Tag: career path

Different Cities Different Voices – Boston

Landscape of downtown Boston

For our latest edition of Different Cities Different Voices, a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators, we are putting the spotlight on Boston. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

  • This Small Town-Big City has more arts and culture nonprofits per capita than New York City. More than 1,500 orgs ranging from the niche and widely varied to storied and well endowed

    Ashleigh Gordon (photo by Daniel Callahan)
    Ashleigh Gordon
  • On the contemporary front alone, we are home to over 40 ensembles with a mission that specifically includes new music!

    Oliver Caplan
    Oliver Caplan
  • I haven't been a part of any other community to compare it to, and I don't really feel the need. It's a collegial community, and so many of us perform together in various different ensembles. There's always someone you know on the gig. It's almost like one big shifting ensemble.

    Aliana_de_la_Guardia
    Aliana De La Guardia
  • I find that Boston’s artistic community encourages the experimentation, research-based practice, and site-specific work that I have been drawn to.

    Neil Leonard
    Neil Leonard
  • Because Boston is, in some ways, a huge college town, there is a constantly changing flow of creatives running through its neighborhoods.

    Madison Simpson
    Madison Simpson
Ashleigh Gordon surrounded by trees.

Ashleigh Gordon (photo by Daniel Callahan)

Ashleigh Gordon

I came to Boston in 2006, doe-eyed, impressionable, and excited to start my Masters in Viola at the New England Conservatory. While I was initially attracted to the city’s quaint charm, its throughline to key people, places, and moments in history have kept me here so long. There’s no shortage of museums to get lost in, stories to recount, and histories to explore and draw inspiration from. Plenty to feed my curiosity (which is a happy coincidence as it also feeds my creativity as a performer and artistic director).

Boston also introduced me to my good friend, NEC classmate, and composer/social justice artist Anthony R. Green. As two Black, twenty-somethings interested in new music/chamber music — and who just so happened to be alphabetical neighbors come graduation time — our paths were destined to cross. With an abundance of youthful energy, collective passion, and mutual interest in exploring culture and history, we created Castle of our Skins, a concert and education series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry. A decade later, I still get to feed my curiosity and explore culture as the organization’s Artistic/Executive Director and violist.

This Small Town-Big City has more arts and culture nonprofits per capita than New York City. More than 1,500 orgs ranging from the niche and widely varied to storied and well endowed. There’s seemingly a group for just about anything and an audience to follow it. While saturated to the point of being overcrowded (especially as it relates to dollars…), Boston has a way of making room for new ideas and voices, something Anthony and I were fortunate for ten years ago when we had an idea. You can hear one of those new ideas and up-and-coming voices below.

Like in any long-term relationship, Boston and I have had plenty of “love-to-hate” you moments over the nearly two decades of knowing each other! But Boston came through to support its creative workers over these pandemic years and continues to do so. While an arduous time filled with great uncertainty and responsibility as a non-profit leader, it also proved to be a creativity-inducing period filled with experimentation, due in no small part to the support I received from Boston and beyond. It still makes space for the interesting and new while keeping its sense of history – the good, bad, and complicated – in the forefront.

Music tracks
Anthony R. Green: On Top of a Frosted Hill
performed by Ashleigh Gordon (viola) and Joy Cline Phinney (piano)

Nebulous String Quartet featuring Kely Pinheiro: Berklee Two Track I Gratitude


Oliver Caplan

An outside photo of a group of musicians with various instruments with composer Oliver Caplan standing in the middle.

Oliver Caplan (standing in the center) with the musicians of Juventas.

I moved to Boston in 2004 for my graduate studies at the Boston Conservatory. Immediately, I fell in love with the city’s sense of place, a dynamic convergence of old and new. This is mirrored in Boston’s vibrant music scene, which is known for its unique strengths in both early and contemporary music. I suspect that Boston has the most classical music per capita of any U.S. city (using “classical” in the broadest sense of the word). On the contemporary front alone, we are home to over 40 ensembles with a mission that specifically includes new music!

Navigating Juventas through the pandemic has been challenging, but also thrilling. Our ensemble members share a deep conviction that it is essential to keep making music to help our community cope through this difficult time. In March 2020, during the initial lockdown, we quickly launched “Stay Home with Juventas,” a weekly solo concert, live-streamed from musicians’ homes. Most of us had never live-streamed anything before. Later that spring, in June 2020, we were one of the first ensembles in the world to reunite musicians in the same room for a live-streamed chamber concert. Our 2020-21 season was entirely virtual, broadcast from a recording studio in Boston, with CD quality audio and high definition video feeds from six cameras. Even though it was super scary, we kept the performances 100% live to maintain the special thrill and audience connection of live performance. While constantly adapting, we found silver linings. One of our live-stream concerts was viewed by over 7,000 people, an audience that was previously unimaginable for our small organization. In June 2021, eager to welcome back an in-person audience, we designed “Music in Bloom,” an outdoor performance experience at the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill. Over 1,000 people joined us in-person for a program of contemporary music by composers that are not broadly known to the general populace. We are bringing “Music in Bloom” back for a third year in 2023. Behind these successes has been an incredible amount of un-glamorous grunt work by our team. There was a point in the pandemic when we had trouble finding a space that would let us in to rehearse. We ended up rehearsing in an unheated church, musicians bundled up in long underwear, our pianist Julia working on an extremely out-of-tune piano. This is how much everyone cared.

With my own composing, one of the deepest disappointments was the necessary postponement of a 2020 program of my choral music, a special collaboration between Juventas and the New Hampshire Master Chorale. I had just finished several new works for the occasion and found myself waiting years to hear them. But I funneled my energy into recording a new album, Watershed, with chamber music inspired by favorite walks in nature. And that choral concert is now finally happening this fall, October 29, at Tuft’s Granoff Music Center in Medford, MA; and October 30 at the Colonial Theater in Laconia, NH!

My first work sample is a live performance of Watershed, Movement II “Calm,” the title work on my new album. I wrote this piece during the pandemic as an homage to the Mystic River, a place where I find solace and inspiration.

Nick Southwick, flute
Wolcott Humphrey, clarinet
Anne Howarth, horn
Minjin Chung, cello
Julia Scott Carey, piano

My second offering is an excerpt of Michael Gandolfi’s Line Drawings, performed live by Juventas in September 2019. Michael is a backbone of the Boston music scene, and one of my very favorite composers.

Wolcott Humphrey, clarinet
Olga Patramanska-Bell, violin
Julia Carey, piano


Aliana de la Guardia

Aliana de la Guardia

Aliana De La Guardia

Boston and I chose each other. I went there for school and that’s where my closest collaborations formed. It was the exact right place for me during my young adulthood and I received the kind of mentorship I needed to become who I am as an artist. I live outside the city now, but still consider myself a Boston-based artist. I return there often to present and perform new work.

Boston is my community, so of course I’m going to be partial. I haven’t been a part of any other community to compare it to, and I don’t really feel the need. It’s a collegial community, and so many of us perform together in various different ensembles. There’s always someone you know on the gig. It’s almost like one big shifting ensemble.

For Guerilla Opera, the pandemic was problematic, but we were inventive in our own way. We’re not the type of group that presents aria concerts or song recitals. Everything is about new and experimental work development and driving those works toward a fully designed, fully theatrical performance. So we experimented with works that were smaller in scale, with one two and three performers total. We experimented with film and video projects. We re-ran past productions and introduced a whole body of repertoire to new audiences. We experimented with online programming, including a performance series, streaming programs pairing short works together, virtual meet-ups, creative workshops for artists, and we were quite busy. Every month we had at least one event to bring our community together, and that is what it was really about for us -bringing the community together.

Music Recommendations:

Scene 1 from Marti Epstein’s Rumpelstiltskin (Guerilla Opera’s January 2022 Release)

Hannah Selin: Mid-Day featuring soprano Stephanie Lamprea


Neil Leonard playing a saxophone.

Neil Leonard

Neil Leonard

I came to Boston to study at New England Conservatory.  But my journey to Boston opened so many new doors for me.  While I love the saxophone and actively play solo and ensemble concerts, my first job out of school was at an art school.  While working in the computer arts lab at Massachusetts College of Art, I became involved in transdisciplinary art, and the early development of electronic music education in the age affordable computers. Being at an art college led to me creating music for multimedia collaborations with Tony Oursler, Magdalena Campos, and Sam Durant. I produced a concert by George Lewis and participated in studio visits with John Cage. At the same time, I spent weekend nights at Wally’s Cafe in Roxbury, where I played with Greg Osby, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Terence Blanchard. Within a few years, I developed a practice as a transdisciplinary artist, and it was my work in electronic music and multimedia installation that brought me to Berklee College of Music, where I have been a professor for 30 years, and the Artistic Director of the Berklee Interdisciplinary Art Institute.

Boston is home to a unique community of musicians, artists, curators and researchers, who come from all over the world, to work in colleges and universities in the area. A steady flow of fantastic guest lecturers and artists provides me with the opportunity to experience new art works and talk with compelling creators constantly.  Through collaborations from Boston I have worked in more than a dozen countries around the world, where I have played saxophone, composed music, and presented interdisciplinary work.  Recently, Fujiko Nakaya, a Japanese artist known for her fog sculptures, and member of the influential Experiments in Art and Technology group, heard my concert Sounding the Cloud with Scanner and Steven Vitiello, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. She asked me to make the quadraphonic sound composition Lavender Ruins, for her 12-week, outdoor fog sculpture, at the ruins of Frederic Law Olmstead’s athletic pavilion where Duke Ellington gave annual free concerts. Right before the pandemic, Williams College Museum of Art invited me to create Sonance for the Precession, a sound installation that was situated on top of Hopkins Observatory, the nation’s oldest extant observatory, and provided a context to reflect on how Hindu and Greek theories of astronomy and acoustics developed through intercultural exchange. I find that Boston’s artistic community encourages the experimentation, research-based practice, and site-specific work that I have been drawn to.

Some of the best young artists in the world come to develop their practice here, particularly those interested in contemporary music and art. I enjoy helping students, contributing to this critical stage of their growth and having them become colleagues after they leave. About twelve years ago, Berklee asked me to be the founding artistic director the college’s Interdisciplinary Arts Institute. Last fall, my students performed with the Harvard New Music. Later the same semester, my students collaborated in premiering original works made in collaboration with students at MIT’s Opera of the Future lab. The same semester, Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education visited our seminar and observed a student performance. Boston has been an excellent location for helping students learn to build cultural connections between artists from diverse communities and artistic backgrounds.

The post-Covid era presents a unique opportunity for work within the arts that can support local, national and global healing. My professional practice began with the intention of collaborating with artists from around the world, and across all artistic practices. Boston is a good base to pursue this work and involve young people in process of celebrating our shared humanity through the arts.

Here’s a recording of the recent sound installation of mine at Williams College that I mentioned…

Dave Bryant: “Lime Pickle” from Night Visitors


Madison Simpson

Madison Simpson

Madison Simpson

Boston holds a lot of history for me – I was born here, and spent most of my childhood driving back and forth from New Hampshire visiting extended family. During my teenage years, I saw many concerts in Boston, and when it was time to pick a college I looked primarily in and around the city. Although I initially moved back to Boston for school and expected to move elsewhere after I completed my degree, the incredible DIY music scene here is what has made me stay.

Because Boston is, in some ways, a huge college town, there is a constantly changing flow of creatives running through its neighborhoods. My friends and I joke about the “Allston to Brooklyn pipeline”, as many of our musical collaborators have moved from the popular Boston artist’s neighborhood to NYC postgrad. However, even with these constant changeovers, there is an incredibly strong group of people dedicated to making Boston’s music and art scene great. We have independent record labels such as Disposable America, art and culture publications like Boston Hassle and Allston Pudding, and a thriving house show scene that encompasses mostly the Allston/Brighton neighborhoods but extends into Jamaica Plain and Dorchester. I’ve been very fortunate to have toured now along the east coast, out into the Midwest, and along the coast of California, and I can confidently say that Boston has one of the strongest DIY scenes in the country. I believe so deeply in this community and I’m so excited to continue to watch it grow post-pandemic.

I’m very lucky to be in two amazing bands: Sweet Petunia, my folk duo with collaborator Mairead Guy, and a rock band called Winkler. Both bands have seen great success in the DIY scene, and I’ve met many amazing people through each that I’m so happy to call my friends. With Sweet Petunia, one challenge has been carving out a space in a community that is mostly indie rock-centric. Amazingly, though, we have met a lot of people who have taken a chance on us and therefore we’ve played some really interesting, genre-diverse bills over the years. During Covid, both of my bands had members move back home to be with family, and therefore another one of the biggest challenges we faced was continuing to write and collaborate with each other long distance. The third largest problem that we have currently in Boston is a lack of small, traditional venues. With the closing of Great Scott during Covid, we lost one of the most important small venues our city had to offer. Although there are many DIY venues to play, options above that for a band that has begun to grow in following are slim. That has begun to change, though, due to the efforts of promoters like Once and Alex Pickert of Get to the Gig Boston. I believe with time we will continue to grow this aspect of our community! I’m excited to continue to live and work in Boston and to see how our DIY community continues to strengthen.

A track featuring me: “Early Morning Blues” by Sweet Petunia

A track from a local favorite: “Villain of my Mind” by Clay Aching

Is Passion a Young Person’s Game?

A desk with scattered papers, compositions, and a computer
Look, you get older. Passion is a young man’s game. Young people can be passionate. Older people gotta be more wise. I mean, you’re around awhile, you leave certain things to the young. Don’t try to act like you’re young. You could really hurt yourself.—Bob Dylan, interview with Robert Love, AARP Magazine, February/March 2015

 

A French artist related that, in his 30s, a gallery owner told him that if he didn’t succeed as an artist by the age of 40 that he wouldn’t make it at all. He responded angrily, saying that age shouldn’t matter. “If the art is good, it’s good . . . [but] I see now that she was right,” he said matter-of-factly over a coffee in Marseille. Now in his 50s, in spite of a great deal of good work behind him, he spends his days playing boule in public lots with retired men while sipping pastis.

In the article “Blocked” by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker (June 14, 2004), Elizabeth Hardwick, a denizen of the writing world in the late 1950s, is quoted as saying: “I don’t think getting older is good for the creative process. Writing is so hard. It’s the only time in your life when you have to think.” Acocella cites author John Updike who speculates on Herman Melville’s diminished output after turning 32: “. . . basically Melville exhausted his artistic capital—his seafaring years—in ‘Typee,’ ‘Omoo,’ and ‘Moby-Dick.’ If, after those books, he wrote a couple of mediocre novels and then gave up the trade, it is no surprise.”

So, as one ages, how does one continue to “follow one’s bliss?” If it’s not passion in the 50+ age category (and, in my mind, that’s debatable) what is it that keeps us going in our work—especially if, like me and countless others, huge success hasn’t come knocking? Some days I feel like the only payoff I’ll ever have is the joy (not spoken ironically) of the daily habit of composing. Really, the important thing seems to be to work constantly and not worry about the end results; it’s best to invest your energy, enthusiasm, and—yes Bob—passion into your work.

Composer Kevin Volans, in his oft-quoted and discussed address “If You Need An Audience, We Don’t Need You,” [The Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland, June 15, 2016] states:

At least 95% of all composers get better with age. A very small minority get worse, but this is usually because of illness: . . . Yet there is more and more emphasis on and support for so-called ‘emerging composers’ —most of whom, I am sad to say, are left on the scrap heap when they turn 40. . . . I have had desperate letters from composers just over 40, who have won international competitions, and whose careers have suddenly come to a halt. Because they are no longer emerging, they are of no interest. The composers are bewildered and bereft. I think this is morally wrong. . . . Emerging, who cares? Publicists.

Daniel Grant relates the story of a gallery owner who shared that “age tends to be an issue for certain kinds of collectors and, as such, is an issue for dealers.” [The Huffington Post: “Is There an Age Limit for ‘Emerging Artists’?” August 25, 2010, updated May 25, 2011], He noted that he sees “collectors’ body language shift when they learn that [an] artist is older. . . . Certainly, one might make the argument that lengthy experience deepens one’s technical and conceptual abilities.”

Our craft takes time to mature and develop. It’s true that some great art comes out of younger artists, but sometimes it needs time. One need go no further than Stravinsky to make a case in point. His early ballet music is some of my favorite—and he was finished with those works by the age of 32. Still, I’ve always admired the fact that, as he grew older, he continued to experiment and transform as a composer. A more extreme example of the brilliance of the young is W.A. Mozart, who never did grow old (at least speaking in terms relative to our era). But, for many of us growing older, a continued concentration on craft places Malcolm Gladwell’s following statement within the realm of possibility: “. . . sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table” [October 13, 2008, “Late Bloomers,” The New Yorker].

Looking at an older generation of living composers as I write this, Alvin Lucier in his late 80s is still composing excellent and beautiful music. I was privileged to play one of three banjos (with ebows) on the premiere of his composition Hannover, with the Callithumpian Consort of the New England Conservatory four years ago. This year I released the premiere recording of a piece for solo banjo that I commissioned from Christian Wolff who is also in his 80s (Innova 005). John Zorn, in his 60s, still exhibits an originality and energy that I’ve always admired; the same holds true for Kaija Saariaho. And Augusta Read Thomas, now in her 50s, is still composing great and colorful music that’s as enthusiastically received as the music that brought her wide acclaim decades prior. But what about composers who were sensations in their 20s but then somehow disappeared from public discussion, even as their work continued. Was it a case of getting too old to be of interest to a youth-focused culture? Was a shift in body language detected in concert programmers when a name and age were mentioned?

But there are also composers in the aging category who don’t hold the legendary status of some of the above-mentioned composers who are finally finding well-deserved success combined with a craft that continues to develop. My Tennessee composer friend Jonathan McNair, who just turned 60, has been writing excellent music for years. His music is infused with wonderful musicianship honed with passion and heart. Some of his music is expressive of a large social consciousness. For years, he kept writing and teaching and now a number of musicians have discovered his music and are programming it. “I think I wrote more music in the 11-month period from May 2018-April 2019 than ever before in my life,” he wrote me. And he is confident and happy with the direction that his new compositions are going,

As a composer in his 60s, am I supposed to give up because the zeitgeist seems to favor younger composers and artists? Chances are great that many of us composers over 50 aren’t through yet. “We’re living longer than ever before,” writes Amy Gutman [“Aging is not death. Stop conflating the two,” The Washington Post, May 17, 2015.]. “In the 20th century, Americans gained a staggering 30 years of life expectancy, thanks to advances in nutrition, public health and medicine. A century ago, just 3 percent of our population was 65 or older. Today, that number is 13 percent and expected to rise to 20 percent in the next 15 years. In other words, by 2030, an estimated 1 in 5 of us will be 65 or older.”

I’ve never been bored by the subject of music; it’s been an endless pipeline of exciting ideas and discoveries. I learn a lot from looking at works by Beethoven that I don’t know. I hear for the first time events in works by Debussy or Ravel that I may have heard a thousand times, but never before noticed. That’s an advantage for me in aging—I’m a more intelligent listener; my ears are better and keep improving. And I try to stay abreast of works by younger composers. I don’t want to send my own writing in their stylistic directions, but I am interested in the transformation of our art form. As an older composer, I am set on my own path, but I want to maintain an awareness, if not open-mindedness, of what is going on around me. At least I can point my students toward composers closer to their peer group to keep an eye on.

I don’t believe that I’ll run out of material or passion if I can at least maintain my health and attitude. I’m happy to have a catalog of works good and bad that developed over several decades. For the most part I believe that I’ve gotten better as one should with practice. The daily habit is what sustains me psychologically—anything beyond that in terms of performances or royalties may just be icing on the cake.

The musician/polymath Nicholas Slonimsky interviewed by NPR on the occasion of his 90th birthday was asked what he intended to do next. He listed numerous activities including composing and writing an autobiography, eventually titled Perfect Pitch, and published in 1988 when he was 94. He, in fact, lived to be 101. Elliott Carter kept writing music up until the year he died at the age of 103.

Is passion really a young person’s game? I find myself drawn to certain quotidian habits born of a passion fostered in my 20s: composing (esp. when I don’t feel like it), practicing, and teaching. I think back to images of the young Bob Dylan in the D.A. Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back. While on tour, during the day, Dylan and his entourage are killing time in a hotel room; it’s an energetic scene: Joan Baez plays and sings in the corner, the manager Albert Grossman simply sits or fields calls, and Dylan is slamming out some sort of (I imagine) stream of conscious narrative on his typewriter. At this time, he was indefatigable and passionate with his writing and composing; performing constantly until his motorcycle accident in 1966.

I think that viability as a creative artist is self-defined regardless of age. We can’t believe an art dealer or concert promoter if they tell us we are washed up at 40. Some of us dive in early in our careers with that youthful passion that causes us to work every day. Dylan, now 77, never seems to have wavered in passion and song production over the past 60 years. And if it’s not passion, then it must be habit born of passion that continues his productivity. And as for me, I see no reason to quit stumbling to the drafting table every day; I still have ideas, and a desire to improve my work. It’s not the posterity of a large body of work that I’m trying to create, but the continued self-defined worth of an artist who still wants to compose and collaborate with excellent musicians. Thankfully, it seems that there are more of those now than ever before. Do I stop composing because the LA Phil hasn’t contacted me for a commission? Hell, no.

Finding Myself in an Alternate Reality, or 12 months on Sand Hill Road

Two elevators

If you drive north from San Jose on I-280 towards San Francisco, you eventually pass the unassuming Exit 24 which takes you towards Sand Hill Road. Just past the Stanford Particle Acceleration Laboratory, Sand Hill Road is home to some of the most expensive corporate real estate in the world. (I was told a single 20×20 sq. ft. office in the same business park would rent for over $15,000 a month.) Here is the casino-laboratory where Silicon Valley’s unicorns are created: Apple, Uber, AirBnB, Lime Scooter. Some of the most ubiquitous names in our modern lexicon started on this road with funding.

During the process of my divorce, the assault trials, and the ensuing litigation which lasted approximately 20 months, I had decided for safety and financial reasons to move in with family in the Bay Area and had found a day job as a systems administrator for a local IT company. The job paid well enough that I was able to cover my bills, clear up some debt, and generally keep my head above water and start to save—something that I had never been able to do during my five-year-long partnership.

I was assigned to provide technical support three days a week to the largest and most successful venture firm in the business park. I was responsible for end-user support of computer and tablet devices used by some of the most elite of Silicon Valley’s elite.

In the beginning, I hated this world. It was everything I had grown to despise about Silicon Valley and the Bay Area: wealth in excess of anything one could possibly spend in a lifetime, a complete lack of creativity in my tasks, a boring routine, a lousy commute, and people who, on good days, were simply unpleasant, and on bad days were downright rude. Plus it had no connection to the arts and for the first time in my life I truly felt completely disconnected from my field and craft.

I hated this world until someone in my family reminded me of several things:

  1. Nothing is permanent, including this job.
  2. You are taking care of what you need to do so you can live the life you want to.
  3. Try to learn something from this job. You never know what might help you in the future.

So I opened up my mind to try to learn.

I took away three things from this place that would become incredibly important to moving my music career forward.

I knew I would never want to be a financial analyst or investor within about 30 seconds of working there, and that feeling continued. However, I did take away three things from this place that would become incredibly important to moving my music career forward, as I learned in the coming months.

Something that had always eluded me in the pursuit of music as a career was how to sell myself and my work, and now here I was standing in an office the entire purpose of which was to watch people sell themselves and then decide whether to invest in them or not.

“Sales is sales,” an old boss used to say to me when I worked for an audio firm, “and art, or audio, is nothing but sales,” and I took that to heart.

Because of the nature of my job, I sometimes had to sit in pitch meetings and provide whatever technical assistance was needed, and I came to love watching these investors in meetings. It gave me the unique opportunity to see what technical critics used to refer to as the “Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field” and allowed me to learn three valuable lessons:

Time (and Money) is Limited

Even in the world of Silicon Valley business where it seems money is endless, the reality is that time and money are in short supply. I noticed that these fund managers only invested in products or projects that spoke to them on some level. I decided to do the same, by only accepting commissions and only pursuing personal projects that I felt a true connection to in some way.

How to Construct an Elevator Pitch

I had the experience of chatting with a major investor for a few minutes. He had taken a liking to me, and we were chatting about what my life was like outside of my day job. He asked me what I did outside of work, and I had mentioned that I had gone to conservatory. Knowing this person had an interest in the Bay Area arts scene, I was hoping to chat about this for a time. Instead, he looked bored and changed the topic. It was another reminder to me how I had lost passion in my own work, and it showed. I decided to learn all I could about pitching and marketing my own work. If I didn’t believe in it myself, or show passion about what I had created, no one else would.

Passion is More Important

Time after time, I saw these products come in that (in my opinion) were not something I could see anyone in their right mind paying for, but the passion that these engineers, developers, and CEO’s brought to the table was what eventually caused the firm to, if not invest outright, advance them to the next round of decision making. It was the passion that got them continued meetings with higher and higher level employees.

My parents had hoped that by living surrounded by family I would be able to get more work done. What they believed I had come to Silicon Valley to do, make art, was not to be, but what I learned from what Silicon Valley does best—innovate—affected my work Sonetos del amor oscuro beyond what I had thought was possible.

This project, originally started after the mass shooting at Pulse, became an obsession for me. Creating something that I was passionate about was the breathing room I needed outside of my day job. By day I fixed tablet computers and by night I buried myself in this work. Building on what I had learned in my previous work Remember the Things They Told Us, I again wrote from the heart. I relied exclusively on craft and intuition without attempting to devise contrapuntal contraptions or other gimmicks to create some heady work of art as I used to do.

I lived the text that García Lorca had set down on those pages. I soaked them up, and it was in those words that I could come to terms with myself as queer. Though I had come out at the age of 22, I had not truly admitted it to myself until I began to devour this work. I always had this belief that I was more than my queer-ness and in order to fulfill that, I had always attempted to avoid trying to come off as “too queer” (whatever that meant) in my writing. The effect, however, was more like cutting my writing off at the knees. To quote the great Bill Watterson, it was almost as though I was saying to myself “you need a lobotomy, I’ll get the saw.”

Hearing this work performed live became extremely important for me because hearing the work live meant that for the first time, I would publicly acknowledge an aspect of myself that I never felt previously was important or relevant, but had come to understand in rediscovering myself that it was more integral to who I am as a composer than I realized. A recent trip to South Asia had also reminded me that it is not necessarily normal in the world to not go unpunished (if not be validated) as a queer artistic voice, and conversations with other queer friends in Mexico City reminded me that most Latinos, especially queer Latinos, do not even have a platform to bear witness in this way.

When I approached the Great Noise Ensemble with a concept recording and a partial score, Armando Bayolo graciously agreed to do the work on their “Four Freedoms” series, a series of four concerts each of which recalled one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Essential Freedoms”: freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Freedom of Expression was truly the epitome of what this work meant to me, and would begin to drive a need for me to become more of an activist citizen-artist then I had ever been before.

The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as Musical Leaders for the 21st Century

Photo credit: Steve Phillip

Our society has become increasingly characterized by its “gig economies”—short-term work, often defined by the worker herself. Recent studies have predicted the gig economy will represent 43% of the workforce by 2020, and the number will only rise. With the gig economy comes any number of difficulties, as modern workers are often compelled to be entrepreneurs, self-starters, self-motivators, and creators.

Conductors are no different. Indeed, they are well-positioned to take advantage of this new economic order, and many are already doing so, with outstanding results.

In addition to their traditional duties within established institutions, an increasing number of conductors run independent organizations, launch musical and civic initiatives, serve as catalysts for the development of new work, and use their positions to cross disciplinary boundaries. In bypassing institutional gatekeepers, these conductors have brought relevance, vitality, and an expanding number of previously unrepresented voices into the field. Indeed, the dynamic new “catalyst-conductor” could help bring the revitalization that the classical music industry so desperately seeks.

Conductors as musical leaders

The traditional role of the conductor was sharply delineated. A conductor would join a well-established institution, choose repertoire, maintain a musical vision, and lead other musicians in performance. Secondary expectations included some direct interaction with donors and audience, and marginal involvement in certain fundraising and marketing campaigns. The traditional Maestro arrived to rehearsal or performance with all logistics in place, all administrative details carried out, and focused solely on the interpretation of the repertoire he was to perform. Most of his time outside of rehearsal was devoted to score study. In his youth, the Maestro was likely an instrumentalist or composer. He attended a graduate study program and eventually found himself an apprenticeship with a more established conductor, under whom he served as an assistant before moving to an ensemble of his own.

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Many of my colleagues have thrived by following this focused route—studying standard repertory at a graduate program, attending a couple of prestigious festivals, serving as an assistant for a major professional orchestra, and then, following years of apprenticeship, winning a music directorship at an institution of their own. Some of these individuals now make great impact and bring creative programming to their newly found communities.

But while this path has become progressively more rare, other routes have emerged. In my early career, I embarked on a very different journey—one that has wholly shaped my music making today. Following college and graduate work, I was not apprenticed to a major musical institution. I never found an apprentice-based assistantship particularly attractive, but many traditional opportunities also simply did not exist for me. I was 23 years old, in Boston, surrounded by other young people, and wanting to create art. So that is what we did. I spent the first decade of my career running a new music ensemble and several small opera companies, in a cobbled-together career that involved conducting everything—from the largest standard works to tiny chamber music pieces of niche repertoire, from youth orchestras to professional choruses and community opera organizations. I performed with every small-budget musical collective around, while occasionally assisting at more established institutions. In my early years I never said “no” to a gig—if they wanted to see La serva padrona in a local ashram, I would conduct the opera barefoot to audiences who were sitting on the floor and sipping chai. If they asked me to put together a full-scale production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades in a university dining hall, there I was, moving solid oak tables onto a Harvard lawn. I was fortunate to be in a vibrant city, surrounded by other artists of the highest caliber, learning by doing.

For me, this entrepreneurial, gig-economy approach was the perfect way to hone my craft and launch a career. At the small-budget organizations I led, I was involved not only in the musical and programming activities but also oversaw marketing, fundraising, production, and other areas. I learned about all aspects of administration, moved percussion instruments, built opera sets, recruited board members, folded solicitation letters, and created budgetary spreadsheets. It was an insanely packed life that was only possible to sustain for a limited period. Throughout most of my 20s, my peak score study hours were 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., after the rehearsals and meetings were complete, emails were answered, and I could have a solid chunk of time without interruption.

Most of my teachers and mentors scolded my failure to specialize and discouraged my involvement in running organizations, launching initiatives, and collaborating with people outside of my field. They saw this as a waste of time that deterred from the development of a niche skillset. But what those teachers failed to grasp was the intrinsic value of a multi-disciplinary approach to life. My chamber music experience now informs my approach to even the most large-scale symphonic and operatic works. My administrative and production experience has shaped both my leadership style and my artistic ideas, giving me a more holistic view of my work.

And I am hardly alone. At the time, I was unaware of the countless other conductors following the same multi-faceted, entrepreneurial path. This new norm is one we should embrace and encourage, as it contains potential solutions to some of the issues facing classical music today.

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit

Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit
IMAGE: Kathy Wittman

Development of the Catalyst-Conductor

The change in the conductor’s role has not been sudden—it has developed gradually over the last few decades. The first developments stemmed from conductors’ more traditional responsibility of seeking and promoting the work of the composers of their time. In the middle of the 20th century, as the contemporary music movement largely moved out of mainstream concert settings, this role became more vital than ever before and the catalyst-conductor emerged. In my mind, the definitive originator for this change was Pierre Boulez. As a composer-conductor, Boulez had a personal stake in recognizing and supporting contemporary work. As an exceptional musician and tireless advocate, he used his position to move the field forward, founding as many as five large-scale institutions of the highest level, four of which continue to thrive today. Those organizations—IRCAM, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Cité de la Musique, and the Lucerne Festival Academy—have served as central development and training grounds for European music. I find especially impressive Boulez’s founding of these organizations after he was well into an international conducting career. Even amid an incredibly full agenda as conductor and composer, Boulez took responsibility for opening doors to his contemporaries and creating opportunities for the most innovative music making of his time. His tireless dedication to music, above all else—both in terms of his contributions to the field and his own fastidious artistry—should serve as a model for all in our industry. If the music wasn’t being performed in a traditional institution, he created his own space.

Boulez demonstrated that a conductor could use his position, broad musical expertise, and management experience to serve as an influencer and founder of necessary and critical initiatives. Countless conductors and composer-conductors have since launched exciting new music organizations of various bents (some American examples include Tania León/Composers Now, Brad Lubman/Ensemble Signal, Alan Pierson/Alarm Will Sound, Gil Rose/BMOP, and David Bloom/Contemporaneous). In Britain, a group of conductors used the same method to promote Early and Baroque repertoire, founding the influential Historically Informed Performance, or HIP, movement (John Eliot Gardiner, Andrew Parrott, Christopher Hogwood, and others).

In more recent years, an increasing number of conductors have used a similar approach in mobilizing civic change. Large institutions play a critical role in preserving tradition and providing the building blocks necessary for high-level, large-scale performance. As the public faces of these institutions, conductors are well-positioned to serve as advocates, both within our field and for non-musical causes. However, the traditional organizations we represent rely on support from foundations and individuals representing a broad political and civic spectrum, so there is always a fear that, if a “political” or “social justice” position is taken, someone will feel alienated. Indeed, as an organizational leader, I recognize many limitations on what I can advocate within the confines of an existing institution without the risk of hurting our relationship with long-standing patrons and supporters. However, those same supporters, while wishing the institution to remain on neutral ground, generally have no issue with the conductor having separate projects that support a specific social agenda.

The most recognized example of a conductor-activist initiative is Daniel Barenboim’s long-standing work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded in 1999. The orchestra brings together Israeli musicians with Palestinian and other Arab musicians in an attempt to unite individuals torn by a deep political and ideological divide. The Chicago Sinfonietta, founded by Paul Freeman, has worked to address the lack of diversity within the orchestral world. There are also conductors like Kristo Kondakçi (whose work includes a chorus for homeless women) and Joseph Conyers (Philadelphia’s Project 440 and All City Youth Orchestra), who have dedicated the majority of their musical efforts to social causes. These individuals have used positions at big-name institutions to form outside projects that affect civic change. The institutions provide them with the necessary stamp of quality and legitimacy. But by working outside the institutions—and seeking music making in new venues, for new communities—these conductors are able to make a tremendous impact on society.

Bypassing the Gatekeepers

A major positive outcome of increased entrepreneurship among conductors has been the opportunity for those who may otherwise have been overlooked to gain recognition. While I eventually found musical opportunities in more established organizations, my early career was largely defined by my work in a never-ending array of smaller, dynamic organizations, which I was able to develop and grow. And again, I am hardly alone. For some conductors, when opportunities did not materialize, starting their own ensembles served as the ideal career launching pad. Sarah Caldwell raised money, directed, conducted, and produced countless performances with the Opera Company of Boston, at a time when women were almost entirely missing not only from the podium, but also from the orchestra and the administration. Marin Alsop credits much of her success to a decision early on to start her own ensemble, an experience that allowed her to gain the skills she needed to succeed. Nicole Paiement established her place in the opera field with San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle and Eve Queler with the Opera Orchestra of New York. Alondra de la Parra is another example, founding the Orchestra of the Americas, which served both to showcase overlooked Latin American repertoire and to hone and prove her abilities before she had other opportunities to do so.

Without an established authority’s stamp of approval, it is not possible to convince others to follow unless they truly believe in your work. A conductor who is unprepared, unmusical, uninspiring, rude, or unreliable will never be able to get away with these faults without a larger-looming prestige figure or institution behind them. Likewise, audiences will not tolerate anything short of a stellar product when the emblem of a major accrediting body is not on the performance. Early-career conductors who run their own organizations are forced to prove their excellence by making great art that earns respect of its own accord. They can then bring the enormous experience gained from this challenge to their positions at major institutions, further impacting the field in a positive direction.

By forming their own ensembles and bypassing the gatekeepers of the classical music world, conductors like Caldwell, Alsop, and Paiement put large cracks into some very thick glass ceilings. Other conductors have made strides in areas of equity and diversity by overseeing educational initiatives. Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony partners with the Sphinx Organization to train a diverse body of emerging professionals, Marin Alsop’s OrchKids gives high-level training opportunities to kids from the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, and her Taki Concordia Fellowship supports emerging women conductors. In each of these situations, major conductors have used their position and expertise to create independent organizations with the purpose of filling a void.

The Future of Conductorial Entrepreneurship

Contemporary culture is built on entrepreneurship. Start-ups have defined and reshaped our social, business, and creative models. However, the structures inherent within the classical music industry have often left our field trailing behind, scrambling to keep up with the intense pace of modern cultural change. In order for classical music to thrive and move forward, we must find more ways to encourage and support individuals who are taking the difficult path of forming, running, organizing, and creating performance groups for a new era. If fully supported and embraced, conductorial entrepreneurship can be a solid pathway to increased diversity and stronger artistic leadership within classical music.

Although traditional conductor-specialists have an important place and will continue to flourish, conductor-entrepreneurs can spearhead the next wave of classical music. As mobilizers and catalysts for change, conductors from diverse backgrounds—spanning cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender boundaries—can have an opportunity to make an impact on our field, even when initially halted by gate-keeping institutions. Those who embark on this path can foster creativity and collaboration, open doors that may otherwise remain closed, increase the number of voices represented, and ultimately move classical music toward a more viable future.

Playing My Hand: How I Learned to Trust My Composition Teacher

playing cards

Last week, I shared the story of my first year in graduate school as a composition major, and the many transitions I went through during that time, including discovering a new identity as a musician. This post is all about my second year of graduate school, and how I learned to trust my composition teacher and become a better teacher myself. But first: the summer!

I spent most of the summer between my first and second years alone, in the dorms, in my bathrobe, writing a song cycle and a band piece. I was broke, but I slept eight to ten hours a night with regularity. I walked on the beach of Lake Michigan on sunny days, visited family up north and friends in Chicago, took my time learning a lovely and very difficult vibraphone solo in order to premiere it, and watched a ton of movies with my wonderful and hilarious roommate (a fellow grad student in the music school). Overall it was a time of resting, and it went by really fast. I gained confidence in my ability to make it through this degree and graduate, all while still maintaining a professional career and applying to doctoral programs.

Being a student made me want to teach again more than anything I’ve ever wanted.

And yet, I wondered if my new composition teacher (my third teacher of the degree) would just try to make me sound like them, as a teacher during my first year had done. Being pushed to completely depart from my own voice had given me existential anxiety, and I was afraid I’d be asked to do that again, for my thesis. A few days before classes started, I happened across the professor who was supposed to be my main composition teacher for the year ahead, and he told me that he wasn’t taking on any new students and that I had been placed in another studio. When he told me who my new teacher would be, I was surprised and excited, and thought, “Great! I don’t really know him personally at all, but I do know based on his work that there are so many things I can learn from this man.” Taking the advice of a composer who had also gone back to school in her 30s, I registered and interviewed with the Accessibility Resources Center, to get time accommodations for the Theory Comprehensive Exams and discuss other possibly needed accommodations. I have a learning disability and mental illness, which is a great cocktail for extreme heartburn and anxiety during tests that determine whether I graduate or not, in subjects that are eye-bleedingly difficult for me. I figured having a history with the ARC would be helpful for my time in a doctoral program as well, where I will certainly be in several high-pressure test situations, and where I will encounter a lot of stress.

Once the school year started, I still played in band and percussion ensemble (but less), and I took conducting lessons on top of my very full class schedule, which included Digital Synthesis, Music History Seminar, a theory class, and lessons. I was busting my butt with college applications, I had a big trip to San Francisco coming up for a world premiere, doctoral applications were all due at the same time, I had a commission due, and I needed to keep knocking out my thesis. Four weeks into the semester, I got sick and disappeared for a week. I had to withdraw from History Seminar (it was the most stressful, busy-work class) for mental health reasons, which included filling out a bunch of papers.  The second semester was a breeze in comparison. My heart stopped cracking like a walnut every time I thought of teaching at my old college or heard from my students. I was ADJUSTING. My grad band staff comrades were lifesavers. We had an office all together: Percussion TA, Band Librarian, Conductor, Tech Guy, etc. We had a blast, partied together, and practiced together.

And I loved composition lessons with my new teacher. I was given some great advice from a mentor, which I kept in mind: “Keep your cards to your chest. Never let them see your whole hand.” I had plenty of practice doing this during my first year, so it was easy this time around.

There I was, age 38, second year of my master’s degree, finding out for the first time what it was like to have weekly lessons with a supportive, enthusiastic, encouraging teacher that I trusted.

Right from the beginning, I could tell my teacher and I would get along: he was a drummer too, and had been everywhere and done everything. He was one of these modest people, where you keep opening doors with them and a thousand more doors are behind those. He was very fun and funny, enthusiastic, full of ideas, and our lessons went until somebody had to leave—sometimes two hours. I checked out my hand, laid down a single card…and nothing bad happened. We kept working on music, and I decided to write a percussion trio for my thesis. I laid down another card, and asked if he would write recommendation letters for my college applications. He said yes, so I sent him my C.V. and he read it. Something new clicked; it was like suddenly he “got” the amount and variety of experience I had had in music so far. Finally! Someone took the time to get to know me and my history. So I started to trust the guy. He came up with lists of music for me to listen to and scores to read and pieces to try out or exercises to do. He saw my strengths and weaknesses and helped develop both, pushing me the appropriate amount if I needed pushing, helping me expand my sound universe. My thesis started to come together! He came to some rehearsals of the piece and was incredibly supportive at my graduate composition recital. My lessons were the highlight of the week, all year long. So there I was, age 38, second year of my master’s degree, finding out for the first time what it was like to have weekly lessons with a supportive, enthusiastic, encouraging teacher that I trusted.

Entering my master’s degree, it never crossed my mind that I would learn anything new about teaching. I had a good handle on being a teacher! It turns out there was still a lot to learn. Being back behind a student desk after eight years in front of the classroom was an eye-opener. I observed the hell out of each of my teachers. I understood everything the professors said from both a teacher’s perspective and from my own perspective as a student. The new percussion instructor became a friend, and I watched him handle the percussion studio extremely well, but in a very different way than I did when I was teaching. I had an analysis teacher who transformed material I was disinterested in into something incredibly interesting. Thinking back to when I was a teacher, I felt like this: a student’s enthusiasm is life, and a student’s apathy is death. So I did everything I could to create an atmosphere of challenging, joyful, fun learning. I knew a good teacher when I saw one. There were many here. There were also some who made the material, and the class, all about themselves. I gave unsolicited feedback to professors more than once, when I saw they were talking over the students and not listening to us. Perhaps this ruffled some feathers but I absolutely did not care, because I found out exactly how passionate I was about the joys of learning from a great teacher. It must be an enormous joy to watch a student’s music develop and blossom over time, and I discovered just how much I’d love to become someone’s composition teacher. Being a student made me want to teach again more than anything I’ve ever wanted.

Playing the Changes: The Transition from Professor to Student (My First Year as a Composition Major)

A photo taken of a person's legs in heans ad sneakers, holding a black backpack

Imagine you have a master’s degree in music performance from a long time ago and, alongside many exciting musical adventures since, you’ve taught at the college level for eight years (adjunct with full-time hours—you know the drill, you absolutely adore teaching and the students but the money is miserable). Looking at this situation, you … decide to quit teaching and go back to school across the country for a master’s degree in music composition!

It’s hard to imagine, right? You’d have to be completely bonkers to make that kind of a decision.

“I could never go back to school after teaching,” said many wonderful professors who used to be my colleagues.

So why did I do it?

Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, 2012

Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, 2012

I started writing music when I was 30, and by the age of 36, my composing career was soaring. I loved writing music just as much as I loved performing and teaching. I knew I would never be bumped up to full-time at my university, and even after eight years, my pay couldn’t go up because I only had a master’s degree. Despite working as a freelance percussionist, curating concerts, writing music, and teaching, I still was hardly making enough money to get by. I was wonderfully happy in the Atlanta music scene and had established amazing friendships there, especially with the members of my chamber rock band. I had developed a life there, but it was time to leave. I was ready to take a step down in order to take a step up. I had to do something to make a better and brighter future for myself. The goal was to earn a master’s in composition to get my skills up to par, and then continue on to a DMA in composition so I would have The Piece of Paper that would allow me to teach at a college again—at a higher salary level. It’s a completely risky endeavor with no guarantees, but it’s the choice I made. And I’m happy I did. I now hold a master’s degree in composition and will be starting a DMA in composition at the University of Miami next month. I’m looking forward to the journey, no matter where it takes me.

First, though, allow me to back up two years. There I was, beginning my first semester as a new student, living in the graduate dorms with roommates—two 21-year-old German exchange students, who were hilarious and noisy and wild. Right away I embraced everything about student life, and that part of college made me very happy. My classmates became my dear friends, even though most of my new friends were the age of the students I used to teach. I learned all the cool millennial slang words. I had FUN. I took free bus rides to Brewers games, ate tons of free pizza, played in percussion ensemble and band, taught part of an online music theory class, fixed bongos and organized the percussion studio, took classes in theory and analysis and writing, studied with two different composition faculty members, heard the University Band play one of my pieces, and wrote a ton of music—including my first piece with electronics in it. I was much more focused in my classes than I was during my first master’s degree; I wanted to soak up all the new knowledge and experience that I could. I remembered what it was like to be completely bored in class, and how invigorating it was to be in the classroom with an enthusiastic teacher who made the subject matter come alive.

UWM Band Rehearses Universe

UWM Band Rehearses …and then the Universe exploded

I juggled a professional composing career on top of everything. My assistantship was split in half; I was both a theory TA and the percussion TA. The percussion majors were kind to me from the very first day. They brought me right into the fold and never treated me like I was “old.” Everybody thought I was in my twenties, until I told them otherwise. They were fun, talented people, and playing music with them was a joy. The performance majors in general were absolutely delightful and played my music with enthusiasm. Some of these folks will be lifelong friends and musical collaborators.

So that’s some of the FUN STUFF, but here’s the kicker. The transition from professor to student, from mostly-performer to mostly-composer, from professional in my field to student in my field (while remaining a professional) was difficult and awkward that whole first year, and especially the first semester. Five months prior, my music professors would have been my colleagues. But once I started school, I would rarely be treated like a colleague again. A few of my professors took the time to talk with me early on, and learned about my background and treated me with respect, just as I treated them, and we have great relationships. I’m so thankful for them! But most professors saw that I played in band and assumed I was a new graduate percussion major. There was a lot of assuming.

My friends and mentors were lifesavers to me during this time. A few friends from Atlanta, who were passing through town at different times, came to visit me. I was recharging myself in Chicago once a month, taking composition lessons with one of my dearest friends and favorite composers. I brought him all the music I was writing professionally, outside of school. His joyful spirit and the fact that he loved my music really lifted me up. He introduced me to one of his composition students, who saved my sanity and became a very close friend. I wouldn’t have made it through that first year without the both of them.

I was accustomed to being loved, to being known and knowing others, in my old life. There was so much mutual admiration in the Atlanta music scene. I really tried to be graceful about existing in Milwaukee, a brand new space where most people didn’t know or care about my previous 15 years as a professional musician. “They’ll figure out I’m a pro percussionist by listening to me play,” I thought. “They’ll figure out I’m a legitimate composer once they hear my music.” Still, I confess that there were days when I wanted to wear a bright green t-shirt with flashing Christmas lights on it that said in red lettering I’M 37 AND I TAUGHT COLLEGE FOR EIGHT YEARS AND WAS CO-FOUNDER AND CO-DIRECTOR OF TWO CONTEMPORARY MUSIC FESTIVALS AMONG MANY OTHER ACCOMPLISHMENTS on the front and GO TO MY (SWEAR WORD) WEBSITE AND YOU’LL SEE MY MUSIC IS PERFORMED REGULARLY ALL OVER THE COUNTRY SO STOP TREATING ME LIKE I’M AN INEXPERIENCED 22 YEAR OLD on the back, but I didn’t. I felt incredibly childish about my inner reaction. I wanted to be cool about it, on the inside and the outside. Well-meaning friends said things to me like, “Your identity is no different. You’re just in a new environment.” Easy to say when you’re living in the same environment you’ve lived in for a decade or more. The truth is, the only other time I’ve had an identity shift that intense was when I got divorced. It was hard, and weird, and very isolating.

Yet there were so many good parts to the weirdness. After performing with only professionals for ages, I got to play in a college percussion ensemble again, which was wonderful fun and so much easier than directing a college percussion ensemble! All I had to do was learn my music and show up to rehearsal to play. In rehearsals, I learned to disengage (as best I could) from Teacher Mode. I instead just sat back and enjoyed playing music with my classmates. Since I knew I’d most likely only be in the city for two years, I chose not to get my feet wet in the Milwaukee music scene outside of school, but I met some area musicians who became friends. I desperately missed playing music with proper professionals, and that was difficult. I felt isolated from the performance faculty; I felt like they were my colleagues, but not many of them felt the same way. I learned to accept that I’d be playing less because I was composing more, and that I would probably lose some of my chops. I developed some extra long-term patience, figuring out that these two major transitions: professor to student, performer-composer to composer-performer, would take time. Thankfully I had another year of grad school ahead!

Jack of All Trades or Master of Them All? Cross-Genre Creative Gambling

Multiple streams

In the earliest days of my career, I was told to specialize. “Pick a genre,” they said. “Narrow down. You can’t do it all.”

I never did pick.

To date, my favorite thing that has ever been said about me was in an American Composers Forum profile. They wrote that I was “blowing a creative space for [myself] so big you could drive a truck through it,” which felt significant because it was the first time I felt like someone saw this an advantage, not something to be corrected. Back in the Renaissance, artists who were fluent in multiple mediums were admired, yet somewhere along the road that shifted to conversations about “defining your brand.” I spent a long time in college being told that my diverse interests were a result of indecision—a failing on my part, rather than a deliberate creative choice (which is what it always was).

Choosing to work across genres brings with it a unique set of challenges from a career development standpoint, yet it offers a far broader realm of possibilities from a creative one.

Several years down the line, however, I understand why I was warned against it, and feel obligated to any younger composers navigating the shallows of similar aesthetically open-minded waters to report back from further offshore. Choosing to work across genres brings with it a unique set of challenges from a career development standpoint, yet—in my opinion—it offers a far broader realm of possibilities from a creative one.

To get the cautionary side out of the way, everything that my teachers and industry mentors warned me of proved to be true several times over. It’s simply much harder to get multiple careers off the ground, for all of the reasons you might think. You are building two (or more) creative lives simultaneously when it is hard enough to build one. It takes twice the financial investment. Twice the time. The people in the various corners of these industries are different. There are different metrics for success, different methods of financing projects, and different approaches to press strategy.   It’s also hard to convince people early on that your vision is decisive. And there is a perpetual creative whiplash that happens when bouncing between projects. From an artistic perspective, it’s a commitment to becoming multilingual, since pop songs, film scores and concert works are very different art forms and learning to do them all well requires significant investment in honing one’s craft. If you are writing songs, you also have to learn to manipulate words and define your perspective as a writer of text, which is in itself a lifetime’s undertaking.

Yet on the flip side, having a breadth of skill sets makes you vastly more employable (that most lofty of artistic goals). Being able to wear a lot of hats (playing in theater pits, orchestrating, copying, taking on scoring projects and concert commissions, etc.) kept me working consistently early on, and I am certain that what some of my teachers deemed a lack of focus is actually responsible for having kept me afloat during those early years after graduating from college. There’s an important line between being a jack of all trades and an employable, well-rounded musician.

Ultimately, however, the most enticing thing about working in multiple mediums has for me always been the boundless creative possibilities that it offered. With eclecticism comes the opportunity to be in conversation with oneself about genre and to have different kinds of collaborative relationships with those working in these various fields. It also offers potential for borrowing influences in the hope that they will fuse into something unusual.

Within my own work, which I include solely because I am currently navigating these waters and it’s the example that I know most closely, I am starting to see how these diverse influences can cross-pollinate. Previously when asked about working across genres, I would stick to a simple response: namely that I hope my songwriting has a drama to it that hints at my concert background, and that my concert work has a sense of immediacy and a commitment to melody, but that they are very separate. Yet as I continue along the road, I realize that the ties among them are more specific.

On the songwriting front, for example, I recently put out a song called “Time Slips Away” from a new artist project called DELANILA. While unequivocally a rock track, it borrows from the scale of orchestral music (film and concert), while also employing specific techniques and traditions that I learned in conservatory.

Lyrics, form, and arrangement were crafted, for example, with art song “word painting” in mind: the lyric “inconsequential, it slithers like a snake” is accompanied by a synth line that slinks its way upwards like a serpent, while “time slips away” returns at the top of each verse—not quite word painting, but an attempt to evoke boredom and repetition by mirroring lyrical content through form. I also borrowed, as many film composers and songwriters have done, from that classic textbook example of Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima in the outro, which consists of players glissing and staggering their way upwards from the lowest note on their instrument to the highest. And, when I got stuck on a bridge, found my way out of the hole by thinking back to those most basic composerly discussions we have about developing our ideas and “writing economically.” I solved the problem by taking synth and bass lines from the verses and made them swoop and build upon one another to a conclusion. The loose “piece in two halves” form itself is also one that I’ve explored in chamber music.

I also have an early concert piece that I wrote, called Mehr Licht, that finds its way as a sample (a pop technique in itself, though I am hardly the first classical musician to use it) into virtually everything I do. On its own, it sounds like this:

Here it is in part, played backwards as the intro on an old EP:

And on a newer version of the same song:

Here it is again on a different piece from another forthcoming project:

It’s also currently finding its way into a film score. And then here it is again on a piece that I wrote recently for PUBLIQuartet:

Out of the Tunnel is also an example of how my rock background found its way into the DNA of a concert work. Its first movement (see below) is propulsive and energetic, imbued with a rock spirit, while improvisation—so central to being a guitarist—played a role in how I developed the project with the quartet. This included giving them groove-based musical “cells” to play with during workshops, as well as leaving space for Curtis Stewart, one of the ensemble’s violinists, to have a big wailing solo moment. Film scoring influences also crept their way into the accompanying programming.

Ultimately I believe that genre has the potential to become just another tool with its own tricks and traditions that can be deployed as needed along the road to creating art that, one hopes, is unique. Yet beyond that, the question of whether or not to pursue multiple styles of music has for me always tied in to broader discussions of what it means to create art that is progressive, and how exactly anyone is supposed to get there. In my opinion, the most interesting artists are always the ones who bring something slightly foreign to the form in which they are working, widening its palette rather narrowing it. And this fundamental question was always what kept me from following my teachers’ advice. If you don’t study and pursue multiple disciplines and have broad creative interests, how can you ever hope to create something new? I could never wrap my head around how “narrowing down” would answer that question, and so I never did.

Art is most interesting when it is open ended, and to me at this point these various forms and genres don’t feel any different from one another. The techniques vary but the goals of communicating honestly with people are the same, and I think it’s possible for them to all live in the same house. You may not see it yet. But the structure is there.

Do you need a doctorate in composition?

A person taking notes, with a white mug in the background
Do you need a doctorate in composition? No, you don’t. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value.

In the nearly twenty years that I have been teaching composition at universities and conservatories, the most common question I am asked by students not already in doctoral programs is which ones they should apply to. The assumption of these young composers is that the next logical or expected step in the progression of their musical development is to seek an advanced degree in a field where the degree itself is becoming both more ubiquitous and less powerful.

When I ask young composers why they want to earn a doctorate, the almost inevitable response is, “Because I want to teach.” That is indeed an admirable reason to do so. Additional issues such as performance and networking opportunities and some abstract sense of the recognition and approval that a doctorate will bestow are also often mentioned. While there is some merit to these expectations, I believe they are mostly misguided.

For decades, the availability of full-time, tenure-track composition jobs has been dwindling, with the decrease greatly exacerbated by the onset of the 2008 financial crisis. During this time, administrators in higher education facing smaller budgets due to reduced state funding, shrinking endowments, and less generous alumni donors sought to make up the difference. They did so by employing larger pools of part-time adjunct faculty who could be paid far less than their full-time counterparts with few or no benefits and no job security. As the financial markets later soared to record levels of growth, the number of full-time professorships did not follow. Consequently, the majority of my colleagues who teach composition or related music courses do so in the precarious conditions described above. These teachers are extremely qualified and dedicated; their students are lucky to work with them. But for anyone trying to eek out a living on the wages earned as an adjunct or short-term contract instructor (particularly in an expensive metropolitan area where new music activity is concentrated) struggles significantly. These exploitative teaching positions are often spread out over multiple campuses requiring travel and the time spent counseling students, correcting homework and papers, and dealing with university bureaucracy steals precious time needed to compose. Anyone considering a doctorate for the reason that they want to teach should be aware of these realities and that the competition for the few stable jobs that are offered is extremely fierce.

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Image: Vlad Kutepov

A more immediate financial consideration for young composers seeking a doctorate is the cost of the degree and the means needed to live during the years that it takes to complete the classwork, exams, and dissertation. While many universities and conservatories offer composer fellowships that waive tuition and offer a modest stipend, usually in exchange for teaching, these are limited, often to just a couple a year. Of course, these cannot accommodate the hundreds of qualified students who apply for composition doctorates every year and many students are faced with the possibility of large debts after completing their studies. No student should be put in this position and I strongly advise against paying for these degrees. While it is not uncommon for young professionals to leave graduate school with substantial debt, the fields outside the humanities more consistently offer starting salaries beyond living wages in addition to health and retirement benefits. Because there are very few such opportunities available to recent composition graduates, it makes no sense to accrue a large debt that may take decades to repay.

There are also some young composers who feel that they have not received sufficient preparation in order to enter the field. They believe that an advanced degree will provide the training and knowledge that they lack. A graduate program in composition would serve these students well but not at the expense of crushing debt that would be shouldered if the student needed to pay for tuition. In these cases, I recommend that students seek out individuals for private lessons. Because there are so many highly-qualified musicians that do not have full-time academic jobs, many are willing to teach privately. The cost of these lessons is a fraction of graduate tuition and offers much more flexibility with regard to teachers and scheduling.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community.

In my experience, no ensemble, soloist, or presenter has ever reconsidered a commission or programming opportunity for a composer due to a lack of academic credentials. It seems true that certain prizes and fellowships give some limited weight to one’s academic background, but it is always subsidiary to the music under consideration.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community. By interacting and collaborating with fellow musicians, pooled talents and resources sum to much more than individual parts. I always encourage young composers to attend as many concerts as possible and politely and humbly engage the performers and audience members during and after the show. Chance and sought out connections can yield deep, meaningful, and even lifetime relationships that can have profound creative and intellectual impact.

I understand that for many the access to such communities may be limited due to geographical or financial constraints. Additionally, it can be socially and professionally daunting for some to join circles to which they do not already belong. In these circumstances the communities may be created from within, as has often been the case in the past. Some examples include the artists that formed Der Blaue Reiter, the Scratch Orchestra, and the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

There are positive attributes of academic programs, to be sure. Especially when coming from a place where interactions with like-minded musicians are limited, enrolling in a music program can provide incredible stimulation and camaraderie with peers and mentors. Opportunities to work with fellow students and guests in performances and presentations are extremely valuable, as is the teaching experience that comes with fellowships. The positive impact that access to a dedicated music library can have on a developing composer is undeniable. And hopefully the courses and private instruction will enlighten and expand one’s own musical outlook.

So while there is value in attending a graduate program in composition, it is not a panacea for career advancement and future job security. It is wise to consider what one wants and realistically what a composition doctorate can offer before assuming that it is the only path forward.

Teamwork in the Conservatory: In the Game of Music, We Can All Win

Three people at the mixing desk of a recording studio

My yoga teacher once said something that really stuck with me: What helps “we” also helps “me.” Time after time, my experiences have verified this to be true. The occasions in which I have grown the most have all involved collaborating with my peers and coworkers. I strongly believe that no collective growth can occur without there first being individual growth, but that when an individual grows, so does the group. This is also a key component of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s (SFCM) Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) program, where there is a large emphasis on collaboration and teamwork. I want to see my peers succeed, so I’m constantly asking myself how I can contribute to their success. Through collaboration, we grow together.

One Friday night during my freshman year, a group of students and I got free tickets to see the San Francisco Opera. I arrived at the opera house and found my seat next to another TAC student, Thomas Soto. We began chatting about music and other career-related things. He offhandedly mentioned that there was a really cool professional development program for college students pursuing a career in music called GRAMMY U. He told me how the program hosts “SoundChecks” with big-name artists like Jason Mraz, The Weeknd, and Khalid, which include a Q&A session and a photo with the artist. I was intrigued. After the opera, I went home and immediately applied for a GRAMMY U membership. Fast forward one and a half years and I’m sitting in a corporate office interviewing to be the next GRAMMY U Representative for the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy. Now, after having the job for nearly a year and four months, one of my many roles is to pair 10 to 15 high-achieving GRAMMY U members with a mentor in their field of study each semester. It all came back around this semester when I paired Thomas, the same person who told me about the program, with an awesome mentor who has been teaching him audio engineering, mixing, and arranging. Looking back at that night in the opera house, Thomas had no idea what wheels he had set in motion at that time. He was simply sharing a really cool opportunity with me and ended up benefiting greatly from it himself some three years later.

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A few weeks ago, after hearing a decent number of my peers in the TAC program complain about how difficult it is to find an artist manager, I decided it was time to use my rep position to make some magic happen. Through GRAMMY U, I organized an Industry Insights event on the relationship between artists and managers. I knew some GRAMMY U members at UC Berkeley studying artist management, and of course I knew members in my own TAC program who were in great need of management, so I thought it to be a perfect fit. I called up the music director of the Berkeley Careers in Entertainment Club (BCEC) to see if they wanted to co-host this event with us. They agreed, so I sent an invitation out to all of the GRAMMY U members in the Bay Area. We invited a guest speaker, Joe Barham, artist manager for the Stone Foxes and creator partnerships lead at Patreon, for a Q&A. During the event, I asked Joe about the roles and expectations of artist managers, how these relationships are built, and the red flags to look out for when searching for your perfect match. Following the Q&A, we gave out colored name tags and mock-business cards with each student’s info for them to hand out during the networking session. At first, when we announced that the networking session had officially begun, nobody moved from their seat. Only after an inspiring pep talk about seizing the moment from Michael Winger, the executive director of The Recording Academy SF Chapter, did students begin to shuffle around the room. Surprisingly, the networking session lasted longer than we expected, resulting in us having to move the event next door to a pizza joint.

The feedback I got was very inspiring. Some students admitted, “At first, I was scared to walk up to someone new, but after the fourth and fifth time it became surprisingly easy,” and, “I didn’t realize how cool everyone in the room was until I started talking to them.” This is a much smaller industry than we realize, and many students we sit next to in class will be the working professionals of tomorrow. Every day is an opportunity to make these connections and long-lasting friendships. These relationships will serve you for the rest of your life. Due to the huge success of this event, I’m now in the process of planning another Industry Insights session for production and engineering students in May.

Teamwork in the Conservatory

I didn’t know what I was in for when I signed up for a winter term class called Synesthesia and Microtonality this past January. There were only three of us in the class: Jonathan Herman, Jessica Mao, and myself. We showed up to our first class meeting to have the professor tell us that we had one week to figure out a solution to his dilemma. Our task was to program a keyboard to play microtones and another one to trigger specific colors on a screen for a live performance. The three of us, not yet knowing each other very well, had no idea how to go about accomplishing this on our own. It was only when we started to communicate our different skills that we realized where one person lacked, the other made up for. I knew just enough about the program Max/MSP to start building a color organ, Jessica started mapping out the different color combinations and how they would correspond to specific keys, and Jonathan, who is well-versed in Ableton, began on the microtonal tunings. The collaborative process was so seamless it felt like we were a machine. After only three days we had worked out a brilliant solution, something I never thought would happen when we began. The piece is scheduled to be performed at SFCM in May. Due to its unique curriculum, the TAC program at SFCM is collaborative by nature. Not only did I accomplish a goal I previously thought impossible, I also developed great friendships in the process. I learned a valuable lesson in trusting others’ abilities. That’s what a team is for.

There’s a place for everyone to succeed in this game. We come from different backgrounds with varying life experiences that contribute to our own unique skill sets. If I could do anything right now, I would want to encourage students to not treat work life as a competition, but more so like a game with only one team. Rather than competing against each other, we can utilize our individual knowledge to work together and create immensely beautiful things. Before entering the TAC program, I had not realized the mighty power of collaboration, nor thought about how my unique skill set could support the needs of others. Both the TAC program and my work with The Recording Academy have helped me see the tremendous value in teamwork. Life’s
much more fun when you work with others!

Determining a Different Outcome

It’s easy to give ourselves a hard time about not being more successful as composers, musicians, writers, and artists. And this perception is often rooted in our self-regard and not in reality as others may see us. That is, we may have scored many successes but not perceive them as such. I used to become jealous, mildly enraged, or depressed by the success of others, and also engaged in petty schadenfreude when someone was perceived to have failed. I figure that’s why many “news” items detail the slips, failures, and inevitable aging of public figures; it enables us to compare ourselves to those once considered successful in a favorable light.

I’ve known some artists who were continually angry or at least frustrated by the cards they were dealt; one was a visual artist who had actually had a full show at the Whitney, a Guggenheim Fellowship, photos published in national magazines, and a monograph written by a highly respected art historian. Another was a composer who has had performances by a number of major orchestras. I told the artist that he wouldn’t be content until he had a Pulitzer, and the other confided in me that the day that they announced the Pulitzer each year wasn’t a very good day for him.

Somewhere along the line I decided that I was going to strive to avoid bitterness about my own career and (at least try) to appreciate what I have. Not all artists start with the same paint box of abilities, family support, timely teachers, and inspiring surroundings. But those of us who are composing and creating actively have at least found the success of drive, desire, and an inner strength to persist, no matter what our background is.

Recently, when they announced that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was going to Frances Arnold, she was interviewed on NPR about receiving the life-changing phone call early one morning. I found myself envious of that experience, until I rationalized that her success is actually my success and a success for all of us. Her advances in her field are our advances. I never felt jealous of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. It was in fact embraced as a success for the entire world, and it still is (at least if we don’t deny that it happened).

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

We are the ones who individually determine the course of our lives. As the adage from Abraham Lincoln goes (and which was later appropriated by Silicon Valley): “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” No one else is going to do it.

Recently I’ve had what I consider to be successful renderings of a couple of works for mezzo-soprano that were composed for the singer Alice Simmons, whom my wife and I met after a performance at the Tate Modern Museum in London. We became friends and eventually I wrote her a song cycle based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake that she premiered in the UK. Recently, she premiered an evening-length, multimedia event for me in Kansas. In her late 40s, Alice is reinventing her life as a performer. It’s something that she avoided for many years due to her lack of confidence. But she’s now putting herself out there and is constantly busy. She is reinventing her future and creating a different outcome, on a path that embraces the challenge of performing.

She doesn’t view herself as a success, but I see that her success lies in reinvention. And her reinvention contributes to my success in collaboration, which has resulted in a couple of lovely performances.

“Am I successful?” We determine what is successful. I’ve known musicians and composers who had a very limited definition of success, which was to write a hit song and live on the royalties or to end up getting a gig with the New York Phil. That was it. And when one person I know didn’t achieve the latter, this person drifted away from music completely—and he had a genuine shot at world-class gigs like the Phil, even if they weren’t specifically with that particular band.

So, where can your definition of success go but down if you don’t achieve one specific goal? I’ve known one person to have that sort of success and who seemed to appreciate it: banjoist, fiddler, singer, guitarist, and songwriter John Hartford. In the 1960s, he penned “Gentle on My Mind” in half an hour and, when his record was released, Glen Campbell picked up the tune and made it a very large hit—when I knew Hartford, it was the 17th most-recorded tune in history. Elvis, Sinatra, and a host of others did their own interpretations. While Hartford lived on those royalties for the rest of his life, he didn’t rest on his laurels. He composed many more songs (never again to achieve the popular success of “Gentle on My Mind”), and he toured all over performing many concerts—sometimes clog dancing, playing the fiddle, and singing simultaneously. Even when cancer ravaged his body, he kept performing and writing; I saw his penultimate performance in Asheville, North Carolina, which to me was the ultimate in success as he was still persisting in doing what he loved. By this time, he was only able to play the occasional single tone on the banjo and sing his songs fronting a backup band. Yet, to me, each note expressed a lifetime of incredible music making. He was actively involved and never failed, even if he never had another hit.

I complimented him once for not trying to reproduce the success of “Gentle on My Mind.” “Oh, but I did,” he replied. He spent three weeks composing a follow-up titled “A Simple Thing as Love,” intended to be as successful at the previous one. I love that tune, but it never caught on in the manner he’d envisioned. In spite of not duplicating his first success, he carried on practicing, writing, and giving concerts.

Our successes are self-defined and they can’t be narrowly conceived. I’ve lived out my life with a list of three goals that I made as a 19-year old when I desperately needed direction in life. I decided that my career in music would consist of teaching, composing, and performing, not necessarily in that order. I believed then and still do that a successful day was being engaged in all three of those activities. Forty years later, I’m still doing it. I consider that to be a successful career in spite of never winning (or being nominated for) a Pulitzer, never placing in the Walnut Valley National Banjo Competition, and never being named teacher of the year (or some such crap).

It doesn’t matter. At the age of 60, I’m happy in a weird sort of way. I still have moments where I envy the success of others and wish, say, I’d been endowed with a different background that would have led to a Santa Fe Opera premiere or performances with major orchestras worldwide. But then I wouldn’t have the life I have now. And who knows if I would have been happy with that other life anyway? It’s easy to confound and twist success in our minds into a perception of failure. But I’m composing every day, teaching, playing gigs, and staging concerts. I get to work with many different people, musicians and artists. And I’m left with a wide variety of stories.

It really doesn’t get much better than this. But, like servicing an old car, I know that I’m going to have to maintain and continue to develop that attitude. The specter of dissatisfaction can take over at any time. But it doesn’t have to.