Author: DanVisconti

Hatin’ on Nickelback

In this month’s Rolling Stone cover story Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney took a dig at Canadian band Nickelback that has received no small amount of media attention. To wit:

Rock & roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world…So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit—therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world. Fuck that! Rock & roll is the music I feel the most passionately about, and I don’t like to see it fucking ruined and spoon-fed down our throats in this watered-down, post-grunge crap.

Hatin' on Nickelback

It’s not the most chivalrous (or least arrogant) way of making the point, which is part of what also makes Carney’s dis so resonant: it’s exactly the kind of thing that a lot of people really think, expressed pretty much just as it must have happened in conversations countless times before.

No stranger to high-profile bashings, Nickelback has endured so many slings and arrows that I’d almost feel sorry for them, if I didn’t think their music was so ass-bad. Recall that this past Thanksgiving nearly 40,000 Detroit rock fans signed a petition calling for Nickelback’s replacement as the half-time act during the nationally televised Lions/Packers game. Given that Detroit is the birthplace of an entire genre (Motown) as well as home to classic rock bands like the MC5, it’s easy to see what motivated music fans to sign the kind of petition they normally wouldn’t be bothered with. In the words of petition supporter Robert Jones, Nickelback “is not rock and roll, it’s a nasty hybrid of the worst manufactured music on the planet.”

Comments like the above are probably on the clean side compared to what many rock fans might say among friends. Why so much vitriol directed at Nickelback, who are merely one of many easy targets in today’s commercially dominated, creatively deficient Top 40 wasteland? Patrick Carney’s original screed—which references people beginning to accept that what is most successful is rarely what is most exciting and unique—underscores a loss of faith in the very foundations of rock as subversive sexual and political expression. Perhaps no other band so aptly embodies the kind of inauthentic, focus-grouped approach calculated to appeal to everyone, and this must be what sets Nickelback apart from the pack of equally unimaginative music.

As a writer who usually gets to choose what I write about, I don’t relish the idea of trashing anyone’s musical choices—I’d much rather devote that same time to something that excites me and ought to be shared with others. So I’m not writing this to heap yet more criticism on a group that has become a favorite punching bag among self-anointed “enlightened” listeners; I’m writing this to point out that what many listeners—and, I think, Patrick Carney—seem to disdain even more than Nickelback is the attitude that many, especially the most “enlightened” and savvy among listeners, have adopted in reaction to the kind of lame, devitalized music that Nickelback exemplifies—that since the most creative music is rarely the most successful, there must be something suspect with desiring success and wide acclaim.

There’s a sense in which Patrick Carney’s latest comment is simply egotistical bluster designed to justify his band’s own choices. All the same, his comments do strike me as indicating a problem that also has plagued the world of contemporary music: mainstream modes of dissemination have become so closed to innovation that many young artists (perhaps too hastily) deduce that there must be something wrong with wanting to reach a large segment of people. Not everyone wants to be the biggest band in the world, and I do think the indie spirit has done much good in shifting focus away from popularity to other aesthetic values. Yet at times this point of view can also lead to a retreat into niches and scenes, and unnatural disdain for the idea of wanting to reach a large audience seems to me just as unhealthy as an unnatural preoccupation with popularity as the only worthwhile indicator of artistic worth.

Developing an Act

In speaking with other composers, there are always so many questions I’d like to ask them about their music and how they went about putting it together: What were you thinking when you wrote this passage? What kind of stylistic influences informed your writing? Under what circumstances was the work conceived? However, if I were allotted only a single query for these situations, I’d make sure to ask the question that most consistently seems to reveal a composer’s fundamental character, namely: What is your attitude toward revision?

At the most basic level, there is a broad spectrum of approaches when it comes to tinkering with a “finished” notated piece, between those who endlessly tinker and those who (for various reasons) end up relatively content with their composition’s first incarnation. Sometimes the composer’s skill and the amount of time he or she had to work with have something to do with the decision to revise, but more often is has to do with the composer’s attitude and aesthetic predilections. Many composers are predisposed to tinkering, or simply have very high expectations for how closely their musical result ought to approximate their idea. Many know they likely won’t have time to revise, and approach the first draft accordingly. Some composers are not disposed to revising in general, but will consider it when something truly “goes wrong” or the prospect of more performances tempts a little finessing.

Yet the above attitudes toward revising apply to just one particular situation: that in which a composer intends for there to exist a final, “best” version of a given composition.

This is, of course, the situation in which many composers find themselves—especially composers whose goal is a document than can inspire performances with or without their own physical presence. But what about improvisers, singer-songwriters, composer/performers, DJs, and many for whom the distinction between revising and composing becomes almost meaningless?

It goes without saying that improvisers, DJs, and their ilk make tweaks all the time—it’s just that without the pressing need for a “definitive” version of the work, these tweaks become part of a continuous composing session rather than something appended to the compositional act.

While a notated composition forces us to choose our “best effort”, those who follow a favorite DJ, jam band, or even comedy act would attest that there’s also something to be said for a style of expression that is less rigidly controlled and is constantly adapting to the situation at hand. At the same time, music expressed through a notated score can potentially receive many more performances in more diverse geographic locations—something that still makes this old-fashioned mode of dissemination pretty hip.

As someone who spends a lot of time working with traditionally notated music, I’m always eager to bring ideas from folk and improvised sources into play—and to bring notated concert music up to date and in line with the level of excitement, timbral richness, and interactivity that makes the best pop music so engaging. Developing an act is about experimenting and responding to experience, and one that emphasizes the process of exploration as much as the discoveries; most of all, it’s a way of working that takes audience feedback into account as an essential part of the creative effort. So I wonder if it might be possible to develop a notated ensemble piece in a way that is likewise constantly evolving and defined?

I’ve recently completed a work that will be premiered more or less simultaneously by three piano trios. Based respectively in Boston, Toronto, and Salt Lake City, the groups will tour with the piece during the 2012/13 concert season. Knowing these details, I decided that I wanted a way to make each group’s performances unique and particular; so I wrote a piece in the form of several very short “modular” movements that can be played in any order—this is determined by each ensemble, who may settle upon a “favorite” configuration or change things up for each performance. Over time I’ll put new movements into rotation, so that the “building blocks” of the piece change to reflect my current thinking and audience input. It’s a kind of “act” developed over time with input balanced between myself and the performing ensembles, who each may continue to shape the work in profound ways long after the premiere performances.

It feels good to be revising some music for once not because of a mistake, but as the next step in an ongoing creative collaboration. When I was younger, I shied away from revising after imbibing the notion that making changes to my work indicated weakness or failure; but now I’ve realized that my work needs to grow, change, and react to stimuli from audiences and collaborators in order to truly be its best.

Old Habits

As a composer most comfortable with (and excited by) acoustic instruments, I came to explore electronic sound production much later in my compositional career and I’m still a novice when it comes to a great deal of music software currently on the market. As one might expect, I initially approached composing for electronic media with the same habits acquired through years of notated composition for traditional instruments, which yielded mostly disastrous results. As of the new year, I’m starting an electroacoustic work that is giving me the opportunity to reflect on lessons learned since my first hesitant foray into an electronic piece about five years ago.

Among the many mishaps and miscalculations in my self-guided education, perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that acoustic and electronic music each require their own compositional approach, and don’t fare well when shoehorned into the habits and priorities of the other.

In composing for acoustic instruments, I’ve found that I produce the most effective and imaginative results when I first concentrate on envisioning a unique sound world, and then devise a way to produce those sounds through the medium of music notation. But when working with an electronic interface, I’ve had better results doing just the opposite: finding a combination of a few sounds that sound well together, and then asking myself how to build a piece out of that.

Obviously, it’s not so cut and dried as that—because in both electronic and acoustic composition, there is a complex interplay of sensitivity to the embodied world along with an equally important awareness of our own inner voice, not yet embodied outside of ourselves.

But I do know that my own acoustic compositions are largely representations of something that was actually constructed offsite, in the world of the imagined, while in working with electronic sound my ideas seem to come into being only through a simultaneous contact with the immediate physical world—through what is present to the senses.

I feel there is much to be learned from both ways of working, and sometimes it is even through applying these modes of thought to situations where they are not entirely germane. (For example, thinking of an acoustic composition via the concept of loops or imagined faders can certainly help one think in a different way!) Perhaps what’s most important for composers is the facility and experience with many different ways of working, so that we never feel stuck with one inherited way of doing things.

Games Played: IV-V-I

With the holidays upon us, many of us musical types have been doing some last-minute shopping, racking our brains to think of any gift that is sufficiently cooler than a treble clef paperweight. So it seems like a good time to bring up IV-V-I, a new harmony-based card game created and designed by composer and educator Rafael Hernandez. The idea behind IV-V-I is easy to grasp: using their available cards, players compete to build the best phrase (where “best” means most daring and elaborate, not just technically correct), and then seal the deal with a cadence.

While one of IV-V-I’s strengths is how accurately the game captures the challenge of harmonic part writing exercises, the addition of several unique gameplay elements makes for a level of strategy and fun that far exceeds what can be derived from standard harmony exercises. Players compete with their opponents to score the most points with their phrases, yet they can also play “part writing error” cards to nullify an opponent’s points, or shake things up with “style cards” which have a global effect on gameplay; Beethoven, for example, doles out extra points for “special harmony” cards while that rascally Shostakovich makes part writing errors a virtue.

These details make for a rich and immersive experience that manages to teach and hone some of the most complex elements of music theory without becoming pedantic. Players are allowed to expand phrases from either the left or right, which provides for more playing options, as well as provoking a way of thinking seldom encouraged in classroom harmony exercises; and most importantly, the communal and interactive element of gameplay ensures that what might be many players’ first attempts at composing will be enjoyable and provocative.

In IV-V-I, it’s easy to change the game’s level of difficulty with a few house rules: the more complicated cards (augmented 6th chords, for example) can simply be pulled from a beginning deck and subsequently introduced at a later time, while more advanced players can ratchet up the intensity with additional restrictions. See below for a video clip of gameplay (other demonstration videos available at the IV-V-I website):

All in all, IV-V-I would be a welcome addition to most any music theory classroom while holding plenty of interest for music nerds of all skill levels. I hope that Rafael will turn his considerable game design talents to more projects; since IV-V-I targets a more advanced age group, I can’t help but think how a companion game targeted to even younger players—and one that readies them for the challenges of more advanced harmonic functions—would fill a comparable gaping hole in the K-6 bracket. The availability of more well-crafted games like IV-V-I to students and educators would go a long way to enrich and vitalize the appreciation of music in America—a country where it’s common for children 6 years old or even younger to study an instrument while rarely delving very deeply into how music is put together.

Guerilla Tactics

Last week’s post about boredom provoked more than a few responses, including a comment of my own that I’d like to expand upon this week:

I’ve always thought there’s a guerilla, Trojan horse element to composing in that if it’s not entertaining or compelling enough for most people, the goods (whatever they may be) aren’t going to make it past the front gate.

This comment of my own in turn provoked a response from composer/performer (performer/composer?) Matt Marks, who pointed out the connotation of trickery in my analogy and rightly decried the unfortunately common attitude that artists must wrap their wares in appealing wrappings in order to make the “medicine” go down—which gives me an excellent opportunity to discuss just who or what is being tricked in my Trojan horse analogy, and why.

In my analogy (hence, developing metaphor) concerning aesthetic appreciation, the “goods” are not some component of the aesthetic experience—not some meaning or intellectual payload—but rather the entire experience of appreciating a work of art, in all its completeness. The defenses that must be overcome—and the reason that the goods must be smuggled—are the well-girded ramparts of our rational minds, which seek to understand by dividing, disassembling, dissecting, and ultimately killing the fullness of the aesthetic experience. While it’s true that our capacity for rational understanding can yield immense insight in partnership with the intuitive mind, it must always begin from the fullness of experience for those insights to be grounded. For the same reason that a joke that must be explained to us is never funny, aesthetic appreciation likewise seems to require a predominantly intuitive connection and a similar suspension of rational analysis (even if such analysis is subsequently engaged).

What is the Trojan horse that draws us into the intuitive world of art, and makes for an understanding greater than rational apprehension alone can provide for? It’s the raw, sensual nature of the experience itself, which remains stubbornly indivisible, unique, and present.

So if we fail to fully engage the senses of our listeners, we can’t hope to do anything beyond that because art is not primarily to be explained, it is to be experienced. No one will be able to appreciate the subtle interplay of my music’s counterpoint (and the deeper resonances that this recognition makes manifest) if my counterpoint is muddy and poorly realized; and no one will be able to connect with any of the threads in your film—emotional, intellectual, or what have you—if the shots are drab, poorly lit, and unappealing.

That’s far from suggesting that artists “smuggle in” the meaning of their work inside a sugar-coated shell of appealing surface textures and mindless bubblegum; what I’m suggesting is that artists smuggle in the entire experience of their works—meaning included—by appealing to the senses and preconscious modes of understanding that are not rational. This is a rejection of the pernicious “take your medicine” attitude which Matt took care to point out, but so too is it a rejection of an equally harmful attitude: one which imagines that art and most unlikely of all, music, might be apprehended on any deep level without engaging the senses in a powerful way.

This is why I’m always at a loss when asked to explain my music in words. Although I am more than happy to use words to set up a listening experience, or to provoke other insights, I can’t explain it, precisely because the meaning of the music is not expressible in words, and is not separable from the experience of listening. In order to get my meaning across I can’t rely on rational argument any more than I could hope to elicit guffaws by carefully explaining a joke; I have to rely on the sensations that my music creates, which can sneak around the rational mind without being caught. By providing for compelling sensations and making sure that my structural designs clearly project themselves on the audible level, I have a better chance of causing someone to feel a genuine connection with the music, which is the beginning of a deeper relationship in which rational inquiry becomes engaged as well.

What, Me Boring?

Boring

Last week, Colin Holter made a comment on these pages about boredom that struck me, in which he suggested that boredom has as much to do with what we bring to an experience as with that experience itself. This is a great point from which to begin a consideration of boredom, which has less to do with some quality inherent in the music at hand than with a certain relationship (or perhaps lack of relationship) between the listener and the music. When we say that music is boring, we typically mean that our listening experience failed to deliver what people turn to music for, which is above all a sense of connection.

In this respect, music is often boring when we are listening for something that is not there. That is why hard-rock fans looking for a physical connection might shy away from music that fails to deliver the desired visceral punch; or why academics looking for an intellectual connection shy away from music that does not yield to analysis; or why listeners seeking an emotional connection have difficulty taking interest in music composed via elaborate formal schemes.

When we say something is boring, we mean that it has become too familiar, or at least seems that way—the level of helpful familiarity has been exceeded, so that renewed contact deadens the experience rather than enriches it. This seems related to an essentially passive view of experience, in which we receive stimulation from a force outside of ourselves rather than a kindling of spirit within. The very perception of ourselves as passive observers rather than full participants in an experience defines boredom, which leads to the desire for novelty and fancy, which are poor cousins of newness and imagination.

Boredom is a message: it indicates our failure to appreciate certain kinds of experience, perhaps more than any failure of those experiences themselves. That’s why boredom ought to be cause for regret rather than smugness or gloating, or at least a force that challenges us to engage more deeply. There’s no joy to be had and no pride in not enjoying something; one does not attain a superior place “above” something else by putting it down. And it’s a well-known fact that affective non-engagement is one of the hallmarks of schizophrenic thought patterns.

Have I written any boring music? That depends on who you ask, but more often than once I’ve overheard the dreaded accusation in a restroom during intermission—and I was sure glad that I wasn’t sufficiently famous to be spotted as the offender! In one case, I kept an eye on one of my would-be critics during the second half of the concert, during which his PDA flashed noticeably. This eased my nerves a bit—until I thought about how much music I have personally considered boring, and made a pact with myself to make “boring” the start of a more serious exploration.

Giving Thanks

Last week, New York City radio station WQXR ran a short piece in which musicians were asked to share a few words about someone for whom they were thankful. In keeping with this Thanksgiving theme, several classical performers—including Hilary Hahn, David Krakauer, Frederica von Stade, and others—offered glimpses into their formative experiences while recognizing to some of the mostly unsung individuals who made unforgettable impressions on their lives.

While it was a privilege to contribute my own anecdote to the mix, after condensing my feelings into two extremely compact sentences I knew that I wanted to write something more about my former college professor Dean Guy, and just how much his disposition towards life galvanized my own resolve to become a composer.

Dean taught music theory at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and he was the kind of teacher that had a reputation for being something of a hard-ass, which to the undergraduate mind is another way of saying that he didn’t put up with crap and expected people to live up to their potential. He was the kind of person that was capable of exclaiming the most colorful deflating remarks to those who fell short of his standards, yet without a stroke of cruelty.

So when it came time for me get serious about my classroom teaching skills, I came to him for advice. Having some experience with down-and-out college students, he offered me a real heck of a deal—weekly pedagogy lessons in exchange for rides home. These meeting were always a source of valuable advice and conversation, but the best lessons came from hanging out with Dean and hearing about his life.

Dean has been blind since childhood. When he had been a child, the dominant attitude toward the disabled was very different from today’s (somewhat) more open attitude; disabilities were to be ashamed of, and the idea that the disabled might have reason to aspire to engaged, productive lives had yet to impact the popular consciousness. (To this end, consider that one of America’s greatest presidents—Franklin Roosevelt—won the presidency only through careful image management which included elaborately-staged public appearances in which the crippled FDR appeared to walk unaided.)

The more I came to understand how much of Dean’s early life was touched by this attitude, the more I appreciated his determination to carve out his own path, which led to a very active life of performing, accompanying, and teaching. Moreover, Dean is one of the people who has cultivated and maintained a zest for life’s experiences that frequently puts me to shame. Through many hours spent discussing a good melodic turn, the problems of his having a state ID card instead of a driver’s license, and the latest baseball statistics, I came to feel a profound respect for an individual with an unquenchable relish for living—someone who didn’t accept the limitations that others had chosen for themselves.

To a young and somewhat scrappy composer, Dean’s outlook had all kinds of implications. It meant that I should be, first and foremost, grateful for all things in life and for the gift of my senses; it meant that the conventional wisdom concerning both life and music might not be quite on the mark; and it meant that self-knowledge was just as important a component of career-planning as knowledge of “the field”.

In writing this recollection of someone whose attitude toward life continues to impact me every day, I find myself thinking of a Chinese aphorism that succeeds in expressing much of what Dean revealed to me about the world:

The master said: ‘my garden’…and his gardener smiled.

Why is the gardener smiling? Because while the master may own the garden in the proprietary sense, he may yet rarely set foot within it. It is the gardener who actually possesses the garden, in the sense of cultivating a lived relationship. My former teacher Dean helped me to understand that likewise, everything in the world becomes ours the moment we pay attention to it, respect it, listen to it; how thankful I am for that perspective, and how thankful I am for countless other mentors who have succeeded in passing along something beyond the scope of their narrowly-prescribed curriculum.

Sounds Heard: itsnotyouitsme—Everybody’s Pain Is Magnificent

Caleb Burhans and Grey McMurray are two of the busiest and most accomplished musicians working in New York’s emerging experimental/indie community, equally at home in the role of composer, songwriter, producer, singer, or multi-instrumentalist. Their third release as electronica-laced violin/guitar duo itsnotyouitsme is the culmination of a long journey that began with their 2008 EP walled gardens, a loop-heavy debut with imaginative studio craftsmanship. By contrast, the duo’s second release, fallen monuments (2010), features live recordings, and now their third and most recent release finds McMurray and Burhans back in the studio with a double-disc of new tracks bearing the title Everybody’s Pain Is Magnificent.

For an album peppered with so many electronic sources, much of Everybody’s Pain sounds surprisingly earthy and organic (as suggested by Allegrea Rosenberg’s striking cover art, which features roots and branches framed in a kind of pixelated, psychedelicized landscape). It’s a good fit for an album in which electronic sounds and processing are frequently used to conjure textures that seem almost more “alive” than the sound of traditional acoustic instruments.

Some of the most interesting moments on the album likewise occur when the electronics come into contact with seemingly incongruous relics of the past. The album’s opening track (The Snake of Forever) explores a sound world influenced by early music, marked by slow-moving, chant-like violin lines suspended in a cavernous crypt of reverb. The simplicity of materials is balanced by a sense of space and distance. Recognizable elements—the grim sound of the harmonic minor scale luxuriating around its raised leading tone, a deceptive cadence to the warm, autumnal sound of the VI chord in minor—overlap, but these individual elements don’t line up as we have come to expect them to, lending depth and distance to a simple texture. Gardens of Loss is conceived in a similar vein and is one of the album’s standout tracks, a constantly evolving tapestry of ancient and contemporary sounds that expresses a fully imagined soundscape in only a few repeated brushstrokes.

Old Friends, Lost Relatives (the album’s third track) begins with equally unadorned acoustic guitar chords—just right for the track’s rootsy flavor, and another example of an implied distance from a few pungently connotative gestures. Bluebird (In My Heart) provides for a more extended exploration of acoustic guitar textures, with a simple but irregular strumming pattern set against a mounting backdrop of feedback. Meanwhile, Mammoth Super Column to the Towers Of begins with perhaps the most overly “electronic-sounding” stretch of music on the album, with glitch skips and snatches of heavily processed sound.

Vocals don’t emerge until the end of disc one (which is labelled—in what is undoubtedly a vinyl homage—”side a”), and their appearance in Little Wish feels less like the intrusion of a new element than simply another timbre to be incorporated into the instrumental texture. In the album’s final track, Always Look Up (Always Look Up), these subdued vocals mount a slow rise that hangs out over a tonic drone that pulses with affirmative constancy, finally revealing an organ-like sonority with a whiff of a plagal cadence and its host of benedictory associations.

Clocking in at 88 minutes, Everybody’s Pain manages to fuse a variety of influences to itsnotyouitsme’s essentially ambient/postrock sensibilities and succeeds as a mature and polished successor to the duo’s first two efforts. It is highly particular music, with a focused aesthetic point of view and an ear towards eccentricity, which could be either appealing and discouraging depending on one’s preconceptions and taste. Yet it’s hard to deny that Everybody’s Pain is an impressive culmination of Caleb Burhans’s and Grey McMurray’s musical vision, with lessons gleaned from the stage as well as the studio.

East Meets West

Two recent events at Washington, D.C.’s Freer Gallery of Art (which houses a portion of the Smithsonian’s collection of Asian art) have juxtaposed Western and Asian culture via concert programs of (mostly) contemporary music. In October, the Lark Quartet and koto player Yumi Kurosawa presented the quartet version of Daron Hagen’s koto concerto, Genji, based on an 11th-century Japanese tale of unconsummated love. Hagen is well known as one of America’s most accomplished opera composers, and here he likewise structures the thirty-minute piece into a set of short scenes in the form of love duets, albeit increasingly unconventional ones.

This is Hagen’s first foray into writing for an instrument outside of the Western classical tradition, and the work takes full advantage of the koto’s capacity for twangy lyricism and percussive effects alike. The piece opens with folk tune stirrings that struck me as timeless while also strikingly removed from the surface sound of Hagen’s other music; but several minutes into the work, his own voice seems to emerge more fully and blend with the frequently folk-like melodic subjects. By the piece’s conclusion—a breathtaking unaccompanied cadenza that ends with a sigh rather than a bang—it was clear that Hagen’s concerto had convincingly explored an elusive and original space, one between the familiar and the distantly exotic.

Last week, another concert at the Freer Gallery featured other recent works presented by Music from Copland House and Music from China. These two groups might seem like strange bedfellows considering Aaron Copland’s hyper-American-ness, but Music from Copland House—the ensemble in residence associated with Copland’s restored home in Peekskill that is curated by ensemble pianist artistic/executive director Michael Boriskin—is an ensemble committed to promoting and exploring the many paths that American music has taken, and this includes the intersection of American music and that of other cultures.

This Chinese-American concert made the most of these potential juxtapositions, featuring music by composers such as Chou Wen-Chung and Bright Sheng who emigrated to the United States from China as well as a world premiere by Eli Marshall, an American composer who has resided in Beijing since 2003. The program juxtaposed works for Western instruments with traditional Chinese instruments on the first half, while the second half featured works that combined the instruments of both traditions. The Chinese instruments included the pipa (a guitar or mandolin-like instrument), zheng (a large lap harp similar to the Japanese koto), as well as the erhu, an incredibly limited yet endlessly fascinating instrument resembling a one-stringed cello or viol. It was particularly enjoyable to Wang Guowei play duets with Copland House cellist Thomas Kraines during Lu Pei’s Scenes through the Window, which rounded out the program with its boisterous collisions of American and Chinese popular styles.

The contrast in Western and Eastern traditions—between a mastery of formal structures and subtlety of expressive inflection—can provide for all kinds of wonderful moments when present in a single musical composition, from surprising clashes to nuanced syntheses of stylistic traits. Some composers try to keep each instrument true to its own cultural moorings, while some of the best pieces translate a style through an unfamiliar instrument. Two short works by Zhou Long and Chen Yi (a truly talented husband/wife composer pair!) were written exclusively for Chinese instruments, and present an expressive dimension that seems inaccessible in these composers’ works for Western instruments—one that seems to transcend Western conceptions of time and meter and instead inhabits a world of pure expressive gesture. I didn’t find every attempt at cross-cultural music making to be a complete success, yet sometimes seeing two cultures collide less than gracefully is just the thing that makes us more fully aware of their profound individuality.

The Hand-Off

It’s a long journey from a new musical work’s conception to its successful realization, and all the more so for composers who notate their ideas for others to perform. For most concert works, this journey is like a marathon in respect to the requisite amounts of fortitude, endurance, and patience; yet it is also like a relay, in that the journey represents the combined efforts of several parties and could not be completed by any one of them alone. And just as in running a relay, it’s the handing-off of the baton between each leg of the race that is often most crucial for the ultimate success of all parties.

In the first stage of the New Music Relay, the composer becomes the baton bearer almost exclusively; there may be some preliminary back-and-forth in order to set the opportunity in motion, but then it’s the composer’s race to run until the piece has been completed (and safely extracted from his or her composing lair by the performers and presenters)! This can often be a terrifying leg of the race for the others to wait through, because the composer of notated music is working essentially in private. Even in cases where I have met frequently with performers during the composition of a piece, something about the medium of notated music seems to necessitate a certain amount of reclusion. The other athletes wait anxiously by the first checkpoint, crossing their fingers and hoping that the composer is on time while they remain unable to do a whole lot until the composer shows up.

In the second stage of the race, the performers begin to pry the music from the composer’s hand, but the hand-off is rarely accomplished so quickly as in an actual relay race. The performers are eager to get their hands on the music, but they are still extremely reliant on the composer almost as if he or she were a guide shining light on the path ahead. The farther the performers proceed down this path of learning the new piece and its quirks, the less reliant they become on the composer. The midpoint in this changing relationship is often the first rehearsal with composer in attendance; then the performers are well on their way toward securing their newfound grip on the piece, with little or no additional input from the composer.

While these are not the only participants involved in the race, the remaining contributions of presenters, commissioners, publicists, and the like do little to affect the basic arc of the process, in which there is a gradual transfer of power and responsibility from the composer to the performers. And as a side note, this is also one of the reasons that writing a lot of music and trying to approach performers later on can often be such a headache for composers—once an ensemble agrees to a performance, they are invested in it and it is perhaps the one time that the composer holds most of the power over that eventual outcome. When beginning from a finished piece, the ensemble has the most power to shape the outcome since the bulk of the composer’s work is already completed, and this may affect the degree of input the composer is allowed in shaping the performance. That said, it’s not uncommon for composers—who ran the first leg of the race and proudly passed off the baton—to feel a little left in the dust while others crash through the finish line.

In my very short career, I’ve known performers who abused this paradigm for their own interests, although happily only rarely. Usually this has involved changes to the score made without my consent, or in one case the demand that I re-title a commissioned work. But there have certainly been cases in which I tried a performer’s patience, unintentionally, intentionally, or half-intentionally, knowing that given the choice between pulling the new piece entirely and allowing me some extra time, the performers would have to put up with my own excesses for a while longer. Nowadays I try as much as possible to respect the people on the other end of the equation, not least of which because it sets a positive tone for the performers to match. Bringing new music to life is a team effort, and our individual contributions become blended and yes, harmonized in an outcome of which we all partake.