Tag: Meet The Composer

New Horizons, Old Barriers

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologists at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

In 1983, the New York Philharmonic presented two weeks of new music programming focused on a single question: “Since 1968, A New Romanticism?” The first of three major Horizons festivals, “The New Romanticism”—curated by the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence Jacob Druckman—was a major box office hit, fueled by a wave of publicity, extensive coverage in the press, and performances of new and recent works by Druckman, David Del Tredici, John Adams, and Luciano Berio. But the significance of Horizons was not only in its examination of the emerging aesthetic trend of neo-Romanticism. Funded by the organization Meet The Composer, the festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace.

The Horizons festivals represented a major shift in how new music was supported in the 1980s, as composers newly embraced the orchestra, turned away from academia, and entered the classical music marketplace.

I’m currently in the midst of researching a book project that situates the Horizons festivals within the larger institutional landscape for American new music in the 1980s and early 1990s. When I presented some of my work in Bowling Green at the 2017 New Music Gathering, it centered on the relationship between Horizons and Bang on a Can, an institution that is central to my book. But for this essay, I’d like to shift focus to talk about what Horizons offered, and did not offer, as support for composers entering a new musical marketplace. My brain is a bit too full of information on this topic right now—I’ve spent most of my summer digging into archival collections related to Horizons and interviewing folks who participated in it—but I will try to make this less of an info dump and more of a critical analysis.

Horizons-83

Meet The Composer

The three Horizons festivals—presented by the Philharmonic in 1983, ’84, and ’86—were a key component of one of many orchestral residencies sponsored by Meet The Composer, an advocacy and granting organization established in 1974 by composer John Duffy. Beginning in 1982, MTC established a nationwide composer-in-residence program. Modeled in part after the successful collaboration between the San Francisco Symphony and John Adams, the MTC residencies aimed to, as Duffy told EAR Magazine in 1986, create “visible ways to re-introduce and re-invigorate the whole world of the composer and orchestra.” The organization’s substantial funding was representative of the Reagan-era shifts in support for the arts: it combined public support from the NEA and state councils with foundation money from the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as corporate financing from Exxon. In comparison to the present day, MTC’s imprint was huge; in 1990, The New York Times reported that it gave on average $2.5 million to composers per year; in contemporary buying power, that is more than four times the amount of grant support that New Music USA, MTC’s successor, provides annually today.

The growing presence of MTC significantly shaped the marketplace for new music in the United States and deeply informed the idea of a non-academic “market” to begin with. One of the most startling discoveries in the course of my recent research—and this may not be casual knowledge among younger readers of NewMusicBox—is that, as recently as the 1970s, American composers frequently were not paid at all for commissions. Complaints about writing music “for exposure” were likely as common in the ’70s as they are today; orchestras often got composers to write new works simply by telling them their music would be played, not that they would be financially compensated for their efforts. As an organization, MTC argued vigorously that composers deserved to be paid. The institution’s significant fundraising and financing of the orchestral program—which included a full-time salary for resident composers—provided a more widespread understanding that a commission came with money, not just a guarantee for performance.

Complaints about writing music “for exposure” were likely as common in the ’70s as they are today.

This notion extended into their advocacy work writ large: in 1984, MTC published “Commissioning Music,” a pamphlet for composers and patrons that included guidelines for potential commissioning fees; in 1989, the organization published a handbook titled “Composers in the Marketplace,” with basic information on copyright, performance, publishing, recordings, royalties, and promotion. Soon enough, major funding organizations were taking their cues from MTC; the New York State Council on the Arts’s 1990 program booklet based its commission fee guidelines off of research conducted by the organization. As composers entered the marketplace, MTC helped determine how much they would be paid.

Horizons and the New Romanticism

As part of his MTC residency with the Philharmonic, Jacob Druckman was selected to compose music for the orchestra, advise music director Zubin Mehta on programming, and supervise the large-scale Horizons festivals. For the first festival, he proposed “The New Romanticism,” a curatorial theme steeped in his belief that, since 1968, new music had embraced “sensuality, mystery, nostalgia, ecstasy, and transcendence.” It was a tagline from which the Philharmonic could easily benefit, as subscribers perhaps otherwise fearful of dissonant and disarming contemporary work might relax at the notion that it maintained some continuity with the 19th-century music that typically brought them to the concert hall. Indeed, one Philharmonic advertisement promised “[t]hree weeks that could just change your mind about the meaning of new music.” And a big and provocative theme like “The New Romanticism” was catnip for music critics: dozens of articles were published examining just what this new romanticism might be, and whether it represented a sea change from the academic serialism that was perceived (often stereotypically) as dominant in the world of American composition.

Over two weeks in June 1983, the Horizons festival boldly seized this moment, with six concerts of orchestral music, numerous premieres, several symposia, and a glossy program book. It was a box office phenomenon, with hundreds of people lining up outside Avery Fisher Hall to buy tickets on opening night. An internal memo in the Philharmonic archives noted that the festival “attracted a younger audience—a way of replenishing the audience” and that the success of the festival “OBLITERATES NOTION that no one cares about new music and there is no audience.”

It was a box office phenomenon, with hundreds of people lining up outside Avery Fisher Hall to buy tickets on opening night.

Importantly, Horizons also offered a model for young composers to enter a new orchestral marketplace. The then 23-year-old Aaron Jay Kernis was selected by the Philharmonic to have his work dream of the morning sky read by the orchestra. In front of an audience of hundreds, Mehta took Kernis to task for his tempo markings and scoring. At one point, fed up with the criticism, Kernis apparently replied, “Just read what’s there.” The audience cheered on behalf of the composer; as the tiff was more widely reported in the press, it served as a kind of parable for the newfound power and opportunity that composers might have in the American symphonic world. An internal Philharmonic memo in the wake of the ’83 festival reports that Druckman said in a meeting that “composers now see that they can write for full orchestra and expect to be performed.”

The young composers Scott Lindroth and David Lang were also hired as assistants to Druckman for preparing the ’84 and ’86 Horizons festivals, which shaped their outlooks as recent graduates from the academy. (It is not a coincidence that these composers all attended Yale, and that Druckman taught there; I’ll be addressing this connection in more detail in my book.) In a 2014 interview with me, Lindroth said of the Horizons festivals that “when composers began to realize that this too might be available to them—and that it wasn’t all about the Pierrot ensemble plus percussion—we were all very, very excited about that: there might be another way to move forward as a composer.” Horizons represented the emergence of a new kind of “middle ground”—and audience—for young composers primarily familiar with either an “uptown” world of chamber ensembles and electronic music within academia, or a “downtown” world of improvisation and DIY ensembles within alternative venues.

And although Lang was himself writing orchestral music in the mid-’80s, his takeaway from working with the Philharmonic was that this particular corner of the marketplace was not for him. He saw the orchestral world as insular and claustrophobic; as he said in a 1997 interview with Libby van Cleve as part of Yale University’s Oral History of American Music project:

It also was very demoralizing and a very good indication of how narrow the world was, and how for any composer who was saying to himself or herself, “Oh, the secret of my future will be to write one orchestra piece. Every orchestra will play it. I’ll be world famous,” it just showed how impossible, or how narrow, or how unsatisfying that experience would be.

The first Bang on a Can marathon, in 1987, was brainstormed as a direct response to Lang’s dissatisfaction with Horizons. The composer and his compatriots Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe had spent their days in the mid-’80s hanging out at dairy restaurants on the Lower East Side, drinking coffee and complaining about institutional negligence towards contemporary work, before deciding to do something about it. But even if it seemed to offer a model for everything that the scrappy Bang on a Can would attempt to avoid, Horizons did provide new institutional connections that facilitated the upstart organization’s funding: Lang cultivated a relationship with John Duffy during his work for the Philharmonic, and MTC subsequently became the earliest major financial supporter of Bang on a Can.

Lang & Druckman

The Limits of Horizons

In the 1980s, MTC’s advisory board included a significant number of female and black composers, and more diversity than many institutions today.

From my vantage point today, one of the strengths of MTC under Duffy was its broad purview in terms of who was considered a composer and the resources that they thus commanded. In the 1980s, the organization’s advisory board included a significant number of female and black composers, and more diversity than many institutions today. Duffy’s strong advocacy for underrepresented voices was confirmed in my recent interview with Tania León, who served on the MTC board and worked with the Philharmonic as a new music advisor in the early ‘90s. (I haven’t gotten a chance to transcribe this interview yet, so again, stay tuned for the book.) In a 1993 questionnaire assessing MTC’s jazz commissioning program that I found during recent archival research at New Music USA, the composer and violinist Leroy Jenkins wrote of his MTC grant that “the very audacity of the idea of writing for a classical organization…has given inspiration to me and my contemporaries.” I was also struck, at a memorial service honoring Duffy in 2016 at Roulette, that Muhal Richard Abrams, a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, performed in his honor.

But because MTC partnered with existing institutions and established composers with their own blind spots, this push for diversity did not extend into the 1983 Horizons festival. I raise this issue because, in a recent blog post about the 2017 New Music Gathering at which I presented on my research on Horizons, the composer Inti Figgis-Vizueta pointed out the absence of diversity among conference attendees and, importantly, that very few panels addressed the systemic biases that plague the world of new music today. They suggested that “there needs to be an overhaul of our ethics to require more diverse voices in new music and that starts with each participant in our gathering truly self-criticizing and understanding their own intersections of privilege and power.” As a musicologist, I believe that such an overhaul can also benefit from telling and retelling historical moments in which underrepresented voices were silenced, and in which powerful institutions were subsequently reprimanded for the same reasons they are critiqued today.

The seven orchestras that participated in the first round of MTC residencies were free to choose their own composers: all of the composers they selected were men except for Libby Larsen, who partnered with Stephen Paulus to work with the Minnesota Orchestra, and all were white except for Robert Xavier Rodriguez, who collaborated with the Dallas Symphony. Druckman was known as a non-doctrinaire figure, and the programming of the ’83 Horizons festival was impressively catholic, bringing together distinct musical styles and a wide array of composers from Del Tredici and Adams to Wuorinen and Schuller. But even as it may have included a praiseworthy “diverse” assembly of musical idioms, diversity in terms of race and gender was almost nonexistent. Only one work by a female composer, Barbara Kolb, was presented in 1983; no works by black composers were performed. This issue was raised by the singer and author Raoul Abdul, who accused the orchestra of discrimination both at the festival and in the press; in a column in the New York Amsterdam News, he wrote that “when I asked the question ‘Where are the Black Composers?’ at the opening symposium at the Library of Performing Arts last Wednesday evening, it was greeted with hisses and boos from some of the 300 people present. Philharmonic Composer-in-Residence Jacob Druckman, who put together the festival, refused to address the question directly by saying he couldn’t include everyone. He lumped Blacks in with women and other minorities.”

Understanding the fact that Horizons did not present any works by black composers in 1983 can help us understand the mechanisms that shape how and why underrepresented voices continue to be excluded in the world of new music in the present. Given the dozens of scores that were mailed to the Philharmonic by hopeful composers—the New York Public Library’s Jacob Druckman papers include many, many letters from composers submitting their work for his examination—the composer-in-residence and the orchestra certainly had access to music by African Americans, but they did not program it. And it was an issue that the organizers were aware of beforehand: when actually planning the ’83 Horizons festival, as a document in the Philharmonic archives reveals, Druckman said in a meeting that “two areas have been of concern to Meet The Composer: getting more high-power soloists; and programming a work by one of the minimalists (Reich or Glass) and by a woman or black composer.” There is much to praise in Druckman’s visionary promise of a new Romanticism and the Philharmonic’s wholehearted embrace of contemporary music with Horizons, one that might even eclipse Alan Gilbert’s worthwhile recent efforts. But declining to properly represent the diversity of the American musical landscape was one of its failures.

press conference for Horizons

León mentioned in her interview with me that in the wake of the Abdul protest, Duffy marched over to the Philharmonic’s offices with a stack of scores by black composers to deliver to the orchestra. The second festival, titled “The New Romanticism—A Broader View,” addressed this injustice by including performances of music by George Lewis, George Walker, and Anthony Davis, as well as Diamanda Galás, Thea Musgrave, Laurie Spiegel, Joan La Barbara, and Betsy Jolas. But observers still pointed out the underrepresentation of women and black composers in the public forums that Horizons mounted. As reported by Johnny Reinhard in EAR Magazine, at an opening symposium for the festival in June 1984, an audience member asked of a panel of composers—which included Hans Werner Henze, Milton Babbitt, Roger Reynolds, Greg Sandow, and Druckman—“Why aren’t there any women represented here?”

“The response was an incredibly pregnant silence,” Reinhard wrote. The discussion continued to unfold awkwardly, as someone else asked, “What about Ornette Coleman?” As Reinhard described:

Mr. Sandow fielded the question by pointing out how interesting it is that Jazz musicians prefer to be kept separate from what was being represented on the Horizons series when New York Times music critic John Rockwell cried out, “That’s not true, Gregory!” It appears that Mr. Coleman had told him otherwise. “Maybe it’s because he’s black,” suggested Brooke Wentz timidly.

In 1983, a festival that embraced a new diversity of compositional idioms under the umbrella “The New Romanticism” neglected to include women and black composers. And in a subsequent festival that attempted to rectify this imbalance, a panel consisting of white male stakeholders could not fully account for the biases that those in the audience easily perceived. Meet The Composer and Horizons helped introduce composers to the marketplace, but this marketplace belonged to the institutional world of classical music, entrenched with long histories of racism and sexism that we must continue to fight against in the present day.


William Robin

William Robin

William Robin (@seatedovation) is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland. He completed his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation focused on indie classical and new music in the twenty-first century United States. His research interests include American new music since the 1980s and early American hymnody. As a public musicologist, Robin contributes to the New York Times and The New Yorker, and received an ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in 2014 for the NewMusicBox article “Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms.”

Celebrating John Duffy with Music and Memories

John Duffy Celebration

“What we did was very radical,” Frances Richard told the crowd gathered to honor the life and legacy of composer, advocate, and Meet The Composer founder John Duffy. “Sitting here so calmly all these years later, I don’t know if you realize it. The idea was to pay composers. Whoever heard of such a thing?”

The audience erupted into applause and laugher, as they had throughout the evening of music and remembrances which also included remarks shared by John Corigliano, Robert Cross, Tania León, Annette Duffy Odell, and Steve Reich. There were also performances by Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Sherry, Miranda Cuckson with Aaron Wunsch, and the Cassatt String Quartet with Glenn Morrissette and Tomoya Aomori. For those who missed the May 3, 2016 event at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn, full clips are available below.

Remembering Composer and MTC Founder John Duffy (1926-2015)

John Duffy

John Duffy
Photo by Glen McClure

American composer and beloved new music advocate John Duffy, who founded Meet The Composer in 1974, died in Virginia this morning after a long illness. He was 89.

In 2011, Meet The Composer and the American Music Center merged to form New Music USA. Ed Harsh, current president and CEO, reflects on Duffy’s profound impact on the field in the post below. Many in our community will feel this loss deeply. We encourage you to share your memories of John in the comments section.

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With John Duffy, everything was possible. He radiated an optimism as forthright and clear as it was free of guile and self-importance. Though the limits of observable reality might be challenged, audacity never distracted from core purpose. His optimism happily went about its business. It lived solidly on terra firma. It got things done.

In the immediate aftermath of a person’s death, we can feel an urge to sum up their impact and role and even character. We want to come to some kind of conclusion about what their life may have “meant,” perhaps as a benchmark against which to take some measure of our own. I certainly don’t propose to do that here. It’s a shaky notion in any case to impose a stable unity onto a life’s complex assemblage of experiences and relationships, joys and sorrows, narrative through-lines and irrational disconnects over time. Summing up any life is foolhardy—especially one as rich as John’s was.

My aim is something more modest and personal, though it’s certainly still daunting. I want to reflect on a few of the characteristics I treasured in John that I feel are his legacy to New Music USA, the second incarnation of his visionary creation Meet The Composer. Mine is just one perspective. I hope others will share in the comment section below their own personal perspectives and stories. John meant so many things to so many people. The more we share, the more we’ll be able to appreciate him.

A gathering of voices would be entirely appropriate to John’s devotion to the American ideals of democracy and pluralism. He was known to list the quality of “tolerance” at the top of his list of values he appreciated most. The example of his own life suggests something broader, more positive and more proactive than mere tolerance. He was omnivorously curious about and respectful of all music. Even if a given artist’s work might not have been to his taste, he would be interested to know more about it, to understand a bit better what drove its creation. What’s more, he wanted others to be interested, too.

This omnivorous openness was paired with a healthy disregard for conventional hierarchies. He didn’t recognize them as valid, so he ignored them. For John, the idea that a “classical” symphonic work was, by nature, automatically worthy of higher status than the work of, say, Ornette Coleman or Burt Bacharach—to use two of his favorite examples—was simply bunk. He was quick to fight the ingrained privilege and prejudice that often hide behind those hierarchies. The energy and self-assuredness he brought to such spirited struggles embodied for me a muscular, practical, American blue-collar view of the value inherent in solidly workmanlike effort, no matter its form.

The exploding variety of creativity we’re blessed with in 2015, which blows through genre categories like so much thin air, may obscure for us now the uncommon character of his views. It’s worth pausing for a moment to make sure that we don’t take John’s openness for granted. Because we shouldn’t. His views were decades ahead of their time and distinctly radical when Meet The Composer was founded in the 1970s.

We should likewise not underestimate the quality of courage he showed in standing up for his own convictions. The name of his organizational creation is its own example. He frequently told the story of thinking deeply about the name for his then-new program. He scribbled one possible name after another on a big yellow legal pad. Under the influence of the direct, human immediacy of Walt Whitman’s poetry, he wrote down “Meet The Composer.” When he finally chose that name—against the advice of many, let it be noted—he was met with a lot of resistance. “The higher ups” at the New York State Council on the Arts hated it, writing letters to him explaining that it wasn’t classy enough. He said he read the letters and just put them away in a drawer, figuring that people would come around to his view sooner or later. Which they did.

John embodied faith, broadly defined; faith in himself and in his fellow artists. This is the fuel that powered his will. And what a will it was, able to conjure abstract vision into very real being. For years in the late 1970s and early 1980s he enthusiastically regaled anyone who would listen with his idea for putting composers in residence with orchestras around the country. We can only imagine how many dozens (hundreds?) of indulgent smiles or blank stares he had to suffer. What an improbable idea it was for a little nonprofit with a tiny budget…. By 1992—ten years, several million dollars, and one transformed orchestral new music world later—it wasn’t improbable anymore. It was obvious.

That was a big victory, but it wasn’t the only one. There was also the MTC commissioning program, the composer-choreographer program, the New Residencies program. So many new realities conjured, to the benefit of so many. Yes, that’s the thing: to the benefit of so many. No one I’ve met more exemplified generosity of spirit than John. He used the term “angelic spark” relating to people who helped others in the spirit of pure common service. The term fits him so well.

I feel sure that in John’s case the spark was inherent and inborn. Life experience just as surely brought it brightly to the fore. John cited a key moment during his naval service in the Pacific during World War II. As he related the story, his ship was attacked and a number of shipmates were killed. He and another sailor stood guard over the bodies through the night. In the morning, with a few Old Testament words from the ship’s captain, the bodies were slid into the sea. That stark demonstration of life’s fragility seems to have inspired in John a permanent commitment to make a difference, to live a life of value and of service.

Future years would determine the focal point of that service: composers. You could talk to John for only a few minutes before feeling the energy, the power, the almost talismanic specialness that he conferred on composers. In truth, John felt this way about all artists, but when he spoke of composers the magic was palpably electric. The more society could come to put composers to work, the more society would benefit. Composers were the greatest national resource imaginable.

And composers deserved to be paid like the professionals they are. John’s experience as a composer in a broad range of marketplaces gave him a tactile understanding of creators’ economic value. He was an Emmy-winning composer for TV with deep experience in music for the theater as well as the concert hall. He understood the worthiness of matching appropriate money to appropriate work, and his perspective generated the ethos of MTC, which raised the consciousness of subsequent generations.

Bang on a Can Benefit Concert and Party Honoring John Duffy

Bang on a Can Benefit Concert and Party Honoring John Duffy, September 13, 1998. Left to right, seated: Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, John Duffy; standing: Cecil Taylor, Billy Taylor, David Lang, Steve Reich, and Alvin Singleton.
Photo by Peter Serling

To artists given less than their due attention and appreciation by their culture, John’s valuation of composers, both figurative and very literal, was manna for the starving. Like an oasis, John’s championing leadership brought new life and new energy to a community of composers who felt like creative travelers crossing a vast desert. His vision inspired high hopes for what might be built, in fact built together, on the other side. My vaguely Moses-like imagery here is intentional. On a less cosmic scale, John’s positive vision commanded deep reverence and even deeper human attachments. The theologian Forrest Church wrote that although agnostic on the subject of life after death, Church was completely convinced on the subject of love after death. He believed the most profound measure of the wealth of our lives to be the love we leave behind when we die. By this measure, John was a wealthy man indeed.

So IS everything possible? No. Not really. If it were, John would still be with us, having fought back like a champ once again, overcoming the will of the misguided cells in his body. There are certain rules we can’t change. One is that people die. But John’s life leaves a resilient legacy, especially precious at moments when our courage and faith are tested. John reminds us that what’s possible goes way beyond the horizon we see, and maybe even as far as we dare to dream.

John Duffy was featured by NewMusicBox in October 2003. Read the full hour-long conversation John Duffy: The Composer as Statesman.

An Honor to Celebrate (and a Shame Long Forgotten)

I’m a bit late this week in contributing my regular ad-hoc chain of paragraphs to the NewMusicBox blog area, something I still think of as “Chatter” and, in my most nostalgic moments, as “In the Second Person” commentary. And there’s plenty of reason for me to feel nostalgic, which is the same reason why these paragraphs are getting posted later than usual. I spent the entire weekend at the 2012 conference of Chamber Music America which culminated in honoring (with its highest honor, the Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award) one of my mentors and a lifelong role model, American composer and music advocate John Duffy. (And I do mean the entire weekend—the panels, plenary sessions, showcase performances, concerts, and awards ceremonies spanned early Friday morning to late Sunday night.) While there was no time to write over the weekend and on Monday (a national holiday) I was in no shape to string sentences together, I tried to the best of my time and ability to report on stuff as it happened via Twitter.)

Ed Harsh and John Duffy

A meeting of generations: New Music USA CEO Ed Harsh and Meet The Composer Founder John Duffy. Photo by Shelley Kusnetz, courtesy Chamber Music America.

Although he has written over 300 compositions including operas, symphonic works, scores for films and television programs, and incidental theatre music, Duffy is perhaps most broadly known for being the founder of Meet The Composer. Aside from the fact that Meet The Composer is one of two organizations (the other being the American Music Center) that merged last year to form New Music USA (the umbrella under which NewMusicBox, and many other programs, now exist), MTC and John Duffy will always hold a special place in my heart. I was among the myriad composers who received support from MTC for premiere performances of my own music which might not have happened otherwise (since I was not on its staff, I was able to). At one point in my life, I worked for a firm that handled public relations for MTC and in so doing learned how much the organization contributed to the sea-change in the presence of contemporary music and its variety in the established classical music landscape. Duffy was one of the first people to decry the artificial lines between musical genres—famously declaring Charlie Parker’s alto saxophone improvisations to be music on par with the counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach. And the concept of a composer-in-residence is now pretty easy to grasp; before MTC, not so much.

But, above and beyond that, the persona of John Duffy made me realize that if you are a composer, your entire life is a composer residency. Everything we do as composers and how we interact with everyone in our community affects our field as a whole. On a personal note, Duffy has been among the most generous people I have ever met. Many years ago when he was moving and decided to get rid of his many LP recordings accumulated over decades (which was formidable), he learned that I was a vinyl obsessive so he actually gave me his entire collection. Acquiring these recordings was my introduction to lots of extraordinary repertoire including the symphonies of William Schuman and—believe it or not—the first recordings I ever heard of wind band music. Hearing these recordings, like everything else I got from knowing Duffy (corporeal and non-corporeal), broadened my mind and helped to open me up to the whole world of new American music which is something that needed to happen in order for me to do what I do now.

The entire 2012 Chamber Music America conference centered on advocacy and musical diversity, which is a tribute to the legacy of John Duffy. Often CMA’s Bogomolny awardees are honored with chamber music concerts highlighting their work. Duffy has only composed one chamber work to date (would that he would write more) so only that work was presented. But even if he had composed 66 string quartets (as did Joseph Haydn, a factoid the Attacca Quartet proclaimed during their showcase when they announced that they intend to record all of them someday), the only way to honor Duffy would be to play one of his pieces along with the music of others, since honoring him is ultimately about embracing all composers. So on CMA’s celebratory concert at Symphony Space entitled “Sounds American,” alongside Duffy’s composition, We Want Mark Twain, was the performance of a new work for oud and wind quintet by Palestinian-American Simon Shaheen performed by Shaheen with the Imani Winds, Cuban-American jazz pianist Martin Bejerano’s compositions for his own trio, and performances by the genre defying group Fieldwork of compositions by each of its three members: Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, and Tyshawn Sorey.

Amir ElSaffar's Two Rivers Ensemble

Amir El-Saffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble. Left to Right: Carlo DeRosa, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, percussion; Amir El-Saffar, trumpet and santoor; Ole Mathisen, tenor saxophone; Tareq Abboushi, buzuq; and Zaafir Tawil, oud. Photo by Shelley Kusnetz, courtesy Chamber Music America.

If that concert seems all over the map, the showcases went even further. I already mentioned the Attacca Quartet who before playing Haydn opened with a selection from John’s Book of Alleged Dances by John Adams–the provocatively titled “Toot Nipple.” Three brass quintets were on hand, among them the Gaudete Brass, 75% of whose showcase repertoire was by living Americans, and half of it by women composers. Then there was bassist Mario Pavone’s sextet whose pianist Peter Madsen blew my mind with his ability to make a fast tremolo ring out like a brass instrument, and Todd Marcus’s Quartet whose percussionist Eric Kennedy, even when comping the other players, carved out compelling melodies from striking all different areas of his various drums and cymbals. I was perhaps most balled over by Amir El-Saffar’s ensemble which navigated a musical realm somewhere between the traditional Iraqi maqams of his heritage with swinging jazz in charts he described as being “bitonal in the keys of F and B half flat”!

The panel discussions I attended—broaching subjects from using social media for audience connectivity to the future of recordings—spanned a similar broad reaching aesthetic, as did the two plenary sessions. The second, by Randy Cohen of Americans For the Arts, reaffirmed Duffy’s sentiments in how he tied the arts to society. He also introduced much of the audience, myself included, to the “shame flute”—a Medieval instrument that was clasped around the neck of bad musicians who were forced to parade around the town playing on it to humiliate them for the awful sounds they inflicted on their neighbors. I think we need to reclaim the instrument for new music. The first plenary, a talk by Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization (which advocates for Black and Latino classical musicians), led me to a whole day of listening on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day instead of writing this report. Once again, it all goes back to John Duffy (except for the shame flute); it was a joy to see him so publicly acknowledged and honored for his commitment to all of us.

John Duffy CMA Group Photo

Left to right: Fran Richard (of ASCAP), Tania León, John Duffy, Frank J. Oteri and his wife Trudy Chan, ASCAP’s Michael Spudic, and Ed Harsh. Photo by Shelley Kusnetz, courtesy Chamber Music America.