Some Thoughts on the New Music World, After Trump

I have something to say, and I don’t want to make it seem like I’m attacking any particular individual directly for how they are choosing to cope with Trump’s victory. I’m wanting to talk more about my community, the new music community and, perhaps in passing, the wider classical music world in the United States.
(Also, these are ideas that I have been thinking about for a while, but they are not fully formed. I do feel like, if we start to reassess our assumptions about how we approach our lives in the United States as we gird ourselves to oppose Trump, we might as well start reassessing our own musical community, too. So please feel free to respond, but remember that I am sharing this, not telling you what is absolutely right or wrong, and that I welcome and value your own views.)
I have seen several people post about how they are responding to the Trump election by getting back, with even more intensity and passion, to their art. I admire this, but I felt like I did not share that drive, despite music composition and performance being the center of my entire life. I wondered why that was, and why certain people were saying it and not others.
And I realized, based admittedly only on my own facebook feed, that every single person who posted about returning to music as a way forward was already firmly situated in a financial place (career) that gave them stability that will last, probably through even some of the worst possible scenarios Trump and the republicans can throw at us. I wondered if that stability was part of why they could so easily turn to musicking as solace.
For myself, I am applying for academic positions, but I know I am one among hundreds for each position, and the blind luck needed to get past the first round is never in my favor, nor in anyone else’s. I was already feeling some anxiety about that before the election, but now that feeling has been greatly amplified.
In my case, my “plan B,” which sometimes I even thought about just making my “plan A,” was to move to a city like Portland and restart my freelance career, teaching, accompanying, doing odd jobs, etc. It worked very well for me in Madison for two years.
Of course, this plan B relies heavily on something like Obamacare being around. Hence, my anxiety and dread have been mounting tremendously since Trump and the republicans won.
Enough about me. What we saw in this election was a majority of people vote for Clinton, and yet the system led to Trump winning. And, despite the very evenly divided country, our winner-take-all system is putting Trump and republicans in firm power.
What other system has a winner-take-all approach? That’s right, the new music world. Ours is also a star-system that only has empty lip-service to diversity. What we all desperately hope for, secretly or not, is that we, ourselves, will be the next star in the winner-take-all system. Winner-take-all star-systems will never be diverse, because all the available resources remain concentrated in the hands of those who are the stars, and those who choose the new stars (aka, the old stars). This would be true, under the current winner-take-all system, even if all the winners were to become non-cis-male and non-white, simply because there would be way too few stars who would have won. Diversity is not just representation, but also inclusion, and too many people of all kinds are shut out in a winner-take-all star-system.
Although often sour grapes, the winner-take-all star-system also is very vulnerable to the following complaint: the winners are not the best musicians or artists, but are rather the most charismatic speakers or the most fun to have a beer with or the people who can best manipulate others into getting what they want. The winner-take-all star-system is a source of resistance to our art mattering, because it leaves open the possibility that the best, most important art (which would, likely, matter the most) is being suppressed by a system that rewards things other than the best art. Again, this view is highly subjective, but it is there, even if it seems vanishing – perhaps because those who are left out, who’d likely say these things, simply leave our community entirely after leaving academia and not finding success.
Does this remind us of anything?
What connections underlie me comparing the new music world and the world of American politics? First, that people win for the wrong reasons, and those who are worthy are left out. Second, that diversity is used as a talking point and rallying cry rather than something that is genuinely worked towards. Third, that we have no basis for feeling confident in the assertion that what we do matters, and that this lack of basis is prior to any issues of whether the broader public would like or appreciate our music or not – it is due to an internal (and I would say unjust) contradiction that we perpetuate: that no one wants to change the system because too many of us hope to win within the system.
What we need to fight for, the way to improve diversity and purpose in our field, is to find ways to provide adequate resources to any who want them. We need to banish from our discourse the idea that tonal neo-Romantic music or serial music are “irrelevant,” or that performance-art-like works involving wigs and hacked Atari circuit boards are “relevant.” Everybody who wants to be a composer or musician should be able to, and we need to stop rationalizing that some music is “better,” or “more urgent,” or “more necessary” than others and work towards supporting everyone’s music. If a person wants to compose what they want to compose, that is their musicality and creativity in action, and whatever comes out is their expression, and that makes it relevant, whether it adheres to traditions of experimentalism, avant-garde-ism, or conservative musical ideals, or anything else.
The truth is that, much like there are different USA’s in the United States, there are different New Musics inside of American new music, and within American new music we are as divided as the country is divided at large (something I became acutely aware of when I attended the College Music Society national conference in late October). But, if instead we push to find funding and support for EVERYONE, rather than those in our “camp,” we would actually start moving towards a truly diverse and inclusive new music scene.
Why address THIS now? I agree that this may seem irrelevant compared to many other grave issues facing us now, but I would argue that we should not forget about the role of art in American society. Our largest source of funding – universities – will undoubtedly come under a multi-pronged attack under Trump and the republicans. We need to be ready to defend, with full voices and ardent hearts, why we continue to deserve support. It is the larger capitalist framework that shapes our basic world-views that makes us think that commodities are more fundamentally important than frivolous things like “music.” We need to be ready to defend our system of support, and that may well best be done if we re-examine this system first.
Also, almost everyone who is (still) reading this knows that unequal wealth distribution is at the heart of the true engine that drove Trump voters to the polls. We all say this situation is real and needs to be fixed, but Trump voters didn’t listen to us. Perhaps because we don’t practice what we preach, and perhaps because we do not even know how to achieve what we believe to be necessary. Maybe reassessing our own community will make us able to reach out and earn the trust and ears of Trump supporters, because in fixing ourselves we may learn how we can fix the larger world.

Invitation to Noon at Dusk, a chamber opera

Come see the chamber opera that I wrote with Yi Hong Sim, premiering at the University of California, San Diego this May 11th, 13th, and 14th, all at 7 PM! Noon at Dusk was our first collaboration, and we look forward to many more. Yi Hong wrote a wonderfully expressive and poetic libretto that channels emotions of great power through her words. It was the perfect libretto for our first project together!

For a taste of the music, please check out the Prelude to Noon at Dusk here:


And read our program notes for the opera here:

Note on Steve and Yi Hong’s collaboration:

The idea for the libretto of Noon at Dusk came about when we disagreed on the significance of Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. In the novel, a man’s brain has been technologically bifurcated to allow him to function as a secure human computer, processing large quantities of data in one part of his brain while keeping the data contents hidden from his consciousness. However, the technology is gradually killing him, and the novel takes extended trips into the man’s tormented mind. There, in a strangely mythical setting, a faceless human shadow embodies the man’s consciousness and willpower while the body to whom the shadow belongs retains only the man’s physical solidity in torpid, unthinking form.

Steve was intrigued by this bifurcation of a person into active shadow and inert body, and envisioned an abstract operatic plot built around interactions between shadows and bodies. Yi Hong, on the other hand, had recently been swept away by the poeticism of Karl Marx’s “Estranged Labor,” and could not help but read the shadow/body storyline as a tragic commentary on the man’s alienation of a vital humanity within himself when he sacrificed part of his mind to an employment opportunity. The libretto plot that we conceived together combines elements of both our readings. In Noon at Dusk, Annelise and Eliot are confronted by a seductive alien power that both stems from their own participation in the working world and also has a much larger life of its own. This power manifests differently through each of the characters in the opera, as well as through the abstraction of the shadow. The not-quite-parallelism of Annelise and Eliot’s decisions and their respective relationships with Daniela and Lisha is inspired by the mirrored plotlines of Hard-Boiled Wonderland’s shadow/body world and its protagonist’s actual life, where both the shadow and the man were, to the last, hopeful of gaining a soulmate.

Steve’s program note:

Noon at Dusk combines two historical strands of opera that are often thought to be at odds—bel canto opera, which above all else makes the singers’ voices the main event; and Wagnerian music dramas, which set aside formal conventions in opera in favor of an organic musical development that is, ideally, more psychologically realistic than earlier operas (including bel canto). From my 21st-century perspective, it makes the most sense to embrace both of these operatic ideals. My opera does focus on the voices, first and foremost, but it also allows its musical structure to develop naturally with the narrative of the libretto. I am hardly the first composer to have realized these two approaches can be mutually beneficial—Pelléas et Mélisandre and Wozzeck, among many other 20th-century operas, do this (in their own fashion).

By featuring the voices of the singers as the most important element, I also helped myself overcome another major hurdle: how would I make my modern atonal musical language express the full range of emotions required, from contented happiness and positive sensuality to quirky dread to mounting anxiety to heightened sadness? The exact manner in which the voices sing the libretto’s moving words was key. I often found myself experiencing the very feelings the characters were as I imagined the best pitches, the best rhythms for them to sing. In support of the vocal lines, I allowed myself a very free hand in writing accompanying harmonies and textures—there was no system that locked me into a specific, narrow range of choices. And yet the music of the opera feels unified, nothing intruding from another, alien universe. All along I asked myself only what the opera needed at each point, and how to improve what was there. It took the complete range of my imagination and technique to do so, and yet the process felt invigorating rather than draining. Despite its tragic nature, I hope Noon at Dusk leaves you with a similar feeling as well.

Yi Hong’s program note:

My crafting of the libretto was informed by my experiences singing and composing music for both prose and poetry. Vaughan Williams’ “Valiant-for-Truth,” a setting of Bunyan’s allegorical novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, inspired much of the prose dialogue in the libretto. Eliot’s final aria, also the final scene of the opera, takes the form of a Spenserian sonnet. Most importantly, I cast three poems by nineteenth-century English poet, Christina Rossetti, as the emotional centerpieces of three different scenes in the opera. A book of Rossetti’s poems was the muse I used to get myself writing each day. In the end, I found some of her poems so pitch-perfect, so lovely and touching in their simplicity and lyricism, that I decided to build particular scenes around them. That Rossetti’s poetry at times explored love for women made her work especially appealing to me for scenes between Annelise and Daniela. Her verse had the uncanny quality of sounding both modern and antique at once, which suited the nature of the social and personal dilemmas facing the two couples in our opera.

Who narrates in music?

Is it the job of the composer to decide that one’s music is narrative, non-narrative, or subverts narrative? Or is that entirely out of the composer’s control? Is it in fact the job of the listener to hear narrative, not hear narrative, or hear a subversion of narrative? If it is both, are there any aspects that are always controlled by the composer? Or can willful listening remove any authority from the composer?

jarred, part two

Today I want to pick up where I left off yesterday. I began my reflection/analysis of jarred from the beginning of the piece, working my way through bar 48. This was the first large section ofjarred.

What follows after the fermata in bar 48 is really a development section. At the time, I believed that I was writing many short phrases in a row, but there is too much continuity between them for true independence. Continue reading

jarred, part one

jarred, first measurejarred was the first piece I composed in my masters degree program at UCSD. It was written during the first-year composition seminar 203A, with Roger Reynolds as the primary instructor (Rand Steiger came in for the last class that quarter, but the piece was mostly done by that point). Continue reading

Self-analysis project

In January next year I will be taking my qualifying exams for the PhD in composition. This involves five faculty members, three from music and two from elsewhere, who will give me three questions to write responses to. After two weeks of writing, I will have an oral defense of my answers with the committee.

One of my topics is a self-analysis of my work as a composer. This is a rather daunting task, as I have many works that I would still consider to be important to me. Continue reading

Schoenberg’s 1st Chamber Symphony

I am, admittedly, a complexity junkie. While I can find enjoyment in simplicity, especially in visual arts, I typically like complicated plots, inconsistent (or, in my take, realistic) characters, profound or difficult ideas, and chaotic jumbles. While I enjoy stand-up comics, I love Arrested Development or a movie like M.A.S.H., in which you can finish watching it and feel like you have only grazed the surface of the work. My previous composition teacher, Roger Reynolds, would describe this as something like the “palpability of multiple dimensionalities.” I would tend to use a simpler word: depth. Continue reading