Part II: Changing The Programming of Racially Biased Orchestras

Following my last piece advocating the changing of the narrative behind classical music, I would like to address the practitioners of classical music -- the orchestras. My main concerns are with how they program music and how they interact with composers. Popular, big-time, orchestras have the wherewithal to embrace new (non-Eurocentric) music. However, it is often the low-level orchestras that do breach the barrier of old, antiquated, practices.Though it is certainly a possibility that I might not be seeing the bigger picture and that my observations and experiences of these issues are simply blips in my career as a composer, I will continue to highlight these concerns. I welcome any establishment to retort my points and offer me the hope that there are far more opportunities for an emerging composer of color to be exposed to. This entry discusses how some orchestras accept music submissions, the problematic aspects of their programs used to introduce new composers, and the inherent or structural biases they create and reinforce for both the common listener and music professional in this process. 

I’ve contacted major orchestras before. Some of them boast programming new compositions, but it is far and few that really showcase a style that stretches beyond Eurocentric qualities. A few months ago, I sent an e-mail to the LA Philharmonic, and to say how low the bar is for my quality in rejections, I was satisfied with actually getting any response at all. I asked them how they go about getting new music. The response was along the lines of something an A&R rep would say for a major record label: 

“We do not accept unsolicited materials.” 

This means that in order for you to get the music you’ve worked on to be heard by institutions that have the capability of exposing it to a large audience, it needs to be approved by an artist and repertoire representative, who receive demos upon demos every day from all walks of life. If they come across something that they believe will be a hit, then they recommend it to a director or producer and that person makes a deal with the artist to provide an avenue for that music to be heard. 

Problem One: “Who You Know” 

Because A&R reps get so much music, it is virtually impossible to sift through all of it. As a result, they solicit the advice and recommendations from representatives of artists who have good reputations of recommending quality work. Consequently, success in this business unravels into “who you know” as opposed to producing quality music. If you have an A&R rep who talks to an agent of an artist who meets the expectations of statistical hit-makers, then new stuff can be virtually ignored in favor of possibly sub-par musicians with exceptional representation. 

Problem Two: New Music is Risky 

Orchestra revenue comes from filling the seats, and playing the same hits is a safe bet. On one hand, patrons enjoy listening to the compositions they are familiar with and musicians don’t have to work so hard learning a new piece.  The conundrum, however, is that a concert composer cannot attain a reputation without landing performances, but they can’t land performances without attaining a reputation. It is a snake eating its own tail, and it puts emerging composers in a troublesome position of trying to gain reputation through other measures. Aside from finding work through the back door by working adjacent to an orchestra such as volunteering as an usher, tearing tickets, and writing program notes, there are supposed to be other opportunities in place to help emerging composers get their foot in the door. But this presents more problems. 

Problem Three: Youth Programs 

The status quo of Eurocentric music is being taught at an early age. Youth programs are  fantastic learning opportunities for kids. However, the composition diversity issues can be traced back to these programs. Young composers are being brought in to have masterclasses which still teach Eurocentric music as the only acceptable music for this setting. They are being curated into making the music that the orchestra or band leader, or even the board members want to hear, which is already a biased listening experience towards Eurocentric music,or what they presume will be guaranteed hits. Since I am a season composer with a Master's degree, these kid programs don’t apply to me, right? Wrong. 

Problem Four: The Residencies 

These are the same concepts as the youth programs but for an older crowd. Some residencies require you to still be in college (that way a composer can not be paid for their work, because they are “gifted” with more learning experience in credit, and the honor of being told in person what they should do to get orchestras to play their music). Other residencies will age you out by thirty. There are rarely any fresh composers with graduate degrees under the age of 30. Also, at this point, they have already been developing a style to articulate their influences and culture that it's not so much an opportunity to be heard as much as it is a suppression for new music when put into a position to be a student again. Don’t get me wrong, if you love your craft, then you will be a life-long student, but all philosophical pleasantries aside, a professional composer needs a fighting chance to be the best version of themselves, not a shining example of what an already biased system expects. Can you imagine Strauss never getting the chance to do Tone Poems? Or Beethoven being told that his work would not be premiered because his expectations were unrealistic to the ensemble? So why can’t anyone’s philharmonic orchestra program Afrocentric music? Why does the bill always have 75%  to 100% old dead white male composers? Is it cause these establishments find new stylistic endeavors so risky that they do not want to risk low attendance? 

Possible Solutions

A lot of these are non-profits who also gain grants to put on these shows and pay their artists. That alone should inspire an unbridled desire for risk. The orchestra, much like the local band/dj, is a staple of their community. They should reflect the people around it, by playing what the people are up to. If it's garbage, then hey, that shouldn’t just be a reflection of the orchestra, but the real learning opportunity for the composer. If they are onto something, then that is when brave new styles emerge. There is no coincidence that we haven’t had a new “era” of symphonic compositions since avant-garde. There is a reason why kids today know only Mozart and Beethoven, along with Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman, as if concert and film composition can be put into the same category. It starts with changing the narrative of what classical music is with our kids and our colleges. It perpetuates by embracing emerging composers with unique backgrounds and styles instead of rebranding them into the same tired narrative. Hopefully, it doesn’t stop there and orchestral programs change and evolve with a society that changes with it. 

There are countless independent composers out there trying their damndest to break through to an audience. The hardest part for all of us is sequestering funds to actually get these pieces performed. The orchestras are supposed to provide these opportunities but we have had to find alternate ways to play our stuff. Composers have taken to investing their very limited funds into sample libraries to record as realistic as possible mock-ups of their writings. Rather than have a legitimate premiere, a lot of us will produce these mock-ups as recordings for streaming and downloads. These present two new problems for the composer. The reliance on technology has created music that can be virtually unplayable by human beings. The listening experience these writings were made to accomplish do not have the same impact as the concert experience. 

The feel of a performance is everything. Take the band KISS. Aside from their cartoonish marketing, the musicians and the music they have made over the decades are nothing short of remarkable. But they exist for the show. When they were signed to record their first album, they had many problems recording in isolation. The songs didn’t have the same gusto that they did when it was melting your face live. They ended up recording their first album live, and it worked so well that it solidified not only their showmanship but also musicianship. The same could be said for Metallica. A band in their infancy, produced metal so heavy, it would make the needle skip off the record. When a concert composer is put in a position of only putting out mock-ups, not only are they cheated from the very human experience of limitations, but they are also cheated from the experience of chemistry and interpretation from the performers. You can mess with velocities all day, buy the best convolution reverbs, and virtual instruments with a 1,000 round robins, miked inside and out, sampled to the smallest resolution. It still does not compare to the personality and considerations of a living and real ensemble. 

That’s not to say that is the only way to get your music performed. There are remote orchestras in Europe willing to take a pay cut to send you recordings of their performances of your music. Musiversal is one of those companies. This is outsourcing at its finest, and still poses a problem of raising funds versus fostering a musical community at all. Even as a cheaper alternative, you are still looking at a couple hundred dollars per three minutes of written music, which equates to about twelve minutes of studio time. Now imagine all of that money going outside of the country, going back into your community. Imagine a premiere of your community’s composers building a sound specific to you. Imagine being excited to know what these mad scientists of sound could come up with because they answer to you? All of this could happen, if orchestras showed more inclusion, musically. 

I think the last solution to help change the narrative of classical music falls under the category of competition. There are many “call-for-scores” competition out there. But the judging of these opportunities needs to be more transparent. You can have rules. It can be a specific length, or instrumentation. You can even have sanctions on participation if someone has won before or has a personal relationship with the institution or judges. But if a non-profit organization puts out such a competition for the masses, and needs entry fees to facilitate quality judging, then they need to have their judgement be completely transparent. There needs to be tangible evidence of why the judges had preference or reservations about our music. If it seems impossible, then by all means limit entries, but composers need to know how people are listening to their music so they can get better. These things are always a shot in dark for me. All stylish endeavors aside, I can maneuver a sandboxed approach to composition pretty well. I’ve done enough film scores to follow rules and express enough empathy to the scenes to write the appropriate underscore. I am also well-versed in commissions. If someone wants to pay me to write something for them, I have the decency to listen to what their needs are, to create the best product I can. These competitions don’t communicate anything. How am I supposed to know that the judges have a broad enough ear to know the difference between my styles? Can they discern microtonal pitches well enough to judge a piece inspired by Indian music, or will they just regard the performance as out of tune? Will they regard my two dotted eighth notes in succession of each other to be a nuanced to Latin music writing, or will they consider it a folly in the invisible bar line principle? Can they tell that I’ve written a great Afrocentric piece of music, or consider it poorly crafted Eurocentric music? Do I even know the judges? Do they even have a legit body of work that allows them to judge mine? I don’t know. None of us do, unless we have an in on the establishments that run these competitions and if that is the case... then it's like being invited to a party just to be ignored. 

The film scoring competitions are just as confusing. I, like so many of my colleagues, participated in the Spitfire Westworld competitions a couple months back. It was pretty cut and dry on what rules you follow: don’t alter the original audio or video, do something that respects the scene but is still unique enough to stand out. The winner ended up altering some of the dialog audio, and doing chip-tune. Albeit, it stood out, but it caused such an uproar amongst composers because the rules were bent, and the winning composer was already established (though being emerging or established was not part of the criteria). I went into the competition not expecting much, because like film festivals, a lot of getting in requires knowing people involved. I was just happy I could put on my reel amongst all the short films something at pro level. Other folks... not so much and reasonably so. They didn’t know what they could and could not do, and that affected what they wrote. 

So, I challenge the establishments who put these competitions out to really think twice about accepting a million scores, and not giving the professional courtesy to participants by explaining what works and what doesn’t. It's not like they can’t control the rules of engagement, it's that they don’t have the consideration to provide a quality experience that echoes how their community deserves to be treated. 

If the orchestras aren’t accepting new music by listening to their surrounding communities of color, encouraging stylistic change in their programming to engage with new audiences, or hosting competitions that allow fresh blood into the mix by increasing transparency and sticking to clear rules, I again ask, where is the fighting chance for new music? That is probably why you haven’t had the urge to go to a symphonic concert in a while unless they are playing your favorite film score, game score, or popular music. They are out of touch with their community and an out-of-touch establishment uses their archaic successes to implement biases that no longer speak to society. That makes it a business of nostalgia and not a center of cultural influence and we all know what a platform based on nostalgia will get us. It is imperative that we change the narrative of classical music because that will allow the newer generations to acknowledge the existence of other cultures that have done more for the listening experiences of today’s audience than the traditional aspects have in a hundred years. It is important that orchestras acknowledge other cultural styles and new music to improve society and progress symphonic evolutions. 

Magnum Cope-us

It is not to say that we should close shop on all the old favorites or deny the importance of Eurocentric music. You just need to know that classical isn’t just them. It is an amalgamation of cultural influence, and has already laid stake in popular music. It has turned the symphonic orchestra into a class of listeners and excludes the communities they were built to serve, and the cultures they were made to embrace. But the ratio of new music to old music needs to change. You can have a piece of DeBussy, and Coltrane, and then a couple new composers flexing their new styles. You can program a theme evocative to the music being listened to and not just the composer themselves. It’s not about just hiring POC musicians, though it’s a good step -- it's about accepting POC music. There is no point in posting your refreshingly new principle players, with their beautiful black or brown skin, if they are still perpetuating the same practices that have broken this system to begin with. During this pandemic, I had enough time to write out what could possibly be my magnum opus: an approximately fifteen minute full symphonic orchestra score called "The Suite of a Thousand Faces." I explore in this piece Joseph Campbell's concept of the hero's journey as a collection of tone poems with a twist: the hero is completely aware of his preordained pattern. Using stylistic flexes, the hero tries to break from tradition, but wonders if it is even worth it or heroic for that matter. Usually, I would go through the motions: create an elaborate mock-up, copyright, and post it to stream. But this music deserves more. I feel it in my soul. Right now concert halls are weakened by the mass shutdowns. Right now, they are posting black squares because a small part of them are now starting to wake up to the racial biases they have baked into their own institutions. Right now, even white artists are calling out the BS of the only acceptable art in the last three centuries came from old dead white guys from Europe. This is the perfect moment for real change. The piece I wrote deserves to be actually premiered. It doesn't deserve to be MIDI, It deserves to be in a semi-laminated booklet, listed in sans-serif font, with my goofy face next to it. All pandemic comments aside, I know right now we can only have streamed concerts. But if and when society gains enough immunity to open up the theaters and concert venues... we need a change of programming. We need to show all the wonderful, magical, unique things we are capable of doing as a species when stuck to our own devices. Mozart didn't get me through Covid-19, I did. Let me play for you how I coped in hopes that it can help you find the sliver of optimism that kept me going when the crippling loneliness, fear, and hopelessness tried to get the best of me. 

I know as a POC composer, people will say I am typing this while grinding my teeth on sour grapes, and to a degree I am... I have been groomed from a young age to be a professional composer, to use my unique voice and background to help contribute to society and broaden culture. Hire me then fire me, I am okay with that. But at least show me how you listen, so that I can be better the next time. Don’t just burn all my money in gear and education, just to see my application to work as a novelty. If I can be better, so can you. And if you think I am the only one with such grievances, desperate to find the missing puzzle piece to establish my career, you are still not listening.


#composerlife #blackmusicmatters #newmusic #orchestralbias #POCcomposer