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Classical Music Blog by award-winning composer Kati Agócs



Kati Agocs

When I originally posted this, I was traveling to Cleveland for three performances of Saint Elizabeth Bells, a cello-cimbalom written in memory of my father, Sándor Agócs (1932-2011). It was performed by the cimbalom artist Chester Englander and the cellist Nicholas Diodore on three concerts presented by No Exit Ensemble. I was in the studio with them as they made the world premiere recording. 

And since the original post a couple of weeks ago, our community of composers and musicians lost Christopher Rouse. This has hit many of us very hard. I am proud, humbled, and honored to count Chris Rouse among my composition teachers. Although I never studied with him privately, he was on my juries every year at Juilliard, he led the class (together with James MacMillan) when I was a fellow at Aspen, and his music has always been an example to me - -a beacon-light. I remember attending a rehearsal of his piece Compline at Harris Hall in Aspen, with Chris in attendance. I learned a great deal from hearing his music in recordings, and especially from the striking sonic atmosphere that it created when played live. As musicians we are influenced beyond words, beyond rational thought. He was always so humble, generous, and funny, too.

My original post about Saint Elizabeth Bells being done in Cleveland has become a further meditation on loss. If you aren’t familiar with the cimbalom, it’s the Hungarian version of the hammered dulcimer - -originally a folk instrument, made bigger and fancier for the concert hall. This work intuits the thoughts that my father experienced during his final hours over Easter weekend in the Saint Elizabeth hospital in central Budapest. His room faced the cathedral, and through the open windows he would have heard, in semi-consciousness, the tolling bells drifting and resonating. Every phrase of the work’s trajectory comes out of the natural intervals of the bell sounds as I mis-remember (and imagine) them, with the purest version—and the part that I composed first—heard near the end. The piece is not mournful, but has a light, evanescent, delicate quality. Inhabiting a meditative space populated with memories just out of reach, the work is a dialogue of colours in which time is suspended. 

I remember him telling me about how excited he was when a cimbalom arrived in his village. From a family of watermelon farmers—the first of his family to be educated—my father fled the county as a political refugee after the 1956 uprising. He was welcomed in Italy and studied for a time at the University in Padua, but the lure of New York was too strong (and eventually he settled in Canada before moving back to Hungary in the 1990s).  I heard about his escape across the border into the countryside near Vienna in November 1956. He told us how he escaped by foot with a small group of friends. He lay himself down like a bridge over a creek (or brook) for people to climb over, taking peoples’ hands from below and helping them cross. To be 23 years old and leaving one’s country for the first time far a completely uncertain future, like the countless people escaping perilous places across borders right now. To start over from nothing in three completely new places. 

I wish I had probed more about that year in Budapest before he left, and asked him to take me to the actual places in the stories - -many of the buildings still existed, some with the bullet holes from back then. I thought that we had more time. I miss the conversations that we never had. We had takeout Chinese food in the little apartment, we saw the El Greco paintings at the National Gallery, and we visited the Matthias Church on the Buda hill. It was the unsaid things that meant more. I was always such a rush when I was in Hungary during those years. I wish I’d sat for hours and listened to him recount the events that he witnessed. I wish I’d paid attention in a different way while I had the chance. Suddenly one day, when you don’t expect it, it simply ends. 

I only learned to that kind of attention later, when my daughter was born, nine months after he died. A baby forces you to be fully in the moment, to connect, to make space and time. My father was able to do this with me. I remember one time when was about twelve, and obsessed with the Beatles. He sat in the back seat of the car with me and we shared one pair of headphones, one ear apiece, listening to one of my favourite songs in mono. For those few minutes he entered my world - heard things from my perspective. Not only did I learn how to actually pay attention when I had my daughter - I learned that we need to apply this same sort of patience and concentration with older people – to slow down, stay, and talk -- to fully inhabit moments that we might otherwise miss. 

It’s the same with our art: We need to enter it completely, to focus so deeply that we lose our sense of time and even forget who we are. There is much talk about “process”, and composers sometimes ask me how I focus. I limit the projects that I take on, and only work on only one piece at a time. In terms of studio practice, I wake up early, preferably before noises begin in the world around. When I build sustained, intense concentration and fully inhabit the music so that I lose myself, that is when the unexpected magic comes into the musical material and its development (the parts that I never could have imagined in the planning stages of the piece). This happened in Saint Elizabeth Bells. It’s always a very emotional experience to hear it performed, and it makes me feel closer to my father. I’ve begun to think of attention as our most crucial and valuable asset as artists.

Composition can be a transcendent act. It’s not about trying to get attention from the outside world. You exist in a realm of pure music – thinking in music.  My first impulse to write concert music was a sacred-music urge. I notice that Christopher Rouse did not choose to talk about this in the final message that he sent out - -or at least not to address it explicitly - but it’s implied in the “miraculous power” that he attributes to music, and it’s in his music! Maybe it’s best to let it be a tacet thing - otherwise it could become trite, or forced. Music is inherently sacred. I think this is part of what Chris was saying in his final statement. We need this more and more right now.  If we focus long on one thing, with our most sustained concentration, our work itself becomes prayer. 


Kati Agocs

Hello from the United Club Lounge in the Denver airport. My second string quartet had its world premiere last night on the Aspen Music Festival's opening concert. The piece was co-commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Harvard Musical Association, and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. I'm between connections, traveling home. It's just over twenty years since I first attended this festival as a student. Here are some impressions of returning as an Artist-in Residence, jotted down during my four-day 2018 visit to Aspen, Colorado.

First night back in Aspen. Softness of the air, white glow of moonlight, rushing of Hunter Creek. Some places haven’t changed (Carl’s Pharmacy, Explore Bookshop); some are gone completely (a bakery on the corner where we used to get coffee, now boarded up). The gentleness of far-away times wafts in on the wind. The anxieties of those times -- the falling apart from within - -are entirely supplanted by new pressures and joys. I feel awe that my 22-year-old self developed her craft in this place. Sweetness, simplicity; learning discipline; taking the time to dream. 

On the music school campus as a student, c. 1997

On the music school campus as a student, c. 1997

First full day, early morning. Days here start with fresh musical ideas in formation as a physical force, particles gathering. An urge to exceed yourself, prompted by the energizing rigours of the altitude and mountain air.  Far from the judgements of any school or university, the aura and rush of being artistically free and the illusion of realizability without the normal drudgery, the daily hard working-out of details. I perceive the spirits of animals and plants around, trees that were growing long before I was ever here. A sense of the sacred everywhere. A church on one of the side streets in town in which I started to compose. I was practicing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano and suddenly thought – why can’t I do this? Every composer has a moment like this. The church sanctuaries where I used to work surreptitiously and undisturbed have been refurbished and refreshed, and are now locked. 

Practice room with work-in-progress, 2018

Practice room with work-in-progress, 2018

A practice room at the music school. So many beautiful new rooms! They have just moved in the pianos and tuned them. The festival is about to begin, and in two days my new work Imprimatur, which I have yet to hear in the flesh, will be premiered on the first concert of the season, a recital by the Jupiter String Quartet -- but for now, everything stands silent and ready. A gorgeous Steinway Grand in the practice room, perfectly in tune. I take out the piece that I am working on -- a different piece than the one to be premiered here, but with a deadline hovering. I play it though in its entirety, letting it tell me what it needs in the final section. It tells me it needs an opening-up, an absence of complications. Don’t overcomplicate when you don’t know what to do. Finding an idea that I might not have allowed myself hear in another context, I wonder if it will stand up the next time that I work on this.

Practice-room selfie as visiting composer, 2018

Practice-room selfie as visiting composer, 2018

Afternoon of the first full day. The sun is so hot, and the students so young. My relationship with this generation is vital, but still in formation. How to help them find direction?  I need to figure out what to say about my piece when I walk onstage in Harris Hall before it is played. There are parts of us that only god can see or touch…in the intimacy of experiencing them through music (or possibly through prayer), they show us who we are – they lead us to who we are supposed to be.  Something I learned here, but needed to prove to myself.  I am walking everywhere here in Aspen. I want to walk more, but the altitude is hitting me hard.

I meet the Jupiter String Quartet and we rehearse together. They commissioned this work from me through reputation only - -I have written one string quartet before this one. We've only worked together virtually, via rehearsal videos and phone calls. They sound stunning in person! My new piece is a suite in five minutes with a recitative and a coda --  in seven sections, performed with out pause so that it makes a continuous form.  The Jupiters bring to the table a distinctive energy and sound, string-playing expertise that helps realize my vision, great communication, and a phenomenal rehearsal dynamic; I bring a clear vision for what I want, to which they are entirely open, so it is a perfect loop. At home I’m helping my daughter learn violin, experiencing in a new way how string technique is built up from scratch, which intensifies makes my appreciation. I am shocked when someone in the ensemble makes a mistake –these players hardly ever mess up! I wish that I could bottle this synergy for later, for the inevitable times of resistance. What if this never comes my way again? 

Wishing-tree, 2018

Wishing-tree, 2018

Day number two, early morning. I set out in search of a huge old tree at the music school where I used to go every year and make wishes. I will note disclose here just what the wishes were, only that they came true. Never told anyone about it, but I promised myself that if I ever returned to Aspen, I would find the Wishing-Tree and re-enact this secret ritual. I scour the music school campus for the gargantuan trunk and roots, but the tree isn't where I'm certain it was. I only find gorgeous new buildings. They have kept a lot of the beautiful nature around as they have re-envisioned the school as a commodious, airy and bright campus, and in the process they have cut the old tree down. I choose a new tree in the same general area as a new wishing-tree. My prayers this time are both more concrete and more fleeting.

Outside Harris Concert Hall before the concert, 2018, where we rehearsed our pre-concert talks as students

Outside Harris Concert Hall before the concert, 2018, where we rehearsed our pre-concert talks as students

Dress rehearsal in Harris Hall, day three. I know every passageway, every alcove backstage from my time serving on the stage crew in these buildings. So much music heard here; the crackling of sonic possibility everywhere. The subtlety of my own piece heard from the back of the hall; I am walking around during the run-through to hear it from different places: I hope it reaches back here. I ask the quartet to phrase in longer phrases. They ask: “is there anywhere specific where we are NOT doing this?” No, it’s just an ineffable thing that players always need to strive for further in my music --  to feel together. Something essential is affirmed listening to the fifth movement of Imprimatur, when a song of gratitude becomes a Quodlibet as previous material comes back, layered over it, opening up into lapidary contrapuntal splendour. You can’t get up in the morning and write things that are spiritually motivated; you can only create the conditions and be a vessel. The Quodlibet was like a gift, a breath from heaven. Yes, I had to hone it once the material and method presented themselves, but I was only a servant at best. I want to tell the younger composers not to be so focused on being “career” composers -- that will come, if the deeper things are in the right place.

The program

The program

It’s the night of the concert. I am nervous as all hell backstage, consumed by a self-doubt that knaws at my insides. I can barely speak. But when I go out onstage there is no hint of nervousness and I feel strong, rooted, relaxed, focused, radiant. No trace of who I was twenty years ago, yet somehow all of this is informed by it. I thank the audience for witnessing the birth of this new work, feeling their energy loop back. I remember Melanie Shoenberg and I as composition students here, practicing our spoken introductions for each other outside Harris Hall before our pieces were played. Although fifteen minutes long, the string quartet feels short. I have told the audience that it is like seven thoughts that flow into one another; this seems to help them understand. Then I told them to forget everything that I said and enjoy the melodies. The Jupiter Quartet’s performance is assured, lucid, confidence-inspiring. The form is clear and the timing good. The Quodlibet shines. The crowd loves it.

Onstage in Harris Concert Hall with the Jupiter String Quartet immediately after the world premiere of  Imprimatur

Onstage in Harris Concert Hall with the Jupiter String Quartet immediately after the world premiere of Imprimatur

Last day, the morning after the premiere, at the Aspen airport. The plane is taking off in the wind, shuddering. I feel queasy. Splendour of trees and rocks as we lift up out of the mountains; brighter sunlight than I’ve ever seen; jarring, shaking, pressure of the air all around. I wonder what will happen if the plane goes down. What would it feel like? I realize that I don’t care. I feel happy in a way that I’ve never felt. I feel immensely humble and like God at the same time. The new work has been born, people have apprehended it; it is not going away. It would live on without me. That’s all you can hope for. I can't wait to come back to this festival. The postcard to Adele Addison, my Aspen voice teacher, who's in New York! I forgot to mail it - maybe there are mailboxes in Denver. My daughter isn’t with me on this trip. Soon my ears will  hear her bell-clear voice intoning, "Mom". What would become of her if this plane went down? What parts of me would she keep? At six and a half she would miss me terribly, but I've given her a strong foundation, and she's just at the point where she could blossom without me.  But wait: There is the next premiere -- that unfinished piece with its culminative section waiting to be honed -- and that can only be done by me.  

View from the plane

View from the plane

Update, September 2019: I returned to the Aspen Music Festival and School this summer as a Visiting Composer, for a performance of my new Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra.

With Jonathan Haas, Conductor; Jennifer Koh, Violin; and the Aspen Music Festival and School Percussion Ensemble at their performance of Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra in Harris Concert Hall, Aspen, CO, August 5, 2019

With Jonathan Haas, Conductor; Jennifer Koh, Violin; and the Aspen Music Festival and School Percussion Ensemble at their performance of Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra in Harris Concert Hall, Aspen, CO, August 5, 2019


Kati Agocs

Ten years ago this summer I was a composition fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center. It was an amazing and groundbreaking experience for me as a composer. While I was there, The Boston Globe did a feature on how computers and the internet were affecting the way that the composers in my class wrote music. The writer, Matthew Guerrieri, also spoke with a few composers born in 1937 (or 1938) who were in residence that summer. The result was a dialogue between generations called “Composing in the Computer Age”:

Through the intervening decade there has been a constant tug of war within me about the role of the technological sea change in my life as a composer. I fight against these “virtual” forces to create continuity in my music. But the resistance that these forces present makes the desire for continuity stronger.

The pull of being able to play music back is irresistible for many of us. I can always tell when a score was written primarily using midi playback. Some composers have become reliant on it at the expense of developing their inner ear. When one plays and writes with pencil, the inner ear connects to the written note on the page, and this reinforces one’s inner hearing and leads to more sensitivity to voicing, chord dispositions, melody, timbre,.......... The notes come into the inner ear before one writes them down - -a beautiful and elemental experience, one that I would never trade for anything. Listening done on midi is more passive.  Midi playback can be useful for conceptualizing large form and the proportions of sections, but the inner ear doesn’t engage in the same way as when one is playing or singing the work. We need to counteract midi’s impact by encouraging composers to hone old-school craft: writing with pencil and paper and singing or playing a work-in-progress all the way through in real time. Composers who never learn to hear from within are missing out on something essential to the experience of being a composer in the true, timeless sense that is independent of what era one is born into. 

It’s our birthright to have access to any art, literature, and music that provokes our thought. The proliferation of information available via the internet leads to a desensitization unique to our era. It’s a desensitization to violence and shocking images, but also a desensitization to positive forces like musical influences. Some emerging composers seem to feel little expectation of knowing a canon because all music is quickly available to them, and getting to know music that is outside of one’s immediate realm of influence requires no work. This leads to an acute aesthetic relativism: Composers no longer feel a responsibility to recognize what is of value in art that has different aesthetic underpinnings than that of their own. That’s why it’s so important for us to stand for something as artists. If we challenge ourselves to formulate and articulate our values - - to put into words what is most important to us as artists, and why we value one work over another - - we will not so quick to dismiss others’ work, and a discussion will follow that will incite others to justify their views. It also makes us more open to changing our views and to not becoming entrenched, stuck in our own corner, perpetuating the same feedback loop.

Social medial isn't discussed in the article because it hadn’t taken hold yet, but the online persona has quickly grown inseparable from many composers’ presence in the world. We also see an emphasis on self-promotion and career development skills in conservatories, with entrepreneurship classes being added to the core curriculum in the last five years, so that education is now enforcing this tendency. For my part, I’ve both resisted it and embraced it.  When serving on a committee I do my best to look solely at the integrity of the work, believing that it should be about the music first. I also want the purity of my own work environment and psychic space to remain intact, so I’ve stayed offline for periods of time. At the same time, the possibility of reaching an expanded audience and being in touch with friends all over the world is compelling. Oh, that dopamine rush when we get a “ping” from someone’s consciousness! Musicians who want to learn about my work have a direct line to me. I find myself schooled by younger musicians in this regard.

I think there’s ultimately a disconnect between the electronic stimuli that have become our umbilical cord and the hallmarks of a serious composer (ie. extended forms, communicating something profound, pushing aesthetic boundaries, doing something different in every piece, never being finished growing). The sense of petty importance that checking the internet bestows upon us takes away from the immersive aspect of composing. There is a “cheap” part of the brain that is addicted, and the deeper part of our brain is less engaged. Social media isn’t formative - - it is more a reflection of our social tendencies - -but I think that the social media persona can actually shape a composer in some ways because it is amenable to certain modes of communication, and restrictive of certain other nuances.

Finally, as an important offshoot, I believe that continuity in musical form - -or extended form that flows seamlessly - -is less valued. Music tends to be more “A.D.D.”- - assembled in smaller chunks that don’t necessarily pay off over the large scale.  Because long forms are a defining feature of art music, setting it apart from pop music and other genres, we should ask ourselves how the habit of processing information in shorter chunks is influencing the way that we create (and hear) music. For me, it’s important to create long forms in which the direction, flow, and progression of the harmony support the overall trajectory, and in which everything is the right length, so as to deliver a sense of fulfillment over the large scale.  It’s sometimes the hardest thing in the world to make something that flows effortlessly. I also hear resonance in the other meaning of “continuity”: An unbroken thread from and to composers and works of the past, drawing from them and dialoguing with them, using the anxiety of influence as a catalytic force. In Chronicle of My Life, Stravinsky wrote about how Johann Sebastian Bach walked many miles to another town to hear Buxtehude play his works and to familiarize himself with the older composer’s artistry. The exact story has been disputed, but whether or not this story is precisely true, it's an important symbol. We no longer need to walk many miles on foot to engage with the work of another composer. Have technological changes made things too easy?

Anyone in my community who is reading this, I encourage you to get offline now. Put your phone in airplane mode even if you’re not traveling. You can be offline all day and check once in the evening just to make sure that the world hasn’t come to an end, especially when you are beginning a piece and need to carve out sacred space. It takes discipline, and you might be out of sync with people around you who are constantly checking their phones. Transitioning and out of it can be the hardest part. But you’ve got much to gain. It is easier to envision and maintain continuity in a work when you’re not tempted by constant, addictive interruptions. Your attention span will grow, and this makes it easier to hone your musical thought in long phrases. If your validation comes from your own progress in the work and not from those intermittent “pings,” you will cultivate a protected space that allows ideas to propagate inside. Your process will embody that elusive, immersive state where you forget who you are and how much time has passed, so deeply do you inhabit the mysterious caves of the mind. Perhaps we each need to find our own metaphorical equivalent of Bach’s journey: Walking for miles to understand the work of a master. What could that journey mean for you?


Kati Agocs

    The first American Composers Forum Delegation to Cuba has brought ten composers and about forty patrons to Cuba this week to present a concert of our works and to experience the culture here during The Havana Festival of Contemporary Music. Our performance is being billed as the first live concert of contemporary American music in Havana since the Cuban revolution. I’ve been in La Habana, as the Cubans call it, for three days, and have had the chance to attend a few events.

   Almost everybody seems to be an artist here. There isn’t a clear delineation between who is identified as an artist and the rest of the population, and creative people often wear many hats. For example, the majority of the young composers that I see here are also performers, often playing their own works.

   If I were to spend more time in Havana, I would want to learn the style of drumming that they have here. One hears it wafting from various places, and it gets under one’s skin. I believe that one thing that makes it so addictive is the irregularities. If there is a big triplet across smaller regular duple rhythms, they will place the second beat of the triplet just slightly late. When they bring in an interesting cross-rhythm they never keep it going for very long, leaving one wanting more. These things are like catnip for my ear (and I don’t know if I’m writing that because of all of the stray cats hanging around). Soul is in the irregularities. It’s the polar opposite of when young American composers play their percussion parts back through Midi to see how they line up.

   The new-music concerts here in Havana include works going back to the 1980s, so it isn’t exactly contemporary music. There are composers from many different nationalities represented, such as Italian, Venezuelan, and Belgian, as well as Cuban. In general, the music by the Cuban composers falls into one of two categories: 1) based on jazz or popular music, often dance forms, that are extended or embellished; or 2)“experimental”, usually with some type of repeated pattern that gets varied, and sometimes with small areas where things get aleatoric or “effect”-driven. The second of these two approaches is experimental more in the localized techniques that are used than in the construction. Some pieces combine the two.

   The pieces are informed by strong instinct, and they do not overstay their welcome.  Rather than being pretentious, I would say that they lean more toward the precious. One can tell that the music that the composers know is inconsistent, with little awareness of the American or European canon from the last 50 years. The reasons for this are very complex, of course, but longstanding limits on trade mean that communication and the dissemination of recent music have not occurred freely. So for me these concerts are a kind of vignette of what composers come up with writing in an absence of the tradition that we as American composers largely take for granted - -they literally don’t know what they are missing.

   As an American here one feels largely irrelevant. People in Havana can separate what American people do and think from the activities of our government. They generously share ideas, information, and things with U.S. visitors despite a long history of antagonism from the U.S. side. But one feels the absence of a “U.S.-centric” way of thinking. The arts scene is very multi-cultural; it is just that the U.S. is not a major player. Mainstream media and the Internet are not omni-present, so there is room for other things. Without the presence of commercialization, an abundance of products, and large-scale media, one is left with the essence of who one is as an artist. Looking at artists collectively, one observes a multiplicity of identities that seem to elude definition because they keep changing with every moment.

   There was a decent showing at our concert by the composers that we had met when we attended their concert at the salon of the composers’ union one day prior. There is little “following” for new music here, and no evident government ministers or cultural attaché types attended. The U.S. was represented in our concert by a huge diversity in terms of media (there were three works that used electronics), instrumentation (the core ensemble was a Pierrot, configuration but they used many subsets in various permutations), and styles. The ensemble, Third Sound, had curated the program, and they did not walk any stylistic line, which I thought was appropriate. The players navigated a rich array of voices masterfully. I had the sense that the incisive New York new-music ensemble playing presented a huge contrast with what the Cuban musicians were used to hearing. For our concert we had the use of what is supposedly the best piano in Cuba, but the sustain pedal was not working properly. (I noticed this in particular because they performed the middle movement of Immutable Dreams, my Microconcerto in Memoriam György Ligeti). Most of the pianos here probably having came from the former USSR in the 1980s, and the soundboards are in terrible shape.

   I had the sense that they liked what we presented, but perhaps found it challenging. The Cuban artists and musicians that I have spoken with know some mainstream American media, but little current “high art”. In talking to them after the concert, I sensed that things are changing in terms of relations between the two countries, and that both sides want this to happen. Young people are not wary of this change, perhaps because they don’t have as much memory of emotionally-fraught earlier times between the two countries. If relations continue on this path, what can each side hope to get out of it, and what can we give each other? The Cuban artists express a need to get to know more “elite” art, for exposure to the international arts scene, and for the chance to be seen and heard abroad. They want to make connections. One of the most important things that we can do as citizens of any other country is to facilitate connections, even if we start small with one unique project, such as inviting a Cuban musician to collaborate. Of course, there was a precedent for this kind of exchange in Sonidos de las Américas, the festival of Latin American music presented in New York by the American Composers Orchestra in 1999 that brought important Cuban composers to New York, and now our trip is bringing Americans to Cuba. Hopefully the future will bring further exchanges in both directions.

   Now that there is less perceived threat from the U.S., and now that avoiding disunity among the Cuban population in the face of this threat isn’t as necessary, people here will be able to push the boundaries of debate more. With the private sector becoming a permanent and dynamic part of the economy, they will also have access to more music.  The influx of so much different work will surely be invigorating for the composers. Will their way of thinking become less rigid once they become more accustomed to considering a multiplicity of possibilities?  Will they will feel a need to “catch up” once they hear a wider range of music, or will they leap over what they have missed to find a new synthesis? It will be a different road for each individual artist, but by continuing the dialogue I believe that we will actually influence the outcome.  Of course, music always tends to be behind other art forms like visual arts and dance, so change may take longer in this realm.

   As Americans we can derive a sense of appreciation for our own individuality as composers, and perhaps view our work through a wider lens so as not to get caught in a rut where our thinking is always the same. Personally, I was struck by the individuality of the American composers on the concert, and I believe that is something to be celebrated and cultivated. Seeing the strength of their popular music tradition puts things in perspective - -we aren’t the only thing going on!   Finding common ground and explaining what we do to someone who has little or no familiarity with the tradition that we come out of brings us back to our essence. Finally, getting to know musicians who have gone through so many hardships to get where they are now, and seeing the joy and conviction in their music-making, can get us closer to that impulse behind why we became composers in the first place.


Kati Agocs

   The first American Composers Forum Delegation to Cuba is taking place this week.  There used to be a rich tradition of musical exchange between Cuba and the U.S. prior to the Cuban revolution. But after 1959, this type of cultural exchange became largely criminalized by both countries. The situation is now starting to change, but these things take time. As a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations opens up, and as the barriers of the last fifty-six years of political antagonism are slowly being weakened, ten composers and a large group of patrons are visiting Havana and preparing a concert of our works here. Here are some initial impressions.

We flew into Havana on a Sunday morning. Along with most people on the trip, I have never had the chance to spend time in Cuba. Even before we touched down I could see how wild, rustic, and fertile the land appeared. Sugar cane, bananas, and rice were being farmed on the lands surrounding the airport. There were palm trees, old military bunkers that looked like long and thin barns, and country roads with almost no cars on them. The airport was mildly chaotic, with everything appearing to be from the 80s or before. Together with the sense of beaucracy there, it reminded me of Hungary in the 1980s prior to the system change. The women working in the airport, and other places as well, all wear patterned fishnet stockings and mini dresses as a kind of uniform. A large number of stuffed animals were being brought into the country. I took a photo of a guy with an oversized stuffed bear that was almost as big as he was, because I thought Olivia would think it was funny. Then I kept seeing him throughout the airport – I ran into him three or four more times, and he popped up suddenly behind me while I was going through customs.

You learn that you have to go with the flow here no matter what happens - -people are not goal oriented in the manner that we are accustomed to in the U.S. People are more warm, open, and animated than I have seen anywhere. They seem to make instant connections with anyone that they interact with. They will help you unconditionally to do whatever you need to do or to get whatever you are asking for. Havana feels more safe than any other urban center that I have been in. You see families together a lot, fathers holding or playing with their children, and couples in their 50s and 60s walking with their arms around one another. Because of the longstanding trade embargo, people in Cuba are not materialistic. They have scarcely any of the things that we take for granted in the U.S., such as the things you would normally buy at a drug store. Perhaps because of the aspect of “stunted capitalism”, they don’t seem driven or focused on their jobs the way we are in the U.S. Their attitude seems to be: “life is hard, let’s party”.

I have also noticed that people really appreciate and make the most of what they have. They clean their living spaces meticulously. As a visitor here, one starts to wonder how they came to acquire every big or little object that is beyond subsistence, for instance the air conditioner that is in my room in the Vedado district, which looks to be about forty years old but still works.  A VH1 music video channel was playing on the TV in a café that actually plays music videos from the 1980s as a legitimate (not retro) thing.  Most of the clothes that people are wearing look like they are from the 1980s or 90s. You’ll see a guy with a cheesy plastic purse from the 80s around his shoulders, wearing a shirt with American glittery printing on it, walking with a women in a skin tight dress and platform shoes also from the 80s. They look incredibly happy and radiant. It’s a state of mind: If they think they look good, then they do. People seem to be in high spirits, dignified. Everyone seems to look younger than his or her age here.  The women that you see on the street look beautiful no matter what clothes they are wearing.

And the cars! Obviously I had been told to expect the cars, but nothing could have prepared me. Most are from before 1960, with the very rare occasional model from the 80s or 90s. When you first see them, they look so retro as to not even be believable. You feel like you are in another era. . If you watched Mad Men and think seeing the old cars on that show is remarkable, that is nothing next to this. I started out trying to take pictures of them, but gave up fairly quickly because I simply could not adequately capture the impression that they collectively make. I have seen a few horse and carts to, on the highway coming in to Havana from the airport. It is astounding how they keep these cars on the road - -there must be hundreds of thousands of miles on some of them. Apparently they make their own parts, and some of the cars can become a hybrid of different cars, because they insert one part from one different car and another part from another. Most of them look outwardlyin beautiful shape. Any car can become a cab if you negotiate a price to get somewhere. The streets near hotels are lined with 1950s convertibles, some with wings. The diesel fuel and incinerates from all of the old cars is making me cough, but I’m starting to get used to it.

In Havana the buildings are expansive, grandiose, mostly a yellowish or cream colour, with ceilings normally up to three stories high. You will see structures reduced to rubble, looking like they will cave in any second, but they are still somehow beautiful. A breeze comes in from the ocean, whose shoreline fronts the district I am in. Everything feels humid, slow, permeated by that breeze. I rode on the top of a double decker bus through the entire city, with the wind whipping through my hair. You gaze down avenues onto streets between monumental buildings, into neighbourhoods in which everything seems to be falling apart, in a time warp that stopped in the 1950s, with paint peeling and piles of wood and parts of buildings, people sitting on high balconies or rooftops and waving and shouting when the bus goes by, families playing in parks together. I passed the sprawling, quiet grave yard, which looks to be all above ground, and the university with its imposing “alma mater” statue of a figure on a chair at the top of the stairs leading to the entrance. The Cuban culture obviously value education greatly, and their passion for the arts seems to be as innate as breathing. To be speeding through this majestic place that I have no prior associations with, and which seems to be frozen in time from a wholly different era, was ethereal. I’ll get to music in the next post. I have my first rehearsal with the ensemble today (Monday), as well as a concert of music by Cuban composers. Tomorrow (Tuesday) our concert will take place in Basilica Menor del Convento de San Francisco de Asis, a beautiful church built in 1591 that has been converted into a chamber-music venue. This will be the first live concert of contemporary American music in Havana since the Cuban revolution.



Kati Agocs

Applying to a conservatory or college as a composition major? As a core composition faculty member at the New England Conservatory, I help host over sixty in-person interviews with prospective students in Boston every year. More and more composers apply each year. Here are my top ten bits of advice for aspiring composers who are thinking of auditioning.

Talk passionately about the music of your own time at your audition. Be able to name and to discuss living composers who have an influence on you.

Composition faculty prefer not to listen to Midi recordings. Arrange to get your works recorded with real instruments, or wait until you have recordings before you apply.

Get to know the school before you meet the faculty by going to visit and talking to other students. When the time of your audition arrives, be able to articulate something personal about what is attractive to you about the school.

Meet the faculty with whom you are interested in studying prior to your audition. The best way to do this is to go to concerts where faculty’s work is being performed, go up and introduce yourself afterwards, and say something intelligent about the piece. This is far preferable to emailing with a few days’ notice asking for a free lesson. Many faculty do not give “trial” lessons - -but that does not mean that we are not interested in your work.

Studying composition involves close mentorship, akin to an apprenticeship. Get to know the music of the faculty where you are applying - - especially of those teachers with whom you are particularly interested in studying - -and take the initiative to bring up one or two specific works of theirs with them when you meet them.

Be thoughtful about your teacher choices when you apply. Conservatories use the studio system, whereby if you list a certain teacher and they have a positive impression of you from the music that you submit and from your audition, they can unilaterally ask that you be admitted into the school.

 Make sure your English is good enough to understand and discuss basic musical concepts before applying to college or conservatory. If your TOEFL score is not high enough, take time off to work on your English. Faculty don’t mind if you are a year older when you are applying - -we need to be able to communicate with you, and it defeats the purpose of study abroad if you are struggling with basic communication for the first year (or more) of your studies.

When you are in town for the interview, go to concerts. It sends faculty the message that, if we admit you, you would be an active participant in our community.

It is perfectly acceptable to take time off and write music before applying to study composition. For any given composer active today, no one knows how old he or she was when they finished school. If we like the music, composition faculty do not care if an applicant is a few years older than their cohort.

Develop yourself as a person and thinker before specializing. I often encourage composers who have a keen intellect to get a liberal arts degree, or a broader undergraduate degree, and then to specialize in composition at the Masters level. (Of course, this is what I did, so that influences my perspective!) The undergraduate years are a time of great intellectual growth, and if you are already specializing in composition at that point, you might be limiting yourself.  Developing the whole person makes you a more interesting composer, and intellectually vibrant young composers may have little to lose by learning their craft slightly later.


Kati Agocs

“The complexity of things -- the things within things -- just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.” - Alice Munro

As artists, we constantly look for inspiration. Sometimes it comes from outside of us (daily life, another artist, a transformative experience, religion, art, or literature). Sometimes it comes from within. The kind of person we are indelibly shapes how we find and use inspiration. I used to have a running joke with a friend of mine, when we were going to a lot of new-music concerts in New York City. If someone is a jerk, his or her music is usually annoying. If someone has sublime aspects to their being, you can hear it in the music. The music became a kind of litmus test, the findings of which we would confirm as necessary - - and it was usually spot on. At the same time, we quickly learned that there is much more in people than can be perceived on a first (or second) listening.

Dreams contain imagery that can reveal how our inner selves understand our experiences. Empowered by this knowledge, we can consciously alter how we process (and respond to) these experiences. Jungian analysis is a process by which we actively remember our dreams, write them down, and discuss them on a regular basis with someone who acts as a guide. This person is trained in the analysis of dream imagery - - both with perspectives drawn from Jung’s work, and with the scholarship that has developed since his era - --and has undergone an in-depth analysis themselves. The goal of Jungian analysis is individuation, or becoming more oneself.  Transplanted from the psychoanalytic context into our own, this concept encapsulates the natural process of a composer finding his or her voice. Listening to (and analyzing) our dreams can facilitate this process.

I used to fear that if I knew my inner world better, the mystique of being an artist would disappear, and the strength of things that come from the subconscious would be mitigated, even diminished. On the contrary, cultivating a dialogue with unconscious areas of my mind has helped over time to clarify my expressive intent and to hone my technique as a composer, and the mysterious parts didn’t go away - - they deepened as I began to develop a more active relationship to them.  Like any process that involves humans, it’s not perfect - -but it can make our work shaped to a lesser degree by aspects of who we are as people that we don’t understand.

A dream about a vast, powerful ocean depths once gave me the courage to have faith in the slow gestation of a piece that I was having difficulty beginning.  I discovered a link between the wild ocean imagery and the depths of the undulating, unseen areas where a new work’s genesis lies. Analyzing certain dreams has helped me to handle complexity in a musical texture. By taking away confusion, it allowed me to clarify exactly what the technical issue at hand was. This has led me to be more transparent in my music, and has given me a desire to hear all of the voices clearly when I layer lines. When a texture gets dense, I have clearly audible voices where, in an earlier work, I might have used clusters.

The elusive area where passion meets technique is the realm of dreams. If something is missing or unfulfilled, either in art or in life, it will usually find its way into a dream. If we are listening, these dreams can help us to formulate more potent questions.  In our art, we become more aware of what tools we need to add to our arsenal, and cognizant of when we are doing something in our work because it is the only thing we are able to do at that time.  This can be freeing, because otherwise we might get stuck in the same place, kept there by our technical limitations. Dream interpretation naturally brings us more in touch with our emotions. This can render our work a more agonizing process for us, but can also make it speak more directly to our listeners. We may sense more rich, complex resonances between the past and the future, and among different aspects of our lives that we didn’t know were connected.

The process of exploring dreams also taps into painful things that have been buried.  When you feel the negative emotions more clearly, you also feel the positive ones in your life more precisely. It’s as if the visual scheme of your life experience goes up a notch, to Technicolor. If we are receptive - - by listening to our dreams and writing them down before we forget them- - then more will emerge. The more material from the subconscious that we externalize, the more it is integrated into us, and the less rigid we are - - the less controlled by what we don’t understand. We are able to discern and to change old patterns in our technique and in our expression.  For me, it is difficult to distinguish between the natural process of maturing as a composer, and what is attributable to my investment in learning about my dreams. I’m using Jungian analysis as a tool to help me mature artistically; perhaps I would have arrived at the same place if I simply followed through on where I want to go musically. But it has helped give me the confidence to keep growing, to experience life more fully, and to realize that complexity can be a good thing.

Jungian Analysis requires discipline, patience, faith, and an analyst who is truly able to listen to you and hear you without imposing their own judgments. That particular skill is an extremely rare one. Also, there are times when dream analysis can be distracting - -- when you just need to focus on getting the music realized, and nothing should come in the way of that. But  I encourage everyone, whether or not they pursue this particular path, to consider how working on the whole person can enrich their work as a composer (or artist in any medium). You can’t reap only the benefits you want from your soul. It is the entire person that goes into making your art. The parts that you are surprised to discover about who you are as a person might make your music more interesting: If you do what seems like a simple thing musically, there will be much more behind it. To “own” that can be empowering.

Think of the image of the ocean beach outside my studio in Flatrock, on the eastern coast of Newfoundland, where the sun rises first in all of North America. It is a beach of rocks.  The ocean laps up to the rocky shoreline, and drops off quickly when you go out to sea. Looking out across the water, you see open ocean with a vast horizon. If you went out on it and kept going indefinitely, you would reach the United Kingdom. I asked a fisherman who grew up in the area how deep the water is. He told me that it drops off quickly very close to the shore, to 100 metres quite suddenly --  and then to hundreds of metres. As I look at the beach and the surface of the water, I know that the ocean just beyond is unfathomably deep. Far beyond that, it taps into the entire ocean, and that ocean is part of a system of multiple oceans. I won’t ever see that deeper part. But I gain an incredible serenity - - and an ever-present awareness of a vast, apocalyptic force -- from knowing that it’s there.

Kati Agócs



Kati Agocs

There used to be two camps in the composition world: the modernist camp, and the tonal (or populist) camp. Putting it simply, the modernist camp rejected on principle any music with elements that could be perceived as tonal, and the tonal (or populist) camp resented the modernists for their perceived hegemony. Both cared about pitch, but they approached pitch organization in different ways, and identified themselves on that basis. Now things have become more diffuse but also, in certain circles, more polarized. There is a branch of musical modernism, now sometimes referred to as research music, in which music comprises gestures or effects. Concurrently, there are composers whose harmonic language is strictly tonal -- who may not even go outside of a key signature in a given work. 

One of the defining features of a composer working now is how much pitch matters in his or her music. Pitch (or, in a broader sense, harmony)  -- even if it is not tonal - -can help provide a narrative basis to a composition. The narrative may be linear or non-linear, programmatic or abstract. Pitch has the ability to make a human connection. Harmony that uses a tonal orientation of some kind makes it easier for listeners to connect because it contains sounds they associate viscerally with a certain emotional response, tapping into a deep resonance.

Research music - - music based on a gesture or process, in which pitch is relatively arbitrary  - -might belong in the same category as the strictly tonal music being written today, because the approach to pitch isn't of core importance to the composer of either. Harmonically speaking, they are both coasting. Other elements (rhythm, texture) generate the narrative and the interest. Of course, it’s a matter of degree - -there is a continuum of different music within these aesthetic groupings.

If a composer desires to create something personal, then he or she must face the issue of pitch (or harmony) for themselves, head on. One must carve out one's place in that middle ground. If one is not developing one's personal use of pitch, one is avoiding the issues. The more nuanced and specific one's harmony is, the more personal one's works will sound. I find it challenging to work with students who write tonally and won't be coaxed into including pitches from modal or extended tonality. I approach this by trying to get them to write modally, doing exercises using synthetic scales, or composing with a limited pitch collection, trying to get them to understand that the tonally-oriented music that has entered the repertoire is, most of the time (although not always), more nuanced than a strictly diatonic collection.

It’s simplistic to reject research music. That branch has to be followed as far as it can go. The best of that music will likely incorporate a nuanced treatment of pitch. The ideal, as I envision it, is like a branch from a tree: if you cut it anywhere, you see its grain. Another beautiful analogy is one that a colleague presented me with in a recent conversation about aesthetics: if you cut up a composition and look at a tiny fragment, would you be able to tell it is yours? Certainly, in the case of a work by J.S. Bach, you would be able to tell.

In my music, the approach to embracing the issue of harmony is to develop an expanded tonality that is attentive to tonal implications even if it embraces many more pitches than the triad- - like a spectral array using overtones from over top, respecting the harmonic implications of the notes in the bass while building upwards to where one could use all twelve pitches. This approach relies upon seeking out quiet within daily life, playing the material on the piano as I develop it, listening to how it resonates, carefully refining the disposition of each simultaneity.

It is vital to me to let the ear lead, to remain cognizant of harmonic underpinnings even if my language is not strictly tonal - -to create a sonic landscape where both harmonies with tonal implications and more dissonant ones can co-exits healthily, symbiotically, infused with rhythmical life. The more “out” harmony I can do, but still have a unified piece, the happier I am these days. So you might get a 12-note cluster in the same piece that you have a tonally-oriented tune, but that makes sense to me. I’ve found that jazz theory (added chords, specifically) is one of the most helpful ways to conceptualize this use of extended harmony.

I’m drawn to working with sound masses - - complex, resonant, rich sonorities– and to finding ways for them to juxtapose dynamically with areas of translucence.  It’s easy to pile on sonority until it becomes texture. It’s harder to keep things transparent. Transparency, fluidity, and emotional directness are my goals. It’s important for concert-music composers writing now to value harmony greatly, and to cultivate their own specific use of it. It's also important not to be afraid of a good tune, and not to obfuscate by piling on sonority that is harmonically undefined, or has a vague structural role. My own process of cultivating a more and more nuanced and evolved harmonic language is a process of individuation– becoming more oneself.


Kati Agócs





Kati Agocs

with Olivia Sarai Beaser on January 13, 2012, the day after she was born

with Olivia Sarai Beaser on January 13, 2012, the day after she was born

An artist often fears that her creative life and career will take an enormous hit when she has a baby. No matter what discipline they are working in, new mothers who are concurrently building lives as artists share many similar challenges. Eighteen months after the birth of my daughter, my life as a composer is thriving, deepened by my family life.  It helps that I had a strong work ethic, and had refined many of my writing methods before she was born. But it hasn’t been easy. Here are ten things that worked for me in the first year.

1.     Get back to your creative work soon after you give birth. It’s harder if you wait.  While you obviously want to enjoy your baby to the fullest, in order to be a whole person and do your own work, you need discipline, whether you’re a creative or a re-creative artist. That discipline is strengthened by practice. Even if it doesn’t feel like you’re doing much, each time you work (or practice your instrument, or whatever it is you do) contributes to getting you on track.

2.     Feed the baby your own milk for six months or more. It builds the baby’s immune system, and you’ll have fewer interruptions and cancellations from him or her getting sick (not to mention amazing health benefits for them later in life). There are all sorts of ways to make this work, from traditional breast-feeding to pumping partially or exclusively.  As long as the baby gets your milk, the benefits are there.

3.     Find and cultivate people in your creative circle who have been there. Here is one important example: Line up a lactation consultant recommended by someone from within your circle a few months before your due date. Breast-feeding is easy for some people, but can be very difficult for others. If it’s your first child, you won’t know until a couple of days after your baby is born. Learning from sympathetic colleagues can even be a great networking opportunity.

4.     If you have to pump in order to feed your baby (like I did for at least some of the time!) be creative about it. Get one of those hands-free bras and get used to pumping at your desk. You can get those emails (and the other busywork for your professional life) done while knowing you’re doing the best for your baby.

5.     Get a jogging stroller. Life with a new baby is chaotic. Physical exercise makes you feel better about yourself, and helps you to gain control (or the illusion of it!), which contributes to building the discipline you need to do your work.

6.     Get comfortable with full-time child-care, if you can find a way to afford it. There are lots of debates about this, but remember that you are setting an example for your baby. I believe that your child seeing that you have a vocation can only be a positive thing. The only way to finish commissions and keep up your creative activity and presence anywhere near what it was before you had a baby is full time child-care. If you’re making money from your creative work, the returns will be higher in a shorter amount of time. In my experience the result is a baby who is very social, comfortable around people, but still loves her parents best!

7.     Integrate your baby into your creative life. Let yourself be inspired by the experience. Bring him or her to work occasionally, and let the people who know your work get to know her as well. People will see the whole you, and appreciate you more as an artist. Share your excitement about your work with your baby.

8.     Learn to ask for help. Many of us are extremely independent, accustomed to being in our own spaces and doing everything ourselves. You may have pulled a few all-nighters and handled some tough deadlines, but a baby is more challenging to take care of than anything you’ve done so far. You can’t handle this one on your own! Articulate your changing needs to your significant other. With family, find ways to let the new baby help redefine things that you were not happy about before. 

9.     Set small, realizable goals for the first year. For instance, I found it helpful to work on a slightly smaller scale. For me this meant song-length compositions instead of extended architectures. Longer structures were hard to fulfill both while pregnant and while sleep-deprived during the first year, because the brain has trouble maintaining and forging continuity. I know that this is a common phenomenon from talking with other composers who have given birth. Someone needs to do a scientific study on it.

10. Sing to your baby. It made me feel musical even when I was not working. This is wonderful for babies - -it trains their ears and gets them phonating, since they love to imitate what they hear. Soon your baby will be singing along with you. There may be no sounds in the world more beautiful.

-Kati Agócs (8/2013)

With Olivia, 7 years old, in May 2019

With Olivia, 7 years old, in May 2019



Kati Agocs

The symphony orchestra is the one of the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding mediums in concert music. Here are ten things for emerging composers to learn now that will make give their orchestral music instant (and ongoing) finesse. I’ve honed these in my own orchestral works and those of my students at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

1.     Sing what you’re writing. If you can’t sing it, then why should someone who plays in an orchestra learn to play it? If a player or conductor is having trouble with a passage that you’ve written and you can sing it to them, you gain instant credibility. 

2.     Pay attention to what is going on in your bass. The bass sonorities have greater sonic weight because they have a broader range of overtones. The clearer you are about the harmonic implications of your bass, the clearer the harmonic palette  — and progression - - of your orchestral piece. 

3.     Steal from other composers. No police person will ever come to your door and accuse you of ripping off Debussy, Messiaen, Stravinsky, or whichever living composer you most admire. People will just think your scores sound good. As long as we have our own creative vision, the things that we borrow from other composers get filtered through our creative prism, so they come out sounding like us anyway.  It would take lifetimes if we started from scratch in the orchestral medium.

4.     Any texture that you write for orchestra should be reducible to a short score that you can play on the piano. If you aren’t fluent enough to play a reduction of what you are writing for orchestra, then practice every day for a few weeks, and you will get there. Very rarely does any effective orchestral sonority have more than four (maximum five) layers. Knowing what is in every register at all times, and making sure there is only one line or texture in each, will help you avoid muddy writing. Playing through your piece in real time will help with architectural clarity.

5.     Make yourself into a pest to your player colleagues. They will think of you as the composer who writes lines for their instrument that make them sound like gods and goddesses of their instruments, and are not a pain in the ass to play. You’ll be amazed at how generous with information players are if you simply ask for help. None of the established orchestral composers whose music you admire learned to write those great licks in a vacuum. They have go-to players that they run things by. Start now.

6.     Don’t be so caught up in your vision that you forget to give others positive feedback. If an ensemble reads or performs your work, be sure to be gracious and thank them. Single out specific players or passages to complement.  Even if it was a train wreck, find something positive to say.

7.      Don’t hesitate to revisit, re-hear, and revise. Be analytical about what worked in your score and what didn’t. The orchestral medium is forgiving, but you will be shooting from the hip for your first few works, so accept that (and develop your mechanism for when and how to revise until you hit that sweet spot where you are one hundred per cent sure that you got it right).

8.     Don’t overuse your percussion, but be bold with your rhythms and percussion instrument choices, supporting the large-scale structure. As my grand-teacher Roger Sessions (with whom three of my own teachers studied) said, “The more things you hit and bang, the less it matters what you hit and bang.”

9.     Develop a thick skin. The orchestral world is tough. You will be humiliated. (Orchestral composer colleagues, you know what I’m talking about).

10. Keep it short. People rarely want to sit through a long piece from a composer they’ve never heard of. Make your impact succinctly (five to six minutes is better than fifteen). Show them that you have chops and something to say. Longer forms are more challenging to pull off. You don’t want to be challenged in form and medium at the same time. Once you prove yourself in the orchestral realm and are more comfortable with longer forms, you can write that longer orchestral piece, and the world will be ready for it.

-  KATI AGOCS (6/2013)