Tag: networking

Do you need a doctorate in composition?

A person taking notes, with a white mug in the background
Do you need a doctorate in composition? No, you don’t. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value.

In the nearly twenty years that I have been teaching composition at universities and conservatories, the most common question I am asked by students not already in doctoral programs is which ones they should apply to. The assumption of these young composers is that the next logical or expected step in the progression of their musical development is to seek an advanced degree in a field where the degree itself is becoming both more ubiquitous and less powerful.

When I ask young composers why they want to earn a doctorate, the almost inevitable response is, “Because I want to teach.” That is indeed an admirable reason to do so. Additional issues such as performance and networking opportunities and some abstract sense of the recognition and approval that a doctorate will bestow are also often mentioned. While there is some merit to these expectations, I believe they are mostly misguided.

For decades, the availability of full-time, tenure-track composition jobs has been dwindling, with the decrease greatly exacerbated by the onset of the 2008 financial crisis. During this time, administrators in higher education facing smaller budgets due to reduced state funding, shrinking endowments, and less generous alumni donors sought to make up the difference. They did so by employing larger pools of part-time adjunct faculty who could be paid far less than their full-time counterparts with few or no benefits and no job security. As the financial markets later soared to record levels of growth, the number of full-time professorships did not follow. Consequently, the majority of my colleagues who teach composition or related music courses do so in the precarious conditions described above. These teachers are extremely qualified and dedicated; their students are lucky to work with them. But for anyone trying to eek out a living on the wages earned as an adjunct or short-term contract instructor (particularly in an expensive metropolitan area where new music activity is concentrated) struggles significantly. These exploitative teaching positions are often spread out over multiple campuses requiring travel and the time spent counseling students, correcting homework and papers, and dealing with university bureaucracy steals precious time needed to compose. Anyone considering a doctorate for the reason that they want to teach should be aware of these realities and that the competition for the few stable jobs that are offered is extremely fierce.


Image: Vlad Kutepov

A more immediate financial consideration for young composers seeking a doctorate is the cost of the degree and the means needed to live during the years that it takes to complete the classwork, exams, and dissertation. While many universities and conservatories offer composer fellowships that waive tuition and offer a modest stipend, usually in exchange for teaching, these are limited, often to just a couple a year. Of course, these cannot accommodate the hundreds of qualified students who apply for composition doctorates every year and many students are faced with the possibility of large debts after completing their studies. No student should be put in this position and I strongly advise against paying for these degrees. While it is not uncommon for young professionals to leave graduate school with substantial debt, the fields outside the humanities more consistently offer starting salaries beyond living wages in addition to health and retirement benefits. Because there are very few such opportunities available to recent composition graduates, it makes no sense to accrue a large debt that may take decades to repay.

There are also some young composers who feel that they have not received sufficient preparation in order to enter the field. They believe that an advanced degree will provide the training and knowledge that they lack. A graduate program in composition would serve these students well but not at the expense of crushing debt that would be shouldered if the student needed to pay for tuition. In these cases, I recommend that students seek out individuals for private lessons. Because there are so many highly-qualified musicians that do not have full-time academic jobs, many are willing to teach privately. The cost of these lessons is a fraction of graduate tuition and offers much more flexibility with regard to teachers and scheduling.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community.

In my experience, no ensemble, soloist, or presenter has ever reconsidered a commission or programming opportunity for a composer due to a lack of academic credentials. It seems true that certain prizes and fellowships give some limited weight to one’s academic background, but it is always subsidiary to the music under consideration.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community. By interacting and collaborating with fellow musicians, pooled talents and resources sum to much more than individual parts. I always encourage young composers to attend as many concerts as possible and politely and humbly engage the performers and audience members during and after the show. Chance and sought out connections can yield deep, meaningful, and even lifetime relationships that can have profound creative and intellectual impact.

I understand that for many the access to such communities may be limited due to geographical or financial constraints. Additionally, it can be socially and professionally daunting for some to join circles to which they do not already belong. In these circumstances the communities may be created from within, as has often been the case in the past. Some examples include the artists that formed Der Blaue Reiter, the Scratch Orchestra, and the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

There are positive attributes of academic programs, to be sure. Especially when coming from a place where interactions with like-minded musicians are limited, enrolling in a music program can provide incredible stimulation and camaraderie with peers and mentors. Opportunities to work with fellow students and guests in performances and presentations are extremely valuable, as is the teaching experience that comes with fellowships. The positive impact that access to a dedicated music library can have on a developing composer is undeniable. And hopefully the courses and private instruction will enlighten and expand one’s own musical outlook.

So while there is value in attending a graduate program in composition, it is not a panacea for career advancement and future job security. It is wise to consider what one wants and realistically what a composition doctorate can offer before assuming that it is the only path forward.

Teamwork in the Conservatory: In the Game of Music, We Can All Win

Three people at the mixing desk of a recording studio

My yoga teacher once said something that really stuck with me: What helps “we” also helps “me.” Time after time, my experiences have verified this to be true. The occasions in which I have grown the most have all involved collaborating with my peers and coworkers. I strongly believe that no collective growth can occur without there first being individual growth, but that when an individual grows, so does the group. This is also a key component of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s (SFCM) Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) program, where there is a large emphasis on collaboration and teamwork. I want to see my peers succeed, so I’m constantly asking myself how I can contribute to their success. Through collaboration, we grow together.

One Friday night during my freshman year, a group of students and I got free tickets to see the San Francisco Opera. I arrived at the opera house and found my seat next to another TAC student, Thomas Soto. We began chatting about music and other career-related things. He offhandedly mentioned that there was a really cool professional development program for college students pursuing a career in music called GRAMMY U. He told me how the program hosts “SoundChecks” with big-name artists like Jason Mraz, The Weeknd, and Khalid, which include a Q&A session and a photo with the artist. I was intrigued. After the opera, I went home and immediately applied for a GRAMMY U membership. Fast forward one and a half years and I’m sitting in a corporate office interviewing to be the next GRAMMY U Representative for the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy. Now, after having the job for nearly a year and four months, one of my many roles is to pair 10 to 15 high-achieving GRAMMY U members with a mentor in their field of study each semester. It all came back around this semester when I paired Thomas, the same person who told me about the program, with an awesome mentor who has been teaching him audio engineering, mixing, and arranging. Looking back at that night in the opera house, Thomas had no idea what wheels he had set in motion at that time. He was simply sharing a really cool opportunity with me and ended up benefiting greatly from it himself some three years later.


A few weeks ago, after hearing a decent number of my peers in the TAC program complain about how difficult it is to find an artist manager, I decided it was time to use my rep position to make some magic happen. Through GRAMMY U, I organized an Industry Insights event on the relationship between artists and managers. I knew some GRAMMY U members at UC Berkeley studying artist management, and of course I knew members in my own TAC program who were in great need of management, so I thought it to be a perfect fit. I called up the music director of the Berkeley Careers in Entertainment Club (BCEC) to see if they wanted to co-host this event with us. They agreed, so I sent an invitation out to all of the GRAMMY U members in the Bay Area. We invited a guest speaker, Joe Barham, artist manager for the Stone Foxes and creator partnerships lead at Patreon, for a Q&A. During the event, I asked Joe about the roles and expectations of artist managers, how these relationships are built, and the red flags to look out for when searching for your perfect match. Following the Q&A, we gave out colored name tags and mock-business cards with each student’s info for them to hand out during the networking session. At first, when we announced that the networking session had officially begun, nobody moved from their seat. Only after an inspiring pep talk about seizing the moment from Michael Winger, the executive director of The Recording Academy SF Chapter, did students begin to shuffle around the room. Surprisingly, the networking session lasted longer than we expected, resulting in us having to move the event next door to a pizza joint.

The feedback I got was very inspiring. Some students admitted, “At first, I was scared to walk up to someone new, but after the fourth and fifth time it became surprisingly easy,” and, “I didn’t realize how cool everyone in the room was until I started talking to them.” This is a much smaller industry than we realize, and many students we sit next to in class will be the working professionals of tomorrow. Every day is an opportunity to make these connections and long-lasting friendships. These relationships will serve you for the rest of your life. Due to the huge success of this event, I’m now in the process of planning another Industry Insights session for production and engineering students in May.

Teamwork in the Conservatory

I didn’t know what I was in for when I signed up for a winter term class called Synesthesia and Microtonality this past January. There were only three of us in the class: Jonathan Herman, Jessica Mao, and myself. We showed up to our first class meeting to have the professor tell us that we had one week to figure out a solution to his dilemma. Our task was to program a keyboard to play microtones and another one to trigger specific colors on a screen for a live performance. The three of us, not yet knowing each other very well, had no idea how to go about accomplishing this on our own. It was only when we started to communicate our different skills that we realized where one person lacked, the other made up for. I knew just enough about the program Max/MSP to start building a color organ, Jessica started mapping out the different color combinations and how they would correspond to specific keys, and Jonathan, who is well-versed in Ableton, began on the microtonal tunings. The collaborative process was so seamless it felt like we were a machine. After only three days we had worked out a brilliant solution, something I never thought would happen when we began. The piece is scheduled to be performed at SFCM in May. Due to its unique curriculum, the TAC program at SFCM is collaborative by nature. Not only did I accomplish a goal I previously thought impossible, I also developed great friendships in the process. I learned a valuable lesson in trusting others’ abilities. That’s what a team is for.

There’s a place for everyone to succeed in this game. We come from different backgrounds with varying life experiences that contribute to our own unique skill sets. If I could do anything right now, I would want to encourage students to not treat work life as a competition, but more so like a game with only one team. Rather than competing against each other, we can utilize our individual knowledge to work together and create immensely beautiful things. Before entering the TAC program, I had not realized the mighty power of collaboration, nor thought about how my unique skill set could support the needs of others. Both the TAC program and my work with The Recording Academy have helped me see the tremendous value in teamwork. Life’s
much more fun when you work with others!

My Year of Awkward Encounters; or, Networking at Concerts

I wouldn’t say I’m an introvert. I wouldn’t even have called myself a particularly awkward person before. But recent events have caused me to seriously reconsider my position on the matter.

Two years ago, I started a job at Boosey & Hawkes as a marketing and PR person. The job frequently takes me into the concert hall, backstage with artists, and out with industry contacts and journalists. This was a significant change from my previous job as an editor, which required little networking and had me working far behind the scenes. There was a lot to learn quickly in my new people-facing position, and in the beginning, I was mainly just learning how excessively gifted I was at getting myself into an impressive range of awkward social situations.

The reality is, a lot of people—even the ones who are good at it—dislike mingling at concerts. Almost everyone you encounter is perfectly cordial, but they’re usually hanging around because they’re looking to speak to someone specific. Conversations are full of unfocused attempts to connect while also trying to be as charming as possible—occasionally opening up large pits of awkwardness to fall into. When did connecting with other people become so difficult?

Suffice it to say, when you’re going to two or three shows a week, that adds up to a lot of pride-snuffing, awkward interactions that eventually you learn to muscle though. For me, those moments have ranged from inexplicably finding myself wedged under the armpit of a major opera company’s artistic director at a crowded post-concert reception, to telling the head of a prestigious London venue during an intermission that I thought her concert hall’s bathrooms were “fantastic!” and the “best in the city.” My experiences as a newcomer to the industry were so reliably and comically bad that my boss got in the habit of asking me each morning after a concert what my “awkward moment of the night” was.

Allow me to share some of my hard-won knowledge of best practices for navigating the murky waters of networking, in hopes that you can learn from my mistakes—or, at the very least, find comfort in the fact that I’ve probably embarrassed myself in public more than you have.

The Introduction

Once, I was backstage after a New York Philharmonic concert chatting with a bunch of people in a circle, when a famous pianist walked right into the middle. Then—seemingly just realizing he was in the middle of a circle—he slowly turned around and landed his gaze on me. Everyone else in the room stopped talking and stared at me too. After several unbearable seconds, I stuck my hand out and began verbal vomiting: “HellomynameisCarolAnnCheung. IworkatBoosey&Hawkes. It’sanhonortomeetyou. Congratulationsontheperformance.” He shook my hand, then silently turned away and walked back out of the circle.

Introductions can be The Worst. Sometimes people are receptive to meeting you; sometimes they slowly and silently walk away from you. What if the person you want to talk to is surrounded by people you don’t know? What if they’re talking to one person for an interminably long time, and you feel uncomfortable interrupting?

Depending on the situation, when I see a person I want to meet and they’re already talking to other people, I might wait a little bit to see if they wrap up their conversation. If that takes too long, I walk up to a person, get in their line of sight and make eye contact, and say, “Excuse me. Hi, I wanted to introduce myself.” (It can also be helpful in these situations to ask a mutual contact or friend to introduce you.)

What if someone doesn’t want to be approached? Say you walk up to someone and they blow you off. Sometimes that happens with journalists or artistic administrators who get bombarded regularly by people trying to pitch them ideas. That’s fine—accept that this isn’t the right way to establish contact with this particular person and move on. Don’t take it personally.

woman face down on table

Photo by Pim Chu

The Conversation

I’ll tell you a secret. Sometimes when I’m caught in a dry conversation and scraping the bottom of things to talk about, I offer a person chocolate from my secret stash in my purse (sneaking snacks into the concert hall is one of my favorite pastimes). That signature move has saved me from awkwardness many a time. (Also, don’t be offended if I’ve ever offered you chocolate. I happen to eat chocolate a lot at concerts.)

On a more serious note, if you’re going to approach someone to introduce yourself, it helps to know what you want out of the exchange—do you have a question for them about their creative projects? Do you just want to introduce yourself and what you do, and then follow up later with a message? Do you want to tell them about something you’re working on?

When pitching ideas to people, understand they’ll probably spot your agenda a mile away. Be a gracious conversationalist and make a point to also ask what they’re working on, what they’re excited about, or have seen lately.

Exit Strategy

Last year, I was at an industry party and spotted a journalist passing by (not a particularly chatty guy), and said hi. The conversation petered out somewhat quickly, and after a few seconds of awkward silence, he raised his glass, clinked it against mine, and walked away. I stood there slightly mortified and thought, “Was that me or was that him?” In truth, it was probably a little of both.

Since then I’ve learned to anticipate the awkward silence and make a quick (but polite) exit when the conversation is winding down. Say, “Great to see you! Hope to run into you at another show soon.”

If you want to continue your conversation, make sure you establish a way you can get in touch again before you step away.

Alternate Networking Strategies

If you struggle as I do with socializing in these contexts, it’s also really valuable to find ways to network that seem more natural for you. The concert hall may be a convenient place to meet contacts, but I’ve found my best and most productive connections were made via casual one-on-one meetings. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to sit down for informational meetings when you simply introduce yourself over e-mail, describe your interest in what they do, and ask to meet up to talk. This was a revelation for me when I first started working; meetings like this have opened so many doors for me professionally.

In Conclusion

I’ve told other seasoned professionals of my socializing woes, and everyone laughs and remembers how much it generally sucked to be in my place earlier in their careers. There’s some comfort in knowing there’s hope for an ugly duckling yet.

I can say that over time I’ve developed a pretty thick skin for these types of social interactions. Gradually, those moments of clumsy introductions and forced conversation have become fewer and farther between as I get to know and work with more people in the industry.

That said, the next time you see me at a concert, go easy on me. Or, come say hi and ask for some chocolate. Let’s get awkward.

How to Produce Opera Outside the Opera House

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

Here’s a new music riddle of sorts:

How do you get an opera company to produce an opera that’s not really an opera?

The answer: You don’t—you produce it yourself.

In a 1989 grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts, Steve Reich explained his rationale for self-producing The Cave, his and video artist Beryl Korot’s first video opera:

We are self-producing The Cave because the unusual nature of the piece demands it. Specifically, The Cave will be a new type of documentary music theater that could not easily be produced in existing opera houses…an opera orchestra would be totally overblown, unprepared, and unsuitable to perform it.

Operatic voices would be equally unsuitable, he wrote, and “the technical demands of [the piece] would be poorly served at best if produced in existing opera houses or concert halls.” Unlike his erstwhile colleague Philip Glass, who by then had seen his operas produced by established opera houses in Amsterdam, Stuttgart, and Houston, Reich seemed to view traditional institutions as museums for relics of the operatic past, unfit for truly modern music theater. But Reich took a less extreme path than the one proposed in 1966 by Boulez; rather than blowing up the opera houses, Reich decided to avoid them entirely.

Previously, Sasha Metcalf outlined how the creation of OPERA America’s “Opera for the 80s and Beyond” initiative kick-started a flurry of operatic activity that has continued to the present. Supplemented with Rockefeller funds, many U.S. opera companies began offering commissions for new operas. But institutions have their own financial priorities and aesthetic preferences, so Reich—like many iconoclastic, entrepreneurial composers of the late 20th century—chose instead to create music outside the traditional structures of production and patronage.

To create their unorthodox opera, Reich and Korot wove together multiple threads of public and private aid. Support came in many guises: financial, artistic, logistical, emotional, to name just a few. What each of these has in common is that they arose from the personal and professional relationships that the pair had cultivated over the previous decades of their careers.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture.

Relationships between individuals are crucial to nearly every aspect of an artistic venture. As last year’s NewMusicBox series on community demonstrated, the act of making music—or of creating the conditions that allow for that music—is frequently communal, dependent on a network of willing participants. Networking made possible Reich and Korot’s production strategy, which relied heavily on hiring a well-connected administrator who could help them assemble a consortium of co-commissioners and solicit financial support from public foundations and private donors. (And if the term “networking” too strongly evokes images of over-eager, suit-and-tie MBAs handing out business cards, perhaps it’s more pleasant to think in collaborative terms.)

The core aesthetic concept of The Cave—combining Korot’s multiple-image video art with Reich’s work with speech melodies—came about in conversation. In June 1980, Reich lay in a hospital, recovering from shoulder surgery. When Michael Nyman stopped by for a social visit, Reich hit upon an idea for what he and Korot, who are married, would later categorize as a “documentary music video theater work”—not an opera, per se. Writing just a few months later to Betty Freeman, a longtime Los Angeles patron who would go on to commission Different Trains, Reich confided:

I…have in mind to start a H*U*G*E project that will involve live music on stage plus multiple image film….It will go back to the kind of work I was doing with tape in the 60s (like Come Out) and will be my answer to what music theatre can be.

Reich’s answer, The Cave, premiered thirteen years later at the Vienna Festival.

The title of The Cave refers to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham (father to both Jews and Muslims) and his family are buried. The opera conveys the story of Abraham, his wife Sarah, her handmaid Hagar, and their sons, Ishmael and Isaac, using sacred Jewish and Islamic texts, even as it explores the contemporary relevance of these figures through interviews with Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and Americans. Reich and Korot synchronized the speech melodies and film footage from these interviews with live music to create a visual and aural portrait of each individual. The result is a far cry from Carmen or La bohème. Think Different Trains, but with video.

When Korot and Reich began thinking seriously about the project in the late 1980s, they decided that the scope of producing an opera exceeded what they could manage on their own. In April 1988, before they had even lined up a commission, the pair asked Renée Levine Packer to produce the opera. Although the Reich Music Foundation is listed on the program below as a co-producer, Reich has been quick to credit Levine Packer as the true (and sole) producer. “I didn’t have anything to do with the production whatsoever,” he said in a 2016 interview. “It was all produced by Renée Levine [Packer]. I did nothing except whatever she told me!”

Cave Program Page

Title page of the Vienna program booklet. Source: University at Buffalo Music Library.

Levine Packer and Reich first met in 1965 at the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY Buffalo, which Levine Packer coordinated and eventually co-directed. Later, she co-ran the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival and, more importantly, led the NEA’s nascent Inter-Arts Division. There, Levine Packer oversaw the agency’s funding for experimental, mixed media, and interdisciplinary collaborations. Her stints at SUNY Buffalo and the NEA were twin qualifications, according to Reich: “She was somebody who really knew the new music field and she knew the funding field, and she was really sympathetic to what we were doing. So, it was a natural [fit].”

Levine Packer brought to The Cave a wealth of connections to individuals and foundations. But her support cannot simply be measured in terms of how many grants she secured. Her support was also aesthetic in nature. Levine Packer has spoken enthusiastically about Reich’s music, and one of her most cherished possessions is Etty’s Rosetta, a painting by Korot. Moreover, she is drawn to the very nature of interdisciplinary collaborations. In my conversations with her, she reflected, “I knew how difficult [these collaborations] were, but I also knew how they transcended boundaries and were larger than the sum of their parts. And that was very exciting to me…I felt perfectly at home with that kind of aspiration. In fact, I loved it.” The Cave represented, in her view, “everything I tried to accomplish at the National Endowment for the Arts…a wonderful collaborative work that goes beyond the art form of either and comes out totally new.”

In lieu of relying on a single company to produce the opera, Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot created a network of co-commissioners. They began in the fall of 1988 with Klaus-Peter Kehr at Stuttgart Opera (this commission later transferred to the Vienna Festival), then quickly added Harvey Lichtenstein at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with whom Reich had worked before. Over the next four years, they assembled seven co-commissioners from Europe and the United States (listed at the top of the program above). These festivals and presenting institutions provided financial support via their commissions, but perhaps more importantly, their commitment to programming The Cave lent support to Levine Packer’s search for funding from public and private sources.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms.

These sources (listed at the bottom of the program above) ranged from major foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller to music-specific organizations including Meet The Composer and private patrons like Freeman. Together, they eventually furnished around three-quarters of the $1 million or so that it cost to produce The Cave. Support was not always monetary; Levine Packer was able to acquire computer hardware from IBM for Korot and Reich thanks to connections that her husband had made during his career as an economist. Although it is easy to highlight the successes that Levine Packer, Reich, and Korot achieved in securing financial support, it risks overstating the difficulty of their endeavor and the challenges of self-production. The Cave was built on five years of sustained fundraising and networking, and Reich and Korot’s devotion to creating The Cave necessarily limited their ability to earn income from other commissions or performances. Given the irregularity of grant funds, at one point they had to borrow money from their extended family. And for every “yes” the team received from a commissioner, organization, or patron, many more said “no,” including the Kennedy Center, UCLA, University of Texas at Austin (which had at one point been a co-commissioner), the Pew and Mellon Charitable Trust Foundations, and the philanthropic wings of multinational oil companies.

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians

Reich and Korot with the network of artists and musicians that brought The Cave to life.

There are many other ways in which the development of The Cave could show how support is built on personal and professional networks, but I will offer just one more example, which reveals support of an artistic kind. In selecting their collaborators, Korot and Reich tapped their networks of immediate, once-removed, and twice-removed contacts in the music and theater worlds. Their search for a director, for instance, lasted more than three years, with almost a dozen potential candidates. The director they eventually selected, Carey Perloff, had worked with David Lang and brought with her what she described as a “real aesthetic kinship.” Tod Machover connected Reich with one of his students, Ben Rubin, who created the opera’s typing instrument and served as technical advisor. Indeed, in his interview with me, Reich recalled:

Each case was pretty much a question of trying to find somebody who knew somebody…Richard Nelson had done the lighting for Sunday in the Park [with George], and I’m an old friend and huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, and particularly Sunday in the Park. And, I figured, anybody who can do Sunday in the Park is welcome in our production. We wanted people who would get the basic idea, which was that the basic theater was the video.

Networking remains just as crucial to independent opera production today as it did in the early 1990s. The most recent performances of The Cave this past March, for instance, took place only through the combined efforts of St. Louis arts organizations and faith communities, as well as the longstanding relationship between Alarm Will Sound and Reich.

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave

Alarm Will Sound performs The Cave at the John Burroughs School in March of 2017. In addition to the performances, AWS joined with Arts & Faith St. Louis to engage the community in conversations regarding the shared histories of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

The development and production history of The Cave demonstrate that support at its most effective is inherently plural, taking multiple forms. Rubin and Nelson gave technical and artistic support, Levine Packer provided administrative and aesthetic support, Korot’s and Reich’s families offered emotional and financial support, and even Nyman and Freeman arguably presented a kind of social support. What these and other manifestations of support for new music have in common, though, is that they develop as a result of connections between and among individuals. For most readers of NewMusicBox this probably borders on being a truism, and in recognition of that I’ll counterpoint my opening new music riddle with a new music adage: it takes a network to produce an opera.

Ryan Ebright

Ryan Ebright is an instructor in musicology at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on music for the voice, stage, and screen, with an emphasis on 20th- & 21st-century opera, minimalism, and 19th-century Lieder. His current book project, Making American Opera for the Modern Age, centers on opera in the U.S. after Einstein on the Beach. More of his work on the production history and politics of The Cave can be found in the most recent issue of American Music and in Rethinking Reich (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

The Gathering Storm: How We Made a Conference

The official logo for the New Music Gathering

[Ed. Note: The initial New Music Gathering, which was organized by Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Matt Marks at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from January 15-17, 2015, seemed to have emerged out of nowhere but it was a remarkably successful event that attracted composers, interpreters, and new music aficionados from all over the country. Its second iteration, which will take place from January 7-9, 2016 at the Peabody Institute of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, promises to be equally impressive. To get some grounding in what this is all about, we asked each of the four founders to share some thoughts about the whys and wherefores of putting together a new music conference and festival for and by its practitioners. We will post their respective musings here on consecutive weeks. We start with Daniel Felsenfeld, who is no stranger to NewMusicBox, describing how it all began. – FJO]

Claire Chase, Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Matt Marks standing together in an empty room.

Claire Chase, the keynote speaker for the first New Music Gathering with NMG founders Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and Matt Marks standing together during the initial convening of NMG in San Francisco in January 2015. (Photos courtesy Mary Kouyoumdjian.)

It began, as so many things do, with a moment of discourse on social media, a Facebook thread that got—as these things tend to do—heated on a topic I cannot recall. Matt Marks mentioned he’d been to some kind of new music summit wherein the oft-vaunted crises facing contemporary art music (or whatever—call it what you will) were discussed in hopes of drawing up solutions. As the thread ran to predictably pugilistic, I messaged Matt privately—the modern equivalent of repairing to the hotel bar for the sanity of a quiet drink—and said, simply, that we needed an actual space where these things could be talked about, wondering why we had only online spaces to discuss these matters. We can all romanticize (and I sure do) the days of the San Remo Bar or Specs where artists talked face to face rather than from the safe distance of their screens, but there is a lot to be said for it. Could we not, I wondered, make such a space?

Matt and I met in person (already advancing the spirit of the New Music Gathering) to discuss, in a realistic way, if we could actually make something happen—a thing that, to our knowledge, had no precedent. While I am short on details of exactly what we discussed (not for reasons of drunkenness but more for reasons, at least in my case, of the persistent exhaustion of parenthood), I do remember a few things laid out by one or both of us that contributed a lot to the success of the eventual gathering, notions cribbed from our admittedly scant experience of other conferences: some do’s, mostly don’ts. Not academic, but not not academic; no exhibition floor where people set up stalls to hock wares—in fact, no commerce whatsoever; no competitions—one could not arrive and subsequently lose. But above all, what we envisioned was a truly grassroots organization that never would billow or bloat into an organization. We would keep our overhead not just low but essentially non-existent. We would take no salaries (nor, for that matter, present our own music), rent no office, hire only staff we needed and nobody permanently. Unlike so much that claimed to be about a community, we wanted to do our best to make good on the promise.

Wisely, we asked Lainie Fefferman and Mary Kouyoumdjian to aid and abet and co-found—Jascha Naverson was also pressed into service—and lo!: a conference-concert series hybrid with the hard-earned (and coded-ly nerdy) moniker New Music Gathering.

I was skittish about our maiden voyage, which was to take place at the San Francisco Conservatory. What if nobody came? What if we did not meet our expenses? What if the blissful esprit that was our aim turned out to be impossible to manage. What if, what if, what if…? I steeled myself—and we steeled one another—for this as a distinct possibility. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be among the best weekends of my life. Now I can only remember it with the amber-dipped distance of, say, my wedding or the first days of my daughter’s life, but images and musical scenes too numerous to mention continue to surface that do not fail to re-enchant: Taka Kigawa striding casually to the stage to play (from what can only be a prodigious memory) the complete piano music of Pierre Boulez in a single sitting; Megan Ihnen and Hillary LaBonte’s set for two unaccompanied singers that opened the proceedings; an overstuffed and overheated (in both the sense of the climate and the rhetoric) tiny room addressing—for far too short a time—issues women face in our field; Sarah Cahill’s playing of the music of Terry Riley (and a chance to hug the great man himself, a hug I will always cherish); the local new music chorus Volti filling the stage; and, perhaps most strongly, Claire Chase’s astonishing keynote speech, which included the line “Every time you premiere a piece of new music you change the world.” There was our mission, one I believe we accomplished, and one I cannot wait to continue accomplishing, alongside the four amazing co-founders who double as revered friends in the year and decades to come.

Matt Marks, Sarah Cahill, Terry Riley, Daniel Felsenfeld, MaryClare Brzytwa, Lainie Fefferman, and Mary Kouyoumdjian standing together.

The NMG founders Matt Marks (left), Daniel Felsenfeld (center), Lainie Fefferman, and Mary Kouyoumdjian (far right) joined by pianist Sarah Cahill and composer Terry Riley (between Marks and Felsenfeld) and multi-instrumentist/improviser MaryClare Brzytwa (between Felsenfeld and Fefferman).

Art in the Age: Going for (more than) a Song

While it’s relatively easy to debunk the tired jeremiad about the death of classical music, we’ve admittedly had a rough go of it lately.  Yes, several orchestras have teetered at the edge of bankruptcy after years of bad labor/management relations and prolonged strikes and lockouts.  Yes, record sales are down.  Turnout for live classical performances is down as well.  Audiences, simply put, are not willing to pay as much, if anything, for music anymore.  This has rendered recordings as largely obsolete commodities and transformed them into little more than a necessary (and expensive) calling card for professional musicians and a souvenir for audiences of favorite live concerts.

We, therefore, have to view concert presentations as much more than just about music.  We need to make them into unique events in order to attract audiences to the concert hall and generate sales for recordings that will remind them of this unique experience.  The definition of an event will vary based on many factors, largely related to the resources available to performing organizations, presenters, and individuals.  Whether it is through the use of lighting or video projections, choreography, or unusual staging, presenters and performers no longer have the option of trusting the music—however innovative or unusual—to be the sole draw for their audience.  Ignoring factors as simple as the pacing of a concert or the way one addresses the audience on stage can destroy a performance.  I’ve attended concerts by some extraordinary virtuosos who, nevertheless, approached the audience with deer-in-headlights trepidation and appeared amateurish in the process, making for a less than enjoyable concert experience.

Claire Chase performing Philip Glass's Piece in the Shape of a Square

Claire Chase performing Philip Glass’s Piece in the Shape of a Square
Photo by Marc Perlish

By contrast, a recital by the MacArthur fellowship-winning flutist and founding artistic director of ICE, Claire Chase, which I (full disclosure) hosted on my series at the Atlas Performing Arts Center last fall, was a veritable master class in how to keep an audience riveted.  Once upon a time, a recital by a flute virtuoso would entail a program of works for flute accompanied by piano (perhaps one or two short pieces for solo flute thrown in there, for variety), performed by players wearing tuxedos or ball gowns on a fully lit stage.  There would be a great deal of formality and ceremony, with the performers entering from the wings to rapturous applause, bowing, tuning their instruments, and—finally—performing.  As one piece would end, another set of bows, perhaps an exit and a new entrance, the process repeated several times until intermission, after which it would be repeated again until the end of the evening.

Claire’s performance, instead, was a veritable recreation of her 2013 album Density. It began with a darkened stage and electronic music which served as an introduction to Claire, who, after the two minutes of sound sculpture finished, burst onto the stage performing Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint.  She moved seamlessly to and from different points, picking up various flutes strategically placed on the stage and only once—for Philip Glass’s Piece in the Shape of a Square—used printed music (which was, appropriately, arranged in the form of a square, thus becoming a conceptual part of the performance).  It was a simple and relatively inexpensive affair, requiring only a single performer on stage and an engineer working the combined sound and light board at the back of the house, but the results were exhilarating, a marked contrast to more traditional approaches in which talking to the audience is considered “edgy.”

It is a contradiction of these times that, while record sales and attendance at concerts appears to be down, the number of people pursuing careers as professional musicians seems to be rising.  What does this say about the apparent death of classical music? I’d wager that it means the rumors of our art form’s death are greatly exaggerated.  The truth remains, however, that it is increasingly difficult to forge a life in music in this day and age.  This is where a wider view of Adam Sliwinski’s “mutual benefit balance” which I proposed in my last article could come in handy.  A view of the network that extends beyond the 1:1 ratio of the composer-performer relationship, extending, through social and traditional media platforms as well as good, old-fashioned interpersonal relationships, to presenters, venues, social institutions, and fellow composers.  This, in my experience, is not only helpful in forging career longevity, it will extend our music’s societal impact as well.

At her commencement speech to the graduating class of Northwestern University last summer, Claire said, “(w)hether we like it or not, the calling of our generation is not to occupy positions created for us.  Our calling is to create positions for ourselves and others, to improvise and blow the ceiling off of anything resembling a limitation.  In a word, our calling is to be entrepreneurs.  Classical music isn’t dying–it’s just now being born.”[1]  She is right: we can no longer count on others to give us jobs in the arts.  We must create these opportunities for ourselves!  This spirit has certainly driven me and my work in Washington over the last ten years, and it drives a number of other younger musicians in a way that suggests not an art form that is moribund or sickly—and not necessarily one just being born, either—but a thriving, energized field where possibilities are limited only by a musician’s imagination.

1. Quoted in Jesse Rosen’s “Provocative Choices for Orchestras,” The Huffington Post, June 27, 2013, accessed January 24, 2014.

Out of Network

For composers and conductors who are involved in the wind band genre, there are few events like the Midwest Clinic. Occurring annually during the week before Christmas in Chicago, Midwest has been a staple destination for anyone interested in writing for wind band for the simple reason that there are so many conductors in one place at one time. Works that get performed there by public school and collegiate ensembles get heard by band directors from all over the country. There are hundreds of exhibit booths where all of the major publishers and retailers display their latest catalogs as well, chatting in the halls and trying to gauge where tastes are headed. All in all, thousands of pre-college and college students, educators, and professionals create a massive scrum of lanyards, tote bags, free CD’s, fried food, and—most importantly for composers—networking opportunities.
It’s been interesting over the years to witness a great many viewpoints on the idea of networking—some composers take to it like fish to water, while others see it as a necessary evil and others still cringe at the very mention of the word. Attitudes toward intentional social interaction between professional colleagues in order to create mutually beneficial opportunities to collaborate seem to be often based both on the individual’s comfort level with socializing and the perceived value of that interaction; if the composer doesn’t see any benefit from actively engaging with others, they probably won’t want to do so. In addition, there’s the thought that one’s music should speak for itself and the creator shouldn’t be required to actively pursue performances, commissions, or other collaborative activities.

While online communities such as Facebook and Twitter can be an aid in creating and fostering relationships, it is fascinating how those digital connections can become enhanced (or not, as the case may be) at events like the Midwest Clinic through face-to-face meetings. I’ve had many colleagues describe their experiences meeting people with whom they have interacted on a weekly or daily basis for years and finally get to meet in person; once that real connection is made, usually the chance for strong collaboration increases dramatically. For as much as we think we know one another via online profiles or personas, most of us tend to wait to begin to have close professional partnerships with people until after we’re able to meet and interact with them in the same room.

The thing about networking that needs to be pointed out is that it is but one ingredient in a composer’s career or life (the two are not necessarily the same thing). There are plenty—plenty!—of examples of composers who quietly write amazing works that may only get a few performances, but those works and performances are recognized and praised nonetheless. Neither a vast collegial network nor the creation of an incredible piece of music are in and of themselves guarantors of success, but finding one’s own place in the world and the right methods with which one interacts with that world should be a goal for us all.