Tag: composer

dublab – Who Gets to Compose?

As we launch dublab’s collaboration with New Music USA, we welcome the opportunity to feature the work of many musicians we believe represent the current landscape of contemporary music composition. Through a series of weekly editorial pieces, radio programs, live performances captured on video, and interviews, we hope we can not only shine a light on these artists and their work, but also bring up questions that are uniquely relevant to our current times.

When New Music USA approached dublab to be the first guest editors of NewMusicBox, both organizations wanted to frame this four-month collaboration under an overarching theme. After discussing various approaches, there was one question staring us right in our faces – when looking at the long history of NewMusicBox and New Music USA’s founding organizations, and the contrasting programming of an organization like dublab, it became obvious that this collaboration represented a clash of the times or juxtapositions of musical philosophies. Traditions, perceptions and the very questions at the center of it all: Who is a composer? What is a composer? And what is the role of a composer in this day and age?

As the Executive Director of a media arts organization like dublab, we have experienced first-hand the importance of perception. Since its beginnings in 1999, dublab’s approach when it came to categorizing music was always under the self-made label of, “Future Roots Radio”. With that label we wanted to emphasize that all music belongs to the same tree, where the music of the past is the roots of today’s music and the music of today will be the roots of tomorrow’s music, regardless of genre or place of origin. Our intention was to break down perceptions of highbrow versus lowbrow music, hierarchies, and categorizations that can all be practical at times, but also limiting in understanding how music creation flows, how interconnected all music is, and how it is conceived throughout history.

I think it is necessary at times to make distinctions and label music and music creators for their place in time, in society and in history, however, with new technologies, and the sweeping changes in social dynamics of the past years, it is more evident than ever that what it used to be no longer is, and what it is, is not exactly what it is. Confusing? Yes, absolutely, but so are the times we live in. When your phone can be a flashlight, your car can be a taxi and your home can be a hotel, so is the composer of today. Technology has put in question who is a composer, and what the role of a composer is. We can no longer refer to the archetypical image of the “ivory tower” composer when we think about an individual composing music. By that I am referring to that image you are thinking of right now of the Beethoven-looking man sitting at a table pouring what comes from the genius of his mind onto paper. That image has been outdated for many years, yet we continue to embrace this perception with consequences that affect musicians and the music industry in profound ways.

In speaking of the past few years alone, composers have learned to borrow production techniques, instrumentation and elements from idioms where their creators are not necessarily seen as “composers”, but more as “producers,” “beatmakers,” “sound designers,” or simply “musicians.” Despite this, composers continue to enjoy the benefits (as they should) of such distinguished title that includes public acknowledgement in arts institutions, commissioning of jobs, and grant opportunities, to name a few. When looking into the ecosystems of musicians where their main work is related to genres considered to be part of popular music, underground culture, or nightlife entertainment, their careers rarely cross paths with the world of art institutions, grants, and commissions. This stark division between the two doesn’t go both ways: The composer’s work can use electronic arrangements from a synthesizer that resembles techno music and yet be considered a composition that ends up in a movie soundtrack, yet if a hip hop producer adds strings or samples of classical music, their music most likely won’t be funded by a grant from an arts organization. The point here is not to blame anyone or point fingers, but look at our general attitudes and the expectations we have from each other and ourselves that end up defining how we seek and provide funding, and how we judge, place value and determine what belongs where in the wide musical spectrum.

A 30-year long road is a long road to travel, but fortunately that road is getting shorter.

With all being said about the divisions described above, more than ever we are seeing conversations, collaborations and cross-pollination taking place between “art institutions” and “night clubs”. What used to take 30 years for art to travel from the streets to the museums, now seems to be acknowledged by the institutions within the lifetime of the artists, and sometimes even as immediate as it is created.

With the emergence of social media, music streaming platforms, the democratization of music publishing and the affordability of equipment to produce quality recordings, the tools to empower those separating the “composer” from the “producer” have been getting narrower and so are the definitions that separated the two. More than in the past years we are borrowing from each other and we learn to use the tools that work at every stage of our careers – from instrumentation, sound palettes, and studio techniques, to how we fund and promote our work.

Here at dublab, we welcome the opportunity from New Music USA as a way to move the conversation forward. As we look towards the end of 2022 and what is to come in 2023, we hope this four-month collaboration will serve as a place to highlight the above-mentioned differences and similarities between the traditional and the contemporary, where one ends and the other begins; or simply how it all belongs to one. Just like New Music USA reached out to dublab for its unique take on music, we look to them for guidance and perspective. It is only through diversity in every sense of the word that music composition can evolve and to support the inclusion of those that may have never considered applying for a grant to fund their work. This diversity can also uplift genres that once belonged to older generations and patrons of the arts, and in turn bring new and younger audiences to an opera house or to a classical music concert and spark a renewed interest and wave of energy that is so needed in art institutions.

A new era is upon us, whether we recognize the signs or not, and it is up to everyone that is part of this ecosystem to open up the doors to the “ivory tower” and share directions to the underground warehouse party. The corridors that lead to creative paths and careers are as diverse as those that forge them; therefore, we should make sure that everyone enjoys the rewards, the respect, and the opportunities that these generate. With these thoughts I welcome you to our collaboration with New Music USA, and I hope you find infinite inspiration in the articles, DJ sets, conversations and live performances that we will feature in the coming months on NewMusicBox.

Renée Baker: Nothing’s Gonna Stop You From Creating

Renée Baker


Spending an hour over Zoom chatting with Renée Baker about her more than two thousand musical compositions and perhaps almost as many paintings was inspirational as well as motivational. Especially during this time when the ability for anything we do to have a certain future seems somewhat precarious at best. But Renée does not let anything deter her and while her music is extremely wide ranging and gleefully embraces freedom of expression, her daily schedule is precise and meticulous.

“I don’t separate life from creation,” she explained to me as she outlined a typical day in her life. “Breakfast about 7:30. And right behind that, about 8:15, started [making] dinner. … When I’m done with my conversation with you, I have four gallons of paint in the hallway that will make their way to my studio garage; I’m working on a series there. … These might not be finished for a couple of weeks while I determine what the palette is gonna be. You know, it has to strike me. Once I do that, I might wander out. I’ll go past a thrift store or something looking for pieces because I do make sound item sculpture, so that’s always fun, especially with wood and glue. And then I’ll probably nap and watch a few zombie movies. I’m a Walking Dead aficionado. When I’m done with that, since dinner’s already fixed, my husband can eat whenever he wants, I will probably go to a coffee shop or sit outside a coffee shop. I keep my manuscript book in the car. So anytime I’m driving or going to sit by the pond, or sit by the lake, or feed the ducks, I keep adding to these compositions. When they’re finished, I pull them out and I put them in the envelopes. So I touch almost everything every day.”

Her discipline has paid off. In addition to the ensembles that she herself has formed to perform her compositions, most notably the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, organizations around the country and the world have commissioned and presented her music including the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Spektral Quartet, Boston’s ECCE Ensemble, Berlin’s International Brass, DanceWright Project SF, the Joffrey Ballet, Berkeley Books of Paris, the Destejilk Museum in the Netherlands, and on and on. Plus her paintings are represented by two different galleries—and they sell.

Given her broad range of artistic pursuits, it’s no wonder that Renée Baker is a member of Chicago’s pioneering AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), an organization founded in 1965 by the late Muhal Richard Abrams who counts among its members such legendary genre-defying Black artists as Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Amina Claudine Myers, Henry Threadgill, George Lewis, and Tomeka Reid. Yet at the time Nicole Mitchell first suggested she join, Renée had acknowledged that she had never actually improvised. And while she proudly identifies herself as “a Black woman in America that survived classical music,” she “never sought to do an all-Black anything.” As she explains, “When you’re looking at my music, you can say, oh, it’s Black music because she’s Black, or whatever. But the fact is I’m interested in people who can play in four with my beat pattern and stay with me. It’s very simple. I don’t care; I don’t care what you are.”

Also, despite the fact that she creates vital work as a composer and as a painter (plus she also writes poetry and makes sculptures), Renée Baker does not compartmentalize. She does not think in terms of synaesthesia, but if you spend enough time looking and listening to the different forms of art she creates, you will notice clear aesthetic affinities. E.g. the striking combinations of colors in her paintings share a kinship with the way different timbres interact in her musical compositions. In fact, she has worked extensively with graphic scores that are as fascinating as visual art as they are as music. Ultimately, Renée Baker’s work is a by-product of an extremely healthy confidence, and her advice about perseverance is something that all artists should heed, especially in these extremely uncertain times:

“If your heart is married to creating, then there’s nothing, even a pandemic, that’s gonna stop you from creating. You might not create as much. You may experience a bit more stress, some financial worries—no telling what everybody individually is facing. But you can’t stop the train. Just keep going. Just keep going. Look at other directions. Maybe the direction you were going in would have been stopped without the pandemic. Maybe you’d gotten to a wall and there’s something else for you to access. Don’t be frightened, and don’t be cowed by criticism.”

NOTE: As part of this month’s Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago, Renée Baker will lead a string quintet from her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project in a performance of her composition Eternal Units of Beauty for one of the Spotlight Concerts at Chicago’s Phantom Gallery on September 26. Learn more about Ear Taxi’s Spotlight Concerts here. She will also participate in Ear Taxi’s panel discussion “What are the components of a thriving ecosystem for new music?” moderated by New Music USA’s CEO Vanessa Reed on September 29 at the DePaul Art Museum. More info about that panel can be found here.

A Category of Our Own

Several weeks ago, an article ran in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog entitled “Five facts about professional artists in the United States.” Among those five facts were that California ranked as the highest state and New York City as the highest city for their numbers of resident “artists” (a term which embraced everyone from performing and fine artists to writers and authors, photographers, directors and producers, architects, and designers). Other facts noted the high number of designers compared to the rest of the country’s artistic workforce and the low number of females in the architectural profession.

The article’s author, Katherine Boyle, had gleaned these facts from a recently-published study, “Equal Opportunity Data Mining: National Statistics about Working Artists” by the National Endowment for the Arts. This study, comprising data from 2006 through 2010, looks at a number of aspects around the subset of “artists” within the United States, how these numbers relate to the overall workforce, and it provides a relatively detailed view of the artistic population in this country from a national scale at the macro level to specific cities at the micro level. In its introduction, the study states:

There are 2,081,735 million artists in the United States, identified by the occupation to which they which devoted the most hours in a given week. These artists fall into one of 11 occupations, and together they compose 1.35 percent of the total workforce.

When I happened upon this study at the end of June, I flipped to the page that listed the 11 occupational categories, as I was curious to see if it made any delineations for composers, orchestrators, etc. To my amazement, composers weren’t listed at all; the definition of musicians (which I assumed would include composers) read as such:

Musicians, singers, and related workers, SOC 27-2040. Play one or more musical instruments or sing. Perform on stage, for on-air broadcasting, or for sound or video recording.

I posted the original link on Facebook and commented on this discrepancy, pointing to the fact that individuals under each category were “identified by the occupation to which they which devoted the most hours in a given week.” Ian David Moss, no stranger to NewMusicBox, also seemed surprised, since (as he put it) “it looks like there is actually a separate government code for ‘music directors and composers’ (27-2041) and for some reason they left it out of this analysis.”

Not long after that exchange, Moss posted about the discrepancy on his own blog, Createquity, and soon got some results. In a nice demonstration of his blog’s readership, Moss was contacted by Sunil Iyengar, director of the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis. Iyengar wrote, “As it turns out, we DID include composers and music directors in our data for all musicians, but, inexplicably, we neglected to list the relevant code (27-2041) on the part of the web page that lists all the artist codes.” Moss was thanked for the heads-up and the listing for musicians now reads:

Musicians, singers, and related workers, SOC 27-2040. Includes arrangers, composers, choral directors, conductors, music directors, musicians, and singers.

While I was happy to see that this small, overlooked detail was fixed, I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to get a sense of who and where those people who listed themselves as “composers” were, but the governmental category – 27-2041- within which that occupation resides also includes “music directors.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines both sub-categories of musicians thusly:

27-2041 Music Directors and Composers
Conduct, direct, plan, and lead instrumental or vocal performances by musical groups, such as orchestras, bands, choirs, and glee clubs. Includes arrangers, composers, choral directors, and orchestrators.
Illustrative examples: Choirmaster, Jingle Writer, Orchestra Conductor, Songwriter
27-2042 Musicians and Singers
Play one or more musical instruments or sing. May perform on stage, for on-air broadcasting, or for sound or video recording.
Illustrative examples: Instrumentalist, Oboist, Rapper

I can see why the Bureau of Labor Statistics might combine music directors and composers, since neither occupation performs (at least for public consumption) on an instrument or sings in the execution of their occupation. That being said, there are many reasons why this conflation of composers and music directors is inappropriate, and I feel that our occupation deserves its own category for future studies.

First, let’s look at how our “creator” colleagues in other artistic categories fare. Fine artists (painters, sculptors, illustrators, etc.) have their own subset under a broader category of “Art and Design Workers” (27-1000), alongside art directors, craft artists, multimedia artists and animators, and the ubiquitous “others” (which include calligraphers and tattoo artists). Poets and authors fall under the heading of “Writers and Authors” (27-3043) with the description “Originate and prepare written material, such as scripts, stories, advertisements, and other material.” Playwrights and screenwriters also fall under this heading, with their performing and directing collaborators each getting their own categories of “Actors” (27-2011) and “Directors and Producers” (27-2012). Choreographers are described separately from “Dancers” under their own category (27-2032) as those that “Create new dance routines. Rehearse performance of routines. May direct and stage presentations.”

With these delineations in mind, it is troubling that our form of artistic creativity—creating musical works—is not seen as an occupation that stands on its own. There is a vast difference between being a music director or conductor and being a composer. While there are composers who conduct just as there are composers who perform, the activity and necessary training for these vocations are dissimilar in many ways. I challenge anyone to say that their definitions are close enough to be combined in such a report. By equating these two drastically different occupations within these bureaucratic categories, any research or claims made about the state of either occupation within specific cities, states, or the entire country can’t be seen as valid because of the lack of separation in the data between the two.

Last week, I made these arguments to Sunil Iyengar, director of the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis. He was quick to respond, referring my query to Bonnie Nichols, one of the research analysts with the NEA. My questions to her were as follows:

1) Why are Composers (those who write music) and Music Directors (those who conduct and/or administrate performing musicians) conflated within the same category? I understand that in certain circumstances that some individuals may do both, but it makes sense to keep those two distinct categories separate. Any research done on the scope of either occupation in our society today is made weak, if not useless, with the combination of the other. Could these two categories be separated?
2) That being said, is it possible to acquire the specific data from that category (27-2041) from the study?

She explained that the EEO tables combined all of the music categories, so pulling out any specific information on the Composer/Music Director subset was impossible. She did, however, point me to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Survey (OES), which provides employment, locational, and salary information on the Composer/Music Director category. The maps alone are quite telling as far as where these occupations are located and what the average salaries are in each region. (I’m not sure why, but there are no numbers for Alaska, Nevada, North and South Dakota, West Virginia, Vermont, and Maine.)
Employment of Composers and Music Directors by Area in 2012
Mean Wage of Music Directors and Composers by State in 2012
Nichols was also helpful in pointing out an important additional caveat to these numbers; not only do they combine composers and music directors, but they do not include self-employed workers. Put together, it makes the OES report practically useless for anyone trying to do research in this area.

When I pressed her on the question of separating the two categories out of 27-2041, she responded that “the number of workers in a particular occupation would have to meet a threshold before they are tallied in a specific occupation,” and then she referred me to the U.S. Census Bureau for more information. Down the rabbit hole I went…

After a bit of digging around in the Census Bureau website, I discovered a document entitled “Revising the Standard Occupational Classification system for 2010” that took me through the process by which the latest versions of the SOC occupational categories were edited. It turns out that the process started in 2005 with proposals being made and vetted over the next four years, and the final version being solidified in 2009. Only 7 percent of the previous system had been overhauled (most of it hadn’t been touched or sustained only editorial changes) and the majority of the content changes seem to have gone in the other direction, with related occupations being combined into fewer categories. If a proposal were made to split the Composer and Music Director category, now’s the time; the next SOC (Standard Occupational Classification) Manual revision will begin this year with the result coming out in 2018.

And that’s where things stand so far. I’ll continue digging to see what needs to be done to put together a proposal for this seemingly important change. I have no idea if an endeavor like this is the bureaucratic equivalent of tilting at windmills, but as we strive to educate the public about the existence of composers, and ensure that the art of composing music is not lost and forgotten, something as simple as a government classification stating for the record that this is indeed an occupation worthy of its own merits is an appropriate measure for which to hope.

D. J. Sparr: Playing Well With Others

Composer and electric guitarist D. J. Sparr draws energy and inspiration from interacting with other musicians. “That’s why I compose,” he says, “to get to the point where I can be actively working with other musicians.” A full schedule of composition commissions, performances of his own music and that of other composers, and educational residencies ensures that he gets his fill of that vitality.

Sparr grew up playing electric guitar (à la Eddie Van Halen), but put down his axe for a time during studies at the Eastman School of Music. Then, inspired by the composer-performer faculty members at the University of Michigan, he started performing again within the realm of classical music. He has since performed the music of Michael Daugherty, Paul Lansky, and others, as well as his own compositions, such as his electric guitar concerto Violet Bond, written for the California Symphony where he currently serves as Young Composer-in-Residence.

Beyond the electric guitar, Sparr has built a varied catalog of works for chamber ensemble, orchestra, and vocal music. His short-form opera Approaching Ali, commissioned and recently premiered by the Washington National Opera, is based on the book The Tao of Mohammed Ali by author Davis Miller, with a libretto by Mark Campbell. It tells the story of a writer at the brink of middle age who visits his boyhood hero in person in an effort to rekindle the spirit and enthusiasm of his youth. This poignant and charming work could serve well as an introduction to opera for people of any age or background.

Educational outreach is a substantial part of the composer’s work with the California Symphony, as it was during his three-year residency with the Richmond Symphony’s Education and Community Engagement Department and while he served as a faculty member at The Walden School. He takes cues from the performance and creativity workshops of Michael Colgrass for his own educational work, employing exercises such as drawing graphic scores and conducting on the spot. “It’s fun to work with kids, and it’s nice to get to know them,” explains Sparr, “and then some of them show up at [my] concerts, so it’s pretty cool.”

Early on in his composing career, Sparr found that what he needed to realize his own artistic goals was not located in Los Angeles, New York, or other large cities, so he left the urban landscape, moving first to the mid-Atlantic coast, and then to Richmond, Virginia to build a life that focused on the more basic needs of, as he puts it, “shelter, food, and writing.” He continues:

The combination of finding the people who support you, writing as much music as you can, and being as nice to everyone you meet as you possibly can, including being happy for their successes—there’s a saying that “A rising tide lifts all boats”—is really the key to making it work. And the composing world looks pretty great right now.

With Approaching Ali under his belt, a new large orchestra composition in the works to wind up his California Symphony residency, and a debut CD of his chamber music works coming out on Centaur Records later this year, it looks as if Sparr is reaching musical high tide. Hopefully his electric guitar case is waterproofed.