Author: DanVisconti

Believing in Ghosts

Although it was a long time ago, it’s easy for me to recall the anxiety, tension, and sheer terror of being alone in the dark as a young child. As any former children reading this might attest, what makes the experience so frightening isn’t the darkness itself, but rather the darkness’s ability to thrust us into an indeterminate state where ghosts, monsters, and bogeymen might be swarming under the bed. As children we were still open to these kinds of possibilities, and the sense of sight which might have disabused us of these fears had been dimmed with the lights out. As an adult, I’m pretty sure there was never anything under the bed, but it was the belief in ghosts—not the existence of ghosts—that gave the experience of being in the dark such power.

Likewise, I feel that many of our problems as composers are self-created byproducts of something that is not actually there. For me, compositional ghosts often assume the form of teachers, peers, idols, or competitors, although they can also come to embody the opinions of panels, foundations, or imagined groups of critical people that may not in fact have a sound basis in reality. Oftentimes, our compositional ghosts are constructed more out of our own fear and anticipation of disapproval, absorbed through a strange form of social osmosis rather than handed down from an authority figure on high. We internalize expectations from friends, enemies, and mentors without full awareness of having done so; we believe everyone else’s tall tales, and this gets in the way of writing our own story.

Composer David Rakowski’s duly celebrated buttstix are a way of making compositional phantoms tangible and, moreover, just as ridiculous as they really are. I was never a student of Davy’s but always identified with his desire to see what he, figuratively, had a stick up his ass about. As Rakowski points out in his excellent NewMusicBox interview with Frank J. Oteri, we all have different hang-ups and assumptions and habits and fears and contentments that make us who we are, and sometimes it is the case that certain “buttstix” do provide us with useful tools or at least the discipline of having negotiated a particular rigidity; it’s just that, unexamined, a composer’s buttstix can inhibit personal and artistic growth. Some of Rakowski’s own buttstix include “serious music is slow music” as well as “improvisation is not composition.” In an official buttstix follow-up post on his blog, Rakowski relates how each time he discovered (and occasionally, extracted) a new buttstick, his music began to seem less a part of the “camp” he currently identified with and more like, well, himself.

Buttstix

Examples of buttstix, courtesy of David Rakowski.

I can’t help but think that Rakowski’s buttstix have done more pedagogical good than a whole four years of masterclasses with impressive prize-winning composers. The process of identifying and removing myriad buttstix is comparable to the terrified child turning on a light: in both cases, the phantom Unacceptable Act is easily cut down to size, or even revealed as entirely imaginary—but as long as they reign from the shadows, the phantoms are able to exert a terrifying influence.

Bringing our assumptions and hang-ups into the light of day can put them in their place, whether we view them as ghosts to be dispelled, buttstix to be yanked, or as just a few of the many available channels on the satellite TV of reality.

As another academic year begins, I have a few college visits planned and have been thinking about the compositional ghosts that most often haunt today’s generation of young composers—including assumptions and dictums about the process of composing, an area of composing rarely afforded the attention it deserves in today’s undergraduate curricula. Below are ten of the biggest, baddest ghosts that seem to be influencing many young composers today, and which we would do well to examine. The following precepts should be questioned and challenged just as forcefully as the belief in supernatural creatures lurking under the bed:

1. Measures of music generated=progress made (corollary: erasing measures is a shameful step back).

2. Studying works we laud and admire is more beneficial than taking a closer listen to works or (genres) which we dislike.

3. Composition is a “career.”

4. The presence/absence of any one award/accomplishment is, in itself, capable of making/breaking a composer’s chances.

5. More care and forethought always produces superior work (corollary for teachers: more writing on the blackboard=clear evidence that teaching has occurred).

6. Composition should reflect the results of conscious deliberation, rather than communion with the hidden unconscious.

7. The main point of school is class and the assignments/learning/social relationships acquired therein.

8. Explaining why you made a musical choice is equivalent to justifying that same choice.

9. The type of attention we bring to music is irrelevant to how that music is experienced.

10. Writing new music for old instruments isn’t in any way funny.

What compositional ghosts have haunted your nights? And what caused you to invest them with so much power?

Games Played: Dyad

Released July 17, 2012 on the PlayStation Network
Developer: Right Square Bracket Left Square Bracket Inc.
Game Designer: Shawn McGrath
Music Composer: David Kanaga

Today, Dyad was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to administer heroic doses of ultimate sensory overload. It is absorbed directly into gamers’ cerebral cortex via their eyes, ears and thumbs… Research on Dyad began in 2008 at CERN by Shawn McGrath. After CERN officials observed test subjects wholly absorbed in euphoric trances and reviewed testimonies of transcendental interactive experiences, CERN halted development of Dyad and expelled Shawn. Determined to finish his research and enlighten gamers worldwide, Shawn partnered with composer David Kanaga and continued developing Dyad in secret. The misnomer “the god particle” has been the headline of choice for journalists since CERN’s recent discovery of the Higgs Boson. This dialectic dereliction prompted Dyad’s immediate release to stimulate gamers’ sense of discovery and aid in the search for their own “god particle.”

Besides being one of the most entertaining press releases I’ve encountered, the above is a pretty good introduction to the strange and striking world of Dyad, which resembles nothing so much as a particle’s-eye-view from the Large Hadron Collider—that is, if the inside of the LHC resembled a non-stop techno/rave party with an all-night laser light show. Dyad uses the trappings of a tunnel racer along with a reactive musical score that sounds more mind-blowing the better—and faster—the player is able to sling and hook other passing particles, catapulting the whole experience into audio-visual overdrive that emphasizes the thrill of virtuosity.

If ever a game deserved its standard epilepsy disclaimer, Dyad is it; certain kinds of players will absolutely love immersing themselves in the harmonious synaesthesia of music, color, and touch, while others will likely find the game over-stimulating, even headache-inducing. When the speed is upped to warp drive, the scintillating, kaleidoscopic imagery becomes a visual expression of the music, as well as the source of musical change—almost as if we’re zooming along so quickly that it’s no longer clear whether the music is reacting to gameplay, or if the shifting game environment is influencing the music. This ability to blur the senses is one of Dyad’s most unique achievements.

Each of the game’s 27 levels introduces a completely fresh gameplay mechanic, which lends the relatively short game a plenty-challenging learning curve. Just when you’ve gotten the hang of things and are really sailing along, the game tosses in a new concept or means of locomotion that forces you to slow down and reevaluate. Dyad is not a dumb, accelerate-to-the-finish-line kind of game, but neither is it a ponderous puzzler, and this tension between the joy of speed and the need for on-the-spot decision making provides just enough resistance for mastery to provide a real sense of accomplishment.

Dyad is that rare musical game that owes nothing to the stagnant glut of Guitar Hero and Rock Band knock-offs—a new and decidedly high-octane way to interact with our senses, both high-tech and deeply expressive of the user experience.

John Cage Centennial to Feature Performances of over 50 Cage Works

Aside from all of this year’s centennial hoopla, John Cage is easily one of the most under-programmed of American composers. Perhaps this is because among other acknowledged masters such as Copland, Ives, Adams, Carter, and Glass, Cage’s music is the most unique, confrontational, and subversive. It’s a pity that American concertgoers might go a whole lifetime without encountering the works of John Cage; his experimental legacy (and influence on the New York School of which he was once a central figure) lives on, but that legacy is often times eclipsed by the frequently poppy brand of postminimalism that currently dominates the new music community. To paraphrase fellow NewMusicBox contributor Colin Holter, the glaring omission of John Cage from most programs and larger music institutions might represent the single biggest blind spot in presentations of contemporary music.

Riding in as part of the rescue efforts, just in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birthday, is The John Cage Centennial Festival, which will present a retrospective of music, watercolors, dance, and theater at several venues throughout Washington, D.C. Festival directors Steve Antosca, Roger Reynolds, and Karen Reynolds have partnered with venues including the National Gallery of Art, La Maison Française, the Phillips Collection, the Freer Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Hirshhorn museum for a week of concerts, showings, and panel discussions from September 4-10 (including Cage’s September 5 birthday bash). All in all, the festival will be one of the largest new music events ever to take place in D.C., as well as one of the largest presentations of Cage’s work and thought to take place anywhere.

Festival Co-director Steve Antosca elaborates:

When we set out to organize a celebration of John Cage’s accomplishments we did not realize that we would receive such a broad and open reception from the Washington art community, from funders, and from Cage experts around the world. We believe the Festival in our nation’s capital has taken on an historic importance as a unique celebration of John Cage and his achievements. The John Cage Centennial Festival will present 7 concerts with over 50 works, as well as 10 tribute commissions.

Performers and ensembles committed to the festival include the National Gallery of Art new music ensemble, Irvine Arditti, Steven Schick and red fish blue fish, and Allen Otte and Percussion Group Cincinnati, overseen by festival counselors Brian Brandt (founder of Mode Records) and Laura Kuhn, executive director of the John Cage Trust.

Throughout the week of concerts, lectures, and showings, several workshop opportunities for young people are scheduled. American University will present a percussion workshop and masterclass with Steven Schick, while the Corcoran Gallery of Art will present a dance workshop focusing on important developments in Cage’s many collaborations with Merce Cunningham, curated by former Cunningham dancer Patricia Lent. And a watercolor workshop at the Washington Center (in partnership with the University of California) will offer participants the chance to try out painting techniques as they learn about the works of John Cage—a real representation of Cage’s diverse interests, with several in-depth “Illuminations” sessions delving deep into the particulars of how Cage worked through artistic challenges.

It’s going to be a full week, so interested parties would do well to check the Cage Festival’s website in advance for a full list of offerings—I’ve barely scratched the surface in this preview. Highlights include premieres of commissioned works by Robert Ashley, George Lewis, and Christian Wolf under Antosca and the National Gallery of Art New Music Ensemble; Irvine Arditti’s heroic American premiere of Cage’s complete Freeman Etudes with real-time sound spatialization; and Stephen Drury’s recital of Cage piano works featuring the premiere of a tribute commission composed by Phillip Glass.

Washington, D.C. isn’t noted for its plethora of new music-related events, so it’s all the more fitting that such an exhaustive exploration of one of American music’s most cherished figures will be taking place just where a healthy injection of funny-smart-weird Cageian goodness is most needed.

Games Played: ToneCraft

ToneCraft

Released for Google Chrome browser only: ToneCraft
Developer: DinahMoe

Human beings only come to grasp new concepts by relating them to something they already know; our predominant way of understanding the world—and expressing ourselves—is via metaphor. Our reliance on metaphor makes possible the absorption and mastery of many new things, but there is always a point at which the metaphor breaks down and the new idea must emerge in its own right.

ToneCraft—a musical toolkit that takes advantage of Web Audio API as a workspace for free composition—provides a fantastic metaphor for introducing unwitting normal people to the zany world of composing, albeit one that is far too limited for anything beyond some rudimentary dabbling. Professional musicians can expect very little from ToneCraft other than a few moments of amusement; but for people who have never tried composing and possibly cannot read traditional music notation, ToneCraft becomes more than an entertaining plaything: it set up one of the most effective metaphors for exploring various types of aural experiences through spatial and visual relationships.

Swedish developer DinahMoe created a three-dimensional grid environment ripped straight from an earlier Swedish game called MineCraft, with various elements corresponding to musical tones. Colors suggest different instruments or timbres; the X- and Y-axes represent pitch and duration, respectively; and the vertical Z-axis allows users to layer sounds to create rich contrapuntal textures. This is a lot of fun and a great way to get budding composers—especially kids—thinking about the actual parameters of sound rather than the frequently unhelpful stylistic dictates that too often serve as the entry point into music composition.

Beyond this fresh, sandbox-style approach to toying with sound, unfortunately, ToneCraft offers little to sustain attention; greenhorn composers who have gotten bit by the bug will likely move on to another type of technology—be it sequencer, microphone, or one of those endangered notation programs—for any real in-depth explorations. It’s fun to make random objects, then “play” them back to hear what they sound like—but it’s exactly here where the metaphor breaks down as the user progresses, because as the “compositions” get more sophisticated, the results become gray and jumbled, the software failing to produce distinct expressions of more complex visual input.

ToneCraft

Still, ToneCraft is a remarkable experiment (or “lab” as the developer’s site indicates), not intended for long-term use but created to provoke an immediate spark: here are the most basic elements of sound design, made as intelligible and accessible as a set of childhood building blocks. For this achievement alone, ToneCraft is one of the very few musical games with any appeal for those folk who are intimidated by the idea of music’s conceptual side—and unlike the mainstream console games Guitar Hero and Rock Band, this one is largely user-directed: a very small sandbox that for a few brief hours makes the very hyped and mystified process of composing seem like child’s play.

Fonts, Glorious Fonts!

Black Bend example

Click on image to enlarge

Musical scores contain all kinds of information, most of it explicit: I want this played softly; I want the duration of the note exactly this long; I want the music to slow down beginning four measures prior to the fermata. But notated scores also convey plenty of implicit meaning: rehearsal letters suggest formal divisions (whether they are intended to or not); and the fonts used for each written instruction convey a great deal of information as well.

The tradition of using italicized text for expressive directions, and plain or bold text for technical instructions such as pizzicato or fingering guides helps associate each category—expressive and technical—with a particular visual style, thus making it that much easier to interpret the instruction while sight reading. Composers who create handwritten scores would do well to consider analogous ways to differentiate between these categories of markings. Likewise, the practice of using plain or bold text for section tempo markings and italics for progressive tempo changes subtly aids in codifying the interplay of motion and stability, traveling and arriving, that the above distinctions make possible.

In vocal music, the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA) provides a universal language for writing down most any vocal sound, be it English, Russian, or some stream of nonsense concluded by a croaking vocal fry. The alphabet contains new and unique characters and while time-consuming to absorb, it’s an indispensable tool for composers who wish to explore the timbral potential of the human voice. In a recent composition for choir, I struggled for days with an idea that moved from nonsense to an intelligible text; the solution turned out to be using very different fonts for the English text and IPA syllables. It’s amazing how a seemingly subtle visual cue can often turn a hopeless situation completely around.

It’s pretty geeky to write, think, or read about fonts. But if you’re composing notated music, trust me, paying attention to fonts won’t make you any more of a geek than you already are—and you’ll likely reap some great benefits as a result. Many composers have taken to making their own fonts for harmonic analysis, tablature, or aesthetic enrichment; they’re true “font-huggers” and a real boon to the rest of us when they share their creations. We might not all have the savvy to make our own fonts, but understanding how to use one’s available fonts in order to reinforce concepts and structural details in the music can go a long way to ensure that these items are successfully communicated.

The Top Five Composer Blunders

Following my recent open letter to new music performers, I thought it might be worth turning a critical eye on composerly habits that can grate on others and stunt personal growth. Being a composer, and knowing a lot of them, I’ve tried to identify the general areas where composers tend to fumble, bumble, and blunder their way into unfortunate predicaments. Avoiding these pitfalls won’t make you a good composer (the items below have almost nothing to do with writing music); but these are all mistakes than can snuff out an aspiring composer’s career:

5. Shoddy Materials. The musical scores and parts (if that’s how you work) are how others come to know your works in both artistic review and performance. The performers might be you and your buddies, who have a “system” worked out on some of those shifting rhythmic patterns, or they might be members of an orchestra who expect MOLA guidelines to be followed, workable page-turns, and heavy paper with binding that won’t be crushed in a rehearsal folder. Expectations differ as do ensembles, but it’s the composer’s responsibility to present materials in line with the expectations inherent in each situation. I’ve seen many young composers make the mistake of pouring countless hours and amounts of energy into their work, only to have all that potential limited by and smothered under a confusing presentation. Short of basic music preparation skills, not explaining things is probably the biggest problem; if composers are asking for something out of the ordinary (like that ever happens!), they should dedicate more than a little thought to how to best communicate these ideas. It can be helpful to mime performing parts (extremely useful for percussion setups or for keeping track of string/trombone positions); engaging with how your materials are presented will bring a lot more focus to your work, and I feel this is an especially important point in an age when most composers are their own publishers.

4. Lateness. Composing is often about juggling two or more big, time-consuming projects, and it can be difficult to manage these demands while also maintaining a stable life. Get in the habit of making time for the kind of work that is very important but easily lost in the comparatively petty day-to-day tasks that can obscure larger goals. Many successful and famous composers have had lateness issues, so it’s very possible to get to a high level in one’s career without having learned how to manage one’s time—I’ve learned (after several tense races against the clock) that the actual composing usually takes only 50-70 percent of the entire work time, whereas it’s easy to assume that the composing component is much greater. Often coupled with lateness is the fact that many composers are prone to disappearing during crunch time, which is always terrifying for everyone else! Stay in touch with your performers and commissioners during all stages of the process; they’ll appreciate your reaching out, and they’ll be more sympathetic to the need for an extension should that arise.

3. Pushing too hard. While shying away from interaction and promotion can be its own brand of problem, pushing too aggressively for attention and action can appear desperate or transparently selfish. Composers can also have a bad habit of comparing themselves to their peers, often making the mistake of assuming that attention or success for one is somehow a slap in the other’s face. It’s better to build a community of people whom you like and support, rather than waste energy and attention on the ones you don’t.

2. Rehearsal manners. There is often so much mutual nervousness in rehearsal that it’s like a ticking time bomb waiting to blow. In my experience, composers can be over-anxious and over-involved in rehearsals; prioritizing (writing down all the ideas/spots and then circling three to bring up to the conductor) is a must. Before you say anything, ask yourself, “Does me stopping everyone here resolve the issue any faster than them just working it out?” Some mistakes require urgent correction while others work themselves out with a few more run-throughs. Learn to let go of your own nervousness and you’ll accomplish more, as well as be more aware of the needs of others.

1. Narrow focus to the exclusion of broad awareness. Composers have to focus in on so many specific details, and we become wedded to our ideas of our new creations which may end up not resembling reality. This is not necessarily a failure, but composers do their best work when they remain open to the needs and input of others—neither pandering nor dismissing. Sometimes unexpected things can happen in rehearsal or a meeting, and they’re not necessarily problems just because they take us off our normal tracks. This seems to be one of the most pervasive problems faced by largely introverted, technically oriented types, and stories of composer diva-hood over tiny details are common parlance. Part of being a composer is knowing how to stand up for your ideas and beliefs in a way that does not disparage those of your collaborative partners, and for this to occur composers have to be able to loosen their grip slightly more than they are accustomed to during those endless work hours (where they get used to having the last say!)

Down the Pigeonhole

In composing, as in life, it’s all too easy to become boxed in by our past decisions in a way that makes personal change harder and harder as the years go by. Some of this is imagined, and it’s a composer’s prerogative to always seek out new stimuli and accept new challenges in order to ward against stagnation. But there are also external forces which conspire to define composers and lump their work into handy pigeonholes, and in my experience this doesn’t make our aforementioned inborn tendency toward a gradual narrowing of focus any easier to resist.

Composers can be pigeonholed by critics, colleagues, and geographic location, and situated along any axis—commercial/academic, minimalism/complexity, young upstart/old master—that seems handy at the time. How music journalists and gatekeepers adore these handy dichotomies! The best music most often eludes the grasp of these convenient labels, while other flavors of the month—usually, shining examples of X category or Y trait or Z way of working—receive attention and frequently favor by inciting strong reactions from professional partisans.

One of the easiest ways to pigeonhole a composer is to make assumptions based upon the types of ensembles for which he or she composes. There are increasingly few composers of my generation who can do it all, and this is not made easier by the fact that if and when a composer’s work is received with any amount of attention or success, people invariably want you to write more of the kind of music that worked so well in the first place—not exactly a recipe for avoiding stagnation!

Last year I made a studied decision to pivot into two areas of music with which I wasn’t yet well acquainted: vocal music and music for winds. I was a string player to begin with, and a few initial gigs with some exceptional string groups ensured that much of my subsequent music was written in response to requests from string groups. All of a sudden, I was in danger of getting stuck and decided to implement a new plan to help me pivot towards writing for different ensembles.

A year has passed and a little elbow grease has paid off: new gigs writing art songs, chants, and a choir piece are humming along, and this fall I’ll be writing a new piece for band (my first), commissioned by a consortium of ten college wind ensembles. After five years of writing for instruments and ensembles with which I was mostly comfortable, it’s going to be refreshing—and terrifying!—to spend so much time with genres of music (band and choir) that I know comparatively little about.

Of course I’ve been fast at work, studying the lessons of past masters and checking in for advice from luminaries like longtime Volti composer-in-residence Mark Winges, or “he’s so hot right now!” band and orchestra composer John Mackey. In fact, I sent John an email that literally began, “Dear John: I’ve just agreed to write for band. Help!” It’s so encouraging and helpful to have the support of other brilliant composers and mentors—many of whom I’ve met via my weekly column at NewMusicBox—because it makes me feel less foolish, awkward, and alone as I struggle to reach out for new experiences. Our best friends—our true friends—are the ones who refuse to limit us to who we are now, but who instead actively encourage us to engage in the process of becoming.

An Open Letter to Performers of New Music

Dear Sirs and Mesdames, and kids of all ages (from the newest Brooklyn upstart to the great-grandpappy major ensembles alike):

Look. We composers make loads of mistakes—we’re often prone to dreaminess, given to sloppy page-turns, and obsessed with details of musical structure while largely oblivious to the more practical realities of performing our gnarly-ass music. The best among us welcome frank criticism, which leads us to become the kinds of collaborators who are sensitive to the needs of performing musicians.

I’ve been guilty of some pretty grave errors in my own early dealings with ensembles, but all in all I consider myself fortunate to have had the chance to benefit from the gift of honest feedback. Likewise, I have a particular pet peeve about something that even many fine and well-established ensembles seem to do on occasion: not letting composers know when performances of our music take place.

Here’s why it’s so important for ensembles to make sure they keep living composers apprised of performances of their own works: performances are as much the bread and butter of a composer’s career as the performer who actually brings the new work to life onstage. They are the reason we make notated scores at all, as it’s easy to do without performers entirely with today’s technology, if that suits a composer’s temperament. Performances are the artistic, social, and commercial center of the composer’s world, something that we work tirelessly to secure and endlessly appreciate. So not clueing in living composers to a performance of their work (via the composer’s publisher, manager, or personal website) more or less deprives us of a chance to properly support the performance, while the performing organization at least gets to program a composition it (presumably) deemed worthy of performance.

Composers need to be informed of performances, first and foremost, to adequately report them to ASCAP or BMI. Each year licensed venues pay a flat fee for the use of all BMI- and/or ASCAP-licensed music, and the royalties collected by these organizations are then disbursed to composers on a regular basis. Even for those of us who don’t collect very much, every little bit helps and I know more than a few composers who were personally spurred on to succeed when they received some of their first royalty checks. Not ensuring that composers are paid fairly for their contributions—especially for those of us who are the youngest and least established—would be just the same as the composer walking off with part of the performer’s performance fee, or forcing the ensemble to spend countless hours re-taping confusing page-turns, when that should have been the composer’s responsibility.

Performances are also a social opportunity, especially when a composer is performed by musicians he or she has not met previously. It’s a chance to notify local friends, colleagues, and possibly critics of the event, and a chance for the composer to contribute to filling seats with word-of-mouth and publicity. More than a few times I’ve found out about a performance of my music after the fact, only to think, “Damn, I would have liked to support both the ensemble and my piece with a few invites, a well-placed phone call, or a pre-concert talk, but they didn’t give me a chance!” So performers who neglect to be in touch with living composers about their programming plans are just shooting themselves in the feet.

Composers also know that performances are where impressions (and connections) are made, and where curious supporters will often make a critical decision on whether or not to go forward in approaching composers for new work. Again, this is crucial for our most junior colleagues and I hate to think about how differently my own career might have panned out had I been left out of the loop for some of the initial performances that established my greenhorn reputation.

In my experience, most ensembles and performers of new music are at least aware of these points; it’s just that when push comes to shove, this detail can easily get lost in the shuffle. Informing the composer is both the right thing to do, and it’s also the course of action that maximizes the advantages of performing new music in the first place. I take it you guys didn’t start playing new music just because of the awesome accidental placement and glamorous paychecks, right?

With sincere regards and admiration,

A Composer Who Cares

Games Played: Journey

Released March 13 for download on the PlayStation Network
For one player of any age
Developer: Thatgamecompany
Presented by SCEA Santa Monica Studio
Game Director – Jenova Chen
President – Kellee Santiago
Lead Designer – Nicholas Clark
Art Director & Lead Artist – Matt Nava
Music Composer – Austin Wintory

Last week I had a welcome chance to discuss the current state of electronic gaming at Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Museum of American Art, as part of a concert presented in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s current exhibit about the past and future of video games. It was great to see so many young, new faces in the audience for a concert of new music—including many young people who are choosing to play games that reward creativity, exploration, and kindness rather than games in which the solution to every problem is more violence.

There are far too many video games that indulge exactly this kind of near-pornographic violence. And sharing the panel with me at the Smithsonian were other colleagues whose similar disgust had rendered them highly skeptical of the genre’s potential for quality interactive experiences, much less the potential of video games to ever approach “true art.” Knowing how the nascent genre of film was likewise derided at its outset as incapable of reaching the heights of the theatre, I’m more optimistic about the evolution of video games; after all, film had completely emerged as a valid and expressive genre before the middle of last century, and the fact that there are a lot of movies like Transformers doesn’t in any way impinge on the greatness of Citizen Kane.

For a distillation of all that is promising, unique, and breathtaking in the video game experience—an experience in which gameplay, art, and music weave together on an almost operatic level—the most hardened skeptic might do well to spend an hour or two with Journey (a new game released March 13 by upstart developer Thatgamecompany and available for download, frustratingly, only on the PlayStation Network).

Journey

Journey

According to the game’s own website, “Journey is an interactive parable, an anonymous online adventure to experience a person’s life passage and their intersections with others.” The game uses no speech or text to tell its story, which begins as the player assumes control over a cloaked avatar, adrift in a vast and shifting desert with only one visible landmark—a looming mountain—that hangs over Journey’s frequently empty, forlorn spaces; this mountain exercises an incredible magnetic pull on your experience (though the game never explicitly instructs the player to head there). As the player traverses a vast terrain tinged with lonely, alien beauty, they will interact with a narrative that is ambiguous and abstract, but at the same time surprisingly accessible and emotional.

Even without a literal storyline, it’s difficult not to experience a plethora of emotions while playing Journey, including joy, amazement, fear, shame, and sadness. Composer Austin Wintory deserves much of the credit, having created the haunting, mystical score that perfectly compliments the game’s baren, minimalistic spaces. The music reacts to the player’s actions, and it’s also possible to “sing” a note of the game’s main theme—the only way to interact with the rarely encountered other player, who may relish the companionship or ignore other travelers at will. Given that Journey’s actual gameplay challenges are slight and obstacles rare (lending the entire experience an inexorable sense of flow), it might be more accurate to consider Journey as a musical composition with interactive video element, rather than as a barely challenging game with a fantastic and lovingly created underscore. The consistent inventiveness and emotional import of Wintory’s score helps create an immersive experience that, amazingly, holds appeal for the curious child and grandparent alike. (Pity that there is no local multiplayer mode, and further curses that the indie developer’s contract with mega software giant Sony restricted the game to release on a single gaming console; a PC/Mac release would have certainly helped Journey reach curious non-gamer adults who are unlikely to own a video gaming console).

Journey is about making you feel small in relationship to the world around you,” says Kellee Santiago, co-founder of the game’s developer. “We’re about how a game makes you feel: the opposite of what the mainstream is focusing on,” says co-founder Jenova Chen, whose previous releases fl0w and Flower were thumbnail sketches for the immensely more satisfying Journey.

Journey

Journey

In an age marked by the desire to manipulate and control almost everything (and an absolute disdain for aspects of the world that we cannot control), the gift of feeling small again—the feeling of being in the presence of something mysterious that beckons from outside of ourselves, something that commands awe and eludes our understanding—is worth plugging into. The harmonious blend of music, art, and gameplay in Journey (while a bit light on the head scratching puzzles preferred by veteran gamers) is definitely one of the most memorable musical experiences I’ve had in many months, informed by the joy of movement and the curiosity of discovery. A game like Journey excites my musical imagination and makes me think we are headed for a new kind of interactive experience worth pursuing.

The Quest for Volume

eleven

When I think about the variety of musical instruments among the world’s cultures, I can’t help but notice how one universal driving force behind the evolution of new musical technology has always been the search for louder sounds. The development of the modern piano—from its roots in earlier keyboard instruments including the harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano—is largely about how sturdier materials and construction techniques made possible a modern instrument with a full range of dynamics, from the most delicate pianissimo shimmer to a clangorous tolling of a low sforzando chord.

With these changes in the range of dynamics came accompanying variations of timbre—in the case of the piano, a more “struck” and metallic timbre replacing the “plucked” plain-wire strings of the older harpsichord. The modern convex violin bow gains volume and a more focused tone over the old baroque bows, but the entire playing technique of the instrument changed in the process: the baroque bow easily sustains chords found in the unaccompanied string works of Heinrich Biber and J.S. Bach, yet it’s very difficult to play fast bursts of single-line runs while crossing strings. So the modern violin bow actually inverts some of the challenges of the Bach partitas, making fast runs and roulades a relative breeze and rendering 4-voice fugal writing even more of a challenge.

The guitar is one of those instruments—steeped in folk music and large gatherings—that had a great need for a volume boost, with the twelve-stringed version of the instrument just one stop on the way to its inevitable amplification. As the most successfully and universally amplified instrument nowadays, the modern electric guitar can morph, chameleon-like, through an awe-inspiring terrain of timbres and effects. One of the results of amplification has been the development of an entirely separate technique and musical vocabulary for the solid-bodied electric instrument, to the point where a Fender Telecaster has about as much in common with a nylon stringed classical guitar as with a violin—a point that Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page would drive home quite literally while he bowed his guitar with a violin or cello bow during live shows. The capabilities of the modern amplified guitar are often better suited to the role of melody instrument (like a violin) than the guitar’s previously assigned role of strumming chords.

Of course the development of musical instruments is also about the quest for uniformity of production and increased accuracy, among other things; yet it strikes me that no other quality drove such radical change in the form and function of instruments as this urge to crank the amp up to eleven. That says a lot about us as a species—namely, that humans have an irrepressible desire to be heard and also to experience music at a sufficient dynamic that it can be felt in a visceral sense.