Tag: orchestra

Renée Baker: Nothing’s Gonna Stop You From Creating

Renée Baker

 

Spending an hour over Zoom chatting with Renée Baker about her more than two thousand musical compositions and perhaps almost as many paintings was inspirational as well as motivational. Especially during this time when the ability for anything we do to have a certain future seems somewhat precarious at best. But Renée does not let anything deter her and while her music is extremely wide ranging and gleefully embraces freedom of expression, her daily schedule is precise and meticulous.

“I don’t separate life from creation,” she explained to me as she outlined a typical day in her life. “Breakfast about 7:30. And right behind that, about 8:15, started [making] dinner. … When I’m done with my conversation with you, I have four gallons of paint in the hallway that will make their way to my studio garage; I’m working on a series there. … These might not be finished for a couple of weeks while I determine what the palette is gonna be. You know, it has to strike me. Once I do that, I might wander out. I’ll go past a thrift store or something looking for pieces because I do make sound item sculpture, so that’s always fun, especially with wood and glue. And then I’ll probably nap and watch a few zombie movies. I’m a Walking Dead aficionado. When I’m done with that, since dinner’s already fixed, my husband can eat whenever he wants, I will probably go to a coffee shop or sit outside a coffee shop. I keep my manuscript book in the car. So anytime I’m driving or going to sit by the pond, or sit by the lake, or feed the ducks, I keep adding to these compositions. When they’re finished, I pull them out and I put them in the envelopes. So I touch almost everything every day.”

Her discipline has paid off. In addition to the ensembles that she herself has formed to perform her compositions, most notably the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, organizations around the country and the world have commissioned and presented her music including the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Spektral Quartet, Boston’s ECCE Ensemble, Berlin’s International Brass, DanceWright Project SF, the Joffrey Ballet, Berkeley Books of Paris, the Destejilk Museum in the Netherlands, and on and on. Plus her paintings are represented by two different galleries—and they sell.

Given her broad range of artistic pursuits, it’s no wonder that Renée Baker is a member of Chicago’s pioneering AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), an organization founded in 1965 by the late Muhal Richard Abrams who counts among its members such legendary genre-defying Black artists as Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Amina Claudine Myers, Henry Threadgill, George Lewis, and Tomeka Reid. Yet at the time Nicole Mitchell first suggested she join, Renée had acknowledged that she had never actually improvised. And while she proudly identifies herself as “a Black woman in America that survived classical music,” she “never sought to do an all-Black anything.” As she explains, “When you’re looking at my music, you can say, oh, it’s Black music because she’s Black, or whatever. But the fact is I’m interested in people who can play in four with my beat pattern and stay with me. It’s very simple. I don’t care; I don’t care what you are.”

Also, despite the fact that she creates vital work as a composer and as a painter (plus she also writes poetry and makes sculptures), Renée Baker does not compartmentalize. She does not think in terms of synaesthesia, but if you spend enough time looking and listening to the different forms of art she creates, you will notice clear aesthetic affinities. E.g. the striking combinations of colors in her paintings share a kinship with the way different timbres interact in her musical compositions. In fact, she has worked extensively with graphic scores that are as fascinating as visual art as they are as music. Ultimately, Renée Baker’s work is a by-product of an extremely healthy confidence, and her advice about perseverance is something that all artists should heed, especially in these extremely uncertain times:

“If your heart is married to creating, then there’s nothing, even a pandemic, that’s gonna stop you from creating. You might not create as much. You may experience a bit more stress, some financial worries—no telling what everybody individually is facing. But you can’t stop the train. Just keep going. Just keep going. Look at other directions. Maybe the direction you were going in would have been stopped without the pandemic. Maybe you’d gotten to a wall and there’s something else for you to access. Don’t be frightened, and don’t be cowed by criticism.”

NOTE: As part of this month’s Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago, Renée Baker will lead a string quintet from her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project in a performance of her composition Eternal Units of Beauty for one of the Spotlight Concerts at Chicago’s Phantom Gallery on September 26. Learn more about Ear Taxi’s Spotlight Concerts here. She will also participate in Ear Taxi’s panel discussion “What are the components of a thriving ecosystem for new music?” moderated by New Music USA’s CEO Vanessa Reed on September 29 at the DePaul Art Museum. More info about that panel can be found here.

Adolphus Hailstork: Music is a Service

Adolphus Hailstork

 

Adolphus Hailstork turned 80 in April, but he has been celebrated since the beginning of this year. On January 20, a wind band arrangement of his Fanfare on “Amazing Grace” was performed by the United States Marine Band during the inauguration of President of the United States Joe Biden. It was only the second time that music by a contemporary African American composer had been selected to be part of the repertoire performed at a presidential inauguration ceremony. And in June, as part of a digitally streamed concert on the first Juneteenth that was an official U.S. national holiday, J’Nai Bridges and the Harlem Chamber Players gave the world premiere performance of his concert aria Tulsa 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust), a retelling of the Tulsa Race Massacre to mark its centenary. The concert was even previewed on CNN which rarely covers music outside the commercial mainstream.

It was definitely time to catch up with Dr. Hailstork to talk about his life in music. His passion for making music stretches all the way back to his childhood when he sang as a boy chorister. While growing up, he sang his way through all the parts, eventually singing bass. After he embarked on his path as a composer, he never lost his love for the human voice and for melody.

“Choral music is so rich,” Hailstork exclaimed during our conversation over Zoom. “It is my favorite medium.” And Hailstork’s music has been treasured by choirs for half a century. He received his first significant compositional accolade, the Ernest Bloch Award, for his choral composition Mourn Not the Dead in 1971, the same year he received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Ironically, only a few years earlier, as he confessed during our talk, he didn’t even know what the words “graduate school” meant. After he had completed his Bachelor’s degree at Howard University, he went to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, not really sure about what his next steps would be.

Hailstork, however, took a very different path from most composers who pursued academic degrees during that time, eschewing what he described as the “plink, plank, and plunk” of the avant-garde music of his contemporaries. And for many years, his music was overlooked as he acknowledged. “It used to be a lot more difficult for lyrical types like me to have a place, just to be recognized, to be heard.”

Throughout this time, Hailstork, nevertheless, held his aesthetic ground, settling in Virginia and teaching for decades at Old Dominion University in Norfork while composing a stunning output of chamber music, solo piano and organ pieces, as well as many formidable orchestral works including four symphonies, in addition to writing numerous works for chorus. But while he is clear that he wants his music to be “a continuation rather than a breaking away from” the Western classical tradition, he very clearly has his own voice which has been enriched by his immersion into African American spirituals.

“I do worship the spirituals,” he explained at one point. “They’re gorgeous melodies and they’re very useful, and also I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also. I decided that Dvořák was right, and that’s what I wanted to do and I tried to work them in.”

The result of Hailstork’s idiosyncratic amalgamation of these two traditions has yielded an extraordinarily rich compositional language which also serves his other goal, “to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.”

 

  • We almost killed music 50-60 years ago as a group experience.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • This whole thing of plink, plank, and plunk, count to 12--I couldn’t get into it.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I learned a lot from those wonderful musicians who took the time to let me know that: "Your harp writing sucks, man. We got to teach you how to do this."

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • Harp makes a great melding together kind of goo.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I wound up teaching comp to undergrads without any kind of theory background. It was excruciating. They didn’t know what they were doing. "I’m going to be a Composah." Well, sorry, it helps to know how to; it’s like if you’re going to build buildings and you never knew what a girder was.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I think "We Shall Overcome" is a great classical melody.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • In my music, I try to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • Music is supposed to have meaning to me.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I salute all the band directors of America for their constant looking for new pieces.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I was reacting to all the black men who are getting shot in the back--16 bullets here, seven bullets there

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I love grand opera, though I never had a chance to write an evening’s length opera. I’m getting kind of old for that.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • If anything good came out of the pandemic, it's that so many artistic groups have started to rethink their hopes, their plans, and also their whole programming.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I once called music a service art, and that’s probably because growing up as a chorister, I was performing service. ... You take all that out of listening to music, and no wonder people are gonna stop coming to it.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer

Eyes Wide Shut—The Case Against Blind Auditions

A blindfolded woman against a dark background. (Photo by Kirill Balobanov via Unsplash.)

Back in July, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times called for an end to the practice of blind auditions. “If ensembles are to reflect the communities they serve,” he wrote, “the audition process should take into account race, gender and other factors.”

Unsurprisingly, this suggestion received heavy backlash. Between the Culture Wars, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the strong opinions of those in the music world, such a statement was bound to ruffle feathers. Pitting what’s seen as meritocracy in its purest form against the diversity standards of the day was doomed from the start. To progressives, Tommasini’s piece was hollow and missed the point. To conservatives, it was sheer blasphemy.

Tommasini’s suggestion came from a well-meaning place: one of newfound discomfort with the status quo. It would be ungenerous to discount the value of that response. At the same time, why diversity matters to classical music was not examined at all.

I’ve called for an end to the practice of blind auditions for years. To me, Tommasini’s piece was both unpersuasive and incomplete.

To make a contentious change requires the buy-in of many different kinds of people. One person’s call for “representation” is another’s outrage at “quotas.” I believe we can—and should—elevate this conversation past that endless, tiresome tug-of-war.

Rather than going in circles, I ask: what would have to be true for all of us to agree on the potential benefits of revising the process? 

What follows is taken in part from a piece I wrote in February of 2018, updated for relevance.


For decades, blind orchestral auditions have been lauded as one of the world’s fairest hiring practices.

For decades, blind orchestral auditions have been lauded as one of the world’s fairest hiring practices. Yet the merit-based method reveals one of classical music culture’s most problematic assumptions. It comes with a host of undesirable consequences — one of which recently blew up in our faces.

The assumption in question: How you sound is all that matters.

As a result of this belief, candidates aren’t interviewed. References are not required. When you walk into an audition, you aren’t allowed to speak or wear perfume. A rogue cough can betray your gender. Best not to wear clacking heels for the same reason.

As you enter the audition room in silence, a proctor announces you by number. You then play behind a screen. As a result, the judging panel doesn’t know the first thing about you. Not your age, your race, your gender. Not your pedigree, or where you went to school. Nothing.

Certainly, this process has had a tremendously equalizing effect. For starters: blind auditions have made it possible for women to make tremendous inroads into orchestras.

I believe I’ve been saved by the screen myself. At 23, I played for a concertmaster in the weeks leading up to an audition for his orchestra. He didn’t seem to take me very seriously. I left the coaching feeling a bit pessimistic about my chances. After winning the audition, he told me I was a “great artist.” I‘m pretty sure he wouldn’t have felt that way had he known it was me back there all along.

But in the wake of #Metoo and #BlackLivesMatter, I ask whether “how well you play” is really all that matters in the musical workplace.


Is “how well you play” really all that matters in the musical workplace?

Let’s get this out of the way. For a job in the field of musical performance, nothing matters more than how you sound. In this piece, I hope to make the case for letting other relevant things matter, too.

Tempting as it is, let’s not fall into an all-or-nothing false binary here. Sound doesn’t matter “less” by widening our circle to include other factors. The whole point here is additive.

Even if we believe that how you sound is all that matters, the meritocratic foundation of the concept itself doesn’t hold water. To pick a “winner” who “sounds the best” is not objectively possible. Sure, there can be a general consensus—but never a universal one.

That’s because there is no “universal best” to which all players aspire. In music, excellence at the highest level is measured in abstractions that are deeply, intangibly personal. My colleague Kevin Kumar wrote about this beautifully in his piece, The #1 Violinist in the World.

Consider the following: musicians generally accept that anyone who gets to the finals is qualified for the job, and would fit into the fabric of the orchestra just fine. This truth is especially consoling when the runner-up is you.

Sometimes, on a different day, things could have gone a different way. We all have off days: before auditions, I always used to tell myself, “I wish everyone the best. I just hope my best is better today.”

Plus, the composition of the listening committee can determine who comes out on top on any given day. Swap a committee member or two and you might have a different “best” player based on the collective, subjective taste of those listening that day.

The audition procedure of each orchestra also comes into play here. Does the conductor get to choose from among the committee’s top few? What if the conductor’s opinion is different from the committee’s majority vote? Who played “the best,” or “deserved to win,” in that instance? I’ve personally been both the subject of and a participant in these very situations on both sides of the screen.

The members of an orchestra playing music together.

Photo by Samuel Sianipar on Unsplash

At a certain point, “winning” an audition is like catching lightning in a bottle. My own mother once cautioned me against resigning from an orchestra for fear that I wouldn’t be able to “get back in.” While it would have been easy to take that as an insult, she was simply being realistic.

Compare that with the following anecdote. In my early twenties, I had a mentor who helped me prepare for auditions. I’ll never forget her telling me that I had to play with such conviction that the committee would have “no choice” but to name me the winner.

This was a motivating, inspiring, romantic, and idealistic instruction. It’s the kind of thing that puts fire in your belly, motivating you to maximize the one thing you can control: yourself. Your preparation level, commitment, passion, and nerves of steel. It’s exactly the kind of thing you need to hear when preparing for an audition.

But while my mentor’s guidance was both motivating and attractive, it wasn’t as realistic as my mother’s. And here’s the thing: neither of them were wrong. My mentor was right that I needed to do everything in my power to improve my chances. And my mother was right that my chances were exactly that: chances.

Given the above, surely there is room to take more of the person into account. Qualities, experiences, skills, and interests that would further the cause of art music above and beyond “how much more beautifully” the winner played than the runners-up.

Who knows what else they might have been able to bring to the table?

***

Maybe there should be an interpersonal component to getting a job in music.

Maybe there should be an interpersonal component to getting a job in music. Maybe how well you play isn’t where what matters begins and ends. After all, orchestral and chamber music are team sports. Are you likely to “play your best,” anyway, while seething with rage at—or being psychologically tortured by—your stand partner or principal?

When you audition for a string quartet, both musical and personal chemistry matter. What brings out the best in others is ineffable. It’s laughable to contemplate a blind, screened string quartet audition. Why should orchestral auditions be so different?

What other fields vet only one dimension of every job applicant? To assume that someone’s playing tells you everything you need to know about them is simply false. It’s naive at best and dangerous at worst.

Worshipping sound at the expense of character has had consequences beyond missed opportunities. Blind orchestral auditions have led to orchestras filled with wonderful players. But with no other vetting of any kind, many of them are as interpersonally difficult as they are musically skilled. Much of the time, they cannot stand each other, and dysfunction abounds.

Blind orchestral auditions have led to orchestras filled with wonderful players …. but much of the time, dysfunction abounds.

When orchestras have the great good fortune of hiring a player who also happens to be charismatic, generous, and full of good ideas, they go absolutely bananas milking that person for all they are worth. Imagine being able to harness that energy from not a small handful of serendipitous hires, but from an entire symphony’s worth of carefully-considered candidates. Imagine if the orchestral audition process included not only blind listening, an interview, and references, but also:

  • a trial lesson for an underprivileged, gifted child
  • public speaking
  • a chamber music concert and a new music concert
  • a thorough review of what the candidate brings to the table, including his or her capacity to serve as an effective advocate for the art form

I’m not saying these things are “more important” than sounding good. I’m saying: sound good, and

As a dear friend put: “even Miss America isn’t just about the swimsuit competition.” I’m the Co-Director of Salastina, a non-profit chamber music series, in Los Angeles. My colleague Kevin Kumar and I play and work closely with wonderful people who are superlative musicians—and… terrific advocates for music.

We value both. We believe in their mutually amplifying capacity. And we have faith in the long-term cultural impact of that belief.


Imagine if diversity were a meaningful factor in the orchestra’s hiring process.

Imagine if diversity were a meaningful factor in the orchestra’s hiring process. If the culture of classical music seeks to enhance its relevancy and diversify its ranks, a more comprehensive approach to auditions would be a wonderful place to start.

There’s something sad and insufficient about post-graduate educational efforts to diversify orchestras. Well-meaning as such designated residencies are, they do too little too late. It’s hard to imagine how a person of color truly improves his or her odds of winning a screened audition simply by having sat in a designated “minority residency” chair for a year or two. In 2016, the League of American Orchestras published this study showing that these residencies just don’t work on the whole.

At the same time, I see their value as baby steps. They have the potential to ever-so-slowly steer the Titanic of musicians’ opinions, thereby improving the chances for more meaningful conversations about orchestral hiring practices down the line.

When it comes to diversity, blind auditions haven’t been a complete bust. They have helped the advancement of women: Asian and white women like me. Beyond that, what truly impedes greater diversity in American orchestras is our insistence on the false assumption that sound is all that matters.

Recently, Irshad Manji wrote beautifully on the merits of diversifying the workplace in “White Fragility Is Not the Answer. Honest Diversity Is” for the Heterodox Academy (July 7, 2020). Her piece helped me reframe anew the friction between creating a vibrant, synergistic workforce and current orchestral hiring priorities.

According to Manji, “honest diversity… recognizes that each of us, whatever our labels, is a multifaceted plural.” Manji contrasts this with dishonest diversity, which “slices and dices individuals into categories, as if directing people to their assigned places.”

Does the following statement sound familiar? “We can have diversity or we can have quality. We can’t have both.”

It’s a mainstay of the culture wars. And blind auditions make a fertile battleground.

But what if a variety of more nuanced artistic skills were equated with quality when considering the sum total of a musician? Powerfully, Manji suggests: “Honest diversity starts with the desire for varied perspectives and rectifies representation to fulfill that desire. To begin the other way around — representation in the hopes of diverse thinking — is to incite needless friction.”

She speaks of having the integrity to value more than diversity data points. I would add that valuing more than how a candidate sounds—on any given day, compared to those present, and to the ears of those who just so happen to be listening—is also a question of artistic integrity.

Valuing more than how a candidate sounds is also a question of artistic integrity.

Here’s where I felt The New York Times piece left itself vulnerable to criticism from all sides. It framed metrics as an expedient end goal. It piggy-backed off of the death of George Floyd to make a statement about the uncomfortable lack of black representation within American orchestras.

But it didn’t get into what really matters about diversity in a compelling way. The why of it all was shallow and implied. As a result, the piece came across as opportunistic on the one hand and inflammatory on the other. It didn’t invite the buy-in of people who all want “the best”—and “fairly”—but have different ideas about what that looks like.


Don’t get me wrong: winning a blind audition fair and square feels AWESOME. It’s a notch on your belt that feels about as objective as success can get. And believe me: we cling to these victories like our lives depend on them. (They actually do.)

Who would want to disband a club into which they’ve rightfully earned entry? It’s too easy—and all too human—for the ego to bristle at the prospect. It’s threatening, like the sudden devaluation of prestige, or the dismantling of personal identity. And that’s to say nothing of decades of back-breaking work, unrelenting focus, and significant financial investment.

I say the following with all due respect. Musicians use the idea that “how you sound is all that matters” as both a source of pride and a crutch. It excuses bad behavior. It justifies narrow-mindedness. And it’s its own kind of complacency.

Focusing only on “how you sound” excuses bad behavior and justifies narrow-mindedness.

What if expanding our values system to include other skills and qualities weren’t a devaluation of the importance of sound, but an invitation to go deeper? Manji put this idea beautifully: “wholeness, by definition, is not a zero-sum game.”

I suspect many orchestral musicians would welcome this kind of shift. How many of us have felt hamstrung, restless, under-utilized, and stifled as a result of the narrow requirements of our jobs? Greg Sandow observed in “Not So Satisfied” that orchestral musicians have slightly lower job satisfaction than federal prison guards. (Those with the highest? String quartet players.) At the same time, orchestral musicians boast the greatest “internal motivation.” My husband likens this phenomenon to “keeping a Ferrari in the garage.”

At the same time, how many administrators have earnestly tried to reverse-engineer additional opportunities for orchestral musicians? Inviting them to become more involved with things above and beyond rehearsals and concerts? Sometimes, these efforts have lovely results; other times, they fall flat.

Most of my 20s was about muscling my way into the orchestral world. Most of my 30s was about gradually transitioning out of it—in part because I felt so musically and intellectually constrained. It’s precisely why a friend and I started Salastina 10 years ago.

But not everyone can, or should, go there. Resources and chutzpah are finite. Perhaps it’s up to the larger institutions themselves to prioritize making musical practice less limited, and limiting, for musicians. Inviting more from us—and more of us—from the start would be a great point of departure.

Again, I come back to the concept of “honest diversity.” It is not self-motivated, either deployed in the service of earning woke points or clung to desperately as a key to survival. It’s not even simply a moral imperative. Rather, honest diversity is intrinsic to creating vibrant, meaningful, synergistic workplaces, cultural institutions, and art.  


As Shea Scruggs and Weston Sprott wrote in “Advancing Inclusion: Creative Ways Musicians Can Take the Lead,” the job description for an orchestral position is usually limited to just two words. “Section Violin.” “Principal Clarinet.” “Associate Principal Double Bass” clocks in at four.

What if more thought and care were put into crafting musicians’ job descriptions? What if these job descriptions reflected the unique needs of each orchestra—and the communities they serve? What if skin color and gender diversity followed naturally from prioritizing different perspectives and life experiences as a part of the process, rather than an antagonizing insistence on ever-narrowing metrics?

What’s more, orchestral musicians tend to stay in their posts for decades. What if the creation of each job description were treated more like a mini-strategic planning session? One that takes into account where the orchestra is likely to be in five, ten, twenty, or even thirty years?

A cellist playing behind a curtain.

Photo by Alberto Bigoni on Unsplash

It is my opinion that blind listening should always be an important part of the hiring process. But who knows how dramatically musical culture would shift if we valued a more well-rounded kind musicianship?

The days of a one-size-fits-all prescription for “fairness” and “the best” are over.

So what to do? The days of a one-size-fits-all, un-nuanced, and even toxic prescription for “fairness” and “the best” are over. It’s up to individual organizations and communities to determine how best to navigate hiring the most qualified candidates for their particular needs.

What kind of dynamics, literal and figurative, would change for the better? What kind of vibrancy would enter the field? What kind of relevance to today’s world would more naturally emerge from the art form?

What else might we not have to force quite so hard, if we could just loosen our grip on an assumption that’s as tenacious as it is problematic?

I’m feeling like it’s high time we found out.


I’d like to thank the following people for their many insights into this conversation, both recently and over the years: Derrick Spiva Jr., Reena Esmail, Simon Woods, Alexander Laing, Vijay Gupta, my husband Philip White, and my work-husband, Kevin Kumar.

From the Corner (Home) Office

Edgar and Rosie

Every day, I look forward to seeing Edgar and Rosie. Before you worry that there’s been a social distancing breach, I should clarify that Edgar and Rosie are the geese that live on the roof of the office building across the street from my apartment. They are fat, loud, happy geese that patrol the air along the short block between the milk factory and the real estate office. Each day at around 10:30 am they glide ungracefully onto that roof and we sit there staring at each other for a few moments. In those moments I wonder silently to myself if everything will be okay.

Typically, this scene unfolds during one of the many virtual meetings that fill up my calendar. Check-ins, board meetings, one-on-ones, sales pitches, introductions, happy hours, planning for in this time, in this time, in this time. This time that marches on. This time that makes us pause. This time that we fill up with fear or sorrow or dread or joy or hope or love.

At the beginning of March, when I moved out to Boise from Seattle to become the new Executive Director of the Boise Phil, I was preparing myself for the toughness of change, the steep learning curve of a new job and the loneliness of figuring out how to live in a new city. It’s laughable now to think about how I worried whether I had the right shoes as I stare out the window of a different kind of corner office and wait for the consistency of the neighborhood geese.

  • It’s laughable now to think about how I worried whether I had the right shoes as I stare out the window of a different kind of corner office.

    Laura Reynolds, Executive Director of the Boise Philharmonic
  • How do you know you are you?

    Laura Reynolds, Executive Director of the Boise Philharmonic
  • We have some big questions to answer and lots of love tsunamis to start surfing.

    Laura Reynolds, Executive Director of the Boise Philharmonic

The anxiety of starting a new job has been replaced by the constant flood of information and an inner monologue that wonders who is doing what and when and how and should we do it too and have you talked to so-and-so and is it safe? Through that din, I am reminded of something I was asked just a few months ago during a meeting at the Hibulb Cultural Center on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington, “What does it mean to be an orchestra? How do you know you are you?”

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how to answer those questions. We take for granted that we exist. We have these monuments built around us to hold up our pristine performances, our egos, and the high tower of art that we like to perch ourselves upon. (I’m the first one to admit to my perching.) This pandemic has taken most of that away and left us with the question: How do you know you are you?

So what does it mean to be an orchestra? What could it mean to be an orchestra? Who are we?

Orchestras turn ideas into sounds and experiences.
There is so much to observe and process during This Time – from the individual to the collective. The range of sounds an orchestra can create, the skills of the musicians, and the weight of our institutions can uniquely interpret and help us all sort out this experience. After this is over, we must ask ourselves what ideas do we champion? Whose experiences do we memorialize? How can we help our community heal? How do we write our history?

Orchestras show up for and stand with the community.
What if “community engagement” was the job of the institution and not the job of one department? I really do believe that an orchestra’s purpose is to be in service to its community through art. That means everything from curating stories that are meaningful to the specific place where you live (which is why we need orchestras in every corner of this country) but also to share those stories outside of the concert hall, directly in the places that we all actually live, work, and play.

Orchestras add wonder and spark curiosity.
The most magical things orchestras do is to surprise us with new ideas and ways of thinking, especially with works we’ve heard a thousand times and thought we knew. If we looked at every experience as an opportunity to add wonder and spark curiosity how would we change?

Orchestras create love tsunamis.
This last one is inspired by the many conversations happening inside the Boise Phil right now. One of the cultural shocks I’ve experienced moving to Boise is the sheer abundance of kindness and warmth that the team shares with each other. Our musicians have started to send each other little gifts of food or wine or plants, especially to folks who are living alone, just to show that they are thinking of each other. The board practices this too – our treasurer literally cheers for, texts, shouts out, and love bombs people throughout the organization for their good work. It’s moving, it’s infectious, and we should always do this, not just in This Time.

Of course, SO MANY orchestras are already doing many of these things. This isn’t questioning what kind of education programs or community advisory groups or initiatives already exist – what I’m asking myself right now is: can these ideas be at the core of what it means to be an orchestra? Will this help us understand who we are? And what kind of incredible art could this inspire?

Edgar and Rosie honk wildly at a flock of passing geese and I remember that I have 72 more emails anxiously waiting for a reply. I’m grateful for the perspective that this pandemic has brought because we have some big questions to answer and lots of love tsunamis to start surfing.

Edgar flies

Viet Cuong: Game for Anything

Composer Viet Cuong

Composer Viet Cuong says that he is very impatient, but you’d never know it upon meeting him. His outward persona is relaxed, warm, and friendly, and at the same time he is bristling with enthusiasm and refreshing ideas about music. When challenged on this self-characterization, he laughs and says, “Maybe I’m just so impatient in my music that I can’t be impatient anywhere else.”

Although Cuong’s compositional output began with works for wind ensemble, he has branched out into numerous other mediums including chamber and orchestral music. One of his most recent works, Re(new)al, is a concerto for percussion quartet originally commissioned by the Albany Symphony and General Electric (GE) Renewable Energy. The original version was written for Sandbox Percussion and Albany Symphony’s Dogs of Desire, and the piece has since taken on multiple forms with versions for percussion quartet and full orchestra, and for band. Re(new)al is an ideal example of the playful-yet-substantive character of Cuong’s music that incorporates refreshingly imaginative ideas that fit effortlessly into the music without being gimmicky. He is currently at work on a piece for Eighth Blackbird with The United States Navy Band, saying, “To bring these two groups together is going to be a beautiful thing.”

We chatted inside the lovely orangery (the small greenhouse where plants and small trees are kept over the winter) of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., where Cuong is serving as the Early Career Musician in Residence. He talked about growing up as a “band geek“ and the importance of band music in his life, his work bringing together different musical worlds, the nuts and bolts of incorporating extended techniques into his music, the realities of self-publishing, and more.

  • I grew up as one of the biggest band geeks your school would have.

    Viet Cuong
  • There’s nothing worse than a joke falling flat, especially in a piece of music!

    Viet Cuong
  • To get a Navy Band commission—the 14-year-old Viet would freak out. ... [Y]ou have Eighth Blackbird on the flip side, and 20-year-old Viet would freak out. ... [T]hen ... bringing them together and so now 29-year-old Viet is freaking out!

    Viet Cuong
  • You don’t have to be told how to listen to something. No one’s telling you that you have to experience it a certain way.

    Viet Cuong
  • After working on it for a week and you still don’t like it, then you can move on to something else.

    Viet Cuong
  • From when I first started writing music when I was like 11 or something, I had Finale notepad and I was writing straight into the computer, so it’s just been what I’ve always done.

    Viet Cuong
  • I don’t know if 14-year-old Viet really had any idea what he was getting himself into. ... I think he knew that composers were living beings because he was in band.

    Viet Cuong
  • I remember Googling things like how to staple in the middle of an 11 x 17 sheet.

    Viet Cuong

Hannibal Lokumbe: Always Go With the Feeling

A BIPOC man with dreads, a dark shirt, and dark cap

For the past three years, composer/trumpeter/raconteur/poet/community activist/force of nature Hannibal Lokumbe has served as a composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the auspices of Music Alive, a program which New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. The culmination of this residency is Hannibal’s massive oratorio Healing Tones, which at the end of March received its world premiere performances featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra joined by two choruses and three additional vocal soloists.

Hannibal has had a long history with New Music USA and, before that, with Meet The Composer (which later merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA). MTC supported the 1990 commission of African Portraits, Hannibal’s first large-scale work involving a symphony orchestra. African Portraits, a sprawling sonic adventure requiring blues and gospel vocal soloists, three choruses, a West African kora player, and a jazz quartet in addition to a large orchestra, has now received over 200 performances all over the country, a rare accomplishment for any contemporary American work let alone one that costs $4000 a minute to rehearse. So we have long wanted to have an opportunity to record a conversation with him about his musical career, his compositional process, and his sources of inspiration.

Our recent talk with Hannibal in Philadelphia was a 45-minute roller coaster ride that was part testimonial, part reminiscence, part philosophical manifesto, and part performance art, but all pure emotion. Many questions were left unanswered and others just led to other questions for us, some of which we probably will never be able to answer.

  • If I feel the need to testify, that’s what I’m gonna do!  And I always encourage the people to do the same.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • I always go with the feeling.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • A Yoruban priest gave me the name Hannibal in Brooklyn at the Blue Coronet.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • I don’t follow people.  Humans did not give me the music.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • I had ‘Trane in my head since I was 13.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • The spiritual land mass of humanity is music.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • What our world and what our nation are going through now is giving birth.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • The paradigm of what is called classical music is something that’s in flux now, too.  As it should be.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • To heal, you must become what you’re singing.

    Hannibal Lokumbe
  • We’re all in a prison, brother.

    Hannibal Lokumbe

There was a lot to process in a very short amount of time. There were his extraordinary thoughts about Pangaea—“the spiritual land mass of humanity is music”—as well as his optimistic outlook on the future: “What our world and what our nation’s going through now is giving birth.  Birth requires some bleeding and some suffering.  But in the base of our brain is a certain knowledge, and that knowledge says that from this pain will come this treasure.” There were also tantalizing fragments of anecdotes from his storied life in music, such as taking Jimi Hendrix’s place after Hendrix died for a recording session with Gil Evans (“Gil … always saw things in a person that they might not see in themselves”) or giving advice to a young Whitney Houston (“Sister, whatever you do, follow the music.  Don’t follow the people. People will confuse you.”) Perhaps what was most poignant to me was a comment he made about why he creates such personal and idiosyncratic music:

“It would be a disgrace to my ancestors to try to tell someone else’s story, which I could not do.  I could emulate it. I could emulate Bach. I could emulate Brahms. I have the technical skill to do that, but it would be dishonest.”


Hannibal Lokumbe in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
March 13, 2019—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Help Me Help You: What Orchestra Managements Need from the New Music Community

In a recent tweet addressed to orchestra administrators, the American conductor James Gaffigan asked for help “to program more of the great living composers I have recently come to know and love,” and went on to propose a list of composers, aesthetically and demographically diverse, contributing to a vital contemporary music scene.

 

As both a composer and a recovering orchestra administrator (I served as senior director of artistic planning for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from 2010 to 2013, followed by an interim stint as artistic advisor for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 2013 to 2017, while the equivalent position was vacant), I felt I might have a unique, dual perspective on the question underpinning Maestro Gaffigan’s tweet: how can we all—composers, conductors, administrators, patrons, advocates—help to diversify the programming of American orchestras? And how can we in the new music community help administrators make living composers part of their orchestras’ daily diet?

Every spring, as orchestras announce their upcoming seasons, the engine of social media agita revs back up, as it, alas, inevitably will again in 2019: far too many orchestras will have programmed far too little music (if, indeed, any at all) by composers outside the canon of European men born between 1685 and, maybe, 1882. The new music community will call the industry out en masse for its myopic programming. Rinse, repeat. At best, this perennial shouting match, perhaps, moves the needle infinitesimally from one season to the next. In fact, I suspect it doesn’t much help at all.

In reflecting on what my own various professional experiences have taught me, I keep coming back to one theme: if we all had a better understanding of one another’s priorities, circumstances, concerns, and constraints, we would be in a better position to address the problem constructively. And let’s be clear: the underrepresentation of living composers in orchestral programming is a problem; none of what I’m going to discuss here should be misunderstood as an apologia for homogenous programming. Our orchestras can and must do better.

Many of us fundamentally assume that homogenous programming results from cowardice and/or lack of imagination on the part of our orchestras. The first step in constructively addressing the problem is to challenge this assumption. Certainly, there is always room for more bravery and imagination; that’s true for all of us, not just orchestra administrators. But the artistic planning, marketing, and development departments that I’ve worked with are populated by some of the most passionate and creative people I’ve ever met. They love music. They’re smart, talented people who undoubtedly could pursue a more lucrative career in the for-profit sector, but have chosen this field out of their passion for the art form. Writing them off as soulless charlatans is inaccurate, unfair, and—frankly—lazy. They are charged with synthesizing a dizzying matrix of institutional imperatives and constraints en route to executing the organization’s artistic mission. Many of the people in these positions would otherwise love to fill each season with living composers. Here are a few ways we can all help them succeed.

Become familiar with the orchestra’s work rules. I’m only half serious about this—there’s little reason for the layperson to slog through an orchestra musician’s contract—but it’s important to at least understand that an orchestra’s work rules are regulated by a union-negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement. These rules govern everything that the orchestra does, from rehearsal schedules and overtime pay to how many miles away from home a run-out concert can be before requiring an overnight hotel stay.

Alexandra Gardner was the Seattle Symphony’s composer-in-residence during the 2017-18 season. Her experience in that role prompted another tweet that caught my attention.

 

As part of her Seattle residency, Alex led workshops with LGBTQ+ youth that resulted in the creation of Stay Elevated, a collaborative work performed by musicians of the Seattle Symphony. Alex told me about her original vision for the piece: a moveable event that the audience would follow from outside to inside the museum, and that would use the space in creative ways. When the Symphony had previously produced such events, the orchestra musicians participated as volunteers. This year, for the first time, an orchestra service was used (for the civilian reader, a “service” is any rehearsal, performance, or other musician activity governed by the CBA), which meant work rules now applied, and playing outdoors and on the move were off the table.

Understanding the administrative arcana behind decisions can help all of us in the new music community be constructive, rather than reactive, advocates for the repertoire we want to hear.

It’s up to orchestras’ artistic operations departments to manage such administrative arcana. The end result can often seem to reflect an imagination deficit. It’s almost always a little more complicated.

Take, for example, two 20th-century concerti widely regarded as modern masterpieces: the Ligeti Violin Concerto and James MacMillan’s percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. Both are thrilling pieces and very effective soloist vehicles. And when they do manage to get programmed, both have broad audience appeal, not just to new music aficionados. Why aren’t they in heavier rotation with your local orchestra?

In one of the Ligeti Concerto’s most memorable moments, the oboist, clarinetists, and bassoonist play ocarinas. In the climactic ending to Veni, Veni, the orchestra players are asked to play bells “or two pieces of loud clanging metal.” In addition to renting the scores and parts to these concerti, orchestras have to acquire the ocarinas, bells, and pieces of metal, and determine whether, as per the CBA, these passages warrant doubling fees for the musicians. These costs can add up and, for a smaller-budget orchestra, become quite significant expenses. The orchestra committee might agree to hold a vote to waive the doubling fees—but if they negotiate for an extra off-day in return, the guest conductor or soloist might feel she’s left with inadequate rehearsal time and opt for a warhorse like the Mendelssohn Concerto instead.

Rehearsal for the 2016 St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere of Mauricio Sotelo's Red Inner Light Sculpture

Rehearsal for the 2016 St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere of Mauricio Sotelo’s Red Inner Light Sculpture, for violin, flamenco dancer, and orchestra. Image courtesy SPCO

There are, as Alex told me she witnessed firsthand in Seattle, “a great number of interlocking gears in motion” behind every programming decision. Understanding this can help all of us in the new music community be constructive, rather than reactive, advocates for the repertoire we want to hear.

Go to concerts! I realize it sounds simplistic, but both the easiest and most powerful way to reward adventurous programming is to show up when your local orchestra rolls the dice on a new piece by a living composer. And we can all do a better job of this.

A lot of the pressure on orchestras to program Beethoven and Mahler comes at the board level, but not for the simplistic reason you might think. While, yes, by and large, board members’ tastes probably tend a certain way, it’s not just that they hate contemporary music and demand traditional repertoire. Just as operations and marketing departments deserve more credit than they’re often given, it’s important to resist the stereotypical image of the board member as merely a moneyed dilettante wanting in artistic conviction. Many of them may not have the finer artistic discernment of the conservatory-trained among us, but let’s remember that boards consist of volunteers who have given hours of their time and thousands of their dollars, sometimes over the course of many years, to support the orchestra; and they have accepted a fiduciary responsibility to the orchestra’s institutional sustainability. They go to concerts (when I was at the SPCO, I saw almost every board member at almost every program). And they see full houses for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and empty seats for contemporary fare.

The steady graying of the average orchestra’s audience alarms boards more than any other constituency. Board members, least of anyone, want to see the institution they’ve supported for years die of old age. At one of the orchestras I served, one of our most dedicated board members would often challenge us to think creatively and strategically about how to broaden our audience reach; pointing to his own gray hair, he would warn us that too much of the audience looked like him.

And it’s just as important for the musicians to know that there’s an audience for this music. In one of my previous positions, I received an email from a musician in the orchestra—the day before the world premiere of a piece we had commissioned!—suggesting that we cancel the premiere, because he felt it hadn’t been adequately rehearsed, and, in any case, the audience was coming for the Beloved Classical Music Masterpiece on the second half, not to hear some weird new music. There’s a lot that’s wrong with this picture, but one of the most important takeaways for me was that this musician felt that new music had no audience support, so why were we even doing it?

So when your local orchestra programs contemporary music, buy a ticket, bring a friend, and show the musicians onstage and the board members in the house that adventurous programming appeals to a younger, more diverse demographic. (This may not be fair, but I’m taking it as a given that new music audiences tend to look younger than my graying board member.) By simply attending, we send a clear message that the orchestra has a future beyond Beethoven and Brahms.

Thank the orchestra for programming music by living composers. Write a letter or make a phone call. Artistic and marketing departments take audience feedback seriously.

Thank the orchestra for programming music by living composers. Write a letter or make a phone call. Artistic and marketing departments take audience feedback seriously. I can’t tell you the number of times my marketing colleagues—who, in spirit, supported diverse programming themselves—held up audience survey results to remind me that the single-most popular concert program from the Mesozoic era to the present day was “Glories of the Italian Baroque.”

But I was in the house for all three performances of our world premiere last week! Standing ovation all three nights! The lobby was buzzing during intermission! Yes, but survey says.

How I wish I could have read a letter to my management colleagues and board as effusive as what I had heard directly from the audience at the concert.

Pekka Kuusisto and Sam Amidon perform with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

Pekka Kuusisto and Sam Amidon perform with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, 2017. Image courtesy SPCO

Put a few bucks in the hat. If you’re in a position to enclose a check with your thank-you letter—even a modest gift of $10 or $25—so much the better. (NB. You’re right to think that your $10 check won’t make a significant difference to the bottom line of the orchestra’s x-million dollar budget; but you as an individual donor—especially if you are a new donor—represent a valuable asset to the orchestra as it appeals to major donors, corporations, and foundations for big-dollar support.)

Single-ticket purchases, thank-you letters, supportive phone calls, and small contributions might seem like drops in the ocean, but they can make a real difference. Imagine an artistic administrator able to stand up in front of the board, staff, and musicians at the orchestra’s annual meeting and report, “This past season, we increased our programming of music by living and under-represented composers by 15%, and we saw a direct correlation between these programs and a 3% audience growth. These programs also attracted 64 new individual donors.” If she could give this report, then read a letter or two from audience members sharing how much they value the diversity of the orchestra’s programming, what a powerful message that would send to the entire organization.

Finally, if the reader will indulge a slight left turn, here’s a pro-tip for prospective guest conductors and soloists (and their managers) looking to land a debut: include contemporary music in your repertoire proposals. So many up-and-coming conductors want to make a splash with their Bruckner 7; every young virtuoso wants to set the world on fire with their Beethoven concerto. But orchestras aren’t just looking for the most accomplished musicians: they’re looking for the most interesting musicians. An orchestra musician I worked closely with on developing programs used to insist, “A soloist should transform a concert.” For my money, the most interesting artists—the ones who can be counted on to deliver the most transformative Beethoven concerti—are the ones whose repertoire doesn’t stop at 1999, much less 1899. Approaching the literature, not as a museum catalog but as a living, dynamic continuum, invariably makes your Beethoven more interesting. Offering contemporary repertoire doesn’t mean the orchestra will necessarily ask for your Widmann or Wolfe, but it’s informative to know whether you value this music at all.

It’s much easier to distinguish yourself with something new and less familiar than with the second-best Sibelius they’ve heard in as many seasons.

Also, some perspective: does the orchestra have one of the world’s preeminent Bruckner conductors as its current music director? Did the world’s most famous violinist play the Beethoven with them last season? If so, it doesn’t matter how great your Beethoven is—truly, I know it would be great! Your exceptional artistry is why I’m on the phone with your manager to begin with—you’re setting yourself up for a difficult comparison. At the orchestras where I served, musician surveys played an important part in determining whether to re-invite debut guest artists, and the conductors and soloists who made the strongest first impressions did it with repertoire outside the standard canon. A young violinist making their debut with Sibelius typically prompts responses of, “Eh, fine, but we’ve had better.” It’s much easier to distinguish yourself with something new and less familiar—leaving the orchestra and its audience eager to hear what you can do with the standard repertoire—than with the second-best Sibelius they’ve heard in as many seasons.

The magic of our art form is its capacity for reinvention. The inheritance and transformation of tradition is the greatness of Beethoven is the greatness of Stravinsky is the greatness of Ligeti is the greatness of Matthew Aucoin and Alex Temple and Angélica Negrón. By advocating for the music of the present day—whether as artists, audiences, or administrators—we not only promote the work of living composers; we renew the vitality of the art form as a whole. I applaud Maestro Gaffigan’s efforts to champion the work of living composers. We can all do more than lay this charge at the feet of orchestra administrators. Let us all take up this cause constructively, proactively, and with gusto.

George Tsontakis: Getting Out of My Introvertism

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Since the early 1990s, George Tsontakis has had a career path that most American composers would envy. By then, he had already been signed by a major publisher and his music was not only being performed by soloists, ensembles, and orchestras all over country, most of it was also recorded. Then he received a significant music award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995 and a Guggenheim Fellowship the following year. The following decade, he was awarded the Charles Ives Living and the Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition, which are among the two largest cash prizes available to composers.

And yet throughout the time he received those accolades and to this day, rather calling tons of attention to himself or striving for more honors (e.g. he refuses to allow his music to be submitted for the Pulitzer Prize), Tsontakis aspires to a hermetic existence in the middle of the woods and composes something only when someone commissions it and nothing at all if no one does. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s a strategy that has served him well. Since the mid-1980s, there hasn’t been a time when he hasn’t been juggling multiple requests from people to write music for them.

“If nobody asked me to write a piece, I wouldn’t compose,” he admitted when we sat with him on his back porch as hummingbirds and bees flittered around and chipmunks scurried by. “I’d be doing other things. I’m very happy to not compose. … One of the secrets to [my] life is that I only write what people ask for. … Multiple performances, you get that through websites or whatever. I don’t care. I’m not a promoter. I’m not even a person that wants pieces to be played all the time.”

Despite this reticence, he remains in demand and continues to compose vital works. A 2017 Naxos American Classics recording collecting three recent concertos by Tsontakis—the klezmer-tinged Asana for clarinetist David Krakauer, the jazz-inflected True Colors for trumpeter Eric Berlin, and the Soros Foundation commissioned double violin concerto Unforgettable—is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s currently a third violin concerto in the works as well as a Requiem in honor of his mother who passed away in January.

And as for Tsontakis being a serene, quiet person, he seems anything but! During the afternoon we spent with him he regaled us with endless anecdotes about his early years—acting in musical theater and almost being chosen for the original cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, arguing with Stockhausen during a seminar in Italy, fending off becoming a furrier by telling his Greek father than he was a vegetarian, and then his father being proud of an early piece of his that Vincent Persichetti hated. Along the way, he also told tons of jokes and did impersonations of various musical luminaries—including his one-time teacher Roger Sessions. Often, it was difficult to get a word in edgewise!

So much so, in fact, that it was somewhat hard to swallow that Tsontakis considers himself an introvert and that being socially active was an acquired skill.

“I get in these moods where I don’t talk,” he explained. “I’m basically an extrovert when I’m with people, but when they leave I become completely introverted. It’s an interesting balance. I’m either a closet introvert or a closet extrovert. I don’t know!”


A conversation with Frank J. Oteri outside Tsontakis’s home in Shokan, New York
September 12, 2018—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri: We’ve only just started rolling the camera, but we’ve been having a great conversation since you picked us up in Kingston, New York, over an hour ago. It’s hard to believe it’s taken so long for us to finally record a substantive discussion with you.

“Every composer and every performer should have to act.”

George Tsontakis: Well, you did ask me one time, but I don’t do many things like this.  I’m very insular.  I think it was after the Grawemeyer [Award] or the Ives [Living], but I wasn’t talking to anybody.  I was composing. I get in these moods where I don’t talk.  I’m basically an extrovert when I’m with people, but when they leave I become completely introverted.  It’s an interesting balance.  I’m either a closet introvert or a closet extrovert.  I don’t know.  You’ve got to come out when you do teaching. And I’m an actor; I act in plays. When you’re doing a play, you have to close yourself up.  Acting really helped me to get out of my introvertism and at least pretend to enjoy people being here. Every composer and every performer should have to act. All these violinists are so serious.

FJO: You already sort of half answered the question with which I wanted to begin our conversation. Before I ever visited Vienna, which was only five years ago, people would always be shocked that I hadn’t traveled there since it’s such an important center of musical activity, to which I’d invariably respond, so are Harare, Zimbabwe; Lima, Peru; Seoul, South Korea—which are all places I had been. As a composer in this country, you’ve attained an enviable degree of prominence—you’ve won several major awards, a large amount of your music continues to be performed and has been recorded. And yet, you’ve chosen not to live in any of the major urban musical capitals.  I can see why.  It’s idyllic, despite being off the beaten path.  Still, it’s kind of a weird place to be doing what you do.  Or so it seems to me.  Maybe it’s not.

GT: Well, it depends.  I mean, if I lived in an urban area, it wouldn’t be Vienna.  That’s a museum, as most of classical music is these days.  If it’s not a contemporary music festival or concert, it’s museum stuff.  This is the perfect place to be.  Everybody else is in the wrong place as far as I’m concerned.  But it depends on what your philosophy is.  I’ve had 21-year-old students at Bard who have bigger Wikipedia pages than I do, because they’re reaching out and they’re trying to be in another place all the time.  The urban area is now wireless, so you can be in the country and still be reaching out instead of looking in.  But Bach hardly ever left Leipzig and he did pretty well.  Either you depend on promoting yourself or you depend on your product to be the promotion of what you do.  Of course, it helped that I had started off in a place like Juilliard. Having met people at Juilliard was a great thing.  It helped for about ten years. You’ve got to get off the ground, and maybe you do have to have a connection with some populated area, where there are musicians.  There’s nothing wrong with being with musicians.  Even at Bard, where it’s a tiny microcosmos of an urban community, there are fantastic musicians.  So I tell the composers, especially if they’re anti-social, you have to meet these performers, because these performers might be the ones that are going to do your works and request your works in the future.

When I was in New York City, I’d be walking down Broadway, and it led to a commission.  Somebody would say, “Hey George, you know, we’re thinking about you.  Thinking about doing something.”  The fact that we were in front of Zabars kicked it over to, “Yeah, let’s talk.”  That was a big difference.  So there are advantages.  But as far as creative energy goes, “New York, New York” and the other urban areas have a lot of static electricity.  You’re there walking around and you feel energy.  But is it your energy?  That’s the question.  By retreating to this quiet place, I know where my energy ends and the other energies begin, or vice versa.  So I don’t adopt any energies of the urban areas.  You have to make all your energy here.  It’s a more subtle energy, but it’s a dependable energy.  And I love nature, too.  You hear all these creatures? I feed birds. They inspire me as well. I have that in common with Messiaen. I love the birds, but I don’t know who they are.

A view of the Hudson River from George Tsontakis's home

FJO: But you actually grew up in New York City. You were born in Astoria.

GT: That’s another thing. I don’t need it because I’ve been there. I’ve done the urban area. Back to my advice to young composers: “I finished undergrad, where do I go to grad school?” I’ll say, “Where did you go to undergrad?” “Well, I went to New York, Manhattan School of Music.”  I say, “Well then, find a country place to go to for your master’s and doctorate maybe.” If they say, “I went to some country school in the middle of nowhere,” I’d say, “Find an urban school to go to because you need both to a degree.”  It’s the diversity of learning about these different poles.  There are some composers who will never leave the city.  That’s you, Frank!  Definitely, I can tell that already.  In one hour, you’ve demonstrated all the urban tendencies.  I think New York is one of the most provincial places I’ve ever seen.  A friend who lives in Woodstock read a chapter at the Woodstock Library about those New Yorkers who only read three publications.  And each one has New York in the title.

FJO: I don’t do that.

GT: No, I know. But he said, “Thank God for those people. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have anybody buying tickets!” New York is provincial that way. If a restaurant is not in The New York Times, you don’t go.  But out here, you have to fend for yourself. I also want to mention that there’s a lot of stuff going on here.  We’re only an hour and forty-five minutes from the George Washington Bridge. So, like the pollen, these New Yorkers come up here. They get off the Amtrak and we know what they’re doing, and they know what we’re doing.

A cottage which was George Tsontakis's first residence in Shokan and is now a cottage for guests.

FJO: [laughs] Okay, but I’m going to take you back to New York when you were growing up in the very tightly knit Greek community. I know that you had multiple interests, not just music; you were very deeply engrossed in theater. But how did you get exposed to all this stuff and when did things start to resonate with you?

GT: I can tell you the day I became a composer. I didn’t spend that much time in Astoria.  We moved to Long Island, to a school district that had good music. But my grandparents and I spent a lot of time in Astoria when I went to Queens College.  So that was important. I had a dual cultural life. You know, Astoria is really Greece in a way, although I was just in Greece in April and May and when I speak Greek, they say, “George, you speak Greek, but it’s Astoria Greek.”  Astoria’s a suburb of Greece.  And those roots are very important for what I do.

But I went to a good school on Long Island, and they handed me a violin when I was seven years old.  So I studied violin and I knew a little about classical music. But when I was around 15 or 16, I got this new pair of headphones (they didn’t have good headphones until the ‘60s) and I listened to a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird.  It blew me away, because I hadn’t heard something like that live.  Now, if you had told me that Igor Stravinsky was a Polish jazz composer, I would say cool man. I like his music. I didn’t know enough about music to know who Stravinsky was. Someone recommended a recording. I also heard in the same week Beethoven’s Opus 135. Blew me away, too. I listened to the Fine Arts Quartet. That week I decided to be a composer.

I just said, “Between Beethoven and Stravinsky, I want to do that. Whatever that is.”  It’s like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the chocolate and the peanut butter. You put it together; I want to do that.  And I have been trying to do that. I added Debussy and Messiaen to the mix, but basically I wanted to do that.

“Try to remember when you decided to be a composer and why.”

I argue this point with many composers, especially in Europe, who have had pressure put on them to be more progressive, more avant-garde, whatever it is, less tonal, whatever you call that.  I say, “Try to remember when you decided to be a composer and why.”  I decided to be a composer because of what I heard.  I didn’t become a composer because of my compatriot Xenakis or Boulez or Karlheinz Stockhausen.  I became a composer to emulate the music that I wanted to do.  And I will take that music, and I’ll bring it forward in my own manner.  I’ll decide on the colors. I call tonalities—dissonance or not dissonance—colors.

FJO: It’s funny you say that because every composer has a different story about what triggered the desire to be a composer. I confess, although I had already been writing music, a really formative influence on me when I was in high school was actually discovering who Stockhausen was—his whole persona, as well as his music and all his crazy pronouncements. It really impressed me, and I wanted to figure out what he was doing.

GT: Aha. I studied with him in Rome in an eighty-hour seminar over two months as I was studying with Donatoni. In Europe, you’d have these spontaneous things.  I read in the paper: Stockhausen seminar. He had just finished Donnerstag aus Licht at La Scala. So there were about ten of us who were students in Stockhausen’s class. Paul Sperry, who I knew, was there. Stockhausen did this thing with these big rolls of paper.  It was four feet and you unrolled it. He did all the staves in different colors.  It was a typical Stockhausen happening. I was the skeptical American.  I have cassette tapes of us arguing in English while the Italians are listening. But Donatoni and Stockhausen made me realize what I could do if I wanted to.  So I didn’t make a choice out of ignorance.  You wanted to learn what Stockhausen was doing.  Well, I found out and I still didn’t want to do it.  So I tell composers in Europe, or wherever they think we’re not modern enough, “Look, we can turn around tomorrow and do what you’re doing, and you could do what we’re doing.  We made a choice.”

That’s because we find, like my old friend George Rochberg did, the materials that you best communicate with, and that’s it.  You know, you don’t become affected because of someone telling you that your materials aren’t modern enough.  I give them the example that if in 1450 sackbuts and crumhorns started to play Lachenmann and then in 2018, two cats came along from Italy, Gabrieli and Monteverdi, and started doing their music, somebody would go,  “Holy cow, I just heard the most modern music I ever heard. These guys are flipped out, man.”  There’s no forwards and backwards in music.  I’m so happy that, these days, young composers don’t seem to care.

FJO: We’re now in an era where anything is possible.  But it’s interesting to hear you say all this because there’s a piece of yours I’ve read about in a New York Times review by Tim Page. I’ve never heard it and wish I could. It’s a very early string quartet that is probably either number one or number two.

GT: The Emerson one?

FJO: Yes.

GT: It’s very much like [Wolfgang] Rihm.  It’s not 12-tone, but at least it has 12 tones.  It still resonates for me.  I know you know [the recording of] the third and fourth quartets on New World.  The American [String Quartet] had a choice, to pair the fourth that I wrote for them with either my second or third quartet.  The third is very tonal.  And the second is completely out there—dissonant and dissonant—but there are some lyrical aspects, too.  They voted.  Two of them wanted to do number two and two of them wanted to do number three.  And I would still love it, if the Emerson is listening out there, my buddies—would you want to bring back number two?  I’d love to hear it.  I’d love for someone to do that really well.  You mentioned Tim Page?

FJO: Yeah, I’ll read you the quote that got me: “This piece, which was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, under whose auspices Sunday’s concert was presented, proved a somber, knotty work in four movements, rather in the manner of Alban Berg. The composer writes that he attempted a ‘clear reaction to our times,’ and speaks of fears and frustrations. To this taste, Mr. Tsontakis lays on the angst a little thick.”

GT: Very good telling.  Tim’s a great guy, too.  I remember “lays on the angst too thick.”  Now I don’t have to lay it on at all, because I did it then.  I remember Andrew Porter in The New Yorker wrote something similar. I don’t remember the quote, but something like: “It wasn’t to my taste.” or “It was a little bit over the top.”

FJO: When I read negative reviews like this, it doesn’t turn me off the piece; often it makes me want to listen even more! But what stuck with me in that Tim Page review was his reference to your comment about the piece being “a clear reaction to our times.”  You talked about Europeans thinking that their music is progressive and ours is not. I don’t think it can be reduced to binaries. But one of the things that I find so exciting about your music, and why I wanted to talk to you—particularly now, in this current zeitgeist—is that although I don’t think your music sounds anachronistic, I also don’t think it sounds like it’s of the present time.  You seem completely oblivious to what is going on now, and it’s nice to be able to kind of get away from what’s going on, especially right now, through this music.

“Any music that is specifically yours has a character that can’t be duplicated.”

GT: Well yeah, I mean, that’s the whole point. Any music that is specifically yours has a character that can’t be duplicated. It’s like a fingerprint or DNA. I learn a lot by teaching, and I’ve always said to my students, “Don’t try to be original.” Only two composers every century are original, and they’re usually French—Messiaen and Varèse or Berlioz and Debussy, the big revolutionaries. The rest of us kind of do mop up, we do what the others do.  So I say, “Don’t try to be original, be specific. Be as specific as you can. Mold your music in your own specific way to your DNA, even if you start with C-major.”

It doesn’t matter what you do. There’s been proof of that.  Look at a composer like Arvo Pärt or Gorecki or Valentin Silvestrov. They have nuanced their music in a way that nobody can duplicate.  Benjamin Britten’s a great example, too.  One of our problems is that we think of chronology—1800, 1900, 2000—and music progressing, whereas I think of it as different things going up. [gestures hands] Here’s Bach. Here’s Beethoven. Here’s Haydn over there.  Here’s Messiaen. The higher you go with the lives of these composers, the more modern music is. It’s more modern because you can’t get there from going this way. So the late Beethoven quartets, those are all eternally modern. Or Gabrieli and Monteverdi—you can’t get there by imitating them. Chronology is not adding more and more dissonance, and being more and more abstract, scratching the instrument instead of sul ponticello. Eventually the violin is going to break in half from somebody trying affectations of texture! So be the life of a composer going up.  You make your own pedestal.  That’s why I can use whatever elements and it’s a personal dialogue in my language that I picked somewhere between Opus 135 and Stravinsky’s FirebirdRite of Spring was on the flip side [of that LP], but I went for the Firebird even though kids viscerally like Rite of Spring. I think that’s how I discovered Debussy, because Firebird is Debussy and Rimsky-Korsakov.  Again, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Take Russian tunes instead of French tunes, and you use Debussy’s techniques that Stravinsky obviously did in Firebird, and you have a new music. So if I pick that up, and Beethoven’s late quartets, and I blend those in my mind, my concoction is what you’re talking about that you can’t understand where it comes from.

FJO: So this is you as a teenager in the ‘60s. You were a weird kid.

GT: We were all weird. We had a group of weird kids in our high school. We were listening to Bartók and other stuff. That’s the way we rebelled, by listening to contemporary music.

FJO: Instead of listening to The Rolling Stones?

GT: Well, I played in rock bands. I played keyboard and electric violin.  We did stuff by Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears with Al Kooper. Those were the days, you know. And we did some Stones. I think that was really healthy to do.  But don’t look for fame in the business we are in.  It’s a very small, rarified world.

A tower that was added to George Tsontakis's house.

I don’t worry about anything. One of the reasons I can live where I do, and be disassociated to a degree with what else happens is because I’ve gotten myself down to a science in what I want to do.  I’ve realized that the only time I have to compose is when I’m composing.  I don’t have to have anything to do with music otherwise.  I have enough listening experience, unless I want to keep up with the latest stuff.  But all I have to do is sit and compose.  If I sit and compose for two hours that day, I don’t have to talk about music for the rest of my time.  I don’t have to live music.  I don’t have to go to concerts.  I don’t have to do anything.  I think it would be wonderful if somebody did, but I don’t need that.  So I can do that anywhere.  I pack my bag, and I’ll go in the woods.  It doesn’t matter where I do it because I don’t have to listen to it.  I love Beethoven and I love listening to Debussy, but I don’t have to in order to compose.

FJO: There are certain tools that you do need, though.  Yes?

“Nobody wants to just listen to the music of a composer who does nothing but be a composer.”

GT: You definitely need tools, but you develop your own.  All we have to do is compose when we want to compose.  Being involved in music otherwise is an elective.  I don’t need that elective.  I’d rather be involved with other things in my life and do other things.  And I think the broader the package that we make of ourselves, the more we will communicate—because nobody wants to just listen to the music of a composer who does nothing but be a composer.  So I tell my students that.  Enrich yourself.  Do other things because you’ll never write a piece that’s larger than what you’ve created as a person.  Where does the material come from?  How do you write a piece that’s beyond you living in a box, or in NewMusicBox?

FJO: Well, that’s where I live most of the time. But in terms of boxes, I know that you also build things.

GT: I do carpentry.  I love it. You have hobbies. Cage was a mushroom expert.  What is that called?

FJO: A mycologist.

GT: A mycologist. Messiaen was an ornithologist, and others do things that are completely different than music. I like acting and woodworking.

George Tsontakis staining wood on a futon.

FJO: I want to talk to you a bit more about acting because I know that when you were younger, you were being pulled in two different directions—acting vs. music. I’m curious about how your parents responded to all of this. Were they supportive?

GT: They were very supportive.  You know, they were Greek. My father was a furrier and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I think I was persuasive because my energy just convinced them that I’m not going to be a furrier. Plus, I was a vegetarian.  My father said, “You want to be in the fur business?” And I’d say, “Hey, I’m a vegetarian.  You think I’m going to be cutting up 40 minks to make a coat?  No way.”  They respected it, because even young people make their pitch.  They persuade, the way a composer persuades you through music.  Of course, if you have stubborn parents, that’s harder to do.  But I think my parents recognized that whatever I did, I could be good at it.

I remember my father coming to my first Juilliard concert.  “I’m going to Juilliard to hear my son’s piece.”  It was a string quartet, number zero, and it was like Webern [sings].  He only listened to Greek music and American pop music, and yet he was so proud that people stood and clapped.  Well, they didn’t stand, but they stood to leave after the concert.  By the way, that’s the piece where Persichetti came up to me and said, “I liked your piece; I like the way it ended.”  I knew he meant the fact that it ended. He was a wonderful man.  I loved his sense of humor.  Andrea Olmstead just came out with a book about Persichetti.

FJO:  I have to get that.  Anyway, you said your father came to hear this Webernian thing you wrote and he was proud of you, even though he only listened to pop music and Greek music.  Did he listen to Greek classical music—composers like Kalomiris, Riadis, or Skalkottas?

GT: No, they knew no classical. Skalkottas? He didn’t know Beethoven.  But my parents sang Greek songs.  Or they’d sing “You Are My Sunshine” and harmonize in the car.  They had good voices and they had a great musical sense.  But you know, he just was not educated in those things.  He went right from high school to World War II.  He fought in Italy and got shot up.  There was no time for classical.  But they had an appreciation.  They’d play Mantovani classics, you know.

FJO: Now in terms of having an acting career, you almost got cast in the original Jesus Christ Superstar.

GT: I don’t know how you found that out! I had generous hair. And a beard. I looked like Jesus. I was 20, I think, and the guys I was playing keyboards and violin with in a flaky summer gig rock band called The Mann Act got hired for the road tour of Jesus Christ Superstar so no more band. I asked the clarinetist Dave Hopkins, “So what am I gonna do?” He said, “Why don’t you try out for the open call for actors?” They were trying to cast it like Pasolini, who used people from the street in his movies. The auditions were in two days.

So Dave’s girlfriend and I went to the Mark Hellinger Theater and stood on a huge line. When I finally got in, after several hours, I stood in the wings as some nut-job before me dressed up with St Pepper’s Nehru Jacket placed two incense things on each side of him on the floor and lit them as the directors were waiting impatiently. He started to sing, “My Sweet Lord” and by the time he sang “Krishna,” they said, “Thank you, goodbye.” I went next. I didn’t know the show, but I had learned a short recitative-like song. The pianist had to find the music in a pile. Right after I sang—no mike—Michael Shurtleff, the casting director stopped the auditions and called me to the seats. He asked if I could learn “Gethsemane” and return in a few days. The director was then Frank Corsaro, an opera director who I hadn’t heard of. The audition process became protracted and Shurtleff told me he wanted me for Peter the Apostle which he called a major role but it wasn’t, really, just on stage a lot with Jesus and the other eleven. I ended up auditioning six or seven times, but was knocked out after the dance part of the audition. I didn’t dance well. But then I was reinstated by Shurtleff. Eventually they changed directors and I auditioned two times for Tom O’Horgan of Hair fame. The plan to have Pasolini-like people off the street faded and they ended up with pros. Thank God!  I would have been in theater, and I don’t think I would have liked it as much because you can’t get out to the woods.  You’ve got to get to rehearsals. I wouldn’t have found my true self.  It’s not that I couldn’t have been in something else besides music, but probably not something so extroverted.

FJO: It’s quite a switch to go from singing Andrew Lloyd Weber to studying with Roger Sessions.

GT: That’s true. But there was Queens College in between. I was at NYU in the School of the Arts for Drama. I didn’t last very long because I didn’t like acting classes.  But I went back to my roots playing the violin and studied with Felix Galimir while I was at NYU.  I ran out of money and I wanted to be independent, so I went to Queens College and studied with Hugo Weisgall, George Perle, and Leo Kraft.  It was a very good school, and it was basically free.  From there, I went to Sessions.

I was very lucky because I knew Felix Greissle, who was Schoenberg’s son-in-law and Sessions’s publisher.  I don’t think I would have gotten into Juilliard without Felix’s recommendation.  I was Felix Greissle’s gardener in Manhasset. I did his shrubs. I brought music with me because I knew who he was.  I’d be all dirty and I’d bring these sketches to Felix after I did his gardening, and he said, “This is good.  Someday I will send you to Roger to study.”  And his voice—if you know Schoenberg’s voice from the Kraft Columbia recordings, where Schoenberg says, “My painting is like my music and my music is like my painting.”  It was frightening. Greissle had the same voice as Schoenberg. I wasn’t ready for Juilliard or Roger Sessions, but thanks to Greissle, I got in there and I went right to Roger Sessions.

On top of one of George Tsontakis's grand pianos there's a sign that says "nothing on the piano, please"

FJO: But there’s a missing piece to this jigsaw puzzle.  You had this epiphany on headphones listening to Firebird and then listening to Beethoven’s Opus 135.  That’s before the Jesus Christ Superstar auditions.

GT: Yeah, it’s before.  I was 15. By Jesus Christ Superstar, I was like 20 years old.

FJO: So at the time you had the epiphany about wanting to be a composer, had you written any music at all?  That’s the missing piece.

GT: Right. I was playing in the school orchestra…

FJO: Playing violin?

GT: Playing violin.

FJO: Not viola yet?

“When you compose, you have to give up violin for viola.”

GT: Not viola.  No.  When you compose, you have to give up violin for viola.  That’s the rule, because you can’t practice as much!  But then in high school, I started composing.  I started composing the last years in high school—funny, odd little pieces.  That’s when I became interested.  It was right after that.  My high school teacher got mad at me because I stopped taking violin lessons.  He was discouraging about my music; he made fun of it, in a way.  It was very crude, but promising.  But I continued and then I played in bands and wrote original tunes.  We had a band doing Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago, so I wrote pieces for the band with brass.  I guess it was pop.  Then I started to compose more seriously and went to Queens, and—through Hugo Weisgall and Leo Kraft, and, as I mentioned, George Perle—I was on that track.

A pile of CDs and violin bows on a table in George Tsontakis's home.

FJO: Did you know who any of those people were before when you went to study with them?

GT: No. Well, I probably did when I investigated Queens and looked, but George Perle wasn’t George Perle, either.  In those days, he was really not known very much at all.  In fact, when I went to study with Donatoni, I mentioned that George Perle said hello.  And he said, “George Perle, is he a composer?”  He only knew George Perle as a theorist and someone that wrote about Berg.

FJO: Was Sessions a name that you knew of as a composer when you got this recommendation to study with him?

GT: Oh yes. I knew Sessions through Weisgall. So one step at a time, as soon I started seriously studying composition at Queens College. I also had Henry Weinberg, who was this Schoenberg freak. I learned a lot from him.  And I spun off my own theories about fourths and whole-tone scales that I spun off a system I call heaven, which happens to be a hexachord of six fourths in a row.  I think Henry Weinberg started that off in me.  We analyzed The Book of the Hanging Gardens using his ideas.  He was influential on me and Weinberg studied with Sessions.  Weisgall studied with Sessions.  Perle didn’t.  But there were two people of great influence that wanted me to go to study with Roger Sessions. Fate had it that I met Greissle and that flipped it over the top.  I don’t know what Carter thought of me at the Juilliard audition or Persichetti, but with Sessions something resonated.  And, by the way, I stayed with Sessions for five years.

FJO: Well, it’s interesting.  Perle and Weisgall both used 12-tone techniques in their music and so did Sessions. But Persichetti and Carter both did not.  So you were groomed and molded by people who were partial to the 12-tone method, but that’s not what you do.

GT: But I think the lines are in there.  They’re just not as angular.  I have passages of music that sound 12-tone. When I studied with Sessions and I mentioned “atonal,” he’d go, “Well, after all, if it’s atonal, it means it just doesn’t make any sense.”  Because he believed in tonality, no matter what.  And he used the 12-tone system very tangentially.  He did not really write pieces in 12-tone religiously or in a strict technique.  And he believed that it has to sound tonal.

FJO: As did Perle. His whole theory was based on the concept of a 12-tone tonality.

“‘If it’s atonal, it means it just doesn’t make any sense.’”

GT: Like Sessions.  So if I wrote something and it just didn’t make sense, that was atonal.  So I never wrote atonal music.  It’s just a matter of degrees between tonality and chromaticism; to write a really chromatic piece, you actually need more tonality. I can go from what is recognized as a very tonal space to a very—not dissonant, but—chromatic space seamlessly. It’s the stuff in between—the melting sort of thing in between—that is very interesting to me.  I think Berg was the closest, something like Wozzeck.

FJO: Or Lulu or the Violin Concerto even more so.

GT: The Violin Concerto. Right.  Is it tonal or not?  You can’t tell.  I know Schoenberg was not happy with Berg using triads in his music, but so what.

FJO: I actually hear echoes of Berg in your second violin concerto, the Grawemeyer piece.

GT: Oh, there’s a lot.  There’s Ligeti, too, I think. I consider Ligeti a very fine engineer.  I call a lot of the stuff that happens in Europe, which is textural, the school of engineering.  A lot of the composers are working with new textures, but they’re not composing.  They’re engineering stuff in a way that is wonderful, but to be more communicative, I think you have to take the engineering and—it’s like Pinocchio.  Geppetto built Pinocchio. That to me is what the many texturalists are doing.  But it takes a composer to breathe life into it.  How does Pinocchio become alive?

FJO: It’s interesting you say that because I find a lot of emotion in the later Ligeti, in particular the Violin Concerto, the Piano Concerto, and the Piano Etudes.

GT: Well, there’s tension and release.

FJO: And the Horn Trio is fascinating.

GT: Well, there’s drama. But I think there’s a difference between drama and empathy. I remember when Jacob Druckman was coming out to Aspen, he created a new emotion. I called it a new emotion. It was fascinating.  The word fascinating is an emotion now. And I do find Ligeti fascinating.  But I’m not sure how—well, there’s a lot of Bach that’s not emotional either, yet it moves us in a way.  It’s not overtly emotional. Because you are a contemporary music listener, you are so into the nuance of everything that things relative to what you listen to are emotional. But for the average listener, for the people? I mean, who are we going to reach?  Are we aiming to be popular, eventually populist, or are we going to think that Xenakis’s music in two hundred years is going to be Beethoven? No.

FJO: Well, I’m not so sure populism is a good thing, especially these days.  And at the end of the day, it’s all subjective anyway.

GT: I’m not saying you need a large listenership.  There’ll be esoteric little portals, especially with the internet everywhere now.  But how many are listening?  We talked about birds before.  An ornithologist will pee in their pants to see a certain type of warbler, but most people aren’t interested in that.  This is a philosophy.  We could debate it. You can write music for five people to get so excited about. It’s not for everybody, but to those five people, it’s the perfect thing.

The view from the interior of George Tsontakis's home

FJO: So do you think then that there are specific musical gestures that—in and of themselves—could reach more people than other musical gestures can?

GT: I think Rochberg mentioned that in his program notes for my quartets.  He says DNA cells from the past give messages. In late Beethoven, there are little tonal cells that actually have content in them that evokes our emotions.

FJO: Alright, I’m going to play devil’s advocate now.  At this point in time, for the majority of people in the world, Beethoven is completely esoteric.  In relative terms, only a handful of people listen to and understand his music.

GT: That’s right.

FJO: So if you really want to reach a broad audience, you should be writing stuff that sounds like Elton John.

GT: Well, we have to differentiate between abstract music and song.  We don’t teach young people to listen to abstract music—that is, music without words.  If we’re going to have an enemy, why people don’t get into classical music, they’re brought up listening to just song.  Song is fantastic.  We all love song.  Song form is the most popular thing.  It’s the greatest thing we have, in a way.  How long is song form?  What are we competing against when we do a 15-minute Mahler movement?  We’re competing with a song.  How long is a song?  Three minutes, right?  No, a song is about 50 seconds long, repeated twice.  People’s attention spans are very small, plus they have to have words.  It’s very hard to make your point in 50 seconds, so it’s hard to write a good song.  On the other hand, if we taught young people the abstraction of listening to music—jazz, classical, Kenny G., Yanni (oh, God forbid!)—any music without words, they will develop a cognitive ability to listen to abstractions, and they would start.  Those who want to listen to Beethoven will listen to Beethoven.  But just like teaching children to read, some of them are going to read trash, some of them are going read articles, some are only going to read their textbooks, and some will read Beowulf or Socrates.  But we don’t even teach them the equivalent of reading.  You can’t break out of a song.

FJO: But two of those names you mentioned, Kenny G. and Yanni, have both been hugely popular doing instrumental music with no words.

GT: Right. And does anyone go from that to Beethoven?

FJO: Yeah, or another example I was thinking of when you were saying all of this is John Williams. He predominantly writes film scores, but it is abstract, instrumental music with no words. To a great many people, his music is more immediately identifiable and resonant than a late Beethoven string quartet ever would be.

GT: Well, let me tell you a story. I mentioned how I got into classical music, but the other thing that really hit me before that was that I was in plays in high school. I played Tommy Albright in Brigadoon, which my mother always thought was my greatest achievement. You know, “Georgie had a piece commissioned by the Boston Symphony and had the Emerson Quartet play his music, but you should have seen him as Tommy Albright in Brigadoon in high school.”  I didn’t know any classical music, but I loved musicals.  Richard Rodgers is a genius. And I grew up with Oliver and My Fair Lady.

Now what happened was eventually I started liking the overtures more than the other music. You hear Oklahoma, and that overture is fantastic music. I started saying that I really like the music without these dumb words sometimes, or whatever the words were. Now, we have to teach people to do that somehow. I don’t know if Yanni and Kenny G are going to convince them, because that’s a little bit simplistic. But Peter and the Wolf, they don’t speak while there’s music, the speaking is in between the music, so it’s a great way to do it. But you’re right. People listen to Philip Glass who never heard Mozart. That makes me question if that audience will go on to Mozart after that. I think in this day and age we’re just skipping classical music.  People go from Philip Glass to world music or other sophisticated music.

FJO: Well, why do they have to go to music of the past?  Wouldn’t it be great if they could go to other living composers?

GT: I don’t think they need the music of the past, except there are many good examples to teach people how to listen music without words from the past.  Something like Pictures at an Exhibition, which was in Fantasia. I have friends from high school that got interested in classical music because of The Rite of Spring in Fantasia.  You know, they saw the images.  Nobody was speaking.  No one was singing.  But it’s not going to happen with just a couple.  You have to teach people.  In class, even young students concentrate.  And when they have that concentration in the class, even if they hate the music they’re listening to, something happens subliminally.  I remember I was fourth grade, and they played Mozart’s 40th symphony.  I couldn’t stand it.  It was so boring.  I said, “Stop, I’ll confess!” you know? But if you choose the music well, even if they don’t like what they’re listening to, young people will learn that the cognitive idea of form is repetition.  You hear something, then you hear it again in a varied form. Variation and repetition is our business. We’re not dependent on the words to tell the story.  Maybe instead of 4%—in America maybe 4% listen to classical music—it would be 9%.  That’s a lot of people.  Leon Botstein at Bard says that classical music was always an elitist thing.  In Vienna, you couldn’t get into the theater if you didn’t have the clothes to go to that elite theater.  You’d probably hear Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony once in your lifetime, and you had to take a six-hour carriage ride to hear it once.  So it was always a very small number of people. It was never a populist form.

FJO: So then how is that different than the Helmut Lachenmann acolytes of this world who are writing music for a small coterie?

GT: Yeah, but if in America let’s say 4% listen to classical music at all, only 2% of those listen to contemporary classical music. But there is a problem with the museum people, who are the older people that go to concerts. I’ll have a piece played by a symphony orchestra. I go to a lot of these concerts. Even at my age, I’m the youngest person there—it’s really crazy. And those people are there for the museum music.  They’re not there to hear my piece. They’re tolerating my piece. The conductor, the musicians want to do a contemporary piece.  They like my music, but the audience tolerates it.

“If in America let’s say 4% listen to classical music at all, only 2% of those listen to contemporary classical music.”

That brings us to the various audiences that a composer can aim to write for. One is that classical audience.  One is the Emerson Quartet audience, where they have one contemporary piece, and they have Mozart, and then Death and the Maiden by Schubert on a program. Or there’s the contemporary music concerts, or festivals in Europe.  I do admonish young composers that as they’re doing what they really want to do, they might have in mind where their music’s going to go, because unfortunately there’s nothing in the middle.  It’s either you write for the contemporary music concert audience, which is that small, esoteric audience, or you write for the general population and they probably won’t like it. I’m sort of in between those. I have a few pieces that can be played on a contemporary music concert in London, but not at IRCAM. Meanwhile, the music’s played for the traditional audience. Neither one likes what I do. By the way, they said Roger Sessions was too modern for the public audience and not modern enough for the contemporary music field.  There are many composers that are between those poles.

The viola part for a standard repertoire string quartet sits on a music stand near a grand piano in George Tsontakis's living room

FJO: But then I think there’s a third path, which is different from either trying to fit in with standard repertoire or being embraced by the more established contemporary music networks. You mentioned Philip Glass in passing.  People like him, Steve Reich, or Meredith Monk, ensembles like the Kronos Quartet and entities like Bang on a Can have all found a way to galvanize a completely different audience which is none of those audiences.

GT: And that’s fantastic. But a lot of those people are the ones that have never heard Mozart, too.

FJO: Exactly.

GT: And that’s fine. We need all the forces we can get. But what is the music? As long as that music has the sophistication of the great composers—I’m going to be in danger saying the great composers—but the sophistication of, say, a Messiaen, if they have that integrity, then they’re following a classical line.  I think all you mentioned have a combination of music that does do that and music that has more of a pop end of it, too, an appeal, but the materials may not be as—I don’t know a better word than—sophisticated.  And that doesn’t mean elite.  World music, Greek music, I mean that is sophisticated within its own realm, but again, it’s song form and it’s limited. Jazz is very sophisticated music, but it’s not accessible. Jazz is accessible only to those people that come to it.  But it’s all a question of whether there is a main classical line.  I think only the future will decide that.

FJO: I think it goes back to what you were saying earlier about how people continue to promulgate this idea that there’s this straight line from 1800 to 1900 to 2000, but in the year 2018 it’s very clear that there isn’t a linear progression.

GT: Well, it depends. We have to decide what our genres are. With the contemporary music thing, any combination will work. You can have a xylophone and three piccolos. Whereas, if you’re talking about the classical line, about orchestral music, what do we do with that music? Andriessen said he would never write for orchestra, but he did eventually.  So what do we do with the orchestra?  Why isn’t the orchestra expanded?  Why hasn’t it added saxophones or Chinese instruments for texture? It’s so museum-ish, that the orchestra is becoming a museum in itself. So it depends what we’re talking about. What are the lines we bring forward? Electronic music has dispelled a lot of that. But even if we stay on acoustic music, there are so many divisions.

FJO: To bring this all back to your music, you’re obviously attracted to the orchestra. And you’re attracted to the string quartet. You’ve written eight of them.

GT: Well that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because I write a quartet and another quartet likes it. The Network for New Music commissioned a piece about ten years ago, and I said, “What’s the combination?”  “Whatever you like.” And I go, “Holy cow, I get to think on my own.” So I chose soprano sax, harp, piano, horn, whatever, this ideal thing. But when I sat down to write the piece, which became Gymnopedies, I said, “I hate this combination; what am I going to do with this?” It turned out that I liked the combination. But I write quartets because the next person commissions a quartet. I write orchestral music because it appeals to a conductor.

FJO: But if you write a piece for a crazy combination, no matter how good it sounds, how many performances is it going to get after the premiere? Who has the resources to put such an ensemble together?

GT: Well, my combination was more accessible than many combinations that people write for, weird things like accordions and kazoos. A lot of young composers are writing impractical works that way.  But Gymnopedies has been played quite a bit. And I conduct it, too. If you think of the Pierrot plus percussion ensemble, it’s only a few more instruments, and instead of a clarinet, you have a soprano saxophone and a harp.

FJO: Well, the Pierrot ensemble with or without percussion is an interesting phenomenon. The closest thing to it I can think of in earlier repertoire are some J.C. Bach quintets for flute, oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord. It’s something that really did not become established as a common instrumental combination until the 20th century.

GT: To a detriment, almost. But not only is the Pierrot ensemble reminiscent of a successful combination by Schoenberg, it’s also a low-budget orchestra in a way. It just doesn’t have the brass instruments. I have a piece that I wrote for Da Capo [Chamber Players] called Gravity. It’s with just the five, without the percussion.

FJO: It’s much more typical though, for you to write for the same combinations that composers in the 19th century wrote for. An instrumental combination that you’ve returned to several times, that was very popular back then, is the piano quartet.

GT: I’m writing a fourth one. It’s on the music stand over there.

A page of music manuscript paper with hand written notation on it sits on top of a table with a Tanglewood program and a pair of binoculars.

FJO: Wow! This is very interesting to me, because despite how prominent this combination once was, there haven’t been a ton of them in recent times. There’s this great Stephen Hartke piece, Kingdom of the Sun

GT: —Wonderful piece.

FJO: There also aren’t a lot of ensembles that are commissioning new pieces. One I can think of is the Ames Piano Quartet in Iowa.

GT: That’s who I’m writing for.

FJO: Hah!

GT: But Ida Kavafian’s group, OPUS ONE, commissioned No. 3. No. 2 was for the Broyhill Chamber Players. Brian Zeger commissioned it for the Cape and Islands Festival. No. 1 was commissioned by Larry Dutton and his wife, who have a piano quartet.

FJO: So there are a handful of groups. But it’s another one of those things. You were talking about people who listen to certain contemporary music who don’t know Mozart and don’t listen to his music. If you described one of your pieces to these folks as a piano quartet, they’d assume it was for four pianos.

GT: Right.

FJO: It’s a wonderful combination, but it is not something that’s really part of contemporary music parlance very much these days. Still, it’s an area you have repeatedly mined. Which is why it was very interesting to hear you say earlier that the orchestra has not expanded to include saxophones or Chinese instruments. You don’t really throw things like Chinese instruments or, say, electric guitars into your pieces. You’ve made a very conscious effort to write for standard ensembles.

“I have not written a piece since 1983 that wasn’t commissioned.”

GT: I have not written a piece since 1983 that wasn’t commissioned. I’m very lucky—knock on something here.  Or maybe stop commissioning [me]. I’ve said it’s enough already. But no, I just do on-demand. If nobody asked me to write a piece, I wouldn’t compose. I’d be doing other things. I’m very happy to not compose.  It’s been a great, great thing. Same thing with teaching. But one of the secrets to life is that I only write what people ask for. So what am I going to do? Network for New Music was the only one that said I could have my choice out of probably 80 pieces I’ve written. The others say, we’ve got a quartet; we want you to write this.  So what am I writing now? I’ll tell you: the Piano Quartet No. 4 for the Ames Piano Quartet. They recorded my third and they did a beautiful job. For the Dallas Symphony, I wrote a piano concerto for Stephen Hough. They’re commissioning a piece from me for their co-concertmaster Gary Levinson. It wasn’t my choice, but I love orchestra.

And I have the Albany Symphony; they’re commissioning a requiem. I’m very excited. It was going to be an orchestra piece; they got money from the New York State Council on the Arts. But my mom passed away in January, so I asked David [Alan Miller], “Can it please be a requiem? I’ll do it for the same money as common orchestra.”  So that’s very exciting to me. Then a consortium commissioned Portraits by El Greco 2—Book 2. It’s a piece that I mentioned with slide projections of El Greco.  It’s very personal to me because El Greco was from Crete, as I am from Crete, in Greece. But I didn’t ask; people ask me for pieces. In fact, for the El Greco piece, they asked for the same piece. Steve Copes, concertmaster of St. Paul, played [the first one] at the Colorado Music Festival and, I don’t know, maybe I said I’d be interested to do another one, so he asked me, “Can you do an El Greco sequel?”

FJO: Well, this is the thing. You say you only compose on commission, but there are ways to maneuver that so that you write the pieces you want.

GT: But not if they’re piano quartets.

FJO: Sure, but I’m thinking of one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours. It was a piece that was created piecemeal, through various commissions for short pieces from four different orchestras. Yet you had this larger thing in your mind—the Four Symphonic Quartets, which is the symphony that you didn’t name a symphony.

GT: That came about because I loved Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.  I learned a lot from that. It took T.S. Eliot years to write that because he wasn’t old enough.  When you hit 50, you can understand Four Quartets, because it’s a bit about dying and growing. You have to get to be a certain age. A 25-year-old can say, “Well, it’s cool,” but they don’t know what T.S. Eliot was talking about.  So I got to that certain age where I started descending, when life starts biologically descending, even though you’re still excited about it.

FJO: But were still in your 40s when you wrote those.

GT: I wasn’t 50 yet. Okay, you’re right, I forgot. But I felt like I was descending anyway, and I started to understand T.S. Eliot. Roger Sessions wanted to write When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d when he was in his 20s, and he said he couldn’t. It wasn’t until the death of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. that his maturity enabled him to do that. He told a story about that. He said, he was like 60-years old and finally he could tell the story of Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. It’s a great example because he was in his 20s understanding how great it was, but not being able to explain it.

And that’s what happened when the first commission came along from Ransom Wilson for the Tuscaloosa Symphony. I said I wanted to do something influenced by T.S. Eliot, so I named it Perpetual Angelus. Then the next commission came along, and I said, “Can I make it another one of the four quartets?”  But you’re right, it was piecemeal. In the back of my mind I wanted to put those four pieces together, but who would commission an hour-long piece?

FJO: It’s similar to the way David Del Tredici commissioned the various sections of the piece that is now An Alice Symphony. Then, after that, he composed so many other Alice-themed pieces.

GT:  Who knows whether David at the beginning said, “I’m going to engineer this whole series of Alice pieces,” or if he started with one and said, “I think I’ll do more of that.” Maybe my Portraits by El Greco will be book eight or nine. I’m going to run out of paintings I like by El Greco, but the impulse will be there. That’s interesting.

FJO: Alright, even though you claim you don’t need or want another commission, what pieces would you want to write if anyone could commission you in the world?

GT: Well, let’s say I quit composing, which I talk about to my friends. Then I’d get a lucrative commission. “It’s terrible,” I say. Then all my friends say, “Well, give it to me, I’ll write it.”  But if I had the choice, I’d want to do acting or something else. I would still want to write the occasional piano piece.  I’d like to write for a capella choir, canzones like Gabrieli or Monteverdi, and maybe some songs. I would do that on the side. I’m also a little bit upset after Ghost Variations. I think Sarabesque, which I wrote for Sarah Rothenberg might have been written after that, but no one’s asked me to write another piano piece.  I’m pretty pissed off about that.

FJO: But you’ve done some little ones.

GT: Well, the Bagatelle was my first attempt to write a piano piece for Yefim Bronfman since Ghost Variations, which was for Bronfman, was due.  So I wrote Ghost Variations and then the dedication piece for Sarah Rothenberg. But no one’s asked me and yet Ghost Variations is played all the time. And I’m going, “How come nobody wants any more piano music, including Stephen Hough?” Now Stephen Hough is composing his own music, he doesn’t want to learn any more new music!

FJO: Well, he learned your concerto.

GT: The Man of Sorrows and it was recorded with the Dallas Symphony on Hyperion.

FJO: That’s one I haven’t heard yet.

GT: Well, you should hear it. It’s 39-minutes long and no one wants to do it again.

FJO: But you mentioned another piece of yours happening in Dallas.

GT: A violin concerto for Gary Levinson. Yeah, that’s on the books, as soon as they get a new director.

FJO: It’s interesting that you keep using the word concerto because except for the violin concertos, you avoid that word in the titles of your pieces. All the other pieces for soloist and orchestra have other names, like the piece I was calling your trumpet concerto, which has a lot of jazz inflections.

GT: True Colors. You’re right. And Unforgettable is a two-violin concerto.

FJO: That’s the George Soros piece. How did you get commissioned by George Soros?

“You’re writing for people like you and you’re trying to convince everybody else to become like you, which makes composing an amazing persuasive art.”

GT: Through Jennifer Chun and Angela Chun. They’re a wonderful violin team. Jennifer was dating George Soros for seven years. Jennifer was looking around for somebody [to write them a piece] through some sources, including Leon Botstein who’s a friend of George Soros. I think he recommended me. It was very similar to how they came upon me for an English horn concerto at the Boston Symphony where Rob Sheena was promised a concerto from James Levine and he went on a search for composers. Rob had looked for years for someone to write the concerto and it was like Goldilocks—this one’s not quite right and that one’s not quite right. I think David [Alan] Miller was a schoolmate of his and David recommended me and it resonated with Rob.  It’s just a matter of taste.  I’m not saying they chose me above these other composers. When it comes down to it, I don’t write for everybody. But I don’t write just for myself.  As John Gardner wrote in Moral Fiction, I write for people like me. People who are like you are going to like your music better. Composition is also persuasion, so you’re writing for people like you and you’re trying to convince everybody else to become like you, which makes composing an amazing persuasive art.

FJO: And that’s where you can throw in the esoteric things that you like and make them un-esoteric.

GT: You can also introduce them to ideas and say I didn’t make it in that piece. I didn’t get that across. I’m going to try it again in the next piece. This is another problem we have—are you a first-listening composer? When I talk to young composers, I ask, “Are you going to write a first-listening piece, or are you going to write a piece that you need repetition to get?” You’re not going to read Eliot’s Four Quartets the first time and go, “Wow, it was really good.” No, you have to keep reading it over and over again. People don’t stand before a Cezanne and clap after seeing it for a few minutes.  You have to come back.

That doesn’t mean you can’t write a good first-listening piece. But a lot of young composers are persuaded to write that piece because probably that audience will never hear it again.  Or no one will hear it again. You have to keep in mind that there is a world where you need to listen.  Maybe I don’t listen enough times to really get Lachenmann. Or Ligeti. Maybe there is an emotion there if I gave it more of a chance. There is something to be said for that. And by the way, composers talk about awards, and of course I have a couple big, good money awards. I do believe that that’s also an aspect. I wouldn’t live for awards; the award is a by-product. But the interesting thing about awards though is that they [the judges] have to listen more than once.  They listen many times. We talked about Tim Page. Tim told me for the Pulitzer they listen over and over again.  What happens is that during that first round, the first-listening composer might be the one that everyone on the panel likes.  Then they do the second round of listening, and that first-listening piece isn’t as interesting anymore.  It moves back to number five.  Maybe a piece like mine that just made the cut can move up.  Those multiple-listening composers wear better for people listening over and over.  Meanwhile, the easy listening ones are going backwards.

I know with the Grawemeyer, they listen to pieces a hundred times. The lay panel at the end that decides the final, they listen to it so many times that they must go crazy: “I thought I liked that piece, but I listened to it five times.” So if we had any parallel to that where we could get people to listen over and over—we do; it’s called recordings.

George Tsontakis's backhoe

FJO: It’s interesting that you bring up the Pulitzer, because I read somewhere that you refused to have your music submitted to the Pulitzer.

GT: I will not sign for it. You have to sign, and I won’t do it. It’s just a personal thing.  There’s some great people who have. To me, it’s too facile. When I had to call Aaron Kernis a few days afterwards for something else, and I congratulated him, I said, “You know, Aaron, this is going to facilitate introductions at parties; you have this label.” And he laughed. I don’t like that label. I think it’s overdone. I think there’s nothing wrong with it, but I would not like to have a label that stuck on me that’s more important than being a composer. If I were a journalist, I would probably want it. But as a composer, I don’t want that label, because I wouldn’t believe in it as much as the people that would hoo and haw about it.  It’s a little bit like my mother saying Georgie was fantastic in Brigadoon in high school. And I’d go, “Mom, I’m beyond that.”  So it’s a personal thing. I wouldn’t stop someone. I don’t think the young composers care that much about things like that, but back in the day, when it was very important, everybody was thinking maybe I’ll be so good I’ll get a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t have to worry about that.

“Back in the day, when it was very important, everybody was thinking maybe I’ll be so good I’ll get a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t have to worry about that.”

I came in from my lesson after it was announced that Roger Sessions, who was 80 years old, got the prize.  And I said, “Mr. Sessions, congratulations on the Pulitzer Prize.” And he said, “Oh thank you, George.” I said, “You must be excited.” And he said, “Well, they called me at home, and when I got off the phone, my wife says, ‘Who was it?’ ‘Apparently, my Concerto for Orchestra won the Pulitzer Prize.’ And she said, ‘How much is it?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s a thousand dollars.’ And she said, ‘Oh, goodie. Now we can have an extra egg for breakfast every morning.’” They were not impressed.

The other thing is that this Astoria thing comes back. I do consider myself a Greek composer, too. They do a lot of my music in Greece. I’m going to start a multi-year residency with the Athens Megaron in January. The Megaron is like the Lincoln Center of Greece—beautiful buildings and auditoriums. I’m an American composer, for sure, and I love being an American, but I feel international at the same time. I think the Pulitzer defines somebody as more American than I want to be, except in spirit.

A bunch of post-it notes on George Tsontakis's door with reminders of things he needs to do.

FJO: But of course, now the Pulitzer’s completely opened up. It’s not only—

GT: —Classical. In fact, yeah, who won it, what kind of musician?

FJO: This year it was awarded to Kendrick Lamar, who is a rapper.

GT: Right, that’s amazing. I guess it’s fine, but it’s like the MacArthur. Remember when they gave out MacArthurs to Ralph Shapey and George Perle and John Harbison. Now they’re giving it to young people.  They can use the money.  And giving it to George Perle when he was 75 is not going to help his career. But I think that’s the way of the world now, maybe to a fault in a way.

This is the question: is the quality still there? I’m not questioning it, but I am questioning it! What is the meaning of this?  We talked about the artist colonies. It’s not only classical composers, it’s somebody in rock or jazz. Well, jazz has always been accepted and I love it; jazz is a powerful idiom.  But everything is becoming “whoever has talent should be supported” basically. The MacArthur has really been looking for more esoteric people that do something that someone else doesn’t do. And looking for a contradictory profile or something like that, not just somebody who’s great at whatever.

The field is opening up and that only makes more competition. It’ll be a big melting pot of what happens. But I go back to the point, as long as the sophistication is there, it’s okay with me. The skills and craft that a composer or an artist has are serious stuff. It doesn’t have to be serious, but it’s a serious commodity that I think we have to keep up with.  Again, one could argue that writing a good jingle is a hard thing to do. Geniuses have to write jingles. When I have composition class, the first piece I teach is “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks.  It’s only two notes and there’s diminution like Beethoven when they go [sings]: “You really got me. You really got me. You really got me.”

It’s an amazing piece of music. And how many could write a piece of music that economical? But is it Debussy?  Well, there’s a DNA like Debussy, but other characteristics are not expanded in a sophisticated way.

The spark of creativity has unlimited value. So is that as sophisticated as anything?  Yeah, in its own, minute way. But with classical music, it’s the expansion of that idea—that seed, that spark of creativity, that genius—through time. That’s one of the things that makes classical music, even contemporary classical music, different than other music. Usually the lack of words and the expansive movement of it; it’s not a small form.

FJO: This could be a much larger discussion, which I’d love to have. But I think, unfortunately, that we’re running out of time here. So a final area, for now at least. You’ve been offering advice to younger composers throughout this conversation. In the 20th century when you came to be you, you did all of these things the way one should in the 20th century. You studied with some very prominent teachers. You were signed by a major publisher, there were all these recordings of your music out there, and you won some huge awards. But in the 21st century, things are very different.

GT: Extremely.

FJO: People get attention for their music in very different ways now. But you don’t have a personal website.  You don’t use social media.  You don’t do any of the things that composers do to put themselves in people’s faces. And you live here, so you can’t run into somebody outside of Zabar’s and get a commission!

“If there was a site, LeaveMeAlone.com, I’d join that immediately.”

GT: It shows what you can do if you just write the music. I think that’s the answer. Of course, I had the benefit of becoming known before you needed a website. So maybe I’m going on fumes here. Maybe I was lucky to get elevated and have not many people know what I do, but enough that I get to write the next piece.  As I always say, I’m only interested in who’s going to ask for the next piece, and maybe who’s going to record it.  Those are the only two things I need.  Multiple performances, you get that through websites or whatever. I don’t care. I’m not a promoter. I’m not even a person that wants pieces to be played all the time. I just want to know what the next piece I’m going to write is. If it has to be piano quartet number five, it might have to be.  Whatever. That’s why I can live here. If you live minimally, and you just do the thing you’re supposed to do, you don’t need all the other stuff. But yeah, I tell my students, “I don’t do Your Face, My Ass. I don’t do any of that stuff! If there was a site, LeaveMeAlone.com, I’d join that immediately.” But I’m lucky to be able to do that.

At a lesson once, I said, “Mr. Sessions, I think I should do go back and do species counterpoint.” He said, “Well, you can George. After all, counterpoint is confidence.” That’s all it was to him. You’re not going to write like that, but it’s confidence in your composing.  And faith is a very important thing if you want to go it alone and be independent.

The road leading to George Tsontakis's home.

One quick metaphor. The other day I was in my old Honda Accord. It’s got a big hatchback window, and this huge bee was trying to get through the glass. I opened all the doors. I took paper, I tried to shoo him away, but he kept going right back to that glass. It was a great metaphor, but this glass ceiling was not necessary if the damn bee would just go out the door. I tell young composers, “Open up your horizons and go through the doors!” So maybe that bee is like trying to appeal to the contemporary music crowd, this limited milieu; whereas, there are so many performers and so many orchestras that would be happy to do their stuff. You’ve got to broaden your horizons.  Or you’ve got to hope that glass disappears and suddenly you’re free. I think my life has been a combination of those two things. I haven’t depended on the unusual channels for where my music is going to go.  So that’s going out the doors of the car.  And yet I still have faith that that glass thing will open up.  And sometimes it does.  I think it’s a matter of knowing what you’re supposed to do in life and having faith that eventually you get a break and that glass will open up occasionally.

It’s a hard path to go on. But it’s worked somehow. So many events in my life were serendipity. Like meeting Felix Greissle, who led me to Sessions because I was a gardener.  Also for young composers, you should accept any work you get. I know some composers, “I’m not going to go for that commission; I’m not going to get paid for that.” Take it. Keep in motion. And that leads to other things. No job is too small.

What’s In a Name? The Orchestra and Its Community

Names influence our lives in a powerful way. Our first names give us our first inklings of individuality. Our last names can connect us to family members across generations. The names of our countries, states, and cities are the foundation of our sense of place and belonging. We are urged to live with purpose and dignity to bring honor to the names of our families and hometowns. Ultimately, a name is a legacy: a vehicle through which we relate to the world and the world relates to us. It is the label on our life’s work and the signature on our past behavior.

To do something in the name of another, then, is an immense responsibility, which poses a challenge for locally based organizations. The name of an individual reflects on one person, but the name of a city or state can encompass millions of people. Thus, from the inception of their titles, groups from the New York Philharmonic to the San Francisco Symphony hold an obligation to represent and to serve their namesake communities.

While the titles of most modern American ensembles accurately designate what they are, they do not convey who they are. It doesn’t take a seasoned musicologist to see the disparity between the communities inside and outside of the concert hall. Older white people dominate the demographics of the average American symphony orchestra, both on and off the stage. Despite the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the United States, only about ten percent of orchestral players are people of color. This demographic manifests in the music itself, too: the works of dead white men top the bills of major orchestras, which still rarely venture outside the Western classical canon. Symphony staffs across the country are working towards increased diversity and inclusion, but the integration of these principles is a slow and sensitive process. In this absence of adequate representation, ensembles must double their efforts to honor their namesakes through service.

I do not point out this obligation because of a lack of effort on the part of American orchestras. Most larger ensembles have staff dedicated to education and/or community engagement who plan outreach events such as benefit concerts and free performances in hospitals or schools. The struggle to serve lies in the divide between the orchestra and its community. Despite widespread budgeting woes, the orchestra remains a cultural symbol of wealth, which stands in stark contrast with the sleeping bags and shopping carts on the sidewalks outside many metropolitan concert halls. This socioeconomic gap is compounded by the homogeneous demographic of the orchestra, which can create tension between the ensemble and the community at large. With the right mindset, however, one can set a foundation for a healthy relationship between a city and its orchestra.

The key: don’t help. Instead, serve.

Maintaining a mindset of servitude will help musical organizations in their endeavor to improve their communities, their relationships with said communities, and the ensembles themselves.

I first encountered the difference between help and service at a community-based learning conference in Holyoke, Massachusetts. As a panelist described the dangers of programs like Teach for America, which put underprepared white teachers into “at-risk communities,” he described their exhibition of the white savior complex—“the perception that wealthy white individuals are the benevolent benefactors of helpless ‘others’.” This definition can apply to well-intentioned orchestral representatives who enter low-income communities of color with the intention of “helping.” They provide resources such as free concerts and musical instruction to underserved populations, but rarely cultivate or maintain genuine relationships with these audiences after their generous work has been publicized to patrons and donors. Instead of being empowered, the population in need often feels belittled for needing to be “helped” at all, ultimately encouraging the systematic power dynamics of race and class which separated the concert hall so prominently from its surroundings in the first place. Service, on the other hand, implies a mutually beneficial relationship founded on equality, collaboration, and respect. Community partnerships are just that: a healthy give-and-take between one party and another. Maintaining a mindset of servitude will help musical organizations in their endeavor to improve their communities, their relationships with said communities, and the ensembles themselves.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is a fantastic example of a group which thrives in service. After a difficult season of musician strikes in 2010-2011, the DSO was forced to reassess its priorities and restructure its organization. Dangerously low on resources, musicians, and patrons, the orchestra turned to its community for survival. Accessibility and community engagement became the defining tenets of the DSO. The orchestra refocused its efforts on community performances in hospitals, churches, and senior centers in metro Detroit.

Increased visibility of the orchestra among new, diverse audiences in conjunction with “patron-minded pricing” caused subscription growth to increase by nearly 25% in three years. The DSO has since integrated free webcasting and extensive educational programming to truly become the “most accessible orchestra on the planet.” Their success is a direct result of healthy collaboration. The ensemble did not enter its community in a self-congratulatory or belittling manner: instead, the DSO simply reached out in its time of need, starting a legacy of mutually beneficial community partnerships. Most importantly, the organization brands itself as “a community-supported orchestra,” not merely an orchestra that supports its community. The DSO is living proof that community engagement is integral, not additive, to a successful ensemble.

Between relentless budget cuts and the increasing struggle to make classical music relevant in a fast-paced world, American orchestras are seeing a steady decline in concert attendance. Ensembles are often far too preoccupied with survival to focus on any sort of community service. However, I’d like to suggest that service is a fantastic avenue to improving the financial and organizational health of symphonic ensembles. The consistent formation and retention of mutually beneficial relationships with community organizations will inevitably improve audience attendance and diversity. Furthermore, interactions with peer organizations and community members offer multiple unique perspectives, which can be invaluable in making programming decisions. Community service isn’t just an obligation: it is a promising avenue for the visibility and vitality of the American orchestra.

Adams’s Become Ocean Inspires Taylor Swift to Make $50K Gift

become ocean

The New York Times reports that Taylor Swift has made a $50,000 donation to the Seattle Symphony, inspired by their Grammy-winning recording of John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean.

“Ms. Swift, one of today’s most popular and powerful pop stars, praised the recording of Mr. Adams’s large-scale, hypnotic, environmentally aware “Become Ocean” in a letter she wrote to the orchestra’s music director, Ludovic Morlot.

‘I was thrilled to hear that Taylor was moved by ‘Become Ocean,’ like all of us at the Seattle Symphony,” Mr. Morlot said in a statement. “This is a powerful piece with a unique soundscape. We’re especially thankful that she wishes to support our musicians, and that she shares our belief that all people should be able to experience symphonic music.'”

Her gift will support education programs and the musicians’ pension fund.

Swift previously gave $100,000 to the Nashville Symphony.