Tag: education

Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival: A Sandbox of Sounds

A montage of concerts, rehearsals, and random happenings from throughout
Bang on a Can’s 2013 Summer Music Festival.
Video footage by MASS MoCA and Zach Herchen, edited by Zach Herchen.

This past July I was fortunate enough to attend Bang on a Can’s Summer Music Festival as a 2013 fellow. The three-week event was held at MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), a huge modern art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but a distinct vibe quickly developed during the first week: non-stop youthful creative energy.

Right this way to MASS MoCA

Right this way to MASS MoCA’s 110,000 square feet of contemporary art galleries.
All photos by Zach Herchen.

During our time together, faculty and fellows performed a large amount of music. This doesn’t simply mean that Bang on a Can programmed a lot of pieces, though we certainly dug into plenty of great works. The festival is structured in a way that encourages everyone to explore and collaborate. Think of it as half festival, half artist retreat. Daily lunchtime recitals were open for fellows to perform anything we liked in the art gallery of our choice. These concerts included improvisations, commissioned works, modern repertoire, and numerous new compositions composed by fellows during the festival. In our free time, fellows often met up for jam sessions, readings of compositional drafts, and one or two unscheduled concerts. After-hours hangouts included two karaoke nights at the local bar with a live backing band of festival participants.

Bang on a Can fellows improvise

Bang on a Can fellows Brendon Randall-Myers (left), Lucie Grugier (center), and David Sánchez García (right) improvise music alongside artwork by Joseph Montgomery during a lunchtime recital.

Faculty and fellows were placed into several structured groups ranging from standard quartets, to chamber orchestras, to bands mirroring the Bang on a Can All-Stars instrumentation. These groups performed ten premieres by composition fellows, daily evening recitals, and a seven-hour concluding marathon. In addition to these concerts, fellows learned and performed African drumming, Latin jazz, a sign language for conducting improvised music called sound painting, and new ways of creating music in the Orchestra of Original Instruments.

An evening recital in a gallery of Jason Middlebrook’s painted hardwood planks.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars present an evening recital in a gallery of Jason Middlebrook’s painted hardwood planks.

By asking fellows to learn and perform so much new music within a few days, we were pushed to absorb and explore, often in ways we weren’t used to doing. African drumming was taught by ear with no discussion of rhythm or meter. Latin jazz involved quick arrangements and comfort in following new ideas on the fly. Sound painting required attentive improvisation to understand directions in a sign language that was new to most of us. The Orchestra of Original Instruments asked us to explore sound creation through tubes, balloons, humming, Québécois clogging, and a variety of original instruments made by Gunnar Schonbeck. Here the music wasn’t just new—it was sounds we’d never heard and instruments we’d never played. In this environment it was natural to broaden our self-image from a specialist in one instrument to a general sound-maker. The overlapping theme of each day? Forget your expectations, discover what your peers can offer, and be surprised by what you can create.

Fellows explore Gunnar Schonbeck’s original instruments.

Fellows meet in an undeveloped section of MASS MoCA to explore Gunnar Schonbeck’s original instruments for the first time.

While these ideas are not completely new, it was the fellows and faculty that made them so compelling. Every style performed throughout the festival (contemporary, funk, classical, hip-hop, jazz, folk, and classic rock, to name a few) was presented with the same passion and interest. Fellows were often found trying out new lessons such as drumming patterns, sound painting symbols, and clogging in our free time. While performance technique was of the highest caliber, technical perfection was not an end in itself. Instead, presenting the best art you can and enjoying the moment was at the heart of each concert.

Festival fellow Joe Tucker performs a work for vibraphone and playback.

Festival fellow Joe Tucker performs a work for vibraphone and playback next to one of 105 large-scale wall drawings designed by Sol LeWitt.

We were asked to shed restrictions, open our ears, and return to a place of youthful excitement where we found our love of music; take risks, share that idea we’d kept to ourselves, and always say yes. Whether it was a rendition of “The Old Castle” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition over a 3/4 drumming rhythm, playing a trumpet into a bowl of water, or overlaying Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” with The Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” this year’s festival was a breeding ground for projects, ideas, and new experiences. It’s easy to miss the utopian feel of a three-week music festival, and difficult to keep that energy and excitement as I reintegrate to normal life. I can say with certainty, though, that I look forward to hearing what my peers create next and feel ready to get a dream project off the ground.

Performance under Xu Bing's Pheonix. a Can Summer Music Festival

Festival fellow Ben Willis sings into his bass during a performance under Xu Bing’s Pheonix.

Forest for the Trees

There has been a good deal of handwringing over the past few years about the glut of information and interaction that many of us voluntarily subject ourselves to every day online, but every once in a while I find myself seeing patterns and making connections between seemingly unconnected items. This may be because of my own distracted mindset—I tend to multi-task to a fault—but it’s occasionally helpful nonetheless to make sense of the chaotic and granular nature of the world we live in.

Recently there’s been quite a lot of “stuff” ricocheting around the social echo chambers that resonated in one way or another. For example:

Let’s start with the Common Core Standards scores in New York. Basically, you have external administrators (many with little to no experience in the subject area) foisting unreasonable and unproven expectations upon those for whom they are responsible. It is feared that many of those administrators have skewed agendas in regard to curriculum and teacher performance, and now that the first batch of disappointing scores have been announced, those in power will be able to push for changes—namely cuts in subjects outside of their STEM-colored worldview. (Hear a group of students from Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School respond to the statement, “The Arts are extra-curricular and disposable,” here.) Even those on the periphery—the media—act as myopic cheerleaders; the New York Times editorial linked to above does not question the viability of the tests themselves, but rather argues that more teacher training is needed in order to facilitate better test scores:

These scores should be seen as a kind of baseline to evaluate student progress from here on out. Instead of sniping at the outgoing mayor, the candidates who are vying to succeed Mr. Bloomberg need to figure out how to advance the reform effort. That means making sure that teachers are fluent in the instructional methods that help students reach the new learning goals. That, in turn, will require high-quality professional development programs that help teachers master the necessary classroom skills.

This idea is rebutted by one of the top educators in the state of New York, Carol Burris, principal at South Side High School in New York City. She points to those very fears about expectations, evidence, and agendas I mentioned earlier:

Because of the Common Core, our youngest children are being asked to meet unrealistic expectations. New York’s model curriculum for first graders includes knowing the meaning of words that include ‘cuneiform,’ ‘sarcophagus,’ and ‘ziggurat.’…

What is equally disconcerting is that these reforms are being pursued with little or no evidentiary grounding. There is, for instance, zero sound research that demonstrates that if you raise a student’s score into the new proficiency range, the chances of the student successfully completing college increases…

The bottom line is that there are tremendous financial interests driving the agenda about our schools—from test makers, to publishers, to data management corporations—all making tremendous profits from the chaotic change…This is all to be enforced by their principals, who must attend “calibration events” run by “network teams.”

If we are not careful, the development of social skills, the refinement of fine motor skills, and most importantly, the opportunity to celebrate the talents and experiences of every child will be squeezed out of the school day.

Proof of that last statement can be found in the article regarding the changes at the DeKalb School District. In order to make room for a double (88-minute) period in math for their 7th and 8th graders, the school board voted earlier this week to phase out a period during which students could choose to take elective courses in general music, art, computers, and health. Here again, skewed viewpoints and agendas are in place:

“We’re behind where we probably need to be in acceptable standards for math teaching time, and this will bring us to where we need to be,” Board President Tom Matya said.
“… There’s a give and take here, but we only have so many hours, so many minutes in the day that we can teach, so we need to prioritize what items we are teaching.”

What Matya does not say in this statement is that the change will also enable the school district to cut the equivalent of three full-time teaching positions. This is indicative of changes happening all over the country—those who hold the purse strings using narrow content models in order to cut positions, increase revenue, lower taxes, and appeal to the base desires of their “audience”—the voters.

So what does this have to do with new music?

Besides the obvious disintegration of our future pool of audience members, performers, and composers altogether, the current situation in education in our country in many ways mirrors our own situation within the concert music community. Symphony orchestras and other artistic organizations have been weathering similar onslaughts for the past two decades and the current landscape is strewn with deceased and injured ensembles that succumbed to poor planning, narrow programming, and weak financial stewardship. A 2010 Anne Midgette article I recently came across outlines the almost-humorously low numbers of classical recordings being sold.

And yet, there seems to be an equally strong pushback against this paradigm within the new music community, as can be seen by the other articles I listed above. The number of festivals, camps, and workshops focusing on new music is steadily rising, spurred on by the ever-growing number of entrepreneurial chamber ensembles who see such endeavors as integral to their missions. Princeton’s programming concept, where a new or recently composed work is placed on almost every concert, is a model that other orchestras and large ensembles could copy with ease. Steinberg is demonstrating how good can come out of disaster (most of their developers were senior employees from Sibelius who were let go in a restructuring shakeup by their parent company, Avid) and why the common wisdom should always be vigorously questioned.

All of this loops back to the one article I haven’t yet mentioned. In his essay for NPR answering why he writes symphonies, Kevin Puts lays it out simply and effectively:

The symphony is not a trifle. It is not cute or hip or light. It says something important—about life and death and cosmic stuff—and it does so without embarrassment. What it needs to say cannot be said in a few minutes; it is not short attention span music. It is music for the patient listener.

This is the crux of the whole thing—the forest for the trees, so to speak. Life, in its many facets, is all we have. We cannot learn about life simply through the sciences or technology or business or marketing or law or even education. Artists need—must—be allowed to “say something important” about life: in a symphony, a sculpture, an art film, a poem, a monologue, a ballet, even an exquisitely designed building or a subtly crafted meal. If children are denied the chance to explore the rich world around them through omission and distraction, then not only are we losing our potential artists for the future but also the vast number of non-artists who won’t have that patience or understanding to hear what those artists are saying.

Buyer Beware: Education Debt

Debt word cloud
Every spring, music schools across the country celebrate commencement. There are processions and ceremonies, brunches and barbecues. Young, talented students have performed recitals of demanding repertoire, gained valuable ensemble experience, and passed through the gauntlet of theory, ear training, and music history. Commencement speakers advise graduates to be bold, creative, and persistent as they begin their careers. During this time, few commencement speakers will breathe a word about what will happen in precisely six months’ time, when the first student loan bill arrives on graduates’ doorsteps. That particular milestone will occur without fanfare, but represents a life-changing reality of its own.

Educational debt, which recently reached a total of one trillion dollars, is an acknowledged crisis in the United States. In the context of our struggling economy–which tanked just after my own graduation in 2007–the situation is even more dire. For the average American college graduate, making loan payments is not as easy as she thought it would be. Many of the good-paying jobs that she planned on have evaporated.

And what about musicians? Did any of us plan on good-paying jobs in the first place? As American orchestras struggle financially, competition for these jobs gets fiercer and pay gets lower. Academic positions are equally competitive and often require a doctorate–which means more education and often more debt.

Enter the biggest music career buzzword of our generation: entrepreneurship. Books like Beyond Talent and The Savvy Musician acknowledge that “traditional” employment for musicians is disappearing and that an innovative approach is essential. Several top music schools–including Eastman, the Manhattan School, Yale, and the New England Conservatory–now have Centers for Music Entrepreneurship. Students receive guidance on forging careers outside academia and the orchestra. They are warned about the difficulty of the formal job market. They are encouraged to develop multiple income streams, create their own opportunities, found ensembles, and create a strong online presence. In my own experience, this approach can absolutely bear fruit. We can create interesting and rewarding musical careers, even without the auspices of a “real job.”

But financial freedom–or at least a shred of financial flexibility–is an essential prerequisite for entrepreneurship. For many young musicians confronting high loan payments, financial flexibility is decades away. And when they were eighteen years old and committing to taking on a financial burden that they could not have fully understood, most of their adult mentors did not let them know that their educational loans would change their lives.

There’s a reason that our parents, teachers, and even our Deans of Students may not fully understand the way that our debts could cripple us. It’s because the cost of a college degree, according to Bloomberg, has increased more than 1,000 percent in the past thirty years. My own parents worked their way through degrees in vocal performance at Boston University in the 1980s. Today, a year at BU costs more than $53,000–more than most twentysomething musicians expect to earn in a year. Cognitively, our parents and mentors can hardly keep up with the way things have changed. “Student debt is good debt,” they might have told us. But they probably weren’t imagining a $60,000 higher education bill at 6.8% interest. They weren’t imagining a burden that would make a career in music untenable.

Given this gap, who is equipped to advise current music students about the realities of student debt in 2013? I’d argue that it’s the twentysomething musicians currently paying off their loans. So I reached out to my peers to see who might be willing to talk about the way their student debt has shaped their lives and careers. I was moved by their clear-sightedness; I was grateful for their candor. Several themes emerged in their responses, and I believe these are the words that young artists–and the adults surrounding them–need to hear before signing on the dotted line.

Loan payments change your financial reality. Depending on your loan total, the payment can be as high as your health insurance premium, your car payment, or your rent. Here are some numbers from musicians I interviewed:
– a cellist whose monthly payment is more than $700 on his $100,000 debt
– a woodwind player from Northwestern who pays $550 a month on her $46,000 debt
– a flutist who went to a state school and pays $350 a month on a $28,000 debt
– a pianist from DePaul who pays $450 a month on an $80,000 debt
– a brass player paying $380 a month on a $68,000 debt

Higher debt means less freedom to practice, grow, and choose rewarding work. “My monthly loan payment scares me into taking every single job I’m offered,” said one Chicago freelance musician. “During certain busy times of year, I can’t prepare nearly as well for each performance as I wish I could. In general, I am not able to be as selective nor as productive as I’d like to be as an artist, because paying off my debts feels so urgent and burdensome.”
Krista Lucas, a local bassoonist, said that “in order to pay student loans–not to mention rent, bills, and food–a ‘day job’ is all but impossible to avoid. Working 40 hours a week pays the bills, but it also cuts down drastically on free time to practice and improve.”

Higher debt often means working long hours outside music. “I have had to move into a different field as my primary source of income,” said composer Sarah Ritch, who co-founded Anaphora Ensemble and helps run the Beethoven Festival. “I now work in technology, and have gone back to school to give me the tools to flourish in that field.” Matthew McGuire, a music educator in Massachusetts, agreed. “I’m considering leaving my [music teaching] job to pursue a career that will pay better. I’ve stopped taking gigs so that I can work higher paying part-time jobs, and turned down all music composing/arranging opportunities that do not pay well, even if it is something that I would enjoy doing.”
Horn player Joseph Kosowski’s debt from DePaul made a freelance music career seem simply impossible. “It’s made me feel as though pursuing a career in line with my degree is too risky,” he said. “I feel the need to have a ‘real job’ with a steady income in order to meet the loan payments, and that freelancing, the occasional small orchestra gig, scrounging up students, and the like would be too much of a burden.”

It’s hard for young adults to give up “dreams” and prestige when choosing their educational price tag.
“This whole situation,” said Krista Lucas, “is made worse by the fact that music students are pressured to attend expensive conservatories with ‘prestigious’ programs and pedigrees.”

“I could have stayed closer to home and gotten my schooling paid for,” said flutist Alexis del Palazzo, “but that would have meant giving up on a lot of the dreams I had. At 18, I wasn’t willing to compromise.”

Matt McGuire remembers a similar feeling when he chose to attend his dream school, the Berklee School of Music. “I was told of the dangers of putting myself in debt,” said McGuire, “but it was difficult for me to make those choices as an 18-year-old with my heart set on the school I wanted to attend.”

Other musicians noted that they intentionally gave up prestige when choosing a more affordable path. “I went to schools that would give me money so that I wouldn’t have debt,” said Chicago cellist Alyson Berger. “I have no big name schools on my resume. I could’ve gone into debt to get the cred on my bio–maybe I should have–but I chose not to.”

Start-up costs for a music career are high. Young professional musicians are expected to fly themselves to orchestra auditions, own expensive instruments, attend prestigious but low-paying professional training programs like the Chicago Civic Orchestra, and, of course, put in the most important unpaid work hours of all: personal practice time. But when bills start to pile up, those career-building moves come into conflict with financial responsibility.

“What I was unprepared for was exactly how hard it is to get started as a musician,” said cellist and teacher Natalie Hall. “It’s not like you just walk into a full-time job right out of school.”

“The reality of paying off my student loan debt never really occurred to me when I was 18, 19, 20 years old,” said another Chicago musician. “But it definitely sunk in and created tension and stress for me by age 22, when it became clear that there weren’t $80K orchestral jobs just waiting for all my fellow graduates and me.”

There’s a lot of shame and secrecy surrounding debt–and that often means we aren’t talking about it. Our culture places a high premium on financial privacy–talking about money is often considered inappropriate–but this means that indebted musicians don’t talk about one of the most important stressors in their lives. Respondents described “a heavy burden hanging over” them, “constantly scrambling to stay ahead,” and unrelenting stress.

“I find it embarrassing to be so successful on the outside, yet to have such a big burden hanging over my head,” one respondent said. “I don’t want to share those worries with anyone else.”

“I feel dependent on others in a way that makes me feel ashamed, depressed, and anxious in my so-called adult life, partly because my debt looms over me all the time,” said another.

So how can young musicians avoid life-changing debt? Of all the questions I asked, this one seemed to inspire the greatest candor from my interviewees.

Cap your total debt amount. “Do not put yourself into incredible amounts of debt,” advised Matt McGuire. “Regardless of where you go to school, you will get out of it what you put in. Work ethic, dedication, personal sacrifice, passion, and study are just as valuable at a state university music program as they are at an expensive private music program. A great work ethic can overcome many challenges as long as you’re patient. But it may not be able to overcome a six-figure student loan debt if you choose to pursue a career in the arts.”

Take some time off before grad school… or skip it entirely. “The feasibility of making a life in music is different for each of us,” said oboist Andrew Nogal, “but I think I’d urge musicians in general to keep their years of formal schooling to an absolute minimum. There’s an expectation that a musician will immediately pursue a masters degree after finishing their bachelors, but that track can be a shortcut to massive amounts of debt. I think musicians need some time away from the safe academic environment in order to evaluate what being a musician really means to them and estimate what it will take, emotionally and financially, for them to keep doing it at a high level.”

Know that you can’t pay your way to building a strong network. “The learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom,” Joe Kosowski noted. “It happens in the outside rehearsals, gigs, jazz clubs, symphony halls, after concert parties, summer institutes, and all the other places you spend time with the people you meet because you are in music school. If you can manage to get those same experiences and playing opportunities without incurring the exorbitant debt, do it.

Separate Worlds

Story #1
Immediately following my own presentation at the NAfME Eastern Division Conference last week during which I encouraged teachers to compose, Dr. Evan Tobias from Arizona State University gave a talk on integrating technology into the music classroom in order to give students as many opportunities to create as possible. One of his examples, however, put the audience on edge as he introduced them to the concept of Dubstep, playing Skrillex’s “Scary Demons and Nice Sprites.”

After he suggested that many students were not only listening to electronic music like Dubstep but were interested in creating music with those techniques, there was a palatable shift in the mood of the music teachers in the room. Not only did they not have the first clue about how to help a student make music like this, but they felt they had no way to assess whether or not a student was doing it correctly or not. Tobias might as well have been suggesting that they incorporate Tuvan throat-singing or Balinese gamelan into their marching band curriculum. These teachers were (rightfully) scared of the prospect of both being forced to learn an entirely foreign musical style as well as the entirely foreign technology with which its creators are working—a very different paradigm than the composers these educators have lived with and studied their entire lives.

Story #2
Over the past few years, I have gotten used to the various types of students who audition for my composition program at SUNY Fredonia. There are those who have a lot of experience composing, and while they may not have been exposed to much contemporary music yet, their experience and talent usually demonstrates a strong, traditional background in concert music. There are also the songwriters—they usually play either guitar or piano, may or may not sing, and usually will demonstrate a strong, relatively traditional background in popular music. And then there are the film music enthusiasts, who usually will point to one or more of the “epic” school of film composers (Williams and Zimmer are both quite popular), and their experience will demonstrate a variety of talents depending on the individual.
Within the past five years or so, however, I’ve noticed that prospective students are bringing with them a new interest that might intimidate a composition teacher almost as much as Skrillex did the band teachers back in Hartford, and that is video game music. Even for someone like myself who has studied film scoring, this relatively new career path for composers is one that is very much an unknown. Of course, composing music for video games isn’t all that different from film scoring or even concert music, but the underlying conceptual frameworks defining how the music interacts with an ever-changing environment as well as the related repertoire, history, and traditions that have sprung up over the past 20-30 years or so make this endeavor more than a little challenging for those of us who have not been ensconced in the industry as a professional or as a player. If I am to even consider the option of creating a class that addresses this growing interest, there would be a lot of learning and growth on my part.


The more I think about stories like these, the more I realize that similar experiences are occurring everywhere. As we become more interconnected, we’re going to discover even more links between the disparate “worlds” that we all find ourselves in. Whether or not these situations call for change-of-self or change-by-others, they do signify a growing trend towards inclusivity, appreciation, and a “big tent” concept that embraces those people, sounds, and ideas that run counter to our own. In this day and age, such statements may seem obvious to some, but they still bear repeating—especially when working with children and young adults, whose future attitudes and experiences will be colored by the examples we provide them today.

Under Pressure

For those of us who work with composition students, we are now squarely in that time of year when project deadlines begin to coincide with exams and the mid-term demands of other courses to the point that the pressure to complete a musical work can seem insurmountable. It’s not a question of if, but just a matter of when most students will stop me in the halls or peek glumly into my office to inform me that they are currently in “freak-out” mode and have no idea how they’re ever going to finish this project that they’ve restarted five times. As this annual occurrence is as dependable as the cherry blossoms on the National Mall, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reflect and explore whether or not this situation is necessary and beneficial to the students, and I have come to the conclusion that it is.

There are several different types of pressure that creative artists can find themselves dealing with at any given time, and often when under the influence of one type, they can find themselves easily susceptible to allowing others to join in the party. Some of the more common ones are externally direct (“My teacher/commissioner expects this piece by April 1”) or internally direct (“I’m sick of this piece, but I’m not going to let myself quit”) as well indirect pressure from other colleagues (“Damn, everyone else seems to be having performances these days!”) or the converging of several project deadlines at once (“Why did I decide to finish this piece the same week that my midterms/grant application are due?”).

What is noticeable about these different types of pressure is that they’re always going to be there. How we deal with that pressure can vary from project to project or person to person, but it is the knowledge that the pressure is there in the first place which is important for any of us to adequately fight its effects—basically, if we know it’s there and we understand that we’ve been through the process before and come out through the other side successfully, we’ll have a better chance at not allowing the external and internal pressures to effect our creative process.

The question of how to gain such self-knowledge brings me back to my own reflections on my students and their epic battles against the many external and internal pressures in which they find themselves. It would be easy for me to lighten their load and arrange their projects so that their composing deadlines would not run headlong against the expectations of my colleagues in other courses, but that would be doing them a disservice (in my own eyes, at least). Each student will still “freak out,” of course, and sleepless nights and discarded ideas will be commonplace, but by placing them in stressful situations in a controlled environment and surrounding them with encouraging colleagues and instructors, each student will have the opportunity to learn about themselves and find their own methods to fight the pressures that they’ll have to face for the rest of their lives.

Recycled Instruments

Most Americans have never seen anything like Cateura, Paraguay, a city built atop a sprawling landfill in which most residents subside by foraging, repurposing, and selling useful bits scavenged from the trash. And most readers would admit that this seems like a highly unlikely location for the formation of a community orchestra, given that in Cateura even a cheap factory violin is worth more than most houses.

Enter the Catuera Orchestra of Recycled Instruments, the subject of a new documentary film-in-progress aptly titled Landfill Harmonic. The orchestra is the brainchild of music director Favio Chavez, and a team of parents and community activists are creating new opportunities for work in an initiative to build musical instruments from recycled trash. The orchestra plays classical music and Paraguayan folk melodies and has even started playing music by the Beatles; check out the video below to see neighborhood kids performing on instruments created from oil cans, forks, meat hammers, and all manner of “useless” debris:

I can’t think of another endeavor that so perfectly illustrates music’s capacity for social transformation or, furthermore, that on the most fundamental level music is social transformation. Music director Chavez has noted the impact that the orchestra is having locally and internationally: “People realize that we shouldn’t throw away trash carelessly. Well, we shouldn’t throw away people either.” For the impoverished people of Cateura, making the most of the materials you have at your disposal is both a musical and social mantra.

American major orchestras are an expensive affair, with budgets for soloists, publicity, instruments and insurance, and performer salaries, selling equally expensive tickets. And let’s not forget one of the largest expenses: executive pay. It seems to me that both musicians and administrators might learn something from the Cateura Orchestra of Recycled Instruments about investment, sacrifice, and priorities. In the words of the orchestra’s music director, “The world sends us garbage. We send back music.”

Critical Critiques

Normally when a potential student comes to visit campus to check out our program, they will usually just have their parents in tow. This last weekend, however, I met with a student who was not only accompanied by his parents but with his high school music teacher as well. At first I was leery about the potential for an awkward questioning session, but the teacher surprised me by not only being helpful in putting the student’s experiences in context, but seemed to be truly interested in how to help the student prepare for his upcoming composition audition in the spring. I have met many public school teachers in the past few years who want to help their students compose, but very few of them have any experience composing themselves. This was a prime example of that situation.

I made several suggestions of different types of composition assignments that the student could be given that could help him create works for his portfolio, and then–on a lark–I suggested that instead of the teacher simply creating and giving these assignments, he should take part in the process and compose his own work alongside the student. He and the student could then compare notes, so to speak, and critique each other’s works to find out what the other had done. Both will hopefully feel more comfortable composing in this situation and the trusting relationship between both will grow as the teacher allows the student to flex his own critical “muscles.”

This upending of the traditional teacher-student hierarchy had never occurred to me before in the context of high school students and teachers, but I have tried to emphasize the importance of students critiquing one another’s works in my Beginning Composition class for several years to great effect. Each Wednesday before a Friday reading session, the students in the class (primarily freshman composition majors along with non-composition majors of various ages) are asked to take part in “speed dating” sessions, whereby students pair up for 10-12 minutes and ask each other questions and offer comments about the other’s work. After the first “session” is done I’ll have them switch partners and usually we can get through 3-4 sessions in a class period.

speed dating

This accomplishes several valuable things at once–it allows me to look over their shoulders and give suggestions as needed, but more importantly it allows each student to not only have their work looked at and critiqued by several of their colleagues in a relaxed, non-confrontational manner, but also to gain experience analyzing and thinking critically about their friends’ works. Inevitably this becomes the favorite aspect of the course overall–they will always jump at the chance to have me stop “teaching” them and allow them to try their hand at helping each other–but they don’t realize that through this process they’re building the self-critiquing skills that are so important to a composer once they are out of an educational environment.

The concept of critiquing others works is commonplace in other disciplines, especially the visual arts, where the double-edged mechanism of giving and receiving constructive criticism hones students’ understanding of their own work as well as that of their classmates. It can easily be integrated into composition pedagogy as long as ground rules (respecting each other, openness to alternate or foreign ideas, etc.) are set down early and strongly enforced. As with the example of the student and teacher composing together and critiquing each other’s works, the process can not only give a composer confidence in their own ability but will many times suggest connections that result in epiphanies that would have never happened otherwise.

Whom Should You Listen To?

One of the interesting aspects of writing these columns every week is that I find myself continually looking for issues to think and write about, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to set me off in one direction or another. Last week, as I was writing about Jennifer Jolley’s blog, I found an interesting post of hers describing a lesson she had taken with famed composer Augusta Read Thomas. While others might have simply written up a basic synopses of the lesson, Jennifer decided to give a play-by-play description of her entire time with Thomas–replete with pictures! One of those pictures was of a list of ten composers written on a sheet of paper–I’ll let Jennifer describe the context:

She also told me I needed to listen to more music; I completely agree. Some of my friends wanted that listening list, so here it is.

Whom Should You Listen To?

This jumped out at me for several reasons. First, I loved the fact that Thomas was telling Jennifer to listen to 20 works by each composer, thus ensuring that she become immersed in the sound world and creative concepts of each of those composers. Second, I was inspired to go listen to more music by many of her suggested composers myself because of this assignment. Finally, one could look at this list and get a very clear idea about the person who created it–it creates a window into their background, their priorities, pedagogical concepts, and stylistic tastes.

Thomas’s list got me thinking: What would other composers’ listening lists look like? Was Augusta Read Thomas unique in the method she used to create such a combination of composers to listen to for her students? How much overlap would there be across a wide selection of composers making the lists? What could one deduce from the names that were most often mentioned?

Being the inquisitive type that I am, I contacted a limited number of professional composers both here and in Europe over the weekend and asked them if they could give me a list of ten composers from the 20th and 21st centuries that they would want to give to an undergraduate or graduate student composer to listen to in depth. I’ve already received a good number of responses and the results are such that I’ve already decided to ask a lot more of my composer colleagues for their input on this topic before I make any findings public. I’m very cognizant that one could easily mutate this into a quest for a “best of” mega-list and I’m not interested in that at all. I’m already seeing some interesting patterns as far as which names come up the most and why, as well as the relationship between the overall list and the individual lists each composer is submitting. I will continue working on this and hopefully in the near future I’ll be able to write about what I’ve discovered in a future column–I’ve already decided that I won’t let anyone know who wrote which list, but I can see making both the aggregate list and the individual lists public down the road. If you are interested in taking part, please contact me directly via e-mail and please refrain from writing your list in the comments section below.

A few weeks ago my good friend Daniel Felsenfeld wrote a brilliant article on the “tyranny of lists” and as someone who tends to be a listmaker myself (as I’m sure at least a few of you remember), I want to be clear that I’m not jumping into this little side project in order to just make more lists or to push one viewpoint over another. I do, however, feel strongly that awareness in and of itself is ultimately a positive thing and if this project can shine some light on who we as a community listen to and subsequently pass down to future generations, then some good may come from it.

Performers Who Compose

During my graduate studies and my first few years of teaching, more than once I experienced seeing student composers not taking seriously performers who tried their hand at composition. The reasons on the surface tended to be that the performers either didn’t have as much training as the composition majors or didn’t consider it their primary focus, although I understood that it usually had much more to do with the self-confidence of the composition majors in question. Since my own career had taken several twists and turns before finally settling on my current path, I’ve done as much as I can to encourage students outside of the composition major to compose their own works and have them performed, which is why the past couple of weeks have been so satisfying.

Earlier this year I wrote about the student new music organization I oversee at SUNY Fredonia and the NewSound Festival they hold every February. This year we decided that because of the number of groups and guests that we were bringing to campus, we would split this festival in two–a FallSound festival in September/October and a NewSound festival in February/March. This semester we had four sets of residencies in quick succession: the Mivos Quartet (just back from their stint at Darmstadt), the unique quartet loadbang, pianist and NOW Ensemble founding member Michael Mizrahi, and three composers–Daron Hagen, John McDonald, and Caroline Mallonée–in town to hear their works performed by our faculty-based ANA Trio (soprano Angela Haas, cellist Natasha Farny, and pianist Anne Kissel). Over the course of the festival, the students had the opportunity to experience concerts, lectures, masterclasses, private lessons, and–best of all–down time with some of the most talented performers and composers out there today.

One thing that took me by surprise was the programs of our guest ensembles. Both the Mivos Quartet and loadbang presented repertoire that ranged from established masters (Rihm by Mivos; Cage and Lang by loadbang) as well as composers from their own generation (Mincek, Bettendorf, and Lara by Mivos; Lunsqui, Worthington, Akiho, and Futing by loadbang), but what caught me off-guard was that both ensembles featured works by members of their ensembles. loadbang brought forth a movement (“Gloria”) from an extended work entitled Mass by trumpeter Andy Kozar and an arrangement of Guillaume de Machaut’s 14th-century “Gloria” by baritone Jeffrey Gavett, both of which were extremely effective and quite touching. A week earlier, Mivos performed Mura by quartet member Olivia De Prato and after the concert I had several students comment to me that her work was one of their favorites of the evening.

We learned later that both ensembles encourage this “writing from within” to a great degree. Kozar has an upcoming CD of his original works (including the aforementioned Mass) on the horizon and loadbang’s newest member, clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, has composed many electroacoustic works. Mivos seemed quite proud of the fact that all four members were composing for the quartet and an entire concert of music composed by themselves is in the works.

In the past, we’ve seen many examples of composers performing their own works alone or with others–Cage, Reich, Glass, and Tower come quickly to mind. With the influx of chamber ensembles gaining traction since the late 1990s (taking their cues from Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can All-Stars before them), there has been a growing surge of groups that foster an openness to performing their own members’ works (ETHEL, Alarm Will Sound, and SO Percussion are but three examples). Lately there has been a growth in academic programs that allow for this openness during school, with the graduate programs in contemporary music at the Manhattan School of Music and Bowling Green State University being formed within the past ten years.

This is a good thing–and not just in the contemporary concert music world. The more performers compose, the greater their understanding, appreciation, and insight will be of works by other composers, and the more creative voices we include in our musical community, the further our musical boundaries will ultimately reach.

What New Music Can Learn from Video Games

I’m always interested in how various artistic communities deal with the looming specter of experimentalism. With any art form, there’s almost inevitably some resistance to the experimental, leading to a reactionary defensiveness on the part of the experimenters. (“You can’t fire me, I quit!”) From my mostly-on-the-sidelines, grass-is-greener vantage point, the indie video game community seems refreshingly free of these trappings. Lately I’ve been wondering why this is, and what the new music community might learn from this.

One immediately striking thing about indie video games is that the line between experimentalism and commercialism is often fuzzy at best. If you look at it as a spectrum, it can be hard to figure out where the poles are even located. Lots of game developers—Stephen Lavelle, Andrew Plotkin, Anna Anthropy, and Terry Cavanagh, just to name a few—seem to dabble in both worlds, and even they can’t always predict which side of the fence a particular project will land on. Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon, an iOS game with a minimalist visual aesthetic and punishing difficulty, seemed like a niche  effort even to its creator until it became a surprise hit.

Part of this is certainly due to a different sort of market. At least right now, people seem more willing to pay for games than to pay for music, which allows for a little more leeway in what developers choose to work on. At the same time, these developers deserve at least a little bit of credit for creating this environment and inspiring such devotion. In particular, I’ve been impressed so far by the openness of this community, not just in the diversity of the things they make but also in their encouragement of others. In Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anthropy argues that anyone should be able to make games, regardless of what kind of background they have in the field.

This is quite a contrast to the world of concert music, where performance and composition are regarded as elite professions that demand decades of highly specialized training. I don’t want to minimize the importance of this, but I do wonder what it would be like if we were a little more welcoming to others outside of the profession, not just as audience members but as potential creators. I sense that there is a fear among some that this would be like opening the flood gates—the derision that greets any new tool that makes it easier to make music is a pretty clear indicator here. But what if, instead of regarding them with suspicion, we viewed them as stepping stones to other kinds of musicianship? How could we help bridge those gaps? Instead of diluting the craft and rigor of concert music, new perspectives would enrich the field, and a more musically literate population would mean more fans who appreciate the effort and talent that goes into the act of making music.

As far as what this radical audience participation might look like, I’m not sure yet. But I’d like to find out.