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In late October I had a what I thought would be a passing conversation with a friend that ended up affecting me quite profoundly. He described to me how he visited his local convenience store, one he visits often, and he saw several heavily armed protestors outside. While normally he felt at peace when stopping at this store, this time he felt uneasy. In describing that moment, he said that he wasn’t scared for his safety or fearful of the rhetoric. What scared him most, he said, was that he was looking at his home which he no longer recognized.
That sentiment stuck with me all through the election week and in the months since. While after that week I have occasionally felt flashes of recognition for a society I remember from my youth, for the most part, I am still looking at a society and a set of communities that I don’t totally recognize anymore. I am troubled by the rampant disregard for the truth, lack of courageous leadership, and the attacks on the fundamental democratic processes of our country.
In 2016, the day after the election, I wrote a long response that I was planning on sharing on social media. I ended up not publishing it and it has since been lost to the internet or a hard drive somewhere. I don’t remember specifically what it said, but I vividly remember feeling lost while I was writing; I didn’t know why I was writing or even what I wanted to say, only that I had to get something on paper.
Looking back, I think I felt the instinct to write a response because I was looking at a world with which I was having a hard time reconciling my musical education. At that time and for the next couple of years after, the most common question I would ask myself was something along the lines of “Why does all of the work I’m putting into my independent practice, classes, rehearsals, and performances matter?”
I was having a difficult time reconciling my artistic practice and endeavors with a world that no longer seemed to share the values I was taught to believe in my youth: values such as trust, working together, and community. I had become untethered from an artistic practice that felt relevant and while I initially wrote that response in 2016 to share, I realize now I wrote it for me. I was looking for a new path.
Fast forward to the day after the 2020 election, and I was asked to give a talk at my alma mater: the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia. I was asked if I would be willing to talk about my doctoral research into creative placemaking and community-engaged music making. The timing of this request did not escape me as it made me think about my path to this research, which started with my soul searching in 2016. This time when I examined my own practice in the context of our society, I found an answer to why my artistic activities matter. That meaning came in the form of another question to which I can tether myself and from which I can perhaps find a bit more understanding. While in response to the events of the months following the election, my feelings have continued to vacillate between confusion, disbelief, and anger, I have not felt as lost during this time as I did four years ago thanks to this guiding question.
That question is: “What is the role of artists in our communities?”
To answer that question, we have to start by looking at our communities. In recent decades in the United States, we have become more divided culturally and ideologically than ever before. We have geographically, politically, and even spiritually sorted ourselves into like-minded groups. To put it another way, most Americans now live near, work amongst, and interact with only other people who think exactly like them. We have sorted ourselves into communities and social groups with other people who affirm our own beliefs.
In his book, written in 2009, called The Big Sort, Bill Bishop says this, which has only become more pronounced in the years since: “We all live with the results (of this sorting), balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies; but bitter choices between ways of life.”
I think it’s important to note at this point that elections in the US have always been bitter choices between ways of life, especially for those with less privilege based on our societal structures. Nowhere is this division more evident than in the history of racism in our country. The country was founded on principles of division and racial superiority/inferiority that we are still trying to overcome to this day. Yet the change referenced in the above quote still resonates strongly with me because I believe those of us with more privilege, myself included, have become more aware of this division and its far-reaching effects within our society and, more importantly, are committed to addressing it head on.
We would expect that alongside the sorting we have done in American society, we would feel a greater sense of belonging in our communities and to the people around us, but that isn’t the case. In fact, levels of reported loneliness in the United States have gone up. In 1980, around 20% of the country reported feeling lonely, while in 2017 that number had more than doubled to over 40%. Human beings are social creatures; we are hard-wired for connection with each other. We need it to survive. In fact, loneliness is just as deadly to our health, if not more so, than smoking or excessive drinking. One study entitled Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality by Julianne Hold-Lundstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton estimates that loneliness increases our risk of dying young by nearly 45%.
However, this sorting has gone beyond polarized politics and loneliness, and over the past two months we have witnessed the depth of our disregard for the truth in favor of viewpoints that fit our own perspective and attacks on the fundamental democratic processes our country is based on, culminating in the stunning acts of violence committed at the US Capitol on January 6. I’ve noticed a trend where we find that it’s easier for us to hate the “other side” rather than confront our own pain and loneliness head on. We resort to dehumanizing other people rather than searching for understanding through empathy and compassion.
I was looking at a world with which I was having a hard time reconciling my musical education.
We resort to dehumanizing other people rather than searching for understanding through empathy and compassion.
Music has the power to change our brainwaves and even our body chemistry.
We must welcome our communities to the table of the creative process.
We can use each other’s stories as a mirror and a lens to understand our own.
Noted author, professor, and social worker Brené Brown states that “Dehumanizing always starts with language, often followed by images. We see this throughout history. During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—subhuman. They called Jews rats and depicted them as disease-carrying rodents in everything from military pamphlets to children’s books.” An example from our own country’s history is the use of minstrel shows to degrade the identity and artistic practices of Black Americans. This manipulation of language and art can be used to create an enemy image and a sense of moral exclusion that allows us to treat someone else as less than human.
This instinct to dehumanize a group of people based on their identity and inflict harm on them because we don’t agree in order to compensate for our own pain is what strikes me as being most antithetical to the society I thought I belonged to. This didn’t just change over the past four years. It has been slowly developing over time and is destined to continue unless we confront our pain and our fear head on.
This is where artists come in. In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown says the following about music and art, “Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope … Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared … The magic of music is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time.”
Just as human beings are hard-wired for connection, we are also biologically programmed to respond to sound and music. The human brain is conditioned to align itself with the visual and aural rhythms of the world around it through a process called entrainment. Music has the power to change our brainwaves and even our body chemistry. Think of the ways we use sound in the medical field to break up cataracts, treat tendonitis, conduct ultrasounds, or even fight cancer. Music can be a vehicle to create a space for authentic connection and relationships between people. It can be part of the antidote for the loneliness we feel. Just as art can be used in the process of dehumanization, it is essential to the process of rehumanizing our society.
If we want the art we make to heal our community’s loneliness and pain and bring us back together again, then it has to be about more than creating a pristine product to be consumed. We need to recognize art’s place as part of the fabric of our society, an essential piece of our culture, and a means for enabling authentic connection between people. Artmaking is a representation of the human condition. We artists, similar to many other disciplines in this day in age, need to take a hard look at our priorities and recognize that the historical traditions of our art form are just traditions which can be molded to address new challenges; they are not immutable laws.
Every element of our creative process is a lever that we can adjust to place connection and relationship-building at the center of artistic experiences. These levers can include elements such as behavior expectations for performers and participants, choice of venue, availability of food and drink, choice of repertoire, and so much more. I use the term “participant” here instead of “audience” intentionally, because the term audience implies passive consumption not active engagement in the artistic experience. If our goal is building relationships and understanding, then every participant must invest themselves fully in a personal experience with the music. This active engagement on behalf of participants demonstrates, as Eric Booth states so eloquently in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, that “art lives in an individual’s capacity to engage in that fundamental act of creativity – expanding the sense of the possible.” Making authentic connection the central goal of our artistic endeavors unlocks the possibility for our art to begin the work of rehumanizing our society. We do this by prioritizing understanding and empathy in our relationships with each other and respecting every person’s dignity as a member of the human race.
Just because things have been done one way and are easy to keep doing that way, does not mean it works every time. We will find more connection by exploring a different means of performing, teaching, and communicating and we must bring our communities into the creative process of designing these experiences. One example of these new means could be co-creating new works of music with direct input from community members so it tells their stories. We can also lean into providing opportunities for two-way communication between artists and participants as a part of every performance through events such as question-and-answer sessions and pre- and post-concert conversations and interactions between performers and participants. We critically must also embrace equity and inclusion so that the stories we share in our art belong to all people. We must welcome our communities to the table of the creative process and expect intentional participation, even if that means dissent.
We have to make a priority of creating trust, both in our own practice as artists and between us and those who participate in our art. Creating that trust means listening louder than we play and stepping into a brave and vulnerable space where we engage with people whose beliefs we may feel stand against our own truth. It takes a special kind of courage and craft to use our art to face those beliefs and say, “Tell me more; help me understand your pain so we can work through it together.”
When we tell our story, share our own pain, and listen to other people’s stories in artistic experiences, we create the opportunity for rehumanization. We find wholeness and meaning as human beings through our relationships with each other and we can use each other’s stories as a mirror and a lens to understand our own. Rehumanization is not just about finding what we have in common but also about seeking to understand and empathize with what we each hold as most important or sacred, which can be different for each person.
When I go back to that place of questioning four years ago, I realize now what I was looking for was a role for artists to play. In a world we increasingly don’t recognize, one where we pass off our own pain and loneliness by hating and dehumanizing someone else, artists are called to be healers, transformers, and restorers. We have a responsibility to rehumanize each other through our work and remind our communities of what we all share. As artists we are called to stand in the gap of social, cultural, and ideological differences and create experiences that reaffirm our connection to our shared humanity.
I won’t pretend it will be easy. It will be scary and vulnerable, but vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness. Vulnerability is the lifespring from which our creativity and compassion rise. It’s our courage to show up, be seen, and see other people without the safety of our ideological and artistic safety nets. Being vulnerable is a fundamental part of our humanity.
We, artists of all backgrounds and training, are called to stand in the gap. I hope to see some of you there.
What I’d like to talk about today is what we do, what we believe in, and how we do what we do. Which, I believe, is rather suspect. At the end of this article, there will also be some practical ideas. You probably shouldn’t try them all at once. And you probably won’t like some or all of them. But I think it’s time that we start thinking more about a pretty important stakeholder in what we do, our audience. I’ll talk about my experience in the collegiate and/or professional concert world, but I believe most of the ideas could work in a variety of settings.
It’s time that we start thinking more about a pretty important stakeholder in what we do, our audience.
Perhaps you’ve seen this meme on the internet. Where the tip of the iceberg is the performance and that vast complicated bit underneath the surface is the rehearsal process. It’s so true, isn’t it? And we’ve all heard that the journey is supposed to be more important than the destination. The process more robust, more post-modern, more life-changing than the product. Presumably this means that the more important lessons are learned along the way. That there is joy in each day’s progress (even, struggle). And the end result will be more fulfilling if we concentrate and are mindful of each step (both forward and backward) along the way.
And who am I to refute this notion? I don’t, in fact. But, let’s be honest, we are surrounded by messages that scream the opposite. We are destination-driven—goal-oriented. I’m a runner, but I don’t really train methodically and smart unless I’ve signed up for a race. Who doesn’t make to-do lists and take great pleasure in checking off the tasks when they are completed? Just about everything we do, especially as teachers/conductors, is driven by the end result.
In our case, that’s the concert, isn’t it? And if that concert is bad—poorly executed, boring, poorly organized, out of tune, rhythmically unstable, whatever—everyone feels bad: the musicians, (perhaps worse of all) you, the musicians’ family members, the community members, and, of course, the administrators. So in this article, I’d like to focus on that performance, that product, the destination, the stuff above the surface.
Just about everything we do is driven by the end result. In our case, that’s the concert, isn’t it?
Let me ask you a question: how many of you think about the audience when you program your concerts? It’s a serious question.
Now, in my case, most of the time, whether I’m guest conducting or at home, our audience is typically friends of the student musicians (or professional musicians), fellow faculty and educators (the student’s teachers), parents, donors, community members, and administrators. This includes the live and the virtual audience, as we’ve been live-streaming concerts at the University of Georgia Hodgson School of Music for the past three years.
With perhaps a few exceptions, I would guess that this is basically your audience as well. Yes?
OK, before we talk about our audience, let’s step back a moment and talk about the classical music concert experience.
When I googled “Classical Music Traditions” in preparation for this article, here are some of the titles that came up:
“What to wear to a Classical Music Concert”
“The Concert Ritual: How to Enjoy a Live Concert of Classical Music”
From The Guardian, “Admit It, You’re As Bored As I Am”
“Saving Classical Music”
“The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained” (Huffington Post)
“Is Classical Music Boring?” (According to the bloke at The Guardian, it is)
“Is Classical Music Dying?”
“How Diversity Can Help Save Classical Music”
“Can Classical Music Be Cool?”
“How Do We Fix Classical Music?” …that one from National Public Radio
And my personal favorite,
“Cracking the Secret Orchestral Codes” (NYT)
Isn’t that extraordinarily odd? I don’t think the average person needs to worry about etiquette, rules, what to wear, fixing the genre, saving the genre) when they attend any other kind of live music event. Nope, it’s pretty much just “classical music” concerts that are fraught with strange and difficult-to-understand norms and behaviors. Here’s something, when I google “who attends classical music concerts?” a whole bunch of stats come up, which I’ll share with you in a moment. When I google “who attends a popular music concert,” my whole feed is about the Obamas attending a Beyoncé concert.
It’s pretty much just “classical music” concerts that are fraught with strange and difficult-to-understand norms and behaviors.
If I may quote Richard Dare, a first-time classical music concertgoer who wrote the article I mentioned, “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained”:
Although I loved the music I heard that evening, I was struck by my observations that concerts might not be easy to figure out for a first-timer. Had I at least been allowed to authentically enjoy the performance going on inside that hall as I might spontaneously appreciate any other cultural pursuit like a movie or a hip-hop concert—if I could clap when clapping felt needed, laugh when it was funny, shout when I couldn’t contain the joy building up inside myself. What would that have been like? But this was classical music. And there are a great many “clap here, not there” cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself preoccupied by the imposing restriction of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony-faced non-expression of the audience around me [let me add that I bet he observed that on the stage as well], presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic. I don’t think classical music was intended to be listened to in that way.
Neither, dear reader, do I. Richard Dare calls it “ritual behavior”; I have a student who calls it “ritual compliance” and I believe it’s killing what we do, and what we actually believe in.
We all know that it didn’t always used to be this way. Think of the bawdiness at a Mozart premiere, the boo-ing at a concert featuring the not-so-well-liked Beethoven, the riot that broke out at the premiere of The Rite of Spring…women throwing their unmentionables at Franz Liszt during his piano recitals. I’m not advocating throwing our underwear at anyone by the way, but surely, we’ve moved way too far in the opposite direction.
Concert attendance at classical music events is down in the United States and Canada. We all know it has been in decline for some time. Experts and pundits blame lots of things for this: music teachers (my favorite), poor government funding for the arts, Spotify and Pandora, wind band repertoire (my second favorite), technology and decreasing attention spans, movie music, video games—and perhaps all of this is true and we can lay blame where blame is due. But don’t we need to think about evolving the concert experience?
In 1958, Milton Babbitt penned a deeply controversial but memorable article. (By the way: Can you name a composition by Milton Babbitt? How about some of his contemporaries, such as Igor Stravinsky, Percy Grainger, or Aaron Copland, all of whom who embraced folk song—so called “pop music”—in their music. And whose music has endeared itself into our hearts.)
Charles Rosen wisely said, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest living tradition.” Yes, we’ve been saying classical music is dying for at least 200 years. I’m not worried about the music itself. It’s too good to die. Bach, for example, seems to me to be indestructible. The institutions of classical music and music education though, are another matter. There is good reason to worry about them, especially those that have refused to evolve for the better part of a century.
Back to dear Milton. I make my graduate students read his infamous article and write a counter-response entitled, “I Care If You Listen.” Let me be clear, I do care. I care about my audience. I care who listens and I care about what they think. I care when they choose not to come. And when they do, I want them to have a great time.
I believe that the days of ritual compliance at classical music concerts should end. And end now. The kind of concerts that most of us present where, as an audience member, you are never spoken to, you are expected to read the boring program notes in the dark, the musicians on the stage look as bored as you are, and you are expected to behave in a certain way, etc., seem now so silly to me. And boring. And I’m a so-called educated musician!
So, what I promised: here are some things that we have experimented with at the University of Georgia, and before that, at Cornell University. Some of these things you might not be able to do in your particular circumstances, but I hope as I go through these, you’ll let your creative juices flow and think about ways that you might incorporate some of these ideas (and add more of your own) in your unique setting.
No. 1 (and its No. 1 because anyone can decide to do this, anywhere, and any time)
Dump the no-applause rule.
Dump the no-applause rule. Invite your audience to clap whenever they feel like it. There is nothing more ridiculous and repressive than experiencing a huge cadence, inspiring and loud, at the end of the first movement of a concerto or symphony and all you hear is paper rustling and coughing. And we wonder why people don’t enjoy classical concerts? Or why the musicians on stage might not be having as good a time as they could be? Live music is supposed to be invigorating. And there’s a give and take with that audience and player energy that’s so important. Why not give this a try? The Hodgson Wind Ensemble has been doing this for about two years now and WE LOVE IT.
Now, there are ways to introduce this that will be successful and ways that won’t. But you can start with playing a march, or a polka, or any other kind of energetic, motor music, and turn around and clap to the beat. You can also, which is what we did, plant a bunch of clappers, to get the ball rolling and the rules changed.
Embrace technology. We have tweet seats at the Hodgson Wind Ensemble concerts. They’re at the back of hall (so the lights on the phone don’t disturb the folks who don’t want to tweet), and listeners are invited to tweet to #HWE any time they want during the concert. I know some of you don’t like this. Can’t we find places in our lives where we put the screen down and just be in the moment? I get it. I do. But, I went to an orchestra concert when I first arrived at UGA. Down my row, during the slow second movement, a man started flipping through the program to see what was coming up later in the semester. An older woman across the aisle was so deep asleep, she was drooling on her sweater. You can’t tell me those folks were more engaged without their phones than the folks who tweeted things like this, during the concert:
“Love the clarinet soli! Hard to believe this was written in 1961. So good.”
“I’m down for ‘diet serialism’ but I’m a big boy who can handle full calorie Schoenberg.”
“When the bass drum hits are slightly too soft for your liking.” (Followed by a meme of disappointment)
“Breath. Taking. Completely beautiful and mesmerizing concert setting.”
“Erik has set the tone with that boss level performance. There will be applause after each movement now!”
“How fun! Y’all having fun up there stage-sitters?” (More on this later)
I appreciate that the wind ensemble programs rep should be experienced, and not just heard. #HWELive
Talk to your listeners. There is an entire generation of people who don’t know HOW to listen to music. And, if you are like me and play a lot of new music, guide the audience through it. Share with them why you love the music and want to play it for them. You might have to examine what makes it quality music—something we don’t explore enough or define. We’re really good at criticizing bad music, but we’re not very good at defining quality. Take a crack at it.
If it’s complex music, play excerpts for them before the actual performance.
If it’s complex music, play excerpts for them before the actual performance. Then they have ‘ah-ha’ moments of recognition when they hear it again.
One of my great moments at UGA was when we performed Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques. I invited a music history professor to speak about the work. We played excerpts and we played bird song over the sound system. We showed the video of Messiaen and his wife at the piano. In the parking lot after the concert, an audience member behind the wheel of an F-150 pick-up truck slowed, rolled down the window, and said, “Dr. Turner! That bird piece was my favorite!”
Any time you can have musicians sitting in the hall, go for it.
Experiment with intimacy and breaking down imaginary walls. “Stage-sitters” are just that. Put out some extra chairs and invite audience members to come on stage and sit in their favorite section while you perform the last number. This is a HUGE hit at UGA. A very touching moment happened once when our bass player’s five-year-old son came and sat on his daddy’s bass stool. Any time you can have musicians sitting in the hall, go for it. That requires memorization—not a bad skill for our students to practice.
Rote Hund Muzik (the contemporary chamber ensemble at UGA) transformed the band hall into a lounge for Steve Reich’s Double Sextet. We set up the ensemble in the center, put a few chairs around the audience but invited people to get up and walk around; grab a drink, get a closer look. Big hit.
Take risks. At UGA, there is a tradition at football games to “Light Up Sanford.” At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the fans take out their phones and put their lights on and hold them in the air while the marching band plays “The Krypton Fanfare” (from the 1978 Superman movie). Really loud.
We did this at a concert. During a piece called Beacons by Peter Van Zandt Lane, we invited the audience to take out their phones and do the same. We had stand lights, and the hall went completely dark. It was gorgeous. And fun. And pretty. And moving.
When you have to put program notes in 120 point bold on the screen, you think twice about what you write.
Experiment with projection and visual aids. At Cornell the stage had a huge screen that could come down because the concert hall was also a lecture hall. Instead of printed program notes, we projected them on the screen. And let me tell you, when you have to put program notes in 120 point bold on the screen, you think twice about what you write. They have to be pithy and interesting. Don’t get me started on bad program notes. Anyway, as the piece progressed, the program notes came on the screen.
We can’t do that at UGA (no screen) so we experimented with listening guides.
But we also rent a projector and screen sometimes. We display images, video, Skyped composers, all sorts of things.
Flash mobs. In some USA schools there is a disconnect between the marching band and the concert bands. At some of the Hodgson Wind Ensemble concerts, we invite the marching band to perform in some capacity or another, usually a flash mob outside after the concert. There is also a very popular program of training service dogs at UGA. We had them all come on stage when we performed “The Whistler and His Dog.” I believe we tend to live in a vacuum. We become insulated in our silos of thinking and being. Reach out. Is there an organization or group or individual that you could invite to participate in your concerts in some way?
In a world gone mad, why not make statements with music!
Don’t shy away from making a statement. Recently I had an interaction with a student who said, “I don’t want my dissertation to be a political statement.” Why not? In a world gone mad, why not make statements with music! Why not provoke? Why not challenge? Why not engage in difficult discussions? HWE has addressed climate change, racial injustice, gun violence, mental illness—the list goes on. These concerts have been hugely impactful and successful and students have shared that they need to process some of these things. Why not through music?
These are just some ideas. I hope that they get you thinking creatively about what you can do in your own environment.
We all know what happens to a species that does not adapt to changing environments: they simply go extinct.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In his address at Amherst College, JFK said, “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. Where power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
Ours is a humbling profession. Creating and studying music often forces us to stand on the shoulders of giants and consider the long arc of thoughts and creativity that came before us. They remind us of our humanity, oftentimes in a way that many others might lose track of when society gets involved in a heady mix that declares that we can all be cleansed through politics.
I straddle the worlds of being a composer on the one hand but also a journalist and foreign policy commentator on the other. These things unite my passions, but today I can also see them being united in other ways.
A few days ago, the press corps released an open letter to the new president. It read, in part: “Best-case scenario, you’re going to be in this job for eight years. We’ve been around since the founding of the republic, and our role in this great democracy has been ratified and reinforced again and again and again. You have forced us to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for. For that we are most grateful.”
Journalism and art are essentially about illuminating truth to the best of our ability. This seems especially relevant in an era where the very validity of absolute truth is being brought to question, and also in an era where, if the warning signs of corruption are any indication, we will need much cleansing at the end of it all and all throughout it.
Today a new America begins. I’m not going to talk about racism, sexism, misogyny, or any of the scourges we have seen time and again in our society. The main feature of this new America is something astonishing that we have seen begin this year. Via Twitter and on cable TV, our new president has targeted you and me; creative thinkers promoting ideas. Those who would think that ignoring assaults on Hamilton, the Musical on Meryl Streep or on any artist is a secondary thing engineered only to divert attention away from an “important” news story like the declassification of a CIA report is missing the point. Beyond the fact that people can walk and chew gum at the same time, this misses the point that the assault on the First Amendment, on artistic expression, and on the articulation of ideas is actually so important to pay attention to. It’s the heart of the matter. Intimidating the expression of ideas is the vital bedrock of any anti-intellectual movement.
Beyond this, when we sit down to compose a symphony or an opera or build a museum or construct a city, it speaks of the same basic desire: to affect a grand gesture of our humanity.
These grand gestures are important. There’s a lot of talk about opposing extremism and intolerance in the world and it’s fine to oppose violence and destruction through developing a counter-narrative or developing a cogent military strategy (those are vital things), but the ultimate response of resistance to violence and destruction is creation. It’s a simple statement of fact that creation is the polar opposite to destruction. That means building a city or composing a symphony or sending a mission to Mars. Creation and invention are the ultimate “show me” forms of opposition to violence.
Music and the arts and poetry are essentially a training field for innovation and empathy. Our current political state is due to the rise of a culture of “nothing matters but us,” an age of arrogance that glorifies narcissism. But remember: we’re playing the long game.
Vigilance is vital. Our norms will be violated in such a way that will be progressive and imperceptible. In the first movement of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony the famous march begins in the most unassuming way possible. Hardly threatening. Almost laughable. But just follow its growth into a terrifyingly grotesque distortion of itself. The most terrifying thing perhaps is how the terror it builds up to is such a logical conclusion but one we could never have dreamed of when the gesture began so innocently (descending the escalator). Our job has now changed. Over the coming years, every American composer who is not deaf will be hearing some of the most violent sounds known to humanity.
As the open letter from the press said, they have been forced “to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for.”
Previously our profession was important. Today it is existentially vital. This is not a call to propaganda. It is a call to truth. My aim here is not to promote a message but to urge you all to promote an infinite variety of messages and to never shy away from self-expression.
I’ll end, as I started, with President Kennedy:
“Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’”
Mohammed Fairouz (photo by Samantha West)
Mohammed Fairouz‘s compositional catalog encompasses virtually every genre, including opera, symphonies, vocal and choral settings, chamber and solo works and his music has been performed at major venues around the country including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Boston’s Symphony Hall and The Kennedy Center, and throughout the United States, the Middle East, Europe, and Australia. Fairouz’s large-scale works engage major geopolitical and philosophical themes and his cosmopolitan outlook reflects his transatlantic upbringing and extensive travels. By his early teens, the Arab-American composer had journeyed across five continents, immersing himself in the musical life of his surroundings. Recordings of his music, which is published exclusively by Peermusic Classical, are available on the Deutsche Grammophon, Naxos, Bridge, Sono Luminus, Albany, GM/Living Archive, and GPR labels.
The past which is not recoverable in any other way is embedded, as if in amber, in the music, and people can regain a sense of identity.—Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)
The late afternoon sun slides slowly over the top of the atrium glass, the clouds dancing a slow tango in the periwinkle sky as voices hum in the background. The atrium where we gather to sing, play instruments, and listen to music is enclosed in glass, and the garden view and clouds provide a quiet, peaceful setting for our visits.
As the residents sway, clap, or sing along with their iPods, the golden minutes seem to be extended somehow. Reality is crystalized in brilliant sparks of cognizant personalities that surface and retreat, like waves in an ocean. The sun graciously casts its final shadows on this long day, as the quiet humming and sweet smiles fade until the next Music and Memory class.
Our college music education students and I travel from Oklahoma Baptist University together to visit the Baptist Village Community retirement facility several times a semester. It is one of the first Music and Memory programs in the State of Oklahoma, and we find it exciting to participate in a program that supports music to enhance memory and enrich the lives of the elderly with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
My own father-in-law passed away after struggling with this difficult illness, and I have seen firsthand the debilitating and challenging lives these patients lead. The strange thing is that for fleeting moments, all is right with the world—the words come, the thoughts are present. But then, they are gone again. No wonder much frustration and anger accompany these residents whose realities play “hide and seek” with their psyches.
For their own safety, the Memory Center is a secured area. Visitors sign in, check in with the director, and are given the code to enter the patient area. Much like many nursing facilities, patient rooms line long halls with a community cafeteria, a nurse’s station, and an atrium area in the center. Our group always arrives at the dinner hour, and most residents are still eating their meal as we get set up for the group music presentation.
Our university students are mostly music education majors, with some performance majors and music minors. They participate for several reasons, the foremost being their love of music and the opportunity to see the power of music “in action” with the Memory Center residents. The second reason is that as members of our National Association for Music Education collegiate chapter, they are aware of the importance of service learning opportunities like this to their professional development. Service learning is defined as “a methodology that extends classroom learning into real-life situations through participation in service experiences organized by collaborating schools and communities” (U.S. National and Community Service Act,1990). Thirdly, many students are Christians and feel compelled by their faith to share acts of kindness toward their neighbors. These are pretty special students, and their altruism is inspiring.
Music and Memory Team member Andrea Larson talking with one of the residents at the Baptist Village Community retirement facility.
The Music and Memory program was founded by Dan Cohen in 2006. It is a non-profit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirmed through digital music technology. The nursing home staff and family members are trained to create and provide personalized playlists using portable media players that enable residents to connect with the world through music-triggered memories. The Music and Memory program was made famous by a video documentary of the work, Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, and it received the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Prior to beginning our university work with the retirement center, our students watched excerpts of this documentary on our campus. It is a powerful story of how music can bring a person with dementia or Alzheimer’s back to life and revitalize their memories.
What I love the most about performing and assisting the Music and Memory program is that there is much about life to learn from these elderly residents. When they are alert, they truly live in the moment. With our busy multitasking lifestyles, we seldom take time to be aware of our circumstances and pay attention to others around us. It is a huge life lesson. When these lovely people look at you and talk with you, it is as if you are the only person in the world. They are very appreciative of your time and conversations. They are also playful. It is cool to see that when it is all said and done, enjoying every moment in life is the most important thing, and somehow music unlocks the key to this joy.
Our students start our group music session in the cafeteria gathered around the piano. Our first selections are usually familiar hymns. We have several residents that are adamant about needing their own hymnal to follow along with. Others have all of the words memorized and just sing out with gusto. Some prefer to play tambourines or hand drums. I accompany on the piano and take turns with our piano students. We then segue to familiar folk songs. Some favorites are “Yankee Doodle,” “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” and “Oh! Susanna.”
As residents sing out, you see their eyes sparkle with remembrance and familiarity. This is a vast contrast to the disengaged and sometimes catatonic personalities that we see upon first arriving. Some residents are very good at keeping a beat to the music on rhythm instruments. Others really find their voice, and it is great to hear their voices blending in harmony with ours.
Another Music and Memory team member Jennifer Watson with one of the residents.
The group music making time serves as an icebreaker—so that residents become comfortable with us and communicate with us—as well as for social stimulation. After the residents have sung with us for twenty minutes, we move to the atrium and find seating for everyone. The patients each have their own assigned digital audio players and earphones that have been pre-programmed by their family members. Residents listen to customized playlists of their favorite songs from when they were in their twenties. If you can imagine a group of people gathering together to summon the voices of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, and many others to recall a place in time that is tangible and lovely, then you have the idea of what the Music and Memory program is like. Tangible because the music reminds them of specific places and special people that have shared this music with them before. The haunting melodies restore them in some ethereal way.
Music reminds them of specific places and special people that have shared this music with them before.
The students are assigned a resident partner, assist them with setting up the media players and earphones, and sit with them while recording their reactions to the music as a part of our action music research project. Students also assist residents in selecting songs and volume for listening. This part of our project lasts from 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the group participation. The documentation of the resident participation is needed for further grant proposals and program needs assessment. In between our visits, the Memory Center director coordinates the listening prior to mealtime and after mealtime.
The responses are varied: some people enjoy shutting their eyes and stepping back in time by recalling melodies of the past. The result is that most often, the music triggers happy periods in their past and brings a feeling of joy. Some residents hum, tap their toes, or clap to the music. These seemingly minimal movements are actually profound for many of the dementia/Alzheimer’s patients. They lose touch with the most basic of emotions and communication skills. These moments of clarity brought on by music are significant. Residents become more communicative and often share their reactions to the music with the university students.
The Music and Memory website shares the latest music research that supports the use of iPods and music listening with memory challenged people. One article is in Psychology Today (“Why Do the Songs from Your Past Evoke Such Vivid Memories?” December 11, 2013) by columnist Christopher Bergland in which he explains music research about “music-evoked autobiographical memories” and why music evokes such strong responses from people with Alzheimer’s disease. A 2015 article on the website of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research (“Music in the brain” December 16, 2015), Anne Trafton describes how science is just beginning to understand how music is processed in the human brain. According to Sam Norman-Haignere, a McGovern postdoctoral researcher she quotes in the article:
[N]euroscientists at the university have pinpointed the neural ensemble in the human auditory cortex that allows humans to select and identify music apart from other sounds, like human speech or general noise…We think this provides evidence that there’s a hierarchy of processing where there are responses to relatively simple acoustic dimensions in this primary auditory area. That’s followed by a second stage of processing that represents more abstract properties of sound related to speech and music.
As technology becomes more sophisticated and measurement tools more refined, it seems that the case for music as a specific human function is growing stronger. Music is no longer seen as merely a form of entertainment. The brain is designed to process music differently from other sounds. We are musical beings. This data supports a greater understanding of how specific processing of music occurs and may have implications for further study of connections to music and well being.
The brain is designed to process music differently from other sounds.
As I am writing this I am receiving word that my parents, who are in their eighties, have received an Amazon Echo as a Christmas gift from my brother. I can’t think of a better gift! A world of music just for their listening pleasure! Little do they know it may be stimulating their brain’s neural ensemble! With more evidence to support music’s potential benefits for the elderly, we may need to take a closer look at music experiences of our senior citizens.
One of the oldest Memory Center residents, whom I will call June (pseudonymns are used here for resident privacy) is 101 years old. As she listens to jazz standards, she sits up taller, opens her eyes, and she smiles.
One of our most endearing residents is Charlie, a tall balding man with a strong voice. He never misses a Music and Memory session. Charlie loves to sing. In fact, he can be heard singing “Silent Night” morning, noon, and night all over the Memory Center. Even in mid-summer, it is “Silent Night, Holy Night!” You can imagine that some residents become very irritated with Charlie because of his prolific love of “Silent Night.” One of our goals each visit is to redirect Charlie so that he is using his big strong voice to sing other songs as well, and to participate socially in a positive way with the other patients. He has a beautiful voice and you can tell at one time he must have been a great singer. The students love Charlie and named my office Beta fish in his honor.
Dr. Scherler encourages Charlie to sing.
My role as a music educator has always inspired me to envision the future of each of my students—imagining what they may become or what they are capable of accomplishing so that I may encourage them to work toward these goals. However, with the Memory Center residents, the opposite phenomenon occurs. As we begin to know each person more intimately, I envision what they must have been in the prime of their lives, what they accomplished, and what great wisdom they could possibly impart.
As our meetings continue, data collection is gathered from several sources:
1) Reflective observations: written reports and audio recordings
2) Interviews: Memory Center Director and Assistant Director
3) Field notes
To date, documentation showed patterns in behavior related to the Music and Memory listening sessions:
Improvement of Resident’s Lived Experiences (implications for increased appetite): Residents who listened to music after supper appeared to be calmer and more relaxed with decreased symptoms of “sundown syndrome,” the agitation and anxiety often experienced by Alzheimer’s patients in the evening. There were implications for better sleep and less depression
Improvement of Resident’s Enriched Living: In general, the director stated that she believed the residents experienced more enriched life experience with greater sense of self identity as a result of experiencing and participating in regular music activities and the Music Memory project.
Voice and Value of Residents: An important outcome of the study was that the voices of the resident became strong again. Memories validated through music memory brought related memories and increased speaking back to the majority of residents. Increased confidence and self-awareness was observed to be valuable to the residents.
Collegiate music education student Eric Yoder enjoys singing with the residents and playing his guitar at the Music and Memory class held at the retirement center.
There were other results of this action research, such as increased collaboration between the university and retirement center, strong community engagement from university students, and meaningful relationships developed between university students and residents as they monitored music engagement and progress. As one student put it, “It helped me see the larger purpose of music education, of connections to outside organizations off of our own campus.”
There were surprisingly many different behavioral patterns and results of this research project which were beneficial for the university students: development of communication skills, music leadership, performance opportunities, development of empathy for others, and giving back to the community. We have now completed two semesters of visits to the retirement center. Next semester we will begin to study the protocols of resident engagement and life enrichment through music.
We were sad to find out that several of our resident partners had passed away in between our last visits. On our van drive to the retirement center, I prepared the university students for this possibility. “We will have to remember that our job is to help them participate in music listening and music making so that they will have more beautiful lives while they are here.” So the students bring their guitars, a colleague even brought his saxophone one week, and we continue to “let the music speak to and through the residents of the Memory Center.” Along the way we were taught a few things by the residents:
Life is short. Moments matter. People matter. Participating in music is joyful.
The Music and Memory Team at the Baptist Village Community Retirement Center.
If you missed any of the previous articles in the series, find them here.
Working with gifted musicians at music schools, conferences, festivals, and through my private practice is an honor and a fabulous creative challenge. I love helping musicians advance their careers, and communicating their story and purpose is an important piece of the puzzle.
To recap from the earlier posts this month, an effective bio is the goal: one that communicates who you really are as a person and what your aesthetic sensibility is. It should create a distinct, memorable impression of you and your work and convey a sense of shared human experience.
That element of “shared human experience” is what we’ll tackle next.
In the earlier articles we covered the basics—four of the five W’s—the “who, what, when, and where” of both you and your music. For composers, it’s what is your music like, who has performed it and where. In terms of the when, we don’t need a lot of dates, but it’s good to highlight recent work and preview upcoming projects.
But there’s an additional fifth “W” needed: the WHY, the motivation behind your work. Ultimately, it’s the why that makes a bio memorable and that can create a sense for the reader of a shared human experience.
Detailing why you make music can be a challenge. For some, it’s easier to get at answering this by coming at it from another angle. Think about what you’re fascinated by or obsessed with in your current projects. Or consider what attracts you to taking on certain projects. These questions can be answered explicitly or implicitly—or not at all—John Steinmetz says, but thinking about these questions will help you articulate priorities and “humanize” your bio.
For extra help thinking through your “why,” check out Simon Sinek’s excellent TED talk on the topic and his book Start With Why.
A compelling “why” can make a bio effective because it introduces vulnerability. This may seem contradictory. Most people think of bios as listings of impressive credits—that it’s all about “puffing yourself up.”
But the ultimate goal of your bio is to engage readers and motivate them to click and listen. The magic bullet to getting people engaged is vulnerability.
In this context, being vulnerable doesn’t mean showing weakness. It means letting readers in on who you are as a real person. Dallas Travers, the guru of promotion for actors, describes this crucial aspect of a bio—being vulnerable—as “revealing your human experience.” This might come in the form of describing what work first turned you on to new music or why you first got started composing. Give readers a chance to see you as a person.
I love this web bio of composer Ellen Reid. As stated earlier, having multiple versions of your bio is important. And the trend these days is for website bios to be in first person, candid, and direct. Here’s Ellen:
I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee–a small town in East Tennessee that was created as part of the Manhattan Project. I never dreamt that writing music could be a viable career path, but I started composing my sophomore year of college and haven’t stopped since. As a kid, I casually sang in choir, played piano and percussion. As an undergrad at Columbia University I was exposed to the kaleidoscopic sound world that is New York City. Within weeks I saw an installation of amplified lightbulbs at The Stone, a concert of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Carnegie Hall that gave me synethsesia and heard my first Indian Raga. These experiences expanded my understanding of what music could be, and created an insatiable love of sound that has taken me all over the globe.
Earlier I recommended not starting with your childhood. But like all rules, there are exceptions. In this case, where Ellen grew up is relevant to explain the contrast to her New York experience.
This is vivid storytelling. With striking examples and details, from the amplified light bulbs, to the Ring and the raga, we can vividly picture and hear her “kaleidoscopic sound world” experience. We also get the vulnerability through the “I never dreamt…” passage and from the contrast between her background (the Manhattan Project reference is striking) to her first weeks in NYC.
Though Ellen uses language in inventive and fresh ways, the effectiveness here is not simply a matter of word choice, but rather the detailing in a story that explains how she developed “an insatiable love of sound.” In the process, Ellen is answering a core question that most readers have: “Why do you compose?”
And the “all over the globe” phrase sets up the expectation that we’ll find out more about the exotic places her music as taken her. And we do in the next paragraph:
In Thailand, I lived and collaborated with Thai artists for several years. We created pieces for the United Nations and the Patravadi Theater. My site-specific installation Lonely Traveler was featured in the 2011 Ruhrtriennale in Essen Germany, and She Gone Rogue (dir Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker) was featured in the 2012 Hammer Biennial (LA) and 2014 Whitney Biennial. Last summer, I traveled with members of wild Up and Jodie Landau to Reykjavik, Iceland to create You of All Things with the Bedroom Community. And this past winter, I received a Young Composer Award to perform Push/Pull at the Residenz in Munich. I split my time between my two favorite cities–Los Angeles, where I attended CalArts for my MFA (2011) and New York.
This paragraph includes examples of her projects. Not a boring list, but highlights, with impressive international venues tucked in so we get the credibility without the fuss. We also find out where she lives and when she graduated, so we do find out the usual boring essentials. But here they’re in the context of picturing her life and imagining what her work sounds and looks like. The result for me as a reader is that I feel invited in.
Ask yourself: Does this make you curious to hear her music, and maybe also to meet her?
Keep It Clean
Apply the skills you already have for writing, proofreading, and rewriting music. Working with words is similar to composing music.
The final key to writing effective bios is all about the finishing touches: refining and editing.
John Steinmetz recommends that composers “apply the skills you already have for writing, proofreading, and rewriting music. Working with words is similar to composing music: check for mistakes, make sure the words say what you mean, revise to correct and improve, and keep reworking until your intent is clear.”
Read your drafts out loud slowly—listening for awkward sounding phrases or transitions, redundancies, and run-on sentences. Have other people whose writing skills and feedback you trust also proofread.
“Check all spellings and grammatical uses, especially if you’re planning on using your bio to solicit reviews or features in the press,” says music consultant Dan Kimpel. “Bad copy is galling to those whose livelihood is the written word. Keep your words in the ‘active tense’ i.e. ‘John Smith incites his audience,’ as opposed to the passive: ‘the audience is incited by John Smith.’”
Keep in mind a bio is not something you knock out in 20 minutes. A strong bio (like a cover letter, CV, or grant proposal) is the result of multiple revisions. Most of the writing is, in fact, re-writing. It’s typical for musicians to do seven or more complete rewrites, but an effective bio is well worth it. This takes time, so start weeks before your deadline.
This series covered seven keys to a better bio: consider your reader, grab our attention, establish credibility, describe your music, avoid clichés, be human, and keep it clean. If you follow these, I can guarantee you are well on your way to an improved bio!
Use these in good health and Happy Better Bio Writing to you!
Miss the earlier articles in the series? Find them here.
It’s a challenge for any musician to answer the question, “So, what’s your music like?”
In order for readers to get curious enough about your music to stop surfing, click play, and actually listen, they need an incentive. That’s where your bio comes in and the crucial element it needs to include is a description of your music. Your readers want—and deserve—an understandable, compelling sketch of what your music actually sounds like, not a string of adjectives and clichés.
It’s easy to pretend we’re describing our music when in fact we’re simply relying on broad labels like post-modern, avant-garde, neo-romantic, or atonal. These terms only serve to make you and your music sound generic and institutional—and to alienate readers unfamiliar with the lingo.
It’s also easy to fall into analytical terms: telling us that you employ extended harmonic language and polyrhythms. But again, this won’t help civilians connect on a human level and won’t help us imagine the experience of hearing your music.
And if you simply write, “X is a composer who has written for solo voice, string quartet, and chamber winds,” your reader still doesn’t have a clue about what your music sounds like.
The good news is that there are multiple ways to describe your music and there are tools to make writing easier. Here are three example descriptions. I find these distinctive and compelling: they make me want to click “play” and listen. What I also like in these is that each has something surprising that made me sit up and take notice. See what you think:
Annie Gosfield, whom the BBC called “A one woman Hadron collider” lives in New York City and works on the boundaries between notated and improvised music, electronic and acoustic sounds, refined timbres and noise. She composes for others and performs with her own group, taking her music on a path through festivals, factories, clubs, art spaces, and concert halls. Dubbed “A star of the Downtown scene” by The New Yorker magazine, her music is often inspired by the inherent beauty of found sounds, such as machines, destroyed pianos, warped 78 rpm records and detuned radios.
This made me look up Hadron collider: it’s a particle accelerator. I thought, wow! The other images and phrases that got me curious to click play were the boundaries between “refined sound and noise” and performing in “festivals, factories, clubs, art spaces, and concert halls.” I loved that concert halls was last. But the end especially piqued my curiosity—that her influences include “the inherent beauty of found sounds, such as machines, destroyed pianos, warped 78 rpm records and detuned radios.”
Meredith Monk is a composer, singer, director/choreographer and creator of new opera, music-theater works, films and installations. Recognized as one of the most unique and influential artists of our time, she is a pioneer in what is now called “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance.” Monk creates works that thrive at the intersection of music and movement, image and object, light and sound, discovering and weaving together new modes of perception. Her groundbreaking exploration of the voice as an instrument, as an eloquent language in and of itself, expands the boundaries of musical composition, creating landscapes of sound that unearth feelings, energies, and memories for which there are no words.
Here we get the range of Meredith’s work, a sense of her position in the field, and then a real description of what her music involves and what the experience is like—described in a way that both musicians and non-musicians should find accurate and compelling. Note: she employs the much over-used word “unique” but in this context, and knowing her work, it’s fine.
Identity has always been at the center of Gabriela Lena Frank‘s music. Born in Berkeley, California, to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Frank explores her multicultural heritage most ardently through her compositions. Inspired by the works of Bela Bartók and Alberto Ginastera, Frank is something of a musical anthropologist. She has travelled extensively throughout South America and her pieces reflect and refract her studies of Latin-American folklore, incorporating poetry, mythology, and native musical styles into a western classical framework that is uniquely her own. She writes challenging idiomatic parts for solo instrumentalists, vocalists, chamber ensembles, and orchestras.
Here the information about Gabriela’s parents and background are absolutely relevant because she tells us immediately what is at the heart of all her music: identity. She’s “something of a musical anthropologist” and explains her major influences and how these have played out in her work. I get a vivid sense of her music and, again, am compelled to listen.
Questions to help you generate a more concrete and evocative description of your music. Try one or more of these and see what your responses generate.
How have listeners described your music? What have people said after your performances or about your recordings? Not the generic “it was amazing” but the more curious comments about what your music got them thinking or seeing. Not what other composers or teachers have said, but audience members and performers. These may give you more immediate clues and language for how civilians experience your music.
What are you fascinated by or obsessed with? Are there issues, ideas, types of soundscapes, or areas of inquiry you explore in your music? Give readers a sense of your focus.
What would you say has been at the core of your work? What you are aiming to achieve? Do you have a sense of mission?
How would you describe your music to a favorite aunt, a non-musician? Hint: you wouldn’t talk down to her and you wouldn’t use technical jargon. And of course she might especially appreciate knowing what fascinates you in your work.
If describing your work as a whole is too daunting, instead focus on a particular project and describe its notable features: instrumentation, form, or the occasion or ensemble for which it was written. A particular project can serve as an entry point for a reader to connect with your music.
What projects are you working on? Give us a reason to sign up for your newsletter and to be looking forward to (and contributing to) your next projects.
For additional help, consider connecting and working with a coach, mentor, publicist, or journalist. You can also ask fans and friends to send you a one-sentence description of any of the works you have online. You may get surprisingly evocative and helpful results.
Avoid the Clichés
You are a distinct individual and your music is a reflection of your singular perspective. Therefore your bio should not contain the same tired words and stale phrases found in countless other musicians’ bios.
The use of clichés starts with an innocent desire to communicate something authentic. But in reaching for words to fit, we end up grabbing the first and easiest thing that comes to mind. You can do better. Dig deeper.
To Be Avoided
(feel free to add more clichés to the list as needed #clichésRus)…
At one point these words or phrases weren’t stale, but once everyone else started using them, they became generic hype.
Passionate / passion
Unique (who isn’t?)
Of her/his generation
Quickly establishing herself/himself as a sought-after . . .
Has studied under (sounds subservient: use “with”)
Under the tutelage of (too arcane)
Committed or dedicated to, or champion of . . . the music of our time
One of the most . . .
The next . . .
Keep in mind that at one point these words or phrases weren’t stale and over-used—they had meaning and could be used effectively. But once everyone else started using them, they became generic hype, and now merely sound like “bio speak.”
Don’t follow the herd: the language you want should be fresh and memorable to reflect what is specific to you.
To be clear, effective bios that pique interest, avoid clichés, and make you want to click “play” are not easy to find. In the course of writing this article series I searched for hours to find good examples.
Instead of being discouraged, this has got me thinking: what if musicians rallied around this challenge and improved their bios—just think of all the new listeners and fans we might attract!
Want the rest? Stay tuned for the final installment of Keys to Writing a Better Bio.
Over the years, offering career coaching to alumni and students at the Manhattan School of Music, Indiana University JSoM, and New England Conservatory, I’ve read my fair share of bios: the compelling, the boring, and the downright embarrassing.
I’ve found a number of predictable traps in bio writing—and I’m happy to provide tools to avoid all of them. To help make the new music world a more audience-friendly place, I’m offering, in this and the next posts in the series, the keys to writing your better bio.
Keep in mind that an effective bio conveys who you really are as a person and what your aesthetic sensibility is. It should create a memorable impression and convey a sense of shared human experience. By piquing readers’ interest, an effective bio motivates them to click, listen, and connect with you.
1. Your bio needn’t be a literary masterpiece. So it’s completely within your power to write a better one!
2. You have musical skills you can draw upon in writing your bio: shaping phrases, crafting clear expression, communicating intent and meaning.
3. The purpose of a bio is not to show that you are “worthy” or how well you measure up to others. Instead, it’s about helping readers understand who you really are. There’s only one YOU, complete and original. Help readers to “get” who you really are so they can get your music, too.
4. There’s no one “right” way to write a bio. There are many ways to convey what you and your music are really about. The examples to follow may help broaden your sense of possibilities. Notice what engages or resonates with you to get ideas for an approach to try for yourself.
Caution: Bio Hazards
Unless you were raised by wolves or have a truly notable backstory, don’t tell us about your early years.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but overall, I recommend:
1. Don’t structure your information chronologically. And unless you were raised by wolves or have a truly notable backstory, don’t tell us about your early years.
2. Don’t start with where you studied. This may be of interest to other musicians, but for the media, concert presenters, and potential fans, it’s mind-numbing.
3. Don’t include every music-related experience or accomplishment. Instead, select only the most relevant or intriguing items. Shorter is better—think highlights of your past, as well as news about upcoming projects.
4. Do focus on facts and accurate descriptions: concrete nouns and verbs, as opposed to effusive hyperbole. Keep the use of adjectives and adverbs to a minimum.
Thinking of your bio as your “biography” is a trap. It leads to writing chronologically, using too many dates, and using academic or new music jargon.
If calling your bio a promotional tool feels too commercial, picture it as a bridge to link potential fans and the media to you and your music. NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas encourages musicians to consider their bios as “an opportunity to advocate for the music we love.”
A well-written bio should, through words, bring the subject to life on the page. As readers and fans, we’re interested in the energy and spirit behind the music you make.
This isn’t about pandering. It’s about helping others—especially civilians and those outside the new music club—connect with you and your music.
Consider Your Reader
Because not every audience is the same, you’ll need multiple versions and lengths of your bio tailored to the intended reader. It’s best to have a mini bio of a few sentences, as well as a short bio of about 200 words and a medium size of about 500. Your profiles on LinkedIn and Twitter, and your FB page should be tailored to the specific platform but still present a consistent message. If you teach, you may also need a teaching bio that’s different from your composer/performer bio.
For your website, it’s great to have a short FIRST person (I/me/mine) version of your bio along with links to the third person versions. First person bios can make a more immediate connection with readers, since you’re speaking directly to them.
Grab Our Attention
You have just ONE brief moment to get us to stop and focus.
We live in a world of sound bites and short attention spans, so you have just ONE brief moment to get us to stop and focus. Your opening sentence needs to arrest our attention, to wake us up, and give us a sense of connection to a real human being with a distinct artistic vision.
An impressive award or review quote, of course, can help energize the start of a bio, but grabbing our attention doesn’t mean you have to have won a Pulitzer or a Grammy. What readers really want is a human connection.
What I like about each of these openings is that they make me curious about the music and the person behind it—and they motivate me want to read more:
Katherine Bergman is a Minnesota-based composer who draws on literature, environmentalism, and found materials to create work that has been described as hypnotic and visceral.
Composer and pianist Haskell Small has been praised for the exquisite blend of sound and silence in his compositions and for his prodigious technique and subtle touch at the keyboard.
Part cartoon character, part virtuoso, musical whiz kid Wang Jie has been nudging serious music and its concert audiences into spectacular frontiers over the past few seasons. Her “From New York, with Love” transformed a classic percussionist into a dervish-like rock star. Her chamber opera “Flown” dramatized the end of a rocky love affair by having the two pianists attack each other and their shared instrument.
Raised in America’s Dairyland, (Wisconsin), multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer and instrument designer Mark Stewart has been heard around the world performing old and new music.
Anne LeBaron’s compositions embrace an exotic array of subjects encompassing vast reaches of space and time, ranging from the mysterious Singing Dune of Kazakhstan, to probes into physical and cultural forms of extinction, to legendary figures such as Pope Joan, Eurydice, Marie Laveau, and the American Housewife.
Note that none of these bios starts with where and when someone was born or where they went to school. Unless there’s something surprising, inventive, or fun about this information (as in Mark Stewart’s America’s Dairyland), I’d suggest leaving it out. As for your birth year, I really don’t care to know this, although concert presenters may want this information. Again, have multiple versions of your bio and leave the birth year off the short version on your website.
Bio writing raises everyone’s self-esteem issues.
You don’t need or want a long list of anything in a bio: just a few notable and relevant credentials. So this is about being selective and choosing not just what’s most impressive, but what shows the full scope of your experience and what you have to offer.
This is the aspect of bio writing that raises everyone’s self-esteem issues. Inevitably, musicians feel that their credentials aren’t enough or don’t measure up. I mean it: no matter how successful they are, when it comes bio writing, everyone feels “less than.”
Don’t fall into the comparison trap. When you read examples of other musician’s bios, including the ones in this article series, don’t compare your experience or credits with theirs. It’s a huge waste of energy. Instead, analyze the bios and notice how they’re constructed, the use of language, and the effect it creates. See what concepts you can adapt to your own material and distinctive voice.
Want more? Stay tuned for the next installment of the Keys to Writing a Better Bio.
Tools of the Trade. Photograph by Nell Shaw Cohen.
Poetry. Physics. Sculpture. Politics. Economics. Television. Botany. Weather. Through music in its myriad forms, composers have illuminated ideas drawn from these topics and countless others. In such works, listeners are provided with emotionally impactful learning experiences that may live in their memories long afterwards. And, by interpreting music through ideas, listeners may even have experiences of this music that are more enriching, rewarding, and personally meaningful than they would have without extramusical context to engage with.
In my four-part series of articles, I’ll be exploring some of the possibilities for creating new music as a catalyst for learning. I’ll seek to demonstrate why the connections between music and learning shouldn’t only be a topic of interest for scientists or educators, but something that composers, performers, and presenters should acknowledge and, in some cases, actively apply to their work.
To begin, some overarching premises and principles regarding new music for learning:
Emotion, Learning, and Music: Cognitive Reality, Creative Imperative
Emotion and learning are intimately and integrally connected. Cognitive scientists have defined “learning” as the process of committing new information to long-term memory (see Mayer’s Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning). According to the research of Gordon H. Bower, among others, emotions can help us to create and reinforce long-term memories as well as aid in recollection. Schema theory (developed by Bartlett, Minsky, and Rumelhart) describes how these long-term memories constitute our individual and collective knowledge, conceptual understanding of the world, and the very formation of our identities and perception of what is meaningful or relevant to us.
Music can evoke strong emotions and create indelible impressions, which are closely attached to the context of music’s hearing. Anyone who enjoys film, TV shows, or opera, for example, intuitively knows that music can cause one to make strong emotional connections to narratives, characters, and places, or form powerful associations with concepts and ideas.
The importance of emotion in learning, and music’s emotional impact, are two of the key reasons why I think that music has enormous potential—a potential that, I would argue, hasn’t yet been fully investigated by musicians—to facilitate and catalyze learning experiences. (I refer here to “learning” in the broadest sense, not restricted to academic education.)
I propose an approach to creating new music for learning, which is distinct from the established strategies for integrating existing repertoire and concepts from music into conventional forms of education. Certainly, much work has been done within music education itself to explore the manifold benefits of music making for learning and many aspects of personal development (e.g., the inspirational achievements of El Sistema). There is also a strategy in humanities teaching of bringing historical music into interdisciplinary curricula to provide deeper context to historical and cultural study (e.g., listening to an excerpt from Der Freischütz as part of a curriculum on Romanticism). Then there is, of course, the traditional function of song as a mnemonic device (“The Alphabet Song”), or even the use of acoustical phenomena as a tool for conceptual understanding in math or physics (my personal favorite example: the 1959 Disney film Donald in Mathmagic Land). Not to mention the centuries of music created for spiritual education within worship contexts.
While I do not question that the above may be effective and worthwhile educational strategies, I’ve personally been most compelled by questions and imperatives speaking more directly to composers, performers, and advocates for new music. What kind of musical experiences most effectively facilitate learning? What can we do, through the composition and presentation of new music, to work towards this goal? In what ways can listening to music make extramusical concepts more meaningful, memorable, and relevant? Conversely, how does extramusical content help the audience to form stronger connections to the music? And, taking a step back, how can the above help us to make better music overall?
The Impact of Context on Hearing
Some readers would probably debate whether it’s even possible for music to contain intrinsic meanings or associations beyond music itself. My personal theory is that experiences of music are entirely subjective and will inevitably vary on a person-to-person basis, but that there are concrete approaches—to the creation of the music itself, as well as its context of presentation—that composers, performers, and presenters can take to provide compelling opportunities for the audience to make rewarding connections between music and extramusical content. All of this requires a certain degree of attention and participation on the listener’s part, of course, but I think that artists and presenters bear the burden of responsibility to make such experiences readily accessible to a willing listener.
Many associations can be evoked through the application of certain musical devices (think Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony or Strauss’s tone poems). Along those lines, I’m personally extremely interested in using purely musical elements such as form, timbre, pitch, and rhythm, to evoke a sense of “place.” But consider also the way in which merely the title of a work can affect its hearing. Extend that effect to the many aspects of music’s presentation—the performance venue; text presented in conjunction with music, whether through speech, or digital or printed media; the visual components of the performance; experiences provided directly before and after the music; and so on. You might begin to imagine the impact that an alliance between artistic intention, musical content, and context of listening can have to bring forth images, ideas, associations, and narratives for listeners—even in the case of music that may be purely instrumental and lacking an overt program.
Members of A Far Cry perform Cohen’s The Course of Empire for string quartet at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2011. Photo by Nell Shaw Cohen.
For example, on two occasions I’ve sought to enrich audiences’ appreciation of a series of paintings through the presentation of concerts in museums where the artworks were on display. These concerts, which featured chamber music I’d composed inspired by the paintings, were presented in the context of: a brief speech I gave introducing the music’s connection to the art; a printed program note; video interviews with museum curators about the art, clips from which were screened as part of the program and/or provided on a mobile-optimized website created for the event; images of the paintings projected onstage during the entirety of the performance; and, of course, the opportunity to see the “real thing” in the gallery before and after the concert.
Probing music’s potential to facilitate learning is a goal I’ve pursued primarily through presentations outside of—or building on—conventional concert contexts. These have included music within interactive media, music within theatrical or multi-disciplinary presentations, music with video projections, and so on. Utilizing music as a platform for exploring extramusical ideas can also bring contemporary concert music into varied circumstances—whether in museums, schools, community centers, or simply on the Internet—for diverse audiences who may or may not have prior interest in new music, or any classical or concert music at all. The audience at the aforementioned museum-based concerts did not, for the most part, consist of regular new music concertgoers. The majority of them were drawn to these concerts by publicity related to special exhibit openings and the promise of an event presented in connection with the art.
While my museum events seemed to have been successful at piquing the audiences’ interest in both the artworks and the music, they represent just one possible approach: the tip of the iceberg of what may be possible to accomplish through new music events designed to facilitate learning.
Composers as Intellectuals
When I was a teenager, one of the reasons I chose to pursue composing music as my primary artistic path was because it was a medium through which I could envision myself exploring all of the evolving ideas, topics, and realms of experience that would come to fascinate me over the course of my life—whether it’s the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Yosemite National Park, or Medieval literature. Through composition, I could bring everything into the fold.
I know there are others with similar motivations to mine. So, consider the potential for more composers to adopt the role of “public intellectual” through learning-oriented music. Many of us are passionate about using music to further the visibility of ideas and subject matter that we feel are worthy of broader appreciation and awareness. Since composers are typically curious and intellectually multi-faceted people, why not do everything we can to push these inclinations to their fullest realization and really hone in on utilizing the creation of new music as a positive and proactive force for broadening the intellectual engagement of a larger public?
In my next three articles, I’ll explore how these principles of music created as a catalyst for learning may be applied within two areas which I’ve focused on in my own work: music inspired by visual art, and music inspired by nature, landscape, and place—which I call “Landscape Music.”
In the meantime, please share your thoughts. Has an experience with music ever helped you to better understand or appreciate an idea, a realm of knowledge outside of music itself, or some other aspect of life? Have you observed this happening for others? What elements of the musical content and/or its presentation do you think made that experience particularly effective? And, if you’re a musician, have you sought to facilitate your audience’s learning through your music?
Nell Shaw Cohen is a composer and multimedia artist based in Brooklyn, New York. She is a 2015-17 Composers & the Voice Fellow with American Opera Projects and the founder of Landscape Music, an online publication and affiliated Composers Network. As an educational media producer and user experience designer, she also creates unique videos, multimedia installations, and interactive media. Learn more at nellshawcohen.com.
At a time when the definition of curation is expanding rapidly, stretching from professionals in galleries, to curating your Google profile, to “tossers making a cup of tea,” there remains a lack of genuine curators and curatorial thought in the field of new music. While, historically, the curator was the person at a museum in charge of caring for that museum’s collection of artwork, this has only been a partial description of part of the profession for some time. Now, art curators are often at the forefront of enabling creative innovation and audience interaction. In the world of new music, on the other hand, curating is mostly a word we’ve usurped for use in funding applications and marketing materials. We use it because it sounds better to say someone (or a number of someones) “curated” a concert rather than “chose the pieces we’ll play.”
We’re not alone in this. For example, in his recent essay on curating the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival in the New Statesman, David Byrne focuses his many-faceted discussion entirely on the process of selection. The emphasis on choice, he argues, is down to the ubiquitous access we have to, well, everything: “Where to find, amid the glut, what is right for us? How to separate the music from the noise?” In this situation, Byrne argues that what the expert curator—as opposed to an impersonal Facebook algorithm—brings to the table is surprise:
What is the value of the information brought back by the bee that is willing to explore an unusual flower? The value of encountering an idea, an artist or a writer outside the well-trodden and machine-predictable paths? I would never call myself an expert but my point of view and experience, being a wee bit outside the norm, are a little more biased, skewed, pre-edited and peculiar that what those herd-based and algorithmic services come up with.
Curating can, of course, include the organization, discussion, and presentation of music, and our field is not lacking in the area of having all manner of experts—from musicians to musicologists to critics—select works for programming. While it would be great if this were more often informed by a systematic and thorough research of the repertoire, the real problem is that this is a myopic view of what curation can be. If we look up from Facebook and glance at the world of contemporary art, we see a curatorial practice and theory that has developed around individuals working closely with actual artists to enable them to manifest their intentions in the optimal possible form and then bringing the result to an audience in the optimal possible way. Here, for example, is curator Hans Ulrich Obrist recounting advice he received when starting out:
[Alighiero] Boetti told me that if I wanted to curate exhibitions, then I should under no circumstances do what everybody else was doing—just giving the artists a certain room and suggesting that they fill it. What would be more important would be to talk to the artists and ask them which projects they could not realise under existing conditions…He mentioned that a young curator could find great value not only in working in a museum, a gallery, or a biennial, but also in making artists’ dreams come true.
Notice, here, that Boetti is not simply speaking about creating more of the familiar opportunities for artists. This is not a complaint that there are not enough commissions or tenure-track teaching position for young musicians. No, here Boetti is advocating that—to be of real value—the curator should be someone who allows the artists to expand the very horizons of the art form. Obrist has followed up on this advice throughout his career by asking this question in each of his interviews, and even running a project, The Agency of Unrealized Projects, based entirely around them.
Of course it is not that these things don’t happen at all in the field of new music. Festivals, in particular, are places where the artistic director can sometimes embody this role. Normally, though, it is down to the musicians (performers, ensembles, and composers) to come up with their project ideas on their own, and then the game becomes one of tracking down funding. This process is not one of collaboration, but of application. The very site this writing appears on, of course, represents one of the few places any young American ensemble or composer can come with just about any dream of a project and find the possibility of funding, along with a platform to reach an interested audience. In the U.K., the new music organization Sound and Music has a similar mission and is primarily focused on helping composers to imagine and create new and exciting work.
There are problems, though, when the role we are talking about is divided up like this. Funding organizations are themselves fundraisers, and their money is normally secured and then offered with some constricting vision of the work it will eventually create. This places constraints on the art form when the newly imagined project does not fall into old models of thinking. Moreover, it is very difficult to have a collaborative artistic relationship with an organization. While the president, CEO, or head of programs will certainly come to know some musicians well, funding organizations often have a remit that requires their resources—both financial and personnel—be spread in an even and (as far as possible) fair way among a huge array of artists.
On the other hand, when you look at curators in the world of art such as Kirk Varnedoe, Okwui Enwezor, and Julia Peyton-Jones, you see that these are people who did far more than funnel money to artists with ideas: they themselves made commitments to certain ideas and artists and then, through their close and intimate relationships with those artists, helped inspire and shape the work being made.
With this in mind, in a series of three musings to follow, I’d like to consider some of the things our community could learn from the contemporary thought and practice of curation. How can this vision of curation impact the activity of performers and ensembles? How could it reshape the role of composers and expand the idea of community among them? Then, in the final post, I’ll be focusing on—and looking to gather from you—unrealized projects. For now, I leave you with Juliet Darling’s A Curator’s Last Will and Testiment, made for curator Nick Waterlow after his death in 2009.
1. This definition is lifted from a passage (pg. 32) in Terry Smith’s collection of essays, Thinking Contemporary Curating Thinking Contemporary Curating Thinking Contemporary Curating. It is presented there not as a definition of curation, but as one possible way curators could see their practice.
2. Obrist, Hans Ulrich. Ways of Curating. London: Penguin Group, 2014, pp. 10-11