Tag: entrepreneurship

Artist Financial Profile: loadbang

An instrumental ensemble of 4 Caucasian men
A discussion with Executive Director Andy Kozar

In 2007, four friends at Manhattan School of Music—Andrew Kozar, Jeffery Gavett, Philip Everall*, and William Lang—were spending significant amounts of time together talking about new music at school, and also at the bar. Realizing they could be performing new music with each other instead of just talking, they began rehearsals for what would become a concert series in an abandoned library at MSM called “Will and Andy’s Power Concerts.” These concerts were only 20-minutes long and, “just like a power nap,” they were all you needed to freshen up your day. Since these friends represented trumpet, baritone voice, clarinet, and trombone, repertoire was lacking. Their first concert program included performances of an Earl Brown graphic notation score, a few barbershop quartets (yes, they sung them), and a piece Jeff wrote for the group.

Fast forward 12 years and these four friends had become loadbang, a “formidable new music force” in the new music scene. I had the pleasure of speaking with their executive director and trumpet player, Andy Kozar, over the phone. Andy was gracious enough to tell me more about how the ensemble started, the history of their finances, a bit about their individual lifestyles, and the ins and outs of how loadbang operates as an integral piece of each members’ musical and financial activity. If you are looking to start an ensemble, I hope this article will offer you a sample working model for best practices.

Non-profit financials

Before we dig into loadbang’s financials, it’s important to note that the financials of any nonprofit are accessible to the public. Every non-profit is required to annually file a Form 990 and many can be accessed through Guidestar.org. The IRS website states:

Forms 990 and 990-EZ are used by tax-exempt organizations, nonexempt charitable trusts, and section 527 political organizations to provide the IRS with the information required by section 6033.

and continues with:

Some members of the public rely on Form 990 or Form 990-EZ as their primary or sole source of information about a particular organization. How the public perceives an organization in such cases can be determined by information presented on its return.

In short, a 990 does not always provide a clear picture, but the form can give the overall details of the financial health of an organization, primary activities and how much was spent on them, the names of the board of directors, and the compensation of the highest-paid officials in the organization. For the real tax nerds wondering what section 6033 is, here you go.

Before I called Andy, I pulled loadbang’s most recent 990 filed in 2018, from the 2017/2018 concert season (their fiscal year runs July to the end of June).

Andy Kozar

Andy Kozar


With all the success that loadbang has achieved, some may be surprised that this ensemble is only a portion of each of the members’ incomes. This is why many musicians belong to several performing groups, in addition to their own freelance and teaching or composing work. Looking at the Form 990, the 2018 revenue amounted to $66,319.94 for the season. Expenses totaled $68,958.12, resulting in an organizational deficit of ($2,638.18) for the year. The revenue alone is not enough for any one of the loadbang members to comfortably live in New York City, yet loadbang is a very well managed organization and has set a great trajectory.


Their 990 reveals that $47,233.33 of the revenue is from “program service revenue.” Essentially this is ticket sales and artist fees, making up 71% of the gross revenue. The other 29% is from “contributions, gifts, and grants” and “gross profit (or loss) from sales of inventory”. This information reveals that loadbang is funded primarily through performance activity. Andy mentioned that loadbang had 38 performances during the 2017/2018 concert season.

The other significant part of loadbang’s revenue is in the “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received.” This amount adds up to $18,750, approximately 28% of the organization’s total revenue. This money was most likely from received grants for concert and recording projects from organizations listed in the support section of their website. For those who noticed, the missing 1%, or $337, was profit from CD sales.

Talking with Andy, over the years that loadbang has been an ensemble, revenue has grown every year through increases in activity, and the ensemble developed a simple way to put money back into the business: since there are four members, loadbang divides the revenue—after deducting travel expenses—into five parts: a piece for each member to sustain their living, with the fifth part going back into the organization. They did this from the very beginning, allowing their nonprofit to grow the money they need to develop projects and offset occasional deficits like they saw in 2018. Even nonprofits have to put money back into the business to maximize potential and fund their own growth.


Some readers may be wondering, “If they had an overall deficit in 2018, how did they make any money?” The members of loadbang paid themselves first. This is represented in line 13 of the 990 “Professional fees and other payments to independent contractors” of $50,047.15. A couple things to unpack here: this amount was probably not just paid to the quartet, as there could be other composers, sound engineers, and artists at large who are part of the loadbang economic activity. The other thing to note is that loadbang has decided to pay themselves as independent contractors, which is a non-employee status that allows organizations to pay performers and other contractual employees without paying payroll taxes or being responsible for their contractors’ owed income taxes. This is the most common way for musicians, composers, and other creatives to be paid. It is also reflective of the way the members and collaborators of loadbang make their other incomes—through gigging.

Other expenses listed on the 990 are printing, publication, postage, shipping ($987), occupancy—rent for concert space rental for self-produced concerts ($1,683), and “other expenses” of $16,000 that ends up being “travel expenses” as outlined by Schedule O. All of these expenses result in a deficit for the year of $2,638. Because loadbang reliably allocates funds as part of its annual budget to build the organization, a net loss for the 2018 year is not a big deal.

I asked Andy about recordings, because everyone wonders: do you make any money from the CD sales?

His response:

No, not at all. It’s a huge money pit. We don’t look at the records as a money-making thing. They are kind of the business card—you show people what you can do at the highest level—and it sets loadbang apart from new music organizations because all of the rep exists only for us. We have a responsibility to record the pieces. As long as the record is good, it can raise our profile in interesting ways.

Loadbang’s discography is impressive. With 12 albums to their name, they are cementing their impact on new music into history, while simultaneously making it easy for booking agents and institutions to hear examples of their programming. So like many arts projects, the CDs aim to pay for themselves but aren’t necessarily an important part of their profit creation, though Andy did say they occasionally get small royalty checks.


With any talk about income, lifestyle discussions are often omitted but are very important to understand the nature of the business and how that plays out in the day-to-day existence of a performer. Andy was very candid during our discussions about lifestyle and was willing to share a bit about his own life, his other places of work, and the general performing activity of the other loadbang members. The intention of loadbang was never to go full time, as the loadbang members enjoy the variety of activities they participate in across different groups or solo performing, teaching, composing, and general freelancing. As Andy said about his work with loadbang, “It’s a piece of the puzzle—at this point I like all of the pieces of my puzzle… they all bring different benefits”

Andy is both the executive director of loadbang and their trumpet player. Looking at page two of their Form 990, it looks like Andy makes a little bit more than his ensemble members due to his leadership position, but he is not pulling a sizeable income from that activity. Andy also teaches at Longy School of Music at Bard College, in Cambridge, Boston. There, he is the chair of the Winds and Brass Department, co-director of Ensemble Uncaged, and the co-director of the Divergent Studio at Longy. Andy also freelances regularly in New York City, and composes and records quite often. To throw another complication into the mix, Andy’s wife, Corrine, is a tenure-track professor of voice at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. They have a townhome in Pennsylvania, but he spends part of the week in Boston and New York City. His schedule for a “normal” week looks like this:

Sunday-Tuesday:       Longy School of Music, Boston
Tuesday-Saturday:     Go back to NYC or Pennsylvania, or back and forth

But normal weeks are actually not the norm. Andy explains, “Normal is usually getting on a plane and going somewhere. Somehow it feels that’s impossible to be normal.” For now, the thriving music careers of Andy and his wife work well. They have to spend regular time coordinating schedules so they can be in the same places at the same time, but so far, their 2.5 years of marriage has been working out great.

For the rest of loadbang, the guys are more or less in New York City freelancing or on faculty at the Longy School of Music. I asked how they all ended up as faculty at Longy, and Andy told a quick story of how he started there four years ago and all of a sudden there were faculty openings for voice, clarinet, and trombone. His supervisor bounced the idea of the rest of loadbang coming on board, especially for their summer contemporary music program, Divergent Studio. It seemed to just work out from there!

So you want to start an ensemble?

Imagine you have a few friends who want to start a chamber group and have visions of becoming the next Kronos Quartet, Eight Blackbird, or Imani Winds. Although it is an excellent goal, be realistic about how an ensemble fits into your financial picture. Many ensembles start with nothing and have to put money back into their ensemble just to get it off the ground. Sometimes artistic fees barely cover travel and rehearsal costs, but you do the gig anyway to start to make a name for yourself (something you may do in your own career, but which can carry extra challenges in a group context). Realize that even the most successful ensembles are often just a piece of their founders’ incomes. As Andy put it:

I don’t mean to sound like a grumpy old man (I’m only 34), but sometimes there’s an expectation that comes from naiveté, that if you finish school and start a group and you’re doing cool things then you should be getting cool gigs….No one owes you anything—you don’t deserve a gig necessarily.

The best groups put the insane hours in following other ensembles, tracking down opportunities, and cold calling for the next gig. After speaking with Andy, I combined some of his sage advice into a shortlist of tips to get your ensemble going:

1. Play the gigs!

Don’t be too proud to take a gig. Gigs come from the hard work of networking, building relationships, and mimicking the groups you want to be like. If you can be willing to work, you will be more receptive to opportunities.

2. Send proposals out like your batting average relies on it.

It’s rare that someone will hand you a great gig. The more proposals you send out, the higher your chances of getting a contract. Your batting average increases. In our conversations, Andy said that 85-90% of the work loadbang gets is from reaching out to people and sending them proposals. The longer you do something in new music, the larger your network becomes. Only recently has loadbang seen an uptick in times they are approached to do a gig. For reference, early on, when loadbang would send out 100 proposals, they would only get seven to eight responses.

3. You may as well ask.

Even if you think a project or an idea is a long shot, it never hurts to ask—the worst someone can say is “no.” Early on loadbang thought it would be cool to get a commissioned piece from a skilled composer who they really loved, who just happened to be Charles Wuorinen. So they asked Wuorinen, thinking it would be a long shot. Apparently it wasn’t, and Wuorinen’s piece is featured on this CD.

4. Believe in your project.

Performers don’t start ensembles to become rich. They start groups out of passion and creative desire. This passion is also observed by your audience, collaborators, and funders, etc. As Andy put it:

If you’re really excited and believe in the project you’re doing, that reads. And if the product you have is good, you’re more likely to, over time, have some sort of modicum of success (however you define it)—it can be infectious.

Having passion from all members of your performing group so important. It communicates to your followers. It motivates you when keeping the ensemble going is a struggle. It keeps you honest about why you are pursuing the work.

5. Align your goals with your finances.

As an observer, I added this myself, after poring over my notes from my conversation with Andy. When anyone is seriously pursuing a project, they align their finances with their goals. Early on, loadbang put money back into the organization. This is the same for any small business. Sometimes you have to put more dollars in than you want to, but if you are serious about longevity and financial stability, it is important to organize your finances from the very beginning.

For performers and composers looking to start an ensemble, I hope this article was insightful. Do not forget that you have a plethora of amazing examples in the new music industry from which to draw knowledge. Success is not always left to the fates—you can steer your own ship in the direction of your choosing. Andrew Kozar also told me that you are welcome to reach out to him if our NewMusicBox readers have any questions, by emailing him at loadbang @ loadbangmusic.com.

*The bass clarinet position at loadbang has switched a few times, from Philip to Carlos Cordeiro, and since interviewing Andy, loadbang recently announced that Adrian Sandi is now on the roster.

Roundtable: Facing the Hard Questions

[Ed. Note: In the spirit of conversation and story sharing, we reached out to music makers and asked them to let us know what was on their minds when it came to cash and creativity and what lessons from their own careers they might share. Some answered questions we posed directly, others were inspired to take the topic somewhere else. Each provided something illuminating, and we hope you’ll jump in and share your own experiences in the comments. –MS]

Lisa Bielawa

Lisa Bielawa
Photo by Phil Mansfield

Is commissioning the best way for you to make new work? Are other models “better”? In what ways?

For me, because I tend to concoct musical scenarios, presentations, and experiences that are—for one reason or another—not within the parameters of existing organizations’ initiatives, I would not say that commissioning is the best way to make this kind of work. The large-scale projects I have launched in the last few years—especially Airfield Broadcasts, involving 250 musicians in Berlin and 800 musicians in San Francisco, both spatially mapped on historic airfields that are now public parks; or Vireo, the opera that is being created in 12 episodes for broadcast and streaming media—have required me to build a kind of institutional structure expressly for the project, and then seek partners that can participate in various aspects of the creation of the project. These kinds of projects are more like entrepreneurial ventures, and as such, they require financial risk-taking and the willingness to take on fiscal as well as artistic accountability.

When creating large-scale projects, we are also creating communities around the work. In order for these communities to function as viable systems—and that includes financial viability—we need to know what each participant hopes to gain through their involvement. It is rare that true entrepreneurial partnerships—in artistic endeavors or otherwise—will draw partners to it that have merely mercenary interests. Each partner needs to have its/his/her own relationship to risk and investment within the project. I am always seeking partners (collaborators, musicians, organizations) who see a meaningful benefit beyond just money in the project itself. That benefit can include longer-term financial stability (through increased visibility, connections with the other partners involved, etc.) as well as other less quantifiable value.

Cash Week - sm

Read more new music and money coverage all this week on NewMusicBox.

And lastly, I always make sure I honor all collaborators and partners as professionals. We all need to be paid—it can be a special arrangement, perhaps, and all agreements can contain other elements besides money. But I do not generally feel comfortable with favors and trades. I have had to design a life that is self-sustaining, and I treat others as if this is also true for them. We must do what we can to make our field as sustainable as possible for each other!

What is the most difficult piece of the financial side of your career, eg. applying for grants, negotiating commissions, budgeting, balancing non-related work, etc.?

There are two major challenges to making work in this way. One of them is that fundraising and partnership building do require some of the same kinds of creativity and vitality that creative work requires. So it is incredibly important for me to be good at managing my own time, staying well physically and mentally so that I can handle the stress of greater responsibility, including responsibility to many, many others involved in the project. I’ve gotten better and better at managing all of this, but it is still sometimes overwhelming. The other big challenge is simple scheduling. In order to make a living, while also sustaining projects whose budgets are many times the size of my own income, it sometimes feels like I need to clone myself. But I just plan my travel and my expenditures—personal and project-related—very carefully. It takes great organizational skills.

Do you worry about the stability of your income in the short term/long term?

Not really 🙂

I probably should! But life is short. And the risk is worth it. I don’t recommend the entrepreneurial approach for those who are happiest with more of a work-life balance. It is an entire lifestyle. I have no family, no regular schedule, no fixed place of work. I am on the road over 30 weeks a year, sometimes earning income as a performer or lecturer or conductor or panelist, and sometimes in connection with my own compositional work. This lifestyle works for me, but this is because of my temperament. I would not be happier with a steady, fixed income, or with a more traditional domestic life. But I absolutely respect that these are needs that many have, and I don’t think any one lifestyle is superior for creative work than another. I’m just so glad I’ve found the right one for me!

Composer-vocalist Lisa Bielawa is a 2009 Rome Prize winner in musical composition. She takes inspiration for her work from literary sources and close artistic collaborations. In 1997 she co-founded the MATA Festival, which celebrates the work of young composers. Bielawa was appointed artistic director of the acclaimed San Francisco Girls Chorus in 2013 and is an artist-in-residence at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California.

Bielawa’s music is frequently performed throughout the US and Europe by top ensembles such as The Knights, American Composers Orchestra, Akademen, Brooklyn Rider, BMOP, and more at venues such as Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Whitney Museum. Bielawa’s latest work for performance in public places is Airfield Broadcasts, a work for hundreds of musicians that premiered on the tarmac of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin in May 2013 and at Crissy Field in San Francisco in October 2013. Bielawa is currently at work on Vireo, a new opera created for episodic release. Her latest album, The Lay of the Love, was released on Innova in June 2015.

The Gathering Storm: How We Made a Conference

The official logo for the New Music Gathering

[Ed. Note: The initial New Music Gathering, which was organized by Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Matt Marks at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from January 15-17, 2015, seemed to have emerged out of nowhere but it was a remarkably successful event that attracted composers, interpreters, and new music aficionados from all over the country. Its second iteration, which will take place from January 7-9, 2016 at the Peabody Institute of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, promises to be equally impressive. To get some grounding in what this is all about, we asked each of the four founders to share some thoughts about the whys and wherefores of putting together a new music conference and festival for and by its practitioners. We will post their respective musings here on consecutive weeks. We start with Daniel Felsenfeld, who is no stranger to NewMusicBox, describing how it all began. – FJO]

Claire Chase, Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Matt Marks standing together in an empty room.

Claire Chase, the keynote speaker for the first New Music Gathering with NMG founders Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Matt Marks standing together during the initial convening of NMG in San Francisco in January 2015. (Photos courtesy Mary Kouyoumdjian.)

It began, as so many things do, with a moment of discourse on social media, a Facebook thread that got—as these things tend to do—heated on a topic I cannot recall. Matt Marks mentioned he’d been to some kind of new music summit wherein the oft-vaunted crises facing contemporary art music (or whatever—call it what you will) were discussed in hopes of drawing up solutions. As the thread ran to predictably pugilistic, I messaged Matt privately—the modern equivalent of repairing to the hotel bar for the sanity of a quiet drink—and said, simply, that we needed an actual space where these things could be talked about, wondering why we had only online spaces to discuss these matters. We can all romanticize (and I sure do) the days of the San Remo Bar or Specs where artists talked face to face rather than from the safe distance of their screens, but there is a lot to be said for it. Could we not, I wondered, make such a space?

Matt and I met in person (already advancing the spirit of the New Music Gathering) to discuss, in a realistic way, if we could actually make something happen—a thing that, to our knowledge, had no precedent. While I am short on details of exactly what we discussed (not for reasons of drunkenness but more for reasons, at least in my case, of the persistent exhaustion of parenthood), I do remember a few things laid out by one or both of us that contributed a lot to the success of the eventual gathering, notions cribbed from our admittedly scant experience of other conferences: some do’s, mostly don’ts. Not academic, but not not academic; no exhibition floor where people set up stalls to hock wares—in fact, no commerce whatsoever; no competitions—one could not arrive and subsequently lose. But above all, what we envisioned was a truly grassroots organization that never would billow or bloat into an organization. We would keep our overhead not just low but essentially non-existent. We would take no salaries (nor, for that matter, present our own music), rent no office, hire only staff we needed and nobody permanently. Unlike so much that claimed to be about a community, we wanted to do our best to make good on the promise.

Wisely, we asked Lainie Fefferman and Mary Kouyoumdjian to aid and abet and co-found—Jascha Naverson was also pressed into service—and lo!: a conference-concert series hybrid with the hard-earned (and coded-ly nerdy) moniker New Music Gathering.

I was skittish about our maiden voyage, which was to take place at the San Francisco Conservatory. What if nobody came? What if we did not meet our expenses? What if the blissful esprit that was our aim turned out to be impossible to manage. What if, what if, what if…? I steeled myself—and we steeled one another—for this as a distinct possibility. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be among the best weekends of my life. Now I can only remember it with the amber-dipped distance of, say, my wedding or the first days of my daughter’s life, but images and musical scenes too numerous to mention continue to surface that do not fail to re-enchant: Taka Kigawa striding casually to the stage to play (from what can only be a prodigious memory) the complete piano music of Pierre Boulez in a single sitting; Megan Ihnen and Hillary LaBonte’s set for two unaccompanied singers that opened the proceedings; an overstuffed and overheated (in both the sense of the climate and the rhetoric) tiny room addressing—for far too short a time—issues women face in our field; Sarah Cahill’s playing of the music of Terry Riley (and a chance to hug the great man himself, a hug I will always cherish); the local new music chorus Volti filling the stage; and, perhaps most strongly, Claire Chase’s astonishing keynote speech, which included the line “Every time you premiere a piece of new music you change the world.” There was our mission, one I believe we accomplished, and one I cannot wait to continue accomplishing, alongside the four amazing co-founders who double as revered friends in the year and decades to come.

Matt Marks, Sarah Cahill, Terry Riley, Daniel Felsenfeld, MaryClare Brzytwa, Lainie Fefferman, and Mary Kouyoumdjian standing together.

The NMG founders Matt Marks (left), Daniel Felsenfeld (center), Lainie Fefferman, and Mary Kouyoumdjian (far right) joined by pianist Sarah Cahill and composer Terry Riley (between Marks and Felsenfeld) and multi-instrumentist/improviser MaryClare Brzytwa (between Felsenfeld and Fefferman).

The Entrepreneurship of the Creative Moment

Arts entrepreneurship has received a lot of attention in recent years. Programs have popped up at numerous institutions, and the discourse of entrepreneurship is a hot topic in the circles of contemporary music. Building on my first post in this series, I’d like to examine some of the underlying assumptions and root causes of the entrepreneurship phenomena and its larger implications for composers within society.

As a student, I was told it was nearly impossible to make a living just as a composer. One then has a variety of other options: work in the very competitive commercial sphere of film, video, games, and jingles; teach (either privately or institutionally); work some other job, utilizing any number of skills, that then (hopefully) allows you to support your music and vision; or a hodgepodge of the above. All this is well and good, except what happens when composers are not so interested in being arts administrators, not so adept at social media or fundraising, not so easily assimilated in commercial industry? What of the composers who are perhaps not so inclined as performers, whose strengths do not fit the entrepreneur?

This is the ubiquitous scenario that every composer faces. Being a composer of any age today requires a lot of work, dedication, thought and inspiration. A composer also faces a variety of post-composing challenges. Composing on its own is a full-time job. Yet after you complete a piece, you now often have to see to the organization and performance of that piece yourself—finding adequate performers and venues, raising money to support the event, and managing effective promotion. You are told as a student that no one else will do it for you. However, there are some composers that still get large-scale commissions, performances, and credits in movies, so you know somewhere, someplace there are people working as composers and there is money to support them. It’s clear that these are dwindling exceptions to the norm, however, and that there is just not enough money to go around. Therefore, we are obliged to conjure both a cultural and economic space for our art after creating it. This can be compared to an architect who, upon completing delicate plans and specifications, has to build it himself, including footing the bill for materials, labor, and space to implement his vision.

Southern California Federal Music Project, WPA, ca. 1937

Southern California Federal Music Project, WPA, ca. 1937

In the past, composers were often the pet geniuses of wealthy patrons—royalty and titans of industry who took care of them and facilitated their career. An argument could be made that being a composer has never been a “real” job but a way of life—what Robert Henri called the “art spirit.” In fact, Henri wrote that he was interested in art as “a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living.” Professor Linda Essig is an outspoken advocate of arts entrepreneurship, and highlights the role of middle class artists, who are neither impoverished nor made wealthy from their art: “[Call] it arts entrepreneurship or call it artist self-management, it is part of the work-life of the artist in the US. It is these artists, the artists in the middle, who can serve the social good, create excellent work, and critique this system in a meaningful way.”

The broader economic realities of the widening wealth gap along with the systematic destruction of the middle class makes Essig’s statement to potential students a confusing mandate. My question to Linda Essig is this: how can artists serve the social good, create excellent work, and critique the system when it is the system which is actively eroding the social good and preventing them from accomplishing excellent work?

The result is not meaningful creative engagement but a scramble for survival—a blurring of vision and base opportunism. Composer Nicholas Chase cites the almighty dollar on his blog:

To paint the reality of this in dollar amounts, the 2012 National Endowment of the Arts report “How Arts Are Funded” revealed that the national budget of arts funding in the United States was $0.47 per-capita—compared to the next lowest per-capita funding of $2.98 in New Zealand. The remaining of English speaking countries surveyed revealed a shocking gap, leaping exponentially to $5.19 per capita in Canada and as high as $17.80 per capita in Wales, UK. However, the bleak picture the figures above give us isn’t merely financial or economic: it reveals the lack of incentive for artists to pursue careers in the arts, and implies the low range of pay administrators will take to foster Culture-Building…You begin to see how the question of issues is not merely mechanical or financial, but becomes a deeply social issue.

I recently had lunch with a friend and her boss, a man in his early sixties. We had a wonderful discussion about science, art, and consciousness. He was very interested in my music. I told him he could listen to my music for free by streaming it online. He insisted that he pay for it, adding that “it would help me if you gave me a price.” This was a surreal situation and I was taken aback, unprepared. I have not developed my website to include iTunes-style purchase and download capabilities, nor have I attained the support of record labels or ensembles that subsidize and distribute recordings. Why have I not developed my website? Mostly because I have been too busy honing my craft and composing. I value the quality and integrity of my work over selling it. I couldn’t argue with this patron who was sincerely interested in my music, but his appreciation was precluded by a deep ethic of transaction—that we must fix a value to a rather subjective non-fixed entity.

Poster for New York City Federal Music Project presentation of free symphony concerts at the Y.M. & Y.W.H.A.

Poster for New York City Federal Music Project presentation of free symphony concerts at the Y.M. & Y.W.H.A.

The ongoing discussions regarding the potentially unstable economics of music might do well to consider the ethic of the commons. Just as the air, land, water, and sunshine that sustains human beings is a common right and owned by everyone, so is the intellectual and creative common of society. Implicit within this paradigm, however, is a communal reciprocal relationship. Artists and musicians would create and offer their music and labor for free “consumption,” but consumers would then pay into a system that supports these artists and encourages more creative innovation and cultural enrichment. Our government could easily create such a system. The WPA Federal Music, Theater, and Writers projects during the Great Depression were a step in the right direction, as they employed thousands of artists, composers, and musicians. These projects were scuttled as the nation’s resources and energies were directed into another enterprise—war—and instead of creating art, people made bombs, and vast corporations were built to destroy cities and then build them again, making lots of money in the process.

Nicholas Chase further argues in a comment on NewMusicBox that “through a kind of social attrition, the perceived low-value of what I do has necessitated that I become an entrepreneur…which means I am playing dual, triple, quadruple roles in my field. I am the composer, often the commissioner, the producer, recently the performer…the issue we are facing today is the effectiveness of that model as it requires more and more and more attention from us as artists. It seems that the idea has become a convenient scapegoat for the handlers of Culture in the greater United States.”

If the fruits of our creative labor—our music, ideas, energies—are not considered valuable in the parameters of our society—if composing and performing music is not a worthy trade for food, shelter, and healthcare—then we must change our values as artists and either conform to the parameters and values of society or we must change the parameters and values of society. We will not solve these fundamental issues by encouraging artists to conform to the external pressures of society. Entrepreneurship, in this case, can be used as a valuable tool to redesign the social relationship of musicians and society—to encourage a complete re-evaluation.

No matter how one slices it, for me these arguments and experiences point to one singular fact: we must alter our consciousness—that is, seek to live out alternative values to what is predominant in our society every day. This could be by collectively refusing to pay the impossible debt imposed upon young creatives, who continually work and create for the benefit of society with no monetary compensation. This could be by organizing more composer groups or empowering the many national and regional groups to engage in political and economic activism, demanding from our government the resources necessary to strengthen communities through artistic vision. This could be done by further developing alternative ways of funding such as BELTA or The Impresario Society, which seek to create new means of supporting artists and converting the wealth of society into meaningful creativity. This could be by posting more and more articles to incite more discussions that penetrate down to the true roots of our frustrations and injustices, rather than just treating their symptoms. This consciousness shift is the first creative moment, the precedent for the revolutionary act. One commenter describes this change of consciousness as an acceptance of truth:

Joseph Campbell during his talks with Bill Moyers was asked about shamans. Moyers wanted to know if shamans still exist and Campbell answered that modern shamans are our artists. During the moment of true creation, a possibility presents itself that can allow a shift or change in consciousness…The more of us that experience that insight, the more the possibility of a shift. A paradigm shift is possible but only when enough of us stop thinking for a moment, to be totally aware and allow Truth to enter…we have then entered the realm of the shaman/artist. This is the creative moment.

Paola Prestini: Following Her Vision

A conversation in Prestini’s Brooklyn home
September 8, 2014—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Paola Prestini combines wild imagination and controlled practicality on an almost molecular level—it’s as if both are fused together in her DNA. Whether she’s talking about her own multimedia operas or VisionIntoArt, the interdisciplinary arts production company she co-founded 15 years ago, she tends to think big but she always manages to make it happen.
Paola Prestini combines wild imagination and controlled practicality on an almost molecular level—it’s as if both are fused together in her DNA. The first time I met her, back when she was a composition at Juilliard, she was already talking about creating genre-blurring discipline-blurring audience experiences and, together with her then-classmate Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, had formed a non-profit organization in order to make these experiences happen.

“We wanted something that, when shortened, would sound like a woman’s name—so VIA,” she explained when I talked with her last month in her Crown Heights apartment. “Then we liked the fact that ‘via’ was a street, a way to go. And we knew that it was to be a multimedia company; we wanted to really integrate new music with other forms, other structures, other disciplines. And so VisionIntoArt became a very perfect word for the kind of art that we wanted to help create and that we wanted to create ourselves.”

That was 15 years ago. Since then, VisionIntoArt has collaborated with Lincoln Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as with a number of international festivals. One of the composers associated with VIA early on, Nico Muhly, became a phenomenon. Nora moved to Los Angeles and Paola became VIA’s sole director. Two years ago, VIA had a staff for the very first time. And after a decade of functioning as a presenter and a performing ensemble, VIA morphed into being predominantly a production company.
But that doesn’t mean there’s any less work for Prestini. VIA just launched a record label. And, in addition to running VIA, she is also the creative director for Original Music Workshop, a new performance venue that is scheduled to open early next year in downtown Brooklyn. And on top of that, of course, she’s a composer and is usually in the middle of several different projects at any time.
“We generally don’t have weekends,” she acknowledged. “I have certain days where I just write, a day where it’s just VisionIntoArt and meetings, and other days where there just are meetings for Original Music Workshop or my own compositions, etc. I balance it that way. It’s definitely not a hundred percent fixed, but it seems to be working for now.”

In terms of her compositional projects, she tends to think big. Her Oceanic Verses, which was showcased during New York City Opera’s VOX readings in 2010, blurs the distinction between opera and oratorio as well as various world music traditions. Aging Magician, which was presented as part of the 2013 PROTOTYPE Festival, is a cross between a music theatre piece and an art installation. Her latest opera, created in collaboration with Cerise Jacobs, is a modern retelling of the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.

But she plans to get back to writing more chamber music, which is what she was principally doing back when we first met each other. “I see myself taking some time off from the large-scale works and doing smaller-scale works,” she predicted. “Going back out and having that kind of inner play allows you to clear your mind and refocus and then want to embark on the large collaborations again.”

Paola Prestini has an uncanny ability to realize her goals, so no doubt she’ll find a way to make time for everything.


Profile of Paola Prestini
Frank J. Oteri: This seemed a perfect time to talk with you because this is the 15th anniversary season of VisionIntoArt and later this month you’re launching a record label, plus the Original Music Workshop, at which you’re the creative director, opens next year. So there’s a lot of stuff going on and I want to talk to you about each of them, and what you do in all of these different contexts, but before I go there, I’m so curious to find out how you balance all of that with writing your own music.
Paola Prestini: Well, it’s something that I’ve been working on for a while, to find the balance between all of those different activities. I found that the more regimented I am, the better I am at being able to achieve a sense of balance. So I have certain days where I just write, a day where it’s just VisionIntoArt and meetings, and other days where there just are meetings for Original Music Workshop or my own compositions, etc. I’d say that I have about four days a week of writing and the rest of the days are meeting days. I balance it that way. It’s definitely not a hundred percent fixed, but it seems to be working for now.
FJO: That means you don’t get a weekend.
PP: Yeah, we generally don’t have weekends.
FJO: You can schedule meetings to have on different days, but if you’re in the thick of writing a piece of music, sometimes an idea might come when you least expect it. If it comes on one of the non-designated composing days, what do you do?
PP: I found that when I’m on a deadline, I tend to focus much more on writing, and so I’ll assemble my schedule so that it’s much more about writing. But I’ve also become aware that I’m really flexible in terms of writing ideas down and then getting back to them. So it never feels like a do or die situation. I can pretty confidently get back into a state of flow. I’m also finding that I can balance one or two pieces at the same time, because the vocabularies are very different or they’re very different collaborations. It’s taken a long time to find this kind of flow for my flow, but it feels like it’s working out.
Prestini's workspace
FJO: Once upon a time, the common wisdom was that in order to devote yourself to composing or performing, you had to clear other things away from your mind so that you could be pure in the pursuit of your artistry. But there really has been a seismic shift that has happened in our lifetimes where composers have become extremely entrepreneurial. There are loads of debates about whether artists should be entrepreneurs; we had a whole series of articles in NewMusicBox about that this summer which sparked a ton of commentary.
PP: Yeah. I followed them.
FJO: From the first day I met you, about 15 years ago, I got the sense that you were extremely entrepreneurial. For you, it doesn’t seem like there’s a separation between your compositional and entrepreneurial aspirations.
PP: I think that every composer draws their inspiration from many different places. And every composer most likely either teaches or mentors, or directs an ensemble, or conducts. You see this pretty regularly amongst all our peers. For me, the idea of producing and mentoring feels like a very natural extension of who I am. It never felt like I needed to explain that or hide it, or shy away from it, because these were natural properties that I wanted to develop and it felt really natural to mix them into my life as an artist. I like to say that in order to be a 21st century artist, of course you have to have talent, but you also have to have some kind of a mix of entrepreneurship and activism, and a desire to educate. More and more I think that you don’t have to have all these properties, because everybody’s different, but you do have to have some sense of consciousness in terms of your musical ecology, your peers, and what you can do to help affect your surroundings.
FJO: This seems to largely be a generational thing and also a very American thing which grew out of the way the arts are supported—or rather, not as adequately supported as we need them to be—in this country. But you weren’t born here.
PP: No, I was born in Italy and raised on the Mexican border, first in Nogales and then Tucson. But for all intents and purposes, I am American. I was raised by a single mother who raised me very much with American principles. I had an example of what it meant to reinvent yourself, to have a blank slate and create the world that you want to be in. I feel like those are very American principles, so I think that— because I grew up on a border and speaking different languages—what I had is a desire to constantly interact with different cultures and find ways to bring that into the musical world and the artistic world that I inhabited. So that kind of—if you want to say—openness, or desire to interact with other cultures, definitely comes, I think, from immigrating to this country at a young age and being a new American.
Traditional puppets on Prestini's wall
FJO: Before we begin talking about how various world musics have played such a key role in a lot of your recent music, it seems somewhat unusual, given your background and subsequent career, that you have a degree in composition from Juilliard, which offers a very different model for how to shape a life as a creative artist or certainly did at the time you were there.
PP: Well, I think the most important thing for me at the beginning of my compositional career was to secure what I felt at that moment was the best training I could possibly get. And I definitely felt that the teachers I studied with and the classes that I took prepared me for the compositional life that I wanted to have in terms of technique and the exposure to great performers, and just by nature of it being in New York. It felt like the perfect place while I was there. However, it was there that I started the non-profit that I still direct to this day. I co-founded it in 1999 while I was a student because I was acutely aware that it would be very difficult for me as a composer when I graduated. Those years in between when you graduate and when you’re considered an established composer—those emerging years which can really be 10 to 20 years—are extraordinarily difficult. So I wanted to be able to create some kind of next steps, some kind of organizational process that would help me bridge those years and do it with some kind of grace.
FJO: I still remember having lunch with you and Nora [Kroll-Rosenbaum] talking about your having just founded VisionIntoArt.
PP: Yes, I remember that.
FJO: I thought it was pretty remarkable because at the time this wasn’t something common. Now every student starts their own ensemble. And while you weren’t the first students to do it, it seemed weird coming out of Juilliard of all places. I don’t mean to rag on Juilliard in any way, but that’s a conservatory that historically epitomized the notion that to be an artist, you try to tune out the outside world and that’s how you become the best at what you’re doing, whether it’s writing music, playing an instrument, acting, or dancing ballet.
PP: That’s absolutely right.
FJO: That’s why it’s so peculiar that you were planning for what was going to happen after you left. I would image that those kinds of thoughts haven’t usually occurred to students there.
PP: No. Now they’re very active with a mentoring program and with an entrepreneurship program. But when I was there, those words were not uttered. In fact, there was very little cross-disciplinary work being investigated. Yet at the same time, we were living in this incredible, fertile time in New York City where we could have access to the best visual artists and film makers of our time. So it felt crazy to Nora and I to not embark on creating our moment. Why wait until after school? In a way, I would say that school is the perfect time to launch any idea because you have some kind of safety net that allows you to test things before you really launch. A big point for me was receiving the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, because at that time, at Juilliard, it didn’t seem so natural to embark on creating a non-profit. We had no money. It seemed crazy. But once I received that fellowship, I had access to unbelievable minds that were doing huge things. They were affecting their communities in profound ways in medicine, in law, in business, and all of a sudden it felt crazy to not be doing my own thing. I was very fortunate to have that, and at the same time, that also opened our world to tons of contacts. Nora and I took meetings with hundreds of people, and that’s how it all began, with the energy of 20-year-olds.
FJO: You’re both composers, so why did you call it VisionIntoArt?
PP: We wanted something that, when shortened, would sound like a woman’s name. So VIA, and then we liked the fact that “via” was a street, a way to go. And we knew that it was to be a multimedia company; we wanted to really integrate new music with other forms, other structures, other disciplines. And so VisionIntoArt became a very perfect word for the kind of art that we wanted to help create and that we wanted to create ourselves.
FJO: But to play devil’s advocate with you a little bit, to the general public the word art means visual art. She’s an artist? Oh, she must be painter or a sculptor. They don’t automatically think: Oh, she’s a composer or she’s a poet. Those kinds of associations are not quite as immediate. On the other hand, it’s also the thing that the music community is lacking: the world we live in is so visually oriented and we’re the one group of people who create work that is not necessarily visually based.
PP: Right. The way we present ourselves obviously isn’t—for the most part—visual. And yet the way we market our works is entirely visual. When we came up with the name, we were in our early 20s, so it just seemed like a fun name. And the visual arts have always played a huge role in my music, visual arts and literature. So that didn’t feel strange to me. But as you’re saying this, it absolutely seems like a natural connection because we present our worlds visually, and we live in a hyper visual world. So, it makes sense.
FJO: The problem with the concert going experience is that it is often not terribly compelling from a visual point of view. You might hear something that’s completely transformative, but there’s really nothing to look at. They’re just seeing a group of folks wearing tuxedos or funeral black or jeans and t-shirts—I’m not sure which of these outfits is the least interesting. But from the beginning, you wanted to offer a multimedia experience to audiences.
PP: I think there are two ways to look at it. When I think about curating music, I think about how to incorporate the technology we have, and the kind of tech elements we have to create a seamless performance with a visual flow so that what the audience is concentrating on is really just the art. But when I’m creating deep collaborative process works, I’m looking to really transcend certain boundaries. I’m looking to learn from an astrophysicist or a conservationist, or to work deeply with a visual artist and understand how to communicate across discipline. There are many ways to create multimedia settings; it can be from a very simple angle of curation to a deep process of collaboration.

Prestini score overlayed with butterflies

A score by Prestini that has been transformed into a work of art.

FJO: VisionIntoArt has been an important outlet for many composers. The first real public awareness of the music of Nico Muhly happened through VisionIntoArt.
PP: Yeah. It’s exciting.
FJO: It’s also been a wonderful launching pad for your own work as well. You say it’s exciting to be a mentor to others and to provide a platform, and that presenting has always been an integral part of your way of thinking about things. So in terms of carving up a season, where is that balance between focusing on your own work and advocating for other composers?
PP: Well, now we have a staff. That’s something that just happened two years ago. So my life has become imminently more plausible; it’s doable now. We have an incubation series call Ferus that we just inaugurated. That’s really our place to discover the artists we want to work with. We put up money to record it, to take photographs, to help them then pitch to presenters, or pitch to other producers. Sometimes we take the work on ourselves. It’s once a year and there are about seven to eight slots. And the curation happens honestly in so many ways. We go listen to a million things, and we get a lot of submissions, and we really try to develop relationships and see who’s going to really benefit the most from the opportunity.
Then we have Liederabend, which is the festival that we co-produce with Beth Morrison, and that happens every two years. And there we have two to three nights of works that are specifically for the voice and multimedia. So that’s another platform where we can discover new voices, specifically composers who like to write for the voice. Then we have our new VIA records, which is specifically the dissemination angle of the company.
I like to say that in VIA we try to incubate, produce, and disseminate. The dissemination angle came from the fact that some of the works we were doing really don’t exist as powerfully without the visual component. They’re gorgeous musical works, but why have it without the visuals when that’s the way the composer conceived it? So we decided to have a company that specifically nurtures the multimedia canon of 21st-century works. Those are the three larger programs that we have. And then we have our production company, which has done many of my works and can only do one or two works a year. We’re really focusing on the sciences, on collaborations that really aren’t happening elsewhere.
FJO: And one of the first two releases on the new label will be your Oceanic Verses.
PP: Right. Our first two releases are Anna Clyne’s The Violin and Oceanic Verses of mine. Both of those will come out as a CD and a DVD in a specialty box. It’s a special release of 500 CDs and DVDs, plus a poster. When you’re buying the box, you’re getting an experience of what that piece is in its multimedia format.
FJO: It’s a strange time to start a new record label.
PP: I know. Why now? Because the health of the industry exists in options. And we are yet one more option. It’s not about stepping on toes; it’s about collaborating. It’s about adding to the pie instead of taking from it. And the reality is, it’s also for me. I haven’t had a tremendous amount of bites for recording my music, but I need to have my music recorded. I’ve always believed in commissioning myself in tandem and in context with other composers. So it will be that way also with our own record label.
FJO: So far, we’ve focused on how you balance your composing with the other hats you wear, but I want to go into the actual music itself and how your multifaceted life has shaped you as a composer. Going back to that meeting we had 15 years ago, I remember you passed along to me a score of a brass quintet and some other pieces you were working on. They were formidable pieces of music, but they’re light years away from the kinds of work that you’ve done in the last 15 years. In terms of what the outside world might be aware of, I think the only example of stuff that’s even remotely like it might be Nightsong, the five-octave marimba piece that’s on your first CD released on Tzadik or possibly your solo piano piece, Limpopo Songs, which is also on that disc. Both of those pieces, like that brass quintet, could exist very effectively on a typical contemporary music recital program. They’re contained units and clearly fall under the rubric of “contemporary classical music,” whatever that means. But everything else on that recording and the stuff you’ve been doing since then is way more open ended.
PP: I guess I would start by saying that the change occurred through the kind of artistic channel that I was taking. And that artistic channel included certain muses, and those muses definitely affected my music. Oceanic Verses came about because I really love folk music and I really love improvisation. So how do I really bring this into my language in an authentic way? That became a beautiful exploration of found sounds and my discovery of the southern part of Italy, deepening my own understanding of my cultural heritage. So the sound samples that I recorded while I was there mixed with the talents of these two muses that I had met recently: Helga Davis, in terms of improvisation, and Claudio Prima, who was a young folk singer from the southern part of Italy. That became an extraordinary exploration and it was out of my curiosity to discover their talents and to bring in what I found to be wonderful musical tools into my own writing. That doesn’t appear in all of my writing, although improvisation and structured improvisation has appeared more regularly.
Then I embarked on the installation concertos for Maya Beiser and Neil Dufallo. Those became really deep process works in terms of live electronics and electronic resonances. They’re concertos, and so there’s very virtuosic writing and structured improvisation for both. There was also the creation of a musical instrument, the LED cello for Maya Beiser. Those became deep explorations into visual worlds and live electronics with the K-Bow, which is a Bluetooth bow that Keith McMillan created and that Neil is one of the sponsors for. So each new work brought me into a journey that deepened my compositional language and that helped bring deeper levels of compositional technique into my music.
FJO: You had already worked with Helga Davis on As Sleep Befell.
PP: And on Sounds and Traveling Songs.
FJO: And for Body Maps, you worked with another really extraordinary vocalist.
PP: Hila Plitman.
FJO: All of those pieces are quite a bit more than just setting a text to music. They’re about treating the voice as an instrument in all its possibilities, and also using the possibility of language, what it means to put a language with music and what it does to the music. Music in and of itself has no specific, readily perceptible meaning, but as soon as you attach language to it, all of a sudden you’re referencing something. I think when a lot of people set text that they’re not always so conscious of that aspect of it.
PP: It’s interesting because now I’m writing more opera, but where I came into writing for the voice was using my own voice—not actually really setting text at all but making up languages, like I did in Body Maps, in As Sleep Befell, complete vocalize. That became an exploration of how to use the voice for timbre, how to use the voice in terms of virtuosity and leaps and skips and you know, that kind of writing that appears more in Body Maps. Then, slowly, I got more into word locution and really text setting and how to do that in operatic settings, which I’m really interested in now.
FJO: Oceanic Verses has gone through many permutations. I remember attending a performance of some excerpts from it at the New York City Opera’s VOX readings, but it’s evolved quite considerably since then. At one point, you called it an oratorio, at another a cantata. Now you’re describing it as an opera. Of course the wonderful thing about the word opera is that it really can mean anything you want it to, despite people immediately associating it with Puccini or Wagner.
PP: Oceanic Verses was my first foray into writing in an operatic form. It was definitely a hybrid piece, and it definitely doesn’t have a specific narrative. It follows four characters and their trajectories, but not in a linear form. The film plays a very important role to me in the performance, which we were finally able to include when we were at the Barbican with the BBC Symphony. I’m not one to say what is or is not opera. But I definitely played around a lot with what to call it because I found it really falling in between lines. The piece has been in a way my own learning about operatic form, learning how to write in some style that I was approaching, and so it’s been a piece that’s morphed with me for the past four years. Now I’m very happy to let it sail off and do its thing and move on because I don’t believe in staying on works for too long. I think it’s better sometimes to learn through new pieces. But that specific piece definitely had a long evolution.
FJO: Well, I don’t want you to let it go just yet. We’re not done talking about it! There’s a very loaded social message to this piece, which I think is one of its key ingredients. It’s about how to deal with traditions that are disappearing, how to deal with globalization, modernization, immigration, socio-economic changes, how a military presence alters a place—all these things than affect an environment.
PP: Yeah, extreme communication. Absolutely. [Oceanic Verses] touches on that. It started with a personal need to discover my own internal geography and the geography of this land, and the implications of this land as a place of immigration, of flux. And then by placing Helga Davis as the protagonist, I feel like it did a profound job of exploring not just archetypes, but the struggles that permeate that land as well as using that land as a metaphor for different borders and different places that are experiencing change. So the songs, I feel, can paint the picture of many different experiences, but it’s very much musically based in that region, and in that kind of lost language, lost Italian songs, and with all the influences that it has—from African influences to Byzantine influences to the Greco language that only 400 people speak now. It was a fascinating piece for me to discover my own roots, but to put my own kind of musical understanding of that experience into that kind of a package was also a beautiful experience.
FJO: Discussions nowadays about influences and tradition are very complicated. You spoke earlier about growing up on the US border and then having a very formal education at Juilliard based on the tradition that comes out of Western classical music, which is a very specific thing. In the 21st century, in terms of who we are and what our music is, all the world’s music is available to us, from all eras, from all over the place. Music from a certain place that is more than likely not related to the Western classical tradition might actually resonate more. The Western classical tradition is just as foreign to most 21st-century Americans as gamelan, or West African drumming. So to incorporate any other tradition into your own music is no more culturally appropriative than, say, writing a string quartet would be at this point.
PP: It’s absolutely true. And what I did in my 20s, after Juilliard, was really try to explore different traditions—different vocal techniques, from Inuit calls to south African choral music to actually going to Zimbabwe, collecting sound samples in southern Italy. It was very freeing. Now I feel like my music incorporates those things in a very subtle way, whereas there were certain pieces that I’ve written that were much more obvious. I wanted them to be obvious. Now I find that they’re deeply entrenched in my own language, and they come out in very different ways. So I feel like it was a journey that I definitely wanted and needed to go on to arrive at where I am now, which is just having all these different influences affect my music.
Piles of recordings in Prestini's home
FJO: To stay a bit longer on Oceanic Verses, is that that piece is probably the largest manifestation to date of where the world music influences have gone in your own work. And yet it was also about discovering your own roots. It’s both things at the same time.
PP: When I first started the piece for VOX, it was very personal and based more on my own experiences. Then as the piece evolved with the filmmaker, Ali Hossaini, and the librettist, Donna Di Novelli, we took it out of my hands and really made the main character an archeologist. That archeologist then goes on to discover the different traditions and to have her own epiphany, a personal epiphany that happens and manifests itself through the discovery of different songs and different experiences that allow her to uncover her own past. So it becomes a journey for one woman, meeting these different archetypes, uncovering this music, and then uncovering her own American identity.
FJO: One of the things that convinced me that we absolutely needed to talk to you this year, aside from the anniversary of VIA, was that when we ran into each other at ASCAP you were telling me about a project you’re working on based on The Epic of Gilgamesh—something with which I have long been fascinated.
PP: Yes. Well, it’s a piece that’s really driven by the librettist, Cerise Jacobs. Cerise and I met very briefly at VOX during Oceanic Verses, when her husband Charles was still alive. Cerise had been working at the time on the Ouroboros Trilogy, which my opera Gilgamesh is part of, and they were looking for a composer. Charles then passed away. When Cerise came together with Beth Morrison to try to assign that opera to someone, Cerise and I met again and it was a perfect match. I feel really lucky to be able to write something in memory of her late husband, and of course the topic was extremely exciting. It’s actually a trilogy with three different composers for the three different operas. And the three operas can be executed in any order. On the opening night, when it’s in Boston, it will be done with all three operas consecutively.
FJO: The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving epic poem, but it tells a story that’s strikingly contemporary about coming to terms with mortality.
PP: I’ve been reading about AI [artificial intelligence], and just today in the New Yorker, there was a fascinating article about the future of everlasting life and robotics. It’s a right-hand turn, but it’s definitely an extension of that.
FJO: The other really timely thing about Gilgamesh is that he was the King of Uruq. Uruq is in Iraq. I just checked the maps to see if it is anywhere near where the ISIS folks are. Luckily they’re not near where that is yet, since there have been such significant archeological finds that have taken place there and are still going on. It is the source of a lot of both Western and Eastern culture. The earliest board games and the earliest surviving musical instruments are from there, as well as the earliest documentation of a seven-note diatonic scale. Even the earliest known portrait of a woman was found there.
PP:  That’s fascinating.
FJO: And now this place is in everybody’s consciousness again, although for all the most horrible reasons. A lot of ruins are getting destroyed in other parts of Iraq. How much are you paying attention to the news that’s been coming out from there and how much of your approach to Gilgamesh is informed by what’s going on there now?
PP: I pay attention to it very much in my everyday life because I read and I have connections to Iraq that are personal, so I pay attention to it in that way. But musically it’s not something that, at the moment, is infiltrating the work. Every text when it has historical, deep connections psychologically draws from a different fountain of music within you. So I wouldn’t say that there’s no connection, but it’s not like Oceanic Verses, where I went and I studied and made sound samples. It’s not that kind of a work. The way that Cerise compiled the text has a very international bent to it. So it’s a reevaluation and a retelling of the Gilgamesh myth. So in that way, I really felt the freedom to musically tell a story that was very relevant to my musical voice right now. And because it’s also the first opportunity I have to really write in an extraordinary, extreme operatic form, I’m allowing myself to just think about acoustic instruments. The setting is—I wouldn’t say traditional, but—a little bit more conditioned by the opportunity I have.
FJO: So no electronics?
PP: No electronics.
FJO: Wow.
PP: Long story short. I love how you get to the point. I was trying to do a roundabout way of answering that. That’s great.
FJO: No samples?
PP: No samples.
FJO: Wow.
PP: Cerise was really intent on not having any microphones, not having any amplification, no extreme electronics, really focusing on the pure sound of the orchestra, the choir, the children’s choir, and the soloists.
FJO: When you say there are three operas by three different composers, I’m trying to wrap my brain around this.
PP: It’s very Wagnerian. That’s what she’s going for, a real epic.
FJO: But Wagner was all about controlling everything and all the music was his, whereas this project, by design, involves multiple compositional voices and composers who write very different music from one another.
PP: Scott Wheeler wrote the music for Naga and Zhou Long wrote the music for Madame Whitesnake which won the Pulitzer years back.
FJO: The idea that these operas could be done in any order is also not very Wagnerian. I mean, there’s no Gotterdämmerung!
PP: That’s the idea of Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail and the idea of the cycle of life. The cycle of these characters, their stories, and how they reappear can actually be told and understood in different directions.
FJO: In a weird kind of way, being involved with a project like this is about a lot more than just you. To spiral back to the beginning of our conversation, snake eating its own tail style, this project ties very neatly in with what you do in the rest of your life as a collaborator, sharing programs with others’ work, presenting others’ work. Though she came to you and it’s an outside project, it seems completely like everything else you do aesthetically.
PP: Totally, and I really have to credit Beth and Cerise for that, because their vision was to really create a community amongst the collaborators. It’s been the most magnificent process. Very, very fruitful, very supportive, and I think that that will seep into the interconnectivity of the works. Even in an abstract way.
FJO: So, to bring it back full circle to the Original Music Workshop, which will be up and running a year from now. Maybe these operas could be done there?
PP: Yeah. I do think that certain works can be done there. But lately the works I’ve been working on are quite extensive and large. The other work I have is at the Park Avenue Armory, Aging Magician, which is with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and will go on to several different venues. But my hopes are to eventually do smaller works and to have more fluidity with the compositional process. For OMW, what’s really exciting is that we’ll have different groups in residence; we’ll have different partnerships with ongoing organizations—Beth Morrison Productions, VisionIntoArt, and a few others that will develop festivals, and that will really help provide a breadth of programming.
The groups in residence will benefit from subsidized recording rates, free rehearsal space, and also connection with all the partnerships that we have, which are quite extensive. The space will operate like a club, in many ways, but it will also have a nonprofit side of things. So it’s both a club with a restaurant and an incredible recording venue. I think it’ll provide the community with a space for mentoring those next steps into professional life: a place where you can really easily get a recording and easily film your work. I wouldn’t say that it’s the place where you would do crazy multimedia or deep, long process, setting-type work, but I think you can absolutely do extraordinary film and music or deep electronics. I think it will really serve a large body of artists focusing on music in all different styles. OMW is really about the fluidity of music that composers and groups and artists and songwriters are writing today. It’s perfect for a single piano. In fact, the acoustics were designed to perfectly fit a solo piano show. And with acoustic treatment, it can perfectly accommodate the most complex electronic shows. So that space will really serve many different styles of music, and my hopes are it will really be a place where you want to go to discover things.
FJO: So in terms of the kinds of things that you might find yourself doing there, because I imagine that you will have a role there as an artist as well, might there be a sequel to Limpopo Songs?
PP: I think as I get to know more musicians and as they desire my work, it’s exciting to be doing these smaller collaborations. I have a piece that’s coming out on [my husband] Jeff Zeigler’s new album Something of Life. That’s a piece for him and Jason Treuting, and it’s called Listen Quiet. That was a fun collaboration, so yeah, absolutely. I see myself taking some time off from the large-scale works and doing smaller-scale works, going back out and having that kind of inner play allows you to clear your mind and refocus and then want to embark on the large collaborations again.
FJO: Dare I say, to further bite the tail of the snake, might working on some smaller projects instead of yet another large collaboration also allow you to have a weekend sometimes?
PP: That might be nice. As artists, we all really enjoy what we do and so oftentimes going to see a show, or doing things that might seem like work, aren’t really work. And I can include my family in it, and we find our times, but it’s definitely a compact time of life right now.

What Are We Afraid Of?


Photo by Joel Cooper, via Flickr.

Here we are at the denouement. I cannot help but feel that my final post in this series on entrepreneurship should offer different fare. I do hope discussion continues on the topic, and I will continue to offer my two cents on occasion, but I can sense that my final aria is nearly here and that the curtain will fall soon. Sitting here, writing this, I feel the need to offer something more personal. I remain, after all, a performer at heart, whether I like it or not.

Speaking of which, I never really introduced myself, did I? I just sort of started arguing at you. Let me try again.
My name is R. Andrew Lee, but you can call me Andy. I’m a pianist who plays a lot of new music, particularly of a minimalist bent, some of which I’ve recorded. I live in Denver, and I’m a proud to say I’m from Kansas City. I’ve been married 9.5 years and have two daughters, ages 5 and almost 3, and one son who is 4 months old. I take my grilling and drinking seriously, and have a penchant for interesting socks.

Veneer and Reality

Now let us take a look at what the professional world sees, or at least what I try to portray.

I teach at Regis University, and before that I was artist-in-residence at Avila University. I’ve performed in Belgium, France, several times in the UK (including London), Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Austin (among many others), and I’m about to add Chicago to that list. I’ve had six albums released to date, with three more already recorded. They have been played on the radio in Australia, Slovenia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Canada, and all over the States. They have been reviewed in nine languages. My recordings have been extraordinarily well received, making “best of” lists in Gramophone, The Wire, Mojo, Time Out New York, and The New Yorker, along with a host of smaller websites/publications. I have my New York Times quotes. I also have press from two of the most prominent classical music critics, Steve Smith and Alex Ross.
That’s not too bad, if I do say so myself. Now let’s take a different look at the above.

My job title at Regis University is associate university minister for liturgical and sacred music. I fall on the staff side of the staff/faculty divide, though I also teach in the music department. My primary job is to prepare music for Sunday and other campus-wide services. My artist-in-residence title was great to have, but it was a half-time gig while I was still working on my doctorate. I supplemented that income with private teaching and high school choir accompaniment. The performances in Belgium and France were part of international conferences (not bad, but also not paying). The UK tour almost broke even (only because I could stay with family) and the Toronto gig lost money (not a big deal because my brother was living there at the time). The performing accounts for a small percentage of my annual income. I’ve made very, very little money from the recordings, despite the press, though I’m glad that sales have at least been sufficient enough to justify more albums (well, at least since album number four.)

The Fear

So why the veneer? The obvious, logical, and justifiable reason is that it is important to put your best face forward professionally. We’re all hustling for gigs, and it doesn’t make sense to do anything but make yourself look as appealing as possible.
But perhaps there is another layer to it. I think we’re afraid.

In the comment section of my last post (and a hearty kudos to the NewMusicBox readership for bucking the “Don’t read the comments!” rule), I was directed to a post by Kevin Obsatz titled “The Business of Art.” In this post, Obstaz articulates what I would contend is a nearly ubiquitous fear that is rarely discussed. After arguing that the “unquestioned orthodoxy” of our society is that everything is a business, he writes the following:

There’s a moral imperative [in a capitalist system] to succeed or give up, and succeeding means growing—bigger audience, more profits, bigger budgets. To keep making art that isn’t successful by a conventional definition is an affront to a capitalist ideology—unless it can be recategorized as a hobby, a consumer activity. …And, in my experience, that is truly terrifying to artists: if I stop pursuing my work as a business, does that mean I’m a hobbyist prosumer dilettante, and therefore not serious? That is death or exile, banishment, existential crisis.

Let me boil down my “reality” bio to a sentence and see how it strikes you. I am a church musician who performs and records recent classical music on the side.

Do you still take me seriously?

The thing is, when I was nearing the end of my doctoral program, I had three on-campus interviews. One for the job I currently hold and two for tenure-track positions in cities that I knew I would feel motivated to leave as soon as humanly possible. I have a great job that is rewarding, in an amazing part of the country, that also allows me to afford a mortgage, payments on a minivan, and music lessons for my oldest child. But my primary job is to prepare music for liturgies, and that has raised eyebrows and elicited pity from more than a few people. As a result, I don’t talk about my job that much in certain circles.

There are innumerable articles about how to define success for yourself in the arts, but doing that means being able and willing to go against how everyone else views success. We seem to be exceptionally good at judging a work of art on its own merits, but when it comes to judging artists, we too easily adopt a different set of criteria. If you can make a living as an artist, you must be good, and if you can’t…let’s just say you’re better off in the eyes of many if you struggle financially trying to make it work rather than doing it “on the side.” Never mind that a day job might actually mean having more time for your art.


I’m a moderate in most respects. I don’t have trouble seeing the perspective of those on both sides of an issue and often find more grey than black and white. Yet sometimes being a moderate means wanting to balance the discussion, and that is a bit of what I’ve been trying to do here. I’m not saying that these essays are some devil’s advocate intellectual exercises; I stand by the points I’ve made. Rather, in the face of such grand optimism about music entrepreneurship (or at least its pervasiveness), my nature seeks a middle ground.

We should be teaching the next generation of musicians how to promote the great art they will produce. I do not question that. What I worry is that we are selling something with a pretty, new face without looking beneath the façade.

We are promoting technologies that inspire creativity while at the same time drowning it out. We are embracing a path for success that allows few to be successful. We are trying to help artists promote their work but also reinforcing the mindset that to be a legitimate artist, one must successfully monetize his or her art.

My position is not one of a wholesale rejection of entrepreneurship in music. I only urge caution and perspective as we work to find a path in these uncertain times and suggest that we not forget the value of ars gratia artis.

Claire Chase and the Winner-Take-All Economy


Photo by Rich Brooks, via Flickr

In June of 2013, Claire Chase delivered a convocation address to graduates of the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. In this speech, she eloquently laid out her case for the exciting possibilities of, as well as the need for, entrepreneurship in music. As she said, “Whether we like it or not, the calling of our generation is not to occupy positions created for us. Our calling is to create positions for ourselves and for one another…. In a word, our calling is to be entrepreneurs.” Anthony Tommasini wrote about the address for the New York Times. “In that convocation speech, which caused a stir on the Internet, and through her work, Ms. Chase, 35, has been making the most positive case I have heard for the new entrepreneurship.” It was also this speech that was the primary impetus for me to write these four essays.

Before diving into her speech a bit, let me first say that I do not begrudge Claire Chase any of her success. She is a phenomenal musician and an astute businesswoman; the more I’ve read about her and learned about the International Contemporary Ensemble, the more impressed I’ve become. I have an enormous amount of respect for Chase. I just don’t share her perspective.
In her convocation address, Chase outlines several points on arts entrepreneurship. If you’ll forgive a long quote:

The capacity that we have today in this room, with the number of people calling themselves composers and musicians in the year 2013, with the technology that can potentially connect us…the capacity that we have to produce our own and one another’s work is staggering. The traditional classical music and arts management structures have dissolved. The traditional record label structures have crumbled. You now don’t need a producer to make a record. You don’t need a promoter to find fans. You don’t need a presenter to present your work. So what happens when the line between the artist and the producer has disappeared altogether? When the artist needs no outside entity to legitimize or stamp approval on her work, but when she can simply give it to the world based on her own impulses. What happens to the work that we will produce? What will it sound like? What will it look like? What of it will withstand the test of time? Well, this is our era. This is your stage. And anything is possible.

The Hope of the Long Tail

It is in this that we again see the hopeful promises of technology. When you can make music much more cheaply than in the past, when you can distribute it around the world for free, then we can all find a fan base to support our art. This thinking represents the “long tail” theory of economics.

In general, this means that relatively few artists and organizations dominate the market while a large number of others jockey over a small percentage of market share. The good news is that because the cost of production and distribution has gotten so low, it is possible for a greater number of goods to become economically viable. Moreover, because technology also allows for considerable connectivity, niche products/producers are able to find niche audiences, and both sides win.

This does happen sometimes, with one example being Erstwhile Records. I’d actually be surprised if many regular NewMusicBox readers were familiar with this imprint. Yet this label, which focuses heavily on electroacoustic improvisation, has been around since 1999 and has released nearly 100 albums. They have managed to build a devoted following to sustain their limited operation despite not being widely known outside a specific audience.

Unfortunately, such stories are not usually the case. Instead, the promises of the long tail are not often met, and if anything, the long tail is only getting shorter and more crowded.[1] Robert H. Frank, professor of economics at Cornell, speculates as to why that may be the case. “One possibility is that today’s tighter schedules have made people more reluctant to sift through the growing avalanche of options confronting them. Many consumers sidestep this unpleasantness by focusing on only the most popular entries.”[2]

He goes on to write that our connectedness enhances our perception of popularity. Alan B. Krueger, professor of economics at Princeton and chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, discusses the popularity problem in the context of the music industry. He cites an interesting experiment in which a control group is given true information about the popularity of certain songs and an experimental group has that data reversed.

In the alternative world that began with the true rankings reversed, the least popular song did surprisingly well, and, in fact, held onto its artificially bestowed top ranking. The most popular song rose in the rankings, so fundamental quality did have some effect. But, overall…the final ranking from the experiment that began with the reversed popularity ordering bore absolutely no relationship to the final ranking from the experiment that began with the true ordering. This demonstrates that the belief that a song is popular has a profound effect on its popularity, even if it wasn’t truly popular to start with.[3]

I would hope, and I think audience demographics bear this out, that those interested in new music or classical music in general tend to be more educated on the subject, but I do not think our community is immune to such psychological effects. When artists become more popular, whether organically or through some notable press, we tend to view them as better even without having heard a note of their music. And when a listener has a nearly unlimited amount of music at his or her fingertips, it takes a real effort to look beyond those at the top.

Winners Take All

An alternative to the long tail theory is the winner-take-all model. While both perspectives acknowledge that the market is dominated by a few, the winner-take-all model suggests that things will only get worse for those on the other end of the graph.
Scalability is an important concept in this line of thinking. Consider the touring career of Paganini. Despite his enormous popularity in Europe, he could only perform for a limited number of people, especially given the speed of travel. But with the rise of recorded music, an artist’s potential reach grew exponentially, allowing those at the top to dominate a much larger share of the overall market.

But surely this applies to only recording revenue and the like, yes? Live performances are not nearly as scalable as digital media. Yet when competing to get the attention of presenters, an artist still has to face the dominance of bigger names in the market. When looking for grants to fund entrepreneurial endeavors, new organizations are competing against that same name recognition, and while kickstarting projects has become an increasingly viable option, you still have to convince your donors that your project is just as worthy as the three other big-name projects they’ve helped with in the last few months.
Sam Reising, in a thorough and well-written article for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN Magazine, takes issue with the winner-take-all model. He writes, “Proponents of this theory forget that there is an active aspect in forging a career in the arts. They seem to believe that if you are a great composer or performer, people will come flocking to you with commissions and performance opportunities…. There must be an entrepreneurial middle step.”[4]

I agree, at least in part. I don’t believe that the cream will inevitably rise to the top given current market situations, and obviously there was a point in time when virtually no one knew who Claire Chase was. My contention is that even if the step between becoming good and becoming known is somewhat based on entrepreneurship, we must recognize that the same tools that allowed Chase to succeed are making it increasingly difficult for others.[5]

And it isn’t just entrepreneurship that fills in that middle step.

The New Gatekeepers

The internet is not nearly as democratic as we tend to believe it is. While almost anyone in the world can see what you produce, that doesn’t mean that anyone actually will.
Duncan Watts, a mathematical sociologist and principal researcher at Microsoft Research summarizes the problem:

We may be seeing the replacement of one hierarchy with another hierarchy. We may be seeing the replacement of one set of gatekeepers with another set of gatekeepers…. But we’re certainly not seeing an egalitarian world where everything has the same chance to become known or accessible. [6]

Claire Chase is incorrect when she says that “the artist needs no outside entity to legitimize or stamp approval on her work.” True, an artist needs no permission to produce her own work, but to disseminate that work today absolutely requires help from cultural gatekeepers. A New York Times review is no longer a prerequisite for notability (even if those who can still put quotes from The Grey Lady in the first paragraph of their bio), but there are still important bloggers, reviewers, and even Twitter users who can greatly raise the profile of an artist. Grassroots viral growth, while it exists, is exceedingly rare.

Arts management and music label structures have indeed undergone a seismic shift in the last decade, but their replacements are not necessarily better or more egalitarian. Without the support of the new cultural gatekeepers, to say nothing of the still powerful old-media giants, it remains exceedingly difficult to separate oneself from the background noise.

The Failures

“Popular perception has not caught up with the emerging research,” writes John Wihbey, managing editor of Journalist’s Resource, based at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “We often judge the Internet based on the relatively few stories of success—where democratization seems to operate—rather than the millions of failures. Viral is the exception, big broadcasts—and lonely voices whistling in the digital hurricane—are the norm.”[7]

I think that Claire Chase has in some ways been blinded by her own success, and the rest of us along with her. It is natural to see the success of entrepreneurial organizations such as the International Contemporary Ensemble and declare them the new path forward. But we know little of the myriad failures that have come in its wake.

Still, we cannot easily erase the realities of our situation. There is a narrow path to success in this model, and even perhaps some room for the long tail, but the more we speak of entrepreneurship as our great hope or even our calling, the more we reinforce a system that benefits only a few. We are subsuming a mindset that places little value in our work and then wondering why no one cares about what we do.

If a touch of entrepreneurship is how we survive our present situation, so be it. But I do not believe entrepreneurship holds great promise for our future.


1. Anita Elberse, Blockbusters, 2013, p. 161

2. “Winners Take All, but Can’t We Still Dream?”, New York Times, Feb 22, 2014

3. “Land of Hope and Dreams: Rock and Roll, Economics and Rebuilding the Middle Class.” Remarks prepared for delivery on June 12, 2013.

4. “The Failure of Music Education,” Issue 8, August/September 2014. I regret that I did not have time to read this before my previous post was due. He goes into considerably more detail about the entrepreneurship programs that universities offer than I did and argues strongly for greater adoption of such programs. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a contributing editor for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, and Reising is on staff at New Music USA.

5. There are other avenues of revenue that help insulate classical musicians from the winner-take-all economy. Private teaching, for example, is not scalable. Even when the possibility of Skype lessons is factored in, one teacher still has a limited number of hours for teaching.

6. John Wihbey, “Rethinking Viral: Why the Digital World is Not as Democratic as We Think.” Pacific Standard, June 9, 2014.

7. Ibid.