Category: NewMusicBox

On Performing Fluxus in 2020

Karl Ronneburg's performance of Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano"

In the bright and halcyon days of early 2020, my team at Fifth Wall Performing Arts planned something we thought would be fun: a spring concert of Fluxus-inspired works performed simultaneously by our friends in New York City and Ann Arbor. Each location would be livestreamed to the other, where we’d hoped the broadcasts would create a new sense of what Fluxus artist Dick Higgins called an “intermedia” space. These, of course, were the days before Zoom became a household name, before livestreamed concerts became the unfortunate norm. We’d had the venues booked, the artists lined up, and even an endorsement from Meredith Monk—but it was not to be. Like every concert in the spring, summer, and beyond, our Fluxus Fest was cancelled.

So, I took the opportunity to learn more. Though I first became seriously interested in Fluxus back in 2016 through the wild and wonderful world that is Dick Higgins’s “Danger Music” series, the COVID-19 pandemic forced upon me the time and space to begin correspondence with the LA Phil’s 2018/19 Fluxus Festival Curator, Christopher Rountree, as well as Fluxus scholar Natilee Harren. Their feedback, in addition to my own research, led to the remounting of our Fluxus Fest 2020 as a five-week virtual festival—one which finds Fluxus surprisingly suited to confronting the challenges of our time.

So, some questions: What is Fluxus? And, why Fluxus? Why now?

Fluxus was an art collective and movement in the ’60s and ’70s whose artists took up the direct legacy of John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and the Dadaists. In fact, some of the origins of Fluxus can be directly traced to John Cage’s 1958 Composition class at the New School in New York City—on the first day, Cage defined music simply as “events in sound-space”. Among the students in the classroom that day were Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, George Brecht, Larry Poons, Allan Kaprow, and Al Hansen. Soon thereafter, Brecht began making what he called “Event Scores”, which, instead of musical notes, simply contained a list of printed instructions to realize a piece.

By 1962, the students from Cage’s class were joined by George Maciunas (a Lithuanian-American who coined the term “Fluxus”), and variously included Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, Wolf Vostell, Emmett Williams, Ben Patterson, Takako Saito, Henry Flynt, La Monte Young, Meiko Shiomi, and more—though “membership” in Fluxus was often contentious. Some claimed that Maciunas at one time or another kicked out all but two or three of them, while others say that he had no right to kick out anyone and never did.

The group was active in the USA, as well as Germany, Denmark, France, and Japan, and were an incredibly diverse collective for the time: Dr. Natilee Harren writes that “Participants included artists who were women, who were queer, who were African American, who were from East Asia, and yet these identities were treated with an uncommon fluidity and criticality for the time. An a-national, polyglot community, Fluxus artists were citizens of the world; they traversed a self-defined international network, and the spirit of generosity and exchange in their work countered Cold War paranoia and the retrenchment of national boundaries.”

Simultaneously irreverent and spiritual, Fluxus artists pushed the boundary of what art could be and who it was for. The format of the Event Score in particular is interesting because of the way it delegates collective authorship to the performers of a work—a concept familiar to classical musicians, but one uncommon in the visual or written art world, where most Fluxus artists originated. By using text instructions, however, Fluxus artists broadened the scope of the score beyond music to include actions, concrete or abstract, that could be performed in contexts far beyond the concert hall. Though some view Fluxus as an Anti-Art movement (and it certainly contained Anti-Art elements), for the most part Fluxus was about decentralizing and revolutionizing the way we think about art. Again, Natilee Harren: “Fluxus artists looked for value in the commonplace, believing that art can be anywhere and belong to anyone. Rather than eliminating art, they sought to dissolve its boundaries in order to infuse everyday life with heightened aesthetic awareness and appreciation.”

PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART. Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON-ART REALITY to be fully (the word fully is crossed out) grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes, and professionals.

From George Maciunas’ Fluxus Manifesto

 

This brings us back to 2020. Spring rolls around, the world shelters-in-place, and life as we know it is over. How can Fluxus address this?

Fluxus as Practice

One of the most famous Fluxus pieces is Alison Knowles’ 1962 Proposition #2: “Make a Salad”. And that’s all there is to it. You just make a salad. I live in a 2-bedroom apartment with my brother, and though we don’t like much of the same foods, we both love salad. I spent a lot of time with him these last 7 months during the pandemic, and salad-making has become kind of a ritual that we perform several times per week. Proposition #2 begs the question: once you know that it exists, are you performing it every single time you make a salad? Thanks to Alison Knowles, I noticed this ritual with my brother, was able to pinpoint it as such, and now my salad-making has a certain kind of mindfulness that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Furthermore, to survive in the Time of Corona, many of us adopted new rituals and had to follow new instructions. Ben Patterson’s 1964 Instruction #2 reads: “Please Wash Your Face”. Fluxus asks, how different are these instructions from signs in public places asking you to “Wash Your Hands”, or to “Please Wear a Mask”? Are hand-washing diagrams not a kind of choreography, not a kind of graphic score? Fluxus reminds us that the daily events we do without thinking are performances, that any time we follow instructions, we are performing a score. Or, as said by Alison Knowles in a 2012 panel discussion: “My belief is that every person who gets up and goes into their day and does their work is coming from some unrecognized belief system that maybe they’ve picked up as a five-year-old, or they don’t look at it anymore. But to address that and work with it is powerful.”

Fluxus as Protest

In many ways, Fluxus is protest music, where the dissonance is always cognitive. Ben Vautier, for example, is known for his artistic practice of signing anything he could get his hands on, a statement on the hegemony of authorship in art not dissimilar to the practice of tagging by graffiti artists. Fluxus works have additionally retained their power today as political statements: for example, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, a group of 10 women performed a variation of Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piecein pantsuits in Madison Square Park while the Electoral College cast their votes. Natilee Harren writes: “Indeed, the best Fluxus and Fluxus-related work exposes how our lives are scored, orchestrated, or performatively designed for better or for worse, in both utopian and dystopian fashions.”

Fluxus pieces can also be powerful statements of identity. For example, in the first performance of my Fluxus festival, a trans woman friend of mine performed Yoko Ono’s Laundry Piece, going through her laundry basket to tell us about the clothes inside. A more guttural statement of identity might be Dick Higgins’s Danger Music #17 (to be performed on October 17), which reads: “Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!! Scream!!”.

Fluxus as Community:

Finally, Fluxus’ power is in its ability to build community. The barrier to entry to perform a Fluxus piece is low (and the streaming technology widespread enough) that my team could reach out to my friends and colleagues across the country to perform Fluxus and Fluxus-inspired pieces from home, embracing the locations we are all in. We put together a five-weekend series, featuring over 30 artists from around the country, and I can’t be more thankful. I wrote my own Fluxus piece, Phone Call#2: “Catch up with a friend”, that I performed on October 10th as a statement of the power of this community and the power of Fluxus to create simultaneous mindfulness and disruption. In fact, Fluxus was an inspiration for the core mission of our company, Fifth Wall Performing Arts: to not just break the “fourth wall” by acknowledging the audience or the stage, but to break a newly-made-up “fifth wall” as well: acknowledging the artists themselves as human beings and not just characters or performers. When we perform Fluxus, we are performing as ourselves, bringing attention to our actions and their consequences. This opens up the traditional boundaries of performance as an artistic ritual, linking audiences with artists as people, vulnerable and in need of connection as we all are.

The week 4 video featured here begins with a clip from Hannah McLaughlin and Raquel Klein’s performance of Gift of Tongues by Emmett Williams (1962): “Sing meaningfully in a language made up on the spot”, performed simultaneously with Danielle Mumpower’s interpretation of Disappearing Music for Face by Mieko Shiomi (1966): “Change gradually from a smile to no-smile.” The clip then cuts to a portion of James Vitz-Wong’s original “I swear this is research” Piece: “Perform a recital while in virtual reality.” This was presented alongside Carlos Durán, Karl Ronneburg, and Grey Grant’s performance of Orchestra by Ken Friedman (1967): “Everyone plays different recordings of a well-known classical masterpiece. [We chose Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.] Each member of the orchestra starts and stops playing different sections of the recording at will.”–performed simultaneously with one repetition of Corey Smith’s performance of Bean Snow by Anne Tardos (1994): “Read the text slowly and deliberately, using a normal tone of voice. Bean snow. Bean snow beans. Bean snow beans about themselves. Bean snow themselves. Bean snow beans about themselves. Bean snow.”

I’ll leave you with a 1960’s vision of community and social distancing: Dick Higgins’s Danger Music Number Three: “Divide a large pack of incense among those present in a moderately large room. Ask each person to burn his or her [or their] incense, without flame, all together. Darkness throughout.”

The logo for Follow Fluxus is a series of boxes which each have printed on them one letter: "F," "o," "l," "l," "o," "w," "F," "l," "u," "x," "u." and "s."

The Flauto d’Amore Project: A New Language for New Communication

Flauto d'Amore

How does a nearly forgotten Baroque instrument generate a wave of connection through the antipodes of the world in 2020?

On this last January 1st many of us (including, most obviously, me) were cheering to the new decade, the return of the Roaring Twenties, to a year charged with bearings of hope of change, evolution, liberation. Our expectations were far more glamorous than PJs and Zoom with a pinch of confined existentialism. 2020 took the most dramatic stumble in its incipit, from which it seems to not be able to recover yet, as in one of those grandiose slips down the stairs that keep bouncing you down and down for an apparently infinite time. And yet, the stubborn beauty that forces itself out of any circumstance has revealed itself in the form of resilience, connection, and creativity – despite the situation, or most probably because of it.

The experience I had through my living-room-directed Flauto d’Amore Project during the pandemic lockdown has been a journey of overwhelming inspiration, and of constant wonder.

When I began the Flauto d’Amore Project in 2018, my goal was to bring new life to an instrument that fell into the cracks of history in the 19th century, and lost its opportunity at any modern or contemporary repertoire. Considered the true voice of flute playing by J.J. Quantz, who in his monumental Versuch on woodwind playing writes that the sound of the flute “should resemble the voice of the alto rather than the soprano, and mimic the chest sound of the human voice,” the flauto d’amore was a companion instrument to the viola d’amore, oboe d’amore, and even the clavicembalo d’amore that were all the rage throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. It was beloved and regularly utilized by major Baroque composers (François Couperin, J. S. Bach, Telemann, Graupner, and Hasse to name a few), as well as by Romantic salon virtuosos. One of the most mesmerizing dances from Aida was scored by Giuseppe Verdi for three flauti d’amore (in 1871!).

The flauto d’amore lived on for centuries thanks to its fascinating, unmistakable sound, and yet, just as great artists at times unjustly fade away from the memory of the public, this instrument’s popularity waned as the flute system revolution occurred toward the end of the 19th century. Theobald Böhm, the father of the modern flute, invented the alto flute in G, which ended up replacing the flauto d’amore in the general flutist’s arsenal, despite its very different characteristics.

It takes visionary minds to bring new life to buried potential: in 1989 the vision of Italian flute scholar Gian-Luca Petrucci (if you are noticing a last name correspondence, yes – it is my father), and that of Albert Cooper, a legendary flute artisan of the 20th century, came together, and the flauto d’amore was reborn, through the very first modern system prototype, dreamt up and designed to give new resonance to a long muted voice.

The Flauto d’Amore Project was created in synergy with composer Nathan Hudson with the goal of creating a space for direct collaboration between composers and performers in the exploration of a sound that had, so far, no precedents in new music. It became clear from the very start that the most unique element of this initiative would have been the feeling of mutual wonder at the discovery of the potential of the instrument in the most disparate genres and styles. Working closely with wildly different composers for the mapping of an elusive instrument, a totally uncharted territory, yielded results that bewildered performers, audience, and often the composers themselves.

With the wildfire quality of good ideas, this one sparked up on the New York subway, on a bumpy evening ride on the uptown A train. By the time my final stop came, the structure was there, and in the morning we started making calls. We looked at the composers who were closer to us, those whose intellect and craft we most respected, and who we’d know would sit down to listen to what in the years became to be known as “The Spiel” – the explanation ab ovo about the instrument etc., which you have in fact just read in digital form. We gave the very first rough version of The Spiel to Gleb Kanasevich, Max Grafe, and Liliya Ugay who, together with in-house Nathan Hudson, formed the OG pioneer group in the exploration of the instrument. The first premiere recital happened a few months later, and offered the NY audience a very first taste of a new sound through four entirely different lenses. Since then, we have added to our roster of composers Erin Rogers, James Young, Nirmali Fenn, Clint Needham, Howie Kenty, Chris Bill, Flannery Cunningham, Sunny Knable, Roger Zare – and across the pond Italian composer David Fontanesi, who scored the second movement of his Academic Concerto for flauto d’amore.

Ginevra Petrucci performing on the flauto d'amore at a live in-person house concert, prior to the pandemic.

Back when there were live in-person indoor concerts.


When the pandemic hit, we wanted to have this instrument become a communal element for artists stuck in their studios all over the world to find creative stimulation, and to come together through a remote collaboration to explore something new, removed in so many ways from their physical reach, but present in their imaginations as a trigger of exploration.

In mid March we launched a call for scores through social media, asking that composers with no limitations in age, geography, background, style, or education write a 1-2 minute piece for flauto d’amore, pledging I would record and premiere them within 48 hours of receiving them. Here we saw the unexpected happen – yet another unexpected in the year of expectation-shattering: we had over 30 artists from all over the US, as well as from the heart of Europe and all the way from Thailand shower us with pieces – which made for a very busy month of daily video-recording and premiering. (Since I recorded all pieces on a rolling basis, I was able to premiere a piece every day!)

In their inherent differences, the pieces all showed a yearning for the creative process, for new inspiration, and for the experimentation of a sonic ground unexplored, non experienced, remote in all senses – but enticing, captivating, challenging, desired. We had established composers such as Joe Sferra from SUNY Potsdam, Italian academic scholar Federico Favali, Iranian-born Rouzbeh Rafie, David Mastikosa from Bosnia-Herzegovina; with Eric Malmquist we envisioned a remote-duet for Baroque and modern flauto d’amore, which we put together with Leighann Daihl Ragusa who owns a Baroque flauto d’amore (still in A, but tuned at A=415 Hz). We had a cohort of talented composers from Bangkok (miracles and mysteries of Facebook algorithms!). We collaborated with Lebanese poet Hyam Yared for Marco Buongiorno Nardelli’s electronic piece based on her work and featuring fragments of her recitation. We joined forces with the New York Composer’s Circle for a feature collaboration with selected composers from the collective. We even had a little venture into blues with a composer offering their original tune for flauto d’amore, trumpet, and bass.

Receiving, practicing, recording and premiering this outpour of works in a time when physical movement was confined and our mind felt compelled to reimagine its potential within constrained boundaries, has been one of the most inspiring experiences of our careers. The sense of invisible connection with artists at the corners of our suffering globe, coming together through one communal element, connecting their energies to create some beauty at times of hardships, has made me (and I would say, all of us) feel more “together” than we would have felt during normal times. The feedback we received from a great number of the composers involved in this project showed that relief was offered and absorbed, energies were exchanged, beauty and hope were created.

The cover image for the Flauto d'Amore project's recording "Creativity Quarantine"

Once we closed the call for scores, we re-recorded all the pieces in higher audio quality in order to issue two Bandcamp albums, Creativity Quarantine Volumes I and II. We donated the proceeds from the two albums to the New Music USA Solidarity Fund, and proceeded then to publish a vast selection of the works in two collections for the Flauto d’Amore Editions, so to make this music available to a wider public (including versions for standard flute and alto).

During the same period we also had a chance to take part in Gabriela Lena Frank’s initiative #GLFCAMGigThruCOVID, where I had the luck to be paired with the wonderful composer Aida Shirazi, whose style and aesthetic really shone in her “Miniature” for unaccompanied flauto d’amore.

The arts community has come together in ways that would have seemed far fetched if discussed over our last New Year’s Eve champagne toast. It was – it is – an uproar of desire of making art to erase, to elevate, to heal, to empower. The New Twenties are still roaring after all.

a flauto d'amore

The flauto d’amore looks almost identical to a regular flute, if you disregard the slightly larger size.

Nebal Maysaud: Rumored “Death” of Classical Music Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

[Ed. note: It has been a little over a year since the publication of Nebal Maysaud’s “It’s Time To Let Classical Music Die,” which is the most widely read article in the history of NewMusicBox. Many readers were drawn to its polemical title, which unfortunately was all that some people noticed rather than the concepts Nebal discussed in the article. One year later, Nebal reexamines these ideas in a candid one-on-one conversation with musicologist and University of Florida Assistant Professor Imani Mosley, discussing the relevance of classical music in 21st century America – and how to nurture a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable community that creates, performs, and appreciates such music. – FJO]

 

 

Imani Mosley: Thanks so much for this. I’m happy to get a chance to talk to you – and talk about this piece and contextualize it, and hear more about your thoughts on the piece itself and everything after. So before we talk about the piece, I’d like to talk about the response. Do you feel that your article was met the way you thought people would react to it? Did you find yourself surprised about dialogue that came about afterwards? Tell me about your reactions to how the piece was received and how people were talking about it.

Nebal Maysaud: I was expecting to receive almost no support – but not as much pushback either. I was expecting fewer people to even read it.

So in my first article I detailed a list of ways white people or people in power respond to marginalized individuals and people of color speaking out. So I was actually surprised initially to find a lot more support than I expected. I still do believe, just from what I’ve seen, that classical music as a field does still have a lot of conservative and neoliberal values.

But what I’ve seen also indicates that, while our structures and power structures reinforce these racial hierarchies of white supremacy, there are a lot of individuals who are aware of that and want to make a change in that power structure; and are not content with how we’re abusing people of color in the field of classical music.

So I was very happy to see that it received support. I was thrilled to get messages from people with varying degrees of interest, and who are in various stages in their careers as musicians. I heard back from some folks who studied classical music in college but left the field because of these systemic barriers.

It was really validating to get statements of support saying I’m not the only one who experienced what I experienced.

There was a great positive response. There were also, of course, negative responses – particularly once it started reaching conservative media, propagating it to a bunch of conservative sources.

One thing as a community I feel like we could and should be doing better is publicly expressing our support for writers who speak out – because a lot of the support faded away, but harassment didn’t. They calmed down quite a bit, but every so often, some conservative influencer shares it on Twitter and, you know, I get a few random messages. They can be hilarious: one time someone messaged me, “Screw you. I’m going to listen to Beethoven!” – and [at the time] I was listening to Beethoven.

IM: [laughs] I definitely can understand and empathize with that particular situation, as it’s one I find myself in fairly often. And there’s a lot to be said critically about those who take more left-leaning positions, as you say, about how their support and allyship manifests in these spaces. That’s a real and necessary conversation that definitely needs to be had. So I completely understand what you’re saying, and I’m sorry for the harassment. Unfortunately it comes with the territory but it’s obviously not something anybody should have to endure.

Since you kind of brought this up, I want to dig a little bit into larger ideas that we can break apart – and talk about those things have manifested in the past year. When you talk about classical music as a field, what exactly do you mean by that terminology. Are you talking about a framework, are you talking about institutions, pedagogy, works? When you use the terminology Western classical music, what is it standing in shorthand for?

NM: That’s a great question, and probably the biggest source of confusion for a lot of folks. My ideas and thoughts on this are constantly evolving. I said Western classical music; nowadays I’m trying to be more specific and say European classical music. But either way I am thinking of it less as a set of repertoire: so I am not going after anyone’s vinyl copy of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or anything like that; everyone’s welcome to listen to any kind of music you want; I am not advocating for any book burning or CD burning or score burning or anything like that.

Instead what I’m actually more focused on is the community and the tradition – and the power structures within that community. I’m barely talking about the music at all. Although the music can support those power structures it also doesn’t have to. At the end of the day, music is malleable enough for us to understand and interpret and reinterpret – to a degree: there are some pieces that have a racial slur in the title or are appropriative; obviously there are inherent problems with pieces like that – but say Bach’s work: what inherently about Bach’s music is racist?

It’s not so much about the music, but it’s how we position the music and how we play the music and specifically the idea that Bach is some sort of prophet, or his music is a gift from god. It’s what Evan Williams writes about in his series of articles on the myth of the composer genius. And it’s really a power structure that uses this myth of the composer genius to reinforce white supremacy in the field. It’s also a power structure that keeps people of color from being seen and treated as equals amongst anyone who wishes to practice the music or traditions established by these European musicians and composers.

IM: This is what I want to pull apart here. I can definitely understand why people would have this general confusion: there’s definitely this surface level desire to read any type of critique as saying “Let’s get rid of all music; let’s not listen to composers or what have you.” But what I want to pull apart here is: how does what you’re describing differentiate from white supremacy as a framework?

For me, the concern is that Western classical music is a tool that works within a white supremacist framework. I have a harder time allying myself with the argument that “Western classical music” (in scarequotes) is itself the white supremacy, rather than being used as a tool within a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist framework.

All of the structures which you’re asserting, they exist outside of classical music; they exist within cultural networks that are infused and tangled with whiteness. So do you separate this idea of classical music as tool versus “classical music as an idea is equivalent to, or analog to, an idea of white supremacy?”

NM: That’s a great question. And that’s also, I think, a position I’ve sort of evolved on. As I learn more about how white supremacy works, and how racial hierarchies work within white supremacy, I would agree that classical music is a tool for white supremacy. I’d say that classical music ended up developing into a tool for both capitalism and white supremacy – which in some ways are almost synonymous, or they work together.

IM: They work together.

NM: Part of a solution I proposed, which is really to try to minimize the effect of racism with classical music; we can’t get rid of racism entirely within this field, unless we get rid of white supremacy in general, and that can’t happen unless we get rid of capitalism.

True liberation means that we have to be united in our communities in every field, and every way. The only thing I want to push back against is this idea that classical music – or European classical music I should say, because there are many different types of classical music – and it’s a belief I’ve seen, that European classical music is separate from “these political ideas.”

Obviously to these folks, our lives are political apparently; but they’re political because we have a political system that dehumanizes us into products of labor.

We are connected to white supremacy; our field is a tool for white supremacy; and it’s not separate, and you can’t separate it.

So I definitely do not see Western or European classical music as a unique entity of white supremacy that’s different from any other field.


This is just the beginning of the conversation between Imani Mosley and Nebal Maysaud. To hear the full conversation, listen on Soundcloud.

Clouds and Clouds: Composing through the Fog of Depression

A photo of a large body of water meeting a cloudy sky at the horizon.

I remember what first made me want to compose: the incredible power of music to transmute experience into sound, to bypass rational thought and trigger an emotional response. So what happens when that reliable reaction starts to malfunction, when once-vivid sensations start to seem increasingly distant and more difficult to recall? When daily existence becomes dull and flat, exactly what experience is there left to channel? How does your perception change when your memory doesn’t process new events in a normal way? What do you do when your primary emotional state is something you might prefer to evade rather than encode?

I suffered a mild breakdown at age 20 (the average age of onset, I’d later discover) that first landed me in psychiatric care. The diagnosis was confirmed soon after: major depression. This means I’ve been clinically depressed for roughly as long as I’ve been writing music. Later slides were brought on by breakups, a hurricane, the sudden death of a close friend; each seemed to pull me down to a new low. The standard prescription for anyone with a history of two or more episodes of major depression is a lifetime of treatment and medication—which has helped, but not without introducing new complications and adjustments.

I’ve been clinically depressed for roughly as long as I’ve been writing music.

Depression is an illness that remains vastly underreported and widely misunderstood. The “who wants to hear about it?” mentality reigns, and that same question could be asked in the new music circuit. So much of depression is interiorized, directed inward, that it seems hard to conceive of how to convey that cloaked experience to a broader audience—if the motivation can even be mustered. The author William Styron, in Darkness Visible, his memoir of his own battles with depression, puts it this way: “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description. It remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.”

There are any number of ways that depression interferes with the diverse tasks that a composer faces in the course of a career.

Needless to say, there are any number of ways that depression interferes with the diverse tasks that a composer faces in the course of a career. Introversion and anxiety can seriously hamper the capacity for self-promotion. Brooding introspection gets misread as aloof disinterest. It can be dauntingly difficult to shake off a dark mood and summon up some enthusiasm out of thin air, or to hold a frozen smile over the course of a conversation. Social and professional relationships often suffer as a result. Setbacks, which any artist is bound to face to some degree, can be debilitating (“rejection sensitivity” is the clinical term), provoking crises of confidence that get amplified out of all proportion. The resulting sense of pervasive loneliness feeds itself, rooted in a phenomenon psychologists call “hypervigilance for social threat” that Olivia Laing describes in The Lonely City:

In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, the individual tends to experience the world in increasingly negative terms, and to both expect and remember instances of rudeness, rejection and abrasion, giving them greater weight and prominence than other, more benign or friendly interactions. This creates, of course, a vicious circle, in which the lonely person grows increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn…. What this means is that the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mold or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself.

The focus of this article however is the musical expression of depression. With this “storm of murk” (Styron’s term) brewing in my head for years, it has naturally been a constant question as to how it would manifest itself in my music; over time, a set of approaches has emerged, ways to address the illness to varying degrees. Not wanting to presume the state of mind of any other composer (even the well-known melancholic ones), I refer to examples only from my own work, asking in what ways living in a prolonged depressive mindset has shaped my creative output.

Color Wheel

The act of composing, for those with dwindling motivation, can loom like an unmanageable ordeal.

The act of composing, for those with dwindling motivation, can loom like an unmanageable ordeal. In the lucky moments when the weight of depression lifts, that burden tends to be the last thing you want to bring consciously back into focus. Consequently, and perhaps paradoxically, one prominent way that depression has influenced my work is by opposition, in a strategy of evasiveness that I’ve come to think of as the Graceland approach. Think of Paul Simon, singing about heartbreak and calamity over catchy riffs and drum patterns: an outwardly vibrant demeanor that dances around the gloom that it’s actively obscuring.

Here was a way to compose around the issue, addressing it obliquely. Defying a pervasively grey interior life, I’ve immersed myself in composing pieces about color (Spinning in Infinity) and light (PolychROME). To combat disillusionment, I’ve written about the sensation of prolonged wonder (Writing Against Time), an invocation to resist slipping out of the spellbound present. There’s also the fantasy of getting away: travel (The Geography of Cities on Water), encounters with new cultures (Üsküdar, Tesserae), and romanticized adventure (Isolario, Anyplace Else) have fueled my work.

My affinity for this fast, busy, colorful mode of composing is rooted in the same reason why I love clashing patterns, rich food, bright colors, chaotic cities: you crave an overabundance of stimulation because only a fraction of it gets through the haze. It reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s explanation for why her characters are so grotesque: “You have to make your vision apparent by shock: to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Composing the blues away has been therapeutic, but…

Composing the blues away has been therapeutic, and has allowed me to step out of myself and cultivate an aesthetic of lightness, in the sense that Italo Calvino describes in Six Memos for the Next Millennium: “My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities…” But the subtext of that carnival atmosphere is always the same: it is all ultimately distraction, divertimento, escapism. And after a while, like some medications, it stops being an effective antidote and the charm wears thin.

Sparrow Episodes (2006) starts in that vibrant world and moves on to a contrasting mode of experience. The piece opens with a cinematic sequence of about six minutes; technicolor episodes unfold like a comic book, with strong lines and bright colors. Ideas appear, get briefly developed, then cast away for something new. Experience flashes by so quickly that there’s barely time to decipher motifs, only to revel in the sensory excess.

The source that underpins these vignettes is a four-chord song from my high school days written by Myshkin, a singer-songwriter then living in New Orleans. Weighted with memories and personal connection, hearing that song transports me right back to a tangibly vivid time before my own first episode (a word used in the song, which itself talks about a breakdown and mental health). I wouldn’t expect any other listener to hear the same association of course, but I can depict the reeling sensation it brings back.

Writing from the distance of ten years, after my first breakdown, I could remember the vibrancy of that earlier time, yet felt entirely divorced and distanced from that feeling. “Depression makes us see life differently; it changes how we think,” notes psychotherapist Richard O’Connor in Undoing Depression. “Only rarely, if at all, do we remember that at one time we were happy, confident, active.”

The final two minutes slip into another world. Suddenly, we’re no longer participants but observers, watching with faces pressed against the glass, now one measure removed from the action. Recall, avoided for most of the piece, is now forcibly imposed: a delay pedal on the electric guitar churns patterns in an eight-second loop. Blank repetition replaces those earlier transient flashes, as if the saturated world of the opening is viewed in distant retrospect. The chord changes continue but disintegrate into a wash of diatonic echoes, somewhere between neutral and nostalgic.

Circular Thinking

The empty repetition of the loop pedal mirrors another thought pattern familiar to the depressive mind: rumination. Thoughts circle in a generally murky, low-energy swarm, simmering on a low flame and only occasionally bubbling to the surface with some degree of clarity. Escaping this obsessive but aimless way of thinking seems to be just another impossible task.

Recession (2009) recreates this aimless atmosphere in its opening bars. The piece was written in the midst of a relatively severe spell of depression, during my time studying at IRCAM. (“Paris in the winter is for connoisseurs of melancholy,” Irwin Shaw wrote.) Yes, there had just been a global downturn, but I meant the title to refer to the astronomical definition of the recession: “the act of receding or withdrawing.” Spatial distance becomes a parallel for emotional distance, and I certainly felt myself drifting farther from the familiar that winter, withdrawing into an introspective gloom.

Spatial distance becomes a parallel for emotional distance.

The piece opens with several layers of circling chords at different speeds, a texture of expanded microtonal accordion fragments that move in a ring of eight speakers surrounding the audience. Using pre-recorded and retuned melodies, I create a sort of reverse delay effect: loops that begin before the live instrumentalist plays a phrase. These fragments start at a great distance and work their way to the center, then move outward again in a fading loop, whose contour and pitch content are deformed as it moves in space. Against those melodic gestures, we hear a continuous layer of four-note chords spanning all registers, and a third layer: chains of triads that move at a faster speed, like a condensed version of these widely-spaced chords. The overall effect, to borrow William Styron’s phrase, is a “murky storm,” a slow churning of multiple ideas, constantly in motion but without clear direction.

Loops stand in for this kind of stuck thought process in several of my works: the opening of Blues Wrapped Around My Head (2004), the final movement of Waterlines (2005-2012). They work well for portraying a sense of being lost or stuck, and resigned to it.

At other times though, rumination becomes infuriating. Involuntary slides into cacophonous internal disputes seem impossible to control and grow increasingly disheartening. This frustration led me to think about what it would mean for repetition, which we normally think of as a key parameter for parsing music, to become intrusive. Rather than triggering a spark of recognition, what if repetition became grating and unwelcome?

Rather than triggering a spark of recognition, what if repetition became grating and unwelcome?

There is a climactic passage in Visions and Revisions (2013) that dramatizes this thought process. We begin in a dreamy atmosphere. Over a soft and resonant pizzicato cello ostinato, framing a IV-I progression, fragments and motifs heard throughout the first two-thirds of the piece float into view. But these pleasant recollections soon transform into unwanted intrusions. Over the span of about 45 seconds, the ostinato itself becomes harsher, moving into snap pizzicati and scratch tones. The upper strings start to get agitated, as their lyrical recollections begin to abrupt crescendi. The tempo accelerates, giving the music an increasingly anxious edge. The passage is also inspired by the fifth verse of Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” where the form of previous verses is extended by several lines (on Blonde on Blonde you can hear the session musicians struggling to follow), spilling over its frame in a way that sounds to me like obsession pushed past established boundaries, emotional forces redirecting the form.

Muted Greys

There is a function in IRCAM’s Audiosculpt that removes all sinusoidal components from a sound, leaving only the residual noise — a skeletal, greyed-out version of the sonority. That transformation sparked an immediate emotional association: This spectrum of gradations between consonance and noise feels to me like the spectrum between vivid and colorless experience. Spectral music has made a habit of classifying timbre on a sliding scale from white noise at one end to a pure harmonic relationship at the other — a distinction that made instinctual sense as a powerful sonic metaphor for a familiar emotional state.

The spectrum of gradations between consonance and noise feels to me like the spectrum between vivid and colorless experience.

As early as the prelude of Sunflower Suite (2003), and as recently as PolychROME (2017), I have explored the use of noise sounds to signify greyness, or a lack of color. Leaving Lute (2011), my piece about moving back from Paris, is another strong example. I arrived in Paris wide-eyed and enthralled, but got progressively disenchanted with the city. I let that trajectory dictate a simple form: seven minutes of music, a minute for each year between 2003 and 2010 (with an interlude in Istanbul). Instrumental timbre follows the same emotional curve, gradually being drained of color and vitality.

The opening of each of these sections is punctuated by a five-note chord whose orchestration gets “greyer” with each appearance. At the opening of the piece, it is full of detail, shaped with crescendi that enliven the sound, doubled timbres that propel forward through an accelerando:

The opening 4 measures from the score of Christopher Trapani's Leaving Lute for flute, viola and harp trio.

By its final appearance, the instrumentation has been thinned to a single high attack on the harp with a fingernail, while a scraping on low strings continues underneath. Flute and viola fill out the chord one or two pitches at a time, with pale, feeble entrances that trail off in downward glissandi. They join the noise texture, closing the piece with intermittent crescendi, the last sparks of a dying flame.

Four measures from a passage in the middle of the score of Christopher Trapani's Leaving Lute for flute, viola and harp trio.

The final seven measures of the score of Christopher Trapani's Leaving Lute for flute, viola and harp trio.


NOTE: To hear the last two pages of the score, cue to 6’26”.

This palette of grey, noisy sonorities comes up against a lot of misconceptions. In my work, these extended techniques that veer from pitch towards noise are not rebellious gestures, but are instead used as expressive colorings for the crevices of memory. What feels like a very personal expression to me paradoxically fits with many listeners’ preconceptions of a generic trend: noise in new music. My use of noise and extended techniques has nothing to do with subverting convention or an interest in physicality: it is simply a poetic expression of a lack of color. Still, I am far from the only composer to explore the expressive use of noise sounds; listen to Claude Vivier’s Wo Bist du Licht?, the opening of Julian Anderson’s Symphony, or many masterful pieces by Gerard Pesson, including Nebenstück or La lumière n’a pas de bras pour nous porter.

What feels like a very personal expression to me paradoxically fits with many listeners’ preconceptions of a generic trend: noise in new music.

Another way of “greying” pitches is through the use of mutes and preparations. I continue to experiment with ways of polluting pure timbres by adding an inharmonic buzz: thimbles inside tuned cowbells, foil rattling on strings, antique kazoo mutes on brass—multiple shades of noise coloring these timbres..

Other mutes contribute a sense of both distance and strain, of struggling to emerge from under substantial weight. In The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky, an elegy for Hank Williams, mid-register strings prepared with blu-tack sound a distant duet that mimics the clunky resonance of a palm-muted guitar, making this reinterpretation of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” sound even more lost and lonely.

The fifth movement of Sunflower Suite (2003) gives an early example of expressive muting. It’s a melancholy end to a suite of exuberant pieces about the color yellow: a wordless setting of William Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower!” The cellist carries the melody with a practice mute, while the piano plays mid-register chords that have been dampened with a scarf. The violin plays the lowest part, having dropped its G-string to an F. The result is a trio playing a familiar texture through a timbral filter, now distant and struggling to balance, straining to be heard through a curtain of fog.

Low end

One of the most memorable descriptions of a depressed mode of existence can be found in John Barth’s novel The End of the Road. The depressive narrator has a dream about a weather report that concludes with the meteorologist announcing, in lieu of a forecast: “There isn’t going to be any weather tomorrow.” William Styron uses a similar metaphor: “The weather of depression is unmodulated, its light a brownout.”

That flat mood, combined with a lack of energy and motivation, is one of the most pervasive experiences for sufferers of depression. Antidepressants can also interfere with emotional vitality; even as they alleviate the urgency and precarity of the condition, they may blunt empathy, leaving this sense of emotional numbness intact. “We are emotionally frozen,” says Dr. Richard O’Connor. “Instead of the normal fluctuations of happiness, sadness, disappointment, joy, desire, and anger that most people cycle through many times a day, depressed people feel a kind of gray neutrality that translates into subterranean tectonic shifts in mood.”

My most extensive foray into portraying the quagmire of depression is probably Creux (2018), a word that in French means “hollow,” or can be used to describe the trough of a wave, flattened between crests. Several of my pieces (Convergence Lines, Isolario, don’t know what alright even means) start at a “low point”— usually depicted as a grainy thud in the bass — but only Creux wallows around on the same static plane for its entire length, unable to jump out of its rut. Several of the instruments — Fender Rhodes, melodica, mbira, and multiple strings on the cimbalom, harp, electric guitar, mandolin, cello, and bass — have been retuned to a meandering microtonal mode which never settles on a central pitch.

In my sketchbook, one early idea for Creux was to create “music that tries to get going but never manages.” The entire drama of the piece unfolds in a limited register, with a restrained gestural vocabulary. There are no melodic lines, no real development, only glimpses of harmony. Single attacks can spread out into polyphonic textures, so the density of the music can momentarily increase, but it is always pulled back at the moment where this density might spill over into something new, thwarting a build-up and remaining stuck.

Ruts and Fugues

Depression has been shown to interfere with the mechanisms of memory.

Amongst its most pernicious effects, depression has been shown to interfere with the mechanisms of memory. Confusion and distraction are common symptoms; concentration gets shattered. While obsessive thinking replays past disappointments, sufferers remain effectively blind to the present. The hippocampus shrinks, impairing the formation and storage of new memories.

Rust and Stardust (2015) is a piece about these distortions of memory, a large-canvas work for orchestra that synthesizes all of the approaches mentioned above—defiant color, ruminative loops, grey noise, and restrained movement. The title is a shorthand for two possible ways that the mind can process a memory: corrosion or romanticization. Its form dramatizes the sudden drop of a breakdown and the non-linear path to recovery, complete with several detours that portray dysfunctional thought patterns associated with depression.

A page from Chris Trapani's sketchbook

A page from Christopher Trapani’s sketchbook.

The piece opens with a crescendo on a still string chord under twinkling percussion that accelerates into a brief glimpse of excitement; harmonic interjections and sparks of color build up to a mock romantic line with a swooping horn and cellos—until, at [0:44], the bottom drops out. That exuberant richness is no longer accessible, supplanted by a grey wash of noise and aimless patterns that turn in place.

What follows is an attempt to recover that initial vitality, to reinvigorate and string together fragments of the cordoned-off past. The moment of collapse is replayed repeatedly with minute variations, like a traumatic memory being relived and distorted as it is imprinted in the brain; only after many iterations does that fixation begin to lose its jagged edges and loosen its grip, allowing new lines and shapes to emerge [2:03].

The recovery is anything but steady: There are ruts, like scratches in vinyl, that skip back to moments heard seconds before [2:17-2:28]. There are sudden slips into fugue states, blank spaces where all motion and development momentarily cease [2:28-2:45, and again at 3:42-4:01]. A trumpet flourish eventually emerges [6:05, 6:12] that will play the role of the intractable obsessive memory.

These insistent loops build up until a second crash lands us in another whirl of white noise—a steeper, more debilitating slide [7:38]. This time, the mechanisms of memory and development are entirely broken. Recollected fragments keep intruding, but now the wrong details, the insignificant background elements, are the ones that stick, magnified out of all reasonable proportion. The stuck trumpet loop gets discarded for an even more banal figure [8:15]. Repetition becomes rote and pointless, and the frustration mounts towards a monolithic burst of noise [9:46].

But the piece ends with a silver lining: those blocks of noise lift to reveal a delicate texture of string harmonics and high metallic percussion. For once, the memory is processed in a “healthy” manner: each intrusion gets lighter and softer, shedding its weight as it recedes and fades from consciousness.

Postlude

It’s easy enough to tack on an optimistic stroke to the end of a piece, but far harder, of course, to maintain that kind of emotional upswing in reality. Depression is an illness that is always liable to resurface: About half of those with major depression will experience at least one relapse. Worse, the threshold for triggering new episodes seems to get lower, leaving sufferers increasingly susceptible. Antidepressants can help to sustain a level mood, but it can take time to work out a proper regimen of medication; even then, the effectiveness of a given drug may wear off as resistance builds.

I resisted medication for a long time, out of a fear that I think many artists share: namely, that the drugs might interfere with my creative work. Would there be a tradeoff for a moderated mood? If antidepressants blunted my emotional responses, would I lose touch with the extreme highs and lows that inspired me to write in the first place? If my personality were to be chemically altered, would I still be writing my music? Those are legitimate concerns, but ultimately—for me, at least—not a powerful enough counterargument to seeking help.

To argue that the act of creating alleviates the burden of depression would be far too simplistic.

It would be tempting to argue that the act of creating alleviates the burden of depression, that art spins gold out of grief—but that would be far too simplistic. For many, composing just may not provide a sufficient outlet or distraction, and for any given composer, it may not even always be reliably therapeutic. Furthermore, it would be wrong to advocate that every artist with a mental health disorder should confront the issue overtly in his or her work. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to handling depression; neither is there one prescribed way to address depression in art. Like any other aspect of identity, the degree to which personal experience speaks through one’s music is a choice that each artist has to make.

But for composers who embed and listeners who decode these intimate messages, there is concrete value in shared experience. It can increase awareness, fight isolation, chip away at a stigma. In the best of cases, it can make you feel less alone. And in the wake of the upheaval we’re all currently living through, with the incidence of depression and anxiety likely to skyrocket, that may count for a lot.

One perennial reminder arrives whenever I fill out a new job application. I’m confronted with an opportunity to disclose an impairment: “Federal law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities,” says the form, followed by a list of afflictions that I am somehow still surprised to see includes my own. But unlike with physical impairments, it might not be immediately obvious what kinds of accommodation could be offered to sufferers of major depression. So I’d like to suggest a few possibilities: Be mindful of what others might be going through. Dig beneath their closed, cool veneer by showing earnest interest. Exercise patience and empathy. Understand that not everyone has the same degree of resilience. Listen with attuned ears for contours that resonate with your own experience, but dig deeper to decipher unfamiliar emotional undercurrents embedded in other people’s music. That may just be a way of reaching out.

“Calls for Scores” – The Teenage Years of a Composing Career

A road with two designated lanes, labelled 1 and 2, for racing with the words "100m Sprint"

I will be the first one to admit that I pay attention and regularly submit to calls for scores. I check pages like TheComposersSite and the American Composers Forum “Opportunities” pages every week, and I would guess that I submit between 20-30 calls for scores on average per year and have been doing so for a few years. I am used to the email that arrives in my inbox saying, “We received more submissions that ever before.” Or “The panel was overwhelmed and inspired by the music they were able to experience.” Or some other sugar-coated line before stating my music wasn’t accepted. I keep telling myself, “If I want to have a successful career as a composer, I need to make a name for myself, and one of these days the right call will come at the right time or the right person will be on the right panel to commission me for something else down the road…”. There must be some sort of synchronicity in the works! These thoughts devolve into the absolute need to submit to as many opportunities as possible; otherwise how else will I ever build my career as a composer and artist?

How do we tilt the scales in our favor and go from a “young” or “emerging” composer to an “established” composer? (I still have many questions about what an “emerging” composer is, but we can save that for another article.) What is the role of submitting to calls for scores and competitions in the grand scheme of building a career? Are there wholesome and compassionate ways that calls for scores and/or composition competitions can support artists even if they don’t win the “big prize”? Are there other paths by which composers can earn name recognition and build their careers without having to rely on luck of winning these calls?

In short, how do we develop from this seemingly “teenage” part of our career and move on to becoming fully-fledged professionals?

Some of these calls have been very successful for me as well as having been positive and fruitful interactions. For example, I was recently selected to compose a new work for Ensemble 20/21 in conjunction with the Curtis Institute of Music and We the Purple Project for Democracy. I also have an upcoming commission from the C4 Choral/Composer/Conductor Collective for their IGNITE Commissioning Competition. In both of these cases, the communication has so far been constant throughout the process, and all parties have shown excitement and support for the upcoming projects.

But other times, these positive responses to calls can initially seem like a success, but they can slowly start turning down a much darker path.

In spring 2020, I received a notification of a successful application for a 10-to-20-minute opera. Having never written for opera, I jumped at the chance to get some experience writing for this medium while having an organization/ensemble who was willing to support my exploration. I had even paid a $10 application fee to submit to the initial call because of how much I wanted to write for the opera medium. I was a bit surprised when I saw how many other composers received a similar notice and were involved on the same email, but I continued to be optimistic and excited to write this work. I was also able to work with a libretto created by a dear friend of mine who has a lot of experience in opera and theatre, so it seemed like everything was lining up for this to be the perfect chance to have guidance and mentorship along this journey.

Fast-forward to COVID-19 times in May 2020, when the score was supposed to be due. We received a few emails mentioning that due to the pandemic, the deadline had been extended to June 5. I was also working on an orchestra piece, a solo percussion piece, graduating from my Master’s degree, getting married, and had one or two other projects along the way in May. Needless to say, I was grateful for the extension. I submitted my completed, 18-minute opera on June 5, 2020.

Fast-forward again, now to mid-August of 2020, and I still hadn’t received any type of response from the opera organization. I sent an email checking in only to realize that I accidentally submitted my materials to one of the other composers on the email chain back in May instead of to the submissions’ address, which was absolutely my mistake. (Side note: please use the “BCC” option for emails when addressing other composers in big calls such as this —I was in such a frenzy to submit the piece on time, and things happened due to another person using the “reply-all” feature). But what I cannot understand is why they had not reached out to me prior to this. They were so adamant about deadlines in the spring, but there was never any follow-up as to whether or not I had completed or submitted anything. Furthermore, when I sent my materials to the right address, their response was vague and mentioned that they never would have noticed my missing work if I had not reached out first. Initially, they said they were going to pay me a “small stipend” for the work. In this most recent email, the “small stipend” ended up being $25 USD. However, I also paid a $10 application fee, which I only decided to do because of how much I wanted to find an opportunity to write for opera and fortunately had the means to do so. That basically means I was paid $15 total, which equates to $0.83 per minute of music that I wrote, and that does not include any funding for the librettist who contributed her work as well. I found out later that this was a small organization just getting started and run by passionate musicians, but having that knowledge up front as well as the stipend amount would have given me a chance to reconsider my application.

I wish I could say this is my only call for scores nightmare, but unfortunately, there is another that comes to mind. A few years ago, I was informed that my music was going to be performed for a percussion festival at a university in my home state. This was again exciting for me because my family would be able to attend the concert in person, including an uncle of mine who wasn’t able to travel to any of my shows previously due to his health. They asked for the music months in advance of the festival. I planned to fly out for the concert to visit family and enjoy the weekend of music, and luckily, I was able to save some money by staying with my brother who lived in that town at the time. In any case, the stipend they provided me didn’t even cover my flight, but it was worth it for me to spend time with my family and have them experience my music in person. As it turned out, the festival was disorganized from the moment I arrived. Many details on planning were made at the last minute, and it took months to receive my stipend after the fact. The worst part, though, was that they apparently lost my music along the way of preparing for the festival. Nobody asked me for the music again, and I was not told of this incident until the dress rehearsal the day before. The musicians were essentially sight-reading my music. Of all concerts to have this happen, of course it had to be the one where family members were actually in attendance.

Although this may have up to this point seemed like an anecdotal rant, these experiences (as well as countless conversations with another dear friend about the financial inequities within our music-making systems) are bringing more and more doubt into my mind concerning these unnecessary “steps” that seem to be invisible prerequisites in order to be accepted as a “serious” or “professional” composer. There is no one method, and I have learned that nothing is a linear path in knowledge, but why do we feel such a need to have these calls for scores on our CVs and resumés?

I have decided the best comparison I can think of for submitting to calls for scores is like being a teenager who has a driver’s license and car but still lives at home and is not financially independent. They feel independent enough to drive themselves around, but they are also still relying on family income, housing, and general support to keep afloat. How can we grow out of these teenage years of wanting to build a career as a composer and develop meaningful collaborations that will sustain us as creative artists as well as nurture our communities?

The larger question at hand: How can calls for scores be more equitable and worthwhile for all parties involved? How can we transform this process of gatekeeping into a holistic and compassionate way of building community and lifting up those wanting to work in these artistic fields?

While this is certainly not nearly a comprehensive list of suggestions, I have a few that I would like to offer. These ideas allow other career-building skills and connections to occur and start to critically evaluate and continually revise the system with equity in mind, even if an individual’s call for scores submission is not accepted:

1. Make all calls for scores or proposals free, without application fees, or include (and publicize!) waivers for artists who are unable to afford the fee (I highly recommend the fabulous NewMusicBox article, “Dissing the Competition,” by Alex Shapiro from 2018, where she shares a deeper insight and analysis to fees for calls and competitions). If you require composers to attend in person or participate in workshops, etc. but are unwilling to support their trips or time financially, this is also exclusionary.

If you are planning to pay a separate panel to review the works in the call, please anticipate this into your own working budget instead of passing the buck onto the composers. There are too many voices who need to be heard and may not be able to afford either your fee or to take time away from their paying jobs to attend a rehearsal/workshop/performance without compensation.

2. All details of commissioning fees, anticipated number of performances, rehearsals, workshops, etc. need to be established in advance to the best of your ability. Providing a written contract is also necessary to avoid any issues throughout the project.

Nobody would have been able to anticipate the devastation that COVID-19 has brought upon the artist community with cancellations, financial losses, and shutdowns of venues, but please do your best to be honest and forthright with composers from the start.

3. Please follow through with your statements if you tell composers that you will offer them feedback on their submissions. (This has also happened: I didn’t receive feedback even though it was offered and I requested it.) I understand that there is no way to truly anticipate a high volume of submissions for a call, but even a short sentiment from the ensemble can be helpful feedback for a composer and can leave them with reassurance that their work matters.

4. Feature a playlist of composers whose music you appreciated from the call for scores and want to share with your larger community. Even a recognition such as this could be meaningful from a well-known ensemble. (This was a collaborative idea created by a colleague and friend, Louis Raymond-Kolker, and myself in a conversation about a particular call for scores.) For example, discovering an artist via a playlist from a major string quartet could lead others to want to collaborate with said artist in the future.

Better yet, take this idea and share the playlist directly with other local ensembles, organizations, and institutions. You could even include these composers in educational outreach programs by teaming the composers up with schools in the area for teaching sessions with the classes. These are all additional professional opportunities that you are offering to the composer to further their own careers as well as the ensembles’ educational goals (if applicable). This in turn will also build the composer’s network of professional contacts that they may be able to interact with down the road.

5. If you are asking a composer to write a new piece for your call that has never been performed (which I am strongly against), please make a point of sharing their work in some way after the fact, even if it is not selected. For example, readings of each of the pieces would be an excellent way to turn it into a collaboration and learning opportunity for the composer and ensemble, and again you can team up with other similar ensembles or creative artists in the area to help with the readings and further cultivate a community. Writing a piece specifically for a call is a LOT of free work that you are asking the composer to gamble with, and if they decide to apply to the call, they at least deserve recognition for writing something brand new for you.

I believe there is a silver lining to every opportunity that I apply for; however, my faith in this particular system is quickly fading. These calls lead us to believe that they are just part of the path towards a professional career, but instead the gatekeeping can be more detrimental to a composers’ financial and emotional well-being. I do believe that we can change the system to become a more collaborative process where artists at any point in their careers can grow and benefit.

I look forward to finally being able to not only drive my composition career on my own, but also to move past those teenage years and allow genuine collaborations to happen in order to move my own career towards independence from this system. As I have the privilege to be able to begin this transition, it is my responsibility to continue to engage in conversations and create pathways in order to make this a more accessible career; if we can create pathways for composers from all walks of life we will all certainly benefit from a new structure and, most importantly, the music, individuals, opportunities, and communities that flourish in this reconstructed system.

Why Artist-Driven Change is Exactly What We Need Right Now

Pile of printed scores of pieces by BIPOC composers, including works by TJ Anderson, Errolyn Wallen, Tania León, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Michael Abels, and others, plus a laptop displaying a PDF score.

Hi. I’m Adam. Long time reader, first time writer. I’m a white cis-gender gay male, I play the piano, and I live in NYC. In other words, I’m not that special. There are lots and lots of people like me in NYC and frankly, everywhere around the world. Other qualities I’m hoping you identify with: I take this pandemic very seriously and have no issues wearing a mask and physical distancing, I’m dealing with crushing depression related to the cessation of nearly all of my artistic work, and oh yeah, I strongly believe that Black Lives Matter. If you’re reading this, you’re probably with me, and I’m grateful that there’s a baseline of support for BLM in our community.

Over the last six months, and stretching forward indefinitely, our professional landscape has become unrecognizable. Nobody really knows what to do, and as presenters scramble to figure out how to adapt, performers have more autonomy than ever creating and presenting programs in unusual ways. There are inherent challenges with the predominantly livestream model, but there is also an opportunity to be more nimble and adaptive than usual since concerts aren’t programmed and announced as early as they would be in the before times.

As presenters figure out how to adapt, performers have more autonomy than ever creating and presenting programs in unusual ways.

Our individual agility is perhaps the biggest upside in this often demoralizing artistic landscape. On a broader level, there are a lot of conversations happening right now about institutional racism, inclusion, diversity, etc. But regardless of what institutions we’re associated with, we all exist outside of institutions, too. If you think BIPOC composers deserve more representation in programming, begin that change today. We have an opportunity to look ourselves in the mirror and think about what we can do right here, right now, for ourselves and for people we know or want to know.

This Spring, as I watched with horror new flurries of violence towards people of color, I began to question myself… do I present music that reflects my values in terms of racial diversity and equality? If I go through my repertoire, I can identify works that are by BIPOC. But can I honestly say it’s a significant part of my rep? No. I was ashamed and embarrassed to confront my shortcomings. As I thought about how I can best be an ally, voices in my head whispered “Do we really need to hear more white people playing music by BIPOC and congratulating themselves?” I have loved getting to know the music of Julius Eastman, for example, but the titles of his works make me uncomfortable (I understand that that is part of the intent), and I’ve felt as though I may not be the right person to champion his music.

But really, why? What am I scared of? I don’t want to be someone who tokenizes race or color. I don’t want to appropriate works by BIPOC and present myself as a white savior. I’m terrified of inadvertently demonstrating disrespect for artists that I’m trying to support, because I’ve seen it happen time and time again at the hands of others. (This is not meant as a personal attack on my many colleagues who have been out there doing this work already… it’s just an abstract observation.)

I’m terrified of inadvertently demonstrating disrespect for artists that I’m trying to support.

This, however, is not the time for me to be governed by fear. When I think about the baseline fear that many BIPOC have in our artistic spaces about being labeled “difficult” or “argumentative,” or the discomfort of erasure and whitewashing they carry every day, I realize I have to just buck up and do what I think is right, knowing full well that I will err and need correction from others with a different perspective.

Here’s one pathway to start:

  • Continue to self-educate. Reading, thinking, and discussing has never been more important. Crucial reads, among many, many others, include Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, and Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility.
  • Listen when others speak. If we only look to others to confirm our existing worldview, we have no hope to grow. If you disagree with what someone says, keep listening. Your response may change.
  • Buy music. Lots of music. Shopping can be an ethical act. Choose wisely. We all have budgets, but once needs are met, what feels better than supporting an artist by buying a new score or recording?
  • Learn music. As a performer or a listener, expose yourself to new things. Diversify what’s around you. If you don’t like it, that’s okay. I don’t particularly like a lot of music that’s on my shelf, but I keep it there because it’s my job to know what’s out there and how things interrelate.
  • Share what you’re passionate about. Whether it be telling a friend about a composer or piece that’s new to you, programming your concerts differently to reflect your priorities, or posting links to social media, don’t hold your new knowledge in.
  • Lay the groundwork for more. If you are able, set aside a little cash every month to support the development of new art. That may include contributing to crowdsourcing campaigns, or it may be commissioning new works. Recognize your power. If you can buy a latte, you can support artistic development on some level.

In that first week of June I spent about 15 hours researching databases, lists, and personal websites as a jumping off point for BIPOC composers with whom I was unfamiliar. I ordered about 80 scores, sight unseen, so that I could be surrounded by unfamiliar things to explore. I’ve been lucky to have conversations with some of the composers as a part of that discovery phase, too. I’m still early in the process of reading through the scores I’ve amassed, but that work is probably my favorite part of the job.

Someone close to me asked when I shared my plan “but what are you going to do with the bad pieces? Don’t you want to make sure they are good before you spend money?” That’s a great question, and one that comes up a lot when we are examining inclusive programming. But you know what? I have played a lot of what I might consider to be bad pieces (though there isn’t really a binary here) by white composers. Every single composer writes “bad” music at times. It’s natural and a part of the process, not to mention incredibly subjective. I think of it this way: I’m a pretty good cook, but there have been more than a few dinners over the years I’ve had to toss and order a pizza instead. And that is perfectly fine.

I’m a pretty good cook, but there have been more than a few dinners over the years I’ve had to toss and order a pizza instead.

By studying music of BIPOC composers regardless of where they are in their career or development, I can hopefully support their growth as well as their bank accounts. Also, what I perceive as a less-developed piece may speak to another artist who champions it and makes it shine in a way I wasn’t imaginative enough to accomplish. My job as a pianist includes reflecting back to composers what they’ve put on the page with complete commitment and amplifying to audiences what I believe in with my whole heart. Those are separate responsibilities, but they are inextricably linked and crucial to the development of any new work.

I think it’s important to note that my ideas here are by no means revolutionary or unique. Countless before me (and hopefully after me) will engage with this work. But perhaps none have written about curation as a reflection of community thought with more academic prowess than George Lewis. I also had a long list of colleagues review this essay, point me towards new resources (including George’s article), and help me refine my statement. This is all part of the process, and something we need to continue to normalize.

My ideas may not be new, but my commitment to aligning my actions to my ideals is, and I’m late to the party. Institutional change is a slog. Individual change can begin as soon as you imagine it. It won’t end… probably ever. But the roadblocks are movable and our excuses are weak. Let’s listen more, support more, and amplify what resonates so that we can all grow together in a more just and equitable world.

 

How Audition Requirements Exclude

Guitar near open window

“I guess no music schools will accept the repertoire that I’m playing for my graduation recital, right?” My student paused, and then gazed back into his webcam. “I can take a year off, I guess.” His voice, heavy with frustration and disappointment, trailed off.

“Yeah,” I replied, not really thinking about it. “Most schools require Bach and Sor, at least. You might have to take a year off to learn that repertoire—”

I stopped, suddenly considering my own reaction to my student’s question. We both sat silently for a moment, considering the personal, artistic, and financial implications of a gap year. We both knew this wasn’t a feasible option. Even over Zoom, his posture seemed to collapse under the weight of this potential setback. No—this couldn’t be the answer.

My student, Matthew Briehl, is currently working on repertoire for his graduation recital at Arizona State University, where I’m an assistant professor. He’s committed to learning and highlighting the music of Black composers, and—with my enthusiastic approval—he has made the decision to only program works by composers of color on his graduation recital. His dedication demonstrates a level of initiative that few students possess. As an educator, this is something that I seek to encourage and cultivate within my studio. Yet, by encouraging my students to seek out works by underrepresented composers—an initiative that most music schools would seem to support, at least based on their recent statements—I’ve inadvertently disadvantaged those who aspire to apply for graduate study, festivals, competitions, and other opportunities.

By encouraging my students to seek out works by underrepresented composers, I’ve inadvertently disadvantaged them.

In response to recent tragedies and the subsequent protests and public outcries, most major conservatories have made statements that condemn systemic racism and affirm allyship with individuals identifying as Black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). These institutions have publicly declared intentions to create “a welcoming home for African American colleagues [and] all people of color” (Yale School of Music); to “tear down systemic racism and injustice” (The Juilliard School); to “embrace diversity, inclusion and equity” (Cleveland Institute of Music); and to “forge a new path of systemic inclusion” (San Francisco Conservatory of Music). There are many more I could include—I’m sure you’ve encountered similar language in statements issued by other leading performing arts organizations.

To be clear: These are admirable, worthy goals, and I’ve chosen these schools as examples because of their prominence. Many institutions have already detailed specific actions that will lead to measurable changes in both culture and curricula. But, in exploring these lists, I have yet to see any mention of audition repertoire. Institutional change is necessary, yes; but, if admissions requirements already exclude BIPOC, then institutional changes will remain surface-level and will do little to improve diversity and representation within our industry.

For auditioning classical guitarists, most music schools require: a piece by Bach; a major piece from the classical or romantic era; a 20th century work; and, occasionally, a contemporary piece. Among the programs I know of there isn’t one audition repertoire list that places emphasis on music by BIPOC and/or female composers. It is important to recognize that these lists often determine the repertoire that students select to learn during their most artistically formative years. Why take on additional repertoire that won’t contribute to educational and/or professional advancement?

I’ve been guilty of perpetuating this problem, too. I acknowledge that I have been complicit in this area of systemic exclusion, and I intend to create meaningful change within my own program. Previously, I have based my audition requirements on those of other US-based guitar programs without giving sufficient thought to the kind of program I seek to cultivate and the values I intend to uphold. But, my student’s recent comment forced me to recall my own days of learning and perfecting repertoire that I didn’t really relate to. As a Korean woman, it was exceedingly rare that my prepared audition repertoire could include music written by anyone I could identify with. As a performer, I’ve upheld a commitment to performing music by diverse composers. Further, I commission new works in an effort to expand the classical guitar’s contemporary repertoire so that it better reflects our current time and audience. As an educator, I strive to promote these values, and I intend to do better.

A zoom screenshot of a guitar lesson. Matt playing guitar and Jiji following along with the score.

One of Matthew Briehl’s guitar lessons with Jiji Kim over Zoom.

I’m proud of my students who seek out repertoire composed by BIPOC and women composers, and I’m grateful to my student who compelled me to confront a significant blind spot. I’m committed to making a change, and I want to show him that his voice and experience matter. We can—and must—become more inclusive.

You might argue: “Cool idea, but isn’t it a CLASSICAL guitar program?” Yes, it is a classical guitar program; however, in this context, the descriptor “classical” describes an instrument and specific style of playing. What does CLASSICAL really mean? And, why is our definition so exclusive?

What does CLASSICAL really mean? And, why is our definition so exclusive?

I often perform pieces that require live processing using Max/MSP and Ableton. Many wouldn’t define these works as strictly classical; however, these pieces make significant demands on the artistry and technique that I’ve only obtained through “classical” training. I teach my students the artistic and educational value of investing in contemporary works that represent the time in which we live, particularly works that incorporate technology. I also encourage my students to commission new works and engage in mindful programming—sometimes, you might have to exert a little more effort, but I assure you, BIPOC composers have contributed incredible, worthwhile works to the classical guitar repertoire. They’re there if you look for them.

Further, it’s important to recognize that classical works in the traditional canon often do not represent the background or experience of a student, particularly those who identify as BIPOC. This isn’t to say that the canon doesn’t hold educational or artistic value—I continue to teach these works, and I do not seek to condemn their validity or diminish their significance. Rather, I argue that we can and should expand opportunities for our students to engage with works that hold personal significance. We need to recognize that exclusive audition repertoire lists and recital requirements severely limit these opportunities.

How can I make requirements a better reflection of our current time?

Our industry and institutions have so much to gain if we truly open ourselves to the diverse voices that exist—and have existed for centuries!—within classical music. So, I challenge my colleagues across the country to examine their required repertoire lists for both auditions and graduation recitals. Ask yourselves—who do these lists exclude? Who do these lists benefit or advantage? How can I make these requirements a better reflection of our current time? How can these lists further institutional and/or industry goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion?

I pledge to make the following changes to my own audition requirements at Arizona State University:

Master of Music

  • Three solo works demonstrating different musical styles and techniques at an advanced level (any era). *It is strongly encouraged to play at least one composition by a BIPOC or a female composer (e.g. Casseus, Bebey, Snijders, E. Giuliani, Lutyens, Tower, Holland, Coulanges, C. Assad, Kruisbrink, León, etc)
  • Applicants can also choose to demonstrate one (1) of their own compositions or an arrangement *optional
  • OR a curated (themed) recital program could be submitted directly to the guitar faculty

Doctor of Musical Arts

  • Four solo works demonstrating different musical styles and techniques at an advanced level (any era). The chosen works may all be by BIPOC or female composers. *It is strongly encouraged for a Doctoral applicant to include one piece by a BIPOC and a female composer. (e.g. Casseus, Bebey, Snijders, E. Giuliani, Lutyens, Tower, Holland, Coulanges, C. Assad, Kruisbrink, León, etc)
  • As per the Master’s audition requirements, original compositions/curated (themed) programs would be accepted as well

Here are some examples of current audition requirements at major music schools within the United States:

Final Audition Requirements: A transcription of a work written before 1750; A classical or romantic work (including the Segovia repertoire) written for guitar; a 20th century work written for guitar.

Live audition repertoire: All compositions must be performed from memory; 1. two contrasting movements of a J.S. Bach suite, partita, or sonata (includes Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV998); 2. two etudes by Heitor Villa-Lobos; 3. A complete work of any period; 4. Two contrasting works: one Renaissance, Classical (Sor, Giuliani, Regondi, Mertz, etc.) or 19th Century; one by a 20th century composer of any style.

I would like to mention that Manhattan School of Music includes a female composer Joan Tower and a Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu as examples of pieces to play for the auditions.

Graduate MM Audition - Choose any three of the following (or works of an equivalent level): A major work by Bach; Elegy or any two pieces from Bardenklange, op. 13#1-11 by Mertz, or two etudes by Regondi, or a sonata or fantasy by Sor, or a major work by Giuliani; Three etudes by Villa-Lobos, or a major work by de Falla, REspighi, Torroba, Martin, Ponce, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, José, Tansman, Rodrigo, Turina, Ohana, Britten, Walton, Bennett or Berkeley; A work written since 1975, e.g., Takemitsu, Henze, Carter, Nørgård, Petrassi, Tower, Ginastera, Sculthorpe.


Celebrating Holland, Bebey, and Casseus

If you have no idea where to look or even begin, please refer to the resources included at the end of this article. Amazing people have dedicated a lot of time and effort to simplifying the process of identifying composers of color. In the paragraphs below, I’ve highlighted three BIPOC composers.

Amazing people have dedicated a lot of time and effort to simplifying the process of identifying composers of color.

Justin Holland (1819-1887) was an African American classical guitarist, composer, and arranger from the 19th century. Justin Holland’s classic method book is perfect for beginners. Referring to methods of Sor and Aguado, he says “They are poorly adapted to the use of beginners. All of the great Masters (Sor, Aguado, Giuliani) … Some omit elementary explanations, some harmonics, others have no mention of the great number of musical embellishments constantly occurring music…” Which I totally agree with. These Sor and Aguado books lack many important rudimentary explanations––so, if you don’t have a skilled teacher, these very popular method books can be a disaster for young guitarists. The first 15 pages of Holland’s method book carefully explain what it takes to play the instrument (fret visual mapping, posture, etc.) and to learn music (music theory, how to count time, etc). His original work Andante demonstrates his immense talent, and you can also see that he was a skilled arranger (Prof. Ernie is an amazing artist).

 

Francis Bebey (1929-2001) was a Cameroonian composer, guitarist, and writer. His works are very impressive—I especially love his composition Black tears. There is a lot happening in this piece––chromatic harmonies and African rhythms—and the emotions keep shifting to such different places, high then low, it’s dissonant for a moment and then it’s not—we are jolly for a moment—ah—not anymore. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a piece, and it requires a tremendous level of musicianship to execute well. Black African Music is not meant just for the ear but for all the senses and faculties of the body. It reflects Africa’s vision of the world on earth and the world beyond, a world of change and movement, a world in permanent search of betterment and perfection.” (Bebey 1974) I’ve listened to this piece over and over again, and I’m in love with it.

Matt and Jiji holding up copies of a published collection of guitar music by Frantz Cassius,

Frantz Casseus (1915–1993) was a Haitian-born composer, guitarist, and arranger who emigrated to the United States in 1946. He was also the teacher of Marc Ribot (who is one of my favorite guitarists and who wrote a great article about Casseus). He had an active performing career which sadly came to a halt in the ‘70s due to tendonitis in his left hand. His composition Haitian Dances from the mid-20th century incorporates classical writing combined with Haitian folk songs and jazz. It’s one-of-a-kind and absolutely gorgeous, and I’d love to see this piece valued as a 20th century major work. This quote from Ribot sums up the perpetual problem Casseus faced during his career: “… [He] lived as a black man in a United States whose southern racists wouldn’t let him stay in the hotels where he performed and whose northern liberals had difficulty accepting his work as classical, preferring to hear it within a “folk” context when they heard it at all.” (Ribot 2003). Let’s not be those “northern liberals”—it’s fantastic, worthwhile music.

As educators, we have the responsibility to engage in difficult dialogues.

As educators, we have the responsibility to engage in difficult dialogues; beyond this, we need to adapt and move forward as society makes progress. We can’t just shout the buzzwords “diversity, inclusion, and equality!” and then not take initiative when we have opportunities to do so. We cannot continue to dismiss diverse voices because they don’t adhere neatly to our “classical” definitions. I’m planning to do better. Are you with me?


I’d like to thank Liz Lerman and Deanna Swodoba for inviting me to ASU’s transformation group and for helping me to recognize systemic abuse. A million thanks to my student Matthew Briehl who has inspired me to make changes. And another million thanks to my dearest friend Hilary Purrington who has generously helped with this article. 


References

Bebey, Francis. “The Vibrant Intensity of Traditional African Music.” The Black Perspective in Music, vol. 2, no. 2, 1974, pp. 117–121.

Ribot, Marc. “Frantz Casseus. BOMB Magazine, January 2003.

Further Resources 

guitarmusicbyblackcomposers.com

www.musicbyblackcomposers.org

Grenier, Robert. “La Mélodie Vaudoo. Voodoo Art Songs: The Genesis of a Nationalist Music in the Republic of Haiti.” Black Music Research Journal 21, no. 1 (2001): pp. 29-74.

www.earlymusicamerica.org/resources/resources-for-diversity-in-early-music-repertoire

Eyes Wide Shut—The Case Against Blind Auditions

A blindfolded woman against a dark background. (Photo by Kirill Balobanov via Unsplash.)

Back in July, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times called for an end to the practice of blind auditions. “If ensembles are to reflect the communities they serve,” he wrote, “the audition process should take into account race, gender and other factors.”

Unsurprisingly, this suggestion received heavy backlash. Between the Culture Wars, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the strong opinions of those in the music world, such a statement was bound to ruffle feathers. Pitting what’s seen as meritocracy in its purest form against the diversity standards of the day was doomed from the start. To progressives, Tommasini’s piece was hollow and missed the point. To conservatives, it was sheer blasphemy.

Tommasini’s suggestion came from a well-meaning place: one of newfound discomfort with the status quo. It would be ungenerous to discount the value of that response. At the same time, why diversity matters to classical music was not examined at all.

I’ve called for an end to the practice of blind auditions for years. To me, Tommasini’s piece was both unpersuasive and incomplete.

To make a contentious change requires the buy-in of many different kinds of people. One person’s call for “representation” is another’s outrage at “quotas.” I believe we can—and should—elevate this conversation past that endless, tiresome tug-of-war.

Rather than going in circles, I ask: what would have to be true for all of us to agree on the potential benefits of revising the process? 

What follows is taken in part from a piece I wrote in February of 2018, updated for relevance.


For decades, blind orchestral auditions have been lauded as one of the world’s fairest hiring practices.

For decades, blind orchestral auditions have been lauded as one of the world’s fairest hiring practices. Yet the merit-based method reveals one of classical music culture’s most problematic assumptions. It comes with a host of undesirable consequences — one of which recently blew up in our faces.

The assumption in question: How you sound is all that matters.

As a result of this belief, candidates aren’t interviewed. References are not required. When you walk into an audition, you aren’t allowed to speak or wear perfume. A rogue cough can betray your gender. Best not to wear clacking heels for the same reason.

As you enter the audition room in silence, a proctor announces you by number. You then play behind a screen. As a result, the judging panel doesn’t know the first thing about you. Not your age, your race, your gender. Not your pedigree, or where you went to school. Nothing.

Certainly, this process has had a tremendously equalizing effect. For starters: blind auditions have made it possible for women to make tremendous inroads into orchestras.

I believe I’ve been saved by the screen myself. At 23, I played for a concertmaster in the weeks leading up to an audition for his orchestra. He didn’t seem to take me very seriously. I left the coaching feeling a bit pessimistic about my chances. After winning the audition, he told me I was a “great artist.” I‘m pretty sure he wouldn’t have felt that way had he known it was me back there all along.

But in the wake of #Metoo and #BlackLivesMatter, I ask whether “how well you play” is really all that matters in the musical workplace.


Is “how well you play” really all that matters in the musical workplace?

Let’s get this out of the way. For a job in the field of musical performance, nothing matters more than how you sound. In this piece, I hope to make the case for letting other relevant things matter, too.

Tempting as it is, let’s not fall into an all-or-nothing false binary here. Sound doesn’t matter “less” by widening our circle to include other factors. The whole point here is additive.

Even if we believe that how you sound is all that matters, the meritocratic foundation of the concept itself doesn’t hold water. To pick a “winner” who “sounds the best” is not objectively possible. Sure, there can be a general consensus—but never a universal one.

That’s because there is no “universal best” to which all players aspire. In music, excellence at the highest level is measured in abstractions that are deeply, intangibly personal. My colleague Kevin Kumar wrote about this beautifully in his piece, The #1 Violinist in the World.

Consider the following: musicians generally accept that anyone who gets to the finals is qualified for the job, and would fit into the fabric of the orchestra just fine. This truth is especially consoling when the runner-up is you.

Sometimes, on a different day, things could have gone a different way. We all have off days: before auditions, I always used to tell myself, “I wish everyone the best. I just hope my best is better today.”

Plus, the composition of the listening committee can determine who comes out on top on any given day. Swap a committee member or two and you might have a different “best” player based on the collective, subjective taste of those listening that day.

The audition procedure of each orchestra also comes into play here. Does the conductor get to choose from among the committee’s top few? What if the conductor’s opinion is different from the committee’s majority vote? Who played “the best,” or “deserved to win,” in that instance? I’ve personally been both the subject of and a participant in these very situations on both sides of the screen.

The members of an orchestra playing music together.

Photo by Samuel Sianipar on Unsplash

At a certain point, “winning” an audition is like catching lightning in a bottle. My own mother once cautioned me against resigning from an orchestra for fear that I wouldn’t be able to “get back in.” While it would have been easy to take that as an insult, she was simply being realistic.

Compare that with the following anecdote. In my early twenties, I had a mentor who helped me prepare for auditions. I’ll never forget her telling me that I had to play with such conviction that the committee would have “no choice” but to name me the winner.

This was a motivating, inspiring, romantic, and idealistic instruction. It’s the kind of thing that puts fire in your belly, motivating you to maximize the one thing you can control: yourself. Your preparation level, commitment, passion, and nerves of steel. It’s exactly the kind of thing you need to hear when preparing for an audition.

But while my mentor’s guidance was both motivating and attractive, it wasn’t as realistic as my mother’s. And here’s the thing: neither of them were wrong. My mentor was right that I needed to do everything in my power to improve my chances. And my mother was right that my chances were exactly that: chances.

Given the above, surely there is room to take more of the person into account. Qualities, experiences, skills, and interests that would further the cause of art music above and beyond “how much more beautifully” the winner played than the runners-up.

Who knows what else they might have been able to bring to the table?

***

Maybe there should be an interpersonal component to getting a job in music.

Maybe there should be an interpersonal component to getting a job in music. Maybe how well you play isn’t where what matters begins and ends. After all, orchestral and chamber music are team sports. Are you likely to “play your best,” anyway, while seething with rage at—or being psychologically tortured by—your stand partner or principal?

When you audition for a string quartet, both musical and personal chemistry matter. What brings out the best in others is ineffable. It’s laughable to contemplate a blind, screened string quartet audition. Why should orchestral auditions be so different?

What other fields vet only one dimension of every job applicant? To assume that someone’s playing tells you everything you need to know about them is simply false. It’s naive at best and dangerous at worst.

Worshipping sound at the expense of character has had consequences beyond missed opportunities. Blind orchestral auditions have led to orchestras filled with wonderful players. But with no other vetting of any kind, many of them are as interpersonally difficult as they are musically skilled. Much of the time, they cannot stand each other, and dysfunction abounds.

Blind orchestral auditions have led to orchestras filled with wonderful players …. but much of the time, dysfunction abounds.

When orchestras have the great good fortune of hiring a player who also happens to be charismatic, generous, and full of good ideas, they go absolutely bananas milking that person for all they are worth. Imagine being able to harness that energy from not a small handful of serendipitous hires, but from an entire symphony’s worth of carefully-considered candidates. Imagine if the orchestral audition process included not only blind listening, an interview, and references, but also:

  • a trial lesson for an underprivileged, gifted child
  • public speaking
  • a chamber music concert and a new music concert
  • a thorough review of what the candidate brings to the table, including his or her capacity to serve as an effective advocate for the art form

I’m not saying these things are “more important” than sounding good. I’m saying: sound good, and

As a dear friend put: “even Miss America isn’t just about the swimsuit competition.” I’m the Co-Director of Salastina, a non-profit chamber music series, in Los Angeles. My colleague Kevin Kumar and I play and work closely with wonderful people who are superlative musicians—and… terrific advocates for music.

We value both. We believe in their mutually amplifying capacity. And we have faith in the long-term cultural impact of that belief.


Imagine if diversity were a meaningful factor in the orchestra’s hiring process.

Imagine if diversity were a meaningful factor in the orchestra’s hiring process. If the culture of classical music seeks to enhance its relevancy and diversify its ranks, a more comprehensive approach to auditions would be a wonderful place to start.

There’s something sad and insufficient about post-graduate educational efforts to diversify orchestras. Well-meaning as such designated residencies are, they do too little too late. It’s hard to imagine how a person of color truly improves his or her odds of winning a screened audition simply by having sat in a designated “minority residency” chair for a year or two. In 2016, the League of American Orchestras published this study showing that these residencies just don’t work on the whole.

At the same time, I see their value as baby steps. They have the potential to ever-so-slowly steer the Titanic of musicians’ opinions, thereby improving the chances for more meaningful conversations about orchestral hiring practices down the line.

When it comes to diversity, blind auditions haven’t been a complete bust. They have helped the advancement of women: Asian and white women like me. Beyond that, what truly impedes greater diversity in American orchestras is our insistence on the false assumption that sound is all that matters.

Recently, Irshad Manji wrote beautifully on the merits of diversifying the workplace in “White Fragility Is Not the Answer. Honest Diversity Is” for the Heterodox Academy (July 7, 2020). Her piece helped me reframe anew the friction between creating a vibrant, synergistic workforce and current orchestral hiring priorities.

According to Manji, “honest diversity… recognizes that each of us, whatever our labels, is a multifaceted plural.” Manji contrasts this with dishonest diversity, which “slices and dices individuals into categories, as if directing people to their assigned places.”

Does the following statement sound familiar? “We can have diversity or we can have quality. We can’t have both.”

It’s a mainstay of the culture wars. And blind auditions make a fertile battleground.

But what if a variety of more nuanced artistic skills were equated with quality when considering the sum total of a musician? Powerfully, Manji suggests: “Honest diversity starts with the desire for varied perspectives and rectifies representation to fulfill that desire. To begin the other way around — representation in the hopes of diverse thinking — is to incite needless friction.”

She speaks of having the integrity to value more than diversity data points. I would add that valuing more than how a candidate sounds—on any given day, compared to those present, and to the ears of those who just so happen to be listening—is also a question of artistic integrity.

Valuing more than how a candidate sounds is also a question of artistic integrity.

Here’s where I felt The New York Times piece left itself vulnerable to criticism from all sides. It framed metrics as an expedient end goal. It piggy-backed off of the death of George Floyd to make a statement about the uncomfortable lack of black representation within American orchestras.

But it didn’t get into what really matters about diversity in a compelling way. The why of it all was shallow and implied. As a result, the piece came across as opportunistic on the one hand and inflammatory on the other. It didn’t invite the buy-in of people who all want “the best”—and “fairly”—but have different ideas about what that looks like.


Don’t get me wrong: winning a blind audition fair and square feels AWESOME. It’s a notch on your belt that feels about as objective as success can get. And believe me: we cling to these victories like our lives depend on them. (They actually do.)

Who would want to disband a club into which they’ve rightfully earned entry? It’s too easy—and all too human—for the ego to bristle at the prospect. It’s threatening, like the sudden devaluation of prestige, or the dismantling of personal identity. And that’s to say nothing of decades of back-breaking work, unrelenting focus, and significant financial investment.

I say the following with all due respect. Musicians use the idea that “how you sound is all that matters” as both a source of pride and a crutch. It excuses bad behavior. It justifies narrow-mindedness. And it’s its own kind of complacency.

Focusing only on “how you sound” excuses bad behavior and justifies narrow-mindedness.

What if expanding our values system to include other skills and qualities weren’t a devaluation of the importance of sound, but an invitation to go deeper? Manji put this idea beautifully: “wholeness, by definition, is not a zero-sum game.”

I suspect many orchestral musicians would welcome this kind of shift. How many of us have felt hamstrung, restless, under-utilized, and stifled as a result of the narrow requirements of our jobs? Greg Sandow observed in “Not So Satisfied” that orchestral musicians have slightly lower job satisfaction than federal prison guards. (Those with the highest? String quartet players.) At the same time, orchestral musicians boast the greatest “internal motivation.” My husband likens this phenomenon to “keeping a Ferrari in the garage.”

At the same time, how many administrators have earnestly tried to reverse-engineer additional opportunities for orchestral musicians? Inviting them to become more involved with things above and beyond rehearsals and concerts? Sometimes, these efforts have lovely results; other times, they fall flat.

Most of my 20s was about muscling my way into the orchestral world. Most of my 30s was about gradually transitioning out of it—in part because I felt so musically and intellectually constrained. It’s precisely why a friend and I started Salastina 10 years ago.

But not everyone can, or should, go there. Resources and chutzpah are finite. Perhaps it’s up to the larger institutions themselves to prioritize making musical practice less limited, and limiting, for musicians. Inviting more from us—and more of us—from the start would be a great point of departure.

Again, I come back to the concept of “honest diversity.” It is not self-motivated, either deployed in the service of earning woke points or clung to desperately as a key to survival. It’s not even simply a moral imperative. Rather, honest diversity is intrinsic to creating vibrant, meaningful, synergistic workplaces, cultural institutions, and art.  


As Shea Scruggs and Weston Sprott wrote in “Advancing Inclusion: Creative Ways Musicians Can Take the Lead,” the job description for an orchestral position is usually limited to just two words. “Section Violin.” “Principal Clarinet.” “Associate Principal Double Bass” clocks in at four.

What if more thought and care were put into crafting musicians’ job descriptions? What if these job descriptions reflected the unique needs of each orchestra—and the communities they serve? What if skin color and gender diversity followed naturally from prioritizing different perspectives and life experiences as a part of the process, rather than an antagonizing insistence on ever-narrowing metrics?

What’s more, orchestral musicians tend to stay in their posts for decades. What if the creation of each job description were treated more like a mini-strategic planning session? One that takes into account where the orchestra is likely to be in five, ten, twenty, or even thirty years?

A cellist playing behind a curtain.

Photo by Alberto Bigoni on Unsplash

It is my opinion that blind listening should always be an important part of the hiring process. But who knows how dramatically musical culture would shift if we valued a more well-rounded kind musicianship?

The days of a one-size-fits-all prescription for “fairness” and “the best” are over.

So what to do? The days of a one-size-fits-all, un-nuanced, and even toxic prescription for “fairness” and “the best” are over. It’s up to individual organizations and communities to determine how best to navigate hiring the most qualified candidates for their particular needs.

What kind of dynamics, literal and figurative, would change for the better? What kind of vibrancy would enter the field? What kind of relevance to today’s world would more naturally emerge from the art form?

What else might we not have to force quite so hard, if we could just loosen our grip on an assumption that’s as tenacious as it is problematic?

I’m feeling like it’s high time we found out.


I’d like to thank the following people for their many insights into this conversation, both recently and over the years: Derrick Spiva Jr., Reena Esmail, Simon Woods, Alexander Laing, Vijay Gupta, my husband Philip White, and my work-husband, Kevin Kumar.

Online Score Sales for Self-Published Composers

Empty Staff Paper with staple

“No one’s going to buy your music if it’s sitting on the shelf at your house.” So says Kurt Knecht, composer and co-founder of MusicSpoke, a sheet music distributor focusing on choral music. And it’s true! So, composers: how can you get your music in front of the right musicians in a format that makes it easy for them to purchase, download, and start practicing your pieces right away?

This article will provide an overview of options for self-published composers to sell their PDF (and sometimes, physical) scores and describe the typical audience for each of these methods so composers can evaluate which option might be the best for you and your music. It will also discuss methods for selling your music on your own website, via Bandcamp, or by creating a composer’s collective. Finally, it will explore an alternative path: not selling your music. All of the distributors in this article share two similarities, with a few exceptions for special series or publishing arrangements you can opt-in to. First, composers retain the copyright to their work. Second, these distributors are non-exclusive: composers can sell on other sites.

All of the distributors in this article share two similarities, with a few exceptions: composers retain their copyright; these distributors are non-exclusive

And, a note as we get going: the legacy of systemic racism and sexism is apparent when one browses the distributors in this article. Many of the owners and operators of music distribution services are white men and the catalogs represented on these services often have a large proportion of white male composers. The work to amplify the voices of women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC composers must continue.

Let’s talk about two large distributors first: J.W. Pepper and Sheet Music Plus (SMP) Press. These distributors have name recognition, come in high on internet search results for sheet music, and serve large numbers of customers. However, they offer smaller payments per score (45-50% of list price) to composers, and do not share information about who purchased your music (name, contact info, etc.) with you.

J.W. Pepper’s My Score

Logo for My Score

Audience:

J.W. Pepper is one of the largest distributors of educational music in the United States, selling everything from method and solo books to ensemble works. K-12 music educators are familiar with the website and often have purchasing accounts already set up and ready to go. My Score is J.W. Pepper’s distribution service for self-published composers. “People know the J.W. Pepper name,” says Isaac Brooks, who heads up My Score. “The My Score composer can be found in results along with traditionally published pieces.” Composer Karlyne Félix works as a music educator and first encountered My Score when she was looking for music for her students. Now she uses it as the sole music distributor for her own works. “It’s very easy to use, accessible, and well-known among the music education community,” she says. The audience of educators also attracted composer Garrett Hope to the service. “I’m focusing my efforts on educational music,” Hope explains. “A big part of marketing is knowing your audience and knowing where they go.”

“A big part of marketing is knowing your audience and knowing where they go.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

Signing up for My Score costs a one-time $99 fee. Composers receive 50% of the list price for every digital copy and 25% for every printed copy sold, paid quarterly. There are minimum prices for your sheet music starting at $2 for choral works up to $45 for a full orchestral work. For choral works, a minimum of 5 copies must be purchased, to avoid illegal copying. There is no evaluation process for composers, no quality standards, and no guidelines on notation to follow.

PDF or Print Scores?
Works sold on My Score can be purchases as PDFs or printed scores.

Security:

“All digital copies sold by jwpepper.com are watermarked and made available for print through a customer portal called My Library,” Brooks says. “The product can also be viewed through our on a mobile device. The end-user has 3 attempts to successfully print the product, after that it will only be viewable electronically through their account.”

Isaac Brooks in a tie and jacket playing a cello outdoors.

Isaac Brooks, who heads up J. W. Pepper’s My Score

Additional Benefits:

J.W. Pepper has a presence at music conferences, and often offers My Score composers the opportunity to stand at a booth. They offer Webinar training for their composers. One benefit that makes My Score stand out: every work is available as a digital score or a physical score through their print-on-demand service. Professionally printed and bound scores will be fulfilled within 3 days.

Tips:

“Neutral themes and music of hope are very good to have at any performance.”
Karlyne Félix holding a glass globe

Karlyne Félix

Félix suggests that composers considering My Score keep in mind who they are selling to: music educators and their (often young) musicians. “Neutral themes and music of hope are very good to have at any performance,” she explains.  She says it took a little work to get the hang of uploading music, but that My Score’s team was helpful. “I have been contacted by their support team, at the beginning of my journey with them, to clarify a few edits before the site made my music public,” she says. “I appreciate that, especially being new to the system.” Hope wishes that the editing process for scores was less cumbersome. After scores are added, any changes must be requested via email. “I would love to be able to login and see my catalog and make edits,” he says. However, Hope agrees that the customer service team is responsive, usually making changes within 24 hours. Brooks explains that one reason composers must submit edits through email is that My Score prepares a printable file for every score submitted. “One difference between My Score and SMP Press is that we are preparing the item for physical distribution,” he says. Brooks says that a portal for composers to edit their current catalog is “in the works.”

Sheet Music Plus (SMP) Press

Audience:

Sheet Music Plus calls itself “the world’s largest sheet music store.” SMP Press is their distribution arm for self-published composers to sell PDF scores. The site caters to K-12 music educators and ensemble directors, private music teachers and their students and individual hobbyist musicians. Composer Juhi Bansal (https://juhibansal.com/) appreciates the popularity of Sheet Music Plus’s site. “It’s a place people are already going and looking for music, so you are exposed to a much larger audience,” she says.

Composer Juhi Bansal

Composer Juhi Bansal

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

SMP Press is free to join. Composers earn 45% of the list price for original compositions and public domain arrangements and 10% on arrangements of their copyrighted song catalog. Commissions are paid monthly once you hit the $20 minimum for payment via Paypal or $40 minimum for check payments. SMP Offers guidelines (not requirements) for how much to charge for scores. They provide guidelines for scores, such as margin sizes and reducing ink on the cover (since customers are printing these out at home).

“I don’t know too many orchestral institutions willing to print and bind the conductor’s score and parts, with their numerous varying page sizes.”

PDF or Print Scores?

SMP Press sells only PDF scores at this time.

Security:

Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs.

Tips:

Bansal finds SMP Press easy to use. “If you’re just starting out and you want to put music up, it’s a good platform to do it. You can have one place where you sell your scores, and direct people to it.” Composer Arthur Breur agrees. “You create your company name, upload PDFs, you can include preview pages, a video or recording, description, select your price, and 24-48 hours later, your piece is approved and ready to sell,” he explains. “Making changes are easy and then it will take 24-48 hours to update.” “SMP Press is a great option for artists who enjoy a ‘set it and forget it’ method to distributing their music,” says composer Brian Nabors. “It definitely gets the music into the hands of the musicians instantly.” He does wish that SMP had an option to sell physical scores and parts, especially for large ensemble works. “I don’t know too many orchestral institutions willing to print and bind the conductor’s score and parts, with their numerous varying page sizes.” Because of this, he binds and ships his orchestral music himself, often using another music distributor, Subito Music Distribution. To enhance search on the Sheet Music Plus website, Breur suggests including the instrument or performing forces in the title field of your piece when you add it to your catalog. For example: “Dance – Piano Solo” rather than just “Dance.” In his experience, this helps customers find your piece when they search the site.

Composer Brian Nabors

Composer Brian Nabors


Next, let’s talk about four smaller, composer-run distributors: MusicSpoke, NewMusicShelf, Graphite, and Murphy Music Press. These distributors offer a higher payment to composers (50-70% of list price), and share information about who bought your music with you, so that you can get in touch with musicians and ensemble directors.

MusicSpoke

The Logo for Music Spoke

Audience:

MusicSpoke is a marketplace for music by living composers, with a strong emphasis on choral music. “Our primary customers, in this order, are K-12 choral, university choral, and churches,” says Kurt Knecht, co-founder. Composers are welcome to sell other genres of concert music on the site as well. Juhi Bansal sells her vocal music on MusicSpoke, in addition to selling her music on Sheet Music Plus. “It is more specialized,” she says of MusicSpoke, “mostly choral, a few piano works, and art song. I don’t think it’s a great place to sell string quartets, opera, etc.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join MusicSpoke. Composers receive 70% of the list price, with some slight variations for rare physical copy sales or promotional offers. The vast majority of MusicSpoke’s sales are PDF scores. When MusicSpoke works are chosen for state repertoire lists requiring physical scores, MusicSpoke works with Black Ribbon Printing to print and bind hard copies.

Kurt Knecht in front of an organ.

Kurt Knecht

The process to join MusicSpoke is unique. “We evaluate composers, not pieces,” says Knecht. MusicSpoke has a one-on-one dialogue with each composer to see if they are a good match for distribution on their site. They do not evaluate individual pieces (as a traditional publisher might), but rather add composers to their service and let composers list as many or as few pieces as they want. Knecht says that they do prefer that you have a recording available for any piece you want to sell.

PDF or Print Scores?

Music Spoke primarily sells PDF scores, with the rare option to print scores when works are chosen for state repertoire lists.

Security:

Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs, or (rarely) physical scores printed through Black Ribbon Publishing.

Additional Benefits:

Bansal appreciates the reputation that MusicSpoke has built among conductors. “People know it’s a good place to look for contemporary choral scores,” she says. She also like that they don’t have a minimum purchase requirement. “If you want to check out a copy of a score, if you want to teach from it or share it in class, there are no minimums,” she says. That can be an advantage if your goal is getting your music in front of a conductor. MusicSpoke maintains a presence at national conferences, with options for composers to join them at their booth. They are continuously developing a network of composers and conductors to promote the music of MusicSpoke composers. In addition, they curate several series with renowned conductors such as the Charles Bruffy, Derrick Fox, and Joseph Ohrt, and MusicSpoke composers are eligible for these. One note: these special series have an additional three-year exclusivity contract with MusicSpoke due to the special promotional services they receive.

NewMusicShelf

New Music Shelf logo

Audience:

NewMusicShelf sells and distributes PDFs of concert music by living composers, with a particular emphasis on music for collegiate and professional performers, ensembles, and chamber groups. “I believe chamber, vocal, and choral music work best on this platform,” says composer Jennifer Jolley, who sells her music on NewMusicShelf as well as through Murphy Music Press and ADJ•ective New Music. Composers are welcome to sell educational music, but that is not its primary market. Of the composer-run distributors discussed in this article, NewMusicShelf is unique in the breadth of its catalog across instrumental and vocal ensembles.

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join NewMusicShelf. For scores sold, there are 2 fees per transaction: a payment processing fee from Paypal or Stripe, which is typically 2.9% plus $0.30 per transaction, and NMS’s 30% distribution fee. This leaves the composer with slightly under 70% of the list price. Composers set their prices, with a minimum of $2 per score. Digital scores sold through NewMusicShelf must be priced less than physical scores sold elsewhere and identically to digital scores sold elsewhere.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a gatekeeper to talk about ‘quality’ because that is very subjective.”

Of the composer-run distributors, NewMusicShelf is the most inclusive. Founder Dennis Tobenski does not curate based on style or perceived quality. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a gatekeeper to talk about ‘quality’ because that is very subjective,” he says. The most important criteria for acceptance is the engraving quality of your scores and parts. Tobenski suggests comparing your scores to professionally engraved music or seeking advice from a composer whose scores you admire before submitting. That said, he will provide feedback if your scores are not up to his standards—it is not just a blanket rejection.

Dennis Tobenski

Dennis Tobenski

PDF or Print Scores?
NewMusicShelf sells only PDF scores at this time.

Security:

Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs.

Additional Benefits:

“There is a guide to help us figure out how much we should charge per copy of our music. That is a game changer right there,” says Jolley. She appreciates the service because it helps composers sell their music online even if they “have no idea how to implement this on their own website.” NewMusicShelf is Tobenski’s self-described “one man operation,” but he still makes sure to have a presence at conferences, particularly in conjunction with the publication of their print anthologies of music. His mission is to build a community of composers and new music performers.

Jennifer Jolley standing near a lake

Jennifer Jolley (Liz Glen Photography)

Tips:

Tobenski recommends that composers provide a lot of information to potential customers when they upload their scores to the catalog, including a perusal score or sample pages, program notes, links to recordings, and information on who commissioned the work. “Give people too much information,” he suggests. “That’s what people are buying the score based on.” Jolley hopes to see more options for educational music on the platform in the future. “Once they expand, they can make it so their musical offerings are sorted by grade level,” she suggests.

Murphy Music Press

Murphy Music logo

Audience:

Murphy Music Press is a distributor of composer-owned music for saxophones and wind ensembles, run by composer and saxophonist Sean Murphy.  The site sells everything from solos to chamber music to large ensemble works, at all difficulty levels. Composer Evan Williams distributes his work through Murphy Music Press and ADJ•ective New Music (more on ADJ•ective later). “Both Murphy and ADJ•ective have wide markets,” he says. “Some works are educational and some are collegiate/professional.” Murphy aims to sell to customers seeking a curated catalog. “We sell to the kind of person who buys an espresso coffee versus Folgers,” he explains.

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join and composers selling through Murphy Music Press set their own prices and earn 50% of the list price. Murphy Music Press pays for printing and binding out of its half of the sales. Composers are paid twice a year. The site includes around 200 composers at present and Murphy is always looking for new members. Composers interested in selling their music on Murphy Music Press can contact Murphy through the web form on the website, and when invited, submit a piece. “I listen to the piece and follow my heart,” he says. “If I think there’s potential I say yes, and if not, I say no.”

Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy

PDF or Print Scores?
Murphy Music Press sells primarily print scores but can also sell PDF scores. The choice is left up to the composer.

Security:

PDF scores are watermarked.

Additional Benefits:

Twice a year, Murphy Music Press provides composers with a record of who purchased their music so that composers can follow up about performances, etc. However, they sell a large number of scores to large distributors like J.W. Pepper, and from there, they cannot track sales for composers. Murphy Music Press maintains a presence at conferences such as the Midwest Clinic. Williams appreciates the time Murphy Music Press and ADJ-ective put into marketing. “The biggest benefit for me is not having to dedicate time, effort, and money toward printing, binding, and shipping scores and parts,” he says. “Distributors can also market your music online and at conferences, reaching a wider audience than you could yourself.”

Evan Williams standing near a wall

Evan Williams (Photo by Eric Snoza, SnoStudios Photography)

Tips:

“Composers can be so bad at communicating. Answer your emails!”

Murphy vets potential composers by researching their presence online. “Be nice!” he urges. He also pays attention to how easy it is to stay in touch with composers. “Composers can be so bad at communicating,” he warns. “Answer your emails!”  Murphy prefers submissions with a score and a performance recording. “It’s hard to market something without a recording,” he says, but acknowledges that with the pandemic, a MIDI rendition may suffice on occasion. He advises that it is easier to sell a piece if it has already been performed, because it adds legitimacy to the piece and creates interest from buyers.

Graphite Publishing

Graphite logo

Audience:

Graphite Publishing, run by composers Timothy Takach and Jocelyn Hagen, is a considerably more discriminating option for established composers of primarily choral music as well as art song. There are two arms of Graphite: a tightly curated distribution catalog of composer-owned works and an even more select publishing house. They sell primarily secular choral works of all levels, particularly for high school, collegiate, and advanced amateur choirs. While they do distribute some music that is suitable for a church choir, it is not their primary market.

Timothy Takach

Timothy Takach

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join.  Composers receive 60% of sales for composer-owned scores distributed on Graphite Publishing and 40% of sales for Graphite-published works. To keep overhead low, they sell only PDF scores. There is an open submission process on their website, and scores are reviewed 1-2 times a year. Graphite curates with a philosophy of finding what Takach calls “a balance between excellent craft and innovation of scores and the accessibility of the scores. We’re looking for things that are different, things that enhance the choral experience and our catalog.” So a piece setting the same Sara Teasdale or Emily Dickinson poem that everyone at your graduate program set is likely not be what Graphite is looking for. There is a high bar, and those who are chosen are typically composers who have an established catalog that is already selling. “The gate is open,” Takach explains, “but it’s open just a crack.” “I really appreciate their quick and helpful responses to any questions I have,” says composer Dale Trumbore, who distributes her music through Graphite. “Setting up with any new distributor takes time…but overall it’s a pretty straightforward process.”

Dale Trumbore standing outside near a tree

Dale Trumbore (photo by Lucas Hausrath)

PDF or Print Scores?
Graphite sells only PDF scores at this time.

Security:

Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs that include their name, organization, and the number of copies that they are allowed to make.

Additional Benefits:

“I appreciate how Graphite Marketplace has composers rate their pieces in difficulty level on a 1-5 scale, so choral conductors can use that plus the perusal scores to assess whether a piece will be a good fit for their ensemble,” says Trumbore. “There’s a wide variety of music within Graphite, ranging from simpler pieces for children’s chorus to challenging works for advanced choirs.” Graphite maintains a presence at ACDA and NATS conventions and periodically organizes consortiums for groups of their composers. Their model is to “build trust through adjacency,” says Takach. Trust in one composer’s excellence leads conductors to trust the music of other Graphite composers. Trumbore is grateful for this presence at conferences. “That can lead not only to them promoting your work there [at conferences], but to them potentially sponsoring all or part of your registration fee and/or offering times for you to meet conductors and performers face-to-face at their booth,” she explains.


What if you want to be fully in charge of your catalog and sell and distribute yourself? Bandcamp is one way, and selling your scores directly on your website is another. These methods require the composer to take on the work of building and maintain an online store and getting PDF or print scores to their customers.

Bandcamp

Bandcamp logo

Audience:

While many of us think of Bandcamp as a way to listen to and purchase music albums, composers like Sean McFarland use it to sell their scores. “It’s an excellent place to pair your audio work and physical work together,” he says, “and for me, the communities that I’m most interested in connecting with are doing a lot of their listening in Bandcamp already.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

McFarland appreciates how easy it is to get set up with Bandcamp, and the fact that there are no gatekeepers evaluating you or your music and deciding if it is worthy. “All you need is an email, and that’s it!” he says. Composers can sell their sheet music in the “merch” section of their Bandcamp page. Bandcamp is free to set up, and charges a 10% fee for all merchandise sales plus transaction fees of 1.9% + $0.30 for Paypal or 2.2% + $0.30 for credit card payments  (https://get.bandcamp.help/hc/en-us/articles/360007802394-How-much-are-transaction-fees-for-digital-sales-).

PDF or Print Scores?
It’s up to you. If you sell print scores, you will have to print, bind, and ship them yourself.

Security:

Bandcamp is not set up for automatic downloads, which McFarland views is a plus: “It is more personal and connective anyway,” he says. He emails scores to customers after they have made a purchase.

Challenges:

McFarland find the organization of information a little “clunky.” “The platform is not exactly meant to sell scores, so you have to get creative with the track organization to make it look reasonable,” he explains.

Selling Scores on your Own Website

There are as many ways to sell your music on your own website as there are composers.

There are as many ways to sell your music on your own website as there are composers. To give perspective on ways this can work, I spoke to Reena Esmail through her assistant Melanie Eveland, Jennifer Wagner, Alex Shapiro, Stephanie Ann Boyd, and self-described New Renaissance Artist Elizabeth A. Baker about how they each approach selling their scores and other materials and services.

Why sell your music yourself?

A major reason to sell your music on your own site is to earn your full sales commission. “I like to keep my money,” says Baker, who sells her compositions, recordings, books, and consulting services through her website. She also emphasized the importance of retaining creative control of your work. “We live in a time when you can self-publish your albums; you can self-publish your own work. You don’t need other humans to put your stuff in a warehouse and take a big percentage of the pot.”

Elizabeth A. Baker holding a small object in front of her face.

Elizabeth A. Baker

Another aspect that came up with every composer I spoke to was the ability to build relationships with customers.  “A significant benefit for composers handling their own score sales is the direct contact they will have with the people who purchase the materials,” says Shapiro. This often leads to future collaborations, commissions, and residencies. Boyd adds, “If they are exploring contemporary music, they are probably someone who wants to ask questions of a composer.”

Logistics, Fees:

Esmail and Wagner design their websites on WordPress and use the WooCommerce plug-in for sales. WordPress’s ecommerce sites begin at $45/month, with no additional cost to add WooCommerce. WooCommerce charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction for U.S. credit and debit cards, and an additional 1% for non-U.S. cards. They both do their score delivery and licensing individually, separately from the website transaction. “We like to see the orders that come in and provide a personal level of service to musicians,” says Eveland, Esmail’s assistant. Wagner sells both PDF and print scores, and works with a reliable printer with a fast turnaround time for physical scores. In some ways, she wishes customers could automatically download scores, but on balance, she likes the connection made by sending the email. “It allows me to personally thank them for their purchase and wish them a lovely season with their students,” she explains. She uses MailChimp “sparingly” to let past customers know of new works of music or particularly special opportunities.

Reena Esmail

Reena Esmail (photo by Rachel Garcia)

Shapiro sells physical and PDF scores. She uses a PayPal shopping cart on her website and charges one set shipping and handling fee for print and digital scores. PayPal charges a 5.4% + $0.30 transaction per transaction, but there are no monthly fees or set up costs. Shapiro’s customers receive a custom email with a private web link to download their PDFs. She prints chamber music in house and outsources larger ensemble works to be printed. Shapiro’s works are also available through many distributors and retailers, giving her publishing company a far larger domestic and international footprint than it might otherwise have were her scores only available through her website.

Boyd designs her composer website and store, Femoire, on Squarespace and uses their built-in ecommerce functionality, which includes a score preview function and the option to sell downloadable PDFs. Squarespace’s Business plan costs $18/month plus a 3% fee per transaction. For users selling more than $3200 annually, they offer Commerce Plans starting at $26/month with no transaction fees. After customers purchase music on Boyd’s site, they can automatically download their music.

Stephanie Ann Boyd

Stephanie Ann Boyd

Baker uses Square and appreciates the business management tools the platform offers. “Square is like accounting software,” she explains. “It offers scheduling, it offers online booking, inventory management, and it helps me with invoicing. I can print out very coherent reports which allow me to work with my financial planner.” Square stores begin with their Free option which has no monthly fee and charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction and offers additional features at Professional ($12/month), Performance ($26/month) and Premium ($72/month) options.

Security:

To reduce illegal file sharing, Shapiro embeds metadata into every digital audio file, always watermarks her digital perusal scores, and often watermarks her PDFs to reflect who purchased them. Boyd and Wagner watermark the score previews on their sites but not the purchased copies. Baker takes a different view on preview scores altogether. “All these quick view perusal scores nonsense is giving too much away,” she says. “I am heavily against it. I know a lot of specifically white male conductors and composers are going to say, ‘No, we need this, because I need to know your stuff.’ No. I have a website, you can clearly get a better picture of someone through a walk through their website than a single score.” Baker’s music is not notated in standard notation so she does not watermark purchases. “I make things that are unstealable because people stole my stuff in the past,” she explains.

Challenges:

Of course, if you are selling yourself, you really are going at it alone. Shapiro warns, you’ll be administering your catalog, hold your engraving to a high standard for print and digital scores, deal with printing and binding, purchase materials, and process and ship orders—all by yourself. She suggests hiring others to help you with some of these tasks so that you still have time to compose.

Alex Shapiro in front of a collection of computer terminals and electronic keyboard instruments

Alex Shapiro

Tips:

Esmail has found that score sales are only one, smaller part of her income streams. “We have noticed that score sales are a lagging indicator—not a leading one,” says Eveland, Esmail’s assistant. “It has not been our experience that a concert composer can set up an online store and hope to build an income that way without already being known through other sources.”

Shapiro suggests setting up Google Alerts for your name (in quotes) and each piece in your catalog (the title in quotes as well). This allows you to track performances you might not be notified about otherwise. Boyd’s emphasis is on reducing what she calls “consumer friction.” “Think about how you shop online, pay attention to the brands whose shopping experience you enjoy, and try to re-create that,” she says.

“If you don’t have an organized way of managing inventory and shipping, you won’t be productive.”

Baker advises composers to choose a method that helps you stay organized on your end as a seller. “It’s not about having the most sleek website, it’s about what’s going to work on the back end: delivery of content. If you don’t have an organized way of managing inventory and shipping, you won’t be productive.” She also urges composers to get set up like a business: create articles of incorporation, assign successors (especially now, during a pandemic), and work with a lawyer and a tax professional who is also a certified financial planner. “Set up everything the right way and put in the initial investment,” she says.

Wagner reminds composers to keep their customers in mind as they write, especially for those writing educational music. “If you are going to self-publish, you need to be on the cutting edge of what teachers need,” she explains. “If you supply teachers with the tools to be successful, then profit will come organically.”

Jennifer Wagner outside

Jennifer Wagner

A hybrid model that combines aspects of a small music distributor with selling your music yourself is to create a composer collective such as ADJ•ective New Music.

Composer Collectives: ADJ•ective New Music

ADJective New Music logo

Composers can band together and create a collective of like-minded colleagues to sell and cross-promote one another’s music. This is the model of ADJ•ective New Music, a publishing and distributing company begun by composer-performers Jamie Leigh Sampson and Andrew Martin Smith. “The idea from the beginning was that a rising tide raises all boats,” says Sampson. “If one composer does well, then people will come to our website and see the works of others.”

Composers should create their own collectives.

ADJ•ective’s roster currently includes 14 composers and has a model in which they expand every other year and only with a few composers, by invitation, at a time. “We don’t have the capacity to have an open call for new members,” Sampson explains. Rather than wait for their next period of expansion, Sampson suggests composers create their own collectives. She shared how ADJ•ective works to supply a potential model for other composers.

Jamie Leigh Sampson

Jamie Leigh Sampson

Logistics

The ADJ•ective website features a store for score purchases and rentals. ADJ•ective composers retain their copyright, can choose to sell or rent physical and/or digital scores, and receive 50% of the net profits of sales and rentals. Sampson and Smith invested the profits from the first several years of the business into purchasing printing and binding equipment and industry-standard paper at various weights. They print and bind physical scores in house. ADJ•ective shares information about who purchased works with composers.

Security

At this time, ADJ•ective does not watermark PDFs, partly because their volume of PDF sales is fairly low.

Benefits

“ADJ•ective is special because we are a composer’s collective, so we advocate for each other and are often involved in group commissions, projects, or festival appearances,” says composer Evan Williams, who sells his scores through ADJ•ective and Murphy Music Press. ADJ•ective composers have pooled resources to share booths at conferences such as the Midwest Clinic and ADJ•ective has a podcast, Lexical Tones, which is hosted by collective member Robert McClure and which features guest musicians involved in contemporary music. “Collectives help bring legitimacy,” says Sampson. “We have the old guard thinking if you’re not published, you aren’t legit.” A composer’s collective, she says, offers the best of both worlds: artistic ownership and control with the power of a group advocating for your music. They are planning to expand this partnership to include performers in the future.


One Final idea…What about NOT selling your music (most of the time)?

Because I love to rock the boat, I asked composer Melissa Dunphy to share her “radical” (as she puts it) approach to score distribution with me. Dunphy, best known for her social justice-inspired choral music, makes all of her self-published scores free to download on her website. Trusting in an honor system, she asks anyone charging admission to their concert to get in touch with her for an invoice and she charges them $1.50 per digital copy. For free recitals and church service performances, her music is free, provided she is informed of performances so that she can list them on her website and online and report them to ASCAP.

“It makes no sense for me to create ‘artificial scarcity’ by placing a barrier on the distribution of my sheet music.”

“The vast bulk of my income comes not from sales of scores, but from commissions and performance royalties,” Dunphy explains. “Given this situation, it makes no sense for me to create ‘artificial scarcity’ by placing a barrier on the distribution of my sheet music, such as a price or copy protection. Rather, I should want my music to be distributed as widely and easily as possible, to create more opportunities for performances and commissions. I should especially want music students, many of whom will become music professionals and educators (and many of whom don’t have a lot of money, as I know from experience), to have free and easy access to my sheet music.” She feels her career has benefited from this model and that it is “particularly well-suited to choral music because choral directors on the whole are social creatures and born networkers and very game to try new music from living composers.”

Melissa Dunphy

Melissa Dunphy

While she does feel that instrumental music has to be approached a bit differently: “more direct marketing, more specific networking to individual performers,” she also points out that “for solo or chamber works, you’re only selling a single copy or a few parts, so the potential revenue to be gained from putting a price on your sheet music would be even smaller.”

Dunphy’s sacred choral music is not available for free. It is published with a traditional publisher because of their connections to churches and religious communities that aren’t in her network, and she feels that her publisher works hard to market her music, which she appreciates.


Even More Options:

Score Exchange is an online music distributor with no fee to sign up, and no editorial criteria to pass to be accepted. Composers retain their copyright, and Sibelius users can take advantage of their built-in “publish on Score Exchange” function. Composers earn a percentage of the list price, beginning at 45% and increasing as your monthly sales exceed $200.

Black Tea Music describes itself as a “boutique music promotion, publishing, and management representative for composers and new music-inclined artists.”

Subito Music Distribution is a service that allows you to sell or rent your works while retaining copyright of your music. One benefit is that they will print and bind parts at industry-standard sizes. There is a $50 fee to join and $50 annual fee subsequently. Composers begin with 5 titles in their catalog and may add 10 more during the year. Composers receive 55% of retail sales.

Other options to take payments online include Stripe which charges no set up or monthly fees and a 2.9 % + $0.30 per transaction fee, Sellfy, which charges $19/month and no transaction fees for up to $10,000 in sales per year, and Shopify which combines website creation and ecommerce and begins at $29/month plus 2.9% + $0.30 per transactions online.


Empty Staff Paper with staple

Conclusion

“Working with distributors rather than publishers has allowed me so much more freedom for future projects.”

So composers, is your music sitting on a shelf at your home? Are you ready to change that? As you evaluate options, Tobenski suggests, “Composers should genuinely ask themselves, what do I do, and where does it fit? Don’t try to shoehorn yourself into some place.” And you can take advantage of the non-exclusivity of many of these distributors. “I like using several methods because the audience for the different genres of music varies greatly,” says Jolley, who distributes music through NewMusicShelf, Murphy Music Press, and ADJ•ective New Music. “Working with distributors rather than publishers has allowed me so much more freedom for future projects,” says Trumbore. “Freedom to make arrangements of existing works or even withdraw works from my catalogue if I feel they aren’t representing my best work anymore. The tipping point in deciding to use a distributor came when I started to resent that score sales were pulling time away from my creative work. Freeing that time back up is well-worth the cut that a distributor receives from my sales royalties.” And of course, choosing a distribution or sales method is only the beginning. Arthur Breur reminds readers:  “You have to market to let people know about your music.”

My hearty thanks to everyone who contributed their voices for this article: Kurt Knecht, Isaac Brooks, Karlyne Félix, Garrett Hope, Juhi Bansal, Brian Nabors, Arthur Breur, Dennis Tobenski, Jennifer Jolley, Sean Murphy, Evan Williams, Timothy Takach, Dale Trumbore, Sean McFarland, Reena Esmail, Melanie Eveland, Alex Shapiro, Stephanie Ann Boyd, Jennifer Wagner, Elizabeth A. Baker, Jamie Leigh Sampson, and Melissa Dunphy.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

ASCAP Foundation Logo

The Big Pivot: Moving Urban Birds from the Park to the Internet

Two little girls seated at an outside table watching someone play cello on a smartphone.

By Jennifer Bewerse & Cassia Streb

The story is one we all know. In March of 2020 Synchromy was busy planning their Urban Birds concert when safer-at-home ordinances shut down all public events in Los Angeles. Urban Birds faced either cancellation or becoming one of the hundreds of livestream concerts flooding the internet. Synchromy had partnered with concert design team Middle Ear Project, and together, they were inspired to rethink the Urban Birds concert so that it could still be an original and engaging experience. Necessity led to inspiration.

The term “concert design” is fairly new to the classical music scene, but many of us might recognize it at work in our favorite concerts. At its core, concert design is the craft of unifying the elements of a concert into a meaningful whole. Venue, repertoire, dress, lights, all of these choices are musical choices in concert design by approaching the entire concert framework as an artistic medium.

Back to Urban Birds… When we (Middle Ear Project) began working with Synchromy in early March, they had already commissioned composers, hired performers, partnered with an outdoor venue (Debs Park, LA’s Audubon Center), and had crafted a theme of musically representing the park’s native birds. Even with all of these elements in place, they still had some specific concerns: How could they motivate people to move around the space? Why should audiences listen to short bird pieces? How could they make the event family friendly, but also enjoyable for experienced concertgoers? Middle Ear Project set out to connect the dots.

We would design the audience’s movement as musical bird watching, which would give listeners a frame of reference for moving around the space and a drive to hear as many of the short pieces as possible. We created a field guide that would act as a program, showing audience members which bird compositions they could look for. The guide would also have space for drawing or writing reflections on each piece, an especially helpful feature for young listeners with short attention spans. To make the event even more immersive for our youngest listeners, we would have a craft station styled as an outpost, where kids could make bird watching tools like toilet paper roll binoculars and a clothespin quail call.

We envisioned kids exploring the park and finding performances hidden among the plants and boulders, while contemporary music fans hiked around hoping to hear compositions by local composers and performers. All of this while the regular avian tenants of the park contributed their authentic bird calls to the scene.

Then, on April 10th, Synchromy sent out an email to tell performers and composers that because of the pandemic, Urban Birds could not move forward as planned. They were, however, committed to keeping the event alive in some capacity and, importantly, paying their artists.

Rather than create a compromised version of the live event, we were determined to create a distinct online experience.

The obvious option was to move Urban Birds online, but rather than create a compromised version of the live event, we were determined to create a distinct online experience. We went back to the conceptual framework of the concert—bird watching—and asked ourselves how we could create a virtual experience with some of the essential features of bird watching. We proposed an interactive website with features that would allow the audience to experience Urban Birds in their homes. Synchromy put their production team into action and the Urban Birds web experience launched a few weeks later.

The map of the park used for the Urban Birds project showing where each bird is located.

The performances became video recordings, which allowed the solo performers to safely present their music. The outdoor musical bird hunt became an interactive map of Debs Park and (for families looking for more of an adventure) a printable QR Code scavenger hunt. The Outpost became an activity web page with instructions for how to make binoculars and a quail call at home.

“This website version is a great idea even without a pandemic.”

Once the website was underway, Synchromy realized that Urban Birds could have an even larger scope than they first imagined. Since the launch, they’ve added more video performances to the website, and, because the online experience of Urban Birds is different enough from the live version, Synchrony still plans to present the original concert sometime in the future. In a time where the music performance industry is massively contracting, it’s exciting to have a project with so much potential for growth. As Jason Barabba, Synchromy’s Director of Artistic Planning, said, “What I found most interesting is I asked myself ‘why weren’t we planning to do this already?’ This website version is a great idea even without a pandemic. I believe this will change the way we think about everything going forward.”

Side by side images of a tree with an info marker and a girl walking holding a map and looking through a pair of binoculars.

It’s clear that social distancing will be the new normal for the foreseeable future, so arts presenters of all types are looking for ways to safely share their work. In contemporary music, we’re already familiar with creating within constraints, whether they be limited resources, shoestring budgets, unconventional venues, or skeptical audiences. We have it in us to apply our resourcefulness and imagination to this new landscape of performing.

Work from a place of making meaning, not making compromises.

While it’s true that some concerts are inextricably linked to a physical space, concerts that are built with strong conceptual purpose can be reimagined in different mediums. We need to ask ourselves not “what can we move online” but “how can a virtual presentation serve this music more fully?” Let’s keep our message, meaning, purpose, and truth at the center of our choices; work from a place of making meaning, not making compromises. The format will follow.

Visit Urban Birds at www.synchromy.org/urban-birds


Jennifer Bewerse and Cassia Streb standing in front of a tree holding a rotary telephone and an XLR cable

Middle Ear Project (Los Angeles) was founded by Jennifer Bewerse and Cassia Streb, a concert design team who has been performing, curating, and producing concerts together since 2014. They use the entire concert framework as a medium to explore ideas, share musical perspectives, and process the world around us. Learn more at middleearproject.com