“I don’t experience myself as a leader in the way it’s been modeled in the past…In music if you think of, say, a conductor of an orchestra and the way they would be called “maestro”…I don’t consider myself that kind of leader. I do believe that my talent is at identifying trends in the arts. I have a rather keen ability to find things in music and art and to develop them. And I believe that’s related to my skill as a composer.”–Thomas Schuttenhelm


Thomas Schuttenhelm, the artistic director of the Network for New Music, talks with Norman Sandridge (classics professor at Howard University, fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies) about the many relationships between music and democracy. They explore the extent to which music makes us more curious and more social. They reflect on passages of ancient leadership from Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus and Aristophanes’ Frogs, and they try to develop ways in which Americans could have better access to the kind of musical experiences Thomas offers at the Network for New Music. Listeners may click on the questions below that are most relevant to them.


  • In what ways in an artistic director a leader? (00:00:52)
  • What is the mission of the Network for New Music? (00:01:42)
  • How does Thomas’ leadership include mentorship? (00:02:38)
  • What skills of leadership, if any, will Thomas need to cultivate in his new role? (00:03:04)
  • What demands does this era of music place on an artistic director? (00:04:51)
  • Can Thomas identify a point in time where he first saw himself as a leader? What kind of leader does he see himself as? (00:06:18)
  • Does Thomas see the world as made up of “leaders” and “non-leaders”? (00:07:02)
  • How much does it make sense to think of Thomas as the pilot of a ship? (00:09:08)
  • Does Thomas think that “seeing to it that others have all that they need and become what they need to be” (fm. Xenophon’s Cyropaedia) is a good definition of leadership? (00:11:40)
  • What does Thomas feel are the human needs? What does a human need to be? (00:15:06)
  • How does music foster curiosity? (00:16:50)
  • In what ways are the composer, researcher, and performer participating in leadership roles? (00:17:38)
  • What piece should we be listening to to understand how Thomas’ fantasy life has been activated? (00:18:54)
  • How did Thomas meet Michael Tippett, who set his life on a new trajectory? (00:19:57)
  • In what ways are the composer, researcher, and performer participating in leadership roles? (00:22:44)
  • Are the traits of leadership the same for each of these putative leadership roles: composer/conductor, researcher, performer? (00:23:44)
  • Are there leaders outside of music that Thomas identifies with? (00:24:57)
  • Does the American presidency seem like a creative leadership role? (00:26:45)
  • Do presidents create things? How “musical” is a presidency?” (00:27:41)
  • Does Thomas see jazz as democratic? Are other forms of music democratic? Are some forms of music analogous to other kinds of government? (00:29:45)
  • Can music make people better citizens? How? (00:35:51)
  • Are musicians better citizens than the rest of us? (00:41:38)
  • Why does Thomas think live, intimate musical performance is not the dominant mode of entertainment in our country? How could we get there? (00:45:22)
  • Do Americans need to be better coached to get more out of their musical experiences? (00:51:45)
  • Where does the initiative to help Americans better appreciate music need to come from? (00:54:02)
  • What musician would Thomas resurrect from the dead to improve our country in its present state? (00:57:22)
  • Final question from Thomas: how to keep from giving an audience from what they want (i.e., satisfying their “pleasure principle” and playing to their expectations) and instead give them what they need? (01:01:00)

Key Insights

  • Artistic directors may see themselves as having a mentorship relationship both with the performers and the audience.
  • It can be better to recognize and cultivate the talents of others, and to help them align with trends in art, rather than impose one’s own vision of what music should be.
  • “My experience of music is a collaborative one: I always think of the musicians, the audience, the creative as part of a triangle.”–Thomas Schuttenhelm
  • On how an artistic director is like a pilot: “One is constantly adjusting. It’s not just setting a path. I feel that I am adept and nimble enough to do that. That comes from my training as a performer, and knowing that one has to constantly adjust. So, you can’t play the same composition in the same way in two different halls.”–Thomas Schuttenhelm
  • There’s no quick way to becoming a leader.
  • Leaders need to be naturally curious and have a reflective, contemplative side, rather than be reactive.
  • “Music is a version of a fiction. It’s a fantasy world that doesn’t have to operate on the same rules that the ‘merely representational’ does.”–Thomas Schuttenhelm
  • “All of us have within us the ability to surrender to some fantasy or fiction, and I think music and art and literature–poetry–whatever art form you’re indulging in–can excite that part of us. It’s a natural part of it. It is instinctual.”–Thomas Schuttenhelm
  • Would-be leaders should put themselves out there and try to meet the leaders who can inspire them.
  • “I tend to regard American politics as a work-in-progress.”–Thomas Schuttenhelm
  • “Presidents create a tone…If a country has a rhythm and a timbre, the president has a responsibility to sculpt that tone and rhythm.”–Thomas Schuttenhelm

Works Referenced

Xenophon’s Cyropaedia 1.6.7

The biographies of Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt. For Thomas both were intellectuals and students of history, while they were directing history.

Dimitri Vassilakis’ Jazz Democracy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udNJCRSABvw&t=1s

Steven Mithen’s Singing Neanderthals (2007)

Aristophanes’ Frogs 1417-1421, translation by Matthew Dillon

Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkaOz48cq2g