Author: AdamSliwinski

& Sometimes, Music

The title of this post is borrowed from my friend and former band mate Doug Perkins. I heard him use it during a discussion surrounding our performance of Iannis Xenakis’s Pleiades a few years ago. Doug is idealistic. He was talking about Pleiades in the context of its unique qualities. So much rehearsal and setup time goes into putting on a huge piece like Pleiades; I spent months building new instruments for it. Why do we do it?

The work itself is awe-inspiring, but you wouldn’t necessarily find yourself humming it while walking down the street, or listening to it in the car. Rather than straining to argue for why Pleiades should compete with every other kind of music for attention at every moment of the day, Doug called it “sometimes music,” meaning that it’s okay to acknowledge that the music benefits from the context of a curated event with dedicated listeners, and to even highlight that fact.

So Percussion/Meehan Perkins Duo performing Metaux from Pleiades

What I love about the concept of “sometimes music” is that it sidesteps the thorny, problematic, and anachronistic implication that some musical styles are more advanced than others. It allows its advocates to encourage others to tune in, rather than to engage in tedious, insulting dialogues about which kind of music is up or down. We don’t have to believe in just one kind of music for every moment in our lives, and few of us actually do.

It also gives us a justification for going to extreme lengths in our dedication to the music we make and write. We call something “special” because we believe it is worthy of our time and energy, and we want it to have some kind of life.
This week, a YouTube clip caught my attention, courtesy of my colleague Ross Karre. It’s a performance of Milton Babbitt’s Composition for 12 Instruments, directed by the terrific violinist Erik Carlson.

I clicked on it to listen and continued to peruse Facebook. To be honest, I’ve never heard a piece by Babbitt that I’ve liked. It’s not that I don’t respect his work or his immense legacy; his music has just never caught my ear. As the track progressed, my focus gradually turned from perusing to real listening. There was a certain swagger and breathlessness to this recording. At times, I even felt a groove slither out of the dizzying pointillism.

And I liked it.

The piece was written in 1948, and I’m sure I’ve heard it before. The text itself has presumably not changed since it was revised in 1954. But it felt fresh and new during this listening.

For some reason, in this performance the music didn’t feel opaque to me. I wouldn’t say that it felt inevitable either, but I was strangely relaxed when listening to it, delighting in the interplay of instrumental colors. It feels like a bunch of really smart people constantly finishing each other’s sentences, or like watching one of those skits from the old Comedy Central reruns of Whose Line is it Anyway?

I’ve usually associated Babbitt’s music with an aura of intellectual austerity. But how much of that association is actually a direct result of the score, which has not changed in 60 years? I didn’t associate what I was hearing with that cold austerity at all. Could the studied effortlessness that the performers displayed been having a tangible effect on the way I perceived the music?
To me, this is “sometimes” music. Babbitt said as much in his infamous essay “Who Cares If You Listen,” which most of us know was not the title he intended. Finding a foothold in his work for the first time caused me to go back and reread that essay. Actually, in that article Babbitt allows for the possibility of writing “almost never” music.

“And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.”
I found myself not hating the essay nearly as much as I did as a young student. I sti

ll have personal arguments with many of the assumptions and labels that he uses (“serious,” “advanced,” etc) but I’ve long since settled those internal conflicts, so I focused more on other questions.

My younger self was unable to move past the sense that Babbitt was trying to establish hegemony of his aesthetics. The 34-year old me sees an artist who seems to be saying, “Why not? Why can’t I create something new, even if it is inaccessible to some? Why may I not have the freedom to make work that doesn’t conform to normal expectations of a creator/audience relationship?” Far from fearing hegemony, I actually agree that he or anybody else should have that option.

I’ve chosen a very social life in music. It gratifies me to find repertoire that engages and challenges people in equal parts. Listening to this performance made me question my notion of what that kind of music might be. There aren’t many days where I’m knocked off-balance like that.

It happens, sometimes.

An Expanding Paradigm

steel drums

Photo by Sasithon Pooviriyakul (2010)

When So Percussion started out, we had three prohibitions:  no improvisation, no playing our own music, and no hand drums. Initially, the impetus for these boundaries was an attempt to define ourselves as a hardcore new music group made up of virtuosi.  We’ve since violated all of those rules in spades, although we work hard to perpetuate that original mission.

It wasn’t that we didn’t respect these categories. Actually, we established the hand drum rule specifically because we had so much respect for expert players of congas, tabla, and djembe. We felt that there would be no reason for anybody to come out to hear us pretend to play instruments that other performers had so thoroughly mastered.

The restrictions on composing and improvising had a similar genesis: other musicians spent many years on these crafts, just as we hunkered down honing our chamber music skills. We had an urgent need and desire to be among the best at what we did.  I think these early rules were actually helpful, because we needed a lot of time to devote to chamber music with scores.  We were trying to build a new vocabulary of interaction, a way of listening and rehearsing that took years to dial in.

Eventually, as school days morphed into the beginnings of a professional career, these restrictions made less and less sense.  The hand drum rule fell away quickly, and it is this peculiar prohibition that sparked my thoughts for this article. Almost every instrument we play as percussionists is borrowed from another culture, so one has to either find a way forward in playing them that feels good, or else give up completely.  We came to believe that it’s largely a matter of taste, that the context in which they appear is paramount.

I asked my colleague Josh Quillen, who studied steel drums both in Trinidad and in the United States, how he grapples with including those instruments in So Percussion’s music. His reply:

I rarely reference my cultural knowledge of Trinidad when playing steel drums within So Percussion. It actually helps me to avoid any baggage in that context (and mainly assumptions put on the instrument by others) and to help push me past what I know about the instrument.  Instead, I rely solely on what I learned about how to play the instrument.
With that said, if you’re going to use the instruments in a traditional manner, I say go for it, but that’s where you need to have some background in it in order to do so with any sort of credibility.  I feel good about teaching a steel band and recording traditional calypsos because I have a background in it, and I still work closely with people who are steeped in the culture, and are still teaching me about the instrument and its background.

Here’s a quick sample of the second movement of Steve Mackey’s It Is Time, written for So Percussion in 2009.  Steve and Josh worked hard together to capture the essence of the steel drums, while never letting the music descend into cultural parody.

As Josh mentions, another way to reconcile incorporating an instrument into your music is to find a way to use its sound and quality as an abstract resource, stripping it of most stylistic references.  Many European modernists such as Xenakis discovered new qualities in borrowed instruments, such as the thumping yet warm sonorities of congas and bongos played with sticks in the “Peaux” movement of his massive sextet Pleiades.  In this case, the instruments are incorporated with many other kinds of drums into a new composite instrument, and the manner in which they are played bears little resemblance to their original context.
I feel that as long as we are not pretending to play the specific kind of music that those hand drums were originally used in, or casually mimicking that music, there is nothing wrong with incorporating the sounds of the instruments into the already messy and diverse palate of the percussion ensemble.

As Josh also outlines, one of the most effective ways to feel at ease about knowing how to include an instrument or a tradition into your music is to study it!  If you’ve ever spent time getting your butt kicked by a Balinese Gamelan master who is requiring you to memorize extremely long melodies by ear, or exposing yourself to the fathomless depths of complexity embodied in the talas of Hindustani music, or playing with 120 other steel drummers at Panorama in Trinidad, it is nearly impossible for you to condescend to that music, or to incorporate it carelessly into your own music.

The issue of cross-cultural dialogue isn’t only relevant to crossing geographical boundaries.  Sometimes even collaborating within sub-cultures has its own negotiations, where effort is required to find common ground and articulate mutual expectations.
In 2005, we struck up a relationship with the duo Matmos, who have been steady collaborators ever since.  In the broader sense of culture, we had a lot in common: we spoke the same language, had all grown up in and been educated in the same country, etc.  We diverged in one key area, which was that Drew and Martin of Matmos had not had any formal training in classical music.
But their music was fascinating!  They bowed rat cages, made tracks out of liposuction sounds, and somehow blended the curiosity of musique concrète (which they are extremely aware of) with a smile-inducing and infectious feel for making great beats.  We loved the conceptuality and natural musicianship of their music, which we first got to know through their work on Bjork’s Vespertine album.

Their musical culture has its own rules and expectations, some of which they purposely break.  I quickly realized that I knew very little about that culture, just as they didn’t know much about the endless Beethoven and Monteverdi that I was listening to in order to prepare for my doctoral exams at Yale.

I distinctly remember talking to Martin about some of their favorite music, as I was genuinely curious.  He rattled off so many names I had never heard of that I just asked him to boil it down to the Matmos influence essentials, the first five things I should listen to.

He said, “You mean, like Kraftwerk?”
I said, “Who is Kraftwerk?”

He looked at me like I had just landed on planet Earth.  He might as well have said to me, “Who is Mozart?”
Martin and Drew’s instrument layout in performance reads like a time capsule of the past 30 years of electronic music.  They hang on to reliable instruments that they love, refusing to clean the slate every time a new technological update is available.  Over years of conversation and experimentation with them, we have started to incorporate some of those instruments in our music as well.  Without their influence and knowledge, I’m not sure we would have felt comfortable with the baggage of a Korg or V-Synth suddenly appearing in our percussion ensemble.

There is an organic process in bringing cultural perspective to what you do.  No rule or blanket theory is going to address everything that’s possible:  we have too many interweaving contexts to sort out a unified approach.    As a young group, So Percussion sought a concrete definition of what made us a new music group, and an answer to why that category mattered. It seemed to us that jumping into all of these other ponds would be confusing or messy.  In truth, it probably has been.  And it has not always been successful!

But it has been worth it, at least to us. Here’s a performance of Water, a piece that we wrote together with Matmos.  It incorporates both Matmos’ electronic elements and Josh’s steel drum playing.

Making New (New) Music

A student recently asked me some thoughtful and detailed questions about how to make collaborative relationships work between composers and performers. I responded that each of her questions deserved specific answers, but that the one inescapable element is trust. There is no substitute for deep mutual trust that is earned over a long period of time, but I believe concrete steps can be taken immediately during the process of commissioning and developing new work to establish a creative bond.
The first question I ask composers is: how can I help? I don’t hand them a list of guidelines and limitations other than the broadest terms we’ve already agreed upon. But I also don’t just leave them alone while waiting by the e-mailbox for my masterpieces to arrive.

The next thing I do is encourage composers to start sending me sketches and harebrained ideas as soon as they’re comfortable. I explain that the purpose is not to critique their ideas, but to give me a head start on inhabiting the world they are creating. (It can be enormously helpful to an interpreter to see how ideas evolve, not only to confront the finished work.) In the meantime, I might have technical advice that will affect subsequent revisions.

I had an amazing and surprising recent experience with this when Steve Reich wrote a new quartet for So Percussion called Mallet Quartet. I was sure that, for this project, we would contentedly sit and wait for our finished score: of all living composers, this was the one who’d done the most to establish the repertoire we were playing. I knew Steve a bit from recording Drumming, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask how it was going. We happened to both be attending an event in New York. After gushing for a while about how honored we were to be involved in his new piece, I simply offered to help him in any way possible.
He said, “Oh yes! Great. I want to write for five-octave marimba, but I’ve never done it before. I know the low range has unusual sound characteristics.”

We embarked on an email correspondence where he sent sketches with multiple voicing variations. I recorded mp3s on the five-octave marimba and emailed them back. To his enormous credit, he didn’t trust his notation software to properly capture the sound, so he waited to hear each voicing on the marimba before making those decisions.

The results impressed me: the chords in the finished work that utilized the bottom range of the instrument were perfectly voiced, open and resonant. In a small way, Reich trusted me to be a part of the composition process, not only to receive a finished score. Really shrewd composers use the performers’ experience and knowledge to make their music better.

I believe that performers, in turn, must cultivate trust in composers as artists in possession of a unique voice and vision.
When performers curate programs of old music, we know exactly what we’ve already got. All of the works can be combined on the program based on their known characteristics. In my opinion, we sometimes make the mistake of treating contemporary composers like their finished pieces, using past work to pigeonhole them. We inhibit the possibility that they may surprise us. The commissioning process can be an incubator for miracles and astonishments, but we have to eliminate some of the “made to order” implications that can come with a contract.

Here’s another example from my own experience: So Percussion commissioned Oscar Bettison to write a new piece. At this point in our career, Oscar knew that our concept of writing for percussion quartet had evolved to include doing pretty much anything we were capable of. The works of his that I was familiar with all had a certain hard-edged energy, reminiscent of Louis Andriessen or the Bang on a Can composers. He had a percussion solo and a drumkit quartet that possessed those common aesthetic profiles.
I expected that his piece for us would follow suit, but we did not require it, or even imply that we had any expectations. We simply told Oscar that we liked his work. He experimented with many ideas, some of them bizarre (melodicas played by foot-pumping bellows were on the table at one point), and in the end settled upon something I’d never seen before.

Oscar requested that we order two sets of chromatic tuning forks, and came over to our studio with some chords sketched out. We experimented with different ways of amplifying them. To our collective delight, by placing the vibrating tuning forks on contact mics the sound manifested as incredibly mellow and eerily electronic, like the cascading layers from those old Robert Fripp ambient records. Oscar liked the results so much that he declared, “Let’s just have you do this for ten minutes.” The finished work, called Apart, hewed very closely to our studio improvisation, and is like nothing else he’s ever written: a time-structure piece that is meandering, contemplative, and indefinite.

By empowering composers to surprise themselves and us, the art we make together comes roaring to life. For that reason, I rarely try to influence the affect or poetic content of a new piece.

One of my favorite collaborative techniques as a performer involves the ways in which you can help the composer explore every technical challenge and possibility in what they’ve written. Too often, I’ve heard fellow performers say “this won’t work,” or “this can’t be done” upon receiving new pages of material. It’s true that sometimes there is a concrete problem, such as writing a note that’s out of range of the instrument.

But often, the problem centers on the player’s own limitations: perhaps the writing is awkward, or fiendishly difficult. I would caution performers against shutting down the composer too quickly for these reasons. If Xenakis had written his bonkers percussion solo Psappha for me, I would have immediately been intimidated by the graph score, as well as the triple mensuration canon and the jumble of notes that clearly were not composed with my ease and comfort in mind. But I hope that I would not have dismissed his innovative work (although I might have postponed the premiere for a while). I’m thankful that either his collaborators were willing to forge ahead or that he was too stubborn to relent.

So Percussion spent the 2011-12 school year mentoring composers on new pieces at Princeton, and the phrase they grew sick of us uttering was, “This is totally doable.” Roughly translated, it means, “I know I look like an idiot right now, but I am capable of playing this after a lot of work.” If I’m not sure that it really is doable, I will show the composer my best effort at executing what they’ve called for. On 99 out of 100 occasions, they will ask what they can do to make the writing flow better on the instrument, or they may realize on their own that the reality of the music they’ve written is not what they imagined it to be.

What I do not do is front-load that subjective judgment, placing the composer on the defensive before we’ve had a chance to learn anything together.

The mode of working that I’ve outlined here is time-consuming. It involves cultivating real human relationships with the people who write for you. As a result, So Percussion’s output of commissioned works is quite slow, and we will end up missing a tragically large number of wonderful composers along the way. We will never be one of the groups who can boast hundreds of premieres in our bio.

But I believe this method places an imprint upon the work that emerges from our collaborations. There is an ineffable vitality in music when the composer’s ideas are filtered through the realm of experience and trusting relationships. The magic happens when the composer is writing for people, and not just for the abstraction of an instrument or ensemble.

The Mutual Benefit Balance

I’m honored and excited to embark on a series of articles for NewMusicBox. For this first entry, I thought a lot about how I might be useful to its community of readers.  While contemplating topics, I returned over and over again to reflect upon satisfying artistic relationships I’ve had:  What made them work?  Are there general principles that can be applied to the process of collaboration? When and how does a professional relationship transcend the purely transactional? 
Many of my collaborations have been as a performer working with composers.  And it’s there that I’ll begin. 
rock balance
The best professional relationships, especially those based on communality and egalitarianism, have a natural equilibrium of mutual benefit.  I can say quite sincerely that my happiest collaborations have been at times where all of the parties involved not only understand those benefits, but also actually celebrate them.

What do I mean by “mutual benefit”?  Simply that each party in the relationship believes that the collaboration is producing something worthwhile to their own mission and body of work.  It does not require that the parties all be of the same stature or experience or that they accrue the same benefits, but only that all people involved feel that the benefits will be useful and desirable for them.

An early example from So Percussion’s career comes to mind:  when we were still graduate students at Yale, we approached David Lang about writing a percussion quartet for us.  We were young, inexperienced no-names.  Jason started cold-emailing every address he thought might find its way to David:  [email protected], [email protected] etc.

We had a small amount of money—which we thought was a lot—thanks to a scholarship that had been awarded to one of the group members.  Other than that, we could offer very little:  David was a well-established composer with plenty of commissions and a flourishing arts organization.  The benefits to us of working with him were patently obvious:  new repertoire from a recognized name, possible concert and recording opportunities, and a higher profile for our group.

Luckily, we were brave and possibly naïve enough to believe that there might be something in it for him as well. (I consistently find that young students don’t possess the confidence to see what they might have to offer a more established artist in a working relationship.)

When we approached David, he told us,  “You only have enough money for me to write either a very short piece, or a very long one.”

In this case, David perceived—correctly—that we were talented and hungry, but also that we had nothing better to do than toil away for months in the basement if a well-known composer wrote us an epic piece.  The benefit we could offer him was the time and energy we were willing to invest in a unique and ambitious project.  Although the money we had would come nowhere close to compensating him for a “very long” piece in the financial sense, he believed we were positioned to help him meet artistic goals that mattered to him.

The work that he wrote was the so-called laws of nature, which requires the players to fabricate most of the instruments themselves out of wooden slats and metal pipes, rustle up precisely tuned flower pots at the hardware store, make tons of personal interpretive decisions, and then grind away for months rehearsing the layered counterpoint he wrote.
Because co-producing a successful piece with him meant so much to us, he felt empowered to make strenuous demands, which we were thrilled to accommodate.

What about finding the balance when both the composer and performer(s) are “young,” “emerging,” “early career,” or however you’d define it?  I’d like to be clear about one thing: first and foremost, what every artist needs is to be paid.  Art and music are incredibly time-consuming, and if we care about good work, artists need to have time to make it without going broke.
But…that’s not always an option, especially when we’re just getting started. In addition to—or in the absence of—money, what do artists need in a collaboration that others can offer them?

Young composers need committed, frequent performances!  Actually, all composers need this. Many of our first commissions for So Percussion were solicited from school friends, sealed with a handshake and a commitment to play their music numerous times. Some of those works, like Dennis DeSantis’s Shifty and Suzanne Farrin’s vibraphone duos, have since made their way into the larger percussion repertoire.

Achieving convincing performances of new work is rare and difficult for composers who are just starting out.  Often, they suffer a deficit compared to established composers not only because they haven’t built a reputation, but also because the well-known composers have access to high quality performances of their music.  For that reason, I believe the benefit of performers offering good performances of new works is completely different than promising “exposure,” that toxic word that gets thrown around to trick artists out of being compensated for their work.

For a composer, especially in the academic world, having a good recording and documentation of multiple performances of their work paves the way for future awards and commissions, entry to graduate programs, and many other things.  Of course, it also makes them better composers!  We as performers often forget how much time composers spend working without their primary medium, trying their best to imagine the music, synthesize it on midi, or bang it out on the piano.

These partnerships with composers are how So Percussion got started. We were furiously ambitious to make a career as a chamber group, but there was an incredibly small extant repertoire to draw from.  Making deals with our friends to generate new repertoire and seeking out other composers was what we needed to do to survive! We didn’t have Beethoven to fall back on, so we leapt headfirst.  There were few acknowledged old masterpieces to plop down after intermission in our concerts, while timidly squeezing a new work into the first half like a piece of “limp lettuce” (as the ever-colorful Joan Tower once described it to me).  We had to play new pieces as if they were old.  Which is to say, as if we needed them to be good in order for our work to matter.
The incredible thing is that sending composers the message that their work was essential to our existence drew stunning, visionary results out of many of them.  Whether there was commission money involved or not—there has been, as often as possible—our mutual benefit equilibrium was optimum.  We needed repertoire as badly as they needed others to be committed to their work.

What can composers do to proactively seek that optimum balance?  This is where the concept of usefulness may come into play.  I’m a huge fan of utopian dreaming in art, so I would never advise anybody to compromise their vision just to get their music played.  But if you’re able to achieve that vision and adhere to your values while also considering the needs and interests of the performers you work with and their role in bringing your ideas to life, it’s going to balance the mutual benefit scales in a way that turbo-charges their commitment to your music.  Simply conceiving the work in a Sibelius-addled vacuum and insisting it go the way you’ve imagined in your head leaves the performer in the extremely unsatisfying role of assembly line worker, with no room for their own ideas or insights in the process.

The process of creating new work together has many nuances to it.  My posts in the weeks ahead will delve into these details, illustrating the best approaches and techniques that I’ve come across.  Seeking equality and mutual benefit does not, for instance, mean that I believe everybody should have equal say in every artistic decision (unless that’s explicit).

Finally, I feel excited and compelled to write about this not because I believe I’ve discovered something on my own, but actually in order to articulate my perspective on a trend that has been sweeping across the new music world for quite a while.  The other artists who have influenced my thinking are too numerous to count, but I’ll do my best to acknowledge them along the way.


Adam Sliwinski

Adam Sliwinski

Adam Sliwinski is a longtime member of the percussion quartet So Percussion. He has had the opportunity to work closely with many of today’s leading composers, including Steve Reich, Steve Mackey, David Lang, Terry Riley, and many others. In addition to his work with So, Sliwinski has premiered a number of works for solo percussion, and in recent years has added conducting and piano performance to his activities. He has premiered more than 20 works as a conductor with the International Contemporary Ensemble at Harvard, Columbia, and NYU, as well as Vijay Iyer’s Radhe Radhe in 2013, and Keeril Maken’s Afterglow on Mode Records. In 2013-2014, Sliwinski is premiering and recording Dan Trueman’s Nostalgic Synchronic etudes for digital prepared piano, a set of pieces that warp the possibilities of the keyboard through cutting edge technology.
Sliwinski is co-director of percussion studies at the Bard College Conservatory of Music, and runs the So Percussion Summer Institute with his colleagues on the campus of Princeton University every summer.