Category: NewMusicBox

The Art of Being True: Sonic Creation & Motherhood in Music

[Ed. Note: Last week, the debut anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) by the 12 participants in M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians), edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, was published on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. Beginning last week and continuing until M³’s next round of concerts on June 12 and 13, 2021 (again under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum), which has received funding from New Music USA, we are publishing excerpts from each of the 12 participants’ contributions to the anthology, 2 per week, on Fridays. Last week’s excerpts are available here, but to read all these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]


Erica Lindsay holding her saxophone (Photo by Jean M. Laffitau)

Erica Lindsay (Photo by Jean M. Laffitau)

From Erica Lindsay’s essay Sonic Creation

To express what is beyond your own understanding, or your control, is the destination. To achieve the heights of thought-free expression, to trust in something beyond – to be concerned only with staying in vibration with a higher frequency that speaks a truth inside you personally and viscerally – that is your only responsibility. Having ideas about yourself, or concepts about your musical expression has its place, but the “I” that thinks these ideas will not tune you into the vibration of Source that you are seeking.


Sara Serpa photo with an overlay of a patch of green (Photo by Carolina Saez)

Sara Serpa (Photo by Carolina Saez)

From Sara Serpa’s essay Motherhood in Music in 10 Steps

Most of the music clubs, venues and concert halls don’t allow children. I once had a musician telling me that I couldn’t bring my baby to a concert because “this scene is not for babies”. I absorbed that quietly, feeling embarrassed for even asking. Most artistic residencies for musicians refuse families and children, with only 10% of artistic residencies in the US being family-friendly. Most grants for musicians do not consider or offer childcare support. I have never seen a children’s room in a performing space. Very few music festivals, studios, or educational institutions have childcare facilities. In general, it is the mother musician who is expected to be flexible and accommodating and not the institutions.

Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way of Enveloping a Story

For the past 20 years, Ricky Ian Gordon has been creating works for the stage—operas, musicals, or one-of a-kind music/theater hybrids—and getting them produced one after another, seemingly without a pause. But 14 months ago, fresh off from the PROTOTYPE production of Ellen West and with two new works about to open—Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis with New York City Opera—plus a revival of The Grapes of Wrath at Aspen in the works, everything came to a screeching halt as the world went into lockdown due to the pandemic.

“They didn’t even take down the set of Intimate Apparel,” Ricky exclaimed when we spoke over Zoom. “Michael Yeargan’s set is there. Cathy Zuber’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lights, everything’s in place. We just have to get back in the theater. We’ll open the theater again.”

But since everything has been on hold for over a year now, he has taken a break from madly finishing new scores. Instead, he has focused mostly on other things—writing poetry, a candid essay about his teenage obsession with Joni Mitchell which was published in Spin, and he’s now furiously at work on a book-length memoir that will be published in 2022 by Farrar Straus & Giroux.

“I couldn’t get behind writing music and anything that relies on performance during a period when there was not going to be any performance,” Gordon explained. “It just felt like the wrong direction. And also the whole Zoom music thing, like operas on Zoom, just doesn’t interest me that much. … But we’re all fickle, and if suddenly it was a form that was about my work, then I’m sure I’d turn around on it, ‘cause I’m 12-years-old inside.”

It’s somewhat surprising that Ricky Ian Gordon didn’t jump on the virtual music bandwagon, since for years he’s been involved in creating works for the stage that redefine possibilities and break boundaries. But he also excels at creating work that is emotionally direct and has an immediate impact with audiences, so it makes sense that he’d be skeptical about creating something designed to be experienced by isolated individuals in front of computer terminals. And what inspires him more than anything else is the narrative arc of a great story, whether it’s a John Steinbeck novel, passages from Marcel Proust, a poem by Frank Bidart about a patient of an early 20th century psychiatrist suffering from anorexia nervosa, or the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. While most of his stage works are based on events from the distant past, these stories are very much in the present for him.

“Is Grapes of Wrath any less resonant now than it was then?” he asked at one point in our talk. “The entire world is one big refugee crisis. One big drought. One big food shortage. One big government saying: it’s not my fault. The Grapes of Wrath could have been written yesterday! When we wrote 27 about Gertrude and Alice, what was the zeitgeist? Gay marriage. And this is like the original gay marriage. These two women were calling themselves husband and wife before World War I. It all feels like it’s happening now. … I never feel like I’m back in time. … I just feel like … I’m making myself available for those stories. Then I feel like they sort of explode through me. There is no such thing as history or then and now. There’s only the current moment and what seems to be my way of enveloping that story.”

Thankfully, though he has had numerous productions put on hiatus, Ricky Ian Gordon has not suffered great hardship during the past year as have so many others who have lost loved ones or have gotten sick themselves. But he is also a war-scarred survivor of the AIDS crisis which claimed tons of people dear to him, most significantly his partner Jeffrey Michael Grossi, whose death inspired his deeply personal adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice and his poignant monodrama Green Sneakers. The lessons Gordon learned from that horrific time inform his outlook on where we as a society are right now.

“It was a very intense time,” he recalled. “Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying … We live in a very divided country right now, but I just can’t imagine we’re not all gonna be affected by this. … The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent. … How do you incorporate that into a new world where at any moment you could get a pandemic and everyone could be killed? What does art mean then?”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way Of Enveloping A Story
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Ricky Ian Gordon
April 19, 2021—1:30pm EDT via Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

The Art of Being True: To Speak in Memory & The Sun Itself

[Ed. Note: Back in December, in support of their debut concerts of Mutual Mentorship for Musicians (a.k.a. M³), which were presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. The next round of M³ collaborations, which has received funding from New Music USA, will take place June 12 and 13, 2021 (again under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum). In addition, today, M³ has released an anthology of writings (poetry, essays, and more) by each of the participants, edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, entitled The Art of Being True, on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. To celebrate this publication and in anticipation of the upcoming concerts, we will be publishing excerpts from each of the 12 participants’ contributions to the anthology, 2 per week, every Friday between now and June 12. To read these writings in their entirety, please visit the dedicated portal for the anthology on Publik/Private. – FJO]


A few of water to the horizon and an overcast sky.

Photo by Eden Girma (courtesy Eden Girma)

From Eden Girma’s poem “To speak in memory”

I call upon an ancient conversation, of blues in the horizon,
sacred arcs that line an engine’s shape
with dew, with moving water,
to lift us beyond joy or sorrow.

In life, in death,
reality, imagination.
In tapestries that float above

as knitted by our fathers – fathers, known by quiet names,
loving through a softer power,
strings of heaven woven into brutal, mortal earth.


Anjna Swaminatha walking in the water on a beach.

Anjna_Swaminatha (photo courtesy Anjna_Swaminatha)

From Anjna Swaminathan’s essay, “The Sun Itself: Expanding my Horizons as a Queer Multidisciplinary Being”

My abundance lives in intergalactic melodies sung into a frying pan sizzling with shallots, cumin seeds, cloves and bay leaves. It lives in the precarious watering schedule of my 27 plants and their alliterating names (Parachute, Parvati, Pankajam, Pita and so on). It lives in the laughter that echoes through the walls of my fiancée’s and my rainbow-colored apartment. My abundance cannot live on a page (or worse on computer software with poorly produced midi) because it was born from something far less tangible, yet far more intrinsic. It was born in the whisper of crisp winter winds coming into one ear and endless poems and songs flowing out of the other. How can I possibly bastardize this oh so divine and human abundance by fixing it onto a page?

Untangling Anxious Signals and Creative Impulses

States of high anxiety can produce thought patterns similar to those experienced during the creative process – seemingly disparate thoughts connect to create new meanings and stories – but there are also stark differences between imaginative impulses and anxious physiological signals. I unpack the positive and negative impacts of anxiety on creative work, and why the two are easily confused.

Underscoring How Human and Relatable Immigrants Actually Are

I don’t think of myself as the type that gambles with the rent money, yet that’s exactly what I felt like I was doing during tech week of the live, online, remote song cycle I recently produced called Swell. The riskiness of the endeavor, which was funded by the Mayor’s Office of the City of New York along with assistance for ASL interpretation from A.R.T.-NY, didn’t become clear until one night in tech when the internet was bucking wildly and we couldn’t sync the audio feeds coming from various corners of the country the way we’d successfully done during the past two weeks of staging rehearsals. It occurred to me that choosing such an unpredictable medium for a live, remote production whose subject was very dear to me may not have been the most clear-eyed decision.

A few years in the making, Swell began with an encounter with a piece of Nathalie Joachim’s that hearkened back to a trip she’d taken to her mother country of Haiti. Listening to her, I began wanting to make work like that, work that transported me to another place and to another way of life. It made me immensely nostalgic for my own island of origin, Taiwan. After that experience, it became my mission to find composers who identified as immigrants/children of immigrants, ask them if they’d be willing to write a song about some aspect of that experience, and on top of that, ask if they’d be open to collaborating with me on the lyrics. (At the time, I’d been writing lyrics for about three years and working with a couple of different composers; I was enamored with what music could do to enhance text and could see no reason to stop.)

My definition of new music was fairly broad—electronics, pop-inflected sounds, opera, opera lite, atonality—it was all marvelous as far as I was concerned.

It took a while to track down composers in New York who fit the criteria, and who were also comfortable with new music. I remember explaining the idea for the song cycle to one composer from Israel that I’d approached, and afterward he had a pained look on his face. He asked, “What if I didn’t immigrate to escape war or poverty?” My immediate reply was that that was ideal, because not every immigrant’s experience involves fleeing horrific circumstances. He wound up writing perhaps the cycle’s most well-loved earworm. Another composer decided to set his memory piece at a breakneck tempo, because he wanted to emphasize the humor in the song, as well as play with the fact that not every immigrant from Mexico has the same journey, literally or figuratively, to the U.S.

As it turned out, my definition of new music was fairly broad, and by the time I’d found ten composers, the song cycle included electronics, pop-inflected sounds, opera, opera lite, atonality—it was all marvelous as far as I was concerned. I loved, too, that each composer had (sometimes vastly) different musical backgrounds and training. They were all accomplished, yet they’d entered the field from different directions, meeting finally at this project. In summer of 2019, I was offered a two-day workshop at HERE in New York to test out the concept. The workshop presentation utilized three singers, three instrumentalists, projections, a little bit of lighting design, a smaller amount of set design, and music stands because nobody could be expected to be off-book. I’d paid everyone out of my savings, which at the time added up to a few thousand dollars—it was my emergency fund, and being offered space to present this work on very short notice seemed like the perfect emergency. In naming the song cycle, I arrived at a term that evoked both turbulent seas (and sea-crossings), and voices rising in unison.

While people who looked and sounded like us were being taken from their homes, we presented a song cycle underscoring how human and relatable immigrants actually were.

The workshop of Swell coincided with the weekend that ICE began conducting mass raids at the behest of then President Trump. It was an eerie coincidence, as the raids were originally scheduled to occur the weekend prior, but had been postponed for one week. So, while people who looked and sounded like us—people who came from immigrant families—were being taken from their homes, we presented a song cycle underscoring how human and relatable immigrants actually were. Our show wasn’t exactly a solution to what was happening, but it was a place where people could, and did, gather in solidarity against it. Fast forward to March 17, 2021, when Swell opened for a five-day, live, online run, after being given the green light to convert its originally intended, fully staged, in-person production into a virtual one. That night, as we finished up our first post-show production meeting, news of a shooting spree in Atlanta appeared in my feed. It wasn’t being called a hate crime, but it looked at least like a violent act that grew partly out of racist thinking and misogynistic ideas. The following day, I was asked how I was doing and whether there was anything people could do to help. The only answer that made sense to me was to ask people to watch the show. As it happened, half our composers were of Asian descent. I felt, and continue to feel, that the show kept me buoyed during a time when it would otherwise have been easy to succumb to fear and anxiety. I made the show’s comp code available to the public, which was a decision I could make easily as producer. It felt to me like everyone, for different reasons, could use our show at that moment.

As we finished up our first post-show production meeting, news of a shooting spree in Atlanta appeared in my feed.

Aside from the piece itself being moving, there was the undeniable fact that thirty artists contributed to it in some way. That thirty individuals helped to make what amounted to an online experiment, during a pandemic, while getting paid, is inspiring in and of itself. What I think made it such a powerful antidote to the race-based hate and violence toward Asians/Asian Americans, is the community we created over the course of making the show. Although every rehearsal and every meeting took place virtually, we maintained a kind and supportive ethos, even as we were attempting something highly stressful with a considerable chance of failure. It was important to me, especially early on, to have as much individual time with everyone as possible. Along with talking about the music, I swapped life stories with the music director (whom I hadn’t worked with before). I walked the performers through setting up their lights and green screens, and gave them as much time as they needed to get comfortable with the equipment and with me. I found this early getting-to-know-each-other period crucial for buffering the stressors that would inevitably come later in the process, such as scheduling snafus, tech week, and the sundry unpredictable surprises that crop up, which producers tackle on a regular basis.

It’s generally assumed that I regard Swell as my baby. Though this is true, it’s also true that I regard every project of mine as my baby. In theater, I’ve found that producing one’s work is the surest way of seeing that work in the world. In music (or more aptly, music-theater) which I’m newer to, an artist who produces their own work, let alone produces the work of others, seems something of a unicorn. At its core, producing is a time-consuming, stress-inducing, sleep-depriving job, and requires a set of skills that, if one doesn’t already possess them, one must be open to acquiring. Having done it, I can say my favorite things about producing have nothing to do with seeing the work realized. Instead, what I most enjoy are the problem-solving aspect and the power of paying artists. Every day I worked on Swell seemed to present a new challenge, and every day ended, if I was lucky, with a creative solution. Apart from that, nothing gives me as much joy as sending money directly to an artist for making their art. It was almost as if every time I hit ‘send’ I was paying myself.

One of the accomplishments that came out of Swell that I will take to my grave is that many of the composers (perhaps all?) had the chance to write about themselves in a way they’d never been asked to before. This again, was a difference between this world and the theater world. In theater, writers are often pressed to write about what they know, and while the intentions behind this remain well-meaning, for BIPOC writers this can sometimes feel restrictive or worse, extractive. Yet for composers who had never been given the chance to consider their heritage or their personal stories in the context of making work, they came away from Swell with a sense of self and a sense of purpose they hadn’t known they were missing. The other accomplishment of which I’m exceedingly proud is the ability to provide ASL interpretation for the show. What is meaningful to me about this is that for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, music can feel like an activity that belongs only to the hearing. Making this production accessible, with dynamic visuals, captioning, and a separate window for ASL interpretation (as large as the window for the show, if one chose to make it so on their computer screen) to a community that is not typically served, particularly when it comes to sound-based work, was revelatory. Suddenly it made sense to think of Swell as a work of art, rather than a work of sound.

Writers are often pressed to write about what they know, and while the intentions behind this remain well-meaning, for BIPOC writers this can sometimes feel restrictive or worse, extractive.

When we finally got Swell up and running, the same butterflies that attend an in-person show came swarming in. I saw people in the audience I knew, and there were names I recognized. It felt so live, and because of that it was scary. Every night we had different things to contend with, sometimes software related, often internet related. At the end of one night that went particularly well, the applause (via chat) was instantaneous, and my phone and email blew up with messages of awe and appreciation. As with in-person performances, one night like that is almost enough to erase all the imperfections that, to the maker, seem so glaring. If I had known from the beginning what putting Swell online entailed, I think I would have gone ahead and done it anyway.

Daniela Candillari: Creative Blessings in Disguise

Conductor and composer Daniela Candillari shares how she discovered surprising musical and personal truths about herself through new and pleasurable activities, such as pottery and gardening, while she strove to cope with her forced hiatus from conducting caused by the pandemic. We discuss how play, meditation, letting go of control, and deep listening impact creativity and mental health. Daniela reflects on her personal experience with performance anxiety, how emotion shapes our perception of time, and why her memories of living through the wars in the former Yugoslavia return to her during this period.

Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding New Music in the ’90s

In May 1989, the Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato took to the floor of the senate chambers to angrily denounce the artist Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ—which depicted a crucifix submerged in urine—as what he called a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” What made D’Amato particularly furious, and what led to his protests along with those of his fellow Senator Jesse Helms, was the fact that Serrano’s photograph had been touring as part of an exhibit indirectly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. “This is not a question of free speech,” D’Amato proclaimed, as he waved a reproduction of the exhibit’s catalog. “This is a question of abuse of taxpayers’ money.” And then, unceremoniously, he tore the catalog in half, threw it on the floor, and declared, “What a disgrace.”

Worried about similar controversies, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington preemptively cancelled a large-scale exhibit of photographs by artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who had died of AIDS earlier that year, which included several explicit depictions of gay sex acts as well as nude children. Serrano and Mapplethorpe became the scapegoats for an uproar among Republicans in Congress, who debated whether the Endowment should be defunded or significantly restricted, as well as a newly galvanized evangelical movement, who accused the Endowment of promoting profanity and pornography. Avant-garde art, and its government funding, was conscripted into the sweeping referendum on post-’60s society, waged between left and right, known as the Culture Wars.

American composers, however, seemed to have little to fear: the focus of right-wing anger was directed towards the radical photography of Serrano and Mapplethorpe, as well as the performance art of figures like Karen Finley. The music that became subject to Culture Wars controversy––such as the rock and hip-hop targeted by the PMRC and Christian fundamentalist organizations––seemed far from the world of contemporary composition. Indeed, in an October 1989 article, the young composer David Lang expounded on the apparent lack of significance of the so-called “Helms amendment”––an attempt by the right-wing senator Jesse Helms to restrict federal funding to art that was deemed obscene or indecent––for the world of new music. “Artists like to feel that their work is challenging enough to be controversial,” he wrote. “Photographers, painters, filmmakers and the like can imagine victimization at the hands of Congress as a badge of honor. They are Art-martyrs to the First Amendment.”

“With all of the excitement,” Lang fretted, “it is disturbing that so little of this controversy is aimed at composers. Are we not controversial? Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music? It is possible that we are doing something wrong.” Later in the article, Lang ultimately singled out one central culprit, what he called “A colossal loss of nerve.” As the academic avant-garde faded, Lang wrote, composers were looking to work with mainstream institutions and reach large audiences, and thus “there are a lot of people we can’t afford to offend.” Lang’s principal scapegoat was “polite music,” music “designed to impress an audience, not to provoke it. “Congress says we are dangerous,” he concluded. “It is up to us to prove it.”

David Lang fretted, “Why isn’t Congress rushing to censor the subversive power of modern music?”

But in utilizing the Culture Wars as a backdrop for making a perennial argument––that composers needed to make their music more aesthetically adventurous, to re-embrace avant-garde impulses––Lang may have overlooked the very real consequences of the Culture Wars on contemporary music. New music was not only swept up in the decimated public funding landscape that Helms and the religious right set into motion. Its institutions were also the subject of their own specific controversy, within the press and among granting panels, that centered on attempts to enact multicultural arts policy and promote the work of women and composers of color.

This three-decade-old episode of an attempt to diversify the world of contemporary composition––amidst a landscape of increasing arts austerity, loud Congressional battles over avant-garde art, and public backlash from prominent composers––has much to offer today’s attempts at fostering inclusion. It is one of many stories from my recent book, Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace, which draws on interviews and archival research to reconstruct a crucial, turbulent, and oft-overlooked moment in American music.

The cover for Will Robin's book Industry


In the late 1980s, “multiculturalism” was a buzzword in the American arts world: promoted by foundation and government administrators, detested by conservatives, and made an explicit if only partly realized goal for arts institutions. In these contexts, multiculturalism was typically understood to signify the advocacy for art created by minority groups as well as outreach programs by traditional institutions to minority communities.

Multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how NYSCA should adjudicate its funding.

And multiculturalism became a lightning rod for debates on how the New York State Council on the Arts (hereafter NYSCA) should adjudicate its funding. Established in 1960 as a public funding body for the arts in New York State, NYSCA preceded the NEA and served as a model for some of its programs. Under the direction of James Jordan—the cousin and longtime manager of Ornette Coleman—NYSCA’s Music Program increasingly supported new music, including adding a priority for programming living composers to its guidelines in 1985, and running a statewide touring program intended to grow audiences for new work. Jordan maintained a strong commitment to funding experimental jazz and the work of Black composers, and also viewed public funding as a means for new music to reach new listeners. “Can you sell experimental music?” he asked in a 1991 interview with EAR Magazine. “I think you can. But you have to sell its humanity, its spirituality…It’s the marketing that sells, whether it’s experimental or not.”

In this period, NYSCA attempted to address the issue of multiculturalism, partly in response to political pressure. In 1987, it launched a program to diversify audiences for large cultural institutions like the New York Philharmonic via funding for outreach programs. But in a series of public hearings conducted by the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, the “new audiences” programs were critiqued for subsidizing established institutions at the expense of smaller organizations within minority communities. The caucus organized a task force which produced a 1989 report, “Towards Cultural Democracy,” lambasting NYSCA for excluding people of color from its staff and panels, and for awarding grants primarily to “Eurocentric” institutions; its minority-aimed Special Arts Service Division, for example, was continuously underfunded and required lobbying simply to stay afloat. NYSCA’s panel review system was itself suspect, as its “experts” were typically only familiar with Eurocentric art forms and perspectives: “People of color are always outnumbered on panels and have little or no input in that decision-making process.”

“This is not a purely symbolic debate,” sociologist Samuel Gilmore wrote of multicultural arts funding in 1993. “Rather it is a battle over the current and future allocation of scarce artistic resources.” Public agencies were continually and rightfully pressured by their constituents to wrestle with how to allocate arts funding across different ethnic and racial demographics. As they attempted to do so—often poorly and unfairly, as the critics in “Towards Cultural Democracy” argued—they also faced critique from conservatives who felt that the organizations were abandoning the “permanent values” of the supposed canon of high art in favor of serving political interests.

The terms of this debate mirrored contemporaneous political battles over affirmative action, in which liberals argued for the necessity of acknowledging racial difference and conservatives instead made a case for purportedly “meritocratic” colorblindness. And what unfolded at NYSCA reflected national trends in arts funding; in the final years of the 1980s, as Gilmore points out, NEA programs in multiple categories steadily increased grants awarded to minority-based initiatives (though, in proportion to the agency’s total budget, such efforts still remained paltry). In 1990, President Bush’s NEA chairman described multiculturalism as an NEA priority, and language around it was incorporated into grant making guidelines.

Some of NYSCA’s new policies led to an uproar in the world of contemporary music, most vociferously voiced by the composer Charles Wuorinen. With the composer and flutist Harvey Sollberger, Wuorinen had co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music in 1962, among the earliest American ensembles specializing in contemporary composition. It was initially housed at Columbia University and received significant early funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which had been seeding ensembles and electronic music studios at universities across the country. (Michael Uy’s fascinating new book Ask the Experts tells the full story of this moment.) The Group participated in a broader network of emergent Cold War institutions, including Princeton’s PhD program in composition, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and the journal Perspectives of New Music, which codified a new support system for contemporary music, strongly underscored scientific expertise, and were backed by university and foundation patronage.

A paradigmatic modernist Cold Warrior, Wuorinen had a forbidding reputation as an advocate for serial composition. And through the 1980s, he increasingly articulated a pessimistic, neoconservative worldview, expressing concerns about populism, pluralism, and the decline of “serious culture.” In a 1988 profile in The New York Times, on the occasion of Wuorinen’s fiftieth birthday, writer Joan Peyser focused on the composer’s concerns that minimalism was overtaking twelve-tone music, driven by institutions such as NYSCA prioritizing audiences over art. Like the neocon art critics who filled the pages of The New Criterion such as Samuel Lipman and Hilton Kramer, Wuorinen traced the plight of the present moment to the late ’60s: “That was the turning point. Art became capitalized, a Good Thing, something to be brought to everyone. With that came the promoting, the merchandising, the marketing––the change from art to entertainment.”

And Wuorinen apparently told the Times that the Group for Contemporary Music’s next season might be scrapped in part because of NYSCA: the composer “says the council’s money is going to organizations specializing in Minimalist music and that members of its music committee have told him of their wish to help promote the work of women and blacks.” The composer attempted to resist such efforts, steadfastly refusing to take any such considerations into account when programming his ensemble’s repertoire.

Grant application materials, held in the New York State Archives, further clarify both NYSCA and the Group’s positions. Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about its failure to program women and minority composers. In the preceding years, the Group programmed no music by women composers, and only one work by a Black composer. Wuorinen and the Group’s staff met with James Jordan in fall 1986. In a response to NYSCA that November, the ensemble’s executive director wrote that the Group had received few scores by women or minority composers in the past, but it would issue a public call, emphasizing that women and minorities would be encouraged to apply. Still, he noted, “We will continue to select the most worthy ones for performance without respect to gender or ethnic background.”

Reviewing the ensemble’s 1986–87 NYSCA grant application, a Council administrator noted concerns about the Group for Contemporary Music’s failure to program women and minority composers.

NYSCA was set up in a similar fashion to the National Endowment for the Arts: an internal staff helped adjudicate grants, in dialogue with independent panels of peer artists. And the peer panel that voted on the Group’s funding application later that month was not convinced: “That the Group has received only one score from a woman and none from minorities in the past two seasons had more to do with the history of not performing the works of women and minorities, creating an unwelcome atmosphere.” Its annual funding was cut substantially, from $16,000 to $10,000. Other ensembles faced similar scrutiny: reviewing an application from another group, Speculum Musicae, panelists discussed the “insularity of its programming, and the lack of evidence of any real effort to include women and minorities,” and its funding was cut by $3,000. In a 1985 review meeting, administrators from the downtown venue Experimental Intermedia told a NYSCA officer that they would feature more women and minority composers going forward.

Still, the Group refused to play ball. In June 1987, the ensemble held a board meeting in which it decided that “affirmative action programs had no place in artistic endeavors,” and “agreed that The Group must continue to maintain the integrity of its programming, despite the consequences of NYSCA funding or lack of it.” Its NEA funding had been cut back, too, and its New York seasons shrunk; the Group did, however, program music by two women, Michelle Ekizian and Barbara Kolb, in 1987 and 1989.

Beginning with its 1990 handbook, NYSCA’s guidelines included a new section stating that “The Council is particularly interested in offering assistance to worthy artistic activities that serve traditionally underserved communities or populations.”  The policy advocated for applicants to increase the diversity of their staff and program for culturally diverse audiences. To evaluate these new criteria, NYSCA asked questions of applicants “relating to participation in and service to traditionally underserved populations.” There were no pre-determined answers it sought, but it wanted to see a given applicant demonstrate good-faith effort. “We don’t punish those who don’t program women, minority, and American composers,” Jordan told EAR in 1991. “We reward those who do.”

After skipping applying for NYSCA funding for two years, the Group applied again in 1990 for a modest $5,500 for a three-concert, free series comprising music by Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, Olivier Messiaen, and other composers––all of whom were white men. Responding to one of the new application questions––“Do you include artists who are representatives of minorities and special constituencies in your programming?”––the Group reiterated what had now become familiar rhetoric, that it was interested in programming minority composers “of merit” and that its artists “are selected on the basis of ability.” The peer panel reviewing the application debated whether to reduce requested funding based on its failure to address past concerns over diversity, and the state ultimately awarded $5,000. But the Group only presented one of its three proposed programs and in 1991–92, the ensemble’s thirtieth season, it ended its live concert series entirely, instead dedicating its resources exclusively to recording.

“The State Council of New York attempted to tell me what I should program,” Wuorinen told the scholar Richard Douglas Burbank around this time. “That’s why the Group for Contemporary Music doesn’t exist anymore, except on paper. The Arts Council wanted affirmative action.” He added that “They were taking artistic control from us and I wouldn’t have it.”


One peer organization in new music had no issues complying with NYSCA’s requests. Founded in 1987 by the composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, the freewheeling Bang on a Can festival brought together rock-inflected postminimalism, uptown serialism, downtown experimentalism, and world music. They had easy answers to the questions that the Group had protested. In a 1990 NYSCA application, Bang on a Can described in detail its marketing and publicity work to reach diverse audiences, and noted that “our commitment to women and minorities has been, and remains, very strong,” providing a list of more than twenty women and minority composers featured in the past four years.

Back in 1988, Lang had actually written a letter to the Times rebuking their profile of Wuorinen, in which he accused the composer and his uptown compatriots of “rooting out dissent with the ardor of holy warriors on a serial jihad.” He added, “Only by encouraging diversity can music hope to stay vital.”

These priorities also made Bang on a Can an appealing candidate to foundations that supported diversity-focused initiatives. In 1990, it successfully applied for funding from the Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program to commission three new string quartets written by women, which the organization pitched as helping rectify the fact that “women composers are under-represented” in standard repertoire. (In terms of gender, an average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.)

An average of around 22% of works presented on the Bang on a Can marathons between 1987 and 1993 were by women composers—not representative numbers, but better than many peer organizations.

In a 1991 funding request to the Jerome Foundation, Gordon wrote that “In the past five years we have presented on our marathon concerts works by 82 emerging composers, of which 34 were by women and composers of color,” and that all of its commissioned works for 1992 were by women and people of color. He further noted that during its process for evaluating works submitted for performance at its marathons, following an initial blind review to see if the music fit the “artistic vision of the Festival,” there was a second review with a number of considerations including “whether the composer is an emerging, woman, or minority composer.” This clear acknowledgement that the organization took gender, race, and ethnicity into account in its programming would have been anathema to Wuorinen, who saw such efforts as a form of social engineering that jeopardized his notions of a modernist, individualist meritocracy.

And NYSCA program reviews and panel comments on Bang on a Can applications were consistently positive. “It is rare to find an organization which programs the works of women and minorities in representative numbers in a way that is natural to the goals of the organization,” a NYSCA staffer wrote in his evaluation of a 1991 funding proposal. As NYSCA funding for the Group for Contemporary Music was cut, Bang on a Can’s increased.


Ultimately, though, state program reviews were not what jeopardized new music in the 1990s. The decade began with massive reductions to NYSCA’s allocations, in response to the 1990 economic recession, which caused a deficit crisis in New York State. In 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo requested a 56 percent cut in NYSCA’s budget, prompting outrage in the arts community. James Jordan told EAR Magazine that the proposed cuts were the “worst shape we’ve been in during the last 20 years.” The budget was ultimately cut by 44 percent and, by 1992–93, the state arts budget was at its lowest level since the early 1970s. And new-music organizations across the board faced major state cutbacks, to which Bang on a Can was not exempt.

But some prominent composers would remember the culprit of this moment not as the recession, or a state government that deployed arts cutbacks to balance its budget, or even the paleoconservatives like Jesse Helms fighting at the national level. Invited by The Musical Times in 1994 to respond to the question “Music: the next 150 years?” Milton Babbitt took a bleak outlook, lambasting “pervasive and invasive populism” that endangered the future of what he perennially called “serious music.”

According to Babbitt, the National Endowment for the Arts “has imposed through its appointed panels a censorship of egalitarianism, regionalism, sexism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse sexism’) and racism (some may wish to term this ‘reverse racism’) which has had far broader and harsher effect than the publicized attacks and threat of censorship by a yahoo legislator and his fellow protectors of the public morality.” (“Yahoo legislator” was a reference to Helms.)

Arguing that the “NEA’s ideological correctness has trickled down to other public and private benefactors”—likely referring to NYSCA, although Babbitt does not name the Council—the composer recapped the Group for Contemporary Music’s funding woes and its cessation of live performance. And he repeated Wuorinen’s claims that the ensemble’s funding had been threatened by its failure to program music by minority composers. Instead, Babbitt argued, “There is apparently little concern that the most threatened minority groups are the composers and performers who have been on the programs and on the stage.” New music itself, in other words—rather than new music by composers from underrepresented groups—deserved affirmative action.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism. His claims of the NEA’s reverse racism and reverse sexism in panel adjudication echoed conservatism’s “colorblind” opposition to affirmative action and other social programs that attempted to address inequality. Babbitt and Wuorinen had both benefited from Cold War–era foundation and university patronage, and their approach towards modernist music’s individuality, and distaste for what they saw as a politically correct government bureaucracy that threatened it, was steeped in the rhetoric of that time. If they saw themselves as heroically embattled figures during the Cold War, they assumed an even more embattled position during the Culture Wars.

Like Wuorinen, Babbitt wrongly believed that Helms and his yahoos were less of a threat to serious music than liberal multiculturalism.

And by no means did Babbitt accurately capture the state of public funding. Conservatives inflated what they disliked about the arts bureaucracy into a grand critique that assumed that the NEA and NYSCA exclusively funded the multicultural, the populist, and the obscene. At the federal level, “multicultural” arts funding was more rhetoric than reality: federal support for minority artists was largely concentrated in NEA programs like Expansion Arts, which had a much smaller budget than the Music Program.

And NEA granting for composers was indeed sexist, but in the more conventional, non-reverse fashion. In 1987, for example, composers Sylvia Glickman and Tina Davidson launched an official complaint after their Endowment proposal for a consortium commission of all-female composers was denied funding; in researching their case, they found that women had received only 9% of Composer Fellowships over the past eleven years, and that in 1987 only 3.26% of Endowment funding for the consortium and fellowship categories was awarded to female composers (a total of two grants). They noted that very few peer panelists were women, and even fewer were women composers. “The Endowment, by ignoring women composers’ excellence, effectively bars them from other funding sources, performances and continued artistic growth,” they wrote.

By 1996, the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists.

But the granting programs would not have much time to take these critiques into account––to become actually multicultural, as Babbitt and Wuorinen feared. The “yahoo legislators” soon had their say: a year after the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans won House and Senate majorities by campaigning on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” Congress slashed NEA funding by 40%. By 1996, the Endowment’s budget shrunk drastically from $162 million to $99.5 million, it cut almost half of its staff, and it eliminated nearly all fellowships awarded to individual artists. By the early 2000s, public funding had been decimated at both state and federal levels.


What David Lang wrote in 1989 was not wrong: no senators took to the floor to tear up scores by Philip Glass or John Cage. New music was ultimately collateral damage in the Culture Wars, not directly targeted by congressional Republicans but still subject to the same devastating public funding cuts that the controversies over Serrano and Mapplethorpe inaugurated. But the controversies over NYSCA’s funding of new-music organizations—relatively tame in comparison to what unfolded on the floor of the senate—tapped into the same partisan rhetoric as the more famous ones that played out on the national stage, and did in fact conscript American composers into the battles of the Culture Wars.

Equally significant was what this tumultuous moment in culture indexed for American composition. When paleoconservative Pat Buchanan—who frequently railed against the NEA—ran against George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primary, he declared in his convention speech that he was launching a “war for the soul of America,” one “as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition that had flourished among institutions like the Group for Contemporary Music gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can—a transformation facilitated by the shifting priorities of funding agencies who reflected a new national climate.

As the Cold War ended and the Culture Wars began, the world of scientific, university-based modernist composition gave way to the market-friendly postmodern eclecticism of organizations like Bang on a Can.

This story is part of what I call new music’s “marketplace turn,” a period in the 1980s and ‘90s in which presenters, funders, advocacy organizations, record labels, and upstart festivals pushed for American new music to reach a broad, non-specialist audience. Bang on a Can is one of the most significant victors from this period: today, with its touring ensemble, record label, and summer festival, it commands significant influence in the world of contemporary music, not to mention a multi-million dollar budget.


In her book On Being Included, Sara Ahmed cogently identifies pernicious gaps between how diversity is advertised and promoted and how it is actually enacted and exercised in practice. Here we see the enaction of relatively tame state policies to promote a more diverse world of new music inciting vehement pushback. For those currently engaged in such efforts at their own universities or within their own ensembles, the fearmongering of Wuorinen and Babbitt may not be all that surprising. Even long after the Cold War, many musicians still perpetuate ideologies of autonomy that view even the mildest forms of affirmative action as a pernicious encroachment on artistic independence.

One of the principal problems that Ahmed and others have identified is that the work of diversity—and ultimately, and more importantly, the work of anti-racism and anti-sexism—is that it is continually under-resourced, often serving as tokenistic PR instead of actual redistributive justice. The story of NYSCA in the 1980s and ’90s is thus prescient, or at least unsurprising, in this regard. Just as public granting agencies began to enact multicultural arts policies, their funding was massively cut, and, as the Babbitt essay demonstrates, some even blamed the policies themselves for those cuts.

“If you’re giving an organization $10,000, you can say, ‘In return to that we expect you to have a social face,’” David Lang recalled in a conversation we had in 2019. “If you’re cutting them from $10,000 to $1,000, you can’t say, ‘Oh by the way for this $1,000 we’d like you to change your organization’ . . . That social action, at least from government organizations, was ascendant as the funding was ascendant, and when the funding got cut a lot of steam went out.”

Similarly, in a 1996 NYSCA grant application, when asked how its programming reflected “efforts to broaden and diversify its audience,” the venue Experimental Intermedia did not mince words: “Frankly, we have to state that continued federal, state, corporate and foundation arts funding cuts have stripped most organizations to the bone. We continue our open invitation to and interest in minority artists, but there are no funds with which to explicitly address these issues beyond what it possible in regular programming.” James Jordan had claimed that NYSCA would reward organizations that programmed women and minority composers, but they were left with few resources with which to undertake new projects. Budget cuts compromised transformative change.

Today, renewed and necessary advocacy for diversity and inclusion—whether in the petitioning of major institutions to program works by underrepresented composers, the crucial labor of organizations such as Castle of our Skins, or the proliferation of equity committees—can only go so far on the limited resources of our neoliberal landscape.

Instead of petitioning a robustly funded NEA to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter.

In an era of public arts austerity, these diversity efforts often represent individual, entrepreneurial projects rather than broad social endeavors sustained by government support. Which is to say that, instead of petitioning a robustly funded National Endowment for the Arts to enact policy that advocates for BIPOC composers, we instead understandably find ourselves yelling at orchestras on Twitter. As we continue to talk about diversity, the American people need to put our money—and, especially and crucially, our public money—where our mouths are.

Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations

The only thing that is almost as exciting as watching and listening to a multimedia performance by Pamela Z is to hear her talk about it, which she does for almost an hour in a fascinating conversation that spans a wide range of topics including: creating and performing during the pandemic; her artistic beginnings as a singer-songwriter and how she transitioned into an experimental composer; a difficult encounter with TSA agents; dealing with constant changes in technology; and her obsession with old telephones.

Although Pamela is a composer who is mostly focused on creating new sounds by new means, it was extremely interesting to hear her describe her occasional frustration with the ephemerality of so many of the devices on which we all have become so dependent.

At one point she exclaims, “There are a lot of people in the world who all they care about is changing things. They don’t get attached to something. They really think everything is oh so yesterday, so six months ago. That is not compatible in a way with becoming virtuosic on anything. Building an instrument that you can become virtuosic on without having to pause every few minutes to update it and then change all of the things that no longer work with the update and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I always jokingly say: ‘Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a violinist or a cellist or something and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one. And by the way, we’ve made the fretboard a little narrower because you don’t need all that extra space?’”

And yet, those technological changes and sometimes the strange glitches and disconnects that result from them have informed so much of this San Francisco Bay Area-based maverick’s creative work. Attention, a work she created for the Del Sol String Quartet, will forever change your perception of telephones ringing. Baggage Allowance will make you rethink your next airplane trip when it is safe to take one again. She hopes Times3, her sonic installation created for the 2021 Prototype Festival to accompany a walk around Times Square that has now been extended through April 30, 2021, “cues people into the thought of expanding their imagination to past, present, and future of whatever place they’re in.”

Pamela Z’s quest for new solutions which create problems that are also an integral part of the resultant work also informs her brand new Ink, a work which includes some surreal reflections on how musicians interact with notated scores which will be premiered by the San Francisco-based chorus Volti in an online performance on April 24.

Aside from learning more about all of these one-of-a-kind compositions, it’s a delight to hear all of her stories since, as anyone who has experienced her work already knows, she is an extremely engaging storyteller. Our time together over Zoom was a non-stop adventure except for, perhaps appropriately, the occasional internet connection hiccup which we mostly were able to fix in post-production editing.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Pamela Z
March 16, 2021—4:00pm EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between San Francisco CA and New York NY
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce and Jonathan Stone; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

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.

Cindy Lam: Voicing Trauma and Connecting with Your Inner Child

Cindy Lam

Pianist and Music Educator Cindy Lam shares her experience of PTSD, initially triggered by surviving a car accident at 18, which temporarily threatened her musical capabilities, and heightened in 2020 by the loss of her father to a rare genetic Prion disease. Cindy discusses her ongoing healing process, the importance of sharing one’s story, finding joy through teaching and musical expression, and feeling strong enough to momentarily step away from music to focus on her health. She emphasizes the need to connect with our inner child, both to inspire creativity and to ultimately heal trauma. Lastly, Cindy shares her view on the stigma surrounding mental health challenges within Asian and Asian-American circles, and reflects on the escalating hate crimes against the AAPI communities and their possible impact on mental health.