Author: DanVisconti

Sounds Heard: Benjamin Broening—Recombinant Nocturnes

Benjamin Broening’s catalog is rich in electroacoustic works, and as founder and artistic director of the University of Richmond’s Third Practice Festival he has likewise affirmed that the marriage of experimental sonic expressivity with an almost vocal sense of line is not merely one of convenience, but rather a deep source of inspiration. With the composition and support of electroacoustic music taking such a central role in Broening’s work, one might expect electronic timbres to predominate in his compositions. Instead, Broening often lets his electronics sing in the subtlest and most unobtrusive of tones, rarely the focal point but always imbuing the music with nuance and expressive shading.

Nowhere is Broening’s tendency toward the refined, elegant, and expressive given better voice than in this new disc of piano nocturnes, a fitting moniker for these moody, introspective works that luxuriate in atmospheric filigree akin to the piano works of Chopin and John Field. Broening’s nocturnes play out as both starkly spare and lovingly ornamented. The music floats freely above cavernous spaces, trembling over resonant harmonies reminiscent of a spikier, French-influenced palette of rich, occasionally romantic sonorities. Pianists Ruth Neville and Daniel Koppelman give impressive readings of Broening’s works, managing to sustain interest across passages of extremely quiet music and exploding in the album’s few moments of fury with an assured sense of ensemble.

This kind of “slow music,” occasionally rhythmic though rarely constant, is captivating when handled by a composer with the skill and imagination to approach each moment with renewed freshness; Broening is more than up to the task and listeners will likely want to revisit the disc many times to dwell in the particular, fully imagined moments that remain especially poignant.

Fortunately, Broening has encouraged just this kind of re-engaging. The pieces on Recombinant Nocturnes all share the same musical DNA, with melodic and rhythmic ideas from Nocturne/Doubles (the earliest work on the disc) showing up in the other compositions as well. Broening encourages playing the disc on shuffle mode in order to uncover new relationships between movements and pieces, with the core material constantly recombining in new and surprising ways—one of the featured pieces, Double Nocturne for two pianos, is literally a superimposition of the two solo piano works also recorded on the disc. I spent a good part of the weekend with the album endlessly shuffling, and it’s a testament to Broening’s musicianship that the material manages to sustain interest and yield new insights through so much repetition. The modular nature of the album is above all an expressive tool in service of the musical material, exposing the listener to an unconventional sense of time that’s just right for the dreamlike nachtmusik and its lonely wanderings.

Recombinant Nocturnes is a gorgeous disc of music, and Broening never allows this core fact to be usurped through the kind of technical or conceptual conceits that might have distracted from the magic. It is adventurous, experimental music that is not so caught up in being experimental that it cannot also be thoughtful, eloquent, and disarmingly direct as well. It’s one of the most persuasive accounts of a contemporary composer engaging a tried-and-true form—the piano nocturne—with both an individual imagination and just the right amount of affectionate familiarity.

SONiC Festival Features Music Composed in the 21st Century

Sound of a New Century—or SONiC—is a new festival running between October 14 and 22 in New York City that will feature the works of over one hundred composers. All featured composers are age 40 or under, with a selection of pieces composed in the first decade of the new millennium.

These stats alone hint at the scope and ambition of the festival’s inaugural season, which boasts a comparably impressive tally of 16 featured ensembles and 18 world premieres. But what’s even more striking is the festival’s diversity of venues, styles, and approaches. Says festival co-curator Derek Bermel, “Emerging composers today have much greater access to different traditions and influences, and we are celebrating that by not restricting the music we present to any one style, movement, or agenda. We want to bring more public awareness to the many directions contemporary music is moving in, and to show everyone that ‘the composer’ is alive and thriving.” Accordingly, the festival presents a wide and refreshingly unedited snapshot of what young composers are writing today. A variety of venues—including Carnegie Hall, The Kitchen, and The Stone—ensure that the festival encompasses downtown, uptown, and most everything in between. A complete list of composers and ensembles can be found here.

Bermel (who has achieved acclaim both as a composer and clarinetist) and his co-curator, pianist Stephen Gosling, are both musicians deeply in touch with the music of our time and who are comfortable in a variety of roles—performer, composer, improviser, administrator, presenter. This fluency is also reflected in many of the festival participants. In response to the crumbling bastions of traditional funding and institutional support, they have taken it upon themselves to create a new community that might supplement—and improve upon—last century’s top-down system of institution-led commissioning.

Given the polarizing nature of much recent music history (especially the New York scene, which has been one of the most polarized of all), it’s refreshing to see such a mixture of composers that I might not have expected to see sharing the same program. While the younger generation of composers encompasses many aesthetic directions, there might be an emerging attitude that unites them: that everyone is in this together, that many of the traditional models of classical music are too small and small-minded to contain new ways of exploring and interacting, and that advances in technology and the popular music based around them form a part of the musical canon. Perhaps most tellingly, the prevalence of these attitudes hints at an emerging paradigm in which attitude and point of view become the focus rather than style, genre, or technique. Style, genre, and technique are extremely important to a great many of the composers featured at SONiC, but they are increasingly a means to an end rather than the main focus.

I had a chance to sit down with members of the ensemble eighth blackbird this week, who will be performing on the SONiC Festival this Saturday at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, and the ensemble was characteristically excited about presenting a program including theatrical/conceptual works (Fabian Svensson’s athletically competitive Two Sides and Amy Kirsten’s Commedia dell’Arte-inspired Pirouette, as well my own Fractured Jams) along with more introspective, lyrical offerings by Timo Andres (Crashing Through Fences) and Caleb Burhans (Lullaby for Madeline) and more virtuosic pyrotechnics via Bruno Mantovani’s wildly imaginative Chamber Concerto No. 2 and a clever piece for piano four hands by Mayke Nas in which eighth blackbird pianist Lisa Kaplan is joined by ensemble percussionist Matthew Duvall for a game of pitch-black piano clusters and acrobatic patty cake.

Anyone interested in knowing about the 90 or so other composers and their works should check out the SONiC Festival website, which contains much more information than I can relate in these few paragraphs. Those who take advantage of the flexible SONiCPass receive a discounted selection of tickets for events all over the city.

What the Ears Miss

The Human EarThe human ear reacts to acoustic waves between 20 and 20,000 oscillations per second. While wave frequencies outside of this narrow band certainly exist, they are entirely outside the scope of human experience. Our senses have been honed over millennia to match the unique needs and interests of human beings—and that has required both a sharpening of senses as well as a narrowing of focus, in which our senses privilege what has supported survival in the past and shut out most everything else.

We have all become so conditioned by our culture to think that there is an external reality, “out there” and independent of our own observation, that many times we are inclined to forget how a large component of our perception originates from our own neurological wiring. We open our eyes and see a breathtaking array of colors, but these colors aren’t “out there” in the world at all; they are our brain’s way of coding for three different ranges of light frequencies perceived by the retina. Through echolocation (the kind of bio-Sonar used by bats and a few other mammals), an organism is able to develop a remarkably precise and well-populated map of its surroundings. But knowing the map of the territory is not the same as knowing the actual territory; we know only our own knowledge of the world outside ourselves, never the world itself. Our apprehension of the external world remains indirect—an inference based on our sensations and wiring.

It’s truly startling to imagine all the sonic data that our ears are missing. To begin with, our ears miss almost all of the ultrasonic squeaks used by bats in echolocation, despite these squeaks being quite loud—about the volume of a fire alarm, if we could hear them. Other animals (such as elephants) likewise employ low frequency “infrasound” for long-distance communication. We humans live our lives within a narrow band of sonic possibility, and to us it is everything. Until the last few hundred years, we weren’t even aware of these sounds lying beyond our perceptions.

Hearing Chart

It’s reasonable to assume that the music created by human beings also reflects, among other qualities, the particular possibilities and quirks of our own human experience of hearing—not only a predilection for the audible range of sound, but also for timbres and gestures derived from our earliest experiences in the world. There’s a part of me that is frustrated—disturbed, even—that I am stuck in a body that can never hope to perceive the totality of wonderful sounds that surround us each day. But there is also a part of me that cherishes these limitations, which are an emblem of our own humanness. Given the relatively few sounds that are audible to our species—in a range somewhere between the rumblings of elephants and the ultrasonic soundings of bats—we have managed to cultivate traditions and individual works that reveal much wider universes of feeling and expression.

“Serialized” Composition

The past decade has seen the rise of what might be dubbed a new genre of intelligently written, well-produced television shows that have more in common with cinema than they do with typical television fare. Shows including Six Feet Under, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men opt for sweeping dramatic arcs rather than the largely self-contained, episodic style that served shows like Seinfeld and its many, many imitators.

While this trend has done much to unmoor televised drama from its conventions, television’s newfound embrace of cinematic values continues to butt up against the limits of the weekly episode format. Unlike film, the extended storyline of shows like The Wire must be segmented into 42-minute episodes; but unlike the soap operas and serialized radio shows of yesteryear, the new “cinematic” shows rarely cadence on a cliffhanger. Often, a considerable amount of time passes between (and within) episodes of this emerging “cinematic” genre, creating an experience in which we “check in” with diverse plot threads and characters. Viewers just tuning in to a random episode might find themselves a good deal more disoriented than after tuning in to a random episode of Seinfeld, each of which is relatively autonomous.

While doing away with self-contained episodes might present a minor barrier to new viewers, it’s also a feature that allows for a much greater element of immersion and sustained interest in a series—a higher initial investment rewarded by a correspondingly richer payoff in terms of depth, subtlety, and variety. By prioritizing the cohesion of the entire storyline above the internal structure of individual episodes, shows like Mad Men allow us to come to know characters bit by bit, as their actions reverberate across a broad canvas and affect others far down the line. And the ability to present us with snapshots of characters at many different times can give a much better sense of what that person is actually like; with only a few hours to spare, films allow only a tiny window of insight into a short time period, often a moment of crisis which may or may not be indicative of everyday goings-on. The big draw of the television series format is its ability to develop characters over time, with many different moments coming together to create a composite portrait with a richness that most film directors can only dream of establishing in two or three hours.

All of this has got me thinking about music, and especially the classical world’s cherished notion that works of art are a creation of a particular time and place. What would it be like to embark on a composition that is released in serialized movements, with the intention of building a structure that might last several hours and take years, if not decades to complete? And with memorable, recurring musical ideas capable of sustaining recognition (and interest) between installments?

While the difficulty of securing performances—not to mention funding—of such an ambitious, massive work might be a deterrent, there is no reason that various installments in the composition could not be written for a variety of ensembles and venues, as many composers have already done with “cycles” of pieces (an idea very close the that of separate “episodes”). It might be a huge gamble for a composer to put so many creative eggs in one basket, yet the resulting collection of musical episodes would likely have a brighter performance future than a short chamber opera—and the ability of the piece’s “storyline” to pivot and move in new directions likewise allows for a great deal of freedom.

I’ve often been discouraged by the fact that opportunities for composing truly extended works are comparatively few, so I’m curious to explore a serialized approach to composing that might make such an undertaking more manageable. The idea that a composition might reveal itself in “deep time”—deeper even than works like Morton Feldman’s six-hour second quartet, which tests the limits of what one can absorb in a single sitting—is one that intrigues me, most of all as it would be an expression of several versions of myself, instead of the version that exists here in this city, this month.

Inserting intermissions in concerts of very long works is often seen as breaking the spell and therefore inimical to the composer’s intention. But in an episodic format, the space between each installment becomes a needed palette-cleanser, a space for rumination and perhaps speculation as well. How interesting and exciting it would be to repeatedly court the ears of a listener with a sustained musical structure that seems to be “always there,” just as we sometimes assume our favorite television characters to be!

Sounds Heard: Line Upon Line Percussion

This past May, NewMusicBox contributor Andrew Sigler and I each covered Austin, Texas’s “Fast Forward Austin” festival, and those looking for an audio snapshot of that city’s emerging new music scene would do well to give Line Upon Line Percussion’s new album a listen. This trio of percussionists—Adam Bedell, Cullen Faulk, and Matthew Tedori—formed at the University of Texas at Austin in 2009, and the four composers whose works are featured on the album are all Austin-based as well.

They were also all born in 1980 or after, with included works composed in 2009 and 2010. As one might expect, the influence of minimalism and New York’s Downtown scene is felt in their respective pieces, some more strongly than others. The homegrown way the album was put together—with Line Upon Line members commissioning brand-new works from local composers—led the ensemble to request four very different pieces that would each touch on different areas of the ensemble’s versatility.

James D. Norman’s Redshift (2010), which leads off the disc, is inspired by a concept from physics regarding the change in frequency of sound (or light) as an object moves away from the listener. As Norman explains, “This relationship of source and observer is the fundamental process at work in Redshift, relating player to player and ensemble to listener.” The work expands an initial unison line in a variety of ways, morphing and stretching in a kind of quasi-heterophonous texture that balances an interplay of quick-decaying instruments along with more sustained tones (including some impressively pure bowed cymbal playing). Redshift has the most spare and symmetrical instrumentation of any work on the album—six metal planks, six wood planks, and a crash cymbal—yet Norman’s inventive and constantly varying orchestration propels the work forward. The timbres are never far from the tinge of Gamelan music, with the metal plates providing plenty of clangorous overtones that sound rich and bell-like on this recording.

Steve Snowden is a composer who grew up in rural Missouri, and some of his previous works have turned to folk sources for inspiration. His contribution, A Man with a Gun Lives Here (2010), is based on the secret codes used by hobos as they roamed the country during the Great Depression, but the music in this case is devoid of folk tunes or invocations of particular styles (Snowden’s Appalachian Polaroids, a work featured at last year’s “Fast Forward” festival that incorporated an actual folk tune). Instead, his piece for this disc unfolds naturally from the history and character of vagabond culture.

“The Hobo Code is a fascinating system of symbols understood among the hobo community,” Snowden explains. “Because hobos weren’t typically welcomed (and were often illiterate), messages left for others in the community had to be easy for hobos to read but look like little more than random markings to everyone else to maintain an element of secrecy. Each movement of this piece is based on one of these symbols and, just like those resourceful hobos, makes use of very limited materials.”

Snowden’s A Man with a Gun is scored for a single shared bass drum and several additional implements, emphasizing the communal and ritualistic elements of the composition’s subject. The first movement, “Be Prepared to Defend Yourself,” lopes along with a series of rugged, uneven gestures for bass drum, played in a variety of ways that wring a lot out of a fairly humble instrument, while the second movement, “There are Thieves About,” serves up a sneaky rhythmic groove augmented by metal plates placed on the surface of the bass drum. The final movement, “A Man with a Gun Lives Here,” adds a three-pound sack of buckshot to the mix, which is dropped, smacked, dragged, and eventually poured onto the drum head. It’s a tribute to Snowden’s resourcefulness that after the effect of the entire bag being poured onto the drum—a point many composers might have considered a suitable cadence—Snowden instructs the players to tilt the drum head and spread the buckshot over its surface, creating a sonority akin to tidal surf cresting and receding. Snowden’s exploration of the physical impulse have rewarded him with a large palette of timbres, and his work has a rustic, red-blooded quality that is missing from a lot of timbre-oriented percussion music. Line Upon Line delivered the requisite (and at times acrobatic) choreography and lent the piece’s timbral explorations an expressive element.

Zack Stanton’s Echoes of Veiled Light (2009) was a response to the ensemble’s request that he compose them a quiet piece—always a challenge of subtlety and restraint when writing for percussion, and one that Stanton seems well-equipped to meet. The work is based on the echoing and close imitation of successive musical ideas, woven into a delicate filigree that successfully blends pitched and non-pitched sounds. The influence of minimalism and postminimalism is present but, refreshingly, it never overwhelms Stanton’s own voice. The work reveals great textural sophistication, as well as a sustained, lyrical impulse that is a nice contrast to what is largely a groove-based album.

Ian Dicke’s Missa Materialis (2010) caps off the disc. The work was inspired by Austin’s Cathedral of Junk, a structure welded together by artist Vince Hannemann out of assorted debris. While Snowden’s contribution allowed its attitude to be revealed through the interplay of musical objects, everything in Dicke’s junkyard mass seems to have crystallized around the vivid metaphor of our society’s ritual cycle of materialism. The first movement features slammed trash can lids, as well as the sound of what I think is a newspaper placed over an open trash can and then tapped. The visual element strikes me as so important that I had a very different experience watching a video of the piece and hearing the same sounds on the CD. Dicke has a knack for clever and pungent combinations of timbres, and many of his unlikely but fresh combinations carry the music even without the added theatrical effect of seeing what trash items produce each sound.

The work’s second movement ends in a gesture that struck me as a good example of one of the things that Dicke brings to the table as a composer—a great ear for sound and an understanding of how to best let its innate qualities shine through. The movement ends in a duet of winding ratchets, overlapping unevenly and stuttering over each other in a kind of highly active stasis. Other moments, including a ghostly musical saw part in the third movement and whipped trash bags in fourth, coax unexpectedly varied timbres from seemingly limited sources. Fragments of material linger, dreamlike, as things to be reveled in, suddenly stopping or occasionally spinning into cathedral-like structures. The work reflects its liturgical inspiration not only in its final quotation of Latin text, but in the way that each gesture is suspended, meditated upon, and slowly passed between players.

This disc introduces us to an ensemble that is rhythmically tight and sensitive as well as timbrally curious, and their commitment to local composers telegraphs their seriousness in making contributions to the percussion repertoire. The effort is also an example of how a “garage band,” local, do-it-yourself impulse worked alongside the more traditional commissioning process—a marriage of old and emerging paradigms that is versatile and undogmatic. Line Upon Line’s debut release is a great way to sample a local scene and the ensemble’s considerable range of abilities.

Ways to End a Piece

How many ways are there to end a piece of music? If we take “to end” as referring only to the most obvious musical punctuation, it seems that there are precious few options: despite great variety and nuance, most endings either “fade out” through some manipulation of dynamic, texture, or activity, or else they build to a kind of rhythmic singularity that assertively marks the music’s conclusion.

The true exceptions to these categories are extremely rare; the ending of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, for example, is marked mezzo-forte, following a previous stretch of pianissimo—one of the most unique endings I can think of, yet still perhaps a variation on the “fade out” trope. But as listeners we’re rarely bored, as music is subtle and flexible enough to yield endless possibilities colored with individual character. The sublime unwinding of a Schubert slow movement affects us in an entirely different way than the aching, sighing feeling at the end of a Chopin Nocturne or the “blown away in the wind” effect of many Takemitsu works. This incredible diversity forces one to reconsider the sense in which an ending is merely punctuation; rather, the ending is the culmination of a gestural process that may have been initiated as far back as the piece’s first note.

Once we start looking for the ending of a piece not in its final cadence or section but in its beginning, the question of “how to end it?” becomes much more interesting: a dramatic problem rather than a merely grammatical one.

I find that my own most convincing endings are the ones that reach back far into the piece and seem inevitable, though perhaps unexpected. Conversely, the more tacked-on my endings are, they necessarily resort to some cutesy gesture or coloristic effect, which is a bit like ending a paragraph on any noun, verb, or adjective you like and then slapping a boldface exclamation point on the end.

Endings are about content, not punctuation, and by weaving a compelling story we create needs and expectations in a pattern of fulfillment and postponement. Machaut’s celebrated Rondeau Ma Fin Est Ma Commencement hints at this circular nature of storytelling. The beginning of a story searches for its ending, and in turn the ending must lead us back to the work’s initial premise. The snake must devour its own tail in order to complete itself.

Music and Perception

One of my favorite things about music is its capacity to sharpen and enrich our perceptions. Perhaps it’s the sensation of time that becomes most heightened during music performance and listening—and to me, time certainly is a sensation more than an immutable facet of external reality, so much so that it might be considered more akin to our other five senses.

Our continuous, processional experience of reality seems to be what creates the sensation of time, because the sensation of time is only engaged by the perception of change. Just as flying overnight to Europe provides a sense of time far removed from playing basketball or taking the subway, one of the reasons I enjoy listening to music is to have an experience of time outside of my ordinary awareness and cultural norms. The string quartets of Henryk Gorecki, for example, unfold with a very different sense of pacing than those of Haydn.

In Gorecki’s music, long periods of stasis are suddenly, seemingly arbitrarily shattered by vigorous passages of sustained rhythmic activity which strike me as both folk-like and grotesquely mechanical. Perhaps this is in part an expression of time perceived very differently than how citizens of a Western democracy experience it: long hours waiting in queues punctuated by repetitive physical labor, with little sensed connection between the two. John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit is another work which invites us to experience time in a manner that is far removed from both traditional listening experiences and traditional Western attitudes toward time—as a vast occurrence that surrounds us and is literally greater than us, in which we cannot hope to grasp the detail and interaction of parts as we would with a Bach fugue, but in which we move through something both elusive and eternal.

In the Hopi language, there is no past or future tense, yet the Hopi have employed two additional tenses which do account for time, albeit differently than English speakers do. Loosely translated, these tenses are “that which is already manifest” (including all that is and has been accessible to the senses), and “that which is becoming manifest” (including that which we might describe as “subjective experience” as well as the future). I’ve often tried to get my head around an unfamiliar but fascinating way of experiencing the world, but no readings or philosophizing could carry me closer than my first time listening to Hopi music from the Smithsonian Folkways anthology. The ability of music to transport us from of our own cultural frame of reference into an encounter with the Other continues to amaze me, and it’s one of the main factors that motivates my constant search for unfamiliar sounds and traditions.

The Advantages of Paying Your Composer

Some recent comments on these pages regarding the future of streaming and downloadable music have reminded me how difficult it can be for composers to convince normal, right-thinking people that their work deserves payment.

To paraphrase Phil Fried’s comments on Brian Brandt’s Spotify article, our society doesn’t have a problem with valuing art as much as it has a problem with valuing artists. The recognition that an artist is talented or even personally significant to the consumer doesn’t always translate into consumers being willing to compensate the artist fairly, as they would surely expect to do in any other economic transaction.

Certainly, there are times when artists do and should work for free: for apprentice work, mainly, and also for projects in which the artist is being compensated in some other way—sometimes it is wise to let an enthusiastic school orchestra that otherwise couldn’t afford it to rent parts for the cost of postage, or to do some uncompensated work in order to gain needed experience or create work that will generate income down the road. But there are many who balk at the idea of compensating artists at all, or worse, who are completely unaware it’s even something they should consider. I’ve composed my share of free pieces, but more than once I’ve been miffed by people who liked my music enough to want to premiere a new work, but expected me to be grateful enough to work for several months without compensation.

I can’t speak much for downloadable music since I’ve yet to make a dent in that area. But perhaps if our supporters had a better sense of how paying the composer is a better deal for them they’d be far more generous. So what’s in it for those who choose to pay composers fairly rather than robbing them blind?

—We all know composers can be somewhat unreliable, disheveled beings, and many a composer has finished their project late or not at all. Paying your composer is a signal to them that you mean business, and that they will be expected to deliver; without that payment (and the potential threat of its withdrawal) commissioners have very little control if a composer walks. Business relationships where only one party has something to lose rarely end well for either.

—If you’re dealing with the kind of composer who composes often (usually the kind people want to work with!), they’re likely to have busy schedules filling up months or years ahead of time; offering a composer even a modest commission (as opposed to “requesting a piece”) will cause your composer to lock that composing time into his or her schedule. Otherwise, there’s no reason that composer shouldn’t take on any conflicting project that comes along with the promise of fair payment.

—A good commission is both a piece of music and a product, tailored to the needs and desired effects requested by the commissioning party. By paying for the music, you telegraph that it’s something of value and by extension that the commissioning party has done something of value, too. A commission is an investment that will pay many dividends down the line if it garners attention for the performer/s and helps focus attention on their unique traits and skills. When our supporters try to get work for free instead of properly commissioning it, the joke’s on them as they lose the chance to tell a powerful story about their passion for music; likewise, they forfeit any right to direct the composer to the kind of work that will present the performers in the best light.

I could go on and on about why composers deserve to be compensated, but in some ways I find it more effective to make the argument above: namely, that from the commissioner’s perspective there is much to be gained by paying composers for their work, even from the perspective of pure self-interest. Funding may be scarce, but letting a composer know that you’d like to pay them fairly but need time and help finding a way to raise the money is a great way to begin, and will inevitably lead to the composer taking the project more seriously than had you began by dismissing his or her right to expect compensation.

Just Go For It!

A friend of mine who works mainly in commercial photography recently created an iPhone app designed to maximize the mobile device’s potential for taking, editing, and sharing photos. And while he’s accustomed to working with ridiculously expensive equipment for his own commercial projects, the idea behind his app—and likewise, his advice to curious or aspiring photographers—is that the best camera is the one you have with you.

I routinely receive emails (often from younger or beginning composers) asking me what equipment I use for such-and-such, and while some pieces of equipment are more necessary than others I always write back trying to find out what that composer has available, now. Waiting until we have the “right” equipment to start can be a form of procrastination and a missed opportunity to discover our own resourcefulness.

Not having lots of fancy equipment can feel like a nearly insurmountable hurdle to many creative pursuits, from getting into photography to starting a rock band or setting up a home studio. It’s easy to feel held back by a lack of funding and experience, which is a self-stoking cycle since working (and creating work) is exactly what’s most needed to remedy the situation. So I’ve become a big fan of my photographer friend’s freeing and encouraging recommendation to get started creating something. It’s an idea I’ve tried to pass on to my own students, who many times need nothing so much as another voice reassuring their own to “Just go for it,” whatever “it” may be; in this case, “it” is something we have a drive to do but have yet committed to out of fear or perceived distance from our reach.

Sometimes, the finest selection of fancy equipment in the world just gets in the way, forcing us to dance the equipment’s tune even as we reap the supposed benefits of the device; I’ve felt this way about music notation programs in particular, which make it mercifully easier to…enter the kind of music that is easily entered into notation programs! But not knowing one of the leading notation programs is one of the most often cited—if not the most often cited—reason that various people have given to me for not getting into or continuing composing; I’ve seen a lot of bright students with a pop background and interesting, difficult-to-notate musical ideas discouraged by these programs, and have exclaimed (in so many words): No, no! Screw Finale, let’s continue to work on paper or through making recordings in a way that relates to your unique ideas and goals; don’t cram yourself in the notation program’s little box. Later we will work on how to break the program and make it work for you.

In reality, this is no barrier, or as I mentioned the unattainable equipment/skillset may bring along its own hindrances. The solution isn’t to wait until accumulated resources and experience will allow one to do things “the way they should be done”; it’s to discover a way of doing things which may lead to more resources and experience.

Until very recently, I used a piece-of-garbage Casio keyboard with only four-voice polyphony to compose on, which had the inestimable benefit of not tricking me into thinking like I was writing for a piano or anything resembling one. In college, a friend of mine had to sell his equally crappy keyboard (a space issue, as there was little to profit from) and took to recording and eventually layering his own vocals instead. And I had the pleasure of recently meeting an experienced composer who doesn’t (and has never) owned a computer, who perhaps as a result has developed a beautifully-realized notational language for different rates of glissandi.

So young composers with light pockets, take note: there is wonderful music being created all the time with very limited resources, and this might be part of what makes that music so wonderful!

Musical Caricatures

Philip Glass. Drawing by Chuck Krenner

I trust that everyone is at least somewhat familiar with that branch of portrait art known as caricature, which captures the essence of a person despite gross distortions of every part; this apparent paradox is what generates much of the awe and attention that a good street-caricaturist can command.

Our society has become so used to a way of understanding things as a sum of their parts—as a kind of machine, for doing something—that we are alternately surprised, puzzled, and delighted to discover that similarity is not essential for likeness. A good caricaturist knows how to see through the aggregate of individual details to what some might term the spirit of a person, or perhaps the fullness of their identity which transcends the particulate and remains instantly recognizable.

This might be one of the meanings of Picasso’s famous utterance, that “Art is a lie that leads to the Truth”—that in order to express the essential we must commit occasional (or even very grave) sins against our primary perceptions; or rather, we must (momentarily) abandon the confines of consensus reality in order to uncover the deeper reality underneath.

Leonard Bernstein. Drawing by Chuck Krenner

The musical literature abounds with examples of musical caricature, most obviously in the wide realm of piano miniatures and so-called “character pieces”. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Schumann’s Carnaval, and the Nocturnes of Chopin and John Field are just the tip of a very large iceberg in the sea of piano literature. Other nineteenth-century work such as The Carnival of the Animals caricatured individual species of animals, while in the twentieth century Bartok’s Mikrokosmos and Crumb’s Makrokosmos herald a different breed of character piece, one that is free to remain captionless.

Musical caricatures reveal, above all, the image of a particular time and place, either as Cowell’s The Tides of Manaunaun does or as some of Webern’s piano miniatures do through more abstract exploration of a particular psychological and aural space. They may lie in their particulars but still convey a deep truth. I think of Debussy’s La Soirée dans Grenade and the fact that the composer had never really been to Spain, in particular; there’s literally no way that Debussy’s composition can be said to reflect actual experience, yet through a kind of peripheral understanding he managed to distill the air of Spanish-ness that was in the air (and all the rage in France).

Today, composer David Rakowski is breaking new ground with a series of piano pieces that are just as much etudes as they are character pieces in their own right—to my ear, Rakowski is meditating (though rarely meditative in mood!) on the soul of his materials even as he explores the tradition and meaning of the term “etude”. The resulting piano works are quirky, joyful, and highly successful at unfolding from the character of their particular material or obsession.

That’s why I have an affection for musical caricatures, even the saccharine novelty hits of orchestra pops favorite Leroy Anderson: they remind us just how stubbornly particular and special each piece of music—and indeed, each listening experience—really is.

(Drawings by Chuck Krenner)

igor Stravinsky. Drawing by Chuck Krenner.