Category: Speak Now

Speak Now: #45miniatures

Several composers have written eloquently on this site about how the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath have affected their work. They’ve advised that ultimately, no matter how paralyzed they feel, it is time to create, even if their job as composers has now changed. Margaret Atwood wrote a great article about what art can, should, or will be made under the current administration. And she makes a good point when she says that the president won’t even notice, rating his interest in the arts somewhere between zero and negative 10 (on a scale from 1 to 100).

I found myself wondering what I could do, as a performer.

To me, the result of the election was an “unpresidented” [sic] embarrassment on a global level, and continues to be as we all witness the daily barrage of tantrums and tweets. But I found myself wondering what I could do, as a performer. I felt compelled to do something, and regrettably I had not yet read this great article about what many other performers were up to, or discovered projects such as the Activist Songbook or this hilarious piece.

So, late at night on August 9, 2017 (I’m pretty sure it was after reading about North Korea and how “Trump’s ‘Fire and Fury’ Threat Raises Alarms in Asia”), I turned to the one thing I know I can always count on: sarcasm. I posted on Facebook that I was thinking of commissioning a piece called Suite #45, or potentially writing it myself. I listed a humorous set of possible characteristics (which I’ve also listed here):

  • movements limited to 140 notes, 140 measures, 140 phrases, or other permutations of the Twitter character limit
  • erratic shifts of: character, dynamic, articulation, tempo
  • improvisatory sections that do not relate in any way to the thematic material of the piece, or commonly accepted musical practices. In ANY way.
  • playful/childish outbursts, in the form of “heckler chords” or “bad hombre-like non-chord tones” with shocking key area explorations highly encouraged!
  • “tonality-change” denier (i.e. Anti-Modulation) sympathies
  • structural musical elements in no way qualified to be a part of supporting the administration of the composition
  • short, repeated motifs that are expressed vehemently (but not developed), then forgotten by the average listener at crucial later moments when they could change the appreciation/understanding of the piece
  • a blatantly critical and unwavering sense of self-importance, in the face of wide-spread critical disdain, and limited audience base.

It was a moment of comic relief, shared with my friends. It made me feel better, at least temporarily, and then I went to bed.

People loved the idea and encouraged me to actually do it.

But something quite unexpected happened. The next morning, there were a lot of notifications on my phone. People loved the idea and encouraged me to actually do it. Having devoted a significant amount of my own professional career over the past decade to contemporary piano music, both in recital programming and through commissioning projects like American Vernacular: New Music for Solo Piano, it seemed like a natural fit. After some thought, I set up an open “Call for Scores” and changed the name to #45miniatures, combining the hashtag styling of Trump’s favorite social media pastime and a word with obvious double entendre implications.

This call was done entirely on Facebook, and 24 composers (including a violist and a pianist!) responded expressing interest. No one cared about a commissioning fee, though I set up a GoFundMe campaign anyway to try and generate some funds to be distributed equally among the composers. As scores started coming in I was – as I always am – amazed by the creativity and craft of the participating composers.

One piece for speaking pianist takes text from the campaign, punctuating each section with “SAD!” Another combines clusters with an increasingly louder, faster chant of “LOCK HER UP!” and incorporates a Dies Irae recitative. There is a toccata that systematically removes all pitches until only Ds are left.

A palindromic chaconne leads to a “wall” in the middle before reversing itself all the way back to the first note. Text from tweets and speeches feature prominently in many, and musical quotations abound (from “If I Only Had a Brain” to our National Anthem). Some are very serious; some are definitely not. These are just a few; you can read about of the pieces I have received to date here.

However, a few things didn’t sit right. First, I began feeling uncomfortable thinking of the project as “mine” in any sort of singular way. Performers often hold tight to the right for a premiere or first recording, and in many cases this makes sense. But #45miniatures isn’t about me. It is about the music and the message it sends. The mere presence of a body of work in response to this presidency is, in itself, powerful.

#45miniatures isn’t about me. It is about the music and the message it sends.

Second, why should I limit this to composers who happened to have seen the call on my Facebook wall? Many of these people are my friends, but we all know how much is missed on that platform, as Facebook’s algorithms decide what you should see on any given day based on your interactions (or non-interactions) with your friends. Surely there are others who are looking for an outlet like this?

The conclusion I came to was that this really needs to be a collective, open-source project, so I created this #45miniatures website to connect us all. You can read about the project there, and view perusal scores. (Funny story, the sub-heading on the homepage was suggested by the Wix auto template design robots in nanoseconds after seeing my title. I’ve ordered hats, but they are currently held up at customs, due to the trade war.)

Here’s the important part:

Pianists: Want to get involved? Great! You are welcome here. You can peruse any score that I’ve received. See something you like and want to program? Contact the composer and get a score. I don’t have to premiere anything. This music should be programmed and played all over the country and globe. The News/Media section of the website will be a great place to share info about performances and audio/video links.

Composers: Do you have an idea and want to write something after reading this article? Great! Please get in touch. I took everyone who responded to the initial call for scores, and I genuinely welcome as diverse an array of composers as I can possibly have. This is a work in progress, but I would love to eventually see a published book of all the miniatures that come in.

I believe history will be the ultimate judge of this president, but art must be a part of the contemporary response.


Speak Now: Music of the Travel Ban

The Trump Travel Ban unceremoniously strips citizens from the countries on its list of their humanity, essentializing them as stigmatized non-Americans and even actively anti-American. Now on its third iteration, the so-called Muslim Ban has suspended acceptance of certain refugees, blocked immigration, and revoked visas from a shifting list of countries. Immediately after the policy announcement, thousands gathered at major airports to protest and stand in solidarity with those now denied entry. This reaction is a snapshot of the larger and ongoing resistance to the Trump agenda that ranges from daily phone calls with congressional representatives to globally linked marches involving millions, with myriad activities in between. We need not move mountains to defend our values. By leveraging power and privilege within our own spheres of influence, however modest they might appear, we can all effect real and positive change.

We need not move mountains to defend our values. By leveraging power and privilege within our own spheres of influence, however modest they might appear, we can all effect real and positive change.

For Trump and his nativist advisors, one’s nationality alone is enough to trigger the end of a conversation. My colleague Ben Harbert and I consider it the start of ours. Using the resources available to us as faculty members of Georgetown University’s music program, we organized “Music of the Travel Ban” as a way to resist through music and through presence. The concert series provides a space for the voices from these banned countries to be heard as people, recognized as neighbors, welcomed as friends, and celebrated as a vital part of our artistic and intellectual communities. As a model for campus engagement, this series is our rejection of policies rooted in racist ideologies and reflects our unwavering commitment to a multicultural ethos.

Music of the Travel Ban poster

Within “Music of the Travel Ban,” resistance occurs in more and less predictable ways. As the motivation behind the entire series, the specter of the Travel Ban is ever-present and inescapable. Shockingly, however, none of the first three concerts appeared overtly political; the conversations between the audience and musicians during the performances and the subsequent Q&As were wholly devoid of Trump and of his policies. When the topic of politics finally emerged in the fourth concert, it came from the sphere of ally-ship rather than from those immediately affected.

And yet, the refusal to engage rhetorically with or even acknowledge these policies, despite their very real and disastrous consequences for performers and audience members alike, is a mode of resistance in its own right. It is imperative that we engage forcefully and directly in a fight against policies that we find unjust. However, in the specific context of our series—itself predicated on defiance of the Travel Ban’s broader agenda—the performers’ insistence on their right to share their music freely, and moreover that we focus on their music and not on their biographies or birthplaces, becomes paramount. This form of resistance is no less potent, and presents advantages for those more directly vulnerable under the current administration. The refusal to engage is a rejection of false categories rooted in propaganda rather than reality.

The very physical presence and proximity of the performers forces us to contend with human beings rather than abstracted ideals. The bodies on the stage in front of us defy and deny erasure. We watch them breathe and we see them perspire. They speak to us and we to them, and all the while their humanity is foregrounded, demanding that we reconcile the one-dimensional racist stereotypes this administration pushes with the living people we see. The message is unavoidable—policies impact people.

The multicultural influences embraced by these performers complicates the current administration’s reductive narrative of an evil other. This too is resistance. Multiculturalism—practiced here on the level of the individual—reflects the global ethos of the concert series. We’re confronted with the porous nature of artificial genre boundaries, the ease with which performers cross musical borders, and the compelling artistic reasons to do so. Through “Music of the Travel Ban,” we come to understand that a construct like “the music of Syria” is problematic, that defining something necessarily circumscribes and therefore reduces it. And just what does it mean to be of a place?

The series opened with a performance by Huda Asfour and Kamyar Arsani, whose music has a visceral, teetering-on-edge power coursing throughout. Its particular urgency doesn’t feel native to the classical Arabic traditions they both grew up listening to and eventually learned to perform. Instead, this rawness derives from their love of punk rock and their deliberate efforts to incorporate its attitude, aesthetic, and energy in their own music. By combining elements from these seemingly disparate genres, the duo successfully forges a musical identity that resonates strongly with a number of cultures without being bound to any of them.

Asfour and Arsani exemplify the multicultural in music in a very literal way when choosing to play “Bint El Shalabiya.” With early roots in Andalusia, which at the time housed Jews, Christians, and Muslims simultaneously, this tune spread throughout Arabic countries and beyond, appearing in Turkey, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, India, and Greece, among others. Asfour and Arsani discovered this cultural overlap during a fortuitous moment in a free-form jam and have since uncovered still more versions of the tune in additional countries. By explaining this intercultural context before performing their own version of the tune, the duo reminds us just how historically interconnected traditions can be.

Lubana Al Quntar, who performed on the second concert along with Eylem Basaldi and April Centrone, is in many ways a living realization of what musical multiculturalism can be. In addition to her extensive background in traditional Arabic vocal performance, the Syrian native is the first woman of her country to earn international acclaim as a professional opera singer. This allows her to create cultural overlaps where none seem to exist. Responding to Al Quntar’s performance of Puccini’s “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” an audience member described the transformative impact the experience had on her own cultural understanding, saying, “I grew up very proud of Arabic music and thinking it was the best. But when I heard you sing the opera, I realized there was another side of you that couldn’t be expressed by Arabian music but needed the opera. I think it was very beautiful.” Nor was such an epiphany unique to this woman, or its direction exclusively from Arabic music to opera. Venturing beyond the dictums of genre opens up otherwise hard-to-access musical worlds. We tend to be receptive towards something new if we can understand it within the context of something familiar. Musicians like Al Quntar, who occupy these different musical worlds simultaneously, can help to facilitate this move beyond the familiar and into the new.

The solo act for the third “Music of the Travel Ban” concert, Jorge Glem, is a living legend on the cuatro, the four-stringed instrument that is so fundamental to Venezuelan culture that it adorns the walls of many homes throughout the country. Along with prodigious, forward-looking techniques, Glem’s revolutionary approach to the cuatro is defined by his ceaseless incorporation of different styles of music into the traditional repertoire. Describing how he cultivated his own style, Glem stated, “I felt it necessary to play on the cuatro what I listen to on the iPod.” He brands non-traditional music with a characteristic Venezuelan sound while simultaneously continuing to transform traditional music. One such multicultural mashup was Glem’s version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” replete with blistering bebop solos redolent of Charlie Parker and accompanied by a “salsa army” of short, percussion-derived loops played on the cuatro and looped on the fly. By transcending both geographic and stylistic borders, Glem opens up new paths for Venezuelan music and for music globally.

Amy K. Bormet, along with Karine Chapdelaine and Ana Barreiro, led a cosmopolitan jazz trio on the fourth concert. Although a last-minute line-up change dissolved the explicit tie-in to the Travel Ban theme, this concert was the first to feature an open denouncement of the Travel Ban. Bormet used her position of privilege to speak as an ally, condemning Trump, his administration, and the Ban. Turning one of the conservative criticisms of migration on its head, she urged us to “be grateful for the people who’ve decided to come and live here.”

Even as her actions embody our idea of what commonly constitutes resistance, Bormet uses music to reinforce her advocacy. Prefacing her slow, contemplative performance of “America the Beautiful” by calling for all of us to “take ownership of our country,” Bormet challenged us to discover ways in which we too can advocate for our values. The deliberate inclusion of an established patriotic symbol like “America the Beautiful” within the “Music of the Travel Ban” series is a political statement, and one Bormet reinforced by speaking explicitly about the valuable historical and ongoing roles that immigrants play in our country. Trump’s vision of a beautiful America is a bleached one, the Travel Ban in full effect, a giant wall to our south, and all refugees, asylum seekers, TPS-holders, and undocumented immigrants summarily vanished. Bormet presents her vision of a beautiful, inclusive America through her framing of the tune so that we conflate “America the beautiful” with a “nation of immigrants.”

Music is a medium through which we share our cultural experience and share in the cultural experience of others.

Music is a medium through which we share our cultural experience and share in the cultural experience of others. Its communal identity becomes a celebration of the I, the you, and the we. Through “Music of the Travel Ban,” we reflect on how we define ourselves as a country, how we reconcile ideas and ideals of freedom, brotherhood, and equality with religious persecution, racism, and systemic inequality. That these values have in practice never been as inclusive as they should have been does not make these latest aggressions any less egregious, nor suggest that we cease striving to reach these ideals.

“Music of the Travel Ban” arose out of the crossroads of frustration and incredulity, a speculative “what if” that grew into eight concerts, the first four of which I’ve described here. The near-constant shocks that blast throughout the country via indecorous and vitriolic tweets, blatant and continual lies, and an endless cycle of cabinet scandals keep everyone off balance and anxious. Some consider this presidency a storm to be weathered rather than confronted, but this only works as long as you’re not directly in its path. We hope our series will inspire others to consider again the resources available to them and to speak out against injustice when they encounter it. We all have a personal responsibility for this country’s trajectory; if we lay claim to its successes, then we must own its failures. “Music of the Travel Ban” is our proclamation to all that “you are welcome here.”

It Ain’t Over Yet. Don’t give up on Net Neutrality.

Today the Federal Communications Commission voted to reclassify internet providers from utilities to information companies. This apparently simple act undoes years of bipartisan agreement on the concept of net neutrality as the guiding principle behind internet rules. Commissioner Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney appointed to his position by President Trump, has been relentless and single-minded over the past months in pursuing his goal, which is at best misguided and at worst deeply craven.

You’ve probably already heard a lot about why this reclassification is a truly terrible idea. I’ll just underline the perspective from New Music USA. Our constituency includes thousands and thousands of independent artists. We believe that the internet provides an absolutely indispensable tool for creating, distributing, and promoting the amazing array of musics that make this a potentially golden age for our sector. In a culture that so inattentively leaves the playing field so unlevel for artists, at least a neutral internet gives us a fighting chance to advance our work on the same terms as anyone else.

So who is actually in favor of this reclassification, this repeal of net neutrality? Very few, and (surprise!) they’re big corporations who stand to make billions of dollars off a newly unequal internet. Who’s against? Pretty much everyone else. Surveys show that more than 80% of Americans support net neutrality, and more than one million people called Congress in the last month alone, asking their representatives to save it. In a climate of deep and troubling divisions in our country, 80% (that’s eight-zero) agreement stands out as virtual unanimity. I’ve been truly moved the see the images of protests from all over the country, with ordinary people exercising their right to speak out and speak up for themselves. This is the country I want to live in.

If there’s good news here, it’s this: The FCC currently has the authority to do what it has just done. But Congress can step in and pass legislation that repairs the damage. There’s broad support for doing so. Lawmakers from all sides weighed in with letters to Chairman Pai asking him to delay the Commission’s vote: 39 Democrats and Independents signed onto one letter; Republican Senator Susan Collins joined another; Republican Representative Mike Coffman sent one of his own; not to mention the mountains of letters like this one from 32 House Democrats going all the way back to April.

There’s truly broad concern about the FCC action. And in that concern lies real hope to save the precious quality of an internet that’s equal for all.

Speak Now: D.C. Dispatch—Arts in the Time of Trump

Almost four years ago my family moved to Washington, D.C. This city is everything you think it is, and yet it’s not. Like any big metro area, Washington is made up of multiple layers and identities, with government being only one dimension. Yes, we are interrupted by motorcades—a lot of them—and we do see many political players. We have monuments and large legal and lobbying firm HQs. But Washington is far more than Capitol Hill. It’s an actual city with native Washingtonians, hipsters in Adams Morgan, a complex international diplomatic and NGO community, tech companies, universities, a heavy military and intelligence population (not to mention… spies!), corporate headquarters, important non-profits, and—of course—a thriving and growing arts community. In so many ways, from restaurants to music, D.C. is no longer just a tourist stopover on Amtrak. It is a unique and complex mix of its varied community elements; it is a destination. We are also unique in that our political voice does not count in the national conversation. More on that later.

The military employs some of the best instrumentalists, singers, and arrangers in the country.

One of the many fascinating intersections between D.C. communities involves the military’s music population. If you aren’t aware, the military employs some of the best instrumentalists, singers, and arrangers in the country. Certainly it helps to have the National Symphony and Opera here, but a lot of musical activity is scaffolded by the military, creating a first-rate, thriving, local group of musicians. They make up a sizable percentage of the many flourishing mid-budget ensembles and organizations. It probably isn’t well known that these military ensembles premiere new work, play contemporary music, and work with local presenters (e.g. last year’s collaboration between Washington Performing Arts and the U.S. Air Force Band to perform John Luther Adams’s SILA).

It is a bit surreal to live in Washington, D.C. now, not just during the changeover of administrations but during a transition that is so “unprecedented.” Friends tell us of their past experiences with changes in administration—the changing of the political guard, real estate swaps, questions of budgetary impact, and so on. But this administration has everyone stumped and guessing. Among the many pressing issues is: what might happen to the arts in the Age of Trump?

There is unease and uncertainty in the air here. While “federal government” is abstract in many parts of the country, here it is very real. It is people and lives, flesh and blood. We know people who had to take out loans to pay their mortgage when the government shut down in 2013. We know people working for the NIH, the NEA, NEH, the Smithsonian, and other government departments, like Defense, State, Justice, or the Consumer Protection Finance Bureau. And we certainly know many people in the arts, including many of those military musicians.

The last two decades have seen immense growth in population, culture, and gentrification in the DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia area). A more broad-based economy that is very “local” has developed. Still, our ecosystem is dependent in profound “trickledown ways” on the federal government. Cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse” translates into actually cutting or doing away with agencies, departments, and programs. And, if these are all cut… people are let go. This effects not only those individuals, but local businesses large and small, the tax base, and then artistic activities and support. Many of the programs currently being floated for cuts or elimination are crucial to citizens across our country, but they are also critical locally. This is a cost that is neither talked about nor tallied up, when the usual arguments about cutting government spending are offered. The potential for a negative “knock-on effect” is huge.

One thing that has not grown over many decades is the power of our political voice.  As we focus on the possible impacts of these budget cuts we are cognizant there is little we can actually do to stop them. Over six hundred thousand people currently live in this federal District of Columbia but not one of us have congressional voting rights. We are a district, not a state, and therefore are governed by Congress, which still denies D.C. fully-fledged voting members in the House or the Senate, or the Electoral College. No vote, no voice. Even with the rights to vote in popular presidential elections (1961) and for our own mayor and city council (1973), Congress still has ultimate authority over the District and can overturn any mayoral or council decisions. This is why our license plates say “Taxation Without Representation.” If cuts are coming our way there is not much we can do but protest.

Music, like politics, is local.

During our current tumultuous times, D.C. has seen its share of public protest and demonstration. Certainly the recent Arts Advocacy Days were a very public example of the wide and deep support the arts have, as many took to Capitol Hill to meet and advocate. And it has been interesting to witness the “rallying to the flag” response the mere mention of the NEA has been eliciting of late—spontaneous, big, loud, sustained, and heartfelt ovations; always on cue in public events these days. But much of the real action—organizing and working—is behind the scenes and behind closed doors.

Protesters assembled outside the United States Congress in Washington DC

The election has been a moment of clarifying purpose and mission for many. Some non-profits (both arts-focused and not) have reported a surge in support and donations, and they are reaching out and coordinating with each other like never before. By coincidence, the Shift Festival of American Orchestras, the first-ever collaboration between the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts, was launched at this most opportune time here in D.C. Suddenly, the city saw invasions from Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, and New York, complete with their local orchestra boards and supporters, media, local delegations and representatives—and a lot of local pride. One of the main takeaways from the festival was a clear reminder that excellent music making occurs across the country with strong local support. Washington is the obvious choice to showcase such a platform. It ends up that music, like politics, is local.

Art and its institutions are among the few avenues left for meeting and setting aside differences.

It’s also important to understand that many right now are not overtly protesting proposed arts funding changes, but they are paying attention. In some cases more progress can be made through quiet, diplomatic backchannels, assuming they still exist. Not too long ago even major players from the various political factions still frequented the same social events, coached each other’s kids on sports teams, carpooled at the same schools, and generally mingled. Sadly, this is not that case anymore. Many locals attribute this decline to the trend of representatives refusing to move their families to D.C., treating their time here as a stay at a hotel, not a home. Bridges are also being deliberately dismantled between the sides. This leads to even more polarization. Art and its institutions are among the few avenues left for meeting and setting aside differences, even if only for a few hours. Many boards still have members from both sides of the aisle. We don’t want to lose that. Please don’t confuse a lack of visible signs, including protest, for lack of motion and effort.

It is ironic that we Washingtonians have ringside seats at this epic battle, but we have no real voice ourselves. We live here, pay taxes, fight in our nation’s wars, but do so without true national representation. You can call your full-voting representatives, but we in the District cannot. At least we can show up, demonstratively and loudly, in the arts.

Joel Friedman, in a suit; the White House can be seen in the background.

Joel Friedman is a composer of concert, theater, dance, and film music who is now based in Washington D.C. He is a speaker/host/writer on various musical topics and teaches composition at Catholic University. Upcoming commissions include a double concerto for violin and viola and chamber orchestra (for Ariel Horowitz, Lauren Siess, and Barbara Day Turner of the San José Chamber Orchestra), a vocal work based on the writings of Hildegard of Bingen for the vocal trio ModernMedieval, and the score to Evolve Puppets NYC’s new show Home.

Speak Now: How Classical Music Got Me Woke

On Tuesday, January 10, 2017, millions of Americans tuned in to watch President Obama’s farewell speech. In many ways, it felt like the end of an era. Yet, in spite of his significant political triumphs, he reminded us that there was much to be done:

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.[1]

For the past couple of months, it seems like every day we wake up to a new issue that needs to be addressed and with a new crisis inevitably looming around the corner. Many of my colleagues have expressed that we’re living in some kind of age of anxiety and must ask ourselves: what can I do?

With citizenship comes responsibility, but what that means for each of us varies from person to person.

With citizenship comes responsibility, but what that means for each of us varies from person to person. Over the past few years, beginning with my time at Juilliard, my research and writing have focused on how 20th-century African-American artists and composers navigated a sharply segregated society through their cultural practice. In my dissertation, I examined the relationship between black female composer Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972) and Langston Hughes, and it is to their artistic bravery that I look when thinking about how to use music and words as my own voice in today’s wave of social and political activism.

Cultural Citizen

In an article titled “Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy,” author Renato Rosaldo defines cultural citizenship as “the right to be different and to belong in a participatory democratic sense. It claims that, in a democracy, social justice calls for equity among all citizens, even when such differences as race, religion, class, gender, or sexual orientation potentially could be used to make certain people less equal or inferior to others.”[2]

Looking more closely at this definition, it almost reads like a paradox. How can these differences—which may deny us access to full rights of citizenship—be used to assert and demand those same rights? How can we transcend those differences of race, gender, sexuality, and economic status, while recognizing that such structures exist?

Let’s take it back for just a moment, and visit Harlem, sometime during the 1920s.

Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes

Portrait of Langston Hughes (1927)
By Winold Reiss

In 1925, black intellectual Alain Locke published The New Negro. A landmark publication of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro reflected the belief among black intellectuals and artists that the creative success of a “Talented Tenth” could improve the social status of blacks in American society. Locke explained:

The great social gain in this is the releasing of our talented group … to the productive fields of creative expression. The especially cultural recognition they win should in turn prove the key to that revaluation of the Negro which must precede or accompany any considerable betterment of race relationships.[3]

Rather than accept a citizenship denied by racism implicit in the American political and social arenas, black intellectuals proposed a “cultural citizenship that promised a new kind of American identity defined by culture instead of politics.”[4] These black artists were viewed as cultural ambassadors for the political advancement of African Americans, and to varying degrees, it was expected that black art itself should challenge contemporary social and political paradigms.

For the first time in American cultural history, black artists, writers, and musicians were gaining widespread recognition for their work, proving that not only could there be race in art, but that such art could be socially relevant, liberating, and beautiful. The writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, the poetry of Langston Hughes, and the music of William Grant Still exposed the fragility of the color line by drawing around it. The accomplishments of the Harlem Renaissance artists were groundbreaking, and it was these artists who helped inspire the next generation of black cultural practitioners.

Margaret Bonds

Margaret Bonds

Portrait of Margaret Bonds, 1956
By Carl Van Vechten

Margaret Allison Bonds was born in 1913 in the city of Chicago. She quickly emerged as one of her community’s most promising prodigies as a pianist and composer by the time she entered Northwestern University in 1929. While the university gave her opportunities to study piano and vocal composition with notable professors, it was at Northwestern where she experienced her first prolonged taste of Whites Only discrimination. The school did not provide housing for its African American students, and black female students were prohibited from using its swimming pool facilities. Bonds sought refuge in black art, and it was during this period that she was first introduced to the words of Langston Hughes:

It was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place…I came in contact with this wonderful poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers…” And if I had any misgivings – here you are in a setup where the restaurants won’t serve you and you’re going to college, you’re sacrificing, trying to get through school – and I know that poem helped save me.[5]

The career of Bonds spans from the 1930s through the 1960s, a period in which the nation’s cultural and political landscapes were dramatically shaped by the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Renaissance, and the modern civil rights movement. From an early age, she was surrounded by the poets, artists, and musicians of the New Negro Movement, and it was from them she inherited the belief that her art could and should be used for social change. As she once shared with Hughes, it is “a great mission to tell Negroes how great they are.”[6]

Bonds and I have a lot in common. We both grew up with the support and encouragement of our communities to develop our musical talents. And yet, the further along in academia I went, the tougher it became to be so often the only one. Yet, for me, simply being the only one wasn’t enough. In the process of my own research on Bonds and the Harlem Renaissance, and looking back at those who came before me, I started to look within and ask myself: what were my responsibilities as an artist?

The Dream Unfinished

The Dream Unfinished logo

In the summer of 2015, I was asked to participate in a benefit concert presented by The Dream Unfinished, an activist orchestra which supports NYC-based civil rights and community organizations through concerts and presentations. It was held on the one-year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death and featured works by Leonard Bernstein, William Grant Still, and a world premiere by Jessie Montgomery. I worried that I was just another token, but the concert season in New York City slows down in the summer months, and the roster of musicians was nothing short of impressive. The evening was filled with excellent performances of mostly pieces I had never heard before, interwoven with moving speeches by civil rights activists and performers. As I looked around the audience, I noticed something else—it was incredibly diverse and I could tell that they were actively engaged. When they left the concert that evening, they all took something home with them. And so did I.

By presenting works by composers who reflect the diversity of our society, we are challenging both performers and audience members to question their absence from the classical music canon.

I immediately wrote to the executive producer and founder, Eun Lee, told her about my research on Margaret Bonds, and by the following season, I was serving on the advisory board. As the organizational demands grew for The Dream Unfinished, I became the deputy director in the fall of 2016.

Through our annual headline event, chamber concerts, and presentations, The Dream Unfinished uses classical music as a platform to engage audiences with issues related to social and racial justice. By partnering with local civil rights organizations, and coming together for an evening of music and reflection centered around one social justice issue, we are giving space to activists to share their work through music, while introducing our classical music audience to the range of social injustices that continue to plague our society.

Our programming celebrates the works of composers from communities that have been historically marginalized in the classical music industry. By presenting works by composers who reflect the diversity of our society, we are challenging both performers and audience members to question their absence from the classical music canon, and to start thinking about the larger socioeconomic forces that led to their exclusion in the first place. It is important that we not only feature such composers of the past, but also that diverse emerging voices are heard. This is accomplished through our commissioning program, which results in a new orchestral work each year written by a composer of color.

This season, titled Raise Your Hand, focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline. More specifically, we are examining how the absence of role models and the one-size-fits all educational design has proven disadvantageous particularly in minority communities. As in our previous seasons, the social justice issue that we focus on informs not only those organizations that we partner with, but also guides our programmatic decisions for the chamber concerts and headline event.

Raise Your Hand will begin with a teaching artist residency that matches members from our diverse roster of musicians with middle and high school students from across the five boroughs. Together they will work on the repertoire for our main event, during which the students will perform alongside professional musicians. The concert will take place on Sunday, June 11 at the Great Hall, Cooper Union, and the program features works primarily by black composers ranging from the 18th century to the present day.

The Harlem Renaissance artists and Margaret Bonds understood that when direct action may fail, art can speak in the beautiful yet poignant way that art has the power to do. Through the creation of or expression through art, at least for me, it seems just a little bit easier to stand on the front lines of today’s activism, working to transcend our differences while recognizing and celebrating them. And that’s how classical music got me woke as a cultural citizen in 2017.

Ashley Jackson

Ashley Jackson

Praised for her rhythmic precision and dynamic range, harpist Dr. Ashley Jackson enjoys a multifaceted career in New York and beyond. She holds degrees from Juilliard (DMA) and Yale University (BA, MM). As an orchestral harpist, she performs with the New York Philharmonic, Metropolis Ensemble, and NOVUS NY.  Her speaking engagements have included “Affinities: Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes” (Studio Museum of Harlem) and “Representation as Resistance: How an Activist Orchestra Redresses the Push-out of Black Practitioners from Classical Music” (Harvard University).  She is currently an adjunct artist at Vassar College and serves as the deputy director of The Dream Unfinished. Learn more at

1. “Read the Full Transcript of President Obama’s farewell speech,” Los Angeles Times (January 10, 2017), (accessed February 20, 2017).

[2] Renato Rosaldo, “Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy,” Cultural Anthropology 9, no. 3 (August 1994): 402, (accessed February 20, 2017).

[3] Alain Locke, “The New Negro,” in The New Negro: An Interpretation, ed. Alain Locke (1925; repr., New York: Arno Press, 1968), 15.

[4] Jeffrey C. Stewart, “The New Negro as Citizen,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance, ed. George Hutchinson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 17.

[5] Margaret Bonds, interview by James Hatch, Inner City Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA, December 28, 1971, Tape in the Division of Recorded Sound, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NY, NY.

[6] Margaret Bonds to Langston Hughes, November 4, 1960, in Helen Walker-Hill Papers, Columbia College, Chicago.

Speak Now: A Habit of Hearing

Members of Missouri State University's Chorale performing John Wykoff's Now We Belong at the 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration

Ed. Note: American composers have sometimes played a significant role during U.S. presidential inaugurations and, upon a few occasions, there have even been new musical compositions created expressly for these events. Leonard Bernstein composed a minute-long fanfare for JFK’s inaugural. (Bernstein’s frequent orchestrator Sid Ramin created the arrangement for winds and percussion that was performed during the ceremony.) More recently, John Williams composed Air and Simple Gifts for Barack Obama’s first swearing-in which was performed, albeit to a synced soundtrack, by an all-star quartet of clarinetist Anthony McGill, violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Gabriela Montero.

There have been even greater controversies surrounding inauguration music. Though not commissioned specifically for Eisenhower’s 1953 inaugural ceremony, Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was scheduled to be performed during the official inaugural concert. But it was cancelled only days before in response to testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives by Illinois Republican Congressman Fred Busbey in which he claimed that Copland had a “long record of questionable affiliations.” (In May 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy demanded Copland appear before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations; Copland would not be completely exonerated until November 1955, at which point the State Department declared there was “insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution.” Since then, Copland’s music was featured in inaugural ceremonies for Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.)

In October 2016, a bipartisan Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies commissioned 34-year-old Tennessee-based composer John Wykoff to compose music for the 58th presidential inauguration on January 21, 2017. Wykoff collaborated with Minnesota poet Michael Dennis Browne to create a four-minute unaccompanied choral composition titled Now We Belong, which received its world premiere outdoors during the inauguration in a performance by the Missouri State University Chorale.

The next day, the Missouri State University Chorale performed the work again, indoors, which was a much more conducive setting for recording.

The homepage of Wykoff’s website features a short statement regarding this commission: “I am honored to compose music for this important national ceremony. Some have asked, and I don’t hesitate to say, that my involvement is not intended to communicate any political views or endorsements.” After hearing his composition and reading his statement, we contacted Wykoff and asked him to share his thoughts on how he sees his role as an artist and citizen in this complex time.


Composers can nourish a listening culture. Indeed, helping society to cultivate a habit of hearing may be the timeliest goal a company of composers might undertake together today. Ours is an age of loudness and of speech. It is a day of talking, telling, saying, shouting. But who is listening? Who leads with the ear? When there is so much ado over the number of messengers and the volume of their voices, but not the content of their message, is that not a tacit admission that no one, in fact, has heard what they said? Has our society lost its hearing? With that, I think, composers can help.

To start, I suggest a hard concession. I suggest that composers give up using their music to change people’s minds. (When I say “minds,” I really mean people’s beliefs, opinions, and convictions.) I do not, please notice, suggest that anyone stop trying to change minds altogether, only that they stop using music to do it. Argument, not art, is the best tool for proving opinions. Music is poorly suited for that. But music is very well suited, or least it can be, for helping people to change their habits, especially habits of thinking and perceiving. True, habits of thought and perception may lead to and flow from the convictions of the mind. But they also may be surprisingly at odds with them, as when someone honestly believes that no race is better than another, but has tacit habits of prejudicial suspicion. It is with mental habits, not mental convictions, that art is most effective for change.

Similarly, I suggest that composers resist the metaphor of artist-as-prophet. The prophetic role of an artist has been discussed directly and indirectly for a long time. There is some good reason for it. Artists, like prophets, sometimes point to an unrealized future. And artists, like prophets, sometimes hold a mirror to society. Yet there must be the possibility of embarrassment when the prophetic mantle is assumed rather than bestowed. Reluctance, not self-anointing, is the trademark of prophets. The metaphor is best left to music historians and culture critics to use. Most of us shouldn’t think of ourselves in a prophetic role.

Then what might be our role? Or what good can we do for society? I believe we can help society cultivate a habit of hearing. Composers are famous for their ability to listen deeply. By nature and by training, they hear beneath the surface and beyond the moment. More importantly, there is a predisposition—widespread among composers today—to approach new music receptively, to hear what other composers are doing, to lead with the ear. There are so many varieties of music, so many modes of creativity, that many composers have learned to suspend their own reactions to new music until they have been able to hear it on its own terms. That, it seems to me, is a composerly virtue—not that composers alone possess it, but that they possess it in spades. Nor is it somehow intrinsic to a composer. Predispositions are not intrinsic. They are habitual stances that can be formed.

There are two things composers may do to help others form an ears-first predisposition. The first and principal thing is to strive to create music that invites close listening, requires close listening, and rewards close listening. Music can’t help people learn to hear unless it first invites them to listen. It has to be winsome. If it is too confrontational on the surface, it may actually cultivate close-mindedness—the practice of stopping one’s ears.

Yet having attracted listeners, it does not help matters to require nothing of them. In order to cultivate listening, music should strengthen the ear, not pacify it. When music is merely pandering, when it doesn’t require close, attentive, repeated listening, then it doesn’t do anything to help form the habitual stance I’m writing about. Such music may not cause anyone to stop their ears, but it may still cultivate close-mindedness because it keeps the ear comatose.

Yet attracting listeners and awakening their ears is not enough. The music I’m prescribing should also reward the hard work of hearing with a payoff in proportion to what was required to hear it. I imagine that most composers know full well the temptation to construct a barrier of complexity that masks a lack of substance. This is a kind of musical dishonesty. It is like a bad work of philosophy which, lacking a definite conclusion, still asks the reader to follow a difficult train of thought that leads nowhere. To beckon people in to listen closely, to require them to work at hearing, and then to offer them nothing for their efforts is a sure way to teach them to distrust what is new or hard. They will justifiably take their ears elsewhere. But if their patience and trust are rewarded with something meaningful and valuable, they may seek additional brushes with music that challenges them. That is a good start to forming a habit of hearing.

There are surely many examples of music with the qualities I am describing. For instance, almost anything by Paul Lansky could serve as a model. Whether it is his iconic electronic works or his newer acoustic works, his music has a way of beckoning you in, requiring much of you, and rewarding your efforts. His famous Idle Chatter is immediately fascinating. But it is also perplexing. You want to slow it down. You want to pick it apart. You want to discern how one element relates to another. You want to know what’s going on. You simply have to hear it again. And as you listen repeatedly, you may come to find that the piece only “makes sense” insofar as you choose to put on “sense-making” filters. You are forced to choose how you will listen to it, and forced to refresh your choice each time you listen again. The reward for your efforts is surely a measure of self-knowledge. You become more aware of your tacit filters­—the implicit ways you listen. You learn what you automatically listen for, and what you automatically ignore. By extension, it may cause you to consider the “sense-making” filters through which you experience life’s barrage. It may even lead you to wonder what there is out in the world that you automatically ignore. Such self-knowledge is a sensible reward.

Constantly creating new music with such qualities is foundational, but it isn’t the only thing we can do to encourage a habit of hearing. Composers can work alongside performers, educators, scholars, and critics to find better ways of inviting people into frequent, worthwhile encounters with challenging music. Together we can find more effective ways to guide inexperienced listeners, helping them learn how to suspend their reactions while they listen deeply. ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) is leading the way here. Through their educational and outreach efforts, they are helping young people all over the world learn how to engage music that, were it not for ICE’s winning manner, might be too strange for some people. It is undoubtedly a lofty goal, but if such efforts and similar ones were duplicated, and new worthy efforts devised, and if composers will provide a reliable stream of inviting, yet challenging and rewarding music of many varieties, is it not conceivable that many could learn, as a habitual stance, always to bring a listening ear to what is new? Is not conceivable that a whole society could be marked by a habit of hearing?

Probably you will have noticed that I have been using the word “hearing” equivocally. To “hear” strange music is not the same thing as to “hear” a strange opinion. For example, to “hear” a piece of music, in the sense that I mean, probably involves comprehending a musical element (a motive or a timbre, say) and relating it to other elements or other instances of the same element. But to “hear” a well-formed opinion probably involves comprehending one or more reasons, or at least motivations, and connecting them to some kind of a conclusion. The skills are different. I am aware of this, and I do not intend to fool anyone. I do not pretend that the skills for listening closely to new music will translate directly into skills for listening closely to a new opinion. However, even if the skills are not transferable, I suspect that the habit is. And it is only the habit that I am concerned with—the composerly virtue. And it is one, I think, in desperate need of cultivation.

John Wykoff

John Wykoff is assistant professor of music theory and composition at Lee University. He holds a Ph. D. from the City University of New York, and an M. A. from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. He studied composition with David Del Tredici, Bruce Saylor, and Jeffrey Nichols and choral arranging with Alice Parker.  John writes for choir, piano, organ, orchestra, and a variety of chamber ensembles. His music has been premiered by groups such as ICE, MIVOS Quartet, and Enso String Quartet. He was given the Opus Award by the Missouri Choral Directors Association for Panis Angelicus for string quartet and choir. In collaboration with poet Michael Dennis Browne he wrote Now We Belong, a choral work about the nation’s immigrant identity, which was commissioned, ironically, for the 2017 Presidential Inauguration.

Speak Now: Our Job as Composers Has Now Changed

Washington DC Metro Escalator

In his address at Amherst College, JFK said, “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. Where power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

Ours is a humbling profession. Creating and studying music often forces us to stand on the shoulders of giants and consider the long arc of thoughts and creativity that came before us. They remind us of our humanity, oftentimes in a way that many others might lose track of when society gets involved in a heady mix that declares that we can all be cleansed through politics.

I straddle the worlds of being a composer on the one hand but also a journalist and foreign policy commentator on the other. These things unite my passions, but today I can also see them being united in other ways.

A few days ago, the press corps released an open letter to the new president. It read, in part: “Best-case scenario, you’re going to be in this job for eight years. We’ve been around since the founding of the republic, and our role in this great democracy has been ratified and reinforced again and again and again. You have forced us to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for. For that we are most grateful.”

Journalism and art are essentially about illuminating truth to the best of our ability. This seems especially relevant in an era where the very validity of absolute truth is being brought to question, and also in an era where, if the warning signs of corruption are any indication, we will need much cleansing at the end of it all and all throughout it.

Today a new America begins. I’m not going to talk about racism, sexism, misogyny, or any of the scourges we have seen time and again in our society. The main feature of this new America is something astonishing that we have seen begin this year. Via Twitter and on cable TV, our new president has targeted you and me; creative thinkers promoting ideas. Those who would think that ignoring assaults on Hamilton, the Musical on Meryl Streep or on any artist is a secondary thing engineered only to divert attention away from an “important” news story like the declassification of a CIA report is missing the point. Beyond the fact that people can walk and chew gum at the same time, this misses the point that the assault on the First Amendment, on artistic expression, and on the articulation of ideas is actually so important to pay attention to. It’s the heart of the matter. Intimidating the expression of ideas is the vital bedrock of any anti-intellectual movement.

Beyond this, when we sit down to compose a symphony or an opera or build a museum or construct a city, it speaks of the same basic desire: to affect a grand gesture of our humanity.

These grand gestures are important. There’s a lot of talk about opposing extremism and intolerance in the world and it’s fine to oppose violence and destruction through developing a counter-narrative or developing a cogent military strategy (those are vital things), but the ultimate response of resistance to violence and destruction is creation. It’s a simple statement of fact that creation is the polar opposite to destruction. That means building a city or composing a symphony or sending a mission to Mars. Creation and invention are the ultimate “show me” forms of opposition to violence.

Music and the arts and poetry are essentially a training field for innovation and empathy. Our current political state is due to the rise of a culture of “nothing matters but us,” an age of arrogance that glorifies narcissism. But remember: we’re playing the long game.

Vigilance is vital. Our norms will be violated in such a way that will be progressive and imperceptible. In the first movement of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony the famous march begins in the most unassuming way possible. Hardly threatening. Almost laughable. But just follow its growth into a terrifyingly grotesque distortion of itself. The most terrifying thing perhaps is how the terror it builds up to is such a logical conclusion but one we could never have dreamed of when the gesture began so innocently (descending the escalator). Our job has now changed. Over the coming years, every American composer who is not deaf will be hearing some of the most violent sounds known to humanity.

As the open letter from the press said, they have been forced “to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for.”

Previously our profession was important. Today it is existentially vital. This is not a call to propaganda. It is a call to truth. My aim here is not to promote a message but to urge you all to promote an infinite variety of messages and to never shy away from self-expression.

I’ll end, as I started, with President Kennedy:

“Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’”

Mohammed Fairouz

Mohammed Fairouz (photo by Samantha West)

Mohammed Fairouz‘s compositional catalog encompasses virtually every genre, including opera, symphonies, vocal and choral settings, chamber and solo works and his music has been performed at major venues around the country including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Boston’s Symphony Hall and The Kennedy Center, and throughout the United States, the Middle East, Europe, and Australia. Fairouz’s large-scale works engage major geopolitical and philosophical themes and his cosmopolitan outlook reflects his transatlantic upbringing and extensive travels. By his early teens, the Arab-American composer had journeyed across five continents, immersing himself in the musical life of his surroundings. Recordings of his music, which is published exclusively by Peermusic Classical, are available on the Deutsche Grammophon, Naxos, Bridge, Sono Luminus, Albany, GM/Living Archive, and GPR labels.

Speak Now: Turning Around, Turning Away, and Turning Over

looking ahead


 “…when love stirs
it asks for nothing—but a world made safe
for truth, for beauty, for this tense blooming.”
— from Megan Levad’s “Volta”

We were generously gifted a bottle of Dom Perignon. My husband Bill and I saved it for something special and chilled it on November 8, to share with our friend Matt as we watched the election results roll in. Some time before midnight that night I posted a picture on social media with Matt holding out his hands as if to say “WHAT IS HAPPENING” and Bill giving our TV a middle finger. Our fancy champagne remains unopened, still waiting for something special.

I will turn 44 in June 2017.

And, I am worried.

In the last month, I’ve been turning around and looking back at some of my earliest social media posts to check in with my past worry levels. What an odd trip—a living memory lane sky-written on the internet, where we can watch ourselves stirring and seeking public feedback, placation, or applause, for the images and versions of ourselves we project online.

As a mom, composer, professor, and professional fun-haver, I reflect on the years before the prevalence of social media with some regret: I spent a significant amount of time torqued up and spazzing and saying not-nice things and cultivating a bubble of snark and worry around my being. I can also hear a spiky unsureness in the music I wrote in those days. It took me a handful of jangled years to choose to resign from my self-elected positions as Mayor, Treasurer, and Secretary of Worry Town. I was totally winning at leading Worry Town, because I could worry more and more awesomely than anyone else.

Here’s the thing about Worry Town: it is a reliable, comfortable, and seductive zip code in which to reside. Also, we are super great at inhabiting Worry Town. Staying in a place of worry is reliable because it feels real, it comes naturally, it’s not something we have to work at; Worry Town is reliable because there is an endless abundance of stuff to worry about, isn’t there?

Or is there?

A while back, I was both deep in the throes of a divorce and overworking myself in an effort to pile up tenure-worthy lines for my C.V. Those years were screamingly intense. The dopamine hits I got from posting silly, positive stuff online felt useful, but it was more probably a perceived protection from presenting myself online as being vulnerable in any way.

During the divorce we transitioned our son into spending nights at his dad’s new apartment slowly. We started with Wednesday nights. Our son did great, but the first night he spent across town I sat lumped on my kitchen floor for a good, long, bewildered sob-fest in Worry Town. The next Wednesday I cried again, watched a movie, ate my feelings via a giant pizza, and cried myself to sleep. The third Wednesday I enlisted help. I called my dear friend Cynthia and asked if I could come to her house and cry there; at least I’d be around other humans.

After she put her two young boys to bed, Cynthia brought out a bottle of bubbly and calmly gave me an amazing string of sentences: “Look, these Wednesdays are forever now. They just are. They feel like a shitty kind of special. Drink your champagne. These Wednesdays can also be a time for you to re-group, to make plans, to relax, to sleep, to do whatever you need for yourself so that you can be better for your boy. You can make these nights a good kind of special. They can be your special time to have and shape any way you want, or to get done what needs getting done, or to figure out what are the right things to do. You got this. Cheers.”

By simply being a kind, thoughtful, reasonable, and supportive ally, this gift from a trusted friend changed my life. That Wednesday night was a magical turning point; it helped me flip over, turn around, and turn away from Worry Town. It was also the birth of #ChampagneWednesday on my social media posts, and a cherished time I continue to preserve for specialness every week.

Now, in this new 2017, as our highly politicized climate is doing its thing, my worry muscles are re-strengthening. I am not sleeping well. I am sort-of, kind-of, almost writing music. November and December were a blur and if I don’t back the hell out of Worry Town soon, I run the risk of morphing into full-throttled Angry Kristy. Not only does no one want to be around Angry Kristy, she is blindingly not useful to anyone. Besides, the music Angry Kristy writes is stale and grey and over-tries to sound interesting.

#ChampagneWednesdays remain a vital part of my weeks, yet since November 9 I’ve not known what to do with my online presence. I have loved social media, but it’s a funky house of dissonance for me: this house is too big for its tiny plot of land within the vast expanse of Complain County. Throughout this last election season, social media sounded like metal-on-metal bending, growling, screaming through a vat of bloody bile. I felt I was watching our collective ego over-functioning so much that it was eating itself.

Using social media to initiate and cultivate conversations about the gender gap in the contemporary composition world felt productive and useful to me, and I hope it was useful for our artistic culture at large. Observing others’ successes and joys online is like a lovely, cool glass of water when pitted-out on a sticky Midwestern summer afternoon. When studies began appearing with data tracking people’s “happiness levels” in relation to their social media usage, I made a decision to be as positive as possible in my online posts. Great! Awesome? That made me feel better about what I was throwing online, but so what?

As I read this article on November 19, I felt buckets of tension release from my neck and shoulders. Consider these sentences: “(Social media) diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter. The latter activity is seductive … but it can be disastrously counterproductive.” Yup, that resonates with me.

Things (seeds, herbs, trees, vegetables, clouds, babies), cannot grow if they are not given the proper environment in which they can thrive. This includes the delicious all-you-can-eat buffet of worry choices we cook up for ourselves; lay out a pretty menu and pick from it any time. In this new season we will undoubtedly have to turn and shift and adjust, and possibly relinquish, the current lives that we know for lives we don’t yet know. This has always been reality—the possibility our lives will be upended, uprooted, or undone at any moment or given time. What comes with this reality is a natural fear of the unknown. However, what we DO with that fear and worry is wholly up to us.

We may or may not see upending change with our country’s new leadership, and I’ve been sautéing some fresh daily specials for my worry buffet: I worry that it will be increasingly difficult for our young composers to make a living doing their art; I worry that our entire education system may be gutted; I worry that our society will, in fact, over-function so disastrously out of fear and division that we will be set back decades from our best social progresses into a total implosion of any modicum of civility; and I worry that our future may be a shitty kind of special.

When the worry creeps in, its antidote is patience.

Patience, I’ve found, is both a most difficult behavior to learn and sustain, as well as one of the most helpful behaviors we have. And social media teaches us, and fosters in us, the precise opposite of patience. Things take time. The best things—joy, love, music that moves people, social change, equality for all humans, getting one’s self out of a self-made snarkbubble—take careful, slow, meanderingly focused, craggy time.

To what must we devote our time in order to cultivate the environment in which goodness, justice, love, and gratitude can pervade our society? How can we, through our art and our interfacing with actual humans in person, be useful to these fellow humans and our culture of the arts?

I don’t yet know. I’m still working out ways I can be useful. But I do know that the time has arrived for me to turn away from the worry and turn over my social media presences to better uses of my time. Also, I believe that no matter the platform or interaction, by merely being allies—with patience, kindness, thoughtfulness, reasonableness, and support—for one another, and surrounding ourselves with other allies, we can change lives and change our culture.

Our time ahead may be an extremely tense blooming. It can also be an exciting and good kind of special if we commit to making it so. It can be our special time to figure out what it means to do what’s right for the world.

And we must answer the stirring of Love, by doing everything we can to turn ours into a world that is safe for truth and beauty to survive and thrive.

We’ve got this.


Kristin Kuster

Kristin Kuster

Coming and recent performances of Kristin Kuster’s music include works for the Baltimore and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras, Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, Lisbon Summerfest Chamber Choir, Network for New Music, and multi-percussionist Joseph Gramley. Her chamber opera KEPT: a ghost story with a libretto by Megan Levad will premiere at the Virginia Arts Festival, in conjunction with the John Duffy Institute for New Opera, in May 2017. When Kristin is not working, you can find her on her deck with coffee. An associate professor of composition at the University of Michigan, Kristin lives in Ann Arbor with her awesome son and her badass husband.

Speak Now: It Is Time to Create

I don’t know about you, but ever since November 8 anxiety and fear have been choking my creative voice. I released my latest album in late October, and my plan was to begin work on the next album after a very short brain rest. However, I found myself staring listlessly at my computer during my scheduled creative time (after work and on the weekends), struggling to hear anything of interest or beauty in my head. All I could detect was the feedback of rage and despair—for myself as a woman and all other female-identifying people, and for my friends who experience hate because of the color of their skin or the texture of their hair—caused by the hate that is poisoning my country. In spite of the wall of pain that these feelings have put between my creative mind and my fingers, I have been reluctant to attempt to ignore them or block them out; I do not want to become an internal émigré while all that I love about my country is under active threat of destruction.

In this storm of anxiety I began to question the value of my weird, experimental synthesizer music. What change for good could I possibly effect with my distinctly non-political pieces? What could my small drop in the ocean of music do to help anyone at all?

At some point in late November—as I witnessed other artist-friends deal with similar creative blocks—a tiny voice in my head said, “Fight!” It took me a few days to understand the meaning of that message: Now, even now—especially now—artists need to persevere and create. We need to fight the feeling of hopelessness and uselessness if for no other reason than that’s what the enemy always intended to instill in us. People of hate do not want us to keep creating; they want to silence us, because a healthy, vibrant art-life is one of the key indicators of freedom. You want to subjugate the millions? A good step in that direction is to squash out the life of your country’s arts.

Right about now you are all probably thinking of Leonard Bernstein, who said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Though these words have filled my Twitter feed to the point of oversaturation during the past couple of years, they nonetheless resonate in my head as I begin to learn how to remain in the world, engaging with the crisis, while also continuing to develop my creative voice. I think of all of the music and art that has “saved” me throughout my thirty-seven years, and I become thankful that those artists did not think to themselves, “Well, what use is my art anyway? Time to give up.” Don’t give up; someone out there needs your art. Don’t become an internal émigré; someone out there will need your signature, or your donation, or for you to be their witness.

My music will never be political. It will never directly change anyone’s mind about the importance of liberty and freedom. But it may provide comfort, or inspiration, or—if I’m really lucky—it may broaden someone’s mind. Regardless, I will continue to create, and I will continue to fight for the life of liberty in my country.

Meg Wilhoite is an editor, writer, and musician based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written about music for several outlets and occasionally makes her own music. Connect with her on TwitterTumblrFacebook, and/or Soundcloud.

Speak Now: Amplifying Our Voices

mic w/gradient

The 2016 presidential election was a seismic event for the United States and the world. The days since November 8 have brought forth a tsunami of uncertainty, fear, anticipation, verbiage, and introspection unlike any other comparable period in most of our memories. It seems likely that the weeks and months and perhaps years to come will be similarly without precedent.

I believe that this extraordinary time will bring monumental challenges. But we don’t need to be Pollyannas to recognize opportunity in the moment as well. We can all be freshly awake to our agency within the civic fabric of our communities, and to our potential for helping bring about the country we want to live in. We all have roles to play as individuals—and as organizations, too. If there ever were a more important time to speak and act within those roles, I haven’t seen it in my lifetime.

For almost eighteen years, NewMusicBox has been driven by a core commitment to providing members of the new music community with a place to speak thoughtfully in their own voices about the truth they see. At a time when even the notion of truth itself is in question and thoughtful, civil discourse by no means a given, it’s natural and organic for us to provide opportunity for community members to share their personal views of the moment at hand.

As a first step, we’re beginning a series of posts by artists responding to a simple request that they share what they’re thinking in their roles as artists and community members. The series title is “Speak Now.” We’re not making any assumptions about how long this series might continue or where it might lead. It’s a first step, which is the way every journey begins. It is our hope that it will invite further conversation and connection as more voices and ideas come to the table—in person, via social media, and right here on NewMusicBox.

It’s important to emphasize that, as always, the opinions of NewMusicBox authors are their own. New Music USA itself is focused not on expressing specific opinions but straightforwardly on living our values. (I say more about this in a previous post.) Amplifying the voices of our community members is one fundamental way we can do that.

It Is Time to Create by Meg Wilhoite

What change for good can I possibly effect with my distinctly non-political pieces? What can my small drop in the ocean of music do to help anyone at all?

Turning Around, Turning Away, and Turning Over by Kristin Kuster

Staying in a place of worry is reliable because it feels real, it comes naturally, it’s not something we have to work at. But when the worry creeps in, composer Kristin Kuster has found that its antidote is patience. And social media teaches us, and fosters in us, the precise opposite of patience.

Our Job as Composers Has Changed by Mohammed Fairouz

Our current political state is due to the rise of a culture of “nothing matters but us,” an age of arrogance that glorifies narcissism. Music and the arts and poetry are essentially a training field for innovation and empathy. Today a new America begins. Vigilance is vital.

A Habit of Hearing by John Wykoff

I suggest that composers give up using their music to change people’s minds (their beliefs, opinions, and convictions). Music is poorly suited for that. But music is very well suited, or least it can be, for helping people to change their habits, especially habits of thinking and perceiving.