Tag: new music

The Defeat of New Music

University of Arkansas

In this third post, I would like to delve into a narrative of what might have brought New Music to the serious impasse it finds itself at in the United States. Like any narrative, it is partial and incomplete. I acknowledge that there are other reasons that may have contributed to the obscuration of this type of music, but it seems to me that what I describe below had such a significant impact on the erasure of New Music that it deserves special attention.

The connection between contemporary music and academia in the U.S. is crucial in order to address New Music’s ramifications. According to Brigham Young University Professor Brian Harker, composition “found its rightful place as an intellectual proposition under the umbrella of ‘theory’ in virtually all college curricula of the early century.”[1] In this respect, “the emphasis was not on original work (…) but ‘on playing the sedulous ape’ to the best models of music literature in the attempt to know how if not what to write.”[2] Composition was thus subordinated to theory as a means to gain greater knowledge about existing music.

However, in the beginning of the second half of the last century, the relationship between theory and composition as intertwined academic disciplines was responsible for the eventual establishment of composition as a serious scholarly field in its own right. Composition gained its current academic status through a feeble connection to the empiricism that music theory and other disciplines more prone to scientism may appear to explore, despite the fact that composition may not be easily evaluated by means of academic structures associated with scholarly disciplines such as history or physics.

Composition gained its current academic status through a feeble connection to the empiricism that music theory and other disciplines more prone to scientism may appear to explore.

Milton Babbitt was a pivotal figure in accelerating this endeavor. With Roger Sessions, Babbitt prompted a number of young composers and theorists to explore a scientistic approach to music-making and analysis. This group would later be associated with the journal Perspectives of New Music. Harvard Ph.D. candidate Monica Hershberger has also suggested that Paul Fromm’s two seminars in Advanced Musical Study, which took place at Princeton in 1959 and 1960, might have “paved the way for the journal Perspectives of New Music and the founding of the Ph.D. in music composition.”[3] The seminars included lectures by Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter, Edward T. Cone, Allen Forte, Felix Galimir, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and others. Some of the titles of these lectures (“Polyphonic Time in the Music of Stravinsky,” “Form in Music”) should point to the close relationship between theory and composition that those musicians were trying to nurse. By virtue of its relation to consistent methodology, music theory was the pretext through which composition could be relatable to scientific developments and gain a similar status to the work that a number of logical positivists in U.S. academic circles fostered after World War II. It was precisely due to this connection that composition most likely evolved into harboring its own scholarly sphere. Ultimately, it appears that Babbitt was largely responsible for the creation of the Ph.D. in composition at Princeton.[4] And, for all we know, the justification of composition as a field that could be somehow compared to science is what led contemporary music to be embedded in U.S. academia.

My colleague Franklin Cox has described this type of “American modern music” as a form of Reductive Modernism:

Reductive Modernism (…) maintained most of the apparatus—most importantly the notion of aesthetic progressivism—of Modernism, but converted it into more testable and propagatable form, which was most easily done by functionalizing it and stripping it of all “fuzzy” residue, such as its immanent political aims, its moral pretensions, its delicately balanced tensions, its cultivation of tasteful critics and readers, and its redemptory (albeit highly conservative) aims. Often modeled on scientistic beliefs, it favored innovation as its own goal, and favored above all else technical and material innovation.[5]

The works of Babbitt and his acolytes may be processed through the lens of Reductive Modernism, since their authors did not seem to be concerned with the critique-based project of New Music that I introduced in the second essay of this series. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that perhaps it is not their music that is Reductive, but the academic discourse that they developed surrounding that music. Without delving too much into ontology and semiotics, I would propose that the actual sounds that shape music, regardless of the particular cultural context where they were created, may be perceived and processed in a wide variety of ways. Music is a cultural artifact that cannot be isolated from its socioeconomic context: it is not recognized as such through how it solely sounds, but rather by how it has been defined according to the specific material conditions during the time of its creation, the ways that it has been interpreted throughout historical change, and by whether it conforms (and to what extent) to the prevailing state of affairs. It would be unreasonable to imagine the sounds that belong to a particular musical context separated from the social, economic, cultural, and discursive conditions that led to the realization of those sounds in the first place. The alleged “Reductive Modernist” music that Babbitt and other East Coast serialists practiced (the sounds they produced) may actually be Reductive, but it is not Reductive only as a result of the way it sounds, but rather by both how it sounds and relates to global circumstances beyond the sonic domain.

Without having a desire to be polemical, I am afraid that this music has merely become the elitist entertainment of a shrinking upper-middle class that still can afford to go to college.

At any rate, the intricacies surrounding U.S. modern music had an impact on the perception of academic contemporary music on behalf of future generations. Babbitt’s proposal in “Who Cares If You Listen?,”[6] which suggests that modernist composers should seek refuge in the university’s ivory tower, is a paradigmatic example of an ideology of withdrawal. Because of Babbitt and others, contemporary music gained access to academia and did find some solace, but the price of admission was nevertheless very high. By fundamentally treating contemporary music as a field of scientistic exploration, this type of music neglected most of its bonds with modernity and its emancipatory project based on self-critique. This compositional discourse, which echoes the prioritization of newness for its own sake, has considerable potential to be subsumed under a complacent cultural logic by virtue of the discourse’s indifference toward treating music holistically. By not expanding music’s critical capacities beyond its internal qualities (structure), I am afraid that the East Coast serialists helped to build, perhaps unknowingly, a musical-academic culture that is unable to act counterculturally. The recontextualization of methodologies historically associated with the natural sciences into the realm of sonic creativity resulted in a positivist music that runs the risk of validating the status quo, thus helping to support some type of emancipatory stasis—the illusion of musical (and social) progress. The musical culture that the East Coast serialists nurtured not only has the potential to be satisfied with its own conditions due to its intrinsic tendency to glorify technology and its false promise of a better future, but also it is prone to become unfit to function as a force of critique. By disengaging itself from this facet of modernity, contemporary music fostered an environment where New Music became largely residual.

At present, contemporary music in U.S. academia has primarily become the space where young U.S. citizens can explore sound creatively without ever needing to consider that music may perhaps be more than a commodity. Without having a desire to be polemical, I am afraid that this music has merely become the elitist entertainment of a shrinking upper-middle class that still can afford to go to college. Perhaps from the very beginning, the project of New Music had already been defeated, but that does not mean it is dead.

The final essay in this series will suggest some paths for contemporary music practitioners to tackle the future.

1. Brian Harker, “Milton Babbitt Encounters Academia (And Vice Versa),” American Music 26, 3 (Fall 2008): 340–341.

2. Ibid., 341.

3. Monica Hershberger, “Princeton Seminars (1959 & 1960),” Fromm Foundation,

4. Hershberger has also suggested that Paul Fromm could have wanted Perspectives of New Music—a journal he helped establish—to “be a vehicle for the learned articles that would be the university composer’s response to the administration’s demand for the kind of articles faculty members in most fields write to get academic advancement.” (Arthur Berger, Reflections of an American Composer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 142–143). In this regard, Fromm might have been indirectly responsible for the creation of the Ph.D. in composition.

5. Franklin Cox, “Critical Modernism: Beyond Critical Composition and Uncritical Art,” in Critical Composition Today (Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2006), 145.

6. http://www.palestrant.com/babbitt.html.

Boston: Caroline Shaw’s Common Cause

"Your Second or Permanent Teeth" (anatomical diagram)

From Harrison Wader Ferguson, D.D.S., A Child’s Book of the Teeth (1922).

In his 1547 treatise Dodecachordon, Heinrich Glarean, having lionized the likes of Obrecht, Ockeghem, and Josquin (especially Josquin), made sure—like you do—to despair that the younger generation was ruining everything. To be sure, even Josquin had his infelicitous moments: “in some places in his songs he did not fully and properly restrain his impetuous talent, although this ordinary fault may be condoned because of his otherwise incomparable gifts.” Those coming after Josquin, however, made this exception the rule, as Glarean complained:

The art now displays such unrestraint that learned men are nearly sick of it. This has many causes, but mostly it is because composers are ashamed to follow in the footsteps of predecessors who observed the relation of modes exactly; we have fallen into another, distorted style of song which is in no way pleasing—it is only new.

It was probably coincidental that, for the May 10 and 11 premiere performances of Caroline Shaw’s Music in Common Time, the vocal group Roomful of Teeth and the string ensemble A Far Cry preceded the piece with Josquin at his most elegantly, explicitly generational: his “Déploration” on the death of his elder colleague Johannes Ockeghem (in an arrangement by Shaw). But, then again, after winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for her Partita (the youngest composer to ever receive the honor), Shaw came in for a share of Glarean-like grief courtesy of John Adams, who implicitly held Shaw up as an example of “extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight” music: “People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now.” He went on:

If you read a lot of history, which I do, you see that civilizations produce periods of high culture, and then they can fall into periods of absolute mediocrity that can go on for generation after generation.

So to have the “Déploration” on the program, that road from Ockeghem to Josquin to implied musical perdition, was a nice reminder that, if you read even a little history, you see that these sorts of bumpy transitions are nothing new. Music in Common Time is, among other things, a border stone marking one of those most porous yet most impassible of barriers: a proximate, parapatric stylistic divide.

* * *

A Far Cry, seven seasons old, has, since 2010, been the in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (where I heard this program on May 11). They are a conductorless gang of energetic fashion. (Their standard-repertoire contribution to the program, Mahler’s string-orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet (D. 810), was incessantly high-contrast and bracing.) Roomful of Teeth charts a line between musical polish and enthusiasm. Their singing in the Josquin, for instance, channeled the precision of an early music outfit but eschewed the homogeneity: individual voices could still be heard amidst the collective. Both groups are cut from similar cloth: younger-skewing ensembles proficient enough to slip into the churn of the classical-music performance business, and idiosyncratic enough to create the sense that they’re reprogramming the machine. An additional layer of professional and personal connections between the two groups (which Shaw hinted at in a breezy program note) made for a natural collaboration; Shaw’s new piece—somewhat mind-bendingly, her first formal commission—provided the occasion.

Music in Common Time is not quite a concerto, although the eight voices tend to move more as a unified group than the string orchestra, which is frequently divided into distinct factions. An opening stretch—a staggered, rising, arpeggiated triad (D major, picking up where Partita left off)—shifts into the sturdiest of diatonic progressions, then gives way to a vocal break, one of two sections with text: “Over the roads,” the voices sing, in a tongue-twisting interlude of traveling music. (That dialectic, one ensemble gently interrupting the other, happens throughout.) After a bit of folk-tinged, almost Holst-like atmosphere, the opening section returns, only to be undercut by thickets of snap-pizzicato, becoming a conventionally plucked accompaniment, over which the voices embark on a short study in portamento, sliding up and down into pure harmonies.

The center of the piece was engrossing, a negotiation between a perpetually rising sequence of secondary dominants in the strings and faster, descending parallel chords in the voices, occasionally meeting up for chance cadences. It was chased with a brief dose of ringing-partial throat-singing—one of the piece’s few congruences with Partita’s more exuberant kitchen sink of vocal techniques. That led to the final section: first the voices introduced another bit of sentimentally elusive text (“years ago, I forget; years to come, just let them”) set as a sweetly unsteady shape-note sing; then a tranquil standoff of a coda, half the strings staying put while the other half, along with the voices, moved to a different key center.

The overall effect is that of a linked chain, a point-to-point sojourn. Arrivals are based less on contrapuntal resolution and more on the satisfying effect of a particular sonority. (The sound of a widely spaced triad—roots, thirds, and fifths saturating the overtone spectrum—is a recurring component; it also featured in Shaw’s Josquin arrangement, suboctaves from the double basses trundling in to give crucial harmonies a boost of widescreen warmth.)

But what’s most interesting about Music in Common Time is its relationship to style. Current usage of the term “post-minimalist” can be a little squishy, but in a way that goes beyond historical chronology (and to a more immediately apparent extent than Partita), Music in Common Time is truly post-minimalist, at least in the lower-case sense: the structure and gist are not minimalist, but almost all of its building blocks are minimalist signifiers, tropes and gestures that evolved along with minimalist practice. The triad as object; overlapping consonance as a stretched canvas; the chord-to-chord movement of basic progressions turned into scene and act breaks; variation via altered phrase length rather than elaborated melody—all of these figure into Shaw’s rhetoric, but in a way far removed from minimalism’s deliberate, patient process.

The tropes become objects of recognition at least as much as objects of exploration; the garnishes—the Bartók pizzicato, the more exotic vocal excursions, the polytonality—play off of expectations of what we might be accustomed to hearing those other ideas do in a minimalist context. In other words, Shaw is most definitely not observing the relation of modes exactly, at least by the lights of her elders. Which is as it should be. Music always does this, always has done this, always will do this. Music in Common Time is only unusual in the genial straightforwardness with which it repurposes inherited goods.

It reminded me of my favorite piece of curmudgeonly compositional grumbling, coming a century after Heinrich Glarean, when the Baroque era was just getting traction, but was far enough along for Samuel Scheidt to complain about where things were headed:

I am astonished at the foolish music written in these times…. It certainly must be a remarkably elevated art when a pile of consonances are thrown together any which way.

This is both supremely sarcastic and basically true. It is a remarkably elevated art that is so incapable of settling down, constantly inspiring its practitioners to use the output of one set of rules as the input for a completely different set of rules. Musical style is a moving target. It certainly must be.

NewMusicBox Mix: The Jazz Edition

NewMusicBox Mix: The Jazz EditionThis edition of the NewMusicBox Mix is drawn from the many different sound worlds of jazz. Focusing primarily on recent releases (as current as today!) there are some familiar names, as well as a few you may not have heard from yet. Whether you are a serious jazz buff or a curious listener, you’re likely to find something to pique your interest among these tracks.
Each piece is streamed separately on this page, with information about the recordings and purchasing links to encourage further exploration and continued listening. These artists have very generously donated their tracks to this project, and we encourage you to support them by purchasing their albums and letting them know if you enjoy what you hear!—AG

Brooklyn Babylon cover
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, The Neighborhood
Brooklyn Babylon
New Amsterdam

Capricorn Climber
Kris Davis, Pass The Magic Hat
Capricorn Climber
Clean Feed

Nourishments cover
Mark Dresser, Not Withstanding
Performed by the Mark Dresser Quintet
Clean Feed

The Kandinsky Effect, Johnny Utah

No Morphine No Lilies
Allison Miller, Waiting
Performed by Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom
No Morphine No Lilies

Rob Mosher, North By Northwest
Performed by Rob Mosher’s Polebridge

Sun Pictures
Linda Oh, Shutterspeed Dreams
Ben Wendel, saxophone; James Muller, guitar; Linda Oh, bass; Ted Poor, drums
Sun Pictures

Songs from The Ground
Mara Rosenbloom Quartet, Small Finds
Songs from the Ground
Fresh Sound

Inner Chapters
Jen Shyu, Elliptical / Wayward Son
Inner Chapters


Ten Freedom Summers
Wadada Leo Smith, Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada
Ten Freedom Summers

Craig Taborn Trio, Saints

NewMusicBox Mix 5: Percussion Focused

NewMusicBox Mix 5: Percussion FocusedThis edition of the NewMusicBox Mix is all about, well, hitting things! All of these recordings feature percussion in a variety of settings. Each track is streamed separately on this page, with information about the recordings and purchasing links to encourage further exploration and continued listening.
These artists have very generously donated their tracks to this project, and we encourage you to support them by purchasing their albums and letting them know if you enjoy what you hear!—AG

Dylan Ryan/Sand: Sky Bleached
Dylan Ryan / Sand, Barocco
Performed by Dylan Ryan, drums; Timothy Young, guitar; Devin Hoff, bass
Sky Bleached

Billband: Towards Daybreak
Bill Ryan, Rapid Assembly
Performed by Billband
Towards Daybreak

David Kechley: Colliding Objects
David Kechley, Dancing – IV. War Dance
Timetable Percussion: Matthew Gold, Joseph Tompkins, Matt Ward with guests Eric Poland and Chris Thompson
Colliding Objects

Everywhere Entangled
Stephen Gorbos, Push
University of Houston Percussion Ensemble
Everywhere Entangled

Robyn Schulkowsky: Armadillo
Robyn Schulkowsky, Armadillo Part II
Performed by Robyn Schulkowsky, percussion; Fredy Studer, drums; Joey Baron, drums
New World

Makoto Nakura: Wood and Forest
Carlos Sánchez-Gutíerrez, Winik/Té
Performed by Makoto Nakura, marimba
Wood and Forest
American Modern

John Cage: The Work for Percussion 2
John Cage, Second Construction
Performed by Third Coast Percussion
John Cage: Works for Percussion 2

Joseph Byrd: NYC 1960-1963
Joseph Byrd, Animals
Performed by ACME
Joseph Byrd: NYC 1960-1963
New World

Christian Wolff: 8 Duos
Christian Wolff, Percussionist 5
Performed by Christian Wolff and Joey Baron, percussion
Christian Wolff: 8 Duos
New World

Sean Noonan: A Gambler's Hand
Sean Noonan, Thank You
A Gambler’s Hand

eighth blackbird: Shifted During Flight

eighth blackbird, photo by Luke Ratray

eighth blackbird, photo by Luke Ratray

“I didn’t expect it to be so charming…”
The ensemble eighth blackbird has set up shop in Austin for ten days populated with concerts, masterclasses, and lessons. I heard the above quote in the foyer during the intermission of the first of two concerts scheduled during their residency with Texas Performing Arts, and I’m inclined to agree with the sentiment. The group has always been more bon vivant than enfant terrible, their collective personality more welcoming than foreboding. I’m pretty sure everybody is smiling in their press photo. Having said that, not all audience members attending these shows know exactly what to expect. “New Music” can still shiver a few timbers among concertgoers, and when they see a program full of unfamiliar composers, some will look for the exit doors. Of course, eighth blackbird put any concerns to rest with their spot-on performances and engaging personalities.

The concert opened with Nico Muhly’s Doublespeak. Written in honor of Philip Glass’s 75th birthday, Muhly managed to pay homage to the man without aping his greatest hits. The work opened with repetitive germs played by violinist Yvonne Lam which grew bit by bit as the other players joined in, but just as the material began to gel, the work slammed to a halt, sputtered for a moment, and came back to life, this time with Nicholas Photinos leading the charge on cello. Muhly drew deeply from Glass’s harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary; driving rhythms filled out with simple harmonies drove the piece forward until about a quarter of the way in where Muhly injected a bit of chromaticism that seemed for a moment to draw the piece in a different direction. Soon the original texture returned, revealing something of a modified rondo. The sections bounced back and forth until the final moments of the piece, when Photinos and percussionist Matthew Duvall picked out syncopated hits together, the last hit ending the piece.

Flanked by Photinos and clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri as narrators, Lam performed Knee Play II from Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. These bookend entr’acte sections were used to facilitate set changes and to begin and end Einstein, and the presentation here of Knee Play II apart from the full opera allowed for focus on an otherwise somewhat utilitarian work. I have to say that I was surprised at the level of tension created by watching Lam perform the simple scales and arpeggios (played expertly and super quick folks, no doubt) that constituted the piece. Obviously it wasn’t an easy work, but seeing her chug away while Photinos and Maccaferri read—or chanted…or chanted slightly creepily—in monotone stereo certainly added to the tension. Will she miss? Will the narrative distract her from her duties? Of course, Lam didn’t miss a thing and Photinos and Maccaferri complemented her playing quite well.

The tension of Knee Play II was dissipated in short order by Tom Johnson’s Counting Duets. Described by Lisa Kaplan as “Sesame Street on crack,” the work was performed by Maccaferri and flutist Tim Munro in another duet, this one involving numbers spoken. While the cheeky introduction was endearing, it was the piece itself that hooked the audience, many of whom (present company included) were laughing out loud by the time the work ended. The four movements involved Maccaferri and Munro counting, hocketing, whispering, and yelling simple number sequences to/at each other while they constantly changed their physical position on stage relative to one another. I could talk about the simple additive processes (though written in 1982, similar at a DNA level to the final movement of David Lang’s So Called Laws of Nature) but at the risk of assuming composer intention here, I think that’s missing the point. The piece engaged the audience by laying bare the processes that drove it, giving them an opportunity to figure out each short puzzle as it played out. This, coupled with the visual impact of the tall and lanky Munro and the less tall Maccaferri rapidly yelling numbers back and forth at one another, made for one of the most engaging moments of the night: when both performers walked off stage and the lights were dimmed, seeming to indicate the end of the piece. As the audience began to enthusiastically applaud, Munro (now slightly horse from yelling) began the final sequence from stage right as Maccaferri responded from stage left. Everyone quieted down until they finished and returned to the stage to some of the loudest applause of the night. My wife and I are expecting a baby in a few months, and about halfway through the piece she grabbed my notebook and wrote what you see in the image below:
Sigler Baby Likes Sesame Street
So there you go. Everybody liked it.

In sharp contrast to the lightness of the Johnson, Aaron Jay Kernis’s Pieces of Winter Sky saw the return of the entire ensemble to the stage for this longer, more somber work. The third of four commissions of the night, the Kernis began with Kaplan and Duvall bowing inside the piano with loose bow strings, the thin, ethereal, overtone-laden pitches joined by harmonics in the other instruments. Short bird-song melodies were traded among the players, only to fade into nothingness before fully forming. A violin solo was accompanied by the bowing and scraping of cymbals by all five other members as the ghost of Winterreise passed through the room. Derek Bermel’s Tied Shifts is one of eighth blackbird’s chestnuts, and it was treat to watch and hear. A study in Bulgarian rhythms and careful choreography, the ante was upped in the visual impact department as the blackbirds moved about the stage. Arrangements of two of Ligeti’s mid-’80s piano etudes followed, including No. 4, Fanfares, which recalled the moto perpetuo intensity of the Glass, now spread across the ensemble. Finally, Andy Akiho’s erase, the commissioned work resulting from the ensemble’s 2011 composition competition rounded out the program. A tour de force, the piece careened through tutti roller coasters, glissando workouts in the piano and on the vibes, and noir-through-a-kaleidoscope excursions complete with Maccaferri conjuring with his bass clarinet. The piece shattered to a close with Duvall doing a bit of John Bonham to take us home.

I expected to see a fantastic show and was not disappointed, but what struck me most was how well integrated the whole program was. The Muhly lead to the Glass both musically and in terms of the relationship between the composers, and the blackbirds indicated that without making a big deal out of it. The Glass lead to the Johnson, the trio now a duet, and the symmetry inherent in the structure of the works linked them while their characters contrasted. Even across the bridge of intermission, connections were made such that the concert was more like a large piece itself, a reminder of what it was like when we bought albums (records, tapes, CDs, whatever) that were shaped not just by their content but by their ordering. It’s attention to these factors that give eighth blackbird their edge, and I’m certainly looking forward to their next show.

NewMusicBox Mix 4: 2012 Staff Picks

NewMusicBox Mix 4: 2012 Staff PicksTo finish out 2012 with a bang, the intrepid New Music USA staff has chosen some of their favorite tracks from the past twelve months for this edition of the NewMusicBox Mix. Directly below you will find a link to download a folder containing all of the mix tracks. In addition, each track is streamed separately on this page, with information about the recordings and purchasing links to encourage further exploration and continued listening.

These artists have very generously donated their tracks to this project, and we encourage you to support them by purchasing their albums and letting them know if you enjoy what you hear!

Happy Holidays to all!—AG


DOWNLOAD NewMusicBox Mix 4: 2012 Staff Picks


One: Chamber Music of Kurt Rohde

Kurt Rohde, Concertino for Violin and Small Ensemble
Movement I. moto

Performed by Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

I like the sinewy energy of this movement, the surprising bits of beauty without narcissistic preening, the overall sense of a score assembled with maximum skill and economy—and a cast of solo and ensemble artists performing it all on this track with matching care and virtuosity. —Ed Harsh, President and CEO


Laurie Spiegel: The Expanding Universe

Laurie Spiegel, Appalachian Grove I
The Expanding Universe
Unseen Worlds


I chose this iconic track not only because Spiegel’s minimalist and analog electronic process and ambient aesthetic resonates deeply with my own, but also because this history is extremely interesting and an influence on much of the music I hear being created today. —Lorna Krier, Program Manager


Jenny Scheinman: Mischief and Mayhem

Jenny Scheinman, Blues For The Double Vee
Mischief and Mayhem

Order directly from artist


Jenny continues to inspire me with her ability to personalize diverse musical forms and idioms. In this track, Jenny invents a blues tune inspired by the great musicians who played the Village Vanguard (hence “Double Vee”) in its heyday, but that’s just her point of departure. With the backup of guitarist Nels Cline’s jazz-influenced rocking, Jenny explores a broad range of the violin’s harmonic and textural possibilities all in the space of 3:57. It’s quite a ride! —Ethan Joseph, Development and Administrative Assistant


Roomful of Teeth

William Brittelle, Amid the Minotaurs
Performed by Roomful of Teeth
Roomful of Teeth
New Amsterdam


I first heard this piece on the group’s Kickstarter video. The whole album is great, and it’s definitely about time we had a killer vocal group like this. I come out of choral music, and I’m so excited to get edgy vocal music on this level. The piece pulls together different vocal techniques in a bunch of different sections, and makes me want to go back and write more choral music. Play the section 4:48 to 6:30 on repeat when you need to feel awesome. —Kevin Clark, Communications Manager


Wet Ink Ensemble: Relay

Eric Wubbels, katachi: Etude I-II
Performed by Wet Ink Ensemble
Carrier Records

Order directly


I’m drawn to the piece’s color, textures, and shifting timbral elements. —Scott Winship, Director of Grantmaking Programs


Theo Bleckmann: Hello Earth!

Kate Bush, watching you without me
Performed by Theo Bleckmann
Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush
Winter & Winter


Amazing storytelling from both songwriter and performer. 1 + 1 = 3. —Edward Ficklin, IT Projects Manager


Alex Kotch: Alleys of Your Mind

Alex Kotch, Alleys Of Your Mind (excerpt)
Alleys Of Your Mind


Order directly


In 1981, seminal Detroit techno outfit Cybotron (Juan Atkins and Richard Davis) released an early single, “Alleys of your Mind.” Thirty-one years later, Alex Kotch writes his own “Alleys of your Mind,” at once a shout-out to one of his greatest influences, and a completely original refashioning of this and his other influences. There’s much I love about the original, and even more about Alex’s, which manages to bring together seemingly disparate elements into a work that speaks to me on so many levels. Plus, let’s just be honest here, it’s got three of my favorite things, all at once: a killer dance beat, a Meredith Monk-esque vocal line, and epic horns. You wouldn’t think it could work—but it does. —Clara Schuhmacher, Development Manager for Institutional Giving


Toby Twining: Eurydice

Toby Twining, Orpheus at the Gates
Cantaloupe Records

This is one of my favorite operas. The completely unique tonal journey Twining creates in Eurydice, from start to finish, yields an astounding emotional and musical experience that is, literally, breathtaking. “Orpheus at the Gates” is perhaps one of the most climactic moments of the entire opera, during which the aesthetic and harmonic resonance become most clear to me. In these minutes, the singers and cellist are able to so precisely embody the extended just intonation and creative vocal techniques that define the work, that I can’t help but feel I am standing in an other-worldly dimension with Orpheus, watching him open the gates of the underworld with his musical prowess. —Emily Bookwalter, Program Manager



Christopher Stark, Augenblick
Performed by Cornell University Wind Ensemble
Cynthia Johnston Turner, conductor

Two sound worlds that I always thought of as being light years apart are symphonic wind band and studio electronic music. But Christopher Stark’s 2008 Augenblick seamlessly weaves these realms together in ways that have made me rethink both of these idioms. —Frank J. Oteri, Composer Advocate and Senior Editor, NewMusicBox


Tim Eriksen: Josh Billings Voyage or, Cosmopolite on the Cotton Road

Tim Eriksen, Every Day is Three
Josh Billings Voyage or, Cosmopolite on the Cotton Road

Order from Bandcamp


“Every Day Is Three” offers an interpretation of the traditional folk tune “My Dearest Dear,” which contains such crushing lines as, “I wish my breast was made of glass and in it you might behold/Your name in secret I would write in letters of bright gold” and “If ever I prove false to thee, the raging seas shall burn.” Here performed alongside a striking bowed banjo accompaniment, the music sets the scene for a collection of songs that tell tales of grand love and epic voyages, tinted with all manner of cultural influences. —Molly Sheridan, Executive Editor, NewMusicBox


Commissioning Rushes

As musicians, we frequently talk about the process of composing music. Most often we discuss the various methods a composer goes through to realize his or her work. Yet there is another facet of such an undertaking that often isn’t discussed—the performer’s side of commissioning a large-scale work. On September 15th, six colleagues and I gave the world premiere of Rushes, a new 60-minute composition for seven bassoons by Michael Gordon. As a specialist in contemporary music performance, I am familiar with the exhilaration that comes with presenting a world premiere. This particular concert, however, topped the scale. For me, this was not only the culmination of a week-long recording residency for a new album release on Cantaloupe Records, but also the culmination of three years of my life that were devoted to making this project happen. I would like to share my experiences and the incredible journey that led to this evening-length composition.

In 2008, I was beginning a new stage in my life. I was 25 years old, had just moved to Amsterdam on a Fulbright Fellowship, and was preparing for the Gaudeamus Young Interpreter’s Competition. I’m not a particularly competitive person, but I saw this as an opportunity to put together a new program of contemporary solo bassoon music. This was also a chance to find new compositions and to work up pieces that I had never performed before. Perhaps this will come as a glaringly obvious statement to most readers, but the bassoon is not known as a particularly strong force in new music. While we have a few notable works like Berio’s Sequenza XII and Gubaidulina’s Duo Sonata, the amount of contemporary bassoon repertoire doesn’t even come close to what exists for our percussion, piano, string, or even other wind instrument-playing colleagues. When I was creating this program back in 2008, I was struck by the lack of variety available to choose from and found myself wishing there were more notable works for bassoon, especially by American composers.

I have always been a fan of minimalist music. Most of my favorite composers fall into this category, among them Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, John Luther Adams, David Lang, and of course Michael Gordon. Unfortunately the only possibility as a bassoonist to perform music by these composers, other than a larger orchestral work, is to make an arrangement. So in 2008, I began working on Michael Gordon’s Low Quartet, a composition scored for any four low-sounding instruments. This piece was dedicated to Evan Ziporyn and can either be played in a version for four instrumentalists or for soloist with three pre-recorded parts. I wanted to create a solo program, so I opted for the second version. I spent several months arranging the score for bassoon, learning all four parts and finally recording the music. I recorded a fixed audio track to use in live performance and also made a complete recording of the piece.

I think it is very important for performers to let composers know what they are up to. This is one of the responsibilities that come with being a performer of new music. I felt timid about contacting Michael Gordon but thought that he should know about the bassoon arrangement and upcoming performances of the Low Quartet. After sending Michael an introductory email with this information, I wasn’t expecting to hear a response; mine would surely be another piece of fan mail in his busy life. To my surprise and delight, I received an email from Michael in which he thanked me for reaching out to him and responded enthusiastically to the new arrangement of the Low Quartet.

Before moving to Holland, I had some teachers and colleagues question my decision not to take the traditional orchestral route. Many of them didn’t understand my passion to perform contemporary, improvised, and electroacoustic music. Why should they? Most new music ensembles don’t have a bassoon and very few bassoonists can actually say that they make a living performing new music. Additionally, many bassoonists believe that the artistic role of the instrument lies solely within the orchestra. It’s no surprise that some of my teachers and colleagues encouraged me to focus more on orchestral excerpts and less on extended techniques. Somehow getting this email response from Michael inspired me to continue on this path of playing music that I was passionate about and reinforced my belief that this style of music does work on the bassoon.

Before I jumped straight into making the bassoon arrangement of New York Counterpoint or some other work, I kept having the same thought: I was tired of making arrangements and performing music originally written for another instrument. A large-scale work for the bassoon by a well-known composer would not only be a giant step for the bassoon community, but it would also create a greater awareness of our instrument in the new music community. I sent Michael Gordon another email asking if he had ever considered writing for the bassoon and if he was interested in a consortium commission to support a new work.

First rehearsal with Michael Gordon

The First Rehearsal with Michael Gordon. From left to right: Lynn Hileman, Michael Harley, Dana Jessen, Saxton Rose, Jeffrey Lyman, Maya Stone, Rachael Elliott and Michael Gordon.

Organizing a consortium is one way of commissioning new music in the United States. With very little government support and a diminishing number of grants available to composers, consortiums are a great way to ensure that a commissioning fee is met. A group of individuals, often performers, contribute a specific monetary amount that collectively pays a composer’s commissioning fee. The amount of money that individuals contribute varies depending on the composer and the size of the consortium. Many consortiums give performance rights to the participants over a specified period of time. For example, an ensemble could have the rights to premiere a new work within one year of receiving the music. One of the benefits of consortiums is that anyone can be part of the same concurrent premiere. Additionally, the composer could potentially have simultaneous premieres of the same piece throughout different parts of the world. The idea of multiple premiere performances came into the spotlight in 1995 when John Harbison’s San Antonio sonata for alto saxophone received 43 premiere performances on the same day through the World-Wide Concurrent Premieres and Commissioning Fund. When I wrote to Michael Gordon, I suggested the idea of a consortium commission because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to support a commission alone and didn’t want to depend on a grant. I also wanted as many people involved as possible to give more exposure to this potential piece.

Michael first responded that he had never considered writing for the bassoon and that he had only written for the instrument in orchestral settings. That aside, he was thrilled with the idea of a bassoon consortium. We traded several emails back and forth discussing logistics and ideas. I can clearly recall one of these first emails in which Michael said, “We haven’t discussed a length yet. I’m really into hour-long pieces lately. Would that be all right?” I practically shouted an enthusiastic “Yes!” through my computer. Finally, after about a week of back-and-forth emails, Michael was on board to write an hour-long piece for the bassoon.

Once the exhilaration settled, it really began to sink in just how much work had to go into this. Michael’s fee was reasonable considering the length of the piece. It was clear, however, that I would have to put together a sizable consortium. I got in touch with colleagues who had organized consortiums in the past and asked for their advice. The most notable recommendations were to write individual emails to potential bassoonists, keep the participant fee low and team up with a fiscal sponsor. I researched fiscal sponsorship organizations that could act as an umbrella non-profit so that I wouldn’t have to process the monetary transactions from my personal bank account. A fiscal sponsor provides tax write offs to donors and opens the door for more grant opportunities that wouldn’t be possible without non-profit status. I created a name for the consortium, the New Music Bassoon Fund, and applied for fiscal sponsorship through a fantastic organization called Fractured Atlas. Once I was approved, I created a website and a contract for the potential participants. Then, I started sending the emails…

From October 2009 to December 2010, I sent out numerous emails a week trying to get people to join the consortium or contribute to the project. I wrote emails to bassoonists, emails to companies that supported the arts, emails to grant organizations, emails to anyone I could think of who would be interested in this commission. Sending out emails felt like a new part-time job. In these emails, I introduced the project with a bio of Michael Gordon, stressed the importance of supporting new music, and emphasized key elements that made this new piece different than other works for bassoon. I wrote personalized emails to hundreds of bassoonists, and then sent follow up emails. The bassoon community came back with a variety of responses. There were a fair number of enthusiasts who were just as thrilled as myself at the prospect of a new work by Michael Gordon. They joined the consortium right away. There were several people who didn’t want to spend money on a consortium and thanked me but passed on being part of this one. Some people didn’t respond at all. Other times it felt like pulling teeth trying to convince people that this commission was a good idea. Even after some of the negative responses, I kept sending out emails and contacting people. Several months after agreeing to write the piece, Michael decided to score the new work for seven bassoons. The unusual instrumentation surprised many people and unfortunately didn’t qualify us for many grants. At one point, Michael even told me that upon mentioning the commission to some of his friends, they thought he was crazy. Like every instrument, the bassoon has some negative stereotypes. I believe the only way to eliminate these stereotypes is to make music that doesn’t support them, and I honestly thought that this project could prove that. I believed that this new piece could show a different side of the bassoon that people weren’t used to hearing. The consortium was slowly growing in size, and I was happy to connect with other bassoonists who were excited about the commission. All of the participants contributed the same amount of money and maintain the rights to premiere the piece within one full year of receiving the music. The bassoonists consist of college professors, students, professional performers, and contemporary music enthusiasts. After a full year of regularly sending emails, follow-ups, and other efforts to gather participants, I had thirty bassoon players from the United States, Europe, and Canada participating in the consortium.

Rushes Ensemble at EMPAC

Rushes Ensemble at EMPAC. Photo by Kevin (Yiming) Chen.

I met Michael Gordon for the first time in January 2010. He had invited me to his home to try out some ideas, ask questions about bassoon techniques, and record some sounds. Meeting and collaborating with composers is one of my favorite aspects of commissioning new music; it creates a unique relationship that makes the music even more meaningful as a performer. For our first meeting, Michael asked me to bring scores of 20th-century bassoon music. We spent a day going over these scores, listening to pieces, and trying out an assortment of techniques. He was especially intrigued with fast-articulated sixteenth notes, a technique that is constant throughout Rushes. It was a great meeting, complete with a bassoon and puppy duet with Michael’s very vocal dog. After that meeting, Michael and I got together a handful of times between New York City and Amsterdam. One notable meeting was in January 2011. Michael wanted to hear several bassoons together, so I gathered five bassoonists to meet and play in his home. At one point, Michael wanted to see how mobile we could be with our bassoons, so there was a fantastic moment when all five of us were walking around his living room, bending down and stretching upwards while sustaining our lowest note.

Over the following year, Michael sent different versions of the piece to look over. One of my first impressions of the score was that it looked like a percussion piece! There weren’t any obvious melodic or lyrical lines that are common in wind music. Instead, the bassoonists play continuous patterns and rhythms that lengthen and shorten over approximately one hour. The patterns are made collectively by the bassoonists with subtle changes and shifts in dynamics from one player to the next. For such a large-scale work, it is always helpful to have a second set of eyes looking through the score. I asked two bassoon colleagues to help out and give their own feedback on the writing. After several months of regular dialogue with Michael and feedback on the music, we received the final score to Rushes last spring. I put together a fantastic group of bassoonists—Jeffrey Lyman, Saxton Rose, Rachael Elliott, Lynn Hileman, Michael Harley, Maya Stone, and myself—to rehearse with Michael prior to releasing the score to the consortium in case he needed to make any changes. This group, now called the Rushes Ensemble, met and rehearsed for the first time this past June. After the initial run through of the piece, we were all incredibly moved. Score study and individual practice did not prepare me for the overwhelmingly beautiful sonorities that emerged collectively from the ensemble. The continuous shifting patterns and dynamics give the impression that the sound is traveling in space, which in fact, it is. I was struck by this cascading effect that sometimes felt like a pendulum swinging from one side of the ensemble to the other side.

In September, the Rushes Ensemble spent a week at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in Troy, New York, rehearsing, recording, and ultimately premiering this amazing new work. After three years of organizing, planning, and preparing, it was well worth the effort. Rushes is a mesmerizing composition. We now have a new piece in our repertoire unlike anything else written for the bassoon. This November, the Rushes Ensemble will be touring the piece throughout parts of Europe and we are in the planning stages for a U.S. tour in 2013-14. There will also be other ensembles throughout the country organized by members of the consortium who will jointly premiere this new work.

Michael Gordon and Dana Jessen

Michael Gordon and Dana Jessen after the world premiere.

This commission has helped me learn so many things, many of which can be applied to other aspects of life. First, if you are unhappy about something, change it. I was unhappy with the selection of contemporary bassoon repertoire, so I did something to change it. Secondly, don’t be afraid to ask. I didn’t know Michael Gordon before this project began. Rushes all started because of a blind email to one of my favorite composers. I had no idea how he would respond, but I went for it anyway. Lastly, keep going. No matter how many negative responses I received, I continued organizing, planning, applying for grants and sending emails. Not only was I passionate about playing Michael’s music, I also wanted to create awareness that the bassoon can be a strong force in contemporary music. Rushes is truly a turning point for the bassoon and I am so grateful for it.

Rushes was commissioned by the New Music Bassoon Commissioning Fund with generous support from the following bassoonists:

Alban Wesly
Annie Lyle
Benjamin Kamins
Benjamin Coelho
Bram van Sambeek
Carolyn Beck
Christin Schillinger
Dana Jessen
David Wells
Evan Kuhlmann
Hannah Ross
Jamie Leigh Sampson
Javier Rodriguez
Jeffrey Lyman
Julie Feves
Kristin Wolfe Jensen
Lynn Hileman
Matthias Kronsteiner
Maya Stone
Michael Kroth
Michael Harley
Nadina Mackie Jackson
Nathaniel Zeisler
Peter Kolkay
Peter Van Zandt Lane
Rachael Elliott
Rebekah Heller
Richard Ramey
Robert Glassburner
Saxton Rose

Dana Jessen

Dana Jessen is a San Francisco-based bassoon soloist, chamber musician, improviser and composer. She lived in Amsterdam for three years as the recipient of a 2009-2011 HSP Huygens Fellowship and 2008-2009 J. William Fulbright Fellowship where she researched contemporary and improvised music. This fall she is touring with the Rushes Ensemble throughout the Netherlands and Belgium in addition to performing with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players under the direction of Steven Schick.

NewMusicBox Mix 3: Tracks and Treats

NewMusicBox Mix 3: Tracks and TreatsThis edition of the NewMusicBox Mix contains an assortment of tempting recordings to accompany Halloween escapades—from the creepy to the quirky and beyond. Directly below you will find a link to download a folder containing all of the mix tracks. In addition, each track is streamed separately on this page, with information about the recordings and purchasing links to encourage further exploration and continued listening.

These artists have very generously donated their tracks to this project, and we encourage you to support them by purchasing their albums and letting them know if you enjoy what you hear!—AG


DOWNLOAD NewMusicBox Mix 3: Tracks and Treats


Nonextraneous Sounds

Daniel Wohl, Saint Arc
Performed by Mariel Roberts
Nonextraneous Sounds


Light and Power

Isaac Schankler, Haunted House Aria
from Light and Power
Performed by Juventas New Music Ensemble
Chelsea Beatty and Christine Teeters, sopranos
Lidiya Yankovskaya, music director
Live performance, May 22, 2011
Cambridge YMCA Theater, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Available on Bandcamp


In Our Name

Annea Lockwood, Jitterbug (excerpt)
performed by David Behrman, John King, and William Winant
In Our Name
New World Records


St. Helena

Tim Kuhl, Tales of Transformation
Performed by Grey McMurray, guitar and effects; Rick Parker, trombone and effects; Jared Samuel, bass and celeste; Tim Kuhl, percussion
St. Helena


Song From The Uproar

Missy Mazzoli, I Have Arrived
Performed by NOW Ensemble
Song From The Uproar
New Amsterdam

Available November 13. 2012


District of Noise Vol. 5

Tag Cloud, Ominous Green Energy

District of Noise. Vol. 5

Purchase Directly


Sister Death

Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores, Unawake
Sister Death

Purchase Directly


NewMusicBox Mix 2: Strings of Summer

NewMusicBox Mix 2: Strings of SummerSometimes when a theme presents itself, the best action is to run with it! This edition of the NewMusicBox Mix consists almost entirely of music for string instruments. Directly below you will find a link to download a folder containing the eight tracks of the mix. In addition, each track is streamed separately on this page, with information about the recordings and purchasing links to encourage further exploration and continued listening.

These artists have very generously donated their tracks to this project, and we encourage you to support them by purchasing their albums and letting them know if you enjoy what you hear!—AG


DOWNLOAD NewMusicBox Mix 2: Strings of Summer


Janel and Anthony

Janel & Anthony, Big Sur
Where Is Home



Cornelius Dufallo, Journaling

Vijay Iyer, Playlist One (Resonance)
Performed by Cornelius Dufallo

Jeffrey Weisner, Neomonology

Armando Bayolo, Mix Tape: Kid’s Got the Beat
Performed by Jeffrey Weisner
Order Directly
(Release date: September 25, 2012)



Pauline Oliveros, Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1961-1970

Pauline Oliveros, Fed Back 2
Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1961-1970
Important Records

Anthony Paul DeRitis, Devolution

Anthony Paul De Ritis, Legerdemain
Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, Conductor
Anthony Paul De Ritis: Devolution
BMOP Sound

Van Stiefel, Solaris

Van Stiefel, Souls & Raindrops
Performed by Van Stiefel and Holly Nadal
New Focus Recordings

Airi Yoshioka, Stolen Gold

Becca Schack, Pulse
Performed by Airi Yoshioka
Stolen Gold
Albany Records

William Brittelle & ACME, Loving The Chambered Nautilus

William Brittelle, Loon Birds in Meshed Crystal
Performed by Nadia Sirota and Clarice Jensen (ACME)
Loving the Chambered Nautilus
New Amsterdam Records


Repeat Audiences

If you’re reading this column, chances are that you love experimental music. You probably attend or perform on at least a dozen concerts every year and likely own an extensive collection of new music recordings. You viscerally enjoy this repertoire—at least a substantial subset thereof—and want everyone to share the excitement you experience when listening to it. You prefer orchestral or chamber music to pop songs, and while you accept that most people prefer to hear Justin Bieber over Heinrich Biber and the Engelbert Humperdinck of “After the Lovin” to that of Hänsel und Gretel, you simply don’t empathize with the appeal of the more recent of these pairs of artists. Of course, those of us who share this position reside outside society’s mainstream, but I take comfort in knowing that we can populate this remote neighborhood with people who share aesthetic predilections similar to our own.

Often, I find myself marveling at how difficult it can be for practitioners of new music to attract an audience. Since I’ve been in Baltimore, I’ve been at sublime concerts by world-class musicians with a mere handful of fellow listeners. It seems that a moderately successful local band can easily field audiences numbering in the hundreds or thousands, while even the best experimental performers can’t rely on attracting a mere dozen people to hear them while on tour. I often ask composition students to consider starting a band and touring instead of pursuing the path of writing down music, because the DIY option will allow them to reach more interested souls.

There are many factors that serve to limit the potential number of tickets we can sell for concerts of new music, from the comfort that we gain from the familiar to our isolation from the larger artistic community; from the competition of amplified concerts to the silly rituals of the classical concert. We can solve many of these problems, and many of the best contemporary musicians and ensembles revisit the elemental nature of their concert presentations in order to remove the unnecessary accouterments that limit their reach. Even so, it appears that each year experimental music continues to lose ground and to become further marginalized within our society.

One inherent problem with building an audience for new music is the very fact that the listeners want to hear music that is new to them. When we go to concerts by our favorite bands, we generally expect them to repeat the same dozen selections from their catalog over and over again. A local group can fill clubs in a single town several times a year without any changes to their set list; their followers often will take comfort in hearing replicated repertoire each time and will complain about any deviation from this norm. This ability to attract audience through repetition eases the process of filling seats because a limited but dedicated fan base will reliably appear multiple times to hear the same band play the same songs in the same city. Unfortunately, ensembles dedicated to experimental music cannot rely on this sort of repeat business. Fans of the new want to have unique experiences. They will flock in droves to unrepeatable grand spectacles of Xenakis in Central Park, John Luther Adams in the Armory, and Andriessen at the National Gallery, but they won’t go to hear the same repertoire twice. Paradoxically, even though these audiences require one-of-a-kind concert experiences, they are significantly more comfortable buying tickets when they know and trust the performers and composers.

This creates a practical difficulty for our new music organizations. They need to learn new repertoire for each concert or to visit new locales for each performance. Unlike a band that can learn a single set list and bring it to club after club, these ensembles must expend significant resources rehearsing or traveling before each public presentation. When these musicians find themselves in a place that’s new to them, the local denizens often are unaware of the reputation of the artists visiting their town, and can ignore opportunities to attend these concerts. Many promising projects never get off the ground due to their inability to attract enough followers.

While there isn’t a simple solution to this situation, each of us can play a small part in helping new music thrive in our communities. We can follow our local concert listings and can make an effort to attend performances by musicians who are unknown to us, especially when they are presented by organizations that we’ve come to trust. We can support the crowdfunding ventures of our favorite artists. When our area’s musicians tour, we can contact friends in the places they plan to visit who might be interested in hearing the concerts. And, when we hear transcendent music, we might consider attending a repeat performance.