Tag: music entrepreneurs

Writing Music for Developing Instrumentalists and Singers

close up of a trumpet

“I’d love to do that with my band, but it’s too hard for us.”

“I can’t afford it.”

“We don’t have all of those parts.”

“I’m out of time to look.”

These are some of the frustrations I’ve heard in the last six months from at least four music educators and community ensemble directors who want to diversify the voices they amplify in their programming. They’re caught in a deeply frustrating bind: even if they could find a new piece and they could afford it, their students couldn’t play it—it’s too technically advanced for their developing players. And that’s saying they can find a new piece from a new voice in the slim hour of the day they’re not running between classes, lessons, planning, meetings, and fixing the jammed copier.

These artists’ and educators’ mission is to nurture as many healthy musical habits as possible and share their growth with their communities. They’re invested in programming more works by living composers, especially composers from communities of historically marginalized voices. They’re invested in their students and community members not seeing a revolving door of the same names in the top right corner of the page all the time. They’re invested in their own growth as conductors and willing to put in the score study and rehearsal planning to learn new works, and that needs to be strategic for them.

Teachers and conductors must consider the developing techniques of their players, limited budgets for their libraries, and limited time to seek out new works that are not yet available through major publishers for whom they already have vendor numbers established in their purchasing systems. These ensembles need technically and financially accessible works for their libraries from living composers.

Here is a mix of practical and philosophical ideas for how you can help.

 

Pick Your Parameters

While composers love to explore ideas at the boundaries of virtuosic technical prowess with incisive beauty, these are not the works that developing players or time-pressed joyful amateurs can hope to be successful in playing.

  • Both long works and miniatures are physically and mentally challenging. Help these players work up to great heights with works between three and seven minutes in duration.
  • Pick one area of challenge for your musical ideas to explore. You want developing players to feel invited into capability, not overwhelmed by notation. If you are going to include rhythms they will need to woodshed, put it in a key area that does not push them. If you are going to push them on tonal centers that are distant from the fundamentals of their instrument, do not push them on range, too. If you are going to introduce them to mixed meters, keep the modulations predictable and the tempo moderate, etc.
  • Offer options for instrumentation where possible. Many schools and community ensembles will not have a full concert complement for orchestra or band or the funds to hire ringers. Double reeds are not guaranteed. Include cues for important passages to instruments with similar ranges. This goes for percussion, too. They will have a glockenspiel, but not crotales.
  • Add not only text and translation for choirs, but also consider adding IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet characters) as a reference for a harried choir director.
  • Leave a little more space, if possible, around the text for developing singers to write in pronunciations.
  • Provide clear and endearing program and performance notes. These players dig them.
  • Edit to the utmost of your skill. Include curtesy accidentals. If it saves a pressed-for-time music educator rehearsal time, they will buy from you again.

 

Make It Affordable

Your work and expertise deserve a fair price. Full stop. Most schools and community ensembles aren’t able to commission; a commission would take a year of fundraising. No one should be arguing that composers should lower their rates or “do it for the exposure.” Music educators are generally aware of the work, practice, and years of collective experience go into a single composition, and they also know that they must make their dollars go as far as possible, and many an E-copy from a major publisher is between $55.00 and $75.00 USD. Many departments and ensembles have budgets in the hundreds of dollars a year, not thousands, to add to their libraries. They will have a budget review process, a public one, and need to be able to explain the value for price and direct benefit to students of their expenditures.

  • Consider having a collection of E-works that these ensembles can afford.
  • Offer collections where they do not need to purchase additional parts if one part goes missing.
  • When connections are made or orders come in, be as responsive as possible to whatever documentation process is needed for transparency to demonstrate they are good stewards of tax dollars.
  • Consider partnering with music libraries that are well connected through interlibrary loan networks to buy sections of your catalog and tell educators in your network where to check them out.

 

Make Some New Friends, Reconnect with Old Friends

Connect with Educators and Community Ensembles in your area. It’s not prestigious. These students and lifelong players don’t need your headshot and bio; they need you. And while there are many grants out there to help pay for visiting guest artists (and they should), an honored guest in their midst is only one of the ways that students and community members should connect with composers in-person or electronically. We are the people in their neighborhood; some of the time we should sit beside them, not in front of them. Not just our work, but our presence erodes symbolic assassination. Our engagement within these ensembles is one of many experiences for these musicians that normalize, that de-exoticize, the relationship between composers and performers, especially performers from low-population density areas. Don’t let the developing technique and less than perfect rehearsal discipline blind you to the big hearts of these groups. All kinds of ensembles need nurturing.

  • Join a community ensemble with a municipal or college group and participate.
  • Share your networks with the educators you meet in them.

Both music students and amateurs who play for a lifetime are looking forward to making music with you. Let’s get better connected.

 

Lucy Dhegrae: The Art and Science Behind the Voice

A woman with pink hair sitting and her reflection in the mirror.

In most of the world’s musical genres, the distinction between creating something anew and interpreting something that already exists is somewhat blurry. And in many folk traditions, there is a further blur between performers and audiences—in some societies, making music is just part of living and it is participatory and often non-hierarchical. Yet in Western classical music, there is a very precise delineation between the roles of composers, interpreters, and the audience and, for better or worse, this is a paradigm that most practitioners of new music have inherited. But just as distinctions between genres continue to erode in the second decade of our new millennium, there has also been a shift in our perception of what the particular roles could be for making music now and in the future.

“The best composers know what it’s like to be a performer and the best performers know how to improvise,” says vocalist Lucy Dhegrae, who is the founder and director of Resonant Bodies, a three-day festival of contemporary vocal music that takes place annually in New York City and which has now had iterations in Chicago as well as in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. “Maybe those delineations were important for the time and maybe they’re helpful for some people, but now what I see in myself and Resonant Bodies artists and people I work with all over the place is that we just don’t care about all of those delineations anymore. … At what point did we start to structure it this way and start to exclude people, except that we were trying I guess to exclude people for financial reasons somehow? It’s not all necessarily nefarious, but it can have this exclusive idea to it.”

As far as exclusivity goes, calling Dhegrae the “director” of Resonant Bodies is somewhat misleading, because although she carefully curates the vocalists who perform on each of the concerts, she gives each of them full reign in determining what music they present to an audience.

  • I was so shocked by how singers as a whole were treated like this other species.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • Bodies retain memory, history, experience, and emotion; they’re history books and maps of who we are.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • I wanted to be a laryngologist.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • My voice is nothing like Montserrat Caballé’s, but in high school I was trying to channel her.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • I played my composition and he was mildly tolerant.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • I struggled as an undergraduate. My voice did not fit into anything.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • I think a lot of composers feel intimidated to write for the voice.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • Not many people know how to do text well as a singer.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • It’s really beautiful when you have that melding ... and we see a really special part of the performer and ... the composer.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • What I love about new vocal music is that we have access to this amazing range of expression.

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • This is really important for any artist: Who are you as an artist when you’re not for sale?

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist
  • I want us all to evolve to find that next step. What’s the next innovative, interesting thing?

    Lucy Dhegrae and her cat Mona (1 of 2)
    Lucy Dhegrae, vocalist

“What I love in an experience with people is to know what they’re passionate about,” she gushes with contagious enthusiasm in a conversation at her Manhattan apartment only an hour after she flew in from St. Louis. “I would never dream of telling a singer, ‘Hey, you should do this specific piece. I want to hear you do that piece.’ Because you’re only going to get the second best thing from a singer that way, I think. But if you ask a singer, ‘What do you love to sing? What lights you up? Right now?’ Because it has to align with their life moment. Then things feel urgent. I want to hear your urgent music.”

Urgency is an important ingredient not only for Resonant Bodies, but all of the music that Dhegrae performs as a vocalist herself, whether it’s a something by singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, high modernist composer Jason Eckardt, or composer-performer Gabrielle Herbst, whom she sang alongside for the premiere of Herbst’s dreamy opera Bodiless. Urgency is also what fuels her life’s mission: to be empowered as a singer and to empower other singers which, aside from a desire to make musical experiences fairer (“in Resonant Bodies we … always talk about being treated as singers versus musicians versus artists”), yields better performances, as she points out:

It’s really beautiful when you have that melding, where you’re coming halfway, and we see a really special part of the performer and a really special part of the composer. That to me is the best part of creating a new piece.

Curiously, in her childhood, long before she ever considered singing as a profession, Dhegrae wrote music and even won a contest for it. But she quickly got turned off when a teacher attempted to make her do a rudimentary composition exercise instead of trying to nurture her creative impulses. Perhaps an even more significant background for Dhegrae, however, was her pursuit of a pre-med degree simultaneously with studying singing as an undergrad. Though she ultimately did not become a laryngologist, which is the career path she wanted to pursue at the time, her deep study of the acoustic, physical, and medical science of the voice informs her approach to making music to this day.

“There’s one particular nerve that people talk about for the voice, the recurrent laryngeal nerve,” Dhegrae explains, “which starts in your brain, goes down, wraps through your heart, and then goes into your vocal chords. So literally your voice has to go through your heart first before it comes out. It has to come from your brain, through your heart, and then come out of your mouth. … I think that’s really an important metaphor, because your heart is naturally a part of how you sing. And we can’t deny that. That is a physical reality. So it’s not a metaphor anymore!”

Frank. J. Oteri in conversation with Lucy Dhegrae in her Manhattan apartment
August 19, 2019, 2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Melissa Dunphy: Composing Has To Be a Calling

A woman with platinum blonde hair sitting in her home

One of the highlights of my attending the 2019 National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association in Kansas City was encountering Melissa Dunphy during the Composer Fair at the end of the first full day of the conference. Dunphy was full of energy and passionate about what she does and was also incredibly articulate—an ideal candidate for a NewMusicBox Cover! And after I returned home and started exploring her musical output, most of which she has generously made scores and recordings available for on her website, I was even more eager to have a sit down conversation with her about creative work.

What struck me about her music, and what she confirmed when we visited her at the bizarre place in Philadelphia where she lives (more on that later), is how deeply it relates to her ideas about social justice and inclusivity. Primarily a composer of vocal and choral music, Dunphy frequently creates music which is inspired by current events. The Gonzales Cantata, her 2009 gender-reversed faux-Baroque setting of the public US senate testimony that culminated in the resignation of attorney general Alberto Gonzales, landed her on national television while she was still pursuing an undergraduate degree in music composition. Her unaccompanied choral work from the following year, What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?, is also based on public testimony, this time from an 86-year-old Republican World War II veteran and VFW chaplain arguing for marriage equality, an issue that still divides people in this country.

“I had an incredibly emotional reaction to watching the YouTube video of his speech,” Dunphy remembered. “I soaked an entire dishcloth with my tears because I was so touched by the testimony. In 2009, there was such a cultural struggle between people who wanted marriage equality to be on the books and people who were pouring huge amounts of money into stopping it. His testimony gives you hope that the other side might understand that it’s an issue of human rights and freedom. So again—ping—I immediately needed to set this to music.”

Among her most ambitions works to date is her 2018 American DREAMers, a multi-movement choral setting of texts from five young Americans who were brought this country as children. “This is completely up my alley for various reasons,” explained Dunphy, who was born and raised in Australia and is the child of immigrants who fled Greece and Mainland China during the Cultural Revolution.

  • I think that all politicians should have a life-threatening health scare. ... You should be thinking about your legacy.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • The idea of just being an artist and only an artist is, has, is and has always been a bit of myth.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • There’s always going to be a place in the world for people who make art and can also get on that marketing train.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • When I realized what I wanted to do as a composer, I realized that it sounded much more like a political mission than purely an artistic mission.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • One of the reasons I came to composing so late was because I didn’t have any examples to look up to who looked like me.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • Some people are like, “Throw out those old masters.” Like, bull.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • For a little while in my late teens, classical music was really pissing me off with its obsession with technical perfection. So I broke up with classical music for a while...

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • Everybody comes to music school thinking they’re going to be the next John Williams or Danny Elfman.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • Teaching is just as much about learning new things yourself, and your students will teach you just as much as you teach your students.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • There are a lot of similarities between the almost absurd mannerism of a Baroque cantata and the absurd manner of American politics.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • We as composers have the ultimate power in deciding the gender split on stage.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • If you’re not considering the context of the world around you, your art is bullshit.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • I don’t think people who criticize arts entrepreneurship look at grants as being in that category.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • One of the things that art can do is present things that are shades of gray and have you understand those shades of gray emotionally, rather than just intellectually.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • There’s a lot of room for error in an orchestra piece. There is no room for error in an a cappella choir piece.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • I don’t care if my piece becomes irrelevant if my friends can get married.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • Art needs to be grounded in what’s happening around us.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • I understand, because it’s my history, what motivates people to go to a new country and face instability.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • I am happy to accept sacred commissions if the religious organization will give me some leeway on what text I choose.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • Composers should stop worrying about being as intellectual as possible and start thinking about what reaches the next generation.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • I literally make concrete in the other part of my life.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer

But creating intense politically-themed music is only part of how Dunphy spends her time. That bizarre place she lives in is an 18th century building that most recently had been the site of an abandoned magic theater. When she and her husband acquired the property, it was in a ruined state. So, on their own, they embarked on a huge construction project that has resulted not only in a viable place to live and artistic studios, but also an AirB&B they rent out. However, more interestingly, in excavating the former theater which they had hoped to eventually turn into a performance space, they discovered a wide range of 18th century artifacts and have become significant archeologists of early Americana. Dunphy gave us a guided tour of the construction work and some of their findings following our extensive conversation about her music, some photos of which appear toward the end of the transcript.

“We tore every room down to the studs,” Dunphy euphorically exclaimed. “I learned how to sweat copper pipe and do dry wall, build a kitchen, and build a bathroom. We just went through and did it. And I loved doing that kind of work. And it’s not only a source of revenue generation or wealth generation, it enables you to buy a really cheap, crappy house, and turn it into something that’s livable. In some ways it’s like this nice corollary to what I do as a composer. Composition is very ethereal. You write something—yes, you have it down on a piece of paper—but when it’s actually presented, it’s in the air and then it’s gone. It’s a memory. It’s not tangible. It’s not concrete. But I literally make concrete in the other part of my life. … This whole theater venture fulfills both a long-term financial idea and also this intellectual hunger for creation. You create ideas, but you can also create stuff. It’s nice to be able to do both.”

Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Melissa Dunphy at her home in Philadelphia, PA
March 13, 2019—3:00 p.m.
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Opinions from the Dux Femina Facti: Women Leaders at the Grassroots of New Music

What opportunities do you see on the horizon for women in leadership roles in music?
“Anything that we create for ourselves. Nobody taught me to start a festival, to start a vocal quartet. I see some legacy roles going to women, but the biggest opportunity is for women to remake the industry from the ground up.”
— Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Omaha Under the Radar

Over the past month, NewMusicBox has hosted a series of articles from the International Alliance for Women talking about various issue facing women in music today: awards and fellowships, education, and reception.

Our post today focuses on the idea of women as leaders in music, especially in new music. Through interviews with women leaders from grassroots music organizations from all over the country, we explore topics related to managing ensembles and festivals, commissioning, curating, and creating collegial workspaces where women’s voices can be heard.

Each of the organizations chosen is a relatively young festival, conference, or ensemble working to bring new music to audiences. The oldest of those interviewed, Rhymes With Opera, just celebrated its 10th season with all performances of their May mainstage production playing to sold-out audiences in New York City. Oh My Ears held its first marathon concert in 2014 and celebrated its fifth iteration as a four-day new music festival in downtown Phoenix in January. New Music Gathering issued its first call for proposals in 2014 and held its fourth conference in May. Two festivals begin in the next few days: Omaha Under the Radar has its fifth summer festival July 25-28; The Uncommon Music Festival begins its third season July 28-August 5 in Sitka, Alaska.


When It’s Lonely at the Top

Sometimes the woman at the top of the organization is a solo director, such as Amanda DeBoer Bartlett of Omaha Under the Radar and Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer of Oh My Ears. Bayer and DeBoer both acknowledged a sense of loneliness as the head of a festival.

As Bayer said, “We live in such a weird world where we see other people’s successes constantly on social media. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t getting enough stuff done on my own.”

During the course of the conversation, Bayer added several points of epiphany and self-transformation:

“The doors that opened happened because I was poor enough and desperate enough to knock on them!”

“I had to give myself permission to lead…”

“I had to stop downplaying my role…”

“I had to figure out how to delegate…”

DeBoer expressed similar issues. “Asking people to help is hard,” she admits. “But also getting out of the way and letting them do it is hard. For the first three years of the festival, I wouldn’t delegate anything. My team had to sit me down and tell me that I had to delegate more. I’m still having to teach and train people so that I can delegate, because I wouldn’t let them do it before.” Though she is the director, she co-organizes with Aubrey Byerly (Development and Grant Manager) and Stacey Barelos (Education Director), and credits them with doing “a massive amount of work and decision-making all year long.”

The possibility of a gendered experience as a “quiet leader”…

DeBoer also talked about her own style of leadership, discussing the possibility of a gendered experience as a “quiet leader.”

“[It] works in some situations, but I definitely feel the need to push back, especially in saying ‘no,’” she acknowledges.

DeBoer and Bayer both described the role of leader as emotionally draining, but also seemed very pleased with the freedom it afforded them. Oddly, as solo leaders, they also both described the feeling of community as an important factor in their leadership and planning decisions. Organizing festivals, to them, was a way of both seeking and creating community.


When Control is Shared

In the case of Uncommon Music Festival, Ariadne Lih is an equal co-director with Nate Barnett. Ruby Fulton, Elisabeth Halliday, and Bonnie Lander of Rhymes With Opera work with George Lam and Robert Maril. Lainie Fefferman works with a mixed group of men and women founders including Mary Kouyoumdjian, Jascha Narveson, Daniel Felsenfeld, and the late Matt Marks at New Music Gathering.

One woman with whom I spoke stated, “It’s up to the women to say: Don’t forget we need to try to hire a woman. There’s a heightened awareness of equity.” She noted that sometimes support from male colleagues might feel “lukewarm.” However, in these organizations where control is shared with a partner of the opposite sex or a small mixed company of partners, women report that they generally feel supported and that their voices are heard.

Fefferman spoke of feeling lucky in her partners at New Music Gathering: “We’ve talked really deeply about biases we want to fight in our curation, and it made me feel like I didn’t have to self-censor. I have felt supported and appreciated by my colleagues, and that’s not always a given. There are maybe views I have or preferences that are informed by my gender, but I felt free to express that to the group, and they respected my opinion.”

Dealing with those outside the organization, though, can be a frustrating experience in sexism. DeBoer and Bayer both spoke of being ignored by people who failed to recognize the person in charge of the event was a woman. The women from Rhymes With Opera also shared some stories about being discounted as a leader.

Lander complained, “Last December, I organized a series, and there was some disbelief that I was the organizer.”

“People will assume that if there’s a man there, that’s the person in charge.”

Fulton chimed in, “One thing I definitely notice is that people will assume that if there’s a man there, that’s the person in charge. Because I’m a woman, and short, and look younger than I am, people don’t think I’m the person to talk to.”

Lih shared that it was actually her male co-director Barnett who suggested that they flip the names on their email signature from “Nate and Ariadne” to “Ariadne and Nate,” so that her name was first. Barnett underlined that “explaining that we are co-directors has been a challenge. We’ve had to undo the assumptions about who is ‘really in charge.’”

Barnett also pointed out the value of sharing leadership with a woman. “It’s a very charged time… I can actually take a step back and say, ‘That’s a question best answered by… Ariadne.’”


Canon, Inclusivity, and Relevance in Curation

Even though all of these groups are oriented in some measure towards new music, I asked everyone specifically if they ever felt pressure to program works from a canon, or if they felt free to choose. The response was overwhelmingly one-sided.

“What’s a canon?” Fulton chuckled.

“No! Boy, do I have the freedom to choose!” exclaimed Fefferman.

The Uncommon Music Festival, which showcases a combination of new music and early music, delights in presenting works by underrepresented composers, even in their selections from early music, though Lih does tend to include more canonical works for educational programming.

The pressure to program certain works usually whittles down to the occasional suggestion “to program more accessible pieces.”

When Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians was programmed for the Omaha Under the Radar festival, it was, and remains to this day, their most-attended event, but Bartlett hasn’t tried to repeat that attendance level through programming piece from the growing new music “canon” – those pieces that have attained a certain recognition in textbooks and anthologies. She said that the pressure to program certain works usually whittles down to the occasional suggestion “to program more accessible pieces. Like, my mom would always wish that I would sing more contemporary Christian music. That advice to be more accessible, I usually outright ignore it.”

As Bayer quipped, a shoestring budget often isn’t compatible with playing works from the new music canon, anyway. “Money is definitely a factor in not playing canonical works – we can’t afford the rental fees!”

In every case, the programmers were looking to showcase works outside a canon, and sometimes were looking for ways to showcase their own compositions or a particular set of talents. DeBoer concurred, “If there is an ensemble with a non-diverse program, it’s not an interesting application.”

All of the organizations felt a responsibility to program female artists and composers, as well as other underrepresented groups.

For Rhymes With Opera, the unusual setup has built-in safeguards for gender parity. Founding members George Lam and Ruby Fulton share composition responsibilities for many of the ensemble’s pieces. Bonnie Lander is also a composer. Fulton added, “A few years ago, we did a set of one-minute pieces—“signatures”—and we got an equal split of men and women. It’s a little more challenging when we’re picking one person for a commission, but we keep it about 50/50.”

However, most organizers felt that inclusivity required planning and deliberate action. Omaha Under the Radar said that it’s not a challenge to find female composers, but occasionally things hit a snag. “I realized last year that we had not programmed a large ensemble piece by a woman,” DeBoer confessed. “My jaw hit the floor. How could we have missed that? We have to be super vigilant. It’s a conversation we’re constantly having. It’s a constant reminder that things like that don’t happen naturally.” She uses spreadsheets to track demographics of participating ensembles and their programs.

“If we’re interested in an ensemble, and they don’t have a diverse program, we will contact them and ask if they would be willing to change. They always are.”

Bayer also said that she keeps a careful eye on her metrics to help her plan for and meet programming goals at OME. “Since Year One to now, we’ve gone from 20% female composers to 40-50% female composers. If we’re interested in an ensemble, and they don’t have a diverse program, we will contact them and ask if they would be willing to change. They always are.” She went on to add, “It’s about telling people’s stories, and we’re always seeking to improve our range of storytelling. When we present art from a more diverse group of people, I feel like we’re making the world a better place.”

The Uncommon Music Festival states specific goals on its website of “presenting inclusive, exciting music that is unlikely to have been heard by our audiences” and “to perform the work of underrepresented composers, especially women and composers of color.” Though this was a stated mission, directors Lih and Barnett realized that they needed measurable goals and quotas going into their third season. They decided that at least one-third of the works played needed to be by people of color, and the programs needed to show true 50/50 gender parity. It was a satisfying moment when they locked down their program for this year and realized they had met their goals.

“It seemed cold and calculating,” Barnett admitted, “but we realized it was the only way we could ensure that we would achieve what we set out to do.”

Lih clarified, “I feel that I really want to be an advocate for women and for racial diversity, but it’s also really joyful to discover these things I didn’t know. It feels less like a responsibility and more like an exciting artistic endeavor.”

“Gender parity is a lot easier than race or class.”

For New Music Gathering, Fefferman took a slightly different view, saying she felt that the responsibility for many curation concerns—styles, tools, gender, race, geographic location, and ethnic backgrounds—all figured into the decision-making process. “In my circle now, gender parity is a lot easier than race or class. I am still worried about bringing opportunities to different gender-identifying people, but more so these days about bringing voices from different races and socioeconomic classes.”

Plans for upcoming seasons show that all of the organizers interviewed are not just responding or reacting to political and social foci such as the #MeToo movement; by keeping their focus on new music and inclusiveness, they are already programming works and commissioning composers with pieces that are speaking to a wide range of issues confronting the contemporary audience.

Glimpsing into the commissioning process of Rhymes With Opera, Halliday explained, “Our process is quite extended, but we’re interested in composers that are working topically, relevantly. Next year we’ve got a piece about Eleanor Roosevelt. That was planned two years out, but it feels really relevant right now. Our Rumpelstiltskin piece on its face is a fairy tale, but Ruby and George imagined it as a piece about gender and loneliness.”


Challenges and Mentorship

I asked everyone with whom I spoke to specifically describe their challenges and successes, as well as to muse a bit on whether they felt those challenges and definitions of success differed from those of men. Together, we questioned the idea of stereotypical gender roles and how that might play into ideas of success and perceived differences.

The women I interviewed felt, for the most part, that their challenges and successes were the same as anyone’s in their position, regardless of gender. The universal answer to the question, “What is your biggest challenge?” was “Fundraising!” (The eye rolls were audible over Skype and phone.) “We have no budget” was a theme repeated as often as death knocking in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with stories of self-financing through credit cards, Kickstarter, grant writing, donor-chasing, and family support all thrown into the mix.

“Even in entrepreneurship courses I took, we talked about budget, but not about gathering capital,” said Bayer. She learned how to ask for money and barter for spaces, occasionally receiving the polite “no” or non-response. “But what I remember most are the ‘yeses’ I received,” she added.

Interviewees also discussed challenges of time management and the overwhelming breadth of decision-making, though it was always in regards to balancing their roles as organizers and leaders with various other jobs, leadership roles, and projects. While some women felt that their challenges were not inherently gendered, the ways they had to learn to handle it might have been different from men in the same position.

“I often felt I was undeserving and felt hesitant about asking for support,” one woman recalled. “I feel like my upbringing as a ‘Southern woman’ pushed me into a subservient role.”

“Sometimes I question, ‘Is this a gendered experience, or is it a common experience for organizers?’”

“Learning to ask for money was really, really hard. I think that’s a gendered feeling,” another opined, but added, “Sometimes I question, ‘Is this a gendered experience, or is it a common experience for organizers?’”

After discussing some specific challenges from her life, Fefferman added, “Plus the usual skeezy challenges from a handful of awkward situations that I imagine males haven’t gotten.” The remark was heartbreaking because it was given so matter-of-factly and off-the-cuff, as an expected part of a woman’s experience.

When asked about mentorship, many said that it was challenging to find mentors. Lih noted, “I’ve been in situations where there are no visible women in leadership. That, I think, can be … not as easy a task … to imagine yourself in a leadership position.”

One woman interviewed said, “I 100% feel the need for role models. I have distant role models, but I don’t have an arts mentor. I feel that absence pretty keenly. Just in the past few months, I’ve decided that it’s something I can recognize that I need, but I also can’t dwell on its absence. I have to move forward on my own.”

Fefferman spoke highly of her experiences with Pauline Oliveros, and Fulton mentioned her wonderful time with Elinor Armer. Fefferman and Fulton both cited Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe as an influential role model. Fulton explained, “I also had a number of really cool male mentors, but it’s different and important to have female mentors, and I hope that I can be that for other females coming up, composing. I think it’s important to see how they work and present themselves and their work in the world.”


The Lens of Success

The views on success, interestingly, often came back to ideas of community.

“Success could be communal.”

Fefferman responded, “I saw early on, especially with Julia Wolfe and Pauline Oliveros, that success could be communal. I enjoy developing lasting relationships and collaborations with performers. Maybe that’s associated with a stereotypical gender role, but – it’s more fun!”

Bayer found that her experience as an intern at the Ojai Music Festival was a great influence on her feelings about what music festivals should be: “The entire town showed up for the festival.” For her, creating a festival was about seeking community in new music. She described the transition of Oh My Ears from marathon concert to a multi-day festival as a “leap of faith.” Expense and accessibility concerns made it necessary to go into downtown Phoenix where she had very few connections and form new bonds. The response, she said, was “amazing,” and the community she found in the move will aid in the longevity and growth of the event.

DeBoer described her role of festival organizer as a journey, explaining that her earlier efforts to create festivals in Omaha and Madison as an out-of-town organizer were disappointing. Living in and understanding her community was the key to the success of Omaha Under the Radar. “It’s about relationships,” she said. “For me, there is such a focus on creating an atmosphere of community, of communal effort. I want to nurture artists, and nurture Omaha. I like to hear about when artists meet in Omaha and then go on to collaborate outside this space. The most heartwarming success, and the number one goal of the whole event, is seeing people in the community, who otherwise wouldn’t seek out experimental music, getting to experience it here in Omaha.”

Lih and Barnett were excited about being able to serve as a resource for other organizations interested in achieving gender parity: “I think we’re at a moment where more organizations and people want to do this work, but there’s not a lot of precedent. We’re now in a position to help other organizations and be a resource for others. People are starting to be interested in change, and we’re excited to help them.”


On a personal note…

Over several days, I collected some 30 pages of notes from interviews. This article is only a brief summation of some of the common themes I discovered among this group of leaders. Some of the stories were entirely unique. Some of the experiences were commonplace. All were utterly personal. I want to say how deeply grateful I am for the time each person took in these interviews and the trust they placed in me.

“Find your community.”

The idea of mentorship was one that resonated deep within me, and I realized that I was being mentored through the process of writing this article. Each 45- to 90-minute window of time in the interview was a frank, honest, and yet overall positive outlook on the direction of new music and the growing acceptance of women’s roles in it. In a time when it is easy to be frustrated by numbers and disheartened by the recurring anecdotes, we can still find a community of people forging paths and blazing trails to positive change.

I asked interviewees, “What would be your advice for women pursuing leadership roles in music?” The women of Rhymes With Opera dovetailed their responses deftly in a chorus of encouragement.

“Do it!” Lander exclaimed.

Adding to Lander’s response, Fulton pointed out, “Just do it with fearless confidence. If there are enough people doing this, it will feel commonplace.”

Halliday added, “Find your community. Because you can do this, but it’s more fun with friends.”