Author: Aaron Gervais

This Is Why Your Audience Building Fails

How do we increase the audience for new music? This is a never-ending debate, but virtually all of the standard answers assume that we need to be more inclusive, breaking down barriers for newcomers. From “people should be allowed to clap between movements” to “our next concert celebrates the work of composers from Latin America,” the common thread is evangelical: if we make the culture of new music welcoming to a broader range of people, new audiences will be won over by the universal artistic truth of our music.

This attitude is more or less unique to new music. Sure, every struggling indie band wants to play to larger houses, but the default boundaries of the audience are predefined, usually along class or ethnic lines. Country music has never seriously attempted to break into the African-American market (despite some important black roots). Norteño music does not worry about its lack of Asian American artists. Arcade Fire has probably never tried to partner with the AARP. Even Christian rock, which is fundamentally about evangelism, flips the relationship around: music to spread belief, versus belief to spread music.

So why do we put inclusivity at the center of our audience building? I suspect it is largely a reaction to our upper-class heritage: after all, our genre wouldn’t exist without the 19th-century bourgeoisie and 20th-century academia. Through openness, we hope to convince people that we’re really not that stuffy, that our music can have a meaningful place in people’s lives even if they aren’t conservatory-trained musicians or white upper-middle-class professionals.

Greater inclusivity isn’t an audience-building strategy—it’s an audience-building outcome. For most musical genres, it is the exclusivity of the community that is the selling point.

Working toward greater diversity in new music is necessary and right. The problem is that we’re putting the cart before the horse. Greater inclusivity isn’t an audience-building strategy—it’s an audience-building outcome. Making inclusivity the focus of strategy actually hurts our efforts. All we do is muddle classical music exceptionalism with easily disproven assumptions about musical taste, in the process blinkering ourselves to certain truths about how people use music in pretty much any other context.

And what do we get for our efforts? The same small audiences of mostly white, highly educated music connoisseurs. If we truly want to cultivate both meaningful growth and meaningful diversity in new music audiences, we need to take a step back and examine how people choose the music they listen to.

Communities and Outsiders

For the vast majority of people, music is—whether for better or worse—strongly connected to tribalism. It’s sometimes hard for us to see this as musicians because we treat sounds and genres the way a chef explores varietals and cuisines, each with unique properties that can be appreciated on their own merits.

Yet very few non-musicians relate to music in this way. Usually, musical taste is intertwined with how the listener sees him- or herself in the world. People choose their music the same way they choose their favorite sports teams or their political affiliations: as a reflection of who they want to be, the beliefs they hold, where they feel they belong, and the people they associate with.

In other words, musical taste is about community building—an inclusive activity. But whenever you build a community, you also implicitly decide who isn’t welcome. Those boundaries are actually the thing that defines the community. We see this clearly in variations in average tastes along racial or ethnic lines, but it’s just as important elsewhere: comparing grey-haired orchestra donors to bluegrass festival attendees, or teenagers to their parents, for example.

For most musical genres, it is the exclusivity of the community that is the selling point. Early punk musicians weren’t trying to welcome pop music fans—they actively ridiculed them. Similarly, nobody involved in the ‘90s rave scene would have suggested toning down the bold fashion choices, drug culture, and extreme event durations in order to make the genre more accessible.

Or consider the R&B family of genres: soul, funk, Motown, hip-hop, old-school, contemporary, etcetera. These are the most popular genres in the African-American community, at least partially because these genres are theirs. They made this music, for themselves, to address the unique experiences of being black in America. Sure, other people can (and do) enjoy it, make it, and transform it to their purposes. But only because everyone acknowledges that this is fundamentally black music. When Keny Arkana raps about the struggles of the poor in Marseilles, we don’t hear the legacy of Édith Piaf or Georges Brassens or modern French pop stars. We don’t hear the Argentine roots of her parents or other South American musical traditions. What we hear is an African-American genre performed in French translation.

The video for Keny Arkana’s “La Rage,” clearly influenced by African-American music videos.

In contrast, when genres get co-opted, like rock ‘n’ roll was, like EDM was, they lose their original communities. When we hear Skrillex, we think white college kids, bro-y sales reps, or mainstream festivals like Coachella—not the queer and black house DJs from Chicago and Detroit who pioneered EDM. Similarly, when we hear Nirvana or the Grateful Dead, we don’t hear the legacy of Chuck Berry or Little Richard. As exclusivity disappears, the music ceases to be a signifier for the original group, and that group moves on to something else. Community trumps genre every time.

Expanding the Circle

Things aren’t completely that clear cut, of course. There are black opera singers, white rappers, farmers who hate country music, grandmothers who like (and perform) death metal, and suburban American teenagers who would rather listen to Alcione than Taylor Swift. In addition, a lot of people like many kinds of music, or prefer specific music in certain contexts. We thus need a portrait of musical taste that goes beyond the neolithic sense of tribalism.


The first point to note is that communities of taste, like other communities, are not mutually exclusive. There are friends you would go to the gym with, friends you’d invite over for dinner, work friends you only see at the office, and so on. Some of these groups might overlap, but they don’t need to.

Similarly with music, there is music you’d listen to in the car, music you’d make an effort to see live, dinner music, workout music, wedding music, and millions of other combinations. Again, sometimes the music for one context overlaps with another, but it doesn’t necessarily need to. As such, while people make musical taste decisions based on tribe, we all belong to many overlapping tribes, some of which use different music depending on the context.

Film is one of the clearest examples of this contextual taste at work. Why is it, for instance, that most people don’t bat an eyelash when film scores use dissonant, contemporary sounds? Because for many people, their predominant association with orchestral music is film. As I’ve written before, when uninitiated audiences describe new music with comments like “it sounds like a horror movie,” they’re not wrong: for many, that’s the only place they’ve heard these sounds. Film is where this type of music has a place in their lives, and they hear atonality as an “appropriate” musical vocabulary for the context.

In addition, film gives us—by design—a bird’s-eye view into other communities, both real and imaginary. It’s a fundamentally voyeuristic, out-of-tribe medium. We as an audience expect what we hear to be coherent with the characters on the screen or the story being told, not necessarily with our own tribal affiliations. Sure, we definitely have communities of taste when it comes to choosing which films and TV shows we watch. But once we’re watching something, we suspend our musical tastes for the sake of the narrative.

Thus, when the scenario is “generic background music,” film offers something in line with our broad societal expectations of what is appropriate for the moment—usually orchestral tropes or synthy minimalism. However, when the music is part of the story, or part of a character’s development, or otherwise meant to be a foreground element, there’s a bewildering variety of choices. From Bernard Herrmann’s memorable Hitchcock scores, to Seu Jorge’s Brazilian-inspired David Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic, to Raphael Saadiq’s “all West Coast” R&B scoring of HBO’s Insecure—anything is possible as long as it makes sense for the taste-world of the narrative.

Dealing with Outliers

Lots of people have tastes that deviate from societal norms and tribal defaults, including (obviously) most of us in new music.

All that aside, we still need to explain the outliers: the death metal grandma, the young American Brazilophile, the black opera singer… Lots of people have tastes that deviate from societal norms and tribal defaults, including (obviously) most of us in new music.

In a case like the suburban teenager, it might be as simple as curiosity and the thrill of exoticism. But when we turn to examples like the black opera singer, things get more complicated. Making a career in European classical music is incredibly hard, no matter where your ancestors come from. But black people in America also face structural challenges like systemic racism and the high cost of a good classical music education in a country where the average black family has only one-thirteenth the net worth of the average white family. Making a career in music is never easy, and it doesn’t get any easier when you try to do it outside of your tribe’s genre defaults. Yet despite the challenges, there are clearly many black musicians who have persevered and made careers for themselves in classical music. Why did they choose this path through music?


The standard explanation leans on exceptionalism: classical music is a special, universal art form that has transcended racial lines to become a shared heritage of humanity, so of course it will be attractive to black people, too. That doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, though. Rock ‘n’ roll is at least as universal. If it weren’t, Elvis Presley wouldn’t have been able to appropriate and popularize it among white Americans, and rock-based American pop wouldn’t have inspired localized versions in basically every other country in the world.

Jazz also has a stronger claim at universalism than classical music. Multiracial from its beginnings, incorporating both black and white music and musicians, then gradually broadening its reach to meaningfully include Latin American traditions and the 20th-century avant-garde—if there is any musical tradition that can claim to have transcended tribal barriers, it is jazz, not classical music. No, musical exceptionalism is not the answer.

Maybe this is an affirmative action success story then? I doubt that’s the whole explanation. Black Americans have been involved in classical music at least since the birth of the nation—a time when slavery was legal, diversity was considered detrimental to society, and polite society thought freedmen, poor rural hillbillies, and “clay eaters” were a sub-human caste of waste people not capable of culture. That environment makes for some strong barriers to overcome, and to what benefit? It would be one thing if there were no alternatives, but there have always been deep, rich African-American musical traditions—arguably deeper and richer than those of white Americans, who mostly copied Europeans until recent decades (after which they copied black Americans instead).

I asked a handful of black classical musicians for their perspectives, and their answers shed some light. Their paths through music varied, but everyone had mentors who encouraged their passion for classical music at key stages, whether a family member, a private instructor, a school teacher, or someone else. In addition, they all got deeply involved in classical music at a young age, before they had the maturity and self-awareness to fully comprehend how racism might play a role in their careers. By the time they were cognizant of these challenges, classical music was already a big part of who they were. They felt compelled to find their place within it.

W. Kamau Bell recently shared a similar story about his path into comedy in this Atlantic video.

These anecdotes provide a partial answer, but we still don’t know where the initial inspiration comes from, that generative spark that leads to an interest in a specific instrument or type of music. For example, cellist Seth Parker Woods tells me that he picked the cello because he saw it in a movie when he was five. Something about the cello and the music it made struck him powerfully enough that a couple of years later, when everyone was picking their instrument at school (he attended an arts-focused school in Houston), he thought of the movie and went straight to the cello. To this day, he remembers the film and the specific scene that inspired him. I was similarly drawn to percussion at a young age, begging my parents for a drumset, acquiescing to their bargain that “you have to do three years of piano lessons first,” and then demanding my drums as soon as I got home from the last lesson of the third year.

Nature or Nurture

There is something fundamental within certain people that leads us to specific instruments or types of music. And thanks to science, we now know pretty conclusively that part of the reason for this is genetic, although we don’t yet know a whole lot about the mechanics involved.

Now, before we go further, let’s be very clear about what genetics doesn’t do. It doesn’t preordain us biologically to become musicians, and it doesn’t say anything about differences in musical preference or ability between genders or ethnic groups. Simplistic mischaracterizations of that sort have been responsible for lots of evil in the world, and I don’t want to add to that ignominious tradition. What genetics does do, however, is provide a plausible theory for some of the musical outliers. It’s that extra nudge in what is otherwise a predominantly cultural story.

A major contributor to our understanding of music genetics is the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Started in the late 1970s and still going today, it has tracked thousands of sets of twins who were separated at birth and raised without knowledge of each other. The goal of the study and similar ongoing efforts is to identify factors that are likely to have a genetic component. Since identical twins have identical genomes, we can rule out non-genetic factors by looking at twins who have been raised in completely different social and environmental situations.

Most twin-study findings relate to physical traits and susceptibility to disease, but the list of personality traits with a genetic component is truly jaw-dropping: the kinds of music a person finds inspiring, how likely someone is to be religious, whether s/he leans conservative or liberal, even what names a person prefers for their children and pets.

And we’re not talking about, “Oh hey, these two boomers both like classic rock, must be genetics!” No, the degree of specificity is down to the level of separated twins having the same obscure favorite songs, or the same favorite symphonies and same favorite movements within those. In the case of naming, there are multiple instances of separated twins giving their kids or pets the same exact names. Moreover, it’s not just one twin pair here and there, the occurrence of these personality overlaps is frequent enough to be statistically significant. (For more in-depth reading, I recommend Siddhartha Mukherjee’s fascinating history of genetic research.)

It would seem that our genome has a fairly powerful influence on our musical tastes. That said, the key word here is influence—scientists talk about penetrance and probability in genetics. It’s unlikely that composers have a specific gene that encodes for enjoying angular, atonal melodies. However, some combination of genes makes us more or less likely to be attracted to certain types of musical experiences, to a greater or lesser degree. That combination can act as a thumb on the scale, either reinforcing or undermining the stimuli we get from the world around us and the pressures of tribal selection.

The genetics of sexual orientation and gender identity are much better understood than those of musical taste, and we can use those to deduce what is likely going on with our musical outliers. Researchers have now definitively located gene combinations that control for sexual orientation and gender, measured their correlation in human populations, and used those insights to create gay and trans mice in the lab, on demand. In other words, science has conclusively put to rest the nonsense that LGBTQ individuals somehow “choose” to be the way they are. Variations in sexual orientation and gender identity are normal, natural, and a fundamental part of the mammalian genome, just like variations in hair color and body shape.

When it comes to homosexuality in men, the expression of a single gene called Xq28 plays the determining role in many (though not all) cases. When it comes to being trans, however, there is no single gene that dominates. Rather, a wide range of genes that control many traits can, in concert, create a spectrum of trans or nonbinary gender identities. This makes for a blurry continuum that might potentially explain everything from otherwise-cis tomboys and girly men to completely non-gender-conforming individuals and all others in between.

When it comes to the genetics of musical taste, we’re likely to be facing something similar to the trans situation, in that individuals are predisposed both toward a stronger or weaker passion for music and a more or less specific sense of what kind of musical sounds they crave. All professional musicians clearly have a greater than average predisposition for music, since nobody becomes a composer or bassoonist because they think it’s an easy way to earn a living. Likewise, certain people will be drawn strongly enough to specific sounds that they’re willing to look outside of their tribal defaults, both as listeners and performers.

Let’s reiterate, however, that genetics plays second fiddle. One hundred years ago, classical music enjoyed a much broader base of support than it does today, which suggests that tribalism is the bigger motivating factor by far. If things were otherwise, after all, musical tastes would be largely unchanging over the centuries, and I wouldn’t need to write this article.


A theory of musical taste

Mason Bates’s Mercury Soul

Enough with the theorizing. Let’s turn to two specific new music events that make sense when viewed through a tribalist lens. Both are events that I attended here in San Francisco over the past year or so, and both were explicitly designed to draw new crowds to new music.

Mason Bates’s Mercury Soul series is at one end of the spectrum. Taking place at San Francisco nightclubs, the Mercury Soul format is an evening of DJ sets interspersed with live performance by classical and new music ensembles, all curated by Mason. These types of crossover concerts were instrumental to his early career successes and led to a number of commissions, many with a similar genre fusion twist. He is now one of the most performed living American composers.

A promo video for Mercury Soul.

When Mason’s work comes up in conversation, there is often reference to blending genres, breaking down barriers, and building audiences for new music. Yet Mercury Soul is a textbook example of the evangelical trope: bringing classical music into the nightclub with the assumption that clubbers will be won over by the inherent artistic truth of our music. Given the arguments presented above, you can see that I might be skeptical.

Let’s start with even just getting into the venue. As I was paying for admission, I witnessed a group of 20-somethings in clubbing apparel peer in with confused looks. Once the bouncer explained what was happening, they left abruptly. People come to nightclubs to dance, so when these clubbers saw that the context of the nightclub was going to be taken over by some kind of classical music thing, their reaction was, “Let’s go somewhere else.” Maybe they thought the concept was weird or off-putting. Or maybe they didn’t really get it. Or maybe they thought it was a cool idea but they just wanted to go dancing that night. It doesn’t really matter, because if you can’t get them in the door, you’re not building audiences.

Wandering into the venue, I saw something I’ve never seen at a nightclub before: multiple groups of grey-haired seniors milling around. Of the younger crowd, many were people I know from the Bay Area new music scene. There were obviously attendees who were there because they were regulars, but more than half the room of what looked like 200-300 people were clearly there either for Mason or one of the ensembles who were playing.

The evening unfolded as a kind of call and response between Mason’s DJing and performances by the ensembles, often amplified. During the live music segments, people stood and watched. During the electronic music segments, they mostly did the same. People did dance, but the floor remained tame by clubbing standards, and the lengthy transitional sections between DJing and instrumentalists gave the evening a feeling of always waiting for the next thing to happen. The DJ portion lacked the non-stop, trance-inducing relentlessness that I loved back in my youthful clubbing days, yet the live music portion felt small in comparison—and low-fidelity, as it was coming through house speakers designed for recorded music. As is often the case with fusion, both experiences were diluted for the sake of putting them together. The end result didn’t feel like audiences coming together, it felt more like classical music colonizing another genre’s space.

That was my experience, but maybe it was just me? I attempted to interview Mason to get his take on the impact of Mercury Soul, but we weren’t able to coordinate schedules. However, in speaking to people who have been involved as performers, what I experienced was typical. Mercury Soul has gotten some positive buzz from the classical music press, but reactions from the non-classical press have been tepid at best, and interest in the project remains firmly rooted within traditional new music circles.

Communities of musical taste are not particularly concerned with what the actual music is, so why couldn’t a community develop around genre mashups in a nightclub?

To be fair, this doesn’t imply that the concept is doomed to failure. I could certainly see Mercury Soul evolving into a unique musical experience that has appeal beyond the simple act of genre fusion. As I’ve argued above, communities of musical taste are not particularly concerned with what the actual music is, so why couldn’t a community develop around genre mashups in a nightclub?

In other words, the music is not Mercury Soul’s problem. Rather, the problem is that Mercury Soul hasn’t tried to foster a community. Instead, it makes all the standard assumptions about audience building, which means that, best case scenario, members of the taste communities being thrown together might perceive the experience as an odd curiosity worth checking out once or twice. In the end, therefore, Mercury Soul’s true community is neither clubbers nor new music aficionados—it’s arts administrators and philanthropists desperate to attract younger audiences.


In contrast, let’s look at the San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) SoundBox series. These events take place in one of the rehearsal rooms at Davies Symphony Hall, which is converted into a sort of warehouse party space, with multiple elevated stages, video projection screens, lounge-style seating, and a bar. The entrance is from a small rehearsal door on the back side of the building, and the room is not used for any other public performances, so everyone who is there has to come specifically for SoundBox. Initially, SFS also made a conscious decision to omit its brand entirely from the events, so most attendees were not aware of the SFS connection before they arrived.

Each program is curated by a prominent musician, many composers among them, and the repertoire is almost entirely new music, performed acoustically (or with live electronics) from a stage, as it normally would be, and accompanied by custom video projections. The performers are drawn from the SFS roster, and they present multiple short sets throughout the evening. During the sets, people sit or stand quietly and listen to the music. The rest of the time, they mill about, chat, and get drinks from the bar. When I went, there were about a dozen or two of my colleagues from the new music scene present, but the rest were people I didn’t recognize, most of them in their 20s and 30s.

Two thirds of SoundBox attendees are new each time, the vast majority are under 40, and very few are SFS subscribers.

In terms of reception, SoundBox could not be more successful. There are two performances of each show, with a maximum capacity of 400 people per evening. I spoke with a friend who works for the Symphony, and he told me that SoundBox always sells out—in one case, within 20 minutes of the tickets going on sale. And this with no marketing budget: low-cost online promotions and word of mouth are the only way they promote the events. Two thirds of SoundBox attendees are new each time, the vast majority are under 40, and very few are SFS subscribers.

Contrast the messaging of SoundBox’s promo video to that of Mercury Soul.

Unlike Mercury Soul, SoundBox starts out by defining a community: it’s a place for culturally inclined music lovers to discover new, stimulating experiences. SoundBox then presents its music as a sort of rare gem worth expending a bit of effort to unravel, in the same way a winery might offer guided tastings of rare vintages. As a result, the event ends up feeling exclusive and mysterious, as if you are part of an elite group of in-the-know art connoisseurs. Whereas so many new music events give off the desperate air of trying too hard to be cool—“Look, we perform in jeans! We don’t mind if you clap between movements!”—SoundBox doesn’t have to try. It just is cool, appealing to the same type of confident cosmopolitanism that has allowed modern art museums to draw enthusiastic crowds far in excess of most new music events.

Despite its successes in building new music audiences, however, SoundBox has failed to meet SFS’s objectives—ironically, for the same reasons as Mercury Soul. The Symphony wants SoundBox to be a sort of gateway drug, encouraging a younger crowd to attend its regular programming. Yet despite an aggressive push to market to SoundBox attendees, my contact tells me there has been virtually zero crossover from SoundBox to SFS’s other programs. To further complicate things, SoundBox is a big money loser. An audience of 800 people paying $45/ticket and buying drinks seems like a new music dream, but it doesn’t pencil out against the Symphony’s union labor commitments, which were negotiated with a much bigger orchestral venue in mind.

This is not a failure on a musical level, but it is a failure in SFS’s understanding of audience building. SoundBox met a strong and untapped demand for a sophisticated, unconventional musical experience, and it created a community of musical taste around it, quite by accident. But it’s a different community from that of the orchestral subscriber, focused on different repertoire, different people, and a different experience. The fact that it is presented by SFS is inconsequential.

It’s more than a bit ridiculous to assume that the same people who come to hear Meredith Monk in a warehouse space will be automagically attracted to a Wednesday night concert subscription of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart.

To recap, then, Mercury Soul fails to encourage 20-something clubbers to seek out new music because it doesn’t create a community of taste. On the other hand, SoundBox does create a community of taste, but it’s one that is interested in coming to hear Ashley Fure or Meredith Monk in a warehouse space. More importantly, it’s a community that has no preconceptions about how this music is supposed to fit into their lives, which allows them to deal with it on its own terms. With that context in mind, it’s more than a bit ridiculous to assume that those same people will be automagically attracted to a Wednesday night concert subscription of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart. That is a music most SoundBox attendees associate with their grandparent’s generation, performed in a venue that has strong pre-existing associations that don’t help.

Lessons Learned

We live at a time that is not especially attuned to musical creativity. All the energy spent on audience building is a reaction to that. I have a couple of friends who are professional chefs, working in our era of widespread interest in culinary innovation. When I ask them about the SF restaurant scene, they complain that too many chefs chase fame, recognition, and Michelin stars instead of developing a unique artistic voice.

As a composer, I only wish we had that problem. Yet the situation was reversed in the mid-20th century, when works like Ligeti’s Poème symphonique could get reviews in Time Magazine but culinary culture was being taken over by TV dinners, fast food, artificial flavoring, processed ingredients, and industrialized agriculture.

Whatever the reasons for the subsequent shift, our task is to find ways to bring musical creativity back to the mainstream. Looking at the problem through the lens of communities of taste offers some insights into what we might do better:

Community Before Music

People will always prioritize their taste communities ahead of your artistic innovation. That means you either need to work within an existing community, or you need to fill a need for a new community that people have been craving.

The first solution is how innovation happens in most pop genres: musicians build careers on more mainstream tastes, and some of the more successful among them eventually push the artistic envelope.

With new music, this doesn’t really work. On the one hand, the classical canon is not an ever-changing collection of new hit songs but rather an ossified catalog of standard works. On the other, the more premiere-focused world of new music is a small community—that’s the problem to begin with.

So we are left with finding untapped needs and creating new communities around them. SoundBox proves that this is possible. It’s up to us to be creative enough to uncover the solutions that work in other contexts.

Forget Universalism

Despite my critiques of classical music exceptionalism, there are good reasons why new music should endeavor to become a truly post-tribal, universal genre. Those reasons have little to do with the music itself and everything to do with the people making it.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of new music is that we attract an extremely diverse range of practitioners who are interested in synthesizing the world’s musical creativity and pushing its boundaries. What better context in which to develop a music that can engage people on an intertribal level?

That said, this is not our audience-building strategy, it’s the outcome. The way we get to universalism is to create exclusive taste communities that gradually change people’s relationships with sound. First we get them excited about the community, then we guide the community toward deeper listening.

This is similar to what is known about how to reduce racial bias in individuals. Tactics like shaming racists or extolling the virtues of diversity don’t work and can even further entrench racist attitudes in some cases. However, social science research shows that a racist’s heart can be changed on the long-term by having a meaningful, one-on-one conversation with a minority about that person’s individual experiences of racism. By the same token, to get to an inclusive, universal new music, first we need to get people to connect with our music on the personal level through exclusive taste communities that they feel a kinship with.

The MAYA Principle

Problems similar to new music’s lack of audience have been solved in the past. Famed 20th-century industrial designer Raymond Loewy provides a potential way forward through his concept of MAYA: “most advanced yet acceptable”. Loewy became famous for radically transforming the look of American industrial design, yet he was successful not just because he had good ideas, but rather because he knew how to get people warmed up to them.

One of the most famous examples is how he changed the look of trains. The locomotives of the 19th-century were not very aerodynamic, and they needed to be updated to keep up with technological advancements elsewhere in train design. In the 1930s, he began pitching ideas similar to the sleek train designs we know today, but these were very poorly received. People thought they looked too weird, and manufacturers weren’t willing to take a chance on them.

Therefore, he started creating hybrid models that resembled what people knew but with a couple of novel features added. These were successful, and he eventually transitioned back to his original concept, bit by bit, over a period of years. By that time, people had gotten used to the intermediary versions and were totally fine with his original. He repeated this process many times in his career and coined MAYA to describe it.

I think the accessibility movement in classical music has been one of the biggest arts marketing disasters of all time.

What I like most about MAYA is that the last letter stands for acceptable, not accessible. I think the accessibility movement in classical music has been one of the biggest arts marketing disasters of all time. It gives nobody what they want, dilutes the value of what we offer, and associates our music with unpleasant experiences.

Loewy got it right with acceptable. He was willing to challenge his audiences, but he realized that they needed some guidance to grapple with the concepts he was presenting. We in new music similarly need to provide guidance. That doesn’t mean we dumb down the art, it means we help people understand it, in manageable doses, while gradually bringing them deeper.

Hard is not Bad

Often in new music we are afraid to ask our audiences to push themselves. That’s a mistake. People like meaningful experiences that they have to work for. The trick is convincing them to expend the effort in the first place.

To get there, we start with the advice above: build communities, then guide people into greater depth using MAYA techniques. Miles Davis’s career illustrates this process beautifully. He didn’t start out playing hour-long, freeform trumpet solos through a wah-wah pedal; he started out identifying the need for a taste community that wasn’t bebop and wasn’t the schlocky commercialism of the big band scene. This led him toward cool jazz, where he developed a musical voice that propelled him to stardom.

After Miles had won over his community, however, he didn’t stop exploring. He expected the audience to grow along with him, and many of them did. Sure, plenty of jazz fans were critical of Miles’s forays into fusion and atonality, but he was still pulling enough of a crowd to book stadium shows. There’s no reason new music can’t do the same, but we have to be unapologetic about the artistic value of our music and demand that audiences rise to meet it.

Define Boundaries

Since new music is trying to build audiences that transcend racial and class boundaries, we need to be super clear about who we’re making music for and who we aren’t. “This music is for everybody” is not a real answer. We must explicitly exclude groups of people in order to be successful community-makers. It is my sincere hope, however, that we can find ways to be effectively exclusive without resorting to toxic historical divisions along racial and class lines.

Here’s one potential example, among many, of how that could work. I’ve argued before that the “eat your vegetables” approach to programming is dumb. There is rarely any good reason to sandwich an orchestral premiere between a Mozart symphony and a Tchaikovsky concerto. Conservative classical audiences don’t gradually come to love these new works, they just get annoyed at being tricked into sitting through a “weird” contemporary piece. New music audiences for their part are forced to sit through standard rep that they may not be particularly passionate about. Nor does this schizophrenic setup help build any new audiences—you have to be invested on one side or the other for the experience to make any sense to begin with.

So instead of trying to lump all this music together, a new music presenter might decide that audiences for common practice period music are fundamentally not the same as those drawn to Stockhausen or Glass or premieres by local composers. Armed with that definition, the presenter might then choose to create an event that would be repulsive to most orchestra subscribers but appealing to someone else, using that point of exclusion as a selling point. Thus, an exclusive community of taste is created, but without appealing to racism or other corrosive base impulses.

Big-picture questions like how people develop musical taste tend to get glossed over because they are so nebulous. But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.

To close, I want to say a brief word about my motivations for writing this piece. Even though this is a fairly lengthy article, I’ve obviously only scratched the surface. The writing process was also lengthy and convoluted, dealing as we are with such a broad and opaque issue, and at many points I wondered if it was even possible to say something meaningful without a book-length narrative. Yet I feel that this subject is something we collectively need to wrap our heads around.

Big-picture questions like how people develop musical taste tend to get glossed over because they are so nebulous. But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. As musicians and presenters, we make decisions based on theories of musical taste every day, whether or not we articulate our beliefs. Taste is, in a sense, the musical equivalent of macroeconomics: hard to pin down, but the foundation of everything else we do.

My hope with this piece is that we can start talking about these issues more openly, drop some of the empty rhetoric, and stop spinning our wheels on the dysfunctional approaches of the last 40 or 50 years. Paying lip service to inclusivity is not enough. If you’ve read this far, then chances are you believe like I do that new music offers the world something unique that is worth sharing as broadly as possible. We desperately need to get better at sharing it.

Some Reflections on Transitioning Out of Being a “Young Composer”

What is the cut-off for being a “young composer”? Everyone defines that line a little differently, but I’m in my mid-30s, and in my case anyway, I certainly feel like I’ve moved onto the next thing.

This transition is more a state of mind than anything else. Over the past few years, when I’ve found myself in young composer settings, I’ve gotten that awkward feeling of being somewhere you no longer belong, like when you visit your old high school a few years into college.

Also, much to my amazement, I’ve found myself confronted on occasion by composers younger than me asking for career advice. Thinking back on the past few years, I suppose I did learn a few things that would have been useful to my 20-something self. So in the spirit of paying it forward, here are some reflections on composing after young-composer-hood.

What you did in your 20s won’t matter much

There is a cult of youth in the composition scene, just as there is with most public-facing human activities. When you’re a young composer, a lot of people are interested in what you’re doing simply because “young composers”! That’s not wrong—young people with no track record do need a way to get a leg up—but the mistake is assuming that the attention you get as a young composer somehow predicts the attention you’ll get when you’re older.

After a few years, most of the people who experienced your youthful glories will have totally forgotten that you exist, having moved on to the next round of young composers. So while you should definitely take advantage of the young composer competitions, festivals, workshops, and prizes, it’s important to realize that there’s an expiry date on their usefulness.

Composing is about who you know

Speaking of prizes and festivals and such, it turns out that winning them is much less important than the connections you make along the way.

When you’re in your 20s, the task of finding compositional opportunities mostly gets sorted out on its own: you have to write pieces for student recitals, you go to summer festivals, you get a few emerging composer commissions, etcetera. This is also, not coincidentally, the period in your life when you reach “peak friends.” Opportunities arise seemingly organically, maybe you win a few prizes, and it’s logical to assume that all this is happening because you write good music.

Yes, you do have to be a good composer—but there are a lot of good composers out there, so people tend to work with their friends.

Then a few years pass. You’re no longer in school, you’ve aged out of the young composer festivals, and—having passed peak friends—a lot of people move on and lose touch. It then becomes obvious that the main reason you’re composing for Quartet XYZ is because the cellist is a buddy of yours, not because of your skill as a composer. Yes, you do also have to be a good composer—but there are a lot of good composers out there, so people tend to work with their friends. While there are exceptions to this pattern, most of your post-20s opportunities will stem from the personal relationships you make.

When I was in grad school at UCSD, I got my fair share of those young composer commissions and prizes. Also, as a Canadian I didn’t expect to stay in the US long term, so while I did of course make friends at school, my priorities were always elsewhere. Well, here I am in San Francisco almost ten years later, married to an American. Yet few of my professional connections today stem from grad school, probably because my peers could tell I wasn’t fully invested in the community. And for all the effort, Gaudeamus and MATA and the prizes I won never created any lasting opportunities. In retrospect, back then I probably should have spent less time sending out applications and more time just hanging out with people.

A lot of your peers will stop composing

Look around: how many of the composers that you know are in their 20s? Then think about how many you know in their 30s. It’s a smaller number. Move up to 40s and it shrinks again. With each passing decade, there are fewer people who continue to compose. It’s a hard lifestyle, opportunities are not always forthcoming, and faced with the task of toiling in poverty versus getting an office job that actually pays, many people eventually choose the latter.

You need to keep proving yourself

I’m a recluse by nature—I’ve always dreaded schmoozing and networking, or really most types of group-based social activity. But in my 20s, I expected that if I stuck it out for a while, eventually my reputation would make it less necessary to do that stuff and that opportunities would come my way with increasing ease. Turns out that’s not the case. You need to make more of an effort as time goes on, not less, due to a confluence of the factors described above.

At some point in your life, while you’re busy being a young composer, you’ll suddenly realize that an active cohort of younger young composers has sprung up after you. They will be largely unaware of what you were doing in your 20s, because they were teenagers then. And just as you did before them, they’ll be busy basking in the cult of youth and hanging out in an echo chamber of people mostly their own age.

Of course, this happens at the exact same moment the more established musicians have forgotten your young composer successes—there’s a new group of up-and-comers to attend to, after all. You’ll also have fewer colleagues your own age to turn to, because of the people-dropping-out-of-music thing.

The end result is that you have to keep proving yourself, just like you did in your 20s, getting to know the younger cohort and solidifying your ties with your remaining peers and the musicians who came before you. Except now, you also need to create all of the opportunities yourself. There are no prizes or festivals or required recitals to rely on. You have to form an ensemble, or put on concerts, or pitch ideas to the groups your friends run, or otherwise use your personal network to find ways to create music.

You achieve greater success by helping others succeed

Design your activities so that they help others achieve their goals as well.

Which brings us to the next point. When you pursue projects that are exclusively about your own glory, you will have to do everything yourself and pay full price for services. People will play your gigs, but since they’re not invested in your success, it’ll just be another gig for them.

In contrast, if you design your activities so that they help others achieve their goals as well, they will want to help you succeed. You will find that you have a network of people eager to assist you with the things you care most about, and you’ll be able to mount your projects with greater ease than you could have on your own.

Making money and making music are unrelated questions

There are a lot of ways to earn a living, just as there are a lot of ways to compose music. You can follow the academic path. You can teach privately. You can conduct or take gigs as a performer. You can do a job outside of music, or as an arts administrator. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll start an ensemble that taps into big philanthropic dollars.

There will be some overlap between the money aspect and the composing aspect, but the connection will never really be as strong as you want it to be. In my 20s, I was fairly successful as a grant writer and freelancer. I assumed that this success would continue to expand, both in terms of volume of commissions and remuneration.

What I discovered, however, is that there is an upper bound. There are only so many funders, and you can only write so much music. Therefore, as your financial needs increase—and they will, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can live like a college student indefinitely—you need to find other income streams. My income from grant writing and commissions has stayed fairly steady over the past decade, but it has become a smaller proportion of my total income.

You have to work from a place of strength

Andrew Solomon perhaps put this most poetically in his Advice for Young Writers: “To know more is simply a matter of industry; to accept what you will never know is trickier.”

When you’re young, there’s the tendency to want to do everything, learn as much as possible, conquer all challenges. I used to drill and drill and drill on ear training exercises, because as a percussionist, I felt like I had to “catch up” to the composers who grew up playing strings or singing and had an amazing sense of pitch.

I did get a lot better, but I don’t play pitched instruments every day, so those skills are just never going to be as good as someone who does, even if I did have the time to keep up the ear training drills.

So I compose from my strengths and interests, accepting that there are things others will do better than me and that there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve got the right skills for the music I want to write, and that’s what counts.

Focus on the types of activities that you’re good at and enjoy.

This principle likewise applies to the more career-centered aspects of composing. You need to focus on the types of support activities that you’re good at and enjoy, whether that means grant writing, running an ensemble, freelancing as a sound engineer, etcetera. The reason I’m sitting here writing this article is because I like to write, I’ve gotten decently good at it, and I’ve attracted a respectable audience over the years. If those things weren’t true, I would be doing something else instead.

In this respect, composers are best served by standard career planning advice, with the exception that you’re most likely to find a hodgepodge of workable if imperfect compromises as opposed to the single, Goldilocksian solution a vocational counselor might prefer.

Career counseling

You need collaborators

Find people in your life who can support your weaknesses.

Because you’re working from a place of strength and can’t do everything yourself, you need find people in your life who can support your weaknesses. This arrangement could be formal or informal. A lot of great people throughout history have had spouses or patrons that have kept them afloat, both financially or just in terms of keeping their shit together. Some composers start collectives or ensembles, or they work with dance companies or otherwise find a team of people to support them. Note that this doesn’t have to be an egotistical, “taker” kind of arrangement. In fact, it’s usually more successful if it’s reciprocal. But you need to find your complements and work with them.

You won’t go to all the concerts anymore

It’s Friday afternoon and you’ve been (working/teaching/grant writing/rehearsing) all week, haven’t seen your (spouse/kids) for more than a few minutes a day all week, had a (board meeting/fundraiser/computer meltdown) last night and have (no groceries/a piece due next week/relatives coming over tomorrow). There is a new music concert tonight featuring amazing players that you love, but they’re playing Boulez (or whoever) and you’ve just never really been that into Boulez. You will skip the concert to watch Netflix and have a beer, guilt-free. Otherwise you’ll soon burn out on all concert going, and if you don’t enjoy concerts, it’s pretty hard to stay motivated to compose. I suspect that going to boring concerts is the #2 reason why people stop composing. (#1 is, of course, the money.)

Your best artistic days are ahead of you

This article by Irish/South African composer Kevin Volans caused quite a stir recently, and there’s a lot in it I disagree with. But one thing he said that is undoubtedly true is that people become better composers over time.

Young composers, on the whole, write conservative music that lacks depth and personality. There are Mozartian exceptions, but even the best young composers tend to get better with age. You’ll write better music in your 30s, even though you’ll likely get less recognition for it, seeing as you’re not a “young composer” anymore.

You have to be O.K. with a lack of feedback

Chances are you’re no longer in a structured environment like school or the young composers summer circuit, so you won’t get a lot of feedback on your work, except for reviews of your performances here and there, or complaints from your parents who wonder, “Why can’t you just write a pretty melody for once?” (Full disclosure: my parents are actually super cool and really supportive.) You have to be O.K. with not having anyone comment on your music most of the time.

This is an especially composerly issue. Playwrights tend to work with dramaturges for this very reason, professional singers often have coaches, and there are many other parallels across the arts. But it’s hard for composers to find this kind of collaborator. It’s just going to be you most of the time.

You’ll probably be a much faster composer

The reasons why you write music will become clearer. (If they don’t, you’ll probably stop composing.) When you know the why, and you have more practice with the how, the act of composing speeds up quite a bit. That doesn’t mean you’ll never get stuck, just that the average number of hours you need to put in to create a given amount of quality music will go down.

That will give you time for other things, like hobbies or volunteering or having kids—whatever. Take advantage of those possibilities. They’ll lead to a richer life, and the best art always stems from lived experience.


Aaron Gervais-TracyWong

Aaron Gervais
Photo by Tracy Wong

Aaron Gervais is a freelance composer based in San Francisco. He draws upon humor, quotation, pop culture, and found materials to create work that spans the gamut from somber to slapstick, and his music has been performed across North America and Europe by leading ensembles and festivals. Check out his music and more of his writing at

Why Pastiche Has Taken Over Music


“Mashups of the Mona Lisa” created by Dave Winer, via Flickr CC

The predominant ideology in composition today, across all genres, is rooted in pastiche. Most composers in the new music community aren’t consciously thinking about this, but we’re involved all the same. I mean, just look at the names: new complexity, neo-romanticism, post-minimalism—three of the broadest trends in contemporary music, all with echoes of pastiche baked right into their labels. Of course not everyone is writing “in the style of” or explicitly quoting other pieces, but the desire to build perceptible bridges between musical traditions is nearly universal.

And it’s not just in classical composition. Virtually all of the most celebrated new art of our time, across genres and disciplines, whether high art or populist entertainment, relies to some extent on pastiche. You will find a healthy serving of the stuff in everything from the music of Jennifer Higdon to Nico Muhly to Thomas Adès, not to mention Taylor Swift, the Star Wars movies, and the memes in your Facebook feed. Pastiche clearly strikes a chord with the cultural zeitgeist of the moment.

Now before we get any further, pastiche is a broad term and there’s certainly disagreement on what it should mean. I’m most interested in the sense of “appropriation designed to be recognizable.” That is the type of pastiche that has taken over art, with an emphasis on “recognizable.” Clearly artists have always taken ideas and materials from other sources—how could we not?—but never before have we so celebrated the attribution of those sources.

In previous decades, society’s archetype of a great artist was the solitary genius who creates strikingly original work (supposedly) out of thin air. To expose one’s sources was frowned upon, because it gave the lie to the myth. Today, society seems to have the exact opposite set of priorities: art that borrows liberally and obviously from other sources generates the most praise.

Christina's world meets UFO

Image created by AK Rockefeller, via Flickr CC

A changing of the ideological guard

What we’re witnessing is essentially an ideological shift. Music critic and composer Kyle Gann got me thinking about this with the accidentally incendiary update he posted to his blog in late 2015. In it, he complains that young composers today produce nothing but tepid, middle-of-the-road work devoid of ideological backbone. It’s just “kids these days” nonsense, but he does manage to demonstrate just how far society’s priorities have mutated.

All artistic ideologies (or at least those that make an impact) arise as a response to the values of a society. Consider, for example, the rise of serialism (as a way of understanding music, not just as a compositional technique). Although today serialism is often associated with rigidity, its success stemmed from its flexibility, from the many ways it resonated with the concerns of Cold War-era composers. It was, among many things, a reaction against fascism, a reflection of democratic ideals, an outgrowth of 20th-century scientific optimism, and a way to professionalize music and bring it into academia.

During its heyday, serialism and its ideological relatives allowed composers to create music that harmonized with their views of the world and how they saw themselves within it. But the world is always changing, and the ideals of serialism eventually became disconnected from the concerns of a majority of composers. Slowly, gradually, other ways of understanding music took over in a messy, overlapping process that is hard to see in action but that becomes visible in hindsight.

It’s important not to oversimplify this narrative: serialism was never the only game in town; it was always one strand within the larger modernist project, which in turn faced competition first from traditionalist and neo-classical ideas, then from postmodern philosophies as well as paradigms arising from jazz, folk, rock, and other popular genres.

So just as we can’t pinpoint the exact moment that serialism lost its dominance in new music, or bebop in jazz, et cetera, et cetera, it’s hard to say exactly when pastiche became king (as a way of understanding art, not just as a technique). But king it is, and to an extent rarely seen for past ideologies. Its dominance holds true across an extremely wide swath of art making, from the most commercial Hollywood movie to the edgiest new music concert.

On the makings of a blockbuster

Let’s start with film, since the rise of pastiche is especially visible there. One of the most straightforward tests is to look at whether the top-grossing film of each year is an original story or relies on references to past work, then compare the relative numbers of “original” vs. “derivative” films over time. This should tell us something about broad societal preferences.

To simplify things, let’s look at sequels and remakes, which by definition fall into the “derivative” category and can be spotted without doing too much cinematic background research. Yes, you could reasonably argue those don’t count as true pastiches, but they do undoubtedly fall within an ideology of pastiche—a pastichism—where people prize references to past art over original artistic expression. Sequels in particular are telling, because Hollywood’s decision to continue investing in a pre-existing storyline, as opposed to striking out with something new and fresh, is a good barometer of our collective appetite for derivativeness.

Commercial film has always been a derivative format, so we would expect to see a certain baseline number of sequels, remakes, and dyed-in-the-wool pastiches. However, we see a virtual takeover starting in 1999. In the 17 years since then, only one of the #1 blockbusters, Avatar, has not fallen into the sequel or remake category. And of that exception, Avatar director James Cameron has described the film as a pastiche of sci-fi stories he read as a kid.

By contrast, if you look at the previous 17-year span, there were only 6 remakes or sequels. Everything else was original drama. And the trend holds true no matter how you slice the data. Look at the decadal average from 1965 to 2015, and we see more or less equal numbers of original vs. derivative top-grossers, with a slight uptick in originals in the 1980s. If you look in 15-year increments, it’s even more clear. At the turn of the millennium, boom, everything changes.


So is pastiche just a corporate marketing ploy?

I doubt it. Marketers in the commercial arts sector have certainly picked up on our newfound obsession with pastiche, but they didn’t create it. Why would they bother? Commercial art marketing isn’t about artistic expression, it’s about the path of least resistance to your wallet. There was no clear trend toward pastiche in previous decades (in fact, the ‘80s saw a trend toward original work, at least in film), and especially given the powerful analytical tools provided by online streaming, it’s never been easier for the commercial arts to follow rather than lead.

Turning to pop music, this is exactly what we see. The major labels invest a lot of money into streaming data analysis, looking for the next big hit or rising indie band. In interviews, major label execs speak to a strong listener preference for pastiche. All of the most popular stuff is derivative-sounding music that combines elements from other well-known sources, whether in the form of genre fusions like “country rap” or stylistic tributes like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”

Most listeners today are not that adventurous: they like music that sounds familiar. But perhaps more shocking: most listeners are less adventurous than even the record execs used to believe. Prior to the streaming data era, Top 40 radio played twice as many unique songs per day. The commercial music industry has reduced the variety in its radio rotations as a response to online streaming data.

That’s certainly not the story of payola-style boosterism foisting ever more crappy music upon us. It’s the story of a listening public that wants to hear the same thing repackaged over and over again with slight variation. Of course, none of this is to say that people can’t appreciate unfamiliar music given the right context, but our default preferences have moved more strongly than ever toward pastiche.

Spotting pastichism in art music

An ideology of pastiche is equally present in new music, although often in more subtle forms than we see in Top 40. Nevertheless, “appropriation designed to be recognizable” is a visible trend for a wide stylistic range of composers, in contrast to Stockhausen’s “always waiting until I’ve found something that I had never imagined before” or Lachenmann’s “rigidly constructed denial.” I present for your consideration a few choice excerpts from music reviews:

[Jason Eckardt’s] piece ‘After Serra,’ a musical response to the sculpture of Richard Serra, moves toward a reconciliation of uptown and downtown. — Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe

Fausto Romitelli’s 2001 “Amok Koma”… Rock elements merge with the timbrally sweeping tactics of the French “spectral” style, to coolly entrancing ends. — Josef Woodard, Los Angeles Times

Stylistically, the Philadelphia-based [Jennifer] Higdon comes down firmly on the side of tonalists, but she also knows her way around a spiky dissonance. Reminders of many a 20th-century composer may float to the surface of the concerto from time to time… — Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

[Nicole Lizée’s] “This Will Not Be Televised,” is a work for turntablist and chamber orchestra… fragments of old recordings are scratched and pitch-shifted, leading the acoustic ensemble on a merry chase through a fractured but brightly colored soundscape… — John Schaefer, eMusic record review

Mohammed Fairouz’s “The Named Angels” is a smooth cocktail of Middle Eastern dance tunes and film-noirish Minimalism. Ken Ueno’s “Peradam” offers a heady brew of harmonies flickering with microtones, harmonics and vocalizations that draws heavily on the individual talents of the versatile Del Sol [Quartet] players, which in the case of the violist Charlton Lee includes eerily accomplished samples of Tuvan throat singing. — Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times

I could go on and on. Recognizable appropriation is everywhere in new music; the only question is which materials we’re combining.

The death of originality?

To be clear, I certainly don’t think any of this means we are less creative than previous generations of composers. Pastiche sometimes carries pejorative connotations, but those stem from another time when the ideology of “hide your sources” was still dominant. Today’s “attribution designed to be recognizable” is a source of tremendous originality.

To my ears, one of the greatest modern practitioners of this new pastichism is British composer Richard Ayres. Consider, for example, his No. 35 (Overture) for two pianos, euphonium, and timpani, which flits rapidly between a wide range of stylistic references, oversized gestures, and extended techniques:

Ayres’s music is often funny, but it is also strikingly earnest and devoid of irony. His is a complex, nuanced oeuvre: some of it is very intimate and fragile, some bombastic and silly, almost all of it unafraid to show its seams, much of it uncomfortably at odds with modernist aesthetics. And most importantly for our purposes, there is nothing else that sounds like Ayres. He’s one of the most distinctive voices in composition today.

In my own work, I’ve found pastiche-inspired thinking to be a conduit for creativity. It focuses the development of the piece, and it provides an “in” for the audience: a baseline of understanding that helps them relate to the artistic project on its own terms. Sometimes the appropriation itself serves as the main focus of the development, but it doesn’t have to; sometimes it’s just a supporting character that connects the dots.

My Concerto for Mozart Piano Videos falls at one extreme, where appropriation sits center stage. It is a pastiche of concerto form structural elements, Mozart piano music, and the experience of listening to music on YouTube. In preparing the piece, I took Creative Commons–licensed videos of amateur pianists playing Mozart, chopped them into short clips, and mapped a clip to each note of the standard piano range. I then wrote a concerto for orchestra and keyboard soloist that uses this audio-video sampler as the solo instrument. The result is a whirlwind of recontextualized associations, all pivoting around rubato piano figures.

A piece like Who Made the Inch of Grass (piano and erhu), on the other hand, shows the “supporting role” side of appropriation. Given the way the erhu is built, there’s a danger that you just end up writing a violin part that gets played on an erhu, instead of actually writing for the erhu. I didn’t want that; I wanted the music to be idiomatic to the erhu in a way that was also non-idiomatic to the violin. So I focused on the erhu’s tradition of ornamentation, which includes various types of vibrati and glissandi not typical for violin. Nothing else in the piece is borrowed, and the musical development doesn’t specifically reference other artists or styles. However, the ornamentation of the erhu part is taken from the instrument’s traditional repertoire.

In both cases, pastichism led me to new and fulfilling types of musical development I might not have considered otherwise. It also seems to stand out for audiences. Despite the very different approaches to appropriation above, listeners of those two pieces (and others relying on pastichism) have predominantly shared reactions that stem from pastiche thinking. For the concerto, people speak (not surprisingly) about the novelty of the setup but also about how the Mozart source material was completely transformed in their minds. For the erhu piece, people remark on how the instrument seems to fit so naturally within the context of a piano duet, despite its non-Western heritage.

Why is this happening?

Until recently, I hadn’t thought of framing my work or that of my peers in terms of pastiche, but now that I have, I see it everywhere. Which of course raises the question: why is this happening? Broad societal trends are invariably complex, so I won’t pretend to have any kind of a comprehensive answer, but here are a few preliminary theories:

Access. Information technology has given us instant access to more music of more diverse types than at any point in history. As we’ve seen above, this hasn’t translated into broader musical palettes for the majority of listeners, but it has for those of us who really care about sound, like composers. It makes sense then that we would draw upon this diverse cultural history to inform our work.

Noise. Music is everywhere; it’s virtually inescapable in everyday life. That makes the experience of hearing music less special. Nobody today would throw things and boo like they did at the premiere of The Rite of Spring. The bigger problem is that people simply don’t notice music washing over them; everything unfamiliar simply becomes so much noise. And composers aren’t immune. As a reaction to this collective numbing, we are increasingly attracted to the use of familiar elements that can cut through the indifference and serve as a sort of Trojan horse for our artistic ideas.

Biology. There are limits to what the ear can hear and the mind can process. As I’ve written previously, this puts an expiry date on experimentalism in music. We have long since passed the point where composers and instrument-builders could come up with sounds never before heard. Technologies like Max/MSP will continue to improve, performers will gain better fluency with extended techniques, but the sounds of 100 years from now will not be unrecognizable to us in the way the sounds of today would have been 100 years ago. It’s impossible. We’ve already heard all the sounds the human ear can hear. All there is left to do is combine them in new ways.

Plurality. Despite the Donald Trumps of the world, we are—on the whole—much more accepting of the perspectives of others than we were in decades past. It is not socially acceptable to be openly racist or sexist, nor to privilege the Western canon over other musical traditions. As a result, our composing becomes more self-conscious and seeks on some level to be respectful of other traditions, often by giving them attention in our creative thought.

Nostalgia. Perhaps due to a combination of the above, nostalgia is very popular right now. While traveling recently for a performance, I crashed at a friend’s place. He was excited to show me his collection of ‘80s cartoon VHS tapes, valuable because of their kitsch appeal and the obsolescence of the media format. Similarly, the resurgent popularity of vinyl is tied to a nostalgia for a time where you couldn’t access all the world’s music instantly and had to make conscious choices about what you were going to listen to.

DJ Culture. We’ve had at least a couple of decades to get comfortable with the idea that musicians who combine the recordings of other musicians in novel ways are in fact creative artists in their own right. Beyond that, social media memes and other online collage genres have made the act of creative appropriation a common cultural experience. Perhaps these developments make us more receptive to the idea that there are valid artistic paths outside of the 20th-century “hide your sources” mentality.

Who knows whether the current attribution trend will end up being a historical blip or the beginning of a long-lasting aesthetic shift. Regardless, its cross- and intra-disciplinary pervasiveness suggests that we’ve made a definitive break with the ideologies of the 20th century. I don’t think we can “go back” to the values of modernism and “hide your sources” any more than the traditionalists of the 20th century could go back to the world of 19th-century Romanticism.

Half a century ago, Marcel Duchamp stated: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution.” Today, we’ve taken that philosophy a step further by blurring the lines between spectator and artist, transforming the act of spectatorship into a fundamental part of the artistic process.


Aaron Gervais

Aaron Gervais
Photo by Tracy Wong

Aaron Gervais is a freelance composer based in San Francisco. He draws upon humor, quotation, pop culture, and found materials to create work that spans the gamut from somber to slapstick, and his music has been performed across North America and Europe by leading ensembles and festivals. Check out his music and more of his writing at

Are Unions Relevant to New Music?

Musicians at peaceful demonstration on Union Square, New York

Source: iStockphoto

Virtually all the new music musicians I know are left-leaning and pro-labor, yet much of the new music field is non-unionized. Why is that? The AFM and other unions play a significant role in the realm of larger, more traditional music making—orchestras, musicals, film recording, opera, et cetera—but they are far less visible when it comes to performances of new music. In the Bay Area, where I live, AFM local 6 lists only one new music presenter with a collective bargaining agreement.

Size is probably part of the equation, since a handful of orchestras is easier to unionize than the ever-shifting ecosystem of small chamber ensembles more typical in new music. But it goes beyond that. The AFM certainly represents chamber musicians, and it has initiatives designed specifically for smaller groups, such as its Fair Trade Music program. Yet most of the new music musicians I interviewed for this piece held a dim view of the musicians’ union, and many had experienced hostility from their AFM locals.

Clearly something is pushing us apart, and I think it boils down to conflicting agendas. Any union’s top priorities revolve around securing decent wages and working conditions for its members. Those are, without question, important considerations for musicians in any genre. But new music practitioners also have a third priority: advancing the cause. Nobody just happens to fall into new music because of all the great gigs that came their way. We choose new music despite the fact that it’s a hard slog, because we want to champion the art form. So when push comes to shove—and new technologies have created a lot of shove—we sacrifice pay or benefits.

I’d very much like to see more music unionization; both in our genre and across the board. Musicians of all stripes are facing strong downward wage pressure, and a lack of collective action is only making things worse. But for the AFM to win over the new music community, the realities of why we make music will need to be better accommodated.

What makes an occupation unionizable?

To better understand our situation, it’s useful to look at where unions enjoy the greatest successes. Most union-friendly occupations have the following characteristics:

  • Clearly defined roles
  • Static employer–employee relationships
  • Proven business models
Fast food workers strike

Fast food workers strike in Richmond, Virginia
Photo by Bernard Pollack, via Flickr

That’s why coal miners, fast-food workers, teachers, sanitation personnel, home health aides, and orchestra musicians are good candidates for unionization. If you’re a garbage truck driver, you’re unlikely to show up one day and find yourself designing a new waste treatment facility. Similarly, if you’re the principal bassoonist in an orchestra, your job is not likely to involve playing the viola part or planning the marketing strategy for the next concert season.

Now consider a profession like dentistry. Most dentists are not unionized, and that’s because the majority are self-employed or work as associates in small practices. Professional lobbies like the American Dental Association are a better fit for their needs, which typically revolve around regulatory overhaul and dealing with the insurance market more so than collective bargaining.

Still, there’s nothing intrinsic about dentistry that precludes unionization. If the growth of multi-office, corporate dentistry continues, we might expect to see more collective bargaining in that field. After all, dentists have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and the business model doesn’t change dramatically from dentist to dentist—everyone basically has the same teeth. The only missing element is an employer with multiple dentist employees. Look at the parallel world of the hospital, where healthcare personnel are increasingly classified as employees. There you’ll find increasing unionization, in contrast to the general anti-union trend in American society.

Like dentistry, music affords us many possible working arrangements. That’s why it’s not enough to say a violinist is a violinist, so you should all join the union. If you’re playing for a Broadway musical, then yeah, it makes sense: fighting for a union contract will be good for you and for all future pit musicians. But if your grad school buddy asks you to join a fledgling ensemble dedicated to promoting new music for harpsichord…well, the choice isn’t so obvious.

The “sharing economy” of new music

Musical employment tends to be piecemeal, but especially so in new music: multiple part-time ensemble gigs, some teaching, perhaps grant writing or administrative/logistical support, another music gig that’s less inspiring but pays better, and so on. Musicians often collaborate with each other on different projects, sometimes swapping roles depending on who’s leading.

Zoom in on any one new music ensemble and it might resemble a traditional employer–employee setup, but that’s misleading. If Suzie plays in Johnny’s string quartet, Johnny plays in Frederica’s Pierrot ensemble, and Frederica and Johnny both regularly perform solo sets on Suzie’s recital series, can anyone really be said to be the employer? It’s better to think of these musicians as colleagues who collaborate on whatever opportunities present themselves.

In this sense, the production of new music resembles “sharing economy” businesses like Uber and AirBnB more than it does the employer–employee world of the symphony. More specifically:

  • A need isn’t being well provided by existing institutions
  • There are people with the expertise, resources, and time to fill that need
  • The need can be filled without necessarily making it into a full-time job

Let’s compare our hypothetical harpsichord ensemble to Uber:

Uber vs Ensemble

One major difference, of course, is that Uber and AirBnB have become wildly successful on a commercial level—enough that they cause negative ripple effects. The City of San Francisco is opening an Office of Short Term Rental Administration and Enforcement to deal with the shady landlords who evict tenants to rent apartments on AirBnB. Uber is facing a class-action lawsuit as to whether its drivers should be considered employees or contractors.

It’s worth remembering, however, that those negative effects are problems of scale, not design. There’s nothing inherently evil about renting out that extra room in your apartment to a backpacking college student. It’s only when the AirBnB market gets big enough to push tenants out of their apartments that we have a problem.

We would do well to think about unionization in new music along similar lines. There may come a point when your new music ensemble becomes successful enough that it would be unethical to oppose unionization. But in the scrappy, small-scale production environment more typical of our genre, you’re not really dealing with the traditional employer–employee model of the union. It’s more like a fluid group of like-minded professionals, or an employee-owned worker cooperative.

For the love of money

None of this is to imply that, hey, you should always take the gig, because new music! There are plenty of poorly run and exploitative organizations that build their successes on the backs of overly accommodating musicians. While researching this article, I interviewed Bruce Fife, president of AFM local 99 in Portland. He had this story to share:

“…major nonprofit in Portland, advertising for live music, told musicians that as a nonprofit, they couldn’t afford to pay. As is usual, they said it would be great exposure for the musicians. This, from a nonprofit that did over $20 million in revenue, $2 million in net profits in FY14, and has $39 million in net assets.”

But on the flip side, there are also a lot of talented people out there with great ideas but little financial backing, especially among early-career, emerging musicians. The standard AFM shtick is that collective action gives musicians increased leverage against employers—which is true. A union contract would be extremely beneficial when dealing with an organization like the nonprofit Bruce described. But not every gig is like that. What happens in the more typical new music scenario where the role of employer is essentially honorific?

If we insist that every self-producing ensemble or upstart music festival provide a full union ride, it means only organizations with pre-existing financial support will be able to produce anything. True, the AFM does sometimes grant exceptions for specific use cases, but the application process is bureaucratic and requires a new petition for each project. That’s not the best use of time for emerging musicians trying to hustle together something amazing with limited resources and bandwidth. And what if your local decides not to grant your exception, or doesn’t respond in time for your production?

In actual practice, emerging musicians with an interest in new music quickly learn that the AFM has little to offer them. If they played by the union rules, there would be precious few opportunities for them to work in our genre. While they aspire to a level of career success that would command union rates, they’re not willing to stop making the music that matters to them in order to get there. Yet somehow this basic fact gets lost in recruitment appeals from the AFM.

Collective action: you’re doing it wrong

collective action megaphone

Photo by Molly Sheridan

A couple years ago, Tom Olcott of local 802 wrote a piece calling out several New York new music ensembles for not being unionized. He also listed several union members in good standing as counterexamples, including the New York Pops and the Mostly Mozart Festival. Unfortunately, his argument was apples to oranges in the extreme. Orchestral pops and the music of Mozart—these are widely known and artistically conservative genres. They appeal to a broad audience, with a market that was established long before either of those presenters came onto the scene. So while the repertoire undoubtedly has value, I’m pretty sure no one plays in the New York Pops because they feel that Rodgers and Hammerstein are underappreciated by society.

New music, on the other hand, is basically evangelical: we’re hooked on the thrill of new, unorthodox repertoire, so we toil to build awareness and expand audiences for living composers, to push the boundaries of musical experience, to make art that might someday, if we’re lucky, add something new and unique to the cultural heritage of humanity. But there’s no pre-existing market for the unknown and the unproven—by definition. So unless the American political climate becomes much more supportive of state-sponsored arts funding, new music organizations will have to continue operating on shoestring budgets, below union standards. They have no other choice.

The kind of musicians who gravitate toward new music will always choose love of the repertoire over financial considerations. But that doesn’t mean new music is anti-union. Comments like the following were typical among the musicians I interviewed for this piece:

“Organized labor is the reason that music is where it is.”
“We are 100% in support of an organized labor system that can accommodate our reality.”
“I try really hard to pay as close as I can to AFM standards.”
“Union scale is a benchmark that we quote to all presenters.”

Nor is the AFM completely unsympathetic. In my interview with Bruce Fife, I asked what he thought a group of young composers with a limited budget should do if they wanted to throw together an ad-hoc ensemble to perform or record some of their pieces:

“Anybody can approach their local board or the IEB to request waivers or considerations or promulgated agreements to make those kinds of things work so they accomplish what the goal is….To me it’s always about what’s going to happen to that music, how is it going to be utilized, and are the musicians being fairly compensated for the use.”

I think this emphasis on usage is probably the best way to bridge the gap between traditional union mandates and the needs of the new music community. Bruce described how a similarly “sideways” approach worked in Seattle, where that city’s local fought for better loading zone access at nightclubs instead of focusing solely on wage considerations.

The AFM will get more sympathy from new music if it concentrates on helping musicians and presenters develop practical usage agreements that meet the needs of all participants, instead of insisting on pension contributions, minimum scale, and secondary market considerations more applicable to the film industry. Not that wages and re-use fees aren’t important, but downward price pressure in music is a complicated and pervasive issue. When even star economist Paul Krugman admits to being confounded by the economics of music, we’re unlikely to solve the problem by towing the traditional party line.

There is a lot of useful work that can be done to strengthen the standing of musicians outside of the wage issue. This in turn will bring more musicians into the union fold and give the AFM greater lobbying clout to tackle the big economic trends. But nothing’s going to happen so long as young musicians entering new music see the AFM as an institution that is incompatible with their aspirations.

Potential solutions

Here are two ideas that would immediately improve this situation. First, I propose that the AFM abolish scale and simply provide average and median fees paid for similar engagements, in similar genres and markets, over the past five years.

The problem with something like a minimum scale is that it can be twisted into a glass ceiling. No matter how high or low you set the rate, music presenters without a collective bargaining agreement can use it as a justification to pay something lower: “Well, we’d really like to pay that rate and we’re trying hard to get there, but the economy blah blah blah, so right now the best we can do is X.”

By providing averages instead of scales, the AFM would torpedo this sleezeball approach. Employers would have to justify their offers based on what others are actually paying, giving musicians much firmer ground to stand on than some bleeding-heart appeal to fairness. “You should be paying union scale, because that’s the right thing to do” becomes “Why would I work for you at half the rate those other venues are paying?”

My second suggestion is that the AFM create genre-specific, graduated paths toward full union compliance. At some point, all musical employers of a certain size should be providing decent wages, pensions, and benefits; it’s just not always feasible for a new organization on a shoestring budget. So instead of forcing emerging musical employers to work outside the union fold until they can afford full participation, start looking at what musical organizations of a similar scope are doing, then develop best practices and a roadmap for growth. As long as the employer stays within the bounds of what’s acceptable given its mandate and stage of development, it would get the stamp of compliance from the union.

There would be a path for a string quartet playing new music, and a different path for one playing wedding gigs; a blueprint for a regional pops orchestra, and one for a film scoring orchestra. And naturally, the requirements for each group would change over time. In the beginning of an organization’s existence, obligations would be few and benefits would be many. As the organization grows, financially and otherwise, more stringent requirements would kick in. The new music ensemble that tours internationally and has steady operational funding should absolutely be held to a higher standard than a self-funded group that is putting on its first show. If the successful group can’t provide the types of benefits and support that similar groups are providing, it should rightly get heat from the union.

Naturally, there are details to work out before either of these suggestions could be put into practice, but they’re not insurmountable. I know we can do better than a system where an entire class of pro-labor musicians feel that the musician’s union doesn’t apply to their careers. None of my ideas are all that radical, nor are they meant to be a rigid, unchanging formula for all time. I’m just trying to get the ball rolling, because I want new music to have as many allies as possible. What a shame that the AFM isn’t among the most important.


Aaron Gervais

Aaron Gervais
Photo by Tracy Wong

Aaron Gervais is a freelance composer based in San Francisco. He draws upon humor, quotation, pop culture, and found materials to create work that spans the gamut from somber to slapstick, and his music has been performed across North America and Europe by leading ensembles and festivals. Check out his music and more of his writing at

The Score Has Got You By the Short Hairs

By Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

By Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When you think about it, the concept of music notation is pretty weird. Imagine if Andy Warhol had received commissions not for paintings, but rather for paint-by-number templates, to be realized by each art interpreter on their own canvases. Of course, we all know why music developed a notation system, but a recent email exchange with French composer Sasha Zamler-Carhart reminded me of the importance of not taking our practices for granted. Assumptions are baked into every aspect of music notation, often layered one on top of the other, and they color the kinds of music we can make.

Any notation system is about trade-offs: certain elements are emphasized over others for the sake of not overwhelming our human minds with their finite capacity for detail. After all, you could theoretically employ waveform print-outs as music notation, but that’s way too much detail to be useful in most performance contexts. By necessity then, the priorities of your practice inform its notation. But as soon as your notation exists, it throws its priorities right back in your face and informs your practice, more or less to the same extent.

Make too many wrong assumptions about a notation and you’ll quickly dig yourself into a hole. On the performing end of the equation, you’ll totally miss the point when it comes to wide swaths of repertoire, delivering lackluster interpretations that fail to reflect either the composer’s intent or your expressive talents. As a composer, you’ll limit your sound world to a small set of symbols—as the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail—or conversely you’ll make it unnecessarily hard for performers to realize ideas that don’t fully fit the notation you’re using. So whether as performer or composer, you’ll have basically become the score’s whipping boy: conforming your music to the notation’s limitations instead of conforming the notation to your artistry.
New Music, Early Music


French composer Sasha Zamler-Carhart

French composer Sasha Zamler-Carhart

In our exchange, Zamler-Carhart told me about his compositional practice, the frustrations he had as a student, and how he came to find his voice as an artist. For him, the problem lay in the seemingly uncontroversial advice his teachers offered on how new music works in the “real world”:

  • You won’t get much rehearsal time
  • Make your scores as clear as possible so ensembles can play your pieces after a few readings
  • The best interpreters are technical virtuosi and perfect sight-readers

Yet Zamler-Carhart wasn’t satisfied with the results he was getting. Eclectic by temperament, he also studied early music, and in that genre he came across a set of practices that better resonated with his aesthetic:

  • Music is rehearsed and reworked “endlessly until it sounds beautiful”
  • If the music is worth performing, the time and effort required to realize the score are immaterial
  • The best interpreters are those who bring “flawless elegance” to their playing

Zamler-Carhart has taken these principles to heart, and they have informed his practice ever since. Consequently, he prefers not to “work with musicians unless they can give me a lot of time (I mean weeks and months, not hours).” Once in rehearsal, he refines his interpretations orally, teasing out nuances via performance practice instead of ultra-precise notation, and this allows him to have meaningful exchanges with interpreters who are not new music specialists.

In Zamler-Carhart’s thinking, this works because performers who deal primarily with the music of the past expect a “triangular” relationship between notation, interpreter, and performance practice. There is the assumption that some of the information required will not be in the score—not that anything goes, mind you, but rather that sources outside of the printed page are necessary. Zamler-Carhart simply leverages this set of expectations. In his words:

Many early music performers are not used to seeing lots of dynamic and articulation markings in a score. They expect those elements to be part of performance practice and to be conveyed in rehearsal. An over-specific score can discourage them and give them the impression that the music is more difficult than it really is. Once in rehearsal, however, they will probably accept any change in dynamics, articulation, timbre and even tempo as part of normal rehearsal information, and they will incorporate that into their performance.

Naturally, Zamler-Carhart’s approach has certain implications: when he chooses to rely on oral performance practice, he also de facto excludes the resulting piece from much of the new music mainstream. The American Composers Orchestra is unlikely to spend “weeks and months” rehearsing a single piece with a single composer, so if you want to write orchestral music, the “early music” model is not for you. But that doesn’t mean it has no value. Too often we assume that the standard notational model and the performance practice it entails is the only path (or at least the unquestionably superior path). This isn’t true, and when you look closer, you’ll find that it comes with its own trade-offs and restrictions.

Realizing this, Zamler-Carhart has successfully used a range of notations (and non-notations) for his pieces, from a one-line vocal staff with neumes to modernist graphic scores, and from (selective) traditional notation to orally transmitted music to be learned solely by ear. He has even changed notational systems mid-piece when appropriate. However, what he does notdo is turn the score into some kind of musical crossword puzzle: his choices are always based on the idea of making it as easy as possible to realize the musical vision at hand.

Excerpt from Zamler-Carhart’s oratorio Sponsus (2012)

Excerpt from Zamler-Carhart’s oratorio Sponsus (2012), using a single line and neumes. He explains, “The piece is in fact polyphonic, but the polyphony can be realized from a single line so there’s no need to notate each voice.” Posted with permission.

The Right Tool for the Job

Percussionist Steven Schick

Percussionist Steven Schick in performance.

When it comes to building a career, the best musicians navigate the biases inherent in music notation in one of two ways: either (1) they restrict themselves to repertoire that works with their notational preferences, or (2) they switch notations based on the task at hand.

Percussionist Steven Schick provides a great example of the second approach. Earlier in his professional life, regular recital tours and prodigious quantities of new repertoire were central to his practice. On one end of the spectrum, he earned a reputation for his masterful interpretations of famously complex pieces such as Brian Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet (written for Schick in 1991) and Xenakis’s Psappha. On the other, he served as percussionist for Bang on a Can, performing works by David Lang, Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen, and other composers of the minimalist or post-minimalist vein.

These repertoires are not notated in the same way—indeed, there is significant variation even within each. The score to Reich’s Drumming is traditional yet sparse, and the phasing for which the piece is famous is simply described in text. Bone Alphabet, alternately, takes Cold War–era notational specificity to its extreme, with articulations and dynamics in virtually every bar, nonstop nested tuplets, and constant meter changes. Psappha, on the other hand, eschews traditional notation entirely in favor of a series of grids and tablatures.

Over the last decade, Schick’s musical priorities have evolved and so have the notational practices employed. He now focuses on collaborative, large-scale projects developed in tandem with composers, directors, instrument builders, writers, and other artists over an extended period of time. Take Schick Machine, his collaboration with Paul Dresher. A one-man, concert-length theater piece scored largely for invented percussion instruments, Schick Machine tells the fantastical story of a “mad scientist” percussionist who tinkers with instruments in his garage. Schick moves across a stage cluttered with dozens of custom-made instruments, narrating and performing as he goes, often to humorous effect. At certain moments the storytelling dominates, while at others the narrative gives way to purely instrumental “numbers” that feature specific groupings of percussion instruments. There are no breaks in the piece and the performance lasts over an hour.

Notating a piece like Schick Machine poses clear logistical challenges. Of course, you could detail every movement, gesture, speech, and musical figure with diagrams and staff notation. But would such a score convey the priorities of the piece? If the goal were to create a piece that gets played on every high school percussion recital the world over, perhaps. But that’s not the point—I mean, just look at the title. The piece is meant for Schick alone; the score only needs to be precise enough for him to remember how to realize a performance. Thus, they didn’t bother with a traditional score. Schick explains:

The piece was derived from improvisations and is still pretty largely improvised. There is a script and a sort of standard performance video that we made at the Mondavi Center…I use them together in lieu of a score.

At best, going through the motions of Cold War notational practice would have been a waste of time and a distraction. At worst, it would have “downsampled” the artistry of the piece, flattening the nuance of the Dresher/Schick vision into a long and complex series of approximations. Now, I am by no means arguing that Schick has rejected traditional notation entirely—he is still more than willing to read a score written in the new music fashion. But it is a testament to his creative talents that he can shift gears when the music demands it, as it does for this piece. A lot of musicians, even at the highest level, can’t do that.
Breaking the Unwritten Rules

JACK Quartet

JACK Quartet. Photo by Henrik Olund.

Of course, you can have a successful music career focusing entirely on a single notational practice, whether new music specificity, early music ambiguity, structured improv, standard orchestral practice, or whatever. But you still need to understand the priorities of your notation. There are always unwritten rules, and there are consequences to violating them.

A few months ago, I saw a Facebook exchange between a handful of composers who are in the same graduate composition program together. One of them had written a piece that is played at a single dynamic level throughout. As such, he had simply written f at the start of each part and left it at that; there were no further dynamics and no cautionary indications. Of course, the first thing the performers asked in rehearsal was, “Where are the dynamics?” His response was a snotty, “At the start of the piece.” Technically, the composer was using traditional notation correctly, but new music practice requires more specificity than he provided. The interpreters knew that most contemporary scores have a lot of dynamic detail, so without a cautionary indication, it is entirely reasonable for them to assume there had been a printing error.

Performers can, of course, get along fine without dynamics, but you can’t just assume they’ll figure out what you want—you need to point them in the right direction. Zamler-Carhart did just this with his St. Francis String Quartets, written for the New York-based JACK Quartet. The scores have virtually no dynamics, articulations, or tempo marks. Not unexpectedly, the quartet was a bit surprised at first, but they were willing “to engage with the piece and understand the logic of why, for example, a passage would be soft or loud even if it doesn’t say so… even with a concert looming.” For Zamler-Carhart, the experience was fulfilling and “the challenge improved the quality of performance.”

These exceptional cases aside, some skill in interpreting unwritten conventions is required even for the most banal of notational practices. Take the tenuto. Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider posted this question on Facebook awhile ago:

Poll of performers/conductors/composers: when you see a tenuto mark (horizontal dash over a note) without a slur, do you think of it as a request to alter the dynamic or the duration? (And if you’re a performer, tell me which instrument you play.)

Her query inspired 62 responses and a spirited debate that was never resolved. Answers ranged from “a color change” to “emotional pressing” to shorter duration, longer duration, a slight dynamic accent, “more weight,” and many other contradictory statements. The fact of the matter is that you can never get a single, objectively right answer to this question, because the tenuto has evolved as a sort of open-ended placeholder, begging to be repurposed. The only thing you can really say is that it means that something in the music should change.

Stuck Inside the Box

Taking notational practice for granted can hold you back in important ways. When I was a composition student at UC San Diego, we had a residency with the Arditti Quartet, perhaps the foremost interpreters of modernist string quartet repertoire and its diaspora. But their virtuosity in that genre doesn’t mean they excel at everything else quartet-related.

During the course of the residency, Irvine Arditti made it fairly clear that he has (or had) certain blind spots when it comes to notational practice. In particular, he seems to have bought into the Cold War ideal that the score is the music, objectively and completely. On several occasions he responded to requests for a change in interpretation with, “We’re just playing what’s in the music,” implying that the quartet’s interpretation was correct and that the composer had made a mistake in notation.

Yet my fellow composers and I, debriefing over beers, couldn’t help but feel that something was missing, that there was a degree of one-dimensionality to their playing. One of my colleagues later had his piece performed at June in Buffalo by another quartet of less lofty reputation, and he vastly preferred that interpretation to the Arditti’s. The other quartet was willing to take the time to learn how his notation worked and how to interpret the musical ideas that underlay it. Consequently, they realized it more faithfully.
Irvine Arditti might counter that we had all just written shit pieces. (You can decide for yourself, at least for my piece; their rendition is embedded below.) At numerous points throughout the residency, he complained that there were no young composers doing anything interesting anymore: the best of their works were bad copies of Lachenmann, and the worst were just plain bad.

I don’t think that’s the problem. Rather, the issue is that Irvine Arditti acts as if there were only a single, objective notational practice. Since he refuses to interpret notation in any way other than the Lachenmann/Stockhausen/Xenakis model, is it any surprise he can’t find nuance in other types of scores? The young composers he calls derivative probably are—I don’t doubt he knows Germanic post-serialism like nobody’s business. But move outside of that comfort zone, and he loses the ability to assess other styles on their own terms. Anything he is not willing to decipher becomes “not well written” and anything he can decipher is by necessity derivative. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nor am I the only person to notice the effects of this blind spot on the Arditti Quartet’s interpretations. Their Beethoven renditions haven’t exactly met with critical acclaim, after all. Reviews like the following are typical:

…for most of the concert they seemed more concerned with just getting the notes together than with interpretation. This was especially, almost painfully, evident in the opening work, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in B-Flat Major, Op. 133. Beethoven, of course, is not exactly in the Arditti’s wheelhouse. But that’s still no excuse for iffy intonation, long stretches of uninflected dynamics, and questionable articulation.

If there were really only one objective way to use notation, this shouldn’t have been possible for a quartet of the technical caliber of the Arditti. Yet that’s what they served up. The Ardittis are perhaps the greatest string quartet interpreters of the Cold War modernist repertoire and its offshoots. Unfortunately, they are middling interpreters of everything else, because they assume all music works the same way.

Naturally, there are many successful paths between the Arditti Quartet and Zamler-Carhart’s ever-shifting notation. Nor am I advocating that everyone structure their careers like Steven Schick. But we as musicians in the classical tradition use notation pretty much all the time, and it’s worth reflecting on how that changes us. I don’t fault Irvine Arditti for liking the kind of music he likes, or for sticking to a single performance practice. But it is undeniable that his approach to notational practice has influenced his career.

Music notation is not the tabula rasa we pretend it to be. It is rather a tool for expressing specific kinds of sonic ideas, to specific kinds of people, for specific reasons. You don’t need a fancy graphic score or some kind of alternative tablature to completely transform the priorities of a notation, you just need a performance practice. If we ignore the unwritten aspects of notation, we’re likely to come away dissatisfied. If we keep them in mind, conversely, we’ll be more successful at creating music that speaks to us, whether as composers or performers.


Aaron Gervais

Aaron Gervais
Photo by Tracy Wong

Aaron Gervais is a freelance composer based in San Francisco. He draws upon humor, quotation, pop culture, and found materials to create work that spans the gamut from somber to slapstick, and his music has been performed across North America and Europe by leading ensembles and festivals. Check out his music and more of his writing at