Author: DanVisconti

Calling It a Day

The determination that a given piece of music is “finished” resides in the eye of the beholder, and it’s interesting to consider the varying levels of “doneness” deemed acceptable by composers of the past and present. While many composers (Bach and Mozart, for example) created works that seem to have the “just right” length and pacing for their material, there have always been those that either race to the finish line or else can’t seem to throw in the towel.

Much has been written about the so-called “heavenly length” of Schubert’s slow movements, which to my ear always overstay their sublimity just a bit; in fact, I often get the impression that Schubert’s later symphonies were composed in order to prolong the process of composing, with each successive movement getting longer than the one before it, as if the composer were loath to call it a day.

Curiously, I’ve enjoyed evening-length works by Glass and Feldman that seemed perfectly proportioned and timed despite their considerable length, so the question of doneness is largely one of context. In addition, composers may have a predilection toward a particular level of doneness in their music that coincides with other attitudes and trends currently in the air—with many opulent and overdone works flowing out of 19th-century romanticism, and a great many works today (both minimalist and complexist) just ending or chugging to a halt without a traditional sense of arrival and resolution. In my own works, I have been drawn to accept varying levels of finishing finesse at different times. A little extra oomph during the coda of a piece (like the “second development” section in Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata) can be helpful in the right context, while there are other times where an understated ending in can reveal the sparseness and beauty of an underlying structure, and lend it an unforced quality that can be greatly endearing.

What composers or works stand out to you as being more “well done” (if you’ll forgive me the steak analogy), and which ones strike you as more “rare”? For composers, has your own approach remained relatively consistent? Or has it changed over time, heading in a new direction? I’ve found that my own conception of what constitutes a “finished” work has evolved greatly over time.

No Expectations

Music is all about playing with our expectations—as listeners, participants, and creators. One of the most striking things to be gleaned from studying the great melodies in music is how many of them employ the same rhythmic profile for each measure, with one or perhaps two affecting variations. It’s this regularity that serves to ground the listener in an expected rhythmic pattern, an expectation that is then turned upside-down (or at the very least, nudged in an unforeseen direction).

Just as these moments of listening delight flow (and acquire their specialness) from a well-established sense of the quotidian, the existence of certain primitive patterns in our brains likewise provides a framework within which intuitive forms of communication (surely, the original “music” before the coded articulations of language were added) might flourish. To see what I mean, check out this video of improvisational genius Bobby McFerrin leading an unrehearsed jam on the pentatonic scale with a little help from the audience:

This is one of those moments that make me very glad to be alive—and the quip from the neuroscientist at the end of the video is priceless. The pentatonic scale (in some form) is part of the folk tradition of cultures around the globe, and there may even be a case to be made that certain intervals and patterns are part of the human neural blueprint. But even if McFerrin is playing with something merely familiar to the audience, rather than hard-wired, he’s found a way to tap into and empathize with the audience’s expectations—enabling some kind of near-telepathy in which McFerrin used body movement and his considerable charisma to project his intentions to a large mass of people.

As a composer, I find this more than a little distressing since I’ve grown so accustomed to the proposition that expectations can inhibit free listening and free thinking. While there’s surely something to this, it can be equally disconcerting to be adrift with no expectations; this is the history of the 20th century, in which the old common tongue was lost until a new language of recorded commercial music took over around mid-century. At this writing, the expectations derived from TV scoring, video games, and two-minute pop songs appear to be the new black.

So while I try to be wary of expectations, I’ve come to see how their complete absence creates a world devoid of a common tongue, unable to foster the kind of communication necessary for true interaction. In composing, having some expectations of what I am looking for—and what I will accept as a solution—can provide a chance for the unexpected to occur. When we can play with expectations, without being dominated or frightened by them, the greatest potential of reaching out to other expectation-prone beings like ourselves is achieved.

Insomnia and the Music that Eludes our Grasp


It’s time to go to sleep again before a big day, and of course I can’t sleep. As any insomniac knows, the knowledge that it’s absolutely imperative to get enough sleep makes sleep almost impossible to achieve. Typically, I’m going to toss and turn and try to fall asleep, but sleep will likely only come when I become so dejected at my prospect for a good night’s rest that I simply accept I’m going to be up all night—which is just what finally sends me off to dreamland.

In the above example, sleep only arrives when I’ve resigned myself to its absence; the sleep is actually a “side effect” of another behavior or mental state, as the mentality needed to fall asleep is incompatible with the desire to do so. Another similar phenomenon involves the conundrum of “acting naturally,” which is easy (almost unavoidable!) when one isn’t striving for it, and comes off as hilariously put-on whenever someone makes an effort to be effortless.

I’ve come to realize that the best things in life—the most cherished human experiences, as well as the most valuable states of mind—are the things that recede from our grasp. The fact that naturalness (along with many other qualities) does not yield to conscious will is partly what makes naturalness so rare and desirable in the first place. Just as there is no way to will oneself to sleep, there is no way to acquire the more valued human qualities through some trick or shortcut, because qualities like spontaneity and sincerity seem to exist as byproducts of other decisions or actions. There’s no way to become more spontaneous, directly, yet it may be possible to cultivate other habits that make it possible for spontaneity (like sleep) to arise.

In the creation of music, I wonder if there are similar self-defeating mechanisms (like trying to fall asleep). I very much desire to finish my current project on time, but a constant, acute awareness of this approaching time constraint is unlikely to help me focus on being creative—in fact, it is likely to slow me down and make me late, as getting work done on time has more to do with an awareness of the work itself rather than external expectations. Likewise there are some clearly desirable mental states (my earlier example of spontaneity is especially relevant for musicians) that I can’t will by trying to “be spontaneous,” but that I can encourage with things like a stimulating workspace, uninterrupted work time, and only accepting projects that interest me a great deal.

People who create music have to contend with an awful lot of pressing, important matters that most of us would like to influence through our own action or will, just as we can become better at an instrument with daily study or become less shy in talking about our music through hard work and engagement. So it can be frustrating to encounter those situations where that tried-and-true recipe of effort plus determination doesn’t cut it. I remember similar frustration in trying to be able to perform a difficult guitar lick at a fast tempo, until I slowed down and realized that speed doesn’t come from speed, it comes from mastery.

As a composer, there are a great many things I value more than speed—originality, for instance—and I have to ask myself: is my own (completely understandable) desire to be original likewise a self-defeating mechanism, born of the best intentions but ultimately doomed to the same kind of dead-end fate as willing oneself to sleep? If originality is born through authenticity (coupled with the fact that there’s never been another person exactly like myself), then “trying to be original” is another well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual undertaking. How often I’ve realized I was holding myself back from my creative potential by being too attached to the goal and not aware enough of the conditions that might—with a little luck—make the goal attainable.

There’s an implied human arrogance in which we tend to assume that our striving for something desirable can only hasten its attainment, whereas in reality that is not always the case. As they often say about New England roads, “you can’t get there from here!”—or, that landmark which is easily glimpsed might only be accessible through the most convoluted, backwards route that, for a time, leads us away from our chosen destination.

Invention and Deception

With the return of the critically acclaimed television drama Mad Men upon us, it might be timely to explore one of the ideas that the show has grappled with since its very first episode: the link between creativity and dishonesty, or (put another way) the thin line between the gifted storyteller and manipulative liar.

As Mad Men follows the exploits of sixties ad man Don Draper, creative director at one of Madison Avenue’s most recognized advertising firms and the kind of person who’s both a gifted storyteller and gifted philanderer. Draper’s creativity makes for some eloquent and even persuasive moments throughout the series, although his abilities to think outside the box, construct a convincing narrative, and connect with someone’s emotional core are exactly the same qualities that give the man such a capacity for manipulating the truth.

The link between invention and deception has been pointed out by many throughout history, and one particular interpretation of the phenomenon—that creativity, being the source of deception, is to blame—has had many supporters. Yet it might be more accurate to venture that it’s actually the more pedestrian drive to manipulate the world for food and survival advantages that eventually gave rise to higher-end creative problem solving—whether that problem is how to compose an effective piece of music, think up a catchy jingle, or convince one’s spouse that one is not committing adultery.

There’s a great scene in the first season of Mad Men, where a Korean War-era Don Draper looks out at a military casket and is told to “leave that boy behind” by his superior. Viewers of the series who know exactly who that casket contains will understand why it’s such a poignant moment. In so many words, Draper takes the chance to reinvent himself in a way to which most of us can relate: by turning our backs on our embarrassing, painful, and largely uncontrollable childhoods and adolescence, and then consciously fabricating a new version of ourselves that is (at least superficially) suave, cosmopolitan, and in control.

I’ve found that in music, there’s a similar sense in which we must pretend to be something which we are not, in order to become something different than we are now; that is, the initial creation is (at least in part) a fabrication, something to be aspired to and grown into. A few years ago I was writing a lot of instrumental music for some very fine groups, but nothing for the voice—something that is difficult to remedy once a little bit of initial success starts to carve out a pigeonhole. In retrospect, after doing everything I could to help foster a shift in my composing gigs, I found that it was only through sheer, unfounded belief—pretending to some degree that I already possessed the qualities I sought to acquire—that I was able to make the change happen. After which point the lie became true and the pretense became the new premise.

Percussion In Our Midst!

Last weekend I was in Minneapolis for a premiere, in which I gave a somewhat slapdash and intermittently relevant concert talk which still ended up being a lot of fun (and all the more so as I finally got to meet fellow NewMusicBox blogger Colin Holter in the flesh!). One audience question in particular threw me off balance, as loaded questions and statements-disguised-as-questions so often do. Only half-jokingly, someone asked: “How to you manage to compose contemporary music without percussion?”

After laughing off his question and answering with a comment about the percussive sounds already included in the piece’s writing for traditional instruments, I took my seat immediately came to a harrowing realization: oh crap, I *did* include percussion in my piece! I had completely forgotten the inclusion of a rain stick and wind chimes, perhaps because these auxiliary instruments are so inherently un-rhythmic, and more like color washes.

This situation provided for some amusement when I took to the stage and exclaimed, “Woops! Guess it’s not possible to compose a piece of contemporary music without percussion!” But I wish that I had been granted a little more time for going off-topic, because the gentleman’s question—and my hilariously garbled response—brought up an important point.

The reason so much contemporary music involves percussion is probably because percussion represents the intersection of several trends in new music: rhythmic music derived from rock and primitivism, the closely-related influence of minimalism, and on the other hand percussion’s ability to satisfy timbre-hungry composers more interested in gesture and color than rhythm per se; and as any music fan knows, percussion is also one of the most visceral and visually appealing families of instruments to watch during a performance. Couple this with the fact that complex rhythm patterns and organizing ostinati feature prominently into much non-western music that only began to be taken seriously by “classical” composers half a century ago, and it’s easy to see why so much contemporary music—of diverging styles and schools—is involved in a love affair with percussion. Bang on a Can (and countless imitators with percussive monikers) use percussion as part of the ensemble-namesake, partly to emphasize the importance of rhythm and percussion for the group.

Percussion has become such a ubiquitous presence on the new music scene that (as the above experience attests) it can be easy to forget it’s even there! Given the recent explosion of timbral interest in recorded popular music from Gil Evans to the Beatles and onward, the bar for interesting timbres and percussive excitement has been raised for concert music as well—and as far as I can tell, the trend isn’t reversing anytime soon.


Almost a month ago, the fervor over New York Knicks player Jeremy Lin burst from the confines of the basketball world into the mainstream, with a big leg-up from television and radio personalities who coined the 2012 term I most wish I could erase from my memory—“Linsanity”—and parroted the story, which displayed that “just right” Goldilocks quality that causes media talking heads to salivate.

Meanwhile, social media played its own part in amplifying the viral story with the right kind of pro-underdog, feel-good sentiment that fuels the online echo chamber: there are few people who would have set out opposed to such an affirmative story of multicultural success, and as mentions of this story in my own Facebook feed increased I couldn’t help but notice friends with an apparent newfound interest in basketball. I’m sure part of this can be accounted for by the story generating genuine interest. But there also seems to be a self-ratcheting process at work, in which our interest in things about which we have basically no opinion spirals out of control when we see that The Crowd has pronounced it good.

The crucial thing about bandwagons is they can only take us from a place of relative indifference to a place of stronger emotion—which is also why few but the most eager-to-please can be swayed once they already hold a strong opinion. This might partially explain the elevation of certain (usually interesting and/or valid, yet overhyped) stories in our cultural consciousness. If you don’t particularly care about basketball or Jeremy Lin (and as long as you don’t harbor strong negative feelings directed at either), then there’s a subtle pressure (in part, because the issue is not of great personal significance) to get drawn into the Linsanity, ever so slightly.

As far as music is concerned, social media has done wonders to help connect people and ideas; yet there are many facets of online interactions that increasingly encourage us to hop on bandwagons via the process detailed above. We “like” some things that we really like, but sometimes we “like” things mainly to be seen doing so, or in response to a promotional request that we feel sheepish about turning down. We’re encouraged to share more and more personal details, including our current location, recent music playlists, and auto-reposts of the articles we’ve just read. And in our natural and quite legitimate effort to share ourselves (through our text and media), we might be losing a lot of the spontaneity, privacy, and freedom that makes interacting with others worthwhile in the first place.

Let me be clear that the positives of this social media revolution are obvious and thus hardly need my explanation; of course a great deal of the social media experience is positive, useful, and (usually) governed by free choice. My concern is that we’re doing more and more things in public that used to be private in nature, and the consequences of doing so are that things like where we “check in”, what music we choose to listen to, and even our opinions become “accessories”, to a degree—something put-on rather than authentic. This has always been a tendency in offline human interactions, but there’s something about the permanence, power, and distance between acting and thinking afforded by online interactions which exacerbates our Machiavellian tendencies at the expense of the Erasmian.

The effects of media bias are amazingly widespread and easily observable in American culture, and while social media redresses a lot of these wrongs that’s not to say it doesn’t produce its own pressures and neuroses. I love sharing music that I like with specific people that might be interested, but I can’t quite stomach posting all my listening playlists online—who knows if my awareness that everyone would know I listened to Enya for hours might cause me to be excessively self-conscious in my listening habits?

Perhaps the biggest bandwagon that underscores the new culture of social media is the notion that it’s cool to tell everyone everything about yourself, as much as possible—an idea whose results have yet to completely play out. The same mechanism that allows us to share our individual selves might also have the longer-term effect of funneling our individuality down narrow channels of self-enabled groupthink, in which we choose to interact with only the people wearing the same brand of blinders as ourselves, reinforcing one group opinion over time.

As much as I enjoy the connective potential of social networking sites, I also know that it’s within the other realm of offline interaction where I’m most likely to encounter people and ideas most different from myself—and especially for creative musicians, it’s people and ideas outside of ourselves and immediate social network that can best challenge us to find our true voice.

Making Friends With Mayhem

If you’ve been at this composing racket long enough, it’s inevitable that sooner or later a dash of unforeseen mayhem will add a little pizazz to your important performance/recording session/audio equipment. Relax, variety’s the spice of life!—except that the unexpected can ruin a good performance or take just as easily as it can inspire great leaps of imagination. The only thing one can ever really do is to abide by the Scout Motto and be prepared with extra parts, files, cords, and whatnot.

I have a premiere in Minneapolis this weekend, which was originally to be written for Twin Cities vocalist Ruth Mackenzie, whom the press has called “the Janis Joplin of folk.” She has a really unique vocal palette: a range tilted toward the extreme low end of the mezzo voice, and a technique steeped in folk traditions and “hard” singing techniques such as kulning (a type of “belting” which originated in Scandinavian herding calls). The text, by former U.S. laureate James Dickey, concerns itself with the relation between animals and humans, and the animal within the human—a perfect match, and as close to a “package deal” as I’ll likely ever pull off.

When unforeseen personal circumstances forced this original singer to withdraw a few weeks prior to the premiere, everyone else including the players from the Minnesota Orchestra were sympathetic and supportive. Yet it wasn’t long before we realized how difficult it would be to find a replacement for a singer of Ruth’s unique talents, especially given some pitches I wrote for her well below the “zombie grunt” zone marking the deepest depths of the mezzo register. In non-improvised music, it’s infinitely easier to replace instrumentalists than it is to replace singers, whose “instruments” are infinitely more personal in nature. Luckily, we found a great match in singer Christina Baldwin, who did a heroic job of learning the piece so well and quickly, surmounting the difficult task of inhabiting a role not custom-fit for herself while still lending it her own personal touch. Along with a little tweaking of troublesome pitches, everything is coming off well and (as they say) the best was made of a bad situation.

I’ve witnessed more than one conductor restart the movement of a symphony; heard a performance of the Schubert Octet where there first beat was preceded by an (obviously) unexpected canon fired a few blocks away; seen a cello player’s Hill bow snap in two during a performance of my music; attended an electronic music concert where the unexpected need for an extension cord resulted in the cancellation of the concert’s entire first half; hell, a summer program for young composers at which I used to teach (in which the participants paid for and were promised archival recordings of their new compositions, on which many were relying for college applications) had the final concert interrupted by a strange, amplified growling that began every time music was played, then abruptly ceased—we later learned that there was a possum stuck in one of the organ pipes. And I’m confident that some of my colleagues have lived to tell even stranger tales.

As always, the show must go on, and it’s always amazing to see everyone pull together around a common goal, especially in the classical concert world where composers, performers, and presenters often work in relative isolation—whether that means composing a new opera interlude to cover up the loud sounds of moving machinery, or finishing the performance with one less string, or running to CVS in the rain to procure an extension cord. It’s often these unexpected and unwanted acts of mayhem that make me at once apprehend and appreciate the true meaning of a “concerted” effort.

Composing As Self-Discovery

Beethoven Sketch

This past week, I’ve been listening to some old favorites by Mozart and Beethoven and also looking at the composers’ own sketches whenever possible. Sketches in a composer’s hand are always revealing, and it’s difficult to give either composer’s sketches a cursory glance without being struck by how deeply each composer’s sketching habits express their own musical personalities. Beethoven’s sketches are full of inserts, cross-outs, and rewrites, and usually scribed with a thick, almost gouging pen stroke that reeks of creative effort; Mozart’s manuscripts (which are so complete they can rarely be called “sketches”) were penned quickly, almost breezily, with comparatively few changes other than filling in more supporting voices.

When I compare these two approaches, it’s difficult not to arrive at the impression that Mozart was recording something already (or mostly) formed in his inner ear, while for Beethoven composing was an often laborious process of figuring something out.

The Mozartean process of recording or transmitting idea (and of being open to the dictates of the subconscious) certainly has its advantages—especially if the composer is working within a received stylistic tradition (as Mozart, for all his wonderful wit and inventiveness, largely was). For those who seek to express themselves by pushing the boundaries of tradition, or who aim to discover uncharted territory far removed from tradition, it is often necessary to sketch and rework, as a more vigorously active participant. Most composers, I suspect, combine these different attitudes in all kinds of t ways, although just as Mozart and Beethoven we all have our predilections.

In today’s composing world, I hear an echo of the Mozartean attitude– though often without Mozart’s characteristic humor and child-like naturalness—in the ways that we tend to teach music composition. Despite the healthy stylistic openness that I’ve been happy to discover in today’s institutions of higher learning, the way that one is “supposed to” compose usually revolves around some variation of: “Figure out what you want to do first, then do it”, which indicates a profound separation between the conception of a work and its realization—composing as recording the results of already-worked-out parameters. This way of composing is often explicitly extolled (along the lines of “you have to know what you’re doing first before you can do it!”), and implicitly privileged in countless preconcert talks, college symposia, and lessons, in which the composer of the moment explains his or her intentions, following which the composition in question is judged on how well it “succeeded” at realizing these intentions.

This can be a useful approach, and I have no problem with it per se. But by over-emphasizing a way of composing that privileges faithful representation of mental constructs, I wonder if we’re failing to point out that composing can also be a process of discovery, experimentation, and play unrelated to prior planning (and resistant to critiques that rely on intention). While composing can be a way to transmit something that we already hold as essential, it can also be a process by which we come to understand our own thoughts and feelings.

Stretching the Truth

Rubber Bands

Anyone only briefly acquainted with classical concert music of any color has likely had occasion to witness one of the most ubiquitous bluffs in the concert world: presenting one or more works from many years ago as an example of “contemporary” music. I can’t count the number of the times I’ve seen Shostakovich or Copland billed as representing contemporary (or variously, “modern”) music; and I’ve even been to a few so-called “new music” concerts where every piece on the program was from the last century. And don’t get me started about performing competitions that require performance of one “modern or 20th century work” along with the obligatories, as if the 21st century never happened.

The advantages to the perpetrators of these myths are readily evident. Often caught between fulfilling grant and trustee obligations, winning kudos from critics, and the need for programming that fills seats, major music organizations see the programming of truly contemporary works as something worth touting as much as possible and putting into practice hardly at all.

This stretching of the truth goes on both very baldly and implicitly. Most orchestral concerts featuring a lone 20th century work give the impression that the music of Bartók or Bloch or Barber represents the most adventurous flavor worth sampling. Similarly, I’m all for Pierrot Lunaire, but I can’t stomach a composition composed nearly a hundred years ago being billed as part of a contemporary music concert. If we’re not really going to program new music, let’s at least be honest so we can see how precious little new music there really is—all the better to test the assumption that a fresh work written in the listener’s own time would really be any more off-putting to closed ears than one more performance of a 20th-century masterwork.

Growing Pains

When I was 18 (and had barely a year or so of musical study under my belt), I remember that one day our school composition seminar was visited by accomplished composer Stephen Paulus, who was kind enough to share some of his experience and expertise as a business-savvy independent composer. A lot of what Stephen described to us—self-promotion, distribution, contract negotiations—seemed laughably out of reach to our undergraduate minds, even pompous; I recall sharing in a bit of nervous tittering while a slightly more advanced student asked if he should create a professional website. That seemed like a silly question to most of us beginning students with few musical offerings, which is why several of us chortled that we would never have a website.

Just over a decade later, I not only have an unremarkable but functioning composer website, but have crossed all kinds of other Rubicons: writing a blog, teaching my first class, receiving my first humble commission payment, and seeing my work reviewed in the paper. I own an 11×17 printer and a coil binder, have a folder for commission agreements, and an envelope for tax-deductible receipts. On the flip side, I’ve never sent out an email concert announcement or Facebook event invite; I’ve never applied for a Guggenheim; and I’ve never presented my own concert or festival.

There is such a thing as reaching for the next rung of the career ladder too early, as in the case of the over-eager self-promoting student, or buying a lot of expensive printing equipment when you print out only a few scores each year. Yet there comes a time for every composer when one must either expand or else stifle development: when works are receiving some performances but there’s nowhere online for someone to listen to or purchase the composer’s music, or when it’s time to create a separate checking account just for composing travel and expenses. It seems to me that there are paths that overemphasize each extreme—pushing to expand too rapidly when it is not helpful, or failing to make the necessary changes and investments when old ways are holding us back. Composers would do well to stay attentive to their own needs right now, and not what their peers, friends, and competitors are doing.

The process of growth looks different for every composer. Some of us build momentum fast, while others do their best work when they take their time. Some of us peak early and ride out a plateau, while other composers modestly chug along until they are knocking out some of their best music in their 70s and 80s. Some of us follow linear paths, while for others development is marked by a process of lateral expansion. But all of us will grow if we keep composing, and all of us will have to deal with musical “growing pains” of some variety.