With a career that expands by the day across the US, Jacobs School of Music alumnus Alex Berko is our October entrepreneur of the Month. His work, “You Through Me”, was featured last week by the Jacobs School’s NOTUS Contemporary New Music Ensemble. Alex is an artist-leader in the Louisville Orchestra Creator initiative, “developing meaningful relationships with neighborhood residents and embodying the orchestra’s conviction that music is a fundamental part of civic life.” He took time away from his busy creative life to answer a few questions.
You seem to have taken the reins of your own career and have made lots of opportunities for yourself. In what ways do you think your career trajectory has been unique as compared to other modern composers?
Alex Berko: I have always been interested in and open to participating in many different areas of music: composing, arranging, transcribing, performing as a pianist, etc. I have found that they each inform one another, often leading to many unexpected opportunities. My work as an arranger has led to composition commissions. My work as a composer has led to copyist work. My work as a pianist has led to transcription work. I feel that by leaning into the plurality of my musical abilities and interests, I have been able to cultivate opportunities that I wouldn’t have been able to if I were just a composer.
Early on, I tried to seize opportunities with potential for long-lasting collaboration. Several conductors I formed relationships with over the years have been great advocates of my work. Those relationships and projects have led to more performances and more commissions. Of course, there is a healthy dose of luck involved in meeting the right people at the right time, but I also feel that I was prepared and capitalized on moments when they presented themselves.
While most of my colleagues are currently in a doctoral program or have completed one, I do not have a doctoral degree. Admittedly, this choice was not entirely mine: I was waitlisted and rejected from schools twice. (It also took me two tries to get into a master’s program.) What I have found is that a terminal degree does not equate to success or happiness. Because I am not in school, I have been able to spend more time writing, networking, taking on commissions, attending artist retreats, and applying to and accepting a year-long residency with the Louisville Orchestra. While my school experiences were wonderful and certainly prepared me for many opportunities, there are so many skills that simply can’t be learned in the classroom. It was an intimidating change at first and can be wildly unpredictable at times, I love being able to curate my schedule and projects.
We often think of entrepreneurship and innovation as buzzwords in the business and STEM sectors. How do those words resonate with you as a music composer?
Berko on entrepreneurship: I think that being a full-time working composer in the 21st century is synonymous with being an entrepreneur. It is a multi-faceted career that involves so much more than just writing music. Personally, I divide many days into two parts: creative and administrative. In the morning, I write. In the afternoons, I send emails, engrave, and work on other “business-related” tasks. I believe it would be very difficult to sustain a career if you just wrote music and nothing else.
Berko on innovation: The word innovation is subject to more debate. Plenty of composers can be wildly successful without innovating and the amount which a composer chooses to innovate is a personal choice. (It is not as simple as “the most innovative music is the most successful.”) For me, innovation is an exciting part of the process. I have tried to find corners where pushing the envelope is more welcome. Even if it is a straight-forward project with strict guidelines, I am energized when I figure out where I can insert something interesting or personal that fits neatly within the larger structure.
I constantly try to evolve my own artistic voice with every piece I write. I have a strong desire to continue growing and pushing myself and I am always looking for the next concept to explore.
On the topic of innovation, could you talk a bit about your Sacred Place program? In your composer notes on the work, you mention being inspired by contemporaries to “explore the mix of old and new.” How did you grow from that kernel of inspiration?
Berko: Sacred Place is a piece for choir and piano trio. I was approached by conductor Craig Hella Johnson to compose a new work for his choir Conspirare. In early discussions, he spoke about his desire for the work to revolve around community, belonging, and healing. I immediately thought of larger choral forms (masses, requiems, cantatas, etc.) and thought about how some of my contemporaries took these larger forms and used them as frameworks for their pieces. (I think specifically of Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered and Carlos Simon’s Requiem for the Enslaved.) I decided to take the Jewish liturgical service as my framework, but I used texts by various environmentalists to tell a larger story about place, sacredness, grief, and community.
This fall, you began your time with the Louisville Orchestra Creators Corps. How has your time in the group been so far? How do you see yourself developing as a composer?
Berko: This position has been wonderful so far! It is a unique thing that the orchestra is doing, hiring three full-time composers to be on staff to create works distinctively about Louisville for the orchestra and community. It has been fascinating to see how an orchestra operates from within. I am trying to soak up as much as possible. There have been many conversations about who the music is for and how we can have a larger reach. It has really made me think about the “why” which is something not often discussed in academic settings. I’m personally finding that I am attracted to music that is direct and viscerally connects with people’s emotions.
From an entrepreneurial angle, there is a huge opportunity here to build community both with the Louisville Orchestra staff and Louisville community at large. It is a moment for me to be able to ask how I can fit in to the larger ecosystem to contribute meaningful music that is relevant and impactful. I am hopeful that I will take these experiences with me after the residency has finished.
What advice do you have for emerging musicians and composers on how to lean into their own entrepreneurship?
Berko: I would encourage them to lean into the skills and passions that are unique to them. Though the industry may create an odd pressure for certain types of music to be more complex or respected, I don’t believe there is any hierarchy in music. Concert music doesn’t take more skill to produce than an album. It’s just different. If you can make a living pursuing something you love, especially music, you’re massively successful. It doesn’t matter what subset you are creating within. If you are honest and passionate about it, then “success” and happiness will be included.