Tag: residency

Passepartout Duo: Music on the Move

Post update 8/14/2018: After criticism highlighting our use of the word “homeless” in this post emerged, we recognized that a revision was necessary in the original article and wanted to offer an apology. We had no intention of equating our situation with that of those living in extreme poverty nor in romanticizing the idea of the struggling artist. Instead, we only meant to indicate that we currently do not have a home base and are hoping to show others a possible way to live and work as artists in a positive environment through residencies and travel. —The Passepartout Duo

A remote permaculture homestead in the Sahara Desert, a northern-Icelandic fishing community half-a-degree south of the Arctic Circle, a family home within the bustling streets of Havana, or a wooden house-building factory in the Swiss Alps: our home moves from month to month, and along the way we meet new people, discover new ways of life, and are continually inspired by the shifting circumstances in which we make music.

At this point, we’ve completely given up location-dependent life. Artistically, it has profoundly changed our practice.

At this point, we’ve completely given up location-dependent life. We have four small bags: one backpack and one instrument case each. We each have one pair of shoes and we use them for everything, until they fall apart; then, we pick up a new pair and keep going.

But it’s not just an eagerness to travel that’s encouraged us to pursue this lifestyle. Artistically, it has profoundly changed our practice and created a sustainable model in which our ensemble can operate, concertize, and continually make work that interests us and leaves us creatively engaged.

Passepartout Duo on the road less traveled

Passepartout Duo on the road less traveled

We still don’t know how to respond when a fellow artist asks, “Where are you based?” but we always manage to spark some intrigue and curiosity with our response. This series of articles is an attempt to codify the kind of lifestyle we’re currently living, while also providing pointers to anyone interested in pursuing similar opportunities.

Artist residencies have been practically and artistically indispensable to us; we created the piano/percussion Passepartout Duo in 2015 as a “long-distance music collaboration” while residing across continents, and it was only through an opportunity at the Banff Centre that our work together was able to begin. Since then, residencies have been both mile markers along the way that helped our projects take shape, and the primary way we’re able to continually travel from month to month.

The Banff Centre was a complete dream world. When we arrived, it hit us immediately how the ensemble that first only existed within this one residency application we had sent in, was now a real thing, and there was at least someone out there supporting it. Those six weeks left a huge impression on us. After we left, on the days when we felt the most behind on our work we’d daydream thinking: “What could I get done with just one more day at the Banff Centre?” At that time, it didn’t occur to us that there are hundreds of other Banff-Centre-like places out there, hosting artists and creating communities of their own.

Passepartout Duo at Banff

Passepartout Duo at Banff

Soon after, we completed the small concert tour of Europe that was the motivation for our residency, stopping in four cities and sharing what we had worked on. In some ways, this model of oscillating between small concert tours and residencies has continued unchanged in our years together as an ensemble. It has been very fruitful to reflect upon the ties between a geographical situation and the work of an artist. Everywhere we go we now wonder: “How is our work going to make a difference in this place? How is this place going to mold our work?”

The bridge between that first Banff Centre residency and this life we live now didn’t happen all of a sudden. We slowly accumulated opportunities with the original intention of being based in a city and traveling frequently, but not indefinitely. There was a point when we realized that it didn’t make sense anymore to sign a multi-year lease on an apartment, because two months after moving in, we would be traveling for nine months straight. If we’re honest, we also became skeptical about the idea of living in a major city: to take on private teaching, day jobs, unfavorable gigs, unaffordable rent, all for what amounts to probably less than a month per year of meaningful and important artistic work that truly requires your presence in that specific place. There’s also a contagious effect within the Londons and New Yorks of the world, a feedback loop that tells people “this is the greatest city on earth, and it’s the only place I can be an artist.” We were skeptical about subscribing to these ideas—and paying for them, too. We loved the time we had spent so far at artist residencies, and thought, “How can we do this more, and that less?”

And that’s where we are now. We’re booked two years out with travels and engagements all over the world. This introduction is just the first of four parts about our relationship with artist residencies, and how others can dive into these opportunities for themselves. We’ll pick it up next week by describing a few of the places we’ve been, and what we’ve learned and discovered from each.

Passepartout Duo in Spain

The Blackbird Creative Lab: A Photo Journal

I travelled from Ohio to Ojai to arrive at the Blackbird Creative Lab, an education and mentorship program for composers and performers established by the ensemble Eighth Blackbird. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Just looking at the two names—Ohio and Ojai. They seem pretty similar, don’t they? The Lab couldn’t cause that big of a difference in my life, right?


The Blackbird Creative Lab is held at the Besant Hill School, nestled in the mountains of Ojai. My current home in Ohio is surrounded by a landscape of cornfields, flat as far as the eye can see. The different terrain of Ojai was striking.

8bb Creative Lab

Me being struck by the difference

I am certain that I speak for all members of The Lab when I say that the experience in Ojai connected me with a fount of empowerment, bravery, camaraderie, and creativity.

Every morning at the Blackbird Creative Lab, I took in a breath of inspiration as I opened the door to a dramatic, gorgeous landscape, with hills that morphed and grew with the changing sunlight. Starting the day in this manner led to an open mind that was ready for saturation. The Blackbird Lab quenched this thirst each day.

Cue the mountain montage!


Communication was key throughout the two-week residency. We opened up our hearts and minds through rehearsals, performances, the hang, learning from each other in one of the most open environments that I’ve ever experienced.

Guest artists spoke with the community each night, but not in a stuffy lecture format. The salon talks were bona fide times of connection, leading all of us on a rollercoaster of deep inspiration.

Jennifer Higdon, laying down some inspiration

Jennifer Higdon, laying down some inspiration

Fellows rehearsed with members of Eighth Blackbird, working on compositions by other fellows, faculty, and composers who resonate with the contemporary music world. These pieces were performed in a marathon of concerts in the final three days.

What did I garner from this experience? I don’t have the words to describe the magic created at the Lab (thankfully, pictures are worth a thousand). But, I’m going to try to respond as sincerely as possible. First, I was imbued with a renewed sense of artistic direction. The community built around the Blackbird Creative Lab is intensely passionate about their artistry. Their passion is highly contagious, fueled by the Blackbird’s core values of unquestioned quality, pervasive innovation, intense work ethic, genuine informality, and bold openness.

We all garnered tools that can “feed our flame,” as faculty member Jennifer Higdon put it. The community built at the Lab nurtured the potential of each and every member and encouraged us to be the most authentic versions of ourselves.


Nurturing was happening all around campus…


…in shapes and sizes that you might not expect.

There was music that I needed to hear, from musicians who I needed to meet. There were messages that I needed to hear. Sage advice came from all members of the community, and there were particular conversations with Nico Muhly, Shara Nova, Jennifer Higdon, and Lisa Kaplan that I will treasure. But of course, these conversations were just threads of a larger tapestry woven by the entire Blackbird Creative Lab.

Blackbird Creative Lab

Just a sliver of what I needed to hear. To be honest, I needed to hear everyone at this Lab. I was profoundly moved by each and every member of the community, and I can’t thank them enough for sharing their artistry and opening their whole-hearted selves.

Now that I’ve returned from Ojai to Ohio, I can confirm that my life has been positively transformed. I feel like I am part of something larger than myself because of this experience.

The Lab galvanized my artistry. As an example of this, I spent a few weeks tracking new compositions for my upcoming multimedia project, Enter Branch, just before heading to the Lab. This is a project that is about connection and that brings together musicians and artists from communities I hold dear. As I recorded, there were elements of the compositions that still seemed vulnerable, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. The Lab drove home a mantra that I’ve lived with for years, but had forgotten recently: If you don’t feel vulnerable when you’re sharing your art, then you might not be connecting in an authentic manner.

So as the sun sets on this iteration of the Blackbird Creative Lab…


I’d like to leave with a few shots of the magic in action. In the final performance of the festival, we staged a production of works by Cage, Wubbels, and Eastman. Throughout the course of the Lab, we had in-depth discussions on how to honor this situation. In the end, every single member of that ensemble poured their hearts into the performance. At one point, members were performing variations of Cage’s 0’00”, carrying out a disciplined action. For my disciplined action, I took pictures of members of the ensemble, on the stage, performing live as we shared this experience with the audience. Here are those shots. My love and thanks to everyone involved with the Eight Blackbird Creative Lab. Stay on it!

Blackbird Creative Lab

Blackbird Creative Lab

Bringing a Residency Home

I’ve attended a different artist residency every year for the last four years, and at each one, I’ve learned something new about how to structure my life and my approach to composition.

The time at a residency feels sacred, and for that brief period, your life is centered around the pursuit of creativity. I find myself wondering how to take it all—the feeling of having enough time, ample creativity, and room to establish new routines—with me when I leave. Last year was the first time I felt that maybe I’ve finally answered that question. I found myself utterly homesick at a residency last spring, wondering what I was doing there that I couldn’t be doing at home. I realized that, over the last four years, I’ve created a life that has a lot in common with an artist residency.

Time is abundant at a residency. Because your life is suddenly structured around nothing but composing, you learn to confront any anxieties about the act of writing music or about not being good enough. In this way, a residency can serve as a sort of pressure cooker for any self-doubt or habitual procrastination already present in your everyday life. You’re not going to feel like composing every day, but in a place where life revolves around being creative, what do you do when you’re feeling burnt out?

Day to day, you realize that it’s almost less important what you’ve composed than that you have composed at all.

You learn to keep sitting back down at the piano or the desk, which can seem so difficult in ordinary life, with its many distractions: the computer, the phone, other people. Here you learn to just sit down and write. You learn to stop thinking about whether you’re writing the “best piece of your career,” and you learn to stop weighing your measly string quartet in the context of thousands and thousands of other, better string quartets that have come before. You learn what’s most conducive to getting work done, and you learn to abandon what isn’t. Day to day, you realize that it’s almost less important what you’ve composed than that you have composed at all.

At the residency, you’ll have a new workspace. Often, there’s a proper desk: a sturdy, large wooden desk, with room to spread out scores. There’s a piano, or there should be. It should be better than your piano at home, but if it’s not, you find a way to appreciate this piano because, at least temporarily, it’s yours.

Every day offers a new reminder that this is not your ordinary routine. Maybe you’re eating every meal with the same group of other artists, like you’re back at sleep-away camp. You go for a daily hour-long walk, or take up running again for the first time since high school, or find yourself hiking for eight miles on the residency property. You realize that you need to re-think your relationship to exercise at home; namely, you need to do more of it—walking, running, hiking—because you’re much stronger than you thought.

At a more social residency, you realize you’ve had a drink (or three) with dinner every night for the last two weeks. You compose for nearly six hours straight and skip lunch. Maybe one night, you find yourself singing karaoke in a bar in Wyoming. You seek out new things: new cafes, new hiking trails, the seventh-highest bridge in the United States. Maybe one of the other residents teaches you all how to play poker, and you stay up later than you’ve stayed up in months.

Other than when to eat meals, there’s no implicit structure here. Your new routines may barely resemble the ones you’re used to, or they may incorporate the best of your work habits at home with extra room to get things done. You learn what needs to be done to take care of yourself when there is no one else to take care of, and no one to take care of you.

You learn how to structure your days. Going straight from an undergraduate degree into grad school, I’d mistakenly thought I thrived on deadlines. Residencies have taught me that that’s a lie; in fact, I’m happiest when I build my day around one- to two-hour bursts of productivity interspersed with breaks and when I stretch out writing a piece over months, not weeks. I’m happiest when I’m at least a little bit productive each day and when I finish projects far ahead of schedule, with ample time for editing. This realization has completely altered how I compose back at home; now, I start projects as far in advance as I can, and I try to build in space for doing a little bit of work at a time and letting it unfold slowly, unhurried.

I’d mistakenly thought I thrived on deadlines. Residencies have taught me that that’s a lie.

At a residency, you’re confronted with being either “the most productive you’ve been in your life”—notes flowing freely and abundantly, six movements of a 35-minute piece drafted in just two weeks—or completely uninspired. You’re forced to define productivity to yourself and to accept that sometimes, when you’ve been productive enough, you need to figure out what to do with your free time.

I struggle so much with this at home. Even on a day when I’ve gotten plenty of work done on the business side of composing and taught a few piano students, I’ll catch myself complaining about my “horribly unproductive day” just because I didn’t also compose. This is something I’m clearly still working on: defining which work qualifies as “productive,” and trying to expand that definition to “all of it.”

At my first few residencies, I was the most productive I’d been in my life. I accepted “absurdly productive” as my default state at residencies until I found myself at one where, for two weeks, I had no desire whatsoever to compose. I’d met two big deadlines right before I left for the residency, and it was the wrong time to isolate myself for a month with the pressure to write even more.

That was a useful experience, though; I realized that timing at a residency is crucial. I cancelled a residency that I would have attended this spring, because several months ago, looking at the schedule I’m living right now, I realized the timing—just after several deadlines, a conference, and an album release—would have been wrong again. I’m glad I cancelled when I did. Here I am, months later, in desperate need of a guilt-free composing break and ready to take one.

That brings us back to free time. At a residency, you can’t possibly spend every waking second writing music; you can certainly try, but it’s not sustainable. You suddenly have more free time than you’ve had in years. How do you spend it?

I love to read, and I read fast; when I was younger, I devoured books daily. More recently, aside from reading in bed every evening for 10, maybe 20 minutes at most, reading novels for fun was a habit I’d stopped. It wasn’t until I started attending residencies that I learned to return to books when I needed a little break, or, if I was feeling uncreative, for entire days.

At home now, setting aside an hour or an entire afternoon to read still feels like a luxury. I haven’t yet learned to do it without a small, nagging part of my brain asking whether I shouldn’t be doing something more productive. But at a residency, there’s plenty of time to walk, to listen to podcasts, to watch movies, to listen to music, or to read an entire book in a day. I’m trying to give myself the same permission in my at-home life: to sit still long enough to let myself completely relax, and to spend several hours with a novel without feeling as though I’m neglecting something more important.

At a residency, your relationship with yourself changes. If there are other artists there, you see yourself reflected through your interactions with them. If there’s no one else there, you learn to be alone with yourself. You learn whether you enjoy spending time with yourself. You learn that whatever you don’t like about yourself is with you all the time, not just here; all of it rises to the surface. You learn to live with yourself, and you carry that home with you. If you enjoy spending time alone, you learn to make that a priority when you return home, too.

Here’s how my life is different, four years after I went to my first artist residency. I try to walk most days, and I try to hike at least once a month. When I accept a commission, I set a deadline with time built in: time to compose slowly, with room for the inevitable day or week when I’m feeling creatively stalled. Usually, though not always, I finish in advance of that deadline.

“It’s a luxury,” Ellen Sussman says, “when daily life is what I yearn for.”

I spend a comfortable amount of time by myself, even living with a partner. I am getting better at spending an entire afternoon doing nothing but reading, although when I do, I still check my email roughly every ten minutes, and then I feel guilty about that. I seek out more new experiences in general; I’ve sung karaoke in front of friends here in Los Angeles, not just strangers in Wyoming. I’m aware of what I’d like to change about myself, but in looking back at who I was before my first residency, I can see that I know myself better now; I like myself more.

Writer Ellen Sussman, whom I met at a residency, said something in an interview that has stuck with me ever since I read it. “It’s a luxury,” Ellen says, “when daily life is what I yearn for.” At my residency last year, I realized that I’d finally structured my life so that I already have at home nearly everything I want from a residency. I longed to be back with my boyfriend, my cat, and my piano.

This summer, I’m going to do a week-long residency about an hour and a half away from where I live in Los Angeles. At that very brief residency, I’ll be seeking what I truly can’t find at home, at least not now: isolated natural surroundings that are almost painfully beautiful; a piano that’s better than my upright at home; a span of time during which I truly don’t have to worry about anything other than writing music.

A residency is as close as we may get to living a life in service of nothing but creativity, and for that reason alone, I’m likely to keep going back. Someday, I dream of having my own private “artist residence”—a small house somewhere remote, with an excellent piano and a massive wooden desk. For now, though, I’m going to embrace what I’ve already created at home: a daily life I yearn for.

Summer Residency Snapshots: Where Trust Meets Productivity

In the past three articles, I’ve tried to describe some of the work being done at Avaloch. In characterizing a few interesting collaborations, I also wanted to peer at how musical partners accomplish their goals. For each, geographic repose, concentrated time together, the ability but not the pressure to share content, and a community of hard-working and supportive people were elements of dynamic and sustainable collaboration.

Up to this point, I’ve ignored my own forays at Avaloch. I play in a cello/percussion duo called New Morse Code with Hannah Collins, and since 2015, we have been co-directors at Avaloch’s New Music Institute. Before then, we attended Avaloch as a duo, and individually as part of other projects. In my experiences with Hannah in Avaloch’s unusual residency setting, I’ve discovered that ease of collaboration allows for high degrees of productivity in a compressed period of time . As a percussionist, being able to leave instruments set up is immensely productive, and having your collaborators close at hand allows brainstorming, workshopping, rehearsing, and practicing to flow naturally.

Perhaps more importantly, New Morse Code’s work at Avaloch illustrates how friendship can be a vital collaborative tool, that developing trust over a long period of time generates more interesting, sustainable work. For Robert Honstein, the immediacy and concentration created by sharing a residency with performers led to astonishing productivity. For Christopher Stark, a long-term collaboration was focused and altered at Avaloch, and physical place had an enormous impact on his work’s themes and content.

Robert Honstein: Down, Down Baby

Boston-based Robert Honstein has been to Avaloch twice. In 2015 he worked with Ashley Bathgate on her Bach Unwound project, and in 2016 Robert workshopped his Grand Tour with pianist Karl Larson while finding complementary pairings for the work for a touring program. Each time, Robert also worked with Hannah and I on a new piece, tentatively titled Down, Down Baby. In 2015, Robert and New Morse Code created a framework for the piece, brainstorming the work’s unusual setup and creating a notational system that was clear and easy to read. This summer, Robert’s goals lay in “refining the notation/sounds, investigating what works and doesn’t work, and discovering ways to interpret and perform the piece.”

In Down, Down Baby, the cello is laid flat on a table. Hannah and I sit on opposite sides of the table, each with six desk bells, a woodblock, and a foot pedal attached to a dull plastic sound (we eventually settled on two Sterilite trash cans). Robert’s idea was that from these positions, we could create four quadrants of theatricalized motion on the body and rib of the cello, tapping and flicking with fingers, knuckles, fists, or nails. The cello’s strings (prepared with poster tack to create a dull, gong-like sound) are plucked by both players, and with our complement of desk bells, we create composite melodies in a variety of textures from imitative (the opening of the first movement, “Follow the Leader”) to hocketing (tentatively titled “Paddy”) to sliding melody and dry accompaniment (“Strange Dance”).

Honstein's Down, Down Baby

Honstein's Down, Down Baby

Both Hannah and I were in new territory. Robert’s notation was fairly simple for a percussionist to read, but for Hannah, less accustomed to “non pitched” percussion and less comfortable with a musical situation where both her hands are doing the same task, learning was slow at first. At the same time, my terrific incompetence as a singer (even a “pitch matcher”!) and inexperience as a string plucker was embarrassing. Fortunately, Robert considers his role as a composer to be an equal partnership with his performer collaborators. He prefers to work through “back and forth, trial and error, conversation, being in the same room together,” with his ideal flow being reached within what he calls a “real-time feedback loop of ||: idea->experiment->revise :||.” For someone who values such immediacy, a residency with immediate access to performers is an ideal fit, and Robert notes that the possibility for “real-time exploration” at Avaloch pushed him to try ideas he never would have otherwise.

Hannah and I prepared of the movements of Down, Down Baby before Robert arrived at Avaloch, and learned others while he was at the Farm. Each day, we would rehearse with Robert in the room, asking questions and offering alternatives as they accumulated. Because of Robert’s accessibility, we were able to make plentiful small changes, mostly focused on the piece’s orchestration as it relates to idiomatic execution and visual clarity. For example, in “Simon,” I discovered that exchanging some material between my right and left hands allowed me more time to prepare to pluck the cello’s strings. Robert’s ability to quickly check whether my desires would destroy his visual mirroring allowed us to revise quickly and easily without damaging the movement’s choreography. In “Singing Lesson,” Robert asked both Hannah and I to whistle while playing a melody between our desk bells. We found that it was easier and more theatrically effective to sing while we were playing the bells, and the resulting texture more clearly illuminated the rhythmic play between us. “Strange Dance” includes the longest passage in the piece where Hannah and I are doing different actions. She plucks and slides along the prepared strings of the cello while I tap an accompaniment on the body and rib of the cello. Most of Robert’s fingerings worked perfectly—for a pianist. Quickly altering some fingerings towards typically strong fingers for percussionists was simple and didn’t disturb what Robert had in mind sonically or visually.

A work like Down, Down Baby is also difficult to visualize. While Robert had built a sample library and was working with a cello of his own at home, hearing—and more importantly, seeing—Down, Down Baby in action was especially valuable. After hearing a few of the movements, Robert adjusted some of the sounds in the piece, replacing a fist on cello body (soft sounding, dangerous to the instrument) with a fist on the side of the table on which the cello sits. (This process of revision is not rare! In fact, in 2015, New Morse Code worked at Avaloch with Matthew Barnson on his Ars Moriendi, a Britten-inspired take on graffiti in Bushwick, Brooklyn.)

Of course, these are not large changes. But, our ability to make them quickly was essential. In fact, Robert preferred to make revisions while we rehearsed other material, remaining in the room with us in case he had further questions. As I mentioned above, each of these interactions was presaged on the idea that New Morse Code and Robert were partners in the piece, that Robert wanted the material to be malleable and flexible—from the form of the piece (was it too long?), to the sounds involved (are they differentiable), to the techniques used (are they easily repeatable?). In the score created before our work this summer, there were notes for further discussion: “Let’s experiment with the singing in the ‘Lullabies’ and ‘Singing Lesson’ movements and figure out who does what and when.” “We’ll decide later whether you each hum or if it’s better to have only one person hum along.” Even the title was a point of discussion, leading to a shower of criticism, and a barrage of new, far less productive ideas. Eventually, Robert decided the title should convey playfulness and whimsy and that the choreography in the piece is reminiscent of a clapping game, and so he thought of Down, Down, Baby. I’m sure he also decided never to ask for help with titles again!

While our focused work with Robert at Avaloch was extremely productive, taking part in a dynamic community was also essential. In fact, Robert was the nexus for much informal work, from performances of a new piano/marimba arrangement of his Patter, to workshopping new ideas with Hannah and myself, to brainstorming collaborations with other members of the Avaloch community. For him, Avaloch’s blend of a festival’s social events, a residency’s focus, and a rehearsal’s goal-oriented approach was an ideal balance.

Christopher Stark: Marinating in Place

Christopher Stark is professor of composition at Washington University in St. Louis. We met while both teaching at Cornell University, and in 2014 New Morse Code and Christopher were awarded a Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program Grant to develop a large-scale piece for cello, percussion, and live electronics. As a native of western Montana who has incorporated the expansive energy of the mountain landscape of his childhood into his own musical language, Christopher initially wanted to write a piece about how physical landscapes inspire musical personalities. We spent a year developing the piece together, gathering field-recordings in upstate New York, New Hampshire, and Montana. New Morse Code performed excerpts of The Language of Landscapes the Geneva Music Festival and in Bryant Park before premiering the complete work last November at Washington University in St. Louis.

After having performed the first “scene” of the piece several times, Christopher came to Avaloch in 2015 with an eye towards revising it and developing additional material. As has every group I’ve discussed thus far, the lack of pressure to leave with a final product left us the room to be very productive. We saw The Language of Landscapes’ existing content become more idiomatic while the concept driving Christopher’s new material became more piquant, changing from an musical Grand Tour to a series of interactions between “natural” and “artificial” sounds and structures.

Christopher Stark

Christopher Stark gathering sounds for The Language of Landscapes

As we saw with Down, Down, Baby, focused workshopping time allowed New Morse Code and Christopher to make effective and idiomatic changes to The Language of Landscapes. In the piece’s first scene, the cello plays harmonics on the cello accompanied by digitally processed canons, moving at 25%, 50%, 66%, 75% of her original speed. In the scene’s original configuration, I mirrored these canons on the marimba, but we found that the marimba’s fixed tuning couldn’t match the cello’s ability for just intonation, and that most marimba’s top octaves are sufficiently out of tune to render “pitchiness” a non-essential character. Additionally, the rhythmic precision needed to play in exact canon with Hannah while remaining with a strict tape part made long horizontal phrases more difficult to create. At Avaloch, we experimented with me blowing into glass bottles of different sizes, tuned to the pitches in the piece. Eventually, we settled on five bottles, tuned relatively “out of tune” with the cello’s pitch collection and processed with significant reverb, creating an additional musical layer that emphasizes horizontal expansiveness rather than rhythmic precision.

More importantly, our time at Avaloch was also the crucible for a change in narrative direction in The Language of Landscapes that moved it towards a more pointed environmental critique. When we began working together, Christopher’s goal was to explore how physical landscapes can shape our musical personalities. The goal was to trace a musical journey from my desert southwest home, through the deciduous hills of upstate New York (Hannah’s home), finally reaching towards the endless sky of Christopher’s northern Rockies. Instead, inspired by both the sonic beauty around Avaloch and the plentiful waste around us, the three of us scavenged in thrift stores and lumber yards in search of what Christopher calls “sonic representations of human wastefulness,” leading to an instrumentarium of styrofoam bowls, cardboard boxes, and plastic grocery bags. The Language of Landscapes’ second scene combines recordings of wind moving through trees with our manipulation of this junk: Hannah gradually slips a Starbucks’ coffee sleeve between the strings of her cello while I bow, scrape, rustle, and rattle the heavily amplified junk objects. Within each 30-second window—set apart by an abrupt crumpling of plastic water bottles—our sounds quickly become indistinguishable from the wind, a poignant comment.

The final form of The Language of Landscapes was also inspired by places near Avaloch. When New Morse Code had the opportunity to present an engagement activity at the nearby Penacook Community Center, we brought Christopher with us: while Hannah and I led a gym full of school children in brainstorming, making, and performing nature sounds, Christopher processed them electronically, inspiring him to make process-based manipulation of recorded water and wind sounds the focus of The Language of Landscapes’ fourth scene, where a recording of water is gradually bit-crushed (a.k.a. played back at increasingly lower sample rate) to create an extremely distorted but highly rhythmic sound. Each repetition of this clip becomes shorter, and is set in increasingly quick canon between Hannah’s distorted cello and my assemblage of non-recyclable waste.

The changes to The Language of Landscapes that we made over two years have convinced me that long-term relationships can generate interesting, poignant art. Christopher’s patient interest in developing personal relationships and incorporating these into his work were notable. At the same time, Christopher’s work was inspired and aided by a scenic locale. For him, “being inspired is essential to making great art, and great spaces are so inspiring.” Avaloch’s “peaceful and beautiful” setting allowed him to develop his own music while enhancing his relationships with other Avaloch community members. This year, Christopher came to Avaloch to work with HereNowHear, a piano duo of frequent collaborators Ryan MacEvoy McCullough and Andrew Zhou, on a companion piece to Stockhausen’s Mantra. Christopher used Avaloch’s less pressured environment to “listen to the performers talk about the experience of performing Mantra,” experiment with electronic sounds around the piano, and to “get a sense of what might be able to accompany that massive work on a program.”   In the true spirit of Avaloch collaboration, HereNowHear, New Morse Code, and Christopher put on a concert together with The Language of Landscapes in Bennington’s Park McCullough House.

The Language of Landscapes

View from percussion set up of Christopher Stark’s The Language of Landscapes, taken at Historic Park McCullough House in Bennington, VT

Both of these experiences highlight the potential for cross-pollination at musical residencies. For New Morse Code, cross-pollination is the most exciting feature of our time at Avaloch. In 2015, Alex Weiser and Emily Cooley of Kettle Corn New Music came to Avaloch to work with HOCKET. Hannah and I took the opportunity to nail down the details of a future New Morse Code Kettle Corn Concert and make some popcorn. Paul Kerekes came to Avaloch with Invisible Anatomy and stayed on to workshop new material for Unblinking Eye, a forthcoming theatrical show. Andy Akiho organized the entire Avaloch community into a performance of his works while brainstorming future work with New Morse Code. Triplepoint Trio developed a show with Chartreuse. The list goes on and on.

Sometimes the ideas at residencies like Avaloch come to fruition, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they bear immediate results, and sometimes they steep, simmer, then boil. It goes without saying that the range of collaborative structures is as varied as the people who create them, and that people in every discipline create fantastic art together every day. What I value about these residencies is that the focus is on process. With less pressure to produce concrete results, composers and performers tend to create with more verve. Away from their normal habitats and surrounded by natural beauty, they discover a sense of community.

Summer Residency Snapshots: The Composer / Performer Mind Meld

Last week I gave some background on the Avaloch Farm Music Institute and explored how being involved in creative residencies impacts collaborative musical work. During the first week (July 10-18) of 2016’s New Music Initiative, I had the chance to observe how two ensembles of composer/performers craft fluid, group-developed music.

Invisible Anatomy is a New York-based composers collective dedicated to large-scale multi-media shows. Its members—Brendon Randall-Myers, Paul Kerekes, Dan Schlosberg, Ian Gottlieb, Ben Wallace, and Fay Kueen Wang—are also cunning and acerbic performers, the collective’s name is a nod towards the physical bodies of performers and the invisible presence of composers on a concert stage, a celebratory collision of what cellist/composer Ian Gottlieb calls “the immediacy of a composer who also expresses himself with his own instrument.” While the group’s electric/acoustic instrumentation is similar to the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the strength of Invisible Anatomy’s previous multimedia shows (2014’s Body Parts and 2015’s Dissections) is the diversity of their sonic approach, which veers without warning from dynamic, hocketing pulsar (Paul Kerekes’s Pressing Issues) to slow motion sonic vivisection (Ian Gottlieb’s Threading Light).

The Process

While Dissections and Body Parts were continuous shows, the constituent musical numbers were independently composed works stitched together in what Dan Schlosberg calls an “abridged composer-performer model.” During their week at Avaloch, the boys of Invisible Anatomy (Fay Wang was unable to attend) decided to generate new material for their forthcoming Transfigurations[1] through a more improvisational compositional model.

Since the members of Invisible Anatomy are gifted performers with what Paul Kerekes calls “composer-y” brains, why not harness their collective strengths as orchestrators and developers of musical material and manipulate each other’s ideas in real time? After a few days of improvising and becoming more comfortable with each other as performers, Invisible Anatomy settled into a “transfiguration” rhythm, using minuscule nuggets of material as starting points in order to (as Brendon Randall-Myers puts it) “collectively build this thing which everyone has equity in.”

Paul Kerekes brings two musical ideas into rehearsal: a chord progression and a fragment of one of Fay Wang’s pieces that he had extracted and “transfigured,” a snappy scale passed among the group. Kerekes shoots his progression (a “numbered sequence of inquisitive, vague, and suggestive verticalities” is probably more descriptive) to each member’s iPad.

Idea no 2 (before)

Paul Kerekes’ initial sketch for development in rehearsal with Invisible Anatomy

The boys take turns at the helm, each offering a broad theme for the next run through—“hocketed, without attack”—which they apply to their instruments while buttressing with their own thoughts. Brainstorming is quick and polite and perhaps a bit ADD. Minute and enormous changes are equivalent, and the work appears non-teleological until “Paul’s” piece is set with the firmness of an underdone quiche. It’s a disfigured, sickly chorale constructed of sighing, groaning, articulation-less sounds sliding and sliming (in the best possible way). Schlosberg and Kerekes’s piano and keyboard playing melts into Randall-Myers’s guitar, Wallace’s bowed vibraphone, and Gottlieb’s sickly long tones. By the end of the week, the group has generated almost 20 minutes of their new show using this working method–a flight of musical follies touching down briefly amidst austere harmonic totems, absurdist cowboy music, and vaudevillian settings of warning labels.

What’s immediately noticeable during Invisible Anatomy’s rehearsals is that there is no functional boundary between performer and composer. They aren’t afraid to get dirty with each other’s ideas and tend to treat everything as their own composition. A deep awareness of each other’s compositional and performative strengths allows them to connect the dots more quickly and create more idiomatic music with grace.

I’m struck by two things. First, I am entranced by how Invisible Anatomy’s serpentine creative process results in work that reeks of form, structure, and development. At the same time, the lack of waste makes me jealous. As a percussionist steeped in a more conservative collaborative method—note learning, making idiomatic suggestions to composer friends, learning revised parts, taping over hastily reprinted pages—it’s a fantastic time saver.

Invisible Anatomy

Brendon Randall-Myers, Ian Gottlieb, Paul Kerekes, Ben Wallace, and Dan Schlosberg of Invisible Anatomy

Invisible Anatomy’s dynamicism and playfulness is mirrored in another group concurrently in residence at Avaloch. Triplepoint Trio (Doug Perry, Sam Suggs, and Jonny Allen) exist somewhere within contemporary music and jazz, and each member is a classically trained performer, improviser, and creator. This drum/vibraphone/bass trio is made up of Avaloch veterans: they’ve attended as a group in 2016 and 2015, and Doug Perry and Sam Suggs have also come with other groups.

For Perry, Allen, and Suggs, arrangement, composition, and performance are almost the same act. During Invisible Anatomy’s stay at Avaloch, Triplepoint was developing pieces by Perry and Suggs, each of which mobilized the unique talents of the group. Doug and Sam brought ideas ranging from a single chord to a fully fleshed out arrangement to the group. Through improvisation, the edges of the work are gradually hardened, and the piece’s “instigator” tends to have the final say over the large-scale structure.

What’s great about Triplepoint Trio is the way in which these skills seep into their performances of more “fixed,” predetermined music. While at Avaloch, the trio workshopped a new piece by Michael Laurello, written for Fender Rhodes, bass, and vibraphone, and in 2015 they used their stay at the farm to work on music from Invisible Anatomy’s Brendon Randall-Myers and Paul Kerekes. In each case, the composers created bounded material, but the performances were improvisational, spontaneous, and joyful.

Triplepoint Trio

Doug Perry and Jonny Allen of Triplepoint Trio rehearse

A Focus on Process

Both Triplepoint and Invisible Anatomy were productive collaborators during their time at Avaloch. So what? Was there something different about being here, surrounded by apples, blueberries, corn, and cookies, when compared to their normal rehearsal spaces? Did physical space have an impact on their creative work?

Obviously, being at a residency has logistical benefits. Ensembles are able to leave their percussion forts and jungles of electronics set up during their stay, saving a lot of time. Ensembles that have been to Avaloch tend to point towards the value of being “away” to create, having a dedicated time and space for a specific project.

Lastly, it seems as though the lack of pressure to leave with something concrete allowed Invisible Anatomy to focus on refining their creative process. For ensembles of composer/performers, neither the tight, goal-oriented schedules of summer festivals nor the creative isolation of writers colonies fit.   At Avaloch, both Triplepoint Trio and Invisible Anatomy were able to stretch their legs creatively while being inspired by the diverse community around them. For Invisible Anatomy’s Ian Gottlieb, the difference was clear: “At a seminar or festival, part of the reason to go is to walk away with something: a recording, or some networking experience; here the highlight is on process.”

Next time, I want to take a look at a few collaborators for whom physical proximity allowed for speed in composition and interpretation. Stay tuned!

1. I’m sensing a theme in titles…

Summer Residency Snapshots: Lessons in Dynamic Collaboration

One of the most fantastic elements of American contemporary music is its dynamic collaborative ecosystem.   As a percussionist and nerd, I’m fascinated with the degree to which long-term relationships between composers and performers generate compelling music and effective advocacy. Highlighting the amazing work of musical friends is a driving force of my cello/percussion duo New Morse Code, and a gigantic part of my playing, teaching, and thinking about percussion.

In these four posts, I want to explore some collaborations that have inspired me, and take a look at the role of long-term relationships and physical place in contemporary music. Fortunately, I have a fantastic point from which to observe. Since 2015, my New Morse Code partner Hannah Collins and I co-direct a unique incubator for composer/performer collaborations. Avaloch Farm Music Institute is a residency designed for performing ensembles founded by Fred Tauber and Deb Sherr in 2015. Avaloch’s New Music Initiative is a specially curated month within this season. During each week of this month, the farm is full of preexisting chamber ensembles collaborating with composers on new work.

LuSo Percussion

LuSo Percussion (Terry Sweeney, Adam Rosenblatt, Tatevik Khoja-Eynatyan) workshop music by François Sarhan
Photo by Doug Perry

To Avaloch veteran Robert Honstein, the atmosphere at Avaloch’s New Music Initiative is somewhere between a festival, composer residency, and rehearsal. Where festivals tend to center on goals and activities, residencies on isolation, and rehearsals on focused objectives, Avaloch is an amalgamation of all three, marked by a “healthy exchange of ideas between participants,” “the gift of time and space,” and a wonderful collaborative energy. Our weekly sharing sessions are fantastic examples of this diversity and fecundity. Equal parts performance, presentation, and question and answer session, these get-togethers allow everyone on the farm the chance to share new material with a supportive community without the pressure of a formalized concert environment. I think of these events as extensions of our informal conversations and natural cross-pollination, a slightly more formal version of the lingering in doorways and pdf Airdropping we’ve been doing all week. The population of Avaloch changes each week, but ensembles who’ve been here inevitably stay in touch, play the works of composers they met while in residence, and plan concerts together.

Since the New Music Initiative began in 2015, we’ve had an amazing assortment of performers and composers from across the world, with projects ranging from burgeoning collaborations to the workshopping of grant-funded commissions. The first week of 2016’s New Music Initiative is a wonderfully representative assortment: In one night, we heard performances from Triplepoint Trio, LuSo Percussion, Arx Duo, and HereNowHear, featuring world premieres from Michael Laurello, Alyssa Weinberg, and a new work co-written by the members of Invisible Anatomy.

The diversity and dynamism of projects at Avaloch’s NMI provides both a wonderful argument for the efficacy of contemporary music in contemporary culture as well as a convenient site from which to examine and juxtapose some creative dialogues that inspire, catalyze, and drive new music. Over the course of these posts, I want to shine light on the different types of work happening at Avaloch, observing how some interesting ensembles and composers create. How can taking part in a close dialogue over the genesis of a piece lead to more sustained and flexible partnerships? How do ensembles of composer/performers break down traditional “roles” while crafting fluid, group-developed music? How can being in an idyllic natural setting, surrounded by other interesting musicians and away from one’s normal routine, impact creative work? Is it important to be friends?


View of Avaloch from the porch, the unofficial center of social activities
Photo by Kristan Toczko

I hope that my amateur-hour ethnography is not interpreted as a shoddy attempt to create a taxonomy of creative models and draw homologies between unrelated experiences.   My goal is not to say that the types of collaborations I’ve been fortunate enough to observe and take part in at Avaloch grant me authority to make broader statements about the direction and scope of contemporary music in the US. Instead, I hope to accomplish something much more selfish: to describe some wonderful music I’ve heard and to ask questions that will drive my own future collaborations and that may (hopefully) inspire you as well.

Next time, I’ll explore how some groups at Avaloch blur the line between performer and composer, taking a closer look at one group where composers perform (Invisible Anatomy) and one where performers compose (Triplepoint Trio). Stay tuned and join in our exploits on Facebook and Instagram.

Michael Compitello

Michael Compitello

Michael Compitello is a percussionist active as a chamber musician, soloist, and teaching artist. He has performed with Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Signal, Ensemble ACJW, and has worked with composers Helmut Lachenmann, Nicolaus A. Huber, David Lang, John Luther Adams, Alejandro Viñao, Marc Applebaum, and Martin Bresnick on premieres and performances of new chamber works.

With cellist Hannah Collins as New Morse Code, Michael has created a singular and personal repertoire through long-term collaboration with some of America’s most esteemed young composers. He also champions new and recent works for solo percussion in the US and abroad.

Michael is assistant professor of percussion at the University of Kansas. He earned a DMA and MM from the Yale School of Music, and a BM from the Peabody Conservatory.

Musicians at Work: Ensemble Residencies as Social Relationships

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

Over the last few decades, many American schools of music have embraced the repertoire and missions of new music ensembles. DePauw, Oberlin, Eastman, Mills College, and even Indiana’s Jacob’s School of Music have opened their doors to the new generation of composers and performers creating new music today. While this is hardly news to the readership of NewMusicBox, it marks a significant change in attitude among American higher education institutions. Take, for example, musicologist Susan McClary’s assessment from 1989 that “both popular and postmodern musics are marked as the enemy, and there is still considerable effort exerted to keep them out of the regular curriculum.” Nine years later, Robert Fink summarized his take on the influence of classical music’s institutions thusly: “For the first time, the production and consumption of contemporary art music has broken quite free of institutionalized classical music.” Fink was writing about groups like the Bang on a Can All-Stars and their proclivity for performing outside the hallowed spaces of leading institutions.

In contrast to these dour proclamations, today’s schools of music increasingly view new music as a vital and attractive addition to their education mission. A manifestation of this shift is the ensemble residency. Academies across the country routinely hire musicians to teach students both the art and business of professional new music-making. Last year, I had the opportunity to explore the interaction between ensembles and institutions. I spent time with three groups at different schools: Third Coast Percussion at the University of Chicago, the Playground Ensemble at Metropolitan State University Denver, and Eighth Blackbird at the Curtis Institute of Music.[1]

I begin with a scene from my fieldwork in Chicago with Third Coast Percussion:

It’s 5:25 p.m. and Third Coast Percussion is running through their music. The quartet has spent most of the day here, in their studio space on Rockwell Avenue in Chicago, collaborating with composer Jonathan Pfeffer. The composer prefers to write music for people he knows well, and he spent the last two days experimenting with the group and discussing how the piece might work. Pfeffer left a few hours ago, and the quartet has since moved on to music for an upcoming concert. A brief pause occurs after they finish the piece, the members gathering their thoughts.

“We kind of settled into a tempo, and I think we should just roll with that” says Peter Martin. David Skidmore observes that the crescendo at measure thirty could grow louder. They discuss the dynamics and phrasing for a few minutes, but at some point, without my realizing it, the conversation drifts to the old Nickelodeon show, You Can’t Do That on Television. This type of break is not uncommon for these good-humored performers, but it lasts only a few minutes.

“We should, like, take a day off,” David says.

“Like in 2017?” replies Robert Dillon, a sarcastic grin spreading across his face.

The joke is funny, but rings true. The past week had been especially busy, with residency activities at the University of Chicago, a rehearsal with the Chicago Youth Symphony, and collaborative project with Pfeffer. Besides late night meals and occasional rehearsal jokes, the four percussionists have gone without a break for about nine days, often working long hours and hauling equipment from one locale to another. Phones are always close at hand as members check the progress on upcoming projects, contracts, and gig schedules. After laughing off Rob’s joke, they run the piece again, this time with the lights out as they’ll perform it.

Composer Jonathan Pfeffer working with Third Coast percussionist David Skidmore on the Kalimba.

Composer Jonathan Pfeffer working with Third Coast percussionist David Skidmore on the Kalimba.

I describe this scene in detail because it is typical to a work routine found among Third Coast Percussion, Eighth Blackbird, and the Playground Ensemble. Long days of work followed by rehearsals for quickly approaching gigs was common to all three ensembles. Performers often strove for a high level of musicianship that requires focused attention and lengthy rehearsals of difficult music. Humor was used frequently to lighten the mood, but nothing could stop the relentless approach of deadlines.

When every moment has potential meaning, it can be hard to relax.

These musicians are, to invoke the buzzword of our time, “entrepreneurs.”[2] They “create success” for themselves, an approach touted by arts consultant Astrid Baumgartner. They innovate, collaborate, and embrace what psychologist Carol Dweck dubs the “growth mindset.” Obstacles are transformed into creative guidelines, and programs created to attract audiences with enticing themes. Entrepreneurialism is celebrated by many in the arts scene, but the reality is less sunny than the image often projected by consultants and administrators. Because it valorizes flexibility, opportunism, and social relationships, entrepreneurialism demands constant work. When every moment has potential meaning, it can be hard to relax.

Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird work together.

Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird worked together in the summer on creating a special touring show for the upcoming season. From left to right: Third Coast Managing Director Liz Pesnel, percussionist David Skidmore, eighth blackbird percussionist Matthew Duvall, and production manager Rachel Damon.

And work is constant in a small flexible ensemble. During my fieldwork with these three groups, I saw people working at all hours of the day, often leaving one site to report to another. Even breaks could be filled with work: phone calls to arrange the details of an upcoming gig, meetings with collaborators or students, or attending the premier of a friend’s piece. In one case, I sat down with two musicians for a casual lunch and they started discussing an approaching show, prompting one musician to quip, “Sorry to make this a work lunch!” The flexible nature of these ensembles, a seeming hallmark of the new music scene today, requires constant attention to the dozen or so obligations that, like plates spinning on poles, are poised to fall without warning. A grant application is due. Did you send me that budget? Can you help set up chairs for a second? I need to practice that one part. We have a concert and need some spoken notes. Could you prepare something?

Within the residency, tailoring is the working method of the flexible ensemble. Like consultants in the business world, these musical entrepreneurs maintain an influential if somewhat ambiguous relationship with host institutions (Sennett, 2006). At each residency, musicians designed projects (concerts, presentations, and teaching activities) that were somehow tailored to the needs of the institution and the abilities of the ensemble. Work included a variety of teaching and performing activities, as dictated by the nature of the institution and the contract for the residency. This tailoring required regular communication between ensembles and institutions, a somewhat challenging prospect depending on the number of people involved on each side of the consultant relationship. Furthermore, an ensemble’s impact upon an institution was confined by the temporary nature of the residency itself. None of these musicians were actually full-time faculty members, and their ability to shape institutional policy and goals remained limited by their transience. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that ensembles have a strong and infectiously positive impact upon an institution’s students.

In addition to economic and logistical support, residencies provide crucial symbolic capital.

For all three groups, residencies are a major part of professional life and economic livelihood. The two touring ensembles—Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird—rely heavily on residencies for their income. Residency activities such as teaching and master classes are often important offerings used to secure gigs within the network of music institutions. Such work varies greatly in length, ranging from a few hours of teaching, lecturing, or coaching all the way to weeks of activities spread out throughout the year (or years, as in the case of Eighth Blackbird’s Curtis residency). For the Playground Ensemble, a single residency provides limited financial support, but gives the group access to percussion equipment, rehearsal space, and performance venues.

Cellist and Playground Ensemble member Richard vonFoerster gives feedback to the composer.

During an open reading session for student compositions, cellist and Playground Ensemble member Richard vonFoerster gives feedback to the composer.

In addition to economic and logistical support, residencies provide crucial symbolic capital. The currency of artists for some time, symbolic capital takes the form of prestige and reputation. It is, in essence, the value of your name. Ensembles leverage relationships, prizes, grants, and endorsements from critics and other influential taste-makers to secure future work. The prestige ascribed to a given institution serves as a sort of sociomusical business card in conversations with insiders and outsiders, as Third Coast Percussion member Robert Dillon told me of their Notre Dame residency:

There’s nothing better than being able to go somewhere and say that you’re tied to this larger reputable institution. For people who know nothing [about new music], if we walk in someplace and say we have ensemble residency at the University of Notre Dame, it’s like, “Wow, you guys must be great!” And if you’re talking to presenters or managers, then they know the person who runs the [DeBartolo] Performing Arts Center [at Notre Dame], and so that’s even better.

Members of all three ensembles described a similar view of residencies. The prestige and respect perceived to be held by the institution was, in effect, transferred to the ensemble and provided evidence of the ensembles’ legitimacy and respectability (see further Kingsbury, 1988 and Cottrell, 2004).

Like other aspects of flexible artistic labor life, residencies are developed through and contribute to social relationships. They allow ensembles to foster new contacts and project ideas. During fieldwork, I witnessed plans for future projects flourish in institutional spaces. Students told me about the important lessons they had learned from musicians, and teachers and administrators hailed residencies as part of a broader shift in institutional culture. This was especially true at Curtis, where composition faculty and director of the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble David Ludwig had spearheaded a broader shift in curriculum. In an interview with me, Ludwig described a new emphasis on teaching Curtis students:

how to be self-motivated, how to have artistic intellectual curiosity and apply that to being in the community and to engaging people. It shows a very different way of thinking […] because the school wouldn’t have even thought of that pre-internet, pre ideas of engagement.

Within this context, Eighth Blackbird figured in many ways as a model for the socio-musical entrepreneurs Curtis now seeks to create. Along similar lines, Prof. Peter Schimpf, Chair of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Music, described his vision: “I want Metro to be sort of a hub [of musical activity].” Playground, for Schimpf, offered a new music spoke, as it were, on this hub of musical offerings.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency. From left to right: Lisa Kaplan, Yvonne Lam, Nick Photinos, Matthew Duvall, Michael Maccaferri, and former member Tim Munro.

At all three institutions, ensemble members became, to varying extents, part of the educational life and community of the institution, carving out nooks and crannies, as it were, for themselves and for interaction between themselves and students. These types of social relationships were viewed by all as highly valuable when considering the overall value of the residency. The residencies thus reified these relationships into contracted work.

For over thirty years now, musicians, arts workers, and presenters have been building a vibrant scene of musical activity that provides much needed reform to classical music and an alternative to the stodgy programming common within classical music. Creating this scene requires constant energy, constant work, and constant maintenance of social relationships. Projects and programs must be tailored to unique needs, tweaked after they start, and thrown out when they falter. Though rarely examined in the popular press, residencies are an important site in the production of the new music culture so many of us love.

John Pippen

John Pippen

John Pippen teaches courses in ethnomusicology, jazz, and music and culture at the College of Wooster. His primary research has been an extended ethnographic study of the new music scene in Chicago. Pippen has presented his research at meetings of the American Musicological Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Society for American Music, and College Music Society, among others.

1. For this publication, I have omitted specific details because of the sensitive nature of musicians’ networks. An important issue that remains to be fully explored in the academic literature, musicians often prefer to keep the details of gigs (fees, contracts, struggles) out of public view.

2. Many in new music are wary of this term, as am I. I have spoken to musicians of varying stature who express sincere doubts about the accuracy of the way Baumgartner and others use “entrepreneur.” Others are hesitant to invoke a term they view as connected with neoliberalism (a view I share).

Opera Philadelphia Names Rene Orth 6th Composer in Residence

Rene Orth

Opera Philadelphia, in collaboration with Music-Theatre Group in New York, has announced that composer Rene Orth has been selected as its sixth composer in residence. Funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the position combines an individualized plan of study with a living stipend and health benefits.

Orth’s appointment began on June 1, 2016. She joins composers in residence David T. Little, who was appointed in June 2014, and David Hertzberg, who was appointed in June 2015. Composers Missy Mazzoli, Lembit Beecher, and Andrew Norman have all completed their residencies with Opera Philadelphia.

Originally from Dallas, Orth recently completed her studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she held the Edward B. Garrigues Fellowship and studied with David Ludwig, Jennifer Higdon, and Richard Danielpour. Her chamber opera Empty the House, with a libretto by Mark Campbell, received its world premiere with Curtis Opera Theatre in a sold-out run in January 2016. The piece was also selected to be a part of Fort Worth Opera’s FRONTIERS showcase in May 2016.

Orth is a recipient of a 2016 OPERA America Discovery Grant for Female Composers, which will help provide funding for the development of Machine, a new chamber opera with librettist Jason Kim. In 2014, Washington National Opera commissioned Orth for a chamber opera, An American Man. With a libretto by Jason Kim, the work premiered at the Kennedy Center as part of WNO’s American Opera Initiative.

(–From the press release. Read the full announcement here.)

Tilting the Frame: Notes on an Alternative Education

In looking at our community of musicians, I see a lot of folks freshly graduated from school and flailing wildly (socially, financially, artistically). This is happening in the art world as well, but I’ve seen the art community react more quickly to create support for these post-graduates (is this the right term?) than our own musical commune. (As a note, I’m for the dissolution of the boundaries between the two communities and surround myself with thinkers and makers from both.) I’ve found more support from the experimental art community than the musical community in terms of performance opportunities as well as in the critique of my work. Why is this? One of the reasons is that my work is fairly unconventional, but the other is that the visual art world has thought about this issue and developed ways to cope, to grow, and to invite people into the conversation of reckless making at the intersection of art, music, and performance.

If our aim is to become smart and savvy makers of sound and performance, what models can be adopted from other fields to encourage the development of new works, new ideas, and new musics hitherto unknown? How can we best support the newest generation of composers, performers, sound artists, and thinkers?

We already have a few key models of post-graduate support: the residency, mentorship, the peer-to-peer relationship, and the community surrounding a performance venue. But how can we do better for our graduates? In what ways can we encourage an environment where musicians can extend the self through experimentation, focused critique, and social support? With this question in mind, I’ve collected as examples three of my favorite art and food groups that have successfully incubated new ways of thinking about collaboration and making work in a dynamic way.


Machine Project
Form: Storefront // Collective // Alternative Space
Location: Echo Park, Los Angeles, CA
Founded in 2003 by Mark Allen
Full disclosure: I’ve worked closely with Machine Project since 2008 as an artist and curator, collaborating with Mark Allen and Elizabeth Cline on projects at their storefront location and at neighboring museums. The thing that I find interesting about Machine Project is how it encourages our community of artists, musicians, scientists, designers, and makers to create works in a highly permissible environment where failure is embraced as part of the process. In contrast to our typical practice in music where the composition is finished before the concert, Machine Project would be more interested in finishing the piece with the public at the concert. At Machine, my work is often critiqued by a group of my peers, and curated into performances that yield surprising and exciting results. Works at Machine often elicit a reaction that is a mixture of surprise, intrigue, and awkwardness. It offers artists the chance to make experimental works with the public, or experiment with the public on art itself. And on a personal level, in dispersing a sense of authorship and folding my name into the Machine Project heading, I’ve acquired anonymity in which to experiment and try new things that I wouldn’t normally take on myself.

Description of an event at Machine Project
Infantcore: Experimental music by babies for adults. Mark Allen came up with this idea to have babies perform experimental music, and in conversation I thought that this would be best accomplished with video tracking, by someone like Scott Cazan (a tech genius and experimental musician). For this event, Scott created motion tracking software that converts the baby’s movement into sound. The music is really dense, beautiful, and rigorous, and created by unknowing toddlers crawling across a “Storefront Plaza” created by the artist, Nate Page.
Infantcore was a technically and logistically complex idea that needed to be implemented in a matter of weeks,” Cazan explains. Coming from a what if question about experimental music by babies, he had to create a musical solution for the work that correlated to babies and their movement. “In the end perhaps the most interesting outcome was the relation between the intense music indoors being created by the infants and the infants themselves unassumingly peering back at their parents through the glass.
“The babies were called and the software was written in the course of a few days, and then more babies than we had imagined showed up and made some bleak music.”

The Main House at Mildred’s Lane.

The Main House at Mildred’s Lane.
Photo by Fritz Haeg

Mildred’s Lane
Form: artists’ residence, pedagogical summer program, radical experiment in living, and site for creative exchange and learning deep in the woods.
Location: on 96 Acres in Northeast Pennsylvania
If Machine Project operates a bit like a hyperactive, open-source think tank for ideas and events, Mildred’s Lane works from a meditative set of aesthetics that govern their communal living in rural Pennsylvania. Mildred’s Lane is an ongoing collaboration between J. Morgan Puett, Mark Dion, their son Grey Rabbit Puett, and their friends and colleagues. In an attempt to sidestep the omnipresent debates about what art/design/architecture is, the group works deep in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania to create a collaborative artist colony that investigates a complex mashup of art-making and life-making. The work manifests as installations, a small-run press, and private and collective performances set deep in the woods.
What I find so interesting about Mildred’s Lane is that the space operates a bit like some of the established musical retreats in the Northeast, but with a more experimental ethos: They are focused on the everyday and allowing time and space for experimentation–much like a traditional residency, but I get the sense (having never been there) that there is something very special about the place in the way it’s able to captivate the imagination of the artist. They have created an antiquated and highly curated environment that lets life into the work through a kind of farmstead commune that cooks together, binds books, makes art, writes music, takes walks, and breathes. By offering this alternative present they have found a unique way of asking questions such as: Where is the future of art and society going? What do we really need in our 21st century?

A Bookbinding workshop at Mildred’s Lane.

A Bookbinding workshop at Mildred’s Lane.
Photo by Fritz Haeg

Cook it Raw
Form: Annual Chef Retreat and Meal
Location: International, site-based
Created in 2009 by Rene Redzepi and Alessandro Porcelli
In the Japanese prefecture of Ishikawa in 2012, 15 chefs from around the world were invited to meet for the fourth installment of Cook it Raw. Over the course of a few days, the chefs researched local sake at a distillery, went foraging in the forest (for mushrooms, wild wasabi, sorrel, yams, and parsley), went to a fish market to observe the seafood industry, and finally hunted ducks using traditional Japanese nets. On the final day, each chef then prepared a plate in a multi-course meal for an audience of 50, using the materials foraged and collected over the course of the week.

“You don’t come here to learn, but you learn. You don’t come to teach, but you teach.” – Quique Dacosta, chef

What makes it unique?
Cook it Raw is a peer-to-peer model that takes a group of chefs through firsthand experiences with food that reach into the ancient rituals of eating and embrace the modern avant-garde of microgastronomy. A group of equals is collectively put into new and possibly uncomfortable positions, during which they learn about local practices in food production, foraging, and cooking. This model disarms the avant-garde chefs, stripping away their established egos and inviting them to re-evaluate their culinary instincts. A big part of Cook it Raw seems to be the lasting impact that this three-day intensive leaves on the chefs, encouraging them to be mindful of their own local food culture.


Missing from this particular article are all of the alternative spaces that continue to do more for the musician, helping the work to grow in new and unexpected ways. I often wonder what incubators are yet to be created, however. What spaces are yet to pop up and serve the community in a new way that engenders new work, new ideas, new forms? Each one of the groups above have answered this question in a different way, seating themselves on the fringes of their respective worlds and engaging young artists in fresh ideas. The learning that arises through actually making work is invaluable to those looking to learn, grow, and evolve their process (compositional, performative, or other). For now, I hope each musician can act as an amplifier for their community, organizing platforms to help evolve the work through sharing both publicly and privately.

Copland House Announces 2013 Residency Awards

winners of the 2013 Copland House Residency Awards

Photo Top to Bottom: Fitch, Haddad; Hollowa, Ko; Omiccioli, Rohde; Theofanidis, Trombore
Image courtesy Dworkin & Company

Copland House has announced the names of eight American composers from five states and Great Britain selected for all-expenses-paid residencies during the 2013-14 season at Aaron Copland’s National Historic Landmark home in New York’s lower Hudson Valley.

The winners of the 2013 Copland House Residency Awards are:

Keith Fitch (47, Cleveland Heights, OH)
Saad Haddad (20, Northridge, CA)
Aaron Holloway-Nahum (30, London, UK)
Tonia Ko (24, Ithaca, NY)
Nicholas Omiccioli (31, Kansas City, MO)
Kurt Rohde (46, San Francisco, CA)
Christopher Theofanidis (45, New Haven, CT)
Dale Trumbore (25, Los Angeles, CA)

This year’s eminent jury, which included composers Eric Chasalow (himself a former Copland House resident), Daron Hagen, and Paul Moravec, reviewed the applications of 99 composers from 26 states and 5 countries.

The residents will live and work, one at a time, at Copland’s home for stays ranging from three to eight weeks. As Copland House residents, they will also become eligible for post-residency awards and performances that advance their work, including the Sylvia Goldstein Award, Borromeo String Quartet Award, Hoff-Barthelson Music School Commission, and others, and their work may be showcased in performance by the Music from Copland House ensemble.

Additional information about Copland House, its residencies, and other activities can be found at coplandhouse.org.

from the press release