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January 28, 2016
Posted by Seth Boustead


We in the arts are always being told to refine our “elevator pitch”, a succinct account of what we do and who it benefits, delivered presumably to a potential investor with a short attention span with whom we are currently sharing an elevator.

Despite the fact that this situation has never happened to me I have worked diligently on my talk for many years and have even tried, so far without luck, to reduce what we do at the arts organization I founded, Access Contemporary Music, to one perfect, ideally less than Faulknerian-length, sentence.

Then recently I found it right under my nose.  We were about to launch our new website and I was looking for snazzy quotes to put on the Support page and found this amazing quote from the Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein.  “A Utopian vision of contemporary music for everyone.”

Yes!  That’s exactly how I would state our mission in one sentence if I had only had the ability to do so.  Weird how someone outside the organization can sum us up so perfectly.  My only quibble would be that I have always found Utopian societies to be a bit dull and I’ve lived in a few.

The truth is you need a little excitement once in a while. A good bar fight or something to liven things up.  So I would change it to “A Utopian vision of contemporary music for everyone, with the occasional bar fight.”  Now that’s an elevator pitch!


December 30, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

shanghai-new-music-festival_600x2501Relevant Tones was recently invited to cover the Shanghai New Music Week, a sprawling international contemporary music festival with world class ambitions.  Unfortunately for me though, the dates coincided with another trip I had planned and I was not able to go, so my producer Jesse McQuarters went without me and I’m only now getting a chance to listen to the music and interviews that he brought back.

Not surprisingly the festival is extremely ambitious and well funded and the performances are of a uniformly high quality.  The organizers of the festival are justifiably proud of what they’ve put together and they seem to be connecting with audiences in Shanghai, (nearly every concert was sold out and overall attendance rose this year to more than 8,000.)

In many ways this is something that could only happen in China.  Artistic Director Wen Deqing is absolutely right when he says that audiences for contemporary classical music in the U.S. and Europe by and large are smaller than what you see in China.  And yet the festival is a little too carefully cultivated and the programming is, in my opinion, a little too heavy on European and American composers.

Shanghai New Music Week is indicative of modern China in general, a country that is self consciously emerging as a world player after hundreds of years of swinging between regional influence and total isolation.  Now that in recent years it’s stepping onto the world stage for the first time, China is very much like the awkward debutante coming out at the ball.

And again this is most evident in the music that they’ve chosen to program.  There is no music by South American or Scandinavian composers because China doesn’t think those composers are important. On the international front they’re mainly programming American and European composers because that’s who they want to impress.  If that sounds familiar it’s because that’s exactly how the U.S. was during its debutante phase a couple of hundred years ago; obsessed with Europe, lacking a national cultural identity and awkwardly stepping into a cultural leadership role.

China has the resources and the intent to dominate the world classical music scene but in order to do this they need to move away from American and European models, find their national cultural identity irrespective of western trends and, most importantly, they need to take the muzzle of their artists and give them absolute creative freedom.




December 23, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

sandspursI was an indoors kind of kid and I’m an indoors kind of adult now.  I like reading, long walks to the refrigerator, playing the piano, listening to and writing music, drinking beer and most other indoor pursuits.

Every time I engage in an outdoor activity I am reminded of my essential indoorsiness and my recent trip to Florida is a case in point.  I decided to break my longstanding dislike of the outdoors and go to the beach to participate in an activity called Frisbee.

This was surprisingly fun for a while but it wasn’t long before I made a miserable throw and the Frisbee went straight into a patch of what I now know are sand spurs. I didn’t know this at the time though and so blithely walked into said patch barefoot to retrieve the Frisbee.

You see, when you’re not an outdoors type not only do you not know about things like sand spurs but you also are always trying to overcompensate and prove to everyone that the outdoors is not scary and full of vicious things that want nothing more than to senselessly cause harm.

Of course it hurt but I was too proud to show it and wanted to get the Frisbee so I kept on going.  When I got out of the patch I had easily fifteen clusters of sand spurs in my feet.  Apparently I don’t know the proper technique for pulling them out either because my attempts only got them stuck in my hands as well as my feet.

With tweezers and the help of a gracious wife who understands me I managed to get most of them out but as I type this there are still two in my right thumb, one in my left index finger and two in my left foot near the heel.  Do they work themselves out naturally?  Will I require surgery?

This wouldn’t have happened if I had spent my vacation drinking beer and reading Sci-Fi as I had originally intended.  Damn you outdoors!



December 16, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 12.57.47 PMWe’re getting slowly closer to the end of the year which is the time when people start thinking about how they can improve their lives and be better people in the year to come.

I never think about things like this because I’m already as good as I’m going to get, but I was reminded recently of a life goal that I impetuously set many years ago which I have as yet failed to meet.  It was my 22nd birthday and I was a music student at the University of Missouri Columbia by day and a delivery driver at a sub sandwich shop by night.

I had always had a kind of prickly relationship with the store manager but on the occasion of my birthday he surprised me by giving me a really thoughtful gift: the complete rags of Scott Joplin.  As pretty much anyone who knew me at the time knew, I was a big ragtime fan.  I was touched by the gift and told everyone within hearing distance, (four other employees and three customers if memory serves) that I would learn them all.

Fast forward 22 years and I can competently play about half of them and can hack my way through another ten or so and the others I haven’t even started on yet.  Joplin wrote a ridiculous number of rags!   And they’re hard too.

Also, it seems that hardly anyone ever wants to hear me play them.  From fellow music students to girlfriends to random passersby, ragtime is nearly always greeted with at best a condescending smile and at worst malicious, anti-ragtime comments on Twitter.  Yes, that happened once when I was playing a ragtime piece publicly.  It’s hard enough to perform without worrying about the audience flaming you on Twitter before you even finish the piece, but I’ll save the anti-Twitter diatribe for another time.

The other reason that I’ve never learned them all, the real reason, is that, once I learned twenty or so I became lazy.  I enjoyed playing the pieces I knew and didn’t seek out the new rags. But I got the book out yesterday, which has been schlepped from apartment to apartment and piano to piano for so many years now that it’s in tatters, and learned a new rag called Solace.

It’s a beautiful, melancholic rag and I enjoyed learning it so much that I’ve decided to learn another new one.  Who knows where this will end?  Perhaps years after my impetuous promise I’ll actually wind up fulfilling it.

I don’t know though because again, they’re really frickin’ hard!



December 8, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

I have deleted this post because it was mean spirited, badly written and woefully short on perspective.  Thanks to everyone for the copious emails and comments.  Though the original post was idiotic to put it mildly, I have learned a lot and am thankful for the perspective I have gained.





November 30, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

sheetmusicside1It’s hard to believe now but you used to be able to walk into a store and purchase sheet music. It sounds crazy but I know it for a fact because I worked at Carl Fischer Music, when I was a student back in the mid ’90′s.

You could actually walk into the store, go to the second floor and buy the parts and score for a Mahler symphony.  Right there in the store!  Imagine such a thing.  On Wabash next to Jimmy’s Steakhouse, which was frequently temporarily closed for health violations but still ran a bustling business, there was a four story sheet music store that carried everything from Billy Joel to Olivier Messiaen.

The store was very slow to adapt to changing trends though.  Even in 1996 we couldn’t believe they didn’t use a computer to track inventory and sales and they were totally unprepared for the Internet age.  They also had a bad habit of hiring whack-jobs.

There was Phil, the front man for a band called Teen Alien who liked to tell anyone who would listen about the adverse effects of past heroin use on his bowels, there was James the drummer and pathological liar who worked the register and robbed the store blind daily, and there was Don the outspoken pagan who hated Christmas and yet every year was scheduled to work the floor on Black Friday.

Don was a scowler and hated everyone but he liked me because apparently in Egyptian mythology I’m quite a bad ass.  He told me this one time while no fewer than four customers tried desperately to get his attention and while I myself was helping a guy who insisted on following me around singing the song he was looking for instead of providing me with a title or composer or something concrete.

Although Don’s blather was distracting at the time, I was curious about my mythological past.  I looked it up later when I got home and it’s true.


I’ve been a very bad god indeed.






November 28, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 1.46.15 PMHistorically I always looked forward to this time of year because most things in my life slow down and I feel like I can take a short break without something going horribly wrong. Although it gets dark at 4:00 PM, and everything is dead, and the temperature is slowly but inexorably decreasing to the intolerable level at which it will remain for the next several months,  this time was always a welcome respite. Though it came at a price.

I’m still looking forward to the restful part but I haven’t come to terms with exactly how much the holiday season has changed for me since the death of my mother three years ago.  I’ve spent the last two seasons trying to pretend that Christmas doesn’t exist and this is the first year that I’ve allowed my wife to put decorations up in the apartment and will spend the fateful day with family instead of cowering in a bunker somewhere.

Christmas was the most important time of the year for my mother and fraught with all sorts of hidden meanings and expectations.  There was a sense that if everything went off right we could correct some fundamental wrong in the family. If we could be a family at Christmas it would last throughout the year and even move backwards in time and bring us together retroactively.

The problem is that we were a family at Christmas, just not the family she seemed to want.  So mythologized had Christmas come for our mother that it was impossible for her to articulate exactly how it should be, what defined the perfect Christmas she so longed for and it was a setup from the beginning, there was no way we mere mortals could ever properly fulfill our roles.

It was a paradox then that when I was in the thick of my usual mid-Fall stress, I would daydream about going home for Christmas knowing that there was a price to pay for the time spent vegging on the couch, home cooked meals and nights out with old friends.  But I also knew that even if I never went out, spent all of my time singing carols and baking cookies and driving around looking at Christmas lights, it would still fall short yet again.

These thoughts come to me now when I’m the midst of writing a very intense piece of music and I can’t help but feel sad. This is the time of year when I go home to rest but pay the price for my resting but this year, like the years before, there is no longer that home to go to.  And now I’m the one for whom Christmas falls short.





November 20, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

nielsenI got an email today saying that 20,000 people tuned into WTTW last night to watch 1001 Afternoons in Chicago.  Considering that it aired twice more the following day in less desirable time slots, I’d estimate that it’s probably up to around 30,000 people total now.

That’s a lot of people watching the movie and hearing mine and Amos Gillespie’s music, but hearing the ratings report gave me a mixed reaction too.

As long as we’ve had air waves we’ve wondered who, if anyone, is tuning in to what we’re broadcasting and, as a longtime radio host, I’m totally sympathetic to this. Of course I want to know who is listening to the show, what they like or don’t like about it and how we can get more listeners and better engage the listeners we have.

This is a natural impulse for anyone who puts themselves in public view but it’s also a dangerous impulse if unchecked.

There has to be a strong balance between tailoring your content to the listener and curating your content and guiding the listener.  If a given broadcast scores high ratings it’s a natural impulse to want to air that program again or create more content like it and in the short run this may be a good strategy but long term you run the risk of turning off listeners and flooding the airwaves with garbage if you don’t adhere to some kind of standard or programming philosophy.

Chasing ratings just to have high ratings is a pointless pursuit and has led to some of the worst programming decisions in television and radio history.  The pursuit should be to have high ratings for excellent content, not to devalue your content to have high ratings.

I got a thrill thinking of 30,000 people watching our film, but I’m very glad that we made the film first and then WTTW agreed to air it. I wish it were always done that way.

Make quality content and then find the best place for it.  Please stop making content designed to drive ratings higher.  In the long run it doesn’t work, it underestimates the audience and, because people are going to watch television regardless, it creates shall we delicately say, a less discerning consumer.





November 12, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

placard1I’m putting the finishing touches on the first movement of my new piano concerto and am facing a familiar conundrum. How do I know when the piece is finished?

This is such an interesting problem for composers and I’d love to hear from others about how you know when a piece is done.  For me I guess a lot of times it’s when I just get tired of futzing with it and have to move on.  Other times I’m forced to stop working by an impending deadline which is kind of nice.

How many times after a deadline has passed and I’ve sent the piece to the performers have I said that I would go back later and fix it up?  Almost every time.  But how many times have I actually done this?  Almost none and I think it ‘s a good thing.  It really is so easy to fall down the rabbit hole and continue to work on a piece long after it’s done.

There have been many times now when I’ve heard a piece of mine performed and remembered the struggle I had with deciding that it was in its final form.  But upon listening I could never remember where I had had the trouble.  The truth is that the piece now exists in that form and that’s what it is.

Could I have made it better?  Possibly.  But it gets not only highly subjective at this point but also highly theoretical and for me at least I’d prefer to bang out another piece than endlessly wrestle with the same few bars.  That said, I really need to improve the middle section of the concerto, it’s just not quite right…



November 5, 2015
Posted by Seth Boustead

renaissance_soulFirst let me say that I am passionately against all self help books of any kind by any author whatsoever.  I haven’t read this book because it seems like a self help book and, as I’ve said, I’m against them but, I must say that I find the premise of this particular self help book, which I will never read, to be intriguing.

We celebrate the Renaissance man in theory but in practice we say things like jack of all trades, master of none.  Well, as someone who is interested in practically everything on the planet and has jacked around in many trades while mastering none of them, let me tell you that I get pretty tired of being accused of wasting my life and of attempts to reduce me to one thing.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking that I should focus on composition or radio or arts management or a hundred other things I like to do like read history, shoot pool and collect rare algae.

In the book, or so I’ve heard as I will never read it, Lobenstine makes a distinction between people like Ben Franklin who are interested in and good at many things, and people like Mozart who are hyper focused on one thing and have indisputably mastered it.

For example if they both had a concert coming up Ben Franklin, upon hearing that he had to promote it, might think “here’s another interesting thing I can learn” whereas Mozart might think, “why would I promote it?  I’m the composer.”

To me both points of view are valid.  There are people who specialize in promoting concerts so why not pair them with people who specialize in performing or composing music?  And yet as a person who finds it impossible to specialize I like to think that we’d be missing out if the world were full of specialists.

There’s something magical about the quixotic pursuit of devoting yourself to learning as much as possible, and doing as much as possible, within the lamentably short framework of one lifetime.

As I’ve said, I won’t read the book because I’m too busy jacking around to read self help but I’m glad that she wrote it and I hope others read it.  Now, off to my basket weaving class!



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