Tag: chamber music

Judith Lang Zaimont: The Music She Has to Write

Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom

Judith Lang Zaimont has been active as a pianist since she was five. She performed on national television at the age of 11 and began her studies at Juilliard at age 12. But despite her deep love for music from the very beginning, she realized early on that she hated practicing, playing the exact same thing again and again. One day, while sight-reading through some music by Chopin, she had an epiphany. The constant variations in his music meant he also hated playing the same thing again and again. And it suddenly dawned on her that her constant desire to play something new meant that she was a composer.

That endless search for something new still fuels Zaimont’s creativity many decades later. She is defiantly unwilling to be typecast for creating music in a particular style, which makes her music always a welcome surprise. But it has also proved challenging for her in terms of typical opportunities for composers.

“I have very particular ideas or thoughts about commissions,” she explained when we chatted over Zoom in early February. “They open doors. But they always come as a result of knowing past music by the person. And if you are not a one-groove individual artistically, if you have many parts to yourself, then you could open a door you’ve never opened before in a new piece. … We suffer a little bit, if you’ve been at this for a while, from being branded thus or such. And artists are not their brand. If you relax into that groove, beware.”

For Zaimont, composing music is always a work in progress, an ongoing journey of discovery and reinventing oneself. It has also made her very critical of her own work over the years which has led her to take works she no longer thinks are worthy out of circulation.

“The world doesn’t need those pieces,” she exclaimed. “I’m constantly going back and making sure that what I put forward is the best that I can do under the circumstances.”

Thankfully, however, there are quite a few pieces that she does still acknowledge and many performers acknowledge them, too. While so many composers are lucky if a piece they’ve written gets a performance and a recording, several of Zaimont’s works have been recorded multiple times which is, after all, how music becomes repertoire. And that is her goal since her music is deeply informed and inspired by the canon of classical music repertoire. Among the pillars in her catalog are six symphonies, two piano trios, a hefty piano sonata, and two string quartets—at least that she still acknowledges (believing that she only fully grasped the string quartet medium in her 60s). She has also composed a formidable Judaic sacred service, perhaps her most significant choral work although it has yet to be recorded in its entirety.

Yet despite Zaimont’s deep immersion in European musical traditions, her music is very much American. She has composed several rags and the rhythms and harmonies of jazz and various American popular music genres have seeped into her own compositional language, so much so that they’re not influences per se, but rather additional vocabulary that she has mastered and incorporated into her own ever-evolving sound world.

  • I have a super appreciation of the performer’s entry point...

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I think a long time about how the music is going to be notated.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I always want horizons that don’t fence you in.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • All of my pieces solve puzzles.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I have tried not to be branded.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I do charts of other people’s periodicities. I did all the development sections of all the Beethoven sonatas.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • My father used to come to all my concerts and applaud like crazy. And then he’d get this funny look on his face, like maybe he didn’t understand the music.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • Ned Rorem once wrote that a composer has three arrows in his quiver, and he shoots them over and over again. I took that as a challenge.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • If each piece isn’t a struggle to do, you’ve got to question how valid it is.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music. Did it stop me? No.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer

Early on in her career, Zaimont was also a major champion of other female composers, both contemporaries and women from earlier times, editing an important series of volumes of critical studies of their music.

“Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music,” she remembered. “Did it stop me? No. I knew I was born to write music. Didn’t matter to me. … But I saw there was a whole cohort of women who were writing music. I started to learn the history of music that had been written in times past by women. … These people were not in the history books. They were not there. Generations of the present moment weren’t knowing about them. The world needs to know about what they have accomplished and appreciate it. I got letters from some of the standing composers whom we profiled in the critical appraisals sections of the books to thank me for finally having been able to engender these really critical articles dealing with the stuff of their music. Not who they were as a person. Whether they were married or had children, how old they were. That they were women in a man’s world. None of that. Deal with their music. That’s why I did that. I set my own creative work aside to do this because somebody needed to step up and do it. … I’m very grateful to the music that these people wrote, that it is now in the world.”

But don’t call Zaimont, as she described it, an “adjective” composer.

“The thing I don’t like is being a column B composer. I don’t want to wait until you get adjective before the world composer. Before you think Judith Lang Zaimont. Think of me right up there. I sit at Chopin’s—just behind Chopin, I can’t sit at his shoulder. I sit back there a ways. But I’m on the stage.”


New Music USA · SoundLives — Judith Lang Zaimont – The Music She Has To Write
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Judith Lang Zaimont
February 2, 2021—4:00pm EST via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Maricopa AZ and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Third Coast Percussion: The Collaborative Process

David Skidmore, Peter Martin, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors (Photo by Saverio Truglia)

In the first couple of weeks following the global lock down, we hadn’t completely figured out how we were going to produce the extensive NewMusicBox Cover conversations that we launch on the first day of every month—we were too busy finishing up work on our talk with Nathalie Joachim which we were lucky enough to record just a week before all this began. But we knew that these in-depth conversations about new music were something we had to keep going somehow, especially since the next one was slated for May 1, the 21st anniversary of the launch of this publication online. What to do? So much of what has made these conversations so exciting is the intimacy, empathy, and camaraderie that emerges from an in-person encounter, often in the homes of the people with whom we are talking. But we’re also well aware that this method of recording these talks also comes with limitations. There are tons of exciting people making fascinating music all over this country whom we have wanted to feature on these pages, but we’ve usually been limited to folks who either live in the greater New York Tri-State area, are a possible day trip along the Northeastern Corridor in either direction, or have come to NYC for a performance (and those talks are obviously not at home and so run the risk of feeling less personal).

I’ve long been a fan of Third Coast Percussion which marks its 15th anniversary this year and I’ve been eager to talk with their four members for quite some time about their collaborations with Augusta Read Thomas, David T. Little, Donnacha Dennehy, Philip Glass, and more recently Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) and JLin, as well as their own compositions. (I’m particularly enamored with TCP member David Skidmore’s immersive Common Patterns in Uncommon Time.) However, TCP is based in Chicago and is constantly touring around the country, so the dots never connected.

Then very soon after concerts started getting cancelled all over the country and we all began sheltering in place, TCP started presenting live stream concerts on their YouTube channel which were really motivational, particularly their second one on March 28 which—in addition to featuring the amazing pieces written for them by Glass, Hynes, and JLin, plus an awesome original by TCP’s Peter Martin—was a fundraiser for the New Music Solidary Fund which New Music USA administers. So I just had to figure out a way to make them the May 2020 NewMusicBox Cover somehow! Thanks to the Zoom platform and the fact that each of these four guys—Dave, Peter, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors—was tech savvy enough to record themselves separately with microphones and camcorders, we were able to record a substantive conversation online from five different locations that looks and feels almost like we were all together… almost.

We talked about a very wide range of topics. They started off by sharing stories about how TCP introduces audiences to percussion instruments and how they each came to devote their lives to making music. Then we engaged in a heady series of dos and don’ts for writing and performing percussion music. After that, we spent a long time exploring some details of the staggering range of music they have nurtured from an extraordinarily wide range of creators including in-depth commentary about some of their own original compositions. Finally, we had a heart to heart about what they all have been doing to cope in these unprecedented and uncertain times that everyone has been thrust into. I hope you find what they each had to say as poignant and inspirational as I have.

[Ed. note: To accommodate a broad range of experiential modalities, we’ve included audio links for the entire conversation as well as a complete text transcription. Click on “Read the Full Transcript” and you will also be rewarded with a few video clips from the talk and well as several performances! To facilitate access, both the audio and the text have been divided into four discrete sections, each of which is self-contained, in order to make the experience somewhat more manageable since the total discussion ran a little over 100 minutes. We encourage you to bookmark this page in your browser and return to it multiple times rather than going through all of it in one go, unless you’re extremely intrepid! – FJO]

2020 Chamber Music Conference Continues Focus on Equity and Inclusivity

The audience gives Joan Tower a standing ovation on the final morning of the 2020 Chamber Music America conference.

The annual national conference of Chamber Music America, which takes place in New York City in January, has long been a meeting place for a wide range of musicians and arts professionals and typically offers a wide range of thought-provoking speakers as well as performance showcases for a broad range of small ensembles. But in recent years, the CMA conference has also placed a specific emphasis on equity, diversity, and inclusion in the music sector and has aimed to be a catalyst for positive change within our community. This year’s conference (January 16-19), which was chaired by bassoonist, Memphis-based PRIZM Ensemble Co-founder, and the Community Music Center of Boston’s Executive Director Lecolion Washington, moved the dial still further with a heady mix of provocative talks and diverse approaches to music-making.

George Lewis in front of a CMA podium,

George Lewis gives the Keynote Address for the 2020 Chamber Music America conference.

The tone was set during the opening keynote address by composer, trombonist, and Columbia University composition chair George E. Lewis who declared that “far from being sidelined as identity politics, identity reaches into the core of aesthetics.” Perhaps his most poignant salvo was that if you “grew up believing in autonomous art, you might be like those coalminers who need to lean coding.” Lewis claimed that the notion of autonomous art “is an addiction” that “might kill you” and is a by-product of what he described as a “fake meritocracy.” Ultimately Lewis advocated for a process of “creolization“ for the arts in the 21st century. Given how much of what Lewis said resonated with the conference events over the course of three days, it’s hard to believe that he was actually a last minute replacement for actor/playwright Anna Deavere Smith. (At the onset he quipped, “There is no reason to assume I’m not Anna Deavere Smith.”)

The notion of “autonomous art” is a by-product of “fake meritocracy.”

Mary Anne Carter, who was appointed last August as Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, gave an address during CMA’s annual membership meeting in which she implored the audience not to assume that people who are against government funding for the arts are against the arts, but rather they believe that private funding is a better solution. However, she acknowledged during her time at the NEA, she has become aware that private funding does not reach every county in the United States, but public funding does, which is a very strong argument for the preservation of public funding.

NEA Chair Mary Anne Carter standing in front of a podium.

NEA Chair Mary Anne Carter addresses the membership of Chamber Music America on Friday, January 17, 2020

I attended part of a session in the afternoon focused on Overcoming Structural Racism co-led by Quinteto Latino hornist/director Armando Castellano, Equity in the Center’s Executive Director Kerrien Suarez, and PRIZM Ensemble Executive Director and Pianist Roderick Vester. The goal was to look at how racism operates along a four-tied system—internalized (stereotypes, etc.), interpersonal (where microaggressions live), institutional (the codification of implicit biases) and structural—and to go from “wake to woke to work.” Suarez pointed out that “the way orchestras look today is the desired outcome of structural racism” and that the lack of people in color in many music organizations is a by-product of “white people living in homogenized circles.” This panned out when the session attendees were asked to break up into groups; various members in the audience representing chamber music series in different communities acknowledged that they mostly chose to work with people they already knew, who were mostly white, and that their audiences were almost exclusively white.

Attendees acknowledged that they mostly chose to work with people they already knew.

Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the entire session, because I wanted to catch at least a part of a performance showcase by Fran Vielman and the Venezuelan Jazz Collective, which was one of nine different ensembles featured in 30-minute showcases on Friday. I’m glad I did, but wish I could have heard more; I only managed to catch their closing number, “Minanguero,” which featured a very exciting interplay between instruments typically associated with a standard jazz combo and an array of indigenous Venezuelan percussion instruments performed by Vielma. All in all, I only missed two of the showcases in their entirely, though I’ll confess that I did not feel obliged to attend showcases whose repertoire consisted exclusively of works by familiar dead white European male composers.  I was, however, totally smitten by the repertoire choices as well as the performances of them by the Argus Quartet—whose playlist consisted of a quartet transcription of the Contrapunctus IX from J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, excerpts from works they have commissioned by Christopher Cerrone and Juri Seo (the latter of which they have recorded for innova), and the Adagio from the String Quartet in E-flat Major by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, which in 2020 seems only excluded from the standard repertoire through a combination of ignorance and the legacy of patrimony. That showcase was clear proof that new and old music can co-exist in a performance and that both can benefit from the linkage. Also of note were Andy Milne & Unison’s piano-bass-drums trio performance (I particularly loved their rendition of McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance”), everything performed by the PUBLIQuartet (whose setlist combined exciting original compositions by Jessie Montgomery and Matthew Browne with fascinating arrangements of music by Nina Simone and the 17th century Italian nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, and the extraordinary German unaccompanied five-voice ensemble Calmus (though everything they sang was composed by men and none of it was American). I must also call attention here to an amazing feat that the PRISM Quartet pulled off—their alto saxophone player was stranded in Kansas City but they managed to perform convincingly with Hunter Bockes, a saxophone student of the other three players who happened to be in town and available to rehearse with them earlier in the day. They blended seamlessly!  And when they were joined on a fifth saxophone by Rudresh Mahanthappa for his composition I Will Not Apologize for My Tone Tonight, they totally smoked!

A Saturday morning panel discussion at the 2020 Chamber Music America conference with Aaron Flagg, Tania León, Tomeka Reid, and Jerry Medina.

(Pictured from left to right) Aaron Flagg, Tania León, Tomeka Reid, and Jerry Medina

There were 11 additional performance showcases on Saturday afternoon which I’ll get to in a bit, but first, Saturday’s activities began with a lively group discussion between four very different musicians—composer/conductor Tania León, composer/cellist/AACM member Tomeka Reid, composer/arranger/trumpeter/vocalist/bandleader Jerry Medina, and trumpeter/Juilliard Jazz Studies chair Aaron Flagg, who served as the moderator. Flagg began by asking the group to share stories about feeling not included and what to do when your art is not welcomed. “If you don’t see a space, you create a space,” said Reid who described her transition from being an orchestra musician to working in improvisatory music, which to her felt more inclusive since she “came up under a lot of female bandleaders.”  Medina recounted people telling him that salsa was “too ethnic,” but that it never stopped him from making the music he believes in: “My purpose on Earth is to keep going forward trying to reach people ‘cause music heals.” León, however, stated that she “always felt it was not my problem. … I treat everybody equally even if the person doesn’t treat me equally … Labels diminish the value of a person. … We are global, but we insist on separation.”  Reiterating Lewis’s message from the previous day, León asked, “What is the difference between a salsa and a waltz? Nothing! … That jambalaya is going to create the future.” Reid acknowledged that “things need to change, but don’t let that stop you.” Medina described how music was at the forefront of the protests that led to the ouster of the corrupt governor of Puerto Rico in 2019: “What was the gun? What was the bullets? What was the bomb? It was the music!” Flagg expressed concern that “some people are saying that CMA is now turning into a Civil Rights Organization” as if it was possible to separate culture from the society in which it is created and experienced.  Perhaps the most impassioned comment from the entire session was a remark León made in response to a comment an audience member made about being someone “of color.” “Everybody has a color,” said León. “We need to change the words we speak with.”

“Everybody has a color. We need to change the words we speak with.”

I only managed to catch five of Saturday showcases, since I wanted to check out some of the panel sessions as well; it’s a shame that these activities had to compete with each other this year, but the alternative in previous years was to schedule the various panel talks very early in the morning which was also not ideal. The staff of Chamber Music America will hate me for writing this (and I’ll probably hate myself as well if they actually were to take me up on this suggestion), but maybe the conference needs to be five days! Anyway, I broke my rule about attending a showcase that only included music by dead white European men and went to hear the Minnesota-based Sonora Winds whose repertoire consisted exclusively of mid-20th century Polish repertoire for oboe (Madeline Miller), clarinet (Anastasiya Nyzkodub), and bassoon (Marta Troicki). I was so glad I did, because I had never heard any of the three pieces they performed previously—works by Antoni Szalowski and Władysław Walentynowicz, plus an early piece I was unfamiliar with by Witold Lutosławski, the only familiar name. (After the conference, I listened to their excellent disc on MSR Classics which also features a wind quartet—adding flutist Bethany Gonella—by another new name to me, Janina Garścia, so thankfully the disc was not devoted exclusively to male composers.) Sonora’s showcase gave me the same thrill I get from hearing so-called “new music” premieres: encountering something I didn’t know. It’s the most rewarding of listening experiences, though I was also delighted to hear a live set of Nuevo tango by Emilio Solla, whose music I already knew but had only previously experienced on recordings.  I was wowed by the energy of the Roxy Coss Quintet which exclusively performed her original post-hard-bop compositions which included her sardonic response to the zeitgeist “Mr. President” and the fiesty “Don’t Cross the Coss.” But the Del Sol String Quartet’s all new music set was even more exciting—the totally idiomatic inflections in Turkish composer Erberk Eryilmaz’s Hoppa! – Íki; the altered tunings of Michael Harrison’s Murred; and the unbridled visceral aggression of Aaron Garcia’s makeshift memorials, composed in response to the horrors of recent mass shootings, in which the players shout as they saw their bows across their instruments.

Roxy Coss performing on saxophone with members of her Quintet.

Roxy Coss and members of her Quintet.

When I was not attending performance showcases, I rushed between conversations with people in the exhibit rooms (which is always a great way to catch up with lots of great people), and some of those aforementioned concurrent panel sessions. The first of the ones I caught part of was Music and Healing: Understanding Cognitive Difference Through Music, which was centered around Loretta K. Notareschi’s 2015 String Quartet OCD which is an attempt to convey, through the medium of chamber music, her postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder in the year following her daughter’s birth. It is a deeply moving and powerful piece, but its impact was significantly diminished by being presented via a pre-recorded video performance rather than by live musicians. Perhaps rather than dividing activities between performance showcases and panel talks, these formats should be combined.

Sunday morning was devoted to a 90-minute tribute to composer Joan Tower, recipient of CMA’s 2020 Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award, which included performances of three of Tower’s compositions—by violist Paul Neubauer, flutist Carol Wincenc, and Gaudete Brass—as well as a spirited conversation between Tower and radio host John Schaefer. Tower regaled the audience with her wry observations about the music scene which was sprinkled with tons of spicy anecdotes from her long career. She has frequently said that she believes that there are two types of composers—instrumental music composers and vocal composers—and that she is an instrumental music composer who has only rarely, and with trepidation, dabbled in writing for voices. She recounted “one drunken night” saying to John Ashbery, “I don’t understand your poetry.” To which he replied, “I don’t understand it either.” When Schafer asked her how she felt about the term “woman composer,” she exclaimed that she “identifies as a woman and as a composer,” although later she acknowledged, interestingly, that she has trouble with the term “American.”

John Schaefer and Joan Tower.

John Schaefer and Joan Tower.

Joan Tower exclaimed that she “identifies as a woman and as a composer.”

The conference ended with a final concert devoted to two works commissioned by CMA: Chris Rogerson’s luscious String Quartet No. 3 performed by the not yet but since Grammy minted Attacca Quartet and the expansive The Color of US Suite by jazz percussionist Donald Edwards scored for his Quintet. Given that the theme of the whole conference was inclusion, it was a bit of a shame that the final concert featured only two long works by two men. In previous years these concerts typically featured a greater number of shorter works by a wider variety of composers. Though in previous years, female composers were barely performed during the two days of ensemble showcases and happily this year’s mix struck a much better balance. Putting together such a varied and immersive conference is admittedly an extremely tough balancing act and the formula will never be perfect. And folks will complain even if it is. But two weeks later I’m still filled with sounds and ideas that will stay with me throughout the year as I eagerly anticipate next year’s iteration of the conference, which will take place January 14-17, 2021. Be there.

The Blackbird Creative Lab: A Photo Journal

I travelled from Ohio to Ojai to arrive at the Blackbird Creative Lab, an education and mentorship program for composers and performers established by the ensemble Eighth Blackbird. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Just looking at the two names—Ohio and Ojai. They seem pretty similar, don’t they? The Lab couldn’t cause that big of a difference in my life, right?

Wrong.

The Blackbird Creative Lab is held at the Besant Hill School, nestled in the mountains of Ojai. My current home in Ohio is surrounded by a landscape of cornfields, flat as far as the eye can see. The different terrain of Ojai was striking.

8bb Creative Lab

Me being struck by the difference

I am certain that I speak for all members of The Lab when I say that the experience in Ojai connected me with a fount of empowerment, bravery, camaraderie, and creativity.

Every morning at the Blackbird Creative Lab, I took in a breath of inspiration as I opened the door to a dramatic, gorgeous landscape, with hills that morphed and grew with the changing sunlight. Starting the day in this manner led to an open mind that was ready for saturation. The Blackbird Lab quenched this thirst each day.

Cue the mountain montage!

 

Communication was key throughout the two-week residency. We opened up our hearts and minds through rehearsals, performances, the hang, learning from each other in one of the most open environments that I’ve ever experienced.

Guest artists spoke with the community each night, but not in a stuffy lecture format. The salon talks were bona fide times of connection, leading all of us on a rollercoaster of deep inspiration.

Jennifer Higdon, laying down some inspiration

Jennifer Higdon, laying down some inspiration

Fellows rehearsed with members of Eighth Blackbird, working on compositions by other fellows, faculty, and composers who resonate with the contemporary music world. These pieces were performed in a marathon of concerts in the final three days.

What did I garner from this experience? I don’t have the words to describe the magic created at the Lab (thankfully, pictures are worth a thousand). But, I’m going to try to respond as sincerely as possible. First, I was imbued with a renewed sense of artistic direction. The community built around the Blackbird Creative Lab is intensely passionate about their artistry. Their passion is highly contagious, fueled by the Blackbird’s core values of unquestioned quality, pervasive innovation, intense work ethic, genuine informality, and bold openness.

We all garnered tools that can “feed our flame,” as faculty member Jennifer Higdon put it. The community built at the Lab nurtured the potential of each and every member and encouraged us to be the most authentic versions of ourselves.

Nurturing

Nurturing was happening all around campus…

Nurturing

…in shapes and sizes that you might not expect.

There was music that I needed to hear, from musicians who I needed to meet. There were messages that I needed to hear. Sage advice came from all members of the community, and there were particular conversations with Nico Muhly, Shara Nova, Jennifer Higdon, and Lisa Kaplan that I will treasure. But of course, these conversations were just threads of a larger tapestry woven by the entire Blackbird Creative Lab.

Blackbird Creative Lab

Just a sliver of what I needed to hear. To be honest, I needed to hear everyone at this Lab. I was profoundly moved by each and every member of the community, and I can’t thank them enough for sharing their artistry and opening their whole-hearted selves.

Now that I’ve returned from Ojai to Ohio, I can confirm that my life has been positively transformed. I feel like I am part of something larger than myself because of this experience.

The Lab galvanized my artistry. As an example of this, I spent a few weeks tracking new compositions for my upcoming multimedia project, Enter Branch, just before heading to the Lab. This is a project that is about connection and that brings together musicians and artists from communities I hold dear. As I recorded, there were elements of the compositions that still seemed vulnerable, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. The Lab drove home a mantra that I’ve lived with for years, but had forgotten recently: If you don’t feel vulnerable when you’re sharing your art, then you might not be connecting in an authentic manner.

So as the sun sets on this iteration of the Blackbird Creative Lab…

sunset

I’d like to leave with a few shots of the magic in action. In the final performance of the festival, we staged a production of works by Cage, Wubbels, and Eastman. Throughout the course of the Lab, we had in-depth discussions on how to honor this situation. In the end, every single member of that ensemble poured their hearts into the performance. At one point, members were performing variations of Cage’s 0’00”, carrying out a disciplined action. For my disciplined action, I took pictures of members of the ensemble, on the stage, performing live as we shared this experience with the audience. Here are those shots. My love and thanks to everyone involved with the Eight Blackbird Creative Lab. Stay on it!

Blackbird Creative Lab

Blackbird Creative Lab

Hey Jealousy: Social Media’s Envy Effect

How many times have you posted a pic like the one above on social media, or seen one and rolled your eyes? Guilty as charged on both sides of the coin. So what’s that about, and why is it important?

Sometimes I can’t take your perfect life anymore. Logging into Facebook makes me want to vomit. Your exciting new job, the beautiful kids, the throwback Thursday photos of your beach wedding that I wasn’t invited to.

By Tamar Charney

It’s no secret that social media is basically just a highlight reel. In my case, yes, I’m playing great concerts at prestigious venues here and there, and I’m grateful. But that’s not my day-to-day reality. I’m also changing blow out diapers, dealing with toddler tantrums, making budgets, writing grants, and practicing scales. Also in reality, someone has hit my car twice in the last two months, and I have only a handful of gigs scheduled for this summer. That can be scary. Would I put that on social media? Not in a normal situation. Too scary, right? But I’m probably gonna share this article on social media, so I’ll let you know how that feels after the fact.

Here’s the deal. I’m creative, so I just started a record label and production company called Bright Shiny Things. It’s fun! I only have a few performance gigs this summer, but that means more time having fun with Bright Shiny Things. I will also have time to attend awesome stuff like Mark Rabideau’s 21cm Institute entrepreneurship program and the mind-blowingly good Silkroad Global Musician’s Workshop run by the undeniable multi-genre cellist Mike Block. Also, in reality, less gigs means more time with the family and wife. (Maybe I can learn to prevent blowout diapers?) Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy parenthood and business building as much anyone, but I don’t post that on social media because I feel like I need people to focus on what would be considered the “successes.” Social media is all about good news—a filtered view of how we want others to perceive us and how we want to be seen.

But back to the eye roll…what’s that mean? Sometimes it means we’re jealous.

I don’t think jealousy within an ensemble is something people are comfortable admitting to or talking about.

Why is that important to talk about in our art? I don’t think jealousy within an ensemble is something people are comfortable admitting to or talking about, but I’ve experienced this first hand, as have so many of us.

My colleagues in Sybarite5 are all great musicians, and they are also entrepreneurs. They have a lot of super legit performances and projects going on at all times, and rightfully so.

Violinist Sami Merdinian is in demand as a concert soloist in South America, performs often with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and founded the New Docta International Music Festival in Argentina.

Sarah Whitney is no slouch either. She plays violin with the Seeing Double Duo, as well as in a trio project with fellow Sybarite5ers Angela and Laura called Trifecta, and she launched an interactive concert series called Beyond the Notes in the Boston area.

Angela Pickett, in addition to playing viola with Sybarite5 and the above-mentioned Trifecta, is in demand as a solo fiddle player in Broadway’s Tony award-winning Come From Away. She also posts beautifully curated vegan food pics on Instagram.

Laura Metcalf, our cellist, is also a soloist, as well as having a duet called Boyd Meets Girl with her husband and classical guitarist Rupert Boyd. She is a long-time member of the cello/percussion ensemble Break of Reality and just launched a pretty kick-ass concert series called Gather NYC.

The list goes on and on.

I have to be honest, when I found out about some of my colleagues’ projects on social media my initial reaction was probably tinged with some…jealousy! How dare they? Would this mess up Sybarite5? #JELLY #JELLY #JELLY. But now I’m just proud of their accomplishments. How did I get there?

First, I had to figure out what jealousy is about.

Jealousy is based in fear, not in love. A little bit of jealousy can indicate a little sense of threat or fear is occurring. A lot of jealousy means there is a lot of fear. … With jealousy often comes possessiveness, suspicion, anger, controlling acts and a lot of other negative behaviors.

YUCK, right? So, jealousy is based in fear, but if you read my first NewMusicBox post, you know that I’m not interested in having more fear in my life. So let’s unpack this a little.

It’s pretty obvious to me why I’d be jealous of the outside gigs the people in my own ensemble take on. It’s the fear of losing these great colleagues to other (better?) projects and the risk of damage to Sybarite5, something I’ve worked so long to create. Then how will I feed my kids? Any parent knows this is real and powerful fear.

But there is a solution to this: you have to confront your fear. For me that happened recently. We had our first sub with Sybarite5 in nine years. You know what? It was fine. The concert was fine. The residency was fine. It was more than fine! We had a great week, and I’m not afraid of it anymore. Poof. My fear is gone, and my jealousy along with it.

So now I’m happy to say that I’m not afraid to lose the above because of what someone else is doing. I will still be able to do my own thing, with Sybarite5 or otherwise. I have to have confidence in this. I created Sybarite5, and I can continue to create new things. It’s part of who I am. It’s never gonna stop. I like making stuff! So I don’t stress anymore if I see those posts on social media celebrating success because the jealousy is so unhelpful to the creative process.

So when you see this #thrilled2announce stuff posted, know a few things:

1. Objects in the mirror are not as large as they may appear.
2. While that person is probably mostly excited about whatever they are posting about, that person is probably also struggling with things in one way or another, perhaps just as much as you are.
3. You may be jealous, but you don’t have to be once you let go of your fear.

This is post four of four, so I want to give NewMusicBox a real thanks for allowing me to write. It’s been a great experience, and I think I learned a lot about what makes me tick. It’s my sincere hope that these articles help others find their own path a little quicker than I did.

How We Pick Rep and Keep Surprising Our Audiences

How does my string quintet Sybarite5 pick the music we play?

People ask me this all the time.

First of all, it’s important to know a little about how we program and perform. We program in modular fashion. What do I mean by this? Selections are usually three to eight minutes long, so we have great flexibility. It’s easy for us to slip newer works and experiments in and out of a set. This also allows us to tweak programs on the road. Much like a rock band, there’s an element of excitement and surprise in not knowing exactly what’s next, and we use that to create dynamic concert events as much as possible. If someone writes us a 30 to 50 minute piece, chances are slim we’ll play it often. Sometimes composers send us multi-movement works, and often we treat each movement as its own piece.

This happened recently with a new piece written for us by the just-announced 2018 Pulitzer finalist Michael Gilbertson. We commissioned a three-movement, 20 minute work using awarded funding from BMI and Concert Artists Guild. Once we got the music, we realized it was just going to be too much for one show. We decided that the best way to premiere the piece was to break it into three separate works—Endeavor, Outliers, and Collective Wisdom—and to premiere each piece individually over the course of 18 months or so. At first we were freaked out by the idea of splitting it up, but once we talked with the composer, we realized what a blessing it was. This gave us three world premieres to talk about instead of one, while also providing the space to get to know the composer and the flexibility to experiment with his music over a longer period of time. I believe wholeheartedly this approach gave us more focused and higher-level performances, all the while fitting with our modular program. (Wanna hear it? We’re premiering Endeavor on May 3 at the cell theatre in NYC. Event info here.)

Also important to know: all of the works on a Sybarite5 concert are announced from the stage. Anyone who knows me knows I feel strongly about this. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, the last thing I want an audience member to be doing is checking a program for what’s coming up next or studying how to spell the composers’ names. I want them 100% listening and watching, not reading and researching. I want them in the moment with us as much as possible. We do recognize that the composers are VERY important to us and our fans, so we publish our setlists with precise titles, composer names, and links on our blog right after each show. That way, people can get the info they need without being distracted during the show. Here’s an example.

Also, everyone in the ensemble speaks with the audience. This also gives us a chance to talk about the music, what it means to us personally, and where the audience can find it directly.

Don’t worry, we don’t leave our audience completely in the dark. Our printed program generally describes the show and mentions key composer names. Here’s an example:

Outliers: Sybarite5 is always on the lookout for new tunes and composers that speak with a unique and relevant voice. Outliers is a celebration of works written for us by our favorite composers and friends we’ve made traveling the world performing music we love. Sybarite5 plays the music of its friends Andy Akiho, Shawn Conley, Jessica Meyer, Marc Mellits, Brandon Ridenour, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Steven Snowden, and Dan Visconti paired with the group’s favorite works of Armenian folk music, Piazzolla, Barber, and Radiohead.

Regarding talking with the audience, I want to be clear here: I believe in engagement before information, so we don’t give a lecture about sonata form OR the polyrhythmic structures in our music. That is not gonna happen at our shows. Why? Because ~93% of the population does not want to hear about that; they cannot actually process that information in a performance-enhancing way.

Only 7% of Americans are in the “art club.” Meaning they self-identify as people with the arts as a central part of their lives and identity, and function according to understandings and abilities its members have developed. We make two big mistakes in trying to expand the reach of art beyond the club members: 1. We make false assumptions that those not in the Club think and function the same way as people in the Club, and they don’t. For example, we assume everyone can read a composer’s bio in a program and turn that into an enhanced experiencing of the performance—that is usually true for Art Club members, but not true of those not in the club. I based it on several studies from the UK, Canada and the U.S.—psychographic research mostly, but the interpretation is not a hard research finding, but interpretation. 2. We focus way too high a percentage of our creative energies on the Club, to keep them happy, to prevent anything they might find unsettling. Eric Booth

I agree with Eric. At best 7% know the difference between terms like baroque, classical, romantic, neo-classical, minimalism, serialism, or Gustav Mahler vs. Antonio Vivaldi.   So the minute you use a term such as “rondo,” “looping,” “allegro,” or “G major,” you lose 93% of the audience! No bueno. So, we often speak about what the music means to us personally, or—if there is one—tell a story about how the music came into our repertoire. We rarely talk about what the music is literally about because I want the audience to decide for themselves. At the end of the night, the audience leaves knowing us and the music better. In the end, I find this to be a powerful performance tool. And it also means we need to know the music and the composers on a more profound level.

Sybarite5 with composer and friend Francis Schwartz

To much energy for the camera to capture: Sybarite5 with composer and friend Francis Schwartz

How do we select our rep? Sometimes we have loose parameters, simply deciding it would make a great opener or a great closer. Sometimes a piece just speaks to us or fits like a glove. Sometimes it’s a very personal experience, and I like that aspect of it because it tends to give deeper meaning to our programming.

Truthfully, there’s really only one way we can add new rep: we do it together and in person. We read it together. We play through it in person. Sometimes we talk about what it means to us as individuals and what it may mean for our ensemble. Sometimes it’s a short talk; sometimes it’s a long discussion. There is trust involved. I have to respect my colleagues. I have to believe that if they are going to bring an idea or composer to the table, it’s important to them, and therefore important to the artistic growth of our ensemble.

Is this a quick process? No. Often it takes six months to two years before we can read a new work. Part of this is due to our huge pile of “to consider” music. Also, our touring schedule can be insane.

Do we have an open call for scores? Nope. Should you just send us music out of the blue? Probably not, unless you’ve got some mad street cred, or <gasp> we know each other. So, get to know us or have a mutual friend introduce us.

Before I end this post and as a reflection of how our ensemble actually works together, I wanted to include some thoughts on repertoire choices from the other people in Sybarite5. In the spirit of our collaborative efforts, here are some quotes from my bandmates:

Sami Merdinian, violin

Choosing new rep is one of the most thrilling aspects of being in Sybarite5. We look into composers that have a unique voice, that have a fresh and visionary approach, that are interested in expanding sounds and techniques for us, that are willing to grow and develop together during the collaborative process.

A lot of the composers that we end up choosing are acquaintances or friends, and they are aware of the programming we do, so seamlessly we incorporate their works into our repertoire. I feel mutual admiration ends up being a key component for a successful commission.

Laura Metcalf, cello

The musicians of Sybarite5 choose our repertoire in the most organic way possible: we play the music that we love. When considering composers with whom we build relationships, we look for a unique, authentic voice, and an aesthetic that makes sense with the rest of our programming. Many of the works we end up loving and playing again and again are by our instrumentalist friends who are new to composing – we don’t look for the most accomplished composers “on paper,” but rather find sounds that resonate with us.

Angela Pickett, viola

If I discover a piece that I love and that I think would complement the other works in our current rotation, I’ll bring it to the group. Recently this was Josef Suk’s Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale “St. Wenceslas”, op.35a, which is a rich and lush romantic work with versions for string orchestra and string quartet. Had the idea of a string quintet been popular in Suk’s time, I don’t think he would have objected to a third version!

Sarah Whitney, violin

In SYB5, we love to surprise our audiences. Since we don’t have a library of existing repertoire to choose from for string quintet, we get to create our own repertoire with very few rules. I bring music to the group that is unusual and engages an audience in a new way. We challenge the definition of classical music, and it’s even better if we can present something in a way that’s never been done before.

What the Stage Means to Me

First of all, I’d like to preface this by recognizing that I see a lot of composer-centered posts on NewMusicBox. This is insightful for me as a musician (and as a writer, in this situation) because, well, I’m not a composer (SPOILER ALERT: yet!).

So my not-so-hidden goal this week is to offer composers some context and insight regarding the professional challenges I’ve encountered and the goals that keep me motivated and moving forward, while also hopefully inspiring some performers while I’m at it. Composers want their music played well and played often, and we performers want to play awesome music, so maybe this dialogue will lead to a better understanding and more beautiful music being written and performed? A boy can dream.

In my last entry, I spoke about fear and judgment and how they impact my decisions within the context of artistic risk and career choices.

The one place I’ve recently realized they do not impact me is on stage. I think it is important for composers to know that when they write for me or for my chamber ensemble Sybarite5. Does this mean I might get some crazy, out there shit written for me now and then? Yup. IS that my goal? Nope. I just want composers to know that they should feel free to express their point of view in their music without being too worried about it. Almost every time I or my ensemble gets a new piece from someone who wrote it because they “think” it sounds like music “we play,” it never works. In contrast, when I get a piece from a composer that has their own focused and unique voice, I and my Sybarite5 colleagues are often are compelled to perform it. And perform it often! At the end of the day, if I’ve chosen to repeatedly perform a piece in public, it’s not usually because I hate it. It’s usually because it resonates with me in some way, and I want to communicate that on stage with the audience.

“Love Is a Dog From Hell” – Bukowski

Why do I do it? I love it. I love the music. I love the instrument—bass is the best! I love the freaky little ensemble we’ve made (#stringquintet #FTW). And more than anything, I want to share this love with the world when I perform.

Now, if something about that “share the love” sounded vanilla because it was carefree and simple, you’re gonna have to prepare for some disappointment. Love ain’t easy, and neither is playing and presenting new music.

But I don’t play because it’s an easy job. It’s not; it’s grueling. Life on the road away from family, kids, your support team, and your routine IS TOUGH. And, news flash, it doesn’t get easier. Anyone who wants to romanticize the routine of a traveling classical chamber musician is flat-out mistaken. Don’t get me wrong, we get to do great things. But there is a price to pay—including the literal cost of doing this job. I don’t play because it’s a good way to make a bunch of money. If I wanted to make a bunch of money, I’d be in real estate, finance, law, or medicine. Period, end of story.

But for some reason unbeknownst to me, life and music cannot be centered around money for me. It just cannot. There has to be something more.

Does this sometimes make my life scary, unstable, and difficult? YES. Do I always find a way to make things work? YES.

I make it work, but it’s challenging. So why do I love the stage so much? For some reason, on stage I can be true, honest, vulnerable, innocent, and authentic in a way that is meaningful to me (and ideally others). To me personally, the stage means FREEDOM.

To me personally, the stage means FREEDOM.

Freedom to be myself. Freedom to express. Freedom to share.

Why is it important for me be authentic on stage and who needs to know about that? How about the glorious people who write the beautiful music we wanna play. And, I think the music is the stuff that connects us humans to each other.

How does knowing this help composers? I want composers to know this because I’m hopeful that they will write and communicate more honestly and authentically, and know that it’s more than a concert for me.

How does it impact the work and its presentation? It often means that there are added layers of engagement in musical selections. There’s the music, the story, and the relationship with the composer.

How does the authenticity of the composer and the authenticity of the performer line up? I think in these cases, like seeks like. I’m interested in composers who have an authentic voice. More than that, I’m compelled to program their works and perform them repeatedly. I’m looking for a piece that is going to have a lifespan and not be a flash in the pan.

So when you write music for me, or my ensembles, you should have that info. And, chances are, if you have written for us, you do. Because we are friends with our composer colleagues. We hang. We want to hang. We get along. We value knowing the composers who write for us and having a truly collaborative relationships with them just as much as we value the music they write. Yes, you did read that right, we value the person as much the product. Why? Because when we play those pieces it’s like having a friend join us on stage.

How does Sybarite5 pick the people we work with and the music we play?

I guess I’ve got a week to write that down and let you know.

Barbara White: A Plea for Compassion

Thanks to the rise of the #MeToo movement, our society is beginning to be more aware and sensitive about how gender inequities have resulted in long overlooked and unpunished—and, in many cases, tolerated and even encouraged—scenarios of harassment and assault throughout our society. The focus on these toxic abuses of power has led many of us in the music community to look more carefully at ourselves, at our own work, and the work we admire and advocate for. It has caused us to ask some profound questions that take it far beyond the realm of questioning direct personal physical and verbal abuse. Why do we venerate various composers and interpreters over others? How is our repertoire chosen? Who are the composers who are included and who are excluded and why?  In the case of works that are presented on musical stages or that include a narrative text, there’s an extra layer; we’ve begun to more closely examine what stories we are choosing to tell and why.

One recent dramatic musical work that asks a lot of these questions is Weakness, a mostly one-woman opera composed by Barbara White which premiered, presciently, six years ago this month. For Weakness, White chose to set an old Celtic legend about a spirit woman named Macha whom a despotic king forces into a fatal race with his horses despite her begging him, as well as the entire community, to spare her.

“What ends up happening is that there is no empathy,” Barbara White explained when we visited her at her home in Princeton, New Jersey.  “She is scapegoated, subjected to abuse.  It has a real patriarchal aspect to it. There is a woman with gifts, and it’s a problem for this king.  He has to stomp her out, and no one helps her.”

But in her telling of this story, White was very aware of Carolyn Abbate’s assertion that female opera characters are often victims, and so she wanted to tell this story somewhat differently than it would be told in a more conventional opera presentation. Macha is the only singing character. The king’s lines of are actually spoken by the conductor!  Other significant characters, such as Macha’s husband—who in a moment of bragging caused the king to be aware of her and ultimately demand her compliance—is a speaking role for one of the dancers. The community is represented by other dancers, but the members of the audience are also made to feel like they are members of this community as well, which ultimately does nothing to help Macha.

According to White, “It’s very easy to be a bystander.  It happens a lot.  The problem is that a bystander is passive and is watching, doing nothing, not acting.  In the theater, that is what the bystander is expected to do.  So it was really interesting to me to think the audience becomes complicit in the story. … Many side with a perpetrator over a victim because all a perpetrator asks of you is that you do nothing.  A victim asks you to do something—to speak, to stand up, to challenge. … The moment where she addresses the audience is her final plea.  It’s a plea for compassion.”

Although Weakness is the largest-scale project that White has ever created, it—like most of her compositions—is extremely intimate. There are only four musicians in the ensemble, and she chose to write a role for herself playing clarinet in it. In so doing, she made herself as uncomfortable as she was trying to make the audience:

One of the hardest things that I’ve ever performed is in that same spot that I was talking about. There’s a pairing of a singer and dancer playing the same character.  While the singer is indicting the audience, the dancer is appealing to different people on stage—the non-speaking, non-singing, movement chorus and the King.  Then she comes and appeals to the musicians.  Relatively late in the process, it became apparent that … she’s appealing to us.  And we’re not playing at the moment.  So what do we do?  I asked the choreographer, and she said, “Just look at her heartlessly.”  And so we did.  That was so difficult. I had to put myself in the position of the non-sympathetic bystander, the one who was not doing anything.

The deeply personal nature of so many of White’s compositions explains why she has predominantly created music for soloists or small ensembles. Many of these works—such as the solo piano piece Reliquary, which explores the fragility of human memory, or her contribution to Dominic Donato’s tam-tam project Desire Lines—were tailor made for their intended performers, which she acknowledged is “the opposite end of the spectrum from [writing for] orchestra.” In the last five years, White has also immersed herself in performing regularly with musicians who have very different musical backgrounds from her, such as the traditional Cape Breton guitarist Charles MacDonald, with whom she plays in a duo called Fork & Spoon.

On top of all of these musical activities, White retains a busy schedule teaching undergraduates and graduate students at Princeton University, where she has now taught for 20 years. While most of her students “really have a sense of adventure and a sense of commitment,” her own personal compassion has enabled her to be an ideal mentor.

“There is perhaps something of a permission giving,” she noted. “A very common thing with composition students, no matter how joyful they are, is of course to have this kind of fear: ‘Can I do this or not?’ It’s enjoyable to me to see what they bring up. At 12 o’clock, someone will come in and say, ‘I think I’m repeating too much.  I think I should repeat less.’  Then the next person will come in and say, ‘I think I’m changing too much.  Should I repeat more?’  That tickles my fancy, for sure.  And, as much as I love trained musicians, I actually am fortunate that I get to do a lot with people who aren’t trained musicians. That’s really special to me. I teach an undergraduate freshman seminar called ‘Everyday Enchantment,’ which has to do with everyday experience and art making and where the boundary is.  Is there one?”

Her desire to instill curiosity and risk taking is also an important component of her latest composition, a children’s ballet called The Wrong Child, inspired by yet another Celtic folktale, which will be performed by Northeast Youth Ballet and Boston Musica Viva on March 11:

I’ve been intrigued to be writing for a young audience. … I thought about that a lot in reshaping the story.  For example, how dark and brooding can it be?  Another thing that I delighted in was the idea of bringing in sounds that are maybe not traditional classical sounds, but ones that we know as experimental sounds.


February 8, 2018 at 2:30 p.m.
Barbara White in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in White’s home in Princeton, New Jersey
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

FJO:  Every piece of yours that I’ve ever heard is either a solo piece or for chamber ensemble. Even your biggest composition to date, Weakness, which I want to talk about quite a bit but not just yet, is scored for relatively small forces. You haven’t really written for orchestra, and it seems like that’s a conscious choice.

BW:  Well, way back in 2000, I did a project for Continental Harmony where I was asked to write a march for the band and the local orchestra.  It ended up turning into an overture for the orchestra with a march at the end.  We called it the detachable march, so that the band could also play it [on its own].  The really unusual experience for me was that not only was it a march for the band, but it was actually marched to: it was played in a Fourth of July parade in 2000.  But that’s the only time I’ve written for band.  I’ve done a little bit for chamber orchestra, but nothing bigger except for that piece. (Raging River, Rolling Stone is the orchestra piece, and it ends with The Roll Stone Marches.)  I think this came about quite naturally in that I was drawn to smaller groups and a kind of intimacy in the music.  I like to know the names of everybody who’s there. And it’s even gotten more intimate than that: I’m working really closely with people right now, getting to know their particular way of playing, and doing pieces that other people couldn’t sub for.  I go almost to the opposite end of the spectrum from orchestra in that way.

FJO:  Of course, the closest you can probably be to any musician is to yourself, and relatively early on you wrote a solo clarinet piece for yourself, No Man’s Land, which you have described as a “homecoming.”  There are things in that score, like certain non-standard fingerings to get certain specific off-kilter sonorities, that a lot of classically trained clarinetists might not want to do.  Asking players to do something that subverts their training can make them feel concerned that an audience might think that they are not good musicians.  I wonder if anyone else has ever played it and what that was like.

BW:  That’s an interesting question to me.  I did not expect anyone else to play it.  In my clarinet music there are pieces I write for me to play that I don’t expect others to play.  This does not mean that I won’t permit it, but I just don’t expect it to happen because it comes out of what I do.  It’s really inefficient to put these pieces together, so I wouldn’t expect someone who’s more of a classical player to engage with that material, even to deal with the notation.  Nevertheless, it has happened.  I’ve had two or three different people contact me about that very piece, No Man’s Land.  I’ve heard one other recording of it, and it was good.  And somebody contacted me just a few months ago who wants to do it on a Masters recital. So I provided the music and said just let me know how it goes.

But you’re right.  There are the microtonal things and the moaning things.  Another one that did come out of No Man’s Land and went into other pieces was this kind of squawking sound that you might remember in the last movement.  I put that in another piece and was working with one ensemble where, first of all, I felt very understanding if the clarinetist didn’t want to do that.  In rehearsal, I was explaining how to do it, and I provided a sound clip and so on, and the clarinetist just wasn’t doing it.  I let go of it, but we got to the performance and there was this squawking sound.  So it did come out, but just not in rehearsal.

As for it being a homecoming, I had an injury and couldn’t play much when I was young, in my 20s. Then when I started playing again, the instrument didn’t have baggage for me. I was discovering it anew and not taking for granted how things should sound, what fingerings to use, what’s pretty, as you said.

FJO:  I think the fact that you were coming to the instrument afresh after a long hiatus makes it different than many of the repertoire classics by composer-performers which are really mostly concerned with showing off the idiomatic virtuosity that is possible on a given instrument—whether it’s the Paganini Caprices or Liszt’s etudes or pretty much anything by Rachmaninoff or, for that matter, even much more contemporary things. One of the benefits of writing for instruments that you can’t play, like Beethoven writing his late string quartets or David Rakowski writing all those piano etudes, is that it can push the envelope of what an instrument can do.

“I’ll sometimes hit a wrong note and like it.”

BW:  I think it can go either way. I’ve sometimes felt fortunate that I’m a bad pianist; I’ll sometimes hit a wrong note and like it.  I’ve wondered if I had more facility with the piano if that wouldn’t work for me—which is not to say anything about anyone else’s facility. If you have chops, it can allow you to explore, but if you don’t have chops on a given instrument, you might have a tabula rasa.  But that may or may not be appreciated by the performer who ends up playing it!

FJO:  But you found a way to give yourself a tabula rasa as a composer for your instrument.

BW:  That also comes into play in my sort of quasi-trad music experience. I do tend to play clarinet in a way that has lots of inflection. It’s not pristine, continuous, beautiful sounds, but I do like that type of playing and I’d been missing that. One way that it came out was that I started playing in a quasi-trad music context. In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, I have a duo called Fork & Spoon, with a guitarist, and we play tunes. I still have these squawks and bent notes and so on in our tunes, but it’s also encouraged me to play things more “straight” sometimes, and I really have liked doing that as well.  One that I’m very fond of is based on the Beethoven settings of Scottish Songs. I’ve wanted to find the original songs, which may or may not be possible.  One is “The Lovely Lass of Inverness.” It just happens, not surprisingly, that there’s an Inverness nearby in Cape Breton because there’s a deep Scottish heritage there.  Anyway, I looked at the song and basically took out the chromatic notes and approximated what I thought the original might have been and made a new song out of it.  I turned “The Lovely Lass of Inverness” into “The Lonely Lark of Central Park,” and we play that in a set with other truly trad tunes.  With my background, being new to trad music and not being really in that scene, I liked being able to “recuperate” Beethoven a little bit; it was enjoyable.  So I like playing that tune.

Barbara White sitting in her studio with her upright piano in back of her.

FJO:  We’ll talk more about Fork & Spoon in a bit, but first let’s go back to this bifurcation you mentioned about clarinet pieces you write for yourself and clarinet pieces you write for other people. I think perhaps that strikes to the heart of your decision to focus on being a composer, since someone who primarily identified as a performer might not necessarily think in those terms.  I’m curious about how and when and why composing got the upper hand.

BW:  I think it was that I was being asked to write pieces for ensembles and I wasn’t part of those ensembles.  I remember times, 10 to 20 years ago, where I would long to play and say, “I’d really like to make space for a project that I would play.” Gradually occasions arrived where I could play.  It’s nice that you mentioned No Man’s Land, which is almost 20 years old now. That’s on my first CD, but then on my next CD I didn’t play, even though I had premiered one of the pieces [Small World]. I wanted someone else to play it for real on the recording.

FJO: “For real”? Hearing you say that definitely proves that composing got the upper hand.

“What got me back into playing was actually working with the shakuhachi.”

BW:  I caught myself saying that. It wasn’t maybe the best way to put it.  It was a piece that had some klezmer-y things in it.  The inflections that I was using I could do, but I don’t play klezmer music.  So I thought it would benefit from a clarinetist who practices every day.  And the other thing with that piece is that it was written, again, for people who were an ensemble.  That was Larry Passin and Nancy Zeltsman; they were doing a project with clarinet and marimba.  I wrote the piece for them to play, but I played the premiere to test it out.  It was natural that they would play it in the end.  So there isn’t a dramatic story there, but what has happened is in various projects I did start playing again.  It’s been a much bigger part of my life in the last five years or so, maybe longer.  What got me back into playing was actually working with the shakuhachi.  I wanted to learn that instrument, just to experience it, and part of doing that led me to think, “This is the hardest instrument ever.  It’s very gratifying to struggle with and I want to keep playing it, but I already know how to play the clarinet a little bit.”

FJO:  It has been an interesting path, going from writing pieces for yourself to play, to writing pieces for others to play who you know, to writing for people who you might not know, to working more directly with players you do know and sometimes also play in the ensembles with. To jump the gun a bit chronologically, you’re actually playing in the instrumental ensemble for the most recent recording of your music, which is devoted to your magnum opus Weakness, which we’ll also talk more about in a little while. But obviously, when somebody asks for a score, and you send it off and say, “Let me know how it went,” you’re not really connected.  How does that feel, since you obviously want the connection?

BW:  Well, I think it makes a big difference how old the piece is.  I do feel somewhat protective of my pieces sometimes. It might be tempting to aim for as many performances as possible, and that can be great if there’s a piece that any number of people can play.  With that piece you mentioned, No Man’s Land, it is about 20 years old now.  So I don’t feel so protective of it.  And I’m happy especially if it’s younger people who are exploring repertoire and find that piece and are interested in it and want to grapple with the notation.  We end up having the experience and connection we have, so I guess I take for granted that there are going to be projects where I know the people and we’re making something anew.  But once a score is out there, it will also find its way to people and that’s great, too.

FJO:  Well, I also wonder about that in terms of the choices of ensembles that you work with.  You have a piece called Five Elements that’s a standard piano quintet. It could easily be grouped on a program with pieces by Brahms or Dvorák.  But you tend not to write for those kinds of ensembles.  In the repertoire of yours that I know, I don’t know of a single piano trio or string quartet.  You have a violin-piano duo, which is a really cool piece.  But there are a lot of pieces for the so-called Pierrot ensemble, which is more an ensemble of our own time, so there isn’t this heavy weight of the distant past. Still, if you write a piece for, say, piano trio, there are a zillion piano trios out there who could potentially play it. Whereas if you write a piece that’s scored for clarinet, violin, and marimba, like your piece When the Smoke Clears, how many of those groups are out there?

BW:  Right. However, sometimes groups arise, not necessarily formed as a formal group, that will continue.  It’s funny you mentioned piano trios, because I do have one and it has had just one performance. That is one that I feel could travel more.  It’s still intimate, but I think it’s more gregarious than some of my other pieces.  But you’re right.  It often has to do with who asks, and whether the project feels like it appeals. One piece that fits what you’re talking about is a piece for two bass clarinetists and two percussionists [Repeat After Me]. It is a dance score, and fortunately I had the opportunity to choose the instruments.  There aren’t too many ensembles like that, but it has been done by other people.  It was really gratifying that Sqwonk, the bass clarinet duo, recorded it.  I hadn’t gotten around to recording it myself yet and then I heard from Jonathan Russell—who was a Princeton graduate student and bass clarinetist—that Sqwonk wanted to record it.

FJO:  I was going to interject before when you were trying to get that clarinetist to make a squonk in rehearsal that now we even have groups that are named that! I think we’ve come a long way. There are a lot of performers now who want to take the ride, people who just want to do the wacky, out there stuff.  It’s a very different world from the more established chamber music ensembles like, as we were talking about earlier, piano trios, whose bread and butter is being presented on concert series where they’re expected to play the Archduke Trio.

BW:  Hopefully Ravel once in a while.

FJO:  The balance is tricky.  But most of your music tends to be performed on new music concerts.  It doesn’t live alongside older music so much.

BW:  I think that’s largely so.  The piano quintet you mentioned was commissioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Chamber Concert Series.  So the rest of the program was older music.  And my piano pieces will be on concerts with older music.  But you’re right.  Usually if a Pierrot ensemble is involved, it’s going to be recent music.  Related to what you’re saying, I think probably—not surprisingly—the traditional “ensemble,” so to speak, that comes up the most is solo piano, which actually feels a little foreign to me.  But I enjoy getting into the space of writing for it.  Eric Moe is premiering a new piece that will be performed with some older music for sure.  And maybe some newer music, too.

FJO:  He’s a composer, and he performs mostly new music, so you’re probably not going to be the only living composer on that concert.

BW:  Right.

FJO:  But certainly, for the people in our field who write orchestra music, they wind up being in this position where they share the program with all dead composers and many people in the audience might not even know or care about the new composer on the program, so they’re dealing with the potential disappointment of the audience as well as the potential hostility of players who are used to playing a certain repertoire.  That’s a very different world from the one you’re in where you know everybody’s name.

BW:  Sounds like Cheers. [Laughter] Although there’s almost an analog to that for me, which is that when I interlope or interfere in the world of shakuhachi and in the world of Cape Breton music, I am often putting something in a program that stands out from the tradition.

Several of Barbara White's flute including a pennywhistle and a shakuhachi.

FJO:  But the other part of it is I think it affects the music that one winds up writing for those instruments. For example, you mentioned the piano as being the most traditional thing you’ve written music for. It’s an instrument with a huge historical repertoire. When people see a piano, before they hear a note of whatever music is being performed on it, they already have a context for what they’re hearing. Same with a piano trio or a string quartet. But they’re probably not going have as fixed a notion for, say, a solo percussion piece.

BW:  True.

FJO:  So does that affect what you write when you write for solo piano?

BW:  I think it might.  Not counting a student piece, I’m imagining that I have three piano pieces.  And the middle one doesn’t do that so much, but the first and third ones do to some extent.  It has to do with thinking about the specific player, too.  I have two pianist colleagues I’ve worked with a lot.  Of course, I’m about to hear Eric play a new piece, but if I think of the other two—Geoff Burleson and John Blacklow—they’re very different temperamentally.  So for Geoff, I would tend to write something that’s very omnivorous and might have some kind of vernacular—for lack of a better word—aspect to it.  For John, I would tend to write something that’s very concentrated and contemplative.  This is not to say that each of them does not have the other aspect, but it’s the gestalt that comes to the fore when I’m writing for them.  So I think that’s part of it.  In the piano piece I just wrote for Eric, I didn’t expect it to be so much about traditional music, or about repertoire, but it ended up being that way.

Eric asked for a short piano piece, and I was about to say, I don’t know if I can do this right now!  Then I had an idea for the piece.  I’d been thinking a lot about ice, because I went to Newfoundland in June 2016 and had the great experience of encountering what I will call an iceberglet.  I tended to call this “my” iceberg. Basically it was a piece of an iceberg that floated in and out from shore, and eventually it broke into pieces and then all of a sudden, it was literally in front of the house where I was staying.  I audio recorded it—and I plan to do something with that—but I was thinking about it in terms of the piano. The idea of icy frozen sounds was with me. But then, as I was working on the piece, I started to think about Schubert.  Ice and tears, and brooks babbling and so on.  So the piece has this kind of thing where there’s ice that melts, and after it melts, it’s Schubert.  It seems very organic.  I couldn’t have predicted that.  I didn’t set out to write something that refers to Schubert.  And it doesn’t have a quote exactly.  It’s more as if it messes with his syntax.  The other reason that that came about very likely is because I was teaching music theory at the time, and we were working on Schubert song cycles.  And that was what was in my imperfect memory, so it just emerged.

FJO:  I’m trying to imagine how the piano conveys the sound of ice melting. Maybe it’s a loud chord prolonged by the sustain pedal? We can attach these meanings to something abstract like that in a piece of music, but unless you tell people that’s what it is before they hear it, they’re not necessarily going to perceive it that way on their own.

BW:  The relationship was with high and sharp, crystalline sounds with a lot of decay. So things that were very still and steely, so to speak.  But sure, it could be a fire burning at a camp site to somebody else.

FJO:  Now, the piano is not your instrument, but you have a piano here.  So do you test out stuff? What’s your process?

“I like to get physically involved in the music.”

BW:  I do use the piano, but it really depends on the piece.  If I’m writing for percussion, I will often sort of tap things out.  I like to get physically involved in the music.  If I’m writing for clarinet, I will use my clarinet.  And I can get around a flute.  But what I’ve been doing more recently, partly because of the instruments I work with, is mockups. For my opera Weakness, I made a blackmail mockup: if anyone wanted to threaten to release it to the world, they might be able to get some money out of me.  I even sang some of the parts; I’m not a singer.  There were some really high wailing sounds.  I did those just to show the singer what the idea was.  Particularly working with the shakuhachi, that’s what really led me in that direction, occasionally playing things myself but even taking things that I’ve recorded from a player, and so on.

FJO:  I know that physical gesture is also an important component for you in forming your music, but it’s something I’ve hardly been aware of as a listener since I’ve experienced almost all of your music on recordings rather than in live performances. So important aspects of pieces such as your song cycle Life in the Castle or the piano quintet Five Elements, which we’ve already touched on briefly and which was inspired by martial arts, are somewhat lost on me. How did movement—dance, martial arts—play into the creative process for those two pieces and perhaps others as well?

BW: Well, Life in the Castle was meant to underscore dance, but I have a more roundabout answer. More recently, when I started working with shakuhachi, it confirmed an experience I had had with the clarinet, of just how potent the physical experience of playing the instrument is.  Shakuhachi is not a stadium rock band instrument—though it has been for some, actually.  But generally, it’s a very private, intimate instrument that has often been played alone.  There’s something about the way that the different sounds are made where the use of the fingers and the breath become very pronounced.  For example, if you finger a note different ways, that’s not considered an alternate fingering.  They’re actually different things, and you’ll get very different sounds.  You wouldn’t do the same kind of thing you’d do on the clarinet, with forked fingerings.  So going back to the piano quintet, Five Elements, I it might be right to say that the physical gesture was important in that that’s how I learned about the five elements.  There’s a qigong exercise or activity called five elements that cycles through the different elements.  The way that works conceptually is really interesting to me and stays with me all the time.  But I think that I was thinking more imagistically by the time I got to that music, rather than gesturally.

FJO:  I know that you studied taiji at some point.

BW:  Yes. Pretty rigorously.  But at that point I was doing qigong more.  Here’s something maybe related to what you said earlier: Eric Moe wrote the liner notes for one of my CDs and he talked about movement in stillness, and stillness in movement.  That is something that is always there with me.  It actually relates to the yin yang symbol. If it’s black and white, you have a black squiggle with a white dot and a white squiggle with a black dot.  Each half contains a bit of its opposite.  So it’s this idea of duality, but also relationship.  That was very much part of what I thought about in that piece.  There might be a lot of activity on the surface with slow harmonic movement.  Or there might be really quick harmonic movement with a slow gestural thing happening.  That comes into play also in this interesting journey I’m having with the shakuhachi and with Cape Breton music in that in some ways they might sound very opposite.  Cape Breton music has a Celtic aspect to it.  There are jigs and reels, and strathspeys, and so on. There’s a lot of fast music with a lot of ornamentation and so on.  Shakuhachi music tends to be slow, especially the honkyoku repertoire that interests me the most, but it also has a lot of ornamentation.  With shakuhachi, I’m always joking—but it’s sometimes true—every note lasts a minute, but there’s a lot happening in that note.  So it’s a stillness with a lot of movement in it.  And then if I take Cape Breton music, with the Celtic-Scottish-Irish influence, jigs and reels that repeat with lots of eighth notes usually, there’s also a kind of compactness to the syntax that makes it seem still in a way.

FJO:  I didn’t realize this until what you just said, but the first movement of No-Man’s Land is actually called “Pibroch,” which is an example of a type of traditional Celtic music that’s as slow as shakuhachi repertoire.

BW:  Good point.

FJO:  And you wrote this long before you became enamored with either of those traditions.

BW:  Interestingly though, the way that I came to that title was through the Ted Hughes poem called “Pibroch,” which if I remember correctly, begins:

The sea cries with its meaningless voice
Treating alike its dead and its living

So the idea of a cry was very much there.  But then, of course, I did learn about Highland bagpipe music, so that was in there, too.

A bas-relief in Barbara White's kitchen.

FJO:  So, in terms of the inspiration, you said a little earlier, some allusions to Schubert subconsciously wound up in your new piano piece because you had been teaching his music in a theory class. Similarly, you were reading Ted Hughes and his poem became an element of the music you were working on. A piece of yours I really love, Learning to See, is all about trying to make musical connections for experiences that you had looking at visual art. The CD very nicely reproduces some of those images, and your notes talk about Brancusi and Eva Hesse and my favorite detail: your referencing of a John Cage piece because Jasper Johns incorporated the manuscript of it in one of his collages. But if a listener didn’t know any of that, if they didn’t read the notes or just happened to hear it on the radio, they might not hear any of these references. Is that okay?

BW:  Sure, that’s fine.  My original request was not to list the artists in the program notes, so it’s just my titles, but not who the artists were.  And then as time passed, I’ve been flexible about whether to do that or not.  Particularly when I was putting together Apocryphal Stories, I was bringing together things of interest to me that were so specific.  I really didn’t expect anyone else to get what those were, these collage moments of obscure references.  It’s very gratifying that you know the story about Perilous Night, but I certainly wouldn’t expect that.  And it’s also not trying to prove anything about those things.  I’m not saying, “Aha, I found Perilous Night and now I’m bringing it back and this shows something about Jasper Johns.”  It’s more a kind of curio, to explore this unexpected juxtaposition.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you didn’t want people to know initially, because I think that’s what’s so cool about this piece.

BW: I’ve had some surprising experiences with it being done without the information. Also, even if people have that information in the program, they might not look at it.  Right?

FJO:  Right.  Of course.

BW:  So there have been instances where people either didn’t have the information, or didn’t take it in, and I got really insightful comments. The point isn’t so much that they were positive comments, but they might have been really interesting observations on the music—and not necessarily from people who are all that informed about contemporary music.  So I’m always happy when that happens.  And I often think that a big part of that can be performance.  A really fine, persuasive performance can draw people into something that might seem alien otherwise.

FJO: But I do think if someone knows the back story, the listening experience is even richer.  I know that it was for me, so I’m glad that you’ve allowed those liner notes to be out there. To take it one step further, has the piece ever been performed in an art gallery?

BW:  I don’t think so.  That is about my most-played piece, so I might not be able to remember every single performance.  But I think not.

FJO:  For me it’s always important to know what’s behind something, to find out anything that could offer a window into it.  Similarly with your piano piece Reliquary, the idea that there are these echoes of other pieces in it that are only partially remembered, in terms of their accuracy, is something to latch on to when listening to it.

BW:  I hesitate to be so categorical, but even without that much extra-musical apparatus surrounding the music, there could be things in a piece that are intended that don’t get across.  It’s something I talk to students about. A composer can have an idea of what a piece is doing, and maybe that’s not heard because we might not be projecting it so much.  Similarly, I’m always going to have these associations of a narrative in the back of my mind, or a visual image, or something like that. I’m happy to share that, but I don’t expect people to have the knowledge I do.  At the time I was doing Apocryphal Stories, I was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute and gave a presentation, the same way the scholars did.  A historian said, “Oh, your work is not unlike what I do.” And I said, “Okay, yes.  There’s some excavation and some research.”  So I love doing that.  I love having the opportunity to explain and explore and give the background of a piece.  I just don’t expect it to happen every time.  There are going to be performances that don’t bring that in.

FJO:  Novels are perhaps the most direct way to communicate as an artist, but oftentimes someone writes a novel and many people read it and they still don’t get what the author had intended. It’s something that can’t really be controlled.

BW:  Exactly.

FJO:  Although, to take it to literature, when you set a text, there are things that you can control.  For Life in the Castle, you set a bunch of poems about mirrors, so you did things in your music—pardon the pun—to mirror that. Then, in Enough Rope, you also set all these wonderful Dorothy Parker poems and the music you set to these is quite different.  So when you have a text, how important is it for you to bring out that text and how deeply does that text shape what you create?

BW:  With the Dorothy Parker texts, because they have meter, that made a big, big difference.  And also, simply the tone of the poems. What does one make of this arch, wry kind of projection that is sometimes more than that?  That was a big part of it.  There is wit in her poems, but really out-there wit.  Some of the lines still stick with me.

Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die!
(But, alas, we never do.)

I was particularly interested in the “zingers” at the ends of her poems, so that very much influenced the form.  So for the one [I just recited which is] called “The Flaw in Paganism,” I used a lot of ornamentation to make the voice dance and laugh.  Then there’s one poem that uses the word “yes” in an erotic way, so I took advantage of that.  And there are some high, florid parts, which doesn’t make it any easier for her to sing.

FJO:  Of course, the tricky thing with writing something very high and busy for a soprano is it can affect the intelligibility of the words. How important is it to you that the words are not just heard, but understood, in so far as we can affect what someone else understands?

BW:  That’s a big question. There’s another direction I’ve gone in that you might know less about. I’ve also used texts that are more everyday.  I wrote a series of pieces for Dominic Donato’s tam-tam project and they got worked into an evening-length theater program called Desire Lines, which I played in as well, along with him.  One of them sets George Carlin.  And there are fortune cookies.  There’s a Zen text, which is kind of wry also.  And there’s also a passage from Bertrand Russell.  Take a guess about what I used from George Carlin.

FJO:  The Blue Food?

BW:  Nope.  I don’t know that one.  It’s the Seven Words.

FJO:  Oh, right.  Of course.

BW:  It might be the shortest piece I’ve ever written.  It’s about 20 or 30 seconds long.  It’s just the clip of George Carlin saying, “You know what they are, don’t you, the seven words you can’t say on television?”  Then he utters the words, and Dominic, the tam-tam player has to race across the stage and bang the gong so we don’t hear the words.  It’s very much about this idea of erasure and danger. The danger I put into the piece is if he doesn’t make it in time, we hear one of these words.  So that affected how I wrote the piece.  That was a case where the text was very significant.

FJO:  I love the idea that you set it up for a mistake. Did he always get there on time?

BW:  He did, but you can hear a little bit of the “sh…” at the beginning of a word that has been in the news lately.

FJO:  For the largest piece you’ve composed to date, Weakness, you set your own text, but it is based on a very old Celtic folktale, which is both beautiful and creepy. I’m curious about what led you to that.

“A bystander is passive and is watching, doing nothing…”

BW:  There’s actually an interesting story to this.  There was an opera project going on at Princeton.  I was invited by Scott Burnham, who was the chair of the department at the time, to participate in this and compose an opera.  I was thinking about different stories to work on, and I had this funny serendipity.  I missed a meeting about the opera project because I went on a road trip to Chicago to take a workshop in Celtic mythology taught by Tom Cowan, from whom I’ve learned a lot of these stories.  And he read this story.  The version he read was from Marie Heaney. She has a wonderful book called Over Nine Waves.  It’s a stunning and startling story to hear.  It’s so rare for me that this is the case, but this was a moment that changed my life. He got to the point in the story where the Goddess, who has become human, is pleading, for the third time I believe, to be helped.  She’s been overpowered by a king and her life is at stake.  And she says, “Will no one help me?”  As he read that, it was very potent, and I actually saw something very specific, which was the Goddess, as she was facing the people in the story . . . I saw her breaking the fourth wall and facing the audience.  I started to see this as way of addressing the way that bystanders see mistreatment and violence.  It’s very easy to be a bystander.  It happens a lot.  The problem is that a bystander is passive and is watching, doing nothing, not acting.  In the theater, that is what the bystander is expected to do.  So it was really interesting to me to think the audience becomes complicit in the story.

FJO:  For the purposes of people who might not know the story, it might be nice for you to tell it.

BW:  It’s not an easy story.  Interestingly, the man I learned it from—Tom Cowan, whom I mentioned—told me later that he would always read the printed text from Marie Heaney when he told the story.  It took a while for him to decide to tell the story impromptu, or to write his own version of it.  This story has a real power to it.  I’ve felt it through the years that I’ve known it and worked on it.  I don’t have a good word to say this.  I don’t want to say I’m superstitious about it, but the power of the story is not lost on me.  It has had reverberations that have been very loud, let’s say.  The context in which Tom teaches the story is the idea of sovereignty over oneself—we tend to hear about that in terms of dynasties and nations—but the idea here is that sovereignty is not about being in control, but being in charge.  One of the things that Tom talks about is that there are people who cannot be in control: children, prisoners, people who have great constraints on them. But if we’re not in control, we can still be in charge.  It has much to do with what happens when you are really stuck and something terrible is happening.  And you really don’t have a way out.  How do you still retain your sovereignty and your personal authority, and perhaps dignity?  You might lose, but you still retain that sovereignty.

So the story has to do with a spirit. We might call her a Goddess, but I’d call her a spirit who assumes human form. The inspiration for this is that she sees a man whom she fancies and wants to get know him.  So she shows up at his place, and he doesn’t know where she’s come from.  His name is Crunnchu; she is Macha.  One of the mysterious and I think charming parts of the story is that she makes him dinner.  So I put into my opera that they wash the dishes afterwards.  There’s this kind of very everyday aspect to this story.  In addition, there’s something very marvelous about her, which is that she runs.  In my opera, she’s spied upon by him, and he says, “Wow.  What’s she doing?  She’s running.”  She’s very fast, so she still retains some superhuman qualities.

Anyway, they live happily, and sometime later Crunnchu, the husband, is called away to a gathering, which might be a political gathering or a festive gathering.  There are different versions of the story.  And she is worried about him going, because she does not want people to know about her.  In my version she says, “Do not speak my name.  Do not tell anyone I’m here.”  And yet he goes to this gathering despite her warnings, and the King is there.  There’s a race involving the King’s horses, and everyone is expressing delight at the speed of the King’s horses.  And before he knows what he’s doing, apparently, Crunnchu yells out, “My wife can run faster than the king’s horses!” And that’s where all hell breaks loose.  The King does not want to hear this.  The King wants his horses to be the fastest.  So the King insists that Macha be brought to him and that she race his horses.  In my version, and also in the originals, she issues pleas.  She pleads to her husband not to go to this gathering and not to talk about her.  Then she pleads with the King to let up on this requirement that she run the race.  Then eventually she pleads with the bystanders. That is the spot I was talking about. This to me is the real kernel of the story.  Another part of the story is that in all the tellings of the story I know, except mine, she is pregnant.  So although she would win the race, who knows what would happen when she runs a race while she’s about to deliver a child?

What ends up happening is that there is no empathy.  There is no help.  She is scapegoated, subjected to abuse.  It has a real patriarchal aspect to it. There is a woman with gifts, and it’s a problem for this King.  He has to stomp her out, and no one helps her.  So she runs the race.  In my version, she expires but she possibly goes back to her goddess-spirit form.  The ending is not just her crumpled on the ground.  There’s more that comes afterward that returns to the spirit realm.

FJO:  But she wins the race.

BW:  Yes, she wins the race, but at great cost.

FJO:  And ultimately also at great cost to the community because she put a curse on them.

BW:  Yes.  There’s some interesting research on the story.  She says that for seven generations they will be cursed. When the men go into battle, they will be doubled over with pains.  Some research actually associates these men being afflicted with—or even imitating—women’s experience of menstruation. Men are visited by this kind of bodily interruption and incapacity.  In my version, I worked with that curse idea a little bit.  It seemed to me that she didn’t need to curse them.  They’d already done it themselves by ceding humanity to dominance, ceding compassion to abuse.  So there’s a line in my opera where she says, “They say that I cursed them.  But no, they cursed themselves.”  One could say she’s speaking from the future, but because she’s a spirit again, she’s speaking through non-linear time.

A bookcase in Barbara White's studio.

FJO:  The interesting thing about all of this is that she always has agency.  She always retains power. She chose the man. She won the race. And the community was cursed because they did not offer to help her. They might have destroyed her corporeally, for that moment, but ultimately she won.

BW:  Yes.

FJO:  I think this portrayal is very emblematic for the current moment in our history. It’s very much a #MeToo story in that it’s speaking truth to power and overcoming.

“Female opera characters are often said to be victims.”

BW:  There’s actually a scholarly resonance for this for me, which is from Carolyn Abbate’s book, Unsung Voices.  Female opera characters are often said to be victims.  She proposes that—at least in some cases—they can be “undone by plot yet triumphant in voice.”  I was thinking about that, that the spirit nature of the Macha character does endure.  So it might be that she goes back to spirit world.  It might be memory, like we were talking about before.  It might be something more impressionistic.  I was very much questioning the notion of triumph as I wrote it.  We don’t always get what we want.  I had had cancer a bit before.  It’s not the main issue in the piece for me, but something that that and other experiences can teach is that being super tough doesn’t necessarily mean you win the race.  It was very poignant to me, and again kind of chilling, that she’s a Goddess and she still loses.  She wins the race, but she doesn’t win.

FJO: She, of course, loses the happy life she had with the man that she chose to be with.

BW:  And in many versions, she actually dies. We’re not always going to prevail.  This is very personal, but the opera has to do with an earlier experience. I don’t know if anyone would guess this, but this idea of a woman being overpowered actually has to do with sexual abuse for me.  I deliberately did not make that explicit.  I have a lot of pieces that deal with something or other, health issues for example, that is not made explicit, but it does grow out of an experience of that.  The moment where she addresses the audience is her final plea.  It’s a plea for compassion. My subtitle for that is The Indictment Aria.  Because she is damning them there: “Is there no one among you who will help me?”  A really interesting historical association with that moment is the McCarthy hearings.  The famous line of Joseph Nye Welch, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” To me, it’s very much like that scene in the opera.  You mentioned the #MeToo movement.  We see demeaning treatment, disparagement, and degradation of others. It’s very easy and very common to let that happen.  It takes a lot more to stand up.

There’s a wonderful writer on trauma, Judith Herman.  She talks about the Vietnam Memorial, which of course was controversial and has its own particular character. She says, we do not have a monument for rape victims.  There is a kind of bifurcation between public and private trauma. Of course, the trauma of war also has its secrecies, particularly in the past.  But things like spousal abuse, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and so on, often are hidden.  This very recent historical period has changed that a lot.  But that’s generally been the way it has been treated.  The other thing she says that is really important in terms of bystander-dom is that many do side with a perpetrator over a victim because all a perpetrator asks of you is that you do nothing.  A victim asks you to do something—to speak, to stand up, to challenge.  So when I think of bystander-dom, I always think of what she’s written about it.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you found a way to prevent the audience from siding with the perpetrator, in this case the King, since only the victim, Macha, has a singing role.  The conductor speaks some lines as the King and there are other ancillary characters, but it’s essentially a one-character opera, a monodrama for Macha.

BW:  That’s really interesting.  There is the husband, but he’s a dancer.  There’s one singing character, and then there’s this breaking not only of the fourth wall, but of the conventions of performance, where the conductor talks.  I was thinking this morning about something that a colleague said to me about the dangers of politicized work.  I wouldn’t call mine political exactly, but we’re often presented with a story, and the composers identify themselves with the good and they’re showing the evil.  They’re indicting the evil.  That was actually something I thought about in that I wanted the shakuhachi to be associated with the spirit, for good reasons—inspiration, respiration, and so on, the kind of Goddess-like otherworldly qualities of the shakuhachi. Then the instrument that would be associated with the man who betrays his wife was the clarinet, which I was playing. I deliberately did that.  I put myself in the position of being the betrayer.  I wasn’t playing the role exactly, but I did not want to say, “I’m a force for good and out there are all these evil people.”

One of the hardest things that I’ve ever performed is in that same spot that I was talking about. There’s a pairing of a singer and dancer playing the same character.  While the singer is indicting the audience, the dancer is appealing to different people on stage—the non-speaking, non-singing, movement chorus and the King.  Then she comes and appeals to the musicians.  Relatively late in the process, it became apparent that—I’m on stage next to the shakuhachi player, Riley Lee—she’s appealing to us.  And we’re not playing at the moment.  So what do we do?  I asked the choreographer, and she said, “Just look at her heartlessly.”  And so we did.  That was so difficult. I had to put myself in the position of the non-sympathetic bystander, the one who was not doing anything.

FJO:  And the audience is indicted for doing nothing, but if someone in the audience stood up and said stop they’d be ruining your performance.

BW:  But that’s the right thing to do.

A set of miniature houses is on one of Barbara White's shelves.

FJO:  So the period when you were creating this piece, which is based on a Celtic folktale, was roughly around the same time that you started deeply immersing yourself in Celtic folk music, but the music for Weakness isn’t noticeably Celtic—at least to me.

BW:  Well, I’d always been interested in and had responded positively to, Celtic music. I did a dance piece in graduate school where the choreographer used a myth told by Yeats, and so I explored some of the music then.  So when I was working on Weakness, people assumed that there was Celtic music in it.  Not a bad assumption, but nah, there was a Japanese flute instead; that’s how it worked.  After that was done, I was still very much working with Celtic stories, but I wasn’t thinking at all about Celtic music.

This is what happened.  I had been chained to this piano in this room for a couple years writing an opera.  I hadn’t had a lot of chances to travel, so I just had this idea: I’m going to take a road trip.  So I got on a very handy internet map—I love how you can zoom in and out and see where you are in any kind of resolution—and as I was looking at the map, I thought, “I haven’t really been much in the South.”  So I started looking south and I said, “Nah.”  Then I said, “I’ve always wanted to go back to Montreal.  I visited there on a band trip in high school.”  So I looked up Montreal.  Then I kept going east on the map.  And I remembered that one friend in particular, but others as well, had visited Cape Breton Island.  I didn’t remember much of what they told me about it, but I just said, “Hmm, that might be the place to go.”  My reason for going there had nothing to do with music.  I did know there was music there, but I’m sure I wasn’t really thinking about Celtic music in Cape Breton.  Really what I was looking for—and this might sound sacrilegious for a composer—was not having any music for a while.  I intended to go sit on rocky cliffs, take in the ocean sounds, and so on, after doing Weakness.  So that was my intention, and I booked a reservation at an inn on the island and was getting ready to go, and then I looked on the website and saw that they were having a music camp there the day I arrived.  I literally did say, “Oh, damn.” However, I couldn’t say no to a music camp in Cape Breton, so I went over to New Hope, Pennsylvania, and bought a tin whistle for $20 and went up to this camp.  It was a 48-hour camp, and it was run by an organization I’ve worked with in various ways since then, called Kitchen Rackets.  I went to this camp for a weekend and—I’ve already said this once today and I don’t often say this—it changed my life. I ended up learning a little bit of tin whistle, but then I sort of stuck around.  I went and sat by the ocean.  I made some field recordings that worked their way into the [Weakness/Macha] CD.  I did some recordings with musicians I’d just met that were in the background of the sound design for Tom Cowan’s [spoken word] story version of Macha [on the CD].

But that wasn’t my impulse for going there at all.  And yet there was this connection.  The other thing I thought about at the time was that after doing this very large, ambitious full-contact thing—where I wrote the music and the libretto and I played in it—was it seemed like the right thing to do was to sit in someone’s living room with a pennywhistle, to move to this very humble, unassuming direction.  But through doing that, I did start playing in the musical community there and that stuck.

A framed map of Cape Breton Island.

FJO:  So since the organization that organized the camp and whom you’ve worked with since is called Kitchen Rackets, is that the reason for naming your duo Fork & Spoon?

BW:  Yeah, a little bit. There’s a tradition where they have what they call kitchen parties. I think this might be true in Irish traditional music, too, but certainly in Cape Breton. The musical tradition there is astonishing.  It’s as if people are born with fiddles in their hands.  And there are lots of fiddles, fewer wind instruments.  It sometimes happens that people aren’t quite sure what instrument I’m playing when I have a clarinet.  And that is not at all to say that people are uninformed, because they are very informed about the fiddle.  It’s just a different kind of economy and ecology of instruments there.  So there is this old tradition of kitchen parties where people would play all night.  There’s even a song written about that: “For the second time since we got up, it’s getting dark again.”  That’s a line from a song about people playing for days at a time.  This is a really informal, family-oriented, multi-generational, and very, very good amateur tradition—in other words, people aren’t necessarily making careers or trying to get paid to play, but they play beautifully. So it happens again and again that I meet people who aren’t showing that they are musicians or talking themselves up, and then you hand them a mandolin and you fall over when you hear what they do with it.

So yeah, it was maybe subconscious, maybe just serendipity, I’m not sure, but I’ve ended up working with Fork & Spoon.  Kitchen Rackets is an organization that promotes local music.  They run the camp and other events as well.  With Fork & Spoon, we’ll sometimes host an evening jam session or something like that.  We play in pubs.

He’ll say, “I can’t believe you can write that down.” And I’ll say, “I can’t believe you don’t have to.”

Fork & Spoon is my duo with a Cape Breton guitarist, Charles MacDonald.  We started playing together more than five years ago and over that time have worked out a repertoire. There’s a little bit of traditional Cape Breton music, but mainly warping it to make our own kind of music.  And some of the exchanges we have go like this.  He will say to me, “I can’t believe you can write that down.”  And I’ll say, “I can’t believe you don’t have to.”  And then I will write a tune, thinking it’s very traditional, and I’ll say, “I wrote this tune; it’s so normal.”  And he’ll say, “That tune’s really weird.”  So it was just this really interesting cross-fertilization. The ways that we meet are really fascinating to me and very nourishing.

FJO:  So how much of your compositional stuff has seeped into these other musical activities and vice versa?

BW:  There are some things that are separate.  There are some things that blur.  My first impulse would be to say they stay kind of separate, but that’s not entirely true.  I’m just thinking of a tangent. There’s a beautiful recording by Jordi Savall of Celtic music.  There are two volumes, and around the time I started to travel to Cape Breton, I got this recording.  He plays these tunes on his early music instruments. Many of them are written down.  They’re by composers like O’Carolan and J. Scott Skinner.  There is actually a notated, sort of closer-to-classical part of this tradition, and that’s something I relate to.  But when I work with Charles in Fork & Spoon, because he plays by ear, I usually start out doing a tune that will have chord changes.  The thing that amazes me is that if I were playing traditional music per se, he can play any tune. He knows them all. But say he didn’t know it—he can hear eight bars and then on the repeat he’ll play all the right chords.  In addition to that, he doesn’t just play the chords, he really plays the tune.  It reminds me of Max Roach, how he didn’t just play his pattern, but he really played the composed tune.  So when I’m working with Charles, I definitely take that into account.  For example, I did some funny meters. It wasn’t just that it was 7/8, but it was shifting meters. When I played it for him, it turned into syncopation for him.  So if we want to actually do funny meters, instead of syncopation that gets normalized, we’ll have to work that out.

But a project that did blur things was a setting of five Celtic airs for clarinet and shakuhachi, originally with obbligato piano, but then this turned into a piece for Fork & Spoon and the shakuhachi.  So now I’ve got this kind of funny trio going.  It was partly inspired by my colleague Riley Lee, who likes Celtic music.  He particularly likes O’Carolan’s music, and I did use one O’Carolan tune. And I like really slow airs.  A lot of the time when one hears Cape Breton music, there is a lot of fast music happening.  But, of course, there are slow things, too.  So between working with the shakuhachi, and with Riley and his interests, and my own interests, I ended up feeling like I had an excuse to spend more time with the slow tunes.  Around the same time I was exploring these two duos, I had asked Riley to play some pieces with me. This got this started in a funny way in that he was in Weakness.  I cast him first, by the way.  I cast the shakuhachi first in my opera because he was the Goddess.  So we were rehearsing Weakness, and he had a concert coming up the next week playing pieces of my students.  I’d arranged that. And he said, “Do you want to put something on the concert?” And I said, “Well, it’s in ten days.  I don’t know.”  I don’t normally do this, and it sounds almost haphazard, but literally backstage, or in the ten minutes or two hours between rehearsals, I would come into this room and try to write something for him and me to play.  This is a case where circumstances made me do something I wouldn’t have maybe done otherwise. I took one of his traditional honkyoku pieces and made a part for me to play with it.  I’m almost like a reverb unit for him.  It is its own piece, but it really has this relationship to shakuhachi tradition.  So I’d begun working with him in a duo and thought about other pieces we might do, and we started thinking about a CD project.

At the same time, more or less, I started playing in this duo with Charles. So I had these two duos and then I ended up combining them into a trio.  So basically if I put it in containers, there’s a CD project with shakuhachi and clarinet, Riley and me.  Then there’s a CD project with Fork & Spoon, Charles and me, guitar and clarinet.  And then each of them is visiting the other CD for one piece.  So we have two trios that we play.  One is the set of Celtic airs, Farewell to Music.  The other is an original that I composed based on a piece that Riley does with a Hawaiian slack key guitarist.  I totally loved it and I asked his permission to arrange it for Fork & Spoon, and what I ended up doing—which was better because we all got together—was I arranged it for all three of us.  Well, it’s not an arrangement; it’s actually a riff taking off from his piece, but there are some parts that would be direct references.  So that’s been very special, and only through knowing these two people and playing with them would I have written this piece, Passage of the Herons.  We keep trying to say what genre it is.  It’s maybe folk at one point, even—we thought—new age, since it’s melodic with chords, very pretty and very flowing.  Not that I wouldn’t want to write music that fits that description, but the particular shape of this piece is something that really could only have happened with those two people in the room.

Traditional Japanese shakuhachi musical notation.

FJO:  To tie some loose ends together here, it’s very exciting to hear you talk so ecstatically about making music in these very different traditions and learn how liberating and inspiring it has been for you. At the same time, in addition to this being something of an alternative stream to your other—I hate to use the word “regular”—compositional activities, you also train composers at Princeton University which is something you’ve now done for 20 years.  So how do you encourage them to look at a map and take a trip to an unexpected place that will change their lives? How do you instill that serendipity and sheer joy?

BW:  That’s a good question.  My first impulse to answer that question is to say I don’t need to; they already have it.  I’m fortunate that the students I work with, both undergraduates and graduate students, really have a sense of adventure and a sense of commitment.  I see a lot of real pleasure and satisfaction that they express.  But there is perhaps something of a permission giving.  I was talking to a graduate student yesterday about a dissertation—which is still creative work, though not composing.  I did literally say to this student, “You can do this your way.  You don’t need to fit into what you think a dissertation is.”  It was someone with a jazz background, and this person has strengths coming from that background—a really strong ear and not needing notation, so I didn’t want them to feel compelled to fit into some other kind of music analysis mold.  That does happen.  A very common thing with composition students, no matter how joyful they are, is of course to have this kind of fear.  “Can I do this or not?” It’s enjoyable to me to see what they bring up. At 12 o’clock, someone will come in and say, “I think I’m repeating too much.  I think I should repeat less.”  Then the next person will come in and say, “I think I’m changing too much.  Should I repeat more?”  That tickles my fancy, for sure.

“It is helpful for me to just say yes to them.”

And, as much as I love trained musicians, I actually am fortunate that I get to do a lot with people who aren’t trained musicians. That’s really special to me. I teach an undergraduate freshman seminar called “Everyday Enchantment,” which has to do with everyday experience and art making and where the boundary is.  Is there one?  And so on.  The students in that course do all sorts of interesting projects, and particularly because they’re freshmen, I figure it is helpful for me to just say yes to them. You can do something with words.  You don’t need to be a poet.  You can make art out of food.  That’s okay.  And they do.  They end up doing performances.  They do things outdoors and try to get people to interact with them. I don’t think of professoring as all that somber.  Teaching introductory music theory has more somberness to it, but luckily a lot of my classes are pretty freewheeling.

FJO:  Of course, the world of academia has changed so much. I doubt if Roger Sessions would put in his bio that he won a photography competition for coffee.

BW:  Are you saying someone did that?!  Yeah, that is true.  Sometimes I think about when I was born and how that affected me. I am just old enough to have experienced, not Sessions per se, but the end of high modernism and partly because of where I was, I was hanging onto that for longer—at Harvard. Then when I went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, it was really very different. Mathew Rosenblum was writing pieces that had drum set and microtones, and Eric Moe was working with synthesizers and wailing sounds, and so on.  So I had an interesting journey through the landscape of what music is.

The way I’m thinking of that most these days is in my teaching.  I’m currently teaching what used to be called “Music Since 1945.”  I took a course by that name, and there’s a Paul Griffiths book by that name which is now in its third edition.  And I’ve taught it before.  I told my students, I last taught this course in 2000, and they were stunned by that.  And I said, “Yes, you were being born then!  I understand that.” So you can imagine, at some point, we’re going to hit this critical-mass moment where this has to be two courses.  But even to think of how I taught a course that went basically between 1945 to maybe 1998; 20 years later, there’s 20 more years of music.  It’s really fascinating to try to think about what music they need to hear about.  There’s something liberating in that there is so much history now that you know you can’t cover everything.  And I found myself thinking very seriously about the matter of the canon, which has been discussed by scholars for decades now.  I was inspired in part by a recent essay by Anne Shreffler where she pointed out that the canon is not innocent. In terms of giving students permission, allowing for delight, and so on, the last sentence in my course description is: “Whose music is it?” I was thinking very much about what this tradition is.  Where do its boundaries lie?  Who’s been brought in?  Who’s been left out?  Going back to the title, “Music Since 1945” is a problematic title now.  When I was in graduate school, we would have taken for granted what we meant by “music.”  But now that could be any music, and that’s a good thing that we have this more ecumenical view.  So I changed it to “Music After Modernism” and thought very much about: Do I include the important pieces because they’re the important pieces?  Who decided they were the important pieces?  And did they keep being thought of as the important pieces because we’ve said so?  So it’s really interesting.  I’ve been looking at some anomalous composers and pieces.  I’ve been thinking about alternate examples.  It’s fascinating even to think of a linear narrative.  How true is a linear narrative that we would make?

FJO:  Well, you say 1945. Earlier you were talking about Max Roach.  That was the year he recorded the Savoy Sessions with Charlie Parker that are now legendary, but those recordings are probably not mentioned in the Paul Griffiths book about music since 1945.

BW:  Yeah.  He’s not in my syllabus either, but I can tell you what I did on my first day.  I explored things from 1945.  I chose a bunch of things that I was going to play in a row, but I ended up making a kind of mashup, if that’s the right word.  There was a little bit of the Spellbound score.  Then there was Stravinsky’s Babel, which no one knows, but I bet you do.  Then a little bit of Walter Piston’s Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord.  Then Nat King Cole, the Andrews Sisters, and Bing Crosby.  Then Spellbound again.  Just think of all these things happening at that time!  And there’s more—Daughters of the Lonesome Isle and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are also from 1945.  Well, I might have fudged some of them, but they’re basically from around that time.

FJO:  Get Charlie Parker in there next time.  And Max Roach!

BW:  Yeah. The reason Nat King Cole was in there specifically is because he was playing Rachmaninoff.

FJO:  Before we stop recording this conversation we should probably talk a little bit about the ballet that’s premiering in Boston in March.

BW:  Let’s see.  This piece [The Wrong Child] was commissioned by Boston Musica Viva.  Boston Musica Viva does a family music concert every year, and they often work with a group called the Northeast Youth Ballet, which is based in Reading, Massachusetts.  I grew up in North Reading, Massachusetts, so it’s kind of neat that this is my old neighborhood.  The choreographer, Denise Cecere, runs the ballet and the conservatory associated with it.  It’s a youth ballet of really skilled people.  I’m excited to see what they’re going to be doing.  It’s a big piece in terms of needing to think about story and interacting with dance, and so on.  Again, as in Weakness, I wrote a text. You might not expect that there would be a text, but it has narration.  That will be done by Joyce Kulhawik, who is a beloved Boston personality and who I remember from when I was growing up.  There’s some kind of homecoming about that.  And it’s another Celtic story.  This one is Welsh, and it’s a story that’s well-known, at least among people from that area. It’s about the birth of Taliesin, who was a real poet, a historical figure whose poetry exists—we have manuscripts of some of it.  But he’s also mythical figure. The story has to do with the birth of the poet and inspiration and shape shifting and initiation.

I’ve been intrigued to be writing for a young audience. I’ve had some interactions with young people, but not in a family concert exactly, at least not in a while.  So I thought about that a lot in reshaping the story.  For example, how dark and brooding can it be? The choreographer has helped me with that a lot.  But another thing that I delighted in was the idea of bringing in sounds that are maybe not traditional classical sounds, but ones that we know as experimental sounds.  I’ve worked in some references to other pieces—most notably Henry Cowell’s The Banshee.  There’s this moment where a raven gets stung by a bee.  Then the piano makes this wailing sound, and then the next line, crucially coming after, is “The raven wails like a banshee.”  I liked the idea of young people hearing this banshee sound. Who knows if they’ve heard Henry Cowell yet?  Maybe.  I don’t know.

A view of the second floor of Barbara White's house in Princeton.

The Genesis of a Return to Concert Music

I’m writing these words from my basement studio in a peaceful sector of Harlem, New York, looking west out over the trees of Riverside Park.  The word “peaceful” is, of course, relative, because this is Manhattan, which buzzes with energy wherever you are, any time of day or night.  But compared to Midtown, where I had four studios over the past 25 years, this is an oasis: a raw, stone-walled space with gentle, refracted afternoon light, filled with old sofas, oriental rugs, artwork, my Chickering baby grand, and the “brains” of my production activity—the workstation.  I needed a place which I could really call my own, where I wouldn’t have to worry about the sublet ending and would have enough space to correspond with all the spaces in my mind devoted to film scoring, concert composing, and teaching—a home where I could park my music library and my instrument collection, and could set up stations as needed for multiple simultaneous projects without losing my mind.  It’s not without its challenges, especially the street noise, but I find myself embracing that: periodically throughout the day people stroll past my four Riverside Drive windows, blaring boom boxes—usually salsa or reggaeton—and often singing loudly in accompaniment.  The stereo movement is like its own timekeeper, slowly sweeping from one side of the studio to another. It’s a gentle reminder that life goes on outside my urban retreat, moving in its own never-ending cycles.

The largest space in my mind lately has been taken up by the revising, rehearsing, recording, editing, and mixing of several chamber pieces that are slated to be released on CD this spring on Innova Recordings.  Two of the pieces—my string quartet Chthonic Dances and my percussion quartet with live electronics Hall of Mirrors—were composed in the last few years, after almost two decades of focus on media scoring.  The third piece, Into Light for clarinet, viola, and piano, pre-dates my film music years, yet connects conceptually to the later pieces.  One of the reasons I rented this uptown space was to gain the focus to finish the CD.  As of this writing, the finish line is clearly in sight; it’s a good moment to take a breath and consider where this CD fits in my artistic trajectory.

Frankly, I’ve never understood why there has—until recently­­—been such a demarcation between genres in music.  As far back as I can remember, I’ve been enormously responsive to music, independent of genre.   I know I’m not alone in this, especially in today’s eclectic musical environment, but for many people, classical music’s vaunted tradition excluded an appreciation of popular or folkloric forms—and heaven forfend that any classical composer should write something as shallow as film music!  Fortunately, my open nature allowed me to at once love rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, Brazilian samba, and South African popular styles such as mbaqanga (township music), and hold a particularly reverent fascination with Indian forms, while immersing myself into the vastly diverse realms referred to as concert or classical music.  I believe this enabled me to survive the shark-infested waters of the classical establishment, especially at Columbia University, where I received my doctorate in composition, and Tanglewood, where I studied with 12-tone icon George Perle.  Of course, these institutions weren’t fatally dangerous, and I basically ignored any insinuation that my love of “non-classical” forms was a kind of intellectual or artistic weakness, because they were wrong: it was a sign of creative strength and somehow, in my heart, I knew it.

American society wasn’t built to accept an artist who crossed between such divergent musical fields.

So it was not really that much of a leap for me, soon after completing my DMA at Columbia, to move into film composition.  I knew that I was taking a career risk, and that American society wasn’t built to accept an artist who crossed between such divergent musical fields.  It was not like Japan, where composer Toru Takemitsu was revered as a deity in the film community and equally worshipped for his stature as a concert composer; nor was the USA like France, where composers from George Auric to Jacque Ibert and Arthur Honegger moved seamlessly between the movie house and the concert hall.  Yes, there were notable exceptions, such as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, but their film scoring activity was seen more as a diversion from their classical music career than as an integral part of their artistic output.  And some highly acclaimed concert composers, most prominently Arnold Schoenberg, tried to make a go of film composing and fell short; he legendarily met with MGM producer Irving Thalberg in 1935 to discuss a possible scoring assignment for a movie based on Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth.  Schoenberg devised themes and composed some sketches for the story, but ultimately was turned down by the studio; some anecdotes recount Schoenberg’s feeling of relief that he was off the hook.

So I knew that I was venturing into somewhat unknown territory when I decided to throw my hat into the film scoring ring.  But one thing I was pretty sure of was that I would not be sacrificing my artistic soul in the process.  I knew that certainty may be tested, but because of my conviction that ultimately both activities would be drawing on the same creative source, I felt that I could maintain my identity as an artist no matter which direction—film or concert—I was pulled in.

This is not to say that there are no differences between film and concert composing.  The point is, it is all composing.  Nonetheless, let’s discuss some of those differences—and similarities­—here.

One difference is that media scores are often made up of small snippets, sometimes only a few seconds long.  When woven together, as they were in my recent soundtrack Emmett Till for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, they may constitute a longer entity (see my first post in this series, “Requited Music: Anatomy of a Scoring Gig”), but as often as not, a film cue makes its brief statement and is gone.

I felt that I could maintain my identity no matter which direction I was pulled in.

This discussion of the difference between film and concert music brings up a question: what defines concert or classical music? (You can see that I’m using the terms interchangeably.)  For me, it has nothing to do with style, musical language, or instrumentation, and everything to do with structure.  In classical composition, works tend to be in forms long enough that they are able to take you on a journey within a structure that is integrated unto itself, unfolding with a feeling of inevitability and providing an ending that brings one to a sense of completion.  Of course, one can go to any number of new music concerts where these traditional elements are subverted or avoided.  Or, one can find uncounted pieces of music from any other system or culture, be it hip hop or bebop, that can be said to fulfill those expectations.  But hey, that’s the trouble with definitions, especially in music—they define, they de-limit.  So, I’m speaking here in generalities, and I’m happy whenever a creative person redefines the parameters.

But as I indicated in “Tearing Down The Wall,” concert music develops out of its own materials; it unfolds and transforms from its first statements forward.  Even music written for dance, opera or art songs will usually follow the conventions of Western composition, taking the listener on a transformative journey within the musical plane, and in those cases, music’s role is typically much more prominent than the subliminal role it often plays in film.   Conversely, the structure of film music must be responsive to a myriad of stimuli: the sound, pitch, and rhythm of the dialog and Foley; the narrative that is being depicted on the screen (and the feelings that go along with it); the lighting, editing, even the overall tone and mood of a film are contributory to compositional decision-making.  In addition, there may be stylistic considerations for the composer to adhere to.  Thus film music includes techniques not normally taught in composition class: selections may end on an unresolved harmony—in fact, they usually do. There are abrupt, unprepared key changes, and/or changes of texture, instrumentation, and rhythm. Depending on the situation, there may be no development at all, just…sound.  Some say film music should not have more than three layers going at once; the observer’s mind can’t apprehend any more than that at any given time, what with picture, dialog, and story flying by. True or not, it is something for the film composer to be aware of.

Film music also has its own conventions, its own tropes.  I’m sure you’ve all heard the ubiquitous use of the Lydian mode in Hollywood scores, used for every sentiment from wonder to quirkiness. Perhaps in this way film music is similar to concert music, which, depending upon which world you live in, has its own conventions and clichés as well.  They’re just different from film music clichés, for the most part.  And although I tend to avoid cliché in any of my music, concert or film, I realize that you can learn from them, and if the scene really calls for it, try to make them your own.

What do the fields of film and concert music have in common?  Primarily, the essence of the compositional process.  In both, you are imagining and creating themes, harmonies, rhythms, meters, and orchestrations.  You are functioning, musically, at a very high level, with a heightened sense of time and flow.  To reiterate the Michael Giacchino comments I paraphrased in “Tearing Down The Wall,” what’s ideal is when film music can achieve the sense of formal integration that one finds in the most compelling concert pieces; therefore, the film composer, at his or her best, is working with antecedent/consequent phrase and sectional relationships, with a global sense of registral and harmonic direction, flexibly moving in the moment while keeping an eye on the whole (and all in service to the film).  A good film score will connect thematically and structurally from the beginning to the end as an integrated piece, as does a good concert score.

But for every item on my list of what film and concert music should or shouldn’t do, one can give examples of the opposite.  There are some extremely short concert pieces (such as Webern’s Op.11, #3 for piano and cello).  Some concert composers operate according to structural concerns that may be foreign to the classical canon.  Who says a concert piece can’t have unresolved harmonies or unprepared key changes? Who says it has to be integrated and have a sense of directionality?  Why can’t a concert piece just…be?  Can a composition just be a texture or a rhythm, with no real beginning or end?  Steve Reich or Dan Deacon may have interesting answers to that question.  (Dan Deacon, by the way, scored Francis Ford Coppola’s last feature film, Twixt.)

My point is that as one goes deeper into any musical realm, one discovers artists who break the traditional modes and who are crossing beyond genre with their own statement, their own voice.  Jonny Greenwood is a legitimate contemporary composer who is also the guitarist for the band Radiohead; his first score for director Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood, was like a marriage between Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Takemitsu’s soundtrack to Women in the Dunes, with disturbing textures of crisscrossing string glissandi.  Today there are many more examples of concert, rock, and jazz composers working in film than there were 20 years ago; I do not feel like so much of a standout any more.  In fact, in terms of pure creativity, I feel that we are living in a golden age of musical composition—and storytelling.  I’m hearing more individual musical voices in film and television music, especially via such border-bashing platforms as Netflix and Amazon, than I heard even five years ago—and I’m also witnessing an extraordinary explosion of activity, beyond genre, in the new music world. And I think there is a reason for that: a deep, atavistic human need for fresh, cutting-edge music that reflects and relates to our current lives.

Film music’s freedom allowed me to often write and produce music that I truly loved.

So when I returned to concert music after years of just working in film, that was not too much of a leap either.  In fact, I came back to it stronger than before.  Doing film music, I’d spent a large percentage of my life developing musical and production skills that are not taught in the DMA program at Columbia.  And film scoring brought about a new sensitivity to how music acts on the unconscious, showing me some different perspectives on how to structure concert music.  Film music’s freedom from the expectations of concert form allowed me, as a film composer, to often write and produce music that I truly loved—at times with a rocking, cathartic groove.  And that freedom carried over into my return to concert composition.  So in the end, the names we assign to the different forms of music wind up being less useful than understanding that there is an interaction between musical forms on the societal level, and in my case, the personal level as well.  And that diffusion creates new languages, which are tools for communication—for bringing people together.  That is what is actively happening in music right now, and I’m lucky to be part of it.

Here is an excerpt from Hall of Mirrors, with Jeremy Smith, Brian Shankar Adler, Christian Lundqvist, and Brian Shank on percussion; Rick Baitz on laptop and MIDI controller:

Progressive Chamber Music

[Ed. Note: Later this week (October 14-15, 2017), Sirius Quartet will present their second annual Progressive Chamber Music Festival for two nights at the Greenwich House Music School in New York City. We asked the quartet’s four members to tell the story of the evolution of the group into a post-genre ensemble and why they decided to create their own music festival. Founding violist Ron Lawrence describes how the quartet came into being and the underlying aesthetics that inform what/how the group plays as well as the music festival they curate. Second violinist Gregor Huebner explains how the quartet evolved into a group of composer-performers. Cellist Jeremy Harman, the quartet’s most recent addition, describes why he joined the group seven years ago. And first violinist Fung Chern Hwei explains how the idea for a festival emerged over a conversation between the four of them while they were on tour in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Along the way, each describes their own personal musical journeys and the directions those journeys have taken as a result of playing music with each other. As with the four separate parts that seamlessly weave together in a string quartet performance, whether it’s pre-composed or improvised, their four independent narratives inform and enhance each other.-FJO.]


The members of the Sirius Quartet standing in front of a wall.

The Sirius Quartet (from left to right): Fung Chern Hwei, Jeremy Harman, Ron Lawrence, and Gregor Huebner.

Ron Lawrence

The conflict/merging of the sacred and the profane has been a major theme in western culture since the rise of Christianity.  In the modern world, one expression of this conversation has been the gradual breakdown of the barriers between contemporary academic music and popular and folk music traditions.  The aesthetic of the Sirius Quartet and our Progressive Chamber Music Festival is an expression of this ongoing blending.  We created the festival to be an annual opportunity to showcase the diversity and depth of the community of like-minded composer/performers.  On a more prosaic level it is an attempt to create a new “bin in the record store” for this mulatto style (perhaps labeled “omnivores’ delight”).

The Sirius Quartet revels in the musical smorgasbord that the digital tidal wave has brought to the internet.

The Sirius Quartet revels in the musical smorgasbord that the digital tidal wave has brought to the internet.  With a few taps on a keyboard, anyone can access the entire canon of humanity’s musical experience.  The opportunities for cross-fertilization of musical styles, performance techniques, and creating new social contexts for musical performance are abundant.  The Sirius Quartet has been dedicated to exploring this new world, and the artists we’ve presented during the Progressive Chamber Music Festival for the past two years all embrace and explore these possibilities.

However, there are dangers in the digital tidal wave that has washed over the new millennium.  Beyond the obvious steering of a complacent audience into the “if you like that, you’ll love this” cul-de-sac, the configuration of the software programs and their default settings creates a huge temptation to allow the machines and plug-ins to make crucial aesthetic decisions.

Without making a conscious decision, the medium can become the message.  For example, the editing process can dictate what should be musical/emotional decisions.  The click map is a wonderful tool when writing music to picture, but expressing rubato is time consuming.  It’s easier to just loop some cool beats and lay it on the click map.  The technology has dictated the musical style. Plug-in technology is also insidious.  Rather than make a conscious decision about the color palette, the composer/producer will just plug in the funky ’70s Fender Twin bass sound from his or her library.  It would take hours of painstaking listening to get under the hood and tweak the software to find an original sound. Once again the technology has preemptively dictated choices, homogenizing the style. The composers/performers of Sirius and our colleagues use improvisation and the spontaneity of extended techniques to combat this homogenization.  We want our music feel homemade and give the audience the sensation of “fresh from the pot.”

I think my personal journey to becoming a creative musician began while driving around Michigan as a teenager with my car radio blaring rock and roll. I reveled in the breathtaking tonal and emotional palette of the electric guitar. When I arrived in New York in the early 1980s, the classical conservatory training of instrumentalists was increasingly specialized and recording techniques were creating a style and sound that worshiped velocity and close-miked sizzle over warmth and soulfulness.  There was a “correct violin sound” and one’s education and technical training focused exclusively on producing that timbre and emotional quality.  I yearned for that wider palette of the electric guitar. As a listener, I was as drawn to Sonny Boy Williamson or Bata drumming as I was to Babbitt or Boulez.  New York, always a nexus for the melting pot of cultures, gave me the opportunity for an almost anthropological exploration of the roots of popular and folk music styles.

Playing with a few charanga and tango bands taught me that each particular style has its own unique technical challenges distinct from the classical tradition.  Not only does each folkloric tradition have a unique rhythmic feel, but one’s physical approach to the instrument must be flexible enough to step outside of the classical concept of “good violin” playing.  As a performer and composer, choices of bow distribution, quality of attack and decay, and tonal variety inform the rhythmic feel and emotional content of any style.

Eventually, I was asked to join the Dave Soldier Electric String Quartet.  As a mainstay of the downtown, Knitting Factory music scene, Dave introduced me to that diverse, eclectic collection of urban, postmodern creative “folk” musicians.  Here was my wider palette.  When the Soldier Quartet disbanded, I founded the Sirius Quartet as a vehicle to continue these explorations for composers/performers.


Gregor Huebner’s reharmonization of Lennon & McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” performed by Sirius Quartet

Gregor Huebner 

I joined the Sirius Quartet around 2004, shortly after I started working with jazz pianist Richie Beirach.  Richie and I recorded the albums Round about Bartók and Round about Federico Mompou, which were very much about exploring the intersection of composition and improvisation in more of a jazz context.  At the time, Sirius Quartet was really focused on contemporary classical and avant-garde jazz composers.  As a player and a composer, this was a perfect group for me to explore my own musical identity and ideas.  I started composing pieces for Sirius which included both the extended techniques of the contemporary classical “language” as well as the spirit of improvisation from my jazz experiences with Beirach, Randy Brecker, Billy Hart, and George Mraz, with whom I play in a quintet.

These days we are a string quartet which writes its own music and incorporates improvisation in many different forms.

When Jeremy and Chern Hwei—two fantastic composers and improvisers—joined the quartet, it felt like focusing on our own music was the way forward. So these days we are a string quartet which writes its own music and incorporates improvisation in many different forms.  That is my own personal definition of what we are calling “progressive chamber music” as it applies to Sirius and we can stretch that term very broadly to include all kinds of creative small ensemble music, which is the focus of our annual festival.


Jeremy Harman’s composition More Than We Are performed by Sirius Quartet

Jeremy Harman

I grew up spending equal amounts of time immersed in classical music via cello lessons, playing in my school orchestras, and playing in a quartet with high school friends, as well as the rock/metal world, which was a very different circle of people, most of whom were self-taught and were more focused on writing original music.  I always felt equally at home in both worlds, and at the same time, maybe like in each world that I wasn’t able to fully be myself as a musician due to both collective and personal misperceptions that these two were incompatible.  Throughout my life, I’ve sought to bridge this gap on a personal level, and when I auditioned for Sirius Quartet in 2010, I found some like-minded string players who each came from a pretty unique background of musical influences, but who shared my desire to build bridges between genres, and more specifically to blur the lines between supposed high-brow and low-brow art and music.  We all have a classical background, but each of us have spent our lives reaching beyond that in our own ways, which have included exploring various types of improvisation, from soloing over chord changes to playing completely free with no premeditated musical goals or expectations, exploring alternative and extended techniques of playing to widen our sonic palette, and composing our own music which we hope reflects our unique identities as both individuals and as a quartet.

Each of us have spent our lives reaching beyond our classical backgrounds.

With seven years in the group, I am still the newest member of the Sirius Quartet, and most of its history predates me.  Initially the quartet came out of the Soldier String Quartet run by violinist Dave Soldier in the late ’80s as Ron has already mentioned, but as the resident “rookie” here, I think they did some very interesting work as part of the early Knitting Factory/“downtown” scene, working with artists such as Elliott Sharp and Nick Didkovsky and playing a lot of music that was more on the experimental side.

As has been said, in recent years, the quartet has focused more on original works by members of the quartet itself and has leaned more toward the jazz side of things, collaborating with a lot of phenomenal musicians including Linda Oh, Steve Wilson, Richard Sussman and Rufus Reid who all have written really incredible music incorporating the string quartet into more traditional jazz ensembles and instrumentations.

As a quartet, I think we occupy a somewhat unique position in the New York City music scene. So we wanted to put together a festival that brings together musicians from the various corners of the musical worlds we occupy.  There are already some fantastic music festivals in the city, but we thought there was plenty of room for another one.  If there were a Venn diagram that existed and each of these festivals occupied their own circle, I think that the circle that the Progressive Chamber Music Festival would occupy would have significant overlap with all of them.


Violinist Fung Chern Hwei playing with other members of the Sirus Quartet.

Fung Chern Hwei

The genesis of the Progressive Chamber Music Festival happened one fine October morning in 2015.  The place was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where we were on tour and had a day off.  Before the sun displayed its full equatorial glory, we were enjoying breakfast at a South Indian-Malaysian roadside food stall—more commonly known as a “mamak” stall.  Words were exchanged over a topic as old as the quartet’s two-decade long career: How does one define the musical direction the quartet is taking? How does that fit into the current musical landscape of the music scene in New York and elsewhere?  Many of our fans and listeners would agree, it can be difficult to place the group in a certain category.  Sirius has a fascinating lineage of former members who have developed their own projects writing and/or performing contemporary classical music and/or various non-traditional genres—Todd Reynolds, Meg Okura, Jennifer Choi, Dave Eggar, just to name a few.

The current incarnation of the quartet is primarily focused on music that is internally written, as three of the four of us are composers.  We all compose in different styles and methods, since each of us came from a slightly different musical background.  The end result is, I think, an eclectic body of music that pulls listeners in many directions and hopefully both challenges and intrigues them.

We don’t rule anything out.

We don’t rule anything out in the music we write: tonality, atonality, groove, form, etc., and we like to incorporate improvisation in various ways to achieve various goals in our music.  This could range from creating vamps in the midst of otherwise through-composed music (to bring about a change of pace or vibe) to finding ways of embellishing or improvising on a previously written part in one of our pieces, to linking various movements and/or pieces together with free improvisation, which we’ve found can create a nice heightened sense of focus in the audience since what is composed and what is improvised becomes less and less distinct.

We have had the absolute pleasure to work with accomplished creative jazz musicians like Uri Caine and John Escreet, both of whom in their own way share our affinity for line-blurring. They have each written some amazing music that we have performed together over the years which consists of very interesting mixtures of composed and improvised material.  I certainly don’t think this is unique to our quartet; I think there is a growing movement of creative musicians of all stripes blending these elements in a myriad of really interesting ways.

Getting back to our breakfast in Kuala Lumpur, we didn’t necessarily come to any explicit conclusions when talking about our place in the larger world of creative music, but we found the discussion to be really enjoyable and it gave us a chance to reflect upon and really appreciate the musical community that we are a part of.  New York City has long been an incubator for cross-genre pollination and experimentation in all corners of the music community. It is not difficult to find artists and groups, many of them personal friends of ours, who fall outside of the mainstream categories of “concert” or “art” music.  So someone probably half-jokingly mentioned putting together a festival with a bunch of friends and colleagues whose music resonates with us and who we respect very much as artists, and we thought it actually sounded like a good idea!

Currently the festival is a total DIY operation, but the goal is basically to give each artist the chance to do solely what best represents them and their creative identity without having to compromise anything.  The name “Progressive Chamber Music Festival” retains the ambiguity of the types of music presented, therefore giving musicians absolute freedom of expression, while at the same time it clearly defines the philosophy that I think we and our musical comrades stand for—progressiveness within but also regardless of convention.  We hope to challenge the common notion of what chamber music should be, while inviting old and new voices to partake.

Ron Lawrence, Gregor Huebner, Jeremy Harman, and Fung Chern Hwei standing in back of empty chairs.