Tag: collaboration

Some Stuff I’ve Learned Writing Music for Advertising: References, Briefs, and Conference Calls

A spiral bound notebook with handwritten notes next to a digital keyboard

In my previous post I tried to present an overview of the different strategies we use when thinking about music in advertising and marketing media. Being able to look at an underscoring assignment through the lens of theory is a huge head start to writing a piece of music that gets chosen and aired. Yet most clients I’ve worked with don’t have this vocabulary, nor do they often have any vocabulary about the building blocks of music.

So how do we communicate?

References (or “temp score” or “needle-drops”) are pretty much the starting point for about 75% of the conversations I have about the creative direction for a project. By references, I mean existing music sent over with the note “something like this.” They can be sent on their own, or mixed into a piece of video as a placeholder. References can be legally dangerous, creatively soul-crushing, and in some cases red herrings. Yet in the age of YouTube, they have only become more entrenched as creative shorthand for non-musicians working with composers, bolstered by the technical ease of pasting a few links into an email.

I have to imagine that it’s empowering to paste those links in. And in many cases, as a composer, it is a relief to have a concrete starting point to the conversation. Sometimes, following a creative call that seems vague, we even pull our own references to send back to the client to see if we understood the conversation correctly. As a communication tool, they’re invaluable. But not all references lead to great work on their own.


The mistake editors often make is placing a piece of music that is clearly unattainable.

A big red flag appears when only one piece is referenced. That often foretells a bad case of “demo love.” That’s industry lingo for a track that the client can’t get past. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten less judgmental about demo love. When a piece of music is placed against a piece of film, even if it’s not right from a practical or strategic standpoint, a powerful connection is made, and in the minds of those stakeholders that have seen it, nothing else may sound right because it clashes with their expectations, which have been created in that first moment. The mistake editors often make, in the interest of demonstrating their cut, is placing a piece of music that is clearly unattainable. It sets up an irreversible path leading to disappointment, and the composer is usually the one to absorb the brunt of the angst this creates. Often a client who is unaware of demo love as a phenomenon will be convinced that a composer is simply not capable of “nailing it” on an original track. It’s an unfair fight.

The other big red flag is when a client has actually approached the rights holder(s) for one or more of the reference tracks sent over. I’m no lawyer or expert in copyright law, but thanks to common sense and the wise counsel of my Executive Producer Jason, I’ve learned over the years to be very wary of this situation because it establishes an “intent” to infringe, and puts the project on the radar of that artist’s management. When we know someone’s been contacted, we need to take an overly cautious approach to what we will write and subsequently warrant to be original work. Female singer? We’ll use male. Major? We’ll go minor. 4/4 time signature? We’ll do 6/8. No one wants a lawsuit, even if the musicology doesn’t support it. The world of advertising music is littered with lawsuits, so much so that some agencies have, as a matter of corporate policy, prohibited sending rough cuts of spots with reference music placed.

A screen shot of an actual work session showing the waveforms for the reference track and voiceover. The actual music track is currently blank.

A screen shot of an actual work session showing the waveforms for the reference track and voiceover. The actual music track is currently blank.


Moving past those obvious pitfalls, there is so much to learn from references beyond the music itself. How many tracks are sent—three or twenty-three? How wide or narrow is the focus when it comes to genre, mood, energy, and instrumentation? What language is used by clients to describe the references—“we love these and they’re perfect” versus “we haven’t really found a home run but this is the general territory”? Listening carefully and parsing each word at this stage can avert huge misunderstandings. When a number of ideas are sent from multiple stakeholders, stepping back and reading the politics of a situation can be critical. Who’s going to drive the project forward and be the loudest voice in the room: The creative team? Their client, the brand manager? The director or video editor? I can think of a number of times that my role as a composer has been to referee a creative struggle over what role music might play and ultimately try to back the winning horse.

Thinking back to my last post, the different strategies behind music become apparent when looking carefully at references and asking the right questions. If all of the references stay in a narrow stylistic lane—youthful indie-EDM, for instance—it can be surmised that a sympathetic audience is being targeted. On the other hand, if there’s a wide range of genres but a consistent emotional tone, it seems clear the client’s first motivation is to create that emotion with music, no matter what style is used. If the music has been placed to picture, did the video editor intentionally place/edit the music so certain events and sections happened at specific times? Asking about, and understanding which of these moments were particularly successful can really help define what the key scoring moments are.

No matter how reasonable or unreasonable the references might appear at first glance, I try to approach conversations about references respectfully, understanding two things:

  1. Selecting music is probably easier for many than designing a plan for its creation, and just because the strategic thought is happening on a subconscious, rather that conscious level, doesn’t make it any less legitimate.
  1. Mistakes, juxtaposition, and serendipity are creative catalysts, without which much of our media would be dull and predictable. (Side note: advertising creatives understand this so well that they have frequently tried to mandate it—they call it “unexpected.”)

While I often sit back and let my partner Jason lead project kick-off calls, when I do try to drill down on references, I start with open ended questions, like “What do you like about this piece?” When the responses are vague, I narrow down to multiple choice and yes/no questions, like “Do you feel like the pacing is right?” At some point during the call, my gut will tell me to turn off the faucet of information, feeling there’s enough to start writing but not a stifling or confusing amount.

After these calls, as the creative director at COPILOT, I’m often in the position of writing creative briefs for the teams of composers we bring aboard. There’s an art to this task. When a client is looking for a very specific emotional or cultural tone, one misplaced word can send the whole group one degree off, rendering many hours of work futile. A good creative brief isn’t a set of instructions but rather a well-marked space, with a few inventoried tools and materials and a reasonable amount of time to play with them.

This brings me to one of the philosophical challenges of working on commissioned music: How much is your job giving them what they think they want, versus bringing new, more experimental and creative ideas to the table? Ideally when I write demos for a project, I give them one of each approach, and when we create a presentation at COPILOT, we try to cover the brief as written, and then always try to include some options that might have been written in the dark. The demo review process is usually when clients show their risk tolerance and open-mindedness. We experiment because it’s possible that we have insight into what music could bring that surpasses what’s been discussed. We nail the brief because it’s always possible that there’s a level of context to the project that we simply don’t have access to as a late arrival to the team. (Music is usually the last thing on the production schedule, aside from postmix.)

I always assumed the account people were the least relevant voices in the equation, but I’ve learned to listen carefully when they speak.

Early in my career I learned about the basic roles in most advertising agencies: the creative disciplines (art direction and copywriting) employing those who came up with all the ideas; the broadcast production folks who were often gatekeepers and points of contact on budget, schedule, and revisions; and the account people, who we might encounter once or twice on a call or at a final mix, but who were mostly corporate types that dealt with the brands and not the vendors. I always assumed the account people were the least relevant voices in the equation, but I’ve learned to listen carefully when they speak. The broadcast producer rarely tells you that the client hated the last campaign and wanted a complete shift in approach, or that the brand is struggling with sales in the millennial demographic. If the music strategy is the “why” behind what you are executing as a composer, the overall marketing strategy is the “why” behind the music strategy. So when that is not clearly articulated, sometimes the overall context will reveal what the music strategy should be. This kind of information is gold when it comes to being a thinker and problem solver rather than a vendor and widget maker.

Scoring the Voice Over

The final piece of the puzzle is another thing I was never formally taught, but it revealed itself to me over time: the announcer track (a.k.a. voice over) is often a creative brief in itself. Early in my career I took a very literal approach to the idea that I was “scoring” a spot. I took that to always mean that I was scoring the visuals and action. And sure, in numerous cases that was the right approach.

But as the centerpiece of the final mix, and the literal message being amplified by the spot, the voice over cannot be ignored. Everything you want to know about the intended audience for an ad is probably hiding in plain sight within the casting choice, performance, and actual words of the voice over. Just as music must be relatable to the intended audience, a voice must speak to its audience. I think of the casting this way: if the voice actor is on camera and the music is wardrobe, how are we dressing up our hero? What clothes would look appropriate for that person and that context? When it comes to performance, I turn the voice over into the lead singer of the band—Is the band following the energy of the performance? Overpowering it? Underplaying it?

When it comes to the actual words, I have developed the habit of transcribing the script, if I don’t receive one (which is frequently the case). By looking at a voice over, seeing what rhetorical conventions it uses, understanding its flow, its structure, and its cadence, so much of a good underscore—particularly its musical form—can be reverse engineered. It could be as simple as recognizing where a shift from problem to solution happens, and having the music shift from tense verse to euphoric chorus at that moment.

Scraps of Context

Clients make decisions about demos often in a blink.

Beyond these big pieces of communication—references, creative briefs, voice overs, and of course the picture itself—I have learned to sniff around like a hound for any other scraps of context that can give me a hunch about what a client might respond to. When we get involved early on a project, early enough to see a director’s treatment, just the language used to describe how the piece of film will look can give us stylistic clues. Clients make decisions about demos often in a blink, so understanding their motivations by any means short of stalking is sometimes how to get it right.

I’ll be back in a week with one last post. I look forward to hearing from you!

Stuff I Learned Writing Music for Advertising—Problem Solver, Not Widget Maker

In my first post, I talked about many of the changes that technology has brought about in my industry and described a world where walls were evaporating. The problem with change, of course, is that it alters the playbook. During the early parts of my career, I benefited from being inside that exclusive world, where a large portion of advertising projects involved composers and original music.

Today, stock music—now more euphemistically called “production” music—is a huge business that leverages the democratization of music production technology, the ease of cloud storage and tag-based searching, and the growing and diverse needs of media creators for inexpensive solutions. If you just need some underscore in a certain genre, maybe with a build and an ending, your track is out there.

Simultaneously, the battered world of music publishers and record labels has been like a scrappy tree that grows sideways towards its one source of light. Not only are artists eager to place a wistful lost-love song underneath a diaper commercial, some of them are even considering the needs of advertisers and TV shows as they write. “Sync-friendly” is a real term in the business now!

So you can have a million options at your fingertips, all cheaper than original music, and you can license almost any song in your iTunes library, if you want the authenticity. Why incur the hassle of hiring a composer to write something from scratch? The answer to that exact question is the first thing I try to teach students I work with at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

The composer must become a partner in the creation of the whole piece of media.

The short answer is that some projects simply need to be written from scratch because of the specificity of the scoring needs or because they are conceptually unique. And while one could perhaps find production or licensed music, the road to the perfect score involves a whole bunch of thinking that hasn’t been done yet. Either way, the composer must become a partner in the creation of the whole piece of media, rather than simply the creator of a commodified piece of music that is used inside it. And the key to becoming that partner is understanding all of the different ways that music can function in a piece of advertising, and then helping to determine what is right for the task at hand. In short, it’s not the “what,” it’s the “why” when it comes to writing original music for advertising. So where do we start?

A Strategic Approach

Why does an ad use music? Television advertising grew out of radio advertising. Early radio advertising started as live sponsored announcements, much like the small segments we still hear on NPR. But as pre-recorded material became available, advertisers seized upon humanity’s most ancient memory technology and began to package messages within neatly crafted songs—jingles—and a medium was born. Look at television and streaming advertising now and it’s harder to find jingles, but they are still there. Think McDonalds’ current jingle, “I’m lovin’ it,” with its series of notes that immediately makes you think of the golden arches when you hear them played or sung. It’s primarily a catchy memory device. Secondarily, there are demographic and emotional reasons for what that melody is, who wrote it, and how it’s often arranged. In my experience, most advertising uses music for multiple reasons. Thankfully, agencies and brands are usually able to prioritize, either consciously in their creative briefs, or unconsciously in that mysterious process of choosing among multiple strong approaches created in the competitive demo phase. Figuring out what the strategy is behind a piece of music is, in my humble opinion, THE skill to develop to be successful doing this.

Here’s my cheat sheet:

1. Branding with Music and Lyrics

Fusing recognizable, unique musical events with a brand is a powerful way to make it stick. Something that is mentioned often by clients (so often that it’s a cliché) is the “other room test.” This is shorthand for saying that the music we write should be so good and so recognizable that if it’s on TV, you’ll recognize it even if you hear it from another room. Clients also love to ask for something as memorable as the Intel logo.

Functionally, I tend to split this strategy up into two tactics:

Music we write should be so recognizable that you’ll recognize it even if you hear it from another room.

Logo treatments/mnemonics are the musical versions of visual logos: a discrete sequence of notes or sounds, like that beloved Intel logo or the NBC chimes, that identify the brand. Over the years, I have found these are easy to write and hard to sell. They’re easy to write because they are like little puzzles that you have to solve. Most brands want to communicate something within that short moment: an emotion, a cultural space, a sense of modernity or tradition, so once you start trying to address those sub-motivations, it becomes a fun musical game. They are hard to sell, however, because clients often arrive with unrealistic expectations. How could you ever write something as recognizable as the Intel logo without the benefit of drilling it into people’s heads over a number of years?

I’d like to share two sonic logos that I helped create. The first is the ID for cable network American Movie Channel (AMC), and I would describe the approach as sound collage.

The second example is a recent Jell-O campaign that revived their historic melody from the 1950’s.

Jingles, in the traditional sense, are songs with lyrics that mention the brand by name and, through the magic of the lyricists, manage to tell a story or paint a picture of a brand. This tactic seemed to peek in the ‘70s and ‘80s and fall out of favor in the last couple decades, meaning that when they are done well now, they really stand out. I could share something I worked on more recently, but I think this is the perfect time to revisit a melody of my childhood:

2. Storytelling: Scoring the Mini-Film

As early as the ‘60s, advertising creatives realized that film and television were powerful storytelling media, and that perhaps rather than simply telling the audience that a product is great, a brand could present a short, digestible, and entertaining story as a Trojan horse for its message. While the point of the ad is still to sell the product or raise awareness, the job of the composer in this case is to treat it as a condensed film cue, drawing on whatever aesthetic and stylistic influences might be suggested by the story being told and the way it is being told. If the story is artfully conceived, the emotional and narrative inflection points will naturally drive home the message in subtle ways that an announcer or jingle can’t. In my experience, director’s treatments and storyboards are really helpful for understanding what needs to happen and how it needs to happen. For example, when looking at a director’s treatment, I can probably get a sense of whether this would be a Michael Bay action scene or a PT Anderson character study.  Each of these directors would select a distinctively different composer and musical approach.

I always love showing this long-running television commercial for GE, because it feels so much like charming moment in a a Disney or Pixar film.

For a different approach to scoring, here is an Oxfam Public Service Announcement that owes its visual language to the modern psychological thriller.

3. Emotional Response

There’s an imaginary line that most film scores stay behind. Transmitting the emotion of the scene is often the goal, whereas manipulating the viewer through hyperbolic emotional material might seem tacky, over-dramatic, or—even worse—dated. But in thirty seconds, there’s so little time for subtly and craft. And in advertising, manipulation just might be the goal and the music must be a blunt instrument, going directly for the viewer’s emotional gut. While some spots meditate on one feeling, many others take the shape of a problem/solution story: a problem is depicted, the product/service introduced, and voila, problem solved. This is very common in the ubiquitous category of pharmaceutical ads. While the shift from dark to light is certainly scoring, I see this as a unique strategy because it’s common that the client is looking for an emotion that goes beyond what we’re seeing in the story.

This Johnson & Johnson television commercial is a perfect example of creating one emotion, which I will call “heartstrings.” Notice how a feeling of warmth and humanity is created, and then the brand, by simply being there, benefits from that feeling.

This piece, for a large hospital network, is a great example of a subtle but powerful shift from tense to hopeful.

4. Brand Embodiment and Demographic Identification

“Well, I don’t really know about this, but if you tell me this is what the kids are listenin’ to, I’ll sign off on it!”

This is how I remember a senior officer (general?) signing off on my first big TV campaign for the US Army. I got that gig, my very first, primarily because I was 22 years old, going out clubbing, and listening to techno curated by my brother, who was a DJ at the time. I knew just enough about writing music to put down ideas that were closer to what I was listening to than anything they’d heard from other composers. The spot featured an edgy, young voice actor reading a pretty in-your-face call to action, and lots of hyper-saturated shots of technology. This was the late 1990s, during the “dot com” boom, and recruiting numbers were way down. The strategy of the campaign was clear: connect with young Americans and convince them that they could get a free and highly relevant education in technology by signing up. And in order to be heard, the Army felt they needed to break from previous campaigns rooted in proud, militaristic brass/orchestra/chorus, and speak the lingua franca of “the kids,” techno.

Thinking back, sure, there was thought given to creating an emotional feeling (excitement), and there were moments that artfully helped add drama to the story being presented in montage form (like when the music drops out as the skydivers jump from the helicopter). But for my money, the strongest motivating factor for the agency—evident in everything from the video edit, the hyped color correction, and the many rounds of demos of music—was to “rebrand” the Army as young and tech-savvy, and music was perhaps the strongest statement of that in the piece.

The music must be relatable to the intended audience.

I should note that in the last ten years, the most direct route towards doing this musically has been licensing an up-and-coming artist, leveraging the artist’s authenticity and removing any doubt about whether an original demo might be “of the moment.” But in my experience, this strategy is broad, deep, and often subtly superimposed on other strategies, even when it’s not the driving force. Regardless of the story or mood, just imagine a financial spot with a dubstep track or an energy drink spot with a Copland-inspired orchestral anthem! No matter what other strategies are at play, the music must be relatable to the intended audience, and this strategy is omnipresent in modern advertising.

5. Source (i.e. “diagetic music”)

This last strategy is the easiest to spot, but also the rarest. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a few projects requiring source music, and it’s always a fascinating process. Source music, also known as diagetic music, refers to music that exists in the world being portrayed on camera. Street performers and bar bands are a common example. Clock radios are also great examples, though those moments are more often solved by licensing something that might actually be on the radio. My favorite bit of source music is undoubtedly the “cantina” band in Star Wars, particularly because John Williams wrote something that felt alien yet relatable enough to help tell the story of where they were.

As a composer, the process of writing source music takes a completely different creative shape than any other process. To get it right, it’s one part ethnomusicology, one part composing, and one part method acting. You have to understand just what that ensemble would be playing at that moment, in that world, and then you have to pretend to be that composer until the music comes out. This strategy is less likely to mix with others, though it’s easy to imagine scenarios where the type of band portrayed on camera speaks to the audience demographic being targeted, or the emotion created by the piece is central to the scene making sense narratively.

I cannot tell you how much fun it was to work on this Florida Citrus spot, which involved two trips to Miami and Ricky Martin’s drummer. I’ll just leave it at that.

These are the broad strokes, and there are certainly areas like comedy that don’t follow the rules. Next week I’ll be back to talk about the scraps of certainty we start writing with—needledrops, creative briefs, and voice overs.

Still from U.S. Army ad scored by CO-PILOT featuring a group of enlisted men and the caption "Paid for by the U.S. Army"

My Oldest Friend and Best Collaborator: Remembering Richard Peaslee (1930-2016)

[Ed Note: Richard Peaslee was an extraordinarily prolific composer who worked in many different idioms including orchestral music, band music, soundtracks for film and television, dance, and jazz. But he is perhaps most widely known for his numerous theatrical scores. After learning of his passing at his home in Seattle in late August, we approached his frequent collaborator, playwright/screen writer/director Kenneth Cavander to share his thoughts with us about Peaslee’s music and his personality. The composer’s widow, painter Dixie Peaslee, provided us with these wonderful photos.—FJO]

It all started with a live snake. The live snake appeared in a 1969 production at the Yale Repertory Theater and threatened to steal the show, slithering around the head and shoulders of the lead actor who, to his credit, calmly went on with his performance with the sangfroid and wit the part demanded.

The actor was Alvin Epstein, the play Euripides’s Bacchae, a celebration of Dionysiac possession and the invasion of a civilized culture by forces of demonic power. Accompanying the snake and the bizarre and violent action were music and sound effects that perfectly complemented the sinister, hypnotic atmosphere of the work.

The music and sound were created by Richard (Dick) Peaslee, and it’s how I got to know him. (I had translated the play.)

Actually, I had got to know Dick’s music five years before I met him in person, when I sat in London’s Aldwych Theater entranced, puzzled, and disturbed by another play in which forces from the unconscious were unleashed—Peter Brook’s groundbreaking production of Marat/Sade as it was called. (The actual title of the Peter Weiss’s play is 25 words long.)

Richard Peaslee conferring with Peter Brook (director) on the set of Marat/Sade with actors in costume in the background.

Richard Peaslee conferring with Peter Brook (director) on the set of Marat/Sade.

Dick’s music for Marat/Sade catapulted him to the forefront of theater composers. The songs thrummed, jolted, and seduced you with their sweet-sour melodies and jagged rhythms.

At the time, I was just beginning a career in theater and television, and I had never encountered anything like this. It took five years of experimentation with various theatrical forms and a string of personal happenstances and professional zig-zags to bring us together.

So, back to the snake. The production of Bacchae at Yale, directed by Andre Gregory, was a fraught experience for almost everyone, especially the actors whose loyalty was divided between Andre and a co-director who was responsible for the chorus movement. The members of that chorus—graduate students at the Yale School of Drama—were themselves going through the heady rebellions of the ‘60s. And, on top of it all, there was the snake.

In the middle of this tumult was a quiet, thoughtful, slender figure, adjusting sound levels, bringing in musical motifs, percussion beats, and seldom raising his voice above a quiet murmur. He seemed sane, grown up, self-assured, and I decided he was the person I could be compatible with.

“What’s the egg whisk for?’ I asked him.

“Well, you see, I think it would work for the scene where the women tear his head off.”

I swallowed hard and pressed ahead. Dick told me about his work with Brook on Marat/Sade—how he and Brook experimented with creating musical effects from everyday objects, banging spoons on the exposed strings of a grand piano or dragging a metal funnel across a grating in the floor to mimic the sound of a ratchet on a guillotine. His favorite was submerging a struck gong in a large cauldron of hot water. “It produces a perfect glissando,” he told me.

Peaslee writing music on manuscript paper on a table.

That first encounter with Dick encapsulates a lot of the essence of the man. At his core was a quiet and sturdy gentleness, a respect for others, and a grace that may have come from his Quaker upbringing, fortified by an education that took him from the Groton School to Yale to Juilliard.  At the same time, he possessed an openness to the unconventional and untried, along with a streak of irreverent humor and wildness that drew him to subject matter and musical expression outside the mainstream. The better I got to know him, the more clear it became that beneath the outwardly understated and modest gentleman lurked an uninhibited Great God Pan that mostly came out in his music.

After Bacchae, my memory tells me that he wrote the music for another play I translated for the Yale Repertory, Moliere’s Don Juan; this time, no snake, but the hero did go down in flames.

Dick and I kept in touch. He was working with Peter Brook again, notably on Brook’s revolutionary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was continuing to adapt, write, and direct. Then, in 1972, the director of the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts invited me create a show for their Second Company. I chose to adapt some stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron, and to turn it into a musical.

Tentatively, but hopeful, I asked Dick if he would agree to compose the music. I’m not sure why he said yes. I think there was something in Boccaccio’s stories—the setting of a deadly plague, rebelliousness and sexiness in the characters, a group of young people telling stories to each other—that appealed to the mischief in him and provided such an edge to his music. At any rate, whatever the motive, he responded to the tales, with their darkly satiric view of a society collapsing under the threat of a mortal pandemic. In one of them, the abbot of a deliriously corrupt monastery in an obscure village seduces the beautiful wife of a local farmer when she comes to receive absolution in his confessional. The lyrics I wrote were innocent enough, expressing Boccaccio’s sly satire while staying just this side of blasphemy, but Dick added a twist of his own—a backup group of swinging monks, chanting a miserere in a counterpoint blend of plainchant and soft rock.

It was in this production—which went on from Williamstown to the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., to other regional theaters, and briefly to New York—that I acquired my education in writing for musical theater, with Dick as my guide, mentor, and artistic lodestone.

I can’t remember a time when Dick presented me with a melody, or even a musical phrase, and said, “See if you can make your lyrics fit what I’ve written.” Invariably, he would wait for me to present him with the lyrics first, and then, a few days later, come back with a draft of the song. And then, subtly, gently, but with a persuasive mix of demonstration on the piano and tapping out of rhythms, he would show me how the lyric could be improved, expanded, edited, and dramatized in ways I had never imagined when I drafted it.

For a while after that, our paths diverged. Then, a couple of years later, Dick called me and suggested I come over and listen to something he’d been working on.

Around that time, composers were experimenting with synthesizers. Dick liked gadgets, and the synthesizer was the ultimate musical gadget. His apartment had been rigged up with four enormous loudspeakers, each as tall as an average citizen of New York City, and from these Dick could project an effect of being enveloped in quadrophonic music and sound effects that summoned aggrieved thuds on his walls from the neighbors in adjacent apartments. I don’t believe he ever connected these pieces into one organic composition, but for me they were fascinating as a way to subtly change the listener’s perception of reality.

Richard Peaslee performing on an upright piano with a synthesizer on top of it.

Richard Peaslee performing on piano and synthesizers.

At the time I had become interested in the Arthurian cycle, the mysterious tales, some by anonymous authors, of the Knights of the Round Table. I had an invitation to go back to Williamstown with another production, so the following summer the monster speakers and all Dick’s electronic equipment were loaded into his car and set up in the space provided for us—a school auditorium on the edge of the Williams College campus. In keeping with the eclectic nature of the synthesizer experiments, we strung together a group of stories from the legends and let the actors immerse themselves in the music. There were no lyrics, no songs, just the music and the action, with the music assuming the role of an independent actor in its own right.

That created an interesting dilemma.  With no live musicians to take visual cues from the actors, it was up to the actors to time their lines, movements, entrances, and exits according to the often complex rhythms and shifts of mood Dick had created in his recorded pieces.  This was before the era of computerized soundboards, and in any case we were working with a shoe-string budget. The only way the two elements—the actors’ performances and Dick’s music—could be coordinated was through the dexterity and concentration of a stage manager operating the switches and volume controls of the tape machine. All this was made even more complicated by the time lag between the reactions of the stage manager at the controls, the activation of the tape machine, and the emergence of the sound from the speakers.

It was the only time I heard Dick curse.

Nevertheless, the Arthurian legends had captured our imagination. They returned in a more conventional form to fulfill a commission for the Lincoln Center Institute. This time we left the synthesizer in the apartment and Dick went back to a score to be played by live musicians.

Once again, though, he felt the urge to play with stage conventions. In one scene, the hero Sir Gawain is subjected to a humiliating duel with an Invisible Knight. But how to represent this on stage, short of an unconvincing display of an actor slashing the air with a sword? Dick had a solution. He had a soft spot for the French horn. This was a golden opportunity to indulge it. He decided to bring one of the musicians on stage and make the sound of the instrument represent Gawain’s unseen adversary. It was both scary and a bit disturbing, though it wasn’t a solution that was practical for every production of the work.

Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that the main reason Dick wanted to do this was so that, in future printed versions of the piece, the stage direction could read EXIT, PURSUED BY A FRENCH HORN.

Richard Peaslee at his home studio.

Richard Peaslee at his home studio in Seattle, 2010.

The last time I saw Dick, he was physically limited by the progress of the multiple sclerosis that disabled him in his later years. We talked over a long lunch in Seattle, his wife Dixie joined us, and though he couldn’t say much himself I felt strongly that his quickness of mind and humor were alive and well.

As I left Dixie confirmed for me that indeed the Dick I had known for nearly half a century was still there. She told me that only the other day, as he was leaving their apartment and passed a vase of carnations that were wilting and drooping from being left too long, he looked at the flowers and commented, “They look like they need a reincarnation.”

And that is how I think of him, reincarnated every time I listen to his music.

Peaslee (center) on the stage of Alice Tully Hall in 1989 with (starting on the left) cellist Eugene Friesen, composer Peter Schickele, choreographer Martha Clarke, singer Jim Naughton, and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin at the end of the Composers' Showcase tribute to Richard Peaslee.

Peaslee (center) on the stage of Alice Tully Hall in 1989 with (starting on the left) cellist Eugene Friesen, composer Peter Schickele, choreographer Martha Clarke, singer Jim Naughton, and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin at the end of the Composers’ Showcase tribute to Richard Peaslee.

Summer Residency Snapshots: Into the Workshop

This week I want to explore the bread and butter of composer/performer collaborations—workshopping sessions—and follow two collaborations at Avaloch that are using workshopping periods to develop nuanced interpretations while helping create more idiomatic notation and performance practices. For QuaQuaQua, workshops were an indispensable interpretive aid in preparing François Sarhan’s theatrical Situations. For Arx Duo, intense work with composers Alyssa Weinberg and Justin Rito allowed them to help composers who had never previously written for unusual percussion setups to create, notate, and revise quickly. Both projects highlight the way ideas in composer/performer collaborations may run in both directions at once: how input from performers can help composers create more easily interpretive, idiomatic work, and how composers can bring interpretive clarity to hard to parse scores while writing with their collaborators in mind.

QuaQuaQua and Situation-al Anxiety

QuaQuaQua is a trio of percussionists—Adam Rosenblatt, Terry Sweeney, and Tatevik Khoja-Eynatyan—interested in the boundaries between theater and concert performance. They came to Avaloch to work with French composer (and professor at Berlin’s UDK) François Sarhan on his Situations, a collection of short, witty, challenging, and diverse theatrical works. QuaQuaQua’s time with Sarhan was invaluable for its dense transmission of the kind of oral performance practice especially necessary for theatrical percussion works.

Because the act of playing percussion is inherently visual, percussion music has grappled perhaps more than any other instrument with the relationship between physical and musical gesture and how to expand the gestures required to play our instruments into larger actions. Although “theatrical music” is an extremely diverse category, percussionists often deal with the descendants of Mauricio Kagel’s “Instrumental Music Theater,” where “theatricality” is the result of extremely detailed prescriptive notation. In such works (Kagel’s Exotica or Dressur, Aperghis’s Les Guetteurs de Sons, or any of Trio Le Cercle’s retinue of commissions), performance practice is dictated by the material of the score, awareness of the general characterizational strategies used in parallel works, and, most effectively, a strong oral tradition—either from composer to performer or from performer to performer.

Adam Rosenblatt

The author with Adam Rosenblatt

QuaQuaQua’s work at Avaloch took this form, and the density of their workshop sessions allowed Sarhan to quickly and effectively articulate prescriptive details about the execution of his pieces while providing comment on overall performance practice.   In “Situation 15,” Khoja-Eynatyan and Sweeney sit on either side of Rosenblatt, all three staring ahead. With Kagel-ian severity Rosenblatt twice performs a series of rhythmic tapping gestures on either side of his head at coordinated heights. During the first iteration, Khoja-Eynatyan and Sweeney alternately raise and lower gongs, aluminum foil, knives, and scissors in a series of coordinated gestures. When Rosenblatt repeats the gestures, they occur simultaneously with attacks on drums, gongs, and woodblocks. Rosenblatt never hits the objects, but their placement relative to Rosenblatt’s hands is crucial to the piece’s narrative. During the first iteration, Rosenblatt appears to be hitting the “accessories.” In the second pass, Rosenblatt’s gestures miss the objects, but Sweeney and Khoja-Eynatyan’s hits provide an imagined attack. As one might imagine, this execution requires extreme precision. In this first section, the three players’ vertical positioning must be exact and their rhythmic timing silently coordinated. Rosenblatt’s hands must come extremely near, but never touch the alternately forgiving (aluminum foil) and painful (scissors, knives) objects. In the second section, QuaQuaQua needs to accurately convey a distinct variety of vertical positions with one hand while playing rhythmic figures with their other.


Terry Sweeney, Adam Rosenblatt, and Tatevik Khoja-Eynatyan of QuaQuaQua rehearse Francois Sarhan’s Situation No. 15

Rosenblatt characterizes Sarhan’s role with the ensemble as “more like a stage director than a composer.” He corrects their spatial placement and rhythmic execution, offering thoughts as the group rehearses rather than commenting on larger run-throughs. He argues for rhythmic fidelity while clarifying his unique and problematic notation for vertical positioning through demonstration and description. The piece’s score is specific about certain parameters but surprisingly mum about how the essential visual elements may be foregrounded.

sarhan excerpt 1

Over their week at Avaloch, I saw a really amazing relationship develop as QuaQuaQua gradually entered the performance practice of Sarhan’s Situations, both through the codified oral performance practice and the text of the piece. Because many of the “situations” depend on Sarhan’s explanations, QuaQuaQua wanted to use their time at Avaloch to turn Situations into what Rosenblatt calls “more easily transmutable documents,” either by recording performances with Sarhan or by editing the scores to provide additional descriptive and prescriptive information. QuaQuaQua’s presence enabled François to make quick changes to his scores that resulted in their idiomatic and impactful performance. In rehearsals, QuaQuaQua articulated passages where notation or difficulty made theatricality difficult to foreground, and Sarhan would revise with an eye towards making the visual elements of his works more easily read in his scores. At the same time, the documentation—the written scores and video recordings—gradually assimilated elements of QuaQuaQua’s performance. Rosenblatt noted that QuaQuaQua’s week at Avaloch began with the trio as interpreters, but ended with the score including their “personalities, conversations over the course of the week, and the relationships [they] had developed.”

Much like Invisible Anatomy, Adam felt that of the lack of pressure to leave Avaloch with a final product was “gigantically freeing,” and made QuaQuaQua more productive than in other rehearsal environments. In QuaQuaQua’s case, it set the groundwork for future collaborations while creating a more definitive performance practice around some of the Situations. The opportunity to perform, however, allowed them to receive constructive and friendly critical feedback. In the end, the trio left with important videos (check them out on QuaQuaQua’s YouTube channel) of their work with François, and a sense of interpretive empowerment. The group will be performing some of these Situations at the Capital Fringe Theater in Washington, D.C. in early September.

arx duo: 4 hands, 3 composers, 2 percussionists, 1 set-up

While the new notational systems and visual theatricality of Sarhan’s Situations are daunting, I would argue that most pieces for percussion include similar challenges. Typically, percussion works adopt individualistic instrumentations, individualistic notation systems, and unique sound worlds. The upside is that our repertoire is colorful and dynamic. The downside is that almost none is sight-readable. In “Developing an Interpretive Context: Learning Brian Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet” (later revised into a book chapter), percussion demigod Steve Schick reflects on how “an artificial skin of practical considerations must be stretched tightly across the lumps of a living, breathing piece” when learning it. Noting that in much percussion music, instrumentation—the very sound of a piece—is not extremely determined, he asks, “How do decisions made during the initial phases of learning, although fundamentally different as mental activities from those of the final product, shape and make inevitable an interpretive content which steers the piece in performance?”

percussion instruments

Terry Sweeney’s percussion instruments for Francois Sarhan’s Situation No. 15

As a result, most percussionists are used to learning a percussion piece twice: picking an assortment of instruments, finding a set up, and learning the material, then revising both to maximize idiomatic playing and interpretive flexibility. In some cases, this process is shortened by determinacy from composers, but in others (Xenakis’ Psappha, for example) the score seems to ask more questions than a performance can answer.

arx duo, the virtuosic tandem of Garrett Arney and Mari Yoshinaga, came to Avaloch with an intriguing percussive project which ended up making this process more efficient. I followed their rehearsals with Justin Rito and Alyssa Weinberg. (Also a part of this project was Nick DiBernadino, who was only at Avaloch for a short time)

For Alyssa Weinberg, the process of creating her Table Talk began with sonic and logistical brainstorming. Weinberg had an initial idea for a “four hands” vibraphone set up—a single vibraphone played with both players standing on opposite sides of the instrument and facing one another. At the same time, Weinberg was interested in preparing the vibraphone, placing various objects on the surface of the instrument to allow for quick pitched and unpitched material.   Yoshinaga and Arney began with Alyssa’s setup and brainstormed additional instruments, suggesting types of sounds that were most idiomatic to play, most durable, and had the widest range of colors. To Weinberg, the fact that the three “collectively constructed a new instrument together that day” granted Yoshinaga and Arney more authority to give idiomatic musical ideas, textural possibilities, and other ways of altering the setup of the piece over the course of the week.

arx duo

Mari Yoshinaga and Garrett Arney of arx duo rehearse with Justin Rito while Michael Compitello looks on

Each day Weinberg would write a new section, meet with arx to workshop it, and then revise and expand. The brevity of her initial ideas allowed her to work with arx very soon in the compositional process, and helped to eliminate extensive revision, unclear notation, and fiendishly difficult passages. The three worked together to develop a notation system and physical setup that made the most sense for the sonic ideas Alyssa had, and she argues that “the piece [couldn’t] be what it is without Garrett and Mari.”

With Justin Rito and All Set, srx followed a similar process of daily sketches, feedback, and revision. The three decided they wanted a piece that was “four-hands on one drum set,” and their work centered a musical lexicon that would be visually arresting, eventually settling on a small setup of drum set components around which both percussionists rotate. Rito, Weinberg, and DiBernadino’s pieces were premiered shortly after arx’s stay at Avaloch.

In this dialogue, both srx and their composer friends used their expertise to create works in which both parties have ownership. Arney and Yoshinaga used their expertise as percussionists to helped Rito and Weinberg explore timbral possibilities, codify and organize their sounds into logistically and theatrically cogent setups, and design notation systems for maximum playability. Weinberg and Rito supplied narrative possibilities, theatrical connections, and surprising sound combinations. At the same time, their collaborations leveraged their friendship and flexibility to reduce time learning, rehearsing, revising, and re-learning complex percussion music.

In honor of the impending opening of the academic semester, next week’s edition is a preemptive “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” collaboration book report, talking about New Morse Code’s work at Avaloch over the past two years.

Summer Residency Snapshots: The Composer / Performer Mind Meld

Last week I gave some background on the Avaloch Farm Music Institute and explored how being involved in creative residencies impacts collaborative musical work. During the first week (July 10-18) of 2016’s New Music Initiative, I had the chance to observe how two ensembles of composer/performers craft fluid, group-developed music.

Invisible Anatomy is a New York-based composers collective dedicated to large-scale multi-media shows. Its members—Brendon Randall-Myers, Paul Kerekes, Dan Schlosberg, Ian Gottlieb, Ben Wallace, and Fay Kueen Wang—are also cunning and acerbic performers, the collective’s name is a nod towards the physical bodies of performers and the invisible presence of composers on a concert stage, a celebratory collision of what cellist/composer Ian Gottlieb calls “the immediacy of a composer who also expresses himself with his own instrument.” While the group’s electric/acoustic instrumentation is similar to the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the strength of Invisible Anatomy’s previous multimedia shows (2014’s Body Parts and 2015’s Dissections) is the diversity of their sonic approach, which veers without warning from dynamic, hocketing pulsar (Paul Kerekes’s Pressing Issues) to slow motion sonic vivisection (Ian Gottlieb’s Threading Light).

The Process

While Dissections and Body Parts were continuous shows, the constituent musical numbers were independently composed works stitched together in what Dan Schlosberg calls an “abridged composer-performer model.” During their week at Avaloch, the boys of Invisible Anatomy (Fay Wang was unable to attend) decided to generate new material for their forthcoming Transfigurations[1] through a more improvisational compositional model.

Since the members of Invisible Anatomy are gifted performers with what Paul Kerekes calls “composer-y” brains, why not harness their collective strengths as orchestrators and developers of musical material and manipulate each other’s ideas in real time? After a few days of improvising and becoming more comfortable with each other as performers, Invisible Anatomy settled into a “transfiguration” rhythm, using minuscule nuggets of material as starting points in order to (as Brendon Randall-Myers puts it) “collectively build this thing which everyone has equity in.”

Paul Kerekes brings two musical ideas into rehearsal: a chord progression and a fragment of one of Fay Wang’s pieces that he had extracted and “transfigured,” a snappy scale passed among the group. Kerekes shoots his progression (a “numbered sequence of inquisitive, vague, and suggestive verticalities” is probably more descriptive) to each member’s iPad.

Idea no 2 (before)

Paul Kerekes’ initial sketch for development in rehearsal with Invisible Anatomy

The boys take turns at the helm, each offering a broad theme for the next run through—“hocketed, without attack”—which they apply to their instruments while buttressing with their own thoughts. Brainstorming is quick and polite and perhaps a bit ADD. Minute and enormous changes are equivalent, and the work appears non-teleological until “Paul’s” piece is set with the firmness of an underdone quiche. It’s a disfigured, sickly chorale constructed of sighing, groaning, articulation-less sounds sliding and sliming (in the best possible way). Schlosberg and Kerekes’s piano and keyboard playing melts into Randall-Myers’s guitar, Wallace’s bowed vibraphone, and Gottlieb’s sickly long tones. By the end of the week, the group has generated almost 20 minutes of their new show using this working method–a flight of musical follies touching down briefly amidst austere harmonic totems, absurdist cowboy music, and vaudevillian settings of warning labels.

What’s immediately noticeable during Invisible Anatomy’s rehearsals is that there is no functional boundary between performer and composer. They aren’t afraid to get dirty with each other’s ideas and tend to treat everything as their own composition. A deep awareness of each other’s compositional and performative strengths allows them to connect the dots more quickly and create more idiomatic music with grace.

I’m struck by two things. First, I am entranced by how Invisible Anatomy’s serpentine creative process results in work that reeks of form, structure, and development. At the same time, the lack of waste makes me jealous. As a percussionist steeped in a more conservative collaborative method—note learning, making idiomatic suggestions to composer friends, learning revised parts, taping over hastily reprinted pages—it’s a fantastic time saver.

Invisible Anatomy

Brendon Randall-Myers, Ian Gottlieb, Paul Kerekes, Ben Wallace, and Dan Schlosberg of Invisible Anatomy

Invisible Anatomy’s dynamicism and playfulness is mirrored in another group concurrently in residence at Avaloch. Triplepoint Trio (Doug Perry, Sam Suggs, and Jonny Allen) exist somewhere within contemporary music and jazz, and each member is a classically trained performer, improviser, and creator. This drum/vibraphone/bass trio is made up of Avaloch veterans: they’ve attended as a group in 2016 and 2015, and Doug Perry and Sam Suggs have also come with other groups.

For Perry, Allen, and Suggs, arrangement, composition, and performance are almost the same act. During Invisible Anatomy’s stay at Avaloch, Triplepoint was developing pieces by Perry and Suggs, each of which mobilized the unique talents of the group. Doug and Sam brought ideas ranging from a single chord to a fully fleshed out arrangement to the group. Through improvisation, the edges of the work are gradually hardened, and the piece’s “instigator” tends to have the final say over the large-scale structure.

What’s great about Triplepoint Trio is the way in which these skills seep into their performances of more “fixed,” predetermined music. While at Avaloch, the trio workshopped a new piece by Michael Laurello, written for Fender Rhodes, bass, and vibraphone, and in 2015 they used their stay at the farm to work on music from Invisible Anatomy’s Brendon Randall-Myers and Paul Kerekes. In each case, the composers created bounded material, but the performances were improvisational, spontaneous, and joyful.

Triplepoint Trio

Doug Perry and Jonny Allen of Triplepoint Trio rehearse

A Focus on Process

Both Triplepoint and Invisible Anatomy were productive collaborators during their time at Avaloch. So what? Was there something different about being here, surrounded by apples, blueberries, corn, and cookies, when compared to their normal rehearsal spaces? Did physical space have an impact on their creative work?

Obviously, being at a residency has logistical benefits. Ensembles are able to leave their percussion forts and jungles of electronics set up during their stay, saving a lot of time. Ensembles that have been to Avaloch tend to point towards the value of being “away” to create, having a dedicated time and space for a specific project.

Lastly, it seems as though the lack of pressure to leave with something concrete allowed Invisible Anatomy to focus on refining their creative process. For ensembles of composer/performers, neither the tight, goal-oriented schedules of summer festivals nor the creative isolation of writers colonies fit.   At Avaloch, both Triplepoint Trio and Invisible Anatomy were able to stretch their legs creatively while being inspired by the diverse community around them. For Invisible Anatomy’s Ian Gottlieb, the difference was clear: “At a seminar or festival, part of the reason to go is to walk away with something: a recording, or some networking experience; here the highlight is on process.”

Next time, I want to take a look at a few collaborators for whom physical proximity allowed for speed in composition and interpretation. Stay tuned!

1. I’m sensing a theme in titles…

What Happens When Composers Make Opera

As part of the New York Opera Fest this past June, I led a collaborative conversation at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall featuring some of the most prolific and interesting composers, librettists, and singers working in New York’s new opera scene:

James Barry – composer
Lauren Buchter – composer
David Cote – librettist
Daniel Felsenfeld – composer
Elisabeth Halliday – singer and co-founder of Rhymes with Opera
Joan La Barbara – composer and singer
George Lam – composer and co-artistic director of Rhymes with Opera
Jessica Meyer – composer and violist
Pamela Stein Lynde – composer, singer, and founder of Stone Mason Projects
Stefan Weisman – composer
David Wolfson – composer, librettist, and music director

The idea behind the talk was to get a sense of the challenges and opportunities that composers face when they set off on their new opera project. Prior to the actual conversation, I sent a questionnaire to the participants to gauge some of the experiences they have had making new opera. I found that the initial responses in the conversation grouped together under four main ideas: collaboration, process, vision, and quality. Our conversation together was framed by these big ideas and also by the request to reference as much as possible everyone’s real experiences making work. We had a wide-ranging and light-hearted exchange buoyed by a wealth of different experiences, opinions, and attitudes.

Aaron Siegel: We’re going to jump right in and start talking about collaboration. David [Cote], you had some very interesting things to say about collaboration.  You said that the composer may not be the king that he or she was in centuries back, but they still make the project live and breathe. They have maximum impact but must have support and preparation. My question for you is: what does it mean for an opera to live and breathe?

David Cote: I think that most operas begin with a composer and a librettist, whether that’s the same person or two different people. Maybe with a producer or a commissioning person who has a particular idea or subject that they want them to write about. Who knows where it starts? Or it might just start with those two writers together.

I am working with Rob Paterson on an opera called Three Way. We’re working on the third act right now, which is set at a swinger party. It has a lot of recitative in the first ten minutes, and it has a lot of different sections to it, even though it’s only a fifty-minute opera. And then there was a whole recit section that I realized, after we worked on part of it, had to go because we had already had a bunch of recit—we already knew who these characters were, and the music needed to drive the car. So that was a case where, dramaturgically, I just cut whole pages out of the libretto because the music has to drive this now.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I’m going to just quibble with the metaphor a little bit. There’s certainly nothing you said I disagree with, but it’s performers and directors who actually make an opera live and breathe. All the writers do is put things on paper. I would say that it’s not alive until it’s on bodies.

AS: I heard some composer/performers squirming at that. Do you guys feel that way? Is that your responsibility to bring the piece to life?

Elisabeth Halliday: Yes. I appreciated the earlier point about the commissioner and the performer being one and the same. I think that often the commissioner lays the groundwork for what they’re looking for, but also can be the source of inspiration. Both the composer and the librettist, if they’re in a vacuum writing a piece for a soprano, they’re going to feel very differently than if they’re writing a piece for Pam Stein Lynde, knowing what she can do. So there’s a bit of a circular aspect to a lot of music that’s happening now: it’s commissioned, then the process, and then it’s ultimately realized by the person or the group that began the process.

Pamela Stein Lynde: Yeah, I’d agree with that as well. I think it’s really important not to let any one person in the process be at the helm all the time. In order to create something that’s an organic experience artistically for the audience, it has to be something that was created by all parties involved.

Lauren Buchter, Jessica Meyer, Pamela Stein Lynde, and David Cote at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall (June 2016)

Lauren Buchter, Jessica Meyer, Pamela Stein Lynde, and David Cote

DF: When I’m writing the operas I’ve had the luxury to write, I like to put Pam Stein Lynde’s name in the score, rather than Soprano or Soprano Two. If a composer can kind of get in touch with the idea that this is going to be performed, and that it is ultimately nothing without the people who make it happen, I think that is a really beautifully symbiotic way of approaching it.

AS: James [Barry], I’m going to ask you to chime in here. In your comments to me, you said that you thought the impact of your leadership as a composer on the overall shape of the piece was one of inspiring your collaborators, performers, your creative/technical staff, to bring the highest caliber of artistry to the production and to create an opera that resonated with them. How do you know when a piece has resonated with your co-collaborators? What does that look like? How does that look for you?

James Barry: I think we’ve all written music that we don’t feel confident about. And it just doesn’t go very well. It doesn’t feel very good. And sometimes, you come up with an idea on a project that people really take to. With Smashed, the Carrie Nation Story, that’s what I felt like. Everybody really gave one hundred percent all the time. And I think that’s where the success came from. It was kind of raunchy and had a lot of bad language. And there was also a lot of improv built into the show, so it was different every night. And I think that’s why people—this cast at least—very much enjoyed rehearsals and performing on stage.

George Lam: I just worked on this opera about Dolly Parton even though I am not a huge fan of hers, and it has been ten years in the making. One of my singers, Robert Maril, is a big Dolly Parton fan, and I had worked with Robert for a long time. I said, “All right. So what would it be like if, as a composer…” and I’m sort of being an actor in that sense, I’m sort of slipping into a character of you, Robert, and pretending that this might be a project that would be interesting. I want to write about fans of Dolly Parton. And that was the germ of it. So, to start a conversation about making a piece with asking questions, or doing oral history, or figuring out how to talk with people that are going to be the audience for this piece. I think those are the things that make me resonate more with the process, and also hopefully with the artists.

Jessica Meyer: I feel like a lot of the sounds that I’m creating usually come from what inspires the performer. For instance, I wrote a piece for Amanda Gookin of the PUBLIQuartet. When I see her on stage, she’s at her sunniest and happiest when she’s improvising and slapping the heck out of a cello. I know that when I write for her, those things need to be in here. And so the song cycles I’ve been writing for singers, I’m really starting from a place of “what text really resonates with you?” Send me poetry that you love. And then we usually find something that we’re really both excited about, that both matches the kinds of things that I usually write, and then what the singers really want to sing. And so I guess that’s when that magic vibration happens, when you’re just excited, and you can’t ignore enthusiasm. And that’s the actual nucleus of a project. It’s a great place to go.

AS: Elisabeth, you said something that I thought was very interesting. You said that while you put a crude emphasis on composer/performer collaboration, you’ve also found it important that, once you get to the production, that the composer hand the reigns over to the director. What does it mean to hand over an opera? What does that look like? How do you do it? Do you have a meeting where you hand a box of stuff to someone?

EH: Well, of course, when you think of opera that isn’t new music, all these operas that have been performed for hundreds of years, the composers are not involved because they’re dead. And everyone’s comfortable with that concept. We reinterpret operas that have been around for a while. But I think once you bring in living composers, there’s this shift that happens where I think a lot of people have an assumption that since the composer is alive, they should have sort of ultimate say over their creation. But I think often there’s a blurring of roles between composer and librettist, and then director.  Where does one end, and the other begin?

I think for us [at Rhymes with Opera] it has been a question of figuring out what works best for us. Because of course, librettists have a right to their own interpretation. And of course, composers do as well. For us it’s definitely an ongoing process, but we’re interested in working with directors. And for us that seems to mean that at some point, the vision is handed over in a box, or a Dropbox…

DC: I’m in the middle of a process right now with Rob [Paterson] doing this opera for Nashville Opera, and we had a workshop recently. It was really interesting. I feel like this idea of process and collaboration has several phases. Right now, we’re in the process of trying out a new piano vocal [score] with our cast. And when they’re like, “Oh, can I change this note here? I can hit that higher,” we’re like, “Great, okay, write it in.” Or, “That phrase is a little awkward.” “Okay, let me rewrite it.” And so you’re collaborating. You’re inspiring them. They’re inspiring you. It’s a terrific, bubbling process. But to me, it’s all leading to a point—and this is a really terrible, terrible phrase we use, and it’s very uncreative and anti-process—where the score is singer-proof and director-proof, you know? Where basically we deliver you the box, and the idea works. It has bones. And it’s not just some sort of amorphous thing that you can set wherever you want. It is what it is.

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, and Joan La Barbara at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, and Joan La Barbara

Joan La Barbara: For me, the initial impetus is what it is I’m dealing with. What’s the inspiration of the piece? How do the techniques that I have developed work into that? How much traditional singing do I want to use, as opposed to non-traditional singing? I’m also now struggling with trying to get outside the issue of just writing for myself, and trying to write for other singers. How much do I want them to be able to replicate some of my techniques? How much am I willing to move out of that situation and really write for a larger section of the vocal population? Not just the ones who can do some of the techniques that I do.

I’m in the process of writing a piece for the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. When we went into one of the first rehearsals, I came in with drawings. And Francisco Núñez, who is incredibly generous, said, “Wow!” [Laughing]. But I said, “Just relax.  This is just part of my process. I will get to the point of turning my drawings into more traditional looking notation.” Which I have done. And so that’s been a really fascinating thing for him to come to grips with. And for me to come to grips with, as a composer, that I have to create something that other people can look at and make some sense of.

AS: I guess one question for you all, but specifically for you first, Jessica, is what’s the right time for a composer to influence the direction of the piece in this process that we’ve started to discover here? Obviously there are different varieties of this. But for you at least, what’s the right time?

JM: As a violist, I’ve been part of the whole chamber opera renaissance, the black box opera thing that’s happening. And I’ve noticed that there are these moments where the music has been workshopped, the opera is just a couple days away, and there are just some things that are still not working. And people are arguing about it. But the composer isn’t really involved in that moment anymore.

And so when I started thinking about the first opera I was going to write, as I’m reading a short story, I’m already thinking of the material I want on the stage. The dance is going to go like this. People are going to go in and out. I’m already thinking this way. When I started talking to other composers, “Well, what happens when you write opera?” some said, “First someone writes, you come up with the idea, and then someone writes the libretto, and then hands it to you.” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” I feel like the composer should be part of the process all the time.

DF: Sometimes the composers are out of the process, because this is the third production of their piece and they don’t care anymore. And sometimes, there is the moment where they say, “We need to fix this. We need a new aria.” And it’s very much more like, “Go to the hotel room and write the big number.” And it is so different. This is what I love about opera: there is no opera. There’s no one thing that’s opera. There are a bunch of little strings and strands, and we are a healthy representation of just the way you kind of get around the big system.

But the point is that we are not just redefining opera. We’re up here trying to redefine the way people perform, make, sing, produce, compose, and write librettos for opera. Because it’s up for grabs. It’s the Wild West at this point.

EH: I would love to just briefly negate what I had said previously, by saying that I think something that is often lacking is the luxury of time. If we had the time, we would absolutely get your composers with your singers and your librettists, and then you bring in your director, and then the composer comes back, and then maybe the librettist comes back, and then the director comes back, and it could be this really beautiful, beautiful thing, where there is maybe no ultimate timeline and it’s just this wonderful collaboration and revision. The problem is that we have two weeks for production and day jobs. And I think that’s what’s driving this compartmentalization of roles, rather than a feeling that artistically there should be a separation between the different processes.

AS: Let’s talk a little bit about this notion of vision. It’s not meant to be one thing. Right? Someone doesn’t have a crystalline vision and then try to create it. But I think one of the things that happens when you’re working in a collaboration is there’s kind of a push and pull around what it is that you’re actually doing, right? What is it that you’re creating? What does it look like?

JLB: The difficulty is that I have to raise all the money. I have to write the grant applications. I have to find a venue. So I have to cover all bases, which is difficult. I would love to have an opera company come to me and say, “Okay, we’re going to give you a shot at doing your thing. How can we manage to support what you want to do, and your vision?” And they let me build a team, and say, “We’ll give you x amount of dollars to do it.” Boy, would I love that. That’s not the position that I’m usually in. So I’m generally in the driver’s seat, as it were. Not comfortably, but that’s what I’ve had to do.

David Cote, James Barry, and David Wolfson at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

David Cote, James Barry, and David Wolfson

David Wolfson: When you have a final draft, the objective is to make it reflect not necessarily a single vision, but a range of visions, so that any given group of singers and directors who looks at it will come up with new ideas. But they’re not going to be like, “Oh! Well this is a farce,” when in fact it was meant to be something else. So then I think the idea of a vision, because it has to then go through performers and directors, is probably better thought of as a range of visions. A spectrum maybe.

AS: David [Wolfson], you write that, because you write your own libretti, that for you the shape of the music is hovering in the back of your mind from the very beginning. And this is something that I can relate to, because I really feel strongly that it’s a delight as a composer to write and imagine music at the same time, and not have those things be ordered. When you have the words and you have the music in your mind, and you’re in the process of transferring them into something that other people can see and work with, what else is in there? How are you processing all the things that are interacting in your head?

DW: The most difficult part of that is translating it to a stage picture. I very much live in words and live in music, and my first attempts in this direction were very static, physically—you know, talking heads. People sitting around talking to each other. I was lucky enough to have directors work with these things and discover that there was more that could be done  than I had originally thought about. That was a big lesson for me. I’m trying to incorporate this idea into the things I’m working on now.  There are people in space, and people do things. Panelists notwithstanding, they don’t just sit around and talk to each other.

DF: I don’t want to have a vision, because that means I’m going a little crazy—like an actual vision is like a visitation. But I think my job is to have a stage vision so I have at least done due diligence in thinking this is something that can be staged. And then to either tell the director, or never tell the director, depending on the director, but hopefully it’s someone I trust.

AS: I want follow up with Stefan [Weisman] on that same point, because one of the things that he said, which relates directly, is that he actually finishes the music before any real staging has been settled. So the director and designers have carte blanche to do their work. I wondered what you thought about that?

Stefan Weisman: I’m just a composer. So I write the music, and I am okay with letting other people do their job. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a vision or don’t have an opinion. I work a lot with Dave Cote and sometimes we make something and I wonder, how is that actually going to happen? And it’s nice to see it come to life. And if I don’t think it’s working, I can say so, but I’ve been humbled many times by people saying, “What’s your role and what’s my role?” And it’s an interesting process, that kind of collaboration.

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, Joan La Barbara, Elisabeth Halliday, and George Lam at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, Joan La Barbara, Elisabeth Halliday, and George Lam.

AS: We haven’t really talked about audience tonight at all. And I think that’s fine. But I want to just touch on it a little bit here, because something that Pam said made me think about that. You said that, more or less, composers are basically performers, educators, writers, producers, multimedia artists—that’s just the nature of the beast right now. And then you said that “because these artists are multitasking, they’re doing many things, wearing many hats, that it leads to a less segmented artistic process, and ultimately a better audience experience.” I’m really interested in what you mean by that.  How does a multitasking artist, someone who’s wearing multiple hats behind the scenes, impact on the experience of the people who are there to see the work?

Pamela Stein Lynde: One of the issues that I’ve had as an audience member is having the experience dictated to me. I want to create something where the experience is a little bit more open-ended and interpretive for the audience. I feel that when you have a process that’s more organic, and you have people working in a very even way, and people doing a lot of different jobs at once, you end up with a product that’s a little bit less segmented and more organic, and maybe more sincere, because of that. I would hope, at least.

EH: Well, I know that in Rhymes with Opera’s sordid past, we’ve had one or two experiences where we’ve controlled the music, and we’ve done a concert, park and bark type event.  But we decided to get some visual artists involved, because that’s what you do in contemporary music, when you’re not having any blocking. But we didn’t have the communication between the two groups, so we sort of showed up to do our music, and they showed up to do their visuals. The two had nothing to do with one another, and the vision was lost.

Summer Residency Snapshots: Lessons in Dynamic Collaboration

One of the most fantastic elements of American contemporary music is its dynamic collaborative ecosystem.   As a percussionist and nerd, I’m fascinated with the degree to which long-term relationships between composers and performers generate compelling music and effective advocacy. Highlighting the amazing work of musical friends is a driving force of my cello/percussion duo New Morse Code, and a gigantic part of my playing, teaching, and thinking about percussion.

In these four posts, I want to explore some collaborations that have inspired me, and take a look at the role of long-term relationships and physical place in contemporary music. Fortunately, I have a fantastic point from which to observe. Since 2015, my New Morse Code partner Hannah Collins and I co-direct a unique incubator for composer/performer collaborations. Avaloch Farm Music Institute is a residency designed for performing ensembles founded by Fred Tauber and Deb Sherr in 2015. Avaloch’s New Music Initiative is a specially curated month within this season. During each week of this month, the farm is full of preexisting chamber ensembles collaborating with composers on new work.

LuSo Percussion

LuSo Percussion (Terry Sweeney, Adam Rosenblatt, Tatevik Khoja-Eynatyan) workshop music by François Sarhan
Photo by Doug Perry

To Avaloch veteran Robert Honstein, the atmosphere at Avaloch’s New Music Initiative is somewhere between a festival, composer residency, and rehearsal. Where festivals tend to center on goals and activities, residencies on isolation, and rehearsals on focused objectives, Avaloch is an amalgamation of all three, marked by a “healthy exchange of ideas between participants,” “the gift of time and space,” and a wonderful collaborative energy. Our weekly sharing sessions are fantastic examples of this diversity and fecundity. Equal parts performance, presentation, and question and answer session, these get-togethers allow everyone on the farm the chance to share new material with a supportive community without the pressure of a formalized concert environment. I think of these events as extensions of our informal conversations and natural cross-pollination, a slightly more formal version of the lingering in doorways and pdf Airdropping we’ve been doing all week. The population of Avaloch changes each week, but ensembles who’ve been here inevitably stay in touch, play the works of composers they met while in residence, and plan concerts together.

Since the New Music Initiative began in 2015, we’ve had an amazing assortment of performers and composers from across the world, with projects ranging from burgeoning collaborations to the workshopping of grant-funded commissions. The first week of 2016’s New Music Initiative is a wonderfully representative assortment: In one night, we heard performances from Triplepoint Trio, LuSo Percussion, Arx Duo, and HereNowHear, featuring world premieres from Michael Laurello, Alyssa Weinberg, and a new work co-written by the members of Invisible Anatomy.

The diversity and dynamism of projects at Avaloch’s NMI provides both a wonderful argument for the efficacy of contemporary music in contemporary culture as well as a convenient site from which to examine and juxtapose some creative dialogues that inspire, catalyze, and drive new music. Over the course of these posts, I want to shine light on the different types of work happening at Avaloch, observing how some interesting ensembles and composers create. How can taking part in a close dialogue over the genesis of a piece lead to more sustained and flexible partnerships? How do ensembles of composer/performers break down traditional “roles” while crafting fluid, group-developed music? How can being in an idyllic natural setting, surrounded by other interesting musicians and away from one’s normal routine, impact creative work? Is it important to be friends?


View of Avaloch from the porch, the unofficial center of social activities
Photo by Kristan Toczko

I hope that my amateur-hour ethnography is not interpreted as a shoddy attempt to create a taxonomy of creative models and draw homologies between unrelated experiences.   My goal is not to say that the types of collaborations I’ve been fortunate enough to observe and take part in at Avaloch grant me authority to make broader statements about the direction and scope of contemporary music in the US. Instead, I hope to accomplish something much more selfish: to describe some wonderful music I’ve heard and to ask questions that will drive my own future collaborations and that may (hopefully) inspire you as well.

Next time, I’ll explore how some groups at Avaloch blur the line between performer and composer, taking a closer look at one group where composers perform (Invisible Anatomy) and one where performers compose (Triplepoint Trio). Stay tuned and join in our exploits on Facebook and Instagram.

Michael Compitello

Michael Compitello

Michael Compitello is a percussionist active as a chamber musician, soloist, and teaching artist. He has performed with Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Signal, Ensemble ACJW, and has worked with composers Helmut Lachenmann, Nicolaus A. Huber, David Lang, John Luther Adams, Alejandro Viñao, Marc Applebaum, and Martin Bresnick on premieres and performances of new chamber works.

With cellist Hannah Collins as New Morse Code, Michael has created a singular and personal repertoire through long-term collaboration with some of America’s most esteemed young composers. He also champions new and recent works for solo percussion in the US and abroad.

Michael is assistant professor of percussion at the University of Kansas. He earned a DMA and MM from the Yale School of Music, and a BM from the Peabody Conservatory.

Forging Institutional Networks through BAM’s Next Wave Festival

Brooklyn Academy of Music
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

A 1982 advertisement for Cutty Sark whiskey placed Philip Glass above a scotch on the rocks. Composers aren’t the usual suspects for hard liquor ads, so why is Glass here? Glass recently admitted in his memoir that he agreed to do the ad because he needed the money ($15,000) to fund making the orchestra parts for his opera Akhnaten (1983).[1] Still, a more intriguing question remains: why would the image of Glass appeal to the target consumer of Cutty Sark whiskey? A brief biography in the ad reads, “Success hasn’t made Glass any less of a maverick.” Like the designers of this ad, critics and scholars generally view Glass as the sole agent of his popularity, operating outside of traditional musical institutions as an iconoclastic “American maverick.”[2]

Glass Cutty Sark ad

It is true that Glass had achieved considerable fame working independently of the university, which was the main “institution” for contemporary composers at the time. The ad plays to this familiar image of Glass as a self-made man. Glass rose to fame by his bootstraps: he worked as a taxi driver and plumber to pay the bills. His minimalist music first attracted attention in a subculture of 1960s New York avant-garde artists and audiences, the inhabitants of the lofts and galleries of lower Manhattan. Perhaps the quintessential example of Glass’s maverick persona was when he and theater designer/director Robert Wilson rented out the Metropolitan Opera House on its off nights for the 1976 United States premiere of Einstein on the Beach. Beyond the Cutty Sark ad, numerous biographies of Glass memorialize these aspects of his career and perpetuate the idea that Glass rose to fame on his own without institutional support.

In a previous article in this series, Ryan Ebright noted the crucial roles of Glass’s collaborators in seminal works like Satyagraha. Attributing Glass’s success entirely to his creative iconoclasm also ignores the substantial community of impresarios and patrons who have influenced his work and reception history. Just as the whiskey company co-opted Glass’s image, in the 1980s an emergent network of U.S. arts administrators from presenting institutions such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music and funding organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation used Glass as the poster child for their own set of concerns. These administrators expressed concern with the scarcity of new American operas and the stagnation of standard repertory in major opera houses of the United States. They were further troubled by the fact that American composers like Glass were receiving more attention in Europe; Glass’s first real opera commissions—Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1984)—came from state-sponsored opera houses in the Netherlands and Germany. These administrators devised a solution that borrowed from the vital world of avant-garde music theater, and in so doing generated an institutional support system that sustained Glass’s opera career throughout the 1980s and beyond.

Harvey Lichtenstein

Harvey Lichtenstein (Photo by Catherine Noren)

One of the key impresarios who reshaped the American operatic landscape was Harvey Lichtenstein at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). When Lichtenstein became executive director of BAM in 1967, he refashioned it into a principal center for contemporary dance, music, and theater in the U.S. His undertakings culminated in the Next Wave Festival, an annual two-month program of experimental performances that made him a leading impresario of the avant-garde. One of the most successful offerings of the first Next Wave series in 1981 was the American premiere of Satyagraha by Glass. This production was not a singular engagement; over the years, Lichtenstein consistently promoted Glass, lauding him as a crossover artist whose output could reach a wider audience than the conservative fare offered by traditional opera companies.

Between October and December of 1982, Lichtenstein met with prospective Next Wave funders. He proposed that the festival be the nucleus for a national production program involving multiple presenting organizations. Tours of new large-scale works would expose areas outside of New York to the work of American experimental artists—in particular, those who emerged from the Downtown New York scene. United by their belief in the potential of the American experimental music theater vanguard, the Next Wave meetings stimulated conversation between representatives from corporate, national, and private funding entities and Downtown-affiliated artists and administrators.

1983 Next Wave poster

Image courtesy BAM Hamm Archives

Funding meeting minutes from the BAM Hamm archives offer a glimpse of these pivotal administrative discussions. Meeting attendees included representatives from the National Endowment for the Arts, AT&T, the Rockefeller Foundation, Warner Communications, the Ford Foundation, and presenting organizations—Artpark, Walker Art Center, the Spoleto Festival, and UC Berkeley Arts and Lectures. Guest speakers were Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. Also present were two key players in the Downtown arts scene: Roselee Goldberg, director of communications for Diane von Furstenberg, Inc. and former director of performances at The Kitchen; and Tim Carr, a Next Wave program consultant who also worked for The Kitchen. Indeed, The Kitchen, a smaller, independent organization, had been a hub for avant-garde music, allowing composers like Glass to organize their own concerts and hosting its own festival, New Music New York, in 1979. The fact that Lichtenstein hired Kitchen personnel to help design BAM programming was a testament to his commitment to the creative output of the Downtown scene. Under Lichtenstein’s direction, Downtown administrators and artists strategized with corporate and other major funders how to amplify Downtown vanguard works in mainstream institutions and festivals like BAM.

Together, the meeting attendees discussed the difficulties in presenting large-scale works in the United States. Although the Next Wave proposal included a wide range of artistic genres, meeting participants tended to draw attention to emerging forms of opera and music theater—especially those represented by Glass. During the meetings, Glass narrated the history of his large-scale works, all of which premiered in Europe and had only received U.S. exposure in New York. He described the issues artists faced when producing new works with U.S. opera companies: a mentality set against new works, which he believed was an educational problem.[3] Lee Gillespie, a director of the National Opera Institute, agreed with Glass’s assessment and urged a strong promotional campaign for new works, citing statistics that the average age of most opera-goers was fifty-three years old and that they mainly connected to 19th-century opera repertoire.[4] The meeting participants believed that active institutional support—not simply money, but the advocacy of influential impresarios, staff, and, eventually, adventurous audiences—was crucial to the survival of new work. For this reason, the Next Wave program had an outreach component: educational materials and symposia for touring productions.

The meeting attendees also agreed that the complexity of innovative large-scale works required new linkages among presenting institutions, artists, and corporations to facilitate the productions. Anne Alexander, staff manager of AT&T, noted that the cooperation of multiple philanthropic organizations was necessary to realize these works in the manner they deserved. After the final meeting, Howard Klein, arts director for the Rockefeller Foundation, indicated that he was prepared to support the program, but its scale required a consortium of funders to sustain it. Other major funders then joined in. Altogether, by 1984, BAM raised about $1.1 million in public and private sponsors. For a complete accounting of the contributions, see below.[5]

  • Rockefeller Foundation $250,000
  • Ford Foundation 100,000
  • The Howard Gilman Foundation 100,000
  • National Endowment for the Arts 200,000
  • National Endowment for the Humanities 40,000
  • Warner Communications Inc. 50,000
  • AT&T 50,000
  • Dayton-Hudson Foundation 12,500
  • Producers Council 50,000
  • CIGNA 25,000
  • WilliWear Ltd. 33,000
  • Pew Trust 50,000
  • Walker Art Center 40,000

In this way, Lichtenstein was instrumental in coordinating an institutional network to support American experimental music. Although this network tended not to include more traditional arts organizations like university music departments and the Metropolitan Opera, its existence nuances the “maverick” label that has so often been attached to musical experimentalists like Glass. Glass was both a poster child for the future of American opera in funding meeting discussions and a staple in BAM programming. Throughout the 1980s, Glass’s operas were featured more often than any other opera or music-theater composer. Perhaps Glass owed whatever moneys he made from the Cutty Sark ad not to his creative iconoclasm alone, but also to his ability to find supportive collaborators—especially in the form of arts administrators.

Sasha Metcalf

Sasha Metcalf

Sasha Metcalf recently completed her Ph.D. in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is now a lecturer in the writing program. Her research examines how institutions and impresarios have shaped the history of late 20th-century American music.

1. Philip Glass, Words Without Music: A Memoir (New York: Liveright, 2015), 281-2.

2. For representative scholarship on the American maverick tradition, see Michael Broyles, Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004). The American maverick narrative also pervades publicity materials for Michael Tilson Thomas’s American Mavericks Festival. See American Mavericks: Home, http://americanmavericks.org/ (accessed September 7, 2015).

3. Next Wave Patron Council Meeting Minutes, American Telephone and Telegraph Company, October 1, 1982, BAM Hamm Archives.

4. Ibid.

5. The Next Wave Production and Touring Fund Proposal, January 26, 1984, BAM Hamm Archives.

Paul Moravec: The Whole Range of Human Emotion

Paul Moravec in Central Park

Shakespeare’s plays, a novel by Stephen King, and personal letters from American soldiers written in wartime have all served as inspiration for compositions by Paul Moravec, and not only as texts for vocal works. Moravec fashioned three of the five movements of his most widely performed piece, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning instrumental quartet Tempest Fantasy, around iconic Shakespearean characters from The Tempest—Ariel, Prospero, and Caliban. And even when there is no discernible literary reference, as in such generically titled pieces as his recent Violin Concerto (which was recently released on CD by Naxos), Moravec claims there is always “a kind of musical narrative” at work even if it does not have a precise verbal meaning.

“I can’t describe to you a coffee cup in musical terms,” Moravec acknowledges when we visit his Upper West Side Manhattan home. “I can draw you a picture of a coffee cup and you can say, ‘Well, that’s a coffee cup.’ But I can’t do that musically. What I can do is to capture and project emotion: joy, sadness, the whole range of human emotion. Whether or not you as an individual listener receives it in that way or understands what I’m saying, that’s a whole other matter, but that’s what I’m trying to do as a composer. All of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.”

Given Moravec’s aesthetic proclivities, it is natural that he has been drawn to opera, but what’s perhaps somewhat surprising, given his attachment to Shakespeare, is that his latest opera—which will receive its world premiere in Minneapolis later this month—is based on The Shining by Stephen King.

“This was not my idea,” he confesses. “This idea came from Minnesota Opera. They said, ‘How’d you like to make an opera out of the novel The Shining?’ And I said, ‘Wow, what an idea!’… The Stephen King book is actually very operatic….It’s also about the three things that, in my view, drive opera: love, death, and power. It has all three of those elements on steroids. For all of the drama, the action, the horror, the ghosts, the Overlook [Hotel], and all these wonderful aspects of the novel, it’s really a very moving story about a family trying to stay together under extraordinary circumstances.”

Stephen King’s supernatural psychological thriller gave Moravec an opportunity to explore a broad sonic palette which includes passages of musique concrète. Although he has often been categorized as a neo-romantic composer, Moravec’s early Devices and Desires is a Synclavier-realized collage of samples of cars starting, a telephone ringing, and clocks ticking. An even more elaborate exploration of sampled clocks serves as an otherworldly counterpoint to the instrumental music he fashioned for Eighth Blackbird in his composition The Time Gallery.

to Moravec such experimentation is never an end unto itself

“I’m fascinated by the technology of sampled sound and the fact that anything that can be recorded can become the stuff of musical composition,” he beams. “I can remember being up at the Columbia University Electronic Music Lab splicing tape; it’s like The Flintstones when you think about it. Now we’re in the age of The Jetsons, where anybody sitting at their own Mac or sitting on the train or wherever can fashion these remarkable musique concrète creations digitally.”

But to Moravec such experimentation is never an end unto itself. In fact, no music should be.

“I don’t think that music is really about music,” he posits. “I think that music is about something else….We as creators, as composers and musicians, spend our whole lives trying to get the right sounds. It’s very, very difficult and we fine tune the sounds till we get just exactly what we want and so on. But that’s not really what music is about. What music is really about is love and sorrow and the whole range of human emotion—making audible the whole range of human existence and human life. I’m interested in sound only to a certain extent, to the extent that it gets me to where I want to be in terms of my musical storytelling, my musical narrative. That’s the importance of sound to me.”

A conversation in Moravec’s apartment in New York City
April 13, 2016—3:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: A lot of your pieces have some kind of literary inspiration and even the ones that don’t are often extremely narrative in some way. So much so that listening to your music often feels like a form of reading, a deep immersion into a storyline.

Paul Moravec: I’ve written about 150 pieces and some of them are programmatic or they refer to literary texts. A lot of them are not programmatic at all—sonata number one, wind symphony whatever. But all of them, I think, have musical narratives. That’s what they all have in common. I very often think in terms of neural-cognitive narratives that exist in the central nervous system. So whether or not there are literary associations—for example, many of my pieces involve Shakespeare and Shakespearean themes—there is a kind of musical narrative that I’m very concerned with.

FJO: So when you read, does it inspires you to write music?

PM: Sometimes it does, as in the case with Shakespeare. I wrote a piece called Tempest Fantasy which is inspired very directly by my favorite play, which is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I saw a production in the late ‘90s at the Public Theater with Patrick Stewart, which was fantastic, and that very definitely inspired me to write that piece, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. That piece has been very good to me. Shakespeare has been my silent partner, so to speak, on a number of projects.

FJO: Including a pretty recent choral piece that just came out on CD.

PM: Right. A piece called Amorisms, which was a ballet commission. And what I did was take single quotations about love from Shakespeare’s plays and set them each in a separate movement. There are five movements. One of the things I discovered about ballet is that if you have too much text going on in the composition, and if it’s an intricate or complicated text, it actually interferes with the ballet. The audience will be thinking, “Wait a minute. What’s that interesting line?” They’re following the text. So I decided to keep the texts to a single line repeated over and over again. Once they got the idea, they could concentrate on the dancers.

FJO: And the literary inspiration for your new opera premiering in May in Minnesota is also literary, although it’s quite different from Shakespeare—Stephen King’s The Shining.

PM: This was not my idea. This idea came from Minnesota Opera. They said, “How’d you like to make an opera out of the novel The Shining?” And I said, “Wow, what an idea!” This would never have occurred to me, actually.

FJO: Had you read the book?

PM: I knew about the book, but I didn’t actually read it until they mentioned it to me. But I knew it was different from the famous Kubrick [film] adaptation, so I knew that it was going to be different from the get go. The Stephen King book is actually very operatic. There’s a lot of warmth in it; the principal character, Jack Torrance, is in some ways very sympathetic. It’s the kind of story that draws the reader in because the reader identifies with him and thinks, “There but for the grace of God go I. This could have happened to me.” That is very operatic. It’s also about the three things that, in my view, drive opera: love, death, and power. It has all three of those elements on steroids. For all of the drama, the action, the horror, the ghosts, the Overlook [Hotel], and all these wonderful aspects of the novel, it’s really a very moving story about a family trying to stay together under extraordinary circumstances. And that is super operatic. That’s what attracted the librettist Mark Campbell and I to this story, and this is what we’re going to put on stage.

FJO: I think that it’s possible to interpret the book, as well as the movie, in a number of different ways. The paranormal, supernatural, and horror elements of it could all be explained away as psychosis. The opera seems to lean more toward a psychological interpretation rather than a supernatural one.

PM: Well, there are two ways of viewing the supernatural. One is that the supernatural is real; that these ghosts actually exist. And the other is that all of these ghosts and supernatural happenings and “shining” itself are really just projections of Jack Torrance’s imagination. So what we did was to get into the imagination of the protagonist. He tells the story, or rather his central nervous system tells the story to the audience. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it doesn’t matter. What we’re doing is to tell the story through this character. And yes, it could all be taking place in his imagination.

FJO: In a way, because of that, I get the sense from just perusing the vocal score of the opera that it’s not a horror opera so much as it’s a tragedy.

PM: I think that what attracts me more to this story is the emotional resonance of the piece; that it is about love. It is about genuine emotion. It’s a dynamite story. Stephen King is a great storyteller.

FJO: But the tricky thing about setting a story that is so famous, and probably even more famous because of the film, is how deeply it has seeped into our mass consciousness. It’s part of our popular culture.

PM: One could describe it as an iconic film that Kubrick adapted from the book. But I think the book is an icon, too, in and of itself.

FJO: Yes, but because of that, people might walk in with certain expectations about it that they wouldn’t necessarily have when they hear, say, your Violin Concerto. As a creator wanting people to experience your own original piece, how do you deal with this legacy—the reception history of the novel and the film? The people who might compare the singer singing Jack Torrance to Jack Nicholson?

PM: I don’t know what to say to that. We’ve been very clear from the get go, and we’ve made a point about it, that we’re adapting the novel. By the way, you know that there are at least two film versions of The Shining. There’s the Kubrick adaptation, which came out in 1980. Then there was the version that Stephen King himself was involved in in the late ‘90s; it was an ABC mini-series. I think it’s about six-hours long. It goes into much more detail, and it’s a lot closer to the book. Now we’re doing our own adaptation in the operatic genre, which is a completely different genre. So each of these iterations of the story, partly because of the differences in the genres, are going to be rather different from one another.


FJO: I want to probe a bit more your saying that the emotional content was what primarily attracted you to that story. But I want to take it to instrumental music. You’ve written quite a bit of vocal music, but you’ve also written a considerable amount of non-vocal music, where you’re not dealing with setting words, so there’s no discernable syntax that someone can latch onto. You said you’ve written programmatic pieces, but there’s still an unresolvable debate among people about whether specific meanings could be conveyed through the abstract medium of music when there are no words involved.

PM: Music is a non-representational art. I can’t describe to you a coffee cup in musical terms. I can draw you a picture of a coffee cup and you can say, “Well, that’s a coffee cup.” But I can’t do that musically. What I can do is to capture and project emotion: joy, sadness, the whole range of human emotion. Whether or not you as an individual listener receives it in that way or understands what I’m saying, that’s a whole other matter, but that’s what I’m trying to do as a composer. All of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.

all of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.

What I can say about a programmatic piece—for example a piece inspired by The Tempest, which I turned into the Tempest Fantasy—is that Shakespeare absolutely influenced the structure of the piece. How I wrote it and a lot of the details of the piece are absolutely tied up with Shakespeare and drama and literature and so on. You can’t necessarily hear it in the music because there are no words to it and there’s no reference to it. But I also think the piece has to speak for itself on its own terms. It cannot rely on any literary association or any non-musical association. The musical logic has to be baked into the piece itself. It has to be structural; it has to make sense on the basis of its own musical logic.

You and I spend our lives trying to figure it out. It’s really hard because music is essentially an abstract language. It’s completely made up out of whole cloth. It’s very hard to make these things work structurally, but it has to be that way. I do, however, think that knowing what motivated a composer to write a piece—the literary associations, etc., that the composer might bring to that piece—can be an enhancement in the listening process. I think that that can help. But I’ll go back to saying the work itself has to convince a listener by its own musical logic and in its own musical terms. This is also true of opera. As you know, it’s an immensely complex, collaborative art form. But in the end, in my view, all problems in opera are musical problems. It’s ultimately music that’s driving the agenda and that’s making it work or not. This is not, by the way, true of musicals necessarily, but certainly for opera it’s definitely the case.

FJO: You made a very interesting remark in a talk you did in 2010 with Greg Simon and Dan Kellogg in Colorado that’s posted online, something I thought was very poignant about who you’re writing your music for. What you said was, “I write for myself as a listener.” And then you said that you ask yourself, “Would I buy a ticket to this? Would this be something I would go to and get excited about?” When you write music you’re in a dialog with that inner audience member, that inner listener. I think this is very different from someone who says, “I don’t care about an audience; I’m writing for myself.” You’re not writing for yourself so much as you’re putting yourself in the position of being the listener for the piece.

PM: Right.

FJO: And it’s interesting in terms of audience preparedness, because you also said the piece has to work on its own terms. But when you give a piece a title, you’re already giving listeners an association. I would contend that a piece like Tempest Fantasy is going to affect listeners differently depending on whether: a) they’re paying attention to the title; b) they know the title and they know what it’s referring to in a superficial way; or c) they have a deeper relationship—they’ve read or have seen productions of The Tempest. These three scenarios will result in three very different kinds of interactions with the piece. And I’ll posit a guess that someone who has seen a production of The Tempest, maybe someone who’s seen that Patrick Stewart production at the Public, will come the closest to what you’re intending to convey.

PM: As I said, I would describe these associations as an enhancement of the experience, but the necessary condition is that the piece has to work in and of itself, not knowing the title or anything else like that.

FJO: I’m going to bring up a piece you probably haven’t thought about in a very long time, an early electronic piece you composed called Devices and Desires.

PM: That was a long time ago.

FJO: This piece was constructed from various found sound elements, which allowed you to make very specific references to certain things—cars starting, a telephone ringing, clocks ticking. These are things you can’t do in instrumental music. So even though so many people think of electronic music as an even more abstract medium than most other forms of music, it can actually be more representational, at least it was in the way that you worked with it.

PM: Sure. Sampled sound is a whole other matter. I’m fascinated by the technology of sampled sound and the fact that anything that can be recorded can become the stuff of musical composition. I think it’s absolutely amazing, and of course it’s possible only since we’ve had recording. I can remember being up at the Columbia University Electronic Music Lab splicing tape; it’s like The Flintstones when you think about it. Now we’re in the age of The Jetsons, where anybody sitting at their own Mac or sitting on the train or wherever can fashion these remarkable musique concrète creations digitally. In The Shining, we’re using a lot of really cool sound effects to bring the Overlook Hotel to life. Musique concrète is very much a part of this production. But you could use it in any context. I used this idea of recorded sound, clocks ticking, in a piece called The Time Gallery which I wrote for Eighth Blackbird. I added all these recorded sounds and so on to help to tell the various, very programmatic stories that I’m telling in that piece.

FJO: So, would it be fair to say that using these enhancements, using musique concrète and sampled sound, is a way for a composer of abstract instrumental music to make music less abstract.

PM: Yeah, I never thought of that, but it’s quite possible.

FJO: I never thought of it until I listened to that early electronic piece of yours. As luck would have it, I’m currently reading a book which is an ethnography of IRCAM, if you can imagine such a thing.

PM: What’s it called?

FJO: It’s called Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalizing of the Musical Avant-Garde. The author is Georgina Born who, prior to becoming an academic, played in the experimental British rock band Henry Cow. Anyway, she talks about the aesthetics of the people involved with IRCAM, who have a very different aesthetic from yours and from mine, but there’s a great quote she has about musical sound and meaning that ties into our discussion: “Music is a logogenic, unrelated to language, non-artifact, having no physical existence and non-representational. It is a self-referential, aural abstraction. This bare core must be the start of any socio-cultural understanding of music since only then can one build up an analysis of its social-cultural mediation.” I thought that quote was really weird because almost immediately after reading it, I came across Devices and Desires. I listened to it and thought, “This is the one piece that Paul Moravec wrote that could have possibly been done by somebody at IRCAM.” And yet it probably wouldn’t have been, because it’s so much about narrative. It’s taking these technologies and subverting what the Modernists wanted to do with them, which is to further abstract things, to explore sound for the sake of sound. Instead, you made it less abstract.

PM: I don’t think that music is really about music. I think that music is about something else. We can’t always articulate what music is about. If we could, then we would just write an essay about it. And then we wouldn’t have to write the piece. But it expresses the otherwise inexpressible. It’s a very mysterious language and we get into the whole question of whether it is a language at all. I think it is, in an abstract sense. In any event, I’ll go back to what I was saying before, which is that music isn’t really about music. It’s not the end-all and the be-all of the whole transaction.

There’s a great word that Hitchcock used to describe a device in one of his movies. It’s called the MacGuffin. My understanding of the MacGuffin is it’s what all of the characters care about, but that we don’t care about. So for example, to use a non-Hitchcock example, in Casablanca, it’s the letters of transit that trigger the action at the beginning of the narrative. All of the characters in Casablanca are trying to get letters of transit. That’s the MacGuffin. We don’t care about the letters of transit; we care about what the people feel as they try to get them. So, in a certain sense, sound is the MacGuffin in music.

We as creators, as composers and musicians, spend our whole lives trying to get the right sounds. It’s very, very difficult and we fine tune the sounds till we get just exactly what we want and so on. But that’s not really what music is about. That’s the MacGuffin. What music is really about is love and sorrow and the whole range of human emotion—making audible the whole range of human existence and human life. I’m interested in sound only to a certain extent, to the extent that it gets me to where I want to be in terms of my musical storytelling, my musical narrative. That’s the importance of sound to me.

FJO: Then why write a piece called Clarinet Concerto and another one called Violin Concerto? Why use such abstract titles that only refer to what these piece are formally?

PM: Well, for the Violin Concerto, something sang in me and was trying to get out, so I spent time articulating it musically, working very hard to get the right sounds and so on. But it’s to the end of doing something else. I’m after a bigger game than just pretty or beautiful sounds. By the way, I hope that it’s beautiful; I want to make beautiful things, but that’s not my ultimate intention. I’m trying to achieve something beyond that which I can’t describe. You just have to listen to the piece, and it either makes sense to you or it doesn’t.

FJO: I think it’s an extremely beautiful piece, particularly the second movement. I think it’s one of the most moving things of yours I’ve ever heard. But you’ve just said music isn’t ultimately about sound, and what strikes me about that piece, as a listener, is how beautiful it sounds. And that’s all that it’s about. You didn’t give listeners any other associations by giving it a name like Tempest Fantasy, or Circular Dreams, or The Time Gallery. So all we can think of is what it is: a composition for violin soloist and orchestra.

PM: But in creating a beautiful effect in sound, I like to think that it takes the listener to another level of experience, which I can’t describe. Beautiful music is the medium that opens the door to an elevated feeling of existence, of joy. I think that’s the difference between a work of art and a work of entertainment. I think that a work of entertainment can be very beautiful, but entertainment is really about taking a person out of themselves for a certain amount of time. We all need that psychologically; we all need to release and to get out of ourselves. Art tends in the opposite direction. Art takes us into ourselves. After an experience with a great work of art, we’re actually changed in some sense. For me, beauty in a work of musical art can do that.

FJO: When you call something a violin concerto, you’re associating it with every other violin concerto that’s ever gone before. Some people might think, “How does this stack against the Brahms, the Tchaikovsky, or the Beethoven?” But that’s a very specific set of listeners who know that repertoire, just like the very specific set of listeners and readers who would have seen productions of The Tempest. Whereas everybody is aware of the passage of time. So calling a piece The Time Gallery might have greater reach. Similarly Circular Dreams, since we all dream or at least we hope we sleep long enough to have a dream. Penderecki originally used the title 8’37” for his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. It’s a much more effective piece with the revised title. All those strange sounds—the quartertone clusters, the screeching of the bow playing behind the bridge—sound like the atomic bomb is falling. But that title was an afterthought. It only came to Penderecki after he heard the premiere. Could it be that by not giving a piece some kind of descriptive narrative title, you’re allowing listeners to create their own narratives?

PM: I’m sure that’s quite possible. I don’t disagree.

FJO: Curiously, the Clarinet Concerto has a fascinating backstory to it, but listeners wouldn’t know it from the title.

PM: David [Krakauer] wanted me to write a klezmer concerto, and I said to him, “I’m an Episcopalian. I don’t know if I know how to do this.” And he said, “You’re Slavic. Close enough. Same vibe, you know.” In any event, I did not try to write a klezmer concerto. What I did was to write a virtuoso piece that uses what David does so brilliantly. But in using the techniques that he’s developed with his neo-klezmer style, it ends up referring to some klezmer things. So there are these certain little eastern European things in it, but that’s not intentional. Krakauer’s one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever heard. And it’s been such a joy to work with him on several projects.

FJO: Both of these concertos were written for players you’ve worked with a lot. In fact, Maria Bachmann, for whom you wrote the Violin Concerto, has been one of the most dedicated champions of your music, and has played many of your pieces going all the way back to another abstractly title piece, the Violin Sonata. It begs the question of what role these players have had in inspiring you.

PM: Well, it’s a great thing for a composer to write a piece knowing what, to some extent, it’s going to sound like. My long association with Maria Bachmann, for whom I’ve written at least a dozen pieces now including the Violin Concerto, has been a tremendous help to me and an inspiration because when I sit at the piano and try to work out the notes, I know exactly what it’s going to sound like on her fiddle, what exactly she does, and I write to her strengths. For example, among other things, her amazing, very high lyrical playing on the e-string. It just sounds spectacular. Not all violinists can do that as well, so there’s a lot of that in my Violin Concerto and that’s because I was writing for her. It’s a little bit like being able to write a play when you know that Al Pacino is going to be speaking your lines. You know right away that you’re in the world of this guy who looks a certain way, talks a certain way, slopes across the stage the way he does, and so on. That’s tremendously inspiring, and it’s extremely helpful to composers to write for their friends.

FJO: That level of specificity, though, goes against the game composers play with immortality: writing notes on paper that exist as a recipe that then gets made into a piece of music by a group of performers in city X on date Y, then again, in city Z on date Q with different people for a different audience and yet is the same piece. It has to translate, no matter who’s playing it. If these pieces are to have a life, they have to have multiple interpretations which will all be slightly different from each other, but will somehow still be “The Piece.” Tempest Fantasy has been played by many different groups at this point. Performances of it by two different groups have been posted to YouTube, and neither is the group that premiered and recorded it. And now there’s a second CD recording of it, with yet another ensemble, on the new Delos disc that also includes Amorisms. This piece is clearly becoming repertoire. But I wonder how that plays into your expectations based on the associations you’ve had with the original people for whom you wrote the piece. What is your reaction as a composer when you’re confronted with a second, or third, etc., interpretation of a piece?

PM: I wrote a piece called Brandenburg Gate for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and they premiered it at Carnegie Hall almost ten years ago. Of course, famously, it’s a conductor-less orchestra, and they’re absolutely fantastic. But then I heard it done with a very good group called Symphony in C, which is, by the way, the same orchestra that did my Violin Concerto that we’ve been talking about. Rossen Milanov conducted it, and the element of having the conductor coordinating everything made a different impression. In a certain sense, as much as I’d admired and loved what Orpheus did, having the conductor control everything made a difference; the piece made more sense to me, even though I wrote the piece originally with Orpheus in mind and with those wonderful four soloists in mind. I had worked very closely with them trying to get the sounds that they can bring to the piece. But what Rossen did with the Symphony in C made more musical sense ultimately.

FJO: To get back to music with lyrics, you’ve written a lot of pieces in direct collaborators with writers, which is considerably different than, say, setting Shakespeare, who can’t disagree with the way you’re setting his words.

PM: Right. Whew. Yeah, it’s a good thing.

FJO: Anyway, it makes me curious about the level of give and take that happens when you’re dealing with a living collaborator.

PM: I’ve had very happy experiences with Terry Teachout, with whom I’ve now written three operas, and we’re about to premiere a cantata this weekend at the Bach Festival Society in Winter Park. He’s a joy to work with. In the process of collaboration, if it’s really going well or even when you have a disagreement, or you run into a snag involving the words, I’ve had the happy experience of actually coming up with something better simply because we talked about it and just took it to the next level.

That’s certainly been the experience with Mark Campbell in writing The Shining. I would email him or call him up or we would actually talk in person, believe it or not, and I would say, “I’m having trouble with this line, or this moment doesn’t work. Can you help me out?” Very often, I’m glad to say, we came up with something that was much better than what we had originally. So it keeps compounding. That’s the great thing about working collaborations: you come up with better solutions as you go along. Mark and I are now going to write a big oratorio about the Underground Railroad for the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall in 2018. These will be found texts, actual historical records that Mark will fashion into a narrative.

There’s another project like that. I’m working with Ted Kooser, a former Poet Laureate of the United States and a Pulitzer Prize winner, who lives out in Nebraska. He wrote a book called The Blizzard Voices in which he took actual survivors’ accounts of the blizzard of 1888 in the Midwest, in particular around Omaha, and fashioned it into a modern text about trying to survive this unbelievably terrible Old Testament Biblical disaster. Ted stepped back and he said, “I give you carte blanche to fashion what you have of mine and make it into a libretto.” I borrowed texts from the Bible and made it really into a kind of Old Testament oratorio à la Handel or Mendelssohn and Ted said, “Okay, fine.” I’ve been lucky with my collaborators. They’ve all been great.

FJO: Your collaboration with Terry Teachout is somewhat unusual because at first you didn’t know him personally, but he was one of your biggest advocates early on among music critics. It’s really weird to go from being written about by somebody to writing stuff with that person.

PM: Yeah, unfortunately, he can’t write about me anymore because of conflict of interest. But I remember—this must have been over 25 years ago—he called me up and left a message and said, “Would you call me?” And so I did. He picked up the phone and I said, “Hi, I’m Paul Moravec.” And he said, “Who are you?” We’ve been friends ever since and great collaborators.

By the way, this thing that we’re doing this weekend for the Bach Festival is a tribute for their conductor John Sinclair. It’s his 25th anniversary and there’s a big celebration. So Terry had the idea of making an ode to music. One of the things I like about this is that it’s a community event. There’s a lot of warmth, generosity, and good cheer. I feel like a useful citizen; I feel like a participating member of society. This is immensely gratifying to me.

FJO: The world of composing music can sometimes feel so rarified, so these kinds of community engagements are extremely important in terms of making the music more relevant to the communities we live in.

PM: Participating in a civic and community event, I think, goes back to my upbringing as a boy chorister in the Episcopal Church. You might know that the Episcopal Church is the Anglican Church, and there’s this tremendous literature and discipline that the English have had through the English men and boy choir tradition. I was lucky enough to have that in my life, growing up in Buffalo and in Princeton. From the age of ten, participating in a ritual that has great importance to people was hard-wired into my thinking. Somehow in my mind, I got the idea that music and ritual and community participation are all one. They’re all connected somehow. In some ways, they’re indissolubly linked. And I’m sure that comes out of my youth. By the way, also from a very young age, I was a professional musician. I think I got $1.16 a week when I was ten years old, which is tremendously impressive to a kid. Of course, it’s all been downhill since as a composer! But I remember because of that I had to get a social security card at the age of ten. I know it sounds silly, but the impressions that a ten-year old gets live on. Sometimes I still feel like I’m 16 years old, except when I try to go running, then I realize I’m not that age anymore. But emotionally I feel very much the same way.

FJO: Well, to counter what you just said about it all being downhill from there, I would say that it’s definitely gone uphill. I mean, here we are meeting in April. On Monday, they’re going to announce the winner of next year’s Pulitzer Prize. I think it would be pretty fair to say that although you had some significant commissions and performances before receiving the Pulitzer, there was an imprimatur that award gave you that—to repurpose a metaphor you used earlier today—opened doors in a really important way.

PM: Oh, absolutely. My being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in ’04 was absolutely a game changer. There’s no question about it. I wasn’t unknown before that, but it was nothing like after that. It was really like night and day. It made a big difference. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true for other people, but that was certainly my experience. And it definitely opened doors. It gave me opportunities that otherwise I probably would not have had. It changed my life. But it didn’t make me a better composer because nothing can make you a better composer except hard work.

FJO: Why do you think that award has such an impact?

PM: I think the Pulitzer Prize has cache in society because it’s essentially a journalism prize. The Grawemeyer is a big deal, but who knows what a Grawemeyer is? It just doesn’t have the same reach. When the Pulitzer Prizes are announced, it goes out all over the world. Everybody’s instantly famous because it’s the media. And these five or six categories of music, literature, etc., sort of ride on the back of it. This year is the centenary of the Pulitzer Prizes, so I got an invitation to this celebration at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue [in Washington, D.C.] at the end of January. My wife Wendy and I went down and saw that it’s really all about journalism. I think I was the only composer there besides Roger Reynolds. We didn’t see anybody else. There were hardly any writers. There were a few poets. There were lots of political cartoonists.

FJO: Everybody has this idea that the Pulitzer is this secret cabal and nobody knows how it works, but anyone can enter even though it traditionally always went to somebody who had a big publisher, probably because the big publishers made sure always to enter the required materials by the deadline. You have a publisher, but you actually entered the piece yourself, which is something anyone could and should do.

PM: Yeah, and then I forgot that I’d sent it in. It was early April 2004 and it was spring break from my job at Adelphi University where I’m a professor, and we thought, “Let’s go off to Sicily.” So we did. We were in the town of Taormina, and my wife’s assistant at work called from New York saying that there was a leak in our apartment and the super was freaking out. Then she said, “And so what do you think about the prize?” And I said, “I don’t know. What prize?” “You know, the Pulitzer Prize. You won the Pulitzer Prize.” And I said, “I didn’t know this.” This, by the way, was before cell phones were ubiquitous and even the internet was sometimes hard to get to; it was before all this technology had come of age. It really was quite possible not to know this. So we checked online, and it was in fact true. I couldn’t believe it. I was floored, partly because I’d completely forgotten that I’d sent in the piece. It was a happy day.

Roundtable: Facing the Hard Questions

[Ed. Note: In the spirit of conversation and story sharing, we reached out to music makers and asked them to let us know what was on their minds when it came to cash and creativity and what lessons from their own careers they might share. Some answered questions we posed directly, others were inspired to take the topic somewhere else. Each provided something illuminating, and we hope you’ll jump in and share your own experiences in the comments. –MS]

Lisa Bielawa

Lisa Bielawa
Photo by Phil Mansfield

Is commissioning the best way for you to make new work? Are other models “better”? In what ways?

For me, because I tend to concoct musical scenarios, presentations, and experiences that are—for one reason or another—not within the parameters of existing organizations’ initiatives, I would not say that commissioning is the best way to make this kind of work. The large-scale projects I have launched in the last few years—especially Airfield Broadcasts, involving 250 musicians in Berlin and 800 musicians in San Francisco, both spatially mapped on historic airfields that are now public parks; or Vireo, the opera that is being created in 12 episodes for broadcast and streaming media—have required me to build a kind of institutional structure expressly for the project, and then seek partners that can participate in various aspects of the creation of the project. These kinds of projects are more like entrepreneurial ventures, and as such, they require financial risk-taking and the willingness to take on fiscal as well as artistic accountability.

When creating large-scale projects, we are also creating communities around the work. In order for these communities to function as viable systems—and that includes financial viability—we need to know what each participant hopes to gain through their involvement. It is rare that true entrepreneurial partnerships—in artistic endeavors or otherwise—will draw partners to it that have merely mercenary interests. Each partner needs to have its/his/her own relationship to risk and investment within the project. I am always seeking partners (collaborators, musicians, organizations) who see a meaningful benefit beyond just money in the project itself. That benefit can include longer-term financial stability (through increased visibility, connections with the other partners involved, etc.) as well as other less quantifiable value.

Cash Week - sm

Read more new music and money coverage all this week on NewMusicBox.

And lastly, I always make sure I honor all collaborators and partners as professionals. We all need to be paid—it can be a special arrangement, perhaps, and all agreements can contain other elements besides money. But I do not generally feel comfortable with favors and trades. I have had to design a life that is self-sustaining, and I treat others as if this is also true for them. We must do what we can to make our field as sustainable as possible for each other!

What is the most difficult piece of the financial side of your career, eg. applying for grants, negotiating commissions, budgeting, balancing non-related work, etc.?

There are two major challenges to making work in this way. One of them is that fundraising and partnership building do require some of the same kinds of creativity and vitality that creative work requires. So it is incredibly important for me to be good at managing my own time, staying well physically and mentally so that I can handle the stress of greater responsibility, including responsibility to many, many others involved in the project. I’ve gotten better and better at managing all of this, but it is still sometimes overwhelming. The other big challenge is simple scheduling. In order to make a living, while also sustaining projects whose budgets are many times the size of my own income, it sometimes feels like I need to clone myself. But I just plan my travel and my expenditures—personal and project-related—very carefully. It takes great organizational skills.

Do you worry about the stability of your income in the short term/long term?

Not really 🙂

I probably should! But life is short. And the risk is worth it. I don’t recommend the entrepreneurial approach for those who are happiest with more of a work-life balance. It is an entire lifestyle. I have no family, no regular schedule, no fixed place of work. I am on the road over 30 weeks a year, sometimes earning income as a performer or lecturer or conductor or panelist, and sometimes in connection with my own compositional work. This lifestyle works for me, but this is because of my temperament. I would not be happier with a steady, fixed income, or with a more traditional domestic life. But I absolutely respect that these are needs that many have, and I don’t think any one lifestyle is superior for creative work than another. I’m just so glad I’ve found the right one for me!

Composer-vocalist Lisa Bielawa is a 2009 Rome Prize winner in musical composition. She takes inspiration for her work from literary sources and close artistic collaborations. In 1997 she co-founded the MATA Festival, which celebrates the work of young composers. Bielawa was appointed artistic director of the acclaimed San Francisco Girls Chorus in 2013 and is an artist-in-residence at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California.

Bielawa’s music is frequently performed throughout the US and Europe by top ensembles such as The Knights, American Composers Orchestra, Akademen, Brooklyn Rider, BMOP, and more at venues such as Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Whitney Museum. Bielawa’s latest work for performance in public places is Airfield Broadcasts, a work for hundreds of musicians that premiered on the tarmac of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin in May 2013 and at Crissy Field in San Francisco in October 2013. Bielawa is currently at work on Vireo, a new opera created for episodic release. Her latest album, The Lay of the Love, was released on Innova in June 2015.