Tag: audience outreach

Let’s Grow Art Organically in Small Batches

A child wandering around sculptures of hippopotami and a fake rowboat in Central Park's Safari Playground. (photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy)

“On Friday, March 2, 1714, His Serene Highness the Reigning Duke most graciously conferred upon the quondam Court Organist Bach, at his most humble request, the title of Concertmaster” with the duty to “perform new works monthly.” Thus, the Weimar court capelle hired J.S. Bach to compose and present a substantial new church piece every four weeks. For his first piece written on the job, Bach played lead violin.

For years I’ve had the thought, “It would be so cool to have a job like Bach’s.”

For years I’ve had the thought, “It would be so cool to have a job like Bach’s.” I have always allowed this notion to remain vague in my mind — a rose-tinted ideal in which I would belong to some lovely community, whose purpose was larger than music itself, that would pay me a full-time salary to write music on a weekly or monthly basis. I know, Bach was constantly frustrated with his various employers, and he wasn’t always paid to write music specifically. At Weimar it only happened because he asked for that duty to be included in his contract. So it’s an idealized notion. But there’s something about its essentials, its bare bones, that appeals to me.

I recently sat down to define Bach’s job as precisely as I could, as a thought experiment: Does such a job exist today in some form? Could it, perhaps in some different context? Where do I apply?

Here’s my abstracted definition of Bach’s job at Weimar:

  • an institution/community whose primary purpose is something other than the production or presentation of artistic works, yet devotes a significant portion of its operating budget to pay a permanent full-time salary to an artist;
  • part of this artist’s job is to provide largish-scale creations on a regular and frequent basis as a *service* to the institution;
  • the service is *secondary* to the main purpose of the institution, but important enough to justify the large expense of a full-time salary;
  • the main purpose of this service is to express the communal values of the institution for the benefit and instruction of its members, *internally* (and secondarily for the institution’s reputation within the larger society);
  • Serene Highness not required, but large budget helpful.

Can you think of a job like this, in recent times? I can’t, not in the domains I know. Mainline churches? Organists often create service music, either as written compositions or as improvisations, but the creation of original music itself is not usually a contracted job requirement as far as I know. Maybe some very big churches outside the mainline denominations have salaried positions like this? Non-profit arts sector, or entertainment industry? Nope, per first line of the definition. Internal PR people in large corporate HR departments? Do advertising creatives fit parts of this definition? Possibly higher education, sort of, back in its glory days, if you focus on the non-teaching duties? There’s the U.S. Poet Laureate, but the salary seems like more of an honorarium. The UK has the Master of the Queen’s Music, one solitary composer at a time. Otherwise I’m drawing a blank.

I asked friends and colleagues about this, and the consensus seems to be that while there are many kinds of creative work that share aspects of my definition, there is no job quite like it — particularly the specific requirement to create new art regularly. A friend suggested the most surprising example, and perhaps the closest to my definition of Bach’s job. It’s this guy, the DJ for the Denver Broncos and Nuggets.

Even if you can’t think of a job exactly like this, what comes close? Does such a thing appeal to you — in most or all of those particulars — or is it just me? Please use the comments liberally. I can’t wait to hear what you think.

The remains of J.S. Bach's residence in Weimar.

The remains of J.S. Bach’s residence in Weimar (which, though the full building was mostly destroyed, is the only known surviving residence of J.S. Bach). Photo from the discontinued creative commons photo sharing site Panoramio.

I Made This. For You.

I made this bread.
I made this music.
For you.

A single simple interaction, a direct gift from one human to another. To me that is the creation of music, and many other things, at its best. As a composer of contemporary concert music, I feel out of touch with that core, person-to-person interaction. I write to fulfill commissions, but often I am still not quite sure who exactly, which specific human beings, I am writing for. As that realization has grown, I feel more and more pain.

As a composer of contemporary concert music, I feel out of touch with that core, person-to-person interaction.

I am on a mission to recapture that core interaction, that directness. I want to find the specific people I should be writing for, and to listen to them deeply. I want to write for them, to tune my music to their desires and needs and hopes, as specifically as possible.

The Artist in Community: Vignettes to Capture a Notion 

In this post I will explore the notion of Bach’s job further. What is it that makes me want a job like that? For now I will set aside the question of drawing a regular salary for creative work, although that is very important. The aspect of the job that draws me most powerfully is my longing to serve as an artist within a cohesive community, writing music for a purpose larger than the music itself. To get at that quality, here are two additional vignettes or visions that capture a kind of community where I believe art-making can flourish in beautiful ways. I invite you to read each vignette for its own sake but none of the three, including the Bach example, is a complete model on its own. Between them they capture something of the quality of interaction between artist and community that I seek.

Reckoning Desire (a short story)

There’s a short story I adore: Dalet the Thief, from The Book of the Unknown by Jonathon Keats, twelve fables of reimagined Kabbalistic saints ($5 on Kindle).

The story is about a village that has become so rich that no one bothers to practice their trades anymore. Avram the baker, Dov the shoemaker… everyone spends their time showing off expensive trinkets to each other. Dalet the town thief (his job considered vital to the functioning of the village) could be rich too, but he lacks ambition. He doesn’t steal the things people actually want. Gradually, Dalet learns to see the true desires that burn in everything, and then begins to share his newfound knowledge with others.

From my favorite scene, in which Dalet negotiates a deal with the town baker:

Avram added another gulden, and then several more. At last he emptied his purse. But it was like casting stars into sunlight. Poor Avram, his reckoning was all wrong: In matters of desire, no quantity is greater than one.

Soon, taught by Dalet to respond to desire, Avram finds himself baking again. For the first time in years, the scent of fresh-baked bread fills the village, and a long line of neighbors and friends winds to his door.

I re-read this story recently after almost ten years. At the moment when Avram begins to bake, I suddenly broke down in tears. It took me a while to figure out what had prompted those tears: I think it was a longing to connect, as deeply and directly as Avram does, with my own village, with my own small community of people who truly desire what I make. I feel like a wandering minstrel, with no village of that kind to call my own. I don’t think I will find my village until I too, like Dalet and Avram, learn to see the desires burning in those around me — and to respond.

If you read the story, I’d love to know what you think of it.

The cover of the paperback edition of Jonathon Keats's The Book of the Unknown.

A New Playground in Central Park

Our favorite playground was closed all winter for a major renovation. It’s open again now, and it’s glorious. Where we once struggled with clanky structures too high for little kids, we now lounge on rubberized hills you can’t fall off of, and the old embattled hippos look refreshed and ready for action.

The day it reopened, they were still putting on the finishing touches. Two Central Park Conservancy officials were walking around inspecting every detail, directing their crew in the placement of each final shrub, with a care and specificity that made me suspect they had a creative stake in it. They told me they’re landscape architects and that they had co-designed the new playground. It’s their brainchild, their work of art.

My toddler and I were there again later the same day (yep that’s the drill). I recognized one of the landscape architects I’d met earlier, now there in civilian clothes with her own kids. She said she had sat on a bench for a while just watching all the children as they discovered her creation, as they found marvelous ways to enjoy it, some she had planned and some she hadn’t foreseen.

What a lovely moment for an artist, to sit quietly by while one’s newest work brings joy to the humans it was made for.

The Bach example and these two additional examples emphasize a distinction I believe is vital—that the art-making not exist separately, but within a sense of motivation and meaning that holds the community together and that transcends the art itself. As my friend Ishmael Wallace put it, this involves not only artist and audience but a third presence: their union itself.

If the art I create stays too much within a circle of fellow creators, the well of joy and motivation too easily dries up.

Professional sharing within a given domain, such as new music, is vital; without the support and companionship of fellow composers and performers, I could not have become the composer I now am. But for me, if the art I create stays too much within that circle of fellow creators, the well of joy and motivation too easily dries up.

If I ruled the world, I’d put every kind of art — cooking, gardening, painting, talking, singing, and so on — into contexts where it naturally serves something beyond itself. I believe we should find ways for artists and their audiences, two complimentary energies and interests, to interact closely with each other for mutual expansion and learning.

Likewise in every domain, from science to health to economics: not only experts talking to other experts in secret languages, as sustaining and necessary as that is, but also experts talking to lay people, translating and transferring their knowledge constantly and clearly. That helps us all to understand the complex and subtle things of life as far as we’re able, and to make better decisions as a society.

If I ruled the world, I’d put every kind of art — cooking, gardening, painting, talking, singing, and so on — into contexts where it naturally serves something beyond itself.

I think the relationship of expert to layperson, artist to audience, works well when the expert or artist acts, somewhat like Bach, in the role of servant to the served. In that context the art or subject matter naturally takes on and communicates things of emotional and personal meaning, naturally connects directly with regular, everyday people who themselves do not want to make that thing. While I also believe that everyone who wants to should have the opportunity to make art in the domains that inspire them, this does not mean everyone needs to or wants to become a professional in a given domain. I cannot bake an incredible loaf of bread, and it’s not something I feel a passion to learn. But I am grateful to enjoy one made for me by a skilled expert. The more I can connect with other people with a complimentary energy to my own in a given domain — to be the audience to an expert, or to serve as an expert and artist to an audience — the better.

Three different loaves of grain bread from Franziskaner bakery in Bozen, Italy.

Franziskaner-loaf and rye whole-grain tin loaf baked by Franziskaner bakery in Bozen, Italy. (Photo by Wesual Click on Unsplash.)

I am excited to find more ways to grow art this way: organically, in small gardens, perhaps without the fertilizers of commissions, fundraising, patronage, or crowdfunding.

I think the relationship of artist to audience, works well when the artist acts in the role of servant to the served.

In all three examples I love how closely the art and its communities are woven around and within each other, the intense bonds between creators and appreciators (and those who are both).​ I long for that kind of community, that kind of integration, where art is not separate.

Let’s Grow Art Online

Where can we find fertile soil to grow art in this way? I think the internet is a good place. If we’re using the internet in the right ways, we can be intimate with each other about things like politics and art. We can learn from those far away and those different from ourselves. We can build friendships with people we would never encounter otherwise. And we can do all this without the often-unseen biases and limitations of access that are imposed by physical place (over half the globe now has regular internet access… not nearly enough but growing quickly). I believe this must happen entirely away from ad-based social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. I suspect it works best in online spaces we make and control ourselves, at small scale, using simple tools.

In my upcoming posts I’ll talk about how I believe this can work well, and I’ll present two current projects in which I am beginning to build the kind of online community I have in mind.

Dynamic Music Appreciation

I’ve become a strong believer in the responsibility artists have to invite a lay audience into meaningful dialogue with art. I don’t care which art form any individual chooses to engage in so long as somewhere they are nourishing their lives with art that challenges beyond the delightful entertainment of Hollywood, mainstream pop music, or quick-read books. As full-time artistic creators, we should proselytize for the power of our artistic medium and how the human experience is both defined and deepened by artistic expression. Those of us who engage regularly with our audiences have the opportunity to help them understand difficult but important music. Many of us have had some experience as high school students when a capable English teacher opened our souls to challenging literature such as Shakespeare, Bronte, Steinbeck, or Lee. With a bit of context, questions, and guidance, a new world opened. This artistic nourishing should happen beyond high school, and working artists are in a special position for this task. We have the credentials and passion to stand in front of a classroom and invite people into a deeper relationship with art.

A recent discussion I had with Conrad Kehn, a Denver-based composer and new music impresario, raised new questions about the current practice of music appreciation classes. He shared that a curriculum restriction required that a course he teaches at a community college focus almost entirely on classical music (white, male, European composers). Most of his students, first generation college students, are from non-white, non-European cultures. Is it a form of cultural imperialism to insist they learn only this material if they want to take a music appreciation class? While I love European classical music and hope there is always room to teach these great composers, our world is much bigger. We all have access to music from a variety of genres, cultures, and modes of creative process. Courses can easily include multiple genres and music that falls outside of traditional notation. If the fundamental goal is for a lay audience to have a greater appreciation for music, cross-genre courses are more compelling and inclusive of greater varieties of musical expression. Artists increasingly cross genres and disciplines, and our courses should reflect that.

We have to be passionate about our subjects so that we offer our best charismatic voices when teaching.

Through the success of my music appreciation course “Tragedy and Inspiration”, I’ve wondered what other topics would attract today’s undergraduates. “Music and the Civil Rights Movement”, “Music as Protest”, “Composers Who Cross Borders”, “Self-Taught but Brilliant”, “Opera, Sex, and Violence”, “Music as Ritual and Religious Expression” are all ideas that could examine a great body of music through compelling lenses. The organizing construct is the way to draw in students. All teachers have a body of music that they are well equipped to teach. We have to be passionate about our subjects so that we offer our best charismatic voices when teaching. Our diverse interests and expertise will lead to a myriad of topics that invite the lay listener into the art.

“Music and the Civil Rights Movement” could host a variety of styles crossing more than 200 years of American history. The bulk of the class might focus on the core of the Civil Rights era but should include the evolution of African-American spirituals, the early formation of blues and jazz, the emergence of rap and hip hop, and many current genres articulating the ongoing struggle against racism in America. Jazz pieces would include Coltrane’s Alabama, Mingus’s Fables of Faubus, Meerpol’s “Strange Fruit,” Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?,” and Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, among others. Gil Scott-Heron, N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore, and Public Enemy are among many artists who have all used the platform of powerful lyrics to highlight the many forms of contemporary racism. Classical pieces could include Nkeiru Okoye’s opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom, Steve Reich’s Come Out, Wynton Marsalis’s oratorio Blood on the Fields, and Frederic Rzewski’s Attica and Coming Together.

Composers thrive with cultural diversity.

“Composers Who Cross Borders” invites a large umbrella of diverse music. From the Beatles’ work with Ravi Shankar to Toru Takemitsu’s embrace of French impressionism to Tanya Tagaq’s integration of throat singing, metal, and Inuit culture – composers thrive with cultural diversity. A host of musical artists have migrated around the world to embrace aspects of their new countries while maintaining a core identity rooted in their place of origin. Composers Gabriela Lena Frank, Tan Dun, Tania León, and Osvaldo Golijov embrace multicultural influences that define the Americas. Classical composers Béla Bartók, Steve Reich, and Claude Debussy pulled key aspects of their musical language from other cultures.

Teaching music appreciation has also helped cultivate or sustain the passion I have for art music. The process of preparing to teach a subject requires a deep dive that may reveal new insights and invite a fresh look. Finding the words to explain a complex subject has expanded my thinking on many topics and is a constant reminder of the richness present in the works of great composers who make up my chosen art form. Preparing to teach forces growth and informs my own composition. The classroom experience is for both the students and myself. I end up loving this music more each time I teach it, and I am always delighted by unexpected comments offered by the students. The greatest compliment is when students tell me they now listen to music with a greater depth.

Samples of writings by Daniel Kellogg’s students in response to questions in his Music Appreciation classes. (Reprinted with permission.)

Speak Now: How Classical Music Got Me Woke

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural Citizen

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

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

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

Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes

Portrait of Langston Hughes (1927)
By Winold Reiss

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

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

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

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

Margaret Bonds

Margaret Bonds

Portrait of Margaret Bonds, 1956
By Carl Van Vechten

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

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

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

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

The Dream Unfinished

The Dream Unfinished logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ashley Jackson

Ashley Jackson

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

1. “Read the Full Transcript of President Obama’s farewell speech,” Los Angeles Times (January 10, 2017), http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-obama-farewell-speech-transcript-20170110-story.html (accessed February 20, 2017).

[2] Renato Rosaldo, “Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy,” Cultural Anthropology 9, no. 3 (August 1994): 402, http://www.jstor.org/stable/656372 (accessed February 20, 2017).

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

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

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

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

Record Created for Extraterrestrials Now Available for Everyone

The cover for the Voyager record and the record

The gold-plated Sounds of Earth Record containing Laurie Spiegel’s realization of Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi and its gold-aluminum cover (left). Photo by NASA (Public Domain). A copy of this record was sent into outer space on both the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts in 1977. The cover was designed to protect the record from micrometeorite bombardment and also provides a potential extra-terrestrial finder a key to playing the record. The explanatory diagram appears on both the inner and outer surfaces of the cover, as the outer diagram will be eroded in time.

Earlier this month, we were all finally been able to see what Pluto looks like thanks to NASA’s New Horizons interplanetary space probe. Now, also thanks to NASA, we can all listen to the only album that has thus far physically traveled beyond Pluto–The Golden Record. The Golden Record is a 12-inch gold-plated copper disc filled with images and sounds that was created in order to share highlights from our world with extraterrestrials. (It’s arguably the ultimate listener outreach initiative.) A copy of the record was sent into outer space in 1977 along with a cartridge and needle for playback on both of the Voyager space probes. But now the entire contents of the record can be readily accessed and enjoyed by any sentient being with an internet connection. Although each of the individual tracks have been available online as separate sound files embedded on various NASA pages for years, NASA has finally grouped them together in one place on SoundCloud for a complete album listening experience.

In addition to the 115 images from Earth that are encoded in analog form on the Voyager Golden Records, there are a broad range of recordings of natural and urban sounds, spoken language, and approximately 90 minutes of music from many different cultures and eras. The only new music composer included on the Golden Record is Laurie Spiegel, whose electronic realization of Kepler’s “Music of the Spheres” was featured in the “sounds of the earth” section rather than the “music” section. The only other living American composer featured is Chuck Berry, whose hit 1958 rock and roll song “Johnny B. Goode” was the most recent popular music inclusion on the 1977 playlist. (Carl Sagan, chair of the committee in charge of programming the record, also wanted to include something more up-to-date–a track by the Beatles. Though the members of the band reportedly liked the idea, their recording company EMI turned down the request even though the potential revenue losses due to interstellar copyright theft had yet to be–and to this day still haven’t been–determined.)

The Voyager Golden Record:

Here’s just the music on the Voyager Golden Record:

And here’s just Laurie Spiegel’s contribution to Voyager:

Laurie Spiegel on NewMusicBox:

The transcript of the entire conversation with Laurie Spiegel for NewMusicBox is here.

Talking About Contemporary Music in a Helpful Way

Audience members in a concert hall applauding

Photo by Josh Randell

Over the years I have learned the importance of being able to speak to general audiences. It doesn’t matter if you are presenting your own work or if you are a director of an ensemble or a passionate board member of a new music organization. New audiences can only benefit from getting to know you and your vision of the music. In words, not just notes. Starting the music from beautiful silence is all well and good for a concert in our music departments or for audiences used to contemporary works, but I’m talking here about presenting to groups where most instrumental music is a discovery, especially anything after Britten or Shostakovich. This kind of audience won’t find you, you have to find them. I believe that by skillfully connecting new listeners to contemporary music, we can bring more challenging works to a much wider audience without sacrificing a single note of music.


The best communicators are doing one of two things. They are either communicating their ideas or they are making it safe to communicate.

1. Make it safe.

You are the host, so you are in charge of making the audience feel comfortable. I’m often surprised by how after a concert people will come up and make a point of saying “when you explained the music, it was totally non-patronizing” as if they were expecting it to be snobby. For some reason people have in their minds that classical music audiences wear monocles and fur coats. Maybe we’ve all seen too many ‘80s videos of electric guitarists bursting through walls to the outrage of the classical music people on the other side. Either way, for our purposes, making it safe means going way out of our way to check any sense of entitlement at the door.

Remember that colleague during your grad program with the I’m-More-Modernist-Than-You attitude? Not that you would, but be sure you are not channelling that person in any way.

Or, if you have composers in the audience there to cheer you on and feel pressured to use an academic tone to impress them, don’t do that either. They’ll understand that you are reaching out to curious folks who are discovering this music, maybe their music, for the first time.

Instead, be two things: enthusiastic and genuine. If you are enthusiastic and genuine, you will have them, and they’ll hang on your every word.

2. Memorize bullet points.

Here’s a secret: when you have seen those seemingly amazing people who speak to audiences as if it’s off the top of their heads, it’s not off the top of their heads. They’ve memorized the bullet points of their ideas. It’s easy and you can do it too. Before each show I’ll write down something like:

  • Hello and welcome
  • Exciting program
  • Challenging (Beethoven’s time etc.)
  • Texture
  • Gesture
  • Color/Spectralism
  • Introduce composer X

The day or so before, I might mentally practice going from one idea to the next. While you are up there and the public speaking headspace kicks in, these bullet points become a lifeline and you always know what you will be speaking about next.

3. Memorize your first sentence.

You’ll be nervous when you first start to talk. Then after a few seconds you’ll relax and understand that it’s all going to be okay and you will actually start having fun. Until that point you want to be fully scripted.

Speaking of being nervous: if you pretend not to be nervous, they will never know that you are. (Friendly tip: whatever you do, don’t say that you’re nervous. Believe me: it does not make the awkwardness go away. This goes for wedding speeches, too.)

4. Give yourself time afterwards to get into the zone.

If you are conducting or playing in the first piece, you will want to plan a bit of time to go from public speaking brain to music making brain. I’ll usually ask a visiting composer to talk about their piece for a few minutes right before we start, not as a discussion with me, but as a talk to the audience. I’ll pretend to listen (sorry guys) while mentally getting into the zone to conduct the work. Or alternatively, it’s okay to go off stage briefly, get your head together, and come back on to perform.


Now that you are the perfect host and the audience is relaxed and hanging on your every word, what do you actually say?

When working this out, for me the most important thing I can do is try to think back to the time when I couldn’t make heads or tails of contemporary music and ask: what key pieces of information would have been most helpful for me to know then?

To the audience I’ll say things like this:

Composers are trying to share what it feels like to be alive at this time and place in history. This is going to sound different from music written at other times and places in history, like in Vienna in 1800 or Paris in 1900. The pieces we’ll be playing were written in San Diego in 2012 or Montreal in 1994 so the music will sound quite different from the music of those other times and places.


Many composers are trying to build music that withstands the tests of time and that doesn’t crumble away easily. They are taking a long view that will give the world a body of music one hundred years from now and beyond. Therefore it might take many listenings before we become acquainted with it.

If it’s a younger audience I’ll address the myth that concert music is intended to be relaxing:

We hear all the time that classical music is supposed to be relaxing. But we all know that the history of music is a history of ideas, where one composer reacts to the ideas of the composers who came before him or her. So if we have our brains turned off rather than turned on, we might miss some of those ideas.

If the pieces we are playing are mostly about texture, color, and gesture, I’ll address the elephant in the room, which is that most audiences come in listening for a melody that they will walk away singing and are frustrated that there isn’t one. No judgement here: that’s how most of us are taught to approach music and if you don’t have a music degree, that’s what you do.

I’ll say something like: When I first listened to contemporary music I tried to listen for a melody that I could walk away singing and it was a bit of a frustrating experience because the music was really about other things.

If the piece you are playing is textural, you can say something such as:

Instead of listening for a big main melody, we can listen for texture. You can think of texture as 2 or 5 or 100 hundred melodies all on top of one another and we listen to the character of all of them together.


We often think of texture in terms of density, so we can listen for textures that are very sparse, or very dense.

If the music is very gestural:

To listen for gesture, you can ask yourself: what shapes are being created by the music, and how do they unfold over time?

If there are lots of irregular rhythms in music, I’ve said:

When we hear a steady beat, we actually want to move our bodies to it. It’s one of the miracles that music gives to us. But there are many other kinds of rhythms. When you think about it, nothing in nature is really a steady beat. Our heartbeats, our pulse, the rhythms of the tides, the seasons, everything is just a bit…off. And when you think of other rhythms in nature, like insects or birds, or emotions as they arise, these are all irregular. So instead of thinking of rhythms as only steady beats, we can think about them as they occur in nature, which are just events over time.

If the piece you are playing is a premiere, here is something I have fun with:

Historians will move mountains to find out what the audience of the day thought of a new piece. They will go through trunks in attics, letters, and journal entries, all to find out what the audience of the day thought of a new piece of music. Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is a world premiere, which makes YOU the audience of the day. Future historians will thank you if you go home after the performance and tweet about it or record in some way how you feel.

You get the idea. Obviously what you say will depend on the kind of music you are presenting. What is important here is the tone. We’re going for right down the middle: not too smartypants, but also not too dumbed down. Above all, be authentic. And have fun with it!

[Full disclosure: much of the text above is from my A Young Person’s Guide to New Music, for narrator and orchestra where these concepts like texture, color and gesture are introduced while the orchestra demonstrates in real time. There are versions in English, French and Mandarin. (They don’t let me narrate the Mandarin version; I wish they did.) If you like, please feel free to use that last one about the future historians. My gift to you. However for all the other texts in italics in this blog, I’d appreciate a citation. Thanks folks.]

Next week we’ll talk about advocating on behalf of contemporary music to institutions: arts foundations, donors, boards of education, even politicians. How to do it, what to say, and why this is a good idea.


Brian Current with arms folded standing in front of a brick wall

Brian Current, photo courtesy Latitude 45/Arts

Brian Current studied music at McGill University and UC Berkeley (PhD 2002). His music, lauded and broadcast in over 35 countries, has been awarded the Barlow Prize for Orchestral Music, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Italian Premio Fedora for Chamber Opera and a Selected Work (under 30) at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. Brian Current’s pieces have been consistently programmed by professional orchestras, ensembles and opera companies both across North America and abroad. His opera, Airline Icarus, was released on Naxos Canadian Classics in November 2014. Current is in demand as a guest conductor and regularly leads programs of contemporary music. He is on faculty at The Royal Conservatory in Toronto where he directs the graduate-level GGS Ensemble.

Incarceration and Musical Inspiration Part Four: The Last Class

A group of inmates wearing graduation caps and gowns walks down a prison corridor.
I inserted a quarter into the small locker holding my wallet, keys, and cell phone. To enter the maximum-security prison, I would need only my ID, which the guards would keep at the front gate until I returned. I walked through the metal detector for the last time. Claire, my fellow TA, and Stuart Paul Duncan, the course instructor, followed. The prison guard leafed through Stuart’s music books to make sure nothing was hidden between the pages.

It was our last day teaching music theory and appreciation at Auburn Correctional Facility, one of New York State’s largest all-male maximum-security prisons. A semester had flown by, and I felt a deep sadness at the thought of never seeing or hearing from my students again. The inmates had little means of communication with the rest of society. There was certainly no internet access, not even computers. And we were discouraged from writing them letters. At the Cornell Prison Education Program training sessions, program leaders warned us not to stay in touch with our students. You do not want an inmate to become attached to you and there should be no relationship or friendship beyond the classroom. It is not that I wanted to become friends with anyone, but the thought that my students would just fade back into anonymity disturbed me. After today, I would never know if a student went on to accomplish something, to continue his education, or even to be released from prison. I would never know if their lives or circumstances changed. They would disappear behind the prison walls, and I would go on with my life.
I was also nervous. Every week, the inmates asked me when they would hear my music. Stuart promised that on the last class I would share my compositions. Claire had played for them one of her original folk songs, which they seemed to enjoy. She taught them the chorus and they clapped along. I was less sure of how they would react to my chamber music, even though they had spent the semester listening to 20th-century classical music and discussing compositional techniques.

After a half-hour of walking past security gates, across the prison yard, past the rec hall, the make-shift weight room, and the license plate factory, we reached our empty classroom. We set up the desks and chairs while a guard brought us the prison’s boombox and electric keyboard. Our students arrived, escorted to class in single file. With enormous smiles, they entered the room one by one, as they always did, greeting the three of us individually and shaking our hands before sitting at their desks.
Shane was visibly nervous. In addition to sharing my music, Stuart had promised that he would perform one of Shane’s compositions on the keyboard. This was not Shane’s idea. He was by far the brightest student in the class, but he was painfully shy. He shared his thoughts quietly and eloquently, garnering great respect among his peers. In a few short months, Shane had learned to notate his own melodies, achieving the goal he had set for himself at the beginning of the semester.
Shane was a leader in the class, a role that he never experienced in prison. It was known among the inmates and prison educators that Shane was gay. In his other classes, he wrote openly about his struggle to maintain his identity in the prison environment. Shane seemed perpetually downtrodden and timid, unlike some of his fellow students who were spirited and full of energy. Others were more subdued, some seemed angry, and a few had days during which they could not focus. In essence, our classroom was filled with students experiencing a full range of human emotions, just like any other classroom.

Shane handed Stuart his composition, a ten-measure melody in C-sharp minor written for the piano. He looked absolutely terrified as Stuart performed the piece for the class on our little keyboard. The inmates were completely silent, listening with as much attention as they had given to Joseph Lin when he performed Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for them earlier in the semester. They treated Shane with the same respect and it was clear that they were inspired. Shane’s composition had ascending triplets in the right hand and a slow chromatic descending bass pattern in the left. As the melody reached higher and higher, the bass moved downward. The harmonies were clear, the ideas consistent. I was very proud of him. When Stuart finished playing, the students burst into applause and Shane turned bright red.

Next, Stuart met with each inmate individually to go over the final exams. He wanted to conduct another pedagogical experiment. What would happen if the students were asked to assign themselves a grade for the semester? Would an inmate’s self-assessment match the grade Stuart planned to give? “What happens if a student tries to convince you he deserves a better grade?” I asked Stuart on the drive to Auburn. As it turned out, all of the inmates assessed their grades accurately, with two notable exceptions. One man, who we knew had led a violent gang and possessed an intimidating demeanor, believed he deserved a B-plus when he really achieved a C. The second was Shane, who felt he deserved a C-minus even though he received an A-plus.
After the meetings, it was time for me to play my music. I had printed out scores for each of the students. My piece was called He Disappeared into Complete Silence, named after a set of nine parables and engravings by the artist Louise Bourgeois. The parables were short, quirky, dark poems that accompanied Bourgeois’s stark, semi-abstract line drawings. As the title suggests, the poems dealt with the extremes of loneliness and the inability to communicate.

I realized as I distributed the scores that I had included my full name as the composer. I was supposed to protect my own privacy.
“Can we keep these?” Gherald asked.

“Yes,” I replied instinctively. Gherald began flipping through the images and penciling in his own drawings alongside Bourgeois’s illustrations.

I pressed the play button on the boombox and my piece began. The students were able to follow along in the score by reading the text. I watched with fear. Some looked noticeably bored, others completely enthralled. There was one movement in particular I was very nervous about. I even asked Stuart if we should skip it but he said no. The text is as follows:

Once a man was angry at his wife
He cut her up in small pieces
Made a stew of her
Then he telephoned to his friends
And asked them for a cocktail and stew party
They all came and had a good time

In my setting, the soprano repeated the word “party” several times, finally arriving on a high C while the wind players put down their instruments in favor of party blowers sounding in unison. How could I possibly think, when I composed this piece as an undergraduate student at Cornell, that these words would be heard by men who had committed murder? I knew from reading articles online that one of my students had, in fact, cut up the body of his victim.

When the movement finished, Gherald said, “Julia, we need to talk.”
“I didn’t write the words!” I cried hastily.

Gherald laughed. “Oh O.K., we’re cool,” he said. “I was worried about you for a second there.” I would like to note that Gherald, along with about half of my students, was not incarcerated for murder.

While the inmates listened to my music, I felt more uncomfortable than I had during my entire time teaching in prison. I felt exposed, not because they knew my full name or because I was a woman wearing oversized clothing in order to hide my form. There was no hiding behind my music. I wanted to teach at Auburn because I wanted to know if and how contemporary classical music could be accessible to an outcast population who had never been exposed to it before. My students had proven to me that they could appreciate a wide variety of music. They could read themselves into a myriad of compositions, ranging in style, cultural origin, and time period. It did not matter how distant a piece seemed to be from their daily lives; they could engage emotionally and intellectually. Would my music make the same connection? Would it engage them, move them, compel them to share their experiences? Would they see themselves reflected in my work? Was my music strong enough to outstrip my own identity and reach others whose experiences were vastly different from my own?

My piece ended and fear bubbled inside of me. They clapped, as they always did, and then waited for me to speak. Panic spread throughout my body. I suddenly found myself asking the question that I had been afraid to ask all semester: “Does this music mean anything to you?”

I stared at my students, waiting for someone to speak. I looked at them as they had so often looked at me, hoping for answers. When no one said anything, I stammered on. I found myself confessing a deep fear: “Sometimes, when I write, I wonder if it means anything. I mean, what is the point? Does my music do anything? So few people listen to classical music and sometimes I wonder if it’s selfish to try to be an artist. What are you giving to society, especially when most of society doesn’t even listen to classical music? I guess what I’m asking is,” I took a deep breath, “is anything that I write relevant to you and your experiences?”
There was silence. Then Gherald spoke. His voice was calm.

“As long as you write from a place of love, other people will love it too. When I hear your music, I can tell that you love what you do. I can sense how much joy it brings you to create, to express yourself, and that makes me feel good. That brings me joy. All you can do is write the music that you love.”

I was stunned. No one had ever said this to me, or at least not in this way. Gherald’s advice was so simple to understand yet so difficult to follow: write the music that you love. It took hearing it from a man who lives in prison—who has to work every day to find a sense of peace and happiness in a cold, dehumanized environment—for me to really understand. Gherald taught me that passion for the creative process, dedication to one’s craft, and a yearning to communicate is what makes an artist. To write from a place of love is to have a vision, to imagine a reality and bring that world to life. It means quieting the voices in your head, voices of doubt, distractions, even the voices of other composers. It means concentrating on one idea, focusing, yearning, inventing, analyzing. The act of artistic creation is a form of unconditional love. It requires complete devotion in spite of its flaws. You must believe in your own work to the point that you are compelled to create it and need to convince others of its existence.

Even if it seems that no one is listening, you have to keep going. I think Gherald understood this. From what I saw of Gherald, I believe that he had come to terms with his own imprisonment. He had about him an air of serenity and deep spirituality. His eyes were always wide and full of life. He was powerfully built but possessed a gentle demeanor. He was not the best student, but I knew he was intelligent. What struck me most was that Gherald seemed the most capable of living freely in the midst of incarceration. He seemed free. Perhaps Gherald had a vision too, a vision of his world and his place in it, that put him at ease.
All of my students touched me in a way that I will never forget. Even if I did not mention everyone’s names, each individual made a significant impact on me. I know that Stuart and Claire were changed, too. Since our experience together at Auburn Correctional Facility, Stuart has dedicated himself to researching education systems in prison. As a doctoral student at Yale, Stuart co-authored “Who needs music? Toward an Overview of Music Programs in U.S. Juvenile Facilities,” “Expressing the Self: Critical Reflections on Choral Singing and Human Rights in Prison,” and a forthcoming book with Mary Cohen entitled Behind Different Walls: Restorative and Transformative Justice and Their Relationship to Music Education.

For Claire, teaching at Auburn Correctional Facility affirmed the power of education. Claire now teaches at a public elementary school in Los Angeles. In our class, Claire helped the inmates with the least educational experience. She imagines that they struggled to learn as children and did not advance far in their schooling. These men reminded Claire of the importance of primary education, of starting children off on the right footing. Her strongest memory of Auburn is when Gherald told her that she would make a great teacher and that she should pursue her dreams.

When I asked Stuart what impacted him the most, he recalled his last conversation with Shane, shortly after performing Shane’s composition for the class. Shane told Stuart: “For the first time in my life, I feel like a human being.” Hearing his music, his internal melodies, sound through the classroom and shared with his colleagues, made Shane feel heard and understood.
Saying goodbye was hard, even though the inmates all smiled at us as we collected the books. I noticed that Gherald had written on the first page of my composition, which had the printed title He Disappeared into Complete Silence. Around the word “He,” Gherald had scrawled a “T” and a “y” so that the title now read They Disappeared into Complete Silence. I looked at him, and my sadness must have shown on my face.

“Don’t you worry about me, Julia!” Gherald laughed. “I’ll be fine.”
I smiled and said, “Being here has made such an impact on me. This is an experience I will always remember.”
“Good,” he said. “We won’t be forgotten.”

In times of doubt, I return to Gherald’s advice again and again. He has no idea how much his words have stayed with me. I try to remember that all I can do is strive to express myself through my work, to trust my artistic and human instincts, and to believe that if I dig deep and share my interior world that it will reflect the worlds of others. Our lives are not so different. Art frees us from the chains of our individual identities and connects us to something greater—our shared humanity.