Librettist and Singer Aiden K. Feltkamp, who serves as the Emerging Composers and Diversity Director at the American Composers Orchestra, shares how they work with large institutions to identify & dismantle internal discriminatory practices and address unconscious biases. Aiden speaks openly about their personal experience transitioning, the impact that Gender Dysphoria (experiencing discord between one’s gender identity and one’s assigned sex at birth) had on their mental health, and how writing helped their healing process. We discuss our shared experiences of mental illness, or what Aiden and fellow diversity educators call Neurodivergence, the benefits of therapy; medication in treating Anxiety, Depression, and ADHD.
During the 2019 Midwest Clinic which was held over the course of four days (December 18-21, 2019) at McCormick Place in Chicago, the National Band Association (NBA) announced that Omar Thomas has been named the recipient of the 2019 William D. Revelli Award for his 2018 composition Come Sunday. The announcement that Thomas had received the $2,000 cash award, becoming the first African American composer so honored, capped a week during which there were several panels devoted to issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity at the annual Clinic, which is the world’s largest instrumental music education conference, drawing approximately 17,000 attendees.
Omar Thomas has been commissioned to create works for both jazz and classical ensembles and his works have been performed by such diverse groups as the Eastman New Jazz Ensemble, the San Francisco and Boston Gay Mens’ Choruses, and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, in addition to a number of the country’s top collegiate music ensembles. Born to Guyanese parents in Brooklyn, New York in 1984, Thomas moved to Boston in 2006 to pursue a Master of Music in Jazz Composition at the New England Conservatory of Music. He is the protégé of composers and educators Ken Schaphorst and Frank Carlberg, and has also studied under multiple Grammy-winning composer and bandleader Maria Schneider. While still completing his Master’s Degree, Thomas was appointed Assistant Professor of Harmony at the Berklee College of Music at the age of 23. He is currently on faculty in the Music Theory department at The Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Omar Thomas’s first album, I AM, debuted at #1 on iTunes Jazz Charts and peaked at #13 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Albums Chart. His second release, We Will Know: An LGBT Civil Rights Piece in Four Movements, was awarded two OUTMusic Awards, including Album of the Year. For this work, Thomas was also named the 2014 Lavender Rhino Award recipient by The History Project, acknowledging his work as an up-and-coming activist in the Boston LGBTQ community. Thomas is one of seven members of the Blue Dot Collective, a group of composers dedicated to creating new works for wind band that are “well-crafted, compelling, sincere, exciting, and fresh.” Music by Thomas was played twice during the 2019 Midwest Clinic. The Austin, Texas-based Grisham Middle School Honors Band, under the direction of guest conductor Jerry F. Junkin, performed Shenandoah, Thomas’s soulful and occasionally ominous 2019 reworking of the celebrated American folk song, and the Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina-based Wando High School Symphonic Band, under the direction of Bobby Lambert, performed the second movement of Come Sunday.
Omar Thomas describes Come Sunday on his website as “a two-movement tribute to the Hammond organ’s central role in black worship services. The first movement, ‘Testimony,’ follows the Hammond organ as it readies the congregation’s hearts, minds, and spirits to receive The Word via a magical union of Bach, blues, jazz, and R&B. The second movement, ‘Shout!,’ is a virtuosic celebration – the frenzied and joyous climactic moments when The Spirit has taken over the service. The title is a direct nod to Duke Ellington, who held an inspired love for classical music and allowed it to influence his own work in a multitude of ways. To all the black musicians in wind ensemble who were given opportunity after opportunity to celebrate everyone else’s music but our own – I see you and I am you. This one’s for the culture!”
Thomas’s 11-minute, grade 6 work, received its world premiere on November 15, 2018 in a performance by the Illinois State University Wind Symphony under the direction of Anthony C. Marinello, ISU Assistant Professor and Director of Bands, at ISU’s Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall. It has subsequently been performed by the University of Miami’s Frost Wind Ensemble under the direction of F. Mack Wood, the University of Florida Wind Symphony under the direction of David Waybright in Gainesville, Florida, and the Michigan State University Wind Symphony under the direction of Kevin Sedatole, in East Lansing, Michigan, a video recording of which is embedded below.
The Revelli Award, which was established in 1977, is described on the website of the National Band Association as an accolade whose mission is “to further the cause of quality literature for bands in America. Works chosen as winners should be those not only of significant structural, analytical, and technical quality, but also of such nature that will allow bands to program them as part of their standard repertoire. Each year the contest receives approximately 50-80 entries from all over the world. Entries range in scope and quality and are from new to well-established veteran composers. During the evaluation process, entries are narrowed down to a select number of finalists, which are brought to Chicago each December during the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic. There, a panel of leading public school, university, and military band directors meets to determine a winner.”
The members of the 2019 Revelli contest selection committee were: Matthew McCutchen, University of South Florida (chair); Terry Austin, Virginia Commonwealth University; Marcellus Brown, Boise State University (ID); John Burn, Homestead High School (CA); Catharine Sinon Bushman, St. Cloud State University (MN); Col. Jason Fettig, U.S. Marine Band (DC); Jay Gephart, Purdue University (IN); Arris Golden, Michigan State University; Jennifer Hamilton, Red Mountain High School (AZ); Chadwick Kamei, Pearl City High School (HI); Tremon Kizer, University of Central Florida; Diane Koutsulis, Retired (NV); Jason Nam, Indiana University; Scott Rush, Fine Arts Supervisor, Dorchester School District (SC); Shanti Simon, University of Oklahoma; and John Thomson, Roosevelt University (IL).
Previous winners of the award include Donald Grantham and Steven Bryant (both of whom have received the award three times), John Mackey and Wayne Oquin (both of whom have received the award twice), Mark Camphouse, David Dzubay, David Gillingham, Jeffrey Hass, Ron Nelson, James Stephenson, Frank Ticheli, Swiss composer Oliver Waespi, and the late Michael Colgrass. British composer Philip Sparke (who has also received the award twice) and Swiss composer Oliver Waespi are thus far the only non-U.S. based composers to receive the award. Although Omar Thomas is the first African American composer to receive the award, a female composer has still never received it. (It should however be acknowledged that there were more works by female composers programmed during the 2019 Midwest Clinic than in any of its previous iterations. In addition to several works by Julie Giroux and Carol Brittin Chambers, concerts featured music by Jennifer Higdon, Kimberly Archer, and Karen K. Robertson. The Portuguese Orquestra de Sopros da Escola Superior de Música de Lisboa, under the direction of Alberto Roque, performed a movement from Carol Barnett’s evocative Cyprian Suite and two movements from Xi Wang’s Winter Blossom: In Memory of Steven Stucky, works which—along with Thomas’s music and Peter Van Zandt Lane’s Astrarum, performed by the Osakan Philharmonic Winds during the final concert—were personal favorites of the week.) A complete list of previous recipients of the Revelli Award is available on the website of the National Band Association.
The last music Ruth Anderson heard before she died was Judith Blegen singing Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf erden …, with which Mahler’s Fourth Symphony ends, a song which had been a touchstone for us for many years and which I had been unable to find for weeks among our record collection despite just about reorganizing the collection in my search. Then I looked among the contemporary LPs, and there it was, next to David Behrman’s beautiful On the Other Ocean—the wrong part of the century but very much the right context.
Listening to it now, again, I find I am immersed in her text piece Sound Portrait: Hearing a Person, which she created first for her students then for others, in 1973:
“In a darkened room, find a comfortable, totally relaxed position.
Listen to a piece of music.
Think of someone you love.
Do not think of the music.
When you find your thought of the person is gone, bring it
Let other thoughts come, and then let them go.
As the music progresses, let the thought image of the person
Be unaware of the music.
Let anything which happens happen, except keep easily bringing
back, letting, the person image occupy you.
You will find explanations of the person—the music will explain the person.
The music ideas, counterpoint, extensions, contrasts, repetitions, variants,
Rhythms, textures, qualities of sound, all music elements are of the person,
sometimes very literally, sometimes suggesting, sometimes exact, sometimes
understood, sometimes leading to understanding, sometimes verging on language, always primarily nonverbal, always a known sense, a coming of a known sense.
You will find after, an understanding of the person you did not have,
and a personal relationship to the music.
The music, too, will be known.”
For her, it was always that movement of the Mahler 4th.
Ruth Anderson, composer, teacher, flutist, and orchestrator died peacefully at Calvary Hospital, New York, on November 29th, 2019, aged 91. She was a Professor Emeritus of Hunter College, CUNY, where she was the director of the Hunter College Electronic Music Studio from 1968 to 1979, the first operative electronic music studio in the CUNY system and one of the first in the USA to be founded and directed by a woman.
Our earliest meeting was in that studio, where I was to substitute for her while she went on sabbatical. Ruth had first asked Pauline Oliveros to run the studio for her, but Pauline too was on sabbatical and suggested that Ruth contact me—I was then still living in England and eager to come over here. I went to the studio to meet her, nervous, and a bit apprehensive, not having worked hands-on with voltage-controlled equipment, a key part of the studio’s design then. Ruth turned up in white shorts, a blue shirt, and sneakers with a hole in the right toe. I relaxed.
It was a very good studio, beautifully equipped, with a dedicated technician, Jan Hall, who designed new gear and kept everything running very smoothly. Ruth loved tech, tools of any kind really (hence the house we built in Montana, her birthplace), and the studio was her home. It was home to some of the students also, who brought in a couch, a lamp. Jan brought in his slippers.
She was an inspired teacher. Of her studio seminar, she wrote (in a letter to me in 1973), “I give lots of facts, and am very demanding—that they know, that they have self-respect, that they only DO—and sometimes I see it’s not yet the time to DO and they will… and leave them alone, or help when I see they need it… and from students who have been with me before, begin to understand this is not a course, but some equipment and a safe place to be. As soon as the students so-called begin to know each other, to hear a great variety of music, or also experience acoustics, experience each other through sound, like the skin-resistance oscillators, they learn and do, or dream.”
Born in Kalispell, Montana on March 21, 1928, Ruth received a BA in flute, subsequently studying privately with Johnnie Wummer and Jean-Pierre Rampal, then the MA in composition from the University of Washington. At UW she took courses with the poet Theodore Roethke, and she later came to know many other poets including Jean Garrigue, May Swenson (with whom she did Pregnant Dream), W.S. Merwin, and Louise Bogan (whose haunting poem, Little Lobelia is the source of Ruth’s I come out of your sleep). She was one of the first four women admitted to the Princeton University Graduate School program in composition, where she received a fellowship. Two Fulbright Scholarships took her to Paris (1958–60), where she studied composition privately with Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger, who encouraged Ruth to also study Gregorian chant at the Abbey of Solesmes.
Ruth’s was a multi-faceted career. She toured as a flutist with the Totenberg Instrumental Ensemble from 1951-58 and was principal flutist with the Boston Pops (1957-58). As a freelance instrumental and choral arranger, she was also an orchestrator for NBC-TV and the Lincoln Center Theater production of Annie Get Your Gun with Ethel Merman (1966) and Show Boat.
Her establishment of the Hunter College Electronic Music Studio and her involvement with the downtown music scene brought a burst of creative activity when her studies of psychoacoustics, Zen Buddhism, and her teaching intersected, sparking a number of works for tape which are truly innovative. SUM: State of the Union Message from 1973 is a hilarious collage, a send-up of both Nixon and TV commercials, its duration being exactly that of Nixon’s State of the Union Message that year and saying, as she put it, “as little, and by extension, as much as the president, and using the one medium we all share.” Ruth was a superb analog editor, and I recall coming into the Hunter studio at some point while she was working on SUM and finding a fishing line strung across the room with an amazing number of pieces of tape, some very small, delicately suspended by splicing tape, and trying to figure out how she could keep them all straight. She knew what each was, being both persistent and precise, a perfectionist.
She wrote of her work, “It has evolved from an understanding of sound as energy which affects one’s state of being. [These are] pieces intended to further wholeness of self and unity with others.” Hearing a Person is a beautiful, practical example of this key intention, as is the classic tape work Points (1973-4), created entirely from sine tones at a time when few others were interested in so seemingly basic a waveform. But to Ruth, sines are “the basic building blocks of all sound… a sine tone is a single frequency focal point of high energy… Separate sine waves enter at five-second intervals, accumulate in a long veil on one channel while another set of sines is introduced on the second channel and continuing this way with the veils of sound shifting in and out of each other at a very low dynamic level. The high focus of energy of a sine wave, the outsize breathing interval of five-second entries, the calm of the veils and timeless quality are some of the elements I can isolate which have made this a healing piece, one that consistently generates in listeners a sense of repose and quiet energy.”
Jan Hall has said of Ruth, “She was brave,” and certainly to undertake such a challenge as a piece consisting entirely of sine tones at, necessarily, a soft level, is to work entirely exposed. Indeed, she wrote to Charles Amirkhanian in 1977, “Sines are extremely difficult to record, and then it’s difficult to maintain a copy of sines without collecting burbles on tape—this is a strong reason for wanting the piece on a record where burbles don’t collect.” Points was released on the seminal LP produced by Charles Amirkhanian on the 1750 Arch Records label New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media, which was actually the first collection of electronic music by women, in 1977. She was a bit thrown when that quote appeared in the sleeve notes, but I’ve always loved it. With that LP and two releases on Max Schubel’s label Opus One, her work began to be known in the US and internationally.
In addition to Points, a rich array of works in diverse media appeared during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, such as I come out of your sleep—a 4 channel tape piece from 1979; the text pieces Silent Sound (1978), the Sound Portraits, Greetings from the Right Hemisphere (1979); interactive biofeedback pieces such as Centering (1979) for four performers wearing galvanic skin resistance oscillators through which they respond involuntarily to a dancer who is, in turn, responding to their sounds. Ruth’s delight in play comes through in the sonic installations and games she created for exhibitions, collaborating with Jan Hall and Bob Bielecki. For example, in Tuneable Hopscotch (1975), the individual squares generate pitches as you land on them but someone else is at controls on the wall, changing the pitches even as you select them. In Time and Tempo (1984) the viewer’s biofeedback controls the movement of a clock’s hands, slowing as you approach stillness. Together we also created a number of Hearing Studies for the Introduction to Music and other courses at Hunter. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Creative Artists Public Service (CAPS), the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation, the Alice M. Ditson fund and residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony supported much of this work.
To her great pleasure, Here, a solo vinyl album of five pieces, two never before released plus three works mentioned above—SUM, Points, and I come out of your sleep—will be released on the Arc Light Editions label in 2020. The test pressings came shortly before she went into the hospital and we were able to listen to them together. She was on morphine and deeply tired, but as she listened, she started moving her hands to re-shape a phrase, murmuring how she would like to have changed this or that sound, composing right to the end. It was wonderful to see, and she was delighted with the quality of the pressings. Thank you, Jennifer Lucy Allan, visionary producer of Arc Light Editions.
And then there is Flathead Lake, where Ruth spent much of her childhood and where we built our house. She needed a home of her own there, and I needed to be among mountains at least part of the year, so in 1975, barely a year after we’d begun to live together (we moved fast!) we bought about two acres on the lake, added forty feet to it when I assumed that the boundary survey stakes must have been at the halfway point of the property and started felling dead trees on adjacent land. We bought it. We mapped out a floor plan—Ruth did all the designing meticulously—and started to build. About that detailed planning, I remember going to the local lumber yard and saying we wanted to buy exactly four hundred and sixty-four six-inch nails. Tim smiled, estimated that at so many pounds, and we were then his customers for the next fourteen or so years.
We built wall and floor frames, siding and flooring, got help with the really tough things from her family and from professionals, who would often just take off to go elk hunting mid-project, roofs (there was more than one; the place kept growing like a plant), plumbing, electricity, and finally turned the garage over to the pros, being tired of building by then. Ruth finished the interior tongue-and-groove walls for the bedroom just in time for Christmas in ’89, having spent the whole year there while I went back and forth, teaching. But what astounds and moves me very much to think back on it, is that she did that while enduring chronic fatigue, the cause of her year off!
Strong of spirit, self-reliant, a brilliant mind, Ruth loved structures of all kinds. She was also tenacious, very funny with a dry wit, and delighted in the absurd. Her last piece was Furnishing the Garden (2002–approximately 2012), installed at our New York home. Discarded chairs and an old stripped sofa frame began to appear, leaning against a tree here, planted among wild roses there, and best of all, a child’s tiny wooden chair wedged part-way up a large tulip tree. It makes a handy launching pad for local wildlife.
I am so grateful to have been able to share her life for forty-six years. We were finally able to marry legally in 2005 (in Canada), something Pauline and Ione had done and recommended, not long before.
Ruth’s archive will be placed in the Music Division of The New York Public Library.
GREETINGS FROM THE RIGHT HEMISPHERE
“You are invited to a party.
I will furnish wine, cheese, bread and a SPLENDID opportunity for all who come to KNOW one another.
As you enter, leave your left hemisphere – all your words – speaking, reading, writing – at the door.
Let yourself be known, and know others, through your right hemisphere – YOUR SENSES – through all forms of non-verbal communication.
Have a lovely time.”
I used to hate talking about my major. Like many of my peers, I’ve learned to expect unpleasant responses when I say that I study music. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that I’m going to end up living under a bridge with my trombone, that there’s no money in music, and that I’d be better off pursuing a degree in medicine or law. With time and patience, I’ve learned to smile and nod my way through these conversations. But sometimes, there’s a follow-up question that still makes my stomach churn: “Where do you go to school?”
This dread isn’t due to a lack of pride in my institution. I’ve adored Smith College since the moment I set foot on its campus, and its music department has come to be my second family. However, there’s a major drawback to attending this elite women’s college: I’m a transgender male. That means I was born biologically female, but I view and present myself as a male, and I am most comfortable using he/him pronouns. With the help of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and surgery, I’ve finally attained the deep voice and masculine physique that make my body feel like my home. While physically transitioning has brought me endless joy, it has also presented substantial difficulty in my college career. Unless I lie and say that I attend a neighboring co-ed institution (or that I’m an engineering major), innocent questions like “what/where do you study?” often “out” me as a musician and as a transgender person. I’ve spoken with a few people who can’t decide which is worse.
The countless times I’ve been forced to defend the validity of both my major and my gender have caused me to look more closely at the relationship between these two identities. Through meaningful discourse with other LGBTQ+ musicians, introspection on my own identity, and poring over endless pages of queer theory, I’ve come to realize that matters of music, gender, and sexuality are deeply intertwined in queer lives. My narrative is shared by countless other transgender and gender-nonconforming (GNC) artists. We grow up in despair, feeling trapped in bodies that do not feel comfortable and lacking the vocabulary to explain why. In the chaos of dysphoria and self-discovery, our instruments end up being our most faithful companions.
Music is so crucial to trans/GNC people because it facilitates the creation of queer space. In lieu of a crash-course in queer theory, I’ll offer a definition of “queer space” as a space which is created and defined by the presence, expression, and/or empowerment of LGBTQ+ people. (Defining the word “queer” itself is a complicated process, as the term has a complicated history of discrimination and reclamation. For our purposes, I’ll use a definition of “queer” employed in many modern social and academic contexts: “not fitting cultural norms of sexuality and/or gender identity.”) Dedicated spaces like these are hard to come by, and are often inaccessible to those who haven’t come out yet. Playing music, however, gives trans/GNC individuals a valuable opportunity to be unapologetically loud and expressive in a cisnormative world which often tries to silence them. Maintaining an outlet to visibly express oneself without fear of violence or discrimination is crucial to the well-being of any person, but especially so for trans/GNC folks. For many of us, music is our only opportunity to feel empowered without feeling afraid. As we play, we fill the hall around us with our musical interpretations and emotions. Our music is a radical act: a consistent cultivator of precious queer space.
Music also does the crucial work of creating supportive communities for trans/GNC people. For many young people, joining a school band or choir is often an important step in forming a sense of belonging and group identity. In addition to offering a brief solace from the trials of adolescence, these musical opportunities foster collaborative relationships. This is a critical opportunity for trans/GNC youth, who often feel isolated from their cisgender peers and are overwhelmingly depressed as a result. I shudder to think where I might be without the support of my high school bandmates and directors. As I grappled with the confusion and discomfort of figuring out who I really was, music gave me the structure, stability, and support that I needed to survive. Most importantly, when I was questioning whether life was even worth this troubling business of self-discovery, music gave me a sense of purpose. I didn’t know what my gender was, but I did know that I was the lead trombonist in the jazz band: a role that gave me an identity and a motivation to get out of bed every morning. My sense of belonging in the band was the foundation for my sense of belonging in the world.
This reflection on the importance of music in my queer life comes at an appropriate time. June is Pride Month: a time dedicated to LGBTQ+ communities in honor of the 1969 Stonewall riots. As I celebrate both my musical and queer identities, I also mourn the fact that not all trans/GNC youth have access to supportive artistic communities like I did. It pains me to think of how many young people are forced to hide their authentic selves without any opportunity for relief. With limited resources for healthcare, education, or emotional support in a tumultuous political climate, trans/GNC students are feeling increasingly unsafe and unwelcome in their schools and the country at large. Now more than ever, it is imperative that the artistic programs which serve trans/GNC youth remain intact. Music presents a unique opportunity for community building and self-expression that can be life-changing for a transgender child. Its accessibility could prove invaluable for trans/GNC students’ continued success, comfort, and even survival. This Pride Month is not just a celebration: it is a call to action.