Tag: audience building

Help Me Help You: What Orchestra Managements Need from the New Music Community

In a recent tweet addressed to orchestra administrators, the American conductor James Gaffigan asked for help “to program more of the great living composers I have recently come to know and love,” and went on to propose a list of composers, aesthetically and demographically diverse, contributing to a vital contemporary music scene.


As both a composer and a recovering orchestra administrator (I served as senior director of artistic planning for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from 2010 to 2013, followed by an interim stint as artistic advisor for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 2013 to 2017, while the equivalent position was vacant), I felt I might have a unique, dual perspective on the question underpinning Maestro Gaffigan’s tweet: how can we all—composers, conductors, administrators, patrons, advocates—help to diversify the programming of American orchestras? And how can we in the new music community help administrators make living composers part of their orchestras’ daily diet?

Every spring, as orchestras announce their upcoming seasons, the engine of social media agita revs back up, as it, alas, inevitably will again in 2019: far too many orchestras will have programmed far too little music (if, indeed, any at all) by composers outside the canon of European men born between 1685 and, maybe, 1882. The new music community will call the industry out en masse for its myopic programming. Rinse, repeat. At best, this perennial shouting match, perhaps, moves the needle infinitesimally from one season to the next. In fact, I suspect it doesn’t much help at all.

In reflecting on what my own various professional experiences have taught me, I keep coming back to one theme: if we all had a better understanding of one another’s priorities, circumstances, concerns, and constraints, we would be in a better position to address the problem constructively. And let’s be clear: the underrepresentation of living composers in orchestral programming is a problem; none of what I’m going to discuss here should be misunderstood as an apologia for homogenous programming. Our orchestras can and must do better.

Many of us fundamentally assume that homogenous programming results from cowardice and/or lack of imagination on the part of our orchestras. The first step in constructively addressing the problem is to challenge this assumption. Certainly, there is always room for more bravery and imagination; that’s true for all of us, not just orchestra administrators. But the artistic planning, marketing, and development departments that I’ve worked with are populated by some of the most passionate and creative people I’ve ever met. They love music. They’re smart, talented people who undoubtedly could pursue a more lucrative career in the for-profit sector, but have chosen this field out of their passion for the art form. Writing them off as soulless charlatans is inaccurate, unfair, and—frankly—lazy. They are charged with synthesizing a dizzying matrix of institutional imperatives and constraints en route to executing the organization’s artistic mission. Many of the people in these positions would otherwise love to fill each season with living composers. Here are a few ways we can all help them succeed.

Become familiar with the orchestra’s work rules. I’m only half serious about this—there’s little reason for the layperson to slog through an orchestra musician’s contract—but it’s important to at least understand that an orchestra’s work rules are regulated by a union-negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement. These rules govern everything that the orchestra does, from rehearsal schedules and overtime pay to how many miles away from home a run-out concert can be before requiring an overnight hotel stay.

Alexandra Gardner was the Seattle Symphony’s composer-in-residence during the 2017-18 season. Her experience in that role prompted another tweet that caught my attention.


As part of her Seattle residency, Alex led workshops with LGBTQ+ youth that resulted in the creation of Stay Elevated, a collaborative work performed by musicians of the Seattle Symphony. Alex told me about her original vision for the piece: a moveable event that the audience would follow from outside to inside the museum, and that would use the space in creative ways. When the Symphony had previously produced such events, the orchestra musicians participated as volunteers. This year, for the first time, an orchestra service was used (for the civilian reader, a “service” is any rehearsal, performance, or other musician activity governed by the CBA), which meant work rules now applied, and playing outdoors and on the move were off the table.

Understanding the administrative arcana behind decisions can help all of us in the new music community be constructive, rather than reactive, advocates for the repertoire we want to hear.

It’s up to orchestras’ artistic operations departments to manage such administrative arcana. The end result can often seem to reflect an imagination deficit. It’s almost always a little more complicated.

Take, for example, two 20th-century concerti widely regarded as modern masterpieces: the Ligeti Violin Concerto and James MacMillan’s percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. Both are thrilling pieces and very effective soloist vehicles. And when they do manage to get programmed, both have broad audience appeal, not just to new music aficionados. Why aren’t they in heavier rotation with your local orchestra?

In one of the Ligeti Concerto’s most memorable moments, the oboist, clarinetists, and bassoonist play ocarinas. In the climactic ending to Veni, Veni, the orchestra players are asked to play bells “or two pieces of loud clanging metal.” In addition to renting the scores and parts to these concerti, orchestras have to acquire the ocarinas, bells, and pieces of metal, and determine whether, as per the CBA, these passages warrant doubling fees for the musicians. These costs can add up and, for a smaller-budget orchestra, become quite significant expenses. The orchestra committee might agree to hold a vote to waive the doubling fees—but if they negotiate for an extra off-day in return, the guest conductor or soloist might feel she’s left with inadequate rehearsal time and opt for a warhorse like the Mendelssohn Concerto instead.

Rehearsal for the 2016 St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere of Mauricio Sotelo's Red Inner Light Sculpture

Rehearsal for the 2016 St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere of Mauricio Sotelo’s Red Inner Light Sculpture, for violin, flamenco dancer, and orchestra. Image courtesy SPCO

There are, as Alex told me she witnessed firsthand in Seattle, “a great number of interlocking gears in motion” behind every programming decision. Understanding this can help all of us in the new music community be constructive, rather than reactive, advocates for the repertoire we want to hear.

Go to concerts! I realize it sounds simplistic, but both the easiest and most powerful way to reward adventurous programming is to show up when your local orchestra rolls the dice on a new piece by a living composer. And we can all do a better job of this.

A lot of the pressure on orchestras to program Beethoven and Mahler comes at the board level, but not for the simplistic reason you might think. While, yes, by and large, board members’ tastes probably tend a certain way, it’s not just that they hate contemporary music and demand traditional repertoire. Just as operations and marketing departments deserve more credit than they’re often given, it’s important to resist the stereotypical image of the board member as merely a moneyed dilettante wanting in artistic conviction. Many of them may not have the finer artistic discernment of the conservatory-trained among us, but let’s remember that boards consist of volunteers who have given hours of their time and thousands of their dollars, sometimes over the course of many years, to support the orchestra; and they have accepted a fiduciary responsibility to the orchestra’s institutional sustainability. They go to concerts (when I was at the SPCO, I saw almost every board member at almost every program). And they see full houses for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and empty seats for contemporary fare.

The steady graying of the average orchestra’s audience alarms boards more than any other constituency. Board members, least of anyone, want to see the institution they’ve supported for years die of old age. At one of the orchestras I served, one of our most dedicated board members would often challenge us to think creatively and strategically about how to broaden our audience reach; pointing to his own gray hair, he would warn us that too much of the audience looked like him.

And it’s just as important for the musicians to know that there’s an audience for this music. In one of my previous positions, I received an email from a musician in the orchestra—the day before the world premiere of a piece we had commissioned!—suggesting that we cancel the premiere, because he felt it hadn’t been adequately rehearsed, and, in any case, the audience was coming for the Beloved Classical Music Masterpiece on the second half, not to hear some weird new music. There’s a lot that’s wrong with this picture, but one of the most important takeaways for me was that this musician felt that new music had no audience support, so why were we even doing it?

So when your local orchestra programs contemporary music, buy a ticket, bring a friend, and show the musicians onstage and the board members in the house that adventurous programming appeals to a younger, more diverse demographic. (This may not be fair, but I’m taking it as a given that new music audiences tend to look younger than my graying board member.) By simply attending, we send a clear message that the orchestra has a future beyond Beethoven and Brahms.

Thank the orchestra for programming music by living composers. Write a letter or make a phone call. Artistic and marketing departments take audience feedback seriously.

Thank the orchestra for programming music by living composers. Write a letter or make a phone call. Artistic and marketing departments take audience feedback seriously. I can’t tell you the number of times my marketing colleagues—who, in spirit, supported diverse programming themselves—held up audience survey results to remind me that the single-most popular concert program from the Mesozoic era to the present day was “Glories of the Italian Baroque.”

But I was in the house for all three performances of our world premiere last week! Standing ovation all three nights! The lobby was buzzing during intermission! Yes, but survey says.

How I wish I could have read a letter to my management colleagues and board as effusive as what I had heard directly from the audience at the concert.

Pekka Kuusisto and Sam Amidon perform with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

Pekka Kuusisto and Sam Amidon perform with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, 2017. Image courtesy SPCO

Put a few bucks in the hat. If you’re in a position to enclose a check with your thank-you letter—even a modest gift of $10 or $25—so much the better. (NB. You’re right to think that your $10 check won’t make a significant difference to the bottom line of the orchestra’s x-million dollar budget; but you as an individual donor—especially if you are a new donor—represent a valuable asset to the orchestra as it appeals to major donors, corporations, and foundations for big-dollar support.)

Single-ticket purchases, thank-you letters, supportive phone calls, and small contributions might seem like drops in the ocean, but they can make a real difference. Imagine an artistic administrator able to stand up in front of the board, staff, and musicians at the orchestra’s annual meeting and report, “This past season, we increased our programming of music by living and under-represented composers by 15%, and we saw a direct correlation between these programs and a 3% audience growth. These programs also attracted 64 new individual donors.” If she could give this report, then read a letter or two from audience members sharing how much they value the diversity of the orchestra’s programming, what a powerful message that would send to the entire organization.

Finally, if the reader will indulge a slight left turn, here’s a pro-tip for prospective guest conductors and soloists (and their managers) looking to land a debut: include contemporary music in your repertoire proposals. So many up-and-coming conductors want to make a splash with their Bruckner 7; every young virtuoso wants to set the world on fire with their Beethoven concerto. But orchestras aren’t just looking for the most accomplished musicians: they’re looking for the most interesting musicians. An orchestra musician I worked closely with on developing programs used to insist, “A soloist should transform a concert.” For my money, the most interesting artists—the ones who can be counted on to deliver the most transformative Beethoven concerti—are the ones whose repertoire doesn’t stop at 1999, much less 1899. Approaching the literature, not as a museum catalog but as a living, dynamic continuum, invariably makes your Beethoven more interesting. Offering contemporary repertoire doesn’t mean the orchestra will necessarily ask for your Widmann or Wolfe, but it’s informative to know whether you value this music at all.

It’s much easier to distinguish yourself with something new and less familiar than with the second-best Sibelius they’ve heard in as many seasons.

Also, some perspective: does the orchestra have one of the world’s preeminent Bruckner conductors as its current music director? Did the world’s most famous violinist play the Beethoven with them last season? If so, it doesn’t matter how great your Beethoven is—truly, I know it would be great! Your exceptional artistry is why I’m on the phone with your manager to begin with—you’re setting yourself up for a difficult comparison. At the orchestras where I served, musician surveys played an important part in determining whether to re-invite debut guest artists, and the conductors and soloists who made the strongest first impressions did it with repertoire outside the standard canon. A young violinist making their debut with Sibelius typically prompts responses of, “Eh, fine, but we’ve had better.” It’s much easier to distinguish yourself with something new and less familiar—leaving the orchestra and its audience eager to hear what you can do with the standard repertoire—than with the second-best Sibelius they’ve heard in as many seasons.

The magic of our art form is its capacity for reinvention. The inheritance and transformation of tradition is the greatness of Beethoven is the greatness of Stravinsky is the greatness of Ligeti is the greatness of Matthew Aucoin and Alex Temple and Angélica Negrón. By advocating for the music of the present day—whether as artists, audiences, or administrators—we not only promote the work of living composers; we renew the vitality of the art form as a whole. I applaud Maestro Gaffigan’s efforts to champion the work of living composers. We can all do more than lay this charge at the feet of orchestra administrators. Let us all take up this cause constructively, proactively, and with gusto.

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?

This Is Why Your Audience Building Fails

How do we increase the audience for new music? This is a never-ending debate, but virtually all of the standard answers assume that we need to be more inclusive, breaking down barriers for newcomers. From “people should be allowed to clap between movements” to “our next concert celebrates the work of composers from Latin America,” the common thread is evangelical: if we make the culture of new music welcoming to a broader range of people, new audiences will be won over by the universal artistic truth of our music.

This attitude is more or less unique to new music. Sure, every struggling indie band wants to play to larger houses, but the default boundaries of the audience are predefined, usually along class or ethnic lines. Country music has never seriously attempted to break into the African-American market (despite some important black roots). Norteño music does not worry about its lack of Asian American artists. Arcade Fire has probably never tried to partner with the AARP. Even Christian rock, which is fundamentally about evangelism, flips the relationship around: music to spread belief, versus belief to spread music.

So why do we put inclusivity at the center of our audience building? I suspect it is largely a reaction to our upper-class heritage: after all, our genre wouldn’t exist without the 19th-century bourgeoisie and 20th-century academia. Through openness, we hope to convince people that we’re really not that stuffy, that our music can have a meaningful place in people’s lives even if they aren’t conservatory-trained musicians or white upper-middle-class professionals.

Greater inclusivity isn’t an audience-building strategy—it’s an audience-building outcome. For most musical genres, it is the exclusivity of the community that is the selling point.

Working toward greater diversity in new music is necessary and right. The problem is that we’re putting the cart before the horse. Greater inclusivity isn’t an audience-building strategy—it’s an audience-building outcome. Making inclusivity the focus of strategy actually hurts our efforts. All we do is muddle classical music exceptionalism with easily disproven assumptions about musical taste, in the process blinkering ourselves to certain truths about how people use music in pretty much any other context.

And what do we get for our efforts? The same small audiences of mostly white, highly educated music connoisseurs. If we truly want to cultivate both meaningful growth and meaningful diversity in new music audiences, we need to take a step back and examine how people choose the music they listen to.

Communities and Outsiders

For the vast majority of people, music is—whether for better or worse—strongly connected to tribalism. It’s sometimes hard for us to see this as musicians because we treat sounds and genres the way a chef explores varietals and cuisines, each with unique properties that can be appreciated on their own merits.

Yet very few non-musicians relate to music in this way. Usually, musical taste is intertwined with how the listener sees him- or herself in the world. People choose their music the same way they choose their favorite sports teams or their political affiliations: as a reflection of who they want to be, the beliefs they hold, where they feel they belong, and the people they associate with.

In other words, musical taste is about community building—an inclusive activity. But whenever you build a community, you also implicitly decide who isn’t welcome. Those boundaries are actually the thing that defines the community. We see this clearly in variations in average tastes along racial or ethnic lines, but it’s just as important elsewhere: comparing grey-haired orchestra donors to bluegrass festival attendees, or teenagers to their parents, for example.

For most musical genres, it is the exclusivity of the community that is the selling point. Early punk musicians weren’t trying to welcome pop music fans—they actively ridiculed them. Similarly, nobody involved in the ‘90s rave scene would have suggested toning down the bold fashion choices, drug culture, and extreme event durations in order to make the genre more accessible.

Or consider the R&B family of genres: soul, funk, Motown, hip-hop, old-school, contemporary, etcetera. These are the most popular genres in the African-American community, at least partially because these genres are theirs. They made this music, for themselves, to address the unique experiences of being black in America. Sure, other people can (and do) enjoy it, make it, and transform it to their purposes. But only because everyone acknowledges that this is fundamentally black music. When Keny Arkana raps about the struggles of the poor in Marseilles, we don’t hear the legacy of Édith Piaf or Georges Brassens or modern French pop stars. We don’t hear the Argentine roots of her parents or other South American musical traditions. What we hear is an African-American genre performed in French translation.

The video for Keny Arkana’s “La Rage,” clearly influenced by African-American music videos.

In contrast, when genres get co-opted, like rock ‘n’ roll was, like EDM was, they lose their original communities. When we hear Skrillex, we think white college kids, bro-y sales reps, or mainstream festivals like Coachella—not the queer and black house DJs from Chicago and Detroit who pioneered EDM. Similarly, when we hear Nirvana or the Grateful Dead, we don’t hear the legacy of Chuck Berry or Little Richard. As exclusivity disappears, the music ceases to be a signifier for the original group, and that group moves on to something else. Community trumps genre every time.

Expanding the Circle

Things aren’t completely that clear cut, of course. There are black opera singers, white rappers, farmers who hate country music, grandmothers who like (and perform) death metal, and suburban American teenagers who would rather listen to Alcione than Taylor Swift. In addition, a lot of people like many kinds of music, or prefer specific music in certain contexts. We thus need a portrait of musical taste that goes beyond the neolithic sense of tribalism.


The first point to note is that communities of taste, like other communities, are not mutually exclusive. There are friends you would go to the gym with, friends you’d invite over for dinner, work friends you only see at the office, and so on. Some of these groups might overlap, but they don’t need to.

Similarly with music, there is music you’d listen to in the car, music you’d make an effort to see live, dinner music, workout music, wedding music, and millions of other combinations. Again, sometimes the music for one context overlaps with another, but it doesn’t necessarily need to. As such, while people make musical taste decisions based on tribe, we all belong to many overlapping tribes, some of which use different music depending on the context.

Film is one of the clearest examples of this contextual taste at work. Why is it, for instance, that most people don’t bat an eyelash when film scores use dissonant, contemporary sounds? Because for many people, their predominant association with orchestral music is film. As I’ve written before, when uninitiated audiences describe new music with comments like “it sounds like a horror movie,” they’re not wrong: for many, that’s the only place they’ve heard these sounds. Film is where this type of music has a place in their lives, and they hear atonality as an “appropriate” musical vocabulary for the context.

In addition, film gives us—by design—a bird’s-eye view into other communities, both real and imaginary. It’s a fundamentally voyeuristic, out-of-tribe medium. We as an audience expect what we hear to be coherent with the characters on the screen or the story being told, not necessarily with our own tribal affiliations. Sure, we definitely have communities of taste when it comes to choosing which films and TV shows we watch. But once we’re watching something, we suspend our musical tastes for the sake of the narrative.

Thus, when the scenario is “generic background music,” film offers something in line with our broad societal expectations of what is appropriate for the moment—usually orchestral tropes or synthy minimalism. However, when the music is part of the story, or part of a character’s development, or otherwise meant to be a foreground element, there’s a bewildering variety of choices. From Bernard Herrmann’s memorable Hitchcock scores, to Seu Jorge’s Brazilian-inspired David Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic, to Raphael Saadiq’s “all West Coast” R&B scoring of HBO’s Insecure—anything is possible as long as it makes sense for the taste-world of the narrative.

Dealing with Outliers

Lots of people have tastes that deviate from societal norms and tribal defaults, including (obviously) most of us in new music.

All that aside, we still need to explain the outliers: the death metal grandma, the young American Brazilophile, the black opera singer… Lots of people have tastes that deviate from societal norms and tribal defaults, including (obviously) most of us in new music.

In a case like the suburban teenager, it might be as simple as curiosity and the thrill of exoticism. But when we turn to examples like the black opera singer, things get more complicated. Making a career in European classical music is incredibly hard, no matter where your ancestors come from. But black people in America also face structural challenges like systemic racism and the high cost of a good classical music education in a country where the average black family has only one-thirteenth the net worth of the average white family. Making a career in music is never easy, and it doesn’t get any easier when you try to do it outside of your tribe’s genre defaults. Yet despite the challenges, there are clearly many black musicians who have persevered and made careers for themselves in classical music. Why did they choose this path through music?


The standard explanation leans on exceptionalism: classical music is a special, universal art form that has transcended racial lines to become a shared heritage of humanity, so of course it will be attractive to black people, too. That doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, though. Rock ‘n’ roll is at least as universal. If it weren’t, Elvis Presley wouldn’t have been able to appropriate and popularize it among white Americans, and rock-based American pop wouldn’t have inspired localized versions in basically every other country in the world.

Jazz also has a stronger claim at universalism than classical music. Multiracial from its beginnings, incorporating both black and white music and musicians, then gradually broadening its reach to meaningfully include Latin American traditions and the 20th-century avant-garde—if there is any musical tradition that can claim to have transcended tribal barriers, it is jazz, not classical music. No, musical exceptionalism is not the answer.

Maybe this is an affirmative action success story then? I doubt that’s the whole explanation. Black Americans have been involved in classical music at least since the birth of the nation—a time when slavery was legal, diversity was considered detrimental to society, and polite society thought freedmen, poor rural hillbillies, and “clay eaters” were a sub-human caste of waste people not capable of culture. That environment makes for some strong barriers to overcome, and to what benefit? It would be one thing if there were no alternatives, but there have always been deep, rich African-American musical traditions—arguably deeper and richer than those of white Americans, who mostly copied Europeans until recent decades (after which they copied black Americans instead).

I asked a handful of black classical musicians for their perspectives, and their answers shed some light. Their paths through music varied, but everyone had mentors who encouraged their passion for classical music at key stages, whether a family member, a private instructor, a school teacher, or someone else. In addition, they all got deeply involved in classical music at a young age, before they had the maturity and self-awareness to fully comprehend how racism might play a role in their careers. By the time they were cognizant of these challenges, classical music was already a big part of who they were. They felt compelled to find their place within it.

W. Kamau Bell recently shared a similar story about his path into comedy in this Atlantic video.

These anecdotes provide a partial answer, but we still don’t know where the initial inspiration comes from, that generative spark that leads to an interest in a specific instrument or type of music. For example, cellist Seth Parker Woods tells me that he picked the cello because he saw it in a movie when he was five. Something about the cello and the music it made struck him powerfully enough that a couple of years later, when everyone was picking their instrument at school (he attended an arts-focused school in Houston), he thought of the movie and went straight to the cello. To this day, he remembers the film and the specific scene that inspired him. I was similarly drawn to percussion at a young age, begging my parents for a drumset, acquiescing to their bargain that “you have to do three years of piano lessons first,” and then demanding my drums as soon as I got home from the last lesson of the third year.

Nature or Nurture

There is something fundamental within certain people that leads us to specific instruments or types of music. And thanks to science, we now know pretty conclusively that part of the reason for this is genetic, although we don’t yet know a whole lot about the mechanics involved.

Now, before we go further, let’s be very clear about what genetics doesn’t do. It doesn’t preordain us biologically to become musicians, and it doesn’t say anything about differences in musical preference or ability between genders or ethnic groups. Simplistic mischaracterizations of that sort have been responsible for lots of evil in the world, and I don’t want to add to that ignominious tradition. What genetics does do, however, is provide a plausible theory for some of the musical outliers. It’s that extra nudge in what is otherwise a predominantly cultural story.

A major contributor to our understanding of music genetics is the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Started in the late 1970s and still going today, it has tracked thousands of sets of twins who were separated at birth and raised without knowledge of each other. The goal of the study and similar ongoing efforts is to identify factors that are likely to have a genetic component. Since identical twins have identical genomes, we can rule out non-genetic factors by looking at twins who have been raised in completely different social and environmental situations.

Most twin-study findings relate to physical traits and susceptibility to disease, but the list of personality traits with a genetic component is truly jaw-dropping: the kinds of music a person finds inspiring, how likely someone is to be religious, whether s/he leans conservative or liberal, even what names a person prefers for their children and pets.

And we’re not talking about, “Oh hey, these two boomers both like classic rock, must be genetics!” No, the degree of specificity is down to the level of separated twins having the same obscure favorite songs, or the same favorite symphonies and same favorite movements within those. In the case of naming, there are multiple instances of separated twins giving their kids or pets the same exact names. Moreover, it’s not just one twin pair here and there, the occurrence of these personality overlaps is frequent enough to be statistically significant. (For more in-depth reading, I recommend Siddhartha Mukherjee’s fascinating history of genetic research.)

It would seem that our genome has a fairly powerful influence on our musical tastes. That said, the key word here is influence—scientists talk about penetrance and probability in genetics. It’s unlikely that composers have a specific gene that encodes for enjoying angular, atonal melodies. However, some combination of genes makes us more or less likely to be attracted to certain types of musical experiences, to a greater or lesser degree. That combination can act as a thumb on the scale, either reinforcing or undermining the stimuli we get from the world around us and the pressures of tribal selection.

The genetics of sexual orientation and gender identity are much better understood than those of musical taste, and we can use those to deduce what is likely going on with our musical outliers. Researchers have now definitively located gene combinations that control for sexual orientation and gender, measured their correlation in human populations, and used those insights to create gay and trans mice in the lab, on demand. In other words, science has conclusively put to rest the nonsense that LGBTQ individuals somehow “choose” to be the way they are. Variations in sexual orientation and gender identity are normal, natural, and a fundamental part of the mammalian genome, just like variations in hair color and body shape.

When it comes to homosexuality in men, the expression of a single gene called Xq28 plays the determining role in many (though not all) cases. When it comes to being trans, however, there is no single gene that dominates. Rather, a wide range of genes that control many traits can, in concert, create a spectrum of trans or nonbinary gender identities. This makes for a blurry continuum that might potentially explain everything from otherwise-cis tomboys and girly men to completely non-gender-conforming individuals and all others in between.

When it comes to the genetics of musical taste, we’re likely to be facing something similar to the trans situation, in that individuals are predisposed both toward a stronger or weaker passion for music and a more or less specific sense of what kind of musical sounds they crave. All professional musicians clearly have a greater than average predisposition for music, since nobody becomes a composer or bassoonist because they think it’s an easy way to earn a living. Likewise, certain people will be drawn strongly enough to specific sounds that they’re willing to look outside of their tribal defaults, both as listeners and performers.

Let’s reiterate, however, that genetics plays second fiddle. One hundred years ago, classical music enjoyed a much broader base of support than it does today, which suggests that tribalism is the bigger motivating factor by far. If things were otherwise, after all, musical tastes would be largely unchanging over the centuries, and I wouldn’t need to write this article.


A theory of musical taste

Mason Bates’s Mercury Soul

Enough with the theorizing. Let’s turn to two specific new music events that make sense when viewed through a tribalist lens. Both are events that I attended here in San Francisco over the past year or so, and both were explicitly designed to draw new crowds to new music.

Mason Bates’s Mercury Soul series is at one end of the spectrum. Taking place at San Francisco nightclubs, the Mercury Soul format is an evening of DJ sets interspersed with live performance by classical and new music ensembles, all curated by Mason. These types of crossover concerts were instrumental to his early career successes and led to a number of commissions, many with a similar genre fusion twist. He is now one of the most performed living American composers.

A promo video for Mercury Soul.

When Mason’s work comes up in conversation, there is often reference to blending genres, breaking down barriers, and building audiences for new music. Yet Mercury Soul is a textbook example of the evangelical trope: bringing classical music into the nightclub with the assumption that clubbers will be won over by the inherent artistic truth of our music. Given the arguments presented above, you can see that I might be skeptical.

Let’s start with even just getting into the venue. As I was paying for admission, I witnessed a group of 20-somethings in clubbing apparel peer in with confused looks. Once the bouncer explained what was happening, they left abruptly. People come to nightclubs to dance, so when these clubbers saw that the context of the nightclub was going to be taken over by some kind of classical music thing, their reaction was, “Let’s go somewhere else.” Maybe they thought the concept was weird or off-putting. Or maybe they didn’t really get it. Or maybe they thought it was a cool idea but they just wanted to go dancing that night. It doesn’t really matter, because if you can’t get them in the door, you’re not building audiences.

Wandering into the venue, I saw something I’ve never seen at a nightclub before: multiple groups of grey-haired seniors milling around. Of the younger crowd, many were people I know from the Bay Area new music scene. There were obviously attendees who were there because they were regulars, but more than half the room of what looked like 200-300 people were clearly there either for Mason or one of the ensembles who were playing.

The evening unfolded as a kind of call and response between Mason’s DJing and performances by the ensembles, often amplified. During the live music segments, people stood and watched. During the electronic music segments, they mostly did the same. People did dance, but the floor remained tame by clubbing standards, and the lengthy transitional sections between DJing and instrumentalists gave the evening a feeling of always waiting for the next thing to happen. The DJ portion lacked the non-stop, trance-inducing relentlessness that I loved back in my youthful clubbing days, yet the live music portion felt small in comparison—and low-fidelity, as it was coming through house speakers designed for recorded music. As is often the case with fusion, both experiences were diluted for the sake of putting them together. The end result didn’t feel like audiences coming together, it felt more like classical music colonizing another genre’s space.

That was my experience, but maybe it was just me? I attempted to interview Mason to get his take on the impact of Mercury Soul, but we weren’t able to coordinate schedules. However, in speaking to people who have been involved as performers, what I experienced was typical. Mercury Soul has gotten some positive buzz from the classical music press, but reactions from the non-classical press have been tepid at best, and interest in the project remains firmly rooted within traditional new music circles.

Communities of musical taste are not particularly concerned with what the actual music is, so why couldn’t a community develop around genre mashups in a nightclub?

To be fair, this doesn’t imply that the concept is doomed to failure. I could certainly see Mercury Soul evolving into a unique musical experience that has appeal beyond the simple act of genre fusion. As I’ve argued above, communities of musical taste are not particularly concerned with what the actual music is, so why couldn’t a community develop around genre mashups in a nightclub?

In other words, the music is not Mercury Soul’s problem. Rather, the problem is that Mercury Soul hasn’t tried to foster a community. Instead, it makes all the standard assumptions about audience building, which means that, best case scenario, members of the taste communities being thrown together might perceive the experience as an odd curiosity worth checking out once or twice. In the end, therefore, Mercury Soul’s true community is neither clubbers nor new music aficionados—it’s arts administrators and philanthropists desperate to attract younger audiences.


In contrast, let’s look at the San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) SoundBox series. These events take place in one of the rehearsal rooms at Davies Symphony Hall, which is converted into a sort of warehouse party space, with multiple elevated stages, video projection screens, lounge-style seating, and a bar. The entrance is from a small rehearsal door on the back side of the building, and the room is not used for any other public performances, so everyone who is there has to come specifically for SoundBox. Initially, SFS also made a conscious decision to omit its brand entirely from the events, so most attendees were not aware of the SFS connection before they arrived.

Each program is curated by a prominent musician, many composers among them, and the repertoire is almost entirely new music, performed acoustically (or with live electronics) from a stage, as it normally would be, and accompanied by custom video projections. The performers are drawn from the SFS roster, and they present multiple short sets throughout the evening. During the sets, people sit or stand quietly and listen to the music. The rest of the time, they mill about, chat, and get drinks from the bar. When I went, there were about a dozen or two of my colleagues from the new music scene present, but the rest were people I didn’t recognize, most of them in their 20s and 30s.

Two thirds of SoundBox attendees are new each time, the vast majority are under 40, and very few are SFS subscribers.

In terms of reception, SoundBox could not be more successful. There are two performances of each show, with a maximum capacity of 400 people per evening. I spoke with a friend who works for the Symphony, and he told me that SoundBox always sells out—in one case, within 20 minutes of the tickets going on sale. And this with no marketing budget: low-cost online promotions and word of mouth are the only way they promote the events. Two thirds of SoundBox attendees are new each time, the vast majority are under 40, and very few are SFS subscribers.

Contrast the messaging of SoundBox’s promo video to that of Mercury Soul.

Unlike Mercury Soul, SoundBox starts out by defining a community: it’s a place for culturally inclined music lovers to discover new, stimulating experiences. SoundBox then presents its music as a sort of rare gem worth expending a bit of effort to unravel, in the same way a winery might offer guided tastings of rare vintages. As a result, the event ends up feeling exclusive and mysterious, as if you are part of an elite group of in-the-know art connoisseurs. Whereas so many new music events give off the desperate air of trying too hard to be cool—“Look, we perform in jeans! We don’t mind if you clap between movements!”—SoundBox doesn’t have to try. It just is cool, appealing to the same type of confident cosmopolitanism that has allowed modern art museums to draw enthusiastic crowds far in excess of most new music events.

Despite its successes in building new music audiences, however, SoundBox has failed to meet SFS’s objectives—ironically, for the same reasons as Mercury Soul. The Symphony wants SoundBox to be a sort of gateway drug, encouraging a younger crowd to attend its regular programming. Yet despite an aggressive push to market to SoundBox attendees, my contact tells me there has been virtually zero crossover from SoundBox to SFS’s other programs. To further complicate things, SoundBox is a big money loser. An audience of 800 people paying $45/ticket and buying drinks seems like a new music dream, but it doesn’t pencil out against the Symphony’s union labor commitments, which were negotiated with a much bigger orchestral venue in mind.

This is not a failure on a musical level, but it is a failure in SFS’s understanding of audience building. SoundBox met a strong and untapped demand for a sophisticated, unconventional musical experience, and it created a community of musical taste around it, quite by accident. But it’s a different community from that of the orchestral subscriber, focused on different repertoire, different people, and a different experience. The fact that it is presented by SFS is inconsequential.

It’s more than a bit ridiculous to assume that the same people who come to hear Meredith Monk in a warehouse space will be automagically attracted to a Wednesday night concert subscription of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart.

To recap, then, Mercury Soul fails to encourage 20-something clubbers to seek out new music because it doesn’t create a community of taste. On the other hand, SoundBox does create a community of taste, but it’s one that is interested in coming to hear Ashley Fure or Meredith Monk in a warehouse space. More importantly, it’s a community that has no preconceptions about how this music is supposed to fit into their lives, which allows them to deal with it on its own terms. With that context in mind, it’s more than a bit ridiculous to assume that those same people will be automagically attracted to a Wednesday night concert subscription of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart. That is a music most SoundBox attendees associate with their grandparent’s generation, performed in a venue that has strong pre-existing associations that don’t help.

Lessons Learned

We live at a time that is not especially attuned to musical creativity. All the energy spent on audience building is a reaction to that. I have a couple of friends who are professional chefs, working in our era of widespread interest in culinary innovation. When I ask them about the SF restaurant scene, they complain that too many chefs chase fame, recognition, and Michelin stars instead of developing a unique artistic voice.

As a composer, I only wish we had that problem. Yet the situation was reversed in the mid-20th century, when works like Ligeti’s Poème symphonique could get reviews in Time Magazine but culinary culture was being taken over by TV dinners, fast food, artificial flavoring, processed ingredients, and industrialized agriculture.

Whatever the reasons for the subsequent shift, our task is to find ways to bring musical creativity back to the mainstream. Looking at the problem through the lens of communities of taste offers some insights into what we might do better:

Community Before Music

People will always prioritize their taste communities ahead of your artistic innovation. That means you either need to work within an existing community, or you need to fill a need for a new community that people have been craving.

The first solution is how innovation happens in most pop genres: musicians build careers on more mainstream tastes, and some of the more successful among them eventually push the artistic envelope.

With new music, this doesn’t really work. On the one hand, the classical canon is not an ever-changing collection of new hit songs but rather an ossified catalog of standard works. On the other, the more premiere-focused world of new music is a small community—that’s the problem to begin with.

So we are left with finding untapped needs and creating new communities around them. SoundBox proves that this is possible. It’s up to us to be creative enough to uncover the solutions that work in other contexts.

Forget Universalism

Despite my critiques of classical music exceptionalism, there are good reasons why new music should endeavor to become a truly post-tribal, universal genre. Those reasons have little to do with the music itself and everything to do with the people making it.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of new music is that we attract an extremely diverse range of practitioners who are interested in synthesizing the world’s musical creativity and pushing its boundaries. What better context in which to develop a music that can engage people on an intertribal level?

That said, this is not our audience-building strategy, it’s the outcome. The way we get to universalism is to create exclusive taste communities that gradually change people’s relationships with sound. First we get them excited about the community, then we guide the community toward deeper listening.

This is similar to what is known about how to reduce racial bias in individuals. Tactics like shaming racists or extolling the virtues of diversity don’t work and can even further entrench racist attitudes in some cases. However, social science research shows that a racist’s heart can be changed on the long-term by having a meaningful, one-on-one conversation with a minority about that person’s individual experiences of racism. By the same token, to get to an inclusive, universal new music, first we need to get people to connect with our music on the personal level through exclusive taste communities that they feel a kinship with.

The MAYA Principle

Problems similar to new music’s lack of audience have been solved in the past. Famed 20th-century industrial designer Raymond Loewy provides a potential way forward through his concept of MAYA: “most advanced yet acceptable”. Loewy became famous for radically transforming the look of American industrial design, yet he was successful not just because he had good ideas, but rather because he knew how to get people warmed up to them.

One of the most famous examples is how he changed the look of trains. The locomotives of the 19th-century were not very aerodynamic, and they needed to be updated to keep up with technological advancements elsewhere in train design. In the 1930s, he began pitching ideas similar to the sleek train designs we know today, but these were very poorly received. People thought they looked too weird, and manufacturers weren’t willing to take a chance on them.

Therefore, he started creating hybrid models that resembled what people knew but with a couple of novel features added. These were successful, and he eventually transitioned back to his original concept, bit by bit, over a period of years. By that time, people had gotten used to the intermediary versions and were totally fine with his original. He repeated this process many times in his career and coined MAYA to describe it.

I think the accessibility movement in classical music has been one of the biggest arts marketing disasters of all time.

What I like most about MAYA is that the last letter stands for acceptable, not accessible. I think the accessibility movement in classical music has been one of the biggest arts marketing disasters of all time. It gives nobody what they want, dilutes the value of what we offer, and associates our music with unpleasant experiences.

Loewy got it right with acceptable. He was willing to challenge his audiences, but he realized that they needed some guidance to grapple with the concepts he was presenting. We in new music similarly need to provide guidance. That doesn’t mean we dumb down the art, it means we help people understand it, in manageable doses, while gradually bringing them deeper.

Hard is not Bad

Often in new music we are afraid to ask our audiences to push themselves. That’s a mistake. People like meaningful experiences that they have to work for. The trick is convincing them to expend the effort in the first place.

To get there, we start with the advice above: build communities, then guide people into greater depth using MAYA techniques. Miles Davis’s career illustrates this process beautifully. He didn’t start out playing hour-long, freeform trumpet solos through a wah-wah pedal; he started out identifying the need for a taste community that wasn’t bebop and wasn’t the schlocky commercialism of the big band scene. This led him toward cool jazz, where he developed a musical voice that propelled him to stardom.

After Miles had won over his community, however, he didn’t stop exploring. He expected the audience to grow along with him, and many of them did. Sure, plenty of jazz fans were critical of Miles’s forays into fusion and atonality, but he was still pulling enough of a crowd to book stadium shows. There’s no reason new music can’t do the same, but we have to be unapologetic about the artistic value of our music and demand that audiences rise to meet it.

Define Boundaries

Since new music is trying to build audiences that transcend racial and class boundaries, we need to be super clear about who we’re making music for and who we aren’t. “This music is for everybody” is not a real answer. We must explicitly exclude groups of people in order to be successful community-makers. It is my sincere hope, however, that we can find ways to be effectively exclusive without resorting to toxic historical divisions along racial and class lines.

Here’s one potential example, among many, of how that could work. I’ve argued before that the “eat your vegetables” approach to programming is dumb. There is rarely any good reason to sandwich an orchestral premiere between a Mozart symphony and a Tchaikovsky concerto. Conservative classical audiences don’t gradually come to love these new works, they just get annoyed at being tricked into sitting through a “weird” contemporary piece. New music audiences for their part are forced to sit through standard rep that they may not be particularly passionate about. Nor does this schizophrenic setup help build any new audiences—you have to be invested on one side or the other for the experience to make any sense to begin with.

So instead of trying to lump all this music together, a new music presenter might decide that audiences for common practice period music are fundamentally not the same as those drawn to Stockhausen or Glass or premieres by local composers. Armed with that definition, the presenter might then choose to create an event that would be repulsive to most orchestra subscribers but appealing to someone else, using that point of exclusion as a selling point. Thus, an exclusive community of taste is created, but without appealing to racism or other corrosive base impulses.

Big-picture questions like how people develop musical taste tend to get glossed over because they are so nebulous. But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.

To close, I want to say a brief word about my motivations for writing this piece. Even though this is a fairly lengthy article, I’ve obviously only scratched the surface. The writing process was also lengthy and convoluted, dealing as we are with such a broad and opaque issue, and at many points I wondered if it was even possible to say something meaningful without a book-length narrative. Yet I feel that this subject is something we collectively need to wrap our heads around.

Big-picture questions like how people develop musical taste tend to get glossed over because they are so nebulous. But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. As musicians and presenters, we make decisions based on theories of musical taste every day, whether or not we articulate our beliefs. Taste is, in a sense, the musical equivalent of macroeconomics: hard to pin down, but the foundation of everything else we do.

My hope with this piece is that we can start talking about these issues more openly, drop some of the empty rhetoric, and stop spinning our wheels on the dysfunctional approaches of the last 40 or 50 years. Paying lip service to inclusivity is not enough. If you’ve read this far, then chances are you believe like I do that new music offers the world something unique that is worth sharing as broadly as possible. We desperately need to get better at sharing it.

Composing is a Lonely Craft, but We Can’t Do It Alone

Hands of people applauding

Hands of people applauding

It was the winter of 1979 in Chicago.

Anyone who was somewhat conscious at that time knows that that means just one thing: blizzard.

I was a young piano student at the time, and a “little bit” of snow didn’t mean that a lesson would be cancelled. Nor did it mean that I would get a ride. (Contrary to today’s mentality.) So there I was, a ten year old boy, who may also have forgotten how important socks were, trudging my way half a mile, through un-shoveled drift after drift, over to Mrs. Jackson’s house. By the time I arrived, my feet were frozen solid. Needless to say, piano took a bit of a back seat that day, as Mrs. Jackson prioritized my frozen toes over a few etudes.

But there is something else about Mrs. Jackson that needs to be mentioned.

She sensed—somehow—that though piano was not going to be my life’s vocation (I never practiced), there was something about the theory of it all that intrigued me. She taught me what was going on, mathematically and harmonically, with those little black dots on the page. As a result, those five years of study with Mrs. Jackson made subsequent study of theory at the Interlochen Arts Academy much easier, which later gave me confidence at the New England Conservatory, where I earned my undergraduate degree. All of this gave me a head-start on composition when I decided to give it a try, some several years later.

So – dear Mrs. Jackson, I know you’re unfortunately not around to hear it, but, THANK YOU.

I have a request: if there is someone you know who saw talent or intrigue-in-the-arts in you at a young age, please thank them, now. Take a minute. No worries. This blogpost will still be here when you’re done.

For Christmas one year, when I was about 21, sitting under the Christmas tree at my parent’s home was this new program of which I had never heard: Finale. I think it was Version 3.0. This was before I had even considered arranging or composing, but somehow my parents detected that it might be interesting to me. And they were right! (Believe me, anyone who was willing to sit through that program in its infancy must have had a serious interest in putting notes on the page! It was so SLOW!)

Forgive me for a second while I thank my parents. I’ll be right back.


Now, there’s another story I REALLY need to share.

At the age of 25, I heard about a composing “discussion” class to be held at Northwestern University in the summer. I was still a trumpet player in the Naples Philharmonic at the time. I had started doing some arranging, but had yet to compose an original note. I decided to go to our boss at the orchestra, Myra Daniels, to tell her about the class. While in her office, I explained to her that it was to be a three-week class, where about 15 of us would sit around discussing “bad music” (more about that in a bit), and how exciting I thought it would be. Without even flinching, she asked, “How much?” I told her, “$600” (which was a lot of money to me at the time), and she immediately reached into her drawer and wrote me a check. How amazing is that?!

The class at Northwestern was called “Adventures in Bad Music.” (The older generation might recognize that title as a take-off from Karl Haas’ radio show “Adventures in Good Music.”) As mentioned, the class was mainly a discussion class, led by the Israeli composer Amnon Wolman, where we would be asked to name a “bad” piece, and then provide supporting arguments for why it was bad. (Usually, this led to the mention of a country-western song, whereupon he, or someone else, would say: “But that song sold 5 million copies. Who are you to claim that it is bad?”) This certainly was food for thought.

Well, our final assignment was to write a “bad” piece of music.

I thought this would be easy, since I’d never composed before. Therefore, I went back to my desk at my apartment, with no piano, and wrote a trumpet duet in a stream-of-consciousness style. I brought it to the class with a friend the next day, and we performed it.

When completed, someone—I’ve now forgotten who—raised a hand.

“You failed,” he said. “Why?” I responded. He replied: “That piece was actually really good.” One might think that I would have been upset at having “failed,” but I was secretly very excited. I knew that I had a new start at something fun to explore.

And so, to Myra Daniels, and to the nameless person who liked my “opus 1”: THANK YOU. None of us knew it at the time, but you are a very big reason why I am a composer today.

(For the record, I’m sure the “opus 1” is actually not that great of a piece, but it certainly served its purpose!)

This list of thanks could go on:

  • to Evans Haile, a young conductor who agreed to have me write my first orchestral piece (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)
  • to David Alpar, who commissioned my first piece for concert band in 2006. (I now have over 30.) I didn’t even know then that wind bands loved new music, and living composers. Shame on me.
  • to Rich Stoelzel, who commissioned my first trumpet sonata. This piece was the start of a collection of works that now numbers over fifty for trumpet.
  • to Jeff Work, who had my first trumpet concerto commissioned, which led to four more.
  • to my colleagues in the Naples Philharmonic Brass Quintet, who were patient with me as I introduced arrangements and compositions to try out…
  • a HUGE thanks to the Minnesota Commissioning Club, who gave me a big opportunity to write my first violin concerto (premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra) and a couple of other significant works
  • to ALL of the performers, conductors, festivals, administrators, churches, sponsors, and other patrons who believed in me enough to have me create something that wasn’t guaranteed in any way to be any good, especially early on in my career.
  • (To anyone else who I may have inadvertently omitted from this list, I sincerely apologize. There are so many of you who should be pointed out.)

But, most importantly, I need to fast-forward this story to early 2007, to a discussion initiated by my wife at our home in Naples. At this point, my life was equal-parts composing and performing. The former had me staying up to all hours of the night meeting deadlines, while the latter had me practicing at all other hours to keep up as best I could with the concert-performing demands. In the meantime, we had four young children (at that point aged ten down to four) that needed our constant attention, of course. In short, something had to give.

It was my wife’s idea to for me to quit trumpet and focus solely on composing, and for us to move back “home” to Chicago. Somehow she saw the passion I had for it, even more than I did at the time. This move subsequently opened up many doors at a professional level, for sure, and from a very practical level, being near family and being more centrally located in the country was very valuable. Certainly, at the onset, we took a financial hit. (My wife was in the orchestra as well, and we both quit.) However, the new freedom to create, to be home at nights with the family, and to look forward to a future without limits—what we like to call the “psychic income”—was immeasurable. This is all because of the suggestion of my wife, Sally, and to her, I say THANK YOU.

She’s in the room where I am now typing this, and I just told her so.

By now, I’m guessing you understand the purpose of this article.

If you’re of the younger generation, and you have benefited from the blessings of others, please reach out—even right now—to let people know how much their actions have helped you out. Or, perhaps you are of the older generation, and you see something in someone that shows promise. Go ahead and tell them, or encourage them. It can’t hurt. You might never know how just a few words might shape that younger person’s life in a way that neither of you could have ever imagined.

Lastly, there is the audience.

I’ve often heard composers asked: “Do you consider the audience when you are writing your music?” Several times, I’m shocked to hear the composer reply: “No.” How can this be?

These are the people who have invested their time and their hard-earned money in spending a couple of hours of their lives, sitting immobile in a seat (usually), where they are to be the recipient of our sounds being delivered upon their ears. How can we not respect that, and not try to create something that makes them feel that their time and money were well-spent? The audience is a huge part of what we do. I am always truly appreciative of each and every concertgoer who takes the time to express appreciation (or a critique) of what I’ve done, as this helps shape each and every piece that will follow.

And so, to audiences, whether present in the concert hall, or listening through other means, I wish to express my appreciation.

Music is my life. Contrary to what you might believe if you read my second blogpost on this series, though I try not to take myself too seriously, I take music very seriously. I reveal much more about myself in a piece of music then I would ever do in person. Therefore, if you hear a piece of my music, if you study a piece of mine, you are likely to find out more of what makes me tick than I would tell you face to face. The passion is there. Love, pain, angst, humor, depth, sadness, joy—it’s all there. I won’t tell you in person. I’m too shy, and convinced that you have much more important things to do in your life than to hear me describe it in words. Music is so much more powerful. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a well-placed note in a score would score two-thousand!

It is the audience—through their continued support of my music—that has allowed this slow revealing, and this slow growth of my persona as a composer, to have a life.  And of course, for this, I say THANK YOU.

It can be a scary thing to be a composer. Like writing a blog, you put notes (or words) on a piece of paper, not knowing whether anyone will understand them, or find any use for them. These four articles I’ve written for NewMusicBox have all been in the first-person, but I hope they have found a way to relate to each reader in their own personal way, and perhaps in some way, to even inspire a continuation within their craft, whether for the next five minutes or five years.

We each have something very unique and very important to say. I cannot wait to be in the audience to hear or see what everyone else has to say. I go to each concert—especially of new music—with such eager ears. I always come away having learned something. My life becomes enriched and more interesting. For that, to all of you who continue to write, perform, support, or listen to newly composed music, I say:


Advice from Strangers: A Trust Recipe

trust illustration

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This column is fourth in the series.

There are things we return to, again and again, without hesitation.

A favorite restaurant has a new dish on the menu–I order it. A favorite author comes out with a new book–the subject doesn’t matter, I read it. Pixar has a new short–I know it’s going to get me in that squishy sentimental way they do. Apple announces a new product, and I’m doomed.

And so it goes too with musicians, composers, and music festivals: you may not love everything they do, but you’ll give it a shot because you trust them.

Trust is the superpower that bequeaths upon us endless leaps of faith. How do we get it?

Craft, mission, and brand

The work you do is your craft, your mission is your motivation, and how people perceive these two things is your brand. It’s the sum total of what people think about when they hear your name, or your company’s name, or the name of something you’ve created. Your creations live in the world; your brand lives in people’s minds.

So it is not enough to simply do our craft, if we want to create a relationship of trust. We must also project a vision of values, a mission or an experience that is consistent with who our audience is and what they like–and deliver reliably on the promise inherent in that vision.

How do we bring trust-building into our day-to-day routine? I asked technologists and music-makers what types of behaviors were instrumental in capturing the trust of their fans, clients, and collaborators. Notably, the themes that surfaced are industry and scale agnostic. Here’s their recipe.

Act with integrity

“Make genuine promises that are real, tangible, and meaningful, and then keep those promises,” says Gahlord Dewald, president of ThoughtFaucet, a strategic content studio.

Defining and delivering on a clear mission goes a long way to setting expectations and building trust. “You find your integrity sweet spot and don’t move,” says composer Danny Felsenfeld. “At the New Music Gathering, I think we did a lot of things right because we had certain boundaries and we stuck to them. For example, we decided that none of the co-founders’ music would be played at any gathering, even if people wanted to.”

At Switchboard Music, curators have found that sticking to their mission to support innovative and eclectic music has helped to set useful expectations with their community.

“We try to have a mixed balance–not necessarily just our top five every year–and we try to give a cross section of the Bay Area music scene,” says Annie Phillips, Switchboard co-director. “Because we stay true to that mission, people know they’ll hear some interesting music they may not be familiar with. They think: ‘I know if I go to this concert, I’ll have a bit of an adventure. I know I’ll see something I like, and I’ll see something representative of the Bay Area.’”

“The Switchboard brand is strong,” says co-founder Ryan Brown. “At our festival, people don’t need to know the name of who’s playing; they trust the brand, the presenter name, the festival name.”

This strength of brand helps bring new performers to the festival, too. Bands who have never before performed together will make their debut at Switchboard, because they know they’ll find an audience looking for their kind of music.

In tech, when there are many competitors with similar products, integrity can mean the difference between collaboration and isolation.

“When I’m deciding on a new partnership, I meet with major players in the industry and assess whether they’re presenting their content with integrity,” says Kiesha Garrison, a business development manager at Microsoft whose main focus is negotiating content deals. “It damages my opinion of them if they talk about the competition in an icky way. I tend to take that as an indication of their company culture, which is something that may seep into their content–and I don’t want that vibe in the content. When you’re trash-talking your competition, your focus is on that. It’s not on the customers, and that comes through.”

Communicate responsibly and responsively

When it comes to building trust, programmer Michael Snoyman values communication even above the quality of his code. In fact, he wrote a manifesto about it.

“It’s about action–when people report bugs, responding and fixing them. When people ask questions, improving the documentation. Being present so that no one ever wonders, ‘Is this a maintained project?’” Snoyman explains, “People feel comfortable with my software because I stand behind it.”

Rock-solid communication eliminates most poking and prodding. Whenever possible, be polite and responsive; whether in email or on social media, acknowledge receipt of incoming communication, even if you can’t address it fully at that moment.

Outgoing communications–program notes, season announcements, tutorials, documentation, testimonials, other support materials on your web site–showcase your brand as well. If you win an award or get a press mention, find a way to display them on your site. They can’t speak for you unless you give them a mouthpiece.

Quality speaks for itself

Adhere to the highest standards of quality possible while still getting the job done. “Never compromise on the quality of a performer or conviction of the idea behind the theme of a festival or concert,” says a board member of a contemporary music ensemble.

And good work speaks for itself.

“I don’t have experience creating a brand,” says Carole Snyder, a developer at Microsoft. “But I think I’ve created trust just by getting things done. Once you’ve seen my work, you know I’m going to do a good job and be meticulous.”

Surface the human

Technology is inherently cold and logical, and needs warming up through pleasant interfaces and communication from its creators. Unsurprisingly, technologists put a premium on communicating the fact that behind a product are human beings who care.

“For complex products, trust in the product turns on trust in the people behind it,” says John Reale, director of solutions architecture at a healthcare startup.

I thought this sentiment would be limited to the tech community, since music seems so inherently human. But a human connection is critical in the music community, too.

“Music may seem inherently human because there’s a human being performing, but it can still be a sterile connection, especially in classical music,” says Phillips. “If an audience member has no context, they won’t identify a performance as a human thing.”

She adds that personal connection is an important part of trusting an organization.

“The brands that people trust are the ones they feel invested in or loyal to. When people feel emotionally invested in a brand, they’re more likely to stay loyal. A human connection makes it more likely for people to feel more emotionally invested in a brand or organization, so they also feel personally invested in it. When they feel a strong tie, they become patrons instead of just audience members.”

The same applies in other areas of the music business.

“For a composer, especially one at the beginning stages of their career, interacting with individual stakeholders is paramount,” says composer Jason Gerraughty. “I didn’t really figure this out until I was finished my Ph.D. and had nobody to write [music] for, because I didn’t put in the hours at the bar. If there is any advice I’d give to a freshman composer, it’s that the afterparty is just as important to your career as the concert!”

Be transparent

Shared values and mutual interest are not-so-secret ingredients in a trusting relationship, but perhaps less obvious is the importance of being transparent about what all parties are getting out of the relationship when those benefits may not be immediately apparent.

“Fiscal transparency helps people trust that you’re doing good work with the money they give you,” says Phillips. “At Switchboard, for our monthly series, we borrowed our sales model from the Center for New Music. All the ticket sales go directly to the artist, and we announce that at the concerts. We explain: all ticket sales go to the artist, and if you buy a beer it comes to Switchboard to help us put on more concerts. It helps people donate money while they’re there.”

“I think that trust in a brand requires people to believe that whoever is behind the brand has their best interests at heart,” agrees an engineer at Google. “If they are participating in a transaction, it helps to have the benefit to the company and the user be transparent, so that the user can think to themselves: ‘I know what the company is getting out of it, so I know why it is in the company’s best interest to treat me right.’”

Transparency also plays out on a personal level, says Phillips.

“I try to be a resource for people in a transparent manner. I believe a high tide floats all boats. When I have access to a resource or I’ve figured out how to do something, if someone asks me how to do it, I just tell them. In business, some people want to play their cards close to their chest; I don’t think that benefits the music community or the musicians. If I think being transparent will help, I’ll do it.”

When people see you as a resource–and you’re transparent about sharing your resources–they’ll trust you and, by association, the projects you’re affiliated with.

Be honest

Deal frankly and honestly with clients, collaborators, and yourself.

“I was working with a bookshop to bring an ensemble to their space,” says a presenter in Seattle. “We had a great time brainstorming about the concert program and event setup, and then we talked about what they needed to make it worthwhile for them, and what I needed to pay my musicians. There was a great willingness to make the event happen, and at the same time, a shared understanding that if we aren’t able to make the numbers break even, we wouldn’t pursue the idea further. Everyone’s needs were on the table, and it was clear that if the numbers didn’t work out, we’d be able to walk away from the collaboration without ruining the relationship.”

A partner with a good sense of personal limits is a true gem. It’s a lot easier to operate on realistic expectations than to clean up the mess after the alternative, and lack of trust in this area can be the death of a partnership before it even gets off the ground. Things go more smoothly when everyone involved knows what can and can’t be accomplished, in how much time, and for what compensation.

Time is a resource. Respect it

Nothing burns goodwill like a waste of time. Assume all time is a precious resource, and when you find yourself in the position to benefit from someone’s time, treat it with the utmost value.

“I do my due diligence before going to a subject-matter expert for help, so I don’t waste their time,” says Carole Snyder, a developer at Microsoft. “I’m not going to go to them without doing my homework.”

If you’re not sure how to think about a collaborator’s time in a way that is respectful, try looking at the situation in personal terms.

“At New Music Gathering, we tried not to think like an ‘organization’ but as individuals who were asking people to come do something, and as such we felt a responsibility to make sure those people were not wasting their time or being ‘had’ in any way,” says Felsenfeld.

The humble fumble

“Readily admit when you’re wrong and rectify it immediately,” says software developer Jack Reichert. “I’ve made a few big mistakes in my time. I’m still around because I fess up when I do.”

Making a mistake is a huge opportunity to build trust. It’s also probably the most counter-intuitive way to do so, and it works wonders.

“I was managing a rickety relationship with a client,” says a software product manager. “We were powering their whole network of sites, and our system went down. It was early in the morning, and we debated notifying the client. In the end, we left a message at his office, and by the time he got it we’d already resolved the issue. He was doubly pleased: not only had we handled the problem, but we’d kept him in the loop instead of making it seem everything was fine. It gave us a great foundation of trust  moving forward.”

In the same vein, box-office issues can turn an average listener into a fan.

“Box-office mixups happen all the time,” says Phillips. “If someone buys a ticket online, and when they arrive they’re not on our list, the presenter will usually apologize quickly, let them in, and give them a snack or a beer at the concert. They’re much more likely to come away thinking: ‘Switchboard is a stand-up organization–they took care of me.’”

Another common snag in the music industry is double-booking–and again, the same approach applies.

“As long as you apologize and handle it quickly, it works out,” says Phillips. “When you get vague about why you double-booked the evening, haggling over the details of who said what in an email…well, eliminating the drama is good.”

Starting from zero? You’re not a zero

Even when you’re just starting out, commitment and collaboration are your champions.

“I think when you’re new, it’s either: ‘I have a very strong commitment to my mission,’ or ‘Trust my collaborators’–and you’re working with very high quality people,” says Phillips. “Once, someone put together a completely new group with new music he’d written that we hadn’t heard yet. I trusted him, and I knew the people he was bringing in would be good, so I felt comfortable bringing him into the concert series.”

There are echoes in tech:

“If you’re new, I’m going to look at who you’re associated with, what experts have lended their voice to help you build your credibility,” says Microsoft’s Garrison.

Make it easier for people to see your affiliations by highlighting them in your bio. Who have you worked with in the past? Are you or your partners affiliated with a university, publication, or school of thought? Who will recommend your work?

We can’t ride on the coattails of our ambassadors forever, and in the end, you’re the only one who can deliver on your own brand promise. But this may just be the thing that gets you the opportunity to do so.

These strategies are a guide to building trust, but clearly we don’t walk through our busy days, our office meetings, or our commutes with blog posts in mind. Tactics can be easy to forget.

If we’re going to make trust-building a part of everyday life, we need to prioritize these behaviors, normalize them, and build systems into place to help us carry them out as a matter of procedure.

I asked my colleagues: Have you created a brand that people trust without hesitation, return to again and again? What do you think led to that trust?

This recipe, from composer Dean Rosenthal, is effective and inspiring:

“I would like to think that I have created that returning out of quality of work, integrity, inventiveness, intelligence, concern for community, mutual interest, and devotion to the art of public music making,” he told me.

Trust is not born of one encounter, in a single grand gesture. It is built by repeatedly and consistently behaving in a way that reassures people they are being heard and respected; that we have their best interests at heart.

Next: collaboration.

Advice from Strangers: The Craft of Community

symphony hall

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This column is third in the series.

It is 10 p.m. Five hundred ticket-holders file into the concert hall to hear exciting contemporary works. They await the opening notes, they hear the performance. They are enthusiastic. They clap. They file out. They go home, check the mail, pay the babysitter, turn on the TV.

I am one of them. I have just recycled my program notes, kicked off my shoes. I am posting photos from the concert on Instagram.

Is this audience my community? Is it anyone’s community?

I don’t know.

What I do know, with relative confidence, is that an audience is not necessarily a community. And that goes for all kinds of audiences: the million-strong user base of a popular website, consumers of a chef’s fine cuisine, a Twitter following, a political following, the readers of this blog.

Community vs. group

Community requires connection. Without interpersonal relationships, a community is just a group.

Community requires generosity. Without an element of giving, it is hard to imagine members being invested in the collective and future well-being of the group.

Community requires space. Without a place (virtual, physical) in which people can connect and contribute, it will be much more difficult for these things to take place.

In tech, as in music, groups have their place. But it is community that brings our creations to life and extends them far beyond what we are capable of on our own. Communities champion our efforts to new and dissenting audiences, make our work more meaningful through their experiences, and expose new truths about our work to ourselves, so that we can do more and better and different

The reverse is also true: our creations bring communities to life, by connecting like-minded people and providing them with a space in which to safely explore their interests and passions.

So: How do we get from group to community? If an audience is not a community, how do we go about turning it into one?

Music-makers and techies are constantly crafting communities. Here’s how we do it.

Nurture connections

“A successful concert of my music isn’t just about the music,” says composer and performer Dean Rosenthal. “It’s about generating interest in each other and the traditions we inherit. It’s important for me as composer to create an environment that is conducive to connecting a community in the context of the concert. I do that by writing music that (hopefully) speaks to my audience on an emotional level, and by explaining a little bit about it: where it comes from, what inspires it, maybe even how it’s composed, and lastly why I chose to write it.”

“For digital products, the times when I’ve seen community work well are when the product itself was useful for the community,” says Kiesha Garrison, senior business development manager at Microsoft. “The people who were fans of the product became a support group for each other and came to rely on each other.”

The key here was that the focus wasn’t on engaging with their brand or with their content. This company started with the fact that there were going to be certain topics that the members of its community were all going to find meaningful–topics for like-minded people to discuss among themselves.

“It never felt like business,” says Garrison. “It felt valuable to have additional perspectives from people who were doing something I was doing. So many like-minded people to tap into at one time.”

Find a juicy juxtaposition

There are people who compartmentalize their friend circles: work, personal, and family do not intermix. I am not one of those people. Intersections are fertile ground for connections. They attract a curious and multifaceted crowd.

“The community organizer is masterful at maneuvering the intersection, the edge where two systems come together,” says Ashara Ekundayo, co-founder and chief creative officer of ImpactHub Oakland. “They could be two ecosystems, two ways of thinking. They could be opposites, juxtaposed. The point is to look at the unique juiciness that exists at the intersection. Where the shore hits the ocean, there’s that cool little line with all the sea crabs and the shells… or where the road meets the forest, there’s all the stuff on the sides: trash, money, watches, all the stuff that comes out of the forest. It’s cool! So think: What are the two most odd things I can try to put together? And not only that: who wants to come and listen to it? Who is it appealing to?”

Who indeed? Enter the audience, ye flotsam and jetsam.

1. Does your community have a space to convene and converse? Open a Twitter or Instagram account and share content your target community will be interested in. It doesn’t have to be about you or your work; it does have to be relevant to the community.

2. Are you encouraging connection and conversation within the community? Introduce two like-minded people in your community who don’t know each other. Suggest coffee or a collaboration.

3. How are you serving the community? Think about what your community needs and brainstorm a few ways to help provide it.

Try audience-centered design

“Try opening your next performance by saying, ‘I made this for you.’ How does that change your connection with the audience?” writes mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen in her exploration of the performer-audience relationship.

Composers and performers are in a unique position to impact directly, and in real time, how an audience relates to their work. Even the simplest acknowledgement of the audience at the start of a concert is an acknowledgement of coexistence.

In tech, we don’t often get to physically stand alongside our products as they go forth into the world–but when we design interfaces in a way that considers our users’ needs, it sends a similar message: I made this for you.

Human-centered design is the idea that we can design a system to support its users’ existing beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors rather than requiring them to adapt to the system. It’s a key principle in user-interface design, where the goal is to create user-friendly experiences for people with a wide range of abilities and limitations. Designers try to take into consideration that any given encounter with the software might be a person’s first or fiftieth.

New music, it seems at first glance, would strive to do just the opposite! Atonal. No obvious rhythm. Difficult to relate to. Devoid of context. Not. User. Friendly.

“Truly new music is intentionally subverting the mainstream voice,” says Adam Fong, co-founder of the Center for New Music (C4NM) in San Francisco. “It’s contrarian by nature: ‘There’s a new thing I’m going to create, and it’s going to be different.’”

And yet, or perhaps because of that fact, our contemporary composers are asking themselves: What does the audience need in order to have a meaningful experience?

“Ultimately, we all connect to music on a personal level and the listener has their own response that an artist has nothing to do with, aside from providing the music,” says Rosenthal. “I write the music I want to hear that isn’t being written, and that inspiration helps me bring enthusiasm to the concerts. But the music has to connect in way that could go well beyond me.”

“I think about writing music that engages and interests people,” says one Seattle composer. “If there is already an audience for that ensemble, then I think about writing in a way appropriate for that audience. Or perhaps the performer or ensemble and I think together about what kind of event or context we want to create. I wouldn’t write something simply because I think it is what an audience wants to hear, but I always try to write something that is both true to what I want, and that I think would be interesting to the expected audience.”

Composers are in the lucky position of considering at least two audiences: the one that will hear his or her work, and the one that will perform it.

“Under the best of circumstances, you’re composing for a person,” says composer Daniel Felsenfeld. “When I write a piece for a musician, I put names in the score, not roles–because I believe in writing not just to people’s strengths but also to their frailties.”

At the risk of over-composering this section, I’ll share one more voice, because I find the emphasis on collaboration so very inspiring:

“I’ve found that openly acknowledging the role performers and audience members play in the formulation of a musical work’s meaning helps to develop an engaged and cohesive community,” says composer Garrett Schumann. “Composers, as members of a community, depend on the cooperation of performers and listeners to achieve their ultimate goal of creating meaningful music. If composers remind themselves that they (most often) need someone else to play their music and (always) need someone else to listen to their music in order for it have meaning, then they will not act as if creating meaningful art is a singular endeavor.”

Give of yourself

New music folks revel in service.

“I’m in a constant state of trying to build community around new music,” says Ihnen. “I do it by trying to serve the new music community and the life and culture of a city with my performance.”

“Do service,” says Felsenfeld. “Start concerts, plan events, beg collaborations, reach out to people.”

Felsenfeld does all of these things. His work as a composer is a long sequence of collaborations; he organizes and curates concerts and has co-founded the New Music Gathering.

Felsenfeld and his colleagues brought the three-day conference into being this year when they realized they had no place to formally get together with their community and talk about pressing matters. They designed a framework that would support more than just networking, by establishing clear rules to guide their planning.

“We wanted to keep our roles in it pure. We are volunteers; we have none of our music played. We weren’t there to shill on behalf of our own work, nor will we be in subsequent years. There was no commerce, nothing to buy, no pressure to sell. And there were no built-in competitions–you could not show up and lose something… In short, the only thing we stand to gain from the entire show is the community we build.”

We can build new communities, and we can strengthen existing ones. The San Francisco new music community existed before the Center for New Music did. Fong and his colleagues saw potential in the community, and set out to help it become more efficient, grow better artistically by its own judgment, and tackle its own problems so it could be healthy and vibrant.

Whither service in tech?

Despite how deeply community-oriented many technologies are, and despite the fact that companies often sponsor community service programs for their employees, “service” is not a word that comes up when I ask tech colleagues about their experiences in community-building. I doubt it’s a matter of personality; they are upstanding and conscientious people, even altruistic at heart, and not just in it for the money.

The fact is that there is service in the tech industry, whether it’s volunteering for a civic coding project, providing space for community gatherings after hours, building software to help with disaster recovery, or just running a neighborhood website. I wonder why we don’t see these contributions as service.

Offer a vision of what is possible

“To create a more positive and connected future for our communities, we must be willing to trade their problems for their possibilities,” writes Peter Block in Communities.

Communities are future-oriented. If we want to build strong communities where members serve generously, we must help each other discover what it is we each have to offer–and what we can become–and then enable that to happen.

“Young people do what they see,” says Ekundayo. “If you look like them, then you being there–and them seeing you–activates something in them. When you see another human do something you thought wasn’t possible, you say: ‘Oh, this is possible!’ Imagine what would happen if you took the next step and told them, ‘After I’m done with my performance, you can meet me backstage and I will teach you for an hour.’ Maybe you teach one person, maybe you teach a group of people. What happens if you commit to spending not one but five hours with them, one hour a week for the next five weeks?”

She pauses. “What happens if you go over to a music school and teach there?”

“It’s a community-support effort–introducing singer friends to new repertoire that may suit them, or helping each other out with particularly tricky phrases,” says Soprano Hillary LaBonte. “I try to be as good a representative of new music to my colleagues as I am to non-musicians.”

So many things are available to us that don’t seem accessible until someone shows us they’re possible.

Show up

Be present in the community you are building–as a member of it, not an outsider.

“We are interrelated and interconnected,” says Ekundayo. “Every human being on this planet. Being engaged in your community means showing up for it, and you have to acknowledge that we’re connected. If you think you’re different, you can’t show up.”

Not only is being present the best way to be alert to the changing needs of the community, but it’s a powerful form of support. There’s nothing like showing up at someone’s performance to make it clear that what they’re doing matters to you.

“We support each other by re-posting projects on social media, spreading the buzz, generally spreading the love,” says a flutist friend. “And when I have time, I am usually at my friends’ gigs. I like to keep updated with what people are doing, and face time is very important to the new music community. It not only helps sustain my personal presence in the community, but it also helps sustain the community.”

Service is integral to community. Investing time and skills keeps us accountable for and invested in the wellbeing of the collective. The members of an engaged community care so much about the thread that connects them that they are willing and glad to give of their time and energy to participate and keep it all going.

Design purposeful spaces

“Communities are built of purposeful action,” says Fong. “Are you creating a space for learning, or for interacting? Is it a one-way discourse, or more of a round table?”

According to Block, every room we occupy serves as a metaphor for the larger community that we want to create. Our task is to rearrange the room to meet our intention to build relatedness, accountability, and commitment. A concert space, Facebook feed, Meetup gathering–the way these spaces are set up, who is in the room with us, and even how we know them–this is all configured by someone.

As a builder of community, you get to choose who you want in the room–and how you intend to use the space will inform that decision. Consider who you’re trying to serve and what their needs are. Then design virtual or physical spaces to meet those needs.

At the most operational and practical level, it gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together? – Peter Block, Community

The Center for New Music is designed for casual interaction in a single room of shared space, so artists can talk and be creative together. By day it’s a coworking space; at night it transforms into an event venue.

The model seems to be working: even during grant season, a time of high stress and competition, the co-working space sees members working together on applications supportively and collaboratively.

“The most effective way of building community is to give people a space where they can try new things, experiment, and be fairly well-insulated from financial and critical pressures,” says Fong. “That allows them to do creative work primarily for themselves, their friends, and people who care about the music. We serve as host and matchmaker, connecting musicians, ensembles, institutions and resources; then we let the art grow organically from there.”

Composer Judah Adashi writes passionately about the importance of designing concert spaces for communal experience.

“Turning a performance into an inviting, communal experience goes beyond the concert itself,” he says, and as artistic director of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series he is in the perfect role to carefully craft that experience. Each show in the series opens with a pre-concert conversation and is followed by a wine reception. The event continues with an after-party at a local cafe–where they play a bonus “track.”

“It’s not an afterthought,” says Adashi. “It’s part of the plan.”

Equal access

“Being a community builder is being someone who is hopefully committed to illuminating and cultivating opportunities for equity in the group,” says Ekundayo. “Provide access in as many ways as possible.”

When we go to a lecture or concert, our purpose is to listen to an exceptional work–and the rooms that host those one-way conversations are designed to optimize the listening experience, with the audience facing the presenter.

Two-way conversations are more likely to emerge around a round table. When we’re on an equal plane, our expectations shift: we expect everyone to bring contributions, behave constructively, and treat each other like peers.

The performance space at the C4NM is one long, narrow room. There’s no raised platform; audience and performer are literally on the same level. “It’s hard for the audience to not interact with the performer!” exclaims Fong. And this overcomes barriers.

What happens when composer, performer, and listener interact as equals?

“I am frequently stunned by what the people who play my pieces are able to reveal about my music’s meaning,” says Garrett Schumann. “I profit unquestionably from the things performers bring to my music, which I cannot imagine. I also learn a great deal from what my listeners find in, ascribe to, and take away from my music… these interactions represent the kind of basic community all art requires.”

The digital amplifier

Being physically present isn’t something people can do all the time.

“People’s lives are increasingly full of things they want to do, and even in a thriving, successful community, getting everyone to show up at any given event is just as difficult as always. So we’re looking into what it would mean to build an online community,” says Fong of the C4NM.

The thing about online communication is its accessibility. Public conversations can be seen by anyone. Archived conversations live on forever. There is vast potential for amplification.

“Successful bands are emphasizing digital communications, perhaps even more so than emphasizing people showing up at concerts,” says Fong. “In San Francisco, there’s been a greater acceptance that your work may only be heard in digital form. People generally accept now that the accelerated success–the snowball effect–is going to happen in the digital space and not in person.”

Digital exposure also provides communities with a visible heartbeat.

“People are attracted to communities with activity. Make that activity happen!” says Michael Snoyman, director of engineering at software development company FP Complete. Create public forums for discussion on Reddit, Stack Overflow, Quora, and IRC. Be a resource: put industry-relevant information on your website, and cross reference it regularly. Create group mailing lists–and strive to keep those conversations addressed to the collective.

Luckily, we don’t have to choose between physical spaces and digital spaces. Both industries regularly augment meaningful face-to-face encounters with digital ones, creating vast, rich, and exciting spaces that encompass all that both have to offer.

A computer science graduate student at UMass Amherst recently told me how she used the momentum of an in-person encounter to build a community in the digital realm. While in Vienna for a conference, she gathered a small group interested in a specific (but unrelated) research area, and then created a mailing list for that topic. A week later, 30 people had joined the list–and she hadn’t yet tapped into her entire network of researchers.

Musicians regularly use social media to share snippets of rehearsals and other behind-the-scenes videos, welcoming listeners into the preparation process. Audiences connect–as communities!–on these channels, anticipation builds, and suddenly the performance is extended in both time and space.

It is our privilege, as community-builders, to think about which conversations we want to take place, who should be in the room for those conversations, and what tools they will need to make these interactions meaningful and productive. The success of our communities hinges on how effectively the spaces we craft–physical or digital–support that intent.

Writing about community for a community is an odd thing, not only because you, reader, are already part of a thriving community (it’s how we found each other), but because the writing itself is an act of community-building. It connects people and ideas in service of our collective well-being, and hopefully creates a space for continued conversation within and between our two communities.

At the heart of it, the point of community is to connect with our fellow humans in a meaningful way.

“Meet for coffee. Get to know one another on a real (and not just a professional ‘what can you do for me?’) level,” urges Felsenfeld. “You don’t just get to show up with your good ideas and foist–you get conversations going, and that is the path to making things better.”

Next week: trust.

There’s This Thing Happening: The New York Avant Garde Festival and Its Audience

I started this NewMusicBox series on experimental music festivals of the 1960s with an article about critical reactions to the New York Avant Garde Festival; I trawled the newspaper reviews and promotional materials to find you facts. Next, we looked at the realities of composing and producing the Tudorfest; interviews and secondary sources carried the day. Then Ian Power gave us insight into what it was like to perform pieces from FluxFest Kit 2; in this case, personal and physical experience guided our understanding. And now I’d like to come back around full circle, to reinterpret what we think we know—the New York Avant Garde Festival again, but this time through the eyes of the audience.

Composers, performers—they’re relatively easy to find and talk to if you want to track them down. After all, many of them went on to established careers in the arts, and they have gigs and websites and email addresses. But audience members? People who just wandered in off the street and experienced what the New York Avant Garde Festival had to offer? That’s a little more difficult. Where do you even start?

I started by writing that first NewMusicBox article, hoping that the readers of this website might have been there, might be able to tell me something more about what the festivals felt like. I wasn’t disappointed. A comment on my March 5 article led me to contact information—which inspired me to send out an email and then schedule a Skype interview.

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz wandered into the 10th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival at Grand Central Station in 1973 and—instantly, magically, organically—became part of the event.

The original poster for NYAGF 10th Annual Avant Garde Festival consiting of multiple texts in different directions superimposed on one another.

Poster for NYAGF 10th Annual Avant Garde Festival at Grand Central Station, 1973.

There’s a catch, a small caveat to this audience member’s experience. Báthory-Kitsz is, in fact, a composer, a musician, the former host of the award-winning Kalvos & Damian. (He’s also an author, an instrument maker, a teacher, a librarian, and an archivist if you want the full picture.) He ended up becoming a good friend of NYAGF producer Charlotte Moorman, and went on to attend (and perform his music at) all of the New York Avant Garde festivals in the 1970s that followed—even the much-maligned Cambridge River edition. But at his first 1973 festival, Báthory-Kitsz really didn’t have any idea what he was in for. “I don’t really know how I heard about it,” he said during our interview. “Somebody must have told me there was this thing happening in New York—I don’t think I read it, because I certainly couldn’t have afforded to buy a New York Times. I heard it from somebody.” He was young, he was full of curiosity; he found a friend, took the bus from Trenton, New Jersey to New York City ($2.25 round trip), and made his way to the festival-occupied train tracks.

It was like a huge party, he told me. There were events happening everywhere, and he got to meet people. People like Jackson Mac Low, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Yoko Ono—people who were making names for themselves in the experimental milieu, who were doing the very thing Báthory-Kitsz hoped to one day do himself.

“That’s cool. I love this,” he thought. And so he found ways to participate further, to get in deeper. He called ahead of the next festival—dialing a number that turned out to be Charlotte Moorman’s direct line—and found himself heading to her apartment to help fold promotional materials and talk experimental composition. The thing about the New York Avant Garde Festival was that there was no application to fill out, no credentials to present. There were no obstacles to you (yes, you) participating if you felt so moved. All you had to do was inform Moorman that you wanted in—so your name could be put on posters and so you could be counted in the official tally of participants—and then you were in. That’s all there was to it.

The way Báthory-Kitsz remembers it, the New York Avant Garde festival was completely non-exclusive, totally welcoming. There was no need for traditional musical virtuosity to perform these pieces; there were no great skills to show off except for a willingness to jump in and do, to take an idea and run with it as far as you were able. It was a “that-sounds-really-exciting-let’s-do-it!” culture, as Báthory-Kitsz calls it. In some ways, that made the whole avant-garde an outsider to the musical establishment. And if that was true, if everyone was an outsider, it paradoxically meant that everyone was an insider—even the audience, should they so choose.

An historic photo of a group of people playing outdoors on invented instruments

Dashuki Music Theatre performing at the New York Avant-Garde Festival World Trade Center June 19, 1977; from L to R: Shirley Strock Albright; Jannet Passow Gillock; David Gunn; Dennis Bathory-Kitsz; Linda Kaye. (From the Dashuki Music Theatre page of the Trans/Media Arts Cooperative website.)

The distinction between audience and performers wasn’t important, because there was always the potential for the one to become the other. It was 1977 at the 13th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival held at the World Trade Center, and Báthory-Kitsz brought his own ensemble to perform a chamber opera he had written for instruments he’d built himself, including the geometrically tuned “Hharp” and the wood and glass “Uncello.” (I have a copy of the poster for this festival, by the way. Báthory-Kitsz’s name appears at exactly the halfway point in the list of 237 participants.) “I know we had an audience, because I have photographs showing we had an audience,” he told me. The question of who exactly that audience was…not so clear. Báthory-Kitsz remembers walking around the festival, going to see other friends and acquaintances perform—so there were festival performer-spectators at any given event. Then, there were people who had come to see his opera specifically, and so he assumes there were people who had come to see other particular performers. And then “at one point I know that somebody wanted to play my ‘Uncello,’ and so sure they were in it.” The audience member turned performer. “It was so crowded,” Báthory-Kitsz said, “the vast majority of the people there must have been audience.”

A photo of Báthory-Kitsz's uncello which is shaped like a giant bow with a clear glass sphere in the cavity

Báthory-Kitsz’s Uncello (From the page devoted to his instruments on his website.)

Must have been, but who knows. All that really mattered was that it was exciting, that it was this huge event with many people and many performances, that there was an experimental electricity in the air. In any case, it clearly made an impression. Báthory-Kitsz went on to organize his own Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde in ’74, ’76, and ’78. “We were inspired by [Moorman’s] festivals because we had no gathering like that south of New York and we didn’t know if any were going on elsewhere in the country. But we knew one was not happening in Philadelphia, and certainly not in Trenton.” That sounds really exciting, so let’s do it! Báthory-Kitsz et al. contacted Trenton’s city council in the fall of 1973, rounded up 60 artists—some with name recognition (once heard, who could ever forget the moniker of sculptor Woofy Bubbles?), some with only the experimental love in their hearts—and put on a festival. Hundreds of people showed up. It was a great success. So great, that they put on an encore two years later and then another two years after that.

The original poster for the 1978 Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde featuring text and drawings

The poster for the 1978 edition of the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde (From the website of the Trans/Media Arts Cooperative.)

Báthory-Kitsz has photographs from the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde—and from the New York Avant Garde Festivals, too. Photographs, and also negatives, slides, posters and playbills, bits and pieces of handmade instruments, thousands of hours of audio on reels and cassettes, and even a few 8mm films. All of these things live in a storage unit (if they’re not temperature sensitive) and his studio (if they are)—because no museum or university will take them. Archival media is expensive to maintain, and Báthory-Kitsz is (quite reasonably) unwilling to split up his collection, to skew the representation of these events. Here I am, a historian who can’t find archival materials about these festivals in any of the usual places; there he is, a participant and a documentarian, with mountains of archival materials that he just can’t reliably get to the historians. But these photos and those reel-to-reel tapes are our history nonetheless, and they tell a story about festivals in general as surely as they do about any one festival in particular.

“So, you went up to New York for the New York Avant Garde Festivals, and then you produced your own festivals—what was it about the festival medium?” I finally asked him. “Well, it’s where you met people,” he told me. “There was no occasion to meet anybody if there was not a large event to meet them at.” It was a time before the internet, it was a time of exorbitant long-distance phone bills—“we were really disconnected from each other,” Báthory-Kitsz noted. Tudorfest? The ONCE Festival? Fluxfest? They might have been happening, but you had to know someone who was in the know in order to know about them. And even if you did hear about a concert now and again, it was always hard to tell if it was going to be worth it. You needed a good reason to travel to hear something new and interesting—and what could be better than an event where you were guaranteed to hear not just one new thing, but hundreds, where you could meet not just one new composer, but dozens?

For critics, the experimental music festivals of the 1960s and ‘70s were a departure—and sometimes an escape—from the highbrow world of classical concerts. For composers, they were a risk, a gamble of time and money and energy—and also a chance to put their work out there, to show the world just what they were doing. For performers, they were the chance to reach a more general audience and to commit to the uncanniness, the empowerment, and the fun of the experimental ethos. And for audience members, they were an opportunity to participate, to live in the experimental world for a day or two—to hear some new things and make some new contacts. When Báthory-Kitsz went to the festivals, he met people; when he offered to help fold posters, he met people. When he decided to produce his own festival, he got in touch with all those people he had met at the festivals and the poster folding marathons. When he started his radio show Kalvos & Damian, he pooled those contacts. Each new contact led to more contacts with more people—critics, composers, performers, audience, some combination of the above, it didn’t really matter. They were all interested in experimental music.

“I have one last question,” I told Báthory-Kitsz. “Do you have any plans for future festivals?” “Well no,” he said, but he is planning a huge party in August 2015 to celebrate all of the people who contributed to the Kalvos & Damian radio show during its years on the air. The long list of past interviewees consists of composers of every stripe, including Laurie Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, James Tenney, Larry Austin, Frederic Rzewski, and David Behrman—avant-garde festival goers and doers every one. This party, then, is a celebration of the radio show, but I also like to think of it as a celebration of the way we meet people and the way that a community of experimental musicians produces so much more than a single event. It is, in its own way, a festival of festivals, and I for one hope that Báthory-Kitsz documents every last detail.

Lessons Learned


Photo by Michael Coghlan, via Flickr

Very few of us ignited our passion for music through critical thinking. Instead, small moments of enlightenment—flashes of understanding informing our future actions and ways of thinking—fanned the flames of initial interest into whatever inferno our obsession currently takes. It’s the primal urge to create, wherever it comes from, that remains at the center of what we do. And, no matter how we propose to articulate where we are and what we think, we are always coming from that place.

To that end, I see my series of posts this month as an opportunity to focus on my own essential moments of enlightenment and how they continue to affect the outgrowths of my work and philosophy, while steering away from articulating aesthetic, formal, and timbral concerns that live only on the surface of my thinking. In essence, I want to try to discover how the large lessons I’ve learned influence the way I think about and make music.

Natalie Lowrance was my piano teacher from ages ten to eighteen, when I decided to concentrate on trumpet. Mrs. Lowrance was a great teacher in the mold of so many great, underappreciated teachers. She uttered no magical phrase that changed the way her students viewed the world. She did, however, attempt to find an entry point for each one of us—to stoke our interest in music by speaking on our level and listening to what we had to say, creating an atmosphere in which one of those formational moments of enlightenment could be possible. For example, my first period of musical obsession came upon hearing a recording she gave me of Maurizio Pollini playing Schoenberg. It was not music she liked, but she recognized that it was resonating with me. We spent years talking about Schoenberg’s work frankly. We disagreed often, but always made the effort to logically back up our arguments and respect the other’s experience and opinion.

This experience changed the way I learn and is a model of how I want to engage with those around me. It is easy to believe that we are enriching ourselves, and those around us, by becoming living content providers: aggregators that provide information with a few simple comments and very little space for dissenting opinions. But, to provide the kind of entry points that allow other humans to spark a passion for music, we need to supplement this simple presentation of material with some shading of our humanity. We must create context by interacting with others to share the raw data by relating it to our own histories and opinions.

Essentially I’m suggesting we concentrate on the humanity of music by taking part in real discussion. By this, I do not mean “educating the unwashed masses” from a perceived aesthetic high ground, nor do I mean a forum in which everyone’s opinion is correct just for having been uttered. I mean beautiful, bloody, human arguments in which we listen, consider, reconsider, disagree, change our minds, or stick to our guns. Any discussion on any topic will do, as long as the end result is an exchange of ideas in which all participants leave with more to think about than when they entered. To that end, my editorial work with www.soundamerican.org is based on experiments with how to achieve this level of real discussion through a single-curator online publication.

What’s the lesson learned? Embracing the moment of discovery—recognizing what it is and sharing the knowledge we gain from it with others through one-on-one interaction—is an essential affirmation of our individuality and the way we grow as a community. Our main goal as human beings should be to seek out and experience as many of these flashes of understanding as possible. As individuals in a culture, we should strive to be an active participant in creating a collective atmosphere in which these sparks ignite more musical ideas.


Nate Wooley

Nate Wooley
Photo by Vera Marmelo

Nate Wooley was born in 1974 in Clatskanie, Oregon, a town of 2,000 people in the timber country of the Pacific Northwestern corner of the U.S. He began playing trumpet professionally with his father, a big band saxophonist, at the age of 13. His time in Oregon, a place of relative quiet and slow time reference, instilled in Nate a musical aesthetic that has informed all of his music making for the past 20 years, but in no situation more than his solo trumpet performances. He has performed regularly with such icons as John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, Eliane Radigue, Ken Vandermark, Fred Frith, Evan Parker, and Yoshi Wada, as well as being a collaborator with some of the brightest lights of his generation like Chris Corsano, C. Spencer Yeh, Peter Evans, and Mary Halvorson.

Whose Job Is It To Teach Audience Experience?

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.

— Orson Welles

Orson Welles was addressing cinema as the art which becomes a social act, but his philosophy is no less true for classical music performance. At every step in our education, musicians are taught to rigorously train our understanding of technique, history, and theory. Many walk away with diplomas convinced that technical mastery is synonymous with the pinnacle of musical achievement. But despite this cultural emphasis on precision, there are thousands of displays of high-caliber technical skill that do not speak to us emotionally and do not fully convey the composer’s intent. There is more to musicianship than technical chops.

Inspired by Welles, I’d like to add my voice to the call for our community to pursue a successful audience experience as a priority on par with technical skill. When we perform with care for the holistic audience experience as well as care for the composer’s works, we can create a “social act” that is akin to magic. Audiences experience that magic when all performance elements align in the liminal space. Rigorous study is the pre-requisite for magic along with a thorough understanding of the perceptional foundations that underpin audience experience.

The audience comes to see themselves.

In order for us, as the actors, to successfully create magic and wonder, the audience must also be ready to suspend disbelief and jump into the experience with open eyes and ears. So, whose job is it to teach “audience experience” and create the performances and events that feel breathtaking?

First and most importantly, it starts with a musician’s duty to be a teaching artist. We have a plethora of opportunities to be advocates among our peers by helping to create a culture of curiosity within any ensemble in which we perform. Beyond our peers, we have the opportunity to pass on our vocation in a structured teaching environment, and it is there that we can be most effective.

I know firsthand how difficult it is to get beyond the technical skills we need to teach when we only have an hour per week (or less!) with each student. Eric Booth’s “Law of 80%” espoused in The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible: Becoming a Virtuoso Educator reads, “What you teach is who you are.” Are you devoted to being interested, curious—even captivated by your student musicians and the music they create? Regardless of the age or experience of your pupil, are you actively invested in how your charge is experiencing the music they and their peers are making?

As teachers, we know we are only a part of our student’s musical education. Our students spend a limited amount of time with us, so we should all aim to emphasize the “why” along with the “how” at every single stage of musical development. Teachers and teaching artists can create classroom plans, structure private lessons, and craft events and performances that require our students to study deeper engagement with all types of audiences. We can also encourage our students to be better audience members themselves. We teach our students to become part of the “social act” when they realize that listening is less about whether they “like” a piece of music than whether they can find something interesting or fascinating about the musical work. We must go beyond, “What do I want my students to know?” to asking ourselves, “What do I want my students to do with what they know?”

The job of teaching audience engagement extends to the other side of the fourth wall, too. We need to provide honest and constructive feedback on performance regularly. This is like user testing for your next performance. The idea is to gain insight from people with more experience by asking the right questions. The experience is not over when you tear down and leave the performance hall. It is over after you have had a chance to find out what worked and what didn’t from your perspective on stage and those in the audience whom you trust. You want to find out whether your listeners made a personal connection. If they did, they will come back for more. If they did not, they probably won’t. Audience feedback allows the performer and presenter to respect the various entry points and pathways the listener takes with the music.

If magic is the experience of a result without awareness of the process, arts organizations are in the business of magic. It is so challenging to cross all the t’s on a strict budget in our world, but it doesn’t exempt us from creating magic. Let your organizational benchmarks be measured against similar world-class experiences not just the dollar values. Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin in “Making Sense of Audience Engagement” define audience engagement as “a guiding philosophy in the creation and delivery of arts experiences in which the paramount concern is maximizing impact on the participant.” As arts organizations we must cherish our role in making the concert space a place of magic and pass on that love to our artists, interns, and colleagues.

It’s our job as musicians to nurture the audience. How do inexperienced musicians know how to do any of that without being taught? It is our job as arts administrators to care for our audience beyond their role as donors and ticket buyers. We must teach our colleagues and interns to raise more than funds. We need to raise our audience. As experienced audience members, we need to provide feedback regularly. Finally, it is our job as teachers in all facets to radicalize and actualize our students to understand the “why” and not just the “how” of making music for others.

Classical Music in the Era of ESPN

What if there was a ESPN's Scorecenter that showcased music scores.

What if there was a ESPN’s Scorecenter that showcased music scores?

Imagine a television station where live performances of select national events are broadcast seven days a week. While the events themselves are often quite expensive to see in person, the broadcasts are available for anyone with a cable subscription, ensuring access to millions of television viewers across the nation regardless of income or location. Those who create and organize these performances give short live interviews, both before and after the events. In-between events, news programs are held discussing upcoming live shows, recapping past events, and giving behind-the-scenes looks at programs that are still in development.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, it already exists—and it is called ESPN.

We musicians often bemoan the attention that our society lavishes on professional athletics, while our concert halls struggle to fill seats. It is true that athletics has always been a large part of 20th-century American culture. However, for a brief period of time—primarily during the heyday of radio—our professional orchestras shared the spotlight with athletics. Radio stations that would broadcast local baseball games would also broadcast live performances of our radio orchestras. In the world of radio, both athletics and music were treated as equal partners. But much of this changed with the advent of mass media and cable television.
I don’t believe that I exaggerate when I say that, over the past 35 years of its existence, ESPN has successfully transformed professional and collegiate athletics (which, some would argue, are more or less the same…but I digress) from a “mere” multi-million dollar enterprise into the multi-billion dollar juggernaut that it is today. It is ESPN that has allowed millions of cable subscribers to tune into their favorite sports teams on almost any given day, follow their every off-season move, and obsess over the slightest minutia of their all-star fantasy football/baseball/water-polo roster. It allows any sports fan to consume sports entertainment twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—as much as they can handle. Miss the game? Catch the recap. Anticipating the next game? Catch the “pre-pregame” interview.

Which makes me wonder: is it possible that this model—one that has turned professional athletics into a multi-billion dollar enterprise—could work in bringing classical music to a much broader audience? Would a “classical music ESPN” work in bridging the gap between our great musical institutions and every cable-subscribing home in America? By leveling the media playing field, could classical music once again compete for the attention of American households?

Sure, there are plenty of ways for individuals to watch and/or listen to recorded broadcasts of concerts. PBS does a great job of providing a multitude of concerts for viewing. If recorded concerts could develop a great audience, perhaps a model similar to MTV would work. However, those of us who work, eat, breath, and sleep classical music know the sheer excitement of watching a live performance. Think of this from the sports perspective—how many people do you know who get excited over taped broadcasts of live athletics? I can think of three, and they are all a tad on the obsessive side.

(Besides, we all know what MTV has turned into. I am personally not interested in seeing “The Real World: Boston Symphony Orchestra.” Wait, actually…)

Similarly, we can point to many individual efforts by orchestras, opera companies, and radio stations to provide live radio and internet broadcasts of their performances. However, these broadcasts are not centrally located, and are primarily targeted to those who are already classical music connoisseurs. If you are not a fan of classical music, you are not going to suddenly find yourself on the New York Philharmonic website, accidentally listening to their live concert.

Which is why a “classical music ESPN” could work. Heck, the Golf Channel has existed now for over a decade, so why not a channel dedicated to the live performance of classical music? Why not a channel that would bring conductors, composers, and performers into every cable-owning home in America? Then, instead of watching that rerun of Storage Wars: Texas for the seventeenth time, you could obsessively follow live news updates on the recent premiere of Andrew Norman’s Piano Concerto with the L.A. Philharmonic. (Hey, I would!)

Of course, there are insurmountable hurdles to overcome to make this work, not the least of which is money. Lots of it. More than most of us reading this article probably have. Additionally, there would need to be a buy-in from all of America’s greatest classical music institutions. Imagine ESPN without the New York Yankees? It would be the same if a station like this existed but the New York Met (as opposed to the Mets) didn’t sign up.

And what about ticket sales? Sure, initial sales might struggle slightly, but if this were at all successful then I can’t think of any better way to increase sales than to bring classical music to a much broader audience. Of course, if this became a deal-breaker then local concerts could be blacked out in the same way manner as local sporting events.

So, what do you think? Is this just a harebrained idea of mine, or does it have merit? Could it ever happen? Perhaps not. But then again, I don’t know if the founders of ESPN ever would have imagined the sort of colossal enterprise their fledgling station would turn into three decades down the road.



Kenneth D. Froelich (photo by Janna Melkonian)

Kenneth D. Froelich is a composer and Associate Professor of Music at California State University, Fresno. Froelich’s music has been performed worldwide, with notable performances by Earplay, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and Pacific Serenades. He currently serves as the director of Fresno New Music, where he seeks to showcase a wide variety of composers and new music performing ensembles in the greater Fresno metropolitan area.