Tag: composer mentoring

This is What Tuba City Sounds Like

The four musicians of a string quartet, a composer and a mentor sit in the middle of a circle surrounded by students

My father was a New York City subway track worker, one of those workers you see with the orange vests at night working on the tracks. He died from a genetic heart ailment when I was 13, leaving my mother a widow with 5 children. She went to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yards as a file clerk to support us. The only thing we knew for sure was that we were all going to college. No one in our large extended family had gone to college, none of us knew what that entailed exactly, how to get there, how it’s done, but that was my mother’s nightly narrative, “When you are in college… ” Not “if,” but “when.” I started playing flute in high school (New York City Public Schools!) and knew from day one this was what I needed to do. And I soon discovered that with a 35¢ subway token I could be at Lincoln Center in 45 minutes. And I was, if not nightly, as often as I could, sneaking in the back door of the State Theater to see New York City Ballet and New York City Opera. (Security was lax in the ‘70s.) I don’t know what gave me the nerve, but I never doubted I had every right to be there. That 35¢ token was my access to a world far from my home life. But I also knew that I could “belong” because I could pass for something I wasn’t: That the color of my skin, the way I carried myself, all meant that no one else questioned whether I had a right to be there, either. That I had, despite my background, entitlements. And, with that 35¢ subway token, I had access.

I knew that I could “belong” because I could pass for something I wasn’t … I had, despite my background, entitlements.

When people ask us why my husband and I started the Grand Canyon Music Festival, I sometimes flippantly tell them it was a rash decision made in our foolish, impetuous youth: “Let’s put on a show!” It was 1982, and I was just beginning my career as a freelance musician in New York City. Feeling burned out, I decided to take some time off to visit friends in Boston. Before boarding the Amtrak train at Penn Station I picked up a book to read. The book I grabbed off the book store shelf, Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, is, coincidentally, the story of a young musician who, feeling burned out, goes to the canyons of northern Arizona where she re-discovers why she is a musician. In the canyon dwellings of the ancient people, surrounded by broken bits of ancient pottery, she asks, “[W]hat was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself?” The pottery served a utilitarian purpose, to hold and carry the essential, scarce element of water, but the potters took the extra care, not necessary to fulfill its purpose, to make the pots beautiful. I returned from my trip to Boston and announced to my husband, “We are going to the canyons of northern Arizona.”

We started our trip at the Grand Canyon, a 4 day rim-to-rim-to-rim hike. The first day we hiked down to the canyon’s floor. I put my hot, aching feet in the cold waters of the Colorado River, took my flute out of my backpack and played. (Odd thing I’ve learned about playing in canyons: you can’t hear the echoes, but others can.) Grand Canyon National Park ranger Joe Quiroz heard the echoes, but couldn’t locate the source of the music. The next day we hiked up the canyon’s corridor floor to Cottonwood Campground. I found a spot under a washed out tree to play my flute. The ranger, Joe, had also hiked up the corridor. Hearing the music this time he was determined to find the source. When he found me, he asked if I would come into the ranger’s cabin after dinner and play a concert. That impromptu concert in the Cottonwood ranger’s cabin was the unofficial founding of the Grand Canyon Music Festival. I told Joe about our interest in exploring canyons where the ancient people had lived. Joe was the right person to ask. He knew exactly where we should go.

A school bus on an otherwise empty dirt road.

Standing in those canyons (sometimes playing my flute), thinking of the people who have lived and who continue to live there, I felt the truth of Willa Cather’s assertion that “it made one feel an obligation to do one’s best.”

Two years later, during the second season of the Grand Canyon Music Festival, we headed east out of Grand Canyon National Park, descending down from the Coconino plateau, past the Little Colorado River Gorge, towards the Navajo Nation, on our way to perform for the first time for students in Tuba City.

Our first performance was for a class of about 30 students at Tuba City High School. The students sat quietly, looking down at their desks as we played.  After the performance, we attempted the usual Q and A, hoping to spur conversation with the students. The students continued to sit quietly, looking down at their desks. This felt like more than the usual reticent high school student reaction. When the dismissal bell rang, the students rose quietly and headed to the door, where they stood, looking down. All I could think was, “They hate us.” But the teacher approached and told us the students loved it, and they wanted to speak with us, but it is rude for Navajo to approach a stranger, an elder, or anyone in authority, or to even look them in the eye. How inevitable for there to be a clash of cultures! It’s inherent in the conflicting cultural mores: The Navajo deferential, no-eye contact, stand back approach can appear suspect to the non-Native American, with their aggressive (forthright!) greeting, firm handshake, a pat on the back, a direct look in eye. What I fully appreciated for the first time, and what most non-Native Americans don’t understand, is that we are alien visitors on Native land. It is an honor to be welcomed, and a privilege to work with their youth. That was the beginning of a journey of discovery, friendships, and cultural exchanges.

A student composer working on a score in front of an electronic keyboard.

It is rude for Navajo to approach a stranger, an elder, or anyone in authority, or to even look them in the eye.

By 2000, our outreach had started to feel like Brigadoon, the town that emerges once every 100 years or so and then disappears without a trace. We would arrive once a year, present a program for the school students, and then leave: We wanted to do something that would have more of an impact. That year, Brent Michael Davids (a member of the Mohican Nation) created a chamber piece for us, with the Havasupai Guardians of the Canyon dancers. Brent had just completed a McKnight Fellowship, teaching composition to school students. He told us he had always wanted to do something like that with Native students. Brent’s arrival was a perfect confluence of the right time, right place, and right people. The next year, 2001, we launched the Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP) with Brent Michael Davids at the helm. The students Brent would be working with in Tuba City had no formal music education. We didn’t know what to expect. But the music they created was a revelation: Here were original, authentic voices. It was Native music, but it was also infused with reggae and heavy metal influences. What impressed me was the apprentice composers’ sense of form and shape. What they lacked in knowledge of formal keys and chord structures they more than made up for in an authentic aesthetic sense. I remember one of our early NACAP apprentice composers who wrote a piece in which “nothing happened.” It was repetitious, and slowly unfolded over the course of several minutes. During the workshop, the members of our teaching ensemble—the fabulous NYC string quartet ETHEL—kept asking the young apprentice composer if he wanted the piece to be faster or to move more. The composer said, succinctly and with confidence, “No.” I suggested to the quartet members that they look outside at the landscape. This slowly unfolding, patient piece, was of that landscape, something musicians from the fast-paced, nervous world of NYC perhaps, at first, didn’t have the patience for.

What the Native American apprentice composers lacked in knowledge of formal keys and chord structures they more than made up for in an authentic aesthetic sense.

One of our NACAP students that first year was a young man named Michael Begay. A senior at Greyhills Academy, a federal Bureau of Indian Education school in Tuba City, Michael was like a lot of our apprentice composers: A mostly self-taught guitarist, passionate about music, absorbing everything he could from wherever he could. After high school graduation, Michael continued his composition studies through NACAP, studying with teaching composers Brent Michael Davids, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, and Raven Chacon. He joined NACAP as a volunteer assistant composer-in-residence in 2006, working closely with Raven Chacon. He continues studying composition with Mr. Chacon, and officially joined NACAP as a composer-in-residence in 2007. When Michael tells people he is a composer he often gets the response, “I didn’t know Natives composed music.”

The Reservation system has led to persistent social inequality for Native Americans. Beginning with the Dawes Act of 1887, federal policies attempted to eliminate native practices, cultures, and communities, to “kill the Indian, save the man,” to forcibly eliminate traditional cultures. Natives were forced to leave their homelands and be relocated to reservations on lands considered worthless to white settlers. They were exiled to places that were resource deficient and isolated, resulting in concentrated poverty and loss of traditional lifestyles. Poor quality of education and healthcare, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, violence, and high suicide rates are among the legacies of the reservation system. U.S. rates of adolescent suicide are highest among Native Americans, and school dropout rates are twice the national average, the highest of any ethnic or racial group.

Navajo culture has a strict taboo against expressing or even acknowledging dark subjects.

Navajo culture has a strict taboo against expressing or even acknowledging dark subjects, like death and illness. There is no word for suicide. Navajo must avoid disorder and seek harmony in their lives, “walk in beauty,” with a connectedness to the world.

I feel the weight of that taboo when we ask our apprentice composers to talk about their music. They have generously shared with us extraordinary stories of their lives. One of Michael Begay’s early compositions was called Chiaroscuro. In his pre-concert talk about the piece he explained that he had a need to talk about the dark as well as the light, in spite of the Navajo taboo.

The Catalyst Quartet reads through a work in front of its composer at Hopi High in 2019.

The Catalyst Quartet reads through a work in front of its composer at Hopi High in 2019.

Workshops with our ensembles-in-residence and apprentice composers often start the same way. Before the ensemble begins playing the students’ work (the first reading for the ensemble and the first opportunity for the students to hear their work performed live), the members of the ensemble ask if there is anything they should know about the piece. Often the request is met with reticence. Not so in the case of Jordan Lomahoema, a student at Hopi High.

He went through his piece, The Darkened Heart, detailing, measure by measure, how he had used his composition to map out the evening of his mother’s death in a car accident.

Here is where the car speeds up (an undulating eighth note pattern), here is the squeal of the brakes and the wheels skidding on the road, ending in the crash (sul ponto descending gliss to ff). Then the silence after the crash, rests followed by a few spare notes, the peaceful sounds of the evening returning, suddenly broken up by the arrival of ambulances, sirens blaring first loud, then getting softer as they carry away Jordan’s mother. The piece ends with the return of the quiet sounds of a reservation desert evening, but now disturbed with disquieting interjections, glissandos, a lone pizzicato.

Whitehorse High School is at the northernmost edge of the Navajo Nation in Montezuma Creek, Utah. When we arrived at the school with the Catalyst Quartet in September of 2015 to begin our workshops with their NACAP apprentice composers, we were met at the door by their assistant principal, Kim Schaefer. She quietly, stoically, told us that a student had taken his life the night before. The school was in mourning. The next day, as we arrived at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, the Navajo Nation’s capital, our friend Tom Riggenbach, founder of NavahoYES, ran over to us to give us the heads up: A young man in the community had taken his life the day before.

At the world premiere performance at the Grand Canyon, Whitehorse High School NACAP composer Brevin Norton choked back tears as he dedicated his piece, This is Just the Beginning, to his two friends and classmates who had lost their lives that year.

Joshua Honawa, a joyful, engaged student at Hopi High with an amazing smile, was everywhere during our ensemble workshops, running back and forth between the music room to finish his piece and the auditorium to listen to his classmates’ workshops. I mentioned him to Hopi High’s music teacher, Tom Irwin. I was shocked when Tom told me that prior to joining NACAP Josh had been on suicide watch. He had an abusive home life, and NACAP gave him the outlet he needed, spending most of his free time in the music room, composing.

NACAP gave him the outlet he needed, spending most of his free time in the music room, composing.

In 2008 the Arizona media was filled with a horrific story: A freshman at the University of Arizona, a young Navajo woman from Tuba City, was stabbed to death in her bed by her roommate, a young Navajo woman from Chinle. The murdered student from Tuba City was best friends with one of our NACAP composers, Jessie Bilagody. That year Jessie composed Beautiful Lost Soul, a moving tribute to her friend.

When we started NACAP we wondered about how we would teach music composition to students who had minimal music instruction. We now know that NACAP is so much more than that. It is both an outlet and an entryway, a door held open, with an invitation to enter. Yes, Natives compose music. And these are voices that need to be heard.

[Ed. note: Below are recordings of six additional recent works composed through NACAP.]

Mentor, Me—Sustained Musical Mentorship

This is the first in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.

My mom, a professor in the sciences, whimsically refers to her PhD adviser as her “tor-mentor”. While the exact ratio of joke-to-truth in this pun is still unclear to me, I grew up in a family of teachers and academics hearing over and over again that the lines between mentor and tormenter, mentor and family, mentor and friend, mentor and colleague, mentor and therapist, etc., are thin as spider’s silk in the web of personal and professional connections that bind together any creative community.

Kati Agócs

Kati Agócs

Dr. Kati Agócs’s office was a small, narrow room on the third floor of NEC’s Jordan Hall. It was a modest space with a large rectangular desk at one end and a clanky upright piano perpendicular to it. The desk’s surface was almost entirely clear, welcoming the mess of papers that would often accumulate during my lessons. This unremarkable room, which I saw once a week for four years, was like a magic wardrobe for me. I recall this room as the space where worlds of sonic possibility opened, and where I gathered fundamental artistic values and musical techniques.

Agócs was a patient and thorough teacher who guided me like the complete beginner I was but treated me like a professional. She encouraged me to write by hand and ditch the notation software for a while, so for my first few lessons, I brought in some haphazard pages of meandering scribbles on bleached white notebook manuscript paper. None of these notes felt important, and she was quick to address this with pragmatic, tangible advice: perhaps this easy-to-crumple, 8.5×11-7mm hole-punched spiral-bound binder-paper didn’t inspire me to take my writing seriously. It was time to invest in some “serious” composer paper. My first notebook of 14¾x11½ Carta No. 25 felt heavy and important when I carried it out of the bookstore immediately following my lesson. Through simple and seemingly superficial means, Agócs impressed upon me the incredibly valuable lesson that I must take myself and my own practice seriously if I am going to write the music that I love.

Lots of Carta No. 25 music manuscript paper

She told me to cross out everything I didn’t absolutely love.

Agócs intermingled necessarily rudimentary technical lessons (“Can you tell me the open strings of the ‘cello?”—“Uhh…”) with lessons about building confidence and finding happiness through disciplined creativity. In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was struggling to finish a solo piano piece that was—at that point—the most substantial thing I’d written. Agócs had been spending the year coaxing me into consolidating my ideas and generating longer, more fluid forms. But by this point, the 20-plus pages of music I’d written on my beloved Carta No. 25 were long but not fluid, rambling through a consecutive list of possibilities without ever saying yes to any one of them. Already feeling stressed and insecure before my lesson, I entered the magic wardrobe and crumbled into tears. Ever temperate and unhindered by this outburst, Agócs asked me to lay out the piece in chronological order all around the room. The manuscript snaked around her small office like a dotted-and-lined ivory worm. She told me to cross out everything I didn’t absolutely love.

This ritual of expunction produced positive short-term and long-term effects. Most immediately, I learned to say no to some ideas and yes to others, consolidating and finishing the piece by the end of the year. Further, I’m not sure if this was her intent, but seeing my paper worm fill the room gave me renewed confidence: look at all the music I’ve written this year! Here is it, literally laid out before me! Surely that work counted for something, and surely, if I’d done this much, I could do more.

Beyond this piece, I carried with me the value of erasing materials. And I began to embrace a guiding principle in my artistic practice and existence in general: the problem is never that there is only one right tune or texture or harmony or piece of music; rather, the problem is that the world is full of a gazillion good ideas but the art I love can only say an emphatic yes to one at any given time.

The world is full of a gazillion good ideas but the art I love can only say an emphatic yes to one at any given time.

What made my lessons with Agócs so special was her attention to detail. She elucidated the general through the particular. The focus she brought to understanding my music and advising me made me a more focused composer. I wanted to bring in work each week that merited the deliberation she gave to it. Attention to detail is something that increasingly defines my music: I find expression through specificity, and lately, I’ve been trying to write music that creates dense, but delicate, intimate spaces. Agócs cultivated the tools and concentration that enable me to imagine these worlds now. In lessons, she’d put a timer on and make me try to hear my way through an unwritten piece to develop an internal clock. She’d sit by me at the piano and tell me to compose right there and now if I hadn’t brought in any music that week, nudging me to explore richer harmonies at the keyboard. She brought her studio to Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsals, and demanded a sensibility to the unique technical and sonic features of each instrument as the foundation for new timbral possibilities. She encouraged me to write imitations of pieces I loved. What happens when I try—really, really try—to sound like Alban Berg? Perhaps what’s different is the seedling of me-ness.

I took Agócs guidance extremely seriously and worked hard to demonstrate progress in my craft over the four years that I studied with her. I believe that everything she had to teach me was more valuable to me because she was also a woman. I believe I was such a sponge with Agócs because I was able to look up and see a person I so deeply admired that might one day be me. When I look in the mirror now, I can see myself looking like Agócs. I simply can’t see myself looking like the male teachers that I’ve had, as wonderful as they’ve been. I was able to learn best from this person and envision a future for myself in part because of this person’s womanhood: in the shared experience, imparted wisdom, and leadership by example that I trusted wholly.

I was such a sponge because I was able to see a person I so deeply admired that might one day be me.

Agócs was a clear model from the start of my education that a great composer can also be a great teacher. When she gave birth to her daughter, Olivia, my last year of studying with her, she embodied for me the oft-dismissed possibility that a great composer and a great teacher can also be a great mom. Being witness to Agócs’s uncompromised strength in these arenas affirmed my hunch that the creation-education-motherhood trifecta is not only possible, it is a cycle of self-fulfillment with each part benefiting from and enhancing the other. I’m not talking here about “avoiding working-mom burnout” or “balancing career and family”— rather, I’m referring to a fundamental capacity dormant until provoked by the enduring elasticity of the creative mind.

My experience studying with Agócs fits into a broader discourse about the culture of arts education. As our community of composers has more conversations about inclusivity in the concert hall, I often end up thinking about inclusivity in the studio or classroom, and the gigantic role my teachers have played by including or excluding students from the creative and professional world they are training us to be a part of.

My femininity is the least revolutionary part of my artistic identity, but it plays a significant role in how I relate to and engage with my community.

I would like to think my femininity is the least revolutionary part of my artistic identity, but it plays a significant role in how I relate to and engage with my community. An awareness of the obstacles faced by young women in my field has undoubtedly affected the educational choices I’ve made for myself (I’ve sought out female mentorship), and now, the pedagogical choices I make as a teacher. Over the course of my education, I’ve encountered lots of anecdotal evidence of the challenges women face in finding relevant role models and teachers. In her article from 2013, Ellen McSweeney recalled:

My quartet once sought feedback on a Barber quartet from a male coach I had come to love and respect. “Honestly, you sound like a bunch of polite women,” he said during the coaching. I likely don’t need to clarify that this was not a compliment. In another coaching, one of our most beloved mentors referred to our sound as “voluptuous.” This was not a compliment, either.

Sarah Kirkland Snider recently noted that her graduate studies “featured male-only composition faculty, and very few—if any—female students.” Mara Gibson reflects: “Aesthetically, it is impossible for me to separate being a composer and a teacher—both activities feed one another. However, when I consider the number of female role models in my education who were able to live lives that also successfully integrated being composers and teachers, I can barely count them on one hand.” The majority of women I look up to and admire today—my mother included—did not benefit from having a female mentor or role model. Many of these women are now mentoring young women and I know from my experience are, like Agócs, forging mentorship roles that they have no exact precedent for.

In the next three articles I’m going to write about my experience being mentored in different circumstances by different women and reflect on my own teaching as I navigate being a potential source of guidance to young women.

Katherine Balch

Katherine Balch

Katherine Balch’s music seeks to capture the intimacy of existence through sound. She is based in New York City, where she is pursuing her D.M.A. at Columbia University.

Giving Voice: (Re)Discovering My Own

Twilight by a lake surrounded by trees

A view from the Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Summer Camps (photo by Chris Cresswell).

“Hey Mom and Dad, I’m going to summer camp!”

That’s probably not what the parents of a 26-year old want to hear. Then again, I probably gave them a lifetime’s worth of bad news half a decade earlier with “I’m going to be a composer.” I’m currently in my second summer working as a teaching artist at the Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods summer camp. This work has had a profound impact on my own compositions and songwriting on a both spiritual and practical levels.

Prior to starting work as a teaching artist, I worked at Boosey & Hawkes in New York City. While this was a tremendous experience in which I learned about the music industry, listened to more contemporary music than I thought possible, and met, more or less, all of my musical heroes, by the end of my time there my relationship with music, by necessity, had become more about business than the creative practice.

In working with campers at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods family of camps, I rediscovered my love for writing music. The young campers offered up creativity in its purest form. They were interested in making their own music without consideration for genre, marketability, or careerism, but rather with the intent of simply writing the music that they wanted to write. There was little angst associated with their writing process. While campers experienced hiccups along the way, there was none of the insecurities, impostor syndrome, or existential angst that impairs so many young composers, including myself. Rather, I found that all of the campers were open to suggestions, willing to learn, and ready to experiment as they discovered what the recording studio—and they themselves—could do. This caused me to reexamine my own self-labeling. Prior to last summer I’d always viewed myself as a composer who happened to write songs. I hid my songwriting from my fellow composers out of a fear that I wouldn’t be taken “seriously” as a composer. Spending a summer writing songs with campers resulted in me focusing more on my own songwriting craft.

This spiritual re-awakening coincided with a broadening of my sonic palette. As I mentioned in previous posts, campers shared their favorite songs, exposing me to a wide range of pop songs and entire genres that I was previously unfamiliar with. While I won’t be making a dubstep album anytime soon, I’ve fallen in love with the synthesizer sounds associated with the genre. Rather than writing folk songs with voice and a few acoustic instruments, I’ve begun to utilize the entire studio in my songwriting and recording process. This summer I’m recording several new tracks for future use, including the song embedded below, Advertising the Dalai Lama. What started as a simple folk song on an acoustic guitar has become a more nuanced piece of music. The process of creating this song showcases the cross-pollination between songwriting, composing, orchestration, and studio engineering, combining sounds from hip-hop, dubstep, and pop music with my own aural aesthetic which draws upon the work of Meredith Monk, Brian Eno, Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes, and contemporary electro-acoustic works.

When developing the instrumental section of the song, I approached the synthesizers the same way I approach orchestrating an art song. Rather than having a battery of strings, winds, and percussion, I have an array of electronic sounds, each one serving a specific function. Even though my instrumentation involves sounds labeled “Noizette,” “Scorched Earth,” “Dirty Wobbler,” “Swedish Ninja,” and “Mound of Wires,” I still approached the individual voices with the lessons I learned from Walter Piston’s Guide to Orchestration. The end result is, hopefully, a reflection of my previously bifurcated artistic selves.

On a practical level, working in a recording studio 14 hours a day has made me adept at writing and creating music at a quick pace. This summer, I orchestrated the middle instrumental section of a Broadway-style tune in a brief 45-minute window. Working at such a fast pace naturally means decisions are made without hesitation. There is no time to agonize over note choices. If it doesn’t work, we’ll simply try again; there is no need to fear getting it wrong. This increase in technical skill has helped with my work in sound installations and electro-acoustic work.

Last year, while working in the studio, I built the foundation for I was walking home…or at least I thought I was walking home… This sound installation created an imaginary soundscape by combining sounds from my last day living in New York City with sounds from my hometown of Cazenovia, New York, and electronically generated sounds. As I spent most of my days and nights in the recording studio, I was able to experiment with recording acoustic instruments and manipulating them to create sonic textures. The studio has become a part of the composition process, where ProTools waveforms are as valid as notation on a staff. This summer I’m combining these processes in a new work for the San Francisco-based group Wild Rumpus. My new work for them, From Dreams, We Emerge, combines electronic textures built inside the recording studio with live instruments.

The natural beauty of Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods, which is situated in Decatur, Michigan, a rural town in southwestern Michigan, has proven to be an alluring muse itself. I spend my summers living on a quiet campground next to a picturesque lake. On a clear night you can see a myriad of stars while fireflies seem to dance in the open fields. This is a far cry from my previous life living in an illegal basement sublet in Queens. This broad, open expanse has had an equal impact on my writing, be it acoustic compositions, electro-acoustic works, or songwriting. I’ve spent the last year working on an orchestra piece, The Decatur Fragments, inspired by the birdsongs I hear each morning while walking from my cabin to the recording studio.The work for Wild Rumpus, From Dreams, We Emerge, is influenced by this open expanse; it is a slow moving work with a dream-like quality, again influenced by my open surroundings.

A close up image of a tree by a lake at twilight.

Another view from the Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Summer Camps (photo by Chris Cresswell).

Working as a teaching artist is a continual two way conversation. While my goal at the onset was to teach songwriting and recording, I ended up learning as much, if not more, myself. This work has reinstated my love of creativity and has demonstrated time and time again, the power of self-expression, in all of its forms. I’ve witnessed campers gain confidence as they’ve written their first songs, sang in front of their friends, and learned that they have the power to create themselves. In a culture where so much is dictated to our children, giving voice to their artistic ideas instills in them the belief that their thoughts, their ideas, and their concerns matter, that someone is listening to what they have to say and is providing a platform for them to say it. Working with a teaching artist shows that creativity can be a part of everyday life. Most of the music young people hear is mainstream pop, seemingly coming from this “other” faraway place. When students have a chance to work with a teaching artist, they have the opportunity to share their song, their dance, their poem, their painting, or whatever else they can imagine. What I hope to impart as a teaching artist is that creativity is not only possible but is encouraged.

Giving Voice: Creating An Invisible Presence

Creswell, wearing headphones, sitting in front of a mixing console.

Mixing a Camper’s Track.

It wasn’t until I joined the teaching artist organization, Music Ascension that I first encountered the phrase “giving voice.” Like all good phrases, it has stuck with me and I’ve continued to refine my understanding of its meaning. Over the course of the past year working as a teaching artist, I’ve encountered a myriad of young artists and assisted in the development of their creative voices. The challenge is to help them develop as artists and individuals without imparting personal aesthetic and creative preferences. This is what giving voice has come to mean to me.

Learning how to become present in a young person’s work was initially a challenge for me. Like most artists, I’ve often felt insecure about myself and my work. My guitar playing wasn’t fast enough. I was a bad singer. My compositions weren’t that good. I’ve suffered from “impostor syndrome” and have questioned whether or not I should even be an artist. All usually before lunch.

It turns out that none of this matters when working with young artists.

In a typical songwriting course at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods camps, I began the first class with a creativity exercise. I had students list their five favorite things about being at camp. After that, I had them write a series of couplets about three of those things. Then I asked them to take their favorite couplet and add a second couplet that related. “Voila!” I would say. “We’ve just written our first verse.” Campers would be amazed and excited that they had started to write their first song. Once they had established their lyrical ideas, they would begin to sing little melodies for their lyrics. I would bring my guitar over and help the camper find chords that fit their nascent melody. In this moment I was no longer able to worry about my guitar playing or knowledge of songwriting. Instead, it was my job to nurture this seedling of a musical idea and help the camper grow it to a full song. As I began to remove any sense of ego from this work, I began to remove ego from my own creative process. I was faking confidence in the beginning, but as this process continued I began to gain confidence myself. (This growth mirrored the confidence that the campers were feeling in themselves). I started to apply this assuredness to my own work, pursuing ideas even if they lead me down an artistic rabbit hole.

The second challenge was learning to create an invisible presence. Like all artists, I have aesthetic preferences and opinions that guide my own creative work and processes. Although these preferences are fluid and ever-changing, they are always present. When working with campers, I had to learn to move beyond my own personal choices in order to honor the individuality of the campers’ creative and musical interests.

Prior to showing up to camp last year, I had never encountered dubstep. I knew it was a popular musical genre and that one of the most popular acts was Skrillex. (However, the only time I had ever encountered Skrillex was while on a Syracuse University alumni panel, where I promptly asked if Skrillex was the name of a cookware company.) On my first day at camp, I met a young camper who was enamored with dubstep and who wanted to spend the summer working on his first dubstep track. Rather than dismissing the camper or attempting to steer him in a different direction, I researched dubstep, the techniques involved in creating it, and listened to a handful of the most popular tracks. While to my ears, the entire genre seems to be derived from Julia Wolfe’s Tell Me Everything, it was a quality learning experience for me and helped the camper develop a dubstep track that he was proud of.

The final part of creating an invisible presence is learning when to push and when to pullback in the teaching process. This is the second year we’ve run the program at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods. Many of the songwriting students from last year have returned to the program. With the more experienced students, I’ve been able to challenge them, expanding their understanding of lyrical and musical ideas. In order to do this in a fulfilling way for both parties, I’ve had to increase my own knowledge of pop, hip-hop, and other genres I’m less familiar with. In the past few weeks, I’ve challenged young aspiring rappers with the slam poetry of Saul Williams and Alix Olson, attempting to expand their social consciousness.

Creating an invisible presence is about eliminating ego, sharing in your students’ creative goals, and working to best further their voice, regardless of personal aesthetics. In my final post next week, I will talk about how expanding my openness to all forms of creativity has had a positive impact on my own work and creative process.

Man with cap sitting in front of a drum kit in a large room.

Recording a drum track.

Giving Voice: Expanding the Periphery

Two young people wearing headphones sitting in front of a work station with a drumpad, an electronic piano keyboard, a computer monitor, speakers, and other peripherals.

Two younger campers building beats through Reason

Twin Woods Records, the recording studio at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Family of Summer Camps, is a busy place with campers of all ages and abilities passing through to take instrument lessons, write songs, produce beats, and make music.

This morning I produced a parody of “Ridin’ Dirty” (“you won’t catch our cabin dirty”), worked with a camper who wants to write a music theater song, and produced three students who had never recorded themselves singing before. In the past week, the staff musicians and I have produced a children’s folk song, sung Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” twice, and jammed out to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which is strangely popular with preteens this year). I’ve worked with a camper on her phrasing in Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” discussing the basics of music theory and challenging her to notate her first melody. At the same time, I’ve been working on a new chamber work for the group Wild Rumpus and have begun to record an album of original singer/songwriter material. This is only the second week of camp.

Working as a teaching artist has resulted in me drawing unexpected connections between disparate artists as I try to engage with students who come from a wide variety of musical backgrounds—some having no musical experience at all.

The campers at Twin Woods work on both group and individual projects, exploring their own lyrical and musical interests. Among the many projects currently being worked on is a solo hip-hop track. The camper writing the song is incorporating samples from pop songs to create his beats. I’ve worked closely with this camper to further his understanding of sampling, in hip-hop and beyond. This resulted in a discussion about the history of sampling and its use in hip-hop, pop, classical, and folk. Over the course of the class, we spoke about De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, John Oswald’s Plunderphonics, and Girl Talk’s All Day. As the conversation continued, I presented my own sample-based work, On the Verge, and began to talk about how modern-day sampling shares its history with the oral tradition of folk artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, as well as with work like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. These lessons rooted the camper’s sampling choices in a deeper musical context. Looking to enrich his lyrical content, I issued the challenge to incorporate a sample or samples that had a unifying theme that could be tied into the lyrics. It was a challenge the student was eager to take on.

Last year, I was working with a camper who was feeling run down from having been at camp for six weeks. He was initially disengaged from the creative process, not wanting to work on anything that day. Rather than accepting this, I began to talk to the camper about Brian Eno’s ambient work, which he had never heard before. He became really excited about the prospect of making his own ambient work and ended up creating a great track.

Prior to my work at summer camp, I spent a day at the Chancellor Academy in Pompton Plains, New Jersey. This school featured a classroom that had been transformed into a fully functioning recording studio featuring ProTools and Reason. I arrived for the class with the sketches and final score of my work Nocturne No. 1 for wind ensemble. Most of the students had never heard a wind ensemble before and their only frames of reference for classical music, if any, were Mozart and Beethoven. I talked about my work, how I’d come to write it, the process of going from a solo piano work to sketches to a score in Finale to a rehearsal and performance. We discussed my harmonic influences, how I hid a favorite pop song inside the work, (again, relating my music to sampling in hip-hop) and the meaning behind my musical gestures.

Students sitting at a round table cooking at pages of music notation manuscript.

Students at the Chancellor Academy looking over sketches of my Nocturne No. 1 for wind ensemble

Over the course of the hour, we made a series of unexpected connections. One of the students commented that a section of the work sounded like I’d “dropped the bass,” a key moment in hip-hop and electronica. I drew parallels between the staves in my score and the tracks in a ProTools session. After presenting my work, the students shared with me the song they had created together; it proved to be a tremendously moving experience. They had spent the school year putting together tracks in the studio, writing and recording their own beats, synthesizers, and lyrics. The students took immense pride in their work, and deservedly so. I offered critiques of their lyrics and music while also celebrating their accomplishments. By looking past our preconceived notions of musical genres, we were able to find the interconnectivity inherent in all musical expression.

One of the students made an offhanded comment that has stuck with me: “When I started in this program I was writing about guns and drugs. I’ve moved away from that.” He had just finished playing me a track about one love, and working hard to better himself, his family, and his community. This remains my inspirational call to arms: evidence of how music and the creative process can have a tremendous impact on an individual, and how this impact ripples outward beyond the educational setting. In crossing the musical topography and uniting seemingly disparate worlds, teaching artists have the power to remove preconceptions about musical identity as well as labels that students might have internalized about themselves personally, transforming both the individual and their art.

Aaron Jay Kernis to Direct New Nashville Symphony Composer Lab & Workshop

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra's official banner for its new Composer Lab & Workshop

The Nashville Symphony has announced a newly created Composer Lab & Workshop developed and guided by Nashville Symphony Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero and composer Aaron Jay Kernis, who will serve as Workshop Director and Chairman of the Selection Panel. The program aims to discover the next generation of outstanding American composers by providing them with the opportunity to develop their talents, gain hands-on experience working with a major American orchestra, and showcase their work for local audiences. Coupled with the announcement is a nationwide call for submissions for its inaugural session.

Kernis seated and wearing a open collared blue shirt

Aaron Jay Kernis, photo by Molly Sheridan

“I am delighted to again be working closely with the terrific Nashville Symphony in my new role as director of its Composer Lab and Workshop. Giancarlo Guerrero and the orchestra show tremendous dedication to and passion for new American orchestral music through their programming and award-winning recordings,” said Kernis. “Now they are taking this next bold step, engaging with musical creativity in America by going to its source—young composers—and creating this program, which will hone young artists’ skills in writing for the most complex and glorious instrument I know: the orchestra. I look forward with pleasure to helping the Nashville Symphony find the most talented composers of the new generation.”

“Creating and promoting new American orchestral music is at the very core of the Nashville Symphony’s artistic mission,” said Guerrero. “What better way to fulfill that mission than with a program that gives the next generation of composers a chance to develop their talents and gain wider exposure? Nashville is already home to a vibrant and diverse music scene, so it is only fitting that we should play host to some of the nation’s best and brightest composers, and we are all incredibly excited to hear the results.”

Giancarlo Guerrero standing and wearing a black shirt

Giancarlo Guerrero, photo courtesy Dworkin Company

Supported by founding sponsor BMI, the initiative is open to U.S. residents between the ages of 18 and 33. Works will be adjudicated by a world-class panel of composers and performers, and participants will be announced by July 1, 2015. The inaugural class of composers will travel to Nashville in October 2015 for performances of their music by the Nashville Symphony. The fellows will also work with Nashville Symphony staff, conductors, principal players, and community partners, learn from nationally recognized music industry professionals, and participate in one-on-one mentoring sessions with Kernis.

Participating composers’ works will potentially be selected for a performance during the Symphony’s 2016-17 Classical Series. The Symphony will provide airfare, hotel accommodations and a $1,000 stipend for all participants. In collaboration with Copland House—the creative center for American music based at Aaron Copland’s National Historic Landmark home near New York City—one participating composer may also be selected for a Copland House Residency Award or a fellowship at Copland House’s CULTIVATE emerging composers institute.

The Nashville Symphony is accepting submissions through May 15, 2015. Submitted works must not have received a performance by a major orchestra with an annual budget greater than $3 million, must be no longer than 15 minutes in length and be scored for a standard symphonic complement. Concertos, choral works, works with electronic elements, works with organ, and works solely for strings, winds or brass are ineligible. Compositions must have been written in the last three years and only one composition per applicant may be entered. More information on the Nashville Symphony’s Composer Lab & Workshop, including a full listing of submission guidelines and eligibility requirements, is available on the Nashville Symphony’s website.

(—from the press release)

The video below is from a talk we did with Aaron Jay Kernis last year. Our entire conversation with Kernis is available here.

Rugged Individualism Meets the Orchestra—A Snapshot of the 2015 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute

The seven featured Minnesota Orchestra composers, Kevin Puts and Osmo Vanska standing on the stage of Orchestra Hall.

Pictured from left to right: Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Director Kevin Puts, Kati Agócs, Loren Loiacono, Matthew Peterson, Evan Meier, Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä, Eugene Birman, Texu Kim, and Michael Schachter. Photo by Greg Helgeson courtesy Mele Willis, Minnesota Orchestra.

The composer as rugged individualist. Sink or swim. Every man (or woman) for himself.

The composer as Elon Musk, as Steve Jobs, as Walt Disney, as both publisher and publicist, as public as possible.

The composer as creator, editor, engraver, buyer, seller, middle-man, and perhaps above all artist and inventor but also protector of copyrights, of rights both grand and small.

And there was of course the man most independent, most individual and inscrutable of all, Osmo Vänskä, who, by now, everyone knows rides a Yamaha and comes from that dark, bubbling cauldron of conducting talent that is Finland—the man, who, when asked whether Matthew Peterson’s soaring Hyperborea evoked Nordic emotions answered with: “I think you know, I’ve had seven pieces to prepare.”[1]

Osmo Vänskä with hands raised conducting the Minnesota Orchestra.

Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra rehearsing for the Future Classics concert. Photo by Greg Helgeson courtesy Mele Willis, Minnesota Orchestra.

Those seven new pieces, most seeing their professional orchestra premiere, were more than simply prepared. While orchestra members began learning their parts not simply days or weeks in advance but some two months ago, Osmo touched down in Minneapolis Wednesday night and arrived at an uncharacteristic 9:03am the following morning for what I jokingly labeled to a Star Tribune reporter as “The Judgment of Caesar.” But there was no judgment. These were one-on-one meetings with one of the world’s great conductors, at the helm of one of the world’s great orchestras. Those seven new pieces and their seven new scores, carefully marked up in pencil from top to bottom, were about to be rehearsed—truly rehearsed, not simply read. This is why the best way to introduce this year’s Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute—a week-long program held at the coldest possible time of the year in a city whose commitment to music, old and new, quite profoundly reverberates all around the world—is to start at the end: the concert itself.

Orchestra Hall was full, energetic, anxious, as NPR’s Fred Child introduced composer after composer, piece after piece, proverbially twisting the key into the mind and heart of each composer until we felt, if not entirely like our own publicists, then, at least, surprised at our own ability to communicate without having to write any notes down. The topic of communication through the Institute was, if not often directly referenced, undoubtedly the dominant theme: communication to musicians through parts, to conductors and artistic directors via email and phone (though never by phone to Asadour Santourian, by his own request!), to audiences by public speaking—ultimately, to ourselves by how receptive we were to such a barrage of well-meaning information and advice. On Friday night, there was just the music, a seven-composer feast (this was no tasting menu but a concert of fully fleshed out orchestral works) spanning essentially every aesthetic, style, and medium imaginable.

Living mostly in Europe these days and having to play the role of explaining just what is going on in contemporary American music to my composer colleagues there, I’ve run up against the opinion that seemingly everything is probably minimalist and if not, it’s loud and ambiguously tonal with orchestral tutti upon orchestral tutti, European orchestral music is taut, lean, precise, sophisticated, timbral, and we can go on. That kind of conversation isn’t just held on this side of the Atlantic. I have a great composer friend who is convinced that no European orchestra would be interested in his music because of how “American” it sounds. Well, wouldn’t the Composer Institute’s final concert, christened “Future Classics,” be the perfect place to find out what American music ultimately does sound like?

Inconclusive. Diverse, aesthetically all-encompassing. And without wanting to ascribe greatness to my own work or anyone else’s, I will just quote composer Kevin Puts, who has taken on the artistic leadership role of the program: “Wow!” I think that single word encapsulated how we all felt about it, we meaning that holy trinity of audience, performers, and conductor. We were all wowed by the challenge of the music (in many cases, a challenge not entirely necessary), the dedication of Osmo and the orchestra, the support from Orchestra staff and Kevin Puts, our own camaraderie, and most of all, that we got to finally hear this music done at the highest level it possibly could be done. Music, itself, that aspires to exist on the highest level as well.

What is the Composer Institute and why does it even exist? Whither the appetite for new music?

Ours was the twelfth iteration of what cannot surely be called an orchestral reading session, nor a commission of any form, nor a purely educational program as it is, in the end, all about having the music performed on the grand stage. The Institute assumes certain things that composers might not be used to, namely that by writing a lot of notes, performers might actually learn all of them even if it takes practicing through their vacation. Or that the best way to get a publishing deal is to have one already. Well perhaps we already knew the latter.

Orchestra members, arts administrators, publishers, lawyers, even a certain NY-based NewMusicBox composer advocate, offered their insight, wisdom, complemented by a steady (but generally well-deserved) airing of grievances. The message was uniform: you’ve done well to get here. But your career is in your hands, and no one’s else’s. Rugged individualism. Sink or swim. Et alii.

John Snow from the stage of Orchestra Hall holding his part and talking with Eugene Birman in the audience.

Acting Principal oboe John Snow discusses a passage with Eugene Birman. Photo by Greg Helgeson courtesy Mele Willis, Minnesota Orchestra.

But no matter the entrepreneurial route, the audience in Minneapolis on Friday the 16th was hungry for new music. During the post-concert Q&A session, an audience member exclaimed that this is her favorite concert of the year. Many others voiced their allegiance to the same. These people were not forced to be there. They weren’t bussed in. There’s no university. They came because they love their conductor, they love their orchestra, and they realize that for classical music to thrive, it has to keep being made.

We, seven—alphabetically (and in concert order) Kati Agócs, myself, Texu Kim, Loren Loiacono, Evan Meier, Matthew Peterson, and Michael Schachter—wrote the music. But it was made by Osmo, the orchestra, and the people without whom the Institute simply wouldn’t exist or function, like Mele Willis and Kevin Puts. And most of all, the likely thousand-strong audience who clapped and cheered no matter whether it was the microtonally inflected alto flute solo in my own Manifesto, a piercing oboe mulitiphonic in Texu Kim’s resplendent Splash!! [2], the simultaneous musical references to Stravinsky and Wagner in Michael Schachter’s clever Freylekhe Tanzen, Loren Loaicono’s dizzying vibraphone cross rhythms in Stalks, Hounds, Kati Agócs’s hypnotic electric solo sextet writing in Perpetual Summer, or the expansive, searing beauty of the climax of Evan Meier’s Fire Music.

One must ask the question why, if the appetite for new music is so huge in Orchestra Hall, more American orchestras don’t do it this way? Does the Orchestra Institute have to be unique? Surely, if the American Composer Forum’s suggestion that there are 10,000 composers living in New York City alone is reality, there are more orchestral masterpieces from young composers waiting to be uncovered. What if the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco and Atlanta Symphonies, the Cleveland Orchestra and all the rest set up their own Institutes? What would the course of American classical music be then? And why hasn’t it happened?

There are no easy answers to those questions, I’m afraid. But I might return to that notion of rugged individualism, of entrepreneurship—now, no longer in the realm of composers. It took those qualities in Aaron Jay Kernis, in Osmo Vänskä, in others around them to create what Minnesota created, and now for Kevin Puts to lead it into the future. It took vision and a belief that young composers like us deserve a shot now rather than later, rather than never. May that vision spread.

The seven composers featured at the institute with Kevin Puts around a dining table at a restaurant eating and drinking red wine.

From left to right: Loren Loiacono, Michael Schachter, Evan Meier, Composer Institute director Kevin Puts, Kati Agócs, Matthew Peterson, Texu Kim, and Eugene Birman at Vincent for dinner.


1. Even in a masterpiece, there is some room for improvement–or so we found out during rehearsals. I asked each of my colleagues to submit a page that either didn’t go as planned, or did but elicited some meaningful gripes in the process. (Click on any of the seven score images below in order to enlarge them.) Michael Schachter’s opening page asks for horns placed in the audience. “They didn’t quite get the hang of the sound I was after,” he says, despite the effect working out marvelously during the performance. Matthew Peterson’s excerpt asked for a tempo so slow, it was off the metronome. “Despite the music being really easy here, Maestro really didn’t want to do it in q = 32!” The page from my piece, Manifesto, elicited the most consternation for asking way too much in too short of a period of time. But it, like everything else, proved no obstacle to the Minnesota Orchestra. They played it all perfectly.–EB

Page of orchestral score of Kati Agocs's Perpetual Summer

Perpetual Summer

A page from the orchestral score of Evan Meier's Fire Music

Fire Music

A page from the orchestral score of Matthew Peterson's Hyperborea


A page from the orchestra score of Michael Schachter's Freylekhe Tanzen

Freylekhe Tanzen

A page from the orchestral score of Texu Kim's Splash!!


A page from the orchestral score of Loren Loiacono's Stalks, Hounds

Stalks, Hounds

A page from the orchestral score of Eugene Birman's Manifesto


2. During his interview with Texu Kim before the performance of his piece, Fred Child asked Texu why it had two and not one or three exclamation points and Texu responded that it was too lonely with one.


Eugene Birman with his hand holding his chin.

Eugene Birman

With performances across the United States, Europe, Asia, and South America by leading orchestras, choirs, and soloists, Eugene Birman (b. 1987 in Daugavpils, Latvia) is a composer of music of “high drama” and “intense emotion” (BBC). His highly public career (appearances on CNN, BBC World TV, Bloomberg, Radio France, and more) has seen premieres and commissions from the London Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, BBC Singers, and countless others. Eugene’s music can be found on commercial releases with Naxos, Abeille Musique, and on NMC Records’ 25th anniversary disc “Next Wave”. He is currently based between San Francisco, CA, London, UK, and Tallinn, Estonia.