Tag: young composers

Empowering Teenagers to Compose: A Guide for Educators

A pen and a notebook with handwritten notes, a CD and a smartphone with a display of a video of music performance overlayed with the New Music Toolbox logo

Although K-12 music standards call for students to develop skills in composition, I often hear educators express that they feel ill-equipped to support their students in this endeavor. Many music teachers do not get trained on how to facilitate composition projects in the classroom, and their own experience with composing can be quite limited if their studies placed an emphasis on performance. As a result, instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.

Though these assignments can serve a purpose, they often do little to develop a young musician’s creativity, and at times, they can even stifle students’ artistry by implying that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to compose. Instead, students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development. This is especially crucial in music programs where many students’ only access to formal music instruction is in the classroom, where their studies are typically not as individualized as they would be in a private lesson setting.

This article is a collection of actionable tips primarily from my own experience as a composer-educator and founder of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop. These strategies can be adapted to group or private lesson settings and don’t require that educators have extensive background in composition. Though these approaches are geared towards middle and high school students, many of these tips can be adapted to create lessons for students of different age groups.

  • Instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • I encourage students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities. For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • If students feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today's world.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer

Cultivate a practice of observation and discussion.

Eric Booth, in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, advises that we need to guide students in practicing observation before defaulting to interpretation or judgment – a discipline that we also need to cultivate in our own practice.1 This approach enables students to learn a great deal from the music that they listen to, yet it also gives them an ability to ask insightful questions of themselves while they are in the process of realizing their own ideas.

If a student listens to a new piece and responds with “This piece makes me feel as if I am watching a cartoon,” giving a follow up question such as “What about the music reminds you of watching a cartoon?” can help them to return their focus to aspects such as the instrumentation or texture of the piece.

When we model questions that focus on observation, this empowers students to practice asking themselves more insightful questions during the composition process. For instance, a student who is dissatisfied with how their melody resolves can ask themselves, “What about this melody makes it sound incomplete?” However, if they immediately judge the melody as something that is “no good,” they will likely abandon their original ideas, and the opportunity to learn from their experiences will be missed.

Even if the student ultimately decides to scrap their composition and start over, taking a moment to pause and observe what they have created so far can give them the insight needed to accomplish what they set out to write the next time around.

Focus on one element of music at a time.

In the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, one of our topics during the first week of classes is a lesson on the elements of music. When we give students the vocabulary to talk about elements such as rhythm, pitch, and texture, they become better equipped to make observations about the music that they are listening to. That way, they are less dependent on interpretations and judgment.

Even if students are having trouble finding the right terminology to use in the midst of a discussion, it can be helpful to invite them to describe what they are observing to the best of their abilities without having to utilize the proper musical term right away. The vocabulary can always be taught later, and the students’ findings can be great ways to open up conversations around new terminology.

Aside from listening exercises, composition projects that focus on a singular element of music are great for narrowing the scope of a lesson while allowing plenty of room for creativity. For example, I’ve often used the Sonic Scavenger Hunt by composer-educator Danny Clay as a starting point for students to explore the concept of timbre.

Experiment with many approaches to composition.

When students can try their hand at a variety of approaches to composing, they will eventually choose a writing process that is most inspiring to them. Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece. They may even decide to change their approach based on the result that they are trying to accomplish in a given project.

Though a new approach may be uncomfortable at first, sometimes, students can actually be inspired in unexpected ways. I’ve taught workshops where students work together to compose chance music; however, I always tell them that even if they set up a system for choosing the notes, they are always free to break their own rules and edit the piece if they are dissatisfied with the result.

After using a die, a coin, or a picker wheel to determine certain elements of a piece, often, they will become quite opinionated about which notes to change and why they are changing them–another great opportunity for conversation.

Bringing in guest composers to teach a class (either in-person or virtually) or finding videos of composers talking about their creative process can motivate students to try something new. Though some students may initially feel that processes such as rolling a die or turning their name into musical notes are not legitimate ways to write music, when they discover that there are many established composers who have created masterpieces with similar strategies, they will feel validated in their own creative process.

Many of the reasons for introducing a variety of approaches to composition also apply to experimenting with different styles of notation. Another great aspect of Danny Clay’s Sonic Scavenger Hunt is that it is a great example of a graphic score – a concept that is fit for beginners and more experienced students alike.

Students can also explore projects that don’t require any notation, such as composing a fixed media piece in a program like Audacity. Young composers tend to fixate on pitches and rhythms, but these alternatives to traditional notation can be useful exercises in developing elements such as timbre, texture, and dynamics when students might not have focused on them before.

Use technology to your advantage…

Even simpler apps, such as voice notes or a video camera that’s included with a mobile device, can be useful tools for composing. When I teach composition, I often encourage students to record their ideas as they go. That way, they don’t have to worry about forgetting concepts that they are experimenting with – a strategy that I often use in my own work before I begin to notate my ideas. Documenting the composition process can also enable students to better reflect on their experiences since it will be easier to see how the piece evolves over time.

Aside from being a way to introduce students to other artists and composers, watching and discussing videos of performances, interviews, and demonstrations can be a great way for students to witness how sounds can be created in innovative ways. For instance this performance of Zaka by Jennifer Higdon has been a great conversation starter amongst my students since it demonstrates the concept of extended techniques. Additionally, this profile of Angélica Negrón has piqued my students’ curiosity about electronic music and found sounds.

…but be mindful of where technology has its limits. 

At times, introducing certain technology too early in our students’ development can encourage them to “color inside the lines” in unintended ways. I have often seen this happen to students who begin to use notation software long before they have started to get comfortable demonstrating their ideas on an instrument or writing sketches by hand, however imperfect these methods may be at first.

In a lot of notation software, such as Noteflight, MuseScore, or Sibelius, to name a few, users are asked to specify parameters such as the meter and key signature before they begin to enter the piece itself. Changing these options later on can become a barrier if students aren’t aware of how to work around these limitations or if they are not aware that their tools are imposing such limitations in the first place. This often results in melodies and rhythms that sound too “square” and pieces that can become too redundant.

One way that I counteract this is by encouraging students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities.

For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.

Some verbal and graphic notes for a musical composition that can be used instead of music notation

Save the theory assessments for another time.

When composition projects are primarily intended to examine whether your students can write an eight-bar melody in D Major, for example, they are much more likely to become fixated on whether they are choosing the “right” notes and pleasing their teacher. Instead, opt for open-ended projects that enable students to explore and define their musical tastes.

Students who feel empowered to envision and realize their own ideas will gain a sense of confidence that can be applied to any profession whether they choose to continue in their musical development or move on to other endeavors. On the other hand, if they feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

Alice Kanack, the pioneer of Creative Ability Development, has a very helpful formula to refer to when structuring creative exercises for students:

Freedom of choice or Freedom from criticism + Disciplined practice and repetition of making choices = Creative Ability2

Whether I am teaching composition in my own studio or I am visiting another teacher’s class to do a workshop, I’ve found it much more empowering to encourage students to express their intentions and their artistic vision so that we can explore how they might accomplish what they intended. This is another reason why lessons that incorporate plenty of time for discussion and reflection are so important.

Embrace imperfection.

As educators, we can enable students to take creative risks and break free of a fixation on choosing “right” versus “wrong” notes by creating multiple opportunities for them to share works-in-progress. Often, I will set a short timer (e.g. 5-10 minutes) for students to respond to a prompt that is very narrow in scope. Then, they will have an opportunity to share what they came up with and express their intentions for their work as they go forward.

Even though there will often be at least one student who is too shy to share their unfinished works, I’ve found that simply inviting them to reflect on what the experience of composing was like can gain their trust. More often than not, they ultimately decide to present the music itself.

That being said, it is crucial to create a safe space for them to be vulnerable in this way, especially if they are in a group setting with their peers. All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few. This goes for all parties involved — their peers, their teachers, and even parents or guardians who are supporting them in their studies.3

Because of this, modeling what it’s like to embrace imperfection can be a powerful tool. When I give students an opportunity to work independently during class, I will often use the time to compose ideas for the same prompt and demonstrate what it’s like to share my own imperfect, unfinished work. This includes verbalizing my thoughts on how I feel about the creation at the moment. Whether I am excited about moving forward with my ideas or I feel ambivalent and want to scrap them, I make a habit of sharing these reflections with my students so that they can feel safe to do so as well.

Connect lessons to real-world experiences.

Introducing our students to living composers, whether it is via a live workshop or through pre-recorded media, can illustrate the many ways in which a career in music can take shape.

This can easily become a starting point for activities that give students a taste of what the music profession can be like. For instance, prompts such as writing a short solo for a classmate to perform can give students a glimpse into the process of writing a commission.

As part of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, Samantha Hogan, has visited our class to share excerpts from her concert works as well as selections that she wrote for games and film. After her presentation, she facilitated a lesson in which the students created music to portray characters from I Wish I Were A Butterfly, a children’s book by James Howe. This kind of activity is a great way to introduce students to the idea of telling stories with music.

Aside from empowering students to make creative choices in the music itself, encouraging students to assist in the production of their work can give them confidence to initiate their own projects later on. Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today’s world.

One of Sakari's online composition lessons.

Conclusion

As you begin to apply these practices, my hope is that you will feel more confident to share the art of music composition with your students, even if you have little formal training in composition or you do not identify as a composer. Though an emphasis on observation and experimentation will take much more time than prompting students to “color inside the lines,” approaching the study of composition in this manner will offer more enriching opportunities for us to learn alongside our students, inviting them to take risks and explore new territories in their creative practice.

Sources

  1. Eric Booth, The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible: Becoming a Virtuoso Educator (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 33.
  2. Alice Kay Kanack, Fun Improvisation for Violin: The Philosophy and Method of Creative Ability Development (USA: Summy-Birchard Music, 1996), 15.
  3. Kanack, 20.

 

2022 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Awards Announced

ASCAP Foundation Logo with Morton Gould Awards header

The ASCAP Foundation has announced the 23 recipients of its 2022 Morton Gould Young Composer Awards as well as 15 additional composers who received honorable mentions. The awards, which encourage talented young creators of concert music ranging in age from 13 to 30, are selected through a juried national competition. These composers may be American citizens, permanent residents or students possessing U.S. student visas. The 38 compositions of the composers recognized in 2022 were among the more than 500 scores that were seen by this year’s judges (who are all ASCAP-member composers): Svjetlana Bukvich, Daniel Felsenfeld, Yotam Haber, Felipe Lara, Fang Man, Jessica Mays, Shawn Okpebholo, and Jorge Sosa.

Below is a complete alphabetical list of the 2022 Morton Gould Young Composer Award recipients and their award-winning works (with links to audio recordings of them and additional information where available):

Benjamin Thoreau Baker (b. 1998 in Pleasant Plain, OH; currently based in Kansas City, MO): Primordial (2019) for saxophone and live electronics [ca. 9′];

Alex Berko (b. 1995 in Cleveland, OH; currently based in Houston, TX): Oh Me! Oh Life! (2021) for unaccompanied chorus [ca. 11′];

Paul Berlinsky (b. 1994 in Miami Beach, FL; currently based in Kansas City, MO): Book of Birds (2021) for flute and electronics [ca. 27′];

Anuj Bhutani (b. 1993 in Houston, TX; current based in Austin, TX): On Letting Go (2020-21) for solo cello and live electronics [ca. 16′];

Aiyana Braun (b. 1997 in Ardmore, PA; currently based in Philadelphia, PA): Refractions (2019 rev. 2022) for orchestra [ca. 6′];

Cao Shengnan (b. 1992 in Beijing, China; currently based in Kansas City, MO): Fantasia Nirvana (2021) for full orchestra [ca. 11′];

Bryn Davis (b. 1992 in Richmond, VA; currently based in St. Paul, MN):
☞︎□︎❒︎ ❄︎□︎❍︎ 👍︎◆︎❒︎❒︎⍓︎ (2019) for tuba septet [ca. 10′];

Baldwin Giang (b. 1992 in Malvern, PA; currently based in Chicago, IL): roses (2021) for sinfonietta [ca. 15′];

Soomin Kim (b. 1995 in Uijeongbu, South Korea; currently based in Minneapolis, MN): star / ghost / mouth /sea (2021) for full orchestra [ca. 9′];

Joel Kirk (b. 1996 in Manchester, United Kingdom; currently based in Buffalo, NY): update status, always (2021) for solo violin [ca. 7′];

Cheng Jin Koh (b. 1996 in Singapore; currently based in New York, NY): Luciola singapura (Singapore Firefly) (2021) for sinfonietta with blended yang qin [ca. 6′];

Sam Kohler (b. 1996 in Eugene, OR; currently based in New Orleans, LA): sun-splash color-room (2021) for flute, clarinet, violin, piano, and percussion [ca. 10′];

Daniel Leibovic (b. 1995 in Richmond, VA; currently based in Houston, TX): Padamu Jua (2020) for 16 voices and small gongs [ca. 9′];

Maxwell Lu (b. 2002 in Dayton, MD; currently based in New York, NY): shatter (2021) for full orchestra [ca. 6′];

JP Merz (b. 1992 in Janesville, WI; currently based in Los Angeles, CA): gun, fire (2021) for full orchestra [ca. 15′];

Celka Ojakangas (b. 1992 in Springfield, MO; currently based in Pasadena, CA): Bantam Winds (2021) for oboe, bass clarinet, and French horn [ca. 10′];

Siddharth Pant (b. 2004 in California): Dodecahedron (2021) for string quartet [ca. 5′];

Marco-Adrián Ramos Rodríguez (b. 1995 in Betonville, AR; currently based in New Haven, CT): Five O’Hara Songs (2020) for soprano and piano [ca. 13′];

Lucy Shirley (b. 1997 in Indianapolis, IN; currently based in Kansas City, MO): Stretch Marks (2021) for soprano voice, clarinet, and piano [ca. 7′];

Sage Shurman (b. 2005; based in Los Angeles, CA): what’s left behind (2021) for string orchestra [ca. 9′];

Tian Songfeng (b. Daqing City, Heilongjiang Province, China; currently based in Kansas City, MO): Winter Solstice for string quartet [ca. 6′];

Meilina Tsui (b. 1993 in Almaty, Kazakhstan; currently based in Orlando, FL) Nomadic Trails (2021) for chamber orchestra [ca. 14′];

Casey Weisman (b. California): Beasts of the Seven Seas for full orchestra and instruments from Asia and Africa [ca. 15′].

Baldwin Giang was further recognized by the panel with the 2022 Leo Kaplan Award, created in memory of the distinguished attorney who served as ASCAP Special Distribution Advisor. The award is funded by the Kaplan Family.

Below is a list of the additional composers who received Honorable Mention and their works:

Orkun Akyol (b. 1992 in Istanbul, Türkiye; current based in Davis, CA): uneasy in my easy chair (2021) for oboe, harp, percussion and electronics [ca. 6′];

KiMani Bridges (b. 2002 in Louisville, KY; currently based in Bloomington, IN): Healer (2021) for 2 voices, spoons, and cardboard box [ca. 6′];

Victor Cui (b. 1998 in Beijing, China; currently based in Baltimore, MD): Onyx is the Color during the Silence of Järvenpää for flute and electronics [ca. 10′];

Matthieu Foresi (b. 2005 in Geneva, Switzerland; currently based in Washington): The Monster in the Closet (2019) for full orchestra [ca. 6′];

Aidan Gold (b. 1997 in Seattle, WA; currently based in New York, NY): Ripple the Ocean of Eyes (2022) for full orchestra [ca. 15′];

Camilo Gonzalez-Sol (b. 1999 in Takoma Park, MD; currently based in Austin, TX): Four Brainscapes (2021) for fixed media in stereo [ca. 9′];

Liu Yizhang (b. 1995 in Hunan, China; currently based in Kansas City, MO): Phanstasmal (2021) for string quartet [ca. 5′];

Chuyi Luo (from New York): In The Conversation… for full orchestra [ca. 6′];

Quinn Mason (b. 1996; based in Dallas, TX): Symphony No. 4 ‘Strange Time’ (2019-21) for expanded wind ensemble [ca. 20′];

Jordan Millar (b. 2006; based in New York City): Masquerade (2021) for flute, violin, viola, and classical guitar [ca. 7′];

Chris Neiner (b. 1994 in Burnsville, MN; currently based in Cleveland Heights, OH): Many Universes (2019) for chamber orchestra [ca. 14′];

Luca Pasquini (b. 2004; based in Denver, CO): Where am I in the Sublime? for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion [ca. 7′];

Grant Shueh (from New Jersey): Arrival for string quartet [ca. 6′];

Eunike Tanzil (b. 1998 in Medan, Indonesia; currently based in New York, NY): Veni Vidi Vici (2020) for clarinet and orchestra [ca. 8′];

Isabelle Tseng (from Florida): Ringlorn for violin and cello [ca. 10′].

Established as The ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Awards in 1979 with funding from The ASCAP Foundation Jack and Amy Norworth Fund, the program was dedicated to Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Morton Gould’s memory following his death in 1996 to honor his lifelong commitment to encouraging young creators. A child prodigy himself, Gould’s first composition was published by G. Schirmer when he was only six years of age. Gould served as President of ASCAP and The ASCAP Foundation from 1986 to 1994. Founded in 1975, The ASCAP Foundation is a charitable organization dedicated to supporting American music creators and encouraging their development through music education and talent development programs. Included in these are songwriting workshops, grants, scholarships, awards, recognition and community outreach programs, and public service projects for senior composers and lyricists. The ASCAP Foundation is supported by contributions from ASCAP members and from music lovers around the world.

Photos of all the winners and honorable mentions in the 2022 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Awards

Some Reflections on Transitioning Out of Being a “Young Composer”

What is the cut-off for being a “young composer”? Everyone defines that line a little differently, but I’m in my mid-30s, and in my case anyway, I certainly feel like I’ve moved onto the next thing.

This transition is more a state of mind than anything else. Over the past few years, when I’ve found myself in young composer settings, I’ve gotten that awkward feeling of being somewhere you no longer belong, like when you visit your old high school a few years into college.

Also, much to my amazement, I’ve found myself confronted on occasion by composers younger than me asking for career advice. Thinking back on the past few years, I suppose I did learn a few things that would have been useful to my 20-something self. So in the spirit of paying it forward, here are some reflections on composing after young-composer-hood.

What you did in your 20s won’t matter much

There is a cult of youth in the composition scene, just as there is with most public-facing human activities. When you’re a young composer, a lot of people are interested in what you’re doing simply because “young composers”! That’s not wrong—young people with no track record do need a way to get a leg up—but the mistake is assuming that the attention you get as a young composer somehow predicts the attention you’ll get when you’re older.

After a few years, most of the people who experienced your youthful glories will have totally forgotten that you exist, having moved on to the next round of young composers. So while you should definitely take advantage of the young composer competitions, festivals, workshops, and prizes, it’s important to realize that there’s an expiry date on their usefulness.

Composing is about who you know

Speaking of prizes and festivals and such, it turns out that winning them is much less important than the connections you make along the way.

When you’re in your 20s, the task of finding compositional opportunities mostly gets sorted out on its own: you have to write pieces for student recitals, you go to summer festivals, you get a few emerging composer commissions, etcetera. This is also, not coincidentally, the period in your life when you reach “peak friends.” Opportunities arise seemingly organically, maybe you win a few prizes, and it’s logical to assume that all this is happening because you write good music.

Yes, you do have to be a good composer—but there are a lot of good composers out there, so people tend to work with their friends.

Then a few years pass. You’re no longer in school, you’ve aged out of the young composer festivals, and—having passed peak friends—a lot of people move on and lose touch. It then becomes obvious that the main reason you’re composing for Quartet XYZ is because the cellist is a buddy of yours, not because of your skill as a composer. Yes, you do also have to be a good composer—but there are a lot of good composers out there, so people tend to work with their friends. While there are exceptions to this pattern, most of your post-20s opportunities will stem from the personal relationships you make.

When I was in grad school at UCSD, I got my fair share of those young composer commissions and prizes. Also, as a Canadian I didn’t expect to stay in the US long term, so while I did of course make friends at school, my priorities were always elsewhere. Well, here I am in San Francisco almost ten years later, married to an American. Yet few of my professional connections today stem from grad school, probably because my peers could tell I wasn’t fully invested in the community. And for all the effort, Gaudeamus and MATA and the prizes I won never created any lasting opportunities. In retrospect, back then I probably should have spent less time sending out applications and more time just hanging out with people.

A lot of your peers will stop composing

Look around: how many of the composers that you know are in their 20s? Then think about how many you know in their 30s. It’s a smaller number. Move up to 40s and it shrinks again. With each passing decade, there are fewer people who continue to compose. It’s a hard lifestyle, opportunities are not always forthcoming, and faced with the task of toiling in poverty versus getting an office job that actually pays, many people eventually choose the latter.

You need to keep proving yourself

I’m a recluse by nature—I’ve always dreaded schmoozing and networking, or really most types of group-based social activity. But in my 20s, I expected that if I stuck it out for a while, eventually my reputation would make it less necessary to do that stuff and that opportunities would come my way with increasing ease. Turns out that’s not the case. You need to make more of an effort as time goes on, not less, due to a confluence of the factors described above.

At some point in your life, while you’re busy being a young composer, you’ll suddenly realize that an active cohort of younger young composers has sprung up after you. They will be largely unaware of what you were doing in your 20s, because they were teenagers then. And just as you did before them, they’ll be busy basking in the cult of youth and hanging out in an echo chamber of people mostly their own age.

Of course, this happens at the exact same moment the more established musicians have forgotten your young composer successes—there’s a new group of up-and-comers to attend to, after all. You’ll also have fewer colleagues your own age to turn to, because of the people-dropping-out-of-music thing.

The end result is that you have to keep proving yourself, just like you did in your 20s, getting to know the younger cohort and solidifying your ties with your remaining peers and the musicians who came before you. Except now, you also need to create all of the opportunities yourself. There are no prizes or festivals or required recitals to rely on. You have to form an ensemble, or put on concerts, or pitch ideas to the groups your friends run, or otherwise use your personal network to find ways to create music.

You achieve greater success by helping others succeed

Design your activities so that they help others achieve their goals as well.

Which brings us to the next point. When you pursue projects that are exclusively about your own glory, you will have to do everything yourself and pay full price for services. People will play your gigs, but since they’re not invested in your success, it’ll just be another gig for them.

In contrast, if you design your activities so that they help others achieve their goals as well, they will want to help you succeed. You will find that you have a network of people eager to assist you with the things you care most about, and you’ll be able to mount your projects with greater ease than you could have on your own.

Making money and making music are unrelated questions

There are a lot of ways to earn a living, just as there are a lot of ways to compose music. You can follow the academic path. You can teach privately. You can conduct or take gigs as a performer. You can do a job outside of music, or as an arts administrator. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll start an ensemble that taps into big philanthropic dollars.

There will be some overlap between the money aspect and the composing aspect, but the connection will never really be as strong as you want it to be. In my 20s, I was fairly successful as a grant writer and freelancer. I assumed that this success would continue to expand, both in terms of volume of commissions and remuneration.

What I discovered, however, is that there is an upper bound. There are only so many funders, and you can only write so much music. Therefore, as your financial needs increase—and they will, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can live like a college student indefinitely—you need to find other income streams. My income from grant writing and commissions has stayed fairly steady over the past decade, but it has become a smaller proportion of my total income.

You have to work from a place of strength

Andrew Solomon perhaps put this most poetically in his Advice for Young Writers: “To know more is simply a matter of industry; to accept what you will never know is trickier.”

When you’re young, there’s the tendency to want to do everything, learn as much as possible, conquer all challenges. I used to drill and drill and drill on ear training exercises, because as a percussionist, I felt like I had to “catch up” to the composers who grew up playing strings or singing and had an amazing sense of pitch.

I did get a lot better, but I don’t play pitched instruments every day, so those skills are just never going to be as good as someone who does, even if I did have the time to keep up the ear training drills.

So I compose from my strengths and interests, accepting that there are things others will do better than me and that there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve got the right skills for the music I want to write, and that’s what counts.

Focus on the types of activities that you’re good at and enjoy.

This principle likewise applies to the more career-centered aspects of composing. You need to focus on the types of support activities that you’re good at and enjoy, whether that means grant writing, running an ensemble, freelancing as a sound engineer, etcetera. The reason I’m sitting here writing this article is because I like to write, I’ve gotten decently good at it, and I’ve attracted a respectable audience over the years. If those things weren’t true, I would be doing something else instead.

In this respect, composers are best served by standard career planning advice, with the exception that you’re most likely to find a hodgepodge of workable if imperfect compromises as opposed to the single, Goldilocksian solution a vocational counselor might prefer.

Career counseling

You need collaborators

Find people in your life who can support your weaknesses.

Because you’re working from a place of strength and can’t do everything yourself, you need find people in your life who can support your weaknesses. This arrangement could be formal or informal. A lot of great people throughout history have had spouses or patrons that have kept them afloat, both financially or just in terms of keeping their shit together. Some composers start collectives or ensembles, or they work with dance companies or otherwise find a team of people to support them. Note that this doesn’t have to be an egotistical, “taker” kind of arrangement. In fact, it’s usually more successful if it’s reciprocal. But you need to find your complements and work with them.

You won’t go to all the concerts anymore

It’s Friday afternoon and you’ve been (working/teaching/grant writing/rehearsing) all week, haven’t seen your (spouse/kids) for more than a few minutes a day all week, had a (board meeting/fundraiser/computer meltdown) last night and have (no groceries/a piece due next week/relatives coming over tomorrow). There is a new music concert tonight featuring amazing players that you love, but they’re playing Boulez (or whoever) and you’ve just never really been that into Boulez. You will skip the concert to watch Netflix and have a beer, guilt-free. Otherwise you’ll soon burn out on all concert going, and if you don’t enjoy concerts, it’s pretty hard to stay motivated to compose. I suspect that going to boring concerts is the #2 reason why people stop composing. (#1 is, of course, the money.)

Your best artistic days are ahead of you

This article by Irish/South African composer Kevin Volans caused quite a stir recently, and there’s a lot in it I disagree with. But one thing he said that is undoubtedly true is that people become better composers over time.

Young composers, on the whole, write conservative music that lacks depth and personality. There are Mozartian exceptions, but even the best young composers tend to get better with age. You’ll write better music in your 30s, even though you’ll likely get less recognition for it, seeing as you’re not a “young composer” anymore.

You have to be O.K. with a lack of feedback

Chances are you’re no longer in a structured environment like school or the young composers summer circuit, so you won’t get a lot of feedback on your work, except for reviews of your performances here and there, or complaints from your parents who wonder, “Why can’t you just write a pretty melody for once?” (Full disclosure: my parents are actually super cool and really supportive.) You have to be O.K. with not having anyone comment on your music most of the time.

This is an especially composerly issue. Playwrights tend to work with dramaturges for this very reason, professional singers often have coaches, and there are many other parallels across the arts. But it’s hard for composers to find this kind of collaborator. It’s just going to be you most of the time.

You’ll probably be a much faster composer

The reasons why you write music will become clearer. (If they don’t, you’ll probably stop composing.) When you know the why, and you have more practice with the how, the act of composing speeds up quite a bit. That doesn’t mean you’ll never get stuck, just that the average number of hours you need to put in to create a given amount of quality music will go down.

That will give you time for other things, like hobbies or volunteering or having kids—whatever. Take advantage of those possibilities. They’ll lead to a richer life, and the best art always stems from lived experience.

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Aaron Gervais-TracyWong

Aaron Gervais
Photo by Tracy Wong

Aaron Gervais is a freelance composer based in San Francisco. He draws upon humor, quotation, pop culture, and found materials to create work that spans the gamut from somber to slapstick, and his music has been performed across North America and Europe by leading ensembles and festivals. Check out his music and more of his writing at aarongervais.com.

Saad Haddad: It’s Not Going to Be Exact

Saad Haddad

Most first rehearsals of a new piece for orchestra begin one of two ways. The conductor either spot checks various potentially tricky places in the score or attempts a full run-through until something goes awry, which makes everyone stop to focus on what made everyone stop. But guest conductor Steven Schick did not do either of these things back in November when he began rehearsing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Saad Haddad’s Kaman Fantasy (one of five pieces by emerging composers performed during the 2015 Milwaukee Symphony Composer’s Institute). Instead, Schick asked the string section to play a pitch that was halfway between E and Eb. It took a while for them to find the pitch, but once they did, he then asked them to begin to play the piece. Kaman Fantasy was like nothing else on that program; indeed, it was like few things ever performed by orchestras.

Even during this first somewhat tentative reading, a magical and extremely beautiful microtonally tinged tune emerged amid various melodic fragments chock full of swirling embellishments in the strings and winds. Although the sounds were clearly being made by members of a symphony orchestra reading from parts on their stands, what they played sounded uncannily like the orally transmitted large ensemble music of North Africa and the Middle East.

When we spoke to Haddad in New York City in early March, the 23-year-old composer reflected on the Arabic music ensembles that served as a model for Kaman Fantasy. “There are like 10 to 12 violins and they’re all playing the same line in a different way, with different embellishments and slightly different bowings—sometimes completely different bowings,” he explained. “There’s no [sheet] music at all involved; it’s all done by ear. I’ve never heard a string section sound like that in any tradition and, of course, not in the Western tradition … but I was trying to do that kind of thing in an orchestra piece. The problem with working with Western musicians; you want them to be not exact, but to do that you have to show them something exact on the page and then warn them—be careful, it’s not going to be exact, that’s how it should be. But once you get the musicians to be on board with that, then you can create something really unique and really special in an orchestral environment in which it’s usually really difficult to do anything outside the box.”

Born, raised, and compositionally trained in Southern California, Haddad had never previously written anything like that for an orchestra. But his incorporation of Arabic aesthetics into contemporary Western performance practices in this eleven-minute 2015 composition was something he had been pursuing on a smaller scale in his music since 2012. In fact, Kaman Fantasy began as a duo for violin and piano in which the violin simulates the sonorities of the traditional silk-stringed spiked fiddle common throughout the Islamic world (an instrument called kemençe in Turkey and called kamancheh in Iran and throughout the Caucasus). And, encouraged from being able to make such a synthesis work on an orchestral scale, it is something which has continued to inform his subsequent forays into composing for large ensembles: Manarah for two digitally processed antiphonal trumpets and orchestra, which the American Composers Orchestra will premiere at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on April 1, 2016; and Takht, which the New Julliard Ensemble will premiere at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on April 21. However, Haddad was quick to point out that he still thinks of himself as a beginner and even somewhat of an outsider when it comes to having a deep knowledge of Arabic musical traditions.

“I’m an American for sure,” he admitted. “I’ve never even gone to the Middle East … so I’m not going to pretend that I know everything there is. I have a lot to learn. The only thing I hope I can contribute is that I can really showcase the beauty of the culture and the beauty of the music. There’s a lot of stuff in it that’s really cool.”

While he is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Juilliard under the tutelage of John Corigliano, Haddad has yet to find a parallel mentor who can offer him a deeper knowledge of the arcana of maqam, the complex Arabic modal system. Most of his knowledge of this music has come from surfing websites and carefully studying YouTube videos of the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, whose 1975 funeral attracted more than four million mourners. Although his grandparents were huge fans of Kulthum and Farid el-Atrache, a popular singer-songwriter originally from Syria, Haddad never had any direct exposure to this music in his formative years.

“I never thought I was going to use this music until a few years ago,” he acknowledged. “When I was growing up, I was listening to a lot of Bee Gees and ‘80s music because my mom was really into that stuff. And then I listened to Mozart and Beethoven and all the big classical giants.”

Once he started creating his own music, he initially followed a path typical of many young American composers. He wrote a Michael Jackson-inspired composition scored for a post BoaC All Stars-type ensemble of soprano sax, electric guitar, keyboard, and drum-set, a few short orchestra pieces, and two lovely settings of poems by William Blake for unaccompanied chorus. He even dabbled in film music under the auspices of the John Williams Scoring Stage at USC, which instilled in him a deft command of musical narrative that would later inform other kinds of collaboratively created work, such as his Nekavim, a very effective dance score for two percussionists and live electronics created for choreography by Sean Howe. But an epiphany while he was back at home over the summer only a few years ago is ultimately what led to his current compositional direction. It began with something completely mundane: his mother asking him to transfer his family’s home movies off of aging videocassettes. As he explained:

We had like 200 twenty-year-old home videos and you can’t burn them like CDs; you have to watch the whole thing. So I’m sitting there watching … and see all my older relatives twenty years younger and I started getting really connected to it. So I thought, “Why don’t I write a piece using this material?” I went in with ProTools and tried to take the snippets that I liked. I had no idea what I would do with them; I was just making a catalog of interesting sounds from my childhood. And then I thought, “If I’m going to use my family as an influence, I ought to use their music, too.”

The resultant piece, Mai for string quartet and live electronics (2013), would serve as a blueprint for everything he has composed since then.

The microtones and all the embellishments that are really typical with Arabic music are really easy to get with a string quartet, especially when you’re working with them. So I worked with the Argus Quartet on this and we played it a few times at USC. Then it won a BMI Award the next year, and it was kind of a confirmation for me. So I started to explore this even more.

But Haddad is not at all dogmatic in his transfer of Arabic music theory to pieces that are designed to be interpreted by musicians trained in Western classical music and performed for its usual audiences. For example, while the microtonal gradations that occur in traditional Arabic music are extremely subtle, Haddad is content with limiting himself to quartertones.

Splitting the scale into 24 notes is the easiest way to think about it without going into it so in-depth. If you’re asking a bunch of players to do it, you have to tell them to play this quartertone, because if they’re all playing different shades of it, it doesn’t sound like what you want. It sounds like a cluster or it sounds like it’s wrong. How do you make it sound like it belongs? That kind of approximation, I think, does a big thing for it; you still have the feeling that it belongs to the maqam when you’re using quartertones. … There are certain things you can do that make it easier for an orchestra. Have the microtones in first or second position in each of the strings. Have them a little lower so you can really hear them; if they’re really high up, sometimes it sounds like a wrong note. “How do I make it idiomatic for the orchestra?” is something I’m always thinking.

The way that Saad Haddad has forged a balance between being practical and a desire to take risks is almost as seamless as his balancing of Western classical and Middle Eastern musical traditions. It is particularly surprising considering that he has come to such realizations while still a student. But even here, Haddad balances a duality: a desire to always be a student but never to be held back by thinking like one.

It’s only in name that I feel like I’m a student right now. No matter how old you are, you’re always learning things. You’re always going to be a student. But I’ve never said, “I’m a student, so I need to act like a student.” The more that you think you’re a student, you’re going to be writing “student music.” You need to think outside that kind of shell and say, “What do I want to do?” and don’t worry about anything else.

Giving Voice: (Re)Discovering My Own

Twilight by a lake surrounded by trees

A view from the Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Summer Camps (photo by Chris Cresswell).

“Hey Mom and Dad, I’m going to summer camp!”

That’s probably not what the parents of a 26-year old want to hear. Then again, I probably gave them a lifetime’s worth of bad news half a decade earlier with “I’m going to be a composer.” I’m currently in my second summer working as a teaching artist at the Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods summer camp. This work has had a profound impact on my own compositions and songwriting on a both spiritual and practical levels.

Prior to starting work as a teaching artist, I worked at Boosey & Hawkes in New York City. While this was a tremendous experience in which I learned about the music industry, listened to more contemporary music than I thought possible, and met, more or less, all of my musical heroes, by the end of my time there my relationship with music, by necessity, had become more about business than the creative practice.

In working with campers at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods family of camps, I rediscovered my love for writing music. The young campers offered up creativity in its purest form. They were interested in making their own music without consideration for genre, marketability, or careerism, but rather with the intent of simply writing the music that they wanted to write. There was little angst associated with their writing process. While campers experienced hiccups along the way, there was none of the insecurities, impostor syndrome, or existential angst that impairs so many young composers, including myself. Rather, I found that all of the campers were open to suggestions, willing to learn, and ready to experiment as they discovered what the recording studio—and they themselves—could do. This caused me to reexamine my own self-labeling. Prior to last summer I’d always viewed myself as a composer who happened to write songs. I hid my songwriting from my fellow composers out of a fear that I wouldn’t be taken “seriously” as a composer. Spending a summer writing songs with campers resulted in me focusing more on my own songwriting craft.

This spiritual re-awakening coincided with a broadening of my sonic palette. As I mentioned in previous posts, campers shared their favorite songs, exposing me to a wide range of pop songs and entire genres that I was previously unfamiliar with. While I won’t be making a dubstep album anytime soon, I’ve fallen in love with the synthesizer sounds associated with the genre. Rather than writing folk songs with voice and a few acoustic instruments, I’ve begun to utilize the entire studio in my songwriting and recording process. This summer I’m recording several new tracks for future use, including the song embedded below, Advertising the Dalai Lama. What started as a simple folk song on an acoustic guitar has become a more nuanced piece of music. The process of creating this song showcases the cross-pollination between songwriting, composing, orchestration, and studio engineering, combining sounds from hip-hop, dubstep, and pop music with my own aural aesthetic which draws upon the work of Meredith Monk, Brian Eno, Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes, and contemporary electro-acoustic works.

When developing the instrumental section of the song, I approached the synthesizers the same way I approach orchestrating an art song. Rather than having a battery of strings, winds, and percussion, I have an array of electronic sounds, each one serving a specific function. Even though my instrumentation involves sounds labeled “Noizette,” “Scorched Earth,” “Dirty Wobbler,” “Swedish Ninja,” and “Mound of Wires,” I still approached the individual voices with the lessons I learned from Walter Piston’s Guide to Orchestration. The end result is, hopefully, a reflection of my previously bifurcated artistic selves.

On a practical level, working in a recording studio 14 hours a day has made me adept at writing and creating music at a quick pace. This summer, I orchestrated the middle instrumental section of a Broadway-style tune in a brief 45-minute window. Working at such a fast pace naturally means decisions are made without hesitation. There is no time to agonize over note choices. If it doesn’t work, we’ll simply try again; there is no need to fear getting it wrong. This increase in technical skill has helped with my work in sound installations and electro-acoustic work.

Last year, while working in the studio, I built the foundation for I was walking home…or at least I thought I was walking home… This sound installation created an imaginary soundscape by combining sounds from my last day living in New York City with sounds from my hometown of Cazenovia, New York, and electronically generated sounds. As I spent most of my days and nights in the recording studio, I was able to experiment with recording acoustic instruments and manipulating them to create sonic textures. The studio has become a part of the composition process, where ProTools waveforms are as valid as notation on a staff. This summer I’m combining these processes in a new work for the San Francisco-based group Wild Rumpus. My new work for them, From Dreams, We Emerge, combines electronic textures built inside the recording studio with live instruments.

The natural beauty of Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods, which is situated in Decatur, Michigan, a rural town in southwestern Michigan, has proven to be an alluring muse itself. I spend my summers living on a quiet campground next to a picturesque lake. On a clear night you can see a myriad of stars while fireflies seem to dance in the open fields. This is a far cry from my previous life living in an illegal basement sublet in Queens. This broad, open expanse has had an equal impact on my writing, be it acoustic compositions, electro-acoustic works, or songwriting. I’ve spent the last year working on an orchestra piece, The Decatur Fragments, inspired by the birdsongs I hear each morning while walking from my cabin to the recording studio.The work for Wild Rumpus, From Dreams, We Emerge, is influenced by this open expanse; it is a slow moving work with a dream-like quality, again influenced by my open surroundings.

A close up image of a tree by a lake at twilight.

Another view from the Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Summer Camps (photo by Chris Cresswell).

Working as a teaching artist is a continual two way conversation. While my goal at the onset was to teach songwriting and recording, I ended up learning as much, if not more, myself. This work has reinstated my love of creativity and has demonstrated time and time again, the power of self-expression, in all of its forms. I’ve witnessed campers gain confidence as they’ve written their first songs, sang in front of their friends, and learned that they have the power to create themselves. In a culture where so much is dictated to our children, giving voice to their artistic ideas instills in them the belief that their thoughts, their ideas, and their concerns matter, that someone is listening to what they have to say and is providing a platform for them to say it. Working with a teaching artist shows that creativity can be a part of everyday life. Most of the music young people hear is mainstream pop, seemingly coming from this “other” faraway place. When students have a chance to work with a teaching artist, they have the opportunity to share their song, their dance, their poem, their painting, or whatever else they can imagine. What I hope to impart as a teaching artist is that creativity is not only possible but is encouraged.

Framing Your Voice, Part 1

Baldessari's "Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear)"

Baldessari’s “Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear)”

There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies. —Robert Frost

As young musicians, we may encounter many types of teachers, ranging from the traditional to a Suzuki advocate, and perhaps even some champions of Orff, Dalcroze, or Kodaly for a lucky few. So, what distinguishes a good teacher from a great one? At different career points, both of Frost’s teachers hold value. In my own teaching and composing, I find myself returning to a few basic principles that illustrate these ideas. First and foremost, I build rules/identify parameters, ask questions, and maintain dedication. The most successful atmosphere for the student and teacher exists when both parties are thinking, creating, and being stimulated by one another’s ideas and artistic solutions.

The most fundamental goal for a young musician is to find her/his artistic voice. After all, we make music to communicate something beyond words, something transcendental. For composers, creating a form, choosing an instrumentation, and devising an intention in tandem are critical. While modeling forms can be immensely important, beginners seem to excel when presented with an open palette, one that allows them to help build the rules of their craft. Boundaries tend to limit the student, while options inspire. While every student is unique, I have found that encouraging open parameters is helpful; when a student has a hand in determining a form that reflects his/her creative intention, he/she is more prone to remain devoted to the inspiration.
For most of us, teaching students how to ask questions and find solutions is more valuable than articulating history. If a sincere answer is to be discovered, the student must ask the question. For the teacher, this generally requires a lot of patience, listening, and learning. In creative fields, the answer is most always found in the question. Once the student is invested in this process, then historicizing, theorizing, and analyzing will be natural consequences. For example, imagine a student who wants to illuminate the state of mind in-between consciousness and unconsciousness in a composition, like being awakened from a dream. Rather than ask the student to mimic Debussy (a logical connection) without context, I would advocate for the student to first create their own form and instrumentation, requiring them to generate both the content and motivation for formal decision-making. Alongside these tasks, I would encourage several listening assignments—music by historically contrasting composers (with score, if possible); this type of complimentary approach strengthens both expressiveness and craft.

Teaching demands a dedication similar to what’s required when writing music or playing an instrument. For me, there is a natural and beneficial balance to be struck between being a musician and a teacher, as both strengthen knowledge and encourage inquiry (on behalf of the student and teacher alike!). The most successful learning atmosphere exists when both parties are thinking and creating, stimulated by one another’s ideas and artistic solutions. When I consider the most memorable “teaching moments,” which are signposts in my own learning, I come up with a few consistent themes:

Listen to and question everything
Hear what you compose and compose what you hear
Organize what you compose (know where/when things belong)
Create a structure/language for what you compose/hear

I tend to think the best teachers operate in both ways Frost describes, depending on where the student needs to go. Our job is to awaken curiosity, both in our students and within ourselves. I had my fair share of both the teachers who filled me with “quail-shot” and many more who gently nudged me into the sky.

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Mara Gibson
Composer Mara Gibson is originally from Charlottesville, Virginia. She graduated from Bennington College and completed her Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo. She has received grants and honors from the American Composers Forum, the Banff Center, Louisiana Division of the Arts, ArtsKC, Meet The Composer, the Kansas Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the International Bass Society, ASCAP, and the John Hendrick Memorial Commission. Internationally renowned ensembles and soloists have performed her music throughout the United States, Canada, South America, Asia, and Europe. Gibson teaches at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance while leading the conservatory’s Community Music and Dance Academy as director, where she is founder of the UMKC Composition Workshop and co-director/founder of ArtSounds.

Mohammed Fairouz: Cross-Cultural Counterpoint

For people who subscribe to the seemingly irreversible cynicism of our age, music does not have the power to change the world; after all, nothing does. But composer Mohammed Fairouz retains an optimistic outlook as he aspires to create music that carries a larger social meaning. And he has managed to garner an extraordinary array of performances for his deeply charged music all over the country—from over 100 art songs to a nearly 80-minute symphony for orchestra, soloists, and a nearly 100-voice chorus. This is no small feat for someone who is only 26-years old. While at first he attributes such a seemingly endless chain of auspicious premieres to the domino effect of musicians talking to other musicians, he soon acknowledges that the larger purposes behind his music are helping to fuel all the attention it has been getting. According to Fairouz, “Composers who have something very urgent to say have a way of connecting with performers in a very immediate way and with audiences.”

The urgent message that comes across in Fairouz’s music is one of inclusivity and a broadening of cultural horizons. An important source for his music has been his own Arab heritage—he grew up hearing legendary singers Umm Kulthum and Fairuz (no relation) alongside Mozart and Beethoven. He even describes Schubert—with whom he deeply identifies—as an “Arabic composer” because of Schubert’s devotion to the primacy of the melodic line, also a hallmark of Middle Eastern music. But the American-born Fairouz would contend that his aesthetics are more symptomatic of the multicultural society we now live in. Of course, the absorption of multiple traditions has been part and parcel of music making for a century. And in fact, one of Fairouz’s teachers was Gunther Schuller, who famously crossed the barriers between classical music and jazz more than 60 years ago. But in earlier times, creating such music was a political act that attempted to erode socio-cultural barriers as much as stylistic ones, whereas nowadays similar musical mélanges occur because that’s what the world now sounds like, or as Fairouz puts it:

We really don’t have the choice to not live in a cosmopolitan world. For my generation […] being part of the cosmopolis—being an integral voice in the choir—is much more attractive because we’re living in a world where you can get from point A to point B in less than 24 hours. […] I would not have been possible in a different world and a different atmosphere and that informs everything. Mahler had to convert to Catholicism in order to take the job at the Vienna State Opera. That’s really weird, right? We’re getting past that. And culturally and compositionally our scene is reflecting that more and more; it’s reflecting something more inclusive and interesting. […]The optimism of the 21st century is that we’re leading to a more cosmopolitan place where these borders are slowly being dissolved, both musical borders and physical borders.

By while Fairouz is well aware that his compositional path is an inevitable by-product of the zeitgeist, he is still very much engaged with the underlying socio-political agenda for such an aesthetic position. Four Critical Modes, for the unlikely duo of violin and saxophone, is a musical response to cultural stereotyping and misperceptions about identity. Whereas Tahrir, his extremely powerful clarinet concerto for David Krakauer, seamlessly blends Arabic and Jewish traditions and is named after the famous square in Egypt that has been a catalyst for the democracy movement in the Middle East.

When I’m writing in contrapuntal forms, that’s usually because of the analogy those forms have to social meanings. One of my great mentors, Edward Said, borrowed the term counterpoint from music and applied it to critical thought in politics and in society as a way for cultures to exist in a tapestry of counterpoint without any culture giving up its individual sense of beauty or raison d’être but contributing to the greater whole. There’s a way of borrowing that back into music. […] When we get past slogans and we actually engage the dialectic we come into a place where we have a much more inclusive and genuine representation of what the world is.

Yet despite his music’s aesthetic currency, he goes about creating it in a very old-fashioned way. His apartment is littered with handwritten scores and an army of carefully sharpened pencils. But somehow even that comes back to its multicultural inspirations.

I really believe in working in manuscript because it gives me a physical, hands -on connection to the music I’m writing. As someone from an Arabic background, once upon a time calligraphy was the most treasured of all the arts in the Arab world. I feel like I’m connecting to that spirit when I’m taking pencil to manuscript paper and carving out these really pretty figures. It has nothing to do with the content of the music: the sound that you’re generating, but I like to enjoy the process of writing and part of the enjoyment is this calligraphic drawing.

However he makes his music, he’s doing the right thing. Over the past two years, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, clarinetist David Krakauer, the Borromeo String Quartet, Imani Winds, Cygnus Ensemble, Seattle Chamber Players, the Knights, counter)induction, and the Two River Ensemble have all premiered new works by him. In November 2011, Sono Luminus released the first all-Mohammed Fairouz CD; Naxos is currently working on the next one. And the performances keep coming, including an opera (his second) and another symphony (his fourth). But there are projects that he will not take on. Originally the topic of his second opera was the trial of Nazi Holocaust organizer Josef Eichmann, based on the account of Hannah Arendt. But as Fairouz got deeper into the project, he had to stop. “Reading the accounts of the Eichmann trials and what the victims had suffered was so beyond horrific,” he recalls. “I could not make this man sing. For heaven’s sake, why would I make this man sing? I did not want to immortalize him in any way.”

Mohammed Fairouz takes what he does very seriously. He is deeply respectful of his historical precedents, while forging his own path. It is a balancing act that all 21st century composers must navigate.