Tag: teaching composition

Experiencing Influences

It’s difficult to say specifically how living in Thailand has influenced my own music, but I have noticed some significant changes.   I think learning the language has significantly challenged my mind to connect with what I hear in new ways, and in doing so I constantly figure out how to make sounds that communicate and speak clearly.  Beyond the musical content of a moment, this preference for clarity—and experiencing clarity as a necessity—is something that tailored and tempered my music.  Teaching has helped me re-visit some orchestral classics that I’ve now fallen in love with all over again.  Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Haydn, and Beethoven have really piqued my musical interest lately.  Having to re-examine the content of their pieces and explain, in detail, why they are special and meaningful within the repertoire has illuminated a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the ideas.  Since moving here, I’ve even composed two orchestral pieces, both of which have been performed by the local orchestra.

Even though I’m more musically active than I have ever been, I feel more relaxed.

Even though I’m more musically active than I have ever been, I feel more relaxed.  Living in Thailand offers me a simpler way of life than I had in America, and this simplicity has helped my composing and imagination grow into the spaces that used to be exhausted keeping up with a fast-paced life.  The day moves much more slowly and, for many reasons, everything just takes more time to do here.  This unrushed pace is something that has helped me relax and feel time.  Through this relaxation, I have become much more productive.  Happiness is an important cultural concept in Thailand that accompanies ideas about the importance of relaxation for personal and community health.  Tasks that might be considered simple and quick back home require more intricate planning here and are difficult to complete the same way.  So instead of prioritizing a large number of things to accomplish each week, I am more focused on doing fewer tasks and planning ahead more thoroughly.  Being freely able to enjoy and explore what is around me has led my creativity forward very naturally into longer-lasting ideas that seek to continue the experience of that joy.  From this, I’ve also become more interested in trying to create more positive musical experiences and messages than I had thought of before.

Another aspect that has influenced my music is the intensity and complexity of the city. This influenced how I consider harmony and sound.  A palette of disparate sensations—particularly of sounds and colors—that might be felt as a contrast became harmonious in Thailand.  Different sensations collide with each other constantly and the city cannot be described without the idea of interplay and disparate but harmonious juxtapositions: ancient and modern architecture; mismatched sights and smells; rivers, roads, and languages interact and jumble together into an intense blend of sensations that is ever-changing.  In Thai food, there are five main flavors. These flavors are balanced in a dish through their careful interplay with each other and can be made to complement each other in a streamlined way or can be made to have a finished balance by not blending together at all.  I really like this idea.

People eating at tables outside on a street in Bangkok.

Over the course of my time here, several collaborations, with artists back in the United States and elsewhere, have been very meaningful because they built common ground between across great distances.  I make an effort to stay connected and expand the relationships I have while I also build new ones.  Working with visual artists and musicians has opened doors to new performance spaces, particularly when living so far away.  It’s not easy or convenient to connect, but it is not at all insurmountable.  The sensibilities bringing these projects together are often a great place for collaborations to start.  Often, new creative territory becomes real through exploring the dynamics of managing this, and the juxtaposition of the two environments creates a helpful alternative space already rich with an interesting mix of concepts.  Some of my most meaningful experiences here are days when I meet a new person during travel and we link up to better explore the city by combining our skills and what information we know. International collaborations are very much like this, and some of my favorite collaborative projects over the past years have been directly about how to comprehend and express the dynamics of this big space between creative partners.

A recent work for electronic playback and video is one such project.  Created in collaboration with Cynthia Pachikara, Vertical Horizon(tal), directly addresses different experiences of space.  Layers of video images, each representing a different axis (vertical, horizontal) are projected independently onto one picture plane where the images are stacked and their light and colors are combined together.  As the viewer moves through the combined projections they will naturally block the light from one of the three layers of projected images and create a shadow impression of their body on the screen. The other layers of images embedded then begin to appear inside this shadow.  The music is a combination of sounds that were built to be in a direct relationship with the structure of the images—airplane control tower recordings, instrumental sounds, noises from various transportation vehicles, birds, stable objects, and shimmering sounds each contribute towards the representation of a physical location that is difficult to identify because it is often at odds with other layers of images and sound that help reveal location.  The key element is the body of the viewer (as a screen and receiver) moving through and changing the image.

Having been away so long, new music in contemporary concerts is very fresh to my ear.

Teaching and connecting with both the local community and the visiting international artist scene has helped open my mind towards different ways of thinking about music and various details about the instrumental and orchestral repertoire (and music theory) that I had not been exposed to before.  Connecting these ideas together in composing and teaching has influenced my music and the way I think about communicating the musical content of the repertoire.  This has also helped me understand more about how I can help to continue to facilitate opportunities for contemporary performances.  Throughout this journey, staying in contact with America has been very important to me.  I realize many of my ideas about music are strongly connected to American culture and pedagogy.  Each time I come back to the United States, I love to attend concerts and conferences to hear new music and cull more resources.  As I travel back and forth, I rediscover sounds that are distinct to the American musical landscape.  Having been away so long, new music in contemporary concerts is very fresh to my ear.  It’s very invigorating to reencounter my favorite contemporary composers in live performances of their music.

When I reflect back on American music and think about the sounds I heard when I was growing up, I think about rhythm.  The strong surging pulse with clear beats and driving rhythms is something I now see in a new light.  When I was composing one of my orchestra pieces, I tried to align with this feature of American music more freely than I had before.

A monk walking down a street in Bangkok.

Living in a predominantly Buddhist culture has affected my approach to working with other musicians.  One idea of Buddhism is becoming aware of the inner-connections of everyday moments and the gratitude that comes from taking a moment to consider connections to each other.  For example, the desk I’m sitting at is something that has been made by someone.  Someone has given his or her time to do this and thinking about that cultivates gratitude. When I think about how many people have contributed in some way to making what is around me, I really appreciate the act and the object more fully.  As a result, I’ve become more aware of how this idea can appear in music.   Traditionally, it’s historically normal to find examples of composers who have been represented as isolated in their own world, but I find the reality of composing is much different.  The joy of sharing music with people influences the creative experience, too. Being receptive to ideas, absorbing them and acknowledging the community effort that makes contemporary music happen—instead of feeling like the victim of a lonely curse—can be transformative.  Moving away from the uniqueness of individuality and isolation towards becoming part of a larger community is something that has created many access points into contemporary music for both others and myself.  I like helping to make musical events happen so that they can be enjoyed – increasing the health of the participants and community with inclusive opportunities and outlooks.  These access points into music, both inside and outside of the music community, are necessary for musicians to be able to be heard and appreciated, and for the wide variety of perspectives within the field to be nurtured and maintained.

Moving away from individuality and isolation has created many access points into contemporary music for both others and myself.

In conclusion, the influences of moving into a new country with a completely different culture, working as the chair of composition and theory, taking my students and traveling to different countries as a guest of other universities and musical events, the sound of the language and learning to speak it properly, sharing music with guests from abroad and the impact of understanding other histories has enriched me as a person and added depth to my way of writing music.  My outlook has grown so much from embracing these experiences and I wish to share them and continue along this path of exploration and experiences.

An aerial view of Bangkok showing skyscrapers on both sides of a river.

Music at the Root of Language

Because I am in a different culture, I am learning just as much information as I am teaching. I chair the department at Mahidol University’s College of Music in Bangkok where I teach a wide variety of lecture courses—form and analysis, orchestration, 20th century music, electronic music, music theory—as well as private lessons in composition. As a teacher, I want to help people make new music. In Thailand, teachers are very highly respected by students and the relationships between students and teachers are generally more formal than in the United States. All of the courses are taught in English, but coming from an area with a different education system required some careful thought on my part about what information may be needed and how best to communicate it.

In lecture courses, the instructor is the main path to internalizing information and learning more about resources. I typically found that my resources are coming from, and represent, a specific perspective about music—one that is very important and from the United States. As a teacher, I would wonder how (even if) I could balance these perspectives, or tailor them, within the class in order to better accommodate growth within this specific environment. Generally, there is a pattern of favoring Romantic music as well as other music—like rock and jazz—that are openly communicative in content but also have a comfortable and lush sound world. One result from encountering this has been to move closer towards the center of the canon and to try to think about where that might be. If I were teaching in the States, it would be reasonable to rely on that knowledge base and continue to move away from the center. But in this environment, articulating and re-articulating the pathways taken by Western musicians helps create continuity around—and from—a more middle area. I’m able to speak to experiences and the ideas and techniques often found in this music much more clearly than I can speak about other kinds of music.

What has informed my music teaching here the most has been the very gradual process of learning to speak Thai and the cultural awareness that has resulted from that. Beyond this learning process, knowing more about the culture of my students has also helped me become a better teacher. As I mentioned in an earlier post, living outside your home country can result in many challenges. When comprehension is not automatic, everything that needs to be understood is something that has to be assessed as such and then re-acquired. Being able to speak in daily life was important to me from the beginning, so I spent the first two years choosing and learning to say phrases correctly. With each new word or phrase, new doors opened and points of conversational access increased.

Learning the Thai Language

Over the course of the first year, the learning curve for new skills was quite steep. During the second year, I focused on developing a larger vocabulary to increase access to details. Although all courses are taught in English at the university, Thai is more regularly spoken in my life outside the college. The Thai language has had a strong impact on me. Having to learn to speak a different language has helped me re-consider which words to use and has made listening a high priority.

When the understanding of speech is not automatic, one has to rely heavily on the ear to repeat sounds, words, etc., exactly as they are heard. In many ways, I found this process to be very musical, and I have approached the language from a musical point of view. Observing and understanding words helps facilitate communication: What types of words are being used? What words shift to new speaker? What is the tone of the conversation? In the Thai language, words have a very beautiful sound because of the high content of shaped vowels. Words that are not smooth would not be used regularly and the direct words “I” and “you” are often avoided in conversational speaking. The side effect of learning what I do know of the Thai language has also helped me a great deal to be able to develop cultural navigation skills.

Thai is very melodic. It is a tonal language with five tones where the shapes of the tones (mid, low, falling, high, and rising) occur on the vowel sounds, making audible melodies. These five tones are just as important to the meaning and expression of the word as any vowel or consonant. In English, changes in a tone and the sound of a word are used for expression, but in Thai, different tones are different words. Mistakes in pronunciation result in confusion and unintended, but hilariously silly, meanings. Over time, I discovered that as a native English speaker, my speech was very sonically expressive; it was very full of sounds not related to the word. I would emphasize certain words to change their meaning within the context of a sentence. I also discovered that my speech was riddled with and by idioms; the amount of these idioms hidden throughout concepts was genuinely surprising. In learning to speak Thai, I had to be very mindful not to let the meaning of what I was saying result in expressions of sound that could unintentionally distort the tones of my speech and the meaning of my words.

There was a linguistic turning point after about two and half years here. I was in a taxi and had often used the phrase “mai khao jai” or “I don’t understand” to indicate I had reached a vocabulary limit in the conversation and would be unable to continue. (Thinking that “I don’t understand” implied “I don’t understand what you are saying.”) At the time, it was frustrating because it wasn’t true. I comprehended the questions, but just did not have the vocabulary to respond. Because of this taxi ride, I chose to learn the phrase “I understand but I don’t know.” And “I understand but I don’t know how to speak” (thinking that these phrases might clarify a vocabulary limit not a mental limit). Surprisingly, when I began using this phrase instead, people understood I had reached a vocabulary limit and would teach me by continuing to speak or by beginning to explain more words that surrounded the concept of the word where I had gotten lost.

Learning a new word completely changes what you have access to.

One of the things that becomes very clear as new words and skills are learned is the impact new skills can make. Learning a new word completely changes what you have access to. When new ideas are applied, things can really open up. I have learned most of my Thai from the people around me and, in return, teach English words. This experience is very common. I practice using a new word in a sentence and teach the English version of that same word.

Finding Ways to Adapt the English Language

Not all cultural concepts found in English translate outside of English well. Through teaching, particularly in private lessons, I have realized that as a native speaker my speech contains many idioms unique to English that affect the ease of comprehension. There are so many! “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is one of my favorite creative examples of this. I also realized that, as a native speaker, I emphasize certain words to change their meaning within the context of a sentence, resulting in a distorted idea for the listener. Sarcasm, although very common for native speakers, is not effective for transferring information. Spoken humor often experiences a similar fate. So when I teach, in response to becoming aware of these idiosyncrasies of English combined with the melodic, fluid nature of the Thai language, I try to keep an even tone of voice. It sounds simple, but many good things have come from it.

Sarcasm is not effective for transferring information.

English’s strong skeletal grammar tends to hold intent well through many different pronunciations. (If a word is spoken incorrectly, its meaning is often still understood.) Overall English also has a high capacity for precision with various amounts of decorative words. English is very clear. Although English is also a difficult language, especially when written, the precision and clarity of grammar beyond pronunciation is one of the reasons it is relied upon as a common go-to language between multiple speakers. However, it is also common that the clarity of the English language can result in essential losses of sentiment and meaning of expressions from other languages. In written English, letters are used to make words that explain ideas in a row. But in some languages, letters and words have symbols in every direction, much like music. (The poet E.E. Cummings is a great example of someone using English in this way.) This feature makes space for symbols and letters to effect each other in a more nonlinear way.

Student musicians rehearsing at Mahidol University’s College of Music

The Language of Music

My approach to teaching now is more multi-lingual with music at the root. Clarity has become a primary tool for doing this and remaining focused on a practical approach built for clear responses to the ideas and materials found in the class are central to understanding the effectiveness of that clarity. I often focus on cultivating a firm grasp of the fundamental ideas that concern the vocabularies of the music at hand. In both music and language, listening for, seeing, and finding patterns is critical. Some patterns are easier to hear and some are easier to see.

In both music and language, listening for, seeing, and finding patterns is critical.

Although abstract concepts found in music can be difficult to articulate verbally, they can be made more accessible by examples where the abstraction is seen in a clear way—like in a diagram, flow chart, card series, or score. Many times, I will talk about how abstractions are easy to experience by looking through the lens of a camera. When doing this, it’s clear to see many similarities that relate to musical thinking. I can move through the depth of an image by focusing on something very close, something found in the middle, or something that is very far away. I can blur everything, or blur just a little bit. I can put an image in full focus or focus on just a small point. I can let all, or some, of the light into the image and change the colors. In cameras, I can capture one image at a time, but I can choose to combine many images into one image later. Once I capture an image, it lives in the camera even though I leave the place where I took the picture. One picture can be made and remade many times (and so on).

The students here ask such wonderful questions about composition, and I like to give as much information as possible. Beyond focusing on the music created for the week, in response to questions, I have often found that answers are sometimes best articulated through the process of solving a different problem that can help explain and inform the how, why, and what. Notation is great example of this. Notation exercises have been very useful additions to composition lessons. Practicing a wide variety of essential techniques (away from the piece they are composing and not a theory assignment) can inform future choices that will require detail and strengthen mental flexibility.

Beyond practical concerns, another aspect of teaching composition is how to constructively approach creativity. It can be difficult to make space for creative ideas and experiences. This is something I change around from semester to semester, but the general idea is to exit your routine on purpose, “shock the system” and document the experience somehow. A straightforward example of creativity practice is taking a different mode of transportation to the places you need to be for one week. If you drive a car normally, take a bike or a bus or ride with a friend instead. Take photos of what you see during the experience, take a video, or write words while it’s happening. See what happens. A change of pace can also help keep the mind more alert and taking a different path will result in different experiences. There may or may not be clear outcomes here, such as a completed pieces of music, but healthy creativity is a long-term part of being a composer. In returning to the music at hand during the week, I will often recommend a series of reasonable choices for students to consider until they find a good fit.

I teach music and learn about Thailand, and the students teach Thailand and learn about the music.

Being able to experience the clear side effects of learning so many new skills myself—from language to locations—has really encouraged me to develop my teaching towards a focus on responsive results, practice, and expanding chances for experience. I became much more aware of the pace and paths of learning because the learning process requires observations, considerations, implementation, observation of efficacy, and then adjustments. This is an experience my students and I both share even though the topics are different. I teach music and learn about Thailand, and the students teach Thailand and learn about the music.

Making Music in Thailand

In Thailand, it is a very exciting time to be a composer because there is a lot of space for development.  There have been several influential composers here, but contemporary music is still a relatively new idea. For many composers in the younger generation, it is a new career path.  Individual arts entrepreneurship is somewhat more difficult in an environment that so highly values the community.  But there are many avenues for music making here, ranging from organized local contemporary music initiatives to interacting with visiting musicians as well as with practitioners of traditional Thai music—a very rich music scene that is unique to this country.

In Thailand, contemporary music is still a relatively new idea.

Our largest contemporary music event of the year is the Thailand International Composition Festival (TICF).  This festival has been in place for nearly ten years and is the highlight of the season for composers.  Guests have included John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, Augusta Read Thomas, Mathew Rosenblum, Ken Ueno, Federico Garcia-de Castro, Paul Dooley, and many others.  Each year, the energy of the field is refreshed, reinvigorated, and energized from these visits.  During this week-long event, curious composers, musicians, and students are able to attend lectures as well as a concert series featuring music by the guests performed by both local musicians and visiting chamber groups. Contemporary composers and performers from Thailand are also featured here throughout the week.

Mark Adamo, John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, Judy Bozone, and others on stage in front of the musicians performing at the 2016 Thailand International Music Festival

Some prominent visiting composers and a few local ones pose for a group photo at last year’s Thailand International Music Festival

Alongside these performance opportunities, a competition for young composers also takes place. As time allows, group lessons are scheduled at the college for both local students and student exchange composers as well as for the competition finalists.  During this time, the young composers are able to learn a great deal from observing and getting to know the visitors and interacting with the faculty at the school.  For the students, the opportunity to learn from these composers is immeasurable.

Much of the music developed for this festival has continued to travel to places outside of Thailand.  Local groups, as well as visiting performers and ensembles, will often peruse the music for future programs that are still in the development stages and often export the music on an international tour. I’ve personally had pieces that had been part of TICF continue on to other conferences in Asia, America, and Europe.

Another opportunity for composers in Thailand is the Young Thai Artist Award, an annual prize for which only Thai citizens are eligible.  This award recognizes young artists in the fields of composition, painting, sculpture, film, literature, and photography.  After the competition portion, the winners of each area of concentration are sent, along with the adjudicators, to a European city known for its contributions to the arts.  Each year, a new theme is chosen to showcase a different creative goal for the project.  Last year, we explored Austria and the paintings of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.  As the organizer for musical composition, I was able to give a lecture to the group about the music of Mozart while we were touring his childhood home (which was really fun).  Each year, a new theme is chosen to showcase a different creative goal for the project.

A group photo of the winners of the 2016 Young Thai Artist Award

In Austria with the winners of the 2016 Young Thai Artist Award

Traveling musicians are very open to participating in local activities.

But Thai composers don’t need to travel abroad to be able to interact with a wide range of international musicians.  Many traveling musicians choose to stop and perform in Bangkok along their way to other countries and often collaborate with local groups here. One of my favorite aspects of this high influx of performances has been being exposed to pieces that are not often performed at home, like the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra and his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra which Martin Jaggi, a cellist and composer from Zurich, performed with the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra.  Our musical activities at Mahidol University’s College of Music, where I teach, are frequently built around these guests. For example, Martin was invited to give a master class demonstrating performing techniques. I additionally asked my students to compose solo cello pieces and he generously read through them.  There are so many instances of this generosity from visiting performers and conductors who make efforts to reach out to composers about different aspects of craft.  Generally, traveling musicians are very open to participating in local activities that allow for much more purposeful outreach, concertizing, and teaching. As visitors come and go, there are a great deal of these opportunities.

But there are also opportunities to work with another group of musicians who perform a repertoire that has survived for centuries—the practitioners of Thai traditional music. The chance to hear this music is a daily event here. Each morning and evening, practice sessions line the boardwalk of the canal near the college. I first became involved with traditional music just through my own curiosity as a listener. I was genuinely in awe of the sounds of the instruments I was hearing and the skill level of the young performers. I then started taking lessons myself. I have since been asked to adjudicate a Thai music competition.

The chance to hear Thai traditional music is a daily event here.

Thai traditional music is often played to celebrate an occasion or highlight a significant event. Performances are coded, both sonically and structurally, with layers of meaning. Generally, Thai performances typically feature melodies that are well known to the audience but, as in jazz and folk, there are expressive changes to those melodies. The way the melody is treated will highlight the skill of the performer.  Changes occur very gradually but there isn’t a strict approach to repetition or cycles beyond maintaining melodic or harmonic phrases.  Through a steady tempo, climaxes are often very rhythmic and the music can be quite subtle.  There are standard formal ensembles for different occasions, but performances on ranad (a wooden xylophone), kong wong yai (a set of 16 gongs on a circular rack), khim (a hammered dulcimer with two bridges), and saw ou (a mellow toned string instrument made from coconut shell and cowhide) are very common.  Thai music is traditionally taught by rote, without the use of music notation, so musicians will spend many hours working to remember the performance techniques given from their teacher.  Nowadays, however, many traditional musicians are college educated and have learned to read musical scores in their music theory courses.

An outdoor rehearsal session of Thai traditional music.

An outdoor rehearsal session of Thai traditional music.

As part of my composition studio, I encourage my students to utilize these Thai traditional instruments and musicians in a contemporary music setting at least once a year.  With the influx of Western instruments, I am also interested in helping students stay connected to the music that is already here and that continues to be played here.  By doing this, we have been able to establish projects that link Thai traditional music, composition, and chamber music into annual concerts (and occasionally international performances).

But composing for this group of instruments does require some special considerations.  They generally take more time and require being immersed into a person to person composing process. There is a formality in learning how to write for and play in these ensembles that is essential to preserving the spirit of the music.  Much of the music remains in the air, hands, and ears until performance dates come closer (which is major aspect of rote technique). Often what gets written on the page is merely a mnemonic for the musician rather than a completely detailed part.  Through working together, we are able to understand what notations are useful, mostly through trial and error.

When combining Thai traditional and Western instruments together in an ensemble, generally string ensembles have been the most suitable for these collaborative projects (for reasons of volume and tuning).  The differences in tuning between the traditional instruments and Western instruments can create fun harmonies for students to work with.  Some composers have also chosen to include Thai shadow puppets or Nang Yai (another traditional art form) into their work.

All in all, the opportunities for composition here are very fruitful. The wide variety of ensembles and guest musicians bring new ways of thinking that are very refreshing. Each of these experiences shines light on contemporary music for the future and the many ways it can develop.

Bozone and a traditional Thai instrumentalists sitting in front of a group of traditional Thai instruments.

Follow the Music

When the phone rang four years ago, I was asked if I would be interested in moving to Bangkok, Thailand to teach music theory and composition.  I said yes. It was one of those moments in life when one embraces the possibilities, even without knowing what will happen.  I can admit that, due to my patchy-at-best understanding of global geography, it was not too long after the phone call ended that I decided to look again, this time more carefully, at my map of the world to find out where exactly I was going before a celebratory trip to the bookstore.  Even though I did not know precisely where I was going, I had to honor the important rule of my life: follow the music.

Following the music had been the story of my life up to that point. Years before the phone rang, in the senior year of my undergraduate studies, this rule helped guide me through a decision to move my concentration away from voice (an area that had previously defined my musicianship) towards composition. While I was transitioning towards becoming a composer, it was tremendously unclear what would happen. I had invested so much time and attention into singing that composition really came to me as a surprise. Thankfully, I had a very supportive group of teachers in both voice and composition who encouraged and inspired the process.  Although it was difficult at the time, this change towards making music in a new-to-me way led to being able to learn more. In order to follow the music, I have moved more times than I can count—along a general path from my home in Texas through Michigan and then on to Bangkok. Through so many changes, music has always been what has held it all together.

Ironically, the steadiness and predictability I sought became available to me only through a great dislocation.

Before the phone call, I had been considering two things. One was the potential to enrich my composing by pursuing new experiences, and the other was my desire to teach and interact with musicians.  After finishing my degrees, I had been teaching private lessons and working a day job while I composed in my free time, but I found that much of my time was actually being used in the drives commuting back and forth from one area to another.  I enjoyed having writing time and teaching students, but did find the day job difficult.  The chance to work abroad would allow me to consolidate my work into one place. I liked the steadiness of the idea. I did not know at that point how long I would be interested in living there or how long I would even be able to last overseas, but a steady life was something I wanted for myself. Ironically, the steadiness and predictability I sought became available to me only through a great dislocation. As I packed my bags, I did feel scared to be leaving but was more excited about the possibilities that might come as a result.

A twilight view of Mahidol University.

With a time zone thirteen hours ahead of my home, the sprawling capital city of Thailand is strategically located on what, geographically and culturally, seems to be the other side of the Earth! Bangkok is an intense collage of colors, sights, and sounds. Downtown the whole city buzzes, temples glitter with mirrored tiles (even in the moonlight!), taxis and tuk-tuks line the street beside outdoor markets and cranes loom overhead. Food stalls are tightly packed with families and friends enjoying fresh meals. Boats chug and swoop along the Chao Praya River, the city’s oldest expressway. I had travelled quite frequently prior to moving to Thailand but had never stayed anywhere internationally longer than a week or two. Life as an expatriate is a completely different experience than just passing through as a tourist. Unlike a temporary visit, successfully living abroad requires a gradual and pragmatic approach towards adaptation. By investing my time and musicianship here, Bangkok has become my home.

Nevertheless, navigating this new terrain demanded focus and dedication. When I arrived, I did not even know how to greet people properly. During the course of my daily walks those first days, I waved and smiled back at every smile I received, something that I only know now was completely inappropriate. (My well-intended waves looked alarming. The smile was okay, though.) In the first weeks, the priorities were very basic: find a place to live, get a telephone, get a handle on what is happening with Wi-Fi, successfully get a taxi, try to go somewhere specific on purpose, see what happens. In the beginning, it took a great deal of patience to observe what needed to be learned and to follow through. Each day required a high level of attention and intention. Research done beforehand had warned of the possibilities of initially experiencing culture shock; this can happen when days (weeks and months) go by without the personal ability to complete a task with accuracy. I did not want this to happen to me.

Soon enough I met with other international colleagues at the College of Music at Mahidol University (where I would soon begin working) and listened carefully to a much-needed flood of instructions regarding the skills I would need to learn. The learning curve was quite steep at first.  When you are moving to a new country, it can be difficult to anticipate some of the side effects that can result from needing to re-learn how to do what in the past have been simple tasks. That said, gradually moving towards a more complete set of geographic and cultural navigation skills is very important. This process has been very revealing for me and is one of my favorite aspects of deciding to come here—I’m so glad I did. The joy that living here brings is something I had never experienced before either. Even though I was quick to pick up the hand technique for a proper wai greeting that normally accompanies a verbal hello, over these past years I’ve still been continuing to develop my wai, making sure to be mindful that my elbows don’t stick out so much.

A frieze of musician playing a baritone saxophone outside the Mahidol University music department.

My activities here are centered around music-making—something which has always felt like home to me.  As chair of the composition and theory department I interact with the creative and administrative aspects of musical teaching and development. My goal here is to make more space for composition and creativity for the next generation to enjoy. I teach a studio of composers as well as a wide variety of lecture courses ranging from music theory, orchestration, form and analysis, electronic music, and 20th century literature, as well as help organize new music events for young composers such as the Young Thai Artist Award and the Thailand International Composition Festival. Most of my free time is spent exploring Bangkok and the surrounding areas.  When I am not composing or teaching, I particularly enjoy walking through the city while I practice using my language skills to find local recommendations.  My favorite activities are touring the many street markets, taking photos, relaxing with a Thai massage and visiting the Buddhist temples in and around the area.

Following the music took me far away, but has also guided me towards the music I was called to discover.

Following the music took me far away, but has also guided me towards the music I was called to discover.  Taking a path open to possibility can lead to enriched depths of craftsmanship, creativity, comprehension, performance, and perspective in deeply meaningful ways. As I will discuss in later posts, the impact of living in the collage of sensations Bangkok has to offer has gradually come to influence my music. Similarly, my own process of learning and the growing awareness of how to cultivate development would come to inform how I approach teaching and learning. In the next article in this series, I will talk more about the variety of options available for musicians abroad, Thai traditional music, and the appetite for contemporary music within the region.

Judy Bozone

Judy Bozone’s music is as eclectic and vivid as the composer herself. She is currently chair of the composition and theory department at Mahidol University’s College of Music and enjoys following her love of music while reaching out for new experiences.

My Musical Life in the United States

It has been exactly ten years since I came back to Hong Kong from the United States, now that I think about it, and the three and a half years I spent there were truly life-changing.

It was in 2003 when I was 18 and first had the ambition to be a composer; this idea totally came from nowhere. I remember it was a normal school day, and during the break I bumped into a schoolmate (who is now a very fine pianist). I told him enthusiastically, “I want to be a composer.” But for an ordinary school kid who had very narrow training in music (singing in choir and playing the violin for almost ten years), the journey to becoming a composer was bumpy.

The three and a half years I spent in the United States were truly life-changing.

Back then I was what we call in Hong Kong a “science” student, taking physics, mathematics, and computer science at school. The main reason why I chose the sciences was because I was told that the better students always study science, but I struggled. Rather than going to lessons, I would instead go to the soccer field, computer room (for gaming), music room, and sometimes to karaoke during school time. I was glad that my high school teachers “allowed” me to do so. Many years after graduation they told me that they knew I’d be better off involved in the arts, so they let me spend my time how I wanted, in order not to waste more time.

An aerial view of Hong Kong at mid-day from Victoria Peak showing a group extremely tall skyscrapers, Photo courtesy of the Information Services Department of HKSARG

Near the end of form 6 (equivalent to grade 12 in the US system), most of my classmates had already planned where and what to study after graduation, and one day a friend of mine told me that he was going to study in the United States, starting from community college. Day after day he kept telling me stories about the “American dream,” and I thought my dream of being a composer could possibly come true. I went home and told my parents about my decision to study abroad—after a few fights with them, I flew to the United States on December 1, 2013, and enrolled in De Anza College, a community college in Cupertino, California.

I was very excited to begin my college life, because I had the chance to select the courses that I was interested in. During my one and a half years of study at De Anza, I had taken almost all the music courses offered. It was the first time in my life I had such an extensive education in music, and more importantly, with very welcoming lecturers. I remember it was Robert Farrington who taught me about jazz, Ronald Dunn taught world music, and Dan Mitchell was my music appreciation instructor. My fundamental knowledge in music theory came from Dr. Paul Setziol, who was crucial in the earliest stage of my composition career. I learned to write counterpoint and four-part harmony, plus I also did a few composition exercises under his guidance. He was kind to offer additional help outside the classroom, and he gave me suggestions on university selections when I was ready to transfer.

Aside from Dr. Setziol, I was glad to meet Loren Tayerle, the conductor of the De Anza Symphony. Not only did he place me in the concertmaster position for a year, he also loaned me his own violin. In the few semesters that I played in the orchestra, I had the chance to premiere new works, which was a brand new experience for me. A similar thing happened with the Vintage Singers, a chamber choir in De Anza, in which the conductor Roger Letson often programmed an interesting mix of old and new works—from Purcell to Lothar Bandermann, a California South Bay-based composer.

Lothar’s wife, Billie Bandermann, was my vocal teacher at De Anza. When I first came to the United States, I originally planned to have my major instrument be violin, but it was Billie who persuaded me to become a tenor. She was very kind to offer me free vocal lessons at her place while I was preparing materials for my transfer application. Sometimes she would even prepare breakfast for me when she found me very hungry during a lesson, and helped me in my audition tape recording.

After a careful consideration of the offers I had, I transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, in 2005 with the Regent and Chancellor’s Scholarship. Before I left De Anza, Dr. Setziol reminded me that the environment and pace in Berkeley would be much quicker than at De Anza, and he urged me to work hard and stay strong.

The learning atmosphere at Berkeley was very different, and the first few lessons were quite disastrous. I could barely understand the materials covered in class, particularly during David Pereira’s harmony lessons. I had to spend extra hours at the library every day to study Bach’s four-part harmony, as well as to read all kinds of music theory reference books. But after a few weeks of struggle, I began to understand harmony in a more thorough way, and the knowledge acquired is still very useful now—not only in terms of composition, but also in terms of how I teach it to others at the university.

As a voice major, there were times when I had to spend four days a week singing in the University Chorus and the Chamber Chorus, and another day for a major lesson with soprano Susan Gundunas. The training in the choir affected me a lot, especially in terms of the mentality of being a musician. Prof. Marika Kuzma, the conductor of the above mentioned choirs, often emphasized the importance of punctuality, preparation, and professionalism. This disciplined way of training later supported me through my down times. When none of my works were performed publicly during the first few years after my graduation, I was still able to keep on composing.

Other than my vocal training, I spent most of my course credits taking composition-related courses. My interest in writing music began with Prof. Cindy Cox’s “Twentieth-Century Harmony” course, in which she introduced many ways of how composers of the 20th century composed. That was also when my interest in set theory began (and even some of my recent works are still based on set theory). I later continued to take her year-long course “Music Composition,” and began to write my own music. During that time, I was still very much affected by the music I heard on the radio. (To improve my English, every day on my way to school I used to listen to the radio and repeat line after line what the broadcasters said.) My earliest works in 2006 strongly resemble cartoon music—or, more precisely, what I now call “Looney Tunes music.” The title of my very first composition was A Chick on a Stick, a solo clarinet work with a duration of roughly two minutes emphasizing some major seventh chords and portamento. After that I wrote another programmatic work for violin and piano, The Mat and the Course, portraying the catching game between a cat and a mouse.

I was nervous to present my works to Prof. Cox during tutorial sessions; she would ask questions about my choice of pitches, structure, and many other musical parameters. One time I told her my musical preference, and she told me that “composers need to be aware of what we listen to.” She encouraged me to listen to more kinds of music, because what we listen to often affects what we write—perhaps she wanted me to move on from the cartoon style to something else. During her course, we were required to keep a listening journal. I still remember one day I was listening to a Takemitsu’s work on an LP (though now I’ve forgotten whether it was Tree Line or Autumn). I was so puzzled by the music and I wrote in my journal, “I don’t understand his music, the notes are all written randomly.” Now it seems like such a naive comment. I am glad that my ears have been improved over the years.

My work gradually evolved into a more avant-garde style, ranging from my only attempt involving twelve-tone techniques to a more Lutosławski-inspired style of writing in 2007. It was always fun to try something new, because at the end of the semester Prof. Cox would invite professional musicians to read our works and give comments. (I still keep those recordings now.) Concurrently, I was also taking Prof. Jorge Liderman’s counterpoint course. Prof. Liderman was one of those “blackboard” teachers who would write anything that came to mind on the board. He strongly emphasized the importance of musicality, and he would either sing or play the lines he wrote on board on the piano—and that is also what I do now while teaching. His way of teaching was very consistent. Every time we were asked to write a fugue, we would need to compose at least three different fugal subjects. He would comment on each of them, and recommend that we work further on one of them. There was one time he blamed me for writing “cliché” subjects, and insisted that I write another three. I was surprised that he found out these three “cliché” subjects were all written in a hurry during Prof. Richard Taruskin’s history class.

It was also my privilege to have studied orchestration with Prof. John Thow, whose lectures were always inspiring. He was a strict teacher who demanded we memorize many pages of information right at the beginning of the semester. I remember that we had a quiz on the French, German, Italian, and English terms for all the orchestral instruments and various instrumental techniques during the second lecture. It was difficult at that time, but the knowledge acquired is still very useful today. Prof. Thow has great understanding in the use of instruments, and he could come up with all kinds of different ways to score even a simple major chord. Sometimes he would bring in professional musicians to demonstrate instrumental techniques, and he allowed us to write simple passages to explore the possibilities of each instrument. What I remember most from him was that he said if one day we can only take two scores with us, we should definitely pick Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky’s Firebird, because one can hardly find better orchestrated works. In fact, Daphnis et Chloé was the very first full score I bought in my life. We were all shocked by the news of Thow’s death in 2007, during the second semester of my final year while we were preparing for the orchestra reading session.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2007 and returned to Hong Kong to pursue Master’s and doctorate degrees in composition at the University of Hong Kong, under the supervision of Dr. Joshua Chan. My stay in the United States was short, but it not only equipped me with the fundamental skills I need as a composer, it also provided me chances to witness how the teachers I studied with respect their professions. I could have included many more stories, but they would only tell more of how much I have learnt from these teachers during the early stage of my composition career. Currently I am still working hard for my composition career, and I am sure there will be more interesting stories that I can tell later.

Austin Yip

Austin Yip’s works have been performed worldwide, including at festivals he attended such as ISCM, Asian Composers League Festival & Conference (ACL), and the International Rostrum of Composers. His major commissioners include Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Radio and Television Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival. His works have been published and recorded by ABRSM (UK), Ablaze Records (USA), Navona Records (USA), and Hugo Productions (HK). He holds a Ph.D./ M.Phil. in music composition from the University of Hong Kong, and a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently a lecturer at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Austin Yip’s music will be performed at the DiMenna Center in New York City on April 8, 2017 as part of a concert devoted to recent works by Hong Kong-based composers.

A Model of Generosity and Wisdom—Remembering Karel Husa (1921-2016)

Karel Husa on his 80th Birthday

I first heard Karel Husa’s music in 1973 as a 17 year-old freshman piano major at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The faculty String Quartet played his Pulitzer Prize winning piece, String Quaret No. 3. Though I wasn’t yet a composition major, I had been composing since I was 8 years old. My own stylistic bent was definitely grounded in the more traditional: my first musical loves were Chopin and Gershwin. Husa’s quartet wasn’t like anything I had ever heard before. I was immediately struck by its dramatic thrust, its imaginative colors, but above all by the masterful unfolding of motives building phrases, phrases building sections, and sections building movements; in other words, true rhetorical traction, a complete unity of form and content. I see now that the force of Husa’s musical ideas transcended style and taste.

Several years later, during my studies in Paris with Husa’s former teacher Nadia Boulanger, I turned my attention to graduate school. I somehow got a hold of the University of Michigan Wind Ensemble recording of Music for Prague and Apotheosis of This Earth, conducted by Husa. Again, though the character of this music was markedly different from the direction I was taking, I found myself completely in thrall to the unfolding dramatic line of both pieces. Many years later, as an active composer and teacher now for over three decades, I understand something I only intuitively sensed: Husa was a master of what Boulanger called “the long line”—meaning that a work unfolds in such a way that expresses an absolute concentration of thought and feeling. I had learned that from Boulanger; Husa’s music was confirmation. I decided to apply to Cornell to study with Husa, as so many did during his nearly 40-year teaching career at Cornell and at Ithaca College.

Though a masterful conductor himself, he said to me: “You can compose. If you can compose, why would you want to be anything else?”

As a mentor and teacher, Husa was a model of generosity and wisdom. After my first year I had a crisis of confidence because I had not composed much music, and was also dealing with important questions of personal identity. I had effectively withdrawn from the program. Husa seemed to intuitively understand all of this. He invited me to visit him at his summer home in Interlaken, New York, to talk through my dilemma. I was considering focusing on theory teaching and conducting in my graduate studies instead of composing. Though a masterful conductor himself, he said to me: “You can compose. If you can compose, why would you want to be anything else?” I realize now that Husa was affirming what Virgil Thomson so insightfully described in his book The State of Music: “Music is an island with four concentric circles, the inner circle and summit being Musical Composition.” His encouragement helped me gain some much-needed perspective on my situation. I recommitted myself to my studies with him, and soon experienced a true artistic “breakthrough”, composing a twenty-five minute string quartet under his guidance.

Husa was also an extraordinary teacher of conducting. The skills I learned in his class inspired me to pursue for a time a career in conducting along with composing. My memories of singing many of the major choral masterworks under his direction, such as Handel’s Messiah and his own Apotheosis of This Earth, are among the most vivid of my student years.

In his later years, Husa’s composing slowed down, but his generosity towards his former students continued, recommending them for grants and teaching positions. I spoke to him just a few weeks before he passed away on December 14th, and he was completely alert, questioning me about my activities with the warmth and attention that marked every interaction I ever had with him.

I have rarely experienced such a fusing of emotion with musical expression.

I particularly remember watching Husa conduct a rehearsal in 1980 of Music for Prague with the Interlochen Wind Ensemble. I was standing in the back of the stage, where I could clearly see his face. At the moment in the first movement when the three trumpets enter on a unison D, the look on his face was a terrifying and thrilling combination of anger and absolute power. He was seeing as if for the first time the Russian tanks rolling into Prague. I have rarely experienced such a fusing of emotion with musical expression.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had contact during my formative years with a man of Husa’s gifts and humanity.

Karel Husa standing surrounded by a string quartet rehearsing in his home.

Karel Husa giving advice to a string quartet consisting of North Carolina Symphony musicians, including his granddaughter, Maria Evola, right, during a rehearsal of his Pulitzer Prize winning String Quartet No. 3 at his home in Apex NC on October 29, 2006. (The other musicians, from left to right, are David Marshall, Elizabeth Beilman, and So Yun Kim.) Photo by Takaaki Iwabu, courtesy G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers.

Remembering Steven Stucky (1949-2016)

Steven Stucky

Steven Stucky

A note from Ed Harsh, President and CEO of New Music USA:

A special sadness spread quickly over the new music community earlier this week as word of Steve Stucky’s death spread. There has already been much written and there will be much more to come. Steve’s rare combination of qualities, beginning with his musical genius but extending far beyond, touched so many people. Wisdom, humor, erudition, humility. He brought these and so many more to all that he did.

Following our custom on NewMusicBox, we asked a close colleague of Steve’s to write a memorial essay. Christopher Rouse succinctly sums up what an extraordinary friend and role model Steve has been to so many of us. We encourage you all to add your own thoughts and remembrances in the comments section below.

For New Music USA as an institution, it would be hard to overstate Steve’s impact. He served brilliantly as our Vice Chair, bringing clarity and perspective accompanied always by support and inspiration. Perhaps most fundamentally, he was one of the truly indispensable colleagues who turned two organizations, the American Music Center and Meet The Composer, into one. New Music USA wouldn’t be New Music USA without him. He’ll always hold a very special place in our hearts.


In 1973, when I first enrolled in the master’s program at Cornell University, my fellow composers spoke often about Steven Stucky, who had begun his graduate work there the year before but who was then serving two years in Iceland as a member of the US Air Force. There was universal admiration for him both as a composer and a person. Hearing a piece of his – the Quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano – told me that he was indeed a composer of special gifts. Already evident were the fastidiousness and elegance that would come to characterize his mature work. When he returned to Cornell, Steve and I became fast friends, jawing about virtually every conceivable subject and sometimes playing extended frisbee or softball games on the Quad.

That close friendship continued until February 14 of this year, when he suddenly passed away after a three-month battle with brain cancer. Those of us close to him knew of his struggle but expected – hoped? – Steve would be with us longer. I had last spoken to him about a week earlier, when his spirits seemed high and his fighting spirit strong. The one consolation was that he died peacefully in his sleep.

His achievements as composer and writer have been extensively chronicled elsewhere, as have the achievements of the many Stucky students who have gone on to remarkable careers in their own right. The greatest testament to him is the extraordinary outpouring of grief on the Internet upon his death. So many had deep feelings for him. He had an astounding intellect, but perhaps more important were his warmth, graciousness, and generosity of spirit. He gave unstintingly of his time to many organizations; perhaps even more important, he did the same for his friends and his students. Every young composer who had the opportunity to work with Steve carried away memories that would last a lifetime, not only in terms of the valuable instruction they received but also through the example he set as a humble and caring human being.

He was the most centered friend I have ever had. Even in the most difficult times of his life he maintained his usual friendly and calm demeanor. I don’t recall ever seeing him show anger or stress. Though his heart might be breaking, there was never self-pity nor any demonstration of emotional excess in his behavior. His family meant the world to him, and his marriage to Kristen Frey Stucky brought him enormous joy and peace over the last several years of his life, as did his ongoing close relationship with his two children, Maura and Matthew.

I don’t think I’m alone in seeing Steve as the sort of person we all wish we were. Even had he lacked the musical genius he did in fact possess, his way of living his life and treating all with kindness and respect would have been a model worth emulating for anyone. Loved by so many, we have lost not only a great composer, but the dearest of friends. I wonder how we will be able to go on without him.

John Harbison, Christopher Rouse, and Steven Stucky

John Harbison, Christopher Rouse, and Steven Stucky at the 2012 American Academy of Arts and Letter Ceremonial

A Letter to Leslie Bassett (1923-2016)

Anita and Leslie Bassett with Gabriela Lena Frank and Paul Yeon Lee

Anita and Leslie Bassett with Gabriela Lena Frank and Paul Yeon Lee in February 2012.

My dearest mentor, my teacher, my role model, my Leslie:

I miss you like crazy. It’s been a few years since we last talked, a total insanity considering how often in my daily life, I still hear your words of counsel from our music lessons of old. I can see the way your hands used to hold your knees when you laughed while seated, head back and eyes closing in mirth at some bit of mischief I would jaw off, nervous and eager to amuse. I remember your distinctive walk, frail and steely both, across worn carpet to the treble-bright piano in your studio, thick music score in hand. When I was over early at the house, you and beautiful Anita would fry up corn pancakes while discussing a marvelous new clarinetist who bled “for his composer and played like it was his last breath!” These days, when I hear the clarinet, I swear, in a fit of quasi-synesthesia, that I’m tasting corn…

The love that a student has for her teacher is a special one. I was not a child when, in the ’90s, you stepped out of retirement for a brief stint to become a mentor for a few lucky students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In fact, I was already experienced and cognizant of the usefulness of having someone to idealize and be guided by, especially a composer so widely revered and respected. I even expected it. What I hadn’t expected was to be consistently wowed—humbled really—by your humanity. Honestly, I can’t imagine the wellspring of personal experience and patience you reached into when assessing the counterpoint and orchestration of my well-meaning but so very naïve scores, those earliest attempts to tease out a voice as a Peruvian-American with Chinese and Lithuanian Jewish forbearers, as a woman with hippy-feminist roots, and even as a disabled individual. Although you were from a certain era of “old school” American men that might not have been surrounded by the most diverse peers, you easily talked with me about the most volatile of subjects affecting me deeply as a young composer: Racism and “playing the race card,” cultural tributes vs. cultural parasitism, ambition in one’s career and ambition in one’s personal artistry, sexism, and the distracting, god-awful noisy politicization of it all. I was well aware of taking up the time of a man who had been a young soldier in one of the world’s ugliest wars, who later experienced what no parent ever should in losing a young child, and whose own face was startlingly altered after fighting serious illness. You still believed in teaching and writing great music, and that made me even more devoted.

Knowing well how your eyes shone to work with performers who played from the gut, leaving it all out on the stage, I remember putting my fingers to work in the only meaningful gesture I could think of to properly thank you when I left school: recording your complete piano and piano/violin works on a CD. It was a Frank family affair with my sweet mom, the stained glass artist, designing a cover to your specs and with my father, the Mark Twain scholar, editing the booklet texts. (I couldn’t figure out a role for my scientist brother.) In the recording sessions, I threw myself into the heady mix of tonality and atonality that was your hallmark, wrestling with the terse lines that needed to suddenly sprawl, or pulling symphonic colors out of the Steinway borrowed from the Detroit Symphony. Definitely, for a brief time, I caught the bug that unjaded new music performers have: Wanting an esteemed composer’s approval so bad, it’s like needing benediction from the pope.

You taught even when you didn’t mean to. Introducing me to the joys of Wallace and Gromit? Priceless. Gamely working a tough piece of jerky I offered when I forgot that chewing was difficult, an embarrassing faux pas? Likewise priceless. Playing hopeful yet gentlemanly matchmaker between me and a platonic male composer friend, declaring others to be “boobs?” So, so, so very priceless.

If I had stayed in better touch these past few years, I would have been able to tell you that said platonic male composer friend and I are still dear to one another while both happily married to others. I would be able to tell you that my career landed fine, and I think it will continue on all right. I would tell you that I absolutely did kick to the curb my illness and its ensuing “wellness” regime of surgeries and radiation. I would tell you about playing your Preludes piano suite in a men’s prison and them loving its craggy unyielding modernity; that, as you advised, I have a tough skin against bad/ignorant reviews but a necessary skeptical eye towards the good; and that I’ve bought land to raise Peruvian alpacas not far from where you grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, son of a pig farmer. I would tell you that having lived into my middle years now, I appreciate better how steadfastly you held onto your values as artist, teacher, colleague, father, and husband: Simply put, a man of integrity and honor. Most of all, I would tell you that I it pains me that performances of your beautiful music had slowed in recent times—an injustice—but that I would, nudged once again into action by your leaving us, do what I could to remind the world of your musical legacy.

You knew me as an atheist, more by circumstance than intentional design, but I confess that there is the rare occasion that someone gives me pause. I feel their incandescence, and I’m at a loss to explain their excellence in ordinary terms.

Rest in peace, my teacher, Leslie dear. I will always be missing you tons.



Gabriela Lena Frank, Leslie Bassett, and Paul Yeon Lee

Gabriela Lena Frank, Leslie Bassett, and Paul Yeon Lee.

Giving Voice: Expanding the Periphery

Two young people wearing headphones sitting in front of a work station with a drumpad, an electronic piano keyboard, a computer monitor, speakers, and other peripherals.

Two younger campers building beats through Reason

Twin Woods Records, the recording studio at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Family of Summer Camps, is a busy place with campers of all ages and abilities passing through to take instrument lessons, write songs, produce beats, and make music.

This morning I produced a parody of “Ridin’ Dirty” (“you won’t catch our cabin dirty”), worked with a camper who wants to write a music theater song, and produced three students who had never recorded themselves singing before. In the past week, the staff musicians and I have produced a children’s folk song, sung Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” twice, and jammed out to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which is strangely popular with preteens this year). I’ve worked with a camper on her phrasing in Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” discussing the basics of music theory and challenging her to notate her first melody. At the same time, I’ve been working on a new chamber work for the group Wild Rumpus and have begun to record an album of original singer/songwriter material. This is only the second week of camp.

Working as a teaching artist has resulted in me drawing unexpected connections between disparate artists as I try to engage with students who come from a wide variety of musical backgrounds—some having no musical experience at all.

The campers at Twin Woods work on both group and individual projects, exploring their own lyrical and musical interests. Among the many projects currently being worked on is a solo hip-hop track. The camper writing the song is incorporating samples from pop songs to create his beats. I’ve worked closely with this camper to further his understanding of sampling, in hip-hop and beyond. This resulted in a discussion about the history of sampling and its use in hip-hop, pop, classical, and folk. Over the course of the class, we spoke about De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, John Oswald’s Plunderphonics, and Girl Talk’s All Day. As the conversation continued, I presented my own sample-based work, On the Verge, and began to talk about how modern-day sampling shares its history with the oral tradition of folk artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, as well as with work like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. These lessons rooted the camper’s sampling choices in a deeper musical context. Looking to enrich his lyrical content, I issued the challenge to incorporate a sample or samples that had a unifying theme that could be tied into the lyrics. It was a challenge the student was eager to take on.

Last year, I was working with a camper who was feeling run down from having been at camp for six weeks. He was initially disengaged from the creative process, not wanting to work on anything that day. Rather than accepting this, I began to talk to the camper about Brian Eno’s ambient work, which he had never heard before. He became really excited about the prospect of making his own ambient work and ended up creating a great track.

Prior to my work at summer camp, I spent a day at the Chancellor Academy in Pompton Plains, New Jersey. This school featured a classroom that had been transformed into a fully functioning recording studio featuring ProTools and Reason. I arrived for the class with the sketches and final score of my work Nocturne No. 1 for wind ensemble. Most of the students had never heard a wind ensemble before and their only frames of reference for classical music, if any, were Mozart and Beethoven. I talked about my work, how I’d come to write it, the process of going from a solo piano work to sketches to a score in Finale to a rehearsal and performance. We discussed my harmonic influences, how I hid a favorite pop song inside the work, (again, relating my music to sampling in hip-hop) and the meaning behind my musical gestures.

Students sitting at a round table cooking at pages of music notation manuscript.

Students at the Chancellor Academy looking over sketches of my Nocturne No. 1 for wind ensemble

Over the course of the hour, we made a series of unexpected connections. One of the students commented that a section of the work sounded like I’d “dropped the bass,” a key moment in hip-hop and electronica. I drew parallels between the staves in my score and the tracks in a ProTools session. After presenting my work, the students shared with me the song they had created together; it proved to be a tremendously moving experience. They had spent the school year putting together tracks in the studio, writing and recording their own beats, synthesizers, and lyrics. The students took immense pride in their work, and deservedly so. I offered critiques of their lyrics and music while also celebrating their accomplishments. By looking past our preconceived notions of musical genres, we were able to find the interconnectivity inherent in all musical expression.

One of the students made an offhanded comment that has stuck with me: “When I started in this program I was writing about guns and drugs. I’ve moved away from that.” He had just finished playing me a track about one love, and working hard to better himself, his family, and his community. This remains my inspirational call to arms: evidence of how music and the creative process can have a tremendous impact on an individual, and how this impact ripples outward beyond the educational setting. In crossing the musical topography and uniting seemingly disparate worlds, teaching artists have the power to remove preconceptions about musical identity as well as labels that students might have internalized about themselves personally, transforming both the individual and their art.

Giving Voice: Teaching Artistry

Chris Cresswell sitting at a work station in front of a keyboard, a computer terminal, and a pair of speakers

Working inside Twin Woods Studios

Last year, on June 4, I had my own cubicle in Boosey & Hawkes’s midtown Manhattan office, a favorite sandwich shop on 7th Avenue, and plans to see the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 4 the next day. On June 6, after two flights and one long layover at the Chicago Cubs Bar at O’Hare (while wearing a St. Louis Cardinals T-shirt), I found myself at a summer camp in the middle of rural Michigan, standing next to a pile of boxes of recording equipment that would eventually become a recording studio—that I was supposed to be in charge of.

Thus began my first day working as a teaching artist.

To be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant. I’d worked as a teaching assistant in college and had taught composition for a couple of summers, but this was the first time I’d encountered the label “teaching artist,” let alone had it applied to me. Over the course of the next nine weeks, I would learn more about being a composer, a teacher, an artist, and a person than I ever thought possible.

The Association of Teaching Artists defines the position as a “two career professional: a working artist and a working educator.” These dual roles inform one another, with the typical artist bringing their experience as an artist into the classroom and their education experience into their studios. Teaching artists work in wide-ranging environments, including school residencies, after school programs, and summer camps. By integrating artists into these educational settings, young people encounter professional working artists and have a direct link to people who use their creativity to make a living. In the best of these situations, teachings artists are able to cultivate a sense of community and invigorate all students, teachers, and administrators, not just the one’s directly involved with their programming.

Three years ago, The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities launched the Turnaround Arts initiative, utilizing teaching artists and arts education as the basis for reforming failing schools throughout the United States. In the initial year, the program launched in eight schools. These schools were all considered to be high-poverty, low-performing schools and represented a range of communities, from the inner city to rural districts. In the three years since the launch of this pilot program, participating schools have seen improvements in math and reading scores, attendance, and a decrease in suspensions.

The organization I work for, Music Ascension, has seen similar outcomes as a result of our programming. We bring teaching artists and music technology into schools and summer camps throughout the United States. Our programming brings songwriting and beat production into classrooms, built on the concept of giving voice to young people. We’ve transformed traditional classrooms into recording studios, utilizing the same software that studios use around the world, creating a safe space for students to share their stories. Our teachings artists run the gamut from singer/songwriters and hip-hop artists to a classical composer. Each of these artists brings their own, unique sensibilities into their education setting.

This brings me back to my first day as a teaching artist. At 26-years old, I was about to attend summer camp for the first time. I arrived that day with a suitcase and a couple of guitars. One week later my first day with the campers began. Over the course of the next eight weeks, the campers recorded and produced a new CD, wrote over 50 new songs, and performed countless times across the campground. We covered Taylor Swift songs around campfires, explored musical structures, and talked about Brian Eno. I shared my day-to-day creative process as I built my first sound installation, I was walking home…or at least I thought I was walking home…, and shared my ambient work On the Verge while discussing the use of sampling in hip-hop. They witnessed both the pre-premiere anxiety and post-premiere anxiety when my work, the memory evokes, forget what time, premiered while I was at camp.

Over the course of this month, I will share my own experience as teaching artist, crossing musical genres, learning to become present in another’s work, and how working as a teaching artist has impacted my own creative work and professional goals. Although it was an unexpected career shift, working as a teaching artist has had a positive impact on me creatively, professionally, and is an alternative to more traditional tenure track career paths.


Chris Cresswell fingering a chord on a guitar and strumming it.

Chris Cresswell

Chris Cresswell is an internationally performed, award winning composer, teaching artist, and arts advocate. As at ease in front of an orchestra as he is behind a mixing board, he can alternately be found composing new works for artists and ensembles around the country, helping students write their first songs, advocating for the arts with Congressional staffers, or covering the latest Taylor Swift single at a camp fire.