Hey there everyone! It’s been quiet around here as we’ve both been running around in our respective lives. BUT BUT BUT - we’re finally being reunited at OMAHA UNDER THE RADAR in less than 48 hours! To celebrate we thought we’d do a little 5 questions each to celebrate being reunited!

1. What have you been up to since our first ever tour?

Finishing up my coursework at Northwestern and playing with the Portland Opera! - BRW

Was up at Banff doing two new operas and simultaneously planning my wedding and move to NYC! -AS

2. Best memory of the summer?

Flying in an 8-seat Cessna plane from Boston to Augusta to see Isidora! - BRW

CUTE. Mine was probably running up Tunnel Mountain in Banff with Austin! - AS

3. What are you most excited about going to Omaha?

I just can't wait to see all the amazing people who are performing. - BRW

Definitely meeting everyone at OUTR, especially Amanda (who runs the festival)! Also, saw they have super cute t-shirts, so I’ll definitely be hitting those up. - AS

4. Favourite piece you've been listening to?

Pieta for piano trio by Peter Kramer - BRW

Carrot Revolution for string quartet by Gabriella Smith - AS

5. What have you missed most about being w your duo best-bud?

Haven't had Chicken fingers since Ontario. We will have to remedy that. - BRW

Definitely Ben’s eye-roll when I over-enthusiastically greet him. I live for it. - AS

SO - if you’re in OMAHA (WOO) come see us at 7pm, Thursday July 25th at the Bancroft Street Market! We’ll be there and ready to get ROWDY with some great music and hang with you all after!!

Alexandra Smither

Since we’re only THREE sleeps out from our tour, we figured it was about time you got to know who Pushback is! So, we (Ben and Ally) sat down to answer some questions about how this all started, and why we’re so excited about it!

(c) Lynn Lane Photography

(c) Lynn Lane Photography

Where did the idea for Pushback come from, how did this all start?

B: I think this project started out of a kindred spirit of curiosity that Ally and I discovered in each other through our work together in Hear and Now at Rice. Everything about playing chamber music together was a no-brainer, except for the lack of repertoire. So we set about to create new repertoire, and in the process discovered mutual frustrations about and hopes for new music being written today. Those became central to our mission as an ensemble.

A: Ben and I became friends over the course of a couple years, in part through playing in the same new music ensembles, but we wanted to do something more closely together.  As friends, we spend a lot of time talking about politics, the world we live in, and how frustrated we are by how distant that world can feel from our work as artists. So, when we began talking about commissioning repertoire, we immediately latched onto the idea of encouraging our composers to write “beyond the concert hall.”

What was your first impression of other one?

B: I remember meeting Ally in my first week at Rice--she was maniacally running around the halls of the Shepherd School trying to recruit people to play on this crazy program of the Schoenberg, Ligeti, and Adams chamber symphonies. I was like, “I need to become friends with this person.”

A: I remember seeing Ben standing beside his locker with a poster for a duo concert he was playing. The poster was awesome and he was so amped to talk about new music and play with Hear&Now, I knew I wanted to be friends with him! Also, how can you miss that beard? Magnificent.

What have you learned about starting a new ensemble/working as a team?

B: This project has involved a lot of behind-the-scenes work. Lots of skype meetings, grant writing, long email chains, bugging composers, etc. I love that stuff, but after a while it makes you antsy! I can’t wait for the fun part--getting to actually perform all of our new pieces!

A: I think what I’ve learned most is how much you can (and need to) lean on, trust, and communicate with your work partner. There were times this year that were pretty difficult in my personal life and Ben really came through to support me in ways I never allowed myself to expect from a colleague. He’s the best! Also, google docs and writing things down are a must.

Tell us a ~quintessential~ story about the other one?

B: I once made the mistake of challenging Ally to a chicken fight outside of this wonderful bar called Anvil in Houston. For the life of me, I don’t know why I thought this was a good idea, but I have a scar to prove that I lost.

A: Ben stole my story. The most important detail is that it was AFTER that physical altercation that we decided to start Pushback. The other one I’d say, which is ongoing, is that we’ve had almost all of our initial talks about Pushback at House of Pies, in Houston. They’re a big inspiration.

In Pushback’s mission, you invite composers bring the real world into the concert hall. What kinds of topics would you like to see people examining more through music?

B: I feel pretty strongly that contemporary music can and should have something to say about our world, our communities, and issues that are important to us as people. That’s not to say that every piece of new music needs to explicitly respond to real-world issues, but I’m interested in what happens when we as an ensemble invite and encourage composers to take some artistic license in this way. I think the results in our first round of commissions are pretty powerful.

A: Yes! Unfortunately, classical music has a very exclusionary history in terms of what stories are told and whose voices are amplified. I think one of the real advantages contemporary music has is that is can choose to present stories in a modern, thoughtful, inclusionary way. Our hope is that by doing this we can sincerely invite a more diverse group of people into the concert hall.

What would you like to see change most in our industry?

B: I would like to see major musical institutions, especially academic ones, begin to actively work to repair the tremendous damage that racism, sexism, and classism have done in our field. This would start with recognizing the stories of racial and sexual discrimination and violence that are rampant, as well as punishing the perpetrators of those crimes. On a larger scale, though, it would require a reconsideration of the hierarchies of our industry, a change and diversification of leadership, and the allocation of resources to create a more equitable and safe creative working community. I’m in a position of extraordinary privilege as a straight white man, but to hear the stories of my colleagues who have suffered discrimination and abuse is frightening and heartbreaking. I think that we have no right to consider anything we do to have a positive impact unless we are always working to create an environment where everyone can feel safe in doing their creative work.

A: I would like to see arts education change from a young age. Too often the little bodies that are born into less affluent communities aren’t given the access to arts education that wealthy children are. And too often those little bodies are brown and black. How can we expect to change the diversity on our concert stage if we aren’t changing it at a young age, and supporting it all the way to college? Classical music is an expensive field to work in, especially at the early stages. I would love to see more being done, from myself included, to help bridge that gap and offer education and support to those who currently don’t have it.

I’d also love to see the issue of “diversity” addressed in a less tokenistic way. Why not have an actually diverse season filled with different stories that affect a myriad of people, rather than one concert a year that is, at best, an ill-fitting bandaid?

You’re on tour: who is driving?

B: I heard that Ally’s car recently went up in flames, so I think I might call the wheel....

A: Ben is not wrong, my car recently died a pretty violent, smoke-filled death. But also, we’ll see if Ben wants another scar trying to take the wheel from me.

So: Come hang out with us this weekend!! We’ll be in Philly March 23rd, New York City March 24th, and Boston March 25th!

Alexandra Smither

It’s less that 10 days until out concerts on March 23 (Philly), March 24 (New York), and March 25 (Boston), we’d like to introduce you to the composers we commissioned! Ben and I are so excited to share this new music with you!


Today, at long last, we’d like you to meet Binna Kim!

Her inspirations come from various forms of art.  Recently, she has been influenced immensely by installation art from artists such as Lee Ufan, Sarah Sze, and Doris Salcedo. Her work has been commissioned and performed in the United States, Korea, and Europe by various ensembles, including the New Fromm Players, Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, Governor's School of North Carolina Orchestra, Flux Quartet, MOKO Musik, LoadBang and Ensemble Court-Circuit. Binna took the time to anwer our questions below, so let’s get to know this amazing woman!

Tell us a bit about yourself! Where are you from?

   I am originally from South Korea, currently living in Boston, finishing up my doctorate degree at NEC. 

 Who would you “cite” as your major influences, non-musical included? What inspires you?

Most of my inspiration comes from various forms of visual art.  

 How does that inspiration connect to the piece you wrote for Pushback?

At the moment, I am obsessed with Louise Bourgeois! I find every aspect of her fascinating and inspiring this includes her sculptures, installations, drawings, and texts (which I used for the piece for Pushback "the return of the repressed") Bourgeois dealt with various types of media, and all her works are always meticulously done with mastery and are full of contents and meaning by reflecting the society she lived in as well as her vulnerable self.

 How did you meet Ally and Ben?

I met Ally at Tanglewood, have been heard of Ben… forever from Zach. (Since 2013 to be exact)

 Out of all the cities Pushback is touring to, which one will we catch you at?

Will be attending the concert in Boston for sure!

 Favourite food?

My favorite food is…  if you could count ice cream as food, then ice cream! Or pasta, bread, cheese and wine would make me happy just as well.

 Most mind-boggling concert you’ve been to lately?

The most recent mind blowing performance would be Thomas Ades’ brand new piano concerto performed by Gerstein and BSO just couple days ago. 

You’re not going to want to miss Binna’s heart-breaking piece, so catch us this coming weekend in a city near you!

Alexandra Smither

Leading up to our concerts on March 23 (Philly), March 24 (New York), and March 25 (Boston), we’d like to introduce you to the composers we commissioned! We are so excited about this music and the people it comes from!

Up today is the one and only LJ White!

lj headshot.JPG

LJ White's music serves ideals of direct, focused and socially relevant expression, assimilating an unrestricted array of influences through unpredictable-yet-contagious rhythms, strange and evocative sonorities, self-evident gestures, and apposite forms.  He has worked with some of the most exciting players in contemporary music, including Alarm Will Sound, Ensemble SIGNAL, Ensemble Dal Niente, the JACK Quartet, the Spektral Quartet, Third Coast Percussion, Volti, and members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Roomful of Teeth, the Talea Ensemble, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. We’re so excited he took the time to talk with us

Tell us a bit about yourself! Where are you from?

 I’m from Longmeadow, Massachusetts – it’s a small town in the western part of the state.  I lived in Boston for seven years – I went to college at Boston University, for trombone and composition, did a master’s degree at NEC in composition, and then taught for a year in the Boston public schools – then spent two years in Berkeley, CA, and then moved to Chicago to do a doctorate in composition at Northwestern University.  Now I live in St. Louis, where I teach at Washington University. 

How did you meet Ally and Ben?

I met Ben at the Banff Centre for the Arts in summer 2017, and then Ally through Ben – we first met in person at Pushback’s debut in Houston last fall.

Pushback’s mission is to commission music that engages beyond the concert hall. How did you envision your piece connecting to that mission?

My piece is a setting of excerpts of a poem by Franny Choi called Notes from “A Guide to Drag Kinging.”  As a trans man, I connected to the poem strongly – it conveys the visceral excitement of finally embodying a gender identity that feels empowering.  It also talks about the circular, difficult-to-reconcile thought processes of figuring out one’s all-day, every-day identity as a gender-nonconforming person, in a way that I really related to.  I saw the commission as an opportunity to share this story, which isn’t one that’s usually told from the concert hall stage, at a time when cisgender understanding of trans issues is evolving rapidly, but the transgender community is also facing a lot of adversity.

 Out of all the cities Pushback is touring to, which one will we catch you at?

 I’ll be in New York, Philly, Boston, and Chicago!  I have ties to most of those cities, so I can’t wait to share the piece in those places.

Most mind-boggling concert you’ve been to lately?

The most amazing recent concert I’ve been to was Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer tour last summer.  She just slayed – she’s an incredible performer, and I love her music and think that it’s really important right now. It felt like all of queer St. Louis came to that concert, and she just radiated love and inspiration from the stage for everyone marginalized by the current administration – it was so affirming and powerful.

What would like you to see change the most in our industry?

I’d like to see classical and contemporary classical music become more inclusive, at every level.  It should start with access to a great, rigorous, and broad-minded music education for all kids, so that they can compete for music school admission (which also needs to be more affordable,) allowing our field to become more diverse, and audiences as well.  It also needs to include expanding access to concerts and events, making them more welcoming and economically/geographically accessible.  And the music itself needs to evolve – genre barriers need to be broken down, and “music education” should no longer just mean “classical music education” that upholds the work of dead white European men as the pinnacle of musical achievement.  The inherent quality of all genres needs to be honored, which means that professional classical musicians will need to enhance their skills, learn to pay closer attention to details that connote style, and become more open to a bigger variety of ways to collaborate with others.  Crucially, we need to find a way to convey to audiences that they’re allowed to honor their own reactions to what they’re hearing at our concerts – that if they don’t like it, it’s not just because they somehow don’t understand this rarified thing that’s happening.  They’re part of a communal experience with us when they attend a concert, and their opinions matter and are valid.  I think this will also lead to more critical consideration of repertoire – like maybe the texted works that uphold old-fashioned, heteronormative, classist, sexist, racist cultural mores can start to be performed less often, for example.  There’s a lot that can be said, but I’ll stop here for now…

 Come catch LJ’s “Shuffled Notes” with us this upcoming weekend!


Alexandra Smither

Leading up to our concerts on March 23 (Philly), March 24 (New York), and March 25 (Boston), we’d like to introduce you to the composers we commissioned! We are so excited about this music and the people it comes from!

Today we’d like you to meet Theo Chandler!

theo headshot.jpg

Theo Chandler is a Houston-based composer, currently pursuing his Doctorate of Musical Arts at the Rice University Shepherd School of Music. Chandler is the recipient of a Charles Ives Scholarship from the Academy of Arts and Letters and a Morton Gould Award from ASCAP. We asked Theo a few questions and, to no one’s surprise, his answers were fantastic:

Tell us a bit about yourself! Where are you from?

I am Theo Chandler, and I am composer from Hillsborough, North Carolina. I started playing clarinet in 6th grade band, and officially switched focus to composing in my undergrad. Both my parents are visual artists, so my creative endeavors were encouraged from a young age.

Who would you “cite” as your major influences, non-musical included? What inspires you?

The three composers I think about most often are Ligeti, Hartke, and Beethoven. I love them for what I see as their continual reevaluation of genre. As for non-musical influences, I am a visually-oriented person, so I am most inspired by film and visual art. My two favorite movies are Jacques Tati's Playtime and Paweł Pawlikowski Ida.

 How did you meet Ally and Ben?

I got to know Ben at Oberlin, probably because I spent far too much time in the bassoon reed room. Ben introduced me to Ally over email, and I met her in person at Tanglewood. I admire both of them for their artistry and grit.

 Favourite food?

Pretty much anything with a lot of sugar. Other ingredients may vary.

 Most mind-boggling concert you’ve been to lately?

Ben Kamins performing the Gubaidulina Bassoon Concerto. It is always good to be confronted by a composer who thinks so differently about form and meaning in music.

What’s something people might not know about you?

People are generally shocked to find out how much time I spend watching interviews with rappers on Youtube.

 Besides the obvious choice of bassoon and soprano, what are some of your ~dream~ instrumentaions to write for in the future?

I adore any instrumentation that pits a soloist against an ensemble. If I could write concertos and orchestral song cycles for the rest of my life I would be very happy. I dream of writing a 30 minute concerto for four violins and orchestra.

 What would like you to see change the most in our industry?

I think we need to incorporate contemporary music into music education at a younger age. Many musicians are not exposed to it until they have become well acquainted with traditional repertoire. The longer we wait to learn to play and interpret contemporary music, the more foreign its vocabulary will feel.

Thanks so much to Theo for taking the time and answering our questions! I know I will definitely be going straight to watch some interviews with rappers. Come here Theo’s “Tamora Monologues”, written for soprano, bassoon, and string quartet, on our East Coast Tour!

Alexandra Smither

At the centre of Pushback are the composers who are writing for us. Over the next few days, we’d like to introduce you to these fabulous people who are creating the music we are so excited to perform!

Karim Al-Zand.jpg

Up first is Houston based composer, Karim Al-Zand!

Karim’s music has been called “strong and startlingly lovely” (Boston Globe). His compositions are wide-ranging, from settings of classical Arabic poetry to scores for dance and pieces for young audiences. His works explore connections between music and other arts, and draw inspiration from diverse sources such as 19th century graphic art, fables of the world, folksong and jazz.

Ben and I first met Karim through our time at Rice University. We are so grateful he took the time to answer some questions for all of you!

Tell us a bit about yourself! Where are you from?

I grew up and went to college in Canada, but have lived in the US since 1993. I arrived at Rice University in 2000 and have been a    faculty member at the Shepherd School of Music since then.

How did you meet Ally and Ben?
We met when they were grad students at Shepherd a few years ago (though I don't think either of them took a class with me). They were really active leaders in the new music scene at Rice, and among the cofounders of our student new music series "Hear & Now."

Pushback’s mission is to commission music that engages beyond the concert hall. How did you envision your piece connecting to that mission?

Well, my piece is pretty clearly influenced by "our current political climate" (as they say), a euphemism for the toxic mix of racism, fear-mongering and duplicity which now dominates our political culture. It's called "Songs from the Post Truth Era." I take a text from a didactic children's book, a poem about always telling the truth, then distort and rearrange the text until the words are meaningless and the result is sheer nonsense. I joked with Ally that it's like a Sarah Sanders press conference.

Out of all the cities Pushback is touring to, which one will we catch you at?
I'm going to try to attend the Houston one!

Favourite food?
I approve of the Canadian spelling, by the way. My family subscribes to a weekly CSA basket from "Plant it Forward," and it's fun to try to cook, Iron Chef style, with whatever happens to be harvested that week. Though I have discovered there is a limit to how much arugula I can consume.

Most mind-boggling concert you’ve been to lately?
There are concerts pretty much every day here at Rice and the students are terrific, so my mind is regularly boggled by the level of musicianship on display. This weekend I attended a concert our of contemporary music ensemble conducted by Jerry Hou, that played major works by Gubaidalina and Hartke, which was really impressive.

What’s something people might not know about you?
I was born in North Africa (in Tunisia).

Besides the obvious choice of bassoon and soprano, what are some of your ~dream~ instrumentations to write for in the future?
I liked the challenge of writing for bassoon and voice, a rather unorthodox, (but beautiful!) pairing. In terms of chamber music, I find it's nice to alternate between standard ensembles and combinations that are somewhat less common.

What would like you to see change the most in our industry?
Well, this is a familiar lament, but it's sad that new music isn't a bigger part of the repertoire of major presenters, ensembles and orchestras. There are plenty of reasons for that (and that's a whole other conversation), but it's a pity that the adventure of discovering new work isn't as much a part of musical culture as it is, for instance, in the world of theater or art or literature.

Thank you so much to Karim for taking to time to talk to us. Come hear Karim’s piece “Songs from a Post Truth Era” on our inaugural concert tour in March and April 2019! Up first is:

PHILLY - March 23rd @ Temple University @ 7:30PM (with Departure Duo)

NEW YORK - March 24th @ Scholes Studio @ 7PM (with Departure Duo)

BOSTON - March 25th @ New School of Music @ 8PM (with Departure Duo)

Alexandra Smither
Pushback Receives Independent Project funding from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago!

We’re extremely excited to be the recipients of an Independent Project Grant from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago to support our upcoming tour(s) in March and April!

This grant will help pay for travel costs, performance and rehearsal venue rental, recording fees, and other touring expenses. Our upcoming concerts would not be possible without this support, and we’re extremely grateful to Civic for their trust in us!

The Civic Orchestra of Chicago is one of the nation's premier training programs for emerging professional musicians. Since 1919, young artists have sought membership in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago to develop their musicianship and to further prepare for professional careers. Founded by Frederick Stock, second music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Civic Orchestra is the only training orchestra of its kind affiliated with a major American orchestra.

Ben is in his second season as a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

Find more information at:

Alexandra Smither
Spring Tour Announcement - Press Release

For Immediate Release: 28 February 2019


Pushback Collective Announces Spring 2019 Tour

Pushback Ensemble - Photographer Lynn Lane - WEB-1.jpg

PUSHBACK COLLECTIVE (Alexandra Smither, soprano and Ben Roidl-Ward, bassoon) will embark on their inaugural tour in Spring 2019. The tour will take place in two legs, the first presenting concerts on the East Coast alongside the Departure Duo, with concerts in Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston from March 23rd-25th. From April 15th-21st, Pushback will perform further concerts in Houston, Chicago, and Toronto. The program will feature four new works for soprano and bassoon by composers Karim Al-Zand, Theo Chandler, Binna Kim, and LJ White, which are the result of Pushback’s 2019 commissioning initiative. Featuring diverse   styles and topics, the program is tied together by the idea of music serving as a response, a commentary, or a foil to social, political, and cultural realities of our world. These commissions and this tour are made possible through generous support from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the Luminarts Cultural Foundation, and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. Photo by Lynn Lane.


Saturday, March 23rd, 2019, 7:30pm: Philadelphia, PA (with Departure Duo)

Rock Hall, Temple University: 1715 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA 19122

Free Admission

Sunday, March 24th, 2019, 7pm: Brooklyn, NY (with Departure Duo)

Scholes St. Studio: 375 Lorimer St, Brooklyn, NY 11206

$10 Suggested Donation

Monday, March 25th, 2019, 8pm: Cambridge, MA (with Departure Duo)

The New School for Music: 25 Lowell St, Cambridge, MA 02138

$10 Suggested Donation

Monday, April 15th, 2019, 7pm: Houston, TX

Night Heron: 1601 W Main St, Houston, TX 77006

$10 Suggested Donation

Friday, April 19th, 2019, 8pm: Chicago, IL

Slate Arts + Performance: 3203 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60651

$5 Suggested Donation

Sunday, April 21st, 2019, 7pm: Toronto, ON

Array Space Toronto: 155 Walnut Ave, Toronto, ON M6J 3W3, Canada

$10 Suggested Donation


2019 Commissions

Tamora Monologues - Theo Chandler
Songs from a Post Truth Era - Karim Al-Zand
Shuffled Notes from ‘A Guide to Drag Kinging’ - LJ White
February 19, 1958 - Binna Kim

Other Repertoire

I watch you, beheading - Bekah Simms

I Give You Back - Annea Lockwood

Axis Mundi - Liza Lim

Pushback is a modular contemporary music ensemble founded in 2018 by Ben Roidl-Ward (bassoon) and Ally Smither (soprano). Our objective is to commission and present a new body of work featuring bassoon and soprano that explicitly advocates for groups that are underrepresented and oppressed, both in and outside of the world of music. This goal arose from a strong desire to play together in a small chamber setting, an interest in working closely with composers of our generation, and a growing frustration with what we see as an unnecessary and harmful dislocation of our artistic practice from the political and social realities of our lives.

For more information, please visit

Or contact: |

Photos, recordings, and press materials available upon request.


Alexandra Smither