Tag: composer advocacy

A Few Things You Might Not Know About Vivian Perlis (1928-2019)

Two caucasian women and a man at a concert

Most NewMusicBox readers probably already know a few things about Vivian Perlis. She founded Yale’s Oral History of American Music (OHAM) after interviewing dozens of people who knew and worked with Charles Ives. Using those interviews, she wrote the award-winning book, Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History. She later conducted interviews with some of America’s most prominent composers, including extensive work with Aaron Copland. Their interviews became the basis for his autobiography, which Vivian co-authored. She co-produced documentaries about John Cage, Eubie Blake, Copland, and Ives. Musicologists Carol Oja and Judith Tick commented that Perlis was “an intrepid chronicler of the American musical experience and has done so by honoring the voices of those whose story she tells. She has accomplished this as an amiable powerhouse, fusing the roles of scholar, archivist, administrator, fundraiser, film-maker, and writer—not to mention wife, mother, and professional harpist. In the process, she established Oral History of American Music . . . forging a hybrid field and an equally visionary and distinctive professional identity.”

Here, perhaps, are a few things you might not know about Vivian Perlis:

Her career in oral history almost ended before it began.

Vivian was in a serious car accident as a young child. She sustained injuries to her face that required multiple surgeries. Her mother was concerned these injuries might prevent young Vivian from speaking properly. It’s emblematic of Vivian’s determination that she not only spoke, but made a career out of having conversations – and that these recorded conversations contributed mightily to American music history.

She grew up with a Theremin in the house.

Vivian’s father had a wide range of interests and accomplishments. He ran his own company, the Applicator Brush Company and was an inventor who owned a patent related to artist brushes. He played a number of instruments. He made delightful sculptures out of matchsticks. And he became a master of origami. Well before science fiction movies brought the theremin to popular attention, her dad brought one home for the family to play.

She was a master of disguise.

Vivian, a glamorous woman with a keen sense of style, recognized she needed to tone it down.

Her first interviewees for the Ives Project were some aged, conservative people in Danbury, Connecticut. Vivian, a glamorous woman with a keen sense of style, recognized she needed to tone it down with these Yankees. She wore white gloves and no makeup, and she forced herself to drink tea rather than her preferred coffee.

She played a gig with Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys at the Electric Circus in the East Village around 1971.

Vivian was an accomplished harpist who played with the New Haven Symphony. When the country rock band Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys needed a harp for one of their pieces, Vivian got the gig. She performed at the legendary hippie haven, Electric Circus, wearing an outlandish mini dress and a flowing hair piece. She probably left her white gloves in Danbury with the Ives interviewees!

She met Mel Brooks, who had a big crush on her.

Vivian would regale us with the tale of meeting Mel Brooks when she was in Los Angeles. Apparently, they hit it off. Surely Mel recognized Vivian’s ready sense of humor. She mentioned that Mel would call every so often, and if her husband, Sandy, answered, he’d berate Sandy for staying married to Vivian when she was indeed Mel’s true love. It seemed all in good fun. Anyway, Mel Brooks didn’t stand a chance. Vivian and Sandy were a dazzling couple. By all accounts, these two very good-looking, intelligent, and cultured people shared a story-book romance and marriage.

She foraged for mushrooms with John Cage.

Cage was one of Vivian’s favorite composers.

Cage was one of Vivian’s favorite composers. She befriended him and documented his work at a time when it was more often embraced by artists and choreographers than by musicians. While making the engaging documentary, I Have Nothing to Say and I am Saying It, Vivian traveled to France where she filmed Cage’s hunt for mushrooms. She described in mouth-watering detail the gourmet meal they shared after presenting Cage’s bounty to the local chef in Fountainbleu.

She managed OHAM with kindness and compassion.

We hired a young mother to work at OHAM. One afternoon, she sat down on the office couch and fell deeply asleep. I surreptitiously nudged her, trying to coax her awake before Vivian, the boss, discovered her slumbering employee. Before I succeeded, Vivian noticed, and said, “Poor thing. She’s got three young kids at home. She must be tired. Let her sleep.”

Another person was hired for a job requiring a great deal of flexibility and multi-tasking. It quickly became apparent that this person was not at all suited to such work. Vivian found a way to restructure everyone’s assignments and to find a job that was perfectly suited to this employee’s skills and temperament. Would this be the approach to management taught at business school? I don’t know, but I do know that it inspired fierce loyalty and a highly productive work force.

She was a voracious reader.

Vivian was a fast and voracious reader. One of the last books she read was John Harbison’s What Do We Make of Bach? It sat on her bedside next to The Daily Zen Journal, a book written by her grandson, Charlie Ambler. And it was near Richard Powers’s The Overstory, a great yet demanding book she purchased when well into her final illness. Powers’s moving and ambitious work, The Time of Our Singing, was one of Vivian’s favorite novels.

She envisioned herself in service to the composers she interviewed.

An example of this would be her extensive work with Aaron Copland, a gay man born in 1900 who had been persecuted by Joseph McCarthy. Understandably, Copland refrained from discussing his sexual orientation in the interviews. It would have been unthinkable and somewhat tawdry for someone in his position to discuss this matter publicly at that time. The Copland/Perlis autobiography, which was based on these interviews, was later criticized for this omission — an easy judgment to make decades after the interviews, when societal norms and gay pride had changed the way the world viewed homosexuality. Vivian was aware of Copland’s homosexuality, but she made the hard choice to refrain from this subject and stood by her decision to serve the composer’s wishes.

She was open to new adventures.

At an age when many are contemplating a quiet retirement in Florida, Vivian joined her longtime friend, Wes York, and his husband, Bob Scrofani, in traveling far and wide to music festivals, art galleries, botanical gardens, and parties. I joined them for a meal before a Composer’s Portrait concert at Miller Theater. The fabulous food, fine wine, and animated conversation inspired my exclamation, “This is such convivial company!” Without missing a beat, Bob replied, “That’s because we’re the ConVivians!”

She recognized the magic around her.

Vivian savored experiences, had a great appetite for enjoyment, and saw the magic around her.

She returned from a concert and gushed about the marvels of this particular performance: “Such artistry! Such thrilling and innovative compositions! An unforgettable evening!” A colleague later mentioned that he went to the same concert, and it was only okay. I always felt that these alternate realities revealed a lot about each person. Vivian had a zest for life and a lively imagination. She savored experiences, had a great appetite for enjoyment, and saw the magic around her. Wouldn’t we all prefer to go through life that way? Those who were privileged to know her or to read her scholarly work and insightful interviews continue to benefit from her embrace of joy, culture, and good living.

Vivian Perlis outside a building at Yale.

In search of Musical Integration Between the United States and the Rest of the Americas

Translated into English by Clara Schuhmacher

(Ed. Note: The original Spanish article is available here.)

A photo of the street sign showing the intersection of Grand Street and Avenue of the Americas with a rusty plaque of the USA on top

In 1945, Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue was officially renamed Avenue of the Americas to honor “Pan-American ideals and principles.” The rusty USA plaque atop the street sign in this photo taken in March 2015 on a street that everyone has reverted to calling “Sixth Avenue” once again is a reminder of an earlier era. Photo by Frank J. Oteri

In early 1963, Leonard Bernstein appeared on American television with a program from his popular “Young People’s Concerts” series. This particular episode was titled “The Latin American Spirit,” and during its first few moments, the charismatic conductor/composer attempted to explain to the audience that in each “civilized” place on earth, there were composers putting notes on staff paper. In other words, composers did not exist exclusively in developed countries. Of course, in those days, South America was something of a mystery to the everyday American, many of whom probably imagined it as place full of jungles, with Buenos Aires or Río as the only large cities.

But: what was happening with music during this time? With American music? This was another matter. This was an era of interaction and dialogue between American composers and their counterparts to the south. South American musicians traveled often to the United States with the support of grants and other funding, and Aaron Copland travelled several times to South America, not only to conduct his own music, but also to get to know and work with composers, which in many cases led to Copland extending invitations to these composers to visit the United States as his guest. Many composers relocated to the United States as a result, such as the Chilean Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919). In a splendid interview with Orrego-Salas, which was published here on NewMusicBox last April, the aging composer recalled this very era.

It is a different situation in 2014.

Today, across South America, one finds dozens of tourists from all over the world (including many from the United States) who wish to explore the richness of the region. It is now clear to these tourists that South America is not all impenetrable jungles and humble villages. There is great geographic and cultural diversity, and we can say that the Americas are an entire world onto themselves. The problem is that, within the world of notated music, the situation is the opposite. The era described above seem part of a distant past, one in which there existed a greater connection between the composers working in this part of the globe, and their colleagues working in the vibrant American scene. In fact, we can no longer talk about Latin America as a single unit, given the lack of information that exists between its different countries. For example, in Chile, we are not informed about what is happening in Ecuador or in Colombia with respect to their musical life. Only occasionally do we pay attention to our neighbors in Argentina, and only because of their proximity. The important role Buenos Aires plays in the development of new music does not encourage us to seek them out.

What happened?

One might think that the globalization that governs today’s world would have brought closer together the composers of the thirty-five countries that make up the Americas, but in reality, connections exist primarily between neighboring countries, and even then it is limited. We could look for reasons to explain this situation. It occurs to me that the dictatorships that proliferated in the area beginning in the 1960s, and with which the United States always had a complex relationship, might be a reason for the loss of connection. However, there is no value to figuring out the cause; rather, it is better to consider how we might reconstruct the cultural-musical bridge that once united the United States with the countries to its south, from Mexico to Chile and Argentina.

Orrego-Salas was not the only South American composer to settle in the United States. And, surely, there are American composers who are interested in, and feel a certain affinity for, the culture and music of a given Latin American country. (As an aside, I do not particularly like using this term. Why make such a categorical distinction between countries that speak Spanish and Portuguese, and those that speak English?) During my career as a music journalist, I have studied the history of composition in the United States, its contributions and incredible diversity (and originality), and I have determined that an important characteristic of American composers is their curiosity. This is something that I have verified in person during my visits to the United States (in 2009 and 2014), and during meetings, conversations and interviews with American composers.

Of course, I can’t speak on behalf of the entire Spanish-speaking world in the Americas, only on behalf of Chile, the country where I live and work. I can say that here, as in the United States, there exists a diverse group of composers. And I can say that here, musical curiosity also abounds, as does imagination. Americans will find in equal measure both aesthetics that are different from theirs, as well as composers for whom they feel an affinity. And, Chile is only one of the thirty countries that form that which we insist on calling “Latin America.”

All of which is to say that I believe it would behoove us to reconnect the musical world of the United States with the rest of the countries that make up the continent. This website has been a constant platform for reflection and discussion around new music, and I believe it is the best place to put out this call to action. A call to generate spaces for our composers to discuss and exchange ideas, and to come to know the music others are making. Composers do not live only to compose; many work in institutions associated with music, and through these we will be able to work to realize new encounters. Ultimately, the idea would be to extend invitations on behalf of festivals, conferences and other activities related to new music, both on the part of Americans to composers from other countries, as from the part of all of us to our colleagues in the north.

In South America we still have much to do to disseminate and protect new music. However, we will be able to make significant progress if we help each other. We need to ensure that today’s music is interpreted, heard and appreciated. If an entire continent rallies around this vision, we will succeed.

Álvaro Gallegos holding a copy of the score of Edgard Varèse's orchestral composition Amériques.

Álvaro Gallegos is a Chilean music journalist based in Santiago, Chile. He currently works at Radio Beethoven, where he is editor of its website. He also collaborates on newspapers, magazines, has delivered lectures, and soon will debut as a record producer.

En busca de una integración musical entre Estados Unidos y el resto de las Américas

A photo of the street sign showing the intersection of Grand Street and Avenue of the Americas with a rusty plaque of the USA on top

(Ed. Note: An English translation of this article is available here.)

A comienzos de 1963, Leonard Bernstein apareció en la televisión estadounidense para uno de sus populares programas de la serie Young People’s Concerts. El capítulo se llamaba “The Latin American Spirit”, y en los primeros minutos, el carismático director/compositor trataba de explicar a la audiencia que en cada lugar civilizado de la Tierra había gente poniendo puntos en un pentagrama. En otras palabras, que los compositores no son algo exclusivo de países desarrollados. Por supuesto que en esa época, Sudamérica era una especie de “tierra misteriosa” para el estadounidense común, que probablemente la imaginaba como un lugar lleno de junglas, con posiblemente Buenos Aires o Río como las únicas grandes ciudades.

Pero, ¿qué pasaba en el mundo musical de aquel momento? ¿El mundo musical estadounidense? Ese era otro asunto. Era una época en que había mucha interacción entre compositores americanos y aquellos provenientes del lado sur del continente. Músicos latinoamericanos viajaban a los Estados Unidos gracias a fondos y becas, y Aaron Copland viajó varias veces a Sudamérica, no solo para dirigir su propia música, sino también para conocer compositores, dialogar con ellos, y en muchos casos esto llevó a invitaciones de su parte para visitar los Estados Unidos. Hubo compositores que en efecto se radicaron allí, como el chileno Juan Orrego-Salas (n.1919). En una espléndida entrevista con Orrego-Salas publicada acá en NewMusicBox el abril pasado, el viejo compositor dio cuenta precisamente de aquella época.

En 2014 las cosas son diferentes.

En cualquier lugar de Sudamérica uno se encuentra con decenas de turistas de todo el planeta (incluyendo muchos estadounidenses), que buscan explorar las riquezas de la zona. Ya está claro para ellos que no todo es selvas impenetrables, ni pequeños poblados de madera. Hay una diversidad geográfica y cultural gigantesca, y es que podemos decir que las Américas son todo un mundo. El problema es que en el medio de la música de tradición escrita, también debemos hablar a la inversa. Lejanos parecen aquellos tiempos descritos más arriba, en que existía una mayor conexión entre los compositores de este lado del globo y sus colegas trabajando en la sólida y saludable escena estadounidense. Incluso no podemos hablar de Latinoamérica como una entidad unitaria, ya que existe desinformación entre lo que hace un país y otro. En Chile, por ejemplo, no estamos al tanto de lo que sucede en Ecuador o Colombia en cuanto a creación musical, por ejemplo. Solo a veces prestamos atención a nuestros vecinos de Argentina, ya que la cercanía, además de la importancia que tiene Buenos Aires en el cultivo de la nueva música, nos lleva a buscar esa interacción.

¿Qué fue lo que sucedió entonces?

Uno podría pensar que la globalización que rige al mundo de hoy acercó a los compositores de los 35 países que incluye el continente de las Américas, pero hablando en general, la conexión se da principalmente entre países vecinos, y de manera limitada. Podríamos buscar razones para explicar esta situación. Se me ocurre pensar en las dictaduras militares que proliferaron en la zona a partir de los 60, y con las cuales Estados Unidos siempre tuvo una compleja relación, como un motivo que llevó a perder los nexos. Pero no tiene sentido buscar un origen, sino mejor pensar en cómo podemos re-construir ese puente cultural-musical que unía a Estados Unidos con todos los países hacia el sur, desde México hasta Chile y Argentina.

Orrego-Salas no fue el único sudamericano que se asentó en los Estados Unidos. Y por cierto, existen compositores estadounidenses que sienten un interés, una atracción, por la cultura o específicamente la música de algún país de Latinoamérica (y en verdad, no me gusta usar este término, ¿por qué hacer una distinción tan tajante entre los países que hablan español y portugués y los que hablan inglés?) Durante mi carrera como periodista musical, he estudiado la historia de la composición en Estados Unidos, sus aportes y su inconmensurable diversidad (y originalidad), y he podido determinar que una importante característica del compositor estadounidense es su curiosidad. Esto es algo que pude constatar en persona en mis dos visitas a Estados Unidos (en 2009 y 2014), a través de reuniones, conversaciones y entrevistas con compositores americanos.

Por supuesto que yo no puedo hablar por todo el mundo hispano-parlante de las Américas, solo por Chile, el país donde vivo y trabajo. Y puedo decir que aquí, tal como en Estados Unidos, existe una fauna diversa de compositores. Que también abunda la curiosidad musical, así como la imaginación. Y que los estadounidenses pueden encontrar en igual medida visiones estéticas distintas a las suyas y compositores por los que sientan afinidad. Y Chile es sólo un país de los cerca de 30 que componen eso que insisten en llamar “Latinoamérica”.

Por todo lo anterior, pienso que sería bueno buscar un nuevo acercamiento entre el medio musical de Estados Unidos y los distintos países del resto del continente. Este sitio web ha sido una constante plataforma de reflexión y discusión en torno a la nueva música y me pareció el lugar perfecto para hacer este llamado. Un llamado a generar espacios para que nuestros compositores puedan discutir, intercambiar ideas, y por supuesto conocer la música que todos están haciendo. Los compositores generalmente no viven de solamente componer, muchos trabajan en instituciones ligadas a la música, y es a través de estas que se puede luchar por conseguir que estos encuentros se produzcan. La idea es que invitaciones puedan extenderse por parte de festivales, encuentros y otras actividades relacionadas con la nueva música, tanto por parte de los estadounidenses a los compositores de otros países, como de estos hacia sus colegas del norte.

En Sudamérica todavía tenemos demasiado por hacer para difundir y proteger la nueva música. Pero se puede avanzar mucho si nos apoyamos los unos a los otros. Tenemos que lograr que la música de hoy pueda ser interpretada, oída y apreciada. Si todo un continente se une en torno a esa visión, lo podemos conseguir.

Álvaro Gallegos holding a copy of the score of Edgard Varèse's orchestral composition Amériques.

Álvaro Gallegos es un periodista musical chileno radicado en Santiago, Chile. Actualmente trabaja en Radio Beethoven, donde es editor de su sitio web. También colabora en diarios, revistas, ha dictado conferencias y pronto debutará como productor discográfico.

Be the First Follower

For my final post of the month, I present you with the shirtless dancing guy. See you in three minutes:

For fun, let’s think about who the equivalents in the new music world might be.

If you will allow: the shirtless dancing guy represents composers (Actually, partly. We’ll come back to this). He’s genuinely doing what feels natural and at the same time is largely invisible to or ignored by everyone else. Without any followers, that is what he will remain.

Next, you would think that the first follower would be a new music ensemble or performer who specializes in contemporary music. True, new music players and ensembles take risks on composers all the time. But they are expected to do this. It’s their mandate. In fact, these players and ensembles are crucial to making the music happen. Without them there wouldn’t be any new music (or dancing guy) at all. In my analogy then, the dancing guy stands for more than just the composers; he’s the composers and new music players working together as a community.

So. Who is the first follower? How about this: a mainstream player, classical or otherwise, who champions a composer that the rest of the world thinks is off his or her rocker. Music that fits with the audience’s expectations doesn’t count. I’m talking about a performer who usually plays Brahms and takes a big risk by programming something that everyone else thinks is too out there, or even something that most would not even consider to be music at all.

It does happen. Glenn Gould championed Schoenberg. Bernstein conducted Varèse. More recently, Alan Gilbert brought Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre to the New York Philharmonic and here at the 21C festival in Toronto we just heard Marc-André Hamelin play a magical 80 minutes of Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus. These are highly visible musicians who are bravely sticking their necks out. They are not programming what the audience wants, they are programming—as Péter Eötvös puts it—what the audience needs. Contrast this with the classical groups that program rock or pop transcriptions and advertise it as out-of-the-box thinking.

“The first follower is an under-appreciated form of leadership,” says narrator Derek Sivers in the video above. Yes it is, and it’s wonderful that there are awards like the American Composers Forum’s Champions of New Music, especially when those recognized are from the non-new music world, such as Michael Morgan this year.

So, the takeaway is: composers and new music ensembles together are the shirtless dancing guy, so let’s be as visible and easy to follow as possible. Also, to go with the video’s advice, let’s be sure to make it more about the movement than about ourselves. And players: is there someone out there who is creating or playing music that we all need to know about? Maybe you are the first follower who will spark the critical mass.

Not Satisfied

“[T]he composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious,” “advanced,” contemporary music … expends an enormous amount of time and energy … on the creation of a commodity which has little, no, or negative commodity value. The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested … But to assign blame is to imply that this isolation is unnecessary and undesirable. … [T]he composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world … By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.”

—Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares If You Listen?”
(originally published in High Fidelity, February 1958, and available online here)

“The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it grant reward. This is not a boast or a complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that.

—William H. Gass, from “A Revised and Expanded Preface”
(written between May 26, 1976 and January 26, 1981) for his book, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (New Hampshire: Nonpareil, 1981), pp. xviii-xix.

“[E]veryone who is deeply into music has figured out how to download music for free, despite the best efforts of the record business to stop them, and has far, far more music downloaded to their laptops and iPods than they will ever have time to listen to in their entire lives. Gigabytes and gigabytes of meaningless data. These same students invariably report that they have actually listened to all the music they paid for. If a virtual tree falls in a virtual forest and no one opens the file, does it still make a sound?”

—Bob Ostertag, “Why I No Longer Give Away My Music”
(posted at On the Commons, June 6, 2013)

“Perhaps if we dedicate some time to exploring how classical can be listened to just like any other genre of music, we can view it as an art form that’s easier to confront and enjoy. … Your hipster friend might judge you if you’ve never heard of The Decemberists, but I can promise the classical community isn’t so damning.”

—Mary Sydnor, “Classical Covers”
(posted on Drexel University’s online magazine, The Smart Set, June 6, 2013)

Washington D.C.

It was somehow appropriate that the nation’s capital was the meeting place for a group of music creators who hope to create a network that would give them more power.

I was unable to write anything for these pages last Monday since I spent most of the day in Washington, D.C. in a series of meetings with a group of music creators from all over the world. Many of these people had come to the nation’s capital for the General Assembly of CISAC, an International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers, which most of the world’s performing rights societies—including the USA’s (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC)—are members of. This ad-hoc group of music creators met in advance of the “official” CISAC convening essentially to talk about possible common ground between individual music creators worldwide and to look for ways that such a common ground could form the foundation for a viable network. But before I attempt to recount some of the conversations that transpired during the day and to explain a bit more what I believe the goals are of some of the people spearheading this initiative, I want to address the extensive and possibly excessive citations above. I believe these four quotes not only relate to what I witnessed in D.C., but also strike to the heart of what I believe could be a paradigm shift both within the composer community as well as a possible game changer in how we interface with the public at large.

The opening citation herein, by Milton Babbitt from his now infamous 1958 essay (admittedly more infamous for its title, which he did not choose, than for its content which few people who decry it have actually read), came flashing into my mind as I was on a train headed from New York City to the District of Columbia and was attempting to read a book of short stories by William H. Gass. (I was reminded of Gass after reading his introduction to the most recent edition of Robert Coover’s gargantuan McCarthy era parody, The Public Burning. I was actually disappointed that my train journey prevented me from hearing Coover recite some of his prose at a concert of music by Daniel Felsenfeld, who has written extensively for these pages and who had recently set some of Coover’s words to music.) Anyway, I was shocked to discover in Gass’s introduction to his own collection of stories a bleak assessment of the situation of contemporary writers in America that was exactly the same as Babbitt’s view of the role of contemporary composers written a generation earlier. While many readers here might judge the views of both Babbitt and Gass as elitist and disdainful of the general public, I would contend, rather, that both were satisfied with what they perceived as being their role in society, for better or worse, and that nowadays, most composers—at least the most vocal ones, myself included—are not satisfied with such a marginalization of either our own efforts or the efforts of our colleagues.
I’ll go out on a limb here and state that part of what enabled both of them to feel content with their position in the greater society was the belief that there were two kinds of artistic creation—work created for the sake of the art itself and work created for monetary success. In the beginning of the 21st century, there is no clear either/or; everything has become completely blurry from both an aesthetic and an economic standpoint. I would argue that there never were only two “kinds” of music, but now those two larger buckets hold no water. I would also argue that the wall that divided the “two kinds of music” from one another was equally harmful to both sides and that there is no music, no matter how erudite the methods used to formulate it, that cannot be appreciated by a wider audience than it currently has. And aside from the ubiquity of music that is created without the slightest regard to the genre distinctions of earlier eras, the monetization of any kind of music making is still undergoing a massive transitional process. When I used the expression “outside the commercial mainstream” to describe the majority of the music we feature on NewMusicBox, Eddie Schwartz–author of the Pat Benatar’s 1980 blockbuster single “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” president of the Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC), and the prime mover behind a newly formed alliance called Music Creators North America (MCNA)–asked me how much music I thought was commercially viable nowadays.

In an essay I quoted from above, Bob Ostertag, a composer whom I would have clearly placed in the “outside the commercial mainstream” camp once upon a time, explained how he is now forced to charge people for his music just in order to make it available in places where people actually look for music and listen to what they find there. And Mary Sydnor, a 22-year-old contributor to Drexel University’s online magazine and the author of my final citation, opined that the so-called classical music community is actually less elitist than many denizens of pop culture. All of which brings us back to that gathering of music creators in D.C.

DC Music Creators Meeting

Alfons Karabuda (standing on the left side of this photo), President of the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance (ECSA), opens up the meeting of music creators at the House of Sweden in Washington D.C.

Most of the North American attendees I encountered came from, for lack of a better term, the various worlds of “pop” songwriting (country, rock, etc.). But among the Europeans were Martin Q. Larsson, president of the Society of Swedish Composers, a representative organization for composers of “contemporary classical composition,” and Tomislav Saban, secretary general of the Croatian Composers Society (HDS) which organizes the Music Biennale Zagreb. (I initially met Saban, who is also the vice president of the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance, a.k.a. ECSA, during the ISCM’s 2011 World New Music Days which was hosted by the Biennale.) Also present was Lesley Thulani Luthuli, the executive producer for the South African-based Wala Entertainment, who has recently formed the Pan African Composers and Songwriter Alliance (PACSA), a group that will hopefully address the shocking inequities of royalty distribution to African musical creators that I learned about during the IAMIC Conference in Greece last year.

A recurring theme during the talks in D.C. was the need to articulate to the general public the need for music to be disseminated on the basis of fair trade. Some of the people who spoke proposed that music creators should look to the fair trade coffee movement of the past decade as a model for how to proceed. Many coffee drinkers are willing to pay more money for their coffee if they believe that their money will reach the farmers who actually produced the coffee. The creators of the music are like those farmers in that, as Eddie Schwartz put it, “We create the one essential element in an enormous value chain. Creators need to determine fair compensation; it shouldn’t be imposed on us from anyone else.”

Another pressing concern that several attendees spoke about is the need for performing rights organizations (PROs) to be based in the territories where they collect royalties. This is predominantly an issue for Europeans since there is growing momentum for PROs from various EU member states to compete with one another rather than to be the exclusive representative for creators within their own national borders. Opponents of this new business model claim that it will weaken PROs based in smaller countries and as a result will erode the culture of—as well as ultimately hurt the economic livelihood of creators based in—these smaller countries. According to Patrick Ager, secretary general of ECSA, “Exclusive assignment is a necessity of culture in Europe.” Another major issue that was on a lot of people’s minds was the negative impact of direct licensing, specifically the lack of transparency in the negotiation of such licenses. Perhaps no one put it more succinctly than Nashville-based songwriter Rick Carnes, the charismatic president of the Songwriters Guild of America: “If we can’t be a part of the process, then we’re not going to approve the process.” Like a classic labor leader, Carnes pulls no punches. He asserted that “whatever happens to any creator happens to all of us.” Seemingly taking a page from cognitive linguist George Lakoff (author of the provocative Don’t Think of an Elephant), Carnes asserted that the community of music creators needs to come up with its own language rather than argue positions using the frames that other constituencies—whether its technology companies, record labels, publishers, or anyone else—use for them. As he said, “It is important to have arguments based on your principles, not just Google’s principles.”

None of the people I met in D.C. last week were content to create music in a society that doesn’t value it, either aesthetically or economically. We should not be content either.

Ageism in Composer Opportunities

We're Closed

“Sorry We’re Closed” by Tommy Ironic, on Flickr

“We don’t serve that population.”
“You are ineligible and our policy is non-negotiable.”
“If you look elsewhere, I’m sure you’ll find other opportunities.”
These are words no one wants to hear when applying for an opportunity for which they otherwise qualify except for one thing: they are too old. They are, unfortunately, actual responses I have received from providers of composer opportunities when querying them regarding their age discrimination policy. However, this article is about more than any one composer. It is about a wider industry practice. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that ageism exists within composer opportunities, to attempt to explain why it exists, and then to propose solutions for operating without age discrimination. We’ll take an empirical approach looking at data related to composer opportunities. We’ll also take a logical approach to examining various arguments for and against ageism. Lastly we’ll look at the issue anecdotally via comments from various composers. The goal of this article is to educate and inspire change for the betterment of the entire new music community.

Discrimination against someone of the “wrong” color, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation is generally frowned upon in modern society. Progress has been made on these fronts to change peoples’ thinking and to embrace inclusion. However, progress is still needed in the area of discrimination on the basis of a person’s age. This one is arguably subtler, but it ultimately has the same effect: to exclude someone from pursuing an opportunity for which he or she would otherwise qualify. People usually are not aware that they practice ageism—just as with other forms of discrimination—because their assumptions all point to a certain expectation they believe is true. With respect to composers, said expectation goes something like this: child prodigy enters school already a mature genius; impresses all of his/her professors; then sets the world on fire with his/her youthful vigor, technical wizardry, and creative talent while winning all sorts of competitions; and proceeds to redefine an art form for the betterment of humankind.

There may be examples throughout history where this fairy tale plays out in the likes of wunderkind composers such as Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven; but is this the most accurate representation of a composer’s path? What about Brahms, whose first symphony wasn’t completed until he was 44, or Janáček, who did not make a mark until his early 50s? While the wunderkind may make for a good story, so does the person who fought all stereotypes and began to attain great things at an older age. But, let’s forget about all of these stories and focus on reality. We’ll do this in the context of looking at hard data on age discrimination as it pertains to present day composer opportunities.

Opportunity and Competition

For purposes of this discussion, composer opportunities include anything of a competitive nature which may further a composer’s career. This encompasses juried competitions with prizes including cash awards, commissions, appointments, readings, performances, and/or recordings. While some may argue the efficacy of competitions, the fact remains that they are crucially important for launching a composer’s career in today’s environment. An objective view of the record bears witness to the fact that there are virtually no examples—at least I cannot think of any—whereby a modern composer has attained notoriety without winning a significant composer prize. It’s a dog-eat-dog world highly geared toward recognition gained through competitive means. There’s an underlying assumption that the best always wins and that true talent gets recognized.
Winning competitions puts accomplishments on a composer’s resume which may be weighed at times more heavily than the quality of the music itself, either intentionally or unintentionally. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant. Organizations need to sell seats to their events and they stand a much better chance of doing this when they can advertise a composer with impressive credentials versus one with zero or few competitions won. It is a complete waste of time and money for composers to submit work to a major musical ensemble for their performance consideration without sufficient credentials to warrant the interest of the organization.

Regardless of whether you agree with the principles behind all of this, the fact is that one must compete—and win—in order to get ahead.

Too Old To Tango

Ageism is very much alive in the emerging composer arena. In short, once you get to a certain age, you’re considered too old to tango. To support this claim, let’s examine composer opportunities as published on ComposersSite.com. After careful research, this site has been identified as containing the most comprehensive listing of opportunities available for composers of classical music. Further, the site is freely available.

There are other sites which list opportunities, including the opportunities page made available to members of the American Composers Forum—which at present has an annual membership fee of $65. The American Composers Forum opportunities listing is well organized and provides a number of good opportunities but they seem to publish fewer opportunities than what is available on ComposersSite.com.

The person behind ComposersSite.com is composer Robert Voisey, who kindly made available the database of opportunities published on his site for this analysis. The following figure shows the types of opportunities listed on March 28, 2013.
Opportunity Listings from ComposersSite.com as of March 28, 2013
For this study, these opportunity types have been further organized as follows:
• Award – monetary award (may also include free pass to important event)
• Performance – no monetary award, just performance
• Position – paid position
• Residency – no monetary award
• Workshops – conferences

For purposes of numerical analysis, I’ll consider the award, performance, position, and workshop opportunities as opportunities which might further a composer’s career. I’ll also break out just the award opportunities.


“Sorry we’re closed” by xddorox, on Flickr

More than 400 opportunities were reviewed from the ComposersSite.com database as published over a six-month period from November 2012 thru mid April 2013. Many of these opportunities were deemed to be insignificant for purposes of advancing a composer’s career. For example, if the performance opportunity was not offered by a nationally recognized ensemble, it was excluded. Also excluded were opportunities which restricted on the basis of a person’s race, ethnicity, sex, or domicile. Opportunities with application fees of $50 or greater were also excluded on the basis that participation in said opportunities was exorbitantly expensive for most composers. The process of filtering left me with 165 opportunities to examine. For those curious to see the detail behind the filtered and unfiltered lists, they are available for download.

Now for the results. Of these 165 opportunities, 35% are restricted to composers at or below the age of 40. If we filter just the award opportunities, we have 82 total in which 36% are available only to composers at or below the age of 40. Of all the opportunities, there is merely one which is available only to people older than age 40 and that is the Composers Concordance Annual “Generations” Concert and Composition Competition which provides one division for composers over age 65. Noteworthy is that the same competition—which simply provides a performance opportunity—also has a division exclusively for composers under the age of 25. There is not a single opportunity made exclusively available to persons between the ages of 40 and 65.

The moral of this story: in today’s society, you better make it as a composer before you turn 40. Once you pass that milestone, you will need to understand that you are at a competitive disadvantage to younger composers as there are 35-36% fewer opportunities available to you.

Should we be concerned about this disparity? Well, the feminist movement has drawn much attention—and rightly so—to the fact that equally qualified women receive 19% lower pay than men for the same jobs (as has been reported in Time magazine). Our 35-36% numbers are of course much higher, and here the issue is not a difference in pay but whether or not one is even allowed to enter. From this perspective, the 35-36% numbers are huge.

Now that we see who is affected by ageism, the next question is who is responsible. It is very difficult to hold any group or organization accountable since ageism in favor of the young is rampant in so many areas across modern society. However, characterizing the problem as simply a societal issue isn’t a sufficient excuse since, as will be discussed later, ageism hits composers particularly hard.

Arguments Made in Support of Ageism

No Entry

“NO ENTRY” by Simon Lieschke, on Flickr

We will now explore the various arguments made in support of ageism using comments I have personally received via direct email correspondence, phone conversations, and online forum discussions with fellow composers, opportunity sponsors, and leading industry professionals. Quoted assertions in this section represent actual statements made in response to the questions “Why does your opportunity discriminate based on age?” and “Is it not possible for someone over a certain age to be a student of composition?”

Provide More Chances to the Young
“The limit of 39 years of age is set in order to give more chances to the young generation of composers.”

This may have been needed during a time when opportunities were disproportionately offered to composers of an older age. However, the numbers clearly show that today it is the younger composers who receive far more opportunity. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to argue younger composers need more chances when they already have more chances over older composers.

Favor Those with Less Experience
“There are those younger students who by virtue of their age have had less experience in the world. Are they always going to be up against those that may have had the opportunities and time to learn and progress much more?”

The assumption in this argument is that favor should be granted those who, by virtue of their age, have not attained the same level of experience as older people. If an older person wants to begin a new career as a composer, they enter with the same set of skills and experience as the younger person. Should we deny a 60-year- old grandmother the opportunity to start a career in composition due to her age? And if she bravely attempts such a feat, should we insult her chances at success by discriminating against her by virtue of the number of opportunities for which she qualifies to further her career?

One might argue that grandma is wise in her ways by virtue of those 60 years of experience and therefore has a competitive advantage. But what lessons might she have learned in those 60 years which will now help her when she is already restricted from applying to 35-36% of the opportunities? What life lesson can she use to convince people to give her a chance? How does experience help if doors are closed to being with?

Numbers Don’t Justify Helping Latecomers
“For composers, how many people really are we talking about who begin a career or study later in life?”

That seems like a reasonable argument and the number of latecomers are likely dismally low—although we’ll hear from some latecomers later in this article. Latecomer composers appear to be a minority group. The question then is simply whether or not we should ignore this minority group because they are insignificant, or if we should do the opposite and help this group grow. Discriminating against minority groups is generally shunned in democratic societies. If the number of older composers just starting off is low, maybe more, not less, opportunity should be made available to them. For those who contend that the 60-year-old grandma making a go at a career in composition is an unlikely scenario and therefore doesn’t deserve attention, well, maybe there aren’t many of these cases specifically as a result of the current discriminatory practices and cultural thinking which makes such an endeavor virtually impossible.

Older Composers Already Had Their Chance

Another argument put forth somewhat related to the “experience” argument is an assumption that older folks have already had their chance. This one can really strike at the heart of the issue in a manner which can be quite hurtful to older composers who really never did get their chance. Take for example the composer who, due to life events, was not able to pursue a career in composition until after the age of 40, or the person who just simply decided to make a career change later in life. Is it correct to assume that an older person indeed has been given a fair shot in any given field and therefore should not be offered the same opportunity as a younger person?

Young is More Interesting

In many ways there’s a culture of youth driving the marketplace. At play here is thinking that there’s something more sexy, appealing, or exciting about young talent which can make for a better sell in the brochure, on stage, at the donor’s reception, or in the grant proposal, thereby making the sponsoring organization look more vital—and, in some less philanthropic endeavors, helps make more money. I think it’s wonderful that society places so much interest in maintaining appearances of vitality, but I think it’s wrong to associate those characteristics with age. Age need not—and often does not—have anything to do with it. In fact, sometimes less experienced or younger artists—or those still in the process of developing their voice—may find it necessary to utilize stylistic fads and trends to fulfill the image expected of them. Often these attempts die as quickly as they are born. Maybe there should be more of a focus on just the character of the music and less on the age of the person behind it?

Same Old Horse

“Older composers submit older and outdated stuff. Younger people submit newer and fresher material. People are more interested in new, fresh material thus there’s more interest in works from younger people.”

I believe this argument is just plain wrong on various levels. Yes, at times innovation may occur within the younger groups of society. But, as already discussed, sometimes fads and non-lasting expressions also flourish within younger groups. The fact is there are plenty of examples across multiple disciplines, including musical composition, where innovation is attained in older years. Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky and countless other recognized composers continued to innovate their art past the age of 40.

On the point of focusing just on newly composed work, the age of the composer need not factor into determining this criteria. The competition rules can easily restrict submission to works created, premiered, or recorded within the last x years. I see no valid reason which suggests one needs to target young composers in order to ensure the submitted work is actually new. I further find spurious the notion that the best or most interesting work is that which was created recently.

Limit Submissions Due to Purported Resource Limitations

“Unfortunately, there has to be a limit. Every day we get around three applications. If there is no limit, we are not able to devote [our attention to] all applications.”

This argument suggests that the organization sponsoring the opportunity doesn’t have sufficient resources to accept applications from everyone, therefore it only accepts submissions from people under a certain age. I find this argument extremely weak, as it says nothing about why they choose a narrow age range as their filter. They just as easily could limit submissions to people over versus under a certain age. Or, if they really want to restrict their workload, they could limit submissions to composers between the ages of 45-50 or some other silly, arbitrary threshold. This is but one example of how phony excuses are used to justify or deflect away from an underlying prejudice.

Cater to the Young Even Though Not Required Under Organization’s Mission Statement

There are various examples of 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations who accept tax-deductible donations and who discriminate based on age even when it is not within their organizational mission statement to do so. For example, one organization sponsoring a composer opportunity states their mission as follows: “Our mission is to enrich the cultural vitality of the region and to offer a unique experience to exceptionally talented musicians.” However, they limit composer submissions to those under the age of 35. Looking at their mission statement, one has to ponder whether or not it is possible for an older emerging composer to “enrich the vitality” of the community. This is but one example of a disconnect between an organization’s mission and their policies, and one which I believe hampers musical progress.

More a Problem for Composers than Others

Ageism most definitely exists in other professions and in some it makes perfect sense. This is why you don’t see many professional baseball players over age 40. But in arts and letters, ageism really doesn’t make sense, even though it is rampant across virtually all music disciplines. One might argue that ageism has the same impact in other occupations and thus there’s nothing special about how it plays out in the emerging composer field. The only problem with this line of thinking is that the way in which a composer establishes his or her career is completely different than the manner in which a person pursuing almost any other occupation establishes his or her career. In most fields someone has a job and is hired by a company which is bound to follow federal employee hiring laws which explicitly disallow age discrimination. The same laws also protect musicians, but only for actual employment opportunities and not for the competitions, performances, recordings, and other opportunities which are the methods by which a composer launches his or her career.

Unless a composer has a full-time position as an employee at a university, he or she generally functions as a freelancer seeking commissions or—in most cases pay-to-maybe-win—opportunities. Working as freelancers and going after the typical freelance opportunities means that composers receive no legal form of protection against age discrimination.

There are numerous examples in other disciplines where someone may embark on a new career in their later years and not face the degree of ageism experienced by composers. Why should there be any obstacles based on age for someone choosing a career path, in particular a path where maturity and experience can bring a lot to the table, such as with music composition?

Beginning or renewing a career in composition after age 40 should not be any more difficult from an opportunity perspective than a career change in other industries. It may be equally challenging from a career training perspective, but there should not be the additional burden of ageism.

Young vs. Emerging

I think that most opportunities seek to identify and assist emerging talent but many use age as their criteria. I believe this is a flawed method due to the unethical and exclusionary issues associated with ageism. I don’t believe age should or needs to be used to determine emerging status.

There are many practical methods a competition or opportunity may use to restrict the scope of applications to just emerging talent without resorting to ageism. An opportunity can prevent prior winners from participating or can limit the number of times the same applicant submits—opportunity organizers may complain about the tracking needed for this, but it’s really not that difficult with modern software. An opportunity can literally define emerging as “not earning a living based on teaching, commissions, or royalties from composing.” It can also be based on the honor system. If composers feel they are emerging, they can apply. Would truly established composers be willing to suffer the embarrassment of winning a competition specifically designated for emerging talent? That’s tantamount to them admitting in public that they don’t believe they are established. They would be shunned and laughed at. But, who knows, maybe even a former big name talent might try to apply to help get their career kick-started again, or maybe even to make a little money to help pay the rent. It may be disheartening to them and to others to see them go through this, but should we deny them the opportunity to renew their career?
Hidden Discrimination


“Blinds” by reway2007, on Flickr

Some opportunities list no age restriction but discriminate in private. This speaks directly to the point made earlier that ageism is a subtler form of discrimination. At least one highly sought after and respected composer and contest adjudicator recently shared with me that preference is highly tipped in favor of younger applicants for at least one prominent opportunity, even when no age limit is officially listed. Knowing this, why even bother if you’re considered too old to tango? Why pay the application fee and take on the costs for postage and score duplication if you will not be treated equally?

One significant opportunity for composers to have their works read by an accomplished orchestra announced the winners as “the nation’s top young composers” even though age was not a published criteria for said opportunity. An inquiry as to why their announcement made reference to “young” composers when the opportunity was specifically offered to “emerging” composers was met with no response. Are “young” and “emerging” synonymous?

Then there are the mixed messages, such as those which advertise a student or emerging composer award but also set an arbitrary age threshold—generally somewhere under 30 or 35. Or the competition that doesn’t have the words “young” or “emerging” anywhere in its title or in the mission statement of the sponsoring organization, yet somewhere in the fine print the opportunity-seeking 40-something-year-old discovers s/he doesn’t qualify because s/he is too old. What a letdown.

What is “Young” Anyway?

Then there’s the question of just what is young anyway. Is the 50-year-old person who eats well, exercises, and maintains an active lifestyle and positive mental outlook more of a “young” and vital person than the overweight, junk-food-eating, negatively charged, emotionally distressed 25-year-old? Have you ever been wrong on guessing people’s ages based on their looks and behavior?

I contend that youth and vitality are a state of mind to which any person, regardless of age, may represent a glowing example. Setting an arbitrary age threshold of 30, 35, 40, or whatever for determining the age at which one is no longer considered “young” is a futile exercise and prohibits from participating those who may in actuality possess more vitality in their spirit and art than those far younger in years.

Accordingly, I’d like to see these arbitrary age thresholds die a quick death and for ageism to no longer exist within composer opportunities.

Older Newcomers on The Rise

“I didn’t start at composition in a concentrated way until I was 48 or so. Up until then I was busy playing, arranging, and orchestrating other people’s music. I believe anyone should be granted equal opportunity when pursuing a career change in their later years.” —Phil Orem

“I composed a lot as a teenager then built a career as a performing musician. When I recently turned 40 I decided to pursue composition in a serious manner and am actively writing new work.” —Andy Skaggs

“While I am totally supportive of opportunities aimed specifically at student composers, I question arbitrary age limits; i.e., under 30 or 35. These seem targeted more at keeping mature composers out than welcoming in new talent. Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, and Wagner wrote some of their greatest works past age 40. Is there something about veteran composers that makes managers and conductors uncomfortable?” —Stanley Friedman

We're Open

“We’re open” by enricod, on Flickr

I’ve run into a number of people over the age of 40 who decided to enter the field of composition after many years as professional performers. I applaud this career shift and believe people entering composition this way deserve just as many opportunities for success as those entering at a younger age.

Composer Jim Stephenson is a perfect example of someone who was a working musician for 17 years before deciding to pursue composition as a career. In Jim’s case, he was about 38 years of age. While writing this article and already having pondered the question of why there aren’t any competitions just for older composers, I saw Jim post the following lighthearted status update on Facebook: “So tempted to start a competition for composers OVER 40. Would be interesting, I think.”
Then there are recognized composers such as Joan Tower who didn’t receive an orchestra commission until her mid 40s. Clearly, people are recognizing the need for “older newcomers” to be granted more opportunity in classical music composition.

Goodies from Oldies

Besides the effect on composers’ careers, ageism inhibits diversity and arguably prohibits great art from having a chance to be heard. Remember that guy Brahms who completed his first symphony when he was 44? Now just imagine that composer out there today who is in his or her 40s and who just completed what may be considered an incredible work but who can’t get it heard because a large percentage of opportunities discriminate against people his/her age? It’s not just composers who suffer under ageism; the whole industry suffers.

Ageism wouldn’t be a problem if there were a representative number of competitions to which only composers over age 40 would qualify. But sadly this is not the case. Anyone want to launch a series of Senior Composer, Old Composer, Reborn Composer, Old Newcomer Composer, Gray Newcomer or Goodies From Oldies competitions? There’s always a market for new things, even for “old” people!

The tenets of a democratic society shun inequality and embrace the concepts of inclusion and fair treatment for all. I would like to see these same concepts applied to the emerging composer industry for the benefit of composers as well as the betterment of music in general. I invite opportunity sponsors to re-evaluate their position on ageism, and I encourage all composers to insist upon fair and equal treatment.


Bill Doerrfeld

Bill Doerrfeld

Bill Doerrfeld is a composer and pianist of classical and jazz music. For more info on Bill’s music and his writings please visit www.billdoerrfeld.com.

Don’t Glom!

glom (slang):
v. glommed, glom•ming, gloms
To seize upon or latch onto someone, e.g. “The composer glommed onto the conductor and wouldn’t leave her alone until the conductor was completely sick of him!”

Composer Stacy Garrop and I are just now gearing up for the 2013 Fresh Inc Festival, where we’ll be working with members of Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble and a bunch of cool young performers and composers interested in honing their entrepreneurial skills. So as we prepare to talk to a whole lot of people about all the confusing aspects of navigating the professional world, I decided that I ought to share my number one networking tip. It flies in the face of much conventional wisdom, but it is also likely to come as good news to composers for whom “networking” remains a dirty word.

Some years ago, another composer and I (both peers) were attending rehearsals for the same music event, and by chance we had some limited contact with the conductor. My colleague became very excited by the tantalizing closeness of this “big fish” conductor and resolved to hound her every chance he got, to little avail. Meanwhile, I had kept polite and more or less quiet, until at the eleventh hour said conductor approached me and asked where I was off to next—a golden opportunity, as it turned out that I would be missing her performances in order to fly to a recording session with a group that the conductor really liked. I saw my pushier colleague’s jaw drop as the conductor handed me a note with her address, requesting that I send her a recording as soon as possible.

This incident, perhaps more than any other in my life, made clear to me that the conventional “pushy” tone of much networking and PR is rarely successful other than when dealing with mass media. In real, human, one-on-one relationships, people don’t want to perform/record/commission your music because they are trying to give you something you want; they decide to take action because doing those things becomes something that they want.

Taken by itself, this seems incredibly obvious. But almost all composer networking strategies I have seen—as practiced by actual composers, and as preached by many well-meaning service organizations—ignore this essential truth. That is why strategies involving asking (or worse, begging) people to help out your career hardly ever work: by preempting another person’s process of coming to know your music with a direct request, you cancel out your only chance of causing that person to “get it” for themselves.

Most people (and especially musical gatekeepers such as administrators and conductors) want to discover something new and exciting for themselves, rather than being told (or asked) to like something—just think, how many times have you tuned into a TV show or listened to an artist you knew nothing about, solely because someone said, “Hey, you should totally check out X, it’s great!” If you do think you have been moved by such a pitch, it’s likely because you were instead enticed by some reported or perceived detail of the new experience that made you want to jump onboard for a whirl. Once you create a sense of obligation in another person, you’re creating a situation where you’re causing that person to choose between what they want and what you want, and I don’t need to tell you how that usually plays out.

It’s much better to allow the other person to arrive at what you are hoping for as their own idea: this is how true interest and loyalty are born! Not every time, but it’s the only way that the possibility of strong and sincere interest remains open. In my above anecdote, my recipe for a successful encounter was: 1) don’t glom onto that poor beleaguered conductor; 2) wait until asked about my own activities; and (now here is the hardest part) 3) make sure to be busy and active, no matter the scale, so that when asked you have interesting and truthful things to report about yourself. Honestly, it really doesn’t matter what those accomplishments and activities are, as long as you are sincerely invested in them.

I don’t want to knock letting people know what you want, as especially among closer acquaintances and friends one has to make people aware of what they can do to help—but only if they have already shown a predisposition to do so. Similarly, the quid pro quo is absolutely ubiquitous in the music world, especially in academia where there are resources available that are often considerable (at least for composers). But trading opportunities (while helpful at times) is just a business transaction born of convenience and need rather than true support and commitment. “Operator” types who overuse this particular move may seem to have everything going for them, but often they are cheating themselves by devoting too much energy to relationships that will cease to be fruitful once the institutional budget goes away.

So for all those composers who have always said, “I hate networking. I find it gross, and I am not suited for it!”, I feel for you. You’re on to something. It’s easy to get a little annoyed and more than a bit jealous when we are often surrounded by others so aggressively glad-handing, glomming onto anyone who could advance their careers with oppressive and transparent attention; and assuming the worst, we often grumble while feeling a combination of offense at boorish behavior along with a secret desire that if we could just be more like that, we’d enjoy more of whatever we currently lack. Above all, don’t glom! Don’t fall for it just because everyone else is doing it and because you are afraid of being passed up! This kind of fear warps personalities and exudes desperation; everyone can tell when they’re dealing with someone who speaks from a secure place.

There is a quite a bit that can be said about making a life and career in music, and one of the happier consequences of our wired age is that on the whole, most composers seem increasingly well-versed in many entrepreneurial skills. However, it seems like the need to allow others the chance to form their own impression of your work is likely the most consistently overlooked facet of making connections in the music world. The majority of the time when networking isn’t working well and it feels gross and sketchy, it’s because it is gross and sketchy to pressure strangers for favors they have absolutely no reason to consider. But concentrate on being someone who is active and interested, and others will surely take note even if you haven’t pressed a soon-to-be-discarded CD into their hands.

Derek Bermel Named New Artistic Director of American Composers Orchestra

Derek Bermel

Derek Bermel
Photo courtesy Dworkin and Company

Composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel has been named the new artistic director of the American Composers Orchestra commencing with the 2013-14 season. Bermel has been ACO’s creative advisor since 2009, and succeeds composer Robert Beaser who has been ACO’s artistic director since 2000 and was ACO’s artistic advisor from 1993. Beaser will continue as ACO’s artistic advisor laureate. Bermel joins Music Director George Manahan, who has just renewed his contract with ACO for an unprecedented five years, in leading the ensemble in its mission to be a catalyst for the creation of new orchestral music.

Derek Bermel first came to ACO’s attention in 1994 as a participant in the Whitaker Emerging Composers Readings (now the Underwood New Music Readings) with his piece Dust Dances. ACO has since commissioned and premiered Bermel’s work on numerous occasions, including his first professional orchestral commission and Carnegie Hall debut in 1998 with Voices, a clarinet concerto. ACO also commissioned and premiered A Shout, A Whisper, and a Trace (2009); Elixir (2006); and The Migration Series with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Bermel was ACO’s Music Alive composer-in-residence from 2006-2009, joining ACO’s board and becoming the orchestra’s creative advisor in 2009. In his role as creative advisor, Bermel programmed the ACO’s Orchestra Underground series at Carnegie Hall and ACO’s citywide new music festival SONiC, Sounds of a New Century, in 2011, which featured 21st-century music by 120 emerging composers. Bermel has also been active in several of ACO’s composer development initiatives including serving as a mentor for the Underwood New Music Readings and EarShot programs, and serving as an artist-faculty member for the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. In addition to his new appointment with ACO, Bermel will continue to serve as director of Copland House’s Cultivate! Program for emerging composers.

(—from the press release)

Tan Dun Named UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador

Tan Dun at UNESCO

Tan Dun at UNESCO. Photo by Kristin Lancino, courtesy G. Schirmer/Music Sales

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has designated composer Tan Dun as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador “in recognition of his efforts to promote intercultural dialogue through music, consciousness of the scarcity of natural resources such as water, and the diversity of languages, as well as for his dedication to the ideals and aims of the Organization.”

The announcement was made on March 22 during an event at UNESCO headquarters which began with a concert, organized in cooperation with Melody for Dialogue among Civilizations Association and featuring a performance by the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra of Tan Dun’s Music for Water conducted by the composer.

As a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Tan Dun will join the ranks of celebrity advocates—including Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu Túm, Forest Whitaker, Susana Rinaldi, Herbie Hancock, Placido Domingo, and Jean Michel Jarre—who spread the ideals of UNESCO through their name and fame. They extend and amplify UNESCO’s work and mission and generously use their talent and status to help focus the world’s attention on UNESCO’s work.

(—from the press release)

Read a 2007 NewMusicBox conversation with Tan Dun.