Category: Uncategorized

New Music USA launches NewMusicBox Guest Editor series

New Music USA launches NewMusicBox Guest Editor series with forward-thinking artists and organizations across the US

First partnership kicks off today with Los Angeles-based radio station dublab, which will present original content  that explores the current landscape of music composition



New Music USA‘s web magazine NewMusicBox today launches its new ongoing Guest Editor series, which aims to celebrate a plurality of voices from across the nation and will feature exclusive content written, produced, or commissioned by a rotating artist or organization. The series kicks off with Los Angeles-based nonprofit radio station dublab, which strives to cultivate and support cultural ecosystems through community-generated radio, curiosity, experimentation, inclusivity, and connection. NewMusicBox, edited by Frank J. Oteri, amplifies creators and organizations who are building a vibrant future for new music in all its forms, and has provided a vital platform for creators to speak about issues relevant to them in their own words since 1999.

The dublab partnership will feature new weekly content from at least 15 different voices through January 2023, presented in conversations, DJ mixes, articles, and live performances all exploring the current landscape of music composition. Contributors include creators, curators, writers, and artists such as Andrew Maxwell, Colloboh, Jeremiah Chiu with Marta Sofia Honer, Maddi Baird, Mark McNeill, Qur’an Shaheed, shesaidso, Tana Yonas, with more to be announced.

The first piece, an introductory essay written by dublab’s Executive Director Alejandro Cohen, is available to read now here.

The Guest Editor is the first such series in NewMusicBox’s 23-year history and reflects New Music USA’s aim to deepen its impact across the many diverse music communities across the United States. This aim is also demonstrated by NewMusicBox’s ongoing “Different Cities, Different Voices” feature that spotlights music creation hubs across the nation.

For more than two decades, dublab has been one of the defining voices of online radio as a medium; through radio broadcast, myriad public events and celebrated cultural projects, dublab has fostered a community in Los Angeles and now around the world that places creativity, enrichment, diversity, inclusivity, and equality as valued priorities.

“The goal of NewMusicBox has always been to give voice to American music creators working in every possible idiom,” says NewMusicBox editor Frank J. Oteri. “These idioms keep evolving and transforming and we hope that by creating space for other ‘curators’ around the country we will amplify an even broader range of people and their work as well as present this material in an even broader array of formats. All of us here at New Music USA have been fascinated and inspired by what dublab has been producing since, as luck would have it, 1999, the same year that NewMusicBox launched online. This is a collaboration that is long overdue, so it is an honor and privilege to feature dublab content on NewMusicBox.”

“As we launch dublab’s collaboration with New Music USA, we welcome the opportunity to feature the work of many musicians we believe represent the current landscape of contemporary music composition,” says Alejandro Cohen, dublab Executive Director. “Throughout our four-month hosting we hope the series can not only shine a light on these artists and their work, but also bring up questions such as the place, role and meaning of a composer in our current times.”

The dublab Guest Editor content will be accessible for free at starting today. The site also features thousands of NewMusicBox articles, interviews, and more dating back to 1999.


About the NewMusicBox Guest Editor Series

Published by New Music USA, NewMusicBox is a web magazine that amplifies creators and organizations who are building a vibrant future for new music in all its forms. The NewMusicBox Guest Editor series features exclusive content written, produced, or commissioned by a rotating artist or organization, and aims to celebrate a plurality of voices from across the nation. Learn more at

About New Music USA

New Music USA supports and amplifies the sounds of tomorrow by nurturing the creation, performance, and appreciation of new music for adventurous listeners in the United States and beyond. We empower and connect US-based music makers, organizations, and audiences by providing funding through our grants; offering support and fostering new connections through our programs; deepening knowledge through our online magazine, NewMusicBox; and working as an advocate for the field. New Music USA envisions a thriving and equitable ecosystem for new music throughout the United States. Learn more at

About dublab

dublab is a non-profit, radio station based in Los Angeles.  dublab broadcasts hundreds of radio programs hosted by some of the most talented DJs worldwide. Our DJs are empowered to freely play sounds they are passionate about, making each show distinct.  Our “Future Roots” concept collapses time, space and genre to celebrate the continuum of creative music made by passionate people. Influential sounds of the past flow into the dynamic sounds of tomorrow.  The dublab airwaves allow space for diverse styles, eras, genres and music cultures to co-exist. dublab is documenting the lineage of creative sound and accelerating its progress. Learn more at

Out of the Box: Plus C’est La Même Chose

Imani Mosley Out of the Box

[Ed. note: Last November, New Music USA marked its 10th anniversary. While we are continuing to celebrate all of the remarkable new music that has been created over the last ten years and our relationship to it throughout the coming months, we also want to start our second decade by imagining what the landscape for new music will be ten years from now. To that end, we are asking a group of deep musical thinkers to ponder this question. We aim for this series to spark important discussions in our community as well as to raise important journalistic voices from all around the country. Our first contributor is University of Florida-based musicologist and bassoonist Dr. Imani Mosley.-FJO]

Anthony Tommasini, in his final article as chief classical music critic for The New York Times, asks “so what things about classical music shouldn’t change?” It’s an interesting thought exercise that he unfurls throughout the article, reminding readers of things possibly slipping away: the sound of live acoustics, the exhilaration of risky playing, the generational work of artists and institutions. I don’t particularly have a qualm with the exercise or its examples — it’s a way, in a sense, of grounding classical music in a space and time that currently feels so unhinged, unembodied, unpracticed. But I am struck by the binary presented (even if it is to take apart a particular “problem”): that we in classical music-land are either asking what should change or what should remain the same. In approaching an essay such as this one that I was tasked with writing — what will new music look like ten years from now — I find myself running into that same binary. It is the idea that in order to assess or predict the new music landscape, one must be forced to face the conflict of change and stasis; not that things will change as most things inevitably do, but that change is not definite; stasis is.

This binary becomes murky both in theory and practice. One could say that art music throughout the twentieth century was based on change and the refutation of past practices. But as composers and performers shifted from style to style, medium to medium, our institutions became museumified, creating a dichotomy of either/or. The urge to be static rose concurrently with the urge to change. And so, in the twenty-first century, we’re presented with a choice: to look ahead or to look down. Not back or backwards, not into the past (because pastness cannot be and is not always equated with stasis), but down: down at our idle hands, down and away from our communities, down and buried in the sand. Had I been approached with discussing the future of new music two years ago, I probably would have answered differently; that our desire to look ahead would always be countered with our desire to look down. But as we enter the third year of a global pandemic, my view has shifted ever so slightly. Looking down is no longer a feasible or viable business model. It has become “look ahead or cease to exist.” And while I do not want to tie this piece so explicitly to current events, I don’t think it is possible for me to talk about the future without acknowledging what is happening in the here and now.

Music is indelibly linked to space and place. Those elements can shape, structure, and define our listening and performance practices. The rigid acoustics of a European concert hall, the grand solemnity of a cathedral, the vast possibilities of a soundwalk—these are all ways in which music moves from the theoretical to the experiential. Music thrives on the performance of the experiential, on the real. The real, dependent upon physical space and presence, has been valorized above other kinds of performance often by listeners and performers. Whereas other types of music and performing media may thrive within recordings, art music relies upon the live. This is not disputing the long history of classical music recording, but rather positioning it within a synchronous history of live performance practice. Recording obfuscates authenticity because it has to be imbued in order to be believed, as explained by Philip Auslander: “[T]he music industry specifically sets out to endow its products with the necessary signs of authenticity.” Even Pierre Boulez expressed concern about the fidelity of recording, where “the so-called techniques of reproduction are acquiring an irrepressible tendency to become autonomous and to impress their own image of existing music, and less and less concerned to reproduce as faithfully as possible the conditions of direct audition.” For a genre that existed before recording technology, its authenticity lay within the visage of liveness (one only has to look to arguments around amplification to see this concept at work); liveness becomes the real. It has only been until very recently that the idea of space and place has been limited to the tangible. Philip Auslander and Jonathan Sterne discuss a shift that occurred in the 1990s, but the advance of the internet has accelerated that shift. Space and place could become virtual, mediated, otherworldly. The late 2000s saw Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir as well as the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, emphasizing that a virtual space could still be experiential, authentic, real.

So, what happens when physical space and place are no longer available to you? The COVID-19 pandemic posed this question to musicians, composers, and institutions. What about your precious real now? Many organizations opted to make already filmed material available to a wider public, following the already existing models created by the Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and Glyndebourne. But others saw this as an untapped creative space: Opera Philadelphia created a streaming channel with new works by composers such as Caroline Shaw, Angélica Negrón, Tyshawn Sorey, and Melissa Dunphy. These composers created works within a virtual space, decidedly unreal in a sense, to make a multifaceted multimedia object, one that uses all available tools to build something unique. Like the television opera/opera on television divide, these works exist in this mediated way first, much like Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave or Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Their authenticity is not predicated on some kind of prescribed and imagined liveness; they are not meant to be experienced in that way. And more than anything, that shift away from liveness (something that I believe was on its way) is a huge step in the future of new music. This is more than just using media, electronics, and technology as tools; this is about restructuring foundational elements of art music.

I am loathe to cite this pandemic as a breaking open of anything. Music’s relationship to this moment is varied and I find the “Newton’s Annus mirabilis” approach to these last few years as demoralizing and unapt. But decisions will be made and I wonder if in ten years hence, we’ll look back at now and see those decisions as being tectonic for new music. There is an immediacy that exists in a way that has seldom been seen and with that immediacy comes freedom: freedom to create new music without the shackles of place, space, and institution. The freedom that signifies the taking back of creative power and control. As someone who is ensconced within the world of living composers, never have I felt as much access to them and their works as I have in the last few years. And I cannot imagine anyone wanting to give that up. With the virtuality of space and place comes a kind of equalizing; yes, there will always be funders, donors, money, connection, and privilege. But virtual space is limitless. I’m reminded of composer Garrett Schumann’s “I’m a composer and I wrote this music” TikToks, maximizing the medium’s penchant for virality, its visibility and algorithmic pervasiveness to introduce his music, new music to the world. And as we’re forced to turn to those virtual spaces to have as close to real musical experiences as we can get, the more we reify that aforementioned power. I do not foresee a looking down after this moment ends.

So, what does that mean for the future of new music? What happens in that next decade? I personally can’t speak to musical and stylistic changes, that’s anyone’s guess. But as a musicologist and historian who specializes in how people have reacted to music in specific cultural moments, I can guess as to how the moment will be presented to us. In schools, in our major institutions, and with individuals, we will have assessed what to let go, what will change, and what will remain static. Looking ahead may be the only feasible way forward, the only way we will have created for ourselves. Tommasini ends his article noting that he wants to “protect it [classical music], as well as shake it up.” This reads as that forced binary appearing once again and this moment now suggests that that binary may no longer be viable. We may experience another moment when we will have to let things go because they have been taken from us. And instead of approaching that moment as a deficiency, let us approach it as an abundance, as so many composers and performers are doing now. Creation not in spite of but out of a desire to. A future where change is definite.

The Art of Being True: Sonic Ritual & Favorite Quarantine Recipes

"pursuit of happiness" by Anjna Swaminathan (the back cover art for The Art of Being True)

[Ed. Note: Today we present our sixth and final installment of excerpts from an anthology of writings by the 12 participants of M³ (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians) in advance of their next round of concerts taking place on June 12 and 13, 2021 under the auspices of the National Jazz Museum (and which have received funding from New Music USA). The anthology, The Art of Being True, is edited by author, journalist, and musician Jordannah Elizabeth; it is published in its entirety on Elizabeth’s website Publik/Private. Back in December, in support of M³’s debut concerts, which were also presented online by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, we asked all twelve of the initial participating musicians involved in this initiative to write about how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. – FJO]

Val Jeanty operating electronic music equipment in a performance (Photo by Wolf Daniel)

Val Jeanty (Photo by Wolf Daniel, courtesy of Roulette Intermedium)

From Val Jeanty’s essay “Sonic Ritual”

Music is pure communication and Vodou-electro is rhythmic intelligence that escapes the boundaries of the tonal. Operating as a kind of sonic communicative life-form, it incorporates a host of sampled wavelengths, rhythms and effects. Its tech-driven effects allow it to confuse the ear, blending interior and exterior realities so that, under the right conditions, it can virtually be seen, touched, and interacted with. More than just effects and inspiration, Vodou Culture has always been a powerful catalyst of change in my work, introducing powerful abstract harmonies that encapsulate new ways of thinking and bold compositions. Each rhythm has produced its own unique set of resonances and all of these sounds have – at some point – fused with and influenced one another, merging into a vibrational ocean of Haitian ancestral legacy. I continue to sample this ocean, creating new pulses and rhythms that send tentative sonic probes into unmapped realms and the ancient futures.

Tomeka Reid playing the cello (photo by Joel Wanek)

Tomeka Reid (photo by Joel Wanek)

From Tomeka Reid’s “5 Favorite Quarantine Recipes”

Sunflower Butter

I love sunflower butter and have attempted to travel with it but have often ended up having it confiscated by the TSA! Forgetting to check it in my luggage, I’d have a jar in my snack bag and because of its “creamy” nature it would get tossed! Additionally, in my efforts to limit my use of single-use plastic, I decided to learn how to make it. Using 3 cups of raw sunflower seeds, lightly toast them on high on the stove for a few minutes until browned and then put them in a food processor. Blend in 1 minute intervals. A total of 10 minutes of blending usually does the job of turning them into a nice paste or butter. You can also do this with sesame seeds to make tahini. No oil needed in either case! The oils will eventually be released from the processing. Store the butter in mason jars or some other suitable container. I can’t say too much about the shelf life because it’s usually gone after a week or two. I also don’t add anything like sugar or salt, for example, but I’m sure you could!

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.

What does it mean to be American?

This post was originally written for the Salastina Music Society, ahead of their premiere of Derrick Spiva Jr.’s American Mirror string quartet on October 7, 2017.
The text has been reworked with the assistance of Kim Nguyen Tran for NewMusicBox and reposted with permission, along with a video of the performance. The original post can be found here.

A few months ago, I was getting ready for an international trip. I had lots of preparing to do. For anyone who has traveled internationally, we all know that immunizations can be a huge part of the process, depending on which country you plan to visit. In this case, I am a classical composer who often integrates musical practices from around the world into my work, and I was going to Ghana—an amazing country in West Africa—to continue my studies in traditional Ghanaian music and culture.

Spiva in Ghana

Derrick Spiva Jr. (in grey hat) playing axatse (shaker) with an Ewe music ensemble in Anyako, Ghana, hometown of the Ladzekpo family. July 2017.

One of the most important immunizations required for entry into Ghana was the yellow fever shot. I had received all of my other immunizations, but this one was in short supply globally, so I had to go to one of only two places in Los Angeles that provided it. When I arrived at the clinic, I filled out all of my paperwork and waited to be called in.

The travel clinic was decorated with some lovely paintings and other pieces of art from around the world. How beautiful, I thought. When I was called in to receive my immunization, I couldn’t help but strike up a conversation with the nurse who was administering the shot. While looking at my American passport, she asked me where I was from.

“I was born in Santa Ana, California,” I told her. “But I grew up in the Central Valley and live in Los Angeles now.”

“Oh, wow!” she responded. “I thought you were from Bali or something.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. I asked her how in the world she had gathered that information.

“Well,” she said, “I thought I recognized your accent.”

I thought to myself, I know a few people from Bali who live in Los Angeles, and I absolutely love playing Balinese gamelan with them at UCLA on Tuesday nights!

Spiva after a gamelan performance

Derrick Spiva Jr. (right) and his wife Kim Nguyen Tran (left) with their Balinese gamelan gong kebyar teacher, I Nyoman Wenten (center), after a performance in 2016.

But I don’t have any linguistic roots in Bali. If anything, I would have a slight accent from the American South, seeing as my grandparents grew up in Tennessee and Texas. I’m not sure how I would even fake a Balinese accent while speaking English, without first doing some intensive research and rehearsal. Beyond that: what accent is considered the American accent, anyway? Aren’t there are multiple dialects of English throughout all 50 states? Needless to say, there was some identity confusion taking place.

As an American who is a descendant of slaves, I don’t have a complete picture of exactly who my ancestors are. But I am going to claim who I am, nonetheless. My American identity is shaping up to be the result of the absorption of many different coexisting cultures.

As an American who is a descendant of slaves, I don’t have a complete picture of exactly who my ancestors are. But I am going to claim who I am, nonetheless, as a member of my community, here in America, here in Los Angeles. Like many people living in this sprawling metropolis, my American identity is shaping up to be the result of the absorption of many different coexisting cultures.

I’ve been mistaken as not being an American before, and I know this experience is shared by many others who live in our country. Sometimes it is as simple as a misunderstanding in an immunization clinic. At other times, it can be downright abusive, as it is used as a tactic to separate individuals from a group by using religion, race, sexual orientation, and/or gender to isolate them. It is a scenario that I have seen play out at every level of our society, including debates about the Americanness of a president of the United States. And not just with Barack Obama. John F. Kennedy’s loyalty to the United States was questioned because of his Catholic religion.

Incidents of judging Americanness in the court of public opinion continue to drive me to ask these questions:

What does it mean to be American?
Who am I, as an American?

Because I am a composer within the genre of classical music, I also ask:

What is American classical music?
Does classical music have something meaningful to say in this conversation about being American?

The answers to these questions seem to continuously morph and unfold over time, just as the social experiment that is our country seems to do the same. I decided to write a string quartet (titled American Mirror) that I hoped would shed light on the America that I have experienced.

Of course, after it was done I couldn’t help but also ask:

What have I gotten myself into, trying to tackle these questions in a string quartet !?!?

Despite what its reputation might be, classical music—especially contemporary classical—is amazingly open as a musical form. Classical music is one of the most flexible genres in its ability to accept a wide variety of sounds into its sonic world. Take a look at this list here. It’s incredible that all of these diverse pieces fall within the classical music genre.

Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli – Gloria

Kala Ramnath – Amrit (arr. Reena Esmail)

Penderecki – Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima

Alvin Lucier – I Am Sitting in a Room

Rhys Chatham – A Crimson Grail for 400 electric guitars

Juan Pablo Contreras – Mariachítlan

Classical music has an ability to open itself up to different sounds, instruments, cultures, genres, and perspectives. Despite this openness, sociological, economic, and historical factors have excluded large groups of people from participating fully in classical music. Women and people of color in particular have had difficulty finding a place in the classical music world.

Classical music has an ability to open itself up to different sounds, instruments, cultures, genres, and perspectives. Despite this openness, sociological, economic, and historical factors have excluded large groups of people from participating fully in classical music.

I have struggled to find my place in the classical music world at times, also. I have always been drawn to the porousness of classical music, it’s ability to accept limitless sounds and concepts into its sonic world. But in my classical music education, I did not always see this openness highlighted. I found myself being deeply drawn into other musical traditions that resonated with me in ways just as profound, yet different, from the ways that classical music resonated with me.

Some of the musical traditions that have most influenced my classical compositions are traditional Ghanaian music, Hindustani and Carnatic Indian classical music, Eastern European folk music (particularly from Bulgaria), and American folk traditions (gospel, hymns, jazz, bluegrass). In order to engage with these different musical traditions in a meaningful way, I realized early on that I needed to continuously accept the humbling fact that there was so much I did not know.

When hearing live Ghanaian music for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the many layers of polyrhythms and timbres. It felt as if I was riding an avalanche of rhythms thundering with joy. It took months of listening, practicing, and performing for me to even begin to understand the complex structures and relationships between the instruments, vocal songs, and dancing of this tradition.

There is also a sense of welcoming in the music, a feeling that I (or anyone else) could be a part of that avalanche of joy, if we took the time to learn it. In traditional Ghanaian music, it is common for there to be a participatory and communal relationship between performers and audience. You are often expected to be a participant (clapping, singing, dancing), not just a spectator. As my teachers, from the Ladzekpo family, always tell their students: “If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.”

I want the classical music community to experience this kind of access to music, where the audience feels that they are part of the music-making process. I also want the classical community to experience the beautiful close harmonies and melodic ornamentations of Bulgarian women’s choir singing; the rhythmic complexities of Hindustani and Carnatic Indian classical music; and the profound stories of historical struggle and redemption that are present in the sounds of American folk traditions. My compositions strive to integrate these concepts and aesthetics into a cohesive and expressive musical language, in a classical music setting. I reach for the possibility that people in the audience, no matter what their background, might be able to hear themselves reflected somehow in the music—whether it be a reference to a folk tune from their homeland, a lullaby a parent sung to them as a child, or a rhythm that makes them want to get up and dance.

My string quartet American Mirror is a sonic reflection of my community here in Los Angeles. The music reflects what I see, hear, and live with in my everyday life as an American in this beautiful City of Angels. Melodically, the piece draws from gospel, West African, North African, and Eastern European vocal techniques. Underneath these melodies, American Mirror uses Copland-esque open harmonies not only found in Appalachian folk music, but also many other folk musics from around the world. There is also some audience participation built into the piece in the form of humming a drone (perfect fifth) to support the musicians and keeping tala (Hindustani and Carnatic rhythmic cycles) in the traditional way by clapping and waving.

Finding a way for all of these musical traditions to exist together in a cohesive, integrated way has taken a lot of time and effort, through performing, researching, and trying to locate and understand the points of overlap that exist between the styles. I found that vocal lines, certain rhythmic cycles, and the embodiment of rhythm through movement were particularly important points of connection. It sometimes felt like playing that old video game Tetris, in which shapes have to be layered as efficiently as possible in a given amount of time. The most amazing thing to me is that there are so many wonderful interconnections between what at first seem to be very different musical cultures.

When you understand and empathize with someone (and maybe enjoy their music), it makes it awfully difficult to hate.

Writing American Mirror was very emotional for me at times. A slow section in the middle of Part II was especially difficult. The section begins with solo viola, playing a very vocal melody inspired by the humming of folk tunes, a phenomenon that occurs in many cultures across the globe. Gradually, the other instruments join the humming viola, with their own versions of the humming. When it comes down to it, when everything is taken from us (property, technological gadgets, finances), we still have our own voices. Without anything else, we can tell stories, mourn, express infinite things through just our voice. While I was writing this section, my thoughts were with members of our community who have not been able to feel the sense of belonging that we all yearn for. Many of us know what it is to feel like an outsider in our own communities.

One of the main purposes in writing American Mirror was to represent my identity musically, by weaving together my favorite moments of awesomeness in musical cultures that resonate strongly with me and sharing this with the classical music community. It’s important to understand that each of the individual musical practices that I have brought into the piece are amazing, uplifting, and transformative in their own right, and certainly don’t need my work to shine. But I hope my music can be a doorway for people to learn about musical cultures that they are not yet familiar with.

As I continue to find points of overlap between the musical cultures that I practice, it is becoming clear to me that music has the ability to serve as a model for how we can find points of common ground in our society at large. The shared experience of music can be a profound vehicle through which people come to understand one another, despite different backgrounds and perspectives. When you understand and empathize with someone (and maybe enjoy their music), it makes it awfully difficult to hate.

Christopher Cerrone: Everything Comes From Language

Christopher Cerrone Photo: Molly Sheridan

There have been many composers who have been deeply engaged with literature. Perhaps the most famous examples are Anthony Burgess and Paul Bowles, whose novels overshadow their nevertheless formidable achievements in musical composition. While composer Christopher Cerrone has not written any original prose fiction or poetry, at least not that he’s shared with the outside world, he approaches his own musical compositions in much the same way that a writer weaves a literary narrative.

“I try to have people learn how to hear the piece via the order of events,” Cerrone explained when we visited his book-filled Brooklyn apartment. “The more it goes on, the more it’s about the memory of the thing. I lean more towards the linguistic as a composer in that I’m interested in language that’s understandable, perceptible, and followable. If I’m not following my own story musically, then it’s not interesting to me.

Aside from offering a model for his compositional syntax and aesthetics, literature is also the primary inspiration behind almost every piece of his music. In addition to the work that has garnered Cerrone his greatest amount of attention thus far—the site-specific multimedia adaptation of Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, which was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music—he has created solo and choral works derived from texts as diverse as Tao Lin, E.E. Cummings, and the 18th-century Zen Buddhist monk Ryōkan. But even the lion’s share of his instrumental output has been triggered by literary references—a stanza by Erica Jong fueled his single-movement violin concerto Still Life; a passage from a poem by Philip Larkin provided the title and something of an abstract program for High Windows, his concerto grosso for string orchestra; and a quip by Bertolt Brecht inspired his 2017 orchestral work Will There Be Singing premiered this past May by the LACO.

“It’s always so funny what comes out of texts,” Cerrone exclaimed. “The most pretentious way I ever put it is that verbosity is ontology for me. It has to be heard as words, and thought of that way, for it to exist.”

Given Cerrone’s profound empathy for language, it’s somewhat surprising that he chose music instead of literature as the outlet for his creative impulses.

“I don’t have that kind of keen observational sense or that keen psychological sense that I think really great writers have,” he acknowledged. “As much as I love words, the ability of music to have the emotional, the visceral, and immediate pre-psychological impact won out.”

Still, he makes an effort to pick up a book and read at the start of every day before he settles in to work on his musical projects.

“We all probably wish we read more, but I try to put an hour in in the morning, whatever’s going on. And the periods where I do that are the really fecund creatively for me, and they always affect how I think in a really great way. Days when I wake up and check my email and check my text messages and go on Twitter are probably less creative.”

September 27, 2017 at 1:00 p.m.
Christopher Cerrone in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  It seems to me that words are almost as important to you as sounds.

Christopher Cerrone:  I’m a very verbal person. I grew up thinking I was going to become a writer before I decided to become a composer.  I was always surrounded by books as a child, and I was read to constantly.  I remember my mother used to not just read to me as a child, but also just make up stories.  So I think that perceiving the world through words is just very deeply embedded inside of me, both in my music and in my notion of how music should work.

FJO:  But even though you thought you’d be a writer, music ultimately won out.

CC:  The genuine answer is that it became very clear to me that I had more of a talent for music than words.  I loved words and I loved writing, but I wasn’t a fiction writer. I’ve noticed that my fiction-writer friends are unbelievable observers of people.  It’s almost a little scary to have a fiction-writer friend, because you’re like, “When am I going to wind up in one of those stories?”  I never was that kind of person.  I loved reading and I loved observing things, but I don’t have that kind of keen observational sense or that keen psychological sense that I think really great writers have.  At the same time, I was constantly obsessed with music, always listening and curious about what made the music work.  I remember taking a music theory class in high school and thinking it made so much sense.  As much as I love words, the ability of music to have the emotional, the visceral, and immediate pre-psychological impact won out.

“The ability of music to have the emotional, the visceral, and immediate pre-psychological impact won out.”

FJO:  Nicely stated.  But, of course, if words are all about their meanings, and they mean specific things, how can they not provoke an emotional reaction?  They’re all about being comprehensible.  Whereas music isn’t, and yet it is, on another level.

CC:  I remember reading somewhere that a different center of the brain processes words in song and words that are read. This kind of makes sense. One of my favorite scenes from the movie Annie Hall is when [Woody Allen]’s with that Rolling Stone reporter played by Shelly Duvall and she quotes “Just Like a Woman”: “She breaks just like a little girl.”  It sounds so trite.  If you listen to Dylan, your heart breaks because it’s such a beautiful song.  But if you hear someone say it, it sounds dumb.  So I think that combination was always what was interesting to me: the meaning of text and the meaning of words, but also the ability to process it in purely emotional terms.

FJO:  The thing about music is that it gets its meaning only by the associations we attach to it.  Words operate much differently. Right now we’re talking to each other and every single word we’re using is a word that each of us has said before many times and have also read and written many times, which is why we’re able to understand each other.  You can’t do that with music.

CC:  I think you can.  I was teaching a composition lesson a couple of days ago in Michigan. I had this student who is very talented, but to me the music sounded too much like other music I’ve heard before.  So I said to him that all music exists on some kind of spectrum, from something that involves nothing you’ve ever heard before to music that sounds exactly like everything you’ve ever heard before. I think all great music exists somewhere along that.  In music, you’re speaking a language of things heard already.  You’re just rearranging it in a way that is unique.  You use sonorities that have been heard before, like I use major chords.  But even if you don’t use major chords, everything is along the lines of some kind of reference.

FJO:  But curiously I think that with language, and by extension literature, the spectrum is slightly different. You can’t really have something that functions in a literary way that’s completely new words that you’ve never heard before, even though the Dadaists and later experimental writers attempted this.

CC:  Right.

Two bookshelves filled with books.

FJO:  The big revolutions that sent shockwaves through all the artistic disciplines in the 20th century are related to each other. In visual art, it was about escaping representation. And in music, it was the so-called emancipation of dissonance. In literature, the parallels to those developments would be things like stream of consciousness, automatic writing, concrete poetry. While a lot of people like to say that contemporary music didn’t catch on with a large audience because most people didn’t want to hear those dissonant sounds, those sounds are much more a part of our collective culture at this point than a novel like Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.

“All music exists on some kind of spectrum, from something that involves nothing you’ve ever heard before to music that sounds exactly like everything you’ve ever heard before.”

CC:  Yeah, it’s a rough read.  I’ve not finished it.  It’s so true.  I think that’s interesting because it gets to the idea that works of art teach you how to experience them. My favorite works of art are works that teach you through the process of seeing them.  This is what I try to do in my music through the course of forms. I try to have people learn how to hear the piece via the order of events. The more it goes on, the more it’s about the memory of the thing. So yeah, it’s funny, I think I lean more towards the linguistic as a composer in that I’m interested in language that’s understandable, perceptible, and followable.  If I’m not following my own story musically, then it’s not interesting to me.  Not that there can’t be moments of surprise, but the surprise is also part of the language.

FJO:  Well that’s the thing.  Surprise comes because if you know these chords and it suddenly goes somewhere different from progressions you’ve heard before, that gives the music an element of surprise.

CC:  I also think it’s interesting to be a composer and to have grown up in an age where that’s all happened already, all the revolutions. The Berlin Wall has fallen and so has the musical Berlin Wall, so you’re sitting there and you’re like, “Okay, there is nothing I can possibly imagine that could be accomplished through just the act of radical revolution in music.”  Maybe it’s possible, but to me that’s not what’s interesting.  There are so many things that are built totally out of noise, out of a completely impossible to understand vocabulary—or not impossible to understand, but that wall had already been pushed up against to such a point even within the aesthetics of modernism.

People are more interested now in theater and things that are actually more familiar. I remember seeing [Helmut] Lachenmann give a lecture in New York. Apparently every time he meets some player, they’re like, “Oh, Mr. Lachenmann, hear this sound.”  And it would be like krrr-krrrr-, and he’s just like, “Okay, that’s great.” Even he thought it was silly that people would walk up to him and give him new weird sounds.  This isn’t what I do as an artist.  I’m not just trying to make the weirdest sound possible.  I’m trying to make music and art, so I think as a composer I’m much more interested in building a language that is as broad as a linguistic thing. I have so many things in my vocabulary as a composer, which are all syntheses.  How much can I import into my language as a composer and still have it be consistent?

FJO:  I came across a piece of yours recently which I had not before that I was floored by—the Violin Sonata. But it’s somewhat of an outlier in your output.

CC:  Is it an outlier?

FJO:  Well, in the most obvious way, it’s an outlier because your pieces are almost inevitably inspired by literature and have these beautiful evocative titles. Whereas calling something a violin sonata merely tells listeners about the form and instrumentation of the piece.

CC:  That’s a good point.  The funny thing about it is I almost feel like it’s poetic.  The poetic reference of a violin sonata is what the point of that is, more than anything else.  It’s obviously not a sonata in the classical sense. It has sort of a superficial resemblance to it but, to me, what was interesting about that whole thing was the idea of the poetic notion of these two people on stage playing these instruments.  That’s why I called it a sonata more than anything else.  I do know though that there was a concert program recently that was all my music, and I was like, “Oh, you should have included my Violin Sonata.  It would have been a nice thing on that concert.” And [the person who put the concert together said], “Oh, I hate sonatas.” So I think that the piece turned off at least one person by having that title.

FJO:  Wow!  Yet he might have had a completely different reaction had you given the piece some beautiful, unique, evocative title, because words automatically trigger previous associations.

CC:  Right.

FJO:  But the words “violin sonata” also trigger associations. It gave him a very specific message, and that message was the history of every other violin sonata that’s ever been written by every other composer.  And had you previously written three other pieces that you called violin sonatas and you called this the fourth, those words would immediately reference the fact that you had done this same kind of piece three times previously.

CC:  I can’t even imagine that.  It was definitely a one-off calling something a sonata.  It was really funny, I remember my friend Timo Andres had a piece done at the New York Philharmonic, a piano concerto, and it’s just called The Blind Bannister. Apparently the New York Philharmonic insisted upon stylizing it Piano Concerto No. 3, “The Blind Bannister.”

“It just felt almost oddly romantic to call something a sonata.”

I think most composers are a bit reticent to throw out these titles.  But for me it was actually very much about the poetic notion of a sonata and writing a piece for these two people who happen to both be—more than most of the people I write for—immersed in the classical repertory in a really specific way.  It’s not like it’s ironic.  It just felt almost oddly romantic to call something a sonata.

FJO:  I didn’t know that story about Timo’s piece; that’s really interesting.  I see the title Piano Concerto No. 3, and I am immediately curious about the earlier two if I haven’t heard them yet. So, for me, giving something such a title is as much autobiographical as it is associative with previous music history. It makes you want to know the pre-history of where the composer came from for that piece, almost to the point that it can’t live independently the way a piece with a beautiful title can.

CC:  I almost feel like calling a piece Violin Sonata was maybe unfair to an audience because it’s almost like me saying, “If you know all my works, you know I never give titles like this.”  I don’t have a bunch of sonatas.  I have literally one sonata.  Since every other piece has an evocative, poetic title, you almost know that on some level that this title has a kind of layer of evocation as well. This is unfair because obviously not everyone knows all my pieces, or any of my pieces.

FJO:  I tried to get to know them all over the past couple of weeks.  We’ll see how far we get talking about all of them!  But the other thing I thought about, before we move on from the Violin Sonata, in your notes for it you wrote that you’ve avoided calling pieces sonatas because you didn’t want to be part of that chain of influences.  Your music exists outside of that, but once you give a work such a title, it forces the comparison.

CC:  I felt like it was time for me, that I felt comfortable. To sort of side swipe your answer, there was this interview with Morton Feldman late in his life, and I found it to be such an interesting interview because he talks about Steve Reich. He was at that point in his life when he finally came out admitting that he sort of loves Steve Reich, but he talked about the instrumentation. I wouldn’t say it was disparaging, but Feldman’s thing was that the instrumentation is the piece.  A Feldman piece might be for piano, flute, and percussion. It will have this incredible combination, and it’s so beautiful and it achieves an otherworldliness. Whereas Reich is like, “Alright, I’m finding an ensemble.  It doesn’t matter.  No one cares about me anyway.  So there’s going to be two clarinets, and four singers, and a million percussionists, so it’s going to be amplified.”

I think that that Reich tradition is the one that I felt more comfortable in initially as a composer because of the lack of history and being able to find my own combinations. Importing ideas into more classical ensembles is something that I’ve done more lately.  It’s somewhere my career has gone.

A wall filled with framed pages of scores by John Cage

In addition to admiring Morton Feldman, Cerrone also has a great fondness for another New York School composer, John Cage, and an entire wall of his apartment is lined with framed pages of Cage scores.

FJO:  There’s also the practical matter of writing for a so-called classical ensemble; these tend to be ensembles that there are many of.  If you write for your own particularly created ad-hoc group, it’s possibly the only group that has that specific instrumentation and can therefore be the only group that can play the piece.

CC:  That’s true.

FJO:  How many ensembles are there with two clarinets and lots of percussion? By necessity, Steve Reich formed his own ensemble and worked with musicians he knew, but later in his life, he also began writing for more standard ensembles. The piece of his that won the Pulitzer, Double Sextet, is a piece for a “Pierrot plus percussion” sextet. Of course, he doubled all the parts, which is the thing he does, but it’s a standard ensemble. When people now want to put together a performance of, say, Music for 18 Musicians, they have to put a special ensemble together, whereas there are tons of “Pierrot plus percussion” ensembles out there already; Double Sextet can be played by any of them.

CC: I’m sure there’ve been a million performances of Double Sextet.  On the other hand, I think he was really smart in the pieces that were for these larger combinations.  He more or less wrote evening-length works.  So you can justify doing Music for 18 [Musicians], because that’s the concert.  If it was an eight-minute piece for the Music for 18 Musicians instrumentation, I think it would never get performed.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you bring up Feldman when you talk about the Violin Sonata because, as you said, the instrumentation was the piece for him, and toward the end of his life the titles he gave pieces would just be what the instruments are.

CC:  Oh yeah, like Piano, Violin, Clarinet.  Well, that’s the thing I was tapping into almost with the sonata thing.  It’s a poetic thing about these instruments—the poetic potential of just sound.  A big part of the spectrum of where I sit as an artist is the sound thing from Feldman plus this allusive thing in literature. Get those two things together and you more or less have my music.

FJO:  But the other thing about your sonata is that I think it’s very carefully not referencing other sonatas.  That’s not what it’s about.

CC:  No.  Definitely not.

FJO:  It’s about referencing the techniques required by virtuosos who play together and referencing this idea of a duo.  This might have not even been a conscious thing on your part and perhaps it’s even something I inferred that isn’t even there, but the only thing that I heard in the Violin Sonata that associates it with any other music is at some point toward the middle of the end of the first movement, I heard things that sound like ‘80s power pop chords.

CC:  Yeah.  Totally. I always call it the Springsteen section.

FJO:  Ha!  How did that wind up in there?

CC:  It was really funny because I remember Rachel [Lee Priday] at the premiere introduced it that way, and I thought, “Don’t say that.”  But it’s so true.  I think I should just own it.  More and more I’m interested in bringing everything in my world as an artist into my music, and that includes pop music for sure.  I grew up on a diet of it.  I recently discovered the Björk album Vespertine, which is amazing and maybe my favorite now. But I had never heard it, because when I was 18, I decided I was going to become a composer, so I decided to only listen to classical music and never listen to any pop music ever again.  The extremism of the 18-year old, I think, is kind of a funny, beautiful thing.  But I realized I’d never heard that album because between 2002 and 2005, I didn’t listen to any pop music; I sort of just immersed myself in classical music entirely.  And then I was like, “Wait a minute.  This is dumb.  I love all this music.”  I was just being really absolutist and silly, but I have holes from that period.

“When I was 18, I decided to only listen to classical music and never listen to any pop music ever again.”

Anyway, I think that for me the thing is to bring in as wide as possible a reference of things that I love. It’s not ideological.  It’s just like the whole piece sets up that moment; it’s an extremely stretched out version of just three pop chords.  You’ve got all these natural harmonics.  They’re all sounding pitches on the violin, open string harmonics.  They’re all super tonal because harmonics on the strings of an instrument that’s tuned in fifths are going to be tonal.  So when you compress them all into a single moment, it just becomes one, four, and five chords.  It’s literally just chords that came out of the overtone series on a violin, but I love the idea of the reference to kind of a pop song, too.

FJO:  I want to unpack your decision to avoid listening to pop music in the early years of the 21st century. By then, the schism between so-called pop and so-called classical music was less pronounced. It seems like those walls were coming down, certainly in terms of what other composers were writing.  So it seems weird that you were putting the walls back up.

CC:  I went through a series of musical rebellions in high school.  I studied piano, classically from a young age, and I played jazz. I was starting to compose, and I played electric guitar and bass.  I played a lot of music of all different kinds; I was very immersed in all kinds of music.  I think that there was this weird thing where I just had the ultimate rebellion into conservatism by accident, because I’d heard all this post-noise, post-rock music. I was listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor in high school and at some point, I thought this is actually kind of like classical music.  As I went further and further into long form things, I weirdly wound up back at the other end. I think it was also that I grew up on Long Island, which feels like I grew up in basically a cultural wasteland.  There was no culture really at all.  Capitalism fills the holes of the suburbs with more capitalism, so there was commerce and there was popular art, which I’m not denigrating at all, but there was no sort of serious visual arts because it’s a place that’s sort of cut off, other than from New York City, and it sort of relies upon New York City. It has never developed a culture of its own really, except for a few odd places here and there.  So, unless you go to New York City, you don’t see orchestras, you don’t see classical music.  You don’t go to museums, and you don’t see theater.

FJO:  Even though the Hamptons has this big gallery scene?

CC:  Yeah, I guess so. But I wasn’t sophisticated enough as a 17-year old to know about the gallery scene in the Hamptons.  But I was literate.  I think that’s actually why I have this great love of literature; it was the one thing you could really get deep into since you could get books.  There was actually a great independent bookstore in my town which was my favorite place. Amazingly, it’s still there and it’s still an independent bookstore.  Anyway, I think that the notion of becoming a classical composer was this gigantic rebellion against Long Island and the American notion of suburbia. So I think as a result of that gesture, I went really far with it. I was an insufferable, pretentious 18-year old who was like, “I only listen to Beethoven.”  Then I chilled out a little bit and became a little bit less insufferable and learned to remember that I love all kinds of music.

Three superimposed scores are propped up on Cerrone's piano, Stockhausen's Klavierstucke XI, an original composition, and a Beethoven sonata.

FJO:  So when you cut everything else off, were you only listening to older music?

CC:  I was discovering at that point.  As an 18-year old on Long Island, access to contemporary music is extremely limited.  My library had a couple of Kronos Quartet CDs, so I do remember hearing the first tracks of that famous Black Angels disc.  I was like, “What is this?  This is so discordant.”  But I think the first music I really loved was actually more like the neo-romantic tradition. I still think there are some really great pieces in that tradition.  And then I discovered Lutosławski and Ligeti. What I loved about that music and what I still love about it is its mix of influences.  And I discovered minimalism.  Then I discovered Cage and European Modernism, and I went backwards from there. I had teachers who were encouraging me to discover more and more; that was really, really lucky.

FJO:  Did you listen to music from other cultures at all?

CC:  I think that was an even later thing, the period where people were just dumping stuff from hard drives onto hard drives. I think probably somewhere through the middle of college I discovered gamelan and then I discovered gagaku and West African drumming. That was all probably later in my development, but it was obviously hugely influential.  I discovered American shape-note singing.  It’s such an incredible tradition.  It really sits with me.  And I discovered Sardinian music. That moment when you could just dump anything from a hard drive onto another was an amazing moment.  I mean, it also ruined the music industry, but there was a moment where you just could discover anything.

FJO:  Getting back to the comparisons between how music and language function.  We’re saying all these words to each other in a language we both grew up speaking and the words flow naturally without us having to consciously stop and think about each one. Certainly that happens in music when people immersed in an idiom improvise together and respond to each other’s phrases in real time. But when you’re alone writing a novel or creating a notated musical composition designed for other people to perform, there’s a lot of pre-meditation that goes into that process even though a lot of what comes out is also the result of a subconscious absorption of things you have either read or heard or both.

CC:  I feel that way absolutely.  I’ll come up with something and it will feel really original, and then I’ll realize it’s just a half-remembered version of something I heard 15 years ago.  I think that 18-to-22 period is such an important period. I read somewhere that your brain is the most malleable at that point.  It’s like a sponge, and you just absorb everything. I was genuinely very curious, but I was also very lucky to have access to a lot of stuff. I remember my teacher in college, Nils Vigeland, would give me a list every single week with 15 pieces.  I’d run to the library and study everything.  That was the moment for me to discover a ton of stuff.  And I think all that is subconsciously in my vocabulary as a composer.

FJO:  You’ve actually composed a piece that seems like an attempt to turn into musical sounds the way our brains process memories—Memory Palace.

CC:  I’m surprisingly un-premeditated as a composer.  I don’t plan as much as you might think.  I just sort of keep going, and then I work backwards to make it seem that I planned it.  That piece is for no real traditional percussion instruments.  They all have to be made.  So since I was stripped of the possibilities of traditional instruments, I thought I guess I better, like, think back on all the times that I didn’t really have an instrument and had 12 beer bottles left over from a party and filled them up with different amounts of water and we made a song out of it.  It started as improvisation with a friend and electronics, and it just kind of went from there.

FJO:  I think it really captures what you described earlier as a pre-psychological, emotive moment. But, because of the indeterminate elements you’ve put into this score, the fact that performers must make their own instruments in order to realize it, it becomes very personal and very specific to whomever is interpreting it. So I wonder how divergent performances have been and how representative you feel they have all been of your intentions.

CC:  How do I put this?  There’s a moment when pieces stop being something you wrote almost and they start to become part of the repertoire. That is the most amazing feeling, but it’s a very strange feeling when you see something so far from where you conceived it.  It’s a surprisingly fixed piece in terms of the pitch choices being notated, but I think that the sounds, the colors, are the most interesting part—the timbres.   I remember one person, his house was being demolished.  He moved and he saved all the wood from his deck and took the wood for that piece out of it.  That’s so cool.  And I was at this party recently, and this guy I happened to have corresponded with, whose son is a percussionist, came up to me and said, “I want to thank you.  My son played Memory Palace and we made the instruments together.  We don’t really have that kind of relationship.  But since he had to do it, I helped him and it was this really big bonding experience.” That is probably one of the more meaningful things that anyone has ever said to me about my music.

“It’s a very strange feeling when you see something so far from where you conceived it.”

FJO:  That’s beautiful.

CC:  It’s something I’m sure I’d do with my own dad, although we argue when we build things together.  [The electronic component of] that piece literally had a set of wind chimes I recorded that are in my parents’ house still.  I was digging really deep with that piece. I think that that’s been the process for me as an artist, generally speaking. The thing that’s really hard is to emotionally strip yourself down to exposed places, but that will yield something powerful.

FJO:  Interestingly, the two pieces we talked about in detail so far, the Violin Sonata and Memory Palace, are both very much about you having an idea and then running with it.  Those ideas were not things you got from somewhere else, although as we’ve been saying, nothing exists independently; everything comes from something.  Still, you had no guide to take you on a path; whereas, with the majority of the pieces you’ve written—obviously all of your vocal pieces but even many of the instrumental ones—the inspiration will come from something that is concrete that already had existed in literature, whether it’s a novel or a set of poems.  So I’m wondering, in terms of what you just said about stripping yourself down emotionally to find this essence, how do you work within something that already exists to find the thing that’s you?

CC:  I think it’s as simple as the way you read a book and you relate to it.  You don’t have to be like that person to relate to it.  I’m reading this book by Teju Cole right now, and he’s a Nigerian-American writing about his experiences. Obviously that’s not an experience I relate to, but I still relate to the book.  And I still relate to the things he says and does in the book.  I think that’s true of most of the texts I’ve dealt with. I’m sure I have a very different experience than most of the writers I set. You can still relate to them, and they become about you anyway. People have commented on how my interpretation of works tends to become about me.  It becomes about how I feel when I read something, and so I think it’s the same kind of emotional thing.  It’s just filtered through someone else’s text.

A paperback copy of Teju Cole's novel Open City rests on top of a page of Cerrone's music manuscript.

FJO:  So I want to dig deeper into reading and its importance for you—how much you read, where you read, what you read, how you find things to read, and when that moment comes and you start pondering whether or not you can turn it into a piece of your music.

CC:  I try to read in the mornings, as much as I can, but it varies, honestly.  We all probably wish we read more, but I try to put an hour in in the morning, whatever’s going on.  And the periods where I do that are the really fecund creatively for me, and they always affect how I think in a really great way. Days when I wake up and check my email and check my text messages and go on Twitter are probably less creative.  People usually recommend things to me, and I’m always lucky to either hear someone or, as I’ve had some really great experiences of late in different residencies, literally meet the author, get to know the works of my author friends. I have a lot of very literate friends, and I grew up in a family that reads a lot.

“Days when I wake up and check my email and check my text messages and go on Twitter are probably less creative.”

Starting from there and then outward, it’s always just some sort of random connection. Some people say it’s so much easier to write a piece based on a text because you have that guide structurally and that’s half true.  But the part they don’t talk about is the volume one goes through to find a source text. The research aspect of it is insane. For every poem I set, I read 500 poems.  This one is too long, or this one doesn’t quite get the feeling right.

FJO:  So what’s the “Aha!” moment when you’re reading something?  Is it the very first reading and you’ll say, “Oh, this really grabs me.  I hear things in my head; I hear sound.” Or will you come back to something after reading it a few times and internalizing it, and then decide you can do something with it?

CC:  More often than not, it’s usually pretty immediate.  When you read a poem and you’re like, “Oh, okay, clearly.”  And it’s usually the length.  “This is short.  Great.“ So that’s often the “Aha!” moment.

FJO:  Like those peculiar Bill Knott poems you set, which I knew nothing about before I heard your Naomi Songs, even though Knott had posted them all online. How did you discover his writing?

CC:  I have this friend who’s the most crazily literary person and he dumped a ton of stuff on my hard drive that he found on the internet.  Those Knott poems are so great, right?  I found them, and he died a year later, and it was like, “Oh God, how am I going to get the rights to these?  Who even executes his estate?” But I found the person who had written his obituary in The New Yorker and he managed to put me in touch with his executor, and he was super nice about it.  Then there are certain authors. For example I love Lydia Davis, but I feel that so many composers have done such brilliant things—David Lang, Kate Soper.  There are just all these great pieces with Lydia Davis texts. I don’t need to be the fifth person to write one. She’s brilliant and great, but there’s something about the discovery; one hopes that in the world that we’re in, the texts I use are often discoveries for people.

“One hopes that in the world that we’re in, the texts I use are often discoveries for people.”

FJO:  I remember when I first learned about Lydia Davis. I was the music person on a multi-disciplinary panel many years back, and the literary person on that panel was trashing the short stories of Lydia Davis because they’re way too short and undeveloped. This person seemed to treasure long, dense work. But that negative reaction actually made me want to seek out her work and read it, and when I did I instantly fell in love with it, too. At that point, nobody in the music community seemed to know who she was, and in the back of my head I thought it would be really cool for her writing to be set to music.  Then everybody else did it!

CC:  Poor Lydia probably gets these emails every week: “Can I use your text?” I learned about Lydia Davis because I heard Kate Soper’s piece, and I thought, “Oh my God, this writing’s amazing.”  But maybe since I had my moment with that already through music, it was less interesting to me to try to do the thing again.

FJO:  Then why Italo Calvino?

CC:  Yeah, he’s well known.

FJO:  Very well known, definitely not a discovery. And yet his writing inspired several pieces of yours.  Most obviously Invisible Cities, your weird, wacky, magical, wonderful piece that’s more than a setting of this pre-existing thing, but which was obviously inspired by it.

CC:  Calvino to me is so inspiring as an artist, and I think he was the person who helped me discover how to become the composer I wanted to be, much more than any composer. He’s such an amazing writer obviously, and I read quite a few of his books.  Some were funny or cute. Well, not cute.  That’s the wrong word.  He would have hated that.  But they have a lightness to them.  He loved the word lightness and talked about the word lightness a lot.  Invisible Cities had that, but it also had a little bit more depth and a little more emotion to me.  It read very emotional to me.  I don’t know if others read it that way.

I cared and still do care about structure so much—interesting, complicated structures. But I’m also interested in writing music that hopefully people think is beautiful and sensuous and lyrical. So I read that book, and I thought to myself that this is a writer who can accomplish lyricism and also complexity, but not how complexity has come to mean unpleasant somehow.  Not that people actually think that, but I think there is this sort of subconscious subtext with difficulty.

“To me, Calvino’s complicated and complex, but he’s not difficult.”

To me, Calvino’s not difficult. He’s complicated and complex, but he’s not difficult.  To me, he’s effortless, and giving the illusion of effortlessness was so important.  So I read his books, and I’m like, “This is what I want to do as a composer.”  It was such a moment for me.  And so I definitely wanted to make things out of his amazing works.

FJO:  So the idea of doing a piece that’s experiential, that sort of breaks the fourth wall and takes place in multiple locations, breaking the space-time-proscenium continuum of how we experience music theater pieces, where in the process of creating this did that become how it was going to be done?

CC:  Well, I was writing this piece obviously through grad school, and I didn’t really know what it was going to be in a sense.  I knew that the text was sort of the anchor. The text is all based directly from the novel. But I knew that this was not an opera in the sense of we’re going to go ahead and tell a traditional story.  This was a piece that is a meditation.  And I knew it needed something very, very unconventional.

I had applied for the VOX Workshop at New York City Opera, and it was accepted into it. That’s where I met Yuval Sharon and we became friends. We did this workshop, and that was the culmination of me realizing what it was. It was originally scored for orchestra and it had all these opera singers, and it was just not right.  I knew there was something there and I kept going with it, but I knew that the version of the piece was not the right version at all.  So I pared it down to a chamber ensemble—a sort of unusual chamber ensemble in the Reich tradition of having multiple pianos and percussion in the group.  And it sort of kept going and I still didn’t know what it was. I had this workshop at this thing called the Yale Institute of Music Theater; Beth Morrison was producing it at the time.  She literally said something along the lines of “I don’t know who would be the right person to direct this.  It would have to be someone with a crazy, out-there vision.  Maybe someone like Yuval.”  It was really funny.  I’m like, “Well, that would be great.” And so when he moved out to L.A. and he called me, I had come to the conclusion that this should not be a staged piece.  It should have people all over the place, all over throughout the hall.  It was going to be amplified, and it was going to have movement, and that’s all I had at that point.

So Yuval comes to me with this idea, “What if we do it in the train station with movement and using headphones so you can hear everything perfectly, but the experience is flexible?” I think I said yes immediately.  Then I can do all the sound design stuff too, and I can have all sorts of crazy amplification ideas.  That’s where my work was going already anyway.  The idea of the train station was entirely his, but it seemed perfect. I think it was actually sort of at the behest of Chad Smith from the L.A. Phil.  They had done the overture and Yuval was sort of casting around what to do, and Chad suggested what about this piece.  And Yuval’s like, “Of course, I know this piece from VOX.” And it was kismet!

FJO:  You mentioned sound design, which is interesting given your years of avoiding listening to pop music. After all, so much of what pop music recordings are about is their sound design, whereas people whose work comes out of the so-called classical music tradition rarely think in terms of shaping recorded sound objects and bringing certain things out in the studio.

CC:  Something that was revelatory for me was that when I went to graduate school, I was randomly assigned to work in the recording studio.  I didn’t really know anything about electronic music at that time.  I got a C in electronic music in college.  It was my only C and was sort of a badge of honor.  But then I started working with microphones, and that was the moment where everything started to spill back into my life in terms of technology. I got really interested in technology and sound design.  I realized that I sort of hate how classical music has been recorded, one mic 50 feet away from the orchestra, no EQ-ing, incredibly loud and incredibly quiet at different times.  That was the moment where we started doing Invisible Cities. So I’m working with Nick Tipp, our sound designer, and I was like, “Oh, let’s compress this and let’s have these really quiet moments be really loud.” There’s whispering, and the whispering’s super loud.  I got to make a studio album live, and it was incredible to me.  Actually learning how to do it was incredibly important.

FJO:  That surrealness of loud whispers mirrors the surrealism of Calvino.

CC:  Absolutely.

FJO:  So you were able to put your own stamp on it, but that text is what guided you.

CC:  Yeah, 100 percent.  Everything in the opera comes out of the book.

FJO:  So what happens when you set a writer who is completely different, like Tao Lin, whose poems are the basis for your song cycle I Will Learn To Love A Person? Or maybe in your opinion, he’s not so different.

CC:  He could not be more different.

FJO:  Yet his words speak to you as well, and they’ve brought out music from you.

CC:  I spent more or less three years in and out working on that opera. My identity was formed around it as an artist and as a composer. So for the next vocal piece—it was literally the next, it was the first vocal piece I wrote after that—I was like, “Okay, I love Calvino; he’s a genius.  But I need the complete opposite now.”  Calvino is semi-contemporary; the book is from the ‘70s. But I wanted to do something written, like, last year.  I’ve noticed that whenever composers set texts, they always tend to refer to something much older. If they’re not setting Auden or Whitman, they’re setting 20 or 30-year old things.  I didn’t really know anything about contemporary poetry, and so I sort of dove in.

I had this friend of a friend who was a poet.  She’d written this article about this movement called the New Sincerity.  I think the term New Sincerity came out of this David Foster Wallace article called “E Unibus Pluram.” It’s the opposite of E pluribus unum. He was talking about irony and postmodernism and how television absorbs it. I think he was very ahead of his time in that regard.  I see the internet as the same thing.  TV was not a big deal compared to how crazy the internet is in our culture. The final rebels will be ones who dare “single-entendre principles.” I love that quote so much.  That was where that movement sort of took its “Invictus” from.  I was very interested in that movement, because it was something I was really relating to at that time in my life, writing music that does not have a sheen of a postmodern irony around it.  I wanted something that was very direct.  So my friend Jen Moore wrote an article on two poets, Matt Hart and Tao Lin.  And I saw these Tao Lin poems and I was like, “Oh, this is perfect.”  They’re basically song lyrics.  Sometimes people struggle with the tone of his poems, which is very hard to pin down—sort of ironic, but also funny, sweet, and sensitive. There is this one poem, which I love and I almost set. I decided against it. The last line is “I AM FUCKED,” existentially in capital letters, 43 times in a row. I loved how Tao Lin was just really direct and really honest.  I loved how he exposed himself in those poems emotionally, so I thought isn’t this kind of wildly rebellious to have a song cycle where people actually discuss deep-seated fears and pains, but not in a sophisticated way.  Just like, “I am this.”

FJO:  I know his novels more than I know his poetry.  His novels are so twisted.

CC:  Oh, like Eeeee Eee Eeee

FJO:  My favorite one is Richard Yates, which appropriates names of teen stars for its main characters but isn’t actually about them.

CC:  Oh yeah, Dakota Fanning.

FJO:  And Haley Joel Osment. The whole novel is basically a G-chat between these two characters whose names seem to just be there for the sake of irony. Because of that, I find it somewhat incongruous that he gets lumped in with the New Sincerity. To me his novels seem completely ironic.

CC:  I would say that that’s somewhat true.  Taipei, his most recent book, is, I think, the closest to being emotionally direct.

FJO:  I haven’t read that one yet.

CC:  It’s super good.

A paperback copy of Tao Lin's novel Taipei is on the top of a stack of books.

FJO:  But another one of his novels, Shoplifting from American Apparel, is also super ironic.

CC:  Yeah, definitely, I think he’s still grappling with irony. I think everyone’s grappling with irony all the time.  The poems are the most direct thing he wound up writing.

FJO:  You mentioned David Foster Wallace and I see Infinite Jest on your bookshelf.  That one’s hard to hide because it’s so huge.  But you’ve not set him.

CC:  There are tons of writers I love who I did not set.  They tend to be verbose.  And they feel complete.  I don’t think there’s anything you can do.  The thing about writers that I set is that there has to be room in the text for more.  Another poet who I feel that way about, and he’s one of my favorite poets, is Frank O’Hara.  I don’t know if there’s anything you could do to a Frank O’Hara poem that would make it any better than what it is.  It feels complete; everything’s there.  So I wouldn’t want to set his poetry, even though I love it, you know.

“There are tons of writers I love who I did not set. They tend to be verbose. And they feel complete.”

FJO:  And besides, if you were setting David Foster Wallace, what would be the musical equivalent of a footnote?

CC:  We’ll come back to this later!

FJO:  Literature has obviously been key to the pieces of yours that have texts, but it has even informed many of your completely instrumental pieces like High Windows, the gorgeous string orchestra piece you wrote for the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, which you named after a line from a poem by Philip Larkin.  How did that play out?  Did you read the poem and decide that, instead of setting it, it would influence you musically in other ways?

CC:  Usually there’s some kind of synchrony.  Titles come at all different points in the composition process.  Sometimes it’s like, “Bam, that’s it.” Then sometimes it’s like, “This was what I was doing.”  That is often an equally powerful thing to me. And sometimes you’re just desperate and you really need a title.  Usually it’s pretty rare that I have a really clear premeditated notion of what I’m doing when I’m starting a piece.  Usually it finds itself over the course of a piece.

FJO:  So how did the title come about for Will There Be Singing, particularly leaving off the question mark?

CC:  That was really funny.  I remember I got a number of questions about that. Is there a question mark?  And I’m like, no.  “Will there be singing.”  Not, “will there be singing?”

FJO:  But that also comes from somewhere—from Bertolt Brecht, though obviously in translation. Although he’s the guy who also came up with the line “Is here no telephone?” in English for Mahagonny.

CC:  And “Oh, don’t ask why.”

FJO:  I think there’s a question mark in Brecht’s original.

CC:  Yeah, and I think the Brecht line is actually: “Will there also be singing?”

FJO: It’s interesting that the source was Brecht, since it’s essentially making a political statement about our time. There’s a famous anecdote about Brecht in East Germany after the war.  He’d written plays that were censored and couldn’t be staged, and someone from the West interviewed him about it and asked, “Since you’ve always been a force for freedom of expression, how can you live in this society where they’re censoring your work? “ And he said, “Well, that means they read it!”

CC:  Oh, Brecht.  So clever.

FJO: So what’s the actual story with the title?

CC:  That one was pretty clear from the beginning.  I started writing that piece in January 2017 when the world felt like it had fallen apart.  I knew that quote and I emailed it to Martin Bresnick the day after the election.  This has to be the mantra.  It was really funny because this is also how I know Yuval and I are artistic soul mates: he was obsessed with the same quote, and sent out something about that quote in a newsletter with The Industry.  So we’re clearly in the same zone.

The piece starts with chords that are me feeling anxiety about the world.  They are just harsh chords and it goes from there.  But it doesn’t feel like a political statement because I don’t know if I’m interested in making political statements. If you haven’t made your mind up about Donald Trump, I don’t think my orchestra piece is going to convince you one way or the other.  It’s more just a reflection of the times that we’re in and who I am as a person at this moment.

FJO:  It’s now almost nine months later and the world still feels like it’s falling apart, but it does seem like there will still be singing no matter what.

“Verbosity is ontology for me.”

CC:  Seems that way.  I’m starting this new piece right now. It’s always so funny what comes out of texts.  The most pretentious way I ever put it is that verbosity is ontology for me. It has to be heard as words, and thought of that way, for it to exist. There’s an inscription that was an epigraph to another book of poems by this writer John K. Samson by this guy named Tom Wayman: “Weak things have power.” Democracy can only exist when we are weak, when we are fragile, because then we want it to be democracy and not autocracy.  It’s something I’ve been really connected with lately. What is the opposite of Donald Trump?  It’s someone who admits their fragility.  This is a person who can’t ever admit fragility, and the response to any kind of thing is anger.  In a sense, while I deeply empathize with the anger of so many people in the world right now against him, admitting your own fragility as a person is the political statement that I want to make.  I’m a flawed person, and I want to express it. I have fears. I have anxieties and I have pain.  That, to me, is the way forward.  The way forward is not people screaming at each other.

Christopher Cerrone talking in his apartment.

A Letter to Leslie Bassett (1923-2016)

Gabriela Lena Frank and Leslie Bassett
Anita and Leslie Bassett with Gabriela Lena Frank and Paul Yeon Lee

Anita and Leslie Bassett with Gabriela Lena Frank and Paul Yeon Lee in February 2012.

My dearest mentor, my teacher, my role model, my Leslie:

I miss you like crazy. It’s been a few years since we last talked, a total insanity considering how often in my daily life, I still hear your words of counsel from our music lessons of old. I can see the way your hands used to hold your knees when you laughed while seated, head back and eyes closing in mirth at some bit of mischief I would jaw off, nervous and eager to amuse. I remember your distinctive walk, frail and steely both, across worn carpet to the treble-bright piano in your studio, thick music score in hand. When I was over early at the house, you and beautiful Anita would fry up corn pancakes while discussing a marvelous new clarinetist who bled “for his composer and played like it was his last breath!” These days, when I hear the clarinet, I swear, in a fit of quasi-synesthesia, that I’m tasting corn…

The love that a student has for her teacher is a special one. I was not a child when, in the ’90s, you stepped out of retirement for a brief stint to become a mentor for a few lucky students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In fact, I was already experienced and cognizant of the usefulness of having someone to idealize and be guided by, especially a composer so widely revered and respected. I even expected it. What I hadn’t expected was to be consistently wowed—humbled really—by your humanity. Honestly, I can’t imagine the wellspring of personal experience and patience you reached into when assessing the counterpoint and orchestration of my well-meaning but so very naïve scores, those earliest attempts to tease out a voice as a Peruvian-American with Chinese and Lithuanian Jewish forbearers, as a woman with hippy-feminist roots, and even as a disabled individual. Although you were from a certain era of “old school” American men that might not have been surrounded by the most diverse peers, you easily talked with me about the most volatile of subjects affecting me deeply as a young composer: Racism and “playing the race card,” cultural tributes vs. cultural parasitism, ambition in one’s career and ambition in one’s personal artistry, sexism, and the distracting, god-awful noisy politicization of it all. I was well aware of taking up the time of a man who had been a young soldier in one of the world’s ugliest wars, who later experienced what no parent ever should in losing a young child, and whose own face was startlingly altered after fighting serious illness. You still believed in teaching and writing great music, and that made me even more devoted.

Knowing well how your eyes shone to work with performers who played from the gut, leaving it all out on the stage, I remember putting my fingers to work in the only meaningful gesture I could think of to properly thank you when I left school: recording your complete piano and piano/violin works on a CD. It was a Frank family affair with my sweet mom, the stained glass artist, designing a cover to your specs and with my father, the Mark Twain scholar, editing the booklet texts. (I couldn’t figure out a role for my scientist brother.) In the recording sessions, I threw myself into the heady mix of tonality and atonality that was your hallmark, wrestling with the terse lines that needed to suddenly sprawl, or pulling symphonic colors out of the Steinway borrowed from the Detroit Symphony. Definitely, for a brief time, I caught the bug that unjaded new music performers have: Wanting an esteemed composer’s approval so bad, it’s like needing benediction from the pope.

You taught even when you didn’t mean to. Introducing me to the joys of Wallace and Gromit? Priceless. Gamely working a tough piece of jerky I offered when I forgot that chewing was difficult, an embarrassing faux pas? Likewise priceless. Playing hopeful yet gentlemanly matchmaker between me and a platonic male composer friend, declaring others to be “boobs?” So, so, so very priceless.

If I had stayed in better touch these past few years, I would have been able to tell you that said platonic male composer friend and I are still dear to one another while both happily married to others. I would be able to tell you that my career landed fine, and I think it will continue on all right. I would tell you that I absolutely did kick to the curb my illness and its ensuing “wellness” regime of surgeries and radiation. I would tell you about playing your Preludes piano suite in a men’s prison and them loving its craggy unyielding modernity; that, as you advised, I have a tough skin against bad/ignorant reviews but a necessary skeptical eye towards the good; and that I’ve bought land to raise Peruvian alpacas not far from where you grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, son of a pig farmer. I would tell you that having lived into my middle years now, I appreciate better how steadfastly you held onto your values as artist, teacher, colleague, father, and husband: Simply put, a man of integrity and honor. Most of all, I would tell you that I it pains me that performances of your beautiful music had slowed in recent times—an injustice—but that I would, nudged once again into action by your leaving us, do what I could to remind the world of your musical legacy.

You knew me as an atheist, more by circumstance than intentional design, but I confess that there is the rare occasion that someone gives me pause. I feel their incandescence, and I’m at a loss to explain their excellence in ordinary terms.

Rest in peace, my teacher, Leslie dear. I will always be missing you tons.



Gabriela Lena Frank, Leslie Bassett, and Paul Yeon Lee

Gabriela Lena Frank, Leslie Bassett, and Paul Yeon Lee.

Fay Victor: Opening Other Doors

A conversation in Fay Victor’s Brooklyn apartment
March 31, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

The word jazz has been used to describe music that has now been made for more than a century. (The origins of the word have been heavily debated, but its use to describe a musical genre can be traced back to almost exactly 100 years ago.) Given such a long period of time, an extremely wide range of music has existed under that moniker, to the point that defining what jazz is can be extremely difficult to do. Of course, defining anything limits it, and since one of the core qualities of jazz is that it has always been about personal expression, trying to limit it is antithetical to what it is. Still, some musical creators find the word itself to be limiting, like Fay Victor, an extraordinary vocalist, composer, lyricist, and bandleader who began her career as a straight-ahead jazz singer but who now makes extremely difficult to define music that embraces blues, psychedelic rock, Caribbean popular forms, experimentalism, even elements of classical music, and—well—jazz.

Victor’s catholic approach to music-making came from growing up in New York City, as well as spending a lot of time in Trinidad during her childhood.

“My earliest memories of music are probably hearing calypso and reggae and also Indian music,” she explained when we spoke to her at her apartment in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. “That was a big part, and also African-American music, urban contemporary music, especially of that period—people coming out of the Motown era and the Philly sound and also Aretha Franklin. And also around my house we listened to a bit of classical music, mainly Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky I didn’t really get into, but Beethoven I kind of dug. My mother listened to that a bit. And my mother also liked groups like the Commodores and I was a big fan of Earth, Wind, and Fire. Then I got into things like funk. So that was what I was growing up listening to. As it turned out, one of my closest friends as a child, her father was a serious jazz fan. He listened to a very famous radio station in the city at that time. I’d go over to their house, and I’d kind of hear sounds that I liked and that were appealing. But I didn’t know what I was really listening to. When I thought I was listening to jazz, it was things like Bob James or Earl Klugh. That’s what I thought was jazz, usually things I never admit.”

But once she became serious about music, Victor got very serious about jazz, deeply immersing herself in the music of Miles Davis and Betty Carter (who was her primary role model), and one of her formative experiences was performing with pianist Bertha Hope, widow of the legendary Elmo Hope.

“It was amazing being with her because she’s jazz history,” Victor remembered. “I learned a lot about the whole continuum of the music.”

But then Victor moved to the Netherlands and soon became involved in a much broader range of musical activities which included stints with blues bands and collaborations with members of the ICP and other pioneers of the Dutch free improv scene. Although she still acknowledges a relatively straight-ahead 1998 jazz vocal recording she made after arriving there (the deeply personal In My Own Room), the defining turning point for her was the 2004 album Lazy Old Sun on which she performs both standards and jazz instrumentals to which she added her own lyrics, plus songs by The Doors and The Kinks as well as originals she created with her husband, bassist Jochem van Dijk.

She opined, “I think by the time I got to Lazy Old Sun, I wasn’t really considering myself a jazz musician anymore, or a jazz singer; let me say that.”

Since moving back to New York City, her omnivorous musical tastes have led her to a fluid synthesis of a broad range of musical traditions in the open form music creates for her own Fay Victor Ensemble. She has also continued to turn angular jazz instrumentals into totally convincing songs, most notably Herbie Nichols SUNG, her concert presentation of material by the iconic, idiosyncratic, post-hard bop pianist which she has just returned from performing in various European cities. She also sang in Anthony Braxton’s opera Trillium E and will be featured in a new Darius Jones piece next February. Victor’s extreme broadmindedness extends into her teaching of other vocalists, a process in which she says that she uses jazz as a portal, not as an end game:

I think the whole process of trying to be a creative person is just an unpeeling of layers. You do it throughout a lifetime and I think if you’re honest, you’re trying to get deeper and get a deeper understanding of what you’re trying to say. … If I want to now, I’d do a primal scream in a performance, I feel comfortable enough to do that. Five years ago, that probably would have scared me. Even if I really wanted to, I might have held back. Now I don’t hold back.


Shelves crammed full of books and various electric guitars hanging on a wall

Fay Victor’s living room is filled with books and musical instruments.

Frank J. Oteri: I’ve been following you musically probably now for about a decade or so and have heard you perform in a very wide range of styles. But it’s always important to acknowledge how people identify themselves and why they identify themselves the way they do. On your website, you describe yourself as a “Brooklyn-based vocalist, composer, and educator.” Even though the word jazz is everywhere throughout your website and in your bio, it’s not in that little phrase.

Fay Victor: I stopped identifying myself as a jazz vocalist quite some time ago. When I started out, I was a purist. I really wanted to be specifically a jazz vocalist. I wanted to follow in the sort of continuum of the great jazz vocalists. And I felt that I might be able to do so with enough work and time put in. Then, at a certain point for me, things started to change and open up. I started to experience other musics that I found really compelling, so I wanted to investigate those musics. I also began to improvise as a vocalist. Around the same time I started to reconnect with music from my youth, which was not jazz. I came to jazz very, very late. So I started to realize that perhaps jazz might be a limiting phrase for what I was doing and beginning to do. Certainly with the original music that I write with my husband, I think jazz is just one component of that. It’s interesting that you say around my website the word jazz is everywhere. As much as I feel like I do a lot of different things, I do feel out of the tradition of jazz, but yet not a jazz vocalist. How confusing is that for an answer?

FJO: I’m going to make it even more confusing. Why is the word jazz limiting? What does the word jazz mean to you? What are your associations?

FV: My association is sort of a swing feel and improvisation within accepted structural boundaries, and the idea of personal expression which is what attracted me to jazz in the first place. It was a place to figure out your own voice. That was the point of becoming a jazz musician, so you could do that. Even though the materials all have a similar structure, the idea was you would sound like yourself. And people should be able to recognize you after hearing you for 30 seconds or something. That was something I found really desirable, as something to work towards and attain.

FJO: To further pick apart that phrase “vocalist, composer, and educator,” you put vocalist first. I imagine before you even thought about creating your own material, you were singing.

FV: Well, yes and no actually, because as I child I wrote a lot. I wrote much more than I sang. I sang more for fun and was sort of separated from it. When I sang what I wrote, it was more because it was kind of necessary to explain it to other people and to share it with other people. So in a way as a child, I saw myself as a songwriter first. But later on when I came back to music in my early adulthood, I saw myself as a singer first. But it took a couple years to actually call myself that.

FJO: So was there a time when you were creating music that you weren’t singing? Were you playing an instrument other than your own voice?

FV: No, but when I was writing as a kid, I was writing a little bit with guitar and also from my ear. I put together for fun a little band to kind of develop some ideas with. I’m talking about like pre-teen years, and then I kind of gave it up and actually went into dance for a while. And also I was athletic. So I ran track and played basketball and did a lot of other different things. Then, later on, I came back to music.

FJO: And you said growing up that jazz wasn’t really what you were listening to.

FV: No.

FJO: So what were you exposed to? What was the first music you were excited by and why?

FV: Well, my people are from the Caribbean, from Trinidad and Tobago, and I guess my earliest memories of music are probably hearing calypso and reggae and also Indian music, because there’s a pretty sizeable Indian population in Trinidad. I wasn’t born in Trinidad, but I spent a lot of time there as a child. So that was a big part, and also African-American music, urban contemporary music, especially of that period—people coming out of the Motown era and the Philly sound and also Aretha Franklin. And also around my house we listened to a bit of classical music, mainly Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky I didn’t really get into, but Beethoven I kind of dug. My mother listened to that a bit. And my mother also liked groups like the Commodores and I was a big fan of Earth, Wind, and Fire. Then I got into things like funk. So that was what I was growing up listening to. As it turned out, one of my closest friends as a child, her father was a serious jazz fan. He listened to a very famous radio station in the city at that time. I’d go over to their house, and I’d kind of hear sounds that I liked and that were appealing. But I didn’t know what I was really listening to. When I thought I was listening to jazz, it was things like Bob James or Earl Klugh. That’s what I thought was jazz, usually things I never admit.

FJO: You just did.

FV: I know. It’s documented for posterity.

FJO: Well, in one of the interviews I read with you, you talked about hearing Miles Davis for the first time, but it was his ‘80s stuff, not his ‘50s stuff with Coltrane or Bill Evans.

FV: Exactly.

FJO: But on the earliest album of yours that I know, you do a vocal version of one of the pieces from Kind of Blue.

FV: Right. Yes.

FJO: So Miles Davis was a formative influence on you.

FV: He was, and in that period when I was sort of really a jazz singer and going after it in that way, Miles Davis became really important as a way to phrase because, again, the way I understood the tradition was I had to find my own voice. I had to honor the masters and honor the leaders of this music, but at a certain point, I had to figure out what I wanted to say. There are all these people to listen to, but Miles gave me an opening on what could be vocally done in an interesting way with standards at that point. So he was a pretty strong influence at that point.

FJO: What I find so interesting is that in hearing jazz for the first time, there seems to be this dichotomy. There are people who lead groups, whatever instrument they’re playing, and they do covers of standards and do their own material, and they’re the leaders. Then you’ll have singers who work with a group, but they’re rarely given that same level of leadership. There’s usually some arranger, and they’re doing other people’s material. They almost never do their own material. Somebody like Abbey Lincoln was such a force because at some point, she turned around and said, “I’m not doing these misogynistic songbook songs anymore. I’m going to create my own material. I’m a composer. I’m the leader of this group.”

FV: Right.

FJO: As a singer, as a female singer, that was a really big statement to make.

FV: Absolutely. That’s so true about Abbey Lincoln. I’m a huge fan and she’s an influence from a band-leading standpoint. But actually for me, the person who’s really an influence is Betty Carter, because for as much as I love Abbey’s singing, it’s a much more subtle improvising with the form—more with the words and her story telling is just magnificent. But Betty was trying to be a musician and to improvise like a horn player would. So that was actually more compelling and more interesting. I also began to hear from other people that perhaps I had the dexterity to go that way. Also, the way she led her band. I saw Betty live a few times. The way she handled her band, to make them create in the moment what she wanted to do deeply influenced me. So when I got to have a band, I really made it a point that it wouldn’t be just the way singers have groups: the so-and-so trio, the so-and-so quartet. If you hear a lot of records, across the parameters, they are pretty much the same. The roles of the musicians are the same, regardless of arrangement. I wanted to develop a band in the sense of Betty Carter where I wanted it to have its own sonic universe, whatever that would become. So that became something interesting to work towards.

FJO: Did you get to meet Betty Carter and interact with her?

FV: No, I was too afraid, and at that moment I didn’t think I was strong enough vocally. I didn’t really think I was. I was not denigrating myself; I was just being real. Today, or even five years ago, I would have felt much more comfortable to approach her. At that time, I was actually petrified to approach her. But I got so much from seeing her [perform] that that’s okay. I got to see in real time how she handled things and that really informed a lot of what I do now. So I don’t regret trying. And when she died, I wasn’t even living here anymore.

FJO: That was during the years you were in Amsterdam.

FV: Yeah.

FJO: Another singer from that era who really seems like the last survivor from that time of legendary jazz icons is Sheila Jordan.

FV: Yes.

FJO: Is she somebody who had an impact on you?

FV: Absolutely. And it’s great with Sheila. She’s still strong, and she’s still out there. And she has a great following of people that really make sure she’s okay, and that she’s looked after. I mean, there’s nothing wrong. I don’t want to give that impression, but you know, she is 85.

FJO: 86 actually!

FV: See, you know better than I do. But it’s great that she’s still vibrant and vital.

The cover for Fay Victor's CD In My Own Room featuring a photo of Fay Victor smiling

There are no real repertoire surprises on In My Own Room (1998), the earliest CD that Fay Victor still acknowledges as representative, but the way her ensemble is fractalized foreshadows her later developments.

FJO: One thing that made me think of Sheila Jordan is that on that first album of yours, your rendition of “All of You” is just you and the bass. She pioneered doing voice and double bass duets; it’s a very wonderful sound.

FV: Oh, it’s a glorious thing; I love it. Once she heard me do a duet with another bassist. We were improvising. It was a bassist from the U.K. And afterwards she kind of mentioned that she was one of the pioneers, in a very sweet way. She was just really happy to see over the years how different people have taken the idea and run with it. And then she went on to tell us that we gave her a musical orgasm. I had forgotten she said that, and then I had a concert with that bassist about a year or two later, and we were hanging out for dinner beforehand and he goes, “Do you remember what she said to us?” I said, “I’m not exactly sure anymore.” And then he repeated what she said. I said, “Oh yeah, I remember now.”

FJO: To go back to that first album from 1998, it’s pretty much all standards. There are a few outliers like that Miles Davis composition. It had words, but most people know it as an instrumental. Overall it’s pretty much a straight ahead jazz record. And yet even within that framework, you achieved a great variety. I mentioned “All of You” just featuring bass, but throughout the album you were experimenting with different combinations of instruments. Everything wasn’t the same. You were saying before that most of the time singers have a group and it’s this formula. But even back then, even that early on, you were fractalizing the group to get different sounds out of different instruments and different places. In some places, the drums are way more prominent.

FV: Thank you for pointing that out, because at that point that’s all I knew how to do, move that around and experiment with that. They are all pretty much conscious decisions, so thank you for noticing that. And I like that record because I had made a record before, but it wasn’t really my record. I made a record in Austria that I don’t really talk about it. Somebody offered it to me. I picked the repertoire, but it was a band that was put together. What I love about In My Own Room is that I feel like I really produced this in my own way, with whatever limited knowledge I feel I had or not at that time. So it was really my own project in that way.

FJO: But now you’re going to have me looking around for that Austrian record.

FV: [laughs]

FJO: In terms of stuff I wish I had, are there any secret, stashed away recordings of when you were doing duos with Bertha Hope?

FV: No, I wish. We played in Japan together. We had so much fun. I was just starting out. It was my first sort of real gig as a vocalist. It was actually the gig I decided to become a singer. I said, “Okay, I know I want to do this now.” It was amazing being with her, because she’s jazz history, and we really got along. She saw that I had a talent and had something to say even then. I learned a lot about the whole continuum of the music. I was beginning to get into Monk a lot, knowing how close her husband was to Monk not just as musicians, but also as friends. Then, the strange paradox of Thelonious Monk, Jr., recommending that I take Bertha out with me! I wish I had some sort of documentation of that. I have some old cassettes from that time; if I ever find something, I will let you know.

FJO: Not just me. I think there’d be a million jazz fans out there who would want a recording of that.

FV: Really?! Okay.

FJO: In terms of recordings that are out in the world, I’d like to talk with you about Lazy Old Sun. There’s definitely a sonic shift between In My Own Room and Lazy Old Sun, but Lazy Old Sun is still a jazz vocal album, even though you’ve really expanded the notion of what material you could do. There’s a Doors song on there and melodies by Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean that you put words to. And the title track is a Kinks song. I really love what you did with that—just you and the electric guitar. Once again, it’s really spare, and it also challenges the notion of what the songbook is. So I thought it would be interesting to talk about what the songbook means to you. What draws you to certain material? What works and what doesn’t? Can anything be done by a jazz vocalist? Since you now shy away from the term “jazz,” at what point does it cease to be jazz?

FV: I think by the time I got to Lazy Old Sun, I wasn’t really considering myself a jazz musician anymore, or a jazz singer; let me say that. While I was living in the Netherlands I started working with some blues bands, which was an amazing experience. I realized how ignorant I actually was. I also I realized in going even further how ignorant a lot of jazz musicians are about the blues. I don’t have to tell you, it’s an incredible art form. But for a lot of jazz musicians, blues is just a blues scale and what you can do with that. You have blues in the repertoire and you know what the tune’s based on, but not everyone delves deep. So I had this situation where I was asked to be a blues singer in groups. It wasn’t racial; let’s be up front about that. I don’t think it had anything to do with that. It was more that somebody saw some talent and I tried it and I really liked it, but I realized that with blues the expression has to be real. The more complex the music is, the more one can hide behind the complexity of the music.

CD cover for Fay Victor's CD Lazy Old Sun featuring a picture of her in profile

Fay Victor’s 2004 CD Lazy Old Sun merges standards with several rock songs from the 1960s as well as a few jazz instrumentals she added her own lyrics to.

Blues forced me to really get serious. So I started listening a lot and that started opening up a lot of other doors. My husband is Dutch and when we got together, we started exchanging a lot of music. I started lending him all this stuff that I liked and so he let me hear stuff, and we’d have these intense listening sessions. Out of those sessions, I learned about people like Robert Johnson because I didn’t know who that was. I’m a jazz musician and I don’t know who Robert Johnson is! You know what I mean? This was not good. So I really took some time and just listened and delved in. One of the nice things about the Netherlands is they have really good libraries where you could rent a lot of CDs. You can just spend a euro and take them out. So if you can’t afford to buy a bunch of CDs, just go to the library and you’re allowed to take out ten at a time of all sorts of recordings. So that’s what I would do, from classical music all to way to blues, whatever we didn’t have, and just immerse myself and try to really understand it. That really opened me up. I also started to realize that a lot of music I grew up listening to was based on this music, or coming out of this sort of space.

And at that very same time, I started to listen to much more improvised music—I mean the Dutch musical scene, people like Misha Mengelberg and the ICP and the Willem Breuker Kollektief. I was there, so I started hanging with some of the musicians I was beginning to work with, like Walter Wierbos on Lazy Old Sun, who has been in ICP for going on 30 years. It was all happening at the same time. So I kind of felt like why should I limit myself to the American songbook; a lot of those songs don’t really make sense to me. More importantly, I started to want to write again. I wanted to sing my own words and tell my own stories and that became a really interesting thing to dig into. But there’s a record before that, Darker than Blood; I don’t know if you know about that record.

FJO: I don’t. More stuff for me to track down.

FV: It’s out of print, but I will get a copy to you. Darker than Blue is actually the very first record that my husband and I have originals on. We have three originals on that one, and we have Herbie Nichols’s “House Party Starting.”

FJO: So the Herbie Nichols fascination began all the way back then.

FV: Yeah. It’s a looong time with Herbie. But I started to want to write and then really put a band together à la Betty Carter—find musicians, rehearse on a regular basis, develop material. Then I used my brain a little bit. Because I was in the Netherlands where it’s a subsidized music scene, I figured out that if I could get myself into the scenes and get that kind of work, I could hire really good musicians. And also that would give them an impetus to stay with me. Those are very hard gigs to get as a singer. But if you get them as a singer, what I discovered is that audiences really like that, so audiences will come out. So that gave me some leverage, and so I started to use that and I started to get a lot more gigs in the subsidized scene. That’s how I was able to keep everything going for a few years until I moved back here.

FJO: Now finding those psychedelic rock songs, the Doors and the Kinks. How did that stuff wind up in your songbook?

FV: Well, in that period of listening to blues, I listened to a lot of the Doors. I’ve been a fan of the Doors actually since I was kid—“Break on Through.” But then I got much deeper into the Doors. I remember we were listening one night, I forget the album that it’s on now, but I heard “People Are Strange” and I didn’t like the song as a song, because it was kind of Vaudevillian, you know. But the lyrics, I was like, “That’s it. It’s true; it’s no bullshit.” So I came up with doing a bit of a bolero idea under it, just so the words can kind of be more stretched out to make them a little more aggressive.

The wall of CDs in Fay Victor's apartment.

The wall of CDs in Fay Victor’s apartment.

FJO: It’s interesting that you say that you don’t think of Lazy Old Sun as a jazz record, because that Doors song in particular you really turned into jazz for me.

FV: Oh, okay.

FJO: That’s what it sounds like. It’s very different than how the Doors performed it on Strange Day; you turned it into a jazz standard. Whereas, oddly enough, your version of a song that actually is a bona fide jazz standard, David Raksin’s “Laura,” sounds less standard to me.

FV: Oh, that’s very cool! I see what you mean. I still do “People Are Strange,” but now it’s more deconstructed sometimes. I mean, every now and again, I’ll do it with that sort of feel, but now it’s a lot more open, just an open form where the words are more improvised than anything else. The words are what really got me and I love Jim Morrison. I just think it was a great band—the music, the instrumentation, the sound. I love talking to people about the Doors because there are some people that really hate them. And then I’ve always liked the Kinks as well. I’ve always been into great songwriters, and to me Ray Davies is a genius songwriter. There are a lot of songs of his I could have done, but the reason I like “Lazy Old Sun” is because of those arpeggios and how it modulates. And he’s from that similar part of the world. It seemed to be the perfect representative of that space. That’s also why we did it that way, trying to be plaintive.

FJO: In terms of creating your own material, you’ve done a lot stuff where you’ve put words to other instrumental stuff, not just the Herbie Nichols material, but also Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean. Those are things you made your own by putting your own words to it. But you also create a lot of completely original material with your husband. When the two of you work on something, do you do the words and he does the music, or do you both do both? I’m curious about that process.

FV: When we first started writing together, I did the words and he did the music. Over years, it’s merged. It’s really changed. So now, depending on the piece we want to write, we have a process that we generally write from the words anyway—the actual music. What we decide we’re going to write and how it’s going unfold will determine who will do the actual musical composition—sometimes it’s him, sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s a combination. Usually he puts it into Finale, but the actual working out of that is really open. I love that about the way we write because it really comes down to what we’re trying to say. I really like that way of thinking about things, because I think it communicates our intention much better in the end.

FJO: But, to get back to your online moniker, you describe yourself as a composer but not as a lyricist, even though words are clearly so important to you.

FV: They really are. And sometimes I say lyricist, but then I think, God, that sounds so pretentious to say vocalist, composer, lyricist. I do feel like I’m a composer, but at the same time I think that when people see that on a page, they pay more attention to that than perhaps if they saw lyricist. Maybe that’s sort of the subliminal or subconscious reason.

A laptop computer with a larger monitor in back on an office table in back of an office chair

Fay Victor’s work station at home.

FJO: Well, perhaps the other thing is that a lot of people have erected an artificial dichotomy between composers and songwriters. Song folks who are songwriters are intimidated by the word composer, which I find ironic given the fact that if they have written both the words and music to a song they are more than just the composer. They are two things—they are the lyricist and the composer.

FV: I think you’re the first person to ever put it that way. The word composer seems to have this sort of exaltation to it. It has a lot of value. There aren’t a lot of good lyricists. It’s hard to write lyrics that people get. And I think that it’s not respected enough, to be honest. I think people feel it’s easy. Like people think being a poet is easy. You’re just writing some words on a paper, and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s much more difficult to actually sit down and write music. I’ll be honest, I have sat down and written lyrics in ten minutes. But I’ve also had lyrics which have taken almost a year to really get right.

I was in the Washington Women’s Jazz Festival earlier this month, and they asked me to submit a piece for the performance. We were all performing original music, and I decided I’d love to do that. I was literally walking from the supermarket and it wasn’t a whole piece, but the heart of the piece just came to me walking home. So I just came home and wrote out the outline of it. The other stuff I wrote afterwards, after the fact, took a lot longer. I do think there is this idea that maybe I bought into by saying composer rather than lyricist. And that is unfortunate.

FJO: Or songwriter.

FV: Or songwriter.

FJO: Although, a songwriter writes in one form, song, but a song is just one of many different things a composer might write. And when people hear the word composer, I think they associate it more with the creation of larger form works, things with some kind of through-line. Perhaps my favorite of all of your projects thus far is The FreeSong Suite, which I really hear as a large scale work. It is comprised of individual songs but they’re all connected and, when put together, form a larger cohesive whole.

FV: Wow, thank you.

FJO: And interestingly, that seems to be true of everything you’ve done since then, both recordings and live concerts—everything sounds connected and part of one, larger whole.

Th CD cover for Fay Victor's Freesong Suite, which is a twilght photo of an urban landscape, emulates the cover of an LP packed too tightly on a shelf

On Fay Victor’s 2009 album The FreeSong Suite, tracks seamlessly blur into one another as the result of calculated group improvisations.

FV: Yeah. That group, the Fay Victor Ensemble, is actually ten years old this year. The whole idea of the free songs started with Misha Mengelberg and Walter Wierbos, our bassist in the Netherlands, doing this open-ended project where they’re coming in and out of forms. You’re still dealing with form, but just making it much more liquid. It was so freeing, but it’s tricky because everybody has to have a sense harmonically of what works well after the other and no one knows where things are beginning and ending. It’s like a film where you have these moments where things are kind of random and then there’s this moment of clarity and then things go back. For that record, we really recorded in real time. There are only very tiny edits, but everything [we recorded] is [a suite of] four songs. It was really scary to record that way because if there was one major mistake, we had to do a whole sequence all over again.

FJO: You described in your notes for it that the group is fighting with each other, which I thought was an interesting way of putting it. In jazz and other kinds of improvisatory music, when a group of musicians create music together, it isn’t about following a score on a page and playing it exactly as written. It’s about making it your own. It’s about the group dynamic, where one person is bouncing ideas off of another. But even though your husband is the record producer and so he’s in the studio, he’s actually not on stage with you guys. He’s not playing the music. So in terms of the auteurship of that in the jazz sense of it, he has to let it go. But you’re in the middle of it, so you’re fighting with these players that you bring on, so it’s yours, but it’s also theirs.

FV: Yeah. Absolutely.

FJO: So I’m interested about that dynamic. How much happens spontaneously in the moment, whether it’s in a recording studio, live on a stage, in a gig, how much you can plan for, and how much you really want it to be a spontaneous, in-the-moment thing?

FV: Well, like I mentioned, every piece is declared by what we want to say. So I’m going to pick a piece, I guess “Bob and Weave.” It’s a really clear structure. A lot of times within the structure, we have these points of departure where the form opens up. Let’s say somebody gets a solo, though I’ve moved away from that. Every now and again one musician will, but it’s more of an ensemble improvisation. We know we’re moving towards somewhere else. And in the case of “Bob and Weave” it’s going into “Night Ties.” Ken Filiano picks it up, so we set some cuing, just so we’re clear what’s going to happen. But when that actually happens can be varied. In other words, if we come to the end of “Bob and Weave,” Ken is supposed to pick up the bass line. But that ending can be whenever Ken feels it, and then we move on. I’m not going to look at him and say, “Okay, now you’ve got to.” We try to be as organic as possible, but everybody knows where we’re going. We have this destination.

On Absinthe and Vermouth, we have this piece “Paper Cup.” I’m on a mission going to “Paper Cup.” The idea was to play with having something really sort of punky and a little snotty and then have it lead to a very quiet open space, but have a big improvisation in between. So the fun of that was trying to have an improvisation that felt real coming out of the first piece, but also that felt real going into the second, wherever we ended up. That’s the idea.

Fay Victor’s 2013 Absinthe and Vermouth further refines the techniques of The FreeSong Suite and ups the ante sonically with some tracks approaching a punk rock-like level of aggression.

FJO: Well it’s interesting to hear you use the word punky. One of the things that I’m hearing on your more recent projects, like Absinthe and Vermouth, but also already on Cartwheels Through The Cosmos, is a clear rock element that’s sort of psychedelic, and even like progressive rock, almost akin to Captain Beefheart.

FV: He’s a big influence.

FJO: I can totally hear that. But still, at least to my ears, you’re somehow honing it through a jazz sensibility. In fact, the way you just described Ken Filiano waiting to feel something totally sounds like what a jazz group would do, which is quite different from what a rock group would usually do.

FV: That’s true. I guess at the end of the day, I wouldn’t call Anders a jazz musician, but certainly Ken is. Ken is coming out of that space, and I am, too. So that will always pretty much inform everything. But if mainstream jazz players were to hear Absinthe and Vermouth, I cannot imagine they would think that that was a jazz record. I think they would think it was a combination, like they would think avant-garde—I don’t think it’s that avant-garde, but that’s the thing. Or maybe if they listen to “The Sign at the Door,” they would think it’s even coming out of new music, but not jazz.

The cover for Cartwheels Through The Cosmos shows a group of people in shadow walking on what seems like the surface of another planet with a wide range of celestial objects in the night sky.

Fay Victor’s 2007 Cartwheels Through The Cosmos completely blurs the lines between free jazz and psychedelic rock.

That’s why it gets complicated. So I just don’t really label myself. It’s a multi-genre approach which is totally what I have on my bio just so it’s open. Sometimes I wonder if that’s smart, but it is really the way I feel. Actually I have in the back of my mind that I want to develop a Caribbean project. It’s part of me. So if I want to delve into that zone, why not. I think a lot of times we feel we’re just strictly in this thing: okay, I’m a jazz musician, or I’m an opera singer, or I don’t know, I’m a Haitian whatever. I don’t know if it’s good to limit yourself that way.

If your perception changes, or if you open up, I think you should go with that. I really feel that the music guiding me is a lot more important than me guiding the music. If I feel compelled to dig into something, then that’s where I need to go and not worry about if it falls into certain boundaries that are comfortable for other people.

FJO: Well one thing I found interesting is that even though you’re mostly self-taught, at some point you sought out coaching from an opera singer, which is really bizarre because you weren’t doing opera at that point and you’ve never really done opera, as far as I know.

FV: I have done one opera actually; I’ve done an Anthony Braxton opera.

FJO: But that’s a very different kind of opera.

FV: Absolutely.

FJO: That wasn’t bel canto or verismo. But you sought out that training just to expand your horizons musically. It wasn’t necessarily to sing that music, but to open your ears to another way of thinking about sound, which I thought was really exciting.

FV: It was also technical. I was starting to run into problems trying to execute some improvisational ideas I was having. I was really developing my ear. I was working on theory. I was studying piano. I was trying to sing certain things that I was beginning to hear, but I couldn’t sing them well—strange intervals. I couldn’t sing them, or it was very uncomfortable. So I said, “There has to be a better way.” And I found this opera teacher, Onno van Dijk. Because of that, I feel my instrument is a lot more open, plus the experience of listening. He was a very interesting teacher. We listened a bit to opera, but he was also into yoga poses. He would also go to witness throat operations. He was really deep. He really wanted to understand things from the inside out, and that was really his emphasis. Now that I teach, a lot of the way I teach is from him, because he was really about everybody figuring out their own sound and what’s the best and healthiest way to do that. Since I didn’t want to become an opera singer, he helped me to figure out my own sound without using a big wide sound but a more focused sound, because I’m singing with a mic and I want to be able to use much more nuance. Around this same time, I started listening to lots of people like Cathy Berberian, whom I’m a huge fan of. To me she is a very organic-sounding classical vocalist. She’s incredible. She makes everything sound rooted.

FJO: In that one opera you were a part of, Anthony Braxton’s Trillium E, I instantly recognized your voice when you come in. You cannot miss it. You were so you.

FV: Wow. Well, I think that’s what Anthony wanted, and I love him for that. I think it’s changed now. I wasn’t here when it went on last year, but what I have heard—and I know a bit from the vocalists—is that now it’s much more classical, really much more opera singers. But with Trillium E, he made the choice then to let people have different sounds. And I thought that really worked. I thought that was a very interesting approach, and pretty gutsy. His lines are much more rhythmic. I don’t know if someone with a lot of vibrato would really execute the words and rhythmic forms and shapes that he was doing. He really writes for much more straighter sounding tones.

FJO: Participating in that project with him was something of a detour for you, since you pretty much do only your own stuff at this point.

FV: Yes.

FJO: You’re not someone else’s side person, you don’t do other people’s material at this point. I wonder what would make you decide to lend your voice to someone else’s projects.

FV: Well, I did a record that just came out. It’s with a Dutch musician by the name of Ab Baars. He’s an incredible musician, and he has a trio that was together for 20 years. In celebration, he put a tour together, and he invited me and a French horn player Vincent Chancey. This was in 2011; it was a 15-concert tour and we made a record at the end. He wrote vocal compositions for the first time, and it was a great experience to play those pieces. I really enjoyed that project, because he’s an improviser as well. He’s also a member of ICP, so I know exactly the musical place he’s coming from. So I would be open to that. If it’s something that I really think I can be me with, then I’m very open to that. For example, I don’t know the details, but I’m going to be featured in a big piece by Darius Jones next February. He has a residency at The Stone. I know Darius’s work and we also happen to be good friends. I really admire him and where he’s going, and I know he’s going to allow me to be me. I hope that doesn’t sound too egotistical.

FJO: No, I completely get what you’re saying. It’s actually makes a perfect segue to talking about Herbie Nichols SUNG and how you found your own voice within Herbie Nichols’s music. Herbie Nichols was forgotten for many years but he’s been rediscovered. He’s a parallel figure in some ways to Thelonious Monk and to Elmo Hope, who has yet to be fully rediscovered. These three guys were doing things that were pre-free jazz post-bop already in the bop era. Herbie Nichols never got to record with a quintet, which was his dream. He only got to record with a trio. The Jazz Composers Collective did this whole Herbie Nichols Project and made some of his music really come to life. Nichols also never recorded with a singer, but I know that Sheila Jordan sang with him at one point even though none of what they did was ever recorded. So your singing music by Herbie Nichols is really kind of the first time for that music to sing.

FV: Yeah. Sheila told me, believe it or not, that she was pretty impressed that I was singing that. He was her rehearsal pianist. She said she was scared of those tunes. I can imagine if I were around at that time, I would have been scared, too. I was scared of those tunes, but since then, there have been all these people that have created [their own paths] this music. And I had Mischa Mengelberg to talk to about it. I don’t know if I could have just done it if I had nothing. What happened with Herbie was a really organic experience. Again, my husband and I were together maybe just a couple of years, and he had some CDs. I was looking through them one day and I found this compilation. I pulled it out and I saw the name and saw the face and said I don’t know this person, so I just put it on. A lot of it sounded very strange, even though I was a fan of Monk at the time, but the one song that just hit me in the face was “House Party Starting.” It just blew my mind. I listened and listened and listened and I decided I’m going to be able to sing this one day. I knew that I couldn’t sing it. I couldn’t. There was no way. But I knew I would. I felt that I’m going to work on that. For Darker Than Blue, which came after In My Own Room, I was literally sitting down figuring out what songs I wanted to do on a Saturday afternoon, and I just wrote down all the lyrics. It just came, all the lyrics to “House Party Starting.” And it so happened that the guitarist in my band, we had never talked about it before, I kind of mentioned that I was thinking of doing that and he said, “That’s my favorite song; I know it by heart.” So that’s why I did it with guitar; I don’t do it with piano. We do it in a very kind of aggressive way, but that started the journey with Herbie. And I started listening to more and started hanging out with Misha a little more because when I finally tracked him down to find out what he thought of the project, his words were, “It reminded me of nothing” which, coming from him, is a very nice compliment.

I knew I wanted to do a Monk project. And someone suggested I do it with Misha and I was petrified. I’m like “What?” But I went to Misha and I had a meeting, and he said he would absolutely. He had the confidence that something could be interesting with that. So then we started working a little bit over the years. I have recordings with him from the Bimhuis, but we never actually got to make a proper recording, even though I’ve toured with ICP. And now he’s not in the best shape.

FJO: Talk about somebody who connects the dots between both sides of the Atlantic. He’s the pianist on Eric Dolphy’s Last Date. The first time I ever heard Misha Mengelberg was on that record.

FV: Oh man. Oh my.

FJO: And now you’re returning to Europe; you’re going to be there for a month. It’s something of a homecoming. And you’re doing Herbie Nichols stuff.

FV: Yeah, I’m doing four concerts of Herbie Nichols SUNG. One in Amsterdam, two in Germany—in Cologne and Berlin—and one in a really nice venue called De Singer, outside of Antwerp in Belgium. I have a great German pianist by the name of Achim Kaufmann who’s been a Nichols specialist for the last 20, 25 years and Tobias Delius who’s also in the ICP. They both live in Berlin. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

FJO: In terms of making this material your own, it’s certainly very contemporary. He wrote all this stuff in the 1950s, but one of your lyrics is about Dick Cheney.

FV: Yes! Ode to Dick Cheney—“Sunday Stroll.” I have to say Herbie helps a lot. Whenever I write lyrics to somebody else’s material, I try to listen because it’s just so interpretive. There’s something very haughty about the melody of “Sunday Stroll” to me. It’s like a pace a pompous person might carry. So Cheney came to mind. But it’s difficult to write lyrics, because the melodies are so convoluted and inverted and angular. They might be A-A-B-A forms, but depending on the song, an A can be 15 bars and the B 10. My favorite song of his is “Spinning Song.” That was complicated to write for, but I figured out something.

FJO: You mentioned teaching in passing, but I wanted to get back to that especially since teacher is the third noun you use to describe yourself. You described a little bit what you impart coming from this opera singer, but I’m curious about the process of what you do with students.

FV: I believe now I’m a very good teacher for someone who is interested in figuring out their own voice. I’ve run a few workshops in the city, two on a weekly basis, and I do workshops out on the road. I really always try to create a space where people feel comfortable to create—not comfortable in terms of it being easy, but comfortable in that it’s open, that if something comes out the space will accommodate it and not lash out at them. Sometimes you’re going to sing or do something that sounds horrible, but just be more accepting of it instead of beating yourself up. It’s actually mostly adults. We can really lash out at ourselves when we make an obvious mistake in front of other people.

I try to also use jazz as a portal, not as an end game. So if somebody wants to bring in different material that really feels representative of themselves, I encourage that. If it’s a private student, then we’re working on very specific things for their instrument. I’m also really good at helping classical vocalists sing jazz, talking about the placement change and all of that so that the phrasing and articulation is more what we would associate with jazz or non-classical musical expression.

I really love teaching. I get a lot of energy out of it and I get a lot of energy back from my students when I see how they become more themselves and become more comfortable in their own expression. It makes me happy that that they come to that for themselves. What they don’t like so much about me is I don’t sing a lot for them. Like when I’m teaching rubato, I sing very little. I don’t want that to be an influence. Maybe I’ll sing at the very end. I just find it great that I help people figure out what they want to say in a way that doesn’t scare them and that they can go into deeper places for themselves and not be afraid of what might come out.

FJO: How do you feel what you’ve done with them has turned back into your own creative work?

FV: It makes me less afraid, too. I think the whole process of trying to be a creative person is just an unpeeling of layers. You do it throughout a lifetime and I think if you’re honest, you’re trying to get deeper and get a deeper understanding of what you’re trying to say. At least I am. I’m trying to understand more and more of what I really want to say. It’s a continual process. And if I see my students also going through the same thing, at their own pace, it also makes me feel like I have to do it more and it makes me feel at ease to dig even deeper, to express things that maybe five years ago I would have felt, “No way. I can’t do that.” You know, if I want to now, I’d do a primal scream in a performance, I feel comfortable enough to do that. Five years ago, that probably would have scared me. Even if I really wanted to, I might have held back. Now I don’t hold back.

sculpture made from a broken cello, various bows, 45rpm records, and a head.

On the top of a cabinet in Fay Victor’s apartment, there is a wonderful sculpture made from a broken cello, various bows, 45rpm records, and a head.

Read a conversation with another extraordinary vocalist:
Sheila Jordan

Sheila Jordan: Music Saved My Life



More details about our focus on three generations of jazz vocalists this month can be found here.


Julia Wolfe Wins 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music

[UPDATED APRIL 21, 2015]

Photo of Julia Wolfe, photo by Peter Serling, courtesy of G. Schirmer, Music sales

Anthracite Fields by Julia Wolfe has been awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The work (which was commissioned through Meet the Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA program and is published by Red Poppy Music/G. Schirmer, Inc. ASCAP) premiered on April 26, 2014 in Philadelphia in a performance by the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Mendelssohn Club Chorus. The Pulitzer citation describes the work as “a powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th Century.” The prize is for a “distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States” during the previous calendar year and comes with a cash award of ten thousand dollars.

Winning the Pulitzer Prize has had a variety of ramifications for composers. For emerging composers, the accolade can be a door opener that leads to major performance opportunities and commissions. For more established composers, it can be a confirmation of a life’s work. Yet for some composers, its impact can be negligible.

“I really don’t know,” wrote Wolfe in an email correspondence following a telephone conversation. “I do what I do. As an artist you are used to plowing through, carving your own path. Sometimes no one answers your call or email and then sometimes someone shines a light on you or says hey that’s interesting or moving or cool. I am always challenging myself – reaching for something, in a way trying to understand something human in the reach. It’s glorious to write music. I feel so lucky to work with so many great musicians. It takes a village as they say, and especially in music. The village I am in is a beautiful one.”

Asked about how and why she came to compose Anthracite Fields, Wolfe added the following observations:

Anthracite Fields was commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. I was born in Philadelphia and am from a small town about an hour north of the city. When [Mendelssohn Club Artistic Director] Alan Harler called me about writing a piece I thought that I would look to the region. Where I grew up, if you took the long country road up to the highway, route 309, and turned right you’d be heading toward Philadelphia. If you turned left, which we hardly ever did, you would head in the direction of Wilkes-Barre and Scranton–coal country. We hardly ever turned left, maybe once in a while to go to a diner. So I thought that rather than looking toward the big city I’d look the other way. The Mendelssohn Club was incredible in setting me up with a guide to the region. Theater artist Laurie McCants, who has a company in Bloomsburg, PA became my guide. She had a library full of books on the region, about life in coal country. She took me to some amazing small local historical museums that depicted everything about the miners–from the tools they used to the medical facilities, to the disasters. For over a year I read a lot, interviewed miners and children of miners, gathered information, and went down into the mines. It’s a vast subject to cover, but powerful themes emerged and called out to be in the piece. Anthracite Fields is about this industry and the life surrounding it. The piece is not directly narrative, but looks at the subject from different angles. My intention was to honor the people that lived and worked there, this dangerous work that fueled the nation.

Also nominated as finalists in for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music were: Xiaoxiang by Lei Liang, premiered on March 28, 2014, in Boston by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra, inspired by a widow’s wail and blending the curious sensations of grief and exhilaration (Schott Music Corporation); and The Aristos by John Zorn, premiered on December 21, 2014, in New York City, which the jury described as “a parade of stylistically diverse sounds for violin, cello and piano that create a vivid demonstration of the brain in fluid, unpredictable action.”

Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded annually since 1917. The Music Prize was added in 1943 when William Schuman’s Secular Cantata No. 2, “A Free Song” received the first honor. Past prize winning works include Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1945), Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 3 (1947, awarded 30 years after its composition), Samuel Barber’s opera Vanessa (1958), Elliott Carter’s String Quartets Nos. 2 (1960) and 3 (1973), Charles Wuorinen’s electronic music composition Time’s Encomium (1970), Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Symphony No. 1 – Three Movements for Orchestra (1983), Wynton Marsalis’s oratorio Blood on the Fields (1997), John Adams’s September 11, 2001 memorial On The Transmigration of Souls (2003), David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion (2008), Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto (2010), and John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean (2014).

Anyone–not only the composer or publisher of the work–can submit a work to be considered for the Pulitzer Prize in Music provided it is accompanied by a $50 entry fee and meets the qualifications of being composed by an American and having had its first performance or recording in the United States during the previous calendar year. As is the case with all Pulitzer prize-winners, the awarded pieces of music are chosen through a two panel process. Each year a different jury–typically consisting of five professionals in the field and which usually includes at least one previous winner of the award–is convened and selects a total of three finalists from works received for consideration. (The jury for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music consisted of only four people and did not include a previous winner of the award.) The three finalists are then submitted to the 20-member Pulitzer board, consisting mostly of major newspaper editors and executives as well as a few academics. (The board elects its own members who individually serve three-year terms.) The winner is determined by a majority vote of the board. It is possible for the jury not to choose any of the finalists–as was the case for the Music award in the years 1964, 1965, and 1981 resulting in no prize being given. The board can also demand that the jury selects a different work, as was the case in 1992 when the only work the jury submitted to the board was Ralph Shapey’s Concerto Fantastique. (The work which was ultimately awarded the prize that year was Wayne Peterson’s The Face of the Night.) Since 2004, in an effort to broaden the purview of the award, premiere recordings issued on commercial recorded releases from the previous calendar year have also been eligible. Thus far, two works that have appeared on recordings have thus far been awarded the prize: Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar (2007) and Caroline Shaw’s Partita (2013). In addition, over the years, lifetime citations have been awarded–most of them posthumously. Citation honorees thus far have been Roger Sessions (1974), Scott Joplin (1976 posth.), William Schuman (1985) George Gershwin (1998 posth.), Duke Ellington (1999 posth.), Thelonious Monk (2006 posth.), John Coltrane (2007 posth.), Bob Dylan (2008), and Hank Williams (2010 posth.).

The jurors for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music were: Carol Oja, William Powell Mason Professor of Music, Harvard University (Chair); Steven Mackey, composer, professor and chair, department of music, Princeton University; Maria Schneider, composer and orchestra leader, New York, NY; and Mark Swed, music critic, Los Angeles Times. A complete list of the 2015 Pulitzer board is here.

Pulitzer Administrator Mike Pride announced the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winners at a press conference held in the Pulitzer World Room in Pulitzer Hall, Columbia University at 3pm eastern time on April 20, 2015 that was streamed live on YouTube.

Go Tell It To The Choir—A Report from ACDA

Part of the Salt Palace building with a large sign for ACDA

A late night view of part of the Salt Palace where the 2015 ACDA Conference was held.

I had been told that last week’s gathering of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) in Salt Lake City, Utah, would be the largest national music convention held in the United States. More than 10,000 people were in attendance two years ago in Dallas when the ACDA held their previous biennial convening. The event had attracted not only directors of professional, amateur, church, and school choirs from around the world but also tons of singers, publishers, and composers of choral music. This time around, thanks to a newly added composer track at the conference (organized by Steven Sametz) and a greater emphasis on new music, even more composers and new music aficionados were expected to show up. According to ACDA’s associate director Craig Gregory, counting conference registrants, exhibitors, members of performing choirs and their chaperones, more than 12,000 people were there. (The only music convenings I can think of that are larger than that are those of the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA), which is not national, and MIDEM, which is international.)

Anyway, suffice it to say, it was incredibly crowded at the so-called Salt Palace (officially the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center), even though it boasts more than 500,000 square feet of meeting space and feels larger than most airports. In fact, many of the local hotels were completely unequipped to handle the onslaught. There were several reports of attendees showing up to the hotels at which they had confirmed reservations only to learn that all available rooms had already been booked. A promotion associate from one of the large music publishers reported that another conference registrant was given the same room assignment as hers and unknowingly barged in on her. When I showed up about 1:00 a.m., I was also assigned a room that was already occupied; luckily the person who arrived there before me remembered to bolt the door and by 3:00 a.m. they had found a new, empty room for me to get a few hours of shuteye before the whole shebang began early the following morning.

Continuing the airport comparisons, waiting in line to officially register and then in another to pick up conference materials resembled the check-in and TSA lines during the busiest time at O’Hare, but ultimately ACDA was way more efficient. Even though there were so many people, it moved pretty fast, though admittedly this is perhaps because no one had to take off their shoes.

Two long lines of people and carts filled with score packets

Waiting to pick up score packets after registering for ACDA.

But, before I get into any greater details about the sessions I attended, here’s Steven Sametz explaining the thinking that went into the composers’ track.

Excited to plunge into new music-focussed sessions from the very beginning, I jaunted in a mad rush up one level and what seemed like a half-mile down various corridors to attend the first one on the schedule, called “Thirty-Something: New Choral Music by Today’s Hottest Young Composers,” which was to be hosted by Dominick DiOrio, a Bloomington-based composer and conductor who leads NOTUS, Indiana University’s Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. Sadly, due to numerous flight delays (ah, those airports again), the session was postponed for later in the day during a time I was unable to attend, although I did get to hear DiOrio lead the fabulous singers of NOTUS later that week. More to follow on that later.

Meanwhile, not wanting to waste time, I zoomed into the first room where a session was taking place and—as luck would have it—I stumbled into a fascinating discussion about barbershop quartet singing featuring live demonstrations of various techniques by The Fairfield Four and Crossroads. One of the central themes of the presentation was how what we now instantly recognize as the classic barbershop sound derived from an earlier African-American quartet singing tradition which involved a greater use of microtonal intervals—yes, I was in heaven here—which got straightened into equal temperament when white groups appropriated it. Perhaps an even greater takeaway, however, was a comment made by one of the presenters about how valuable barbershop quartet singing can be in schools since it “brings out the best in imperfect voices.”

Circle of men in white shirts singing together.

I later heard some impromptu barbershop harmonies near the booth of Barbershop HQ in the exhibition hall.

From there I ran to the ballroom to hear the legendary 82-year-old Minnesota-based conductor, composer, and new music advocate Dale Warland being interviewed by 28-year-old composer/conductor Jake Runestad who has been a rising star in the Twin Cities choral music scene. Warland, who has been one of the most active commissioners of new choral music, spoke about the very first piece of music he commissioned, from Jean Berger in 1953, before he knew that commissioning a composer required a payment. He said that “money shouldn’t be an obstacle” and there is always a way to make a piece of new music happen, imploring the audience “to keep the art alive and to take risks.” He was proud that there are now “15 full-time composers in the Twin Cities; 50 years ago there was only one composer who wasn’t part time and he was supported by his wife.”

Sadly, following that, a scheduled conversation with Jake Heggie was also cancelled since he had caught the flu and decided not to travel, but an afternoon talk to a room packed to capacity called “Integrating Technology in Choral Music” by Christopher J. Russell, who maintains a technology in music education blog, more than made up for the loss. He began with a provocation and an analogy that was difficult to contradict: “Are you here to learn or are you here to change? You wouldn’t go to a hospital that looks the same way now as it did 50 years ago.” Then he systematically went through eight ways in which choral directors could integrate elements of technology into their rehearsals and performances that would make the experience more efficient and, he claimed, more exciting for younger audiences. He was particularly passionate about using digital musical scores instead of physical sheet music and was prepared to ruffle a few feathers when he argued that it was better for a chorus to perform with a MIDI accompaniment than a live pianist if the pianist or piano was sub-par. I kept wondering throughout his talk how a chorus that was more comfortable using technologies he was advocating for such as NotateMe, SmartMusic, Weezic, and Kahoot could be persuaded to be more comfortable performing newly composed music rather than the old classics. He might write about this for us later this year. Stay tuned.

The highlight of events the following day was a master class by composers Steven Sametz, David Conte, and Robert Kyr in which the three finalists in the ACDA’s Brock Student Composer Competition (Nathan Fletcher, Connor M. Harris, and Cortlandt Matthews) had their pieces discussed by the three mentor composers and performed by NOTUS led by DiOrio. Conte spoke persuasively about thinking like an orchestrator when writing for chorus—which he called “chorestration”—and Sametz spent a lot of time focusing on specific issues when text setting—being aware of the relative audibility of text in various registers—and making sure that what was on the page was performable without help from an “interpretative conductor.” It was another well-attended session. My only disappointment, which could have easily been remedied by other conference attendees and people in that very room, is that the three mentoring composers, the three composers being mentored, and the choral conductor (who frequently added his own advice from the podium) were all male. There could have been a greater ethnic diversity as well. In 2015, this seems far more anachronistic than singing from an octavo, which is exactly what every group I heard perform at ACDA did, pacé Chris Russell.

I spent quite a bit of time wandering through all of the exhibitions and meeting with various composers there, among them a young composer/organist Julian Revie who is in residence at the St. Thomas More Chapel at Yale.

It was particularly intriguing to learn from Nebraska based composer Kurt Knecht about the new promotional platform for composers he has set up called Music Spoke.

And then there was the actual music. A particular standout performance was by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in Abravanel Hall, which is usually the home of the Utah Symphony. Though their hour-long program took place in the middle of a hectic day of conference sessions, they made time stand still with their magical interpretations of works by their compatriots Arvo Pärt and the late Lepo Sumera, plus a stunning post-modern take on the music of Gesualdo incorporating electronics by Australian Brett Dean. Sadly, no American composers were represented. That evening, a long line circled the Mormon Tabernacle and stretched outside the iconic Temple Square to experience a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This Grammy and Emmy Award-winning 360-voice volunteer choir was founded in 1847 and since 1929 has performed on a weekly radio show, which is one the longest-running broadcasted programs in radio history. While new music is not the centerpiece of MoTab’s repertoire, they did devote a portion of their program to American music, which included their orchestra playing an excerpt from Morton Gould’s 1941 Spirituals, as well as a hymn composed by the current MoTab music director Mack Wilberg. There were also several arrangements scored for a large antiphonal handbell ensemble, which sounded somewhat surreal. Though almost everything performed on the concert ended in a bombastic climax, they waited only about a second or two before proceeding to the next selection, the audience having been instructed in advance not to applaud until the very end of the program.   And applaud they did, for what seemed like the same duration as most of the selections.

The exhibition booth for the Mormon Tablernacle Choir

The 2015 ACDA Conference offered attendees not only an opportunity to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but to sing along with them as well.

The members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir were also the stars of ACDA’s exhibition hall back at the Salt Palace. Placed directly in front of one of the two entranceways to the exhibition area, their booth maintained a perpetual video loop that alternated between a brief documentary history of MoTab and the chorus singing “Amazing Grace” for which ACDA attendees were invited to join in and be green screened into the video singing along after which they were then given a file containing their “performance.” Throughout the conference, there was usually a line of folks waiting to have this post-modern musical experience—one person I witnessed even turned around and started conducting them. I wonder what she’s going to do with that video clip.

On the third day there were two back-to-back sessions in the composers’ track, both of which merit some mention here. The first was about composers who conduct and conductors who compose and how in the choral community the line between the two is often quite porous. David Conte, who moderated the session, pondered whether Bernstein’s advocacy for Copland on the podium was ultimately more significant than Copland’s mentoring of Bernstein as a composer. He also spoke at length about Robert Shaw revoicing a chord in a Poulenc choral work, a revision that bordered on being compositional. While Conte and Karen P. Thomas, who leads Seattle Pro Musica, were both composing music long before they began conducting, two of the other participants—Steven Sametz, who leads The Princeton Singers, and Eric Banks, who leads The Esoterics (also in Seattle)—confessed that they were conductors long before they ever considered themselves composers even though both are now very actively writing music. Sametz, who described walking out of his only composition lesson at Yale, claimed he was a “closet composer” for over a decade, at first just writing pieces to fill holes in programs he conducted. Banks is also completely self-trained. There seemed to be a general consensus during the session that academic training is damaging to composers, particularly to composers interested in writing choral music. In addition to being a composer and conductor, Fahat Siadat, who arrived halfway through the session, recently added publisher to his range of activities. His company, See-A-Dot Music, grew out of his work as a conductor and was started as a way to advocate for some of the other composers he met through his involvement in the NYC-based group C4, the Choral Composer-Conductor Collective.

The latter session, called Composers Speak Out, offered an even broader range of perspectives from composers spanning several generations. Alice Parker, who will turn 90 this year, boasted that she only writes a piece of music if she gets a commission, saying, “I never want to write something that doesn’t get performed. You don’t cook a big dinner and then find people to eat it.” She further commented that she does not think of the music of the future, only the present.

Japanese composer Ko Masushita, who also divides his time between composing and conducting, spoke about how precious his composing time is. Norwegian-born and now USA-based Ola Gjello (b. 1978), who was the youngest composer on the panel, talked at length about his compositional process. He works mostly in Logic, improvising ideas which he then bounces onto mp3s and listens to far away from his studio, walking around outside: “I try to put myself outside my music as much as possible.” Carol Barnett perhaps made the most polemical statement of them all:

Music is an art of nostalgia. Nobody is writing completely new music. You’re always referencing something you’ve heard before.

While that philosophical position seems diametrically opposed to the impetus for perpetual innovation and revolution that has long been de rigeur in many quarters of the new music scene, it seems to more and more central to musical aesthetics in the 21st century.