Tag: concert programming

Why Yes, I Do Want My Music Performed

A woman with her back facing the camera standing between a blue door and a red door

Sometimes, when I have the time and energy and don’t feel like it will put my career at stake, I open up a conversation about gender balance in concert programming with those who have a record of performing or programming only or primarily works by men. Some simply haven’t noticed (as our bias towards thinking of composers as male is still so strong), but are open to change. Some are aware and eager to discuss ways to redress the imbalance. But a few dig in to defend their choices. After some back and forth, those reluctant to program equitably inevitably arrive at some version of: “But surely you wouldn’t want your music played just because you’re a woman? Surely you would want it played because you’re good?” As if this is some kind of novel and amazing trump card. As if I’m not already aware that some people think music by women is inherently less likely to be good. As if my confidence in my own work (and that of other women) is so shaky that simply knowing that some people might question its worth because of my gender will cause me to crumble and doubt myself and stop trying to get my music out there (and presumably get back into the kitchen, and make us all some coffee, please…)

The thing is: surely I do want my music played… and I don’t really care why! I want everyone’s music to be played more often, so in writing this I don’t intend to place undue emphasis on me and my music. What I want for myself, I want for all of us! I know that some believe that for composers who are women, people of color, LGBT, and/or underrepresented for any other reason to have more opportunities, straight cis white men will have to cede some of theirs, but I don’t believe that new music is a zero sum game. Rather than reducing opportunities for some so that others can have a chance, let’s increase opportunities for all, and make sure the opportunities are fairly distributed.

Most music is never programmed solely because it is good.

Most music programmed is “good,” but music is never programmed solely because it is good. Considerations such as instrumentation, length, fit with the other pieces on the program, and availability of scores always play a role. Yet these considerations are never held out as being in inherent opposition to a piece being “good”. In my 28 years as a composer, I have yet to hear someone say: “But surely you wouldn’t want your piece played just because it’s a string quartet? Surely you wouldn’t want it played just because it’s nine minutes long? Surely you wouldn’t want it played just because it goes well with the other pieces on the program? Surely you wouldn’t want it played just because your publisher’s website isn’t broken?”

In any case, my music is good, and should be heard more often. I don’t mean this arrogantly: I use “my music” here to stand in for all of our musics, and I think all composers’ music should be heard more often. Of course the best performances happen when the performers love the piece: but how will performers even find out if they love the piece or not if they don’t play it? And if the performers never come to love the piece, whether because of sexism or because they genuinely don’t like it? Well, that’s okay too. I don’t think there are any performers who love every piece they’ve ever performed. (I certainly don’t!) Any professionals worth their salt would still do their best to perform well. The audience may love it. Other performers may hear it, love it, and decide to play it. I’ll benefit from another performance (and perhaps will find ways to tweak the score to coax a good performance out of even a hostile performer). It’s another performance on my CV. It’s another score sold. It’s royalties. I don’t usually think about performances in such utilitarian ways, but I bring up these points here simply to illustrate that even if someone does program my piece “just because” I’m a woman, the consequences are really not that dire! (As composer Patricia Wallinga tweeted in response to my tweet-length version of this article, “Exactly! How would I feel [if someone commissioned me “just because” I’m a woman]? F**ing great paying my rent with the commission check, thanks!”)

Sometimes even wonderful champions of music by women take great pains to reassure me that they’ve programmed my piece because they love it, and not “just because” I’m a woman. While I’m always happy to know that someone loves my piece, I’ve never actually been worried that someone has programmed it “just because” of my gender. In fact, I’m always pleased to know that gender, racial, and other kinds of equity are important to a programmer! Just as “I don’t see colour” has not been an effective approach to fighting racism, “I don’t see gender” is not going to be an effective approach to undoing the sexism that has kept women composers in the shadows for so many centuries.

It’s only been in the last ten or so years that gender imbalance in programming has been discussed openly and often.

In my experience, it’s only been in the last ten or so years that gender imbalance in programming has been discussed openly and often. For many years, I and so many other women did everything we could to avoid drawing attention to gender imbalance at all, as if somehow mentioning it would make things worse (which in some circumstances it might have). Internalized sexism caused so many of us to believe women’s works were inherently inferior, and that gender imbalanced programs merely reflected a gender imbalanced distribution of “good” music. But as a Canadian-born composer, I do have long experience with another kind of programming that takes more than just whether a piece is “good” or not into account, the Canadian Content (“CanCon”) requirement, which stipulates that a certain percentage of radio and TV broadcasts consists of work by Canadian creators and/or performers. CanCon was introduced in the early 1970s to give Canadian artists, who had previously been overshadowed by artists from the USA and Europe, a chance to develop, thrive, and reach audiences in Canada and abroad. Similar initiatives from the Canada Council for the Arts and other Canadian funding bodies preferentially support ensembles that perform Canadian music, enable ensembles to commission pieces from Canadian composers, and fund tours of Canadian music and ensembles abroad.

Many initially grumbled about being required to include Canadian music, just as some now grumble about the idea of taking gender into account when making programming choices. Even those who benefited (and continue to benefit) from CanCon and similar requirements recognized that the system was not without flaws: Canadian composer Murray Schafer’s No Longer than Ten (10) Minutes, for example, gently pokes fun at a frequent stipulation of commissions from ensembles who are trying to do the bare minimum to meet Canadian content quotas. American friends, upon hearing about CanCon requirements are often skeptical. “But doesn’t this mean ensembles are just grudgingly playing works they hate? Shouldn’t they only play the pieces if they like them?” they ask. Well, sure, sometimes ensembles do end up playing pieces they don’t like. But just as often, ensembles come to love pieces they initially thought they wouldn’t like. Or they discover that while they don’t like the music of one Canadian composer, they do like the music of another. Over time, they come to find pieces they love, build up relationships with composers, and in so doing, help the composers develop relationships with the larger music community and with audiences beyond those typically found at new music concerts.

Canadian-born, UK-based organist Sarah MacDonald’s account is fairly typical. In “UK REPORT for Canada’s 150th – Canadian music in the UK,” published in the Spring 2017 issue of Organ Canada (the journal of the Royal Canadian College of Organists), she writes of how as a teenager she was “particularly irked” that she had to play a piece by Oskar Morawetz instead of a piece by Brahms in an exam, but she has since come to recognize the importance of CanCon and similar requirements. “My personal grumblings aside (Canadian disContent?), one positive implication of the imposition of CanCon obligations was that Canada had come of age, and now had its own post-colonial cultural identity which needed to be nurtured and shared, as well as protected. We… could contribute on an equal footing with the rest of the world. So, has this actually happened? Have we contributed bona fide Canadians (whatever they are!) to the international cultural stage? Manifestly, the answer is yes.” While the specifics surrounding the introduction of CanCon requirements and the need for gender balance in programming are quite different, I do think these parallels are instructive.

Go ahead and program my work “just because” I’m a woman.

So yes, go ahead and program my work “just because” I’m a woman, “just because” I’m Canadian (or American or Scotland-based), “just because” it’s a string quartet, or for any other reason you please. If someone has already decided in advance that they don’t like pieces by women because of our gender: well, that is their problem, not mine!

Featuring Female Composers

Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Louise Farrenc, Joan Tower, TJ Cole, Rene Orth (photo by Andrew Bogard), Julie Wolfe (photo by Peter Serling), Rachel Grimes, and Jessie Mongomery (photo by Jiyang Chen)

In 2014, the Louisville Orchestra created a new series—Music Without Borders—to get the orchestra out into the community in different venues where you normally wouldn’t find them (churches, synagogues, community centers, etc.) and to develop a broader footprint. Now in its third year, I thought if we could make it work, we should add an extra week to the Festival of American Music to include a Music Without Borders concert. I’m so excited that we have the opportunity to take this particular program into the community because it has two important themes; the celebration of uniquely Kentucky music, and addressing one of the questions that I get all the time: “Where are the female composers?”

One of the questions that I get all the time is “Where are the female composers?”

To answer this, I usually begin with one of the challenges: you can’t rewrite history. While there were a number of female composers of note (Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Louise Farrenc), they were often overlooked compared to their male counterparts.  And especially in America, we don’t see many female composers until the 20th-century. Fortunately today, that seems to be changing and this change is reflected in conservatories. In fact, we did a recent collaboration with the Curtis Institute of Music, and, of the five students in their composition department, four were women. In our 2015-16 season, we featured all four of these talented women in a piece we called the Curtis Suite; a four movement piece that took inspirations from Kentucky including one of the biggest zombie walks in the country, an ode to Kentucky bluegrass, the largest fireworks displays in the country (Thunder Over Louisville) and the Kentucky Derby. Music by two of these women will be featured in this year’s Music Without Borders concert for the Festival of American Music.

While our first concerts this year for the festival will focus on the individual (Ben Folds and Michael Tilson Thomas), the theme for this middle week focuses on contemporary American female composers as well as representation from Kentucky. The program opens with a work written for us by Noah Sorota called The Bluegrass.  Noah grew up in Louisville and is currently a film score composer. There’s a natural sound to his work that you associate with the open expanse of the Bluegrass Region: the rolling hills, the Appalachian foothills, or just the very idea of a classical old Kentucky village. He’s created a piece that’s intricate, beautiful, perfectly orchestrated, and pays homage to this state. We premiered The Bluegrass at the beginning of the 2016/17 season during our free kick-off concert at the Iroquois Amphitheater (located at the south end of Louisville and in an area of the town with a population that we rarely saw attending our concerts until we started this free program in September 2014). The Bluegrass was so popular that we wanted to program it again. The remaining pieces on this program are all by female composers with completely different backgrounds and from different generations; they range from Joan Tower, an established senior stateswoman of American music, to pieces that were just written last year.  And two of these women have direct connections to Kentucky.

The number of bands, singer/songwriters, and important artists that have come from Kentucky is amazing.

I think people are fascinated with Kentucky when it comes to music because of our heritage; so many famous bluegrass, country, and even blues and popular artists have a connection to Kentucky. It’s amazing when you do the breakdown of the number of bands, singer/songwriters, and important artists that have come from this state. So we have two women with connections to Kentucky on this program—Rachel Grimes and Rene Orth.  Rachel lives in Kentucky on a farm that she loves and finds inspiring. Her piece Book of Leaves was originally composed as a piano suite, and she orchestrated it for us last season. Rachel blends different styles of music seamlessly. She’s at home in many genres; the way she composes and the way she thinks about music are equal parts folk and classical. She can do it all and it’s an authentic style. You listen to her music and—this is something that I look for in a composer—you know that it’s her music right away. For a 21st-century American composer, I think that’s special. Rene did her master’s work at the University of Louisville before attending Curtis and was part of the Curtis Suite project last season; she composed a piece called Run for the Roses inspired by our Louisville tradition, the Kentucky Derby. Also on this program is Death of the Poet by TJ Cole, another one of the Curtis project composers, as well as a piece by Jessie Montgomery called Starburst. Jessie has created a wonderful, great orchestration, and while I’m not sure what the subtext is, it doesn’t matter; you don’t need to have a subtext when you’re writing a piece that is so energetic!

While I’m very excited about all of these compositions, I’m particularly excited about Big Beautiful Dark and Scary by Julia Wolfe. Julia just won a MacArthur fellowship and she won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Anthracite Fields, a work about the history of coal and its impact on western Pennsylvania. Julia’s music is post-minimal, but it also incorporates sounds from the electronic and popular music world. It’s very daring. Julia is a very special artist and Big Beautiful Dark and Scary has the energy of rock and roll filtered through a minimalist lens. It’s for a smaller ensemble, and it’s gritty; when you hear her music you become fully enveloped in her sound world.

In curating the Festival of American Music, my goal is always to broaden the definition of American music played by an orchestra as well as to highlight the talent of American composers. This program in particular gives us the opportunity to showcase the extraordinary range of American female composers, as well as re-connect our audiences to the musical legacy of Kentucky. This is the Louisville Orchestra’s way of saying this is our world, this is our country, these are the artists that live here and write for us in this era and we’re celebrating that.

New Music Needs Curators

A low level bright lightbulb is almost on par with the head of a man performing on the trumpet who is reading scores from conjoined music stands as an audience stands around listening

(all photos by Aaron Holloway-Nahum)

At a time when the definition of curation is expanding rapidly, stretching from professionals in galleries, to curating your Google profile, to “tossers making a cup of tea,” there remains a lack of genuine curators and curatorial thought in the field of new music. While, historically, the curator was the person at a museum in charge of caring for that museum’s collection of artwork, this has only been a partial description of part of the profession for some time. Now, art curators are often at the forefront of enabling creative innovation and audience interaction. In the world of new music, on the other hand, curating is mostly a word we’ve usurped for use in funding applications and marketing materials. We use it because it sounds better to say someone (or a number of someones) “curated” a concert rather than “chose the pieces we’ll play.”

We’re not alone in this. For example, in his recent essay on curating the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival in the New Statesman, David Byrne focuses his many-faceted discussion entirely on the process of selection. The emphasis on choice, he argues, is down to the ubiquitous access we have to, well, everything: “Where to find, amid the glut, what is right for us? How to separate the music from the noise?” In this situation, Byrne argues that what the expert curator—as opposed to an impersonal Facebook algorithm—brings to the table is surprise:

What is the value of the information brought back by the bee that is willing to explore an unusual flower? The value of encountering an idea, an artist or a writer outside the well-trodden and machine-predictable paths? I would never call myself an expert but my point of view and experience, being a wee bit outside the norm, are a little more biased, skewed, pre-edited and peculiar that what those herd-based and algorithmic services come up with.

Curating can, of course, include the organization, discussion, and presentation of music, and our field is not lacking in the area of having all manner of experts—from musicians to musicologists to critics—select works for programming. While it would be great if this were more often informed by a systematic and thorough research of the repertoire, the real problem is that this is a myopic view of what curation can be. If we look up from Facebook and glance at the world of contemporary art, we see a curatorial practice and theory that has developed around individuals working closely with actual artists to enable them to manifest their intentions in the optimal possible form and then bringing the result to an audience in the optimal possible way.[1] Here, for example, is curator Hans Ulrich Obrist recounting advice he received when starting out:

[Alighiero] Boetti told me that if I wanted to curate exhibitions, then I should under no circumstances do what everybody else was doing—just giving the artists a certain room and suggesting that they fill it. What would be more important would be to talk to the artists and ask them which projects they could not realise under existing conditions…He mentioned that a young curator could find great value not only in working in a museum, a gallery, or a biennial, but also in making artists’ dreams come true.[2]

Notice, here, that Boetti is not simply speaking about creating more of the familiar opportunities for artists. This is not a complaint that there are not enough commissions or tenure-track teaching position for young musicians. No, here Boetti is advocating that—to be of real value—the curator should be someone who allows the artists to expand the very horizons of the art form. Obrist has followed up on this advice throughout his career by asking this question in each of his interviews, and even running a project, The Agency of Unrealized Projects, based entirely around them.[3]

A very large audience in an outdoor tent is giving a standing ovation to an orchestra.

Of course it is not that these things don’t happen at all in the field of new music. Festivals, in particular, are places where the artistic director can sometimes embody this role. Normally, though, it is down to the musicians (performers, ensembles, and composers) to come up with their project ideas on their own, and then the game becomes one of tracking down funding. This process is not one of collaboration, but of application. The very site this writing appears on, of course, represents one of the few places any young American ensemble or composer can come with just about any dream of a project and find the possibility of funding, along with a platform to reach an interested audience. In the U.K., the new music organization Sound and Music has a similar mission and is primarily focused on helping composers to imagine and create new and exciting work.

There are problems, though, when the role we are talking about is divided up like this. Funding organizations are themselves fundraisers, and their money is normally secured and then offered with some constricting vision of the work it will eventually create. This places constraints on the art form when the newly imagined project does not fall into old models of thinking. Moreover, it is very difficult to have a collaborative artistic relationship with an organization. While the president, CEO, or head of programs will certainly come to know some musicians well, funding organizations often have a remit that requires their resources—both financial and personnel—be spread in an even and (as far as possible) fair way among a huge array of artists.

On the other hand, when you look at curators in the world of art such as Kirk Varnedoe, Okwui Enwezor, and Julia Peyton-Jones, you see that these are people who did far more than funnel money to artists with ideas: they themselves made commitments to certain ideas and artists and then, through their close and intimate relationships with those artists, helped inspire and shape the work being made.

With this in mind, in a series of three musings to follow, I’d like to consider some of the things our community could learn from the contemporary thought and practice of curation. How can this vision of curation impact the activity of performers and ensembles? How could it reshape the role of composers and expand the idea of community among them? Then, in the final post, I’ll be focusing on—and looking to gather from you—unrealized projects. For now, I leave you with Juliet Darling’s A Curator’s Last Will and Testiment, made for curator Nick Waterlow after his death in 2009.[4]


1. This definition is lifted from a passage (pg. 32) in Terry Smith’s collection of essays, Thinking Contemporary Curating Thinking Contemporary Curating Thinking Contemporary Curating. It is presented there not as a definition of curation, but as one possible way curators could see their practice.

2. Obrist, Hans Ulrich. Ways of Curating. London: Penguin Group, 2014, pp. 10-11

3. There is also the artist-run web platform, established by Sam Ely and Lynn Harris in 2003.

4. A summary of the events surrounding Waterlow’s death and the subsequent creation of this video can be found here.


Aaron Holloway-Nahum sitting at a desk with Copland materials in a room with a bookcase, grand piano, and big window from which trees are visible.

Aaron Holloway-Nahum at Copland House

Aaron Holloway-Nahum is a founding member and the Artistic Director of The Riot Ensemble in London. He has recently written pieces for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, and Atea Wind Quintet, and is currently writing an Opera based on the true story of Donald Crowhurst with librettist Peter Jones, along with a piece for the HOCKET piano duo . Aaron was the Polonsky Fellow at the 2014 Aspen Music Festival, and will be a composition fellow at the Tanglewood Music Centre this summer.

Lessons from the Central Valley

Fresno from the air

An aerial view of downtown Fresno, photo CC 2010 by Ron Reiring.

I live in Fresno, California.

Yes, that Fresno. The one that is generally known for three things nationally: agriculture, auto theft, and smog. The one that has been, time and again, the butt of many late-night comedy routines. For example, not that long ago, Conan O’Brien offered to help pull Fresno out of debt by offering a life-size bobble-head of himself as a tourist destination. He never did send it.
For those of you who are not familiar with California geography, Fresno is located in the smack-dab center of the state, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, otherwise known as California’s Central Valley. Demographically speaking, the Central Valley is not exactly what one normally thinks of as representative of the eighth largest economy in the world. In fact, if the Central Valley were to be its own state (which some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are currently trying to make happen), it would be the poorest state in the nation, trailing both Mississippi and Arkansas. This is not meant to be a slight against either the Central Valley or those two states; rather, it is simply a fact that these three regions all struggle with poverty, with the Central Valley struggling the most.

Despite all this, I am quite proud to live in Fresno. Just ask any of my past Fresno New Music guest artists. I talk their ears off about Fresno’s history, culture, and delicious food scene. (Seriously, we have amazing food here that costs a fraction of what you would pay for it in other areas of the state; you have to try it!) Additionally, I am also quite proud to be a part of Fresno’s art and music community. It’s a community that is thriving in spite of the myriad social, environmental, and economic challenges that we face.

One would think that Fresno (and, to an extent, the entire Central Valley) would be a challenging environment for the arts to thrive in. Although the Fresno metropolitan area is approximately 1 million people, the population that is both economically able to support the arts and interested in doing so is—in my own best estimation—less than five percent of that. The impact of Fresno’s poverty cannot be ignored as a contributing factor in keeping this number so small. However, that doesn’t mean that there is no art here—quite the contrary. In my nine years living here I have seen breathtakingly beautiful and provocative works of art on display in our local galleries. I have seen our local music scene flourish with imagination and a flair of independence. Fresno is home to the Rogue Festival, the largest “fringe festival” west of the Mississippi river. This is a festival that is just as likely to feature avant-garde poetry slams as it is to showcase indie-rock/jazz crossover cover artists.

The Fresno arts scene is highly creative, quirky, and worth noticing. Except, it is almost impossible to know about any of this if you are not a part of it.

This is the problem. The sheer number of art and music events here that go unnoticed amazes me. This is in large part due to inadequate media coverage. That is not to say that we don’t have good people covering these events—in fact, we have great people! There just aren’t enough of them. Why is it that Fresno, a city of 500,000 people with a metropolitan population of about 1 million, has only one person covering all of the arts for its local paper? Likewise, why is it that there is only one person covering the popular music scene for this same paper? This likely goes back to some of what I brought up earlier: that in a city with as many fundamental issues as Fresno (poverty, environmental challenges, etc.), and with a relatively small percentage of its population actively engaged in the arts, our local media is—well—focused on other things.

This of course makes it quite challenging to build an audience for classical music. As I alluded to earlier, I run the Fresno New Music concert series and have done so for the past eight years. As one of many who tries to make a difference in Fresno’s art scene, I can directly attest to the numerous challenges I’ve encountered building an audience here.

Allow me to backtrack a bit. In my past two blog posts, the common theme that I worked with has to do with finding new and untested methods for developing audiences for classical music and—specifically—new music. I find myself obsessed with this topic in large part because I freely admit that I have struggled to develop an audience using traditional means. Despite my insistence on trying to be a champion of new classical music, I am not always successful. Like many who put on new music concerts, I have hosted more than my share of performances with very small audiences. Just this past March, one of my featured Fresno New Music concerts had a whopping 40 people in attendance. The sad thing was that at one point the thought crossed my mind that it could have been worse.

Of course, poor attendance at a new music concert is nothing out of the ordinary. This is certainly not a unique problem to Fresno. However, what I do find somewhat unusual is that for every concert for which I have had poor attendance, I have also had concerts that were sold out! In fact, one of my best-attended concerts was a couple years ago and featured what was arguably some of the most abstract and adventurous programming that I have placed on Fresno New Music’s calendar.

What was the difference? The concert in question featured composer Charles Amirkhanian, known in new music circles for his own Other Minds festival based in San Francisco. Amirkhanian is from Fresno, is a graduate of Fresno State, and is well-known within the aforementioned Fresno arts community. All of this led to the media taking notice of my event and running a featured article in the paper on “local-composer-comes-home Charles Amirkhanian.” The concert was a huge success, and it helped bring quite a bit of attention to my relatively small concert series!

This concert helped me understand why Fresno’s arts community can be so vibrant and at the same time quite insular. It led me to establish a couple rules that, when I follow them, usually lead to better media coverage and a better audience:

    • In a smaller, economically disadvantaged market, nothing beats traditional media. I utilize social media extensively, and I firmly believe that if I operated out of a larger, more affluent market, my social media operations would prove to be quite lucrative in developing an audience! Still, my best-attended events are the ones that garnered the most coverage from our local paper. Talking with my patrons confirms this: the majority of those in attendance find out about my events through the paper, not through Twitter, not through Facebook, and not through my website.


  • Shop local. The moment I am able to provide a Fresno connection, no matter how small, my event gains a significant amount of media attention. Granted, I cannot simply feature only locally grown talent—after all, part of Fresno New Music’s mission is to bridge the gap between our local community and the world of new music. Nonetheless, I do frequently look for ways to connect my events to the Central Valley, in large part because our community is proud of its artistic talent and will go out of its way to support that talent. The larger audience is simply a bonus.

I imagine that these rules don’t just apply to events in Fresno, but to any arts organization trying to promote events in smaller and/or more disadvantaged communities. And, after a couple years, I can verify that they are pretty consistent in their effectiveness. When I follow them, my audience is strong. When I don’t, it is typically much smaller.

But what about the content of the event? Does a more tonal and lyrical event generate a better audience over one that is more avant-garde? Actually, no. My experience hosting these concerts has taught me that the type of programming seems to have almost no bearing on the size of the audience! I have had successful concerts of tonal music, of electronic music, of experimental improvisational music and have also had less successful concerts featuring each of these styles. The perceived accessibility of the event appears to have nothing to do with the audience.

Through Fresno New Music, I have been granted an opportunity to share my love of new music with the Fresno community. I am always proud of the events that I host, and I am equally proud to contribute to my local arts scene.

Even if, at times, it feels like no one is listening.

Fair and Balanced

Scales of Justice

Scales of Justice by Michael Grimes (a.k.a. Citizensheep) on Flickr

Folks in the United States, especially those of us in the cultural sector, frequently pride ourselves on our gender parity compared to that of other nations, but we’re actually lagging behind. While the balance of men and women in the field of new music has inspired an extremely wide range of viewpoints on these pages, there has been less discussion about how we compare to the rest of the world on this issue.
One of the highlights of my time in Bratislava last month was attending the world premiere performance of Dorian Gray, a new opera based on Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, at the Slovak National Theatre. At the reception following the performance, many people remarked about what an historic occasion this was since the composer, Ľubica Čekovská, and the librettist, Canadian-both British experimental novelist Kate Pullinger, were both women. The director of the production, Nicola Raab, was also female. I couldn’t help but think that to this day there has only been one opera by a woman ever presented at our own Metropolitan Opera House, the one-act Der Wald by British composer Ethel Smyth which received its American premiere on a double bill with Il Trovatore back in 1903. (While the track record at the now defunct New York City Opera was slightly better—NYCO gave world premiere performances of operas by Thea Musgrave and Deborah Drattell and presented excerpts from additional works by women composers as part of its Vox Contemporary Opera Lab—even they were still nowhere near gender parity.)

The biggest part of the problem is the Great Man myth that still permeates classical music and which has also found its way into the new music claiming its lineage from that tradition. Until we rid ourselves of the notion that the best music of all time was created by a handful of men who lived an ocean away from us and who all died more than a century before any of us were born, we will never have programming that truly reflects the vast array of musical creativity all around us. It’s the same myth that locks American repertoire out of most programming at opera houses and symphony orchestras as well as music by anyone from anywhere who is currently alive. When a work by someone who is alive, American, or female (or a combination of those attributes) is played, it’s inevitably a single work wedged in between the obligatory performances of works by Great Men. Heaven forbid a major opera company or symphony orchestra would mount a season that included a broad range of works that were not penned by Great Men!
To that end, it was fascinating to hear from Kealy Cozens about how Sound and Music, the national agency for contemporary music in the United Kingdom, is attempting to make a difference. (Last week, New Music USA hosted Kealy, who is Sound and Music’s Digital, Development and Communications Assistant, as part of a staff exchange sponsored by the International Association of Music Information Centres.) Under the leadership of its new Chief Executive, Susanna Eastburn, the organization makes clear in its criteria that “it expects applications to its multiple composer programmes to include women composers and that there would need to be an exceptionally good reason why this was not the case to secure funding.”

When Kealy explained this policy to representatives from various music organizations she met with during the week, reactions varied. While some lauded this initiative, others voiced concern that it was somehow forcing a quota system. But if most concert programs do not include a single work by a woman composer, many for an entire season year after year, are these programs truly reflective of the society in which we live and do they have relevance to today’s audiences?

Context Matters

If there’s one thing this century has taught us about new music, it’s that context matters. As concert musicians discover new kinds of venues (bars, galleries, coffee shops, coat rooms, etc.) and new forms, these efforts reinvent and reshape the concert ritual—with varying degrees of success. New Lens Concerts, a concert series directed by Juhi Bansal and Garrett Shatzer, did something very interesting last Sunday night at the Colburn School’s Thayer Hall when they deliberately omitted all titles and composer names from their programs. By subtracting a great deal of expected context, they asked us to invent our own, inviting us to let go of our preconceived notions about composers new and old, or so the theory goes.

This is a great idea. Concertgoers inevitably bring a lot of baggage to every show (everything from “I hate modern music” to “pre-1950 composers are boring”), and the prospect of leaving that mental weight behind and just listening is a thrilling one. In practice, this turns into a kind of guessing game. For me it was not unlike turning on the radio in the middle of a very exciting piece of music and thinking, “I like this. What the heck is this?” This alone creates a kind of suspense that captures the attention. The pristine virtuosity of the performances by violinist Pasha Tseitlin and pianist Nicolas Gerpe, collectively known as the Panic Duo, enhanced this impression.

This is not to say that the performance was entirely contextless. Tseitlin and Gerpe spoke a little bit before each piece, discussing the composers’ inspirations and influences (while assiduously avoiding identifying information). This was highly effective at drawing thematic connections between pieces from disparate eras and aesthetics. On the first half of the concert, Alyssa Weinberg’s Four Stanzas, an homage to Debussy, felt like a natural follow-up to Paul Moravec’s Ariel Fantasy. On the second half, Jocelyn Morlock’s Phobos and Deimos seemed to share a cosmology with George Crumb’s Four Nocturnes (Night Music II). In between, Luciano Berio’s lush Luftklavier served as a kind of palette cleanser to open the second half, but the real centerpieces were two movements from Karol Symanowski’s Mythes and Ernst Bloch’s Poeme Mystique, which closed out the first and second halves, respectively. Bloch’s thoroughly romantic work, composed in 1925, stood out a little in this setting, perhaps unfavorably so, but Szymanowski’s pieces, written four years before, were strikingly radiant. More than anything else on the program, they seemed caught between the modern and pre-modern musical worlds, with thorny, strident clusters giving way to decadent, Scriabinesque textures. In that sense, it was a highly effective manifesto for New Lens Concerts as a whole, in its mission to connect new music to its history.

As if to drive this point home, after the concert we were finally provided with programs with complete information, bringing the narrative full circle. Context lost, and context restored!
New Lens Concert program

The Occasional Cheeseburger

The student new music organization which I serve as the faculty advisor for had their final meeting this week. In addition to finishing up end-of-the-year duties, we discussed our concert series for next year and potential adjustments to how we publicize each event. Several of the students brought up the fact that it was difficult to convince their friends—even those studying music—to come to many of our concerts because of the overriding perception that they were all too “serious” and not very entertaining.
Now, I know for a fact that our music students don’t have a strong bias against new music, as in the past two weeks I’ve witnessed student performers—more than one hundred in total—play on a composition studio concert, a choreographer/composer collaboration concert, and four student composer recitals. That being said, the fact that even these students have a hard time being enticed to come to a concert with a guest artist or composer because of the “seriousness” they’ve experienced in the past did get me thinking…of cheeseburgers.

For years, I’ve used food as an analogue for music in my teaching and writing; one of my first columns, for instance, compared one type of composer to a chef or cook who “collects” ingredients from the pantry and then builds a meal around those ingredients. I also find that using descriptors typically associated with the sense of taste tends to work well when trying to describe subjective aural or sonic characteristics—much better, in fact, than the typical visual color cues that many tend to use (synesthetes excepted, of course).

In fact, one of the few cable channels I tend to follow regularly is the Food Network because of the similarities I see between the creators and the consumers on those programs and creators and audiences in music. One overarching trend that I’ve noticed through those programs involves classically trained chefs “going back to their roots” and exploring the possibilities of combining complex flavors and structural forms with seemingly mundane “comfort” foods. Time and time again, we are presented with the desire of creative culinary artists to make dishes that are both at a very high level of complexity but also will be enjoyed by a wide audience that may not understand their underlying subtleties. This is the concept—providing one’s audience with an experience that not only stimulates the intellect but connects with more visceral, foundational, and intuitive sides as well—that I think has a lot of relevance to our current musical world.

All of that brings me back to cheeseburgers and the equivalent lack thereof in our current repertoire.

I feel—and this is, of course, only my own personal viewpoint—that there is a dearth of musical “cheeseburgers” in contemporary concert music today. Before y’all smirk and roll your eyes, hear me out. I’m not saying that composers shouldn’t be writing intellectually stimulating and complex works—that will always be part of the culture of creative artists. What I am saying is that the other side of the coin—music that is dripping with pure joy or whatever other base emotion you choose—is hard to find. Music that fits that description is often not encouraged by those who teach or by those who act as gatekeepers for funding opportunities, awards, etc., and is many times shunned or ridiculed by those whose tastes or proclivities are focused elsewhere.

Cheeseburgers are useful here because of the associations we as a society have with them. It’s hard for us to take something seriously that one can make on a backyard grill or order at a late-night diner, and perhaps it is time to encourage composers to write music that may have a similar lack of serious intentions. With full knowledge that being labeled one of Deemer’s “cheeseburgers” is not exactly the first thing composers would wish on their music, I present two examples of works that, at least for me, fall under this category:

“Better Git It In Your Soul” by Charles Mingus from the album Mingus Ah Um

“Black” by Marc Mellits/Will Obst and Sumner Truax, baritone saxophones

The Mingus album is interspersed with several works that I might consider more entertaining or “cheeseburger”-like (“Better Git It In Your Soul,” “Pussy Cat Dues,” and “Jelly Roll”) alongside more introspective, dark, and complex works. The Mellits piece, originally written for the bass clarinet duo Sqwonk, conveys that sense of pure joy I mentioned before whilst not being “simple” by any stretch of the imagination. I might even look at Caroline Shaw’s Partita as a piece that speaks to an audience’s “comfort food” tastes in several ways.

To bring us back to my students who worry about convincing their colleagues to attend our overly “serious” music concerts, we’re already thinking of ways to not only pick the right artists for the series but what kinds of programs we can suggest that may look to this approach I’ve been describing. If composers, artists, and presenters keep an open mind both in terms of the new literature that’s being written as well as the programming choices through which audiences will interpret that literature, we may yet have an influx of “cheeseburgers” as part of our balanced musical diet.


Shenandoah Conservatory Wind Ensemble concert

Shenandoah Conservatory Wind Ensemble concert

Last week it was finally time to hear my very first piece for wind ensemble premiered at Virginia’s Shenandoah Conservatory, the first of many milestones on my outsider’s journey into the Wide World of Winds. The director of the conservatory’s wind ensemble, Damon Talley, is a true friend to composers in that he is one of the most active commissioners of new band works from composers not typically identified with wind and brass music. These projects are undertaken to introduce fresh repertoire into the band world while connecting a new generation of composers with opportunities to compose for band.

The piece I wrote was something like my five-year-old self’s idea of a cool band piece—completely silly and boisterous, with lots of crazy sounds including extended techniques (slide pop, anyone?) as well as the addition of whoopee cushions, bags full of trash, and other items that never would have found their way into a standard orchestra piece. Not surprisingly, it was a fun and freeing process; and I would echo Rob Deemer’s suggestion that once you go brass, you never go back!

There is a whole lot about the experience of composing for band that makes me excited to try writing another wind piece—things that are totally unique to the band world and that I’ve found to be encouraging and/or exciting from a composer’s point of view. Below are some of my own rookie observations about the process:

Wind bands are generally much more flexible configurations than symphony orchestras. First of all, most “concert band” music implies sections of like instruments, while “wind ensemble” generally indicates a more lithe ensemble of soloists each playing a unique part. Heck, there’s even the realm of “symphonic winds” for those looking to double up on orchestral performances, or for those sickos who have something against the euphonium (a fine and noble instrument, if there ever was one!). Within each sub-genre, there’s a lot of flexibility as well. It’s cool to be able to change instrumentation several times during the course of composing a new piece, as desired chords and voicings begin to suggest that the piece might need four trumpets rather than three; it’s an interesting game of give-and-take that’s not possible to such an extent in the world of orchestral scoring.

The band world is almost completely centered within colleges and universities, with talented high school ensembles and associated premieres both receiving a good deal of attention. For a composer, this means no union contracts and their associated doubling fees, tons of rehearsal time, and access to solid funding sources. You absolutely don’t have to be an academic to interface with the band world—yet the band world confers many of the advantages of academia.

As John Corigliano (whose Circus Maximus is one of the major recent entries to the wind band canon) has previously written, the wind band world is not dominated by critics and reviewers, so both audiences and band directors tend to form their own opinions about the music rather than seeking external validation. There is no “cool thing everyone is doing right now and woe to the composers who don’t play into that stylistic narrative”—in fact, I was heartened to see that the band world seems wide open to all possibilities, without any prior commitment. It would be difficult to identify a more charitable and diverse genre of music than that of wind band.

While we’ve all heard band works scored in the thick, well-doubled mid-century tradition, it’s now more accepted to score band works with a light or heavy touch as the situation demands. Check out “he’s so hot right now!” band composer John Mackey’s classic blog post about the differences between band and orchestra for more on this—he captures these two ensembles’ respective traits better than anyone.

Last but not least, since the performers of wind band music are almost always students, writing new music for band allows composers to come into contact with new generations of young people and provides young people with greater opportunities to work with living composers. This has to be my favorite thing about band music and the possibilities it holds for future generations when it comes to appreciating the music of our time.

24 Orchestras Receive ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming

Twenty-four American orchestras received 2011-12 ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming at the League of American Orchestras’ 67th Annual Conference in Dallas. ASCAP and the League present the awards each year to orchestras of all sizes “for programs that challenge the audience, build the repertoire, and increase interest in music of our time.”

This year’s winners are:

2011-12 ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming

John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music
South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, Delta David Gier, Music Director

Morton Gould Award for Innovative Programming
San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director

Leonard Bernstein Award for Educational Programming
Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, Music Director

Award for American Programming on Foreign Tours
San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, Donato Cabrera, Music Director

Awards for Programming of Contemporary Music

Group 1 Orchestras
First Place: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director
Second Place: Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero, Music Director
Third Place: The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

Group 2 Orchestras
First Place: Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Justin Brown, Music Director
Second Place: New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy, Michael Tilson Thomas, Artistic Director
Third Place: Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Arild Remmereit, Music Director

Group 3/4 Orchestras
First Place: Chicago Sinfonietta, Mei-Ann Chen, Music Director

Group 5/6 Orchestras
First Place: American Composers Orchestra, Robert Beaser, Artistic Director; George Manahan, Music Director; Derek Bermel, Creative Advisor
Second Place: Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, Artistic Director
Third Place: Peoria Symphony Orchestra, George Stelluto, Music Director and Conductor

Group 7/8 Orchestras
First Place: Northwest Symphony Orchestra, Anthony Spain, Music Director
Second Place: The Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra, Warren Friesen, Artistic Director and Conductor
Third Place: Yakima Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Golan, The Helen N. Jewett Music Director

Collegiate Orchestras
First Place: Cornell University Orchestra, Chris Younghoon Kim, Director of Orchestras
Second Place: Ithaca College Symphony Orchestra, Jeffery Meyer, Director of Orchestras
Third Place: Lamont Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Golan, Music Director and Conductor

Youth Orchestras
First Place: Contemporary Youth Orchestra, Liza Grossman, Music Director
Second Place: Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, Allen Tinkham, Music Director

First Place: Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Marin Alsop, Music Director and Conductor
Second Place: Aspen Music Festival and School, Robert Spano, Music Director

(—from the press release)

Back From The Other Side

I thoroughly enjoyed being in Hong Kong again and reconnecting with my in-laws, though I’m really not enjoying the jetlag right now. No matter how easy traveling there has become, there’s still no way around the fact that Hong Kong is on the opposite side of the planet from New York City and the time difference is a whopping 12 hours. Basically that means you can’t even rely on clocks to re-acclimate, as I remember every time I’m back from Asia and it is, say, 4 o’clock—a.m. or p.m. perfectly flipped. That’s why it feels the weirdest for some reason.

Soho Street

HK, just like NYC, has a neighborhood called Soho which is filled with trendy stores. The HK Soho, however, also has an escalator on one of its streets which makes the uphill journey less exhausting.

Anyway, as far away as HK is from NYC, in many ways the two cities are strangely similar. Both are overcrowded metropolises with tons of skyscrapers whose paces are largely determined by the financial sector. Both are traffic nightmares, but are luckily navigable via commuter rail systems. Both are becoming impossible places to dine on Friday nights without a reservation. And, as I discovered during this last trip, HK is also a place where you can hear a variety of new music thanks to a series started there by Bright Sheng called The Intimacy of Creativity. It was slightly surreal to have intermission conversations in Hong Kong with Joan Tower and Mark O’Connor—both for them and for me. But if this new composer and performer workshop and concert series, now in its second season, continues to grow, it could one day evolve into an East Asian version of the Gaudeamus Festival. Matt Van Brink, one of the emerging composers invited to participate this year, will provide more details about this program in a report for this site in the coming days.

However, there is something about the concert I attended that I feel compelled to write about here. Although The Intimacy of Creativity is a new music program featuring works by important international guest composers (Tower and O’Connor this year) as well as emerging composers from around the world (this year from Portugal, the U.K., HK, and three from the USA), the concert I attended also featured a piece by…Ludwig van Beethoven, specifically his Opus 11 Piano Trio. It was actually extraordinarily jarring. This is not because I don’t appreciate Beethoven. I just completed listening to two complete sets of his 32 piano sonatas. However, the sound world of 1797 (the year that trio was composed) is a further distance from today than New York is from Hong Kong (215 years to be exact), and the seven pieces composed in our own time which preceded it on the concert did not really prepare my ears for it.

It was a bizarre repertoire role reversal. This is sadly the position that new music finds itself in when one new work is included on a concert that otherwise consists of older pieces. In such situations, the new piece usually feels out of place and, as a result, is often not appreciated by the people attending that concert. While the new music prankster in me somehow enjoyed witnessing Beethoven not belonging, it reminded me of something Michael Gordon said in the very first NewMusicBox cover (then called “In The First Person”) which we published exactly 13 years ago:

There’s a story that Frank Zappa, when he first played in Vienna, got this really known quartet to come out, and he put them all in robes and hoods, and they went out and played a Beethoven string quartet. The audience, you know, sat there for a while and then they started booing, by the time the string quartet was over, the entire audience was throwing things and booing. The quartet bowed and walked off the stage, and then Frank Zappa’s band put on these hoods and took the violins and went back out to take a bow, as if they were the quartet, and the whole audience was sitting there booing and throwing things, and Zappa just pulls off the hood, his whole band pulls off the hoods. . . I think the success of the Kronos Quartet, the success of the Philip Glass Ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, and you know, what we’re doing, is basically when someone comes to hear a Bang On A Can concert, they know that they’re going to get weird music. They know they’re not going to get country music. They know they’re not going to get classical music.

For the record, no one in the audience in Hong Kong came anywhere close to booing. And perhaps my feeling that the Beethoven somehow didn’t fit was a minority opinion. But nearly a week later, I’m still thinking about it. I’ve even started listening to all the Beethoven Piano Trios in sequence so I can hear the piece in its own milieu and try to come to terms with it. Since I love both old and new music, I have greatly appreciated programs that combine the two, but perhaps if both are presented there needs to be a more equal balance.