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New Music USA Submissions for the 2021 ISCM World New Music Days

The logo of ISCM

New Music USA has submitted six works for consideration in the call for scores for the 2021 International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) World New Music Days which, pandemic willing, is scheduled to take place in Shanghai and Nanning from September 17-25, 2021. Each of these six works is by a composer who was chosen to participate in New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program, which was launched in January 2020 to promote marginalized voices in orchestral music and now involves a consortium of 35 American orchestras. Since orchestral music is only one of 12 categories in this year’s call for scores, and each of these composers has created vital work in a wide range of instrumentations, New Music USA has submitted three orchestral scores and three works scored for other combinations. The six composers are Valerie Coleman, Tania León, Jessie Montgomery, Brian Raphael Nabors, Nina Shekhar, and Shelley Washington.

Every year since 1923, with the exception of hiatuses during World War II (1943-45) and the global COVID-19 pandemic (2020), there has been a festival of new music presented somewhere in the world under the aegis of the ISCM, which is a global network of organizations devoted to the promotion and presentation of the music of our time. Some now canonical contemporary music compositions which have received their world premiere performances during these annual ISCM festivals include Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (posthumously), Pierre Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, Hindemith’s Clarinet Quintet, György Ligeti’s Apparitions, George Perle’s Six Etudes for solo piano, Stockhausen’s Kontakte, Isang Yun’s Third String Quartet, and one sixth of Anton Webern’s published output. These festivals have also had a laudable track record in embracing a wide diversity of new music aesthetics and have been historically way ahead of the curve in showcasing tons of emerging composers, in particular, some significant female composers relatively early in their artistic trajectories: Joan La Barbara, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Canada’s Barbara Pentland, Chile’s Leni Alexander, Serbia’s Ljubica Marić, Korea’s Unsuk Chin, etc. Zwilich and Chin have both credited the ISCM for helping to launch their compositional careers.

For each year’s festival, member organizations submit six pieces of music for consideration in a call for scores. If the member’s submissions follow the ISCM guidelines (the six works must be in at least four different categories of instrumentation, which varies each year), then at least one work must be selected for performance in the festival to ensure that new music from all over the world is presented each year. Many member organizations hold specific competitions to select their six submitted works. Each year New Music USA, which has been a member of the ISCM since 2014, submits six works which have been previously vetted through our various grant programs or through various initiatives for which New Music USA has served as a partner (e.g. EarShot, the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s Edward T. Cone Composition Institute). Composers whose New Music USA submitted works were previously performed during the ISCM World New Music Days include Katherine Bergman, Chen Yao, Saad Haddad, Geoffrey Hudson, and Missy Mazzoli.

New Music USA’s submissions for the 2021 ISCM World New Music Days are three orchestral compositions and three works scored for other combinations.

A composite of photos of Valerie Coleman, Tania León, Jessie Montgomery, Shelley Washington, Brian Raphael Nabors, and Nina Shekhar.

The six composers whose works have been submitted by New Music USA in the 2021 ISCM World New Music Days call for scores: (top row) Valerie Coleman, Tania León, Jessie Montgomery; (bottom row) Shelley Washington, Brian Raphael Nabors, and Nina Shekhar.

Valerie Coleman (b. 1970): Seven O’Clock Shout for orchestra (2020)
Seven O’Clock Shout is a declaration of our survival,” says composer Valerie Coleman. “It is something that allows us our agency to take back the kindness that is in our hearts and the emotions that cause us such turmoil. … We cheer on the essential workers with a primal and fierce urgency to let them know that we stand with them and each other.” Seven O’Clock Shout was commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra which is the consortium lead for a future commission by Valerie Coleman as part of the Amplifying Voices program. Seven O’Clock Shout, which received its world premiere in a physically-distanced performance by The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin during the League of American Orchestras’ Virtual Conference in 2020, has become the orchestra’s anthem in response to COVID-19. In addition to honoring frontline workers, this special commission celebrates the strength of human connection even during times of isolation. (Read and/or listen to a conversation with Valerie Coleman.)

Valerie Coleman: Seven O’Clock Shout
Performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Tania León (b. 1943): Stride for orchestra (2019)
Stride is a single-movement orchestral composition which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Oregon Symphony as part of the New York Philharmonic’s “Project 19,” an initiative commissioning new works by 19 female composers in honor of the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which extended voting rights to women. It was first performed by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Jaap van Zweden in David Geffen Hall at New York City’s Lincoln Center on February 13, 2020. The piece is dedicated “In honor of Susan B. Anthony and to the visionaries Deborah Borda and Jaap van Zweden.” Composer Tania León, who will create a new work for the Arkansas Symphony as the lead commissioner in the Amplifying Voices consortium, has acknowledged that Stride was also inspired by her progressive grandmother. The work’s title refers to the action of moving forward. (Tania León was the very first individual composer interviewed for NewMusicBox back in 1999; you can read a complete transcript of that interview here.)

Tania León: Stride
Excerpts from a rehearsal by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Jaap van Zweden.
There is no publicly available performance of the entire composition online currently, but at least there is some rehearsal footage of the New York Philharmonic posted on their YouTube page.

Nina Shekhar (b. 1995): Lumina for orchestra (2020)
According to composer Nina Shekhar, who was recently selected by the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) to compose a new orchestra work for which they will serve as the lead commissioner in the Amplifying Voices program, her work Lumina “explores the spectrum of light and dark and the murkiness in between. Using swift contrasts between bright, sharp timbres and cloudy textures and dense harmonies, the piece captures sudden bursts of radiance amongst the eeriness of shadows.” The work, which was written for the USC Thornton Symphony and premiered by that orchestra under the direction of Donald Crockett at USC Thornton’s Bovard Auditorium in Los Angeles, California on February 28, 2020, was awarded the 2021 ASCAP Foundation Rudolf Nissim Prize.

Nina Shekhar: Lumina
Performed by the USC Thornton Symphony conducted by Donald Crockett
Bovard Auditorium (University of Southern California) Los Angeles CA
February 28, 2000

Shelley Washington (b. 1991): Middleground for string quartet (2016)
About her string quartet Middleground, Shelley Washington writes: “MIDDLEGROUND: the space grounded, the between, the center. The Heartland. The prairie, the grasslands, Konza, Flint Hills, Manhattan, Emporia, Salina. Where we gathered. Home of the heart, heart of the home. The years spent in cars, daydreaming, scooping handfuls of wheat, racing out into amber fields, cycling together, water wheel ice cream, fireworks and apples. The stories shared, books read sprawled in the yard, family prayers over anything, late evening walks, quiet nights. Open arms, open hearts, humble and extraordinary. Together, with our wonder, our joy, we created an incredible painting with abounding colors. The kinds of colors that linger in the mind’s eye long after they are out of sight and cradle you long after goodbyes are spoken and car doors closed. The kinds that find you counting the days until the next birthday, the next holiday, the next bike ride, the next Camp, the next anything just so you can see them again. When you close your eyes you feel their warmth. They stay. The middle ground: my refuge born from the land living in my heart. Where my home is, living and breathing outside of my body, thousands of miles apart. This hallowed ground. For my family.” Middleground was first performed by the JACK Quartet in New York City in 2016 and has subsequently been performed by the Jasper String Quartet as well.

Shelley Washington: Middleground
Performed by the Jasper String Quartet
(J Freivogel and Karen Kim, violins; Sam Quintal, viola; and Rachel Henderson Freivogel, cello)
Live in concert, Jasper Chamber Concerts 2019

Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981): Duo for Violin and Cello (2015/18)
Jessie Montgomery’s Duo for Violin and Cello, also known as Three Pieces for Violin and Cello, was written for the composer’s friend and cellist Adrienne Taylor. The piece is meant as an ode to friendship with movements characterizing laughter, compassion, adventure, and sometimes silliness. Montgomery will compose an orchestral work for the Amplifying Voices program which will receive its premiere performance by its lead commissioner, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. (Jessie Montgomery was featured in a conversation on NewMusicBox in 2016.)

Jessie Montgomery: Duo for Violin and Cello
Performed by Airi Yoshioka (violin) and Alexis Gerlach (cello)

Brian Raphael Nabors (b. 1991): Énergie for flute and electronics (2015)
According to composer Brian Raphael Nabors, whose Amplifying Voices commissioned orchestral work will be premiered by its lead commissioner, the Berkeley Symphony, his 2015 work Énergie for flute and fixed-format electronics, “encompasses the very nature of energy and its purpose throughout the universe. It also uses its musical material to depict life’s everyday movements, as well as forces of nature such as wind and gravity. The flute is written in a way that captures a very expressive range of tone and timbre throughout the piece; to enhance the expressive nature of the electronics.” The electronics were created from synths using various effects such as phasing, reverb, granulation, and more. Processed vocals, educational material on the subject of energy, as well as recordings of President Barack Obama’s comments on green energy were also utilized. The work was first performed by Brittany Trotter on the Fresh Perspectives new music series launch concert at Lab Studios by Glo in Cleveland, OH in 2018.

Brian Raphael Nabors: Énergie
Performed by Timothy Hagen
Amplify, Concert No. 1, Virtual Concert
September 9, 2020

New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program was kick-started with a generous contribution from The Sphinx Organization which selected this initiative to shift the canon for future generations as a Sphinx Venture Fund (SVF) recipient for 2020. Additional funding from the Sorel Organization and industry partners ASCAP and Wise Music Trust has enabled the program to further expand. Through a national call, New Music USA asked orchestras to come forward with proposals for co-commissions and a commitment to promote existing repertoire that deserves further performances. There are now a total of eight orchestras serving as consortium leads in the program. The other two composers involved are Tyshawn Sorey and Juan Pablo Contreras who will work with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Las Vegas Philharmonic respectively. Other partner orchestras involved in the program include the Aspen Music Festival and School, Auburn Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Boston Landmarks Orchestra, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, California Symphony, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Kansas City Symphony, Louisiana Philharmonic, New Jersey Symphony, New World Symphony, Richmond Symphony, ROCO, and Seattle Symphony.

New Music Ushers In The Inauguration of the Next President and Vice President of the USA

The United States Capitol

UPDATED Lots of new music will usher in a new American administration on January 20, 2021. The musical selections being performed during tomorrow’s inauguration of Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris as President and Vice President of the United States of America will include newly composed works for the United States Marine Band “The President’s Own” under the direction of Col. Jason K. Fettig by Kimberly K. Archer and Peter Boyer. Other works performed during the hour-long music program preceding the official swearing include pieces by Adolphus Hailstork and Julie Giroux, the subject of the most recent interview on NewMusicBox.

Kimberly Archer, Peter Boyer, Julie Giroux, Adolphus Hailstork, Kendrick Lamar, James Stephenson, and Joan Tower.

Among the composers whose music will serve as a soundtrack to the 46th U.S. Presidential Inauguration are Kimberly Archer, Peter Boyer, Julie Giroux, Adolphus Hailstork, Kendrick Lamar, James Stephenson, and Joan Tower.

Archer’s Fanfare Politeia celebrates our traditions of a free and fair election, and of a peaceful transfer of power. “This is an incredible honor,” Archer said. “If you had told my 20 year old self that someday the Marine Band would play my music, much less for a presidential inauguration, I would never have believed it.”

Boyer’s new work, Fanfare for Tomorrow, began as a brief piece for solo French horn, originally commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra last year, as part of their Fanfare Project in response to the pandemic. Boyer significantly expanded and developed that music for a full concert band for this commission. Boyer said, “In these extraordinarily challenging days for our country, I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute some optimistic music to an historic occasion, at which Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take their oaths of office as the next President and Vice President of the United States. This commission represents one of the greatest honors of my life as an American composer.”

Hailstork’s Fanfare on “Amazing Grace” is scheduled to be performed as the second piece during the USMB’s inaugural program. This marks only the second time that music by a contemporary African American composer has been selected to be part of the repertoire performed at a presidential inauguration, according to Africlassical.com, a website on African heritage in classical music. Hailstork is working on a requiem cantata for George Floyd titled A Knee on the Neck.

Julie Giroux’s Integrity Fanfare and March is the first movement of her 2006 composition No Finer Calling which was jointly commissioned by The United States Air Force Band of Flight, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio (Lieutenant Colonel Alan Sierichs, Commander and Conductor), The United States Air Force Academy Band, Peterson AFB, Colorado (Lieutenant Colonel Steven Grimo, Commander and Conductor), and The United States Air Force Band of Liberty, Hanscom AFB, Massachusetts (Lieutenant Colonel Larry H. Lang, Commander and Conductor.

Giroux has written about the work: “Integrity, Virtue, Morality, Truthfulness, Accountability and Pride. When I thought of these words as a composer, I heard a fanfare, a processional and a march. Not all at the same time, but more of a melding of all three—a fanfare that states ‘We are here,’ a procession that states ‘We are prepared,’ and a march that states ‘Lets GO!’”

The Marine Band has also put together an “Inaugural Soundtrack” which they have posted on YouTube featuring a range of historical curiosities including marches composed for the inaugurations of Abraham Lincoln and James A. Garfield, the latter of which was composed by John Philip Sousa, as well as the newly composed Fanfare for Democracy by James Stephenson. Stephenson wrote a series of articles for NewMusicBox in 2016.)

In addition, Classical Movements, a concert touring company, has formed the Hope & Harmony Ensemble, a group consisting of 14 professional musicians from orchestras and conservatories across the country, to give a virtual brass and percussion performance in honor of the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris under the direction of conductor Marin Alsop. As stated on the Classical Movements website, “the ensemble performs two masterpieces of American classical music that perfectly represent our President- and Vice President-Elect: Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland and Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 by Joan Tower.” The stream was posted live to YouTube exactly 24 hours before the inauguration ceremony is scheduled to take place.

Finally, last Friday, the Biden-Harris transition team released a new 46-song Inaugural playlist curated by The Raedio and D-Nice on Spotify which features tracks by A Tribe Called Quest, Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, The Staple Singers, Bob Marley, and Kendrick Lamar, who along with Aaron Copland is a past recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Anthony Davis Wins 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music

The two sides of a Pulitzer Prize medal awarded in 1917.

Anthony Davis’s opera The Central Park Five has been awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The annually awarded $15,000 prize is for a distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the previous year. The opera, featuring a libretto by Richard Wesley, received a New Music USA grant for commission fees in 2015 and received its premiere on June 15, 2019 at the Long Beach Opera. It is described in the Pulitzer citation as “a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration, that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful.”

“That’s pretty far out!” exclaimed Davis (b. 1951) when reached by telephone minutes after the award was announced. “I never thought I’d get a Pulitzer for a piece with Trump on the toilet. I’m thrilled and excited. I’d like to thank Long Beach Opera and all the people involved with the production. It was such an incredible project.”

The announcement of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, originally scheduled for April 20 in the Columbia University Journalism Building but delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was made online by Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy from her living room via a stream posted on the Pulitzer website and on YouTube.

Also nominated as finalists for the 2020 music prize were: Sky, a violin concerto by Michael Torke (b. 1961), premiered on January 5, 2019, in Troy, N.Y. by Tess Lark with the Albany Symphony conducted by David Alan Miller, which is described in the jury citation as “a virtuosic work of astonishing beauty, expert pacing and generous optimism”; and and all the days were purple by Alex Weiser (b. 1989), a song cycle for voice, piano, percussion and string trio, based on poems in Yiddish and English, released on April 12, 2019 by Cantaloupe Music, which is described in the citation as “a meditative and deeply spiritual work whose unexpected musical language is arresting and directly emotional.”

“Recognition is so hard to come by these days so I feel very grateful for the support,” said Michael Torke. “I owe such a debt to Tessa Lark, who guided me in the Bluegrass style and who performed it so magnificently.”

“It’s such an honor to have my work acknowledged in this way,” added Alex Weiser. “It’s humbling to be mentioned alongside the great artists recognized by the Pulitzer Prize, many of whom are heroes of mine.”

The jury for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music was: William C. Banfield (Chair), Professor of Liberal Arts & Africana Studies, Music and Society, Berklee College of Music; Jon Batiste, Bandleader/Musician, New York City; David Bloom, Conductor, Co-Artistic Director, Contemporaneous; Kevin Puts, Professor of Composition, Peabody Institute and Johns Hopkins University, and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music (for his opera Silent Night); and William Trafka, Former Director of Music, St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York City.

In addition, the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Drama was awarded to the musical A String Loop featuring music, book, and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson. One of the other finalists for that award was another musical, Soft Power, featuring book and lyrics by David Henry Hwang and music by Jeanine Tesori.

2020 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards Announced

The ASCAP Foundation has announced the 20 recipients and 3 honorable mentions of the 2020 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards. The recipients, who receive cash awards, range in age from 17 to 28 and hail from five continents. They were selected through a juried national competition; the ASCAP member composer/judges for the 2020 competition were Keyon Harrold, Hilary Kole, and Oscar Perez.

“Jazz is one of our most vital art forms and the recipients of the Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards carry its innovative spirit into the future,” said ASCAP Foundation President, Paul Williams. “We are grateful to the Herb Alpert Foundation for helping us to recognize and encourage these young music creators and congratulate them on their success.”

Headshots of the 20 winners of the 2020 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards

The 20 winners of the 2020 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards (pictured left to right):
(Row 1) David Bernot, Eri Chichibu, Eddie Codrington, Grace Corsi, Angelo Di Loreto;
(Row 2) Eliana Fishbeyn, Shimon Gambourg, Giveton Gelin, Bryce Hayashi;
(Row 3) Jisu Jung, Takumi Kakimoto, Dave Meder, Zachary Rich, Rin Seo, Jueun Seok;
(Row 4) Matthew Thomson, Elliott Turner, Gary (Kaiji) Wang, Matthew Whitaker, and Drew Zaremba.
(All photos courtesy of the ASCAP Foundation.)

The 2020 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award recipients are listed with their age and the titles of their award winning compositions. Audio recordings of performances of the composers are linked from the titles.)

Composers and their works receiving Honorable Mention this year are:

Michael Echaniz, Chase Kuesel, and Martina Liviero

2020 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards Honorable Mentions (pictured left to right):
Michael Echaniz, Chase Kuesel, and Martina Liviero. (Photos courtesy ASCAP Foundation)

The Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards program was established in 2002 to encourage young gifted jazz composers up to the age of 30. It carries the name of the great trumpeter and ASCAP member Herb Alpert in recognition of The Herb Alpert Foundation’s multi-year financial commitment to support this program. Additional funding for this program is provided by The ASCAP Foundation Bart Howard Fund. Through a partnership with the Newport Festival Foundation, one of this year’s Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards recipients will be featured on stage at the 2020 Newport Jazz Festival, slated for August 7-9 in Newport, Rhode Island.

2020 Chamber Music Conference Continues Focus on Equity and Inclusivity

The audience gives Joan Tower a standing ovation on the final morning of the 2020 Chamber Music America conference.

The annual national conference of Chamber Music America, which takes place in New York City in January, has long been a meeting place for a wide range of musicians and arts professionals and typically offers a wide range of thought-provoking speakers as well as performance showcases for a broad range of small ensembles. But in recent years, the CMA conference has also placed a specific emphasis on equity, diversity, and inclusion in the music sector and has aimed to be a catalyst for positive change within our community. This year’s conference (January 16-19), which was chaired by bassoonist, Memphis-based PRIZM Ensemble Co-founder, and the Community Music Center of Boston’s Executive Director Lecolion Washington, moved the dial still further with a heady mix of provocative talks and diverse approaches to music-making.

George Lewis in front of a CMA podium,

George Lewis gives the Keynote Address for the 2020 Chamber Music America conference.

The tone was set during the opening keynote address by composer, trombonist, and Columbia University composition chair George E. Lewis who declared that “far from being sidelined as identity politics, identity reaches into the core of aesthetics.” Perhaps his most poignant salvo was that if you “grew up believing in autonomous art, you might be like those coalminers who need to lean coding.” Lewis claimed that the notion of autonomous art “is an addiction” that “might kill you” and is a by-product of what he described as a “fake meritocracy.” Ultimately Lewis advocated for a process of “creolization“ for the arts in the 21st century. Given how much of what Lewis said resonated with the conference events over the course of three days, it’s hard to believe that he was actually a last minute replacement for actor/playwright Anna Deavere Smith. (At the onset he quipped, “There is no reason to assume I’m not Anna Deavere Smith.”)

The notion of “autonomous art” is a by-product of “fake meritocracy.”

Mary Anne Carter, who was appointed last August as Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, gave an address during CMA’s annual membership meeting in which she implored the audience not to assume that people who are against government funding for the arts are against the arts, but rather they believe that private funding is a better solution. However, she acknowledged during her time at the NEA, she has become aware that private funding does not reach every county in the United States, but public funding does, which is a very strong argument for the preservation of public funding.

NEA Chair Mary Anne Carter standing in front of a podium.

NEA Chair Mary Anne Carter addresses the membership of Chamber Music America on Friday, January 17, 2020

I attended part of a session in the afternoon focused on Overcoming Structural Racism co-led by Quinteto Latino hornist/director Armando Castellano, Equity in the Center’s Executive Director Kerrien Suarez, and PRIZM Ensemble Executive Director and Pianist Roderick Vester. The goal was to look at how racism operates along a four-tied system—internalized (stereotypes, etc.), interpersonal (where microaggressions live), institutional (the codification of implicit biases) and structural—and to go from “wake to woke to work.” Suarez pointed out that “the way orchestras look today is the desired outcome of structural racism” and that the lack of people in color in many music organizations is a by-product of “white people living in homogenized circles.” This panned out when the session attendees were asked to break up into groups; various members in the audience representing chamber music series in different communities acknowledged that they mostly chose to work with people they already knew, who were mostly white, and that their audiences were almost exclusively white.

Attendees acknowledged that they mostly chose to work with people they already knew.

Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the entire session, because I wanted to catch at least a part of a performance showcase by Fran Vielman and the Venezuelan Jazz Collective, which was one of nine different ensembles featured in 30-minute showcases on Friday. I’m glad I did, but wish I could have heard more; I only managed to catch their closing number, “Minanguero,” which featured a very exciting interplay between instruments typically associated with a standard jazz combo and an array of indigenous Venezuelan percussion instruments performed by Vielma. All in all, I only missed two of the showcases in their entirely, though I’ll confess that I did not feel obliged to attend showcases whose repertoire consisted exclusively of works by familiar dead white European male composers.  I was, however, totally smitten by the repertoire choices as well as the performances of them by the Argus Quartet—whose playlist consisted of a quartet transcription of the Contrapunctus IX from J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, excerpts from works they have commissioned by Christopher Cerrone and Juri Seo (the latter of which they have recorded for innova), and the Adagio from the String Quartet in E-flat Major by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, which in 2020 seems only excluded from the standard repertoire through a combination of ignorance and the legacy of patrimony. That showcase was clear proof that new and old music can co-exist in a performance and that both can benefit from the linkage. Also of note were Andy Milne & Unison’s piano-bass-drums trio performance (I particularly loved their rendition of McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance”), everything performed by the PUBLIQuartet (whose setlist combined exciting original compositions by Jessie Montgomery and Matthew Browne with fascinating arrangements of music by Nina Simone and the 17th century Italian nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, and the extraordinary German unaccompanied five-voice ensemble Calmus (though everything they sang was composed by men and none of it was American). I must also call attention here to an amazing feat that the PRISM Quartet pulled off—their alto saxophone player was stranded in Kansas City but they managed to perform convincingly with Hunter Bockes, a saxophone student of the other three players who happened to be in town and available to rehearse with them earlier in the day. They blended seamlessly!  And when they were joined on a fifth saxophone by Rudresh Mahanthappa for his composition I Will Not Apologize for My Tone Tonight, they totally smoked!

A Saturday morning panel discussion at the 2020 Chamber Music America conference with Aaron Flagg, Tania León, Tomeka Reid, and Jerry Medina.

(Pictured from left to right) Aaron Flagg, Tania León, Tomeka Reid, and Jerry Medina

There were 11 additional performance showcases on Saturday afternoon which I’ll get to in a bit, but first, Saturday’s activities began with a lively group discussion between four very different musicians—composer/conductor Tania León, composer/cellist/AACM member Tomeka Reid, composer/arranger/trumpeter/vocalist/bandleader Jerry Medina, and trumpeter/Juilliard Jazz Studies chair Aaron Flagg, who served as the moderator. Flagg began by asking the group to share stories about feeling not included and what to do when your art is not welcomed. “If you don’t see a space, you create a space,” said Reid who described her transition from being an orchestra musician to working in improvisatory music, which to her felt more inclusive since she “came up under a lot of female bandleaders.”  Medina recounted people telling him that salsa was “too ethnic,” but that it never stopped him from making the music he believes in: “My purpose on Earth is to keep going forward trying to reach people ‘cause music heals.” León, however, stated that she “always felt it was not my problem. … I treat everybody equally even if the person doesn’t treat me equally … Labels diminish the value of a person. … We are global, but we insist on separation.”  Reiterating Lewis’s message from the previous day, León asked, “What is the difference between a salsa and a waltz? Nothing! … That jambalaya is going to create the future.” Reid acknowledged that “things need to change, but don’t let that stop you.” Medina described how music was at the forefront of the protests that led to the ouster of the corrupt governor of Puerto Rico in 2019: “What was the gun? What was the bullets? What was the bomb? It was the music!” Flagg expressed concern that “some people are saying that CMA is now turning into a Civil Rights Organization” as if it was possible to separate culture from the society in which it is created and experienced.  Perhaps the most impassioned comment from the entire session was a remark León made in response to a comment an audience member made about being someone “of color.” “Everybody has a color,” said León. “We need to change the words we speak with.”

“Everybody has a color. We need to change the words we speak with.”

I only managed to catch five of Saturday showcases, since I wanted to check out some of the panel sessions as well; it’s a shame that these activities had to compete with each other this year, but the alternative in previous years was to schedule the various panel talks very early in the morning which was also not ideal. The staff of Chamber Music America will hate me for writing this (and I’ll probably hate myself as well if they actually were to take me up on this suggestion), but maybe the conference needs to be five days! Anyway, I broke my rule about attending a showcase that only included music by dead white European men and went to hear the Minnesota-based Sonora Winds whose repertoire consisted exclusively of mid-20th century Polish repertoire for oboe (Madeline Miller), clarinet (Anastasiya Nyzkodub), and bassoon (Marta Troicki). I was so glad I did, because I had never heard any of the three pieces they performed previously—works by Antoni Szalowski and Władysław Walentynowicz, plus an early piece I was unfamiliar with by Witold Lutosławski, the only familiar name. (After the conference, I listened to their excellent disc on MSR Classics which also features a wind quartet—adding flutist Bethany Gonella—by another new name to me, Janina Garścia, so thankfully the disc was not devoted exclusively to male composers.) Sonora’s showcase gave me the same thrill I get from hearing so-called “new music” premieres: encountering something I didn’t know. It’s the most rewarding of listening experiences, though I was also delighted to hear a live set of Nuevo tango by Emilio Solla, whose music I already knew but had only previously experienced on recordings.  I was wowed by the energy of the Roxy Coss Quintet which exclusively performed her original post-hard-bop compositions which included her sardonic response to the zeitgeist “Mr. President” and the fiesty “Don’t Cross the Coss.” But the Del Sol String Quartet’s all new music set was even more exciting—the totally idiomatic inflections in Turkish composer Erberk Eryilmaz’s Hoppa! – Íki; the altered tunings of Michael Harrison’s Murred; and the unbridled visceral aggression of Aaron Garcia’s makeshift memorials, composed in response to the horrors of recent mass shootings, in which the players shout as they saw their bows across their instruments.

Roxy Coss performing on saxophone with members of her Quintet.

Roxy Coss and members of her Quintet.

When I was not attending performance showcases, I rushed between conversations with people in the exhibit rooms (which is always a great way to catch up with lots of great people), and some of those aforementioned concurrent panel sessions. The first of the ones I caught part of was Music and Healing: Understanding Cognitive Difference Through Music, which was centered around Loretta K. Notareschi’s 2015 String Quartet OCD which is an attempt to convey, through the medium of chamber music, her postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder in the year following her daughter’s birth. It is a deeply moving and powerful piece, but its impact was significantly diminished by being presented via a pre-recorded video performance rather than by live musicians. Perhaps rather than dividing activities between performance showcases and panel talks, these formats should be combined.

Sunday morning was devoted to a 90-minute tribute to composer Joan Tower, recipient of CMA’s 2020 Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award, which included performances of three of Tower’s compositions—by violist Paul Neubauer, flutist Carol Wincenc, and Gaudete Brass—as well as a spirited conversation between Tower and radio host John Schaefer. Tower regaled the audience with her wry observations about the music scene which was sprinkled with tons of spicy anecdotes from her long career. She has frequently said that she believes that there are two types of composers—instrumental music composers and vocal composers—and that she is an instrumental music composer who has only rarely, and with trepidation, dabbled in writing for voices. She recounted “one drunken night” saying to John Ashbery, “I don’t understand your poetry.” To which he replied, “I don’t understand it either.” When Schafer asked her how she felt about the term “woman composer,” she exclaimed that she “identifies as a woman and as a composer,” although later she acknowledged, interestingly, that she has trouble with the term “American.”

John Schaefer and Joan Tower.

John Schaefer and Joan Tower.

Joan Tower exclaimed that she “identifies as a woman and as a composer.”

The conference ended with a final concert devoted to two works commissioned by CMA: Chris Rogerson’s luscious String Quartet No. 3 performed by the not yet but since Grammy minted Attacca Quartet and the expansive The Color of US Suite by jazz percussionist Donald Edwards scored for his Quintet. Given that the theme of the whole conference was inclusion, it was a bit of a shame that the final concert featured only two long works by two men. In previous years these concerts typically featured a greater number of shorter works by a wider variety of composers. Though in previous years, female composers were barely performed during the two days of ensemble showcases and happily this year’s mix struck a much better balance. Putting together such a varied and immersive conference is admittedly an extremely tough balancing act and the formula will never be perfect. And folks will complain even if it is. But two weeks later I’m still filled with sounds and ideas that will stay with me throughout the year as I eagerly anticipate next year’s iteration of the conference, which will take place January 14-17, 2021. Be there.

Omar Thomas Wins 2019 Revelli Award

A photo of a man with a black background and face paint

During the 2019 Midwest Clinic which was held over the course of four days (December 18-21, 2019) at McCormick Place in Chicago, the National Band Association (NBA) announced that Omar Thomas has been named the recipient of the 2019 William D. Revelli Award for his 2018 composition Come Sunday. The announcement that Thomas had received the $2,000 cash award, becoming the first African American composer so honored, capped a week during which there were several panels devoted to issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity at the annual Clinic, which is the world’s largest instrumental music education conference, drawing approximately 17,000 attendees.

Omar Thomas has been commissioned to create works for both jazz and classical ensembles and his works have been performed by such diverse groups as the Eastman New Jazz Ensemble, the San Francisco and Boston Gay Mens’ Choruses, and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, in addition to a number of the country’s top collegiate music ensembles. Born to Guyanese parents in Brooklyn, New York in 1984, Thomas moved to Boston in 2006 to pursue a Master of Music in Jazz Composition at the New England Conservatory of Music. He is the protégé of composers and educators Ken Schaphorst and Frank Carlberg, and has also studied under multiple Grammy-winning composer and bandleader Maria Schneider. While still completing his Master’s Degree, Thomas was appointed Assistant Professor of Harmony at the Berklee College of Music at the age of 23. He is currently on faculty in the Music Theory department at The Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Omar Thomas’s first album, I AM, debuted at #1 on iTunes Jazz Charts and peaked at #13 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Albums Chart. His second release, We Will Know: An LGBT Civil Rights Piece in Four Movements, was awarded two OUTMusic Awards, including Album of the Year. For this work, Thomas was also named the 2014 Lavender Rhino Award recipient by The History Project, acknowledging his work as an up-and-coming activist in the Boston LGBTQ community. Thomas is one of seven members of the Blue Dot Collective, a group of composers dedicated to creating new works for wind band that are “well-crafted, compelling, sincere, exciting, and fresh.” Music by Thomas was played twice during the 2019 Midwest Clinic. The Austin, Texas-based Grisham Middle School Honors Band, under the direction of guest conductor Jerry F. Junkin, performed Shenandoah, Thomas’s soulful and occasionally ominous 2019 reworking of the celebrated American folk song, and the Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina-based Wando High School Symphonic Band, under the direction of Bobby Lambert, performed the second movement of Come Sunday.

Omar Thomas describes Come Sunday as a “tribute to the Hammond organ’s central role in black worship services.”

Omar Thomas describes Come Sunday on his website as “a two-movement tribute to the Hammond organ’s central role in black worship services. The first movement, ‘Testimony,’ follows the Hammond organ as it readies the congregation’s hearts, minds, and spirits to receive The Word via a magical union of Bach, blues, jazz, and R&B. The second movement, ‘Shout!,’ is a virtuosic celebration – the frenzied and joyous climactic moments when The Spirit has taken over the service. The title is a direct nod to Duke Ellington, who held an inspired love for classical music and allowed it to influence his own work in a multitude of ways. To all the black musicians in wind ensemble who were given opportunity after opportunity to celebrate everyone else’s music but our own – I see you and I am you. This one’s for the culture!”

Thomas’s 11-minute, grade 6 work, received its world premiere on November 15, 2018 in a performance by the Illinois State University Wind Symphony under the direction of Anthony C. Marinello, ISU Assistant Professor and Director of Bands, at ISU’s Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall. It has subsequently been performed by the University of Miami’s Frost Wind Ensemble under the direction of F. Mack Wood, the University of Florida Wind Symphony under the direction of David Waybright in Gainesville, Florida, and the Michigan State University Wind Symphony under the direction of Kevin Sedatole, in East Lansing, Michigan, a video recording of which is embedded below.

The Revelli Award, which was established in 1977, is described on the website of the National Band Association as an accolade whose mission is “to further the cause of quality literature for bands in America. Works chosen as winners should be those not only of significant structural, analytical, and technical quality, but also of such nature that will allow bands to program them as part of their standard repertoire. Each year the contest receives approximately 50-80 entries from all over the world. Entries range in scope and quality and are from new to well-established veteran composers. During the evaluation process, entries are narrowed down to a select number of finalists, which are brought to Chicago each December during the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic. There, a panel of leading public school, university, and military band directors meets to determine a winner.”

The members of the 2019 Revelli contest selection committee were: Matthew McCutchen, University of South Florida (chair); Terry Austin, Virginia Commonwealth University; Marcellus Brown, Boise State University (ID); John Burn, Homestead High School (CA); Catharine Sinon Bushman, St. Cloud State University (MN); Col. Jason Fettig, U.S. Marine Band (DC); Jay Gephart, Purdue University (IN); Arris Golden, Michigan State University; Jennifer Hamilton, Red Mountain High School (AZ); Chadwick Kamei, Pearl City High School (HI); Tremon Kizer, University of Central Florida; Diane Koutsulis, Retired (NV); Jason Nam, Indiana University; Scott Rush, Fine Arts Supervisor, Dorchester School District (SC); Shanti Simon, University of Oklahoma; and John Thomson, Roosevelt University (IL).

Although Omar Thomas is the first African American composer to receive the Revelli Award, a female composer has still never received it.

Previous winners of the award include Donald Grantham and Steven Bryant (both of whom have received the award three times), John Mackey and Wayne Oquin (both of whom have received the award twice), Mark Camphouse, David Dzubay, David Gillingham, Jeffrey Hass, Ron Nelson, James Stephenson, Frank Ticheli, Swiss composer Oliver Waespi, and the late Michael Colgrass. British composer Philip Sparke (who has also received the award twice) and Swiss composer Oliver Waespi are thus far the only non-U.S. based composers to receive the award. Although Omar Thomas is the first African American composer to receive the award, a female composer has still never received it. (It should however be acknowledged that there were more works by female composers programmed during the 2019 Midwest Clinic than in any of its previous iterations. In addition to several works by Julie Giroux and Carol Brittin Chambers, concerts featured music by Jennifer Higdon, Kimberly Archer, and Karen K. Robertson. The Portuguese Orquestra de Sopros da Escola Superior de Música de Lisboa, under the direction of Alberto Roque, performed a movement from Carol Barnett’s evocative Cyprian Suite and two movements from Xi Wang’s Winter Blossom: In Memory of Steven Stucky, works which—along with Thomas’s music and Peter Van Zandt Lane’s Astrarum, performed by the Osakan Philharmonic Winds during the final concert—were personal favorites of the week.) A complete list of previous recipients of the Revelli Award is available on the website of the National Band Association.

The audience applauding at the conclusion of a wind band concert at the 2019 Midwest Clinic at McCormick Place in Chicago. Signage includes a composite image of flags from all over the world reflecting the nationalities of this year';s performing ensembles.

This photo of a portion of the audience for one of the wind band concerts at the 2019 Midwest Clinic should offer some idea of the vastness of this event.

Lei Liang Wins 2020 Grawemeyer Award for Climate Change-Inspired Piece

An AAPI man posing in front of a wooden background

Chinese-American composer Lei Liang has won the 2020 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for an orchestral work that evokes the threat posed by climate change and the opportunity it offers for redemption. Boston Modern Orchestra Project commissioned the winning piece, A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams, which premiered in 2018 in Boston’s Jordan Hall with Gil Rose conducting. Recipients of the 2020 Grawemeyer Awards are being named this week pending formal approval by university trustees. The annual $100,000 prizes reward outstanding ideas in music, world order, psychology, education and religion. Winners will visit Louisville in April to accept their awards and give free talks on their winning ideas.

“Liang’s piece, which explores a huge range of emotions and ends with both hope and ambiguity, has a forceful, convincing arc and wonderful orchestral colors,” said Marc Satterwhite, music award director. “Like some of our other winners, he challenges people inside and outside the field of music to ponder important things, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so.”

“I wanted to convey the importance of preserving our landscapes, both physically and spiritually.”

“The world we live in today is dangerous,” explained Liang. “Our very existence is threatened by global warming, which is causing violent disruptions to the living things on our planet and being made worse by human irresponsibility. When creating the work, I wanted to convey the importance of preserving our landscapes, both physically and spiritually, to sustain a place where we and our children can belong.”

Lei Liang

2020 Grawemeyer Award winning composer Lei Liang (Photo by Alex Matthews, courtesy University of Louisville.)

Lei Liang (b. 1972) is a music professor at University of California, San Diego, and research-artist-in-residence at Qualcomm Institute, the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. He has composed more than 100 works, including pieces addressing other contemporary social issues such as human trafficking and gun violence. Xiaoxiang, his concerto for saxophone and orchestra, was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2015.

Schott Music, a company founded in 1770 in Germany now with offices worldwide, publishes all of Liang’s compositions. In 2018, BMOP/sound record label released a recording of his Grawemeyer-winning piece which also includes Xiaoxiang. Click here to listen to a complete recording of A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams and to look at a perusal copy of the full orchestral score.


Additional comments by Lei Liang on the inspiration for A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams

“I came across the writings and landscape paintings of Huang Binhong and fell in love.”

A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams is a musical landscape that I painted with a sonic brush. The journey of this work started about 25 years ago when I was a college freshman. While immersed in the study of Chinese shanshui (mountain-stream, or landscape) paintings, I came across the writings and landscape paintings of Huang Binhong (1865-1955) and fell in love. I hand-copied Huang Binhong’s essays, visited Hangzhou, China, where he had his last residence, and went to museums to search for his original paintings. Since those first discoveries, his paintings have never ceased to inspire me.

In 2009, I met the Berkeley-based scholar and connoisseur Jung Ying Tsao (1929-2011). A particular album in Mr. Tsao’s collection caught my attention. It was painted by Huang Binhong in 1952, when he was nearly blind from cataracts. The master painter (then aged 87) continued to paint in blindness, and even created some of his most magical works during that time. It is an inner landscape, the magical projection of an internal vision. This orchestra piece is the culmination of a project that took shape over several years, and developed over several stages, mainly during my research residency at the Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego. The first phase, Hearing Landscapes, was the sonification of a Chinese traditional landscape painting by Huang Binhong (1865-1955), painted during a time when the artist was blind (in 1953).

From 2014 to 2016, I had a further opportunity to continue my research into Huang Binhong when I became the composer-in-residence at California Institute of Information Technology (Calit2) and Qualcomm Institute at the University of California, San Diego. With a group of scientists, we created a collaborative project that sought to conserve and explore Huang Binhong’s art through creative processes in musical composition and data visualization. Through the courtesy of Elna Tsao and with the support from the Mozhai Foundation, Huang’s album leaves were loaned to us, captured digitally, then reconstructed for high-resolution projection, revealing to viewers details of the work that have never been seen before. By using audio software technology, the intricate world hidden within the paintings’ brushstrokes are rendered sonically in an immersive space. Our project enables a viewer to fly through this painting, as if riding on a drone, and draws us into the landscape of microscopic elements – a fiber in the rice paper, the trace left by a single hair in the brush.

“Around the same time as China’s Cultural Revolution, the world was just starting to experience the catastrophic effect of what we would come to call global warming.”

In the 1950s, the cultural-political landscape in China began to change dramatically. Soon, China was to witness and undergo its most violent self-destruction – the Cultural Revolution – aiming at the annihilation of its own heritage through unprecedented brutality against its people. Around the same time, the world was just starting to experience the catastrophic effect of what we would come to call global warming. The harrowing effects of this era, induced by the emission of greenhouse gases, began to cause what we now know is the inevitable consequences of climate change: the sea will rise, the icecaps will melt, cities will flood, and whole species will be wiped out. The landscape we inhabit will forever change.

In 1952, in a darkness both literal and metaphoric, the blind Huang Binhong envisioned a luminous landscape that seemed to arise out of the shredded fragments and ashes. It transcended the brutal reality, offering a glimpse of a landscape to come, perhaps a place our children can call home.


Below is a link to a documentary, Deriving Worlds, about the research Liang conducted with scientists and sound engineers.

Deriving Worlds from Keita Funakawa on Vimeo.

It’s not a goodbye, it’s a see you later

A road against the sea with dark, weedy grass

When someone asks me about the path my professional life has taken, I tend to joke that I’m really not that responsible for it. I have most often just agreed when talented colleagues have asked me to do interesting things. Help Carnegie Hall get a podcast off the ground? Sure thing! Become John Luther Adams’s new music girl Friday? Sign me up! But perhaps there was no more important a “yes” than when I stood on the roof deck of the Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea on a hot June afternoon in 2001 and formally accepted Frank J. Oteri’s offer to come and work on this crazy thing called NewMusicBox.

In the years that followed, I grew in my creative and professional thinking alongside the rapid technological and cultural shifts that the internet threw my way time and time again. I learned to code, program a radio station, and record and produce online video packages with gear that became small enough to stuff into a backpack and cart around the country. I’ve written hundreds of posts at this point, edited thousands more, and have shot probably just as many pictures in seeking to capture the myriad facets of this world we know we can never quite define and so call, simply, new music. It has been a beautiful adventure.

I’m writing this post now, however, because it’s time for me to say “yes” again, but this time it means that I will be setting down my work at New Music USA in order to pick up the next thread in a new direction.

It’s difficult to move on from a job I have committed to so deeply and for so long, but after 18 years, I’m ready for fresh challenges. I credit the amazing opportunities I have been given throughout my time with this organization for instilling in me the skills and experience that will allow me to take on the next stage of my professional life with confidence. I’m so proud of how NewMusicBox has consistently celebrated the act of music creation, often in the creator’s own words, rather than labeling it with star ratings and judging what was “best.” Together with music makers from across the country, we have shared and learned from one another as a community, the website a virtual gathering place for diverse voices and a geographically scattered field. For years my day-to-day has involved spending time listening to artists share the stories of their lives and their music, their challenges and their solutions, both as text on my computer screen and as teachers in front of my camera. It has been an education and a profound honor.

Those stories will continue full force, of course. And I look forward to reading them. For my part, I’ll be over on the West Coast, telling new-to-me stories about food and farming and life at a small inn nestled in Friday Harbor. For those who know me personally, you know that an island with an alpaca farm and no stop lights is a kind of Eden.

So here’s to the road ahead for all of us! Mine is next taking me some 3,000 miles across the country, but I’ll be carrying a dynamic world of friendships and music along with me as I drive.

2018 Ditson Conductor’s Award Honors Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen

The Ditson Fund has announced that the 2018 Ditson Conductor’s Award has been awarded posthumously to Oliver Knussen. The citation will be presented to his daughter Sonya Knussen this afternoon. It reads:

In 1940 the Alice M. Ditson Fund was established by Columbia University to make grants “for Fellowships, Public Hearings and Publication” of the work of talented musicians the Fund deems worthy of assistance. To encourage public performance of the music of gifted contemporary American composers, the Ditson Conductor’s Award was created in 1945. With the 2018 Award, Columbia University proudly adds Oliver Knussen to the roster of distinguished conductors so honored.

Maestro Knussen, you are one of music history’s most eminent and influential composer-conductors and one of the few artists in history that is equally world-class at both occupations. Your excellence in composition and conducting inform one another, resulting in an extraordinary, graceful, stylish, nuanced catalogue of compositions and conducting that, likewise, is elegant, refined, clean, clear, detailed and energized.

Your deep understanding of and empathy with a composer’s intentions, allied to the precision of your intellect, communicative personality and conducting, result in buoyant, luminous, and lucid performances, which resonate and crackle with radiant, crystalline detail, nuance, and spirit.

You have helped so many younger composers to forge their voice with a generous and unfailing advocacy across a wide range of contemporary music aesthetics and styles.

You were appointed CBE in 1994 and received the Queen’s Medal for Music 2015 and have been the recipient of many honours and awards, including the Royal Philharmonic Society Conductor Award in 2009. You have recorded prolifically and presided over numerous premieres.

Having served as Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival (1983 – 98), Head of Contemporary Music at the Tanglewood Music Center (1986 – 93), Principal Guest Conductor of the Hague Residentie Orchestra (1993 – 97), Music Director of the London Sinfonietta (1998 – 2002), and Artist-in-Association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (2009 – 2014), your impact on the musical community around the world is remarkable, and is a testament to your unconditional generosity and inspiring curiosity as a musician.

Columbia University therefore recognizes your splendid record of dedication and accomplishment by conferring on you the Ditson Conductor’s Award of 2018 for distinguished service to American music.

Established in 1945, the Ditson Conductor’s Award honors conductors who have a distinguished record of performing and championing contemporary American music.

From Folk Song to the Outer Limits of Harmony—Remembering Ben Johnston (1926-2019)

A Caucasian man with his head titled, glasses and a white beard

I first saw Ben Johnston when I was a student at Oberlin, maybe 1976. The composers at the big Midwest music schools were in continual rotation as each other’s guest composers, which in itself was an amazing education. Ben lectured and played a recording of his Fourth String Quartet, based on the song “Amazing Grace.” He was a Quaker-bearded, good-humored, gruff, not very talkative fellow, and there was a peculiar contradiction, I think we all sensed, in this composer who had invented his own pitch notation and 22-pitch scale and written a score nearly black with ink using all these crazy polyrhythms of 35 against 36 and 7 against 8, 9, and 10 – all at the service of an old folk song anyone’s grandmother could sing. Conservative versus avant-garde was how we divided the music world up at that time. Where the hell did this fit?

Ben Johnston sitting and writing on a piece of music paper.

Ben Johnston in 1976.

Forty-odd years later, several of them spent working with him, I still think there’s an essence to Ben that in the current musical climate can only be seen as a paradox: he was a down-to-earth, populist visionary. I truly think that he thought there were no limits to what pitch and rhythm relationships musicians could learn to play, as long as the approach to the difficulties was gradual and intelligible. Famously, the third movement of his Seventh String Quartet contains more than 1200 pitches to the octave. It is structured around a 176-note microtonal scale that glacially traverses one octave over 177 measures, and, written in 1984, it remained on the page until the Kepler Quartet recorded it a couple of years ago. But it is carefully written so that if the players can get their perfect fourths and seventh harmonics in tune, they can creep securely, interval by interval, through this free, gridless, infinite pitch space – astronauts of harmony, floating beyond the gravity of A 440. The conceptual achievement leaves Boulez and Stockhausen in the dust. Moment by moment, the music can sound as mild as Ned Rorem.

The conceptual achievement leaves Boulez and Stockhausen in the dust.

Ben had a strange mind, and I say that up front only because he often frankly said so. He thought he had some kind of mental disorder, possibly caused by being taught to meditate wrong by the Gurdjieff cult in the early ‘60s – this is what he repeatedly told me, even in interviews. He was always trying various remedies. When I studied with him privately in 1983-86 (post-doctorate), he was on medication that made him very quiet. He would look at my score for fifteen minutes without speaking, and then say something incisive and profound. A few years later he was controlling his problems via diet. I went to a conference with him, where I was going to interview him onstage: the night before, he kept me up until two in the morning, talking nonstop. His Catholic priest in Champaign-Urbana recommended he go to a Zen temple in Chicago, and so for a couple of years that’s where he and I met, and I started going through the Zen services with him. Those were wonderful, and the lessons afterward took place in a blissful haze.

Ben Johnston in 1962

Ben Johnston in 1962

I do think that, whatever was strange about Ben’s mind, it was what made his music possible. At age twelve, attending a lecture on Debussy, he was introduced to Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone, the foundational treatise on acoustics that first appeared in English in 1875. He spoke about it as though it confirmed for him what he already sensed: that the music we play has something wrong with its tuning. At age 17, after a concert of his music, he was interviewed by the Richmond Times Dispatch (where his father was managing editor, admittedly), and predicted, “with the clarification of the scale which physics has given to music there will be new instruments with new tones and overtones.” This was 1944. Harry Partch’s Genesis of a Music wasn’t even published yet. By 1950 Ben was in grad school at Cincinnati Conservatory, and someone gave him a copy of Partch’s then-new book, with its outline of his 43-tone microtonal scale and perceptive history of the vicissitudes of tuning over the centuries.

Thrilled to find another musician who shared his misgivings about tuning, Ben wrote to Partch asking to study with him. Partch, who once wrote that he would “happily strangle” anyone who claimed to have been his student, took him on as an apprentice and repairman instead, and so Ben went to live for six months on Partch’s ranch in Gualala, California. Partch liked to have only young men in his orbit, and was affronted when Ben’s wife Betty arrived in tandem, but Betty Johnston was a powerhouse, and eased her way into Partch’s reluctant affections. Ben later wrote that Partch

could have wished for a carpenter or for a percussionist… But he had one thing he had not counted on: someone who understood his theory without explanation, and who could hear and reproduce the pitch relations accurately.

Ben Johnston, wearing a jacket and tie, sitting outside with Harry Partch in 1974

Ben Johnston with Harry Partch at Partch’s home in 1974.

Ben’s preternatural ability to hear and reproduce exotic intervals was the one intimidating thing about studying with him. My brain not being strange in the same way, I spent years training myself to hear eleventh harmonics and syntonic commas using primitive digital technology, and to this day I would never attempt to coach an ensemble to play one of his string quartets. When I came to his house he liked to play me whatever he was working on. Once, in the early weeks, it was a piece for trumpet and piano called The Demon-Lover’s Doubles, of which he played me the piano part. His piano was tuned for maximum consonance in G major with some peculiar pitches outside that diatonic scale, and as he started, it seemed like an oddly homespun, tuneful little piece. Then, magically, his piano started going sourly out of tune and got weirder and weirder, and I was thinking, “Man, you’d think Ben would tune his piano.” Finally, of course, he returned from his modulations into distant keys, and in G major the piano sounded fine again. I just remember sitting there thinking, “Huh.”

In that experience is the alpha and omega of Ben’s vision. What fascinated him, I think, was how vastly just intonation and the higher harmonics expand the range of consonance and dissonance, in both directions. You can have so many flavors of harmony: triads purely in tune, edgy Pythagorean triads, chords with exotic upper harmonics, dark chords from a subharmonic series, excruciating chords specifically out of tune by a comma here or there, bell-like chords related by higher harmonics, grating seventh chords with deliberately mismatched ratios, tight clusters – the route from purity to noise is no longer a line but a large three- or four-dimensional space.

One of Ben Johnston's pitch charts.

One of Ben Johnston’s pitch charts.

Many, many microtonal composers, I think, are looking for a total alternative to our tuning system, total exoticism, experimenting with how far we can adapt to new intervals, adding new complexities beyond what twelve-tone music provided. Ben wasn’t. Ben was never disappointed in the major triad. For Ben, the tonal music system that we’d developed over the last few centuries was a template, a first draft, a worthwhile approximation, but only a fragment of the universe he could hear. Seventeenth-century theorists like Marin Mersenne and Christiaan Huygens had argued for including the seventh harmonic as a consonance; Giambattista Doni (c. 1594-1647) wrote music using the eleventh harmonic. Theoretically, Ben goes back to that era and accepts those arguments. Keep the system, but add back in what was prohibited. Thus, unlike the general run of modernists, he could envision a brave new world without ever having to reject or exclude anything.

Cage and Xenakis may have wanted to reinvent music, but Ben saw a way to keep the foundation and keep building.

And so we have “Amazing Grace,” which so anchors one of the most avant-garde works of 1973 that the audience can hum along with it the first time they hear it. Also the sentimental old tune “Danny Boy,” which gradually emerges from the last-movement variations of Ben’s Tenth Quartet, and the folk song “Lonesome Valley” which is the subject of his Fifth Quartet, and the folk tune in The Demon-Lover’s Double. Cage and Xenakis, whom he knew well, may have wanted to reinvent music from the ground up, but Ben saw a way to keep the foundation and keep building.

Ben Johnston with The Kepler Quartet in 2015

Ben Johnston with The Kepler Quartet in 2015 (Photo by Jon Roy).

What’s amazing about his use of old folk tunes is how devoid of nostalgia it is. He’s not like Charles Ives, with “Beulah Land” faintly heard above the dissonant chords below; there is no modernity with which the songs’ innocence is contrasted. His “Amazing Grace” grows step-by-step from five pitches to twenty-three as though all those pitches were implicitly in there to begin with – which I imagine to his ears they were! It is difficult, probably, for most of us new-music types to take “Danny Boy” as seriously as he did, but for him it was simply a familiar item of our culture from which new implications could still be drawn. He didn’t have to renounce the naïve perspective on music to see through to the other side of the musical universe. And this is why some of Ben’s works will always appeal even to people who don’t like abrasive modernism.

That’s certainly not to deny that Ben’s music could be thorny. He kept writing twelve-tone music, in just intonation, and I once asked him why. He replied, “Well, I had learned all that theory, and I didn’t want it to go to waste.” Since he said almost everything with a slight smile, I’m not sure I ever knew when he was kidding. His Sixth Quartet draws the principle of endless melody from a twelve-tone row that consists of the first six non-repeating harmonics of D and the first six subharmonics of D#. The row matrix for the piece contains 61 different pitches. Even though it uses a twelve-tone row, though, each hexachord is actually a tonality in itself, so you do hear the harmony shift back and forth between major and minor – or between otonalities and utonalities, as we microtonalists say. At the time I wrote a rave review of the Sixth Quartet for the Chicago Reader and Ben said, “I think you like that piece better than I do.”

One piece I analyzed had some repeated pizzicatos in the cello that didn’t fit into the structure, and I asked him where they came from. He looked, and said, “Oh, that was to give the audience something to listen to while I worked out this contrapuntal problem.” That was a lesson: that the composer and the audience could want different things from a piece, and that both could be satisfied.

The composer and the audience could want different things from a piece, and both could be satisfied.

As with Partch, I also insist that Ben should get credit for his rhythmic innovations as much as for his microtonality. In the Fifth Quartet “Lonesome Road” floats above a bobbling sea of polytempos, and in the Fourth Quartet there’s a long rhythm of 35 against 36 (analogous to what we call the septimal comma), involving different meters in the various instruments. Back when I was younger and smarter, I once successfully parsed it, but I’ve never figured it out again since. He was a great proponent of Henry Cowell’s theories that pitch and rhythm, both being number based, could be developed analogously and in the same directions – that was the principle, of course, of his first hit tune, Knocking Piece, which became a percussionist’s standard. That he was focused on extending musical language in terms of both pitch and rhythm has limited his influence among the mass of composers who think there’s nothing new to be done in those directions, but when we’re ready he’s left us a foundation for a radically new music.

Ben never proselytized for microtones or just intonation. He imposed no stylistic dogma. Like so many American experimentalists, he himself was stylistically multilingual: he wrote chance music, twelve-tone music, conceptualist works, a musical, and a surprising amount of his output is in a neoclassic vein, with standard forms like sonata-allegro and variations. Neo-romanticism, I think, is the only idiom he avoided, which is not to say his music couldn’t be deeply moving; he just wasn’t sentimental. In 1983 I asked to study privately with him because I loved his music (I never attended the University of Illinois where he taught for 35 years), but I didn’t want to get into microtonality, which seemed like too much work. That was fine with him, but at my first lesson he looked at a chord I’d written and remarked how beautiful it would be if tuned properly, and he reeled off the ratios. With a shock I realized I understood just what he was saying. It was as if a huge iron door had slammed shut behind me. I was in his world and couldn’t go back.

I didn’t need to. The microtonal notation he invented opened the universe to me, and I learned to think in it fluently. My own microtonal music, more single-minded and homogenous than his (not to mention more cautious – god, that Seventh Quartet!), inherited his worldview of microtones as an extension of tonality rather than an alternative. I would be remiss here if I failed to mention another of his microtonal students, Toby Twining, who, in his Chrysalid Requiem (2002), developed Ben’s ideas into one of the most impressive feats of musical architecture ever perpetrated, incredibly complicated yet unearthly beautiful. That’s a legacy.

Ben Johnston as a child driving a toy car.

A 10-year-old Ben Johnston in 1936. He was already eager to explore.

I remember once in Ben’s medicated days we had him over for dinner, and he played solitaire obsessively while we were preparing dinner. After he retired we visited him in Rocky Mount, where Ben and Betty, equally strong characters, practically barked at each other, but clearly with no lack of affection. He was a crucial link between me and several other people I didn’t meet until later, all of whom were devoted to him: Bill Duckworth, Neely Bruce, Bob Gilmore. I last saw Ben in 2010 at a microtonal conference. He could barely get around. After I delivered a paper about his music he tottered up to say “thank you,” and I replied, “No, thank YOU!” He looked up from his walker with a big grin and gruffly growled, “YOU’RRRE WELCOME!” That meant the world to me: I needed him to acknowledge how much he had done for me. A few years later I called to tell him that he appeared as a character in Richard Powers’s novel Orfeo, about the University of Illinois’s music department in the 1960s. His mind was deteriorated by Parkinson’s, and the next day his caretaker called me saying Ben was under the impression that some kind of copyright infringement had taken place and he needed a lawyer. I set his mind at rest and assured him it was a compliment.

And once when I was a young, new home-owner with a lawn to keep up, I was driving Ben somewhere and we passed a vacant lot covered with blooming dandelions. I made a slighting reference to the plant, and Ben just said, “But they’re awfully beautiful, aren’t they?” That was a lesson too. He was a lovely soul, and a caliber of musical mind we will not see again.

Ben Johnston and Kyle Gann c. 1994 (Photo by Bill Duckworth)

Ben Johnston and Kyle Gann c. 1994 (Photo by Bill Duckworth, courtesy Kyle Gann)