Category: Podcasts and Discussions

Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations

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

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

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

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

  • The time we’re living through right now is turning us all into filmmakers.

    Pamela Z
  • One of my least favorite things is to see somebody making the awkward effort to make their performance visual just because they think that’s expected.

    Pamela Z
  • I’ve actually been telling people that if they do have the chance to go and listen to the piece in Times Square that I also encourage them to have another listen to it, not in Times Square.

    Pamela Z
  • I suddenly woke up one day and realized that the music I was playing for a living did not resemble what was on my turntable.

    Pamela Z
  • I spend just as much time going to visual art museums and galleries as I do going to concerts.

    Pamela Z
  • Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a cellist and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, “Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one.”

    Pamela Z
  • Nothing dies on the internet. Well, except Flash.

    Pamela Z

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

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

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

Cindy Lam: Voicing Trauma and Connecting with Your Inner Child

Cindy Lam

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

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Illuminating Anxiety, Creative Process & Nurturing Support

Sarah Kirkland Snider standing in front of a lake.

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider shares her experience with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder and how they impact her creative process. She unpacks the shame and stigma surrounding mental health challenges, the toxic myth of the tortured artist, strategies for coping and silver linings of hypersensitivity, and the importance of nurturing support systems within our families, universities, and professional communities.

Judith Lang Zaimont: The Music She Has to Write

Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom

Judith Lang Zaimont has been active as a pianist since she was five. She performed on national television at the age of 11 and began her studies at Juilliard at age 12. But despite her deep love for music from the very beginning, she realized early on that she hated practicing, playing the exact same thing again and again. One day, while sight-reading through some music by Chopin, she had an epiphany. The constant variations in his music meant he also hated playing the same thing again and again. And it suddenly dawned on her that her constant desire to play something new meant that she was a composer.

That endless search for something new still fuels Zaimont’s creativity many decades later. She is defiantly unwilling to be typecast for creating music in a particular style, which makes her music always a welcome surprise. But it has also proved challenging for her in terms of typical opportunities for composers.

“I have very particular ideas or thoughts about commissions,” she explained when we chatted over Zoom in early February. “They open doors. But they always come as a result of knowing past music by the person. And if you are not a one-groove individual artistically, if you have many parts to yourself, then you could open a door you’ve never opened before in a new piece. … We suffer a little bit, if you’ve been at this for a while, from being branded thus or such. And artists are not their brand. If you relax into that groove, beware.”

For Zaimont, composing music is always a work in progress, an ongoing journey of discovery and reinventing oneself. It has also made her very critical of her own work over the years which has led her to take works she no longer thinks are worthy out of circulation.

“The world doesn’t need those pieces,” she exclaimed. “I’m constantly going back and making sure that what I put forward is the best that I can do under the circumstances.”

Thankfully, however, there are quite a few pieces that she does still acknowledge and many performers acknowledge them, too. While so many composers are lucky if a piece they’ve written gets a performance and a recording, several of Zaimont’s works have been recorded multiple times which is, after all, how music becomes repertoire. And that is her goal since her music is deeply informed and inspired by the canon of classical music repertoire. Among the pillars in her catalog are six symphonies, two piano trios, a hefty piano sonata, and two string quartets—at least that she still acknowledges (believing that she only fully grasped the string quartet medium in her 60s). She has also composed a formidable Judaic sacred service, perhaps her most significant choral work although it has yet to be recorded in its entirety.

Yet despite Zaimont’s deep immersion in European musical traditions, her music is very much American. She has composed several rags and the rhythms and harmonies of jazz and various American popular music genres have seeped into her own compositional language, so much so that they’re not influences per se, but rather additional vocabulary that she has mastered and incorporated into her own ever-evolving sound world.

  • I have a super appreciation of the performer’s entry point...

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I think a long time about how the music is going to be notated.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I always want horizons that don’t fence you in.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • All of my pieces solve puzzles.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I have tried not to be branded.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I do charts of other people’s periodicities. I did all the development sections of all the Beethoven sonatas.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • My father used to come to all my concerts and applaud like crazy. And then he’d get this funny look on his face, like maybe he didn’t understand the music.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • Ned Rorem once wrote that a composer has three arrows in his quiver, and he shoots them over and over again. I took that as a challenge.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • If each piece isn’t a struggle to do, you’ve got to question how valid it is.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music. Did it stop me? No.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer

Early on in her career, Zaimont was also a major champion of other female composers, both contemporaries and women from earlier times, editing an important series of volumes of critical studies of their music.

“Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music,” she remembered. “Did it stop me? No. I knew I was born to write music. Didn’t matter to me. … But I saw there was a whole cohort of women who were writing music. I started to learn the history of music that had been written in times past by women. … These people were not in the history books. They were not there. Generations of the present moment weren’t knowing about them. The world needs to know about what they have accomplished and appreciate it. I got letters from some of the standing composers whom we profiled in the critical appraisals sections of the books to thank me for finally having been able to engender these really critical articles dealing with the stuff of their music. Not who they were as a person. Whether they were married or had children, how old they were. That they were women in a man’s world. None of that. Deal with their music. That’s why I did that. I set my own creative work aside to do this because somebody needed to step up and do it. … I’m very grateful to the music that these people wrote, that it is now in the world.”

But don’t call Zaimont, as she described it, an “adjective” composer.

“The thing I don’t like is being a column B composer. I don’t want to wait until you get adjective before the world composer. Before you think Judith Lang Zaimont. Think of me right up there. I sit at Chopin’s—just behind Chopin, I can’t sit at his shoulder. I sit back there a ways. But I’m on the stage.”


New Music USA · SoundLives — Judith Lang Zaimont – The Music She Has To Write
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Judith Lang Zaimont
February 2, 2021—4:00pm EST via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Maricopa AZ and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Creating Safe Spaces and Asking for Help

Julia Adolphe at the Piano

LooseLeaf NoteBook provides a safe space to talk about mental health challenges and modes of healing, including therapy, medication, and at-home self-care practices, as well as examining the complex and often misunderstood relationship between mental health and creativity. I share why I started this project, and how my composition professor, Steven Stucky, created a safe space for me to talk during our lessons, ultimately enabling me to seek professional help for my anxiety at the age of 19.

Listen to Julia Adolphe’s most recent LooseLeaf NoteBook podcast, as well as earlier episodes, on Spotify:

Listen to Julia Adolphe’s most recent LooseLeaf NoteBook podcast and all of the podcast content hosted by NewMusicBox on New Music USA’s SoundCloud page:

Introducing LooseLeaf NoteBook – A Podcast on Creativity and Mental Health

Photo of Julia Adolphe inside a computer monitor with EKG and headphone graphics underneath

Two powerful feelings arose in me at the age of nine: the desire to write music and intense, overwhelming waves of anxiety. I began exhibiting daily obsessive-compulsive behaviors and my parents wondered if I should see a child psychologist. They also purchased a small keyboard for me to play, and it became clear that writing music made me feel better. I would get lost in the dreamworld, spending hours playing and creating songs and trying to figure out the relationships between the notes. Music was fun and freeing, and I would forget in those moments that I felt anxious in other areas of my life.

My obsessive-compulsive tendencies quickly subsided, but I still remained a very anxious child. Most mental health disorders don’t fully manifest until around twenty-years old, and at nineteen, I began experiencing panic attacks that brought me to the hospital. At this point, I was in college studying composition with Steven Stucky. I remember one lesson with him where I was struggling to articulate my musical ideas. My mind felt clouded and my heart was racing. He stopped me, looked me in the eye and said kindly, “Take care of yourself,” and made it clear that I could leave the lesson early if I wanted to without an explanation. I understood in that moment that my creativity was suffering, that I was suffering, and that I needed help.

  • There is a myth that a tortured psyche creates great art, and the classical music industry still subscribes to ideal of the mad genius.

    Julia Adolphe
  • Mental health, emotional vitality, and creative potential are inherently linked.

    Julia Adolphe

I was diagnosed soon after with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, considered a mental illness, and have been in therapy and on medication ever since. There is a myth that a tortured psyche creates great art, and the classical music industry still subscribes to ideal of the mad genius. This belief system initially interfered with my healing process. While I was open to therapy from the beginning, I was terrified that medication would dampen my creative impulses. Even more dangerous was my belief that my suffering somehow made me a more powerful artist, and that through the process of healing, I would lose access to the frenzy and adrenaline I associated with sleepless nights of composing.

It took years to find the right medication and dosage, but I quickly learned that my medication functioned like a volume knob, lowering the noise interference of anxious and oppressive thoughts, clearing a path for me to form my musical ideas as well as feel freer in my life. Through therapy, I began to examine my childhood desire to cure my anxiety with my music and the many complex ways that manifests in my adult life, and ultimately have developed a healthier relationship with my creative process. I also had to learn to reconnect with that childhood joy of writing, which we can easily lose once music making becomes entwined with the stressors and realities of professional life.

I have wanted to share my experience publicly for a long time, but finally felt ready last summer when I launched LooseLeaf NoteBook. In the midst of the pandemic, national protests against systemic racism, increasing threats of domestic terrorism, and going stir crazy in my living room, I started the podcast at first simply as a creative and emotional outlet. I yearned to connect with friends and colleagues about the collective toll this period has taken on our mental health and creativity, and to remain active and present within our community while so many of us are forced to wait, or worse, are struggling to survive or function.

Highlights from Julia Adolphe’s LooseLeaf NoteBook interviews about creativity and mental health in the context of the pandemic, featuring composers Jessie Montgomery, Billy Childs, and Samuel Adler, pianist Gloria Cheng, librettist Aiden Feltkamp, percussionist Sidney Hopson, and high schooler Jaden Gaines.

Through interviews and solo reflections, LooseLeaf NoteBook uncovers the connections between mental health and creativity, with a focus on nurturing artistry, emotional intelligence, and self-care. I share insight into my creative process and journey towards mental health alongside guests from across fields to provide a space for open dialogue and paths towards healing through artistic self-expression. While my focus is to help de-stigmatize mental illness within the arts, I use the terms mental health and creativity broadly to include any conversation about caring for one’s own emotional wellbeing while embarking on creative work. I also strive to feature guests who can speak to experiences beyond my own, spanning from how racism, xenophobia, and homophobia impact one’s psyche to the emotional and creative challenges of parenting or caring for an ill family member.

There is so much more to being a productive, thriving artist in our field than we learn in conservatory or discuss openly in our professional lives. It is my belief that mental health, emotional vitality, and creative potential are inherently linked. In my experience, the healthier I’ve become, the more powerful my music becomes because it is a more authentic communication and reflection of who I really am and what I need to express.

I could not feel as healthy as I do today without the support and my family, friends, and professors who have guided and comforted me along the way. I cannot overemphasize the power that Steve Stucky’s simple gesture, expressing his wish that I put my health before my musical studies, had on me during those formative years. I hope that, in turn, LooseLeaf NoteBook provides a safe space to discuss openly how we take care of ourselves and cultivate healthier creative practices, ones that allow for spontaneous inspiration as well as healthy boundaries, for pursuing artistic excellence while caring for our wellbeing – practices that support us as artists, as contributors to society, and as humans.

Kris Bowers: In Love With Accompaniment

Kris Bowers

Kris Bowers is one of the humblest and most introverted composer/performers I have ever encountered. This is astonishing considering his accomplishments—winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition at 20, a daytime Emmy four years ago, and now one of the most in-demand composers for film and television, most recently scoring the Netflix sensation Bridgerton. And yet it all makes sense when you begin exploring Bowers’s incredible versatility, his openness to all genres of music, and hear how attuned his music is to whatever project he is working on as well as all the musicians he has worked with.

“As a jazz pianist, one of the things that I fell in love with was accompaniment,” he acknowledged when we spoke with him about his music and career back in October. “I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.”

  • I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.

    Kris Bowers
  • I’ve always been into different styles of music.

    Kris Bowers
  • I always like giving myself limitations or rules, or a box, and then going wild within that space.

    Kris Bowers
  • I have a lot of family members that I don’t agree with… But, at the same time, I have a profound love for them.

    Kris Bowers
  • Until I started doing scoring sessions, I wasn’t able to have a group of musicians of a large size, play my music since college.

    Kris Bowers
  • I felt just as much kinship with John Williams as I did Quincy Jones and Terence Blanchard.

    Kris Bowers
  • I realized I would rather be up until five in the morning at home working on a score than getting on a bus to go to the next city.

    Kris Bowers
  • I have maybe a week to ten days to turn around the score.

    Kris Bowers
  • Whenever you hear a musician’s album, you know whose album it is by who’s the loudest on that album. … I didn’t want that.

Scoring films and television series might be the ideal medium for Bowers since it allows him to immerse himself in the characters and plots which should be foregrounded rather than the music. Nevertheless the music he writes is always attention grabbing and works well as a listening experience independently of whatever it was originally written to enhance, whether it’s the score for the 2018 motion picture Green Book, which was based on the life of composer/pianist Don Shirley, or the 2019 EA Sports videogame Madden NFL 20. Whatever project he is working on, Bowers always operates from a zone of empathy.

“That’s the only way that I can really get to something honest,” he explained. “I think that it’s more likely that it will reach other people if it’s something that came from an honest and emotional place for me.”

Considering his need to relate to the characters he creates music for, it’s somewhat surprising that Bowers also composed the score for Mrs. America, a 2020 Hulu series about the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. “I actually really loved needing to represent this human side to this character that I didn’t agree with,” he admitted. “It even helped me understand or remind myself that those people that I might disagree with politically, especially in a time like this, that they’re humans at the end of the day. And that’s something to keep in mind and to really remember.”

As a Black composer who works in a medium that is still overwhelmingly dominated by White composers, it is also important for Bowers that his music not be typecast and the fact that he has worked on such a wide range of projects, in which he has explored an extraordinarily broad range of musical styles, is testimony to his music being impossible to typecast at this point.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Kris Bowers: In Love With Accompaniment
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Kris Bowers
October 22, 2020—12:30pm EST via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Los Angeles CA and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Julie Giroux: A Wind Band is a Box of 168 Crayons

Julie Giroux on boardwalk

I still vividly remember my very first encounter with Julie Giroux. It was in 2015 during the first time I attended the Midwest Clinic, a massive music conference/festival/expo which is heavily but not exclusively devoted to wind band music held annually in Chicago right before the end of each calendar year.

Though I knew some wind band repertoire and had even attended a few wind band concerts over the years, nothing prepared me for how huge the wind band community is—comprising school-based ensembles, community groups, and musical units that are the pride of each of the branches of the military, plus wind bands from around the world. I was not only floored by the sensitivity and virtuosity of performance at what were basically showcases at a conference center which normally might not inspire such a level of commitment, but also how devoted these musicians were to newly composed music. There were so many new composers I discovered that first year, mostly all men, with one very noticeable exception—Julie Giroux, whose works were featured on several concerts. I still remember two of her pieces I heard that week—Riften Wed and Just Flyin’. Both took the audience on a journey that was a real sonic adventure and, at the same time, both were—dare I say it—fun.

Who was this Julie Giroux? I had to meet her. I tracked her down in the giant exhibition area of McCormick Center, which is where Midwest Clinic attendees congregate in between concerts and panel discussions. In fact, it’s a giant marketplace where attendees can and do buy sheet music, recordings (fancy that!), instruments, and even band uniforms. Giroux was holding court by the stand of her music publisher, Musica Propria. There was a line waiting to get her autograph that was longer than two city blocks. I waited. When I finally got directly in front of her, she was laughing uproariously, perhaps at something someone had just said. I was not sure. It’s very loud in that space. I didn’t have much time since there was a line just as long behind me by that point, but I told her how much I liked her music and handed her my business card saying that I hoped we’d have a chance to have a longer conversation at some point for NewMusicBox. I learned that she was based in Mississippi and began plotting ways of traveling there to chat with her. It proved challenging. Then I thought maybe we could record a convo with her during next year’s Midwest Clinic. That proved impossible since everyone else there wanted to talk to her, too, but at least I managed to say hi briefly again and hear some more of her music. And the cycle repeated itself in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

But strangely in this crazy year of 2020 when no one is able to go anywhere, we’re actually able to go more places than usual—virtually—since almost everyone is online all the time. In fact, this week (December 16-18), the Midwest Clinic, which typically attracts well over 15,000 attendees, is also an exclusively web-based experience and, as a result, might even break their previous attendance records. So, I thought I’d take a chance and reach out to Julie Giroux and see if she’d be willing to talk over Zoom. It took a while to set up, but it was well worth the wait.

“I feel like we’re in one of those really bad sci-fi films from the ‘70s where you get sucked into some computer and are trying to live that way,” she commented at some point during our sprawling conversation in which we explored the ins and outs of the wind band (including an in-depth discussion of her own wind band symphonies), her career in Hollywood (which led to her being the first female composer to win an Emmy), her wacky arrangements of Christmas songs (‘tis the season after all), and how she’s coping with life in quarantine. “I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games,” she quipped.

  • When I was in junior high, I was writing for junior high band, because that was the level I was.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • Because I’d always played piano—when I got into band, I realized I was only playing one note. And that’s pretty boring.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • Now I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • I didn’t know that there weren’t women. I didn’t think about it. … . I didn’t know anybody was alive who was doing it.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • The band is as complex and has as many colors as an orchestra does.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • Elvis stopped being Elvis because he stopped growing.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • There isn’t a person in the United States that doesn’t know “Jingle Bells.”

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer

I was somewhat surprised to learn that despite Giroux’s interest in a broad range of music making, she is not terribly interested in writing chamber music. “It’s because I am just a spoiled brat,” she confessed. “It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. Right? And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12. I want to color with 168, you know. So to me, it’s always no. It’s like you go to a restaurant and it’s a menu that has one thing on it. You know, you’re like, ‘No, no. I want pages. I want to just be overwhelmed with the choices that I have.’ … I mean it does sound like something I need to do to be a better composer, but it’s not something I want to do.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Julie Giroux: A Wind Band is a Box of 168 Crayons
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Julie Giroux
November 16, 2020—7 P.M. E.S.T.
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Mississippi and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Valerie Coleman: Writing Music for People

Earlier this year, New Music USA launched Amplifying Voices, a program promoting marginalized voices in the orchestral field. Following a national call, eight American orchestras are leading consortium commissions for eight different composers. The seven composers selected thus far are Tania León (the first individual composer NewMusicBox interviewed, in 1999), Tyshawn Sorey (featured in NewMusicBox last year), Jessie Montgomery (featured four years ago), Brian Raphael Nabors, Juan Pablo Contreras, Shelley Washington, and Valerie Coleman, with whom we spoke a decade ago, regarding her maverick wind quintet, Imani Winds.

One of the most exciting aspects of Imani Winds is their commitment to new music from a diverse repertoire of composers, which makes sense given that they were founded by a composer. But what about Valerie Coleman, the composer?

In our first conversation with Valerie, we barely scratched the surface of her compositional activities. Since then, these have become her primary artistic focus. Valerie has recently been chosen to participate in the Metropolitan Opera / Lincoln Center Theater New Works program, a perfect fit for her given her commitment to storytelling through her music, no matter the idiom.

  • I’m not somebody who writes based on the intellectual side of composition, but rather on the side of addressing what it is within all of us.

    Valerie Coleman
  • When I got into college... I started to recognize, whoa, maybe composers are supposed to be White male and not Black female.

    Valerie Coleman
  • It’s so important that educators encourage and not discourage in what they do.

    Valerie Coleman
  • I’m very excited about Amplifying Voices ... I envision working with young composers of color and helping them to find their voice.

    Valerie Coleman
  • It’s our responsibility to convey that story to the performer in such a way that is not cerebral.

    Valerie Coleman
  • A composer doesn’t necessarily have to choose any story to tell. That’s just how I identify and it’s because of what my ancestors have gone through.

    Valerie Coleman
  • The thing that we’ve always worked towards whenever we play music is the idea of playing together. Note for note. Beat by beat.

    Valerie Coleman

So the launch of Amplifying Voices seemed like a perfect opportunity to reconnect and have a conversation about her own music—her aesthetics, her inspiration, and what she hopes she can communicate to listeners.

“That’s just how I identify and it’s because of what my ancestors have gone through,” she explains. “I feel it necessary to tell their story, but also really just embrace this idea of how to walk in the world and inform people around me. … I recognize that there are stories that are yet untold that if they were told, they would transform all those who would hear them. So it’s my job to create music that allows that transformative power to happen.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Valerie Coleman: Writing Music for People
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Valerie Coleman
September 29, 2020—11 A.M.
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Miami FL and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

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.

  • At the end of the day, music is malleable enough for us to understand and interpret and reinterpret.

    Nebal Maysaud, composer
  • 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.

    Nebal Maysaud, composer

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.