Things I Compose With and About: triads and politics

Title option B:

Making Space in New Music


In an earlier draft my reasoning for utilizing triads and politics was at the root of this blog post. In the end, the intention shifted, and the more important conversation pieces came to be about the overt and hidden ways in which music, new and old, and those who participate in the field, are exerting pressures that limit the work, particularly on the level of student and emerging composers, rather than stretching it.

A couple of years ago I read an article by a female composer who had hesitations about writing music that set herself up to be labeled “one of those composers” by her colleagues even though what she was writing was important to her and her compositional voice. I remember pumping my fists in the air when I read that sentence because I too felt like I was being labeled by my colleagues for some part of my identity that existed outside of whatever box I happened to be teetering on the edge of at the time (mostly this is the box of composing in academia, which is, in itself, a problematic thing… more on that later). I read it at a time where I was hanging out in the box, but smashed into the corner, pressed on the edges as tightly as I could with elevated heart rate and afraid of anyone who came over into my general vicinity. I was writing the music I thought I should write because I was in the place that I was, aiming for the degree that I was, and my colleagues were writing that kind of music. I wasn’t happy; I was just trying to fit in.

Continue reading Things I Compose With and About: triads and politics

Black Sheep in New Music: Writing for the non-professional choral ensemble (and how Caroline Shaw can teach us how to make it cool!)

One of the great things about my new employment is that cool people visit Harvard to meet other cool people, and sometimes I get looped into those meetings. Earlier this week I met with a conductor/composer from Finland and we talked about a number of things, one of which was something that preoccupies my composer- and educator-brain most days: there seems to be a divide, a significant abyss, even, between perceived value of music written for professional and non-professional ensembles, as well as an equally disturbing chasm surrounding music written for choirs and non-choral music. (Note: non-choral music often includes music that involves singers or small (read: 8 or fewer voices) vocal ensembles… “choirs” in the way that I am using it here means mixed voice ensembles of 20+ singers not directly attached to a symphony orchestra or an opera company.)

Colleagues have told me they’ve turned down opportunities to write for amateur ensembles because they didn’t want to compromise their compositional voice. Commissions I receive from amateur ensembles somehow don’t carry the same prestige amongst my peers as the ones that come from professional groups. As a composer who gravitates toward music for the voice with a particular investment in writing music for young musicians that challenges their musical ability and senses of aesthetics, but is also accessible to their skill level and stage of development, these  separations in the field are frustrating.

Frustrating is the least polarizing and most controlled word I could think of here. It’s not the first word I chose.

Continue reading Black Sheep in New Music: Writing for the non-professional choral ensemble (and how Caroline Shaw can teach us how to make it cool!)

“Die Stille Lotosblume” and a Confident Failure to Resolve

Today in class I offered as a side note that I thought it would be a great and fun challenge to teach a whole theory course (or music course of some kind) with only the music of Hamilton as my source material. I tossed it out as an aside and then began to think about it; could I really make it happen with #TheRoomWhereItHappened? (Answer: yes, I think I can.) But the point of the pivot to this blog post is that the repertoire I use to teach my courses is very important to me. Further, the process by which I choose the repertoire to show my students certain things about music is very important to me. I try hard to both appeal to their interests and expand their horizons. I aim to actively integrate the work of female composers into my syllabi, and because of this, I spend some time getting to know better the work of composers I don’t know much about.

I was never the person that thought women just weren’t writing good music during the same time periods that we were looking at the work of men, but I also couldn’t understand why we weren’t looking at works by women then; if they were there, why weren’t  they famous, why weren’t they cited beyond a sidecar-reference to their composer husbands? If it was just as good, why shouldn’t we look at these works? Enter: me. One of my professional goals is to expose my students to work outside of the canon of “Dead White European Guys,” and I am working to do this every single day I am in a classroom. Choosing repertoire is one of my favorite things in planning classes because it really is the point at which I have the most freedom; as long as the example proves the theorem, then I should be able to use whatever I want to teach them a topic or an idea, right? Right.

In planning and teaching the classes that I am this semester, I have found more work by composers whose names I knew but not the repertoire beyond the one or two pieces that everyone knows. I love the suspended tension and lack of resolution in Clara Schumann’s (1819-1896) “Die Stille Lotosblume,” her patience and confidence in opening the Lied with a single pair of chords, neither of which are in the tonic A flat (see below). We don’t hit the tonic in the vocal line until halfway through the second phrase (not pictured). It’s as if the line is hovering above the piano, like the two are magnets with the same poles facing one another.

Continue reading “Die Stille Lotosblume” and a Confident Failure to Resolve

Four-letter words

As much as it’s not talked about, just like our secret love for Kelly Clarkson or yacht rock, nepotism plays a huge role in the music industry. A lot of where we get in this field depends on the recognition of our names, and who brings our names into the conversation. This post is not about nepotism, but it is about who you know and how they shape you.

I have been fortunate to work with some pretty fancy music people, but one of my favorite fancy people to talk with about tough ideas is my friend Hailey. Hailey is fancy for a number of reasons; she earned a silver medal in the Paralympics at Rio last year: she survived cancer when she was in middle school. She’s also fancy because she’s 26 and already so self-aware, so well-adjusted, and so generous, well beyond her years. She is smart and witty and one of the hardest workers I know. She is gracious and relentless. We try to have dinner together once a month or so, depending on our schedules, and a few days ago we had our penultimate dinner together in Chicago as I’ll be moving to Cambridge, MA next week.

Our conversation topics are hugely varied, often talking about training (Hailey as a triathlete, me as a very amateur endurance runner), trusting our minds and our bodies, family, relationships, self-esteem, and of course, food. This week, four-letter words came up.

Continue reading Four-letter words

Artists are like goldfish: when we get a bigger space, our art spreads out.

I am just a few days into a two-week residency at the Hambidge Center in Rabun Gap, GA, and I have taken over the generously-sized walls of my studio and am imagining all of my work in as big a picture as I can. Sketches and ideas and notes are pinned to walls, a lengthy to-do list is on the white board, and the baby grand piano sits in the middle of the room, always ready for me to play. I have always laid my work out on the floor at points during the composing process to see the whole thing (or at least larger parts) at once, but it is quite something to be able to sketch standing up, then take two steps back, and look at the zoomed out idea of what I’m working with. I caught a rare moment of internet here and wanted to get this post up, but I’ll try and share pictures when I’m back in the plugged in world so you can see just how big the goldfish bowl is while I’m here.

The center started off as the Jay Hambidge School of Dynamic Symmetry and Weaving (circa 1941), and was developed and run by Mary Crovatt Hambidge (1885-1973). There’s a documentary coming out this year that goes into the history of how the space went from what it was then to what it is now, and I’m sure that will be much more clear than I could explain. (You can also read Hambidge’s on-line history here.)

As the residency stands now, Hambidge is working to support a diverse group of artists at a variety of career stages, and to give them the space, privacy, and environment they need to work on their art for 2-4 weeks in the non-winter months. For these two weeks, I am sharing 600 acres of land with nine other artists: poets, a fiction writer, a fiber artist, ceramicist, book artist, installation artist, and sculptor. We each have our own cabin that includes a studio space and a separate living space, and we come together for dinner on weeknights and share a delicious vegetarian meal together. While I am here, I’ll be finishing up a commission for Red Star Brass (also please consider donating to their GoFundMe fundraiser so they can attend the residency where they are premiering my work!), and starting into a new large-scale work for Pierrot ensemble (including singer!) that incorporates a poem by Mary Colborne-Veel called “Song of the Trees.”

Last night after dinner, we were invited by Jamie (Hambidge director extraordinaire) up to Mary Hambidge’s cabin for a little history and conversation. Beside the fact that the craftsmanship of the space is amazing (I am my father’s daughter), it was great to learn more about this woman who, in the middle of the 20th century, was paving the way for artists like me to be able to have a quiet, insulated (from the outside world) space to practice our art, to get better, to focus, and to learn. Things I learned: Mary was a very accomplished whistler in 1911, during a time when women did not, under normal circumstances, whistle, especially not in public (scandalous!). She traveled to Greece to learn about Greek weaving and fiber arts practices, as well as Dynamic Symmetry, and brought those skills back to the States where she held classes and workshops to teach other women these techniques. The women worked in Rabun County to supply a store that Mary opened called “Weavers of Rabun” on Madison Avenue in New York City. Basically, she was fancy and a badass, and made a lot of opportunities available to a lot of people who needed it.

After Mary passed away in 1973, Eliot Wigginton wrote a beautiful tribute to Ms. Hambidge in Foxfire magazine (Vol. 7, No. 3), a publication that was born out of time spent here on the grounds, though I’m not sure which came first: the magazine or Foxfire cabin, just up the hill from my studio. Jamie shared the edition with us last night and after reading the first paragraph, I asked to borrow it and take some time to look through Wigginton’s writing about Mary and to read through some of their correspondence. Here is that opening paragraph:

“Mary Crovatt Hambidge has died. The date is not important for she was not a woman bound by dates. Most never knew her age. It would have been easy to find it out, but in reference to her, all those earthly tags seemed somehow unimportant. It was as if she had always been here and always would be, despite the outward signs of decay – signs which only somehow added to the feeling of permanence that surrounded her.”

This woman clearly left her legacy in this space, but also on the people who spent time here with her. Her biography and work constantly leans into her work with others and in advocacy of the work of others, in promoting and supporting artists who, like many of us, depend on a community to grow and create. It seems like Mary is woven into the earth here, like she touched every tree and appreciated each one.

Last month I wrote about wanting to engage more with badass repertoire by equally badass female composers. Coming here to Hambidge has also introduced to me other female artists (as well as a few men), both the women with which I share a meal each night, and also Mary Hambidge, who purchased this land and fostered this community beginning after her husband passed away; she did it all on her own, except for some financial support she received from a female opera singer. She advocated for art and the artist’s process in a time when the industrial revolution was exerting extreme pressure on society. She promoted craftsmanship and skills executed with one’s hands rather than a machine. She appreciated and understood the importance of communing with, respecting, and preserving our natural surroundings. She fostered a community among artists, writers, and even scientists, that allowed each to work in isolation and also feed off of one another’s energy; today, Hambidge fellows balance and see all of Mary’s hard work in the way our own experience unfolds during our time here.

In a letter to Wittington dated 4/28/63, Mary writes:  “The keynote here is work, work together, not just be patronized by a rich person. My plan for this is different and has to be, as I am not rich and don’t believe in the thing just supported, but built up through work and human endeavor…. My idea, perhaps, is something on the order of cooperation but I dislike the word, as it’s too Latin! The Greek word symbiosis is better, Life together, not just work.”

There are so many ways in which we can advocate for women and the work of women, and so many examples of women in history who have pushed back against expectations and generalizations of their gender. Mary Hambidge is one of those women, and for her I am grateful. This Foxfire edition has given me a lot to think about in the greater scope of work, cooperation, art, advocacy, and process. At dinner tonight, we were talking about why we do what we do, and a poet made the statement that she wrote poetry to push on the edges of our insides and our feelings. Meeting my fellow fellows (hah!) and learning about the woman who made this opportunity for us has, even in these short few days, challenged me to push on the edges of my work and life. More on that later…




“…because the first rule of the boys’ club is don’t talk about the boys’ club.”

“Dues to the boys’ club cost how much? They cost sex. They cost sex in the sense that one sex can pay those dues and the other cannot. They cost sex in the sense that although the club exists either in that literal space of smoke-filled back rooms or in that theoretical space of women’s real and deserved anger at their lot, the benefits of membership are immeasurable. At a certain point—and I’ve reached that point a number of times —it feels counterproductive to complain about the boys’ club. If you want to be theoretical about it, create new structures of power and influence. If you want to be fun about it, go out for coffee with your girlfriends more often. But at other points it is absolutely necessary to address the issue, because the first rule of the boys’ club is don’t talk about the boys’ club. If the boys club is normative, then not only are women in power abnormal and exceptional, but the unfairness of that situation is also normative. And no amount of coffee will fix that.”
– Alice Boone, “Trilling Is Thrilling, But…A Columbia professor emerita discusses the boys’ club in academia.” Columbia Daily Spectator, Volume CXXVI, Number 50, 15 April 2002

I was recently at a conference that set music in conversation with issues in anthropology and sociology. In the first days of the meeting, I spent my time and attention trying to read and understand from my colleagues where they were coming from and how their work could widen the scope of my research, and also how I could offer to the game; how did my research and work play into the bigger conversations and zoomed out ideas that were being generated at the conference?

However, on the third day, I began to notice the natural grouping of the participants, and a particular group rose to the surface of my view. Continue reading “…because the first rule of the boys’ club is don’t talk about the boys’ club.”

Toward a timbral analysis: Looking at letters and register in “We Are Her”

I’ve been fortunate enough in the past few weeks to get asked some pretty tough questions about my work and my goals in the future. For a long time, my “one goal” was to get a PhD (you can read an abbreviated version of this story in my blog post from last month). When I got hooded, literally walking to the car after I got my hood and diploma (and removing it all immediately because it was June and the room where the ceremony was old (read: not air conditioned)), I thought to myself, “okay, PhD achievement: unlocked. What’s next?” This had been my big goal for so long and I didn’t know what was next.

Over the summer and now for the past year, I’ve realized that the next goal is “get a job.” In many ways, it’s always been that, but the extended goal was “get a PhD so you can get a job teaching people and help them become super smart thinkers and musicians.” These questions that I’ve faced in the past month or so have been a great way to think about to what this piece of paper now makes me qualified to contribute to the field of music, to scholarly research, and also to my students. It has helped me put into words my goals as an educator and scholar and musician. And now, I’m sharing some of the things that have come out of that, here.

Last week, I was talking about a piece that I wrote, “And it was Quiet,” and one of the things I was emphasizing as an element that I was particularly proud of was my efficiency of material; pitch language, rhythmic structure, harmonic language, percussion instrumentation (it’s really easy to choose them ALL, even when you only have one percussionist available!), and extended timbral techniques. These elements are all things that I have talked about in my analyses before, except the last one. And then I got to thinking: what are the variables that have come up in the development of the composition of new music in the 21st century that we can analyze that we aren’t yet regularly looping into our discussions and analyses?

Continue reading Toward a timbral analysis: Looking at letters and register in “We Are Her”

A Composer in Academia: the slippery slopes of interdisciplinarity

Shortly after I decided to become a composer (the summer I went to the Boston University Tanglewood Institute in 2002), I decided I also wanted a PhD in composition so that I could teach college students how to compose. Apparently, academia is the thing I have wanted to be a part of for a long time. Now that I’m in it, I see that composers who, at their base, are practice-based in their work, are often situated in a department amongst research-focused fields. Alternatively, composers can hang in performance-based institutions as well, but then are still set as an outlier as their role of “making music” is distinctly different from the musicians who are studying in or teaching performance (both good! Just different). There has been a recent trend in an emphasis on the interdisciplinarity of the profiles of new hires at schools, but I’ve found that as much as schools and departments of music are aiming to embrace the interdisciplinarian, they are also seeking someone who is an expert in their field. How do we as scholars do (and promote for our students) both?

Continue reading A Composer in Academia: the slippery slopes of interdisciplinarity

A composer’s identity, a composer’s voice: figuring mine out (this year)

Last fall I was commissioned to write a set of three Latvian songs for the Heritage Chorale in Oak Park, IL. When these pieces were first premiered, James Kallembach, the director of the Heritage Chorale, asked if he could interview me before each concert and talk a bit about where the new music came from me, both personally and musically. This is a program addition that I absolutely LOVE to be a part of and I think it should happen every single time a piece of new music is programmed, especially for a concert with an audience that might be unfamiliar with the aesthetic, or if the new work is particularly relevant to the other repertoire on the program. It also is a great opportunity to show an audience that there are real, living, breathing, working composers out there still creating things, and that many of us aren’t white dudes with powdered wigs anymore. This blog post is a teasing out of material from that interview, and will work through clips from that weekend in November 2016, as I put into context how I navigate my identity as a composer through the lenses of my personal as well as my professional heritage.

Continue reading A composer’s identity, a composer’s voice: figuring mine out (this year)

Responding to Mozart; “Residual Abridgment” for String Quartet

I am in San Antonio for the long weekend because musicians of the San Antonio Symphony are premiering a piece of mine, “Residual Abridgment” on Sunday as part of their Mozart in the Cathedral series (which is part of their larger Mozart Festival). I was approached for this project in hopes that I would write a response piece to Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet, also known as the Quartet in C major, K. 465 (to listen to a recording, YouTube offers plenty; here’s one). I said yes before I had even considered what it meant to write a response piece, but honestly, it’s not like I would have said no, anyway. And now, I’m so glad I did! The project gave me an opportunity to really sink into a Mozart quartet, and also give some serious thought to what it means to write a response piece.

Response pieces have been around for what feels like as long as people have been composing. It started off as imitation and homage, where composers would quote themes, reference motives, and pay their respects so to speak, to their colleagues and mentors. As music progressed and evolved and became more complicated, composers started hiding their nods deeper within textures and orchestration. It became a game to find Easter eggs of the past in Mahler or to find Mahler in Stravinsky.

The opening twenty-two bars of the piece are, without a doubt, weird for 1785.

Continue reading Responding to Mozart; “Residual Abridgment” for String Quartet