Tag: composers-in-residence

A Newly Endowed Residency Program for Underrepresented Composers

orchestra in a concert hall

Sitting in the Oberlin Conservatory’s large rehearsal room listening to the musicians of the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra (NOYO) rehearse for the world premiere of Kari Watson’s Morning Music for Fish, their excitement in anticipation of the concert is palpable—and infectious. It’s a welcome sensation: the extraordinary variety and vibrancy of music-making in 2019 is undeniable, yet so is the constant hand-wringing that now seems to be a permanent feature of the classical music discourse. But if the futures of arts education and Western concert music are really as dire as they sometimes appear, why are the seventy northeastern Ohio high-schoolers in this room so psyched to be playing music nobody’s ever played before? The short answer: because of Arlene and Larry Dunn, whose most recent gift to NOYO has endowed its composer-in-residence program.

The NOYO Philharmonia Orchestra’s world premiere performance of Kari Watson’s Morning Music for Fish in Finney Chapel on March 31, 2019. (David Pope, conductor)

If you’re a jelly bean in the great glass jar that is New Music Social Media, it’s a near-certainty that you’ve encountered Arlene and Larry Dunn in the form of some virtual avatar or other. I first crossed their path as a graduate student around seven years ago; they must have seen my byline here on NewMusicBox and assumed that I was a bona fide member of the field (an extension of the benefit of the doubt that no student composer could forget). It’s safe to say Arlene and Larry are the biggest fans of contemporary music in the United States who are not personally in the business. To practitioners who inhabit our small world, that anyone not in it for themselves could be a fan can come as a mild surprise: it’s a difficult world to love sometimes, exasperating even when everyone is treating each other with civility (which they don’t, always). But Arlene and Larry are indefatigable advocates both for what new music is and—crucially—for what it should be.

Arlene and Larry Dunn are indefatigable advocates both for what new music is and—crucially—for what it should be.

The Dunns have found a vector for that advocacy in the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra, on whose board Larry has served. “For us, it is essential that the NOYO composer-in-residence program is specifically focused on commissioning work from a composer of underrepresented status: people of color, women, LGBTQ,” says Arlene. “The only way we are going to move towards racial and gender equity in the arts, or anywhere else, is by taking such concrete steps.” Showing young musicians that composers are not found exclusively in the ranks of the white male dead is a vital part of NOYO’s mission to provide exceptional musical education through a variety of performance opportunities for participants of all backgrounds in an inclusive community of learning and growth. When NOYO’s artistic staff puts a composition on a high school musician’s stand by a composer who looks like them, that’s not just a way to broaden their sonic horizons: it’s a way to demonstrate that anyone can be a composer, that everyone has an aesthetic position to take, and that those positions warrant respect.

Arlene and Larry Dunn

Arlene and Larry Dunn. (Photo by Tina Tallon)

To that end, the Dunns decided to take action with a transformative gift to NOYO: a contribution to the organization’s 50th anniversary endowment campaign that will endow the position of composer-in-residence in perpetuity. Each season, NOYO solicits proposals from Oberlin Conservatory composition students—students, in particular, from underrepresented populations—to write a piece for NOYO’s advanced Philharmonia Orchestra to premiere on its March concert. The selected composers will now each be known as an Arlene and Larry Dunn Composer-In-Residence.

The Dunns’ transformative gift to NOYO will endow the position of composer-in-residence in perpetuity.

Why now? As it happens, 2019 doesn’t just mark NOYO’s 50th anniversary—it also marks Arlene and Larry’s. “It’s a delightful synchronicity that NOYO’s 50th anniversary and our 50th wedding anniversary are happening in the same year,” Arlene explains. “We were looking for opportunities to celebrate our 50th that benefit the community, and giving to the NOYO endowment campaign to secure the future of the composer-in-residence program was a perfect fit.” For NOYO’s part, the organization is readier now than ever for such a program. “[Former executive director] Mike Roest asked me to join the board in 2014 to help re-energize the organization after some lean years,” says Larry. “What NOYO has accomplished since then, under Mike’s leadership and the team that has succeeded him, is truly remarkable, in terms of number of participants and the growing breadth of program offerings.” And the position that NOYO has staked out with regard to new work is bold: in addition to the Dunn Composer-In-Residence Program, NOYO offers its high-school-age participants the opportunity to invent their own music in the Lab Group, a collaborative composing ensemble, and to hear their compositions played by Oberlin Conservatory musicians through a composition competition. “One of my ambitions as a board member was to encourage the organization to engage more with the music of right now, by commissioning and creating new works,” Larry recalls. “To see this come to fruition with the composer-in-residence program and the Lab Group is very gratifying.” Arlene concurs: “We’re proud to be supporting NOYO in two dimensions that deeply resonate with us: striving for social justice and equity in serving the community and sparking and unleashing young people’s creativity.”

But NOYO’s young musicians, who come to Oberlin from all over northern Ohio each week to rehearse, aren’t the only beneficiaries of the program. Oberlin Conservatory composition professor Jesse Jones can vouch for the residency’s value to his students, including current composer in residence Kari Watson and 2017-18 composer-in-residence Soomin Kim (retroactively included in the program):

I have witnessed first-hand the artistic and professional growth this incredible program has provided them; they are afforded the rare opportunity to workshop ideas and receive feedback on their works in progress; they build a professional working relationship with both the conductors and instrumentalists; they get to practice effective verbal communication with a large ensemble; they even gain first-hand teaching experience by mentoring budding composers within the ensemble. The Dunn residency is an indispensable part of our young composers’ education here at Oberlin, and I know Kari and Soomin both view it as a high point in their burgeoning musical careers.

Kari Watson

Kari Watson

Watson and Kim have approached the prospect of composing for NOYO’s Philharmonia Orchestra as an invitation to reflect on their own experiences as high school musicians and reacquaint themselves with the joy that youth music-making can bring. “When I went to rehearsals, it really reminded me of when I was young,” says Kim. “I used to play the piano when I was young, and my parents would come to every single little concert I had at school. [Attending NOYO rehearsals] just reminded me a lot of my family and how they used to support me, seeing the parents sitting at the lounge waiting for the kids.” Referring to the upcoming premiere of her Morning Music for Fish, Watson notes that “this piece was a very joyful thing to write. I started this year with aims to write a different dark piece, working slowly and not feeling that much excitement. This piece and the experience refueled my creative love for music making. Going to NOYO rehearsals made me so happy, and I haven’t felt as much joy surrounding music as I have there in so long.”

“The key to success for arts organizations is to make yourself essential to your community.”

The Arlene and Larry Dunn Composer-In-Residence Program is an initiative that weaves together the Dunns’ passions for contemporary music and social justice with NOYO’s mission of access and inclusion. “I’ve long thought that the key to success for arts organizations and other non-profits is to make yourself essential to your community,” says Larry. “And the best way to do that is to deliver something of value to their children, which is exactly what NOYO is doing.” In this case, the “something” is new music—and to the young musicians of the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra, its value is self-evident.

Lift Every Orchestral Voice

[Ed. Note: When the American Composers Orchestra (ACO) announced its 2018-19 season last month, music critic Alex Ross immediately noticed that the repertoire for the orchestra’s concerts at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall was written exclusively by living female composers except for one lone piece by the late Morton Feldman. Since then, Ross’s tweet about it was retweeted 40 times. Granted it is only two concerts, but it was a welcome piece of news, especially after several major American orchestras had announced 2018-19 seasons that did not include a single work by a female composer. Thankfully, the season announcements by the Seattle Symphony and the Los Angeles and New York philharmonics that soon followed proved to be more equitable. Still, all these announcements drove home the message that the orchestra world has a long way to go to achieve real diversity, not just in terms of having a better gender balance, but also in terms of racial, generational, geographic, and stylistic equity. Composer Derek Bermel, who is currently ACO’s artistic director, has long been an articulate advocate for more pluralistic musical aesthetics and the ACO has a 40+ year track record for advocating for offering performance opportunities to an extremely broad range of composers. Given his stance and his position, we thought that Bermel would have some interesting insights into how orchestras could make their programming more diverse.—FJO]

An intro

“One day I’ll jump. Out of my skin. I’ll shake the sky like a hundred violins.” – Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

The American Composers Orchestra’s next season of concerts at Carnegie Hall has attracted some attention because most of the composers represented are women. The truth is that we just programmed good music, and most of the composers turned out to be female. It’s not that we didn’t notice, but we didn’t sound the trumpets. ACO has a long history of programming works composed by women—well over two hundred in 40 years—so statistically next season is not such an anomaly. The mission of our orchestra frees us to dream, because we’re not required to program the “canon.” And our vision statement includes a commitment to the three Ds, “diversity, disruption and discovery,” which all point toward wider gender representation.

As a white, male composer, it’s not without trepidation that I grapple with the topic of diversity in the orchestral world; my demographic cohorts have been the main beneficiaries of the status quo since the first dissonances clanged forth. But access is a subject about which I care deeply, and my position at ACO gives me a glimpse into a quite conservative world, albeit at an institution that tries to work against the grain. So this essay is written in the spirit of shedding light on the murky process of programming and how it might be reoriented to serve shared values. I hope that these thoughts, rather than attempting to signify some kind of “woke” status, can help stimulate more discussion, within our field and beyond.

There but for the grace of God go I

Diversity has been a defining feature of American identity since the country’s inception.

The word diversity gets bandied around a lot, and in today’s ultra-partisan environment it has incurred political baggage. But the etymological root, the Latin diversus or “difference,” is a perfect fit for creative artists, who tend to depart from the norm (usually to a high degree)! For me the word resonates most brilliantly in the broadest possible context: referring to artistic imperatives—including style, process, technique, and genre—but also to personal attributes like gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, age, and geographic distribution. Diversity has been a defining feature of American identity since the country’s inception, interwoven with our history and our sociology, and I am convinced that it’s the source of our strength.

My dad was a European Jew who lived through World War II, and my mom was born in New York City during the Great Depression. Both my parents were raised by single mothers. My brother and I had a childhood that was less scrappy, but our upbringing was shaped by an outlook that nothing could be taken for granted. We were lucky to grow up in a community of peers hailing from a multitude of cultural backgrounds, in an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect. There certainly were challenges, and I saw the ugliness of bigotry and racism up-close, but it was always clear to me that achieving and sustaining diversity was possible with dialogue and persistence.

Around the time I attended college, I began to notice and understand more about privilege. At the time I didn’t use that term, but it’s the best word to describe the entitlement that I encountered, in even mundane interactions. At first I saw privilege uniquely as a consequence of wealth, only later recognizing that it also encompassed other qualities, some of which I possessed by virtue of simply being me.

It’s very human to perceive our lack as opposed to our luck.

The tricky thing about privilege is that there’s always someone at whom we can point who seems to be more privileged than we are. And it’s very human to perceive our lack as opposed to our luck, so we may easily believe that we’re not the fortunate ones. All this is to say that I miss the diverse and tolerant community from which I emerged, and I am aware that rediscovering that sensibility is partly my own responsibility. Therefore I seek to apply it in music, feeling strongly that the best of human experience is not found in sameness.

No country for new music

Since the 20th century, one aspect of American orchestral programming has been pretty consistent: living composers are sidelined. Less new music begets less diversity on all levels. This truth is painfully self-evident at orchestral concerts, especially with respect to equity and inclusion (also variety of musical style, but that would require a whole separate discussion!). Even when contemporary music does appear on a program, the percentages of work by women and composers of color are infinitesimal.

Living composers are sidelined.

I’ve spoken to several artistic administrators and conductors who insist that their audiences aren’t asking for more of the new; their internal research shows that their audience wants to hear what they already know. When I hear that argument, I think, “Well, of course! Audiences haven’t experienced what they don’t know, so how could they possibly be clamoring for it?” One of the responsibilities of curators is to introduce the public to work they didn’t know existed or to help bring it into being. Five years ago, how many regular music theater patrons were yearning to see a hip-hop musical? We all know that answer: very, very few. Today it’s impossible to get tickets for Hamilton. Some of that audience is coming from outside the typical music theater audience; all the better!

Much frustration is being vented at larger classical music institutions, whose very traditional programs are coming under increased scrutiny from the press and on social media. Some foundations and philanthropists are also showing signs of restlessness, especially in light of declining attendance. In response, within artistic and executive management there has been a great deal of discussion about the canon, and what steps orchestras might take to imagine a new, more inclusive repertoire as a path toward achieving longevity. Many are actively seeking solutions to the lack of ethnic and gender diversity as it relates to both performers and repertoire.

Large institutions can take years to change direction, however, and for change to be lasting it must be embraced by the board and identified in the organization’s mission statement. Then a process has to be created to achieve those objectives. Some non-profit entities have developed clear language to help bring their mission in line with the kind of inclusive world they would like to see.

Embedding a composer

I’ve noticed that the relatively small step of embedding a composer in the administration not only helps the organization to address the “canon” issue, it can also lay the groundwork for solving questions of relevance in the community. A case in point is the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where longstanding curatorial and advisory relationships with living composers have helped the orchestra stay vibrant in its programming. Next season’s impressive centennial commissions feature a diverse mix of old and new voices; rather than marginalizing or apologizing for the presence of contemporary composers, it boldly highlights living music. This would likely never have happened without a tradition that included the composer-advisor as an essential component in the organization; and while this decision may alienate a few audience members, it encourages the rest to enjoy new perspectives. The LA Phil’s mission, after all, is “to perform, present, and promote music in its varied forms at the highest level of excellence to a diverse and large audience.”

Embedding a composer in the administration lays the groundwork for solving questions of relevance.

A peek at the Seattle Symphony’s next season demonstrates a similar commitment to a diverse range of composers, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age, country of origin, and style. It’s probably not a coincidence that this orchestra also enjoys a long history of working with composers-in-residence; the most recent is Alexandra Gardner. Other smaller orchestras—Albany, Alabama, Princeton, to name a few—perform a healthy percentage of new work in their seasons. And, as a bonus, commissioning diverse, contemporary composers renders the orchestras immediately more attractive to foundations, government, and potential new audience members.

I often reflect on the fact that 90 years ago orchestras were all-male, in response to which concerted efforts were made to open up access to women. The Sphinx Organization is attempting to offer equality of opportunity to two of the most underrepresented groups in America—African-American and Latinx musicians. Why not strive for similar access among composers? Let’s not kid ourselves; in America, white men are less than a third of the citizenry. Within a population of more than 100 million Asians, Latinx, African-Americans, and Native Americans, the country is merely facing a crisis of vision and will.

In America, white men are less than a third of the citizenry.

It’s precisely for this reason that affirmative action came into being. ACO’s President Ed Yim articulated it this way: “The goal is to make the pool of opportunities bigger so that gender and ethnic parity does not mean fewer slots for anyone. Quality and parity are not opposing forces.” In our field, this necessitates a fresh approach to artistic planning: a commitment to listen to a great deal of music that may be unfamiliar and to investigate new pathways to find that music. It demands a deeper engagement than simply programming what a few powerful publishers, public relations firms, or journalists promote.

Nevertheless, they persist…

Every month multiple articles dramatically sound the death-knell of either orchestral music or classical music in general. Yet composers blithely or wantonly continue to ignore these dire pronouncements, producing more orchestral music than ever. Each year ACO receives hundreds of scores for the Underwood New Music Readings as well as the Earshot Network Readings hosted at orchestras across the country, and that’s one way we learn about the multitude of emerging voices. Some of our mentors and advisors have also helped establish major programming initiatives, including themes centered on diversity. As an example: about 20 years ago ACO decided that it needed to do more for Latinx composers and launched Sonidos de las Américas, delving into Latin American orchestral music by focusing on a different region each year. It was composer and conductor Tania León who navigated the orchestra through six seasons of existing revolutionary repertoire as well as commissions from composers from Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico—some from a concert music tradition, some fluent in Latin music, jazz, and other genres.

A second example: When I became involved with the orchestra, we were in the early stages of formulating the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. Composers from a background in jazz (and other Afrological musics)—with profound and distinctive sensibilities in harmony, counterpoint, texture, rhythm, and form—were largely missing from American concert music in general, and notably from symphonic music. Composer and musicologist George Lewis helped conceive of and foster the program we continue today, mentoring jazz composers and facilitating readings and performances of their orchestral work. These programs are just the tip of the iceberg, both designed with an eye toward more inclusion, equity, and diversity of creative voices.

Living composers also help unlock America’s multifaceted musical past.

Living composers also help unlock America’s multifaceted musical past. Wynton Marsalis has championed and promoted Duke Ellington’s entire catalog, including many lesser-known compositions. Trevor Weston created a critical edition of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement from surviving manuscripts. Mary Lane Leach painstakingly gathered and documented Julius Eastman’s scattered catalog. The quartet of Marylou Williams, T.J. Anderson, Gunther Schuller, and William Bolcom were integral in bringing Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha to life.

A catalyst for change

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” –Mahatma Gandhi

Of course not everything that ACO commissions and performs will become part of the “canon” of the future. But over 40 years, a legacy of commissioning—more than 350 works by a diverse range of composers—has added substantially to the repertoire. And more recently we have partnered with the League of American Orchestras and the Toulmin Foundation to commission women composers. In this way we hope to be a catalyst for change. ACO is currently loading all our past concerts and readings onto a database accessible from our site, another resource for interested parties.

In the present day, our most profound contribution may be as a prototype. Many forward-looking conductors and orchestra administrators seek advice from us on a regular basis: Whom might they commission? Could we help them design an American music festival? How can they host a reading for young composers, local composers, composer/performers, African-American composers, electronic-music composers, LGBTQ composers, jazz composers, film composers, women composers, and so on?

And of course beyond ACO a whole host of other institutions can help in this quest: orchestras devoted to new repertoire, such as BMOP and the Chicago Composers Orchestra; service institutions for contemporary music, such as ASCAP, BMI, the League of American Orchestras, the American Composers Forum, Composers Now, and New Music USA; university archives like Yale’s Oral History of American Music (OHAM) assembled by the visionary Vivian Perlis, the Latin American Music Center at Indiana University founded by Juan Orrego-Salas, or the recently unveiled Women Composers Database compiled by Rob Deemer at SUNY Fredonia.  This list just scratches the surface.

Bird’s eye view

We composers are not alone. There are similar systemic imbalances present in other performing arts organizations and in the pipelines to these organizations. In music education, huge gulfs exist in access to quality instruction, role models, instruments, and resources; these deficits dramatically skew the pool of creators, performers, and administrators who emerge. In any comprehensive discussion of marginalization and access, involving the next generation’s widest possible pool is a vital component.

“Stay hopeful and do uncomfortable things.”

Those who truly love discovering new orchestral voices may find the task invigorating and rejuvenating. I once attended a lecture by the public interest lawyer and justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, who defends many death row inmates. He advised people in the audience to “stay hopeful and do uncomfortable things.” I found that statement to be oddly comforting and inspiring as a way to move forward in society to effect positive change. It’s also a powerful motto for making art.

Christopher Rouse Named NY Phil Composer-in-Residence

Christopher Rouse

Photo by Jeffrey Herman, courtesy Boosey & Hawkes

During a media briefing by the New York Philharmonic in WQXR’s Greene Performance Space in Lower Manhattan, it was announced that American composer Christopher Rouse has been named the Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, following the three-year tenure of Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg in this position. Rouse’s two-year tenure will include performances of a number of his works (including Phantasmata (1985) and Seeing for Piano and Orchestra (1999) with soloist Emanuel Ax), plus the world premiere of a New York Philharmonic commission (April 17-20, 2013). Rouse will also serve as an advisor in collaboration with New York Philharmonic Artistic Director Alan Gilbert in programming the Philharmonic’s CONTACT! new music series.

In his introduction of Rouse during the press conference, Gilbert extolled Rouse’s music which he has previously recorded with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. “Chris has an ear for sense and a sense of human psychology that is really penetrating. I literally have never heard one note of Chris’s that doesn’t speak to me as a deep and powerful statement.”

“I’m thrilled to be doing this,” acknowledged Rouse. “Phantasmata was really the first orchestral commission I had, so it’s something of a golden oldie. I’m thrilled that Seeing, which the orchestra commissioned, is being revived yet again. […] The new piece that I’ll be writing is still a little amorphous.”

Christopher Rouse has had a long history with the New York Philharmonic which dates back to hearing their recordings as he was growing up in Baltimore, as well as watching them on television during Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. As an adult, Rouse has composed numerous works for the Philharmonic including his 1992 Trombone Concerto (written for the Philharmonic’s principal trombonist Joseph Alessi) which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. (Read a 2008 NewMusicBox interview with Christopher Rouse.)

The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence position was the result of a $10 million gift from Henry R. Kravis endowing the residency as well as the awarding of an annual $250,000 Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music which was awarded for the first time last year to French composer Henri Dutilleux.