Tag: accessibility

Elena Ruehr: Turning Emotion Into Sound


Ever since I heard the Cypress Quartet’s first recording of three string quartets by Elena Ruehr over a decade ago, I was entranced by her music. And after hearing the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s 2014 recording of works of hers inspired by paintings of Georgia O’Keefe and David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, I made a mental note that I needed to talk with her for NewMusicBox one day. This fall turned out to be an ideal time for us to finally connect. Her opera Cosmic Cowboy, created in collaboration with librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs, just had a successful three-performance run at Emerson College, and Guerrilla Opera will give the first performance of another Ruehr opera, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, created with librettist Royce Vavrek, at MIT in February. Plus her Ninth String Quartet is receiving its world premiere the first weekend of November.

It’s a remarkable amount of activity after the last two and a half years of pandemic-related cancellations. But Ruehr was nevertheless extremely active during that period, composing over 30 new pieces, some of which were even performed during that time, either in virtual concerts or masked up in controlled environments. Ruehr’s prolific output is a by-product of her maintaining a consistent composing schedule (five hours every day from Noon to 5:00pm) as well as her never-ending inspiration from the visual arts and her constant reading (four books a week), plus her desire to communicate with listeners.

“Beauty is really important, but also accessibility,” she opined during a Zoom chat we had in late September. “I’m sure that your average non-classical musician isn’t gonna necessarily like what I do, but I think most people who like classical music, even standard classical music, will find that the music that I write is something that they can approach. And that matters to me. That’s important to me.”

All the other details that go into creating a piece–whether its her fascination with combinatorial diatonic pitch sets (an influence from serial music that sounds nothing like serialism) or how she sonically interprets O’Keefe paintings and novels like Cloud Atlas and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto–are ultimately much less important for her than the emotional impact she hopes her music will have on listeners.

“I write it not caring whether you know the references, because it’s the emotional transference of one thing to another, and that’s the thing that I hope that the people who are listening get,” she explained. “If they have the references, it enriches it. But, if they don’t, the emotional thing is hopefully contained in it. … I try to make a sound out of the emotion that I’m feeling. And when I say ah yes, I captured it, then I write it down, and then I work on it. So it’s all about turning emotion into sound. As far as I’m concerned, that’s my job; that’s what I do.”

Her love for O’Keefe makes a lot of sense. (“She was doing representational art at a time when abstract art was sort of the thing. … Her story gave me courage to do what I wanted to do, which I think is more representational and less abstract, or more narrative and about expressing emotion.”)  But sometimes the things that have inspired her are quirkier. She actually attributes her attachment to writing for string quartet as well as her music’s polystylistic inclinations to hearing the Beethoven and Bartók quartets when she was a little girl and mixing them all up, erroneously thinking that they were all composed by someone named Bella Bartók, a female composer!

From that formative mash-up, she went on to immerse herself in Medieval and Renaissance music, minimalism, world music, and even pop. Now it’s all part of her compositional language.

“Anything that I like, I will just incorporate or steal, or whatever you want to call it,” she said with a grin.

We had a very pleasurable hour chatting about all these things and I felt it could have gone on much longer. But I made sure we ended before Noon so she could embark on another composition.

Pro-Tips and Scripts: Autistic Accessibility in Music

An LED red arrow pointing to the right

You’ve reached Part 4 of the Introductory Course to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music, and this one’s full of action! Today, we get into the nuances of common things you will stumble upon as you increase your autistic awareness and start organizing with autistic people in mind. I offer pro-tips, concrete ways to take positive action, and sample scripts for a variety of music-related scenarios.

If you need to review the basics, check out the primer in my Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague, the epic Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music, and the Q&A featuring questions submitted by musicians and organizers. Now, here we go!

Quick navigation



  1. Do not argue with someone who tells you they are autistic, even if you “don’t believe them.” Why don’t you believe it? Unravel your assumptions about what an autistic person looks and acts like. Keep in mind that some autistic people may blend in more than you think.
  2. “But you act so normal!” Please do not utter that phrase in the vicinity of autistic people. Other variants include “ You don’t seem autistic,” “I couldn’t even tell!” and “I see beyond that; all I see is a talented musician and friend.” These are not compliments; they are indications of your discomfort with acknowledging autism and make us feel pressured to maintain our “normal behavior” in front of you. Appropriate responses to someone telling you they are autistic include “Cool,” “I didn’t know that!” and “How is this space for you, by the way? Let me know if there’s anything in particular I can do in our future interactions, as I’d love to help make sure you’re comfortable, even when you don’t want to speak up.”
  3. Adult diagnoses are a thing. In fact, many autistic people are diagnosed as adults, particularly women, non-binary, and other gender non-conforming people. The old diagnostic criteria for autism had a strong male bias and thus favored male diagnoses. In addition, social pressures can cause girls to learn how to mask their autistic traits or remove themselves as a means for survival. Luckily, medical and mental health professionals are starting to catch up and look out for more varied sets of traits now. I was diagnosed as an adult as well. You can read more about that here.
  4. Self-diagnoses are valid. Some people are self-diagnosed, and in most of the autistic community, we validate that. It is a matter of privilege and access. Pursuing assessment and diagnosis is expensive, and many people lack the resources to obtain to that kind of “proof.” Unfortunately, that “proof” is sometimes necessary for gaining access to accommodations. In my mind, getting an autism diagnosis is like getting a diploma to hang on the wall to prove that you went to school. But even if you never picked up your diploma, it doesn’t mean you didn’t go through the classes too.
  5. “I don’t have any spoons left.” Have you heard of the spoon theory? It was a term coined by Christine Miserandino that provides a helpful metaphor for assessing physical and emotional energy among disabled and chronically ill folks. Many autistic folks use the metaphor of spoons to describe their capabilities and energy. As an ally, it would be helpful to understand what this means; otherwise, you will likely become confused when it comes up.
  6. Don’t guilt an autistic person into attending something, even if you’ve made specific accommodations on their behalf. Like any other person, sometimes, we just don’t show up. Maybe we’re tired, anxious, out of spoons, need a different accommodation, or have reasons unrelated to you. Don’t make us feel bad that you provided for us; in fact, making a big deal about your accommodation effort puts unnecessary pressure on others and can signal that you aren’t interested in being an autistic ally unless you’re getting recognized for your “benevolence.” Plus, even if your friend doesn’t attend, there may be another autistic person in your audience who still appreciates the safer space nonetheless.
  7. Autistic people can have specific clothing needs. This is largely due to sensory issues with fabrics, cuts, and breathability but can also be attributed to other things. If you notice an autistic person wearing what you think is unusual clothing or shoes, don’t give them flak for it. If you manage performing artists for shows, consider offering lenient costume options or being open to accommodating those with clothing-related sensory issues. It could be as simple as allowing a different fabric, a looser-fitting option, or a sweater. I’ve written about my own clothing specifics several times.
  8. We don’t want to hear about a cure. Don’t talk to us about curing autism or supporting research that cures autism. Also, keep in mind that ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy is very controversial in the autistic community. Many of us do not support it and/or have been damaged by it. If you’re interested in treating symptoms associated with autism, first try changing your environment to make it more accomodating for autistic folks. I’ve written more on that subject here.
  9. Avoid using functioning-labels like “high-functioning” or “low-functioning.” While some autistic people use them, this is also a point of controversy in the autistic community. The short explanation is that these are judgments from the perspective of neurotypicals, autistic people contain various combinations of supposedly “high” and “low”-functioning abilities, this all creates a hierarchical divide in the autistic community, and it leads to self-described “high-functioning autistics” excluding so-called “low-functioning autistics.” If you’re trying to refer to an autistic person’s capabilities for the purpose of planning something more accurately and safely, just be specific about what you need (i.e. “autistic folks who can drive” or “autistic people who don’t require supervision in a public place”). But if you’re allistic, just let us handle this mess within our community; you should avoid the terms altogether.
  10. Ask before touching. This includes handshakes, hugs, and good-natured pats on the shoulder.
  11. The pattern of opposite extremes among autistic people is truly a grand irony. This irony, which we’ve covered in previous parts of this series, refers to the fact that various autistic people have vastly different — if not outright opposite — needs. For example, one autistic person may have an extreme aversion to heat, while another has an extreme aversion to cold. Moreover, these needs are often not consistent within the same person. For example, I detest being touched most of the time but also crave deep, extreme pressure in other instances. If you’d like even more specific examples, check out this post from Lydia X.Z. Brown’s Autistic Hoya blog; it’s the best articulation of the phenomenon that I’ve read so far.
  12. Don’t expect us to be prepared. An allistic person once asked if I could make a list of helpful compensatory aids to distribute to fellow autistic people — along with specific brand recommendations and costs — so that we could start better providing for ourselves. Their explanation was that “most places cannot be accommodating of all special needs groups” and that “preparation on both sides is key.” A lot of this is true! It’s impossible for a place to be 100% accessible for everyone, and of course, self-planning can help. But this is not an inclusive notion to operate under, for many reasons. First, many autistic people cannot afford a plethora of ideal aids, especially if they are high-quality. I’ve seen the length of the waitlists for weighted blanket donations. Second, not everyone has the executive functioning capabilities, physical ability, or space to obtain, manage, remember, and hold onto all of the things they need. If I carried all of the things that made me comfortable at events, I would need a suitcase. Thus, if I know in advance that, say, temperature won’t be a problem and noise won’t be an issue, then I can leave my blanket and fancy headphone case at home. Another thing: Autistic people may not recognize or know how to name their triggers or needs; they may only recognize that they are feeling bad. And finally, autistic people already do swap information, try different solutions, and put a huge amount of pressure on themselves. Accessible spaces are still necessary.
  13. Provide gender-neutral restrooms and ask pronouns. Get in the habit of taking action to ensure that your space is gender-inclusive. Three big reasons: 1) Intersectionality. Many autistic people are gender non-conforming or queer (really, it’s kind of a thing), and yet most people don’t facilitate safe spaces to hold both identities. Regardless, don’t you want to make your space more welcoming anyway? 2) Cognitive difficulties can prevent autistic people from speaking up, making decisions, and processing information, so being misgendered, having to decide which restroom to use, or being bullied at your event could have heightened serious effects for an autistic person. Likewise, not knowing which pronouns to use — or not knowing how to disclose pronouns — can prevent a gender non-conforming autistic person from speaking or feeling included. 3) Some autistic people may need help or accompaniment in restrooms, and if their caretaker, friend, or family member is a different gender, this could cause embarrassment, harassment, or medical issues.
  14. Autistic accessibility doesn’t negate the importance of physical accessibility. A reader of this series submitted the following comment, and I think it’s important to address: “I am autistic and have a physical disability as well. I use a cane to walk, can’t stand for a long time, and cannot be in places with flashes of light because of epilepsy and seizures. This makes it very hard to navigate any venue, particularly music events that are in bars, with standing room only, or that have several obstacles to getting in the event. Because many people lump autism with disability, venues will work on autistic accessibility while not creating a place that accommodates physical disability. It is not comfortable.”

It is not okay to brush over needs like the ones described above. While many autistic people proudly and validly identify as disabled, autistic accessibility alone is not a substitute for all forms of accessibility, nor should it be conflated with physical disabilities. Organizers who either lump the two together or assume that taking care of one is “sufficient enough” to cover “all the disability bases” do a disservice to all disabled people and their loved ones. Able-bodied autistic folks need to be more mindful of this, too.

Here’s the thing: accessibility is not a concern to brush over, and that goes for autistic, cognitive, sensory, physical accessibility, and more. Your events really must be physically accessible. In fact, in many instances, it is federal law. Unfortunately, ADA requirements barely scratch the surface of accessibility, but knowing that there is a minimum requirement in this (not-so-inclusive) nation in the first place says something about the importance of this matter. You can do better than this bare minimum. Whenever in your power, make sure to accommodate both manual and power wheelchairs in the entrances, restrooms, and seating areas, provide clear paths to move through, and provide wide, sturdy seating options for folks who need to sit down. Be aware of other power-driven mobility devices (OPDMD) too, and be prepare to welcome them (depending on your venue, it may also be law).

Many people reading this series are musicians who put on smaller concerts in alternative spaces. I know you may not have the power to change the venue you rent, nor might you be able to secure a place in your budget, but you can still do things to make your space more physically accessible. Talk to the venue owners (or house owners). Ask if certain entrances can be used, if there can be someone on hand to assist guests, and if furniture can be moved to provide bigger pathways. If chairs are small and flimsy, try to add seating that can hold more weight and bigger sizes, otherwise fat people won’t be able to sit. If you’re looking for a house concert venue, consider asking hosts if they have accessible restrooms and entrances. No matter what venue you end up choosing, remember to be transparent in your invitations, clearly stating what you are and aren’t equipped for.

People who want to attend artistic events exist in all kinds of bodies and have all kinds of needs. This includes wheelchair users, fat people, autistic people, visually impaired people, folks who use canes or walkers, and people who sometimes use aids but sometimes do not. It includes both visibly and invisibly disabled people, as well as those with multiple disabilities. If you haven’t seen much physical diversity at concerts before, it’s probably because most concerts aren’t sufficiently accessible to begin with.

white shoes ready to step forward on red carpet

Image: Christian Chen

Take More Action

  1. Contact venues on your own to discuss accessibility. Did you go to an event and notice an area for improvement? Perhaps there was incomplete information, sound bleed from the adjacent room, extreme temperatures, or unaccommodating procedure. Let them know! Ask if something can be changed, or if more information could be added to the announcements and event details beforehand.
  2. Offer to help venues or donate items. If you notice something that’s not autistic-friendly, you could take your suggestion a step further by offering to help. You could volunteer to write out the details that are missing on the venue page. You could offer to make relevant signage. Or even donate or offer to buy items that could help (like seat cushions, stim toys, comfortable chairs, sunglasses, earplugs, blankets, weighted blankets, etc.). I’m not suggesting you randomly donate all these things to places; have a conversation first.
  3. If you have more info, share the info. If you see an invitation and notice a lack of logistical or accessibility details, ask the organizer if they can provide more information. But if you yourself know further information that could be shared, go ahead and share that! If it’s a Facebook event, for example, you can make a post saying “Dress code is casual, and parking is $3 cash only. There is a small step up going into the space that might not accommodate all wheelchairs. Folks with with sensory sensitivities, please note that floral scents will be used in the performance, there are also fluorescent lights overhead, and the room gets loud during amplified pieces, so plan accordingly.”
  4. Make everyday thoughtfulness part of your routine. The more aware you are of autistic accessibility needs, the better you will be able to notice them. I was overwhelmed and agitated at an important group meeting in a loud coffeeshop one day, when someone asked very matter-of-factly, “Chrysanthe, do you want to go inside the quiet office nearby?” I said yes, and we moved without further conversation. She didn’t need me to thank her or praise her awareness; it was just the thoughtful thing to do.
  5. Be careful which organizations you support. Unfortunately, many of them do not have autistic people in their leadership or don’t truly serve autistic people at all. The biggest autism organization in the world is one of the biggest offenders. I considered omitting the name, but because Autism Speaks harms and triggers many autistic people to hear about, I want you to be aware of that. The iconic blue puzzle piece logo and “Light It Up Blue” campaign are also closely associated with them, so autistic people participate in the “Red Instead” campaign. Feel free to look up “Autism Speaks boycott,” if you’re interested in seeing years of extensive writing on the subject. On the other hand, if you’d like to explore the work of pro-autistic efforts, check out Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), Autism Women & Nonbinary Network, Respectfully Connected, Parenting Autistic Children with Love and Acceptance (PACLA), and other autistic-run groups instead.
  6. Support local efforts and individual autistic people or projects. It’s not just about the big orgs. In fact, it can be even more powerful to support smaller or grassroots efforts. Are all the venues in your hometown accessible? Can you see areas for improvement in the spaces you frequent? Do you consume, like, and learn from the content of autistic bloggers, YouTubers, and artists? Many autistic people have alternative careers due to workplace discrimination, inaccessibility, or other needs that aren’t conducive to a traditional structure. Support those creators and activists. Think of all your activities and interests and see if there’s room to improve your little corner of the world or amplify autistic voices. Is your cooking club autistic-friendly? How about your thrifting aficionado Facebook group? If you love literature or podcasts, throw some support behind an autistic book project or podcast. There are so many autistic people creating change and adding their unique voice to the world on a daily basis. Support. Them. (Us.)
  7. Google “actually autistic” and search the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. This hashtag and label is what many autistic people use to share their stories, humor, ideas, and experiences. You can also try #AskingAutistics on Twitter. If you have a question for #AskingAutistics, be sure to disclose whether you are non-autistic.

Sample scripts

Stimming PSA

Last week, someone asked for a suggestion regarding how to tell audiences that simming and moving are okay, as well as good ways to let allistics know that this may be happening. I suggested writing a “stimming PSA” and including it on programs, event pages, signs, and in verbal announcements. There’s no perfect way to do this that prevents all issues and pushback, but it’s worth a try. Here’s an example of a stimming announcement that you can make.

“This event is a stim-positive space! All means of expression are valid, and we want you to express yourselves comfortably — whether that means sitting still or flapping your hands. We ask that you refrain from touching other people, but if you’d like to make noise or move around beyond the confines of your seat, you can do so freely in [designated spot]. [State whether the entertainment will still be viewable or audible from that spot]. Last but not least, respect is required for all, so if you notice a means of expression that you’re not used to — and as long as it’s not harming anyone — be kind.“

Emailing a venue about accessibility

Option 1:

Dear ___________,

I’m hoping to attend your event next week but wanted to check on a few accessibility things beforehand.

First, will there be ____________? Second, might there be an option to ____________? Third, can you provide more details about ____________?

___________[I, My friend, Many of my colleagues, etc.] am/are autistic, which can make it difficult to ___________ and ___________. Knowing your answers in advance could help me plan better or know what to expect before confirming my ticket.

Anyway, your concert sounds right up my alley, so I hope I can be there! ___________ is simply the best…

Thanks so much,


Option 2:

Hi there,

I’m really hoping to attend your event tomorrow, so could you help me by answering a few questions about accessibility? I am autistic and have trouble ____________.

First, is there more information you could provide in advance about parking, restrooms, and ____________? Having more information would lighten my cognitive load and help me plan.

Second, is the venue air conditioned and/or heated? I am very sensitive to ____________ and would like to come prepared either way.

Thanks so much. Hope to be there!


Option 3:

Dear ____________,

Spectacular performance of ____________ last night! I particularly loved the ____________.

I noticed something in your venue that I wanted to make sure you’re aware of: The ____________ in the ____________ is quite ____________, which can make it difficult for autistic folks and other people with cognitive or sensory needs to ____________. Perhaps you could try ____________ instead? [Optional: Something like that would certainly make it easier for me/my ____________ to attend in the future.]

Thanks for considering! I’m happy to help with the endeavor if I can. Bravo again on the concert.



Calling out ableist language

Ableist language runs rampant, even in progressive communities. It is often unintentional and due to lack of awareness. If you notice ableist language, it can be difficult to speak up, but we all must try. Check out this great list of ableist terms and alternatives to consider. Here are some ideas for how to phrase these tricky conversations:

“What do you mean by ____________? Do you just mean ____________ instead? Okay, yeah, let’s use that instead, because ____________ is actually considered ableist, and I know you’re not trying to be like that.”

“Whoa, I haven’t heard that word in so long! Turns out, it’s actually a huge bummer for people with cognitive impairments. I think what you meant was ____________, right? You normally don’t use ableist language, so I’m telling you this because I know you care.”

“Oof, I totally agree with your sentiment, but that’s not a word I like. Can we say ____________ instead? I don’t want to make ____________ people feel unwelcome.”

“Hey, I think you accidentally used an ableist slur. Did you mean that? It’s interesting how language can be so ingrained in our culture that we totally forget about the origins.”

“Heads up, you used an ableist term on page 3: ____________. A lot of people don’t realize it’s a degrading word, but once you know it, you can’t unsee it… If you think about it, it makes sense why it’s offensive.”

“Trust me, I make mistakes all the time. Some of this stuff is so ingrained that we never realized what we grew up saying. Good thing we’re still learning now, because yikes! Glad that word is gone from my vocabulary.”

“Hey, I know you don’t mean it that way, but that phrase is actually considered derogatory toward people with disabilities.”

This concludes our four-part series on Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music. Thank you to NewMusicBox for giving me this platform. And thank you, readers, for your time, for putting art into the world, and for your commitment to improving accessibility for autistic people.

If you’d like to contact me personally, request an autistic accessibility consultation, listen to my music, join my artistic family, commission work, or talk to me on social media (@chrysanthetan), the proper links are below.

Professional: Website / Email / Spotify
Social: Twitter / Instagram / Facebook / YouTube
Personal: Patreon


Removing Barriers to New Music

My job as a marketing communications manager at Boosey & Hawkes brings me out to multiple concerts a week, at venues large and small, fancy and scrappy, spread out around New York City. Still, you go to enough new music concerts and you start to notice a lot of the same faces. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—part of what I enjoy about this industry is its strong sense of community and support for one another’s work. But it begs the question: Can we develop a broader, more diverse audience base for the new music scene?

As a marketing person, when I consider concert-marketing strategy it’s helpful to think about what barriers keep people from attending a concert, not just identifying the people who would likely come to a show.

So what keeps people from checking out new music concerts?

People want to know if they’re going to like something before they invest the time and money.

1. The Unknown. Will I like this music? What’s it sound like? Does anyone I know like this music? Contemporary music as a niche genre is a big risk with a lot of question marks, with generally lesser-known composer and performer names, and few points of reference in daily life for what the music sounds like. People want to know if they’re going to like something before they invest the time and money.

Can we build points of reference? How much does your music overlap with a more traditional classical music sound, and how much does it overlap with other more broadly recognizable types of music, like pop, electronic, jazz, or rock? Can we appeal to the crossover nature of some of the music being produced today to reach a new audience through different channels, outlets, and creative collaborations?

We should think about how to remove some of the unknowable risk of going into the concert experience. Can we make other aspects of a concert more familiar? An organization like Groupmuse is an example of making classical music less formal and bringing chamber music groups into people’s everyday lives and spaces. LoftOpera has made the experience of attending the opera feel like a huge warehouse party, something that can more easily align with a person’s lifestyle than, say, a standard opera performance. Several larger institutions like Carnegie Hall host free concerts in community venues that invite people who wouldn’t normally go to a concert hall to experience music in a more accessible space.

2. Insecurity. Experiencing new music live can sometimes feel opaque. Will I understand what’s happening on stage? Do you need a degree in music in order to enjoy it? Will I get bored? Will I be uncomfortable?

Those insecurities have proven time and again to be well founded, as new music is indeed often presented in an intimidating way. I once attended a concert that was marketed as welcoming to neighborhood community members and families with children. The lights went down, and two hours of continuous drone sounds passed in almost complete darkness. Then the lights came on and the show was over.

Part of the problem is that even people within the new music scene are unwilling to admit when they don’t enjoy an experience (which feels unhealthy on many levels).

How can we challenge and encourage each other to create better art and produce better, more welcoming concerts? Can we communicate what makes the music interesting both at the concert and ahead of time? Can we dive into a single moment in the music and share what’s meaningful about it?

The podcast Meet the Composer with Nadia Sirota spotlights a composer in each episode, illuminating his or her history and mindset, and dives into the heart of what makes a piece of music so vital, interesting, and emotionally compelling. This past season, Alarm Will Sound presented a podcast-in-concert hosted by Sirota and Alan Pierson at Zankel Hall about the life and work of Gyorgy Ligeti. The performance portions of the evening were energized and informed by the exploration of the dramatic events in his life, and the format gave audience members points of connection from minute to minute.

How else can we create the experiences you want to (and can) engage with?

People read not seeing composers or performers who look like themselves as a cue for whether or not they will feel like they belong at this concert.

3. Not belonging. A very real barrier for many people is not seeing composers or performers who look like themselves—age, gender, or race-wise—represented on stage. People read this as a cue for whether or not they will feel like they belong at this concert and if there will be other people who look like them attending.

Who are you inviting to your concerts? Whose events do you attend yourself? Who do you collaborate with? When we ask ourselves how to broaden our audience base, the best solution I’ve come across is to strengthen and expand our community from within, by seeking out and listening to the ideas and experiences of people from diverse backgrounds.

Helga Davis discussed these questions, among many other illuminating matters of diversity, in her powerful keynote address at last week’s New Music Gathering. She challenged the audience to earnestly look at the makeup of the new music field and reflect on what the industry needs to do in order to connect with and be relevant to a larger community.

Watch Davis’s speech starting at 32:45.

I’ve asked a lot of questions in this space, all summed up by this: How can we create a new music concert experience that is more welcoming, more engaging, and more inclusive? The new music industry has great potential to improve the classical music concert culture. Composers and musicians are already stepping out of the box to create music and experiences beyond the traditional setting, taking risks with the performance experience, and constantly grappling with how to move the art form forward.

What are your thoughts for reaching new audiences? What concerts have you seen that made the music experience more engaging and welcoming?

The Audience is the Most Important Instrument

[Author’s note: I’ve been a regular contributor to NewMusicBox since 2008, and I’ve had an absolute blast writing for the site and getting to know the Box’s wonderful staff, readers, and commenters on these pages. With some other writing projects and a TED talk on the horizon, I’ll be contributing less frequently from now on to make room for some new voices on these pages. This is my last post on the site for a while. Thanks so much to everyone for all their support, comments, and emails over the past six years—you’ve really helped me find my own voice. I’ll be back later in 2014 with the occasional post, as well as some longer essays; in the meantime, any readers who’d like to connect should feel free to get in touch via my website or Facebook. I look forward to reading this site as it continues to grow and evolve like any good piece of music. –DV]

Today I want to talk about a notion that is killing contemporary music. It’s an idea that is not confined to any one location, social group, or stylistic camp, and one that occasionally rears its head in both the halls of academia and the hippest coffee shops. It’s by no means the dominant way of thinking in the contemporary music world, but it is an idea so ubiquitous that it has become difficult to escape: that the audience does not matter as much as “the music,” and that considering the audience as an essential part of music composition is tantamount to pandering.

The attitude that there is something unsavory and inartistic about considering the audience does not come from a bad place; in fact, I’d agree with those who feel this way on a great many points. Of course it’s pandering to try to guess what people want to hear rather than sharing the truth of one’s own artistic voice. A great part of what people want to hear is something that engages them in a way that other music doesn’t. Audiences want artists to share part of themselves, something authentic rather than something put on. Favor must be earned and not curried.

Perhaps in part as defense of these perfectly valid points (and in reaction to the eager-to-please tone of so much current music from all genres), somewhere along the way much of the contemporary music community has overstated the alternative to the point where an urge to connect with audiences is seen as a sign of weakness, commercialization, and “softness”—as if softness was always a bad thing, and inflexibility and lack of willingness to compromise always surefire signs of nobility.

Please note that this talk of considering the audience is not some kind of code saying that music should be consonant, or pleasing, or unchallenging, or that there’s any reason why an experimental approach to music composition can’t also be tempered by an awareness of what effect compositional choices might have on a listener; there’s great and accessible music reflected in every style and approach, and there’s no way of thinking about music that can’t be marvelous and communicative and successful in its own right.
I recently worked with a student who put on a performance art piece involving self-mummification in duct-tape, melting guitar strings with torch lighter, and long periods of stasis where the performers appeared to take naps. All along the way, I urged the student to go for anything she could imagine, while all the while considering what effect her decisions might have on audience members: “How many times does this event need to happen to establish a pattern? Might it be more shocking if this last instance happened in a different way? What do you want people to feel when this happens? If you want to lull them into a state where they stop paying attention for a bit, about how long might that take? What might they expect to happen when the stepladder is brought onto the stage?” It’s this same consideration of the effect of musical decisions on the listener that makes Bach’s Goldberg’s Variations, John Cage’s 4’33”, and John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit so effective and affecting—because in each case, the composer pursued a desired effect in partnership with (and not independently from) a thoughtful inquiry into the psychology of listening to sound unfold in time.

Alfred Hitchcock used to say that he wanted to play the audience of his films “like a piano.” He did not compose his great works in a vacuum, but rather with a careful and shrewd understanding of how each creative decision helped to shape a different experience for the viewer. To update this idea to a mantra that composers can call their own, it’s worth remembering that the most worthy and challenging instrument of all to master is the inner experience of the listeners themselves: of all the tools in the composer’s arsenal, the audience is the most important instrument.

I recently attended a lecture in Italy by a well-respected composer and sound artist who flat out claimed: “I try not the think about the audience and whether my music is satisfying to listeners; if the idea of it is satisfying, it does not matter what the aural experience is on the listener.” I then attended a performance of this composer’s newest work in which I was one of seven audience members—which the composer in question remarked was a sign of the truly prestigious nature of the event. We’ve been so beat down with Justin Bieber and commercial radio, and also with handpicked “flavor-of-the-month” composers and art movements, that many of us have come to equate music with a broad appeal—and the very desire to connect with audiences—as deserving of only suspicion and derision. The most successful concert of all, to some minds, might be the one that isn’t attended by anyone; imagine what an elite club that would be—so elite that it contained only emptiness.

And therein lies the paradox of contemporary music: music exists to be heard or not at all, yet it’s true that audiences for contemporary music are not as large as any of us would like them to be. It won’t do to try and resolve the paradox by claiming that we don’t care if our music is heard, engaged with, and deeply felt, thus absolving ourselves of our responsibilities to others as well as ourselves. Because that is what, most of all, is shrinking audiences for contemporary music: not any particular musicians, stylistic approaches, or programming, but rather a pernicious idea that contemporary music can only succeed if it bets against itself, and pretends that losing was really winning all along.
So many brilliant musicians have been fighting against this attitude in their own way, with their own solutions. Claire Chase and the fantastic International Contemporary Ensemble have been making some of the most challenging and experimental music fun and accessible, and have earned a spot on nearly every critic’s “best of” list in the process. Producer Beth Morrison is busy reinventing opera for a new generation and in so doing has helped countless young composers find their voices and passions for the lyric stage. Los Angeles ensemble wild UP is performing both new and old music in innovative presentations that re-establish contemporary music as part of a continuum, making it exciting for audiences of all ages to tune into classical music again. There’s no formula for success, as every artist must find his or her own voice and, along the way, new and personal ways of establishing a kind of rapport with listeners.
It’s a great era for the music of our time; one could not ask for more diversity, talent, and discipline than the crop of musicians active today at the beginning of what is sure to be a wonderful year for music. Don’t try to see yourself the way others do; it’s no use. But at the same time, don’t stop trying to see others, to consider their experiences and to feel what they feel with the fullness of your musical being. Reaching out to understand and consider others is the way that we truly come to understand ourselves; doing so does not make us weaker but stronger, and requires not abandoning our sense of self, but a kind of inner confidence that we can go beyond ourselves without fear of losing our identity. Don’t stop; go on and on and on until your own musical self becomes larger, kinder, more tolerant, and more whole.

Happy 2014 and thanks, as always, for reading.

For Even the “Most Stupid Persons”

Although the majority of my professional life is devoted to listening to new music and advocating for its greater dissemination (and when I’m not engrossed in the new music of others, I work at creating some new music of my own), I also try to devote time each week to listening to older music. This year I have gone on listening binges with music ranging from Monteverdi madrigals and Muzio Clementi keyboard sonatas to chamber music by York Bowen and Dora Pejačević. And, believe it or not, despite my periodic outbursts about how overplayed his music is, I’ve devoted a substantial portion of my listening time this year to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. I began the year listening to all 32 piano sonatas in order, then the 10 violin and 5 cello sonatas, and most recently the 9 symphonies and 16 string quartets (plus the Große Fuge). It turns out that all that Beethoven listening was fortuitous since, believe it or not, I’ve actually been invited to talk about his music and the music of Shostakovich in Cleveland next month.

Shostakovich has been a composer I have admired since I was in high school. I still remember laughing the first time I heard the William Tell Overture erupt in the opening movement of his very last symphony (which seemed a sonic assault straight out of Charles Ives). And a tune worm I have never gotten completely out of my head is the calm, constantly repeating melody that keeps shifting instrumentation at the very end of his otherwise confrontational Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar,’ a setting of texts critical of Soviet social policies that was pretty much banned throughout the Eastern Bloc for nearly a decade. But I must confess that Beethoven had always been something of a bête noir for me. Most of his themes seemed insipid, little more than arpeggiated triads and scales. And mind you, I have loved In C, Einstein on the Beach, and pretty much all of minimalism since the first hearing! I think the difference with the minimalists, however, is that by the time this music evolved, tonality had evolved past its triadic fixation and seventh chords had become integrally woven into harmony. That was certainly true for most of the pop music playing around me growing up in the early 1970s, over two hundred years after Beethoven was born. Every song I heard seemed saturated with seventh chords, particularly major seventh chords (e.g. Paul McCartney’s “My Love,” “Day By Day” from the cast album of the Broadway musical Godspell, “My Cherie Amour,” “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” or just about anything else ever done by Stevie Wonder, etc.). In fact, the first piece of Beethoven’s that I felt any affinity toward was the Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ which, as it turned out, has an inverted major seventh chord blare seven times at the climax of the development of the first movement. It must have completely unnerved listeners back in 1804, but when I first heard it, I just wished he would have kept repeating it even longer!

Beethoven's Major Seventh

Franz Liszt transcribed Beethoven’s entire ‘Eroica’ for solo piano, so grab a keyboard and bang out the amazing first inversion major seventh chord that repeats seven times at the end of this phrase. For my aesthetic sensibilities, it is a complete composition on its own.

Anyway, over the years I came to love many of Beethoven’s pieces—the Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastorale,’ the Piano Concerto No. 4, the Quintet for Piano and Winds, and that Große Fuge. Still, whenever I took the time to think about the melodic content in just about all of his pieces, it was still all reducible to triads and scales. It seemed too easy and lacking in suspense. Most of the melodies that have stayed lodged in my brain over the years, whether those composed by others or those I have fashioned myself, are filled with surprise leaps. I remember reading years ago that the famous theme of the Ninth Symphony, which is all just ascending and descending scale fragments except for its third phrase, originally contained nothing but scalar movement throughout and Beethoven labored for years over the final version. And I thought at the time: Would that he had labored as intensely on his other melodies.

I’ve mostly gotten over my lack of appreciation for the way Beethoven constructed his melodies, which is ironically due to my John Cage-inspired goal to be open and welcoming of all possible musical constructions. But last week I came across a quote in an 1896 book about the Beethoven symphonies by George Grove (the original editor of the famous Dictionary of Music and Musicians) that made me think of Beethoven’s themes in a totally new way:

In many of the Sonatas and Symphonies […] the chief subject consists […] of little more than the notes of the common chord of the tonic repeated; ‘so that’ in the words of an eminent musician of the present day [Dr. Hubert Parry], ‘the principle key shall be so strongly established that even the most stupid persons shall be able to realize it.’

—George Grove, Beethoven and his Nine Symphonies (Novello, Ewer & Co. 1896), p. 6.
[Note: That eminent musician to whom Grove refers above is the composer Dr. Hubert Parry (1848-1918), whose comments, according to a footnote in Grove’s text, were first published in the Proceedings of Musical Association XV, p. 23. Thus far I’ve been unsuccessful at tracking down that volume, so any leads would be appreciated.]

Admittedly, the tone of these words might come across as somewhat pejorative to a 21st-century reader. (Who are those “most stupid persons” anyway?) But if you can get past the verbiage, I think there’s a real insight about composition here, one that is still relevant to composers in our own time. If in fact the goal of these melodies–rather than their being the goal in and of themselves–is to get us to hear all the at-the-time revolutionary things that Beethoven was doing with modulations, orchestration, etc., then they are a means to a far more significant end, at least for him as a composer. Had the earliest experiments in serialism or indeterminacy been as easy to unpack, as it were, perhaps there might be wider appreciation for this music among a much broader range of listeners. One of the only pieces of twelve-tone music I know which clearly states the row at the very onset is Roger Sessions’s Eighth Symphony, although how it develops from there is hardly discernible at first listening. Then again, many of Julian Carrillo’s microtonal compositions go out of their way to introduce listeners to the ultrachromatic scales they employ—many passages are nothing more than descending scales. And yet, Carrillo’s music never caught on the way Beethoven’s has. Of course, some of Beethoven’s music took a long time to catch on, but ultimately it did.

For my entire life I have tried to reconcile my devotion to experimentation with a desire to create things that people could instantly appreciate and love. It is a never-ending balancing act. At this late date, Beethoven might actually be a more valuable role model than I had ever realized before.

Getting to Know You

Remember that continuing-ed enrichment class I said I’d be teaching this winter? We’ve had two meetings so far, and I’m very pleased to say that it’s been an absolute joy. My class is engaged, open-minded, and ravenous for new music. We’re having a ball. People seem genuinely curious to hear my opinions about the production and consumption of contemporary music, which as far as I’m concerned is tantamount to administering endorphins intravenously.

Last week, one of my students recounted her experience at a recent performance of the Ligeti Violin Concerto by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; apparently the crowd didn’t receive that notorious turning point as warmly as they might’ve. In response, I shared my story of Matthias Pintscher at Temple Israel, which has taken on a sort of Aesopic significance for me: You can get away with all manner of weird sounds if you talk about love in a charming Mitteleuropäische accent and wear a properly tailored suit. To put it more generally, the sound of a piece of music as such is much less accountable for its first impression than the ideological space in which the audience is prepared to accommodate it. If you provide a listener with a way to think about a piece of new music (a task that dwells partially but by no means completely in “the music itself”) that’s consonant with his or her sociocosmology, you’re in.

At the tail end of class, another one of my students raised his hand to ask whether we (in the broad sense) can learn to like music we’re unfamiliar with. It was my distinct honor to tell him that all we do is learn to like music, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by accident. As a matter of fact, that’s why we were all gathered in that particular room at that particular time. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, just above the pleasure of getting to reassure someone of that fact.