Tag: composing career

The Long-Term Effects of Gender Discriminatory Programming

Special thanks to Neil Banas for creating the interactive model below.

“We need to be patient.”

“The music will find its home.”

“Change is coming.”

“But it’s not about fame, it’s about doing the work you love!”

“Surely you don’t want people playing your music just because you’re a woman?”

“Your time will come. Her time will come. Our time will come.”

“The best music will rise to the surface!”

“Things are getting better!”

“We’re discovering it now!”

“Just be patient!”

Over the years, whenever the under-representation of women composers is discussed, I keep hearing variations on the themes above. Whether these phrases come from those wanting to encourage women composers, those downplaying the existence of sexism, or indeed from women composers ourselves trying to look on the bright side, the underlying message is, “Yes, it’s frustrating, but we just have to wait. We’ll get our turn. Things will be okay!” And on the one hand, sure, I’ll wait (while also being stubborn and persistent and working for change). I’m hardly going to give up composing because there may be a statistical likelihood that my pieces will be performed a bit less frequently than those of a male peer! But on the other hand, let’s not pretend this is reasonable or that enforced waiting doesn’t have real, long-term consequences: real consequences in terms of opportunity, real artistic consequences, real financial consequences – and ultimately, real consequences for who gets to continue being a composer.

A complicated lineage leads to and from each piece, each performance, each commission, each award, and each royalty check.

The longer I trace my own career and observe the careers of students, friends, and colleagues, the more I see the complicated lineage that leads to and from each piece, each performance, each commission, each award, and each royalty check. Piece A is premiered, then performed six more times by people who heard the premiere, one of whom commissions piece B, which he performs and sets as repertoire for his students, who go on to perform it professionally. After a couple of years, the royalties add up to enough to pay for a couple of months off teaching, during which time one writes piece C… Or piece D is commissioned by an orchestra, which premieres it. The recording is sent to a competition and wins, resulting in the commission and premiere of piece E. Another orchestra decides to perform pieces D and E and invites the composer to be composer-in-residence, which puts the composer in touch with a donor who is able to fund the creation of piece F… Over the years each piece develops its own trajectory, almost always something completely unpredictable at the outset. One finds new opportunities, new ideas, and new collaborative partners in the most unexpected of ways. But what happens if piece A is never performed? Or is performed four years late? What happens if the performer assigns a different piece to his students? What happens if piece D is never commissioned? What happens if the composer residency doesn’t take place?

It doesn’t take much of an initial difference in the rates of commissioning, performing, or promoting works by women for the cumulative effect over the years to become striking. Let’s say (and I think this is a generous overestimate) that a woman composer’s works are 95% as likely to be performed as those of a man composer of equivalent accomplishment, and that she is 5% less likely to be commissioned than her male colleague. In order to illustrate the knock-on effects of what initially seem like small differentials, we’ve made a handy, interactive computer simulation of how these play out in the long term.


Matthew writes new piece(s) without a commission each year.

Each of his works has a % chance of being performed the year it is written. Each time it gets performed, it has the same chance of being performed the following year.

He receives a new commission every performances (although he never composes more than pieces per year).

He receives an average of $ in royalties for each performance, and an average of $ for each commission.

Mathilda has equal experience as a composer and manages her career in the same way, except that for her, the chances of a performance are %, not %, and she receives a new commission after every performances, not .

After years, Matthew has about performances per year, and Mathilda has about (% as many). They have composed and works, respectively, of which % and % were commissioned. At this point in his career, Matthew earns $ from composing in a typical year, while Mathilda earns $.

The interactive model above was created expressly for this article by Neil Banas.
Drag mouse/finger to the left or right on the blue text to decrease or increase the number.

As you can see, what seem like small differences in the rate of performance or recognition compound yearly and can have an enormous impact over the course of a career.

Depending on the combination of our upbringing, our cultural background, our gender, and our personality, we may think of ambition as admirable or abhorrent.

Writing about our careers—and particularly about the way outside factors may or may not influence them—can make us feel very vulnerable. If we’re not doing as well as we had hoped, and we admit it, someone may jump in and say, “Well, maybe your music just isn’t good enough,” or—and I’m genuinely surprised by how often I still hear this—“I’m not sexist, but there’s just not very much good music by women.” If we are doing as well as or better than we had hoped, will celebrating our successes seem boastful? Will we hurt our friends who are doing less well? Will we “jinx” things?[1] Depending on the combination of our upbringing, our cultural background, our gender, and our personality, we may think of ambition as admirable or abhorrent. We may think of contentedness with our careers as the ultimate goal, irrelevant, or a sign of laziness. But we need this kind of scrutiny if we’re going to figure out where inequities still exist and begin to address them. If the second edition of an anthology proudly proclaims that it now includes works by women composers, but the percentage of works by women is smaller than the percentage of women who are composers, then the anthology is still part of the problem. Or if I’m teaching a class on, say, contemporary Canadian music, and 20% of the pieces I include are by women, but 24% of contemporary Canadian composers are women, then I’m part of the problem.[2]

In any case, we don’t have to look at this individually. Perhaps my career has been magically untouched by sexism: perhaps yours has been, too. The fact remains that sexism, both conscious and unconscious, affects most women’s careers. In the UK, 51% of the population is female, 36% of composition students are women, 21% of commissions go to women, and only 7% of orchestral commissions – which tend to be the most prestigious and highest paid – go to women. In the US, 22% of music theory/composition students are women, but only 14% of major orchestra commissions go to women. Twenty-four percent of living composers who belong to the Canadian Music Centre are women, but women make up only 11% of the music composition faculty working in Canada.[3]

Composing is a hard profession, but let’s make sure we’re not making it even harder for people who don’t fit the expected profile.

I’m absolutely not suggesting here that middle class, white, cis male composers have it too easy. Composing is a hard profession: even those with the most advantages may struggle to find non-exploitive work situations, social recognition, and financial stability. I want to live in a world where the arts are valued, and things are better for all of us! But in this already hard field, let’s make sure we’re not making things even harder for people who don’t fit the expected profile of a composer. Women are of course not the only composers who get left out: the farther one deviates from the straight, cis, able-bodied, white, European, middle/upper-class, male composer image that remains so dominant in the North American and European new music worlds, the more likely their works are to be overlooked. The more we recognize the impact of even seemingly small decisions about what to program, who to commission, and who to recognize, the more we can work to change things.

So, yes, here I am, and here we are, being patient. I’m not going away! But no, I will not be patient about having to be patient!


1. I won’t say here how I feel about my own career, but if you’re curious, you can read this interview on pianist Frances Wilson’s fabulous blog Meet the Artist.

2. One can argue that women composers should be represented in proportion to the percentage of women who are (known to be) composers in a given place or time or period, or that music by women should always be 50%, or somewhere in between, but that lies outside the scope of this article. I think we can all agree that equitable programming would, at a minimum, include works by women in the same proportion as composers who are women, so I’ll stick to those figures for the purposes of this article.

3. I counted up the number of women composition professors in the first 20 Canadian music departments that came to mind. It’s possible the percentage is a bit higher or lower, but I doubt it’s off by more than a point to two.

Becoming Real

In the spring of 2001, I found myself in a battle for my career. I was composing the soundtrack to a feature-length film version of the stage play The Vagina Monologues for HBO.  My contact there was the film editor, with whom I’d had a successful collaboration the year before on another HBO show, Life Afterlife.  The editor had assumed oversight of music responsibilities for The Vagina Monologues because HBO and the director had recently parted ways due to conceptual differences.  As a result, the film had no director, and there was a two-week deadline for the music.  The editor told me that Eve Ensler, who’d written the play and starred in the film, liked urban and gritty music, so I went for a kind of late Miles Davis vibe—sort of hip-hop jazz, with sultry female vocals.  As I churned out cues daily, working in 16-hour stretches, HBO’s producers sent back approvals, telling me they “loved” my music.  It was going smoothly until I was about ¾ of the way through the score and the executive producer called, saying that Eve Ensler did not like the music and that I really needed another approach.  He asked me to start over. The editor suggested something more upbeat—in fact, she came to my studio and we spent a day re-conceiving the music, working to picture.

But we were at the deadline and I was pretty nervous.  This was the most visible project I’d worked on, and I felt like my career was riding on it.  The film and theater community in New York is extremely interconnected and everybody knows one another.  My reputation was at stake.  Trying to keep the panic at bay, I latched onto something I was very familiar with—a kind of rock/African township hybrid, major key, dance-like, and driving.  Again, I FedExed videocassettes of my cues to HBO every night.  For a while I was getting approvals, but then: silence.  After 13 cues my phone rang: it was the executive producer again, this time calling from London.  Eve Ensler didn’t like the music, and he once again asked me to start over.  The HBO people were very nice, and it was a difficult situation for everyone.  They agreed to increase my pay, and I requested that they send Eve to my studio so there would be no more intermediaries trying to convey what they thought Eve wanted.  At first I was told they “would not subject” me to that; the producers evinced some discomfort around Eve because she was so willful. (Even though she was right pretty much most of the time.)  But a couple days later I got a call from HBO: “We have a good idea. We’d like Eve to go to your studio.”  We set that up for the next morning.

I was anxious about this meeting; time was running out and failure was not an option.  About a half-hour before she was to arrive, I sat down to meditate.  And before I even began to control my breathing, I heard a voice in my head: “She’s your friend.”  Then Eve walked in, leather from head to toe, and said, grinning, with a strong New York accent, “So what’ve you heard?”  And I heard myself say, “Should I tell you what they told me to say, or should I tell you what I’ve really heard?”

And from that point we had a fun session, just listening to different rock songs and evaluating how they fit to picture.  She wanted some “celebratory, rhythmically infectious, warm-voiced chick-rock.”  She particularly liked how Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass” worked with The Vagina Monologues’ opening scene. I thought Lennox was a bit icy, though.  My favorite was Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders, but at least we had some common ground, finally, to work with.

The next day—the last day, really, before I probably would have lost the gig—I got lucky and woke up with a rocking guitar theme in my head.  I mocked it up and Eve—and HBO—liked it.  I was granted another two weeks and got the composing done. All that was left was to put together a rock band of session-level players and record the cues.  The one uncompleted task was to find a singer who could read and had a killer rock ‘n’ roll voice.  A friend suggested that I check out Cathy Richardson at The Village Theater, where she was playing Janice Joplin in Love, Janice.  I did, and Cathy’s voice utterly stunned me.  I felt that if you could match her voiceprint to Janice’s, they’d be identical. After the show, I approached Cathy on Bleecker Street and asked her if she’d like to sing in the HBO version of The Vagina Monologues. “Hell, yeah!” she answered.

For the session, I’d printed out everybody’s music, including the vocalist’s, but Cathy preferred that I sing her the parts, which were wordless.  She learned them fast and sang them note-perfect.  After a couple of takes, I asked her to just take my written melodies and “do her thing” with them.  And she really let it wail, at which point everybody—the musicians, the engineers, the assistants, and I—were just sitting there helpless like the guy getting blown away by the speakers on that old Maxell tape commercial.  And I had my soundtrack.

Here’s a compilation of the three opening cues, with Kevin Kuhn on guitars, Tom Barney on bass, Tommy Igoe on drums, me on keys and MIDI percussion.  Mick Rossi mixed and mastered the session.

(By the way, Cathy Richardson is currently the lead singer in Jefferson Starship, having taken over the Grace Slick role.)

This essay is about the challenges of being an artist.  And, hopefully, about the process of finding the internal resources to keep going when things are really tough and to pick yourself up off the mat when you get knocked down (and everybody gets knocked down).  It is about the variety of ways composers can survive and the joys, rewards, and responsibilities of being an educator.  And finally, it’s about accessing a part of your being that is larger than the individual self: the unconscious—both personal and collective—and channeling that into musical creativity.

I try to limit my activity to three things: concert composing, film composing, and teaching. (That’s already a lot.)

The music business, in all its guises, is notorious for being difficult to navigate.  Through trial and error—and a lot more error—I’ve found a few rules that have helped me carry on.  One: it’s always a balancing act between focusing on a single activity, like composing, versus several activities, like engineering, copying, arranging, and/or teaching.  Right now I try to limit my activity to three things: concert composing, film composing, and teaching.  (That’s already a lot.)  But over the years, I’ve used my studio as a place where people could record, working as an engineer and producer. I’ve also worked as an arranger of folkloric recordings for educational CDs. And, for a while, I kept getting calls to compose and produce people’s meditation CDs and DVDs.  My advice, especially if you’re scrambling to keep your head above water, is to be open to multiple activities.  You always learn from working in any kind of musical role, whether it’s educational, performing, or using your tech and musical chops to produce other peoples’ music.

There was a time when I did become disenchanted with trying to survive as a composer-on-command; I had encountered a series of difficult situations (including the Vagina Monologues gig), and it started to feel like the norm to me.  I saw that some of my actor and writer friends were surviving by doing legal proofreading on the side.  I decided to give up my studio and reduced my rig down to a laptop on a folding table at home, and I signed up for the proofreading course.  I thought I could de-link my musical and financial lives for a while.  But as I approached the school’s location on 57th Street in Manhattan, I began to feel a strange darkness well up inside of me, like kryptonite had infected my bloodstream.  However, since I’d paid for the course, I pushed myself forward and attended the multiple two-hour sessions required to gain certification as a legal proofreader.  The teacher liked me and afterwards recommended me for several jobs, none of which I took.  Something inside was not letting me make the move away from music; perhaps unconsciously I knew that the diversion from that path would be too hard to return from.  Yet somehow, just being willing to get off the treadmill of the constant job-search, taking any gig that came my way, seemed to release something in the universe and I began to get calls for film scoring jobs with really smart, musically knowledgeable, creative, and compassionate directors. I do think people can sense your anxiety, which can create a repelling energy.  It’s always worked that way for me: when I stop worrying about money is when I make it.

When I stop worrying about money is when I make it.

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, I used to regularly go to artist colonies. At one, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I met a poet who later introduced me to the filmmaker David Petersen.  David introduced me to another pair of filmmakers, Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipshutz, who needed a composer for their new documentary, Live Free or Die (about a doctor who performed abortions, legally, in a conservative community in New Hampshire).  I was at the earlier stages of my scoring career and decided to embark upon an experiment to compose one sketch for every cue in the film: mock it up, warts and all, and don’t edit or revise; go with my first idea.  I challenged myself to do this for the entire movie in about a day and a half.  The next day, Rose and Marion came to see my work, and nervously I explained my experiment and played the whole score for them, including mistakes.  To my surprise, they were astonished that I’d scored their whole film so fast—and they liked the music!  It took a few weeks to refine, revise, and finalize everything.  Subsequently, this gig led to a series of jobs: Rose and Marion’s The Education of Shelby Knox (which won best cinematography at Sundance); Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy, which Rose edited; Power & Control: Domestic Violence in America, which the director of Body & Soul recommended me for; and Who Cares About Kelsey?, which Rose also edited; and – through the sound editor for Who Cares About Kelsey?, the entire sequence of soundtracks I completed in 2017 for Monadnock Media (featured in my first essay of this series).

Keith Lentin (bass), Rick, and Steve Holley (drums) at a recording session for Who Cares About Kelsey?, 2012

Keith Lentin (bass), Rick, and Steve Holley (drums) at a recording session for Who Cares About Kelsey?, 2012

There are a couple messages here.  The self-imposed challenge to go with my first impulse and record a sketch for every cue in Live Free or Die was a prescient act; nowadays, composers have much less time to complete a score than they did 20 years ago.  Back in the ‘90s, I usually had a month to six weeks to do a 30-minute score to a 50-minute National Geographic documentary; now you may have 10 days or less to complete it wall-to-wall.  So developing the chops to work so fast that you can compose, record, mix, and master a cue on the first pass is recommended.  Another object lesson, albeit obvious, is that it’s really good to get out of the house and hang with people.  If I hadn’t gone to the Virginia Center, I would never have gotten those gigs.

Here’s the opening to Body & Soul: Diana and Kathy. It’s about two women whose strengths and disabilities (Down syndrome and cerebral palsy) complement one another, and who live together and take care of each other.  The music is meant to be unobtrusive, gently dancing with picture and dialog, then redolent of technology as we learn about Kathy’s computerized talking wheelchair.  Vicky Bodner played oboe, Joyce Hammann played violin, and I played piano and synth.

In my previous essay, I discussed my relationship with a beloved mentor and employer, Buryl Red, who oversaw the music for Silver Burdette’s educational CD project Making Music, consisting of 160 CDs, revised every five years.  By 1994, I made his studio my film scoring home, staying there until 1998.  By that point Buryl had rented three adjacent apartments in midtown Manhattan and had several production spaces going at once.  In early 1998, I found myself in the midst of a challenging gig: Heart of Africa, a three-part National Geographic mini-series. Meanwhile Buryl, a driven, exacting, brilliant musician and businessman, had decided to break apart a wall in the tiny room I was working in—equipped with floor to ceiling modules, mixing consoles, computers and other gear—and open the room to the apartment next door, all while I was under tight deadline.  People were drilling and hammering in the 10-by-10 space while I was composing.  Although at Buryl’s studio I had learned to ignore people talking in the same room where I was composing—a total abdication of the expectation of solitude I’d depended upon as a classical composer—the loud construction noise exceeded my ability to concentrate.  I managed to complete the assignment, bringing on another composer to help out, but afterwards was determined to find my own studio where I could have some self-determination.  This was not an easy decision, but a necessary one; Buryl and I had a close, somewhat father-son relationship, and he was not at all pleased when I “rebelled” and moved out. Eventually, he got over that and we continued our collaborative musical friendship, closer than before.  Meanwhile I found a wonderful shared space, with private studios, on West 30th Street with an old friend, composer and sound designer Dan Schreier, as well as a couple of filmmakers, Thom Powers and Meema Spadola, who had garnered some attention for their film Breasts, about breasts, and who were now working on Private Dicks, and you can guess what that was about.  (Coincidentally, Thom and Meema later were contracted to film the backstage interviews for The Vagina Monologues.  We were both working on it in the 30th Street facility at the same time, but had been hired by different parts of HBO’s production team.)  Eventually, Thom and I wound up collaborating on several other projects, including the PBS documentary Guns & Mothers.

We kept that space until 2004, and when the lease was up I moved to another shared studio, the Manhattan Producers Alliance.  One of the reasons I’d chosen the MPA was that the composers in residence there were actively working in children’s film and television, and they were well-versed in the business side of things; I felt that influence would increase my game, professionally.  Also, this was the advent of the transition to streaming audio, and the MPA composers were on top of that; I wanted to be around people who were more technologically advanced than I, who I could learn from.  That all happened, and I also had a team to work with when necessary.  For The Education of Shelby Knox, I hired MPA composer Wade Tonkin, a wizard guitarist and producing ninja, to turn my sketches into completed cues, which he did as fast as I could send him the standard MIDI files.  As usual, there was a severe deadline here: the film had been accepted to Sundance, which was to start in early January 2005; we had the month of December to complete a country rock score.  We recorded a live band just before Christmas, with Kevin Kuhn on guitars, banjo, lap steel, and mandolin, Wade on guitar, MPA members Kevin Joy and Don Henze on bass and drums, and virtuoso Kenny Kosek on fiddle.

Rick and Wade Tonken mixing the score to The Education of Shelby Knox, 2005

Rick and Wade Tonken mixing the score to The Education of Shelby Knox, 2005

Here is a cue from The Education of Shelby Knox:

The messages here are multifold: as an artist, sometimes you have to be protective of your environment, even if may appear to threaten a working friendship.  It’s good to have a team available, consisting of people you trust, because ultimately no one can do everything alone.  And always get the very best musicians.  It wasn’t until after I’d gotten my doctorate at Columbia and started scoring films that I had the budget to consistently hire the best players in New York and get high-level recordings of my music. A wonderful side effect of that is that it expanded my family of musical collaborators; it is a great source of personal happiness to be a member of this community.

Wherever possible, keep the copyright and publishing rights to your music.

Both in Buryl’s studio and at the Manhattan Producers Alliance there were law books on the shelves involving entertainment contract law.  I studied those chapters and photocopied the salient ones: those on work-for-hire.  I operate by this principle, and so should you: wherever possible, keep the copyright and publishing rights to your music. (And be very hesitant about giving up your writer’s share.)  It is true that in 2018 the means of production, distribution, and payment for music has changed drastically from even five years ago, but this bottom line still applies: in a work-for-hire—as virtually all media composing gigs are—the default ownership of copyright and publishing goes to the producer, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary.  And that’s the operative, legal phrase; so if you can, get that agreement to the contrary. I always request copyright and publishing. I’m not always successful, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.  Often it takes multiple, patient explanations on the composer’s part, as producers and filmmakers usually don’t understand the royalty structure at all.  But know that if you control the publishing, you double your broadcast and performance royalty, and you can control later use of your music.  So learn the law and get good at explaining it.  Note: sometimes, by offering to share publishing with the producer, they may be willing to relax their hold on your music; more often than not, they have no plan for further exploitation of it, and if you are motivated to market your music down the line, they’ll make a few bucks off it, too.  So actually it’s a win-win situation.

One day while I was busy toiling on an animation score at the MPA, the string quartet Ethel showed up to do some recording.  Ethel’s co-founder, violinist Mary Rowell, was an old friend I’d met years before when she was performing student compositions for Columbia University’s doctoral program.  Over the years she’d played my chamber, orchestral, and film music, and it was a joy to run into her that day.  “Write us a piece, man,” she said.  And this was my gateway back into concert music, after a hiatus of almost 15 years.

Soon afterwards I was asked to join the faculty at Columbia College Chicago’s newly minted MFA program in film scoring and to take over the directorship of their undergrad composition department: a double assignment.  I spent the summer of 2007 re-reading my original composition textbooks from when I was a conservatory freshman: Percy Goetschius’s The Homophonic Forms and The Larger Forms of Musical Composition, as well as Arnold Schoenberg’s The Fundamentals of Musical Composition.  (They’re all great books, and the Goetschius volumes are downloadable; I assign them to my students to this day.)  Every day that summer I read the Goetschius and Schoenberg in tandem, doing all the exercises in each.  After 15 years of film scoring, I’d developed new compositional reflexes, but I didn’t have the old vocabulary to describe music at my fingertips the way I’d used to—and I had to teach it.  So I reviewed my old studies, now with the experienced eye of a professional. As I began my academic year, commuting every week between Chicago and New York, I also started studying film scoring intensely.  Like most film composers, especially from the time when there were few educational opportunities for aspiring film scoring students, I was essentially self-taught.  Teaching at Columbia Chicago gave me the opportunity to pour over actual scores, analyzing them as if they were Beethoven symphonies.  And I began to develop a new understanding, a context, for what I had been doing intuitively all these years: film scoring as a manifestation of the unconscious.  I began to understand that film music operates at a symbolic, semiotic level, activating memory, sensation, idea, and emotion in correspondence to picture and narrative.

Film music activates memory, sensation, idea, and emotion.

The combination of teaching film and concert composition, all while composing a string quartet, was a potent moment for me in that it helped me begin to integrate the seemingly opposing forces that made up my musical life, from the Brazilian and African influences to my classical training and commercial experience.  I believe the act of teaching—of organizing my thoughts and having to verbalize them—helped me consciously understand the elements of my own creative voice. Meanwhile,  my memories of my own teachers began to re-emerge from the buried recesses of my mind with surprising clarity: as I stood in front of my string quartet composition class at Columbia Chicago, I found myself visualizing my undergrad form and analysis professor, Ludmilla Ulehla, talking about “directional tones” and Schenkerian structure.  In my creative work, I had embarked upon a large-scale string quartet that integrated African, Brazilian, and other grooves into a refracted sonata form, and I was encouraging my diverse student population to “write what they know and love” as well; so my Greek student was putting Greek folk music into his quartet, and the North African composer incorporated maqam modes into hers.  As my old composition teachers came out from under their hidden sectors of my psyche, I realized that many of their teachings were still influencing my compositional process, to positive effect.  For instance, Mario Davidovsky, who had pioneered the integration of electronic sounds with live players, used to say, “I’m the grandson of two rabbis.  You know what a mitzvah is, right?” (Its literal meaning, from the Hebrew, is “commandment,” but is also used to mean a good deed or a gift.)  Mario would continue, “Every piece should be a mitzvah. Every measure should be a mitzvah.  Every note should be a mitzvah!”

Another one of Davidovsky’s aphorisms that influences my composing and teaching to this day, is this: “The intensity of the energy of creativity must be constant at all times, including silence!”  Whether or not you agree with this edict (which I don’t, exactly), it does point to the compositional technique of compensating for stasis in one element with activity in another.  For example, how do you keep music interesting if it has no harmonic motion?  (A lot of African music may fit that bill.) Well, one way may be through rhythmic, metric, and timbral interest, not to mention the community element, the storytelling—and the stimulus to dance, which is an emotional healer.

A development that I did not anticipate was the influence of film music on my concert composing. Composer Mychael Danna’s 1997 score to The Ice Storm is one example. By employing Native American flute and Indonesian gamelan as backdrop to a story about the discontented residents of an American suburb, it resonates on a more mythic and spiritual level than the specific tale the movie is telling. The Indian flute points to historical transformation; the cyclical patterns of gamelan may activate a semi-conscious awareness of nature’s larger cycles, from birth and death to the movement of the planets. This principle can be applied in non-film music as well—a process I explore in a recent percussion quartet, Hall of Mirrors.

Back in New York in the fall of 2008, after a year commuting between New York and Chicago, I was asked by Doreen Ringer-Ross, head of film music for the performing rights organization BMI, to create and teach a film scoring workshop and mentorship program under BMI’s auspices.  Thus began “Composing for the Screen,” which recently completed its 10th season.  There I emphasize the unique, individualized quality that characterizes the work of some of the most interesting film composers.  We analyze scores, study composers’ influences, and see if we can channel some of their techniques into our own creativity.  Most of all, the participating composers learn by doing, writing  music for a variety of situations, using multiple musical languages, from romantic jazz to 12-tone to post-minimalism and electronics. Rather than teaching students how to parrot other composers, though, I want to inspire a kind of sensitivity to how film music works, and for the students to apply that knowledge to their own voices.

Recording the final project for BMI’s Composing for the Screen, 2017, at Shelter Island Sound, NYC. L-R: Owner/Engineer Steve Addabbo, Rick, and composer Mandy Hoffman

Recording the final project for BMI’s Composing for the Screen, 2017, at Shelter Island Sound, NYC.
L-R: Owner/Engineer Steve Addabbo, Rick, and composer Mandy Hoffman

In 2011, I also began teaching composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts, an intensive low-residency graduate arts college in Vermont’s capital city of Montpelier.  I had the privilege of serving as chair of the MFA program in composition from 2012 to 2016.  This small school is playing a major role in the development of composers: it is completely progressive in that it is post-genre.  Its extraordinary faculty is experienced and successful across platforms, and provides mentorship in contemporary composition, songwriting, music for media, jazz, and electronic music.  Many of the students cross between arenas within their pieces, which I think is an accurate reflection of how today’s musical culture is currently evolving.

As a teacher, one has a tremendous influence on our students, sometimes more than we are aware of.  A word can make or break a fledgling artist’s confidence.  While at Columbia for my DMA, and even as a Tanglewood fellow, I felt at times in conflict with a field that promoted a kind of cerebral competitiveness as a marker for artistic strength, rather than the kind of nurturing that supports the discovery of an authentic musical voice.  My teacher Jack Beeson at Columbia once said to me, “I think you’re terrifically talented.” It was only then that I finally felt I wasn’t alone in the compositional firmament. So I urge those of you who are teaching to judiciously and carefully choose your words, and to encourage your students to discover themselves through their music as they discover their music through self-knowledge.  Help them find themselves, and give them the encouragement to move forward when confusion reigns or insecurity strikes.

And with your experience and perspective, you may offer them the guidance to be patient with themselves.  After all, the very commitment to the artist’s life is itself a victory.  It involves a soul-deep involvement in your work; the heart to move forward in the face of adversity; and a continual, renewed sense of becoming.  And for that, you have to allow yourself the space to grow.

I thank my friend Doreen from BMI for posting this quote on occasion, as a reminder to all of us who are in the composition game for the long haul:

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

― Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit

Composing and Motherhood

When I started composing, as an 18 year old in 1990, I knew of few women composers. Those I did know of either had their careers curtailed when they had kids (Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler, Ruth Crawford Seeger), or they didn’t have kids (Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, and the few women composers I knew personally). I thought I might want to have kids one day, and it was scary going into a field in which I knew no role models. But I needed to compose, and any possible kids were a long way off. Certainly I encountered occasional sexism as a student and young composer, but mostly I received great encouragement. My way of participating in the new music world was no different from that of my male contemporaries. I studied,[1] I went to music festivals, I lived abroad, I went to artist residencies, and most of all, I went to lots of concerts, met people, and talked about music late into the night, hatching plans for new musical projects and adventures. It’s 2017 and I’m now a mother myself (kids born in 2012 and 2015), and though my commitment to composing is as strong as ever, I’m starting to understand some of the ways that composers who are mothers intentionally and unintentionally get written out of new music.

Though not all women become mothers, all women may find themselves affected by anti-mother bias.

Though not all women become mothers, all women may find themselves affected by anti-mother bias. It’s still shockingly common to hear of women composers being passed over for positions because it is assumed that they’ll get married, have kids, and give up composing, or of mentors refusing to write letters of recommendation for female students until they know their reproductive plans. The difficulties associated with being a composer and a mother are, of course, compounded once children actually come into the picture! Finding enough time to compose while earning enough to pay for childcare—in such an underpaid field as composition—is impossible for many, and grants seldom come with funding for childcare. (I just applied for a grant in which the maximum allowable monthly subsistence rate is 30% less than we pay our babysitter per month.) Attending evening concerts—so important, both for musical nourishment and for networking—is difficult, and new music concerts are even more likely than others to start late at night. Residencies are often offered in increments of one month, a prohibitively long period of time for most mothers of young children. Of course these pressures affect parents of all genders, but mothers are more likely to need to remain in physical proximity to their child because of breastfeeding, more likely to be the primary caregiver, and more likely to feel cultural pressure, both internalized and external, to not be away from their kids.[2],[3]

A few years away from concerts and residencies might not be a problem if the new music world weren’t so focused on “young composers.”[4] Though young composer support schemes were initially developed to allow new voices to be heard, they have now become the norm, making it harder for older composers who are not already well-established to find a way in. The focus on young composers comes with an attendant assumption that if someone hasn’t “made it” by 35, they never will (despite the existence of such well-regarded late-blooming composers as Rameau, Scarlatti, Janáček, and Scelsi). Women who have kids in their late 20s or early 30s may miss out on the key years for participating in young composer programs, only to find that just as the kids are old enough for them to participate more fully, they are excluded on the basis of age.[5] Yet having children older doesn’t necessarily help either. The late 30s and early 40s are a notoriously difficult time for all composers – “young composer” support has dried up, while one isn’t yet considered an “established composer.”[6] Without kids, navigating this period can be difficult and require a renewed focus on developing ones career; with kids, the obstacles may seem insurmountable.

Women who have kids in their late 20s or early 30s may miss out on the key years for participating in young composer programs.

Even when there aren’t explicit age limits, the conditions of grants, calls for scores, and awards often make it hard to return to active composition after a period of slowed productivity. I recently found myself unable to apply for a grant because it required a piece relevant to my project proposal that I had written in the past two years. In the past few years I’ve finished a 45-minute chamber opera, a violin concerto, two chamber pieces, a scientific paper, a book chapter, taught both privately and at a college, started a new research position, and had a baby (in addition to parenting a preschooler), so I haven’t been lazy—but no, I don’t have a choral piece. There’s no inherent reason composers who are most continuously prolific should be considered most worthy. We recognize the importance of Varèse, Webern, and Ustvolskaya, whose output was small, and of Crawford Seeger, Knussen, and Donatoni, who had years when they didn’t compose. Yet composers who are steadily productive are most likely to receive grants and support.

On top of these structural problems, there’s the general tendency to dismiss moms as culturally irrelevant. “Mom jeans” are the quintessential anti-fashion, and The New York Times recently told us we should be worrying about “mom hair” too.[7] “Soccer moms” represent suburban blandness. “Explain it so your mom would understand” suggests moms are slow-witted. “Mom-approved” is safe, dull, and smug. “Even your mom would like it” describes inoffensive and insipid art. These comments are said jokingly (even by moms themselves), but hearing this language over and over again predisposes us to think of cultural contributions by mothers to be unimportant. Perhaps it’s worse than unimportant: the underlying message is that “mom” stands in direct opposition to art that is incisive, interesting, and meaningful.

There’s no inherent reason composers who are most continuously prolific should be considered most worthy.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are lots of steps we can all take so that motherhood doesn’t become a barrier to active participation in the new music world. In visual arts, writing, and theater, there are already some great initiatives to be more inclusive of mothers (and of parents generally),[8] but in composition we are farther behind, perhaps because women are already such a minority, and our position can feel so precarious. Here I propose a number of measures that can be taken in order to be more inclusive. Some are easy to incorporate, others more complex. Not all are practical for every situation, but it is not necessary that everything be done in the same way, or even that every event or opportunity be mother-friendly. We simply need a variety of ways to engage with the new music world that reflects the diversity of people interested in creating, performing, and listening to new music.

MOTHER by EngTay (a woman seated at a piano playing music and being hugged by her child.) Image by Beth Scupham

MOTHER by EngTay. Image by Beth Scupham via Flickr

If you present concerts, consider:

• Having some daytime new music concerts – not just greatest-hits programming, but with the same programs as evening concerts.
• Performing programs in both a standard, quiet concert context, and in a more noise- and wiggle-friendly context.
• Providing childcare.
• Having concerts in explicitly family-friendly locations, with conveniences such as change tables in the washrooms, “breastfeeding welcome” signs, and an area where someone could entertain children outside of the concert space.
• Performing in non-traditional venues which are more accessible to families.
• Including the timing of pieces in the program, so audience members can choose to come in or leave for one piece.
• Letting people know which concerts they could bring a baby to and stand at the back and leave if the baby starts to fuss, vs. which concerts would be disrupted if someone stepped out. (Perhaps there could be a child-friendly rating system?)
• Having intermissions long enough to feed a baby or pump milk
• Letting the audience know when the intermission will be in case someone needs to arrange to have a baby brought to them at a specific time.
• Having post-concert dinners and receptions in baby-friendly locations (e.g. in pubs or restaurants that allow children).
• Making the dress rehearsal like a performance, and open to families.
• Reserving seats in the back, the balcony, or boxes for people who may need to step in and out.

If you organize residencies, consider:

• Allowing people to attend residencies for shorter periods of time – perhaps in one week increments, or even for just a few days at a time.
• Allowing the possibility of coming back for several short residency periods rather than one long one.
• Allowing families to stay at residencies.
• Providing childcare. This could be provided on-site, or perhaps the residency could team up with nearby summer camps.
• Providing stipends for babysitters, either at the residency, or to help with the costs of leaving children at home with other family members or friends.
• Reserving some spots specifically for people who are using the residency to refocus on their work after some time away.

If you run a funding organization or hold a call for scores, consider:

• Not seeing gaps in a resume as an inherent negative, and/or giving people the opportunity to account for gaps.
• Eliminating age restrictions. (Experience restrictions – e.g. limiting a grant/award/performance to someone who is still studying, or hasn’t had any performances by major ensembles – can be a more equitable way of allowing new voices to be heard.)
• Searching for under-heard voices, including but not limited to young voices.
• Giving grants specifically to people who are returning to composing after a gap. (Re-emerging composer awards?)
• Eliminating or lengthening time limits for the composition dates of pieces, or giving the applicant the opportunity to explain if they don’t have a relevant piece that has been composed recently enough.
• Including stipends to pay for babysitters as an eligible expense. (Ideally these should be granted once the award is already decided, so the additional expense is not held against the applicant).
• Accepting high-quality computer generated sound files, since returning composers may not have access to good performances.
• Explicitly recognizing the need for support after gaps, rather than consciously or unconsciously writing off composers who have taken time away.

All of us in the new music community, consider:

• Asking parents of all genders about their work AND about their children. (Don’t just ask men about their work, and just ask women about their children. This still happens way too often!)
• Continuing to invite your parent friends to do things – to attend concerts, to write pieces. Let them tell you if now isn’t the right time – they’ll appreciate being asked!
• Writing pieces that can accommodate audiences which include families.
• Asking about (and creating) provisions for children and families, whether or not you are a mother (or even a parent). Especially in fields which are still male dominated, like composition, it would be nice if the people with more social power were advocating for change in the direction of family-friendliness!
• Lobbying for increased support for parents, including paid maternity leave and subsidized high-quality childcare.
• Lobbying for fair pay for artists.

Even if these changes would only help mothers, that would be reason enough to make them. But in fact they will help many participate more actively in the new music world: fathers, caregivers of all sorts, composers who have taken time out for any reason, and composers with any sort of non-traditional career trajectory. Even composers with a more traditional trajectory may appreciate having more options for how they can participate in new music, without feeling like if they take some time off or try something differently they will lose their career. Some of these ideas may even help the music itself, as we come up with new solutions and find ways to facilitate the expression of new kinds of voices and ideas.

More than any specific structural change we can make, however, I’d suggest that the most important thing we can do is move away from seeing motherhood as something inherently “negative for” or “in competition with” the creation of music. The difficulties are obvious: increased time pressure, lack of sleep, fragmented concentration, added expense. But parenthood also offers an amazing chance for a change of perspective, the development of new skills, and a refocusing on what is most important.

Can the selflessness developed during late nights with sleepless babies help us put self aside as we follow our music in unexpected directions? Might learning to trust in the process even when the immediate results are unclear—as we do when gently modeling behavior we want but don’t yet see in our toddlers—help us trust the process in writing music at the boundaries of what we can imagine? Do the communication skills learned in speaking gently, patiently, and lovingly with our kids (even when we’re feeling the exact opposite) help in difficult rehearsal situations? Can time away be seen as offering a valuable change of perspective, rather than only as a distraction or obstacle to composition? Can increased demands on our time encourage us to prioritize, and make room for the projects that are most important to us? If we decide to create child-friendly art, could the limitations imposed by trying to make music that is impervious to interruptions or that takes place in flexible child-friendly venues open our minds to new kinds of musical ideas? Might struggling to maintain the place of music in our lives lead us to value it even more?

There are as many ways of being a composer as there are people committed to the world of new music.

Of course I don’t mean to suggest that one needs to be a mother (or parent) to experience growth and development as a composer! But I do suggest that there are as many ways of being a composer as there are people committed to the world of new music. Let’s value the many, varied paths people follow, and instead of intentionally or unintentionally keeping people out, think of how we can make room for all who want to contribute.[9]

1. This was back in the day when tuition was cheap and scholarships were more widely available: I know that even this step is unavailable to many now.

2. Ellen McSweeney has also written about these difficulties from a performer’s perspective.

3. Of course, not all birth-giving parents identify as women or mothers, not all mothers have given birth, not all birth-giving mothers breastfeed, and not all primary caregivers are mothers or women. But I do think there is a specific way that the challenges of being a female composer in a still male-dominated field interact with the challenges of being a parent and an artist. I write from my own experience, but recognize that there are many other ways that being a composer and becoming a parent may interact.

4. See Bill Doerrfeld, “Ageism in Composer Opportunities” (NewMusicBox, published June 5, 2013).

5. Mothers aren’t the only composers negatively affected by age limits. A removal of age limits would help anyone with a less traditional trajectory.

6. Aaron Gervais has some great reflections on making the transition out of being a young composer.

7. See Bee Shapiro, “Have ‘Mom Hair’? Here’s How to Fix It” (The New York Times, published June 21, 2016).

8. Parents in the Performing Arts and The Sustainable Arts Foundation are two such initiatives.

9. The author would like to thank Kala Pierson for discussions which led to this article

Emily Doolittle

Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, composer Emily Doolittle was educated at Dalhousie University, Indiana University, the Koninklijk Conservatorium, and Princeton. From 2008-2015 she was on the faculty of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. She now lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where she is an Athenaeum Research Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Doolittle has been commissioned by such ensembles as Orchestre Métropolitain, Tafelmusik, Symphony Nova Scotia, the Paragon Ensemble, and Ensemble Contemporain de Montreal, and supported by the Sorel Organization, the Hinrichsen Foundation, Opera America, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Fulbright Foundation, among others. Her chamber music CD all spring was released on the Naxos distributed Composers Concordance Label in 2015.

Support Systems

We all know the truism that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists within the context of the art that has preceded it, and the art with which it is contemporaneous. It exists within the context of the life and beliefs of the artist who created it, and everyone who helped to shape that person’s life and beliefs.

So, too, your career as a freelancer (should you decide to take that path) exists within a broader context of its own. And just as you can shape the context of your art by studying, practicing, and forming the connections to position your art to its best advantage, you can also shape the context of your freelance career by continuing your education, working to refine your practices, and ensuring that you have effective support systems in place.

I’m fortunate to have an incredibly supportive husband, who has acted as both cheerleader and disappointed school teacher as necessary over the years. Both of our families have offered unconditional moral (and sometimes financial) support, and our friends have been at turns enthusiastic and healthily skeptical of my various harebrained ideas.

It’s these support systems that have kept me afloat in more ways than one. They keep me going, and they keep me grounded. If I can get the musical and non-musical parts of my support system excited about a potential project, I know that I’m on to something; and if I’m met with skepticism and confusion, I know that I haven’t thought things through enough.

Support systems keep me going and they keep me grounded.

Sometimes, though, you don’t have the support system that you need. You may have a spouse or parents or friends who stubbornly refuse to understand what you’re trying to do, and who consistently fail to support you when you need it most. It’s frustrating and can be unhealthy if you let it stand in your way. But how do you fix it?

Sometimes, an appropriately timed, calm conversation can help to make some headway. Explaining your goals and your plans to reach them can assuage fears about your future. How many of us have well-meaning families who want the best for us, but think that we’ve chosen the “wrong” path? One conversation won’t fix everything, but it might open the door to more understanding and to a deeper involvement in your art.

Other times, however, you have to create new support systems to make up for the lack of support at home. Maybe that means forming a local group of like-minded people that meets regularly for lunch or coffee, where the members share their successes and their struggles and offer advice, support, and encouragement. Maybe that means finding an online community that you can join to address the same issues. In case you weren’t aware, you’re in one right now. NewMusicBox has built a wonderful community of artists who are trying to make this whole thing work, just like you. Reach out. Ask for advice. Make connections.

You Are Not Alone

Last week, I mentioned bringing my bad habits from my former day job into my freelance life and struggling to get work done. The morning that that article went live, I was on the elliptical machine at my gym, listening to an episode of the Self-Publishing Podcast about time management, and the guest told the story of her early days as a freelancer. While working 60+ hours per week at a corporate job, she managed to get more of her own work done than when her time later became entirely her own. When she said how aghast she had been at that fact, one of the hosts chimed in to say that that very thing is one of the number one issues that freelancers face. It’s an almost universal problem. Most of our lives, we’re on someone else’s schedule (parents, teachers, bosses), and aren’t trained to value our own time in the same way, or taught how to manage ourselves given total freedom. Fortunately, although the problem is common, it’s also easily remedied with the right tools.

We aren’t trained to value our own time.

Over the past few weeks, a number of colleagues have written to say that this or that problem I wrote about deeply resonated with them. I say that not as, “Well done, Dennis,” but to point out that you’ll encounter many of these same problems yourself and that you’re not alone in doing so. Knowing the pitfalls didn’t prevent me from falling prey to any of them, though it allowed me to recognize what was happening and gave me a base of knowledge for how to attempt to remedy the situation. And it was hugely helpful to know that my struggles were not unique—that others had gone through the same thing and had come out the other side.

I Wish I’d Known…

About ten years ago, in large part because of the time commitment required to pursue my master’s degree, I spent a period of two years unable to get a day job. I hadn’t yet done any research into being a freelancer and didn’t consider myself to be one. Nor had I started to learn about the intricacies of publishing or the necessity of approaching my art with an eye toward business and my future. I was a graduate student with no job, only a few, barely paying commissions, and a small handful of web clients who rarely needed my services. I maxed out my student loans and did odd jobs to be able to eat and pay rent. Nearly a decade later, I can recognize that I was severely depressed—mostly spending my days watching Buffy on Netflix while tinkering with client’s sites. I barely composed if it wasn’t required of me. Eventually, I stopped paying rent entirely and was nearly evicted.

I wouldn’t know what I know now if it weren’t for what I didn’t know back then.

Sometimes I look back on those two years and think, “I wish I’d known then what I know now.” Honestly, though, I wouldn’t know what I know now if it weren’t for what I didn’t know back then. Recovering from that period set me on the path that led me to learn about publishing and marketing and distribution models, and to start sharing what I’d learned with others.

And, more importantly, I simply didn’t know those things then. I can speculate endlessly over what I would have done differently and how, but the infinitely more important questions is: how can I take what I’ve learned, and do better now?

Parting Shots

Before I sign off, I’d like to thank NewMusicBox for inviting me to write these posts and for offering me the opportunity to be so publicly vulnerable, and to thank you for following me to some of the darker places of my career. I hope what I have shared offers you some help and inspiration. I think we can all use a little more vulnerability in our lives. Our art demands it, and we should demand nothing less of ourselves.

Don’t let the fear of failure get in your way.

The thought that I’d like to leave you with is that, whether you follow the path of the freelancer or not, when you first start out at anything, you will never be perfect. Composing, engraving, email marketing, publishing, networking: you probably won’t even be good at the beginning. You’ll fail a lot, but you’ll learn from each failure. And every time you do it again, you’ll improve. Don’t let the fear of failure get in your way, or you’ll never get anything done. So go out and fail. Then fail better next time.

Course Corrections

Tobenski's calendar with color coded post-it notes.

Within six months of starting my new freelance life, things had gone off the rails a little bit. Even though I’d read The Freelancer’s Survival Guide and had done tons of research, I really wasn’t quite prepared to be my own boss. I carried my resentment toward my former day job into my freelancing, along with all of my bad habits, and that’s not a recipe for success. As a result, I’ve found my freelance life to be an exercise in course correction.

One way my resentment toward the day job manifested itself was in not wanting to get up in the morning, and I carried this over into my self-employment. Sleeping in is a habit that I’ve cultivated my entire life, made worse by insomnia and a penchant for reading late into the night. I hate mornings and, given the opportunity, I do what I can to avoid them: namely, sleeping well into the double-digit a.m. hours. It’s a source of never-ending amusement and frustration for my husband and our families. However, for a freelancer, it can be a terrible habit and a difficult one to break.

For a freelancer, sleeping well into the double-digit a.m. hours can be a terrible habit and a difficult one to break.

Being a night owl isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it forces a different kind of schedule on your waking/working life. A good friend of mine has similar sleep patterns to mine and makes it work quite well. He wakes up at the crack of noon, teaches for the afternoon and into the evening, then composes late into the night. His partner, however, works “regular hours.” As a result, they rarely see one another, but they’ve managed to make it work for many, many years. Fortunately, since they’re both musicians and they perform together regularly, they have built-in time to work together, in addition to the specific time that they set aside to be in each other’s company. Otherwise, they would live their lives as ships passing in the night.

Dean Wesley Smith, another night owl, chronicles his daily writing habits on his blog. He sleeps until between 11 and 1, uses daylight hours to manage the small publishing company he co-operates, as well as the antiques and collectibles shop he owns, then deals with his admin tasks and has dinner with his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch in the evening, takes an hour or so for TV, then writes until 3 or 4 in the morning. He’s incredibly prolific and has found a rhythm that works very well for him.

Dean and my friend are fortunate not to have children, which would make their schedules untenable. They’re also fortunate to have partners who are fine with the degree of their absence and don’t mind the odd hours they keep.

For myself, I’ve found that because I want to: a) spend time with my husband (who works regular hours at a jingle house); b) be considerate to my neighbors (and my husband) by not working at the piano after certain hours; and c) have a somewhat normal social life, my night owl ways are a hindrance. Consequently, I’ve had to adjust my sleep schedule to ensure that I have more daylight hours in which to work. Admittedly, it wasn’t easy, and I’m prone to relapse; but my husband helps to keep me honest, and we spend our early mornings together at the gym.

I also later came to realize that depression had set in some time during my first year working for myself. It took hold and grew almost imperceptibly: gradually eroding away my motivation and eviscerating my work ethic. I’d never before had cause to worry about either of these, but realized one day that I wasn’t doing what I needed to in order to achieve my goals. As a result, I’ve had to deal with some of the underlying causes for my depression, as well as implement systems to keep myself on track.


Over the years, I’ve tried a number of different ways of structuring my working hours.

In some systems, I’ve tried scheduling different types of work for different days. For example, only doing web design work on Mondays, blocking off Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for composing and other musical pursuits, and leaving Thursday for anything else that needs to be handled. Or variations thereof.

Other systems involve blocking off time for specific types of tasks and creating a template for the week. A block might be anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours and may be labeled variously “composing,” “web work,” “admin,” “podcasting,” or “listening & walking.” In one variation on this, I have just a morning block and an afternoon block, each labeled “Tobenski Music Press,” “Music Publishing Podcast,” “Perfect Enemy Records,” or “Tobenski Web Design,” and I address the priorities of each business during the corresponding block.

A bulletin board with an elaborate vertical and horiztal arrangement of large post-it notes on which various task reminders are handwritten

An attempt to organize my life that seems to be working.

A third system I’ve tried doesn’t parcel out time in increments at all, but sets weekly deadlines for different projects. One week, my priority may be to finish a piece I’m writing, and the next week is devoted to podcast production. Whatever else is on my plate, I have to meet that particular deadline by the end of the week.

I’m still tweaking my systems to find the best solution. Each of the styles I outlined above attracts me for different reasons, as does a more “go with the flow” approach.

The more diverse your activities are, the more difficult it can be to schedule them concretely.

I’ve found that the more diverse your activities are, the more difficult it can be to schedule them concretely, especially when they involve working for clients. Anyone who has done client-based work knows that clients can be the most demanding at the least opportune times. They may have an issue that absolutely needs addressing immediately (or that they think needs addressing immediately), and it can be difficult to say no: both to the client and to the money. With these types of interruptions, which can eat up an entire week or more, it’s difficult to keep a system consistently in place.

Finding Balance

As with diet and exercise, the best system is the one you can stick with. Johnny B. Truant, one of the writers I follow, structures his days in flexible morning and afternoon blocks, with family time built in. He’s up before dawn, writes for four hours, then spends his afternoons on the admin side of things. He’s adamant that the writing and the business stay separate, and he’s equally serious about both. He refuses to work past 6:00 p.m. and never works on weekends, instead devoting that time to his family. With this schedule, he and his writing partners publish a yearly word count equivalent to the entire Harry Potter series, while running a network of eight podcasts, managing four publishing imprints, mentoring other writers, and putting on the yearly Smarter Artist Summit.

Aaron Copland was reported to rise at 9 or 10 a.m. each day, linger over the newspaper, then handle correspondence and business every morning before lunch. In the afternoons, he would engage in score study, prepare lectures and articles, meet with musicians, or read. Finally, he would only compose after dinner, but would carry on until after midnight. On average, he composed around an hour of finished music per year.

Prolific, bestselling authors C.J. Lyons and Joanna Penn completely eschew daily schedules. Lyons thrives on keeping her days varied, and Penn merely blocks off a period of days or weeks for individual projects but keeps her schedule otherwise flexible.

At the moment, when I’m asked how I balance composing with web design and engraving and running two podcasts and being a vocalist, et cetera, I respond, “I don’t.” Right now, what works for me is taking things as they come, prioritizing on a daily and weekly basis while trying to maintain a long-term view of my career at the same time.

What works for me is taking things as they come.

As I write this, I’m within spitting distance of finishing two website redesigns for clients. So until we launch the sites in the next week or two, those clients’ needs (and the checks they’ll be writing me) are my top priority, while writing these weekly columns, because they’re on a short deadline, are a competing priority. Once these columns and the two websites are finished, composing and podcasting will once again move to the front burners. And because I’ll be recording my second album in the coming months, that will take on a larger and larger share of my time until that project is finished. By the end of the year, I have plans to revitalize an old business that has lain fallow for some time and add yet another income stream, while phasing out my reliance on web design and engraving.

Flexibility has become my watchword, and it allows me to juggle all of my pursuits.

One of the best, as well as most frustrating, things about freelancing is that there’s no one way to do it. There is always room for improvement, but the important thing is that you find what works for you. Mimicking others can only get you so far.  It can give you options for how to handle your own scheduling, but—in the end—the only thing that matters is what works.

Pitfalls of Living the Freelance Life

Wednesday, April 17, 2013, was my last day as a full-time 9-to-5er. That day, I organized the last few bits of work to pass off to my successor, drank too much at the company farewell party, then went home and packed a suitcase. I had two out-of-state premieres in the ten days that followed, and I was excited to embark on this new adventure of full-time freelancing.

I knew that the freelance lifestyle was fraught with difficulties, so part of my research in the preceding months had been to learn about potential problems that might arise. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Freelancer’s Survival Guide (get used to hearing about this book) was an invaluable resource in this respect. In it, she talks about burnout, dealing with client issues, worrying about income, handling the problem of unstructured time, and any number of other pitfalls that freelancers face. I was convinced that I was prepared for whatever life threw at me.

Time Management

One of the things about being a freelancer is that your time is entirely your own. Your days aren’t structured by the policies of whatever business employs you. You’re also completely responsible for your own success or failure, so quite often that means that you end up working long after normal “business hours” to meet your clients’ deadlines, or to stay caught up on all of the projects that you have going at once. Sixteen-plus-hour days can come to be commonplace. They’re equally commonplace with certain types of day jobs, but there’s a special white-knuckled frenzy that can come with being your own boss. The concept of “weekend” loses all meaning, except that it’s the time of the week that your friends with day jobs want you to come out. You don’t have paid vacation, you don’t have benefits, and it feels like the only way to keep up is to keep working more and more.

“Weekend” loses all meaning, except that it’s the time that your friends with day jobs want you to come out.

The danger here is burnout. You work such crazy hours for such a long time without any sort of break—and without rewarding yourself—that something finally just snaps. You’re either a frantic, stressed-out wreck who can’t handle anything anymore, or you’re a vegetable and can barely bring yourself to get out of bed. Burnout can be the kiss of death for a freelance career and recovering from it is a long and difficult process.

One of the other things about your time being entirely your own is that you set your own hours. You have no boss, no supervisor, no timesheets, nobody making sure you’re in the door and at your desk on time. So why not start a little later? Why even set an alarm? A midday nap? Yes, thank you. Feel like knocking off a little earlier? Okay! Just not feeling it today? Don’t worry—you’ll catch up tomorrow. Probably.

Without structure, it’s very easy to slide into laziness. And if you’ve spent your entire life abiding by someone else’s schedule, it’s easy to want to rebel against the clock, especially when you first start freelancing. You want to give yourself a little slack for the first week, and so you wake up later than you really should; but within that week, you’ve formed a habit of sleeping in. There are countless ways that you can train yourself to be lazy when you never were before.

Without structure, it’s very easy to slide into laziness.

Burnout and laziness are two extremes of poor time management. But the good news is that with some self-awareness and self-discipline, you can find a mode of working that uses your time effectively, and that takes into account your scheduling/motivational strengths and weaknesses.

For those predisposed toward slipping into laziness, it can be important to create self-imposed daily work schedules and artificial project deadlines. Keeping written logs of the work you do can help to keep you honest and motivated. Breaking projects down into component parts and scheduling them out can keep you moving forward.

I keep a bullet journal in an attempt to keep myself honest in this regard. Every weekend I survey the projects on my plate, take stock of the appointments I’ve made, and come up with a loose plan of attack for the coming week. Then every night, I plan out the next day’s agenda. I find it satisfying to check off the things I’ve done; it gives me a sense of accomplishment and motivates me to keep moving. Sometimes, though, I get cocky and think that I can keep my plans in my head without writing them down. Inevitably, I slip back into bad habits within a few days and need to pull out the bullet journal again to get back on track.

A bad week in Dennis Tobenski's bullet journal.

Here are pages from my bullet journal during a bad week; pages from a good week appear at the top of this post.

For those headed down the path toward burnout, it’s incredibly important to take breaks and vacations. Schedule regular breaks for yourself—and actually take them! Make it a weekly habit to go to the movies or relax over a nice dinner out. Schedule in time to read a book for fun, check out a museum, or go hiking. And take a vacation from time to time; set aside at least a few days when you’re not allowed to do any work. You’ll thank yourself for it.

Work Load

Probably the most terrifying thing about being a freelancer is knowing that you could have a bad couple of months and suffer financially because of it. Consequently, one of the ways that many of us choose to deal with this possibility is to diversify our income streams. We can take on additional work in other areas to help keep us financially stable if one source of income becomes temporarily unreliable.

One problem here, of course, is that you run the risk of working yourself too hard or spreading yourself too thin, and the specter of burnout once again rears its ugly head.

It’s possible to take on too many different types of work so that it’s impossible to prioritize tasks or schedule them effectively. Personal projects can take a back seat to easy money and clients’ urgent deadlines, making your days feel disjointed and frenzied.

A friend of mine was telling me recently about his freelance situation: he focuses in two primary areas which earn him some income, on top of which he has a time-consuming but stable part-time job and a reasonably low-maintenance yet profitable side business. He would like to shift more of his efforts into his primary areas of focus, but making this shift happen requires that he extricate himself from one of his other, more reliable sources of income. Given extra time to dedicate to his real passions, he could make those areas more profitable; in the meantime, however, he would be removing one of the pillars of his family’s stability, which is frightening.

Juggling all four sources of income plus his family life requires an enormous amount of time and energy, and it has taken its toll on his mental state. He’s constantly exhausted, always feels behind, and knows that the situation is unsustainable. Fellow freelancers in a similar position know this exhaustion, and also know the illogical complication added to the equation by the facts that he takes pride in and genuinely enjoys everything he does, and that he isn’t a “quitter” and doesn’t want to feel like one.

And not to be underestimated here, too, is the investment—of time, of money—that goes into each and every endeavor. There’s a feeling of ownership that takes hold, as well as a reluctance to “throw away” that investment when the time comes to move on. My friend has spent years building his side business to what it is, invested countless hours learning that trade, and spent no small amount of money acquiring the proper tools. For myself, I’ve easily spent thousands of hours and untold dollars learning HTML, CSS, PHP, and MySQL, not to mention what I’ve invested in learning and purchasing all of the software and content management systems I use for my web design business.

Moving on from these businesses, when it’s time for us, will be difficult. But not moving on from them when we need to will hold us back in our true pursuit of making music.

Mental and Physical Health

Last on my list of potential pitfalls this week is your health.

Traditional day jobs can be bad enough for your health. Sitting at a desk from 9 to 5 with only a few breaks to get up and move around has turned us into a very sedentary society, but it also requires that you at least get up and move to go to the office. Most freelancers work from home, so the trip to the “office” doesn’t require a commute. Or pants. Consequently, it’s far too easy to live an even more sedentary lifestyle than if you worked for someone else. And without coworkers to judge you for what you eat in the lunchroom, your diet can suffer as well. It’s easier to snack out of boredom, and you don’t have to hold up any pretense of eating like an adult.

Self-discipline and time management skills come back into play here. Scheduling breaks, taking walks, setting aside time for the gym, getting enough sleep: all of these are necessary not just to avoid burnout, but to avoid health problems, as well.

Breaks and walks don’t just keep your heart in shape and your waistline from expanding. They prevent injuries, too. I can’t count the number of freelance writers I know who have had to deal with carpal tunnel syndrome. Repetitive stress injuries are far too common among the self-employed because of our drive to keep working and working and working. This can ultimately be deadly to productivity, as recovery is painfully slow. And without employer-provided insurance, healthcare is already expensive enough without inflicting completely avoidable injuries and health problems on ourselves.

And finally, breaks, walks, workouts, sleep, and socializing are necessary for your mental health. Being shut away from the world, seeing only your significant other and your cat for days on end does some bad things to your state of mind. Take it from me.

Seeing only your significant other and your cat for days on end does some bad things to your state of mind.

Depression has far-reaching effects and can undermine all of your motivation, planning, and self-discipline. It’s all well and good for me to say, “Be disciplined,” but when depression sneaks up on you and gets a foothold, your discipline is slowly eroded away. It’s insidious. My comment, “Or pants,” earlier may have seemed flip, but in my opinion, repeatedly making the “commute” to your desk without pants is the canary in the coal mine. So in addition to everything else you have to know about the business side of things, know the basic signs of depression, too, and be prepared to seek out help. Because although you’re “going it alone,” you’re absolutely not alone, and the people around you are as much the key to your success as your drive and talent.

Your physical and mental health are closely linked. Being proactive about your physical health can buoy your mental health and boost your motivation, productivity, and self-discipline. Both the upward and downward paths can be circular: poor health can contribute to depression, which contributes to decreased productivity, which contributes to greater depression, etc.; and good health can foster a positive mental state, which boosts productivity, which improves your mental state, etc.

So set yourself up for success by taking care of your health, as well as your career.

Last week I wrote that within months of starting this new freelance adventure “everything had gone wrong.” Next week, I’ll tell you why, and which of these pitfalls I fell prey to (despite knowing about them in advance!) and how I’ve tried to course correct over the years.

Daron Hagen: The Human Element

A conversation in Hagen’s home in Rhinebeck, New York
November 17, 2014—1:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Although his catalog includes symphonies, more than a dozen concertos (including one for the Japanese koto), works for solo keyboard, wind band, and string orchestra, plus over 30 chamber music compositions (among them four formidable piano trios and a particularly noteworthy brass quintet), Daron Hagen finds his greatest fulfillment as a composer when he is working on an opera. He loves telling stories and opera’s inherently collaborative nature, but at its core he loves the human element of singers, the fact that their musical instruments are contained within them.

“If you have a cold you can’t sing,” Hagen explained when we spoke to him at his home in Rhinebeck, New York. “Or it fundamentally changes you from a tenor into a bass.”

Even though he had been composing many different types of pieces from the very beginning of his career (innate abilities as an orchestrator fetched him arranging gigs since he was in high school), the human voice has always inspired him the most. His older brother introducing him to Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd is what made him want to be a composer. (“For a 14- or 15-year-old boy who was looking for poetry and a world to live in, it was the siren call. Come on in. Do this.”) And one of his earliest heroes was Leonard Bernstein who, though a triple-threat pianist-composer-conductor who also worked in a wide variety of genres, was most widely known for his musical theater works. In fact, sending a letter to Bernstein containing a recording of Hagen’s first orchestral score is what actually opened the first doors for him. Bernstein actually responded, recommending that Hagen study at Juilliard with David Diamond (which he did following studies with Ned Rorem at Curtis). Eventually Hagen had an opportunity to work directly with Bernstein during the final stages of composing his first opera, Shining Brow, which is based on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright.

But before he had begun work on that opera, Hagen had already composed a ton of art songs. (To date there are over 200.) He’s quick to point out, however, that “opera is not an art song writ large and an art song is not a short opera.” Yet it’s difficult not to interpret Hagen’s art songs as stepping stones toward his writing operas, especially since a song cycle he wrote based on poetry of Paul Muldoon led directly to his collaborating with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet on that first opera as well as three others: Bandanna, which is about corrupt border patrol officers; Vera of Las Vegas, in which an IRA hit man on the lam becomes involved with a cross-dressing lap dancer; and The Antient Concert, in which James Joyce and the celebrated Irish tenor John McCormack face off in a singing competition. Since then, he has created three additional full-length operas: Amelia, which has a highly complex narrative centering around the real life story of the daughter of a Vietnam POW; Little Nemo in Slumberland, based on Winsor McCay’s classic children’s comic strip; and A Woman in Morocco, another extremely complicated saga about culture clash, adultery, murder, and human trafficking.

For Hagen, the process of creating an opera is such an immersive experience that his life can be fairly neatly divided into chapters that correspond to the operas he has completed thus far.

I’ve always put everything on the line for every piece, but there’s a humility in trying to learn how to write operas. … You spend two years writing the initial document, then you go through another six months of production, and then if you’re a real opera composer, that’s when you start a piece, after the first production because then it’s time to make the piece better based on what you’ve learned.

As far as humility goes, Hagen claims he is no longer interested in advancing his career as a composer and is only willing to take on projects he deeply believes in. Now a husband (his wife is singer/composer Gilda Lyons) and the father of two young sons, for him family has become central. And yet opera still inspires him, in part because he sees parallels between writing opera and parenting.

Writing opera taught me how to let go of myself when composing, to become the characters, to make myself the servant of the story, just as I have learned by becoming a parent that my life is no longer about me; it is about my sons. Both have served as a font of solace and redemption for me. … When I stand at the back rail of a theater and feel an audience move with the drama that I have composed (but which has been brought to life by a hundred musicians, actors, designers, and technicians), I feel the same sense of pride and terror that I do standing at the fence watching my son swing a bat in baseball practice. I feel pride because I played a role in creating the opera (and my son), and nurturing it (and him). It’s the “children and art” paradigm: I feel despair because, even though every ounce of my soul shall have been poured into the process, it shall never have been enough.


Hagen's grand piano with a manuscript score illuminated by overhead lamps.

Daron Hagen’s piano. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

Frank J. Oteri: When we talked to Joan Tower for NewMusicBox nine years ago, she said that she believed there were two different kinds of composers: vocal music composers and instrumental music composers. She said that she was an instrumental music composer and could never imagine writing an opera even though at the time she had just completed her very first choral piece and it’s very nice. You’ve written both vocal and instrumental pieces that I’ve been very moved by, but then recently I read in one of the columns you wrote for The Huffington Post that opera was your favorite wheelhouse to play around in. So do you think there’s something to this dichotomy? Do you operate with a different mindset when you write for voice as opposed to when you don’t?

Daron Aric Hagen: No, it’s all the same for me. People write what they’re paid to, if they’re professional composers. I think over the years you develop a track record for one thing and you become known for it. And more people ask you to write for it. So then, perforce, you’re known as an opera composer because those are the things that got recorded or performed most frequently. But I knew from the beginning. The first piece that I had published by E.C. Schirmer was an organ piece, back in the early 1980s, but I remember Robert Schuneman, the man who owned the publishing house, said, “What do you want to be known as?” I didn’t really think it through, but I think I was right—I asked him to publish two song cycles, and that set the tone. I’ve written a lot of instrumental music, but the problems of a singer singing are so human in their intensity that I gravitate toward that. I used to live with a violinist, and I love instrumental players, but if you have a cold, you can still play the violin. If you have a cold, you can’t sing. Or it fundamentally changes you from a tenor into a bass.

Table with fruitbowl, water pitcher, glasses, and a tray with various additional fruits.

Hagen explained that when singers come over the rehearse he always makes sure to have food and beverages ready for them on his dining table. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

FJO: So what does wheelhouse mean for you?

DAH: I believe in gesamtkunstwerk—the total artistic statement—so I just love writing operas. I love being in the theater. I love the process of figuring out dramaturgy. I love the technical problems involved. I also love the human element, but mainly I think you have to wake up in the morning and just ask, “What can make me do all of that work?” And as I get older, it’s harder and harder for me simply to begin a piece that I’m not interested in. I’m the most interested in opera.

FJO: You said that a professional composer can write whatever he or she’s been asked to write, and you started out with an organ piece, and then introduced the vocal pieces. But even when you’re not writing a piece with a text, most of your pieces have a narrative attached to them somehow. Your third piano trio is about your brother. The double concerto you wrote for Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson is based on characters in the commedia dell’arte. Even your two early wind band pieces have elaborate back stories to them that kind of drove your process in writing them. So it seems that whatever kind of piece you ultimately write, you always want to tell a story.

DAH: I’m a narrative sort of guy. I am always very happy to have process movements within a larger piece. What I mean by process movements, at least what I think I mean by them—something that is involved simply with working out some cellular ideas. If you talk to somebody like Michael Torke, he would say that narratives aren’t necessarily true anyway. You can say anything about anything. Ned Rorem has that famous quip, “If it was called La Strada instead of La Mer, would we still hear the ocean?” So, since music is abstract, I think that the application of a narrative is my business. Whatever makes the notes come out is good.

FJO: So you don’t care if other people know the story.

DAH: Not really.

Music notation for orchestra.

An excerpt from “Falling Flowers,” the second movement of Genji, a concerto for koto and orchestra by Daron Hagen. Copyright © 2010 Burning Sled Music (ASCAP). All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: But when you write an opera, they get to know the story.

DAH: Then it’s all about the story and knowing what the story’s really about.

FJO: But you also regularly engage in abstract musical processes, even in the operas. I’m thinking about how in Shining Brow the materials that different characters sing have a specific intervallic relationship to each other. Two pairs of characters are a tritone apart and the four keys of the four characters spell out a full diminished seventh. Most people in an audience listening to this music as they watch the action unfold are probably not going hear that.

DAH: But they’ll intuit it. That’s the wonderful thing. When an audience intuits modulation, that’s one of the reasons I love tonal music so much. If Joe lives in the key of B-flat and he seduces Mary, and she lives in the key of E-major, won’t she move into his key? Or does he move into her key to get her to move into his key, or do they remain bi-tonal, and therefore somehow illicit. An audience doesn’t have to understand what’s going on to intuit that we’re moving. That’s why Strauss is so wonderful.

FJO: There’s a story about how you got turned on to wanting to be a composer after your brother gave you a score and a recording of one of the Benjamin Britten operas.

DAH: Billy Budd. It had everything—naval battles, good and evil, men singing and sounding virile, and profound tenderness. It also had great literature; it had Melville. For a 14- or 15-year-old boy who was looking for poetry and a world to live in, it was the siren call. Come on in. Do this.

FJO: But your exposure to it couldn’t have been a complete tabula rasa. You grew up in a household where you were undoubtedly exposed to a lot of music. It wasn’t like suddenly there was this opera and you had never heard opera before.

DAH: I heard all those things, but my brother Kevin was involved in drama and in opera. He went to college to be an opera singer, and he made me mix tapes of Blitzstein, Copland, Bartók, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. The first four or five years that I listened to music, he fed me everything other than what I heard on Wisconsin commercial classical radio—which is now a contradiction in terms, I suppose. It was him teaching me things by turning me on. And I miss him very much because he still has a lot to teach me.

FJO: What’s amazing about the impact that hearing this music had on you is that it led you to start writing music on your own, just kind of doing your own thing based on stuff that you heard. Then you wrote an orchestra piece, conducted the premiere of it, recorded it, and somehow Leonard Bernstein wound up hearing that recording.

DAH: I had fallen in love with music. I was manic. I was already orchestrating—pirate orchestrations of musicals for different high schools—and I had already gotten some gigs from the Milwaukee Symphony to arrange Bacharach tunes for the pops and stuff like that. But I was not going to my classes anymore. I was a sophomore in high school. I was not interested in anything else. My mom wasn’t worried about it; she knew as long as I had a passion I was going to be okay. But she didn’t know what to do with me. So I wrote a piece for the youth orchestra in Milwaukee and conducted it. And she said, “Where would we send this? Where are you going to college?” And I said, “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t even know if I’ve got what it takes to be a composer. I just love to do this.” I had just read a book that talked about how Helen Coates had been Bernstein’s first piano teacher and became his personal assistant and protector. So I said, “Why don’t we send a score and a cassette to Helen Coates and ask her to give it to Mr. Bernstein?” The way that you do when you don’t know anything about anything, and you’re from Wisconsin. I don’t know what I thought I was doing. But my mother must have written a heck of a letter because he got it, and he wrote us back. He said your son should go and study with David Diamond at Juilliard, and ultimately I did.

Historic photo of a teenaged Daron Hagen holding a baton as young musicians play instruments.

A teenaged Daron Hagen conducting a youth orchestra in 1979. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

So I was very lucky. I didn’t get into Juilliard right away. First I got into Curtis and studied with Ned Rorem. I remember stepping into the lobby in September of I guess 1982 and I started shaking because it was like being in Triple-A ball and walking into a major league ballpark. I suddenly realized that if I could hit the ball out of the park here, I might actually get to do this for the rest of my life. I thought maybe I could be an arranger or an orchestrator for real composers. There was a big disconnect, and I think there is for a lot of young people. Leonard Bernstein was this little four-inch tall person on TV out there doing that stuff. Maybe not for you, growing up in New York City, but for me, that was a different universe. And it wasn’t until I got to Philadelphia that I felt as though I was even there.

FJO: I could be wrong, but it seems like Ned Rorem had a more profound influence on you ultimately than David Diamond did. Well, David Diamond is a hard person to think of as being a mentor to anybody.

DAH: I’ve known Ned a long, long time, and he’s a good friend. And I’m very, very grateful for everything that I learned by listening to him on the telephone talking business during the three years that I studied with him and during the five years after that when I was his copyist. I don’t know if I was particularly influenced by Ned. Frankly, the music that I wrote after I studied with Ned is pretty much exactly the same as the music I wrote before; it’s just more polished and more professional. Studying with David was more of an education in how to survive a difficult and abusive intellect and aesthetic. He was brilliant, and he made me write fugues and get my craft. He believed that craft would set you free, and that if you were unable to acquire sufficient craft, you shouldn’t get to play. I remember when I left Ned’s studio, he said, “Why go to Juilliard? You’re ready; just start.” That was 35 years ago, but I still think about my teachers all the time. I owe Ned Rorem a debt that I’ll never be able to repay properly because I was in Wisconsin and he took me as a student at Curtis and changed my life. If he had done absolutely nothing else, I would always owe him for that.

Gilda Lyons, Ned Rorem and Daron Hagen with Rorem's arm leaning on Hagen.

Daron Hagen’s wife Gilda Lyons (left) wih Ned Rorem (center) and Daron Hagen in 2013. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

FJO: But certainly your sensitivity to singers and to text is indebted to him.

DAH: I was doing that before I met Ned. I’ve got probably 20 or 30 songs that I wrote before entering Ned’s studio that are published, and they’re sort of indistinguishable from the ones that I wrote after I worked with him. He had some rules like don’t repeat words, and don’t do this and that and the other thing. While I was studying with him, I didn’t do those things because I don’t want to fight with him. But I was setting Joyce and Proust and Yeats, and a lot of other people, and I’d already written a couple of musicals before I got to Curtis. I’d written a lot of art songs already. I had also accompanied a lot of songs, even in early high school. And I myself had been a singer, so I knew the issues. My mom was a writer, so I loved poetry. I wrote a lot of poetry, the way you do when you’re 15-years old. So, I was already there, and meeting Ned was sort of like meeting exactly the right guy at the right time for my proclivities.

FJO: So it was validation.

DAH: I think so. Absolutely. No one was more surprised than me. It was really great studying with Ned, coming from Philadelphia to New York on the train and seeing this famous man who knew Cocteau and who wrote those diaries where he said all those smart and naughty things about everyone, to have to stand up to that and prevail, to run toward the knife of a strong personality and survive, and keep my own independence and identity intact. That was, I think, the best training that a young composer like me could have had.

FJO: Better training than writing fugues?

DAH: Yes. David had so many issues with me that were not musical. I’m not sure how much I got from David except a lot of technique and the ability to work in large-scale forms.

David Diamond and Daron Hagen wearing jackets and ties and standing in front of a piano.

Daron Hagen with David Diamond (left) a week before Diamond’s death in 2005. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

FJO: In terms of the music you were writing at that point, the earliest works of yours that you include on your website only go back to 1981. You mentioned early songs of yours that were published later on. But you were obviously writing a lot of other stuff, too, during those years, and the thing that actually got you paid attention to in the first place—by no less a person than Leonard Bernstein—was that orchestra piece. He obviously liked the piece, but you apparently no longer do.

DAH: Well, it sounded a lot like the dance episodes from On the Town. So it’s easy to think that he probably would have said, “There’s a young composer worth his salt!” But it was derivative—not intentionally, but because I loved those.

FJO: I was listening to a bunch of your early songs; that was the earliest stuff I could find and I always like to begin listening as close to the beginning as I can. It didn’t give me a clear picture of the early you though because most of them exist as part of song cycles that you assembled many years later, which somehow re-contextualize them and give them a different narrative arc.

DAH: I believe that if you finish a piece of music, it’s out there. I have a lot of songs written when I was in my late teens and early 20s that are performed far more frequently than things I’ve written recently. That’s just how the chips fall. I did grow up in public as a composer. I’ve got a lot of pieces out there that I wouldn’t write today. I just felt that if I was going to be a composer, I should give them to people and have them played.

I don’t say, “Gosh, I’d never do that again.” I accept that that’s who I was when I wrote it, but that’s very hard to market when you deal with publishers. If your style shifts—and I am quite eclectic within my narrow range of expressive motion—they say, “Well, I don’t know who this fella is. He must have been influenced by other people.” But that’s just because if they’re learning my music, or you said you spent some time with my music, you might hear something from 1981 that sounds a lot like Barber, and then something from 2012 that sounds like—oh, I don’t know, how about Die tote Stadt—something by Korngold, and you’ll wonder, “Who the heck is this guy?” Well, it’s music. Nobody’s going to get hurt, if you’ve got a healthy mind. What I’m interested in is moving people. I want to have the conversation. I want the music to come out. I want it to happen. I want to have something happen in the listener’s heart and in their head.

I’m not interested in styles or any of that stuff. Music is music. It’s not brain surgery. It’s an art. The only thing as I get older that I still get sort of exercised about is: leave people alone about the kind of music that they write. Just admire them for having the courage to put it out there and to take the reaction of the world, which is often brutal and uncaring. Nobody really wants to hear what we have to say. Why are we doing it if we’re not narcissistic, crazy people? Well, I do it because I crave the interaction with the audience. Who cares if it sounds a little bit like Korngold for a little while? That’s the way that character who’s singing it or those words, or that emotion, or that moment needed to be expressed. That’s why I loved Lukas Foss. Because Lukas was music. Lukas wasn’t interested in narrowly packaging himself as “this.” He was interested in taking music and having an interaction.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you repeat back the characterization that Ned Rorem once said about you. He said that you are music.

DAH: That’s all I ever wanted to be. And now, I’m 53 years old, and I have two very young sons, three and six years old, so I am a father. I am music in a reflexive way—like breathing. We don’t have a choice about whether or not we’re going to breathe, the alternative is unacceptable. I don’t have a choice about whether I am a composer or not. It’s just what I am. Writing music is like breathing. What I choose to be as a father—the human interaction that I have with my children—is more difficult, more challenging, and more fulfilling than writing music. However, I’m a composer and I can’t not breathe. You know what I mean?

FJO: But to take it back to this idea of narrative. Your early songs, in and of themselves, didn’t necessarily have a narrative; some of the poems you set are just aphoristic. But by putting them together and forming cycles, you created narrative arcs for these songs. You created larger structures out of them. So I’m curious about how you decided to make those building blocks, especially after noticing that the recording and the printed score were not the same. You obviously decided to make a definitive version of it after the recording came out.

DAH: I wish that I had made it as an artistic decision, but the only changes happened because I didn’t get the rights to an Anne Sexton song. So they couldn’t release it, and I stuck in its place Walt Whitman, who’s always safe, because he’s public domain. I’m sorry to be boring about that. But I do get your more interesting question, and the answer is yes, you can create a psychological narrative. You can make the poems talk to each other, though they are by vastly different poets living at different times, and that absolutely, positively really turned me on. And it always has. Song is so much more sophisticated than most people think it is. The way you set something, if you really have all the technique to do whatever you want, means everything. Those kinds of decisions are the subtle, incredibly powerful tools of a good art song composer. I’ve seen a lot of people who think art songs are sort of like complicated Stephen Sondheim songs, or are long, elevated, story songs. Those aren’t art songs. One of the reasons Ned is such a terrific song composer is because Ned gets the psychology. He goes in there and he sets the essence of it as he sees it. Even when Ned is dead wrong, he has something trenchant to say. Ned doesn’t need another person saying nice things about him. But I get that and I love that.

FJO: But it seems in your compositional trajectory that creating the narrative arcs in these song cycles led directly to you writing your first opera. I don’t know the back story, so I’m kind of fishing for it here. But I do know that after several of these early song cycles featuring different poets that you stitched together, you did an entire song cycle of poems by Paul Muldoon. He then became a very significant collaborator of yours for many years.

Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon leaning against a stone fence in the countryside.

Daron Hagen with Paul Muldoon at his home in East Amherst in 1992. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

DAH: Well, I met Paul at the MacDowell Colony, and he was obviously destined to be a superstar literary figure. Even when he was young the way we were then—this was back in the early 1980s—I remember being so impressed that he had a collection of poems out from Faber; he was in his 20s or something like that. I read through them, and I heard music immediately. So I set two or three of them, and we did a joint presentation at MacDowell. But I didn’t think about him anymore and went on with my life. Then I ran into him the next summer at MacDowell, and I got a phone call asking me to write an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright, and without even thinking—again, it’s a reflexive thing—I just leaned out of the phone booth and said, “Paul, do you want to write an opera?” And he didn’t think; he just said yes.

I still think Shining Brow is the best thing that we did together. It was our first opera. I’m profoundly grateful to this day that he dedicated the libretto to me. We wrote three other operas after that. One called Bandanna, another one was called Vera of Las Vegas, and the final one called The Antient Concert. It was a terrific collaboration. Paul is probably the smartest human being I’ve ever met besides Bernstein. The most extravagantly gifted writer in the English language that I’ve known. Working with him was inspiring at every single moment.

FJO: Before we talk further about Paul, I just realized that we haven’t yet talked about you actually finally meeting Bernstein.

DAH: I avoided him. While I was at Curtis, I met him once. Then David Diamond kept telling me during my lessons that he was telling Bernstein all about me. But then I found out when I finally went to the Dakota to meet him—through Craig Urquhart, who was his amanuensis at the time—and to have what was essentially my first lesson with him, he said David hadn’t told him anything about me. So I had tabula rasa. He remembered me, with that great generosity of spirit he had. I was able to bring in a lot of the second act of Shining Brow to play and sing for him and to work with him on it. He was a big hero of mine as a kid. In my 20s and early 30s, anybody who inspired me and intimidated me, I wanted to meet and work with if I could, to overcome my intimidation and learn what I could and then move on. He was sort of my Mount Everest of intimidation. Quite rightly so; he was an extraordinary man.

Leonard Bernstein holding a cigarette and studying a score as Daron Hagen looks on.

Leonard Bernstein (left) studying a score by Daron Hagen (right) in 1986. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen

FJO: Sadly he died before the production of Shining Brow, but I know that you dedicated the score to him.

DAH: I did. The complexity of that kind of man is what I think appeals to me about opera. Opera can be that complex. Opera is not an art song writ large and an art song is not a short opera. You can write an opera and have a 20% understanding of what constitutes opera. But the more I learn about opera, the more I understand that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s really going on there when you’re dealing with somebody who’s a real opera composer. That to me is the thing that keeps me coming back to the table for opera. A character in an opera can be singing about how much he loves the soprano, but he can in fact be in love with the tenor and be in denial. He can be lying to himself, and the orchestra can be telling the truth. And the soprano can be singing a duet with the tenor about how they both hate him. That’s life. That’s true to life. I love that.

FJO: The episodes in Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal life which inspired Shining Brow are certainly filled with these kinds of complex relationships and intrigues.

DAH: But you have to make it sound simple. If people underestimate you in the theater, it’s because you have put them so at ease with your language that they’ve been made vulnerable, not to manipulation, but to the message and to the story. That’s the sweet spot for somebody who has truly subsumed their own creative ego and personal ego to the story and to the communion of making great dramatic music theater.

Man and woman outside a Frank Lloyd Wright-styled building.

Frank Lloyd Wright (sung by Kevin Kees) woos Mamah Cheney (Lara Lynn) at Fallingwater from the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s site-specific production of Shining Brow, summer 2013. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

FJO: So how does this play out in the music you wrote for Shining Brow?

DAH: Well, Shining Brow is about lying versus the truth. What is the truth? It’s also about borrowing versus stealing. It’s about what price you’re willing to pay for your own personal actuation. That’s why we chose that point in Wright’s life. That’s on a superficial narrative level. How do you find musical equivalents to that? If I take a theme of Richard Strauss and I make variations on that theme to underpin a cocktail party where Frank Lloyd Wright’s wife is standing here and he is seducing another woman in the room, what is my music saying about that relationship? If I make it like a huge mechanical clock, where all of the other people at the party are basically cogs in his great machine, what am I saying about society in 1913? For me to have the audacity to take Richard Strauss, not in a post-modern fashion, but to have an onstage piano trio playing variations on the love theme from Rosenkavalier, which he took his mistress to see and met Strauss at, all of those dialectics are at play for an intelligent auditor. If you can do all of that, and make it sound like—oh well, he’s just this kid being eclectic—then again, it’s the sweet spot.

That’s the secret of a show like Shining Brow. A bunch of drunken newspaper reporters sing a barbershop quartet and the music sounds vulgar and crude; what makes you think as a listener that I didn’t mean every fine gradation of that crudeness, not just to be a characterization of those men, but to take you to a place where you as an audience member felt my hand and judged me as an author? Then I become Frank Lloyd Wright, and you’re judging me. It’s not games. Those aren’t games. That’s the journey. That’s the communion. That’s going to church and seeing the priest lift the host up and thinking about what must be going through the priest’s mind while he’s doing it. That is a comprehensive, theatrical experience, and providing the music for that creates the context.

FJO: It sounds to me that your ideal listener is somebody who really is paying attention.

DAH: Absolutely. But as a Norwegian Lutheran, I was brought up to not point to myself. If your head was up four or five inches above anybody else’s in the room, it got batted down. Any sort of intellectual pretention was treated with derision. The upshot of that is that my music is crafted so that you don’t have to know anything and you’ll have a nice time in the theater. My ideal audience member knows everything, of course. But I want everyone to have an aesthetic experience. So you have to have a sliding scale. That’s why my hero is Richard Strauss. You can go hear a Strauss opera and not get anything and still have a lovely aesthetic experience. But the more you know, the better it gets.

FJO: In terms of what people know, Frank Lloyd Wright is an American icon, but most people don’t know his personal story. He doesn’t come off so well in your opera; he’s kind of a bad guy.

DAH: Well, so many iconic people are bad people. It’s one of the things we learn as we grow older, right? Bad people make great art, etc. But I don’t necessarily think he comes across as such a bad guy. I think he comes across as a profoundly narcissistic, talented, self-centered fellow, who really gets it on the chin when his house is burned down and his mistress and her children are killed. I think we chose the one point in his life where he had the maximum opportunity for rebirth. At the end of the opera, he really became the Frank Lloyd Wright that we remember and revere, though he had done great things up to that point. To me, it’s the “Springtime for Hitler” syndrome. Everyone is humanized when they sing. So you have a great deal of responsibility when you set somebody to music because you make them worthy of others’ compassion.

FJO: That’s certainly true for the characters in your next opera, Bandanna. Hearing them sing elicits empathy and sympathy for them even though they are really corrupt border patrol people who are basically determining who gets to come in to this country, who gets to have a better life, who doesn’t. They play awful Iago-esque manipulative games with each other. There are no uniformly good characters in Bandanna.

DAH: Mona’s alright. She’s a good person.

FJO: I’m not so sure. Her husband wrongly thinks she’s been unfaithful to him, but there was a reason he believes that; she most likely had cheated on him previously.

DAH: Her possibly having been unfaithful, yes. Well, I don’t know. I mean, I had just gone through a terrible ten-year marriage when I wrote Bandanna, and I specifically wanted to talk about evil and the different kinds of evil. I asked Paul to—well, we co-wrote the treatment. Anyway, there’s Jake who does bad things with the best intentions. And then there’s a super bad guy, Kane, who just does bad things because he can. Evil has been bifurcated and turned into two bad guys—two different kinds of evil. The characters were not ever meant really to be believable. We were to see as an audience these people over there doing this thing, going through a ritual of self-abnegation and basically a huge Day of the Dead mass where, like chess pieces, they were moved to their demise.

From the staged premiere of Bandanna at the McCullough Theater at the University of Texas at Austin, February 1999. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen. University of Texas Opera Theater

From the staged premiere of Bandanna at the McCullough Theater at the University of Texas at Austin, February 1999. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.
University of Texas Opera Theater

The music for that show was all about moving up and down a sliding scale from music theater to opera and from atonality, polytonality, strict tonality, serialism, and octatonics. All of these things were going up and down. It was a huge intellectual edifice constructed on anger, betrayal, and evil. It was sort of like dumping cement on the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. When you experience that opera—which is an angry, dark opera, and I get that—you come out hopefully with some sort of catharsis, having gone to a very sad neighborhood. But what that catharsis is, I don’t know. It’s a strange, hard piece that way. The music also uses the most accessible music I’ve ever written for a show, because it also was about falling between two places. It was about living on the border. There’s lots of stuff about the middle zone in the show, but it was also about the difference between opera and American music theater, which is the great conversation of our generation, the previous generation of American composers who write so-called traditional music theater works for the American theater.

I’m not talking about the avant-garde or something strictly commercial like Jersey Boys. I’m talking about the area that something like Candide functions in. Bandanna owes its most trenchant debt to a show like Candide which is about the difference between musicals and opera, and falls in the middle. So anybody who loves great operas is going to dislike Bandanna because it’s got such musical comedy stuff in it. And anybody who loves musical comedy is going to find it hopelessly pretentious half the time. What it does succeed in doing is forcefully posing the argument about pushing these two heads together the way that the characters are pushed together. It’s also a baritone-fest. It’s a testosterone fest. All the men are singing at the top of their ranges all the time.

FJO: It’s also a wind band fest.

DAH: It is!

FJO: It was even commissioned by CBDNA [the College Band Directors National Association]; it’s actually really unusual for them to have commissioned an opera.

DAH: It was the brainchild of a man named Michael Haithcock, who is at University of Michigan now, and Frederick Fennell—the great Freddy Fennell, who was a genius. I presented the score of the opera to him with great pride at some conference and I said, “Do you have any advice?” And he said, “This show is going to be a great failure because there are three kinds of band conductors. There are the high school guys who are going to hate it, because they don’t understand it. There are the maestros who are going to love it, but they don’t know much about opera. And then there are the fellows who are the great commissioners, who commission a lot of new music, and God bless them, but they’re not going to know what to do with it because they can’t get into the pit.”

I accepted the commission knowing that there were four or five commissioners who came in at the level that entitled them to stage the show. But none of them did. They said that it was because it was too high or too hard for college singers. I knew more about writing for voices than they did. I’ve worked with a lot of college singers. It’s certainly doable. There were also a lot of problems with the commissioners not being comfortable with the subject matter, with the fact that I used an onstage mariachi band that had three violins in it, and at the 10:30 spot in the book, when the Willow Aria happened, I used violins. They felt that was a betrayal of the spirit of the commission, which I thought was unfair because the metaphor was that winds breathe. Mona was already dead and strings don’t have to breathe to sound. It was a great theatrical coup to have sustained strings during that aria. But a lot of people were very angry with me.

FJO: But it did get staged and eventually got recorded as well, in Las Vegas.

DAH: UT Austin was where it was premiered.

FJO: In both of these places, immigration is a sensitive and divisive topic. Actually to this day it’s a hot-button issue all over the country. So, in terms of the subject matter, you hit a nerve.

DAH: Well, I don’t know. I think we’ll leave it at this. The running time of the opera is about 126 minutes. Opening night ran I think about 215 to 220 minutes. There were players missing from the orchestra. There were a lot of issues. It was not the ideal premiere one would have wanted. But Tom Leslie at UNLV [University of Nevada Las Vegas] loved the score, so he rehearsed the band at UNLV and I came and I conducted the cast album a year later in Vegas. And the show came in with the timings and with the speeds that I wanted. But still there was a fundamental disconnect. Band guys don’t really understand that when you say 126 to the quarter in a vocal score for an opera, some singers are going to do it at 120. Some are going to do it at 132. When you get into the pit, it’s going to slow down because the musicians are six feet below the stage. Or you have to slow it down because the stage director needs more time to get the guy across the stage. These are all issues that are alien to band directors. So this was a real crisis of confidence. Once I conducted the cast recording, I said that’s it. I’m happy that the document is now as I insisted that it be. And I walked away from it. There was a ten-year prohibition from re-orchestrating it for orchestra, then that expired. I was going to re-orchestrate it, but then I got into other things. Someday I’ll re-orchestrate it and maybe cut 10, 15 minutes out of the show. Maybe there are some cringe-worthy moments where the language is just too unbelievable for the characters to say, which I might ask Paul to revisit if we go back into the show. But nobody questioned the efficacy of the orchestrations, which were really cutting-edge, commercial wind band orchestrations. Everyone was happy with that.

FJO: There are very few other operas and musicals that are orchestrated just for winds. There’s Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik, Ralph Burns’s original Broadway orchestrations for Richard Rodgers’s No Strings also actually had no strings, and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. I can’t think of any others, but it’s actually a great idea. It’s disappointing to hear about the lack of connection between band directors and singers since any university with an opera department probably also has a wind band, since every school has a wind band, and they would probably rehearse way more than any orchestra ever would. It ought to have been a match made in heaven.

DAH: Well, one would think so. I suspect, though I made be attitudinizing and it’s not my place to say, most of the opera departments didn’t want to have the band director in the pit because they felt that the band directors didn’t know how to work with voices. Or they were told that it was too hard. You know, it is hard. Opera is huge. I don’t know, maybe Bandanna just wasn’t good enough.

FJO: Well, your next collaboration with Paul was certainly more practical, but it too presses a lot of buttons.

DAH: Vera!

FJO: Getting back to what you said earlier about making characters worthy of others’ compassion when you set them to music, there’s been this whole brouhaha about the recent production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. Some people claimed that it empathizes with terrorists for precisely this reason, because we get to hear them sing their side of the story. As all those debates were raging, I kept thinking that there are plenty of other operas in which extremely unsavory characters sing, even terrorists, including two of the central characters in Vera.

The cast of Vera in Las Vegas

From the staged premiere of Vera of Las Vegas at Symphony Space’s Thalia Theater in New York City, June 2003.

DAH: They are both IRA irregulars, aren’t they? Well, Vera of Las Vegas is a very personal show. The eponymous character is an African American cross dresser, a female impersonator. It’s about personal reinvention and the price that one pays for not coming to terms with one’s past. It is a very subversive piece. It’s about using pop conventions to disarm the listener so that they are forced to think about something that they don’t want to think about. The New York premiere of the show was done in a cabaret setting. I think my favorite memory from opening night was seeing Ned Rorem at one of the cocktail tables right at the edge of the pit and at the edge of the cat walk, with Gary Graffman, the pianist who was then director of the Curtis Institute, his wife Noami Graffman, and Leonard Garment, the father of the clarinet player in the orchestra—Paul Garment. Leonard was Richard Nixon’s personal attorney and was on the board of Yaddo and the Jazz Museum of Harlem. They all were sitting at one table. My wife had to step in at the last moment to become one of the chorus girls. The girls are all dressed in these latex short skirts with fishnets and so forth. They’re counting five against six, and they’re singing this really complicated text, and they’re supposed to be strippers at the same time. In a nutshell, that’s what Vera of Las Vegas was about: counting five against six in four-inch stiletto heels and fishnet stockings in front of Richard Nixon’s attorney, the director of the Curtis Institute, and Ned Rorem. That pretty much summed up the show for me.

My bad marriage had ended, and it was time for me to reinvent my life. And in fact, that show was about how everything had to stop. I stopped teaching after that show. I had reinvented myself. For me, it wasn’t about sexuality. It was about reinvention. Since then, Brian Asawa, the great Japanese-American countertenor, has sung it. An Irish, middle-age countertenor, Jonathan Peter Kenny, has also done the role. So Vera has become not associated so much just with the African-American experience but with all sorts of reinventive experiences. The show is done frequently. I get a lot of fan letters, very personal letters from primarily young men who are coming out, or coming to terms with evil or abuse. I’m proud of it.

FJO: There’s a quintessential line in the libretto that haunts me: “It’s struck me that men and women are basically the same.” It’s practically anthemic.

DAH: Yes, and it’s sung while the terrorist has his hand on the penis of Vera; there’s a Crying Game moment. Obviously, it’s a trope that we’re playing. Of course it’s obvious, and it is anthemic; it is what the show is about, among other things. It makes people very nervous because it is absolutely sincere in its post-modernism. Everyone always associates post-modernism with irony, right? But it’s absolutely sincere. What do you do with that? That makes people have panic attacks.

FJO: It is somewhat unsettling to see these two very macho, straight terrorist guys, and then have one of them realize that he can be open to a very different identity. It totally defies expectations.

DAH: Well, he desperately wants not to be who he is. He wants to be reinvented himself. Vera of Las Vegas was part of a trilogy we never finished. It follows a BBC play that Paul wrote, called Six Honest Serving Men, where it is set up that they probably killed another guy. And in fact, at the end of Vera, Taco confesses to this murder. It was supposed to be followed by this opera called Grand Concourse, which was to take all of the women from Vera and make them stewardesses on one of the planes heading toward the World Trade Center. Doll was going to be in first class because she became an air marshal. Vera was going to be in a nightclub in Brooklyn, Taco was going to be her manager, and Dumdum was going to be in a cab driving somewhere near the World Trade Center. The hymn “Go Down to the River to Pray” would cycle through that every five minutes as the plane got closer and closer to the towers. We never wrote that show, obviously. I couldn’t get anyone to commission it.

FJO: I find it interesting that the first two operas you wrote with Paul were both very American in terms of their subject matter, whereas with Vera in Las Vegas he was really able to address Irish themes.

DAH: I’m not sure that I really understand what Paul is talking about when it comes to the Irish experience. When it was toured in Ireland I was careful to allow myself to be schooled on what Paul was talking about. And I still don’t really understand what he was saying.

FJO: But you were still able to write a score for it.

DAH: Well, because I was talking about some different things. You know, there was plenty of room in Vera, and there’s plenty of room in setting Paul Muldoon to music to have an entire other dialectic going on. If Paul was dealing with a narrative that was about ideas, I could center on the emotions, and the psychological verifiability of the behavior of these people. I could emotionally warm them up whereas they could in fact be rather emotionally inaccessible as poetic characters.

FJO: This is probably true for The Antient Concert as well, which is also a work with Irish roots—John McCormack and James Joyce.

DAH: It was about the evening of the Feis Ceoil, the all-Ireland singing competition when James Joyce actually would have beaten John McCormack, had he not failed the sight-singing part of the competition because he didn’t read music. I was invited by Paul quite generously to teach at the Atelier when he was at Princeton. We staged it there with student singers, and it’s been done a number of times since.

Two men dressed in suits, one gesticulating with his hands.

From a 2005 staged workshop of The Antient Concert at Princeton University’s McCarter Theater featuring Sean Effinger-Dean as McCormack (left) and Matthew Bernier as James Joyce (right). Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

It was a one-hour opera where I took six Irish folk songs that they conceivably could have sung that night. When John and Jim went up, we’d hear what was going on in their heads. When Jim would go up, he’d see Nora Barnacle and he’d see his dead mother. For me, it was an opera about the struggle for Joyce to come to terms with his selfishness at the time of his mother’s death. It was also very Straussian, you know—what’s more important, the words or the music?

I told Paul that I would set it word for word exactly as he wrote it, because I had changed all three of the previous librettos substantially when I set them to music. I’d rewritten big portions, but always clearing these changes with him and always insisting that he publish his original version with Faber. I insisted that he do that out of respect for him. Usually librettists by contract are required to publish only what appears in the vocal score. But I love Paul, and I respect him. He’s such a great poet, so I wanted it to be the way he wanted when it was in print. But with Antient Concert I decided I’m going straight. That was my score for him. I dedicated it to him. At the end of it, Joyce breaks down and he says, “mea culpa” as his mother is dying and I thought, “Well, Paul and I have done what we can do now.” The words are very complicated. We did it at The Century Club in New York and that was a wonderful dream audience because they’re all really well-read people. But my favorite productions are in Irish bars, because you find people who are really well read, but they’re all drinking, and there’s a sort of an alcoholic truth that emerges if you’re a little stoned when you see that particular show. I like that it captures part of what I wanted to do with it. And I thought, “Well, an audience is going to have to come to terms with the highly allusive, complicated lyrics of Paul Muldoon.” Of course, Paul went on to make a rock band and write lyrics that do nods to Cole Porter, another great lyricist. But at that time, he was more interested in writing poetry that could be set as an opera libretto. And I’ve moved onto other librettists since then.

FJO: The next opera you worked on after those collaborations with Paul is very unusual in that your initial idea for the opera is completely different from the way the opera turned out. Amelia wound up having a completely different story than the one you started out with.

A staged scene from Amelia, in the center are two hospital beds, to the far left a man in uniform walks through a door and above it all is an old propeller airplane and its pilot.

From the 2010 premiere production of Amelia at Seattle’s McCaw Opera House. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

DAH: Well, Amelia, just like Vera, was about coming to terms with your past in order to say yes to the future. The original treatment that I sold Seattle Opera told that story through disparate scenas and situations, whether it be Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, or the Wright Brothers in flight, or a young woman whose father was shot down in Vietnam. She was one of the characters; she was based on Gardner McFall, the woman who ultimately wrote the libretto. That story was there interwoven with other stories. Icarus and Daedelus were already on stage in that version, and of course, Amelia Earhart was a character in that [original] treatment. That treatment was like a big blue cloud of ideas, sort of like the Adams bomb opera [Doctor Atomic].

I was forcefully led to understand that for this particular project, a through story was going to be required in order for it to move forward, and could I suggest one. They signed on to my blue cloud, but when it was time to make a narrative, I called Gardner McFall, and I said, “Would you mind if I took your real-life story and made that the through story and had the cloud occur around your through story?” Because she’s an artist and courageous, she allowed me to do that. So I wrote another treatment which then coalesced the blue cloud into things that come out of her head: dead people show up, Icarus and Daedelus are in her bedroom while she’s with her husband, her dead father is in the living room having coffee while she, as a little girl, is singing to the stars, and he comes out from 1968 to talk to her. So all these multiple realities and multiple timelines centered around the through story. The story credit goes to Stephen Wadsworth, who worked with Gardner and me to take her life story and make sure that an audience could follow that narrative. There’s a creative distance there which is a manifestation of what dramaturges do.

This is something that I had never done before. My operas had always originated purely with me and my librettist, co-writing a treatment. For me to welcome other people to the table was me accepting that this is the way the opera world is much of the time. And I welcomed Stephen to the table to have another voice. It forced me to convince him and an audience that that would work. That is saying yes to collaboration. And for me, it ended the second act of my life, because I ended that opera with the sounds I heard when my son was born. When it ended, I had told the audience my truth. I was willing to do anything to take that blue cloud of truth and distill it and head for that final moment. It was my truth, and I told it. As an artist to be able to have that moment in your life, one time in your life, when you know you nailed it, that was worth everything.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that Amelia ended the second act of your life, because this work also marked a turning point in how you handle your music as well as the rest of your life. You not only became a father, you moved away from New York City to here in Rhinebeck and you also became self-published. Of course, none of these things happened overnight, but the composition of Amelia occurred in the midst of all of those things. It seems to me that all those changes also had an impact on what interested you as subject matter for opera. You’d written operas about Frank Lloyd Wright’s less-than-savory persona, corrupt border patrol people, IRA terrorists and gender ambiguity, and the inner turmoil of one of the great writers of the 20th century. Amelia was a heavy story that dealt with the Vietnam War.

DAH: When you talk about it this way, I sound like a pretty troubled guy.

FJO: But your next opera, Little Nemo in Slumberland, was an adorable children’s piece.

Costumed members of the cast of Little Nemo in Slumberland featuring woman holding a stick with a giant sunflower on top.

From the world premiere of Daron Hagen’s opera Little Nemo in Slumberland at the Sarasota Opera House in Sarasota, Florida, in November 2012. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

DAH: Well, because of the baby who was born at the end of Amelia, that opera is dedicated to my son, Atticus. The next opera I wanted to write was something for him, and it was in fact dedicated to my second son, who came along just before I finished that opera. I said yes to that opera because—you’re quite right—because of my wife and because of her giving me an opportunity to become my best. My value system over the last ten years has gradually gone back to the value system that I had when I was 15- and 16-years old, inculcated by my parents. I think because of the way that Amelia was received—it was a success and everything, and that’s great—but the way that I received it within myself, and what I receive from my chosen industry, my colleagues, and from how I felt after I had said my truth, I realized that I was no longer writing music because I had an ambition to write music. I want enough money so that I don’t live in fear. I want to be able to support my children, be a bread winner. But I want to be able to write music about things that I care about, so the self-publishing, all of that is a piece. I’m not quite sure how to express it. I’m not the composer I was the night that Amelia opened. Everything changed for me. I realized that you can hit it out of the park; you can have bases loaded, a homerun, everybody in the stands, and it still doesn’t matter. Whatever it was that I thought that I wanted to achieve by doing that was clearly not enough for me and it was clearly not the right thing.

Nemo was certainly not fraught; it’s a perfectly lovely piece. The next opera was called A Woman in Morocco. That’s the one I’m doing now, and that’s about human trafficking in North Africa in the late ‘50s. It is about that issue because when I was 15-years old, I saw my mother being badly treated and I couldn’t do anything about it. Now I can protect myself and I can have a conversation about that.

Music notation for voices and piano

An excerpt from the vocal score of A Woman in Morocco. Music by Daron Hagen, libretto by Daron Hagen and Barbara Grecki. Copyright © 2013-2014 Burning Sled Music (ASCAP). All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reprinted with permission.

I suppose in order to get myself up to be able to work as hard as you have to work to write an opera, and to develop it, and to change it, and kill it when it’s not working, you have to care deeply about it. It’s not that I’m settling old scores, it’s that if I’m going to do this, I want it to be a force for social good. I want to make things better. I want to speak truth to power, because that is what still gets me to write those notes out. So, if it’s more polemical, if it’s more like Blitzstein, that’s fine. I’m good with that, because it’s the only way that I seem to be able to fight back against the oligarchy. I have very little control over the universe, but I can do something and hopefully support my children at the same time. I mean, I’m always 30 days away from absolute disaster. I suppose we all are now. But as an artist, if I’m going to do it, I’ve got to put everything on the line. So now I put everything on the line, but it’s not like Amelia. It’s not that I’ve pulled my horns in, it’s that I understand that it doesn’t have to be so much about you. It can be about you doing this thing in order to do what you think needs to happen. I don’t know if that makes sense. I’m still working it out. Opera helps me to do that.

I’ve achieved everything that I wanted to achieve. I’d like to be at the Met; that would be great. I’d like to have multiple performances at big houses all the time. I’m directing at regional houses like Kentucky Opera and there’s a commercial show that I wrote for Skyline in Milwaukee. The reason I’m directing is it allows me to get in and really feast off of the interaction between actors and message. I don’t have to sit in the room as a composer and watch somebody else be my executant or translator. So I can still get excited about that.

A darkly lit stage with trhee women: one standing, one sitting at a desk, and another on the floor leaning against a chair.

From a staged production of A Woman in Morocco at the Butler Opera Center in Austin, Texas in November 2013. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

FJO: To go back to the very beginning of this conversation, when we were talking about being a vocal versus an instrumental composer. At this point, we’ve spent so much time talking about the operas. But you’ve written a lot of other music. I don’t know if those other pieces seem so deeply entrenched in your life story. It seems like each opera was a chapter in your life that you were working through, and then you get to the next one, and the following one is the next chapter. Do you view all of your music that way, or are these pieces so big that they then take up such huge chunks of your time that they become your life?

DAH: I’ve always put everything on the line for every piece. But when you spend two years writing the initial document, then you go through another six months of production, and then if you’re a real opera composer, that’s when you start a piece, after the first production because then it’s time to make the piece better based on what you’ve learned. So then you’re talking about another year of revisions because nobody has written the great American opera the first time out. I know how to write; I know how to craft a symphony. I know how to make a piece that has a beginning, a middle, and an end that will fulfill the commission, get a standing ovation, and I walk away. But there’s a humility in trying to learn how to write operas. In opera, if a woman is singing about how her husband is beating her, I don’t know how not to give it 150% at that moment. So yeah, I guess if you’re talking about stakes, there’s no greater stake than having an opera house sitting on your shoulders, talking to 2,800 people who paid a lot of money to be there, and trying to have communion with them—getting everybody together and having a catharsis together. To me, that is gripping. That’s grown up stuff. That’s truth, that’s justice, and hopefully good tunes. All in one transaction.

Photo of interior of room with grand piano, shelves, chair, and wooden floor.

Daron Hagen’s living room at his home in Rhinebeck with a shelf containing the vocal scores for all the Verdi operas in back of his piano. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

I’ve got the vocal scores over there for all the Verdi operas. You read through them chronologically, and it isn’t until he’s written probably nine or ten of them that he starts to really get it, as far as I can see. It’s the same notes. It’s the same bag of tricks that he’d been using for 30 years, and yet why is he getting it then? In Rigoletto, when they’re pulling the bag with the body in it across the stage at the penultimate moment in the show, why does he have a solo clarinet? Every time I see Rigoletto, all the hair stands up on my arms. That’s the genius of a real opera composer.

FJO: Except that one of the big criticisms of that piece is that although there’s a body in the bag, she comes out of the bag to sing a final duet before she actually dies since convention required that the prima donna gets to sing at the end of the opera. It’s a gorgeous duet, but from a narrative point of view, it requires a real suspension of belief.

DAH: But that’s opera. Writing opera taught me how to let go of myself when composing, to become the characters, to make myself the servant of the story, just as I have learned by becoming a parent that my life is no longer about me, it is about my sons. Both have served as a font of solace and redemption for me. Because I’m not angry, and I’m not crazy; I relish reality, and I relish being part of something larger than myself. I savor the give-and-take with a living audience that writing opera gives me. When I stand at the back rail of a theater and feel an audience move with the drama that I have composed (but which has been brought to life by a hundred musicians, actors, designers, and technicians), I feel the same sense of pride and terror that I do standing at the fence watching my son swing a bat in baseball practice. I feel pride because I played a role in creating the opera (and my son), and nurturing it (and him). It’s the “children and art” paradigm: I feel despair because, even though every ounce of my soul shall have been poured into the process, it shall never have been enough. That’s the heartbreaker, and that’s the incentive.

Daron Hagen points at a detail of a photo in a frame on the wall as FJO looks on.

Daron Hagen (right) in his composition studio showing memorabilia from various productions of his operas to FJO. Photo by Molly Sheridan.