Spotlight On: 2020 American Composers Forum NextNotes Creators

American Composers Forum’s NextNotes program honors talented young artists from across the country who create music of all styles. Selected for their skill, creativity, and originality, NextNotes offers six Creators mentorship, performance and recording opportunities, scholarship funds, and more. This year, the Creators participated in virtual conversations and workshops with mentors Marcos Balter, Mary Ellen Childs, and Joseph Horton.

Rather than asking our customary five questions to a single artist, I asked each of the NextNotes Creators one question:

What was the most valuable takeaway from your mentorship through NextNotes that you will apply to your music creation moving forward?

KiMani Bridges

The biggest takeaway from my mentorship through NextNotes is that I have a greater understanding of music on the topic of connection. I learned that being connected/ being in touch with yourself is a major part of the process in writing and performing music. One of the main things that has been stated throughout the mentorship is being authentic and doing what makes you happy; that includes: exploring new ideas/concepts, being curious and open/willing to try new things. Also having connections with peers is helpful in the creative process and when collaborating. The last main thing was the connection between me and the music itself. The best music is created when you are being true to yourself, not being afraid of showing who you truly are. I learned that what I have to say is really important. I control how it is being said and what I say about it. Everything that I learned from this mentorship program will be used throughout my career and in the music I create. What this program cements is that you have a voice, and you shouldn’t be shy about it. The music world is full of interesting things and there is still a lot a room for new discoveries.

Helen Feng

The most valuable takeaway from my NextNotes experience is a deepened understanding of community, collaboration, and what it means to be an artist. During discussions with mentors and peers, I loved the idea of approaching collaboration from a place of curiosity and unknowing. In so doing, the group empathetically creates a space to discover things that neither you or the collaborator has thought of. Building human connection has always been a core creative drive for me, and this stance of humility and openness is surely something I will aspire to embody in future creative endeavors. Another key lesson I have learned from NextNotes discussions is that the masterpiece syndrome comes from a place of ego, unrealistic judgment, and blockage of one’s true creative self, that as humans, it is all too natural to create art that we aren’t particularly proud of sometimes. I found it a liberating mindset to embrace the fallible humanity of the artist, to allow myself to be a person-in-progress and empower myself to trust those bubbling creative instincts. I am grateful for the NextNotes experience of meeting new people and broadening horizons through meaningful discussions.

Gene Angelo Nucal

Apart from the amazing community and connections I was able to make through NextNotes and the wonderful conversations over multiple aspects of music, its creation, styles, and sensations, I believe that my greatest takeaway was the importance of establishing one’s self as an artist. Our mentors stressed the aspect of respecting and loving ourselves as creators and artists and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to create art, comfortable enough to declare a work complete, and available enough to take or give criticism. One aspect of this is allowing our work to speak for itself by letting the art attempt to create an experience for someone, or being able to guide someone through that experience without taking away from the purity and natural magic of the art. Another point is being respectfully unapologetic about being ourselves and creating the music we create, being confident and standing up for who we are and what we do. Altogether, it’s a culmination of being true to yourself and letting your art do the explaining of your character rather than you explaining yourself. If the art is true to you, how much more clear can you be?

In the future, I want to let go and embrace that vulnerability of being the artist I am and was always destined to be, not being scared of harsh opinions or constantly trying to find a niche or mold to fit in. As my own artist, I’ll take it upon myself to make and fit into my own mold.

Rohan Srinivasan

When I submitted my piece for NextNotes back in January, I did not expect to win. In fact, when I got an email titled, “Congratulations on NextNotes!” in my inbox, I assumed it was a college spamming me! I was living in my Portland, OR bubble, where almost no one at school knows who Schoenberg or Bartók are. I’m also a pretty shy person, so stepping out of that bubble is not something that I would normally do. Given all of this, NextNotes has thrust me into a new environment which has been really rewarding. It’s hard to narrow everything down to one “most valuable takeaway,” but the tips on interacting with performers were very helpful. Sometimes when I am working with a notation software, I have to remind myself that I’m composing for a person, not the instrument itself. I learned that it’s OK to ask potentially silly things and mess around. Maybe I tell the performer what picture I’m trying to paint with my music and they will suggest something which I may not have thought of. My mentor, Mary Ellen Childs, encouraged me to include descriptive words to help give the performer a better sense of what the piece is about. And the connections! NextNotes has introduced me to so many amazing musicians and I can’t wait to keep in touch with them going forward.

Jasper Talwani

My most valuable takeaway from NextNotes is that the modes of musical thought we have inherited are all optional. Some ways of thinking about music are so ingrained in us as composers, we aren’t even aware that they exist and that we can opt out of them. This kind of meta-awareness is very valuable because it significantly expands the musical possibilities available to me as a composer. In different wordings and from different people, it was communicated to me throughout my time at NextNotes that people were not going to be attracted to my music because it fulfills certain ideals or is canonically “correct.” Performers, collaborators, and audiences are drawn to originality and authenticity more than anything, and I have nothing to fear by following where the music leads me. This is a very liberating realization, and I am grateful to the NextNotes mentors and creators for having guided me to it.

Charlotte Weinstein

At the beginning of the NextNotes program, I remember my composition mentor Joe Horton telling me that there are instructors that can help you a lot with the technicalities of your music, but leave you to figure out “the human thing” on your own. What I mean by this is that I haven’t had a lot of experience composing, so it is more important to me to understand the process than make a product. And, as Joe taught me, the way that you understand this process is by tapping into your own intuition, your own inner conversations. The root of this process is always improvisation, and you have to have faith in yourself that, in that moment, you will recognize the beauty of your own musical conversation with yourself, and that you do understand what you created, what it is all about, the intentions behind your own creation. This has helped me know and voice my intentions during composition. I learned that you can’t tack on emotion to music; rather, you have to approach making music from a deeply emotional place. With my own piece about disequilibrium, NextNotes cellist Michelle Kinney also taught me the power of using my music as an outlet for my rage about a human disequilibrium where capitalism has caused human lives to be devalued, and human bodies to be killed.


An archived video from the live-streamed American Composers Forum NextNotes Awards Ceremony is available on ACF’s YouTube channel and includes excerpts from each of the Creator’s compositions.