Tag: community engagement

How Can Artists Respond to Injustice? Thoughts from Seven Musicians

Protesters waving banners directly in front of police covered with shields.

We know that music is not enough. No artistic response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor can adequately address the capaciousness of these injustices. But what does “more than music” mean? Is it the non-musical activities that many are engaged in right now – donating to bail funds, protesting in the streets, raising awareness that black lives matter, fighting to defund the police? Or is it about attempting to uncoil the racism that is tightly wound into our musical institutions, whether that be petitioning symphony orchestras to program African-American composers, calling on conservatories to center black music in their curricula, or diversifying the personnel and repertoire of new-music ensembles? It certainly can’t just be posting black images to Instagram. As I absorbed the constant proliferation of information and advice on social media, I knew I wanted to hear from artists I believed in, who have been thinking deeply, and for many years, about the role of musicians in enacting social change. Here are some of their thoughts.

Marcos Balter, Eun Lee, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Pamela Z, George E. Lewis, Courtney Bryan, Nathalie Joachim

Top row: Marcos Balter, Eun Lee, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Pamela Z;
Bottom row: George E. Lewis, Courtney Bryan (photo by Arielle Pentes), Nathalie Joachim (photo by Eric Patrice O’Brien)

Marcos Balter, composer

I am still being paid my full salary as a tenured professor, and none of my commissions have been canceled. So, I have made a commitment to spend as much of my income as possible on donations to worthwhile causes, especially bail funds and organizations that push for legislative changes regarding police brutality against black individuals. I have also been donating my time advising several music organizations on initiatives that not only show solidarity but also promote concrete change while examining their own culpability.

You cannot fix a problem if you don’t understand your part in it and publicly acknowledge it.

Accountability is key right now. You cannot fix a problem if you don’t understand your part in it and publicly acknowledge it. And, I’ve been mentoring and teaching black composers, and fundraising for initiatives that combat the innate racism in classical music for a long time now. As a black composer, none of this is charitable for me: it’s a duty and a matter of survival. This is not a movement, and we should not conflate what is in the news with what is new. It’s old, very old, and it needs to end.

Eun Lee, clarinetist and founder of the activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished

The Dream Unfinished theme this year is “Red, White, and Blues,” and it’s all about civic engagement and voting rights. If anything, all of this is just creating a doubling down, because voting is one of the few tangible things that people can be doing, either making sure that they themselves are voting, or making sure that other people are registered. Also, the census is huge right now, particularly for communities of color. What’s really important is to take a step back and look at the macro picture, and think through, how did we get here? What are the underlying causes? There’s this phrase flying around a lot for coronavirus, that the disproportionate impact on black or minority communities is due to “underlying health conditions.” Well, what were the conditions that created the underlying health conditions, and what can we do to start picking away at that? And it’s so unsexy, but the census helps a lot.

How did we get here? What are the underlying causes?

There’s this analogy that I’ve used, of a car, to represent different levels of music engaging with social justice. Level 1 is the hood ornament, and that’s a lot of what people are responding to, when there have been deservedly negative reactions to Blackout Tuesday, and these large organizations all of a sudden assuming these stances and posting these things. Because it feels like that hood ornament, where it’s superficial, you don’t really know what’s behind it or what’s going to come out of it. Level 2 is the engine in the car. The car is still parked, but there’s actually some undergirding of it that is the ethos of whatever work that you’re trying to engage in. By and large, The Dream Unfinished has been at the engine stage: our board is incredibly diverse, our staff is incredibly diverse, all the musicians that we contract, all the composers that we feature. So in that sense, everything that it’s made up of is reflecting it, but it’s still not actually doing the work. Level 3 is when the car goes into gear and you’re moving things. It’s only really been recently that, as an organization, we’ve found ways where we can get to moving the car. One of the hopes that we had for this season was, when we were planning on doing live chamber concerts, program them all in communities that have had historically low voter turnout and having voter registration available at each of these events. So that it’s not just a concert about something, but you can actually do the something at the concert.


Jonathan Bailey Holland, composer

I have been trying to remember to exist as who I am and not what others see.  I have been trying to not get Covid19.  I have been trying to figure out how to parent/work from home/stay healthy/make money/make art. I have been trying to temper my personal devastation of watching the insanity of a reality show that our country’s non-leadership currently embodies as it quite literally tramples on the freedoms, liberties, and beliefs that founded this country, and that attracted the immigrant ancestors of those non-leaders here in the first place.  And I am understanding more clearly the idea that fundamental change means exactly what we are seeing happen – everything must be upended because it is all designed to perpetuate the things that we are once again reacting to, and will continue to do so for another 400 years, if we are fortunate enough to not destroy our species and planet in the meantime.

I have been trying to remember to exist as who I am and not what others see.

In terms of supportive actions within the music world, I think we need to stand back and have a more thorough conversation on all sides of the issue.  Classical music, as an art form, is rooted in western European traditions.  I think it is fair to say that most of the institutions that brought the art form to this country were primarily interested in simply bringing the work closer to American audiences.  That is not a fault, just a reality.  So to suddenly be asking for more representation is skipping a few steps.  Shouldn’t we be asking for more of a connection to the country/city/community in which these institutions are based first, assuming that is what is wanted from patrons (i.e. all of us) who have been happily partaking of what these institutions have offered thus far anyway? Perhaps, once the particular institutions that want to make those connections have done so, then we can have the conversation about who is being heard or presented.

IMO, a better way to deal with the question of representation is to remember that art is about communication, and specifically about an individual artist communicating through their art.  What and how they choose to communicate should matter most.  And institutions should stand firmly behind their choices of whomever they invite to the table, and patrons can then decide with their wallets.  After all, art is also not free, regardless of who is making it.


Pamela Z, composer/performer and media artist

I’ve been feeling saddened, overwhelmed, and frankly exhausted by the news of late–especially in light of the situation we’re all already bearing. But I don’t think I have anything constructive to offer outside my heartfelt appreciation for those who have had the courage and initiative to take some kind of action or speak out against injustice.

I don’t know that new music composers and performers are any more or less equipped to respond to social injustice than members of any other field.

I don’t know that new music composers and performers—or even artists in general—are any more or less equipped to respond to social injustice than members of any other field. I suppose there are people in every field who are stronger than others on that count. And, it’s also true that the same racial and gender imbalances that exist throughout our society are clearly present in “the world of new/classical music,” even though I think a lot of presenters and organizations have been making efforts to change that.

But I’d be hard-pressed to come up with any solutions or advice to offer here. Other than, I guess, keep working at making those changes. Keep aware of those issues and keep trying to think of ways to counter them.


George E. Lewis, composer and musicologist

I cannot profess surprise at any of the revelations that have been dominating the media lately. A few years ago at the University of Minnesota, I was on a public panel with a close relative of Philando Castile. For me, that earlier murder, George Floyd’s murder, and those of so many other black people, all simply fold into the daily litany of anti-black, internationally instantiated micro- and macro-aggressions from state-sponsored and privatized vectors of white supremacy that I have experienced at least from the age of nine, and with which I, and now my teenaged son, need to contend.  Perhaps this accounts for my impatience with naïve class-trumps-race denials. However, there is no number to call, no app to download, to express solidarity—not even a single “protest movement.”

So, even in the face of a growing Afro-pessimism, what people might want to do is to fight to transform their own communities where they can, with a sense of vigilance against anti-blackness, and a militant incredulity at those who would deny black subjectivity and humanity.

In opposition to an influential view that polices the borders of music to deny its crucial implication in urgently needed political and social change, we have philosopher Arnold I. Davidson’s quote from AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie: “Artists teach people how to live.” So how do we do that? To fulfill that mission, scholars, critics, curators, teachers, composers, performers, and other musical people might start by teaching themselves, retooling for a new reality, with the help of Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Sara Ahmed, Tim Wise, Joe Feagin, Sylvia Wynter, and Frank Wilderson.

A creolization of the field is needed.

I am quite gratified to see, among so many people, mostly much younger than myself, the same kind of creolizing identity dynamic I have suggested for contemporary classical music, where the myth of black absence retains its death-grip. In response, a creolization of the field is needed, one that recognizes that its current identity issues amount to a kind of addiction—one that, like other addictions, you have to overcome to survive.

Courtney Bryan, composer/pianist

Being on the street is very, very important: people are standing up for our rights, it’s a super vulnerable moment in our country right now. But I’m also thinking about the different roles everybody can take on, whether it’s a role as a healer, or a role as an organizer, or someone who can share information.

I’m working on an opera with the International Contemporary Ensemble. Other collaborators are Charlotte Brathwaite, Cauleen Smith, Helga Davis, Sharan Strange, Sunder Ganglani, and Matthew Morrison. It draws from histories of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and a black Shaker eldress from the 19th century named Rebecca Cox Jackson. Now that we’re resuming the project, we’re also processing what’s happening right now, what happened to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, all these recent killings from police or vigilantes. The themes behind the opera are freedom, spirit, love, home, and sanctuary. But we’re also trying to figure out what the process is. There’s the end goal of writing an opera, but we are also all discussing as a group how this process can also be something where we can directly help people.

The curtain’s been pulled back and it’s survival mode right now.

People need to eat and they need somewhere to live. There’s the illness. Our country is on the brink of fascism, people are trying to fight for the survival of the country itself, and people are trying to survive from this virus that, had the government taken the precautions, didn’t have to get to the point it is at now. The curtain’s been pulled back and it’s survival mode right now. My way is always through music: what is it through music that can be done? Or among artists: where we can look out for each other and make sure that people have what they need to survive?


Nathalie Joachim, flutist, composer, and vocalist

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the families who have lost someone. Not just the most recent families, but also the families that have to relive their own trauma every time something like this happens. As a society, especially in this moment of constantly sharing these videos over and over, we forget that these are families that have lost someone. Not enough time is being spent honoring the fact that they are people who have been lost. Not enough time is being spent creating beautiful space and open space.

This moment, in every sense — not just this racial moment, this economic moment, this health crisis moment — all of the things that are happening to all of us in this time are about revealing who we actually are. In a way I feel like it’s a blessing because you cannot change until you have a reckoning with yourself. You can’t. Anybody who’s deep into therapy knows that that work is really hard and ongoing and it’s not, “I went to therapy for four months and now I’m cured!” It’s an ongoing, lifelong commitment to continually reckoning with who you are. And not shaming yourself for who you are, but seeing yourself for who you are, and seeing what you can do to better manage being a person walking through this world. What can you do to be better?

I don’t need to hear about your solidarity. I need you to acknowledge where your faults are.

Honestly, I don’t need to hear about your solidarity. I need you to acknowledge where your faults are, and to make a commitment, in this moment, as Americans, to come together and continually, day after day, week after week, reckon with who we are. It’s not about shaming you for your past or all of the things that you should have done. It’s about seeing what you haven’t done and to take whatever the steps are for you to make a change for yourself.

We have been here before, and the only thing that hasn’t happened is a complete and utter reckoning with ourselves: who we are as a country, how we got here, why we are like we are, why we keep coming to this place. People don’t want to do the work, because it’s hard. But  when it becomes a way of life, it becomes less hard. It becomes less hard constantly. For a while, it’ll be hard, constantly. And it’s going to hurt.  But radical change, that’s it: you have to just accept where you’re at and figure out something to do to move forward that is more than lip service, that is more than likes and clicks, that is about you reaching deep into yourself and saying, “You know, we haven’t been doing the work. We say we’re about diversity and equity, but we haven’t really done anything. And our leadership doesn’t reflect that, and our actions don’t reflect that, and our programing doesn’t reflect that.” That’s just a reality that needs to be contended with. And honestly, when it comes to the arts, it’s just not that hard. It’s not that hard to hire black people. It’s not that hard to commission black artists. It’s not that hard to create space.

I hope that everybody in our industry is really thinking about how to come out of this changed for the better.  Not in this every-man-for-himself hustle, but in a way that allows us to create an infrastructure that supports all of us. We have to care about one another, we have to see one another, we have to embrace everybody that is a part of this community.

If you look through time, almost every major artistic movement that has happened in every field has coincided with some major change or event that has happened in the world. We have always been called to respond, to be first responders for our communities; it is so important for us to see ourselves as that now. To lean into it, and to lean into one another.

Together We Can

Craig Shepard leading a silent walk in Aubervilliers on September 29, 2019

In 2010 I had more or less stopped making music. I was despondent, negative, and cranky. To anyone who would listen, I complained about other musicians, arts funding, and how much better the European cultural infrastructure was. I’m so glad I’m not there anymore, and want to share what I did to get out of it and some of the results.

Things began to shift when my friend, the composer, conductor, and pianist Paul Leavitt, said that I was probably right about my complaints. He suggested that instead of complaining that Brooklyn wasn’t like Europe, I contribute to the community where I lived. I began looking for opportunities in walking distance from my home. I didn’t anticipate how far this decision would lead me in realizing Music for Contemplation concerts, Creating Music Together workshops and retreats, On Foot walking projects, and Broken Silence concerts.

On February 6th, at 4:00 pm, at St. Cecilia’s Church in Greenpoint, I played the first concert under the name Music for Contemplation. I performed a fifty-minute organ piece called “Elizabeth.” I can still clearly see the sun streaming through the window and hear the silvery jingle of one listener’s bracelet. More than thirty members of the parish came to listen and to rest in the sound on a Sunday afternoon. I saw how music could support listeners in practical ways.

I saw how music could support listeners in practical ways.

In 2013, with the cooperation of Fr. Michael Lynch and Msgr. Joseph Calise at Our Lady of Mount Carmel – Williamsburg, Tyler Wilcox, Andrew Christopher Smith, Erik Carlson and I continued Music for Contemplation. Again, we were surprised and nourished by the resonance with long-time Brooklyn residents. Dan Joseph joined the organizing team, and we put on a series of concerts at the Church of the Annunciation.

We wanted to offer people time to sit and listen and not have to think about anything, choosing pieces by Eva Maria Houben, Alvin Lucier, Shelley Burgon, and Christian Kobi. As the series continued, I noticed programming and pieces themselves took on more of a community aspect. Tyler invited Andrew Lafkas, who wrote a new work for eighteen improvisers. Dan organized Stuart Dempster and twelve trombones, and Tony Geballe led seventeen members of the New York Guitar Circle.

Often, we reserved the entire day on Saturday, rehearsing in the morning and evening, and performing in the evening. The rehearsals and concert became almost a day-long retreat, with energy flowing in the community that came together just for one day.

This lead to Creating Music Together workshops and retreats, where participants realize each other’s work. Everyone writes and everyone performs. To create common ground for the mix of professionals and non-professionals who participate, all work is for voice and hand percussion. Everyone has to develop and communicate their pieces in such a way that other participants can honorably perform them.

The day-long workshops begin with a sitting, followed by listening exercises and an introduction to composition. After a pot-luck lunch, everyone makes a piece of music and writes it down however they are able. Traditional music notation is not necessary, and we’ve seen some gorgeous graphic scores. We then rehearse everyone’s pieces, usually learning them by heart, and perform for friends in the evening.

In the week-long residential retreats, the day begins with a silent sitting followed by breakfast. Days include sessions with listening and composition exercises, silent co-working time, rehearsals, and informal performances. We take turns cooking for each other and caring for the house. There are usually three performance cycles. At the end of the day, there is an optional session where participants report notable moments from the day.

I’ve found a deep connection with participants in Creating Music Together. The atmosphere of mutual support is genuinely nourishing. One of my greatest joys as a musician in the past twenty years has been witnessing the satisfaction when someone hears their first composition for the first time.

Essential to being able to support others in their creative work has been identifying and meeting my own creative needs. Time alone in the music studio has been crucial; I’ve also structured projects, such as On Foot to have time alone as well as time supporting the group.

Essential to being able to support others in their creative work has been identifying and meeting my own creative needs.

In On Foot: Brooklyn, I walked everywhere I went for ninety-one days from February 21 to May 21, 2012. During the week, I walked alone, composing a new piece. Each Sunday, I led a group in a silent walk, and performed that week’s piece on the street.

In 2019’s On Foot: Aubervilliers, I designed and lead twenty-four silent walks in twenty-four days. In the design phase, I spent time alone freely wandering in and around Aubervilliers—letting my feet go where they would often getting lost. After following my curiosity, I looked at what route might work for a group. We began and completed each walk at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers. In the middle, I made a thirty-minute field recording. After the walk was over, we played the recording back in the theater at Les Laboratoires. Participants were asked to commit to stay with us in silence until we returned to the theater.

Craig Shepard instructing participants to walk in silence (Photo by Adele Fournet)

Craig Shepard instructing participants to walk in silence (Photo by Adele Fournet)

During the group walks, silence depended on attention. I asked participants to refrain from speaking with the mouth, with the eyes, and with the hands, and to refrain from using cell-phones, cameras, or other devices. I asked participants to leave devices at home or securely at the meeting point; I’ve noticed that when walkers had devices on their bodies, even when they were turned off, there was a different quality to attention.

In going over the parameters of the walk, I offered two simple attention exercises to support participants to stay present when their attention may have wandered. The first I learned from Alexander Technique teacher Frank Sheldon: notice what moves in your body when you breathe. The second I discovered during the walks: place part of your attention in your rear foot, alternating with each step.

[Ed Note: A short Arte documentary about On Foot ia available in French and in German.]

Silent walks have lasted between three and fourteen hours. The first forty-five minutes were usually a settling period. I’ve noticed the deepest silences after walking together for three hours. We took brief pauses to stretch. On longer walks, we took breaks to sit down for silent meals. At the end of each walk, I broke the silence by saying “thank you” and making eye contact with each member.

After the end of the walk, many participants enjoyed sharing what they saw or heard. Most participants reported hearing sounds they had never heard before. Others noted the arc of the day, a keener awareness of weather, and what it felt like to have extended time in silence.

While I do enjoy walking alone – usually in silence – I’ve noticed a different quality when walking together. Because silence depends on the level of commitment and attention of the participants, the experience depends very much on those who show up for it. Sometimes, we really connected—even when we began as perfect strangers. There were moments where were together—really together—in one moment. And then it was gone.

While I do enjoy walking alone – usually in silence – I’ve noticed a different quality when walking together.

This experience of being together has also been essential to Broken Silence, in which music supports listeners engaging with the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

The idea first came to me in 2014 on a Guitar Circle course. There was a long development in consultation with Pauline Oliveros, Chris Mann, Tony Geballe, Mary Madigan, Deborah Steinglass, and Fr. Michael Lynch. We gave careful consideration to all aspects of the situation: sound, content of the text, location, location of the chairs, how listeners enter the performance space, and money. Elisa Corona Aguilar, Erin Rogers, Kristen McKeon, Katie Porter, Alex Lahoski, Dev Ray, Patrick Grant, Jon Diaz, and Dan Joseph performed a series of workshop performances and gave valuable feedback on the piece.

In its final form, two saxophones and three steel-string acoustic guitars build long slow chords as I read text drawn from court testimony about the scandal. The music has three fifteen to eighteen minute parts with silence in between. Each part begins with a pure tone, which the musicians pass across the circle. Over five to ten minutes, tones are added one at a time, building a pulsating chord. Then tones fade out one at a time, often imperceptibly.

Musicians sit in a circle surrounded by listeners in concentric rings. I sit at one end of the concentric circles, directing my attention to the atmosphere of the room. Working intuitively, I sense the flow of the piece for that particular group of people. I make chords, text, and silences faster or slower depending on the energy in the room. As in the silent walks, the listeners attending have a direct effect on the music.

One thing we’ve found is that the group of musicians and listeners supports each of us—holding the space—as we engage with the challenging text about the abuse scandal. This is a difficult subject for contemplation, and many of us cannot bear to “touch” into it on our own. In the concert situation, with the support of the group, we have been able to stay with it—to be present for it—in ways we haven’t been able to alone. This is what workshop listener Jaime Beauchamp called “the light of awareness.” In this awareness, the scandal is only as big as it is. Many of us have found a new hope after listening to the text together. This light of awareness on the specific situation in the Catholic Church has also resonated for those outside the Church in contemplating corruption in other parts of our society.

When really connecting with others, I’ve noticed another presence beyond me and the others—a subtle atmosphere, incense, electricity, or heat. This presence has supported me and others to go beyond what was possible on our own. This connection in music has nourished and sustained me through most of my work of the past ten years, it has become both the aim and the means.

When really connecting with others, I’ve noticed another presence beyond me and the others—a subtle atmosphere, incense, electricity, or heat.

I didn’t anticipate this when I began to think about how to support others with music. Nor did I imagine that some of my happiest and most fulfilling moments making music would be working in this way.

If you’re feeling frustrated, angry or depressed about the world around us, you’re probably right. My suggestion to you is to (1) pick a problem right where you are, (2) focus your energy and attention on what you can contribute to a solution to that problem, (3) do what you can to support others.

I’m very curious to see what happens.

Let’s Grow Art Organically in Small Batches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Made This. For You.

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

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

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

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

The Artist in Community: Vignettes to Capture a Notion 

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

Reckoning Desire (a short story)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Playground in Central Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Grow Art Online

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

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

New Approaches to Music Appreciation

My first classroom teaching gig was a music appreciation class at a Jewish Community Center on the outskirts of downtown Philadelphia. The JCC asked for an eight-week course based on the Philadelphia Orchestra concert schedule. For one hour a week, I stood in front of 50 retired adults and talked about music. I loved it, and I selfishly focused on the contemporary repertoire and began to find language to share my love of 20th-century concert music. This was important work. I had a special platform to proselytize the power of contemporary music and to help these non-musicians have a deeper experience when they went to the concert hall. It helped that my students were already ticket buyers for one of the world’s greatest orchestras. They sat with serious interest as we discussed John Corigliano, Claude Debussy, John Adams, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and other master composers who found their way on to the orchestra’s calendar that season.

I am filled with joy as a young composer discovers some bit of music that will forever change the way he or she thinks about music.

Fast forward ten years and I am teaching composition majors at the University of Colorado in Boulder. My favorite class— “New Music Styles and Practices”—is a model composition course for undergraduates. We spend two weeks looking at the music of Stravinsky, and then the students are asked to write a piece in the style of Stravinsky. We go on to cover Bartók, Messiaen, Babbitt, Lutoslawski, micropolyphony, minimalism, American nationalism, aleatory, and a host of other composers/aesthetics. It is a semester of discovery for many of these second-year students who have not yet encountered the masterpieces of 20th and 21st-century concert music. I take special delight as they investigate Reich’s Different Trains or George Crumb’s Black Angels for the first time. In some cases, these modern masterpieces shatter the students’ limited aesthetic bubbles. New possibilities or modes of expression open before them like a hiker arriving at a grand vista. I am filled with joy as a young composer discovers some bit of music that will forever change the way he or she thinks about music. By the end of the semester most of the students are different composers. They have encountered brilliance and now savor the seductive invitation to seek new heights and aesthetics within their own music. Like a tour guide, I decide where we stop, which juicy stories get told, and what might be the best angle for a selfie. I am the curator for an exquisite body of music, and my audience is eager.

I paint a romantically rosy picture of teaching, but I think that is important. Teaching has highs and lows, and I need to constantly remind myself of the big picture ideals that put me in front of a class. My voice should convey a conviction that we are studying something important and that I am personally on fire for the subject. I fondly remember Daron Hagen saying that all music classes are essentially “music appreciation” classes. They help us dig into the core substance of musical brilliance and deepen our love of our chosen art form. At least that is how learning and teaching ought to work.

I hold a core belief that art is relational.

This same passion for teaching music to composition majors fuels my passion for talking to lay audiences. I hold a core belief that art is relational, as we share unique and poetic visions about the human experience. The artist has something important to offer that can nourish and elevate the soul. Life without art is pale. I embrace opportunities to share insight into the richly complex and abstract—but highly expressive—medium of art music. I hope to help build an audience for my own work. More importantly, I desire to elevate the listening experience of the average person so that there is a bit more room in their lives to engage art music with meaning and joy. The cynic in me scoffs at this naively optimistic view. But my optimism brings energy and clarity when I speak to audiences. It is a privilege and a responsibility to embrace these platforms and draw an audience towards great music—whether Beethoven or Monk or Reich or Zappa or Higdon.

After a few years of teaching music majors full-time at my university, I became a bit nostalgic for teaching contemporary music to non-musicians. I missed the delight and challenge of inviting a lay audience to engage with abstract art music. So I began to imagine a class for undergraduate non-music majors that focused on art music from the last 100 years. I wanted to provide a compelling and meaty class, filled with contemporary art music, for the average University of Colorado student who came to study engineering, business, or environmental design. I remembered that often an audience merely needs a great invitation into the heart of a piece before they are ready to drop any bias and listen with open ears.  With a good guide, even a contrarian or major skeptic can find meaning in music they once disliked. Over a few years I created two classes—“Tragedy and Inspiration” and “Misfits and Geniuses”—to fulfill my desire to bring art music to non-musicians. These courses have enriched my teaching menu beyond composition students and allow the regular delight of opening ears to music I love.

Wearing All the Hats: Reflections on Being a Teacher, Too

Back in college, I often viewed teaching private lessons as a way to earn a bit of extra spending money. I taught a couple of children through the University of Redlands at the time, and it was just enough to cover modest expenses such as clothes or my cell phone bill. Since I was convinced that I wanted to focus on freelance composing and performing when I graduated, I didn’t thoughtfully consider the possibility of teaching as an integral aspect of my identity as a professional musician. Though I have always had the utmost respect for K-12 teachers, I had decided that having my own classroom full of students wasn’t the best fit for me. And with my limited business skills, I assumed that a modest studio of private students would not be lucrative enough to cover major household expenses.

In the years since, I’ve learned that teaching lessons can be a very reliable source of income when the business aspect is managed well. Reading books like The Savvy Music Teacher by David Cutler gave me the financial chops that I needed to go from teaching under the auspices of other businesses, which kept a sizeable portion of my income, to managing clientele on my own.

What I didn’t expect was how much teaching would shape and mold my identity as a performer and composer. I had been told that it would reinforce my technical abilities as I continue to study music, but to my surprise, there have been many other benefits as well.

Students remind me of what it is like to approach music with a sense of curiosity, lightheartedness, and joy.

On the days when I am feeling frustrated with my own progress as a musician, my students—especially the children—remind me of what it is like to approach music with a sense of curiosity, lightheartedness, and joy. Most of my students have sought me because they essentially want to play music for fun. They seem to have few assumptions about the successes that a musical life could grant them as they grow older, so they are naturally free to explore many creative paths with little worry that what they are doing is the “right” thing.

Though it is taking a bit of extra effort to retrain my thinking as an adult, I’ve been learning to relinquish feelings of guilt around artistic exploration that doesn’t feel immediately purposeful or profitable. There is something about being a teacher that tacitly holds me accountable to learn without ceasing, and I remind myself that in some respects, all of the skills that I acquire will find their way into my artistic voice and prove their worth in due time.

Above all, my students inspire me to write and play for them. I can still remember myself as a young child, sitting on the edge of my seat in awe as I watched my teacher play with the local symphony. Education is one of the ways I am choosing to give back and stay connected to the heart of my community. I feel fulfilled knowing that I can give a young student the same experience that my teachers gave me.

Initially part of me felt a little dirty for teaching as a way to make money…

Initially, as a budding freelancer, part of me felt a little dirty for teaching as a way to make money on the side. I sometimes felt the stigma that if I needed to teach for a living, I was somehow failing at being a performer or composer. When non-musicians asked me what I did for a profession, I perceived that identifying as a music teacher quickly overshadowed my other identities as a musician, just as saying that I worked in an office during the day made it seem as if I played gigs only for chump change.

Now that I’ve been teaching for several years, I feel pride in knowing that the greater portion of my income is earned from a variety of activities in music. I no longer feel burdened by others’ opinions of what I do for a living because I know that whether I am teaching, performing, or composing, I am dedicating myself to a career that gives me life.


Learning to Embrace Community-Based Music-Making

I confess that right after I graduated from college four years ago, I was reluctant to join community groups as a way to both maintain and further my skills. In my mind, I planned to network, prepare auditions, and perform music primarily through gigs.

When I made the adjustment from being in school full-time to working a 9-to-5 plus teaching during evenings and weekends, I found that I was simply too tired to do much else.  I was aware of a few ensembles in a nearby town, but the thought of adding another commute to my arduous workweek disgusted me.

A year later, I moved into a studio about a half hour away in order to be closer to work. Much of my commuting time was eliminated, and now I was closer to the groups that I was already aware of. At the same time, I realized that in the year since I graduated, I had practiced and composed much less than I had wanted to, and few musical opportunities had materialized. Also, I felt as if I had made very few new friends, especially in music, and without frequent performance opportunities, there was little motivation for me to practice.

Joining an ensemble meant that I could get to know not just music but also people.

Reflecting on this made me put aside my ego and join the Redlands Community Orchestra that fall. The lazy part of me was reluctant to give up 2-3 hours every Sunday night for the greater part of the year. However, even greater than my laziness at the time was my excitement to have ongoing, regular rehearsals like I did while I was in school. Joining an ensemble meant that I could get to know not just music but also people over a long period of time. Since I wanted to learn how to better write for large ensembles, rehearsing with an orchestra on a regular basis would keep me aware of what compositional choices are effective for performers of varying abilities.

In my second season with the group, I took on the role of librarian for the orchestra. Since I had little previous experience in orchestra administration, I thought it would be a great way to acquire some hands-on training. Renting scores and parts has given me some insight into the way publishers work, which is helpful for me to know as an emerging composer. Preparing and organizing parts has also taught me more about the needs of the musicians throughout the orchestra.  As one who currently self-publishes her music, it made me realize that studying scores alone won’t give me examples of formatting and page turns, for example. I need to also review parts on occasion to learn what notational choices communicate best with various sections of the orchestra and make their jobs easier.

The bass section of the Redlands Community Orchestra

One aspect that I particularly enjoy about the RCO is that in the past three seasons, we have premiered several pieces by local composers. Because our ensemble is committed to providing free concerts to the public, it felt inspiring to know that people in the community who might have little previous knowledge of contemporary classical music could witness it live and hear composers speak about their work. Although many of the musicians are from different backgrounds, my impression is that most look forward to the opportunity to read through and vote on compositions from the call for scores as well as interact with the composer during rehearsals. The result is a production that educates not just the audience but also musicians whose backgrounds may not be in the conservatory.

People who might have little previous knowledge of contemporary classical music could witness it live and hear composers speak.

Now that I am nearing the end of my third season with the orchestra, I can say that my involvement in the group has led to a variety of other opportunities, both paid and volunteer. One highlight in particular was an opportunity to play in a local new music concert series started by a fellow composer and member of the orchestra.

If I had to go back in time to give advice to myself as a graduating senior, I would tell myself not to hesitate to make time to find at least one group to join right away. Though finding time to practice or compose in the midst of a busy schedule can be a struggle at times, even the tiniest blocks of time in which I choose to stay connected to my art would continue to uplift me and encourage me to pursue my aspirations even more.

Broken Notions of Why Art Matters

broken tape measure

Photo courtesy of Ian Muttoo on Flickr.

Diane Ragsdale’s newest Jumper post responds to a discussion about the values and motivations of arts organizations that includes Doug Borwick of Engaging Matters and Lyz Crane of ArtPlace America:

Doug Borwick has a new post (inspired by comments made by Lyz Crane at the Creative Placemaking Summit) on the “central disconnect” between arts organizations and community engagement. The cornerstones of his argument appear to be that the “art world” exists to do what it wants to do (in contrast to most of the social sectors that exist to solve a problem or need); that arts organizations, therefore, depend upon true believers that are willing to support them in their self-interested pursuits; that community engagement requires seeing art (not as an end in-and-of itself but) as a tool for social change; and thus, ipso facto, given their we-want-to-do-what-we-want-to-do orientation there is little possibility for arts organizations to extend their reach and work to advance their communities.
I’m a fan of Doug’s writing on Engaging Matters, generally, but I’m not sure I buy the argument in this instance.

I am too, and I don’t either. A simple but flawed way to look at this problem is through what Ragsdale rightly identifies as a false dichotomy: serve the art or serve the community. Crane and Borwick rightly identify an external perception problem: it can seem to people that arts organizations do something more inward looking and speculative than useful.

However, it’s important not to over-read that possible perception problem as reflecting some deeper truth about the field.
It might seem to some that serving art is in conflict with serving the community. And certainly it’s possible to imagine making mistakes while prioritizing the one over the other. But underneath that observation there’s no deeper pattern about the nature of arts organizations. Valuing art at the expense of community is a serious error, but that’s all. It’s not the tip of the iceberg, it’s a tiny iceberg.

But why is it a false dichotomy? When you look at how you’re using the terms “art” and “community” in this context, you pretty quickly run into some suspect thinking.

Let’s take a closer look at what sort of an image we conjure up when we think of organizations that make these two mistakes, to see what they can tell us about what we mean by those terms:

Too focused on “what the organization wants to do”

Let’s imagine an archetypal arts organization that is serving the “art,” or “doing what it wants to do” instead of serving the community, and has got itself into trouble. The organization has been around for about 30 years, was moderately prominent in the community in the ‘90s, took a beating in the culture wars, and hasn’t won back its pride of place. It probably has the same white male executive/artistic director that it’s had for decades, and relies on a dedicated but dwindling group of funders, subscribers, etc. to keep the place running. There are educational programs, but they’re staffed with entry-level “half-time” workers who have too much on their plate and too few resources to do good work. Every now and then someone says something about “community engagement” or “digital initiatives,” and maybe they try some stuff sometimes, but it’s always peripheral and the leadership’s heart is clearly not in it. The quality of the art presented has started to suffer, in part because there’s less money, and in part because there’s just less energy about the place.
This is a pretty drastic story, but it’s not an unfamiliar one. You can probably find a piece of this hypothetical in the actual experiences of a lot of organizations, and saying that they’re valuing art over the community, or doing “what they want to do” instead of something more useful isn’t entirely unfair.
But the issues in an organization like this go way deeper than a focus on art vs. a focus on community.

Too focused on “serving the community”

This story is perhaps less archetypical, but we can imagine an organization with both presenting and educational arms–for instance a concert series and a community music school. The series may have been what started the organization back in the 1970s. Local corporations helped underwrite bringing major touring artists to town. As the world changed and the leadership changed, the organization created a community music school. After all, the staff could easily handle both, and the network of freelance musicians they had built for performance could also teach and earn extra money.

As mission creep starts to set in, the series brings in fewer and fewer touring artists, and the audiences start to be made up of families with students in the music school. The programming shifts to performances by teachers and star pupils. The mission statement says something about “world class artists,” but they aren’t coming any more.

It’s pretty easy to see this story as a “mistake” in terms of the original mission of the organization, but in broader terms…. it’s hard to make that argument. There still is in some way an “overemphasis,” and the students in the school won’t get to hear as many top-level performances or attend those masterclasses, but it’s hard to complain about a thriving music school.

Similarly, this story and others we could imagine that embody the same error, seem to represent fewer organizations than the first hypothetical (based on a study by…I’m totally making this part up; feel free to disagree with me).
This is perhaps part of why it’s easier to focus on the other mistake.


Certainly these are two dangers faced by many arts organizations, and they’re worth considering when making long term plans. But these two are clearly not the opposite ends of a spectrum that can explain big trends in our field. The organizations in these hypotheticals could only ever be stand-ins for a tiny fraction of arts organizations. For a lot of organizations, this is simply the wrong framework.

First, not all communities are towns. And so the elision of “community service” with education, outreach, and public art can be very, very misleading. New Music USA, for instance, serves a nationwide community of artists. Our community is spread out around the country and is made up of all sorts of people who make, listen to, and produce music. And since our community has far more artists in it per capita than any municipality, what service to that community means is nothing like what it means for most organizations. For us, serving “the community” and serving “the art” are completely identical.

If you’re a presenting organization with a venue, your ticket buyers are local (and therefore your community is in one place), but if you’re almost anything else, from a school to a touring ensemble to an advocacy organization, your physical location isn’t the determining factor in how your community is structured, or in what it means to be of service. In those cases, the dichotomy breaks down entirely, and we can see how a restricted definition of “community” can get you into trouble.

Second, notions of “serving your community” can be too focused on too small a set of community benefits. Direct economic impact is easy(ish) to measure, and it’s easy to use to lobby government and others for support for the arts. But the tricky part of advocating for the arts is that the really important parts are harder to put numbers on. This shouldn’t be surprising; the awesomest parts of art itself are the parts that are hardest to quantify.
If you stick to just the benefits that are easy to measure, you’re going to wind up supporting only the artistic activity that produces that limited set of benefits. And you’re going to miss out on the benefits of other kinds of art.
There are indirect economic impacts that are nigh impossible to measure properly, from the increased prestige of a city or town to incremental increases in rental prices and home values that are indistinguishable from the background noise of the market.
There are new connections made among talented and dedicated people as part of any artistic endeavor, and even counting those connections and attributing them properly is a challenge, much less measuring their value.
And of course there are the direct benefits of amazing art to everyone who experiences it. It’s hard to quantify, and research into the “transformative arts experience”–though definitely a step forward–is also (and totally understandably) trapped by its own research questions. The “art that changed your life” is worth researching, but there’s a long tail of artistic experiences far fatter than the long tail of e-commerce.

Because these things are hard to measure, they’re hard to support, hard to promote, and hard to do. It’s what makes art an interesting career. But that difficulty in measuring also makes it hard to include these benefits in a definition of service to a community. With restricted notions of what can count as engaging a community, you wind up with restricted notions of what art is good for, and listening to a concert can become something exclusive and elite instead of the core benefit an arts organization provides to a community.

Annual Mavericks: Other Minds Festival 17

“The San Francisco Symphony does ‘Mavericks’ every ten years; we do it every year,” joked Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian at this year’s Other Minds Festival of new Music, the Bay Area new music community’s annual three-day get together. This was the 17th iteration of the festival, which has been running regularly with only a few skipped years since 1993. Each year a group of eight to twelve composers is featured in three concerts, several composers per night, with sets focusing on each composer in turn.

OM 17 composers with Charles Amirkhanian (far right), photo from <a href="http://www.henceforthrecords.com/2012/03/other-minds-festival-of-new-music-2012-day-2/">Henceforth Records</a>

OM 17 composers with Charles Amirkhanian (far right), photo from Henceforth Records.

This year’s event (March 1–3) included a characteristically diverse group of nine composers, including 75-year-old Harold Budd and 31-year-old Tyshawn Sorey; Berkeley-based Ken Ueno and Lotta Wennäkoski from Finland; and glissando virtuoso Gloria Coates and laptop improviser Ikue Mori. Also featured were John Kennedy, Simon Steen-Andersen and Øyvind Torvund—a multiplicity of compositional voices, from various locations, by composers at different stages in their artistic careers. In a separate fourth performance on February 29, the festival also highlighted work by four younger American composers who had been named OM Fellows, a program now in its second year.

“Community” is frequently used these days by arts organizations as a buzzword, but OM concerts truly have the feel of a gathering of a certain community within the Bay Area. The sense of familiarity among those in attendance is immediately noticeable: people seem to be greeting old friends and colleagues constantly from the moment they arrive at the hall. Board members are publicly acknowledged for appreciation during the show. The announcements are informal and there’s a notable lack of pretense—when the raffle winners were announced, one was greeted from the stage by Amirkhanian with a homey “Oh, hey, Tony, nice to see you. Glad you could make it.”


The Djerassi property. Photo by Richard Friedman via Kyle Gann.

This sense of community building extends to the festival composers and Fellows as well, who spend five days together at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program on a rural ranch about an hour south of San Francisco prior to the concerts. (Here are some charming and bucolic photos from previous years by Kyle Gann and Richard Friedman.) In fact, although the festival concerts are the most publicly visible component of Other Minds’ work, they are only a detail of a bigger picture in which international and intergenerational dialogue is encouraged among individual artistic creators.

I attended the second and third concerts this year, as well as the performance featuring the four Fellows’ work. (The first concert, with works by Torvund and Steen-Andersen performed by the Norwegian ensemble asamisimasa, I unfortunately had to miss due to illness.) Some sets were performed by the composers themselves (Budd, Mori, Sorey); others by the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet, mainstays of the festival, and by members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra, a young, malleable instrumental ensemble with roots in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The works presented were as wide-ranging as OM audiences have come to expect. (A full list of repertoire can be found here.) Concert 2 featured Coates’ Fifth String Quartet (two movements of which were composed almost exclusively using glissandi); a quiet, spare and introspective work by Budd for piano and bass; and almost overwhelmingly aggressive simultaneous improvisations by Mori on her laptop, Sorey on drums, and Ueno on vocals that included overtone throat-singing, death metal growls, and extreme high-register squeals. Concert 3 had Magik*Magik in different configurations, ranging from a percussion duo playing Kennedy’s First Deconstruction (in Plastic) on upturned Glidden paint buckets to a 12-person chamber orchestra configuration with string quartet plus bass and winds/brass. That was followed by improvisations by Sorey solo, first on a drum kit and then on piano, and the world premiere of Ueno’s Peradam for string quartet (who are asked not just to sing, but throat-sing).


Del Sol String Quartet with Gloria Coates (center). Photo by Charles Amirkhanian.

Though Other Minds has apparently cultivated an audience that knows that they are coming to hear something unexpected—attendance in the 410-seat Kanbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco was very respectable at the concerts I attended—the format of the concerts makes certain demands of the concert-goers. Because each composer is represented by a set that is approximately a half-hour long and often there are dramatically contrasting compositional approaches, there is sometimes a disjointed quality to the festival’s performances. In addition, the performing forces change from set to set, so the added time for changeovers and announcements affects the pacing of the performances significantly. For the listener, the result can be disorienting, and during Concert 2 especially I wished there were more of a sense of journey and connectedness throughout the evening.


Rootstock Percussion performing Jen Wang’s Renderings of Things We Couldn’t Take Home at The LAB.

In that sense, the most satisfying performance event of the festival for me was actually the Composer Fellowship Concert, which was held at a small, 100-seat visual art space in the Mission called The LAB. Rootstock Percussion, a Bay Area trio, performed all the works on the program, which featured one work by each of the four Fellows—D. Edward Davis, Peter Swendsen, John P. Hastings, and Jen Wang—framed by pieces by John Cage. Having the instrumentation limited to percussion allowed each composer’s identity to come into relief in relation to the others’. While Swendsen’s Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is for bass drum solo and electronics (controlled by the composer via iPad at the back of the hall) took inspiration from the sounds of weather and seasonal transitions in Norway, Hastings created numbered grids for Terce that provided guidelines for the three percussionists to construct the work by playing wine glasses like bells and by bowing Styrofoam and large metal springs. Cage opened and closed each half, ending the program with Amores, Parts II and III—the only obviously pulse-driven pieces in an evening of percussion music.


Cactus awaiting its star turn in Cage’s Child of Tree.

The Other Minds Foundation is in the process of digitizing its audio archive, and the results can be accessed for free online at RadiOM.org. Recordings of many past festival concerts and panel discussions are available, and the current festival recordings should be added soon. The site also includes a trove of archival material from KPFA-FM in Berkeley, where Amirkhanian was music director for over two decades.

EarShot Orchestra Readings Blog 3: The Reading

The first bit of our second EarShot day was spent finalizing any edits. The orchestra had set an 11:00 a.m. deadline for corrections and changes to be emailed to the library staff. Some of our edits necessitated a whole new part being generated, while other corrections could just be fixed via the infamous errata sheet: an itemized list of smaller things written as concisely as possible, such as “vln 1: m 4 beat 3 = F#”. Each of us had a fair amount of changes and adjustments, and at least one new part to print out in the case of major orchestrational shifts. In my own piece, the decisions I chewed on most had to do with some of my brass writing. What I had written for the trumpets at a particular 12-bar passage was certainly in their range, but it just wasn’t cutting through the orchestra. After talking with the player, he brought it to my attention that it was too low to have any carrying power, and that the horns could project it out much better (I ended up swapping the trumpet and horn materials in that section, to much better effect). Another issue in my trumpet writing had to do with selection of mutes: a passage I wrote for a trumpet with harmon mute seemed not to be speaking. In this case, the section was timbrally exposed enough that a switch to straight mute made it much clearer.

Between noon and 6:00 p.m., we were in a series of professional development seminars, with many local composers from the area in attendance (at least three local university composition departments were represented). Bill Holab gave two engaging presentations: one on engraving and the other on copyright and publishing. Bill is an authority in both of these areas, with years of experience at places like Schirmer publishing and running his own company (Bill Holab Music Publishing). Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, gave an overview of the orchestra industry, speaking about the ever-changing ways in which composers and orchestras have been working together over the last 25 years. John Nuechterlein, president of the American Composers Forum, and Ed Harsh, president of New Music USA, participated in a panel discussion with our mentor composers on community engagement. Each member of the panel spoke about their own experiences interacting with their local communities of musicians and audiences. The common theme here could be summed up as no (successful) composer is an island: the panel members, whether talking about working with a major orchestra or starting your own chamber music series, hammered home the necessity of connecting and interacting with a community. Particularly in this last session, but in the earlier ones as well, the questions and stimulating discussion between panel and audience could have kept going for at least another hour.

At 6:00 p.m., we met individually with conductor Matthew Kraemer. This was to check-in on our changes, and also provide a chance to develop a plan of attack for the final reading session. Starting at 7:00 p.m., each composer got around 25 to 30 minutes with the orchestra. After an introduction by the composer for the assembled audience, Matthew spent a generous amount of time touching up a few choice sections, and then ran the piece down from start to finish. It was striking how much the pieces changed over the 30-hour period between the two readings: everyone’s score was in sharper focus; the forms and overarching reach of each piece were much more comprehensible. Part of this is obviously the excellent level of musicianship in the group shining through after an initial sight-reading, but I think the opportunity for editing really made a world of difference. As works in progress, many things still needed to be fleshed out in each piece, but the audience response was overly positive. A brief on-stage post-concert discussion, led by Derek Bermel, elicited some thoughtful reactions and questions from the assembled crowd.

In lieu of recordings, which haven’t been made available yet, I’m posting a page from each composer’s score below as an example of their work.

Disharmony of the Spheres

From Elizabeth Lim’s Disharmony of the Spheres

The Abyssal Zone Full Revised Score

From David Marenberg’s The Abyssal Zone

Grosse Concerto (Buffalo version)

From Daniel Schlosberg’s Grosse Concerto

Gorbos Bounce Excerpt

And a page from my own score, Bounce

After the show, we composers headed out to the Anchor Bar with ACO Operations Director Greg Evans, where we sampled a few different types of perhaps the best-known comestible innovation from our fair host city: the Buffalo wing.

Buffalo Wings Party

Stay tuned for my final post, which will be an EarShot Readings postmortem: one final look around the scores with our mentor composers, one final look around the program with the composer participants.