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Part 2: How is gender reflected in “new music” and classical music?

By UMS Lobby

What is “new music?” Why do we as musicians play such a small percentage of it? Why is there so little diversity in the identities of the composers we perform?

In a previous blog post, I asked several women who had studied or are currently studying at the University of Michigan to share their thoughts about diversity in the arts, and about performing, creating, and listening to new music. I had an overwhelming response of musicians, composers, and teachers who wanted to share their opinions.

So, here is part two in the series, featuring more amazing women creating, supporting, and performing music that shares a variety of experiences.

Tessa Patterson, vocalist and composer
Photo Credit: Katie Alexis Photography

Photo Credit: Katie Alexis Photography

How long have you been a composer? What was your journey?

I began studying classical voice when I was 16 and continued studying classically with the opera program. For years, I only considered myself a singing actress. I have always had melodies running through my head, but it wasn’t until my final year that I began to consider myself a composer. While using Ableton and Logic for a Performing Arts Technology 101 class, I realized that I had an infinite range of sounds and an easy way to orchestrate what was in my head. I began playing around with combining my classical singing over avant-garde and strange electronic arrangements. I collaborated with many other composer-performers, but it wasn’t until a year after I began composing that I met my band mates from Bobbiejak. We started performing the compositions I had written earlier that year and began fusing our classical, jazz, and electronic backgrounds.

Kat Lawhead, violist
Photo Credit: Valentina Sadiul Photography

Photo Credit: Valentina Sadiul Photography

Tell me about a positive experience you’ve had performing “new music” and the relationship you had with the composer.  

I was a part of a compositional project this in fall 2016. My friend Michael Rosin had written a piece for solo viola, an area of repertoire that’s not exactly overflowing. All musicians should, at least once in their careers, grab the nearest composer and ask him or her to write a solo piece for their instrument. It’s an incredibly eye-opening experience to be involved in the birth and step-by-step evolution of a new work in which you are the only factor, where you’re the only one making noise. It’s freeing because the audience doesn’t have any expectations, no one knows what it’s supposed to sound like or what it’s supposed to mean. I performed that piece four times over the course of the year, and by the end, both the composer and I realized that the piece had become completely different from the piece it was when we first started.

Nicole Patrick, percussionist
Photo Credit: David Newton

Photo Credit: David Newton

How did you go about choosing music for your Senior recital? Is there a difference for you when performing music that is written by someone still living?

In addition to the Bach (performed on marimba) canonic repertoire and other super badass, beautiful percussion works that are often performed, I found two pieces that 1) I had never heard of before and 2) blew my mind. Emphasis on the “blew my mind.” So, after some ridiculously over-thought emails, I was stoked to receive responses from both composers thanking me for reaching out to them and sharing full scores and parts. I reached out again after the recital to thank them for letting me develop such a close relationship with their music. I felt confident that performing these obscure pieces shared my identity as an artist, and even more importantly, as a human. This vulnerability is what I am chasing after as a performer; the fact that I could connect with these composers instantly helps me to feel like I’m doing something more than just performing someone else’s work.

Annika Socolofsky, vocalist, fiddler, and composer
Photo Credit: Nadine Dyskant Miller

Photo Credit: Nadine Dyskant Miller

Why do you create music?

Creating new music, as with any art, is a vital part of experiencing both past and present. The music I write is a direct response to experiences I have, the stories I’ve been told, my upbringing, the politics and social change of my lifetime, the music I’m surrounded by, the lifestyle I lead, the places I visit, and every last person in my life. No other person has lead my life, and no other person could write the music that I write–just as no other person could write the music that you write.

There’s something deeply intimate about hearing music created by someone else–it’s a window into another reality, another perspective. Whether it’s the latest Radiohead album being pumped through your earbuds, or a new work being premiered by Eighth Blackbird, you’re being thrown into another person’s reality, experiencing the most raw sense of life through the soul of another human. That experience is invaluable–losing a sense of self is what allows us to connect with other people, other times, other cultures; it’s what allows us to see past our differences.

Emma Dansak

emma-dansak

Do you love classical music? What do you think needs to happen to reinvigorate the art form?

I love old white man composer music! It’s so beautiful and rich. The funniest thing to me about the white man’s canon is how anxious everyone got after Beethoven. They worried that there would be nothing left to say using melody and harmony. By the 20th century and the 2nd Viennese school, that anxious nightmare had seemed to become a reality. I think that the atonal period is the height of alienation for the white Western man-canon. It’s over 100 years old now and we still call it “contemporary” as a code word for “just terrible.” And we still see some of the lineage of those wretched fellows in composers who think they have to draw their music from anywhere but the well of sonic instinct. That it’s cliche to write music that means something to them, that sounds good to them, that they want to hear.

Bless their hearts. The reason the “canon” got so dried up when it was projected into the twentieth century was that it still only included white men, whose claim to represent the entire cultural imagination of humanity was growing feebler and feebler and had finally become totally untenable. Their crumbling, inexpressive music was the music of the crumbling dominance of white masculinity. How rich the well of artistic inspiration is as soon as you include the intelligence, experiences, stories, and inner music of people who have never had a voice before!

As composers in the twenty-first century awaken from the strange dream of silence and become re-familiarized with their freedom and their own voices, we’re discovering that the possibilities of the future are much larger than the territory already covered in the past. The fantastic structural and syntactical inheritance of the great music of the Western canon is no longer a dominating, excruciating pressure, but a fertile ground for the cross-fertilization of new voices. “Classical music” is really in its infancy. Dead white men gave us tons of ideas about melody, harmony, and the general syntax of notes. Now we can start to tell the stories that truly excite us, have the musical conversations that keep us alive.

Carolina Heredia, composer
Photo Credit: Suby Raman

Photo Credit: Suby Raman

Is there a lack of diversity in new music? How can we be more inclusive?

There is a wide lack of diversity in Concert New Music in the United States, there is no doubt about it. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Bachtrack statistics, among others, showed that the percentage of women, Black, and Latino composers programmed in the US orchestras is astonishingly low. This is especially alarming when you compare it with what percentage that population represents in the whole US. For that to increase and reach a more inclusive (and healthy) level in the near future we need an active militancy. With this I mean more opportunities for women, Black, and Latinos specifically. Unbelievably, there are still people that would not support the efforts of creating a more welcoming and rewarding environment to minorities composers, instead waving the flag of “equal opportunities for everybody.” Since the inequity has already been so big and has been running for long, sometimes is necessary to go to the other extreme in order to find a way to an equilibrium (or the closest to that). We need to make a radical turn in order for a real change to start happening.

Phoebe Wu, pianist
Photo Credit: Stacy Geiken Photography

Photo Credit: Stacy Geiken Photography

What is your motivation to be a musician?

My motivation to be a musician lies in my interactions with and relationships to the listeners, to my fellow musicians in an ensemble, to composers, to my mentors and my students, and to the music itself. I want to have a deep connection to any music I play, and I want to learn with those who have open ears and curiosity, whether they be professors, students, composers, listeners, or peer musicians. For me, a large part of the joy in playing comes from having someone else’s piece of music, whether it be polished or rough, and continuing the creative process to make the experience for listeners as true and alive as possible. I feel strongly drawn to the music of composers like Bach, Janáček, Gabriella Lena Frank, Deborah DeWitt, George Crumb. In working with living composers, there is an extra, unique experience in being able to talk with them, and to give and take ideas. I couldn’t imagine performing exclusively “new” or exclusively “old” music—there is no reason to create restrictions, and there are infinite reasons to experience it all.

Contemporary music is a window into the emotional, political, and economic state of an environment at a given moment; new works of music intended for the concert hall reflect their communities and therefore reveal a level of dedication to the arts. By supporting new music, we support the growth of composers, the performers, and most importantly the audience.

I remember being in the hall for the Vienna premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s violin concerto and realizing that this incredible piece of music would be in the canon for all time. I again felt the same seeing Thomas Ade’s The Tempest at the Staatsoper in Vienna: history was being made with sounds that would challenge the future. Of course experiencing the second symphony of Brahms is special, but its repetition in lieu of new works does not move classical music forward. When we perform older music (Schubert symphonies, Verdi operas, Mozart concerti, etc.), we must bring a freshness to it, as if we the performers were experiencing it for the first time. In the opposite way, we must bring a romantic comfort to our performances of new scores.

Advocacy for new music should also emphasize incorporating music from women and from non-white composers. While white men have provided us with 99.9% of music performed today, that shouldn’t remain the paradigm. Great women composers such as Julia Wolfe, Jennifer Higdon, and Kaija Saariaho are becoming increasingly prolific in the concert hall. Modern music is mimicking the current climate: the advocacy for new music means the advocacy for diversity. In America, we currently need both in abundance. What we put into our concert halls should be a representation of our societal values.

Ashley Stanley, flutist
Photo Credit: Nadine Sherman Photography

Photo Credit: Nadine Sherman Photography

Why do you think there’s a lack of diverse, new music being performed professionally?

I think a big reason why diverse, new music is not performed frequently is because of the emphasis on Western Classical music in our educational curriculum. We see this from kindergarten all the way through DMA programs.

I went to two affordable, in-state, liberal arts colleges for my undergraduate degree. I asked my college music history teacher when we would be covering music from other parts of the world in our survey class. He asked me to read the title of our class book, which was the “History of Western Music.” I looked into that school’s world music class, only to learn that it covered the very fundamentals of Western notation for the first two units of the class and was also primarily taught by first-year applied lesson teachers who were required to fill in. Of course institutions that have resources to offer graduate programs in Musicology are able to combat some of these issues, however, they are an elite few. This means that the majority of our music educators are not equipped with the necessary education to diversify their curriculum in public and charter schools. In an industry that relies on heavily educated musicians to perform its music, future performers and composers receive limited education as well.

On a national scale, how can we expect a diverse classical music culture when we fail to represent the multitude of heritages reflected in our country?

I am really excited to see Caroline Shaw’s compositions performed by Roomful of Teeth (April 12, 2017) and the Calidore String Quartet (February 5, 2017). Listen to Roomful of Teeth perform a piece by a living, breathing composer. Think about just how exhilarating it must be for them to create, rehearse, and perform this music as a team of musicians blurring the line between composer and performer.

My opinion is this: So much more effort must be put into bringing women and other minority groups forward to ensure our music is diverse in representation of ability, in race, in ethnicity, in gender, in class, in all ways. As performers and composers, we must not only mirror our current audience, but also those we want to invite into our halls. This takes the active support and commentary of performers, presenting institutions, and our audience. For now, I hope we will all come out to support the work of this wonderful composer, and the two superb young ensembles that are programming her challenging, invigorating music.

Share your thoughts!