Making The I-Hop



When I was living in Amsterdam, American composers would often write to ask, “How can I get my music performed over there?” My usual response was come visit! Of course, setting out to establish one’s music in another country can feel overwhelming; it’s often problematic enough getting your music played in your own town! But overseas performances don’t have to remain a distant fantasy. Here are some thoughts about how you can approach this daunting—but ultimately rewarding—task.

Making a trip to meet performers, composers, and presenters—or tacking such an excursion onto a vacation—is certainly the most direct way to introduce your music to a new place. But you must think of yourself as more than just a composer; in traveling to a foreign land, you also become a de-facto cultural ambassador and full-time student of society. It is therefore worthwhile to transform the above question into: “How can I have an enriching and satisfying experience overseas?” This holistic approach may seem incomplete, but ultimately it will be much more fruitful. Integrating yourself into a new country’s musical scene is not something that happens overnight; it takes time, commitment, hard work, and continual nurturing, and it will certainly not evolve in the way you expect. The shortest distance between two points in time—now and the date of your first international performance—will not trace a straight line, so make the decision at the outset to enjoy your unique journey.

If the “exploratory excursion” busts your budget, you may have to get creative in order to finance your trip. For those with academic jobs, your school may offer funds to defray the cost of airfare, hotel, and other expenses. Employment with a professional ensemble, venue, or foundation may carry similar perks, or you might suggest such a trip to your boss, if you can identify ways that it would assist the organization. If you are a good writer, you might be able to find a publication that would help cover your expenses in exchange for a blog or an article. The more unorthodox your potential funding source, the less competition you will have.

Think globally, act locally

In your quest to seek international fame and fortune (or at least fame), a great deal can be accomplished here in the States. Start off by reading Todd Reynolds’s excellent article about the ensemble/composer relationship and apply his advice to your global perspective. Next, do some research on the music scene in the country you’ll be visiting. Identify which American composers are played most often there. Some American music seems to travel better, and certain countries reveal a fondness for particular composers or trends (though this may simply indicate which types they have been exposed to). Try to narrow your sights to one city, especially if you’re dealing with a rather populous or diverse country. It would be overwhelming—and not particularly useful—to try and identify all potential venues for your music in France or Japan; better to concentrate on Marseilles or Kyoto. Of course, it helps if you’re choosing a place in which you have a genuine interest, beyond its contemporary music scene.

Web surf’s up!

The Internet is an indispensable tool for research. One of the most useful publications is the Gaudeamus Information Newsletter, published in Holland twice a year and updated continually online. It contains a range of information for composers and new music enthusiasts of all different stripes. Students or emerging composers should look for workshops and courses like Domaine Forget in Québec, the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme at Aldeburgh, the Vancouver Creative Music Institute, New Music Indaba in South Africa, the International Young Composers Meeting in Apeldoorn (info on Gaudeamus website), or Ostrava Days in the Czech Republic. Fulbright and Rotary Fellowships, though very competitive for certain countries like France or Germany, can be considerably easier to secure for less traveled places like Uzbekistan, Uruguay, or Uganda; for some countries there aren’t even enough applicants to fill available slots! More established composers should check fellowships like the Rome Prize, the Sacatar Foundation in Brazil—both of which include airfare—Ircam in Paris, ArtsLink for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, or the Japan Foundation. Some of these courses, fellowships, and residencies include performances and showcases of your music, which can lead to other possibilities. A ton of information is available from the Foundation Center, which costs a small fee to join. It can also be useful to get in touch with the U.S. Consulates and Embassies. There may be a cultural attaché, who can help to introduce you to folks in the local arts scene.

Once you’ve settled on where you want to go, create a contact list. Ask friends whether they know people you should meet in your chosen country, especially contacts who speak some English if you are unfamiliar with the local language. Set up appointments before you visit, so that when you arrive you can make the most of your limited time. Don’t start by asking for connections; just schedule a meeting to talk and listen. Be patient. It can take a while for anything to happen, and Americans—especially ones from big cities—can easily get frustrated by slow, or no, results. Remember, hearing about a cheap apartment can be as valuable as connecting with an excellent musician. Attuning yourself to a foreign country is something like assembling a jigsaw puzzle; you can spend a great deal of time feeling lost, then all of a sudden the right pieces fit together in a way you didn’t quite anticipate.

Identify overseas institutions which can be of help. Many countries—from Norway to New Zealand—have contemporary music centers or foundations devoted to jazz, improvised music, electronic music, folk, or even pop music; the International Association of Music Information Centres publishes a list. Most of them have websites and newsletters with important listings for composers—the equivalent of the American Music Center’s Opportunity Update, the American Composers Forum‘s bulletin, or the Calendar for New Music. Contact them well in advance of your trip and set up a meeting for the first day you’re there. Correspond in advance to learn whom you might meet while you’re in town and what festivals are happening. You might even decide to plan your trip around a major festival, like Warsaw Autumn, Umbria Jazz, the Adelaide Festival, or the World Music Days of the International Society for Contemporary Music. If the subject of your music comes up during the correspondence, refer them to a website or an article about you. If you have enough time, send them a CD or share a site where they can download or listen to your mp3s (like the AMC’s NewMusicJukebox). Don’t bother sending scores unless asked; they’re too bulky and not really of much help when trying to introduce most folks to your music. Send perhaps one or two pieces on a CD, works that you consider to be your most representative and compelling.

Contemporary music outside of America is often featured at local or national festivals, some of which last for weeks. It’s worth checking out the Gaudeamus bulletin and other new music journals to see which festivals and ensembles are the most pro-active in the country where you’re going.

You say goodbye and I say hello

You’ll most likely have strong first impressions of the “natives” upon your arrival, some reinforced by preconceptions. Don’t worry; the folks there will also have impressions (and preconceptions) of you. Americans have a reputation abroad for being friendly, outgoing, and dynamic, open to fresh angles and new relationships. Europeans, in particular, envy the fact that we come to the artistic drawing board less hindered by the weight of history (though in improvised music, these tables are sometimes reversed). That said, we can also be seen in a negative light—as self-promoting, ignorant, superficial, disingenuous, and stubbornly independent. Americans may perceive foreigners in equally suspicious ways, as dogmatic, aloof, stiff, jaded, and lacking polish.

The best way to break down those stereotypes is to be conscious of them. Attempt to view things from your host county’s perspective. Sometimes other cultures and countries have a completely different way of handling every aspect of a performance, from financial transactions to programming to planning. If you’re in Caracas, try and imagine how America fits into a Venezuelan’s vision of music, and of the world in general. Apply your acquired knowledge of their arts, politics, history, religious life, and culture. Ask for candid views of America and of American music. You are bound to find out information which will be useful to you. Before you know it, you may find yourself appreciating—even incorporating—some of their approaches, and you may discover nuances of your own personality of which you were unaware.

Du bist ein Berliner

The more interest you show in a foreign country’s culture, the more likely it is that they will be inclined to open up to you. In many countries, promoting your music directly can seem rude or inappropriate. You should also seriously apply yourself to studying the language. Conductor Steven Burns of Fulcrum Point cites “lack of language proficiency” as a key obstacle to American composers procuring performances overseas. Especially when abroad for more than a month, learning the language will offer you more self-reliance and allow you to communicate—and by extension, network—on a much deeper level. Just knowing the phrases for “hello” and “thank you” in Bulgarian will remove huge barriers and so it’s well worth the time it takes to learn to pronounce. If you’re in Bulgaria, that is.

In addition to the language and history, the particular type of music-making in a country or region may provide clues to successful compositional approaches. Yeesun Kim, cellist in the Borromeo Quartet, notes that “operatic singing is a deeply important part of Korean folk music. There are T.V. shows in which housewives, some of whom are fantastic singers, enter to compete in singing contests for popular and traditional music.” Composers can increase the likelihood of performances or commissions by tying their ideas to this kind of local tradition of style or instrumentation. This rule holds true for many other countries, especially ones in which folk culture remains vibrant. One is much more likely to engender high-quality (or, for that matter, any) performances in Senegal by writing works for djembe and kora than by composing for snare drum and harp. When teaching at the Universidade Federal de Bahia in Brazil, I found that almost two-thirds of the composition students at the conservatory were acoustic guitarists. After witnessing spontaneous guitar sing-alongs at every party I attended, I came to accept that this instrument had a special place in the society, one which transcended music. For composers seeking performances overseas, a creative approach to musical traditions already embedded within a culture can serve as a deeply effective starting point for new projects.

A franc assessment

Be sensitive to the financial situation in the country where you are traveling. Most places have different fee structures than in America, and you should try to work within their means. Commission fees in most countries are generally lower than in the U.S., but not always. Don’t be afraid to ask about money, but proceed cautiously; until you figure out how the system in a given country works, it’s often wisest to ask a fellow musician who is not directly involved with your project.

Government organizations are the most common source of funding in other countries, which can be both a help and a hindrance. Conductor Clark Rundell, director of contemporary music at the Royal Northern College of Music, points out that “many ensembles have an obligation to play music by local composers and many national organizations will only commission composers from that country.” This situation dims prospects for American composers seeking money through official channels. So if you’re looking for a sponsor, search first in the U.S. Meet the Composer offers “Global Connections Awards” which allow composers to pursue individual projects abroad. Private individuals—notably those affiliated with the country or city in question—may also be a viable option. Or find a company that does business overseas and see if they will help sponsor a project (foreign companies which do business in the U.S. are also a good bet).

Ask not what your country can do for me…

Many overseas performers and groups are eager to play in the U.S., and some may pay more attention to your music if you can help them organize a tour here. A composer delivering a score and recording may not garner immediate attention from an ensemble, but a composer who engages them in a dialogue about performance opportunities is unlikely to be ignored. Help them make connections in the U.S.—to venues, festivals, press, or presenters—or simply help plan a concert, perhaps (but not necessarily) one including your music. One can either take a cynical view of such actions as being “politically motivated” or see them as an empathetic gesture, a “two-way street.” I would encourage the latter interpretation. When the U.S. is unknown territory to a musician or to an ensemble, even small favors are greatly appreciated. I firmly believe that karmic energy is an important reality; if you offer a helping hand, it’s more likely that one will be offered to you, sometimes from a completely unrelated source, sometimes years later. It can also feel empowering to do a good musical deed without expecting something in return.

The show must go on

When a group, festival, or presenter finally decides to program your work, clear communication suddenly becomes vital. Try and avoid vagueness in details (unless it is an indelible part of the culture), and make sure you know what is meant by a certain question or response. It is especially important to be clear what is expected of you in terms of scores, parts, attendance, and participation, just as you would in the States. Find out how often your contact person checks their messages, and what mode of communication they prefer. Inquire also whether you should correspond with separate folks about artistic and logistical issues. If you continue to have unanswered questions due to language barriers, ask a native speaker to help write or translate an email, letter, or phone message. If the project in question is rather extensive, you may want to consider employing a translator to help you communicate on a regular basis.

The procedures for generating and delivering scores and parts are not necessarily different than in the States, though you may have difficulties with the paper size or availability of copying facilities, depending on where you’re going. If facilities are available on the opposite shore, PDF or other computer files can be a safer, cheaper, and faster way to send music (though you shouldn’t be surprised when your picture-perfect page turns get printed back-to-front). When shipping materials by post, remember that mail can take an excruciatingly long time getting to and from certain countries. If you want to make doubly sure the music arrives in a timely manner, use a courier like UPS, FedEx, or DHL (though this can be expensive); some—like Aramex—are cheaper and specialize in certain areas of the world.

Needless to say, never send the only copy of your music and always bring an extra set of everything with you, just in case. It is risky and expensive to send musical instruments or other valuable objects by mail. Much wiser to include them as “excess baggage” and pay an extra fee at the airport. In certain countries, be prepared to pay small bribes to folks handling delicate instruments or baggage. It can be well worth the tip.

Doe maar gewoon (dan doe je al gek genoeg…)

This Dutch cliché essentially means “Be normal!” Remember that your first performance overseas is a learning experience as well as a musical experience. Composer Tania León affirms that a foreign composer’s presence “is always vital to the performance of the work, as long as the composer does not become confrontational with the ensemble.” How much input do they appear to want from you? If you’re performing, try to view the ensemble in action before you come into the mix, so that you can observe their process. In general, it’s best to offer your presence at the first rehearsal, but not to insist. If you do attend rehearsals, try and keep your initial comments to a minimum (unless there is a misunderstanding of great magnitude), responding to questions asked of you, and keeping notes to discuss with a conductor, director, musician, or choreographer afterwards.

Answer your mail!

This was Aaron Copland’s reply to students who inquired how they could further their careers. After a performance, keeping contact is the most important action you can take. Be courteous and (at first) formal. Americans have a tendency to use casual language before it might be appropriate. In corresponding with your performers, be appreciative of their efforts and ask their opinion of how things went. They may express reservations, but that doesn’t mean they won’t play your music in the future. Americans tend to view negative feedback as harsh criticism, but many other cultures place less importance on niceties than we do. A friendly note to a presenter or festival administrator may be greatly appreciated; however, your most valuable contacts—perhaps one day your champions—will be the musicians themselves, and perhaps the choreographers, writers, filmmakers, directors, or other artists with whom you work. And don’t forget your colleagues, the composers. They are the ones who will best understand why your music should be heard in their country, and they will be able to articulate it to their comrades better than you can.

Ultimately, an overseas experience is about much more than being performed. Discovering what makes another culture tick is itself an enriching and fascinating journey, and ultimately the lens is turned back on yourself. It may take a great deal of energy and perseverance in order to engender interest in your music abroad, and the payback is not necessarily great in monetary terms, but what is refracted and reflected back—in knowing yourself on a new level—will help you grow as a person and as an artist. And that reward is well worth the trip.

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Travel Tips

How should you approach writing for ensembles that are far away? International performers offer suggestions for composers when it’s not possible for them to have face-to-face contact. Violinist Midori writes, “I particularly find it helpful if the composer can establish or initiate some kind of a dialogue with the conductor, librarian, artistic administrator, etc. of an orchestra. This is especially true when the composer can’t be at the rehearsals or the performances.”

How does the mindset change in different cultures and on different continents?

ASIA: Composer Eli Marshall writes from Beijing that “the most efficient way to go about things is to meet at least once in person, or have someone meet on your behalf. Similarly, many senior composers in China don’t seem very interested in sending scores to someone without knowing them first.” Composer Chen Yi notes the importance of radio broadcast in China as a medium for “introducing orchestral works by American women composers by the Central People’s Broadcasting Station, which covers 1.2 billion listeners.”

AFRICA: Composer and percussionist Mark Stone, who has studied xylophone music in Ghana and Uganda writes, “Africans…generally value art forms that are inter-related; thus music for music’s sake does not go over well while music that is connected to dance or theatre—including community oriented Western choral works and theatrical productions—can be successful. The African composer Akin Euba has written extensively on this subject.”

LATIN AMERICA: Composer Gabriela Lena Frank writes, “You should have a friend who can make an introduction, and make a trip to introduce yourself in person. Hang out with the musicians and presenters. Bring a lot of CDs and scores. Many of the classical musicians are also folk or jazz musicians, and those scenes have their own set of rules about how music picks up a concert life; so it’s important to realize that these rules influence the classical music scene. The money is even tighter than here, so at first the waiving of rental fees can be a gesture of good will. Also, if you can afford a mutual exchange—offer to help get Latin American music performed in the States—then that will grease the wheel considerably for performances in Latin America.”

EUROPE: Composer Lukas Ligeti notes that “Experimental music in the U.S. is largely an ‘underground’ activity, while classical music is ‘official culture’. In Europe there is less of a distinction, because the ‘underground’ exists to a much lesser extent. This has advantages, but also leads to a situation where finding low-key gigs to experiment is sometimes very difficult.” Violinist Monica Germino of the Dutch ensemble Electra notes that “in the Netherlands, amateur music-making is a way of life for a large percent of the population. As a result, people are more interested and more connected to music; it is not as much of a strange elitist activity.” Composer Donnacha Dennehy, founder of the Crash Ensemble in Dublin writes that “we have a big interest in American music, but mainly we are just driven by a desire to do music that fires us up. Issues about part production, etc. are secondary!” Paul Meecham, executive director of the Seattle Symphony and former General Manager of the London Sinfonietta, writes that “the success of Steve Reich, for example, had a lot to do with touring his own ensemble to Europe. John Adams has become a regular conductor of his own music. In other words, those Americans came to Europe in part to champion their own work. The real challenge is finding what is out there. The U.S. is such a large country and there are composers working quietly away who are hard to track down.”

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Composer Derek Bermel‘s works have been performed across the globe, and his many appearances as a clarinetist, conductor, and rock musician have been met with wide critical and audience acclaim. His music is published by Peermusic Classical (US) and Faber Music (UK). More information can be found here and here.