Tag: mentors

Brandee Younger: A Hip-Hop Baby Transforms the Harp

Brandee Younger sitting next to a harp with the branded text for episode 22 of the NewMusicBox SoundLives podast from New Music USA

Brandee Younger has carved out a very unlikely music career for herself. A classically-trained harpist but also a self-confessed “hip-hop baby” who loves popular music, Younger deeply immersed herself in jazz as an undergrad at the Hartt School and by the time she entered grad school at NYU was already established in that scene. Then shortly after forming her own quartet over a decade ago, Younger soon became a go-to collaborator not only for jazz artists such as Ravi Coltrane and Marcus Strickland, but also for creative artists across a very wide array of genres, including multiple Grammy winners rapper Common, singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill, and R&B producer Salaam Remi.

“I wanted my instrument to fit into my personality; I didn’t want it to be limited,” Younger explained during our recent conversation. “I knew I didn’t want an orchestral career, but even as a kid I wanted to play other styles of music … Over time I finally became comfortable with blending those worlds together, but it took a long time to confidently try and put them together.”

How Younger has transformed the harp, which is typically associated with salons or angels, into such a malleable and yet still distinctive instrument seems without precedent. But she had two very significant role models in Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby. Her love for Alice Coltrane, whose cascading harp sonorities matched the intensity of the free jazz improvisers with whom she performed, began in high school when her father gave her a Priceless Jazz compilation of her recordings. She was immediately captivated by “Blue Nile” and soon thereafter asked every jazz musician she encountered if they knew her. Brandee never actually met Alice Coltrane but she was invited to play at her memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 2007. Dorothy Ashby, whom Brandee also never met (she was only two years old when Ashby died), has had an even more significant influence on her career trajectory. Ashby also led her own ensembles starting in her 20s and quickly leaped from jazz to a much wider stylistic palette that embraced a spectrum of pop and world music traditions. She even made a guest appearance on Stevie Wonder’s legendary Songs in the Key of Life and, as Brandee pointed out, has been heavily sampled in hip-hop, which is how she first became aware of her.

“The one huge HUGE thing for me in Dorothy Ashby’s music, you listen to what she was recording, she was doing music of the time,” said Younger. “She was playing whatever she wanted. She was not jazz-specific. She was playing traditional Jewish melodies. She was playing the pop tune that came out. She was playing the soundtrack of the most popular movie that came out. And to think back as a kid and what I wanted to do, I wanted to play the pop music that I heard on the radio. I wanted to play these familiar tunes for my friends and family.”

So it makes sense that Brandee Younger would want to record an album acknowledging Dorothy Ashby. But that album, Brand New Life, which was just released in April, is a far-cry from an ossified compendium of covers.

“It was really important for me to make it 2023,” Younger explained. “It wasn’t to be a tribute album, you know, it was to really celebrate her legacy but like moving along. … It was really important for me to collaborate with folks that shared a special kinship with her. And the first person to pop up was of course Pete Rock who was the first person I know of to sample her.”

Brand New Life also features a memorable contribution from Meshell Ndegeocello, who is featured on a reggae-infused version of “Dust,” an Ashby original which was originally released on her 1970 LP The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby. And Mumu Fresh, who is mostly known as a rapper, adds extremely soulful vocals to Younger’s original “Brand New Life,” the title track.

Brandee is currently on tour, her first time traveling to different cities to perform since the pandemic shut down everything three years ago. It’s been a long wait, but she won’t only be playing material from Brand New Life. She’ll also be performing her extraordinary original Unrest, a turbulent composition created during lockdown.

“We’ll be doing new music and some of the stuff from the last album,” she explained. “I also will throw in an Ashby or Coltrane tune because that’s my thing, what I’ve been doing forever. And the tour is mostly going to be trio–Rashaan Carter on bass, Alan Menard on drums. So yeah, harp trio baby.”

Magical Yet Practical—Remembering Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)

“Over, under, and with a twist” — this was how Pauline Oliveros described the technique she was demonstrating for coiling an audio or video cable for efficient storage or transport. This was also my personal introduction to Pauline in the fall of 1977, when I arrived at UC San Diego as a graduate composition student. All incoming grad students were required to take a kind of basic training course—taught by Pauline that year—that instructed us in the essential survival skills for a composer in that department. The “Over, under” method for coiling cables (which is also good for staying on good terms with your technical staff – another important but often-overlooked ability) was one of two practical skills covered that first week. The 2nd was tape splicing, a procedure now only practiced the way anthropology students are taught how to make a stone arrowhead by chipping obsidian or chert.

I first became familiar with Pauline’s work I of IV as a teenager in the late 1960s from the LP release on Columbia’s Odyssey label that also included Richard Maxfield’s Night Music and Steve Reich’s Come Out. This disc (along with Terry Riley’s In C) changed my life.  I had also spent most of 1972 through ‘74 hanging out at the Center for Contemporary Music (at Mills College and then under the direction of Robert Ashley), which was the institutionalized evolution of the legendary San Francisco Tape Music Center of which Pauline was a co-founder. The Tape Music Center’s recording archive was available at Mills, and I was able to hear many of those early electronic works by Pauline and many others. In fact, my decision to select UC San Diego for graduate school was made in large part because Pauline was on the faculty there along with composer Robert Erickson, whom I had seen listed as both Pauline’s and Terry Riley’s teacher.

Close on the heels of those first two practical assignments was another of a rather different character: to keep a dream journal for the whole semester. This was a process that required learning techniques of awareness during dreaming that facilitated remembering one’s dreams upon waking and then getting them down on paper. (This was, after all, well before personal computers.)

While Pauline was fully grounded in the practicalities of making music, she was always able to connect directly to a place that can reveal mystery and magic.

While it was not evident to me back in 1977, that mix of the extremely practical (how to coil an audio cable and splice tape) and whatever its opposite might be (the dream journal) in many ways exemplified something essential about Pauline.   While she was fully grounded in the practicalities of making music, living and thriving in the physical world, she was always able to connect directly to that place in our less-than-conscious experience of the world—a place where we experience the moment more deeply than we assume possible and a place that can reveal mystery and magic.

I am somewhat at a loss for the right term here, as the easy words to describe Pauline’s work and impact all evoke the “spiritual” realm.  While that is certainly how many people experienced much of Pauline’s later work, such as the Sonic Meditations or Deep Listening, I don’t think the term “spiritual” gets at the truth of this place for her. I believe her inspiration was more a recognition of the potential for depth and magic in every moment of experience, whether it be listening, playing, or any other human endeavor.

It took me some time to arrive at this viewpoint about Pauline. I’ll admit to being a “spiritual” skeptic, having lived through the self-indulgent and shallow spirituality that seemed emblematic of the 60s and 70s.  So, it was with some reluctance that I participated in my first session of Sonic Meditations with Pauline at UCSD’s Center for Music Experiment (then in a WW2-era Quonset hut) in the fall of 1977.   A group of perhaps thirty graduate and undergraduate music students sat on the carpeted floor, and Pauline gave us simple instructions for how to listen and then select our own pitch to sing.  I vividly recall my own transition from guarded observer to immersed participant, as her simple instructions quickly yielded what I can only describe as transcendental sonic and temporal experiences.

Over the course of that year, I participated in a number of additional sessions of Sonic Meditations, as well as some performance events co-created and led by Pauline and her partner at the time, Linda Montano.   In all of these experiences there was, in the transition from observer to participant, a move into a vibrant present moment that for me has always been the goal of performance.

By the early 1980s Pauline had departed from UCSD (simultaneous with the department’s change of emphasis towards computer music technology and a more Euro-centric practice of composition). She became one of the founders, along with Robert Ashley, of New Music America.    This festival, which was almost like a convention or trade show for the experimental wing of American contemporary music, was mounted by a new producing team and in a different city each year.   One could say that John Cage was the godfather of the festival and Pauline the godmother.  I recall that when the collaborating team of each new festival was being developed, Pauline was—with a mix of both humor and deep truth—given the title of the “chaplain,” an acknowledgement that she provided, in addition to leadership and artistic vision, a moral compass for the whole community.

With her passing, we celebrate her life: a complete and uncompromising life lived with inspiration, creativity, compassion, and without boundaries.

The last time I saw Pauline perform was with the Deep Listening Band at a festival of New Albion Records artists at BARD College in the summer of 2008.    It had been a number of years since I had listened to Pauline’s work and some of my skepticism about the “spiritual” resonance around her work had returned.  The DLB closed the multi-day festival (where I had earlier performed In The Name(less) a work for my Invented Instrument Duo with Joel Davel), which was produced in the remarkable Spiegeltent.   There on stage was a grand piano and a large collection of instruments, including Pauline’s big accordion, miscellaneous toys, a trombone, didgeridoo, plastic pipe, reams of electronics, and a trio of “old folks.”   But from the first sound through the entire hour-long performance, Pauline, along with the amazing trombonist Stuart Dempster and pianist David Gamper, wove a dense tapestry of sound (mostly improvised) with such clarity, depth, sensuality, and humor that it came to me that THIS music, which exemplified the “deep listening” aesthetic, was in fact the source and inspiration for numerous other artists’ explorations of drones and slowly evolving musical textures.  I left the concert laughing with pleasure—these “old folks” totally rocked!  And Pauline left us with what “old folks” are supposed to give us:  wisdom.  With her passing, we celebrate her life: a complete and uncompromising life lived with inspiration, creativity, compassion, and without boundaries.

Jonathan Kramer’s Gift

It’s often surprising the way things turn around if enough time passes. Jonathan Kramer was my first composition teacher: I was an undergraduate history major at Yale, increasingly possessed by music and the need to write it, yet seeing no way I could move beyond the scribbles of a dilettante. On a whim (more like a desperate lunge) I made contact with Jonathan and was allowed into his composition class, which then led to lessons. I graduated still a history major, but also a composer…for the rest of my life. Jonathan saved my life.

He and I stayed in touch over the years, as he undertook a life that led him to Cincinnati and then eventually culminated in a position at Columbia. Jonathan had established a reputation as both theorist and composer by this point, and his book The Time of Music (published in 1988) marked him as one of the most original musical thinkers of his generation. (Though currently out of print, it remains enormously influential.)

The next major project on Jonathan’s desk was a book on musical postmodernism. His own music was always an original synthesis—I was struck that works of his I heard in college seemed to be a wonderful blend of minimalist repetition and restriction with modernist structures. So it’s not too surprising that the eclecticism and incongruities of postmodernism, as it arose in the 1970s and ’80s, would appeal to him, and increasingly he identified his own music as postmodernist in style. Moreover, his restless intellectual curiosity led him to want to discover the underpinning principles of postmodern practice from a broader perspective, something that satisfied the theorist and aesthetician in him (while further fertilizing his own art).

I met Jonathan periodically in New York once he was settled there, and knew about the book. It sounded like an enormous endeavor (and enormously ambitious; it was difficult to see how anyone could undertake such a vast challenge, a trip through a hall of mirrors). And then, suddenly, one day in 2004 I heard in an email from a friend that Jonathan had died. To say it was a shock is an understatement, because he was only 62. In fact, only about three months before, we had shared a program as part of Andrea Clearfield’s loft concerts in Philadelphia, sitting together on a sofa and listening to our respective pieces. I was to hear afterwards that his end came unexpectedly from a disease that had laid latent throughout his life. (The New York Times reported it as leukemia.)

And so suddenly the youngest of my major teachers was gone, the one I always expected would last the longest. I thought passingly of his postmodernism book, but I assumed it was lost forever.

And then around 2009 my friend Kyle Gann told me that he had a copy of a draft of the book, titled from the very beginning as Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening. Jonathan’s widow, Deborah Bradley-Kramer, and Jann Pasler (a musicologist colleague and friend of Jonathan’s at UC San Diego) had been trying to find a publisher, at that point to no avail. They’d contacted Kyle as a potential editor, but his commitments were too great at that point to agree. He gave me the text (in old-fashioned hardcopy), and I began to read. It was such a pleasure to hear Jonathan’s voice again in my head—erudite, funny, both a scholarly nerd and a total outsider. And I came to think that maybe there was yet a way to have his text see the light of day. It was just too good.

And so I began a quest to find a home for the book. I made contact with Deborah, and she gave permission for me to try to find a publisher. (She and Jann had tried several, but been rebuffed by the usual juried evaluation process at academic presses; the reviews claimed that aspects of the book were too quirky, or “postmodernism” as a topic was already passé.) I noted that a small press, Continuum, had not only published a freewheeling set of essays by a former composition student of mine, but had also put out the popular 33 1/3 series of books on important albums. I wrote to them and there was immediate interest.

The process of ultimate approval took longer than expected (as it always does). Continuum was bought by Bloomsbury, and the project moved into their queue. Thanks to the enthusiasm and support of a young Continuum editor who then transferred to Bloomsbury, Ally Grossan, it eventually received the green light.

Then began the process of editing. In one sense, it was easier than I might have thought. The version of the book I had been given by Gann was essentially complete except for one chapter, which Jonathan had noted needed more work. But once Deborah and I began to dig through his files (many of them in barely accessible earlier versions of Word!), we found that in fact he had basically completed the chapter, plus we found two additional chapters—analyses of Mahler and Nielsen that served as concrete examples of the analytic principles outlined in the book.

Due to the passage of time since the book’s drafting, context needed to be given. Part of this came from an introduction I wrote (which recaps much of what you’ve already read here), plus there is a preface by Jann that describes the intellectual evolution of the project that she observed closely through years of discussion with Jonathan, and a series of essays contributed by his former students, colleagues, and collaborators, covering his thought, music, personality, and legacy (Deborah, Duncan Neilson, John Halle, Martin Bresnick, Brad Garton, and John Luther Adams).

I won’t go into brutal detail about the minutiae of editing. Suffice it to say that it’s far more complex an endeavor than one can ever imagine when one starts.

Postmodern Music

But then it does all get done. And what of the book itself? As most by now will likely agree, “postmodernism” as a musical style is pretty much over. The eclectic, juxtapositional experiments from the 1980s on had the capacity to shock and reorient us to a renewed appreciation of past repertoire, as well as all sorts of traditions outside of Western concert music. But now we seem to be exploring new frontiers, there’s a renewed appreciation of modernism, and things that once were eclectic now have become synthetic. So why reconsider postmodernism? Let’s listen to Jonathan’s own voice, from the book’s Foreword, explaining his strategy and perspective; in it we hear across almost two decades what’s still so important about his thought:

What does it mean to posit that “postmodern music” is not a category? We hear about postmodern music all the time, and you will indeed encounter this term in this book. When I write “postmodern music,” what I really mean is “music exhibiting a substantial number of attributes that readily stimulate a postmodern disposition in composers and/or listeners.” It is pointless to label works simply as postmodern or not postmodern. When we try to do this, we quickly get caught up in a jumble of contradictions, because postmodernism is not one thing. When someone asks me if the piece we just heard is postmodern, I do not like to say yes or no. Most recent pieces, and several older pieces, are postmodern in some ways and not in other ways….

Since I take postmodernism as an attitude, I prefer not to think of it as a historical period. When I write about postmodern aspects of certain pieces of Beethoven, Mahler, Ives, Nielsen, and others, I truly mean that they are compositions that have certain characteristics that listeners of today can understand from the standpoint of a postmodern attitude. I do not mean that these works of the past are precursors of postmodernism. They are as much postmodern as are many works written considerably more recently…

Postmodernism is not a monolithic aesthetic with a consistent agenda. Different composers, different critics, and different apologists use and see postmodernism differently. Hence its categories and subcategories are impossible to delineate rigorously. There are always exceptions. If my prose seems sometimes contradictory as a result of the fuzziness of categories, I accept that as the inevitable result of trying to study an aesthetic one of whose tenets is the embracing of contradiction. From savoring all sides of a contradiction, we can become more accepting, less rigid, and more enriched. Resolving aesthetic conflicts, by contrast, can be stultifying and can discourage further creative thought.

(Reprinted with permission of Bloomsbury Academic © 2016 [Purchase])

And as I say in my own introduction, postmodernism is a way of experiencing the world. And as a consequence, we begin to experience all art differently. This aspect of the book, certainly the most original, also I feel remains one of the most resonant and enduring in contemporary culture. As we have moved into an age of mass communication and social media, it seems that every act, statement, and product now is subject to an inexhaustible stream of commentary and criticism from anyone who wishes to offer it. More and more, nothing is considered autonomously, but rather in an infinite web of interrelated opinion and judgment. We all experience interconnection and multiplicity continually now, as agents in a stream of infinite experience. Kramer did not live to see this online explosion, but somehow his take on the postmodern seems uncannily adaptable to this development.

And so the second half of the book’s title, Postmodern Listening, is the critical factor. Jonathan shows how our contemporary experience colors and reshapes our audition of everything, from Beethoven to new pieces he never could have encountered. And so the book is not only still relevant; I think it’s prescient.

Finally, one last personal note. In case you didn’t already notice, this is a story of gifts. Jonathan gave me a chance to make music my life. When I discovered this book languishing in limbo, I thought how I might feel in a similar situation (if one can feel anything postmortem). And though I didn’t need to do this for any career reason, it seemed important, even somehow necessary to pay back—to give a gift in return for the one Jonathan gave me at the start of my career. And I say that not to call the spotlight on myself (no matter how proud I may be of the accomplishment, there are many people involved in the process of this “rescue”), but above all to encourage others to think of ways we can increase the health of our culture and community, to give when it’s up to us to do so.

Composing is a Lonely Craft, but We Can’t Do It Alone

Hands of people applauding

Hands of people applauding

It was the winter of 1979 in Chicago.

Anyone who was somewhat conscious at that time knows that that means just one thing: blizzard.

I was a young piano student at the time, and a “little bit” of snow didn’t mean that a lesson would be cancelled. Nor did it mean that I would get a ride. (Contrary to today’s mentality.) So there I was, a ten year old boy, who may also have forgotten how important socks were, trudging my way half a mile, through un-shoveled drift after drift, over to Mrs. Jackson’s house. By the time I arrived, my feet were frozen solid. Needless to say, piano took a bit of a back seat that day, as Mrs. Jackson prioritized my frozen toes over a few etudes.

But there is something else about Mrs. Jackson that needs to be mentioned.

She sensed—somehow—that though piano was not going to be my life’s vocation (I never practiced), there was something about the theory of it all that intrigued me. She taught me what was going on, mathematically and harmonically, with those little black dots on the page. As a result, those five years of study with Mrs. Jackson made subsequent study of theory at the Interlochen Arts Academy much easier, which later gave me confidence at the New England Conservatory, where I earned my undergraduate degree. All of this gave me a head-start on composition when I decided to give it a try, some several years later.

So – dear Mrs. Jackson, I know you’re unfortunately not around to hear it, but, THANK YOU.

I have a request: if there is someone you know who saw talent or intrigue-in-the-arts in you at a young age, please thank them, now. Take a minute. No worries. This blogpost will still be here when you’re done.

For Christmas one year, when I was about 21, sitting under the Christmas tree at my parent’s home was this new program of which I had never heard: Finale. I think it was Version 3.0. This was before I had even considered arranging or composing, but somehow my parents detected that it might be interesting to me. And they were right! (Believe me, anyone who was willing to sit through that program in its infancy must have had a serious interest in putting notes on the page! It was so SLOW!)

Forgive me for a second while I thank my parents. I’ll be right back.


Now, there’s another story I REALLY need to share.

At the age of 25, I heard about a composing “discussion” class to be held at Northwestern University in the summer. I was still a trumpet player in the Naples Philharmonic at the time. I had started doing some arranging, but had yet to compose an original note. I decided to go to our boss at the orchestra, Myra Daniels, to tell her about the class. While in her office, I explained to her that it was to be a three-week class, where about 15 of us would sit around discussing “bad music” (more about that in a bit), and how exciting I thought it would be. Without even flinching, she asked, “How much?” I told her, “$600” (which was a lot of money to me at the time), and she immediately reached into her drawer and wrote me a check. How amazing is that?!

The class at Northwestern was called “Adventures in Bad Music.” (The older generation might recognize that title as a take-off from Karl Haas’ radio show “Adventures in Good Music.”) As mentioned, the class was mainly a discussion class, led by the Israeli composer Amnon Wolman, where we would be asked to name a “bad” piece, and then provide supporting arguments for why it was bad. (Usually, this led to the mention of a country-western song, whereupon he, or someone else, would say: “But that song sold 5 million copies. Who are you to claim that it is bad?”) This certainly was food for thought.

Well, our final assignment was to write a “bad” piece of music.

I thought this would be easy, since I’d never composed before. Therefore, I went back to my desk at my apartment, with no piano, and wrote a trumpet duet in a stream-of-consciousness style. I brought it to the class with a friend the next day, and we performed it.

When completed, someone—I’ve now forgotten who—raised a hand.

“You failed,” he said. “Why?” I responded. He replied: “That piece was actually really good.” One might think that I would have been upset at having “failed,” but I was secretly very excited. I knew that I had a new start at something fun to explore.

And so, to Myra Daniels, and to the nameless person who liked my “opus 1”: THANK YOU. None of us knew it at the time, but you are a very big reason why I am a composer today.

(For the record, I’m sure the “opus 1” is actually not that great of a piece, but it certainly served its purpose!)

This list of thanks could go on:

  • to Evans Haile, a young conductor who agreed to have me write my first orchestral piece (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)
  • to David Alpar, who commissioned my first piece for concert band in 2006. (I now have over 30.) I didn’t even know then that wind bands loved new music, and living composers. Shame on me.
  • to Rich Stoelzel, who commissioned my first trumpet sonata. This piece was the start of a collection of works that now numbers over fifty for trumpet.
  • to Jeff Work, who had my first trumpet concerto commissioned, which led to four more.
  • to my colleagues in the Naples Philharmonic Brass Quintet, who were patient with me as I introduced arrangements and compositions to try out…
  • a HUGE thanks to the Minnesota Commissioning Club, who gave me a big opportunity to write my first violin concerto (premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra) and a couple of other significant works
  • to ALL of the performers, conductors, festivals, administrators, churches, sponsors, and other patrons who believed in me enough to have me create something that wasn’t guaranteed in any way to be any good, especially early on in my career.
  • (To anyone else who I may have inadvertently omitted from this list, I sincerely apologize. There are so many of you who should be pointed out.)

But, most importantly, I need to fast-forward this story to early 2007, to a discussion initiated by my wife at our home in Naples. At this point, my life was equal-parts composing and performing. The former had me staying up to all hours of the night meeting deadlines, while the latter had me practicing at all other hours to keep up as best I could with the concert-performing demands. In the meantime, we had four young children (at that point aged ten down to four) that needed our constant attention, of course. In short, something had to give.

It was my wife’s idea to for me to quit trumpet and focus solely on composing, and for us to move back “home” to Chicago. Somehow she saw the passion I had for it, even more than I did at the time. This move subsequently opened up many doors at a professional level, for sure, and from a very practical level, being near family and being more centrally located in the country was very valuable. Certainly, at the onset, we took a financial hit. (My wife was in the orchestra as well, and we both quit.) However, the new freedom to create, to be home at nights with the family, and to look forward to a future without limits—what we like to call the “psychic income”—was immeasurable. This is all because of the suggestion of my wife, Sally, and to her, I say THANK YOU.

She’s in the room where I am now typing this, and I just told her so.

By now, I’m guessing you understand the purpose of this article.

If you’re of the younger generation, and you have benefited from the blessings of others, please reach out—even right now—to let people know how much their actions have helped you out. Or, perhaps you are of the older generation, and you see something in someone that shows promise. Go ahead and tell them, or encourage them. It can’t hurt. You might never know how just a few words might shape that younger person’s life in a way that neither of you could have ever imagined.

Lastly, there is the audience.

I’ve often heard composers asked: “Do you consider the audience when you are writing your music?” Several times, I’m shocked to hear the composer reply: “No.” How can this be?

These are the people who have invested their time and their hard-earned money in spending a couple of hours of their lives, sitting immobile in a seat (usually), where they are to be the recipient of our sounds being delivered upon their ears. How can we not respect that, and not try to create something that makes them feel that their time and money were well-spent? The audience is a huge part of what we do. I am always truly appreciative of each and every concertgoer who takes the time to express appreciation (or a critique) of what I’ve done, as this helps shape each and every piece that will follow.

And so, to audiences, whether present in the concert hall, or listening through other means, I wish to express my appreciation.

Music is my life. Contrary to what you might believe if you read my second blogpost on this series, though I try not to take myself too seriously, I take music very seriously. I reveal much more about myself in a piece of music then I would ever do in person. Therefore, if you hear a piece of my music, if you study a piece of mine, you are likely to find out more of what makes me tick than I would tell you face to face. The passion is there. Love, pain, angst, humor, depth, sadness, joy—it’s all there. I won’t tell you in person. I’m too shy, and convinced that you have much more important things to do in your life than to hear me describe it in words. Music is so much more powerful. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a well-placed note in a score would score two-thousand!

It is the audience—through their continued support of my music—that has allowed this slow revealing, and this slow growth of my persona as a composer, to have a life.  And of course, for this, I say THANK YOU.

It can be a scary thing to be a composer. Like writing a blog, you put notes (or words) on a piece of paper, not knowing whether anyone will understand them, or find any use for them. These four articles I’ve written for NewMusicBox have all been in the first-person, but I hope they have found a way to relate to each reader in their own personal way, and perhaps in some way, to even inspire a continuation within their craft, whether for the next five minutes or five years.

We each have something very unique and very important to say. I cannot wait to be in the audience to hear or see what everyone else has to say. I go to each concert—especially of new music—with such eager ears. I always come away having learned something. My life becomes enriched and more interesting. For that, to all of you who continue to write, perform, support, or listen to newly composed music, I say:


Music After Life: Posthumous Lessons

I left off last week with the image of four teachers—Jonathan Kramer, George Rochberg, Ralph Shapey, and Iannis Xenakis—now all gone. By now it’s more than a decade since they have passed, so there is some time to assess where their art stands in their wake, even though it’s still very early in the eternity game.

Xenakis, Shapey, Kramer and Rochberg

Clockwise from top left: Xenakis, Shapey, Kramer and Rochberg

Of these four, Xenakis’s (who died in 2001) popularity seems to be in the best shape. [Disclosure: I was not a private student, but took his weekly course in Paris over 1980-81, along with about a half-dozen others in a classroom at the Sorbonne, so the impact was close and sustained.] Inevitably, the juggernaut of European cultural momentum was already in motion on his behalf, but there is more. The music’s visionary intersection of architecture and science reaches out to potential listeners who may not usually be interested in “new classical music.” Its fearsome, near-impossible technical demands actually serve as a challenge for a certain sort of “thinking virtuoso” and suddenly don’t look so hard once they’ve been mastered and get out into the air. (Just look at how Rebonds seems to have become a student percussion recital favorite.) The often savage sound and rhythmic drive can feel like punk or industrial rock. And the scores, often generated in stages from abstract, geometrical drawings to final manuscript, appeal to visual artists. (A show at the Drawing Center in New York a couple of years back drove this home.)

Rochberg (who died in 2005) is an interesting case. On the one hand his music is the true opening salvo in the American “postmodern revolution” which started in the late 1960s, but he also never liked the term or the identification. He was far too passionate and straightforward in his usage of older styles and materials to embrace the irony that was a hallmark of the aesthetic. Even today, many of the shifts and references in his work can be unsettling in how obviously they deny any sense of what we call “originality.” But that very discomfiture also drives interest. Though scattered, I continue to see recordings and performances, suggesting at least a continuing simmer of interest, enough to preface a boil at some point.

Kramer was known even more as a theorist than composer, though I always felt the power of his ideas led his music into very original byways. For those who don’t know his book The Time of Music, I can only say, “Find it.” Inexplicably out of print but at least in many libraries, it’s a visionary exploration of a vast array of approaches to the articulation of music in the temporal medium. It’s the first text that shows the water we fish swim in. I’m editing a posthumous text of his—he died in 2004—Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening, that once again dares to explore an intimidatingly wide range of aesthetics and approaches to musical thought in the wake of modernism’s fading prominence as a flagship practice. But at this point, there’s not much buzz about his work as a composer, though perhaps renewed interest in the books will in turn lead to similar exploration of his music, to which I think his thought is symbiotically tied.

I guess it’s Shapey (who died in 2004) that has me the most concerned. When I studied with him in the late ’70s/early ’80s, he was on a roll. An unbuttoned, profane man who never self-censored, he’d just ended a boycott of the performance of his own music (out of disgust with the field), and soon thereafter won a MacArthur, was performed worldwide, and even had the dubious distinction of being denied the Pulitzer by the general committee after the musical one had recommended him. Having spent decades in Chicago after a sort of “exile” from his beloved New York, he was in his own way a quintessential “maverick.” The music was unashamedly romantic and transcendental, and took cues from composers such as Ruggles, Schoenberg, and Varèse (maybe most of all).

And yet now I see very few performances and similarly few recordings. Of brilliant younger performers taking up his cause, the only one I’m aware of is Miranda Cuckson. Maybe more disturbing is the fact that almost no younger composers I encounter know of him, and certainly don’t know the work. I knew of Ralph’s passionate desire to make art that had a timeless quality and of his longing to enter the repertoire. So that deep yearning and total commitment seems even more painful, at least at this moment, in the face of what feels like a new exile, this time from a continued life for his music. At this moment he stands as an example of how quickly winds of taste and fashion can shift, and often mysteriously. (I suppose that one small side effect of these posts might be to have some of you take another look at Ralph’s work.)

But that isn’t the primary or ultimate topic here. From both my personal standpoint, and the slightly enlarged framework of the composers I knew as teachers, I’ve started to limn the issues involved in music’s continuance after its initial appearance. I think there are three big questions here (yes, among a million others):

  • Who seems to be doing well, in the musical afterlife?
  • What are the reasons for this (at least momentary) survival?
  • What lessons can we glean from this—not only for our own music’s possible durability, but also for an approach to the issue that keeps us sane?

I’m going to try to give some answers in the remaining two weeks, risky as it is.

Throughout my childhood and college I trained as a historian, something a bit out of the ordinary for a composer. And that encourages me to take the long view. Of course, all of this is quite fragile in the face of the inscrutable and mutable factors of “aesthetic evolution.” (I often tell my students, “You know the nature films with the lion and the bunny. You are the bunny.” And I swear I didn’t know that song from Urinetown when I first said it.)

Framing Your Voice, Part 2

I visited Darmstadt as an impressionable graduate student during the summer of 1998. I have encountered many personalities who have shaped the composer I am, but the most distinct memories from that trip came from my interactions with two very different composers: Helmut Lachenmann and György Kurtág.

Lachenmann vehemently told us (particularly the Americans, a.k.a. the “zombies”) to forget everything we had learned up to that point. He encouraged us to develop our own material independently of our teachers. He explained that we are part of a “North American syndrome” that potentially results in work without any “real artistic provocation, just frustrating and boring.” His musical outlook could be encapsulated in the following quote:

With conventional or unconventional sounds, the question is how to create a new, authentic musical situation. The problem isn’t to search for new sounds, but for a new way of listening, of perception. I don’t know if there are still new sounds, but what we need are new contexts.

Kurtág modeled his process of composing through his practice of music making. Unlike Lachenmann, Kurtág would not meet with students for composition lessons, but instead opened his instrumental coaching sessions and rehearsals to students. Hearing Kurtág and his wife, Marta, perform Játékok at Darmstadt, I felt both emotionally and technically charged. Játékok consists of eight volumes of miniature solo and four-hand piano pieces, which aim to recapture the spirit of child’s play. The scores are frequently graphic and abstract, and include extensive descriptions of his notation. The pieces are inventive, playful, and even stoic at moments. Below the surface of the music, the layering of quotation and the sense of quiet reminiscence serves to take the listener away from reality by creating something new and breathtakingly beautiful. Becoming acquainted with the score, as well as with the recording that includes Bach transcriptions interspersed between his pedagogical performance pieces, has been both individually rewarding and collectively meaningful. These are qualities I strive to achieve in my own work. The experience I had with the Kurtágs was definitely beyond words. Their methods, derived from a strange combination of escapism, invention, and beauty, epitomize the motivation I have for music.

After all these years, I have kept a letter on the bulletin board above my desk that Lachenmann mailed to me after my visit, to remind me of his lesson. Alongside the letter, I also preserve a photo from that same trip of Kurtág and Marta performing.

Mara Gibson Inspiration Board

Mara Gibson’s inspiration board

With increasingly sophisticated “composerly” opportunities coming my way throughout graduate school, some of my peers thought I was out of my mind continuing to teach children. I have recently come to understand that this is part of my passion–teaching at any and all levels keeps my own child-like fascination with music in check alongside the practical application of how to make that passion a reality. Since grad school, I have shared Játékok with students of all levels, including children, university-level music majors and non-majors, as well as professional composers and performers. The consistent message of this piece, as outlined in Kurtág’s forward, is to “tackle bravely even the most difficult task without being afraid of making mistakes: we should try to create valid proportions, unity and continuity out of the long and short values–just for our own pleasure!”

Personally, I feel that I have learned how to explain things to grown-ups by having to explain things to children. Likewise, children remind us how to be genuine. Through performance and composition, Kurtág helped me understand this critical balance.

Mountain Climbing Music

Young composer, age 6 – Mountain Climber

For example, this young composer was not afraid to express the more abstract characteristics of movement in the work above. While the instrumentation is unclear, the dynamics, contour, and motion all clearly articulate his feelings about what it might be like to climb a mountain. More mature students might approach this in a way less connected to the physical experience of mountain climbing, but this young composer approached the idea bravely. Intuition plays a role in inventiveness: both Lachenmann and Kurtág were onto something after all!

Kurtág’s kinesthetic relationship between playing and creating alongside Lachenmann’s dedication to the authenticity of sound resonate with me deeply. As a composer interested in collaboration, my teaching naturally encompasses a variety of musical skills, including composition, performance, theory, and history. I believe that without the merger of all these ingredients, the language of music is unbalanced and can potentially sway toward the overly intellectual or creatively unchallenged. In music education, instructors frequently separate these elements. However, as musicians, we draw on these various musical experiences in tandem, recognizing how each subject reinforces the other. To prepare students for the rigors of making music, I hope to encourage simultaneous thinking about the multiple aspects of music. Through the fusion of skill and creativity, the student (and teacher) gain insight, and can begin to discover that nothing is a truly “separate.” Performance, composition technique, historical context, and theoretical understanding are all vital in cultivating a creative and thoughtful musician. After all, as artists, we learn through doing.

Interacting with Kurtág and Lachenmann during a formative period in my life functioned as refreshing contrasting models for me as an emerging composer. Initially, Kurtág was Frost’s “gentle nudge” and Lachenmann was my “quail shot,” and with time, finding a complimentary balance between both composers was immensely beneficial. As a consequence, I frequently turn to both for inspiration, craft, and teaching. After all, as artists, young and old alike, we are life-long learners and, above all, we aim to sincerely communicate.

Henri Lazarof (1932-2013), Who Dominated My Life for Six Years

Henri Lazarof

Henri Lazarof, photo courtesy Theodore Presser Company

Nobody but members of my family have ever held such a prominent place in my life for such a long period of time as Henri Lazarof. It was 1964, now 50 years ago, late in my second year at UCLA and my first year as a music major. I was studying harmony with a very ordinary professor, who shall remain nameless; it turned out he only lasted about another year at the university anyway. I had already met my future wife, Dolly, who was in Lazarof’s harmony class. She told me that I needed to change teachers, that something extraordinary was going on there, in spite of the fact that she occasionally came out of the class in tears. Her first semester class had begun with thirty students; it ended with eight. Lazarof was brutal, demanding total commitment, but they were really learning something.

When I talked to Lazarof about transferring into his class, he made a typically sarcastic comment to the effect that it was because I wanted to be with my girlfriend. He also informed me that I had better be at a very high level if I was to join the class in the second year. My first day in his class, he devoted the entire hour to testing me, mostly musicianship skills, in front of the rest of the class. At the end of the session, he told me I could stay. Good thing.

He absolutely drove us all to our individual limits. After harmony, I was with him for pretty much every other important course I took. After I graduated, he saw to it that I received a full fellowship to continue through to my doctorate, always completely under his mentorship.

During those six years, I saw him occasionally reduce grown men to tears. He certainly left a wake of students dropping his courses in favor of easier professors. To be one of the few still standing at the end was quite a source of personal satisfaction.
He believed in working very hard to develop the tools a composer needs. For example, he knew every instrument inside and out, and insisted that we all learn them at least as well. It was difficult to argue with such an approach. During my years of intensive work with him, he served as my main source of knowledge and inspiration, and as a role model. He lived what he taught.
For several years after my period of study, whenever I wrote something I would always think, “What would Lazarof say about this?” After some years, though, when my own individual style finally took over, I no longer wanted his approval, and we were less and less in contact, though always occasionally in touch. In 1982, Dolly and I hosted a surprise fiftieth birthday celebration for him, our co-conspirator being his colleague and our “other” mentor, Robert Tusler (who is still doing well at age 93!).
Unfortunately, Lazarof’s later years went from unhappy to tragic. He was never a collaborator. He never joined any of the usual composers’ organizations—in fact, he purposely avoided them. This did not exactly endear him to other composers. He increasingly went his own way, without much interaction with the rest of the composition world.

Then came something much more serious: Alzheimer’s. At a concert celebrating his 75th birthday, he didn’t even recognize me. At that time, I didn’t know of his affliction, and it obviously upset me. When I came to know the reason, I felt both better and worse. It was complicated. We were only occasionally in touch after that, and it was increasingly difficult.

Almost a year ago, someone close to him caught me after one of my lectures for the LA Philharmonic, telling me that Lazarof’s condition had deteriorated to a child-like existence. That such a spirit, such an intellect, could be thus reduced was devastating. I can only hope that his last year was peaceful. He was truly an amazing musician and teacher.


Henri Lazarof’s Musical Lineage and Legacy
Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)

John Field (1782-1837)

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) and Alexander Dubuque (1812-1898)
(Glinka studied very briefly with Field; Dubuque studied extensively with Field)

Mily Balakirev (1837-1910)
(Balakirev studied informally with Glinka, but more with Dubuque)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

Fernando Germani (1906-1998)

Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003)

Henri Lazarof (1932-2013)
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
Edward Applebaum, Stephen Beck, Don Davis, Brad Ellis, Burton Goldstein, David Evan Jones,
Daniel Kessner, David Lang, Ellsworth Milburn (1938-2007), Mark E. Wilson

Learn How To Learn How To Learn: On Being a Self-Taught and a Non-Self-Taught Composer

Last week, NewMusicBox published an unprecedented breadth of content under the rubric “How We Learn Now.” Each of the contributing writers, and especially “education week” mastermind Molly Sheridan who tied it all together, is well-deserving of kudos, as is every reader who managed to get through it all—it was a lot to read. I know, I read it all! However, I decided to remain on the sidelines rather than contribute an essay to the mix. This was principally because I was madly working away at next month’s NewMusicBox cover. (To experience that, come back tomorrow.) But my decision not to write anything last week was also, I must confess, because of a somewhat ambiguous relationship to music education throughout my life.

There were no musicians in my family, but I was exposed to music at a very early age. Admittedly most of what I heard in the first decade of my life was mainstream popular music or worse—my mother owned and kept in heavy rotation the complete discography of Engelbert Humperdinck (not the composer of Hänsel und Gretel). But more interesting sounds managed to seep through on an unconscious level. I grew up, for the most part, in New York City, and there were many opportunities to hear a wide variety of music involuntarily just walking down the street. The music that was happening around me during the era I was growing up—the late 1960s and early 1970s—was chock full of experimentation in almost every genre and the lines between those genres were extraordinarily porous. Long before I ever heard the name Karlheinz Stockhausen, his face was among those assembled for the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released a month after my third birthday. While I did not own a copy of that record until my friend Charles Passy gave me one during my senior year in high school (by which time I was obsessed with Stockhausen), the first movie I was taken to see was Yellow Submarine when I was four (although I’ve been told that I cried through the whole thing). But more importantly, upright pianos were in the homes of most of my relatives and tinkering around on them, without really knowing what I was doing (or, more importantly, what I “should” be doing), started me off on a lifelong path. If only I had been exposed to other instruments in a similar way…
I began writing my own songs when I was nine and my family noticed my interest in music, although it would be several years before I actually had any kind of music lesson. I apparently briefly played a viola I borrowed from an elementary school teacher, though I have no memories of it. When I was in fifth grade, I took guitar lessons in a mall which was a mile away from the Miami trailer park I lived in for two otherwise musically lackluster years. Ironically, those guitar lessons were more of a straitjacket for me than a path to musical creativity—the teacher never deviated from the books he was teaching me from. To this day, I play the guitar somewhat awkwardly since I never found a way around the instrument on my own. I also have vague memories of a music teacher at the Miami elementary school I attended. On weekends he played in a retro rock and roll band; all I remember him talking about was the early history of rock and roll, which effectively turned me off to that music until decades later.
Once I moved back to New York City, I continued to tinker on pianos and by that point was notating the songs and short instrumental solos I came up with, so my family sent me to Greenwich House Music School for piano lessons. When the teacher asked me to play for her and I did, she exclaimed that my fingering was all wrong and I’d have to start all over again from the very beginning. I had fingered a major triad with my thumb, index, and middle fingers. I was supposed to have fingered it with my thumb, middle finger, and pinky. She said that unless I learned to finger it the right way, I would never be able to develop proper technique; I said if I fingered it her way, I wouldn’t be able to add sevenths and ninths to that triad. She would not relent. I ran out from her class and never returned.

Despite my wayward musical ways, I was accepted to the High School of Music and Art where I played the piano and sang Broadway material as well as my own music for my audition. Music and Art did not offer piano or composition lessons, so I was assigned to the vocal department. I had one champion among the music teachers at that school, a man named Lionel Chernoff who taught music theory and had a Medieval and Renaissance music performance class, an elective I gave up my lunch period to be in for two years. Chernoff, it turned out, was not only an aficionado of early music but an omnivorous listener who had a passion for Brazilian music. He was also the first person to mention the names Harry Partch and Philip Glass to me. For decades after my graduation, he came to performances of my music whenever he saw my name in newspaper concert listings.

However, the teacher during high school who wound up having the deepest impact on my musical development was, ironically, my math teacher Jim Murphy, who has remained a lifelong friend and mentor. Though initially he did not offer anything to me that could be construed as musical training per se, Murphy made me mindful of always being open to otherness. He also instilled in me a disciplined approach to exploring patterns as well as exploiting formal possibilities. After all, he was a math teacher. At the same time, he was extremely unconventional. He often exclaimed that he was not primarily concerned with teaching us math, but rather teaching us to “learn how to learn how to learn”—a mantra worthy of Gertrude Stein. A prolific poet, Murphy, in one math class, taught us all haiku and traditional Chinese five character, four line lyric poems which were the ancestor to haiku. An inveterate contrarian, he also set an extremely impactful example of how to interact with the world. The Rubik’s Cube was all the rage at that time and in one class he showed us how to always solve the puzzle—by ripping the pieces of it apart and then putting them back together again! At one point he decided to give me a ton of books, volumes of poetry and hardcore mathematics, but he purposefully made it difficult for me. He gave me nothing to carry the huge stack in and I lugged them in both my hands from room to room as I went to each of my classes and then back home on the subway at the end of the school day. I credit him not only for my lifetime obsession with acquiring books and recordings, but also my ability to not be deterred by the impracticality of schlepping them back from all over the world, frequently in less that optimal circumstances. More importantly, Murphy’s own poetry and his daily writing regimen became an important model for my writing of both music and words. Eventually he played recordings for me that introduced me to the musical traditions of East Asians and Native Americans, as well as old blues and country music. I began to try to find a way to incorporate those other musical systems into the personal musical language I was trying to develop. A series of 14 of his sonnets became the text for a lengthy musical composition of mine which I began during my senior year of high school and which is the oldest music I still acknowledge some 32 years later. By the time I wrote that piece, I had already identified myself with the moniker “composer” even though I had yet to have a formal composition lesson.

Celebrating Murphy

To celebrate his 75th birthday earlier this year, his son Jonathan Murphy (far left), Charles Passy (center), and I took Jim Murphy (right) out for an elaborate meal in Chinatown. As per usual, Murphy was teaching somebody something. (If you look closely you can see that he’s demonstrating a string figure to a member of the wait staff.)

In the middle of the first semester of my freshman year at Columbia University, Max Lifchitz, then an adjunct professor in the music department, had learned of my compositional activity and suggested I attend his composition class. I already had a full schedule and it was too late to enroll for the class, but the following semester I studied privately with him. Although he attempted to give me specific assignments (one was to write a solo flute piece), I was in the middle of several large-scale works that I wanted to write and I just continued working on them. He was fine with my rebelliousness and even offered some valuable pointers on that aforementioned song cycle which I revised accordingly at that time. One of those revisions was a brief piano intro before one of the songs, which he suggested I write in order to give the piece more variety, and it is my favorite passage in that piece to this day.

Despite this positive experience, that one semester marked the beginning and end of my formal training as a composer. At the time, I believed that the aesthetics of the people teaching composition at Columbia were completely antithetical to my own and so I refused to interact with them. In my senior year there, I stopped taking music classes altogether and took enough credits in English for it to count as a second “concentration”—not quite a “major” but having the two “concentrations” was enough for me, in 1985, to be the first member of my family ever to receive a bachelor’s degree. At that point in my life I thought I was done with school altogether, but after graduation I could not figure out what to do with my life and, on Murphy’s advice, I became a public high school teacher. Though I managed to secure licenses to teach both music and English, I wound up teaching English as a second language in East New York, Brooklyn, which was then an extremely tough inner city neighborhood. After four years in the teaching system (years during which my compositional activity at one point completely stopped since I zealously felt it was a useless pursuit that gave nothing back to the world), I reached a dead end.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

Looking for more Education Week content? Go to the index.

So I applied to the doctoral program in ethnomusicology at Columbia and they accepted me with a full tuition fellowship. I refused to study composition there, and I never considered applying to schools anywhere outside New York City to study composition. (Believe it or not, my two less-than-happy childhood years in Miami convinced me that I should never attempt to leave New York City again; I did not start travelling until I was in my mid-20s.) I believed that ethnomusicology would be the ideal subject for me since it would give me more exposure to a greater variety of the world’s musical traditions (which I could then incorporate into my own music). I quickly learned, however, that that was not what ethnomusicology was, at least not how it was practiced at Columbia at that time. I should have known better. I lasted a year in the program. I managed to get a master’s degree, but that was the end. However, I was actively composing music again.

But I had to get a job to support myself. I landed a four-day-a-week job for a music PR firm and wound up going to a lot of free concerts. Through it all, with whatever spare money I had, I bought records, tons of them, and was listening to music constantly. In 1998, I joined the staff of the American Music Center. You know the rest of the story. Well, not quite. Though I never took another formal composition lesson after my freshman year at Columbia, every time I prepare to talk with a composer for NewMusicBox I completely immerse myself in the related recordings and scores. Many times, after the conversations are recorded, I feel like I have learned some extremely valuable things that have found their way back into my own music by and by.
Though once upon a time I used to downplay that single semester of composition study at Columbia and brag about being a self-taught composer, I now realize that the truth of my education is much different. I have tons of teachers to thank, though most were not people I formally studied with. And the most valuable lesson I learned and which I have devoted my entire life to continuing to learn—thank you Jim Murphy—is to learn how to learn how to learn.