Tag: composer biography

What kind of music do you write?

A still shot of a selection of records in a store

What kind of music do you write? Composers all get this question. All the time. I was at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago this past December where I spent a lot of time with composers, conductors, and band directors, and you can imagine how many times it came up. As composers, we even ask other composers this question knowing full well that the answer can often times be quite complicated.

While at Midwest, I finally had the opportunity to meet Libby Larson. (And if you have not met her, I highly recommend figuring out a way to do so because she is an absolutely wonderful person.) Even someone of her esteem asks me this question. What kind of music do you write? I rummage through all the different answers I have prepared for this precise situation depending on the audience. From one composer to another composer is a much different answer than to a potential commissioner, or to a family member, or to a random stranger I am sharing a car ride with. I begin to tell her that “my music is an amalgamation of my lived experiences represented in music,” while I am careful not to indicate an aesthetic to her. I then go on to explain that “my music recently has strayed away from a specific style or medium and that I have recently written pieces for live electronics, a semi-classical sounding woodwind quintet, and a percussion piece using found objects, all while in the process of developing a new work for wind band.” She then tells me that I’m doing the right things, by keeping my options open. Coming from her, this was like being told I had made all the right choices in life.

A year ago, I interviewed 20 composers asking them to describe their music and discuss if aesthetic was important to their work. After each conversation, I realized more and more that I was not ready to write about the subject matter. My perspective shifted from one where I thought aesthetic did not matter at all, to one where it really just depends. I was oversimplifying the topic.

Language matters, and quite often the words that describe us are the first things that our audience or performers know about us.

I was quite surprised to see that there were generally only three types of responses to the question, “What kind of music do you write?” There were the responses that used some sort of musical language or referenced an aesthetic—“I write tonal music” or “I write groove-based music.” There were the responses that noted some sort of ensemble—“I write opera” or “I write band music.” Finally, there were the more philosophical or non-musical answers—“I tell stories through music” or (as in my example to Libby Larson) “I write music that is an amalgamation of my lived experiences.” This is all composer to composer, of course. I personally do a little bit of the medium/philosophical approach more so than the others, but I definitely air quote and wince and say classical from time to time. After interviewing so many colleagues, the only thing I discovered was that I had no idea how to answer the questions about aesthetic I had at the time, and every person I spoke with seemed to have a different opinion.

So where does that leave us composers who may or may not fit in an arbitrary box? Shortly after I completed all of these interviews, I came across Hannah Schiller’s article on post-genre context here on NewMusicBox. We are definitely on the same page. She quotes Missy Mazzoli, who accurately says what I’ve been thinking for the past few years now: that the word composer is a good description, but the word classical is not. Every composer that I spoke to said that they would never self-impose a box on themselves. Annika Socolofsky wishes that we would just erase classical music genre boundaries: “It’s a narrow-minded viewpoint that is keeping us stale and super white.”

When I asked if they fit in a specific style camp, almost everyone said no. Aaron Garcia described their style camp as somewhere between “nerdy composer music and punk,” and Jay Derderian said, “I’m not sure if I qualify, but I gravitate towards romanticism.” Alex Temple said “poly-stylist,” which I appreciated because it acknowledges the fact that many of us are writing in more than one specific aesthetic. Tina Tallon said that she “often gets lumped into the experimental avant-garde,” but it isn’t what she is necessarily going for. Everyone else felt pretty strongly that putting a name on what they do limits their ability to create great art. Something that really stuck with me that a few people said was that “they strive for artistic honesty,” owning artistic choices as a means of expression.

The language that composers use to describe their music is incredibly interesting and should not be ignored. Shelley Washington, for example, suggested that her work was “a frankencake of sound, one forkful at a time.” What an incredibly unique thing to say! More recently Shelley has said, “I have heard others describe my voice as unique, but I feel like I haven’t ingested enough of other people’s music to be able to make that sort of comparison about myself.” She then went on to say that the concept of unique is “very weighted.” I single out Shelley here, because when I asked her about the composers who she admires and considers influences, her response was everyone—especially her teachers and colleagues—and that her musical community was just as important to her as her own art-making process.

One area that people seemed to all agree on was that labeling style is for the audience and musicologists. Tina Tallon made a great point that “style can be helpful for performance techniques, such as referring to a work by someone else as a way of conveying the sound the composer is going for more effectively.” The overall consensus is that composers just want to make their art and not be boxed in, though Marcos Balter does say that “people tend to be tribalists.” He also pointed out that “so much of these divisions exist because many composers believe there is power in numbers.” Almost everyone understood why these boxes exist, but most seemed to wish that they didn’t. Garrett Schumann made the point that “millennials are more inwardly focused,” which would explain much of the direction music has taken in this demographic area. Much of the music being created has become more about self-expression, as opposed to fitting into a specific mold. The idea that there is a wrong way to write music did not come across.

We have worked so hard to musically get ourselves out of arbitrary boxes, so we should take care to avoid putting ourselves back in them when we talk to each other about our music.

Overall what I learned was that today, a composer’s style is specific to them. Kevin Clark described it as “style as people,” and Alex Temple concluded that “music is written by people, and people have personalities.” Judah Adashi said something similar, explaining that he writes music that is “personal, rather than unique.”

I think it is important for composers to think about how we describe ourselves to others. Language matters, and quite often the words that describe us are the first things that our audience or performers know about us. These words are all triggers that, through centuries of performance practice, may dictate to performers how to play the music. The biggest thing I found is that knowing your audience is important. When you describe your music to someone who knows nothing about music, giving them anything but the most important tidbits of information about the inner workings of your process can create an artificial barrier to entry. Use language that they understand. My music comes from my lived experiences as a way to express my thought process in that moment or over time. If composers do their job well and communicate effectively what they want played to the performer in the score, anything more specifically categorically aligned risks indicating a performance practice that might influence interpretation. We have worked so hard to musically get ourselves out of arbitrary boxes, so we should take care to avoid putting ourselves back in them when we talk to each other about our music.

Much appreciation to all of those involved:

Garrett Schumman
Gemma Peacocke
Kevin Clark
Jay Derderian
Monte Weber
Alex Temple
Aaron Garcia
Dennis Tobinski
Griffin Candey
Ed Windels
Marcos Balter
Paul Frucht
Ben Salman
Annika Socolofsky
Shelley Washington
Will Stackpole
Tina Tallon
Judah Adashi
David Biedenbender
Lyn Goeringer
Garrett Hope

Your Better Bio: Getting Real & Covering the Bases

If you missed any of the previous articles in the series, find them here.

Working with gifted musicians at music schools, conferences, festivals, and through my private practice is an honor and a fabulous creative challenge. I love helping musicians advance their careers, and communicating their story and purpose is an important piece of the puzzle.

To recap from the earlier posts this month, an effective bio is the goal: one that communicates who you really are as a person and what your aesthetic sensibility is. It should create a distinct, memorable impression of you and your work and convey a sense of shared human experience.

That element of “shared human experience” is what we’ll tackle next.

In the earlier articles we covered the basics—four of the five W’s—the “who, what, when, and where” of both you and your music. For composers, it’s what is your music like, who has performed it and where. In terms of the when, we don’t need a lot of dates, but it’s good to highlight recent work and preview upcoming projects.

But there’s an additional fifth “W” needed: the WHY, the motivation behind your work. Ultimately, it’s the why that makes a bio memorable and that can create a sense for the reader of a shared human experience.

Detailing why you make music can be a challenge. For some, it’s easier to get at answering this by coming at it from another angle. Think about what you’re fascinated by or obsessed with in your current projects. Or consider what attracts you to taking on certain projects. These questions can be answered explicitly or implicitly—or not at all—John Steinmetz says, but thinking about these questions will help you articulate priorities and “humanize” your bio.

For extra help thinking through your “why,” check out Simon Sinek’s excellent TED talk on the topic and his book Start With Why.

Being Human

A compelling “why” can make a bio effective because it introduces vulnerability. This may seem contradictory. Most people think of bios as listings of impressive credits—that it’s all about “puffing yourself up.”

But the ultimate goal of your bio is to engage readers and motivate them to click and listen. The magic bullet to getting people engaged is vulnerability.

In this context, being vulnerable doesn’t mean showing weakness. It means letting readers in on who you are as a real person. Dallas Travers, the guru of promotion for actors, describes this crucial aspect of a bio—being vulnerable—as “revealing your human experience.” This might come in the form of describing what work first turned you on to new music or why you first got started composing. Give readers a chance to see you as a person.

I love this web bio of composer Ellen Reid. As stated earlier, having multiple versions of your bio is important. And the trend these days is for website bios to be in first person, candid, and direct. Here’s Ellen:

I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee–a small town in East Tennessee that was created as part of the Manhattan Project. I never dreamt that writing music could be a viable career path, but I started composing my sophomore year of college and haven’t stopped since. As a kid, I casually sang in choir, played piano and percussion. As an undergrad at Columbia University I was exposed to the kaleidoscopic sound world that is New York City. Within weeks I saw an installation of amplified lightbulbs at The Stone, a concert of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Carnegie Hall that gave me synethsesia and heard my first Indian Raga. These experiences expanded my understanding of what music could be, and created an insatiable love of sound that has taken me all over the globe.

Earlier I recommended not starting with your childhood. But like all rules, there are exceptions. In this case, where Ellen grew up is relevant to explain the contrast to her New York experience.

This is vivid storytelling. With striking examples and details, from the amplified light bulbs, to the Ring and the raga, we can vividly picture and hear her “kaleidoscopic sound world” experience. We also get the vulnerability through the “I never dreamt…” passage and from the contrast between her background (the Manhattan Project reference is striking) to her first weeks in NYC.

Though Ellen uses language in inventive and fresh ways, the effectiveness here is not simply a matter of word choice, but rather the detailing in a story that explains how she developed “an insatiable love of sound.” In the process, Ellen is answering a core question that most readers have: “Why do you compose?”

And the “all over the globe” phrase sets up the expectation that we’ll find out more about the exotic places her music as taken her. And we do in the next paragraph:

In Thailand, I lived and collaborated with Thai artists for several years. We created pieces for the United Nations and the Patravadi Theater. My site-specific installation Lonely Traveler was featured in the 2011 Ruhrtriennale in Essen Germany, and She Gone Rogue (dir Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker) was featured in the 2012 Hammer Biennial (LA) and 2014 Whitney Biennial. Last summer, I traveled with members of wild Up and Jodie Landau to Reykjavik, Iceland to create You of All Things with the Bedroom Community. And this past winter, I received a Young Composer Award to perform Push/Pull at the Residenz in Munich. I split my time between my two favorite cities–Los Angeles, where I attended CalArts for my MFA (2011) and New York.

This paragraph includes examples of her projects. Not a boring list, but highlights, with impressive international venues tucked in so we get the credibility without the fuss. We also find out where she lives and when she graduated, so we do find out the usual boring essentials. But here they’re in the context of picturing her life and imagining what her work sounds and looks like. The result for me as a reader is that I feel invited in.

Ask yourself: Does this make you curious to hear her music, and maybe also to meet her?

Keep It Clean

Apply the skills you already have for writing, proofreading, and rewriting music. Working with words is similar to composing music.

The final key to writing effective bios is all about the finishing touches: refining and editing.

John Steinmetz recommends that composers “apply the skills you already have for writing, proofreading, and rewriting music. Working with words is similar to composing music: check for mistakes, make sure the words say what you mean, revise to correct and improve, and keep reworking until your intent is clear.”

Read your drafts out loud slowly—listening for awkward sounding phrases or transitions, redundancies, and run-on sentences. Have other people whose writing skills and feedback you trust also proofread.

“Check all spellings and grammatical uses, especially if you’re planning on using your bio to solicit reviews or features in the press,” says music consultant Dan Kimpel. “Bad copy is galling to those whose livelihood is the written word. Keep your words in the ‘active tense’ i.e. ‘John Smith incites his audience,’ as opposed to the passive: ‘the audience is incited by John Smith.’”

Keep in mind a bio is not something you knock out in 20 minutes. A strong bio (like a cover letter, CV, or grant proposal) is the result of multiple revisions. Most of the writing is, in fact, re-writing. It’s typical for musicians to do seven or more complete rewrites, but an effective bio is well worth it. This takes time, so start weeks before your deadline.

This series covered seven keys to a better bio: consider your reader, grab our attention, establish credibility, describe your music, avoid clichés, be human, and keep it clean. If you follow these, I can guarantee you are well on your way to an improved bio!

Use these in good health and Happy Better Bio Writing to you!

Your Better Bio: Describing your music and your self

Miss the earlier articles in the series? Find them here.

It’s a challenge for any musician to answer the question, “So, what’s your music like?”

In order for readers to get curious enough about your music to stop surfing, click play, and actually listen, they need an incentive. That’s where your bio comes in and the crucial element it needs to include is a description of your music. Your readers want—and deserve—an understandable, compelling sketch of what your music actually sounds like, not a string of adjectives and clichés.

It’s easy to pretend we’re describing our music when in fact we’re simply relying on broad labels like post-modern, avant-garde, neo-romantic, or atonal. These terms only serve to make you and your music sound generic and institutional—and to alienate readers unfamiliar with the lingo.

It’s also easy to fall into analytical terms: telling us that you employ extended harmonic language and polyrhythms. But again, this won’t help civilians connect on a human level and won’t help us imagine the experience of hearing your music.

And if you simply write, “X is a composer who has written for solo voice, string quartet, and chamber winds,” your reader still doesn’t have a clue about what your music sounds like.

The good news is that there are multiple ways to describe your music and there are tools to make writing easier. Here are three example descriptions. I find these distinctive and compelling: they make me want to click “play” and listen. What I also like in these is that each has something surprising that made me sit up and take notice. See what you think:

Annie Gosfield, whom the BBC called “A one woman Hadron collider” lives in New York City and works on the boundaries between notated and improvised music, electronic and acoustic sounds, refined timbres and noise. She composes for others and performs with her own group, taking her music on a path through festivals, factories, clubs, art spaces, and concert halls. Dubbed “A star of the Downtown scene” by The New Yorker magazine, her music is often inspired by the inherent beauty of found sounds, such as machines, destroyed pianos, warped 78 rpm records and detuned radios.

This made me look up Hadron collider: it’s a particle accelerator. I thought, wow! The other images and phrases that got me curious to click play were the boundaries between “refined sound and noise” and performing in “festivals, factories, clubs, art spaces, and concert halls.” I loved that concert halls was last. But the end especially piqued my curiosity—that her influences include “the inherent beauty of found sounds, such as machines, destroyed pianos, warped 78 rpm records and detuned radios.”

Meredith Monk is a composer, singer, director/choreographer and creator of new opera, music-theater works, films and installations. Recognized as one of the most unique and influential artists of our time, she is a pioneer in what is now called “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance.” Monk creates works that thrive at the intersection of music and movement, image and object, light and sound, discovering and weaving together new modes of perception. Her groundbreaking exploration of the voice as an instrument, as an eloquent language in and of itself, expands the boundaries of musical composition, creating landscapes of sound that unearth feelings, energies, and memories for which there are no words.

Here we get the range of Meredith’s work, a sense of her position in the field, and then a real description of what her music involves and what the experience is like—described in a way that both musicians and non-musicians should find accurate and compelling. Note: she employs the much over-used word “unique” but in this context, and knowing her work, it’s fine.

Identity has always been at the center of Gabriela Lena Frank‘s music. Born in Berkeley, California, to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Frank explores her multicultural heritage most ardently through her compositions. Inspired by the works of Bela Bartók and Alberto Ginastera, Frank is something of a musical anthropologist. She has travelled extensively throughout South America and her pieces reflect and refract her studies of Latin-American folklore, incorporating poetry, mythology, and native musical styles into a western classical framework that is uniquely her own. She writes challenging idiomatic parts for solo instrumentalists, vocalists, chamber ensembles, and orchestras.

Here the information about Gabriela’s parents and background are absolutely relevant because she tells us immediately what is at the heart of all her music: identity. She’s “something of a musical anthropologist” and explains her major influences and how these have played out in her work. I get a vivid sense of her music and, again, am compelled to listen.

Questions to help you generate a more concrete and evocative description of your music. Try one or more of these and see what your responses generate.

How have listeners described your music? What have people said after your performances or about your recordings? Not the generic “it was amazing” but the more curious comments about what your music got them thinking or seeing. Not what other composers or teachers have said, but audience members and performers. These may give you more immediate clues and language for how civilians experience your music.

What are you fascinated by or obsessed with? Are there issues, ideas, types of soundscapes, or areas of inquiry you explore in your music? Give readers a sense of your focus.

What would you say has been at the core of your work? What you are aiming to achieve? Do you have a sense of mission?

How would you describe your music to a favorite aunt, a non-musician? Hint: you wouldn’t talk down to her and you wouldn’t use technical jargon. And of course she might especially appreciate knowing what fascinates you in your work.

If describing your work as a whole is too daunting, instead focus on a particular project and describe its notable features: instrumentation, form, or the occasion or ensemble for which it was written. A particular project can serve as an entry point for a reader to connect with your music.

What projects are you working on? Give us a reason to sign up for your newsletter and to be looking forward to (and contributing to) your next projects.

For additional help, consider connecting and working with a coach, mentor, publicist, or journalist. You can also ask fans and friends to send you a one-sentence description of any of the works you have online. You may get surprisingly evocative and helpful results.

Avoid the Clichés

You are a distinct individual and your music is a reflection of your singular perspective. Therefore your bio should not contain the same tired words and stale phrases found in countless other musicians’ bios.

The use of clichés starts with an innocent desire to communicate something authentic. But in reaching for words to fit, we end up grabbing the first and easiest thing that comes to mind. You can do better. Dig deeper.

To Be Avoided
(feel free to add more clichés to the list as needed #clichésRus)…

At one point these words or phrases weren’t stale, but once everyone else started using them, they became generic hype.

Passionate / passion
Unique (who isn’t?)
Distinctive voice
Of her/his generation
Strives to
Highly esteemed
Highly (anything)
Quickly establishing herself/himself as a sought-after . . .
Fortunate to
Critically acclaimed
Has studied under (sounds subservient: use “with”)
Under the tutelage of (too arcane)
Committed or dedicated to, or champion of . . . the music of our time
One of the most . . .
The next . . .

Keep in mind that at one point these words or phrases weren’t stale and over-used—they had meaning and could be used effectively. But once everyone else started using them, they became generic hype, and now merely sound like “bio speak.”

Don’t follow the herd: the language you want should be fresh and memorable to reflect what is specific to you.

To be clear, effective bios that pique interest, avoid clichés, and make you want to click “play” are not easy to find. In the course of writing this article series I searched for hours to find good examples.

Instead of being discouraged, this has got me thinking: what if musicians rallied around this challenge and improved their bios—just think of all the new listeners and fans we might attract!

Want the rest? Stay tuned for the final installment of Keys to Writing a Better Bio.

Your Better Bio: Vivid and Engaging

If you missed it, check out last week’s “Why You Need a Better Bio.”

Over the years, offering career coaching to alumni and students at the Manhattan School of Music, Indiana University JSoM, and New England Conservatory, I’ve read my fair share of bios: the compelling, the boring, and the downright embarrassing.

I’ve found a number of predictable traps in bio writing—and I’m happy to provide tools to avoid all of them. To help make the new music world a more audience-friendly place, I’m offering, in this and the next posts in the series, the keys to writing your better bio.

Keep in mind that an effective bio conveys who you really are as a person and what your aesthetic sensibility is. It should create a memorable impression and convey a sense of shared human experience. By piquing readers’ interest, an effective bio motivates them to click, listen, and connect with you.

The good news (courtesy of John Steinmetz):

1. Your bio needn’t be a literary masterpiece. So it’s completely within your power to write a better one!

2. You have musical skills you can draw upon in writing your bio: shaping phrases, crafting clear expression, communicating intent and meaning.

3. The purpose of a bio is not to show that you are “worthy” or how well you measure up to others. Instead, it’s about helping readers understand who you really are. There’s only one YOU, complete and original. Help readers to “get” who you really are so they can get your music, too.

4. There’s no one “right” way to write a bio. There are many ways to convey what you and your music are really about. The examples to follow may help broaden your sense of possibilities. Notice what engages or resonates with you to get ideas for an approach to try for yourself.

Caution: Bio Hazards

Unless you were raised by wolves or have a truly notable backstory, don’t tell us about your early years.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but overall, I recommend:

1. Don’t structure your information chronologically. And unless you were raised by wolves or have a truly notable backstory, don’t tell us about your early years.

2. Don’t start with where you studied. This may be of interest to other musicians, but for the media, concert presenters, and potential fans, it’s mind-numbing.

3. Don’t include every music-related experience or accomplishment. Instead, select only the most relevant or intriguing items. Shorter is better—think highlights of your past, as well as news about upcoming projects.

4. Do focus on facts and accurate descriptions: concrete nouns and verbs, as opposed to effusive hyperbole. Keep the use of adjectives and adverbs to a minimum.

Mindset Traps

Thinking of your bio as your “biography” is a trap. It leads to writing chronologically, using too many dates, and using academic or new music jargon.

If calling your bio a promotional tool feels too commercial, picture it as a bridge to link potential fans and the media to you and your music. NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas encourages musicians to consider their bios as “an opportunity to advocate for the music we love.”

The Goal

A well-written bio should, through words, bring the subject to life on the page. As readers and fans, we’re interested in the energy and spirit behind the music you make.

This isn’t about pandering. It’s about helping others—especially civilians and those outside the new music club—connect with you and your music.

Consider Your Reader

Because not every audience is the same, you’ll need multiple versions and lengths of your bio tailored to the intended reader. It’s best to have a mini bio of a few sentences, as well as a short bio of about 200 words and a medium size of about 500. Your profiles on LinkedIn and Twitter, and your FB page should be tailored to the specific platform but still present a consistent message. If you teach, you may also need a teaching bio that’s different from your composer/performer bio.

For your website, it’s great to have a short FIRST person (I/me/mine) version of your bio along with links to the third person versions. First person bios can make a more immediate connection with readers, since you’re speaking directly to them.

Grab Our Attention

You have just ONE brief moment to get us to stop and focus.

We live in a world of sound bites and short attention spans, so you have just ONE brief moment to get us to stop and focus. Your opening sentence needs to arrest our attention, to wake us up, and give us a sense of connection to a real human being with a distinct artistic vision.

An impressive award or review quote, of course, can help energize the start of a bio, but grabbing our attention doesn’t mean you have to have won a Pulitzer or a Grammy. What readers really want is a human connection.

What I like about each of these openings is that they make me curious about the music and the person behind it—and they motivate me want to read more:

Katherine Bergman is a Minnesota-based composer who draws on literature, environmentalism, and found materials to create work that has been described as hypnotic and visceral.

Composer and pianist Haskell Small has been praised for the exquisite blend of sound and silence in his compositions and for his prodigious technique and subtle touch at the keyboard.

Part cartoon character, part virtuoso, musical whiz kid Wang Jie has been nudging serious music and its concert audiences into spectacular frontiers over the past few seasons. Her “From New York, with Love” transformed a classic percussionist into a dervish-like rock star. Her chamber opera “Flown” dramatized the end of a rocky love affair by having the two pianists attack each other and their shared instrument.

Raised in America’s Dairyland, (Wisconsin), multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer and instrument designer Mark Stewart has been heard around the world performing old and new music.

Anne LeBaron’s compositions embrace an exotic array of subjects encompassing vast reaches of space and time, ranging from the mysterious Singing Dune of Kazakhstan, to probes into physical and cultural forms of extinction, to legendary figures such as Pope Joan, Eurydice, Marie Laveau, and the American Housewife.

Note that none of these bios starts with where and when someone was born or where they went to school. Unless there’s something surprising, inventive, or fun about this information (as in Mark Stewart’s America’s Dairyland), I’d suggest leaving it out. As for your birth year, I really don’t care to know this, although concert presenters may want this information. Again, have multiple versions of your bio and leave the birth year off the short version on your website.

Establish credibility

Bio writing raises everyone’s self-esteem issues.

You don’t need or want a long list of anything in a bio: just a few notable and relevant credentials. So this is about being selective and choosing not just what’s most impressive, but what shows the full scope of your experience and what you have to offer.

This is the aspect of bio writing that raises everyone’s self-esteem issues. Inevitably, musicians feel that their credentials aren’t enough or don’t measure up. I mean it: no matter how successful they are, when it comes bio writing, everyone feels “less than.”

Don’t fall into the comparison trap. When you read examples of other musician’s bios, including the ones in this article series, don’t compare your experience or credits with theirs. It’s a huge waste of energy. Instead, analyze the bios and notice how they’re constructed, the use of language, and the effect it creates. See what concepts you can adapt to your own material and distinctive voice.

Want more? Stay tuned for the next installment of the Keys to Writing a Better Bio.

You Need a Better Bio

This is part one of a four-part series of articles that will explore why you need a better bio, how to create an effective and vivid bio, how to describe yourself and your music without sounding like an ass, and how to be real in words so that readers can connect with you and your music.

It’s Not Me, It’s Your Bio

You know I think the world of you, and I’d never, ever want to hurt your artistic sensibilities! It’s just that how you describe yourself is . . . uh . . . it’s just . . . so. . . so BORING!

YOU and your CRAZY MUSIC aren’t boring! But baby, it’s your bio . . . it’s FALSE ADVERTISING! Makes you and your music sound so generic—it’s embarrassing and so not YOU.

Look, I know you hate promoting yourself, but I just can’t take it. Either you upgrade your damn bio, or I’m serious . . . I’m gonna question your commitment to your own work!

Writing about yourself is hard, writing about music is ridiculous, and writing about your own music can be excruciating.

As a music career consultant, I love working with musicians on their bios. It’s fascinating: helping creative people uncover and articulate their stories. It’s part detective work and part investigative journalism. With clients, I listen and learn about their work, projects, backgrounds, and goals. It’s about finding the real story—the connective thread that helps shape and give meaning to experience and intention. Together, we work to reveal the artist’s truth and communicate it through their promotional materials: their websites, program notes, and online profiles.

But I get it, most musicians find that writing a bio ranks right up there with getting a root canal. Writing about yourself is hard, writing about music is ridiculous, and writing about your own music can be excruciating.

Popular Excuses for Having a Crappy Bio

‘Who Cares?’ Excuses

Hey, my friend wrote mine using my résumé. What, it lists what I’ve done—what’s wrong with that? Covers all the bases and I come across as “professional,” like all the other musicians I know.


No one reads bios anyway—they’re just there to fill up space on the program or on my website. It’s not about the person: it’s about the music.

‘Too Shy’ Excuses

It’s uncomfortable to brag about myself. It feels too “sales-y.” Self-promotion is awkward, and I’m not about any of that.


Writing my bio unleashes all my self-esteem demons so I just keep using my same crap version with occasional updates.

‘Up Yours’ Excuse

I really don’t care if anyone hears my music: I write for me and my cats.

‘Too Busy’ Excuse

I don’t have time to work on it. I’m too busy complaining about how hard it is to get my music out there.

My Personal All-Time Fav Excuse

I want my music to speak for itself.

Sometimes your music only gets to speak for itself AFTER you’ve spoken on its behalf.

To be brutally honest, most musician bios are cliché-ridden boredom fests of performances, awards, and degrees. Composers and improvisers have the added challenge of describing their music. That’s where things usually go from soporific to seriously awkward. Descriptions of music are often word fogs. They come in two varieties: incomprehensibly poetic or analytic jargon-filled academic-ese.

As a field, we can do better.

You may still be thinking, “So what? My bio doesn’t impact who comes out to hear my music or who gets involved in my projects.”



With a more human, personal connection, an effective bio can enhance:

Your Buzz

To get a feature story, an interview, or even just a highlighted “pick of the week” for your upcoming premier, a journalist or blogger has to find something newsworthy about you and your music. Your bio is key to the press release: it needs to be a compelling read for non-musicians.

Your Fan Base

Your friends and family will come to your next performance, and they’ve agreed to each bring two friends to the concert. They send invites with links to your site so people can read about you and the upcoming event. Especially for people new to new music, an engaging bio and description of the work—written with non-musicians in mind—can motivate people to attend. Make sure you offer material that is FB, Twitter, and Instagram-friendly so that your supporters can help enlist new fans.

Potential Funders

The people who donate or commission works are those who have first become fans of you and your music. That means they need to get to know you. What helps strangers want to come meet you after a performance? It’s how you come across in the program (or online before the concert), along with how you introduce the work verbally from the stage. Do you come across in print, online, and in person as an engaging human being with a story a non-musician can relate to?

Your Collaborators

How do performers find out about you and your music? They too are influenced by what they find out about you online. Does your bio help make connections by revealing your personality and perspective? With a more reader-friendly, direct, and personable bio, you make it easier for people to want to work with you.

Your Self

In working with musicians on their bios, the ultimate focus is on their mission. When musicians become clear about why they do what they do, and can articulate it in words and convey it in their promotional materials, it has a marvelous effect: they become more centered, more confident, and more productive. It enriches their networking and their everyday behavior. As a result, their projects and careers start to move forward with new energy.

This may seem counter-intuitive. A bio is simply a marketing tool and who cares about words—it’s all about the music, right?

Actually, what I’ve found is that working with musicians on their bio helps them clarify their purpose. Then it’s easier to align their mindset with their actions, and for their careers to gain traction.

A bio is just words, but these words are gateways for your music. Words can motivate people to click and listen, to attend, to collaborate, to promote, book, and fund your music. Words can also help you clarify your values and goals—as both an artist and a person.

I found my favorite response to the “I want my music to speak for itself” rationale on CDBaby’s DIY Musician site: “Sometimes your music only gets to speak for itself AFTER you’ve spoken on its behalf.

Most musicians are confused about who they’re writing the bio for and why.

So let’s start with the ideal: an effective bio conveys a vibrant, distinct impression of you and your work. It communicates who you really are as a person and what your aesthetic sensibility is. As a marketing tool, bios need to pique readers’ interest, motivating them to click, listen, and connect with you.

The good news is that there are examples and tools that can help you write a better bio. I want to leave you with an example of a terrific mini bio (a perfect introduction for a website landing page):

A jazz singer and new music composer of eclectic tastes and prodigious gifts, GRAMMY®NOMINATED Theo Bleckmann makes music that is accessibly sophisticated, unsentimentally emotional, and seriously playful. His work provokes the mind to wonder, but connects immediately with the heart.

I love the description of his music. It’s humanizing: no clichés or jargon in sight. The three contradictory descriptive phrases help us imagine the sense of layered meaning in his work. And the last line describes how his music affects listeners. This isn’t hype. His recordings, full bio, and press quotes make clear he’s the real deal as described. This bio is more than accurate: it piques my curiosity and makes me want to click play. It works as a call to action.

Admit it, your bio could use an upgrade, right? Don’t be part of the problem: we all want more people getting turned on to new music and it can start with your own bio.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment with the first of the seven keys to writing a better bio.

Angela Myles Beeching

Angela Myles Beeching

Music career consultant Angela Myles Beeching helps musicians book more work so they can live the life they desire. Author of Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music, Angela also writes the popular weekly blog Monday Bytes. In her sordid past, she directed career and entrepreneurship programs at Manhattan School of Music, Indiana University, and New England Conservatory. Comments, complaints, questions, career coaching needs? Reach her directly at [email protected]

“Which of these Aaron Jay Kernises am I?”

A conversation in Kernis’s New York City home
February 11, 2014—10:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photos by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

When he was just 23, he was thrust into a kind of stardom that many dream of but few ever achieve. He reached one of the top levels of fame in a career which, at the time, rarely paid attention to someone so young—in fact, in a career that rarely paid attention to someone alive. He was aspiring to be a composer of orchestra music and it was the early 1980s. The name John Adams, whom he had recently studied with, had just barely started to register in the national consciousness. This was before the Meet The Composer Orchestra Residency Program was launched. Sure, Philip Glass and Steve Reich had already become familiar names, but it was certainly not due to orchestra concerts. But a major American orchestra played a piece by this young composer on a festival that was attended by critics from all over the country. The conductor of the orchestra attempted to show him who was the boss during an open rehearsal. He talked back. The audience ate it up and he became something of a cause célèbre. He was suddenly the next big thing, the person to watch.

He continued writing music and went on to receive a bunch of accolades for it. While still in his 20s, he was signed by one of the top music publishers. By his 30s, he was signed to a five-year exclusive contract with a major record label and he won the Pulitzer Prize. Not long after turning 40, he received the University of Louisville’s Grawemeyer Award, which is the single largest American award for composers. He was at the top of his game, so to speak. But at the same time that he was pursuing his craft and being successful at it, he decided to devote a significant part of his life to being a mentor to younger composers and help them attain the same kind of achievements that he has had. He founded the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, one of the premiere programs for nurturing emerging talent, and oversaw its activities for over a decade. To this day he’s on the faculty of the Yale School of Music whose successful composer alumni nowadays seem ubiquitous.

He’s had a pretty complete life, so much so that later this month the University of Illinois Press is publishing a biography of him, a rarity for a living composer. But he’s only in his early 50s. What do you do with your life after all that? Where can you go from there? What’s life like after someone writes your biography? It’s a tough act to follow. But that is the conversation we were eager to have with Aaron Jay Kernis.

Kernis claims that his biggest epiphany after reading through the proofs of the book (it’s not an unauthorized bio) was realizing that there were connections between pieces he wrote that he originally felt had little relationship with one another. He thought he had abandoned post-minimalism in his youth. The angry angular pieces from the early ‘90s (like a symphony he wrote in response to the First Gulf War) also seemed worlds away by the time he was composing the vast soundscapes of the past decade. And how to explain how any of that related to the numerous laments he has composed for lost family members, friends, even John Lennon whose murder inspired a gorgeous rhapsodic piece for cello and piano, one of the earliest pieces of his that’s still in his active catalogue?

I did not have the reaction of wanting to flee but rather to explore that question of “which of these Aaron Kernises am I?” … For a long time I thought it was always a completely different direction, but now I see that there are circles; it circles back with new perspectives, new materials. … When I finished the book the first time, I thought about my newest work. Are these works related? Or are they something totally different? I don’t have the perspective yet. I don’t have enough distance from them to know quite where they fall on the continuum of cycling relationships. … I’m a different person than I was when I was 29.

But mostly he doesn’t worry about neatly sorting out these connections and just tries to balance teaching, raising a family, and writing music. When we visited with him in his cluttered apartment near the northern tip of Manhattan, where children’s toys freely mix with books and scores, he had just completed a viola concerto.

I have work time during the day and time with my kids at night. It’s very special time, unlike any other. And I don’t travel to performances as much, unless they’re premieres. I love to travel, but now it’s time to travel with my kids. Luckily I’m in a situation where I can teach one day a week and have the rest of the time to compose. It’s a full day. Sometimes it spills over to another day, or some students come down here and we have some extra time. But I try very much to fit it into one day. My composing time is really pretty sacred.

I’m glad he took some time out of his schedule to talk with us.

Frank J. Oteri: There’s a weird contradiction to your music. On the one hand, it’s very much of this time; many pieces are directly informed by mainstream popular culture. But, on the other hand, it seems to go against the grain of whatever our zeitgeist is supposed to be. Of course, to have your own voice, you have to fight against the zeitgeist.
Aaron Jay Kernis: But what is the zeitgeist? It’s always shifting, and it’s so large. That’s the thing about our time. The formative musical experiences I had were from college radio. And my worldview became one of just everything—‘20s jazz, minimalism, hard core, uptown stuff, lots of Irish folk music, all over the place. The idea of this multiplicity of possibilities was a great way to start. But the problem with that is that it sometimes makes choosing difficult for me, so I kind of move back and forth between things that continue to interest me.
FJO: But some things interest you more than others.
AJK: Oh, definitely.
FJO: So why are certain things constant recurring themes for you? You just mentioned ‘20s jazz, but ‘50s rock and roll and even disco have inspired you.
AJK: Right.
FJO: Everything figures in, but you eventually have to strip things away. It’s like you’re sculpting, chiseling at the musical universe to get at an essence, rather than adding to it.
AJK: Things appear and then they vanish for five or ten years. I’ve seen that very much with any interest I have. Actually, it’s kind of an interesting time now, because my daughter loves Top 40. So every morning, or pretty much any time she’s in the car, we’re listening to Top 40 together. I’m pushing her toward the independent rock stations, because I’m curious to see, in a language she’s most interested in, what cool stuff I’m going to hear. But mostly, any rock and roll, disco, or salsa influence appeared in a short period of time, and then pretty much has vanished and was replaced by the influence of jazz, which is a core kind of thing from my childhood. But I’m really curious about your provocation about not being of this time.
FJO: Well, one thing about your music that stands out is how so much of it revels in the long line and long forms. This is definitely at loggerheads with our era of limited attention spans and instantaneous gratification. I couldn’t imagine you on Twitter, for example.
AJK: And I’m not. You’re right. I’m not planning to be, but I have been kind of curious lately. I’m not really interested in poetry, but I am interested in looking for things on the internet, maybe on Twitter, to set as texts. I haven’t gotten there yet. I’m just kind of starting to see that for myself.
Photo of Aaron Jay Kernis in mid sentence.
FJO: I’m surprised to hear you say that you’re not interested in poetry.
AJK: Not right now.
FJO: Not now, but all your life, you have been.
AJK: Yeah, all my life. But I’m very interested in prose right now and things that may not have started as poetry, but that can be extracted and be poetic.
FJO: That seems very different from Dominick Argento’s reason for setting prose to music, which he says he does in order to not be straitjacketed by the rhythms of the text.
AJK: Well, that’s another reason I’m interested in prose, exactly. When I’ve used poetry recently, I’ve started to sculpt it more. Rather than being completely respectful of exactly what the poet has to say, I’ve started shifting lines around. I use text where I can do that and feel comfortable not using all the lines or the exact structure that was laid out.
FJO: That’s very interesting, because one of the things I’ve always noticed about your vocal music is how respectful you are of the texts that you set; you don’t even repeat lines. You let the shape of the poem determine the shape of the setting of it.
AJK: That was true maybe until the Third Symphony [Symphony of Meditations], where I had this enormous text. For shorter texts, I did pretty much respect the structure and the number of lines. But the [Third Symphony’s] texts were so large, and there were some lines I didn’t like, and it was ancient poetry. My friend Peter Cole, who was translating, was completely willing to let me do whatever I wanted with the text, and that was very freeing. So I just made my own version of the text rather than feeling that I had to respect its totality at every second.

Kernis Symphony No.3 Score Sample. Copyright © 2009 by AJK Music (BMI) International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. All rights administered throughout the World by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI) New York, NY Used by Permission.

A passage from the score of Symphony of Meditations (Symphony No. 3) by Aaron Jay Kernis.
Copyright © 2009 by AJK Music (BMI)
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.
All rights administered throughout the World by
Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI) New York, NY
Used by Permission.

FJO: So you’re actually contradicting the earlier you. You’re becoming another you.
AJK: Yeah.
FJO: This makes you and history kind of a tricky thing. Of course, I bring this up because there’s a book that’s just been written about you.
AJK: Right.
FJO: Biographers always look for a through line, to try to connect the dots and to get at the essence of a person. But perhaps now that there’s a book out about you, you want to rebel against that and be somebody completely different.
AJK: I read the [galleys of the] book through without being so concerned with making corrections. I wanted to just see what the through line of the book was finally. This was about a week ago. And, you know, I did not have the reaction of wanting to flee but rather to explore that question of “which of these Aaron Kernises am I?” [The book’s author] Leta Miller very consciously wanted to draw the body of work together, rather than having it broken up into different areas. This was also my concern. We all remember having reviews that frustrated or repelled us. It was always incredibly frustrating if a critic would say, “This sounds like nothing else in his work.” Of course, I knew that. In fact, there were three or four other pieces that clearly the critic didn’t know that were part of a group. Sometimes they were three years before, sometimes just the month before. There always have been groups of works of different types. I kind of do one for a while, and leap over that and do something else, and then find my way back in a circuitous way. But there’s been a transformation, too, that usually happens.

Kernis bio book cover

The cover for Leta Miller’s book, Aaron Jay Kernis, published this month by the University of Illinois Press.
(As a complement to the book, UIL Press has also put together an extensive webpage of audio links for many of Kernis’s compositions.)

FJO: In terms of how your work is part of history, it’s interesting to ponder earlier versions of music you have revised—because you’ve revised work.
AJK: Not that much.
FJO: Perhaps I should say reuse work.
AJK: Reuse. Yes. That’s true.
FJO: But I was thinking of one of your earliest pieces, the Partita for solo guitar, which goes back to 1981. You were 21 years old at the time. What did the 21-year-old Aaron Kernis sound like? Since you revised the piece in 1995, it’s hard to know. How much of that piece is the you of 21, and how much of it is the you at the age of 35?
AJK: Let me see if I can remember. It’s a three-movement partita. That was more of a revision. It was awkward. Some of the sections were too long. Some of the guitar writing wasn’t sustaining as much as I liked and it was kind of working against the instrument. In ’95, I wrote 100 Greatest Dance Hits, and at that time I was able to work with David Tanenbaum and tried to work through the issues in the piece. But the voice in that piece—one scale per movement with a lot of nested processes like numerical forms going on—that was a lot of who I was at 20 and 21. So I think that really does reflect me until about 1983, until I was 23. Then I’d had enough of that. That’s often how it is. I get to a point and then I want to go off in another direction. For a long time I thought it was always a completely different direction, but now I see that there are circles; it circles back with new perspectives, new materials. For example, one of the circles back was after a comment that Russell Platt made about a recent piece, Pieces of Winter Sky, that I wrote for eighth blackbird that in certain ways feels like a new direction for me. I’m not sure if it’s going to be a direction, but it’s certainly a new place to go. But Russell said, “Oh, that seems more like the old you.” The “old you” that he meant was the Invisible Mosaic II world, which was much more strongly dissonant, not really process-like in any way but more moment form. Pieces of Winter Sky is definitely a series of moments. But even in Mosaic, there was a process going on. It has a moment form and process form. So I see the relationships, but it felt very different. At 52, I’m a different person than I was when I was 29.

Photo of Kernis in his 20s

Aaron Jay Kernis in the 1980s. Photo courtesy Aaron Jay Kernis.

FJO: Has reading the book made you see those connections or is this something that you have always thought about?
AJK: Leta and I talked a lot about the connections through the whole process of [her working on] the book. As I said, that was really a major focus for her. What I’m curious to see as I reflect on this more is what the connections are that I don’t perceive. Are there patterns? Which patterns am I less familiar with and are they more revelatory? Are there any or have I known all this? When I finished the book the first time, I thought about my newest work. Are these works related? Or are they something totally different? I don’t have the perspective yet. I don’t have enough distance from them to know quite where they fall on the continuum of cycling relationships.
FJO: Well, something you definitely have distance from at this point is dream of the morning sky. You mentioned being 23 and suddenly the process wasn’t as interesting to you and you were doing other things. There are certainly older pieces of yours that are still in your catalog and that people perform. But dream of the morning sky put you in a public sphere in a way that nothing else had up until that point. Getting a piece played by the New York Philharmonic at the age of 23 was huge for you. I think it ultimately not only shaped your subsequent compositional career, but also your role as a musical citizen and mentor to other composers.
AJK: I agree.
FJO: In hindsight having had such an experience so early on definitely seems to have been the initial impetus for you eventually founding the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute many years later. It also seems like something that planted the seed for your ongoing role as a composition teacher. So what happened at that time that ultimately led you to a lifetime of wanting to provide that kind of compositional nurturing to other people?
AJK: There were a couple of aspects. One was that Jacob Druckman was a very supportive teacher to his students and he was very beloved by his students. He was very engaged with the music of his time and how students fit into what interested him, and what he saw was going on in music as a whole. Definitely that experience with the New York Philharmonic came about because of him, and I saw firsthand how such an experience could change one’s life. So now, whether it’s a recommendation for a commission or for a residency, I understand how important—public or private—these steps can be for young composers. For some it will make a big life difference and also an aesthetic difference; for others it will just be a step along the way. In Minnesota, when I was given an opportunity to help craft that kind of experience for young composers, it was on a much bigger scale over many years. But it infuses my teaching as well, and my view of young composers.

Photo of young Aaron Jay Kernis

A young Aaron Jay Kernis around the time of his breakthrough at the Horizons Festival. Photo courtesy Aaron Jay Kernis.

FJO: In terms of your teaching, I think there’s something that’s particularly practical about the training that people get at Yale, both from you and from the other people on the faculty there. A testimony to that is how many extremely successful composers have CVs that state that they went to Yale. Obviously, something’s happening at Yale that’s creating a recipe for composers to function so effectively in this field in terms of their practical skills.
AJK: There’s no doubt that they get some of that from what we relate of our experiences to them, real world suggestions about where to look, where to go. There are varying of degrees of entrepreneurship among the faculty but I don’t think by any means that it comes from the faculty all the time, or specifically from them. It’s an environment where these graduate students, if they’re so enthused, can get involved with the drama school or other productions around campus, and already find outlets for their entrepreneurial efforts. We certainly see composers who come in and they’re already raring to go to make concert series, to put together ensembles, to get involved in the theater world at Yale.
FJO: To bring it back to your experience as a 23-year-old having the New York Philharmonic perform dream of the morning sky: the other thing, besides serving as a model for your subsequent role as a mentor to younger composers, is that it placed you as a composer within a zeitgeist, for better or worse. The festival was called Since 1968, a New Romanticism? Suddenly there was this new label. Labels always simplify things and it definitely put your music in a context which it doesn’t completely fit in comfortably.
AJK: It never did. It was a strand in my work; it comes and goes. When I was writing a bunch of pieces using sonata form, should I have been called part of a new classicism? I don’t know.
FJO: Except when you were using those forms they were big and expansive, more like the way that the 19th-century Romantic composers explored those forms than the way, say, Haydn would have.
AJK: No. I definitely think it’s more toward the Romantic, looking both at the teeming inner world and nature and art and writing; the influences are very vast.
FJO: And certainly the long line, the idea of a long melody that grows and keeps developing—
AJK: I start with that for virtually every piece. Even if today I’m sitting down to write a short piece that is the antithesis of that. I’m always thinking of myself as wanting to create the long line through singing, through breathing; that’s the starting place.
FJO: Where did that come from?
AJK: I think it came from very formative experiences as a choral singer and the first lessons I ever had as a child. My mother started me with voice lessons, just completely out of the blue. I have no idea what inspired her to do that. I think she always wanted to be in the theater. She had a dream of herself somehow in show business. And so she started me at six or something with voice lessons. I learned to use my voice a bit, then choral music, then hearing Mahler, all kinds of ringing big bells, playing the violin, and long lines there. So it’s pretty central.

Cover of Cedille CD of Kernis orchestral music

Kernis’s love for Mahler pervades all of the music on a disc of his orchestral music featuring the Grant Park Orchestra conducted by Carlos Kalmar released on Cedille Records.

FJO: To take this back to teaching, this probably didn’t come from any of the people you studied composition with. I don’t really think of Druckman or Wuorinen as long line composers.
AJK: I don’t think anyone ever talked to me about that, no. I don’t have a memory of that being anything coming from any of them.
FJO: So what did come from them?
AJK: Different things from everyone, of course. My first teacher, Theodore Antoniou, was very important. He started me with kind of Hindemithian counterpoint and voice leading exercises, also some 12-tone row manipulation exercises, then a lot of looking at European avant-garde scores with extended techniques, both his work and the work of other Greek composers. And George Crumb, of course, was a great discovery of mine at 15. [Antoniou] always emphasized that if you’re writing for an instrument, the music you write should only be able to be played on that instrument. So he was always stressing the unique qualities of every instrument. I haven’t necessarily followed that all the time, but it was certainly an opening idea for a 15-year-old to really look at what the sonic and technical possibilities are that made each situation unique.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear about that from you since, by not following his advice and transforming your English horn concerto Colored Field into a cello concerto, you wound up receiving the Grawemeyer Award.
AJK: Well, of course, the cello version can’t be played on any other instrument. Though you’re right, and it’s both for practical reasons and feeling comfortable with, à la Bach, making various versions of pieces work on other instruments, sharing the love in a way.

Score sample from Colored Field (English horn version) Copyright © 1994 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

Measures 62 through 65 from the original version of Colored Field, for English horn and orchestra by Aaron Jay Kernis.
Copyright © 1994 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

Score sample of the cello version of Colored Field. Copyright © 1994 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY This arrangement Copyright © 2000 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

The exact same passage in the version of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Colored Field for cello and orchestra.
Copyright © 1994 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY
This arrangement Copyright © 2000 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

But that doesn’t work with many pieces. I mean, it’s not something I’ve done for more than maybe five or six pieces; it’s not an everyday thing. When I wrote Trio in Red, the clarinet part is a clarinet part. It uses the entire range and focus, just as Antoniou would have stressed, to make it special for that instrument.
So, that was Theodore. Then through Joe Franklin, I was exposed to Relâche and the Philadelphia new music scene—a lot of early post-minimalism and highly theatrical music. After that, [I studied with] John Adams for a very short time. Certainly it was really fundamental to hear Shaker Loops in a big loft space in San Francisco and to hear his first successes like Harmonium and Harmonielehre. It was just around the time that his life was really changing. But San Francisco didn’t quite match with my metabolism; I was antsy that it was so relaxed.
So I came back to New York and studied for a year with Wuorinen and just slammed into a confrontational way of teaching. It was scary. I was terrified for a number of weeks. I was like, before a lesson, “What is this man going to say?” I knew he was a master and it was a very important year. Very much to his credit, I think he saw that I wasn’t looking to study strict 12-tone technique and so we worked through other issues: structure and language to a certain extent. Very pithy, highly focused, and very important confrontations occurred.

Then Elias Tanenbaum—I already had all this stuff to process. Elias was a great teacher to be with. He was very supportive, but also—in his kind of needling way—he made me own up to what I was choosing to do and also recognize that the possibilities were large. Following that, rather than having specific techniques that they were imparting, the teachers from that point on were more generous in the sense of following what I was doing and making comments. After that point, I didn’t feel I had teachers that were trying to fundamentally change me.
FJO: So now that you’re teaching young composers, how do you balance the need to expose students to the wide range of techniques that you’re fluent in while making sure they don’t turn into clones of you?
AJK: As I teach for more years, the goal for me has been to learn more and more patience. At first, I came in with some expectations about what I was looking for. Over time, I just dropped those more and more. It’s about each student: the work they’re producing and what could be strengthened. It’s about what kind of exercises or tool-strengthening devices could be put in their direction that they can grow from, and trying—whether it’s over a half year or a year—to figure out more and more about who they are and what their work is doing and to help it be even more of what it already is.
FJO: In terms of who you are, your composing with long lines pre-dated any of your teachers, and it has stuck with you. Being very interested in process in your early years, on the other hand, is something that has slipped away, and you have grown more and more toward writing music intuitively. But intuition is something you really can’t teach. You can’t even teach it to yourself.
AJK: No, and it’s always so awkward to use that word because even if you’re using an absolutely rigid and unyielding series of processes that essentially make all the decisions for you, even then you’re using your intuition to structure those processes—unless you’re giving over choices to an external structure like the first computer that LeJaren Hiller used. Even so, intuition is always a part. What sounds good? What sounds good to you? What are choices where you think, “Oh this doesn’t quite work; I’ll change that to make it more internally satisfying”? So it’s always very difficult to talk about becoming more intuitive. But right now it’s true. My process feels quite different. I’m more interested in going where I don’t know what the next step is and how I get to that next step, rather than thinking, “Oh, I want to go here or go here. How do I go there?” It’s a different enough change and it’s frustrating to do that for too long; it gets very tiring actually. I can’t decide whether I want to go back to a more pre-compositional ordering of some elements or to play this out for a little bit longer. You have to be so alert at every moment to leave doors open and it’s very difficult.
FJO: When you say leave doors open, what does that mean structurally? Could you give me a specific example?
AJK: This is key to pieces like Winter Sky and Perpetual Chaconne and my new viola concerto, the last movement particularly, and even Color Wheel—that’s sort of where that began but I still had some big goals along the way. I’m very visual when I write. I’m seeing a path. I’m seeing a series of steps, or of textures, or coupled harmonies that are core harmonies, that I’m heading towards. In those more recent pieces I just mentioned, there is more a sense of a series of moments. There’s still a developmental long line in those moments, but a number of them were written as kind of blocks. It’s more an assemblage than writing in a through-composed way. So I’ll write things more out of order and not exactly know what’s the end, what’s the middle. It will develop out of—as I said—a kind of more intuitive process rather than an external idea of what was going to happen when it began.

1998 Photo of Kernis (left) and his wife Evelyne Luest with Kernis holding his Pulitzer Prize

Aaron Jay Kernis and his wife, pianist Evelyne Luest at the 1998 Pulitzer Prize Ceremony.

FJO: Everything we’ve been talking about has been really abstract. But one of the main things that’s served as a catalyst for pieces of yours throughout the decades has been responding to an external source, whether it’s history, current events, or something personal such as the death of your parents or the birth of your twins who’ve now been around for more than a decade. The Gulf War inspired your second symphony. One of the most heart-wrenching stories is the story you tell of your visit to Birkenau and how that triggered Colored Field. These extra-musical elements are often what draw non-composers into this music; it has emotional gravitas in a way that, say, a Symphony No. 12 does not.
AJK: Right. That’s something that hasn’t stopped, but the influences more recently are more internal and very personal. But all of the things you mention, all of the external reactions trigger emotions. And emotions then trigger sequences of ideas or ways of conceptualizing a musical form. That’s definitely what happened. I can still feel a relationship between the way I thought about big forms in Colored Field or the pieces that I consider the war pieces, and this emotional triggering of ideas and moods. Pieces of Winter Sky is crucial for me right now because it’s like those roughly 18 pieces were like 18 melancholy studies. I didn’t want to call the piece that. In fact, it almost reminds me of that black and white film that was done with Cage’s 101—you have what seems like an unchanging series of grays that are changing very subtly—or in the late work of Rothko. That was the experience of that piece, not looking at the sky when it was blue, but for days only a slightly changing gray sky. What would it be like to write different sections that reflected variations on that, how that affected me visually? The ironic thing is that it is an incredibly colorful piece, with all this metal percussion, and all this distinctive writing for each of the instruments, going back to what Antoniou said. Yet the experience of creating it had to do with finding differences in the similarity of a fairly unchanging picture.
FJO: But the medium you express these emotional responses in is this abstract form of music. You’re not writing short stories or poetry. You’re not painting the landscape. When people hear this music, they don’t necessarily get what’s in your head, especially what you were saying about a gray sky. They’re hearing all this color with the percussion. So how important is it for you that people get this? And how much do you feel people can get?
AJK: In the fall I had a performance in Princeton of Colored Field. Before and after the performance they invited a number of schools to bring their classes and expose the kids to the piece and to the background of the piece and to respond to it. I just got in the mail this incredible artwork and story writing that kids did through the experience of hearing Colored Field. It’s just amazing.

Art created in response to hearing Kernis' music by children 1 of 3

Colored Field by Shubha Vasisht (who last year was in the 7th Grade at The Hun School).

Art created in response to hearing Kernis' music by children 2 of 3

The Face in the Sky by Bailey Eng (who last year was in the 6th Grade at Montgomery Lower Middle School).

Art created in response to hearing Kernis' music by children 3 of 3

Bird’s Prey by Upekha Samarasekera (who last year was in 7th Grade at Montgomery Upper Middle School).
[Ed note: These three original art works were all created in response to hearing the Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s November 3, 2013 performance of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Colored Field by students attending nine different New Jersey middle schools through Listen Up!, an initiative of the PSO BRAVO! education program sponsored by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. They were among a total of 36 art works that were part of the exhibition “Listening to the Colored Field” which has been shown at the Arts Council of Princeton and The Jewish Center of Princeton. All are reproduced with permission.

FJO: Did they just hear the piece or did they also get a program note about it or some kind of pre-concert talk by you?
AJK: They didn’t get a talk from me. They might have gotten the program note, from the CD. But some of what I described as my experience is deliberately left incomplete. The thing that fascinates me most is to see the variety of responses to it. The responses could be completely 180 degrees away from what my original experience was. That doesn’t matter at all to me. I hope that people will have their own experiences and will feel something special or deeply; that’s the power of music for me. Hopefully it will allow people to recognize things inside them and maybe they can give voice to in words or maybe they have no words for it.
FJO: Paradoxically the fact that music does not have fixed meaning gives it even more meaning.
AJK: Exactly. Very well said.
FJO: But because you’ve referenced synaesthesia in some pieces, you obviously in your own perception feel there is transference from one sense mode to another.
AJK: Definitely. The way I compose, too. Not all the time, but a lot of times, I’m just walking around and I’m not so much imagining notes. It’s hard to explain. It’s like I’m seeing textures. I think I was exposed early enough to Penderecki, Xenakis, Ravel, that those sonic worlds created a kind of visual relationship and a kind of emotional, textual relationship. I walk around and imagine things, but they’re not necessarily fixed notes, not necessarily tuned. It’s more like how I see shapes; it’s abstract. For a long time, I would come home and try to find a way to form those into something I could feel and grapple with. Now I’ve left that step out. I’m not drawing big structural plans out.
FJO: A lot of what you have written has been memorial music in some way. The earliest unrevised piece of yours I know is the Meditation in Memory of John Lennon, which is a gorgeous lament for Lennon. I can hear a through line from that all the way to your Ballad for eight cellos, and there are many other pieces of yours along the way that have this quality, too. Remembering the dead has brought out some of your most beautiful music, your most moving and most transformative music, at least to me. I find that an interesting through line in terms of what music can mean. I didn’t know your parents, but I have a sense of them somehow because of the music you wrote in their memory. It’s not a clear sense because music is abstract, but nevertheless there’s something in there that reached me and that can reach anybody who hears it and that makes it a more universal thing.

Hand written score sample from Meditation for cello and piano.Copyright © 1981 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

A passage from Aaron Jay Kernis’s handwritten score for Meditation in Memory of John Lennon for cello and piano.
Copyright © 1981 by Associated Music Publishers, Inc., (BMI), New York, NY
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

AJK: The experience of writing those pieces was always very multi-faceted. In Lennon’s case, it was being around Central Park, being in very close proximity when it happened, and looking for both an element of the music of his that I loved and that affected me and finding some small way to transmit that in that piece. But any of those memorializing pieces have an element that is not necessarily one that people would hear, an element of what the importance of that person to me was in some musical way. I could tell you specifically what those are, but it’s richer than just that. There have been a lot of those pieces. My cousin Michael, who was just a few years older than me, died very young while the Trumpet Concerto was being written. And the Viola Concerto is also a kind of memorial; it’s not so much for anyone that’s passed away, but it’s about how we change over our lives, how things disappear and reappear, get together and get frayed.
FJO: Now in terms of the things that have shaped you, so far we have only talked about texts intermittently, but you’ve written tons of choral music and song cycles both for solo singer with piano and solo singer with ensemble. So text has been extremely important to you. And, when you set a text, that text already comes with its own narrative and set of emotions.
AJK: That’s a frame to hold the music.
FJO: At the onset of our conversation you were saying that you’ve started taking text and reworking it to suit your own needs rather than crafting music that will serve those text’s needs. I’d like to flesh that out a little bit more—what it means in terms of the kinds of narrative you’re hoping to tell using someone else’s words.
AJK: I’ve done this three or four times now. There’s a practical element where the texts are simply too long to set completely. Or I don’t like parts of the text. I recently did a setting of Psalm 104. That’s a huge psalm and I had nine minutes, so I chose the bits that I liked best and tried to knit them together so it didn’t seem like there was a huge hole.
One thing that made vocal music always a little easier is because the emotions are there [already in the words], and are something to respond to. And, as I said, it’s a kind of frame, a time frame to keep the whole work together that the text helps set. As my approach becomes a little bit less structured, it makes me feel freer to play both with musical form and more abstractly to not have a fixed container of the text as well. Another thing, too, is that I’ve missed having really successful collaborations with other writers and other artists. It’s something I really would like to do more in the future. In a way, this creates a kind of collaboration with the text. Even though it’s not with a person, rather it’s just taking a completely fixed form and making it more fluid.
FJO: Your mentioning collaboration with other writers immediately makes me think of opera.
AJK: Yeah, opera is something that has just eluded my grasp. The projects I had did not work out. They were very difficult, and at very difficult times also. For example, I had an opera for Santa Fe Opera. And it was not working with the writer, and in the middle of the process my mother died. Then a number of months later my father died. The kind of intensive pressure that was necessary to make that piece work in that situation was just too hard, so it just went away.
I’m not sure how this will happen yet, but I’m seeing more theater; I’m looking for playwrights. I want to keep open and not just sit here in my studio. In the future I hope that some collaborations will develop. I had a very nice collaboration with a choreographer last year, and I had at least one or two experiences with installations and that was great. I would love to do more of that.
FJO: In terms of doing things in order to put yourself in an uncomfortable zone—not having a structure, not knowing where it’s going to go, to go somewhere else. What would be maximum discomfort?
AJK: Maximum discomfort is different from finding your way without a form. The uncomfortable question is a different one, because the process of composing is always very difficult and no one is a worse critic than I am toward myself. Yet it can be extremely pleasurable when it’s going well, and when it’s purring along. I think I’m looking toward collaboration more with a sense of possibility, rather than a sense of creating more difficulty for myself, setting up invigorating challenges rather than wrenching challenges.

Kernis and his wife with their two young twins, one sitting on his lap, the other on his shoulders

Kernis, his wife Evelyne and their twins in 2004. Photo courtesy Aaron Jay Kernis.

FJO: Of course, the biggest challenge is balancing it all—the music you are writing, your teaching commitments, plus having a family, two young children and a wife who’s also a concert pianist. How do you squeeze it all in?
AJK: Well, it’s difficult. Some things have had to go. The thing that’s most clearly gone is concert going. I have work time during the day and time with my kids at night. It’s very special time, unlike any other. And I don’t travel to performances as much, unless they’re premieres. I love to travel, but now it’s time to travel with my kids. Luckily I’m in a situation where I can teach one day a week and have the rest of the time to compose. It’s a full day. Sometimes it spills over to another day, or some students come down here and we have some extra time. But I try very much to fit it into one day. My composing time is really pretty sacred.
FJO: Well I’m glad you made time to do this with us.
AJK: Me too.

keyboard of piano with pens and toy on top

This photo of the corner of the piano in Aaron Jay Kernis’s composing studio taken by Molly Sheridan during our visit probably shows the combination of worlds Kernis must navigate on a daily basis even better than our conversation did.

Composer Biographies (Famous Author Edition)

Let’s face it, writing a composer biography is hard. It’s really super hard to write one’s own biography, and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever met a composer who is totally content with his or her own bio. I consider updating my own bio to be pure and unadulterated torture. Much of the time these bios all sound the same—a drone of awards, commissions, and famous, impressive teachers. Boring! It would be great to see some more creative approaches to the composer bio, as other artists seem to be able to do on occasion; to read a biography that really provides a sense of the composer as a person.

Last week we here in Baltimore had a bit of fun on Twitter, when Oscar Bettison began tweeting about “problem phrases” in composer biographies. For example:

Oscar Bettison Tweet 1

Several folks joined in the discussion, and there was some effort to come up with:

Andrew Nogal tweet

Several attempts were made, and while #composerbiononos seemed like the best option, Oscar made a good point:

Oscar tweet 2

Anyway, Molly had a good idea for how to approach writing a composer bio:

NMBx tweet

It would be brilliant to see some bios like that! Long story short, we started getting completely goofy about this topic—I believe there were also cold meds involved—and started imagining biographies written in the style of various famous authors:

NMBx tweet 2

Alex tweet

This sparked a bit of creativity (including in the spelling of author names, ahem), which, although not so much effective in the traditional sense of the hashtag, was awfully entertaining nonetheless. Behold a few examples:

Famous Author tweets

My very favorite one of all arrived later that evening:

cage bio tweet

I don’t know about you, but if more bios started like these tweets, I would definitely keep reading!

Additional examples are welcome in the comment section, and/or on Twitter. Have fun!