Tag: trumpet

How to Commission New Works and Where to Find New Pieces

A montage of a photo of Kate Amrine holding a trumpet, a sheet of music, and a laptop keyboard.

I have commissioned over 30 new pieces for solo trumpet, trumpet and electronics, and chamber pieces for various groups in which I perform. (E.g. I am the co-leader of eGALitarian Brass and a member of Spark Duo). I’ve been fortunate to commission Niloufar Nourbakhsh, inti figgis-vizueta, Cassie Wieland, and Ruby Fulton – just to name a few. As a freelancer, I have premiered many new works with orchestras and other groups across New York City. I also have released two solo albums featuring new music by many incredible composers including several pieces of my own. I’m very passionate about encouraging my students and friends to find new repertoire for their instrument and I’m grateful to New Music USA for allowing me to share this process with you.

In this article, I am going to cover how to commission new music and where to find new pieces. If you have never commissioned a piece before, this article should be a good place for you to start. If you are already commissioning new pieces as a part of your musical practice, perhaps you will learn something new that you can incorporate next time. Let’s get into it.

How to commission a new work

  • Pick a composer who is most appropriate for the type of composition you are looking for

Make sure the person you are considering is great at the specific type of composition you are looking for. Some questions to ponder when making that decision – have they written this kind of music before? Do they typically write for my instrumentation? Do they have the time to spend on a new work?

  • Be specific about what you want (ex. A 5 minute trumpet and piano work)

As with any relationship, it is difficult to end up with what you want if you aren’t clear about what you are looking for. Be specific about the instrumentation, your technology capabilities, the length of the piece, etc.

  • Make sure you have an adequate time frame in mind for the commission.

Once you have a performance date in mind, make sure to allow for enough time for the composer to write the piece and to workshop the piece with them. You don’t want to push the composer to finish it in a hurry and you don’t want to run out of enough time to practice it.

  • Draft a contract with all the important details (pay, deadline, recording rights, exclusivity period for performance or recording, etc.)

Without a contract, it is easy for things to get lost, delayed, or misunderstood.  Even if you are a student, this is a great time to practice drafting an agreement with your guidelines, and ensuring that everything will come together as you had planned. Want to make sure you don’t miss anything about best practices when commissioning? Check out this guide from (the New Music USA legacy organization) Meet the Composer: https://newmusicusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Commissioning-Music-A-Basic-Guide.pdf.

Deciding on the fee: 

If you are in a position where you can afford to pay for the new commission either through a granting organization or your own budget, New Music USA has a very handy calculator to figure out the best fee to agree on. This formula takes into account the style of music, the instrumentation, and the length of the piece and presents you with a professional level fee estimate. If you are commissioning a piece last minute or with any time crunch involved, it is always best to add more to the fee if possible.

If you are just starting out and are unable to come to a traditional agreement with financial compensation, you could discuss an alternate agreement with the composer. While many established professionals may not agree to this sort of agreement and I certainly don’t want to encourage anyone to work for free, it can be difficult both for early career composers and performers to find paid opportunities where everyone is compensated fairly. In these cases, perhaps in exchange for writing the piece, performers can commit to providing the composer with a high quality recording that can be used to further promote the work as well as guarantee that there will be several performances of the piece throughout the year which will at least enable the composer to collect performing rights revenue.

Why should I commission a new work or play music other than the standard pieces? 

  • Commissioning new pieces is more rewarding. After commissioning a new work, you receive music that you specifically are interested in, that is crafted for you and your strengths, that nobody else has played or even heard before.
  • Commissioning new works is more meaningful. It shows your audience where your priorities lie and what your interests are. This is an opportunity to build a new repertoire for your instrument that is representative of diverse voices.
  • Commissioning new works makes you unique. Nobody can play a piece that was written for you better than the way you can, because you set the standard for how it should go. Performing new repertoire or finding gems of the repertoire that are performed less often separates you from other people who play the same instrument.
  • Commissioning new works is more impactful towards future musicians. You are adding new repertoire for your instrument that will exist forever for others to perform and learn from. This is a great opportunity to fill gaps in what is truly needed in your musical corner of the world – whether that is a new work for trumpet and drum set or an opera for clown and chamber ensemble.

How to build a recital program:

I recently turned thirty and I realized that I had performed almost thirty recitals as a soloist. I love playing new music and building new programs. When building your recital or chamber program, there are many things to consider.

  • Theme

Perhaps you are looking for music by women composers or music by composers from New York City. Your theme could even be something like fanfares or music for springtime.

  • Requirements for your program

When I was a student, there were always detailed recital requirements where you needed to include one Baroque piece on every program or one piece written after 1950. Pay attention to these requirements when putting together your program. If not, you might end up needing to do an extra recital.

  • Time of year or setting

Is this program happening around a certain holiday? Is this performance in a church or a bar where the programming could be different than your school’s recital hall?

  • Equipment / technology –

Are you performing in a place without a piano? Do you have a speaker to play pieces with electronics or will the venue have one you can connect to? Have you tested your electronics prior to the performance?

  • GuestsWho will be joining you? If this performance is 100% just you, it would be wise to choose repertoire you can play for an hour with minimal breaks.
  • Length of performanceSometimes we are tasked with putting together a 60 minute program and sometimes we are asked to play two pieces on someone else’s program. How much music do you really need for this event?What to play? For a standard solo recital, that could look like this:

    2 big pieces = 30 – 40 minutes total
    1 chamber piece = 10 min
    2 smaller pieces: 10 min

    In order of the program, that could translate to:
    1 smaller piece
    1 big piece
    -intermission –
    1 smaller piece
    1 big piece
    1 chamber piece

I have seen many cases where people try to program the three hardest and most taxing pieces for their instrument and then pay the price for it by being too tired by the end of the program. Alternating larger works with smaller pieces will definitely help make sure that you don’t program the most tiring works in a row for your entire program.

If you are not able to commission a new piece but still want to play new music, then it is time to do some research. Ask other musicians who play your instrument for their suggestions on repertoire. You can also ask your teacher or other mentors for their suggestions as well. After that, you may have to do even more research and be a bit more specific about where you are looking for new music. Listen to albums of performers you admire and see what they recorded. Check out your instrument’s conferences and see what composers and new pieces were featured or recognized. Lastly, find new works in various repertoire lists for each instrument. (See below!)

I put together this list of resources on finding new repertoire. There is something for every instrument on there and a few great general new music resources. I hope you find some new music to incorporate into your programming soon.

General Repertoire Resources:

 

Black Music History Library – collection of books, articles, documentaries, series, podcasts and more about the Black origins of traditional and popular music dating from the 18th century to present day. 

 

And We Were Heard – Sheet Music/Recordings for Orchestra and Wind Band

 

Music by Black Composers – Sheet Music, Composer Directory and more

 

Programming Resources Catalog by Alex Shapiro

 

The Spirituals Database

 

McGill’s List of Resources – includes some instruments not listed below

 

Rowan’s List of Resources – includes anthologies, theory examples by women and more

 

Yale’s List of Resources – includes orchestral and vocal works

 

Brass Repertoire Resources:

 

Trombone Works by Black Composers – Massive Spreadsheet of Names and Pieces

 

Inclusive Repertoire for Low Brass – compiled by Joanna Hersey of IWBC

 

Trombone Compositions by Women Composers – compiled by Natalie Mannix 

 

Tenor and Bass Trombone works by People of color and Women Composers – compiled by Douglas Yeo

 

Trombone Rep by Black Composers

 

“The Contribution of Twentieth Century American Composers to the Solo Trumpet Repertoire,” dissertation by Orrin M. Wilson

 

Catalogue of Trumpet Works by Underrepresented Composers – by Ashley Killam

 

Trumpet Music by Women Composers – compiled by Amy Dunker

 

Works with Horn by Female Composers – compiled by Lin Foulk

 

Brass Quintet Literature by Female Composers – compiled by Boulder Brass

 

Brass Music by Black Composers

 

Chamber Works by Women featuring Trumpet

Woodwind Repertoire Resources: 

Flute

Flute Music by Transgender, Gender Diverse, and Women Composers and/or Black, Indigenous, and Composers of Color by Timothy Hagen

Flute Music by BIPOC Composers (click on “Flute Works” tab) by University of South Carolina

Spotlights (Black composers): Flutes by Institute for Composer Diversity

Oboe

Oboe Music by Transgender, Gender Diverse, and Women Composers and/or Black, Indigenous, and Composers of Color by Zachary Pulse

Oboe Music by BIPOC Composers (click on “Oboe Works” tab) by University of South Carolina

Spotlights (Black composers): Oboes by Institute for Composer Diversity

Clarinet

Clarinet Music by Black Composers by Kyle Rowan

Clarinet Works by Black Composers by Marcus Eley

Spotlights (Black composers): Clarinets by Institute for Composer Diversity

101 Clarinet Compositions Written by Women Composers by Jenny Maclay

Clarinet method and étude books written by women by Jenny Maclay

Like Moons and Like Suns: Clarinet Repertoire by Women Composers Honors thesis by Sophie Press

Bassoon

Bassoon Music by Transgender, Gender Diverse, and Women Composers and/or Black, Indigenous, and Composers of Color by Brandon Rumsey

Bassoon Music by BIPOC Composers (click on “Bassoon Works” tab) by University of South Carolina

Spotlights (Black composers): Bassoons by Institute for Composer Diversity

Saxophone

Saxophone Music by Transgender, Gender Diverse, and Women Composers and/or Black, Indigenous, and Composers of Color by Thomas Kurtz

Spotlights (Black composers): Saxophones by Institute for Composer Diversity

String Repertoire Resources;

String Repertoire by Black Indigenous Musicians Of Color

Strings / Chamber Repertoire by BIPOC Composers

Music by Black Composers

Violin Music By Women, edited by Dr. Cora Cooper

The Blue Book & Green Book of Violin Tunes, edited by Bonnie Greene

Folk Strings (for solo or string ensemble), arranged by Joanne Martin

The Anthology of Afghan Folk Songs, edited and arranged by William Harvey

Underrepresented Composer Database For Viola

Repertoire for Unaccompanied Solo Violin – Compiled by Rachel Barton Pine and Dr. Megan E. Hill for the RBP Foundation

Repertoire for Violin and Orchestra – “Compiled by Rachel Barton Pine and Dr. Megan E. Hill for the RBP Foundation. . . . This list is currently limited to works for acoustic violin and traditional symphony or chamber orchestra.”

Composer/Performer Database from Bass Players for Black Composers. Site includes links to scores and media.

An annotated catalog of works by women composers for the double bass– Rebeca Tavares Furtado’s doctoral document. Annotated catalog begins on page 34.

Sphinx Catalog of Latin-American Cello Works

Cello Works by Black Composers

Percussion:

Percussion Pieces by Black Composers – Percussion solo and ensemble music; also includes links to other resources and the ability to suggest additions.

Percussion Ensemble Works by Women-Identifying Composers – “Compiled/hosted by James Doyle, an open document of percussion ensemble works by women-identifying composers. Detailed instrumentation lists.” (PAS)

Piano: 

A Seat at the Piano – Promoting inclusion in piano repertoire, this is a deep resource for pianists, pedagogues, and curious music appreciators to explore.

Piano music of Africa and the African diaspora (2007-08) by William Chapman Nyaho

Then, Now, Tomorrow: Collaboration in Writing Music for Student Players

(Text by Belinda Reynolds with video content by Ashley Killam)

I first wrote about the lack of works by living composers for younger players 15 years ago. Fast forward to today. Sadly, essentially nothing has changed. Contemporary music is still desperately needed in the teaching repertoire for most orchestral instruments.

Back then, I addressed the problem by creating a set of progressive level instrumental books, called CUSTOM MADE MUSIC SERIES (CMM). The 6th book has just been published by PRB Productions: CUSTOM MADE MUSIC VOLUME 6 – 10 Progressive Solos and Duos for Trumpet. Using this new CMM addition as a guidepost, I wish to share with you some tips on how to successfully compose for student players and make a lasting difference in new music for all of us in today’s challenging times.

Step One:
In approaching composing at the student level, find a collaborator who is both a player and a teacher of your chosen instrument(s). They will bring the expertise and knowledge needed to help you create a project that can make lasting change in the pedagogical repertoire. They can come from any avenue in your life – a former teacher, a colleague, a friend, a connection, anywhere! For my new project I collaborated with trumpet player/music educator/new music advocate Ashley Killam (she/her). She actually found me when she was researching composers to be listed in her open source music catalog of brass music by underrepresented composers. We wound up having a conversation about students and the trumpet repertoire and I asked her if she would be interested in being the Editor of a new CUSTOM MADE MUSIC book for trumpet. She was and thus began our project.

Watch the video below to hear Ashley’s point of view on the CUSTOM MADE MUSIC collaboration.

Step Two:
Together identify the technical gaps in the pedagogical repertoire of the instrument(s) you both wish to approach with your project. In this case, Ashley immediately knew what was needed, thanks to her extensive experience in working with music students and teachers across the country and in her studio. After a Zoom session and a few emails we decided to create a book mostly containing solos and some additional duos for three levels of trumpet players: beginners, late beginners, and early intermediate learners.

With each work I introduced the basic techniques that Ashley said were essential concepts for young trumpeters to master. I also kept all of the compositions limited to a one octave range because it was the maximum reach for most beginner players. All of these issues were addressed in composing a tasty melody for them to play. For me such challenges are creativity drivers; I believe in the motto “Limits Create Possibilities”.

Watch the video below to hear Ashley describe in more detail the ins and outs we addressed in the creation of these new compositions along with her playing one of the solos for beginner, “Carefree.”

Step Three:
Do workshops during the entirety of the creation of your composition(s). From day one I included Ashley almost as an equal partner, for I believe that bringing musicians into the creation of a new piece just makes for a higher quality composition. This is almost essential when composing for students. I learned this during my 25 years as a member of Common Sense Composers Collective, as well as with my own independent career. Ashley found this approach to be extremely rewarding, nourishing and a wonderful creative outlet for her. Together, along with her students, we ironed out the kinks and even found some new possibilities for some of the pieces. The results, we feel, are a stellar group of small pieces that young trumpet players can easily learn and gain technical skills while doing so. Take a look/listen below to one of the pieces that came to its true ‘life’, thanks to workshopping it:

Step Four:
Beta test all of your project before you bring it to its premiere and to market, so to speak. After workshopping your music, before it hits the limelight have the intended students or a similar group of learners “test” out your pieces. These young players are the final arbitrator of whether your music will or won’t work for them, regardless of what you and your collaborator have done thus far. What may seem idiomatic to a professional can sometimes seem weird and awkward to a newcomer. Ashley did this with many of her students, who gave her insights as to what articulations to finally use in some of the works.

Step Five:
Be enterprising and do tons of outreach and marketing to insure your project lives beyond the first performance/publication release. All too often a new music gem is lost into the past after its premiere because nobody pushed hard and long enough to give it a foothold in the repertoire. Compared to 15 years ago, marketing is easier than ever thanks to social media and other internet resources. Both you and your partner must utilize these tools. Urge your friends to help and reach out to all of your professional contacts that may have interest or contributions to make to your release. Outreach in the music education community is also essential, even more than ads. Get your music into the hands of teachers via networking with educational organizations, instrumental guilds, and music conventions, among other areas. Bring it to classrooms and teaching studios with creative workshops showcasing your project from the start to the finish. Folks love to know how something works before they purchase it! Once your project is ready for the public both you and your collaborator must invest in the time and effort to do these actions; creating room in the repertoire of an instrument is a long term investment. You must get fans of your project on board, those who teach the instrument(s) and those who play it/them.

I hope this presentation will inspire you to try writing at the student level. Don’t worry if you think your style is not ‘kid-friendly’. I have found that EVERY style can be student friendly if it is tested and presented in a way as to welcome the learner into its universe and not alienate them. Young players are mostly more open to the sounds of new music than their older counterparts. Your efforts will plant the seeds for long term sustainable growth of new music in both today’s and tomorrow’s professional players and audiences. In addition, it will help both your creative skills and your career trajectory as an artist. I have received numerous performances and commissions thanks to the reputation of my work in composing music for younger players. I welcome you to try this venture!

The cover for the latest volume in Belinda Reynolds's Custom Made Music Series: 10 Progressive Solos and Duos for Trumpet, edited by Ashley Killam

Belinda Reynolds, Composer
Raised in a Texan-Florida Air Force family, Belinda Reynolds (she/her) now considers herself an “adopted native” of California. Her music is performed worldwide and has been featured in such festivals as Lincoln Center’s Great Performers Series, the Spoleto Music Festival, and many more. As a Music Educator Ms. Reynolds is in demand nationwide helping children learn to create music. For more information, go to www.belindareynolds.com.

Ashley Killam, Editor
Ashley Killam (she/her) is an international speaker, researcher, and educator based in Radford, Virginia. Killam is President of Diversity the Stand and General Manager of Rising Tide Music Press. Killam’s work centers around educating musicians on the importance of making ethical and sustainable changes in performing and teaching music. For more information, go to www.ashleykillam.com.

I Can’t Breathe:  A Virtual Dialogue

A protester carrying a banner stating "I CAN'T BREATHE." Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

In 2016 I first heard I Can’t Breathe, Georg Friedrich Haas’s haunting work for solo trumpet, performed by Marco Blaauw at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.  Haas’s work, written just after the birth of the Black Lives Matter organization, and well before the concept of Black Lives Matter came to international prominence, raises a number of important questions about the response of the international new music community to the increasingly multicultural and multiracial, i.e., creolized, societies in which its performances, curatorial directions, and critical and philosophical inquiries are being presented.

I Can’t Breathe was conceived and written in 2014 as a response to the police execution of an African American citizen, Eric Garner, on a New York City street. Garner’s “crime” was selling “loosies,” single cigarettes from a pack. This was said to be technically a form of tax evasion, which is not a capital crime in the statute books. However, a bystander filmed a police officer restraining Garner bodily with an illegal chokehold. On the video, Garner was heard to repeat the words “I can’t breathe” eleven times, before passing out and lying on the ground for seven minutes. While the authorities waited for an ambulance, Garner passed away; the autopsy cited “[compression] of neck, compression of chest and prone position during physical restraint by police” as cause of death. Despite nationwide protests, charges were never brought against the officers involved, although one of them was eventually terminated in 2019.


Georg Friedrich Haas: I can’t breathe (2014) for trumpet solo
Marco Blaauw, trumpet; Janet Sinica, video
(Lockdown Tape #66 in Ensemble Musikfabrik’s series of live to tape recordings of solo pieces in times of Corona lockdown by ensemble members.)

It seemed clear that Haas’s piece took on renewed relevance with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, who before passing away, interspersed urgent pleas to be allowed to breathe with plaintive calls to his deceased mother. In the wake of the much larger, worldwide protests over Floyd’s killing, the widest range of individuals and institutions, including those in the field of new music, are being called to account for their actions regarding race.

I have always been intrigued with the questions raised by I Can’t Breathe, so I decided to talk to both Marco and Georg about the piece. The method I am using here to combine our respective dialogues is similar to the penultimate chapter in my 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself:  The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), in which I selected quotes from nearly one hundred interviews with AACM members to fashion an imagined intergenerational dialogue about overarching social, cultural, and aesthetic issues that the organization and its individual members faced over the decades. I blend this new imagined dialogue with critiques of scholarly writing about the piece.

I begin with Georg’s understanding of the motivation for the work.

GFH:  Well, it was a spontaneous activity. It happened when we looked out of the window at our house and we saw some demonstrations, Black Lives Matter, below us, and I said, OK, we have to go down there to join this. And suddenly this anecdote popped up about Chopin, when he heard about the revolution in Russia and decided, instead of going to Paris, to fight in this revolution. But he changed again and decided to go to Paris and work for the idea. And it is clear that this actually helped the revolution in Poland much more than he could have done by being part of the military activity. In the same way, I decided it’s not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts. And this is maybe one of of a few pieces [of mine] which had some nonmusical connotation.

At the time, Georg was already quite late with another, much larger commission, but as he recalled, “Because it was such a spontaneous idea, there was no time for me to make a large, huge internal discussion about what is the right way to discuss this. Just do it. Do it now. And I think this idea is one of the possibilities to go to work as an artist.”

  • It seemed clear that Haas’s 2014 piece took on renewed relevance with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd.

    George Lewis, composer & musicologist
  • I decided it's not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts.

    Georg Friedrich Haas, composer
  • I feel that sometimes in the audience, people do not dare to breathe anymore.

    Georg Friedrich Haas, composer
  • Anybody doing political stuff is told to just shut up. But as I see it, you're bringing a needed message to this public.

    Georg Friedrich Haas, composer

The present essay was prompted by a discussion I had with Marco Blaauw this past summer about the frequent negative responses to a Facebook announcement that his new-music group, Ensemble Musikfabrik, posted about this forthcoming release. Indeed, a number of the comments around the Facebook posting indicated that white new music people really had no business even speaking about the topic. One commenter suggested that Haas had “appropriated the words of a dying black man to become his anodyne aesthetic plaything.”

That such an apparently non-confrontational work could generate such heated debate seems ironic at first hearing. However, I read a number of these responses as exemplifying the growing pains that the field of new music is undergoing as its composers, performers, listeners, curators, scholars, critics, and educational institutions gradually awaken, now certainly fitfully, to the need to develop a far more refined and trenchant discourse around the location of the field in a creolized creative environment.

Marco_Blaauw playing his specially desined microtonal trumpet (Photo © Astrid Ackermann, courtesy MusikFabrik)

Marco_Blaauw (Photo © Astrid Ackermann, courtesy MusikFabrik)

Despite the shocking nature of its subject matter, I Can’t Breathe is anything but sensationalistic. Rather than a wailing lament, Haas produces a restrained elegy.

GFH: The piece starts like a sentimental twelve-tone Kaddish. What I do technically, the process is, that this Kaddish is taking away the space to breathe. You are singing freely and the space gets closer and closer. And what I did technically is just to transcribe and transform the melodic elements into smaller intervals. As I reduce it, the melody is squeezed into 16th tones. The music is really very difficult, and Marco in this performance really is able to sing emotionally within these small intervals. There exists a cantabile in these 16th tones. And I still have this very traditional translation of a huge range of intervals describing the entity of the free world, and therefore it starts with the spaces between the lowest pitches of the trumpet and the highest, soft.

Marco Blaauw’s perspective on Georg’s technique evokes the blues:

MB: A blues player colors the notes, so to notate that, Haas uses what he has always been using, microtonal intonations. In the beginning, it’s like more and more colors to the melody, and then it becomes more and more strict as the melody goes from the big trumpet range to the tiniest interval, interrupted all the time by these single notes that are held for a very long time and pull you in.

GL:  I feel that the piece as a whole can be usefully contextualized as a form of pranayama, the study of the breath: a meditation on breath and life. We are asked to feel ourselves inside the breath, following its every nuance. The piece has a timeless quality about it, although it’s only thirteen minutes long.

MB: I do think it’s very, very meditative. And in that way, I think the brain starts listening more and more for details so that when you come towards the middle of the piece, you actually hear all the microtonality, the tiniest steps. You can actually listen to them because you’ve been trained during this short duration of the piece to all these little things [sings], this blues melody, like a variation on two notes.

GL: I’d also say that with its emphasis on depiction, I Can’t Breathe is very much in the American tradition expressed in Duke Ellington’s concept of the “tone parallel,” which includes Charles Ives, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins. The use of the harmon mute is of course related to the African American tradition, very effectively through Miles Davis. And then there are those super-high “squeeze” notes, an innovation in technique that is closely associated with the Ellington Orchestra’s altissimo specialist, trumpeter Cat Anderson.

GFH: And it was you who said to me that this is a specific technique of jazz, these very high pitches. It’s very rarely used in new music. For me the association is more to Luigi Nono, for whom high melodic gestures are a symbol of utopia—for example, the beginning of his string quartet, Fragmente-Stille.

GL: The piece is about aspiration in the literal sense, and with regard to the conceptual context, for me the squeeze notes depict severe restrictions on the breath, while the hesitations in the tone production refer to the fragility of life as the breath is strangled. The breath becomes rougher and more fragile as the life force goes out.

MB: The association with suffocation comes in when that becomes softer and softer and longer and longer and you get literally out of breath. But I don’t think it’s really meant that way. And then the piece falls apart after that. It loses structure also by the use of softer and softer mutes. And then, in the end, it’s just the silences and the single notes which are, as in the beginning, very, very long. Don’t you think that when you listen to a piece and you see somebody play a very long phrase, it’s almost like you stop breathing? I think when you have long silences, the same thing can happen. I feel that sometimes in the audience, people do not dare to breathe anymore.

GL: It’s like the audience can’t breathe. And you, the trumpeter, evoke a sense of empathy via a kind of transubstantiation.

In a 2016 essay, musicologist Max Erwin positions I Can’t Breathe as program music, which from the foregoing conversation seems evident enough; indeed, Haas appears to find no substantive moral imperative on either side of classical music’s traditional debate over programmatic versus absolute music. However, the author provocatively characterizes the nature of the program as “more accurately, western art music snuff” (Erwin 2016, 10). However, rather than a criminal’s recording of an actual murder for macabre or prurient interest, one can summarize Haas’s origin narrative for I Can’t Breathe as a determined response to an atrocity (in this case, musically) by a concerned citizen.

However, when the deformation of race becomes involved, an atrocity is no longer just an atrocity, and music becomes more than just music. Erwin sees Haas’s approach as exemplifying “a pervasive self-satisfied attitude and concomitant mode of production within the New Music apparatus. Under these auspices, the ‘politically engaged’ composer writes ‘protest music’ which laments the fate of this or that marginalised group” (Erwin 2016, 9). Thus portraying Haas’s move to assert humanistic values as simple political posturing, Erwin maintains that the statement in Haas’s program note—“I leave no notes to the perpetrators” identifies an object of political critique—’the perpetrators’, whilst simultaneously extricating the subject (composer/artwork/audience) from the object of critique… The object of critique is exactly that; it remains fundamentally over there, safely removed from composer and audience to observe and lament (Erwin, 10).

Erwin’s critique would have greater currency and credibility if new music as a field could demonstrate an ongoing concern with black lives, including those of its own Afrodiasporic composers and performers. However, this lack of engagement with issues of race is precisely what Haas is pointing to with his program note. Bringing this level of engagement from “over there” to “right here”–to himself as composer, to his audience, to the performer, and to the historians, critics, and institutions of new music–was exactly the goal of the piece.

In an influential essay, theorist Sylvia Wynter pointed out the consequences of the routine use of the acronym N.H.I. (No Humans Involved) by Los Angeles juridical and enforcement institutions “to refer to any case involving a breach of the rights of young Black males who belong to the jobless category of the inner city ghettoes” (Wynter 1994, 42).

By classifying this category as N.H.I. these public officials would have given the police of Los Angeles the green light to deal with its members in any way they pleased. You may remember too that in the earlier case of the numerous deaths of young Black males caused by a specific chokehold used by Los Angeles police officers to arrest young Black males, the police chief Darryl Gates explained away these judicial murders by arguing that Black males had something abnormal with their windpipes.

Indeed, this image of the deformation of the Black windpipe is central to the iconography of I Can’t Breathe. The remainder of Wynter’s “open letter to my colleagues” attempts to answer her own pointed question:  Where did this classification come from?

GL: In both the title and the content of the piece, there’s a conceptual aspect which is very important. It’s not just an exercise. It’s designed to make people think. And I was telling Marco that for this sort of white audience for new music, it should make these people think.

GFH: Thank you. That’s very good. And in the end, in fact, this is what I also can prove. In interviews, I’m very often asked about this. And of course, this gives us a chance to speak about this, within surroundings in which, additionally, nobody is speaking about it. This is a way in which, in my opinion, political music does work.

Mostly staying in the softer and more difficult-to-sustain regions of the trumpet, I Can’t Breathe is zurückhaltend (reserved), and not only by the composer’s choice. Rather, the situation forces the composer’s writerly hand. Here, I find that the piece’s intensity depicts both a fragility and a Stoic nobility, where Eric Garner, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Rayshard Brooks, and thousands of other black citizens are literally trying to draw upon their reserves of breath in a life-or-death struggle with forces who, backed by a culture in which black lives and liveness do not matter, take no significant notice of the humanity of those lives, while negating their own humanity in the process.

While Erwin’s thesis concludes that “Haas’s piece is at least five degrees removed from even the most rudimentary criteria of effective political protest” (Erwin 10, n16), in this thirteen-minute lament, political protest seems to be no concern whatsoever–unless protesting racialized injustice is now to become merely a political matter. Rather than a reductive rerouting of human values to questions of political efficacy, I Can’t Breathe is simply about black subjectivity, and what it means to be human.

Even so, our virtual conversation took on an ominous tone:

GL: The piece doesn’t have a happy ending; one could play it again and again, and a Sisyphean hell would be evoked. That accounts for what I find to be the work’s pessimistic quality– in the sense of Afro-pessimism, or how to function in the face of the possibility that Western society might prove permanently unable to shed its preoccupation with anti-blackness as a central part of its identity.

Indeed, it could be that at this late date, a reserved, conceptualist approach may not be enough. To begin with, Marco Blaauw was concerned about the ethical dimension of this kind of work and these kinds of issues being presented by white institutions, composers, and performers, in the white-majoritarian new music context:

MB: You don’t think that when I go to that festival and I ask my fee and I play that piece, that is somebody profiting from the situation?

GL: I feel that when you play this piece, and other people play it too, it brings those issues to an audience that isn’t often exposed to them, or maybe doesn’t think that those issues are relevant to their lives, or feel that what you are performing is totally antithetical to pure musical expression–what are you doing with this political stuff? Frederic Rzewski went through the same thing, John Coltrane, Bruce Springsteen–anybody doing political stuff is told to just shut up. But as I see it, you’re bringing a needed message to this public. And if you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?

Sylvia Wynter saw the disclosure of the category of N.H.I. as an opening from which to spearhead the speech of a new frontier of knowledge able to move us toward a new, correlated human species, and eco-systemic, ethic. Such a new horizon, I propose, will also find itself convergent with other horizons being opened up, at all levels of learning… It is only by this mutation of knowledge that we shall be able to secure, as a species, the full dimensions of our human autonomy with respect to the systemic and always narratively instituted purposes that have hitherto governed us–hitherto outside of our conscious awareness and consensual intentionality (Wynter 1994, 70).

This new awareness bears strong resonances, not only for the understanding of I Can’t Breathe, but for the future of new music itself. In the end, a creolized work like I Can’t Breathe represents a move toward a new identity for new music. No longer framing itself as a globalized, pan-European sonic diaspora, the goal of a creolized new music field is less about pursuing diversity than achieving a new complexity that promises far greater creative depth by recognizing the widest range of historical, geographical, political and cultural cross-connections. As the philosopher Arnold I. Davidson has noted, “Multiplication of perspectives means multiplication of possibilities.”

As Georg Friedrich Haas has declared, “With this piece, I declare my solidarity with the protesters” (Haas 2014). Indeed, each performance of I Can’t Breathe demands from  contemporary music a further solidarity: an affirmation that black lives and black liveness do matter, to its history and to its future.

The first page of the musical score of Georg Friedrich Haas “I can’t breathe” Copyright © 2015 Universal Edition Vienna.

The first page of the score for Georg Friedrich Haas “I can’t breathe”
Copyright © 2015 Universal Edition Vienna. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of European American Music Distributors Company, U.S. and Canadian agent for Universal Edition Vienna, publisher and copyright owner. This license is valid for distribution and usage in the territory of the world.


References

https://www.facebook.com/Musikfabrik/ 10 June 2020

Erwin, Max. 2016. “Here Comes Newer Despair: An Aesthetic Primer for the New Conceptualism of Johannes Kreidler.” Tempo 70, No. 278: 5–15.

Haas, Georg Friedrich. 2014. “I Give No Sound To The Perpetrators: Ein Kommentar.” https://www.musikfabrik.eu/de/blog/georg-friedrich-haas-i-give-no-sound-perpetrators-ein-kommentar

Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Georg Friedrich Haas, 14 June 2020.

Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Marco Blaauw, 14 June 2020.

Wynter, Sylvia. 1994. “’No Humans Involved’: An Open Letter to my Colleagues.” Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall): 42-73.