Tag: DIY

New Music Needs Curators

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

(all photos by Aaron Holloway-Nahum)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Aaron Holloway-Nahum at Copland House

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

Let’s Get American About Our Music

Grunge ripped paper USA flag pattern
Back in April, an assortment of Cleveland-area composers banded together to register their outrage (via an open letter in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer) over the pronounced lack of American composers on the Cleveland Orchestra’s upcoming season programming. Following that, there was a detailed and articulate discussion on New York’s WQXR in which Naomi Lewin hosted headlining letter writer Keith Fitch along with New Music USA President Ed Harsh and forward-thinking Seattle Symphony Executive Director Simon Woods. There are multiple overlapping issues at stake here (now that American concert music can officially claim more than one century to its credit, all American music isn’t new music), but at the heart of this latest chapter of classical music brow-furrowing is the now familiar specter of the floundering major symphony orchestra that has long shadowed our culture pages and news feeds. Painting a picture of the precariously preserved edifice of the symphony à laDorian Gray has served its purposes, stirring up the perpetual debate over society, art, and relevance. But I would suggest that new music proponents are uniquely qualified to stop worrying about the Major Symphony Orchestra in favor of much more productive—and yes, more American—channels.

An easily made but generalized across-the-pond comparison casts us in an unfavorable light. European orchestras take a marked pride in their national tradition (e.g.: Sibelius in Finland; Britten, Tippett, and Vaughan Williams in the U.K.) that is notably absent in America. Are we being unpatriotic? We’re a comparatively adolescent country, and the American intelligentsia has been known to sustain a certain cultural inferiority complex. Yet we acknowledge that America is a place with possibilities that can’t be found in the old world. And what could be more old world than rigid hierarchies? The Cleveland Orchestra makes the news, in part, because it’s one of the original “Big Five.” (To the best of my ascertainment, the jury is currently out on the number of qualifying orchestras in today’s Big club, but Cleveland still holds a place of seniority.) The financial health and adaptability of our major orchestras are convenient barometers of the health of the classical music scene in this country because these institutions are our most observably active ties to the Western music tradition. Similarly, the attainment of major orchestra jobs can function as that rare quantifiable yardstick of professional success in a statistically slippery biz, the outcome of which spells number-crunched woe for music degree earners.

A brief detour into the territory of full disclosure: I gave up my vague conservatory-period goal of winning an orchestra audition pretty fast, after a number of audition failures compounded the frustratingly passive on-the-job experience of a section violist. Why obsess over how your Don Juan will be judged when there is so much more music to discover and create? So now I find myself—among other things—preparing for projects such as an alto trumpet and viola duo (my duo partner, the trumpeter/composer Jason Huffman, being the only person I know who embraces such a gloriously unwieldy combination) with the equally unwieldy organization I helped to shape, Boston’s Equilibrium Concert Series, as well as serving as writer/editor/marketing associate/all-around helper for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and attempting to explain all sorts of music in my own freelance program notes. Incidentally, I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading NewMusicBox Regional Editor Matthew Guerrieri’s take on Equilibrium and also his account of January’s BMOP concert. (The opening of the latter contains an especially witty commentary on the moldering-symphony-orchestra debate.)

So what’s an “orchestra project”? I’m not 100% sure myself, but I think I’m justified in asserting that the name accurately implies a sort of perpetual question mark, and definitely describes the open-ended repertoire list that is the group’s mission. “Orchestra Project” sounds strange because orchestras aren’t supposed to be works in progress—they’re supposed to be edifices, anchors, rooted in distinguished tradition and endowed in perpetuity. All this, while being simultaneously adventurous and discerning enough to select the finest candidates to continue the genre with equal respect to its European origins and current polyglot context. Add to this the responsibility of wooing the skeptical, culturally endangered modern masses, and no wonder we’re seeing the orchestral psyche’s equivalent of a mental breakdown all over the country.

Clearly, these are far-flung demands that no major orchestra would realistically hold itself to. Consider the risks that an established, pedigreed orchestra would undergo in pursuing a substantial palette of new music programming: It might captivate some yet bore other camps of audience members with diverse programming choices (and scare some off entirely with the uncertainty). It might go without the honor of occupying a front-and-center position in its home city, since new music isn’t hugely popular with the mainstream concertgoing public. It might give up the security that would allow it the luxury of drawing candidates from far and wide for an opening and then rejecting all of them. That’s a lot of uncertainty to try to mix into a basically predictable tradition.

But you don’t have to shift your gaze very far to get away from the “what ifs” and watch these kinds of uncertainties play themselves out elsewhere. BMOP programs a ton of music that’s either new, American, or both, and still rakes in accolades. Yes, the orchestra is untenured and the programming is erratic, but it gives very little cause to grouch about staying inside the box, from any perspective. As it happens, BMOP’s most recent concert was not a dashing statement of the avant-garde; it was about as infused with Americana as it gets, with three fairly conservative mid-century composers with admirable chops and legacies. For those interested in pedagogical family trees, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, and Arthur Berger are three of our own Bostonian branches. They wrote music that managed to be erudite, rigorous, whimsical (Fine mined Alice in Wonderland decades before David Del Tredici), and joyfully heady in a way that only an orchestra can deliver. It’s demonstratively different fare from the premieres that comprised January’s concert and that generally pepper BMOP’s seasons, but that’s the thing about the new music/American music call to arms: a whole orchestra and years of programming are needed to offer anything even beginning to resemble a full picture. And a riotous body of repertoire can perhaps only be done justice through equally intrepid judgment calls; here’s where someone like Gil Rose can achieve the sort of self-motivated passionate leadership made possible through exhaustive knowledge of every aspect of the organization—how many conductors can claim that kind of commitment? If major orchestras are quite possibly not the best equipped to handle this unruly and momentous task, why not consider them as accessories to the act of new music-making rather than responsible parties?

OK, so I just held up one kooky orchestra zealously devoted to a far-flung repertoire. What else is in the American orchestral rep diet? Here’s something from a different sphere of my local orchestral life: a couple weeks ago I had a wonderful time hearing my colleagues’ wildly (and deservedly) buzzed-about chamber orchestra A Far Cry in the Gardner Museum’s sleek new Calderwood Hall in a program that—although conceived around an entirely different concept—was four-fifths American music: Charles Ives and Ingram Marshall, plus two commissions—from toy piano maven Phyllis Chen and local mad genius Ethan Wood. (Mendelssohn popped up too, not entirely incongruously.) AFC is young, idealistically cooperative, comparatively broke, and ambitious, sustaining itself in large part upon its popularity; yet this sort of programming is a key part of their hipness. What could be more American than a democratic orchestra with the popular vote, playing American music? But let’s get back to the traditional symphony orchestra. So how about another local group (established 1976), the New England Philharmonic? Their last concert, a pretty par-for-the-course program, featured Gunther Schuller, David Rakowski, and Roy Harris along with a Prokofiev symphony. NEP is a non-professional group so, no, you won’t see their passionate contract negotiations in the news. But “community orchestra” is more than a euphemism for “unpaid.” NEP literally maintains quite a large community of composers who interact with the orchestra to bring their music to the stage, along with not only audience members who want to hear the music, but musicians who choose to devote their limited hours of music-making to its execution.

Yes, I seem to be proving that I live in a bubble of culture blessed with a saturation of musical adventurers. But while there are piles of ASCAP Adventurous Programming Award plaques sitting around the BMOP office, a survey of ASCAP’s past and current awardees presents a wealth of competitors from cities large and small from every corner of the country. BMOP shares John S. Edwards laureate status with the American Composers Orchestra as well as Alabama, Albany, Cabrillo, Minnesota, South Dakota…the lists go on to include orchestras of lofty and lowly stature, student orchestras and regional orchestras, as well as the occasional heavy hitter. And going back to my own circle of acquaintanceship: if I also follow my colleagues’ entrepreneurial exploits in Chicago, Atlanta, and the San Francisco Bay Area, it seems facile to place too much credence in my own bubble.
Oh, yes, I haven’t mentioned my city’s own bona-fide prestigious Symphony Orchestra. I could talk about how the performances of work by Marc Neikrug, Osvaldo Golijov, and Bernard Rands I’ve seen this season at the BSO were received with sincere ovations, or about how I’m looking forward to Tanglewood’s 2014 Festival of Contemporary Music (for which I’ll be contributing some program annotations). I think the BSO is totally great. But my musical life is far-reaching enough that I’d really rather talk about other things. Do we really have to worry about whether symphony orchestras are doing their job as the headlining ambassadors of music and culture? The ambassadoring act isn’t what it used to be. We’re not going to go back to the days of Leonard Bernstein broadcasts (that’s why they’re being marketed as “historic broadcasts”), but there are more people than ever out there committed to getting new music into the world.

I’d love to direct anyone seeking any closing samples of composerly wisdom back a few decades, to this 1988 interview with Harold Shapero. Much of it still seems pretty timely (and being a wise-ass never goes out of style). One of the things he says is, “That’s one of the advantages of wonderful America. You have unequalled opportunity, but it’s just curious.” We might just still live in a place of curious opportunity, or at least opportunity for the curious.

Without a doubt, major orchestras have a cultural job to do, and there will be more soul-searching, reinvention, and growing pains in that corner as the 21st century marches on. But it’s time for new music advocates to stop standing on the sidelines and wringing their hands. Please, let’s be Americans and ditch the elitism and figure out how to make our music happen wherever it’s welcome.


Zoe Kemmerling. Photo by Kait Moreno.

Zoe Kemmerling. Photo by Kait Moreno.

Zoe Kemmerling is a native Californian who is pursuing an eclectic musical career as a violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and administrator in Boston. She is an enthusiastic performer of contemporary chamber music, violist in the period-instrument Emergence Quartet, and freelance provider of witty and insightful program notes, as well as past Executive Director of Equilibrium Concert Series and present Publications Associate at the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

Sounds Heard: Marcus Fischer—On Shore


The above liner notes could read as a poem for Portland, Oregon-based musician and multimedia artist Marcus Fischer’s On Shore, a single 29-minute track that was originally released as a Japanese tour CD. But it’s really more like a shopping list of sound sources that can be heard throughout the course of the track. While at first glance, wind and waves might conjure images of a Windham Hill recording or something otherwise new age-y, I can assure you that this music is nothing of the sort. What it is, rather, is original and striking ambient music, well worth the half-hour soak for the ears.

Fischer is a versatile artist, active in music as well as in photography and other mediums (including the building of treehouses!). The hard copy version of On Shore, packaged in a letterpressed chipboard sleeve, is regrettably sold out (apparently there were only two rounds of 30 copies made), but the audio may be purchased via Bandcamp.

On Shore brings together aspects of the electronic music world that are not so easy to combine well, and manages to do so in a cliché-free environment. Field recordings and hand-crafted sounds are mixed with electric guitar improvisation and DIY electronic constructions, creating a long-form evolving texture that maintains interest throughout and yet never pushes too hard towards the next phase of activity. It’s the kind of sound world that allows space for the listener to explore and find different listening angles upon repeated plays.

The track begins with the sound of waves juxtaposed with close-miced burbling water, into which a languid melody slithers at about 2:45. Plucked guitar tones pop into the forefront, creating structural beams for the interplay of textural material that spreads across the spaces between strikes. At 14:15 the harmonic content starts to thicken out, and a faster pulse enters. By 18:13 you notice that the bottom has dropped away, leaving behind bare guitar strumming, joined by soft yet slightly menacing sounding low tones that gradually pull the water and wind gusts into the soundscape. The mixing of this track is extremely well done, in that the various complex sound sources never mush together—like really good instrumental orchestration, each layer can be clearly heard.

On Shore has many of the qualities I find myself searching for in electronic music; it is organically constructed in a way that makes sense, it’s unpretentious, it contains just the right amounts of grit and sparkle, and it is not afraid of patience, nor of silence.

Exponential: The Music of Zoë Keating

The Center Stage auditorium at the Reston Community Center
Reston, Virginia
April 14, 2012—6 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Homepage photograph by Jeffrey Rusch


When Zoë Keating takes the stage, her charismatic presence—a perfect balance of focused performer and welcoming MC—exerts a magnetic attraction. If you have heard Keating’s music on recordings or encountered it in TV commercials, you are already familiar with the immersive worlds she conjures with her cello, using digital technology to build up an entire orchestra of sound out of the timbres of this one instrument. In live performance, however, her stage persona (which I strongly suspect is not all that different from her real-life self) adds a beautiful gloss to the work she is presenting. Anecdotes about the genesis of the music, life as a touring musician, her love of pancakes, pull the audience into the experience, a background on which Keating then lays out her compositions with a serious intensity. Hearing Zoë Keating’s infectious laugh is in no way essential to appreciating the powerful music she creates, but it is perhaps crucial to best appreciating the artist who makes it.

This combination of compositional prowess and generous personal spirit may also be integral to understanding the successful DIY career she has built, which includes a largely self-managed touring career (she only began working with a booking agent a year ago), the sale of more than 45,000 copies of her self-released albums, and the astounding (as of this writing) 1,268,864 member community of followers she has attracted on Twitter (she’s on Twitter’s “Suggested User” list). Writers often refer to her as a one-woman orchestra, an avant cellist. It might also be effective to think of her as a composer who, with a chair, a cello, a bit of software, and some amplification, hopes you’ll join her inside the evocative aural spaces she constructs. To help you feel welcome there, she’s not afraid to introduce herself first.

As a result of her methods and her success, a lot of people want to speak with Keating about the business of making music, and she has been incredibly transparent about this on both her own blog and in industry conference sessions. However, with so much reporting already out there devoted to such topics, we chose to focus here on the music-creating side of this equation, digging into the “whys” and “hows” of her private work in the studio and her public stage performances.


Molly Sheridan: When I speak with classically trained musicians, it often seems that the longer they study and the deeper they get into the repertoire, the more uncomfortable they become with the idea of making their own music. When you decided to make the transition away from being the classical cellist you had been trained to be, how did making your own music fold into that?  Was composition something that was already part of your life?

Zoë Keating: One thing that happened to me, and I think it’s true for some other people who are trained classically, is that there’s this long period where you have to give yourself permission to play your own music.  It doesn’t seem valid somehow; it doesn’t seem like real music.  It’s like, “Well, I’m just playing.  I’m making up this stuff.”  And I had a really long period of that, of feeling like there were all these different buckets.  There was the music that I would play that was classical—the stuff that I was learning, or that I was being judged on, or graded for. Then there was music that I listened to, which was mostly popular music, that I would sometimes try and work out on the cello.  And then there was the music that I would improvise or that was just my own.  And they were all very separate.

It was when I was in college and right after for a couple years where I started feeling like making my own music was maybe actually a thing.  It wasn’t just this way to let off steam. Initially, you know, I had this terrible stage fright, and I found that I could calm myself down by just playing open strings.  So I would sit at the cello and I’d close my eyes and just play open strings until my hands stopped shaking. I would play patterns, because patterns were this great way to sort of cancel out all the chatter in my brain—it’s almost like a meditation.

My composition really came out of that. I realized that the thing I was doing didn’t have to just be this way to calm myself down so that I could play this other music.  It could actually be this thing I could develop. Eventually that happened.  But it wasn’t like one day I woke up and said, “Egads!  I’m a composer.” I think I didn’t even start calling myself a composer until a few years ago.

MS: Really? What shifted that for you?

ZK: It was actually a reaction to being described as a cellist. When I was trying to describe myself, I realized I wasn’t just a cellist, I was also a composer. I think there’s this idea that composers write music down, and I think I thought, well, I don’t write it down, so I’m not really a composer.

MS: Well, you weren’t writing it down as a score, perhaps, but at a certain point you did begin developing and capturing your work using various technologies.  I don’t want to ask you to rattle off a complete list of all the gear you’re using on stage, but since this is such a significant part of your identity, I would like to know what some of the most important items have been as you’ve developed your sound.

ZK: Well, like everything else, it’s an organic process. I started out wanting to have maybe two cellos playing, and so I had some gear that would allow me to double what I was doing, like a delay pedal.  I explored the limits of that box. Then, I was like, now I want four.  So then it’s four; and then it was six; and then it was eight.  Everything I do, I’m just exploring the technology that I have on hand.

The vision I have in my head, the music that I want to make, is so vast and multi-dimensional, and the tools in this three-dimensional world are so much smaller than the music that I want to make.  So it’s a never-ending process; I’m still not there.  Right now, I’m using a computer. I can do up to, like, 24 tracks of cello. I can sample things and store them, and throw them back at the audience later. Now, I need to make it more fluid so that I can really improvise more with the computer.  If I think about it in advance, I can structure it so that I have places where I can improvise.  But it’s still very structured.  The technology creates a box for you to work in, which is a good creative tool, but then you reach the limits of it. Then you’re starting to add new technology and it’s very much a part of the writing. I think that struggle to make technology do what you want it to do, and to make it maybe do something it wasn’t designed for, there’s something interesting there. But then, I don’t like the technology to overwhelm the music. I need it, but I’m always changing.

MS: Do you find that you go looking for technology to match the sound in your head, or do you use the parameters of what the technology can and cannot do as a starting point, a creative challenge?

ZK: Usually I go looking for something that will allow me to do a problem. I have a problem: I really want to be able to have 16 tracks of cello.  What will allow me to have 16 tracks and record them and not have too much latency? Things like that.  So I’ll go looking for a tool, and I’ll use the software program that will allow me to do that.  But then as I’m learning how to use this program, I might discover something interesting that I wouldn’t have thought of.  So it’s definitely both. That’s what I mean by “I need the technology”—as a creative challenge.  But at the same time, I’m using it to problem solve.

MS: One of the things that’s interesting to me about what you’ve done with it, though, is that even with all the sounds you could make using the technology, you haven’t buried the sound of your primary instrument. You’re using it to amplify the cello exponentially.

ZK: Well, I love the cello!

MS: Can you talk about your relationship to the instrument and your attraction to this sound world?

ZK: I think the cello is the best instrument, I’m sorry.  Bassoon is pretty great; I love French horn—you know, no offense to other instruments! But I just love the cello. I was really influenced when I was in high school by this disc that I got—it was The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic—and they were playing a whole bunch of stuff. I heard that sound, and I was like, “Oh my god!  That is the sound to end all sounds.”  It was this big, big sound. Also, when I was in high school and just taking lessons and classes at the Eastman School of Music, every Saturday all the cellists would be there and we would play ensemble music.  We would play Klengel’s Hymnus, or we’d play the Bachianas Brasilieras by Villa-Lobos, and that was really my favorite thing to do.  I could just do that all day.  So I just want to recreate that feeling of lots of cellos.

Except, I have my own musical vision that I’d like to make, and initially I didn’t have the finances or the ability to get a bunch of cellists to do this.  I couldn’t figure out how to translate my ideas to them.  The little experiences I had of saying, “Okay, just play it like this for like four bars and just vamp that, and then we’ll do this.”  Total blank stares—”No, you have to write it out, please.”  And I felt like that was really limiting.  The idea of writing something out, and then playing it, it just was all wrong.  I wanted it to be about feel, like this other emotional world that was more flexible.  So I just found it easier to do myself.  So when I’m layering up all those cellos, I still want them to be cellos. When I’m doing the actual recordings for an album, I have a lot of microphones all around me and I’ll put a microphone closer in a certain place to get a certain kind of tone.  Or when I’m playing live, I’ll bump up the EQ on some particular phrase so that it stands out.  Because the thing is when you have 12 cellos, you have to sort of differentiate, or you just have a wall of sound.

I just find it really interesting.  The cello can make an infinite number of sounds, and I infinitely prefer them to anything electronic.

MS: I know musicians and composers who work with technology and then struggle to keep playing works in their catalog as hardware and software continue to develop or break down. Some hold tight to keeping things as set as possible, but I’ve heard you say that you actually change your gear quite frequently. How do you keep playing the music that you’ve already written in that case?

ZK: Well, the music that I’ve already written is always evolving on stage. I have a piece called Frozen Angels. If you were to listen to that piece two years ago, and then listen to it today, they’re pretty different.  That’s because I have different technology I’m using.  I have different microphones.  My microphones change really frequently. Again, the cello has this beautiful sound, and the microphone is taking, like, a picture of it, and then giving that to the audience.  When I started out using Piezo pickups, that picture was like a photocopy. Then I was like, “Okay, this isn’t working,” so I started using contact microphones and that was like a color copy. Now I have some different microphones, and those are pretty good digital photographs. I want the audience to feel the sound of the cello the way that I feel it, and I’m still trying to get that.

Every time I even just change a microphone, that changes so much the kinds of recordings I make that then, of course, I want to change all the parts that stack up against those recordings.   It’s like the butterfly flapping its wings, and everything down the line changes. I’m playing a certain way because it sounds better or worse with the microphones I’m using.

MS: So you are actually going back and re-making pieces?

ZK: Definitely.  Oh, sure.

MS:  That’s quite a volume of work.

ZK: Yeah, it’s never ending.  It also keeps it interesting, though. When I make a piece of music for an album, I spend a lot of time making it the perfect thing ever that I want to hear.  And it’s really difficult to choose the one version that is the piece, because there are so many permutations.  At some point, I have to just choose one and develop that because it’s very time consuming.  The thing that makes me choose that one is usually some sort of artificial deadline, like I have only two weeks.  That’s how I get things done because that crystallizes all your decisions and I do that. And I always feel sad about all these other little musical children I had to leave by the side.  Some of them will turn into whole new pieces.  Other times, they’re just kind of like variations, and when I go on tour, I just let them develop.  So I’ll have an album version of a piece. Then, tonight I’ll play this piece called Lost and this piece called Seven League Boots and those are very different than the album versions because I’m just exploring other areas with them.  Also, because my technology has changed since I wrote them, I can make different kinds of sounds, or things like that.

I feel that there’s no reason for it to be stuck in time.  A piece of music is a snapshot of all of my past, with whatever is going on right now.  And it’s going to be different each day.

MS: I wonder if that would be surprising to a lot of people.  Looking at the gear you use on stage and how clean the presentation is, the audience could assume that you must be playing tightly to a set script for it to come off. But what is really happening in performance? How much flexibility do you have?

ZK: I have a lot of flexibility.  Sometimes it’s about how confident I’m feeling. If I’m feeling confident, I’ll really go far out there, you know, and the pieces will be vastly different today than they were yesterday.  Other times, I’ll have sort of a “this is the way that I’m doing them right now in this period of time” [version]—meaning this tour that is lasting three months.  There’s also this authenticity thing where, if I’m playing a piece and it’s not risky for me to do it, if it’s so easy because I know it so well that there’s not risk involved, I feel like I’m cheating the audience and I’m cheating myself. I’ll have a piece, and for a long time, I’ll try to make it as perfect as possible, this endless quest for perfection. I’ll really get into that, and I’ll make all the little parts as perfect as I can possibly make them, within the constraints of this one composition without changing it.  Just making the phrasing better and better and better and better.  It’s kind of like what we do as classical musicians.  Eventually I’ll have improved every little thing in there.  They’re all improved now.  They’re all where I want them to be.  And I’ll play it that way with great pleasure for a while, just enjoying that I’ve made it perfect now.  And then some day I’ll wake up, and I’ll be like, “This is boring!”  It’s perfect, but it doesn’t move me anymore.  And I want to be moved when I’m playing the music.  Then I start changing things.

MS: Since you’re not writing your pieces to short score and then orchestrating them out for an actual orchestra, would you briefly walk us through what is involved in making a new piece, either starting in the studio or even backing up further, depending on how it typically unfolds for you?

ZK: Well, when I’m making a piece of music, there are multiple places that I start from. I would say a good half of my work starts from me improvising. I’m just messing around, improvising. I’ve got all my technology around me, and I’m sampling things. I’m just playing, and I’m having a great time.  Usually when I do that, I don’t actually go back and listen to what I did.  I’ll have some memory of what I did, and that will stick with me.  So a couple days later, I’ll have something in my head, which is a memory of what I did, which might not actually be it.  That memory becomes a foundation for everything, so it’s sort of this thing in my imagination.  Then I just try to make that thing. I might go back to the original recordings that I made and take some of them in, and put them into my software that I’m using, and then start playing against them. I make a ridiculous number of tracks—like, 60 tracks of cello, just a huge thing. I make this big cathartic mess, which is totally overwhelming. I get totally swept away—I just love it.  I love it.  I love it.—And then I start taking it away, and that’s the process.

MS: How long does that take?

ZK: I tend not to do things very linearly, and I’m often working on multiple pieces at the same time.

MS: So you might have 180 tracks floating around and any one time.

ZK: Yeah, I have drives and drives and drives of material.  Often then I start sort of pillaging and putting them in other projects.  I have this one piece called Last Bird. There’s actually only eight parts in there. I made this piece over the course of two weeks and recorded it. That’s a great example: I had a deadline, because it was something I had to write for a movie, and I had two weeks to do it, so I did it.  Other pieces, like Escape Artist, that one was made for a performance. I had to premier a new piece on a certain day, so I made it.  I made it to be a live work.  That one took me about two months to figure out the piece, and also how to program it so I could perform it live; that was done simultaneously.  Other pieces are very much studio creations, and then I figure out later how to do them live.  And in the figuring out, I might change it.

MS: Then is the digital file—for whatever software you happen to be using—the score essentially? When you have to go back to older material, is that what you refer to? Or, considering how you like to work, are all your scores more like memories?

ZK: They’re just memories, which is why sometimes they’re different. I like that feeling, when you hear something on the radio, and then you’re left with a memory of it and you’re like, “Oh, that was such a great melody,” whenever you’re singing it.  Then, when you actually someday go back and listen to the song, it might actually not have been that melody.  That’s definitely how sometimes I interpret my own work. I have a memory of the recording that I made two years ago and I’m going to make a live version of it, so I’ll do it based on my memory of it.

Actually, for my last album, I did all of this recording and made all these pieces, and then I moved.  We moved from San Francisco to Portland, and we were staying with my husband’s parents because we were trying to find a place to live.  Then we moved back to California, and during that process, I lost a drive. I was on tour with Imogen Heap at the time, so I was just all over the place, and I lost my main drive of music. It was funny because I use Ableton Live, and you have to be really careful to collect all your samples.  If you don’t collect all your samples into the same location, you open the file, and you can see the lengths of them, but the samples are not there.  In my haste, I had put everything on a drive, and I had not clicked on all the samples.  The shells were there, but there was no audio in them. I was really devastated by this. Then in 2009, I was like, well, I’m just going to have to recreate them all from scratch.  So I recreated these six pieces from my memory of what I had done two years before.  Then, when I had a studio—because during that time, 2007-2009, I didn’t have a studio to work in—that was my album. Then after I released the album, I went back and I found the drive. Those pieces are nothing like what I made.  So that’s my next album!

I did have an interesting experience a couple of weeks ago. I played with ODC Dance in San Francisco at Yerba Buena, and we had five performances with the ballet dancers.  When you’re doing something for dance, it has to be the same every time, and that’s what’s hard about it. I can’t just be doing my usual self-indulgent thing of playing music, because they need to hear it—they’re getting ready to launch themselves across the stage on this particular phrase. That’s where I practice the most sometimes.  I had to practice for like for a week straight, just every single day, to make it the same.  Half the performance was me solo, and for the other half, I hired a string ensemble.  So I had six string players and a marimba player with me.  And that was a real big challenge because they had sheet music. They absolutely were not able to just riff or just do it from the recording.  It had to be written down.

MS: They had sheet music that you provided. So you can work that way.

ZK: Yeah, they did, but that was a very strange experience—to go out there and play the same piece every night, exactly the same way, off of music.  I was like, “Wow, that’s so weird!” though that’s what I always used to do [as a classical musician]. But it felt very odd for my own music to be written down on a piece of paper.

MS: You mentioned Imogen, and I know that you said when you were on tour with her that you knew you would lose the audience if you didn’t quickly convince them at the beginning. Your performer side and your composer side might have had different needs in a situation like that. How did you navigate?

ZK: Often I trust my own judgment with things, but I do feel like live is a very specific situation.  It’s all about the environment that you’re playing in, and that the audience is in. In certain situations, you just cannot take a million years for a piece to develop.  It’s just not going to happen in that format.  So I saw it more as a fun challenge: Okay, how could I keep my artistic integrity, but also make it more interesting for the audience? What would be fun to do?  So it was another little artistic challenge, just like having a new piece of gear.  It was like, “Oh, okay, I’ve got an audience full of 15-year olds with cell phones and I only have 60 seconds to win them over.” I definitely saw it that way.

Because I decided not to go the standard classical path, usually playing in a concert hall was not open to me as an option. I had to play in rock clubs.  If I wanted people to hear me, I had to be in an environment where I’m opening for a pop star, perhaps, and I’m playing in a nightclub.  And those are different artistic parameters. I didn’t feel like it was a non sequitur for me, also, because I grew up in the ‘80s. I listened to songs. I felt like it was actually more of a challenge to make something short.  On my own in the studio, I can make a 20-minute cello extravaganza, but it’s actually harder to make short things, I think.  So it’s like, “Okay, I have to do this all in seven minutes; that’s my boundary.”

There are times though when I make something, and I’m just like, you know, take it or leave it: this is the piece.  For a live performance, I definitely think about what makes a good show, because it’s not just me up there, in my own world.  We’re having this whole experience, and so it really, really matters to me that you have a good time. Or not “have a good time”—that makes it sound too light.  It’s more like I want us to escape time; that’s my goal.  Music is this thing happening over time, and when it really works, you lose the sense of time.  Was that a minute, or was that an hour? That’s a good musical experience, and that’s what I’m going for. I want to take you out of your little linear path along time. I’m doing that for myself as well as for the audience.

MS: Does the fuel for that creative impulse tend to come from extra-musical stuff, or is it you in your studio with those bits of pure musical experimentation that you’ve already described? Is there something larger than that that you’re drawing from, or looking to communicate?

ZK: No, I’m not. It’s definitely very abstract.  It’s more of an experiential kind of thing.

MS: You’ve said you have trouble even titling pieces, because you don’t want to make them concrete in that sense.

ZK: Yeah, because I don’t know what they are, and I change them all the time.  Also, if I say this piece is this, well then that piece is going to have to be that for me tomorrow, too, and it might not be.  It’s like I’m an abstract expressionist, except that it’s not very abstract.  It’s very specific. I’m just expressing this sort of thing, and I try not to get too big about it.

MS: You might have too much groove to be an abstract expressionist.

ZK: Yeah, that’s what I mean. I think of my emotional landscape that way, but it’s much too organized. I’m really drawn to the minimalists, and I love that sort of order, but I’m not that ordered.  I’m too messy to be a proper minimalist.  Sometimes I feel like I have the most in common with a sort of instrumental post-rock, like Sigur Rós or that kind of stuff. I think if you were to cross that cathartic, instrumental post-rock with minimalism, maybe that’s where my landscape is.

MS: Many of your previous interviews focus on the business side of the career you’ve built for yourself and the ways in which you’ve leveraged technology and DIY methods to connect with fans and sell records. [Readers who want to dig into that further should check out Keating’s online talks, such as this one, which she delivered at MIDEM in 2012.] We’re focusing more on the music-making side of your work in this conversation, but I did want to ask you one DIY question:  You’re obviously a very charismatic, bracingly honest person, and that’s reflected in things even as simple yet as public as your Twitter feed. But unlike most people, you have a million plus followers—a huge audience to be regularly interacting with! Do you feel the need to set certain boundaries to protect yourself emotionally or is that kind of exposure the price you have to pay to be an independent artist in 2012?

ZK: I get that question pretty regularly—how to manage all that stuff—and I feel like I don’t ever give really good answers because I don’t think about it. At the same time, I’m actually really private, so I do have some sort of unspoken rules. I try to reveal as much about me as a person, doing my job here in the world, but at the same time I don’t want to expose my family to constant scrutiny. I think that I’m sort of lucky, in that the kinds of people who are interested in me are very respectful, and so I don’t experience any sense of intrusion from anyone else.  It’s more like, “What do I feel like sharing today?” I try not to over share; I’m not going to talk about crass things.  I’m just not going to go there.  So it’s definitely curated, but it’s not over-curated.

I feel like in order for me to exist, I need to interact with other people. I’m too isolated otherwise. I’m just this woman in her studio with a cello and a computer, and it feels kind of lonely. The act of sharing things with other people, and then they’re participating, I need it in some ways. When I was making my last album, and I was pregnant and trying to finish it before my son was born, I was spending hours and hours and hours down in my studio, just mixing and mixing and mixing—it’s a really laborious process. I found that I’d have a really intense mixing session, and then I would let off steam by using Twitter to interact with people. I totally needed it, and then I would feel refreshed and inspired, and I’d come back.  However, if I would go down to hang out with some friends in person, that would be so draining for me that it would sap all of my energy, and then I wouldn’t go back into the studio.  So it’s this thing, forward and backward, where I want to tap into the stream of human consciousness and interact, but then I want to get what I need from that and go back to being creative.  When you’re creative, it is kind of an isolating thing, because you have to figure out what is you.  Often having lots of dinner parties is not conducive to that, even though, left to my own devices, I might have dinner parties at home almost every day. I think we’re really lucky that you can have these tools, but I do know people and it gets in the way for them, so that they can’t be creative.  That’s just not how I am.  For me, it’s the opposite: they allow me to have interaction with people, but without getting in the way.

MS: Speaking of being left to your own devices, you’ve had the opportunity to play in so many unique situations.  However, where do you most like to make your music?

ZK: Well, that is an interesting question because I feel like I’m really struggling to find the right venue. There’s sort of these two extremes.  We have the concert infrastructure of America that was built for the Baby Boomers, the concert halls with the seats.  Then we have clubs, with the bar in them. I don’t really feel like either of those fits for me.  I feel like there’s some whole other architectural environment that I need to be in. This is my next project; I want to try to make the perfect performance environment.  My ideal space, it’s almost like everybody’s just sort of reclining on bean bags.  We’re going to talk, and I’m going to play music for you.  Then we’re going to have an intermission and we’re going to hang out, and then some other artists are going to play, and it’s going to be really interesting.  And because it’s this relaxed environment, people can maybe be a little more experimental as musicians.  Then I really want it to be about community. I often find that a lot of the people who come to my concerts are people that I wish we could just hang out, out in the lobby, for like an hour or something.  But it never really works out that way.

I was just talking with someone actually about the amount of wasted space that there is in America, places that don’t necessarily have places to hang out or cafés, and it might be kind of neat to go into town with your semi trucks. You’ve got the bean bags in one truck, you’ve got the portable café in the other truck.  Take over the abandoned strip mall and make it a place for art and ideas where we can listen to some music and then talk about urban planning—lectures and music and that kind of thing.  I feel like that’s the place where I exist, but I don’t know if it exists.

House Music

More and more often, musicians find that the typical career paths they assumed they would follow are closed to them. As regional orchestras go bankrupt or de-unionize and as schools of music turn away from full-time faculty with benefit packages towards contract faculty hired at miniscule pay without any additional support, those people who want to continue performing or composing need to create their own opportunities. Patrons with impressive supplies of willpower, vision, and energy who want to hear excellent music in their communities but who have limited access to the monetary resources necessary to prop up existing institutions realize that they must act if they want to preserve their favored art. While many people despair in the face of this rapidly changing paradigm, others take action. One of the most creative responses to these shifts in the musical landscape has been a renewed interest in house concerts and salon series.

In Baltimore, these independent venues have been cropping up throughout the city. A generous local resident with a nice piano and highly sophisticated palates for both art song and culinary adventure invites singers, including many students and alumni of the Peabody Conservatory, to give dinner recitals in his home. Megan Ihnen, a recent Peabody alumna, founded the Federal Hill Parlor Series in order to bring music and art events into her historic neighborhood, a place better known for its bars and restaurants than for its culture. Many larger buildings in the areas surrounding downtown have been converted into artist collectives with studio spaces, galleries, recording venues, and large open areas for readings and musical performances.

Andrea Clearfield, photgraph by John Hayes

Andrea Clearfield, hosting her Salon. Photograph by John Hayes.

Currently in its 25th anniversary season, the venerable Salon run by the Philadelphia-based composer Andrea Clearfield—who writes beautiful music and who has one of the most open sets of ears and generous souls of anyone I know—can serve as an paragon of all the elements necessary for a spectacularly successful house series. On the last Sunday of each month during the regular concert season, Andrea welcomes about 70 guests into her downtown loft home in order to enjoy music, dance, visual performance art, sound poetry, and any other type of presentation that can fit into the ten-minute slots and onto her living room stage.

I’ve had the great pleasure of performing as part of the Philadelphia Salon on four different occasions, and have heard musical styles including classical piano, song, and chamber music, several different styles of jazz, experimental improvisation, acoustic folk, traditional Turkish song, Argentinian tango/blues hybrid, and klezmer. Andrea creates new sonic confluences as the audience drifts through these seemingly disparate musical sounds, with the juxtapositions serving to open our ears to new experiences. The overall effect of hearing so many different genres of music in such a short time is to create an atmosphere that celebrates the possibility of finding beauty in all types of sonic expression.

The other reason why I keep returning to Andrea’s Salon is because of the audience she draws. Guests arrive expecting a variety of musical experiences, hoping to hear a variety of sounds. The vast majority of her patrons appear willing to explore any avenue that appears in an artist’s dreams, disregarding aesthetic boundaries while embracing the heartfelt expressiveness they hear in each presentation. The lack of any separation between the performance space and the seating area (along with the fact that the audience sits on the floor instead of in elevated chairs) allows for an immediacy of experience, a sense of firm contact between the people sharing the evening.

While the house concert cannot replace formal professional venues, these DIY presentations can fill a void in our communities. I heartily recommend supporting your local organizations. If you don’t have any concerts in your area that inspire you, I suggest presenting them yourself. And if you’re ever in Philadelphia on the last Sunday of a month, you should check out their Salon.

The Inside and Outside of New Music According to the Times

This past week saw two articles about contemporary concert music published in the New York Times which intended to shine light on two important evolutions within the music community. It is not often that one gets such a parallax viewpoint on the subject of new music in the mainstream media, and the opportunity allows those of us who are active in the profession not only to digest and react to what is being said but also to gain a better sense of how our world is seen from “outside the beltway,” so to speak.

The first article, “Emboldened Orchestras Are Embracing the New” by chief music critic Anthony Tommasini is written with a perspective from within the confines of the concert hall. In it, the author investigates whether or not, as he puts it, “those who have campaigned for contemporary music [can] declare victory” as audiences and ensembles seem to be gradually becoming more open to new works as well as music from the past century that until recently had been anathema to traditionalist concertgoers. Of course his findings are mixed, as one could expect from such a wide swath of institutions and genres to choose from; Tommasini outlines the sliding scale upon which the acceptance of new music is most easily gauged, with chamber ensembles on the tolerant end and opera weighing down the other, as relatively few examples of full-throated support for new works can be found on the opera stage today.

While the article effectively (albeit lightly) touches on the various aspects of contemporary music in today’s traditional music scene, it also reflects some of that scene’s intransigence when it comes to breaking through the historical and stylistic firewalls that many ensembles and audiences have constructed. That intransigence is most acute when Tommasini brings composers from the early and mid-20th century into the discussion; with examples that include Bartók and Janáček, the article does little to refute the idea that these composers can and should still be thought of as “contemporary.” The fact that very few living composers are mentioned throughout the article does little to strengthen the argument that things are looking up on the contemporary side of things. Recordings by two younger living composers are included in the online version of the article, but as they were both performed by the American Composers Orchestra, an opportunity to prove that established traditional ensembles are adding new music to their repertoires is missed.

The second article focuses on the evolutionary branch of new music that started with the Kronos Quartet, matured under Bang on a Can, and has blossomed with an ever-growing number of composers and chamber ensembles whose music and presenting style represent an intentional shift away from the traditional concert hall and the stylistic traits that are associated with that venue. Written by Allan Kozinn and entitled “Club Kids Are Storming Music Museums,” the article springboards off the museum mentality that is inherent in most traditional music organization by suggesting that this new generation of composers and performers see all of the hubbub mentioned in Tommasini’s article as “beside the point.” Looking at the various aspects of this relatively new movement, Kozinn touches on what the characteristic traits are, the musical establishment’s reaction and recent embrace of the major players, and closes with a prediction that this non-traditional approach may strengthen into its own musical lineage in the same way other popular styles grew apart from their roots rather than affect a wholesale change on concert music itself.

As with Tommasini’s work, I found it too easy to lose the forest for the trees in this article. My gut reaction when I first read it was disbelief that this trend was being presented as being something new, as many of the changes and innovations that were mentioned seemed old hat to those of us who live and breath new music. It also struck me that the overall focus was very NYC-based, which caused me to throw out an open question on Facebook asking if others could give me examples of this new trend that were happening outside of Brooklyn and Manhattan—the ensuing conversation wandered through many issues that the article raised and culminated in Kozinn himself weighing in on my assumptions and nudging me towards his initial intent of the piece, the aforementioned separation into a stand-alone musical style that is both related and distinct from classical music.

I came away from both of these articles with some observations, not about the subject matter at hand, but about myself and my own thoughts on the changes that have been swirling throughout concert music over the past several years. As with several other articles that have come forth over the past year on new music, I found myself bifurcated between elation that the subject was being covered at such a high level and dismay at both the perceived simplification and tight focus on the Big City scene (an admitted bias I have from growing up in the cornfields outside of Chicago).

Upon reflection, I am realizing that it is too easy to discount such introductory explanations. Over time articles like these will help to erode the last vestiges of conservatism that has reigned for too long in the concert hall. Similarly, it is too easy (for me, at least) to cast too wide a net when I make musical associations; I find myself clumping many composers who are associated with the New Amsterdam label, for example, when their style and language couldn’t be more different. I feel that the shift that Kozinn mentions is not based on a school of musical language as previous innovations have been, but rather a social and generational concept that is both a culmination and a rejection of years of reaction against the bitter style squabbles that occurred in the past. To this end, I hope to see more articles like Tommasini’s and Kozinn’s to further the conversation.