Author: Alex Temple

Composers, Performers, and Consent

Jessica Aszodi

Singer Jessica Aszodi
Photo by Yonatan Aljadeff

A few months ago, I was talking with composer Bethany Younge after a concert.  The conversation turned to our shared frustration with the idea, famously expressed by Stravinsky in reference to his Octet, that a score is an objective musical text, something to be executed rather than interpreted.  But we soon discovered that we were frustrated for different reasons.  I have trouble with the Stravinskian model because I see music as a kind of social interaction, and it’s important to me that a collaboration be a meeting of minds.  Bethany, on the other hand, objects to the structural power imbalance that it creates between composers and performers.

A few weeks later, I had a similar conversation with singer Jessica Aszodi. During one recording session, she told me, a composer pushed her to repeat a particular sound four times, despite her warning that she could only safely do it once.  As a result, she lost her voice.  Here the danger of the Stravinskian model is very concrete:  the composer’s insistence that she follow the score as written physically harmed her, and temporarily took away her primary source of income.  And there’s another power dynamic at work here, too.  New music vocalists, as Jess pointed out, are predominantly women—and the composers who have told her things like “I don’t care how it’s done, I just want you to do it” have all been men.  She also told me that she often receives scores from male composers that are written for a “generic soprano” rather than for her particular voice and personality—often based on archetypal female roles, with markings like “angelic.”

These conversations inspired me to revisit an article by another singer, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett.  She shares Jess’s and Bethany’s concerns about a new music culture that restricts performers’ choices, but her focus is on pieces that set up impossible tasks and ask the singer to fail in front of the audience.  The goal, she says wryly, seems to be “a silent, shaking performer in the corner of the room.”  Echoing Jess’s comments about female archetypes, she also criticizes many composers’ preference for breathy, delicate, informal, straight-tone singing, which she describes as “infantilized” and as “polic[ing] the voice.”

If you’re a composer who cares about both collaborative relationships and social justice, it’s easy to treat conversations like these as prescriptions about how to write.  I imagine that’s especially true for men who are trying to be good feminist allies, but even composers of other genders can’t ignore these issues—and in fact, Amanda clarified in a follow-up conversation that women have put her in compromising positions, too.  Contemporary activist writing sometimes makes it sound as though doing the right thing is as simple as following a bulleted list.  A site like Everyday Feminism is full of articles with titles like “3 Ways White Cis Gay Men Can Do Better for the LGBTQIA+ Movement.”  So why not “5 Ways Composers Can Avoid Limiting Performers’ Agency”?

But of course it’s not that simple.  Ethics is always slippery and messy and complicated, and there’s no more consensus among musician than there is among, say, queer people.  As Edward Said wrote in Orientalism, “it is a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human.”  Case in point:  only a week after I first read Amanda’s article, I ran across an interview with new music soprano Ariadne Greif.  She has no problem playing the role of vocalist in distress:  when she talks about ripping duct tape off her body in Georg Friedrich Haas’s Atthis, or running out of breath and winding up “ill and tearing up and shaking” in the final movement of Georges Apherghis’s Récitations, she emphasizes the power and intensity of the experience, both for her and for the audience.  “I’m in the Marina Abramović school,” she says.

And what about that delicate, straight-tone vocal style?  Amanda may see it as a “sexy baby voice,” but there are other ways of framing it, and not all female singers find it restrictive or inexpressive.  I’ve written pieces in which I sing that way myself, partially as a way of exploring the aesthetics of emotional repression, and partially, under the influence of Robert Ashley, as a way of getting singing closer to speech.  I also recently wrote a song cycle for Julia Holter, who’s been performing in that style for years.  During one rehearsal she jokingly started singing my music in a traditional operatic fashion—loud and resonant and with a rich vibrato—and it sounded absurd.  That kind of delivery doesn’t suit either her quietly intense stage presence or my oblique, pop-oriented piece.

The Stravinskian model has its fans, too.  A few years ago I wrote a piece for a reading session with JACK Quartet, and when I emailed their cellist, Kevin McFarland, to ask what he thought of some ideas I was tossing around, he responded that the group didn’t want me to feel the need to compromise, because they were “in the business of helping composers accomplish their visions.”  Personally, I don’t think that writing for a performer’s particular taste is a compromise.  But if the group wants to faithfully execute people’s ideas without interfering, can we really say that composers who take them up on it are unjustly exerting power over them?

Bethany Younge in performance

Bethany Younge in performance

The missing piece of the puzzle, I think, is consent.  The problem isn’t the idea of performers as objective executors;  it’s composers putting them in that role without asking.  The problem isn’t taking risks with vocal technique;  it’s composers who insist on going forward even when the singer has said no.  The problem isn’t asking musicians to experience distress on stage or to sing in a breathy straight-tone style;  it’s forgetting that your vision is being realized by an actual human being with desires and preferences and opinions.

When I brought the language of consent into the conversation, it turned out that everyone agreed with me, and many of them had already been thinking in those terms.  Despite Bethany’s fear that performers might feel pressured to take on the Stravinskian model, she acknowledged that some people might genuinely prefer to have a clearly defined task in front of them, and that they have a right to make that choice.  Jess made it clear that she’s in favor of pushing the limits of vocal technique, as long as the composer acknowledges the sovereignty of the singer’s body.  And Amanda explained that she has no objection to those who actually want to sing in a quiet, informal style or perform failure on stage.  When composers ask her to sing delicately, it grates partially because that’s not who she is—especially when they refer to it as a “natural” sound, since for her, what feels natural is “being big and loud and crazy.”  She did reiterate that she feels manipulated and controlled by pieces that make her fail, but with the caveat:  “that’s my sensibility as a performer.”

And yet recognizing the diversity of performers’ attitudes doesn’t eliminate the power dynamic inherent in the very act of writing music for someone.  There can be complicating factors—for example, if the performer is much more famous than the composer—but you can’t get around the fact that when you write for someone, you’re taking control of their body for a period of time.  If we want our collaborations to be satisfying for everyone involved, we need to come up with ways of working together that explicitly address two related questions:  what is each of us willing to do, and what does each of us want to do?

Kevin, who I first met when he was playing cello in a group called Ensemble de Sade, told me that he frames the issue using the conceptual categories of BDSM—the composer as dominant and the performer as submissive.  “I kind of love the idea of being willfully compromised for art,” he said.  Particularly when he plays the kind of highly complex, meticulously notated music that JACK Quartet specializes in, he feels like he’s not so much interpreting the piece as being “controlled remotely,” or treated like a puppet.  He’s consented to play that role, of course.  But even when you’re writing for musicians who prefer more give-and-take in their collaborations, the ethics of kink culture still provide a good model for talking about consent in a situation where one person is necessarily taking some degree of control.  If we made a habit of negotiating our collaborations in advance—discussing what all parties hope to get out of the experience, making note of safety risks, and establishing a set of ground rules—there wouldn’t be so many frustrated performers out there.

So what does this look like in practice?  Over the last few years I’ve been gradually shifting away from writing pieces in order to explore my own obsessions—bad taste, polystylism, gender, memory, sound logos, the American landscape—and toward designing experiences for the particular people I’m working with.  That’s never been more true than when I wrote The Man Who Hated Everything for wild Up this past summer.  Early on I called their conductor, Christopher Rountree, and asked him a long string of questions about the group’s artistic personality and values.  How would he describe their sound in general?  What fuels their desire to work with living composers?  Do they feel a strong sense of L.A. identity?  Chris also gave me detailed information about every musician on the concert—which instruments they particularly like playing, who’s an improviser and who isn’t, who plays in rock bands, who’s more focused on New Complexity repertoire, whose playing is more lyrical and whose is more brutalist.

By the end of the conversation I had an idea of what I was going to write:  a tribute to Frank Zappa.  It fit with everything Chris had told me about the group:  their diverse backgrounds, their “janky and noisy” sound, their love of music that’s hard to play (“we kind of like punishing people”), their habit of programming noise music and pop covers side by side.  It also gave me an opportunity to include improvisatory passages with open-ended textual instructions—a deliberate ceding of control that challenged me to let go and trust other people’s musical judgment.  Later I decided to have the players sing in the final section, and I had questions for Chris about that too.  Who has a good falsetto?  Who would be up for yelling?  Who would enjoy doing a cheesy lounge singer voice?  He checked in with everyone in the group before answering.

The result was one of the most satisfying collaborative experiences I’ve had.  Knowing that I was writing for specific people made all those hours sitting at my desk feel less lonely, and the musicians were enthusiastic about playing something tailored so precisely to their interests.  I was still taking control of their bodies for a while, but our pre-negotiation meant that I was doing so in ways that they enjoyed.  And my decision to give up my composerly power in certain passages meant that the piece really was a product of their sensibilities as well as mine.

It’s important to note that emphasizing consent doesn’t always lead to wonderful collaborations.  In fact, sometimes it means that collaborations don’t happen at all.  I was recently approached by a singer who was interested in working with me, but when I listened to her recordings, I noticed that she had the kind of formal “classical” sound that I have a hard time writing for.  So I asked if she was up for doing something more speech-like, making it clear that I didn’t want to impose anything on her.  And it turned out that she wasn’t!  It made me wonder if composers sometimes write things without checking in first because they don’t want to risk being turned down.  But I also think that not working together is much better, in the long run, than working together in a way that makes your collaborator feel frustrated, trapped, or manipulated.  Unless, of course, that’s exactly what they’re looking for.

Alex Temple

A sound can evoke a time, a place, a cultural moment, or a way of looking at the world. Alex Temple writes music that distorts and combines iconic sounds to create new meanings, often in service of surreal, cryptic, or fantastical stories. In addition to performing her own works for voice and electronics at venues such as Roulette and Constellation Chicago, she has also collaborated with performers and ensembles such as Mellissa Hughes, Julia Holter, Cadillac Moon Ensemble, wild Up, Spektral Quartet, and the American Composers Orchestra. Temple earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 2005 and her master’s from the University of Michigan in 2007; she’s currently working on a doctorate at Northwestern University and writing a podcast-opera about TV production company closing logos and the end of the world.

History Of The World

The internet is full of articles that deal with contemporary composition in a very broad and abstract way. My articles for NewMusicBox are no exception: while I’ve talked about some specific works, it’s always been in service of more general points about borrowed material, relevance, and the politics of cross-cultural influence. So for the last article in this series, I’d like to zoom in and talk about how these issues played out in one of my own pieces.

I wrote World about a year and a half ago for the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players. I’d heard great things about Stony Brook’s piano and percussion studios, so I took the opportunity to write for the now fairly standard instrumentation of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. I knew I wanted to focus on the marimba—an instrument that has always struck me as somehow ancient and futuristic at the same time. And since almost everything I write has to do with cultural symbolism in one way or another, I started by asking: What does the marimba signify in American culture?

If you’re the kind of person who likes listening to a piece before you read about it, now would be a good time:

The first associations that came to mind were minimalism and TV news themes. I’ve thought for a while that there was a secret connection between the two. In particular, there’s one passage in Music for 18 Musicians that sounds remarkably like news music.

There’s also the 1991 theme for WABC 7 Eyewitness News, the opening of which wouldn’t sound out of place in a minimalist piece from the late 70s or early 80s.

(I assume that this connection is partially the result of Steve Reich’s widespread influence outside the new-music world—but I also have a theory that the presence of syncopated repeated-note figures in news themes originated as an imitation of a telegraph machine transmitting Morse code.) So World starts off with a passage that’s meant to sound like the ten o’clock news if it had been written by Reich circa Tehillim, with a little help from Bartók:

In TV news themes, the mallet percussion is often synthesized, which gave me the idea of splitting the ensemble into “real” and “artificial” sides: marimba and piano vs. electronic mallet percussion and synth keyboard. But the next association that came to mind landed me right in the political quagmire I talked about in my last article: both wooden percussion instruments and electronic imitations of them are associated with 1980s pop exoticism. The most iconic example is probably “Africa” by Toto—but you see the same thing in “It’s Nearly Africa” by XTC, “The Sheltering Sky” by King Crimson, “Listening Wind” by Talking Heads, “Mulu the Rain Forest” by Thomas Dolby, and “The Dreaming” by Kate Bush. These songs depict a variety of different cultures, and their attitudes range from Talking Heads’ anti-colonialist provocation to XTC’s blunt primitivism, but they all involve American or British musicians using a particular set of timbres as a symbol of far-off lands.

The thing is, I actually find some of these songs quite evocative. “Africa” in particular has been growing on me steadily over the years, for reasons I can’t quite explain (though it might have something to do with the prominent iii chord in the opening riff). Of course, that’s easy for me to say: it’s not my continent being exoticized. But I think it’s more complicated than that, because there’s quite a bit of art that I like even though it treats people like me pretty badly. I loved Infinite Jest, for example, despite a handful of passages that use just about every transphobic trope around as a comedic device. And I’m a fan of horror director Dario Argento despite the undercurrent of misogyny running through his work. In fact, what I like about the “world music” trope in 80s pop music is very similar to what I like about Argento’s movies: it’s all about the lush, enveloping atmosphere. (In the former case, it’s probably also because these sounds were constantly in the background during my early childhood. In fact, one of my first musical memories is an ad for Whatchamacallit candy bars that draws on a similar sound palette.)

I’ve also noticed that a lot of people dismiss this kind of faux world music not on the grounds that it stereotypes or exoticizes people, but on the grounds that it’s “cheesy.” In my experience, that judgment is almost never backed up with any kind of rational critique; usually it means “it’s considered uncool to admit to liking this.” So when I hear something dismissed in that way, I’m immediately drawn to it, both because I don’t like aesthetic prejudice, and also because things that are deemed “cheesy” can easily take on a surreal, alarming or even frightening quality. You can see this phenomenon—which I’ve sometimes referred to by saying that “cheesiness is the new dissonance”—at work in a lot of David Lynch’s films.

So here was this “cheesy” music that was conceptually related to my plan for the piece. I wanted to put it into a new context that would allows its merits, including its potential for strangeness, to be heard more clearly. (Some people might see this as trying to “improve” pop-cultural materials by putting them in a so-called “high-art” context, but I actually think of it more as trying to “improve” contemporary classical music, which could use a corrective to its often overbearing seriousness and self-importance.) The question was: could I create that lush world-music atmosphere without drawing on any actual non-Western cultures? Could I throw out the stereotypical bathwater while keeping the evocative baby?

In some ways it was easy; I could use the sounds of birds and water, long sustained synth pads, quartal harmonies, and minor triads in a major-mode context. If that sounds like it’s in bad taste, great! And how to frame the passage so that it might seduce people who would normally be skeptical of these kinds of sounds? Save it for later in the piece, and introduce its motivic material and aspects of its sound-world first, so that when it arrives, it seems like a revelation of something that was just under the surface the whole time: a door opening into the middle of a rainforest.

But something was still missing.

Now, a brief digression. Around the same time that I was writing World, I was thinking about how often I’d been hearing cut-up and pitch-shifted vocal samples in contemporary pop, rock, and electronica. The most striking example is the one that Skrillex gradually builds over the course of his song “Summit”—an entire pop melody constructed out of individually sampled vowels.

Others include Tune-Yards’ “Bizness”, Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)”, and Gotye’s “State of the Art”. As I’ve said, I’m intrigued when a single idea shows up in a variety of different contexts. But wasn’t obvious, at least at first, that this had anything to do with my plans for World.
What put all the pieces together was Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby.”

If you’re not familiar with them, Deep Forest are a French “ethnic electronica” duo, and their work is especially problematic: they’ve been accused of extensively sampling traditional music from around the world without permission and sometimes without even crediting the original performers, and they’ve made quite a bit of money in the process. They also have a habit of talking about people in developing countries in a patronizing way: “Somewhere, deep in the jungle, are living some little men and women. They are our past. And maybe—maybe they are our future.” “Sweet Lullaby” doesn’t include that kind of commentary, but it is based on a recording of a traditional Baegu song from the Solomon Islands, which they used without the permission of either the woman who sang it or the ethnomusicologist who recorded it.

And yet here too, I find the music strangely haunting. And while I was trying to figure out why, I suddenly realized that listening to electronically cut-up syllables is a lot like listening to a song in a language you don’t speak—which meant that I could create my imaginary foreign culture by taking a page from Skrillex and building a melody out of pitch-shifted vocal samples in the climactic section of World. Not only that, but the artificiality of the cut-up technique would enhance the surreal quality already latently present in the “cheesiness” of the style.

And then I realized something else: several of the songs that had gotten me thinking about cut-up vocals were related to the ideas that I had associated with marimbas in the first place. “Summit” relates to minimalism through its repetition-based syntax, and, less directly, through the long history of connections between Steve Reich and electronic dance music, including the Reich Remixed album and the sample of Electric Counterpoint in The Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds”. And Tune-Yards is another politically complicated case of a white American musician being heavily influenced by African music—in this case, Congolese pop music. In other words, everything is connected:
World Chart
When I talked about complex tangles of interconnections between different artistic streams, this was the kind of thing I had in mind. So what does my attempt to translate that tangle into an actual piece of music sound like? Hear for yourself:

The Appropriation Problem


“In Love Like Music” by Kool_Skatkat on Flickr.

In my last two articles for NewMusicBox, I defended composers who interact with cultural streams outside the one we call “new music,” and explained why I think those interactions are good for the arts. But, as several commenters pointed out, not all borrowings are morally or politically equivalent. The big question that I haven’t addressed yet is, when does influence become exploitation?

I spent a while debating whether I should write about this topic. I know my perspective is limited: I’ve never had the experience of watching people from more privileged social groups appropriate an artistic tradition that played a central role in my life. That’s partially because I’m white, educated and American, which means I’m the more privileged one in a lot of situations. It’s also because I tend not to feel very connected to the minority cultures that I am a member of. I’m queer and trans, but I haven’t participated much in radical queer and trans counterculture. I’m Jewish, but I’ve never felt a strong connection to Jewish tradition. (I’ve also spent my life in liberal cities and college towns with big Jewish populations; what little anti-Semitism I’ve experienced has been in the form of personal insults, not systematic exclusion.) Most of the time, if you put me in a room with what’s supposed to be “my community,” I’m going to start wondering what I’m doing there.

At the same time, I don’t think it would be right for me to write a series of articles about interactions between musical traditions without talking about the ethical and political issues involved. And I have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about those issues, because most of my music explores the cultural meanings of sounds and styles, and I don’t want to do that in a way that’s exploitative or disrespectful. I’ve had some pretty heated conversations, and I’m sure I’ve made bad judgment calls—but I do think I’ve learned something over the years. So I’d like to offer some thoughts on the topic, with the understanding that this is all provisional, and that I welcome other perspectives in the comments.

* * *

I’d like to start with something I’ve noticed in discussions of cultural appropriation. They often frame the problem in one of two ways: in terms of cultural property or in terms of what composers are “allowed” to do. In my experience, both of these approaches tend to result in the conversation getting sidetracked. The former leads to increasingly abstract musings about what it really means for a group of people to own a musical style, usually while ignoring the power dynamics that make inter-cultural influence so fraught in the first place. The latter leads to impassioned defenses of composers’ freedom of expression, which—much like the arguments that pop up whenever a public figure is criticized for saying something prejudiced—typically ignore the point that just because you can do something, that doesn’t mean you should.

Another way of framing things, which I think might make for more productive conversations, would be to say: music is a kind of social interaction. It’s written by people, played by people, and heard by people. I know there are musicians who, wary of the vagueness and unpredictability of things like “meaning,” prefer to see music purely as a collection of structures with objective properties. But denying the social aspect of music-making doesn’t make it stop happening; it just means that when it does happen, you don’t see it.

Case in point: there are a lot of white composers who draw influence, inspiration or sonic materials from other musical worlds—gamelan music, for example, or hip-hop. I don’t think that’s exploitative or disrespectful in and of itself; to my mind, it really depends on how you do it. (More on that later.) But some of these composers seem to take for granted, without even realizing it, that everyone who hears their music is also going to be white and probably a fellow classical musician, too. It’s not that they’re malicious; it’s that they’re so caught up in their own perspective, and in the often alarmingly homogeneous new-music social scene, that it never occurs to them to think about how their interpretation of another culture’s musical ideas might be perceived by someone who is actually from that culture.

“But you can’t predict what meanings people will find in your work!” some will say. That’s true, if “predict” means “know for sure.” But you can certainly be aware of the meanings that people might find in your work. Human reactions to art aren’t totally arbitrary. Sure, they’re affected by a lot of idiosyncratic factors, such as personality, taste, and mood, but they’re also affected by more predictable ones—symbols, values and meanings that are held in common by many people. That’s why, for example, it shouldn’t have been hard for Katy Perry (or her agent or her label) to predict that a performance assembled entirely out of Orientalist stereotypes would not go over well. Those images have a long and well-documented history.

* * *

So let’s say you’re a composer, and you’ve come across something that strikes you in some way. Maybe there are sounds in it that spark your imagination. Maybe there’s a story that moves you. Maybe there are structural ideas that could get you out of a compositional bind. Maybe you want to illustrate a more abstract point about the nature of authorship or history or global politics. Maybe you just find it exciting and want to pay tribute to that excitement. And let’s say that this thing you’ve found comes from a tradition that’s pretty far removed from the new-music world that you work in. What do you do?

The two simplest answers are both problematic. “Everything is fair game, so do what you want” is easy, but it can lead to insulting people, taking credit for their work, or stepping on things that are profoundly important to them. “It’s not yours to use, so don’t even think about it” is straightforward, but it can lead to a kind of separatism that keeps contemporary classical music insular and disconnected from the rest of the cultural landscape. Trouble is, it’s a lot harder to follow advice like “remember that music is a social interaction,” or even “remember that real people from a variety of backgrounds might be listening.” So I’d like to talk about a few of the questions that I find helpful when I’m trying to figure out whether a piece of music is doing right by its influences.

1. What’s the power relationship between the composer and the source?
JacobTV has built a career out of music based on recorded speech. But he’s oddly indiscriminate about whose speech he chooses to sample — and there’s a big difference between The Body of Your Dreams, which uses clips from weight-loss infomercials, and Grab It!, which uses clips from interviews with black prisoners on death row. The former is about as safe an appropriation as I can think of: if there’s one group of people you can confidently say has never been oppressed, it’s advertisers. (It’s worth noting that in the visual-art world, where the word “appropriation” often has a more positive tone, it usually refers to taking elements from advertising or commercial pop culture.) Grab It!, on the other hand, takes the voices of people who are already disenfranchised, and effectively censors them by cutting them into such small fragments that it’s almost impossible to understand what they’re saying—other than the word “motherfucker.”

Sometimes, though, the power relationship isn’t so obvious. What about, for example, composers that use ideas from pop music? On the one hand, pop music has vastly more economic power, cultural presence, and media support than contemporary classical music does. On the other hand, classical music has historically enjoyed a kind of prestige that popular music didn’t have access to until pretty recently, and there are still people in the classical world who think that way—enough of them that even composers who use pop-cultural tropes out of genuine love and respect risk being misread as trying to “improve” or “upgrade” something they see as inferior.

The phrase “popular music” covers a lot of ground, too—especially if you’re using the very broad definition that classical musicians tend to. Taking ideas from Public Enemy has a different sociopolitical meaning than taking ideas from Radiohead. Although here too, the answers aren’t always obvious: Chuck D thought it was “great” when experimental sound-collagists Evolution Control Committee used his voice in a mashup without permission.

2. Is the composer reinforcing existing cultural hierarchies?
When I first discovered the polystylistic music of Alfred Schnittke, I heard it as a brash declaration that all musical styles are equally valid. I was disappointed to learn that he was actually a big believer in “high” and “low” art, to the point that he consistently described the popular and historical styles he quoted as “banal,” “vulgarly functional,” and “the lower layers of [my] musical world.” When I listen to a piece like the First Concerto Grosso now, the ironic quotation marks around the tango and late-Romantic violin solo seem obvious.

John Zorn, on the other hand, has angrily denounced the idea of stylistic hierarchies: “The idea of high art and low art … is a bunch of fucking bullshit!” He’s also spent as much time playing in bands as writing concert music. I have a hard time imagining anyone taking the trippy noir jazz in Spillane as an attempt to “upgrade” something by giving it “high-culture” status. Since I’ve read interviews with both composers, it’s hard to know for sure whether I’m reacting more to their music or their rhetoric, but I can say for sure that I find Zorn’s attitude much more progressive.

3. How well does the composer understand the source?
The usual argument is that if you’re going to take elements from another tradition, you should know it inside out. For example, I’ve seen relatively little criticism of Evan Ziporyn’s gamelan-influenced pieces, and that seems to be partially because he’s lived in Bali, collaborated with Balinese artists, and played traditional gamelan music for decades. He’s done his homework; you can’t accuse him of ignorantly and haphazardly grabbing elements of another culture without knowing anything about their real significance (as people have said about Katy Perry’s AMA performance).

But I wonder if there might also be value in totally misunderstanding something, so that what you create in response comes across as “inspired by,” rather than “borrowing from,” the source material. I’m thinking, for example, of Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto. It also includes passages influenced by gamelan music, but they’re so utterly Poulenc-ified that you might not even realize what inspired them if you didn’t already know. And yet power dynamics have a way of creeping back in. Poulenc first heard gamelan music at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition—an event explicitly designed to whitewash French imperialism. Once you know that, the piece takes on a darker tone.


* * *

All of these questions are riddled with complications. And there are plenty of other questions you could ask: What’s the original meaning of the material you’re drawing on? Is your work the result of a collaborative interaction, or of looking at another tradition from afar? Are you using your source material to portray people in a stereotyped way? Are you making money off it? Every one of those issues deserves further discussion, but this article is long already. So instead, let me ask you: What do you think? How do you distinguish beneficial cultural exchange from exploitative cultural appropriation? Leave a comment and let us know.

How To Be Culturally Relevant

Sharing ideas
Composers spend an awful lot of time worrying about whether or not what we do is culturally relevant. Many discussions start from the assumption that it’s not; the only question is how we’re going to make ourselves relevant before our art form shrivels away like a neglected houseplant.
Whenever I hear words like “relevant” or “important,” I always want to ask, “relevant or important to whom?” When that detail is left out, these words become codes or shorthands: “important” means “important to Serious Art People,” and “relevant” means “relevant to Real-World Audiences.” But “Real-World Audiences” is a code too, because the people who use the phrase seem to have a pretty narrow idea of who counts as real. Other musicians? Not real. Artists in other media? Not real. College students and faculty? Not real. People over 40? Not real. You can sell out a huge concert hall, but if everyone there falls into one or more of the above categories, you’ll still have people citing your show as evidence of classical music’s imminent demise. Because when people say “culturally relevant,” what they really mean is “relevant to young people with mainstream tastes.” And “mainstream tastes,” unfortunately, doesn’t include classical music.

No other form of experimental music-making holds itself to this kind of standard. Japanese noise artists, for example, don’t seem to worry about whether or not their enthusiastic but small audience is a “real-world” one, and I’ve never heard anyone say that in order for them to justify what they’re doing, they have to appeal to people who aren’t interested in what they’re doing. “Why should non-mainstream music reach out to wider audiences?” asked Masami Akita in a recent interview. “These days, everything is diversified and it’s OK to have many different non-mainstream musics for non-mainstream music lovers.”

I actually do think that outreach is important and valuable. And I think the audience for classical music, and new music in particular, could be larger than it currently is. But our habit of dismissing the audience we already have as “unreal” has made me pretty skeptical of “cultural relevance” as a concept.

And yet something happened recently that made me reconsider. I’d been listening to Weird Sister, the newest release from a post-punk band with the wonderful name of Joanna Gruesome, and at a certain point I noticed something odd. The album reminds me by turns of Sonic Youth, Pixies, Bikini Kill, My Bloody Valentine, Splendora—but nothing that’s happened since. It’s not that the band doesn’t have an original voice; it’s that they sound like a band with an original voice from 1993. I like them, but I can’t figure out how to plug them into the cultural landscape of 2013.

I don’t think it’s bad to make something that seems like it’s from another era. There’s room in the world for all kinds of art, and that includes retro art. But I also think that “how does this relate to other things from its own time?” is a more productive question for composers than “does this appeal to young people with mainstream tastes?” And those relationships can pop up in unexpected places. Sometimes, if you zoom out far enough, even the most seemingly hermetic avant-garde music sounds like it’s having a conversation with other styles and genres from the same era. Just look at Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, whose instrumentation—including alto flute, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba, and bongos—wouldn’t be too out of place on a 1950s exotica or lounge album. I also remember listening to a 1973 recording of André Boucourechliev’s open-form composition Anarchipel and suddenly being struck by how much certain dense, skittering passages reminded me of Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness, released two years earlier. Were those connections intentional? Probably not—but there was something in the air.
Those are isolated examples, but sometimes a single idea will show up again and again, across multiple styles and media, in a particular period of time. For example: the collage boom of the 1960s, which showed up in avant-garde composition (Berio’s Sinfonia, Stockhausen’s Hymnen), in psychedelic rock (“Revolution 9,” early Frank Zappa albums), in Pop Art (Tom Wesselman, Robert Rauschenberg), in films both experimental (Jan Švankmajer’s “Historia Naturae, Suita”) and mainstream (the acid-trip scene in Easy Rider), and even in advertising (“The Paperwork Explosion,” an IBM promo by a young Jim Henson).

Another example, which doesn’t get talked about as often: all the art from the 1980s that depicts a world made inhuman by suburban sprawl and global technological networks. You see it in contemporary opera (Robert Ashley’s Improvement and eL/Aficionado), in New Wave (Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby), and in whatever you want to call Laurie Anderson’s Big Science (“take a left at what’s going to be the new sports center, and keep going until you hit the place where they’re thinking of building that drive-in bank”). You also see it in the hyperreal domestic photographs of Tina Barney, the ultra-stylized suburbia of Bruce Charlesworth’s installations, and the Talking Heads’s film True Stories.

All the articles I’m writing for NewMusicBox this month deal with the issue of composers drawing on sources outside the perceived mainstream of “new music.” Last week, I took issue with one of the common arguments against it, but I didn’t say anything about why someone would want to do it in the first place. Different composers will give different answers, of course. But one possible reason is that when artists who work in different styles, in different media, and at different levels of mainstream exposure share ideas, they can create something larger than themselves—a complex tangle of interconnections that links their work together and gives it extra layers of meaning. And I’d like to think that if composers participated more often in these artistic conversations, they might not worry so much about being culturally irrelevant.

One final note: a few people were concerned that my previous article didn’t address the political and ethical issues that come up when different artistic cultures interact with each other—and I’m sure some of you were thinking the same thing as you read this one. No need to worry: that’s exactly what my next article is going to be about. See you in a week!

What Counts as Borrowed Material?

Four years ago, I wrote a chamber orchestra piece called Dayglo Attack Machine.  It wasn’t nearly as good as its title.

The piece explored territory that I’ve come back to many times:  intentional cheesiness, shiny orchestration, references to 1960s advertising and film music, and the blurry line between cheerful and alarming.  It even included a percussionist popping  colorful balloons with knives.  But in the end, it wound up seeming pretty tepid and uninspired, and I was left wondering whether I should pursue a different direction in my work.  Discouraged and frustrated, I asked a bunch of friends for their honest opinions of my music.  Reading the criticisms I got wasn’t always pleasant, especially since I agreed with some of them.  But the response I wound up thinking about the most is actually one that I didn’t agree with.  It was from a composer who said that while she liked my music’s collage-y, turn-on-a-dime syntax, she wished that I would use my own materials rather than borrowed ones.

I can see why someone would react that way to my work.  I make a lot of allusions, and often very obvious ones.  But here’s the problem:  what kind of material wouldn’t count as borrowed?  If Dayglo Attack Machine had used atonal harmonies rather than major seventh chords, nested tuplets rather than 4/4 syncopations, and sul ponticello string overpressure rather than doubled flute and vibes, most people wouldn’t describe that as using “borrowed material”—but it would be.  I didn’t invent that language any more than I invented the language of 1960s advertising .  And in fact, those materials are further removed from me culturally than the ones I used:  not only do all of them go back at least to the 1960s, but they’re also European rather than American in origin.

I’m not sure why so many people can hear young American composers using mid-century European avant-garde ideas and not think of it as borrowing.  It’s as if people think of the European avant-garde as something like an “indigenous culture” or “native language” for contemporary classical music.  But few if any of us grow up surrounded by Stockhausen and Penderecki.  I first heard them as a teenager, long after my brain had already been filled with the shiny, cheerful/alarming sounds of American TV and movies—and many people don’t hear them until later than that.

I don’t mean to pick on the composer who made that comment.  She was responding honestly to a question I had asked, and she actually wound up changing her mind after we talked about it.  But over the years, I’ve continued to think about that conversation, because I keep running into the same ideas.  For example, Garrett Schumann recently posted on Twitter that composers who use common-practice tonality should do so “thoughtfully” and “deliberately,” and be aware of the “historical and socio-political assumptions” involved in making that choice.  I’m all for thoughtfulness and historical awareness, but what strikes me is that I never hear anyone calling on composers influenced by Saariaho or Lachenmann or Ferneyhough to be thoughtful and deliberate in their use of pre-existing ideas.  It seems to be taken for granted in many new music circles that anyone who composes in a European modernist idiom is doing so because they’ve thought about all the possible options and made a historically informed decision to go with that one, but that anyone who composes in a tonal idiom is doing so naively.  The funny thing is, the assumptions that people make actually contradict each other.  If atonality, extended techniques, ultra-complex rhythms, and non-repetitive syntax really are the “native language” of contemporary classical music, then you can’t take it for granted that anyone who uses them is doing so after years of rigorous aesthetic soul-searching.  They might just as easily be doing it because it’s the norm in their musical subculture.

Just to be clear:  I’m not disparaging modernist music, and I’m not saying that American composers have to use materials that originated in America.  What I’m saying is that the whole question of what counts as borrowed material is a red herring, because any material you use already has a history.  It’s not that there’s no such thing as an original artistic voice;  it’s that having an original artistic voice has less to do with creating materials from scratch than with which pre-existing materials you choose and what you do with them once you’ve chosen them.  So let’s not perpetuate a double standard that asks tonal and pop-influenced composers to justify their language, while assuming that modernist ideas come pre-justified.  As any future historian will some day be able to tell you, we’re all building on what we’ve heard.


Alex Temple

Alex Temple

A sound can evoke a time, a place, a cultural moment, or a way of looking at the world. Alex Temple writes music that distorts and combines iconic sounds to create new meanings, often in service of surreal, cryptic, or fantastical stories. In addition to performing her own works for voice and electronics at venues such as Roulette and Constellation Chicago, she has also collaborated with performers and ensembles such as Mellissa Hughes, Timothy Andres, the American Composers Orchestra, Fifth House Ensemble, Cadillac Moon Ensemble, and Spektral Quartet. Temple earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 2005 and her master’s from the University of Michigan in 2007; she’s currently working on a doctorate at Northwestern University and writing a podcast-opera about TV production company closing logos and the end of the world.

I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?

As regular readers may have noticed, we’ve had some passionate dialog about music and gender and careers and creativity over the past year. On Friday, composer Alex Temple picked up that thread here to offer “some thoughts on what it’s like to be a composer on the trans-female spectrum in the early 21st century.” We asked Alex for permission (which was generously granted) to repost that piece on NewMusicBox and continue the conversation.–MS

In the last few months, there have been a number of highly circulated articles about women and contemporary classical music. There was Amy Beth Kirsten at NewMusicBox, arguing that the term “woman composer” is anachronistic; Kristin Kuster in the New York Times challenging that idea on the grounds that a composer’s success is never “all about the music”; Melissa Dunphy’s post about the need for women to be visible in a world where most composers are “white men of average build with brown hair and glasses”; and Ellen McSweeney, also at NewMusicBox, examining some possible reasons for women’s under-representation in the new music world.

Reading all these articles got me thinking about the role that gender plays in my own musical life. For those unaware, I’m transgender and genderqueer, and while I wouldn’t exactly describe myself as a “woman,” it’s a lot closer to the mark than “man.” So here are some thoughts on what it’s like to be a composer on the trans-female spectrum in the early 21st century.

Defining My Terms

Before I get to the “composer” part, let’s talk about the “trans” part. There are about seven million different words that describe the various nuances of gender identity, and sorting them out can be pretty daunting, so I’ll start by explaining the terms I used in the previous paragraph.

When I say I’m “transgender,” I’m talking about two related but distinct ways in which there’s a mismatch between the gender I currently identify with and the gender I grew up inhabiting. The first has to do with my internal sense of what my body is supposed to look like—what the brilliant biologist, activist, and theorist Julia Serano calls “subconscious sex.” For example, I find the presence of hair on my face intensely alienating, as if there were something inexplicably wrong about its being there. (I’m currently in the very slow process of permanently removing it.) And when I see people and think, “I want to look like that,” those people are always female or androgynous—never male.

The second type of mismatch has more to do with social meanings than with physiology, and explaining it requires a bit of a digression. Let me start by saying that I find the way many people talk about gender to be overly reliant on stereotypes. It’s tempting to define the social aspects of gender in terms of particular kinds of clothing, particular tastes and hobbies, and particular ways of talking and moving. But that approach is too simplistic. It can’t account for, say, butch women who nonetheless identify as women. I think it makes more sense to describe gender as a lens through which all those things are given social meaning. If that doesn’t make sense, imagine walking into a bar and seeing a person with a flannel shirt, a buzz cut, a beer, a swagger, and a picture of their pet Rottweiler in their wallet. You don’t know how that person identifies, but interpreting them through a “male” lens produces a different social meaning than interpreting them through a “female” lens. The clothing, tastes, and behavioral affect haven’t changed, but they come across differently, in the same way that the same painting comes across differently if you think of it as being painted in the 20th century rather than if you think of it as being painted in the 16th.

So when I say that I identify as female(ish), I don’t mean that I think of my personality as an inherently or specifically female one; I’m not even sure that means anything. What I mean is that I feel comfortable, embodied, and sane when I view myself through the interpretive lens called “female,” whereas I feel alienated, disembodied, and panicky when I view myself through the interpretive lens called “male.” One produces meanings that make emotional sense, and the other doesn’t.

So why all the qualifiers—“female(ish),” “trans-female spectrum,” and so on? That’s why I describe myself as “genderqueer” as well as “transgender.” The word “genderqueer” means “not identifying solely or consistently as male or female,” and it includes people who identify as both at once, people who identify as one or the other at different times, people who identify as neither, and people who identify as a third gender. In my case, it doesn’t mean that I sometimes or partially think of myself as a guy. Rather, it means that the arbitrariness and constructedness of gender as a set of meanings imposed on human bodies is a part of my gut-level experience of myself and of the world. Or to put it less technically: I often feel like an anthropologist from Neptune sent to Earth to study the ways of humans—but I’d rather be a Neptunian disguised as a human female than a Neptunian disguised as a human male. At times I’ve also listed my gender on forms as “’80s” or “Daria.” These descriptions might sound inconsistent, but they’re all different ways of getting at the same idea: a kind of gender in which unreality is an essential component. Many trans women would be terribly insulted by the suggestion that they are in any sense “not real women,” but my reaction to that would be “yeah, that’s kinda true”—just not for the reason that transphobic people would think it’s true.

Women’s Music?

One of the issues that comes up a lot in discussions of gender and music is the question of whether men and women compose differently (with the implied question for me personally: is my music somehow “female”?) As far as I can tell, the answer is no. Life experience, social conditioning, and biology can all affect a composer’s music, but those things vary enormously among men as a group and among women as a group, and how people react to them artistically is idiosyncratic and unpredictable. Certainly I can think of plenty of pieces that fly in the face of gender stereotypes, and I’m sure you can, too. (First example that comes to mind: the violent, noisy music of Annie Gosfield.)

That said, I have noticed that certain specific attitudes toward music seem to correlate with gender. In particular, it seems like nearly every composer-performer whose work depends on an intense, profound, almost mystical relationship with the artist’s own body is a woman; and nearly every composer who sees music as a purely abstract, formalist construction, free of emotional, social, psychological, or political meaning, is a man. Given how our society is put together, the existence of those correlations shouldn’t come as a surprise. But I don’t feel any connection with either of those points of view, and my own approach to music, which has to do with cultural history and the fuzzy boundary between humor and horror, doesn’t seem to be a particularly gendered one.

Trans/Genderqueer Music?

While I don’t think of my work as specifically female, I do think of it as specifically genderqueer. Just as I often feel like I’m standing outside the world of gendered meanings, aware of them but never seeing them as inevitable natural facts like so many humans seem to do, I also tend to feel like I’m standing outside the world of artistic meanings. The discourse surrounding music tends to take certain value judgments for granted, although the value judgments vary with the musical style being discussed: complexity is better than simplicity, or emotional expression is better than cerebral formalism, or change is better than repetition, or raw authenticity is better than glitzy artifice, or whatever. But when I look at the world of music, I see an elaborate, sometimes gloriously absurd game, in which all of those rules are arbitrary conventions. Even though, objectively speaking, I’m an insider in the classical music world—I’ve been studying it formally since I was a kid, and I’ve been in academia for ten years—I always wind up feeling like an outsider, no matter what city or scene or university department I’m in. The fact that I’m a composer rather than some other kind of artist feels more like an accident of my personal history than something that was destined to happen. That’s why so much of my work looks at culture “from the outside,” to the extent that that’s possible—whether it’s commenting on mid-century love songs, faux world music, or TV sound logos.

The four songs of Behind the Wallpaper go one step further. In that piece, I tried to convey an outsider’s view not just of music, but of the experience of living in the world. I’ve written before about wanting to address trans issues in my work, and this set of songs is as explicit as I’ve gotten—especially “Unnatural,” which describes seeing people’s clothing and hairstyles as a set of social signifiers and concludes with the line “you make me feel like an unnatural woman,” and “This American Life,” which includes the image of someone in an uncomfortably tight dress being laughed at by a drunk person in a bar. Both songs can be interpreted in other ways—Connie Volk, who premiered the piece, clearly had no trouble relating to “Unnatural” despite not being trans herself, and one listener interpreted “This American Life” as being about a cisgender woman who feels uneasy about what she has to wear to work (the song also mentions a tedious part-time job). That’s fine with me; my hope is that anyone who’s ever felt alienated, for any reason, will be able to relate to the piece on some level. But I also wanted to create something that my fellow trans and/or genderqueer people in particular could listen to and say, “Yeah, I know what that’s like,” or maybe even, “You mean I’m not the only one who’s experienced that?” And it was important to me to make something that fills that role while at the same time being mysterious and subtle and strange, since, frankly, I find most trans art heavy-handed and way too fond of the word “fierce.” (Imogen Binnie’s novel Nevada is pretty fantastic, though. Go read that.)

Performance and Performativity (isn’t that a Jane Austen novel?)

In 2007 and 2008, I wrote a large-scale narrative piece called The Travels of E.C. Dumonde. It was the first thing I’d written for myself as a vocalist (mostly speaking, occasionally singing), and I performed it seven times in and around New York. At the time I thought of myself as a guy, albeit one with gender-bendy tendencies. In the video of me performing the piece at Roulette in 2008, I have a beard, and I deliberately use the low part of my vocal register; I was afraid at the time that my naturally high voice came across as un-adult.

I started describing myself as genderqueer, and began my ludicrously slow and still ongoing transition, right around when I left New York for Chicago in 2009. I didn’t perform Dumonde for a few years after that. The way I talked gradually shifted, along with the way I dressed, the way I carried myself, and the pronouns I preferred (for the record, I’m fine with either “she” or “they”). [Update, 10.22.15: since I wrote this article I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with being referred to using neutral pronouns, so it’s just “she” now.] Last fall I finally revived the piece, as part of a show with Grant Wallace Band at Gallery Cabaret. And when I did, I found that performing it was a totally different experience. Not only did I use a different part of my vocal register—that’s so automatic at this point that I don’t think I could sound the way I did in 2008 even if I wanted to—but the piece’s affect had changed. Dumonde in 2012 is less stentorian than Dumonde in 2008; it has more of a raised eyebrow and smile in it, influenced by Miranda July’s unsettling spoken-word albums from the ’90s (which, appropriately enough, were what got me interested in vocal performance in the first place, along with my old favorite Laurie Anderson). I also feel vastly more comfortable in my own body when I perform than I used to; or, to put it another way, I now feel like I have a body, rather than a thing that carries my mind around. (Despite what I said about composers who have intense relationships with their bodies above, I think this has more to do with coming out and transitioning than with anything female-specific; I know trans men who have described feeling the same way.)

But here’s the strange thing: not only do I feel more at ease with myself performing Dumonde now than I did in 2008, but I also feel more at ease with myself performing Dumonde than I do in everyday life. And this, once again, has to do with being genderqueer as well as trans. Since I often think of my gender as performative anyway, actually performing on a stage is incredibly freeing. It means I can give myself permission to make use of femme iconography without getting self-conscious and worrying about whether other people will see it as somehow “fake.” (Although of course, fake can be just as good…)

A Bit About Politics

The one thing I haven’t addressed in this post is the political aspect of working as a trans, more-or-less female-identified composer. There are certainly stories I could tell. In the past few years, I’ve started to experience the sexist microagressions that I’d previously only heard about, including uncomfortably intense compliments from older male colleagues, the assumption that I must be a singer, and questions like, “Did you do the electronics yourself?” (something I was never asked once when I presented as male). On the flip side, I’ve had a couple of professional experiences where my gender identity wasn’t taken seriously, including one that looked an awful lot like blatant discrimination. But the truth is, I haven’t been out for long enough to have a clear, big-picture view of this aspect of the social landscape. I don’t even necessarily know how people are perceiving me at any given time, especially given the slowness of my transition, the persistence of old versions of me in other people’s minds, and my androgynous name. So keep an eye out, and maybe I’ll have more to say about the political side of things in a year or two.


Alex Temple
Alex Temple’s music lies somewhere between surrealism and pop art, using iconic musical and textual materials to evoke clusters of associations while distorting and recombining them in order to create new meanings. In addition to collaborating with a variety of performers and ensembles, including Mellissa Hughes, Timothy Andres, the American Composers Orchestra, Fifth House Ensemble, and Spektral Quartet, Alex also does eerie electronic storytelling and plays synths and melodica for other composers. She’s currently living in Chicago, working on a DM at Northwestern University, and writing a podcast-opera about TV production company closing logos and the end of the world.