Tag: curation

Ethical Artistry: Falling Short—Logistics, Programming, and the Moral Complexity of Well-Intentioned Decisions

Planning

This post is the second in a four-part series looking at concert curation and some of the larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists as a result. If you want to jump back, Part 1 is here; Part 3 and 4 will follow in the coming weeks.

(Fair warning: this is the longest article in the series, so you may want to skip around. I cover calls-for-scores; age limits; rehearsal time; venues; thematic programs; and demographics. The final portion takes a closer look at the Philadelphia Orchestra’s choice to add female composers to their 2018-19 season and ethical issues that arise.)

In a recent Facebook thread, composer Ryan Olivier (professor of composition at Indiana University South Bend) asked for help compiling a list of ensembles who specialize in new music repertoire. Ryan had already tallied approximately 50 groups on his own list, and more responses poured in, listing dozens and dozens of ensembles working in every sphere to champion new music.

Ryan Olivier FB thread

It was exhilirating at first, reading Ryan’s thread. I thought of the many groups and artists large and small, supporting projects of all kinds. It reminded me that even in our specialized field—one that can feel lonely and isolating at times—there is a larger community out there that is optimistic and passionate about contemporary music. In fact, most colleagues I’ve come into contact with in the field are creative, eager collaborators who support one another.

However, thinking more about Ryan’s post, I felt conflicted.

On the one hand, our vibrant community aspires to promote positive moral virtues: everything from championing new music, to creating databases cataloging works of living composers, to running calls-for-scores, to devising projects and fellowships promoting under-represented composers, to founding large advocacy and service organizations such as New Music USA, New Music Gathering, the American Composers Forum, to others who sponsor forums, infrastructure, and opportunities. All of this helps new music thrive and stay relevant in modern culture.

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On the other hand, in spite of our enthusiasm and good intentions, we’ve seen persistent ethical problems in our field. This includes pragmatic issues, such as the way we review work (and the bias, nepotism, or inconsistency that can occur on panels); to other major philisophical challenges, such as our field’s long history of demographic exclusion and gender bias. (I’ve footnoted just a handful of the many insightful articles discussing these issues.)[i]

We, as a musical community, really do strive to promote positive virtues in our work! We have passionate discussions on Facebook and Twitter, and we see nuanced conference lectures and articles emerging on these topics, yet clearly problems persist, as evidenced by these ongoing discussions.

So why do we keep falling short? I believe that our hearts are mostly in the right place, but that in our zeal to launch a new initiative, or in our constant stream of work running an ensemble, or in the haste of trying to pull off an ambitious project, we often undercut our good intentions.

Here in Part 2, I’m going to dive into many specific issues we’ve all encountered in the field, pointing out some ethical pitfalls lurking behind decisions we frequently face.

Ethical Pitfalls in Logistics & Programming

How do performers, ensembles, festivals, administrators, or curators connect with composers and their music? If you are a curator, do you go on Soundcloud/YouTube listening binges? Are you the spread-sheet type, tallying “bucket lists” of repertoire you hope to perform? If you’re a composer, do you wildly shotgun your music to all competitions far and wide? Do you focus on teaming up with the same set of performers for every piece? Do you have any strategy at all?

There are a lot of ways our music can come into contact with others, but there isn’t a lot of consistency in our field at large for how we evaluate works and provide opportunities for composers. (Sometimes it seems like every ensemble has their own method!) And, no matter what processes we use—from an open call-for-scores, to a competition format with specified prizes and a panel of judges, to a curatorial model that asks individual artists to build programs—we often face a series of similar challenges if we care about promoting works fairly.

Calls-for-Scores: Submission Fees, Review Process, and Transparency[ii]

Calls-for-Scores are a major way to connect composers with ensembles and vice-versa. Many of us have participated in them, some on both sides as submitters and reviewers. Ensembles offering calls-for-scores are usually genuinely interested in promoting composers, but, even with virtuous goals, choices along the way can negatively undermine our good intentions.

Is there a submission fee involved? What type of prizes and opportunities are included with the call-for-scores, and does this justify the fee? (This is a question for both organizers and composers submitting!) It takes a lot of work to run a call-for-scores, and outside judges are often compensated, so sometimes a fee is necessary. Is your organization transparent on your website about why you are charging a submission fee? (I hope this is not a fundraiser!)

Some groups waive a submission fee, if it limits opportunities for otherwise-qualified composers to apply because of financial constraints. This is noble! However, is this approach being consistently applied to all applicants? I know some groups who formally list (and collect) a submission fee in their general call for scores, but also selectively waive its enforcement as they see fit with certain composers in their close circle. (Not cool!) Apply your policies with consistency! It is extremely unfair to require only some composers to pay.

Has your ensemble been realistic about the number of submissions you might receive? Do you have a process in place to ensure…submitted scores are…reviewed in a similar manner? Are you transparent about this process?

Another big issue: how have you structured the review process? Has your ensemble been realistic about the number of submissions you might receive? (Hint: it could be hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds, depending on what opportunity you are offering.) Do you have a process in place to ensure that all of the submitted scores are being reviewed in a similar manner? Are you transparent about this process in your application materials?

pile of scores

Fee or no fee, it takes a lot of time and effort for composers to submit their work, and it is disheartening when bias or inconsistency plays a role in the evaluation process. As an ensemble, think about whether the evaluations should be anonymous or not. Also, can you split up the listening into multiple rounds? Maybe in the first round all pieces will have a similar-length excerpt played and judged. There is no perfect process, but try to at least give each piece the same fair shake!

I was very frustrated sitting on the review side of a call-for-scores one year, as a vague email went out to our rather-large group of performers, encouraging us to access a Dropbox folder where multiple hundreds of scores had been submitted. We were told that we could listen to any number and portion of recordings we chose, and that any comments we left about any pieces would help narrow the batch down to the winners. This group really aspired to champion living composers, and eventually performed dozens of new works on their season, yet their selection process had no consistency or fairness, and hundreds of composers who had paid a submission fee and spent time sending materials weren’t evaluated with similar criteria.

Bottom line: it’s great if you want to curate with a call-for-scores, but make sure to put some real thought into how your ensemble’s selection process can promote the values you stand for!

Age Limits in Programming

There have been wide discussions in our field about age limits. Does having an age-limit minimum or maximum discriminate against those outside of the range? Or does the age limit try to promote a particular initiative (for example, encouraging 10-14-year-old musicians to start composing)? Is it feasible for your group to have multiple age categories? (I think the American Modern Ensemble has a well-thought-out system with two age-based categories, and a third general category open to all.)

Here’s a more subtle question: Do you care about absolute age, or the number of years applicants have trained in composing? Depending on your ensemble’s goals, these questions matter. Let’s consider a hypothetical example.

Imagine two 19-year-old musicians, Jim and Jenny. Jim is a sophomore trumpet major who started composing lessons on the side when he entered college. Jenny is a sophomore composition major, who trained in composition at pre-college for three years. If your ensemble seeks to celebrate your city’s musical youth, then an absolute age category (say, “under-21”) meaningfully promotes Jim’s and Jenny’s work. But, if your ensemble is looking to evaluate and perform works of beginner, intermediate, and advanced composers, age limit categories place Jenny and Jim side-by-side, when in fact Jenny has 5x the experience.

Ultimately, whether age feels artistically and ethically relevant to you is one issue; making sure your policies are promoting this consistently is another!

Rehearsal Time

Most people reading NewMusicBox care about supporting living composers and their music.   Have we thought about the rehearsal demands that bold new works require? Are our rehearsal processes supporting or undermining our larger goal of promoting new music?

This is a really tricky issue! Anyone running an ensemble sees how performers are learning a constant stream of challenging works (new and old), while juggling jam-packed schedules of gigs, teaching, and travelling. There are always budget considerations (even in ensembles with high pay scales) as we determine how much rehearsal time we can afford to pay for any given project, and how many pieces can fit into that schedule. And, as pointed out by Patrick Castillo in a recent NewMusicBox article, there are often other organizational limitations we might rarely consider, including the very spaces in which we work.

Sometimes we make sacrifices: either we program a smaller number of challenging new works, so we can devote more rehearsal time; or, we program more works, but they each receive much less detail in rehearsal; or, we specifically choose works based on their relative ease of rehearsal and performance demands, rather than purely on their artistic merit.

In truth, most ensembles end up considering many of these factors as they make final programming decisions, and in the best cases you can strike a balance where a relatively large number of new works are featured, with each still being artistically ambitious and receiving enough rehearsal to be polished.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency. From left to right: Lisa Kaplan, Yvonne Lam, Nick Photinos, Matthew Duvall, Michael Macceferri, and former member Tim Munro.

However, we have all seen the flipside. It can be frustrating when a performer is improvising your piece on stage, because they didn’t leave enough time to learn it properly. It can be equally frustrating as a performer if a composer or administrator hasn’t put you in a place to succeed, because they gave you the music too late or didn’t schedule enough rehearsal time.

If we devote substantial resources of money, time, and promotional effort to commissioning a new work or organizing a major project, we have an obligation to make sure the music is thoroughly rehearsed and polished before it is brought to life.

There is also a further ethical consideration we tend to overlook: if we devote substantial resources of money, time, and promotional effort to commissioning a new work or organizing a major project, we have an obligation to make sure the music is thoroughly rehearsed and polished before it is brought to life. Otherwise, we undercut our great intentions of supporting new music, and we have also wasted many of the resources we devoted to the project—resources that could have meaningfully benefited any number of other projects!

Project Partners & Venues

Depending on your project goals (see Part 1: “Why am I doing this?” & “Who do I hope to impact?”), certain pragmatic choices you make about collaborators and venues can amplify or detract from your project’s aspirations.

When we choose to work with a specific ensemble or performer, many factors go into the decision. Artistic goals, budget, and availability all play a part. But, just as important is gauging an ensemble’s genuine interest in partnering for a project.

Is this just a gig for them, or are they are really excited about it? How does their ensemble identity and their skill set fit with the project specifics? Remember, prestige isn’t the only important factor; sometimes the best artistic pairings have more to do with passion and commitment to a project, rather than any absolute criteria in performing ability and repertoire.

The most prestigious venue isn’t always the best one to showcase the music you’ve chosen…Which spaces will really help your curation shine in its intended way?

The same general principle is true of venues. Have you thought about spaces best suited for your project? The most prestigious venue isn’t always the best one to showcase the music you’ve chosen. Think about everything from acoustic specifics to lighting and atmosphere, and consider which spaces will really help your curation shine in its intended way.

Also, do logistical factors of venue location, ticket price, and concert time prejudice access to your event to a select audience? Is there a significant portion of potential concert attendees who will be excluded by one of these aspects?

Concerts or Festivals with a Theme

Let’s say your ensemble wants to program music with a specific theme. What do you gain and what do you lose with this approach? Consider some specifics of your theme, and why you are drawn to it. Also consider how your theme might include some pieces, but exclude others.

One popular theme I’ve seen is regional composer festivals and concerts. In these cases, only those from a certain geographic area are eligible to participate. On the plus side, there can be good funding to sponsor artists from a specific region (yay!) On the minus side, composers outside of the region are excluded (boo!).

Sometimes a local or regional festival can strengthen ties and promote artists working in the same area, showcasing a spotlight on local creators. But, does this gain outweigh the fact that local audiences might already have access to artists in their area? Does your theme allow the project to showcase some composers from outside the region, as well?

What about programming themes based on social causes or movements? When planned carefully, these themes can be a powerful tool to give voice to under-represented composers and pieces within larger, holistic, artistic planning. If approached haphazardly, myopic programming may do little to shine a meaningful light on a social cause, or worse, it may end up excluding many composers (including those it aspires to promote).

Have you seen approaches more successful and convincing? Or some which left you wanting more? I’ve been particularly impressed with ensembles who take strides to balance their programming, year after year: regularly featuring living composers; working to commission new works and also to give second or third performances of other recently composed works; sometimes curating mini-festivals that celebrate a specific social demographic (e.g. all-female composers; or all African American composers); sometimes curating mini-festivals that celebrate a single composer or aesthetic movement; etc.

I’ve found myself less than impressed with ensembles who don’t consistently promote living composers, or those who claim to promote diversity by featuring a single composer from an under-represented group, while not featuring the work of any other living composers (from any demographics). Real diversity in programming is something many of us aspire to, but it involves careful planning and thinking. Is diversity truly achieved along the lines of any single criteria? Is it accomplished by a single project initiative like a festival of “X” composers or “Y” aesthetic movement? We can probably safely say no.

If we really care about diversity in our programming and musical work, we have to be committed to the “broad view” (see Part 1) and consistently take a look at the projects we pursue over the long haul. Some spreadsheets and quick demographic tallies of season programming can be helpful tools (as we’ll see in Part 3) to assess whether we are a little too zoomed in on a specific niche of repertoire and have unintentionally left out whole branches of composers without being aware.

Recognition is an Important First Step; A Measured Response is Second

Recognizing the moral complexity of these many decisions we face in the field is an important first step. Do our artistic actions align with our stated intentions? Of equal importance is the second step: coming up with a measured response (not a knee-jerk reaction) to the tough questions we are asking. At times, we rush our decisions when an issue feels urgent, but this can do more harm than good, or it can fail to address deeper issues.

At times, we rush our decisions when an issue feels urgent, but this can do more harm than good, or it can fail to address deeper issues.

Let’s consider an example, which will serve to finish Part 2 and lead us to Parts 3 and 4. This centers on the complex and delicate issue of representing diversity in our programming.

Imagine that you are an ensemble or organization that presents concerts to the public. It has come to your attention through public feedback and discourse that you’ve had a fairly big “blind spot” over the years: you’ve programmed contemporary music only marginally, and within that you’ve rarely featured composers of color or female composers. What do you do?

A lot of us would want to spring into action to remedy the situation, and surely there are some short term steps you can take. It would be a good start to rethink your season programming and look for spots where you can insert repertoire by living and under-represented composers. But don’t be too quick to pat yourself on the back. This immediate fix only addresses your blind spot on a very local and short-term level.

What about the larger issue of diverse programming? One major factor in the push to include more works by under-represented composers is that, historically, they haven’t had the same opportunities to work and succeed in our field. So, if you are serious about addressing this issue, it takes increased commitment in the long term—considering not only the numerical quotas and statistics of works we program in a single season, but also the general quality of opportunities we are providing at large.

A few months ago a scenario very similar to this one played out in a very public way. NPR media published a stirring article (“The Sound of Silence”) talking about the lack of diverse programming in major American symphony orchestra seasons. If you missed it, critic Alex Ross summed it up in a succinct, but damning tweet:

Alex Ross tweet

Responding to the intense scrutiny, the Philadelphia Orchestra actually re-worked some of their concert season, adding pieces by Anna Clyne and Stacey Browne, appointing Gabriela Lena Frank as a composer-in-residence, and scheduling a reading session in partnership with the American Composers Orchestra of six emerging female composers (who had previously worked with ACO).

These steps were an important short-term fix, and the orchestra knows the work is not done. Philadelphia Orchestra Artistic Administrator Jeremy Rothman was quoted in a follow-up article as saying, “We acknowledge there is still a great imbalance…At the same time, it’s certainly more productive than ignoring the conversation. When it’s pointed out, we are right to be responsive.”

So what are the larger ethical issues at stake in a case like this? One obvious problem is in demographic disparity. This is, to a large degree, a numerical or “quantitative” issue. The orchestra’s response had a meaningful impact in this regard, as they quickly restructured their season to feature nine female composers in some capacity, instead of zero. (And there may be a greater quantitative ripple felt, if other young female composers can look up to these nine as role models, and feel inspired to pursue orchestral composing as a result.)

Yet, other ethical issues should not have been overlooked. One major aspect of the discussion about female composers is that there are hundreds of talented and qualified female composers working in the field; so if we’re not programming them, it means we’re not taking the time to look broadly at their work (and at the work of all living composers) in the first place.

Where does the Philadelphia Orchestra fall on this issue? Are they committed to looking widely or not? I was not privy to artistic talks on these matters, but I do know that many other orchestras around the country have started public initiatives to review the work of emerging composers.[iii] Has the Philadelphia Orchestra considered anything like this?

Even in the case of this season, the orchestra agreed to feature six mid-career female composers in a reading workshop. But, they relied on the American Composers Orchestra, as a partner in the selection process. Going forward will we see more independent committment to exploring works of living composers from Philadelphia directly? When we feel the need to act urgently with short-term solutions, we may not address other long-term issues that are just as important.

Another issue: what steps are being taken within these major institutions to support and encourage composition education? Other orchestras (including ”Group 1” peers like the LA Phil and NY Phil) have pursued young composer programs in their education departments, giving students opportunities for mentorship and interaction with orchestra musicians. If (and hopefully as) more major institutions really commit whollistically to supporting composers by establishing education programs for students, supporting emerging composers with calls-for-scores or readings open broadly (not just to those previously selected by another organization), and taking a careful look at quantitative programming for established composers featured on their subscription season, we won’t end up with more NPR articles like “The Sound of Silence”[iv] because there is a wealth of amazing music out there that will end up being featured!

At the end of the day, when facing complex ethical dilemmas, it is not enough that we care; we must also take extra steps to ensure a complete outcome. This is where we often fall short as individual artists and larger institutions. The good news is, if we commit to ensuring a complete outcome, our institutions can transform and become a major platform for the opportunity and dissemination of vital creative work.


[i] There is a large archive of articles going back many decades on these subjects, and recently NewMusicBox and passionate individual artists in our field have been trying to shed light and start meaningful dialogue on these complex issues. Here are a few great articles: on issues of systemic racism in music by Anthony R. Green and Jack Curtis Dubowsky; and issues of gender bias and exclusion by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Kristen Kuster, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Rob Deemer (who includes links to many other articles in his work).

[ii] For those interested in running a call-for-scores or a competition, you may want to ask the advice of colleagues and ensembles who have organized these before, and you may also want to check out: https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/so-you-want-to-host-a-composition-competition/.

[iii] Some orchestras have run their own calls-for-scores and workshops for emerging composers for many years, including the Minnesota Orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra, the Nashville Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and others; and many other orchestras including the Colorado Symphony, the San Diego Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and many regional orchestras, have teamed up with the Earshot Network to sponsor calls-for-scores and workshops.

[iv] I am optimistic the orchestra heard the message and that they are trying to address some of these issues on a deeper level (not just with a short-term fix).  They recently appointed two female conductors to their staff roster, and according to a recent press release, current Philadelphia Orchestra “Music Alive” Composer-in-Residence Hannibal Lokumbe has been active, both in taking music into community venues as part of his residency, and also helping to lead some “Composer’s Umbrella” workshops.  I’m hoping these, and other initiatives, will endure and feature more prominently in future seasons.

How We Pick Rep and Keep Surprising Our Audiences

How does my string quintet Sybarite5 pick the music we play?

People ask me this all the time.

First of all, it’s important to know a little about how we program and perform. We program in modular fashion. What do I mean by this? Selections are usually three to eight minutes long, so we have great flexibility. It’s easy for us to slip newer works and experiments in and out of a set. This also allows us to tweak programs on the road. Much like a rock band, there’s an element of excitement and surprise in not knowing exactly what’s next, and we use that to create dynamic concert events as much as possible. If someone writes us a 30 to 50 minute piece, chances are slim we’ll play it often. Sometimes composers send us multi-movement works, and often we treat each movement as its own piece.

This happened recently with a new piece written for us by the just-announced 2018 Pulitzer finalist Michael Gilbertson. We commissioned a three-movement, 20 minute work using awarded funding from BMI and Concert Artists Guild. Once we got the music, we realized it was just going to be too much for one show. We decided that the best way to premiere the piece was to break it into three separate works—Endeavor, Outliers, and Collective Wisdom—and to premiere each piece individually over the course of 18 months or so. At first we were freaked out by the idea of splitting it up, but once we talked with the composer, we realized what a blessing it was. This gave us three world premieres to talk about instead of one, while also providing the space to get to know the composer and the flexibility to experiment with his music over a longer period of time. I believe wholeheartedly this approach gave us more focused and higher-level performances, all the while fitting with our modular program. (Wanna hear it? We’re premiering Endeavor on May 3 at the cell theatre in NYC. Event info here.)

Also important to know: all of the works on a Sybarite5 concert are announced from the stage. Anyone who knows me knows I feel strongly about this. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, the last thing I want an audience member to be doing is checking a program for what’s coming up next or studying how to spell the composers’ names. I want them 100% listening and watching, not reading and researching. I want them in the moment with us as much as possible. We do recognize that the composers are VERY important to us and our fans, so we publish our setlists with precise titles, composer names, and links on our blog right after each show. That way, people can get the info they need without being distracted during the show. Here’s an example.

Also, everyone in the ensemble speaks with the audience. This also gives us a chance to talk about the music, what it means to us personally, and where the audience can find it directly.

Don’t worry, we don’t leave our audience completely in the dark. Our printed program generally describes the show and mentions key composer names. Here’s an example:

Outliers: Sybarite5 is always on the lookout for new tunes and composers that speak with a unique and relevant voice. Outliers is a celebration of works written for us by our favorite composers and friends we’ve made traveling the world performing music we love. Sybarite5 plays the music of its friends Andy Akiho, Shawn Conley, Jessica Meyer, Marc Mellits, Brandon Ridenour, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Steven Snowden, and Dan Visconti paired with the group’s favorite works of Armenian folk music, Piazzolla, Barber, and Radiohead.

Regarding talking with the audience, I want to be clear here: I believe in engagement before information, so we don’t give a lecture about sonata form OR the polyrhythmic structures in our music. That is not gonna happen at our shows. Why? Because ~93% of the population does not want to hear about that; they cannot actually process that information in a performance-enhancing way.

Only 7% of Americans are in the “art club.” Meaning they self-identify as people with the arts as a central part of their lives and identity, and function according to understandings and abilities its members have developed. We make two big mistakes in trying to expand the reach of art beyond the club members: 1. We make false assumptions that those not in the Club think and function the same way as people in the Club, and they don’t. For example, we assume everyone can read a composer’s bio in a program and turn that into an enhanced experiencing of the performance—that is usually true for Art Club members, but not true of those not in the club. I based it on several studies from the UK, Canada and the U.S.—psychographic research mostly, but the interpretation is not a hard research finding, but interpretation. 2. We focus way too high a percentage of our creative energies on the Club, to keep them happy, to prevent anything they might find unsettling. Eric Booth

I agree with Eric. At best 7% know the difference between terms like baroque, classical, romantic, neo-classical, minimalism, serialism, or Gustav Mahler vs. Antonio Vivaldi.   So the minute you use a term such as “rondo,” “looping,” “allegro,” or “G major,” you lose 93% of the audience! No bueno. So, we often speak about what the music means to us personally, or—if there is one—tell a story about how the music came into our repertoire. We rarely talk about what the music is literally about because I want the audience to decide for themselves. At the end of the night, the audience leaves knowing us and the music better. In the end, I find this to be a powerful performance tool. And it also means we need to know the music and the composers on a more profound level.

Sybarite5 with composer and friend Francis Schwartz

To much energy for the camera to capture: Sybarite5 with composer and friend Francis Schwartz

How do we select our rep? Sometimes we have loose parameters, simply deciding it would make a great opener or a great closer. Sometimes a piece just speaks to us or fits like a glove. Sometimes it’s a very personal experience, and I like that aspect of it because it tends to give deeper meaning to our programming.

Truthfully, there’s really only one way we can add new rep: we do it together and in person. We read it together. We play through it in person. Sometimes we talk about what it means to us as individuals and what it may mean for our ensemble. Sometimes it’s a short talk; sometimes it’s a long discussion. There is trust involved. I have to respect my colleagues. I have to believe that if they are going to bring an idea or composer to the table, it’s important to them, and therefore important to the artistic growth of our ensemble.

Is this a quick process? No. Often it takes six months to two years before we can read a new work. Part of this is due to our huge pile of “to consider” music. Also, our touring schedule can be insane.

Do we have an open call for scores? Nope. Should you just send us music out of the blue? Probably not, unless you’ve got some mad street cred, or <gasp> we know each other. So, get to know us or have a mutual friend introduce us.

Before I end this post and as a reflection of how our ensemble actually works together, I wanted to include some thoughts on repertoire choices from the other people in Sybarite5. In the spirit of our collaborative efforts, here are some quotes from my bandmates:

Sami Merdinian, violin

Choosing new rep is one of the most thrilling aspects of being in Sybarite5. We look into composers that have a unique voice, that have a fresh and visionary approach, that are interested in expanding sounds and techniques for us, that are willing to grow and develop together during the collaborative process.

A lot of the composers that we end up choosing are acquaintances or friends, and they are aware of the programming we do, so seamlessly we incorporate their works into our repertoire. I feel mutual admiration ends up being a key component for a successful commission.

Laura Metcalf, cello

The musicians of Sybarite5 choose our repertoire in the most organic way possible: we play the music that we love. When considering composers with whom we build relationships, we look for a unique, authentic voice, and an aesthetic that makes sense with the rest of our programming. Many of the works we end up loving and playing again and again are by our instrumentalist friends who are new to composing – we don’t look for the most accomplished composers “on paper,” but rather find sounds that resonate with us.

Angela Pickett, viola

If I discover a piece that I love and that I think would complement the other works in our current rotation, I’ll bring it to the group. Recently this was Josef Suk’s Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale “St. Wenceslas”, op.35a, which is a rich and lush romantic work with versions for string orchestra and string quartet. Had the idea of a string quintet been popular in Suk’s time, I don’t think he would have objected to a third version!

Sarah Whitney, violin

In SYB5, we love to surprise our audiences. Since we don’t have a library of existing repertoire to choose from for string quintet, we get to create our own repertoire with very few rules. I bring music to the group that is unusual and engages an audience in a new way. We challenge the definition of classical music, and it’s even better if we can present something in a way that’s never been done before.

Realizing Unrealized Projects

While writing this series of articles on curation, I thought I should take some of my own advice, and so I’ve been corresponding with performers and composers—generally via e-mail but also in person and via Skype—to begin asking them about their unrealized projects. A couple of patterns and important ideas have emerged from these first steps into the curatorial, and they make for a nice summation—and, in some cases, counterpoint—to the ideas I’ve been exploring here.

Firstly, there’s the point that embracing curatorial ideas and practice absolutely does not mean that every piece has to become some sort of multimedia site-specific cross-arts collaboration. Just as there are plenty of fantastic artists who continue to make art by painting with paint on canvas, the concert hall remains a very important space for performers and composers to work, because that setting expounds a set of values such as deep focus and shared experience which remain some of the most revolutionary and countercultural things being said in any art form anywhere.

A photo of a chamber ensemble performance on a proscenium stage in a concert hall.

Concerts remain important.

Indeed, many composers replied to my question by pointing out that even their most basic desire to have an orchestral piece properly rehearsed and performed would be the completion of an “unrealized project.” Many had equally straightforward, generally larger-scale ambitions, such as writing for an absolutely giant percussion set-up, possibly in conjunction with the idea of an outdoor venue. Often, even at the most basic point of creation, it’s practical considerations like percussion hire and the weather that delay us from writing the music we imagine. In all of this, there are many composers whose optimal work and space is a score being interpreted by musicians in a concert.[1]

Let’s imagine, for a moment, what a curator might do with an ensemble. There would be basic things, like travelling around and being present at as many important reading sessions and concerts as possible.[2] This person would also be placed in charge of a segment of the ensemble’s time. Note that I say “time” and not “season.” A curator is not a glorified programmer of concerts. The role would not focus on “programming” or “commissioning,” but rather developing collaborative relationships between the ensemble’s performers and any number of composers and seeking to fulfill the “unrealized dreams” of all parties involved. The curator would also be seeking to present the results of these collaborations to an audience, and would equally be charged with taking time to discover the optimal form in which to do so. This might be a standard concert, but it could equally be a flash-mob of musicians, a Vimeo video, a podcast, or an app, and so on.

A performance happening outdoors in the middle of a forest with audience members standing and listening.

This might be the best concert venue for a piece

I accept that a major factor in this discussion—which I have largely omitted to date—is economics. If this all sounds a bit financially untenable, though, consider as just one current example that the Hayword Gallery in London has just opened Decision. This is an exhibition that consciously aims to immerse visitors in a series of “experimental environments” in order to “ask them to reflect on the process of decision-making,” and includes slides, a paragliding machine, and gallery staff asking attendees if they’d like to consume an unknown pill.

While I (of course) agree that new music would benefit from more money, I think that the need for more volume of funding in the system only goes so far. The other side of this coin is that a lot of our most highly funded institutions and visible organizations are dominated by quickly aging visions of making music. This stretches from professional ensembles and orchestras to the academies and conservatories where future musicians are trained.

Looking at a new generation of entrepreneurs who are making their wealth by pushing on all sorts of boundaries in their various fields, I wonder why we don’t imagine that future philanthropists will be people who desire to see artists that reflect this progressive and expansive vision of the world in their approaches to art. I literally have no idea what the musical equivalent to an exhibition like Decision would be, but I imagine it could be wildly more exciting—and attractive to audiences—than “please write us an 8-12 minute piece using the following instruments….”

Back in my informal survey of colleagues, a number of performers lamented the difficulties in finding funding to create any sort of collaborative work, be it with film makers, visual artists, or even in the theatre (opera excluded, of course). That is, I think most of us know where we’d at least start trying to find funding for that new concert piece, whereas the guidelines for a lot of these same institutions rule out any possibility of working in more unusual ways. What this also brought into focus for me was the fact that none of these other arts were at all a fundamental part of my education.[3] Again, this is not to argue that every performer and composer needs to be an expert in all art forms. As a fellow composer wisely commented:

I can’t help but wonder if there is a danger in this discourse though, that we are trying to be too much at once. For the composer to be the source of critique, critical/cultural theory and commentary, curation, and music composition—this maybe spreads us a little thin, AND makes us a little more self-conscious than is healthy? Ideally, it should be more about the music, not us.

Of course, the ultimate point of these articles is that it would be the actual existence of actual curators that could really help us advance down these paths. We want to get to a point where there are experts taking on these roles and helping us to create truly awesome work that engages across all the many possibilities we are dreaming about. In the meantime, though, those of us who create this music are already involved in asking these questions and could, I think, improve by thinking about these questions more explicitly.

For The Riot Ensemble, this has meant things like explicitly asking these questions of composers and performers as we develop projects and dream up commissions. We could do better, though. As one example, my hope is that next year these ideas will work their way into a revamped call-for-scores that will be led more by the project ideas of composers, that our concerts will build on and realize more of the dreams of our performers, and that we’ll continue to improve at using all sorts of technology as a tool to open up all areas of the process to new and interested audiences.

Personally, at least I finally sent out some of those e-mails I’ve been meaning to send out, asking my professional colleagues about their unrealized projects. I think that just asking this question—especially in a world where we’re all scrambling so hard to stay afloat—is a good first step. It’s also a fascinating one, as people have come back with all manner of interesting ideas and projects. I know I won’t be able to do so with all of them, but it’s wonderful to have started collecting these ideas, and I’m already starting to think about which ones I might be able to help bring to reality.

I hope that—for you, too—these articles will be either a beginning or an encouragement to take these ideas more seriously in all the work that you create in whatever roles you create it in. One of the great joys of this process, for me, has been meeting new musicians and organizers who are already taking steps down these paths in an astonishing variety of ways. So do keep in touch—especially if you have an unrealized project for my new collection—and let’s keep the discussion going.

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1. I really don’t mean this pejoratively in any sense. To date, I am one of them.


2. So far, this knowledge tends to rest with musicians who sit on selection panels that see a huge number of scores each year. While better than nothing, this is hardly the ideal situation to come into contact with work, and it provides virtually no opportunity for a relationship with the composer.


3. Though, admittedly, that’s not as recent as it used to be.

Jim Staley and His Home for New Music: Roulette @ 35


A conversation on the stage of Roulette, Brooklyn NY
July 2, 2014—2:30 p.m.
Recorded by Spencer McCormick
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner

There are tons of stories about people who have devoted their whole life to new music, but few people have done so to the same extent as Jim Staley, who for more than a quarter of a century devoted his home to it as well. Soon after moving to New York City in 1978, Staley—fresh from the heady experimental atmosphere of the University of Illinois in the 1970s—started performing concerts in the lower Manhattan loft he was living in. Before too long, he realized that more folks might come to his own gigs there if he also presented others who might have a more substantial following in the space. Partnering with David Weinstein (one of them worked sound while the other manned the box office), they called the place Roulette.

From the beginning, the definition of new music at Roulette was extremely open. You were just as likely to hear jazz improvisers there as interpreters of notated contemporary music scores or electronically generated sounds. According to Staley:

The whole aesthetic and direction was founded on the two Johns: John Coltrane and John Cage. … I’ve always felt that if you’re talking about the American avant-garde, don’t just talk about Cage or the Downtown minimalist scene; you have to talk about the avant-jazz scene, too. There’s just as extensive a scene going on in jazz as there is in the new music, classical, electronics world. So that’s always been an essential part of our programming.

Staley’s adventurous and catholic tastes as a programmer emanate from his own work as a creative musician. A master experimental improviser on the trombone (“It’s an amplifier of whatever you put into it … whether you put a bassoon reed in your mouth or bass clarinet mouthpiece on it or sing through it or whatever”), Staley gets his greatest inspiration from interacting with other improvisers. He thinks of improvisation as a form of conversation and for him it really is—what others play in the moment takes him somewhere he wouldn’t have gone on his own and he influences his collaborators as well. For him, this give and take is far more artistically rewarding than creating music on his own:

I really prefer working with people. And it also changes what I do. I’ll open some doors to coming up with different solutions or going different places, if I’m working with different people. I certainly discover stuff in the middle of improvising based on what’s going on that I’d never done before.

The cooperative nature of Staley’s own music making helped to make him an ideal partner for musicians as a venue manager, but it also took over his life. By the late 1990s, presenting music in his own home became more and more problematic. A club moved into the ground floor of his building and its pounding beat-driven pre-recorded soundtrack often wafted upstairs, sometimes even drowning out the concert he was hosting. To add insult to injury, the certificate of occupancy for his building changed and Staley could no longer viably present other musicians in his home. So Roulette leased out Location One, a gallery space in SoHo, and Staley and his team lugged equipment in and out of it every time they presented something there. It was an inviting ground-floor space, but by the time Roulette was starting to establish a new home there, most of the art galleries were getting squeezed out of the neighborhood they helped to define. The Downtown scene, which had defined an aesthetic for several generations, was slowly losing its birthplace. Meanwhile Brooklyn had become a hotbed for the indie music community and the abandoned Memorial Hall, a 14,000 square-foot auditorium built circa 1928 that was owned by the Y.W.C.A., became available. So Roulette moved boroughs and went from being new music in someone’s home to a home for new music.

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Staley talking on the stage of Roulette

Jim Staley, photo by Spencer McCormick.

Frank J. Oteri: What I think has made Roulette such a vital venue all these years is that you’re not just somebody who loves this music; you actually make music yourself so you have an insider’s understanding of the point of view of the people who are performing here.
Jim Staley: I always had a feeling of what these people really want and what’s important to them. It’s always nice to have fruit in the dressing room, but what they really want is to be treated well and to have the work sound as they envisioned it. I think everyone’s very happy because they have a very pleasant experience with the staff and they feel like their work is realized as well as it can be.
I also have to say that back when we started things, the whole aesthetic and direction was founded on the two Johns: John Coltrane and John Cage. Those two people were the most important influences on my generation. I’ve always felt that if you’re talking about the American avant-garde, don’t just talk about Cage or the Downtown minimalist scene; you have to talk about the avant-jazz scene, too. There’s just as extensive a scene going on in jazz as there is in the new music, classical, electronics world. So that’s always been an essential part of our programming.
FJO: But before we get into a deeper discussion about Roulette, I want to talk about what you were doing before it opened 35 years ago. All the bios of you I’ve read in various places invariably begin with “Jim Staley moved to New York in 1978,” which is when Roulette began. What were you doing before you moved here? What was your earliest exposure to music? How did you get interested in this stuff?
JS: Well, my mother was a musician and she decided her kids were going to be musicians, or at least play instruments. She picked the trombone for me, and I think somewhere after third grade, I started taking lessons. It just sort of grew from there. It was a normal experience: band, orchestras, whatever. I went through high school and when I got into the University of Illinois, Bob Gray—a trombone teacher I’d known since I began playing—was there and I studied with him.
Vietnam was happening and I came up with number 20. So it was clear I was going in the Army one way or the other. I was in my sophomore year of college, and I decided to audition for the Sixth Army band in San Francisco which I heard had lots of professionals. So I ended up in San Francisco, which was a pretty interesting place to be in 1970. The band had about 80 members in it, almost all non-lifers. People had come out of orchestras and the L.A. scene; most of them had their bachelor’s or master’s degrees already. It was quite a fine group of musicians. And, of course, San Francisco was a great place to be—the whole Haight-Ashbury scene was active, Berkeley, everything. I played in the Berkeley Free Symphony when I was there. After about a year, I got transferred to Germany. I ended up in Berlin. That band wasn’t so good, but there were still some wonderful people and it was a great place culturally at the time.
FJO: So technically you were a private first class in the military.
JS: Yeah, I did three years in the Army, which was what was required. The advantage of the Army was it was three years. But you have to go through basic training. So basically that was two months of hell, and you’re off to play your instrument again. If you go into the Air Force, Navy, or Marine bands, you don’t go through basic training. But it’s four years.
FJO: A lot of people don’t realize this, but those bands do a lot of new music, though certainly not the kind of new music that you wound up becoming known for. But you were also around Haight-Ashbury in 1970, which was a wild place and time for music.
JS: It was quite, and I was like 20 years old.
FJO: So is that how you got turned onto all this avant-garde stuff?
JS: No, that happened in Berlin actually. I got connected to three different important scenes when I was there. I got to be friends with Slide Hampton; he put together a big band and I was lucky enough to play in that some. He took me as his guest to the North Sea Jazz Festival once and that was quite an experience—incredible jazz legends when I was there. Then I also met Jim Fulkerson. He’d been at my school so I knew of him from Illinois, but I’d never met him. When I was in Berlin, he got my name and called me up, and we got together and played some. He got me to help out in some of his pieces. It was quite a different thing. Those were hardcore minimalist days. I also got to meet a lot of the composers and artists that were involved in the DAAD [Deutsche Akademischer Austausch Dienst (e.g., the German Academic Exchange Service)]. At that time, the DAAD was a year or two-year residency. They had a dozen to twenty composers at any given time there and as many visual artists and writers and it was quite an international scene. It’s a fellowship that’s still going. I think Zeena Parkins is just going over for a six-month residency. Lots of different composers—Ron Kuivila, Nic Collins—have done it. But it’s scaled back considerably from the time when I was there. Berlin was still an isolated city at that time—the wall was still up—so there was a lot more cultural funding going on just to keep people coming there and to keep it occupied with younger, active people and not just the retired people who originally were there. Anyway, that was a really interesting scene.
One of the guys I met, Terry Thompson—who’d been in a Navy band and had studied in Indiana and then studied with the guys in Chicago—was there trying to get an orchestra job. So we got together and played duets a lot, which was very helpful to me. Then some friends of his at the Hochschule said they were going to see this great new thing going on, why don’t we come? So I went to the Akademie Kunst, and it was an early FMP [Free Music Production] concert with 30 guys lined up against the wall just blowing their brains out for two hours straight. You know, Albert Mangelsdorff and all that. I’m sure Peter Brötzmann was one of them. Barry Guy and Paul Rutherford were coming through all the time, so I spent time going and hearing those events as well. So it was the jazz scene, the minimalist scene, and then this European-style improv scene.

Staley performing on a didgeridoo

Staley performing on a didgerido in 1988, photo by Barbara Mensch.

FJO: I read that you have a music education degree.
JS: I started out in that, but when I came back from the Army, I just wanted to play. Somebody suggested that I switch, but I just took some extra courses that allowed me to get a performance degree as well, a B.M. as well as a B.S. I went on to the master’s because before I finished both my bachelor’s, I was already doing some master’s courses. So it just all went together. But it was an exciting place when I was first there. The jazz band there was pretty phenomenal. Cecil Bridgewater and Ron Dewar were doing a lot of really out, experimental stuff. Gradually it got conservative again, but they were really pushing the envelope. Harry Partch had been there in the ‘50s. Lot of recordings were from there. And Cage had been there a couple of times doing his circus pieces and HPSCHD. There was that kind of energy going on there. When I came back, it had subsided somewhat, but there were still people left over who were very influenced by that. And that’s what I was looking for.
FJO: So you were never in a classroom teaching music?
JS: I did student teaching, but barely. I didn’t know if I was going to end up teaching or not. I hadn’t gotten the playing out of my system and it just kept getting more in the system, the more I did it. So I got farther and farther away from considering teaching.
FJO: Well, I find it an interesting thing in your background considering the role you now have with Roulette as an advocate for so much music. By providing people a venue in which they can hear all this experimental music, you’re teaching people about sound and what sound can be and what the possibilities are for music. Do you see that connection at all?
JS: I don’t think of it that way really. I just think that creativity is a very valuable human thing in society. And Roulette’s always been about contributing to a healthy scene. So we support the work and the people who are doing it. I’m constantly re-evaluating how I think about that. I don’t necessarily like everything, but I try to see the value in what people are doing, open it up to a range of things that are going on and try and represent that as best as possible. Each year, it’s something new. New things come, and old things fall off. So it keeps changing over time.
FJO: When did you first become connected to Morgan Powell?
JS: I knew him at school; he was a professor there. Then one of the guys who played trombone in Berlin, Barry Ross, who was the lead trombone player in one of the radio bands, had gone to Berkeley and Morgan was his teacher. So he was talking about Morgan and telling me what a great trombone player he was. I knew him as a composer writing for jazz band. I was also hearing about Sal Martirano from outside; Barry Guy had talked about him. And Fulkerson had studied with him and also with Herbert Brün and Ben Johnston. So when I went back to school, I made a point of connecting with them. I went to see Morgan and said, “I’d like to take a work study thing with you or something.” And he said, “Why don’t you just come around and we’ll hang out.” So I came and brought stuff, and we talked about music. He had a choreographer composer class he was teaching. He asked me to come and be a part of that. So I got involved with dance, which I was interested in anyway because of stuff I’d seen Mary Fulkerson do in Berlin.
FJO: When you say you brought stuff, were you already composing music at that point?
JS: No, just recordings of music, Slide Hampton’s work and other things. And we’d talk about it.
FJO: In terms of understanding this divide between composing and performing, creating your own music versus playing music that somebody else has you play, what was the moment when that crystalized for you?
JS: I think when I was in Berlin and doing the Fulkerson stuff and started becoming interested in improv. I did try to do changes, but I wasn’t a change guy. I got up in the jazz gallery on the open nights and played. I came to the conclusion that changes weren’t for me. But I did become attracted to the idea of working with sound as a way to break me out of the conventional thinking of music. And also working with dance. It’s sort of the same thing. It took me out of that conventional way of how I thought about music.
FJO: One of the things that makes the trombone such an ideal vehicle for that kind of exploration is it’s so open ended. You can play any pitch on it because of the slide.
JS: It’s an amplifier of whatever you put into it. That’s really the essence of it. It amplifies whether you put a bassoon reed in your mouth or bass clarinet mouthpiece on it or sing through it or whatever. It’s just processing that through a particular kind of filter, and amplifying it. So it’s very flexible that way. And, of course, microtonally it’s completely flexible, and so it has a lot of options. It’s very similar to the human voice in a sense.
FJO: Did your own experimentation with the instrument start in Berlin?
JS: Yeah, but I got much more involved when I came back to the university. I was playing in just about every ensemble they had, maybe ten, sixteen hours a day, a little more than they would have liked. But I just wanted to get back into it. Gradually things fell off. More and more I got involved with doing my own work after a couple of years and playing in the orchestras and other things less.

A break during a 1979 gig at Chicago's N.A.M.E. Gallery (pictured fron left to right, back row): David Means, Jim Staley, John Fonville, David Weinstein, (and seated in front) Barbara Maloney and Dan Senn. Photol courtesy Jim Staley.

A break during a 1979 gig at Chicago’s N.A.M.E. Gallery (pictured fron left to right, back row): David Means, Jim Staley, John Fonville, David Weinstein, (and seated in front) Barbara Maloney and Dan Senn. Photol courtesy Jim Staley.

FJO: So you sort of had this informal, quasi-formal, not quite work-study relationship with Morgan. When did you officially become part of the Tone Road Ramblers? How did that happen?
JS: Well, we started it together. When I moved here, he asked about coming out and doing something. He had some people here that he wanted to work with—people like Jim McNeely and Ray Sasaki. He did a concert in my loft as part of that first spring season. Afterwards, John Fonville—I call him Jack—so Jack and Morgan and I went over across the street to the coffee shop. I’d been thinking about putting an ensemble together with Jack. And Morgan said, “I’d like to do something.” So we started brainstorming. He had some people he wanted involved. Michael Udow, Ray Sasaki and his brother Dave, and Jack. Yeah, I think that was it. It was two trombones, trumpet, clarinet, flutes, and percussion when we started.
FJO: But before you moved to New York, you were already playing with many of these people and you also said that stuff was starting to happen with groups that you were leading. So why do you pick up and come here?
JS: Well, I was on the GI bill, which back then was fantastic. I don’t have this student debt that all these poor people have now. Our generation didn’t have that, fortunately, and it made a big difference in giving us the freedom to pursue what we wanted to pursue. I had driven out in the summer of ‘77 to check out the West Coast because I loved San Francisco. And I’d gone to L.A. and there just wasn’t that much activity. There were some great people, but there wasn’t really that kind of intense [scene]. I was really looking for a critical mass of activity that went on like on campus at the University of Illinois—access to all the performers, and dance, and everything else on a professional level. L.A. was all studio stuff. People played stuff they wanted to on Monday nights because that’s when they didn’t have gigs. That’s why music concerts happened on Monday nights. That’s the night nobody had a gig. That wasn’t a scene I wanted to move to. Of course, New York was. It wasn’t going to be quite the enjoyable environment that maybe San Francisco was, but it had the same amount of artists creating and making their own work and they were actively working in a way that didn’t happen anywhere else in the country.
FJO: What I find so fascinating about New York in the ‘70s was it seemed back then that if something you wanted didn’t exist, if there was no scene that you could be a part of, you just made your own scene. In downtown Manhattan all this stuff started sprouting up. Philip Glass and Steve Reich starting their own ensembles. CBGBs became the mecca for the whole punk scene. Loft concerts downtown allowed jazz musicians to experiment in ways that the established clubs wouldn’t. Then there were all these alternative spaces where minimalism, jazz, punk, and other kinds of music intersected, like The Kitchen and, well, Roulette. I see this kind of thing happening now in Brooklyn, which is a scene you’re now a part of, but that energy is something that I think has very rarely been replicated in any place in any other time.
JS: Well, maybe it’s happening in Berlin, but they don’t have the support financially. In New York, there’s the financial industry which really is key to helping a scene work. In the ‘70s and into the early-‘80s, it was still affordable in Manhattan. When I got my loft, it was probably the last year you could find a loft like mine, for what I’m paying for it. All the activity, when I got to town, was all happening in lofts in TriBeCa and SoHo. The Kitchen was on Broome Street, and I went to so many performances. Dance and music performances were all happening in lofts. It gradually moved to the East Village and then spread around.
FJO: You lived in that loft.
JS: I still live in that loft.
FJO: It’s interesting how it went from being a place where you did your own concerts or concerts with the Tone Road Ramblers to a place that presented lots of other musicians.
JS: Well I thought, let me try to get people to come and see our things more by having other things in the loft, too. So we put together a little series. The first concert was supposed to be Ben Johnston, but he couldn’t come and had to cancel. So the first concert ended up being Malcolm Goldstein playing solo. Phill Niblock asked me to have him, because he didn’t want to have improv in his loft.
FJO: Really?
JS: Yeah, he wanted to keep it to composition work, so he suggested that Malcolm would be good at the thing I was putting together. And I’m sure it helped that Malcolm would bring people in and get them to know the space. That first concert opened the door. John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Phil Corner, and dozens of other composers –all kinds of people—came to see that concert. They loved the space and loved how it sounded and how it felt. We got something like 30 requests to do things there just after doing that. So we said, “O.K., this looks like a good thing. Let’s try and book everybody who wants to do something.” That next spring really turned into something. I think after we put the schedule together, Sal Martirano came out and was doing something on a Composers Forum concert at Cooper Union and asked if he could do something in the loft also. Anyway, it just took off.
FJO: Doing all that in your apartment probably didn’t jive well with the neighbors.
JS: Well, it was a loft building. They were all artists. Margaret Beals lived above me, and she was very cool. And Meredith Monk lived on the fifth floor, and a visual artist, Bob Smith, lived on the fourth floor. The top floor was Colleen McDonough, who’s at the ASCAP Foundation. Colleen’s roommate Anne Philbin, who’s now out in L.A. running a museum, had been at The Drawing Center. And Roma Baron, the producer for Laurie Anderson’s early stuff; she’s still in New York City working as a public defender and well as producing and recording projects. It was an artist building. So people did their work. And I didn’t push it too far. We tried to keep it really simple with everyone. I think that there were some loud things. John Zorn did some big game pieces where loud has to get louder at all times. David Linton came in and did things with his guitar where he’d amplified his drums to the point that the building shook, and that concert Margie objected to somewhat. But she got over it and was very supportive of what we were doing. She had her concerts, too. I ended up hanging a double sheetrock ceiling in that room to help mitigate the sound. Anyway, it worked. Concerts were at nine and they were usually over by eleven. So it was very workable, and that kind of thing went on in TriBeCa and SoHo.
FJO: How many nights a week?
JS: We ended up doing 60 concerts a year, sometimes up to 90. We had to keep it within the months that were not too cold or too hot. Usually we’d start in September and do the last concerts early in December, then come back in March and go ‘til the first part of May. So it allowed a lot of time for me to do my own work; I could keep up my activities as an improviser and trombonist. It was very balanced in that way.
FJO: Still, it was all happening in your apartment.
JS: And I ended up doing sound, so I was there for almost all of those concerts. But, yeah, there were times when every night for two weeks you had concerts, then you got a week off, then another two weeks [of concerts]. We’d do that three times in the fall, and three times in the spring. That’s what it was like. Then for the rest of the summer, I was off doing gigs.
FJO: But in terms of it being your home, let’s say something happens—you get sick with the flu or food poisoning—and you have a show scheduled, what happened?
JS: Well, it’s an L-shaped place. And I was doing this with David Weinstein. If something happened, he could take over and do things. We split it: he did box office; I did the sound. We’d switch. That happened the first few years and gradually we had other people involved. We’d bring on box office kids and get them paid 20 bucks or something. Over time I gradually got people to come in and do sound. Ben Manley, who’s [now] our tech director here, came in for a while with Dan Farkas and they would do sound for a bunch of the concerts. They learned how to do sound there back in the ‘80s. So people would come in, and I’d set up the sound and they’d come in and run the recording. It was a mix to stereo, simple back then, tape. Then we went to the PCM format, then DAT. Gradually we just went to computer.
FJO: Now in terms of the economics of running a space like this back then, it’s not like this could have ever been a big money maker. The space only held about 70 people. You mentioned bringing other people on and paying them. How did you keep it going?
JS: Well, the funding was a little easier. We got money from the Jerome Foundation early on and NYSCA. It was enough to start paying people a bit. And basically I’d had some inheritance. My father died the year that we started Roulette. So gradually I mostly invested that into equipment and the time to pursue that. And I did construction work—sheetrocking—on the side. I just got by, and gradually funding got better, enough to sustain us. You just piece it together and make it up as you go along.
FJO: It was a wonderful bubble while it lasted and it lasted for quite a long time, but then things changed. I remember going to a concert at the original Roulette, toward the end of its run in that space. A club had moved in downstairs and the music blasting from the club was louder than the concert.
JS: Yeah, in ’97. That was the beginning of the end. You know, some things were bad, some things were good. Alright, they were quiet certain nights, but it was a big problem. For years, it was just the luck of the draw. So many places had moved and shut down. The Loft Law, which came in 1982, sort of allowed us protection. We would have been long gone if that law hadn’t been passed. I think landlords expected that that law could get overturned, and so they kept stalling and not doing work, so the rent stayed frozen. When I moved in, it was six hundred bucks. After two years, it was raised to $700 and $800 and it got frozen. It was $800 a month from 1982 until the late ‘90s when finally they decided O.K., this law’s not going away. We’ve got to bring the buildings up to code and do work. Then they were allowed some substantial increases, but it still is rent stabilized. So now it’s relatively low for the amount of space and for TriBeCa, where rents are going for $20,000 to $30,000 a month for places. But that’s the nature of people staying in one place. There are people in the East Village still paying $400 bucks or less, you know. Zorn bought his place for very little. He was paying $40 dollars a month. But that was then. The housing situation in New York now really needs to be addressed.
FJO: What’s happened is that it has become almost impossible for a scene like the scene that you helped create in the late ‘70s to happen in Manhattan anymore.
JS: It couldn’t. About the time we started looking for this place in 2009, ’10, it was clear that the critical mass of activity had moved here to Brooklyn. Anything in terms of involving creative artists, if you didn’t have an institutional place, or a fixed, long-term lease, was impossible. Our situation was that when the building got its certificate of occupancy, the rules changed so that I could not present other people’s work anymore. I could present my own, but I couldn’t present other people in my space. At least that’s what the interpretation is. But it was fine. It was time to move out. We’d really grown to the point where it was a blessing in disguise that we got pushed to that.

Audience in gallery space with beams

A view of the audience at a Roulette performance in the Location One space in SoHo. Photo by Terri Hanlon, courtesy Jim Staley.

So we moved it around, and we finally settled on this gallery space on Greene Street in SoHo. Claire Montgomery showed me this space. It wasn’t really right for us for a permanent home, but she developed this space, so we went in and did some things, renting the space for two weeks at a time, pulling everything in and pulling everything out. That went on for two or three years. Then she didn’t really need that extra space or didn’t want to program the space and felt like they needed steady income there to cover the mortgage costs. But she wanted to keep hold of it at least a quarter of the time. So we took it three-quarters of the time. At that point there was air conditioning, so it could be year-round space and we just started presenting year round. The organization really jumped in terms of size. It was a street level space. It had its problems, but it was a great step for us. We had a three-year lease with an extra two-year option and we expected to renew it. But then the crisis came, and it caused pressure with the owner; he didn’t feel that he could promise to extend our stay there.
So we started looking around, and I stumbled upon this place. We worked with the Y [Y.W.C.A.]; there was a nine-month negotiation on the lease, but it worked out. You know, it is probably the best location we could be in. I walked in, and something I had felt about my loft is the way I felt about this. I walked in and immediately it just felt right. It had such a great feeling to it; you just wanted to stay. And this is what the scene has really needed. It needed a facility that could allow for Braxton to do his opera and all these other things that we couldn’t even hope to do in a gallery space—the dance works, the multi-media things. People have the room for a large audience or just to have a fantastic sounding space that’s well-equipped. We got a lot of help along the way to make this work.
FJO: It’s quite a transformation. It began in your own walk-up apartment, then concerts took place in an art gallery—both of these kinds of spaces were very much in keeping with the DIY ethos of the Downtown scene. But now it’s a bonafide venue.
JS: I’ve always felt this work really deserved to have a venue like this. It had outgrown the loft. It really needed a space that was a legitimate space. It worked with Greene Street. It was big enough. People could get there easily. But there were pillars in the way, and it was restrictive—it just wasn’t the full experience that people could have with the work. This space is very much like my loft in a sense. It’s just on a bigger scale. You’re intimate with the work—you can hear people thinking. And it sounds great and you can see everything.
FJO: There’s also a proscenium here, which establishes a certain kind of relationship between the performers and the audience—there are diverging opinions about that being optimal nowadays.

The stage of Roulette photographed from the balcony

A view of the stage of the current Roulette. Photo by Doron Sadja, courtesy Roulette.

JS: Well, the stage used to be too high, so I’ve lowered it and stuck it out. It’s moveable, too. A lot of times people want to do things on the floor and be on the ground, if they want that intimacy. It can work a lot of different ways for people. It’s very flexible. That’s important. That goes back to that whole loft experience. Early SoHo, the Judson Church, all that stuff was about flexible spaces and non-fixed seating that could be used in whatever way the artist, composer, or performer needed it to be set up.
FJO: So one thing that I find amazing is they changed the laws on you so that it was O.K. to present your own work, but not O.K. to present other people, yet it was perfectly O.K. for a club to blast loud music that clearly wasn’t theirs to the point that it was drowning out some of your concerts. I remember being at a Christian Wolff concert that you had there, and the music from the club completely drowned it out since his music was really quiet. It was tragic.
JS: It was heart breaking what happened on some of those evenings. In the past, there had been a plumbing store. They went out at five. You could record in there, it was so quiet downtown. And a lot of recordings were done in there. It was a great space. Unless the fire department needed to go put out a fire, it was incredibly quiet down in TriBeCa in the ‘80s up until the mid-‘90s. It was ’97 when those guys moved in. And it really changed everything.
FJO: What I love about this new space is that it forever buries this idea that you can’t have a space that’s devoted to experimental music and sustain it. You’ve proven this music can have a significant venue. But I have to confess, and maybe it’s the lifelong Manhattanite in me talking, I remember initially feeling a little sad when I learned about the move. But it’s not just because of a selfish reason like it takes longer to get here for me personally. There had been a vital Downtown scene that had spawned so much amazing music. Roulette leaving, which happened around the same time that ISSUE Project Room also left Manhattan and moved to Brooklyn, felt like a death knell to Downtown music. But of course, the ethos is now something else and the scene here is very vibrant.
JS: Well yeah, it’s evolved. There’s a lot of creative activity going on. But these times are very different. The ‘60s and ‘70s were very mind expanding—you know, let’s try whatever. These days are about all the incredible challenges the world faces with climate change and the terrorism of the Middle East and the Tea Party, all of that stuff. I think it causes people to pull in. That was something I realized from my Army experience. When I was in San Francisco, all the people in that band were very radical. You’d get on a bus to go to a gig, and a third of the bus were Communists, a third were Anarchists, and they were always arguing with each other over political philosophy. We didn’t get a lot of military push back on us. We had to live within the lines, but there was a lot of freedom. There was stuff to go and do, and they left us alone. But when I went to Berlin, it was a very oppressive scene. Musicians—the non-lifers and even lifers—were much more conservative politically. But their way of doing things was much more radical. They broke out and screwed up the music, pushing back against the authority there. So it was interesting. Even though they were so much more radical in their actions, they were much more conservative in their political philosophy.
FJO: There is still some pretty radical music being made nowadays, though.
JS: We had a recent benefit that featured all artists who were under 40. There was such a range of things. Everybody seemed so reassured and excited that there was that much really interesting, creative work going on among young composers, that it was still going on and was interesting. They didn’t just have to go to a Christian Wolff concert to hear interesting work. But there’s a really different set of concerns, obviously, because it’s a different generation and the world has changed. In some ways, [the younger generation] may be more conservative in dealing with instrumentation and tonality. They’re dealing with the harmonic system more than you would have ever expected from the ‘60s and ‘70s; it was taboo in those days.
FJO: Well, one thing that has shifted fundamentally I think is attitudes about audiences. Once upon a time, it was assumed that really experimental concerts—whether Uptown or Downtown—would attract a small devoted coterie. Going to such a concert felt like being in on some incredible secret or like being part of chosen group—ultimately, almost everyone in those audiences knew one another. But now the secret is out. Few things have made me feel more euphoric about the ability for really experimental music to attract a broader audience than the re-creation of Cage’s Musicircus you presented here before the official opening of this space. Tons of people showed up for it. It was amazing.
JS: Yeah, it was a great happening.
FJO: It was a very different thing than just playing for the initiated. People came inside from the street because something really unusual was happening here; a whole potential new audience for experimental music was drawn to this event.
JS: Well, that certainly is the task. That’s something we’re always working for. We certainly have concerts where a dozen to twenty people show up, things that a lot more people should see. Jaap Blonk did an incredible concert here, but there weren’t so many people. He’s not well-known enough here. Our constant work is to expand our audience base, trying to get people to go to things that they don’t know about. We have some successes with that, but it’s something you really need to do a lot more of. That’s clearly the thing. That’s a lifelong task. We’ve been doing it since we opened our doors. We’re still working on that.
FJO: But it’s great that you are still committed to artists who don’t necessarily sell out the house automatically, that you are willing to take risks and you are offering audiences programs that they should take a chance with. So in terms of taking chances and taking risks, is that the reason for the name Roulette?
JS: Weinstein had that name. It was part of a Dadaist piece he did called Café Roulette. Dan Senn had been working on something with raku pottery, and we were kicking around all that stuff. Cage was very important at that time. We settled on something that was more secular, something that was a little more colorful than chance music for the people—for the gamblers in the society. It seemed like a good name to work with when you’re sitting around in a room and trying to come up with a name for the organization.
FJO: But it’s interesting that it wasn’t your name, because one of the things I find so compelling about your own musical projects are the titles that you give to things, like the series of trio performances that you released under the name Mumbo Jumbo. It’s wonderfully evocative. It instantly connotes language, communication between people, and it also connotes incomprehensibility, but in a humorous way.
JS: It was really about different conversations. I see improvisation as conversation in a sense, or counterpoint. It can go all different kinds of ways. You can be talking past each other, screaming at each other, or really interacting closely—a whole range of things are possible and interesting. Zorn had done his Locus Solus which is a really different kind of thing. It really was different groupings of people. And I thought, “Well, I want to do that.” And I found that I had different relationships with different people. My trio with Shelley Hirsch and Sam Bennett was sort of a vaudeville act with each person trying to pull the other guy and get in front of them. It was kind of aggressive. Whereas with Ikue Mori and Bill Frisell, you had to be careful you didn’t step on somebody because it was much more about just being respectful and letting everybody have the right space to do what they’re doing and appreciate that, rather than getting your word out in front of the other guy, who was always getting in front of you. It was really a different kind of dynamic with each of the different groups. That was interesting to me and fun.

Staley playing trombone with Ikue Mori on drums and Bill Frisell on guitar

Jim Staley in performance with Ikue Mori on drums and Bill Frisell on guitar at the Roulette’s original West Broadway venue in 1988. Photo by Barbara Mensch, courtesy Roulette.

FJO: It’s fascinating that you say that about those two particular trio configurations, because in the performances with Shelley Hirsch, you are singing into the trombone. You’re really responding to her extended vocals which take the voice far beyond singing; the trombone really becomes an ancillary voice. Whereas when you were playing with Frisell, I feel you took him to a more avant-garde place than he would typically go on his own. His sound world is all about distortion and feedback, and bending notes, but I feel that you were pushing him even further with the extended techniques you were exploring on the trombone, whereas it seemed to me that with Shelly Hirsch, she was pushing you to a new place.
JS: Well, I think we were all going around. I remember Bill at the end of something looking at me and saying, “I think it’s good.” That was his reaction to what was going on. The funny thing with the Zorn and [Fred] Frith trio was that up until that point all the things I did with Zorn had been with game calls. We did a lot of gigs together. I did an early record with him, and I felt a real affinity with him. And with Frith, he was always doing the table stuff [table-top guitars]. Well, our gig happened the day after John had done The Big Gundown for two days at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. So we show up at the studio, and separately Fred decides he’s going to bring his guitar and John decides he’s going to bring his sax. So it was a completely different kind of thing than I’d expected to happen with them.
FJO: It’s actually strangely the most conventional of all the trios on that disc. It’s almost like extended hard bop.
JS: Yeah. I played a duo gig with John once and before we started, I said, “Let’s just stay away from playing jazz.” First thing he did is go into total jazz licks. You know, you can’t tell him anything. So that was a good lesson.

Shelley Hirsch singing into microphone.

Shelley Hirsch in performance at the original West Broadway location of Roulette. Photo courtesy Roulette.

FJO: Ha! Getting back to your titles, I have to admit I’m a little bit baffled by your use of the name Don Giovanni for another one of your improv projects. Is there something I’m missing?
JS: I was looking for a title and Weinstein was always great with bizarre titles. He was listening to it, and he said just call it “Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni.” I thought, “Well, that’s a little strange.” But then I listened to it and started following as things happened, the relationship between the different movements, or parts of it, happened to line up with some of the things, like the double trio; it seemed to line up with the structure. Obviously it wasn’t intentional. It was completely non-narrative. You know, we’re going in here and we’re totally improvising with whatever happens here with these different groupings. There’s still an emotional dynamic that happens between people and where they are in the studio. It just happens, especially in improv. It’s not necessarily expression; it just comes out. There are such quick choices that happen and become somewhat emotional on a level that you don’t even know you’re connecting with people, and stuff is going back and forth. You don’t know the connections are made until you listen later. That happens in improv all the time. So it’s not something you’re choosing. It something that’s sort of happening; you’re making choices all the time, but they’re not entirely completely thought-out choices. They’re coming out of a lot of places. I spent months going through it. I worked with Fred Frith producing; we worked together on it. When we were in the studio, he’d pipe in Iggy Pop to somebody and it changed the whole dynamic of things. And I did some stuff where there were ghost tracks where people were all listening to the same thing, but didn’t hear each other’s improv; it was just put on top of each other against a common thing. But when I listened back to it, it seemed to have a narrative in spite of itself. So I just sort of imposed that on it. It wasn’t something that was created with it. It just came out of it.
FJO: So there’s no Mozart in it?
JS: No.
FJO: Interesting. I don’t know if you guys did this intentionally as a joke, or if it’s somebody’s glitch somewhere, but there’s some meta-tagging of files digitally online that gives the composer as Mozart for all the tracks.
JS: Really?
FJO: You didn’t know that?
JS: No! That must have been done with Virtual Ableton.
FJO: To get back to what you were saying about improvisation as conversation earlier, it seems like you really feed off of collaboration. That seems to be key to most of your work.
JS: Yeah. I much prefer as an improviser playing with people than doing solo. Solo is very hard to do. I can do short periods, but a whole evening is really rough. I really prefer working with people. And it also changes what I do. I’ll come up with different solutions or go different places if I’m working with different people. I certainly discover stuff in the middle of improvising based on what’s going on that I’d never done before.
FJO: And it also gives you the ability to influence somebody else. I’m thinking of a duo concert you did with Sylvie Courvoisier where both of you are going to places that I’ve never heard either of you go to at any other time. Also a performance you did with Zeena Parkins.
JS: Yeah, that was fun. Zeena came out wrapped in cellophane on one of them with a microphone. That’s how she began the thing.

Borah Bergman on piano and Jim Staley on trombone

Staley in a duet performance with pianist Borah Bergman at the Greene Street venue. Photo courtesy Jim Staley.

FJO: But I also think you’ve done some amazing solo performances.
JS: But it can’t be all evening. I mean, we’re used to violin or piano being a full evening concert by itself.
FJO: Well, violin alone is not all that common. There are people who do that, like Malcolm Goldstein who was your very first guest artist at Roulette, but it’s unusual. Solo trombone happens even less frequently, but it can be done.
JS: Yeah, for 20 or 30 minutes. I think people can sit through that.
FJO: So maintaining the balance between running Roulette and doing your own music—
JS: —Well, I have to say, it’s not balanced now. I mean, this [move to the new space] took over my life. I oversaw the renovation. There were concerts going on at Greene Street still in 2010/11, but it was a lot thinner. Our whole effort was managing this renovation project. I had a great architect that helped make it happen and great contractors. And of course my board is fantastic. They really stepped up financially and with business sensibilities and other things that have just made it possible. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise. But it took over my life. I’ve hardly played much. I go out with the Ramblers and I do a solo thing here and there, but my head hasn’t been there.
I’ve been focused on managing this—the budget went from $500,000 or so on Greene Street to $1.3 million in a year and a half, a big jump to pull off and, of course, it is much bigger place—and finding the right programming. Programming has to change for what comes here. There are so many groups in the community that use this place—the World Music Institute, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, the Brooklyn Philharmonic when it exists does things here, and other people. It’s not somebody who’s doing their first raw experiments. I think this facility is now for things that are developed a little bit. I still want to focus on experimental composers, people like Peter Evans and Jen Shyu and Tristan Perich, all these other fantastic young composers. Nate Wooley just did a fantastic concert and Kris Davis did a great concert here earlier this year. Gabrielle Herbst did an opera thing. Her instrumental writing is fantastic. It’s an opportunity to have a venue for that, and hopefully support for that, but those other things now have to go to other DIY spaces. This is somewhere they can grow to, where that work can grow to. Before you had to wait until you got big enough that maybe BAM would pay attention to you or Lincoln Center or maybe Merkin Hall or Miller Theatre, which is a once-every-five-years kind of event, if you’re lucky.
And now it’s back to bigger projects. Early in the ‘60s, people went out and certainly did bigger projects. They’d do them in Judson Church or outside or in some alternative space. Back in the’60s, everything was sort of on the edge of falling apart, so they could get into a hall and do a project. Those kinds of spaces aren’t so available anymore for people to just come up with something new. And also, like I said, the work has changed. When we started out, dance could be in my loft because everybody’s thinking was more minimalist. At some point I thought they were just bouncing off the walls and it just didn’t work. They needed bigger spaces for what they did.
FJO: You really have continued to pay attention to the whole continuum of adventurous music in all three spaces over the course of these 35 years. One thing we didn’t really speak about yet, and this continues what you were saying about growing audiences, is what you’ve been doing online with Roulette TV.
JS: It’s something I thought of a couple years ago. I went and applied and we got money through [former Brooklyn Borough President] Marty Markowitz. And finally, winding its way through the city capital budget, is a whole multi-camera robotics control set up that we have downstairs. I wanted to be able to do live video streaming of some of the events that we choose, or even where we’re going to make a separate special production for Roulette TV. It’s like TV, which is already an old concept. This is really much more trying to have a virtual performance space that—in conjunction with this performance space—hopefully will draw a larger audience for live stuff. Some of this music is just as moving if you just listen to it, but much of it you’ve got to see to really understand it. It doesn’t translate just through CDs, or just through audio.
It also really opens the possibility of having an artist come in and produce something that we just put out there over the internet. There are a lot of ideas we’re kicking around. But the idea is basically to expand the audience, to try to bring more people into the work, and open it up to the world. Anybody who has access to an internet connection can see this work, and I think it’s already happening.
FJO: So do you think by making this music available to people online that the kind of music you’ve been presenting at Roulette has a chance of becoming much more popular?
JS: People have different tastes. People that love Rachmaninoff may still love this, and they may not. Somebody might think it’s totally idiotic, but I’m sure it would inform something and come back in memory in some other way. Things have a ripple effect. I think there will be people that are drawn to it the more people have access to it. People that don’t have the means to come to New York to see this will be able to see it. And it will influence work in other parts of the world. Creative thought is a good thing for society; I think it has a positive impact in the end.

Brooklyn street outside Roulette

A view of the exterior of the current Roulette space at 509 Atlantic Avenue. Photo by Doron Sadja, courtesy Roulette.

Laura Kaminsky: Every Place Has a Story


A conversation in two parts:
in her office at Symphony Space in New York, New York;
and at her home studio in the Bronx
October 9, 2013—3:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Photos and video presentation by Alexandra Gardner

Back in the 1970s when John Duffy created Meet The Composer (now merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA, the organization which produces this web magazine), the term “composer-in-residence” gained currency in music parlance. The idea of having a living, breathing composer around—not only for audiences to see but to actually influence the programming at musical organizations—was an extremely important one and one which could arguably be credited with creating our current, more accepting climate for new music in all its stylistic variety. Being cognizant that composers are among us is a much healthier paradigm than thinking of composers as folks from faraway lands who are long dead.

Some composers, however, have taken their citizenship role much further. For thirty years, in addition to writing her own socially and environmentally charged music, Laura Kaminsky has worked behind the scenes allowing other composers to have an opportunity to get their voices heard. In addition to teaching at SUNY Purchase and at the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle, she has served as the artistic director of New York City’s Town Hall, director of music and theatre programs at The New School, the associate director for education at the 92nd Street Y, and director of the European Mozart Academy in Poland, as well as vice president for programs at Meet The Composer. For the last four years she has served as the artistic director of Symphony Space.
Admittedly these administrative positions have been vital for Kaminsky’s livelihood, since living exclusively on commissions and royalties is extremely difficult, but they are hardly “day jobs” (she seems to be on call practically 24/7) and for Kaminsky they are as important to her personal identity as her own musical compositions. In fact, witnessing her at her office plotting out a concert season with color-coded charts or hearing her describe how the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination became the theme of a multi-media program she is presenting at Symphony Space on November 21 is not all that different from hearing her describe a piece of music she is working on. Because of that, I thought it would be fascinating to talk with her both in her office and in her home composition studio. For the most part, the conversation at Symphony Space focused on her work as a presenter and the conversation in her apartment dealt with her own music, but inevitably there was some bleed through. Although over the years she has learned to, as she puts it, “compartmentalize her life,” she also has come to realize that her own identity is an amalgam of her various roles:

When I was younger, I felt very much more schizophrenic and bifurcated. You know, now I’m a this; and now I’m a that. Now I’m being creative; now I’m being productive. But it’s just one thing. This is who I am. I spend part of my day in the world of presenting other artists and helping them realize creative innovative projects. And I spend part of my day in my own mind with my own projects. Some of my own compositions are solitary in their birthing and others are collaborative and are inspired by place, or the work of another artist.

The fact that she is a presenter seems to have helped her to craft particularly vivid and compelling descriptions of each of her compositions, and the fact that she is a composer has made her curatorial methods somewhat—for lack a better term—compositional. Rather than getting excited about another composer or ensemble and merely booking them as a result, she works with them to carefully construct a program that will have greater impact and relevance. And because she is a composer, she understands the importance of making new work the focal point rather than an add-on. As a result, she has been one of the best composer advocates in the presenting community. In fact, one of the highlights of her tenure at Symphony Space has been an annual 12-hour marathon devoted exclusively to music by living composers, an initiative that has now become the inaugural event of a month-long living composer celebration throughout New York City .

Full disclosure: I’ve known Laura Kaminsky professionally for more than two decades. We first met when she was Town Hall’s artistic director and I wrote press releases for their events. Over the years, we’ve continued to orbit the same circles. I was very appreciative to be among the many composers asked to have a piece of music included on one of her 12-hour new music marathons a couple of years back. I was also honored to write the booklet notes for the first all-Kaminsky recording, a 2-CD issued on Albany Records released earlier this year. Laura and her wife, the painter Rebecca Allan, have also become personal friends and I treasure the meals and conversations that my wife Trudy and I have shared with them. But the fact is that Laura Kaminsky is a friend to all composers, interpreters, artists, and people who care about the arts, which is why I wanted to share this multi-faceted discussion I had with her here on these pages.

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Part One: The 24/7 Day Job—Being the Artistic Director of Symphony Space

Laura Kaminsky's desk

Laura Kaminsky’s desk in her office at Symphony Space is filled with various charts and graphs as well as music submitted for consideration.

Frank J. Oteri: Almost every composer these days has to wear a variety of hats to make ends meet. Composing is an all-encompassing activity, but most of those other jobs composers take on in order to pay the bills have a precise beginning and end. However, your other principal activity besides composing is also a lot more than a day job. It’s an all-consuming thing to which you could easily dedicate your entire life. So, how do you balance your life when both of the things that you’re totally immersed in are 24/7 kinds of activities?
Laura Kaminsky: Days are much longer than 24 hours, aren’t they? What I have found in my own life is I need to be always acting creatively. My composing life, which I do in the privacy of my studio, is all about taking ideas and giving them depth and breadth and life. Being a composer is a very personal expression. As a presenter and producer of cultural events—and they’re not just musical events, because I oversee film and literature and family programs, and arts and education programs—at Symphony Space, it’s my thinking about the arts and giving a lot of other voices a stage, a place to express themselves. It’s all kind of integrated in a weird way. The balance is sometimes a challenge. I think over the years, I’ve learned to be very focused and disciplined so that I can—as Bill Clinton did so well—compartmentalize my life.

But I pretty much try to start every day in my composing studio. Jessye Norman said to me once, “But of course darling, you have to start the day with you own creativity.” I feel like that’s the most personal expression. I get up very early. I try to swim, or do yoga to get my mind and body moving. I head into my studio early in the morning. It helps that I live with a generative artist. My wife is a painter, and so there’s no tension around that. We’re both very happy to say, “Good morning and see you later.” We’re off in our creative worlds doing that which is most close to us. Then we venture out into the world, and I come down to Symphony Space. Sometimes that transition on the subway ride is hard because I’m still in that third iteration of the main material of my oboe concerto, which is what I’m working on now; it’s playing itself out in my head and I’m scribbling notes. But I know I’m about to go into a marketing meeting and talk about two shows that are coming up, one of which isn’t doing as well as we had liked, so I have to start being strategic about that. That’s my personal wrestling match, but it’s all to the good.
FJO: So a typical day in the life: You said you wake up very early. How early?
LK: Well, in the summer, it’s easy: 5:15 a.m. In the winter, the alarm goes off at 5:15, but the stumbling out into the world doesn’t usually happen until 6.
FJO: And what time are you here?
LK: This morning, I was here at 8:00 a.m.; it was not a real productive morning for me in my studio because we had a board meeting. I accept this and think, “O.K., during the next few weeks, where are the pressures? Where are the constraints?” My season opened here this week. Last weekend, I had to work a lot. The minute I wasn’t here working, I was in my studio. It’s this constant juggling act. My files have to be very organized so I can reach for my music paper and there’s nothing else there. And I can reach for my marketing report; there’s nothing else there. Otherwise I would probably have a nervous breakdown of some sort. I was here at eight in the morning, and we have an event tonight, so I’ll probably get home around ten.
FJO: How does a typical workday here carve up? What kinds of activities are you doing? You mentioned marketing meetings, but I imagine a lot of what you’re doing is planning and thinking through future programming. I noticed the papers on your desk with all different colors on them that represent different programs.
LK: It’s not so dissimilar to when I’m just in my studio all day as a composer. I have a short attention span in the moment, but a very long attention span [overall]. This pile of material here is a project that I conceived and developed with Bruce Rodgers, the director of the Hermitage Artist Retreat Center in Florida, called The Day Before: November 21, 1963. This year is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, and we already have seen the books that are coming out, and the commentary that’s happening, and I think there’s a movie that’s coming out. And it’s always: Camelot, assassination, the world changed. Everybody forgets about what life was like before the world changed. So I posed that challenge to the Hermitage Fellows in all disciplines, and about 50 artists responded: filmmakers and screenwriters, video artists, composers, poets, and playwrights. They all submitted works of up to three minutes answering that question, and they’re very different kinds of works: some are political, some are nostalgic, and some are fantasy pieces. My job now is to take all of this and organizing it into what I think is going to be a really fascinating evening. Every three minutes you’re in a different world, with a different view, in a different medium or collection of media that looks at this re-imagination of a world that’s now lost. I have all of their submissions—there are DVDs, printouts of visuals, scores—and I’m trying to wrap my head around the theme of each of these pieces, plus who’s being asked to present and perform each of them, so that I can build, not just show each little fragment off to its best advantage. How will this feel for those performers? There are two singers, two actors, and a pianist, as well as some of the creators who are presenting their own works. So how do I negotiate the stage? When does John Guare walk onto stage and walk off, and is that a big moment because he’s such an important writer? Who’s also on the stage? How much disruption is that? I use color coding for everything, maybe because I live with a painter, so I track things. I don’t like working at the computer. A lot of people use a computer screen to manipulate. I like to cut and paste with Post-its until I have it right.
FJO: So in terms of R & D, this is an idea you came up with, and then you presented it to a group of people who then executed it.
LK: Just to be totally clear, I was in residence as one of the fellows at the Hermitage with Rebecca, my wife. The director, Bruce Rodgers, who himself is a playwright, asked me to meet with him because they had made a decision to invite an artist to be on their board of trustees. They’d never had an artist on the board, and they wanted me to take that position. Boards are generally about providing funding to secure the future of the institution. So I said, “My hope is that I can participate in a way that creates visibility for the artists and the work that they do in this special space, so that it’s a secure place for artists for all time.” And he said, “We’re coming to New York in the fall, because two of our fellows were involved in an important project [Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas’s opera Two Boys]. So we want to do some kind of an event to celebrate the wealth and breadth of Hermitage artists. Do you think we could do something at Symphony Space?” And I said, “Great. Let’s figure something out. But I don’t want this to be a show and tell, because an evening of works by artists from the Hermitage is only going to sell tickets to those artists and their significant others, and it won’t be a public event. We need to find something interesting and provocative that will be an inspiration to the artists to create new work, and will have interest to a public.” And so I said, “When are you guys coming for the opera? What’s happening this fall? What can we latch onto?” And that’s when I came up with this concept: rather than looking at the 50th anniversary of the assassination, let’s re-imagine a world before. It really touches on personal stories, a lot of pieces of innocence, childhood for many of the artists. It’s just been phenomenal.
FJO: This project really demonstrates your level of detail in putting together a program. You’re involved with an organization and so they came to you saying they want to do an event, but then you came back to them and said here’s the frame that can make this happen. It’s a really collaborative process. It isn’t like you heard an amazing string quartet and decided that you had to book them six months from now.
LK: Many presenters do exactly that. They go to a lot of events or they go to booking conferences and they find out who’s out there that has done well or has recommendations from other presenters and then they book them. I sometimes will say I think this is a good group, let’s hire them. But that’s not that interesting to me. What’s really interesting to me is finding the creative energy in everybody. So if I like string quartet X or jazz trio Y, I’ll contact them and say, “I’d like you to be part of our season. These are things I’m thinking about. Here are some questions I’d like you to consider. How would you respond?” And we begin a dialogue to then build a program. Or I might say, “I think you guys share a sensibility with this composer. Could you meet and talk?” Maybe there’s a new piece there. Maybe we’ll end up commissioning it, which we’ve done. I’ve also sometimes had the intuition that this soloist and this ensemble could work together, so I’ve approached them and let them go figure it out. And we’ve had some successes. For example, the Cassatt Quartet and Ursula Oppens had never played together. From the ways that both Ursula and the ensemble think about music—they’re both free and precise and have this passionate commitment to new music in an open, life-affirming way—I just had a sense that maybe if it worked, it would be a good thing. So we put them together about three years ago for one program. They’ve been performing regularly ever since. Not just here; they tour now. I feel like I made a match. But it was just this gut feeling: these are artists who could bounce off each other and good things will come. Now they make their own programs and they come to me and say, “We’re doing this tour, but would you consider this project.” And I say, “Well this is interesting, but would you consider that?” And we build it together. I tend to like the collaboration; I feel like there’s more investment all around.

Symphony Space Exterior

Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford, courtesy Symphony Space.

FJO: So the $50 million question: How does somebody get on your radar in the first place to even be considered for these kinds of conversations?
LK: A lot of people send me stuff. I have stuff behind you and underneath my desk. People show up and say here’s my CD. It takes a long time for me to get through all this stuff. Between my own creative work and need for quiet, so that I can deal with my own voice and the demands of the day, it sometimes may take me two years to get through all the things that come through. But I generally take the time and find my way through. And people introduce me to people. I do go and check who’s out there. I’m not living in a closed world. I’m curious and eager. I sometimes am artist-driven: that person is a performer whom I respect and I would like to engage in a dialogue with that person or that ensemble. Sometimes it’s composer-driven: I’m interested in so-and-so’s work. What are they up to now? Oh, they’re doing a project with these people. Sometimes there really are surprises: people I don’t know but somebody recommends them so I check them out. I give them a chance to do something small at first. If it feels good, like this belongs here, there’s integrity to their music making, there’s an idea behind what they do, I usually find a home for them here.
FJO: In a conversation we had years ago you said something about the way you program that I have always treasured: What you program isn’t about your personal taste.
LK: Oh, absolutely not. It’s not about my tastes. Maybe it’s because my tastes are rather catholic. I like a lot of different kinds of literature, a lot of different kinds of visual art, and a lot of different kinds of music. My taste is broad and that gives me a big playing ground to start with. But it’s not like, “Wow, I can’t wait to hear it because I like it.” It’s that I believe in the integrity and the quality of the work. I may not like it, but I respect it. I feel and think that it’s an honest artistic expression that has merit and that our society is better for it being shared. And if there’s a diversity of voices, it’s even better. We’re a polyglot culture, so lots of voices with honest expression saying interesting things is what motivates me. And it’s intuitive; it’s not scientific. It gets down to a chart with colors where it’s like, O.K., these are the building blocks now, but it’s intuitive and I trust the intuition. I may not like something, but I like its place. Then there may be things that I love that I don’t really think necessarily have a place on the season and I have to separate that out. I juggle all of that. Just like when I’m composing. I could be in the middle of writing something—I think I’m in that place right now—where I really like this material and I’m working on it and there’s a little voice telling me: This really doesn’t fit right here in this piece; you’re probably going to end up editing it out before you get to the end of the piece.
FJO: But then that material will wind up somewhere else probably.
LK: I used to save all my little scraps. I don’t do that anymore. My feeling is if it’s meant to live, it comes back. There have been a few fragments I have held onto in my sketchbooks that I do look at again and again. I don’t think I would ever take those and use them exactly. But I think that the reason I haven’t thrown them away or said I’m done is because there’s something in that material that still is at play someplace deep in me. And it will find its way to be expressed.
FJO: So to take it back to the presenting part of this equation. Let’s say something doesn’t work for this season or something doesn’t even work for this space. Is there a place where you put that away and ponder, “Where could it work? Maybe something else could work to make that work.” Also, are there other things for which you’ll think, “Much as I love this, this just isn’t going to work no matter what.” What are the things that wouldn’t work and why?
LK: It’s not like “O.K., I want two string quartets and three pianists, and two jazz ensembles.” I don’t do that. I think about things that are interesting to me now and that will be an undercurrent in the season. Sometimes I think it’s very subtle and maybe it’s my private little conversation with myself. But it creates a through line, so if people come to this one they might come to that. There’s something that links them, although they may seem on the surface to be quite different.
I think fairly conceptually and thematically, and I program thematically. In the winter, we do “The Music of Now.” That’s about as broad as you can get, but not everything that’s the music of now necessarily will fit for me. In the fall, we do something called “In the Salon,” which tends to have contemporary music in many forms, but not always. It can sometimes be “dead music”— you know, dead composers—but it has to be re-contextualized in some way. There’s usually a conversational aspect to it. For example, this year’s the Britten centenary, and much as we would like him to come, he’s not available. But we’re doing an evening of all of his works for tenor and guitar, which he wrote for Peter Pears and Julian Bream. Well, none of these people can come and talk about it, but there will be a conversation. In this case, I’m doing the presentation to the public about what’s important about this body of work. So, it’s not just come and hear this great music. It’s part of history, but it still has relevance today. In my talk, I’m going to hopefully craft a journey for listeners so that they get something beyond just the momentary experience of listening that they might not have had otherwise.

Whereas sometimes, and I just had to do this to an artist—I’ve been talking with a particular artist who has a really interesting project that conceptually I love, and I’ve been trying to find the fit for it, and I finally had to go back and say, it doesn’t fit with the theme that I’m developing for this program and for this series for next year. But I really want this project, so now let’s re-open the conversation and look at the next season and can you start to think about it in these contexts. And if we have the “a-ha” moment, it will be in the fall of 2014.

Again, it’s just this sense of honesty that’s really important to me as a human being and as an artist—and I mean being an artist as a subset of being a human being. So it’s really a very basic human answer. There are some artists—and I’m not going to name any names—for whom a big career may exist, where I think it’s about the career and not about the art. For me, if it doesn’t ring true from why that art got made originally, and why it’s being presented, I just don’t go with it. But if I trust it and respect it, I find the right place. It’s got to be in the right home.

Laura Kaminsky at Symphony Space

Laura Kaminsky at Symphony Space

FJO: So how far ahead do you plan?
LK: Well, usually nine months out. I’m now looking at next season. But I’m also looking at the season after—conceptually. It’s important for us as an institution to be looking longer term, mostly because some artists are booked that far ahead. And we have to raise money further out. Those are practical considerations. But we’re also opportunistic. If you came to me and said, “I have this great project and it has to happen in March,” and our season’s already budgeted and booked, if it really is great, we’ll figure out a way to welcome it in if it fits with what we believe we’re supposed to be doing. So, it’s slightly loose, but we have budget approval deadlines and marketing necessity deadlines that kind of dictate a time sequence for all of this. I’d like to be planning nine months as a kind of norm, and two years ahead for the big festivals that we do, so that we can get people coordinated and get money in place.
FJO: Theoretically, however, there are open days where something could be slotted in relatively last minute if it’s so major.
LK: Yes, we do like to be nimble that way.
FJO: This brings me to something that you’ve alluded to which we actually haven’t yet addressed head on. You were talking about the program you are doing with Hermitage Fellows. You said if you had called it a celebration of the Hermitage Center, only the fellows and their families would show up. So you came up with this idea about the day before the Kennedy Assassination and suddenly it’s an event. Then you mentioned thematic through lines—maybe somebody who came to this will come to something else. There is a lot about enrichment in the programs that you put together. It’s about giving people aesthetic rewards and, ideally, enlightening them and taking them to a higher place. But it’s also about getting them there to begin with and entertaining them, the horrible presenter cliché of putting butts in seats. So when you’re thinking of how this fits with that, how much are you thinking about whether or not there’s an audience for it? Or if it could be marketed a certain way, could there be an audience for it?
LK: It’s a piece of everything that a responsible presenter has to do. I think about it like energy. The artists are going to do their work, whether there are 12 people or 1,200 people or 12,000 people in the audience. But if they’re going to do that work, wouldn’t you rather have more people come and appreciate it? I know that some of the shows that I want to put on have a limited appeal for the general population. “Who’s that? I’ve never heard of so-and-so.” Sometimes I have to stick up for some of those programs and say, “It’s part of this ecosystem. We’ll have this other show that’s going to sell out easily, and it will sort of subsidize that show, but that show’s really important.” The other thing I always have to point out is that some of the most important musical events in history that are now iconic in our imaginations didn’t involve throngs at Madison Square Garden. When I was in St. Petersburg, Russia—I think on my first trip, which was on a fellowship doing research on Soviet music to do a Soviet music marathon festival here—I was taken to the House of the Composers’ and Musicologists’ Union. And I was like, “Oh my god, isn’t that the place where the Stravinsky concert happened when he came back to Russia for the first time?” And they said yes. I remembered reading about this. People were pushing to get through the windows; it was a mob scene. So I was thinking of this cavernous stadium and thousands of people pushing and shouting and struggling to get in, but it’s a tiny little hall. It’s an intimate chamber hall, but it looms so large as an important cultural, historic, musical event. The Schubertiades were twelve guys drinking and playing music for each other, but it helped create an outlet for this body of work to be developed. So sometimes it’s really O.K. if there are only 60 people in the audience. It’s not great financially, and it’s a little bit upsetting that we couldn’t have had a hundred and fifty or even have filled the house. But maybe it’s part of the ecosystem and it needs to be protected. I have to balance all of that.
FJO: At the other extreme of it, you mentioned things that don’t necessarily press your buttons because, as you described it, you believe it’s more about the career than about the work. For things that are doing really well out there, might you think that it doesn’t need you and therefore you wouldn’t present it?
LK: I don’t know that we’re an institution that can say that, because we’re a smaller institution. I think we have an important place in the whole cultural landscape of New York and—because of our radio program—nationally. But we’re still a small institution. So, I think that we actually serve a particular level. Every now and again, somebody who really is better suited for a bigger, splashier venue has a special project and we become their home. For example, I think it was two years ago when Tim Fain, the violinist, was doing a project with Philip Glass, Benjamin Millepied, and Nicholas Britell. It was a personal project. You’d think Philip Glass would go to BAM or a bigger venue. But they wanted to do it here, and we made it happen. It was really exciting. That was a big event for us, but a small event for Philip Glass.
FJO: I want to take it beyond Philip Glass because we still think of him as part of the new music ecology. Sure, he’s super successful, but he’s nowhere near as well-known as someone like, say, Miley Cyrus.
LK: Right. We can’t afford Miley Cyrus.
FJO: But I know that you’re completely open-minded in terms of what you listen to. So I wonder if there would be certain kinds of music that you might say are too mainstream in the popular culture for a space like this or not?
LK: This is a conversation I have with my president and our board. Should we do a regular mainstream classical music series? That’s a good question to ask. Should we expand world music offerings? That’s a good question to ask. This past week we opened our season with Kurt Weill on Broadway, and we had some really amazing people from the Broadway theater world here who generally don’t do such small spaces. Would they come here and do just a concert of their own? We’ve had some of that. So, you know, we’re opportunistic and we’re creative. If Elton John wanted to do a concert here, I’d say, “Yes, that’s great.” It’s very open-minded here.

Pete Seeger is going to be coming here in January. We just got that confirmed. We’re really excited about it. The one time that my knees actually buckled like I can’t believe I’m putting this man in my theater was when Chick Corea came. He’s been such an icon for me. I was not nervous when I had Jimmy Carter as my guest at the 92nd Street Y. I was not nervous when I had John Kenneth Galbraith as my guest. I was not nervous when I had Sir Edward Heath, especially when we started talking music. But when Chick Corea walked in, I couldn’t talk. I just looked at him, and I said, “I’m sorry, this has never happened to me, but my knees are shaking.” He just gave me a big hug.

But I think that only some big pop-type artists would come here, because again, if Leonard Cohen can sell out Madison Square Garden, why would he come here when there are only 800 seats? If we knew Leonard Cohen was in the process of developing some new work, and we had access to him, and [could] say, “You want to try it out here before you’re ready to go on tour?” That’s a kind of conversation that we can consider having. We’re open to everything. I’ll talk to anybody. As long as there’s honesty in the work, they have a potential home here.
FJO: And that honesty is determined by intuition.
LK: I just feel it. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t a music major in college. I was a psychology major.
FJO: Wow! O.K. so one big, heavy, loaded, philosophical issue to ponder then. In our 21st-century digital environment, where everybody’s online and using social media 24/7, one of the big concepts is disintermediation, which is about getting rid of all the tastemakers. Let’s get rid of all the middle people and have it just be about the artist and their work directly reaching an audience. Goodbye critics. Everybody’s on Facebook and now everyone’s opinion can be on equal footing. Goodbye record companies. Stream it on Soundcloud instead. Goodbye book publishers. Upload a PDF. Goodbye film distributors. Just put it all on YouTube. I’m not sure the disintermediation works in these other paradigms, but in a live performance environment, you really can’t do that. It would be more difficult to have a disintermediated venue, although I guess a street corner is a disintermediated venue. But I’m curious—in the role that you’re thrust into by the very nature of being a presenter, of being a tastemaker, how does that make you feel, especially since you’re an artist yourself, that you’re somehow arbitrating between artists and audiences?
LK: You know, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to answer this question, because I think it’s something all of us walk around thinking about. I mean, as an artist, I think about it. And as a presenter, I think about it. And as an audience member, I think about it. There’s something about a contract that’s being made, a trust-based contract of artist to presenter. Well, creator, the creating artist, the generative artist to the interpretive artist, then the interpretive artist with the backup of that creative artist to the presenter who provides the platform and then the presenter to communicate to the public—the public who has to be responsive to and open to the artist. It’s a contract of trust among everybody.

There’s something very exciting about the thought that everybody’s equal and everybody can be an artist and be an audience member all the time. There’s also something very exciting about being guided. So, the notion of curating, that’s the discernment that my job requires. I’m a voice; I’m not the tastemaker. I’m an open-minded art-loving, thinking person, and I’m very fortunate to have this position where I can take resources and try to bring different kinds of artists and different kinds of audiences together. I’m one of many voices doing that. There’s still a place for this structure. We don’t know exactly where things are going to go with the total democratization of art making and art consumption. I don’t like that term, “cultural consumers.” “Experiencers” is maybe a better word.
There’s a great New Yorker cartoon that shows a man holding a book and a man standing next to him with a scroll saying, “I don’t know how you’re ever going to be able to read with that thing; how can you let go of the scroll?” Here we are reading everything with our thumbs. People are creative. People want to experience ideas and feelings in a shared way. And the technologies will change, and that will change the structures and platform for it. But people want those experiences. I think we’re hungry for them. I think throughout history there have been different forms in which we’ve engaged in the arts, but people always do. And people always create. So I’m not that worried. We may have some crises of budgets in institutions, like how do we pay the rent and get people here. I think those are short-term issues. The honest truth is human beings are going to always want to engage in the arts. You want to have somebody who’s great touch you. I mean you really do. It’s great to see your kids in a school play, but it’s really amazing to see fantastic actors doing that play. All those experiences are valid.

*

Part Two: A Personal Composing Space That Embraces Many Places

Kaminsky's composition studio

Compared to her desk at Symphony Space, Laura Kaminsky’s work space for composing is much sparer.

FJO: We’re now in your home where, at least theoretically, you should be able to temporarily shut out the outside world in order to have your own space in which you can concentrate on your individual creative work as a composer. But of course, you can never shut out the rest of your life completely. So I wonder if you think consciously about how your work as a presenter seeps into your ideas as a composer.
LK: That’s a really interesting question, and I think what I’m going to say is really true, which is that everything seeps into my work: The neighbor you meet in the elevator—and the conversation you have—seeps into your work. What you read in the horrible headlines every day seeps into your work. And the music you hear through somebody’s really too loud ear buds on the subway seeps into your work. So in that sense, I’m just an absorbing sponge. It is all just there and it all informs what I’m doing as a composer. But when I’m really in composition mode, it’s like there’s this language and I’m just having this conversation with myself in that language. All that external stuff goes away. My protection against the rest of the world is that I have something to say and this is the sound world that I say it in. I don’t really bust out of that and steal from others. I’ve never actively quoted other music or composers in my work. But a separate piece of it is if there’s a problem at work, can I shut it out? Sometimes the answer is no. There’s very little down time. When I’m not composing, I’m conceptualizing what I want to do next, or putting pieces in place so that I can write the next piece. But I think what I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, and the more pieces I write—maybe it’s a sense of maturity—is there’s no anxiety around not writing. If the external world intervenes—and I’m not actively working on a piece for a period because there’s a deadline at work, or a lot of nights in a row with events—I don’t panic. If I’m not writing, if there’s really an issue at Symphony Space or in my teaching job (which is something I also do), I just go. That’s what I have to focus on. It’s O.K.; I won’t forget how to be a composer. I can carry that thread. Every now and again, I’ll lose the flow of an idea because there has been a lag, or the real world has intervened, and it sort of disrupted my mood, and now I can’t quite reclaim it. But I trust that I’ll get there. Once you know how to ride a bicycle, you can always ride the bicycle.

I say this to my students, too, when I talk to them about being a composer: You’re learning the craft now. You’re still figuring out which note follows which note, what’s vertical and what’s horizontal, and what does it add up to. What is it saying? You’re still juggling that. So you have to put the hours in. You have to build up your muscles. Then once you really have that, you can lift the weights of being a composer; you just have to stay in shape. But you’ll always be a composer.

I do a lot of my composing when I swim laps. I believe it’s an important part of my process as a composer, because that’s a place where I’m weightless, which every woman wants to be. It’s timeless. I’m a terrible swimmer, but if I get into a good flow, I don’t hear minutes ticking by in my head. I don’t have external stuff going on. I’m just floating. I do a lot of singing through ideas, reiterating those in my mind and hearing them with different colors. I can really orchestrate that way somehow, being in that swimming pool for half an hour. Nobody’s talking to me; I don’t know what time it is. I tell my students, don’t do it in front of the computer playing with a program, but you don’t have to be sitting in front of a keyboard with a pencil. You don’t have to look like a composer to be a composer. You are a composer.
FJO: I’d like to play musicologist here. I think I can hear a through-line between the presenter and composer parts of your life. I can think of very few other composers who have such a well-defined sense of space that generates so many compositions. So many pieces of yours over the years have been inspired by a particular space and are about telling the story of that space through music. To my mind, this has been the way you hear music, as well as the way you respond to spaces because you’re so attuned to how music functions in a space.
LK: I never have thought about it that way, although I’ve actually thought about the fact that I’m very much inspired by space and place—whether it’s physical, cultural, or historic. I’ve always thought it’s because I’m a visual person more than I’m an aural person. Visual memory is filled with resonance for me, so I can evoke those memories and make that my way into a private world where I then tell my story in sound. But I never really thought about it in terms of the connection between the fact that I’ve been presenting events for 30 years. Wow.
FJO: Along those same lines, the kinds of things that inspire you to conceptualize programs also fuel your compositions. You were talking about how to construct a whole event around the night before JFK was assassinated and what that means. You went to Vukovar and experienced firsthand what happened during the Yugoslavian civil war, and that became your piano trio. You were in Ghana and you met people there who had AIDS, and that also became a piece of music. Not far from this apartment there’s a really beautiful idyllic spot, Wave Hill, which inspired your violin and piano duo. Sometimes things that could become concert programs or festivals become your own compositions.
LK: I never made that connective thread, but when I was younger I felt very much more schizophrenic and bifurcated. You know, now I’m a this, and now I’m a that. Now I’m being creative; now I’m being productive. But it’s just one thing. This is who I am. I spend part of my day in the world of presenting other artists and helping them realize creative innovative projects. And I spend part of my day in my own mind with my own projects. Some of my own compositions are solitary in their birthing and others are collaborative and are inspired by place, or the work of another artist. I’ve partnered with my partner, with Rebecca, to do a piece which was about place. It’s called Horizon Lines. It was a commission that I had from the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. She was in conversation with the Seattle Art Museum; they were going to give her a show. So we had this idea: What if they could time the show with the festival and we made the work to reinforce each other? So, everybody was thrilled, because in the history of Benaroya Hall and the Seattle Art Museum—which are catty-corner across the street from each other in downtown Seattle—the two institutions had never collaborated. So they thought, well, this is a nice idea. And then Rebecca went to make her body of paintings and I went to write my piece. But then I said, “Wait a second; this still isn’t a collaboration. All that’s happening is you’re having an exhibition and I’m having a premiere.” So we used my commissioning funds to commission a filmmaker, John Feldman, to make a film. He’s a photographer as well as a filmmakera and he’s married to a composer—Sheila Silver—so he’s very sensitive to sound as well as image. We commissioned him to make a film with Rebecca’s paintings, which are very abstracted landscapes, and her photographs and my photographs of place, as well as his. My piece then had a structure to it.

We chose places that were meaningful to Rebecca and me. I created soundscapes and she created paintings, and then John took all of the music and all of the images and made a film that was projected over the live performance. This is music of place which is very much rooted in the environmental crisis that we’re living in today—looking at a beautiful landscape and realizing how human beings in the anthropocene age are making an impact that’s not part of the natural flow, that’s affecting the climate. Our work is both about our own individual creative process and our shared belief system around paying attention to the fragility and strength of the environment, the ability to collaborate without messing with each other’s processes. Then bringing other artists into the process, and—here we go, my presenting life—bringing audiences together who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily have gone to the museum or have gone to the concert. To me that was an incredibly satisfying project because it touched on all these things that I care passionately about.
FJO: That’s a very special case because it’s something an audience can see when they watch the film that accompanies the musical performance. That’s quite different from a piece like, say, the Vukovar Trio. If you know the program note, and you know the title, and you know something about contemporary history, you’ll immediately know what it’s about. But what if you just heard it on the radio and missed the title, or what if you had simply called it Piano Trio No. 1. There’s a lot of turbulence in that piece, but maybe someone would hear it differently. By your verbally associating it with Vukovar, listeners are primed to hear it in a certain way. So how important is it to you that a listener knows the back story?
LK: That’s something that I think about a lot. I’ll just give the background on the Vukovar Trio. When I was living in Poland and running the European Mozart Academy, we took small groups of chamber musicians throughout central Europe to give concerts. One of the concerts arranged was to go into Vukovar under Human Rights Watch protection and give the first live concert since the official end of the war at the fairly devastated Serb Cultural Center. Going into that devastated war-torn city was really eye-opening and very humbling for all of us. We were really quite taken aback by seeing the destruction. This was three years since the end of the war; people still had no electricity and there were food shortages. It was grim; you could tell that this was not a good place. When I say Vukovar, like I’m talking to you now, to this day I’m seeing this picture in my head. Somehow I had to deal with that picture. I knew I needed to write a piece, and I wanted to write a piano trio, partially because I was living in Eastern Europe and that sound world was so much what I was breathing and hearing every day. I felt like I wanted to write an homage to Shostakovich and his great trio which is such an iconic piece. Then I thought, his Eighth String Quartet is dedicated to the victims of fascism and war; I would dedicate my piece to the victims of ethnic cleansing. I hate to say this, but most Americans don’t read the headlines. It’s history already. I wanted to keep [in people’s minds] the fact that genocide is alive today, so I gave it that title. But I did think about just calling it Piano Trio.

In fact, when I lived in Seattle, I often lectured for the Seattle Chamber Music Society or the Seattle Symphony. The Society asked me to give a talk called “How to Listen to Contemporary Music.” With all due respect to the Society, I didn’t want to do that talk, because I don’t think it’s any different than listening to any music. So, I came in and I said, this is the talk I’m going to give: How do you listen to music? I chose to play my trio, and I said, “I’m not going to tell you who this composer is. I’m not going to tell you when this piece was written. I’m not even going to tell you the instrumentation. I’m not going to tell you if there’s any story behind this piece. I want you to listen. I want you to all take a piece of paper and a pencil while you listen and make notes to yourself as to what you think you’re hearing, and what the structure of the piece is. So you can tell me what you’ve heard.” And they all got it. They said this piece sounds like it’s about a war. Then there are these chorales, so it’s about mourning. But then there’s this more energetic, joyful music, so maybe there’s victory or peace. But the fast music isn’t really easy happy music, so there’s still a struggle. They all got it. So I believe it’s an abstract piece that tells a story. And you know, I think all music tells a story. This was a specific story. But even without them reading the program note or knowing anything, they got it.

Kaminsky Vukovar Trio

Kaminsky’s Vukovar Trio captures the anguish of war in the former Yugoslavia. © 1999 by Laura Kaminsky. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: With your piece about AIDS in Africa, And Trouble Came, you included a narrator, so of course that helps to guide people. But people hear language differently than they hear music. There’s an instant comprehensibility for language. Even if you’re completely fluent in music, it’s still an abstract language. So there’s a directness to that particular piece that might not have been as possible to pull off without the narrator.
LK: I just came back from a tour in the Midwest. I was in Iowa and Illinois with performances and lectures around that piece, and it’s interesting to me because I wrote that while I was living in Ghana. I went to Ghana for a year, and I went with a commission to write a piece dealing with AIDS for a benefit concert in Connecticut, and I was given the configuration of narrator, viola, cello, and piano. It’s like, O.K., that’s my project. I went there without many books because we could only take so much stuff for the year. So I went to the U.S. embassy library, because there were no libraries or bookstores in my village. Most of the literature that was available was African American literature, and it makes perfect sense for the U.S. embassy to be a repository of African American culture in an embassy in West Africa.

So I devoured all of this, and I found some poetry that spoke to me, and I found some biblical texts that worked; since I’m not a believer of any sort, I had to really cull through a lot of reading of Psalms and Proverbs and Job just to find lines that spoke to me. But I couldn’t put it all together. It never connected until I met these two American nuns who had built a hospital in a village and most of the people they were dealing with were AIDS patients. They invited me to go across the country to visit them in the convent and meet their AIDS patients, and I read my texts to these two young men and I got their stories. And it was that night in the convent where I was like, now I can make this piece happen. I can incorporate a fictionalized version of my story, of meeting these people, and I can create what I called my diary entries to weave together a narrative that deals not with the specifics of AIDS and how it’s transmitted and how it ostracizes people, but much more conceptually, globally and metaphorically, so that it would be a piece that is specifically about AIDS and all of those issues, but also about compassion, fear of death, anger, loss, and community.

So I wrote the diary entries that were just spoken by the narrator, then set up for the music [underpinning] the text pieces that I had already selected. And the piece is a full story. It’s like a play with those diary entries, but if you took them all away and just had the other parts, people would still get the same message. This was in 1992. I wanted to tell the story because that year, living there and meeting these people, was before we knew about AIDS in Africa. We still weren’t paying attention to it in the rest of the world. So I had to tell the story. And I wanted it to be very encoded, so all the names are relevant to my experience in Ghana and people I loved and trusted and met there. I use the metaphor of this young tailor who thought he got AIDS because he pricked himself with a bad needle, because that was a metaphor for the intravenous drug use which was a cause of AIDS. I tried to use symbolic bits to tell the story that would be specific and universal. So that is a different kind of a storytelling than, say, Vukovar.

Kaminsky: And Trouble Came p.10

To further elucidate the plight of AIDS sufferers in Ghana, Kaminsky includes a narrator along with piano, violin and cello in her composition And Trouble Came. © 1993 by Laura Kaminsky (revised 1996). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: But those two pieces bring to my mind the same issues we were talking about before in terms of presenting. It’s a tough balancing act between enriching people’s lives, and perhaps even enlightening them and giving them this really transcendent experience, with people wanting to be entertained. No matter how effective these pieces may be, they’re a hard sell. Imagine someone who has not heard these pieces before wondering if this is something to check out—hmm, I’m going to pick up this recording about AIDS in Africa or I want to listen to this piano trio about ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.
LK: Well, I’m not a salesman. I’m a composer. I think one of the great pieces of chamber music of the 20th century is the Quartet for the End of Time and that is a hard sell. It’s an incredible piece of music, and you do have to work to get people to want to go hear it because it’s a hard, big piece and the back story is incredibly intense. But it’s worth it. I know that I have this problem. I care about the fate of humanity. I care about the fate of the earth. Probably underneath being my artist self, I’m just a utopian-activist-politico. My life is filled with activity to make the world a better place. Maybe I should have just been a union organizer or an anarchist or something. I’m an artist, so I make music, but my music is connected to the things I care about. I don’t expect, in all honesty, to get programmed in entertainment concerts for the most part. Now it’s interesting because the concert with And Trouble Came that just took place in Iowa about two weeks ago was, to me, one of those chilling moments of being an artist and knowing that it was worth it.

There’s one particularly poignant bit of text, and tears started coming down the cheeks of the actor as he was narrating it. It then led to a solo cello line, and all of a sudden, the cellist was crying on stage. I was like, “Oh god, I’m going to die.” I was a bit overwhelmed that they didn’t have the distance, that they were living that story while they were performing it. At the end of the piece, which is painful and powerful, there was dead silence. I looked on my watch. Two minutes of total, total silence, and I was like, “Oh, I’m going to get thrown out of town.” I was panicked, and all of a sudden, one woman stood up and just went like [claps twice]. The next thing, everybody stood up, and about a half hour later, people were giving me checks. Everything I earn on this piece since 1993, when it was premiered, I donate to my nuns in Ghana and their hospital. I don’t care if people don’t think this is entertaining. I’ve been sending kids who are orphaned in Ghana to school through what I earn on sales or royalties on this piece. Or when performances happen and people just spontaneously make contributions. So that’s valuable to me. That’s why I get up in the morning. And yes, sometimes I just want to write a nice piano piece that’s just about exploiting the piano, but when I need to write a piece that’s about a social or political issue that I care about, and it has an impact, that’s joy. So, it’s O.K. if it’s not entertainment.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that maybe you should have been a political activist, but you’re an artist, so you create pieces about issues you care deeply about. Although I tried to make the argument about music being an abstract medium that can usually only carry a larger meaning if you attach visual images or language to it, your story about what was essentially a blindfold listening to your Vukovar Trio in Seattle shows that sometimes these deeper meanings can come through. And people wrote you checks because of a performance of your music that will directly help people in Ghana. So there’s no doubt that you believe it is possible for a piece of music to change someone’s world view, to be moved by something to the point that it’s a transformative moment. Marc Blitzstein would have said, “Yes. They’re going to hear this piece, and they’re suddenly going to be marching on the streets.”
LK: Yes, that’s great. You can transform people. But they don’t have to march on the streets. Maybe hearing something so beautiful makes them want to be nicer. It could be as simple as that for a transcendent moment. That listeners were just totally surrounded by the beauty of that artistic experience, and it made them gentler, made them happier in their souls. That’s transforming the world. It may not be a political rally. It can be much more personal. We all have works of art that we go back to—read your favorite novel and you’re transported, you live again in that world, you feel happy or ennobled, or it reminds you to be a good person, or it reminds you to be upset about indignity. There are favorite paintings. Every time I look at certain paintings, I get transported. You know, if I write one piece that can do that, it doesn’t have to be entertainment. Again, you don’t have to like everything. It doesn’t have to be entertainment. It doesn’t have to be fun. It can actually just be powerful. If, in the end, people don’t come to Laura Kaminsky’s output to have a good time necessarily, but maybe to feel and think about why we’re here, how to be good, why we die, why does it matter—maybe that’s O.K. I’m not trying to be grandiose about it. Sometimes I wish I could just write a good pop tune, but that’s not where I live. If I can say something about paying attention to the beautiful environment, and it’s a nice piece of music that is compelling to listen to, and it makes people think about climate change, great. I feel like I’m serving through my art.
FJO: On the other hand, there are pieces that are much more inward. I’m thinking of Cadmium Yellow, which is a string quartet that is about trying to convey pigment and color through sound. It’s a very abstract idea. But once again, it connects to something visual. So hearing the piece might make people more aware of something in the world that’s beautiful, but it’s not necessarily political.
LK: No, but it’s also a metaphor in a way. I have another piece that deals with this in a different way called The Full Range of Blue, but Cadmium Yellow took the notion of this natural substance that can be very pale and very watery, and can be very intense, and it can either be transparent or opaque, and things can come through it or it can cover. It’s like, wow, this is such a rich concept to create a piece [out of]. That’s a metaphor about human engagement and interaction, for how we are as people. It’s about stronger and weaker. You’re bold and forthright and your voice outplays every other voice. Or you’re meek and you sort of insinuate yourself into a conversation; you’re kind of there, but you’re not there. These are all metaphors. So I had little themes that were weaving in and out. It was a game that I played with myself, basically. I’m actually not a composer who writes music because I want to show off my craft. That’s not interesting to me. I want to find something that’s not music, that’s an interesting concept, and then find a way to realize it through a narrative journey in sound. I live with a painter. I think about color all the time. I watch the paint being mixed, and every painting is handmade color. There’s nothing that’s squeezed out of a tube with Rebecca. I love the fact that she’s created her own universe of color, and nobody has that universe. Most great painters own their colors, like most composers own their voice.

Kaminsky Cadmium Yellow

Kaminsky’s string quartet Cadmium Yellow was inspired by the high hiding power and good permanence of cadmium sulfide which produces the pigment cadmium yellow, one of the most vibrant and varied colors available on a painter’s palette. © 2010 by Laura Kaminsky. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: So it’s not about synaesthesia?
LK: It is in a way. Sometimes I think maybe I am synaesthetic because I actually see colors when I’m composing. When I think about Vukovar, I see those images. There’s one of an old woman with a babushka in front of a bombed building. When I say the word Vukovar, I see her. But what I’m really seeing are those colors. And those colors have sound to me. I don’t know if I’m officially synaesthetic, but to me, it’s all interrelated. My other piece that I mentioned, The Full Range of Blue, is another one that’s all about metaphor and layers of symbolism. When you like somebody, and you start to love them, what’s that moment when liking becomes loving, or vice versa? On that spectrum of human emotion, when do you say I love you for the first time? What happens? And I thought: How do I deal with that in sound? What would be an image for that? So I started thinking it’s kind of like the spectrum. You know, when is blue still green, and when is blue indigo? And when you are moving into purple, do we all say that this is no longer blue? So I started getting interested in this notion: Do we all taste the same? How do I make a piece out of that? So I came up with the concept of the full range of blue. O.K., where is blue? I didn’t think about paint at that time. I thought about nature—blue sky, blue rivers, blue-gray rocks, blue flowers. So I created a piece of multi-movements. And each one was a different expression of blueness in nature. But it was really not about the flowers, or the starry night, or the river, or the sky. It was really about the fact that I was falling in love, and how did I know I no longer was in like, but was in love. What’s the full range of blue? But it was all synaesthetic in the sense that I was seeing gray-blue, yellow-blue, green-blue, purple-blue.
FJO: So to get technical for a moment, how does this play out in the way you put your music together? I hear all this about a color gradually changing and no longer being the same color and I think about minor thirds changing to major thirds and all the infinitesimal gradations that aren’t quite one or the other, but I’m a microtonalist.
LK: I don’t work in microtones.
FJO: I know you don’t.
LK: It’s funny because I have a student right now who is and I keep saying, “Are you really hearing this? Because I don’t know how you’re imagining this. Sing what you’re hearing?” I don’t work that way. Again, I’m being kind of vague in a way, but it’s an energy thing. I feel the vibrations. I see what those vibrations feel like. That’s what leads me. It’s maybe intuitive again. Remember I’m not conservatory trained, so I’ve had to find my own way. I still have never taken an orchestration class. I haven’t really taken many theory classes. I was very lucky to have studied composition with Mario Davidovsky, but I didn’t go through an undergraduate music education. So when people talk about a lot of chord things, I didn’t learn that stuff. I had to figure it out. For me, it’s about the energy. I see it, and I hear it, and I feel it like that vibration. I struggle to find it, and that’s where my language comes from.
FJO: A piece of yours that just got released on CD, The Great Unconformity, which is about one billion years that are missing from the historical record, is a six-minute solo cello piece. How do you cram a billion years into six minutes?
LK: Well, if I wrote a billion-year piece, that would be a problem! I was invited by Rhonda Rider, a wonderful cellist. She had applied to be an artist-in-residence at the Grand Canyon. Since she’s not a generative artist, she’s an interpretive artist, her project was that she was going to invite nine composers to write their response to the Grand Canyon. She would then take all these scores and do her residency, to learn them, and she’d perform at the Grand Canyon and record the project.
As somebody who loves natures, I was like, yes, sign me up. Thank you for inviting me. I was thrilled. I’d never been to the Grand Canyon. It just so happened that that summer, when she had commissioned me, Rebecca and I were going to an artist colony in California—the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony—and we flew right over the Grand Canyon. So that was where I got my inspiration for the piece—looking down on it and seeing all these layers from above, imagining being at the bottom, but trying to imagine it from swooping down. There are a lot of glissandi and a lot of pizzis, which are sort of like digging into the rock. Then the low is like getting down to the bottom. I was trying to find musical symbols for looking down on something that we can’t really comprehend, trying to chisel your way into something, but then finding your way at the bottom where there’s more history than we can ever imagine. I mean, nobody can imagine a billion. We can’t imagine the national debt. That number’s too big. We can’t imagine billions of years. How can there be that much missing rock between one layer and the next layer? What happened?
Here we are with climate change. It’s probably not so dissimilar. There was an ice melt or something. Rebecca was an artist-in-residence at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in the Hudson Valley. We went up to a lecture there one night, and the scientist had done research in the Grand Canyon about how certain fish species have changed because of what’s happening in the waters there. So Grand Canyon stuff was in my head. It actually became easy for me to think about the grandiosity of it and this layering of life and the mystery of it all.
FJO: As far as grandiosity goes, most of the pieces you’ve written are chamber music pieces. You mentioned that you’re working on an oboe concerto, and a few years ago you wrote a concerto for three percussionists and orchestra called Terra Terribilis, which was your first piece for orchestra, and that piece concerned climate change as well. But the only other full orchestra piece you’ve done thus far is a piano concerto. As far as I know, there’s no grand theme for that one.

Terra Terribilis

In the 2nd movement of Kaminsky’s triple percussion concerto Terra Terribilis, glaciers are evoked through briskly moving music in septuple meter. © 2008 by Laura Kaminsky. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

LK: The piano concerto was commissioned by the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic in Russia, with a Koussevitsky commission. There was conversation about whether I should make this something about St. Petersburg, which is on a river. My studio overlooks a river. So I kind of played with that notion as sort of a back story. But, really, I just wanted to write a great concerto for Ursula Oppens; that was enough of an inspiration. I could have called it Music for Ursula, but I thought I’d just dignify it and call it Piano Concerto.
FJO: It seems that suddenly there’s been some long overdue attention to you as a composer, which I think ties into the fact that you’re now getting asked to write orchestra pieces. It’s much easier to get a piece of chamber music played and so that is mostly what you have written; for many years you actually had your own ensemble which performed your music, as well as the music of other composers. Of course, when you work ten-hour days at something other than composing, when you finally can carve some time for yourself, you want to devote it to putting notes on the page. You don’t really have time to promote your compositions the way others who might have more time are able to do.
LK: Yeah, I’m bad at that.
FJO: But I wonder if you learned some lessons from being a presenter. All this stuff comes into you and some of it stands out more than the rest. Have you been able to distill that and turn it back when you’re the person who’s pitching something to a presenter, or to a performer?
LK: You saved the hardest question for last.
FJO: Of course.
LK: I actually am not particularly good at selling my own work. I find it hard to do. And I have to be careful about my time. It probably takes as much time getting the projects out there as writing them. And if I have to choose, I’d much rather be composing than pitching a project. So I’ve not been so good at that. I finally decided I have to update my website because it doesn’t even have that my CD is out—and my CD has been out for six months! You know, that’s stupid. I’m not taking care of my work. I have to chastise myself in a way, because I believe in the best for these pieces. I want them to be played by other people. And I have to help that process along. I know that.
FJO: But you actually have an opera on the docket for BAM and the Kennedy Center. That didn’t just happen, or did it?
LK: What happened was I’ve wanted to write this opera for four years now, and it took a long time to put the concept and the team together. I started talking to Charles Jarden, who is the general manager of American Opera Projects, and he loved the concept. He decided to take it on, and it took me two years to find my collaborators. It’s an innovative concept for an opera; it’s this story of a transgender person. It’s a kind of monodrama for two singers who play the one person. It’s small in scale: two singers and string quartet. It’s for the Fry String Quartet with Sasha Cook and Kelly Margraf, because they like to work together. I already know we have a company. But it’s with interactive film, so it’s bigger in scope than just the live artists. But I didn’t know how to write the libretto and it took a while. I found my filmmaker and we felt we could do it together. Kimberly Reed is fantastic. I saw her film called Prodigal Sons, which is partially her transgender story, but it’s a much bigger film than that—I urge everybody to go see it. I said I have to find this person; I want to work with her. So I tracked her down and I told her I had this concept for this opera, and she said great, I want to be involved. I could hear music, and she and I together could begin to see it: the filming, the staging, the forces. Then we couldn’t get the words. It took until I was sitting on a panel judging grants for Opera America, and Mark Campbell was one of the panelists. He’s one of the great librettists in this country, and during a break, I went and said, “Mark, maybe you can advise me. I’m looking for a librettist. You know everybody out there. Could you suggest somebody?” He said, “Let me think about it. Tell me more about your project.” And I explained it to him. He said, “I have a perfect person for you: me.” I said, “Marc, I can’t afford you. This project is small.” He said, “I have to do this. This is wonderful.” I said, “You have to connect with Kim as well as me.” So the three of us met, and this has been the most unbelievable love-fest of three artists getting together and just talking, sharing, and building ideas together. And they have just completed the first draft of the libretto. American Opera Projects has been so supportive of this. They applied to BAM. The BAM-Kennedy Center-DeVos Institute is a development project, and they’ve supported this. So we’re going to be developing it, and hopefully in the summer 2015 it will be born.

Kaminsky at home

Laura Kaminsky at home.

FJO: So as a going away thought, being someone who has been on both sides of the fence, as a composer and as a presenter, do you have any specific advice for composers on how to get their work out there?
LK: I can’t say that I’m going to give the best advice, because I’m not a youngster and I’m just finding my place because I’ve always done so many different things. Now it seems like it’s coming into focus in a much better way. But it comes back to the earlier conversation that we had in my office today at Symphony Space. Be honest. It’s really important that you make the work from an honest point of entry and departure. And that you keep your craft honed. You’ve got to do your sit-ups. You have to make the art regularly, so that you know what you’re doing skill-wise. But if you have something to say, you have to say it honestly. If you do that consistently, you build a body of work over time, and if you get good people to play it and they become champions of the work, hopefully it grows. And all of a sudden, you have a bigger community, and more people listening, and more people trusting that you’re going to produce another good piece. I just think it’s got to start with being honest. I think art has to be honest.