Tag: performers

Cindy Lam: Voicing Trauma and Connecting with Your Inner Child

Cindy Lam

Pianist and Music Educator Cindy Lam shares her experience of PTSD, initially triggered by surviving a car accident at 18, which temporarily threatened her musical capabilities, and heightened in 2020 by the loss of her father to a rare genetic Prion disease. Cindy discusses her ongoing healing process, the importance of sharing one’s story, finding joy through teaching and musical expression, and feeling strong enough to momentarily step away from music to focus on her health. She emphasizes the need to connect with our inner child, both to inspire creativity and to ultimately heal trauma. Lastly, Cindy shares her view on the stigma surrounding mental health challenges within Asian and Asian-American circles, and reflects on the escalating hate crimes against the AAPI communities and their possible impact on mental health.

Structure and Freedom in Collaboration (A.k.a. The Incomplete Non-Idiot’s Guide to Workshopping with Musicians)

A shadow image of two performers, one cellist and one pianist

Early on in my career, I made the mistake of writing a lot of very melodic music for performers who were more predisposed to Berio than to Berlioz. Despite everyone’s optimism and best efforts, these projects were usually stressful and rarely among my most successful.

I used to think, perhaps narcissistically, that it was exclusively the job of the players I was working with to make my music sound good—that I should write whatever my little composer heart saw fit and then leave it to them to figure it out. We are, after all, taught in class that Bach is God and that musicians are the vessels through which the deity speaks. These early projects, however, taught me that in the real world the reverse is often true, and that it’s a huge part of YOUR job, if not literally the entire job, to write something that will make the players you are working with sound great. Ideally if you are successful in doing that, you will make yourself sound far better in the process as well.

There’s a lot that can go right and wrong when collaborating with musicians in pursuit of the above. However, I’ve found for myself that there are a lot of consistent questions to ask and methods to employ along that winding road to hopefully making “Good Art” that can increase one’s chances of staying the course. Ultimately a lot is common sense and falls under a consistent umbrella: you will never be wasting time by really getting to know your players, writing for them specifically, considering the specific parameters of the project, being sure of what you want to do while remaining open to input and creative detours, and experimenting with techniques to make all that happen.

For me the solution to the above, besides planning well early on, has been to workshop music I’m working on extensively with musicians while learning to be a good collaborator—a lifelong undertaking in itself.


Before getting there, however, there are a lot of obvious questions to be asked about who I’m writing for, what their aesthetic comfort zone is and how it relates to my own, what the circumstances of the performance/session are, how many rehearsals you get, whether it’s a pick up group or not, as well as the most interesting one: is this a player(s) who wants to be challenged or not? Some musicians will get bored if you’re not writing something that stretches them. Others may feel best about music that’s easy to keep alive in their fingertips. No one wants to put the time in to play something well that they don’t feel “fits them.” For me the most exciting things always happen when you’re working with players you can push a little beyond their comfort zones and who can push you past yours.

Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.

I am a huge believer in workshops if you can do them, because they’re really the best way to get into the weeds with a piece of music and collaborator(s). If you’re writing something good, you can file that away and develop it. If you are writing something stupid, they’re a great chance to pretend that never happened and course correct. Overall they’re invaluable opportunities to try things on your “growing edge” while getting to know the strengths, styles, and limitations of the people you’re working with and figuring out how to mold your writing to their hands. This does not mean sacrificing your voice, so much as playing with how it can be bent and expanded and trying things that you don’t already know how to do, which I’ve found always leads to better and more interesting pieces than I could have written alone with Sibelius. Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.

For workshops to be successful, I’ve found that doing three is best. One with early sketches, one about 1/2 – 2/3 of the way through the composing process, and one when you are almost finished to fine-tune. They are always short (musicians are busy), I record them, and in planning for them, aim to be over prepared but leave space for sounds and ideas that are unexpected to emerge. A balance between order and chaos.

The order side is easy: parts need to be clean, any technical electronic elements must be road-tested, and the writing must be well-developed/written enough that players can feel the bones of what you are trying to say. And you should have some idea of how you want to structure and lead rehearsals, since some material is invariably better approached “cold” than others. I try to start with something easy that I know will work. You should also be as sure as you can that you’re writing idiomatically, since no matter how keen you are to expand the possibilities of the harp, if your harpist is tap dancing all over the place because she needs to be some sort of eight-footed octopus to cover her pedal changes (I know, I know, harps only have 7 pedals), you’re both going to sound like garbage. And not in the cool Shirley Manson way.

Facilitating the unexpected is harder and in itself an endlessly broad subject, but to get there some of the things I try include:

Giving players a few looping musical “cells” from the piece to improvise with, or perhaps leaving some holes or incomplete endings in musical phrases (ones that feel as though they could be jumping off points), then asking them where it “feels” (excuse the flowery language) like it wants to go. Even if they’re not improvisers, musicians obviously have a deeper and more intuitive grasp of their instrument than you do and sometimes just hearing where their hands wander naturally can give you a sense for how to better tailor your writing to their instrument and personal playing style, while still keeping it within your own language.

Coming in with specific techniques that you are interested in exploring that feel as though they could fit the music you are writing, even if they’re not developed, has also proven useful for me. Sometimes I’ll have the earliest sections of a piece formed, and then ideas for some more bombastic moments later on that I don’t yet know how to pull off. Putting some half-realized stabs at them on a page to give the general sense (something like the rough under-painting a painter might do), and then honing the details from there with a great player’s input has proven productive.

I tried all of the above, for one, with violinist Jenny Choi, who—after telling me that it felt like a section of my solo piece for her wanted to open up—gave me a crash course in barriolages before I really knew how to write them well and was a great cheerleader who encouraged me to follow the lines of what I was writing as far as I could take them. I did something similar with a piece for harpist Ashley Jackson, wherein I wanted to try some more folksy, virtuosic, uptempo writing that I wanted to explode off the page. In both cases, I had specific techniques that I wanted to try and vague ideas of where to place them, and through fumbling around in the dark was able to put all the pieces together and find moments for them to really take off. Had it not been for the input of those players, the music I wrote would sound vastly more closed off.

This also takes different forms when working with rock bands—a different, but related story. Players from this world improvise by nature, so balancing space and structure in a musical road map becomes even more important. You have to know exactly where you want to go in the big picture sense, while being open to how you get there with the details. In approaching how to work on my own record, for example, some things I tried included: bringing in a sketch of a melody or lead line and asking players to embellish, demoing a synth sound/part myself to establish a general direction and then having someone else work around or replace that, or literally just building in space for a band to jump on some sort of groove and build out an arrangement collaboratively. David Bottrill, who I co-produced my project with, also had some great tricks, my favorite of which was sitting on the floor and changing guitar pedal settings mid-performance to see if that sparked anything unexpected. It usually did.

Ultimately, it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth.

In all instances the material you are working from has to be something that feels open-ended rather than resolved, as though it could “lead somewhere.” It’s a hard line to navigate: come in with nothing/too little and players won’t know what to do. Come in with too much, and they won’t have space to try anything and will get bored.

Ultimately—and here’s where we all say ‘kum ba yah’—it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth—sentiments that were missing from those early, rocky projects of mine. Partnerships between composers and musicians work best when both parties feel stretched and challenged, everyone is receptive to ideas but in control of their voice and what they want to say, no one should be pandering or selling their ideas or talents short, and the end result is something that’s been executed well that everyone feels pride in/ownership of. It’s often messy, and along the way there are conversations about whether you should be writing to please yourself or other people, how exactly you are supposed to get there, and when to push people and when not to, all of which require different answers project by project. The hard part is knowing which is which, what the players you are working with are capable of, and what you are capable of yourself.

Performing Quality

String quartet
Last week, I talked about how new music shares its business structure with the academy. This economy runs by accumulating social capital; it builds complicated networks of people and distributes privileges among them. To keep growing, its economic body must churn out unsustainable heaps of new works and performances. This system compels constant productivity; its rhythm of overproduction overpowers any expression of quality. These overproduced goods, though, don’t arrive at concerts for sale – instead, they filter through concerts and emerge as recordings. In this form, musical products re-enter new music’s stock exchange of grants, residencies and other academic resources. Instead of an artistic end in themselves, concerts represent just one stage of a complicated, circular production line. Unlike in popular music, for example, new music sets aside an entire class of artists for the exclusive task of public presentation. Since concerts cost listeners time, money, and space, performing musicians alone are left to account for an audience’s investment. To me, the weird division of labor between composing works and playing concerts puts musicians in a difficult position. Performers have become new music’s coerced mouthpiece of accountability.
The student summer festival provides the clearest case study for this skewed power dynamic. I admit to gratefully experiencing many of the most profound musical moments of my life at such events. However, broadly speaking, student festivals exist to mill social capital. Applying and attending costs a significant sum, matching or exceeding what most undergraduate and graduate students might earn in a month. Students such as myself exchange money for futures – once I accumulate enough social capital, I have the opportunity to invest in better and better festivals.

Emerging composers buy into their own exploitation. Most festivals involve an anti-commission: composers pay to write a piece. From my experience, I’ve been assigned an average of two to three months between acceptance and arrival to write a work that I myself have financed. At the festival, these pieces receive their premieres under stressed and compressed conditions. One works with little rehearsal time and overtaxed performers to populate sprawling end-of-the-week concerts. Composers don’t care too much about these concerts, though. Instead, they invest their money and labor for something more economically substantial.
The student summer festival produces recordings, the commodities exchanged between festival trading posts. The live-ness of performance may wink out as soon as a concert ends, but its recorded objectification is hard and exchangeable. Student composers distribute these recordings with the hope of ensuring further performances, which get recorded and recirculate. Musicians traffic in recordings too, but because players themselves are the makers of sounds, they assemble recordings with greater autonomy. These commodities form the basis for public conversations with older, established faculty members. A masterclass is a formalized introduction, a site of exchange. Here, and at many other places within this system (with other students, with administrators, and with the name of the festival itself), participants trade in their recordings for social capital.
Festivals differentiate modes of labor: performers labor to play, composers have already labored to write. Both schedules are separated. This division of labor alienates performers from their work. Performers suffer through unsatisfying concerts, knowing that composers only appreciate their effort inasmuch as it can circulate as a standalone, exchangeable entity. Further, musicians undertake such staggering workloads, performing new and unfamiliar works, that they cannot possibly find the time or energy to express themselves as artists. The crammed rehearsal schedules designed by festival administrators prevent real composer-performer interactions. I think of this as an artifact of classical museum culture, treating living composers like long-dead historical figures. In exactly that way, composer and performer workdays tend to only overlap at such a late stage that a composer can’t possibly make any edits. Now, this pattern of behavior doesn’t only apply to the festival scene. The social gulf between composers and performers pervades the entire new music superstructure, from three-day university residencies to the highest order of orchestra commissions. The composer-performer discursive divide is perpetuated, if not caused, by the distributions of labor incurred by compulsory overproduction.

The student festival format affects young creative lives. It inures composers and performers to the rhythm of overproduction; it prepares them for the academic economics I discussed in last week’s article. It trains young composers to build commodities – to create works of similar length and duplicability, written during crammed timelines and with minimal conceptual and notational risk. It teaches young performers that music pre-exists performance and has nothing to do with concerts. One cannot separate festivals from the economy of new music, and I find myself in a similar position to last week, asking – “would new music, as I know it, exist at all without this infrastructure; is it desirable or possible to abandon it?”
If new music stays in the student festival, it ought to rethink its programming. These summer weeks should focus on composer-performer time – for example, they could consist only of lessons and discussions, with no compulsory concerts apart from whatever one might feel moved to do. Perhaps concerts might not be recorded, so that recording might not be performance’s end objective.  Recordings can happen elsewhere, in spaces designed for recording, such that the process doesn’t alienate performers from their labor. The idea of the recording-focused, lengthy, and premiere-oriented festival concert needs to change.


The overproduction of pieces and concerts injures performance practice. Because composers need more and more commodities to enter circulation, performers encounter an excess of new music. Many musicians have the discipline and training to keep their heads above water, but how can one think about artistry when performing piles of premieres? Quoting a young new music pianist friend of mine, “If I want to play new music for a living, I have to play all new music, including the music I don’t believe in.” He describes this process as one of desensitization, a feeling echoed by many young performers I interviewed. Performance quality suffers.  Last week, I described quality as the immanent necessity of a thing, its ability to supply its own reasons for coming into being. Overproduction hurts quality—it makes one act because one must, not because one needs to.  Overproduction makes one ignore quality—another young pianist described her festival experience as one of “train[ing] myself not to think about quality anymore.” I also know many performers who don’t think like this, who don’t have to, or who think around it, but the problem my friends pose is hard to ignore.

Of course, fatigue and desensitization don’t just result from a surplus of new pieces. Contemporary performance has to enter into real markets in ways that composition just can’t. Though it often seems like new music events consist exclusively of one’s peers, concerts provide the few and far between openings of the new music world to the outside. Performers speak to publics much more diverse and often much harder to convince than those found in academia. The performance infrastructure suffers from a more normative type of neoliberal behavior than the academic modality. One must advertise, sometimes with the music itself, in order to survive. Advertising is legitimation, it makes something appear necessary whether or not it is. Performance has the difficult task of dressing commodities made for private markets in the guise of public goods. New music happily accepts – its internal tautology persists.


I’ve outlined a social system as bleak and deterministic as it is ripe with exceptions and faultlines. I do sense that my dystopia of new music is neither exclusively mine nor completely inconceivable, particularly within the United States. However, no such system is absolute or objectively the case. Likewise, no musical score is essentially an instrument of capital, nor is any performance essentially a hopeless act of advocacy for a cold, dead thing. The absoluteness of this disciplinary divide is every bit as abstract and ideal as it is an institutional reality.

Glimmers of necessity inhabit even the most compulsory scores. Some composers exercise their agency in the margins. Many performers tell me that just knowing “where the piece came from” (why it was—not why it had to be—written) helps them sensitize themselves to it, helps them make their performance feel itself necessary. From, during, or after such conversations, a composer’s internal insistences might exceed their subconscious and enter the material of the work itself. Performers, too, should involve themselves – performers are artists! If a musician feels empowered, they should ask composers about quality, “What about this piece is important to you?” Most of all, players should exercise curatorial agency, they should look for and through composers for the reasons one performs. Concerts can be spaces for performers to truly make things of necessity. Concerts can be well-curated and intentional sites for public discussion. Concerts can be compositional ends in themselves. Through a stream of interleaved activity, necessity communicates itself forward, inward, and outward.

Next week I will finally devote an entire article to quality itself. As I write, this concept grows clearer and clearer in my mind. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard hundreds of conversations about musical quality, and I look forward to reporting the plurality of my findings.

Wonder and Magic

Earlier this week, for a few brief moments, I got to play the role of Santa Claus. The receiver of gifts was not a young child but a colleague several years my senior to whom I was delivering a short new work for wind band, hot off the presses. It was a gift of sorts, written as a congratulatory gesture for the 30th anniversary of the local community band that he conducts up near Buffalo, but his reaction still caught me off guard. I’ve seen performers react with trepidation, “roll up our sleeves” enthusiasm, or even a quiet relief that their commission was a success or that the work was not too difficult, but his was a combination of excitement that he was sure his band was going to feel about the new piece along with a sense of wonder about the very fact that this music had not existed a week before.
misty forest
It was this sense of wonder that resonated with me long after I left him with his new piece. A cynic would have labeled it as naiveté, but that wasn’t it; this was an experienced performer and educator who still enjoyed music making at a foundational level with his friends for his community in an environment where newly composed works are quite rare, save for the occasional new march or Broadway medley. It reminded me that, outside of the established and growing circles of performers and ensembles that specialize in contemporary concert music, there is still a vast, untapped population that not only is able to enjoy listening to new music but that enjoys playing it as well.

I discovered proof of this several weeks ago when I was invited down to the Chautauqua Institution for a special concert that included a band work I had written years ago. Under the auspices of a national organization called the New Horizons International Music Association, the concert was special because the performers were adults, many over retirement age, who had either put down their instruments after high school or who had never played an instrument before. Invited from local New Horizons chapters from all over the country and Canada, they had gathered at Chautauqua for several days of music making for the sheer love of it. After the concert, many of the performers expressed that same wonder that my conductor colleague had about the creation of music and how it affected them.

It is all too easy for those of us who are active in new music to get so focused on the workings of the business–be they awards, commissions, premieres, recordings, scandals, spats, or celebrations–that we lose sight of the simple gifts inherent within our art form. As the comedian Louis C.K. points out regarding our society’s ambivalence towards the miracle of human flight, we take so much of our world for granted that we don’t see the magic around us. For we who are deeply surrounded by the trees, so to speak, it is not only uplifting but also necessary for us to seek out opportunities to be reminded of the forest.

Kronos Quartet Welcomes New Cellist Sunny Jungin Yang

Sunny Jungin Yang, photo courtsey of Music@Menlo/Tristan Cook

Sunny Jungin Yang, photo courtsey of Music@Menlo/Tristan Cook

The Kronos Performing Arts Association announced today that the Kronos Quartet will welcome a new cellist, Sunny Jungin Yang, to the ensemble this June. Yang will succeed Jeffrey Zeigler, who has performed with the quartet for the past eight seasons and will step down from the group this May.

“I’m unbelievably thrilled to be joining Kronos!” Yang says. “The Quartet has always been an inspiration to me, and I never dreamed that one day I would be part of this fantastic and unique ensemble. I’m looking forward to creating and sharing exciting music with my new colleagues.”

Zeigler’s departure is motivated by his desire to work on solo projects and new collaborations, and to begin teaching at Mannes College The New School For Music. He is relocating to Brooklyn, New York, where his wife, composer Paola Prestini, serves as Creative Director of the heralded new music venue OMW (Original Music Workshop).

Jeffrey Zeigler, photo Courtesy Jay Blakesberg

Jeffrey Zeigler, photo Courtesy Jay Blakesberg

Zeigler said of Kronos, “I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to create music with some of the world’s most exciting artists in many of the world’s most prestigious venues. It has been an honor and a joy for me to share the stage with David, John and Hank. They are wonderful colleagues and will continue to be my friends. I would like to thank them and t

he entire organization for their tireless work and support over these past eight years.”
Ziegler’s last performances with Kronos will be May 10 and 11 at Peak Performances in Montclair, NJ, where the group will perform with violinist/performance artist/composer Laurie Anderson in Landfall, an evening-length collaboration. Yang will take the stage with Kronos for the first time on June 22, inaugurating the quartet’s 40th-anniversary season with a free concert featuring Chinese pipa player Wu Man at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, CT.

(—from the press materials)

A Big Tent

One of Ellen McSweeney’s observations from her adventures at the Chamber Music America conference was that the national new music community needs a professional conference of its own:

Imagine a conference as lively and vibrant as CMA, but more centered on performance and ideas than on a marketplace of acts for sale. By day, the conference could host amazing panel discussions on a range of important issues in the field: perhaps Claire Chase lecturing on new ensemble models, Alex Ross chairing a panel on music writing, Marcos Balter speaking on commission etiquette, or Third Coast Percussion talking about the way they divide organizational work.

This got me thinking about how such an endeavor could actually work—who would be the intended audience, would it be a yearly or biennial event, what umbrella organization would or could provide logistical support, and so on. But as I imagined what such a conference would look like, I began to wonder if an all-inclusive conference that brought performers and composers from throughout the new music community together would be feasible or even effective. I’m not saying it couldn’t work—I think it would be awesome if it did and I’ve got half a mind to talk to someone at New Music USA about spearheading such an event—but there are several issues that would need to be addressed (in my humble opinion) before such a project was put into place.

1) The focus should be balanced between composers and performers. I’m in complete agreement with Ellen that such a conference not be geared towards enticing management and presenting organizations; something that brings composers and performers together on an equitable standing so the performers aren’t there simply to play on concerts (as is the case with composer-centric events) and the composers aren’t there just to sell their music or negotiate a commission. To have everyone there with the intent for interaction and dialogue would be a very good thing; I have seen examples of this in action several times and it always works out well on both sides.

2) There should not be an aesthetic/stylistic/regional/alumnal bias in the programming of the music or the guests. While there’s nothing wrong with celebrating connections between artists, it’s too easy for such gatherings to be pre-connected—those who aren’t already in circles can’t find opportunities to break the ice and those who already know each other simply reinforce those relationships that already exist. There are already more than a few festivals that become echo chambers along a distinct stylistic bent and while it’s helpful and healthy for those like-minded musicians to explore and validate their own musical niches, there are very few opportunities for those various camps/tribes/whatever to interact on an equal footing with each other. Finally, there could be mechanisms set in place to ensure that a certain number of participants came from outside of the top new music markets and were distributed as evenly as possible from around the country and elsewhere.

3) There should be a balance between internal interaction between the participants (both directed and casual) through workshops and discussions and external interaction with the general public through concerts and other public events. While concerts themselves are a great way for us to communicate with each other musically (as well as with a general audience), opportunities for performers, composers, or both (depending on the topic) to explore and debate amongst one another in a safe environment is healthy, necessary, and all too rare.

I have no idea if this is feasible, but I think any opportunity for the entire new music community (both here and abroad) to come together should be explored, and if done, then done right.

Performers and Composers

The power dynamic between composers and performers in the classical music world fascinates me. Of course, people who make a living playing pre-written music need those scores or they won’t have any repertoire; however, many of these musicians feel that the heart of their repertoire lies smack dab in the middle of the classical era through the 19th century. We continue to schedule concerts filled with the glorious works of Mozart and Beethoven because those pieces endure as fascinating and beautiful, and many performers happily remain ensconced in the music of that era for their entire careers.

Meanwhile, every year thousands upon thousands of composers are inspired to create new pieces. A simple application of basic economic theory tells us that when the supply remains high despite reduced demand, the product loses value, and this exact situation challenges the new music community. Every few months, new competitions with arcane rules, inadequate prizes, and high entry fees are created. Some composers complain but many more enter in hopes of having a new award for their biography. One of my mantras in these situations has become: no one ever went broke underestimating the desperation of composers.

But even in these seemingly dire days, many performers want to advocate for the music of their time. Numerous avenues exist for those who want to commission new works but lack the immediate resources that would allow them to adequately compensate the composer, including grants, substituting guaranteed multiple performances at accredited venues for an up-front fee, and—in a process eloquently described by Dana Jessen—consortium commissions. Others exert their energy towards continuing vivification of preexisting works, using their concerts to advocate for those pieces that they know move them.

If you are among this latter group, first, thank you. Your work allows music to live beyond the premiere and to grow through multiple interpretations. You clearly are doing this because you love this repertoire, and your advocacy is essential to us. The good news is that most composers recognize this fact and want to work with you in order to make your experience, and that of the audience, as gratifying as possible.

With that in mind, the best thing you can do before you perform a piece by a living composer is to inform that composer of your plans. Even composers who appear to be too “important” or “famous” to care about your concert might be excited about your event for one of many reasons that wouldn’t immediately be apparent from a distance: it might be a favorite work of theirs that is rarely performed, they might be planning to visit your town on that date anyway, they might have an obscure tie to your community about which you are unaware but which would allow them to help draw audiences. Sometimes, the composer might be able to attend your concert or to coach you privately before the performance. Another benefit you might gain from attempting to contact the composer is that they might help you to obtain a score for a piece that you’re having difficulty tracking down.

After your concert, you can help by asking if the composers would like a copy of your program and a recording. The program itself can be extremely useful if your performance was held in a concert space registered with BMI or ASCAP, allowing the composers to collect appropriate royalty payments for the use of their music at the event. And the recording can be an essential tool for composers who want to get others excited about their music. If you gave a premiere, then you know that yours is likely the only recording of that piece in existence and is therefore the only way for the composer to share the piece with additional performers. Surprisingly, due to ambient noise, odd venues without dedicated recording devices, odd slip-ups, and other factors beyond everyone’s control, composers often lack adequate recordings of relatively old pieces with broad performance histories.

We appreciate the advocacy that you do on our behalf and understand that you don’t need to play new music in order to have a career. We want to work together with you in order to help spread the word about our music and your performances.

Five Rehearsal Secrets of the Spektral Quartet

Spektral's debut concert poster

Spektral’s debut concert poster

I still remember when I saw Spektral Quartet’s poster for their first concert. It was around the practice rooms at DePaul, where I was getting my master’s degree. When I saw the poster–four mysteriously empty chairs bathed in yellow light–and realized who the quartet’s members were, I had a feeling I was looking at something serious. I was right.

I’ve been watching them closely ever since. Their career has grown by leaps and bounds, from getting their graphic design noticed by Alex Ross to landing a residency at the University of Chicago. But that’s just the view from the outside. What’s been happening behind the scenes?

Spektral Quartet (l to r): Austin Wulliman, Aurelien Fort Pederzoli, Russell Rolen, and Doyle Armbrust

Spektral Quartet (l to r): Austin Wulliman, Aurelien Fort Pederzoli, Russell Rolen, and Doyle Armbrust
Photo by Daniel Kullman, Bitter Jester Creative

As a chamber musician, I always wish I had access to the processes of other ensembles. Every group of people has a different approach to the musical, personal, and organizational challenges of running an ensemble. How does the Spektral Quartet do what they do–namely, learn enormous piles of music and give consistently excellent performances, all while apparently retaining their sanity and continuing to actually like each other?

I decided that I needed to know. It was time for me to go into the lion’s den. So I emailed the lions and got permission to visit. But when I arrived, I suddenly felt nervous and lingered in the bushes outside Russell’s apartment. Should I even be here?

Outside Spektral's Studio

I may or may not have snapped this photo while awaiting an appropriate pause in the rehearsal to buzz in. Photo by Ellen McSweeney

That’s the thing: rehearsal process is kind of personal. Sitting in on another ensemble’s rehearsal is fascinating, but also makes me feel squirmy. My inner monologue during this rehearsal would impress no one:

Should I laugh at the rehearsal jokes? I’m just supposed to be a fly on the wall! Don’t make eye contact. Wait, is it really obvious on my face which version of measure 75 I prefer? That’s so cute how they rehearse in their bare feet, I do that too sometimes!  Man, they must get tired rehearsing at this pace. Ooh, so Russ has a cat?

I visited the Spektrals because I was looking for some insights into effective rehearsal. After observing their work on Mark Anthony Turnage’s Slide Stride, which they performed earlier this month at PianoFest, I have some ideas about what makes their rehearsal process work.

1. The way they criticize each other is really funny.

a. “Can this part be more chill, tempo-wise?” Austin asked of Doyle.
“Yes. I will have just finished having an aneurism the bar before,” Doyle said evenly.

b. During a frenetic passage, Austin caught Aurelien improvising a series of up bows. “That was the most amazing bowing I’ve ever seen,” Austin declared.

“I got lost,” Aurelien replied weakly.

c. Austin and Doyle worked to tune a long, gnarly passage of sixteenth notes. “It’s the
A-flat that’s really out,” Russell said.

They played it again. My ear caught a few more pitch disagreements.

“Well, the A-flat is better,” Russ deadpanned.
“Die in a fire!” Austin cried.

d. During Austin and Doyle’s nastiest passagework, the second violin is given a rather sexy cabaret-style solo. As his colleagues toiled in unison, Aurelien punched the melody out with a burnished sound, lots of panache, and not a care in the world.

“I hate you so much,” Austin said afterwards.

So you can see why I spent a good portion of the rehearsal trying not to laugh. Mathias Tacke, longtime second violinist of the Vermeer Quartet, once told me what he thinks the secret of long-term quartet success is: “If you can still laugh together, you’re okay.” And if you’re going to get relentlessly criticized by your colleagues, you might as well laugh while it’s happening.

Spektral at the Empty Bottle

Photo by Lori Fahrenholz, Fahrenholz Photography

2. They’ve developed a shorthand that lets them rehearse quickly and efficiently.

When deciding how to proceed with a difficult section, it’s almost as if they’re selecting from options on a menu–a menu that, obviously, has been developed over years of intensive work together. “How about mezzo piano and slow?” Everyone nods and the work begins. Done.

When talking about balance, there’s a default option. “Can we make sure it’s most, middle, less?” Doyle asked, pointing around the quartet to demonstrate the desire for more cello and less violin. Done.

When tuning, there’s a clear sense that they’re been through certain issues before and are simply revisiting them. “That’s just higher than we like putting that C,” Austin told Russell as they tuned a scale. As in any good marriage, no one is necessarily wrong, but there’s an understanding of each individual’s flaws and tendencies.

3. They often criticize themselves first.

As the group began to rehearse an important crescendo, Russell waved his hand and stopped the music. “I started too loud.”

Aurelien frequently checked in with his colleagues, asking: “Was I rushing? Was that on time?” Whatever their answer, he accepted it readily and without defensiveness.

I was impressed with the way the way they communicated accountability, and respect for each other, by constantly “checking themselves” before criticizing each other.

4. They balance between short-term problem-solving and long-term musical development.

For every group in a long term musical relationship, there are multiple senses of time. There’s right now (How quickly can we solve this problem? Also, I’m hungry), there’s lately (Billy’s been busy lately, so he’s a bit less prepared. Is it me or is she playing that slower today?), and there’s long term (How is our group sound evolving? What are the ongoing issues we need to address?).

For the Spektrals, I thought this was most clearly evident when they decided to stop working on something. After drilling a rhythm for ten minutes, Austin might say, “We’ll keep working on it.” There was a collective understanding that through time, individual practice, and continued work, the passage would get better–and that everything didn’t have to be fixed immediately.

Spektral Quartet

Photo by Omar Robles, Paume Studio

5. The truth is, there are no rehearsal secrets–they just work really hard.

“You guys rehearse at an intense pace,” I said during a break.

“Yeah,” Austin agreed. “By the time we’re done, pretty much all we can say is ‘sandwich’.”

And that’s the truth I walked away with as I left the lions in their den, taking a brief break before they hunkered down with James Dillon’s the soadie waste. There’s only one way to achieve the ease, efficiency, and enjoyment that the Spektral Quartet has developed: by working extremely hard, together, day after day, year after year. It’s a truth I know in my own work, and it’ll be my pleasure to watch the Spektrals continue to share the benefits of that work with us in Chicago.

Performers Who Compose

During my graduate studies and my first few years of teaching, more than once I experienced seeing student composers not taking seriously performers who tried their hand at composition. The reasons on the surface tended to be that the performers either didn’t have as much training as the composition majors or didn’t consider it their primary focus, although I understood that it usually had much more to do with the self-confidence of the composition majors in question. Since my own career had taken several twists and turns before finally settling on my current path, I’ve done as much as I can to encourage students outside of the composition major to compose their own works and have them performed, which is why the past couple of weeks have been so satisfying.

Earlier this year I wrote about the student new music organization I oversee at SUNY Fredonia and the NewSound Festival they hold every February. This year we decided that because of the number of groups and guests that we were bringing to campus, we would split this festival in two–a FallSound festival in September/October and a NewSound festival in February/March. This semester we had four sets of residencies in quick succession: the Mivos Quartet (just back from their stint at Darmstadt), the unique quartet loadbang, pianist and NOW Ensemble founding member Michael Mizrahi, and three composers–Daron Hagen, John McDonald, and Caroline Mallonée–in town to hear their works performed by our faculty-based ANA Trio (soprano Angela Haas, cellist Natasha Farny, and pianist Anne Kissel). Over the course of the festival, the students had the opportunity to experience concerts, lectures, masterclasses, private lessons, and–best of all–down time with some of the most talented performers and composers out there today.

One thing that took me by surprise was the programs of our guest ensembles. Both the Mivos Quartet and loadbang presented repertoire that ranged from established masters (Rihm by Mivos; Cage and Lang by loadbang) as well as composers from their own generation (Mincek, Bettendorf, and Lara by Mivos; Lunsqui, Worthington, Akiho, and Futing by loadbang), but what caught me off-guard was that both ensembles featured works by members of their ensembles. loadbang brought forth a movement (“Gloria”) from an extended work entitled Mass by trumpeter Andy Kozar and an arrangement of Guillaume de Machaut’s 14th-century “Gloria” by baritone Jeffrey Gavett, both of which were extremely effective and quite touching. A week earlier, Mivos performed Mura by quartet member Olivia De Prato and after the concert I had several students comment to me that her work was one of their favorites of the evening.

We learned later that both ensembles encourage this “writing from within” to a great degree. Kozar has an upcoming CD of his original works (including the aforementioned Mass) on the horizon and loadbang’s newest member, clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, has composed many electroacoustic works. Mivos seemed quite proud of the fact that all four members were composing for the quartet and an entire concert of music composed by themselves is in the works.

In the past, we’ve seen many examples of composers performing their own works alone or with others–Cage, Reich, Glass, and Tower come quickly to mind. With the influx of chamber ensembles gaining traction since the late 1990s (taking their cues from Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can All-Stars before them), there has been a growing surge of groups that foster an openness to performing their own members’ works (ETHEL, Alarm Will Sound, and SO Percussion are but three examples). Lately there has been a growth in academic programs that allow for this openness during school, with the graduate programs in contemporary music at the Manhattan School of Music and Bowling Green State University being formed within the past ten years.

This is a good thing–and not just in the contemporary concert music world. The more performers compose, the greater their understanding, appreciation, and insight will be of works by other composers, and the more creative voices we include in our musical community, the further our musical boundaries will ultimately reach.

What’s a Musician Worth?

Between playing for fun and collective bargaining, where do today’s freelance new music performers fit in?

Musician silhouettes

Image via Big Stock

On August 21, indie musician and DIY internet darling Amanda Palmer put out a call for musicians. She needed skilled string and brass players for various stops on her upcoming tour. This was a great opportunity for musicians to collaborate with a talented, internet-savvy artist who recently raised more than $1 million on Kickstarter. The catch? Palmer wouldn’t be paying.

The internet went into an uproar. Palmer was probably compensating her PR person, web designer, tour bus driver, and roadies. Palmer would probably not expect free services from all the restaurants, bars, hotels, and gas stations she’d pass along her route. The one place she decided to cut costs was on musical labor. And the one thing she planned to get for free was musicians’ time and skill.

And not just any musicians–trained ones, with professional experience. From her blog:

[Y]ou need to know how to ACTUALLY, REALLY PLAY YOUR INSTRUMENT! lessons in fifth grade do not count, so please include in your email some proof of that. (A link to you playing on a real stage would be great.)

The memory of Palmer’s Kickstarter windfall was like salt in the wound. A significant portion of the money she raised probably came from musicians, willing to place a dollar value on Palmer’s creative work. As it turns out, none of that value would be trickling down.

A month later, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike when their management demanded they double their contributions to health care costs. In the musicians’ press release explaining why they had decided to strike, bassist Stephen Lester wrote, “Our product is our artistic quality. Reducing costs by lowering musician salaries beyond a certain level could result in a flight of quality to other orchestras …. It would be tantamount to the Art Institute’s selling its Picassos and Monets to buy lower quality works that are less expensive to maintain. Unlike a business corporation, a cultural organization like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra cannot save its way to success.”

In other words, the musicians seemed to be saying, you get what you pay for.

The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony recently accepted a contract with $5.2 million in concessions, including massive pay cuts, increased health care contributions, a reduced roster, and a shortened season.

That $5.2 million in concessions, by the way, was exactly what their management was demanding of them. During negotiations, and throughout a lengthy and painful lockout, the management did not move an inch. The musicians wrote that the contract “set the ASO back…over 10 years in musicians’ compensation, not even taking inflation into account.”

A friend posted the news on Facebook, and someone responded almost immediately: “Meanwhile, in Chicago…”

Was she suggesting what I think she was suggesting? That this choice by the Atlanta musicians, to fall on their own swords, was a heroic one, worthy of replicating elsewhere?


We musicians get a lot of conflicting information about what kind of compensation our work deserves. Take Amanda Palmer. The message she’s sending is: performing music is fun! I performed unpaid for years! If someone likes my music and wants to volunteer to join me onstage, that’s her prerogative. After the internet exploded in her face, Palmer told The New York Times that “if you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument [against me] would become invalid.” The flip side of this message? If you’re in it for the money, something’s probably wrong with you.

street performer tips

Image via Big Stock

But here’s the thing: being a professional musician who can “actually, really play your instrument!” is not a part-time proposition. Staying in shape as, say, a violinist is a way of life that requires daily investment; it’s a use-it-or-lose-it scenario. In order to remain a functional musician, a two-part process is required: First, you put in a lot of unpaid hours, alone, practicing, in order to sound your best. Second, you show up to your paid engagement and sound great. You repeat this process as necessary until, if you’re lucky, you’ve paid your rent that month. This process is not easy and income is not reliable, especially in the beginning. Remaining a professional musician is a struggle. Many people do not make it, and for good reason.

If part two of the process never happens–or the gigs you show up for aren’t paid–you end up spending a lot of hours earning money doing something else. You wait tables, you sit at a desk, maybe you teach lessons. When you get home at night, you’re too exhausted to practice so you watch Netflix instead. After a while, you’re not sounding so great anymore. It gets to be too tiring to do your day job, have a personal life, and put in all those unpaid hours for all those unpaid gigs. Before long, there’s one less “actual, real” violinist in the world.

A lot of people bring up supply and demand when you try and put a dollar value on musician employment. The supply is too high; demand is too low. And that’s why Amanda Palmer can propose a fee of zero dollars. But is this really the side of the arts economy that Palmer wants to be on? Follow that supply-and-demand scenario to its end, and we’ve got a problem. By initially refusing to make space in her budget to compensate actual, real musicians, Palmer was contributing to our extinction. The collapse of music education has shrunk the pool of competent amateurs, and low wages will strangle the professionals. At this rate, in twenty years there will be very few people who are able–or want–to read her charts.

It took Palmer almost a month to change course and decide that she would, in fact, pay all the musicians who played with her. She didn’t say how much. But as most freelance musicians can tell you, it’s not always the amount that matters.



Image via Big Stock

There’s another thing that performers like me–young, freelancing, doing lots of work in new music–aren’t sure about. How, exactly are our fates connected to those Chicago Symphony musicians earning seven or eight times what we do? Or to the folks who will show up to play Palmer’s gig for the fun of it, who perhaps didn’t invest six years (or six figures) into earning advanced degrees in performance? After all, we’re a generation working to strip away some of the formality from our work. Our concerts are as likely to take place at a bar as they are in Symphony Center.

When it comes to the CSO, many of my peers seem convinced that our fates aren’t at all connected. On Facebook, one young musician noted, “This isn’t a labor relations framework of Us Against Them. It’s more like Them Against Them.” The CSO management might be the 1%, he was saying, but so are the players. He’s describing a race to the bottom. And down there–uninsured, deeply in debt, paying out of pocket to take auditions, driving three hours for a gig that pays $85 a service–yup, that’s Us.

When we let the divide-and-conquer logic work on us, we all lose. If the CSO makes concessions at the top, what happens to everyone below them? Why is scraping by with no security “fair” while making six figures is “greedy”? Which one of these situations more closely represents the way we want artists to be treated in our society?

The New York Times wrote that Palmer had stumbled into “a culture clash between the freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll scene of club dates and scarce cash and the world of established conservatory-trained musicians long supported by strong union locals with wage scales.” In the time since that interview was published, two more orchestras have been locked out by their management. For the young performers starting their careers today, it’s clear that the rock ‘n’ roll scene isn’t the only one with scarce cash. And the future trajectory of that wage scale is anybody’s guess.


NewMusicBox is pleased to introduce Ellen McSweeney as our newest Regional Editor. She will be covering Chicago and its environs. Welcome, Ellen!

Ellen McSweeney

Ellen McSweeney

Ellen McSweeney is a Chicago-based musician and writer. She is the founding violinist of Chicago Q Ensemble, a string quartet dedicated to new music, interdisciplinary collaboration, and innovative programming. As a chamber musician, Ellen has also been heard with ensemble dal niente, Access Contemporary Music, Singers on New Ground, New Millennium Orchestra, and New Music DePaul, among others. Ellen holds a B.M. from the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University and an M.M. from DePaul University. She is a winner of Vanderbilt’s Merrill Moore Award for Poetry Writing and the Vanderbilt Review prize for Best Fiction. Her indie folk duo, Elk, will release their debut EP this winter.