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Posts Tagged ‘composer’

Ben Phelps: Making a Scene

When I started this blog, Ben Phelps wrote to me almost immediately, to thank me, in a way, for covering LA’s new music scene, but also, it almost seemed, to take up arms together, ask “what can we do to make things even better?” and then go out and do it. I am sure as hell glad that he did. In addition to becoming a friend, Ben has been an enormous advocate for new music here in LA, and we do, in fact, have some rad stuff in the works. Ben had talked about writing a post/essay in which to consider our local scene and offer some suggestions to take it from good to great to extraordinary. Man, am I glad that he came through and wrote what follows. Read on, then head to a concert and start talking. Here’s Ben.

Two anecdotes to set the stage:

An untold number of years ago, back when I was involved in my first upstart entrepreneurial new music project here in Los Angeles, one of my collaborators thought it would be a good idea to reach out to one of the older, more established new music groups in town to ask, you know, for advice on what the heck we’re doing. To seek any kernels of wisdom from those older and wiser on the highs and lows of striking out on your own to form a new arts non-profit.

The response: “we can’t help you, you’re our competition.”

This has stuck with me for years since because I can’t get over what a tragic answer it is. Not to get all Shakespearean, but it cuts straight to the core of one of man’s fatal flaws- the misperception of self interest. I get it: the scraps of money seemingly available to the new music musicians are so small, our instinct is to fight ever more viciously over the precious crumbs of audience members. It’s human nature. But in reality, this attitude is actually grossly self-defeating. It’s like the individual Easter Islander fighting for the right to cut down a tree in order to roll a massive stone statue miles away to erect it facing the ocean. Yeah sure it might make the individual chief seem totally awesome- until there are no more trees and the civilization collapses. It’s the tragedy of the commons – somebody should write an opera about it.


Composers in Los Angeles love to complain about never getting played by the LA Phil. They do have a point, at least in terms of the data. Esa-Pekka earned accolades and worship from New York critics for his adventurous programming of (mostly) Finnish composers + John Adams and the audiences that attended said concerts and applauded, but very few if any Los Angeles based composers ever received much (if any) love. As if adding insult to injury, The LA Phil now plans a “Brooklyn Festival” of new music, and the LA Chamber Orchestra continues to parade a familiar batch of young Brooklyn based composers across their stage.

On the other hand, we the Los Angeles composer might stand back a second and ask if we deserve it. We might individually believe our music more than worthy to grace the baton of our boy wonder conductor, but who collectively do we hold up as the best we have to offer? This should make apparent the bigger problem: there is no collective from which to choose our representative. I do believe Los Angeles and its new music makers have a wealth of exciting ideas and music. But it’s Balkanized. At least compared to the current gold standard of Brooklyn (cue choir “ahhh”), what I see is great potential in search of scene.

Maybe this is the reason why Brooklyn keeps poaching some of our best prospects. Young composers move to New York for the scene, not the weather.

So what do they got that we don’t? What are the components of a thriving new music scene? Starting from the assumption that New York has a thriving scene, as their PR people constantly tell us via twitter, we might think a good place to start would be to list all the things New York has.

1. Music publishers
2. Performance Rights Organizations (BMI and ASCAP)
3. Lots of New Music Ensembles
4. Centenarian composers with amusing stories about meeting Stravinsky
5. Lots of other composers
6. PR people
7. An audience (?)
8. Record Labels
9. Music Schools
10. Venerable blue blood investment in music
11. Bloggers
12. Agents and managers

OK. So there’s a bunch of random stuff. New York has a lot of things, neat. As the classical music business center of the country, it better. But actually this list is quite useless. It’s a business list, and Los Angeles is not about to compete with New York as the center of the classical music business, just as New York is not about to compete with LA as the center of the movie making business. Basic economic geography tells us that like businesses tend to cluster- there is mutual benefit to it. It’s why all the new tech companies are in Silicon Valley, it’s why there are all those furniture stores on La Brea. But I’m talking about artistic clustering- an art scene- and the number of agents your city has don’t matter.  Basically, this list is utterly irrelevant to the fact of the LA Phil’s “Brooklyn” festival. What LA composers and musicians need to foster is a clustering of artistic creation. The agents will follow.

An art scene has a lot in common with the industrial clustering of Detroit or Boston or New York. But let’s think about what it is actually important to cluster. Seattle had a thriving grunge indie-music scene, and produced a lot of famous bands. The major record labels came to them. That should be the model.

So what is a thriving art scene? It’s a bunch of people clustering together and doing art. And then talking about it.

Here’s a new list:

1. Lots of new music ensembles
2. Lots of composers
3. Lots of people (mostly the same people from parts one and two) talking about it
4. An audience (?)

Now most likely this is something that happens organically, and can’t be prescribed for a city by a central planner writing an obscure blog article. But think of this as descriptive rather than prescriptive. And it’s already starting to happen. Enough elements of this list start firing, and what does it add up to? Hype. And what follows hype? All the other stuff from list one. Larger monied institutions. Audience members who aren’t actually musicians themselves. PR people. Hipsters. All looking to milk some of hype for themselves.

There’s something to this about the biological imperative for creating art in the first place. That’s another blog post.

Here’s what you can do to help: first, stop sitting in your room complaining that nobody is playing your music or that you have no where to play your instrument. Get out there and make it happen. We need a lot of ensembles looking to put on concerts. This is a lot of work. But as groups trail blaze a path, venues start to learn, and it gets easier. The next step is easy though: where there are new music bands putting on concerts, composers will follow like attorneys chasing ambulances. And the two actually form a symbiotic relationship. The composer looking to get his or her own piece played by an ensemble is a reliable audience member. In fact, they are probably the early adopter audience member. When you only have three audience members, two are the significant others of the band members, and the third is a composer.

But don’t get depressed. We all have to start somewhere. Just remember, one or two bands playing in isolation a scene does not make. Don’t forget about step three. It’s the most important. LA already has a bunch of groups and a bunch of composers.

Talk about the concerts you see. Put on lots of concerts, and talk about them. If you are so inclined, blog or tweet about it. Or just talk to people in the old fashioned way, like in the middle ages. It’s the appearance of activity that counts, but not just your activity. The scene’s activity.

It’s ok that your motives are selfish- you hope to get plucked out of the cutting edge scene by monied institutions who can help your music reach wider audiences. But to have any chance of that, you first need a hyped scene and you need to be an active part of that scene. Go to concerts! I simply cannot understand composers (and they are numerous) who do not go to concerts. Don’t you like music? Why the heck are you putting yourself through all of this work if you don’t? And once you do, be selfless in your promotion of others’ work. Especially if you like it.

The more it seems like something is going on, the more others will want to be a part of it. It’s human nature. Nobody wants to be left out.

The crazy thing about thinking of two small fledgling new music groups in the same city as each others’ “competition” is that a single group could never possibly meet the musical needs of any true music fan. We are bands, not soft-drink companies. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are not each others’ competition, at least not like Coke and Pepsi are. People might choose Coke exclusively over Pepsi as the cause of their Type II diabetes, but nobody chooses The Beach Boys as their band to the exclusion of all music. Nobody has ever said “Nico Muhly is my composer, please take your business elsewhere.”

It is through the confluence of artistic activity that aesthetic direction is established, a scene is hyped, and ultimately, young talented composers stop moving away from Los Angeles to start their careers but to it. So if you want a true scene, it’s time to come down out of your closely guarded aesthetic towers, your new music fiefdoms, and start attending each others’ concerts. It’s already happening. You are the audience and the creator. You are also the publicist. Talk about what you’re doing. Argue about it. Remember, you’re selling cool. It’s the perception of cool that the audience and money will follow.

And oh yeah, there might even be some great music made in the process. Who knows.

Ben Phelps is a composer and percussionist based in Los Angeles. Visit him at

Interview: Julia Adolphe on Sylvia

Julia Adolphe’s chamber opera, Sylvia, for which she wrote both the libretto and the score – and let’s be honest, she produced it too – was, in a word, killer. With lush writing for what could be sparse instrumentation, strikingly effective (and pretty damn clever) storytelling, and great performers (I was especially impressed by Matthew Miles’ handling of a challenging tenor part), Julia seriously hit her mark. (Full disclosure: she’s a friend, but so is pretty much everyone I talk to on here). I had hoped to talk with her about the opera shortly before its run at the Lost Studio Theater a couple of months ago, but she was so busy running things that we weren’t able to get it together in time. The good news: we held off until now so that I could use this opportunity to tell you that the entire thing is being broadcast on Sunday, July 8, at 7 PM on Kinetics Radio. Also, Julia’s band is playing tonight at Bar Lubitsch at 9. Listen in, and read on:

Sylvia is an opera set in psychodrama therapy, dealing with the repercussions of a young Jewish woman’s affair with a much older man, who is a family friend, and both of whom are descendants of holocaust survivors. This is heavy stuff. How did you go about approaching such a big, and perhaps sensitive, topic?

The story of Sylvia has been in the back of my mind since I was sixteen years old. It is based on a true story, on the experiences and struggles of a close childhood friend. It took me many years of sifting through the content to find the appropriate outlet, format, and structure to communicate such difficult and complex material. I wrote my first version of Sylvia when I was eighteen. At that time, the plot focused on how Sylvia’s past sexual abuse impacted her relationship with her boyfriend. It was mostly a play, with musical moments appearing alongside poetic dialogue. I did not realize at the time that I was trying to write an opera. Nor was I ready to really deal with the content head on. By emphasizing Sylvia’s current relationship with her boyfriend, I was leaving all of the dramatic, emotionally explosive material in the past, alluding to it but never exposing it. The character of Nathan, the family friend who abuses Sylvia as a teenager, was never mentioned by name and was not a character in the play. (He is still not mentioned by name in the chamber opera until the very end).

As an undergraduate, I concentrated on expanding my musical language. I continued to rewrite the story, this time introducing a scene where Sylvia attends psychodrama. When I showed this draft to Dr. Stephen Hartke at the beginning of my Masters program at USC, he seized on the idea of psychodrama as the framework through which to tell the entire story. I began researching psychodrama extensively and found that there were fascinating parallels between the goals of psychodrama and the goals of opera. Both seek to open the creative mind, to provoke new thought patterns and solutions, and to evoke a collective memory. Both are larger than life and engage the wildest parts of our imaginations. With the psychodramatic format as my guide, the structure of the opera fell into place. I was able to move fluidly through past, present, and an imaginary future. Finally, it became clear to me that my friend’s background as a second generation Holocaust survivor, and my own identity as a young Jewish woman, could not be left out of the story any longer.

I only know you as a composer and singer, but for Sylvia, you’ve written the libretto. A few questions here: is it based on anything? And what’s your writing background like? Did you study literature or theatre formally at any point?

I did study English as a double major at Cornell. From age nine to thirteen I was in a youth theater company in New York City, so yes I do have a theater background. I did theater in high school and always loved its collaborative nature. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to write an opera: I missed collaborating. I loved that magic you feel in a theater when you’re making something new.

What was the experience of working on this like? Did you establish an emotional connection with your characters?

I had the opposite experience, actually. I came into this project extremely attached to the characters for they were real people to me. I had to cast aside all of my personal opinions and write what was best for the opera. The greatest challenge was overlooking my personal contempt for the man who Nathan is based on. I was forced to identify with him, to make him three-dimensional, to delve into what motivated him and how each person has the potential to get to that point where they abuse another. Again, the psychodrama helped: Nathan as a person doesn’t really exist in the opera; he is conjured up and embodied by the doctors and the patients in the therapy session. The fact that the four singers take turns portraying Nathan, showing him in different lights, helped me distance myself from him a single, threatening entity as well as demonstrate how we all have the potential to slip into the role of abuser.

Were you working on the music and the libretto side-by-side, or did one come before the other?

The libretto came first. I did not start any of the music until I was completely satisfied with the libretto and could not imagine changing it. Then of course I started the music and ended up cutting about a third of the libretto. It became astoundingly clear to me which sections needed to go once confronted with the task of setting it all to music.

Tell me a bit about what went into pulling this all together. How hands on have you been in the production?

My role as producer began a full year before the performance you saw on April 14, 2012. Soprano Sophie Wingland had signed on as early as the fall of 2010. First, I chose the Lost Studio, an intimate black-box theater, as the venue. I secured a grant from the Puffin Foundation and a Subito grant from the American Composers Forum. I then selected the director Maureen Huskey, my co-producer Lester Grant, and booked my friend and colleague conductor Eric Guinivan, who is a very talented composer in his own right. We held auditions for the remaining three roles and were thrilled with our selection of baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco, mezzo-soprano Jessica Mirshak, and tenor Matthew Miles. The three of them were fellow Masters students at USC. I was very involved in the rehearsal process, perhaps too involved, but I had to wear a lot of hats since we were working on a tight budget.

How did you come into contact with Maureen Huskey? And what has it been like to work with her? Have you collaborated with directors before?

Maureen Huskey is a dream come true. The Dean of the Directing Program at CalArts put us in touch last summer. We began an email correspondence about Sylvia that transformed into long personal essays back and forth about the story’s content. Maureen had so many important questions for me that I had not yet answered. She had unbelievable insight into the characters, and she challenged me to think about them in a way I had not done before. Maureen brought the production to a whole new level. There was a tangible difference in the atmosphere once she entered the rehearsal process: she charged project with this fierce energy and excitement that brought the piece to life. Two of the singers told me that she was the director they had always dreamed of, and that she had changed them forever as performers.

Where do you see independent opera fitting into the scene here? Have you found an interested audience eager to hear this premiere, or have you had to fight to build one on your own?

I think as long as a story is compelling, engaging, and evocative, there will always be an audience, no matter the genre. As long as people can identify with the characters and change with them, even if only for the duration of the performance, the piece will be successful. I believe that independent opera needs to stop thinking of itself as a separate entity that is somehow more complex or higher than others. Opera is very simple: it’s drama, it’s music, it’s people, and the more inclusive opera becomes the greater an audience it will attract.

You’ve been in LA for a couple of years now, and (I believe) just finished your MM at USC. What’s next? Plan on sticking around?

I am actually staying at USC to get a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree. So I will be here for the foreseeable future!

Anything else you would like to add?

A full recording of Sylvia will be broadcast by Kinetics Radio, a station devoted to new music of all genres hosted by composer Thomas Kotcheff. Tune in at 7 PM PST on Sunday, July 8th to hear the performance!

For more on Julia and Sylvia, visit and

Updated: In Memoriam: Composer Shaun Naidoo (1962 – 2012)

I’ll be up front about this: I didn’t know Shaun very well, but every time I met him at a show he seemed incredibly nice and willing to talk with just about anyone, and his music always impressed me. What’s Next? Ensemble recently gave a performance of his opera Nigerian Spam, and while I wasn’t able to make the concert, I heard it was a resounding success. I was hoping to interview Shaun one of these days, and it’s a very small misfortune that I won’t be able to, when compared to the loss that his loved ones are feeling, and to the loss of an important member of our city’s musical culture.

I was informed of Shaun’s death through an email from Catherine Uniack, executive director of Piano Spheres, which read as follows:

Piano Spheres is greatly saddened by the news of the sudden death of composer Shaun Naidoo and wishes to acknowledge him as a friend and creative collaborator for our series.  His loss will be keenly felt by those who experienced the vitality and beauty of his compositions, the impact of his teaching and the wicked wit with which he negotiated the world.  We express our sincere sympathy for all those whose lives were intimately touched by his presence as we pay tribute to his multi-faceted contributions to contemporary musical life in Los Angeles and in the international sphere.  We bid you a loving farewell, Shaun…

More of Shaun’s music, along with his biography, photos, and the like, are available at If anyone has a memory they would like posted here, please email me at, or leave a message in the comments.

Update, July 5

Harpist and blogger Charissa Barger emailed me with this remembrance, along with a video of Jeff Cogan performing Diaraby, one of Naidoo’s last works, at What’s Next? Ensemble’s June 1 concert:

It also seems that Shaun’s website has been taken down. If anyone knows where we can continue to hear his music, please drop me a line.

Interview: Composer/Percussionist Ben Phelps

When I started New ClassicLA, Ben Phelps wrote to me almost immediately. Aside from being very complimentary, he told me how excited he was about LA finally forming a proper new music scene, with ensembles like What’s Next? and others performing in clubs and alternative spaces far outside of Disney Hall. Ben has played all over town, from gigs as a percussionist at Disney Hall to a principal position with the American Youth Symphony. The music he’s been writing has been getting him a lot of attention throughout Southern California and beyond.

This Wednesday, What’s Next? Ensemble (of which Ben is a founding member) premieres his new work Six Ways to Be Alone at Royal/T in Culver City. After watching him nearly impersonate an octopus with the percussion parts at their last concert, I wouldn’t want to miss it. Plus they have good beer and cupcakes.

At What’s Next? Ensemble’s concert a few weeks ago, I overheard you talking to a composer about writing for marimba. You said something along the lines of “we need more real composers interested in writing for percussion. Mostly it’s percussionists trying their hand at writing something.” You, however, are both a percussionist and a composer. Tell me about how your two practices influence each other, and whether you have trouble balancing them or making sure you’re in top shape for both.

Well, it’s always trouble, and I’m not sure I ever am in total top shape for both. I tend to be a pretty obsessive composer, so one thing that helps me is that I’m not actually doing both simultaneously most of the time. I find it pretty impossible. If I’m writing a piece, I tend to get consumed and then just have to finish the piece before moving on. The rest of the time, I can practice, or feel guilty that I’m not. Multi-tasking is one of the worst inventions ever, I have massive inferiority complexes about my multi-tasking abilities.
So am I as good a percussionist as I would be if I weren’t also a composer? Probably not. However, I can say that I believe I’m a much better composer for having been so active a player- I’ve learned so much more about music from sitting in rehearsals and actually figuring out how to make stuff work than I ever did in a classroom. Actually, being a percussionist is pretty perfect for this because in a Mahler symphony, say, we tend to play so few notes. There’s a lot of time to sit and listen to how he uses the bassoon.

Talk with me about Six Ways to Be Alone, the piece you’ll be premiering. What was its genesis? What are you trying to do with the piece?

Well, initially I wanted to write some pop songs. I was wondering why the “serious” composer is expected to set poetry, instead of just writing a song (music and lyrics) like Bob Dylan. Also, you can’t be a young hip composer these days without trying to incorporate pop influences into your music. Otherwise you don’t fit into the critical narrative. However, I quickly found that writing pop songs for orchestral instruments can sound pretty lame. So while I liked the idea of saying I was working on a “rock opera,” the finished product might be pretty far removed from this initial conception. What I’m left with are some original songs about love and loss. Like most good songs.

Not having heard it yet, the title implies a very personal meaning. How do you feel about putting yourself into your music? Do you want to represent your own emotions and worldview and such, or let the music take on a character independent of yourself?

It’s not something I actively set out to do, I also don’t set out NOT to do it. It seems crazy to think “nothing of me is in this piece of art,” because one that’s bullshit, no matter how hard you try something about your circumstances and life went into the creation of that thing at that time, and two, I’m not sure the artist should consider that desirable. In any case, it’s pretty hopeless for me. Pieces I obsessed with at the time find their way into my music, as do my life situations and world views, and personality. I don’t fight it, isn’t that one of the things that makes art interesting? That said, music is abstract and it’s not like I set out to write an autobiography. I just want to write music that I find moving and meaningful, and sometimes that becomes more personal and sometimes less so.

With the previous questions in mind, do you prefer to explain and discuss your work with audiences, or let your music speak for itself? I ask because of the minimal (and quite eye-catching) program notes that What’s Next? used at their last concert, and because it seems like there are artistic and experiential implications when you discuss a work before listeners hear it.

Shrug. I’m a little indifferent. I get annoyed when an explanation becomes longer than the piece. But sometimes it’s nice to give the novice listener something to grab onto. Listening to music- really listening- is a learned art and you can’t expect to just throw people into classical music concerts and really understand everything. I hope that my music speaks for itself. I think sometimes you can get more from a piece if you know just a little more about it before you hear it. Or maybe even better after you hear it. I don’t think there will be any explanation for my piece in the program though.

Since you’re both composer and performer, and a very virtuosic and capable one at that, I’d like to know your feelings on the performer-composer relationship, and the role of individual virtuosity these days.

I’ll let you know how it goes when others have attempted my marimba solo. I can and do proselytize about the need for composers to write music that is no more difficult than it absolutely needs to be, but I’m not sure if I listen to my own advice.

What else is on the horizon for you?

I’m writing a string quartet (with trumpet) about Los Angeles. It’s called The Angels. Get it? My new percussion quartet will be premiered by the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet in the spring. And What’s Next? is a lot of work.

As always, since we are in fact promoting LA as place for people to come for music and beyond, what is your favorite:

1. Neighborhood

I’m a Los Angeles Cosmopolitan, not a Balkan.

2. Place to hear music

Hmm. Wherever it’s good? I guess I’m seen most at Disney concert hall, and the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo.

3. Restaurant

Well, I’ll give a plug to Malibu Seafood, in Malibu obviously.

4. Bar/hang out

I liked Wurstkuche before it was cool. My new favorite is BeerBelly, little Tokyo. Apparently they have lucky charms pancakes. I haven’t had those.

5. Store

I’ve never considered having a favorite store.

6. Thing to do/see

Concerts. And climbing mountains. That basically sums it up.
Check out the premiere of Six Ways to Be Alone this Wednesday at Royal/T in Culver City. For more information on Ben and What’s Next? Ensemble, visit and