Tag: community

Alice Parker: Feeling the Same Emotion at the Same Time

 

It is difficult to think of anyone more loved by the musicians with whom she works than composer, arranger, conductor, and teacher Alice Parker who has been a fixture of the choral music community for eight decades. Since becoming an arranger for the legendary Robert Shaw Chorale when she was fresh out of college in the late 1940s, Parker has devoted herself almost exclusively to music for the voice, since she strongly believes that people find their common ground through singing together.

During an inspiring conversation over Zoom, Parker explains how our lives become enriched when we can share a communal music-making experience.

When we sing something perfectly lovely together … and it really clicks, you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.

Sadly though, as she also points out, singing is no longer something that most people do: “As a society, as a culture, we don’t sing. … [W]e simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.”

Music has been a presence in Alice Parker’s life since growing up in Boston in the 1920s, attending concerts by the Boston Pops as a little girl, attending an African American church sing while staying with her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina, and hearing African-American lyric tenor Roland Hayes sing spirituals in a concert in the 1930s. Soon after she began taking piano lessons, she started to compose her own music, though her teacher had to find another instructor to help her write it down. But Parker doesn’t think that made her special.

“The ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift,” she claims. “I think everybody would if they were encouraged to. And I was encouraged to, right from the beginning.”

Parker formally studied composition at Smith College before studying choral conducting at the Juilliard School, deciding to switch majors because she did not want to compose the music they wanted her to compose.

“They were trying to get me to write 12-tone music,” she remembers. “I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn’t do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong in the sense that what really lasts is not necessarily tonal music, but modal music. Somehow or other, that peculiar mixture of whole and half steps is much closer to musical truth than any system that is drawn out of equal half steps or equal whole steps. That’s too much. Henry Ford making everything exactly match. Things in nature don’t exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.”

Perhaps the most tell-tale sign of Parker’s lifelong humility is her devotion to creating music for and with community groups rather than for big celebrities. She has no interest in writing music unless it serves a purpose, as she explains:

If someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don’t see any purpose for it. In a church, there’s loads of purpose. It’s all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you’re in the good schools, there’s lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there’s almost always purpose.

Although she was writing music up until 2020 (you can hear a performance of her glorious hymn “On the Common Ground” which is embedded in the transcript below), her deteriorating eyesight has made it impossible for her to either enter notes on staff paper or even on a computer. But she’s enjoying spending time with her four great grandchildren and has become obsessed with Wordle.

  • We simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • My general prescription for the healing of society is that we establish a Department of Peace in Washington to go beside the Department of War.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • When we sing something perfectly lovely together ... and it really clicks, you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • If you can speak, you can sing. And the singing may come first.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • Music is only sound. It is nothing else but sound. We spend a whole of our education talking about sound and not making sound.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • Somehow I was able to withstand the strong conditioning that I got certainly when I got to college, and was trying to major in composition, and they were trying to get me to write 12-tone music. I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn't do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong. ... Things in nature don't exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • I am not telling my music where I want it to go. I'm listening for where it wants to go.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • The ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift. I think everybody would if they were encouraged to.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • There is absolutely no difference between brain tissue from male and a female. It's just my feeling about race is actually close your eyes, and can you tell whether it's a black person or a white person, otherwise from the language? You can't. Color has nothing to do with it. Nobody chooses where they're born. ... You come up where you are. What you can do is of course enormously influenced by your surroundings. If your parents say right away, "Well you can't do that; girls can't do that," you're pretty much taken for granted or else you're a terrible rebel and you risk the ire of your society all around you.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • I've always said if someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don't see any purpose for it. In a church, there's loads of purpose. It's all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you're in the good schools, there's lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there's almost always purpose.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • I think music is food for the ears, just as food is food for the stomach. And I want to feed people's ears. I want to nourish them through the music. I'm not interested in scaring them or frightening them, or stretching them beyond their beliefs. I need to find the thing that they will just love.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • Somebody called me an entertainer once. I said, "I am not an entertainer." Music isn't an entertainment art for me.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • I think so many kids have never heard their parents sing, just for the fun of it. We don't sing as we do the dishes. We always did when I was little. We don't sing as we do chores because there's always some background music on. And nobody's really listening to it. I think the way to get people back into it is just simply to get a roomful of people singing or a family.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor

Hannibal Lokumbe: Always Go With the Feeling

A BIPOC man with dreads, a dark shirt, and dark cap

For the past three years, composer/trumpeter/raconteur/poet/community activist/force of nature Hannibal Lokumbe has served as a composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the auspices of Music Alive, a program which New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. The culmination of this residency is Hannibal’s massive oratorio Healing Tones, which at the end of March received its world premiere performances featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra joined by two choruses and three additional vocal soloists.

Hannibal has had a long history with New Music USA and, before that, with Meet The Composer (which later merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA). MTC supported the 1990 commission of African Portraits, Hannibal’s first large-scale work involving a symphony orchestra. African Portraits, a sprawling sonic adventure requiring blues and gospel vocal soloists, three choruses, a West African kora player, and a jazz quartet in addition to a large orchestra, has now received over 200 performances all over the country, a rare accomplishment for any contemporary American work let alone one that costs $4000 a minute to rehearse. So we have long wanted to have an opportunity to record a conversation with him about his musical career, his compositional process, and his sources of inspiration.

Our recent talk with Hannibal in Philadelphia was a 45-minute roller coaster ride that was part testimonial, part reminiscence, part philosophical manifesto, and part performance art, but all pure emotion. Many questions were left unanswered and others just led to other questions for us, some of which we probably will never be able to answer.

  • If I feel the need to testify, that’s what I’m gonna do!  And I always encourage the people to do the same.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • I always go with the feeling.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • A Yoruban priest gave me the name Hannibal in Brooklyn at the Blue Coronet.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • I don’t follow people.  Humans did not give me the music.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • I had ‘Trane in my head since I was 13.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • The spiritual land mass of humanity is music.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • What our world and what our nation are going through now is giving birth.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • The paradigm of what is called classical music is something that’s in flux now, too.  As it should be.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • To heal, you must become what you’re singing.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • We’re all in a prison, brother.

    Hannibal Lokumbe

There was a lot to process in a very short amount of time. There were his extraordinary thoughts about Pangaea—“the spiritual land mass of humanity is music”—as well as his optimistic outlook on the future: “What our world and what our nation’s going through now is giving birth.  Birth requires some bleeding and some suffering.  But in the base of our brain is a certain knowledge, and that knowledge says that from this pain will come this treasure.” There were also tantalizing fragments of anecdotes from his storied life in music, such as taking Jimi Hendrix’s place after Hendrix died for a recording session with Gil Evans (“Gil … always saw things in a person that they might not see in themselves”) or giving advice to a young Whitney Houston (“Sister, whatever you do, follow the music.  Don’t follow the people. People will confuse you.”) Perhaps what was most poignant to me was a comment he made about why he creates such personal and idiosyncratic music:

“It would be a disgrace to my ancestors to try to tell someone else’s story, which I could not do.  I could emulate it. I could emulate Bach. I could emulate Brahms. I have the technical skill to do that, but it would be dishonest.”


Hannibal Lokumbe in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
March 13, 2019—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

What’s In a Name? The Orchestra and Its Community

Names influence our lives in a powerful way. Our first names give us our first inklings of individuality. Our last names can connect us to family members across generations. The names of our countries, states, and cities are the foundation of our sense of place and belonging. We are urged to live with purpose and dignity to bring honor to the names of our families and hometowns. Ultimately, a name is a legacy: a vehicle through which we relate to the world and the world relates to us. It is the label on our life’s work and the signature on our past behavior.

To do something in the name of another, then, is an immense responsibility, which poses a challenge for locally based organizations. The name of an individual reflects on one person, but the name of a city or state can encompass millions of people. Thus, from the inception of their titles, groups from the New York Philharmonic to the San Francisco Symphony hold an obligation to represent and to serve their namesake communities.

While the titles of most modern American ensembles accurately designate what they are, they do not convey who they are. It doesn’t take a seasoned musicologist to see the disparity between the communities inside and outside of the concert hall. Older white people dominate the demographics of the average American symphony orchestra, both on and off the stage. Despite the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the United States, only about ten percent of orchestral players are people of color. This demographic manifests in the music itself, too: the works of dead white men top the bills of major orchestras, which still rarely venture outside the Western classical canon. Symphony staffs across the country are working towards increased diversity and inclusion, but the integration of these principles is a slow and sensitive process. In this absence of adequate representation, ensembles must double their efforts to honor their namesakes through service.

I do not point out this obligation because of a lack of effort on the part of American orchestras. Most larger ensembles have staff dedicated to education and/or community engagement who plan outreach events such as benefit concerts and free performances in hospitals or schools. The struggle to serve lies in the divide between the orchestra and its community. Despite widespread budgeting woes, the orchestra remains a cultural symbol of wealth, which stands in stark contrast with the sleeping bags and shopping carts on the sidewalks outside many metropolitan concert halls. This socioeconomic gap is compounded by the homogeneous demographic of the orchestra, which can create tension between the ensemble and the community at large. With the right mindset, however, one can set a foundation for a healthy relationship between a city and its orchestra.

The key: don’t help. Instead, serve.

Maintaining a mindset of servitude will help musical organizations in their endeavor to improve their communities, their relationships with said communities, and the ensembles themselves.

I first encountered the difference between help and service at a community-based learning conference in Holyoke, Massachusetts. As a panelist described the dangers of programs like Teach for America, which put underprepared white teachers into “at-risk communities,” he described their exhibition of the white savior complex—“the perception that wealthy white individuals are the benevolent benefactors of helpless ‘others’.” This definition can apply to well-intentioned orchestral representatives who enter low-income communities of color with the intention of “helping.” They provide resources such as free concerts and musical instruction to underserved populations, but rarely cultivate or maintain genuine relationships with these audiences after their generous work has been publicized to patrons and donors. Instead of being empowered, the population in need often feels belittled for needing to be “helped” at all, ultimately encouraging the systematic power dynamics of race and class which separated the concert hall so prominently from its surroundings in the first place. Service, on the other hand, implies a mutually beneficial relationship founded on equality, collaboration, and respect. Community partnerships are just that: a healthy give-and-take between one party and another. Maintaining a mindset of servitude will help musical organizations in their endeavor to improve their communities, their relationships with said communities, and the ensembles themselves.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is a fantastic example of a group which thrives in service. After a difficult season of musician strikes in 2010-2011, the DSO was forced to reassess its priorities and restructure its organization. Dangerously low on resources, musicians, and patrons, the orchestra turned to its community for survival. Accessibility and community engagement became the defining tenets of the DSO. The orchestra refocused its efforts on community performances in hospitals, churches, and senior centers in metro Detroit.

Increased visibility of the orchestra among new, diverse audiences in conjunction with “patron-minded pricing” caused subscription growth to increase by nearly 25% in three years. The DSO has since integrated free webcasting and extensive educational programming to truly become the “most accessible orchestra on the planet.” Their success is a direct result of healthy collaboration. The ensemble did not enter its community in a self-congratulatory or belittling manner: instead, the DSO simply reached out in its time of need, starting a legacy of mutually beneficial community partnerships. Most importantly, the organization brands itself as “a community-supported orchestra,” not merely an orchestra that supports its community. The DSO is living proof that community engagement is integral, not additive, to a successful ensemble.

Between relentless budget cuts and the increasing struggle to make classical music relevant in a fast-paced world, American orchestras are seeing a steady decline in concert attendance. Ensembles are often far too preoccupied with survival to focus on any sort of community service. However, I’d like to suggest that service is a fantastic avenue to improving the financial and organizational health of symphonic ensembles. The consistent formation and retention of mutually beneficial relationships with community organizations will inevitably improve audience attendance and diversity. Furthermore, interactions with peer organizations and community members offer multiple unique perspectives, which can be invaluable in making programming decisions. Community service isn’t just an obligation: it is a promising avenue for the visibility and vitality of the American orchestra.

An Ode to Pride Month

I used to hate talking about my major. Like many of my peers, I’ve learned to expect unpleasant responses when I say that I study music. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that I’m going to end up living under a bridge with my trombone, that there’s no money in music, and that I’d be better off pursuing a degree in medicine or law. With time and patience, I’ve learned to smile and nod my way through these conversations. But sometimes, there’s a follow-up question that still makes my stomach churn: “Where do you go to school?”

This dread isn’t due to a lack of pride in my institution. I’ve adored Smith College since the moment I set foot on its campus, and its music department has come to be my second family. However, there’s a major drawback to attending this elite women’s college: I’m a transgender male. That means I was born biologically female, but I view and present myself as a male, and I am most comfortable using he/him pronouns. With the help of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and surgery, I’ve finally attained the deep voice and masculine physique that make my body feel like my home. While physically transitioning has brought me endless joy, it has also presented substantial difficulty in my college career. Unless I lie and say that I attend a neighboring co-ed institution (or that I’m an engineering major), innocent questions like “what/where do you study?” often “out” me as a musician and as a transgender person. I’ve spoken with a few people who can’t decide which is worse.

The countless times I’ve been forced to defend the validity of both my major and my gender have caused me to look more closely at the relationship between these two identities. Through meaningful discourse with other LGBTQ+ musicians, introspection on my own identity, and poring over endless pages of queer theory, I’ve come to realize that matters of music, gender, and sexuality are deeply intertwined in queer lives. My narrative is shared by countless other transgender and gender-nonconforming (GNC) artists. We grow up in despair, feeling trapped in bodies that do not feel comfortable and lacking the vocabulary to explain why. In the chaos of dysphoria and self-discovery, our instruments end up being our most faithful companions.

I didn’t know what my gender was, but I did know that I was the lead trombonist in the jazz band. My sense of belonging in the band was the foundation for my sense of belonging in the world.

Music is so crucial to trans/GNC people because it facilitates the creation of queer space. In lieu of a crash-course in queer theory, I’ll offer a definition of “queer space” as a space which is created and defined by the presence, expression, and/or empowerment of LGBTQ+ people. (Defining the word “queer” itself is a complicated process, as the term has a complicated history of discrimination and reclamation. For our purposes, I’ll use a definition of “queer” employed in many modern social and academic contexts: “not fitting cultural norms of sexuality and/or gender identity.”) Dedicated spaces like these are hard to come by, and are often inaccessible to those who haven’t come out yet. Playing music, however, gives trans/GNC individuals a valuable opportunity to be unapologetically loud and expressive in a cisnormative world which often tries to silence them. Maintaining an outlet to visibly express oneself without fear of violence or discrimination is crucial to the well-being of any person, but especially so for trans/GNC folks. For many of us, music is our only opportunity to feel empowered without feeling afraid. As we play, we fill the hall around us with our musical interpretations and emotions. Our music is a radical act: a consistent cultivator of precious queer space.

Music also does the crucial work of creating supportive communities for trans/GNC people. For many young people, joining a school band or choir is often an important step in forming a sense of belonging and group identity. In addition to offering a brief solace from the trials of adolescence, these musical opportunities foster collaborative relationships. This is a critical opportunity for trans/GNC youth, who often feel isolated from their cisgender peers and are overwhelmingly depressed as a result. I shudder to think where I might be without the support of my high school bandmates and directors. As I grappled with the confusion and discomfort of figuring out who I really was, music gave me the structure, stability, and support that I needed to survive. Most importantly, when I was questioning whether life was even worth this troubling business of self-discovery, music gave me a sense of purpose. I didn’t know what my gender was, but I did know that I was the lead trombonist in the jazz band: a role that gave me an identity and a motivation to get out of bed every morning. My sense of belonging in the band was the foundation for my sense of belonging in the world.

This reflection on the importance of music in my queer life comes at an appropriate time. June is Pride Month: a time dedicated to LGBTQ+ communities in honor of the 1969 Stonewall riots. As I celebrate both my musical and queer identities, I also mourn the fact that not all trans/GNC youth have access to supportive artistic communities like I did. It pains me to think of how many young people are forced to hide their authentic selves without any opportunity for relief. With limited resources for healthcare, education, or emotional support in a tumultuous political climate, trans/GNC students are feeling increasingly unsafe and unwelcome in their schools and the country at large. Now more than ever, it is imperative that the artistic programs which serve trans/GNC youth remain intact. Music presents a unique opportunity for community building and self-expression that can be life-changing for a transgender child. Its accessibility could prove invaluable for trans/GNC students’ continued success, comfort, and even survival. This Pride Month is not just a celebration: it is a call to action.

Amateur Hour: Karin Rehnqvist, The City’s Choir, and the Gift that Kept Giving

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

In 1977, one year after Karin Rehnqvist arrived in Stockholm to attend the music education program at the Royal College of Music, she was given the opportunity to lead a newly formed amateur choir Stans Kör (The City’s Choir). Its members were young—the oldest was 26 years old—and Rehnqvist herself was just turning 20. She had virtually no experience leading a choir, although she had been an avid choir singer in her small hometown of Nybro since early childhood. Hardly any of the members had sung in a choir before, and no audition was required. As one former member put it, “We were a bunch of people that you randomly could have picked off the street.” Only a few members could even read music; scores were used almost exclusively for learning the text. Rehearsals were time-consuming, as Rehnqvist typically first sang or played each part on the piano, and the singers imitated her. The members were so inexperienced in following a conductor that it wasn’t even possible to perform a ritardando or an accelerando during the early months of rehearsals.

The choir’s culture set the foundation for an artistically adventurous existence.

Despite its musical shortcomings, the choir had its strengths. The choir’s culture emphasized personal engagement and support—members socialized and some, including Rehnqvist, even found their future partners in the choir—and the choir was also democratically organized, with its members taking an active part in decision-making. The choir’s culture set the foundation for an artistically adventurous existence during the fourteen years Rehnqvist led it. The group was willing to try just about anything and, as it turned out, there was a huge advantage to the tedious rote-learning approach that their lack of musical background required: by the time the members were ready to perform a piece, they had it memorized. Most of their performances came to incorporate theatrical elements and should be better understood as shows than concerts. Although a musically far-from-excellent group, the experience would have an enormous impact on Rehnqvist’s compositional output for the rest of her career. At the time, she had no idea, as her early plans did not include becoming a professional composer. She just needed a job and took advantage of an opportunity.

Karin Rehnqvist

Karin Rehnqvist conducts her own Here Is the Music! for the inauguration of the new Royal College of Music buildings in 2017. Photo by Lena Tollstoy.

Here’s a brief example of what a Stans Kör show looked and sounded like by the late ’80s. It’s from Tilt&Mara,[1] given in multiple performances in the Stockholm House of Culture (Kulturhuset) 1988–89. The first excerpt is from a romantic choral piece that’s part of virtually every Swedish choir’s repertoire, Killebukken by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, which sets a Norwegian poem by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson about a child with a pet lamb (with the morbid ending “gain weight, mom wants you in the soup”). Sweden has a strong choral culture, encompassing church choirs, university choirs, and a few professional or semi-professional groups linked by a common aesthetic: a work like Killebukken is to be performed in a standard mixed-choir set up, standing still on a podium focusing on the intonation and the perfect, homogeneous choral sound, and of course, there’s typically no humor. Stans Kör performed it differently:

As you can hear, even after ten years in existence, the choir sounds far from perfect, but it has something else—an attitude and an artistic vision. The Tilt&Mara show attracted a larger audience than virtually any other choir in Stockholm at the time and received multiple newspaper reviews.

Another example from the same show illustrates the group’s creativity in their choice of repertoire and their ability to create stunning results with limited means. In their performance, Rehnqvist’s interpretation of Francesco Cangillo’s futuristic poem “Canzone pirotecnica” (which was intended to be performed and even includes dynamic markings, but no rhythmic notation) was enhanced by employing flashlights and stage lighting.

Such an adventurous choir attracted creative musicians over the years—not only singers, but also composers, arrangers, and instrumentalists, and several connections and ideas would stay with Rehnqvist throughout her career. (A career that’s still going strong by the way; she’s turning 60 this year and is as productive as ever, having recently completed commissions from the German contemporary music group ensemble recherche in Freiburg and the Kronos Quartet’s Fifty for the Future pedagogical commission project.) Her style has been consistent through the years, firmly anchored in Swedish folk music—an interest shared by virtually no other Swedish composer born after 1945. Her collaboration with numerous women folk singers made her adapt the style and mode of performance in an innovative manner—for example, the non-vibrato sound production and use of micro-intervals—as in her breakthrough piece Davids nimm (1984) for which she transcribed a Swedish traditional song, a polska, backwards and expanded it into a three-part composition for three women (two sopranos and one alto). She has also embraced motherhood in her work and emphasized how important her three children have been to her compositional output, including composing songs to texts by them. Other works are explicitly feminist, in particular Timpanum Songs—Herding Calls (1989) for two folk singers and percussion. In this piece she quotes misogynic Finnish proverbs about women to turn them into powerful feminist statements.[2]

Through her work with Stans Kör, she also learned to see performances as complete units—not just as arrays of pieces.

In a large number of her works—both choral works and chamber compositions, for professionals and amateurs alike—she continues the practice of staging the performances, often by very simple means, such as employing a lighting designer or requiring simple choreography or acting from the musicians. Through her work with Stans Kör, she also learned to see performances as complete units—not just as arrays of pieces. An approach she took a few times with great success was to combine existing works, add a few connecting movements, and present a staged performance. Till Ängeln med de brinnande händerna (To the Angel with the Fiery Hands, 1990–2005), for example, is a collection of choral compositions to which she added a few new pieces featuring voice and instruments. As with the Stans Kör productions, the choir had to memorize the repertoire for this almost hour-long performance. The result is visually quite striking, as in Ling Linge Logen, performed by the choir La Cappella, conducted by Karin Eklundh.

One of her most innovative works, När korpen vitnar (When the Raven Black Turns White, 2007), for folk singer and chamber group, is also semi-staged with very simple means: the instrumental ensemble has to memorize a few sections so that they can become active participants on stage, as they join together with the singer to depict the witch hunt process in Sweden during the 17th century—one in particular during which 91 people, mostly women, were decapitated and burned in the biggest peace-time execution in Sweden’s history. In this work, she connected her strong feminist strand with her interest in folk singing and folklore.

Movement 2 “Recitative for a downhearted cow” from When the Raven Black Turns White. Ulrika Bodén, voice, The Nordic Chamber Ensemble.

This piece was part of a larger outreach project, Häxbrand (Witch Fire, 2008), in which Rehnqvist collaborated with folksinger Ulrika Bodén, the Nordic Chamber Orchestra in Sundsvall, and students from Mid Sweden University. The students—who were education students and not music students—came up with ideas such as “The Witch’s Flight Theme,” which were translated into musical gesture and arranged into a complete work. The reason for engaging future teachers was to awaken their interest in music. The idea was that if art music and other cultural institutions are to reach the children in schools, teachers’ attitudes toward culture are crucial. As Rehnqvist put it, “The idea is that composition is not a divine intervention but a craft and that the teachers should take the child’s way of working.”

There is another important effect of Rehnqvist’s many years of outreach, beyond developing her own creativity: she gained a reputation as being an approachable team player, which resulted in a number of commissions, including several for children’s and girls’ choirs—especially her work with Adolf Fredrik Girls’ Choir, a choir at the Adolf Fredrik music magnet school in Stockholm—in which she was able to develop her feminist approach into an expression of girl power, as in the ironic introduction to Hörru Veckorevyn, a piece that mocks the body-image obsessions in teenage magazines: “Don’t kill love by eating chocolate, have licorice. Leaner thighs, eat algae. Do you also want a sexy ass, take a cold shower.” In her children’s opera Sötskolan (The Beauty School, 1999), the main character—eleven-year-old Bella—has to overcome demands to become well-behaved and pretty in time for her mother to remarry.

In several works, the results went beyond the theatrical and political: In the musically stunning Light of Light (2003) for girls’ choir and symphony orchestra, the clear, shimmering, perfectly-in-tune and vibrato-free choral sound set to texts from the Book of Proverbs and the Swedish hymnal contrasts the dark orchestral texture. This is simply a type of work she would not have written without her collaboration with children and young adults. In her work for children she shows that she takes them seriously; she believes they are able to deal with difficult existential questions, often about life and death.

Rehnqvist also received a large number of other engagements, such as guest lecturing and leading composition workshops with children and high school students. One such workshop, which became particularly well known, included a capstone experience of students writing for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. These engagements were much needed since she worked exclusively as a freelance composer until 2009 when she became professor and head of composition at the Royal College of Music, a job she secured to a large extent thanks to the experience she gained through her large-scale projects and teaching outreach. During her time there, she has continued to develop the composition curriculum through projects and interaction with professional and amateur ensembles and musicians inside and outside the institution. Virtually everything the composition students produce is done with a particular ensemble and a set performance date in mind.

She didn’t have to prove herself and knew she had the skillset to write for amateurs and professionals alike.

The amateur path Rehnqvist started on became an ideal schooling in outreach and entrepreneurship. And in contrast to her generational colleagues, she was never afraid of being labeled a composer for amateurs (nor was she afraid of being labeled a feminist). On the contrary, she is proud of it. After numerous commissions from professional ensembles and international performances, she didn’t have to prove herself and knew she had the skillset to write for amateurs and professionals alike.

Given that Sweden is a country with a population of only some ten million and an extensive public network of public support for artists, it’s difficult to make meaningful comparisons between Sweden and the United States. But two of the main takeaways that could be applied to both countries are that: 1) there can be immense benefits to working outside the institutional framework of a major arts organization or a university; and 2) there should be no stigma associated with working with amateurs. Creative impulses from outside the “classical” mainstream can be liberating. In Rehnqvist’s case, her on-going collaboration with Stans Kör contributed to the development of an artistic vision tied not to virtuosity and musical perfection, but rather to accessibility and engagement. These ideals are evident throughout her career, notably in her embrace of the idea of writing for a range of specific rather than idealized performers and ensembles.

Indeed, the Rehnqvist case suggests that success feeds success and support can go both ways: composers who embrace and support their own communities can gain something incredibly valuable from it.


Per F. Broman

Per F. Broman is professor and associate dean at Bowling Green State University, College of Musical Arts. He has published extensively on Swedish music, including the chapter “New Music of Sweden” for New Music in the Nordic Countries (Pendragon Press, 2002), a monograph on composer Sven-David Sandström (Atlantis, 2012), and an article about the reception of ABBA during the 1970s (Journal of Popular Music Studies, 2005).


A shorter version of this text was originally read at the New Music Gathering at Bowling Green State University on May 7, 2017, in a session titled “Support.” It incorporates material from my forthcoming biography on Rehnqvist, published in Swedish by The Royal Academy of Music and Atlantis.


[1] The title alludes to two pieces performed, Rehnqvist’s TILT and Mara Mara Minne by Arne Mellnäs.

[2] See Rebecca Sleeman’s dissertation “Feminist Musical Aesthetic in the Choral Music of Karin Rehnqvist” (University of Iowa, 2002) and Per F. Broman, “Gender, Ideology, and Structure: Pedagogical Approaches to the Music of Karin Rehnqvist,” College Music Symposium 44 (2004): 15–27.

What Do You Think?

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologist at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

A couple of years ago I attended a concert that included a piece by the composer Fred LaMar (a pseudonym). After several months of fieldwork in the Chicago New Music scene, I had recently become fixated on asking a simple question: what do you think? I would ask this of fellow concert-goers and whenever an acquaintance knew the piece I was interested in, so I was eager to hear people’s reactions to LaMar’s work. After this show, a respected performer responded to my question by asking, “You’re not a friend of Fred LaMar, are you?” I was not, and we engaged in a detailed discussion of what she saw as the piece’s failings, as well as other aspects of the performance she didn’t like.

How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation?

Such conversations have remained a subject of curiosity for me. In my research, I routinely conduct taped interviews, but these can’t capture or exemplify all the interesting conversations I have had while doing my fieldwork. Many times, detailed conversations about aesthetics and labor came about naturally while walking around town or during a chance meeting. I couldn’t always prepare for such an encounter, and when I have attempted to solicit negative reviews during more formal interviews, the results are frequently stale or intensely private. How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation? How do our relationships mediate our critical perspectives? What happens when someone you respect does work you don’t like? I want to consider these questions with regard to both printed and spoken reviews of concerts. By looking at how we speak about these issues, we can begin to see how musicians move back and forth between ostensibly social and aesthetic concerns, and demonstrate how these two areas are deeply interwoven domains.

As I’ve attempted to formulate what it is that interests me about these conversations, I’ve turned to anthropological research on gossip. It’s not that every response to “What do you think?” constitutes gossip, but sometimes it does, and it can be hard to tell the difference. (I know, I know, the adage about only saying it if you would say it in front of someone, but the fact is some people are more open to criticism than others. I didn’t always have a strong relationship with the criticized or the criticizer, and presumption is riskier than abstention.) Since the 1950s, researchers such as Erving Goffman have argued that intimate conversations often have as much of a theatrical “staged” quality as public discussions. We shape our conversation to its context. Even our most intimate iterations are mediated by concerns about place and impact, though they remain authentic. We can lower these stakes in part by feigning ignorance of a subject, as noted by ethnomusicologist Henry Kingsbury. In his book based on ethnographic research in an elite music conservatory, Kingsbury described the question “What did you think of the Beethoven?” as a way to judge not only the talent of Beethoven and his performers, but of the speakers. More recently, Niko Besnier has argued that gossip is crucial to understanding the make-up of a given community, arguing that “exclusion from gossip is one of the primary means through which groups define outsider status.” Gossip, he argues in his book Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics, is central to “how people construct and maintain a sense of localness.” Viewed with a sense of community in mind, “What do you think?” can serve to announce our relationships with the musicians in question. It can locate us in relationship to the broader community, as having more or less insight or talent (a la Kingsbury), or as being a trusted confidant (as in Besnier). Responding to “What did you think of the Reich?” with “I just don’t like music with so little melody” could risk placing you outside the community, in opposition to widely accepted views. In contrast, a more nuanced response, “I think Reich’s music stopped being good about seventeen years ago” might have the opposite effect. Your response also varies according to your place. Maybe you really don’t like music with the kinds of melodies Reich employs, but you don’t want to say so in front of the wrong people. Giving your opinion of melody is thus an intimation, a sign that you trust your interlocutor to keep your confidence.

Photo by Andrew Robles

Photo by Andrew Robles

In my fieldwork and interviews, “What do you think?” provided many people with an opportunity for expressing support. When I asked people what they thought, opinions were often given with various caveats or protective phrases such as, “First of all, I generally think Rebecca is a fantastic soloist and a great musician. But …” Many of the people I spoke with in the Chicago scene and elsewhere were eager to demonstrate their respect for the work required to produce a given performance. At each point in the conversation, interlocutors attempted to ascertain the rationale for the work in question. Why did this performance happen here in this way by these performers? Often, more intensely negative opinions appeared with more caveats, especially when disparaging respected figures. Indeed, this type of construction—a critique delivered after an expression of support—has, for me, become almost cliché. I encounter it frequently in press reviews of the groups I study. Eighth Blackbird is routinely praised for excellent performances while the same writer will deride the piece performed (check out Anne Midgette’s 2016 review of Eighth Blackbird’s “Ghostlight” program for a good example).

Sometimes, such constructions emerged after especially damning criticisms. In a recent concert review for Cacophony magazine, for example, Jen Hill took the vocal ensemble Quince and composer Luis Fernando Amaya to task, writing:

The concert began with a conservative program […] that relied on simplistic subtlety in terms of purpose and approach, in that any possibility of risk or consequence was masked by a metaphorical (and at one point, very real) veil of restraint. [This performance] objectifies the female bodies on stage and makes a theatrical mess of an otherwise pleasant listening experience.

That word “pleasant” recalls other back-handed compliments I’ve read over the years. Take, for example, this scorcher from a 2011 Eighth Blackbird concert review:

No need to return to Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire, a listenable but inconsequential concerto written for eighth blackbird. They gathered around the Steinway at the beginning of the piece and the end, bowing and striking the piano strings to pleasant effect.

In the comments posted to the Cacophony review, Hill responded to critics, “i have great respect for all performers and composers and staff involved in this festival and have no intention of passing judgement on their skill, commitment, or character.” And yet judgment was passed on the work, a move that at least raises some questions about character, especially when criticism includes accusations of misogyny.

Why support those we criticize? Or the reverse, why criticize those we support?

Why support those we criticize? Or the reverse, why criticize those we support? Why do many of us feel the need to suss out works and our opinions? I posed this question to a friend, who responded, “Because it’ll make the work better. All this stuff involves innovating, trying to do something different.” In new music, it can be hard to know when somebody’s on to something or when we’re just excited for someone. Sometimes the distinction doesn’t matter, but often it does. There’s a point, I think, where your honest opinion matters more than your friend’s feelings. The opposite is also true, as was demonstrated to me repeatedly in fieldwork. “What do you think?” was rarely a simple question in the new music scenes I’ve studied. Especially when forming new relationships, as I did over and over again in the course of my fieldwork, sharing critical perspectives helped me engender a sense of trust and openness. Finding people who shared my critical views enhanced our relationship, and I needed those relationships for my work. When I could be honest with someone, I was able to have richer conversations, to open up, and—most importantly—to relax and stop analyzing everything I was doing while I was doing it. It helped make the long hours feel less like an intrusion and more like a shared experience.

Photo by Nik MacMillan

Photo by Nik MacMillan

Critiques and gossip both illustrate that, at least for the people I have worked with, new music is a rather contingent endeavor. An artist’s status, veracity, and execution were often points of debate. Even a group as successful as Eighth Blackbird ultimately risks a lot when they undertake a project. Groups with a larger budget and full-time employees cannot afford to fail in the same way that the part-time Ensemble Dal Niente can. This is important to remember amidst all the hyperbole around entrepreneurship. New music is a culture that tends to romanticize risk, and I think we ought to push back on that romanticizing. For all its aesthetic innovation, new music remains a job for many people. For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question. A consensus of failure had the potential to be a truly devastating realization, especially when a project cost a lot of money and involved multiple donors.

For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question.

Attending to this type of talk complicates how we support each other. It demonstrates that negative feedback relies on a sense of trust and implicit support, as has been noted by Ellen McSweeney in an essay titled “Can a Concert Review be an Act of Love?”:

I’ve realized that for me, writing about other people’s artistic work is actually an act of service. More than that: it is an act of love…. when I look back at my best concert reviews, I can see their devotional qualities. I never wrote about music that I didn’t like, or didn’t care about. Thus, my music writing is an expression of the fact that I really see this artist, that I believe in this artist, and that I want to shine a light on what this artist offers the world.  And when I called out Chicago new music sexism, or Beethoven Festival dysfunction, or an unexamined trope in Amy Beth Kirsten’s work, it was much like the process of telling a close friend that they’re wrong.

I don’t think I love everybody I talk about, but I do care about most of them. When I don’t care about something, I tend to talk about it very little (though when I really hate something, I might talk about it more).

One last thing about “What do you think?”: The levels of mediation I have outlined here demonstrate how much the people I’ve worked with rely on each other. The scene is small, or at least it is felt to be small. “What did you think?” is thus usefully combined with that other ubiquitous question in new music, “Do you know so-and-so?” To return to my opening example, I wonder what would have happened if I had been a friend of Fred LaMar. How would my conversation have been different? I think three counter questions would shape my reaction to another’s criticism of my imaginary friend’s piece. First, what did I think? This question often takes me a long time to figure out, and can change after I have a good talk with another listener. Second, who am I speaking with? The answer to this question determines how honest I can afford to be. Finally, did my interlocutor acknowledge in some way the work required to produce the work?

Determining the qualities of a piece of music of almost any kind remains deeply social for me and for many others. Most of us, I think, arrive at our opinions in dialogue with our friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and critics. Sharing our experience of music goes a long way to shaping our experience of that music. Even when we think something is bad, talking about it can still feel really good.

Speak Now: Amplifying Our Voices

mic w/gradient

The 2016 presidential election was a seismic event for the United States and the world. The days since November 8 have brought forth a tsunami of uncertainty, fear, anticipation, verbiage, and introspection unlike any other comparable period in most of our memories. It seems likely that the weeks and months and perhaps years to come will be similarly without precedent.

I believe that this extraordinary time will bring monumental challenges. But we don’t need to be Pollyannas to recognize opportunity in the moment as well. We can all be freshly awake to our agency within the civic fabric of our communities, and to our potential for helping bring about the country we want to live in. We all have roles to play as individuals—and as organizations, too. If there ever were a more important time to speak and act within those roles, I haven’t seen it in my lifetime.

For almost eighteen years, NewMusicBox has been driven by a core commitment to providing members of the new music community with a place to speak thoughtfully in their own voices about the truth they see. At a time when even the notion of truth itself is in question and thoughtful, civil discourse by no means a given, it’s natural and organic for us to provide opportunity for community members to share their personal views of the moment at hand.

As a first step, we’re beginning a series of posts by artists responding to a simple request that they share what they’re thinking in their roles as artists and community members. The series title is “Speak Now.” We’re not making any assumptions about how long this series might continue or where it might lead. It’s a first step, which is the way every journey begins. It is our hope that it will invite further conversation and connection as more voices and ideas come to the table—in person, via social media, and right here on NewMusicBox.

It’s important to emphasize that, as always, the opinions of NewMusicBox authors are their own. New Music USA itself is focused not on expressing specific opinions but straightforwardly on living our values. (I say more about this in a previous post.) Amplifying the voices of our community members is one fundamental way we can do that.


It Is Time to Create by Meg Wilhoite

What change for good can I possibly effect with my distinctly non-political pieces? What can my small drop in the ocean of music do to help anyone at all?

Turning Around, Turning Away, and Turning Over by Kristin Kuster

Staying in a place of worry is reliable because it feels real, it comes naturally, it’s not something we have to work at. But when the worry creeps in, composer Kristin Kuster has found that its antidote is patience. And social media teaches us, and fosters in us, the precise opposite of patience.

Our Job as Composers Has Changed by Mohammed Fairouz

Our current political state is due to the rise of a culture of “nothing matters but us,” an age of arrogance that glorifies narcissism. Music and the arts and poetry are essentially a training field for innovation and empathy. Today a new America begins. Vigilance is vital.

A Habit of Hearing by John Wykoff

I suggest that composers give up using their music to change people’s minds (their beliefs, opinions, and convictions). Music is poorly suited for that. But music is very well suited, or least it can be, for helping people to change their habits, especially habits of thinking and perceiving.

Uniquely Together: The Chicago Paradox

Old Colorful Marbles in a Glass Jar

The Ear Taxi Festival coincides almost exactly with the 100th anniversary of the publication of Carl Sandburg’s seminal collection Chicago Poems, which—while wholly unintentional—is still a neat coincidence.  Sandburg did as much as anyone to cement Chicago’s reputation as a city of rough-hewn individuals who created a great metropolis through physical labor and are justifiably proud of it, and I see Ear Taxi in a way as the musical manifestation of this: a celebration of the individual composers and performers who have created a bustling contemporary music scene and who are, if you missed the posts on social media, also proud of it.

Five years after Sandburg’s poems were published, Ben Hecht would paint the city with similar strokes in his great collection of stories, which was later published as 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago. In Hecht though, the rugged individualism of Sandburg is combined with a search for a common thread—or motif, in his words—that connects everyone he wrote about. To me, this is an impulse also present in Ear Taxi, as the festival is an attempt to bring all of the disparate styles and the whole tangled mass of creative musical energy in the city under one metaphorical roof.  This uniquely Chicago paradox has always fascinated me.  It’s a city of individuals with an entrepreneurial streak and a DIY mentality who work hard to build from the ground up, but who are also very interested in finding their shared identity.

Over the years, I’ve seen numerous attempts to codify Chicago’s various arts scenes. Whether it’s film or music summits, the Architecture Biennial, the Sonic Impact Festival, Chicago Improv Fest, Lake FX, the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival, or one of many others, the intention is to show off the entire range of any given art form happening in the city and put it in one place. As another example, a few years ago Boeing donated a large sum of money to the Elastic Arts Foundation to create chicagomusic.org, which was meant to be a one-stop shop for all live music in the city. But, though their efforts to include every performance in Chicago were nothing less than heroic, the task proved impossible as there is simply too much happening.   The quixotic attempt, however, is uniquely Chicago. One thinks immediately of architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham’s famous maxim to make no small plans.

There is something innate that causes Chicago to celebrate the individual while searching restlessly for shared identity, and I believe this has led to an unusually tolerant arts scene.

This constant search to find a shared identity among disparate individuals reminds me of a story in Plato’s Symposium.  In the work, Socrates, Aristophanes, and the boys are up late drinking and, as boys will do, they start talking about the origins of love. Aristophanes says that in the beginning humans were not individual entities but two separate people fused together which, according to him, was actually a happy arrangement. Unfortunately though, as in so many other mythological tales, we somehow offended the gods and Zeus promptly sent one of his ever-ready thunderbolts to cleave us in half. Now we spend our lives searching to be made whole again.

I believe the metaphor transcends geographic and cultural boundaries.  Chicago is a famously divided city yet there is something innate that causes it to celebrate the individual while searching restlessly for shared identity, and I believe this has led to an unusually tolerant arts scene.

The style wars did not hit Chicago as hard as in other places.  Composers in Chicago didn’t always approve of other composers, and they didn’t always believe certain directions were fruitful or had artistic merit. But when the call to unity came, it was generally heeded.  Sure, for the most part we’re still very much clumped along academic lines: if you are a composer who went to Northwestern, for example, most likely it’s Northwestern groups who play your music. But that’s natural. What’s unique about Chicago is that there is always a basic assumption that everyone, regardless of affiliation, is adding to a collective scene and that their contribution to that scene is important.

I’ve seen this tolerance firsthand numerous times, but I really put it to the test in 2004 when I created an organization called Accessible Contemporary Music. “Accessible” isn’t exactly a hip word now, but it was practically obscene back then. I got a decent amount of crap for it, naturally, but when leaders of Chicago’s new music community got together to decide how we could all best cooperate to mutual benefit, there was a seat for me at the table. I’m not entirely certain that this would have happened in another city. It’s not that Chicago is more enlightened than other places, it’s just that all voices are welcome as it continues this interesting search for a collective identity.

It’s not that Chicago is more enlightened than other places, it’s just that all voices are welcome as it continues this interesting search for a collective identity.

When we sat down in the basement of Symphony Center in 2005 to formulate what would eventually become New Music Chicago, interestingly enough most of us at that time did not know there had been a previous organization with the same name that flourished in the 1980s under the leadership of Patricia Morehead (who was also the artistic director of CUBE, Chicago’s second contemporary music ensemble) and George Flynn (whose Chicago Soundings series started at the Green Mill jazz club in the 1970s and continues today).  Ours was not a conscious attempt to resurrect the former organization, but an example of the city’s latent urge toward unity manifesting itself through us. To paraphrase Voltaire, if New Music Chicago didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it.

Chicago in many ways is a kind of self-contained universe, a place for artists to thrive by turning inward. I believe that in many ways this is because of the vitality of the ubiquitous storefront theater scene.  If you live anywhere in the city, it’s unlikely you live more than a few blocks from a small theater.  But the small theaters get big reviews every bit as often as the Goodman or Steppenwolf do, and the small storefronts are widely considered to be the place for innovative, edgy productions. The goal isn’t to send a production to New York or London, the focus is instead on the work itself.

You can see this in the visual arts as well. Chicago’s most important art movement may be the Chicago Imagists, which includes several interestingly named sub movements like the Hairy Who, the Non-Plussed Some, and the Monster Roster.  Most of these artists never left Chicago and, as such, they created unique local styles and are kind of the epitome of a bonded group of distinct individuals.   They represent the proud Chicago tradition of loudly not caring about the goings-on in other cities, and they cite staying in Chicago as having given them the freedom to develop according to their innermost desires rather than larger trends.

So it’s not all that surprising that, as the contemporary music scene in Chicago has begun to really thrive, it has grown up along similar lines.  Though the downtown Loop was once the go-to concert destination, performances now frequently happen throughout the city, mirroring the storefront theater trend. Over the years, as new ensembles have sprung up like musical weeds, I’ve seen shows in former mansions, furniture stores, cabaret clubs, jazz clubs, empty storefronts—even an empty restaurant that had gone out of business.

Chicago may never find the unity that it’s searching for, but the search has created a unique arts scene where its individuals can flourish and be truly creative.

When Ralph Shapey moved to Chicago in 1964 his colleagues widely assumed he was moving to a contemporary music desert but, even assuming that were true at the time, it’s certainly not the case anymore. Composers and performers are moving to the city every bit as much to be part of the scene as to go to school, and those who move to the city for their studies are increasingly sticking around after they finish.  In just the last five years, the number of emails I get about new music performances has increased three-fold and it shows no sign of stopping. The range of music being performed is dizzying.

Ear Taxi is the most ambitious attempt yet to bring all of this disparate activity and unruly DIY individualism under one roof, and the audacity is something at which Sandburg, Hecht, and Burnham would have nodded approvingly—probably through a thick haze of cigar smoke.  Chicago may never find the unity that it’s searching for, but the search has created a unique arts scene where its individuals can flourish and be truly creative.


Seth Boustead

Seth Boustead is a composer, radio host, arts manager and writer, concert producer, in-demand speaker and visionary with the goal of revolutionizing how and where classical music is performed and how it is perceived by the general public.

Whose Classical Music? Assumptions and Representation in Online Participatory Projects

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

On February 12, 2016, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir posted a call for submissions to its new “virtual choir” version of George Friderich Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. The virtual choir format (first used by composer Eric Whitacre in his various “Virtual Choir” projects from 2009 to 2013), encourages participants from around the world to submit videos of themselves singing an individual part of a choral composition. Organizers then compile these individual parts into a final audio/video track to form the full choir, often accompanied by impressive animations that emphasize the projects’ remarkable accomplishment of allowing participants to “sing together” even as they do not inhabit the same physical space.

As a form of religious outreach, the Mormon Tabernacle virtual choir had clear ideological implications, many of which were easily read from its original call for participants. The project’s website explicitly encouraged the unification of Christians across denominational boundaries and featured scriptural quotation from the Book of Mormon explaining the spiritual benefits of the act of singing together. The final video—featuring footage from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir alongside clips submitted online—was released on March 13, 2016, just in time to serve its stated purpose as an Easter celebration. These factors clearly delineated the project’s boundaries, as a space meant for the involvement of Christians (and, implicitly, not for people belonging to other faith traditions) and more specifically as a site in which to assert interdenominational unity.

What I want to discuss here, in contrast, are cases in which the ideology behind the use of music derived from a Western classical tradition might not be so immediately evident. Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir performances are only a few of a number of online projects organized in roughly the past decade that use online technologies to call for general participation in classical music making. These projects range from orchestras arranging performances with interactive Twitter components to even more active roles, such as contests in which the winner has a musical composition exhibited (as in the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin’s 2013 and 2016 contests to remix Dvořák and Bruckner) or performs in some capacity themselves (as in David Lang’s 2011 competition to find a featured performer to play his piece wed at (le) poisson rouge).

Such projects often feature calls to—and claims of having achieved—more actively participatory and widespread inclusion, opening up the world of classical music to new groups that might not have had the chance to engage before. But as recent social discussions about diversity, representation, and inclusion in American mainstream culture make clear (think about critiques of the racial distribution of nominees at this year’s Grammys and Oscars, for example, as just one instance of longer term concerns), inclusivity is a tricky subject. Not everyone agrees about what it looks like or how to make it happen. And although it is difficult to start more clearly defining what inclusivity truly is, why it might be desirable, and how it might be achieved, it is an important conversation to have. In the realm of classical music in America, this need is just as strong and carries a great deal of contemporary and historical significance.[1]

Who is meant to participate, who can participate, who ends up participating, and what does their participation mean?

By taking a critical eye to the claims and hidden pitfalls of online classical music projects, I hope to advance a conversation of importance to all music descended from Western European art music traditions—today, in the 21st century, whose music is this? Or, to pose this question less polemically: Who is meant to participate, who can participate, who ends up participating, and what does their participation mean? This issue often comes up in discussions of audience outreach and anxieties about the future of classical music, and is certainly worth further consideration.

I want to be clear that I assume good intentions on the parts of project organizers, even as I critique some of the ways in which these projects are carried out and the ideologies that underlie them. These issues are difficult to navigate from an organizational perspective, and they are ones that I am sensitive to (and vulnerable myself to criticism for) as someone who organizes classical music concerts and who works as an educator in my own community. At the same time, good intentions are usually only the first step toward addressing social issues—it is also necessary to be open to criticism and to make changes.


Let’s begin with a very brief detour into the world of art history and criticism, where participation has—at least over the past twenty years or so—been the topic of some debate.

Curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud invented the term “relational aesthetics” in a series of essays later published in a book of that name, in response to a trend he observed in visual and conceptual art of the 1990s. With this term, he enthusiastically described a socially engaged approach to art, attentive to the relationship between itself and its viewers and concerned with creating works that Bourriaud characterizes as “convivial, user-friendly…festive, collective and participatory.” For example:

Rirkrit Tiravanija organizes a dinner in a collector’s home, and leaves him all the ingredients required to make a Thai soup…In a Copenhagen square, Jes Brinch and Henrik Plenge Jacobsen install an upturned bus that causes a rival riot in the city. Christine Hill works as a check-out assistant in a supermarket, organizes a weekly gym workshop in a gallery…Pierre Huyghe summons people to a casting session, makes a TV transmitter available to the public, and puts a photograph of laborers at work on view just a few yards from the building site. (Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 7–8)

As one response to Bourriaud and his supporters, art historian Claire Bishop has claimed in her book Artificial Hells that such a celebration of participation above all other characteristics of art creates two false categories: the passive, encompassing activities more commonly associated with gallery culture such as observing and contemplating; and the active, considered more hands-on, engaging, and inclusive of the audience. Bishop is concerned that this division serves to reinforce deep-seated classist perceptions in the art world, under which the upper class owns (both in a figurative sense, or intellectually, and a quite literal one) the space of the gallery. The middle class, under this model, is allowed the mental leisure and capacity to interpret and consider art, and the lower class is thought capable of only relating to art physically, rather than conceptually or aesthetically.

Class—or at least, access to resources, cultural exposure, and training, in a broad sense—is also at the root of assumptions about who belongs in the cultural sphere of Western classical music, as well as its various new music offshoots. For classical music in America today, obsessively concerned with its own seemingly dwindling capacity to speak to contemporary society, it comes perhaps as no surprise that a participatory message would be appealing. In the past eight years or so, orchestras and ensembles across the US have experimented with audience engagement over Twitter and other social media, including by encouraging audience members to live-tweet performances from inside concert halls or interact before and after concerts using particular hashtags or prompts. The Philadelphia Orchestra has developed its own app that allows audience members to follow live program notes on their phones during performances, originally pairing the service with shorter concerts at a reduced ticket price. Some have gone further still: in 2013, the Houston Symphony and local classical station KUHA sponsored an “air-conducting” contest in which participants uploaded videos of themselves conducting along to recordings of classical compositions. The winner of the competition (eventually announced as seven-year-old Jonathan Okensiuk, who had already achieved viral video fame at the age of three for a video of him conducting along to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) was given the opportunity to lead the symphony in a live concert rendition of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Online projects open up new forms of musical participation to people who would normally take part only as audience members.

Although the social and economic issues vary by region and nation, orchestras and organizations outside of the US have also experimented with online projects that open up new forms of musical participation to people who would normally take part only as audience members. In addition to the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin remix competitions mentioned above, projects like the Tweetfonie (2014, Anhaltische Philharmonic Orchestra Dessau) and the World Online Orchestra / Open Orchestra (2013–, Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra) have allowed participants to experiment with manipulating musical materials themselves. Additionally, a number of standalone projects have explicitly aimed for international reach, even as much of their user base has eventually come from the US and Europe. These include Whitacre’s Virtual Choir (2009–2013) and the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (2009/2011).

The use of internet platforms as content generators for musical projects indisputably removes a number of restrictions to participation. Most obviously, physical distance becomes irrelevant: anyone who has technological access can participate. This raises the issue, then, of who does have access. To prepare for, record, and upload a video requires internet access in order to read the instructions, watch a conducting video, view a score or hear a recording (unless these are available to a participant offline), and eventually upload the finished recording. Even with rapidly advancing global internet connectivity, this ability cannot be universally assumed. Some countries have much wider internet availability and usage than others, and this can vary significantly depending on regional infrastructure.

And access depends on more than the ability to get online. Participants also need recording equipment that will capture audio and (usually) video to the standards of the project organizers, as well as the ability to use this equipment without disrupting or being disrupted by others and with a minimum of background noise. At an even more basic level, they have to have heard about the project in the first place, either online through a website, social network, or email list, or through an offline network (for example, as a participant in a traditional community music ensemble). They must be technologically fluent enough to go through the process of creating a video and uploading it, or they must know someone else who can assist them.

Beyond the issue of access is that of representation and inclusion. Western classical music has its own particular set of aesthetic values—simply put, it’s supposed to sound good. A particular set of musical skills is highly valued within the classical world—technical ability, intonation, and tone among them. With the exception of art music contexts that consciously reject these ideas (for example, the Portsmouth Sinfonia, whose members played instruments on which they were untrained to the best of their abilities and whose recordings now live on in viral internet infamy as “orchestra fails”), these values are generally held by classical music performers and ensembles and are required for a musical project to be commercially viable under that genre. Most of the organizations and individuals that host online classical participatory projects therefore have a great deal at stake in presenting something that fits into these aesthetics, because they participate in a system that values this type of skill both intellectually and financially.

Perhaps as a way of compensating for anxieties about not being able to offer the same standard of musical skill as a professional ensemble, online musical projects often justify their value by presenting themselves as performing a type of social work, first and foremost by claiming to increase or broaden participation in classical music traditions. The most common way of providing evidence of increased participation is by emphasizing participants’ geographic locations. This is often done implicitly in smaller projects, especially through reference in publicity materials to participants from the most unusual (or, less charitably, “exotic”) locales. In some of the largest online projects, on the other hand, geographic distribution has been more thoroughly documented and presented. Both the YouTube Symphony Orchestra and Whitacre’s Virtual Choir have emphasized the geographic distribution of their participants, albeit with some distortion. For the 2011 YTSO, ten of the live orchestra’s participants were interviewed in professionally produced “Meet the Orchestra” videos; out of ten videos, two of the members profiled were from the United States.[2] But 42 of the 101 total participants in the orchestra had their home country listed by the ensemble as the US—proportionally, twice as many as were profiled in the video series. Whitacre has emphasized details about geographic diversity for nearly all of his Virtual Choir projects. His 2011 video for Sleep, for example, opens by stating that more than 2000 performances have been submitted from 58 countries, and the names of several of these countries feature heavily in the video’s graphics. The first visible country name is Kazakhstan (0:17, 1 participant), and the names of Croatia (0:51, 1 participant), Sri Lanka (2:32 and 2:51, 3 participants), and Costa Rica (2:40, 1 participant) are prominently visible alongside countries with far more participants, such as the US, the UK, and Canada.[3] The graphics obscure the fact that 1149 videos—more than half—were submitted from the United States alone, and that 80% of the videos come from the five countries with the most submissions (US, UK, Canada, Germany, and Australia).

In other cases, organizers have emphasized aspects of participants’ identity such as physical (dis)ability—for example when Whitacre shared in an article on the Huffington Post that the Virtual Choir had allowed a legally blind participant to sing in a choir for the first time because he had never before been able to see a conductor. The very young and the very old also tend to be singled out as exceptional. The emphasis on youth in particular is striking, with younger participants often presented prominently as if to assuage common fears about aging classical music audiences. For example, a post published on the Houston Symphony blog by associate conductor Robert Franz praises seven-year-old air-conducting contest winner Jonathan Okseniuk as a modern-day (child prodigy) Mozart. Franz expresses shock about Okseniuk’s familiarity with the piece that he conducted prior to the performance (Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”) the fact that he “not only imitated what he saw and heard, but he internalized it and understood it.” The post’s representation of Okseniuk’s conducting performance hinges entirely on presenting his musical capacity in the context of his age as particularly exceptional. It’s striking to imagine that there are very few circumstances in which it would not seem entirely offensive to make this comment about a person of any other age. But age ranges are useful for demonstrating the broadness of project boundaries, as in the current description of the Sleep Virtual Choir, which claims to include people from “all walks of life, including 9 year olds to senior citizens.”

As demonstrated in all of these cases, the desire to justify online projects through their social functions often results in seeking out “unexpected” project participants, leading to the creation publicity materials that reduce participants’ identities to the ways in which they lie outside of an imagined, presumed audience for classical music. David Lang once said in an interview that he saw his piano competition as “the ability for me to date more people.” When Lang points out that he’s going to make new friends, as when he claims in his announcement video that participation “might be a great opportunity for you to get your music seen” by his panel of expert judges (Andrew Zolinsky, Lisa Moore, Jeremy Denk, and Vicky Chow), he points out not only the insularity of his own existing music community, but a preexisting conception about who doesn’t already belong. In the case of Lang’s competition, this imagined group of people wants to belong, knows most if not all of his judges’ names, and is skilled but not particularly well connected. In other cases, the presumed Other seems to have even less exposure to the cultural and social worlds of classical music—it has to be brought to them, and who better to do it than the organizers of an online project? In all of the above cases, the implication is that online projects do important work by bringing classical music to people who haven’t gotten to experience it previously. But in all of the above cases, the oversights about the real requirements for participation and the casual assumptions made about participants arguably distract from actually carrying out the work that is claimed to be done—that is, from finding creative ways to engage new audiences in a thoughtful and responsible way.


What does this all mean for the future of participatory projects within the new music community? Does it mean that we write them off as failures of past project organizers, or that we abandon participatory models because they are necessarily flawed?

I hope not. I hope it means that composers, performers, and the teams they work with to realize participatory projects will think carefully about who they’re working to include (and who they’re not working to include)—and, importantly, that this will be reflected responsibly in the claims they make about their projects. There is often a fine line between using participatory ideals to help provide community cohesion and painting one’s project as inclusive in order to garner prestige and support while casually allowing the sociopolitical dynamics typically at play in determining cultural participation to continue as usual—but better defining that line is an important task.


Joanna Helms

Joanna Helms

Joanna Helms is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of North Carolina. Her research interests generally center around issues of dissemination, participation, and collaboration in sound and music technologies. She is currently beginning a dissertation on early electronic music and sound art at the Studio di Fonologia, a former research studio associated with Italian state radio and television network Rai.



1. The performance and values of classical music in the US have long been associated with uplift narratives and the American (European-centered) cultural elite. This can be seen in diverse instances throughout the nation’s history, from the establishment of singing schools in New England to teach the right kinds of both musical and social values, to twentieth-century classical radio programming like Walter Damrosch’s Music Appreciation Hour (1928–42), which aimed to educate its listening audiences (especially children) in “good music,” thereby elevating their cultural taste.


2. These videos (titled “Meet [orchestra member’s name]”) are still featured on the YouTube Symphony’s page and can be viewed at this link. I am grateful to Sarah Carsman for sharing her research on the YTSO (in which she points out this and several other marketing strategies) with me.


3. Statistics about participants are taken from http://ericwhitacre.com/the-virtual-choir/history/vc2-sleep.

Queer and Loathing in Las Vegas: Performing Community in Hagen’s Vera

Vera of Las Vegas
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

Opera is not readily known for portraying inclusion; while many works perform some kind of exoticism seen mostly through colonialist lenses, the locales reflect a mostly Western world and the characters are generally confined to some kind of heteronormative, European sameness. Opera does have its moments; othering, mis-gendering, and bodily discrepancies do appear, mostly in the guise of the otherworldly or magical, in the strange bodies of the castrato or the playful deceit of the trouser role. However, these attempts at difference do not look to address inclusion. If anything, these bodies and voices are isolated and marginalized, if even human. Aside from these instances, the typical operatic character framework does not present difference of a sexual, gendered, or racial kind.

New stories are being told and the medium by which composers can often portray the non-heteronormative, the queer, the ethnic, and otherwise unseen is through the voice.

The first half of the 20th century saw the demise of the great operatic heroine and out of the fracture arose a focus on male roles, ensemble casts, and female roles singing in a completely new way. And as opera became a more racially integrated affair, new disconnects emerged while similarly allowing for new audiences to see their bodies presented as operatic vehicles. The combination of extended vocal techniques, technology, and radical staging stood as an operatic representation of a seemingly more progressive society. Opera and contemporary culture, for example, have come drastically close to each other in works like Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, and Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna. New stories are being told and the medium by which composers can often portray the non-heteronormative, the queer, the ethnic, and otherwise unseen is through the voice.

Shequida Hall

Shequida Hall (Vera); Center for Contemporary Opera, New York City. Photo by Mel Rosenthal

Daron Hagen’s 2003 opera Vera of Las Vegas stands as a meeting of both character and vocal difference set in the underbelly of Las Vegas—a world of strippers, drag queens, INS agents, and gamblers. The opera is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-lite, recalling the structure of Weill’s Mahagonny-Singspiel. The eponymous character is sung by a countertenor, a voice type that is still integrating itself into current performance practice and repertoire. The operatic countertenor is a construct of the late 20th century, one that is now synonymous with historically informed operatic performance practice. Recent operas that use countertenors, such as those by Glass, Adès, and Benjamin, exploit the fantastical, comic, and regal attributes associated with countertenor performance—a recalling of those otherworldly bodies from 18th-century Italian opera. In Hagen’s opera, however, we see something quite different. Here, a male countertenor sings in drag, performing a kind of inverse trouser role. This is most notable when examining the opera’s premiere which featured opera singer and drag artist Shequida singing the role of Vera Allemagne.

Vera herself is a drag queen, complicating matters further as the type of drag vocal performance to which we might be accustomed—where a drag queen either lip syncs or sings “as a woman”—does not seem to translate onto the operatic stage. The Lacanian disassociation of voice from body that often happens by audiences attending opera is further removed here: not only do we not recognize the voice, we do not recognize the body from which it comes. Just as Strauss’s Octavian makes us question exactly who we are listening to in Der Rosenkavalier, Vera’s many gendered levels obfuscates any attempt at locating an Ur-voice or Ur-body. The character of Vera is African-American, an important aspect to the narrative of the story. The singers who have performed Vera have been primarily countertenors of color including Brian Asawa and Eduardo Lopez de Casas, and in his program notes, Hagen compares Vera to Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, conjuring up images of black bodies performing a kind of transcendent yet palpable otherness. While all of these bodily markers may seem defining, the separation that still occurs with the presentation of the high male voice gives the role an emptiness onto which several bodies can be mapped. Hagen notes that this quality made the role “viable for many more audiences.”[1]

Vera and Doll

Brian Azawa (Vera), Heidi Moss (Doll); West Edge Opera; Oakland, CA. Photo by J Buschbaum

Visibly and dramatically, there is always that flash of maleness, both for the characters within the opera and for the audience as well. We know that Vera is more than she seems. But what some would call the inherent vocal drag nature of the countertenor—a term that musicologist Jelena Novak applies to the castrato—locks the character into a state of femininity, however altered that state might be. This is reinforced dramatically when Vera participates in the act of heteronormative marriage, where she stands in as a bride wed to a male groom. The groom’s awareness of Vera’s double self seems of little issue, reinforcing the female role in this performative marital act for the audience. But despite this final act, Vera’s character is different, and she proclaims as much in her last aria. Her references to Aschenbach and Tadzio, Abelard and Héloïse, display the types of love stories in which Vera recognizes herself, much to her chagrin. The plausibly more well-known relationship of Aschenbach and Tadzio from Thomas Mann’s novella Der Tod in Venedig and popularized in Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice, recalls to those in the know complicated constructions of desire, masculinity, and ephebophilia. For Abelard, the 12th-century French philosopher, and Héloïse, the young French girl of letters, the reference conjures up the secret and illicit, the sacred, profane, mystical, as well as tragic. Vera’s previous encounters with men have placed her in the role of Tadzio and Héloïse, an image she actively denounces while fighting against the realization that this might indeed be part of her truth. She is both normative and non-normative, male and female, empowered and marginalized. And just as those names carry meaning for both Vera and the listening audience, so does her own, as pointed out by John Redmond.[2] Her surname, Loman, connects her back to Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman; she is both the seller and the experience to be sold. She exists as the liminality through which anything is possible.

Catchalls

Catchalls; Opera Theater Ireland, Dublin. Photo courtesy Opera Theater

The ability of contemporary opera to portray radical bodily performances, rather than use race, gender, and voice to uphold ingrained operatic tropes, allows access for underrepresented groups to see themselves depicted on stage. And though, like Mahagonny, Vera presents underbelly and camp, the work is an operatic offshoot of other theatrical arts that present counterculture performance. Vera is a somewhat extreme example—one can look to the male homosociality of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick as another example of the performing of hidden communities—but it identifies the power of the voice-body construct in opera and its ability to make opera a mirror of a more contemporary audience.


Imani Mosley

Imani Mosley is a bassoonist and Ph.D. student in musicology at Duke University, specializing in mid-20th century British and American Music, opera, and the music of Benjamin Britten. Her dissertation focuses on the queering of heteronormative operatic tropes in Britten’s mid-century operas and the reception history surrounding their premieres.



1. Daron Hagen, “Vera of Las Vegas: Evolution of a Cult Opera,” https://youtu.be/hGGp5Ko8vRo.


2. John Redmond, “Distrusting the Self,” The Poetry Ireland Review, 71 (2001), 52-57. “For Vera Loman, a cross-dressing lapdancer, nomen est omen … Vera is a seller, in this case of his gender. He/she, like the opera’s setting, embodies the consumerism at the heart of American society; his is a character available for consumption by the other characters; his is an absence of identity, an emptiness reflected by the kitsch casino environment.” (first italics Redmond’s, second italics mine)