Classical music in a new light

Amy Miller

Nico Muhly, born in 1981 in Vermont, is one of the most sought after composers of the 21st century.  A resident of New York, Muhly has written works for over 15 years and produced over a hundred works, ranging from opera to film, solo and orchestral ensemble arrangements and orchestrations.  Muhly’s music is similar that of most 21st century composers as he acknowledges pop culture influences over his music styles and pushes back at the question of having to “self-define” as a composer.  Muhly emphasizes the notion that “If you ever have ten minutes to think about defining your musical style, I would suggest doing something else like learning German or doing ‘a Marie Kondo’ sorting through your drawers.” The need to “self-define” your musical genre has lost its appeal in the 21st century.  The way that Muhly counters this self-definition as a composer is by making classical music relatable to a wider audience by incorporating themes and setting his music to a traditional space to redefine the classical music atmospheric space.  

Muhly considers himself to be a post-minimalist composer whose works show a clear combination of pop and classical music cultures.  An example of this combination is found in his latest opera, Two Boys, which was written on commission for the Metropolitan Opera. The pop aspect of the opera, Two Boys, lies in its storyline which is based off a “toxic relationship between two men who met online.” The classical aspect is found in the music itself, which sounds as though it is from the Romantic era with its mixture between homophonic and polyphonic harmonies.

Another work that shows Muhly’s influence and collaboration with the pop culture is, “Confessions” written with Teitur, who is a singer-songwriter. Confessions, displays an “optimistic observation of human behavior disguised as a musing on the life of a sushi roll.” As odd as that sounds, this is the type of music and collaboration that draw new audiences in as they are just as intrigued and interested to hear what the music might hold. Unsurprisingly, there are uses of Baroque sounds in the form of a “lacy backdrop” of Baroque chamber ensemble.

Muhly is a great representation of a composer who is trying to change society’s viewpoint of classical music and how it is presented to today’s generation. Through his music he presents and image to his audience that he can relate to them and is not afraid of talking about the deep secrets and emotions we all have. Muhly has proved that the connection to your audience is so important for the success of your career in music and how we can keep classical music relevant and relatable.


POP Op. 1

There are many arguments that persuade people to believe that pop music has no depth, and only those who are ignorant listen to and perform pop. On the other hand, people who perform and listen to classical music have been perceived as intelligent and high-class. But what if there were classical performers who composed and performed pop music? Does the stigma of pop performance and listening change? I believe that it does when you apply Western composition techniques such as Nico Muhly does in his pop music.

To clarify, by pop music I mean commercially recorded music that appeals to a mass audience. As for classical music, I refer to music composed with classical western practices. Nico Muhly is a twenty-first century, classically trained composer who is currently in a pop band called Bedroom Community. As for the composer’s classical achievements, he has written over eighty works for the concert stage, several operas, and choral works. His works have been performed by famous ensembles such as the Metropolitan Opera, the English national Opera in London and more. He is also a talented arranger. He has collaborated with artists such as Joanna Newsom and Sufija Stevens. Nico Muhly is also featured in performances with, popular Icelandic artist Thor Birgisson or Jónsi, from the ambient rock/ indie pop band Sigur Rós. Jónsi, and Nico collaborated to work on Jónsi’s album Go. Jónsi met Nico through an acquaintance that had shown him arrangements of Sam Amidon’s album All is Well by Nico. After listening to the album, Jonsi stated in an interview, “Whoa! This is perfect for my music! It was like this painting, a splash of colors that goes in and out not like a constant carpet over the music. So I was really excited about this collaboration, to get this crazy vibe, this color and texture all over the songs.” As a result of the mixture of classical composition and pop composition Nico has broadened the type of audiences he attracts. In addition, Nico’s contribution to these artists music has created depth in the texture making it unique in its sound. therefore it is no longer a simple, boring and repetitive pop song.

In response to Jónsi’s comment, Nico Muhly states, “I want to try something so outrageous for this, and I am just going to completely skeet all over its face!” Both artists worked on the album for months until they were both satisfied. In these songs, Nico Muhly combines minimalist composition techniques and pop writing. The differences between the two writing styles can be difficult to distinguish, but not impossible. It is common for pop music to contain repetitive melodies and layered sounds, but minimalist writing can also have those same traits. For example, Philip Glass, a minimalist composer and a former employer of Nico Muhly, composed continuously repeated musical phrases, or motives, that he layers on top of other motives. Nico used similar traits in the album, for example, the song Boy Lilikoi from the Go album. The song had several ostinatos layered with harmonies, and topped off with the melody sung by Jónsi. Unlike most minimal music, the song changed ostinatos as it progressed and was layered by many instruments, straying away from the idea of using the least amount of musical materials. The album was a hit. Reviews from BBC commented on Jónsi’s unique voice remaining one of modern music’s most “readily identifiable instruments.” The Pitchfork acknowledged Nico Muhly’s talent of realizing the symphonies in Jónsi’s head. As you can see, by combing minimalist techniques, Nico was successful in adding depth to pop music.

When a classical composer is integrated into the world of pop, the idea of pop music having no depth or for ignorant listeners is perceived differently. Like classical minimal music, repetition of phrases or motives are common characteristics in also found in pop music. Nico Muhly is a great example of a composer who uses minimalist traits in his classical music and incorporates these techniques in his pop collaborations. Therefore, pop music with a classical composer can change the stigma of pop when you have the talents of Nico Muhly.

Leroy Medina


Muhly, Nico. 2019. “Nico Muhly.” ART IN AMERICA 106 (11): 37. Accessed April 16.

Magnússon, Haukur S. “Nico And Jónsi GO ALL IN!” Nico Muhly RSS. Accessed April 16, 2019.

Dombal, Ryan, and Ryan Dombal. “Jónsi: Go.” Pitchfork. April 05, 2010. Accessed April 16, 2019. “Nico And Jónsi GO ALL IN!” The Reykjavik Grapevine. December 15, 2015. Accessed April 16, 2019.

The Revival of Classical Music

Nico Muhly is one of the most prominent composers of the 21st century. This graduate of Juilliard boasts an incredible list of accomplishments, ranging from composing music for Oscar-winning movies such as “The Reader”, to becoming the “youngest composer”[1] to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. Muhly’s success, however, extends beyond the recognition and respect he has earned in the classical music industry. Whether through the very current and trending topics he uses in his operas, the refusal to label his music and his openness to experimentation, or the relaxed and approachable image he presents of himself, Muhly is redefining the classical music scene. Essentially, Muhly is encouraging the revival of classical music by making it more approachable and relatable to the expectations and the norm of today’s society.

One of Muhly’s talents is his ability to compose operas with a “socio-political timeliness”[2] that prove their relevance to the important topics of today. His debut opera, Two Boys, explores the dangers created by modern technology on relationships and social interaction, and serves as a warning of the dark side of the Internet. This complex work holds its storyline on the frontier of technology and presents an allegory of “sexual yearning”[3], awakening and mysterious corners of the web. With such an intriguing and significant topic, Muhly attracts today’s generation, providing them with a narrative that is all too real and grim to be ignored. The best way to grab someone’s attention is to elicit strong emotions in them, and shock seems to be the most reliable way to achieve that. Using this tactic, Muhly incorporates yet another shocking and provocative theme in his opera, Dark Sisters. The opera features a discussion of polygamy in the “Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”[4], a much ignored, yet enthralling topic. By disclosing such gripping stories, Muhly is well underway to gaining a larger audience while at the same time expanding interest in classical music.

“Muhly considers his merging of the conservatory and pop to be more generational than personal. ‘I think that whatever I’m doing is pretty firmly outside the academy, but with definite roots there’.”[5] Muhly, like most 21st century composers, is keeping up with the trends of the modern times. Even though he does not like his music to be labeled as a specific genre, as he states that “genre does not matter anymore”[6], the experimentation with, as well as the cohesion between the traditional values of Western art classical tradition and popular music, is apparent in his writing. By combining styles of music that are on the opposite side of the spectrum, Muhly is building a bridge between lovers of classical music and lovers of popular music, merging them together into one unified group. This is Muhly’s way of keeping classical music significant-by cherishing its values, while, at the same time, creating an original voice that is appealing to the minds’ of younger generations.

Nico Muhly is a perfect representation of how to survive and succeed as a contemporary composer. “Respected business authors stress that the economy going forward will be more dependent than ever on entrepreneurs,”[7]. Muhly serves as a true entrepreneur, utilizing his undeniable charm to attract the audience. The seemingly nonchalant image he presents of himself is carefully chosen. By humanizing himself and being an “ardent user of Twitter”[8], a blog writer and a passionate cook and runner, Muhly is creating personal relationships with his audience and fan base, and fostering the image of a warm, relatable “everyday guy”. Most importantly, he is promoting the engagement and connection of the audience to his music, therefore securing the future and the vitality of classical music.


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Careers.” American Music Teacher 63, no. 5 (2014): 43-45. (accessed April 17, 2019).

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April 17, 2019.

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Met.” Nico Muhly RSS, New York Times, 22 Oct. 2013,’s-ambitious-‘two-boys’-makes-its-american-debut-at-the-met/.

Whittington, Lewis. “Nico Muhly Takes Opera in New Directions with ‘Dark Sisters’.” Nico

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[1]  Anthony Tommasini, “Nico Muhly’s Ambitious ‘Two Boys’ Makes Its American Debut at the Met,” Nico Muhly RSS, New York Times, 22 Oct. 2013,’s-ambitious-‘two-boys’-makes-its-american-debut-at-the-met/.

[2] Gale Martin, “Opera Phila’s Dark Sisters Powerfully Illuminates Female Suffering,” By Bachtrack for Classical Music, Opera, Ballet and Dance Event Reviews, Bachtrack Ltd, 12 Feb. 2013,

[3] Tommassini,  “Nico Muhly’s Ambitious ‘Two Boys’ Makes Its American Debut at the Met,”,’s-ambitious-‘two-boys’-makes-its-american-debut-at-the-met/.

[4] Lewis Whittington,  “Nico Muhly Takes Opera in New Directions with ‘Dark Sisters’,” Nico Muhly RSS, 2012, Accessed April 17, 2019,

[5] Paul Sullivan,  “Cool and Calmly Composed: Nico Muhly, Changing the Face of Classical Music,” The National, September 03, 2010, Accessed April 17, 2019,

[6] Tristan Kraft, “Instant Message,” OPERA NEWS – Instant Message, October 2013, Accessed April 17, 2019,

[7] Shana Kirk,  “Random Access: Working Together To Prepare Music Students For 21st-century Careers,” American Music Teacher 63, no. 5 (2014): 45,, accessed April 17, 2019.

[8] Paul Sullivan,  “Cool and Calmly Composed: Nico Muhly, Changing the Face of Classical Music,”

By Ivana Biliskov

Reconstructing the “Canon”

Although century-old musicians and composers were previously seen on a lower social status, current artists must follow the mentally exhausting upkeep of the idealistic perception that musicians must be “obedient and flawless” for art’s sake. Within the classical music world, the stigma that musicians, conductors, and composers must hold themselves up to the highest standards and excellency in their profession is admirable but nonetheless a bit nonsensical. From performance etiquette to eloquence and musical expression, the demands of classical music require such perfectionism that it ultimately seeps into the daily life and behavior of musicians and artists. Nico Muhly, an American composer, has expressed a concern about the toxic nature of a culture that solely focuses on the classical ideals of such narcissistic behavior and brings attention to the reality that artists are imperfect humans in the global scheme of the musical world.

Prior to the nineteenth century, musicians were “servants to aristocratic circles” and composed music for entertainment to the upper social class and courts. Jason Dobney states that the access and rise of middle-class musicians lead to era of “Romanticism,” which opened up “new opportunities for earning a livelihood as a musician or composer”. Musical entertainment transitioned from small court audiences to large and extravagant events of orchestral and operatic performances that would show off virtuosic and “flawless” musicians who were viewed in a perfect light. The development of musicianship went beyond creating a nice, small atmosphere and thus musicians and composers were able to sell their music to an audience, albeit with the price of perfectionism and sanity. While we are currently in the 21st century, the traditional expectations of maintaining a marketable sound to audiences is ingrained within the rules of etiquette and social rules placed upon classical musicians in their own world.

Within the Cincinnati Metropolitan Orchestra’s rehearsal etiquette guide, a musician must balance between always being prepared at a moment’s notice and being obedient in the thousands of rules that lead to a “perfect” rehearsal. When translated to a performance, if a musician is unable to perform without a single mistake other fellow musician will have a more negative perception of that person (personal experience). Furthermore, the performer who was unable to have a “perfect” performance is left with a lowered sense of self even if they receive praise from fellow musicians or audience members. In the article, “The Role of the Composer,” Nash shows us that even composers are placed into a similar role of producing music that must appease other artists; the failure of producing art that is worthy leads the composer to having lowered self-esteem from the negative criticism and narcissism from other musicians. Additionally, composers may feel pressured to create music that appeals to their audience (other musicians) rather than create music simply because it is enjoyable to themselves.

In his “Thoughts on Being Well” blog, Muhly has expressed his concern about the toxicity that follows a musician in their pursuit to create, and ultimately expect perfection from himself and others. He states that the obsession derived from his “quality control” behaviour lead him to edit his music into the late hours beside his pervasive thoughts of the musicians who will perform his music. Even Muhly himself believed that “Once I get anybody else involved on any level, though, I expect, unfairly, for them to have spent the same amount of time and energy doing their jobs as I’d done mine”, creating an expectation that may be unachievable to some musicians who are not as developed in their skill as others in the field. Unfortunately, this type of negative practice permeates other life situations, such as when Muhly expressed annoyance at people who did not effectively or correctly do their job or task (even outside of the musical world). While Muhly’s shows that anyone, even a composer, can have toxic and narcissistic behaviours, his blog demonstrates that being aware of such actions may be corrected and changed if one is willing to address the “accepted” and “expected” behaviours of classical musicians.

– Ashley Venegas


“Rehearsal Etiquette.” Cincinnati Metropolitan Orchestra. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Brock, Kev. “How to Recognize a Narcissist Musician in 10 Steps.” K’Brocking. (accessed April 16, 2019).

Dobney, Jayson Kerr. “Nineteenth-Century Classical Music.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Muhly, Nico. “Thoughts on Being Well.” Nico Muhly. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Mulcahy, Holly. “How To Alienate Your Audience in 10 Easy Steps: Musicians.” Neo Classical. (accessed April 16, 2019).

Nash, Dennison. “The Role of the Composer (Part I).” Ethnomusicology 5, no. 2 (1961): 81-94. (accessed April 15, 2019).

The Culture Surrounding Health and Wellness in Music

Nico Muhly is a young composer who has spoken publicly about his mental health. He writes a blog where he discusses his struggles with depression. In doing so, Muhly has also been vocal about removing the stigma surrounding composers and their mental illnesses. In an interview with Noted Endeavors, Muhly discusses the perception surrounding Brahms’ and Beethoven’s music. Muhly states that the focus of these composers has not been their compositional techniques, but rather the focus is on the mental and emotional experiences that each composer has been through. By bringing the mental health of musicians to the foreground, it is important to look at the culture that has developed around professional musicians and music teachers alike. 

In a study by Deborah Pierce, she looked at the psychological tendencies of musicians along with the causes and effects of different aspects of being a musician. Researchers from several different disciplines including medicine, music education, gifted education, and more found patterns with music students and teachers. Some common findings were self-esteem issues, narcissism, and constant pressure to push themselves harder. Shedding light on the commonalities shows several characteristics many musicians develop including perfectionism, narcissism, and a primary emphasis on competition. These characteristics that are often taught throughout music programs can cause a lot of stress, affect self-esteem, and ultimately “burn a student out”. Roland S. Persson labeled this phenomenon as “maestro syndrome.” Persson says that maestro syndrome is the results of musicians being in an environment that is based primarily on “survival of the fittest”. Knowing that being a professional musician is competitive, and the field as a whole is very demanding physically and mentally, it begs the questions – what change, if any, can be done to change this culture?

To start, there are several different aspects of a music education that can be changed to allow students to work in a healthier way. The primary way to address this would be a shift away from an emphasis put on challenge and competition, and the focus be shifted to the process of being a musician. The results of focusing on the process can produce more positive results for students, rather than a focus on working for a competition. This is highlighted in Constructing Musical Healing: The Wounds That Sing by Boyce Tillman. Tillman says that having a balance between competition and creativity work together to give a well-rounded, balanced education experience. Along with mental changes, the understanding of physical health would allow musicians to be more successful. 

Music educators play a very important role in the development of healthy practicing habits in students. If a music teacher pushes their students very hard, and creates a very competitive environment, the student may practice a lot. However, that does not mean the student should practice several hours a day or has the knowledge of how to do so safely. According to Judy Palac, there are four main areas of concern for musician’s physical health. These areas are: the voice, muscle health, hearing conservation, and dealing with the stress of music. Palac says that having an understanding of the mechanics and methods of care for these four areas is critical for educators and musicians to have long, healthy career.

Trice Mayhall


Palac, Judy. “Collaborating For Musical Health And Wellness: It Takes A Village.” American Music Teacher 64, no. 6 (2015): 28-30.

Palac, Judy. “Promoting Musical Health, Enhancing, Musical Performance: Wellness for Music Students.” Music Educators Journal 94, no. 3 (2008): 18-22.

Pierce, Deborah L. “Rising to a New Paradigm: Infusing Health and Wellness into the Music Curriculum.” Philosophy of Music Education Review 20, no. 2 (2012): 154-76. doi:10.2979/philmusieducrevi.20.2.154.

“The Medical Problems of Musicians.” American Music Teacher 50, no. 6 (2001): 21-25.

An unidentified approach to compositional style

Many modern composers have embraced a genre of classical music as a style that they feel comfortable writing in. Most composers can be categorized into a particular style or described in a certain way. In the case of Nico Muhly, he feels that he cannot quite name his style of composition or genre and he does not want to. According to various sources, some call Muhly “post-minimalistic.” He has also infused his music with pop influence. His style of writing has been described as simple, interesting, and “diaphanous,” or translucent. His music has been said to be the link between Philip Glass and Benjamin Britten. His music has been called “small” and “elegant” and occasionally “abrasive”. The varying descriptions continue and continue.

With so many different descriptions, is it really possible to place a label on Nico Muhly’s music? Probably not. However, in his creative world, that is just how Muhly wants it to be. In an interview with the New York Times, Muhly talked about what his “signature sound” is saying that it was not something he was ready to define. He stated, “The moment you’re like, ‘This is the grammar,’ it stops being a secret. Inasmuch as I’m in a daily process to uncover the grammar of what it is I am doing and use that, I also don’t want to know where it ends.”

Instead of associating himself with a genre or style of composition, Muhly prefers to talk about the things that inspire his music, whether that be the music of others, or the sounds around him – whatever they may be. In a discussion about his composition “Drones and Piano” he stated that he was inspired by the fact that we are always surrounded by sounds. He mentioned the idea of singing with the vacuum cleaner. We are accustomed to existing and making music with the “hum” of the world around us present in the sound. Muhly explores that in some of his compositions.

His awareness of the world around him combined with his restlessness has led to him making musical sense of what others might perceive to be nonsense sounds. He said in a blog that when on a plane – while it is idling – you can hear certain pitches. Most people probably would not care to think about what those pitches are, but Muhly’s restless nature has led him to pay attention to his surroundings and feel their presence, making him feel that these sounds should be incorporated into music.

Muhly has also been highly influenced by other composers. However, his biggest influences have been from composers that are not of the same genre, which has led Muhly to create an ambiguous genre of his own. His first influence was early on when he sang a motet by William Byrd with his school choir. Another big influence on Muhly was Philip Glass. However, it was not the stereotypical Glass that most have come to know like Einstein on the Beach. He was struck by the Part 1 of Music in 12 Parts. He stated that the sheer “familiarity” and the “organic” quality of the music connected with him on a different level.

It is safe to say that familiarity is what Muhly may be after when he composes. He is aiming to write something meaningful that will connect to any type of audience and that is easy to understand. However, despite that neither he nor his listeners can quite put a label on it.

-Michelle Shaheen

Works cited:
Anderson, Martin. “London, Coliseum: Nico Muhly’s ‘Two Boys’.” Tempo 65, no. 258 (2011): 56-57. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Barlow, Jill. “London, King’s Place: Nico Muhly and Alvin Curran.” Tempo 67, no. 266 (2013): 82-83. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Greene, Jason. “Nico Muhly: Drones.” Pitchfork. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Muhly, Nico. “Nico Muhly’s ‘Mathematical, Organic And Achingly Beautiful’ Philip Glass. ” NPR. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Steve Smith. “Young composer finds his fuel in restlessness.” New York Times, March 11, 2007. (accessed April 14, 2019).

The Digitization of Performing Rights

The bussiness of licensing public performance-rights had an important growth during the last  few years after the new millennium. Part of that evolution is thanks to the inclusion of new technologies. All this gave the business more and new possibilities of how to get, collect, and track licensed performances through the country. To have a better understanding of technology´s role in this business, it is necessary to know first the business position during the beginning of the new millennium.

William Velez stablished in his essay Performing-rights collectives that in the years between 1990 and 2000, the competition between organizations like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC took an important role during the performing-rights history. ASCAP and BMI were sharing 90 percent of the performing-rights market so they didn´t had the necessity of making improvements in their systems, even though new types of music were starting to be included in the performing-rights system. On the other hand, SESAC was the first to launch new technologies to improve counting musical performances, giving SESAC the lead in the mainstream of the radio format.

With the arrival of new technologies, people inside the music business began to think about how this would impact the market of performing-rights in the first years of the new millennium, so they made predictions of how this would have worked.

In my perspective, I partially agree with Velez´s perspective. I agree that new technologies changed the ways music is listened to. he also mentioned that companies will make the transition to new technological methods to get lower cost production. Technological advances open a huge variety of possibilities of how to update systems of tracking objects, including performances. Technologies like the internet helps to develop new tracking methods.

As mentioned before, the internet helps people to develop systems for tracking performances methods, but before that happened, the internet opened new ways to change how people listen to music. The most important change is the use of digital software to improve actions like writing, reading, among others. Those systems expanded into more sophisticated actions like communication with the development of the cellphone, email, etc. That expansion arrives to the music performing rights business. The internet grew to a scale that companies started to create digital platforms which gives clients access to a good amount of music in exchange of a monthly fee. The digitalization of the music has made such a huge impact that ASCAP and BMI joined into the digital world by making licenses contracts with companies like Spotify and Apple.

With the new way to make business, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC made the decision to digitize their tracking systems, for example, ASCAP uses a system called Census survey that allows them to precisely count performances with a low-cost production and it´s conducted using state-of-the-art technology. With the new systems working well, companies started to become stuck with royalty payments because the process of payments remained in the analog world. That problem remained until October of 2018 the Orrin G. Hatch–Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act was signed into law. This proposition modernizes the copyright law and the complete process of performing licenses and helps composers to receive improved royalty payments for their works when they streamed.

The point of this is to notice how everything has changed in just a few years. The digitalization of the music opens new ways to track licenses, to hear music, and to make new contracts in the industry of the performing-rights and it is growing so fast that even the law  changed to keep surviving in a constantly changing digital world. If those changes remained, we can probably watch the disappearance of actual analog/digital services like Radio, TV cable, CD´s business in exchange of utilize full digital format files of audio and video. 

Alejandro Carrillo Pastrana


Mcfarlane, Gavin, and David Sanjek. 2014 “Performing rights societies.” Grove Music Online. 19Feb.2019.

 Velez William, ¨ Performing-rights Collectives: Dinosaurs of the new millennium?. ¨ in Reflections on American music. edited by Michael J. Budds, 365-373. Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon Press, 2000.

Bromley Jordan, ¨The Music Modernization Act: What Is It & Why Does It Matter? (Guest Column) ¨. Billboard. (accessed February 18, 2019).

BMI, ¨BMI Explains What the Music Modernization Act Means for Songwriters and Composers. ¨ BMI. (accessed February 18, 2019).

Vesper Sparrow and the connection between two techniques

Missy Mazzolis´ Vesper Sparrow is a choral work that employs two vocal techniques to create unique sonic colors. As its title suggests, the purpose of this piece is to imitate the territorial song of the vesper sparrow. The composer combines Eastern and Western vocal techniques to achieve the right effect for the work. The result is a polyphonic texture rich in guttural timbres that combine perfectly with the pure timbres of the Western technique. However, how is it possible to get the choir to change between techniques during the performance? The answer lies in the similarities between both techniques.

The Eastern vocal technique, better known as  overtone singing, is the one that the singer manipulates the resonances created as air travels from the lung to phonate sounds and create melodies. To achieve this phenomenon, it is necessary to alter the vocal tract in the same way as in western classical vocal technique to produce the required sound. Like classical singing, the study of the overtone singing centers on the same bases of breathing, posture, and phonation, but differs in resonance. In  overtone singing, the resonance focuses on the alterations of the vocal tract to phonate the overtone. In classical singing, the vocal tract alteration works for changes in the vowel, register, and timbre. These are some differences and similarities between both techniques to show that they are not different. Both techniques seek the correct, natural, and safe phonation for correct performance. However, this is only the beginning of the answer to the question of how to change between techniques during the performance.

When the chorister and the conductor find the similarities in the techniques, it is time to make a vocal exploration to achieve the change between techniques. The exploration begins with vocal exercises that are set by the conductor for the connection between registers using pure unmodified vowels. The guttural vowel is open and bright, but entirely placed in the chest area and phonated in the area of ​​the vocal tract. When finding the correct opening of the vowel, automatically start listening to the overtone at the same time as the main note. In the case of this piece (Vesper sparrow), it is necessary to make a different modification in the opening of the vowel to avoid the resonance of the overtone. To avoid the overtone resonance, it is necessary to remove a little bit the brightness of the vowel; One option is to round the vowel shape to give that effect. Once these explorations have mastered, the practice of changing registers with their respective modifications to sing the desired sounds has to begin immediately. It is important to do several repetitions to get the correct muscle memory to be able to sing these dramatic timbre changes instantly. The result of all these processes is an immediate, healthy, and quality change between open guttural vowels and pure and covered vowels.

It is impressive how the composer manages to exploit the maximum potential of the human voice, leading to perceive the vocal technique in different ways to achieve a unique sound. All this can only be possible if the choir and the conductor have a vast mastery of the vocal technique to achieve these modifications healthily. It is not recommended that amateur choirs  try these modifications, since it can cause problems that are difficult to correct.

Alejandro Carrillo Pastrana.


Hinds, Stuart. ¨How to Teach Overtone Singing to Your Choir.¨ The Choral Journal  Vol. 51, No. 3 (October 2010): 34-43. (accessed March 28, 2019).

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Skoog, William.¨Use of Image and Metaphor in Developing Vocal Technique in Choirs.¨ Music Educators Journal Vol. 90, No. 5 (May 20114): 43-48. (accessed March 27, 2019).

“Victoire” for All

In our time, women have become increasingly vocal about gender-equality and they hope to create more opportunities for careers outside of “normal” female job positions. Certainly, there has been some growth and additional options for women to have a career in male-dominated positions, yet female musicians, conductors, and composers still have a difficult time with this particular matter. While there is some level of recognition, in regards to female musicians (typically non-classical), female composers are often ignored within their own community. Most individuals in the world, regardless of gender, can name off a few well-known or obscure composers but they are typically male composers; even female musicians struggle to list any female composers, despite understanding the gender disparity themselves. Missy Mazzoli, a female performer and composer, has assisted in creating an environment that is geared towards teaching and including more female musicians while promoting gender-equality in the musician’s workplace.

According to a 2014-2015 Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey, relating to the number of featured women composers in American orchestras, only about 1.8% of the performed works were from female composers and only about 14% of them were living composers. While these statistics are about 5 years old, the survey has brought attention to the lack of diversity, not only in the composition field, but towards female musicians in general. In a recent Donne- Women in Music report, Europe had about “97.6% of classical and contemporary classical music performed in the last three seasons written by men, leaving a paltry 2.3% written by women”. In Niese’s article “Women Composers: Why Are So Many Voices Still Silent?’, we are shown how past female musicians, Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, were negatively affected by sexism. Clara and Alma were expected to give up their musicianship for a marriage, both their husbands dismissive of their musical intellect and compositional skills. In the 1994 article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Composers?,” Gates shows us that women have largely been left out music history and music classrooms despite evidence of capable female musicians and composers from the past. While the statistics rack up, it is undeniable that women have had a mixed relationship in musical careers and lifestyle but there is current evidence that women are becoming vocal about this gender situation.

Mazzoli, a living female musician and composer, often commissions music for operas, orchestras, soloists, and chamber ensembles. When she was a young girl, she was pianist but a revelation guided her to choose a composition lifestyle at the age of ten. Thus, for college, Mazzoli attended the Boston University and Yale School of Music for her B.M and M.M., and received a graduate study at the Royal Conservatory of Den Haag. In her most recent years, Mazzoli has gained traction as a musical educator to both youths, and college-level students. She is currently a faculty member at the Mannes School of Music teaching compositional lessons to any gendered undergraduate and graduate-level students. In 2016, Mazzoli and another female composer, Ellen Reid, partnered with the Kaufman Music center in order to create an organization called the Luna Composition Lab (LCL). The organization LCL has a mission to “[provide] mentorship and professional opportunities for female composers”, but they also open their doors to nonbinary and gender-conforming teen students as well. Interestingly, Mazzoli is also the founder of an all-female band called Victoire,which features a chamber-pop instrumental set up and performs in an indie classical music style. Even her operatic works, such as Song from an Uproar and Breaking the Waves, feature female-leads whose lives dealt with sexism, but their roles go beyond the simple “domesticated housewife” or “damsel-in-distress” character type; of course, Mazzoli was commissioned for these works and she understood the storyline beforehand, but she chose these works due to the unique female roles.

Overall, it is clear that Mazzoli is a strong role-model as she teaches young female students that it is possible to go beyond gender stereotypes within the musical world as both a performer and composer. She has expressed annoyance due to gender issues, often stating that “With women, people are always waiting to see proof…before they give you an opportunity” but she challenged and fought against the odds (even becoming 1 out 2 female composers to receive a commission from the Metropolitan Opera). She does not feel that she is a risk, due to her gender, as “[she’s] sold out every opera [she’s] ever put on the stage” and desires to diffuse the stigma that female musicians and composers “aren’t capable” of becoming well-known. It is encouraging, as a fellow female musician, that there are women who seek to establish equality among this musical field and provides a sense of encouragement to future women musicians and composers.       

– Ashley Venegas


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“Faculty: Missy Mazzoli.” The New School Mannes. (accessed March 28, 2019).

Fox, MeiMei. “This Musician Is Dedicated To Gender Equity In Her Male-Dominated Field.” Forbes. (accessed March 27, 2019).

Gates, Eugene. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Composers? Psychological Theories, Past and Present.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 28, no. 2 (1994): 27-34. (accessed March 28, 2019).

London, Samantha. “Missy Mazzoli: Examining the American Dream Onstage.” National Sawdust. (accessed March 28, 2019).

Looseleaf, Victoria. “Fissures in Opera’s Glass Ceiling: Women in Opera.” KCET. (accessed March 27, 2019).

Madonna, Zoe. “Missy Mazzoli Is The 21st Century’s Gatecrasher Of New Classical Music.” NPR. (accessed March 27, 2019).

Midgette, Anne. “Steeped in Guns N’ Roses and Philip Glass, Missy Mazzoli is a leading composer of her generation.” The Washington Post. (accessed March 27, 2019).

“Missy Mazzoli.” Foundation for Contemporary Arts. (accessed March 28, 2019).

“Missy Mazzoli: A New Opera and New Attitude For Classical Music.” NPR. (accessed March 28, 2019).

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Oteri, Frank. “Missy Mazzoli: Communication, Intimacy, and Vulnerability.” NewMusicBox. (accessed March 27, 2019).

Smith, Steve. “Crackling Vignettes from an Adventurer’s Life.” The New York Times. (accessed March 28, 2019).

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Zeilinger, Julie. “An interview with groundbreaking composer Missy Mazzoli”. WMC FBOMB. (accessed March 27, 2019).

Know Your Audience: Similar Modifications to Classical Performance Culture Across Opposite Ends of the Musical Spectrum

Missy Mazzoli, born in 1980 in rural Pennsylvania, grew up with little exposure to the “new” classical music of her day. Rather, she developed a keen affinity for Ludwig van Beethoven, taking it upon herself to learn all she could from his life and music. However, now an established composer on the new classical scene, her music could be described as anything but “classical”, in fact some critics, such as Zoë Madonna for NPR, have even commented that “I’d play [her music] for people who would never go to a classical concert.” Mazzolli career is now tied to her connection to the “typical” life of a classical composer; she is now a composition faculty member at Mannes College at The New School of Music in New York, a classical music conservatory, and her work is regularly commissioned by some of the world’s leading classical symphony orchestras.

Jonny Greenwood, born in 1971 in Oxford, England, also benefited from an early exposure to Great classical music as a violist in numerous youth orchestras. However, his career as the lead guitarist for one of the world’s most famous rock bands, Radiohead, while influenced by his classical upbringing, did not at all follow within the Western classical tradition. Nevertheless, his interest in the unique collaboration between composer and performer, which occurs in the classical world drew him to deepen his work as a “classical” composer, including the creation of numerous award-winning film scores. But in the end, the word “classical” seems to be a similarly unsuitable word to define either Mazzoli’s, or Greenwood’s music.

These two composers, while seemingly existing on opposite ends of the spectrum, in fact share more characteristics in common with each other than differences; most notably, their similar views on performance practice and classical concert hall culture. Exemplified by her creation of a modern “band”, Victoire, as an outlet for her compositions, Mazzoli seeks a different interaction with an audience than most traditional concert hall experiences can provide. At the same time, Greenwood has been outspoken in his views of the “peculiar” nature of the “off-putting” classical concert culture, claiming that they have “lost their original purpose.” However, this does not mean that he believes classical music is tied to this method of presentation. In fact, he described a recent project with the London Contemporary Orchestra as “… all about trying to play classical music in slightly different venues with a slightly less uptight atmosphere than is usually found in concerts.”

Through her activity with Victoire, Missy Mazzoli, who listed Julia Wolfe as one of her main influences, could clearly fall in line with a culture of new classical performance championed by the now famous Bang on a Can – a group created by Wolfe and one of Mazzoli’s main mentors at Yale University, David Lang. This contemporary classical group, who flirt within the blurred lines between the pop and classical worlds, define themselves as “dedicated to making music new”. Their programs, self described as “inventive and aggressive”, share the value of contemporary classical music with a wider age group; no doubt, in response to the “aging” and “white-haired” patrons of the majority of orchestras active today.

In their aim to connect with a wider group of audience members than those present at a typical classical symphony concert, and their goal to create a different kind of musical experience, both Greenwood and Mazzolli speak to a larger issue within the classical world: its relevance to the modern era. They both express concern with how the chosen method of presentation of their music can be more inviting and engaging for their audiences, regardless of genre. However, in direct contrast to these perceived shortcomings of the classical genre, composer Aaron Gervais seems perfectly content with that fact that classical music is meant for older audiences, saying we should “stop apologizing” classical concerts. “You don’t see punk bands trying to attract grandmothers. Stop pretending your concerts are for everyone. Be honest about who you’re programming for, then make a program those people will like.”

Chris Beroes-Haigis


Gervais, Aaron. “Classical Concerts Are Great. Stop Apologizing For Them.”, Aaron Gervais Blog,

Patterson, Colin. “Live Classical ‘off-putting’ says Jonny Greenwood”, BBC, October 10th, 2014.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “Interview with CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Missy Mazzoli”, October 18th, 2018, YouTube,

Madonna, Zoë. “Missy Mazzoli is the 21st Century’s Gatecrasher Of New Classical Music”, NPR, November 16th, 2018,

Bang on a Can, “About Us”, Bang on a Can,

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