flags against the sky
Lift Every Orchestral Voice
Image: Marco Bianchetti

Lift Every Orchestral Voice

[Ed. Note: When the American Composers Orchestra (ACO) announced its 2018-19 season last month, music critic Alex Ross immediately noticed that the repertoire for the orchestra’s concerts at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall was written exclusively by living female composers except for one lone piece by the late Morton Feldman. Since then, Ross’s tweet about it was retweeted 40 times. Granted it is only two concerts, but it was a welcome piece of news, especially after several major American orchestras had announced 2018-19 seasons that did not include a single work by a female composer. Thankfully, the season announcements by the Seattle Symphony and the Los Angeles and New York philharmonics that soon followed proved to be more equitable. Still, all these announcements drove home the message that the orchestra world has a long way to go to achieve real diversity, not just in terms of having a better gender balance, but also in terms of racial, generational, geographic, and stylistic equity. Composer Derek Bermel, who is currently ACO’s artistic director, has long been an articulate advocate for more pluralistic musical aesthetics and the ACO has a 40+ year track record for advocating for offering performance opportunities to an extremely broad range of composers. Given his stance and his position, we thought that Bermel would have some interesting insights into how orchestras could make their programming more diverse.—FJO]

An intro

“One day I’ll jump. Out of my skin. I’ll shake the sky like a hundred violins.” – Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

The American Composers Orchestra’s next season of concerts at Carnegie Hall has attracted some attention because most of the composers represented are women. The truth is that we just programmed good music, and most of the composers turned out to be female. It’s not that we didn’t notice, but we didn’t sound the trumpets. ACO has a long history of programming works composed by women—well over two hundred in 40 years—so statistically next season is not such an anomaly. The mission of our orchestra frees us to dream, because we’re not required to program the “canon.” And our vision statement includes a commitment to the three Ds, “diversity, disruption and discovery,” which all point toward wider gender representation.

As a white, male composer, it’s not without trepidation that I grapple with the topic of diversity in the orchestral world; my demographic cohorts have been the main beneficiaries of the status quo since the first dissonances clanged forth. But access is a subject about which I care deeply, and my position at ACO gives me a glimpse into a quite conservative world, albeit at an institution that tries to work against the grain. So this essay is written in the spirit of shedding light on the murky process of programming and how it might be reoriented to serve shared values. I hope that these thoughts, rather than attempting to signify some kind of “woke” status, can help stimulate more discussion, within our field and beyond.

There but for the grace of God go I

Diversity has been a defining feature of American identity since the country’s inception.

The word diversity gets bandied around a lot, and in today’s ultra-partisan environment it has incurred political baggage. But the etymological root, the Latin diversus or “difference,” is a perfect fit for creative artists, who tend to depart from the norm (usually to a high degree)! For me the word resonates most brilliantly in the broadest possible context: referring to artistic imperatives—including style, process, technique, and genre—but also to personal attributes like gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, age, and geographic distribution. Diversity has been a defining feature of American identity since the country’s inception, interwoven with our history and our sociology, and I am convinced that it’s the source of our strength.

My dad was a European Jew who lived through World War II, and my mom was born in New York City during the Great Depression. Both my parents were raised by single mothers. My brother and I had a childhood that was less scrappy, but our upbringing was shaped by an outlook that nothing could be taken for granted. We were lucky to grow up in a community of peers hailing from a multitude of cultural backgrounds, in an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect. There certainly were challenges, and I saw the ugliness of bigotry and racism up-close, but it was always clear to me that achieving and sustaining diversity was possible with dialogue and persistence.

Around the time I attended college, I began to notice and understand more about privilege. At the time I didn’t use that term, but it’s the best word to describe the entitlement that I encountered, in even mundane interactions. At first I saw privilege uniquely as a consequence of wealth, only later recognizing that it also encompassed other qualities, some of which I possessed by virtue of simply being me.

It’s very human to perceive our lack as opposed to our luck.

The tricky thing about privilege is that there’s always someone at whom we can point who seems to be more privileged than we are. And it’s very human to perceive our lack as opposed to our luck, so we may easily believe that we’re not the fortunate ones. All this is to say that I miss the diverse and tolerant community from which I emerged, and I am aware that rediscovering that sensibility is partly my own responsibility. Therefore I seek to apply it in music, feeling strongly that the best of human experience is not found in sameness.

No country for new music

Since the 20th century, one aspect of American orchestral programming has been pretty consistent: living composers are sidelined. Less new music begets less diversity on all levels. This truth is painfully self-evident at orchestral concerts, especially with respect to equity and inclusion (also variety of musical style, but that would require a whole separate discussion!). Even when contemporary music does appear on a program, the percentages of work by women and composers of color are infinitesimal.

Living composers are sidelined.

I’ve spoken to several artistic administrators and conductors who insist that their audiences aren’t asking for more of the new; their internal research shows that their audience wants to hear what they already know. When I hear that argument, I think, “Well, of course! Audiences haven’t experienced what they don’t know, so how could they possibly be clamoring for it?” One of the responsibilities of curators is to introduce the public to work they didn’t know existed or to help bring it into being. Five years ago, how many regular music theater patrons were yearning to see a hip-hop musical? We all know that answer: very, very few. Today it’s impossible to get tickets for Hamilton. Some of that audience is coming from outside the typical music theater audience; all the better!

Much frustration is being vented at larger classical music institutions, whose very traditional programs are coming under increased scrutiny from the press and on social media. Some foundations and philanthropists are also showing signs of restlessness, especially in light of declining attendance. In response, within artistic and executive management there has been a great deal of discussion about the canon, and what steps orchestras might take to imagine a new, more inclusive repertoire as a path toward achieving longevity. Many are actively seeking solutions to the lack of ethnic and gender diversity as it relates to both performers and repertoire.

Large institutions can take years to change direction, however, and for change to be lasting it must be embraced by the board and identified in the organization’s mission statement. Then a process has to be created to achieve those objectives. Some non-profit entities have developed clear language to help bring their mission in line with the kind of inclusive world they would like to see.

Embedding a composer

I’ve noticed that the relatively small step of embedding a composer in the administration not only helps the organization to address the “canon” issue, it can also lay the groundwork for solving questions of relevance in the community. A case in point is the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where longstanding curatorial and advisory relationships with living composers have helped the orchestra stay vibrant in its programming. Next season’s impressive centennial commissions feature a diverse mix of old and new voices; rather than marginalizing or apologizing for the presence of contemporary composers, it boldly highlights living music. This would likely never have happened without a tradition that included the composer-advisor as an essential component in the organization; and while this decision may alienate a few audience members, it encourages the rest to enjoy new perspectives. The LA Phil’s mission, after all, is “to perform, present, and promote music in its varied forms at the highest level of excellence to a diverse and large audience.”

Embedding a composer in the administration lays the groundwork for solving questions of relevance.

A peek at the Seattle Symphony’s next season demonstrates a similar commitment to a diverse range of composers, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age, country of origin, and style. It’s probably not a coincidence that this orchestra also enjoys a long history of working with composers-in-residence; the most recent is Alexandra Gardner. Other smaller orchestras—Albany, Alabama, Princeton, to name a few—perform a healthy percentage of new work in their seasons. And, as a bonus, commissioning diverse, contemporary composers renders the orchestras immediately more attractive to foundations, government, and potential new audience members.

I often reflect on the fact that 90 years ago orchestras were all-male, in response to which concerted efforts were made to open up access to women. The Sphinx Organization is attempting to offer equality of opportunity to two of the most underrepresented groups in America—African-American and Latinx musicians. Why not strive for similar access among composers? Let’s not kid ourselves; in America, white men are less than a third of the citizenry. Within a population of more than 100 million Asians, Latinx, African-Americans, and Native Americans, the country is merely facing a crisis of vision and will.

In America, white men are less than a third of the citizenry.

It’s precisely for this reason that affirmative action came into being. ACO’s President Ed Yim articulated it this way: “The goal is to make the pool of opportunities bigger so that gender and ethnic parity does not mean fewer slots for anyone. Quality and parity are not opposing forces.” In our field, this necessitates a fresh approach to artistic planning: a commitment to listen to a great deal of music that may be unfamiliar and to investigate new pathways to find that music. It demands a deeper engagement than simply programming what a few powerful publishers, public relations firms, or journalists promote.

Nevertheless, they persist…

Every month multiple articles dramatically sound the death-knell of either orchestral music or classical music in general. Yet composers blithely or wantonly continue to ignore these dire pronouncements, producing more orchestral music than ever. Each year ACO receives hundreds of scores for the Underwood New Music Readings as well as the Earshot Network Readings hosted at orchestras across the country, and that’s one way we learn about the multitude of emerging voices. Some of our mentors and advisors have also helped establish major programming initiatives, including themes centered on diversity. As an example: about 20 years ago ACO decided that it needed to do more for Latinx composers and launched Sonidos de las Américas, delving into Latin American orchestral music by focusing on a different region each year. It was composer and conductor Tania León who navigated the orchestra through six seasons of existing revolutionary repertoire as well as commissions from composers from Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico—some from a concert music tradition, some fluent in Latin music, jazz, and other genres.

A second example: When I became involved with the orchestra, we were in the early stages of formulating the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. Composers from a background in jazz (and other Afrological musics)—with profound and distinctive sensibilities in harmony, counterpoint, texture, rhythm, and form—were largely missing from American concert music in general, and notably from symphonic music. Composer and musicologist George Lewis helped conceive of and foster the program we continue today, mentoring jazz composers and facilitating readings and performances of their orchestral work. These programs are just the tip of the iceberg, both designed with an eye toward more inclusion, equity, and diversity of creative voices.

Living composers also help unlock America’s multifaceted musical past.

Living composers also help unlock America’s multifaceted musical past. Wynton Marsalis has championed and promoted Duke Ellington’s entire catalog, including many lesser-known compositions. Trevor Weston created a critical edition of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement from surviving manuscripts. Mary Lane Leach painstakingly gathered and documented Julius Eastman’s scattered catalog. The quartet of Marylou Williams, T.J. Anderson, Gunther Schuller, and William Bolcom were integral in bringing Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha to life.

A catalyst for change

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” –Mahatma Gandhi

Of course not everything that ACO commissions and performs will become part of the “canon” of the future. But over 40 years, a legacy of commissioning—more than 350 works by a diverse range of composers—has added substantially to the repertoire. And more recently we have partnered with the League of American Orchestras and the Toulmin Foundation to commission women composers. In this way we hope to be a catalyst for change. ACO is currently loading all our past concerts and readings onto a database accessible from our site, another resource for interested parties.

In the present day, our most profound contribution may be as a prototype. Many forward-looking conductors and orchestra administrators seek advice from us on a regular basis: Whom might they commission? Could we help them design an American music festival? How can they host a reading for young composers, local composers, composer/performers, African-American composers, electronic-music composers, LGBTQ composers, jazz composers, film composers, women composers, and so on?

And of course beyond ACO a whole host of other institutions can help in this quest: orchestras devoted to new repertoire, such as BMOP and the Chicago Composers Orchestra; service institutions for contemporary music, such as ASCAP, BMI, the League of American Orchestras, the American Composers Forum, Composers Now, and New Music USA; university archives like Yale’s Oral History of American Music (OHAM) assembled by the visionary Vivian Perlis, the Latin American Music Center at Indiana University founded by Juan Orrego-Salas, or the recently unveiled Women Composers Database compiled by Rob Deemer at SUNY Fredonia.  This list just scratches the surface.

Bird’s eye view

We composers are not alone. There are similar systemic imbalances present in other performing arts organizations and in the pipelines to these organizations. In music education, huge gulfs exist in access to quality instruction, role models, instruments, and resources; these deficits dramatically skew the pool of creators, performers, and administrators who emerge. In any comprehensive discussion of marginalization and access, involving the next generation’s widest possible pool is a vital component.

“Stay hopeful and do uncomfortable things.”

Those who truly love discovering new orchestral voices may find the task invigorating and rejuvenating. I once attended a lecture by the public interest lawyer and justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, who defends many death row inmates. He advised people in the audience to “stay hopeful and do uncomfortable things.” I found that statement to be oddly comforting and inspiring as a way to move forward in society to effect positive change. It’s also a powerful motto for making art.

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Composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel has been widely hailed for his creativity, theatricality, and virtuosity.  Artistic Director of the American Composers Orchestra, Bermel is also curator of the Gamper Festival at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, Director of Copland House’s emerging composers institute Cultivate, and recently enjoyed a four-year tenure as artist-in-residence at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton. Bermel has become recognized as a dynamic and unconventional curator of concert series that spotlight the composer as performer, including ACO’s SONIC Festival. Alongside his international studies of ethnomusicology... Read more »


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