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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Part 1: How is gender reflected in “new music” and classical music?
What is “new music?” Why do most orchestras and chamber groups play such a small percentage of it? Why is there so little diversity in the identities of the composers we perform?
Before I was part of UMS’s Marketing Team, I studied double bass and clarinet at the University of Michigan. Most days, I toed the line, practicing standard repertoire to prepare for auditions. While doing so, I realized that every composer I learned about was dead. Every composer was a man. Every composer was white. Every composer was from Europe. Once in a while, I would play something not on the standard audition list! I’d play something new — and by that I mean, written after the 1950’s. Even then, most of the composers I come across were white men from Europe or the United States.
I wanted to find out about other women’s experiences at the University of Michigan, so I asked several recent graduates and current students to share their thoughts about diversity in the arts, and about performing, creating, and listening to new music.
Annika Socolofsky, vocalist, fiddler, and composer
What makes music “old” or “new?”
I think there’s often this dichotomy created around the concept of “old” and “new” music. But in reality, time is continuous–there is no old and new, there’s just music. And I think that maintaining that notion of a dichotomy only hurts music. It says, “These old guys are from another world, another time,” and it simultaneously says, “This new music is different. It doesn’t have melodies, harmonies, or meter in the styles that I am used to.” Of course there is no point in time that labels something old and something else new. Often times Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky are presented as “new music,” but Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is over a century old! Why is it being presented as new? Is it because it’s dissonant? Decidedly non-romantic?
I think the music being created today is more diverse and genre-obliterating than ever before. It’s a really exciting time to be creating because we are not bound to the notion of harmony or melody or rhythm in the way that composers once were.
Noniko Hsu, flutist
Do you have a preference for “old” or “new” music?
I think that for performers and audience members alike, playing old and new music is equally important. I’m always excited to play music that is inspiring, tells the audience a story, and means something to me on a personal level. In the end, both new and classical music were created by composers to inspire people through all ages. The problem I see with the lack of diversity in the identities of composers we perform is that we mistake what the listeners really want. People go to a concert for an experience; it can be comforting, challenging, or moving, and how we achieve that as performers can vary. We sometimes mistakenly think that we can easily satisfy music listeners by playing them music they already know and love. This can be true in some ways, but if we can start from the point of view of storytelling, we will have a more colorful palette to play with in terms of which composers we choose!
Mackenzie Sato, percussionist and teacher
What is the role of a K-12 teacher in presenting a broad range of pieces to their classes?
As a band and orchestra teacher, repertoire is really the cornerstone of my performance curriculum. However, only recently have I become comfortable breaking away from the classical music “canon” and teaching music that incorporates not only new, 20th century composers, but also late classical composers of color and female composers.
I think that composing music is a kind of culmination of experience, so to introduce new experiences to my classroom allows my students to ask questions we may not otherwise cover. For example, when one student pointed out that we only played one piece by a female composer that year, she asked why we didn’t play more pieces composed by women. I asked her to name 3 famous women composers. Not surprisingly, she couldn’t. This opened a long conversation about the different kinds of expectations, opportunity, and identity validity society has for men and women, for whites and people of color.
So after a little research, my students found that as time has moved forward, more identities–more experiences–have appeared in the compositions in recent years. Do they like all of their pieces? No, not necessarily (20th century music has allowed us to talk about the trajectory of music theory and history quite nicely). But, as they are all students of color, they’re interested, because music is starting to welcome other identities besides white men. They begin to see themselves in the music in a different way. And that certainly doesn’t mean that we don’t love to listen to Bach or Brahms or Wagner, but it does allow some the perspective to enjoy different kinds of music, which is really all I can hope for as a teacher.
Pavitra Ramachandran, vocalist
Can you share a moment when you learned something new about “new music?”
I used to be incredibly hesitant about performing new music. I always thought new music was mostly atonal, and I am someone who loves a melodic framework that a composer expands upon. However, when I heard Songs from Letters by Libby Larson, I was awestruck. The work may be atonal, but the modal structure of the piece evoked a nostalgic expression and such intense emotion. As described by the title, in this work Larson borrowed text from letters written by Calamity Jane, a cowgirl from the Wild West who was separated from her daughter. These letters were composed to connect with her daughter and retell her life story. I sang this piece at my graduate recital and worked very hard to embody her powerful struggle. The response was overwhelming. My advice to those wary of new music is: “You never know until you try.”
As a woman of color, how do you reconcile that a majority of the music you perform is created by European men?
Sometimes I actually like music from the canon a bit more than contemporary music. Brahms, Mahler, Verdi, and French impressionism speak to me, emotionally, in a way much modern music doesn’t. The leading role of melody and harmony — as opposed to story painting, sound effects. or dissonance — connects to things I feel but don’t know how to say.
When they were composing, many of these composers were writing about very serious life issues: death, exile, political extremism. Their works were positive outlets for the frustration, anger, and depression of ignored, marginalized, and persecuted community members. Their experiences parallel the highly polarized political and cultural situation I find myself living in today.
By participating in the classical music scene, I am actively rejecting and disproving the notion that classical music is “white people music;” my participation says “I am here,” and it demands the kind of social responsibility and diversity outreach that other institutions have been working on for far longer than mainstream classical music has. If I’m not in the audience, the music school, or the sheet music store then they don’t have to worry about who is on their stage, faculty, or shelves. Who else will call on them to address the absence of people who look like me?
Tsukumo Niwa, oboist
Why do you want to play new compositions or styles of performance?
Composers tell narratives through their music which performers interpret and retell. As someone who engages in social justice work as well as classical music, I always struggle with the reality that almost all of the main ‘narratives’ for my instrument are provided by dead white European men. Even though I appreciate the beauty of their music, I also find myself not wanting to recreate the stories of eurocentrism and (cis)sexism which are already too ubiquitous in our daily lives. That’s why I want to perform new compositions, and learn new styles of performance. I want to tell my own stories and enhance the stories of others who are often silenced or ignored.