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

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


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.

Playlist: Music of Andalusia

On April 15, 2016, Simon Shaheen brings to life the Arab music of Al-Andalus and blends it with the ubiquitous art of flamenco in Zafir, a program of instrumental and vocal music and dance that renews a relationship with music from a thousand years ago. Zafir explores the commonalities of music born in the cultural centers of Iraq and Syria that blew like the wind (zafir) across the waters of the Mediterranean to Al-Andalus. There it blended with elements of Spanish music and was brought back across the seas to North Africa, where it flourished in the cities of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

simon shaheen

Photo: Simon Shaheen performs on oud. Courtesy of the artist.

To offer a small taste of the music inspiring Zafir, we have compiled a playlist of music from Andalusia, the Middle East, and North Africa. While the performance will blend these three regions and show off the similarities, we’ll separate the three musical styles out here, so that you can hear how these styles have evolved and changed. Take a listen below!


People might think that dance is the essence of flamenco, but in truth, the heart of flamenco is the song (cante). The Arab roots of flamenco run deep, and although much of the history is obscured, it is clear that flamenco grew out of the unique culture in Andalusia. Scholars believe the word flamenco is derived from colloquial Arabic felag mangu, meaning “fugitive peasant.” The word was first used in the 14th century to refer to Andalusian Gypsies, who were called gitanos or flamencos. Soon, the term flamenco came to be applied to their music.

We’ve compiled a playlist of top flamenco musicians in the past century, which includes Camarón de la Isla, Tomatito, Paco de Lucía, La Niña de los Peines, and Carmen Linares.

Israel, Palestine, Egypt

Simon Shaheen, who will be playing in Zafir, is a virtuosic Palestinian-American violinist and ‘oud player who grew up in Israel. Until the early 1990s, Arab music from this region did not have wide distribution, so the focus was on international stars such as Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, and Farid al-Atrash.

The playlist we’ve created includes the musicians listed above.


Oud. Courtesy of TIMEA.

Sonia M’barek, the vocalist performing for Zafir, is one of Tunisia’s most renowned singers. Her music centers on malouf, a Tunisian style of music that is based on an old Arabic type of poetry called qasidah. It features violins, drums, ‘oud, flutes, and a solo vocalist. The most important structural element of malouf, is the nuba, which was introduced to North Africa by Andalusian Muslims who were forced to leave Spain in the 14th Century.

Here is a playlist of top Tunisian musicians in the past century, which includes El Azifet, Hedi Jouini, Ali Riahi, and Anouar Brahem.

What will you listen for at the performance? Which musical thread interests you most? Share your comments below.

Zafir is at Michigan Theater on April 15, 2016.



What is it about Bach?

“I have this to say about Bach’s works: listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut.” — Albert Einstein

Image: Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Hearts added.

Image: Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Hearts added.

Recently, I stumbled upon an NPR interview with Sir András Schiff about his Well-Tempered Clavier project; in it Schiff shared his love of J.S. Bach and the special connection he feels to the composer.

As a bass player I’ve rarely had the good fortune of having solo pieces written by big-wig composers; instead, I’ve usually begged, borrowed, and stolen from cello, the violin, and the viola repertoires. It’s a blessing and a curse; I’m never made to perform only music expressly written for the bass, but I’ve also rarely had the pleasure of playing a piece written with my comfort and capabilities in mind. J.S. Bach is one of the many composers who never wrote for the bass, but whose music I’m perfectly happy to play anyway.

Bach is like snorkeling

gil shaham

Photo: Gil Shaham, who plays Bach Partitas on March 16, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

John Eliot Gardiner, the author of the Bach biography Music In The Castle of Heaven, jokes that Bach is like snorkeling. “Being in Bach’s music has that sense of otherness: it’s another world we enter, as performers or listeners. You put your mask on, and you go down to a psychedelic world of myriad colors” (Burton-Hill, 2014)

In my experience, every musician has an arduous yet ardent relationship with Bach. His music, like no other, seizes us, conquers our hearts and souls, and spits us back out slightly changed. Each listen brings a slightly new experience.

Bach and me

The first time I played music by J.S. Bach was in high school band. We used a Bach chorale each class to focus on phrasing and intonation. I looked forward to these fifteen minutes every day. I found that being embraced by the wholehearted reverberations of the other musicians’ Bach-playing left me with a kind of peace and calm unmatched by anything I’d felt before. Each detail of the chorale seemed minute and gargantuan at the same time, and I could find the patience to work on problem areas in my own playing because my love and respect for Bach was so great.

When I arrived at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the first piece bass professor Diana Gannett assigned me was the Gigue in the First Cello Suite. Playing through a Bach Cello Suite is perhaps one of the most challenging and rewarding acrobatic feats that I’ve forced upon myself as a bassist. I have listened to countless cellists perform Bach’s masterworks for cello, so my competitive self is disappointed when I fall short of the standard they’ve set; nevertheless, these cellists have also helped define my musical goals. Bach keeps. Bach keeps me humble while giving me unflagging energy for the process of becoming a better musician.

I would never consider performing Bach for an audience; I find that my relationship with Bach is about the intense personal experience of playing his music for my ears alone. It’s become a morning ritual, something I cannot live without.

As Schiff says in his interview, playing Bach is a work in process that never ends. He continues to say that there are new stations that you arrive at on your exploration of the mystery of his music, but you can only hope to see a wider horizon along the journey. I’ve only just begun my journey as a professional musician, and my love for Bach is sure to be what sustains me.

Are you a lover of Bach? If not, what piece of music or what composer is “sacred” to you?

Gil Shaham performs Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas with original films by David Michalek on March 26, 2014.

Take a break and listen to Mstislav Rostropovich play Cello Suite No. 1 in G major BWV 1007


Burton-Hill, Clemency (2014, September 17) Can Any Composer Equal Bach? Retrieved on July 30, 2015.

What music speaks to you?

Do you have a composer or specific piece of music that’s followed you throughout your life? Inspired by Sir András Schiff’s well-known love of Bach, I did an informal poll of current students and recent graduates at U-M School of Music, Theater, and Dance. Here are some of their responses:

word cloud of composers mentioned by students

Image: Music that speaks to music students, visualized.

I love anything by Bach – I find it really easy to learn and play. I think very linearly in music and not vertically (harmonically), and Bach’s piano works are typically all about the interplay of lines. — Christina Liu, ’12 M.M. Piano Performance & Chamber Music Performance

marlo williamsThere’s just so much there to work with, and it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. Rachmaninov’s Vocalise is absolutely delicious and different every time depending on the emotional ingredients you put into it. It changes with your life. It’s like magic. — Marlo Williams, ’16 M.M. Double Bass Performance

My favorite composer changes weekly, but one piece I always return to is Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. It’s beautifully quiet, tranquil, and has an element of darkness and sadness that I find incredibly alluring. Although I am no longer a violinist by trade, whenever the chaos gets to me, I always retreat to this work. — Gunnar Foster, ‘15 B.S. Mathematics

emily hoffnerAs a horn player, Mahler never stops speaking to me. There are just so many characters that he allows the horn to be in his symphonies…and so many soulful voices and colors. In 2012 I performed Mahler 7 with USO, and just last week I played it at a festival.  It reminds me of the “good ole days” at Michigan. — ‘14 B.M. French Horn Performance

Appalachian Spring & Beethoven 7. I played these my first year at Interlochen as a high school student. It was the first time I was in a really good orchestra. — Chris Livesay, ‘14 B.M. Instrumental Music Education

kat stiehI initially loved Apocryphal by Vinnie Sperrazza, a New York jazz drummer, because of its use of space and its instrumental effects. I keep returning to it and finding appreciation for it in new ways. — Kat Steih, ’14 B.S. Physics and Performing Arts Technology

The musical Sunday in the Park with George  because Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and music have so much humanity embedded under every choice of note and word. His work opens up all my wounds and heals them at the same time. — Kevin Goldberg, ‘16  B.M. Music Directing and Conducting for Musical Theatre

zoe kumagaiMinuet I in G major from the Cello Suite No 1 by Bach. But I don’t have a very good explanation. It just feels good. — Zoe Kumagai, ‘14 B.M. Double Bass Performance

I’ve always been drawn to Tchaikovsky, and since my voice recently dropped into a proper tenor range, I’m learning Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin (which has always been one of my favorite operas). It’s such a huge joy, and I feel like I really connect with both the subtleties of the characters and the overt romanticism of the music. — Holden Madagame, ‘14 B.M. Vocal Performance

tessa-romanoAnything by Mozart because his coloratura for mezzo is so satisfying to sing. Also, I love the jazz standard called Misty because jazz is something I sing for myself, although I don’t really perform it.  — Tessa Romano, ’15 M.M. Vocal Performance

Brahms Requiem is up there on the list of pieces I could play all day and forever. — Rachel Paxton, ‘16 B.M. Instrumental Music Education

maren laurenceI am always drawn to Debussy’s music; to me, his music is magical. His music has a certain feeling of calmness that transports you into a fantasy. When I play it, I feel a story in everything.  — Maren Laurence, ‘14 B.M. Harp Performance

As far as the tuba goes, I always find myself playing the Arild Plau concerto, which is probably the most beautiful piece we have. It’s incredibly simple and elegant, which is a great contrast to the ponderous and bombastic music tubas so often play. — Mike Frasier, ‘14 B.M. Tuba Performance

libby-seidnerI return to Bach’s Partita for Solo Flute often as a performer because it provides never ending technical challenges, and has renewed meaning for me depending on where I am in my life.  — Libby Seidner, ‘15 B.M. Instrumental Music Education


matt-rynesThe piece I keep returning to is the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen. No other piece walks the line between rapturous beauty and grotesque horror so convincingly. When I first heard the piece a long time ago, I was completely overwhelmed by its scale and sense of euphoria I felt by the finale. — Matt Rynes, ’14 M.M. Clarinet Performance


annika sokolofskyComposers who are awesome again and again: Donnacha Dennehy, Julia Wolfe, Evan Chambers (duh!), Dan Trueman, Alan Bern — Annika Socolofsky, ’14 M.A. Composition



If you’d like to see a musician play one of his all-time favorite composers, stop by one of Sir András Schiff’s three concerts February 16-20. More info at 

So, do you have a piece of music that you love to perform? Is there a composer or band that you just can’t stop listening to? Share below.

Dialogue with Gravity: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Butoh

sankai juku
Photo: A moment from UMUSUNA: Memories Before History, a Butoh-inspired work by the Japanese company Sankai Juku, who perform in Ann Arbor October 23-24, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.

1. ‘Bu’ means ‘to dance’ and ‘toh’ means ‘to stamp the ground.’ (Via)

2. Butoh was originally the name of a ritual dance performed by peasants celebrating the harvest. Stamping the ground would trap a divinity in the ground, which would in turn lead to a good crop. (Via)

3. Art movements are often molded and pushed into being by tragic and disastrous events, and butoh is no exception. Now, the term butoh generally refers to the revolutionary Japanese dance movement spurred by the horrors of World War II.

4. The inventors Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno were looking for a new form of Japanese dance that did not use Western techniques. The first performances of butoh were so wild and provocative that the style and performances were banned. (Via)

5. This butoh has elements of existentialism, surrealism, German expressionism, Japanese kabuki theater, and Eastern spiritual thought. (Via)

6. Some butoh is referred to as a “dance of darkness” and often uses taboo, grotesque subject matter. Other butoh focuses on the more ridiculous and laughable aspects of the human condition. (Via)

sankai juku
Photo: Another moment from UMUSUNA: Memories Before History by Sankai Juku. Photo courtesy of the artist.

7. In addition to gaping mouths and mesmerizingly slow movements, two other signature characteristics of the form are shaved heads and the use of white powder to cover the dancers’ bodies. It’s still hotly contested why these practices originated the form. However, the impact is clear; through hiding dancers’ differentiating features, the attention of the audience is drawn to the dancers’ movements. (Via)

8. Unlike many Western dances, butoh says that the dance is already laying dormant in the dancer’s body as an “inner landscape.” To realize the dance, the dancer has to pull together personal experiences, memories, and habits. As a result, some butoh dances do not involve specific forms and movements as their basic element. (Via)

9. According to Amagatsu, the director of Sankai Juku, butoh represents a “dialogue with gravity.” Most dance forms, on the other hand, “revel in the escape from gravity.” That is, the aim of butoh is to play with perception of time and space through slowing down and synchronizing with gravity.

10. Butoh has already had several different generations of dancers who have made changes to the art form. Because butoh tends to rely on its dancers’ individual bodies, revivals of butoh compositions can be difficult. Sankai Juku is innovative in part because the company standardized repertoire so that movement could be repeated from performance to performance. In the past, butoh works often “lived and died in a single performance.” (Via)

Interested in more? From our archives, backstage with Sankai Juku.

A Taste of Tropicália

Gilberto Gil - 15GG_Jorge_Bispo-1374501843Photo: Brazilian star Gilberto Gil performs at Hill Auditorium on April 4, 2015 at Hill Auditorium. Photo by Jorge Bispo.

The Brazilian Tropicália movement in the late 1960s is perhaps one of the greatest examples of music’s ability to be a powerful purveyor of change. The music created during this short time was a combination of Brazilian and international popular music; there were “mash-ups” of influences as varied as the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix and rhythmic Brazilian dance music like bossa novas or sambas. Many Brazilians saw this new music genre as “an adulteration of Brazil’s musical birthright by an American aesthetic.”

During this experimental, avant-garde period of musical expression, a military dictatorship loomed, ever present. Within a year, the leaders of the movement were imprisoned and then exiled, but they were not silenced, and others stayed and continued to perform their music. Over the course of the movement, the Tropicalistas began to inspire a generation with their exhilarating music as well as their indestructible spirit.

To offer a small taste of the power of the music created during this brief time, we have chosen some songs performed by four of the main players in the movement: Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, and Maria Bethania. Take a listen below!

Gilberto Gil is one of the most talented and prolific of the singer-songwriters to come from Tropicália. He has broached a wide variety of issues in his work; for example, he speaks often about social inequality and the conflict between science and religion. The song “Domingo no Parque” is one of Gil’s most popular songs. It was written in 1968 for his Gilberto Gil (Frevo Rasgado) album. The album is typical of Tropicália in its blending of traditional Brazilian styles with American rock and roll, while also mixing Rogério Duprat’s orchestral arrangements with Os Mutantes (mentioned below). Rolling Stone voted the track “Domingo no Parque” as one of Brazil’s greatest songs. Here it is!

Gilberto Gil performed at Hill Auditorium in 2012 and will return for another performance on April 4, 2015.

Caetano Veloso is another well-known singer and composer from that time period. In his 1968 debut album Caetano Veloso, he included a song titled “Tropicália.” The song got the name because of similarities between its content and that of Hélio Oiticica’s installation art piece. In fact, the song was entirely written before that name was assigned to it, and that name was never even meant to be a permanent title for the piece. The name caught on though, and soon it became a label for the entire movement of Tropicália.

Gal Costa is a female vocalist from the time period, and she worked quite frequently with the the other artists listed here. Her eponymous solo debut album in 1969 was hailed a Tropicália classic and was highly influenced by American psychedelic music. “Baby” was written by Caetano Veloso and performed by Costa. She speaks about how English should be learned in Brazil and mentions several pop references as well. A common trait of Tropicália music is that it mixes popular and traditional culture.

Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista and Sérgio Dias formed Os Mutantes, a popular Brazilian psychedelic rock band that became linked to Tropicália. The band reunited with different members in 2006, and has been touring and recording new material. Os Mutantes, the album released in 1968, includes compositions by both Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Gal Costa has also sung on several of their albums.

Even a brief overview of Tropicália shows that this late 1960s brief period of innovation and excitement has remained popular and produced a huge, lasting change in the Brazilian music scene. Teamwork and collaboration were key during this movement, and it was a time to point out flaws in Brazilian culture while working to create a positive change. The movement also provided inspiration to other artists around the world, such as David Byrne and Paul Simon, and many songs have been written in reaction to Tropicália. Artists active during Tropicália have continued to create music even when they have moved away from the original purposes of the movement, and they and their music have become an ever present part of Brazilian culture.

UMS is excited to bring a taste of one of Tropicália’s iconic members to Ann Arbor on April 4, 2015 at 8 pm in Hill Auditorium. We hope that you will come join us in hearing the astoundingly charismatic and influential music of Gilberto Gil.


  • Cahill, G. (2011, Jun). Tropicalia thunder. Pacific Sun. Retrieved April 8, 2014, from
  • Os Mutantes. (n.d.). NPR. Retrieved April 8, 2014, from
  • The Best Tropicalia Albums: Sounds and Colours. (n.d.).The Best Tropicalia Albums: Sounds and Colours. Retrieved April 8, 2014, from
  • Tropicalia. (n.d.). PBS. Retrieved April 7, 2014, from

Qawwali: More Familiar Than You Think

by Cynthia Sciberras

Photo: Asif Ali Khan Qawwali Music of Pakistan ensemble. They perform in Ann Arbor on March 21st, 2014. Photo by Cynthia Sciberras.

Qawwali is a kind of Sufi devotional music that is popular in South Asia, especially in parts of Pakistan and India. It has existed for at least 700 years. Although it is often referred to as a meditative and trance-inducing music, qawwali can be equally fast-paced and rapturous. The main themes of qawwali are love, devotion and longing for the Divine.

Listeners acquainted with North Indian classical music or the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey may hear something familiar. Although there are obvious differences, in many ways qawwali is comparable to North Indian classical music, Hindustani raga. India and Pakistan, as well as many other areas in South Asia share similar aspects of music due to shared history and similar instruments such as the harmonium and tabla. In both Hindustani classical music and qawwali, group performances are the norm; however, in qawwali, there is often a lead singer and a chorus that claps with the percussion during the pieces. In both kinds of music, one will usually hear each song progress through a slow introductory alap followed by a quicker development. Another similarity is the extensive vocal improvisation featured in both.

Concert duration will be another familiar feature where listeners can compare Hindustani classical music and qawwali music. Especially in contrast to music in the Western world, the length of time spent on each piece, as well as the concert’s total length will normally continue much longer than the duration expectations for usual concerts heard in the United States. Part of the reason for this length is that there are many different kinds of pieces that traditionally make up qawwali. Another reason is that the words are repeated with variations in order to bring out deeper meanings, as well as to lead the listener and performer into a trance, hal, which would then lead to spiritual enlightenment, fana.

Below are 5 different kinds of qawwali songs that you might hear with examples you might listen to.

1. A hamd is a song praising Allah. Traditionally, this is a piece used to begin a qawwali performance. An example is “Be Parwah de Naal Newn laa lia,” sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

2. A naat is a song praising the Prophet Muhammad, which usually follows the opening hamd. Asif Ali Khan can be heard here singing “Madine ke Waali Madine Bulalo.”

3. The next song to be sung would be a manqabat, which either praises Imam Ali or one of the Sufi saints. For an example, listen to Rafiq Dildar sing “Ali Ali Maula.”

4. A genre of song sung less often is the marsiya which is a lamentation over the death Imam Husayn’s family during the Battle of Karbala. Below, you can listen to an example, “Hussain Hai,” sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

5. One last major type of qawwali should be mentioned. A ghazal is a love song, and while the poetry’s meaning is spiritual, the lyrics often sound quite secular to an outsider. Many ghazals speak of the suffering of being separated from the one you love. Here is a recording of Abida Parveen, a female Pakistani vocalist, singing “Yaar Ko Hamne Ja Ba Ja Dekha.” It is important to note that in general, women do not sing qawwali, and even when the songs are sung, women sing in a different style than the men, as can be heard in this recording.

After listening to some of these pieces, it is impossible not to appreciate the entrancing quality of this music with its winding melodies and expansive qualities. Come listen to more on Friday, March 21st at 8 pm at Rackham Auditorium! The Asif Ali Khan Qawwali Music of Pakistan ensemble will be performing more beautiful, rousing music. While you’re there, see if you can pick out what kind of song is being sung!


  • Abbas, S. B. (2007). Risky knowledge in risky times: Political discourses of qawwali and sufiana-kalam in Pakistan-Indian Sufism.The Muslim World, 97(4), 626-639.
  • Farida, Syeda. (2012). Whirling Dervishes, soulful qawwali. The Hindu.
  • Huda, Q. (2007). Memory, performance, and poetic peacemaking in qawwali. The Muslim World, 97(4), 678-700.
  • Kugle, S. (2007). Qawwali between written poem and sung lyric, or… how a ghazal lives. The Muslim World, 97(4), 571-610.
  • Tanzeel, u. R. (2013, Sep 03). Qawwali: Sufi devotional music. The Financial Daily.
  • Qureshi, R. B. (1981). Qawwali: Sound, context and meaning in Indo-Muslim Sufi music. (Order No. 8217377, University of Alberta (Canada)). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 513-513 p.

Artist Interview: Cuban Pianist Alfredo Rodríguez

Photo: Alfredo Rodríguez. Photo by Anna Webber.

Alfredo Rodríguez is a Cuban pianist and composer. He was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1985. With a well-known Cuban singer as his father, it is no wonder that he has been surrounded by music his entire life. He started studying at the Manuel Saumell Cuban Conservatory at the age of 7, and has been playing and creating music ever since.

Alfredo spent some time talking with us about his experiences in Cuba and in the United States, his thoughts about a musician’s life, and his upcoming work. He’ll perform in Ann Arbor on March 14, 2014 as part of a unique double-bill with Pedrito Martinez Group.

Annick Odom: We know that you’ve played in Ann Arbor and Detroit before, but we’re really excited to have you playing for the first time with UMS in March. Your work draws on jazz and Cuban music traditions. How do you balance these in your own music?

Alfredo Rodríguez: Well, I started as a part of his [my father’s] band when I was very young, about 13. We used to play popular music, music from the traditions of Cuba and his compositions as well. I combined that kind of performing, that kind of ambiance, with the classical school.

In Cuban music, there is a lot of improvisation, but I didn’t know much about improvisation in classical music at that time. My uncle gave me an album called The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett [the legendary jazz pianist], and that got me into improvisation.

I was used to Cuban traditional music and classical composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, and also to Latin composers. After that CD though, I found the music of many of the pioneers of the be-bop era, a lot of different musicians, mostly from the United States. I was falling in love with the way those composers and instruments created music.

AO: We presented Keith Jarrett in 2000! What exactly about that recording drew you in so much? What made you so excited about improvisation?

AR: Well, my uncle gave me that CD with an idea in mind, because he was not very involved in piano music. He gave me that CD because he knew that I was very into that world. But I wasn’t expecting anything it. I just put it on. It was a great introduction for me because Keith Jarrett had that touch and that knowledge about classical music, and he shows a lot of those influences in his playing. It was a good introduction for me to improvisation and jazz music, too, of course.

AO: You said that you played a lot with your father while growing up and that you played a lot of popular music in Cuba. How would you say that you’ve individualized yourself from previous generations of musicians from Cuba?

AR: I guess I would say that [the musicians in my generation] are changing every day. We have different experiences every day. [My generation] grew up in a different situation than the generations before us in Cuba. We had different problems, different ways of living, [different] points of view. And of course those differences are the reasons that music changes too.

What I like to do with my music is to just express the present, just express how I am feeling, what I am going through in that exact moment. I guess what I am trying to say is that everybody always has something to say, and it is always different for everybody. And that kind of honesty is what I look for in terms of music, and in terms of living my life.

So it’s very simple for me, I just try to express who I am when I play my music and compose. I try and show my [Cuban] roots and also the transculturation that I have been living since I have been here in the United States.

AO: Do you find yourself playing any differently since you moved to the US or do you play pretty similarly to when you lived in Cuba?

AR: No, I’ve definitely changed. The United States is a different country with different culture, which has been a very positive process for me in terms of learning.

[Cuba] is an island, and due to the country’s political history we have been only around Cubans for more than 50 years. The culture that we have been creating for so many years is very unique and powerful because we are surrounded by Cubans, but at the same time, it’s contradictory because we haven’t had the opportunity to have confrontation and transculturation with different cultures.

I wanted to know different cultures and meet different people with different points of view so that I could incorporate all of that into myself and reflect it in my music.

AO: Let’s talk about your upcoming concert here in Ann Arbor. Who will be coming with you? What will you perform? Can you also talk a little bit about your upcoming album?

AR: Actually I am releasing my next album The Invasion Parade on March 4th, which is going to be very, very close to the concert [in Ann Arbor on March 14]. I am going to be featuring the same trio that I had for my album at the concert. We are featuring different artists, but the main trio that I perform with is Peter Slavov, a Bulgarian bass player, and Henry Cole, a drummer from Puerto Rico.

We are going to be performing the music on this upcoming album as well as music from the past. But to be honest, music is very natural and spontaneous for us, so we just like to play songs that will fit in the moment that we are living.

It’s difficult to say exactly what songs we’ll play or even what the music is going to sound like. I guess what I mean to say is that we have the message that we want to tell people: 70% of my music is improvisation, and the other part is rhythm. So it’s kind of unexpected, and in that way, we learn more from ourselves.

AO: You’re sharing the bill with Pedrito Martinez. Have you ever played with him before?

AR: It’s very funny because Pedrito is part of my album [The Invasion Parade], too. I love his playing! Pedrito is one of the musicians coming out of Cuba that I admire so much because of his incorporation of our culture into his vocals and percussion. And speaking of my album, it also features Esperenza Spalding, and horn players from Cuba and Puerto Rico. But yeah, speaking of Pedrito, we have a really, really close relationship in both in terms of music and friendship.

AO: It seems that you are already thinking a lot about the upcoming months, but where do you see your music going even further into the future?

AR: That is a good question. To be honest, I don’t think too much about the future. What I can share with you is something that I’ve been working on since the past, until today, which is creating music.

I am also currently writing a lot of music for the symphony. The premiere of my first symphonic work will be this year in November, and I will be performing one of my compositions with an orchestra at the Barcelona Jazz Festival. And I’m working on new music for my trio and my upcoming CDs.

I do it [compose music] because I just need it. It’s like water for me. If I am inspired, I write something. I’m just composing music, doing what I like to do. I feel very fortunate about that because I just have the opportunity to live from what I love to do, and I am very grateful for that.

Interested in more? Check out Alfredo’s new album or get tickets to his performance with Pedrito Martinez Group in Ann Arbor on March 14, 2014.

The Power of Music in Mali


Photo: Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba. They perform in Ann Arbor on February 7, 2014. Photo by Jens Schwarz.

Music is culture and therefore it is a medium for social and political change. It is a potent organizational tool, one that can be used as a rallying cry to action or as a soothing message that brings hope to those struck by disaster. As a music student here at the University of Michigan, I have taken an American musicology class that focused in part on music’s ability to bring people together in various circumstances. Music helps listeners focus on what a better future will be like, but it also evokes what disaster and war can destroy. It is a strong reminder of the best and worst that humans can do to each other. In this class, examples of the power of music here in the U.S. were countless. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in 1939 borrows its words from Abel Meeropol’s poem which uses symbolism to speak about racism and lynching. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” is a veiled political message that champions socialism in the 1940s. Bob Dylan’s “The Times they are a-Changin” in 1964 and “We Shall Overcome,” both became calls to action for the Civil Rights Movement.

The upcoming UMS concert “One Night in Bamako,” performed by two Malian musicians, made me wonder what musicians in Mali had to say about their country. How are these musicians sharing their culture with the rest of the world through music, and what are they critical of in their country? Given that the political unrest and tensions between different ethnic groups in Mali persist, even after a fragile peace has been restored, I wanted to find out what musicians had to say about events in their war-stricken country. I wanted to see what musicians had to say about the events in the last two years. During the al-Qaeda’s takeover of northern Mali, a very extreme version of sharia, the religious laws and morals of Islam, was instituted. This forced many rules upon unwilling citizens and dire punishments were handed out when the rules were not followed. Drinking and smoking were forbidden, all women were required to cover their heads, and any secular music was banned. Instruments were smashed and confiscated, and musicians were threatened with beatings and mutilations if they continued making music.

Music during violence

Mali music is internationally known for its diverse traditions and talented musicians. The country is even cited as creating some of the first music to inspire the blues. Music is part of many daily rituals in Mali, and praised singers and musical storytellers known as griots sing at birth ceremonies, weddings, and funerals. They do much more than entertain, however; they are the oral historians who know the local legends and family stories, and they are charged with passing them down to the following generation. Yacouba Sissoko, a well-known Malian griot says that the griot is a “person who creates cohesion between people, a kind of cement in Malian society.” The importance and ubiquity of music in Mali’s everyday life meant that the loss of music was especially difficult for the community. Even for musicians in southern Mali, the ban was crippling; many music festivals are held in the North, and if musicians had family in the North, they were worried that performing would put them in danger.

Despite the banning of music, many musicians worked tirelessly during the turmoil to bring hope to the people of northern Mali, and to bring the attention of other countries to Mali. In many ways , instead of silencing Mali, the ban seems only to have fortified music’s power to reunite and restore the country. Rapper Amkoullel was writing songs even before the coup brought problems in Mali to the world’s attention. His song “S.O.S.” talks about the dire situation in Mali and the tension between multiple cultural groups there. After the outbreak of violence, he and many other musicians came together to create the song “Tous UN pour le Mali”, which calls for international assistance to be given to Mali. Even after an unstable ceasefire was reached, he wrote “Vote!” to remind Malians of the importance of their voice in the election. Oumou Sangare put out “La Paix Au Mali” early in the conflict, promoting unity and order. Bassekou Kouyate, the ngoni player and bandleader who is coming to Ann Arbor in several weeks, released “Jama ko” which asked for harmony and tolerance during the crisis. In a particularly well-known responses to the violence, singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara gathered a large group of Malian musicians, including Vieux Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, and Toumani Diabaté to record a song entitled “Mali-ko” calling for peace.


Music festivals also worked together to keep Malian music alive and in the news. Two of the best known and most highly ranked music festivals in Africa, Festival au Desert and Festival sur le Niger, were disrupted during the struggles in Mali. Festival au Desert was forced to cancel and move its location from Timbuktu, even for its upcoming 2014 edition, due to security issues. For the 2013 and now the 2014 festivals, the festival has been renamed “Le Festival au Desert in Exile”, and organizers have created various caravans of artists who will travel internationally until they are able to return to Mali. Festival sur le Niger, due to its Southern location, has been able to hold its festival this year and invited Festival au Desert to have a performance there as well. These two festivals have been a way to continue sharing Malian culture with the rest of the world, provide income for Malian musicians, and bring happiness and hope to Malian citizens.

It’s not only musicians working through song that are working to create change in Mali; international organizations and individuals are also stepping in. In July 2012, Oxfam International, a confederation working against poverty, backed a performance in Bamako entitled “Mali Music Unplugged” bringing attention to the crisis in Mali. More recently, Malian Music in Exile is received funding for They Will Have To Kill Us First, a documentary about how musicians lived during the ban on music, featuring musicians such as Fatoumata Diawara and Bassekou Kouyate.

Return of Music to Mali?

The fight for music in Mali is not over yet. Many musicians are still in exile, frightened by the violence, and have been slow to return to music-making in Mali. Arab and Tuareg musicians, both ethnic groups which have been strongly linked to the Islamist rebels, are concerned about retaliations and punishment by other civilians as well as the Malian Army. In addition, due to a renewed countrywide state of emergency, gatherings of more than 70 people are still banned, making live performance of music difficult.

According to Rokia Traore, a Malian musician who was recently interviewed by PBS, artists want to show that despite the wars and poverty portrayed in the media to Western countries, there is more. She points out that there is a normal life for people living in Mali, filled with joyful things, and that people do not see themselves as victims. She also says that music will start again, and that more songs have been written about what has happened in Mali, than would have if there had not been so much fighting. “You cannot stop that in a whole country,” she says, “especially one like Mali.”

Fatoumata Diawara and Bassekou Kouyate &Ngoni Ba perform in Ann Arbor on Friday, February 7, 2014. Both artists have both been outspoken in their music about their desire for peace in Mali.

Interested in hearing more music? Listen to this Spotify playlist (via The Guardian).

Did you know? The Manganiyar Seduction


Photo: The Manganiyar Seduction on stage.

The Manganiyar Seduction has been described as “Equal parts rock concert, global music performance, and dazzling theatrical experience.” Director Roysten Abel experimented boldly with the Manganiyars, desert musicians from Rajasthan, to create a dazzling union between the Manganiyars’ music and the visual seduction of Amsterdam’s Red Light District.

The performances on October 26-27, 2013 kick off University of Michigan “India in the World” theme semester. 

Did you know that…

1. The word Manganiyar can be translated to mean ‘those who ask for alms.’ This is because on various religious and social occasions the musicians go to patrons’ houses and perform. In turn, they are rewarded with such items as grain, animals, or cash. (via)

2. The kamaycha is an indigenous instrument of Rajasthan and is also one of the rarest instruments found in India. It is a bowed string instrument, which is often made of mango wood and covered with goat skin. (via

3. The music played by the Manganiyars is a mix of Pakistani and classical Hindustani traditions. Many of their ragas are based on Hindustani ragas, while their text is based on Sindhi surs, poetic texts associated with Pakistani music. (via)

4. A game called Kakadi was often played by Manganiyars at patron family gatherings in the past. In this game, the musician uses the ragas to lead the patron to a hidden object. The six ragas considered indigenous to the Manganiyars correspond to the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west, as well as up and down. The game is becoming less common as musical expertise among patrons decreases, but historically at least one member of the family has been taught how to play the game. (via)

Have you ever attended a global music performance? What got you interested in attending? Share your experiences below.