Tag: DIY

Sarah Hennies: Getting at the Heart of a Sound

Sarah Hennies striking tubular bells

Sarah Hennies was a name that was barely on my radar before the pandemic, but after spending over six months mostly in lockdown I listened to a CD released on New World Records, a label that pretty much always piques my interest, featuring two works of hers, both of which were a little over a half hour in duration. One is a trio for piano, double-bass, and percussion with the peculiar name Spectral Malsconcities which was performed by new music stalwarts Bearthoven. The other is a duo for just piano and percussion called Unsettle performed by the Bent Duo, an ensemble which was also relatively unfamiliar to me. The music seemed to evoke everything I was feeling about this extremely precarious and terrifying time we’ve all been living in, despite the fact that both pieces were composed and recorded before the word Covid became an unfortunate daily household utterance.

I was fascinated and intrigued. I had to hear more of her music and listened to everything I could find, from her early collaborative work as part of the Austin-based experimental rock band Weird Weeds to her multimedia documentary Contralto to extended duration solo and chamber music compositions for various instrumental combinations. Despite the extremely broad stylistic range of this material, it all shared a concern for extremely precise sonic gestures and involved a great deal of repetition, but not guided by any kind of structural process as far as I could discern. Again, very much in the same way days and months seemed to pass over the last two years. I had to speak to her and learn more.

The most significant music has the uncanny ability to tap into a zeitgeist sometimes well in advance of its time although, when I spoke to Hennies earlier this month, she said that she hadn’t associated her time bending compositional aesthetic with our current realities. She did, however, acknowledge the relationship. But everyone listening to this music might come away with a different personal reaction to it and that’s fine by her since how we perceive sound on a psychological level as it unfolds over time is key to the sonic experiences that Sarah Hennies creates, whether it involves hearing layers of counterpoint that are the result of the natural reverberation of a particular physical space or hearing ghost sonorities that aren’t actually there because of the way certain timbres combine.

“Everything for me is about the listening experience,” she said. “I don’t even use quote-unquote systems anymore. … Part of the reason that I like working with repetition so much is that you have this sense that the music is staying in one place, but it feels like it’s developing anyway. And so, it’s like the music is stopped in time, but to me, doing something over and over again, even though the music is not hypothetically changing, your thoughts are changing. Hearing something for one minute is experientially very, very different from hearing it for, let’s say, eight minutes. And so, the listener is changing even though the music is always changing on a micro-level, but essentially you’re hearing the same thing over and over again.”

Sarah Hennies’s scores are extremely economical; the score for the nearly 34-minute Unsettle is a mere two pages. And yet the sonorities feel extremely generous.

“I just think being economical and practical is interesting because you can get at the heart of a sound,” she explained. “I’m not writing melodies and harmonies. It’s like not that kind of music. So it’s about something else.”

  • Hearing something for one minute is experientially very, very different from hearing it for, let's say, eight minutes.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • If I find myself wanting to hear something or do something over and over again, and I can't totally explain why, then that to me is a very, very good reason to put that into music because then you can then externalize those thoughts or see it from a listener point of view.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I just think being economical and practical is interesting because you can get at the heart of a sound.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I'm not writing melodies and harmonies. It's like not that kind of music. So it's about something else.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • The easiest way to get a performer to do what I want without a bunch of extra nonsense is something that has played into how I write music really, really profoundly

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • Everything for me is about the listening experience.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • There's no guarantee that a player is gonna play a mathematically perfect C-sharp every time ... something else that I love doing is playing on inherent imperfections in human performance.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • Simple thing equals complicated experience. Not to make it sound it too dumb, but that's really it.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • There have been a few moments over the last ten to 12 years where I did something, and I immediately thought: oh, I'm somewhere else now.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • It doesn't make sense that Orienting Response would be engaging. You know, it's like 45 minutes of bing-bong, bing-bong. But I just found it addictive or intoxicating.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • That is something that I still feel I'm doing, to be strange in a way that's not aggressive or dissonant for the sake of dissonance.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I very intensely identify as a DIY artist ... I don't have a world as far I'm concerned, except my own.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • This is a semantic thing, but I don't consciously want to go in a new direction.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I don't want to be permanently attached to any organization, or genre, or movement, or whatever. I just want to be out here wandering around by myself and just going where people want me basically.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • My experience generates the music, but that's not the thing that I need people to know about.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I didn't want to be "Sarah Hennies: the Trans Composer."

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • For a long time now I've thought it would be great to write a piece that was three or four hours long.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies

Synthesizing Environmental Sounds

A hand manipulating a patch cord on a synthesizer with lots of patches and an overlay of the New Music Toolbox logo

Why bother replicating environmental sounds through electronic music synthesis when recording something is faster and more accurate? What is the point of recreating something when that thing already exists. For these questions, I have a philosophical answer and a practical answer.

On the philosophical side, fabricating a simulacra of the sounds around us is at its core a meditative process, built equally around practices of listening and analysis. It pays respect to the omnipresence of the invisible and honors the complexity of seemingly simple things. It unlocks new techniques for interaction with our instruments and enriches our experience of the world apart from them: “what makes up that sound” becomes something of a walking mantra impressing itself on everything you hear.

On the practical side, a recording is a life-like portrait, fixed and unchanging. It excludes from us the agency to restructure the world it captures. It relegates our creative interactions to the realm of post-processing (i.e. filtering, adding reverb, etc.) to emphasize or hide aspects of the events captured on tape.

The technique I’ll explain in this article takes the opposite approach: utilizing filtering, reverb, etc. as foundational elements for creating real-world portraiture while retaining the freedom of dream-logic malleability. Can you record the sound of a tin room in which a prop plane idles while its engine keeps changing size? Maybe. Can you synthesize it? Definitely.

Approaching a sound with the goal of recreating it is like listening to an exploded diagram, where a sonic totality is divided into components and considered individually. It is with an ear to this deliberate listening that I share with you words that have guided my work for the past decade, passed along to me by the great Bob Snyder, a Chicago-based artist, educator and friend, in the form of his “Ear Training” synthesis exercises. He started with a simple question through which the components of any sound can be observed and serve as a roadmap for from-scratch fabrication. “Is a sound noisy or tonal, and is its movement (if it has any) regular or irregular?”

Let’s do a quick exercise: listen to a sound, any sound (a baby crying, a phone ringing), and ask yourself: can I hum it? Trace the movement of the sound with your hand in the air and observe: is it rising and falling in a pattern? The answers to these questions point toward the equipment needed to recreate them. If the sound is tonal (if you can hum it), select an oscillator; if it isn’t, choose a noise generator. There are of course plenty of sounds that have both (a howling wind, the word “cha,” etc.) but for this initial thought experiment choose a tone or noise source to best fit whatever is the sound’s dominant component.

Next, is something about the sound changing? It could be its amplitude, its pitch, its timbre, etc., but if you find yourself tracing out this motion with your hand note how your hand is moving: regularly (up and down, like a car alarm) or less regularly (like shoes clanking away in a drier). A repeating motion would point toward a looping, cyclical modulator (a low frequency oscillator, a sequencer, etc.), where irregular motion would indicate something either noise-based or a mixture of otherwise unrelated things. Either jot these observations down or keep them in your head, whatever works best for you— the important thing is to remain cognizant of them as they accumulate.

To recreate a sound from scratch is to assemble these observations as discrete instructional steps. Try not to get bogged down by the totality of the sound itself. Instead focus on these component parts: the sound is nothing more than a list of them in aggregate.

Start with the basics—tone or noise, what about it is it changing— and slowly zoom in on the details from there. Wind blowing through a grove of trees is noisy and irregular. Sometimes the leaves rustle with more treble, sometimes with more mid-range. These various noisy timbres seem to happen sequentially, rather than simultaneously, as if the branches pushed one way sound different than when the wind changes direction and pushes them the other, and so on. Study the sound, note these characteristics, think of your observations as a decoder ring.

Hopefully this provides something of an overview of the opportunities that are possible in synthesizing environmental sounds and lays out some of the aspects of sound to focus on in your listening. Now let’s try our hand at a concrete example and patch something up!

I’d like to synthesize the sounds of the beach, in particular a memory I have of an afternoon spent there as a child.  We’ll begin with the sound of ocean waves from the listening perspective of the shoreline. It’s low tide and the surf is mild. The sun hangs in the air, lazily

Once we have a working version of our central sound component, I find it helpful to surround it with supporting contextual sonics. These reinforce our creation’s place in this fabricated soundscape and allow for a degree of set-dressing about which the details are entirely ours to decide. Are these ocean waves happening on a beach or are they crashing in an office? Those decisions are executed through the inclusion of these background characters.

For this patch, I’ll play it straight and set the sound stereotypically. To create the sense of a shoreline, the focus will be on a pair of hallmarks—things you might hear (and in this case things I remember hearing) while sitting on the beach and listening to the waves: the dull roar of the ocean and the whipping hiss of the wind.

In tuning these sounds I’ll be utilizing Low and High Pass filters, and doing so with an ear for how each filter type represents distance: using Low Pass filters for sounds that are far away (and whose top end has rolled off), and High Pass filters for sounds that are close-up (and whose top end is accentuated). Additionally, setting the relative level of these sounds against each other paints a portrait of attention: the sounds being focused on (in this case the waves) can seem louder than their neighbors (the wind, the ocean), and should that observation shift for any reason this balance can be adjusted accordingly.

Finally, the addition of narrative elements can lend to this sound-portrait some much-appreciated variety: if the background is always there, the things that come and go can pull us into a far more immersive listening experience.

To illustrate this point we’ll create the sound of a single-passenger plane in flight, passing overhead.  Unlike our wave, wind and ocean patches, this one is definitely hummable and will require tone sources to synthesize.  While there are myriad ways to go about recreating engine sonics, each essentially contains at least an oscillator and at least some timbral complexity, especially if that engine is full of moving parts!  The aspects that you choose to focus on in your own engine synthesis work will depend greatly on your listening work: what about the sound jumps out to you?  What is essential?  In the case of the single-passenger plane, I’ll be celebrating its beat-frequency-like movement, its stereo position adjustments and the Doppler Effect that occurs as it passes from one side of the beach to the other.

Now that we have our waves, our environment and our wildcard narrative element, let’s combine them into a performance. The world we create in the mixing of these sounds is at any point re-definable: on a whim the ocean can become tiny, the wind can whip itself up into a terrifying wall, the waves can pause and hold mid-crash. While the example illustrated below is one that tilts towards accuracy it can at any moment morph into something else entirely: a far more fantastical collage of sonic impossibilities or simply the next memory that comes to mind. The fluidity of the portrait is entirely yours to decide.

Like any skill, decoding and fabricating environmental sounds is an exercise that rewards practice. I encourage you to start as soon as you finish this article. Close your eyes and whatever you hear or imagine first ask yourself: what makes up that sound? Thanks for listening.

Online Score Sales for Self-Published Composers

Empty Staff Paper with staple

“No one’s going to buy your music if it’s sitting on the shelf at your house.” So says Kurt Knecht, composer and co-founder of MusicSpoke, a sheet music distributor focusing on choral music. And it’s true! So, composers: how can you get your music in front of the right musicians in a format that makes it easy for them to purchase, download, and start practicing your pieces right away?

This article will provide an overview of options for self-published composers to sell their PDF (and sometimes, physical) scores and describe the typical audience for each of these methods so composers can evaluate which option might be the best for you and your music. It will also discuss methods for selling your music on your own website, via Bandcamp, or by creating a composer’s collective. Finally, it will explore an alternative path: not selling your music. All of the distributors in this article share two similarities, with a few exceptions for special series or publishing arrangements you can opt-in to. First, composers retain the copyright to their work. Second, these distributors are non-exclusive: composers can sell on other sites.

All of the distributors in this article share two similarities, with a few exceptions: composers retain their copyright; these distributors are non-exclusive

And, a note as we get going: the legacy of systemic racism and sexism is apparent when one browses the distributors in this article. Many of the owners and operators of music distribution services are white men and the catalogs represented on these services often have a large proportion of white male composers. The work to amplify the voices of women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC composers must continue.

Let’s talk about two large distributors first: J.W. Pepper and Sheet Music Plus (SMP) Press. These distributors have name recognition, come in high on internet search results for sheet music, and serve large numbers of customers. However, they offer smaller payments per score (45-50% of list price) to composers, and do not share information about who purchased your music (name, contact info, etc.) with you.

J.W. Pepper’s My Score

Logo for My Score

Audience:

J.W. Pepper is one of the largest distributors of educational music in the United States, selling everything from method and solo books to ensemble works. K-12 music educators are familiar with the website and often have purchasing accounts already set up and ready to go. My Score is J.W. Pepper’s distribution service for self-published composers. “People know the J.W. Pepper name,” says Isaac Brooks, who heads up My Score. “The My Score composer can be found in results along with traditionally published pieces.” Composer Karlyne Félix works as a music educator and first encountered My Score when she was looking for music for her students. Now she uses it as the sole music distributor for her own works. “It’s very easy to use, accessible, and well-known among the music education community,” she says. The audience of educators also attracted composer Garrett Hope to the service. “I’m focusing my efforts on educational music,” Hope explains. “A big part of marketing is knowing your audience and knowing where they go.”

“A big part of marketing is knowing your audience and knowing where they go.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

Signing up for My Score costs a one-time $99 fee. Composers receive 50% of the list price for every digital copy and 25% for every printed copy sold, paid quarterly. There are minimum prices for your sheet music starting at $2 for choral works up to $45 for a full orchestral work. For choral works, a minimum of 5 copies must be purchased, to avoid illegal copying. There is no evaluation process for composers, no quality standards, and no guidelines on notation to follow.

PDF or Print Scores?
Works sold on My Score can be purchases as PDFs or printed scores.

Security:

“All digital copies sold by jwpepper.com are watermarked and made available for print through a customer portal called My Library,” Brooks says. “The product can also be viewed through our on a mobile device. The end-user has 3 attempts to successfully print the product, after that it will only be viewable electronically through their account.”

Isaac Brooks in a tie and jacket playing a cello outdoors.

Isaac Brooks, who heads up J. W. Pepper’s My Score

Additional Benefits:

J.W. Pepper has a presence at music conferences, and often offers My Score composers the opportunity to stand at a booth. They offer Webinar training for their composers. One benefit that makes My Score stand out: every work is available as a digital score or a physical score through their print-on-demand service. Professionally printed and bound scores will be fulfilled within 3 days.

Tips:

“Neutral themes and music of hope are very good to have at any performance.”
Karlyne Félix holding a glass globe

Karlyne Félix

Félix suggests that composers considering My Score keep in mind who they are selling to: music educators and their (often young) musicians. “Neutral themes and music of hope are very good to have at any performance,” she explains.  She says it took a little work to get the hang of uploading music, but that My Score’s team was helpful. “I have been contacted by their support team, at the beginning of my journey with them, to clarify a few edits before the site made my music public,” she says. “I appreciate that, especially being new to the system.” Hope wishes that the editing process for scores was less cumbersome. After scores are added, any changes must be requested via email. “I would love to be able to login and see my catalog and make edits,” he says. However, Hope agrees that the customer service team is responsive, usually making changes within 24 hours. Brooks explains that one reason composers must submit edits through email is that My Score prepares a printable file for every score submitted. “One difference between My Score and SMP Press is that we are preparing the item for physical distribution,” he says. Brooks says that a portal for composers to edit their current catalog is “in the works.”

Sheet Music Plus (SMP) Press

Audience:

Sheet Music Plus calls itself “the world’s largest sheet music store.” SMP Press is their distribution arm for self-published composers to sell PDF scores. The site caters to K-12 music educators and ensemble directors, private music teachers and their students and individual hobbyist musicians. Composer Juhi Bansal (https://juhibansal.com/) appreciates the popularity of Sheet Music Plus’s site. “It’s a place people are already going and looking for music, so you are exposed to a much larger audience,” she says.

Composer Juhi Bansal

Composer Juhi Bansal

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

SMP Press is free to join. Composers earn 45% of the list price for original compositions and public domain arrangements and 10% on arrangements of their copyrighted song catalog. Commissions are paid monthly once you hit the $20 minimum for payment via Paypal or $40 minimum for check payments. SMP Offers guidelines (not requirements) for how much to charge for scores. They provide guidelines for scores, such as margin sizes and reducing ink on the cover (since customers are printing these out at home).

“I don’t know too many orchestral institutions willing to print and bind the conductor’s score and parts, with their numerous varying page sizes.”

PDF or Print Scores?

SMP Press sells only PDF scores at this time.

Security:

Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs.

Tips:

Bansal finds SMP Press easy to use. “If you’re just starting out and you want to put music up, it’s a good platform to do it. You can have one place where you sell your scores, and direct people to it.” Composer Arthur Breur agrees. “You create your company name, upload PDFs, you can include preview pages, a video or recording, description, select your price, and 24-48 hours later, your piece is approved and ready to sell,” he explains. “Making changes are easy and then it will take 24-48 hours to update.” “SMP Press is a great option for artists who enjoy a ‘set it and forget it’ method to distributing their music,” says composer Brian Nabors. “It definitely gets the music into the hands of the musicians instantly.” He does wish that SMP had an option to sell physical scores and parts, especially for large ensemble works. “I don’t know too many orchestral institutions willing to print and bind the conductor’s score and parts, with their numerous varying page sizes.” Because of this, he binds and ships his orchestral music himself, often using another music distributor, Subito Music Distribution. To enhance search on the Sheet Music Plus website, Breur suggests including the instrument or performing forces in the title field of your piece when you add it to your catalog. For example: “Dance – Piano Solo” rather than just “Dance.” In his experience, this helps customers find your piece when they search the site.

Composer Brian Nabors

Composer Brian Nabors


Next, let’s talk about four smaller, composer-run distributors: MusicSpoke, NewMusicShelf, Graphite, and Murphy Music Press. These distributors offer a higher payment to composers (50-70% of list price), and share information about who bought your music with you, so that you can get in touch with musicians and ensemble directors.

MusicSpoke

The Logo for Music Spoke

Audience:

MusicSpoke is a marketplace for music by living composers, with a strong emphasis on choral music. “Our primary customers, in this order, are K-12 choral, university choral, and churches,” says Kurt Knecht, co-founder. Composers are welcome to sell other genres of concert music on the site as well. Juhi Bansal sells her vocal music on MusicSpoke, in addition to selling her music on Sheet Music Plus. “It is more specialized,” she says of MusicSpoke, “mostly choral, a few piano works, and art song. I don’t think it’s a great place to sell string quartets, opera, etc.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join MusicSpoke. Composers receive 70% of the list price, with some slight variations for rare physical copy sales or promotional offers. The vast majority of MusicSpoke’s sales are PDF scores. When MusicSpoke works are chosen for state repertoire lists requiring physical scores, MusicSpoke works with Black Ribbon Printing to print and bind hard copies.

Kurt Knecht in front of an organ.

Kurt Knecht

The process to join MusicSpoke is unique. “We evaluate composers, not pieces,” says Knecht. MusicSpoke has a one-on-one dialogue with each composer to see if they are a good match for distribution on their site. They do not evaluate individual pieces (as a traditional publisher might), but rather add composers to their service and let composers list as many or as few pieces as they want. Knecht says that they do prefer that you have a recording available for any piece you want to sell.

PDF or Print Scores?

Music Spoke primarily sells PDF scores, with the rare option to print scores when works are chosen for state repertoire lists.

Security:

Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs, or (rarely) physical scores printed through Black Ribbon Publishing.

Additional Benefits:

Bansal appreciates the reputation that MusicSpoke has built among conductors. “People know it’s a good place to look for contemporary choral scores,” she says. She also like that they don’t have a minimum purchase requirement. “If you want to check out a copy of a score, if you want to teach from it or share it in class, there are no minimums,” she says. That can be an advantage if your goal is getting your music in front of a conductor. MusicSpoke maintains a presence at national conferences, with options for composers to join them at their booth. They are continuously developing a network of composers and conductors to promote the music of MusicSpoke composers. In addition, they curate several series with renowned conductors such as the Charles Bruffy, Derrick Fox, and Joseph Ohrt, and MusicSpoke composers are eligible for these. One note: these special series have an additional three-year exclusivity contract with MusicSpoke due to the special promotional services they receive.

NewMusicShelf

New Music Shelf logo

Audience:

NewMusicShelf sells and distributes PDFs of concert music by living composers, with a particular emphasis on music for collegiate and professional performers, ensembles, and chamber groups. “I believe chamber, vocal, and choral music work best on this platform,” says composer Jennifer Jolley, who sells her music on NewMusicShelf as well as through Murphy Music Press and ADJ•ective New Music. Composers are welcome to sell educational music, but that is not its primary market. Of the composer-run distributors discussed in this article, NewMusicShelf is unique in the breadth of its catalog across instrumental and vocal ensembles.

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join NewMusicShelf. For scores sold, there are 2 fees per transaction: a payment processing fee from Paypal or Stripe, which is typically 2.9% plus $0.30 per transaction, and NMS’s 30% distribution fee. This leaves the composer with slightly under 70% of the list price. Composers set their prices, with a minimum of $2 per score. Digital scores sold through NewMusicShelf must be priced less than physical scores sold elsewhere and identically to digital scores sold elsewhere.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a gatekeeper to talk about ‘quality’ because that is very subjective.”

Of the composer-run distributors, NewMusicShelf is the most inclusive. Founder Dennis Tobenski does not curate based on style or perceived quality. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a gatekeeper to talk about ‘quality’ because that is very subjective,” he says. The most important criteria for acceptance is the engraving quality of your scores and parts. Tobenski suggests comparing your scores to professionally engraved music or seeking advice from a composer whose scores you admire before submitting. That said, he will provide feedback if your scores are not up to his standards—it is not just a blanket rejection.

Dennis Tobenski

Dennis Tobenski

PDF or Print Scores?
NewMusicShelf sells only PDF scores at this time.

Security:

Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs.

Additional Benefits:

“There is a guide to help us figure out how much we should charge per copy of our music. That is a game changer right there,” says Jolley. She appreciates the service because it helps composers sell their music online even if they “have no idea how to implement this on their own website.” NewMusicShelf is Tobenski’s self-described “one man operation,” but he still makes sure to have a presence at conferences, particularly in conjunction with the publication of their print anthologies of music. His mission is to build a community of composers and new music performers.

Jennifer Jolley standing near a lake

Jennifer Jolley (Liz Glen Photography)

Tips:

Tobenski recommends that composers provide a lot of information to potential customers when they upload their scores to the catalog, including a perusal score or sample pages, program notes, links to recordings, and information on who commissioned the work. “Give people too much information,” he suggests. “That’s what people are buying the score based on.” Jolley hopes to see more options for educational music on the platform in the future. “Once they expand, they can make it so their musical offerings are sorted by grade level,” she suggests.

Murphy Music Press

Murphy Music logo

Audience:

Murphy Music Press is a distributor of composer-owned music for saxophones and wind ensembles, run by composer and saxophonist Sean Murphy.  The site sells everything from solos to chamber music to large ensemble works, at all difficulty levels. Composer Evan Williams distributes his work through Murphy Music Press and ADJ•ective New Music (more on ADJ•ective later). “Both Murphy and ADJ•ective have wide markets,” he says. “Some works are educational and some are collegiate/professional.” Murphy aims to sell to customers seeking a curated catalog. “We sell to the kind of person who buys an espresso coffee versus Folgers,” he explains.

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join and composers selling through Murphy Music Press set their own prices and earn 50% of the list price. Murphy Music Press pays for printing and binding out of its half of the sales. Composers are paid twice a year. The site includes around 200 composers at present and Murphy is always looking for new members. Composers interested in selling their music on Murphy Music Press can contact Murphy through the web form on the website, and when invited, submit a piece. “I listen to the piece and follow my heart,” he says. “If I think there’s potential I say yes, and if not, I say no.”

Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy

PDF or Print Scores?
Murphy Music Press sells primarily print scores but can also sell PDF scores. The choice is left up to the composer.

Security:

PDF scores are watermarked.

Additional Benefits:

Twice a year, Murphy Music Press provides composers with a record of who purchased their music so that composers can follow up about performances, etc. However, they sell a large number of scores to large distributors like J.W. Pepper, and from there, they cannot track sales for composers. Murphy Music Press maintains a presence at conferences such as the Midwest Clinic. Williams appreciates the time Murphy Music Press and ADJ-ective put into marketing. “The biggest benefit for me is not having to dedicate time, effort, and money toward printing, binding, and shipping scores and parts,” he says. “Distributors can also market your music online and at conferences, reaching a wider audience than you could yourself.”

Evan Williams standing near a wall

Evan Williams (Photo by Eric Snoza, SnoStudios Photography)

Tips:

“Composers can be so bad at communicating. Answer your emails!”

Murphy vets potential composers by researching their presence online. “Be nice!” he urges. He also pays attention to how easy it is to stay in touch with composers. “Composers can be so bad at communicating,” he warns. “Answer your emails!”  Murphy prefers submissions with a score and a performance recording. “It’s hard to market something without a recording,” he says, but acknowledges that with the pandemic, a MIDI rendition may suffice on occasion. He advises that it is easier to sell a piece if it has already been performed, because it adds legitimacy to the piece and creates interest from buyers.

Graphite Publishing

Graphite logo

Audience:

Graphite Publishing, run by composers Timothy Takach and Jocelyn Hagen, is a considerably more discriminating option for established composers of primarily choral music as well as art song. There are two arms of Graphite: a tightly curated distribution catalog of composer-owned works and an even more select publishing house. They sell primarily secular choral works of all levels, particularly for high school, collegiate, and advanced amateur choirs. While they do distribute some music that is suitable for a church choir, it is not their primary market.

Timothy Takach

Timothy Takach

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join.  Composers receive 60% of sales for composer-owned scores distributed on Graphite Publishing and 40% of sales for Graphite-published works. To keep overhead low, they sell only PDF scores. There is an open submission process on their website, and scores are reviewed 1-2 times a year. Graphite curates with a philosophy of finding what Takach calls “a balance between excellent craft and innovation of scores and the accessibility of the scores. We’re looking for things that are different, things that enhance the choral experience and our catalog.” So a piece setting the same Sara Teasdale or Emily Dickinson poem that everyone at your graduate program set is likely not be what Graphite is looking for. There is a high bar, and those who are chosen are typically composers who have an established catalog that is already selling. “The gate is open,” Takach explains, “but it’s open just a crack.” “I really appreciate their quick and helpful responses to any questions I have,” says composer Dale Trumbore, who distributes her music through Graphite. “Setting up with any new distributor takes time…but overall it’s a pretty straightforward process.”

Dale Trumbore standing outside near a tree

Dale Trumbore (photo by Lucas Hausrath)

PDF or Print Scores?
Graphite sells only PDF scores at this time.

Security:

Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs that include their name, organization, and the number of copies that they are allowed to make.

Additional Benefits:

“I appreciate how Graphite Marketplace has composers rate their pieces in difficulty level on a 1-5 scale, so choral conductors can use that plus the perusal scores to assess whether a piece will be a good fit for their ensemble,” says Trumbore. “There’s a wide variety of music within Graphite, ranging from simpler pieces for children’s chorus to challenging works for advanced choirs.” Graphite maintains a presence at ACDA and NATS conventions and periodically organizes consortiums for groups of their composers. Their model is to “build trust through adjacency,” says Takach. Trust in one composer’s excellence leads conductors to trust the music of other Graphite composers. Trumbore is grateful for this presence at conferences. “That can lead not only to them promoting your work there [at conferences], but to them potentially sponsoring all or part of your registration fee and/or offering times for you to meet conductors and performers face-to-face at their booth,” she explains.


What if you want to be fully in charge of your catalog and sell and distribute yourself? Bandcamp is one way, and selling your scores directly on your website is another. These methods require the composer to take on the work of building and maintain an online store and getting PDF or print scores to their customers.

Bandcamp

Bandcamp logo

Audience:

While many of us think of Bandcamp as a way to listen to and purchase music albums, composers like Sean McFarland use it to sell their scores. “It’s an excellent place to pair your audio work and physical work together,” he says, “and for me, the communities that I’m most interested in connecting with are doing a lot of their listening in Bandcamp already.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

McFarland appreciates how easy it is to get set up with Bandcamp, and the fact that there are no gatekeepers evaluating you or your music and deciding if it is worthy. “All you need is an email, and that’s it!” he says. Composers can sell their sheet music in the “merch” section of their Bandcamp page. Bandcamp is free to set up, and charges a 10% fee for all merchandise sales plus transaction fees of 1.9% + $0.30 for Paypal or 2.2% + $0.30 for credit card payments  (https://get.bandcamp.help/hc/en-us/articles/360007802394-How-much-are-transaction-fees-for-digital-sales-).

PDF or Print Scores?
It’s up to you. If you sell print scores, you will have to print, bind, and ship them yourself.

Security:

Bandcamp is not set up for automatic downloads, which McFarland views is a plus: “It is more personal and connective anyway,” he says. He emails scores to customers after they have made a purchase.

Challenges:

McFarland find the organization of information a little “clunky.” “The platform is not exactly meant to sell scores, so you have to get creative with the track organization to make it look reasonable,” he explains.

Selling Scores on your Own Website

There are as many ways to sell your music on your own website as there are composers.

There are as many ways to sell your music on your own website as there are composers. To give perspective on ways this can work, I spoke to Reena Esmail through her assistant Melanie Eveland, Jennifer Wagner, Alex Shapiro, Stephanie Ann Boyd, and self-described New Renaissance Artist Elizabeth A. Baker about how they each approach selling their scores and other materials and services.

Why sell your music yourself?

A major reason to sell your music on your own site is to earn your full sales commission. “I like to keep my money,” says Baker, who sells her compositions, recordings, books, and consulting services through her website. She also emphasized the importance of retaining creative control of your work. “We live in a time when you can self-publish your albums; you can self-publish your own work. You don’t need other humans to put your stuff in a warehouse and take a big percentage of the pot.”

Elizabeth A. Baker holding a small object in front of her face.

Elizabeth A. Baker

Another aspect that came up with every composer I spoke to was the ability to build relationships with customers.  “A significant benefit for composers handling their own score sales is the direct contact they will have with the people who purchase the materials,” says Shapiro. This often leads to future collaborations, commissions, and residencies. Boyd adds, “If they are exploring contemporary music, they are probably someone who wants to ask questions of a composer.”

Logistics, Fees:

Esmail and Wagner design their websites on WordPress and use the WooCommerce plug-in for sales. WordPress’s ecommerce sites begin at $45/month, with no additional cost to add WooCommerce. WooCommerce charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction for U.S. credit and debit cards, and an additional 1% for non-U.S. cards. They both do their score delivery and licensing individually, separately from the website transaction. “We like to see the orders that come in and provide a personal level of service to musicians,” says Eveland, Esmail’s assistant. Wagner sells both PDF and print scores, and works with a reliable printer with a fast turnaround time for physical scores. In some ways, she wishes customers could automatically download scores, but on balance, she likes the connection made by sending the email. “It allows me to personally thank them for their purchase and wish them a lovely season with their students,” she explains. She uses MailChimp “sparingly” to let past customers know of new works of music or particularly special opportunities.

Reena Esmail

Reena Esmail (photo by Rachel Garcia)

Shapiro sells physical and PDF scores. She uses a PayPal shopping cart on her website and charges one set shipping and handling fee for print and digital scores. PayPal charges a 5.4% + $0.30 transaction per transaction, but there are no monthly fees or set up costs. Shapiro’s customers receive a custom email with a private web link to download their PDFs. She prints chamber music in house and outsources larger ensemble works to be printed. Shapiro’s works are also available through many distributors and retailers, giving her publishing company a far larger domestic and international footprint than it might otherwise have were her scores only available through her website.

Boyd designs her composer website and store, Femoire, on Squarespace and uses their built-in ecommerce functionality, which includes a score preview function and the option to sell downloadable PDFs. Squarespace’s Business plan costs $18/month plus a 3% fee per transaction. For users selling more than $3200 annually, they offer Commerce Plans starting at $26/month with no transaction fees. After customers purchase music on Boyd’s site, they can automatically download their music.

Stephanie Ann Boyd

Stephanie Ann Boyd

Baker uses Square and appreciates the business management tools the platform offers. “Square is like accounting software,” she explains. “It offers scheduling, it offers online booking, inventory management, and it helps me with invoicing. I can print out very coherent reports which allow me to work with my financial planner.” Square stores begin with their Free option which has no monthly fee and charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction and offers additional features at Professional ($12/month), Performance ($26/month) and Premium ($72/month) options.

Security:

To reduce illegal file sharing, Shapiro embeds metadata into every digital audio file, always watermarks her digital perusal scores, and often watermarks her PDFs to reflect who purchased them. Boyd and Wagner watermark the score previews on their sites but not the purchased copies. Baker takes a different view on preview scores altogether. “All these quick view perusal scores nonsense is giving too much away,” she says. “I am heavily against it. I know a lot of specifically white male conductors and composers are going to say, ‘No, we need this, because I need to know your stuff.’ No. I have a website, you can clearly get a better picture of someone through a walk through their website than a single score.” Baker’s music is not notated in standard notation so she does not watermark purchases. “I make things that are unstealable because people stole my stuff in the past,” she explains.

Challenges:

Of course, if you are selling yourself, you really are going at it alone. Shapiro warns, you’ll be administering your catalog, hold your engraving to a high standard for print and digital scores, deal with printing and binding, purchase materials, and process and ship orders—all by yourself. She suggests hiring others to help you with some of these tasks so that you still have time to compose.

Alex Shapiro in front of a collection of computer terminals and electronic keyboard instruments

Alex Shapiro

Tips:

Esmail has found that score sales are only one, smaller part of her income streams. “We have noticed that score sales are a lagging indicator—not a leading one,” says Eveland, Esmail’s assistant. “It has not been our experience that a concert composer can set up an online store and hope to build an income that way without already being known through other sources.”

Shapiro suggests setting up Google Alerts for your name (in quotes) and each piece in your catalog (the title in quotes as well). This allows you to track performances you might not be notified about otherwise. Boyd’s emphasis is on reducing what she calls “consumer friction.” “Think about how you shop online, pay attention to the brands whose shopping experience you enjoy, and try to re-create that,” she says.

“If you don’t have an organized way of managing inventory and shipping, you won’t be productive.”

Baker advises composers to choose a method that helps you stay organized on your end as a seller. “It’s not about having the most sleek website, it’s about what’s going to work on the back end: delivery of content. If you don’t have an organized way of managing inventory and shipping, you won’t be productive.” She also urges composers to get set up like a business: create articles of incorporation, assign successors (especially now, during a pandemic), and work with a lawyer and a tax professional who is also a certified financial planner. “Set up everything the right way and put in the initial investment,” she says.

Wagner reminds composers to keep their customers in mind as they write, especially for those writing educational music. “If you are going to self-publish, you need to be on the cutting edge of what teachers need,” she explains. “If you supply teachers with the tools to be successful, then profit will come organically.”

Jennifer Wagner outside

Jennifer Wagner

A hybrid model that combines aspects of a small music distributor with selling your music yourself is to create a composer collective such as ADJ•ective New Music.

Composer Collectives: ADJ•ective New Music

ADJective New Music logo

Composers can band together and create a collective of like-minded colleagues to sell and cross-promote one another’s music. This is the model of ADJ•ective New Music, a publishing and distributing company begun by composer-performers Jamie Leigh Sampson and Andrew Martin Smith. “The idea from the beginning was that a rising tide raises all boats,” says Sampson. “If one composer does well, then people will come to our website and see the works of others.”

Composers should create their own collectives.

ADJ•ective’s roster currently includes 14 composers and has a model in which they expand every other year and only with a few composers, by invitation, at a time. “We don’t have the capacity to have an open call for new members,” Sampson explains. Rather than wait for their next period of expansion, Sampson suggests composers create their own collectives. She shared how ADJ•ective works to supply a potential model for other composers.

Jamie Leigh Sampson

Jamie Leigh Sampson

Logistics

The ADJ•ective website features a store for score purchases and rentals. ADJ•ective composers retain their copyright, can choose to sell or rent physical and/or digital scores, and receive 50% of the net profits of sales and rentals. Sampson and Smith invested the profits from the first several years of the business into purchasing printing and binding equipment and industry-standard paper at various weights. They print and bind physical scores in house. ADJ•ective shares information about who purchased works with composers.

Security

At this time, ADJ•ective does not watermark PDFs, partly because their volume of PDF sales is fairly low.

Benefits

“ADJ•ective is special because we are a composer’s collective, so we advocate for each other and are often involved in group commissions, projects, or festival appearances,” says composer Evan Williams, who sells his scores through ADJ•ective and Murphy Music Press. ADJ•ective composers have pooled resources to share booths at conferences such as the Midwest Clinic and ADJ•ective has a podcast, Lexical Tones, which is hosted by collective member Robert McClure and which features guest musicians involved in contemporary music. “Collectives help bring legitimacy,” says Sampson. “We have the old guard thinking if you’re not published, you aren’t legit.” A composer’s collective, she says, offers the best of both worlds: artistic ownership and control with the power of a group advocating for your music. They are planning to expand this partnership to include performers in the future.


One Final idea…What about NOT selling your music (most of the time)?

Because I love to rock the boat, I asked composer Melissa Dunphy to share her “radical” (as she puts it) approach to score distribution with me. Dunphy, best known for her social justice-inspired choral music, makes all of her self-published scores free to download on her website. Trusting in an honor system, she asks anyone charging admission to their concert to get in touch with her for an invoice and she charges them $1.50 per digital copy. For free recitals and church service performances, her music is free, provided she is informed of performances so that she can list them on her website and online and report them to ASCAP.

“It makes no sense for me to create ‘artificial scarcity’ by placing a barrier on the distribution of my sheet music.”

“The vast bulk of my income comes not from sales of scores, but from commissions and performance royalties,” Dunphy explains. “Given this situation, it makes no sense for me to create ‘artificial scarcity’ by placing a barrier on the distribution of my sheet music, such as a price or copy protection. Rather, I should want my music to be distributed as widely and easily as possible, to create more opportunities for performances and commissions. I should especially want music students, many of whom will become music professionals and educators (and many of whom don’t have a lot of money, as I know from experience), to have free and easy access to my sheet music.” She feels her career has benefited from this model and that it is “particularly well-suited to choral music because choral directors on the whole are social creatures and born networkers and very game to try new music from living composers.”

Melissa Dunphy

Melissa Dunphy

While she does feel that instrumental music has to be approached a bit differently: “more direct marketing, more specific networking to individual performers,” she also points out that “for solo or chamber works, you’re only selling a single copy or a few parts, so the potential revenue to be gained from putting a price on your sheet music would be even smaller.”

Dunphy’s sacred choral music is not available for free. It is published with a traditional publisher because of their connections to churches and religious communities that aren’t in her network, and she feels that her publisher works hard to market her music, which she appreciates.


Even More Options:

Score Exchange is an online music distributor with no fee to sign up, and no editorial criteria to pass to be accepted. Composers retain their copyright, and Sibelius users can take advantage of their built-in “publish on Score Exchange” function. Composers earn a percentage of the list price, beginning at 45% and increasing as your monthly sales exceed $200.

Black Tea Music describes itself as a “boutique music promotion, publishing, and management representative for composers and new music-inclined artists.”

Subito Music Distribution is a service that allows you to sell or rent your works while retaining copyright of your music. One benefit is that they will print and bind parts at industry-standard sizes. There is a $50 fee to join and $50 annual fee subsequently. Composers begin with 5 titles in their catalog and may add 10 more during the year. Composers receive 55% of retail sales.

Other options to take payments online include Stripe which charges no set up or monthly fees and a 2.9 % + $0.30 per transaction fee, Sellfy, which charges $19/month and no transaction fees for up to $10,000 in sales per year, and Shopify which combines website creation and ecommerce and begins at $29/month plus 2.9% + $0.30 per transactions online.


Empty Staff Paper with staple

Conclusion

“Working with distributors rather than publishers has allowed me so much more freedom for future projects.”

So composers, is your music sitting on a shelf at your home? Are you ready to change that? As you evaluate options, Tobenski suggests, “Composers should genuinely ask themselves, what do I do, and where does it fit? Don’t try to shoehorn yourself into some place.” And you can take advantage of the non-exclusivity of many of these distributors. “I like using several methods because the audience for the different genres of music varies greatly,” says Jolley, who distributes music through NewMusicShelf, Murphy Music Press, and ADJ•ective New Music. “Working with distributors rather than publishers has allowed me so much more freedom for future projects,” says Trumbore. “Freedom to make arrangements of existing works or even withdraw works from my catalogue if I feel they aren’t representing my best work anymore. The tipping point in deciding to use a distributor came when I started to resent that score sales were pulling time away from my creative work. Freeing that time back up is well-worth the cut that a distributor receives from my sales royalties.” And of course, choosing a distribution or sales method is only the beginning. Arthur Breur reminds readers:  “You have to market to let people know about your music.”

My hearty thanks to everyone who contributed their voices for this article: Kurt Knecht, Isaac Brooks, Karlyne Félix, Garrett Hope, Juhi Bansal, Brian Nabors, Arthur Breur, Dennis Tobenski, Jennifer Jolley, Sean Murphy, Evan Williams, Timothy Takach, Dale Trumbore, Sean McFarland, Reena Esmail, Melanie Eveland, Alex Shapiro, Stephanie Ann Boyd, Jennifer Wagner, Elizabeth A. Baker, Jamie Leigh Sampson, and Melissa Dunphy.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

ASCAP Foundation Logo

Leveraging the Quarantine to Create an Online Music Camp

Young composer at keyboard wearing headphones

“So is your father an entrepreneur to have worked with you through all of this?” asked Benjamin Taylor, composer and founder of the Music Creators Academy.

“That would be my mother.”

I remember my heart racing two months prior to that call on one of my regular walks around the neighborhood with my mother. Only a day before our walk, my plans to attend the Brevard Music Center’s Summer Institute had been canceled due to COVID-19, and we were already planning out the logistics for me to host my own summer camp.

“The demand is there,” I said, “I’m evidence enough of that! But this could be the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken…”

The Composers Collaborative Project (CCP) is an online series of lectures designed for the benefit of composers of all ages and skill levels. It has been my project of the last three months, and my attempt to leverage the quarantine to create a unique opportunity for composers seeking a path to continue developing their skills. The CCP currently features fifteen professional composition professors and freelancers – each teaching a 90-minute masterclass tailored to their individual strengths and passions. It has been one of the most exciting, nerve-racking, and fulfilling things I’ve ever attempted.

April 6th. The first email of many. If I was going to make this thing work, I would need a business entity. So I reached out to Steve Goldman, founding member of the National Young Composers Challenge (NYCC), in hopes of establishing a sponsorship or partnership. I wrote the email, took a deep breath, and pressed send.

Even though no professional partnership emerged from the conversation, Mr. Goldman was incredibly supportive and put me in touch with another NYCC judge, Dr. Alex Burtzos. Luckily for me, Dr. Burtzos had experience organizing festivals. He suggested that the best chance I had at seeing the project succeed was to turn it into a fundraiser. And with that, he introduced me to New Music USA’s Solidarity Fund. Though the Solidarity Fund would end earlier than I had expected, my mother and I decided to follow Dr. Burtzos’s advice, and – encouraged by their Solidarity Fund and other programs – evolved the project into a benefit for New Music USA.  And with a warm conversation and a plan secured with their Development Manager Miles Freeman, my next step would be to find our teachers.

From the beginning, I was concerned that it would be difficult to find anyone interested in giving their time for the project. What I discovered instead was the incredible generosity of the composition community. The support was overwhelming. I started with teachers that I knew, and reached out to others they recommended from there. In a short time, we had enough support to schedule two weeks of masterclasses!

“It’s common for young composers to think of established composers as superstars. In reality, most composers are relatively unknown outside of the new music community… They will generally be excited to hear about your interest in their work, and much more open to donating their time than you might think.” – Alex Burtzos, on our call

As a high school student, it’s intimidating reaching out to any college professor. Imagine now if that professor was a Grammy award winner, or was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, or is known around the composition world, or has judged the competitions you’ve entered, and so on! The humanity of the people I have worked with has been one of the most surprising parts of this process.

An example involving my initial conversations with Dr. Marcos Balter comes immediately to mind. I always do my best to research a person’s title before reaching out to them. In his case, I made the mistake of using ‘Mr.’ instead of ‘Dr.’. When, in the next email, I realized my mistake and apologized, he responded that it was no problem at all and that I could call him Marcos! I was blown away.

With the panel of teachers squared away, I needed to build a website. In many ways, this was a family affair. I worked on the layout and graphic design, my sister took care of the photography, and my mother wrote out the copy. Stuck in the house, my sister and I worked with what we had to create professional-looking backdrops: we rearranged my room and created props out of old manuscripts and an easel from years ago. The end result, I must say, I am very proud of.

  • The Composers Collaborative Project is my attempt to leverage the quarantine to create a unique opportunity for composers seeking a path to continue developing their skills.

    Brendan Weinbaum
  • I discovered the incredible generosity of the composition community. The support was overwhelming.

    Brendan Weinbaum
  • Of course, we were not the only ones creating a camp.

    Brendan Weinbaum
  • I will not be able to judge the success of the project until the very last minute.

    Brendan Weinbaum

Of course, we were not the only ones creating a camp. This brings us back to Benjamin Taylor’s quote from the beginning. Days before launch, I traded details with Joseph Sowa, a professor of the Music Creators Academy. He described his program as “a band camp with a heavy dose of creativity” for middle- and high-school students. I was antsy for sure; nervous at the prospect of competition. Nevertheless, both Dr. Sowa and the project’s founder, Benjamin Taylor, were incredibly kind, and given our conclusion that the two programs were meant for different audiences, we agreed to support one another in what ways we could.

This brings me another one of my favorite stories from this whole experience. Somehow neither I nor Dr. Sowa had told Dr. Taylor that I was a high school student. When we had our call and I referred to him as “Dr. Taylor”, he laughed and responded, “Should I call you Dr. Weinbaum?” He thought I was a composition professor! Now that’s a compliment if I’ve ever received one.

Launching the website and social media accounts brings us to where I am today. For the past few weeks and for the next few weeks, I have dedicated myself to promoting the event however I can: Email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, group chats, etc. I have had to stretch myself to get my head around many of these platforms; nevertheless, the results have been promising so far, and I continue to hope for the best!

Regardless, my heart still races. People generally prefer to wait until the due date to sign up for an event like this (as I have discovered talking to many people), and so I will not be able to judge the success of the project until the very last minute. If that doesn’t keep someone in suspense.

The lectures will take place from July 20-31 and registration will remain open throughout. If you are interested in learning more about the Composers Collaborative Project, please visit our website or send me an email. I would love to hear from you!

Website: www.composerscollaborative.com

Email: [email protected]

Jane Ira Bloom: Valuing Choices Made in the Moment  

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

While thinking beyond musical genres is a hallmark of a great many of today’s musical creators, Jane Ira Bloom clearly maneuvers within a genre while at the same time subverting any attempt at making generalizations about her work. The primary mode of music-making she engages in is performing her own instrumental compositions on the soprano saxophone in the company of a small group of like-minded collaborative improvisers, and those compositions are clearly indebted to the jazz tradition. But there are important exceptions to just about every detail of that description that are key to defining who she is as a musician.

She primarily performs her own musical creations, but just about every album she has ever recorded, as well as most of her live performances, also include at least one example of her own extremely personal interpretations of an American standard or a classic jazz composition. But while the American songbook has been an unending fount of inspiration for her improvisations and has even informed the ways she has constructed melodies in her own compositions, she has never featured a singer in any of her projects thus far. And, with the exception of her most recent recording, Wild Lines, which includes recitations of poetry by Emily Dickinson, all her performances are un-texted instrumentals. She performs almost exclusively on the soprano saxophone (there’s been a stray track here and there over the years of her on alto), but she began her musical studies on the piano, and the grand piano she keeps in her living room is the main instrument on which she composes. She has primarily performed with and composes for a small cadre of fellow travelers with whom she has worked for decades (e.g. Fred Hersch, Mark Dresser, Bobby Previte), but she has also written music for orchestra, wind band, dance and film, and has participated in improvisatory world music collaborations with Chinese pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen and South Indian vocalist and vina player Geetha Ramanathan Bennett (who died just a day after we recorded our talk with Jane Ira Bloom). Bloom acknowledges and embraces the jazz tradition, but for more than 30 years her saxophone improvisations have incorporated an electronic music component which she triggers in real time through the use of foot pedals, and sometimes the other musicians in her combos operate electronic devices as well.

“I’m definitely a lateral thinker,” Bloom acknowledged when we visited her to talk about her various musical experiences and how they have shaped her aesthetics as a composer and a performer. “There’s no question in my mind that my strong background as a melodist, as someone who’s loved and studied melody in many forms, takes me wherever I go. I’m a saxophonist who’s very much interested in sound, and I’ve spent a long time working on a particular sound that I really invested a lot of thought in on the instrument I play—the soprano saxophone. And I’m interested in phrasing and breath. All those things travel with me wherever I go, and when I’m using the live electronics, that’s where they’re compelled from. It’s me; it’s not a black box. It’s not an idea. I’ve learned an awful lot from the Afro-American music tradition and the American songbook, as well as exposing myself to world musics and all kinds of contemporary classical music. … I know what’s authentic and real about who I am, and I take that with me wherever my imagination takes me.”

In addition to the aforementioned 2017 Emily Dickinson-inspired album, Bloom’s imagination has led her to create a series of responses to abstract expressionist paintings by Jackson Pollock (“the freedom he was in touch with … is something that, as jazz musicians, we can tap into so easily”) as well as motion-inspired melodic improvisation (“I collaborated with choreographers who were much more cognizant of this quality … you could make sound change by moving”). Her use of real-time live electronic processing in her saxophone playing has been an ongoing component of her musical explorations. Her description of it makes it seem a lot simpler than it actually sounds:

Basically what I do with the electronics is I still play the saxophone, but I play through microphones that access electronic sounds that I blend and combine with my acoustic sound. And I trigger them using foot pedals, live and in the moment. Over the years, I’ve gotten skillful playing on one foot and tapping my toe on some pre-programmed settings that I’ve designed—on basically an old harmonizer and an old digital delay—and combining them in unusual ways. … I’ve spent some time trying to get the way I use them as an improviser as fluid as if it was a key on my saxophone. … It makes sense to me when the sounds appear and when they don’t, when I choose to use them and when I choose not to use them. It’s got to be fast. It’s got to be intuitive, because I’m using them very much in the moment of improvising.

Perhaps the most unusual place Bloom’s imagination has taken her was to work with the American space program, which happened, as she explained to us, as a result of an unsolicited letter to NASA that her friend, actor Brian Dennehy, suggested she should write.

“I thought he was nuts,” she remembered. “But some time went by and I actually sat down and I wrote a letter in the dark—a letter in a bottle, right?—inquiring whether NASA had ever done any research on the future of the arts and space, in zero gravity environments. Something I was always fascinated with. Six months later, I get this envelope back, which has the NASA logo on the front of the envelope from a guy by the name of Robert Schulman, director of the NASA Art Program. … Bob and I corresponded for years. He was interested in jazz musicians—lucky me, you know. Eventually I posed the idea, how about NASA commissioning the first musician for the Art Program? And he loved the idea.”

Dennehy’s “nutty” suggestion ultimately culminated in a 1989 concert at the Kennedy Space Center featuring the Brevard Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Fire and Imagination, an original work by Bloom scored for soprano saxophone, electronics, orchestra and “a whole bunch of ringers, the jazz musicians that were in the piece.” Although the work has yet to be performed in its original version since the premiere and has also never been commercially recorded (though some reworkings of that material surfaced on her landmark 1992 album Art and Aviation), Bloom’s association with NASA has had some unusual ripple effects. In 1998, an asteroid discovered on September 25, 1984 by B. A. Skiff at the Anderson Mesa Station of Lowell Observatory was named after her—6083 Janeirabloom!

As for what her next project will be, she has no firm ideas and, as an adherent to valuing choices made in the moment, she seems to like it that way.

A conversation with Frank J. Oteri in Bloom’s Manhattan apartment
August 14, 2018—5:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri:  You do a variety of different things.  You’re a composer, a saxophonist, and a bandleader. Is there one word that you gravitate toward more than any other to describe what you do?  If you were to meet somebody randomly, say on an airplane, and that person asked what you did, what would you say?

“I’m definitely a lateral thinker”

Jane Ira Bloom:  Wow, nobody ever asked me that before!  I’ve got to think about that.  Usually I always call myself a saxophonist-composer, but I’m definitely a lateral thinker because I’ve always been interested in multi-disciplinary thinking.  It’s an interesting question, but I haven’t got an immediate answer.

FJO:  That’s fine, but there’s a corollary to that, which is perhaps equally unanswerable. You have been inspired by so many different things—such as electronics and non-Western musical traditions—and you’ve even composed works for symphony orchestra and wind band, as well as collaborated with filmmakers and choreographers, but your music primarily exists within a rubric that, for lack of a better term, we call jazz.  So if that same somebody asked about what kind of music you do, what would you say to that?

JIB:  I can’t come up with words.  I think the world of my imagination goes wherever it goes and has been its own explanation for itself, whether I’m interested in dance, lighting, theater, film, movement, painting, or whatever grabs my attention.  I’m just trying to keep myself interested. I think, as time has gone on, I’m just letting that process happen more fluidly than it did in the beginning when there were more careful definitions to the different areas where I worked, whether I’m working with world music musicians or with jazz or new music improvisers or in an environment that looks even slightly more classical.  It’s just me being interested and still being curious.  Maybe that’s why it’s not so easy for me to find the categorical word for what it is, but I can tell you how it feels.

FJO:  So how does it feel?

JIB:  It feels open.  It feels like there are possibilities.  It feels like I can’t always anticipate what’s going to happen next.  I go through periods of time where I get interested in a topic and go down the rabbit hole. Then there are also fallow periods where I don’t know what’s coming next, and I start getting nervous.  It’s a kind of ebb and flow.

FJO:  So are you okay with the word “jazz” to describe your music?

JIB:  Sure.  Creative improvisation.  We’re improvisers who make up musical ideas in the moment and value that—that’s the important thing.  We value those choices.  I guess the thing I’ve learned over time is that the more you’ve done it, the more environments and the more experience you’ve had doing it, sometimes you can make better choices.

FJO:  I would posit that in addition to what you said about valuing the choices that you arrive at in the moment, you also value the choices that other musicians make in the moment who are performing with you. That seems to be a very big part of it.

JIB:  Absolutely.  I’m a completely collaborative animal.

FJO:  One of the reasons I wanted to begin our discussion by asking these questions is that one of the reasons we have these conversations on NewMusicBox is so that music creators have an opportunity to describe their music in their own words and it is not filtered through someone else’s ideas about them. In preparing for our talk, I was reading a lot of things that others have said about you and one thing that struck me, which I read in a few different places, was seeing you described as “an avant-garde jazz composer.” While there are certainly elements of what you do that are extraordinarily progressive and very innovative, I personally don’t think the term avant-garde accurately describes it since, no matter how out you go with some of these worlds, you’re always very clearly mindful of the tradition at the same time.

JIB:  Well, there’s no question in my mind that my strong background as a melodist, as someone who’s loved and studied melody in many forms, takes me wherever I go.  I’m a saxophonist who’s very much interested in sound, and I’ve spent a long time working on a particular sound that I really invested a lot of thought in on the instrument I play—the soprano saxophone.  And I’m interested in phrasing and breath.  All those things travel with me wherever I go, and when I’m using the live electronics, that’s where they’re compelled from.  It’s me; it’s not a black box.  It’s not an idea.  I’ve learned an awful lot from the Afro-American music tradition and the American songbook, as well as exposing myself to world musics and all kinds of contemporary classical music.  But I don’t reflect a lot on what I call myself.  I know what’s authentic and real about who I am, and I take that with me wherever my imagination takes me.

FJO:  One thing that definitely strikes me about your love for the jazz tradition and the American songbook is that although most of your recorded output is devoted to your own compositions, with the exception of your album Modern Drama, I can’t think of any recording of yours that doesn’t include at least one reinvention of either a song standard or a classic jazz composition.

JIB:  You’re absolutely right.  I guess I can’t let go of that.  And Sixteen Sunsets was a compilation of American songbook standards.  It was my ballads album.

FJO:  So what motivates you to keep going back to that material?

“I didn’t learn it; I grew up listening to it. It’s in my bones.”

JIB:  Those are primary sounds for me.  That understanding about how melodies work comes from knowing that music on the most primary level.  I didn’t learn it; I grew up listening to it.  It’s in my bones.  I know the lyrics to all the songs.  So I think the knowledge of that music and that largely Jewish songwriting tradition—whether it comes from cantorial song or not—also follows me, and it informs me even when I’m writing. The kind of linear line-writing that you hear on many of my original compositions—they have this different kind of motion and flow, but it’s informed by the same kind of pearl stringing that I’ve learned from studying Harold Arlen or Richard Rodgers, their great melodies and why they work.  That stuff still informs even the melodies that I write that don’t sound anything like that.

The pile of pencils and erasers that Jane Ira Bloom stuffs inside her piano on the frame in front of the strings and some music manuscript paper.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you talk about melody and line and breath as I stare to my right at your beautiful old grand piano, which has manuscript paper on it and a bunch of pencils and an eraser stacked inside it.  And I’m remembering reading somewhere that although you’ve been playing the saxophone since you were a child, your first instrument was actually the piano.

JIB:  A composer needs to know the piano, and I studied piano for a while. I started when I was very young. But I must have been 9 or 10 years old when I started studying saxophone in public school.  Then it wasn’t long after I began studying that I started to study with this master teacher Joe Viola, when I was living outside Boston.  Saxophone players know about this guy.  He was a great woodwind virtuoso, and he had this special feeling for the saxophone. Why did I pick up the saxophone in the first place? I was in third grade and it was shiny, that’s why.  But the soprano saxophone—I think when I heard that sound, I said, “Yeah, I like that!”

FJO:  Of course, the soprano saxophone has the most unusual history of the entire saxophone family in jazz.  There isn’t this through line the way there is with alto players or tenor players.  There was Sidney Bechet early on, but later a huge gap during the bop era. Then all of a sudden Steve Lacy appeared on the scene and soon after that John Coltrane takes up the soprano sax, but not as his primary instrument.  And starting in the ‘70s, the soprano sax has had this other whole life as a smooth jazz instrument due to Grover Washington and, later on, Kenny G who is almost an exact contemporary of yours.  But what you do sounds nothing like that.  Going back to running into that random person talking to you at the airport, when you say that you play the soprano sax, I’m sure the first thing that person is going to say is, “Oh, like Kenny G?”

JIB:  Not any more.  Actually, the latest thing people say is, “Do you play pool?”  They see the soprano case, and it looks like a pool cue case.  But it used to happen a while back, and the fact that people knew what a soprano saxophone looked like was pretty interesting—just on a general audience level.  That’s certainly what Kenny G brought to the instrument, so thank you.

I’ve always thought that if you’re the kind of person that’s interested in playing an instrument that doesn’t have too much of a stylistic lineage attached to it—unlike all the great saxophone players on the tenor and the alto—and that if you’re interested in doing something new, soprano is maybe not a bad choice.  It suits me, for sure, that it has the history that it does and that I’ve been able to create a sound on it.  I suppose you could think, not having been over-influenced by a whole stylistic lineage, to create a new sound on it.

FJO:  That’s a very inspiring thought, although you were not completely without influences. You mentioned Joe Viola.

JIB:  A primary influence, yeah.

FJO:  But since there isn’t this lineage in terms of who you grew up listening to and who you gravitated toward musically, it probably wasn’t other soprano players.

“I pick my own notes.”

JIB:  No, not at all.  I was listening to Sonny Rollins.  I was listening to all kinds of things.  I was listening to violin players, but especially trumpet players.  And I was listening to vocalists.  I was getting ideas from other places that I’ve attached to this instrument.  I spent some time studying how people negotiated on a different instrument.  For example, I’ve always loved the sense of struggle that’s in the trumpet.  That’s what I’ve always loved about Booker Little and Miles Davis, so I’ve gleaned something from them.  Same thing with Sonny Rollins.  It’s not necessarily looking around for influences to imitate the notes that people play; it’s more getting a kinesthetic feel for where they were that informs me and what I do.  I pick my own notes.

FJO:  Now in terms of picking those notes, you said that the piano is a necessary thing for composing.

JIB:  Yeah, there it is.

FJO:  So you compose your music at the piano, not at the saxophone, or do you do a little bit of both?

JIB:  Sometimes ideas come from the horn, too, so a little of both.  But primarily I sit at the piano.

Jane Ira Bloom sitting in front of her grand piano.

FJO:  One of the most interesting comments we recorded in a conversation in the last few years was when we did a talk with Béla Fleck, who’s now writing for orchestra.  He talked about how he came up with clarinet lines in the orchestration at the banjo.  He composes from the banjo. He jots down ideas in banjo tablature and then someone else turns it into something that other players can read from.

JIB:  Cool. That’s so unique.

FJO:  I thought that your compositional process might have been somewhat similar, but then I learned you had a background in piano. When we walked in and saw the piano with all the manuscripts on it, I realized that the way you write music was completely different and that the piano plays a significant role in how you compose.

JIB:  Well, for the harmonic information that you hear on my original compositions, yeah.  But let’s face it, I’m a line player.  I’m a horn player, so I play the piano like a horn player.  They inform each other, believe me.

FJO:  In terms of what informs your musical ideas, for almost a century people have come up through improvisatory music by woodshedding and apprenticing as a side person in other people’s ensembles.  What’s amazing to me is that you really didn’t do that at all.  You seem to have emerged fully formed. I’ve only heard two albums that you’re a side person on, and I think there are only three.

JIB:  There are a few.

FJO:  Well, the two that I am aware of are both really wonderful records, but you recorded them after you had already released recordings under your own name.  The first one is this really odd record from pretty early on in your career, Frederick Hand’s Jazz Antiqua.

JIB:  Oh my goodness, yeah. This flute player, Keith Underwood, was a friend of mine from New Haven, from Yale.  He was doing this work with Fred Hand, so when the call went out for soprano saxophone, I think Keith told Fred about me.  That was a long time ago.  I’m trying to think of some other ones.  I apprenticed with vibes player David Friedman and recorded with him.  I also recorded some albums, but it wasn’t at that early time, with vocalist Jay Clayton and did some guest appearances on some other people’s albums. But you’re right.  Largely I had a different path.

Coming out of New Haven in the ‘70s, I was around a fascinating community of new music improvisers and jazz musicians.  I’ve read books about this. They now call this the New Haven Renaissance. If I listed all the musicians who were actually in New Haven at that one time in the ‘70s—it was this fascinating creative music community and everybody was inspiring everybody else.  At that time, Wadada Leo Smith was in New Haven, and he was making albums on his own—LPs; there were no such things as CDs then.  He had important music to document that he was playing, and there were no record companies that were getting Leo to record for them.  So he was making his own albums and documenting his own music. Everybody got inspired by him: George Lewis, Gerry Hemingway, Pheeroan akLaff, myself, Mark Dresser, and Mark Helias—loads and loads of musicians were there, and it inspired all of us.  I was inspired to start my own record company.  It was like 1976.  I had been playing duets with a bass player named Kent McLagan.  We had important music that we were making.  Why not document it?  And I learned how to make a record and how to promote my own music. Trial by fire, I learned how to do it myself, by asking a lot of questions and making a lot of mistakes and figuring it out. They turned out to be my calling cards when I moved to New York City.  That’s a really different path than going off to apprentice with some great. I have a few early stories. I remember I sat in once with Mercer Ellington. But I knew that wasn’t my path.  It just wasn’t me, so I followed this different direction.

FJO:  I have to confess that I don’t know either of those first two records, aside from the little snippets from them that you posted on your website—one of which was a very intriguing gamelan-tinged piece.

JIB: Oh, “Shan Dara.” That’s with David Friedman.

FJO:  I’d really love to hear the whole thing one day. But after these two completely self-produced and self-released albums, you recorded an album for a very highly respected independent label, Enja, with an unbelievable cast of characters.  Two of the members of the quartet album you recorded had been part of the landmark Ornette Coleman Quartet—Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell.  And the other player was Fred Hersch, who went on to become a very important collaborator of yours. So how did this come together?

JIB:  Thank you Matthias Winckelmann, the head of Enja Records. He knew about me through David Friedman, the vibes player, because I’d been on tour with David.  He said, “I’d like to make a record; who’d you like in your rhythm section?”  I was given the chance to name my dream rhythm section. So wow, hell, I want to play with Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell!  I want Fred Hersch playing piano with me! It was just me having my chance to pick the dream rhythm section of all time.

FJO:  So you didn’t know those people?  You’d never worked with any of them before?

JIB:  I had met Blackwell and I had played with him in New Haven.  And Fred and I had also done some playing together.  I don’t think I had played with Charlie, but I knew I wanted to play with him.

FJO:  To stray a little bit from the chronology here, I find your history of making recordings to be somewhat emblematic of our times.  You formed your own record label.  After that, you recorded an album on this really prestigious independent label.  Then you got picked up by one of the global Goliaths, Columbia/CBS, now Sony.  You did two albums with them.  Then you went back to do doing stuff on indies—a series of really important albums on Arabesque, a terrific label which no longer exists, and then a disc on ArtistShare. But your recent albums are back on your own label. So you made a full circle.

“I was the only self-producing jazz artist at CBS.”

JIB:  Complete circle.  But having all the skills as a producer from the get-go has been an asset throughout everything.  I was the only self-producing jazz artist at CBS.  I produced those albums myself.  It was unheard of.  But it was because I had the skills.  At the time, George Butler was the A & R person at CBS.  He knew I could do it.  He had evidence. But isn’t it interesting—the full circle?  I started off on Outline Records, went around the block, and now I’m just back doing what I always did on Outline Records.  And, you know, it just has kind of worked.  I’ve been making albums for so long now that I’ve been fortunate enough that even with an independent label, when I’m ready I can produce an album and it comes to the attention of people in the writing community and the jazz radio community and they look forward to it.  I have a long-time history with people.

And I work with a terrific team. Max Horowitz at Crossover Media has been working with me for over 15 years, and now my niece Amanda Bloom is working with him. So I’m not doing it by myself anymore.  I’ve got good help.  And I also work with Jim Eigo at Jazz Promo Services. These are people who are very, very helpful.

FJO:  I imagine the same has been true for how you’ve published your music.  You’ve written several works for wind ensemble, as well as for orchestra, so you had to prepare scores and parts for all of these.  Is there a place where people can go to get this material?  I imagine it’s all self-published.

JIB:  Yeah, I’ve got them.  All the scores and parts are sitting behind those two cabinets over there.

Shelves in Jane Ira Bloom's cabinet filled with her orchestral scores and parts.

FJO:  So you had a whole self-publishing operation, preparing performance materials, renting them out, etc.?

JIB:  Well, at that time I was getting grants and I got help from some great copyists to find my way through the orchestra.  I remember a particularly wonderful copyist by the name of Randa Kirschbaum, who is the best there was and who helped me get through my orchestra experiences.  That’s a whole other issue.  But I didn’t find a continuation of that work that was easy for me at that time, and I was less successful about recording a large ensemble work.  So the stuff that you hear is for smaller ensembles.

FJO:  It’s all very personal and very intimate; the exact opposite of orchestral music. You’ve mostly recorded quartets—you with piano, bass, and drums. But you also frequently feature unaccompanied soprano saxophone solos on many of your recordings and Early Americans, the recording you made just prior to your most recent one, is with a trio of just you, bass, and drums, no piano.

JIB:  Yeah, I’m just getting comfortable with that.  I’ve been playing in a trio for years and years with Mark Helias and Bobby Previte, and finally the guys said, “Hey, Jane, it’s time to document this thing.”  So we literally just went into the studio and did what we do.  It was a long time coming, but you can feel how natural it is. And winning a Grammy for surround sound for that, I can’t tell you how it makes me smile on the inside, collaborating with the engineer Jim Anderson and my co-producer Darcy Proper.  These were people who took me to a new place.

FJO:  So in your experience does winning a Grammy still have the ability to get significant attention for a recording? Does it increase sales? What role does it play at this point?

JIB:  Well, I did start getting more calls. It’s just more public awareness of my work, that’s all.  There’s just something about the mystique of it.  The fact that this jazz trio album won in a category of music against musics from all other kinds of disciplines was really a very satisfying moment for us.  We didn’t expect it.  There were all kinds of music, but it was about the surround sound technology and the music that made it happen.

Jane Ira Bloom's Grammy

FJO:  Going back to talking about your earlier large ensemble music for a moment, creating music with a small ensemble of people you’ve worked with for a long time is such a stark contrast to how, especially, orchestra music gets rehearsed, performed, and—if you’re fortunate enough—recorded. It’s a very different experience to create music for a large group of people that you might never have met before to working with a small group of creative improvisers who you’ve known for years. You know what they can do and you have an idea about what they’re going to bring to your music, as opposed to when you’re dealing with a large ensemble, for whom you have to have everything worked out in advance and very clearly notated and with whom you’re lucky if you get two rehearsals.

JIB:  Oh believe me, I know.  You spend several years writing a piece of music, you get a few hours of rehearsal, and boom.  That was a startling realization.  They’re completely different worlds, and the task and the skill of the colorist, the orchestrator—their knowledge of instruments and their combinations and the unique qualities that create sonic originality in the orchestra—is a skill like no other.  I was dabbling.  I was just taking my world and seeing where I could go in that playground.  But the world that I largely work in is, as you say, more long-term collaborations with people who I’ve gotten to know over long periods of time.

“My greatest excitement comes from playing with musicians who I know really well.”

I tend to stay playing with people a lot longer than most.  I think it’s because of what you’re talking about, that unconscious communication that develops among improvising musicians over long periods of time.  Not that it shouldn’t be informed by new input and new ideas, because we’re all growing and are going in different directions at times, but I do truly value what’s very special about musicians who’ve known each other and played with each other for a long time—particularly when you go into the studio, which has its own set of issues.  How do you get spontaneity and creativity and the unexpected to still happen in places where just about everything in the environment is trying to tell you the opposite of that?  I tend to find my greatest excitement comes from playing with musicians who I know really well.

FJO:  That’s very different from that first non-self-released recording where you picked your dream team, and then they just showed up at the studio and you recorded an album with them.

JIB:  Yeah, I think I got together with Blackwell and Fred a couple of times, but I don’t think Charlie was ever there for any of the rehearsals!

FJO:  Now, for Modern Drama, was that an ensemble that had been touring or was that also put together just to make the recording?

JIB:  We’d been playing together some.  It was a combination of some of my work with vibist David Friedman and some developing work over a long period of time with Fred Hersch, and at that time it was Ratzo Harris on bass and Tom Rainey on drums.  That was an expression of things I was doing with live electronics, compositions that expressed that, and I wanted to document that and this very special chemistry with those people.

FJO:  It would be great to have you explain how you operate the electronics in a performance, but first, how did you first become interested in working with electronics and how did you learn about it?

JIB:  I always loved electronic sound—I’m talking early electronics, analog electronics.  I’m talking about when the Moog synthesizer first hit and when some of the first composers integrated electronics into their music, like [Morton Subotnick’s] Silver Apples of the Moon.  I can remember being in college and studying electronic music with Robert Moore, having our first hands-on sessions with these synthesizers that looked like refrigerators.  There were lots of faders and dials.  That’s how I learned about electronics. It was really old fashioned.  So I have a predilection in my thinking toward this less digital and more analog approach to these Forbidden Planet kinds of sounds.  That’s what appeals to me.  So I worked with some specialists who helped me design what you would call an effects processing setup.

Basically what I do with the electronics is I still play the saxophone, but I play through microphones that access electronic sounds that I blend and combine with my acoustic sound.  And I trigger them using foot pedals, live and in the moment. Over the years, I’ve gotten skillful playing on one foot and tapping my toe on some pre-programmed settings that I’ve designed—on basically an old harmonizer and an old digital delay—and combining them in unusual ways.  What you’re hearing on the recordings is balancing that electronic sound with the acoustic.  It blends a little easier because I’m dealing with more analog kinds of electronic sounds.  They’re not as cold and digital sounding as some can sound.  I’ve spent some time trying to get the way I use them as an improviser as fluid as if it was a key on my saxophone.  I wanted to have the breath that still compels my saxophone sound to the electronic sound.  I still wanted to have the phrasing that’s behind who I am as a saxophonist.  I’m still a saxophone player.  That’s really what’s at the core of it.  It’s just I hear this expanse of electronic sound that can open up from the acoustic.  And that’s why I feel like it makes sense to me.  It makes sense to me when the sounds appear and when they don’t, when I choose to use them and when I choose not to use them.  It’s got to be fast. It’s got to be intuitive, because I’m using them very much in the moment of improvising. And it has to have a warmth and a breath that is still compelled from being a saxophone player.

FJO:  So in terms of it being in the moment, you’ve got these pre-set things, but you might decide to take it out of the recording studio into a live performance, let’s say, which comes with another whole set of baggage.  How do you make sure the space can handle the balances with that?

JIB:  It’s always a balancing act.

FJO:  But it could be that the spirit moves you in a live setting and there are tons of electronics in some of them, or it could be that the spirit doesn’t move you and you’re completely acoustic.  That decision happens in the moment.

JIB:  It does.  And also the composer in me is thinking about a set of music that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and also hears when the ear needs to relax from being saturated with electronic sound, when things needs to thin out, just as an orchestrator would go from a thicker density to a thinner density.  There’s a lot of skill to thinking about how you go from an acoustic to an electronic place in a piece that helps listeners’ ears not feel jarred.  I have thought about that a lot.  When you hear the electronics on the recordings, there’s a lot of extra help from Jim Anderson, now my almost life-long engineer. How we work, how we record the saxophone, how the electronics appear in the sonic picture, lots and lots of detailed thinking goes into making this thing that I’m talking about in a recorded fashion.

FJO:  I wish I could have heard this material live, if it was done live, but one of my all-time favorite recordings of yours is Like Silver Like Song, which is the one record where you’re not the only person using electronics.

JIB:  Jamie Saft, what a foil.  Mark Dresser. Bobby Previte.  All master composers, by the way, in their own rights.  And, interestingly enough, whether they’re playing acoustically or not, all are clearly influenced by electronic thinking in their sonic palette.  It was another dream team.  I love that recording, too.  I treasure listening to the music that we made together.

FJO:  How did that material work live?  Did it work live?

JIB:  It was easy.  When the guys are on same page with you, it’s just fun.

FJO:  But in order to make it cohere in a live performance setting, did you have a live mixer with you on stage?

JIB:  I would have loved to have had an onstage mixer.  But we were all composers balancing our instrumental contribution live somehow and doing the best we could.  We played in all kinds of spaces.  I remember once playing in the Rose Planetarium with Jamie and Mark. Somehow we make it work.

FJO:  To take it back to Modern Drama, there’s a lot of stuff on there that seems like it would be hard to replicate live.

JIB:  The only thing that would be hard to replicate was the gizmo designed by my friend Kent McLagan, a bassist whom I spent my early years performing with who is also a mechanical engineer and physicist.  We designed this strain gauge attachment that we put on the bell of the soprano so that, based on how fast I was sweeping the bell of the horn, it would create a flurry of sound regeneration in the harmonizer.  So I kind of hot-rodded my harmonizer to be controlled by this strain gauge—Kent called it a strain gauge; it was measuring velocity.

FJO:  So that’s the wacky sound on “Rapture of the Flat”?

JIB:  Yeah, and it appeared on many things.  On “Over Stars,” a lot of the electronic, silvery, shimmering sounds that you hear, that’s the strain gauge of me swirling the soprano around.

FJO:  I’m a huge fan of “Rapture of the Flat” since it’s such a strange combination of things. It starts out with this kind of straight-ahead rock and roll riff, but then all of a sudden it becomes this insane, out-there electronic thing.

JIB:  It’s one of the pieces I dearly love listening to.  I’ll never forget Fred Hersch playing the Hammond B3.  That was a great time we had doing that. But the strain gauge wasn’t very portable.  It looked like a piece of equipment out of War of the Worlds actually.  But I still travel with the harmonizer and the digital delay. They look like antiques.  And I have these foot pedals and stuff, it’s very old-fashioned, live-electronics effects processing.  It’s not fancy, but I can still do it.

FJO:  Now when you say War of the Worlds, where my mind immediately goes is thinking about how you got connected to NASA.

JIB:  Wow, that’s a story.  Flashback to me in the 1980s.  Things were not going great with my career. I was having dinner with a friend of mine, the actor Brian Dennehy.  And I said, “Brian, things just aren’t looking so good.”  This is a true story.  Brian said to me, “Well, what are you interested in?”  And I said, “Well, I’ve always been interested in the space program.  I’ve watched every launch since the Mercury days, and I’ve always been fascinated with space exploration.”  He says, “Well, why don’t you write a letter to NASA?”  I said, “What do you mean, write a letter to NASA?”  “Just write a letter.  Tell ‘em what you’re interested in.” I thought he was nuts.

“Brian Dennehy said, ‘Why don’t you write a letter to NASA?’ … I thought he was nuts.”

But some time went by and I actually sat down and I wrote a letter in the dark—a letter in a bottle, right?—inquiring whether NASA had ever done any research on the future of the arts and space, in zero gravity environments.  Something I was always fascinated with.  Six months later, I get this envelope back, which has the NASA logo on the front of the envelope from a guy by the name of Robert Schulman, director of the NASA Art Program.  I didn’t even know what that was.  I’d just basically written this letter saying I’m a jazz artist and I’ve been interested in exploring. Anyway, turns out a correspondence develops between me and Robert Schulman, and I learn about this organization that’s been in existence at NASA since the beginning of the space program called the NASA Art Program where they commission visual artists, famous ones, to experience what goes on with the space program and everything, from the launch, the landing, the deep space program, astronaut training.  They invite artists to observe this, and from this, to create a work of art, a visual work of art that they would contribute to NASA’s Space Art Collection, which I didn’t even know existed.

Bob and I corresponded for years.  He was interested in jazz musicians—lucky me, you know.  He started sending me all kinds of wonderful stuff, press releases and stuff from NASA. Eventually I posed the idea, how about NASA commissioning the first musician for the Art Program?  And he loved the idea.  That was the start of it.  We had all kinds of corporate sponsors for this big concert to happen.  I basically joined a NASA art team that came down to the Kennedy Space Center for the first launch after the Challenger accident.  It was the space shuttle Discovery.  I traveled with the artists and went to all the facilities, to the launch and the landing at Edwards Air Force Base.  I went to a jet propulsion lab to see the deep space telemetry.  It was a peak experience in my life, no question about it.  And from that, I created a new work, which we premiered at the Kennedy Space Center.

FJO:  Now when you say NASA commissioned it, there was a concert, but then what happened?  Did they send it into space?  What was NASA’s role in it?

JIB:  Well, I can tell you about the concert.  It was an experience like no other.  It was this wonderful special NASA audience concert that was held at the Kennedy Space Center with the Brevard Symphony Orchestra. I brought down a whole bunch of ringers, the jazz musicians that were in the piece.  In addition to the visual artists who were also there contributing to the evening, there were several astronauts who gave talks before the concert took place.  I remember meeting Astronaut Robert Crippen and Astronaut John Young. I shook hands with a guy who went to the moon.  It was a NASA evening that was documented; it was video-ed.  Where did the piece ultimately land in NASA’s Space Art Collection? Wherever it goes. There’s a piece of my score that’s there, and there’s this video recording of the piece.  But more importantly, it turned out to be an experience that’s informed almost all my musical thinking and writing since then.  It was one of my first large orchestration experiences, and it was also a time when I was integrating live electronics and surround sound. So many concepts that were channeled into that experience are still with me in work that I’m exploring today. I cite that experience as incredibly pivotal in my thinking.

FJO:  And yet it has still never been released in the original format you conceived it.

JIB:  No, just the electronic trio piece that’s in the middle of it—a piece that I performed with Jerry Granelli on electro-acoustic percussion and Rufus Reid on bass and prepared electronic tape, and me on electronics—that’s called “Most Distant Galaxy.”  That’s recorded on my album Art and Aviation. That was the second or third movement.  I forget which.

FJO:  Although most of the pieces on Art and Aviation also have space-inspired names.

JIB:  Yeah, it was right around that time, but that’s the only one that’s directly material from that. Art and Aviation was a spin-off of the work that I did for NASA.  I did a huge piece at Town Hall.  Oh, I’ll never forget that one.

FJO:  I was at that concert.  It was the first time I heard you perform live.

JIB:  Wow!  Yeah, that was a fun one.  That was the first time I integrated getting the brass section up in the balconies to do some surround sound effects.

FJO:  Now the other thing that’s on that record, which I find funny because it’s quite a contrast from all these space exploration-inspired things, is a piece called “I Believe Anita.”

JIB:  That piece was very important, and it’s important today.  I still perform that piece, and I still believe her.  Absolutely.

FJO:  Anita Hill was just in the news again recently. They were talking to her about how back then there were no hashtags.  There was no #MeToo back then. A lot of people believed her, but it ultimately didn’t make a difference. Clarence Thomas still got nominated to the Supreme Court.

JIB:  Hard to believe, but I believe Anita.

FJO:  So when you play that piece now, how do you frame it?

JIB:  History.  It’s bearing out history—sticking to your convictions and seeing how history plays things out.

FJO:  You were talking earlier about being a melodist. That’s another area I would love to talk about in greater detail with you because you developed this whole technique that you call motion-inspired melodies, which you’ve also described as painting with sound.

JIB:  On a detailed level, there’s always been an interest in melodic lines that have their own unique sense of motion flow—accelerando and deccelerando, groups of fives and eights and nines, not just chugging along in eighth notes and sixteenth notes.  It’s been a characteristic of my melodic line writing for a long time.  You can hear it in almost all—I can show it to you.  It has informed so much.  It comes from this sense of motion filled-ness, physical motion.  I’ve always been interested both in my own body when I play and then translating that into sound and how that compels melodies in different ways, too.  It’s all one thing.

“Even before I even thought about it, I always moved a lot when I played.”

Intuitively, even before I even thought about it, I always moved a lot when I played.  I didn’t know why I was doing it.  I just felt things in my body when I play.  As time went on, I collaborated with choreographers who were much more cognizant of this quality and interested in it and actually made me look at it in a much more concrete way, to think about what you could do, to look at it and think about it, and how you could make sound change by moving. It was really choreographers like Richard Bull—who did Improvisational Dance Ensemble—that got me really thinking about it.  So much other compositional thought was generated from the movement, whether it was making melodies or being inspired by Jackson Pollock in the Chasing Paint album, trying to think of arcing sound in space the way Pollock moved a brush.  I was always a visual thinker, so this was a real natural place for me to go, to think of sculpting sound with movement and then augmenting that with electronics and melodic line writing.

FJO:  Your first Pollock piece goes all the way back to your first combo album, and then it grew into this larger six-movement suite that’s on Chasing Paint.

JIB:  Yeah.  I was always interested in Jackson Pollock. He spoke to me, I guess, as he’s spoken to many improvisers.

FJO:  A painting of his was even used for the cover of Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz.

JIB:  Absolutely. He speaks to improvisers.

FJO:  So, in terms of this arcing sound, do you encourage the other players in the group to also move around?  If you’re sitting at a piano, that seems like it might be hard to do.

JIB:  Well, I don’t dictate.  But I know there was a period of time when I was recording with Fred, I can remember one piece called “The Race (for Shirley Muldowney),” where we put some of the effects processing in the strings of the piano, so Fred was actually playing with effects processing in that piece.  I can think of times where Bobby Previte—although he himself was not using any extended electronic sounds, his compositional thinking on the set is so compelled by visual thought.  It’s just in his head.

FJO:  Yeah, well he’s created a whole cycle of pieces based on paintings by Joan Miró.

JIB:  Oh yeah.  Right.  I was on one of his Joan Miró pieces.  I’m with like-minded collaborators.  So again, I don’t dictate to people about that, but clearly there’s something in the air.

FJO:  So were your Pollock pieces inspired by specific paintings?

JIB:  Absolutely.  And when we played the pieces, I made some really good color printouts, the best I could, so people had them on their stands. And then at one point, we did play at the Museum of Modern in Art in Houston, where we actually played in front of a Pollock. It was not one of the ones that I’d literally written a piece about, but it was right behind us.  You could just turn around and look at it.  And that was so cool.

FJO:  And the group you performed those pieces with was another dream team.

JIB:  Yeah. Fred, Mark Dresser, and Bobby Previte—wonderful quartet.

FJO:  There’s a real chemistry between the four of you.

JIB:  Absolutely.  And sometimes it’s not what people think, that you put likeminded people together.  Sometimes it’s the very unique characteristics of each of the players, and the strengths that they bring that are very different from one another.  And those people had it.  That’s what I remember about that quartet. I think very fondly about that collaboration now.

FJO:  You’ve recorded at least two albums with that exact lineup, and then others where there’s almost all of them.

JIB:  Yeah, it shifted a little bit.  But we did the Red Quartets and then the Pollock album, Chasing Paint.

FJO:  Another thing that’s probably related to your being inspired by painting is that you are also a photographer.  When did that start?

JIB:  High school.  I was one of those people who spent a lot of time in the old days in the dark room sniffing chemicals.  I just had a passion for black and white photography.

FJO: Interestingly though, in terms of everything we were saying about the melody line and hearing something, having it be balanced and wanting it to be just right, is that it shows how mindful you are of the world around you—in the way that a photographer also usually is, but in a way that perhaps abstract expressionist painters aren’t as much.  Their processes inform their work, and the work is what it is.  So even though you’ve been inspired by Pollock, your aesthetic is very different from his.  Or at least it seems to be.

“The freedom Pollock was in touch with is something that, as jazz musicians, we can tap into so easily.”

JIB:  Who knows?  He just speaks to me.  The freedom he was in touch with, this motion in nature is something that, as jazz musicians, we can tap into so easily.  I know so much about what he was talking about, that fractal nature of the movement of wind and moving grasses or branches or trees, and how that manifests visually in the natural world, and also feeling how that might be in sound.  You don’t know how people inspire you.  It’s not that you’re like them; it’s that they speak to you about something.  Thank you, Jackson Pollock.  That’s all I can say.

One of the many pieces of art that is hanging in Jane Ira Bloom's apartment.

One of the many pieces of art that is hanging in Jane Ira Bloom’s apartment.

FJO:  Jumping to the present moment, when I first heard about this I thought it was so incongruous, yet it totally works.  Another person who’s inspired you, another great American cultural icon, is Emily Dickinson.  But I never would have made that connection.

JIB:  I think the first time I was exposed to her poetry was through The Belle of Amherst with Julie Harris on WGBH in Boston. It was a basically one-woman show about the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson.  I think that’s where it began.  It took a long time simmering, but I think I went to a lecture on Dickinson’s poetry given at the Philactetes Society.  I’ve forgotten who the poet was who gave that lecture, but that’s what sparked it.  I forget when that was.  But then I started re-reading.  Somehow I didn’t understand her, but I got her.  I don’t know why.  I don’t intellectually understand her, but there’s something about the way she used words that feels like the way jazz musicians abstract notes and ideas.  That’s where I started from.

FJO:  And it’s so fascinating that you issued performances both with the words being recited and without them, so listeners can either hear it with the words or not.  You can have two completely different experiences with it.

JIB:  Those fragments of the poetry inspire the music that you hear, where we go with it.  But it’s a different approach to intersecting music and words than traditional settings of poems.  I was not interested in that approach at all.  It’s really a much more abstract relationship to her and to her poetry.

FJO:  You mentioned performing with Jay Clayton, but on your own music you’ve never worked with a singer.

JIB:  No, nor had I ever done anything with words.  Never.  This was the first time.  And my husband is an actor and a director!  But this was the first time that I actually did a collaboration with literature, and it was very meaningful to me.

FJO:  I find it somewhat strange that you’ve never included a singer in your music, especially after hearing all of the stuff that you’ve said about melody, as well as being inspired by the American Songbook.  I could imagine a recording of you with a singer that would be as symbiotic as the album that John Coltrane recorded with Johnny Hartman, which really sounds like two singers—Hartman singing the words and Coltrane singing on his saxophone.

JIB:  That’s right.  It may be in the future.  In truth, I do think when I play ballads that I am singing those songs into the saxophone.  But what collaboration might be in the future, who knows?

FJO:  Okay, so what would be a dream project that you’d love to do that you haven’t done yet?

JIB:  I just went this weekend to the MOMIX Dance Theatre.  Years ago, I wrote some music for the dance company Pilobolus and one of the original dancers, Moses Pendleton, started this company called MOMIX, which is dedicated not only to dance but a high use of stagecraft in lighting and illusion, to create very magical looking effects on stage.  I remember thinking when I left, “I wonder if I could get a grant to get together with a really powerful design team, lighting designers and stage production designers, people who do this kind of thing.  How fascinating it might be to create the music that I create with this other kind of visual element—simultaneously.  But we’d definitely have to get a grant for this one.”  That’s the latest thing that occurred to me.

A pocket-sized audio-recorder on a pile of music manuscript paper in one of the corners on the right hand corner of Jane Ira Bloom's grand piano.

Along with all the music manuscript paper, Jane Ira Bloom also keeps a pocket-sized audio-recorder at her piano.

FJO:  One area that we didn’t touch on that we should are those fascinating world music collaborations that you did about ten years ago, which really took you in new directions.  I actually heard a connection between those performances and your Early Americans trio album, where there’s finally no piano which means you can freely venture beyond the 12-tone equal-tempered scale and improvise on other modes. I did hear things that hinted at this terrain in several of the pieces on that album, like “Dangerous Times” or “Other Eyes,” which perhaps came from your experience in those world music collaborations.

JIB:  Well, I’ve always been interested in world musics.  Not that I’ve studied any in great detail as some of my colleagues have, who have gone to different parts of the world to study shakuhachi or Indian music. But I’ve always had this open ear.  It all started probably in the 1970s when I listened to the Nonesuch World Music Explorer series in the library.  I used to listen to music from all over the world and let it into my musical thought.  Over the years, I’ve collaborated with musicians who were more studied than I in traditional world musics, whether it’s Geetha Ramanathan Bennett and her husband Frank Bennett and being exposed to beautiful South and North Indian music, whether it has to do with the years listening to Asian music, the shakuhachi or the Chinese guqin, having experiences improvising with the master pipa player and improviser Min Xiao-Fen or Korean music, being exposed to it through my friend Jin Hi Kim. Again, it’s all learning by doing and being around the musicians themselves.  And they themselves were interested in collaborating with jazz artists.  I was improvising together with musicians who wanted to share vocabulary with me.  That’s how it happened.

FJO:  It was so incredible hearing Geetha Ramanathan Bennett play “Cheek to Cheek” on one of those performances. That blew my mind.

JIB:  Wasn’t that amazing listening to “Cheek to Cheek on the veena, how she can handle the harmonic changes on a veena?

FJO:  That would be a great thing to take into the studio and record.

JIB:  I know.  I still talk with Geetha every now and then.  She’s out on the West Coast with Frank.  We’re longtime friends and collaborators from 1970-something.  Again, the collaborations that I really value are deep, long-term ones.

FJO:  So we’ve already planned at least three new projects for you, something with a singer, and a multi-media improvisation with music and lighting, and a cross-cultural recording.

JIB:  Thank you.

Two shelves in Jane Ira Bloom's living room reveal some of the sheet music and books that have been important to her.

Two shelves in Jane Ira Bloom’s living room reveal some of the sheet music and books that have been important to her.

FJO:  A last area I was curious about, because it’s been a part of your life for a very long time, is your teaching at the New School.

JIB:  I’ve been there 20 years.

FJO:  So what keeps you doing it?  What inspires you?

JIB:  I’m the most reluctant educator there is, but what inspires me is I like being around young people.  I like being around unfettered enthusiasm, the idealism, all of the energy.  It fuels me. I give it back to them, but they give it to me.

FJO:  So what sort of projects do you do with them to get them thinking out of the box?

“I like being around unfettered enthusiasm.”

JIB:  There are several courses I’ve taught over the years to do just that.  A class called “Linear Composition for Improvisers”—definitely getting improvisers into a composing mode and thinking outside of their comfort zones.  I’ve taught the music of Ornette Coleman.  I’ve taught a course on how to play ballads.  Teaching young people how to play slow.  I have a course that I designed that I teach with my husband called “Improvisatory Artist Lab” where we combine classical artists, jazz artists, and drama students, to do new creative work together.  For them to learn about each other’s vocabularies, cross-disciplinary projects and thinking.  There’s a course I designed taking young composers up to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, having them research a topic of their choice and then creating a new work of art that we perform at Lincoln Center at the end of the semester.  All of it is pushing the boundaries.

Jumping Off a Musical Cliff

An excited hush settled over the gallery. Anticipation and delight fueled the tense few seconds before the first note was played. And then… pure magic!

Although the audience was small, the commitment, focus, and sense of community was breathtaking; the barriers between performer, composer, and listener disappeared. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded on all sides by musicians and advocates who were fully committed, generous, brave, and outrageously virtuosic. I felt like we were jumping off a musical cliff together and it was thrilling. By the end of the concert I knew: THIS is what I wanted to do with my life.

This was 2007: my first concert with the International Contemporary Ensemble, in the beautiful Tenri Institute in Manhattan’s West Village. Before this concert, I could not have imagined this incredible moment, or how it would change the direction of my life and career forever.

I gravitated towards the things no one else in my family wanted.

The question I’m most often asked is “why the bassoon?” Growing up in a very small town in New York’s culturally and economically depressed Adirondack Park, I was an outspoken youngest child, aware of being outshone by my older brothers. I gravitated towards the things no one else in my family wanted: I taught myself to LOVE black cherry ice cream, simply because it was the flavor everyone else abhorred. More ice cream for me! The bassoon became the black cherry of musical instruments; in my words, “something that nobody wanted to play.” But, at age nine, I decided I did.

This shocked and charmed my band teacher, who pulled a behemoth plastic instrument out from a very dusty old case. Delighted by the new object, my mother and I headed home with this beast and spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how to put it together. This was the late ’80s: no YouTube instrument demonstrations, no method books, and—with no private teacher—I was left to forge ahead with encouragement from my mom (a very good amateur flutist) and an old, yellowed fingering chart my band teacher found from his college course on double reeds. By the end of the day, I had figured out how to play the world’s loudest and most-abrasive version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” much to the dismay of my smirking brothers.

I was ambitious and talented, but never solely focused on music. I never imagined a career as a bassoonist was possible, or even desirable. To feed my myriad interests outside music, as well as my bassooning, I chose to study in the Oberlin College and Conservatory’s rigorous double degree program. And under the direction of Tim Weiss and the amazing Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, found an incredible introduction to new music.

There very little repertoire that included bassoon.

Although I was at Oberlin when the seeds of ICE began to sprout, I wasn’t involved at the beginning. This was not out of disinterest; it was out of fear. Not only was there very little repertoire that included bassoon, it seemed outside of the realm of possibility to me to pursue such a dream. In my mind, an orchestra path loomed larger than life, the inevitable (if joyless) way to make a decent living playing this ridiculous instrument.

After Oberlin, I went to graduate school at UT Austin, still unsure of what was next for me. From Texas, I moved to Chicago to join the Civic Orchestra, immediately afterwards winning a coveted spot in the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, where I stayed for three years performing, practicing, and auditioning for countless orchestras around the world.

As glamorous and high-profile as it was, something about my New World Symphony experience never felt quite right. I kept auditioning for jobs I didn’t really want, never understanding (or questioning) why. Finally, in 2007, I got a phone call from the already legendary Claire Chase, founder of ICE. She invited me to play a concert in New York in a month’s time. I was excited and terrified — the music looked SO hard!

But then I was onstage with ICE at Tenri, diving headfirst into Christopher Trebue Moore’s brand new opus tentacles and knot formations, performing technical feats on my instrument that, if you’d asked me only months before, I would have promised you were impossible. It felt creative, boundless, and exhilarating; it was nothing like playing Tchaikovsky 5 (wonderful as it is) yet again. After that magical concert, I felt so happy and so free, but also so heavy. What would I do with this new pursuit, and the knowledge that something so deeply satisfying existed for me outside the safe orchestral path

Gripped by this new obsession (MUST PLAY WITH ICE) and the equally strong fear of being broke in New York (MUST SURVIVE), I wrestled with my next move. On the one hand, I had an offer to play principal bassoon in the Jacksonville Symphony, with all the recognition, stability, and financial security that came along with it. On the other, I had an offer from ICE to move to NYC and join the group as their bassoonist. The ICE offer felt like all my hopes and dreams materializing! But it also couldn’t offer more than a few gigs that first year, and with very few friends or contacts in New York City, I was terrified of not being able to make ends meet.

I took the Jacksonville job, and with it its modest salary which was more money than I had ever made in my life. And every day I carried home the weight of a job that didn’t bring me joy. Although I worked with some wonderful musicians and made some truly great friends, I discovered very quickly that this world (as I had feared) wasn’t for me. I languished within the rigid structure, longing for agency over what I played, who I played with, and what shape my life would take. After two months, I decided that no amount of fear—especially about something as superfluous as money—would ever keep me from my dreams again. I left the orchestra the next spring and moved to NYC, broke but endlessly optimistic.

Gigs waiting tables are hard to come by.

To survive, I hustled, which meant taking every odd job I could until I landed a coveted gig waiting tables. (They’re hard to come by if you don’t know someone!) I relied on tip money to offset my gigs with ICE and other NYC groups for more than four years. Even on the worst days, slammed with tables full of well-meaning foreign tourists who thought a 10% tip meant I did a “really good job,” I was never sorry I left the stability of the wrong job for the right life.

As my musical career grew, my days of waiting tables faded, but the hustle remained. I hustle every day to do what I do, but the great beauty of my chosen path is I don’t ever have to hustle alone again. I hustle with my colleagues at ICE to expand the way new music is created, experienced, and shared. I hustle with my collaborators—composers, fellow performers, and advocates—to ensure underrepresented voices in our field are brought to the fore. I hustle with the incredible community of performers across all disciplines to shatter assumptions about what we can or cannot do or be as artists. I am most grateful to hustle with and for the younger artists in our community; I strive to help them tear down their own barriers to joy and fulfillment, to empower them to remain fearless in the face of uncertainty, and to convey what I’ve learned along the way: that the safest thing you can ever do is take the risks that matter most.

What Keeps Us Going?

I began this series of articles by acknowledging that we are living in challenging times for new music, and I asked the question: How do we composers navigate the current conditions so as to continue growing our artistic practice? After contemplating some particular concerns of the mid-career and unaffiliated composer in the first two installments, I want to now explore an even broader question: What keeps us going? Why do composers continue to pursue marginal types of music that are so little heard and even less understood outside of a small circle of friends and colleagues? I know I ask myself this question on a regular basis, and there have certainly been times when I seriously considered giving up. But like many of you, I persist.

Some of my most difficult, self-questioning moments have come about while trying to explain myself to distant relatives or new acquaintances. It goes something like this:  “What do you do?” “I’m a composer.” “Oh… like for TV and film?” “No, not really. Mostly concert music.” “Oh…what kind of music is that?” “Well, it’s kind of like ‘classical’ music, but with some more contemporary influences, sometimes with electronics, sort of experimental….” “You mean like _________?” “Yeah, kind of like that…” “Oh…wow, that’s amazing you can make a living doing that!” “Well, actually, I do have a day job.” “Oh, I see…hmm.” I’ve tried different approaches to these “what do you do” questions over the years, but it always seems to end up feeling awkward. At this point I just tell people I’m a “musician,” and that’s made things a little easier.

At this point I just tell people I’m a “musician,” and that’s made things a little easier.

And so it goes. Though I was relieved of the notion that I might earn my living making the music I make long ago, the idea still obviously dominates our culture, and as our own personal economic and social pressures grow over the years, it can be tough to stay focused on music and to continue composing. Just last month, my career reached a kind of new low, which hopefully is merely a sign of the times. I performed on one of those freeform, multi-artist bills at an underground bar in a hip part of Brooklyn. Though the audience was small, the performance went well, but as can often happen in the new music ghetto, I earned exactly $5—and I had to buy my own drinks! So it was a net loss. While this is just one anecdotal example, other performances often go much better. Still, to be a 50+-year-old composer, 20+ years into a career and be losing money playing a low-key, underground gig is a situation likely to inspire serious reflection. I know I’m not the only one in this boat, but these moments can certainly give us pause.

So why then do we continue with this? Are we insane? Probably not, but I think a lot of us can’t really help it. Again, I know I’m in good company when I admit that I’m hopelessly obsessed with music. A day without music is, quite simply, like a day without sunshine! Music is what gives my life meaning. It’s through music that I organize and comprehend the world. To quote Jacques Attali from Noise, “Music…is intuition, a path to knowledge.” For John Cage, “The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” For Pauline Oliveros, “It was the ecstasy of hearing a piece of mine performed…I just wanted to have that experience again and again.” These are but merely some of the ways we become hooked, and I definitely relate to all three.

Why do we continue with this? Are we insane? Probably not, but I think a lot of us can’t really help it.

But we still need to function in the real world. How we negotiate these often conflicting needs is unique to each one of us. But continue to create we must, today more than ever. In our current period of economic, political, cultural, and ecological instability, creating our music can be a political act, one that affirms positive values and speaks truth to power. This is not to assume we all have revolutionary aspirations. But it has occurred to me that, somewhat in contrast to the prevailing narrative, all of us engaged with new music today are in some sense “mavericks,” and as we have learned from history, it is these marginal mavericks who can often have the greatest lasting impact. To return to Lou Harrison, whose essay “Ruggles, Ives, Varèse” I quoted in my last piece, “Confucius once remarked very neatly that you could tell the state of the nation from the condition of its music, and he didn’t mean the kind of thing you get on the radio.” Let us continue to make our music, the kind you don’t get on the radio, and hopefully we can help contribute to a better state of the nation.

In my fourth and final essay which will appear in two weeks, I will try to tie all these themes together and propose a kind of action plan for the unaffiliated, mid-career composer, sketching out some possible paths for continuing to grow our artistic practice in the face of challenging circumstances.

Mike Johnson: Thinking Plague

Mike Johnson

The deaths last year of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, who were two thirds of the progressive rock power trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, elicited a great deal of renewed attention in the mainstream media for their once extremely popular but frequently maligned synthesis of rock and classical music. ELP’s grandiose and virtuosic performances—as well as those of other popular “prog” outfits such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Yes—reflected the zeitgeist of the 1970s—a time when rock went from being the soundtrack of teenage rebellion to something far more ambitious and, to its detractors, unbearably self-indulgent. But while so-called progressive rock was an attempt to create a music that went far beyond the trappings of rock, there were other even more ambitious musicians working within the rubric of progressive rock that wanted to take that music even further—exploring not just the structures and harmonic language of classical music, but also the rhythmic complexity and tonal instability of contemporary and avant-garde composers. Among the most successful and long-standing of such groups is the Robert Fripp-fronted British band King Crimson (which has included in its various line-ups some musicians from the United States since its early 1980s incarnation). Even more experimental are the German band Can (which was formed by composition students of Karlheinz Stockhausen) and the short-lived Henry Cow (which was rumored to have been named after maverick American composer Henry Cowell, but actually wasn’t), whose personnel included English guitarist Fred Frith who is currently a professor of composition in the music department at Mills College.

Prog rock in its various guises (both mainstream and fringe) was predominantly a European phenomenon, although many of its innovations can actually be traced to Americans such as Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys) and Frank Zappa. However, in 1978, as the heyday of punk led most music fans to dismiss prog as bloated and irrelevant, two guys in Denver, Colorado, came together to form a prog cover band inspired by an unlikely combination of Yes and Henry Cow. Those two guys were multi-instrumentalist/recording engineer Bob Drake and self-taught guitarist/composer Mike Johnson, whose heroes were not just Steve Howe (of Yes) and Jimi Hendrix but also Shostakovich and William Schuman.

“I heard Stockhausen just a few times,” Johnson recalled when he visited us at the New Music USA office in late January. “I remember I had a record of Xenakis, which was literally the sound of fire burning being filtered for two sides of an album. And I thought, ‘Hmm, I could do that.’ But I guess I’m old fashioned. I believe in my heart of hearts that you can make bigger emotional impacts on listeners if you plan it musically, as opposed to setting up events or preparing things and then letting them happen. … I’m looking for these dramatic kinds of builds and decrescendos, and things emptying out, things getting sort of nostalgic, things getting very intense—that’s Shostakovich, or my favorite, William Schuman, a good New Yorker. That’s extremely high art in my mind.”

Pretty soon after Drake and Johnson’s initial rehearsals, they stopped playing covers and by 1982 they had enlisted a classically trained vocalist and morphed into a vehicle for performing Johnson’s own complex compositions, scored for a rock band instrumentation, playing their first gigs in venues in and around Denver in 1983 under the name Thinking Plague.

“I don’t think we dealt in genre terms when Bob and I were doing this early on,” said Johnson. “Later, if people asked me, I’d say we were trying to combine 20th-century harmonic sensibilities with a rock band. I still don’t know what to call it, and I don’t much care.”

While not initially successful with local audiences, they labored on in the recording studio, self-releasing an eponymous debut EP in 1984 and pressing only 500 copies of it.

“We made this horrible, crappy, cheap pressing with a really nondescript industrial-looking label on it,” remembered Johnson. “We didn’t know anything about shopping it. We didn’t think that it was shoppable. … We didn’t think we could get on a label because we didn’t know what label we could possibly get on. We didn’t think that anybody would take it seriously.”

But some important folks did take it seriously, including the legendary New Music Distribution Service, which took 30 of those 500 copies, Henry Cow’s former drummer Chris Cutler whose own independent label/distribution service Recommended Records stunningly took 200 copies, and—perhaps most importantly—Wayside Music, the mail-order retailer that also runs Cuneiform, a label whose roster includes pioneering electronic/minimalist composer David Borden and the iconic free jazz innovator Wadada Leo Smith. Though the band has gone through tons of incarnations since then—Johnson is the only original member of Thinking Plague—Cuneiform has been the band’s label ever since.

Thinking Plague’s ninth album, Hope Against Hope, was just released on February 10, 2017, and it is every bit as uncompromising as its predecessors. To realize Johnson’s musical conceptions, the musicians in the band—like members of a contemporary classical music ensemble—read from fully notated scores. Because of its instrumentation and volume, it still sounds somewhat like rock but it is light years away from popular music.

“I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry,” Johnson opined. “I don’t quite know what they do and how they do it. I don’t even understand why anybody listens to that music. It’s like I’m a person from another planet, as far as I can tell, where all this is concerned. But when it comes to music that’s more serious, that’s got more depth to it, I don’t know how anybody manages to make a living. … I’ve never gotten a grant for this band. It does seem that there are not many grantors who have a word for what we do musically. Their tendency, because you’re going to hear electric guitars and drums, would be to call it rock music. … But as to how much money there is in any of it, nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music. Nobody. Not me. Not anybody else. We’re a dot-org phenomenon. As a matter of fact, my Thinking Plague website is a dot-org website. There was no pretense that this was going to be commercial, so I figured better call it what it is. It’s not for profit.”


Mike Johnson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at New Music USA
January 27, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  You’re pretty much self-taught as a composer and a guitarist, but you actually studied classical music as well as electronic music. I think these studies definitely wound up informing what you do, both as a composer and as a guitarist, so I’m interested in what you thought you were going to do back then, versus what you wound up doing.

Mike Johnson:  Well, it really goes back even before that.  When I was very little, my uncle gave a record to us—to my mom I guess, because my dad had no interest whatever in any kind of symphonic music but my grandfather on my mom’s side was an aficionado.  So my uncle gave her an LP of Copland’s Billy the Kid with Appalachian Spring on the other side.  I must have been three the first time I heard that—me and all my brothers got sucked in.  This would have been the ‘50s when doo-wop music was on the radio.  I didn’t listen to the radio; I was oblivious.  But then I sort of discovered that my mother had some other classical records so I was listening to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and some Bach.  There was even a Shostakovich piece in there mixed in on a compilation that I guess was on a 78.  I didn’t know what it was, but I thought it was cool. I sort of forgot about all that later.  I went to school and the English invasion took place. All of a sudden, everybody—even my brothers—were all agog and excited about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  And that’s where I went.  I got sucked into that after some resistance.  Then my brother got a guitar, and they gave me a guitar for Christmas.  He got an electric guitar that my cousin didn’t want, so they gave me a cheap acoustic guitar just to keep me quiet.  There was this big trapezoidal box under the Christmas tree and I was like, “What in the world is that?” I was 11 years old.  So when I opened it up I said, “What do you want me to do with this?”  Because there were no music lessons in my family. My mother had had piano lessons as a kid and hated them, so she just decided her kids weren’t going to do that.  More’s the pity is all I can say, again and again.  But by the time I was 13, I taught myself to play guitar.  My brother had sort of learned some, but I passed him right up.  I was a lead guitar player in a rock and roll band with a bunch of guys that were 18 years old, because I was tall for my age.  Then at some point my older brother went off to college. By that time we were living in Colorado.  He came back for a break once with an armload of records. One of them was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, one of them was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and one of them was Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem.  There was something by Prokofiev—I forget what—and maybe one or two others.  And he just said, “These are great; you’ve got to listen to these.”  And he left them with me.  Anything my brother said, I did.

“I had this simultaneous epiphany with the very beginnings of progressive rock plus a reintroduction to 20th-century symphonic music.”

About the same time I started hanging out with these guys and we’d go down in this guy’s basement and play records. These guys turned me on to King Crimson.  So I had this simultaneous epiphany with the very beginnings of progressive rock plus a reintroduction to 20th-century symphonic music. Those things worked into my psyche and I didn’t really know what the heck to do with it.  I was trying to play rock and roll and be a high school student, and I managed to get through high school but I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I wasn’t interested in studying.  I didn’t read music.  I’d never had any lessons. It had not been a supportive family situation where your mom is going, “Oh, you’re interested in that?” It wasn’t like that in those days.  It was just a bunch of boys, and we lived in North Carolina and it was the ‘50s and early-‘60s.  So it was all about “shut up, get out of the kitchen, go outside, play football, we’ll call you when the food’s ready.”  Basically that was the parenting. I didn’t think of myself as a prospective music student.  I’m completely self-taught.  Everything was by ear.  But I was very interested in this stuff that these masters were doing, and I couldn’t figure it out.

FJO:  So what did your family wind up thinking when you actually became a musician?

MJ:  My parents, as far as I can remember, never saw me perform anywhere.  Not when I was in teenage bands, you know, playing like Beatles, Stones, and Kinks.  Not later when I was playing whatever it was, like early-‘70s rock and roll music. They didn’t view being a musician as a meaningful, viable option, particularly being a rock and roll musician.  It was just something that they didn’t believe was legitimate in any way, shape, or form, even though my dad loved Chet Atkins and certain kinds of popular music as well as lots of guitar-type music.  But rock and roll wasn’t acceptable.

Both my older brothers went to college and became engineers.  That was considered how you go.  So I was like, what do I do?  In the meanwhile I got a letter from Uncle Sam saying that the Marines needed a few good men. It was 1970 or ‘71 and the draft lottery was still going on.  I knew that my number was up, because they picked a certain amount of birthday numbers every year and mine was pretty low on the list. So I knew that I was going. My older brother had already gone in because he lost his college deferment.  I ended up spending four year in the U.S. Navy during which time I played guitar a lot.  I actually honed my skills probably more than any other time, sitting around playing scales and copying my hero then, Steve Howe of Yes.  I was trying to learn to play like that.  Before that it had been three-finger blues licks and Jimi Hendrix was my God.

FJO:  Were you ever in any of the Navy bands?

“I never did get any kind of credentials in music.”

MJ:  No, because you had to be a good player to be in those.  I couldn’t read a note of music.  I was a Navy patrol plane radio operator chasing after submarines in the Cold War.  I was a lonely, enlisted man, but I went all over the world.  I was in Iran.  All kinds of stuff.  But I didn’t want to be there.  I figured I’d get the GI Bill out of it at least.  All my friends back from high school were doing things.  It was a tortuous kind of experience for me, but I came out of the Navy with some equipment and a lot more chops. Then I moved back home.  I became a music major at the local city college, but they only had classical guitar or all the usual classical stuff; I was an electric guitar player and I didn’t want to play classical guitar.  So I took all the theory classes, the history classes, sight singing and reading, all the usual first two-year and some of the third-year music classes, and then some general classes.  Then I just wandered away from school because I was playing in bands and I needed to do other stuff. At one point I was playing six nights a week in a really skanky lounge band, from 9 to 2 every night.  I literally fell asleep at one point while playing some song.  I found myself in the next song and didn’t remember how I got there.  But it was paying the bills.  I went back to school later, in the ‘80s.  Thinking Plague was already a thing.  I took a different major and finished a bachelor’s degree.  Then I went back to school later after that.  But I never did get any kind of credentials in music.

FJO:  So, to go back to when you started playing in various bands—I imagine these were basically cover bands. You were not doing any of your own music.

MJ:  Not at all.  Not a bit.

FJO:  So how did you make the transition to doing your own music?

MJ:  Well, when I was getting turned on to all of this 20th-century symphonic stuff, I was in bands with these guys who were turning me on to King Crimson, ELP, Yes, Genesis, and a lot of other bands that were way more minor than that.  So I was just all aflutter with all these possibilities, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I had another band with the same guys a little later and I started trying to write some tunes kind of in the flavor of what I thought was Yes, but I didn’t really have the chops at the time to do that sort of thing.  Subsequently to that—I must have been 18 or 19 and working some kind of stupid job—some friends of mine started a band. They were doing covers of progressive rock tunes and, in some cases, they were arranging them a little bit.  I hung out at a rehearsal and they were working on this one tune. They wanted a middle part and they didn’t know what it was.  I just had this idea jump in my head, and I started saying, “Here, bass, you play this.”  And then I heard this kind of thing. “Guitar player, you play this.”  I built this part for them right out of my head, just talking to them; they started playing it and they used it.  That was the first example of me actually writing something in the genre that worked.  It was really angular and tritone-y

But nothing came of that because that’s when I started getting letters from Uncle Sam.  I was just messing around. I didn’t know what I was doing, but they thought it was pretty cool.  The seed was there, but I had to learn to believe I could do it and had to find a path that I thought was legitimate.  When I was in the Navy, I was living with a friend at one point and trying to write some stuff.  A lot of stuff had a 12-string, and I was doing finger picking, so it sounded a little bit like Mahavishnu [Orchestra] and there was stuff that sounded a little bit like Genesis with maybe a little bit more science fiction-y sounding chords.  A lot of this stuff is recorded, very low quality, but it exists.

Then I was in a music store in 1978 in Denver and saw a little note on a bulletin board: “Seeking musicians who are into Henry Cow and Yes.” So I called the number, and it turned out to be Bob Drake.  We started a proggy cover band that never got out of the basement despite eight months of rehearsing, but he and I hooked up. After that we were hanging out and doing wacky stuff on cassette decks. It was about 1979 or ’80 and we were recording some stuff which I would call early proto [Thinking] Plague kinds of music.  There was at least one tune that never had any words, but it had a part A and a part B and a noise section, and that exists too, if you twist my arm hard enough; it was called “Doppelganger.”

Then I remember sitting down at a little table in the little kitchen where I was living in 1980 and writing this tune “Warheads” which ended up on the second Thinking Plague record some years later. That was when I think of [Thinking Plague] as officially being born; me and Drake did a four-track reel-to-reel demo of it with us singing and no keyboards and all kinds of wacky noise going on.  That exists, too, by the way.  Then by about ’82, we put together a band of sorts to try to play some of these songs, and I was coming up with more stuff.  Basically I had written the songs that I wrote for our first LP.  Then Bob put together a couple of wacky things and our singer at the time put together a zany little tune, and we had enough [material] for a record.  But we had no idea what to do.  We sat for a year trying to figure it out. We didn’t know anything about shopping it.  We didn’t think that it was shoppable to some record label, although we were getting Option and all these other magazines in the ‘80s that were printed on cheap newsprint and which were chock full of ads from record labels and distributors. DIY independent recording was huge. We didn’t think we could get on a label because we didn’t know what label we could possibly get on.  We didn’t think that anybody would take it seriously.  So I talked to my oldest brother, who was the most staid, settled, and established member of the family, and he ended up loaning me enough money to press 500 copies. We made this horrible, crappy, cheap pressing with a really nondescript industrial-looking label on it.  And we hand spray painted the album covers and stuck a little insert in that we had printed.  I think we shrink wrapped them, but maybe we just had plastic sleeves that we put them in.  Then we managed to contact Wayside Music [a mail-order retailer that also runs Cuneiform].  They took some of them.  And we contacted Recommended Records.

FJO:  I know that Cuneiform reissued the first two Thinking Plague albums on a single CD many years later, but I didn’t realize that your relationship with them went all the way back to the beginning.

MJ:  All the way back to 1984.  We got on their maps, even though at the time I thought we’re just nobody, small fry.  We also sent music to New Music Distribution Service, which was in New York. They were famous for not paying people, so we never saw anything from them, but they took 30 copies.  Then Chris Cutler at Recommended took 200 copies and boom.  That was the year we established contact with some important people in the future.  And by that time, I was thinking to myself, “I am the writer in this band.”  Drake was the producer-arranger aesthetic vision guy.  But I was writing. I was putting together the notes and the chords and the rhythms.  And the words, too.

The members of the band Thinking Plague in 1987.

The members of Thinking Plague in 1987. Back row (left to right): Bob Drake, Mike Johnson, Eric Moon (Jacobson), and Lawrence Haugseth; front: Susanne Lewis and Mark Fuller. (Photographer unknown, photo courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  I definitely want to talk with you about words, but first I want to riff on something you just said vis-à-vis not knowing what to do with this stuff or who would take it, and you making a connection to Cuneiform and, for better or worse, to New Music Distribution Service.  We talk all the time these days about being in a post-genre environment, but during that period, roughly from the late-’70s to the early-’80s, labels formed like Cuneiform which released rock that was on the fringe as well as contemporary classical stuff and experimental jazz.  And New Music Distribution Service distributed all this music without making distinctions between all of these things.  These folks loved all of this stuff.  It was all part of this larger umbrella of new music. In terms of what you were doing, you refer to it as rock and coming out of performing in a rock band, but you were listening to all these other kinds of music. So you were poised to enter this proto-post-genre environment.

“I knew that what I was doing was informed by the 20th-century symphonic music, but I was never into the avant-garde.”

MJ:  From way back when I was a teenager, I had this idea because I was listening to the ‘70s prog stuff, but for the most part they didn’t sound like 20th-century music.  They sounded like 19th- or even 18th-century music combined with rock instruments. I had this idea of using a rock band to somehow communicate content or the essence of what these symphonic 20th-century guys were doing.  I was interested in those kinds of polytonal or atonal harmonies and some of those odd rhythms, not just getting in 7/8 and staying there, but using changing meters as part of what you actually compose with as opposed to just laying down a framework that you now have to work on. The real composers use time and pitch as variables in expressing what they’re trying to express.  This was all very germinal for me at the time, but it was in the back of my mind that this is what I wanted to do and did ten years later.  So I was 27, 28 years old when I started moving in that direction and figuring out how to do it.  I had to get the proggy stuff out of my system; I had to stop wanting to emulate the prog bands of the ‘70s.  Henry Cow and the Art Bears helped me to do that—Art Bears in particular, and the last Henry Cow album, Western Culture. I was agog at it and it was inspirational for me.  It showed me so many possibilities.  So I wanted to do something more like that.  That’s when the roots of Thinking Plague really took hold.  So I knew that what I was doing was informed by the 20th-century symphonic music, but I was never into the avant-garde, like Stockhausen, and later on I was never into minimalism and the pure aleatoric music of John Cage.  I was into the dramatic, heavy stuff that those composers from the first half of the 20th century were doing, because I was so moved by it.

FJO:  That’s funny because I hear elements of Stockhausen and even Philip Glass from time to time on Thinking Plague records.

MJ:  Well, I have a little section called the Philip Glass moment in one of my tunes, but it was definitely a “Philip Glass moment.”

FJO:  It’s on one of the later albums so we’ll get to that in a bit, but even early on I hear musique concrète elements and I know that you had studied electronic music. But maybe that was not in your initial conception of the material and came more from Drake during post-production.

MJ:  Drake never studied anything as far as I know, other than just what he listened to.  When I was living in California, I had one electronic music class.  It was taught by Alan Strange and it was definitely out there.  It was a junior college class out in the Bay area, basically an appreciation class, but it opened my mind and made me very interested.  So there was a piece of that.  Early on I would try to write these scores, because when I went to school the first time, I learned how to notate.  I never learned to read music well, but I learned how to read music on paper without having to perform.  I learned how to write music.  I would draw shapes and say, “This is going to be a synthesizer.” So I had these graphic things going on in the midst of my muddled notes.  I was envisioning this kind of electronically enhanced rock music—this was before techno or any of that stuff came out.  I was still sort of thinking ‘70s style. And then, as you say, Drake was just into sound and noise.  He and I were both inspired by Fred Frith’s prepared guitar stuff, so we did hours and hours of tape loops of scratching and assaulting pickups with paper clips and files and stuff like that.  And we had a band that got together and we would improvise for two or three hours doing all this stuff with tapes.  We recorded a bunch of it and most of it we’d just throw it away.  We would do it maybe as a transition or as something in the middle of a piece.  We’re going to go into some noisy, weird place and then we’re going to emerge on the other side of it.  But there was never any conscious thinking about the avant-gardists per se because we didn’t really listen to them.  I heard Stockhausen just a few times. I remember I had a record of Xenakis, which was literally the sound of fire burning being filtered for two sides of an album.  And I thought, “Hmm. I could do that.” But I guess I’m old fashioned.  I believe in my heart of hearts that you can make bigger emotional impacts on listeners if you plan it musically, as opposed to setting up events or preparing things and then letting them happen.  I also believe that human beings can listen to anything and if they listen to it enough times, they’ll begin to build the associations even if it’s the sound of dirt falling on totally random insects, whatever.  If you listen to it enough times, you’ll begin to hear patterns and your brain will make associations that were never there.  That’s what humans do.  But my preference always is to hear it in my head and guide what’s going on.  To plan.  It’s more old fashioned in that I’m looking for these dramatic kinds of builds and decrescendos, and things emptying out, things getting sort of nostalgic, things getting very intense—that’s Shostakovich, or my favorite, William Schuman, a good New Yorker.  That’s extremely high art in my mind.

FJO:  But Shostakovich and William Schuman both conceptualized their music, then wrote it down mostly for other people to play, whereas in a band situation you have a group of people coming together and it’s way more collaborative.  It might be your tune and your chords and your words, but then it’s Drake’s drumming or whichever singer you have at any given time, what she brings to it.  It’s what the reed player brings to it and the post-production. It’s all these levels.  So in rock or other music that is created in a group situation and that is crafted in a recording studio, the urtext usually winds up being the produced album. Of course this music is also performed live in concert, sometimes very much like the original recording but also sometimes very different from it. I know that you made a point in the press release for your latest album that even though many things on it are multi-tracked, everything could also be done live.  So I wonder what the urtext is for you.

MJ:  Obviously the score.  But it wasn’t always like that—only since about 1990. Before that there were rough scores, sometimes just scribbles in a book that I took to a rehearsal where I said, “Listen to this. Here play this; try this. We could stick this with that and we’ve got a song.”

An excerpt from Mike Johnson's musical score for

An excerpt from Mike Johnson’s musical score for “The Great Leap Backward” (which is featured on the new Thinking Plague CD, Hoping Against Hope)
© 2017 Malaise Music. Reprinted with permission of the composer.

(MJ:) The stuff from the ‘80s was written out, but it wasn’t necessarily finalized. I would generally write a primary bass part and I’d write the guitar parts and keyboard parts and I would sometimes write a vocal line, but there were never drum parts for it. For the first two records, I basically wrote the vocals lines and the words as I recall, except for one song by the lead singer on the first album, and then another song by the lead singer on the second album.  For one of the songs on the first album, “How to Clean a Squid,” all the words are literally out of a cuisine magazine.

FJO:  Yeah, that one is really bizarre; I love it.

MJ:  It is bizarre.  The drummer brought in that idea.  He had this magazine and he gave it to the singer, and she went and figured out how to put it on top of the song we were working on.

FJO: I hope the recipe wasn’t under copyright.

MJ:  Well, it was changed sufficiently enough.  I like the part: “Turn body sac inside out.  Turn body sac inside out.” We repeated it several times.  “And clear away any grit or tissue.  And clear away any grit or tissue.”  That was just a Dadaist kind of thing, an Absurdist kind of a thing.  We were into that.  But over time, my tendency to want to compose started taking up more of the air in the band.  By the time we did our third album, In This Life, I had pretty much written all the music, but I didn’t have finished vocal parts and I didn’t have words.  I collaborated with our singer at the time, Susanne Lewis, to do that.  For me, it was always a burden. I would write the music and I didn’t have the words yet.  Sometimes I didn’t have the vocal lines.  Or I did have vocal lines, but no words.  That’s a real problem.  You’re taking this structure and you sing, we need to put some syllables onto this that work. I had it sort of partly structured.  I had motifs.  I had names of songs that I wanted to use.  But I didn’t have any words for them.  So I presented all this to her and let her go.  And that album is the result.

FJO:  One of the songs on that album is completely by her, both words and music.

MJ:  She contributed a song.  And then she made decisions like what the vocal line would be in the song “Love,” because I didn’t have a vocal line for that song.  So she just took the top note of the little chords that were going on and made a little melody out of it, which made perfect sense.  And I said to myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”  It all worked out pretty well.  Her particular musical personality and style, and her whole underground ‘80s background—that Lydia Lunch/Nick Cave flavor—definitely comes across, but it becomes a new thing in that context.  She does a lot of indefinite wandering pitch things. Sometimes it sounds like: can’t she sing the notes? But she definitely is doing everything on purpose.  That woman could nail notes.  Wonderful ear.  It took some getting used to, but then it became like, “Wow, I love what she does.” Some of our fans either love her or can’t listen to it, but she found something. We got lucky on that album in terms of collaboration.

But then the band flew to pieces basically after we put that out. The key players moved, even though we just got onto Recommended Records and we had our first CD.  It was the first RēR CD that was manufactured in the States.  And it was one of the first that was CD-only, because in those days people would make an LP and they would make a CD.  Anyway, I thought, “Wow, we could do something with this.”  We were all working stiffs.  Bob Drake was working for a guy who had a mobile car wash, a truck with a big tank on the back, and they’d go around and they’d wash people’s cars in parking lots in the middle of winter.  Drake was in blue jeans full of holes and crummy sneakers that were full of holes and wet. It was 20 degrees and he got peanuts.  He would go home and he would have generic spaghetti with tomato paste for his supper.  That’s part of the reason he went to L.A. because he was tired of starving to death.  He thought he could parlay his engineering skills into an actual engineering job, which he did.  Susanne wanted to go off to New York because I think she thought New York was the place where her artistic tendencies and vision could be fulfilled. But I just stayed there.  Anyway, we ended up putting together a few shows with some airlines involved, some long distance rehearsing with Dave Kerman and Bob Drake coming from L.A., driving in and then driving back after spending a week in a basement rehearsing.  We were developing and practicing stuff, but then it really fell apart.

FJO: There’s something I don’t want to lose in your referencing of Lydia Lunch—which is something I definitely hear in her vocals, too, so I’m glad that you confirmed that.  Lydia is definitely on the punk end of the musical spectrum. We talked about the divides between rock and classical music, but at that time—from the late ‘70s through the early to mid ’80s—there was also a real schism between the people who were into more proggy things and people who were into more punky kinds of things.

“The proggers were called dinosaurs.”

MJ:  Absolutely. The proggers were called dinosaurs.

FJO:  But now if you listen back there are lots of musical connections between the two. It’s sort of like that famous Stephen Sondheim comment when he was asked what the difference between opera and musical theater is, and he said it’s the venues that they’re performed in.  The biggest difference between prog and punk might have been that they had very different audiences. If you listen to a Public Image Ltd record, it sounds very prog.

MJ:  But it’s very different from the Sex Pistols.

FJO:  That’s true.  But Gang of Four was also very proggy and, only a few years later, so was Sonic Youth.

MJ:  I actually played with those guys a couple of times.  We opened for them in Denver in ’87 in some big old, noisy, echo-y theater and then I had another little band that opened for them in Denver in ’86 or something like that.  I had no trouble communicating with them. They were cool guys.  But they were as loud as loud can be.  The best way to listen to them was outside the building through a wall.  That’s what I got to do once—behind the stage, through a wall. You could hear everything.  You could hear all the weird frequency bending and shifting. But back to your point, I think that in the ‘70s, one of the things about the progressive rock bands was that they allegedly had a level of virtuosity playing their instruments and a lot of the music was about showing off that virtuosity and making big, long songs that were involved and had lots of parts and would get quiet and get loud and blah, blah, blah, stuff like Genesis’s “Supper’s Ready.”  Then the punks came along and it was all like: No. Two-minute songs. Three chords.  Everything’s loud, and we’re yelling. And they were bitching with us because they thought we were pompous. I was calling myself we because I was into the prog thing, even though I wasn’t one of those people officially.  It felt like it was a countercultural revolution.  We were throwing out things we learned and going back to the beginning.  We were actually going back to the ‘60s, just crude rock and roll, except we were trying to be a little bit more crude and the players were even worse.  That’s how I felt, but it quickly changed.  It quickly looked to me like this ethic of rebellion and destruction was literally a wave that passed through and, in its wake, it left the new wave as opposed to punk. And new wave immediately started getting more technical and strict. Then a lot of people, like Peter Gabriel, made this transition. Then The Police came along, and the musicianship levels started recovering quickly.

FJO:  But by the time Thinking Plague officially became a band and started releasing recordings, prog was a dirty word.

MJ:  Yes.  Absolutely.

FJO:  I remember living through that.  The rock critics turned prog into a dirty word, even though you could clearly hear prog elements in some of the punk stuff.

MJ:  But you couldn’t call it that.

FJO:  Right, but you did. Or did you?

“I read something that said, ‘Thinking Plague RIO,’ and I said, ‘What the hell’s that, a town in Brazil, right? Uh, whatever.'”

MJ:  I don’t think so.  I don’t even remember what we called ourselves. I don’t think we dealt in genre terms when Bob and I were doing this early on.  I just knew that my influences were everything from Henry Cow and the Art Bears to Genesis and Mahavishnu, to Shostakovich and so on.  I just knew that was what I was interested in.  And Bob was kind of this enthusiastic “yeah, let’s do it” guy who would do anything but who had a Rickenbacker bass—still does—and he was a Chris Squire devotee. He liked lots of other stuff, too.  He was a huge Henry Cow fan, so that threw him very left of the normal field of what most people listen to.  So we stopped thinking about genres. I was always saying, “Well, this song is kind of like King Crimson” but he didn’t know about it.  He didn’t listen to King Crimson and didn’t care.  So we just didn’t deal in that.  We let other people label us. The first time I ever heard this term RIO was in the ‘90s.  I read something that said, “Thinking Plague RIO,” and I said, “What the hell’s that, a town in Brazil, right?  Uh, whatever.”  Then I read more and I tried to figure out what they were talking about, Rock In Opposition, but there were no musical descriptors in it, so I thought, “How come they’re grouping us with everything from Samla to Stormy Six plus Henry Cow?  We don’t really sound like any of that stuff.” If you don’t like Henry Cow, that doesn’t mean you won’t like us.  It’s what I always dislike about categorization: taking a bunch of things that are different but are similar enough to put into this box so that all the people that don’t like one of those things in that box automatically don’t like any of the things in the box.  That’s why I objected to it.  Later, if people asked me, I’d say we were trying to combine 20th-century harmonic sensibilities with a rock band.  Sometimes I would use the term progressive rock, but that’s not really how I’d looked at it although I was informed by that.  Frankly, I admired a lot of the musicianship of that.  When I heard the term avant-progressive, I said, “Yeah, that’s probably the most accurate I’ve heard.”  Whatever.  I still don’t know what to call it, and I don’t much care.

FJO:  But by the ‘90s the word progressive had been rehabilitated.

MJ:  Right. The so-called resurgence.

FJO:  Although after the band fell apart there was this long hiatus in the ’90s.  There was almost a decade where Thinking Plague didn’t really function.

MJ:  Except for what I was doing.

FJO:  I’d like to know more about that.  I know that you were involved with other groups.  I know that you played with Dave Kerman’s 5uu’s.

MJ:  I toured Europe for 2 months with them in 1995.

Mike Johnson playing guitar with Dave Kerman on drums and Bob Drake on bass

Mike Johnson (left) as a sideman for 5UU’s performing with Dave Kerman (drums) and Bob Drake (bass) in Grenoble, France, 1995. (Photo by Laurent Angeron, courtesy Mike Johnson/.)

FJO:  But you never recorded with them.  You were also part of this other group, Hamster Theatre, and you actually made several albums with them as a side man while your own projects were kind of on the back burner.

MJ:  I never stopped working on it, or thinking about it.  People moved away in ’89-’90, but we did a few more gigs in ’90 and we had plans. We had songs in the works.  I would send recordings to Bob or we would get together.  At one point, I went out and spent a week with Dave Kerman and Sanjay Kumar, who was the 5uu’s keyboardist, and Bob, in Bob’s little Burbank house behind the house, a little backyard house.  Dave put blankets over his drums, because we couldn’t make too much noise.  And we spent the week working up one of these tunes that I had sketched out in a book.  But I came to find out later somehow that we weren’t all on the same page about what this project was about.  I thought we were working on a song and it’s probably going to end up on a Thinking Plague record.  I didn’t know, but I thought so.  But I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, if there was going to be another Thinking Plague record.  It turns out that at least Kerman, and maybe Drake, were thinking this is a new project.  It was a song called “This Weird Wind” and it’s on the In Extremis record.  It sounds like if Yes tried to keep going in the direction they were going in when they did Relayer.

FJO:  When I listened to it again recently, I made a note to myself that it sounded to me like a bizarre amalgam of Yes and the more experimental moments of The Beach Boys.

MJ:  I never thought of that.  Okay.  But anyway, there was another song, “Kingdom Come,” which was something that I had written in the later part of the ‘80s.  It was sitting on paper.  I made a really awful sounding sequence of it on a synthesizer that I had that you had to step program everything in really tediously.  It sounded horrible. I played it for Bob and he hated the way it sounded.  He couldn’t get excited about the song, so for the longest time it just languished.  But I was going to get this song done.  So I sent Kerman a chart and I sent him that tape, I guess.  He learned the drum parts.  Then we flew him back to Denver, went into a studio, and recorded the drum tracks.  I got another bass player who reads to come in and just play direct-in bass, really clean tones.  Then I just built the tracks.  Bob was never on it because he never showed any interest in it.  He was in L.A. doing all this other stuff, but that song got assembled despite that.  Then we had this song which we ended up calling “Les Etudes d’Organism” which was based on an earlier thing.

FJO:  It sounds like an expansion of the track “Organism” from In This Life that Fred Frith appears on.

MJ:  And there was one before that called “Etude for Combo” on the second album.  We took themes from that and then themes from “Organism” and put them together.  We were trying to figure out a way to make a live performance piece that incorporated this stuff.  We called it “Etude for Organism” and we worked that up in the basement at another place in 1990.  Then we performed it in Boulder and we played it in L.A. once.  It was a little bit rougher, but the parts were sort of all there—this whole big wacky thing with all these silly tunes and big, huge sections.  Bob was determined to finish that.  And we recorded some of it.  He recorded drums, bass, and a lot of other stuff in a big studio he was working out of there in the middle of the night.  I recorded stuff in Denver and I took the sax player into a nice studio to record.  Then we put the tracks together.  It wasn’t finished until ’94 in terms of mixing.  Shortly thereafter, both Kerman and Drake were in France. I was still thinking maybe there’s another chance for this thing, but now that they were in France it got a lot harder.  The internet was not really a thing at the time.  So I went and I spent a lot of time there, but by the end of that I knew this thing was dead.  There’s no practical way with them on the other side of the ocean and there was not enough momentum or interest on their part.  So I came back home and thought about it for a while and finally thought, “I’m going to reform this.” I had four other tunes sitting that I had worked up on Finale that I wanted to record, plus there was “Les Etudes” and “This Weird Wind” sitting in the can—I couldn’t stand over 20 minutes’ worth of music sitting in a can.  This had to get out somehow.

FJO:  As long as we’re talking about the material that eventually surfaced on the In Extremis album, is “Behold the Man” the track that has what you described as the Philip Glass part?

MJ:  Exactly.  We called it the Philip Glass part.  That was a joke.

FJO:  Before we leave this moment when you were finding a way to reform Thinking Plague, I think there’s an interesting distinction between the earlier and reformed groups. While it’s true that in the original line-up it was primarily your material compositionally, the end product was the result of a real collaboration involving several people.  But with the re-formed Thinking Plague and everything that’s been happening since, it’s really been your band.

The members of the band Thinking Plague in 1990.

The members of Thinking Plague in 1990 (clockwise from lower left): Mike Johnson, Shane Hotle, Susanne Lewis, Mark Harris, Dave Kerman, and Bob Drake. (Photo by Andy Watson, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

MJ:  That’s really true, and the musicians would tell you that.  I became the overseer.  The only way to get the music done was to just do it.  More and more, the only way to get what I wanted was to do it myself.  I was getting more invested in each piece, and I wanted to make sure that it fulfilled what I wanted to get from it.  My experience with other people had always been that it’s a compromise and that things get watered down, so it misses the mark a little bit.  Sometimes, certainly, there’s synergy, and sometimes it’s so much fun, but for the serious stuff when I wanted to really mine a vein, I found that I needed to do it alone.

FJO:  Well I’m going to make a conjecture, and I could be totally wrong about this. We don’t really know each other and I’m reading into your life story.  But it seems like it’s a reaction to that almost decade-long period, where the band was in hiatus and you were essentially a side man in 5uu’s—

MJ:  —Just briefly—

FJO:  —and Hamster Theatre—

MJ:  That was about the same time that the new Plague was formed.

FJO:  Yes, but I wonder if going from being a de facto co-leader of a group to spending your time being a side man in other people’s bands made you think that you really needed to grab the helm and be the leader of your own thing once and for all.

MJ:  I would say it was more the departure of Drake in particular, but also Kerman. Kerman was a strong personality.  You care about what he thinks; he’s got incredible ideas and he was enthusiastic. But he was gone, too.  They were just gone—physically and mentally.  But I was still invested in this thing.  I felt it hadn’t fulfilled what it was trying to do.  It hadn’t reached what I thought it could reach. I had no idea what it was gonna do, but I had to keep trying.

In terms of being a side man, I didn’t do that so much. I decided I needed to get out a little bit.  Dave Willey contacted me and asked if I would be willing to play guitar with this project of his.  So I said, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.”  I showed up and it was pretty weird; it took a few rehearsals to feel comfortable.  There was some quick personnel shuffling and then it settled into a thing and it started to work.  Then it got better and better and pretty soon, by ’97, ’98, I was pretty invested, but it was definitely not what I would normally do.  It was much more charming and humorous or sweet sometimes, and a little weird, a little out there.  Sometimes it got really out there because Dave’s got this streak of “RIO” and it’s pretty big.  But that wasn’t really it. It was just the desire that had already been there to fulfill this thing so if nobody else was going to help me do it, then I was going to do it.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2003.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2003, left to right: David Shamrock (ex-Sleepytime Gorilla drummer/composer), Matt Mitchell, Dave Willey, Deborah Perry, Mark Harris, and Mike Johnson. (Photo by Rick Cummings, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  And curiously, you not only played in Dave Willey’s band Hamster Theatre, he wound up playing in Thinking Plague as well.

MJ:  Well, that was a case of needing a bass player. I knew Dave Willey from ten years before, about ’88 probably.  As a matter of fact, he was good friends with Deborah Perry, and when Susanne Lewis took off to New York, Deborah Perry came down with Dave.  Dave brought her down to our little rehearsal basement, and she tried out with Thinking Plague in ’89.  After we did In This Life and Susanne was gone, I was very interested but Bob Drake didn’t like her voice.  He still doesn’t like her voice.  So that didn’t happen.  But I knew Dave was a guitar player.  I didn’t know he was a bass player.  When I got in his band, he was playing guitar, accordion, keyboards, and everything else.  Then I got a taste of what he could do on bass, and I was like “Jesus!” I also realized from playing his music that I didn’t understand how musically deep and capable he was.  So I asked him and he said, “Sure, I’ll try it.”  Then it wasn’t too big of a leap to say to myself, “Well, I need a singer, what about his friend Deborah?” And she was willing to try it as well.  The first song we did was “The Aesthete.” She had a cold and we did it anyway; I think it came out pretty well.  This was after me trying to work with Janet Feder.  She’s a prepared classical guitarist from Denver.  She was recording on RēR for a little while.  She does neat stuff and she’s done some stuff with Fred Frith.  She sings a bit, so I tried to get her to sing.  It was the song “Maelstrom.”  She actually recorded the opening vocal tracks.  I decided, “Nah,” but she made an effort.  She did alright, but I didn’t think it was going to work.  Then Deborah came along and she had a real ability to nail pitches and to find the notes.  And she did homework.  She studied her parts.

FJO:  Since we’re talking about singers, you’ve been referring to all the Thinking Plague music as songs.  One of my pet peeves is that we’ve reached a point in our history where we call every kind of piece of music a song so it has rendered the word meaningless.  A lot of the things on the Thinking Plague albums I don’t think of as songs.  For starters, many things are much longer.

An excerpt from Mike Johnson's musical score for the instrumental composition

An excerpt from Mike Johnson’s musical score for the instrumental composition “Gúdamy Le Máyagot” (which is featured on the Thinking Plague CD, A History of Madness)
© 2003 Mike Johnson. Reprinted with permission of the composer.

MJ:  I call them art songs.

FJO:  Okay, but you also said that a lot of time the vocal lines and the words will come much later than your original conception.  They start as instrumentals.  And yet in every incarnation of Thinking Plague you’ve always included a singer, though there are instrumental tracks on many of the albums. Even though you’ve always been the leader of the group, whether de facto or total, you’ve never sung. In fact, with one exception where you featured a male singer, it’s always a female singer.

“I’m always writing guitar parts that are at the very limit, much of the time, of what I can play.”

MJ:  Well, I never thought of myself as a strong singer.  I still don’t, although I can sing.  I do sing in other things sometimes.  When I was young, I was a backup singer in rock and roll bands.  But I was never strong; I have a soft voice and I have a fairly limited range, although I can do falsetto.  I’m in a Beatles band right now, just for money.  It’s money and kind of fun.  We do realistic versions of Beatles recordings, and I have to sing so I do it.  But, for Thinking Plague, my hands were full.  I’m always writing guitar parts that are at the very limit, much of the time, of what I can play, so the vocalist is a full-time job on its own for the most part.  The thing about having a woman developed over time.  I began to feel that since the music was oftentimes so male, so angular, so mathematical sometimes, and so challenging and difficult, even off-putting, that if you placed a woman’s voice—and not some kind of growling or in-your-face blues or disco singer—but the idea was to have this little human heart that you could latch onto in the middle of this maelstrom of music that’s going on.  And I think it works.  It gives something for more normal listeners to latch onto.  The human thread that goes through this music, which for a lot of people would not be a nice place to be traveling.

FJO:  But it seems to me that there’s something else going on with having a singer who is singing lyrics. From the very beginning there were lyrics that were clearly political, such as “Warheads.” And almost everything on the last three albums has a political bent.

MJ:  Definitely.  Absolutely.

FJO:  So, if vocal lines and lyrics are often an afterthought, I’m wondering where these things came from.  Obviously, this band was originally formed in the early ’80s during the first term of Ronald Reagan.  That has been called a great era for punk, which is essentially protest music.  Some people have suggested that there could be a real re-flowering of punk now given the current political climate.  Even the title of your new album, Hoping Against Hope, feels particularly timely though I know that you had already finished the album and had given it that title before the election.

“It is important for my artistic activity to make some commentary about what’s going on in the world.”

MJ:  Yeah, I know.  It was named well before, even before the campaign. And it was floating around as a possible name quite a long time before that, because the times just felt like that to me.  Part of it was, after the last album, Elaine and I were talking and she said, “Can we do something that’s maybe a little bit more hopeful?  Can we do something that offers some solutions or hope?”  And I said, “Sure, if we can figure out how to do that.”  Well, we didn’t really do that very well, but it made me think about trying to do that a little.  I’ve never been able to go with a direction that’s just celebrating or joy and I have felt for a long time that it is important for my artistic activity to make some commentary about what’s going on in the world.  Part of that is my work background.  Since the ‘80s, I have been working in human services programs, like working with the homeless, helping people to get shelter, helping people to get jobs.  Then I worked with poor students to help them deal with all the issues that were keeping them from being able to be successful.  I had a day career out of this, and I was good at it.  That informed my music, because when I went back to college after the music stuff, I took a lot of social science classes—politics and sociology and all this kind of stuff.  My perspective definitely moved left, and I’ve been there ever since.  The cliché is that as men get older, they get more conservative.  Me, I’m moving left.  I’m left of left now.  I don’t even know where I am.

Warheads” was in response to the Iran hostage crisis.  There was a wave of Islamophobia that came to the country then, like ’79 and ’80, and I was appalled by it. So I made a comment about that, and I got my younger brother, who fancies himself a poet, to write some lyrics with me and so the lyrics are pretty abstruse. But there’s this one part that deals with warheads and the board of trustees are counting up their funds, warheads are counting their guns.  This all struck me at a time when our society seemed a lot more peaceful: there wasn’t gun violence all the time; we were not at war.  But it struck me as ugly and that something needed to be said.  I didn’t really try to make much in the way of political statements. The song “Moonsongs” has a kind of environmental pagan slant, using pagan things as kind of an angle for the earth, not that I was on a pagan kick.

Then, with In This Life, Susanne was in charge of the words basically.  “Run Amok” is about when you have too many rats in a cage and their behavior starts to alter and they try to eat each other and kill each other.  That’s what I felt was starting to happen on the planet.  Every now and then, somebody goes nuts and kills a bunch of people.  It was rare in those days; now it seems to be every other day on the news.  I really think that parts of this society are now running amok.  All I did was give Susanne this title and tell her what I was thinking.  She took it and did her thing with it.

Then when it got to the phase where I was fully taking the reins, “Kingdom Come” had a definite angle that way.  “Dead Silence” also has an environmental angle. And A History of Madness had its own themes, but they’re not unrelated.

FJO:  “Blown Apart” definitely has a political agenda.

MJ:  “Blown Apart” is a good example.

FJO:  And on Decline and Fall, there’s “Sleeper Cell Anthem,” which is intensely frightening.

MJ:  It was supposed to be.  The message was about who are really the terrorists here.  “We are your daughters, sisters, and wives.”  We’re the terrorists.  We’re creating the terrorists.  We’re creating the terror that’s creating the terrorists.  Then on the new album, there’s a song about drones and execution from the skies called “Commuting to Murder.”  I didn’t realize how timely that was.  I wasn’t watching it at the time.  People are seemingly being arbitrarily eliminated from on high without due process and without concern for collateral damage because it’s so important to us that we eliminate this Abu blah-blah-blah guy here.  That was the one thing that I most objected to about Obama’s administration, the reliance on that.  In general, I’m not disinterested in abstract poetic expressions that come from deep in the soul.  But, in the absence of anything that’s hit me in the face, I had a certain level of anger and disappointment that I wanted to be expressed through the music.

The members of Thinking Plague, all with their mouths open, in 2011.

Thinking Plague in 2011 (left to right): Robin Chestnut, Dave Willey, Mark Harris, Elaine, Mike Johnson, and Kimara Sajn. (Photo by Rick Cummings, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  So, to attempt to tie this all together.  You create very sophisticated music, but you perform it with a rock band, which is a medium that’s been very central to our popular culture for more than half a century at this point.  In addition to the very sophisticated music, your songs frequently have super charged political lyrics.  By getting these messages out, through what is essentially a popular medium even though the kinds of things you’re doing go against the spirit of most of what is popular, are you hoping this music is going to change people’s minds?  What’s the goal in terms of changing the listener?  Can the listener be changed?  What’s the purpose of making art that has this charged message?

“I had a certain level of anger and disappointment that I wanted to be expressed through the music.”

MJ:  I honestly don’t know.  After this last election, I’m not sure I know anything.  You have to consider who listens to this music.  They are all over the map politically, but they tend to be educated so the differences are not usually cultural at a level that’s just hopeless.  So I always think maybe somebody will be—as opposed to converted—awakened about something, because a lot of guys that are into progressive music are sort of apolitical.  They don’t like to deal with it.  They want to deal with fairies and dragons, or with magic, strange mysterious glories.  I’m trying to hit them with some gritty realities, but not in an overly literal, strident way.  It’s a little bit subtle, I’d like to think, a little bit indirect.  You have to read it and think about it.  You have to actually pay attention, notice what the themes or the words are.  But I keep thinking that somebody will be like, “Oh, that’s interesting.  They’re talking about drones.  I better think about that.  I’d better look and see if I can find out what they mean.”  So it’s kind of like saying, “If you’re listening to us, if you’re following us, if you like what we do, here’s something that we think you ought to think about if you listen hard enough and you care enough.”

But I don’t really have any expectations that it’s going to have any impact.  You know, I wish.  First of all, we don’t reach enough people, not as many as we could, and they are all over the world. There’s never that many on the ground in any one place. But if you influence somebody, they talk to somebody else and turn them on to something.  If it influences their thinking about social or political issues, great.  I don’t know what else to write about really.  I wrote a song on A History of Madness, which was a love song of sorts.  But there were some other songs on there that had a humanity theme.  So it’s always something about man’s inhumanity to man, the stupidity, the selfishness.  Right now the list is so long of adjectives that you can talk about with things that should be addressed.  It does seem like a lot of people are addressing them.  So, in a way, it’s a hopeful thing.  I like to say it can only get better, but I’m afraid that may not be true.  There’s a lot to write about right now.  I’m not a political activist who’s going to spend a lot of time working on issues in that way.  My mission in life is to do music, so I feel like I’m obliged to have these kind of messages in the music, but not like strident marching songs.

FJO:  It’s interesting to me that from the beginning up to this day, in the year 2017, Thinking Plague has always been about making albums that are these larger statements.  There are pundits who claim that a lot of people don’t listen to albums anymore.  They listen to individual tracks and everything gets mashed up.

“If you influence somebody, they talk to somebody else and turn them on to something.”

MJ:  Right.  They don’t download whole albums.  They download single tracks.

FJO:  It’s great that you have a label that’s so invested in you.  I didn’t realize it went all the way back to the ‘80s, but I know they’ve reissued your whole catalog.  To have your whole catalog in one place is tremendous—to have that support, and for albums to be carefully recorded, produced, designed, and released. But it’s sort of weird, because the economics of all of this is shifting. How do you survive in this environment if what you want to do is make records?

MJ:  Well, like I said, I had a day career.  And, in as much as I am rather moved on in years now, I managed to retire from that. I was working for a state community college system, so I have a state pension, one of those things that our current president would probably just as soon eliminate.  But it’s based on investments, my whole existence is tangled up in the dirty money that I sometimes write about or I’m going to write about.  And I figure that’s okay; we should extract whatever we can from them.  I had to spend many years earning that.

I hear all the time from our label that they are struggling.  They have made all of our records available on Bandcamp.  You can go and you can listen to everything.  Most of the older ones have now finally gone out of print because it is not cost effective to press them and sell them anymore, because they don’t sell enough and you have to be able to manufacture so many in order to have economies of scale. So it became impractical for them to do that.

“I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry.”

I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry.  I don’t quite know what they do and how they do it.  I don’t even understand why anybody listens to that music.  When it comes to music that’s more serious, that’s got more depth to it, I don’t know how anybody manages to make a living from recorded music.  They say, “Oh, you’ve got to go out and play.”  Yeah, if you’ve got a wide enough appeal, I guess.  And if enough people have heard you.  I don’t think going out and playing will make you very much money if they haven’t heard recordings of you first.  So we’re at a kind of weird impasse.  The ready availability of music in electronic form has made it basically too easy to get, and now it’s not worth much.  People have gotten used to the idea of not paying much for it.  I remember counting my pennies together until I had a couple of bucks and could go by a Beatles LP.  I would listen to it until there was no vinyl left on it.  You have to wonder if there is something about people’s psychology: if they pay something for it, do they value it more?  Because they don’t seem to value it much now, except for those few people who actually care about the sounds coming into their ears and what it does to them, emotionally and otherwise.

Of course, there are so many people that love music, but they love it in different ways at different levels.  It seems that for so many people now, music is just a background thing.  It needs to keep a certain part of their brain busy, so they have it going in their ear buds as background all the time and it’s on shuffle, and they don’t really care what it is.  And they listen to MP3s; they don’t care about high fidelity.  They don’t care about really in-depth audio detail. It’s much less about what’s going on with the notes. It’s just a little hook melody and this over-processed drum groove and some pitch-corrected vocal parts.  I don’t know what to think about all of that. I don’t know where it’s headed. But I do think that in its current model, it is unsustainable.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue making records.  I’ll have to make them myself or they’ll become electronic downloads only.  I’ve had some guys say, “You should go hi-res.”  But sooner or later, somebody will figure out a way to pirate that as well.  But that’d be great.  Let’s make the audio product something that’s really worth something—you really need to pore over it and listen to it.  Everything that we do in the recording industry is reduced to 16 bits, no matter how it was produced before that.  If it wasn’t, then the files would be too gigantic for most people. There are a certain number of techie guys that would download it all night onto their computer and love it that way.  But most people want to put it on a player on their phones.

FJO:  But there is a different economy that operates for a lot of the other music we’ve talked about— avant-garde music and even the music of people like William Schuman.  All of that stuff doesn’t exist in the marketplace.

MJ:  Of course.

FJO:  And it never has.  It exists either as the result of private funding or through grants from foundations or governments. Shostakovich, for better or worse—definitely worse under Stalin—was a state-sponsored composer. Over the past half century, jazz has also been embraced by the funding community and that has allowed it to continue to thrive now that it is often no longer remunerative in the marketplace.  But that hasn’t happened with rock. We talked earlier about that moment in the late 1970s and early ‘80s when labels like Cuneiform and networks like New Music Distribution Service equally embraced avant-garde music that stemmed from classical music, free jazz, and fringe rock. There was no internet back then, but all of it is what we’d call dot-org music. Certainly what Thinking Plague does is dot-org music in the same way as the music of, say, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Wadada Leo Smith, etc.

MJ:  I totally get that.

FJO:  So might this music continue to exist if it’s somehow subsidized?  Could that be the way to make it keep going?

“Nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music.”

MJ:  Well, it’s interesting that you bring that up.  I’ve never gotten a grant for this band.  The closest I can say I’ve come is a Kickstarter campaign that succeeded—not on a gigantic scale, but enough to make it work.  I’m looking at some grants that would help us to be able to travel. There’s a RIO festival in Japan that has some money issues, but if I can get a grant they’ll bring it back to life, just for us to go play at it.  So right now I’m trying to figure out where the band is going to be, in what condition. Our singer is completing her master’s degree in music.  She’s still trying to figure out what she wants to do when she grows up and she’s 46. God bless her. I can relate. It does seem that there are not many grantors who have a word for what we do musically. Their tendency, because you’re going to hear electric guitars and drums, would be to call it rock music.  So then we’re not eligible for these jazz things.  I’m not sure how many, but there may be cracks that we could squeeze into.  We’ve got a horn player, so does that make us jazz?  I almost got us invited to the Vancouver Jazz Festival.  Almost.  So this is something I need to look into.  But as to how much money there is in any of it, again, nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music.  Nobody.  Not me.  Not anybody else.  There’s never been that kind of income from the music—not even in 1985.  Certainly not from In this Life or In Extremis, which was probably our best received record and the biggest explosion for us.  It didn’t change our situation at all.  We’re a dot-org phenomenon.  As a matter of fact, my Thinking Plague website is a dot-org website.  There was no pretense that this was going to be commercial, so I figured better call it what it is.  It’s not for profit.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2009.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2009, front (L-R): Mark Harris and Mike Johnson; back: Dave Kerman, Kimara Sajn, Elaine di Falco, and Dave Willey. (Photo by S. Navarre, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

Yarn/Wire: From The Ground Level

Once upon a time, most performances of new music came about in one of three ways. A performance could happen through the efforts of the few dedicated new music practitioners (many of whom were based at academic institutions). Another way would be by trying to convince more established groups to play a new piece (in addition to the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky pieces those ensembles might rather be playing) and sometimes that worked. Or, if a composer had the requisite performance skills and had some talented friends, she or he could form their own ensemble and hope for the best. But one of the defining phenomena of American music in the 21st century has been the staggering number of dedicated DIY new music interpreters who have established ensembles based all over the country.

Because of the existence of so many self-starting groups of myriad instrumentations, gone are the days when it was safest to write a piece for string quartet or piano trio (though it is easy to find DIY groups with those particular instrumental configurations as well). And because many of these unique groupings lack a pre-existing repertoire, their modus operandi is to commission new work.

One of the most exciting as well as one of the most articulate of these groups is the two piano/two percussion quartet Yarn/Wire, whose studio sits at the edge of Bushwick on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Admittedly, the combined forces of two pianists and two percussionists is not a completely new idea. Next year marks the 80th anniversary of Béla Bartók’s seminal Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, a work that received its premiere the following year at the 1938 ISCM World Music Days in Basel, Switzerland. There were also important pieces written for that combination in the 1970s by Luciano Berio and George Crumb and then, in the 1990s, IRCAM commissioned a bunch of pieces informed by spectralist ideas, many of which also included elaborate electronic set-ups.

In fact, Yarn/Wire began their existence ten years ago playing such repertoire. But they soon discovered that what excited them the most was being able to work with composers from the ground level up to shape pieces that are best suited to their collective musical temperament. They started out working with composers they had befriended during their college days at Stony Brook—people like Eric Wubbels, Aaron Einbond, Mei-Fang Lin, Alex Mincek, and Sam Pluta. Mincek and Pluta have now each composed two major works for the ensemble. But, as their reputation spread, they also began working with major international figures such as Enno Poppe, Tristan Murail, and Misato Mochizuki. Their world premiere performances of the works written for them by Murail and Mochizuki were presented by the Lincoln Center Festival last year.

A few months ago they debuted what is probably the most unusual work created for them thus far: Material by Michael Gordon, an hour-long work in which the four of them surround a single open grand piano and almost ritualistically proceed to eke out a seemingly infinite variety of sounds. Gordon spent hours with the group testing all sorts of combinations of what was possible (both in terms of sound production and in terms of physical endurance), and the resulting still score-less composition—while undeniably music—could also easily be described as theater, choreography, and performance art.

Being the enablers for bringing to life such pieces makes Yarn/Wire an extremely important catalyst for music that is happening right now. Yet, at the same time, the group is devoted to performing whatever they play at the highest possible level, which means intensive rehearsing as well as constant interconnectivity between the four of them. Earlier this year, their interpretive prowess led them to be runners up for the University of Michigan’s highly coveted M-Prize, a brand new $100K cash prize for chamber ensembles that attracted 172 applicants from 13 countries. The award ultimately was given to a string quartet that is devoted to performing older canonical classics that have stood the test of time and the members of Yarn/Wire realize that the jury is still out on whether any of the works they are performing will wind up in the canon. For them the question is irrelevant. That said, they are committed to building a repertoire that they will continue to play and that will hopefully be embraced by adventurous ensembles in future generations.


Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at Yarn/Wire’s Bushwick Studio in Brooklyn, New York
June 30, 2016—12:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  So where did this crazy idea come from to form a group consisting of two pianists and two percussionists?  What were you all doing before it?  Did you ever think you’d be in a group like this for ten years?

Russell Greenberg:  I don’t think any of us thought we would do this.  I know I wanted to play new music, but I didn’t know what form that would take.  Laura and I met at Stony Brook University. Then Ian came in and we played some Steve Reich together.  I think it was Sextet. The group really just formed out of us enjoying each other’s company and enjoying playing together.  It wasn’t so much of a mandate to have this two-piano, two-percussion group.  It just kind of happened. At least that’s my recollection.

Laura Barger:  We wanted to give a performance, and it was part of our doctoral recital requirements. But mostly it was about repertoire we just really wanted to play, pieces we were excited about.  That’s how things got started.  There was not much of a long-term goal beyond that at first.

RG:  Then it changed after that first recital. We started asking composer friends that we knew to write pieces—Mei-Fang Lin, Alex Mincek, Eric Wubbels, Aaron Einbond, a lot of old friends from before we had all met at Stony Brook, and new friends as well.  They started adding to the rep, and then we started playing more and more.  It kind of grew from that.

FJO:  Now Ning, you were not part of the group from the very beginning.

Ning Yu:  No, I joined in 2011; however, I knew everyone from my Stony Brook days, so I knew the start of this group and I’d heard a lot about the group before I joined.  Laura and I actually studied with the same piano professor, so we would see each other a lot.

FJO:  Now, in terms of what you were all doing musically before this.  Russell said that he always wanted to play new music.  I’d love to hear from the rest of you about that.  What you were doing musically before starting this?

Ian Antonio:  I went to Manhattan School of Music for undergrad. My memory is not super clear, but I definitely wanted to be in an orchestra. From the time I was in high school, I loved orchestral music.  I still love orchestral music.  But I found myself drawn towards the collaborative aspect of working on new pieces with living composers and have gotten more and more into it, so I eventually replaced the burning desire to be in an orchestra with the desire to play new things.

FJO:  Certainly, for the pianists in the group, there were many more options besides playing new music. There’s definitely lots of music that doesn’t involve two percussionists.

LB:  I was probably like a lot of music students, especially pianists.  I knew I wanted to be a musician, but I had only a sort of vague idea of what that entailed.  I knew it meant playing music and eventually teaching, but I didn’t really have a clear idea until maybe 2003 or 2004, when I went to Banff.  I did a long residency there and really had time to come terms with the fact that the thing that I was not only the best at, but what I most enjoyed and was most interested in, was playing new music.  So that’s what I wanted to do.

NY:  Before Stony Brook I went to the Eastman School of Music for my undergraduate and masters.  During my time there, there were a lot of groups coming out of Eastman—Alarm Will Sound, JACK Quartet, to name just a couple. There were a lot of great musicians and this really vibrant atmosphere, so I knew from my last year of undergrad that I wanted to devote most of my time to playing new music with all of my classmates.  When I got to Stony Brook, I started realizing this was not just a selective group of students at the school who were into new music.  There were a lot more actually playing at a really high level.

A Yarn/Wire concert poster is attached to a wall across from shelves containing loads of instruments, such as, on one row, a bunch of bells.

FJO:  You formed initially to do a concert, but you weren’t really thinking beyond that. There was just some repertoire you wanted to play.  But there really isn’t a whole lot of repertoire for two pianists and two percussionists.  There are pieces by Bartók and Crumb plus I know a Cage piece that can kind of work for just the four people.

RG:  When we started, there was the Bartók, and works by Berio and Crumb, then there’s like a 20- or 30-year gap, and then there are all these European pieces that were co-commissioned by IRCAM for the Ensemble Intercontemporain and other groups like that.  So there’s a Lindberg piece from the ‘90s and Philippe Leroux has a piece—there’s all this heady electronic modernist kind of stuff—

LB:  —And post-spectral or spectral-influenced music.—

RG:  –So we started playing that stuff.  But I don’t think we’d ever do that concert again.

LB:  Our first concert was the hardest concert we’ve ever played.

RG:  It all had electronics written for IRCAM, so we had to go into MAX and figure it out for ourselves.

IA:  I remember someone who played the [Michael] Jarrell piece in Europe saying that IRCAM literally showed up with an 18-wheel tractor-trailer for all of the electronics gear.  We tried to do it ourselves with a mini-van.  It was so insane, hours and hours of wrapping cables without support staff.  Then the logistics of the percussion—at that time, we didn’t have all this gear [gestures around studio]; we really just had what we had at Stony Brook, and a couple of mallet instruments.

RG:  When you see what was being done in the ‘90s and early 2000s with gear and electronics, that’s all we had to build off of.  So we tried to conquer as much of that as we could.  But it’s a much different mindset than the kind of generative stuff that we do now which, in an ideal world, is asking a composer to have a very small set up and something that’s portable and tourable—something that we can do.

IA:  Or flexible.

RG: Yeah, at least. But it has changed.  In our early days, we were getting pieces that had already been played and we were trying to do our version.  After that initial bump, we started essentially generating material for ourselves.  We’re not co-composers with a lot of the composers that we’ve worked with, but we do collaborate on creating work now.  And that’s been really exciting.

FJO:  So how do you find composers that you want to work with?  Are they recommended?  Do you hear stuff?  How do you put your feelers out?  What’s your process for discovering something new?

NY:  I think just about everything you have mentioned, and more.  I get emails from various people that say, “Have you checked out this person yet?”  And also friends and past colleagues whom we’ve worked with from way before, we’re now thinking, “Can we actually commission this person for a new piece, not for a piece that was written for someone else?”

IA:  It’s largely people we know.

LB:   The new music community is tight-knit, maybe even more so by necessity in some places.  But in New York, there’s so much happening.  Just being aware of what’s going on here, of what’s going on around the United States, and trying to be an active member of the community is a good way to know what’s happening.

Being aware of what’s going on here, of what’s going on around the United States, and trying to be an active member of the community is a good way to know what’s happening.

RG:  I agree with what you guys are saying.  If you look at our first CD, every person on it was someone we knew and had known for years.  So you start with what you know.  Then after that, we got to expand the circle a little bit.  People would suggest things, like Ning said.  For myself, going to festivals internationally was another big way.  Like what Laura said, keeping an eye on the community here, but also paying attention to what’s happening abroad and what seems interesting.  That’s how I encountered Enno Poppe’s music for the first time.  I heard—I think it was—Ensemble Modern play it, and I was like, “This is it! We’ve got to work with this guy.”  It took many years, but then we got to work with Enno.

NY:  The next layer on top of that was getting to play a new work by someone like Tristan Murail, for example. He is not our friend on a personal level. But we also get together and say, “Who are our aspirational dream composers?”

RG:  Like Beethoven.  If he was alive, we would have asked him.

LB:  Totally!

FJO:  I imagine that for a lot of composers you’d be a dream ensemble.  So let’s say that somebody wants to write for you as opposed to you wanting them to write for you.  How does that work?  If somebody contacts you and says, “Oh, I have a great idea for a piece” or “I wrote this piece,” do you deal with envelopes coming in the mail with scores? Does anything ever pass go through that process?

IA:  I don’t think that’s ever happened.  We definitely get envelopes in the mail, but I don’t know if we’ve ever played one, only because we typically like to be involved with newer pieces on the ground level, from the conceptual process to the logistical process, then I think we all like to have a back and forth with composers: This is where we would play it.  This is maybe how long the piece could be. Then they would have this idea.  The back and forth aspect is one of the main things that we enjoy.

RG: All of us have a lot of agency and a lot of desires, and none of us wants to play something we don’t like.  So the matter of taste starts coming up.  I don’t even know how to begin to answer that question.

LB:  And it’s hard for pieces that are already written.  We can’t really do that.

We typically like to be involved with newer pieces on the ground level.

RG:  We can’t just play every piece that comes to us.  We don’t have a venue.  There are so many things that go into putting on a concert and presenting a piece.  So when you get someone saying, “Hey, I got something for you,” we’re really stoked about the idea, but there are only so many notes we can learn at a given time.  When we were students, time was unlimited almost.  But now, as we’re going further and further down this project, we have less of that time so it becomes a little bit harder.

IA:  Logistically also, we’ll get pieces in the mail. I think we always check out and listen to everything.  But I know this happened with me and Russell, we’ll be looking at a piece and it’s got four timpani and chimes. We actually don’t have timpani or chimes, so we just can’t do it.  It excludes it before it begins.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you don’t have timpani.

IA:  I think we have two not-good timpani for special effects like cymbal on timpani or crotale on timpani.

shelves of drums containing a timpano (upside down), three side drums, a pair of congas, and various drum stands.

A lone timpano, upside down, is among the many drums on shelves in the Yarn/Wire studio.

FJO:  That opens up another whole area of questions about what instruments you have and why you have them. Some of what you’ve amassed here, I imagine, came from specific requests from the composers who have worked with you.  I remember coming in here last summer and there being a bunch of bottles with rods in them which you needed, I think, for a piece you were rehearsing that Raphaël Cendo wrote for you. You probably didn’t have those beforehand.

IA:  Wine bottles are not hard for us to get.

NY:  We do acquire a lot of new things.

LB:  Small things.

NY:  Like, what was that, also in Cendo’s piece?

LB:  Oh, the flasks! We had to buy the kind of flask you tuck into your vest at a football game, if you’re wearing a vest. So we acquire a lot of smaller toys and tools.

FJO:  So it’s okay to acquire those, but not four timpani and chimes.

RG:  I would like to, if I could.

IA:  It’s a money thing.

RG:  We have that huge steel sheet also from the Cendo.  We had to go to the steel sheet place and get that cut.  But a set of chimes is a couple grand.

IA:  Seven thousand dollars.

RG:  Set of timpani, same.  So, context is everything.  If we get a grant to do it, yeah.  We’ll get some chimes.  I’d love to get some chimes.

Metal shelves filled with various small instruments as well as various small bells and gongs on a table.

Some of the small instruments warehoused in Yarn/Wire’s studio.

FJO:  But then another thing is how feasible is it to take the instruments on the road. You’ve all said you want things to be practical and you guys tour all the time.  But before we get into that, I’m curious—just in terms of the time factor, because you’ve said there isn’t a lot of time—how much time do you guys actually spend together?  What’s a typical week?

LB:  It definitely depends on how busy we are and how many concerts and projects we have going.  But I would say, at least for the past couple years, we see each other at least three times a week, most weeks.  And we’re in almost constant contact through email, text, and telephone.  So I would say we spend a lot of time together.

NY:  I cannot recall a work day—that’s basically saying Monday through Friday—that we did not communicate with each other.  Whether it’s through email, phone calls, or actually being in here. And that also sometimes includes weekends.  And in a tour situation, we are of course very compact throughout the time we’re on tour.  So we spend a fair amount of time with each other.

FJO:  And the amount of time spent here in this studio?

RG:  We probably do about 12 to 15 hours a week, four-hour blocks.  Some weeks more, some weeks less.

FJO:  If a string quartet wants to tour around the country, that means five airline tickets, one for each of the four players and one for the cello. But with the four of you, I imagine getting on an airplane might be a little trickier.  Obviously, you don’t need to bring your own pianos, but everything else gets packed up.  Right?

IA:  No, we don’t bring a ton. When we have very specific instruments we need, Russell and I will bring stuff.  But it’s limited to two checked bags.  We can check big bags if we need to, but a lot of the places we play will either rent the larger percussion instruments, or it might be at a university where they can wrangle the more generic-type instruments—marimba, vibraphone, those kinds of things.

NY:  Before we go to any venue, the contractual details are a little bit more extended than with a string quartet. We have to make sure that they’re able to host us and that they have all the things that we need.  Sometimes our programming is affected by what we can do in a particular location.

A lone cymbal is suspended on a stand amidst many other instruments including a marimba

FJO:  So, the practical factors that go into choosing a composer you want to work with on a piece: What is possible?  What isn’t possible?  I’m curious about that process.  How long does it take?  How involved are you with the composers while they’re writing their piece?  How often do pieces change from the moment you get handed the score before the first rehearsal to the actual performance?  What have been the extremes?

If you look at our past performances list and see how many times a given piece is programmed, usually it has to do with how logistically possible it is to do a piece.

RG:  Every extreme, you know, because you can say as much as you want but in the end the composer’s going give you the piece that they are going to give you.  In many cases we’ll say, “We would love to play this more than the premiere.” We’re always dedicated to the premiere, and we also want to play it after that.  But if they don’t follow certain things that we say—like, for instance, if you write for three waterphones, we’re never going to get to play that piece anywhere except for this time—it’s going to be very rare.  But if the composer really wants that, it’s going to happen.  We’re going to play the premiere.  They just need to know that it probably won’t get to happen again.  It’s really important that a piece becomes a part of the rep.  And if they’ll take those things into consideration, then we get to play them many times. If you look at our past performances list and see how many times a given piece is programmed, usually it has to do with how logistically possible it is to do a piece.

IA:  And we like to play pieces we like.

RG:  Yeah, that’s a given.

IA:  It’s the meeting of our desire to play a piece again and the logistical possibility of doing it.

NY:  Depending on the composer, the process is also very different.  Because everybody commands different processes. It seems like some people write incredibly fast and some people write incredibly slow.  Certain people really literally write and tell us, “I have a couple of pages.” Then a month later, “Never mind.  Completely new idea.” Then sometimes we don’t get a piece they’re talking about for like three years.  It all varies quite a bit.  But we are enjoying these different aspects of different composers, and their different personalities, as well.  So even ones that we’ve had to wait for three years for, once we have that final piece, it’s also very exciting.  And we’ll try to find every possible venue to perform it.

FJO:  You said final piece; I’m curious about things changing during the process.

Some composers will come in and we will in some ways create the piece together with them.

LB:  Yes.  I think a lot of composers—again just like they have different speeds of writing—have different levels of interest in our involvement and how they write the piece.  Some composers will come in and we will in some ways create the piece together with them.  We have done that before. They have an idea or a form they want to see or hear, and we work together to create that with them through trial and error, or just through playing.  We have composers who’ve come in and made recordings of us trying all sorts of different techniques on percussion and piano, and then they use that to sit down and write in isolation.  Or we all have sketches that we’ll play and some of them will become the piece and some of them don’t. But, for example, I guess we can bring up Murail again, who has a very defined voice and style.  He just wrote the piece, and we got it, and we played it, and that was that.

IA:  Fully engraved.

NY:  Beautiful, and ready to go.

FJO:  And you never met him.

LB:  Well, not at that stage.

RG:  But also then there are other pieces where you get the finished score, and the composer comes in and you’re like, “This doesn’t quite work” and they’re like “Alright, cool, I’ll change it.”  So then the final piece, as you’re calling it, is actually different than what we were sent.

LB:  Or there’s a notation of some technique that has never really been done before, so it’s not perfectly right.  So you and the composer have to find what that sound is.  What do you want?  How does this work?  And that might influence a later edition of that piece as well.

RG:  We even have pieces where we don’t have an official score. That has happened with a very recent one, and we can still play it.  Then we’ll see how the final score ended up—great—and it is the piece, but we actually just have this other thing that we worked on with the composer.

IA:  Reich’s Drumming didn’t have a score for many years.  It was just kind of an oral tradition.

FJO:  I remember that Misato Mochizuki purposefully didn’t give you the last page of her piece until the day before you were premiering it.  Part of her reason for doing that was about ensuring that there was an element of surprise for everybody, including the four of you.  But that’s obviously something you can only pull off at a premiere.  Once it becomes part of your repertoire, the surprise factor is gone unless there are indeterminate elements.  So how do you keep the surprise and the inquisitiveness going once something goes from being brand new to being repertoire?

RG:  We’ve continued to rehearse that piece, and we’ve played it a number of times.

IA:  The end of that piece that you’re talking about is a structure that she came up with in which the content is always filled a little bit differently.  We’re playing it again and she will be here, so I’m curious to see if it’s finished—or not finished, but now fully notated.  I don’t know what that will be like.

LB:  I would also add the performance aspect: any time you do something for the audience it’s new, and so you draw energy and inspiration from that.

Any time you do something for the audience it’s new, and so you draw energy and inspiration from that.

RG:  When we have been rehearsing that piece—we’ve played it like two or three times now since the premiere—every time when we come to it, what we rehearse is actually the pacing, the drama of that thing.  That’s actually a lot of work, because you have to step outside yourself and watch what’s happening with it.  That piece opened up a lot of questions about performance.

FJO:  Getting back to choices of composers.  You’ve now worked with a few very established composers: Tristan Murail, Michael Gordon, and Enno Poppe—you didn’t premiere his piece but you got to work with him on it.  You’ve also done a lot with younger composers and you talked about paying attention to the whole world, the whole U.S.A., and New York City, and you definitely maintain a balance of local and international composers. Additionally, I’m curious, your group is an even 50-50 split: it’s two men and two women.  You’ve worked with several female composers, but our field doesn’t exactly have the kind of gender parity that we might want for composers. So how do these issues factor into your choices of who to work with—gender, generation, geography?

LB:  I think we’re aware of all those things.  We don’t want to be tokenistic, but we also absolutely want to make sure that we are representing the number of really amazing women who are writing music.  So we are aware of that, and I think at the same time we want to work with people that we have access to.  It sounds a little pat to say, but I do think the most important thing, or the thing we want to hold onto, is we want to find good music and interesting music, and that really comes from so many different places.

IA:  Actually, the geography question is maybe the first one that comes up when we’re working on a new piece.  Who do we have access to? Who will we have the chance to be collaborative with?  That’s been maybe the primary driver.

RG:  There’s no prerequisite to who can write good music, so we’re just trying to find what fits that paradigm.  And again, we can’t really answer that.

A bunch of mallets next to a page from a score.

FJO:  One of my favorite pieces that you’ve done is a four-movement work by Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh, who is based in California.  I find his music utterly fascinating, but I first became aware of him in a somewhat random way. He’s not yet on a lot of people’s radar outside of the L.A. new music scene. A piece of his was chosen to be performed on the Gaudeamus Festival a few years back which is how I first learned about him.  Then a few years later, I noticed that you were performing a piece of his which at first I found somewhat baffling since I associate his music mostly with strings. He’s a string player himself and he creates very idiosyncratic microtonal music. It’s not the kind of thing that seems easily adaptable to your instrumentation since, I imagine, you tend to keep your pianos in 12-tone equal temperament.

RG:  I have this friend Corey Fogel; he’s a performance artist and a really great drummer.  He lives in L.A.  I also happen to be from L.A., so I see him every year around his birthday. We were talking about music and he sent a list of people to check out, and I checked out Andrew McIntosh. Andrew’s part of this publishing thing called Plainsound, so you can go on PlainSound.org and he’s listed.  Thomas Meadowcroft is there and Chiyoko [Szlavnics] is there. Quite a number of very experimental composers who are kind of on the—I hesitate to say it—outside; they’re outsider composers.  So the next time I came to L.A. I looked up Andrew and we just started talking.  That’s how that came about.  It was a personal connection.

FJO:  And the piece is microtonal, but not in the kind of systemic ways that a lot of his other stuff is.  So how did that work out?

IA:  He designed a set of pipes for us that are tuned in a very specific way. So that’s a microtonal aspect.

NY:  And also we play wine glasses and bowls filled with water.

LB:  Pitches change as you slowly add or take away water.

NY:  And even though we’re playing the same piano, somehow with the pedal and through the different partials of the harmonics, us playing a seventh or ninth, it creates an illusion of a certain kind of microtonality.  At least that’s how it sounded to me.

FJO:  We talked about working with a composer more than once.  Sam Pluta has written two really interesting and very different pieces for you.  This is a luxury.  We referenced string quartets before; composers tend to write a whole bunch of string quartets, but other ensembles rarely inspire such output. When we did a talk with the Imani Winds for NewMusicBox, they all opined about how most composers will probably write just one wind quintet so they rarely have the same level of familiarity, which comes from experience, of a composer who is in complete control of the ensemble’s resources.  You basically only get their first attempt.  I imagine the same is true for two pianos and percussion.  There certainly isn’t a tradition of writing for this ensemble.

One of the grand pianos in Yarn/Wire's studio.

NY:  I feel that this formation is not easy at all to write for; I can imagine the pain of writing for not just one piano, but two pianos. But the second time around, or the third or fourth time, there is a craft that’s being practiced, so I personally would be really interested in the number threes and number fours.  For example, like Alex Mincek’s new piece for us.  He totally delved into a different type of sound, and we’re just loving playing it.

RG:  That’s his second piece for us.

IA:  I think it is something that we’ve been purposefully doing.  It is actually the exact same thing you mentioned with Imani Winds—the idea of taking the model of writing multiple string quartets and getting multiple pieces.  I know we asked George Crumb a number of years ago if he would consider writing a second piece for our configuration.  He said he wasn’t really in the mood to do it, but he thought it was a great idea.

RG:  A good idea.

IA:  Yeah.  Maybe in a couple years he will want to do it.  He knows our desire is there.

RG:  It would be cool to see, like we have with Alex and Sam, another side of people.  How they develop too, because what’s the space between the two Mincek and Pluta pieces?  Like four or five years.

IA:  Six years.

RG:  That’s a lot of time to develop not only as a composer, but as a person.  Your interests change.

LB:  We’ve changed, too.

RG:  We can play differently, and it’s cool to work with people you know very well as you get older.  And then a new generation can do a whole concert of Pluta or a whole concert of Mincek!

IA:  Yeah.

NY:  The complete Mincek piano/percussion quartets.

FJO:  Then there’s the other extreme, which transcends considerations of whether something is a first piece or a fourth piece—something like what Michael Gordon wrote for you, which totally redefines what this ensemble could be and what you all can do as musicians. You all were all doing things I imagine you’ve never done before.  I’m curious about what the experience of working with him was like and how that piece evolved.

LB:  Well, for a long time Michael definitely was one of those aspirational composers with whom it would be really great to work someday.  He’s so busy, so it was not going to be easy.  But I think once we found the right way and the time, it was a really great process.

IA:  It was really collaborative. It was the most a composer has come to work with us just on pure sound ideas, because it was so specifically exploring what one grand piano can do.  And he probably has six hours of us on video.

RG: Most of that should just get tossed.

NY: There’s a lot of “what if you did that?” 

LB: And “how long could you do that one thing?”

NY:  Then we said, “Have you thought of that turned into this?  We could start at point A, and then go to point B.”  He’s like, “Oh, let me think about that.  And I’ll see you in two weeks.”  Then he comes back, “You know that point B was really interesting.  Can you do a reverse from point B, back to point A?”  So we didn’t know how this piece was going to pull together until pretty late.

IA:  It was really fluid.

RG:  Figuring out the connections.  This is one that we don’t use a score for.  We just have the material we created with him, pardon the pun—this is what the piece is called [Material]. But even the last day, we were changing things. We changed and eliminated.  It was awesome.

IA:  I think there are going to be maybe more tweaks.

RG:  Yup.

LB: And maybe more material. 

IA: Yeah, there could be. 

FJO:  One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the choreographic elements that are often a necessary ingredient to effectively perform your repertoire. It’s obviously very important to Michael Gordon’s piece.  This is the thing that I think people who haven’t written for this ensemble might not understand.  With a string quartet or a wind quintet, typically all the players have music stands and are playing in front of them.  But you move around, all of you.

LB:  Absolutely, yeah.

FJO:  So if a composer is creating a score in his or her studio and not working directly with you, the resulting piece might not be something that is always doable within the originally conceptualized time limits.

LB:  It’s very difficult to get that right.

NY:  With each piece, we talk about that aspect a lot—sometimes the logistics, but a lot of time about drama and about timing. It’s about suspense; it’s about just pure musicality, making something much more beautiful.

FJO:  So things you can do versus things you can’t do.  Things you feel uncomfortable doing.  Is there anything you wouldn’t do in a piece?

RG: Get bloody.

LB:  We would never want to injure ourselves.

NY:  Or the piano.

LB:  There is a limit. Many people would say that we’ve crossed that limit before. But a piano is actually a very strong instrument. The beating that the strings take from the hammers in a Beethoven sonata causes more wear to the instrument than a lot of the extended techniques we do.  However, that being said, there are things that do cross that line. We can’t unfortunately do a piece that asks us to snip the wires of the piano, unless it’s a site-specific piece that happens one time with an old piano.  Then we might do it.  But really, in all seriousness, we have to respect our own physicality and the instrument’s.

We have to respect our own physicality and the instrument’s.

RG:  If someone doesn’t want us doing things on a piano, that’s understandable.  We respect that and we’ll just change the rep.

FJO:  You’re all comfortable with improvisation, since obviously there are improvisatory elements as well as indeterminate elements in a lot of this music.

IA:  And there are two audience participation pieces that we’ve done, but they’re not very fleshed out.

FJO:  So do any of you write your own pieces?

RG:  I think we’ve all written stuff.

LB:  When I was younger I wrote some solo piano pieces for myself that probably should never see the light of day.  My own personal feeling is that composition is a practice and a craft. I would love to have the time to devote to developing that in a way that respects the notion of being a composer.  In some ways, I feel like I don’t have time to do that, so I don’t want to ever call myself a composer because I haven’t put in that time.

I don’t want to ever call myself a composer because I haven’t put in that time.

IA:  I’ve written a lot of youth percussion ensemble music, but that doesn’t take the same time as writing a piece for us to play.

NY:  So the short answer is we don’t play each other’s music.  Not really.

FJO:  I know that this might be difficult to talk about, but I have to bring up the M-Prize and the really profound article Mark Stryker wrote about it—“In first year, M-Prize chooses the past over the future.”  He deeply believed—as did I and a lot of other people—that you should have won the award rather than a quartet that’s devoted to standard repertoire, as fine as they are.  And I think that he really made a very persuasive case.  And yet, mea culpa, even he in that brilliant article wrote, and I quote, “To be clear: I’m not saying that Yarn/Wire’s music, as compelling as it was, is as great as the best of Debussy, Haydn, etc. No repertoire in classical music is more profound than the string quartet monuments that have stood the test of time.”  Is that true?

IA:  Well, they certainly stood the test of time.  You can’t argue with that point.

FJO:  So could a piece written for two pianos and two percussionists ever be as profound as one of the great string quartets?  Could it stand the test of time?  Will it stand the test of time?  Are there pieces that you’re playing that you feel are as great?

RG:  Can we even answer that? I don’t know.  I’ll be dead.

IA:  If someone else is going to play it and decide, maybe. Who knows what the politics will be like in the world?  Who knows anything?  There are pieces that feel good to me.  But I don’t know if they feel as good as—what were you playing yesterday? “Doin’ it Right”? Maybe Daft Punk will stand the test of time for that.

LB:  I think maybe what he’s trying to say is there is a historical tradition. It’s like saying music for flute is not as good as music for piano, because there’s a huge wealth and multi-century tradition of writing for keyboard instruments as a solo instrument.  So, I understand what he’s saying, but I think at the same time, in a way, it doesn’t matter.

A page from one of the drum parts for one of the pieces in Yarn/Wire's repertoire.

RG:  There are a lot of political things behind that question.  What kind of music are we talking about?  What’s the history of that music?  Where are we now?  Who gets to hear that music?  It doesn’t really matter without defining your audience first.  Without defining all those things, it’s a hard question to ask.  What about jazz? Go and listen to Ascension or Giant Steps.  To me, that’s just as strong as that other music.

LB:  Why do we have to limit our discussion to the classical canon?  Music is not necessarily bound anymore, so when we talk about music, it doesn’t feel relevant anymore to only talk about the “Western art tradition” as the only evolved or valuable tradition.  If people feel that way, that’s fine.  I don’t personally happen to feel that way, and I don’t think any of us really do.

RG:  Where does Michael Gordon fit in comparison with any of those other pieces?  How were those other pieces developed?  Were they just developed by themselves?  We don’t actually know one hundred percent.  So maybe we are following in that tradition.  But to compare the Gordon with a string quartet or a symphony or whatever, I don’t even know how that practice of composition is even relatable.

Layers of understanding and meaning accrue over time.

IA:  One thing I would add, though, is that string quartet played some Mendelssohn, or maybe Beethoven, and some Haydn. If you’re comparing that to some repertoire that we play currently—we’ve been rehearsing George Crumb’s piece for the past couple of days.  That piece is from the early ‘70s.  Something that we’ve referenced in our rehearsals is the tradition of playing that piece—like listening to the recording that our teachers made.  Talking about the string quartet repertoire, people have built on many interpretations. There’s now a performance practice that’s been enriched over generations.  I think that’s something that we can see happening with some pieces that maybe are older in our repertoire. Layers of understanding and meaning accrue over time.  There’s also that which you can’t really compare.

NY:  It’s not a value thing.  It’s simply a performance practice question.

RG:  It’s also partly an audience familiarity thing.  To be honest, if you’re familiar with a piece already, like maybe if someone hears composer X’s new piece five or six times over the course of their life, that becomes as important.

LB:  I can definitely attest to the fact that if you’ve never heard Beethoven before, and you hear a Beethoven string quartet, and all you grew up listening to is, say, salsa music, you have a very different reaction to hearing it for the very first time.  And it’s not the same as someone who grew up listening to classical music and going to concerts, or even just being steeped in a certain cultural tradition.  You know, growing up hearing film scores primes your brain to hear instrumental music in a way that if you come from a culture where that’s maybe not as important or as accessible, you’re not going to have that foundation.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you talk about listening to recordings of the Crumb, because one of the things that you’ve done in terms of legacy is that you’ve documented your performances and have made them available through recordings.  You have a disc on Wergo, you recorded a few discs for various independent labels, and you’ve also self-released three recordings—all three last year, in fact!  In an era where—for better or worse—recordings are far less remunerative, this is quite an investment. Do you feel that this is an effective way to get that music out beyond live performance?

IA:  It definitely reaches more people than it would if we didn’t do it.

NY:  I think this very last one, Yarn/Wire/Currents Vol. 3, sold really well. But it’s not about selling, it’s really about people hearing it and saying wow.  And then writing to us.  They’re not just complete strangers, but also colleagues who are being moved and are saying how much they enjoyed the music, how much they love certain pieces.  So I don’t think recordings are over because we cannot play Sam’s piece in every single city.

It’s not about selling, it’s really about people hearing it and saying wow.

RG:  When I was in college, I would buy all those Donaueschingen [Musiktage festival] records, those two to four CD sets.  I had no access to any of that music except through those CDs.  So as we’re generating this music, I was like this could be a really cool thing to be able to do something like what they did.  I mean, it’s nothing compared to Donaueschingen—but to have the music out there, so people could check it out if they don’t see the one concert of that stuff that we’re going to do in New York and maybe never again.  It is a way for people to have access to that music.  It’s really expensive to go into a studio, so what we do is we document the shows and we put it out.  You can donate for the CDs, and for the stream if you want.  But it doesn’t even matter.  Hopefully it’s a way for students and people who just like new music to get to the stuff.  And like Ning said, there’s been a really good response from that. The internet lets you see how many people are listening to stuff, and that’s cool.  But that’s beside the point.  The point is that more people have access to it.  And then you’ve developed this history—a performance practice, like Ian’s talking about.  All these things are part of creating that culture, that community behind the music, so it’s not just this one-off thing.  We spent so much time on it; the more people that get to hear it, the better.

FJO:  Another thing you’re doing to give something back to the community is you’re now off to do a ten-day workshop back at Stony Brook, of all places.  You’ve come full circle.

IA:  We’re going to play ten brand-new pieces by institute participants.

LB:  We and our instrumental participants—all of us together. We’re also going to play a few other—sort of “standard”—pieces. It’s weird to call them standard.

IA:  They’re non-premieres.

Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio holding hand instruments.

Yarn/Wire (from left to right): Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio.

Tempering My Friends Anxiety and Doubt

The official logo for the New Music Gathering

[Ed Note: This month, in anticipation of the next New Music Gathering at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore (Jan 7-9, 2016), we’ve asked each of the founders of this now-annual event to reflect on the whys and wherefores of the new music community coming together in this way. Last week, Daniel Felsenfeld described the initial conversations, online and off, that led to the conceptualization of NMG. In the coming weeks, Lainie Fefferman and Mary Kouyoumdjian will offer some observations about the upcoming NMG and will also look ahead to its future, but this week Matt Marks takes us from those initial conversations to the first gathering at San Francisco Conservatory. – FJO]

Daniel Felsenfeld’s lovely post before this one – which elicited from me a good amount of teary-eyed nostalgia – was called “Gathering Storm: How We Made a Conference”. Based on my experience, I might amend that subtitle to “Oh shit… We made a conference”, a phrase I’ve used when asked exactly how New Music Gathering came about. One of the strange and beautiful things about growing up and becoming a professional is realizing just how rarely things come together in the Grown-up, Professional way you expect they will.

As Danny mentioned, I was still high from a meeting of new music organizations that was set up by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where I was representing Alarm Will Sound, when I made the Facebook post that sparked NMG. In the meeting we discussed the glaring lack of a centralized event in which new music professionals could come together and do what we in that room were doing: sharing our challenges, successes, failures, hopes, and fears. Afterwards, I clacked out a quick sum-up onto Facebook, ending with that big question: “Why isn’t there something like this?”

Along with a flurry of supportive comments from members of the new music community, I received two fateful direct messages. One was from Danny saying, essentially, “There should be, and we should do it.” and another was from MaryClare Brzytwa of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music saying, essentially, “There should be, and you should do it here.”

Now, Danny already did a great summary of what happened at the first NMG. I thought I’d give a, let’s say, emotional summary of my experience, in the interest of demystifying the process of taking on such a challenge. Hopefully it might encourage other people to try and do more crazy things like we did.

My first reaction to these messages was: “Yes! Hell yes! Let’s do it and let’s kick ass at it!”

My second reaction was: “Matt, there is no goddamned way on Earth you could do something as complicated and high-stakes as starting a brand new music conference.”

Enter my good friends Anxiety and Doubt. They set up shop and didn’t leave until after this whole thing was finished.

Whenever I thought about the narrative of what we were doing: the scope, the commitment, all the people involved, all the people I would let down if it didn’t work, how a conference should go, the type of person who organizes a conference (in short, whenever I created fictionalized versions of our endeavor) it seemed far too challenging an overall task to surmount. But whenever I focused on each individual task to get done—setting up a coffee meeting, shooting off an email, making a list of things we might have to buy—the grand idea of a conference appeared less and less insurmountable.

Throughout the long process of organizing NMG, it became a daily battle of my imagination vs. the reality of small things to get done. I’d find myself delaying on sending an email because of my fear that, say, the featured performer might not be available to perform on the day we needed them to, or I might ask too much of someone and they might get offended. My imagined consequences were always catastrophic. And they never really came true. When difficulties did arise, they were almost always manageable and, at worst, meant a commitment of plain-old time and effort to work through.

One very smart decision of Danny’s and mine was to invite more people to join the team in order to help alleviate the load and make smarter decisions. Enter Lainie Fefferman and Mary Kouyoumdjian. Lainie I’d known from her incredible organizational work with the New Music Bake Sale and Mary from her indefatigable production work with the ensemble Hotel Elefant. Our regular meetings at Nunu Chocolates in Brooklyn Heights were a fascinating blend of the wild dreaming of possibilities with the cold, hard pragmatism of making it all function—and with a minuscule budget to boot! We had the ideals of what we wanted of a new music conference –the spirit of collaboration, support, sharing, creating– and what we didn’t want –the spirit of competition, commerce, hierarchy.

Lainie Fefferman, Matt Marks, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Daniel Felsenfeld sitting together at a round table.

An early meeting of the four original founders of the New Music Gathering: (left to right): Lainie Fefferman, Matt Marks, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Daniel Felsenfeld. (Photo courtesy Matt Marks.)

I think it was this sense of creating something new, unique, and supportive that helped temper the efforts of my old friends Anxiety and Doubt. To a large extent, organizing NMG felt more like creative work than any production work I had done in the past. This has also led to a new-found admiration in me for people who do great work in fields that aren’t typically considered “creative.” I’m not sure if the fact that all four of us are composers made us better at our task, but knowing our ultimate goal was to facilitate the creation and performance of new music certainly helped it from feeling too laborious.

It also helped greatly having our main collaborator at SFCM be MaryClare Brzytwa (another composer/performer). All of this could have easily remained yet another lofty idea in another Facebook thread if she hadn’t stepped up and recognized the potential in such an event and how it aligned with her long-term vision and that of SFCM President David H. Stull; a major goal of theirs is to become the modern center for classical and contemporary music. Inviting Claire Chase to be our keynote speaker was their great idea and, coincidentally, Claire—in addition to being a true symbol of our spirit—was also in attendance at that very Mellon Foundation meeting (and was a classmate of President Stull’s from Oberlin!). I think what attracted SFCM to our budding conference was its freshness, its experimental approach, and the fact that we didn’t have the baggage of a long tradition of former conferences or solidified preconceptions of how a conference should happen. It still stuns me to this day that they had enough faith to offer their space and support for us to try and pull off an event like this. And excitingly for us, their new provost and dean, Kate Sheeran, is an alum of NMG 2015!

Now, before this starts to come off as yet another inspirational “Believe in yourself and you can achieve anything!”-post, I want to note that we were extraordinarily lucky with putting on the first NMG. The stars aligned, we had great support, and the time was right. There are any number of things that could have gone wrong and perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this post right now. But, speaking personally, I found myself assuming that many more things would go wrong than actually did, and those difficulties we did face (and there were many) all ended up being relatively manageable. For me, the greatest challenge in putting on a new music conference was conceptual. In the end, it wasn’t a matter of asking myself “Can I organize and put on a successful conference?”, it was a matter of having a rough plan and asking myself “Can I do this concrete amount of work today?” and the answer was almost always “Yes.”

As a composer, I’ll sometimes have the experience of hearing a piece of mine being performed and thinking, “Wait, did I write that? How did I write that?” because the hours and hours of plunking away at the piano and shifting dynamics in Sibelius blur away in my memory. Similarly, I’ll sometimes think to myself, “Wait, did we really put on a conference? How on Earth did we do that?” But, wonderfully, we get to see the fruits of our labor in the form of new collaborations and commissions continually happening due to people who formed connections at last year’s NMG, such as the Twitter-based new music discussion forum Musochat and commissioning projects by Michael Hall and Christian Hertzog, to name a few. Witnessing new art and ideas arising from our little conference is a creative feeling completely unlike that of mere self-expression. It’s what makes me experience more excitement and anticipation for the next NMG at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and less anxiety and doubt.