Tag: teaching composition

Leveraging the Quarantine to Create an Online Music Camp

Young composer at keyboard wearing headphones

“So is your father an entrepreneur to have worked with you through all of this?” asked Benjamin Taylor, composer and founder of the Music Creators Academy.

“That would be my mother.”

I remember my heart racing two months prior to that call on one of my regular walks around the neighborhood with my mother. Only a day before our walk, my plans to attend the Brevard Music Center’s Summer Institute had been canceled due to COVID-19, and we were already planning out the logistics for me to host my own summer camp.

“The demand is there,” I said, “I’m evidence enough of that! But this could be the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken…”

The Composers Collaborative Project (CCP) is an online series of lectures designed for the benefit of composers of all ages and skill levels. It has been my project of the last three months, and my attempt to leverage the quarantine to create a unique opportunity for composers seeking a path to continue developing their skills. The CCP currently features fifteen professional composition professors and freelancers – each teaching a 90-minute masterclass tailored to their individual strengths and passions. It has been one of the most exciting, nerve-racking, and fulfilling things I’ve ever attempted.

April 6th. The first email of many. If I was going to make this thing work, I would need a business entity. So I reached out to Steve Goldman, founding member of the National Young Composers Challenge (NYCC), in hopes of establishing a sponsorship or partnership. I wrote the email, took a deep breath, and pressed send.

Even though no professional partnership emerged from the conversation, Mr. Goldman was incredibly supportive and put me in touch with another NYCC judge, Dr. Alex Burtzos. Luckily for me, Dr. Burtzos had experience organizing festivals. He suggested that the best chance I had at seeing the project succeed was to turn it into a fundraiser. And with that, he introduced me to New Music USA’s Solidarity Fund. Though the Solidarity Fund would end earlier than I had expected, my mother and I decided to follow Dr. Burtzos’s advice, and – encouraged by their Solidarity Fund and other programs – evolved the project into a benefit for New Music USA.  And with a warm conversation and a plan secured with their Development Manager Miles Freeman, my next step would be to find our teachers.

From the beginning, I was concerned that it would be difficult to find anyone interested in giving their time for the project. What I discovered instead was the incredible generosity of the composition community. The support was overwhelming. I started with teachers that I knew, and reached out to others they recommended from there. In a short time, we had enough support to schedule two weeks of masterclasses!

“It’s common for young composers to think of established composers as superstars. In reality, most composers are relatively unknown outside of the new music community… They will generally be excited to hear about your interest in their work, and much more open to donating their time than you might think.” – Alex Burtzos, on our call

As a high school student, it’s intimidating reaching out to any college professor. Imagine now if that professor was a Grammy award winner, or was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, or is known around the composition world, or has judged the competitions you’ve entered, and so on! The humanity of the people I have worked with has been one of the most surprising parts of this process.

An example involving my initial conversations with Dr. Marcos Balter comes immediately to mind. I always do my best to research a person’s title before reaching out to them. In his case, I made the mistake of using ‘Mr.’ instead of ‘Dr.’. When, in the next email, I realized my mistake and apologized, he responded that it was no problem at all and that I could call him Marcos! I was blown away.

With the panel of teachers squared away, I needed to build a website. In many ways, this was a family affair. I worked on the layout and graphic design, my sister took care of the photography, and my mother wrote out the copy. Stuck in the house, my sister and I worked with what we had to create professional-looking backdrops: we rearranged my room and created props out of old manuscripts and an easel from years ago. The end result, I must say, I am very proud of.

  • The Composers Collaborative Project is my attempt to leverage the quarantine to create a unique opportunity for composers seeking a path to continue developing their skills.

    Brendan Weinbaum
  • I discovered the incredible generosity of the composition community. The support was overwhelming.

    Brendan Weinbaum
  • Of course, we were not the only ones creating a camp.

    Brendan Weinbaum
  • I will not be able to judge the success of the project until the very last minute.

    Brendan Weinbaum

Of course, we were not the only ones creating a camp. This brings us back to Benjamin Taylor’s quote from the beginning. Days before launch, I traded details with Joseph Sowa, a professor of the Music Creators Academy. He described his program as “a band camp with a heavy dose of creativity” for middle- and high-school students. I was antsy for sure; nervous at the prospect of competition. Nevertheless, both Dr. Sowa and the project’s founder, Benjamin Taylor, were incredibly kind, and given our conclusion that the two programs were meant for different audiences, we agreed to support one another in what ways we could.

This brings me another one of my favorite stories from this whole experience. Somehow neither I nor Dr. Sowa had told Dr. Taylor that I was a high school student. When we had our call and I referred to him as “Dr. Taylor”, he laughed and responded, “Should I call you Dr. Weinbaum?” He thought I was a composition professor! Now that’s a compliment if I’ve ever received one.

Launching the website and social media accounts brings us to where I am today. For the past few weeks and for the next few weeks, I have dedicated myself to promoting the event however I can: Email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, group chats, etc. I have had to stretch myself to get my head around many of these platforms; nevertheless, the results have been promising so far, and I continue to hope for the best!

Regardless, my heart still races. People generally prefer to wait until the due date to sign up for an event like this (as I have discovered talking to many people), and so I will not be able to judge the success of the project until the very last minute. If that doesn’t keep someone in suspense.

The lectures will take place from July 20-31 and registration will remain open throughout. If you are interested in learning more about the Composers Collaborative Project, please visit our website or send me an email. I would love to hear from you!

Website: www.composerscollaborative.com

Email: [email protected]

Hearing a Person—Remembering Ruth Anderson (1928-2019)

A woman sitting in a yellow armchair cross-legged

The last music Ruth Anderson heard before she died was Judith Blegen singing Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf erden …, with which Mahler’s Fourth Symphony ends, a song which had been a touchstone for us for many years and which I had been unable to find for weeks among our record collection despite just about reorganizing the collection in my search. Then I looked among the contemporary LPs, and there it was, next to David Behrman’s beautiful On the Other Ocean—the wrong part of the century but very much the right context.

Listening to it now, again, I find I am immersed in her text piece Sound Portrait: Hearing a Person, which she created first for her students then for others, in 1973:

“In a darkened room, find a comfortable, totally relaxed position.

Listen to a piece of music.

Think of someone you love.
Do not think of the music.

When you find your thought of the person is gone, bring it
back gently.
Let other thoughts come, and then let them go.

As the music progresses, let the thought image of the person
be central.
Be unaware of the music.

Let anything which happens happen, except keep easily bringing
back, letting, the person image occupy you.

You will find explanations of the person—the music will explain the person.

The music ideas, counterpoint, extensions, contrasts, repetitions, variants,
Rhythms, textures, qualities of sound, all music elements are of the person,

sometimes very literally, sometimes suggesting, sometimes exact, sometimes
understood, sometimes leading to understanding, sometimes verging on language, always primarily nonverbal, always a known sense, a coming of a known sense.

You will find after, an understanding of the person you did not have,
and a personal relationship to the music.
The music, too, will be known.”

For her, it was always that movement of the Mahler 4th.

Ruth Anderson, composer, teacher, flutist, and orchestrator died peacefully at Calvary Hospital, New York, on November 29th, 2019, aged 91. She was a Professor Emeritus of Hunter College, CUNY, where she was the director of the Hunter College Electronic Music Studio from 1968 to 1979, the first operative electronic music studio in the CUNY system and one of the first in the USA to be founded and directed by a woman.

Our earliest meeting was in that studio, where I was to substitute for her while she went on sabbatical. Ruth had first asked Pauline Oliveros to run the studio for her, but Pauline too was on sabbatical and suggested that Ruth contact me—I was then still living in England and eager to come over here. I went to the studio to meet her, nervous, and a bit apprehensive, not having worked hands-on with voltage-controlled equipment, a key part of the studio’s design then. Ruth turned up in white shorts, a blue shirt, and sneakers with a hole in the right toe. I relaxed.

It was a very good studio, beautifully equipped, with a dedicated technician, Jan Hall, who designed new gear and kept everything running very smoothly. Ruth loved tech, tools of any kind really (hence the house we built in Montana, her birthplace), and the studio was her home. It was home to some of the students also, who brought in a couch, a lamp. Jan brought in his slippers.

She was an inspired teacher. Of her studio seminar, she wrote (in a letter to me in 1973), “I give lots of facts, and am very demanding—that they know, that they have self-respect, that they only DO—and sometimes I see it’s not yet the time to DO and they will… and leave them alone, or help when I see they need it… and from students who have been with me before, begin to understand this is not a course, but some equipment and a safe place to be. As soon as the students so-called begin to know each other, to hear a great variety of music, or also experience acoustics, experience each other through sound, like the skin-resistance oscillators, they learn and do, or dream.”

Born in Kalispell, Montana on March 21, 1928, Ruth received a BA in flute, subsequently studying privately with Johnnie Wummer and Jean-Pierre Rampal, then the MA in composition from the University of Washington. At UW she took courses with the poet Theodore Roethke, and she later came to know many other poets including Jean Garrigue, May Swenson (with whom she did Pregnant Dream), W.S. Merwin, and Louise Bogan (whose haunting poem, Little Lobelia is the source of Ruth’s I come out of your sleep). She was one of the first four women admitted to the Princeton University Graduate School program in composition, where she received a fellowship. Two Fulbright Scholarships took her to Paris (1958–60), where she studied composition privately with Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger, who encouraged Ruth to also study Gregorian chant at the Abbey of Solesmes.

Ruth’s was a multi-faceted career. She toured as a flutist with the Totenberg Instrumental Ensemble from 1951-58 and was principal flutist with the Boston Pops (1957-58). As a freelance instrumental and choral arranger, she was also an orchestrator for NBC-TV and the Lincoln Center Theater production of Annie Get Your Gun with Ethel Merman (1966) and Show Boat.

Ruth Anderson

Ruth Anderson. Photo by Manny Albam.

Her establishment of the Hunter College Electronic Music Studio and her involvement with the downtown music scene brought a burst of creative activity when her studies of psychoacoustics, Zen Buddhism, and her teaching intersected, sparking a number of works for tape which are truly innovative. SUM: State of the Union Message from 1973 is a hilarious collage, a send-up of both Nixon and TV commercials, its duration being exactly that of Nixon’s State of the Union Message that year and saying, as she put it, “as little, and by extension, as much as the president, and using the one medium we all share.” Ruth was a superb analog editor, and I recall coming into the Hunter studio at some point while she was working on SUM and finding a fishing line strung across the room with an amazing number of pieces of tape, some very small, delicately suspended by splicing tape, and trying to figure out how she could keep them all straight. She knew what each was, being both persistent and precise, a perfectionist.

She wrote of her work, “It has evolved from an understanding of sound as energy which affects one’s state of being. [These are] pieces intended to further wholeness of self and unity with others.” Hearing a Person is a beautiful, practical example of this key intention, as is the classic tape work Points (1973-4), created entirely from sine tones at a time when few others were interested in so seemingly basic a waveform. But to Ruth, sines are “the basic building blocks of all sound… a sine tone is a single frequency focal point of high energy… Separate sine waves enter at five-second intervals, accumulate in a long veil on one channel while another set of sines is introduced on the second channel and continuing this way with the veils of sound shifting in and out of each other at a very low dynamic level. The high focus of energy of a sine wave, the outsize breathing interval of five-second entries, the calm of the veils and timeless quality are some of the elements I can isolate which have made this a healing piece, one that consistently generates in listeners a sense of repose and quiet energy.”

Jan Hall has said of Ruth, “She was brave,” and certainly to undertake such a challenge as a piece consisting entirely of sine tones at, necessarily, a soft level, is to work entirely exposed. Indeed, she wrote to Charles Amirkhanian in 1977, “Sines are extremely difficult to record, and then it’s difficult to maintain a copy of sines without collecting burbles on tape—this is a strong reason for wanting the piece on a record where burbles don’t collect.” Points was released on the seminal LP produced by Charles Amirkhanian on the 1750 Arch Records label New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media, which was actually the first collection of electronic music by women, in 1977. She was a bit thrown when that quote appeared in the sleeve notes, but I’ve always loved it. With that LP and two releases on Max Schubel’s label Opus One, her work began to be known in the US and internationally.

In addition to Points, a rich array of works in diverse media appeared during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, such as I come out of your sleep—a 4 channel tape piece from 1979; the text pieces Silent Sound (1978), the Sound Portraits, Greetings from the Right Hemisphere (1979); interactive biofeedback pieces such as Centering (1979) for four performers wearing galvanic skin resistance oscillators through which they respond involuntarily to a dancer who is, in turn, responding to their sounds. Ruth’s delight in play comes through in the sonic installations and games she created for exhibitions, collaborating with Jan Hall and Bob Bielecki. For example, in Tuneable Hopscotch (1975), the individual squares generate pitches as you land on them but someone else is at controls on the wall, changing the pitches even as you select them. In Time and Tempo (1984) the viewer’s biofeedback controls the movement of a clock’s hands, slowing as you approach stillness. Together we also created a number of Hearing Studies for the Introduction to Music and other courses at Hunter. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Creative Artists Public Service (CAPS), the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation, the Alice M. Ditson fund and residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony supported much of this work.

To her great pleasure, Here, a solo vinyl album of five pieces, two never before released plus three works mentioned above—SUM, Points, and I come out of your sleep—will be released on the Arc Light Editions label in 2020. The test pressings came shortly before she went into the hospital and we were able to listen to them together. She was on morphine and deeply tired, but as she listened, she started moving her hands to re-shape a phrase, murmuring how she would like to have changed this or that sound, composing right to the end. It was wonderful to see, and she was delighted with the quality of the pressings. Thank you, Jennifer Lucy Allan, visionary producer of Arc Light Editions.

Annea Lockwood and Ruth Anderson

Annea Lockwood and Ruth Anderson

And then there is Flathead Lake, where Ruth spent much of her childhood and where we built our house. She needed a home of her own there, and I needed to be among mountains at least part of the year, so in 1975, barely a year after we’d begun to live together (we moved fast!) we bought about two acres on the lake, added forty feet to it when I assumed that the boundary survey stakes must have been at the halfway point of the property and started felling dead trees on adjacent land. We bought it. We mapped out a floor plan—Ruth did all the designing meticulously—and started to build. About that detailed planning, I remember going to the local lumber yard and saying we wanted to buy exactly four hundred and sixty-four six-inch nails. Tim smiled, estimated that at so many pounds, and we were then his customers for the next fourteen or so years.

Montana House

The house that Ruth Anderson and Annea Lockwood built together on Flathead Lake in Montana.

We built wall and floor frames, siding and flooring, got help with the really tough things from her family and from professionals, who would often just take off to go elk hunting mid-project, roofs (there was more than one; the place kept growing like a plant), plumbing, electricity, and finally turned the garage over to the pros, being tired of building by then. Ruth finished the interior tongue-and-groove walls for the bedroom just in time for Christmas in ’89, having spent the whole year there while I went back and forth, teaching. But what astounds and moves me very much to think back on it, is that she did that while enduring chronic fatigue, the cause of her year off!

Strong of spirit, self-reliant, a brilliant mind, Ruth loved structures of all kinds. She was also tenacious, very funny with a dry wit, and delighted in the absurd. Her last piece was Furnishing the Garden (2002–approximately 2012), installed at our New York home. Discarded chairs and an old stripped sofa frame began to appear, leaning against a tree here, planted among wild roses there, and best of all, a child’s tiny wooden chair wedged part-way up a large tulip tree. It makes a handy launching pad for local wildlife.

Chair in tree

A detail of Anderson’s outdoor installation, “Furnishing the Garden.”

I am so grateful to have been able to share her life for forty-six years. We were finally able to marry legally in 2005 (in Canada), something Pauline and Ione had done and recommended, not long before.

Ruth’s archive will be placed in the Music Division of The New York Public Library.

GREETINGS FROM THE RIGHT HEMISPHERE

“You are invited to a party.

I will furnish wine, cheese, bread and a SPLENDID opportunity for all who come to KNOW one another.

As you enter, leave your left hemisphere – all your words – speaking, reading, writing – at the door.

Let yourself be known, and know others, through your right hemisphere – YOUR SENSES – through all forms of non-verbal communication.

Have a lovely time.”
–Ruth Anderson

Ruth Anderson at Flathead Lake

Truly a Wenren—Remembering Chou Wen-chung (1923-2019)

Three people posing together for a photo

Some reflections by Chen Yi

We still don’t want to believe that Professor Chou has passed away. Tears are not enough to express our profound sadness and grief over this tremendous loss. He is a music giant who brought us to and taught us at Columbia University, and mentored us in our creative lives for decades. He has made a huge contribution to the music of our time, yet he is a father-like figure to us. He will be missed by all of us tremendously, and his legacy will live with us forever. Our heavy hearts brought us back to countless memories of his vivid voice and energetic gestures.

Chou Wen-chung has made a huge contribution to the music of our time, yet he is a father-like figure to us.

Remembering when I studied composition at the Central Conservatory in Beijing in the early 80s, once in a lecture given at the library, to introduce newly imported music recordings, I surprisingly heard a recording of Prof. Chou Wen-chung’s Soliloquy of a Bhiksuni for trumpet and wind ensemble. I just jumped up! Even though it wasn’t in Chinese folk-music style, it struck me as so Chinese! I was deeply impressed by the Chinese spirits hidden behind the striking sonorities. At that time, most Chinese compositions used pentatonic scales in melodic writing while using Western harmony and formal designs, but this piece was not based on pure pentatonic scales. I ran and got the LP recording and I saw his photograph. I realized then that he must have been born in China, and I was very excited by this Chinese-American composer’s music. This is the first time I heard the name — Chou Wen-chung! I discovered that Prof. Chou was involved as a US delegate to China in the late 1970s. He donated many scores, recordings, books, and other materials to Chinese conservatories. After the librarians had catalogued all of these materials, they were made available to students for study from a series of new imported record broadcasting sessions. It was at that point we were introduced to Chou Wen-chung’s music.

I was also lucky enough to have attended his lecture when he visited the Central Conservatory. His public lecture was hosted by the Musicology Department, and attended by many professors and some students in the Musicology and Composition Departments. Besides introducing contemporary American composers and their music, Prof. Chou also answered many questions about music education in American universities. We then learned that he taught at Columbia University in New York City.

It was my privilege to have the opportunity to join my husband Zhou Long to study with Prof. Chou at Columbia in 1986. After graduating with our Bachelor’s degrees in 1983, Zhou Long became the resident composer of the China National Broadcasting Symphony, and I became a graduate student at the Central Conservatory. I needed another three years of study to obtain my Master’s degree, so I came to New York one year later. When I got to know Prof. Chou more closely for the first time in 1986, which was several years after we had attended his lecture at the Central Conservatory and right before I came to the US, it was during the First Contemporary Chinese Composers Festival held in Hong Kong. Prof. Chou took all of our young composers from Mainland China to a delicious Chinese banquet at which we talked about Chinese culture, Chinese music, and its future. This also became a regular event after I arrived at Columbia. Every month, Prof. Chou would host a meeting at the US-China Arts Exchange to discuss Chinese music tradition and heritage, and our responsibility and effort in carrying it on in our culture and society. After each meeting, Prof. Chou took us to a fancy Chinese restaurant on Broadway. We all greatly looked forward to this gathering every month. However, when Zhou Long and I graduated from Columbia in 1993, Prof. Chou and his wife Yi-An treated us to a fancy dinner at a great French restaurant in Greenwich Village. We will never forget the taste and the beautiful mood of that evening. Prof. Chou became our great mentor and we had a close relationship throughout the years since then.

The most important impact of Prof. Chou’s influence on me was not only to use basic composition techniques to write music, but the in-depth study of both Chinese and Western cultures, which would provide inspiration for getting creative concepts and methods for controlling and developing musical elements. The outcome would be unique, in our own language. Prof. Chou inspired me a lot with compositional concepts that unite Eastern and Western styles and techniques. In our early years at Columbia, I also translated many program notes of Prof. Chou’s compositions into Chinese, when his works were being played in Mainland China and Taiwan. I enjoyed doing that because Prof. Chou’s notes are so poetic and beautifully written in English that you have to concentrate hard to find how to say these things correctly in Chinese, in a way that will keep their beautiful literary character and not make them just a frank, straight reciting of facts.

Zhou Long and I also produced a series of programs for Shanghai Dong Fang Radio to introduce 20th-century music. We had one and a half hours in three half-hour segments devoted to the music of Prof. Chou. I compiled all of the materials about his music, wrote the texts for the programs, and discussed his creations in various periods and styles: The first was about the early works of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, like Landscapes (1949) and And the Fallen Petals (1954), which are important orchestral pieces that have been played by many of the major orchestras. Then in the second program came the more abstract style of writing heard in Cursive (1963) and even more so in a very complex score like Yun (1969), which is extremely sophisticated. The third program was devoted to his later works. These three radio programs were widely heard in China and musicians continue to talk about them.

These experiences opened up my view and helped me to break boundaries and find my own voice – as, for example, writing in the style of Chinese musical storytelling, and the reciting tunes in Beijing Opera. I consider this my turning point in terms of new compositional language, concept, and technique. In the technical aspects of composition, Prof. Chou was very precise. He would look at any score carefully first, and he would recommend improvements; then, if I would come back the next week, he would look at it again, then circle a note and say: “Look at that note! You did not fix it. Can you tell me a reason?”

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung at the piano.

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung at the piano.

Prof. Chou was very precise. He would look at any score carefully first, and he would recommend improvements; then, if I would come back the next week, he would look at it again, then circle a note and say: “Look at that note! You did not fix it. Can you tell me a reason?”

He also showed us paintings and calligraphy, and he would tell us how he thought of these as counterpoint. He would look at brush strokes on the page and he would see the space between the inner and outer edges of the stroke and the way that it changed as a sort of counterpoint. My pipa solo piece The Points uses an idea like this. In calligraphy, every stroke begins with a point. After you set down the first dot, you turn the brush to make the different strokes that you want; so, the point, the beginning of each stroke, is very important in drawing Chinese calligraphy. Prof. Chou asked me and inspired me to write this piece, which was premiered at the New Music Consort’s season concert devoted to Chinese composers’ music, as part of the NEWworksOCTOBER concert series at Columbia University in 1991, and it won me a reputation because it has been widely performed. In China, it has been the subject of a thesis and it is now a required piece for musicians who study pipa performance at the conservatory as well as in many competitions.

When I was a DMA student at Columbia, Prof. Chou recommended me to become a part of an ISCM film production called Sound and Silence (which was co-produced by Polish National Television and French Adamov Films) and this series introduced my new chamber works to international audiences through European TV networks in 1989. This is a ten-film series dedicated to contemporary music, featuring 20 composers from 19 countries (including 2 from China: I was the one from the Mainland, and the other one was from Hong Kong). Each composer had a half-hour program with his/her music performed, with the composer as one of the performers; there was also an interview by the host, Polish composer Zygmunt Krauze, then the president of ISCM. I played the violin in my own sextet, Near Distance, and sang in my own trio, As in a Dream for soprano, violin and cello. My Woodwind Quintet was also presented in the program. The other half-hour segment along with my program in the hour was Luciano Berio representing Italy. I played two movements in his violin duet collections. Before I left for Poland, Prof. Chou’s wife, Yi-An gave me a lot of clothes – many dresses! “This one could be suitable… That one… Here, try this one…” She took me into her walk-in closet, and looked through all dresses in shelves up to the celling… You could see the dress in the film.

I also sat in on my classmate David Tsang’s private lessons, invited by Prof. Chou. Prof. Chou analyzed his own concerto for cello and orchestra and other works for us, showing us how he designed his pieces with charts. There are different colors assigned to particular aspects or music elements in the structure. One color would represent pitch material, another dynamics, some others would control tension and density, part distribution, timbre, sonority, orchestration, and so on. It was very inspiring to me because I used to write music without a detailed plan covering many aspects. This is a very different and practical method in composition experience. He encouraged us to study Western contemporary music in-depth and gave me his former teaching syllabus in new music analysis, and introduced analysis of music by Varèse, Schoenberg, Webern, Ives, and others. You can’t compose in a unique style until you really learn all cultures well and then can create your own work as a hybrid and speak in your own language.

I studied with Prof. Chou for three years, and one of those years overlapped with my work with Prof. Mario Davidovsky for electronic music composition. When Prof. Chou retired, I worked with Mario for five years until I finished the DMA program, as he supervised my dissertation work. Zhou Long’s dissertation was supervised by Prof. George Edwards, after years of study with Prof. Chou and Prof. Davidovsky. We remained very close to our professors from Columbia University. During the past three decades, Prof. Chou attended almost all concerts with my new works premiered in New York City, including my octet Sparkle and mixed quartet Qi performed by New Music Consort, my China West Suite for two pianos performed by Dennis Russell Davies and Maki Namekawa at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in 2007, my string quartet At the Kansas City Chinese New Year Concert by the Ying Quartet, and my Si Ji (Four Seasons) performed by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Most at Carnegie Hall in 2005. My Si Ji was dedicated to Professor Chou and was selected as one of the Pulitzer Prize Finalists in 2006. Prof. Chou called me to send his congratulations when he learned the good news.

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung during a reception at Carnegie Hall

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung during a reception at Carnegie Hall following the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Chen Yi’s composition Si Ji on October 17, 2005. The piece, which was dedicated to Prof. Chou, was later selected as one of the finalists for 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

During the past three decades, Prof. Chou attended almost all concerts with my new works premiered in New York City.

During the time I studied at Columbia University, I also worked as an administrative assistant at his Center for US-China Arts Exchange for three years, and closely witnessed his hard work, which made a huge contribution to the US-China music education and arts exchange. He was busy teaching at Columbia, but he had to raise money, write many reports for the Center and take care of administrative work. Prof. Chou never used the Center’s facilities or equipment for himself. He was very clear that every cent raised should go directly to the projects that the Center was working on. When I was working there, people would come and ask for a sample of his music. I asked him, “Can I just make one copy here?” but he said, “No. Make a copy outside and give me the receipt.” He never even made a copy of his own music with the Center’s copy machine.

During my work at the Center, we participated in two important composers’ conferences organized by the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange and led by Prof. Chou. One was the Conference on Tradition and the Future of Chinese Music held in New York in 1988. It’s the first time since 1949 that distinguished composers from Mainland China and Taiwan, separated by the sea, each had ten representatives who sat down together at Columbia University to have artistic discussions and a cultural exchange. They found so much in common in tradition and creation! The other was the Pacific Composers’ Conference, part of the Pacific Music Festival held in Sapporo, Japan in 1990, which gathered established composers and dozens of excellent young composers from many countries and areas in the Pacific Rim. Their ages ranged from early 20s to late 70s. The festival included concerts, seminars, lectures, and exhibitions for cultural exchange. He enthusiastically supported many young artists around the world.

20 composers from Mainland China and Taiwan walking down the steps of City Hall in new York City.

Chinese Composers Conference with 10 composers from Mainland China and 10 composers from Taiwan for the first time since 1949, in front of NY City Hall on August 8,1988 following a meeting with then NYC Mayor Edward I. Koch. Prof. Wu Zuqiang is in the front row and Prof. Chou is on the right. The Center for US-China Arts Exchange organized the conference. (Chen Yi, who was one of the 10 composers from Mainland China chosen to participate, is in the middle.)

Prof. Chou Wen-chung was truly a wenren (artist-scholar, Renaissance Man). He was a great creative artist and mentor who combined literature, music, and art, all in one.

When I first came to the States, the Central Philharmonic Orchestra from China premiered my Duo Ye No. 2 at Lincoln Center in 1987, but Prof. Chou had to attend another concert with his own work premiered in New Jersey. Nevertheless, he arranged for a huge bunch of beautiful flowers made by his wife Yi-An to be given to me on stage!  He also invited us to enjoy Thanksgiving holiday and learn American culture in his country house. Years later, when he visited UMKC Conservatory where we teach, he brought me a meaningful and beautiful gift: a fancy, richly illustrated volume (12” x 10”, 4 lbs), The Path of Beauty: A Study of Chinese Aesthetics by Li Zehou, translated by Gong Lizeng, and published in Beijing by Morning Glory Publishers in 1988. He said, “I think that you would love it and need it especially for your teaching in English.” I was deeply touched when he handed the book to me. Prof. Chou Wen-chung was truly a wenren (artist-scholar, Renaissance Man). He was a great creative artist and mentor who combined literature, music, and art, all in one. He wanted to be a person who gave as much as possible to the whole world. He is my role model and has encouraged me to keep working harder in music creation and teaching for our society.


Zhou Long, Chang Yi-An and Chou Wen-chung

Zhou Long (left) with Chou Wen-chung and his wife Chang Yi-An.

Additional reflections by Zhou Long

Professor Chou Wen-chung was among the first overseas composers to visit the Central Conservatory in Beijing and it made a deep impression on a group of young composers there.

In the late 1970s, Professor Chou Wen-chung was among the first overseas composers to visit the Central Conservatory in Beijing and it made a deep impression on a group of young composers there. His music immediately attracted me, such as his Yu Ko and other orchestral works. His aesthetic concept is based on the philosophy of the intellectuals from older times who played the qin, and on the ancient poetry of China. I composed Song of the Ch’in for string quartet and Su for flute and qin (ch’in) before I came to study overseas, both of which were very strongly influenced by Prof. Chou’s introduction of Chinese scholarly music to us.

After graduation from the Central Conservatory in 1983, I was assigned as the Composer-in-Residence for the China National Broadcasting Corporation. In 1985, I became the first composition student from Beijing admitted to Columbia University in New York City to study with Prof. Chou through the introduction of Mr. Li Ling, a family friend who was the vice president of the Chinese Musicians Association. On one of Prof. Chou’s visits to China, Mr. Li passed along some of my compositions including my first recordings of my orchestral works and Chinese instrumental compositions along with a broadcasting concert recording to Prof. Chou, who took them back to the composition admission committee at Columbia. There, the professors on the committee included Prof. Chou as the head, along with Profs. Mario Davidovsky, and Jack Beeson. They reviewed my scores and awarded me a full scholarship.

While I took some courses and composition lessons with Prof. Chou, he realized that I was very lonely, and he wanted to help bring my wife Chen Yi to study at Columbia University with me. He knew that she was an excellent student.

I had a cultural shock when I first arrived New York, and I encountered many ideas that were new to me. For two years, from 1985 until 1987, I didn’t compose anything. While I took some courses and composition lessons with Prof. Chou, he realized that I was very lonely, and he wanted to help bring my wife Chen Yi to study at Columbia University with me. He knew that she was an excellent student of Prof. Wu Zuqiang, who was the president of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and a close friend of Prof. Chou’s, who helped leading the US-China arts exchange activities in China. Chen Yi arrived in New York in 1986. Prof. Chou then guided me to learn not only from traditional Chinese music, but also to explore wider traditions such as East Asian cultures, including music from Japan and Korea. He also gave me concert tickets to attend the opera Einstein on the Beach and the Netherland’s ballet with Bolero during the first two years of my study in the US. He encouraged me to study with his colleagues, Professors George Edwards and Mario Davidovsky. In 1987, I started to compose again, with Wu Ji for piano and electronic sound, and a mixed quintet, Dhyana for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The score of Dhyana is dedicated to Prof. Chou since he gave me so much inspiration and input when I composed the piece, from the concept and the philosophy, to textures and structures. After eight years at Columbia, I received my Doctoral of Musical Arts degree in 1993. When I was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for my first opera Madame White Snake in 2011, Prof. Chou called me on the phone to congratulate me warmly. I feel deeply grateful for his mentorship and support.

You must believe in your artistic vision, then your compositions can stand out.

I think the most important aspect of my work with Prof. Chou involved his theories of composition and creation. Prof. Chou’s educational philosophy is culturally oriented. Today people can accept a wider range of styles, but that’s not the issue. You must believe in your artistic vision, then your compositions can stand out. Prof. Chou Wen-chung’s vision and effort established the international status of our generation of Chinese composers.

Chen Yi, Zhou Long. Chou Wen-chung, Paul Rudy, Kihei Mukai, and James Mobberley

Chen Yi, Zhou Long. Chou Wen-chung, Paul Rudy, Mukai Kohei (then a DMA student of Chen Yi and Zhou Long’s at UMKC), and James Mobberley following a newEar ensemble concert in Kansas City featuring music by Professor Chou and his teacher Edgard Varèse in 2001.


[Ed. Note: Back in January 2013, we recorded an extensive interview with Chou Wen-chung for NewMusicBox. His “vivid voice,” as Chen Yi so aptly described in, comes across in the video presentation from that talk. You can read a transcript of that entire conversation elsewhere on this site.—FJO]

From Folk Song to the Outer Limits of Harmony—Remembering Ben Johnston (1926-2019)

A Caucasian man with his head titled, glasses and a white beard

I first saw Ben Johnston when I was a student at Oberlin, maybe 1976. The composers at the big Midwest music schools were in continual rotation as each other’s guest composers, which in itself was an amazing education. Ben lectured and played a recording of his Fourth String Quartet, based on the song “Amazing Grace.” He was a Quaker-bearded, good-humored, gruff, not very talkative fellow, and there was a peculiar contradiction, I think we all sensed, in this composer who had invented his own pitch notation and 22-pitch scale and written a score nearly black with ink using all these crazy polyrhythms of 35 against 36 and 7 against 8, 9, and 10 – all at the service of an old folk song anyone’s grandmother could sing. Conservative versus avant-garde was how we divided the music world up at that time. Where the hell did this fit?

Ben Johnston sitting and writing on a piece of music paper.

Ben Johnston in 1976.

Forty-odd years later, several of them spent working with him, I still think there’s an essence to Ben that in the current musical climate can only be seen as a paradox: he was a down-to-earth, populist visionary. I truly think that he thought there were no limits to what pitch and rhythm relationships musicians could learn to play, as long as the approach to the difficulties was gradual and intelligible. Famously, the third movement of his Seventh String Quartet contains more than 1200 pitches to the octave. It is structured around a 176-note microtonal scale that glacially traverses one octave over 177 measures, and, written in 1984, it remained on the page until the Kepler Quartet recorded it a couple of years ago. But it is carefully written so that if the players can get their perfect fourths and seventh harmonics in tune, they can creep securely, interval by interval, through this free, gridless, infinite pitch space – astronauts of harmony, floating beyond the gravity of A 440. The conceptual achievement leaves Boulez and Stockhausen in the dust. Moment by moment, the music can sound as mild as Ned Rorem.

The conceptual achievement leaves Boulez and Stockhausen in the dust.

Ben had a strange mind, and I say that up front only because he often frankly said so. He thought he had some kind of mental disorder, possibly caused by being taught to meditate wrong by the Gurdjieff cult in the early ‘60s – this is what he repeatedly told me, even in interviews. He was always trying various remedies. When I studied with him privately in 1983-86 (post-doctorate), he was on medication that made him very quiet. He would look at my score for fifteen minutes without speaking, and then say something incisive and profound. A few years later he was controlling his problems via diet. I went to a conference with him, where I was going to interview him onstage: the night before, he kept me up until two in the morning, talking nonstop. His Catholic priest in Champaign-Urbana recommended he go to a Zen temple in Chicago, and so for a couple of years that’s where he and I met, and I started going through the Zen services with him. Those were wonderful, and the lessons afterward took place in a blissful haze.

Ben Johnston in 1962

Ben Johnston in 1962

I do think that, whatever was strange about Ben’s mind, it was what made his music possible. At age twelve, attending a lecture on Debussy, he was introduced to Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone, the foundational treatise on acoustics that first appeared in English in 1875. He spoke about it as though it confirmed for him what he already sensed: that the music we play has something wrong with its tuning. At age 17, after a concert of his music, he was interviewed by the Richmond Times Dispatch (where his father was managing editor, admittedly), and predicted, “with the clarification of the scale which physics has given to music there will be new instruments with new tones and overtones.” This was 1944. Harry Partch’s Genesis of a Music wasn’t even published yet. By 1950 Ben was in grad school at Cincinnati Conservatory, and someone gave him a copy of Partch’s then-new book, with its outline of his 43-tone microtonal scale and perceptive history of the vicissitudes of tuning over the centuries.

Thrilled to find another musician who shared his misgivings about tuning, Ben wrote to Partch asking to study with him. Partch, who once wrote that he would “happily strangle” anyone who claimed to have been his student, took him on as an apprentice and repairman instead, and so Ben went to live for six months on Partch’s ranch in Gualala, California. Partch liked to have only young men in his orbit, and was affronted when Ben’s wife Betty arrived in tandem, but Betty Johnston was a powerhouse, and eased her way into Partch’s reluctant affections. Ben later wrote that Partch

could have wished for a carpenter or for a percussionist… But he had one thing he had not counted on: someone who understood his theory without explanation, and who could hear and reproduce the pitch relations accurately.

Ben Johnston, wearing a jacket and tie, sitting outside with Harry Partch in 1974

Ben Johnston with Harry Partch at Partch’s home in 1974.

Ben’s preternatural ability to hear and reproduce exotic intervals was the one intimidating thing about studying with him. My brain not being strange in the same way, I spent years training myself to hear eleventh harmonics and syntonic commas using primitive digital technology, and to this day I would never attempt to coach an ensemble to play one of his string quartets. When I came to his house he liked to play me whatever he was working on. Once, in the early weeks, it was a piece for trumpet and piano called The Demon-Lover’s Doubles, of which he played me the piano part. His piano was tuned for maximum consonance in G major with some peculiar pitches outside that diatonic scale, and as he started, it seemed like an oddly homespun, tuneful little piece. Then, magically, his piano started going sourly out of tune and got weirder and weirder, and I was thinking, “Man, you’d think Ben would tune his piano.” Finally, of course, he returned from his modulations into distant keys, and in G major the piano sounded fine again. I just remember sitting there thinking, “Huh.”

In that experience is the alpha and omega of Ben’s vision. What fascinated him, I think, was how vastly just intonation and the higher harmonics expand the range of consonance and dissonance, in both directions. You can have so many flavors of harmony: triads purely in tune, edgy Pythagorean triads, chords with exotic upper harmonics, dark chords from a subharmonic series, excruciating chords specifically out of tune by a comma here or there, bell-like chords related by higher harmonics, grating seventh chords with deliberately mismatched ratios, tight clusters – the route from purity to noise is no longer a line but a large three- or four-dimensional space.

One of Ben Johnston's pitch charts.

One of Ben Johnston’s pitch charts.

Many, many microtonal composers, I think, are looking for a total alternative to our tuning system, total exoticism, experimenting with how far we can adapt to new intervals, adding new complexities beyond what twelve-tone music provided. Ben wasn’t. Ben was never disappointed in the major triad. For Ben, the tonal music system that we’d developed over the last few centuries was a template, a first draft, a worthwhile approximation, but only a fragment of the universe he could hear. Seventeenth-century theorists like Marin Mersenne and Christiaan Huygens had argued for including the seventh harmonic as a consonance; Giambattista Doni (c. 1594-1647) wrote music using the eleventh harmonic. Theoretically, Ben goes back to that era and accepts those arguments. Keep the system, but add back in what was prohibited. Thus, unlike the general run of modernists, he could envision a brave new world without ever having to reject or exclude anything.

Cage and Xenakis may have wanted to reinvent music, but Ben saw a way to keep the foundation and keep building.

And so we have “Amazing Grace,” which so anchors one of the most avant-garde works of 1973 that the audience can hum along with it the first time they hear it. Also the sentimental old tune “Danny Boy,” which gradually emerges from the last-movement variations of Ben’s Tenth Quartet, and the folk song “Lonesome Valley” which is the subject of his Fifth Quartet, and the folk tune in The Demon-Lover’s Double. Cage and Xenakis, whom he knew well, may have wanted to reinvent music from the ground up, but Ben saw a way to keep the foundation and keep building.

Ben Johnston with The Kepler Quartet in 2015

Ben Johnston with The Kepler Quartet in 2015 (Photo by Jon Roy).

What’s amazing about his use of old folk tunes is how devoid of nostalgia it is. He’s not like Charles Ives, with “Beulah Land” faintly heard above the dissonant chords below; there is no modernity with which the songs’ innocence is contrasted. His “Amazing Grace” grows step-by-step from five pitches to twenty-three as though all those pitches were implicitly in there to begin with – which I imagine to his ears they were! It is difficult, probably, for most of us new-music types to take “Danny Boy” as seriously as he did, but for him it was simply a familiar item of our culture from which new implications could still be drawn. He didn’t have to renounce the naïve perspective on music to see through to the other side of the musical universe. And this is why some of Ben’s works will always appeal even to people who don’t like abrasive modernism.

That’s certainly not to deny that Ben’s music could be thorny. He kept writing twelve-tone music, in just intonation, and I once asked him why. He replied, “Well, I had learned all that theory, and I didn’t want it to go to waste.” Since he said almost everything with a slight smile, I’m not sure I ever knew when he was kidding. His Sixth Quartet draws the principle of endless melody from a twelve-tone row that consists of the first six non-repeating harmonics of D and the first six subharmonics of D#. The row matrix for the piece contains 61 different pitches. Even though it uses a twelve-tone row, though, each hexachord is actually a tonality in itself, so you do hear the harmony shift back and forth between major and minor – or between otonalities and utonalities, as we microtonalists say. At the time I wrote a rave review of the Sixth Quartet for the Chicago Reader and Ben said, “I think you like that piece better than I do.”

One piece I analyzed had some repeated pizzicatos in the cello that didn’t fit into the structure, and I asked him where they came from. He looked, and said, “Oh, that was to give the audience something to listen to while I worked out this contrapuntal problem.” That was a lesson: that the composer and the audience could want different things from a piece, and that both could be satisfied.

The composer and the audience could want different things from a piece, and both could be satisfied.

As with Partch, I also insist that Ben should get credit for his rhythmic innovations as much as for his microtonality. In the Fifth Quartet “Lonesome Road” floats above a bobbling sea of polytempos, and in the Fourth Quartet there’s a long rhythm of 35 against 36 (analogous to what we call the septimal comma), involving different meters in the various instruments. Back when I was younger and smarter, I once successfully parsed it, but I’ve never figured it out again since. He was a great proponent of Henry Cowell’s theories that pitch and rhythm, both being number based, could be developed analogously and in the same directions – that was the principle, of course, of his first hit tune, Knocking Piece, which became a percussionist’s standard. That he was focused on extending musical language in terms of both pitch and rhythm has limited his influence among the mass of composers who think there’s nothing new to be done in those directions, but when we’re ready he’s left us a foundation for a radically new music.

Ben never proselytized for microtones or just intonation. He imposed no stylistic dogma. Like so many American experimentalists, he himself was stylistically multilingual: he wrote chance music, twelve-tone music, conceptualist works, a musical, and a surprising amount of his output is in a neoclassic vein, with standard forms like sonata-allegro and variations. Neo-romanticism, I think, is the only idiom he avoided, which is not to say his music couldn’t be deeply moving; he just wasn’t sentimental. In 1983 I asked to study privately with him because I loved his music (I never attended the University of Illinois where he taught for 35 years), but I didn’t want to get into microtonality, which seemed like too much work. That was fine with him, but at my first lesson he looked at a chord I’d written and remarked how beautiful it would be if tuned properly, and he reeled off the ratios. With a shock I realized I understood just what he was saying. It was as if a huge iron door had slammed shut behind me. I was in his world and couldn’t go back.

I didn’t need to. The microtonal notation he invented opened the universe to me, and I learned to think in it fluently. My own microtonal music, more single-minded and homogenous than his (not to mention more cautious – god, that Seventh Quartet!), inherited his worldview of microtones as an extension of tonality rather than an alternative. I would be remiss here if I failed to mention another of his microtonal students, Toby Twining, who, in his Chrysalid Requiem (2002), developed Ben’s ideas into one of the most impressive feats of musical architecture ever perpetrated, incredibly complicated yet unearthly beautiful. That’s a legacy.

Ben Johnston as a child driving a toy car.

A 10-year-old Ben Johnston in 1936. He was already eager to explore.

I remember once in Ben’s medicated days we had him over for dinner, and he played solitaire obsessively while we were preparing dinner. After he retired we visited him in Rocky Mount, where Ben and Betty, equally strong characters, practically barked at each other, but clearly with no lack of affection. He was a crucial link between me and several other people I didn’t meet until later, all of whom were devoted to him: Bill Duckworth, Neely Bruce, Bob Gilmore. I last saw Ben in 2010 at a microtonal conference. He could barely get around. After I delivered a paper about his music he tottered up to say “thank you,” and I replied, “No, thank YOU!” He looked up from his walker with a big grin and gruffly growled, “YOU’RRRE WELCOME!” That meant the world to me: I needed him to acknowledge how much he had done for me. A few years later I called to tell him that he appeared as a character in Richard Powers’s novel Orfeo, about the University of Illinois’s music department in the 1960s. His mind was deteriorated by Parkinson’s, and the next day his caretaker called me saying Ben was under the impression that some kind of copyright infringement had taken place and he needed a lawyer. I set his mind at rest and assured him it was a compliment.

And once when I was a young, new home-owner with a lawn to keep up, I was driving Ben somewhere and we passed a vacant lot covered with blooming dandelions. I made a slighting reference to the plant, and Ben just said, “But they’re awfully beautiful, aren’t they?” That was a lesson too. He was a lovely soul, and a caliber of musical mind we will not see again.

Ben Johnston and Kyle Gann c. 1994 (Photo by Bill Duckworth)

Ben Johnston and Kyle Gann c. 1994 (Photo by Bill Duckworth, courtesy Kyle Gann)

Brilliant, Funny, and Fueled by Passion—Remembering Dominick Argento (1927-2019)

Dominick Argento in the audience for a performance in 2014. (Photo by Bruce Silcox, courtesy of VocalEssence and Boosey & Hawkes)

If you were a kid growing up in Minnesota in the 1960s and you were a kid with an intense hunger to create your own music, you found yourself growing up in a kind of Coney Island of creativity There was Big Reggie’s Danceland, a big old barn of a place where every weekend you, and as many of your friends as you could pack into your car, would dance to music of the hottest young rock groups like the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones. Minneapolis was ground zero for the big bands of the Upper Midwest like The Trashmen and the Underbeats.  Some of your friends were even in those bands and they were producing big hits like “Surfin’ Bird” and “Foot Stompin’”.  It seemed that everyone was creating their own original music.

Every church in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul had at least one choir and everyone sang in at least one of them. If you had season tickets to the performing arts series at the newly opened Guthrie Theater, no matter where you sat you were no further than 52 feet from the stage you were awash in the energy and musical air of Janis Joplin, James Taylor, Mose Allison, and Miles Davis.

When you went to plays at the Guthrie Theater, the music for each play was newly composed and performed live.  If you had student season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra, yes of course you would hear standard repertoire, but your head exploded with new works by Penderecki, Legeti, Skrowaczewski, and Lutosławski.

If you loved opera, you wrangled some tickets for the Center Opera (which you knew always produced new work) where you heard Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, Carl Orff’s The Story of the King and the Wise Woman (Die Kluge), Eric Stokes’s Horspfalseason after season of newly conceived work.

Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!

Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!  He was a founder of the Center Opera company, opening their first season with his Masque of Angels and creating numerous chamber operas for them, including Postcard from Morocco, The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, A Waterbird Talkand many more.

At the Guthrie Theater we heard Dominick Argento’s scores for Shoemaker’s Holiday and House of Atreus. On the Guthrie Theater’s music season we heard Dominick Argento’s Letters from Composers and on the Minnesota Orchestra’s seasonDominick Argento’s Variations for Orchestra and Ring of Time. Not only did we hear his music, but he was always in the audience, listening, talking with people, part of the same world he was addressing with his music.

Being 17 years old then, and certain that I would go to the University of Minnesota, study voice, and become the next, biggest star of the Metropolitan Opera, it didn’t occur to me that Dominick Argento was also on the music faculty there.

At age 19, discovering that I loved to compose and, if I would take myself seriously, I could study composition with the master composers at the University of Minnesota, Dominick became my teacher and I became his student.

Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor.

Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor. He passed us in the halls, smiling (shyly?) but rarely stopping to engage any of us in conversation. We admired his focus, and his devotion to his work.  We students jockeyed for coveted positions in his classes, especially his History of Opera class. His lectures were brilliant, funny and fueled by his passion for and love of opera. Class after class he regaled us with stories about each opera, always colored from his composer’s perspective. He loved the human voice and would praise various singers who inspired operatic roles in the works we studied. He loved composers who loved the human voice. Be it Verdi, his hero, or Gounod, not his hero, we were transported into each composer’s world and immersed in the circumstances that influenced the creation of each opera.  I learned the operas, of course, but perhaps more importantly I learned that a passion for something can light a powerful fire. Dominick’s passion for opera and the human voice resulted in 14 operas, numerous mono-dramas and song cycles, his Pulitzer Prize, and the Center Opera Company, now the Minnesota Opera.

Such a ferociously quick wit Dominick had!  No gathering of Dominick’s students goes by without one of us re-telling the story from his orchestration class on percussion. On one particular day we were immersed in the lecture on metallophones. He held up a vibraslap, looked at it for a moment, looked at us and said “elephant contraceptive.”  We were too in awe of him to laugh, but we’ve been laughing ever since, and we all know and orchestrate the vibraslap in original ways.  Or the lesson on harp, one of his most beloved instruments. In just one class we learned that the pedals were D-C-B-E-F-G-A, Dominick for “D”, Argento for” A” , plus “your pinky finger is for tea drinking, not harp” and “you never hear the attack of a note, only the decay—what you hear is the air.”

Dominick believed that it wasn’t possible to teach composition.  Rather he worked to guide a (student) composer’s natural gift to its best iteration.  You couldn’t look to him to tell you what to do or how to compose. You were expected to establish your own practice techniques and work habits and arrive at your lesson with your piece in shape.  Individual lessons with him were an adventure in silence.  I would bring him my score, which he would lay out on his desk and read to himself before making any comments.   He expected me to come ready to spar with his huge intellect, his razor-sharp wit, and his undeniable professional experience. And spar we did—only the conversation between us took place in my head as I perched on the wicker chair with the blown-out seat that he set by the side of his university-issued grey metal desk, and I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer. I thought, “Will that damn ash fall into that glass ashtray?  No, no, concentrate on the composition he’s reading!”—which he read to himself, not out loud, not commenting. But then he would zero in on the one, most important issue in the work that day—which I knew already because I sat there questioning everything about my work as I tried to imagine what he would say. It took me a while to understand that his teaching style instilled in each of his students three essential gifts: creative courage, critical evaluation, and self-confidence.

I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer.

The lesson ended always with good humor, his cigarette snuffed out, and a deep sense that we, teacher and student, had met at the cross-roads of respect for the art form we both hoped to serve.

I think the most important lesson Dominick gave to me, and to all of us who were fortunate to have worked with him, is that there is a profession – composing music – and while it poses deep challenges the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.  The pleasure lies in the community of musicians, performers, writers, concert producers, and audience who come together in a huge joy-fest around the composers’ work.  He modeled this for us every day and continued to model it throughout the years. Many late nights, as I work through a difficult part of my composition, not feeling pleasure in the moment, I invoke his lesson—the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.

As I joined the profession and became a musical citizen contributing to the community by panel work or sitting on a Board of Directors, more often than not during a discussion which begged the advice of people who were not in the room at the time, Dominick’s name would be invoked along with a bit of his advice and wisdom.  Always sage and ethical, his advice was remembered, quoted and always welcomed.

Libby Larsen, Dale Warland, Dominick Argento, and John Neuchterlein seated at a table in a restaurant.

Dominick Argento (top right) and Libby Larsen (bottom left) with Dale Warland (top left) and then ACF President & CEO John Neuchterlein (bottom
right) at the St. Paul Hotel Grill in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014.

Over the past forty (really…forty?) years I would often run into him during intermission at concerts.   These were happy, brief encounters, where our talks were always shaded with his insight and wit.  We asked after each other’s health. He always asked what I was “working on” and I always asked him the same, because we both knew that we were always “working on” a new piece – that was our mutual bond.  We would exchange thoughts on the latest compositional trends.  We would pat each other on the arm and head back into the concert hall.  During the last few years, when Dominick’s hearing began to fail, our intermission and lobby encounters were still happy and brief though his verbal witticisms were shorter with their meanings understood through our years of association.

The work itself is not work, it is pleasure.

Now, as I finish a letter of support for the University of Minnesota Archives to document his work on digital technology, I recognize again and permanently Dominick Argento’s mastery of his talent, his times and his culture and his determination to put his music into his world.  In doing this he taught  each of us who had the good fortune to work with him how a professional classical composer in this country lives and works, how work is pleasure, how pleasure is in community, how community contributes to life, how life is joy, how joy is music.   Thank you, Dominick.

George Tsontakis: Getting Out of My Introvertism

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO: I don’t do that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GT: The Emerson one?

FJO: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO: Instead of listening to The Rolling Stones?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO: A mycologist.

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

George Tsontakis staining wood on a futon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO: Playing violin?

GT: Playing violin.

FJO: Not viola yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GT: Well, there’s tension and release.

FJO: And the Horn Trio is fascinating.

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

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

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

The view from the interior of George Tsontakis's home

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

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

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

GT: That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GT: —Wonderful piece.

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

GT: That’s who I’m writing for.

FJO: Hah!

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

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

GT: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

GT: But not if they’re piano quartets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO: But you’ve done some little ones.

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

FJO: Well, he learned your concerto.

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

FJO: That’s one I haven’t heard yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Tsontakis's backhoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GT: Extremely.

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

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

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

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

The road leading to George Tsontakis's home.

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

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

Hold On—A Celebration of the Life of Olly Wilson (1937-2018)

“The role of any artist is to reinterpret human existence by means of the conscious transformation of his experience.”—Olly Wilson, “The Black American Composer” (1972)

It is difficult to summarize Olly Wilson’s influence on my life as a composer, scholar, and human. (I had similar difficulty distilling my father’s influence on my life a few years back.) I do want to share some thoughts about Olly Wilson to celebrate his contributions to American music, especially African American music history, and to me personally.

TJ Anderson introduced me to Olly Wilson in April 1989 at the premiere of Wilson’s A City Called Heaven, commissioned and performed by Boston Musica Viva. The concert was a mentor to mentor exchange triggered by my acceptance into UC Berkeley’s PhD program in music composition where I would study with Wilson. I sat next to Olly Wilson during the performance where I followed the music with his personal copy of the score. Wilson often discussed Duke Ellington’s largess as an important element of his life and music. I experienced the same largess from Olly Wilson the first day we met. I had heard Sometimes for tenor and tape before this meeting in a composition class with TJ Anderson.  I was amazed by the new musical vistas in A City Called Heaven. This piece influenced a few of my first compositions in graduate school. After the concert, I received my first assignment in preparation for graduate school in the fall: Listen to more Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and Charlie Parker.

There is a tendency to separate morality and music instruction. Music instruction usually focuses on the notes or the historical facts. Wilson’s lessons, by contrast, were holistic. After my first encounter with Olly Wilson, I realized that I had entered into an artist apprenticeship with a master artist. His teaching humanized the learning experience in numerous ways.  He was very much aware that I moved to California at the young age of 22 without knowing anyone in the state but him. Something as simple as attending my first San Francisco Contemporary Music Players concert with him via BART from Berkeley was a quick study in Bay Area mass transit. (As someone who only knew the NYC MTA and the Boston T in the 1980s, BART was an alternate universe to me.) The entire trip was a lesson in critical thinking. Teaching critical thinking was not the purpose of the trip, the concert was the goal, but discussions of the performance, notational issues in the music, the music’s effect on the audience and a discussion on choosing a barber—culturally an important decision connected to settling into a new area—were all covered from Olly Wilson’s typical approachable intellectualism.

Olly Wilson’s indirect teaching came from merely spending time with him. Months into my new home in California, I was invited to Thanksgiving dinner with Olly and Elouise Wilson, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Bell, and the children of both families. This may have been the first time I realized that thinking critically would not be limited to music or history in graduate school. If you read Olly Wilson’s writings on African and African American music, you will note that his arguments are supported by a combination of facts, observations, and experiences. Even the process of smoking the turkey for dinner received critical assessment. I made the mistake at dinner of saying that the NY Giants would beat his beloved San Francisco 49ers. He wryly asked, “Do you want to bet?” His critical assessment explained the obvious, the Giants were indeed doomed. Details ruled his discussions. Wilson’s knowledge and talent were intimidating, but he was affable. I will never forget the obvious kindness demonstrated by the invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. I cannot recall the number of times Bill Bell asked me if I had called my mother when I saw him on UC Berkeley’s campus after that dinner.

Olly Wilson encouraged intellectual curiosity.

Olly Wilson encouraged intellectual curiosity. I know that my use of analogies to explain concepts in class are the result of listening to Olly Wilson teach or discuss a variety of topics. All of us who studied with him modeled our teaching accordingly. Anthony Brown (a fantastic composer, performer and scholar whom I consider my older musical brother) and I realized a few years ago that we both prepared our talking points before we called Olly Wilson so that we had something interesting to say. Olly Wilson promoted the model of the composer scholar. Composers who were also musicologists become deeply interested in investigating music’s connections to larger concerns of cultural expression and historical placement.

Music composition lessons with Olly Wilson were humanistic. By that, I mean he assessed my music by: 1) what I actually wrote; 2) what I perceived to be its musical intention; 3) how an audience will perceive it; and 4) and whether or not there was a disconnect between those three previous concerns. This may not seem so obviously humanistic, but connecting the human reaction to the music with the construction of the music and the musical concept was a unique approach to me. I use this method to teach composition now. Recently, I spoke with a group of younger composers and shared a representative comment on my music from an Olly Wilson composition lesson. The original opening to my dissertation for orchestra contained pages of music without the strings doing anything. At the time I thought this was radical. Olly Wilson pointed out, “You do realize there are 50 plus musicians in the string section not doing anything? The majority of players of the orchestra are in the strings. The tradition has always used the strings as glue for the orchestra.” His comment reminded me of an important reality. My music was not stylistically wrong but it was poorly conceived for human performers.  My take away from that lesson: The human experience is wrapped up in the writing, performing, and witnessing of a musical composition. One is not disconnected from the other.

I also learned over time that his concern for humans was not limited to musical issues. Olly Wilson’s largess touched many musicians. While living in 1995, Paris, I met Gérard Grisey for a composition lesson at the Conservatoire de Paris. Grisey’s demeanor visibly changed when I told him that I had studied with Olly Wilson. He was the first of many composers to ask me, “How is Olly?” While teaching in a small college in rural Indiana, I met William Bolcom who was invited as a special guest composer. After telling him my educational background, Bolcom asked, “How is Olly?” During an interview for a teaching position in at a school in the Southwest, I was asked, “How is Olly? Will he give a lecture at our school if you are hired to teach here?”  It was obvious to me that Olly Wilson’s reputation was larger than his music.  He made numerous personal connections with musicians everywhere.

His concern for humans was not limited to musical issues.

A particularly important connection for Olly Wilson was his friendship with the famous musician Earl “Fatha” Hines. Fate seemed to connect them together because Hines and Wilson’s father were born on the same day and died on the same day. After Hines’ death, Olly Wilson became the co-administrator of the Hines estate. One of the many special moments I remember working as an apprentice occurred when I had to search for specific charts in boxes of Earl Hines’s band arrangements. Preserving the Hines Estate is an example of a gift of stewardship by Wilson of important artifacts of American music. Likewise, establishing the first electronic music studio at an American conservatory, Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) at Oberlin Conservatory in 1967, is another important gift to the development of electronic music in America. Generations of musicians have benefited from Olly Wilson’s work in promoting and preserving American music.

“The ideal I strive toward as a composer is to approach music as it is approached in traditional African cultures.”Olly Wilson, The Black Composer Speaks (1978)

Traditional West African cultures believe that music is a force and not a “thing,” a concept I learned in Olly Wilson’s African American Music History class. Music’s essence is its affect or functional use. Considering Olly Wilson’s vast musical output, one can easily hear that his music was composed as an intentional force to affect or motivate listeners. I often begin discussions of electronic music in my classes by listening to Sometimes. Even though some of the electronic sounds are unfamiliar to undergraduates, Wilson’s interweaving of live vocal performance and recorded vocal performances of the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is haunting and arresting. Powerful musical statements in the piece are often rooted in the Black musical tradition in the context of Western art music. The music’s function is to communicate elements of the Black music’s vocal tradition explicitly or implicitly. In Sometimes and Of Visions of Truth, the use of folk songs is a starting point for presenting Black music in an abstract context. Sinfonia, A City Called Heaven, and Hold On use cells of blues riffs integrated in 20th century avant-garde vocabulary. In essence, Wilson’s compositions are demonstrations of the title of one of his important essays, “Black Music as an Art Form.” Music of perceptual interest, Olly Wilson’s works are a powerful voice of American music. Dvorák thought the direction of an American school of composition should be based on Native American and African American folk music, primarily, spirituals. Sometimes, A City Called Heaven, and the slow movement of Hold On fulfill Dvorák’s vision of American Music. At the same time, Wilson’s music ostensibly represents Béla Bartók’s vision of modern composers using a musical language totally integrated with the purity of folk music to create the new way.

Great minds help us answer big questions. In Olly Wilson’s case, he explained through his research what makes Black music identifiable. Not defining the music by the performer but by its musical organization and characteristics that allows us to trace elements of Black music in many genres of American music.  Wilson’s research and scholarship also addressed related areas of inquiry: What makes Black music an art form? What is the role of the Black composer? His scholarship laid the groundwork for future research in the nature and significant contributions of African Americans to the development of American music.

I consider Olly Wilson’s six conceptual approaches to creating music to be the Rosetta stone of Black musical analysis.

My first week in Wilson’s African American Music History class, spring 1990, was life changing. Anthony Brown was one of the teaching assistants for the course.  Wilson’s lecture on African culture began with a discussion of Black Athena by Martin Bernal, a book, given to me by my father, outlining the African/Egyptian sources of Western European civilization. A thorough discussion of West African culture in the opening week of the course was followed by Olly Wilson explaining his six conceptual approaches to creating music that link sub-Saharan West African music to African American music:

  1. rhythmic and/or metrical contrast
  2. a fixed framework (e.g. repeated patterns) and a varied part played or sung over that
  3. a percussive approach to vocal and instrumental performance
  4. musical forms featuring call and response
  5. a tendency to fill up all the musical space
  6. body motion being integral to music making

I consider these concepts to be the Rosetta stone of Black musical analysis. It is the key to understanding the organization of music in the African diaspora. Wilson’s work embraces the complexity of the subject making his discussions and explanations more potent. After centuries of convenient or expedited explanations of the nature of African culture and its connection to African American music, Wilson’s work takes the important perspective that this tradition’s artistry demands a more substantive exploration into the complexity of the historical, geographical, and sociologic factors that resulted from the Atlantic slave trade.  Wilson’s work illuminates the misunderstanding of what occurred historically so that everyone will understand Black music better. His last published writing appears in the Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington, in Chapter 5, “Duke Ellington as a Cultural Icon.”  After a career of intellectual discovery and exploration, Olly Wilson uses his discussion of Duke Ellington to illustrate how this American icon rose above America’s cultural expectations of his musical output. This chapter points to the essential concern of all of Wilson’s writing through a quote by Thomas Jefferson. In Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson states, “Whether they [Blacks] will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.” Olly Wilson’s life’s work demonstrates the “proof” Jefferson mentions and counters the common negative associations of Black artistic capability embodied in this quote. In a sense, Olly Wilson’s research addressed the artistic residues of America’s original sin evident in a founding father’s writing on the nature of Black musical creativity.

“In that sense my music is directly related to the struggle in that it aspires to inform, motivate, and humanize my fellow men in their aspirations.”—Olly Wilson, The Black Composer Speaks (1978)

Many of us are mourning the huge loss of a talented musician and intellectual. We also celebrate the many numerous gifts Olly Wilson left us. His work demonstrated to all that there was a traceable link to the music made by African Americans and the musical traditions found on the African continent they left during the Atlantic slave trade. African performance practices inform and are readily noticeable in any form of American music connected to the continuum of African American music. There has been a long tradition in this country of individuals identifying characteristics of African American music as weird/funny (minstrelsy) or interesting but non-essential, at best.  Sometimes this music is deemed inappropriate in serious musical expression. For example, one of my compositions was criticized for asking a “classically” trained choir to stomp their feet and clap like a tradition African American vocal ensemble. Wilson discussed the importance use of physical body motion in the process of making Black music. The movement is integral to the music. Understanding this concept explains why the Temptations danced while they sang and many traditional Black churches stamp their feet and clap as they sing. The movement is the music.

Olly Wilson has demonstrated the strength of African American musical traditions through his compositions. Black music is not limited to one form of musical expression. In the same way that the defining characteristics of a waltz can be heard in music by Johann Strauss, Chopin, Ravel, and the composers of the Second Viennese School, blues expression is heard in the music of Ellington, Louis Jordan, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and A City Called Heaven. This is an important point. Some limit Black expression to its folk genres, others to American pop recordings. The strength of any culture is revealed in the diversity of its various forms of expression. Black musical expression “exists” if it is identifiable in various forms. When Olly Wilson wrote “The Significance of the Relationship Between Afro-American Music and West African Music” (1974) he provided for us the keys to analyzing and composing music in the African American tradition and in turn, insight into American musical culture.

Olly Wilson’s compositions and research were his ultimate answers to every question he raised in his research. He never complained, but I do think that he felt an affinity to Duke Ellington’s dilemma: Famous and respected but not recognized in the same way, at that time. If you believe that Wilson’s work revealed important observations about Black music to have a better understanding of ourselves, then we might consider Wilson’s last essay on Ellington addressing the important issue of implicit bias with respect to assumptions about relevance of music created by African Americans or music created with the influence African American music. Inclusion in concert music is currently under more scrutiny. Olly Wilson was a pioneer.  He started teaching at UC Berkeley in 1970 and I was the first composer of African descent, to my knowledge, to enter the graduate program in composition at Berkeley 19 years later in 1989.  Olly Wilson paved the way for many people in composition and encouraged serious study of African and African American music in the Academy.

Olly Wilson paved the way for many people in composition and encouraged serious study of African and African American music in the Academy.

Finally, Olly Wilson did have a wry wit, a good sense of humor, and a kind heart. During a class discussion on Louis Jordan, he mentioned the dances that he and his friends did to “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.” I chuckled a bit like a doubtful nephew which encouraged Olly Wilson to demonstrate by dancing across the stage in Hertz Hall while we listened to the recording. It was a mic drop moment before we started to use this term. He gleefully played for me the lullaby he wrote for his first granddaughter and quietly bragged that he was asked to be the best man at his son’s wedding. Although we mourn Olly Wilson’s death, we can say that he lived life to its fullest and left many gifts that have enriched our lives.

In “Duke Ellington as a Cultural Icon,” Olly Wilson described Ellington with words appropriate for its author. This quote seems to speak to Olly Wilson’s wonderful contribution to American society.

Ellington’s [Wilson’s] music reflected a more nuanced, subtle, and complex reading of African-American culture, and, ultimately, projected a sophisticated and realistic understanding of African-American life. Duke Ellington [Olly Wilson] used his music to communicate the complexity, depth, joy, and beauty of the contemporary African-American and American experience.

Thank you Olly Wilson for all that you shared with me and all who knew you.

Olly Wilson dancing with his wife Elouise at Trevor Weston's wedding.

Olly Wilson dancing with his wife Elouise at Trevor Weston’s wedding.

 

Becoming Real

In the spring of 2001, I found myself in a battle for my career. I was composing the soundtrack to a feature-length film version of the stage play The Vagina Monologues for HBO.  My contact there was the film editor, with whom I’d had a successful collaboration the year before on another HBO show, Life Afterlife.  The editor had assumed oversight of music responsibilities for The Vagina Monologues because HBO and the director had recently parted ways due to conceptual differences.  As a result, the film had no director, and there was a two-week deadline for the music.  The editor told me that Eve Ensler, who’d written the play and starred in the film, liked urban and gritty music, so I went for a kind of late Miles Davis vibe—sort of hip-hop jazz, with sultry female vocals.  As I churned out cues daily, working in 16-hour stretches, HBO’s producers sent back approvals, telling me they “loved” my music.  It was going smoothly until I was about ¾ of the way through the score and the executive producer called, saying that Eve Ensler did not like the music and that I really needed another approach.  He asked me to start over. The editor suggested something more upbeat—in fact, she came to my studio and we spent a day re-conceiving the music, working to picture.

But we were at the deadline and I was pretty nervous.  This was the most visible project I’d worked on, and I felt like my career was riding on it.  The film and theater community in New York is extremely interconnected and everybody knows one another.  My reputation was at stake.  Trying to keep the panic at bay, I latched onto something I was very familiar with—a kind of rock/African township hybrid, major key, dance-like, and driving.  Again, I FedExed videocassettes of my cues to HBO every night.  For a while I was getting approvals, but then: silence.  After 13 cues my phone rang: it was the executive producer again, this time calling from London.  Eve Ensler didn’t like the music, and he once again asked me to start over.  The HBO people were very nice, and it was a difficult situation for everyone.  They agreed to increase my pay, and I requested that they send Eve to my studio so there would be no more intermediaries trying to convey what they thought Eve wanted.  At first I was told they “would not subject” me to that; the producers evinced some discomfort around Eve because she was so willful. (Even though she was right pretty much most of the time.)  But a couple days later I got a call from HBO: “We have a good idea. We’d like Eve to go to your studio.”  We set that up for the next morning.

I was anxious about this meeting; time was running out and failure was not an option.  About a half-hour before she was to arrive, I sat down to meditate.  And before I even began to control my breathing, I heard a voice in my head: “She’s your friend.”  Then Eve walked in, leather from head to toe, and said, grinning, with a strong New York accent, “So what’ve you heard?”  And I heard myself say, “Should I tell you what they told me to say, or should I tell you what I’ve really heard?”

And from that point we had a fun session, just listening to different rock songs and evaluating how they fit to picture.  She wanted some “celebratory, rhythmically infectious, warm-voiced chick-rock.”  She particularly liked how Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass” worked with The Vagina Monologues’ opening scene. I thought Lennox was a bit icy, though.  My favorite was Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders, but at least we had some common ground, finally, to work with.

The next day—the last day, really, before I probably would have lost the gig—I got lucky and woke up with a rocking guitar theme in my head.  I mocked it up and Eve—and HBO—liked it.  I was granted another two weeks and got the composing done. All that was left was to put together a rock band of session-level players and record the cues.  The one uncompleted task was to find a singer who could read and had a killer rock ‘n’ roll voice.  A friend suggested that I check out Cathy Richardson at The Village Theater, where she was playing Janice Joplin in Love, Janice.  I did, and Cathy’s voice utterly stunned me.  I felt that if you could match her voiceprint to Janice’s, they’d be identical. After the show, I approached Cathy on Bleecker Street and asked her if she’d like to sing in the HBO version of The Vagina Monologues. “Hell, yeah!” she answered.

For the session, I’d printed out everybody’s music, including the vocalist’s, but Cathy preferred that I sing her the parts, which were wordless.  She learned them fast and sang them note-perfect.  After a couple of takes, I asked her to just take my written melodies and “do her thing” with them.  And she really let it wail, at which point everybody—the musicians, the engineers, the assistants, and I—were just sitting there helpless like the guy getting blown away by the speakers on that old Maxell tape commercial.  And I had my soundtrack.

Here’s a compilation of the three opening cues, with Kevin Kuhn on guitars, Tom Barney on bass, Tommy Igoe on drums, me on keys and MIDI percussion.  Mick Rossi mixed and mastered the session.

(By the way, Cathy Richardson is currently the lead singer in Jefferson Starship, having taken over the Grace Slick role.)


This essay is about the challenges of being an artist.  And, hopefully, about the process of finding the internal resources to keep going when things are really tough and to pick yourself up off the mat when you get knocked down (and everybody gets knocked down).  It is about the variety of ways composers can survive and the joys, rewards, and responsibilities of being an educator.  And finally, it’s about accessing a part of your being that is larger than the individual self: the unconscious—both personal and collective—and channeling that into musical creativity.

I try to limit my activity to three things: concert composing, film composing, and teaching. (That’s already a lot.)

The music business, in all its guises, is notorious for being difficult to navigate.  Through trial and error—and a lot more error—I’ve found a few rules that have helped me carry on.  One: it’s always a balancing act between focusing on a single activity, like composing, versus several activities, like engineering, copying, arranging, and/or teaching.  Right now I try to limit my activity to three things: concert composing, film composing, and teaching.  (That’s already a lot.)  But over the years, I’ve used my studio as a place where people could record, working as an engineer and producer. I’ve also worked as an arranger of folkloric recordings for educational CDs. And, for a while, I kept getting calls to compose and produce people’s meditation CDs and DVDs.  My advice, especially if you’re scrambling to keep your head above water, is to be open to multiple activities.  You always learn from working in any kind of musical role, whether it’s educational, performing, or using your tech and musical chops to produce other peoples’ music.

There was a time when I did become disenchanted with trying to survive as a composer-on-command; I had encountered a series of difficult situations (including the Vagina Monologues gig), and it started to feel like the norm to me.  I saw that some of my actor and writer friends were surviving by doing legal proofreading on the side.  I decided to give up my studio and reduced my rig down to a laptop on a folding table at home, and I signed up for the proofreading course.  I thought I could de-link my musical and financial lives for a while.  But as I approached the school’s location on 57th Street in Manhattan, I began to feel a strange darkness well up inside of me, like kryptonite had infected my bloodstream.  However, since I’d paid for the course, I pushed myself forward and attended the multiple two-hour sessions required to gain certification as a legal proofreader.  The teacher liked me and afterwards recommended me for several jobs, none of which I took.  Something inside was not letting me make the move away from music; perhaps unconsciously I knew that the diversion from that path would be too hard to return from.  Yet somehow, just being willing to get off the treadmill of the constant job-search, taking any gig that came my way, seemed to release something in the universe and I began to get calls for film scoring jobs with really smart, musically knowledgeable, creative, and compassionate directors. I do think people can sense your anxiety, which can create a repelling energy.  It’s always worked that way for me: when I stop worrying about money is when I make it.

When I stop worrying about money is when I make it.

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, I used to regularly go to artist colonies. At one, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I met a poet who later introduced me to the filmmaker David Petersen.  David introduced me to another pair of filmmakers, Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipshutz, who needed a composer for their new documentary, Live Free or Die (about a doctor who performed abortions, legally, in a conservative community in New Hampshire).  I was at the earlier stages of my scoring career and decided to embark upon an experiment to compose one sketch for every cue in the film: mock it up, warts and all, and don’t edit or revise; go with my first idea.  I challenged myself to do this for the entire movie in about a day and a half.  The next day, Rose and Marion came to see my work, and nervously I explained my experiment and played the whole score for them, including mistakes.  To my surprise, they were astonished that I’d scored their whole film so fast—and they liked the music!  It took a few weeks to refine, revise, and finalize everything.  Subsequently, this gig led to a series of jobs: Rose and Marion’s The Education of Shelby Knox (which won best cinematography at Sundance); Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy, which Rose edited; Power & Control: Domestic Violence in America, which the director of Body & Soul recommended me for; and Who Cares About Kelsey?, which Rose also edited; and – through the sound editor for Who Cares About Kelsey?, the entire sequence of soundtracks I completed in 2017 for Monadnock Media (featured in my first essay of this series).

Keith Lentin (bass), Rick, and Steve Holley (drums) at a recording session for Who Cares About Kelsey?, 2012

Keith Lentin (bass), Rick, and Steve Holley (drums) at a recording session for Who Cares About Kelsey?, 2012

There are a couple messages here.  The self-imposed challenge to go with my first impulse and record a sketch for every cue in Live Free or Die was a prescient act; nowadays, composers have much less time to complete a score than they did 20 years ago.  Back in the ‘90s, I usually had a month to six weeks to do a 30-minute score to a 50-minute National Geographic documentary; now you may have 10 days or less to complete it wall-to-wall.  So developing the chops to work so fast that you can compose, record, mix, and master a cue on the first pass is recommended.  Another object lesson, albeit obvious, is that it’s really good to get out of the house and hang with people.  If I hadn’t gone to the Virginia Center, I would never have gotten those gigs.

Here’s the opening to Body & Soul: Diana and Kathy. It’s about two women whose strengths and disabilities (Down syndrome and cerebral palsy) complement one another, and who live together and take care of each other.  The music is meant to be unobtrusive, gently dancing with picture and dialog, then redolent of technology as we learn about Kathy’s computerized talking wheelchair.  Vicky Bodner played oboe, Joyce Hammann played violin, and I played piano and synth.

In my previous essay, I discussed my relationship with a beloved mentor and employer, Buryl Red, who oversaw the music for Silver Burdette’s educational CD project Making Music, consisting of 160 CDs, revised every five years.  By 1994, I made his studio my film scoring home, staying there until 1998.  By that point Buryl had rented three adjacent apartments in midtown Manhattan and had several production spaces going at once.  In early 1998, I found myself in the midst of a challenging gig: Heart of Africa, a three-part National Geographic mini-series. Meanwhile Buryl, a driven, exacting, brilliant musician and businessman, had decided to break apart a wall in the tiny room I was working in—equipped with floor to ceiling modules, mixing consoles, computers and other gear—and open the room to the apartment next door, all while I was under tight deadline.  People were drilling and hammering in the 10-by-10 space while I was composing.  Although at Buryl’s studio I had learned to ignore people talking in the same room where I was composing—a total abdication of the expectation of solitude I’d depended upon as a classical composer—the loud construction noise exceeded my ability to concentrate.  I managed to complete the assignment, bringing on another composer to help out, but afterwards was determined to find my own studio where I could have some self-determination.  This was not an easy decision, but a necessary one; Buryl and I had a close, somewhat father-son relationship, and he was not at all pleased when I “rebelled” and moved out. Eventually, he got over that and we continued our collaborative musical friendship, closer than before.  Meanwhile I found a wonderful shared space, with private studios, on West 30th Street with an old friend, composer and sound designer Dan Schreier, as well as a couple of filmmakers, Thom Powers and Meema Spadola, who had garnered some attention for their film Breasts, about breasts, and who were now working on Private Dicks, and you can guess what that was about.  (Coincidentally, Thom and Meema later were contracted to film the backstage interviews for The Vagina Monologues.  We were both working on it in the 30th Street facility at the same time, but had been hired by different parts of HBO’s production team.)  Eventually, Thom and I wound up collaborating on several other projects, including the PBS documentary Guns & Mothers.

We kept that space until 2004, and when the lease was up I moved to another shared studio, the Manhattan Producers Alliance.  One of the reasons I’d chosen the MPA was that the composers in residence there were actively working in children’s film and television, and they were well-versed in the business side of things; I felt that influence would increase my game, professionally.  Also, this was the advent of the transition to streaming audio, and the MPA composers were on top of that; I wanted to be around people who were more technologically advanced than I, who I could learn from.  That all happened, and I also had a team to work with when necessary.  For The Education of Shelby Knox, I hired MPA composer Wade Tonkin, a wizard guitarist and producing ninja, to turn my sketches into completed cues, which he did as fast as I could send him the standard MIDI files.  As usual, there was a severe deadline here: the film had been accepted to Sundance, which was to start in early January 2005; we had the month of December to complete a country rock score.  We recorded a live band just before Christmas, with Kevin Kuhn on guitars, banjo, lap steel, and mandolin, Wade on guitar, MPA members Kevin Joy and Don Henze on bass and drums, and virtuoso Kenny Kosek on fiddle.

Rick and Wade Tonken mixing the score to The Education of Shelby Knox, 2005

Rick and Wade Tonken mixing the score to The Education of Shelby Knox, 2005

Here is a cue from The Education of Shelby Knox:

The messages here are multifold: as an artist, sometimes you have to be protective of your environment, even if may appear to threaten a working friendship.  It’s good to have a team available, consisting of people you trust, because ultimately no one can do everything alone.  And always get the very best musicians.  It wasn’t until after I’d gotten my doctorate at Columbia and started scoring films that I had the budget to consistently hire the best players in New York and get high-level recordings of my music. A wonderful side effect of that is that it expanded my family of musical collaborators; it is a great source of personal happiness to be a member of this community.

Wherever possible, keep the copyright and publishing rights to your music.

Both in Buryl’s studio and at the Manhattan Producers Alliance there were law books on the shelves involving entertainment contract law.  I studied those chapters and photocopied the salient ones: those on work-for-hire.  I operate by this principle, and so should you: wherever possible, keep the copyright and publishing rights to your music. (And be very hesitant about giving up your writer’s share.)  It is true that in 2018 the means of production, distribution, and payment for music has changed drastically from even five years ago, but this bottom line still applies: in a work-for-hire—as virtually all media composing gigs are—the default ownership of copyright and publishing goes to the producer, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary.  And that’s the operative, legal phrase; so if you can, get that agreement to the contrary. I always request copyright and publishing. I’m not always successful, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.  Often it takes multiple, patient explanations on the composer’s part, as producers and filmmakers usually don’t understand the royalty structure at all.  But know that if you control the publishing, you double your broadcast and performance royalty, and you can control later use of your music.  So learn the law and get good at explaining it.  Note: sometimes, by offering to share publishing with the producer, they may be willing to relax their hold on your music; more often than not, they have no plan for further exploitation of it, and if you are motivated to market your music down the line, they’ll make a few bucks off it, too.  So actually it’s a win-win situation.

One day while I was busy toiling on an animation score at the MPA, the string quartet Ethel showed up to do some recording.  Ethel’s co-founder, violinist Mary Rowell, was an old friend I’d met years before when she was performing student compositions for Columbia University’s doctoral program.  Over the years she’d played my chamber, orchestral, and film music, and it was a joy to run into her that day.  “Write us a piece, man,” she said.  And this was my gateway back into concert music, after a hiatus of almost 15 years.

Soon afterwards I was asked to join the faculty at Columbia College Chicago’s newly minted MFA program in film scoring and to take over the directorship of their undergrad composition department: a double assignment.  I spent the summer of 2007 re-reading my original composition textbooks from when I was a conservatory freshman: Percy Goetschius’s The Homophonic Forms and The Larger Forms of Musical Composition, as well as Arnold Schoenberg’s The Fundamentals of Musical Composition.  (They’re all great books, and the Goetschius volumes are downloadable; I assign them to my students to this day.)  Every day that summer I read the Goetschius and Schoenberg in tandem, doing all the exercises in each.  After 15 years of film scoring, I’d developed new compositional reflexes, but I didn’t have the old vocabulary to describe music at my fingertips the way I’d used to—and I had to teach it.  So I reviewed my old studies, now with the experienced eye of a professional. As I began my academic year, commuting every week between Chicago and New York, I also started studying film scoring intensely.  Like most film composers, especially from the time when there were few educational opportunities for aspiring film scoring students, I was essentially self-taught.  Teaching at Columbia Chicago gave me the opportunity to pour over actual scores, analyzing them as if they were Beethoven symphonies.  And I began to develop a new understanding, a context, for what I had been doing intuitively all these years: film scoring as a manifestation of the unconscious.  I began to understand that film music operates at a symbolic, semiotic level, activating memory, sensation, idea, and emotion in correspondence to picture and narrative.

Film music activates memory, sensation, idea, and emotion.

The combination of teaching film and concert composition, all while composing a string quartet, was a potent moment for me in that it helped me begin to integrate the seemingly opposing forces that made up my musical life, from the Brazilian and African influences to my classical training and commercial experience.  I believe the act of teaching—of organizing my thoughts and having to verbalize them—helped me consciously understand the elements of my own creative voice. Meanwhile,  my memories of my own teachers began to re-emerge from the buried recesses of my mind with surprising clarity: as I stood in front of my string quartet composition class at Columbia Chicago, I found myself visualizing my undergrad form and analysis professor, Ludmilla Ulehla, talking about “directional tones” and Schenkerian structure.  In my creative work, I had embarked upon a large-scale string quartet that integrated African, Brazilian, and other grooves into a refracted sonata form, and I was encouraging my diverse student population to “write what they know and love” as well; so my Greek student was putting Greek folk music into his quartet, and the North African composer incorporated maqam modes into hers.  As my old composition teachers came out from under their hidden sectors of my psyche, I realized that many of their teachings were still influencing my compositional process, to positive effect.  For instance, Mario Davidovsky, who had pioneered the integration of electronic sounds with live players, used to say, “I’m the grandson of two rabbis.  You know what a mitzvah is, right?” (Its literal meaning, from the Hebrew, is “commandment,” but is also used to mean a good deed or a gift.)  Mario would continue, “Every piece should be a mitzvah. Every measure should be a mitzvah.  Every note should be a mitzvah!”

Another one of Davidovsky’s aphorisms that influences my composing and teaching to this day, is this: “The intensity of the energy of creativity must be constant at all times, including silence!”  Whether or not you agree with this edict (which I don’t, exactly), it does point to the compositional technique of compensating for stasis in one element with activity in another.  For example, how do you keep music interesting if it has no harmonic motion?  (A lot of African music may fit that bill.) Well, one way may be through rhythmic, metric, and timbral interest, not to mention the community element, the storytelling—and the stimulus to dance, which is an emotional healer.

A development that I did not anticipate was the influence of film music on my concert composing. Composer Mychael Danna’s 1997 score to The Ice Storm is one example. By employing Native American flute and Indonesian gamelan as backdrop to a story about the discontented residents of an American suburb, it resonates on a more mythic and spiritual level than the specific tale the movie is telling. The Indian flute points to historical transformation; the cyclical patterns of gamelan may activate a semi-conscious awareness of nature’s larger cycles, from birth and death to the movement of the planets. This principle can be applied in non-film music as well—a process I explore in a recent percussion quartet, Hall of Mirrors.

Back in New York in the fall of 2008, after a year commuting between New York and Chicago, I was asked by Doreen Ringer-Ross, head of film music for the performing rights organization BMI, to create and teach a film scoring workshop and mentorship program under BMI’s auspices.  Thus began “Composing for the Screen,” which recently completed its 10th season.  There I emphasize the unique, individualized quality that characterizes the work of some of the most interesting film composers.  We analyze scores, study composers’ influences, and see if we can channel some of their techniques into our own creativity.  Most of all, the participating composers learn by doing, writing  music for a variety of situations, using multiple musical languages, from romantic jazz to 12-tone to post-minimalism and electronics. Rather than teaching students how to parrot other composers, though, I want to inspire a kind of sensitivity to how film music works, and for the students to apply that knowledge to their own voices.

Recording the final project for BMI’s Composing for the Screen, 2017, at Shelter Island Sound, NYC. L-R: Owner/Engineer Steve Addabbo, Rick, and composer Mandy Hoffman

Recording the final project for BMI’s Composing for the Screen, 2017, at Shelter Island Sound, NYC.
L-R: Owner/Engineer Steve Addabbo, Rick, and composer Mandy Hoffman

In 2011, I also began teaching composition at Vermont College of Fine Arts, an intensive low-residency graduate arts college in Vermont’s capital city of Montpelier.  I had the privilege of serving as chair of the MFA program in composition from 2012 to 2016.  This small school is playing a major role in the development of composers: it is completely progressive in that it is post-genre.  Its extraordinary faculty is experienced and successful across platforms, and provides mentorship in contemporary composition, songwriting, music for media, jazz, and electronic music.  Many of the students cross between arenas within their pieces, which I think is an accurate reflection of how today’s musical culture is currently evolving.

As a teacher, one has a tremendous influence on our students, sometimes more than we are aware of.  A word can make or break a fledgling artist’s confidence.  While at Columbia for my DMA, and even as a Tanglewood fellow, I felt at times in conflict with a field that promoted a kind of cerebral competitiveness as a marker for artistic strength, rather than the kind of nurturing that supports the discovery of an authentic musical voice.  My teacher Jack Beeson at Columbia once said to me, “I think you’re terrifically talented.” It was only then that I finally felt I wasn’t alone in the compositional firmament. So I urge those of you who are teaching to judiciously and carefully choose your words, and to encourage your students to discover themselves through their music as they discover their music through self-knowledge.  Help them find themselves, and give them the encouragement to move forward when confusion reigns or insecurity strikes.

And with your experience and perspective, you may offer them the guidance to be patient with themselves.  After all, the very commitment to the artist’s life is itself a victory.  It involves a soul-deep involvement in your work; the heart to move forward in the face of adversity; and a continual, renewed sense of becoming.  And for that, you have to allow yourself the space to grow.

I thank my friend Doreen from BMI for posting this quote on occasion, as a reminder to all of us who are in the composition game for the long haul:

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

― Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit

Mentor, Me—Mentoring is Hard

This is the final post in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.

I mentioned in my previous article that advice at the right moment or the spontaneous outreach of compassion can turn anyone into a mentor. Of course, the opposite can happen. Tina Tallon recently shared a moving story—worth reading in full—about an all-too-familiar mentorship blunder:

The presenters asked if any of the students composed music, and only two people reacted…They were a seven-year-old girl in the front row, right in front of the presenters, and an older boy (probably 12 or 13) off to the side. The girl shyly raised her hand to about shoulder height, and the boy’s hand shot up in the air and he said “Oh, totally!” So the presenters of course turned and started up a conversation with him, asking him what instrument he played and whether he wrote music for himself or other people. He responded that he played violin, but that he wrote music for full orchestra. They noted how awesome that was and continued asking him questions and complimenting him, all while the girl looked more and more disappointed. By the end of the conversation, she was looking at the floor. The presenters then turned back to the center of the room and asked if there was anyone else, and this time, she didn’t raise her hand at all. She just kept looking at the floor.

Tallon came to the rescue by approaching the young girl after this exchange. She offered the enthusiasm and support the youngster had been denied in a public forum. Tallon also offers poignant cautionary advice to her readers: “It became very apparent that even the seemingly smallest of actions might have significant consequences… especially when working with the youngest members of our community, we need to be very clear about offering encouragement to everyone, not just the most gregarious (or whitest or male-est) students.”

This article is not about the countless studies that show men to be more talkative than women or more likely to interrupt their peers, garnering more attention than their female counterparts. Nor is it about the very real confidence gap that begins to distinguish genders at a very young age. But I can’t write about benefiting from strong female mentorship and reflect on my own teaching unless these cultural, historical, and sociological realities are recognized.

A view of Dublin Lake

Dublin Lake, where I have often sat and thought about teaching when I’m at The Walden School.

I can’t write about benefiting from strong female mentorship and reflect on my own teaching unless cultural, historical, and sociological realities are recognized.

As a young and very green teacher of both classroom and private students, I have no illusions about making mistakes in my teaching. But Tallon’s story made me reflect on one teaching moment in particular.

At Bard Prep, where I teach music theory and composition, my most advanced music theory class this semester was comprised of four very loud, confident preteen boys and a shy, subdued, slightly younger girl—I’ll call her Alice. The boys had a common interest in composition, and they would often leave the classroom talking excitedly at each other about their projects.

Alice was an engaged but quiet participant, clearly listening but only contributing if explicitly called upon. While I was definitely sensitive to Alice’s timidity in the midst of this garrulous boy-dominated classroom environment, I didn’t want to make her feel self-conscious by singling her out, nor did I want to disrupt what I thought was relatively productive management of a high-energy class.

After the last class of the semester, Alice stayed behind and asked if she could show me a piece she’d written. Of course, I was elated! One of her classmates, I’ll call him Pat, overheard this exchange and asked if he could stay and listen to Alice’s composition, because “he too was a composer and very interested to hear what she’d come up with.” At first, I hesitated, thinking that perhaps Alice would retreat into shyness if she felt judged by a peer. But Alice consented and proceeded to play a gorgeous blues-y piano piece. Pat, in his sincere excitement, began explaining what he heard and appreciated, which quickly digressed into a monologue about what he likes to compose. When I tried to shift attention back to Alice by suggesting that she and I do a blues improvisation together, Pat automatically inserted himself into the activity.

I felt totally stuck as a teacher in this moment. On the one hand, I was petrified that Pat’s overbearing presence would make Alice feel insignificant in a moment of vulnerability. On the other hand, I didn’t want to exclude or shun Pat, who didn’t understand why his behavior might have been inconsiderate. Moreover, I also did not feel that this was the moment to address issues of peer listening with Pat, as this would further shift the interaction away from Alice’s music and towards Pat’s behavior. Add to that the fear of inappropriately projecting these anxieties onto what should be a positive musical experience, encouraging Alice to share her talents again (and again and again). Might my poor management of this situation create detrimental consequences for the impressionable Alice’s psyche? Gah!!

In the end, I was able to strongly connect with Alice and saw in her a newfound confidence and joy in music making.

This scenario contained several valuable lessons. First, I am ashamed to confess that if Alice had not approached me on that last day of class, I would not have known about her compositional interests because I did not ask. This reveals common challenges that teachers face in managing many different personalities in a classroom, particularly in equating vocality with interest or aptitude. I’m sad that I wasn’t able to identify and then overcome this challenge. I’m also glad to have gotten a chance to discover and try to remedy the situation.

Teachers face challenges in managing many different personalities in a classroom, particularly in equating vocality with interest or aptitude.

Second, just because I can’t ignore or brush aside the implications of this moment’s gender dynamics and their potential consequences doesn’t mean Alice is not enjoying herself. She was having a blast sharing music—she was not burdened by my baggage, sensitivity, awareness, etc., of the scenario at play. I have to be careful about imposing my anxieties onto her and Pat, making more out of a situation than is perhaps warranted. But maybe I am making the right amount of fuss about it. I just don’t know, and not knowing is why mentoring is so hard.

In what ways should we be vigilant as mentors, and how extreme should our vigilance make us? How do we best nurture a creative person’s individuality? What is our part in shaping that individual into a confident, compassionate community member? I think these are some of the questions that the mentors I’ve written about have considered with great care. As they were mentoring me, they were undoubtedly observing situations like these and making decisions about vigilance. For this I am grateful.

my classroom white board the last day of class. The students would keep track of what they called “Katie’s quotable quotes” and when ever I said something silly or dumb or amusing they’d write it down.

My classroom white board the last day of class. The students would keep track of what they called “Katie’s quotable quotes” and when ever I said something silly or dumb or amusing they’d write it down.

Mentor, Me—Sustained Musical Mentorship

This is the first in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.

My mom, a professor in the sciences, whimsically refers to her PhD adviser as her “tor-mentor”. While the exact ratio of joke-to-truth in this pun is still unclear to me, I grew up in a family of teachers and academics hearing over and over again that the lines between mentor and tormenter, mentor and family, mentor and friend, mentor and colleague, mentor and therapist, etc., are thin as spider’s silk in the web of personal and professional connections that bind together any creative community.


Kati Agócs

Kati Agócs

Dr. Kati Agócs’s office was a small, narrow room on the third floor of NEC’s Jordan Hall. It was a modest space with a large rectangular desk at one end and a clanky upright piano perpendicular to it. The desk’s surface was almost entirely clear, welcoming the mess of papers that would often accumulate during my lessons. This unremarkable room, which I saw once a week for four years, was like a magic wardrobe for me. I recall this room as the space where worlds of sonic possibility opened, and where I gathered fundamental artistic values and musical techniques.

Agócs was a patient and thorough teacher who guided me like the complete beginner I was but treated me like a professional. She encouraged me to write by hand and ditch the notation software for a while, so for my first few lessons, I brought in some haphazard pages of meandering scribbles on bleached white notebook manuscript paper. None of these notes felt important, and she was quick to address this with pragmatic, tangible advice: perhaps this easy-to-crumple, 8.5×11-7mm hole-punched spiral-bound binder-paper didn’t inspire me to take my writing seriously. It was time to invest in some “serious” composer paper. My first notebook of 14¾x11½ Carta No. 25 felt heavy and important when I carried it out of the bookstore immediately following my lesson. Through simple and seemingly superficial means, Agócs impressed upon me the incredibly valuable lesson that I must take myself and my own practice seriously if I am going to write the music that I love.

Lots of Carta No. 25 music manuscript paper

She told me to cross out everything I didn’t absolutely love.

Agócs intermingled necessarily rudimentary technical lessons (“Can you tell me the open strings of the ‘cello?”—“Uhh…”) with lessons about building confidence and finding happiness through disciplined creativity. In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was struggling to finish a solo piano piece that was—at that point—the most substantial thing I’d written. Agócs had been spending the year coaxing me into consolidating my ideas and generating longer, more fluid forms. But by this point, the 20-plus pages of music I’d written on my beloved Carta No. 25 were long but not fluid, rambling through a consecutive list of possibilities without ever saying yes to any one of them. Already feeling stressed and insecure before my lesson, I entered the magic wardrobe and crumbled into tears. Ever temperate and unhindered by this outburst, Agócs asked me to lay out the piece in chronological order all around the room. The manuscript snaked around her small office like a dotted-and-lined ivory worm. She told me to cross out everything I didn’t absolutely love.

This ritual of expunction produced positive short-term and long-term effects. Most immediately, I learned to say no to some ideas and yes to others, consolidating and finishing the piece by the end of the year. Further, I’m not sure if this was her intent, but seeing my paper worm fill the room gave me renewed confidence: look at all the music I’ve written this year! Here is it, literally laid out before me! Surely that work counted for something, and surely, if I’d done this much, I could do more.

Beyond this piece, I carried with me the value of erasing materials. And I began to embrace a guiding principle in my artistic practice and existence in general: the problem is never that there is only one right tune or texture or harmony or piece of music; rather, the problem is that the world is full of a gazillion good ideas but the art I love can only say an emphatic yes to one at any given time.

The world is full of a gazillion good ideas but the art I love can only say an emphatic yes to one at any given time.

What made my lessons with Agócs so special was her attention to detail. She elucidated the general through the particular. The focus she brought to understanding my music and advising me made me a more focused composer. I wanted to bring in work each week that merited the deliberation she gave to it. Attention to detail is something that increasingly defines my music: I find expression through specificity, and lately, I’ve been trying to write music that creates dense, but delicate, intimate spaces. Agócs cultivated the tools and concentration that enable me to imagine these worlds now. In lessons, she’d put a timer on and make me try to hear my way through an unwritten piece to develop an internal clock. She’d sit by me at the piano and tell me to compose right there and now if I hadn’t brought in any music that week, nudging me to explore richer harmonies at the keyboard. She brought her studio to Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsals, and demanded a sensibility to the unique technical and sonic features of each instrument as the foundation for new timbral possibilities. She encouraged me to write imitations of pieces I loved. What happens when I try—really, really try—to sound like Alban Berg? Perhaps what’s different is the seedling of me-ness.

I took Agócs guidance extremely seriously and worked hard to demonstrate progress in my craft over the four years that I studied with her. I believe that everything she had to teach me was more valuable to me because she was also a woman. I believe I was such a sponge with Agócs because I was able to look up and see a person I so deeply admired that might one day be me. When I look in the mirror now, I can see myself looking like Agócs. I simply can’t see myself looking like the male teachers that I’ve had, as wonderful as they’ve been. I was able to learn best from this person and envision a future for myself in part because of this person’s womanhood: in the shared experience, imparted wisdom, and leadership by example that I trusted wholly.

I was such a sponge because I was able to see a person I so deeply admired that might one day be me.

Agócs was a clear model from the start of my education that a great composer can also be a great teacher. When she gave birth to her daughter, Olivia, my last year of studying with her, she embodied for me the oft-dismissed possibility that a great composer and a great teacher can also be a great mom. Being witness to Agócs’s uncompromised strength in these arenas affirmed my hunch that the creation-education-motherhood trifecta is not only possible, it is a cycle of self-fulfillment with each part benefiting from and enhancing the other. I’m not talking here about “avoiding working-mom burnout” or “balancing career and family”— rather, I’m referring to a fundamental capacity dormant until provoked by the enduring elasticity of the creative mind.


My experience studying with Agócs fits into a broader discourse about the culture of arts education. As our community of composers has more conversations about inclusivity in the concert hall, I often end up thinking about inclusivity in the studio or classroom, and the gigantic role my teachers have played by including or excluding students from the creative and professional world they are training us to be a part of.

My femininity is the least revolutionary part of my artistic identity, but it plays a significant role in how I relate to and engage with my community.

I would like to think my femininity is the least revolutionary part of my artistic identity, but it plays a significant role in how I relate to and engage with my community. An awareness of the obstacles faced by young women in my field has undoubtedly affected the educational choices I’ve made for myself (I’ve sought out female mentorship), and now, the pedagogical choices I make as a teacher. Over the course of my education, I’ve encountered lots of anecdotal evidence of the challenges women face in finding relevant role models and teachers. In her article from 2013, Ellen McSweeney recalled:

My quartet once sought feedback on a Barber quartet from a male coach I had come to love and respect. “Honestly, you sound like a bunch of polite women,” he said during the coaching. I likely don’t need to clarify that this was not a compliment. In another coaching, one of our most beloved mentors referred to our sound as “voluptuous.” This was not a compliment, either.

Sarah Kirkland Snider recently noted that her graduate studies “featured male-only composition faculty, and very few—if any—female students.” Mara Gibson reflects: “Aesthetically, it is impossible for me to separate being a composer and a teacher—both activities feed one another. However, when I consider the number of female role models in my education who were able to live lives that also successfully integrated being composers and teachers, I can barely count them on one hand.” The majority of women I look up to and admire today—my mother included—did not benefit from having a female mentor or role model. Many of these women are now mentoring young women and I know from my experience are, like Agócs, forging mentorship roles that they have no exact precedent for.

In the next three articles I’m going to write about my experience being mentored in different circumstances by different women and reflect on my own teaching as I navigate being a potential source of guidance to young women.


Katherine Balch

Katherine Balch

Katherine Balch’s music seeks to capture the intimacy of existence through sound. She is based in New York City, where she is pursuing her D.M.A. at Columbia University.