Category: Commentary

Is Passion a Young Person’s Game?

A desk with scattered papers, compositions, and a computer
Look, you get older. Passion is a young man’s game. Young people can be passionate. Older people gotta be more wise. I mean, you’re around awhile, you leave certain things to the young. Don’t try to act like you’re young. You could really hurt yourself.—Bob Dylan, interview with Robert Love, AARP Magazine, February/March 2015


A French artist related that, in his 30s, a gallery owner told him that if he didn’t succeed as an artist by the age of 40 that he wouldn’t make it at all. He responded angrily, saying that age shouldn’t matter. “If the art is good, it’s good . . . [but] I see now that she was right,” he said matter-of-factly over a coffee in Marseille. Now in his 50s, in spite of a great deal of good work behind him, he spends his days playing boule in public lots with retired men while sipping pastis.

In the article “Blocked” by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker (June 14, 2004), Elizabeth Hardwick, a denizen of the writing world in the late 1950s, is quoted as saying: “I don’t think getting older is good for the creative process. Writing is so hard. It’s the only time in your life when you have to think.” Acocella cites author John Updike who speculates on Herman Melville’s diminished output after turning 32: “. . . basically Melville exhausted his artistic capital—his seafaring years—in ‘Typee,’ ‘Omoo,’ and ‘Moby-Dick.’ If, after those books, he wrote a couple of mediocre novels and then gave up the trade, it is no surprise.”

So, as one ages, how does one continue to “follow one’s bliss?” If it’s not passion in the 50+ age category (and, in my mind, that’s debatable) what is it that keeps us going in our work—especially if, like me and countless others, huge success hasn’t come knocking? Some days I feel like the only payoff I’ll ever have is the joy (not spoken ironically) of the daily habit of composing. Really, the important thing seems to be to work constantly and not worry about the end results; it’s best to invest your energy, enthusiasm, and—yes Bob—passion into your work.

Composer Kevin Volans, in his oft-quoted and discussed address “If You Need An Audience, We Don’t Need You,” [The Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland, June 15, 2016] states:

At least 95% of all composers get better with age. A very small minority get worse, but this is usually because of illness: . . . Yet there is more and more emphasis on and support for so-called ‘emerging composers’ —most of whom, I am sad to say, are left on the scrap heap when they turn 40. . . . I have had desperate letters from composers just over 40, who have won international competitions, and whose careers have suddenly come to a halt. Because they are no longer emerging, they are of no interest. The composers are bewildered and bereft. I think this is morally wrong. . . . Emerging, who cares? Publicists.

Daniel Grant relates the story of a gallery owner who shared that “age tends to be an issue for certain kinds of collectors and, as such, is an issue for dealers.” [The Huffington Post: “Is There an Age Limit for ‘Emerging Artists’?” August 25, 2010, updated May 25, 2011], He noted that he sees “collectors’ body language shift when they learn that [an] artist is older. . . . Certainly, one might make the argument that lengthy experience deepens one’s technical and conceptual abilities.”

Our craft takes time to mature and develop. It’s true that some great art comes out of younger artists, but sometimes it needs time. One need go no further than Stravinsky to make a case in point. His early ballet music is some of my favorite—and he was finished with those works by the age of 32. Still, I’ve always admired the fact that, as he grew older, he continued to experiment and transform as a composer. A more extreme example of the brilliance of the young is W.A. Mozart, who never did grow old (at least speaking in terms relative to our era). But, for many of us growing older, a continued concentration on craft places Malcolm Gladwell’s following statement within the realm of possibility: “. . . sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table” [October 13, 2008, “Late Bloomers,” The New Yorker].

Looking at an older generation of living composers as I write this, Alvin Lucier in his late 80s is still composing excellent and beautiful music. I was privileged to play one of three banjos (with ebows) on the premiere of his composition Hannover, with the Callithumpian Consort of the New England Conservatory four years ago. This year I released the premiere recording of a piece for solo banjo that I commissioned from Christian Wolff who is also in his 80s (Innova 005). John Zorn, in his 60s, still exhibits an originality and energy that I’ve always admired; the same holds true for Kaija Saariaho. And Augusta Read Thomas, now in her 50s, is still composing great and colorful music that’s as enthusiastically received as the music that brought her wide acclaim decades prior. But what about composers who were sensations in their 20s but then somehow disappeared from public discussion, even as their work continued. Was it a case of getting too old to be of interest to a youth-focused culture? Was a shift in body language detected in concert programmers when a name and age were mentioned?

But there are also composers in the aging category who don’t hold the legendary status of some of the above-mentioned composers who are finally finding well-deserved success combined with a craft that continues to develop. My Tennessee composer friend Jonathan McNair, who just turned 60, has been writing excellent music for years. His music is infused with wonderful musicianship honed with passion and heart. Some of his music is expressive of a large social consciousness. For years, he kept writing and teaching and now a number of musicians have discovered his music and are programming it. “I think I wrote more music in the 11-month period from May 2018-April 2019 than ever before in my life,” he wrote me. And he is confident and happy with the direction that his new compositions are going,

As a composer in his 60s, am I supposed to give up because the zeitgeist seems to favor younger composers and artists? Chances are great that many of us composers over 50 aren’t through yet. “We’re living longer than ever before,” writes Amy Gutman [“Aging is not death. Stop conflating the two,” The Washington Post, May 17, 2015.]. “In the 20th century, Americans gained a staggering 30 years of life expectancy, thanks to advances in nutrition, public health and medicine. A century ago, just 3 percent of our population was 65 or older. Today, that number is 13 percent and expected to rise to 20 percent in the next 15 years. In other words, by 2030, an estimated 1 in 5 of us will be 65 or older.”

I’ve never been bored by the subject of music; it’s been an endless pipeline of exciting ideas and discoveries. I learn a lot from looking at works by Beethoven that I don’t know. I hear for the first time events in works by Debussy or Ravel that I may have heard a thousand times, but never before noticed. That’s an advantage for me in aging—I’m a more intelligent listener; my ears are better and keep improving. And I try to stay abreast of works by younger composers. I don’t want to send my own writing in their stylistic directions, but I am interested in the transformation of our art form. As an older composer, I am set on my own path, but I want to maintain an awareness, if not open-mindedness, of what is going on around me. At least I can point my students toward composers closer to their peer group to keep an eye on.

I don’t believe that I’ll run out of material or passion if I can at least maintain my health and attitude. I’m happy to have a catalog of works good and bad that developed over several decades. For the most part I believe that I’ve gotten better as one should with practice. The daily habit is what sustains me psychologically—anything beyond that in terms of performances or royalties may just be icing on the cake.

The musician/polymath Nicholas Slonimsky interviewed by NPR on the occasion of his 90th birthday was asked what he intended to do next. He listed numerous activities including composing and writing an autobiography, eventually titled Perfect Pitch, and published in 1988 when he was 94. He, in fact, lived to be 101. Elliott Carter kept writing music up until the year he died at the age of 103.

Is passion really a young person’s game? I find myself drawn to certain quotidian habits born of a passion fostered in my 20s: composing (esp. when I don’t feel like it), practicing, and teaching. I think back to images of the young Bob Dylan in the D.A. Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back. While on tour, during the day, Dylan and his entourage are killing time in a hotel room; it’s an energetic scene: Joan Baez plays and sings in the corner, the manager Albert Grossman simply sits or fields calls, and Dylan is slamming out some sort of (I imagine) stream of conscious narrative on his typewriter. At this time, he was indefatigable and passionate with his writing and composing; performing constantly until his motorcycle accident in 1966.

I think that viability as a creative artist is self-defined regardless of age. We can’t believe an art dealer or concert promoter if they tell us we are washed up at 40. Some of us dive in early in our careers with that youthful passion that causes us to work every day. Dylan, now 77, never seems to have wavered in passion and song production over the past 60 years. And if it’s not passion, then it must be habit born of passion that continues his productivity. And as for me, I see no reason to quit stumbling to the drafting table every day; I still have ideas, and a desire to improve my work. It’s not the posterity of a large body of work that I’m trying to create, but the continued self-defined worth of an artist who still wants to compose and collaborate with excellent musicians. Thankfully, it seems that there are more of those now than ever before. Do I stop composing because the LA Phil hasn’t contacted me for a commission? Hell, no.

Why Yes, I Do Want My Music Performed

A woman with her back facing the camera standing between a blue door and a red door

Sometimes, when I have the time and energy and don’t feel like it will put my career at stake, I open up a conversation about gender balance in concert programming with those who have a record of performing or programming only or primarily works by men. Some simply haven’t noticed (as our bias towards thinking of composers as male is still so strong), but are open to change. Some are aware and eager to discuss ways to redress the imbalance. But a few dig in to defend their choices. After some back and forth, those reluctant to program equitably inevitably arrive at some version of: “But surely you wouldn’t want your music played just because you’re a woman? Surely you would want it played because you’re good?” As if this is some kind of novel and amazing trump card. As if I’m not already aware that some people think music by women is inherently less likely to be good. As if my confidence in my own work (and that of other women) is so shaky that simply knowing that some people might question its worth because of my gender will cause me to crumble and doubt myself and stop trying to get my music out there (and presumably get back into the kitchen, and make us all some coffee, please…)

The thing is: surely I do want my music played… and I don’t really care why! I want everyone’s music to be played more often, so in writing this I don’t intend to place undue emphasis on me and my music. What I want for myself, I want for all of us! I know that some believe that for composers who are women, people of color, LGBT, and/or underrepresented for any other reason to have more opportunities, straight cis white men will have to cede some of theirs, but I don’t believe that new music is a zero sum game. Rather than reducing opportunities for some so that others can have a chance, let’s increase opportunities for all, and make sure the opportunities are fairly distributed.

Most music is never programmed solely because it is good.

Most music programmed is “good,” but music is never programmed solely because it is good. Considerations such as instrumentation, length, fit with the other pieces on the program, and availability of scores always play a role. Yet these considerations are never held out as being in inherent opposition to a piece being “good”. In my 28 years as a composer, I have yet to hear someone say: “But surely you wouldn’t want your piece played just because it’s a string quartet? Surely you wouldn’t want it played just because it’s nine minutes long? Surely you wouldn’t want it played just because it goes well with the other pieces on the program? Surely you wouldn’t want it played just because your publisher’s website isn’t broken?”

In any case, my music is good, and should be heard more often. I don’t mean this arrogantly: I use “my music” here to stand in for all of our musics, and I think all composers’ music should be heard more often. Of course the best performances happen when the performers love the piece: but how will performers even find out if they love the piece or not if they don’t play it? And if the performers never come to love the piece, whether because of sexism or because they genuinely don’t like it? Well, that’s okay too. I don’t think there are any performers who love every piece they’ve ever performed. (I certainly don’t!) Any professionals worth their salt would still do their best to perform well. The audience may love it. Other performers may hear it, love it, and decide to play it. I’ll benefit from another performance (and perhaps will find ways to tweak the score to coax a good performance out of even a hostile performer). It’s another performance on my CV. It’s another score sold. It’s royalties. I don’t usually think about performances in such utilitarian ways, but I bring up these points here simply to illustrate that even if someone does program my piece “just because” I’m a woman, the consequences are really not that dire! (As composer Patricia Wallinga tweeted in response to my tweet-length version of this article, “Exactly! How would I feel [if someone commissioned me “just because” I’m a woman]? F**ing great paying my rent with the commission check, thanks!”)

Sometimes even wonderful champions of music by women take great pains to reassure me that they’ve programmed my piece because they love it, and not “just because” I’m a woman. While I’m always happy to know that someone loves my piece, I’ve never actually been worried that someone has programmed it “just because” of my gender. In fact, I’m always pleased to know that gender, racial, and other kinds of equity are important to a programmer! Just as “I don’t see colour” has not been an effective approach to fighting racism, “I don’t see gender” is not going to be an effective approach to undoing the sexism that has kept women composers in the shadows for so many centuries.

It’s only been in the last ten or so years that gender imbalance in programming has been discussed openly and often.

In my experience, it’s only been in the last ten or so years that gender imbalance in programming has been discussed openly and often. For many years, I and so many other women did everything we could to avoid drawing attention to gender imbalance at all, as if somehow mentioning it would make things worse (which in some circumstances it might have). Internalized sexism caused so many of us to believe women’s works were inherently inferior, and that gender imbalanced programs merely reflected a gender imbalanced distribution of “good” music. But as a Canadian-born composer, I do have long experience with another kind of programming that takes more than just whether a piece is “good” or not into account, the Canadian Content (“CanCon”) requirement, which stipulates that a certain percentage of radio and TV broadcasts consists of work by Canadian creators and/or performers. CanCon was introduced in the early 1970s to give Canadian artists, who had previously been overshadowed by artists from the USA and Europe, a chance to develop, thrive, and reach audiences in Canada and abroad. Similar initiatives from the Canada Council for the Arts and other Canadian funding bodies preferentially support ensembles that perform Canadian music, enable ensembles to commission pieces from Canadian composers, and fund tours of Canadian music and ensembles abroad.

Many initially grumbled about being required to include Canadian music, just as some now grumble about the idea of taking gender into account when making programming choices. Even those who benefited (and continue to benefit) from CanCon and similar requirements recognized that the system was not without flaws: Canadian composer Murray Schafer’s No Longer than Ten (10) Minutes, for example, gently pokes fun at a frequent stipulation of commissions from ensembles who are trying to do the bare minimum to meet Canadian content quotas. American friends, upon hearing about CanCon requirements are often skeptical. “But doesn’t this mean ensembles are just grudgingly playing works they hate? Shouldn’t they only play the pieces if they like them?” they ask. Well, sure, sometimes ensembles do end up playing pieces they don’t like. But just as often, ensembles come to love pieces they initially thought they wouldn’t like. Or they discover that while they don’t like the music of one Canadian composer, they do like the music of another. Over time, they come to find pieces they love, build up relationships with composers, and in so doing, help the composers develop relationships with the larger music community and with audiences beyond those typically found at new music concerts.

Canadian-born, UK-based organist Sarah MacDonald’s account is fairly typical. In “UK REPORT for Canada’s 150th – Canadian music in the UK,” published in the Spring 2017 issue of Organ Canada (the journal of the Royal Canadian College of Organists), she writes of how as a teenager she was “particularly irked” that she had to play a piece by Oskar Morawetz instead of a piece by Brahms in an exam, but she has since come to recognize the importance of CanCon and similar requirements. “My personal grumblings aside (Canadian disContent?), one positive implication of the imposition of CanCon obligations was that Canada had come of age, and now had its own post-colonial cultural identity which needed to be nurtured and shared, as well as protected. We… could contribute on an equal footing with the rest of the world. So, has this actually happened? Have we contributed bona fide Canadians (whatever they are!) to the international cultural stage? Manifestly, the answer is yes.” While the specifics surrounding the introduction of CanCon requirements and the need for gender balance in programming are quite different, I do think these parallels are instructive.

Go ahead and program my work “just because” I’m a woman.

So yes, go ahead and program my work “just because” I’m a woman, “just because” I’m Canadian (or American or Scotland-based), “just because” it’s a string quartet, or for any other reason you please. If someone has already decided in advance that they don’t like pieces by women because of our gender: well, that is their problem, not mine!

Don’t Wait Until You Hear Sirens

Staying Composed

I think of chaotic events like an illness or a death in the family as an ambulance cutting a path through my life. No matter how congested a street is, there is always room for an ambulance; there is always room for everyone on a road to work together, move over, and create space for the ambulance to pass.

Last week, I canceled a trip to a premiere because I’d been grappling for a few weeks with the kind of anxiety that makes just leaving the house a challenge. The premiere was a multi-movement work where each composer had written a different movement; my movement was four minutes long. I figured the ensemble wouldn’t miss one composer out of many.

Still, I agonized over that decision. My flight and hotel were booked and had been booked for months. How unprofessional does it look to back out of attending your own premiere? I used to long for the day I’d be traveling around the country often, with my flight and hotel paid for by whomever was commissioning me. It was built into my definition of success: being paid to create the kind of work I wanted to create, and traveling often to go hear it. And here I was, about to cancel exactly the kind of trip I’ve worked so hard to make a part of my life.

If you’ve reached a breaking point but still feel as if you can’t prioritize your health over your work, imagine the path that a family emergency or a physical ailment would create for you.

When I’ve reached a mental or physical breaking point but no emergency is carving out a clear path for me, I remind myself that an ambulance makes its own path. If you’ve reached a breaking point but still feel as if you can’t prioritize your health over your work, imagine the path that a family emergency or a physical ailment would create for you. In any of those scenarios, you’d be forced to readjust your schedule.

On a trip to New York several weeks ago for a different premiere, I found myself in Grand Central Station on the verge of a panic attack, feeling unable to breathe and like I had little idea where I was. The year so far had felt like nothing but travel: to Boston, to Kansas City, to Minneapolis, all in the span of a month. To Portland and New York City back-to-back. And then, last week, another flight ahead of me, the fourth weekend in a row where I’d be out of town.

This year has been abundantly full of wonderful things. I’m getting married in two months. I’m releasing a book I’ve been writing for more than a year. I’ve had career-defining performances with some of the ensembles I admire most. And yet it’s this same season that has been slowly building up to where I found myself last week: with an amount of anxiety that I described, in the email I sent decisively canceling my trip, as debilitating. That’s what it had become.

In a few weeks, I’m publishing a book about anxiety in the creative process, with lessons learned from composing. It’s called Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety and Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life. I’m releasing a book about anxiety, and yet, ironically, this was the most anxious I’d felt in ten years: vice-grip chest pain matched by racing, runaway thoughts I suddenly found myself unable to control.

In the book, I’d outlined coping strategies for nearly every mental hurdle you face in a creative career, and yet I didn’t have one for this feeling: wanting to step outside of your life, just for a moment, to breathe.

I’m not talking here about an occasional day or even week where you put in long, sleepless hours or order take-out for several meals in a row in order to meet a deadline. I’m talking about how you build mental and physical well-being into your day-to-day creative life. Your mental health, your sanity, and your life are worth more than any performance, any piece, or any networking opportunity.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had a panic attack driving down the freeway. It was practically a cliché: heading down the 110 in traffic, merging over four lanes, I felt my chest constrict painfully, had trouble breathing, and went straight to the health center thinking I was having heart problems. I was sent home with a prescription for Ativan. I’d slice up the pills into tiny pieces, because taking a whole one made me too sleepy to do much of anything. Eventually, I abandoned them and aggressively pursued other tactics instead: yoga, walking, meditation, and a resignation to the fact that I was an anxious person; I would always be a bit anxious.

Having experienced both the frantic, sleepless, anxious variety of composing and the kind where I prioritize my health above all else, I can report: the second way of living is vastly preferable in every way. I am happier with the work I make. I am not happy all the time, but I take so much more pleasure in the life I’m living.

In the decade since, I’ve designed my life to look, for the most part, the way I want it to look. I am phasing out teaching piano; I am composing full-time, which has been my career goal since I was seventeen. I take on the kind of work that lights me up, that prompts a swift and gut-reaction yes. I’ve worked various part-time jobs (arranger, editor, nanny, teacher); now I’m here. I can meet friends for mid-morning coffees and work long into the evening. I can fly across the country to an artist residency for a month without worrying that I’m missing my job; my job comes with me. I can schedule premieres and school visits and a life spent driving to and from the airport. I thought I wanted that life. When I first started to get it, I thought I wanted even more of it: this life, but bigger premieres and even more travel. This is a tremendous privilege, I know, to complain about too much travel.

I don’t know about you, but on days where my anxiety is at its peak, the act of sitting down to work feels impossible and insurmountable. My daily routine priori­tizes my mental health, because without it, I put myself and my art at risk.

This year, I could feel anxiety slowly compounding into something beyond my rational control. I was using every tool I had in my arsenal to counteract it, but I was also crying on the kitchen floor in front of my baffled partner. For the first time, exercise wasn’t helping; neither were yoga or meditation or any of the other usually helpful reframing techniques I use so often. I knew everything was ultimately going to be okay—These were all good things! I was so lucky to have this career! This was all what I wanted!—and that still wasn’t enough.

If you need help for anxiety or depression, seek it out. If you need to ask a friend for advice or a collaborator for an extension on your deadline, ask them. Your collaborators—fellow humans—will understand, and if they don’t, they haven’t yet realized the simple truth that it’s hard to make art at all when your health desperately needs your attention.

This idea is sprinkled throughout Staying Composed: if you need help beyond these coping strategies, seek it out. At my most anxious, it was thinking about this chapter I’d already written, the one that’s quoted in italics above, that made me finally book an appointment with my doctor. If I was going to tell other people to imagine the path an ambulance would carve through their life when they most needed a break, I’d better imagine that ambulance’s path through my own suddenly unmanageable life.

Now, I’m finally trying medication for anxiety. Three weeks out before the launch of a book that—in its very subtitle—promises to offer tips on overcoming anxiety, I am trying an SSRI for the first time. I call my mother to catch up over the weekend, tell her that I’m trying anxiety medication, and she says that the book will need an extra chapter, implying that it would be something like: Ignore All This Advice and Just Take Drugs. “But it’s not like that—” I start to protest, and she says, gently, that she was joking. Still, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite. A dear friend reminded me recently that the book is about “overcoming anxiety,” not “not having anxiety in the first place,” and I think of this often.

Your present situation might not feel like a true emergency, but you can still carve out time to prioritize your well-being. You can always cancel an event. You can always ask for an extended deadline; you might not be granted one, but you can ask. No artistic project is worth sacrificing your mental and physical health.

Several days into the new medication and finally having sought help outside of myself, the ping-ponging between things to worry about (deadline, other deadline, other deadline, wedding, house is a mess, forgot to mail out scores, forgot to book a flight, forgot to plan crucial element of wedding, when am I going to write music?!…) is already less of a spin cycle on endless repeat. Now, it’s more like a list of worries that float to the surface but can once again be rationally dismissed or silenced until a later date. I still have all of the anxious thoughts, and I’m still using the coping strategies I talk about in the book, but right now, my anxieties aren’t growing roots and taking hold in an unmanageable way.

Taking that medication isn’t a failure to “stay composed”; it’s a direct result of listening to my body and doing what was best for my mind. Canceling that trip to a premiere was crucial to regaining control over my mental health. It was the result of asking what an ambulance clearing a path through my life would look like and carving out that time as soon as I realized I needed help.

So what does it mean to stay composed within a creative life? I’ve done my best to articulate every answer I have, and I’m still discovering new answers. But above all, I am positive that sometimes staying composed means making the difficult decision to put yourself before your career—to put life before creative as you live your creative life.

Staying Composed, new book by Dale Trumbore about overcoming anxiety and self-doubt within a creative life, will be available digitally and in print on June 4, 2019. Pre-order and sign up to receive additional updates here.

Do you need a doctorate in composition?

A person taking notes, with a white mug in the background
Do you need a doctorate in composition? No, you don’t. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value.

In the nearly twenty years that I have been teaching composition at universities and conservatories, the most common question I am asked by students not already in doctoral programs is which ones they should apply to. The assumption of these young composers is that the next logical or expected step in the progression of their musical development is to seek an advanced degree in a field where the degree itself is becoming both more ubiquitous and less powerful.

When I ask young composers why they want to earn a doctorate, the almost inevitable response is, “Because I want to teach.” That is indeed an admirable reason to do so. Additional issues such as performance and networking opportunities and some abstract sense of the recognition and approval that a doctorate will bestow are also often mentioned. While there is some merit to these expectations, I believe they are mostly misguided.

For decades, the availability of full-time, tenure-track composition jobs has been dwindling, with the decrease greatly exacerbated by the onset of the 2008 financial crisis. During this time, administrators in higher education facing smaller budgets due to reduced state funding, shrinking endowments, and less generous alumni donors sought to make up the difference. They did so by employing larger pools of part-time adjunct faculty who could be paid far less than their full-time counterparts with few or no benefits and no job security. As the financial markets later soared to record levels of growth, the number of full-time professorships did not follow. Consequently, the majority of my colleagues who teach composition or related music courses do so in the precarious conditions described above. These teachers are extremely qualified and dedicated; their students are lucky to work with them. But for anyone trying to eek out a living on the wages earned as an adjunct or short-term contract instructor (particularly in an expensive metropolitan area where new music activity is concentrated) struggles significantly. These exploitative teaching positions are often spread out over multiple campuses requiring travel and the time spent counseling students, correcting homework and papers, and dealing with university bureaucracy steals precious time needed to compose. Anyone considering a doctorate for the reason that they want to teach should be aware of these realities and that the competition for the few stable jobs that are offered is extremely fierce.


Image: Vlad Kutepov

A more immediate financial consideration for young composers seeking a doctorate is the cost of the degree and the means needed to live during the years that it takes to complete the classwork, exams, and dissertation. While many universities and conservatories offer composer fellowships that waive tuition and offer a modest stipend, usually in exchange for teaching, these are limited, often to just a couple a year. Of course, these cannot accommodate the hundreds of qualified students who apply for composition doctorates every year and many students are faced with the possibility of large debts after completing their studies. No student should be put in this position and I strongly advise against paying for these degrees. While it is not uncommon for young professionals to leave graduate school with substantial debt, the fields outside the humanities more consistently offer starting salaries beyond living wages in addition to health and retirement benefits. Because there are very few such opportunities available to recent composition graduates, it makes no sense to accrue a large debt that may take decades to repay.

There are also some young composers who feel that they have not received sufficient preparation in order to enter the field. They believe that an advanced degree will provide the training and knowledge that they lack. A graduate program in composition would serve these students well but not at the expense of crushing debt that would be shouldered if the student needed to pay for tuition. In these cases, I recommend that students seek out individuals for private lessons. Because there are so many highly-qualified musicians that do not have full-time academic jobs, many are willing to teach privately. The cost of these lessons is a fraction of graduate tuition and offers much more flexibility with regard to teachers and scheduling.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community.

In my experience, no ensemble, soloist, or presenter has ever reconsidered a commission or programming opportunity for a composer due to a lack of academic credentials. It seems true that certain prizes and fellowships give some limited weight to one’s academic background, but it is always subsidiary to the music under consideration.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community. By interacting and collaborating with fellow musicians, pooled talents and resources sum to much more than individual parts. I always encourage young composers to attend as many concerts as possible and politely and humbly engage the performers and audience members during and after the show. Chance and sought out connections can yield deep, meaningful, and even lifetime relationships that can have profound creative and intellectual impact.

I understand that for many the access to such communities may be limited due to geographical or financial constraints. Additionally, it can be socially and professionally daunting for some to join circles to which they do not already belong. In these circumstances the communities may be created from within, as has often been the case in the past. Some examples include the artists that formed Der Blaue Reiter, the Scratch Orchestra, and the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

There are positive attributes of academic programs, to be sure. Especially when coming from a place where interactions with like-minded musicians are limited, enrolling in a music program can provide incredible stimulation and camaraderie with peers and mentors. Opportunities to work with fellow students and guests in performances and presentations are extremely valuable, as is the teaching experience that comes with fellowships. The positive impact that access to a dedicated music library can have on a developing composer is undeniable. And hopefully the courses and private instruction will enlighten and expand one’s own musical outlook.

So while there is value in attending a graduate program in composition, it is not a panacea for career advancement and future job security. It is wise to consider what one wants and realistically what a composition doctorate can offer before assuming that it is the only path forward.

Hannibal Lokumbe: Always Go With the Feeling

A BIPOC man with dreads, a dark shirt, and dark cap

For the past three years, composer/trumpeter/raconteur/poet/community activist/force of nature Hannibal Lokumbe has served as a composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the auspices of Music Alive, a program which New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. The culmination of this residency is Hannibal’s massive oratorio Healing Tones, which at the end of March received its world premiere performances featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra joined by two choruses and three additional vocal soloists.

Hannibal has had a long history with New Music USA and, before that, with Meet The Composer (which later merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA). MTC supported the 1990 commission of African Portraits, Hannibal’s first large-scale work involving a symphony orchestra. African Portraits, a sprawling sonic adventure requiring blues and gospel vocal soloists, three choruses, a West African kora player, and a jazz quartet in addition to a large orchestra, has now received over 200 performances all over the country, a rare accomplishment for any contemporary American work let alone one that costs $4000 a minute to rehearse. So we have long wanted to have an opportunity to record a conversation with him about his musical career, his compositional process, and his sources of inspiration.

Our recent talk with Hannibal in Philadelphia was a 45-minute roller coaster ride that was part testimonial, part reminiscence, part philosophical manifesto, and part performance art, but all pure emotion. Many questions were left unanswered and others just led to other questions for us, some of which we probably will never be able to answer.

There was a lot to process in a very short amount of time. There were his extraordinary thoughts about Pangaea—“the spiritual land mass of humanity is music”—as well as his optimistic outlook on the future: “What our world and what our nation’s going through now is giving birth.  Birth requires some bleeding and some suffering.  But in the base of our brain is a certain knowledge, and that knowledge says that from this pain will come this treasure.” There were also tantalizing fragments of anecdotes from his storied life in music, such as taking Jimi Hendrix’s place after Hendrix died for a recording session with Gil Evans (“Gil … always saw things in a person that they might not see in themselves”) or giving advice to a young Whitney Houston (“Sister, whatever you do, follow the music.  Don’t follow the people. People will confuse you.”) Perhaps what was most poignant to me was a comment he made about why he creates such personal and idiosyncratic music:

“It would be a disgrace to my ancestors to try to tell someone else’s story, which I could not do.  I could emulate it. I could emulate Bach. I could emulate Brahms. I have the technical skill to do that, but it would be dishonest.”

Hannibal Lokumbe in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
March 13, 2019—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Boulez, Twyla Tharp and the Creed of Curiosity

A gallery space performance

In the first chapter of Twyla Tharp’s instructional bible for creativity The Creative Habit, the iconic American choreographer identifies a contradiction. “There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub against each other.” Musical artists—instrumentalists, composers, and singers—are highly accustomed to the daily drilling of theoretical exercises and scales required to maintain proficiency. Tharp’s comments are apt considerations for musicians, and more especially for classical musicians trained using old school discipline at conservatories. Tharp reminds us that, in addition to the acquisition of skills, there lies something more at hand—something in addition to the technical dexterities we need to practice and hone in order to produce our work to its fullest capacity.

Since the classical age, the Greeks have been calling this missing ingredient “play” (paidia). Since around 500–300 BCE, Hellenic philosophical and artistic discussions have examined “play” as it relates to education (paidei). The relationship between paidia and paidei, with their implicit etymological references, are the center of Platonic ideas. The relationship of play and education does not pose as a paradox. Rather they are complimentary values.

For many, play and games are synonymous with childhood.  Play offers an opportunity to be spontaneous, leads to discovery by chance, and opens curiosity.  As we mature, our playtimes diminish; our learning becomes more serious. However, according to our Greek philosopher friends, our sense of daring and curiosity needs nourishment and experience. When we are young, the play and music tuition accidentally align. We might be flying on a swing in the backyard one minute, and playing scales on the piano in the next.  There is a spontaneous crossover, which accounts for why some young performers display fearlessness.

The challenges begin to build in mid-career if we fail to recognize and act on the importance of the trained skill-based creative play that Tharp discusses in her manual. Tharp suggests that creativity needs to be nurtured as a muscle. Our Greek philosophers don’t disagree. Tharp’s conundrum is not a paradox. In one of the surviving thirty-seven fragments of his six plays, the ancient Greek playwright Agathon wrote,  “chance and skill (techne) go hand in hand.”

Agathon and Tharp agree:  creative experimentation and skills need to be preserved as equal agents.

So how do we practice chance and daring? One answer is that we need to be constantly in search for opportunities where attributes of curiosity, chance, and daring are triggered and that we learn to trust them. In short we must constantly search for new playgrounds that suit our needs.

My personal cognition of the importance of play in my classical music career was sparked at my first contemporary music concert—a recital by the late American-Armenian mezzo-soprano and avant-garde pioneer Cathy Berberian. I was fourteen years old. The concert took place in the Adelaide Town Hall, as part of the Adelaide Festival in Australia where I grew up and received my musical education. I remember the experience distinctly. I sat in Row B, second seat from the end. The stage seemed impossibly high. I remember that I had to crane my neck for the entire concert. I can still picture Berberian’s satin green kaftan imprinted with a paisley motif. I remember her signature white-blonde locks—bubbles of curls sitting on top of her head as if her hair and her scalp were not quite attached. She appeared as a slightly unhinged post-modern Mozartian character. She was not.

The repertoire in the recital included John Cage, Bruno Maderna, and Sylvano Bussotti alongside Berberian’s iconic interpretations of Beatles’ songs and her own composition, the comic book fantasy Stripsody. I was riveted by the obscure helter-skelter intervals of the Maderna, and I was amazed that this classical singer could make an audience smile and laugh with her comedic turns and her creation of sounds that seemed to emanate from a circus tent.

At the time, I could not account for why I was drawn to this singer, or why I chose to attend this concert. After all, why not The Magic Flute? I can certainly explain it now.

Cathy Berberian exhibited a joyful exuberance. She sang each song as if she had just discovered a rare diamond and as if she was the only one who held the key to finding even more precious jewels. It hadn’t occurred to me then, but Berberian’s evident passion for discovery was a vital lesson of play (paidia) and skill (techne). She sang the most complex music with the candor of a child playing in a sandbox. She also displayed curiosity. Personality neuroscientist Colin DeYoung, a professor at the University of Minnesota, says, “Curiosity is the core of openness/intellect.”

The concert set me on the path. I decided I wanted to be Cathy Berberian—a curious, curly mop-headed woman who sang songs that no one else dared to embark on, and who instilled audiences with an intrigue for the undiscovered—the curiosity factor.

Several years later, my trek began at the conservatory. The academy of classical voice can be a precious heritage site. The tradition of the pedagogy of classical voice comes with protection and preservation. Certainly justifiable—sometimes the simple pragmatics of the short course work dictate the terms. There is a finite time of learning and skill acquisition that needs to be accomplished in a skeletal schedule of perhaps—if we can take an average—one lesson, one repertoire session, and one master class per week over the course of a degree. In that time, the singer must master lieder and art song, operatic roles together with three to four languages, leaving little room to discover different expressions of music. There is little time to play hide and seek or search for Berberian diamonds.

It was only at the end of my degree, that I realized that there was something missing. I was looking for Plato’s child’s play. So I went searching for a new playground.

Xenia Hanusiak in front of a music stand standing next to another singer in traditional Chinese dress whose face is obscured by that music stand.

Xenia Hanusiak performing a work she commissioned, Zhang Xiao-fu’s Visages Peint dans les Opera Bekin, at the 2008 Beijing Music Festival.

The importance of play entered the “educational” part of my career at a moment of complete surprise, somewhat like finding the piece that fits into your jigsaw puzzle when you least expect it. This opportune moment—what the Greeks call kairos—is also a key element of play conversations. My kairos arrived after graduation—first a residency with Kirsten Denholm’s Hotel Pro Forma in Denmark, and then, a course immersion at the Banff Center of Arts and Creativity in Canada. At that time Richard Armstrong, a performer, director, and teacher, was directing a course called Contemporary Music Theater. Armstrong, now an associate arts professor at NYU Tisch, helped to establish one of Europe’s most influential schools of voice and body research. He is the founding member of the Roy Hart Theatre in France. I arrived at his workshop with the baggage of conservatory training.

In the course of three months, I traded taffeta and black patent heels for leotards and bare feet.  Instead of singing beautiful legato lines, I was creating sounds like a growling angry bear in the register of a baritone.  Instead of standing in arms-length of a piano singing lied, I spent days rolling up and down the length of a floor. Picture here, the vision of a human rolling pin.

The “play” experiences were confronting and challenging. There is nowhere to run or hide at Banff. This is a residency course and your allies could well be the elks who loiter on campus. DeYoung tells us that approaching the unknown is not easy. “The unknown is innately both threatening and promising.” Imagine for a moment the feelings of a child entering a new playground. This experience is a facsimile.

While it took me some time to register that I was playing, Armstrong’s methodology alerted me that this kind of playtime was missing from my current education.  The ah-ha moment had arrived. Armstrong’s playground—a.k.a. skilled creativity—requires particular courage.

By the end of the three months I can report that I was more open, free, and spontaneous. However, I would be the first to say that there was much breaking down that needed to be addressed and conquered before I had reached this point. By the end of the program, I performed Denys Bouliane’s composition for solo voice Das Affenlied (The Monkey Song) literally in a tree. The performance was a personal milestone.  The workshop process also delivered unexpected results in my classical technique. Most of the improvements transpired as a result of the repetitious body-voice connection exercises. Armstrong’s game playing not only stimulated my imagination, but my performance practices improved. I stood in front of the piano with more poise and gravitas and the top of my tessitura was more consolidated.  I was playing and learning at the same time.

The Banff experience provided an important milestone in my realization that the routine of play was as necessary as it was a skill. Workshops of this personal intensity take the artist to a different understanding of vulnerability and growth.  Learning how to encounter and master chance and daring are technical lessons.

In 2018, I again found myself in that proverbial “What next?” artistic moment. As I was embarking on new projects, I sensed innately that my sense of spontaneity, my ways of seeing and sense of openness was calling for attention. I also understood I had to look beyond my usual vocabulary. I needed to find a new playground.

Fortunately, living in New York City, I was happy to learn of the program of master classes and workshops run by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and the Mark Morris Dance Group. BAM and the Mark Morris Dance Group have presented more than 65 master classes since 2013. The aim of the classes and workshops is to provide participants with ways to engage with the artists and productions on BAM’s stages and enhance each participant’s own practices. BAM opens its doors to musicians, writers, dancers, directors, and composers. BAM aims to keep the classes accessible, affordable, and inclusive. The process is application-free and the admission cost is low—usually around $25 for a class. These latter points are two great benefits for both bank accounts and time constraints.  Truly, we have spent enough time and money gathering degrees.

Donna DiNovelli, Kevin Newbury, and Heidi Rodewald talk to attendees seated in a circle during the BAM workshop “Making Your Own Rules" (Photo by Molly Silberberg, courtesy BAM)

Donna DiNovelli, Kevin Newbury, and Heidi Rodewald during the BAM workshop “Making Your Own Rules” (Photo by Molly Silberberg, courtesy BAM)

With rejuvenation on my agenda, I enrolled in two workshops last November: “Sight Sound and Picture,” a response to the Lars Jan/ Early Morning Opera’s production of The White Album; and “Making Your Own Rules,” led by Heidi Rodewald, Donna DiNovelli, and Kevin Newbury, the creative forces behind a contemporary oratorio The Good Swimmer. Both master classes were scheduled in tandem with their performance seasons and focused on multi-disciplinary applications to performance. As 21st-century musical artists, we are called to seek and to expand the auditory and visual experience. In response, BAM’s series continues to expand and reflect interdisciplinary and genre-defying work.

My first BAM workshop “Making Your Own Rules” was the perfect entrée back to the playground. Upon arrival, fifteen chairs were already placed in a circle. No one was dressed in leotards, nor swinging their legs on a ballet bar.  It was somehow comforting to me that my return to play technique would be gentle.

For the first half of the two-hour session, composer/musician Heidi Rodewald, lyricist Donna DiNovelli, and director Kevin Newbury led a generous and open discussion of the processes behind their pop oratorio The Good Swimmer. The artists offered insights and personal disclosures that were satisfyingly real and thorough. We were, after all, in the company of fellow artists who had shared similar roads. In essence, how did we get here? Participants included directors, singers, writers, documentary filmmakers, and a puppeteer. All were, like me, on the threshold of a forthcoming project.

David Driver (standing) and Sophia Byrd (sitting) in front of a group of instrumentalists and a vocal ensemble from the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of The Good Swimmer (Photo by Ed Lefkowicz,

David Driver (standing) and Sophia Byrd (sitting) in the Brooklyn Academy of Music production of The Good Swimmer. (Photo by Ed Lefkowicz, courtesy BAM)

The second section invited participants to offer found, non-literary text that we believed could be unique and serve as a stimulus for performance work. Once again, I was struck by the openness and generosity of all the participants in the play circle. In many of these discussions, the flow of ideas had a way of positioning my own work. I refreshed the button not only on my project at hand, but solidified ideas and recalibrated others. The experience was a success because the leaders provided a thoroughfare. We were just kids in the playground who did not know each other and this anonymity was quietly liberating.

On the very same day, and with a lunch break to engage in stimulating conversations with new colleagues from diverse disciplines, I entered into the dance space for the “Sight, Sound, and Picture.” This was leotard time. As I entered the studio, music was playing. There was no safety of chairs. We were left to stand in our stocking feet. Some participants jived to the music. Others wrapped their arms around their torso trying to warm their limbs. Some simply stood still.  As per the morning session, this workshop reflected on a concurrent show of the Next Wave Festival. In this case it was The White Album, a multilayered theatrical realization of Joan Didion’s seminal essay. Lars Jan, the work’s director, led the workshop. His voice is mellifluous, harmonious even, and intones a kindness. The age and experience of the participants was varied, so Jan’s skills as natural communicator were welcomed. For two hours we played games, but in essence we were quietly instructed on layering techniques. It was highly directed and structured. We played games, and we opened ourselves to curiosity through skill-based play.

The midcareer artist is always faced with forks in the road. Being stuck is part of the creative process, which must be embraced. Without conflict there is no resolution. Resolution usually brings a higher response.  The trick is to capitalize and understand through flexibility and openness on how we can move forward and what playground works for us. We must heed these warnings in our various pursuits of not only creating and interpreting the music of our time, but how we collaborate. Researchers, psychologists, educators and philosophers are all in agreement on the need to consider various methods to awaken our creativity and our patterns of discovery. Boulez used to say, “The moment you lose your curiosity, you might just as well keel over.” There is no one path, but a path must be taken.

From Avid Fan to Media Fellow

A man sitting on a bench reading a newspaper

In the music world, being a fan isn’t a bad gig. Unlike musicians, you can book yourself, so to speak, at any venue you want. You don’t have to go on the road unless you want to. You can avoid promoting yourself, finding a record label, and coming up with music to play. Of course you’ll never be applauded by an audience, yet you’ll almost always be thanked for “coming out tonight” by the musicians you go to see.

I’ve been enjoying these benefits of fandom for more than 50 years now. So why would I want to take on the more arduous role of writing about hard-to-describe new music, especially since I’m enjoying retirement from a career writing about other topics? It has to do with the great variety of music I’ve discovered as a fan and a basic desire to spread the word.

It was my good fortune to start listening to music seriously during the sixties, when rock and roll was developing by leaps and bounds. The shapeshifting Beatles alone showed me the surprising possibilities beyond pop, as their intentions went from holding our hands, to taking us down, to taking us away, to turning us on—all set to such precipitously changing music that in “Revolution #9” they urged us to “hold that line.”  Much has been written about expanding minds in the sixties, but the Beatles were surely expanding our ears long before the term “big ears” came to signify openness to new kinds of music.

Closer to home, in the late ‘70s my neighbor in Evanston, Illinois, was the multi-instrumentalist and composer Howard Levy. Howard is a virtuoso harmonica player and one of the original members of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, as well as a student and performer of music from other cultures. With some neighbors, you have to ask them to turn down their music; with Howard, you asked about what he was playing and got an enlightening tutorial.

Inside my own home, my son Sam started playing viola and composing music at age six, and later went on to get a master’s degree in electronic music composition. Sam not only introduced me to new music composers such as Steve Reich and Harry Partch, but he was my partner at adventurous performances where friends feared to tread.

If fans can be evaluated quantitatively by measures like how many performances they attend and how far they travel to do so, then, like every child in Lake Wobegon, I’m above average.  But I’ve also worked on the quality of how I listen to music. I’ve aspired to what Ben Ratliff has called listening “with purpose.” In his book Every Song Ever, Ratliff describes this as paying “just enough attention to it (music) so that it could change our lives,” and posits that “listening is a creative act, and at a certain point it, too, can be virtuosic—if you develop a heightened sensitivity to current and past standards of excellence.”

As a professional writer, I’ve always tried to learn from other writers whose work I’ve admired. In music, I have looked to Ratliff and The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross to school me. You could say I’m a fan of both men. But in addition to their writing chops, I’ve also envied how much more these two pros get out of the music than I do. Could trying to articulate just what excited me about a piece help make me a better listener?

What’s more, I’m motivated to write about music for a more generous reason. Most of my friends are music fans but have never even heard of the new music composers I’ve raved about, like Phil Kline, Adams (both John and John Luther), and Terry Riley. I started to resent all the media attention that just a small percentage of music makers have garnered, and wanted to correct this imbalance.

Then there’s the undeniable fact that new music is much more interesting to me than the products like mattress pads, clothing, and nametags that I had to write about as a catalog and internet copywriter. Earlier this year, my transition to music writer got a big boost from a coincidence that John Cage, the great consulter of the I-Ching, would have appreciated. For the first time, Bang on a Can—the original and most thrilling new music organization I’d discovered—was offering a media workshop for writers during their annual summer festival at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. In past years, I had made the trek from my home in Wisconsin to the MASS MoCA event several times. Now I would spend a week hanging out with the composers who founded Bang on a Can, the six-member Bang on a Can All-Stars who played such great music, and dozens of young music and composition “Fellows” from around the world learning and performing every day. It was a fan’s dream come true!

Yet the pinch-me quality of my time with Bang on a Can was tempered by the real demands of the workshop. Since there were only four of us Media Fellows, our writing received close attention from our instructors—John Schaefer, the host and producer of WNYC’s radio popular series New Sounds, and William Robin, a musicologist who teaches at the University of Maryland and is a contributor to The New York Times and The New Yorker.

John and Will critiqued our daily pieces about music performed at the festival and made suggestions for revisions con brio.  John in particular objected to the use of “gorgeous” to describe a piece of music, saying it’s overused and too vague. (I’ll never be able to see this word in print without thinking of his disdain for it.) Both instructors stressed that even the short articles (400-600 words) we were writing should tell an involving story. One memorable example was their reaction to a profile I wrote about one of the composition fellows in which I noted the fellow’s earlier volunteer work translating for victims of torture just in passing. Even though this experience didn’t involve music, fleshing it out would have revealed more about his personality and could be interesting to the reader. At the same time, “Tighten up the structure of the piece” was a refrain I heard throughout the week. New music composers experimented with all manner of nonlinear forms, but their music was best described by well-organized prose.

Although my fellow Fellows in the media seminar were considerably younger, I came to accept that I could learn from their writing. After all, seasoned composers don’t turn a deaf ear to a Mozart masterpiece just because he wrote it at an age when they were in grad school. On example was this clear, informative excerpt from piece by Maggie Molloy, editor at Second Inversion radio station in Seattle, on composer Eve Beglarian’s Play Like A Girl: “The unusual collection of timbres made for a modern take on the distinctively close harmonies of Bulgarian folk music, with a restless stream of piano and glockenspiel melodies circling above a growling synth drone. While the driving rhythms propelled the piece closer to the world of minimalism, the more subtle modal ornaments embodied the emotive folk traditions of Eastern Europe.”

I also learned that all writers could benefit from spending time in a musician’s rehearsal room like the one where I revised my articles at MASS MoCA. “OK, let’s try it again,” an ensemble leader said for the fifth time in about as many minutes.  Then once more I heard the frantic jangle of strings, a piano, other percussion instruments, and a soprano singing staccato syllables. I realized that writers aren’t the only ones who have to do their work over and over to get it just right, and was very impressed by how quickly musicians do their kind of revising.

So now when I begin writing a third or fourth draft of an article on new music, I’ll say to myself, “OK, let’s take it from the top—just like the musicians who are even cooler than music writers.”

A Musical Oasis in an Icefield

Orchestra on stage

In January of 2016, I boarded a plane from my home base in New York City and touched down a few hours later in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Though I was born in Montreal and lived through its blistering winters for almost three decades, five years of temperate NYC weather had dulled my hibernal instincts: I showed up with a slick coat best suited for a reasonable East Coast urban setting, wearing cowboy boots…

…It was negative 40 degrees. Fahrenheit or Celsius, you ask? Doesn’t matter, they’re the same at that hellish level. (But yeah, Celsius.)

I was there to be announced as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s new composer-in-residence and co-curator of its Winnipeg New Music Festival (WNMF). It’s fair to say I was pretty stoked. But I didn’t really know what I was getting into.

I’d heard of the orchestra and of the festival. WNMF would come up in conversation among the contemporary music intelligentsia and would show up sporadically in the webosphere. News would filter out about major composers and artists being involved, and the WSO had recently made its Carnegie Hall debut performing exclusively contemporary Canadian music.

The position with the WSO had opened up following the departure of my immediate predecessor, Vincent Ho, and though I’d been garnering some valuable experience writing for orchestra over the previous few years, I didn’t have high expectations when I applied for the post. I was shocked when I got the fateful call, and thrilled that I’d get to go there to experience WNMF 2016 in person before assuming the mantle.

I was expecting something cool but fairly low-key. This isn’t New York or LA, after all; Winnipeg is only the 7th most populous city in Canada (which has one tenth the population of the US). It’s a 22-hour drive from Toronto in the next province over; 13 hours from Chicago or Calgary; and at least 7 hours from “neighboring” cities Minneapolis and Saskatoon.

What I found was fairly mind-blowing. A week-long festival dedicated entirely to contemporary music from Canada and abroad; four full orchestral programs with the WSO and three evenings of chamber, choral, and other programming formats; Joan Tower, David Lang, and Sō Percussion hanging out; collaborations with the visual arts, film, fashion, and gastronomy; enthusiastic audiences coming out to fill the 2300-seat Centennial Concert Hall, seven days in a row. People came not only for the music, but packed the hall’s various spaces to listen to discussion panels and participate in Q&A sessions with the guest artists. With searing −40° weather outside.

The place was buzzing. Wait, am I in New York or LA? [Looks out at the crystalline, frozen landscape surrounding the hall.] Huh. I guess not.

WNMF 2018 post-concert audience Q & A with artistic director Alexander Mickelthwate, composers Philip Glass and Michael Snow, and co-curators Harry Stafylakis and Matthew Patton. Image: Steve Salnikowski | Chronic Creative

WNMF 2018 post-concert audience Q & A with artistic director Alexander Mickelthwate, composers Philip Glass and Michael Snow, and co-curators Harry Stafylakis and Matthew Patton. Image: Steve Salnikowski | Chronic Creative

Returning from that first trip, the import of my position hit me. WNMF was founded in 1992 by then-Music Director Bramwell Tovey and the WSO’s first composer-in-residence, Glenn Buhr. The job I was taking on was, incredibly, supported by an initiative by the Canada Council of the Arts to place a Canadian composer at the heart of our important orchestral institutions as ambassadors for music as a living art. Though the details of these positions vary across the nation, the essence is the same: to develop my own skills in composing for orchestra, while advocating for living composers by assisting in contemporary programming, organizing commissions, facilitating rehearsals and productions, writing grants, seeking sponsors, engaging in educational outreach, and serving as liaison between the artists and organization on the one hand, and between the organization and its audience on the other.

If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Between all the curatorial, administrative, operational, outreach, and public-facing responsibilities, and composing an inordinate amount of music, it’s more than a full-time job. And it’s an absolute pleasure.

I get to listen to hundreds of pieces every year, including the constant stream of incoming programming and commission proposals from composers, soloists, and ensembles. It can be frustrating, knowing that there’s only so much that can be programmed in even as substantial a festival as WNMF and in the handful of slots dedicated to contemporary music in the WSO’s regular season.

At the same time, we’re also incredibly ambitious, wanting to present and commission a diverse swath of music, from major international figures to local and emerging artists – all within the confines of a rather modest operating budget. The WSO’s commitment to contemporary music continuously boggles my mind, allocating substantial resources to developing the orchestra’s position as a leading supporter of living artists, but financial realities are always sobering. Funding to make it all possible is lovingly assembled from the WSO’s operating budget, from national, provincial, and municipal grants, and from private and corporate sponsorships. This is a Sisyphean endeavor, requiring constant work to maintain and, hopefully, increase our capacity as stewards for contemporary music.

WNMF 2018 post-concert with co-curators and the performers for Philip Glass's Complete Piano Études (pictured left to right): Harry Stafylakis, Madeline Hildebrand, Jenny Lin, Philip Glass, Vicky Chow, Jónas Sen, Matthew Patton. Image: Steve Salnikowski | Chronic Creative

WNMF 2018 post-concert with co-curators and the performers for Philip Glass’s Complete Piano Études (pictured left to right): Harry Stafylakis, Madeline Hildebrand, Jenny Lin, Philip Glass, Vicky Chow, Jónas Sen, Matthew Patton. Image: Steve Salnikowski | Chronic Creative

Given all that, it’s amazing what the WSO is able to accomplish. In my first two years with the organization, we’ve featured major international artists of an impressively eclectic range, from Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble and JACK Quartet, to Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) and William Basinski, to Fazıl Say and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. At WNMF 2018, Philip Glass was our distinguished guest composer, presenting the Canadian premiere of his Symphony No. 11 and performing in person alongside a murderers’ row of brilliant pianists in an evening dedicated to his complete Piano Études. Partnering with Carnegie Hall for the first time since the WSO’s 2014 New York debut, we co-commissioned Glass’s String Quartet No. 8, which was premiered by guest artists, the JACK Quartet, preceded by Ferneyhough and followed by georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No. 9, performed in complete darkness in the massive concert hall; JACK brought the house down. On opening night, the Glass symphony was programmed alongside the orchestral version of Björk’s Family, an orchestral commission by legendary visual artist Michael Snow, and my second major commission for the WSO, A Parable for End Times, a setting for choir and orchestra of an apocalyptic text of biting social commentary by noted fantasy author Steven Erikson.

WNMF 2018 post-concert Q & A with JACK Quartet (L–R): Harry Stafylakis, Christopher Otto, Jay Campbell, John Pickford Richards, Austin Wulliman, Alexander Mickelthwate. Image: Steve Salnikowski | Chronic Creative

WNMF 2018 post-concert Q & A with JACK Quartet (L–R): Harry Stafylakis, Christopher Otto, Jay Campbell, John Pickford Richards, Austin Wulliman, Alexander Mickelthwate. Image: Steve Salnikowski | Chronic Creative

Of course, as a Canadian institution, a significant part of our mission is to help nurture Canadian music, which the WSO has a distinguished history of doing. In my time with the orchestra, we’ve featured and commissioned works by noted Canadian composers Vivian Fung, Christos Hatzis, Jocelyn Morlock, Samy Moussa, Cassandra Miller, Dinuk Wijeratne, Nicole Lizée, Emilie LeBel, T. Patrick Carrabré, Alexina Louie, Eliot Britton, Farangis Nurulla-Khoja, Karen Sunabacka, Andrew Balfour, Fjóla Evans, Sabrina Schroeder… The list goes on.

WNMF Composers Institute 2018 participants and mentor composers (L–R): Octavio Vazquez, Samy Moussa, Harry Stafylakis, Steven Webb, Kristen Wachniak, Philip Glass, Karen Sunabacka, Austin Leung, Chia-Lin Cathy Kuo, Brent Johnson, Roydon Tse, Leslie Opatril. Image: Brent Johnson | WSO

WNMF Composers Institute 2018 participants and mentor composers (L–R): Octavio Vazquez, Samy Moussa, Harry Stafylakis, Steven Webb, Kristen Wachniak, Philip Glass, Karen Sunabacka, Austin Leung, Chia-Lin Cathy Kuo, Brent Johnson, Roydon Tse, Leslie Opatril. Image: Brent Johnson | WSO

Capitalizing on the potential offered by the festival, in my first year on the job I founded the WNMF Composers Institute, a week-long, intensive professional development program for emerging Canadian composers. Inspired in part by my own formative experience with the American Composers Orchestra’s 2014 Underwood New Music Readings – which was held as part of the first New York Philharmonic Biennial – the Composers Institute runs concurrently with the Winnipeg New Music Festival, offering seven young composers full behind-the-scenes access to the complex machinery of a professional symphony orchestra and major festival, while providing them with invaluable hands-on experience composing for and working with a high-level orchestra. The first edition was so successful that in 2018 the WSO committed to giving not just a reading of the young composers’ works, but to present them in public performance as one of the main WNMF evening concerts. Throughout the week, the dedicated WNMFCI mentor composers and the guest composers who were in attendance for the festival guided the participants through the process, sharing their experience and insight into the practical aspects of both the craft and business of composition. The hope, ultimately, is that this opportunity can serve as a launching point for young composers who are keen to pursue orchestral composition – a tough nut to crack for most of us. The Composers Institute is open to Canadian citizens and residents, with the call for applications going out every year through the usual channels (you may have seen the notice up on the American Composers Forum and Composer’s Site) and on the Composer Institute page. [Do help spread the word if you know any young Canadian composers!]

The amount of work that goes into planning and running a festival of this scope is tremendous. The Winnipeg Symphony’s entire administrative, production, operations, marketing, and artistic planning teams, hall staff, technical personnel, and several dozen musicians are involved in making it all possible. The Composers Institute alone represents a year of preparation and twelve-plus-hour days during the entirety of the festival. From a purely artistic front, witnessing the WSO musicians and conductors prepare a week’s worth of brand new music in a heavily compressed timeframe and execute it at such a consistently high level is frankly awe-inspiring. Most of this work goes on behind the scenes, the names of all the contributors at best acknowledged in fine print in the festival program book or on a back page of the WSO or WNMF websites.

But boy is it ever worth it, if only for the honor of being part of something this special.

Harry Stafylakis standing on the side of the stage during a performance. Image: Sarah Panas | WSO

Image: Sarah Panas | WSO

In 2019, WNMF founder and WSO Conductor Laureate Bramwell Tovey returns to conduct the opening concert, featuring WNMF alumni composers Kelly-Marie Murphy, Jocelyn Morlock, and yours truly, capped off with John Adams’s seminal Harmonielehre (which was featured at the very first edition of the festival). Daniel Raiskin then takes over the podium in his first season as WNMF artistic director, conducting works by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Michael Daugherty, Caroline Shaw, Vivian Fung, and distinguished guest composer Pēteris Vasks. Exciting young Canadian ensembles collectif9 and Architek Percussion come out to present works by Canadian composers, while the incredible Roomful of Teeth makes its WNMF debut both on their own feature concert, and later joining the orchestra for a special collaboration.

And – I still can’t quite believe it – progressive metal pioneers Animals As Leaders come to the festival to give a unique performance of their music, highlighting the progressive metal genre’s shared values as advanced, virtuosic chamber music, and also joining the WSO for the band’s first ever performance with live symphony orchestra. For a life-long metalhead [that’s definitely a word] and classicalhead [can we make that a word?], collaborating with a group of Animals As Leaders’ caliber in creating these new orchestral adaptations of their music has been an incredibly fulfilling experience for me personally – and a testament to the artistic diversity that WNMF has developed in its 28-year history.

Though it may go without saying, I continue to be absolutely stoked and humbled to be part of this institution, and relish the opportunity to return to WNMF every year. In fact, you should consider coming for a visit sometime around January 25–February 1, 2019; when was the last time you were in the Canadian Prairies in the heart of winter? Besides, it’ll only be around −40°.

Saving The Earth–Artist/Activists for the Environment

It’s obvious that our physical world is in deep trouble.  Old and new technologies are out of control—polluting our air, water and soil, poisoning our health, heating up the climate to extreme weather changes, and destroying the ecosystems upon which our lives and all living things depend.  What is it that we, ordinary people, can do to force our governments to stop this rape and murder of the earth?

We are six women artists. Since we are artists, we will try to help through our art.

In 2016, composer Alice Shields collaborated with composers Sheree Clement, Eleanor Cory, and Nina C. Young to design a concert of new works dedicated to the earth, all created by women.  The concert would be presented by The Association for the Promotion of New Music in New York City (APNM) and would be performed by the musicians of Ensemble Pi.

Idith Meshulam Korman—pianist, artistic director of Ensemble Pi, and one of the most vibrant social activists in classical music—was already a friend of several of the composers and immediately got involved. Ensemble Pi was indeed the perfect ensemble for this project: an outstanding contemporary performing ensemble, with a celebrated history and ongoing commitment to human rights and environmental protection.

With Idith and Ensemble Pi’s roster of musicians in mind, several of us began writing new pieces about the environment that would be performed at the proposed concert.  As plans developed, we decided to explore what visual artist we might bring in to enhance the experience of our audience.  Erik Lundborg, the president of APNM, suggested we might want to ask the prominent environmental photographer Lynne Buchanan, whom he had known as a fellow student at New College, if she would be interested in participating.  Passionately committed to environmental protection, Lynne has documented climate change and water issues across the United States and around the world in places such as Patagonia, Iceland, the Falkland Islands, Antarctica, and Bangladesh.

We contacted her, and Lynne quickly became the sixth member of our artist-activist alliance. A dedicated environmentalist, she has photographed natural phenomena around the world, working for environmental organizations such as Waterkeeper Alliance, as well as with indigenous people.  Lynne’s beautiful, often disturbing photographs of the current state of the earth are riveting. Not only do they document the actual physical phenomena of streams, rivers, oceans, trees, and landscapes, but they are also works of art, radiantly detailed and shining with natural light.  Lynne’s environmental photographs will be shown throughout the SAVING THE EARTH concert, matched with the mood and world view of our different compositions. Our concert audience will not only be hearing music inspired by the environment, but will be experiencing visual art representing environmental issues as well.

Is our music and visual art enough to convey our concern about saving the physical world?

We considered what else might elevate the audience’s experience.  We were not environmental scientists or biologists: is our music and visual art enough to convey our concern about saving the physical world? Don’t we also need someone who can speak with authority about the perilous state of the environment?  We asked Lynne what environmental organization we should invite to speak at the concert. Lynne suggested we contact Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to clean water around the world which she knew well.

The Waterkeeper movement was started by fishermen on New York’s Hudson River in 1966 because industrial polluters were destroying their way of life. Their environmental activism led to the Hudson’s inspiring recovery. Waterkeeper Alliance now unites 300 Waterkeeper organizations around the world, tracking down polluters, enforcing environmental laws in the courts, advocating in town meetings, and teaching in classrooms.  They speak for the waters they defend. We contacted them and are pleased to say that Waterkeeper’s Executive Director Marc Yaggi will speak during the concert.  Before joining Waterkeeper Alliance, Marc, a specialist in environmental law, was a senior attorney for Riverkeeper, Inc., where he worked to protect the 2,000-square-mile watershed that provides New York City’s drinking water.

The concert program we have designed together—four composers, a pianist-ensemble leader, and an environmental photographer—is called SAVING THE EARTH – Two operas and two meditations for our Planet. It will be presented by the Association for the Promotion of New Music on Nov. 20, 2018, at 7:30 p.m. at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in Manhattan. Below, each one of us speaks a little about the concert and our hopes for the preservation of the earth.

Sheree Clement

Sheree Clement

Sheree Clement
About Swimming Upstream (2018)
for soprano, flute, clarinet, piano , violin, cello and video
Elizabeth Farnum, soprano
Conducted by Carl Bettendorf
Projection design by Ross Karre
NYC premiere

Swimming Upstream, a one-act chamber opera, explores our emotional connection to water and rivers and streams. The main character is a retired biology teacher from Rumford, Maine—and/or a water goddess. You get to decide.  Imagine her reaction to what we humans have done to the water on our planet – dammed streams and rivers, upended ecosystems, and even contaminated our own drinking water.  The piece incorporates projections and pre-recorded audio with field recordings and texts about water, the Androscoggin River, and migratory fish. With a minimal stage setting, it weaves together science, politics, regional history, and family history.

Upstream Fish

An image of upstream fish that will be projected during Sheree Clement’s Swimming Upstream.

The work challenges the audience to consider our relationship with water.

In four scenes, the heroine Mary Beth Davis comes to terms with the defilement of the Androscoggin River and the ramifications of the devastation it caused. Many of her family members worked in the Oxford / Verso paper mill, and many died of one kind of cancer or another. In reflecting on the river, Mary Beth’s science background leads her to consider the 2014 tap water crisis in Flint, Michigan and more. This drives her to ideas of retribution and extreme measures, but who is actually responsible? The work challenges the audience to consider our relationship with water.

Nina C. Young

Nina C. Young

Nina C. Young
About L’heure bleue (2013)
Roberta Michel, flute; Ah Ling Neu, viola

I was trained as an ocean engineer at MIT and my work as a composer has often engaged with topics and sounds that address human interaction with technology and the environment.  In 2017 the American Composers Orchestra premiered Out of whose womb came the ice, a work for baritone, orchestra, electronics, and generative video commenting on the ill-fated Ernest Shackleton Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917.  The composition is built upon sourced texts from the journal entries of the crew, visual manipulations of Frank Hurley’s photographs from the expedition, and recordings of ice floes and glaciers obtained from the PALAOA Ocean Acoustics Lab.  The glacier recordings resurface as the sonic and harmonic structure of Rising Tide, a work commissioned for the Milan Expo that comments on human agency and rising sea levels.  I’m currently collaborating with vocal bassist, writer, and community organizer Andrew Munn on an evening-length, multi-media ritual opera, titled Making Tellus – An Opera for the Anthropocene, which addresses the current socio-political conversation surrounding human intervention and earth’s rapidly changing geology.

For me, music, as a temporal art, serves as a vehicle for expressing notions of process, memory, ephemera, and fragility.

All of these larger projects stemmed from one of my first attempts at tying together concepts of natural phenomenon with organized concert music: L’heure bleue, the work programmed on APNM’s concert.  For me, music, as a temporal art, serves as a vehicle for expressing notions of process, memory, ephemera, and fragility.  L’heure bleue evokes with sound the earthly transition from day to night, the unique glow of the mysterious blue hour that fades into darkness.  The flautist and violist are two individuals in a partnership—conversing, arguing, and admiring their surroundings as they try to find a union between themselves as singular, together, and in counterpoint with the liminality of their surroundings.  The piece also contains an easter egg: play L’heure bleue alongside Steven Wilson’s song “Harmony Korine” and you may discover an unexpected connection.  (If you are interested why, come and chat with me after the show!)

Eleanor Cory in Straus Park

Eleanor Cory (Photo by Molly Sheridan)

Eleanor Cory
About Reverie Interrupted (2018)
Aexis Gerlach, cello; Idith Meshulam, piano
world premiere

I grew up summering on the far end of Long Island. We lived at the top of a hill away from the surf, but many summers our yard was flooded with waves which came up over the dunes during hurricanes. These were frightening experiences for me as a little child. The waves felt enormous, and surmounting their ire made me strong. Looking back, I experienced extreme vulnerability, but also a sense of power. I think the extremes of environmental events have some relation to writing music. We need to be in command of notes which can have the power to present listeners with everything from beauty to complexity, fear and anger as well as sensitivity and vigor. The environment has often inspired me with images which I have translated into notes.

I felt a need to find new ways to connect my ideas more directly to other people.

Writing music is a very solitary activity. For years I composed and taught composition to college students.  When I retired and was alone with just my music, I felt a need to find new ways to connect my ideas more directly to other people. Eventually, my pieces began to refer to political events like Occupy Wall Street or the experiences of people in prison.

Recently I have been concerned about the threat to the American environment, which led me to write Reverie Interrupted for cello and piano. The music alternates between supple lines and chords expressing the beautiful panoramas of wide U.S. landscapes, and agitated, more dissonant sections, which depict the environmental damage that humans can cause.  At the end of the piece, a quiet equilibrium allows the two musical extremes to co-exist expressing my optimism that people can end environmental corrosion.

Alice Shields

Alice Shields

Alice Shields
About Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World (2018)
for soprano, baritone, flute, oboe, percussion, piano, violin, viola, cello
Sharon Harms, soprano; Jeffrey Huw Williams, baritone;
Conducted by Carl Bettendorf
Directed by Ashley Tata
world premiere

In early childhood I lived for a while in the Sonoran Desert, and saw Spring come on the desert, with thousands of cactus in bright blooms, radiating color under the enormous skies. Later, as a child growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, I saw more and more asphalt being laid down for roads and malls, covering over the woods and meadows. As the number of cars increased on those roads and malls, the fresh air changed to something less alive. Since that time I have felt increasingly estranged from the natural world, and have tried to draw it near to me in my work. A recent piece in which I have held nature close to me is The Wind In the Pines, a commission from Chamber Music America for singer and six instruments. In this piece, based on the Noh play Matsukaze (“Pine Wind”), a pine tree speaks of the doom of the earth.

Joining these pieces is my new opera Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World, a one-act chamber opera. The plot is based on stories about Wang Zhaojun, who created peace between Mongolia and China two thousand years ago and is still celebrated in China today. Zhaojun had been given by her former master, the Emperor, to the Mongols as a sexual peace offering. But in the opera, to stop environmental destruction and create universal peace, the sex slave Zhaojun steps out of ancient times into the 21st century to confront the Emperor, the modern ruler of the world.

The costume for the Emperor of the Future

The costume for the Emperor of the Future in Alice Shields’s opera Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World.

She’s here to dethrone the 21st century Emperor so he will not be able to abuse women and destroy all life on earth through his violence, rapacious finance, and pollution.

She’s here to dethrone the 21st century Emperor so he will not be able to abuse women and destroy all life on earth through his violence, rapacious finance, and pollution. The plot unfolds: Zhaojun three times tries to rip away his guns, money, and garbage, but fails to trap him. Nonetheless, he stumbles and falls into his own toxic environmental garbage, smothers, and dies. She brings him back to life, and teaches him to sing a liturgy of caring for others, and immerses him in Indra’s Net, the connective tissue that connects each cell in the universe. He is overwhelmed with the beauty and profundity of the universe until there is no narcissism left in him, and he finally feels compassion and the urge to protect all living things. Nearer to enlightenment, and almost happy, the Emperor’s Soul is released, and he dances together with Zhaojun, dedicating his new life to caring and compassion for all things.

Idith Meshulam Korman playing the piano

Idith Meshulam Korman, pianist and artistic director of Ensemble Pi

Idith Meshulam Korman

Ensemble Pi, a socially conscious new music group, strives for activism through music by presenting concerts focused on such policy matters as mass incarceration, media suppression, Black Lives Matter, and protecting our environment. The last subject is the most alarming one, especially under the current administration, and encompasses issues of racism, economic injustice, greed, inequality, and media presentation.

For the first time in history, the next generations are going to be sicker than previous generations.

In my personal observations of environmental shifts during my lifetime, I would say that the most conspicuous change I have seen is the compromised health of the younger generation. For the first time in history, the next generations are going to be sicker than previous generations, afflicted with new, debilitating, undiagnosed, and misunderstood chronic diseases. The cause of this alarming and painful situation can be nothing other than that we live in a soup of environmental toxins. Our water, air, food, oceans, and mountains need our protection—and are not getting it.

And because we live in a male-dominated society that allows this to happen, it is time for  women to connect, collaborate, create a new movement, and launch a revolution to effect significant environmental change. Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), cites the need to hear from more women scientists on the topic of climate change, and she notes that the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle at Standing Rock was initiated by women and children from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Ensemble Pi rehearsing

Ensemble Pi rehearsing Alice Shields’s opera Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World

I believe this should be our model, and that “Change the System to Change the Climate” should be our motto.

The question is: How do you stay hopeful or engaged in the present, dire political climate? The answer: by getting out of our homes and off our screens and coming together with like-minded people to share our concerns and pain and to call for change. This concert is part of that movement: women for environmental change.

Lynne Buchanan on the Kapitan Khlebnikov

Environmental photographer Lynne Buchanan on the legendary Kapitan Khlebnikov, one of the most powerful icebreakers in the world.

Lynne Buchanan

For the last 15 million years, Antarctica has been a frozen desert under ice.  My interest in water naturally led me there, as the Antarctic contains somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of the earth’s freshwater in frozen ice sheets.  According to Andrew Shepherd, the lead author of a recent study on Antarctic ice loss, Antarctica lost 3 trillion tons of ice between 2002 and 2017, with forty percent of this loss in the last five years.  In addition to glacial land ice, there is sea ice, which is also declining and resulting in alterations to the food web and habitat loss.  The melting of freshwater glaciers is altering the fresh and saltwater mix, which is causing changes in the ocean’s chemistry, ecosystems, and biodiversity.  It was fascinating to observe some of the changes that are happening with my own eyes, as I watched glaciers the size of city blocks move past the icebreaker.

The melting of freshwater glaciers is altering the fresh and saltwater mix.

The sea ice is what really spoke to my soul though.  To study it was to watch geology in motion, something that is not possible on land.  Fast sea ice attaches to land masses and is less prone to seasonal melting, and this is what we walked on to visit the emperor penguins, which are the only creatures to lay their eggs on sea ice.  (Sadly, studies have predicted the rapid decline of these species as the sea ice diminishes.)  Floating sea ice can be multiyear thicker ice or thin ice that freezes each winter.  The winds and currents blow icebergs and sea ice around in the ocean, and it is easy to become trapped. Helicopter reconnaissance missions were performed regularly to make sure we would not get stuck. Sheets of sea ice often crash into each other and form fracture lines. I loved when finger-shaped pieces of ice were superimposed on layers below, or when frost flowers dotted the surface, or when the ship churned up thick chunks and you could see the krill and algae on the underside.  Glacial ice is devoid of life, but sea ice is a platform for it. The intricacies of how the sea ice behaves reminded me of the human psyche–the “armor” or artificial walls we often construct and how our personalities evolve when we are triggered or when aspects of our inner selves erupt. To me, Antarctica embodied the interconnectedness of existence. The sea of whiteness was a blank slate at times, but when you looked closer it wasn’t blank at all. There were traces and records of being in nothingness all around…

When Erik Lundborg, the president of APNM and a fellow New College alum, approached me to see if I was interested in participating in a “Saving the Earth” concert of works by female composers, I was honored to share my images.  Having worked with indigenous women on water and other environmental issues, I instantly knew the value of having a program with this theme designed and composed by women. Then I learned of the opera by Alice Shields that will be performed in this concert.  She describes the penultimate scene as being Indra’s Web, in which the female character Zhaojun immerses the Emperor’s body in the interconnected web of atoms that reflect all the other atoms in the universe, and teaches him to serenely sing with her the Bodhisattva’s guide to life. I was a yoga instructor before I began photographing water and interdependent ecosystems, so this spoke to me on a deep level.  My worldview is also greatly influenced by Hildegard von Bingen, who lived in the 12th century and believed in a web of life. The theme of Alice’s opera is a reminder that women throughout history have been advocating for the need to connect with the earth and share her resources for future generations.

What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers

It has been more than six months since Helga Davis gave the keynote speech at the 2018 New Music Gathering. After a brief opener, she quoted August Gold—“If you want to know what you want, you have to look at what you have.”—and then proceeded to ask the audience to “look around the room, and see what the composition of [the] room [says] about what we want.”

Based on her challenge, we can ultimately conclude the following: if attending a music event and the people in the room of the event comprise mostly white cisgender men, then the greater collective “we” simply does not want people who are not white cisgender men to participate.

As a frequent attendee of new music events around the world, I often feel as though the presence of people who look like me is not wanted or is merely tolerated.

As a frequent attendee of new music events around the world, I often feel as though the presence of people who look like me is not wanted or is merely tolerated, but for me this feeling arises mainly from observations of concert programming. After I attend concerts of music solely by composers who fit that expected image, the message “black composers have not composed music good enough for us to play or for this stage” is inevitably evoked within me. Every time. In observing the greater world of classical music, the father of what we refer to as new music today, it is no wonder why black composers do not feel wanted. Classical music did not escape the greater social construct of racism and patriarchy, which is why composers such as Ignatius Sancho, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Blind Tom, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, and plenty more are usually only studied in non-required specialized classes. Why not, for example, include Chevalier de Saint-Georges in a general music history class? After all, his career begins before Mozart’s (who utilized one of Saint-Georges’s melodic gestures in the finale of his Symphony Concertante in E flat Major, K364), his orchestra did commission and present the world premieres of the six Paris Symphonies by Haydn (all of which Saint-Georges conducted), and his own music was highly praised during and after his life. Yet his and other black composers’ non-existence in academic institutions tells black composers that we are not wanted, no matter how much success we gain. New music has done very little to change the expected optics of classical music, which is why new music’s identity problem is what it is today. Moreover, despite the recent increase in conversation about female, non-binary, transgender, and BAME/ALAANA/diverse composers, the programming of these composers has not significantly increased.

For many of us, there is a frustration. On the one hand, if the optics of new music are sending unwelcoming messages, then the next generation of would-be black composers will most likely not pursue composition. On the other hand, the general mistrust and falsehoods that exist within the new music community are already quite high, as evinced by #MeToo-related reports, countless social media posts and private conversations/confessions, stories of professors psychologically abusing their students or mis-teaching their students through their lack of honesty and inability to convey important messages, and more. Discussions about the semantics and accrual of commissions amongst composers of all levels are few and far between, and consequently the underpayment or non-payment of composers for new works occurs more frequently than what may be imagined. Professional recommendations for opportunities do not happen nearly to the extent that they could for all composers, and all of these injustices disproportionately affect black composers. Additionally, the number of ensembles directly reaching out to black composers is not significant enough to noticeably bring these composers parity. There is also a trend that places the music of black composers mostly in themed concerts, more often than not related to social justice or for Black History Month. While this is not necessarily negative, the injustice arises when absolute music or music with non-social themes by black composers is overlooked. In sum, we are not one-trick ponies.

It must be noted that it is impossible for me to comment upon every smaller, interior facet of new music with regards to such behavior; there are certainly localities and communities which are more welcoming, open, and inclusive than others, and I would love to learn more about this work that is being accomplished. However, if the aforementioned reality is true for any composer (as it certainly is for me), then the new music community not only has the responsibility, but also the incentive, to change. How, one might ask? There are some EXTREMELY simple steps:

Anthony R. Green introduces the "Freedom Rising"

Anthony R. Green introduces the “Freedom Rising” project by Castle of our Skins at the Museum of African American History’s African Meeting House, Boston, MA; IMAGE: Monika Bach Schroeder

1) If you are an active soloist or are in or run an ensemble of any size, program music by black composers. Program all of it, not just the “socially aware” music. Program it as part of events that happen in months other than February or March. Arrange portrait concerts. Arrange a non-“social justice”-themed concert and program works by black composers which fit this theme, and don’t make a big deal about the identity of the composers. After performing these works once, perform them again, and again, and again, for many years. Make them regular works on concerts. Give them to your students to study.

2) If you do not know any music by a black composer, create a playlist and have weekly listening sessions. Listen often. Listen to music that you do not like. Find music that you like and love. Engage with it critically, but respectfully. Mention black composers in conversations; when you are talking about how cool Gunther Schuller was, don’t forget Ed Bland or Julia Perry. When you are talking about how cool Chaya Czernowin is, don’t forget Tania León and Marcos Balter.

3) Share what you know and what you have learned about black composers. Outside of sharing this information with students and in conversations, write blog posts. Write articles. Make vlog posts and podcasts. Make memes and post them on your social media channels. Share stories and information and anecdotes on social media and other platforms. Share YouTube and Vimeo videos of performances and interviews. Hold listening parties. Spread the word about helpful resources, ensembles, organizations, and other entities doing such work in a powerful, significant way. Encourage people in your community to engage with this work, and be curious.

4) Demand more from your musical sources. Write to your radio stations, to your favorite YouTube channels, to your favorite ensembles; ask your teachers to include more music by black composers in the theory classroom, in the history classroom, in your private lessons. Those who have power will not know what the demand is until the demand is made. If there is really a demand, then make it known.

5) Support black composers and the soloists, organizations, and ensembles that program their music. Castle of our Skins (of which I am a co-founder) is one of a handful of organizations whose seasonal programming regularly consists of at least 90% music by black composers (as attested by its repertoire list), and it is, contrary to popular business-model or donor-related expectations in music, a successful organization. If you are in a position to commission or create an opportunity for a composer for a project, consider reaching out to a black composer, then work with that composer, support that composer financially, professionally, and emotionally. Do not give up on that composer, because perhaps that composer already feels abandoned by the new music and classical music communities.

6) When a black composer is expressing a grievance, listen with all you have. While conversations about black underrepresentation in classical music are generally positive and well-meant, such conversations are almost pointless if they do not include the voices of black people. Trust these voices. Be critical, but respectful. Engage in exchange. Be patient. We want to talk, but “it’s a privilege to be able to critique without professional fears.”* At one point in my life, I did not have this privilege. Perhaps I still do not have it. But when our work is blatantly ignored, disrespected, not studied, and not programmed, our voice is all we have.

Lastly, remember to keep Helga Davis’s challenge within you at all times. When you are at a music event, especially a new music event, look around, see what is missing, and ask yourself what that says about what you truly want.

* My first encounter with this phrase was in the article: “Classical music’s white male supremacy is overt, pervasive, and a problem,” by Daniel Johanson, for Scapi Magazine, February 18, 2018. This article has since been removed from Scapi, but appears on other websites in various formats.