Tag: musical diversity

Our Second Festival of American Music

The audience for the Louisville Orchestra's MakingMUSIC concert in March 2016 (Photo by Deanna Hoying)

When I came to the Louisville Orchestra as music director, one of the first things I wanted to do was to think about ways of reconnecting with the orchestra’s heritage—incredible, almost unheard of numbers of commissions, world premieres, and recordings which were a result of an extraordinary partnership between the Louisville Orchestra and the city of Louisville. This was the story of this orchestra for a long time; it was the element of the Louisville Orchestra that gave it international stardom and an incredible influence over the music of the world. I wanted to reconnect with that heritage and make it current and modern and something that’s relevant and vital for today, to show that the Louisville Orchestra was and still is at the forefront as an incubator for new orchestral works.

American art is all about exploration and coming up with new ideas and going places that nobody had dared to go before.

For our 2015-16 season here in Louisville we came up with the concept of a yearly festival that would celebrate art from this country and connect with the incredible story of the Louisville Orchestra that developed over the last half a century. The Festival of American Music would center on living composers from this country—as well as around styles of music that you might not necessarily expect a symphony orchestra to play—and would engender a spirit of improvisation, trial, and experimentation. It seemed like a festival of this type very much encapsulated the concept of American art. American art is all about exploration and coming up with new ideas and going places that nobody had dared to go before. So much of American art is also about synthesizing elements that come from around the world, as well as those that come from us right here, as a diverse population.

In curating this festival, I considered a number of things. American composers don’t form a monolithic block. (I think that’s actually one of the coolest things about them.) In 19th-century America, you had composers like Charles Ives, and his even wilder father, George Ives, who—long before anybody else—were experimenting with how to represent the world as it really sounded and how to use those sounds in a way that meant something to an everyday American. Up to that point, a lot of American composers were still trying to emulate Europeans. Once Ives made his statement, it paved the way for other American composers to write in ways that no one else had done before. Then the populist movement came on the scene and Copland was the composer who really blew apart that door to American folk music and Americana. Gershwin did that simultaneously with jazz and blues. And that has been the hallmark of Americanism in music—a constant exploration and expansion of boundaries.

You have to be very respectful and cognizant of American music being far broader than anything written for an orchestra

With today’s composers writing in such disparate styles, it’s difficult to pinpoint what makes them “sound American.” Typically when we think of the American sound, it almost always goes back to something vaguely “Copland-y” or “Gershwin-like.” But if you’re building a festival around American music at a symphony orchestra, you not only have to recognize the wonderful music written for a symphony orchestra. You also have to be very respectful and cognizant of American music being far broader than anything written for an orchestra—actual jazz, actual bluegrass, actual folk music, actual hymns, actual cowboy tunes. These are also authentic American music. And it’s important that when you’re representing yourself broadly, it’s not just about a composer’s interpretation, but it’s also about those things themselves in their authentic, genuine state. That’s something I think about all the time.

If you were to think of an orchestra playing a piece with an American sound, probably something like Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man or Appalachian Spring would come to mind. But if you were thinking of just American music, it would be a much bigger picture. This country essentially came up with blues and jazz, with popular music as we know it, and with rock and roll. Virtually every other style that came in the second half of the 20th century wouldn’t exist without blues and jazz. They’re distinctly American. As is bluegrass and rap. I’m always cognizant of that bigger picture.

With all that in mind, as we’re now in the second year of the Festival of American Music, I thought the way to honor all of these elements of American music was to give each concert a central identity. Two of our concerts this year are celebrations of iconic American artists: Michael Tilson Thomas and Ben Folds. I think it’s safe to say that Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the most respected musicians to come out of the United States, not only as a conductor but as a composer, an educator, and as a person who bridged incredible divides in musical history. And Ben Folds is a remarkably talented and adventurous song writer, pianist, and musical maverick. For the thematic programs, one centers on all living female composers, and the other on the American Journey—from iconic American composers of the past to modern composers.

Celebrating the individual musical mavericks that have shaped orchestral music as well as pushed the boundaries of the concert hall, female composers who are telling their stories through music, founders of what we call the “American orchestral sound,” and the new guard of American composers taking risks and experimenting with sound are the hallmarks of the American musical landscape. Taken in its entirety, these three weeks of the Festival of American Music encompasses the incredible range and diversity that is American music.

Teddy Abrams sitting on the floor.

Teddy Abrams (Photo by Chris Wietzke, courtesy Louisville Orchestra)

An unusually versatile musician, Teddy Abrams is a widely acclaimed conductor, as well as an established pianist, clarinetist, composer and music educator. Now in his third season as Music Director of the Louisville Orchestra, he is also Music Director and Conductor of the Britt Classical Festival. Dedicated to exploring new and engaging ways to communicate with a diverse range of audiences, Abrams co-founded the Sixth Floor Trio in 2008 with fellow alumni of the Curtis Institute of Music.

History Of The World

The internet is full of articles that deal with contemporary composition in a very broad and abstract way. My articles for NewMusicBox are no exception: while I’ve talked about some specific works, it’s always been in service of more general points about borrowed material, relevance, and the politics of cross-cultural influence. So for the last article in this series, I’d like to zoom in and talk about how these issues played out in one of my own pieces.

I wrote World about a year and a half ago for the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players. I’d heard great things about Stony Brook’s piano and percussion studios, so I took the opportunity to write for the now fairly standard instrumentation of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. I knew I wanted to focus on the marimba—an instrument that has always struck me as somehow ancient and futuristic at the same time. And since almost everything I write has to do with cultural symbolism in one way or another, I started by asking: What does the marimba signify in American culture?

If you’re the kind of person who likes listening to a piece before you read about it, now would be a good time:

The first associations that came to mind were minimalism and TV news themes. I’ve thought for a while that there was a secret connection between the two. In particular, there’s one passage in Music for 18 Musicians that sounds remarkably like news music.

There’s also the 1991 theme for WABC 7 Eyewitness News, the opening of which wouldn’t sound out of place in a minimalist piece from the late 70s or early 80s.

(I assume that this connection is partially the result of Steve Reich’s widespread influence outside the new-music world—but I also have a theory that the presence of syncopated repeated-note figures in news themes originated as an imitation of a telegraph machine transmitting Morse code.) So World starts off with a passage that’s meant to sound like the ten o’clock news if it had been written by Reich circa Tehillim, with a little help from Bartók:

In TV news themes, the mallet percussion is often synthesized, which gave me the idea of splitting the ensemble into “real” and “artificial” sides: marimba and piano vs. electronic mallet percussion and synth keyboard. But the next association that came to mind landed me right in the political quagmire I talked about in my last article: both wooden percussion instruments and electronic imitations of them are associated with 1980s pop exoticism. The most iconic example is probably “Africa” by Toto—but you see the same thing in “It’s Nearly Africa” by XTC, “The Sheltering Sky” by King Crimson, “Listening Wind” by Talking Heads, “Mulu the Rain Forest” by Thomas Dolby, and “The Dreaming” by Kate Bush. These songs depict a variety of different cultures, and their attitudes range from Talking Heads’ anti-colonialist provocation to XTC’s blunt primitivism, but they all involve American or British musicians using a particular set of timbres as a symbol of far-off lands.

The thing is, I actually find some of these songs quite evocative. “Africa” in particular has been growing on me steadily over the years, for reasons I can’t quite explain (though it might have something to do with the prominent iii chord in the opening riff). Of course, that’s easy for me to say: it’s not my continent being exoticized. But I think it’s more complicated than that, because there’s quite a bit of art that I like even though it treats people like me pretty badly. I loved Infinite Jest, for example, despite a handful of passages that use just about every transphobic trope around as a comedic device. And I’m a fan of horror director Dario Argento despite the undercurrent of misogyny running through his work. In fact, what I like about the “world music” trope in 80s pop music is very similar to what I like about Argento’s movies: it’s all about the lush, enveloping atmosphere. (In the former case, it’s probably also because these sounds were constantly in the background during my early childhood. In fact, one of my first musical memories is an ad for Whatchamacallit candy bars that draws on a similar sound palette.)

I’ve also noticed that a lot of people dismiss this kind of faux world music not on the grounds that it stereotypes or exoticizes people, but on the grounds that it’s “cheesy.” In my experience, that judgment is almost never backed up with any kind of rational critique; usually it means “it’s considered uncool to admit to liking this.” So when I hear something dismissed in that way, I’m immediately drawn to it, both because I don’t like aesthetic prejudice, and also because things that are deemed “cheesy” can easily take on a surreal, alarming or even frightening quality. You can see this phenomenon—which I’ve sometimes referred to by saying that “cheesiness is the new dissonance”—at work in a lot of David Lynch’s films.

So here was this “cheesy” music that was conceptually related to my plan for the piece. I wanted to put it into a new context that would allows its merits, including its potential for strangeness, to be heard more clearly. (Some people might see this as trying to “improve” pop-cultural materials by putting them in a so-called “high-art” context, but I actually think of it more as trying to “improve” contemporary classical music, which could use a corrective to its often overbearing seriousness and self-importance.) The question was: could I create that lush world-music atmosphere without drawing on any actual non-Western cultures? Could I throw out the stereotypical bathwater while keeping the evocative baby?

In some ways it was easy; I could use the sounds of birds and water, long sustained synth pads, quartal harmonies, and minor triads in a major-mode context. If that sounds like it’s in bad taste, great! And how to frame the passage so that it might seduce people who would normally be skeptical of these kinds of sounds? Save it for later in the piece, and introduce its motivic material and aspects of its sound-world first, so that when it arrives, it seems like a revelation of something that was just under the surface the whole time: a door opening into the middle of a rainforest.

But something was still missing.

Now, a brief digression. Around the same time that I was writing World, I was thinking about how often I’d been hearing cut-up and pitch-shifted vocal samples in contemporary pop, rock, and electronica. The most striking example is the one that Skrillex gradually builds over the course of his song “Summit”—an entire pop melody constructed out of individually sampled vowels.

Others include Tune-Yards’ “Bizness”, Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)”, and Gotye’s “State of the Art”. As I’ve said, I’m intrigued when a single idea shows up in a variety of different contexts. But wasn’t obvious, at least at first, that this had anything to do with my plans for World.
What put all the pieces together was Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby.”

If you’re not familiar with them, Deep Forest are a French “ethnic electronica” duo, and their work is especially problematic: they’ve been accused of extensively sampling traditional music from around the world without permission and sometimes without even crediting the original performers, and they’ve made quite a bit of money in the process. They also have a habit of talking about people in developing countries in a patronizing way: “Somewhere, deep in the jungle, are living some little men and women. They are our past. And maybe—maybe they are our future.” “Sweet Lullaby” doesn’t include that kind of commentary, but it is based on a recording of a traditional Baegu song from the Solomon Islands, which they used without the permission of either the woman who sang it or the ethnomusicologist who recorded it.

And yet here too, I find the music strangely haunting. And while I was trying to figure out why, I suddenly realized that listening to electronically cut-up syllables is a lot like listening to a song in a language you don’t speak—which meant that I could create my imaginary foreign culture by taking a page from Skrillex and building a melody out of pitch-shifted vocal samples in the climactic section of World. Not only that, but the artificiality of the cut-up technique would enhance the surreal quality already latently present in the “cheesiness” of the style.

And then I realized something else: several of the songs that had gotten me thinking about cut-up vocals were related to the ideas that I had associated with marimbas in the first place. “Summit” relates to minimalism through its repetition-based syntax, and, less directly, through the long history of connections between Steve Reich and electronic dance music, including the Reich Remixed album and the sample of Electric Counterpoint in The Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds”. And Tune-Yards is another politically complicated case of a white American musician being heavily influenced by African music—in this case, Congolese pop music. In other words, everything is connected:
World Chart
When I talked about complex tangles of interconnections between different artistic streams, this was the kind of thing I had in mind. So what does my attempt to translate that tangle into an actual piece of music sound like? Hear for yourself:

Van-Anh Vanessa Vo: Old Sounds / New Music

A 19th-century French composition and an 18th-century Vietnamese traditional instrument can create a strikingly engaging current musical story together, and as Van-Anh Vo (who often goes by Vanessa in the States) performed Gnossienne No. 3 on the dan bau, playing up the instrument’s haunting moans, the audience sat transfixed. Satie’s well-worn melody suddenly pulsed with fresh life.

Vo speaks with moving passion about the impact of American diversity on the evolution of her musical voice since she emigrated from Vietnam in the late 1990s. An award-winning traditional performer and educator in her native country, Vo has found a particular freedom in the myriad genres and styles of music that surround her here—an influence that has filtered into both her musical ideas and the instruments and techniques she uses to communicate them. “I think I find great opportunity as a musician and composer here,” Vo explains. “I can do what I want. I can follow my inner voice—what I hear in my mind and what I feel I need to express.”

On the heels of the release of Three-Mountain Pass, a recent collection of her compositions and arrangements, Vo traveled across the country from her current home in the Bay Area to present many of the tracks during a performance on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Out of a suitcase and a few modestly sized bags, she set up a small orchestra of traditional Vietnamese instruments (the dan tranh, dan bau, and dan t’rung) plus the hang, a modern piece of Swiss percussion. She moved easily from one to the next during her set, explaining to the gathered audience the folktale references and classic Vietnamese poetry that often inspire her compositions.

Vo performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Vo performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Indeed, Vo’s energy and enthusiasm for musical creativity seems to transcend any particular instrument and instead feed off a fundamental sonic curiosity, as well as a desire to reflect on her cultural heritage and share those sounds with new ears. It’s a dialog that has led her to collaborations with musical neighbors such as the Kronos Quartet. “I see how things can be done and they help me to open even wider,” Vo says, noting the confidence such collaborations have given her to try new extended techniques such as using a violin bow on her single-string dan bau or plucking very close to the bridge of the dan tranh—a forbidden zone in traditional playing. In return, she has also passed on some of the non-notatable slide and phrasing aspects of Vietnamese music as Kronos worked on her Green River Delta.  The project was a success; in the end, she says, her teachers back in Vietnam suggested that perhaps she had swapped these four American guys with native players.

This spirit of collaboration has also led her to work with instrument makers to redesign the dan tranh to allow for faster and more flexible retuning during performances, but the modifications also meant she had to readjust everything about her playing. She admits that it “was really challenging, but you learn to conquer it. That’s the best thing maybe to happen to me.”
Interestingly, Vo draws strong connections between American jazz and the improvisation involved in traditional Vietnamese music—at least to a point. In other ways, however, musical life in Vietnam felt very conservative. Vo also recalls feeling censored by what the government felt was appropriate to play in concert.

Ultimately the distance has allowed Vo to appreciate the culture and history of her native country with a deeper awareness. “It is very important that you know who you are and where you come from, so I know that my roots are in Vietnam,” Vo acknowledges. “But the tree has to adjust to the new environment and bear the new fruit, otherwise it will die.”

Forcing Diversity

Last Wednesday night, we at SUNY Fredonia concluded hosting a satisfying two-day residency with the Lunar Ensemble, a talented group based in Baltimore whose instrumentation is formed around that of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (including voice) with the ubiquitous addition of percussion. Performing a two-evening concert series under the banner of the “Pierrot Centenary Project,” the ensemble not only executed a subtle and entertaining rendition of Schoenberg’s masterpiece but also premiered eight newly composed works. These pieces set the remaining 29 poems by Albert Giraud (from the original collection of 50) that were not included in the libretto for Pierrot Lunaire. I enjoyed both concerts thoroughly, but I was especially surprised by the continued utilization of the singers–it’s a rare occurrence to see a Pierrot-based ensemble incorporate voice unless they’re performing the Schoenberg, and having both of the extremely gifted sopranos (Lisa Perry and Danielle Buonaiuto) tag-team between the many new works really allowed these performances to transcend the realm of the ordinary.

Rewind back several weeks ago and we had another equally able and insightful ensemble in residence, this time from New York City. Initially formed by four graduate students from the Manhattan School of Music’s Contemporary Performance program, loadbang consists of a unique combination of clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and baritone voice. When I first announced that not only would loadbang be performing their concert but performing student works in a reading session as well, I got a lot of quizzical looks asking “what the [insert expletive] am I going to do with that ensemble?” And yet, when they came to campus and flawlessly read down the six student compositions, they inspired the students so much that in both of the student composer concerts that followed, works utilizing the loadbang instrumentation were performed by student performers to great effect.

As Frank J. Oteri’s musings remind us, diversity is a good and rare thing these days. While there are still a number of exceptions, the instrumental makeup of ensembles performing contemporary concert music has ossified into three primary formations: traditional chamber ensembles, “Pierrot + Percussion” ensembles (which groups like eighth blackbird continue to prove is a viable model), and the one-on-a-part chamber orchestra instrumentation found in many university new music ensembles as well as the very successful group Alarm Will Sound. It makes sense that these three models have become commonplace with both performers and composers; the traditional chamber ensembles already have strong and deep repertoires from which to choose (and for composers to study) and so many composers have composed for the other two ensembles over the past 30+ years that they have become staples in their own right.

This consistency in instrumentation is in many ways a good thing, since it simultaneously allows for ensembles to have a wide array of works to choose from as well as a strong number of similar ensembles by which composers may have their works performed. That same consistency, however, has created some unintended side effects. The most obvious is the timbral homogenization that has occurred; the violin/cello/flute/clarinet/piano/percussion combination, for example, has become the de facto mixed chamber sound for new music (just as winds-in-threes became the default instrumentation of symphony orchestras in the 19th century). In addition, the success of these established models has been reached at the expense of many instruments that are not nearly as prominently written for in contemporary concert ensembles (i.e. double reeds, saxophones, brass, violas, and voice, among others; both contrabass and electric guitar have gained some popularity, but are still not used nearly as much as the standard P+P grouping).

Ensembles such as Lunar Ensemble and loadbang as well as several others (including BOAC All-Stars, NOW Ensemble, Newspeak, Cygnus Ensemble, and the Akropolis Quintet) are doing their part to push against that tendency for homogeneity, and one can only hope that more groups (and subsequently composers) will continue to not only experiment but to establish new permanent combinations that can flourish in the future.

The Genius Myth, Part Two

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Albert Einstein

GeniusLast week I began considering the pervasive genius myth and some of its ramifications. I postulated that a central aspect of our conception of the genius is in its removal from our quotidian experience, and that this distancing leads to two negative consequences: 1) our thinking that geniuses invariably lived in a different time and place has helped lead to an ossification of the classical orchestral repertoire, and 2) our belief that the products of the geniuses are exceptional absolves us of our responsibility to grapple with the issues raised by their work; because we are by definition unable to truly understand their arcane elements, we don’t need to make an effort to do so. Thus, as David St. Hubbins of the fictional band Spinal Tap most famously stated, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh, clever.”

Another troubling aspect of the genius myth is that in application it invariably buttresses the status quo. In a world in which the default “composer” is white and male and in which other flavors of artists find their works shunted into sub-categories, we tend to reserve the center of the canon for those who most closely resemble the creators of the past. Indeed, the 2009 Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory states that the “concept [of genius] is tied to gender and power in ways that cause problems for women,” and goes on to argue that “Romantic, Victorian and Modernist artists claimed that only ‘geniuses’ produced ‘great art’ and that only a man could be a ‘genius.’ However, in practice they defined ‘great art’ in contrast with the art of women and others who were labeled ‘inferior.’” This practice continues even today in much criticism.

In the music world, I think that the main way to stand against the racist and sexist applications of the term “genius” is to remember that some of the best art being created today was composed by people who are not white and male. We should ask ourselves why we’re neglecting to mention Saariaho, Gubaidulina, and Neuwirth in a discussion of the greatest European composers working today. Or if we’re considering orchestral music composed in the U.S., can we fully represent the range of excellence found in contemporary composers while neglecting Chen Yi, Jennifer Higdon, Shulamit Ran, Tan Dun, Joan Tower, Augusta Read Thomas, and Olly Wilson (just to pull a few names out of a hat)? Aren’t we doing ourselves a disservice when we write on American opera without mention of Anthony Davis and Deborah Drattell?

I’m not arguing for a watering down of standards or for us to have quotas. But with so much amazing music being created by so many different types of people, we should stop ourselves before producing yet another white male composer festival. Why would we blithely neglect to program music that might represent the unique concerns of more than 50% of our potential audience members? Why not question our choices in order to consider if the music we’re programming is indeed the best music out there. We might realize that we simply forgot about that composer who writes music that we adore but who we haven’t thought about in a while because they aren’t considered one of the usual suspects. Rob Deemer’s “A Helpful List” might be a good place to start looking if you need ideas for composer’s names.

By doing so, we will hopefully be able to re-define the idea of “genius,” working towards a connotation that’s more appropriate for our contemporary society. Until then, I suggest retiring the term entirely and casting about more broadly to find the best music currently being created.

An Honor to Celebrate (and a Shame Long Forgotten)

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

Ed Harsh and John Duffy

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

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

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

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

Amir ElSaffar's Two Rivers Ensemble

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

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

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

John Duffy CMA Group Photo

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