Category: Community Connections

Different Cities Different Voices – Omaha

Omaha skyline

For our latest edition of Different Cities Different Voices, a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the United States through the voices of local creators and innovators, we are putting the spotlight on Omaha, Nebraska. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the USA, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

First, an introduction from our New Music USA program council member Amanda DeBoer.

Amanda DeBoer (photo by Aleksandr Karjaka)

Amanda DeBoer

Growing up in Omaha, my first memories of live performance include a touring Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar and the annual Omaha Community Playhouse production of The Christmas Carol (legendary around these parts). I performed in my first community theatre production when I was 13 (Brigadoon at the Ralston Community Theater), and the Dundee Dinner Theater production of Fiddler on the Roof when I was 14. After that, I lived and breathed high school show choir and theater until I moved to Chicago to study at DePaul University when I turned 18.

I moved back to Omaha for love in May 2012, and hadn’t been involved in the local music scene at all after leaving, so I didn’t have much context for what to expect. I was energized and ready build something of value in a community of artists and appreciators that often feel invisible. I was convinced (and remain convinced) that outsider art belongs everywhere and to everyone, and felt driven to dedicate my life-force to experimental performance in the middle of a very conservative part of the world. With a little luck and a badass team (much love to the originals, Stacey, Kate, and Aubrey), Omaha Under the Radar pulled off our first annual festival in 2014 with a budget of less than $8,000. For nearly 10 years, often by the skin of our teeth, we continued to showcase local and national artists at our annual festival, concert series, and educational workshops. And now, I’m both excited and heartbroken to announce that my husband and I will be moving our family to Chicago in 2023 and passing on the organization, in a new form, to my co-founder and co-organizer Stacey Barelos.

When I moved home, I quickly realized that I had much to learn. Omaha Under the Radar was curated through a free application process, and we always received a fascinating mix of applications. Since there wasn’t a big local community for contemporary classical music, we connected with theatre folks, jazz musicians, electronic artists, indie rock kids, and all sorts of people that we never would have connected with if we’d stayed siloed in one niche genre. Our goal was to feature 50% local and 50% non-local artists at every festival, to encourage a cross-pollination of individuals, to carve pathways for local artists to build connections outside Nebraska, and to put a spotlight on the artists doing beautiful, high-level work in the region.

Aside from steak and Warren Buffett, Omaha is often recognized for its indie rock scene including artists like Conor Oberst and the folks at Saddle Creek Records. There has historically been a robust jazz scene in North Omaha, where there has been an arts resurgence thanks to folks like Brigitte McQueen at the Union for Contemporary Art, Marcey Yates at Culxr House, Dana Murray at North Omaha Music and Arts, Michelle Troxclair and the folks at Benson Theater, and others. There is a small but mighty experimental music scene comprised of curious minds and musical omnivores that you will also find sitting in with rock bands and popping up at singer-songwriter open mics (shout out to Aly Peeler, the queen of Omaha open mics). It all feels loose and fluid in the way that small communities often do. Everyone borrowing and sharing and popping up in lots of projects.

Omaha artists and organizations have an outsized impact when evaluated against the resources available locally. Thankfully, some of the larger organizations like KANEKO, Nebraska Arts Council, Amplify Arts, and a handful of others have dedicated their resources to uplifting the local community. Without them, I’m not sure Omaha Under the Radar, and many other small organizations, would exist. We’re lucky to have some fantastic music and art venues like The Slowdown, The Jewell, The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Waiting Room, Reverb Lounge, Project Project, Pet Shop Gallery, and more. The independent artist community is exceptionally intrepid and inventive, finding inspiration and ways forward where there seem to be none. Starting venues in old car washes and all sorts of unlikely (and possibly ill-advised) places. Pulling events together out of thin air. Building community and growing the audience one person at a time.

As happy as I am to enter the next chapter of my life, I am also gutted to be moving on from this community. It sometimes feels like “us against the world” around here, and I’ll miss the comradery that comes with pooling our resources and building something progressive in a decidedly unprogressive place. Cities like Omaha, and the local artists that make the community vibrant, deserve to not only be seen, but celebrated and supported. The folks in this article are all artists, organizers, curators, and educators who show up for the community and build new pathways. They breathe life into any project or collaboration they are part of and make connections between people and ideas where they didn’t exist before. All cities need people like them, especially these smaller scenes which can thrive and grow based on the presence of a single person.

  • Outsider art belongs everywhere and to everyone.

    Amanda DeBoer
    Amanda DeBoer
  • Omaha to me has a lot of room to grow and a lot of room for everyone to try out their ideas. There are many creative corners that have yet to be filled.

    Mary Lawson a.k.a. Mesonjixx
    Mary Lawson a.k.a. Mesonjixx
  • There isn’t much of a “music industry” here to maintain a large creative population, but if you are an individual who works in larger markets, you can make Omaha a home-base and navigate the country with ease.

    Keith Rodger
    Keith Rodger
  • Because of its too-big-to-be-small and too-small-to-be-big size, the scene gets a little more porous than perhaps other (bigger) cities and I love that.

    Ameen Wahba
    Ameen Wahba
  • Without the weight of a storied experimental music scene, Omaha is delightfully game for anything and everyone.

    Stacey Barelos
    Stacey Barelos
  • If anything, the small town atmosphere led to my developing into a composer as well as musician, free to pursue my interests in a non-competitive setting.

    Dereck Higgins
    Dereck Higgins
  • What keeps me in Omaha is a sense of home, community, affordability, fun, and the possibly-hard-to-understand endless opportunities that abound in Omaha.

    Alex Jochim
    Alex Jochim

Mary Lawson a.k.a. Mesonjixx holding a microphone

Mary Lawson a.k.a. Mesonjixx (photo by Bridget McQuillan)

Mary Lawson a.k.a. Mesonjixx

Omaha seemed like a natural progression from Lincoln. I was considering living expenses and it was the best option for me at that time. Not only financially was I considering Omaha, but being close to family. Most of my family live and work in Lincoln.

Omaha’s music scene is different from other scenes I’ve experienced in other places because of the room that there is for growth. Omaha to me has a lot of room to grow and a lot of room for everyone to try out their ideas. There are many creative corners that have yet to be filled. Working for The Union for Contemporary Art and Hi-Fi House were such gifts when I first moved to Omaha in 2018. It was in these spaces that I was able to get to know the working artists in music and visual art. Having the opportunity to professionally develop my DIY grassroots-curatorial style at The Union has really illuminated for me how important my work as an artist/arts administrator and advocate is to me. Hi-Fi House was a safe space for me to share ideas and to speak openly about the injustices that I observed, been witness to and in ways experienced as a Black femme in music, in Nebraska. I hold both organizations and their leadership with deep gratitude and respect. Omaha needs to continue to honor these creative spaces by supporting the work and the artists that show up for them.

The challenges in the last two years have been finding how to integrate all that we learned about accessibility challenges in music and art/culture, oppressive systems at play in all of the spaces and places we want to share and enjoy art/artistic expression, humanity and our need to fight for equality for all…public school education and historical truth/FACTS!

It seems like there has been quite the dip in interest when it comes to being responsible for each other in the ways that we were being introduced to, during the first two years of the pandemic. There is no pursuit anymore to repair, reckon and confront oppressive systems that keep us in a cycle of failing each other. We need to be reminded of how necessary we all are, and how no oppression or struggle of one group of people is superior to another and that the only way to change that which does not serve us all, is to work slowly, thoughtfully and with unwavering care.

Music picks…

Mesonjixx: “August Manchester”

BXTH: “Dear Little Brother”


Keith Rodger standing near a door

Keith Rodger

Keith Rodger

I was born and raised in Omaha. Right when I was ready to move to NYC, I heard of some great individuals working on a building a recording studio, the place I was trying to find full-time work in. I stayed and helped them grow what is now known as Make Believe Studios.

I think the biggest advantage of Omaha’s music scene is that we can manifest (literally) anything more affordably. The climate and opportunities allow entrepreneurs to build businesses efficiently. There isn’t much of a “music industry” here to maintain a large creative population, but if you are an individual who works in larger markets, you can make Omaha a home-base and navigate the country with ease. There is still a ton of room for the city to grow, and that comes with establishing more businesses that focus on the music industry specifically.

Couple of examples: Bemis Center was able to acquire funding to build and operate a venue called LOW END which focuses on showcasing talent based in the experimental sound art and music realm. We’ve been able to bring artists from all around the world. This is very new to the Midwest coming from a city of our size. Bemis also does a great job taking care of the artists that come through. Midwest hospitality is a very real thing.

Make Believe Studios recently launched a software division and has teamed up with Sontec and Metric Halo to develop game changing software for audio engineers. People have been copying Sontec’s work for years but never got the official endorsement until Make Believe stepped in. They are the first and only to accomplish this.

Omaha had a very unique rollercoaster ride the past two/three years. I can say that this year was one of the busiest I’ve had in a very long time. I’ve had to say “no” more than “yes” and I think that was a reaction of businesses and projects that were paused in 20-21 then resumed this year. We didn’t come out of the situation unscathed, but having a smaller population made it much less stressful to navigate for the creative community than a major market.

Music picks…

We The People: “Misunderstood”

We The People is a group I worked very closely these past few years as an engineer and performer. Eddie Moore is one of the kings of KC. Tracks from this album ended up on the TV show “Bel Air”.

Dinner Party: “Freeze Tag”

Dinner Party is comprised of Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, and Kamasi Washington. Terrace is an Omaha native and drives a ton of influences from our jazz scene. This album was mastered at Make Believe Studios. Had a great time listening to this one being worked on.

The Real Zebos: “Indie Girls”

The Real Zebos is an Omaha based band that has really taken off. They have proven to have a strong work ethic and very creative drive to make songs that are fun to listen to. I think they will be the next to rise from the city. I had the pleasure of working on their first record. The follow up titled “no style” is where this single lives.


Ameen Wahba playing an electric guitar.

Ameen Wahba

Ameen Wahba

I chose to move back to Omaha following living in the suburbs of Philadelphia during high school because college was cheaper, I was dating someone living in Iowa, and had played bass in a band in Omaha (where my mother and grandparents live) over winter break – so, to put it simply, it made sense. I continued to live here through undergraduate and graduate school and now have built friendships and a community that feel supportive and encouraging. It is comfortable and familiar.

I think Omaha is different, particularly pre-pandemic, in that a rapper and a punk band and outsider folk artist and a singer-songwriter could be on the same bill and folks are generally like “sweet”. Because of its too-big-to-be-small and too-small-to-be-big size, the scene gets a little more porous than perhaps other (bigger) cities and I love that. I feel like I’ve been pretty privileged in this regard but, in general, I also think getting a show booked is a lot easier in Omaha than in other major cities – the barrier to entry seems less restrictive. This has been true for my solo project Little Ripple, which can be midi guitar or sampler or acoustic guitar or electric guitar depending on the set, the diminished 7th freaky pop trio I’m in called Sgt. Leisure, and the “rock music band” Thick Paint I play guitar in which is currently split between here and Atlanta. Lastly, the experimental music scene in Omaha has strong support despite what can otherwise be a consumerist and dull city culture in general, largely due to the work of Amanda DeBoer-Bartlett and Stacey Barelos in hosting Omaha Under The Radar which has hosted folks from all over the country (world?) for many years.

I think there are a lot of pros and cons to how the pandemic hit the Omaha music scene – I feel that change was necessary but I also feel that folks are still trying to make sense of it, at least myself. To be real, I was really living it up during the pandemic: sleeping 9 hours a day, running, focusing on art, and not really working. The biggest challenge for me, both before, during, after (?) the pandemic is finding an artistic community that feels authentic and cohesive, again – pros and cons. I think there are definitely strong “scenes” here but never have felt I really fit into any of them. I think, as a result of the past 2 years, folks have begun to be more intentional about building community, having lost it in some ways, and I see the little ways in which those seeds are manifesting now, which is nice. An example of this that comes to my mind is Mary Lawson (aka Mesonjixx) who is hosting shows in every day spaces around big topics, like housing justice, and partnering with the organizations and artists around these things, super inspiring.

I had entered into my career as a psychotherapist within the past 2 years so there has been some reidentification and soul-searching about who I am as an artist/therapist/person. I don’t know if I’ve really overcome these challenges yet – the more questions I ask the more questions I find. If anything, I think the work I’m doing is to be more comfortable in these challenges, in the not knowing, than any particular solution itself.

Music picks…

My recommendation is “Crybaby” by S1SW:

My shared track for myself is “see what you say” by Sgt. Leisure:

or, for a solo track, “You See” by Little Ripple:


Stacey Barelos standing in front of a painting.

Stacey Barelos

Stacey Barelos

I grew up in Omaha but moved away for a number of years, never imagining that my future would be in Nebraska. After recent visits home, I discovered that Omaha was much more vibrant than the city I had left. I decided to give it another try and was ecstatic that I did. Omaha continues to be a place that surprises. Luckily for me, I arrived at the same time as the launching of the Omaha Under the Radar festival and am so thankful to Amanda DeBoer Bartlett for the opportunity to be involved. Then in the second year of the festival, I launched Soundry, an adult education workshop that introduces people to the world of experimental music. Now in its eighth year, the program has since expanded to workshops throughout the city and region.

What’s great about Omaha is that it’s open to experimentation and discovery. Without the weight of a storied experimental music scene, Omaha is delightfully game for anything and everyone. Unique venues
that help facilitate this discovery include Kaneko, an interdisciplinary cultural center in the heart of downtown, or smaller multipurpose cultural venues such as Project, Project and the Union.

Ironically, the key to the COVID experience was and has been collaboration. While so much of my previous compositional output was created in a solitary way, I have discovered the joy of working and
creating new works with others. While this seems antithetical to the months of isolation, Omaha creatives really came together in new ways, particularly by being innovative with technology. I find now that there’s a special bond with any and all of these people and that the relationships
from that time were solidified through the struggle we shared.

Music picks…

“Joan Gets Covid” – A collaboration between myself and Jay Kreimer, a multidisciplinary artist based out of Lincoln, Nebraska.

“The Trip” by Dereck Higgins

Dereck is an Omaha legend and an inspiration for all artists in the city. His style is eclectic or as Omaha magazine states, Dereck is “Omaha’s own post-punk Prometheus”. This track is from his album Psychedelic Sound.


Dereck Higgins standing outside near trees.

Dereck Higgins

Dereck Higgins

I’m a native of Omaha and that has a lot to do with why I stayed. It’s home turf. Omaha is not widely known for anything musical but it has quite a rich history. My parents were musicians so I grew up around the likes of Buddy Miles, Preston Love and Wynonie Harris. We had guests in our home like John Coltrane (yes) and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Being exposed to a wide variety of music through my parents set me up for a long journey of listening, playing, learning and growing.

I’ve been active in the music scene since the 70’s firstly as a bass player and notably a black man playing rock music. This was newsworthy, the state is very red. I have not allowed this to deter me and as a result I have played everything from jazz to blues to rock to metal to punk to electronic to total improvisation. If anything, the small town atmosphere led to my developing into a composer as well as musician, free to pursue my interests in a non-competitive setting.

During COVID I focused on completing a new album which was released in 2021 (Future Still). The lack of gigs was noticable and I augmented my composing and recording with some commissions for dance that were performed the following year.

Music picks…

Excerpt B from AM 2: The “C” Sessions

Dereck Higgins: “Ramped”

James Schroeder: “Mesa Boy”


Alex Jochim on a street in Omaha

Alex Jochim

I am an Omaha, NE based photographer, community organizer, and gallery operator. I am the Co-Founder and Director of BFF Omaha (formerly known as “Benson First Friday”), and have also had a hand in establishing and operating the Benson Creative District, Petshop Gallery & Studios, the MaMO Gallery,
the BFF Gallery, Trudy’s artist studios, the New American Arts Festival, PETFEST, and have been involved with Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards and Benson Out Back.

I was born and bred in Omaha, attending Omaha Public Schools and then graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Although I call Omaha home, I have traveled extensively and lived part-time in many places around the world including New York City and Cadiz, Spain. What keeps me in Omaha is a sense of home, community, affordability, fun, and the possibly-hard-to-understand endless opportunities that abound in Omaha. Omaha is a very supportive community for entrepreneurs and anyone with a passion project, which has definitely played a role in my residency here.

Omaha has always had a thriving music scene, and it was definitely one of the reasons I chose to call Benson my home for many years. When I moved back to Omaha from NYC in 2009, Benson had 4 or 5 music venues and a tight-knit community that welcomed me into its arms. Seeing live music and interacting with musicians and creatives on a day to day basis was a blast – and inspired me to directly support the music scene myself and to begin supporting Omaha’s visual artists too. In 2012 I co-founded Benson First Friday, now called BFF Omaha, along with two DIY artist-run spaces: Petshop and Sweatshop. Sweatshop took off as a popular underground live music space, hosting local and traveling shows almost nightly. Sweatshop taught me everything there was to know about live music, working with musicians (if you know, you know), and overall operating a venue. To fund the space, we hosted “SWEATFEST” in 2013 and 2014, which were all-day music festivals encompassing local and national musicians, and other oddball fundraising tactics like spaghetti wrestling. The vibe was very gritty and very DIY. Sweatshop ended its run in 2015, but BFF took over the space, expanding Petshop Gallery next door, and reviving the original music festival fundraisers (in 2017 I think?) as what they are known as today: PETFEST.

PETFEST has lived on as BFF’s largest fundraiser since then, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. In August 2020, PETFEST was Omaha’s (maybe Nebraska’s?) first live music festival since the pandemic had begun. To avoid a super-spreader we limited entry to 50 tickets, required masks, moved to an all outdoor set up, encouraged social distancing, doused everyone in hand sanny, and used those contactless thermometers at the gate. Although it was a pain in the ass, it ended up being a beautiful gathering of community members and instilled hope for a revival of live music beyond the pandemic. We were determined to be present, persistent, innovative, and alleviate ourselves from the then sad solitary zoom-confined world that it was. We’ve continued to remain innovative with all of our programming over the past two years, allowing PETFEST to develop into a program beast of its own. For more on PETFEST and BFF Omaha, I encourage you to listen to an interview with myself and Zach Schmieder, PETFEST’s music booker, on Riverside Chats.

Music picks…

A Sweatshop staple from back in the day – Plack Blague: “Queer Nation”

A newer act that we’re hosting at our annual Ball – Specter Poetics: “Meet Halfway”

A band that currently practices at Petshop – Bug Heaven: “Quitter”

Different Cities Different Voices – Boston

Landscape of downtown Boston

For our latest edition of Different Cities Different Voices, a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators, we are putting the spotlight on Boston. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

  • This Small Town-Big City has more arts and culture nonprofits per capita than New York City. More than 1,500 orgs ranging from the niche and widely varied to storied and well endowed

    Ashleigh Gordon (photo by Daniel Callahan)
    Ashleigh Gordon
  • On the contemporary front alone, we are home to over 40 ensembles with a mission that specifically includes new music!

    Oliver Caplan
    Oliver Caplan
  • I haven't been a part of any other community to compare it to, and I don't really feel the need. It's a collegial community, and so many of us perform together in various different ensembles. There's always someone you know on the gig. It's almost like one big shifting ensemble.

    Aliana_de_la_Guardia
    Aliana De La Guardia
  • I find that Boston’s artistic community encourages the experimentation, research-based practice, and site-specific work that I have been drawn to.

    Neil Leonard
    Neil Leonard
  • Because Boston is, in some ways, a huge college town, there is a constantly changing flow of creatives running through its neighborhoods.

    Madison Simpson
    Madison Simpson
Ashleigh Gordon surrounded by trees.

Ashleigh Gordon (photo by Daniel Callahan)

Ashleigh Gordon

I came to Boston in 2006, doe-eyed, impressionable, and excited to start my Masters in Viola at the New England Conservatory. While I was initially attracted to the city’s quaint charm, its throughline to key people, places, and moments in history have kept me here so long. There’s no shortage of museums to get lost in, stories to recount, and histories to explore and draw inspiration from. Plenty to feed my curiosity (which is a happy coincidence as it also feeds my creativity as a performer and artistic director).

Boston also introduced me to my good friend, NEC classmate, and composer/social justice artist Anthony R. Green. As two Black, twenty-somethings interested in new music/chamber music — and who just so happened to be alphabetical neighbors come graduation time — our paths were destined to cross. With an abundance of youthful energy, collective passion, and mutual interest in exploring culture and history, we created Castle of our Skins, a concert and education series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry. A decade later, I still get to feed my curiosity and explore culture as the organization’s Artistic/Executive Director and violist.

This Small Town-Big City has more arts and culture nonprofits per capita than New York City. More than 1,500 orgs ranging from the niche and widely varied to storied and well endowed. There’s seemingly a group for just about anything and an audience to follow it. While saturated to the point of being overcrowded (especially as it relates to dollars…), Boston has a way of making room for new ideas and voices, something Anthony and I were fortunate for ten years ago when we had an idea. You can hear one of those new ideas and up-and-coming voices below.

Like in any long-term relationship, Boston and I have had plenty of “love-to-hate” you moments over the nearly two decades of knowing each other! But Boston came through to support its creative workers over these pandemic years and continues to do so. While an arduous time filled with great uncertainty and responsibility as a non-profit leader, it also proved to be a creativity-inducing period filled with experimentation, due in no small part to the support I received from Boston and beyond. It still makes space for the interesting and new while keeping its sense of history – the good, bad, and complicated – in the forefront.

Music tracks
Anthony R. Green: On Top of a Frosted Hill
performed by Ashleigh Gordon (viola) and Joy Cline Phinney (piano)

Nebulous String Quartet featuring Kely Pinheiro: Berklee Two Track I Gratitude


Oliver Caplan

An outside photo of a group of musicians with various instruments with composer Oliver Caplan standing in the middle.

Oliver Caplan (standing in the center) with the musicians of Juventas.

I moved to Boston in 2004 for my graduate studies at the Boston Conservatory. Immediately, I fell in love with the city’s sense of place, a dynamic convergence of old and new. This is mirrored in Boston’s vibrant music scene, which is known for its unique strengths in both early and contemporary music. I suspect that Boston has the most classical music per capita of any U.S. city (using “classical” in the broadest sense of the word). On the contemporary front alone, we are home to over 40 ensembles with a mission that specifically includes new music!

Navigating Juventas through the pandemic has been challenging, but also thrilling. Our ensemble members share a deep conviction that it is essential to keep making music to help our community cope through this difficult time. In March 2020, during the initial lockdown, we quickly launched “Stay Home with Juventas,” a weekly solo concert, live-streamed from musicians’ homes. Most of us had never live-streamed anything before. Later that spring, in June 2020, we were one of the first ensembles in the world to reunite musicians in the same room for a live-streamed chamber concert. Our 2020-21 season was entirely virtual, broadcast from a recording studio in Boston, with CD quality audio and high definition video feeds from six cameras. Even though it was super scary, we kept the performances 100% live to maintain the special thrill and audience connection of live performance. While constantly adapting, we found silver linings. One of our live-stream concerts was viewed by over 7,000 people, an audience that was previously unimaginable for our small organization. In June 2021, eager to welcome back an in-person audience, we designed “Music in Bloom,” an outdoor performance experience at the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill. Over 1,000 people joined us in-person for a program of contemporary music by composers that are not broadly known to the general populace. We are bringing “Music in Bloom” back for a third year in 2023. Behind these successes has been an incredible amount of un-glamorous grunt work by our team. There was a point in the pandemic when we had trouble finding a space that would let us in to rehearse. We ended up rehearsing in an unheated church, musicians bundled up in long underwear, our pianist Julia working on an extremely out-of-tune piano. This is how much everyone cared.

With my own composing, one of the deepest disappointments was the necessary postponement of a 2020 program of my choral music, a special collaboration between Juventas and the New Hampshire Master Chorale. I had just finished several new works for the occasion and found myself waiting years to hear them. But I funneled my energy into recording a new album, Watershed, with chamber music inspired by favorite walks in nature. And that choral concert is now finally happening this fall, October 29, at Tuft’s Granoff Music Center in Medford, MA; and October 30 at the Colonial Theater in Laconia, NH!

My first work sample is a live performance of Watershed, Movement II “Calm,” the title work on my new album. I wrote this piece during the pandemic as an homage to the Mystic River, a place where I find solace and inspiration.

Nick Southwick, flute
Wolcott Humphrey, clarinet
Anne Howarth, horn
Minjin Chung, cello
Julia Scott Carey, piano

My second offering is an excerpt of Michael Gandolfi’s Line Drawings, performed live by Juventas in September 2019. Michael is a backbone of the Boston music scene, and one of my very favorite composers.

Wolcott Humphrey, clarinet
Olga Patramanska-Bell, violin
Julia Carey, piano


Aliana de la Guardia

Aliana de la Guardia

Aliana De La Guardia

Boston and I chose each other. I went there for school and that’s where my closest collaborations formed. It was the exact right place for me during my young adulthood and I received the kind of mentorship I needed to become who I am as an artist. I live outside the city now, but still consider myself a Boston-based artist. I return there often to present and perform new work.

Boston is my community, so of course I’m going to be partial. I haven’t been a part of any other community to compare it to, and I don’t really feel the need. It’s a collegial community, and so many of us perform together in various different ensembles. There’s always someone you know on the gig. It’s almost like one big shifting ensemble.

For Guerilla Opera, the pandemic was problematic, but we were inventive in our own way. We’re not the type of group that presents aria concerts or song recitals. Everything is about new and experimental work development and driving those works toward a fully designed, fully theatrical performance. So we experimented with works that were smaller in scale, with one two and three performers total. We experimented with film and video projects. We re-ran past productions and introduced a whole body of repertoire to new audiences. We experimented with online programming, including a performance series, streaming programs pairing short works together, virtual meet-ups, creative workshops for artists, and we were quite busy. Every month we had at least one event to bring our community together, and that is what it was really about for us -bringing the community together.

Music Recommendations:

Scene 1 from Marti Epstein’s Rumpelstiltskin (Guerilla Opera’s January 2022 Release)

Hannah Selin: Mid-Day featuring soprano Stephanie Lamprea


Neil Leonard playing a saxophone.

Neil Leonard

Neil Leonard

I came to Boston to study at New England Conservatory.  But my journey to Boston opened so many new doors for me.  While I love the saxophone and actively play solo and ensemble concerts, my first job out of school was at an art school.  While working in the computer arts lab at Massachusetts College of Art, I became involved in transdisciplinary art, and the early development of electronic music education in the age affordable computers. Being at an art college led to me creating music for multimedia collaborations with Tony Oursler, Magdalena Campos, and Sam Durant. I produced a concert by George Lewis and participated in studio visits with John Cage. At the same time, I spent weekend nights at Wally’s Cafe in Roxbury, where I played with Greg Osby, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Terence Blanchard. Within a few years, I developed a practice as a transdisciplinary artist, and it was my work in electronic music and multimedia installation that brought me to Berklee College of Music, where I have been a professor for 30 years, and the Artistic Director of the Berklee Interdisciplinary Art Institute.

Boston is home to a unique community of musicians, artists, curators and researchers, who come from all over the world, to work in colleges and universities in the area. A steady flow of fantastic guest lecturers and artists provides me with the opportunity to experience new art works and talk with compelling creators constantly.  Through collaborations from Boston I have worked in more than a dozen countries around the world, where I have played saxophone, composed music, and presented interdisciplinary work.  Recently, Fujiko Nakaya, a Japanese artist known for her fog sculptures, and member of the influential Experiments in Art and Technology group, heard my concert Sounding the Cloud with Scanner and Steven Vitiello, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. She asked me to make the quadraphonic sound composition Lavender Ruins, for her 12-week, outdoor fog sculpture, at the ruins of Frederic Law Olmstead’s athletic pavilion where Duke Ellington gave annual free concerts. Right before the pandemic, Williams College Museum of Art invited me to create Sonance for the Precession, a sound installation that was situated on top of Hopkins Observatory, the nation’s oldest extant observatory, and provided a context to reflect on how Hindu and Greek theories of astronomy and acoustics developed through intercultural exchange. I find that Boston’s artistic community encourages the experimentation, research-based practice, and site-specific work that I have been drawn to.

Some of the best young artists in the world come to develop their practice here, particularly those interested in contemporary music and art. I enjoy helping students, contributing to this critical stage of their growth and having them become colleagues after they leave. About twelve years ago, Berklee asked me to be the founding artistic director the college’s Interdisciplinary Arts Institute. Last fall, my students performed with the Harvard New Music. Later the same semester, my students collaborated in premiering original works made in collaboration with students at MIT’s Opera of the Future lab. The same semester, Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education visited our seminar and observed a student performance. Boston has been an excellent location for helping students learn to build cultural connections between artists from diverse communities and artistic backgrounds.

The post-Covid era presents a unique opportunity for work within the arts that can support local, national and global healing. My professional practice began with the intention of collaborating with artists from around the world, and across all artistic practices. Boston is a good base to pursue this work and involve young people in process of celebrating our shared humanity through the arts.

Here’s a recording of the recent sound installation of mine at Williams College that I mentioned…

Dave Bryant: “Lime Pickle” from Night Visitors


Madison Simpson

Madison Simpson

Madison Simpson

Boston holds a lot of history for me – I was born here, and spent most of my childhood driving back and forth from New Hampshire visiting extended family. During my teenage years, I saw many concerts in Boston, and when it was time to pick a college I looked primarily in and around the city. Although I initially moved back to Boston for school and expected to move elsewhere after I completed my degree, the incredible DIY music scene here is what has made me stay.

Because Boston is, in some ways, a huge college town, there is a constantly changing flow of creatives running through its neighborhoods. My friends and I joke about the “Allston to Brooklyn pipeline”, as many of our musical collaborators have moved from the popular Boston artist’s neighborhood to NYC postgrad. However, even with these constant changeovers, there is an incredibly strong group of people dedicated to making Boston’s music and art scene great. We have independent record labels such as Disposable America, art and culture publications like Boston Hassle and Allston Pudding, and a thriving house show scene that encompasses mostly the Allston/Brighton neighborhoods but extends into Jamaica Plain and Dorchester. I’ve been very fortunate to have toured now along the east coast, out into the Midwest, and along the coast of California, and I can confidently say that Boston has one of the strongest DIY scenes in the country. I believe so deeply in this community and I’m so excited to continue to watch it grow post-pandemic.

I’m very lucky to be in two amazing bands: Sweet Petunia, my folk duo with collaborator Mairead Guy, and a rock band called Winkler. Both bands have seen great success in the DIY scene, and I’ve met many amazing people through each that I’m so happy to call my friends. With Sweet Petunia, one challenge has been carving out a space in a community that is mostly indie rock-centric. Amazingly, though, we have met a lot of people who have taken a chance on us and therefore we’ve played some really interesting, genre-diverse bills over the years. During Covid, both of my bands had members move back home to be with family, and therefore another one of the biggest challenges we faced was continuing to write and collaborate with each other long distance. The third largest problem that we have currently in Boston is a lack of small, traditional venues. With the closing of Great Scott during Covid, we lost one of the most important small venues our city had to offer. Although there are many DIY venues to play, options above that for a band that has begun to grow in following are slim. That has begun to change, though, due to the efforts of promoters like Once and Alex Pickert of Get to the Gig Boston. I believe with time we will continue to grow this aspect of our community! I’m excited to continue to live and work in Boston and to see how our DIY community continues to strengthen.

A track featuring me: “Early Morning Blues” by Sweet Petunia

A track from a local favorite: “Villain of my Mind” by Clay Aching

What Did You Just Call Me?

This past week I finally finished my Rome Prize project. I immediately rewarded myself by taking off for a weekend at the beach just north of Rome.

As I’ve been coming to a close with this piece, I have struggled with putting a title to it. A song cycle of five movements, it comprises texts in Latin (the 1555 papal bull condemning the Jews of Rome to a ghetto), Italian (Verrà la morte e avrà I tuoi occhi, by Cesare Pavese), Hebrew (various psalms and excerpts from the book of Lamentations) and English (Loan, by the American poet Jorie Graham).

At first, I wished to call the work Cum Nimis Absurdum (“Since it is Absurd”), referring to the papal bull. The work itself begins with this text and is ferociously set with vicious, fast, aggressive string writing immediately setting the tone for a work that begins angrily. But taken as a whole, the piece, at least as I see it, is one of reconciliation and hope. So I then considered calling it Verrà la morte e avrà I tuoi occhi (“Death will come and she shall have your eyes”). Still quite dramatic, I thought, but at least not in Latin (alienating).

I emailed the two choices to one of the foremost experts on Jewish history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He responded:

Since you asked me, I’ll give you an honest opinion:

I wouldn’t “fool around” with “Cum nimis absurdum” because it marks a tragic episode in Jewish history. As to Pavese’s poem, the title, in my opinion, is too long; moreover, its first three words are likely to scare off the audience before the piece gets started.

Sorry.

Of course I should have known better than to ask an academic for title advice. I asked one of the literature fellows at the American Academy. She also felt that at Latin title was off-putting. She liked the Pavese poem, though preferably in English.

Death will come and she shall have your eyes.

I liked it. But when I passed it by the director of the academy, she asked me—if I don’t wish to alienate my audience—why I would choose a title whose meaning is difficult to comprehend. What does this title have to do with my project?

Choosing a title can be difficult. We are not writing a doctoral thesis—our title doesn’t need to describe the meaning of a work. But what should a title do? What do the words scherzo or capriccio or impromptu do for Brahms, Schubert, Chopin? Are they at odds with the meaning of the pieces? Are they intentionally ambiguous? I often wonder if they are worse than calling a piece untitled. If untitled may not be helpful, at least it’s not misleading.

Daniel Mihalyo, a fellow in architecture at the academy, wrote to me:

In my opinion there are four types of titles:

  1. Titles that expand the meaning of an artwork by being open-ended and not too specific.
  2. Titles that are highly specific and that narrow the potential meanings of an artwork where the artist hopes to pin down a single definition.
  3. “No title” or “untitled” is always a safe option but it can be seen as evasive, expressing uncertainty or the best defense against any narrowing or specificity of meaning.
  4. Artsy titles that attempt to impart an intelligence beyond the value of the work….examples include word puns, smarty pant attempts to misdirect viewers or intentional references to better known artworks (like “The Thinker”).

I’ve also noticed that titles are also frequently indicative of the era and tend to by stylistically alike. Young Women on the Beach and The Sick Child are titles from a generation, as are titles from this year’s Whitney Biennial such as Museum of Failure: Collection of Impossible Subjects & Invisible Self-Portrait in my Studio and Crystal Chain Letter Complex (Dark Episode).

In the art world we have Piss Christ and Cremaster Cycle and of course lots and lots of Untitled. Does anyone get pissed off at works called Untitled? Does an abstract piece of art or music substantially gain power from its name?