Tag: role models

Standing Tall, Still To Be Seen

An empty music studio (photo by Catherine Joy)

The Oscar nominees were announced this last week and while the shortlist was full of promise, featuring both Chanda Dancy and Hildur Guðnadóttir for best score, the actual nominee list featured only men. Extremely talented male composers who write fantastic scores, without doubt, but it was frustrating to once again see no women represented when their work was obviously just as deserving. Hildur was nominated and won a number of critics’ awards and yet was not nominated by the Academy music branch. We saw a similar situation with the best director nominees. But why does this even matter? Why do we feel so frustrated and unseen?

I have often pondered this question. As a composer who happens to be a woman I long to “just be a composer” and simply focus on the music. I would infinitely prefer not to have to wrestle with these questions of equality, inclusivity, and diversity. I know many of my colleagues–be they women, non-binary individuals, or any composer who doesn’t fall into the category of “white cis-male”–also long for the same freedom; the freedom to just look away and not get involved. But there is a very important reason to continue to grapple with this issue: representation. We need to stand up so we can be seen by those coming after us.

When I was thirteen and growing up in Tasmania, Australia, I managed to win a scholarship that afforded me a place in an expensive high school that had a stellar music program. It was a girls’ school. Throughout the years we girls were challenged to be the very best and told that we could do anything. The world was open to us. At the time I was a violinist and singer. I was surrounded by many strong brilliant women in the music world. But something wasn’t right for me. I knew I wasn’t going to be a performing classical musician, and I longed to get “off the page”. When I look back now at my younger self, I see someone dying to compose. And yet it took me years to find composition. Why? Because I didn’t know it was a thing! The only composers we studied were men. The music being performed in the orchestras and played on the radio was all by men; repertoire hundreds of years old. I had no idea that being a composer was a gig available to me. Representation. It just wasn’t there. It took me decades to find out that composition was an avenue I could pursue, and when I finally found it in my 30s, I remember feeling complete relief. After decades in the music world, I had found my home. I haven’t looked back since.

One of my dear friends and mentors, Lolita Ritmanis, has a story with a similar theme. She was conducting one of her works at a concert and afterwards met up with a young girl and her mother. They expressed surprise that women could be conductors–they didn’t know. The little girl was overjoyed at the prospect. She had to see it to believe it.

I have been part of the leadership for the Alliance for Women Film Composers now since 2016. We have a directory of women composers that stands currently at around 600 individuals, which is fantastic. Yet it seems like every few months I see a social media post that says something along the lines of, “How do I find women film composers? Are there any?” I talk to filmmakers who tell me that I am the only woman composer they know. There is so much work to be done to make women composers in media, and all areas of the music world, visible. And even as we have a love-hate relationship with awards and competitions, the benefit of such things is that they draw attention to the existence of individuals. They are a vehicle to make some noise. No award competition will ever be perfect, fair, free from politics or drama. But they are avenues for young women and non-binary people, young people of all shades of melanin, to see someone up there that looks like them, and say to themselves, “I belong in this industry, too. I am represented. I’m not alone. I can do this.”

The question is how do we do this? Things are changing and this is worth celebrating. The shortlist of the Oscars is testament to that, as is the diversity we see at film festivals like Sundance and SXSW. In the world of TV, we are seeing a lot more inclusivity in the hiring of composers. This change is a result of organizations like the Alliance for Women Film Composers, the Composers Diversity Collective, and programs like the Reel Change Film Fund (of which I am a grateful recipient) which give underrepresented composers the funds to elevate a project to a higher level, which opens doors for more and greater opportunities. We are seeing studio programs like the Universal Composers Initiative which chooses a group of diverse artists to amplify and uplift. All this is exciting, but I believe we are still at the beginning of a long journey. This year’s all-male Oscar nominations for best score and best director show how far we still must go. We need to simultaneously celebrate the progress and buckle down for a long road ahead. While the change must happen in all areas, I believe it begins with women supporting women. Women uplifting and amplifying their sister creatives, voting for them, celebrating their work. Women need to lead the way.

We cannot ignore ongoing deficits in equality, diversity, and inclusivity. It is time to find all the ways we can to get loud, stand tall and call out inequality, even when it’s uncomfortable. We need to ensure a richer creative landscape for the following generation to thrive.

The Importance of Women Role Models in This Industry

Two women posing on an orchestra stage together

Recently, I overheard a conversation between two educators about the lack of young girls interested in playing jazz music. One asked the other why it seemed like there weren’t as many girls as boys interested in playing instrumental jazz. The other person replied, “Well, where are the women jazz mentors?” Together, they concluded that it wasn’t that men aren’t able to properly mentor young female jazz instrumentalists, it just seemed that because of the lack of apparent women role models, young girls might get the idea that “maybe playing jazz music isn’t for me.” Overhearing this conversation led me to question why this seems like the case. And if this is the case, where are the women mentors in jazz, or—looking more broadly—in most genres of music? For me, having amazing female mentors and role models was and still is crucial to my growth as an artist.

Having amazing female mentors and role models was and still is crucial to my growth as an artist.

An Unsuspected Mentor

In the fall semester of my sophomore year, I took a composition class called “Tools, Techniques, and Analysis” taught by our school’s game audio composition guru Lennie Moore. Our first few assignments had been uniquely challenging, including tasks such as building templates, creating sound logos, and composing short exercises in different modes. As the semester progressed, I started to get nervous. I had looked ahead at the syllabus before the semester began and foresaw the heavy scoring-to-picture assignments coming up, something I attempted to do in the past and had fell flat on my face in failure. I knew my demise was approaching. Then the day came when our next assignment was to re-score a 35-second commercial for Ace Combat 5, a flight combat video game. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Thirty-five seconds, how hard could that be? Just fake it or something.” But I was practically immobilized with anxiety by the thought of having to score even a second of music to picture. That’s when I booked a tutoring session with Daria Novoliantceva, who was the official TAC department tutor at that time. That single tutoring session completely changed the trajectory of my path. I walked in with only three or four sketch tracks and a poor description of a concept written down. I explained to her what I wanted the music to be like and how frustrated I was with my inability to translate that into sound. She heard me out and replied, “Oh, that’s easy, here’s how you do it,” and proceeded to create the sounds I had envisioned in my mind. I remember thinking, “Is it that? Is this really that easy or is she just a musical genius?”

After that session, I religiously booked an appointment with her every week. Her insight was incredible; I was perplexed by how easily music came to her. I was amazed by how she could sit down at a piano and her fingers could effortlessly find the right keys to fit the emotion. She showed me her favorite production tricks as well as different ways to smoothly blend electronic elements into my orchestral writing. Any sort of sound or emotion that I wanted to express, she could say, “Oh you can do this!” and show me. Each lesson would consist of us excitedly ping-ponging ideas back and forth, in a never-ending cycle of inspiration. My idea would inspire a solution from her, which would spark another idea from me, and so on. Our lessons felt magical. Above all, I was impressed by her knowledge of and passion for music, her deep dedication to teaching, and her humility on top of everything else that came so naturally to her. Throughout our tutoring sessions, Daria helped me crawl out of my own cave of fears and into the light of my own compositional voice. She taught me the language of creating sound in a way that I’d never thought about before. Daria was, is, and always will be one of my biggest role models. I am eternally grateful for her teachings.

My Role Models

Another kind of mentor I’ve had the luxury of meeting on this journey was Penka Kouneva, my mentor for the Game Audio Network Guild Scholars program. She illustrates the picture-perfect image of a working professional who is deeply submerged in a successful career as a game music composer, and at the same time is willing to share her rich knowledge with a younger generation. She instilled in me the importance of being an enduring player in this industry and to keep my head in the game if this is something I’m truly serious about. She also invited me to a fancy networking breakfast meet-up with other established women in the game audio industry, a memory I won’t soon forget.

And of course, there is my beloved advisor, teacher, and spirit guide MaryClare Brzytwa.

With her patience like that of a wise sage, she somehow always knows just the right amount of force to push with and just the right things to say to nurture. Amidst my confusion phase, when I started heavily contemplating different career paths, instead of jumping in to stop me, she simply stepped back and let me figure it out by myself. She is always operating for the highest good of her students. By constantly creating a flow of new opportunities for her students, she stretches our minds while simultaneously being the role model of a brilliant, creative, and entrepreneurial-minded woman that we all could only strive to be like in the future.

Inspired By Successful Women

On April 23, the women of the TAC program organized a concert entitled “The Future is Female.” This concert was fully produced, engineered, composed, conducted, and performed by women in the program. I had the opportunity to produce a series of video interviews with accomplished women in the industry, such as audio directors, business owners, and mixing and mastering engineers. In an interview with Piper Payne, owner and chief mastering engineer at Neato Mastering, she points out:

There are all these social media posts that go out that are like, ‘Where are all the women? There aren’t enough women in the industry,’ and ‘They’re not very active on the forums or the social stuff.’ Well, guess what? We’re working! We’re busy. We’re here in our studios making records. We’re not spouting off about how we’re better than somebody else on the internet.

When I first started on this path, there was a small part of me that felt like maybe I didn’t belong here. That small part of me was immediately shut down and proven wrong when I opened my eyes to all of the extraordinary women around me in this industry. People may think that there aren’t working female mentors and industry professionals, but I’m here to tell you from first-hand experience that they’re everywhere – and they’re probably busy working in the studio or the office. If not there, then they’re out kicking some ass or conquering the world. We need to spread awareness that there are indeed women working full-time in this industry, and success in this field is achievable. Meeting these women has significantly altered my perspective on my own reality: what is possible for me and where I see myself in the future. Without them, I wouldn’t be anything like who I am today.

Building Curriculum Diversity: Technique, History, and Performance

I believe in the power of music as an art form to create a space for people to communally experience empathy. Classical music is a field that historically began in Europe, but I find it vital to think about the future of classical music. How do we serve our communities? How do we serve our art form? Commuting in New York City, I see the global community in a single subway car. How does classical music reflect, include, and give voice to all of these life experiences?

Violinist Jennifer Koh speaks with great clarity. She and I are sitting in her living room, the faint sound of traffic a gentle reminder of the city. We’ve been talking about commissioning and programming as advocacy for diversity over the past several days, and I’ve been bouncing some ideas off of her for this series. I’m nervous—as I always am before my writing is published—and her encouragement to speak about these issues is centering. She continues:

It is our responsibility as artists to advocate for artists and composers who happen to be women or people of color. I feel that we as artists and as an industry need to model and advocate for our entire community. And frankly, diversifying programming is the only way that classical music will survive. If our programming does not reflect the diversity of our society, then we are not serving our community and by extension, we are actively making ourselves irrelevant to society.

Jennifer Koh

Jennifer Koh

In this series on curriculum diversity, I’ve discussed how stereotype threat impedes performance, and suggested that students need role models and precedents to fight that threat. I interviewed various scholars, performers, and educators to show examples of people who are creating resources to help build curriculum diversity. As stated in the previous posts, many of these scholars noted that in order to make curriculum relevant to our students and our communities, we need to not only help them find role models, but also give them permission to achieve. In this final installment of the series on building curriculum diversity, I focus on how the inclusion of achievements by musicians that reflect the students’ racial and gender diversity empowers this younger generation of musicians to have permission to be successful.

By not only commissioning new works, but also programming historic ones and writing about composers of the past, Jackson is contributing to the body of knowledge that celebrates the precedent of great composers of color.

Ashley Jackson is another performer who has used both her scholarship and her decisions about programming to advocate for diversity. Her doctoral dissertation is an examination of the collaboration between composer Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes within the greater context of the New Negro Movement (here is a wonderful article Jackson wrote for NewMusicBox earlier this year, and she is looking forward to expanding her research to include a biography of Bonds). Jackson noted of her scholarship on black composers that it was important to “tell their stories in the same way, with the same honor.” As a performer, Jackson advocates for diversity both by programming her own concerts and by working to build a community of musical activists. Her latest performance project, Electric Lady, is a series devoted to works by female composers. In addition, she is the deputy director of The Dream Unfinished, a collective of classical musicians whose concerts promote civil rights and community organizations based in New York. By not only commissioning new works, but also programming historic ones and writing about composers of the past, Jackson is contributing to the body of knowledge that celebrates the precedent of great composers of color.

Ashley Jackson

Ashley Jackson

The experience of concerts celebrating diversity is a topic close to Jackson’s heart. In our interview, she described the first time she went to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra when she was a little girl. Ann Hobson Pilot, the first black woman hired by the BSO, was playing harp. Jackson said, “When you see role models that look like you, that leaves a strong impression. At the time, I didn’t understand the significance of that experience, but in retrospect I realize it was a brilliant move on my parents’ part. That inspiration goes a long way—not just seeing someone do it, but seeing them succeed at such a high level.”

One electronic musician who has both inspired and paved the way for younger generations is Wendy Carlos. Carlos is perhaps most famous for her 1968 work Switched-On Bach, a reimagining of Bach’s work on Moog synthesizer that won three Grammys (and will be the subject of an upcoming book in the Bloomsbury 33 ⅓ series by Roshanak Kheshti). On her website, Carlos says of the work, “I began my young experience as a composer realizing that what I had to offer [electronic music] was generally hated. But I thought that if I offered people a little bit of traditional music, and they could clearly hear the melody, harmony, rhythm and all the older values, they’d finally see that this was really a pretty neat new medium, and would then be less antipathetic to my more adventurous efforts.” Even if you’ve never heard of Carlos, you’ve probably heard some of her “more adventurous efforts” in music for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or her scores for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange or the 1982 Disney film Tron. Her example and her success show that audiences were ready for new sounds and new ways of presenting music, and her unique perspective allowed for an entire generation of listeners to become enthralled with contemporary music made by the latest technology through her film scores and records.

In addition to programming, another way performers can share the knowledge of their craft is by creating technique books or videos. This not only highlights their presence on stage as individuals, but shows how they are experts. Sound artist and abstract turntablist Maria Chavez’s wonderful book Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable explains different techniques that Chavez has developed through her career as a performer. What I love about Chavez’s music is that she takes found objects from the environment and finds their beauty through focused listening and attention in her sets. The records Chavez uses are mostly found damaged and would otherwise have been discarded. Taking these objects and turning them into a vital part of avant-garde DJing is what makes Chavez’s music so unique. Giving the objects a new voice points to the idea that forgotten or discarded peoples can be empowered to have a voice through advocacy.

Maria Chavez

Maria Chavez

When I asked Chavez why is it important to include women and people of color in curriculums or histories of electronic music, and why it is important that those contributions are visible, she responded:

I don’t think it’s necessarily important to have them in curriculum, I think it’s simply short sighted to ignore the fact that works by different humans EXIST. . . . We are past the time when European cultures were questioning whether the indigenous people had souls or if African slaves should be considered people. To be in a part of history where it’s clear how asinine these kinds of questions truly are, I think asking the question of importance should be redefined as a question of why the original history was allowed to be discussed without including the works of others in the first place. To say something is important, in regards to this question, is to still say the works are unique to the history. I disagree, the works were always there, they just weren’t given the focus as the other works were given. When works are presented equally then the beauty of the true history of electronic music can really shine for what it really is.

Once you hear that silence, you hear it everywhere.

One author who has helped refocus history to highlight forgotten composers through her recent work is Anna Beer. Beer teaches creative writing at the University of Oxford. While she is not a musician by trade, she studied music until she was 18, and she has continued to listen to and research music as a part of her life. As she was doing research about Francesca Caccini, she realized women composers were rarely represented in concert halls. Beer said, “Once you hear that silence, you hear it everywhere.” She decided that she wanted to write something that gave a voice to women who had been silenced in the past. Her advocacy became her recent book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. The book details the lives of composers such as Barbara Strozzi and Lili Boulanger. Beer said that her favorite piece that she discovered out of the research was Fanny Hensel’s Das Jahr, which Beer called an “amazing, rich, astonishing work.”

While Sounds and Sweet Airs began as a standalone project, it has turned into lecture appearances and other engagements. Beer said that it has felt important to do concert lectures alongside live performance because it meant talking directly to people. She continued, “Music has to live; it needs a platform and it has to be voiced—that is the most important task. One lieder or anything small that is programmed and heard increases momentum. It helps it live.” Beer reiterated the importance of “giving permission to the next generation to validate their curiosity. It’s not just about having role models but actively giving them permission. It enables people.”

We need to show students the achievements of all people in music. To do that, we must build greater gender and racial diversity into curriculums and concert programs so that students may see themselves in history. By taking concrete action to provide this context of both living role models and historical precedent, students can be empowered to go on to achieve in any area they are interested in. Perhaps, they will even become the positive role models they needed when they were younger.

Building Curriculum Diversity: Stereotype Threat

My mother was excited when she was accepted into music school on the mainland in the late 1960s for cello performance. She’s told me stories about moving to Michigan from Hawai‘i: almost getting frostbite, eating her first bagel. But, beyond the quaint stories of an islander learning how to survive in winter, there are more somber ones—friends who were told they had to change instruments (“women don’t play trumpet—you’ll have to switch to French horn if you want to stay in music school”) or her own experience being told repeatedly that women can’t conduct.

These seemingly benign comments of dismissal are ones that often wear students down. The extra energy it takes to stand up to someone takes away from focus on one’s craft. In fact, to be self-conscious about fulfilling a stereotype of not being as skilled as another group has been shown to decrease the performance of otherwise equally matched individuals (see Steele and Aronson’s 1995 study Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans).

Last winter, I had the opportunity to see Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de Loin at the Metropolitan Opera House. The production got a lot of attention in the media because it was the first time the MET had programmed an opera by a woman in more than 110 years. Susanna Mälkki was conducting—only the fourth woman conductor in the MET’s history—making the production even more noteworthy. The lights dimmed, and when I saw Mälkki walk up to the podium to begin the opera, I was overwhelmed. Why was I suddenly so emotional seeing this woman conduct? In an interview for NPR, when pressed to comment about the state of women composers in opera, Saariaho said, “You know, half of humanity has something to say, also.”

Spurred by the dramatic lack of diversity in orchestral and opera programming, scholars, performers, and critics have responded in different ways. Some have created databases showing the numbers so that the discussion is not just conjecture. Some have created playlists or written articles featuring women and nonbinary composers. Some have spoken out about the difficulties in making their way in music. Many of these people faced harsh criticism: that their efforts were too extreme, or not extreme enough, that they made everything about sexism, or that they were merely scratching the surface of a deeper issue. Taking a stand does not always mean doing so in extremes, but it does involve concrete action. All of us have to find our own way of addressing social issues: in our careers or not, in our personal lives or not. For me, as an educator, this discussion always comes back to curriculum.


Photo by Redd Angelo

One of my favorite things about teaching is that curriculum is alive, and therefore must be nourished so that it may change over time. That means constantly reading and learning from my colleagues and students about new music and new approaches to sound. In this series, I will share the stories and voices of scholars that have inspired me in the past year as I continue to develop my voice as an educator.

Part One is an in-depth interview with Tara Rodgers, a composer/performer and the author of Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound. The book grew out of the website that Rodgers created, Pinknoises.com, a collection of interviews with women working in electronic music.

Part Two is an interview with the editors of Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers, Laurel Parson and Brenda Ravenscroft. The first volume, Concert Music 1960–2000, explores the work of composers such as Chen Yi, Sofia Gubaidulina, Joan Tower, and Kaija Saariaho.

Finally, Part Three examines music history and performance resources through Anna Beer’s Sounds & Sweet Airs, performing organizations such as The Dream Unfinished, and performance practice resources like Maria Chavez’s Of Technique: Chance Procedures on Turntable.

Students need role models, but beyond that, permission. I heard this same message from many of the scholars I interviewed: that just seeing the idea of success in the present was not the only important element, but also understanding that there is a precedent. The only way to show students this precedent, both historically and currently in the field, is curriculum that reflects the gender and racial diversity of our society. Relating back to the Steele and Aronson study on Stereotype Threat, when students were not worrying immediately about the stereotypes of not performing as well, they in fact performed equally. I believe another way to counteract “stereotype threat” is to show a precedent of strong historical models representing a variety of people who achieved, so as to build a student’s confidence through new, positive associations: the permission to thrive.

Developing any curriculum, especially one that achieves balanced representation, is a lot of work. We all need resources that help guide us so that the work is less daunting. Whether you’re using the summer to update an academic course curriculum or interested in your own continuing personal research for programming concerts, this series aims to encourage further investigation and continue the conversation. Furthermore, if you feel comfortable sharing reading lists, syllabi, or other resources that you’ve used in the past that you are proud of, please feel free to link to those in the comments below.

All the writers I spoke with for this month’s posts saw a void in curriculum/scholarship that they wanted to begin to fill. Through the network of scholars outlined in these articles, I strive to continue to develop my own classes, knowledge about assigning repertoire, and ability to advocate for all my students.

Anne Lanzilotti

Anne Lanzilotti is a composer, performer, and scholar of contemporary music. In the fall, she will be joining the faculty at University of Northern Colorado as assistant professor of viola.

Getting the Point


Photo by Maurits Vermeulen, via Flickr

I met Laurie Frink just before I moved to New York in 2000. She was the last outpost on the way to an existential intersection. Either I would find a way to make my trumpet playing easier and less painful, or I needed to stop and do something else altogether. It was immediately clear to me that Laurie was more than a teacher. She was part “mom” and part Yoda, with a healthy dose of drinking buddy you can trust to “give it to you straight.” To a huge community of students, she was a one-woman hub in our musical flowchart. The proof of this is the tangible lack of center we have felt since she passed away in 2013.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to be good at playing the trumpet—to be great—always. I’m aware of how delusional that is, but I think anyone who has put an appreciable amount of time and energy into learning an instrument has a similar eccentricity at one point or another. While in this state, I was complaining about the lack of consistency in my playing to Laurie. I was frustrated with my shortcomings and was bearing down, practicing too much, and emotionally (and physically) exhausting myself. She stopped me in the middle of my tiny nervous breakdown and had me take a deep breath.

“Nate,” she said, “I’m going to tell you something very important that everyone should know about playing trumpet.”

A pause.

“Sometimes you just sound like shit.”

I made her clarify that she meant everyone sounds bad sometimes and not that every trumpet player should be aware of my personal limitations; a question she answered by calling me an idiot. I miss Laurie.

“You get the point, thought, right?”

Yeah, I did, and it’s stuck with me. And, in the broadest sense, everything I’ve written in the past month has to do with her point. It can be summed up in the following:

It’s just music.

My experience is that no one accidentally produces a masterpiece, and that there is no magical moment in time that is a distillation of all you are as a musician. The power of making music is found in the accretion of work and thought we put in over a lifetime, not single moments of inspiration. These brief periods of creation are important, of course, but don’t deserve the weight we give them as a culture.

The importance of John Coltrane is not found in Giant Steps. It’s present in decades of dedication to mastery of an instrument and exploring musical possibilities. However, because this is not easily quantifiable, more weight is put into a handful of moments like Giant Steps, either because they have become reified through writing or because they lend themselves to assessable classroom lessons. And that’s not a problem. It is an important step to understanding music. However, when our experience of a musician and her/his work stops at this level, a problematic mode of thinking occurs.

To start with, we hold ourselves to a standard that is unrealistic and, frankly, pointless to work toward. Pointless, not because no one can live up to John Coltrane, but because why would anyone want to? We can appreciate the knowledge gained from studying his music, but should only take his example as a starting point for our own. The only thing that can come from trying to live up to another artist’s work is to become paralyzed in our attempt to do so.

The concentration on what I’ll clumsily call “hero worship” leaves no room for critical thought and growth. The attachment to one particular artist, or to one period of their work, degrades potentially useful discussion into the modern equivalent of taking our ball and going home.

This is the crux of what I have been working towards, with a certain lack of elegance, for the past three weeks. I think it is crucial to remind ourselves of who we are and what we have learned by thinking critically. By being aware of our small moments of enlightenment, and expanding their lessons over a lifetime of creativity, we put our humanity into music instead of making music our lives.

Whom Should You Listen To?

One of the interesting aspects of writing these columns every week is that I find myself continually looking for issues to think and write about, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to set me off in one direction or another. Last week, as I was writing about Jennifer Jolley’s blog, I found an interesting post of hers describing a lesson she had taken with famed composer Augusta Read Thomas. While others might have simply written up a basic synopses of the lesson, Jennifer decided to give a play-by-play description of her entire time with Thomas–replete with pictures! One of those pictures was of a list of ten composers written on a sheet of paper–I’ll let Jennifer describe the context:

She also told me I needed to listen to more music; I completely agree. Some of my friends wanted that listening list, so here it is.

Whom Should You Listen To?

This jumped out at me for several reasons. First, I loved the fact that Thomas was telling Jennifer to listen to 20 works by each composer, thus ensuring that she become immersed in the sound world and creative concepts of each of those composers. Second, I was inspired to go listen to more music by many of her suggested composers myself because of this assignment. Finally, one could look at this list and get a very clear idea about the person who created it–it creates a window into their background, their priorities, pedagogical concepts, and stylistic tastes.

Thomas’s list got me thinking: What would other composers’ listening lists look like? Was Augusta Read Thomas unique in the method she used to create such a combination of composers to listen to for her students? How much overlap would there be across a wide selection of composers making the lists? What could one deduce from the names that were most often mentioned?

Being the inquisitive type that I am, I contacted a limited number of professional composers both here and in Europe over the weekend and asked them if they could give me a list of ten composers from the 20th and 21st centuries that they would want to give to an undergraduate or graduate student composer to listen to in depth. I’ve already received a good number of responses and the results are such that I’ve already decided to ask a lot more of my composer colleagues for their input on this topic before I make any findings public. I’m very cognizant that one could easily mutate this into a quest for a “best of” mega-list and I’m not interested in that at all. I’m already seeing some interesting patterns as far as which names come up the most and why, as well as the relationship between the overall list and the individual lists each composer is submitting. I will continue working on this and hopefully in the near future I’ll be able to write about what I’ve discovered in a future column–I’ve already decided that I won’t let anyone know who wrote which list, but I can see making both the aggregate list and the individual lists public down the road. If you are interested in taking part, please contact me directly via e-mail and please refrain from writing your list in the comments section below.

A few weeks ago my good friend Daniel Felsenfeld wrote a brilliant article on the “tyranny of lists” and as someone who tends to be a listmaker myself (as I’m sure at least a few of you remember), I want to be clear that I’m not jumping into this little side project in order to just make more lists or to push one viewpoint over another. I do, however, feel strongly that awareness in and of itself is ultimately a positive thing and if this project can shine some light on who we as a community listen to and subsequently pass down to future generations, then some good may come from it.