Tag: composer career paths

Emerge, Bridge, Connect

growing_tomatoes

The task of “emerging” artists is to slowly grow into their industry. To create their community, one conversation at a time.

This process relies upon human hugs, handshakes, and the, “Oh! I’ve heard so much about you and how amazing that we’ve just run into each other at the same tuba and microtonal keyboard concert!” But during quarantine, this spontaneous growth of our root networks has slacked for some and completely stalled for others.

Throughout 10 weeks of quarantine, I’ve felt the urge to isolate myself completely, definitely more than “being safe” necessitates. Some of it comes from fear, or from lack of confidence.

By shutting out my friends and connections, I put off the psychological work of believing in myself, promoting myself, and sometimes even writing music.

I am isolated in Los Angeles, where I daily write morning pages, grow tomatoes, and sprout lettuce from a severed romaine stem. The tomato plants are stalling at about 3 inches high, and the romaine has shot up 8 or 9 inches, almost defiantly.

I started therapy. I exuberantly shaved half of my head.

I cook complicated as well as simple dishes, and voraciously type into a document called “Ak’s growing cookbook.” I first opened it in 2016 when I began my masters in composition and started trying to remember the dishes I would create.

I still write music, but quarantine gave me the motivation to hit the gas on my side job. I’m seizing my new path with passion. After months of silence, I’m listening to music again (at hilariously low volumes) while I organize my to-do lists.

It’s a relief to be a beginner again. I am energized by the fact that I can develop new skills over the course of a few weeks. We (all of us), truly, no longer have to be disheartened, thinking that every worthwhile skill must be taken up at age 3 or 5.

I sometimes doubt if I can call myself a composer when I’m spending more than 50% of my time on my side-hustle as a freelance writer / virtual assistant. But as more emerging artists turn to other forms of employment, we will challenge our own notions about what artists are supposed to do. We will redefine how we spend our time and intellectual resources.

And having a double-barreled profession title doesn’t make us any less creative. We will still call ourselves what we know we are.

  • I’ve felt the urge to isolate myself completely, definitely more than “being safe” necessitates.

    Akshaya Tucker
  • Having a double-barreled profession title doesn’t make us any less creative.

    Akshaya Tucker
  • We need to remember that we create community.

    Akshaya Tucker

In fact, bridging professional worlds may force us to confront the shortcomings of existing arts institutions. We may actually gather wisdom from people working outside the arts.

As I learn more about the small businesses who are my clients, I fantasize about bringing what I’ve learned back to the arts. Someday, I tell myself, the skills I’m gathering will coalesce into purpose and benefit the artistic community.

In the meantime, they are helping me survive.

***

While grieving human-to-human music-making, don’t lose touch with those who inspire you.

We are grieving together. Performers are grieving lost performances, composers are grieving lost premieres and commissions. And although the next concert series won’t be able to hire us, we can still send a friendly note checking in on staff members and performers.

In the end, we need to remember that we create community. Your “new music” community might just be a handful of friends. They might not even listen to new music. They’re probably the people who make you feel safe and supported. We shouldn’t wait for a group of (possibly intimidating) people to find and accept us. Right now we just need people, not “important” people.

When you have energy to spare, offer it up to your friends.

Most of them will say, “Oh, thank you for reaching out!” with a genuine sigh of relief. The relief is gratitude for that one thing you did: you gathered the materials — which you can both use, now, to build bridges between each other. When you return to that pit of loneliness, craving people, or just craving — your friends will walk back towards you along the bridge.

Maybe performers, composers, and commissioners can pick up the emotional pieces from projects that have fallen through. Maybe we can focus on getting to know one another. Maybe we actually can still make something together, even if it’s two different batches of odd, dry-looking bread. If we can spare the time for each other, our relationships will be that much deeper. Our community will thrive.

In our subsection of Los Angeles, we are making a return to the hyper-local. We are bartering homemade lemon cake for toilet-paper, a haircut for homemade pierogies, or a Zoom weight-training session for original “relaxation” music. The personality of it all feels delicious. Money never left me feeling this way.

Our hyper-local sound-making leaves me with a newfound curiosity about the lives of the people living in my neighborhood.

At exactly 8:00 pm every night, a steam vent opens and my neighborhood explodes with shouting, bells, and the banging of pots and pans. It’s cathartic. (A Ph.D. student could write about the importance of our exuberant yowls: a post-verbal communication style.)

Even without a (musical) performance, here is an audience.

Yes, we’re buffered by a bit more space. But sound forms a transient bridge between us.

“Thank you, health-care workers!” my neighbor shouts at the top of her lungs. Sometimes her toddler shouts the phrase after her, a tiny yet powerful voice breaking through the dusk.

This is the kind of sound-making I want to be a part of.

It requires us only to be where we are.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

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Brilliant, Funny, and Fueled by Passion—Remembering Dominick Argento (1927-2019)

Dominick Argento in the audience for a performance in 2014. (Photo by Bruce Silcox, courtesy of VocalEssence and Boosey & Hawkes)

If you were a kid growing up in Minnesota in the 1960s and you were a kid with an intense hunger to create your own music, you found yourself growing up in a kind of Coney Island of creativity There was Big Reggie’s Danceland, a big old barn of a place where every weekend you, and as many of your friends as you could pack into your car, would dance to music of the hottest young rock groups like the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones. Minneapolis was ground zero for the big bands of the Upper Midwest like The Trashmen and the Underbeats.  Some of your friends were even in those bands and they were producing big hits like “Surfin’ Bird” and “Foot Stompin’”.  It seemed that everyone was creating their own original music.

Every church in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul had at least one choir and everyone sang in at least one of them. If you had season tickets to the performing arts series at the newly opened Guthrie Theater, no matter where you sat you were no further than 52 feet from the stage you were awash in the energy and musical air of Janis Joplin, James Taylor, Mose Allison, and Miles Davis.

When you went to plays at the Guthrie Theater, the music for each play was newly composed and performed live.  If you had student season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra, yes of course you would hear standard repertoire, but your head exploded with new works by Penderecki, Legeti, Skrowaczewski, and Lutosławski.

If you loved opera, you wrangled some tickets for the Center Opera (which you knew always produced new work) where you heard Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, Carl Orff’s The Story of the King and the Wise Woman (Die Kluge), Eric Stokes’s Horspfalseason after season of newly conceived work.

Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!

Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!  He was a founder of the Center Opera company, opening their first season with his Masque of Angels and creating numerous chamber operas for them, including Postcard from Morocco, The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, A Waterbird Talkand many more.

At the Guthrie Theater we heard Dominick Argento’s scores for Shoemaker’s Holiday and House of Atreus. On the Guthrie Theater’s music season we heard Dominick Argento’s Letters from Composers and on the Minnesota Orchestra’s seasonDominick Argento’s Variations for Orchestra and Ring of Time. Not only did we hear his music, but he was always in the audience, listening, talking with people, part of the same world he was addressing with his music.

Being 17 years old then, and certain that I would go to the University of Minnesota, study voice, and become the next, biggest star of the Metropolitan Opera, it didn’t occur to me that Dominick Argento was also on the music faculty there.

At age 19, discovering that I loved to compose and, if I would take myself seriously, I could study composition with the master composers at the University of Minnesota, Dominick became my teacher and I became his student.

Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor.

Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor. He passed us in the halls, smiling (shyly?) but rarely stopping to engage any of us in conversation. We admired his focus, and his devotion to his work.  We students jockeyed for coveted positions in his classes, especially his History of Opera class. His lectures were brilliant, funny and fueled by his passion for and love of opera. Class after class he regaled us with stories about each opera, always colored from his composer’s perspective. He loved the human voice and would praise various singers who inspired operatic roles in the works we studied. He loved composers who loved the human voice. Be it Verdi, his hero, or Gounod, not his hero, we were transported into each composer’s world and immersed in the circumstances that influenced the creation of each opera.  I learned the operas, of course, but perhaps more importantly I learned that a passion for something can light a powerful fire. Dominick’s passion for opera and the human voice resulted in 14 operas, numerous mono-dramas and song cycles, his Pulitzer Prize, and the Center Opera Company, now the Minnesota Opera.

Such a ferociously quick wit Dominick had!  No gathering of Dominick’s students goes by without one of us re-telling the story from his orchestration class on percussion. On one particular day we were immersed in the lecture on metallophones. He held up a vibraslap, looked at it for a moment, looked at us and said “elephant contraceptive.”  We were too in awe of him to laugh, but we’ve been laughing ever since, and we all know and orchestrate the vibraslap in original ways.  Or the lesson on harp, one of his most beloved instruments. In just one class we learned that the pedals were D-C-B-E-F-G-A, Dominick for “D”, Argento for” A” , plus “your pinky finger is for tea drinking, not harp” and “you never hear the attack of a note, only the decay—what you hear is the air.”

Dominick believed that it wasn’t possible to teach composition.  Rather he worked to guide a (student) composer’s natural gift to its best iteration.  You couldn’t look to him to tell you what to do or how to compose. You were expected to establish your own practice techniques and work habits and arrive at your lesson with your piece in shape.  Individual lessons with him were an adventure in silence.  I would bring him my score, which he would lay out on his desk and read to himself before making any comments.   He expected me to come ready to spar with his huge intellect, his razor-sharp wit, and his undeniable professional experience. And spar we did—only the conversation between us took place in my head as I perched on the wicker chair with the blown-out seat that he set by the side of his university-issued grey metal desk, and I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer. I thought, “Will that damn ash fall into that glass ashtray?  No, no, concentrate on the composition he’s reading!”—which he read to himself, not out loud, not commenting. But then he would zero in on the one, most important issue in the work that day—which I knew already because I sat there questioning everything about my work as I tried to imagine what he would say. It took me a while to understand that his teaching style instilled in each of his students three essential gifts: creative courage, critical evaluation, and self-confidence.

I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer.

The lesson ended always with good humor, his cigarette snuffed out, and a deep sense that we, teacher and student, had met at the cross-roads of respect for the art form we both hoped to serve.

I think the most important lesson Dominick gave to me, and to all of us who were fortunate to have worked with him, is that there is a profession – composing music – and while it poses deep challenges the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.  The pleasure lies in the community of musicians, performers, writers, concert producers, and audience who come together in a huge joy-fest around the composers’ work.  He modeled this for us every day and continued to model it throughout the years. Many late nights, as I work through a difficult part of my composition, not feeling pleasure in the moment, I invoke his lesson—the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.

As I joined the profession and became a musical citizen contributing to the community by panel work or sitting on a Board of Directors, more often than not during a discussion which begged the advice of people who were not in the room at the time, Dominick’s name would be invoked along with a bit of his advice and wisdom.  Always sage and ethical, his advice was remembered, quoted and always welcomed.

Libby Larsen, Dale Warland, Dominick Argento, and John Neuchterlein seated at a table in a restaurant.

Dominick Argento (top right) and Libby Larsen (bottom left) with Dale Warland (top left) and then ACF President & CEO John Neuchterlein (bottom
right) at the St. Paul Hotel Grill in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014.

Over the past forty (really…forty?) years I would often run into him during intermission at concerts.   These were happy, brief encounters, where our talks were always shaded with his insight and wit.  We asked after each other’s health. He always asked what I was “working on” and I always asked him the same, because we both knew that we were always “working on” a new piece – that was our mutual bond.  We would exchange thoughts on the latest compositional trends.  We would pat each other on the arm and head back into the concert hall.  During the last few years, when Dominick’s hearing began to fail, our intermission and lobby encounters were still happy and brief though his verbal witticisms were shorter with their meanings understood through our years of association.

The work itself is not work, it is pleasure.

Now, as I finish a letter of support for the University of Minnesota Archives to document his work on digital technology, I recognize again and permanently Dominick Argento’s mastery of his talent, his times and his culture and his determination to put his music into his world.  In doing this he taught  each of us who had the good fortune to work with him how a professional classical composer in this country lives and works, how work is pleasure, how pleasure is in community, how community contributes to life, how life is joy, how joy is music.   Thank you, Dominick.

Don’t Wait Until You Hear Sirens

Staying Composed

I think of chaotic events like an illness or a death in the family as an ambulance cutting a path through my life. No matter how congested a street is, there is always room for an ambulance; there is always room for everyone on a road to work together, move over, and create space for the ambulance to pass.

Last week, I canceled a trip to a premiere because I’d been grappling for a few weeks with the kind of anxiety that makes just leaving the house a challenge. The premiere was a multi-movement work where each composer had written a different movement; my movement was four minutes long. I figured the ensemble wouldn’t miss one composer out of many.

Still, I agonized over that decision. My flight and hotel were booked and had been booked for months. How unprofessional does it look to back out of attending your own premiere? I used to long for the day I’d be traveling around the country often, with my flight and hotel paid for by whomever was commissioning me. It was built into my definition of success: being paid to create the kind of work I wanted to create, and traveling often to go hear it. And here I was, about to cancel exactly the kind of trip I’ve worked so hard to make a part of my life.

If you’ve reached a breaking point but still feel as if you can’t prioritize your health over your work, imagine the path that a family emergency or a physical ailment would create for you.

When I’ve reached a mental or physical breaking point but no emergency is carving out a clear path for me, I remind myself that an ambulance makes its own path. If you’ve reached a breaking point but still feel as if you can’t prioritize your health over your work, imagine the path that a family emergency or a physical ailment would create for you. In any of those scenarios, you’d be forced to readjust your schedule.

On a trip to New York several weeks ago for a different premiere, I found myself in Grand Central Station on the verge of a panic attack, feeling unable to breathe and like I had little idea where I was. The year so far had felt like nothing but travel: to Boston, to Kansas City, to Minneapolis, all in the span of a month. To Portland and New York City back-to-back. And then, last week, another flight ahead of me, the fourth weekend in a row where I’d be out of town.

This year has been abundantly full of wonderful things. I’m getting married in two months. I’m releasing a book I’ve been writing for more than a year. I’ve had career-defining performances with some of the ensembles I admire most. And yet it’s this same season that has been slowly building up to where I found myself last week: with an amount of anxiety that I described, in the email I sent decisively canceling my trip, as debilitating. That’s what it had become.

In a few weeks, I’m publishing a book about anxiety in the creative process, with lessons learned from composing. It’s called Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety and Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life. I’m releasing a book about anxiety, and yet, ironically, this was the most anxious I’d felt in ten years: vice-grip chest pain matched by racing, runaway thoughts I suddenly found myself unable to control.

In the book, I’d outlined coping strategies for nearly every mental hurdle you face in a creative career, and yet I didn’t have one for this feeling: wanting to step outside of your life, just for a moment, to breathe.

I’m not talking here about an occasional day or even week where you put in long, sleepless hours or order take-out for several meals in a row in order to meet a deadline. I’m talking about how you build mental and physical well-being into your day-to-day creative life. Your mental health, your sanity, and your life are worth more than any performance, any piece, or any networking opportunity.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had a panic attack driving down the freeway. It was practically a cliché: heading down the 110 in traffic, merging over four lanes, I felt my chest constrict painfully, had trouble breathing, and went straight to the health center thinking I was having heart problems. I was sent home with a prescription for Ativan. I’d slice up the pills into tiny pieces, because taking a whole one made me too sleepy to do much of anything. Eventually, I abandoned them and aggressively pursued other tactics instead: yoga, walking, meditation, and a resignation to the fact that I was an anxious person; I would always be a bit anxious.

Having experienced both the frantic, sleepless, anxious variety of composing and the kind where I prioritize my health above all else, I can report: the second way of living is vastly preferable in every way. I am happier with the work I make. I am not happy all the time, but I take so much more pleasure in the life I’m living.

In the decade since, I’ve designed my life to look, for the most part, the way I want it to look. I am phasing out teaching piano; I am composing full-time, which has been my career goal since I was seventeen. I take on the kind of work that lights me up, that prompts a swift and gut-reaction yes. I’ve worked various part-time jobs (arranger, editor, nanny, teacher); now I’m here. I can meet friends for mid-morning coffees and work long into the evening. I can fly across the country to an artist residency for a month without worrying that I’m missing my job; my job comes with me. I can schedule premieres and school visits and a life spent driving to and from the airport. I thought I wanted that life. When I first started to get it, I thought I wanted even more of it: this life, but bigger premieres and even more travel. This is a tremendous privilege, I know, to complain about too much travel.

I don’t know about you, but on days where my anxiety is at its peak, the act of sitting down to work feels impossible and insurmountable. My daily routine priori­tizes my mental health, because without it, I put myself and my art at risk.

This year, I could feel anxiety slowly compounding into something beyond my rational control. I was using every tool I had in my arsenal to counteract it, but I was also crying on the kitchen floor in front of my baffled partner. For the first time, exercise wasn’t helping; neither were yoga or meditation or any of the other usually helpful reframing techniques I use so often. I knew everything was ultimately going to be okay—These were all good things! I was so lucky to have this career! This was all what I wanted!—and that still wasn’t enough.

If you need help for anxiety or depression, seek it out. If you need to ask a friend for advice or a collaborator for an extension on your deadline, ask them. Your collaborators—fellow humans—will understand, and if they don’t, they haven’t yet realized the simple truth that it’s hard to make art at all when your health desperately needs your attention.

This idea is sprinkled throughout Staying Composed: if you need help beyond these coping strategies, seek it out. At my most anxious, it was thinking about this chapter I’d already written, the one that’s quoted in italics above, that made me finally book an appointment with my doctor. If I was going to tell other people to imagine the path an ambulance would carve through their life when they most needed a break, I’d better imagine that ambulance’s path through my own suddenly unmanageable life.

Now, I’m finally trying medication for anxiety. Three weeks out before the launch of a book that—in its very subtitle—promises to offer tips on overcoming anxiety, I am trying an SSRI for the first time. I call my mother to catch up over the weekend, tell her that I’m trying anxiety medication, and she says that the book will need an extra chapter, implying that it would be something like: Ignore All This Advice and Just Take Drugs. “But it’s not like that—” I start to protest, and she says, gently, that she was joking. Still, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite. A dear friend reminded me recently that the book is about “overcoming anxiety,” not “not having anxiety in the first place,” and I think of this often.

Your present situation might not feel like a true emergency, but you can still carve out time to prioritize your well-being. You can always cancel an event. You can always ask for an extended deadline; you might not be granted one, but you can ask. No artistic project is worth sacrificing your mental and physical health.

Several days into the new medication and finally having sought help outside of myself, the ping-ponging between things to worry about (deadline, other deadline, other deadline, wedding, house is a mess, forgot to mail out scores, forgot to book a flight, forgot to plan crucial element of wedding, when am I going to write music?!…) is already less of a spin cycle on endless repeat. Now, it’s more like a list of worries that float to the surface but can once again be rationally dismissed or silenced until a later date. I still have all of the anxious thoughts, and I’m still using the coping strategies I talk about in the book, but right now, my anxieties aren’t growing roots and taking hold in an unmanageable way.

Taking that medication isn’t a failure to “stay composed”; it’s a direct result of listening to my body and doing what was best for my mind. Canceling that trip to a premiere was crucial to regaining control over my mental health. It was the result of asking what an ambulance clearing a path through my life would look like and carving out that time as soon as I realized I needed help.

So what does it mean to stay composed within a creative life? I’ve done my best to articulate every answer I have, and I’m still discovering new answers. But above all, I am positive that sometimes staying composed means making the difficult decision to put yourself before your career—to put life before creative as you live your creative life.


Staying Composed, new book by Dale Trumbore about overcoming anxiety and self-doubt within a creative life, will be available digitally and in print on June 4, 2019. Pre-order and sign up to receive additional updates here.

George Tsontakis: Getting Out of My Introvertism

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Since the early 1990s, George Tsontakis has had a career path that most American composers would envy. By then, he had already been signed by a major publisher and his music was not only being performed by soloists, ensembles, and orchestras all over country, most of it was also recorded. Then he received a significant music award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995 and a Guggenheim Fellowship the following year. The following decade, he was awarded the Charles Ives Living and the Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition, which are among the two largest cash prizes available to composers.

And yet throughout the time he received those accolades and to this day, rather calling tons of attention to himself or striving for more honors (e.g. he refuses to allow his music to be submitted for the Pulitzer Prize), Tsontakis aspires to a hermetic existence in the middle of the woods and composes something only when someone commissions it and nothing at all if no one does. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s a strategy that has served him well. Since the mid-1980s, there hasn’t been a time when he hasn’t been juggling multiple requests from people to write music for them.

“If nobody asked me to write a piece, I wouldn’t compose,” he admitted when we sat with him on his back porch as hummingbirds and bees flittered around and chipmunks scurried by. “I’d be doing other things. I’m very happy to not compose. … One of the secrets to [my] life is that I only write what people ask for. … Multiple performances, you get that through websites or whatever. I don’t care. I’m not a promoter. I’m not even a person that wants pieces to be played all the time.”

Despite this reticence, he remains in demand and continues to compose vital works. A 2017 Naxos American Classics recording collecting three recent concertos by Tsontakis—the klezmer-tinged Asana for clarinetist David Krakauer, the jazz-inflected True Colors for trumpeter Eric Berlin, and the Soros Foundation commissioned double violin concerto Unforgettable—is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s currently a third violin concerto in the works as well as a Requiem in honor of his mother who passed away in January.

And as for Tsontakis being a serene, quiet person, he seems anything but! During the afternoon we spent with him he regaled us with endless anecdotes about his early years—acting in musical theater and almost being chosen for the original cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, arguing with Stockhausen during a seminar in Italy, fending off becoming a furrier by telling his Greek father than he was a vegetarian, and then his father being proud of an early piece of his that Vincent Persichetti hated. Along the way, he also told tons of jokes and did impersonations of various musical luminaries—including his one-time teacher Roger Sessions. Often, it was difficult to get a word in edgewise!

So much so, in fact, that it was somewhat hard to swallow that Tsontakis considers himself an introvert and that being socially active was an acquired skill.

“I get in these moods where I don’t talk,” he explained. “I’m basically an extrovert when I’m with people, but when they leave I become completely introverted. It’s an interesting balance. I’m either a closet introvert or a closet extrovert. I don’t know!”


A conversation with Frank J. Oteri outside Tsontakis’s home in Shokan, New York
September 12, 2018—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri: We’ve only just started rolling the camera, but we’ve been having a great conversation since you picked us up in Kingston, New York, over an hour ago. It’s hard to believe it’s taken so long for us to finally record a substantive discussion with you.

“Every composer and every performer should have to act.”

George Tsontakis: Well, you did ask me one time, but I don’t do many things like this.  I’m very insular.  I think it was after the Grawemeyer [Award] or the Ives [Living], but I wasn’t talking to anybody.  I was composing. I get in these moods where I don’t talk.  I’m basically an extrovert when I’m with people, but when they leave I become completely introverted.  It’s an interesting balance.  I’m either a closet introvert or a closet extrovert.  I don’t know.  You’ve got to come out when you do teaching. And I’m an actor; I act in plays. When you’re doing a play, you have to close yourself up.  Acting really helped me to get out of my introvertism and at least pretend to enjoy people being here. Every composer and every performer should have to act. All these violinists are so serious.

FJO: You already sort of half answered the question with which I wanted to begin our conversation. Before I ever visited Vienna, which was only five years ago, people would always be shocked that I hadn’t traveled there since it’s such an important center of musical activity, to which I’d invariably respond, so are Harare, Zimbabwe; Lima, Peru; Seoul, South Korea—which are all places I had been. As a composer in this country, you’ve attained an enviable degree of prominence—you’ve won several major awards, a large amount of your music continues to be performed and has been recorded. And yet, you’ve chosen not to live in any of the major urban musical capitals.  I can see why.  It’s idyllic, despite being off the beaten path.  Still, it’s kind of a weird place to be doing what you do.  Or so it seems to me.  Maybe it’s not.

GT: Well, it depends.  I mean, if I lived in an urban area, it wouldn’t be Vienna.  That’s a museum, as most of classical music is these days.  If it’s not a contemporary music festival or concert, it’s museum stuff.  This is the perfect place to be.  Everybody else is in the wrong place as far as I’m concerned.  But it depends on what your philosophy is.  I’ve had 21-year-old students at Bard who have bigger Wikipedia pages than I do, because they’re reaching out and they’re trying to be in another place all the time.  The urban area is now wireless, so you can be in the country and still be reaching out instead of looking in.  But Bach hardly ever left Leipzig and he did pretty well.  Either you depend on promoting yourself or you depend on your product to be the promotion of what you do.  Of course, it helped that I had started off in a place like Juilliard. Having met people at Juilliard was a great thing.  It helped for about ten years. You’ve got to get off the ground, and maybe you do have to have a connection with some populated area, where there are musicians.  There’s nothing wrong with being with musicians.  Even at Bard, where it’s a tiny microcosmos of an urban community, there are fantastic musicians.  So I tell the composers, especially if they’re anti-social, you have to meet these performers, because these performers might be the ones that are going to do your works and request your works in the future.

When I was in New York City, I’d be walking down Broadway, and it led to a commission.  Somebody would say, “Hey George, you know, we’re thinking about you.  Thinking about doing something.”  The fact that we were in front of Zabars kicked it over to, “Yeah, let’s talk.”  That was a big difference.  So there are advantages.  But as far as creative energy goes, “New York, New York” and the other urban areas have a lot of static electricity.  You’re there walking around and you feel energy.  But is it your energy?  That’s the question.  By retreating to this quiet place, I know where my energy ends and the other energies begin, or vice versa.  So I don’t adopt any energies of the urban areas.  You have to make all your energy here.  It’s a more subtle energy, but it’s a dependable energy.  And I love nature, too.  You hear all these creatures? I feed birds. They inspire me as well. I have that in common with Messiaen. I love the birds, but I don’t know who they are.

A view of the Hudson River from George Tsontakis's home

FJO: But you actually grew up in New York City. You were born in Astoria.

GT: That’s another thing. I don’t need it because I’ve been there. I’ve done the urban area. Back to my advice to young composers: “I finished undergrad, where do I go to grad school?” I’ll say, “Where did you go to undergrad?” “Well, I went to New York, Manhattan School of Music.”  I say, “Well then, find a country place to go to for your master’s and doctorate maybe.” If they say, “I went to some country school in the middle of nowhere,” I’d say, “Find an urban school to go to because you need both to a degree.”  It’s the diversity of learning about these different poles.  There are some composers who will never leave the city.  That’s you, Frank!  Definitely, I can tell that already.  In one hour, you’ve demonstrated all the urban tendencies.  I think New York is one of the most provincial places I’ve ever seen.  A friend who lives in Woodstock read a chapter at the Woodstock Library about those New Yorkers who only read three publications.  And each one has New York in the title.

FJO: I don’t do that.

GT: No, I know. But he said, “Thank God for those people. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have anybody buying tickets!” New York is provincial that way. If a restaurant is not in The New York Times, you don’t go.  But out here, you have to fend for yourself. I also want to mention that there’s a lot of stuff going on here.  We’re only an hour and forty-five minutes from the George Washington Bridge. So, like the pollen, these New Yorkers come up here. They get off the Amtrak and we know what they’re doing, and they know what we’re doing.

A cottage which was George Tsontakis's first residence in Shokan and is now a cottage for guests.

FJO: [laughs] Okay, but I’m going to take you back to New York when you were growing up in the very tightly knit Greek community. I know that you had multiple interests, not just music; you were very deeply engrossed in theater. But how did you get exposed to all this stuff and when did things start to resonate with you?

GT: I can tell you the day I became a composer. I didn’t spend that much time in Astoria.  We moved to Long Island, to a school district that had good music. But my grandparents and I spent a lot of time in Astoria when I went to Queens College.  So that was important. I had a dual cultural life. You know, Astoria is really Greece in a way, although I was just in Greece in April and May and when I speak Greek, they say, “George, you speak Greek, but it’s Astoria Greek.”  Astoria’s a suburb of Greece.  And those roots are very important for what I do.

But I went to a good school on Long Island, and they handed me a violin when I was seven years old.  So I studied violin and I knew a little about classical music. But when I was around 15 or 16, I got this new pair of headphones (they didn’t have good headphones until the ‘60s) and I listened to a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird.  It blew me away, because I hadn’t heard something like that live.  Now, if you had told me that Igor Stravinsky was a Polish jazz composer, I would say cool man. I like his music. I didn’t know enough about music to know who Stravinsky was. Someone recommended a recording. I also heard in the same week Beethoven’s Opus 135. Blew me away, too. I listened to the Fine Arts Quartet. That week I decided to be a composer.

I just said, “Between Beethoven and Stravinsky, I want to do that. Whatever that is.”  It’s like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the chocolate and the peanut butter. You put it together; I want to do that.  And I have been trying to do that. I added Debussy and Messiaen to the mix, but basically I wanted to do that.

“Try to remember when you decided to be a composer and why.”

I argue this point with many composers, especially in Europe, who have had pressure put on them to be more progressive, more avant-garde, whatever it is, less tonal, whatever you call that.  I say, “Try to remember when you decided to be a composer and why.”  I decided to be a composer because of what I heard.  I didn’t become a composer because of my compatriot Xenakis or Boulez or Karlheinz Stockhausen.  I became a composer to emulate the music that I wanted to do.  And I will take that music, and I’ll bring it forward in my own manner.  I’ll decide on the colors. I call tonalities—dissonance or not dissonance—colors.

FJO: It’s funny you say that because every composer has a different story about what triggered the desire to be a composer. I confess, although I had already been writing music, a really formative influence on me when I was in high school was actually discovering who Stockhausen was—his whole persona, as well as his music and all his crazy pronouncements. It really impressed me, and I wanted to figure out what he was doing.

GT: Aha. I studied with him in Rome in an eighty-hour seminar over two months as I was studying with Donatoni. In Europe, you’d have these spontaneous things.  I read in the paper: Stockhausen seminar. He had just finished Donnerstag aus Licht at La Scala. So there were about ten of us who were students in Stockhausen’s class. Paul Sperry, who I knew, was there. Stockhausen did this thing with these big rolls of paper.  It was four feet and you unrolled it. He did all the staves in different colors.  It was a typical Stockhausen happening. I was the skeptical American.  I have cassette tapes of us arguing in English while the Italians are listening. But Donatoni and Stockhausen made me realize what I could do if I wanted to.  So I didn’t make a choice out of ignorance.  You wanted to learn what Stockhausen was doing.  Well, I found out and I still didn’t want to do it.  So I tell composers in Europe, or wherever they think we’re not modern enough, “Look, we can turn around tomorrow and do what you’re doing, and you could do what we’re doing.  We made a choice.”

That’s because we find, like my old friend George Rochberg did, the materials that you best communicate with, and that’s it.  You know, you don’t become affected because of someone telling you that your materials aren’t modern enough.  I give them the example that if in 1450 sackbuts and crumhorns started to play Lachenmann and then in 2018, two cats came along from Italy, Gabrieli and Monteverdi, and started doing their music, somebody would go,  “Holy cow, I just heard the most modern music I ever heard. These guys are flipped out, man.”  There’s no forwards and backwards in music.  I’m so happy that, these days, young composers don’t seem to care.

FJO: We’re now in an era where anything is possible.  But it’s interesting to hear you say all this because there’s a piece of yours I’ve read about in a New York Times review by Tim Page. I’ve never heard it and wish I could. It’s a very early string quartet that is probably either number one or number two.

GT: The Emerson one?

FJO: Yes.

GT: It’s very much like [Wolfgang] Rihm.  It’s not 12-tone, but at least it has 12 tones.  It still resonates for me.  I know you know [the recording of] the third and fourth quartets on New World.  The American [String Quartet] had a choice, to pair the fourth that I wrote for them with either my second or third quartet.  The third is very tonal.  And the second is completely out there—dissonant and dissonant—but there are some lyrical aspects, too.  They voted.  Two of them wanted to do number two and two of them wanted to do number three.  And I would still love it, if the Emerson is listening out there, my buddies—would you want to bring back number two?  I’d love to hear it.  I’d love for someone to do that really well.  You mentioned Tim Page?

FJO: Yeah, I’ll read you the quote that got me: “This piece, which was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, under whose auspices Sunday’s concert was presented, proved a somber, knotty work in four movements, rather in the manner of Alban Berg. The composer writes that he attempted a ‘clear reaction to our times,’ and speaks of fears and frustrations. To this taste, Mr. Tsontakis lays on the angst a little thick.”

GT: Very good telling.  Tim’s a great guy, too.  I remember “lays on the angst too thick.”  Now I don’t have to lay it on at all, because I did it then.  I remember Andrew Porter in The New Yorker wrote something similar. I don’t remember the quote, but something like: “It wasn’t to my taste.” or “It was a little bit over the top.”

FJO: When I read negative reviews like this, it doesn’t turn me off the piece; often it makes me want to listen even more! But what stuck with me in that Tim Page review was his reference to your comment about the piece being “a clear reaction to our times.”  You talked about Europeans thinking that their music is progressive and ours is not. I don’t think it can be reduced to binaries. But one of the things that I find so exciting about your music, and why I wanted to talk to you—particularly now, in this current zeitgeist—is that although I don’t think your music sounds anachronistic, I also don’t think it sounds like it’s of the present time.  You seem completely oblivious to what is going on now, and it’s nice to be able to kind of get away from what’s going on, especially right now, through this music.

“Any music that is specifically yours has a character that can’t be duplicated.”

GT: Well yeah, I mean, that’s the whole point. Any music that is specifically yours has a character that can’t be duplicated. It’s like a fingerprint or DNA. I learn a lot by teaching, and I’ve always said to my students, “Don’t try to be original.” Only two composers every century are original, and they’re usually French—Messiaen and Varèse or Berlioz and Debussy, the big revolutionaries. The rest of us kind of do mop up, we do what the others do.  So I say, “Don’t try to be original, be specific. Be as specific as you can. Mold your music in your own specific way to your DNA, even if you start with C-major.”

It doesn’t matter what you do. There’s been proof of that.  Look at a composer like Arvo Pärt or Gorecki or Valentin Silvestrov. They have nuanced their music in a way that nobody can duplicate.  Benjamin Britten’s a great example, too.  One of our problems is that we think of chronology—1800, 1900, 2000—and music progressing, whereas I think of it as different things going up. [gestures hands] Here’s Bach. Here’s Beethoven. Here’s Haydn over there.  Here’s Messiaen. The higher you go with the lives of these composers, the more modern music is. It’s more modern because you can’t get there from going this way. So the late Beethoven quartets, those are all eternally modern. Or Gabrieli and Monteverdi—you can’t get there by imitating them. Chronology is not adding more and more dissonance, and being more and more abstract, scratching the instrument instead of sul ponticello. Eventually the violin is going to break in half from somebody trying affectations of texture! So be the life of a composer going up.  You make your own pedestal.  That’s why I can use whatever elements and it’s a personal dialogue in my language that I picked somewhere between Opus 135 and Stravinsky’s FirebirdRite of Spring was on the flip side [of that LP], but I went for the Firebird even though kids viscerally like Rite of Spring. I think that’s how I discovered Debussy, because Firebird is Debussy and Rimsky-Korsakov.  Again, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Take Russian tunes instead of French tunes, and you use Debussy’s techniques that Stravinsky obviously did in Firebird, and you have a new music. So if I pick that up, and Beethoven’s late quartets, and I blend those in my mind, my concoction is what you’re talking about that you can’t understand where it comes from.

FJO: So this is you as a teenager in the ‘60s. You were a weird kid.

GT: We were all weird. We had a group of weird kids in our high school. We were listening to Bartók and other stuff. That’s the way we rebelled, by listening to contemporary music.

FJO: Instead of listening to The Rolling Stones?

GT: Well, I played in rock bands. I played keyboard and electric violin.  We did stuff by Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears with Al Kooper. Those were the days, you know. And we did some Stones. I think that was really healthy to do.  But don’t look for fame in the business we are in.  It’s a very small, rarified world.

A tower that was added to George Tsontakis's house.

I don’t worry about anything. One of the reasons I can live where I do, and be disassociated to a degree with what else happens is because I’ve gotten myself down to a science in what I want to do.  I’ve realized that the only time I have to compose is when I’m composing.  I don’t have to have anything to do with music otherwise.  I have enough listening experience, unless I want to keep up with the latest stuff.  But all I have to do is sit and compose.  If I sit and compose for two hours that day, I don’t have to talk about music for the rest of my time.  I don’t have to live music.  I don’t have to go to concerts.  I don’t have to do anything.  I think it would be wonderful if somebody did, but I don’t need that.  So I can do that anywhere.  I pack my bag, and I’ll go in the woods.  It doesn’t matter where I do it because I don’t have to listen to it.  I love Beethoven and I love listening to Debussy, but I don’t have to in order to compose.

FJO: There are certain tools that you do need, though.  Yes?

“Nobody wants to just listen to the music of a composer who does nothing but be a composer.”

GT: You definitely need tools, but you develop your own.  All we have to do is compose when we want to compose.  Being involved in music otherwise is an elective.  I don’t need that elective.  I’d rather be involved with other things in my life and do other things.  And I think the broader the package that we make of ourselves, the more we will communicate—because nobody wants to just listen to the music of a composer who does nothing but be a composer.  So I tell my students that.  Enrich yourself.  Do other things because you’ll never write a piece that’s larger than what you’ve created as a person.  Where does the material come from?  How do you write a piece that’s beyond you living in a box, or in NewMusicBox?

FJO: Well, that’s where I live most of the time. But in terms of boxes, I know that you also build things.

GT: I do carpentry.  I love it. You have hobbies. Cage was a mushroom expert.  What is that called?

FJO: A mycologist.

GT: A mycologist. Messiaen was an ornithologist, and others do things that are completely different than music. I like acting and woodworking.

George Tsontakis staining wood on a futon.

FJO: I want to talk to you a bit more about acting because I know that when you were younger, you were being pulled in two different directions—acting vs. music. I’m curious about how your parents responded to all of this. Were they supportive?

GT: They were very supportive.  You know, they were Greek. My father was a furrier and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I think I was persuasive because my energy just convinced them that I’m not going to be a furrier. Plus, I was a vegetarian.  My father said, “You want to be in the fur business?” And I’d say, “Hey, I’m a vegetarian.  You think I’m going to be cutting up 40 minks to make a coat?  No way.”  They respected it, because even young people make their pitch.  They persuade, the way a composer persuades you through music.  Of course, if you have stubborn parents, that’s harder to do.  But I think my parents recognized that whatever I did, I could be good at it.

I remember my father coming to my first Juilliard concert.  “I’m going to Juilliard to hear my son’s piece.”  It was a string quartet, number zero, and it was like Webern [sings].  He only listened to Greek music and American pop music, and yet he was so proud that people stood and clapped.  Well, they didn’t stand, but they stood to leave after the concert.  By the way, that’s the piece where Persichetti came up to me and said, “I liked your piece; I like the way it ended.”  I knew he meant the fact that it ended. He was a wonderful man.  I loved his sense of humor.  Andrea Olmstead just came out with a book about Persichetti.

FJO:  I have to get that.  Anyway, you said your father came to hear this Webernian thing you wrote and he was proud of you, even though he only listened to pop music and Greek music.  Did he listen to Greek classical music—composers like Kalomiris, Riadis, or Skalkottas?

GT: No, they knew no classical. Skalkottas? He didn’t know Beethoven.  But my parents sang Greek songs.  Or they’d sing “You Are My Sunshine” and harmonize in the car.  They had good voices and they had a great musical sense.  But you know, he just was not educated in those things.  He went right from high school to World War II.  He fought in Italy and got shot up.  There was no time for classical.  But they had an appreciation.  They’d play Mantovani classics, you know.

FJO: Now in terms of having an acting career, you almost got cast in the original Jesus Christ Superstar.

GT: I don’t know how you found that out! I had generous hair. And a beard. I looked like Jesus. I was 20, I think, and the guys I was playing keyboards and violin with in a flaky summer gig rock band called The Mann Act got hired for the road tour of Jesus Christ Superstar so no more band. I asked the clarinetist Dave Hopkins, “So what am I gonna do?” He said, “Why don’t you try out for the open call for actors?” They were trying to cast it like Pasolini, who used people from the street in his movies. The auditions were in two days.

So Dave’s girlfriend and I went to the Mark Hellinger Theater and stood on a huge line. When I finally got in, after several hours, I stood in the wings as some nut-job before me dressed up with St Pepper’s Nehru Jacket placed two incense things on each side of him on the floor and lit them as the directors were waiting impatiently. He started to sing, “My Sweet Lord” and by the time he sang “Krishna,” they said, “Thank you, goodbye.” I went next. I didn’t know the show, but I had learned a short recitative-like song. The pianist had to find the music in a pile. Right after I sang—no mike—Michael Shurtleff, the casting director stopped the auditions and called me to the seats. He asked if I could learn “Gethsemane” and return in a few days. The director was then Frank Corsaro, an opera director who I hadn’t heard of. The audition process became protracted and Shurtleff told me he wanted me for Peter the Apostle which he called a major role but it wasn’t, really, just on stage a lot with Jesus and the other eleven. I ended up auditioning six or seven times, but was knocked out after the dance part of the audition. I didn’t dance well. But then I was reinstated by Shurtleff. Eventually they changed directors and I auditioned two times for Tom O’Horgan of Hair fame. The plan to have Pasolini-like people off the street faded and they ended up with pros. Thank God!  I would have been in theater, and I don’t think I would have liked it as much because you can’t get out to the woods.  You’ve got to get to rehearsals. I wouldn’t have found my true self.  It’s not that I couldn’t have been in something else besides music, but probably not something so extroverted.

FJO: It’s quite a switch to go from singing Andrew Lloyd Weber to studying with Roger Sessions.

GT: That’s true. But there was Queens College in between. I was at NYU in the School of the Arts for Drama. I didn’t last very long because I didn’t like acting classes.  But I went back to my roots playing the violin and studied with Felix Galimir while I was at NYU.  I ran out of money and I wanted to be independent, so I went to Queens College and studied with Hugo Weisgall, George Perle, and Leo Kraft.  It was a very good school, and it was basically free.  From there, I went to Sessions.

I was very lucky because I knew Felix Greissle, who was Schoenberg’s son-in-law and Sessions’s publisher.  I don’t think I would have gotten into Juilliard without Felix’s recommendation.  I was Felix Greissle’s gardener in Manhasset. I did his shrubs. I brought music with me because I knew who he was.  I’d be all dirty and I’d bring these sketches to Felix after I did his gardening, and he said, “This is good.  Someday I will send you to Roger to study.”  And his voice—if you know Schoenberg’s voice from the Kraft Columbia recordings, where Schoenberg says, “My painting is like my music and my music is like my painting.”  It was frightening. Greissle had the same voice as Schoenberg. I wasn’t ready for Juilliard or Roger Sessions, but thanks to Greissle, I got in there and I went right to Roger Sessions.

On top of one of George Tsontakis's grand pianos there's a sign that says "nothing on the piano, please"

FJO: But there’s a missing piece to this jigsaw puzzle.  You had this epiphany on headphones listening to Firebird and then listening to Beethoven’s Opus 135.  That’s before the Jesus Christ Superstar auditions.

GT: Yeah, it’s before.  I was 15. By Jesus Christ Superstar, I was like 20 years old.

FJO: So at the time you had the epiphany about wanting to be a composer, had you written any music at all?  That’s the missing piece.

GT: Right. I was playing in the school orchestra…

FJO: Playing violin?

GT: Playing violin.

FJO: Not viola yet?

“When you compose, you have to give up violin for viola.”

GT: Not viola.  No.  When you compose, you have to give up violin for viola.  That’s the rule, because you can’t practice as much!  But then in high school, I started composing.  I started composing the last years in high school—funny, odd little pieces.  That’s when I became interested.  It was right after that.  My high school teacher got mad at me because I stopped taking violin lessons.  He was discouraging about my music; he made fun of it, in a way.  It was very crude, but promising.  But I continued and then I played in bands and wrote original tunes.  We had a band doing Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago, so I wrote pieces for the band with brass.  I guess it was pop.  Then I started to compose more seriously and went to Queens, and—through Hugo Weisgall and Leo Kraft, and, as I mentioned, George Perle—I was on that track.

A pile of CDs and violin bows on a table in George Tsontakis's home.

FJO: Did you know who any of those people were before when you went to study with them?

GT: No. Well, I probably did when I investigated Queens and looked, but George Perle wasn’t George Perle, either.  In those days, he was really not known very much at all.  In fact, when I went to study with Donatoni, I mentioned that George Perle said hello.  And he said, “George Perle, is he a composer?”  He only knew George Perle as a theorist and someone that wrote about Berg.

FJO: Was Sessions a name that you knew of as a composer when you got this recommendation to study with him?

GT: Oh yes. I knew Sessions through Weisgall. So one step at a time, as soon I started seriously studying composition at Queens College. I also had Henry Weinberg, who was this Schoenberg freak. I learned a lot from him.  And I spun off my own theories about fourths and whole-tone scales that I spun off a system I call heaven, which happens to be a hexachord of six fourths in a row.  I think Henry Weinberg started that off in me.  We analyzed The Book of the Hanging Gardens using his ideas.  He was influential on me and Weinberg studied with Sessions.  Weisgall studied with Sessions.  Perle didn’t.  But there were two people of great influence that wanted me to go to study with Roger Sessions. Fate had it that I met Greissle and that flipped it over the top.  I don’t know what Carter thought of me at the Juilliard audition or Persichetti, but with Sessions something resonated.  And, by the way, I stayed with Sessions for five years.

FJO: Well, it’s interesting.  Perle and Weisgall both used 12-tone techniques in their music and so did Sessions. But Persichetti and Carter both did not.  So you were groomed and molded by people who were partial to the 12-tone method, but that’s not what you do.

GT: But I think the lines are in there.  They’re just not as angular.  I have passages of music that sound 12-tone. When I studied with Sessions and I mentioned “atonal,” he’d go, “Well, after all, if it’s atonal, it means it just doesn’t make any sense.”  Because he believed in tonality, no matter what.  And he used the 12-tone system very tangentially.  He did not really write pieces in 12-tone religiously or in a strict technique.  And he believed that it has to sound tonal.

FJO: As did Perle. His whole theory was based on the concept of a 12-tone tonality.

“‘If it’s atonal, it means it just doesn’t make any sense.’”

GT: Like Sessions.  So if I wrote something and it just didn’t make sense, that was atonal.  So I never wrote atonal music.  It’s just a matter of degrees between tonality and chromaticism; to write a really chromatic piece, you actually need more tonality. I can go from what is recognized as a very tonal space to a very—not dissonant, but—chromatic space seamlessly. It’s the stuff in between—the melting sort of thing in between—that is very interesting to me.  I think Berg was the closest, something like Wozzeck.

FJO: Or Lulu or the Violin Concerto even more so.

GT: The Violin Concerto. Right.  Is it tonal or not?  You can’t tell.  I know Schoenberg was not happy with Berg using triads in his music, but so what.

FJO: I actually hear echoes of Berg in your second violin concerto, the Grawemeyer piece.

GT: Oh, there’s a lot.  There’s Ligeti, too, I think. I consider Ligeti a very fine engineer.  I call a lot of the stuff that happens in Europe, which is textural, the school of engineering.  A lot of the composers are working with new textures, but they’re not composing.  They’re engineering stuff in a way that is wonderful, but to be more communicative, I think you have to take the engineering and—it’s like Pinocchio.  Geppetto built Pinocchio. That to me is what the many texturalists are doing.  But it takes a composer to breathe life into it.  How does Pinocchio become alive?

FJO: It’s interesting you say that because I find a lot of emotion in the later Ligeti, in particular the Violin Concerto, the Piano Concerto, and the Piano Etudes.

GT: Well, there’s tension and release.

FJO: And the Horn Trio is fascinating.

GT: Well, there’s drama. But I think there’s a difference between drama and empathy. I remember when Jacob Druckman was coming out to Aspen, he created a new emotion. I called it a new emotion. It was fascinating.  The word fascinating is an emotion now. And I do find Ligeti fascinating.  But I’m not sure how—well, there’s a lot of Bach that’s not emotional either, yet it moves us in a way.  It’s not overtly emotional. Because you are a contemporary music listener, you are so into the nuance of everything that things relative to what you listen to are emotional. But for the average listener, for the people? I mean, who are we going to reach?  Are we aiming to be popular, eventually populist, or are we going to think that Xenakis’s music in two hundred years is going to be Beethoven? No.

FJO: Well, I’m not so sure populism is a good thing, especially these days.  And at the end of the day, it’s all subjective anyway.

GT: I’m not saying you need a large listenership.  There’ll be esoteric little portals, especially with the internet everywhere now.  But how many are listening?  We talked about birds before.  An ornithologist will pee in their pants to see a certain type of warbler, but most people aren’t interested in that.  This is a philosophy.  We could debate it. You can write music for five people to get so excited about. It’s not for everybody, but to those five people, it’s the perfect thing.

The view from the interior of George Tsontakis's home

FJO: So do you think then that there are specific musical gestures that—in and of themselves—could reach more people than other musical gestures can?

GT: I think Rochberg mentioned that in his program notes for my quartets.  He says DNA cells from the past give messages. In late Beethoven, there are little tonal cells that actually have content in them that evokes our emotions.

FJO: Alright, I’m going to play devil’s advocate now.  At this point in time, for the majority of people in the world, Beethoven is completely esoteric.  In relative terms, only a handful of people listen to and understand his music.

GT: That’s right.

FJO: So if you really want to reach a broad audience, you should be writing stuff that sounds like Elton John.

GT: Well, we have to differentiate between abstract music and song.  We don’t teach young people to listen to abstract music—that is, music without words.  If we’re going to have an enemy, why people don’t get into classical music, they’re brought up listening to just song.  Song is fantastic.  We all love song.  Song form is the most popular thing.  It’s the greatest thing we have, in a way.  How long is song form?  What are we competing against when we do a 15-minute Mahler movement?  We’re competing with a song.  How long is a song?  Three minutes, right?  No, a song is about 50 seconds long, repeated twice.  People’s attention spans are very small, plus they have to have words.  It’s very hard to make your point in 50 seconds, so it’s hard to write a good song.  On the other hand, if we taught young people the abstraction of listening to music—jazz, classical, Kenny G., Yanni (oh, God forbid!)—any music without words, they will develop a cognitive ability to listen to abstractions, and they would start.  Those who want to listen to Beethoven will listen to Beethoven.  But just like teaching children to read, some of them are going to read trash, some of them are going read articles, some are only going to read their textbooks, and some will read Beowulf or Socrates.  But we don’t even teach them the equivalent of reading.  You can’t break out of a song.

FJO: But two of those names you mentioned, Kenny G. and Yanni, have both been hugely popular doing instrumental music with no words.

GT: Right. And does anyone go from that to Beethoven?

FJO: Yeah, or another example I was thinking of when you were saying all of this is John Williams. He predominantly writes film scores, but it is abstract, instrumental music with no words. To a great many people, his music is more immediately identifiable and resonant than a late Beethoven string quartet ever would be.

GT: Well, let me tell you a story. I mentioned how I got into classical music, but the other thing that really hit me before that was that I was in plays in high school. I played Tommy Albright in Brigadoon, which my mother always thought was my greatest achievement. You know, “Georgie had a piece commissioned by the Boston Symphony and had the Emerson Quartet play his music, but you should have seen him as Tommy Albright in Brigadoon in high school.”  I didn’t know any classical music, but I loved musicals.  Richard Rodgers is a genius. And I grew up with Oliver and My Fair Lady.

Now what happened was eventually I started liking the overtures more than the other music. You hear Oklahoma, and that overture is fantastic music. I started saying that I really like the music without these dumb words sometimes, or whatever the words were. Now, we have to teach people to do that somehow. I don’t know if Yanni and Kenny G are going to convince them, because that’s a little bit simplistic. But Peter and the Wolf, they don’t speak while there’s music, the speaking is in between the music, so it’s a great way to do it. But you’re right. People listen to Philip Glass who never heard Mozart. That makes me question if that audience will go on to Mozart after that. I think in this day and age we’re just skipping classical music.  People go from Philip Glass to world music or other sophisticated music.

FJO: Well, why do they have to go to music of the past?  Wouldn’t it be great if they could go to other living composers?

GT: I don’t think they need the music of the past, except there are many good examples to teach people how to listen music without words from the past.  Something like Pictures at an Exhibition, which was in Fantasia. I have friends from high school that got interested in classical music because of The Rite of Spring in Fantasia.  You know, they saw the images.  Nobody was speaking.  No one was singing.  But it’s not going to happen with just a couple.  You have to teach people.  In class, even young students concentrate.  And when they have that concentration in the class, even if they hate the music they’re listening to, something happens subliminally.  I remember I was fourth grade, and they played Mozart’s 40th symphony.  I couldn’t stand it.  It was so boring.  I said, “Stop, I’ll confess!” you know? But if you choose the music well, even if they don’t like what they’re listening to, young people will learn that the cognitive idea of form is repetition.  You hear something, then you hear it again in a varied form. Variation and repetition is our business. We’re not dependent on the words to tell the story.  Maybe instead of 4%—in America maybe 4% listen to classical music—it would be 9%.  That’s a lot of people.  Leon Botstein at Bard says that classical music was always an elitist thing.  In Vienna, you couldn’t get into the theater if you didn’t have the clothes to go to that elite theater.  You’d probably hear Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony once in your lifetime, and you had to take a six-hour carriage ride to hear it once.  So it was always a very small number of people. It was never a populist form.

FJO: So then how is that different than the Helmut Lachenmann acolytes of this world who are writing music for a small coterie?

GT: Yeah, but if in America let’s say 4% listen to classical music at all, only 2% of those listen to contemporary classical music. But there is a problem with the museum people, who are the older people that go to concerts. I’ll have a piece played by a symphony orchestra. I go to a lot of these concerts. Even at my age, I’m the youngest person there—it’s really crazy. And those people are there for the museum music.  They’re not there to hear my piece. They’re tolerating my piece. The conductor, the musicians want to do a contemporary piece.  They like my music, but the audience tolerates it.

“If in America let’s say 4% listen to classical music at all, only 2% of those listen to contemporary classical music.”

That brings us to the various audiences that a composer can aim to write for. One is that classical audience.  One is the Emerson Quartet audience, where they have one contemporary piece, and they have Mozart, and then Death and the Maiden by Schubert on a program. Or there’s the contemporary music concerts, or festivals in Europe.  I do admonish young composers that as they’re doing what they really want to do, they might have in mind where their music’s going to go, because unfortunately there’s nothing in the middle.  It’s either you write for the contemporary music concert audience, which is that small, esoteric audience, or you write for the general population and they probably won’t like it. I’m sort of in between those. I have a few pieces that can be played on a contemporary music concert in London, but not at IRCAM. Meanwhile, the music’s played for the traditional audience. Neither one likes what I do. By the way, they said Roger Sessions was too modern for the public audience and not modern enough for the contemporary music field.  There are many composers that are between those poles.

The viola part for a standard repertoire string quartet sits on a music stand near a grand piano in George Tsontakis's living room

FJO: But then I think there’s a third path, which is different from either trying to fit in with standard repertoire or being embraced by the more established contemporary music networks. You mentioned Philip Glass in passing.  People like him, Steve Reich, or Meredith Monk, ensembles like the Kronos Quartet and entities like Bang on a Can have all found a way to galvanize a completely different audience which is none of those audiences.

GT: And that’s fantastic. But a lot of those people are the ones that have never heard Mozart, too.

FJO: Exactly.

GT: And that’s fine. We need all the forces we can get. But what is the music? As long as that music has the sophistication of the great composers—I’m going to be in danger saying the great composers—but the sophistication of, say, a Messiaen, if they have that integrity, then they’re following a classical line.  I think all you mentioned have a combination of music that does do that and music that has more of a pop end of it, too, an appeal, but the materials may not be as—I don’t know a better word than—sophisticated.  And that doesn’t mean elite.  World music, Greek music, I mean that is sophisticated within its own realm, but again, it’s song form and it’s limited. Jazz is very sophisticated music, but it’s not accessible. Jazz is accessible only to those people that come to it.  But it’s all a question of whether there is a main classical line.  I think only the future will decide that.

FJO: I think it goes back to what you were saying earlier about how people continue to promulgate this idea that there’s this straight line from 1800 to 1900 to 2000, but in the year 2018 it’s very clear that there isn’t a linear progression.

GT: Well, it depends. We have to decide what our genres are. With the contemporary music thing, any combination will work. You can have a xylophone and three piccolos. Whereas, if you’re talking about the classical line, about orchestral music, what do we do with that music? Andriessen said he would never write for orchestra, but he did eventually.  So what do we do with the orchestra?  Why isn’t the orchestra expanded?  Why hasn’t it added saxophones or Chinese instruments for texture? It’s so museum-ish, that the orchestra is becoming a museum in itself. So it depends what we’re talking about. What are the lines we bring forward? Electronic music has dispelled a lot of that. But even if we stay on acoustic music, there are so many divisions.

FJO: To bring this all back to your music, you’re obviously attracted to the orchestra. And you’re attracted to the string quartet. You’ve written eight of them.

GT: Well that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because I write a quartet and another quartet likes it. The Network for New Music commissioned a piece about ten years ago, and I said, “What’s the combination?”  “Whatever you like.” And I go, “Holy cow, I get to think on my own.” So I chose soprano sax, harp, piano, horn, whatever, this ideal thing. But when I sat down to write the piece, which became Gymnopedies, I said, “I hate this combination; what am I going to do with this?” It turned out that I liked the combination. But I write quartets because the next person commissions a quartet. I write orchestral music because it appeals to a conductor.

FJO: But if you write a piece for a crazy combination, no matter how good it sounds, how many performances is it going to get after the premiere? Who has the resources to put such an ensemble together?

GT: Well, my combination was more accessible than many combinations that people write for, weird things like accordions and kazoos. A lot of young composers are writing impractical works that way.  But Gymnopedies has been played quite a bit. And I conduct it, too. If you think of the Pierrot plus percussion ensemble, it’s only a few more instruments, and instead of a clarinet, you have a soprano saxophone and a harp.

FJO: Well, the Pierrot ensemble with or without percussion is an interesting phenomenon. The closest thing to it I can think of in earlier repertoire are some J.C. Bach quintets for flute, oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord. It’s something that really did not become established as a common instrumental combination until the 20th century.

GT: To a detriment, almost. But not only is the Pierrot ensemble reminiscent of a successful combination by Schoenberg, it’s also a low-budget orchestra in a way. It just doesn’t have the brass instruments. I have a piece that I wrote for Da Capo [Chamber Players] called Gravity. It’s with just the five, without the percussion.

FJO: It’s much more typical though, for you to write for the same combinations that composers in the 19th century wrote for. An instrumental combination that you’ve returned to several times, that was very popular back then, is the piano quartet.

GT: I’m writing a fourth one. It’s on the music stand over there.

A page of music manuscript paper with hand written notation on it sits on top of a table with a Tanglewood program and a pair of binoculars.

FJO: Wow! This is very interesting to me, because despite how prominent this combination once was, there haven’t been a ton of them in recent times. There’s this great Stephen Hartke piece, Kingdom of the Sun

GT: —Wonderful piece.

FJO: There also aren’t a lot of ensembles that are commissioning new pieces. One I can think of is the Ames Piano Quartet in Iowa.

GT: That’s who I’m writing for.

FJO: Hah!

GT: But Ida Kavafian’s group, OPUS ONE, commissioned No. 3. No. 2 was for the Broyhill Chamber Players. Brian Zeger commissioned it for the Cape and Islands Festival. No. 1 was commissioned by Larry Dutton and his wife, who have a piano quartet.

FJO: So there are a handful of groups. But it’s another one of those things. You were talking about people who listen to certain contemporary music who don’t know Mozart and don’t listen to his music. If you described one of your pieces to these folks as a piano quartet, they’d assume it was for four pianos.

GT: Right.

FJO: It’s a wonderful combination, but it is not something that’s really part of contemporary music parlance very much these days. Still, it’s an area you have repeatedly mined. Which is why it was very interesting to hear you say earlier that the orchestra has not expanded to include saxophones or Chinese instruments. You don’t really throw things like Chinese instruments or, say, electric guitars into your pieces. You’ve made a very conscious effort to write for standard ensembles.

“I have not written a piece since 1983 that wasn’t commissioned.”

GT: I have not written a piece since 1983 that wasn’t commissioned. I’m very lucky—knock on something here.  Or maybe stop commissioning [me]. I’ve said it’s enough already. But no, I just do on-demand. If nobody asked me to write a piece, I wouldn’t compose. I’d be doing other things. I’m very happy to not compose.  It’s been a great, great thing. Same thing with teaching. But one of the secrets to life is that I only write what people ask for. So what am I going to do? Network for New Music was the only one that said I could have my choice out of probably 80 pieces I’ve written. The others say, we’ve got a quartet; we want you to write this.  So what am I writing now? I’ll tell you: the Piano Quartet No. 4 for the Ames Piano Quartet. They recorded my third and they did a beautiful job. For the Dallas Symphony, I wrote a piano concerto for Stephen Hough. They’re commissioning a piece from me for their co-concertmaster Gary Levinson. It wasn’t my choice, but I love orchestra.

And I have the Albany Symphony; they’re commissioning a requiem. I’m very excited. It was going to be an orchestra piece; they got money from the New York State Council on the Arts. But my mom passed away in January, so I asked David [Alan Miller], “Can it please be a requiem? I’ll do it for the same money as common orchestra.”  So that’s very exciting to me. Then a consortium commissioned Portraits by El Greco 2—Book 2. It’s a piece that I mentioned with slide projections of El Greco.  It’s very personal to me because El Greco was from Crete, as I am from Crete, in Greece. But I didn’t ask; people ask me for pieces. In fact, for the El Greco piece, they asked for the same piece. Steve Copes, concertmaster of St. Paul, played [the first one] at the Colorado Music Festival and, I don’t know, maybe I said I’d be interested to do another one, so he asked me, “Can you do an El Greco sequel?”

FJO: Well, this is the thing. You say you only compose on commission, but there are ways to maneuver that so that you write the pieces you want.

GT: But not if they’re piano quartets.

FJO: Sure, but I’m thinking of one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours. It was a piece that was created piecemeal, through various commissions for short pieces from four different orchestras. Yet you had this larger thing in your mind—the Four Symphonic Quartets, which is the symphony that you didn’t name a symphony.

GT: That came about because I loved Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.  I learned a lot from that. It took T.S. Eliot years to write that because he wasn’t old enough.  When you hit 50, you can understand Four Quartets, because it’s a bit about dying and growing. You have to get to be a certain age. A 25-year-old can say, “Well, it’s cool,” but they don’t know what T.S. Eliot was talking about.  So I got to that certain age where I started descending, when life starts biologically descending, even though you’re still excited about it.

FJO: But were still in your 40s when you wrote those.

GT: I wasn’t 50 yet. Okay, you’re right, I forgot. But I felt like I was descending anyway, and I started to understand T.S. Eliot. Roger Sessions wanted to write When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d when he was in his 20s, and he said he couldn’t. It wasn’t until the death of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. that his maturity enabled him to do that. He told a story about that. He said, he was like 60-years old and finally he could tell the story of Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. It’s a great example because he was in his 20s understanding how great it was, but not being able to explain it.

And that’s what happened when the first commission came along from Ransom Wilson for the Tuscaloosa Symphony. I said I wanted to do something influenced by T.S. Eliot, so I named it Perpetual Angelus. Then the next commission came along, and I said, “Can I make it another one of the four quartets?”  But you’re right, it was piecemeal. In the back of my mind I wanted to put those four pieces together, but who would commission an hour-long piece?

FJO: It’s similar to the way David Del Tredici commissioned the various sections of the piece that is now An Alice Symphony. Then, after that, he composed so many other Alice-themed pieces.

GT:  Who knows whether David at the beginning said, “I’m going to engineer this whole series of Alice pieces,” or if he started with one and said, “I think I’ll do more of that.” Maybe my Portraits by El Greco will be book eight or nine. I’m going to run out of paintings I like by El Greco, but the impulse will be there. That’s interesting.

FJO: Alright, even though you claim you don’t need or want another commission, what pieces would you want to write if anyone could commission you in the world?

GT: Well, let’s say I quit composing, which I talk about to my friends. Then I’d get a lucrative commission. “It’s terrible,” I say. Then all my friends say, “Well, give it to me, I’ll write it.”  But if I had the choice, I’d want to do acting or something else. I would still want to write the occasional piano piece.  I’d like to write for a capella choir, canzones like Gabrieli or Monteverdi, and maybe some songs. I would do that on the side. I’m also a little bit upset after Ghost Variations. I think Sarabesque, which I wrote for Sarah Rothenberg might have been written after that, but no one’s asked me to write another piano piece.  I’m pretty pissed off about that.

FJO: But you’ve done some little ones.

GT: Well, the Bagatelle was my first attempt to write a piano piece for Yefim Bronfman since Ghost Variations, which was for Bronfman, was due.  So I wrote Ghost Variations and then the dedication piece for Sarah Rothenberg. But no one’s asked me and yet Ghost Variations is played all the time. And I’m going, “How come nobody wants any more piano music, including Stephen Hough?” Now Stephen Hough is composing his own music, he doesn’t want to learn any more new music!

FJO: Well, he learned your concerto.

GT: The Man of Sorrows and it was recorded with the Dallas Symphony on Hyperion.

FJO: That’s one I haven’t heard yet.

GT: Well, you should hear it. It’s 39-minutes long and no one wants to do it again.

FJO: But you mentioned another piece of yours happening in Dallas.

GT: A violin concerto for Gary Levinson. Yeah, that’s on the books, as soon as they get a new director.

FJO: It’s interesting that you keep using the word concerto because except for the violin concertos, you avoid that word in the titles of your pieces. All the other pieces for soloist and orchestra have other names, like the piece I was calling your trumpet concerto, which has a lot of jazz inflections.

GT: True Colors. You’re right. And Unforgettable is a two-violin concerto.

FJO: That’s the George Soros piece. How did you get commissioned by George Soros?

“You’re writing for people like you and you’re trying to convince everybody else to become like you, which makes composing an amazing persuasive art.”

GT: Through Jennifer Chun and Angela Chun. They’re a wonderful violin team. Jennifer was dating George Soros for seven years. Jennifer was looking around for somebody [to write them a piece] through some sources, including Leon Botstein who’s a friend of George Soros. I think he recommended me. It was very similar to how they came upon me for an English horn concerto at the Boston Symphony where Rob Sheena was promised a concerto from James Levine and he went on a search for composers. Rob had looked for years for someone to write the concerto and it was like Goldilocks—this one’s not quite right and that one’s not quite right. I think David [Alan] Miller was a schoolmate of his and David recommended me and it resonated with Rob.  It’s just a matter of taste.  I’m not saying they chose me above these other composers. When it comes down to it, I don’t write for everybody. But I don’t write just for myself.  As John Gardner wrote in Moral Fiction, I write for people like me. People who are like you are going to like your music better. Composition is also persuasion, so you’re writing for people like you and you’re trying to convince everybody else to become like you, which makes composing an amazing persuasive art.

FJO: And that’s where you can throw in the esoteric things that you like and make them un-esoteric.

GT: You can also introduce them to ideas and say I didn’t make it in that piece. I didn’t get that across. I’m going to try it again in the next piece. This is another problem we have—are you a first-listening composer? When I talk to young composers, I ask, “Are you going to write a first-listening piece, or are you going to write a piece that you need repetition to get?” You’re not going to read Eliot’s Four Quartets the first time and go, “Wow, it was really good.” No, you have to keep reading it over and over again. People don’t stand before a Cezanne and clap after seeing it for a few minutes.  You have to come back.

That doesn’t mean you can’t write a good first-listening piece. But a lot of young composers are persuaded to write that piece because probably that audience will never hear it again.  Or no one will hear it again. You have to keep in mind that there is a world where you need to listen.  Maybe I don’t listen enough times to really get Lachenmann. Or Ligeti. Maybe there is an emotion there if I gave it more of a chance. There is something to be said for that. And by the way, composers talk about awards, and of course I have a couple big, good money awards. I do believe that that’s also an aspect. I wouldn’t live for awards; the award is a by-product. But the interesting thing about awards though is that they [the judges] have to listen more than once.  They listen many times. We talked about Tim Page. Tim told me for the Pulitzer they listen over and over again.  What happens is that during that first round, the first-listening composer might be the one that everyone on the panel likes.  Then they do the second round of listening, and that first-listening piece isn’t as interesting anymore.  It moves back to number five.  Maybe a piece like mine that just made the cut can move up.  Those multiple-listening composers wear better for people listening over and over.  Meanwhile, the easy listening ones are going backwards.

I know with the Grawemeyer, they listen to pieces a hundred times. The lay panel at the end that decides the final, they listen to it so many times that they must go crazy: “I thought I liked that piece, but I listened to it five times.” So if we had any parallel to that where we could get people to listen over and over—we do; it’s called recordings.

George Tsontakis's backhoe

FJO: It’s interesting that you bring up the Pulitzer, because I read somewhere that you refused to have your music submitted to the Pulitzer.

GT: I will not sign for it. You have to sign, and I won’t do it. It’s just a personal thing.  There’s some great people who have. To me, it’s too facile. When I had to call Aaron Kernis a few days afterwards for something else, and I congratulated him, I said, “You know, Aaron, this is going to facilitate introductions at parties; you have this label.” And he laughed. I don’t like that label. I think it’s overdone. I think there’s nothing wrong with it, but I would not like to have a label that stuck on me that’s more important than being a composer. If I were a journalist, I would probably want it. But as a composer, I don’t want that label, because I wouldn’t believe in it as much as the people that would hoo and haw about it.  It’s a little bit like my mother saying Georgie was fantastic in Brigadoon in high school. And I’d go, “Mom, I’m beyond that.”  So it’s a personal thing. I wouldn’t stop someone. I don’t think the young composers care that much about things like that, but back in the day, when it was very important, everybody was thinking maybe I’ll be so good I’ll get a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t have to worry about that.

“Back in the day, when it was very important, everybody was thinking maybe I’ll be so good I’ll get a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t have to worry about that.”

I came in from my lesson after it was announced that Roger Sessions, who was 80 years old, got the prize.  And I said, “Mr. Sessions, congratulations on the Pulitzer Prize.” And he said, “Oh thank you, George.” I said, “You must be excited.” And he said, “Well, they called me at home, and when I got off the phone, my wife says, ‘Who was it?’ ‘Apparently, my Concerto for Orchestra won the Pulitzer Prize.’ And she said, ‘How much is it?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s a thousand dollars.’ And she said, ‘Oh, goodie. Now we can have an extra egg for breakfast every morning.’” They were not impressed.

The other thing is that this Astoria thing comes back. I do consider myself a Greek composer, too. They do a lot of my music in Greece. I’m going to start a multi-year residency with the Athens Megaron in January. The Megaron is like the Lincoln Center of Greece—beautiful buildings and auditoriums. I’m an American composer, for sure, and I love being an American, but I feel international at the same time. I think the Pulitzer defines somebody as more American than I want to be, except in spirit.

A bunch of post-it notes on George Tsontakis's door with reminders of things he needs to do.

FJO: But of course, now the Pulitzer’s completely opened up. It’s not only—

GT: —Classical. In fact, yeah, who won it, what kind of musician?

FJO: This year it was awarded to Kendrick Lamar, who is a rapper.

GT: Right, that’s amazing. I guess it’s fine, but it’s like the MacArthur. Remember when they gave out MacArthurs to Ralph Shapey and George Perle and John Harbison. Now they’re giving it to young people.  They can use the money.  And giving it to George Perle when he was 75 is not going to help his career. But I think that’s the way of the world now, maybe to a fault in a way.

This is the question: is the quality still there? I’m not questioning it, but I am questioning it! What is the meaning of this?  We talked about the artist colonies. It’s not only classical composers, it’s somebody in rock or jazz. Well, jazz has always been accepted and I love it; jazz is a powerful idiom.  But everything is becoming “whoever has talent should be supported” basically. The MacArthur has really been looking for more esoteric people that do something that someone else doesn’t do. And looking for a contradictory profile or something like that, not just somebody who’s great at whatever.

The field is opening up and that only makes more competition. It’ll be a big melting pot of what happens. But I go back to the point, as long as the sophistication is there, it’s okay with me. The skills and craft that a composer or an artist has are serious stuff. It doesn’t have to be serious, but it’s a serious commodity that I think we have to keep up with.  Again, one could argue that writing a good jingle is a hard thing to do. Geniuses have to write jingles. When I have composition class, the first piece I teach is “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks.  It’s only two notes and there’s diminution like Beethoven when they go [sings]: “You really got me. You really got me. You really got me.”

It’s an amazing piece of music. And how many could write a piece of music that economical? But is it Debussy?  Well, there’s a DNA like Debussy, but other characteristics are not expanded in a sophisticated way.

The spark of creativity has unlimited value. So is that as sophisticated as anything?  Yeah, in its own, minute way. But with classical music, it’s the expansion of that idea—that seed, that spark of creativity, that genius—through time. That’s one of the things that makes classical music, even contemporary classical music, different than other music. Usually the lack of words and the expansive movement of it; it’s not a small form.

FJO: This could be a much larger discussion, which I’d love to have. But I think, unfortunately, that we’re running out of time here. So a final area, for now at least. You’ve been offering advice to younger composers throughout this conversation. In the 20th century when you came to be you, you did all of these things the way one should in the 20th century. You studied with some very prominent teachers. You were signed by a major publisher, there were all these recordings of your music out there, and you won some huge awards. But in the 21st century, things are very different.

GT: Extremely.

FJO: People get attention for their music in very different ways now. But you don’t have a personal website.  You don’t use social media.  You don’t do any of the things that composers do to put themselves in people’s faces. And you live here, so you can’t run into somebody outside of Zabar’s and get a commission!

“If there was a site, LeaveMeAlone.com, I’d join that immediately.”

GT: It shows what you can do if you just write the music. I think that’s the answer. Of course, I had the benefit of becoming known before you needed a website. So maybe I’m going on fumes here. Maybe I was lucky to get elevated and have not many people know what I do, but enough that I get to write the next piece.  As I always say, I’m only interested in who’s going to ask for the next piece, and maybe who’s going to record it.  Those are the only two things I need.  Multiple performances, you get that through websites or whatever. I don’t care. I’m not a promoter. I’m not even a person that wants pieces to be played all the time. I just want to know what the next piece I’m going to write is. If it has to be piano quartet number five, it might have to be.  Whatever. That’s why I can live here. If you live minimally, and you just do the thing you’re supposed to do, you don’t need all the other stuff. But yeah, I tell my students, “I don’t do Your Face, My Ass. I don’t do any of that stuff! If there was a site, LeaveMeAlone.com, I’d join that immediately.” But I’m lucky to be able to do that.

At a lesson once, I said, “Mr. Sessions, I think I should do go back and do species counterpoint.” He said, “Well, you can George. After all, counterpoint is confidence.” That’s all it was to him. You’re not going to write like that, but it’s confidence in your composing.  And faith is a very important thing if you want to go it alone and be independent.

The road leading to George Tsontakis's home.

One quick metaphor. The other day I was in my old Honda Accord. It’s got a big hatchback window, and this huge bee was trying to get through the glass. I opened all the doors. I took paper, I tried to shoo him away, but he kept going right back to that glass. It was a great metaphor, but this glass ceiling was not necessary if the damn bee would just go out the door. I tell young composers, “Open up your horizons and go through the doors!” So maybe that bee is like trying to appeal to the contemporary music crowd, this limited milieu; whereas, there are so many performers and so many orchestras that would be happy to do their stuff. You’ve got to broaden your horizons.  Or you’ve got to hope that glass disappears and suddenly you’re free. I think my life has been a combination of those two things. I haven’t depended on the unusual channels for where my music is going to go.  So that’s going out the doors of the car.  And yet I still have faith that that glass thing will open up.  And sometimes it does.  I think it’s a matter of knowing what you’re supposed to do in life and having faith that eventually you get a break and that glass will open up occasionally.

It’s a hard path to go on. But it’s worked somehow. So many events in my life were serendipity. Like meeting Felix Greissle, who led me to Sessions because I was a gardener.  Also for young composers, you should accept any work you get. I know some composers, “I’m not going to go for that commission; I’m not going to get paid for that.” Take it. Keep in motion. And that leads to other things. No job is too small.

It’s All People. And It’s All Connected

Previously in this space:

1. I talked about a dangerously irresponsible workplace and my escape from it to a life of music, from Boston to Arkansas to Austin.

2. I talked about Vermont College of Fine Arts, a school that profoundly shaped who I am in ways that I can barely begin to describe. (I tried valiantly to do so, regardless.)

3. I talked about the burgeoning scene surrounding video game music (as well as covers and arrangements thereof) and the way that I fell into that world.

And now I’m stepping back and looking at the thread tying everything together. Writing all of this down has been an opportunity to sort through some of the chaos of the last ten years or so. It’s funny. I’ve written humor columns, product reviews, how-tos, and plenty of ad copy. I’ve never really sat down and written about myself. I don’t generally find myself that interesting. After all, I already know how the story goes.

But maybe I don’t. This has given me a lot of perspective on my own life. And with that in mind, I’d like to talk about where I am now. But first I’d like to retrace my steps slightly, with an emphasis on the people that I knew, and the ways that they were interconnected.

Jazz band, first time through UCA.

Jazz band, first time through UCA. My one tenuous connection to the world of music at that time in my life. Photo by Rodney Steele

Everything that matters in my life is something I owe to other people.

One of the things that I already knew–and had already made a point of appreciating as often as possible–is that everything that matters in my life is something I owe to other people. I’m an enthusiastic evangelist for telling the people in your life that you love them. I rail against the weird American myth of the “self-made man.” And yet I am humbled anew when I review these articles and think about how much of my life comes down to the other people in it.

When I was working at the psych hospital, a handful of the people around me kept me from losing my own mind. (Mental health workers do break down, you know. We used to joke about whether we’d get an employee discount if we had to be committed ourselves.) My supervisor on the night shift did a lot to keep me sane. And the mental health supervisor on the women’s trauma ward, where I worked most of my shifts, was and remains an inspiration to me. Every now and then we check in. She’s in a completely different field of medicine, with new credentials, and a beautiful family. Seeing her current fulfillment compared to where we used to be means everything to me.

I am grateful to my mother, father, sister, and wife, for reminding me that the only one keeping me out of music was myself. They encouraged me from youth through college, and on into my adult life. Once I realized the only thing keeping me from creative work was me, I finally accepted the support that had always been there. I try now to honor their love with my effort. I am grateful to Kerri, a college friend from Arkansas. She became a psychiatrist in a nearby town. Her perspective on what mental health could be pulled me out of the gaslighting and downtrodden attitude that the hospital had filled me with and made me realize that the problem wasn’t “I can’t hack it.” The problem was that I was in a toxic environment masquerading as a therapeutic milieu.

I am grateful for Dr. Jackie Lamar, the noted saxophone professor who spent her career at the University of Central Arkansas to shepherd the program that her father had built there. When I shot her a “Hey, remember me?” email out of the blue, she welcomed me into her program with open arms. She helped me navigate my second undergraduate degree program and get out quickly, with my sanity intact. The entire time I was there, she begged me to do something more practical than composition. She steered me towards other avenues within music. I told her that I was through compromising with myself, and declined. But I never stopped appreciating the fact that she was looking out for me.

Dr. Paul Dickinson taught me how to make my best music, instead of his.

I am grateful for Dr. Paul Dickinson. A lover of 20th-century classical music, he showed me the wonders of Messiaen, Nancarrow, and Berio. Nearly every piece was introduced with, “This is the greatest piece ever written.” Despite his leanings, he taught me how to make my best music, instead of his. I am grateful for Dr. Stefanie Dickinson, who taught me ear training and advanced theory during the time Paul taught my private lessons. They are two of the finest musicians and people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.

I am grateful to Jared Vincenti, a friend and filmmaker from Boston who jumped at the chance to let me compose for him for his master’s thesis film and for an entire web series. I am grateful to Amanda, a mezzo-soprano (turned airplane mechanic, turned airport administrator) who befriended and encouraged me. Likewise, Holly, a bassoon player, immediately became a good friend and confidant when I felt bad about the fact that I was in college with my little sister’s class. Years later, one of my Vermont College of Fine Arts pieces was programmed at Queens College, and I stayed on her sofa in Brooklyn to take in the performance.

I’m grateful to the Army of Kind Strangers band – Dolan, Terrence, Logan, Sam, Allison, Michael, Perry, Rachel, Malcolm, Barrett, Jimmy, Trent, Kaleb, Tyler, Ethan, Doug, Lance, Robert, Kayla, Jatrice, Matthew, Nathaniel, Brittany, Bailey, Anthony, Sean, Dylan, Morgan, Connor, Josh, Yuezhi, and Andrew (who played trumpet and recorded it all). Every one of these people took time they didn’t have to, on my account. All I had to give them was pizza and friendship, and they gladly and warmly gave of their time. Every hour we spent in a classroom with all the desks shoved off to one side recording represented at least 12 hours, collectively that they all could have been doing anything else.

Dr. Dickinson gave me the flyer that led me to the Vermont College of Fine Arts. There, Sarah Madru tried like hell to talk me into coming. She patched me through to Rick Baitz, then the faculty chair, who talked with me for hours as I sorted my feelings through. All of this is in line with the tone set by program director Carol Beatty, herself a good friend at this point.

All of this is beautiful and terrifying to me. Some of my closest friends, and literally dozens of other people that I love dearly, are in my life because one professor handed me a mailer, because he knew I’d been frustrated with my graduate school search. Without that friendship, I wouldn’t have had any of these others. And without any of these others, I can’t imagine a terrible lot going on in my life to be thrilled with.

Rick served as my first advisor, but all of my advisors have given me career advice and friendly counsel above and beyond their role through the school. Ravi Krishnaswami gave me my first big break composing. I landed an advertising jingle for a popular sci-fi video game series. The jingle wound up in the game itself, and the company has used it elsewhere at every opportunity. We’ve also done some songwriting together just for us, and it’s been immensely rewarding. Another mentor, Don DiNicola, has allowed me to collaborate on a number of projects now. I’ve done everything for him from script editing to voiceover work.

My wife Maegan first introduced me to Lauren, then her coworker at the ad department of a liberal arts school. Lauren introduced me to Sebastian as he was forming Materia, a tribute album that grew into an entire record label for video game covers and original soundtracks. Through that platform, I met – this sounds like an exaggeration – several dozen of my favorite people. If I start naming them, I’ll leave people out. I think it best not to try. But I’ve had tearful, heartful conversations now with people from Seattle to New York. Not to mention Scotland, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, and Sweden. Any time we travel for work or for vacation, I have friends I can call to meet up and break bread with. That is a priceless, precious gift. And when life throws me a curveball and I find myself on the road unexpectedly, it’s an incredible comfort.

Not all of my video game music (VGM) friends are far-flung, though. I met Sirenstar, Nate Chambers, not to mention Lauren’s bandmates, and the two other VGM bands, in town. Later another Materia friend and collaborator, Bonnie, had recently gone freelance and was mulling a move to town. We helped show her around while she figured out whether this move was really the life change she wanted. Since then, all of us have collaborated on a number of things. Nate and I have scored a game together, and pitched at least three more. We’re flying out to speak at a conference in October about some neat work we did with carefully composed music that can randomize itself for hours (based on minutes of music) before you hear the same thing twice.

It all circles back around to the people you know. I’ve made constant, conscious effort to let the people in my life know how much I love them. And I’ve certainly tried to be there for them. You don’t ever want to wind up with your own back against the wall, but when I found myself there, they gathered and lifted me back up in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Margie and my rotating band at VCFA, One Touch Relief, in February 2016. Zachary Kohlmeier, Amanda Laven, Thomas Avery, myself, Jesse Mitchell, Torrey Richards, and Margie Halloran.

Margie and my rotating band at VCFA, One Touch Relief, in February 2016. Zachary Kohlmeier, Amanda Laven, Thomas Avery, myself, Jesse Mitchell, Torrey Richards, and Margie Halloran.

When I lost my job in April, I called my graduate advisors. I called my friends from the VGM scene and from grad school. I called family. And people came together in an incredible way. Bonnie, now settled in Austin, sent me freelance work editing her voiceover for a computer game until I got back on my feet. Ravi, Rick, and Don all talked me through my options as I strove to discern whether I wanted to pursue freelance work or another office job. Nate’s wife, also a dear friend, wound up helping me find the job that I have now. She added me to a local Facebook group for digital jobs. I found a copywriting gig that I immediately fell in love with. I get to write, so I’m doing creative work to pay the bills. It’s remote, so I can spend time composing instead of dealing with Austin traffic. I adore my coworkers and the environment. And none of that would have happened without Ange’s help. (And Nate’s before her, and Lauren’s before him, and so on, because this is how life works.)

Through Materia, I found a software program that lets you write music using sampled sounds from old video game consoles – the original Nintendo, Sega Genesis, etc. A month or two later, a grad school friend needed retro video game-style music for a film he was working on. I was able to contribute, using the tools I picked up in this other sphere of my life.

Last year, my friend Sirenstar sang in Houston for a show with noted game composer Akira Yamaoka. This year, when the same concert series was looking for a saxophonist to accompany composer Darren Korb, she threw my name out and got me the gig. I got to spend a delightful day watching a fantastic composer practice harmonies with one of his most trusted collaborators, before accompanying them onstage. It was an absolute delight.

Each relationship shaped the prior one.

With each successive friendship, with each new opportunity, I am acutely aware of the way that each relationship shaped the prior one. Without people encouraging me to escape Boston, none of this would have happened. Without Mae, I wouldn’t have met Lauren, and in turn Sirenstar, and never would have played the Darren Korb show. I keep these things with me because each moment is filled with their spirit. Every opportunity is a chance to honor those connections more deeply with my actions.

Some of the connections have surprised me. In Chicago, a school friend and a video game music composer friend have known each other since grad school days. In Toronto, a friend leads a big-band swing group that covers Nintendo music. She knows another one of my grad school buddies.

I try to continue the cycle. A game composer asks if anyone plays any Indian or Middle Eastern string instruments other than sitar. I hook him up with an oud player that I met in grad school. I don’t know how that worked out, but I at least made the connection, because so many people have made connections for me. Another Materia member is a game music journalist, and mentions wanting to interview the composer behind the songs the street musicians sing in the Dishonored series. Well, that’s my buddy Ravi. I set them up on Facebook and before I know it, the interview is out.

One Materia album honors a game wherein you have three days to stop the moon from crashing into the Earth. The game’s atmosphere dabbles more than a bit in existential terror and omnipresent despair. One of my grad school friends wrote his thesis on the game’s themes. Not the musical themes, mind. The music was original. He was mining the emotional themes. He wrote a multi-movement suite where the music spanned fixed media, an early music ensemble, choir, and more, all exploring the internal turmoil of one of the game’s tertiary characters. I had to bring him onto the tribute album. He’s now a beloved member of the community, and he’s having the time of his life there.

I’m not out to “get” anything from anybody. It’s simply that I *am* nothing without the people around me.

The point of all this meandering is that it all comes down to the relationships we forge. I don’t say that in a disingenuous way. I’m not out to “get” anything from anybody. It’s simply that I *am* nothing without the people around me. That was true when I was in high school. It was true when I was at the psych hospital. And it’s true now. We are the links in the chains that tether us to a life worth living. The world is enormous and terrifying. Any sense that we can wrench from our unfeeling universe is going to be a group effort.

Be kind. Help each other up. Don’t close the door behind you. Say yes to everything. Nurture. Be brave enough to walk in empathy. And for the love of everything you hold holy, tell your friends you love them.

A cake with a photo of Garrett Steele's face on it.

The cake for my senior recital at University of Central Arkansas. Uncomfortable with the attention a composition recital represented, I played the whole thing like an egomaniac. The concert was called “Michael Garrett Steele Presents Michael Garrett Steele, The Concert: An Evening with Michael Garrett Steele”.

From Hardwired Pragmatist to Nontraditional Undergrad Student

Every time I’ve ever interviewed a TV or film composer (mostly for a website called NerdSpan), I’ve asked if they can pinpoint a moment when they fell in love with music. I’ve gotten the same answer so many times now that I’ve considered just asking, “Which moment in Star Wars made you want to be a composer?” I had my Star Wars moment, too. For me, it was the twin sunrise, with the “Force Theme” swelling up in the strings after that horn solo. That was the moment I fell in love with music—though my mother tells me that I used to dash into the living room and start running in circles when the NBC Nightly News fanfare came on (which, as it turns out, is also a John Williams theme), and she claims that “Put Down the Duckie” on Sesame Street propelled me into my choice of instrument.

Garrett as a young child playing with a toy saxophone and a toy piano.

Mom says I had a habit of putting a toy candlestick on the piano and saying I was “going to play a little Beethoven.” I blame the Muppet Show.

My story looks similar to those told by a lot of musicians—up to a point. I came up through an education system with plenty of opportunities to play, but very little in the way of a meaningful theory education. Even if it had been offered, I was zooming down the Type-A hellroad that is the province of the “gifted student,” and so arrived at college extremely well-prepared to take standardized exams, but with precious little else going for me.

My own hardwired pragmatism steered me away from music and towards psychology.

I had a wildly supportive family and the full faith of my girlfriend (now my wife). And yet my own hardwired pragmatism steered me away from music and towards psychology. It wasn’t a decision borne of academic ambivalence. I had genuine interest in the field, and a powerful drive to help people. And I was good at it. My first paid job was through the National Science Foundation. I wrote for an educational website about two prominent local behavioral scientists—both students of B.F. Skinner—who had settled in Arkansas and quietly turned behaviorism on its head with their research. I helped a professor edit a study on the ways that in-group bias expresses itself across the political spectrum, and we wound up getting it published. I won presentation awards at state conferences and executed an undergraduate thesis attempting to map models of real-world behavior into virtual worlds. I was doing well. But I was ignoring another need. The whole time, I relegated my musical life to simply playing in the college jazz band every semester.

Garrett and his wife Mae at the Boston Marathon

Even that piece fell by the wayside when I moved to Massachusetts to help my wife pursue her Master’s. My grad school applications had been received lukewarmly, so I thought that working in the field for a while might be beneficial. And so it came to be that my first job out of college was at a for-profit, acute-care, inpatient psychiatric clinic. It was for people who posed an immediate danger either to themselves or others. The problem was that being for-profit, budget surpluses rolled over into administrative bonuses. You might imagine what that looked like. Staffing skated by on the bare legal minimum, occasionally dipping below it. Patients would come in who had been homeless for weeks, and we would learn while preparing their toiletries that we had run out of shampoo. The phlebotomist who came by in the mornings once found a bottle of medicine that had been expired for two years. (These are a few of the less-horrifying, safe-for-work examples.)

One evening in 2010, I walked into the diner on the corner. My routine was to buy a giant cup of the last of their coffee and nurse it over the course of my night shift. (Funny enough, hospitals aren’t too keen on calling it the “graveyard shift.”) The coffee wasn’t typically great by midnight, and half the time they didn’t charge me. One night the cashier saw my nametag and said, “Oh, you work at the place that caught fire?”

I stammered a bit.

“I, uh…I sure don’t think so?”

As I rounded the corner, the strobe of emergency lights immediately proved him right. A patient had stuffed his mattress with newspaper and lit it with a lighter he’d snuck from a cigarette break. In a bizarre moment of clarity, I suddenly realized why my grad school applications hadn’t been going well. My desire to help people was earnest, but my whole heart just wasn’t in clinical work. That night, we trudged through waterlogged hallways bringing patient belongings out to another building. As I looked at the clinic, ruined by sprinklers and smoke, I decided to burn the rest of my life down along with it, and finally, fully accept all of the encouragement and support that my family had been offering me for so long.

I fell in love with theory. I loved that the moments that invariably made me cry had names.

I contacted my saxophone instructor from undergrad, the incomparable Jackie Lamar. She helped me figure out a path back to getting a music degree. Once I dug into the program, I fell in love with theory. I loved that the moments that invariably made me cry had names. You could understand them, you could master them, even. I was delighted. I hopped onto the (fairly new) composition track, studying under Drs. Paul and Stefanie Dickinson.

I was what they called a “nontraditional” undergraduate student. Functionally, that meant that I was attending college with my little sister and her friends from high school. On top of that, I was an odd duck for a music student in the 21st century. I was studious, but decidedly tonal. When I absorbed a new nuance of quartal harmony or tone clusters, I immediately started bending it back towards euphony. Dr. Dickinson graciously put up with my goofball operettas and spy jazz suites, but I had no idea whether I’d be so lucky in finding a graduate school.

Tearing Down The Wall

All of us, as composers, have origin stories.  For some, it may have been one cathartic moment when the light bulb snapped on and you knew what you were going to be.  For others, it may have been an accretion of experiences, of formative musical events that added up to being a composer.  Or, if you’re like me, it may have been a series of revelatory moments, like an unseen hand guiding you down a path—to where, you may not have known until you got there.

Baitz playing a guitar and leaning on the back of a van in Durban in 1972

Baitz in Durban in 1972

In 1972, when I was seventeen, I got a job as a deckhand on the Bontebok, a dredger operating out of Durban Harbour in South Africa.  I’d moved to Durban from L.A. with my parents and younger brother earlier that year; my dad was transferred by his multinational employer, the Carnation Company, to manage their South African branch.  From the start, South Africa seemed completely bizarre.  From the moment we stepped off the plane, with “slegs blankes” (whites only) signs directing you to the terminal, every single action and interaction reinforced the impression that this was a country consumed by a collective mental illness.  Apartheid, a kind of race-based slavery enforced by a byzantine series of laws, governed every aspect of everyone’s life.  It was illegal for “Europeans” (their term for whites) to socialize in any way with “non-whites,” comprising tribal Africans, “Coloreds” (those of mixed race), or “Asians” (those of Indian or Pakistani ancestry).  Strangely, though, since non-whites made up the enormous working class that supported the Europeans’ comfortable lifestyles, there was a lot of interaction between races—although most of it was governed by our economic and social positions.  I felt uncomfortable all the time there, especially having spent two years, from the age of 14 to 16, living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which, although by no means free of racial inequity, was as miscegenated and passionate a culture as South Africa’s was segregated and repressed.

On my first day on the Bontebok, a Zulu deckhand who spoke almost no English was assigned to show me the ropes.  The black deckhands actually lived on the boat; the whites showed up at a launch on Durban Harbour at 6:45 a.m. every morning to be ferried across the bay to the dredger, which would cast off at 7:00 a.m. on the dot, to spend the day on the water, dredging the seaways so that larger ships could pass into and through the harbor.  My silent teacher showed me how to place the fenders that hung from the side of the boat, to put the giant anchors on the foredeck into gear and operate the motors that lowered them to the sea floor, to swab the deck, to paint (and re-paint) the chimneys and vents that were placed throughout the boat, and tie a bow-line, which I had trouble with.  Nonetheless, a day came when I had “graduated,” and instead of continuing with his instruction, my maritime mentor stood to the side and just stared at me, waiting.  I remember asking his supervisor—the boat-tribe’s Zulu “chieftain” named Silas—what I should be doing, and he said, “Tell him what to do.”  Now that I knew the job, my role became that of the boss, and my responsibility was to order my former teacher to perform the tasks he had taught me.  That’s how distorted that place was.

Up on the foredeck, I was put in charge of the anchors, which was kind of a big responsibility.  I would spend my free time there, while we were out in the middle of the harbor dredging, watching Silas, who carried a whip, cursing and pretending to whip the Zulu deckhands, while they would pretend to run away from him in fake terror.  They knew how to have a good time on that boat.  But mostly, I was alone up there at the front of the ship, surrounded by the sea with the hills of Durban in the background, watching the gulls battle for air supremacy and the dolphins frolic in the waves.  It was during one of those solitary moments when I had a kind of auditory epiphany.  We were anchored in the middle of the harbor for a few hours, sucking up clay from the seabed.  I was sitting in the sun.  On the shore, miles away, the dry dock’s ceiling cranes whined in a kind of overlapping polyphonic stereo filter sweep; nearby, the gulls were singing their war cries; and on the boat, the Zulu workers were hammering in a strange, repetitive, asymmetrical syncopation.  It was a true, 360-degree multi-textured composition, replete with ambient motion, polyrhythmic grooves, and exotic melody.  Of course at that time I had no vocabulary to describe it—I’d not yet heard of John Cage—but I sat in sensory amazement, thinking, “This is music!”

When not working, I spent most of my time with the Fataar family, playing rock ‘n’ roll.  Steve Fataar had recently arrived back in Durban after several years in L.A., leading his rock band The Flame, made up of himself and his two brothers Ricky Fataar and Brother Fataar, and Durban musician Blondie Chaplin.  The Fataar family are Malay—yet another racial distinction, stamped “M” in their passbooks—and lived in the “Colored” section of Durban.  (All non-whites were required to carry a “passbook” at all times, declaring their race and what neighborhoods they were allowed to enter.)

The Flame had made it about as big as you could in South Africa—in fact, they were kind of like the Beatles of South Africa in the late ‘60s and had decamped to London where they were discovered by Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys.  The Beach Boys took the Flame to L.A. and set them up in a big house at the top of Outpost Drive in the Hollywood Hills.  The Flame became the Beach Boys’ opening act and toured with them, recording on their label, Brother Records.  When The Flame broke up, Ricky and Blondie joined the Beach Boys (about 1971); Steve Fataar moved back to Durban where I met him in early 1972.  We hit it off and suddenly I was breaking the law with every breath I took, hanging out in the Colored district with Steve and a group of amazing musicians of all races  and playing music all day.

Baitz with Steve Fataar in Durban, 1972

Baitz with Steve Fataar in Durban, 1972

This friendship continues to the present day.  When I came back to the States I became friendly with Blondie and Ricky, and as I became a composer, have been fortunate to be able to work with them from time to time, occasionally contracting Blondie—in between his tours with the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and most recently, Brian Wilson—to play guitar and/or sing on my theater or film scores.  He’s got those African styles down cold.

Here’s the theme to Heart of Africa, a National Geographic mini-series I scored in 1996, with lyrics (in Swahili and Kirundi) sung by Blondie Chaplin:

Later in 1972, I made my way to Georgetown University, where the Jesuits fed me loads of science, philosophy, and theology (and where I learned about Taoism and Buddhism for the first time; it was worth it just for that)—but no music.  So finally, at the age of 20, I hit the reset button, ending up at the Manhattan School of Music where I got my bachelor’s and master’s in composition.  There, I began to feel the barest inkling of an aspiration that animates my creative energy to this day: that of becoming a whole musician.  By “whole musician,” I mean one who can function in multiple settings: the chamber ensemble, the recording studio, the orchestra, the jazz ensemble, the rock band.  One who can compose in varied idioms without diluting the authenticity of his or her own voice.  One who has professional skills as a player, producer, arranger, editor, orchestrator, engineer, even as a copyist and composer.  And whose music is meaningful and provocative in all situations.  Of course, this goal is the journey of a lifetime: the joy of being a composer is that you never really get there.  Or perhaps better put: the journey is the destination.  And in that sense, it’s a gift to be a composer.

The joy of being a composer is that you never really get there.

As an undergrad at MSM, I scored a few short films, but ultimately got caught up in my conservatory studies and left film music behind in 1980.  I had a fledgling voice as a composer, very much trying to process the cathartic feelings I’d had in Brazil, hearing 100,000 people playing and dancing samba in the streets during Carnaval, and in South Africa, with its earth-rumbling, emotionally transformative percussive, vocal and township music.  But as a classical composer, studying with the ambient electronic composer Elias Tanenbaum, then with Charles Wuorinen and Ursula Mamlock, and later with George Perle at Tanglewood, and Mario Davidovsky and Jack Beeson at Columbia, I was pretty much surrounded by modernism, which intrigued me for its coloristic and harmonic complexity and variety. I was open to everything, yet most, if not all, of my concert music had Brazilian and South African patterns in it, even the serial pieces.

Starting in the late 1980s, my younger brother Jon Robin (“Robbie”) Baitz, who is a playwright, invited me to provide incidental music to several of his theatrical productions.  Like me, he was processing his expatriate childhood in his art and several of his plays took place in Africa and other tropical locations.  This gave me a chance to directly channel many of the influences that I absorbed while living in Durban and Rio.  Here’s the overture to his play A Fair Country, produced at New York City’s Naked Angels Company in 1994; kudos to the amazing mbira playing of Martin Scherzinger, Thuli Dumakude’s heartbreaking Zulu vocals, and Cyro Baptista’s tasteful percussion work:

In 1991, just as I was finishing my DMA at Columbia, I scored Robbie’s PBS teleplay Three Hotels (which won the Humanitas Award, and was later produced as a stage play at New York’s Circle Repertory Co.).  By then I was really getting the bug for composing for drama, especially the screen, and that year I took the BMI Film Scoring Workshop in Los Angeles, taught by the eminence grise Earle Hagan (who had not only composed, but whistled, the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show).  And I came to a couple big decisions.  Despite my newly minted doctorate, I hadn’t gone to Columbia for the teaching credential; I’d actually gone to learn and be inspired. In fact, this was at the height of the updown-vs.-downtown culture wars, and I wasn’t completely at home with the judgmentalism that at times hovered around the new music world.  Even though my composition teachers mostly gave me space to explore my own path of integrating folkloric elements into concert music, most of them just didn’t really speak that language.  Inasmuch as my concert music was, and is, formally within the classical tradition (and was suitably complex for my teachers’ cerebral inclinations), I received some encouragement, but—with a few notable exceptions—true nurturing was hard to come by.  Instead, I sensed a kind of repressed disenchantment within academia, as if its composers secretly regretted that the world didn’t shower them with acclaim and riches. So while finishing my doctorate, I wasn’t sanguine about the prospects of battling for academic stature as a life path, and I was enjoying scoring for film and theater.  I determined that I would go all-in, throwing my hat into film music and seeing if I could survive.

I sensed a kind of repressed disenchantment within academia, as if its composers secretly regretted that the world didn’t shower them with acclaim and riches.

The other important decision I made, contemporaneous with my first TV broadcast of Three Hotels, was to join BMI.  I will not, in this forum, belabor the eternal debate in our community about whether ASCAP or BMI (or SESAC) is the better choice.  Honestly, after all these years, no one has been able to definitively say which one will support you more or make you more money.  I do know this: at about that time, Ralph Jackson, then the head of BMI’s concert music division, took me to lunch and said, “I don’t care which one you join, but just join one, now.”  And that is what I tell everyone who asks me the same question. I know people in both organizations and they are all really cool.  At the time I took BMI’s film scoring workshop, I began to develop close ties with the people within their film and concert music divisions, and they have remained extraordinarily supportive throughout my career.

For example, while hanging out at BMI’s L.A. offices in the spring of 1991, Doreen Ringer-Ross, head of their film music department, suggested that I return in August of that year, and she would introduce me to people in the film music industry.  But when I showed up in August for my meetings, Doreen was nowhere to be found.  Even the people at BMI didn’t know where she was.  I cooled my jets for three days until I found out that she was in the hospital giving birth to her daughter Chelsea.  When she heard I was in L.A. for my meetings, she dictated 10 letters to studio music department heads and music supervisors from her hospital bed, signed them and had them faxed out.  And I had my meetings.

Rick Baitz and 12 others at the BMI Earle Hagen Film Composers Workshop

Rick Baitz (far left bottom row) at the BMI Earle Hagen Film Composers Workshop in 1991. Also pictured (L-R, bottom) are: Bruce Babcock, Earle Hagen, and BMI’s Doreen Ringer-Ross, plus (top row) Jonathan Sacks, Steve Chesne, Danny Nolan, Ann Moore, Wyn Meyerson, Steve Edwards. Daniel Freiberg, engineer Rick Lindquist, and Jim Legg.

In 1991, I knew that being a composer for media would entail a huge learning curve, and I would have to devote myself to it pretty much exclusively if I wanted to get anywhere.  It was not that I was giving up concert music, but that I was ready to bet on myself to the extent that I could afford to take a hiatus from concert composing while building my film music career.  I also knew that I needed access to the technology and to a studio.  Fortuitously, right around that time I met a composer with a very extensive studio, who needed arrangers for a huge recording project he was producing.

Buryl Red was a unique person; in one side of his life he was a luminary in the Christian music community as a vocal and orchestral composer and conductor—but he wore many other hats.  He had worked as an orchestrator, and eventually, a producer, on Broadway.  And in his capacity as a music producer, he was directing a massive educational recording project of ethnic folk songs for children, Silver Burdette’s The Music Connection (later called Making Music): 160 CDs worth of songs; 1600 tracks in all, with new editions every five years.  Buryl put together a team of arrangers and producers, and built up a studio that wrapped around three apartments at the top of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper.  There, we worked non-stop, churning out folkloric recordings from every locale on the planet.  Along with Jeanine Tesori, Mick Rossi, Joseph Joubert, and other talented musicians, I learned how to arrange, record, engineer, edit, and mix music, and worked on hundreds, if not thousands, of tracks from 1992 into the early 2000s.  Buryl also tossed us some film work that came his way, allowing me to further hone my film scoring chops.

Meanwhile I embarked on an intense self-study, choosing several composers whose work interested me: Thomas Newman (whose score to The Player was like lightening striking), Jerry Goldsmith (what a joy to revisit Our Man Flint, Chinatown, and Basic Instinct), and many others.  I kept a sketchbook where I transcribed themes and took notes on the films I watched. I was particularly taken by alternative, non-traditional approaches to film scoring, from Zbigniew Preisner’s scores to Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, to Tôn-Thât Tiêt’s atonal Vietnamese soundtrack to Scent of Green Papaya.  Even back in the 1990s, I found that there were examples of composers who brought a fresh, original approach to film scoring—and a significant number, like Toru Takemitsu, who maintained careers in both film and concert music.  I counted Takemitsu, whose music I love, as my model on how to live as a composer.

In between deadlines researching, arranging, and producing recordings of folk tunes from Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, Polynesia, South Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Native America, I took on several short films to score, mostly pro bono, just to learn.  One such collaboration was with Caroline Kava, who I had met at the Edward Albee Foundation in 1983 when she was in residence as a playwright.  She also had a successful career as an actress for stage and screen, but had returned to school for an MFA in film; in fact, she was at the Columbia University School of the Arts, as I had been.  The film division was right downstairs from the music division, although in typical siloed fashion, the two programs didn’t talk to one another.  After graduating, I returned to the School of the Arts to put up signs at the film division, asking if any graduate filmmakers needed a composer, and Caroline got back in touch.  Our first of three collaborations, Polio Water, won her the IFC Grand Prize and the Princess Grace award.  It was about a girl who grew up above a funeral parlor during the polio epidemic of the early 1950s.  This is an example of a partnership with a filmmaker who really understood music.  Caroline taught me, among other things, that you could have random-length, aperiodic sustained tones as background; that the Bach cello suites make great getting-stuff-done music; and that the Agnus Dei of a Requiem Mass just repeats the same text over and over.

The film division was right downstairs from the music division, although in typical siloed fashion, the two programs didn’t talk to one another.

Here’s the Agnus Dei from Polio Water, with Beth Blankenship’s heavenly vocals:

Between the music for my brother’s plays and films, the short films I was scoring, and, especially, the ethnic folk tunes I’d been arranging, by 1993 I had a strong demo reel to pass out to filmmakers.  That year, Doreen Ringer-Ross came to New York for the Independent Feature Film Market (now called IFP Film Week), which takes place every fall.  There, she passed on my cassette tape to a film music supervisor who happened to be married to a National Geographic executive producer, who happened to be looking for a classical composer who could do African music.  Suddenly, I had my first high-profile gig: Nat Geo’s upcoming special, The New Chimpanzees.

At that point I began to almost live at Buryl’s studio (much to the ambivalent tolerance of my wife, who was still getting used to my insanely long hours).  Sometimes I would leave the studio and walk around Manhattan, or sit in a coffee shop, trying to invoke some kind of inspiration and drum up a music cue in my head.  It was during one of those walks that I started imagining a guitar theme, based on a repetitive slowed-down version of a Buddhist chant my older brother Jeff used to do.  (Inspiration can come from strange places.)  I turned my memory of that sutra into an African guitar pattern, and I had a start on The New Chimpanzees.  Much of the film took place in Congo, and I listened to a lot of Central African music as preparation and inspiration.  I hired the great New York session musician Kevin Kuhn, who had played guitar on virtually all of the songs from Buryl’s project, to handle the guitar parts.  But as my deadline approached, I wasn’t quite done.  I had one more day, and it was going to take an all-nighter to make it.  As I worked into the night, Buryl periodically came in to see how I was doing.  Eventually I realized he wasn’t going home either—Buryl stayed in the studio all night just to give me moral support.  The next day, the director called and told me that she’d bought me yet another day.  It turned out I needed it.  The music was very detailed and completion was coming too slowly.  I worked throughout the next day, and into the night, on no sleep.  I realized I was going to have to pull another all-nighter to get this thing done.  So I did: I pulled two all-nighters in a row.  And, amazingly, Buryl stayed the next night too, hanging out in his office, occasionally stopping into the little garret studio I had made my home, giving an approving listen.  At 6:00 a.m. on that last day, he finally saw that I was going to be all right and headed off to catch some rest.  And I made my extended deadline.

Buryl Red’s and Doreen Ringer Ross’s acts of good will are examples I carry with me every day.  Those moments were turning points in my career.  And I learned, and re-learned, that nobody can do this alone.  We need help to move forward in life.  Now, as an educator, a mentor, and an experienced composer, I pass on Buryl’s and Doreen’s generosity to the next generation, and try, when I can, to go that extra kilometer for those who need it.  I know that such a gift is priceless.

Nobody can do this alone. We need help to move forward in life.

I found, over time, that composing for film is as personally rewarding as writing concert music, although film music has definite unique challenges.  You have to have strong studio skills for film music jobs, including being able to sing or demonstrate your intentions to players, if, for some reason, they’re not apprehending its intent on the written page.  (Or, if they don’t read music.)  It’s helpful to have lots of harmonic, metric, and rhythmic tools in your toolbox; a delicate and unerring sense of timing; and the ability to adjust to the demands of multiple styles.

One example: in 2000, the director Geoffrey Nauffts asked me to quickly score the opening to his short film Baby Steps, starring him and Kathy Bates.  The directive: a funny, slightly Latino version of the James Bond theme. (Thanks to the amazing violinist Todd Reynolds and extraordinary sax player Andrew Sterman):

At its best, film music transcends any distinction between genres.

I once mentioned to the composer Michael Giacchino, who I met while sitting in on a scoring session for the TV show Lost, that while the form of concert music is self-generating, in that a composition develops out of its own materials, the form of film music is governed by the structure of the film itself.  “Yeah,” he answered, “but the best thing is when it can do both.” And I agree. While there may be formal differences between film and concert music, the challenge of film music is to make it work as music.  As Giacchino said, at its best, film music transcends any distinction between genres.  From Bernard Herrmann’s 1958 score to Vertigo, whose bitonal opening arpeggios in contrary motion, with polymetric texture, pre-date minimalism by years, to Mica Levi’s layered electric viola clusters in 2013’s Under The Skin, film music is a place where unique musical juxtapositions have a home.  And I have found that it is a place where I can do what I love, getting my music played, recorded, and heard by many in the process.

Good Advice is Extremely Hard to Find

At the Minnesota Composer Institute, composers Daniel Schlosberg, Saad Haddad, Peter Shin, Charles Peck, Daniel Schlosberg, Nina Young, Andrew Hsu, and I listened to and participated in a number of presentations and workshops related to professional development.

Professional development is a strange but very necessary topic for composers. Our industry changes so quickly and, as a result, very few elements remain consistent over time. Career paths for musicians are no longer defined (and perhaps I’m naive to think that there ever was a somewhat clear-cut path to “success,” whatever that even means). To complicate things further, our mentors are often the luckiest people in the industry. This isn’t to say that they haven’t faced struggles or haven’t worked hard; several of my mentors didn’t become successful composers until later in life. But, as many of us have discovered, something as simple as being in the right place at the right time can change the course of a career.

I’ve also realized that good advice is extremely hard to find. This isn’t meant to insult any of my wonderful mentors; they have all provided me with invaluable words of wisdom, both practical and artistic. But they have never been a 26-year-old female composer trying to build a career in the United States in 2017. In a somewhat volatile industry, it is important to remember this.

And then there’s the question of “success.” What does that even mean? Of course, every composer has a different definition of success. But, unlike many other industries, we don’t have a general universal concept of what this means.

Unlike many other industries, we don’t have a general universal concept of what success means.

I tend to find career development workshops puzzling or even frustrating because definitive answers don’t really exist. We’re just reminded that there isn’t a clear way of attaining an undefinable thing.

But, obviously, we need career development workshops. We need to discuss these problems and fears—we don’t address them enough. Focusing on technique and artistry is important, but it will be difficult to develop your craft outside of school if you don’t know how to find and create opportunities.

During our first day at the Institute, we met with Steven Lankenau, Senior Director of Promotion at Boosey & Hawkes. He discussed the benefits of signing with a publisher and what publishers do for composers. At some point in a composer’s career, explained Mr. Lankenau, a composer will find that he or she needs help in some area of work. In addition to providing editing and marketing services, publishers can connect composers with ensembles, coordinate co-commissions, negotiate fees, and help a composer plan long-term writing schedules.

Mr. Lankenau also discussed what publishing companies look for in composers. They look for artists who have already built strong momentum. In addition to a sense of excitement surrounding the composer, publishers value a strong and consistent artistic voice, solid technique, and marketability. Style and aesthetics are usually less important.

Publishers value a strong and consistent artistic voice, solid technique, and marketability.

But, Mr. Lankenau also reminded us that there is no such thing as a perfect all-around composer—a very important thing to remember. It is rare that a composer is knowledgeable and proficient across all genres and styles. Publishers, fortunately, are not searching for this mythical composer.

On the same day, the composers met with Bill Holab. When I heard him speak at the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings in June, Mr. Holab focused on issues specific to music engraving. At the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, Mr. Holab mainly discussed the advantages of self-publishing.

Mr. Holab provides services to composers, including music engraving and editing, production, and representation. As with Mr. Lankenau, Mr. Holab explained that successful composers eventually need advocates, or some kind of assistance. Rather than signing with a publisher, Mr. Holab recommends hiring people to help with specific needs. For example, for help with marketing, one could hire a publicist.

Signing with a publisher might not be the best business decision.

He also discussed why signing with a publisher might not be the best business decision. The most significant issue is the loss of one’s copyright. Another important issue to consider is that situations within companies can change very quickly. A company can be bought, policies can change, and suddenly an individual composer is no longer a priority.

Mr. Holab pointed out that all successful contemporary composers, whether working with publishers or self-publishing, know how to successfully market and promote themselves. They have learned how to connect with performers and potential collaborators and effectively market their music to presenters and audiences.

This theme of networking and self-promotion returned throughout the week. On the second day of the Institute, we traveled to St. Paul to visit the American Composers Forum offices. Over lunch with the ACF staff, we discussed the kinds of opportunities that are the most helpful and rewarding for us. Several composers brought up the importance of collaborations. Many competitions ask us to submit an already-written piece, and the prize might be a performance and (hopefully) some money. Opportunities that offer collaborative experiences, however, are more valuable. Rather than winning a one-time performance by an ensemble, it’s far more helpful and educational if we’re able to collaborate with the performers and, in the process, form long-lasting relationships. These kinds of connections can lead to future collaborations and professional opportunities.

In a similar vein, networking opportunities are vital. Several composers expressed the desire to connect with artists in other disciplines—dancers, video artists, etc. Many of our professional relationships developed during our formal education, and this can result in a fairly narrow professional circle. When we’re no longer in school, we have to work much harder to cultivate and maintain our professional circles. This requires resolution and effort. Occasionally, we might even have to interact with non-musicians!

We also had the opportunity to improve our public speaking skills with Diane Odash, a senior teaching specialist in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. As composers, we are often expected to stand up in front of an audience and speak coherently about our own music. Although many schools’ composition programs require composition majors to speak before performances, we rarely receive any formal training in this area. Any strengths that I have come from my background as a singer and knowledge of performance and audition etiquette.

Each composer stood up in front of the group and spoke for two minutes about our music. Prof. Odash timed us, and then provided feedback. She also addressed nervousness, stressing that anxiety and its symptoms are part of our natural fight-or-flight response. In this case, rather than “fighting a tiger,” we’re just talking about ourselves in front of an audience for a very brief period of time.

Legal mistakes can be time-consuming and expensive to fix.

We also listened to a presentation given by Katie Baron, an attorney who focuses on music and copyright law. She discussed copyright basics, fair use, and what commissioning agreements should cover. This is an extremely important area for composers, and it is imperative that we have a thorough knowledge of our and others’ rights. It’s also valuable to be able to recognize where your knowledge of copyright law is limited. You then know when it is appropriate to seek legal counsel. I’ve heard composers unknowingly misuse terms, and that’s concerning, as legal mistakes can be time-consuming and expensive to fix.

Finally, we met with Kari Marshall, Director of Artistic Planning for the Minnesota Orchestra, and Frank J. Oteri, composer advocate at New Music USA and co-editor of NewMusicBox. We discussed how to effectively promote our own music. Websites and social media have made it so simple to make our music accessible; however, every other musician also has access to these resources. How we differentiate ourselves from the larger crowd then becomes the issue. Again — we must be proactive when it comes to forming and maintaining genuine relationships with artists and presenters.

Kari Marshall discussed how programming decisions occur and why the Minnesota Orchestra might decide to program a contemporary work or commission a new one. Again, she emphasized the importance of relationships. Many composers of these programmed works have formed connections with the orchestra’s musicians or with the larger organization. An example: a composer appearing on next season’s programming actually participated in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute several years back!

Self-promotion and networking skills aren’t formally taught in school, unfortunately; it’s rare that I’ve ever discussed these topics in a private lesson, for example. The most helpful classes I took were actually outside of music schools. We naturally form connections with other artists while in pursuing academic degrees; however, after we graduate, developing and maintaining relationships requires a high amount of proactivity. We have to leave our studios, see some sunlight, and connect with other artists and professionals.

What Does It Mean To Be A Mid-Career Composer?

It’s a challenging time to be a new music composer. Not that it has ever been easy, but with the particular mix of economic, political, cultural, and ecological instability that’s descended upon us recently, one has to wonder how much of our national musical enterprise will survive, and for how long. How do we composers navigate the current conditions so as to continue growing our artistic practice?

With that as a backdrop, I have recently arrived at a kind of personal and artistic crossroads, highlighted by having recently entered my 50s and having just sent my one and only child off to college. Reaching these two major life milestones has led me to reflect in a new way on my life as a composer, reviewing what I’ve done thus far and considering where I might go from here. And, as has happened before at other major life junctures, I have a strong drive to radically reinvent myself artistically. In reaching this life moment, I am—like many of you, perhaps, whether in your past, present, or future—reflecting on and appraising my choices and accomplishments, and in these four short essays I will try to reveal as openly and honestly as I can what it looks like to be pursuing a life as a composer at this time and place, from my particular station in life. In this first essay, I want to explore what it means to be a “mid-career” composer.

Being a “mid-career” composer can be a somewhat confusing designation for many of us.

Although there doesn’t appear to be a precise age attached to it, mid-career generally seems to refer to someone who has spent a good number of years pursuing their vocation following their formal studies, but is not yet approaching old age and retirement. This can be a somewhat confusing designation for many of us who, like myself, have followed non-linear and non-traditional paths and for whom traditional career milestones have come at odd times, if at all. In my case, I didn’t start serious musical training until I was in my twenties, having already had a brief career as a rock musician, and I didn’t really begin my current career as a new music composer until I was around 30. I did enjoy a brief period of being a younger, so-called “emerging” composer, where there was tangible interest in my work and where it might go. I was offered performance opportunities, some recording deals, offers to submit proposals for festivals and commissioning programs, and overall seemed to possibly have a career on the rise. But alas, a true “career” never did materialize—that is to say, my musical profile never developed to a point where it could actually support me financially and fill my calendar with engagements. The musical output of my emerging years certainly grew and developed, and to a large extent I reached a degree of artistic fulfillment, but in a professional sense, I never fully emerged. So now I find myself in my early 50s, at mid-career, having pursued many musical threads to their logical conclusion, and am now wondering: what next?

One of the more vexing questions for me has to do with the fact that, for the most part, I feel that artistically I have achieved much of what I would have hoped to by my early 50s. I’ve developed a coherent body of work, my music has been performed consistently, there have been several recordings released of my music, and I’ve accumulated press clippings. And yet, there it sits, 20 years worth of work going largely unnoticed. Is it merely a matter of timing? And if I just keep doing what I’ve been doing, will an actual career eventually develop? Or is it that my work to date is just not interesting or marketable enough to build a career around? Or, alternately, is the notion of a true “career” in new music even a realistic thing? Obviously in some cases it is, but these success stories seem more the exception than the rule. This is, I think, a key conundrum for many of us:  Do we keep plugging away with a defined style and identity in hopes of finding some form of conventional success, or do we keep exploring new ideas and interests without regard for being noticed or recognized? Having a consistent style and profile can, over time, help establish a career, but as an artist, it can be frustrating and limiting.

When you’re younger, the tension between artistic pursuits and tangible outcomes matters much less.

When you’re younger, this tension between artistic pursuits and tangible outcomes matters much less. After all, you have your whole life ahead of you, so you can experiment as much as you like. But at mid-life, the future is not all still ahead of you. Given your somewhat limited time remaining, what is the best use of the time you spend on artistic pursuits? Can you even afford to keep making music without a successful career? And, perhaps most importantly, do you have anything to say about the vital musical-artistic questions of the moment?

I’m not sure I have the answers, at least not yet, but over these next few essays I hope to arrive at some form of resolution to some of these questions. In the next piece I’m going to explore what it means to be an unaffiliated composer, one who has no particular ties or responsibilities to academia or other cultural institutions, a freelancer, a DIY-er, a “maverick”—in short, a composer who seemingly answers only to his or her own muse.

fallen leaves on a series of steps

The Big, and Ever-Present, “What’s Next?”

On May 3, my opera, The System of Soothing, was presented at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase. In this final installment, I reflect on the experience and plan my next steps.

I’m sitting at a bar two days after my Frontiers performance. It’s a bar where the Frontiers composers spent many hours socializing and talking technique, plans, and projects. Now, I’m alone; most of my colleagues have left Fort Worth and I am waiting for the shuttle that will take me to the plane to begin my journey home.

As ESPN plays on the screen above me, I’m flipping through the small stack of business cards that I collected in the previous days. I’m also making a list of the names of people with whom I’ve been speaking, but who didn’t have a card handy—Frontiers panelists, general directors, librettists. In a motion that has been well practiced during the last week, I reach for the interior jacket pocket that holds my business cards. I’m pleased to find only one remaining.

This is why I came. I came to meet people, to make connections, and to begin relationships with creative partners who are looking to build projects from the ground up. In my hands are the spoils of my experience at Frontiers.

Post-show blues

I’m heartbroken that it’s over, but by many accounts, my performance was a gigantic success. My singers—soprano Rachel Blaustein, tenor Brian Wallin, and baritone Alex DeSocio—were prepared, professional, flexible, and totally killed the performance both musically and dramatically. My music staff—conductor Stephen Dubberly, and pianist Matthew Stevens—dug into my score and found more than I had realized I had put into it.

The audience’s response to my music was overwhelmingly positive, I think. I actually don’t really remember the audience’s response as it got wrapped up with my choreography. (Don’t fall down the steps. Hug conductor. Shake pianist’s hand, then male singer’s. Kiss the soprano’s hand. Don’t knock over the stands or the microphones. Arms open wide to the audience and bow. Are my shoes tied? Yes they are! Drag it on as long as possible before the company bow…and we’re done!)

I scored points by describing the flexibility of the orchestration and casting options.

The next morning involved a discussion with six members of the Frontiers panel, a group of decision makers from across the country who had also selected the pieces that were presented in the showcase. I scored points by describing the flexibility of the orchestration and casting options, being told that the absence of “preciousness” in my work and presentation (defined as a reluctance to let go and let collaborators in) was evident. I felt the warmth of comments regarding my lyricism, the balance of my vocal and piano writing, and the creativity of weaving Poe’s poetry (what one panelist called “found material”) into the libretto and the multiplying effect it had on character development. A review in the local paper said about my opera (which takes place in an mental institution), “…needless to say, you wouldn’t want to be in this asylum – as either patient or caregiver.” I’ll take that as a positive.

Everyone involved in the 2017 Frontiers Showcase at Fort Worth Opera

Everyone involved in the 2017 Frontiers Showcase at Ft. Worth Opera.

The unseen impact

The day before my show, I went to a big-box grocery for a few items and gifts for my cast. And older woman waved me over to her to her checkout counter and we started talking, as strangers often do in this part of the country.

“Would you like to sign up for a rewards card?” No thanks, I live abroad.

“What brings you to Texas?” I’m here with the opera.

“What are you singing?” I’m a Frontiers composer.

This stops her in her tracks. “Isn’t that fabulous! What else have you done? I’m a choral singer, do you have any choral music?” I have quite a bit (handing over my card) if you wouldn’t mind giving this to your choir director.

She flips my card over in her hands and looks at me with wide eyes. “We HAVE done your music! It’s WONDERFUL!”

She looks a little star struck, and wants to shake my hand. I mumble a bit, but give in to the serendipity of the situation, accept her praise, and thank her profusely for her kind words. Leaving the store, I start laughing. This has NEVER happened to me in over a decade of writing and I’m a little unsure what to make of it. The basic reality sets in that when I send things out, either through my publisher, through my online and social media interactions, or through rare opportunities afforded by exposure like I experienced at Frontiers, I welcome the ripples of interactions they produce, and am grateful that something I have done has reached a complete stranger.

I was struck by this again the day after my showcase, when I went to Dallas to attend the New Works Forum at the Opera America Conference. Walking into the room, I immediately started recognizing faces I had only seen online – general directors, Pulitzer winners, singers, directors, librettists—a who’s who of leaders in the field. Everyone had their first names in large print on their ID badges, and I could see eyes darting towards my own as I walked around the room, trying to radiate maturity and positivity—or at least, not panic. Most moved on after glancing at my name badge, but a few stopped and came forward, saying that they had been at my show the previous night, or that they had seen my first essay on NewMusicBox two days before.

Hin und zurück (There and back again)

From the perspective of my relatively secure, European composer bubble, the amount of exposure I received between the announcement of, and participation in, Frontiers bordered on empowering and overwhelming, with a dash of terror for good measure. The response I received from audiences, colleagues, and the staff of Fort Worth Opera affirmed my Brand—“I am becoming a better opera composer”—for the foreseeable future. But no matter how well things turned out (or at least appeared to), it’s important for me not to believe my own “hype.” What I’m really left with, in the end, is an opportunity.

Just as important as understanding that opera is a collaborative art, opera is also a very slow burn.

In a previous incarnation of these essays, I mused that my goal would be coming home from Frontiers with more work than I could possibly handle. While this was a bit naïve, I do find myself with many avenues of communication on which I need to follow up, opera and non-opera projects that will keep me busy through the summer and fall. Just as important as understanding that opera is a collaborative art, opera is also a very slow burn. Projects develop over years, not months. The reality is that I put down roots during those two weeks in Texas, and every single one of them has the potential to develop into a new project. I just have to tend that garden. One win does not make a career, and a particular win does not necessarily mean I will be veering in the direction that win suggests. My immediate task is to kindle the relationships that I struck up, maximize the amount of time that I can spend on developing new projects, and be patient.