Author: Colin Holter

A Newly Endowed Residency Program for Underrepresented Composers

orchestra in a concert hall

Sitting in the Oberlin Conservatory’s large rehearsal room listening to the musicians of the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra (NOYO) rehearse for the world premiere of Kari Watson’s Morning Music for Fish, their excitement in anticipation of the concert is palpable—and infectious. It’s a welcome sensation: the extraordinary variety and vibrancy of music-making in 2019 is undeniable, yet so is the constant hand-wringing that now seems to be a permanent feature of the classical music discourse. But if the futures of arts education and Western concert music are really as dire as they sometimes appear, why are the seventy northeastern Ohio high-schoolers in this room so psyched to be playing music nobody’s ever played before? The short answer: because of Arlene and Larry Dunn, whose most recent gift to NOYO has endowed its composer-in-residence program.

The NOYO Philharmonia Orchestra’s world premiere performance of Kari Watson’s Morning Music for Fish in Finney Chapel on March 31, 2019. (David Pope, conductor)

If you’re a jelly bean in the great glass jar that is New Music Social Media, it’s a near-certainty that you’ve encountered Arlene and Larry Dunn in the form of some virtual avatar or other. I first crossed their path as a graduate student around seven years ago; they must have seen my byline here on NewMusicBox and assumed that I was a bona fide member of the field (an extension of the benefit of the doubt that no student composer could forget). It’s safe to say Arlene and Larry are the biggest fans of contemporary music in the United States who are not personally in the business. To practitioners who inhabit our small world, that anyone not in it for themselves could be a fan can come as a mild surprise: it’s a difficult world to love sometimes, exasperating even when everyone is treating each other with civility (which they don’t, always). But Arlene and Larry are indefatigable advocates both for what new music is and—crucially—for what it should be.

Arlene and Larry Dunn are indefatigable advocates both for what new music is and—crucially—for what it should be.

The Dunns have found a vector for that advocacy in the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra, on whose board Larry has served. “For us, it is essential that the NOYO composer-in-residence program is specifically focused on commissioning work from a composer of underrepresented status: people of color, women, LGBTQ,” says Arlene. “The only way we are going to move towards racial and gender equity in the arts, or anywhere else, is by taking such concrete steps.” Showing young musicians that composers are not found exclusively in the ranks of the white male dead is a vital part of NOYO’s mission to provide exceptional musical education through a variety of performance opportunities for participants of all backgrounds in an inclusive community of learning and growth. When NOYO’s artistic staff puts a composition on a high school musician’s stand by a composer who looks like them, that’s not just a way to broaden their sonic horizons: it’s a way to demonstrate that anyone can be a composer, that everyone has an aesthetic position to take, and that those positions warrant respect.

Arlene and Larry Dunn

Arlene and Larry Dunn. (Photo by Tina Tallon)

To that end, the Dunns decided to take action with a transformative gift to NOYO: a contribution to the organization’s 50th anniversary endowment campaign that will endow the position of composer-in-residence in perpetuity. Each season, NOYO solicits proposals from Oberlin Conservatory composition students—students, in particular, from underrepresented populations—to write a piece for NOYO’s advanced Philharmonia Orchestra to premiere on its March concert. The selected composers will now each be known as an Arlene and Larry Dunn Composer-In-Residence.

The Dunns’ transformative gift to NOYO will endow the position of composer-in-residence in perpetuity.

Why now? As it happens, 2019 doesn’t just mark NOYO’s 50th anniversary—it also marks Arlene and Larry’s. “It’s a delightful synchronicity that NOYO’s 50th anniversary and our 50th wedding anniversary are happening in the same year,” Arlene explains. “We were looking for opportunities to celebrate our 50th that benefit the community, and giving to the NOYO endowment campaign to secure the future of the composer-in-residence program was a perfect fit.” For NOYO’s part, the organization is readier now than ever for such a program. “[Former executive director] Mike Roest asked me to join the board in 2014 to help re-energize the organization after some lean years,” says Larry. “What NOYO has accomplished since then, under Mike’s leadership and the team that has succeeded him, is truly remarkable, in terms of number of participants and the growing breadth of program offerings.” And the position that NOYO has staked out with regard to new work is bold: in addition to the Dunn Composer-In-Residence Program, NOYO offers its high-school-age participants the opportunity to invent their own music in the Lab Group, a collaborative composing ensemble, and to hear their compositions played by Oberlin Conservatory musicians through a composition competition. “One of my ambitions as a board member was to encourage the organization to engage more with the music of right now, by commissioning and creating new works,” Larry recalls. “To see this come to fruition with the composer-in-residence program and the Lab Group is very gratifying.” Arlene concurs: “We’re proud to be supporting NOYO in two dimensions that deeply resonate with us: striving for social justice and equity in serving the community and sparking and unleashing young people’s creativity.”

But NOYO’s young musicians, who come to Oberlin from all over northern Ohio each week to rehearse, aren’t the only beneficiaries of the program. Oberlin Conservatory composition professor Jesse Jones can vouch for the residency’s value to his students, including current composer in residence Kari Watson and 2017-18 composer-in-residence Soomin Kim (retroactively included in the program):

I have witnessed first-hand the artistic and professional growth this incredible program has provided them; they are afforded the rare opportunity to workshop ideas and receive feedback on their works in progress; they build a professional working relationship with both the conductors and instrumentalists; they get to practice effective verbal communication with a large ensemble; they even gain first-hand teaching experience by mentoring budding composers within the ensemble. The Dunn residency is an indispensable part of our young composers’ education here at Oberlin, and I know Kari and Soomin both view it as a high point in their burgeoning musical careers.

Kari Watson

Kari Watson

Watson and Kim have approached the prospect of composing for NOYO’s Philharmonia Orchestra as an invitation to reflect on their own experiences as high school musicians and reacquaint themselves with the joy that youth music-making can bring. “When I went to rehearsals, it really reminded me of when I was young,” says Kim. “I used to play the piano when I was young, and my parents would come to every single little concert I had at school. [Attending NOYO rehearsals] just reminded me a lot of my family and how they used to support me, seeing the parents sitting at the lounge waiting for the kids.” Referring to the upcoming premiere of her Morning Music for Fish, Watson notes that “this piece was a very joyful thing to write. I started this year with aims to write a different dark piece, working slowly and not feeling that much excitement. This piece and the experience refueled my creative love for music making. Going to NOYO rehearsals made me so happy, and I haven’t felt as much joy surrounding music as I have there in so long.”

“The key to success for arts organizations is to make yourself essential to your community.”

The Arlene and Larry Dunn Composer-In-Residence Program is an initiative that weaves together the Dunns’ passions for contemporary music and social justice with NOYO’s mission of access and inclusion. “I’ve long thought that the key to success for arts organizations and other non-profits is to make yourself essential to your community,” says Larry. “And the best way to do that is to deliver something of value to their children, which is exactly what NOYO is doing.” In this case, the “something” is new music—and to the young musicians of the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra, its value is self-evident.

Sounds Heard: Thomas DeLio—Selected Compositions (1991-2013)

Thomas DeLio
Selected Compositions (1991-2013)
(Neuma 450-108 & 450-201)

Neuma catalog items 450-108 and 450-201 are, respectively, a CD and a DVD (whose job is mostly to support multichannel audio; only one piece includes a video component) that together represent a 22-year retrospective of the music of Thomas DeLio. Twenty-three pieces composed between 1991 and 2013 are included on these discs.

If you’ve ever been curious about DeLio’s catalog, you’ll find plenty to engage with here. If you already hold DeLio in high esteem—he’s been counted by some among the most important living exponents of post-Cageian American experimentalism—you’ll love having all of these pieces within easy reach so you can relive them whenever the spirit moves you. If you feel—as others I’ve spoken with about DeLio’s music do—that this particular emperor has no clothes, Neuma’s collection offers the perfect chance to reevaluate that conviction. And if, like me, you’re pulled cyclically toward and away from DeLio’s music and the discourse around it, these two discs provide an ideal checkerboard on which to allow your feelings about this insistently elusive music to play out once and for all.

The CD booklet includes the following mission statement, one I remember very clearly from my first brushes with DeLio’s output more than a decade ago and which bears excerpting here:

As William Carlos Williams once said of Gertrude Stein: “Stein has gone systematically to work smashing every connotation that words have ever had, in order to get them back clean.” I too admire Stein for this reason and, following in the footsteps of those who have tried to do the same for sound, would like to move away from gesture process and get sound back “clean.” My approach to composition, to which I came quite subconsciously, involves reducing the music’s surface to just a few sounds separated—pushed apart—by large quantities of silence; sound events pushed into isolation. Often writers and scholars comment that my music is about silence. However, it is actually about sound. I use silence, among other things, to frame sound so that we may experience it in new ways, highlighting qualities of sound perhaps otherwise lost. […] I argue for wiping the slate clean and rediscovering sound beneath all the rhetoric and dated mannerisms which have accumulated over so many years and, in the process, really coming to grips with the nature of our own experience—a complex task indeed.

Although I found a great deal to enjoy in these substantial Neuma releases, I did so for exactly the opposite reason to the one that DeLio seems (according to his elevator pitch) to have intended: DeLio’s music purports to get sound back “clean,” but it’s the dirt in his sounds—that which we track in on our shoes, so to speak, no less than that which collects during each piece—that makes these recordings so worthwhile.

There are two kinds of pieces on these discs, more or less: pieces with live performers and pieces that exist on fixed media only (here charmingly called “tape” pieces in spite of their inescapably digital pedigrees). In both kinds, per DeLio’s liner note, isolated sounds are separated by long silences. As Agostino di Scipio points out in “Notes on Digital Silence: Listening to Tom DeLio’s Short Tape Works,” there’s an ontological difference between silence in a concert work for live performers and the digitally encoded silence in a fixed-media piece; either way, however, a DeLio experience (to one who knows what to listen for) is generally recognizable as such, and recognizably distinct from pieces emerging from other experimental music traditions in which silence figures so significantly (scores published by Edition Wandelweiser, onkyokei performances, etc.). In “Luminous Presence: Thomas DeLio’s think on parch,” Linda Dusman writes that DeLio and composers like him reject “the musical languages and forms of the dominant culture and seeks to create newly with each work the distinctive style established by each composer.” Whether or not it can honestly be said to emerge “newly” with each work, the “distinctive style” DeLio has established is unflagging, regardless of medium.

To the extent, then, that hearing one of DeLio’s pieces should be an exercise in the decontextualization of unsullied sounds, the fixed-media pieces and the instrumental pieces function in much the same way. But, as I’ve already indicated, I don’t think these pieces are simply exercises in the decontextualization of unsullied sounds: thankfully, the sounds come pre-sullied. That’s where the meat of this literature lies, for me, and that’s where the fixed-media pieces and the instrumental pieces diverge categorically.
The fixed-media works are full of sounds which are by no means fully drained of the “rhetoric and dated mannerisms” DeLio aspires to eliminate. Indeed, they’re full of gestures, and very sensuous and richly legible gestures to boot. Song: “Foxrock near Dublin…”, the first track on the DVD, has recourse to a bridge-of-the-Enterprise ambience beneath fractured lines from poet P. Inman (a presence throughout the discs—more on him later). Meanwhile …transients, in which DeLio processes the recording of his transients/images for piano and percussion and then strives (in an anti-musique concrète instrumentale) to “project those sonorities not as the products of actions or gestures—the products of purpose—but as purely physical [i.e., sonic, acoustic] realities.” To my ear, this doesn’t really happen: in fact, it’s the traces of the original “physical realities” of performance that are truly at issue in the piece.

Even though DeLio encourages us in words to approach each moment in his music as a lone and unmoored present, the pieces themselves encourage us to make connections backwards and forwards in time. In the fixed-media pieces especially, this is a matter not only of the piece’s duration but also of historical time: on a technical level, the electroacoustic pieces’ use of resonators and phase vocoding point very clearly to the 1990s, an inevitable (but possibly trivializing) result of following Fredric Jameson’s charge to “always historicize”—the last thing DeLio seems to want us to do. “sam”, for fixed-media sound and video, inhabits circling repetitions or near-repetitions for almost eighteen minutes, a lifetime compared to most of the fixed-media pieces on these discs. The version of “sam” on the DVD is an adaptation of an installation, which might explain its length; even in truncated form, it’s a piece that develops its own history and web of internal relationships that militate against the primacy of the sequestered moment.
The instrumental pieces, naturally, avail themselves of a different palette. A word here about the performances: although they’re uniformly superb in both precision and spirit, the works for percussion are especially noteworthy. DeLio is fortunate to have strong advocates (in capacities as varied as conductor, performer, interlocutor, and analyst) in Christopher Shultis and Tom Goldstein, whose efforts have probably brought more listeners into contact with DeLio’s music than any others’. However, all of the renditions showcased here are faithful and tight, and they all deserve praise for keeping the quality of such a huge undertaking so high. (That the Philharmonia Bulgarica recorded the three-and-a-half minute Than is itself remarkable—who expected to find an orchestra piece on these discs?) And of course they all sound great, especially on a set of decent headphones; that’s one way in which “sound” is importantly thematized that I can’t complain about.

It’s not only the sound worlds of the instrumental pieces that differ critically from the fixed-media pieces: because the embodied effort of producing instrumental or vocal sounds is so much greater than the effort of processing or reproducing sounds electronically, DeLio’s instrumental works—which I haven’t heard live in recent years but used to encounter from time to time on programs at UMBC—engage with a sort of economics of sound. Unlike his fixed-media pieces, in which sound is “cheap,” his instrumental pieces are like manipulated markets in which sound is made more valuable by virtue of its scarcity. In these pieces, performers have to reckon with the long silences between sounds, incorporating them into a performance practice. (Goldstein has written about this very consideration.) The piano solo Though, performed on the CD by Jacques Linder, establishes just such a market, and its silences rely on the sounds that they follow to create a sense of desire —at least, this is my experience of the piece: a family of small, handcrafted objects, fascinating individually and as a set, for the next of which we have to wait. As though, another solo played here by Twin Cities percussionist Jeffrey Gram, works similarly, fabricating desire by separating gestures—and let’s not pretend they’re not gestures. DeLio writes:

Among other things, in this work I was very interested in drawing attention to the distinction between non-pitched and pitched sound. Toward this end, I introduced only one pitch into the composition, near the end—one very peculiar type of sound framed by the more complex sounds of the un-pitched percussion employed throughout the piece. My purpose was to try to return pitch to its place as “sound”; to strip it of its function as a mere element of language (melodic, harmonic, tonal or atonal).

There’s nothing “mere” about being an element of language, and even if there were, then shouldn’t the piece’s “more complex” percussive sounds—many of which also carry a perceivable pitch—be held equally accountable? To my mind, the sudden appearance of a ringing metallophone in as though only reinforces the suspicion that the pitch-content to be heard in what DeLio calls the “un-pitched” percussion instruments might be expressive, too. I want to make a mountain out of this molehill, and DeLio wants me to forget about it and direct my attention to the next molehill.

DeLio’s aesthetic is a kind of “innocent modernism” in which we imagine that sound is “just sound” rather than imagining, say, that all parameters of musical material can be graduated into twelve equal-sized slices—both then-necessary but ultimately now-false ideals. It does less injury to “sound” than other kinds of musical modernism, maybe, but the word “sound” has quotation marks around it here because sound isn’t actually a thing you can do injury to. This is the root of my objection to DeLio’s project: every sound that appears in his music was produced by human labor of some kind or another; every sound’s source has an historical specificity; many of the sounds include splinters of semantic languages; all of the sounds in a piece can be related to one another in a hierarchical way (or, more accurately, many possible hierarchical ways). They are not just sounds, and what the lengthy silences that are supposed to cut them off from their kin are actually doing is giving a listener time and space to assemble them into meaningful networks.

Consider American poet P. Inman’s voice, which features in several fixed-media works and whose character at times evokes the stray pre-song utterances found on early Todd Rundgren albums. I’ll digress briefly for a look at Inman’s orientation toward poetry, which mirrors DeLio’s to music in important ways. Dusman identifies an intersection in Inman’s writing (whose fundamental unit is not the phrase or the sentence but the individual word) of the imminent (“meaning is always imminent in his poetry, emerging in the moment from the multiple possible readings produced and present in each moment”) and the immanent (“At the same time meaning is immanent; that is, its meaning wells up from the word itself”). Inman conceives of his work in a political way:

Capitalist ideology hopes to dilute or deny the existence of anything other than the everyday given. By doing so current ideology stagnates thought, replaces the possibility of change with the statistic, frozen black on paper, legitimized by its very inertia.

(That may have been true when Inman wrote it in 1979, but it certainly isn’t now: capitalist ideologies in the 21st century are increasingly predicated on the construction of desire, the commodification of affect. They change constantly and appear in terrifyingly vivid colors. They haunt us so thoroughly that I had to turn to those very terms to properly describe my reaction to Though.)

In DeLio’s case, that meaning emerges in his pieces imminently is clear to me. The act of waiting is an essential part of hearing his music, and not only in Though one hears a sound, and then one has to wait some time to hear another. It’s just that these episodes are cumulative; each new one doesn’t negate all the ones that have come before it. Dusman’s description of DeLio’s music as a threshold experience is absolutely correct; the listener spends a great deal of time on the threshold between the apprehension of the piece he or she has thus far developed and the apprehension of the piece he or she will have after the next sound event, which will necessarily alter the former in an unexpected way. This is an intensely dramatic experience, at least for me, but it only works precisely because meaning in DeLio’s music is not constructed immanently but rather negotiated by the conditional and conditioned particularity of each sound-event within the piece’s world and the resonances of those sound-events in the world outside of the piece. DeLio may want to wash his hands of “geology, astrology, and acupuncture,” to paraphrase Grisey, but we should be grateful that he hasn’t been entirely successful—because this very contradiction is what makes
these Neuma discs so magisterial, their contents so captivating.

Maybe this is DeLio’s ultimate revenge on a new music community bent on overthought, on subjectivity run amok, on indulgences in memory and gesture, both of which he reviles: maybe he’s spent a career writing pieces whose insights are revealed only when the discourse around it is considered and then disregarded. This isn’t a review of that discourse, nor of DeLio’s prose writings, nor of his interlocutors’, of course; it’s a review of a CD and DVD that contain a sizable helping of recorded and fixed-media music. He was very nearly right all along: the worthiest ambassador for DeLio (to whom I’m happy to yield the last laugh) is the music—not to say the sound—itself.

Note: If you’re going to investigate the CD and DVD set, you might as well also investigate Essays on the Music and Theoretical Writings of Thomas DeLio, Contemporary American Composer (Thomas Licata, ed.), a collection of articles and commentaries that argue passionately—if not always, as I’ve opined above, persuasively—for DeLio’s work. I’m pleased to have had the chance to cite its contents several times in this review.

Sounds Heard: Big Robot

Big Robot
Big Robot
Unmanned Studios
Viewing last year’s self-titled DVD from Indianapolis “computer-acoustic trio” Big Robot is an exercise in forbearance. The DVD includes six audiovisual pieces, the last of which is divided into three movements; all of this material works by suggesting and then withholding, cannily but almost ceaselessly, the formal and rhetorical identifications, explicit visual and auditory referents, and narrative connections that, by the end of the DVD, we’re made to crave.

Big Robot comprises Scott Deal, Michael Drews, and Jordan Munson, all of whom are affiliated with IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis)—a mouthful of a school whose Arts and Humanities Institute is credited in the DVD’s acknowledgments. Each of these collaborators has a distinct instrumental specialty, but “programming” is chalked to all three; although Munson (winds) receives the nod for “video,” it is indicated that Drews (keyboards/guitar) and Deal (percussion) furnished some assistance in this department as well. Composition and improvisation, planning and spontaneity by the group and by its constituents, intermingle in an unknowable but apparently near-equal proportion—and the degree of aesthetic single-mindedness in evidence on the DVD is impressive: Deal, Drews, and Munson, who have been working with one another since 2009, have cultivated a strong sense of ensemble and shared purpose that knits together every track.

Indeed, throughout the DVD we encounter shapes, whispers, and intimations issued with a delicacy that requires such thorough creative sympathy. At the center of Big Robot’s DVD is the relationship between the only-partially-heard and the only-partially-seen. The only-partially-heard has many guises here—the tumbled and distressed sounds of various instruments and synths and even a voice or two, all with a distinctly digital flavor. The only-partially-seen is often people, or at least one suspects it is: fleeting and heavily processed images of what seems to be a person walking, what seems to be a person leaving a car, what seems to be a person’s face. These alienated, once-quotidian images invite us to hear their musical accompaniments in the same light—as defamiliarized everyday sounds that tantalize us most when they skirt the outermost edges of our recognition.

That’s not to say that Big Robot doesn’t occasionally indulge in some rather more straightforward moments, too. Jackwalk, the fourth piece on the DVD, includes some material reminiscent of the opening credits of an unprecedentedly opaque CBS procedural—CSI, Twin Peaks, maybe. But even in that case, the simple decision to bring this material back later on has a profound effect, because it lets us apprehend the intervening stuff as a temporary breakdown rather than a return to the status quo. Noir, meanwhile, has a much firmer narrative framework than the other pieces on the DVD; it’s more an unsparingly edited sequence of slasher flick outtakes than an experimental video piece of the sort Big Robot has trained us to expect. It’s a surprising but genuinely bold move to explore a sound world that many lay listeners find ominous and menacing while showing us a Volvo stranded in the rain at night, a mysterious wooden box with a portentous, impossible photo in it, and a creep with burlap on his face—exactly the kind of images that those of us more accustomed to drones, shrieks, and sub-100Hz bumps in the night have probably stopped associating with the sensorium of experimental music. Big Robot is challenging us: have we really scrubbed those horror-movie accretions from our hearing brains, or can we still be scared by electroacoustic music?

The DVD’s final gesture, however, betokens a less confrontational turn: among the very last images we see in From the Ripples of a Towering Ocean III is what appears (as always, it’s hard to say for sure) to be one of the group’s members. It looks like he’s exposing “the cross points of virtual and physical gesture,” as the group’s blurb has it, by performing tracked motions that correspond to (and are no doubt somehow responsible for) the piece’s audio. The possibility that one of Big Robot’s human operators has popped up to bid us farewell at the DVD’s conclusion is a pleasing one, and not just because it reminds us that these three musicians are more than just three chutes emptying into a single churning vat, as the monolithic unity of the DVD sometimes implies. For Big Robot to show us part of itself is for it to commit the ultimate vulnerability, to subtly break character just in time for the curtain call. It’s the perfect way for the DVD to end, and I encourage you to pick up a copy so you can enjoy this small but generous reveal—and the very un-small, un-generous plane of sound and light that precedes it—for yourself.

This Is the End: On Having Been a Student Composer

This is my last post. Rereading my very first post—March 15, 2006—I’m reminded just how much time has passed since I started making these weekly attempts to better understand contemporary music. By March 2006 I’d been a student composer for four and a half years already, and that’s how I’ve spent the intervening six years. I won’t be one for much longer, though: My doctoral dissertation defense is scheduled for today. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be leaving student composerhood behind me forever. It’s my last chance to offer some personal retrospection on the difficulties and contradictions of being a student composer; I hope you don’t mind.

I am an excellent student. My SAT and GRE scores are, by a wide margin, the best things about me. The only B you’ll find on my transcripts—and that’s going all the way back to ninth grade—is attached to my first semester of composition instruction with James Dillon. Competitive merit-based awards have allowed me to pass through several public research universities without accruing any debt. But now I’m a doctor, not a student, and it doesn’t do you any good to be an excellent student if you’re not a student. It does you good to be an excellent composer.

I am not an excellent composer. I’m a composer with a lot of bright ideas and a very low successful-piece-to-bright-idea ratio. Anyone who knows my music will tell you this: It’s a stew of half-formulated hypotheses, faulty assumptions about what is and isn’t perceptible, and too-clever moves that neither fulfill nor challenge conventional experiential expectations. It would be really swell to assert that after eleven years of higher education in music I’ve become an excellent composer, but I can’t.

It’s a commonplace that most of us write music in order to be heard, in order to give ourselves a voice in society. (The rhetoric of composers in underrepresented demographic groups often makes this desire explicit: They want to claim a channel on a cultural mixing board, so to speak, from which they’ve been unjustly excluded.) However, equally true but more uncomfortable to admit is the fact that we also write music in order to be overheard. Looking back at eleven years of student pieces, it seems that in every case—without exception—I made aesthetic decisions in the hope that they’d be overheard and respected by my teachers, peers, and cultural superiors. As a devoted student, head-pats (explicit or implicit, of commission or omission) from one’s mentors are a powerful motivator. Unfortunately this need for approbation from the field is piped so subtly and deeply into one’s sense of self that one doesn’t even realize it’s activating one’s dopamine receptors.

I wish there were a lesson in this, but I don’t know that there is: I was rarely aware of my need to be overheard, and even when I was, I developed elaborate, unconscious ways of reorienting my ideology of music to rationalize this pathetic scramble for approval. Any warning I could offer would necessarily fall on deaf ears, just as it would have if someone had tried to warn me back in 2002. Maybe you’re like me in this regard and maybe you’re not; if you are, though, you probably don’t recognize it. And now, of course, if I needed someone to overhear me, I’d have to reach out to a virtuoso soloist or the artistic director of an ensemble; if I needed to be patted on the head, I’d have to align what I do with what I think festival organizers or publishers want to see. It wouldn’t be psychologically healthy, in any case. It’s time to stop worrying about being overheard. That’s what I’ve learned since 2006.

These observations and reflections weren’t easily pried out of my experience of student composerhood. The mental exercise of writing a few hundred words a week for NewMusicBox was utterly instrumental in developing the critical perspective necessary to finish this journey. I want to extend my most sincere thanks to Molly, Frank, and all of NewMusicBox’s staff for giving me the latitude to speculate and polemicize, to my fellow bloggers for giving me plenty to scratch my head over, and to everyone who read the ever-shifting contents of my brain here. If you see me around, say hi.

Invite a Bird Inside

Like David Smooke, I have to say I got a chuckle or three from the Portlandia sketch in which smiling hipsters emblazon everything in arms’ reach with the silhouette of a bird. And like David, the problem of stock compositional “moves” weighs on my mind: What are the consequences of returning to a much-drawn-from personal well of musical ideas (at any level, from concrete material or sounds to formal or experiential shapes)? The joke of the Portlandia bit, of course, is that (spoiler alert) when a real bird enters the store, it causes a panic among the affronted employees and results in much physical comedy. Not only do the chipper shopkeepers lean heavily on a played-out design, treating it as a colorful panacea for consumer fatigue; they also venerate the anthropogenically friendlied likeness of an animal whose sudden appearance in the flesh terrifies them. Thus, the image of the bird is instrumentalized, but the bird itself disrupts the comfortable routines of production.

This is the dialectic of putting a bird on it. Similarly, the drive to return to familiar tropes and contours can be viewed as a tendency with two poles, each with a positive and a negative valence: On the one hand, relying compulsively and uncritically on favorite compositional gestures (or, more accurately, the memory of these gestures) plasters the image of the bird across the surface of a piece in a way that is unfair to the spirit of the original gesture and to whatever imagined immanence we grant the piece at hand…but it lends to a charmless object, an inert or uncharacteristic chunk of music, a profile that constructs the identity of its author. On the other, contending with the real live bird by analyzing and problematizing the gesture (through deconstruction, oversaturation, etc., etc.) can put the brakes on the process of composition and rupture the fabric of the piece…or it can spark a very fruitful and thought-provoking confrontation with one’s aesthetic that could pay long-term creative dividends.

The challenge, it seems to me, is navigating the distinction between the safe, predictable practice of putting a bird on one’s music and the chaotic, possibly destructive practice of introducing a bird into one’s music. I strive for the latter but too often find myself, like Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, content with the former.

Judgement Call

Maybe some of you remember an article that appeared in Harp Column some nine years ago that addresses composers considering writing for the harp (I’m afraid the copy I received doesn’t include the author’s name). The article includes the following remarkable passage under the subtitle “Detuning the harp”:

Once upon a time, I played a piece for nine harps. Three were at normal tuning, three were tuned a third tone low, and three were tuned a third tone high. It was kind of an interesting sound, but I am not sure those harps ever recovered. If your art insists on unusual tunings, please keep the following in mind: After the harp is retuned, it will not hold for several days. If there is anything else on the program requiring harp, the pitch will not hold for that piece. If there is anything else on the same half of the program requiring harp, the harp will have to be retuned while the audience waits (it has happened to me). It causes all kinds of weird strains on the instrument to be at a different pitch. It ruins the strings. However, having said all of that, I am an artist at heart. Do what you have to do!

In an unrelated story, I recently found myself for the first time in some years walking down a music school hallway in the shadow of a looming performance, clutching a part and hoping to find someone to play it. Having written many semesters’ worth of unwarrantedly difficult music, I’ve lived many times over the student composer’s plight when it comes to locking down players in the absence of a carrot or a stick. But this time—a matter of weeks away from my Ph.D. defense—something in me put its earnest little foot down: I am never doing this again.

According to The Internet, you can drop over ten thousand dollars on a harp. Even a set of strings can run you fifty or more. Consider an economy that can accommodate both the harpist’s double admonition—”keep the following in mind,” but “do what you have to do”—and the misery of begging musicians with no investment in your music to play it with no hope of compensation. Consider an economy that can accommodate both the close, career-long relationships that blossom between ensembles and composers and the hundreds of hopeful submissions sent to the 2012 Parma Student Composers Competition.

The field of production has a lush end and a barren end. In the same way that I exhorted composers several weeks ago to be critical about concerts, I exhort you now to be critical (and I know that many of you already are) about the way what composers do is transformed into music. Don’t let someone let you destroy their harp. Don’t debase yourself just to get an ass in a black stage chair. “Do what you have to do,” but remember that you get to decide what you have to do.

The Lie of Exposure

I didn’t intend to keep hammering away at last week’s already thoroughly beaten theme, but a recent performance at an Eagles Aerie (#34, if you must know) here in Minneapolis sent me right back to the surprisingly controversial topic of concerts. I don’t know how many of
you have set foot in an Eagles Aerie before, but it is by no means a conventional contemporary music performance space: A bar, but not the kind of bar new music usually happens in; a ballroom, but not the kind of ballroom classical music is usually played in; art hanging on the walls, but not the kind of art that usually hangs on the walls of galleries where a sound installation is taking place. In fact, this Aerie featured not one but three (four?) large rooms with stages. Last night’s bill, which included not only new pieces but also a Schubert quartet, some free improv from yours truly and friends, and a DJ, was presented one room away from a slightly larger room in which a zydeco band was keeping the dance floor densely trafficked.

I’m not sure what prompted master of ceremonies Colin Hacklander, a composer and percussionist who splits his time between the Twin Cities and Berlin, to pursue Eagles #34 as a venue for experimental music, but I’m glad he did it: for one thing, a ballroom with tables and chairs lends itself nicely to a bill with several acts that can be distributed among the room’s corners. For another, the material was suited a to a relatively informal context in which listeners were free to wander about and get some beer between sets. And the fraternal
decor suffused the proceedings with an aura that you won’t find at King’s Place or the Ordway.

The only disappointment was that (except for in the bar, that great equalizer) there seemed to be virtually no overlap between the regulars and the new music listeners. The Eagles’ hospitality was unimpeachable, but not a one of them, to the best of my knowledge, joined us dorks and hipsters. It’s often floated as an article of received wisdom that the spoils of moving shows outside of the concert hall consist in the outsiders we can bring in; if that’s so, the process surely isn’t as simple as throwing a concert of new music in a building frequented by people who wouldn’t ordinarily go. What, then, besides Coors Light, is the silver bullet?

Be Our Guest!

If you were to measure contemporary music as a socially constitutive quantity, what units would you use? The most obvious unit might be the piece (pc.)—as in, composer x produced y pc. of music over the past year, our national GDP of contemporary music is such and such thousand pc., and so on. But in the absence of performances, how useful is it, really, to know how many pieces are being written? That might be very informative vis à vis the practice of Western composition, but it doesn’t necessarily speak to the volume of contemporary music in production: For that, we’d need another unit—the concert.

The field of performance history is based on this very notion: To know how many, when, where, by whom, and for whom concerts are produced is to know a great deal about the social shape of contemporary music in a particular historical and geographic context. Concerts are where written music becomes music, period; they’re where listeners’ subjectivities can finally regard the objects we devise for them, objects which come to seem almost like subjects themselves. In short, written music is vivified into aesthetic experience by concerts and by concerts only. All of this goes without saying.

Conversely, if you’re in a position to decide when, where, by whom, and for whom a concert might be presented, you hold a great deal of power. You can make it easy or difficult for people to get to. You can make it at the same time as other things (other concerts, appointment TV viewing, Gophers hockey) or not at the same time as those things. You can facilitate dialogue between the musicians and the audience during the concert or prohibit it. You can decide what the space looks like. You can decide how large an audience you want to be able to accommodate. You can, in effect, decide how the people who spend their evening with you will spend their evening (or whatever time of day it is), and by extension you can exert some measure of influence over whether they’ll come back next time.

There is, in other words, no excuse to be careless with concerts—no excuse for unthoughtful programming, no excuse for allowing people to be noisy outside, no excuse for doing anything less than your utmost to make the concert experience competitive with anything else someone might be filling one’s night with. There are plenty of ways to do it right and plenty of ways to do it wrong. Musicians are accustomed to keeping their eyes on the prize—namely, a great performance—but it’s easy to forget that the prize, for the audience, is not having wasted one’s time.

Graduate School: A Backward Glance

As I write this post, it’s been almost exactly six years since my first contribution to NewMusicBox’s ongoing conversation went live: My assignment, if you’ll remember, was to offer a grad student’s perspective on contemporary music. Very soon, however, I won’t be a grad student anymore, and I won’t be able to comment meaningfully on a landscape of opportunities, anxieties, and epiphanies that must be quite different even now than it was six years ago. My last post on NewMusicBox will appear on April 25, the day I defend my doctoral dissertation.

In the handful of posts remaining to me, I’d like to examine some of the issues that my rounds in the ring as a NewMusicBoxer have clarified for me. For starters, let’s talk about the condition that got me into this gig in the first place. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on graduate school, and I’d like to share my conclusions with you now:

Do not go to graduate school.

That’s putting it a bit bluntly. I’ll try again:

Do not go to graduate school in music right after college unless someone else is paying for it and you really can’t see yourself doing anything else.

Let’s say you’re a composer finishing up your four (to six) years of undergrad, possibly with the extra burden of student debt. You’re looking for a way to refine your craft and get ahead in the field of new music. Your professors, with the absolute noblest of intentions, might advise you to consider a master’s degree. You apply to a few programs, and they get back to you with offers of fellowships and assistantships that seem no less remunerative and stable than the entry-level jobs you might be filling your days with as a recent college graduate. Why not accept one of these offers? Let me hit you with a few reasons.

First, the opportunity cost is very high. By the time you leave grad school—particularly if you continue through a doctorate—you won’t be competitive for the very entry-level jobs outside of music that you could have gotten into when you were leaving undergrad. There’ll be a whole raft of people who spent their twenties acquiring work experience (and, in all likelihood, getting paid more than you) who will elbow you aside if you decide to jump ship once your advanced degrees are complete.

Second, even if you do everything right, what happens when the time comes to look for a job in music? The “default” path seems to have been to find a university teaching position, but you don’t need me to tell you that’s easier said than done. Furthermore, regardless of your professional qualifications, not everybody is inclined to be a teacher—the prospect of spending years explaining key signatures to freshpeople may terrify you. (But what about jobs in arts administration, you ask? They have dedicated degrees in that now; I imagine you need one to snag one of those gigs. Tough noogies.)

Finally, the deprofessionalization of cultural production is now sufficiently advanced that we’ll all be out of our jobs in 25 years, probably. If you have the discipline to train in music, you could probably hack it in the more lucrative STEM fields as well; that’s what I recommend. You’ll be able to do more concrete good for family and country. Music is a much better hobby than a job, and we all know plenty of amateur musicians who derive (and even provide) as much satisfaction from music as pros.

I know it sounds like I’m arguing myself out of a job here, but as an instructor, I feel a duty not to mislead the students who have entrusted themselves to me and whose long-term livelihoods are the stakes of this discussion. However, let me attach a more hopeful postscript: Music schools around the country seem to be getting a little hipper to the notion that turning out highly specialized graduates doesn’t serve them well. If more grad programs in music adopt a philosophy that accommodates nontraditional means of making music and prepares its students for nontraditional careers, giving them a broad set of competences and tactics to eke out a place for themselves in this bewildering cultural marketplace, maybe grad school won’t be such a risky proposition: I hope that turns out to be the case, and I hope I can help in some modest way to bring these urgently needed changes about. After all these years of graduate school, it’s the least I can do.

Can’t Fight the Feeling

If it were just any old source of pop music criticism that had published a recent piece on the rise of “indie-classical” music, we in the contemporary music racket might throw up our hands and wonder what took them so long to make the observation that most other commentators twigged in 2010. But this isn’t just any source of pop music criticism: It’s Pitchfork.

It doesn’t matter what you think of Pitchfork’s rhapsodic swoons and disdainful shrugs. It doesn’t matter how many spotlights Pitchfork has shone on however many great unsung acts. What matters about Pitchfork is that they gave Travis Morrison’s extraordinary solo debut, the sui generis revelation Travistan, a crippling, spiteful, arithmetically nonsensical score of 0.0: Bold move. No one expects Pitchfork’s tastemakers to know about classical music; that’s a given. But if there’s one thing that Pitchfork should know about, if there’s one criterion by which they should be able to fairly weigh the souls of the past fifteen years’ bands, it’s indie.

People kick that word around a lot: Does it describe a stance toward the market? Does it describe a library of aesthetic referents? Does it describe the way a shirt fits? For me, it’s a useful term in the same way that “New Complexity” is useful: It describes a particular constellation of people, pieces, and aesthetic epistemology. More specifically, it names a historically unique subjectivity that flourished in the 1990s and early 2000s.

It’s mostly (not by any means entirely) male. In pop music years, they’re a generation younger than the college-rock idols of the 1980s, the Stipes and Westerbergs and Natalie Merchants—and they’re positively salt-and-pepper-templed in comparison with your Vampire Weeks and your Animal Collectors, your Grizzled Bears. They’re like the bacteria that survived whatever cultural antibiotic did away with grunge and what was then, quaintly, called “alternative rock,” leaving only the hardiest strains on Merge, Sub Pop, Barsuk, and Jade Tree: The style-agnosticism— indeed the very impatience with style—of these Malkmuses, Danielses, Leos, Schwarzenbachs, von Bohlens, Bazans, Cawses, and (how naïve we were) Gibbards welcomed punk, hardcore, country, breakbeats, glam, math-rock, etc., into the same vacant urban lot, Edenic but on the cusp of gentrification, to sit in a torn-up couch with a beer and give revivified voice to an essentially new-wave subject position (de-Oedipalized, to borrow from Fred Pfeil) and be earnest and coy and injured, but injured in a wry way and not emo-injured in that vaguely sort of misogynistic way, all at the same time. If we’d known what a proper 21st-century hipster looked like, we’d have seen a whisper of the hipster in these folk heroes, but we wouldn’t have been able to believe that anything about them could have been contrived or pretentious in the slightest. At any rate, this is how I remember indie. They’re the bands whose t-shirts I own.

Can I see myself getting a Victoire t-shirt, a Bang On A Can t-shirt, or a Newspeak t-shirt? I cannot. That we have to describe these ensembles as “classical” illustrates as clearly as anything the inadequacy of the term “classical,” but to describe them as “indie” promises something from them that I know is not to be delivered. On Twitter, composer Marcos Balter defended “indie-classical” precisely because of its vagueness; I’m sympathetic to that point of view, not
least because it helps us move beyond perennial but not very interesting questions about what words mean. I guess my objection to “indie-classical” isn’t so much that I know it to be wrong but rather that I feel it to be wrong, and much of that feeling stems from the affective specificities that characterize “indie.”