organizing to help funnel emergency relief grants to suddenly out-of-work musicians.   inspired our release plan: to launch Olly Wilson: Remixed as a fundraising tool, with 100% of the proceeds donated to the NMSF. When we contacted Dan Lippel about launching the project on New Focus Recordings, he enthusiastically agreed, and we started marching in sync towards our April 20 release date.

The cover for the CD Olly Wilson: Remixed features a photo of Olly Wilson in front of a blackboard lecturing to a class.

The Cover for Olly Wilson: Remixed.

We harbor no illusions that our campaign is going to fully mitigate the financial crisis for freelance musicians, much less the broad and deep economic damage of this pandemic. But we hope that it will inspire in others a generosity of spirit and hope for the future. Or, has Kirk has put it:

My studio, which sits less than a mile away from UC Berkeley, the locus of the last thirty years of Olly Wilson’s illustrious career, now boasts a framed quote from the man himself: “I am optimistic about the whole future of music.” We could all benefit from a bit of optimism right now. Wilson’s sentiment, perhaps more than ever, is a reminder of the resilience of the creative arts. While a global pandemic has uprooted our traditional institutions for making music, I have no doubt that the creative world will adapt and continue to thrive. Music will live on, and with it, our ability to call our histories into question and make a better future.

Thank you Olly Wilson. We, too, are optimistic about the whole future of music.

Creativity in the Age of COVID-19

Work table with books and blank music paper

It’s interesting how priorities change in this time of COVID-19. My petty concerns seem even more, uh, petty. What’s become important to me is to not spend what remains of my life in bitterness over roads not taken or career opportunities that never have arisen—or that I didn’t cause to arise. And let’s face it, in my early 60s, that remaining time may be much less than I might want. What is an effective way to spend one’s time? As musicians, I truly believe that one of the most important things that we can do is to continue to create. And the many musicians that have been posting joint performances online are a testament to this drive.

I believe that one guide for productive survival in these strange times is to maintain a consistency of creative work and to try not and focus on where it may or may not lead. My teacher Charles Wuorinen, who recently passed, taught me to not compromise my creative time. “Do something every day,” he said, “even if it’s just for an hour.” Compose, play, write, paint, every day. That consistency is anchoring for us psychologically and important for establishing a daily mental ordering for other work we may need to do on our homes, with our spouses, pets, and families. In the best of times I feel incomplete if I don’t compose in the morning. In the worst of times, I feel incomplete if I don’t continue the habit—it just seems to signify that things are even worse than I’d imagined. I need the diurnal foundation of the creative act in order to deal with the rest of each day.

Also, I try not connecting to the news every morning because that’s causing me to experience a sense of at least temporary despair. Perhaps one shouldn’t completely ignore the news, but we may quarantine media as well as social media items to a specific time of day, perhaps toward the end of the afternoon. If I look at the news early, then my creative concentration is blasted. If I look at it before bed, then I may have trouble sleeping. One article recommended that you rely on only one or two news services you trust so as to not overload and go down the rabbit hole of Internet links leading to this, that, and the other resulting in increased anxiety. And, let’s face it, while a lot of this may not be sensationalism, some of it is. It’s good to filter what we read and see in order to preserve some positive creative energy.

Better that we connect with one another. I’ve discovered that I have an interesting net of friends with whom I’ve been connecting through phone, Skype, Zoom, or messaging. A number of my friends are performing online. I’m planning long-distance recording collaborations with musicians in a variety of locations. This is an opportunity to connect with one or two musicians with whom I haven’t yet collaborated, and, if my stimulus check comes through, those funds will help support those musicians that record my music.

As an aside, I’ve discovered that happy hours with friends are great stress relievers.

To compose, practice, and play (albeit on the Web) is an act of defiance. It’s saying “to hell with despair” and affirming the prospective and, I believe, bright future of creative offerings, concerts held in communion with others, and the potential for a cache of wonderful works created now while social distancing.

Live and create today for present sanity and for the future. This won’t last forever.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Cellos? In a time like this?

Empty Band Room

I parked in the front bus lane and jogged up to the main office, tailing the building service manager, who smiled (I think) from behind his face mask and waved me in. As an instrumental director, I’ve spent plenty of time in my empty school building: quiet mornings before the sunrise for a marching band competition, sticky summer afternoons performing instrument maintenance before professional development has begun, and thankful silent nights as the last one to leave after school musical rehearsal. I knew the building would be empty, but this time was different.

I felt surprisingly uneasy, pausing before pulling the handle on the music wing door, and quickly covered my hand in my jacket sleeve. Hundreds of excited, happy, and loud music students would pull that handle each day in anticipation of their band, orchestra, choir, guitar, or music theory classes. Today, however, the whole building was shrouded in uncertain silence, save for the hum of the set of classroom speakers I had forgotten to unplug. There was an oppressive sadness in the building I hadn’t felt before, as if every corner of the half-darkened building was yearning to be filled again with sound, and knew it would not happen anytime soon. I filled the water tank quickly and set the humidifier to one of the lowest settings to ration its use, thankful that the turn for warmer weather would bring more humid air.

After turning out the lights and taking one final look back, I couldn’t help but think about the things that will change before we report to school “normally” again. We don’t know when we will be back, and we don’t know how learning will look between now and then. We don’t know whom we will lose; how many of my students would return knowing someone who had succumbed to the disease? With all that is happening, I’m fretting about a tank of water?

It’s a humidifier. They’re cellos. I’m just a music teacher. Public schools are scrambling to ensure students are fed, let alone educated. Healthcare workers are doing all they can to prepare for a surge of patients and terrible triage choices. People are dying. Was it pointless for me to go out to do this? In what universe could filling a water tank for a few cellos possibly matter during a time of pandemic?

I’ve wrestled with these thoughts and others since I returned home and washed my hands, wiped down my newly acquired Chromebook, then washed my hands again. I’ve been frustrated that the continuity of instruction in the arts for our students seems to have not been thought of by the decision-makers in a time when we are all turning to art to fill all of the time we suddenly have. Then again, I understand it all; the well-being of our students, physically and mentally, is more important than anything I think we can teach online in a time like this. But still, as teachers rushed into the building with the forty-five-minute limit ticking away, I was there for a tank of water.

I have determined that it is ridiculous, this filling of a humidifier in a time like this. But it is only for today. As we are confined, we see people around us turning to music to find connection and comfort in times of trial just as many before us have. While we are barred from gathering fifty students into my room to play, make music, and connect, we won’t be separated forever.

Someday we will go back to school. We will go back to packed hallways, loud voices, and to the sometimes bad hygiene that seems to come with the teenage years. We will stage musicals and plays where the audience isn’t sitting two chairs apart or watching through a screen. We will sit and collaborate face-to-face in a way that no distance learning can properly emulate or replace.

When we do, those cellos will be waiting for the music to resume.

How the New Music Community is Coping with the COVID-19 Pandemic

As a safety precaution against further spread of COVID-19, American Composers Orchestra under the direction of George Manahan performs to a nearly empty house consisting of just the six composers whose music is being featured, composer mentors, and ACO staff in Aaron Davis Hall at City College on March 12, 2020. (Photo by Ed Yim, courtesy ACO.)

Like everyone else, we have been trying as best as possible to carefully monitor the spread of the Coronavirus worldwide and, as you can imagine from our vantage point at New Music USA, paying particular attention to what its impact has been on the new music community (e.g. the cancellation of concerts/conferences, the closure of schools and a switch to online distance learning where possible, and on and on, aside from the health and safety fears that everyone in the world is currently facing) and how we can best be of help. To that end, we thought it would be helpful to offer observations and constructive ideas of people from a variety of vantage points within our sector in NewMusicBox in the hopes that it can lead us toward a consensus about what might be best practices for how to deal with this extraordinary and unprecedented situation moving forward.

To that end, we posed a series of seven questions to: producer and marketing/PR consultant Alanna Maharajh Stone; composer Katherine Balch; Andrew Bliss, Artistic Director of Nief-Norf; improvising vocalist, composer/lyricist, and teacher Fay Victor; Opera Omaha’s General Director Roger Weitz; Kate Nordstrum, founder, curator, and producer of the Liquid Music Series and executive and artistic director of The Great Northern; David Skidmore of Third Coast Percussion; and Ashley Bathgate, cello soloist and member of the Bang on a Can All Stars.

In addition, we’ve also featured photos here from American Composers Orchestra’s 2020 Underwood New Music Readings held on March 12 and 13 in Aaron Davis Hall at The City College of New York taken by ACO’s President and CEO Edward Yim. Closed to the public due to the growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the readings were limited to orchestra musicians, the six composers featured, the mentor composers for the program, and ACO staff, but the event was recorded for a future stream available to the ACO’s audience. Unfortunately the deepening of the crisis in the days since then has meant that even this small a gathering is no longer possible, making any kind of orchestra performance unlikely for the foreseeable future. But video footage from the readings is currently being edited and ACO plans to post an online stream sometime next week. To be notified, please sign up to be added to an email list at the following URL: https://mailchi.mp/americancomposers/subscribe.

As a safety precaution against further spread of COVID-19, American Composers Orchestra under the direction of George Manahan performs to a nearly empty house consisting of just the six composers whose music is being featured, composer mentors, and ACO staff in Aaron Davis Hall at City College on March 12, 2020. (Photo by Stephanie Polonio, courtesy ACO.)

As a safety precaution against further spread of COVID-19, American Composers Orchestra under the direction of George Manahan performed to a nearly empty house consisting of just the six composers whose music is being featured, composer mentors, and ACO staff in Aaron Davis Hall at City College on March 12, 2020. (ACO photos by Stephanie Polonio, courtesy ACO.)

We remain eager to hear from more people in the community to hear about your concerns as well as creative solutions for how to cope in these extraordinary times. Please add your thoughts in our Comments section below and stay safe and well.


1. How have the recent concerns over the spread of COVID-19 affected your activities as a musician/composer/presenter/etc.?


Alanna Maharajh Stone: Thanks so much for the opportunity to weigh in on these existentially trying times. I have had two concerts recently cancelled. It’s of course disappointing for everyone involved but given the circumstances of our public health crisis, it must be done.

Katherine Balch: Like everyone else right now, as far as I know, pretty much every concert scheduled for me between last week and the end of April has been cancelled. Hopefully, postponed. While some of these cancellations are very disappointing, I am more concerned for my performing freelance friends.

“I didn’t think it would impact the musical communities I interact with because our audiences and spaces are on the smaller side.”

Andrew Bliss: Like many of us, COVID-19 has been at the heart of discussion now since for several weeks. I’ve been anticipating cancellations (which have occurred, one by one) and have had all professional work halt since early March until at least the end of May at this point. For me, this has included festivals in the U.S. and abroad, educational residencies, university teaching, plus student activities and performances. Most notably here in Knoxville, the Big Ears Festival was canceled, which was both very disappointing and, of course, very necessary.

Fay Victor: As serious as I took the news, I didn’t think it would impact the musical communities I interact with because our audiences and spaces are on the smaller side. So up until last week, I was out attending events as normal. This past week there has been a sharp shift toward cancellations with venues looking out for the safety of their employees and patrons and lest we not forget that we live in a litigious society as well.

Unfortunately this has impacted me greatly. I’ve lost a week at the Stone (it would have been my first residency there for my own work); a CD release at Joe’s Pub, 4 days of shows in Chicago and more. Some venues have offered to reschedule immediately, one offered payment anyway and the others – well, I’m waiting to hear what will happen.

Roger Weitz: On March 12, Opera Omaha made the decision to postpone its third annual ONE Festival (https://onefestivalomaha.org/) with performances and events stretching March 20-April 5. We sent the communication below to our artists and within 36 hours of this communication, venues in Omaha began shutting down.

From: Roger Weitz

Sent: Thursday, March 12, 2020 1:53 PM

To: All Opera Omaha

Subject: a message from Roger Weitz and James Darrah

Dear Festival Family,

The strength of Opera Omaha and the ONE Festival is you: the artists, staff, and crew that create exceptional work unlike any other company in the world. We put the health and safety of all of you and your families first and foremost. While the individual risk to you in Omaha remains low, the systemic risk is nationally high and growing locally.

As we have been monitoring the scope of this pandemic, relying on factual and scientific information, we have decided that the most responsible way to honor that commitment to you is to cease our current work and explore the possibility of rescheduling/postponing the Festival’s offerings. We do not want to contribute to this pandemic in any way, but more importantly are taking this proactive decision in the interest of your safety.

Even though our time is cut short, and we will explore options to bring these projects to fruition at a later date, Opera Omaha will fulfill its entire current contractual commitment to you. We will be in touch with you or your manager as appropriate. For those of you from outside of Omaha, we are currently preparing a plan for your travel and will reach out to you directly to discuss those arrangements shortly.

If you have any questions beyond travel logistics, please contact one of us or Kurt.

On a more personal note, we are extremely proud that you are a part of this Festival and thank you for all of the time, energy, and artistry that you have already contributed.

With respect and admiration,

Roger and James

Kate Nordstrum: As of January 2020, Liquid Music is an independent LLC, owned by me. It was launched at The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2012. This spring we had a number of projects lined up with The Kennedy Center, Big Ears Music Festival, and National Gallery of Art. My role was producer of 1 0 0 1 (Dustin O’Halloran, Fukiko Takase, Bryan Senti & Yaron Abulafia) at The Kennedy Center (part of the Direct Current festival, a 2019 SPCO Liquid Music commission), producer of Dust (Valgeir Sigurdsson and Daniel Piorro) at Big Ears and National Sawdust, and guest artistic director for The National Gallery (illuminating the exhibit “True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe 1780-1870” with a program featuring works by contemporary composers inspired by nature, performed by yMusic). The National Gallery hasn’t formally cancelled yet, but I expect this to happen at any moment… The others are cancelled.

Beyond the spring cancellations, it is impossible to know when things will start back up again. This uncertainty makes postponement tricky.

I have another job now too: Executive & Artistic Director of The Great Northern—a 10-day festival that celebrates winter in Minneapolis and Saint Paul in an era of climate change. I’ve been actively working on fundraising and programming for Jan 28-Feb 7 activity, and wonder how/if I’ll be able to sustain the necessary momentum on both fronts.

David Skidmore: To create something positive in this uncertain and often frightening environment, we have decided to live stream a concert from our rehearsal studio in Chicago for each of our concerts that cancel. Similarly we will offer educational content online in lieu of our cancelled educational activities. It won’t replace in-person visits to these communities we were scheduled to visit in the U.S. and beyond, but we plan to leverage the technology we have at our disposal to make some really cool and fun musical experiences for all those folks around the world who are stuck at home.

We are speaking with some concert presenters about partnering with us on this project. Please contact me if you’d like to speak about it: [email protected].

Ashley Bathgate: Activities have ceased. Everything I have planned on the calendar from now through the summer is up in the air right now. If the projections are accurate, I may not be performing or working until late summer or fall. It’s a wait and see approach for all of us.

Life as a freelancer is already touch and go. We can’t really count on work to begin with, we don’t know what our schedules will be more than 3-6 months in advance, there’s always the risk of something falling through at the last minute, and there is no safety net. Yet there’s some strange consistency in that. You know how it goes and what to expect and you know you have some control over what you do and don’t do. In this instance, we are totally unprepared and without control. I quickly realized that the things I would normally do when a gig gets cancelled wouldn’t serve me here. I have to accept it and move forward with what is available to me at this moment, not yesterday or tomorrow or six months from now. Everything is uncertain, and that is the only thing that is certain.

Top row: Fay Victor (photo by Kyra Kverno), Andrew Bliss, and Katherine Balch; Bottom row: Roger Weitz, Ashley Bathgate (photo by Bill Wadman), Kate Nordstrum (photo by Cameron Wittig), Alanna Maharajh Stone, and David Skidmore.

Top row: Fay Victor (photo by Kyra Kverno), Andrew Bliss (photo by Evan Chapman), and Katherine Balch; Bottom row: Roger Weitz, Ashley Bathgate (photo by Bill Wadman), Kate Nordstrum (photo by Cameron Wittig), Alanna Maharajh Stone, and David Skidmore.


2. How have cancellations of events affected your income at this point (payment for performances/talks, etc., performing rights fees for performances of your music, etc.)?


Alanna Maharajh Stone: The cancellations have certainly impacted my income but I have a little savings so I am alright for the time being. I’m very worried about everyone in the music community and our wider communities at large about the impact of the cancellations and closings. It’s the right thing to do for sure as this virus must be mitigated. I think we all need to be especially kind and look out for each other to get through this and we shall get through together. We’re all interdependent to make a vibrant, flourishing, creative world.

“We’re all interdependent to make a vibrant, flourishing, creative world.”

Katherine Balch: I am definitely losing performing rights fees, but those are not a substantial part of my income. So far, I am missing the second installment of a commission fee as a result of a postponed performance. I am very fortunate to be a graduate student with a stipend from my university.

Andrew Bliss: My wife and I have repeatedly confessed how grateful we are to have salaried positions at major universities, which have allowed for a constant sense of security in our lives. With that in mind, we do keep a to-the-dollar budget each month, and have had to make a number of changes as all of our other income has slowly evaporated due to cancellations.

Fay Victor: The impact is significant but is survivable so far. If this is a temporary situation, I should be OK. We’ll just have to see.

Roger Weitz: It is still too early to know all of the financial ramifications of this decision.

Kate Nordstrum: I am fortunate to have a stable salary via The Great Northern. The Liquid Music performances that were cancelled mean no income for myself or the artists, even though months of work have gone into project development, rehearsals, and business administration leading to the events. I am still waiting to see if the flights I purchased will be reimbursed by the airlines.

David Skidmore: Third Coast Percussion has seen several cancellations of scheduled concerts and educational activities, and we expect we might see more still. We are fortunate to a certain degree because over the years we have made a point of setting aside money in the event of an unexpected budget shortfall. That said, this unprecedented situation presents an existential threat to all arts organizations, and Third Coast is not immune to that. We stand to lose an extraordinary amount of money (by our standards at least) should our performance fees for the rest of this concert season not come through. We have salaried employees with health benefits through TCP, there are contractors who rely on us for their livelihood, and there are composers and guest artists who rely on the commission fees and performance fees that we offer for their work.

“This unprecedented situation presents an existential threat to all arts organizations.”

Ashley Bathgate: Right now, I am in danger of losing about 1/3 of my income for the year. My gigs this month were cancelled. I will almost certainly lose all of April’s income and it’s looking more and more likely that May will fall apart as well. At that point, I will be in the position of not being able to pay my bills or my debt obligations, like student loan, vehicle loan, instrument loan, etc. I will have to dip into savings that were put aside for my future, specifically a retirement fund, because as a freelancer, I don’t have a pension to speak of. These cancellations have the potential to ruin a lot of people’s lives, or at the very least, leave a significant dent.

That said, I am heartened and inspired to see people rallying. Funds are being established for relief, people are sharing information on what’s already out there, they are asking each other if they need help and sending messages to cheer you up and let you know: you are not alone. I saw one person on Facebook offer up two beds in his apartment today to anyone who needs it.

We are continuing to perform (and some venues are allowing us to continue to perform) without a live audience so that we can still be paid and so that people can hear/see our work by watching a live stream of the show. Audiences are donating their tickets back to the venue instead of getting a refund. I am seeing presenters promise to fulfill their agreements and to pay artists regardless of whether the concert happens or not. It’s clear that everyone: artists, venues, presenters, and audiences alike want to help find a solution.


3. What kind of arrangements have been / should be in place for you to ensure a fair balance for these cancellations? (There are clearly multiple sides to this, among them the artists’ side and the venue’s side and we’d like to offer both perspectives in order to arrive at something approximating a possible best practice.)


Alanna Maharajh Stone: On a personal note, one of the cancelled concerts will turn into an album release campaign project at a later point so I’m very thankful for that.

I would ask arts organizations presenters to pay their scheduled artists their fees even if the institutions have to cancel their performances due to Coronavirus precautions. Freelancers all depend on the work they have planned and scheduled. Things can get rescheduled and the artists will appreciate the care, thought, and respect they are displaying, not to mention the ability to afford to survive. Arts orgs have annual budgets assigned already. This would not be hard to do and go a long way towards easing the financial pain I’m seeing in my colleagues’ social media feeds. I know smaller presenters will find this very hard to do but I applaud ones such as Hotel Elefant and HERE Arts Center for doing this as much as they can. Time In is also finding ways to employ their artists remotely. Tech and social media are key tools in bringing us together and helping ease the feeling of isolation. Alternatively, venues can also stream the performances to global audiences without having an in-house audience present. This way the show can go on such as with Miller Theatre with a recent concert. Several other venues are doing this as well.

For artists having gigs cancelled on them, I would recommend trying to negotiate retaining part or all of their fees in exchange for a new performance date. For future projects, build a deposit into your contracts that is non-refundable so there is some cushion should things not work out as planned through no fault of yours. Do not be afraid to negotiate and ask for what you want – this is your livelihood.

Katherine Balch: I think it’s really complicated because a lot of presenting institutions are also operating on bootstraps budgets. I do wish there were some sort of insurance in place for performers who have spent time and energy into learning a (often very demanding) new piece of music only to find out they won’t be paid the days leading up to the performance. Composers are often paid 50% fee at the signing of a contract and 50% upon delivery of the score or the premiere performance. I wonder if such a policy could be in place for freelancers for emergency circumstances like these.

Andrew Bliss: My feelings are often divided on this topic, because I work both as a performer/educator, and I also run the contemporary music organization Nief-Norf. So I can easily see and empathize with the challenges that presenters face. Up to this point, all of my cancellations have simply been offered to be rescheduled for the future.

That said, this current crisis has prompted a great deal of thinking about the future. I wonder what types of safeguards we can implement in the future to mitigate some of the difficult decisions we are facing today. In my time in academia and the non-profit sector, I’ve hosted dozens of artists and ensembles, while actively touring as a soloist and chamber performer myself. I’ve seen artist fees and artists’ contractual rigor range widely during this time. I have concluded over the years that almost all musicians have a “portfolio” career, with income coming from various sources and those obligations representing various percentages of their time obligations. I mention this, because the percentage that residencies/appearances/performances play in an artists’ overall portfolio, seems to have a strong influence on their approach to fees and contracts.

Many musicians are very strict about receiving and adhering to contracts, including price guarantees, though I think we’ve learned this is probably a topic we need to re-visit. Earlier in my career, I might have considered that position to be too strict and inflexible. From personal experience, however, I realized how critically important these contracts are to a musician’s livelihood. Flexibility is vital, of course, whenever possible. But it’s also important to write that flexibility into a written agreement or contract, rather than having to decide just-how-flexible you can afford to be in an ad-hoc way. I doubt that anyone’s contracts had a “pandemic clause” beyond force majeure, however, so we are all on shaky ground at this point.

Fay Victor: Fortunately, I have other work as an educator that balances out my income. Some venues can afford to pay out for the shows (I mentioned one is doing so in my case). I understand through that a small venue simply may not have the money to pay out to everyone. I’m not sure how best to handle it. Everyone has been kind and accommodating as much as they can be. The communities I work in all understand how precarious this situation is for everyone.

Roger Weitz: Most of our contracts have cancellation clauses and/or force majeure clauses built in. In most cases we are choosing to ignore those clauses and will pay the artists their full fee. The artists committed to us and we committed to the artists. The contracts required the artists to hold the festival time period for us and we know that it would be virtually impossible for them now to secure new engagements to replace the ones that we have postponed.

“In most cases we are choosing to ignore force majeure clauses and will pay the artists their full fee.”

Kate Nordstrum: I think artistic teams should be able to keep project deposits. There should be a recognition that this down payment goes toward development of the work — it is not held in a safe until the performance premieres. Presenters who do not do deposits should reconsider, as it can be a hardship on artists. Presenters should also take responsibility for flight purchases or reimbursements if an artist fronts this expense. My experience is primarily from the presenter side, and I still agree with all of the above! As a presenter, I do sympathize greatly with the stress that arts organizations are under, but they are in a better position than individual artists to find a way to recover costs.

There are more protections from institutions around commissioned work, which is a good thing.

David Skidmore: All of our performance contracts have what’s called a force majeure clause, which I like to lovingly think of as the oh shit clause. In the event of something catastrophic and out of the control of the artist and venue, what do we do? These contract clauses can provide some helpful guidance in situations like this.

That said: the performing arts world, and the new music world as a subset of the performing arts world, is a relatively small community of people who are in this because they love this art and they believe in it. I sincerely hope that everyone is doing their part to both take care of themselves and their loved ones, but also to think of the larger communities that they are a part of. Think of those who are more vulnerable than you are, and do everything you can to help them.

“I sincerely hope that everyone is doing their part to both take care of themselves and their loved ones, but also to think of the larger communities that they are a part of.”

Ashley Bathgate: I can’t speak to the presenting side, but I think we need to be having this conversation more openly and more often. Over the past few days I’ve gotten a clearer picture of what everyone is going through. That makes me more informed, more empathetic and more generous. I believe in transparency. There can always be more of this in life and certainly in the art world. We need to vocalize more and we need to put our heads together. In this instance, it’s on a case by case basis. Bill Bragin said it in a nutshell: it is a question of who can bear the loss.

From my perspective, if we had a clearer protocol to begin with, this wouldn’t be as much of a gray area for someone like me. If I had contracts for every gig I played, with an agreed upon language, including the language of the force majeure clause, a deposit up front and a cancellation fee in place, I’d at least have somewhere to start. If that was my standard, I would not feel so disempowered at this moment. Right now, I am at someone else’s mercy. That person is also at someone else’s mercy. Though, one can argue that contracts are meaningless if the people behind them don’t respect or are subsequently unable to honor the agreement.

When that happens, are we legally protected?

I don’t know too many freelance artists with lawyers on retainer. I don’t know too many of us (myself included) who even understand the law when it comes to things like this, or copyright, or intellectual property, etc. What about insurance? What’s that, does that even exist for us? Gig insurance? It is becoming less and less feasible in our DIY, click of a button stream-culture, to have a team around you who can look out for you in these ways. I cannot afford to have management on retainer. I cannot afford to hire a publicist, which costs per month what I would pay in rent. I cannot afford to pay a record label to release my album, which I spent thousands of dollars on and which might sell 500 copies, if I am lucky. I can’t afford to hire a development director to fundraise for my next project. So we are learning to do all of these things ourselves, on the fly, while making art, while taking care of families. I spend most of my “work” day on a lap top, not my cello. The system is becoming harder and harder for artists like me, who were told in school to just practice their instrument, be great at what you do and you will get a job. It’s not that world anymore and we aren’t preparing the younger generation for the world we exist in. It’s another form of preparation in which we are behind.

For the moment, I would say priority number one is a little extra sensitivity and kindness, all around. Number two is that if a venue or a presenter is able to cover half or the whole of a musician’s fee for the work they are cancelling, they should, as long as it does not put them in danger of going out of business themselves. If that is not possible, I think every effort should be made to honor the agreement and reschedule the concert or work as soon as possible. Outside of that, there are relief funds we can apply for and I don’t think we should be afraid to ask for help, whether that’s in the form of money, housing, food, child care, really anything. Ask for help. People want to help if they can.

Once we get through this crisis, I think there are some harder conversations to have. It’s not just about how we can help during this difficult time or how we plug the dam, it’s about a bigger picture and, hey now, “a greater coming together”.

I think artists like myself would do well to vocalize the things they want and need more often and to just walk away when it feels wrong for them. There will be other opportunities and there are lots of human beings to collaborate with in the world. The number one thing I come up against is my own fear. I fear quoting too high a price for my work because: x, y, z. I fear being disagreeable because I will not get the gig, it will go to the person who is agreeable or more “grateful”. I fear suggesting alterations in the language of the contract because it will create tension or delay going forward. I fear speaking up because most people around me don’t speak up. No one wants to rock the boat. No one wants to lose work they have by asking for more. No one wants to be disliked or to have a reputation for being difficult. Presenters and contractors are Gods in this business, they can make or break our year, sometimes our career. And for presenters and contractors, well, there are Gods in their world too. Beth Morrison described it as a food chain, we are all part of the same food chain. It’s true, we are part of the same ecosystem. We’re also part of the same species, so, let’s try to communicate more instead of fighting for our own survival, because we can.

“I think artists like myself would do well to vocalize the things they want and need more often and to just walk away when it feels wrong for them.”

When I think about it, I fear most everything about my job, except for the part where I make music. This comes from my experience. This comes from hearing things like, “that’s just the way it is” and “well, you’d do it for free, right?” and “this is the life you chose”. This comes from getting offered gigs with no mention of the pay or terms, only “do you have these dates free?”. This comes from receiving offers that are basically “take it or leave it” with no room for negotiating and a built in protection for the other party, not me. This is from going into temporary credit card debt to pay for flights that a presenting organization will not book themselves or reimburse up front, based on “policy” because it’s too big a risk for them?! This is from playing show after show, where despite having an agreement in place and going through every hoop imaginable to make it operate smoothly, the end result is me spending extra hours (unpaid) emailing and phoning to figure out why my payment is still being withheld, months later.

Saying these things out loud leaves me feeling bit vulnerable, but I know I am not alone in my experiences. I know we talk about it among ourselves, within our close circle, but we won’t make a habit of talking to those outside our point of view, or collectively. If we could all be so forthcoming and generous on a regular basis the way that I am seeing right now, we’d be better off. So please, let’s continue these conversations, let’s have more webinars and town halls and group chats. Let’s all make ourselves more aware of each other’s perspectives so that we can emerge from this crisis more informed, more empathetic and more generous going forward.


4. What precautions have you been taking personally to ensure your safety as well as that of your family and the artistic collaborators with whom you most frequently work?


Alanna Maharajh Stone: Usually I work from home anyway so it’s not hard for me to isolate from others communicating by phone or email. I really think it’s integral for everyone to heed the social distancing and isolate as much as possible. This seems very counterintuitive to hear myself say that as I much prefer face-to-face meetings but we are living in extraordinary times. We must flatten the curve and stop the spread of the virus so the US does not end up in a worse situation than Italy and China. And it is crucial to support capable politicians who are looking out for everyone and taking active measures to help communities affected by this. Health care is a human right. Testing and care for coronavirus should be free and easily accessible throughout the nation. This whole crisis has illustrated why we need Medicare for all.

Katherine Balch: Aside from the CDC recommendations, in terms of my financial well-being, I’m budgeting and have made a spending plan for the next few months. I’m also researching where is best to make (modest) donation(s) to support relief for freelance artists. In terms of mental health, I’m trying to come up with a daily schedule, getting dressed instead of staying in my PJ’s, those kinds of things. It helps to be teaching online, actually.

“I’m budgeting and have made a spending plan for the next few months. I’m also researching where is best to make (modest) donation(s) to support relief for freelance artists.”

Andrew Bliss: I’ve been working from home since basically March 1 and we’ve moved all Nief-Norf meetings to online conferencing. Everyone is working from home. My wife and I have made rigorous spreadsheet schedules for ourselves and our two young children to try and find a balance between giving them varied activities and attention, and continuing to have time to ourselves for various work-related activities. We stopped leaving the house over a week ago for anything that is not strictly necessary. At work, we had made preparations for how we might substitute players who weren’t comfortable or couldn’t attend our performances at the Big Ears Festival, which ended up being cancelled anyway. We are now looking ahead to the Nief-Norf Summer Festival (nnSF) in June and making plans A, B, and C, keeping in mind how we can best (and most safely) serve the community that we have built for the last 10 years at nnSF.

Fay Victor: We’re beginning at home to plan for being there more! Stocking up on necessities just in case I or my husband become ill. I’m washing my hands as much as possible, keeping surfaces clean and eating healthy. I found an incredible TedTalk about the virus that I’ve referenced back to a few times: https://youtu.be/Fqw-9yMV0sI.

Roger Weitz: We stopped all rehearsals and planned activities in an effort to lower the transmission of the virus, to help “flatten the curve.” Within one business day of postponing the festival and sending guest artists back to their homes, we closed Opera Omaha’s administrative offices and the staff are working from home to the extent that their job duties will enable them.

Kate Nordstrum: We are all at home… texting, Skyping, creatively plotting, encouraging each other, organizing, cooking, reading, tending to family. I don’t know anyone taking their chances with regard to personal health and safety. I am on the lookout for artist and arts org resources to share.

David Skidmore: Washing our hands like a maniacs more than we ever have, being especially mindful of our bodies and germs should we find ourselves in contact with anyone who we perceive as possibly at risk, and meanwhile erring on the side of caution and assuming that anyone might be a person at risk who does not outwardly present as such. It’s worth remembering that losing a paycheck, or a month’s paycheck, or several months’ paychecks is a tremendous burden, but losing a loved one does not even compare.

Ashley Bathgate: I am staying home right now as much as possible. Trying to keep stress and anxiety to a minimum. Less risk taking, more healthy choices. I am driving more, avoiding public transportation. I am sacrificing things I would consider normal in terms of socializing or self-maintaining, trying to do more of those at home, which also saves money. I am intending to follow through with concerts that have not been cancelled yet. I am a bit nervous about it but I think we should try to go about our life as we normally would. Realistically, I need to work to make some money. So there will be some risk taking.

Then there are all the little things which you never think about like washing your hands more, touching your face, touching other people, disinfecting things, cleaning up more. It doesn’t feel great to be checking yourself or obsessing over it, but I am trying to remember it’s either something that will be temporary or something that will become a good habit that I won’t think so much about eventually. This has also triggered me to get in the habit of not wasting things. Don’t waste time, don’t waste energy, don’t waste food, re-use, recycle, up-cycle, less is more, keep your carbon footprint low. There’s time to pay more attention to that.


5. What are your biggest concerns/fears about the uncertain landscape we are currently in?


Alanna Maharajh Stone: First and foremost, that family, friends, colleagues – all of us – are at great risk. I fear that people won’t take this seriously and understand the gravity of the situation – the importance of isolation; that the economic impact of this wide spread shutdown will hurt us all ultimately. I want to do as much as possible to help others as I know many colleagues are already feeling the pressure of how to afford to survive. I know we will all make it through together. And I encourage people to ask their networks for help when it is needed.

It is heartening to see the real sense of community we have and active measures being taken to assist each other. I am especially grateful to Equal Sound for starting a Corona Relief Fund for artists who have had their gigs cancelled. They are raising money to help artists in urgently need. In a couple of days, they have already received $50,000 in funding requests. We need to help get the word out about this fund on both the donor side and the artist side so they will be able to assist as many artists as possible.

https://equalsound.org/project/corona-relief-fund/

New Focus Recordings is also waiving the label’s share of sales from their recordings on Bandcamp through April so their artists can receive the full amount of sales from their work. I would heartily encourage everyone to buy some new music to support these and other independent artists on this label and beyond.

https://newfocusrecordings.bandcamp.com/

And I would also encourage donors to generously support our arts organizations through these difficult times. It is really vital to help keep everyone afloat.

Katherine Balch: My concerns are that my friends will suffer massively emotionally and financially with all these cancellations, and that collaborations and engagements I’m looking forward to will be cancelled or postponed. I’m concerned that the organizations that are the bedrock of new music, which tend to have more modest budgets and infrastructure, will suffer irreparably. I’m also concerned for my students, many of them are feeling a lot of anxiety about the situation, and worried about my own limitations and shortcomings as an educator during this period.

Andrew Bliss: Amidst the current chaos, it’s difficult to find a signal in the noise. It’s hard to focus on things like “work” or music making when there are threats to our basic health and safety. Typically this time of year, I would be finalizing the 2020-21 season, but discussing those possibilities with presenters right now somehow feels a little tone deaf. I’m worried about the disruptions artists will face into Spring 2021 for this reason. As a teacher, I imagine there will be similar regrouping that must occur in the Fall term, and that’s assuming that COVID-19 has abated by then.

“Typically this time of year, I would be finalizing the 2020-21 season, but discussing those possibilities with presenters right now somehow feels a little tone deaf.”

Fay Victor: Right now, I’m just processing the loss and the work to recoup costs i.e. flights, hotels, etc. I feel that our community of musicians will figure out performance alternatives. There’s already the technology to support streamed performances – that may be the way of the future for now.

Roger Weitz: If we cannot serve our community by creating art then there is little reason for the community to support us. We must find new ways to serve the community and new means by which we deliver our art. We are currently brainstorming and mapping out new creative content that we will share on line.

Kate Nordstrum: I’m concerned that arts funders (individual and corporate in particular) will fully pull away until the COVID-19 dust settles. No one knows when that will be. But we’ll need the arts and cultural sector to be stronger than ever when we emerge from this separation.

David Skidmore: We sincerely believe that the extreme measures we are taking as a society, though indescribably difficult in the short term, will prevent the worst case scenarios. We are concerned for the health and safety of everyone, and we are concerned about the hardships faced by so many of our colleagues and friends in the United States who have no financial protection against cancelled work, and a weak and ill-equipped social safety net to fall back on.

Ashley Bathgate: This virus is a pandemic, it’s global. Seems huge, right? It’s also small. This isn’t the end of the world. We will get through this. My fear is that we might not learn from our mistakes. We might say we’re going to take things more seriously from now on, things like climate change or preparation for another disaster like this one. Once the panic is over, will we forget this terror and motivation we are feeling and just allow things to go back to normal? If this virus brought anything up for me, it’s that I keep complaining about things that are broken or things that are unfair, but I don’t do enough to enact change. I mean change from within as much as change from without. My fear is that I will not act enough. I want to do the things that I keep saying I will do, and that includes thought toward the ways in which we value ourselves and those around us.


6. How do you see the current situation affecting your artistic practice?


Alanna Maharajh Stone: It’s a time for more creativity, ingenuity, and solidarity than ever before. Good to see artists going online to do FB live broadcasts of home performances. Perhaps they can also include details to donate so people can help support them directly. I myself plan to do a bit more with my own creative work as a photographer and a director in addition to my music marketing and publicity projects. I’m currently working on some album release campaigns and a video premiere campaign for clients so the timing actually works out for me not being out and about thankfully.

Katherine Balch: As a composer with a slightly slower creative metabolism than my performing colleagues, I think the answer to that question will emerge in the coming months or beyond.

Andrew Bliss: It has slowed it down considerably. I am on professional development leave (i.e. sabbatical) from the University of Tennessee at the moment, and now have a 7 and a 2-year old home, likely for weeks, if not months. We have no family anywhere nearby so it’s the four of us in the house until further notice. Anyone who has read Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” knows – the only “deep work” happening these days is with Lego in hand. I don’t see a clear way to complete my proposed projects for the university in this environment, but sometimes that is not the most important thing. As I mentioned, my wife and I have carved out personal time each day, and are handling things the best we can while focusing on our family.

We make allowances for our students every semester due to outside circumstances, and have to remember as professionals that we can do that for ourselves as well. I’m enjoying time at home with my kids, trying to get to those projects around the house (work-related and otherwise) that I normally can’t get to, and making the best of the new circumstances of working 100% remotely. I may not have as much practice time, but every situation provides some opportunity. So I’m clearing some clutter, organizing some projects and plans, and clarifying pathways for future months and years. I’m lucky to be able to “focus on the bright side” at this point, and I’m grateful that our inconveniences, thus far, are mostly just being housebound with a family I love.

“Online learning might offer students more autonomy and greater accessibility. That said, it’s hard to learn anything amidst a public health crisis.”

I’m also curious to see how this situation impacts a younger generation. Specifically, as a professor, I’m curious to see what giving our students almost all of their time back, does for their learning. There are obvious downsides to the situation we are in, but there are potentially some positives as well, since online learning might offer students more autonomy and greater accessibility. That said, it’s hard to learn anything amidst a public health crisis, so I think professors and students will be learning as we go together.

Fay Victor: More free time in the short term will be enriching for my artistic practice! I can practice, compose and write more and I plan on doing just that. Also, if some musicians are willing, a great time to get together and work out ideas.

Roger Weitz: The vast majority of our artistic practice calls for artists and audiences/participants to gather in the same physical space: performances, workshops, masterclasses, events, etc. We are exploring new ways to document and share the work of our artists and will plan to use our website and social media channels to deliver that content and engage with our audience.

Kate Nordstrum: This is as a great time for project concepting and organizing. I see my responsibility as pulling together teams to do incredible work in 2021 and beyond. As an Executive Director as well as Artistic Director, ED duties usually take up more time than I’d like. This is an opportunity to lean into the creative producer side of my work more.

I also need to continue to be an advocate for artists and new projects to potential funders, making the case that post-pandemic, the hunger for new art and cultural events will be insatiable. We need to continue to invest now for the work of tomorrow.

David Skidmore: Too early to tell, but I’m hopeful this will be a time that reminds everyone how precious live performance is, and how easy it is to take it for granted.

“I’m hopeful this will be a time that reminds everyone how precious live performance is, and how easy it is to take it for granted.”

Ashley Bathgate: If there’s any silver lining here, it’s that during these times we find every reason to focus on our craft, whether it’s to send a message of hope, to shed light on what needs improvement, to bring people together, or to find time to one’s self. These events give us more purpose and drive. They cause us to reflect and to think on our toes. As awful as it is for everyone, I know I am not alone in saying that I have already thought of so many things I can do with this time. I can read, research, make plans, make art, think, relax, cook, be with my family, and reconnect with friends. I can be a sponge. I can be a leader. I can be a better human being. I want to perform and to work, don’t get me wrong. I’d go crazy if I couldn’t perform anymore. But this “free” time is exactly what we are always wishing we had more of. So I am going to fill it with everything I haven’t had time to do, and that includes making music.


7. What are some alternatives that can ensure that we can continue to advocate for our own artistic work and that of others during this extremely uncertain time? What kind of support would enable you to do that?


Alanna Maharajh Stone: I will always advocate for the artistic work of colleagues and community as well as encouraging others to do so. I think what will help artists the most right now is Emergency relief funds without a long processing time; they are really critical at this point. Perhaps New Music USA can aid with this as well as the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and other funding sources? New Music USA can also appeal to local and national politicians to push for more emergency aid for the creative community. Here are some other resources that may be useful as well.

NYC Covid-19 Musician Resources and Support

https://www.facebook.com/groups/nycmusicianscovid19/

Online Music Lessons and Teachers (NY Metro Area)

https://www.facebook.com/groups/OnlineMusicLesson/

Covid-19 Freelance Artist Resources

https://covid19freelanceartistresource.wordpress.com/

Katherine Balch: Government support for the arts. Some type of insurance plan for the gig-economy. In our own lives, finding ways to connect and engage with music making though tuning into livestreams, facetiming with colleagues, donating to arts relief funds if within ones means to do so.

Andrew Bliss: I think we need to offer (and ask for) as much support as possible. A few things I’ve tried to do: Make a phone call to a friend or collaborator and check in on how they are doing. Schedule a video conference with a fellow musician and scheme up some future projects. Support online initiatives that you think offer value and are perhaps, even breaking new ground that we might be able to incorporate into our in-person practice when COVID-19 seems to have slowed down.

I think many of us are aching for live, in-person collaboration during this time, but deep, meaningful, one-on-one or group conversations, meetups, and projects, though happening remotely, can offer friendship, artistic support, and creation that could last far beyond 2020’s quarantine.

Fay Victor: There’s much to think about regarding advocacy for our work as artists in this shifting climate. For now, perhaps its a good idea to wait it out for a bit. What we can all do now is support artists by purchasing any product they have. Support artists that give shows over the internet or have small musical gatherings. We’re thinking of having small house concerts that we can stream from our living room. These are scary times yet the ability to be creative means we’ll make the best of the situation. We’ll figure it out, perhaps creating innovations that will carry us even further. I understand that pandemics such as what we’re experiencing now with Covid-19 will be in our future more. It is better we learn now how to adapt to our present and for what’s coming. This gives me great hope.

“These are scary times yet the ability to be creative means we’ll make the best of the situation.”

Roger Weitz: Our alternatives are to bring more of our community online, so building the platforms and interconnectivity would be our first challenge.

Maybe virtual convening through New Music USA, and paying performers for salon concerts? If not directly, perhaps New Music USA could publish some “best practices” for companies seeking to engage in this way and how to direct donations from on-line viewers directly to artists?

Kate Nordstrum: Seeing, and hearing from, art institutions/individuals/sponsors who are able to continue to plan and invest in the future would help producers and artists know it’s okay to invest their time right now too. I certainly understand that is difficult in the immediate moment. We should all remind ourselves and our loved ones daily to take a breath… These days of confinement and restriction will feel long, and we are going to need patience (and more time) to see clearly how to navigate. Everyone’s lives are on hold right now — the preciousness of our days is hitting us hard.

David Skidmore: For now we’re very focused on providing as many meaningful musical experiences online as we can. This will include at least TCP performing, perhaps with some of our guest artists as well, and we will be performing a wide range of music from a wide range of composers. It’s way too early to tell how it will work or how successful it will be, but at least it will be us doing what we do best and putting it out there for the world to experience. As always, we hope people will watch and listen, and we hope people who believe in what we’re doing will support this work that we believe in so much.

Supporting artists in any way that you can is always important and rewarding. Given the current state of things, mutual support is now vital to the survival of all artists.

“Mutual support is now vital to the survival of all artists.”

Ashley Bathgate: I have more questions than answers to this one. It’s all about online I think. We’re headed that way already: Patreon, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, YouTube, social media platforms, live streams, online performances, living room concerts, VR, Twitch. My question is: are we ready for monetized streaming of live performances? Is there a market for that within crisis-mode? Is there a market for that beyond crisis-mode?

Patreon is probably a good place to start because it is in favor of the artist, it is exclusive and it is ongoing. Create your site, invite your followers and supporters to subscribe and pay what they wish, monthly. If I have 100 people who will pay $10/month to hear me speak, sing, play the cello, or other, then that is $1000 of income I did not have before. It’s tough to build a following, and you have to generate content more frequently, but I think it’s a great way to maintain control of your work and it functions for people who don’t want to or can’t be on the road all the time. During this particular time, I would feel the most comfortable asking for help this way where there is an exchange of some sort. I want to give back as much as I want to receive help.

We can continue to cultivate donors and presenters who are willing to take more risks. New music is not a proven commodity. There is more hesitation both in programming it and funding it. Because it’s not something tangible that you can hang on your wall or bring home, that makes it harder as well. How and where can we find patrons who are willing to underwrite entire new music festivals, who will fund larger commissions, records and concerts the same way that they do for pop or classical music?

Videos and albums: how do we take control of our content so that we can actually profit from streams and downloads as opposed to making fractions of a penny?

If we move to teaching online, what is a setup and connection that can function? That’s one of the questions circulating the most right now. What’s the best technology both available and affordable for teachers and students to conduct a lesson successfully this way?

Aside from funding, I think we benefit tremendously from community building. In a big city like New York, it’s hard to feel community sometimes. Nobody has time for you, you don’t have time for them, we’re all “so busy”. Freelancers are on the road all the time trying to make rent for a home we are never in. It’s bonkers.

What’s ironic is that I have connected (and reconnected) with more people over the past week than I have in the last year altogether. Aside from wanting more of that in general, I kept thinking what if there was website or forum where we could pool our talents, beyond this crisis? Here’s a site with artists, sound engineers, filmmakers, stage managers, presenters, producers, development directors, entertainment lawyers and anyone else you could think of. You would receive a private message setting up a time to speak. Whether it’s donated time or the barter system or a small fee per hour, this is now an online community designed to help each other. We’re not on retainer for hundreds and thousands of dollars a month, we are there to answer a question, look over a contract, write a letter, pitch an idea to, read through a composition, listen to a speech, guide you through a Pro-Tools conundrum, help you start a website, or a 501(c)(3). All of these things I can research online or guess at, occasionally I have a friend to help. In this scenario, I can be as much helpful as I am being helped, while being a part of my community, as opposed to desperately trying to catch up to it or squeeze it in through the cracks.

“We need more access to each other.”

I feel we need more access to each other, the barriers have to come down; we need fluidity and openness in a time like this. If I must be a cog in the wheel, I want to know what the wheel looks like, what the car looks like, the road, the total landscape. If we remain satisfied with partial views, we are never going to move the vehicle forward.

Glass Half-Full, Mug Half-Empty

A glass of water that is half full (or empty), a mug with the caption "Do Epic Shit," a Black Lives Matter button leaning against a Buddha statue, and some books (Stavey Abrams's Lead From the Outside, Alex Haley's Roots, American Indian Stories, Dorothy Roberts's Killing the Black Body, and Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them), and another button ("She, Her, Hers") on a shelf in Anthony Tidd's home.

“The best investment for one year is to grow grains; the best investment for ten years is to grow trees; the best investment for a lifetime is to educate people. What you gain from one year’s growth will be grains; what you gain from ten years’ growth will be trees; what you gain from a hundred years’ growth will be people.”—Guan Zhong

To me all problems, and not just those found within the music biz, are best solved through education.

To every civilization education is paramount. The noblest job is that of the teacher. One could look at many problems today, and rightly place them at the feet of this nation’s failure to adequately invest in the truth and real education.

Question: Are our venues and arts institutions (whether for profit or non-profit) free to do as they please, or do they bear some level of obligation/duty to the communities in which they reside?

If art venues and institutions abandon their vital role within the arts scene/ecosystem, leaving the next wave of creative young nest-less, what will that mean for the arts overall in the next twenty years?

My friends and acquaintances sometimes call me “Pie-in-the-Sky-Guy”. What this means is that I’m the kind of guy who is always coming up with some new hare-brained scheme, usually in an effort to bring forth “improvement”, based on my core belief: We should all endeavor to leave things equal to, or preferably, better than we found them. I’m not sure where I first heard this ethos expressed, but it still makes a lot of sense to me.

We should all endeavor to leave things equal to, or preferably, better than we found them.

Thinking this way requires an abundance of optimism because more often than not, most of the ideas that I propose are either ignored, or met with a series of no’s. However, occasionally, while the powers that be weren’t really paying attention, I got to do some cool stuff.

Knowing this, it’s hard to write about the Philly scene in a positive light. Though I would really love to, there’s that nagging thing, the truth. The Philly Jade that so many of my peers suffer from is real. Just like real jade, this Philly Jade took years under intense pressure to form, and in most cases it formed because such peers actually cared about their city and everything that it could and should be. Many of them, some of Philly’s brightest, have already left for greener pastures. I feel it nipping at my heels right now.

The simple truth is that we Philadelphians live in a city which is over 40% black, and over 60% of color, but where over 90% of resources are allocated to neighborhoods which are either primarily white or on their way to becoming so via gentrification. Long before the recent headlong rush towards gentrification of its inner city neighborhoods, Philadelphia had a long history of underserving its communities of color, and an even longer history of undervaluing their contributions to the city. This all may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but it is also the truth. While some of us are fortunate enough to avoid this truth most of the time, people of color live in a racially tainted reality which touches every aspect of their lives, whether acknowledged or not. Such statistics should put a pretty big dent in anybody’s optimism. Mine is dented, but not gone, yet.

Philadelphians live in a city where over 90% of resources are allocated to neighborhoods which are either primarily white or on their way to becoming so.

If I were to think glass half full, I would say that Philly has a seemingly endless supply of talent. Philly is the kind of city where one might be living next to the inventor of the light bulb for 20 years and never know it. Everywhere I look there’s some amazing talent, poised to take things to the next level. Some of these amazing people are my colleagues, and others have been my students over the years. I am certain that there are many more that I am yet to meet.

I often find myself bumping into Philly’s music royalty, sometimes Jamaaladeen in Paris, or Orrin Evans at the North Sea Jazz Fest., or back in December at the Village Vanguard, Johnathan Blake, drummer and son of the great jazz musician John Blake. Pentad, Johnathan’s band, played the Vanguard for the first time. This amazing band featured Dezron Douglas on bass, David Virelles on piano, Joel Ross on vibes, and Immanuel Wilkins, one of my first students in the Creative Music Program, on alto saxophone.

A poster for Pentad's December 2019 gigs at the Village Vanguard. Pictured from left to right: Immanuel Wilkins (alto saxophone), Joel Ross (vibraphone), Johnathan Blake (drums), David Virelles (piano), and Dezron Douglas (bass).

They sounded fantastic, and thus, to those lucky enough to experience Philly musicians on stages around the world, there’s never any doubt regarding the outstanding level of musicianship that this city has and still continues to produce. Through mentorship and education (both formal and informal) many of these great musicians have managed to sustain a hundred year old enduring and ongoing tradition, which some call jazz, but which I more often call creative music.

The Philly area has also been home to a number of excellent jazz based music programs for young people, including Camden Creative Arts High School (Camden is Philly to me), run by Jamal Dickerson, the Clef Club of Jazz, run by Lovett Hines, and the Creative Music Program, run by myself at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

In the case of CMP, this program has provided opportunities for outstanding musicians such as Marcus Belgrave, Doug Hammond, John Patitucci, Danilo Perez, Linda Oh, Gary Thomas, Melvis Santa, Wayne Krantz, Miles Okazaki, Wycliffe Gordon, Sumi Tonooka, Tyshawn Sorey, Jen Shyu, Eric Revis, Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Matthew Garrison, Yosvany Terry, Jon Batiste, Jonathan Finlayson, Greg Osby, Kokayi, Lee Smith, Kris Davis, Odean Pope, Cyro Baptista, Steve Lehman, Marcus Gilmore, Rajna Swaminathan, Nicholas Payton, Orrin Evans, Dafnis Prieto, Greg Hutchinson, Anwar Marshall, Laurin Talese, Eric Wortham, Joanna Pascal, Steve Tirpak, John Smith, John Swana, Erica Lindsay, Josh Lawrence, Venissa Santi, Khary Shaheed, Ursula Rucker, J.A Dean, Brent White, Tom Lawton, Tim Motzer, and so many others to pass on their unique approaches, experience, expertise and even life lessons to thousands of students for over 9 years. This list is long because I have to pay homage to those who helped to make this program great, however the clef club has an even longer list of amazing musicians, which goes back much further to the club’s founding in 1935.

Both have had an immeasurable impact on the Philly scene and for students, such as alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, who recently graduated from the Juilliard School of Music and is now one of the most exciting young players in NYC. Or, pianist Joseph Block, who won the 2016 Essentially Ellington Competition while still in the program at 17, and who today at 19 still studies at Juilliard, whilst being one of Wynton Marsalis’s go-to arrangers for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. There are many more, like Maya Keren, Nazir Ebo, and Yesseh Farrah-Ali, who you’ll surely hear about very soon.

One might reasonably expect based on such a stellar track record, high level endorsements from MacArthur fellows, Grammy recipients, Doris Duke recipients, and directors of some of the most prestigious jazz programs in the nation, that the future of such programs would be somewhat guaranteed.

If I were to think mug half empty, then I would say that in Philadelphia what is reasonably expected often does not come to pass. Musicians and music programs are often held hostage by the ill-advised decisions of people who neither possess the history, knowledge, or empathy to understand why such programs are important. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Philadelphia’s brightest young artists will either: a) decide to exit the arts; b) decide to exit Philly; or c) stay in the arts and in Philly, probably to the detriment of their careers and overall happiness. This of course is not considering the millions of highly creative children in Philly and around the world, who will never even get an opportunity to explore the arts in the first place. Some of the most successful and vital music programs in the city (including the aforementioned) have the hardest time finding either institutional support, or funding, or both. The fact that all of these programs are primarily focused on a historic black art form (jazz) is not insignificant.

Musicians and music programs are often held hostage by the ill-advised decisions of people who neither possess the history, knowledge, or empathy to understand why such programs are important.

Some people may believe that all artists are destined to suffer. I do not agree. While we can’t all be Wynton or Beyoncé, this doesn’t mean that all other artists don’t deserve a living wage, or the same path to a fruitful career that lawyers, doctors, and accountants expect, upon leaving school. After all, arts degrees are just as expensive and school loans sleep for no one.

The fact that we as artists do not enjoy the same prospects as our STEM counterparts has less to do with the true importance of the arts within any advanced civilization (art is one important metric by which all past civilizations have been judged), and more to do with the aforementioned dubious decisions taken by “the powers that be”, both inside and outside of the arts world. Besides this, we should also acknowledge that within the arts, as in all other fields, opportunity (and thus compensation) is more often sharply divided along strict racial and gender lines. In this respect Philadelphia is one prime example.

When the new owners of Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus decided to redefine their business model (once again), more or less completely abandoning the establishment’s jazz legacy, turning the space into a multipurpose black-box, focusing on DJs, local funk and rock bands, and entertainment that they considered more befitting of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that is Northern Liberties, it sent shockwaves throughout the arts community. Like so many venues they went from being a home for creative music to becoming yet another establishment that sells alcohol (with music accompaniment). (Exhibit A) Their description on Google reads, “Local funk, jazz & rock performers provide the soundtrack for burgers, burritos & beer drinking.”

Many of the elders on the Philly jazz scene at the time recalled earlier days, when they themselves were teens and were eager to learn all about the music that Miles, Ella, and ’Trane had played barely a generation earlier, and Ortlieb’s, like any other jazz club, was a good place to start. Jazz enthusiasts could listen to any number of the greats who would regularly perform or stop though.

Victor North and George Burton performing at Ortleib’s

Better times: Victor North and George Burton performing at Ortleib’s

After twenty-three years of attending and performing at the same venue, I imagine that those once teens began to feel like Ortlieb’s was their home, in much the same way that children, who were raised in the same house for years, might. Needless to say, these musicians, and the jazz community they built around such institutions, felt betrayed when said institution decided to abandon its role, its community, and them.

What happened to Ortlieb’s is indicative of a change in the culture which is sweeping our cities, partly brought on by gentrification (a favorite tool of White Supremacy), but also equally due to important changes in the overall goals of society as a whole. Just as the children of White-Flight are precipitating a rapid return to the inner cities, the resources, real-estate, neighborhoods, and culture within these big cities is being repurposed.

We see this clearly in what is presently happening to landmark Philly venues such as the Painted Bride. Though the Bride has been home to a number of creative movements within the city over the decades, even whilst surrounding properties changed hands and demographics shifted towards the entitled and wealthy, how does a grass roots community organization keep the lights on? How does any venue survive gentrification while staying on mission and retaining its authenticity? The Bride’s solution is to become a venue-less arts organization by selling its building and using the proceeds to fund an endowment. It would go from being an able bodied participant within the Philly arts scene to a bodiless “arts ghost.” What Philly and the arts community most needs is space and stages, the very thing that the Fringe sought to acquire and that the Bride stands poised to lose.

How does any venue survive gentrification while staying on mission and retaining its authenticity?

It is true that, due to years of being underserved by their host cities, many historically black neighborhoods are in a drastic state of disrepair, and so in some cases any new investment is welcomed and much needed. But, everywhere one looks, from North Philly to South Chicago, this investment has come at a price, and that price has invariably been the ongoing excise of black people, black influence, and black culture.

An Uber driver I rode with a few weeks ago commented on this. My home is in Brewerytown, which I feel is the present epicenter of the aggressive gentrification that is happening along Girard Avenue in North Philly. This Uber driver said, “It feels like all of this is part of some master plan!” He was an older black gentleman who had grown up in the neighborhood, and I could hear the pain in his voice, as he looked around and spoke those words to the soundtrack of John Coltrane’s “Impressions” playing on WRTI. It was like a scene from Do The Right Thing, except this was his life, in the third millennium.

If I had a dollar for every time an older black musician has expressed their belief that they are being pushed out of jazz, a music which they developed and which primarily came out of their struggle and community, I wouldn’t be so upset about spending $180 at Whole Foods Market for a week of basic groceries. No reasonable person can dismiss such fears, because we live in a country where since its founding, black people have been constantly pushed out of, well, everything. Why should jazz now be any different?

We all know that nationwide, American culture has changed. The numerous studies concur that people now read less. A new generation, raised on social media and reality TV, are now accustomed to everything being served up in bite-size chunks, which require the least amount of effort or attention span possible. We are suffering from a national form of attention deficit disorder, brought on by fifty years of flashing images on TVs, which rarely last over 3 seconds each. And the latest onslaught; a smartphone powered social media frenzy, is breeding a generation of introverts who live virtual extrovert lifestyles via Facebook or Instagram. Inevitably this trend has carried over into much of the “new” music available, which has primarily been created for people who in general “listen” less, and find the mere idea of any sort of learning curve antithetical to their primary goal of being thoroughly entertained.

Much of the “new” music available has primarily been created for people who in general “listen” less.

Within black music the once groove has been stripped down to a pulse. The lyric is always easily discerned upon the first listen. The melodies and harmonies are reminiscent of the sorts of I-IV-V nursery rhymes that were once reserved for toddlers. Even the exciting cadence of hip-hop, the most recent and last frontier of true mass-appeal-black-creativity, has been slowed to a syrup-infused crawl, where rhyming schemes which end in the same word are now considered clever. Emcees don’t even attempt to free-style anymore, and stellar improvisers, such as Rakim, Black Thought or Kokayi, are seen as anomalies. Astonishingly, each year music moves further and further in the same downward direction (or at least it has over my entire lifetime), and each year I wonder, “Have we reached the bottom yet?”

A view of The Painted Bridge from the street.

The Painted Bridge before “pre veil”.

I said I wanted to stay upbeat, and not tip the balance of this piece too towards the negative. So, thinking glass half full again, I would say that there’s still some incredible creative music being made right now elsewhere on the planet. American popular music may no longer be what it once was, but deeper underground, artists are forging ahead, pushing the envelope and reinventing art at the highest level, even if most of us may never get to hear it, or become aware of its existence. Thus, we could, in theory, change things for the better overnight by simply finding and supporting more creative music, made by more creative artists.

Ars Nova, an organization created by long time Philadelphian curator Mark Christman has worked hard to provide new and non-traditional spaces for creative musicians, many of whom are already well established outside of Philadelphia. Through his organization, Mark has managed to tap into audiences, who otherwise would have been ignored by the big venues and promoters. Ars Nova has presented some of creative music’s most prominent artists, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Mary Halvorson, Steve Lehman, Kris Davis, and many others.

Over the last five years Ernest Stuart’s Center City Jazz Festival has managed to bridge the gap between live music enthusiasts and avid jazz listeners by programming shows, which straddle the “boundaries” between “jazz” and other genres such as rock, pop, and hip-hop. Based on its broad definition of jazz, his festival has managed to bring out audiences, who hail from varied walks of life, but who all come together to support both local and touring artists. Ernest has managed to do this year after year while literally “flying by the seat of his pants”, often not knowing whether he will have adequate funding to make the festival happen again and pay his staff until three weeks before the first show.

A flyer for the 2019 Center City Jazz Festival (on April 27, 2019 at Time Restaurant, Franky Bradley's, Fergie's Pub, Chris' Jazz Cafe, and Maison 208)

A flyer for the 2019 Center City Jazz Festival.

Sittin’ In, the concert series which I created and curate at the Kimmel Center, also focuses on providing creative music with a regular space. Audience development, and giving creative artists a place where their works can be exposed to new audiences, are both vital components of any healthy arts community. Over the last eight years, Sittin’ In has provided this and more to the community. My hope is that this model might one day be expanded, becoming something which happens more than once a month at a single venue, as this only just scratches the surface of the very great need in Philadelphia, and beyond. Like Ernest, as a black creative musician and curator, I’m often left feeling like I’m trying to plug a huge breach in the Hoover Dam with a toothpick. Like Mark, I spend my days saying no to people who I know deserve a yes (at least some of the time).

So, what’s the problem?

Back to mug half empty. The problem is jobs and money. Who holds those jobs with the power and capability to affect real change, and in whose pockets the majority of the money available for the arts ends up. There is certainly a shortage of arts funding in the U.S., but what little money there is out there rarely ever seems to find its way into the pockets of artists of color.

Cities which may have once had 30–40 buildings dedicated to the arts 20 years ago, now have five (at the most), and of those five, most (regardless of their 501c3 status) behave more like corporate entities than arts institutions or venues, making almost every decision about their bottom line, whilst all trying to sell the exact same thing over and over ad nauseam. This results in new artists and new creative music being deprived of a pipeline to audiences and revenue. It is the definition of a catch 22 situation.

Small venues are a vital part of any viable music ecosystem which deals with progressive music.

In the music world small venues, such as John Zorn’s The Stone or Rio Sakairi’s The Jazz Gallery, are a vital part of any viable music ecosystem which deals with progressive music. Creative music is not “a numbers game”, and nor should it be expected to be. Living music, a.k.a. new music, requires testing grounds/labs, where musicians can get together and try new things in front of audiences without having to satisfy the sea of criterion (specified by non-creative administrators, who themselves are mostly detached from the art) necessary in order to get the grant. Artists need spaces free from as much red tape as possible in order to create, and these spaces need to come without the expectation that said artist must consistently pack the house.

Audiences need places where they can go, and occasionally be one of the six lucky people who get to experience the next new thing. That new thing could be Charlie Parker on the precipice of establishing be-bop, or Steve Coleman on that same precipice 50 years later establishing m-base. These artist may go on to consistently sell 400–2000 tickets per show in the future, but they need to be able to start with 6.

The idea that Billie Holiday regularly sang “Strange Fruit,” one of her greatest artistic statements, to American audiences of 1800 plus, packed into halls that were originally designed for orchestras, is both ridiculous and antithetical to the very idea of creative music. The same goes for Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Abbey Lincoln, John Coltrane, and a host of other great innovators.

The difference in the mission of an arts institution and that of a straight forward venue, such as those run by Live Nation should be obvious to anybody who is lucky enough to secure any job of note in the arts or music industry. Venues operate based on supply and demand. Their primary motivation is money, and so they chiefly operate based on conditions dictated by the market and bottom line. To such venues it makes no difference whether the artist is Beyoncé or The Rolling Stones, so long as they believe that they have a better than good chance of selling enough tickets to make the maximum amount of profit. There’s nothing wrong with such venues. They have their place.

Arts institutions exist to preserve, promote, and continue high level art.

Arts institutions exist to preserve, promote, and continue high level art. Their survival is intrinsically linked to the survival of true artists and the viability of the various communities which create said artists. Education is probably the most vital role for such an institution; To educate audiences about the art they present, to educate future generations so that there will be future artists who can create said art, to educate society over all to the true importance and the vital role of art, so that art will continue to hold a position of reverence within society, ensuring that it will be supported in the future. We can call education by many different names; Free concerts, Marketing, Audience Development, Workshops, Meet and Greets, Youth School Year Programs and Summer Camps, etc., but it’s still education. Like education facilities, their mission is primarily social in nature, and like schools, colleges and museums, arts institutions bear a solemn responsibility to the communities, cities and nations in which they reside. Ticket sales are of course linked to the survival of these institutions, but they are secondary to the important social role they play. Unfortunately some of our arts institutions are fleeing from this social role towards greater profitability.

Without true arts institutions and small venues which are committed to this ethos, all venues will just end up repeatedly booking “sure bets,” acts who themselves will likely end up afraid to stray from whatever successful formula got them the gig in the first place, innovation will grind to a halt, and this will be a terrible place for the arts and civilization to be.

To me all problems, and not just those found within the music biz, are best solved through education.

American cities like Philadelphia may still be rich in talent, but today they are unfortunately poor in arts infrastructure; organizations populated by those who are committed to the mission of furthering art. The same is also somewhat true of our schools, colleges, and entire education system, which we must trust to stock tomorrow’s institutions with the next generation of well-informed influential thinkers. Without education there can be no meaningful change in culture. Education is about the future. Who do we want to be in ten, twenty, or thirty years? What do we want to achieve in twenty five, fifty, or one-hundred years? Some may still see the arts as unimportant or trivial, but we will be defined tomorrow by what we choose to support and celebrate today. Of all the investments that any nation can make in its future, education is by far the most effective. And, any education curriculum which is concerned with truth, progress, the realizing of potential, and the overall uplift of its students should feature creativity and critical thinking as central tenants. Without the ability to think critically, discern what is true, and create new solutions we are doomed to repeat the same old history over and over again.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

Photo by Sam Balye via Unsplash of a crowded classroom from the back of the room showing a diverse group of students

By Dave Molk & Michelle Ohnona

Making Whiteness Visible in the (Music) Classroom

Teaching Inequality: Problems with Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy” described how the near exclusive and yet unnecessary reliance on Western art music, institutionalized as white and as male, upholds white supremacy within the music theory classroom. In “Promoting Equity,” we present strategies on how to begin disrupting this normalization of whiteness, starting with making it visible. We should think of this disruption as a process rather than a product—antiracist describes actions, not states of being. To supplement the ideas presented here, we’ll also suggest additional resources in the conclusion that might help you in your own practice.

Naming: A Way to Begin (some reflections from Dave Molk)

As a white man, speaking of whiteness in the effort to de-center it runs the seemingly paradoxical risk of re-centering whiteness. Even in the midst of calling out unearned privilege, I reap its benefits—the presumed authority associated with this aspect of my identity ensures that my voice sounds louder and carries further than the majority of those who do not share it.

And yet, the problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression. Calling attention to an injustice forces a decision from those who practice willful ignorance: a decision between confrontation and conscious evasion. Naming is a way to begin, a way to make perceptible something that so often goes unrecognized. As whiteness becomes noticeable, it becomes noteworthy, and we can recognize its ubiquity as unnatural and intentional.

The problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression.

White people are overrepresented as faculty in the college classroom. The belief that race is a non-white problem, something that affects “others,” is itself a white problem with a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color. Whites are responsible both for this ignorance and for redressing it—claimed neutrality only masks our ongoing racism. There is no opt-out.

An antiracist approach must be intersectional—meaning that race, gender, class, sexuality, and other aspects of one’s identity where oppression exists are inextricable from one another. An antiracist approach names these forms of oppression and their manifestations inside and outside the classroom.

When I talk with my students about white supremacy in higher education, I name my whiteness. When I talk with my students about sexism in higher education, I name my gender. I acknowledge that I receive unearned privileges because I am an able cisgendered white heterosexual man and I name some of these privileges. I name the pressures I feel to stay silent and the perils in doing so. If I’m not willing to do this in front of my students, I can’t expect them to be willing to do it during the course of their lives, either.

Questioning the Curriculum

The process of developing an antiracist music theory classroom begins with reflecting critically on what we are doing in the classroom and why. What exactly are we teaching, both in terms of the immediate material and the underlying messages? Why are we including this particular material on the syllabus and why are we teaching it in this particular way? Whose goals does this actually serve, and what exactly are those goals? What disciplinary habits are we unquestioningly reproducing in our syllabi, teaching, and assessment methods? What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why? Ask these and similar questions at the start of each semester and continue to revisit them as the semester unfolds.

What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why?

Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

I. Centering the Student

To develop an antiracist music theory classroom, we should begin by acknowledging that the classroom is not a neutral space and that each of our students is a complex individual whose background knowledge, social identity, and relationship to music and music education is unique. Being able to connect with students from different backgrounds requires a flexibility in approach, an awareness of privilege and of power dynamics, and the understanding that these things matter. We can empower our students and encourage them to be active participants in their own education when we validate their musical experiences.

During our first meeting, I explain to students that I am not the sole source of knowledge for the course and that our work together will be more successful once we all realize that everyone has something valuable to contribute to our learning community. I state that there are no guilty pleasures in the classroom and that we will not self-deprecate. Hearing these messages said aloud helps students to understand that different musical backgrounds are a source of strength and that our class will work best when everyone feels comfortable contributing.

Questions to ask:

  •   Why do we presuppose that challenging our students is mutually exclusive with validating and empowering them?
  •   What is the relationship between the work we do in the classroom and the lives that our students and we lead outside it?
  •   What is actually necessary in what we teach? How are we defining necessary and who are we considering when we do this? What do our students actually do with this knowledge?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Create the syllabus with intention and invite feedback from a trusted colleague. Discuss pedagogical choices with students.
  •   Continue to ask who is included and who is not.
  •   Invite students to situate themselves in relation to the course material. Create opportunities for them to tell us what they need. Listen. Respond.
  •   Build trust and community by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We can’t expect students to be open if we are not open ourselves. Acknowledge the hard conversations. Empathize.

In Practice: Big-picture conversations

The classroom is not a neutral space.

To help students recognize that music is, in addition to “the notes,” a social and cultural product, I devote the majority of three classes each semester to a round-table discussion of big-picture ideas. I explain that, while I will facilitate as necessary, students should engage in dialogue with each other and not with me. These topics become reference points as we continue through the semester, and we keep these conversations going via online postings and explicit connections during lectures. The final paper asks students to continue realizing the political in the personal by situating themselves more deeply within these big-picture issues.

These discussions provide a way to begin uncovering pervasive biases and various forms of systemic oppression that influence our ways of thinking and modes of interaction. Even when I provide readings ahead of time to help students begin to think about these issues, I deliberately leave space in how to interpret the prompts. This allows students to approach the material from their own experiences and allows the class to learn how these big-picture issues can manifest in different ways. My role is to push us below surface-level engagement, to make visible the underlying assumptions. Teaching only the notes is a political decision with real consequences—in the absence of interruption, injustice replicates. The following are prompts that I use:

  • What makes music good?
  • What exactly is “the music itself”?
  • What is authenticity in music?
  • Disparities faced by women in music.
  • Connections between music, race, and racism.
  • The efficacy of protest music.

II. The Polystylistic Approach

A polystylistic approach uses the particular strengths of many different styles of music to create a sophisticated working knowledge of how music can be put together. Through a polystylistic approach, we also gain ways to talk about the social and cultural issues that are inseparable from music. Using examples from other genres within a pedagogic framework that still prioritizes Western art music is not the answer—inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy. While including “everything” is neither possible nor productive, we must be clear that the decision not to include a particular style is not a dismissal of that style.

Inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy.

If we restrict ourselves to a single genre, then we develop a monochromatic music theory. We forsake the opportunity to speak well about some musical phenomena and the ability to speak at all about others. Our understanding of what music is and what music can be will necessarily be limited by the aesthetics of the single style that we study, and we miss our chance to make music theory more relevant to more students.

Questions to ask:

  •   What is truly foundational knowledge and what is style-specific? How do we justify the inclusion of style-specific material in a basic theory curriculum? What is the explicit purpose of this style-specific material, is it warranted, and are we going about teaching it in the best way?
  •   If our students turned on the radio to a random station, could they engage with the music as a result of our pedagogy? Would they, as a result of our pedagogy, be dismissive of certain styles? Does our pedagogy disrupt such dismissive attitudes or reinforce them?
  •   If we require most/all majors and minors to take music theory, how can we convince them that music theory has value for what they do and who they are?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Be explicit about why we are teaching a polystylistic curriculum. Explain to students the traditional model and name its problems.
  •   Solicit suggestions from students for material to incorporate. Get to know what they’re into and help them to articulate reasons why they like it. Use the familiar to open doors to the new.
  •   Use moments when theory terminology breaks down to point out the shortcomings of theory, then work with students to create better ways to talk about the musical phenomena in question.
  •   Attend to inclusivity both in terms of genre and practitioners within genre.

In Practice: Sampling

To create the two-semester basic theory sequence I used at Georgetown University, I drew primarily from electronic dance music, hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, and Western art music. These were styles I had formal training in or had devoted significant time and effort to research. When developing a polystylistic approach, the point isn’t to arrive at the optimum mix of styles, but to use a plurality of style to decenter whiteness, to make the material more relevant to more students, to give students a more realistic idea of how music works, what music is, and what music can be, and to provide an entry point for talking about the social and cultural issues imbedded in the music.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, during which I recreate Daft Punk’s “One More Time” from Eddie Johns’s “More Spell on You,” I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style. Sampling lets us talk about a number of important musical topics that don’t come up in traditional pedagogy, including studio production techniques, sequencing, DAWs, riddims, breaks, royalties, and questions of legality, authorship, and ethics. These are more immediate and meaningful to my students than the voice leading norms of a particular style. They’re also more applicable to their careers, and are therefore more important for me to teach.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style.

I use the following guiding principles to contextualize our theory classroom, stating them during our first class and returning to them throughout the semester in order to emphasize their importance. Although we may find these truths obvious, we should still name them for our students—actually saying these out loud underscores the degree to which these points matter.

  • Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive.
  • The tools we use guide our interactions and shape our interpretations.
  • We don’t have a sophisticated way to talk about a lot of musical phenomena. These shortcomings belong to the tools we use and not to the material.

Putting It Together: The Blues

Willie Dixon’s composition, “Spoonful,” offers a number of intellectually rigorous ways to engage with both the musical elements that work within it and the social and cultural forces that work upon it. What musical elements tend to be foregrounded in “Spoonful,” and how do they function? How about a tune like “Blues for Alice”—what elements tend to be foregrounded and how do they function? What are the advantages to calling both “Spoonful” and “Blues for Alice” a blues? Is it possible to identify a prevailing blues aesthetic? How might we describe it? Define it? What do we learn about the blues specifically and about the concept of genre generally as a result of this process?

We might compare and contrast Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition of “Spoonful” with Cream’s. We might talk about differences in instrumentation, in the use of space, in guitar technique and tone, in the timbres of the drums, the organization, the energy, and eventually realize we’re not even beginning to scratch the surface of the musically important material presented in these two versions of the tune. We might wonder why this type of deep and engaged critical listening isn’t what we talk about when we talk about ear training. We might wonder about biases in traditional ear training and about ways to overhaul that component of traditional music theory pedagogy.

The blues lets us engage with issues of appropriation in ways more immediate and more relevant to students than would be possible using Western art music. In light of these two versions of “Spoonful,” we might ask our students, who can sing the blues, and why? Who should sing the blues, and why? Who gets to determine this? Again, why? What does it mean that Eric Clapton built his career on the back of black music even as he espoused racist vitriol? Is this something we can reconcile? Something we should? What does it mean to separate the art from the artist? Is it actually possible to do so? By allotting time and space within the classroom for students to wrestle with these issues in a musical context, we prepare them to recognize how these issues can manifest more generally.

Talking about the blues in the music theory classroom provides an organic way to bring big-picture ideas into the conversation. Angela Davis develops a constructive framework for thinking about classism, sexism, and racism in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism as she traces the development of black social protest through the music of the classic blues era and into jazz. Sharing with students the lyrics to “Prove It On Me Blues,” “Poor Man’s Blues,” and “Strange Fruit,” encourages them to understand the work of Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as simultaneously musical, social, and cultural. An introduction to this history lets students re-contextualize social protest as it manifests in other, more recent styles of music in the United States, both inside and outside black communities. We can, of course, talk about form, chords, scales, improvisation, and other elements that we tend to find in a music theory classroom when we talk about the blues. Indeed, we must—but we must also push these conversations further.

Concluding Thoughts

As educators, our failure to engage the potential of our classrooms to be sites of antiracist learning and practice is not only a question of social injustice. When we omit, overlook, or unknowingly disregard the work of musicians of color, we commit disciplinary injustice, and do a disservice not only to the students in our classroom, but to our discipline writ large. It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

We should ask how our pedagogy supports the development of critical thinking and engaging with difference, and how we might better incorporate this into our coursework. We should ask how social and cultural forces shape what we study in the classroom, how we study it, and how these forces impact our lives. We should ask how our coursework aligns with the goals of higher education, and why we remain complacent when it doesn’t.

We are all racialized within this society—conservatory and non-conservatory alike. When we abdicate our responsibility as educators to do this work in these spaces, in spite of significant institutional barriers, we ensure the ascendancy of injustice. The ability to step away is itself a mark of privilege that should be brought to bear on fixing the problem, not perpetuating it. We can all advocate within our spheres of influence to advance the cause of justice. The suggestions offered here are possible starting points for critical reflection about the work we do in the classroom and the reasons we do it. All work must have a beginning—may this be yours.


Suggested Resources

Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

Sara Ahmed’s “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism.”

James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers,” The Fire Next Time.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists.

The Combahee River Collective Statement (see also Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, How We Get Free).

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”

Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.

Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (original article)

Engaging Students
Philip Ewell’s “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.”

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Ethan Hein’s work on pedagogy, including “Toward a Better Music Theory” and “Teaching Whiteness in Music Class.”

bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

Lauren Michelle Jackson’s “What’s Missing From ‘White Fragility’” and everything she links to.

Adrienne Keene’s Introduction to Critical Race Theory course page.

Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist.

Gloria Ladson-Billings’ contributions to the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy.

Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider.

MayDay Group.

Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race?

The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education is a valuable starting point for finding important conversations, contributors, and resources for bringing social justice into the classroom.

Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Together We Can

Craig Shepard leading a silent walk in Aubervilliers on September 29, 2019

In 2010 I had more or less stopped making music. I was despondent, negative, and cranky. To anyone who would listen, I complained about other musicians, arts funding, and how much better the European cultural infrastructure was. I’m so glad I’m not there anymore, and want to share what I did to get out of it and some of the results.

Things began to shift when my friend, the composer, conductor, and pianist Paul Leavitt, said that I was probably right about my complaints. He suggested that instead of complaining that Brooklyn wasn’t like Europe, I contribute to the community where I lived. I began looking for opportunities in walking distance from my home. I didn’t anticipate how far this decision would lead me in realizing Music for Contemplation concerts, Creating Music Together workshops and retreats, On Foot walking projects, and Broken Silence concerts.

On February 6th, at 4:00 pm, at St. Cecilia’s Church in Greenpoint, I played the first concert under the name Music for Contemplation. I performed a fifty-minute organ piece called “Elizabeth.” I can still clearly see the sun streaming through the window and hear the silvery jingle of one listener’s bracelet. More than thirty members of the parish came to listen and to rest in the sound on a Sunday afternoon. I saw how music could support listeners in practical ways.

I saw how music could support listeners in practical ways.

In 2013, with the cooperation of Fr. Michael Lynch and Msgr. Joseph Calise at Our Lady of Mount Carmel – Williamsburg, Tyler Wilcox, Andrew Christopher Smith, Erik Carlson and I continued Music for Contemplation. Again, we were surprised and nourished by the resonance with long-time Brooklyn residents. Dan Joseph joined the organizing team, and we put on a series of concerts at the Church of the Annunciation.

We wanted to offer people time to sit and listen and not have to think about anything, choosing pieces by Eva Maria Houben, Alvin Lucier, Shelley Burgon, and Christian Kobi. As the series continued, I noticed programming and pieces themselves took on more of a community aspect. Tyler invited Andrew Lafkas, who wrote a new work for eighteen improvisers. Dan organized Stuart Dempster and twelve trombones, and Tony Geballe led seventeen members of the New York Guitar Circle.

Often, we reserved the entire day on Saturday, rehearsing in the morning and evening, and performing in the evening. The rehearsals and concert became almost a day-long retreat, with energy flowing in the community that came together just for one day.

This lead to Creating Music Together workshops and retreats, where participants realize each other’s work. Everyone writes and everyone performs. To create common ground for the mix of professionals and non-professionals who participate, all work is for voice and hand percussion. Everyone has to develop and communicate their pieces in such a way that other participants can honorably perform them.

The day-long workshops begin with a sitting, followed by listening exercises and an introduction to composition. After a pot-luck lunch, everyone makes a piece of music and writes it down however they are able. Traditional music notation is not necessary, and we’ve seen some gorgeous graphic scores. We then rehearse everyone’s pieces, usually learning them by heart, and perform for friends in the evening.

In the week-long residential retreats, the day begins with a silent sitting followed by breakfast. Days include sessions with listening and composition exercises, silent co-working time, rehearsals, and informal performances. We take turns cooking for each other and caring for the house. There are usually three performance cycles. At the end of the day, there is an optional session where participants report notable moments from the day.

I’ve found a deep connection with participants in Creating Music Together. The atmosphere of mutual support is genuinely nourishing. One of my greatest joys as a musician in the past twenty years has been witnessing the satisfaction when someone hears their first composition for the first time.

Essential to being able to support others in their creative work has been identifying and meeting my own creative needs. Time alone in the music studio has been crucial; I’ve also structured projects, such as On Foot to have time alone as well as time supporting the group.

Essential to being able to support others in their creative work has been identifying and meeting my own creative needs.

In On Foot: Brooklyn, I walked everywhere I went for ninety-one days from February 21 to May 21, 2012. During the week, I walked alone, composing a new piece. Each Sunday, I led a group in a silent walk, and performed that week’s piece on the street.

In 2019’s On Foot: Aubervilliers, I designed and lead twenty-four silent walks in twenty-four days. In the design phase, I spent time alone freely wandering in and around Aubervilliers—letting my feet go where they would often getting lost. After following my curiosity, I looked at what route might work for a group. We began and completed each walk at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers. In the middle, I made a thirty-minute field recording. After the walk was over, we played the recording back in the theater at Les Laboratoires. Participants were asked to commit to stay with us in silence until we returned to the theater.

Craig Shepard instructing participants to walk in silence (Photo by Adele Fournet)

Craig Shepard instructing participants to walk in silence (Photo by Adele Fournet)

During the group walks, silence depended on attention. I asked participants to refrain from speaking with the mouth, with the eyes, and with the hands, and to refrain from using cell-phones, cameras, or other devices. I asked participants to leave devices at home or securely at the meeting point; I’ve noticed that when walkers had devices on their bodies, even when they were turned off, there was a different quality to attention.

In going over the parameters of the walk, I offered two simple attention exercises to support participants to stay present when their attention may have wandered. The first I learned from Alexander Technique teacher Frank Sheldon: notice what moves in your body when you breathe. The second I discovered during the walks: place part of your attention in your rear foot, alternating with each step.

[Ed Note: A short Arte documentary about On Foot ia available in French and in German.]

Silent walks have lasted between three and fourteen hours. The first forty-five minutes were usually a settling period. I’ve noticed the deepest silences after walking together for three hours. We took brief pauses to stretch. On longer walks, we took breaks to sit down for silent meals. At the end of each walk, I broke the silence by saying “thank you” and making eye contact with each member.

After the end of the walk, many participants enjoyed sharing what they saw or heard. Most participants reported hearing sounds they had never heard before. Others noted the arc of the day, a keener awareness of weather, and what it felt like to have extended time in silence.

While I do enjoy walking alone – usually in silence – I’ve noticed a different quality when walking together. Because silence depends on the level of commitment and attention of the participants, the experience depends very much on those who show up for it. Sometimes, we really connected—even when we began as perfect strangers. There were moments where were together—really together—in one moment. And then it was gone.

While I do enjoy walking alone – usually in silence – I’ve noticed a different quality when walking together.

This experience of being together has also been essential to Broken Silence, in which music supports listeners engaging with the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

The idea first came to me in 2014 on a Guitar Circle course. There was a long development in consultation with Pauline Oliveros, Chris Mann, Tony Geballe, Mary Madigan, Deborah Steinglass, and Fr. Michael Lynch. We gave careful consideration to all aspects of the situation: sound, content of the text, location, location of the chairs, how listeners enter the performance space, and money. Elisa Corona Aguilar, Erin Rogers, Kristen McKeon, Katie Porter, Alex Lahoski, Dev Ray, Patrick Grant, Jon Diaz, and Dan Joseph performed a series of workshop performances and gave valuable feedback on the piece.

In its final form, two saxophones and three steel-string acoustic guitars build long slow chords as I read text drawn from court testimony about the scandal. The music has three fifteen to eighteen minute parts with silence in between. Each part begins with a pure tone, which the musicians pass across the circle. Over five to ten minutes, tones are added one at a time, building a pulsating chord. Then tones fade out one at a time, often imperceptibly.

Musicians sit in a circle surrounded by listeners in concentric rings. I sit at one end of the concentric circles, directing my attention to the atmosphere of the room. Working intuitively, I sense the flow of the piece for that particular group of people. I make chords, text, and silences faster or slower depending on the energy in the room. As in the silent walks, the listeners attending have a direct effect on the music.

One thing we’ve found is that the group of musicians and listeners supports each of us—holding the space—as we engage with the challenging text about the abuse scandal. This is a difficult subject for contemplation, and many of us cannot bear to “touch” into it on our own. In the concert situation, with the support of the group, we have been able to stay with it—to be present for it—in ways we haven’t been able to alone. This is what workshop listener Jaime Beauchamp called “the light of awareness.” In this awareness, the scandal is only as big as it is. Many of us have found a new hope after listening to the text together. This light of awareness on the specific situation in the Catholic Church has also resonated for those outside the Church in contemplating corruption in other parts of our society.

When really connecting with others, I’ve noticed another presence beyond me and the others—a subtle atmosphere, incense, electricity, or heat. This presence has supported me and others to go beyond what was possible on our own. This connection in music has nourished and sustained me through most of my work of the past ten years, it has become both the aim and the means.

When really connecting with others, I’ve noticed another presence beyond me and the others—a subtle atmosphere, incense, electricity, or heat.

I didn’t anticipate this when I began to think about how to support others with music. Nor did I imagine that some of my happiest and most fulfilling moments making music would be working in this way.

If you’re feeling frustrated, angry or depressed about the world around us, you’re probably right. My suggestion to you is to (1) pick a problem right where you are, (2) focus your energy and attention on what you can contribute to a solution to that problem, (3) do what you can to support others.

I’m very curious to see what happens.

Cultural Appropriation in Classical Music?

A group of bicycles chained to a rack one of which is just one tire, presumably because the rest of the bike was stolen.

It was my pleasure to attend a banquet honoring my primary composition professor, Chinary Ung, on the occasion of his Grawemeyer award. Full disclosure: I was a graduate student working toward two masters degrees, one in music theory and composition (college of fine arts) and another in the anthropological study of Native American ritual and performance (college of liberal arts). Chinary’s award-winning work, Inner Voices, showcased his Cambodian heritage in an exquisite composition. At the event, the Dean of Fine Arts, Seymour Rosen, who had come to Arizona State University from his directorship at Carnegie Hall, leaned in to me and commented, “Hearing Chinary’s work is the first time I’ve ever heard culture in music.” With my best banquet decorum, I found a conciliatory smile. Inside, my jaw dropped. I had never in my entire life considered music without culture before; culture was a musical fact like gravity. I wondered, was every work ever performed at Carnegie Hall without culture? How could the whole of Western music not have culture when I was certain the music of most every other heritage on earth likely did? Why would anyone characterize Western music as so antithetical to the rest of the globe?

Why would anyone characterize Western music as so antithetical to the rest of the globe?

The discord of the incongruity stuck with me months later. The longer I thought about it on a wider scope, the more I realized, the broader issue was two-fold. First, non-Western traditions are more often than not considered unimportant and rendered invisible in Western music until, for example, a non-Western composer wins a prestigious award. One outcome of genocidal imperialism is that erasing people also erases their music, so the resultant naiveté about Native Americans may sit somewhere along the ignorance-is-bliss scale as a byproduct of ethnic cleansing. Second, there is an air of cultural neutrality in Western classical art music, where music is considered an expression of sound alone, devoid of ancestral roots or indigenous cosmology—a Western birthright that functions as the default mainstay foundation for equitable, objective, unbiased sonority. It’s an aesthetic legacy where the existential postulate, the basic idea of how life operates, denotes Western art music as culturally impartial. Though it seems ironic, acultural neutrality is a narrative the West has culturally taught itself. This perception has been reinforced by important advocates who have spun acultural threads into neutral garments worn uncritically by many conductors, performers, and ensembles. If you’ve ever taken a theory class in music school, you were most likely enrolled in “Music Theory 101,” for example, or “Pedagogy of Music Theory,” when more correctly, those courses should be identified as Western music theory. Similarly, the monolithic Western category of “World Music” impedes understanding the consummate diversity of non-Western traditions. Such illustrations are numerous and systemic.

The monolithic Western category of “World Music” impedes understanding the consummate diversity of non-Western traditions.

From a traditional Native American viewpoint, our music is not invisible and not acultural. It takes Native Americans to create our music, though those outside the cultures may not easily recognize the indigenous characteristics. The attempted erasure of indigenous people has been thorough and relentless. Still, at recent count, there are 573 federally recognized tribal nations—treatied nations—not counting the hundreds of cultures in the Alaska Native villages. We are still here.

Mohican Nation elders outdoors marching with flags at a powwow.

Powwow Grand Entry of Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation, WI, 2017

So who is Native American? It all comes down to American Indian sovereignty. The United States treatied with American Indians on a nation-to-nation level, recognizing the inherent and legal right for Natives to determine our own lives. The treaties are contracts in exchange for massive amounts of land and resources and are considered the “supreme law of the land,” on the same level as the US Constitution. So, contrary to various claims of family folklore, high cheekbones, or DNA tests, to be considered a Native American, one must be enrolled as a citizen of a specific, federally-recognized tribal nation. Because of sovereignty, in other words, only Native Americans themselves can determine our own citizens.

Nothing about traditional indigenous life is acultural. Traditional Native people know themselves to be related to the earth and to the other inhabitants of the planet, whether those others be human or non-human. Native cosmologies are not hierarchical but reciprocal and operate with existential postulates of barter-and-exchange with the environment or others, not dominion over it. Through a life-and-death process of reciprocity, extended kinship with the earth and others, and the giving and receiving of gifts, Native people strive not for ‘dominion over’ but for balance with the world.

For the West, language is a means of representing something real. But for Native languages, words create reality.

Another aspect of traditional American Indian life is the generative nature of language rather than its being representative of something. For the West, language is a means of representing something real, and words themselves stand for something by denoting it; language personifies what is thought to be ‘really real’ in Western thought. In this way, words are seen as tiny canoes that carry meaning inside them while being sent along a transmission conduit. But for Native languages, words create reality; they spawn it, and are considered generative. Indigenous languages are known to give rise to what is really real. For Native people, life moves along however life is spoken, whether enacted through speech, ceremonially performed, or reciprocated with extended kinship relations. This generative way of perceiving the world is something shared by many indigenous peoples; while these world views are not exactly the same, they bear family resemblances to each other. My primary religious studies professor, Ken Morrison, took stock of the generative nature of Native cosmologies from several indigenous perspectives:

In fact, as has been demonstrated amply for the Navajo (Gill 1977), Yaqui (Yoeme) (Evers and Molina 1987), and Lakota (Bunge 1984; Powers 1986), Native American languages encode the insight that speech is a power all persons share. As Gary Witherspoon (1977) has shown, the Navajo think of language as generative rather than, as in European convention, representative. Navajo speech does not encode realities which might exist independently, objectively apart from itself. In Witherspoon’s interpretation, Navajo words do not mirror reality. Words do not stand for, or as is often said, symbolize any reality apart from themselves. On the contrary, Navajo speech embodies the speaker’s intentionality, and extends the self beyond the body, to shape a reality coming into being… (Morrison 2000)

Most Native languages have no equivalent word for “music” or “art.”

A generative process is how indigenous music works as well, though most Native languages have no equivalent word for “music” or “art.” The closest comparison might be ‘song,’ but that still neglects the generative process at work. Songs are not fixed nouns for indigenous life, so more insight might come from a process of song-ing or music-ing. A traditional Native American view of song-ing would not conceptually match what is understood as “music” in a Western sense.

For Native Americans, the song-ings are considered voicings of the originators, and although sometimes they are communally shared, they cannot be autonomously borrowed away from the originator. Because it is regarded as a generative process, what a Native American enacts with song-ing moves life in that direction; what is sung about happens. When generative song-ing occurs, it’s like birthing out performative sequences of life. No two sequential songs are the same in the process, just as no two successive moments are identical. Indigenous cultures see music like giving birth so that each new song event is a new creation. The song being sung might be a time-honored song, but when performed it is newly reborn—it is not considered the same song.

Moreover, Indigenous song-ing stands in direct contrast to those strains of Western music that assume songs are fixed once written and codified. And because Indian music-ing is not fixed, whatever is recorded or written down is considered a leftover of the process. From an American Indian point of view, fixed music remains, simply, the observable remnants of a music-ing process.

Consider the concert hall experience and that of a powwow.

A lucid example of the Western music aesthetic versus an indigenous one would be to consider the concert hall experience and that of a powwow. In the concert hall, the quality of the sound becomes the preeminent value, conceptually superseding the players and the audience. In a concert hall, the audience and orchestra are kept in separate spaces, and the flow of activity is directed from the orchestra to the audience, which remains seated, silent, and motionless. The performers all wear black to hide any individuality, and concerts are typically appraised on the “ugliness” or “beauty” of their collective sound.

Various people assembled outdoors at a Mohican Nation powwow.

Powwow grounds of Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation, WI, 2017

At a powwow, the relationships of the participants outweigh all other features for appraising a powwow, including the sound. The performers and participants are often sharing the same space, and there is a high level of interactivity between the two groups, almost to the point of non-distinction. People walk, talk, and move all around the venue at will. The performers wear all manner of bright colors, which accent their individuality, and the general philosophy is to create positive and interactive relationships. Some singers may be better voiced than others, but the value is not placed on the sounds they make. If good relations take place, it is a ‘good’ powwow, regardless of the music. The process of enacting a powwow—the doing of it—is the intrinsic value of a powwow, which in turn values the participants and their activities deeply. It is the relational process that is paramount, not the music.

What about the mixing or sharing of cultures? Obviously, it happens all the time, just as I am simultaneously an enrolled citizen of an indigenous nation and scholastically trained as a modern composer. To be clear, I was not coerced into Western composition but picked it as my chosen career path. That decision was a consequence of mutual culture sharing and a process of balanced acculturation, very different from what we call “forced culture change,” when cultures are forced to change their cosmologies according to the existential postulates of the domineering culture.

What about the mixing or sharing of cultures? Obviously, it happens all the time.

While I chose a path of Western music, there remains part of my history that was not grown of a balanced mutual exchange, as my use of English instead of Mohican, Munsee, or Lenape reveals. My ancestors experienced rampant extermination along with forced cultural change, massive theft of land and resources, coercion to learn English and adopt Western ways, all while facing abuse and death for being indigenous. Our population of 22,000 along the banks of the Mohheconnituck (Hudson River) was reduced to about 200 souls within two generations. Without exaggeration, we barely escaped total annihilation; an eradication capitalized on by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel, The Last of the Mohicans. Forced Culture Change is basically genocide.

So yes, not all cultural exchanges are equivalent. Where adjacent cultures may mix on equal terms, there can be sharing and collaboration. But in many cases in North America where the indigenous people faced eradication and forced culture change, no such equal sharing or collaboration was possible—quite the opposite transpired. As Native Americans, we remember the major culture clashes when colonists with a hard-driving philosophy of “ownership” forced us to give up our lands, waters, resources, languages, cultures, and in many cases, our lives. We were prohibited from enacting our ceremonies under penalty of death. Native Americans today are cultural survivors of the American holocaust, the real world effects of which we still face.

Not all cultural exchanges are equivalent.

One historical co-optation of Native American song-ing in Western music was the American Indianist era, where Native American songs were codified and assimilated into written compositions by non-indigenous composers. Non-Indians composed hordes of pseudo-Indian operas, lieder, piano pieces, and all manner of musical works. Further, the American Indianist appropriations were plagued by an error of reasoning—a kind of musical Darwinism. Rather than attempting to meet indigenous people on equal terms with genuine collaboration, the Indianist composers mistook their poaching of Indian life as the discovery of a ‘primitive’ precursor to their own ‘civilization.’ Spurred on by the written transcriptions of Alice Fletcher, Ruth Underhill, Frances Densmore, and others from the late 1800s into the early 1900s, Indianists were busy gathering Indian songs (as one might pick a bushel of apples), codifying what they thought was true Indian music, and grossly misunderstanding what Indians were really doing. Therefore, we should never consider, for example, Charles Wakefield Cadman’s famous work “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters” (with an Omaha tune transcribed by Fletcher) as an indigenous song—it is not. “Sky Blue Waters” is a Cadman song.

Though American Indianists are of the past, the systemic erasure of indigenous life and music continues today. Minute cultural awarenesses break through sometimes, but often the positive changes we are desperate for are obstructed—innocently or intentionally—by the numerous gatekeepers of Western classical music. Those who share the gatekeeping power to allow-or-block indigenous participation are the consorting composers, conductors, ensembles, financial supporters, marketing executives, performers, producers, reviewers, soloists, theorists, venues, and anyone else swimming in that sizable pool. What’s more, also considering art forms adjacent to Western music, such as modern dance, ballet, theater, movies, and the like, that pool becomes an ocean. To verify the gatekeeping effect by orchestras, specifically, a quick look at the Orchestra Season Analysis published by the Institute for Composer Diversity (ICD) each year reveals how orchestras fare especially low for diversity, participation by Native Americans being among the least of all. Yet a growing number of composers who are federally-recognized Native American citizens are listed in the ICD databases of catalogued works. There are scores of professional composers indigenous to the continent, not to mention the even greater demography of indigenous musicians. It’s woefully dreadful that so much contemporary erasure of indigenous culture is propagated from within the field of Western classical music. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Roomful of Teeth employed one of their members, Caroline Shaw, who is herself non-Inuit, to use Inuit throat singing.

The recent cultural venture by the non-indigenous vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (RoT) into the world of Inuit music might serve as another case in point. It appears that RoT employed Inuits to teach them a remarkable Inuit activity known as “throat singing”, a musical game structure between two Inuit singers. Then RoT employed one of their members, Caroline Shaw, who is herself non-Inuit, to use Inuit throat singing as part of her composition Partita for 8 Voices. The striking work so excited the award panel that they honored the composer with a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. But in 2019, the prominent Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq accused Shaw and RoT of cultural appropriation using Inuit throat singing without proper acknowledgment or compensation.

Because the winning work was perhaps a mixture of many styles, including Inuit throat singing, it would be a difficult task to determine if any legal copyright infringement occurred without delving deeper into all the influences of the composition, and determining what percentage was culturally borrowed. Avoiding the individualistic legal copyright issue, and setting aside the “indigenous intellectual property” issue (an effort by the United Nations to protect the cultural knowledge and collective intellectual property of indigenous people), it does seem to my ears that some measure of cultural appropriation as likely as not occurred with respect to the Inuit culture. In his UCLA doctoral dissertation, Joshua H. Saulle identified Shaw’s partial use of “Inuit throat-singing” as one ingredient in a cultural and musical mix he characterized as “gumbo”:

Shaw’s Courante is dominated … by sounds derived from the practice of katajjak, or Inuit throat-singing. This practice is the basis for the rapid inhale-exhale gestures that form the surface texture of much of the movement, as well as the imitative hocket and gradually-unfolding, procedural structure. The third element in this musical/cultural gumbo is the 1855 hymn ‘Shining Shore’ by George F. Root, which is introduced in the movement’s second large section.

Brad Wells, RoT Founder and Artistic Director, answered Tagaq’s accusation with an anecdote published in Indy Week (Dan Ruccia, 2019) that inferred there is no distinction to be made between a mutually equitable exchange of culture versus America’s unrestrained use of forced cultural change against indigenous people, missing the genocidal backstory of Inuit life specifically, and Native American life generally:

I remember, a few months ago, talking to an anthropology professor who had studied textiles on some Southeast Asian island about how the textiles responded to Westerners coming through from the fifteen-hundreds on. The artists on those islands immediately started to take advantage of Western art aspects, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so. The question of cultural appropriation assumes that the powerful culture is the only one that is involved in the exchange, but in fact these exchanges are happening constantly. There’s an arrogance in our role, thinking of ourselves as the powerful culture and handpicking little things to use to our profit. These exchanges happen everywhere all the time, and you can’t stop them. They can enrich everybody.

Wells has failed, ahistorically and aculturally, to respond to the stern warning that forced culture change teaches.

From his assertion, it appears that Wells insisted all cultural exchange is of the mutually equitable variety that is “happening constantly.” Yet Wells has failed, ahistorically and aculturally, to respond to the stern warning that forced culture change teaches. A quick look at the RoT website reveals the ensemble is “dedicated to mining the expressive potential of the human voice. Through study with masters from singing traditions the world over, the eight-voice ensemble continually expands its vocabulary of singing techniques and, through an ongoing commissioning process, forges a new repertoire without borders.” Respectfully, considering their mission from an indigenous point of view, and acknowledging America’s long term genocidal undertaking against Native Americans, I wonder where cultural acknowledgment and respect—and collaborative equity—might fit into the RoT approach, given Tagaq’s objections. Growing a toolkit of vocal techniques gleaned from cultures around the world sounds a bit acultural to me. And combined with an effort to commission works by folks not from those cultures does sound a bit like cultural appropriation.

Setting aside the RoT discussion, there are reverential ways to collaborate that are neither tokenistic nor exploitive. If non-indigenous composers want to intersect with indigenous life, why not build collaborative relationships with indigenous artists? Despite efforts to eradicate them, for example, the Inuit remain living cultural treasures with whom to develop cultural and professional relationships. And those relations can be personally, culturally, and musically amazing.

Why not build collaborative relationships with indigenous artists?

Once, I was invited to perform throat singing onstage with Lois Suluk in Albuquerque, but as a flutist. I sometimes perform extended flute techniques on my handmade quartz flutes, including whispering, singing and playing, and vocalizing with inhaled-exhaled breathing effects. So, in 2010, I had the privilege and honor to partner in a throat singing exchange with an Inuit singer at the El Rey Theater, and I have the picture to prove it! To this day, Lois remains my colleague and friend. As a Native American myself, and as a professional composer of some experience, I absolutely affirm that relationships with indigenous people are wholly necessary for doing indigenous music of any kind, where true American Indian voices are heard.

Lois Suluk and Brent Michael Davids performing at Albuquerque's El Rey Theater in 2010.

Lois Suluk and Brent Michael Davids performing at Albuquerque’s El Rey Theater in 2010.

Indigenous and non-indigenous people, alike, might encourage each other in meaningful collaboration with living, changing, vibrant cultures in ways that remain dynamic. And conversely, misconstruing and twisting Native American music into something less than authentic is a blunder that can no longer be ignored. As further explanation, I’ve been extremely lucky to have worked firsthand with two renowned ensembles, Chanticleer and Kronos Quartet, who both carried out processes of cultural exchange and commissioning that were artistically enriching and entirely respectful.

I’m grateful to composer Chen Yi, who first introduced me to Chanticleer. Chanticleer then invited me to teach them about indigenous singing styles, exploring those techniques on their own voices, and having in-depth discussions about Native American cultures, especially my own. I explained to Chanticleer much of what I’ve written above, about existential postulates, forced culture change, song-ing, and the life-and-death reciprocity of indigenous cosmologies. Afterward, and subsequently through the years, they have commissioned several works from me; Chanticleer felt it was especially important to contract with me as a Mohican-Lenape composer to create the indigenous-inspired works they would later perform. Chanticleer’s modus operandi was to collaborate directly with indigenous composers for their indigenous-inspired commissions.

My Kronos story is very similar. David Harrington’s mother, Hazel, read a newspaper article that peripherally compared my music to her son’s ensemble. She clipped out the article and sent it to him. David visited me, and after several hours of talking over most of the explanations I’ve included above, he commissioned a new work from me that very afternoon. And over the years, I have composed three works for Kronos that intersect Native American aesthetics and Western music. Even more, I’m not the only indigenous collaborator with whom they’ve worked; Kronos has invited new commissions from celebrated Diné composer Raven Chacon and the distinguished Inuit throat singer herself, Tanya Tagaq. Kronos Quartet’s modus operandi was to collaborate directly with indigenous composers for their indigenous-inspired commissions.

We must engage in genuine relationships that do not diminish or erase cultural realities in favor of some questionable aesthetic of neutrality.

It is my firm belief that by championing a respectful cultural process as an artistic standard we not only achieve important cross-cultural understanding, but we form important intercultural relations with each other. With cultural respect comes a deeper historical context for approaching the quality of music. In order to approach composers and compositions, we must engage in genuine relationships that do not diminish or erase cultural realities in favor of some questionable aesthetic of neutrality. We must admit that quality is measured with cultural understanding, not through detached vocal craft or objectified technique. Music may be well crafted, but what is the music saying? Where are the relationships in the process? What communities are involved? What lives beyond the Western musical hegemony? Can we jettison the impossible acultural neutrality narrative in Western classical music to discover a mutually enriching exchange of culture?

Two Native American drummers rehearsing with the members of a symphony orchestra

Dakota drum group Maza Kute with Mankato Symphony Orchestra, rehearsing Davids’ “Black Hills Olowan,” 2010

Pursuing the Ir Rational

Replica of a human brain.

[Ed. note: It has been 13 years since we talked with Elliott Sharp for NewMusicBox. Since then, he has continued to create and perform music in the same seemingly infinite range of styles at the same staggering pace. Later this week, he will appear with the band Fourth Blood Moon in Lugano, Switzerland (Oct 25), Turin, Italy (Oct 26), Venice (Oct 27) and Vienna (Oct 28). Then it’s on to duo and solo appearances in Bologna (Oct 30) and Milan (Oct 31) followed by a tour of Japan where he will perform solo, with a big band, and in a duo with Carl Stone in Tokyo (Nov 19-22) as well as in duos with Yasuhiro Usui in Chiba (Nov 23) and Jim O’Rourke in Kofu (Nov 24). Amidst all his musical activities, Sharp managed to find the time to write a memoir/manifesto titled IrRational Music which was released earlier this year by Terra Nova Press. The following text originally appeared as the final chapter in that book and is reprinted here with permission.]

The cover of Ellliott Sharp's book IrRational Music

Recorded music has been sorely devalued of late but now I find the concert experience to be charged up, hotter than ever.

The process continues, asymptotic. The channels of my activities seem to be more clearly defined than ever before but by design they must allow for quick change, parallel realities, translation of state. They strive to balance the conceptual and the concrete, the abstract and the material, the direct narrative and the nonlinear, art and survival. Recorded music has been sorely devalued of late but now I find the concert experience to be charged up, hotter than ever. “IrRational Music” is still the best way to describe what I do in all of these channels. I can’t separate its pursuit from my desire not just to make art, but to understand how and why I do what I do and thereby find newer and deeper ways to do it. As my understanding of the Inner Ear grows, I ask if it can be separated from the Mind itself.

We believe that our minds define our selves, not just in the everchanging present, but delving back into our complete past and projecting forward into our still-incomplete future. Minds transmit and receive data in a feedback loop, constantly updating our state of being and inputting new information into our perceptual systems, a process essential to our survival (and perhaps the source of our consciousness). The search for the nature of this Mind of ours has been a puzzle and inspiration for both reflection and generation, extending back to the dawn of self-awareness. A signal is sent out, then received again at its source, but with the ever-so-tiny delay caused by the gap in the synapse. The receptor recognizes the original signal, perhaps with some hormonal stamp. In this transaction, this recognition, awareness of self could form, then consciousness.

With daily discoveries stretching boundaries, our minds have become plastic, mutable in function, digesting and accepting new definitions and generalizations. We may find these elements contradictory; we may find them enlightening and clarifying. With every advance in knowledge of the physical and chemical workings of the brain, humans remain—in a paradox worthy of Zeno—woefully distant from complete knowledge of the nature of their own consciousness. Gödelian concepts apply as well to our self-awareness: with self-perception nested in self-perception, are we doomed to perpetuate self-deception? Can we break out of the frame and actually know Mind? As we verge on a time when Turing tests will be aced by AI toddlers, how will we recognize the Mind of the Other when we’re still not absolutely clear as to its nature in ourselves?

Our very anthropocentrism has limited our outlook.

We might say that our craniocentricism blinds us and deafens us. Certainly our very anthropocentrism has limited our outlook. Only in recent decades have modern Westerners (as opposed to their pre-Cartesian ancestors) graciously admitted that other creatures might indeed possess consciousness. The common belief has been that consciousness and memory reside in the brain, are solely a function of its chemistry. Are we so sure that Mind can be divorced from organs and muscles, from viscera, from our bubbling neurotransmitter stews that drift out into the very air around us? Witness the octopus! It might be said that every sight we see, every sound we make or hear, every move or shift, every pheromonal handshake, is part of the free-floating and expanding consensual reality that is Mind. Even though our hardware has been running for many thousands of years without a major update, our software is continually transforming to accomodate new modes of data transfer and processing, environments, definitions and frameworks.

It’s no longer a radical notion that our individual memories have been externalized in something very like a cloud. And if memories can be external to the person, then could Identity itself, the individual consciousness, also be externalized? Would a conscious entity with no physical locus conceive of itself in the same way as an embodied one? How would the perceptual systems function in a disembodied Mind? What are the possible input and output devices? What would the mechanism of internal feedback be? If a disembodied Mind is to interact with a physical world, then what would the interface feel like, both to that Mind and to anyone encountering it? What would music be to such an entity?

Both concepts and technologies of Artificial Intelligence have advanced in recent years to the point that interaction with AI’s is considered a normal part of daily life. But is the “I” in AI the same “I” that we think of as intelligence, the”I” that is truly a sense of self? Mechanical processes, even when happening millions of times per second, even with a heavy feedback component, are not the same as intelligence and certainly not the same as consciousness. Will a digital zero/one on/off mind feel the same, both internally and externally, as a slippery-slope chemical mind? Where is the all-important porosity that makes our intelligence what it is? Could it be embedded in a process of knowing and deciding that is based upon the continuous polling of tendencies, analogous to quantum states? Explicit expression, but with vast amounts of background processing contributing to the flux? A meat-machine hybrid brain (that concept so beloved of modern sci-fi)? I’m waiting for the day that an AI can experience synesthesia and express it. And what about AS, Artificial Stupidity—might that be closer to human consciousness? Will an AI ever compose music that rends your heart and soul, or is this reserved for those whose language can’t be boiled down to just two states? Is the transcendent mystery of art somehow linked to the roots of its generation?

Will music allow us to morph into fully realized beings able to meet an unfamiliar modality halfway?

There’s much in the air these days about how our local universe is undergoing a “singularity,” how humanity must prepare itself for massive transformations. I contend that we’ve already been deeply into the singularity for quite a few years. A singularity isn’t built in a flash or even a day! Whether this is seen as glorious or apocalyptic depends on the teller, and there are as many definitions of the nature of this singularity as there are tellers. The development of “self-awareness” in computers is often cited as a primary sign of this cusp-point. Contact with an alien civilization is another. How will humanity find a commonality of expression to communicate with an intelligence conceivably so different from our own that there is no recognition? Again, the question of interface and who controls it. What will the emergent power relationships be? In science fiction, the superior alien intelligence often adopts anthropic form and speaks English. Will a truly emergent AI condescend to speak to us as equals or might it demand true peer-to-peer contact and insist that humans rise to the occasion? Could music be the medium by which we measure cosmic intelligence and consciousness? Will music allow us to morph into fully realized beings able to meet an unfamiliar modality halfway? Can we learn to communicate, perhaps even sing songs using airborne molecular polymers, chains of regenerated RNA? Flashes of color? Qubit packets? Modulated sine waves? Will that achievement equal a willingness to let go of our traditional assumptions of mind grounded in physicality, of music grounded in sound? By abandoning these moorings, do we abandon the very core of our humanity? If that is indeed the case, then we might finally ask “Is this a good thing or a bad thing?” and have reasonable expectations of getting a clear answer. Psychoacoustic chemical change remains the prime motive for my work: translation from the Inner Ear, source of the IrRational.

Fourth Blood Moon (Eric Mingus, John Edwards, Mark Sanders, and Elliott Sharp).

Fourth Blood Moon (Eric Mingus, John Edwards, Mark Sanders, and Elliott Sharp). The band will be performing this month in Lugano, Switzerland (Oct 25), Turin, Italy (Oct 26), Venice (Oct 27) and Vienna (Oct 28).

The Musical is Political

Singers on stage in performance

“I wish to enjoy music without the infusion of political opinion.”

This is an actual recent quote from someone in the classical music community. I’ve heard variations of this kind of statement throughout my own career: Why don’t you just write music? Why does it have to be so… political?

There has always been a desire on the part of artists to respond to the issues of the moment.

These invectives against “political” music seem to stand out more due to our current contentious climate, which may create the impression that there has been an uptick in the number of modern pieces with a political orientation. But the truth is that there has always been a desire on the part of artists to respond to the issues of the moment. This is particularly true in opera, the field in which I have done the majority of my own work. Opera has historically been a populist art form (please read Lawrence Edelson’s essay on the topic for more detail), and as such, composers and librettists have tried to create stories that reflect the concerns of their day. As opera companies began to focus more on a small selection of “canonical” works rather than contemporary compositions, the works in the canon became detached from their historical contexts. As a result, we have lost sight of how revolutionary these works actually were for their time.

Operas like La bohème showed the lives of ordinary people rather than kings or gods.  Rigoletto and Don Giovanni showed the depravity of the upper class. Audiences for these operas would have understood them in relation to their current moment. Now that these operas are performed outside of this context, there is a tendency to make them more precious than they were originally intended to be. We focus on performing the pieces the way they have always been performed without asking what the core messages of the works are and how those messages might resonate with a modern-day audience. And this is where a lot of the cultural baggage attached to opera comes from.

I did not grow up listening to opera, and I used to hold many of the same preconceptions about the form that many people do: it’s elitist, it’s boring, it’s outdated, and so on. I’m also all too aware of many of the problems with race and gender that the greatest hits of the canon still have.

Music allows us to assume the perspectives of people very different than we are.

Despite these problems, the reason I came to love opera (and what I believe brings many people to the form if they are able to experience it) is the immense power of sung drama. Music has the ability to touch us deeply, and music used in the service of storytelling can transport us into different places and times, even allowing us to assume the perspectives of people very different than we are. I believe that this is where the potential power of the art form lies. I also believe that embracing this power is what will allow the form to remain vibrant and relevant well into the future.

It is for this reason that I (and many of my contemporaries) often choose stories that can be described as “political.” Part of the reason that so many modern operas are perceived as “political” stories stems from the fact that they are taking perspectives that have long been absent from the mainstream and placing them on stage, just as Puccini was doing when he, Illica, and Giacosa wrote La bohème. For modern composers and librettists, there is now a widespread recognition that the historical default perspective (white and male) is not representative of the modern world (and was never really representative of the whole of human experience). Because of this, the conversations that we’ve been having around diversity and inclusion are key to keeping opera relevant. Understanding the importance of story in forming our sense of self and culture is an essential part of the equation. Storytelling is the bedrock this foundation. We can see the importance of story even from a young age.

Katherine Nelson’s work on early childhood memory shows the centrality of narrative to our developing sense of identity. Nelson has shown that learning the art of narration is the foundation for all of our autobiographical memories. The stories we learn to tell ourselves about ourselves form these core memories, and thus become the basis of our sense of identity and our place in the world.

We see a similar effect of story on our shared sense of culture. The stories we tell each other as a society give us a sense of cultural identity. They teach us about social norms and about who we are as a people: what our value systems are and how we fit into the world.

Therefore, we, as creators, must understand that part of what we’re doing is creating the stories that help to shape our culture. Because of this, all stories are inherently political in that all stories choose a perspective and place it front and center. If you’re thinking, “I have never chosen a perspective,” that is because you are assuming that your perspective is the default.

All stories are inherently political in that all stories choose a perspective and place it front and center.

The current age of American opera is more geared than ever toward letting everyone see themselves onstage. In the last year alone, we have been privileged to have operas including Fire Up in My Bones (Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons) and The Central Park Five (Anthony Davis and Richard Wesley), both of which featured work by Black composers, librettists, and singers. Modern operas have also tackled contemporary issues like human trafficking (Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s Angel’s Bone), mental illness (Philip Venables, based on Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis), and sexual assault (Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins’s p r i s m).

I have tried to address similar issues in my own work. I’ve approached this by putting people onstage who aren’t normally seen there (including Pakistani Muslim women in Thumbprint [libretto by Susan Yankowitz] and Appalachian snake handlers in Taking Up Serpents [libretto by Jerre Dye]). My new work, Looking at You, takes this a step further by reaching outside of the opera world to create a piece with urgent contemporary relevance, exploring the impact of modern technology on our right to privacy.  Looking at You is a collaboration with privacy researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and tech engineers at Bandcamp.com.

This piece is absolutely the most complicated thing I’ve ever made. There are several reasons for this. From the beginning I knew that the audience would be an integral part of the show, so there were many unresolved questions about how the technology that makes the audience experience happen could work and how to integrate it with the music. A lot of the decisions about the libretto and the way the score works were influenced by what the tech would actually be able to do. For example, I decided early on that I wanted the chorus for the show to be made up of singing tablet computers. Of course, the technology to allow tablets to sync together in real-time did not exist, so part of the developmental process was trying out different ways of making that work. I figured out how to make the singing computer voices, but it took finding collaborators outside of the opera world (Joe Holt and Daniel Dickison of Bandcamp.com) to actually build the software that syncs the whole choir (both with each other and with the backing tracks).

Mikki Sodergren and Brandon Snook in Looking at You

Mikki Sodergren and Brandon Snook performing on stage in Kamala Sankaram’s opera Looking at You (photo © by Paula Court).

This collaboration with academics and engineers from the tech world has been essential for creating a piece that gets at the heart of the issues we’re facing. We are in a pivotal moment, where new technologies are being created that will leave lasting social, economic, and political impacts. Tech companies are increasingly turning to machine learning based on mass user data to build better artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, machine learning utilizes what is known as “the hidden layer”—even the coders themselves often don’t know why their algorithms behave the way they do. An algorithm’s behavior is completely based on the patterns it perceives in the data set it uses to learn. Therefore, any structural racism or gender inequality that exists in the data will be coded into the algorithm’s decision-making and outputs. This has led to many problematic situations already, including the “decision” of Facebook’s algorithm to create an advertising category for “Jew-haters.”  More troubling, as algorithms are increasingly deployed to make consequential decisions including insurance rates, length of criminal sentences, and even whether or not to fire someone, there is no way to know how they made the decision and therefore no recourse.

Our continued right to privacy is at risk.

Despite the immediacy of the issue, and despite increased awareness of online privacy concerns in the wake of the Snowden revelations and the more recent scandals at Facebook, many people are either not aware of the extent to which their personal information is widely available and how it is used, or are not concerned because “they have nothing to hide” (to borrow a line from the show). This may come from the tendency to see technology as something mysterious and inscrutable.

Our continued right to privacy is at risk. By presenting the issues in a non-pedantic and entertaining way, we hope to open our audience up to the issues and then to provide them with the tools to better protect themselves and their personal data. Further, we are doing this by collaborating with a creative team that includes women and people of color, and by creating a story with women and people of color at its center.

Truly modern opera is and must be: a real representation of the world, featuring all of the people who inhabit it.

It is my belief that this is what truly modern opera is and must be: a real representation of the world, featuring all of the people who inhabit it, and telling a story that is relevant to the issues that concern them. These stories matter. The people we tell the stories about and the people we see on stage matter. And that, in essence, is why they are and should continue to be so… “political.”

Kamala Sankaram’s Looking at You will be presented from September 6-21, 2019 at Here in New York City in a co-production with Opera on Tap and Experiments in Opera.