Brian Current, June 6 2018
It is little known internationally, and insufficiently domestically, that at least 1200 Indigenous women have disappeared and are presumed murdered in Canada since 1980. This is a national crisis that (non-Indigenous) Canadians are just beginning to wake up to and is especially galling considering that we continuously celebrate our tradition of fostering human rights and social justice abroad.
Indigenous Canadians have of course known about these crimes all along. They have historically had an unspeakably difficult time in Canada, from outright genocide during colonial years, to an abhorrent state-sanctioned residential school system of forced separation from family, language and culture (and where many died – many of these schools had graveyards), to forced adoptions during the 1960s, to forced sterilization, to today where many Indigenous families are currently living in extremely difficult conditions with high rates of suicide and addiction.
And since 1980, 1200 Indigenous women have gone missing and are presumed murdered. 1200. Imagine if 1200 white women vanished from Ottawa or Portland or Victoria or Adelaide, there would be major international outcry. Racism has certainly played a role in Canada’s national silence, even complicity, regarding these missing women and girls, and the number of missing is surely much higher than the 1200 reported. Activists put it at more than 4000.
It is not something that happened in the past. During just the time I was working on the opera, four Indigenous women were murdered in Winnipeg and two went missing in Ontario north of Toronto.
In 2016, City Opera Vancouver and Pacific Opera Victoria got in touch to ask if I would consider auditioning as a composer for a project they were developing about the Missing Women. This meant that I would set a scene for their jury, who would not know who the composers were. At the time, I had heard of the missing Indigenous women, but it was simply a headline. Like nearly every other non-Indigenous Canadian, I would sigh and simply turn the page. Fortunately, the jury chose my submission, and this started a sequence of events that opened my eyes to Canada’s murderously unjust treatment of its Indigenous people. Throughout the process of writing the opera, I felt a sense of being awakened to an urgent crisis right in our back yard. I still think about these crimes often, and post, and vote based on it. I hope that anyone in Canada’s larger cities and abroad who sees and hears this opera will have a similar eye-opening experience.
The libretto was written by the astoundingly gifted Indigenous playwright and filmmaker Marie Clements. It is beautifully authentic and wonderfully musical. You can check out her important work here. She has said that it was important to work with a composer who is not Indigenous, as the story is about the coming together of Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds. Throughout, it was a priority for me that I did not ‘manhandle’ the libretto in any way, as was the composer’s traditional inclination in the past, but rather to provide a platform for or amplification of her story. The producers were sensitive to this as well: four out of the seven cast members were of Indigenous background, as was half of the designers and crew. Everyone immediately understood the sense of mission surrounding this piece and got to work.
Right from the beginning, it was tremendously important that all materials relating to Indigenous language and culture were treated with absolute sensitivity. I was grateful that our producers began the entire process, before one word or note was written, by consulting widely within the Indigenous community in Vancouver. At every workshop, presentation or large meeting, there were Indigenous land acknowledgements, cedar brushing and smudging ceremonies, all of which were new to me, and all of which I became more and more grateful to be part of. I can only hope that these ceremonies provided even a small amount of comfort to the communities affected by the tragedy.
There are roughly 60 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada and they are as different from one another as Finnish is from Japanese. About a 3rd of the opera is sung in Gitsxan, the language spoken by the Indigenous community up the West Coast of British Columbia. This is the region of the so-called Highway of Tears, where many of the women were kidnapped and where much of the opera takes place. My hero of the project must certainly be Vince Gogag, who provided the translation and pronunciation of the Gitsxan, as well as advised on cultural protocols related to the Gitsxan community. Gitsxan is a wonderfully beautiful language, with popping high consonants and vowels made completely of air sounds. It was a real pleasure to take recordings of Vince speaking in his first language and spend several weeks painstakingly transcribing them into musical notation. Melodies and rhythms were created to preserve Vince’s speech patterns. Also, there is a wedding scene sung in Gitsxan where we asked Vince if he might find a traditional wedding song from his community. He believes that these have now been lost, but he was kind enough to share with me a recording of his grandfather singing traditional Gitsxan songs, which I spent a great deal of time with, and felt like I got to know his grandfather a little bit. With Vince’s kind permission, the melodies of these folksongs were used as the melodic structure of the wedding scene in the opera, with the rhythms of the language informing the rhythms of the music.
Vince was also open about granting permission for other Gitsxan protocols, such as the use of Indigenous drumming. This was something that I was quite nervous about. As a non-Indigenous composer, it presented a minefield of potential appropriation, which would be yet again another instance of a white man stealing something from the Indigenous community. After much questioning of Vince, I was convinced that it would not be insulting to have an Indigenous cast member playing a frame drum on stage and that Gitsxan drum protocols allowed for this.
One of the workshops took place at the Native Education College in Vancouver, where we presented early scenes of the piece to a college-aged Indigenous audience. These included scenes that incorporated Indigenous drumming. Following the workshop we asked for feedback. Again, I was anxious about being inadvertently offensive, but the feedback we received from the Indigenous audience was (of course it was) very thoughtful and insightful. The students said that they found the drumming to be comforting and a positive intersection between operatic culture and Indigenous culture. This gave me some courage that we were on the right track.
Missing is not a work of fiction. It is a tragedy that is not fiction and it is a nightmare that is not fiction. Native women really have been, as Marie’s libretto states, the victims of “fists and hammers, screwdrivers and knives”, and “cut up and fed to pigs” and, outrageously, “carved up for the courts of law, so you can see better”. Can you believe that for the first time in Canada body parts of murdered women were brought into a courtroom as evidence? All of this combined with scenes like one of a young woman crying for her mother while being stalked in the woods, or the Native Mother weeping for her lost daughter, wore heavily on the creators, cast and crew, necessitating breaks and counselling throughout rehearsals. Most importantly, the premiere performance was a closed-door presentation only for the families of the victims, with no tickets or press. This was the most important and intense of all the performances. Their feedback was nothing short of heartbreaking.
Thank you for reading through this post, as it hopefully means that you are now slightly more attuned to the tragedy of the Canada’s Missing and Murdered Women. I hope that you will learn more about the issue, vote based on it and help ensure that laws are strengthened so that these women are protected and that it never happens again. You can donate to the Native Women’s Association of Canada at:
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There’s nothing quite like sitting through a rehearsal of your new work. Many readers of New Music Box will know this feeling. You are simultaneously evaluating the piece, assessing the performance, and keeping a mental tally of things you need to tell the musicians. I know people who have purposely worn dark colors to rehearsals because of the secret world of sweating that happens with a new work.
From the other side, as a conductor, I’ve learned over the years that each composer’s demeanour in rehearsals is unique. In the same way that everyone writes music differently, each composer has his or her own style of collaborating. Some want to play a very active role and some like to sit at the back and give an occasional thumbs up. Many of you are black belts at this, but for those composers just starting out here are some tips for having excellent collaborative skills in rehearsal.
I’m sure that you do this anyway, but when in doubt about how to behave in the rehearsal room (or in meetings or when drafting emails, for that matter), always default to professionalism.
Your score and parts will represent you a hundred times more than anything you do in rehearsal. Make sure that your score and parts correspond in all aspects to this MOLA document. It’s a compilation of what orchestra librarians across North America have agreed is the best way to present your music. Following these guidelines is how you will avoid glimpsing voodoo dolls of yourself with pins in them on the musicians’ stands.
Speak the language of music when providing feedback. I’ve found that many composers want to poetically convey the feeling of a passage when it would be better to give musical details. For example: “pianissimo instead of mezzo piano at measure forty eight.” Talk in terms of dynamics, articulations, tempos, sul pont vs sul tasto, accidentals, and so on. Speaking poetically about the piece as a whole is a great inspirational strategy, but in fixing individual moments, try to offer the musical specifics.
Don’t be embarrassed about changing dynamics. There have been premieres where we changed nearly every dynamic in the piece during rehearsals. If you need to fix things because you are hearing it in the hall for the first time, don’t be afraid to do it either on the spot or by providing a concise list by the next rehearsal.
Be authentic. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s O.K. to say you need to think about it.
Keep an eye on the clock when providing feedback. Your conductor has calculated the rehearsal time down to the nanosecond. Listen for cues from him or her as to how long you have to talk. It’s rarely enough time to say everything you would like to, so you often need to prioritize on the spot.
Roll with it. Sometimes musicians joke around a bit in rehearsals, especially if it’s been a tough week. Don’t take it as an affront to your music. I promise they are taking it seriously. They know it’s their responsibility to play every premiere as though it’s the greatest piece ever written. Based on my experience, on the night of the show, they’ll knock it out of the park.
Learn to conduct. I often hear from older composers (older than I!) that one of the things they regret is not learning how to conduct when they were younger. If you are in a composition program and there is a conducting program at your school, try to take some of those classes. It’s difficult to find conducting opportunities once you are out of school. The thing about conducting is that you have to want to do it and to make it happen on your own. And like anything really hard, it takes about ten years to learn how to do it properly, so starting early is a good thing. However, once you have a reputation for being able to competently conduct your own pieces, it’s a great way to eliminate the middle man and give feedback about your music directly to the players.
And last but not least, remember that your reputation will precede you. Always speak well of your colleagues, even when they are not there. When one composer is celebrated, don’t let jealousy cloud the accomplishment. It’s good for everyone as it brings more attention and opportunities to the community as a whole. New music is the little guy and we are all in this together, so be sure to support your colleagues whenever you can.
By Brian Current
Over the years I have learned the importance of being able to speak to general audiences. It doesn’t matter if you are presenting your own work or if you are a director of an ensemble or a passionate board member of a new music organization. New audiences can only benefit from getting to know you and your vision of the music. In words, not just notes. Starting the music from beautiful silence is all well and good for a concert in our music departments or for audiences used to contemporary works, but I’m talking here about presenting to groups where most instrumental music is a discovery, especially anything after Britten or Shostakovich. This kind of audience won’t find you, you have to find them. I believe that by skillfully connecting new listeners to contemporary music, we can bring more challenging works to a much wider audience without sacrificing a single note of music.
HOW TO BE
The best communicators are doing one of two things. They are either communicating their ideas or they are making it safe to communicate.
1. Make it safe.
You are the host, so you are in charge of making the audience feel comfortable. I’m often surprised by how after a concert people will come up and make a point of saying “when you explained the music, it was totally non-patronizing” as if they were expecting it to be snobby. For some reason people have in their minds that classical music audiences wear monocles and fur coats. Maybe we’ve all seen too many ‘80s videos of electric guitarists bursting through walls to the outrage of the classical music people on the other side. Either way, for our purposes, making it safe means going way out of our way to check any sense of entitlement at the door.
Remember that colleague during your grad program with the I’m-More-Modernist-Than-You attitude? Not that you would, but be sure you are not channelling that person in any way.
Or, if you have composers in the audience there to cheer you on and feel pressured to use an academic tone to impress them, don’t do that either. They’ll understand that you are reaching out to curious folks who are discovering this music, maybe their music, for the first time.
Instead, be two things: enthusiastic and genuine. If you are enthusiastic and genuine, you will have them, and they’ll hang on your every word.
2. Memorize bullet points.
Here’s a secret: when you have seen those seemingly amazing people who speak to audiences as if it’s off the top of their heads, it’s not off the top of their heads. They’ve memorized the bullet points of their ideas. It’s easy and you can do it too. Before each show I’ll write down something like:
Hello and welcome
Challenging (Beethoven’s time etc.)
Introduce composer X
The day or so before, I might mentally practice going from one idea to the next. While you are up there and the public speaking headspace kicks in, these bullet points become a lifeline and you always know what you will be speaking about next.
3. Memorize your first sentence.
You’ll be nervous when you first start to talk. Then after a few seconds you’ll relax and understand that it’s all going to be okay and you will actually start having fun. Until that point you want to be fully scripted.
Speaking of being nervous: if you pretend not to be nervous, they will never know that you are. (Friendly tip: whatever you do, don’t say that you’re nervous. Believe me: it does not make the awkwardness go away. This goes for wedding speeches, too.)
4. Give yourself time afterwards to get into the zone.
If you are conducting or playing in the first piece, you will want to plan a bit of time to go from public speaking brain to music making brain. I’ll usually ask a visiting composer to talk about their piece for a few minutes right before we start, not as a discussion with me, but as a talk to the audience. I’ll pretend to listen (sorry guys) while mentally getting into the zone to conduct the work. Or alternatively, it’s okay to go off stage briefly, get your head together, and come back on to perform.
WHAT TO SAY
Now that you are the perfect host and the audience is relaxed and hanging on your every word, what do you actually say?
When working this out, for me the most important thing I can do is try to think back to the time when I couldn’t make heads or tails of contemporary music and ask: what key pieces of information would have been most helpful for me to know then?
To the audience I’ll say things like this:
Composers are trying to share what it feels like to be alive at this time and place in history. This is going to sound different from music written at other times and places in history, like in Vienna in 1800 or Paris in 1900. The pieces we’ll be playing were written in San Diego in 2012 or Montreal in 1994 so the music will sound quite different from the music of those other times and places.
Many composers are trying to build music that withstands the tests of time and that doesn’t crumble away easily. They are taking a long view that will give the world a body of music one hundred years from now and beyond. Therefore it might take many listenings before we become acquainted with it.
If it’s a younger audience I’ll address the myth that concert music is intended to be relaxing:
We hear all the time that classical music is supposed to be relaxing. But we all know that the history of music is a history of ideas, where one composer reacts to the ideas of the composers who came before him or her. So if we have our brains turned off rather than turned on, we might miss some of those ideas.
If the pieces we are playing are mostly about texture, color, and gesture, I’ll address the elephant in the room, which is that most audiences come in listening for a melody that they will walk away singing and are frustrated that there isn’t one. No judgement here: that’s how most of us are taught to approach music and if you don’t have a music degree, that’s what you do.
I’ll say something like: When I first listened to contemporary music I tried to listen for a melody that I could walk away singing and it was a bit of a frustrating experience because the music was really about other things.
If the piece you are playing is textural, you can say something such as:
Instead of listening for a big main melody, we can listen for texture. You can think of texture as 2 or 5 or 100 hundred melodies all on top of one another and we listen to the character of all of them together.
We often think of texture in terms of density, so we can listen for textures that are very sparse, or very dense.
If the music is very gestural:
To listen for gesture, you can ask yourself: what shapes are being created by the music, and how do they unfold over time?
If there are lots of irregular rhythms in music, I’ve said:
When we hear a steady beat, we actually want to move our bodies to it. It’s one of the miracles that music gives to us. But there are many other kinds of rhythms. When you think about it, nothing in nature is really a steady beat. Our heartbeats, our pulse, the rhythms of the tides, the seasons, everything is just a bit…off. And when you think of other rhythms in nature, like insects or birds, or emotions as they arise, these are all irregular. So instead of thinking of rhythms as only steady beats, we can think about them as they occur in nature, which are just events over time.
If the piece you are playing is a premiere, here is something I have fun with:
Historians will move mountains to find out what the audience of the day thought of a new piece. They will go through trunks in attics, letters, and journal entries, all to find out what the audience of the day thought of a new piece of music. Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is a world premiere, which makes YOU the audience of the day. Future historians will thank you if you go home after the performance and tweet about it or record in some way how you feel.
You get the idea. Obviously what you say will depend on the kind of music you are presenting. What is important here is the tone. We’re going for right down the middle: not too smartypants, but also not too dumbed down. Above all, be authentic. And have fun with it!
[Full disclosure: much of the text above is from my A Young Person’s Guide to New Music, for narrator and orchestra where these concepts like texture, color and gesture are introduced while the orchestra demonstrates in real time. There are versions in English, French and Mandarin. (They don’t let me narrate the Mandarin version; I wish they did.) If you like, please feel free to use that last one about the future historians. My gift to you. However for all the other texts in italics in this blog, I’d appreciate a citation. Thanks folks.]
By Brian Current
Do you feel that your local arts foundation, board of education, university, and/or local government could be creating more and better programs to support contemporary music? Me too. Where do we start?
As with any political issue, your inner Che Guevara might be telling you to organize a protest or to occupy a square on your campus. While that could be a good way to draw attention to an issue, it’s clearly not the best way to get lasting results.
There is a better way, but it’s much less sexy: Working Through the System. I realize how this sounds, but I’m telling you it works. Nearly all the institutions that support the arts have a consultation process for the communities that they serve, and they need to hear from you. Even though the differences you will make will often feel slow and painfully incremental, based on experience it’s very possible to get tangible results, and it’s by far the best way to help contemporary music in the long run.
An advocacy campaign usually has two goals: to affect public opinion and to influence decision making by those in positions of power. Usually the two approaches work hand in hand. Decision makers, especially politicians, often don’t create the bandwagon, they jump on it. The arts sector usually doesn’t have the resources needed for a big public campaign so our focus here will be on targeting decision makers and inspiring them with our carefully worded reasons why they should be supporting new music.
[Disclosure: my partner Amanda Sussman’s book The Art of the Possible, A Handbook for Political Activism popularized the idea that reformers working through the system can achieve radical results. The points below are from her book and are adapted to new music advocacy.]
Strength Is In Numbers
Don’t be a lone voice. You are a much better advocate if you bring together people who feel the same way that you do and then speak as a one. Supporting groups like New Music USA (they didn’t put me up to this) can be a good way to have your voice heard on a national level. Also, general arts advocacy groups like Americans for the Arts speak as a united voice for all the arts across America. They even hold an Arts Advocacy Day during which they meet with congressional representatives in Washington. Supporting initiatives like these means that it’s more likely that composers will be included in the list of arts disciplines that are at the table.
Maybe joining these kinds of groups sufficiently scratches your advocacy itch. If so, you can stop reading here. However, if there are local issues that you would like to tackle here are more suggestions.
Don’t arrive after the fact
Even if you create a booming advocacy campaign, it will have almost no impact if it happens after a decision has already been made. Research is key. Is a foundation near you in the midst of changing its granting priorities? Time for a presentation to their board. Maybe your local school district is debating whether to allocate or cut support for specialized music programs. This would be a great time to meet with decision makers or their staff. Once a decision has been announced by an organization, it’s usually a done deal and it’s very difficult to turn back the clock.
It’s not about who you know.
Even if you happen to know someone at an institution, that person is not necessarily the one making the decision and your request may end up getting passed around in a mind-numbing bureaucratic loop. With a little research, you can make your own contacts. Find out who actually has the power to influence the decision you’re interested in. Once you have learned what the decision-making timetable is, work with others to organize a meeting with that person.
What are your asks?
Be sure that your objectives are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. This can’t be overstated. If you are meeting with a university office or the head of a foundation, you will be much more effective if your request is SMART, rather than a vague request for more resources. Also make sure that your ask is tailored to the person you are meeting with. If that person is on the low rung of the ladder, your request may be simply: “Can you raise this with your boss?”
Run an effective meeting
Now that you have arranged your meeting (take a deep breath)…
Start with the good news. Create good will by congratulating them on work they have already done on behalf of contemporary music (if they have).
Make it safe. The best communicators are either advancing their ideas or they are making it safe to communicate. Learn to watch if the conversation is getting derailed and if so, bring it back to a safe place.
Outline your constituency. Who are you speaking for? If you have support for your project from your colleagues, community, or an online petition, say so.
Clearly state your asks. Concisely lay out your SMART objectives. Tell them the problem you are trying to solve and then explain how your proposal solves that problem.
Actually listen to answers. If you get a very bureaucratic answer—it’s not their fault, they have to do this—there is good information hidden in there. Carefully listen to what is being said between the lines. Often it’s gold.
Leave a one-page brief. Leave a cheat sheet with the points you just outlined in your meeting. That way if they need to advocate internally on your behalf, they have effective talking points about contemporary music at their fingertips.
Follow-up with a thank-you note or email, outlining next steps that were decided in the meeting.
This is where we hone our elevator pitch. As with last week’s post, we’ll use a tone that assumes the listener is intelligent and curious but doesn’t happen to have a degree in composition. These were developed by myself and other composers while volunteering for the (yes, antiquated sounding, but effective) Canadian League of Composers but are adapted here to work in many different contexts. These also work at family get-togethers when your uncle asks what kind of music you write:
What is contemporary art music?
Composers create music for active listening that reflects the time and place in which they live. They usually do this by composing scores to be performed by classically trained musicians, but they also compose for instruments from many different musical traditions, such as the sitar or koto, and many composers are active in the fields of electronic music and improvisation.
The music itself—its textures, sounds, and shapes—is usually meant to be the center of attention.
The length of time spent composing these works is typically many months, and sometimes years.
The breadth of styles is huge and defies categorization.
Many composers are trying to create art that withstands the tests of time and helps define who we are, much like novelists such as Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, or Cormac McCarthy have done. Our tradition generally takes a “long view” that will give the world a body of great music one hundred years from now and beyond. As with the music of Beethoven and even the works of Shakespeare, audiences may be small at first but may potentially be very large over the long run.
There is no single “art-music” style. Composers produce strikingly different music from one another. This plurality is our strength as a community, and represents a genuine musical diversity.
Historically, composers have very often required a patron offering financial backing outside of market forces to create their music, whether it was the church, royalty, aristocracy, or the university that supported them. Today, most composers rely on the patronage of visionary foundations, universities, public institutions, and individual sponsors, all committed to supporting the non-commercial value of the arts.
Economic and social contribution of the arts
It is well established that an active cultural sector is a magnet for talent and a catalyst for economic prosperity. Arts industries bring people together locally, globally, and virtually. Composers are an important and dynamic part of this industry, which is estimated to have totalled $46 billion in real value-added output.
There is a lot more information on the social and economic benefits of the arts at the Americans for the Arts page and this document by the National Assembly of State Art Agencies.
Your points will of course be tailored to fit your objectives, but I hope this gives you an idea of the kind of language you might use when advocating for contemporary music, in whatever situation you might find yourself: with a donor, with a government official, or with your uncle. We need you, so good luck out there.
1. The mission of New Music USA for example (if you landed here randomly, you’re reading this on their website) is to do both: they promote composers’ work to the public and also aim to influence decision making about arts funding by working with other arts organizations.
2. Although this fantastic iPad ad with Esa-Pekka Salonen has been a windfall of free publicity for new music.
3. This is from Crucial Conversations, a must-read for any advocate.
4. Valuing Culture: Measuring and Understanding Canada’s Creative Economy [PDF] Conference Board of Canada Report 2008, p. 7.
Airline Icarus, a new opera: Inspiration & History
Posted: 09/03/2014 on Soundstreams' Sound Stories