Counterstream Radio is your online home for exploring the music of America’s composers. Drawing upon New Music USA’s substantial library of recordings, our programming is remarkable for its depth and eclecticism. The station streams influential music of many pedigrees 24 hours a day. Keep listening and discover the sound of music without limits. Click here to open Counterstream Radio.
For this edition of dublab x New Music USA, join Elyn Kazarian and film composer Emily Rice as they discuss the process behind composing, collaborating with directors, finding your own voice, and ways to build a strong financial foundation. The first hour of the program will include a 30 minute mix of songs from various film scores composed by women.
This program is part of New Music USA’s web magazine NewMusicBox “Guest Editor series”, which aims to celebrate a plurality of voices from across the nation and will feature exclusive content written, produced, or commissioned by a rotating artist or organization. The series kicks off with dublab. NewMusicBox, edited by Frank J. Oteri, amplifies creators and organizations who are building a vibrant future for new music in all its forms, and has provided a vital platform for creators to speak about issues relevant to them in their own words since 1999.
The dublab partnership will feature new weekly content from at least 15 different voices through January 2023, presented in conversations, DJ mixes, articles, and live performances all exploring the current landscape of music composition.
The Guest Editor is the first such series in the magazine’s 23-year history and reflects New Music USA’s aim to deepen its impact across the many diverse music communities across the United States. This aim is also demonstrated by NewMusicBox’s ongoing “Different Cities, Different Voices” feature that spotlights music creation hubs across the nation.
“Life As A Carer” – Rachel Portman
“Eviction Notice” – Pinar Toprak
“Something to Believe in Again” – Pinar Toprak
“Main Title” (The Shining) – Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind
“Rocky Mountains” – Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind
“Defeated Clown” – Hildur Guðnadóttir
“Gallery” – Hildur Guðnadóttir
“Northwest Neighbourhood” – Emily Rice, Ro Rowan
“Smoke” – Lesley Barber
“Manchester Minimalist Piano and Strings” – Lesley Barber
“Coco’s Theme” – Kathryn Bostic
“Rising” – Morgan Kibby
“When We Were Boys” – Morgan Kibby
“Ronsel Leaves” – Tamar-Kali
“But For Love” – Tamar-Kali
It is difficult to think of anyone more loved by the musicians with whom she works than composer, arranger, conductor, and teacher Alice Parker who has been a fixture of the choral music community for eight decades. Since becoming an arranger for the legendary Robert Shaw Chorale when she was fresh out of college in the late 1940s, Parker has devoted herself almost exclusively to music for the voice, since she strongly believes that people find their common ground through singing together.
During an inspiring conversation over Zoom, Parker explains how our lives become enriched when we can share a communal music-making experience.
When we sing something perfectly lovely together … and it really clicks, you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.
Sadly though, as she also points out, singing is no longer something that most people do: “As a society, as a culture, we don’t sing. … [W]e simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.”
Music has been a presence in Alice Parker’s life since growing up in Boston in the 1920s, attending concerts by the Boston Pops as a little girl, attending an African American church sing while staying with her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina, and hearing African-American lyric tenor Roland Hayes sing spirituals in a concert in the 1930s. Soon after she began taking piano lessons, she started to compose her own music, though her teacher had to find another instructor to help her write it down. But Parker doesn’t think that made her special.
“The ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift,” she claims. “I think everybody would if they were encouraged to. And I was encouraged to, right from the beginning.”
Parker formally studied composition at Smith College before studying choral conducting at the Juilliard School, deciding to switch majors because she did not want to compose the music they wanted her to compose.
“They were trying to get me to write 12-tone music,” she remembers. “I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn’t do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong in the sense that what really lasts is not necessarily tonal music, but modal music. Somehow or other, that peculiar mixture of whole and half steps is much closer to musical truth than any system that is drawn out of equal half steps or equal whole steps. That’s too much. Henry Ford making everything exactly match. Things in nature don’t exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.”
Perhaps the most tell-tale sign of Parker’s lifelong humility is her devotion to creating music for and with community groups rather than for big celebrities. She has no interest in writing music unless it serves a purpose, as she explains:
If someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don’t see any purpose for it. In a church, there’s loads of purpose. It’s all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you’re in the good schools, there’s lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there’s almost always purpose.
Although she was writing music up until 2020 (you can hear a performance of her glorious hymn “On the Common Ground” which is embedded in the transcript below), her deteriorating eyesight has made it impossible for her to either enter notes on staff paper or even on a computer. But she’s enjoying spending time with her four great grandchildren and has become obsessed with Wordle.
We simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
My general prescription for the healing of society is that we establish a Department of Peace in Washington to go beside the Department of War.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
When we sing something perfectly lovely together ... and it really clicks, you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
If you can speak, you can sing. And the singing may come first.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
Music is only sound. It is nothing else but sound. We spend a whole of our education talking about sound and not making sound.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
Somehow I was able to withstand the strong conditioning that I got certainly when I got to college, and was trying to major in composition, and they were trying to get me to write 12-tone music. I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn't do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong. ... Things in nature don't exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
I am not telling my music where I want it to go. I'm listening for where it wants to go.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
The ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift. I think everybody would if they were encouraged to.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
There is absolutely no difference between brain tissue from male and a female. It's just my feeling about race is actually close your eyes, and can you tell whether it's a black person or a white person, otherwise from the language? You can't. Color has nothing to do with it. Nobody chooses where they're born. ... You come up where you are. What you can do is of course enormously influenced by your surroundings. If your parents say right away, "Well you can't do that; girls can't do that," you're pretty much taken for granted or else you're a terrible rebel and you risk the ire of your society all around you.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
I've always said if someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don't see any purpose for it. In a church, there's loads of purpose. It's all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you're in the good schools, there's lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there's almost always purpose.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
I think music is food for the ears, just as food is food for the stomach. And I want to feed people's ears. I want to nourish them through the music. I'm not interested in scaring them or frightening them, or stretching them beyond their beliefs. I need to find the thing that they will just love.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
Somebody called me an entertainer once. I said, "I am not an entertainer." Music isn't an entertainment art for me.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
I think so many kids have never heard their parents sing, just for the fun of it. We don't sing as we do the dishes. We always did when I was little. We don't sing as we do chores because there's always some background music on. And nobody's really listening to it. I think the way to get people back into it is just simply to get a roomful of people singing or a family.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Having the opportunity to spend an hour talking with Jeanine Tesori is very hard to do these days. Having just finished working with Tazewell Thompson on Blue, an extremely timely opera about the aftermath of an African-American teenager being killed by the police which premieres next summer at Glimmerglass, she’s been on-call all week for Steven Spielberg’s new screen adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and, on the Saturday we did manage to catch up with her in her composing studio at New York City Center, she was about to fly to London where a new production of her 2004 musical Caroline, or Change is about to open that’s running in the West End through February 9. Following its run earlier this year in Los Angeles, a New York production is in the works for her latest musical Soft Power, a collaboration with David Henry Hwang that takes place 100 years in the future after China has become the dominant world power as a result of the 2016 American presidential election. Plus, she’s way behind starting work on her Metropolitan Opera commission.
“Everybody’s in the middle of a zillion things,” Tesori concedes as she recounts the extraordinary roller coaster ride that took her from being a disengaged piano student on Long Island to enrolling as a pre-med student at Columbia. But working for the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center, a summer camp run by Cuban-born director Jack Romano, gave her the theater bug. And helping the late Buryl Red on over 100 recordings for music textbooks gave her grounding in practically every musical genre which subsequently informed the incidental music she created for the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Twelfth Night, several Hollywood film and animation scores, a series of operas, and the five musicals of hers that have been produced on Broadway thus far.
“Like everything else, it was the culmination of many, many years—having started playing the piano at three and knowing really early on that the piano was not for me,” she explains. “It turned out that the piano was a means to an end. But in those days, especially for a young girl, what was I going to do with the piano except play it? … My job felt like it was something else that I couldn’t figure out.”
It turns out, though, that all her detours inform her music and the projects she opts to work on. According to her, doing pre-med course work grounded her in design concepts that directly relate to creating a well-made musical. “You’re making a building, and you have to make sure that it’s sturdy. That’s what musicals are; they’re sturdy designs.”
But, it’s actually more than that. Her father, who was a physician who frequently opened the family home to patients who he felt were too sick to go to the hospital, gave her a sense of empathy that led her to be attracted to storylines about characters in need of healing in some way, whether it’s the protagonist of her first musical Violet, who hopes to have her face restored after a terrible injury; the deep psychological wounds of most of the principal characters in Caroline, or Change; or Alison in the 2015 Tony Award-winning Fun Home, who is trying to come to terms with the suicide of her closeted gay father. Even Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek in Shrek The Musical are outliers who are transformed over the course of the performance.
“The thing that always has interested me is the invisible person—the person who society has deemed not worthy of being the protagonist, someone not worthy of holding the center,” she explains.
But whatever it is she’s working on, she needs a storyline to get her started.
“It invades my brain!” she exclaims. “The beautiful thing about a narrative is you can find moments that are so surprising. … I did some choral work when I was just starting, and I will still do some things to learn, especially with orchestration, which I’m so slow at. I can hear it, but because I don’t do it all the time, particularly in an opera [situation], it’s very hard to go from what I hear to the page. It’s just painstaking. But I don’t hear music that’s not attached to a narrative or a picture or an image. I chased it for a little while, and then I thought, ‘You can’t do everything.’ That would be faking in some ways. It’s just not who I am. I think someone like Nico Muhly does it so beautifully and Missy Mazzoli and certainly Jennifer Higdon. But for me, that fell away pretty quickly.”
Jeanine Tesori in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at New York City Center
November 17, 2018—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Frank J. Oteri: I know you’re in the middle of a zillion different projects, so thank you for taking the time to meet with us.
Jeanine Tesori: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Everybody’s in the middle of a zillion things. Even my mother, who’s 87. When I call her, she’s like, “I have so much to do.” The speed of life is pretty astonishing.
FJO: Well, as long as you mention speed, I’m hoping we can get through the last 20 years of your musical career, as well as your life before that, in about an hour!
JT: To the mat!
FJO: To attempt to do this, I’ve tried to find through lines to connect everything. At first, I tried to put things in two places: things you’ve done that have been really cutting edge and then other projects that are very much a part of the commercial marketplace. However, though a show like Shrek The Musical might seem like a very commercial vehicle, there are also things about it that are very experimental. Plus, there’s a clear message in it that subverts mainstream paradigms. Then, despite how innovative shows like Fun Home or Violet are, they both contain songs that could very well be Top 40 material. The closer I started examining all of your work, I found that almost all of it in some way pushes the envelope, but at the same time it also attempts to bring everybody along with it.
JT: That’s a very astute and succinct way of saying it. I think of it differently now. I think that’s true.
FJO: You mentioned a music teacher that you had early on who introduced you to both Shostakovich and Carole King at around the same time. I thought that the juxtaposition of those two people was amazing and the more I reflected on that, I imagined that you’ve somehow found a way to kind of embrace the aesthetics of both of them in your own work.
JT: Well, I was learning in the ‘70s and that was such a great era for singer-songwriters; I still listen to them all the time. And I’ve learned from the people who’ve mentored me. I didn’t have many, but the through-line for me was to value music and to be curious about it. There was not an idea of “this music is better than that music.” There are just people who play and people who make music. You’re going back and forth with thinking artists who are questioning something. That’s the real fun of it. Not what they made. We might make this giant thing that just lands with a thud. And you have to pay the bills—no one ever discusses that. But when you chase the money, you don’t really end up having something that pays the bills. When you chase the art, that’s when you really find something that has legs. You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing, especially in theater. I’ve seen that happen a lot. But to really be a steady, serious artist who can make serious fun, or always be after something, that to me has been the great joy.
FJO: It’s a bit of a surprise that you wound up writing for the theater having had Shostakovich and Carole King as formative role models. Way later there was a jukebox musical made from Carole King’s songs, but that was decades after you were introduced to her music. And Shostakovich did in fact write a musical at some point in the ‘50s and also wrote two operas that are pretty incredible, as well as a bunch of film scores. But neither of them are thought of by most people as theater composers. So I’m curious about who your role models for musical theater were, and how musical theater came to be what you decided to focus on as a composer.
“I think Bach is super groovy.”
JT: I came to theater very, very late, because I came to music very, very early. When I look back and talk or teach (which is a way to learn), I think about the influence of Kabalevsky, Stravinsky, and Bartók, their joy in the national and their pride, and, for me, the beat. I think Bach is super groovy. I don’t think that we think of his pieces all the time as being groovy. But they are. And when you hear them beautifully played with a sense of deep time, you realize the beauty of that.
[Loud sounds of talking in the hallway.]
FJO: Are the sounds outside getting picked up on our microphone?
MS: It’s ambience.
JT: You know, the thing about City Center I love is that we all know each other. We share this space. This was a supply room. I completely re-did it. The bones and the ghosts here—Martha Graham and Paul Taylor, Bernstein, and The Show of Shows. There was the most amazing plaque outside. When they did the major renovation, I think it was 15 or 20 years ago, they removed it. There was a walled off room here and everything was intact. The pads were there; they just had sealed it. It was the writer’s room. It was for Sid Caesar’s The Show of Shows. So I love this building. I know all the doormen. I can go backstage and up to the ninth floor. One of the things that artists have such a hard time with is finding a home, especially theater artists, but I think of us as the broken toys from the Land of Discarded Objects. Joe Papp did it. George Wolfe did it. Oscar Eustis is doing it. That for me is really City Center. You get grounded, then you have the freedom of the ultimate plié; you can go higher, deeper when you feel like you’re on solid ground. When I’m feeling nomadic, and that I don’t have a basis, I can’t write. I certainly can’t re-write if I don’t have that. It’s sort of like tonality in a way for me. You have a sort of center. But it does come with noise.
Jeanine Tesori’s composition studio at New York City Center
What I was saying before was there is a beautiful way to not be so myopic about music. Everyone that I have really loved has had a very wide scope. Look at Bernstein and what he was after or Kurt Weill, who’s a beautiful, beautiful artist and influenced Shostakovich. Someone like Carole King, who crossed over from being this songwriter in the Brill Building to going out on her own—you can feel that on Tapestry in every song; you can feel the narrative of the life story inside the album. That’s what I love about those artists. Even if they’re not telling a story, they’re telling their story. And that’s why [Carole King’s songs] make a musical that has real legs.
FJO: You’re inspired by these artists who’ve done so many different things, and in your career you’ve done Broadway musicals, you’ve written operas, you’ve written film scores and incidental music for theater, as well as music for cartoon movies that are wonderful. Are there also hidden away somewhere some choral pieces or a string quartet? Is there anything you’ve composed that doesn’t have a narrative to get the impetus going forward?
“I don’t hear music that’s not attached to a narrative or a picture or an image.”
JT: Well, I did some choral work when I was just starting, and I will still do some things to learn, especially with orchestration, which I’m so slow at. I can hear it, but because I don’t do it all the time, particularly in an opera [situation], it’s very hard to go from what I hear to the page. It’s just painstaking. But I don’t hear music that’s not attached to a narrative or a picture or an image. I chased it for a little while, and then I thought, “You can’t do everything.” That would be faking in some ways. It’s just not who I am. I think someone like Nico Muhly does it so beautifully and Missy Mazzoli and certainly Jennifer Higdon. But for me, that fell away pretty quickly.
FJO: But when you have a story, when there’s something that gets you going, then you can be inspired.
JT: It invades my brain! The beautiful thing about a narrative is you can find moments that are so surprising. When you work in opera and film and theater, even animation—the thing about animation is it makes you really think in an animatic way. They put things up on the board that go by in the blink of an eye, so you remember the labor. Animators are some of my favorite human beings. They’re just incredible people. I was at Disney when the Pen and Ink Building was still up and running, and I worked with those animators. It was before there was so much CG work, so they would do flip books. The attention to detail in the way an eyebrow went up is a great lesson in patience. It reminds me of when I saw the Nancarrow player piano pieces—how many hours he worked for just three seconds of music. It’s so glorious. And you can feel it. You can feel the investment and the labor as those crazy passages go by on the player piano. And I think that’s like what animators do.
It’s why I write in pencil. And people scoff at it. It’s so old school. Well, fuck it, it’s who I am! I will never change. Certainly the world is digital enough. It’s not like I’m in the Stone Age. When you have to write something down really carefully in pencil, even if it’s on a digital template, it makes you go slowly. It makes you go slower than thought, and that for me is really important.
FJO: I’d like to learn more about the chain of events that got you interested in writing theater music. Was it seeing a show for the first time or seeing several shows and wanting to write one yourself or thinking that there were stories that weren’t being told in what you saw that you wanted to tell?
JT: Often the penny drop moment for me feels like it was just that moment, but like everything else, it was the culmination of many, many years of having started playing the piano at three and knowing really early on that the piano was not for me, even though I played it all the time. I practiced, but I was a bad practicer. I got away with it. I sight read through all my lessons and fooled everybody.
For me, sitting with a piano for five or six hours was not about making sound. It turned out that the piano was a means to an end. But in those days, especially for a young girl, what was I going to do with the piano except play it? I was on Long Island. But I didn’t know, nor did my parents, even though my grandfather had been a composer who died really young, that you could do anything with the piano except play it. It didn’t stand for an orchestra. It was about the instrument. It was a well-tempered instrument that wasn’t there for anything else. You have this talent, so play the piano. And so I did, until I didn’t. After I stopped with this teacher that I loved, I went on with other teachers who were serious and I had a miserable time. They didn’t enjoy me, and I didn’t enjoy them because I was after something else that I couldn’t name, and it wasn’t on the piano. I played well, but I was never going to be great. Ever. So I let that go. It wasn’t whiplash, but I hated them. And they hated me right back, because their job was to make me a great pianist and my job felt like it was something else that I couldn’t figure out.
FJO: Now this is so interesting. I don’t know about your grandfather. Tell me more about him.
JT: He’s right there [points to photo on the wall]. His name was Dominic Venta. He was from Sinello in Sicily. He studied viola and piano. He came to this country in 1926, I think. Maybe a little bit earlier. He went right from Ellis Island to Wisconsin. Not a lot of people know that there was a Midwestern route; you got off Ellis Island, then you’d go to Wisconsin. I have his baton and his music stand—which is quite beautiful—and some of his arrangements. He eventually ended up going back to Italy to get a bride and came back to Wilkes-Barre and died there pumping gas. Got pneumonia.
FJO: So you never met him.
JT: No, he died when my mom was five. So she barely knew him.
FJO: But it was a story in the family, so somehow you had a connection to someone who was a composer in a different way than most people do.
JT: It would bubble up every now and then, but it didn’t come up for me until much later when I realized that pull. I was like, “Oh, there’s a pull.” You just feel it. I was a pre-med [student], which I got a lot out of because any kind of narrative for me is about design. You’re making a building, and you have to make sure that it’s sturdy. That’s what musicals are; they’re sturdy designs. You just don’t know where the doors and the windows are, but you better have them. When I left that, I happened to get a summer job at a theater camp. I studied and learned from and worked for Jack Romano, a hilarious, gigantic gay Cuban director whom I just adored. He was adored by so many of us. And that was it. I remember going to this little barn theater and thinking, “It’s here.” I didn’t understand why. I already had these skills—the combination of storytelling and music. I had to get better at them, but they came very naturally to me.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the impact your pre-med studies had on you. I did know that you pursued that for a while, but I didn’t draw a connection between it and what you do now. I didn’t know that your grandfather was a composer, but I knew that your father was a doctor, so I had just assumed that you were following in your father’s footsteps. But now that I know about your grandfather, I imagine it wasn’t the weirdest thing for your family that this is what you wound up doing.
“So some patients would stay in our rooms… That’s what you do. It was a value system that we learned.”
JT: My father was very, very strict. But he loved the pursuit of excellence. We butted heads, but he was relentless about finishing what you’ve started—being after something and seeing it through. That kind of discipline I definitely saw and got from him. He was very old school. His office was in our home. So some patients would stay in our rooms, if he felt that they were too sick to go to the hospital. He always said, “The hospital would kill them; I have to watch over them.” It was not a big deal. We would go downstairs and sleep on the couch. That’s what you do. It was a value system that we learned.
So when I left that pre-med mindset and went to music, my father was like, “Well, what are you going to do?” And I thought, “I have no idea.” “Well, you should definitely take some music education classes.” And I said, “Absolutely not.” And he looked at me. I remember I was 19. And I said, “If I get music education under my belt, I’m afraid that I’ll use it. I want no net.” And I think there was something about the way I said it that just shut him up. It was so bizarre. He was a very intrepid, scary person. But I think it was just something that occurred to me. Why would I be a music teacher? Now I value teaching very much, but then it seemed to me that I didn’t know anything. What would I have to teach? So that would be complete crap for me.
FJO: Interestingly though, from what you’re telling me and what I’m piecing together from it, the experience with the patients in your home, and the empathy and morality that led to that, has a definite connection with the shows you’ve chosen to work on. All of them are about outsiders who are trying to find their way in, who are bruised by the system in various ways. Whether it’s Millie wanting to come to New York and find a life here and the troubles she has doing so, or Shrek who is an ogre who is teased by just about everyone else he meets, or the much more complex relationships of Caroline with the young son in the family she works for as well as her own daughter in Caroline, or Change, or Violet trying to heal her facial scars in Violet, or Fun Home, where the father is secretly gay and his daughter is trying to process this as she’s discovering she is a lesbian. Every one of these shows features a protagonist who goes through a transformation, and there’s a kind of caregiving that you have given these characters and hopefully also to the people in the audience who experience this work.
JT: It’s inherent in the pursuit in musicals that it’s transformative. The thing that always has interested me is the invisible person—the person who society has deemed not worthy of being the protagonist, someone not worthy of holding the center. Caroline had a tough go in 2004. That was before Obama. It’s opening in the West End in a couple of weeks. When you see it now, when the daughter of a maid in 1963 topples a confederate statue, it plays very differently.
“The thing that always has interested me is the invisible person—the person who society has deemed not worthy of being the protagonist.”
The musical I’m writing now is also about someone who you just don’t usually hear from, especially at the center of a musical. But no matter what, musicals are really hard to write. They’re very hard to get right because there are so many variables. When anyone poo-poos them, try writing one. They’re really hard. But the idea that someone holds center stage who you didn’t think about at the center of life—or even paid attention to—has always interested me.
FJO: Now what’s interesting about that is you’re not the writer of the drama or even the lyrics; you’re the composer. So people come to you with these ideas. For your recent show with David Henry Hwang, you’ve written some of the lyrics but, as far as I know, that’s the first time you’ve done that. So other people have these ideas, and you’re attracted to them, and then there’s this collaboration that happens. Each of the five shows of yours that have been on Broadway so far have been a collaboration with a different librettist and David Henry Hwang is a sixth collaborator. So you have not had an extensive ongoing collaborative relationship with anybody thus far, except to some extent with Tony Kushner since you worked on a few other projects with him besides Caroline.
JT: For sure. We’ve done three things together. And I’m working with him now on something. But David Lindsay-Abaire [who wrote the book and lyrics for Shrek The Musical] and I are also writing something right now. I love playwrights. I am very interested and curious about dramaturgy. One of the reasons why we have a partnership is the playwright and I will come in and we break the story together. I write dummy lyrics, then they change them, maybe a line lives on but I would never take credit for that. It’s about going back and forth. I’m just not one of the composers for whom someone sends lyrics and I set them. It’s never how I’ve worked.
FJO: So sometimes the music exists first with the dummy lyric, and then a new lyric comes.
“I’m just not one of the composers for whom someone sends lyrics and I set them. It’s never how I’ve worked.”
JT: It’s more that we will sit and break the outline together. And then we’ll talk about song spotting. I really enjoy the way that songs can come at you in a way that you didn’t expect, what Bernstein calls the violation of the expectation. Doing that with the AABA form is challenging because there’s an expectation, the perfect rhyme. How are you going to rhyme? How is this song going to arrive? Why is this song here? It’s based on artifice. How can we make it feel inevitable? What’s the rhythm within the act, within the scene, between the acts? That’s the part of it I really love.
FJO: In terms of structures, certainly the songs you wrote for Thoroughly Modern Millie are based on tropes of ‘20s music.
FJO: And they’re very convincing. Shrek also has clearly delineated musical units that seem modeled after pop songs. But a show like Fun Home does something totally different, even though it too clearly has stand-apart songs like “Changing My Major” and “Ring of Keys.” But despite that, most of the time, the songs just suddenly emerge seamlessly out of the drama. Sometimes they’re just fragments. They’re definitely not AABA. And they’re so integral to the drama, the way that music is in opera, but it is also clearly not an opera. So now it makes sense that you were involved in breaking the story from the very beginning.
JT: I’m not interested in being not; that’s the reason that I do it. The marriage [of words and music] has to be seamless for me. That’s what I want. As Toni Morrison said—I think it was her—write the thing you want to see. I’ve always loved musicals where you forget they’re singing, yet you completely know they’re singing. There’s an abstraction in music, then there’s the concrete in language. There’s the other when you put them together and when you keep the metaphor constantly forward, guiding everything. It gets to a point where the show itself tells you what it should have. That’s the real fun part. The not so fun part of a show is starting, because I don’t know what it is. We’re all beginners. Eventually it becomes its own thing. It’s like, “Oh, you know what it needs there? It needs this.” And then you give it that. That’s when it gets really enjoyable; before that it’s complete drudgery for me.
FJO: So with each of these projects, did people come to you? How were each of them initiated?
“I’ve always loved musicals where you forget they’re singing, yet you completely know they’re singing.”
JT: They’re all different. For Soft Power, David definitely came to me because he had asked me to come teach at Columbia, and out of that conversation he said, “I’m doing this really strange show that’s about looking at The King and I from an Eastern point of view.” I thought that was a really great idea and then we just started working on it. There’s another thing I’m working on with David which hasn’t been announced yet, so I can’t use the title. But it’s wonderful to go back into a play and because it’s a young play, there’s a porousness. It’s like a pumice stone for music. Things that are running on Broadway have legs, and they’ll go on, but you sit there and you think music has nothing to do with this story. Nothing. It doesn’t deepen it. It doesn’t make it go forward. For me, it’s simply like putting more mayo on the sandwich. Who doesn’t want more mayo? But it’s just not the kind of thing that I gravitate towards.
FJO: Shows like Violet or Caroline are both not typical story lines for musicals and both have so much music in them. I know that with Violet, you read the short story that it was based on and then immediately wanted to turn it into a musical and spent a year locked away writing it.
FJO: But how did Caroline happen?
JT: Tony Kushner came to me. We were working on another project. He had already sent [the idea for Caroline] to me before; it was beautifully concise and single spaced, but I didn’t know him and I didn’t want to do it because I felt there wasn’t any room. I didn’t get it. I got the story, but I thought it was a play. Then we started working on something else. When we got to know each other, he said, “You know, what I sent you was not finite. That was just the beginning of something.”
I said there was no ritornello, no sense of repetition. There’s nothing for the ear to settle on. I enjoy recitative a lot. I mean, I love Janacek; the way that he sets language to me is the ultimate. But I didn’t get it. So then he said, “Let’s revisit it.” And we did. That’s when I realized how Tony works: he never stops working! The fun of that was going in and saying this is just an A dangling like one earring on an ear lobe. There’s nothing else. So we have to start with some kind of idea of what we’re doing with the form. I don’t want to bust form to just bust form. I want to understand. So we just started going inside the piece, and writing here, and writing there, and then just strung the pearls all together. I’m very proud of what we came up with. It was not that the idea and the characters were absolutely on the page, but the way that we got there was that we got there together.
FJO: And with Fun Home?
JT: Lisa Kron brought that to me. I read the graphic novel and I thought, again, this is a great idea. But it’s going to be hell because the way that it is organized is as a labyrinth. When something’s non-linear, what’s the causality of it? If it’s not going to be in time, what makes something go forward? How does memory work? Where is it going to trigger and why would it not trigger? Why is “Ring of Keys” [song number] eight and not number four? Why is this here? Why is that there? It was really excruciating because you don’t have a guiding, organizing principal. You have to wait for it. So we were writing and writing into the mess, and then out of that, working with a director, we realized that it goes like this and that’s the car ride.
The past and the future that they’re going to together is the car ride where she gets pulled into the narrative. But we didn’t plan that. I always knew I wanted her pulled into the narrative that she popped back in. That she starts outside of it, and she draws the truth to such an extent with such precision, and she does it at 43, because her craft has caught up to her ambition. And she gets pulled into it so she’s there with him. So it’s that idea of how you re-live what you think happened, and when you really go back, you find out what truly went on, when they say more tears are shed over answered prayers. While that’s true, she also is not tethered any more to the weight of that. She lets herself go at the end; the idea of flying away is the first thing, because I noticed it right away. The first image in that graphic novel is her father lifting her up as an airplane. Lisa and I would go back and forth about what it means to be held up by your parent, which is the greatest metaphor, and then to be released which is also betrayal. In a way, you have to betray your parents. I betrayed mine by saying, “I’m not doing that; I’m doing this.”
FJO: Strangely as I hear you talk about it, I hear a connection with Violet because Violet also operates on multiple layers of time, dealing with the past and the present and the layers in between them.
“I keep writing the father-daughter story.”
JT: For sure. And I keep writing the father-daughter story. That’s just what it is. I just keep writing it in different ways.
FJO: Well that leads to another thing I’m curious about. You grew up in Long Island and you’re basically a New York City person. Shrek is an anomaly, because it takes place in a fantasy world. All these other shows, though, are all American shows, but they’re not really New York shows except for Thoroughly Modern Millie which takes place in New York City, even though it’s about a protagonist who comes here from somewhere else and then there’s all this intrigue with Chinese kidnappers. But two of the shows, Violet and Caroline, are set in the Deep South and Fun Home takes place in rural Pennsylvania. These are not your experiences at all. So how do these stories become your stories? How do you find the empathy to create music for these characters? The material you created for Violet and Caroline includes a lot of country music, blues, and gospel. I imagine that you didn’t grow up listening to that stuff, yet it’s completely convincing.
JT: Well, I did go to Nashville. A lot of people don’t know, because I don’t really talk about it. And my mentor, whom I met when I was 24, was from Arkansas, but also studied with Elliott Carter at Yale.
FJO: Buryl Red?
JT: Mhmm. He had an apartment in Nashville and produced so much work there with all those session guys, but also with the symphony and folk people. I did thousands of hours in the studio. I was in the booth behind the board producing when I was 25. And for at least 15 years, I would regularly go down there, so I had that in my ear and, I think, just growing up as a rhythm player, along with being a classical player, I got it right away. And I love gospel music. I think that just happened from listening. I also did so much world music. We did a hundred CDs of different kinds of music.
FJO: A hundred CDs. What was this?
JT: Back in the day, Silver Burdett and McMillan would produce material for education; we did all live sessions. So if we did gospel, we did it with a gospel choir. And if we did anything symphonic, we recorded with the Nashville Symphony. And if we did Broadway stuff, we did it all live. We also did a lot of MIDI work, because at that point, the mid-’80s into the ‘90s, it was all MIDI and emulators and Kurzweils and all those keyboards. Then, like everything else, it came back around to being more acoustic. I rarely use any keyboards. It started with Millie. No keyboards in the pit. Real instruments playing real stuff, unless its pads or organ or celeste. I just made that decision a long time ago.
FJO: But you don’t usually orchestrate your shows. Right?
“A lot of theater composers are pianists, and it’s too much. Everything is arppegiated—tika-tika-tika-tika.”
JT: No, but I write piano parts that are looking forward to the orchestration. They don’t always sound great in the room, as you know on a well-tempered instrument, you play bong and it goes away, so you have to say to the pianist, “Okay, trem [demonstrates tremolo] because that’s going to be a cello, so just keep playing it. It’s fine.” A lot of theater composers are pianists, and it’s too much. Everything is arppegiated—tika-tika-tika-tika. I can still hear Buryl saying, “What’s going to play that?” It drove him crazy, because you have to think about the orchestra, even if it’s rhythm. If that’s guitar, what key is that going to be in? Are they going to capo? What’s eventually going to play all this stuff? Or it’s just going to all be piano.
FJO: So in terms of all the world music stuff you recorded, these were created for music classes?
JT: Music schools. Music textbooks. Everything was authentic. When we did Chinese music, we would hire pipa players. I hired people right out of the subway sometimes to just come and do a session.
FJO: And I guess where that’s played out really overtly in your own work is in the incidental music for the Lincoln Center Theater production Twelfth Night, which you wrote prior to having a musical on Broadway.
JT: For sure.
FJO: Once again, this score is filled with dualities. On the one hand, you’ve set some of Shakespeare’s words in a way that comes close to sounding like pop music, albeit indie pop music, but then you also included a daxophone in the ensemble. How on earth did you discover the daxophone?
JT: When I was doing Twelfth Night and trying to find my way in, I was really interested in people who were making their own instruments. Nick Hytner said, “I want you to think of this as a movie; it’s going to be an hour of music.” I had three weeks to do it. I had a new baby. My daughter was ten-months old. And I thought, “Well, how are we going to do this?” And he didn’t want it miked. There’s ambient miking at Lincoln Center. So I thought: Okay, everything’s not miked. Great. So how do we make it modern? What is the musical equivalent of Illyria?
Then I met Mark Stewart, the greatest musician, and I went to his studio. I don’t even remember how I met Mark—oh, I know, I was finding a lot of people who play at least eight instruments because everybody in that played about eight instruments, between percussion and temple bowls. They would all travel. They were all doing pit stuff. So I went to his studio and he had 150 instruments, some that he had just made, whirlygigs and so on. We spent the whole day there, just discovering all these things, and then he said, “I have one of three daxophones.” And then he played it for me, and I thought, “Okay, well that’s going to be the North Star, because it’s wood, but it’s electric. That’s Illyria to me. That’s the center.” Then everything else came out of that, like the temple bowls when you have eight people playing them. First of all, it calmed down the musicians, because you can’t make sound unless you’re calm. And it sounds like a synth. But when you watch it, it’s not a synth. So they entered playing the temple bowls. It ate up a lot of time, because there was 20 minutes of music before it even started. So that’s what hit your ear. Also the harmonium, which I love. Slowly these ideas started coming in. They also had to be light on their feet. Everybody traveled. I hired the musician who’d done The Garden of Earthly Delights for Martha Clarke, which was a definitive piece for me. Richard Peaslee. I loved his work!
FJO: So you’ve now written several operas, none of which I’ve heard yet, though I’d love to. But for me, a show like Caroline, or Change is an opera. And Violet is also an opera. For you, is there a difference between a musical and an opera?
JT: There are some obvious differences beyond writing for the classical voice, which is really different, and what’s required for the operatic aesthetic. When they have to sing over a 50 to 100-piece orchestra, what they need is really different. And the orchestra, of course, is different. We never have 48-piece orchestras in theater. So you don’t get to think about that. Soft Power has 24 pieces, and that was the producers, thank God. I just said, “I won’t do it unless it’s this.” Because that is the sound. It was fine to say no; I wasn’t whining about it. I was just saying that it won’t be what I think it should be. So if I can’t have that, that’s fine; then I don’t want to do it, because I can’t do it. But I got it! It wasn’t just about hiring more musicians, which of course is what I think, but that is a requirement if you want to evoke the Golden Age of musical theater. It was at least 30 pieces. So that’s what it is. You have to have a string section, or you don’t get the sound.
“In opera, I can really write dissonance as I hear it.”
Also, in opera, I can really write dissonance as I hear it. That’s really freeing. I can tackle the tessitura very differently. That’s very freeing and scary because there are no excuses in that way. I just finished Blue, the one that’s going to be at Glimmerglass and then the WNO—the premiere is in July—and it’s about police criminality. Francesca Zambello said, “I want you to do another commission; I want it to be something political that you care about.” So it’s ten people and all are opera singers of color. And it’s original. Tazewell Thompson has become a really, really dear friend of mine. It was his first libretto. His experiences as a black gay man in America really broke my heart. I’ve gone all around the United States with something called Breaking Glass about looking at the European tradition of opera and the racial divide with a scholar, Naomi André who teaches at University of Michigan, and it just cracked the world open. I was the only person not of color on the panels. It was great to have to just shut up and listen and learn; it’s really changed me.
But I can’t say I have many [operas] left in me. They’re really hard. It feels like they are five musicals in one opera. They’re hard. You’re in control of everything. And every moment is musical. I’m going to do one more, and then I think that’s it.
FJO: But just about every moment of Violet is musical, too.
JT: But you have a partner in the spoken text. Even in Caroline, where it’s all told through song, I’m not in charge. In opera, the orchestra is so much a part of the storytelling, in the moments of omniscience. It’s not true in musicals; in the Golden Age musical more so, but there is not the sense of breathing where the theme takes over. It’s not powered by music in the way I find opera really is.
FJO: One thing that you said that I’d love to probe deeper is that you feel free to write as dissonantly as you want when you’re writing opera.
FJO: Of all the shows you’ve done that have been on Broadway thus far—there have now been five—only one of them actually originated on Broadway, which was Shrek, which was based on a major Disney motion picture and had Disney’s fortunes behind it. But the others all began off-Broadway or in workshops, because they’re all pretty experimental in some ways.
FJO: Some people claim that Broadway is risk-averse. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. But I think that Violet, Caroline, and Fun Home are all incredibly risky dramatically. And they’ve all been on Broadway. The first thing I thought when I saw Fun Home was that it’s blowing my mind that this is on Broadway and that it even won Tony Awards, even though it’s dealing with suicide and with LGBTQ issues, all this stuff that we’re starting to talk about a lot more as a society now, but not yet on Broadway.
FJO: But since you brought up being able to write dissonant music for opera and you’ve already taken lots of risks with the subjects of your shows that have been on Broadway, it begs the question of whether it would be possible to write really dissonant music for something on Broadway. How would you get away with it?
JT: It’s a great question. There’s cognitive dissonance, which is what I think Fun Home was, which you’re saying, “How is this on Broadway?” Then you look at Angels in America; how is this on Broadway? Well, it’s on Broadway because it’s magnificent. The pressure I felt for Fun Home is that it had to be great. There was no getting away with it not being great with that idea and that book. And you’re dealing with a family, putting them onstage when they’re most vulnerable, and having a really a butch woman at the center when there are not many protagonists like that.
A poster for the initial off-Broadway production of Fun Home at the Public Theater.
It’s like what my friends of color will say, “As the only black person in the room, I always feel I represent my whole race because there’s not a lot of us. We’re black voices in white spaces.” So there’s going to be an LGBTQ voice in the hetero space. And because it’s non-fiction—well, we made up stuff by collapsing truth. Allison [Bechtel] at one point said, “Gosh, that didn’t happen, but it could have happened.” And I thought, “Okay, we’re good. We’re on fertile ground there.”
“The expectation when I go into the Palace Theater is I’m not expecting to hear that challenge of atonality.”
So the dissonance can be from pushing that way. As for the kind of dissonance for your ear, the expectation when I go into the Palace Theater is I’m not expecting to hear that challenge of atonality or pulling from the tonal center. I think it’s asking a lot. Would I love that? Yes. I would love, for instance, for this opera that we’re doing to be on Broadway. Kurt Weill wrote beautiful controlled dissonance. But the expectation when you go to see a Broadway show is that’s not what it’s going to be. Could it be? Maybe.
FJO: Another example of the cognitive dissonance of Fun Home is that now there are so many different versions online of people singing one of the songs from it, “Changing My Major.” You’ve essentially created a modern Broadway standard, but it’s about coming out as a lesbian and it’s very explicit.
FJO: But again it’s not a musical dissonance, although you worked some wonderful modulations into it. You create a musical metaphor for changing majors by actually suddenly changing keys.
Jeanine Tesori singing and accompanying herself on the piano in a performance of her song “Changing My Major” from the Broadway musical Fun Home for Studio 360.
FJO: It’s actually quite sophisticated harmonically. As far as pushing the envelope goes musically, Mary Rodgers and Frank Loesser both wrote songs in 5/4 for Broadway, but I can’t think of anything that’s actually completely atonal, even though Bernstein worked a 12-tone row into West Side Story.
JT: Well, you know, Stephen Sondheim is a master of tension. I can hear what he learned from Milton Babbitt. Yet I don’t think he’s ever aspired to write opera from what I understand. I think Michael John LaChiusa has done it and Kurt Weill. If Nico Muhly were to write a musical, that would be beautiful; I would want to see it. But I do wonder, when we talk about ear training, that thing about the overtone series, is that if it’s very far from those intervals that you have up front, it’s a question of willingness. In terms of going away from the major and minor triad, how far can we push people? It’s a really good question. I don’t know.
FJO: But why do you feel you can push them in that direction in an opera house where most of the people in the audience are used to hearing Puccini?
JT: Yes, but then if you look inside the repertoire and the idea of classical music in the early 20th century and where it came from in terms of the tradition, it just hasn’t happened in musical theater, not that I can really think of, past Stephen Sondheim, off the top of my head, even looking at what’s running on Broadway today. To do a major 7th, it better be part of a major 7th chord. I can’t think of it, except for Bernstein honestly.
FJO: You said you might have one more opera in you.
JT: One more. I have one more.
FJO: And that would be the Metropolitan Opera commission.
JT: That’s it. And then there’s no more.
FJO: Have you given that any thought yet?
JT: Oh, I’m starting in March. I have to start, because I’m late. I had a cerebral hemorrhage last July, a year and change ago—really spontaneous, out of the blue, playing an A-flat chord, teaching new music. I’ll never feel the same about A-flat. It turned out that I was fine, but I didn’t know that for quite a while and I got really behind on everything. Because I had to not only take time off, but I had to really slow down until I just got my energy back from being in the hospital, from being in the ICU. So I had to let go of certain projects and then I just got really behind. I finished Blue, and I’m starting Grounded in March.
“One female voice in a sea of men. How I feel all the time in music!”
It’s based on a play by George Brant. It’s a play I really love. Paul Cremo, whom I’ve known for quite a while, said, “Come down. I’m going to see this play called Grounded at Arena Stage.” It’s a beautiful little theater in D.C. I saw it and I immediately thought it would be a great opera—one female voice in a sea of men. How I feel all the time in music! So then I asked Peter Gelb if I could have the Met stage, if there was a time when the union would be okay with us bringing the actress who plays the pilot—or one of them, it’s been done everywhere—to just do 15 minutes of the play so I could hear it in the space. And she did and it was astonishing in the proscenium of that giant, giant space—one woman talking about the endless sky. So I just thought, this would be great. And now I have to do it, unfortunately.
FJO: Or fortunately for all of us.
JT: I hope.
FJO: I’d like to talk with you a bit more about Soft Power. At this point I’ve only seen trailers for it, but the whole idea really blew my mind. At some point, I remember someone telling me that after the 2016 election you were so worked up that you weren’t going to work on music for a while and instead become more politically active and help to mobilize people. But with this project, you’ve found a way to do it through art, through this collaboration with David Henry Hwang.
JT: Completely. 1000%. It’s also interesting, because that’s what I was working on when I went to the hospital. Again, there was a room filled with people of color, and then me and a couple other people. Writing for the Asian American community, I was really amazed at my ignorance, hearing one actress say that to play herself in musical theater—not color blind casting, but to play an Asian American—was to bow or spread her legs. There are now some really wonderful pieces, Allegiance being one of them, and there are going to be more to come. But she felt as an actor, what was available to her was to be a whore or someone without power. That really hit me. Well, it didn’t hit me because it didn’t have to hit me. That’s when I thought I really want to understand the idea of feeling like the perpetual foreigner. Then that hate crime happened when David was stabbed in the neck right after the election.
After the election, I’d been running around, doing all of this volunteering and all of this teaching up at Columbia Law School. And I took a course there. I was working with those students, and I think I just got so damaged and run down that I got sick. And I thought, “I’m going to let all of that stuff go. There are other people that do it better. I’m going to focus on writing things that I think will have hopefully some impact—addressing something and putting it into the repertoire.” I don’t know that, but for me the hope is always that it goes into the repertoire and can be done again. I thought that that’s got to be my job. That’s what I’m going to take really seriously.
“Democracy” from Soft Power by Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang.
FJO: Is Soft Power eventually coming to Broadway?
JT: I don’t know if it would ever come to Broadway, but we’re working on bringing it to New York.
FJO: Why wouldn’t it ever come to Broadway?
“The fact that Fun Home made money, and recouped was a big, big deal.”
JT: You know, ever since Caroline lost the Tony Award for best score, and it lost to something by people I love, I thought, “I’m going to never take Broadway as the end game ever.” Of course, I want to be there because it gets attention on a national and international stage, unlike off-Broadway. But I know too much about what it takes to not only get there, but what it takes to stay there. It’s really hard when 63% of your audience are tourists. The fact that Fun Home made money and recouped was a big, big deal. We needed that Tony Award for Best Musical, because for some people that was their way in. That was their entry point: I just want to buy a ticket to the thing that won. So we got a different kind of audience after that, and that was really interesting. It’s such a push-pull, with the idea of how you sell your work, and how you keep those doors open. The idea is to have something not only open, but to run. Those are two really different things. Challenge them, but it has to be compelling.
Ed note: There have been a number of recent changes at the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM), including several new awards programs, which have been spearheaded by a group of highly energized newly elected group of board members. This month we’ve asked several of these board members to access the current new music landscape and to describe how they see IAWM helping to change the ecology for the better.-FJO
During the biting cold of the January 2018 blizzard in New York, I was attending the Chamber Music America conference. After the day’s sessions, I ducked into a restaurant on 37th Street for dinner. A trio was performing some great jazz – a blend of standards and original music. Startlingly, the trio was all female. A string trio comprised of women is no longer unusual enough to even register in my consciousness. Yet for as much as I wish it wasn’t, a jazz trio of women still is. As an alum from the University of North Texas, and a board member of the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM), the lack of visibility of women in jazz is noteworthy, especially when it comes to composers. Is it more an issue of visibility than activity?
Many of us are aware of the statistic published by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; only 1.8 percent of the music performed by America’s 22 leading orchestras during the 2014-2015 season was composed by women. Are the numbers of women composers proportionately that small, or is their music merely not being programmed? A similar study of 85 American orchestras (that was reported on by Lucy Caplan in the Winter 2018 issue of Symphony magazine) reveals that living composers represented only 12.3% of programming in the 2016-17 season, so the limited real estate for music by pre-21st-century composers certainly contributes the to the low statistic. But that’s another article.
Meanwhile, over at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, a couple of composers were musing, perhaps steaming, about the lack of women composers played by wind bands. In January, composer Katherine Bergman, wrote:
Of the 500 pieces performed at the Midwest Clinic by 51 different ensembles (including bands, orchestras, jazz bands, and chamber groups), only 23 pieces (4.6%) were composed by women, and just 71 (14.2%) were written by composers of color. But what about the band concerts on their own? With such enthusiasm for new music, surely the wind ensemble programming would be more diverse than that of the orchestras, right? Alas, of the 212 pieces performed by bands during the Midwest Clinic, only seven (a measly 3.3%) were written by women, and 26 (12.3%) by people of color.
I observed this myself! In March, I attended the College Band Directors National Association’s (CBDNA) West & Northwest conference at Sonoma State University. Out of 47 pieces of music performed, only one piece was composed by a woman. So are women not just composing for wind band, or is the music by women composers just not getting programmed?
Organizations such as the League of American Orchestras, Chamber Music America, and Opera America are putting more attention on women composers as well as composers of color through their granting opportunities.
Rob Deemer announced in January that the Women Composers Database, which he began embarking on in 2016, “was fully operational and ready for public inspection.” He and “a team of students at the State University of New York at Fredonia had compiled a searchable and browsable database of more than 3,000 women composers” for conductors, performers, educators, and researchers to use. The document lists THREE THOUSAND women composers. As Midgette mentions in her Washington Post article, organizations such as the League of American Orchestras, Chamber Music America, and Opera America are putting more attention on women composers as well as composers of color through their granting opportunities.
The mission of the International Alliance for Women in Music is to foster and encourage the activities of women in music, particularly in the areas of performing, composing, and research in which gender discrimination continues to be a concern. So IAWM further explored the landscape of major awards recognizing the prowess of women composers.
Since Joan Tower’s win of the Grawemeyer Award in 1990, only two other women: Kaija Saariaho and Unsuk Chin, have received it. The Rome Prize, first awarded in 1924, is given most but not every year. Typically each year, two composers are awarded the prize which includes a year-long residency at the American Academy in Rome. Barbara Kolb was the first woman awarded the prize in 1971 and she received it again in 1976. During the remainder of the 20th century, an additional seven women were awarded: Sheila Silver in 1979; Kathryn Alexander and Michelle Ekizian in 1989; Ellen Taaffe Zwilich in 1990; Bun-Ching Lam in 1992; Tania León in 1998; and Betsy Jolas in 1999. Since the 21st century, women have fared significantly better; a total of nine women have received this honor: Shih-Hui Chen and Carolyn Yarnell in 2000; Susan Botti in 2006; Erin Gee in 2008; Nina Young in 2015; and, in the past two years all four recipients have been women—Suzanne Farrin and Ashley Fure in 2017 and Michelle Lou and Jessie Marino in 2018. The Nemmers Prize in Music Composition began recognizing and honoring classical music composers of outstanding achievement in a body of work and a unique creativity in 2004. Of the eight recipients thus far, two have been women: Kaija Saariaho was the first, in 2008, and this year’s recipient was Jennifer Higdon.
Women have fared better with other prizes. The Pulitzer Prize, which Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won to much fanfare in 1983, has been awarded to seven women, four in the last decade, most recently to Du Yun in 2017. Representation of Women receiving American Academy Arts & Letters’ awards, founded at the turn of the 20th century to honor the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers, has been historically greater than other awards – 12.6% up through 1999, and 15.5% from 2000-2017. So the 21st century figures bear out a slow but growing trend toward rewarding women. Noted though that in 2017 and 2018, women were awarded 31% and 20% respectively. The American Composers Forum supports an eclectic mix of awards that recognizes diverse composers from around the country.
I’ve only recently been aware of the Herb Alpert Award, presented annually since 1995 to “risk-taking mid-career artists” working in several fields of art. Of the 24 awards presented in music, 46% were awarded to 11 diverse women, pushing musical boundaries. The foundation also supports Young Jazz Composer Awards for jazz composers under 30. Out of the 15 annual winners, one in 2018 and four in 2017 were young women.
Do fellowships skew differently regarding gender? The Guggenheim Memorial Foundation began offering Fellowships in 1925, “to further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions and irrespective of race, color, or creed.” During its initial 74 years, 568 Fellowships were awarded for Musical Composition, 39 (6.9%) to women. Since 2000, the percentage of women represented has increased over time. The Guggenheim has given 257 Fellowships with 55 (21.4%) to women.
The MacArthur Fellows Program, often called the genius grant is “intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations”. One must be nominated through an ever-changing of pool of appointed external nominators chosen from a wide range of fields. Only 42 people in the musician/composer category have been awarded; 10 have been women.
In jazz, gender bias seems to be more of a well-known secret. Erin Wehr, who has conducted extensive research in gender and jazz, recently wrote: “The reality is that negative stereotypes of women still persist in jazz today. Even if such biases are a minority, negativity is so powerful that even great amounts of positive social support often can’t take away the sting of one pointed, judgmental comment.” Chamber Music America has given out awards for New Jazz Works since 2000. Out of 362 awards, 14 (3.9%) have been awarded to women.
IAWM’s commitment to providing visibility to women composers has moved like-minded sponsors to support awards for the annual Search for New Music. These prizes for new music by women are offered in a number of categories ranging from chamber works to sound installations. Through a competitive call for works, with a theme that changes annually, IAWM also presents a concert of new works by living women composers. In 2017, ACF honored the IAWM as one of its three 2017 Champion of New Music Awards. The IAWM also sponsors the Pauline Alderman Awards for musicological and journalistic works on women in music, most recently for Denise von Glahn’s book, Music and the Skillful Listener. But it’s not enough. How can we do better? How can we broaden our scope to increase the visibility of the vast amount of music composed by women? At least THREE THOUSAND OF THEM.
How can we broaden our scope to increase the visibility of the vast amount of music composed by women? At least THREE THOUSAND OF THEM.
The IAWM board has acknowledged that significant numbers of women in other areas of music are equally lacking visibility, and we are seeking to become more inclusive. Following New Music USA’s lead, IAWM published its Statement of Equity and Inclusion in 2017. In addition to social equity, IAWM seeks to ensure that the organization welcomes women across genres and disciplines, by being explicit in our commitment to promote cultural and professional musical diversity and inclusion within our board and membership. Women in Music work as performers, composers, arrangers, media artists, conductors, theorists, producers, musicologists, historians and educators. We know that a diversity of ideas, approaches, disciplines and musical styles are essential to inclusion and equity.
In analyzing our membership and the musical landscape, the IAWM board realized that we needed to expand our support networks and increase our relevance in the field. We are ramping up our advocacy efforts and our commitment to providing visibility to women writing in various genres of music, as well as to provide recognizing of our members working as performers and educators and in other areas of music.
In October 2017, the IAWM Board voted to create two new composition awards, for jazz and wind band, which rolled out this spring with a deadline of April 30. Sponsored by a consortium of jazz musicians in Portland, Oregon, the PDX Jazz Prize is a competitive award of $300 for women jazz composers for pieces of any duration from small ensembles to big band. The Alex Shapiro Wind Band Prize, which includes a $500 cash award and mentorship/consultation from Alex Shapiro, is for works of any duration for large ensemble wind band requiring a conductor, with or without a soloist, acoustic or electroacoustic, published or as yet unpublished. IAWM will soon be rolling out a Performer award, and an Education grant targeting K-12 music educators. As the membership of IAWM is becoming more diverse, so will our awards.
As the membership of IAWM is becoming more diverse, so will our awards.
An example of progressive change is occurring in the UK. The PRS Foundation announced its new Keychange Initiative earlier this year, which, as Amanda Cook reported in I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, is “empowering women to transform the future of the music industry and encouraging festivals to achieve a 50:50 balance by 2022. While a number of contemporary music festivals have committed to this initiative, the Borealis Festival has already achieved gender-balanced programming.”
Women are working in all genres of music, from chamber to choral to jazz; from orchestra to wind band to film and media. The International Alliance for Women in Music is working to bring awareness and visibility to music that is under-represented in the musical landscape.
Back to that restaurant on East 37th Street: inspired by their wonderful performance and intrigued by works I’d not heard before, I introduced myself and told them about the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) and the new award for women jazz composers. I hope they and many more apply. Unbeknownst to them, they made my night a memorable evening.
History teaches us that no matter how meticulously we plan, something unexpected will inevitably occur. And if we take the exact opposite approach to careful preparation, which is to completely embrace serendipity and “go with the flow,” life can be an amazing adventure. Take, for example, the life of Kentucky born and raised composer Beth Anderson.
The only child born to constantly quarreling parents who raised her on a family farm between Mt. Sterling and North Middletown in Montgomery County, Anderson did not have a great deal of access to music early on. But her grandmother, who lived on the other side of the county, owned a Mason and Hamlin upright piano which fascinated Anderson so much that she was given a toy piano for Christmas at the age of three. Just before her seventh birthday, her parents sold the farm and the family moved to the town of Mt. Sterling. Shortly thereafter her parents divorced, and as a consolation, Anderson started piano lessons with a local teacher in town; one of the first pieces she learned to play was Scarf Dance by Cécile Chaminade. Around that time she also began to write short piano pieces as well.
“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music,” Anderson acknowledged when we visited her in her apartment across the street from the Brooklyn Museum. But perhaps an even more significant chance encounter than the one with Chaminade was finding a copy of John Cage’s book Silence in the Mt. Sterling Public Library some years later when she started high school. As she remembered, “I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read. I looked up every name. I used it as a catalog of what to care about. He was my guy.”
Against Anderson’s wishes, she acquiesced to her mother’s plan for her to attend the University of Kentucky and again, as luck would have it, John Cage and Merce Cunningham showed up there for a week-long residency in 1968. That initial encounter with Cage validated her own compositional instincts, and she decided to leave Kentucky and head to the West Coast. But once she was in California, she tried to randomly connect to Lou Harrison and soon discovered that pure happenstance doesn’t always yield the best results, as she told us:
I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour. He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door. I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for. Lou was clearly not having it. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn. Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea. … But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher. … That was my experience of Lou in 1969. And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and … then we were friends. But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.
Still, once she was at Mills, pure chance led her to study with Terry Riley, who had only just begun teaching, and Robert Ashley. Infectious melodies and conceptual work inspired by text would be hallmarks of Beth Anderson’s own compositional style.
Beth then relocated again, to New York City, where she co-edited the legendary Ear magazine, spearheaded various initiatives to promote the music of female composers, and served as a piano accompanist for numerous dance companies while she continued to write pieces that explored converting the letters of a text into musical pitches and left the durations up to the performers. Eventually though, she abandoned this experimental approach and began to compose works that showcased unabashed tunefulness and regular rhythms. And yet, all this music is also the result of a form of serendipity, albeit one that is admittedly more controlled, as she elaborated:
I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other. I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F. Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music. People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement. It was just cut-ups.
Our own encounter with Beth Anderson this past month was also, by and large, a product of chance. Back in January at the Chamber Music America conference, I ran into her and she mentioned that she was writing her memoirs. Then in March, she sent me an email to ask if I knew of anyone who’d be willing to read them through for her before she attempted to approach book publishers. Since I love to read, I volunteered, and she showed up unannounced at my office to hand deliver a copy. On a whim, I started reading it on the subway that same evening. I was so compelled by her story that I couldn’t put it down and I finished the 258-page manuscript within a couple of days. I had known Anderson for many years and had heard a great deal of her music. I was always intrigued, but didn’t fully grasp it on some level. Yet after reading the story of her life, everything finally made sense—the shift in compositional style, the seemingly “normal” sounding music that becomes less and less normal the more carefully you listen to it, all of it.
“I wasn’t into planning,” she explained. “I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t. I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised. I just sort of drop in.”
April 6, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Beth Anderson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Anderson’s apartment in Brooklyn
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: We’ve known each other for a very long time, but I feel like I know you so much better now after having read the first draft of your memoirs. So thank you so much for letting me into your world that way. It was a fascinating trip, and it has helped me to understand so much more about you and your music than I did before. And it also inspired me to want to talk to you about it. Many people like to feel they know something about the composers whose music they care about, but it isn’t always positive. The more I’ve learned about Wagner, the less I’ve wanted to hear his music.
Beth Anderson: There is that. But sometimes it’s fun to know something about the person. I want my music to be paid more attention to. I felt like I’d sort of dropped out. It’s nice to have another way to engage an imaginary public by talking about my life. Obviously, if nobody reads it, it won’t have any positive effect on the number of people that listen to my music, but if a lot of people do, then maybe it would.
FJO: I do think when people know more about a composer, whether it’s some detail about that person’s life or even just a photo, it is possible to have more empathy with that composer’s music. I think this was a fundamental idea that led to the creation of Meet The Composer in 1974. If we want people to think composers are relevant to our world we must show that the people who actually create it represent the broad and diverse community we live in. One of the things that struck me in your memoir was how you learned about Cécile Chaminade while you were still a beginning pianist. I think that set you on a path that you might otherwise not have followed if every composer you studied had been an old dead guy.
“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music.”
BA: I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music. That was cool. But it took a long time to find another one. They just did not show up in my practicing Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt, until I found Pauline Oliveros. And there was a big space between Chaminade and Oliveros.
FJO: But before you learned about Pauline Oliveros you also studied with Helen Lipscomb and learned that she was also a composer.
BA: But the only things I’d ever heard of hers were a trio and her teaching pieces. She did not have a big concert output, as far as I knew. I think that either the music is lost or somebody else besides me has it. One of her relatives sent me the Trio—that same trio, as though it were her whole output—and wanted me to be the keeper of it because I was the only person they could find on the internet who mentioned her name, which is tragic. I had hoped that the University of Kentucky would have her stuff, because she lived in town forever.
FJO: Even though there was this long time between finding women who wrote music, I was struck by something you wrote about your mindset at the time you had discovered Cécile Chaminade: you didn’t realize at that point—because why would you as a little girl growing up who just learned a piece composed by a woman—that there was this really huge disparity between the performances of music by male and female composers.
BA: And the availability of their music—until the ‘70s, when that set of three records came out called Women’s Work. It was sitting in the window of a big book and record store on Fifth Avenue [in Manhattan]; I was walking down the street and I almost fell over myself. My God! Women composers. So cool. There just weren’t any records. I had found Chaminade in a John Thompson book, and I didn’t find anything except Scarf Dance. It’s not like you could go down to the Mount Sterling Public Library [in Kentucky] and find Ruth Crawford Seeger or anybody else. So it was very exciting. It took a long time for that stuff to start coming out, and the musicologists are doing a great job bringing it forward, inch by inch. But Jeannie Pool, a friend of mine from the distant past, was trying to get a master’s writing about women composers, and her committee told her that this was not something that was appropriate.
FJO: What reason did they give her?
BA: There weren’t any primary sources. There wasn’t any music. They thought that it was unimportant and that she wouldn’t be able to find any stuff to write about. So she put out a little booklet about women composers which was very nice. She got a master’s eventually, but in California with different people. I’m not sure what she actually ended up writing about. But in New York, she was definitely told not to do it.
FJO: That’s terrible. To return to the Mount Sterling Public Library and the things that you did manage to find there in your formative years, it’s interesting how deeply some of the things that you found so early on stuck with you—like John Cage’s book Silence. You grew up in Kentucky, which is where bluegrass music began. You do seem to have an affinity for similar harmonies in your own music from many decades later, yet—as far as I know—you were not directly exposed to any of that music. You wrote about an uncle who loved opera.
BA: My uncle hated country music and my mother hated country music. I wasn’t allowed to listen to the Mount Sterling radio station, which actually had people from the hills coming down doing live singing on the radio there. That was discouraged. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a live bluegrass concert. I’d hear it in movies or something, but that’s about it. The music I was aware of was popular music, and piano music [I was studying], and stuff from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s that my mother sang, so it took a while to get around to other stuff. And hymns. I was big on church music at the time, because they paid me to show up and play.
FJO: And yet for whatever reason, I hear some kind of relationship between your music and bluegrass, as well as the older music from which bluegrass derived, old timey music. And yet it was not because you were immersed in it.
BA: Well, I love folk music. I was a big Joan Baez freak. My favorite song was “Old Blue.” I used to have a big old dog named Blue, and she and I used to sing it together. Every time you say the word blue, she would howl. So, it was a chorus.
FJO: I was struck by your list of the three earliest songs that you remember hearing: “Love and Marriage,” “Lover, Come Back to Me,” and Rosemary Clooney singing “This Old House.” What about those three songs stuck with you?
BA: I think it was the ideas behind the songs more than the actual tunes, because my parents were so busy getting divorced and re-married, and we did live in an old house, then we lost the old house so there were a lot of house and divorce stories going on in my life.
FJO: And music became central to your life after their final divorce from each other.
BA: That’s what I got. I finally got that piano. My grandmother’s piano came to live with us.
FJO: But even before that, you had toy instruments and you tinkered with them. It was almost like you were set up to become an experimental music composer.
BA: I used to think that all those toy instruments ruined my ears as a child because I was clearly set up to become a microtonal composer. Those things are so far off, especially the harp. That was awful. It jangled and circled around a pitch; the strings were colored rubber bands. It was a bad instrument.
A very young Beth Anderson with her kitty at Sideview Farm in Montgomery County, Kentucky c. 1954. (Photo by Marjorie Celeste Hoskins Anderson, Beth Anderson’s mother, courtesy Beth Anderson.)
FJO: So, looking back to the very beginning of you creating your own music, you obviously experimented with the toy instruments. But there’s no surviving music composed for them by you. Did you know about the John Cage toy piano suite?
BA: Not yet, but I performed it on my MFA recital and various moments after that. I love toys.
FJO: But perhaps it was only when you started taking piano lessons and had to learn to read music that other people had written that you consciously started thinking about creating your own things.
BA: Yes, I thought it was fun to write stuff down. As soon as I got a pad of music paper, I was off, not that anybody thought it was a good idea. It takes away from your time practicing, and everybody wanted me to practice more and write less.
FJO: Your mother played the piano, but it was basically a hobby for her. Yet it seems to me that from pretty early on there was this idea that you were going to be a musician.
BA: Well that’s what I thought, but every year my mother would say, “Do you want to quit?” It cost her money and it was money she didn’t wish to spend, and she didn’t see any reason for me continuing on with this. She wanted me to have piano lessons, the way she wanted me to have ballet and tap. She wanted me to have a certain grace, what little girls are supposed to have who grow up and marry doctors or whatever. But she didn’t expect it to be a career, and she was mildly appalled that I kept at it, and at it, and at it. It was not a good thing. Unlike Prokofiev’s family, who kept pushing and pushing. His family was so helpful. Mine was not.
FJO: But since you were an only child, I think that in some ways music became a kind of surrogate sibling to you, a constant companion.
BA: Well, it certainly gave me something to entertain myself with that didn’t require other people.
FJO: But it’s interesting that even though your family didn’t want you to do music, they thought that playing piano was better than writing music.
BA: Well, according to my teachers. My mother didn’t care one way or another. She just was hoping I would quit. She wanted me to play the flute, because she saw that as social and getting out of the house, and doing something with other people, so she was willing to keep paying two dollars a month for the flute forever.
FJO: As it turned out, you wound up playing flute for years in wind bands, even in college. A very big part of your formative experience with music was playing in wind bands.
BA: And marching band was my primary exercise for many years. That was the world’s most exhausting activity as far as I could tell.
FJO: It also exposed you to a lot of repertoire that you might not have been exposed to otherwise. Certainly much different repertoire than the piano music that you were playing.
BA: Yes. If I had been a good enough flutist, I could have eventually played in the orchestra at Henry Clay. But I wasn’t one of those two girls. We had a sea of 30 flutes. The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good; they had some really good flute players.
FJO: So your school had an orchestra as well as a wind band?
“The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good; they had some really good flute players.”
BA: Yeah. And Henry Clay in Lexington had a really good symphonic band. We marched in the Cherry Blossom parade in Washington one year with the cherry blossoms falling from the sky. It was so magical. Definitely the best experience I ever had with marching.
FJO: And you stayed with it for years and years, even after you could have done other stuff! What was the appeal?
BA: Well, in college as a music major, you had to have an ensemble activity, and I could already play flute. So I just stayed with the band instead of switching to chorus. Not that I didn’t sing in chorus. I was also in Madame Butterfly one summer. I was one of those girls in a lavender kimono with an umbrella. I liked singing, but I stayed with the band.
FJO: One thing that I find so incongruous about your early musical studies is that when you were studying the piano you were basically playing music exclusively by old dead men, but in band you were playing newer music, undoubtedly including some music by living composers, though probably not stuff that would have sounded like Webern and Stockhausen.
BA: No, but there was Persichetti. There was an awful lot of Leroy Anderson, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Sousa, and re-writes of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. I don’t know why that seemed to come year after year with those clarinets going forever and ever.
FJO: The reason I bring this up is that it seems so whacky that it was one of your early band teachers who first introduced you to 12-tone music. That seems like a very odd person to be the person who did that.
BA: Mr. [Richard] Borchardt. Well, he was a special guy. I wish I knew more about him. He’s not with us anymore. It was [during] a summer band clinic of some sort—we were practicing the 1812 Overture and there was some kind of little composition class. I, of course, got involved with that, and he chose to teach us how to do 12-tone music. I thought that it was the coolest thing in the world. So I wrote this quartet right away, and he put it on the show with the 1812 Overture. That was kind of a fun side by side.
FJO: Does that piece survive?
BA: Possibly. But it’s not in Finale, I’ll tell you. And I don’t know where it is.
FJO: So you won’t be taking it out to show us.
BA: I’m hoping not to. It wasn’t a great a piece, but it was hilarious because it kept being performed. There was a wine glass at the end that was supposed to break, but it never broke.
FJO: Yeah, I love that story. It’s what actually made me want to hear the piece.
BA: With the wine glass hitting the metal and not breaking, just going thump.
FJO: Maybe you should try it again with a cheaper wine glass.
BA: Oh, I think that’s the point. It was cheap, and therefore it wouldn’t break. It was too tough. It bounced. You have to get an expensive, really elegant one.
FJO: One that could cost more than hiring a musician to throw it! But aside from the curiosity factor of the wine glass at the end, there isn’t a lot of 12-tone band music. So it’s notable that the person who wanted to put you in that direction was a band person.
BA: Well, I taught for Young Audiences a little bit. It’s a lot easier to teach something that’s coding or that has a system than to say, “Give me your heart,” in a clarinet solo to a child who doesn’t know what their heart is or even how to write for clarinet for that matter. So it was much easier to tell us, “Take these notes, put them in some weird order, and then turn them upside down” and stuff. You could talk about it, so it’s easier to teach.
FJO: Considering how much band experience you had, it’s surprising that you didn’t wind up writing more band music.
BA: The only other thing I did was a Suite for Winds and Percussion, and that was a re-write of music I wrote for a film score. I just took it and turned it into that because Robert Kogan, who had an orchestra in Staten Island, had asked for apiece that would not use his strings because the strings weren’t very strong at that point. So he wanted me to just use the rest of the people. So it’s not exactly a real band; it’s for orchestral winds and percussion.
FJO: An orchestra minus the strings, like the first movement of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto. Curiously though, in addition to being turned onto 12-tone music by your band director and then writing a 12-tone band piece, when you were enrolled at the University of Kentucky, one of the legendary band composers, John Barnes Chance, taught there. His Second Symphony and his Variations on a Korean Folk Song are really terrific pieces. But I suppose that by the time you got to study with him, your head was somewhere else.
BA: Yeah, I was into Webern and Cage. I really wasn’t trying to hang out around Korean folk songs. I was going in a different direction. I wanted to know about electronic music desperately at that point, and he made fun of that. He thought it was humorous. He could do it, it’s just that what he was doing it with was so basic that it was absurd. It was useful for the theater department, but it wasn’t exactly something he would call his music.
FJO: So what made you so curious about electronic music? How did you even become aware that it existed?
BA: I don’t know. Maybe John Cage talked about it in his books. I got to UK (University of Kentucky) when I was 16 and started working in the music library. I was reading Source, and I had a wonderful music history teacher, Kathleen Atkins. She played Tod Dockstader in class. That was my introduction to real electronic music, music that took faucets dripping and turned it into something else. I love Tod Dockstader! He doesn’t seem to be the big hit to everybody else that he was to me. Then I started hearing everybody else. Kathy wanted to build an electronic studio at UK, and they wouldn’t give her the money. So I left. When I went back to school, I went to Davis, and they had an electronic music studio, and I studied with Jerome Rosen. I think his level of interest in electronic music was trying to help us learn how to make advertisements using electronic music, because he was always assigning things that were 30 seconds or one minute. He didn’t want to hear a ten-minute electronic piece. He wanted to hear some tiny little gem that would somehow excite him. Then, of course, I finally got to Mills, where they had much more space and an interest in bigger pieces and different styles.
FJO: Let’s stay for a little bit longer at the University of Kentucky and those early years before you went to California. You were able to learn about Tod Dockstader, which is amazing because that music was not very widely distributed at the time. It wasn’t available everywhere, but it got to you. John Cage’s Silence, which was published by Wesleyan University Press, also reached you.
BA: In high school.
FJO: Which is amazing. And also Source Magazine.
“I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read.”
BA: They had a great a music library. They used to have a lot of money for it, and now they’ve got more, because there’s some lady down there in Kentucky that supports a lot of things, including that music library. The last time I was down there, I went over to see what was up, and it’s gorgeous. They have every periodical, even Fiddle Tune News; it’s that big. They’ve got all of it. And it’s not like when I was in NYU; I would go to look up a magazine and somebody had stolen half of the issues. I couldn’t find the whole run of anything. There were just huge holes in their collection. I hope they fixed that. But UK didn’t have that problem. They had a lot of stuff.
FJO: So if somebody was interested, they could find these things and go down that route. They could know that these things exist. That’s really important in terms of developing a sense and a knowledge base, finding that stuff on your own rather than just being told about it. I think it was really important for your personal development that you found those things on your own.
BA: Well, I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read. I looked up every name. I used it as a catalog of what to care about. He was my guy.
FJO: And then by dumb luck, pure serendipity, you go to the University of Kentucky, and he has a residency there.
BA: He shows up, and then I dropped out of school. And I come back and he’s there. He was at Davis for a term. It was freaky and wonderful.
FJO: One of the big revelations to me in reading your memoir is that your life has been this chain of seemingly pure accidents that completely flow into each other. You take these sudden turns and then you’re somewhere else, but it seems totally natural even though it’s totally unexpected. Interestingly, it’s similar to a lot of your music, which has been described by other people as collage oriented. I think that word doesn’t give an accurate sense of what it is, because when you think collage, you think these things don’t belong together, but in your music they do. It’s like they’re carefully woven together, even though they’re not connected. So you don’t realize that they shouldn’t work together, but they do, and it’s kind of the same way your life has unfolded.
BA: And the quilt.
FJO: Yes, exactly, we’ll get to that, too, in a bit. You initially didn’t want to go to the University of Kentucky, but your mother wanted you to go there. You wanted to go somewhere else because you were interested in John Cage. But then suddenly Cage was at the University of Kentucky.
BA: And the only reason I didn’t study with Ned Rorem was because I forgot to ask him to hang out and wait for me. The only reason I didn’t study with Pauline Oliveros is because I got a ride past her when I was hitchhiking. I always say, “Well, that’s the universe.” The universe was just going with it, whatever it was. I wasn’t into planning. I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t. I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised. I just sort of drop in.
FJO: And now here we are talking. This happened the same way! It’s interesting that you also had read Ned Rorem pretty early on, around the same time you were reading Cage. I think of Rorem as a radical composer in a lot of ways, but a lot of people didn’t, especially at that time. They thought he was an old-fashioned composer because he never gave up tonality and he never gave up writing beautiful melodies. There was a real braveness to sticking to his guns and writing the music he wanted to write. And you learned about him and his music relatively early on. So in addition to all the avant-garde experimental music you were learning about, you also had a role model for going against the grain and writing really beautiful music, which is what you ultimately wound up doing.
BA: Well, Cage and Rorem went different places. But I thought they were both radicals, and I fell in love with Rorem’s stuff through playing for singers. At UK, that was their idea of modern music, Vaughn Williams and Ned Rorem. And the stuff was gorgeous. What’s not to like? And of course, his books were hilarious and wonderful. I wanted to go to Paris. I wanted to know all these wild and crazy people.
FJO: I feel like Rorem’s influence has even found its way into the writing style of your memoir. You’re just telling the story of your life the way he did, in a very honest and sincere way.
BA: I just don’t know some other way to do it. I haven’t read his books since I was very young, so I don’t think I actually tried to go in that direction. I’m just doing it the way I know how.
FJO: In terms of not planning, it’s very interesting how this played out in terms of possible role models you could have had as teachers. Cage was a certain kind of a role model. So were Pauline Oliveros, Ned Rorem, and Lou Harrison, a composer who found a way to be experimental and beautiful at the same time, writing music that was really original but also very immediate and very moving. And you tried to connect with Lou Harrison when you came to California, but it didn’t quite work out.
BA: [My then composition teacher] Richard Swift and I talked and clearly I wasn’t interested in writing 12-tone music when I was studying with him and that’s what he wrote. So you would think we would not go together as a great teacher-student duo. So he thought that I would like to study with Lou Harrison, and he said, “Why don’t you go see him?” I didn’t have any money to figure out how to get there by paying for the bus, but I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour. He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door. I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for.
“I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.”
Lou was clearly not having it. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn. Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea, and he agreed with me that perhaps I would enjoy meeting the gardener at UC Santa Cruz that Cage talked about in his books and that yes, in fact there were communes in the hills around Aptos and Santa Cruz and that, if I hitched around, I’d eventually find somebody that would take me to one of these places. But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher and having me come and sit at his knee. And Bill—I didn’t know anything about building instruments. I thought it would be fun, but I was starting from zero. I’d never built a bird house, much less anything else with wood. So they just sent me on my way after a couple of hours, and I hitched down to the beach to wait for the guy to come pick me up at the end of the day. And that was my experience of Lou in 1969. And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and he really liked my piece, and then we were friends. But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.
FJO: That doesn’t seem like a good way to make a first impression.
BA: But if the universe spoke to him and said, “Yes, take this girl and help her,” then something could have happened. But the universe failed to so speak and so duh.
FJO: At least he woke up and spoke to you.
BA: Yes, that was very kind. And Bill was terrific. He really tried.
FJO: Your first encounter with Pauline Oliveros was also really bizarre.
BA: Yes. I’d been wanting to actually meet her for a while. I created this independent study with Nate Rubin at Mills, so I was going to interview Pauline and write a paper about her. Once again, I got some crazy ride down to San Diego, and these people took me to a Salvation Army for some reason. They wanted to buy something, and in there I found this big scroll. It was a paint by numbers scroll of a toreador and a bull. I bought this thing for a dime, and I thought. “Oooh, this is so cool. I got this thing about a bull, and I’m going to see this woman who’s so brave and tough.” I thought it was a great simultaneity, and I went to see Pauline. They dropped me off at her house, and I went in. She was expecting me; I had written her a letter. But she had a concert that night, and on the days of concerts, she did not talk. So there she was not talking, for the whole day, and I spent the whole day in her house. She had this huge cage with multiple birds in it, and they were squawking. Then the women from her women’s ensemble were there. They were cooking things to serve at the end of the concert. So there were the birds, the other women, and the cooking, but Pauline never said a word the whole day I was there. So I wrote the paper about that.
FJO: But at least you did let her know in advance that you were visiting her. So it wasn’t like your first encounter with Lou Harrison. So perhaps by then you had learned your lesson.
BA: Well yes, I had managed somehow by 23 or something to figure out you might want to send a letter. And, in fact, I did bring her some of my really early, awful music, and she turned the pages. She didn’t say a word, but she looked, and I gave her copies of them. And she smiled at me. That was fine. That was sufficient.
FJO: So how did you first become aware of Pauline Oliveros? Was that at the University of Kentucky also?
BA: Yeah, at UK, she was on the flip side of [the LP recording of] Come Out by Steve Reich.
BA: And Kathy Atkins played it for us in music history class.
BA: And, you know, it wasn’t that I was so wild about the piece; I was so wild that a woman composer exists, another one. Here’s another one!
FJO: Parallel to your life as a composer, you’ve been a strong advocate for women composers. During your student days, you put together a festival. Then when you first came to New York—I know I’m jumping ahead here—you were the co-founder of a project called Meet The Woman Composer and got the blessing of John Duffy, who had only recently founded Meet The Composer.
Julia Smith (left) presenting the National Federation of Music Clubs Award of Merit for contributions to women in music to Sorrel Hays (center) and Beth Anderson (right) for Meet The Woman Composer in 1977. (Photo courtesy Beth Anderson.)
BA: Well, Bob Ashley basically set up that first festival, but he told me I was in charge. He’d already decided who he wanted to invite. It was a cool array, and you could not find three more distinct people—Vivian Fine, Pauline Oliveros, and Charlotte Moorman. That was a great group. Then when I came to New York, Doris Hays, now known as Sorrel [Hays], was soon to be starting this thing, but she wanted me to do it with her at the New School. She got all the funding from John Duffy for that. Apparently his organization had not existed long, so the idea that he would give us most of his money for the year was really astounding. He was very supportive. We did those evenings—10 or 15, I don’t know anymore—of all those women. And all these musicologists came and wrote articles about them, so it was useful to do. Then [many years later], B.C. Vermeersch at Greenwich House wanted me to do a women composers series at Greenwich House, and that went on for ten years. So, yes, I liked the idea of putting together concerts of women’s music because it’s not heard as much as people currently think it is.
FJO: There are organizations like IAWM, which I think does a lot of really tremendous work, but I know some younger composers who do not want to identify themselves that way. “I’m a composer and I happen to be a woman, but I’m not a woman composer. There’s no need for this.” Then you see something like the announcement of the Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018-19 season. There’s not a single piece by a woman on it. It’s been that way year after year. Same with the 2018-19 Boston Symphony season. It seems pretty clear that there’s a real problem.
BA: You think?
FJO: If there shouldn’t be concerts of just women composers, why are there so many concerts of just men composers?
“There are piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.”
BA: All the time. Or a whole festival, like a hundred composers, and two of them are women. They think they’ve done a big thing, that they’ve got two. That’s ridiculous. Somebody was telling me that he taught composition in Australia and all of his students were women. I don’t know, are men getting out of the field because it’s so badly paid? One wonders. Aaron Copland used to say there were no women composers, which is crazy, or that there were no good ones. None that have been properly educated. There are piles! The Baltimore Symphony apparently has been doing all these statistics, and women are just a very, very small percentage. If you take the ratio of men to women among living composers that are performed by the big orchestras in this country, it’s 85 to 15. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible. But if you take the amount of women that are performed, dead or alive, it’s like one percent. Think of all the wonderful women that are dead that have written fabulous things I would love to hear, for the very first time, like Mary Howe. Usually orchestras are good at holding onto the past and presenting that. There are just piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.
FJO: Part of the reason things are the way they are, which rarely gets spoken of, is the economics of it all—the economics of obtaining the music, as well as the time for rehearsing it. I’m a big fan of the music of Louise Farrenc, a 19th-century French composer who wrote three symphonies, as well as the first-ever piece for piano and wind quintet. That alone should earn her a place in the repertoire.
BA: I played a lovely trio of hers once.
FJO: It’s wonderful music. But there are no modern editions of the symphonies. You can get them from one place that charges a crazy rental fee. Then, since the players don’t know the piece, they’ll need more time to learn it. But if they just played Brahms again, they’ve already played it a million times so they can rehearse it only twice and it’ll sound pretty good. Playing an old unfamiliar piece is kind of the same as playing a new piece. Worse, because then it goes to the marketing department and they don’t know the name.
BA: But Henze, which you can imagine would take quite a bit of doing to get on, they will rehearse that to the ends of the earth. They will rehearse anything big that’s dissonant and difficult. They understand that they have to rehearse that, and they’re willing to do that for the guys. But if it’s just a beautiful piece by an antique composer who happens to be a woman, it’s too much of a struggle. You just can’t keep doing the Beethoven Third all the time—lovely piece, but enough.
FJO: Do the Farrenc Third instead!
BA: Florence Price, also. There are so many people.
FJO: I’m very happy to hear you saying this because as important as it is to do music by living composers, if we really want to learn about the full history of music, we need to pay attention to historical women composers as well and embrace them as part of the canon, if we’re going to have a canon.
BA: Instead of an AK-47.
FJO: So how to advocate for this stuff? One issue is making sure that there are editions that are not only available but also affordable. A lot of the older music is now showing up on sites like IMSLP.org, so it is possible to easily obtain some of this music. But then there are also rules to consider. Musicians in most professional orchestras will only play from parts where the paper is a certain size; you can’t just print things out on 8 ½” by 11” sheets, because that’s too small.
BA: Well, that explains why my pieces aren’t performed because they’re only 8 ½” by 11” paper. I can make them bigger. No problem.
FJO: You definitely should. Which is a good segue to get us back to talking about your music and how you came to write the music you write. Connecting with Lou Harrison and Pauline Oliveros ultimately didn’t work out, but you did study for a time with both Terry Riley and Robert Ashley.
BA: I studied with Terry Riley the first semester he was at Mills; he was new to teaching. Terry taught me what was called cyclic composition, which was South Indian singing. He sang and then we sang. It was just copying, which was the teaching method of the time. But I loved the fact that there was a tal—a rhythm, a beat. Cage was sort of against it. He didn’t like regularly recurring meters, and Terry was trying to figure out what you could do within the meter that was interesting. Terry kept using scale steps and putting things together in interesting ways. The whole thing came out sounding very beautiful, because it had this beautiful big drone underneath it.
“I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Robert Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process.”
My oratorio Joan had a big A drone underneath it, partially for the singers so that they could find their pitches relative to the A. That was my plan. Not so easy, but it gave them an A at least. So Terry had a big effect on me, but not right away. I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process. I was coding words. I like changing one thing into something else, layering things like sedimentary rock. I like to have the same thing done different ways, so that the text that you would hear somebody singing would be changed into the pitches for the instruments, then the meaning of the text would be another text. They’d all be layered, or there’d be some weirdo video thing that would explain the text as another layer. I like layers. Anyway, Mr. Ashley did not see that as a process. I guess he saw it as a layered collage, which is certainly a way you could think about it.
FJO: It sounds like a process to me. I’m very curious about this idea of turning letters into pitches and being so focused on pitch, but not so much on rhythm.
BA: The rhythm was improvised by the player. But I was giving them the pitches and the rules. I would have some rule like, if you leap up from A to E, and got to the end of the word, then you would come back down a half step, then go on to the next word.
FJO: There were also pieces where you’d have certain pitches drop out over time. You’d begin with all these pitches, and eventually have way fewer.
BA: That was a modulating coding system designed just for Joan. It started with just the white notes on the piano from A to A, and then you kept decoding the same text, but you kept using one less letter from the alphabet until you ended up with just A-B-A-B-A-B, B-B-B-B. A-A-A-A. And AAAA.
FJO: This also sounds similar to what you did in a later piece that you wrote for solo ocarina called Preparation for the Dominant. You have a bunch of pitches in the beginning, but then fewer as time goes by. You have this sort of attrition of pitch.
BA: Do I?
FJO: That’s how it sounded when I heard it. I think it’s a very interesting idea, and I think it also sounds really good. There’s a rigor to it, but there’s also a freedom to it at the same time, which is maybe why Ashley didn’t think of it as a process. But the best processes are the ones that allow you to do your own thing with them.
BA: Yeah, like Schoenberg actually broke his own rules. I love that.
FJO: Exactly. And there are parallel fifths in Bach if you look hard enough for them.
FJO: Rules only get you so far, but then you need to make music with them. Maybe that’s something that the folks who were so obsessed with process-oriented music in the mid-century lost track of, the process is a means to an end, but not necessarily an end in and of itself.
BA: That sounds reasonable.
FJO: Well, it certainly seems to be the way that your music has played out.
BA: I like that.
FJO: I only know Joan from the keyboard version that’s on the Pogus CD of your music.
BA: Which had one performance consequently.
FJO: But there was also the performance at Cabrillo of the original version.
BA: KPFA has a recording, and probably Other Minds has it now, because Charles Amirkhanian was in charge of all that. They also have the original She Wrote from Gertrude Stein’s 100th birthday concert in ’74. I was complaining online recently, “This should be somewhere, and I’ll never hear it again.” And Charles wrote me back and said, “Oh! Cut it out. I’ve got it. You can hear it by clicking here.” They probably have Joan somewhere, too.
FJO: It would be so great for that to be out in the world.
BA: Well, you know, it is kind of afflicted by those naked guys, the timpani players, that ran through the middle of it and made the whole audience laugh and carry on. The idea that the critic Robert Commanday thought that that was something in the piece was particularly bizarre.
FJO: Well, how would he know?
BA: I don’t know. Everybody else talked to me—the man from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, as well as the critic from the Tribune. So they knew. But Commanday didn’t ask. He was a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of guy.
FJO: There has been this crazy idea in music criticism that if you talk to the musicians performing a piece or the composer, you’re somehow tainted and you’re going to be influenced so you’re not going to have objective criticism.
BA: I hate that.
FJO: And heaven forbid you’re friends with these people, or worse, that you actually perform or compose music yourself.
BA: Or that you actually know something about it. Now you’re supposed to have a degree in American studies, and you’re supposed to have a general drift of the culture, but you’re not supposed to actually know anything about it. I think that’s appalling. I loved it when Eric Salzman and Virgil Thomson, people who actually wrote music, wrote music criticism. You would know what their biases were, because you’d go listen to their own music. And you could see it. But if you have somebody that has a degree in sociology writing about music, then you don’t even know that their favorite composer is Philip Glass. I used to think that they should list their favorite composers at the top of their columns, so that you would know. Well, if they like this, this, and this, then there’s no big surprise that they didn’t like that. I thought it would be very helpful. But the only way you could get that sense of bias would be to read them for a long time. Then you would see over time what they liked, and what they didn’t like. But I don’t think that there’s a lot of purity.
When I moved to New York, Mr. [John] Rockwell was the best friend of my friend Charles Shere. They had both done symphony or opera broadcasts together in San Francisco. Charles stayed on the West Coast, and John came to New York. When I moved here, Charles said, “You’ll have to meet my wonderful friend John Rockwell.” So I called him up the moment I arrived, and I said, “I’m a friend of Charles, and I’m a composer. I would love to meet you.” And he said, “Oh yes, come to tea.” Then the next day, he called back and he said, “Are you moving to New York?” And I said yes. And he said, “Well, then I can’t talk to you.” And that was that. He wanted to continue that purity, that separation of church and state somehow. But I think that it’s a poor thing. I think you need to talk to composers—especially if you can’t read music or can’t play an instrument. That wonderful man from TheWashington Post, Joseph McLellan, said that he wrote a guitar piece so that he would have the experience of having written something. He could actually play an instrument, and they shockingly allowed him to write criticism for TheWashington Post. But he mainly reviewed parties. Apparently he was the social guy. He went to five parties a week, and then they also let him review concerts.
FJO: You also had a career as a music journalist yourself. You were involved with Ear magazine in its formative years. I’ve always considered Ear one of role models for NewMusicBox.
BA: Well, it is certainly the same kind of exhaustive experience that you’re never done. You do this one, and then the next one’s coming up and how can you get people to give you the stuff that you need for the next issue. I used to have to go over to people’s houses and stand over them, waiting for people to write their articles because people wouldn’t do it. They would say, “Oh, yeah. I’ll do it.” And it wouldn’t happen. But basically Ear was about promoting. I’m not sure we ever wrote anything negative. I can’t remember if we did. But we were boosters for sure. And we were saying, “This is what’s happening. Isn’t this fun? Come play with us.”
FJO: And Ear also had this very key idea that the people involved in making the music should be the spokespeople for it, which I think is a very important thing and a very different model from the separation of church and state, the armchair critic who can’t talk to you if you’re someone he or she might potentially review. Well, it was almost always he, always a man.
BA: Well, there aren’t a lot of women critics.
FJO: But then you had an experience of actually writing criticism that wasn’t exclusively positive when you wrote about the entire New Music America festival.
BA: Oh, that was a disaster. I didn’t mean harm, but I think I was thoroughly hated. The Kitchen never recovered from that, although some people thought it was a great thing because I was the only person that reviewed everything. And not just the concerts, but also the [panel discussions of the] Music Critics Association, which I found really intriguing. I loved hearing the critics read their papers, not having practiced them. They didn’t see performing as something you might want to rehearse. But anyway, Reports from the Front was something I created because I wanted to participate in the festival at The Kitchen in ’79, and I didn’t think that anybody would see it as negative because I was just saying whatever came into my mind. It was so clear that it wasn’t thought out and it wasn’t directed in a negative way. I was trying to describe stuff, and compare stuff to other performances of the same pieces. I thought I was so unimportant that nobody would take it badly, but people did. It angered the whole downtown scene in one fell swoop, in nine days.
FJO: And it also angered the music critics, right?
“I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences.”
BA: Oh yeah, there was that. There were so many times in my life that it would have been a good idea to be quiet, or to just not be there. But I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences. I think about it a little bit more now at this age than I did at that age.
FJO: Despite the lesson of Pauline Oliveros being silent the whole day.
BA: Yes. She sure is a great teacher. I should have paid more attention.
FJO: Before we completely leave California and keep talking about your life in New York, I was curious if you were at all connected with any of the extremely innovative things that were happening in so-called pop music there at the time. Not only was it a golden era in terms of the amazing things people were doing with electronics, plus early minimalism and all the conceptual pieces, California was the epicenter of psychedelia. Were you connected to any of that music? Were you aware that it was happening?
BA: I listened to pop music from ’57 to ’69. Acid rock like Steppenwolf and Blue Cheer—I loved that stuff. But, by then, I was over the edge into Stockhausen and Cage, so that was the direction my listening went.
FJO: All of the seismic shifts in your life feel somehow connected. There was the move from Kentucky to California. Then the move to New York. Those are physical, corporeal things. But there’s another event that happened once you were in New York, which is perhaps the most important shift of all—how you thought about yourself as a composer. And I think that it relates to your dabbling in music criticism. You reached a point where you decided to write music that was intentionally pretty as opposed to something that adhered to some high concept. You approached it initially with an almost revolutionary zeal, being an advocate for beauty. I think it’s possible to hear all of your work as a related continuum, but at the time it seemed like a huge chasm.
BA: I don’t really understand it myself. I know that I was doing this kind of thing. I came to New York, and even in my second concert at The Kitchen in ’79, I was still decoding the word “skate,” all the possible definitions of the word skate [in my composition Skate Suite]. But I also did songs that were actually freely written. At the same time, part of it was [flutist] Andrew Bolotowsky’s influence that everything had to be on staves. If I wrote music on staves the way he wanted it done, I had to assign the rhythms, so that took away the player’s improvisatorial input. I could have coded the rhythms, but I didn’t. I just did them freely. I was still decoding pitches [from words], but then I made up my own rhythms.
Then I met Michael Sahl, and he had very powerful opinions about harmony. His music was very harmonically centered, even more than it was melodically. He was big into this heavy jazz piano, bass, and drums kind of feeling underneath it that I never really got into. I liked cutting up and collaging things, but he still had an influence.
“I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else.”
Some people see my music, that’s now in Finale, and when they see the cut-ups they want to finish and stop [the phrase]—lift the bow, then go on. Even though I don’t put a fermata over it, people want to do that because they were taught to do that. But some of my pieces have so many cut-ups in them, if you do that, a five-minute piece becomes a ten-minute piece. It just drags deathly into the ground. That’s the absolute opposite of what I want. I want the thing to lie against itself. I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else. So, don’t do that people!
FJO: When a performance of your music is seamless, the effect can be similar to the hemiolas in Brahms or even Carter’s metric modulation; the sudden shifts are very satisfying musical surprises. In some ways, it’s like looking very carefully at the patterns that are sewn on quilts. Quilts have these purposeful incongruities in them because they’re made by human beings so you will get these things that don’t quite line up, and that’s the joy of what a quilt is.
BA: Especially a crazy quilt. There’s a whole lot of different patterns of quilts that are traditional, historic, antique patterns. But those aren’t the ones that are the most interesting to me. I like crazy quilts best.
FJO: Well, one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours is this big solo piano piece, Quilt Music. I assume you gave it that name because you heard that connection.
BA: Yes, it’s like a swale for piano, because the quilt is just another word for that. It’s equivalent to me. Anyway. Yes, I’m glad you like it.
FJO: Tell me more about how it’s put together.
BA: I have no idea. I’d have to get the score and stare at it. You know, it’s old. I mean, it’s long ago and far away.
FJO: Alright, but since you said it’s like a swale, I’m curious. At some point, you started calling pieces swales.
BA: In 1984. That’s the year that the horse named Swale won the Kentucky Derby, the first Saturday in May. And I never heard the word before, so I looked it up in the dictionary. At the time, I was writing a string quartet, and I thought that was a great name for it. I wanted to dedicate it to Mr. James Roy, because he had been so kind to me. He worked at BMI, and he was a friend I could go talk to in the middle of the day without an appointment. He was another one of those people I could drop in on for no reason, and he would see me. So I named it Pennyroyal Swale. I wanted to use his name somewhere in there.
That’s how the first one came to be. Then I wrote another one that Dave Soldier’s string quartet played the first time. The next year they wanted to do another one, so I wrote one for Rosalie Calabrese [who was the manager of the American Composers Alliance]. I named it Rosemary Swale. Rosemary is actually an interesting herb because you can use it to cook and it’s also some kind of an ingredient in the fixative in perfume. Practical and artsy and that’s Rosalie. So Rosemary Swale was that one. And then there got to be lots more.
FJO: So what is a swale for you musically?
BA: Well, that is a collage. There’s no question. I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other. I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F. Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music. People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement. It was just cut-ups.
FJO: But not every piece of yours since then is called a swale. I thought it was very interesting to hear you just say that Quilt Music is a swale, even though you didn’t call it one. What distinguishes swales from the non-swales? I know there was a piece of yours, The Eighth Ancestor, that was performed during the ISCM World Music Days that predates your first swale, but it has a similar form to them.
BA: It was cut-ups. It was from like ’79 or ’80, so I didn’t have the word yet. But I was definitely doing cut-ups, and part of cut-ups comes from not having the time. I wasn’t the kind of composer that took three notes and made it into a symphony. I wasn’t interested in developing the theme and making variations. I was working all those jobs for dancers, so I would write down things that I had just played while they were teaching the next thing. I was just writing like a crazy person while they were teaching the next thing, looking at them out of the corner out of my eye so I’d know what to play next. Then at the end of the day, I would have piles of these little scraps of paper. I would take them home and try to figure out how to connect them, or just connect them or cut them up. Then I could make them into pieces.
FJO: So when you were playing piano for all those dance classes, you were just improvising?
FJO: Luckily you were able to remember and reconstruct a lot of that music.
“I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music.”
BA: Well, I think I was a pretty boring dance accompanist, but I did do it for 20 years, so apparently I got away with it. I had certain kinds of things that I did in F, and certain kinds of things I did in B-flat, A-minor, and D-minor; that stuff would just spool out. I had massive amounts that I could play forever—pliés in D-minor, across the floors in B-flat.
FJO: Do you think that working with all those dancers might have led you to create music that had a more regular rhythmic pulse. You mentioned that Andrew Bolotowski wanting you to write music using standard notation is what led you to give up this idea of having improvised rhythms, but you were already forced into creating things that had regular rhythms when you were working with these dancers because that’s what they needed.
BA: For sure.
FJO: Could that have had an impact on why your music went the way it did?
BA: Absolutely. Years and years of banging out things in three, or four, or six, or twelve, unless you work for Merce Cunningham, in which case all bets are off.
FJO: You also wrote the songs for a couple of Off-Off-Broadway musicals in the early 1980s, which is a genre that prizes catchy melodies. When I was 16, some high school classmates and I rented out the Carter Hotel Theatre for a week and presented a musical I wrote, so I was very intrigued to learn that one of your musicals, Elizabeth Rex: or, The Well-Bred Mother Goes to Camp, ran for nearly a month there.
BA: Oh my God. That’s so fun. Isn’t it now the Cheetah Gentleman’s Club? The Carter Hotel was the dirtiest hotel in America. This was not an impressive venue, but it was very close to Broadway!
FJO: Are there recordings of those shows?
BA: Well, there certainly are shreds and tatters of the words and music, but the people on stage were not hired for their musicality. They looked like the part.
FJO:Elizabeth Rex was about this woman who tries to get her daughter not to be a lesbian, so she takes her to see a priest and it turns out that he’s secretly gay.
BA: I love it, but now there’d be all these questions about whether it’s making fun of priests fooling around with the altar boys. And it was pre-AIDS. But it was a very funny show, and I think it could be done as a period piece. We’ll see if somebody might want to do it. And Fat Opera could definitely be done as a cabaret show. It doesn’t need to be done as a musical.
FJO: All in all, I think you wrote three musicals.
BA: Yeah, the first one [Nirvana Manor] has a cast of 20, so that was huge.
FJO: To return to the piece of yours that was performed on the ISCM World Music Days. It was interesting that the piece was chosen by one of the adjudicators at the time, Fred Rzewski, based on what was a misunderstanding of your intentions in the piece. He thought that your return to totality and regular rhythms was a form of irony.
BA: I think he thought it was political, because he’s very political.
FJO: But in a way, it was political, I mean, you wrote a manifesto on why you aspired to write music that was beautiful that is very political.
BA: But it wasn’t Communist. It wasn’t Stalin, Mao, whoever, and it wasn’t Hindemith—Music for Use. It was just me doing what I did. Michael [Sahl] taught me actually at the ISCM to go around saying, “Je fais la musique de la petite femme blanche”—I make the little white girl’s music—as a defense against people saying you have no craftsmanship; you’re not sophisticated. This was the response I got from people there, so I was trying to let it fall off of me like water from a duck.
Michael Sahl and Beth Anderson in 1979. (Photos courtesy Beth Anderson.)
FJO: But there was someone in the audience who did like the piece, a very significant Belgian composer.
BA: Yes, Boudewijn Buckinx, whom I love. But he was far away in a booth. It wasn’t apparent to me that there was anybody there who liked that piece except Michael and me.
FJO: However, despite your feeling such negativity from most of the people there, you stuck to your guns and you stayed on this path, undeterred by what these folks or anyone else thought about your music. And now, decades later, there are four CDs out in the world that are devoted exclusively to your music and several pieces of yours included on other recordings, including orchestra pieces. It’s not as much as it should be and I know it’s not as much as you wish, but all in all, it’s a pretty good track record compared to the trajectory of many other composers.
BA: Well, I really wanted the CDs out so that these pieces wouldn’t just exist in my head or on these falling apart tapes from the distant past. I thought I was going to die at the time, so I really wanted them out before I died. I didn’t think my husband was going to put them out afterwards.
FJO: I know that you were quite sick several years ago.
BA: Yes, but “she recovered!” So onward. But yes, I very glad that the CDs are out, and I would like to do more, but I haven’t organized it yet. My husband assures me that I should not do CDs, that nobody’s buying CDs, which is certainly true. I should only make things for streaming. But then how do you send a CD to a radio station if you don’t have a CD?
FJO: We’re living in a very weird transitional time. A lot of people claim they have the answers, but I don’t think anybody really knows where it’s going. I’m personally thrilled that you made sure these CDs got released. Of course, people stumble upon music online all the time these days, but I love the idea that it is also possible that somebody could chance upon one of these recordings in, say, a library in some small town in Kentucky.
FJO: It could change that person’s life, just like stumbling upon a book by John Cage changed your life. The same is true with these memoirs you’ve written, which is why I think it’s important that they are published at some point.
“There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something.”
BA: There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something. It seems like there’s a space for that in the universe potentially. And somebody could find the book. It’s like I found Eric Salzman’s book on 20th-century music and all these other books that were so important to me as a child. Even when you’re not living in the center of the universe, you can find books and recordings in libraries. I’m a big library person.
FJO: But of course now with the internet, anybody can find anything anywhere, apparently.
BA: If you know what to look for. The thing about libraries is, you would fall across them because it was red or something. I read all the books in the Mount Sterling Public Library on theosophy because every one of them was a bright color. I’d see all these old books, and there’d be a bright red one or yellow or blue or green. On the internet, you need to know what you’re looking for a little bit.
FJO: Hopefully people will find your music online through reading and seeing and hearing this talk that we’ve just done.
At the Minnesota Composer Institute, composers Daniel Schlosberg, Saad Haddad, Peter Shin, Charles Peck, Daniel Schlosberg, Nina Young, Andrew Hsu, and I listened to and participated in a number of presentations and workshops related to professional development.
Professional development is a strange but very necessary topic for composers. Our industry changes so quickly and, as a result, very few elements remain consistent over time. Career paths for musicians are no longer defined (and perhaps I’m naive to think that there ever was a somewhat clear-cut path to “success,” whatever that even means). To complicate things further, our mentors are often the luckiest people in the industry. This isn’t to say that they haven’t faced struggles or haven’t worked hard; several of my mentors didn’t become successful composers until later in life. But, as many of us have discovered, something as simple as being in the right place at the right time can change the course of a career.
I’ve also realized that good advice is extremely hard to find. This isn’t meant to insult any of my wonderful mentors; they have all provided me with invaluable words of wisdom, both practical and artistic. But they have never been a 26-year-old female composer trying to build a career in the United States in 2017. In a somewhat volatile industry, it is important to remember this.
And then there’s the question of “success.” What does that even mean? Of course, every composer has a different definition of success. But, unlike many other industries, we don’t have a general universal concept of what this means.
Unlike many other industries, we don’t have a general universal concept of what success means.
I tend to find career development workshops puzzling or even frustrating because definitive answers don’t really exist. We’re just reminded that there isn’t a clear way of attaining an undefinable thing.
But, obviously, we need career development workshops. We need to discuss these problems and fears—we don’t address them enough. Focusing on technique and artistry is important, but it will be difficult to develop your craft outside of school if you don’t know how to find and create opportunities.
During our first day at the Institute, we met with Steven Lankenau, Senior Director of Promotion at Boosey & Hawkes. He discussed the benefits of signing with a publisher and what publishers do for composers. At some point in a composer’s career, explained Mr. Lankenau, a composer will find that he or she needs help in some area of work. In addition to providing editing and marketing services, publishers can connect composers with ensembles, coordinate co-commissions, negotiate fees, and help a composer plan long-term writing schedules.
Mr. Lankenau also discussed what publishing companies look for in composers. They look for artists who have already built strong momentum. In addition to a sense of excitement surrounding the composer, publishers value a strong and consistent artistic voice, solid technique, and marketability. Style and aesthetics are usually less important.
Publishers value a strong and consistent artistic voice, solid technique, and marketability.
But, Mr. Lankenau also reminded us that there is no such thing as a perfect all-around composer—a very important thing to remember. It is rare that a composer is knowledgeable and proficient across all genres and styles. Publishers, fortunately, are not searching for this mythical composer.
On the same day, the composers met with Bill Holab. When I heard him speak at the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings in June, Mr. Holab focused on issues specific to music engraving. At the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, Mr. Holab mainly discussed the advantages of self-publishing.
Mr. Holab provides services to composers, including music engraving and editing, production, and representation. As with Mr. Lankenau, Mr. Holab explained that successful composers eventually need advocates, or some kind of assistance. Rather than signing with a publisher, Mr. Holab recommends hiring people to help with specific needs. For example, for help with marketing, one could hire a publicist.
Signing with a publisher might not be the best business decision.
He also discussed why signing with a publisher might not be the best business decision. The most significant issue is the loss of one’s copyright. Another important issue to consider is that situations within companies can change very quickly. A company can be bought, policies can change, and suddenly an individual composer is no longer a priority.
Mr. Holab pointed out that all successful contemporary composers, whether working with publishers or self-publishing, know how to successfully market and promote themselves. They have learned how to connect with performers and potential collaborators and effectively market their music to presenters and audiences.
This theme of networking and self-promotion returned throughout the week. On the second day of the Institute, we traveled to St. Paul to visit the American Composers Forum offices. Over lunch with the ACF staff, we discussed the kinds of opportunities that are the most helpful and rewarding for us. Several composers brought up the importance of collaborations. Many competitions ask us to submit an already-written piece, and the prize might be a performance and (hopefully) some money. Opportunities that offer collaborative experiences, however, are more valuable. Rather than winning a one-time performance by an ensemble, it’s far more helpful and educational if we’re able to collaborate with the performers and, in the process, form long-lasting relationships. These kinds of connections can lead to future collaborations and professional opportunities.
In a similar vein, networking opportunities are vital. Several composers expressed the desire to connect with artists in other disciplines—dancers, video artists, etc. Many of our professional relationships developed during our formal education, and this can result in a fairly narrow professional circle. When we’re no longer in school, we have to work much harder to cultivate and maintain our professional circles. This requires resolution and effort. Occasionally, we might even have to interact with non-musicians!
We also had the opportunity to improve our public speaking skills with Diane Odash, a senior teaching specialist in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. As composers, we are often expected to stand up in front of an audience and speak coherently about our own music. Although many schools’ composition programs require composition majors to speak before performances, we rarely receive any formal training in this area. Any strengths that I have come from my background as a singer and knowledge of performance and audition etiquette.
Each composer stood up in front of the group and spoke for two minutes about our music. Prof. Odash timed us, and then provided feedback. She also addressed nervousness, stressing that anxiety and its symptoms are part of our natural fight-or-flight response. In this case, rather than “fighting a tiger,” we’re just talking about ourselves in front of an audience for a very brief period of time.
Legal mistakes can be time-consuming and expensive to fix.
We also listened to a presentation given by Katie Baron, an attorney who focuses on music and copyright law. She discussed copyright basics, fair use, and what commissioning agreements should cover. This is an extremely important area for composers, and it is imperative that we have a thorough knowledge of our and others’ rights. It’s also valuable to be able to recognize where your knowledge of copyright law is limited. You then know when it is appropriate to seek legal counsel. I’ve heard composers unknowingly misuse terms, and that’s concerning, as legal mistakes can be time-consuming and expensive to fix.
Finally, we met with Kari Marshall, Director of Artistic Planning for the Minnesota Orchestra, and Frank J. Oteri, composer advocate at New Music USA and co-editor of NewMusicBox. We discussed how to effectively promote our own music. Websites and social media have made it so simple to make our music accessible; however, every other musician also has access to these resources. How we differentiate ourselves from the larger crowd then becomes the issue. Again — we must be proactive when it comes to forming and maintaining genuine relationships with artists and presenters.
Kari Marshall discussed how programming decisions occur and why the Minnesota Orchestra might decide to program a contemporary work or commission a new one. Again, she emphasized the importance of relationships. Many composers of these programmed works have formed connections with the orchestra’s musicians or with the larger organization. An example: a composer appearing on next season’s programming actually participated in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute several years back!
Self-promotion and networking skills aren’t formally taught in school, unfortunately; it’s rare that I’ve ever discussed these topics in a private lesson, for example. The most helpful classes I took were actually outside of music schools. We naturally form connections with other artists while in pursuing academic degrees; however, after we graduate, developing and maintaining relationships requires a high amount of proactivity. We have to leave our studios, see some sunlight, and connect with other artists and professionals.
This is the final post in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.
I mentioned in my previous article that advice at the right moment or the spontaneous outreach of compassion can turn anyone into a mentor. Of course, the opposite can happen. Tina Tallon recently shared a moving story—worth reading in full—about an all-too-familiar mentorship blunder:
The presenters asked if any of the students composed music, and only two people reacted…They were a seven-year-old girl in the front row, right in front of the presenters, and an older boy (probably 12 or 13) off to the side. The girl shyly raised her hand to about shoulder height, and the boy’s hand shot up in the air and he said “Oh, totally!” So the presenters of course turned and started up a conversation with him, asking him what instrument he played and whether he wrote music for himself or other people. He responded that he played violin, but that he wrote music for full orchestra. They noted how awesome that was and continued asking him questions and complimenting him, all while the girl looked more and more disappointed. By the end of the conversation, she was looking at the floor. The presenters then turned back to the center of the room and asked if there was anyone else, and this time, she didn’t raise her hand at all. She just kept looking at the floor.
Tallon came to the rescue by approaching the young girl after this exchange. She offered the enthusiasm and support the youngster had been denied in a public forum. Tallon also offers poignant cautionary advice to her readers: “It became very apparent that even the seemingly smallest of actions might have significant consequences… especially when working with the youngest members of our community, we need to be very clear about offering encouragement to everyone, not just the most gregarious (or whitest or male-est) students.”
This article is not about the countlessstudies that show men to be more talkative than women or more likely to interrupt their peers, garnering more attention than their female counterparts. Nor is it about the very real confidence gap that begins to distinguish genders at a very young age. But I can’t write about benefiting from strong female mentorship and reflect on my own teaching unless these cultural, historical, and sociological realities are recognized.
Dublin Lake, where I have often sat and thought about teaching when I’m at The Walden School.
I can’t write about benefiting from strong female mentorship and reflect on my own teaching unless cultural, historical, and sociological realities are recognized.
As a young and very green teacher of both classroom and private students, I have no illusions about making mistakes in my teaching. But Tallon’s story made me reflect on one teaching moment in particular.
At Bard Prep, where I teach music theory and composition, my most advanced music theory class this semester was comprised of four very loud, confident preteen boys and a shy, subdued, slightly younger girl—I’ll call her Alice. The boys had a common interest in composition, and they would often leave the classroom talking excitedly at each other about their projects.
Alice was an engaged but quiet participant, clearly listening but only contributing if explicitly called upon. While I was definitely sensitive to Alice’s timidity in the midst of this garrulous boy-dominated classroom environment, I didn’t want to make her feel self-conscious by singling her out, nor did I want to disrupt what I thought was relatively productive management of a high-energy class.
After the last class of the semester, Alice stayed behind and asked if she could show me a piece she’d written. Of course, I was elated! One of her classmates, I’ll call him Pat, overheard this exchange and asked if he could stay and listen to Alice’s composition, because “he too was a composer and very interested to hear what she’d come up with.” At first, I hesitated, thinking that perhaps Alice would retreat into shyness if she felt judged by a peer. But Alice consented and proceeded to play a gorgeous blues-y piano piece. Pat, in his sincere excitement, began explaining what he heard and appreciated, which quickly digressed into a monologue about what he likes to compose. When I tried to shift attention back to Alice by suggesting that she and I do a blues improvisation together, Pat automatically inserted himself into the activity.
I felt totally stuck as a teacher in this moment. On the one hand, I was petrified that Pat’s overbearing presence would make Alice feel insignificant in a moment of vulnerability. On the other hand, I didn’t want to exclude or shun Pat, who didn’t understand why his behavior might have been inconsiderate. Moreover, I also did not feel that this was the moment to address issues of peer listening with Pat, as this would further shift the interaction away from Alice’s music and towards Pat’s behavior. Add to that the fear of inappropriately projecting these anxieties onto what should be a positive musical experience, encouraging Alice to share her talents again (and again and again). Might my poor management of this situation create detrimental consequences for the impressionable Alice’s psyche? Gah!!
In the end, I was able to strongly connect with Alice and saw in her a newfound confidence and joy in music making.
This scenario contained several valuable lessons. First, I am ashamed to confess that if Alice had not approached me on that last day of class, I would not have known about her compositional interests because I did not ask. This reveals common challenges that teachers face in managing many different personalities in a classroom, particularly in equating vocality with interest or aptitude. I’m sad that I wasn’t able to identify and then overcome this challenge. I’m also glad to have gotten a chance to discover and try to remedy the situation.
Teachers face challenges in managing many different personalities in a classroom, particularly in equating vocality with interest or aptitude.
Second, just because I can’t ignore or brush aside the implications of this moment’s gender dynamics and their potential consequences doesn’t mean Alice is not enjoying herself. She was having a blast sharing music—she was not burdened by my baggage, sensitivity, awareness, etc., of the scenario at play. I have to be careful about imposing my anxieties onto her and Pat, making more out of a situation than is perhaps warranted. But maybe I am making the right amount of fuss about it. I just don’t know, and not knowing is why mentoring is so hard.
In what ways should we be vigilant as mentors, and how extreme should our vigilance make us? How do we best nurture a creative person’s individuality? What is our part in shaping that individual into a confident, compassionate community member? I think these are some of the questions that the mentors I’ve written about have considered with great care. As they were mentoring me, they were undoubtedly observing situations like these and making decisions about vigilance. For this I am grateful.
My classroom white board the last day of class. The students would keep track of what they called “Katie’s quotable quotes” and when ever I said something silly or dumb or amusing they’d write it down.
This is the first in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.
My mom, a professor in the sciences, whimsically refers to her PhD adviser as her “tor-mentor”. While the exact ratio of joke-to-truth in this pun is still unclear to me, I grew up in a family of teachers and academics hearing over and over again that the lines between mentor and tormenter, mentor and family, mentor and friend, mentor and colleague, mentor and therapist, etc., are thin as spider’s silk in the web of personal and professional connections that bind together any creative community.
Dr. Kati Agócs’s office was a small, narrow room on the third floor of NEC’s Jordan Hall. It was a modest space with a large rectangular desk at one end and a clanky upright piano perpendicular to it. The desk’s surface was almost entirely clear, welcoming the mess of papers that would often accumulate during my lessons. This unremarkable room, which I saw once a week for four years, was like a magic wardrobe for me. I recall this room as the space where worlds of sonic possibility opened, and where I gathered fundamental artistic values and musical techniques.
Agócs was a patient and thorough teacher who guided me like the complete beginner I was but treated me like a professional. She encouraged me to write by hand and ditch the notation software for a while, so for my first few lessons, I brought in some haphazard pages of meandering scribbles on bleached white notebook manuscript paper. None of these notes felt important, and she was quick to address this with pragmatic, tangible advice: perhaps this easy-to-crumple, 8.5×11-7mm hole-punched spiral-bound binder-paper didn’t inspire me to take my writing seriously. It was time to invest in some “serious” composer paper. My first notebook of 14¾x11½ Carta No. 25 felt heavy and important when I carried it out of the bookstore immediately following my lesson. Through simple and seemingly superficial means, Agócs impressed upon me the incredibly valuable lesson that I must take myself and my own practice seriously if I am going to write the music that I love.
She told me to cross out everything I didn’t absolutely love.
Agócs intermingled necessarily rudimentary technical lessons (“Can you tell me the open strings of the ‘cello?”—“Uhh…”) with lessons about building confidence and finding happiness through disciplined creativity. In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was struggling to finish a solo piano piece that was—at that point—the most substantial thing I’d written. Agócs had been spending the year coaxing me into consolidating my ideas and generating longer, more fluid forms. But by this point, the 20-plus pages of music I’d written on my beloved Carta No. 25 were long but not fluid, rambling through a consecutive list of possibilities without ever saying yes to any one of them. Already feeling stressed and insecure before my lesson, I entered the magic wardrobe and crumbled into tears. Ever temperate and unhindered by this outburst, Agócs asked me to lay out the piece in chronological order all around the room. The manuscript snaked around her small office like a dotted-and-lined ivory worm. She told me to cross out everything I didn’t absolutely love.
This ritual of expunction produced positive short-term and long-term effects. Most immediately, I learned to say no to some ideas and yes to others, consolidating and finishing the piece by the end of the year. Further, I’m not sure if this was her intent, but seeing my paper worm fill the room gave me renewed confidence: look at all the music I’ve written this year! Here is it, literally laid out before me! Surely that work counted for something, and surely, if I’d done this much, I could do more.
Beyond this piece, I carried with me the value of erasing materials. And I began to embrace a guiding principle in my artistic practice and existence in general: the problem is never that there is only one right tune or texture or harmony or piece of music; rather, the problem is that the world is full of a gazillion good ideas but the art I love can only say an emphatic yes to one at any given time.
The world is full of a gazillion good ideas but the art I love can only say an emphatic yes to one at any given time.
What made my lessons with Agócs so special was her attention to detail. She elucidated the general through the particular. The focus she brought to understanding my music and advising me made me a more focused composer. I wanted to bring in work each week that merited the deliberation she gave to it. Attention to detail is something that increasingly defines my music: I find expression through specificity, and lately, I’ve been trying to write music that creates dense, but delicate, intimate spaces. Agócs cultivated the tools and concentration that enable me to imagine these worlds now. In lessons, she’d put a timer on and make me try to hear my way through an unwritten piece to develop an internal clock. She’d sit by me at the piano and tell me to compose right there and now if I hadn’t brought in any music that week, nudging me to explore richer harmonies at the keyboard. She brought her studio to Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsals, and demanded a sensibility to the unique technical and sonic features of each instrument as the foundation for new timbral possibilities. She encouraged me to write imitations of pieces I loved. What happens when I try—really, really try—to sound like Alban Berg? Perhaps what’s different is the seedling of me-ness.
I took Agócs guidance extremely seriously and worked hard to demonstrate progress in my craft over the four years that I studied with her. I believe that everything she had to teach me was more valuable to me because she was also a woman. I believe I was such a sponge with Agócs because I was able to look up and see a person I so deeply admired that might one day be me. When I look in the mirror now, I can see myself looking like Agócs. I simply can’t see myself looking like the male teachers that I’ve had, as wonderful as they’ve been. I was able to learn best from this person and envision a future for myself in part because of this person’s womanhood: in the shared experience, imparted wisdom, and leadership by example that I trusted wholly.
I was such a sponge because I was able to see a person I so deeply admired that might one day be me.
Agócs was a clear model from the start of my education that a great composer can also be a great teacher. When she gave birth to her daughter, Olivia, my last year of studying with her, she embodied for me the oft-dismissed possibility that a great composer and a great teacher can also be a great mom. Being witness to Agócs’s uncompromised strength in these arenas affirmed my hunch that the creation-education-motherhood trifecta is not only possible, it is a cycle of self-fulfillment with each part benefiting from and enhancing the other. I’m not talking here about “avoiding working-mom burnout” or “balancing career and family”— rather, I’m referring to a fundamental capacity dormant until provoked by the enduring elasticity of the creative mind.
My experience studying with Agócs fits into a broader discourse about the culture of arts education. As our community of composers has more conversations about inclusivity in the concert hall, I often end up thinking about inclusivity in the studio or classroom, and the gigantic role my teachers have played by including or excluding students from the creative and professional world they are training us to be a part of.
My femininity is the least revolutionary part of my artistic identity, but it plays a significant role in how I relate to and engage with my community.
I would like to think my femininity is the least revolutionary part of my artistic identity, but it plays a significant role in how I relate to and engage with my community. An awareness of the obstacles faced by young women in my field has undoubtedly affected the educational choices I’ve made for myself (I’ve sought out female mentorship), and now, the pedagogical choices I make as a teacher. Over the course of my education, I’ve encountered lots of anecdotal evidence of the challenges women face in finding relevant role models and teachers. In her article from 2013, Ellen McSweeney recalled:
My quartet once sought feedback on a Barber quartet from a male coach I had come to love and respect. “Honestly, you sound like a bunch of polite women,” he said during the coaching. I likely don’t need to clarify that this was not a compliment. In another coaching, one of our most beloved mentors referred to our sound as “voluptuous.” This was not a compliment, either.
Sarah Kirkland Snider recently noted that her graduate studies “featured male-only composition faculty, and very few—if any—female students.” Mara Gibson reflects: “Aesthetically, it is impossible for me to separate being a composer and a teacher—both activities feed one another. However, when I consider the number of female role models in my education who were able to live lives that also successfully integrated being composers and teachers, I can barely count them on one hand.” The majority of women I look up to and admire today—my mother included—did not benefit from having a female mentor or role model. Many of these women are now mentoring young women and I know from my experience are, like Agócs, forging mentorship roles that they have no exact precedent for.
In the next three articles I’m going to write about my experience being mentored in different circumstances by different women and reflect on my own teaching as I navigate being a potential source of guidance to young women.
Katherine Balch’s music seeks to capture the intimacy of existence through sound. She is based in New York City, where she is pursuing her D.M.A. at Columbia University.
Although she has been a fixture of the Windy City’s music community for five decades, composer/pianist Shulamit Ran was born and raised in Israel. A child prodigy, she trained with two of the most significant Israeli composers—Paul Ben-Heim and Alexander Boskovich. But at the age of 14 she received a scholarship to study at the Mannes College of Music in New York City, so she immigrated to the United States where she became a protégé of Elliott Carter and Ralph Shapey. Shapey’s mentorship ultimately led her to the University of Chicago where she has served on the composition faculty since 1973.
As was Carter, Ran is a voracious reader, an acute observer of visual art, and a deep listener of the classical music repertoire. Many of her compositions have been inspired by earlier creations in various artistic mediums. During her monologue with music for us at the NewMusicBox Live! event during the Ear Taxi Festival this past October (the final of three such presentations, following Andy Costello and Nicole Mitchell), Ran recounted the genesis of two of her compositions.
One was her 2010 solo viola composition Perfect Storm which takes, as a point of departure, a brief solo viola phrase in Luciano Berio’s Folksongs. (Violist Doyle Armbrust was on hand to play the original Berio passage as well as substantive excerpts from Ran’s work.) The other was her 1969 song cycle based on Nelly Sachs’s collection of Holocaust-themed poetry O The Chimneys. As Ran recounted, the work was haunted by her memory of hearing bells on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was a day that was originally going to be been a joyous day for her. On November 22, 1963, Ran had been scheduled to play her Capriccio for piano and orchestra with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein as part of his televised series of Young People’s Concerts. Instead the day is now forever remembered as a day of national tragedy.
But according to Ran, music’s greatest power is its ability to transcend whatever is its source of inspiration and to communicate to listeners in a visceral way that is unlike any other medium.
“In its essence it’s ephemeral,” she explained. “It is abstract. It is not made out of words (except when words form the sound material), and it is not about visual imagery, and yet it speaks! It speaks in remarkable ways and can move us to tears, leave us dumbstruck with emotion, and bring us to a sense of being joyous at being alive. … Music seems to have the capacity to bring time to a standstill. It’s an illusion, but at the same time it’s a miracle.”
wie kamst Du in meinen Garten?
Warum bliebst Du nicht dort,
wo Du zu Hause-
im grünen Schilf am See?
Lockte der Duft der Rosen
das tiefe Blau an knorrigen Ästen?
Oder hast Du mich,
einst auch von fernen Ufern,
nur einmal besuchen wollen?
Dich trug bloß der Wind;
mich brachte der Sturm.
how did you find my garden?
Why didn’t you stay
where you belong–
in the lake’s green reeds?
Did the scent of roses tempt you,
the blue on gnarled branches?
Or did you come
just to visit me,
who also came from distant shores?
The wind carried you;
the storm brought me.
A fragment from Der Andreas Garten, poems by Dwight Mamlok (Ursula’s husband) and text of the composition with the same name.
Ursula Mamlok: Der Andreas Garten (1987) – V. “Libelle”
The Jubal Trio: Christine Schadeberg, soprano; Sue Ann Kahn, flute; Susan Jolles, harp
From Music of Ursula Mamlok (NWCR806)
Ursula Mamlok, an outstanding composer and my beloved teacher and friend, passed away in Berlin on May 4, 2016. She had moved back to Berlin in 2006.
Ursula Mamlok’s music was transparent but expressive, complex but emotional.
Mamlok was distinguished by her elegant chamber music, and her extensive catalogue of music that includes percussion. She also wrote several works for orchestra. Many of these works have been recorded by Bridge Records, including
One of the last things she did was to arrange her composition, 2000 Notes (originally written for piano in 2000), for percussion trio. She attended the premiere at the beginning of April 2016, shortly before her death.
In the early ’90s, while I was completing my doctoral degree at Temple University, my teacher Matthew Greenbaum suggested that I study with Mamlok for two semesters. I feel deeply grateful for that suggestion. I came to know both Mamlok and her husband, Dwight, who wrote poetry and short stories. That was the beginning of a long friendship. Dwight wrote the poems for Der Andreas Garten (1987), one of her finest compositions.
Mamlok was born in Berlin in 1923 and left in early 1939, a few months after Kristallnacht. Her destination, and that of her mother and adoptive father (her father died when she was a baby) was Guayaquil, Ecuador. Her grandparents stayed in Germany and died in the Holocaust, as did her teacher, Gustav Ernest (Gustav Seeligsohn), with whom she had studied piano, theory, and composition in Berlin during the 1930s.
Ursula Mamlok: Stray Birds (1963) – IV. In a Melancholy Mood
Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano; Harvey Sollberger, flute; Fred Sherry, cello
From Music of Ursula Mamlok, Volume 3 (Bridge 9360)
Guayaquil may have been a haven, but it was hardly a center of musical life. Mamlok (then Ursula Lewy) was able to come to the United States in order to continue her music education at the Mannes School of Music. There she studied with composer/conductor George Szell from 1940 to 1943. She later studied with Vittorio Giannini at the Manhattan School of Music from 1956 to 1958. In the early 1960s, Mamlok studied with Stefan Wolpe (1960-61) and Ralph Shapey (1962-64), who helped her to develop her mature style and technique.
In the beginning, I didn’t know many details about her or her husband’s life. They had married in 1947. Dwight (Dieter) was born in Hamburg, and had escaped to Sweden around the same time Ursula left Berlin. He came to the United States after World War II, and by serendipity they found each other in California. Visiting them through the years, I would, sometimes, find her distressed about passages in a composition she was working on, and I couldn’t avoid noticing how protective Dwight was of her profession and her music.
Coming from Colombia, where I had only heard about one other woman composer of classical music before me, I didn’t realize—in all its dimensions—what it would mean for me to study with her. It took me a long time to realize the levels of her strength.
I met her when she was in her early 70s, and initially I didn’t know how to define her. Who was she? Coming from Colombia, where I had only heard about one other woman composer of classical music before me, I didn’t realize—in all its dimensions—what it would mean for me to study with her. It took me a long time to realize the levels of her strength.
She was soft-spoken, tender, and showed a little bit of the fragility that passing time leaves in our older selves. She had survived cancer in the 1980s, when she was in her 60s. I realized that we shared a similarity—the fact that we arrived relatively late in the United States. I came when I was 29, and she came when she was 17. When she went back to get her master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, she felt a little awkward, being much older than the other students, and reduced her age by five years. She admitted this jokingly later on in her life, in that chirpy and humorous way that both she and Dwight had.
Ursula Mamlok: String Quartet #1 (1962/63) – I. With Intensity
Daedalus String Quartet:
Kyu-Young Kim and Min-Young Kim, violins; Jessica Thompson, viola; Roman Ramakrishnan, cello
From Music of Ursula Mamlok, Volume 1 (Bridge 9291)
We shared the fact of having a duality in our identities that would accompany our lives forever, and maybe that drew me closer to her. She went back to Germany in 2006 when she was 83, one year after the death of her husband. Was that what made her go back to Berlin after having such painful memories there? For me, that was a proof of her strength even if she complained about loneliness when I called her in Berlin. She was emotionally a very strong person and an exceptional composer. She missed her friends back in New York, but her mood would change as soon as she began talking about the composition she was working on. She became a vital and happy soul when she talked about the concerts of her music that she had attended recently or the ones that were coming. During her last years, her compositional language became much simpler, but remained expressive and playful.
In a 1998 interview with Neil Levin, Mamlok gave important information about the evolution of her language. Talking about her early compositions, she said, “I was a composer of tonal music with extended harmonies. But later on, not much later than that, I got interested in twelve-tone music. I felt that you have to do these things. . . . I came to know music of a different style. But it is probably the same music I wrote before, only with a different technique and I still do that. . . . My music is basically lyrical, but also maybe dramatic.”
Later in the interview, she clarified, “In my music there are tonal centers, but it depends how you use the technique. I still like very much the background of the tonal music. . . . My atonal music and twelve-tone music is not that of Schoenberg or other composers who are very dissonant.”
Interview by Neil Levin on February 24, 1998
During the first or second class I took with her, she showed me a sheet of graph paper on which she had written out the magic square for one of her compositions. She explained to me how she structured her pieces before she began to write them. She also told me that she was not very strict in her approach.
Ursula Mamlok: Five Capriccios for oboe and piano (1968) – I. Quarter note = 100
Heinz Holliger, oboe; Anton Kernjak, piano
From Music of Ursula Mamlok, Volume 3 (Bridge 9360)
When I saw the magic square, I felt I was in trouble. In the first composition class I took as an undergraduate student of music theory, I had to compose short compositions or phrases experimenting with different techniques and scales: whole-tone, diatonic, modal, and twelve-tone. Yet despite all my love for the transparency, artistry, and beauty of Anton Webern’s music, I didn’t feel comfortable writing music using predetermined series of pitch classes.
As I froze, not saying anything, Mamlok, in her cautious, elegant, and cheerful manner, said that she wanted to share her score, but that her students could compose in a manner in which they felt comfortable. I took a breath and relaxed. I appreciated her openness.
Ursula Mamlok: Woodwind Quintet (1956): III. Allegro Molto
Windscape: Tara Helen O’Connor, flute/piccolo; Randall Ellis, oboe; Alan R. Kay, clarinet; Frank Morelli, bassoon; and
David Jolley, horn
From Music of Ursula Mamlok, Volume 1 (Bridge 9291)
The lessons continued, always having a positive tone. At the end, there was always time to eat together, sitting at the table: Ursula, Dwight, and his little parakeet, sitting on his head or on the table; Dwight always fed sponge cake to the parakeet. Dwight loved birds, and birds gravitated toward him, according to a story he had told me. When I took the train back to Philadelphia, I always had a smile on my face. Their humorous stories were on my mind, the sounds of their words and their accents in my ears. I was not the only one with a heavy accent. Maybe secretly I felt good about it.
Both of them captivated me.
Dwight and Ursula Mamlok. (Photo by Alex Shapiro)
One comment I heard continuously from her was the fact that she had learned, and kept learning, by attending concerts. A critical ear was something I had from an early age, a quality that was enriched especially by an important clarinet teacher when I was in Colombia. Now she was emphasizing how important it was to simply listen to music. She attended many concerts, and Dwight was always with her. The adorable couple.
Whenever she was interviewed before a concert, she would be playful but strong. What I realized throughout the years is that she defended her place as a composer with conviction. The little fragility I occasionally perceived at their apartment would vanish, and she was there protecting her music in front of the public, with strength that was often combined with doses of cheerfulness.
During her final years in Berlin, she sometimes felt lonely. I would call her every other week and I could hear in her voice that she was excited to hear from me. She enjoyed immensely the occasional visits of old friends from New York or her new friends from Germany. At the Tertianum Residenz, an assisted living facility where she lived, there were many people of her generation but she still felt a sense of not belonging.
Until the very end of her life she was always involved in small music projects and I could hear in her voice a youthful happiness and sparkling energy when she described them. Music was her lasting companion.
Concerto for Oboe and Chamber Orchestra (1976) – I. Spirited
Heinz Holliger, oboe; Ensemble SurPlus conducted by James Avery
From Music of Ursula Mamlok, Volume 1 (Bridge 9291)
When I visited the Mamlok’s New York apartment, I spoke occasionally with Barry Wiener, the musicologist who dedicated much of his time to studying Mamlok’s music in the years immediately preceding her departure from New York. He looked at her older pieces, and helped her to complete the massive process of revising and/or editing more than two dozen forgotten scores that became an important part of her catalogue. When she moved back to Berlin, Bettina Brand, her manager and friend, successfully promoted many of these works in Germany, and she became a celebrated figure in the musical world. In New York, Joel Sachs and Cheryl Seltzer repeatedly championed her music.
Mamlok created a unique, sophisticated voice while absorbing many influences. She used twelve-tone rows together with Wolpe’s methods of pitch organization. She included thirds and triads, and disguised consonant intervals preceding or following dissonances. She played with the rows as if she were playing chess, anticipating the move of the players–her notes full of elegance and expressivity.