Tag: composer training

Empowering Teenagers to Compose: A Guide for Educators

A pen and a notebook with handwritten notes, a CD and a smartphone with a display of a video of music performance overlayed with the New Music Toolbox logo

Although K-12 music standards call for students to develop skills in composition, I often hear educators express that they feel ill-equipped to support their students in this endeavor. Many music teachers do not get trained on how to facilitate composition projects in the classroom, and their own experience with composing can be quite limited if their studies placed an emphasis on performance. As a result, instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.

Though these assignments can serve a purpose, they often do little to develop a young musician’s creativity, and at times, they can even stifle students’ artistry by implying that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to compose. Instead, students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development. This is especially crucial in music programs where many students’ only access to formal music instruction is in the classroom, where their studies are typically not as individualized as they would be in a private lesson setting.

This article is a collection of actionable tips primarily from my own experience as a composer-educator and founder of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop. These strategies can be adapted to group or private lesson settings and don’t require that educators have extensive background in composition. Though these approaches are geared towards middle and high school students, many of these tips can be adapted to create lessons for students of different age groups.

  • Instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • I encourage students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities. For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • If students feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today's world.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer

Cultivate a practice of observation and discussion.

Eric Booth, in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, advises that we need to guide students in practicing observation before defaulting to interpretation or judgment – a discipline that we also need to cultivate in our own practice.1 This approach enables students to learn a great deal from the music that they listen to, yet it also gives them an ability to ask insightful questions of themselves while they are in the process of realizing their own ideas.

If a student listens to a new piece and responds with “This piece makes me feel as if I am watching a cartoon,” giving a follow up question such as “What about the music reminds you of watching a cartoon?” can help them to return their focus to aspects such as the instrumentation or texture of the piece.

When we model questions that focus on observation, this empowers students to practice asking themselves more insightful questions during the composition process. For instance, a student who is dissatisfied with how their melody resolves can ask themselves, “What about this melody makes it sound incomplete?” However, if they immediately judge the melody as something that is “no good,” they will likely abandon their original ideas, and the opportunity to learn from their experiences will be missed.

Even if the student ultimately decides to scrap their composition and start over, taking a moment to pause and observe what they have created so far can give them the insight needed to accomplish what they set out to write the next time around.

Focus on one element of music at a time.

In the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, one of our topics during the first week of classes is a lesson on the elements of music. When we give students the vocabulary to talk about elements such as rhythm, pitch, and texture, they become better equipped to make observations about the music that they are listening to. That way, they are less dependent on interpretations and judgment.

Even if students are having trouble finding the right terminology to use in the midst of a discussion, it can be helpful to invite them to describe what they are observing to the best of their abilities without having to utilize the proper musical term right away. The vocabulary can always be taught later, and the students’ findings can be great ways to open up conversations around new terminology.

Aside from listening exercises, composition projects that focus on a singular element of music are great for narrowing the scope of a lesson while allowing plenty of room for creativity. For example, I’ve often used the Sonic Scavenger Hunt by composer-educator Danny Clay as a starting point for students to explore the concept of timbre.

Experiment with many approaches to composition.

When students can try their hand at a variety of approaches to composing, they will eventually choose a writing process that is most inspiring to them. Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece. They may even decide to change their approach based on the result that they are trying to accomplish in a given project.

Though a new approach may be uncomfortable at first, sometimes, students can actually be inspired in unexpected ways. I’ve taught workshops where students work together to compose chance music; however, I always tell them that even if they set up a system for choosing the notes, they are always free to break their own rules and edit the piece if they are dissatisfied with the result.

After using a die, a coin, or a picker wheel to determine certain elements of a piece, often, they will become quite opinionated about which notes to change and why they are changing them–another great opportunity for conversation.

Bringing in guest composers to teach a class (either in-person or virtually) or finding videos of composers talking about their creative process can motivate students to try something new. Though some students may initially feel that processes such as rolling a die or turning their name into musical notes are not legitimate ways to write music, when they discover that there are many established composers who have created masterpieces with similar strategies, they will feel validated in their own creative process.

Many of the reasons for introducing a variety of approaches to composition also apply to experimenting with different styles of notation. Another great aspect of Danny Clay’s Sonic Scavenger Hunt is that it is a great example of a graphic score – a concept that is fit for beginners and more experienced students alike.

Students can also explore projects that don’t require any notation, such as composing a fixed media piece in a program like Audacity. Young composers tend to fixate on pitches and rhythms, but these alternatives to traditional notation can be useful exercises in developing elements such as timbre, texture, and dynamics when students might not have focused on them before.

Use technology to your advantage…

Even simpler apps, such as voice notes or a video camera that’s included with a mobile device, can be useful tools for composing. When I teach composition, I often encourage students to record their ideas as they go. That way, they don’t have to worry about forgetting concepts that they are experimenting with – a strategy that I often use in my own work before I begin to notate my ideas. Documenting the composition process can also enable students to better reflect on their experiences since it will be easier to see how the piece evolves over time.

Aside from being a way to introduce students to other artists and composers, watching and discussing videos of performances, interviews, and demonstrations can be a great way for students to witness how sounds can be created in innovative ways. For instance this performance of Zaka by Jennifer Higdon has been a great conversation starter amongst my students since it demonstrates the concept of extended techniques. Additionally, this profile of Angélica Negrón has piqued my students’ curiosity about electronic music and found sounds.

…but be mindful of where technology has its limits. 

At times, introducing certain technology too early in our students’ development can encourage them to “color inside the lines” in unintended ways. I have often seen this happen to students who begin to use notation software long before they have started to get comfortable demonstrating their ideas on an instrument or writing sketches by hand, however imperfect these methods may be at first.

In a lot of notation software, such as Noteflight, MuseScore, or Sibelius, to name a few, users are asked to specify parameters such as the meter and key signature before they begin to enter the piece itself. Changing these options later on can become a barrier if students aren’t aware of how to work around these limitations or if they are not aware that their tools are imposing such limitations in the first place. This often results in melodies and rhythms that sound too “square” and pieces that can become too redundant.

One way that I counteract this is by encouraging students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities.

For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.

Some verbal and graphic notes for a musical composition that can be used instead of music notation

Save the theory assessments for another time.

When composition projects are primarily intended to examine whether your students can write an eight-bar melody in D Major, for example, they are much more likely to become fixated on whether they are choosing the “right” notes and pleasing their teacher. Instead, opt for open-ended projects that enable students to explore and define their musical tastes.

Students who feel empowered to envision and realize their own ideas will gain a sense of confidence that can be applied to any profession whether they choose to continue in their musical development or move on to other endeavors. On the other hand, if they feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

Alice Kanack, the pioneer of Creative Ability Development, has a very helpful formula to refer to when structuring creative exercises for students:

Freedom of choice or Freedom from criticism + Disciplined practice and repetition of making choices = Creative Ability2

Whether I am teaching composition in my own studio or I am visiting another teacher’s class to do a workshop, I’ve found it much more empowering to encourage students to express their intentions and their artistic vision so that we can explore how they might accomplish what they intended. This is another reason why lessons that incorporate plenty of time for discussion and reflection are so important.

Embrace imperfection.

As educators, we can enable students to take creative risks and break free of a fixation on choosing “right” versus “wrong” notes by creating multiple opportunities for them to share works-in-progress. Often, I will set a short timer (e.g. 5-10 minutes) for students to respond to a prompt that is very narrow in scope. Then, they will have an opportunity to share what they came up with and express their intentions for their work as they go forward.

Even though there will often be at least one student who is too shy to share their unfinished works, I’ve found that simply inviting them to reflect on what the experience of composing was like can gain their trust. More often than not, they ultimately decide to present the music itself.

That being said, it is crucial to create a safe space for them to be vulnerable in this way, especially if they are in a group setting with their peers. All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few. This goes for all parties involved — their peers, their teachers, and even parents or guardians who are supporting them in their studies.3

Because of this, modeling what it’s like to embrace imperfection can be a powerful tool. When I give students an opportunity to work independently during class, I will often use the time to compose ideas for the same prompt and demonstrate what it’s like to share my own imperfect, unfinished work. This includes verbalizing my thoughts on how I feel about the creation at the moment. Whether I am excited about moving forward with my ideas or I feel ambivalent and want to scrap them, I make a habit of sharing these reflections with my students so that they can feel safe to do so as well.

Connect lessons to real-world experiences.

Introducing our students to living composers, whether it is via a live workshop or through pre-recorded media, can illustrate the many ways in which a career in music can take shape.

This can easily become a starting point for activities that give students a taste of what the music profession can be like. For instance, prompts such as writing a short solo for a classmate to perform can give students a glimpse into the process of writing a commission.

As part of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, Samantha Hogan, has visited our class to share excerpts from her concert works as well as selections that she wrote for games and film. After her presentation, she facilitated a lesson in which the students created music to portray characters from I Wish I Were A Butterfly, a children’s book by James Howe. This kind of activity is a great way to introduce students to the idea of telling stories with music.

Aside from empowering students to make creative choices in the music itself, encouraging students to assist in the production of their work can give them confidence to initiate their own projects later on. Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today’s world.

One of Sakari's online composition lessons.

Conclusion

As you begin to apply these practices, my hope is that you will feel more confident to share the art of music composition with your students, even if you have little formal training in composition or you do not identify as a composer. Though an emphasis on observation and experimentation will take much more time than prompting students to “color inside the lines,” approaching the study of composition in this manner will offer more enriching opportunities for us to learn alongside our students, inviting them to take risks and explore new territories in their creative practice.

Sources

  1. Eric Booth, The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible: Becoming a Virtuoso Educator (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 33.
  2. Alice Kay Kanack, Fun Improvisation for Violin: The Philosophy and Method of Creative Ability Development (USA: Summy-Birchard Music, 1996), 15.
  3. Kanack, 20.

 

Shaping the American Operatic Canon

Two actors in chairs during a stage performance

The last decade has seen an explosion of new American opera. In 2010, productions of American operas written after 2000 represented 5% of total productions by Opera America Professional Company Members; by 2018, this number more than tripled to 18%, and is on track to rise.

We are entering a time of opportunity to develop an American operatic canon and leave a musical legacy for future generations. But how do we discover and train the next generation of composers and librettists? How can we shape a legacy that represents the many voices within contemporary American society? Given the exceptionally high level of training necessary for operatic composition, how do we ensure that limitation of opportunity does not hinder a diverse pool of creators? While we are moving in the right direction, I believe that professional American opera companies and leaders within the field can take a more active role in cultivating the next generation of opera librettists and, more specifically, opera composers. We owe it to ourselves, to future generations, and to this Golden Age for American opera.

Gaining the Skillset

Composing an opera is among the most challenging of artistic undertakings.

Composing an opera is among the most challenging of artistic undertakings. In addition to being masters of shaping sound, opera composers must be exceptionally skilled at writing for the voice, impeccable at setting text, and in full command of large-scale form. Just as importantly, they must be people of the theater—actors and stage directors—able to shape dramatic timing, impetus, subtext, and flow seamlessly through music. Furthermore, opera composers must understand the operatic creative process—the enormous collaborative mechanism essential for the work to reach the stage successfully. For the rare composer who manages to come by all the necessary knowledge and skill, understanding the business side of opera poses another hurdle—writing a great work is not enough to ensure it is performed. In the end, many qualified composers are disillusioned, and others not ready for the challenge find no opportunities to develop the necessary tools.

There is no traditional path for opera composers and no clear training ground. University programs must focus on the general skills composers will need before they even begin to think about writing opera. Many of the skills that are essential cannot be taught in a traditional classroom, and must be gained through observation and experience. It is therefore unsurprising that some of the most prolific and skilled composers on the scene today have had unconventional paths that allowed them to obtain the necessary tools. Many of them came to opera only after years in other artistic areas. Jake Heggie’s background in theater—as pianist, coach, and even administrator—contributed to the varied skillset necessary to become America’s preeminent opera composer. Mark Adamo and Ricky Ian Gordon also have backgrounds that combine theater and composition. That multifaceted background is also a defining characteristic of the now long-established Philip Glass, who had worked in film, dance and experimental theater.  Up-and-comer Dan Shore likewise came to opera as a playwright, composer, pianist and coach.

In order to cultivate a diverse generation of talent, we must find a way to overcome the existing limitations of accessibility to sufficient training.

These composers all had exceptional opportunities to gain the skills necessary for writing opera, but they represent a very narrow sliver of American culture and society. It is essential for any composer who wants to write opera to have an extensive background as a dramatist, wordsmith, orchestrator, and musician. But currently, this expectation is also impractical, unreasonable and highly exclusionary. In order to cultivate a diverse generation of talent, we must find a way to overcome the existing limitations of accessibility to sufficient training.

The state of training for opera composers

Over the last decade, a small number of composer training and development programs in the American Northeast have emerged to fill this training gap. American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP), the most comprehensive of these undertakings, provides a three-year certificate course to composers, librettists, and dramaturges. The participants meet weekly in New York City to study vocal writing, text setting, the collaborative process, dramaturgy, and various other ins and outs of writing opera. ALT has additionally produced some wonderful work through their development programs for new works—I recently had the privilege of being involved in the exceptionally detailed, multi-year development process for The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, a phenomenal opera written by composer Justine Chen and librettist David Simpatico.

Additionally, American Opera Projects’ Composers and the Voice works with New York City-based composers and librettists in workshops on writing for various voice types, dramatic training, and mentorship from top creators in the field. Opera Philadelphia has also maintained a well-resourced training program. Concurrently, Opera America has taken an active role in developing new work, including the organization of the New Works Forum, dedicated grants for women composers and, as of this season, grants for composers of color.

A number of the most successful composers who have emerged from these opportunities have not had a traditional profile and have brought new experiences and musical languages into our field. One standout example is Kamala Sankaram, who has an unconventional background as a psychologist, soprano, accordionist, sitar player, and even voiceover actor (to hear some of her crossover work, check out her band Bombay Rickey). Kamala received training from the CLDP at ALT and support from producing organizations like Beth Morrison Projects—a company that has championed contemporary chamber opera for the last decade and a half. Likewise, Missy Mazzoli and David T. Little are two composers who took full advantage of Opera Philadelphia’s training program to build enormous skill and embark on major careers. Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves immediately made an impact, and David T. Little’s rock-inspired Soldier Songs is being performed by mid-sized opera companies throughout the country.

It has become clear that the combination of comprehensive, multi-faceted training, together with championing by smaller new music initiatives, can give a composer the initial skill-building needed to move on to a major operatic career. American Lyric Theater, and to a lesser extent, American Opera Projects, had recently become the principal programs providing longer-term, comprehensive training for opera composers and librettists. But the collaborative nature of the work requires that participants be available for regular face-to-face meetings. This is a highly limiting factor, not just culturally and geographically, but also financially, as New York City continues to be prohibitively expensive for most artists. As of 2017, ALT does provide partial cost-offsetting stipends to aid participants who want to commute or relocate, but this does not resolve the many other job, family, or personal limitations that may prevent someone from moving. Furthermore, centering training in just one American city by nature limits cultural and musical representation within the field, gearing operatic writing toward New York City’s musical and societal views and tastes, which (for better or worse) are hardly representative of most of this country.

Becoming a composer already poses massive barriers to entry for individuals of limited means or from non-traditional musical backgrounds. Geographic limitations and lack of training opportunities makes these barriers insurmountable and simultaneously limit the scope of the stories and voices heard by American audiences.

From the 2017 White Snake Projects premiere of Julian Wachner and Cerise Lim Jacobs's opera Rev. 23 at Boston's John Hancock Hall (photo by Kathy Wittman, courtesy Verismo Communications)

From the 2017 White Snake Projects premiere of Julian Wachner and Cerise Lim Jacobs’s opera Rev. 23 at Boston’s John Hancock Hall (photo by Kathy Wittman, courtesy Verismo Communications)

The field’s responsibility

Professional opera companies across America can and should do more. In order to ensure a future for opera, we must promote stories told by a variety of individuals, who represent the many regions and cultures of the United States, and bring a breadth of musical backgrounds to our field. Opera’s strength throughout the form’s history has been in its ability to unite the arts in an effort to tell powerful, moving stories. Those of us in the position of running opera organizations can take ownership of ensuring the art form’s continued impact by nurturing the next generation of opera composers.

Opera’s strength has been in its ability to unite the arts to tell powerful, moving stories.

At the time when most of the operatic classics were written, composers were working within fully government-funded European opera theaters that produced many new works each season. These organizations could take the risk to invest in new compositional talent, allowing creators to experiment, to have ample rehearsal time (which, in turn, allowed rewrites and further experimentation), to develop relationships with the same performers over an extended period of time, and to have the permission to create several flops while honing the skills to compose a masterpiece.

Today’s structure, especially in the United States, is much more rigid. Most companies produce a total of only 3-5 operas a season (including standard repertoire), so the competition is fierce and the programming limitations extreme. There is rarely a sufficient workshopping or development process for new work. It is also nearly impossible for larger American opera companies to commit to a new work, unless it’s by a proven composer and on marketable subject matter. Furthermore, unsuccessful performances of new work lead to general audience disillusionment and skepticism of pieces outside the standard repertoire, making future commissions even more risky. Most companies cannot afford to take a risk on a brand new composer.

But we can do much better—we can develop the composers of the future by providing them with the tools necessary for success.

Few opera companies provide a means to systematically mentor composers.

Few opera companies provide a means to systematically mentor composers. Emerging opera composers largely do not have access to regular rehearsals, administrative support, and the behind-the-scenes structural and decision-making processes of a producing organization. Minnesota Opera, founded partially by composers, stands apart by engaging in a rigorous and systematic development process for the new operas regularly seen on its stage. However, Minnesota’s focus is on single works, and the pieces produced are usually by already established composers, not those who are just embarking on a career. Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative and Forth Worth Opera’s Frontiers Showcase provide very short-term mentorship opportunities on specific short works. While very important for the field, these short-term initiatives do not provide the comprehensive training essential for emerging opera composers. As I began my tenure as Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater, I realized that a vacuum exists, and with it, an opportunity to make a difference in helping to ensure a future for our art form.

At Chicago Opera Theater (COT), we are attempting to do our part through the newly formed Vanguard Initiative, a two-year, fully comprehensive residency program that provides composers with the myriad tools necessary for a successful career in the field. The program is geared towards skilled composers who want to venture into the world of opera, but have not yet had sufficient opportunities to do so. One composer is chosen annually, provided a stipend, and invited to embark on a two-season comprehensive study of opera. The training includes a survey of the canonic repertoire, detailed examination of operatic fachs, attendance at a large number of operatic productions at various institutions, access to the administrative side of an opera company, and ample networking opportunities. Most importantly, the Vanguard composers learn the full scope of the interpretative process by attending full staging rehearsal processes for different productions and observing contrasting interpretative styles. The composers also work with our young artists and an experienced librettist, dramaturge and director as they develop a new, full-length opera.

Opera companies have a responsibility to take part in ensuring the future of our art form. While most organizations are unable to create something as extensive as the Vanguard Initiative, or program a season of world premieres, we can all do our part. Providing some opportunities to standout local composers and/or librettists is a low or no-cost opportunity to engage with the next generation of creators. Simple initiatives like granting access to staging rehearsals, mentorship, and networking opportunities with guest artists, as well as free tickets to performances can be a start. Pairing young artist programs with local composers could be a mutually beneficial training opportunity. Smaller, more nimble organizations and new music ensembles can make producing brand new work by first-time opera composers a priority. Larger producers can seek out partnerships that allow them to identify composers and offer full development support for new work. Perhaps more extensive collaborations with university graduate composition departments, like Pittsburgh Opera and Carnegie Mellon University’s Co-opera, can be explored. At COT, we are also hoping to plant the seeds of opera composition for a younger generation: our Opera for All educational programming works with Chicago Public School children, who collaborate with a composer and professional creative team in writing and producing their very own opera.

Larger opera organizations can further help promote new work by partnering with smaller, less risk-averse startup companies. MassOpera in Boston recently modeled a successful partnership, working with Washington National Opera to workshop Kamala Sankaram and Jerre Dye’s Taking Up Serpents, which went on to be premiered at WNO last season. This year, MassOpera will also workshop Dan Shore’s Freedom Ride in partnership with Chicago Opera Theater. The synergy makes sense—MassOpera uses their access to flexible emerging artists with new music experience to give composers and larger producing organizations the development process necessary for success. Beth Morrison Projects has had similar successful workshopping collaborations with university departments across the nation.

It is our responsibility to promote and encourage a new generation of opera composers who represent all that our country has to offer.

There is no single means of promoting new work, or of fostering a new generation of diverse compositional talent. But ultimately, it is essential that opera companies, no matter their size, ask themselves how they can support a new generation of creators. We are in the midst of a Golden Age for opera in America, and we have an opportunity to empower those who will define the American operatic canon. As leaders of operatic institutions, it is our responsibility to promote and encourage a new generation of opera composers who represent all that our country has to offer. The resources are at our fingertips, but we must make developing new work and supporting emerging creators once again a priority for our field, shaping the operatic canon through the plurality of today’s compositional voices.

To Jury or Not to Jury

jurors
For those of us who mark our days according to an academic calendar, activity is winding down–for a few weeks, at least. However, the end-of-term stresses that plague most subject areas are usually absent from music composition because, by the very nature of our medium, our work is front-loaded into the first half of the semester/term. By the time everyone else is cramming for final exams and performance juries, composers should have already completed an appropriate amount of music and either have it performed and recorded or at least have created a decent aural mock-up to present to others.

Music students are usually expected to take part in performance juries as the “final” aspect of their private lessons. These juries, for the uninitiated, are where performers are brought into a room to play through selected repertoire and, depending on their level, demonstrate various proficiencies on their instrument. By comparison, many composition studios do not have any end-of-term experience or expectations for their composition students; the last lesson comes and goes, and while the past semester’s work may be discussed informally, there is no comprehensive structure for assessing the students individually and the studio as a whole. This was my experience going into my doctoral studies at the University of Texas, and when I discovered that students there were expected to take part in composition juries at the end of each semester, I asked the same question that I’ve been fielding since I instituted them where I teach: What happens in a composition jury?

As I see it, composition juries serve several purposes for the student. First, they provide students with the opportunity to collect all that they have created during that term and reflect on what they have accomplished. The expectation for cleanly edited scores helps to ensure that that bit of drudgery is completed in a timely manner. The pressure to respond to criticism and critique by the entire composition faculty is probably the least enjoyable part of the jury, but it does help to prepare the student for the critiques to come post-graduation. Finally, the student is expected to “perform,” though not in the same way as in an instrumental or voice jury; it is very important for composers to be able to defend what they have created, concisely explain their process, and provide cogent proof that they are not only aware of their own artistic philosophies but that they are aware of how those philosophies are evolving over time.

I am aware that this end-of-term assessment concept is not universally held; many highly respected institutions forgo any such thing, and it took a bit of convincing to bring my own department around to the idea. If anything, the juries serve to emphasize how important it is for composers to both understand what they’re doing as they create and gain the proper skills to convey their ideas to the outside world. “Let the music speak for itself” is a noble concept, but in today’s age of pre-concert talks, grant proposals, and public interaction, running the gauntlet of a composition jury can help to prepare composers for what is to come.

From the Shed to the Stars: Reflections on the Boston University Tanglewood Institute

I acquired my first orchestral scores in the Tanglewood gift shop, at the age of seventeen. A student at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, I purchased the last copy of the Brahms symphonies the day before the Boston Symphony Orchestra launched a Brahms cycle under James Levine at Tanglewood’s legendary Koussevitsky Shed. A geek-cellist friend, alarmed at the prospect of listening without a score, offered me $200 for it; I declined. This was a new experience, a worth attached to music that I had not encountered before.

Many a college essay, I’m sure, has included a variation on a similar anecdote: “Gazing up at the stars while listening to [insert canonic symphony here], I realized that music was my true calling.”

Mine certainly did. NewMusicBox readers can probably recall similarly seminal, early memories of summer music festivals in high school or college, experiences of communing with nature and other young musicians that helped drive them to be the composers or performers they are today. But beyond the pat clichés of staring at the stars while listening to Brahms—for me at least—there was something more powerful at work: an expansion of musical consciousness and igniting of an intellectual curiosity that made me want to study music for the rest of my life.

I attended BUTI—affectionately known as “booty”—in the summers of 2005 and 2006; I played saxophone in the wind ensemble, a four-week program that ran alongside similar programs for high school-age composers, vocalists, pianists, and orchestral musicians. Those eight weeks are powerfully etched into my memory.

Sam Almaguer (clarinet), Molly Yeh (percussion), Nathan von Trotha (percussion), and Chris Pell (clarinet) before their last orchestra concert in the summer of 2007.

Sam Almaguer (clarinet), Molly Yeh (percussion), Nathan von Trotha (percussion), and Chris Pell (clarinet) before their last orchestra concert in the summer of 2007.
Photo courtesy Molly Yeh

Today, that program is in a certain amount of danger, and thus this article; I write less from a “Save Our Classical Music Institution” perspective but rather out of an obligation that is both personal and historic. The stories of young musicians at BUTI are stories that are crucial to the narrative of music in the past half-century. Cutting BUTI or relocating it from its current campus would be a sad erasure of a rich legacy that stretches back forty-five years and encompasses the early careers of many prominent musicians.

Earlier this month, the Berkshire Eagle reported a few of the issues at hand with the future of the BUTI program, which is run by Boston University (unlike the Tanglewood Music Center fellows program, which is facilitated by Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony). BU is currently reviewing their financial stake in the program and its future—both as part of the larger university and as directly connected to Tanglewood itself.

Sam Solomon—a percussionist who participated in BUTI in high school and today teaches at BU and BUTI—has recently begun to speak out publicly about the issues in order to draw attention to the dangers of altering the program. I communicated with Phyllis Hoffman—a professor of voice at BU and the executive and artistic director of BUTI—who let me know that the BUTI and BU administration are working closely together to offset the budget problems; she wrote to me that “there is a strong recognition of the excellence and importance of BUTI.”

That said, the current facilities—located on the beautiful West Campus, within walking distance of Tanglewood’s main grounds—are in need of overhaul and can’t currently accommodate all of the programs that BUTI offers. Fortunately, the Eagle recently confirmed that BUTI will definitely continue next summer. But serious investment is required, and BU is reportedly considering moving the program from Lenox to Boston.

Nathan von Trotha practicing the cymbals outside at BUTI

Nathan von Trotha practicing the cymbals outside at BUTI
Photo courtesy Molly Yeh

That would be a huge mistake. In her study The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape, Denise von Glahn writes of the particularly American relationship between music and place, the “unique way in which music of the cultivated tradition expresses, defines, and celebrates place.” Tanglewood has already been similarly inscribed into American musical history. Nico Muhly, a BUTI alum, has written It Remains To Be Seen, a lovely, loving orchestral work that pays tribute to his wistful nighttime walk from the Tanglewood main grounds back to West Campus following a concert. Osvaldo Golijov’s cello concerto Azul was inspired by the composer’s memories of hearing the Boston Symphony play outdoors when he was a Tanglewood fellow (though not in BUTI). The Tanglewood experience has become part of this grand American tradition of tonalizing space, a place-based muse.

I asked several prominent alums of BUTI to help paint a broader picture of what BUTI, the program and the place, meant for them, and how their early experiences as high school fellows made them the musicians they are today.
Nico Muhly, composer

It was just amazing…For me the West Street campus is just so romantic and lovely, and site specific, and being that close to the grounds is amazing, and walking to the grounds is amazing….There’s nowhere else like that.

It’s that sense of continuity. For instance, one of my other friends I met that first summer, Dan Bauch, went on to the Tanglewood Music Center and went on to be a timpanist in the BSO. You can hear the same music by someone who, when you were a sixteen-year-old, you sat on the lawn and listened to The Firebird with; [he’s now] playing it with that orchestra 15 years later—it’s such a magical thing.

One of the things that people talk about, even just on the BSO side of it, is that it’s not just great music-making—it’s the whole culture of being there and the whole intergenerational chilled-ness. It’s so important for young musicians to see that. It connects to people, but it also connects to the idea of musical community.

This last summer I volunteered for a week and did master classes and taught lessons. I did the same thing two years ago. I go up as much as I can.  If I can volunteer at BUTI, it literally makes my summer. For me it’s not a summer unless you go to Tanglewood, and I’ve done crazy shit, like a couple years ago I flew back from, like, Singapore or something just to go. It’s not just fun, I think it’s vital

Molly Yeh, percussionist and food blogger

An earth shattering Mahler 5, a terrifying but triumphant Copland 3…While my love for music led me to BUTI, it was my time at BUTI that made me love the music world and desperately want to be a part of it. It was there where I met many of my very best friends, where I learned how to change a timpani head and work with composers on new works, and where I got to know Tanglewood as one of my most favorite places on earth. My BUTI summers were the first flaps of the butterfly’s wings in my career as a percussionist.

My bonds with my peers at BUTI, both professional and personal, still hold tight today, however it is also important to mention that my interactions with the Tanglewood Music Center percussionists also had a profoundly enriching effect. To this day, I consider a few of them to be my most valuable mentors. With their encouragement and support, I had extra confidence in my college auditions, and I’ve since had the opportunity to play with them in orchestras around the world. Having the TMC percussionists as role models during my years at BUTI was a unique and unforgettable experience that I would not have gotten at any other music camp.

Forgive me for being dramatic, but when I’m old and crusty and dying, the montage of my adult life will open with Mahler’s Adagietto playing to a memory where I’m dancing with my three best friends, barefoot on the Tanglewood grounds. Laughing, frolicking…and then taceting in tears until the next movement. Without a doubt, these were some of the happiest moments of my life.

Sam Solomon, percussionist and faculty member at BU and BUTI

I’ve been fortunate to be a part of BUTI for 13 years: three as a student, and now ten as a faculty member. In and of itself, it is a top-notch program with top-notch faculty, but what sets it apart from other great summer festivals is the location. The students are provided an unparalleled education on top of that offered by the Institute because of their access to Tanglewood concerts, rehearsals, and masterclasses, as well as the community of musicians that spend their summers there. All of the Boston Symphony, Tanglewood Music Center, and visiting artist concerts expose these young minds to dozens of conductors, composers, and performers.

For me it was revelatory. I was a BUTI student nearly 20 years ago, and every musical experience I have had since is filtered through the education I received there. I am still in close contact with many of the students that were with me those summers, all of whom are at the top of their fields, playing in, composing for, soloing with, or conducting major orchestras, touring with successful chamber ensembles, teaching at top-tier music schools, and even in high-level music administration positions.

Nadia Sirota, violist and daughter of Robert Sirota, who taught composition at BUTI (Nadia did not herself attend the program)

Hanging around BUTI and Tanglewood laid the single most-impactiful groundwork for my becoming a musician. Without a doubt. There was a true respect for music-making that pervaded the place, not music-making as industry but as art. There was a joy to the program. I remember all of my dad’s little composition students hanging out at our house and having barbecues. Composers, performers, and audience members are all thrown together in this little town. Everything feels vital. Also, musicians that are 16 years old get to consort with musicians who are 23 and musicians who are 63. The whole musical ecosystem is temporarily housed in one zone. It’s like a terrarium.

Judd Greenstein, composer and co-founder of New Amsterdam Records

Having friends who, like me, knew they were composers, that they had already discovered their passion and were pursuing it at a high level, was extremely encouraging and gave me a sense of being part of a supportive community even before we all wound up in New York together, years later. The other important experience was getting to interact with really great older composers. That’s where I first met David Lang, and Sofia Gubaidulina visited, which was incredible, even in translation. I remember her talking about silence. It was one of the most profoundly important musical education experiences of my life, as was David’s talk. Especially so because I was with Nico [Muhly] and we could talk all day about what they said, as teenagers, when you really are learning so much.

It’s really my relationship with Nico that has meant the most to me. When you have a good friend in a challenging creative field who you’ve known for a long time, whom you meet at such a young age, it gives you a lot of confidence. Like, whatever else people may say, I know that we get each other and what we’re trying to do. I recently found some letters that we sent to each other where I was basically complaining about all the things that I wound up trying to address in the world of music, later on, with NOW Ensemble and New Amsterdam and Ecstatic, and which I’m still trying to address. Having friends with whom you can share those thoughts, and who agree, and where you’re supporting each other, is invaluable. Now I have many of those friends, of course, but Nico was the first, and BUTI is the avenue that made it happen.

Logan K. Young, editor-in-chief, Classicalite

Growing up in a small Southern town, attending the Boston University Tanglewood Institute was my first real, extended exposure to a world-class symphony orchestra, with every attendant benefit therein. I was 18 years old, freshly graduated from high school with an even fresher beard. Sure, I had been to Spoleto. I had studied trumpet at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, as well as the Brevard Music Center, and I had just finished a week at the Conductors Institute of South Carolina. But BUTI truly was a different experience in an altogether different land. (I never will forget the 24-hour-plus Greyhound ride from Georgetown, South Carolina, to Lenox, Massachusetts!) I had no formal training in composition beforehand, but as soon as I got off that bus, I was thrust into hard lessons with Richard Cornell and Julian Wachner, intense classes with Steve Mackey and the late Lukas Foss. Of course, the Festival of Contemporary Music was its own great teacher, too. If I’d never heard Copland or Bernstein performed live by anything other than a per-service orchestra, I certainly had never heard any Leon Kirchner in person, much less a thing like Satie’s Socrate. And when I bought a double-CD of Tod Machover’s Valis at the gift shop on the grounds of Tanglewood proper, well, it’s no hyperbole to say that my life was changed forever. Come college, I would go on to summer at places like Banglewood and, stranger still, the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten, but none of those would have been possible were it not for the invaluable training in the most solid fundamentals which I received at BUTI. Granted, I write more about new music now, but again, if BUTI didn’t exist back then, my life would sound a lot more dull. I’m a better musician, writer, and overall person for having taken that Greyhound to Lenox; I sincerely hope the brass don’t shut the place down.

Jeffrey Beecher, principal bass, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and member of The Silk Road Ensemble

I attended the Boston University Tanglewood Institute as a 14-year-old in 1997.   While I had some experience at other music programs under my belt, I remember feeling a little scared when I arrived in Lenox, not knowing what I was in store for.  From the moment I arrived at BUTI, I knew I had found a very special place.  I was immediately struck by the impressive level of talent and dedication coming from the other students.
I was inspired to meet young musicians who not only excelled at their instruments, but passionately debated the best recordings of Mahler symphonies, were floored to rehearse and perform the great orchestral masterworks (Nielsen 4!!), and who eagerly attended the Boston Symphony’s Shed concerts like rock shows.

All of this was greatly influenced by the location on the Boston University campus.   To be that close to the Tanglewood grounds afforded me unparalleled access to the pros.  It also inspired the dream of a long journey: with hard work, I might one day be a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center.   And with even more hard work, I might get the chance to play in a professional orchestra?!

I am extremely grateful to say that I am living that 14-year-old’s dream—I perform as professional musician in a phenomenal orchestra and a world music ensemble.  As a teacher, I get to pass on the traditions and generosity of spirit I learned at BUTI to today’s aspiring young musicians.

In August 2010, my relationship to BUTI came full circle when I performed with the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma at the Tanglewood Shed.  Feeling nostalgic, I gave a quick shout-out to the BUTI students in attendance.  As a youthful cheer exploded from beyond stage left, I was thrilled to observe that the vitality and passion of those students was just as impressive as it had been to me thirteen years earlier.

Missy Mazzoli, composer

It was vital to me to see as much music as possible.  I saw two or three concerts a day, plus rehearsals.  I remember seeing Peter Serkin in a rehearsal with the BSO, Anonymous Four, Van Cliburn, and John Williams conducting the premiere of a new orchestral work, among many others.  I was only seventeen but managed to meet Mauricio Kagel, Elliott Carter, Joan Tower, Bright Sheng, John Harbison, and Aaron Kernis that summer as well.  These were among the first living composers I met, believe it or not.

The location near the Tanglewood campus is absolutely essential to the power of the program.  Many of the best experiences I mentioned had to do with the fact that for the first time in my life I felt that I was being treated as a professional.  The ability to walk on the same grounds as the BSO and the chance to meet the top contemporary composers made me feel that I was on my way to having a life as a musician.  For a girl from small-town Pennsylvania, this was absolutely essential to my feeling that I could go on as a composer.

Timothy Andres, composer

I didn’t know a lot of kids my age who were interested in the same things I was. That first summer at BUTI was the first time I could meet other 14-year-olds who were obsessed with Ravel; no longer a social disease, my obsession made me popular. It wasn’t an education so much as a combination of osmosis and moral support. It confirmed my desperate need to be part of this thing—to be a musician was a real possibility, and if not exactly attainable, at least conceivable. And it was the beginning of my attachment to a place that would continue through college (when I returned for the Tanglewood Music Center) and my professional career (we recorded Home Stretch in Ozawa Hall).
It’s an integral part of Tanglewood and the larger music world, and its survival is vitally important to young musicians.

Craig Hubbard (French horn) and Yeh, frolicking on the Tanglewood grounds in 2007.

Craig Hubbard (French horn) and Molly Yeh, frolicking on the Tanglewood grounds in 2007.
Photo courtesy Molly Yeh

I myself have many memories of great performances, but perhaps more importantly, many memories of the value that my peers placed on those performances; thus, the $200 offered for that Brahms score! That value was in part a kind of cultural cold war that I engaged in with my fellow high schoolers, a battle over knowledge of the canon. I was a classical saxophonist with a very light schooling in the orchestral rep, and phrases like “Bruckner Four” and “the Meistersinger Prelude,” tossed off with such ease by other musicians (well, let’s be honest, brass players) endowed me with a peculiar kind of inferiority complex.
I tried to catch up, learning as much as I could as fast as I could. Following my first BUTI summer in 2005, I spent my senior year of high school fastidiously reading Wikipedia pages and biographies of the great composers. I returned in 2006 with the lingo, knowledge, and constant quest for new information about music that undergirds my research today. At age seventeen, it felt very good to know who Brahms was and why it was so special to hear Levine lead a full cycle of his symphonies. (New music, I should say, remained a bafflingly unknown element; I wish I had taken advantage of the offerings at the contemporary festival. And to this day, I regret most of all opting out of hearing the famous performance of Histoire du Soldat narrated by Babbitt, Carter, and Harbison.)

I could list the many concerts that inspired and overwhelmed me. But it was the overall sense of the environment and the coming-together of several generations of musicians—from high schoolers to college-age Tanglewood Music Center players to tenured members of the Boston Symphony—in a single place that was unique. With immense pride, I watched close friends rise through the ranks each summer, ascending the professional ladder amid the pines. A percussionist, Kyle Brightwell, was an early star in my first BUTI summer. By the next summer, he was already subbing with the TMC orchestra. This past August, I visited Tanglewood and saw Kyle pound away at the big drum in The Rite of Spring, as a tenured member of the Boston Symphony’s percussion section.

That sense of lineage, and the opportunity to forge an early relationship with musicians that will be maintained over the course of a lifetime, cannot be underestimated. Sitting outside the Shed and listening to Brahms, I can gaze up at those same stars today—as can Muhly, Andres, Mazzoli, Beecher, Young, Sirota, Yeh, and Solomon—and imagine a musical past and a continuity extending into a bright future.

Controlling the Catalogue

A few weeks ago I wrote a post that extolled the virtues of writing for a variety of genres, instrumentations, and experience levels. The tone of it didn’t feel right at the time and so I asked that it not be published, and yet that topic has been gnawing at me ever since. In my role as an educator for young composers, I am continually assessing the breadth of their portfolios and encouraging or assigning them to write for as many different mediums as they can in order to ensure they have a strong educational foundation. At the same time, once my students graduate and begin their own careers, the question as to who decides what types of works they will compose is as important as it is unclear.

Early in a composer’s career, it’s common for their compositional medium to be decided by both their instructors and by circumstance. The teacher will most likely assign or suggest the scope and medium of each work with the availability of performers and ensembles in mind. This is a good thing for two main reasons. First, there are several instances in which a composer’s catalogue of works is analyzed for breadth; applications for graduate study as well as teaching positions are often scrutinized for “too much focus” in one area or another. Second, young composers tend to either write for a very limited palette (e.g. solo piano or string quartet) that is directly within their comfort zone or over-extend and attempt massive orchestral or band works (often through the magic of cut-&-paste) without a clue or a care.

As composers mature through their studies, they are usually expected to decide what they want to write. While they’ll still be studying with mentors, that freedom to explore on their own is an important step in their development. I’ve often seen composers at this level begin to explore the extremes of breadth (experimenting with obscure instruments, complex techniques, or concept-based methods) or depth (writing several works within the same genre or instrumentation). It is at this point that they begin to create a sense of control over their growing body of works, a sense that could easily affect what direction their career will take in the long term.

Where it gets interesting is when there are no more assignments or easily-accessed performers or department recitals. Once that cord is cut, composers are still affected by circumstance—even more so than before—but they’re also in the position where their decisions carry important ramifications. As commissions are accepted or projects are undertaken, patterns can emerge rather quickly that can form strong external associations. If a composer writes three works for wind band in a row early on, for instance, they have begun to create a reputation within that community which can be a powerful advantage. That being said, they’ve also placed themselves at a crossroads: should they take on the next wind ensemble commission and solidify their place in the “band world” or dig into a cello sonata for their best friend or write that chamber opera that they’ve always wanted to tackle?
The same could be said for questions about style, harmonic language, or concept. After one piece is done, the next piece will bring a conundrum: do I go in the same direction as before or do I try something new? The more consistent one’s style and language are, the easier it is for a select group of performers and listeners to form a strong relationship with a composer over time. Conversely, less consistency can increase the variety and numbers of performers and audiences that enjoy a composer’s works (even if that enjoyment is based on a single work).

A catalogue can be thought of as simply a “works” page on a website that can assist others in finding a particular piece, but it can also mean much more. As creative artists, we can’t help but be affected by the works we have already made, not only in how others view us, but in how we choose to write our next piece. Each of us may decide at times to be strategic in our decisions or to throw caution to the wind and take some risks, but as long as we are aware of this “choose-your-own-adventure” situation, we can still maintain a modicum of control over our body of works.

Composing and Responsibility

“May we always be in perfect pitch harmony, for no person or spirit is ever always in unison, and a duo or ensemble can be comprised of anyone or contain anything, and that is the permanent fact of great society”—Adam James Johnson (text from Royal Democracy)

There’s a lot of debate among composer types about whether you should write music for an audience or to please yourself. While I usually pride myself on being able to see both sides of an argument, I actually disagree with both camps. An audience is not a monolith and “hits”, as it were, cannot be manufactured a priori despite the claims of Phil Spector and other star makers over the years. Also, there seems to be some kind of audience for just about anything, so no matter how arcane the endeavor, it will appeal to somebody. And in the era of non-geographically based markets, there are usually enough somebodies around the world to make it even economically viable. As for pleasing oneself being the reason behind one’s composing, that seems horribly solipsistic. Why should anyone else care about something that is so personal? But, perhaps more significantly, why limit yourself to what pleases you? In my experience, it is often the things that displease me initially that lead to something really interesting. Perhaps then, what would be more viable way for a composer to think out his or her musical creations than either of these limiting binaries (although it’s somehow a combination of them) is to always be mindful that what you eventually put forward into the world should be something you feel strongly enough about to want to share with others. It’s about taking responsibility for what you put on the page and what people will eventually be interacting with as players and listeners.

I was reminded of this last week when I observed the final session of the first American Composers Orchestra/Mannes Summer High School Composers Intensive. This new summer program is designed for high school student musicians who have yet to compose a piece of music. In introducing the seven participants, ACO Education Director Kevin James said that while these young musicians might have had original melodies floating around in their heads before taking part in the intensive, and some undoubtedly could have even played what they were hearing, this was their first encounter with “the accountability of creating a score” for performance by other people.

ACO-MannesRunThru

Kevin James and the [kāj] ensemble work through the details of one of the scores. (All photos by FJO.)


Over the course of the summer program, the students attended four in-depth workshops during which they learned about music notation standards and orchestration techniques. The culminating event, which is what I attended, was a reading by a professional ensemble of the music they created through these workshops. (The six musicians—Martha Cargo, flute; Eileen Mack, clarinet; Sarah Bernstein, violin; Lev Zhurbin, viola; Tomas Ulrich, cello; John Ferrari, percussion—were all members of James’s own [kāj] ensemble who, according to the program were “performing as guests of the American Composers Orchestra.”) James conducted and also joined the musicians on trombone in one of the pieces. Each of the students were allotted a total of 15 minutes, during which the musicians rehearsed and ran through their pieces. Some students created works for additional instruments which were played by their peers who augmented the ensemble; but the students were not allowed to participate as players in their own pieces and had to remain in the audience while they were being performed. The reason for that was to re-enforce pristine and diligent notation practices—again, to ensure that composers were fully responsible in the preparation of their materials and were held accountable for them.

The first piece, Silhouette by Ralph Mendoza, reminded me somewhat of Satyagraha-era Philip Glass in its cascades of interlocking arpeggiated chords. The composer actually cited a much earlier example—the moonlight sonata of Beethoven—as the source of his inspiration, but since Mendoza is a guitarist, it is easy to see how he could conceptualize arpeggios as the basis for a composition independently of either Beethoven or Glass. Toward the end of the next piece, Etude by McKinny Danger-James (who is Kevin James’s daughter), a germ motive grows in intensity, at first played by one instrument and ultimately played by everyone, completely taking over the piece. I thought it was a very exciting way to end a piece. Danger-James, is a singer so an infectious melodic fragment, as with Mendoza’s guitar-friendly arpeggiations, makes sense as a viable means for generating a composition, even one with no singers.

Valeria Olaya-Flores’s piece, Tiny Sun, called for improvisatory passages but the way she notated it resulted in much of her 15 minutes with the musicians being eaten up with questions from them. That said, once they were able to run through her score, I was fascinated by the somewhat off-kilter interaction of the instruments which called to mind Christian Wolff’s Piano Trio, so she’s definitely on to something. The parts for Celine Garcia’s Idea were also not completely clear to the musicians, but the composer acknowledged that this was due to problems she was having with her Sibelius notation software, particularly in the percussion part, although once it got going I was almost knocked out of my seat by the intensity of the snare drum pattern and a sudden thwack on the bass drum that seemed to come out of nowhere, as do so many of the most interesting sounds. How the musicians interacted with those two scores proved to be a valuable lesson for everyone in how to balance ambitious expectations with ensuring a satisfactory outcome. It’s a lesson that transcends musical composition and strikes to the heart of human communication.

Jonah Murphy’s Microsuite required the largest instrumentation of any of the pieces on the program, so students joined the ensemble to fill in additional parts for piano, saxophone, and a second percussionist. In Murphy’s score there was a part for trombone as well, but Kevin James decided that it was more important for him to remain conducting everyone in this somewhat complex piece. Perhaps more than in any of the other pieces I heard that afternoon, there was a keen sense of orchestrational color at play—phrases would be passed from one instrument to another, changing in nuance as a result of being stated in a different timbre. Passeggiando by Philip Zwick-Brunner was perhaps the most grounded of the pieces in the sound world of the so-called standard classical music repertoire. Overall it had a very 19th century European feel, albeit with a few 21st century quirks—I doubt anyone in the Romantic era would have featured such a prominent triangle part, a part which seemed even more insistent than the one in Brahms’s 4th symphony (the one that 19th century music critic Eduard Hanslick insultingly nicknamed “the triangle symphony”).

But the biggest surprise of the day came at the very end, Adam James Johnson’s Royal Democracy, which also required significant participation from the students in addition to the ensemble. At the beginning, three of the students recite a spoken text written by Johnson (which I quoted at the onset of this essay) against a backdrop of strings. Then various combinations of instruments interact with one another creating an almost Ivesian sonic panorama. For this, Kevin James finally did pick up his trombone, leaving the ensemble without a conductor. But it somehow all held together. For all its seeming freedom, Royal Democracy was about understanding what it means for people to play music together. And that was the clearest lesson of all about responsibility.

ACO-MannesHSComposers

At the end of the performance of the last piece, all seven participants in the High School Composers Intensive took a collective bow with the conductor (Pictured L to R: Danger-James, Olaya-Flores, Garcia, Murphy, James, Zwick-Brunner, Johnson, and Mendoza). After all, that’s one of the rewards of being a composer!