Author: DanVisconti

The Audience is the Most Important Instrument

[Author’s note: I’ve been a regular contributor to NewMusicBox since 2008, and I’ve had an absolute blast writing for the site and getting to know the Box’s wonderful staff, readers, and commenters on these pages. With some other writing projects and a TED talk on the horizon, I’ll be contributing less frequently from now on to make room for some new voices on these pages. This is my last post on the site for a while. Thanks so much to everyone for all their support, comments, and emails over the past six years—you’ve really helped me find my own voice. I’ll be back later in 2014 with the occasional post, as well as some longer essays; in the meantime, any readers who’d like to connect should feel free to get in touch via my website or Facebook. I look forward to reading this site as it continues to grow and evolve like any good piece of music. –DV]

Today I want to talk about a notion that is killing contemporary music. It’s an idea that is not confined to any one location, social group, or stylistic camp, and one that occasionally rears its head in both the halls of academia and the hippest coffee shops. It’s by no means the dominant way of thinking in the contemporary music world, but it is an idea so ubiquitous that it has become difficult to escape: that the audience does not matter as much as “the music,” and that considering the audience as an essential part of music composition is tantamount to pandering.

The attitude that there is something unsavory and inartistic about considering the audience does not come from a bad place; in fact, I’d agree with those who feel this way on a great many points. Of course it’s pandering to try to guess what people want to hear rather than sharing the truth of one’s own artistic voice. A great part of what people want to hear is something that engages them in a way that other music doesn’t. Audiences want artists to share part of themselves, something authentic rather than something put on. Favor must be earned and not curried.

Perhaps in part as defense of these perfectly valid points (and in reaction to the eager-to-please tone of so much current music from all genres), somewhere along the way much of the contemporary music community has overstated the alternative to the point where an urge to connect with audiences is seen as a sign of weakness, commercialization, and “softness”—as if softness was always a bad thing, and inflexibility and lack of willingness to compromise always surefire signs of nobility.

Please note that this talk of considering the audience is not some kind of code saying that music should be consonant, or pleasing, or unchallenging, or that there’s any reason why an experimental approach to music composition can’t also be tempered by an awareness of what effect compositional choices might have on a listener; there’s great and accessible music reflected in every style and approach, and there’s no way of thinking about music that can’t be marvelous and communicative and successful in its own right.
I recently worked with a student who put on a performance art piece involving self-mummification in duct-tape, melting guitar strings with torch lighter, and long periods of stasis where the performers appeared to take naps. All along the way, I urged the student to go for anything she could imagine, while all the while considering what effect her decisions might have on audience members: “How many times does this event need to happen to establish a pattern? Might it be more shocking if this last instance happened in a different way? What do you want people to feel when this happens? If you want to lull them into a state where they stop paying attention for a bit, about how long might that take? What might they expect to happen when the stepladder is brought onto the stage?” It’s this same consideration of the effect of musical decisions on the listener that makes Bach’s Goldberg’s Variations, John Cage’s 4’33”, and John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit so effective and affecting—because in each case, the composer pursued a desired effect in partnership with (and not independently from) a thoughtful inquiry into the psychology of listening to sound unfold in time.

Alfred Hitchcock used to say that he wanted to play the audience of his films “like a piano.” He did not compose his great works in a vacuum, but rather with a careful and shrewd understanding of how each creative decision helped to shape a different experience for the viewer. To update this idea to a mantra that composers can call their own, it’s worth remembering that the most worthy and challenging instrument of all to master is the inner experience of the listeners themselves: of all the tools in the composer’s arsenal, the audience is the most important instrument.

I recently attended a lecture in Italy by a well-respected composer and sound artist who flat out claimed: “I try not the think about the audience and whether my music is satisfying to listeners; if the idea of it is satisfying, it does not matter what the aural experience is on the listener.” I then attended a performance of this composer’s newest work in which I was one of seven audience members—which the composer in question remarked was a sign of the truly prestigious nature of the event. We’ve been so beat down with Justin Bieber and commercial radio, and also with handpicked “flavor-of-the-month” composers and art movements, that many of us have come to equate music with a broad appeal—and the very desire to connect with audiences—as deserving of only suspicion and derision. The most successful concert of all, to some minds, might be the one that isn’t attended by anyone; imagine what an elite club that would be—so elite that it contained only emptiness.

And therein lies the paradox of contemporary music: music exists to be heard or not at all, yet it’s true that audiences for contemporary music are not as large as any of us would like them to be. It won’t do to try and resolve the paradox by claiming that we don’t care if our music is heard, engaged with, and deeply felt, thus absolving ourselves of our responsibilities to others as well as ourselves. Because that is what, most of all, is shrinking audiences for contemporary music: not any particular musicians, stylistic approaches, or programming, but rather a pernicious idea that contemporary music can only succeed if it bets against itself, and pretends that losing was really winning all along.
So many brilliant musicians have been fighting against this attitude in their own way, with their own solutions. Claire Chase and the fantastic International Contemporary Ensemble have been making some of the most challenging and experimental music fun and accessible, and have earned a spot on nearly every critic’s “best of” list in the process. Producer Beth Morrison is busy reinventing opera for a new generation and in so doing has helped countless young composers find their voices and passions for the lyric stage. Los Angeles ensemble wild UP is performing both new and old music in innovative presentations that re-establish contemporary music as part of a continuum, making it exciting for audiences of all ages to tune into classical music again. There’s no formula for success, as every artist must find his or her own voice and, along the way, new and personal ways of establishing a kind of rapport with listeners.
It’s a great era for the music of our time; one could not ask for more diversity, talent, and discipline than the crop of musicians active today at the beginning of what is sure to be a wonderful year for music. Don’t try to see yourself the way others do; it’s no use. But at the same time, don’t stop trying to see others, to consider their experiences and to feel what they feel with the fullness of your musical being. Reaching out to understand and consider others is the way that we truly come to understand ourselves; doing so does not make us weaker but stronger, and requires not abandoning our sense of self, but a kind of inner confidence that we can go beyond ourselves without fear of losing our identity. Don’t stop; go on and on and on until your own musical self becomes larger, kinder, more tolerant, and more whole.

Happy 2014 and thanks, as always, for reading.

Sounds Heard: Spektral Quartet—Chambers


Now in their fourth season, Spektral Quartet is currently ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago and already a well-known champion of Chicago composers, including the six whose works are featured on the group’s first commercial disc release. Since I heard Spektral perform at Chicago’s Empty Bottle this August, I’ve been intrigued by their homebrewed approach to contemporary music. Their first CD offering (also available on cassette, for those with an ’89 Volkswagen Golf or similar playback device) is not only a calling card for the group’s formative artistic collaborations but also a richly detailed portrait of Chicago’s up-and-coming contemporary music scene.

The album’s title, Chambers, is a wry play on the tradition of chamber music that Spektral Quartet is working so intensely to update via their performances at nontraditional venues, but it also reflects the very distinct sonic spaces that each of the six composers recorded here create with offerings mostly under ten minutes in duration. Hans Thomalla’s Albumblatt (2010) plunges us right into a fascinating space without preamble, with an initial pizzicato gesture igniting a series of melting lines that recede almost as quickly as they materialize. Familiar tricks of the contemporary composer’s trade such as extended timbral effects and microtonal inflections are made personal and fresh in Thomalla’s hands—for example, a series of glissandi combined with interesting bowing patterns make for an aural impression that is particular and sharply imagined rather than generic. At times these sliding figurations almost take on the character of mechanical sirens before fading to a whispered, chorale-like passage made tense by extremely slow bow speed, sounding something like a quiet scratch-tone. In the glissandi and spun-tone sounds, Spektral reveals a remarkable sense of control and a nuanced range of expression, qualities that place the quartet in the distinguished company of groups including the JACK Quartet and Kronos in their heyday.

Ben Hjertmann’s String Quartet No. 2, Etude (2013) is the most recently composed piece featured on this recording and also opens with a backdrop of glissandi against which an arching violin line unfolds and elaborates (one of four solos for each quartet member woven into the composition). Before long a more rhythmic section erupts, marked by pizzicato strumming (with guitar picks!) and complex, prog-ish meters giving the effect of a wild guitar jam. These percussive sections are where the piece’s personality really comes out—including foot-tapping and quartet members hissing through their teeth, deftly wedded to the sounds produced on their instruments. A dramatic violin cadenza dissolves into a sustained array of languid artificial harmonics that end with an abrupt and abortive crescendo to the faintest stirrings of mezzo-piano; surely one of the more original endings I have heard, with each gesture obsessively shaped and brought into focus by the quartet.

Eliza Brown’s String Quartet No. 1 (2011) begins with fingered tremolos and flickering harmonics and is marked overall by the purity and simplicity of its crystalline textures. Making its argument in more direct and unadorned terms than the previous works on the album, this is no textbook minimalism but a work in which textural variety is ably engaged with a richness of sound often lacking in similar music of such apparent and beguiling plain-spokenness. Brown’s quartet has something of a surprise ending as well, with a bracing dissonance all the more rewarding because it was saved for exactly this effect, with shadings of microtonality resolving to a luminous C Major.

Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Dig Absolutely (2010) likewise opens with an interlocking network of glissandi (perhaps the unifying sound of the entire album, although handled with different expressive impact by each composer recorded here). Straining and wailing with the inflections of pop vocalism, the piece strikes an enchanting balance between aspects of vernacular expression and contemporary experimental music. For one thing, Fisher-Lochhead writes some incredibly specific and constantly varied rhythms, giving the whole affair a sense of improvisatory looseness more characteristic of roadhouse performance than the concert hall. The members of Spektral draw this feeling into the aural foreground, playing with a kind of “reckless precision” (to paraphrase a Tuck Andress guitar album) that is often difficult for trained classical musicians to achieve with conviction. Also bearing a strong pop influence (although neither work wears this influence on its sleeve or as a form of gimmickry) is Liza White’s 2012 Zin Zin Zin Zin, inspired by Mos Def’s scatting on The Roots’ “Double Trouble.” Beginning with onomatopoeia of the titular four syllables, White’s composition employs inventive techniques such as dead bow-stops and a crunchy harmonic palette of cluster-based chords to create the feeling that we are experiencing pitchless grunts and shouts rather than musical lines. This is the shortest work recorded here and also the most kinetic; the music is passed around the quartet like a superball with great virtuosity, only to slink away at the end in four breathless puffs of sound that mimic the work’s opening. It’s a tour de force of quartet writing that manages to make a vivid impression in under four minutes.

Marcos Balter’s Chambers (2011), which concludes the disc, is—like much of the composer’s work—highly gestural in its musical rhetoric while also pervaded by a feeling of stasis; the work’s three short movements are masterful at establishing moods but do very little to develop their initial gestures as the music unfolds, opting instead to offer three snapshots that invite the ear to linger. The first movement presents faintly shimmering harmonics in a cycling pattern, almost marked with the regularity of breathing or the steady “lub dub” of a heartbeat. This is by far the most minimalistic movement anywhere on the album with an extremely slow rate of change, yet investing its near-stasis with an incredible sense of urgency and suspense. The second movement is initially marked by pizzicato, the crisp notes of the high violin strings contrasted with the rounder, boomier sound of the cello’s low strings to great effect, before a series of cluster chords emerge out of nowhere. The work’s third movement likewise begins with pizzicato in a funky, dance-like groove, against which sagging string lines in canonic imitation animate the feeling of suspended time—whereas the previous movements sometimes feel a bit confined to their respective small chambers, this one feels like a larger room where anything can happen and, as such, provides a great conclusion to this sampler of young Chicago composers.

Spektral Quartet is moving up the ladder fast, and I can only suspect that this is the first of many recording releases for the group. It’s rare for an ensemble with such a predilection for contemporary music to also exhibit such a strong lyrical impulse, and this tendency—amply evidenced on Chambers—sets Spektral apart from many other players on the new music scene. I look forward to hearing them present an album that blends contemporary music with other offerings from the traditional quartet repertoire (their live performances of Verdi and Puccini selections made an impression just as strong as the contemporary works recorded on this disc). After all, what Chicago is perhaps most in need of is an ensemble that can perform the classical repertoire with the same commitment, nuance, and ferocity with which it champions contemporary composers, and the Spektral Quartet is a more sincere and viable candidate than most in bringing these two oft-separated worlds together.

Revise THIS!

revisionsWhile revising a composition for large ensemble, I’ve been contemplating this question: Why is revising often so much more difficult than just creating a brand new work that resolves the same problems? This revision is killing me, causing me to expend much more time and effort than if I had simply composed something wholly original for the same ensemble.
I decided to pose this question to composers on Facebook and received some interesting responses, each of which sheds light on a different aspect of what makes revising such a slog. Stacy Garrop comments, “Once you pull one string, it all starts to unravel…”—and it is quite true that each new revision creates its own set of problems. Perhaps this is just an extreme form of the old adage that beginnings are easy, but that they create consequences down the line that make crafting a satisfying middle and ending quite the challenge. When revising, we’re often working around an even more restrictive set of decisions (all the things we want to keep) and making any change might have vast ramifications on the experience of the entire entity.

Keith Fitch points out that it would be great if composers had the luxury that playwrights do, “where every premiere is considered a dress rehearsal.” It’s a great observation that there’s something quite artificial about the idea that music should be turned in somehow just right on the first attempt, which might be one of the more insidious assumptions inherent in well-meaning “professionalism.” Workshop programs like those hosted by the American Composers Orchestra, choral groups like Volti, and chamber ensembles like ICE do much to encourage a more sensible approach in which experimentation and feedback are central to the creative process, rather than leading the composer to sometimes hedge his or her bets and settle for what is “safe”—the American Composers Orchestra even calls their laboratory program “Playing it UNsafe” in order to emphasize this very point.
Daron Hagen draws attention to the craft involved in pulling off any revision with panache: “The hardest and most thankless achievement, achieved almost exclusively through extensive revision, is the appearance of effortless inevitability. This is perceived by all but the most perceptive colleague, listener, or critic, as facility.” Extensive revision is a big part of the musical theatre culture that is Hagen’s wheelhouse, and I watched him revise three orchestral interludes that are part of his recent opera Amelia when (during a dress rehearsal) it was determined that there needed to be louder music during some set changes in order to blot out the racket! All composers should be as musically fit and prepared for these situations, but Hagen is right that revising works is much more a part of certain musical genres than others; composers working in concert music (where revising is more optional rather than the norm) could do well to emulate the steel nerves of composers who write for the theatre and lyric stage.

Finally, Kevin Puts provided perhaps the most telling analysis of just why revising can often feel so laborious and boring to a composer’s psyche: “I think it’s because you are not traveling into uncharted territory (which is exciting) as you were when you wrote it; it’s like going back to look for the watch you dropped somewhere. You don’t really want to be there.” Agreed, composers are always looking ahead to new projects and rare is the composer who truly relishes revision, which normally happens more on a need-to-do basis rather than in the spirit of waking up one morning, putting on a pot of coffee, rubbing one’s hands together, and gleefully exclaiming “Hot dog! Time to painstakingly retread through some hard-won accomplishments while taking care not to shit the bed and make the piece even worse!” Even for those who have the experience and temperament to derive some satisfaction from a well-executed revision, the process of revising definitely sets off different and perhaps less expansive emotions than brainstorming a new, heretofore unimagined composition.

What has your experience been with revising music? And how would you compare it to that of composing original material?

Unteaching

It’s education week here at NewMusicBox, and since I’ve recently written a few posts aimed at students, I thought this would be an opportune time to share some thoughts directed toward teachers themselves. Having had some great and less-than-great teachers (as well as some great and not-so-great teaching moments of my own), I’d like to step back for a moment and identify some inherent problems in teaching, especially teaching creative skills like music composition.
Foggy River
A large part of teaching has to do with explication—working through new concepts and techniques with the student and rendering clear what was previously shrouded in mystery. And without a doubt, this is an essential part of the teacher’s role: turning the unfamiliar into the familiar, into something which can be understood and manipulated.

But the best teachers don’t stop there; they know that their truer calling is to engage aspects of musical experience that have become familiar and render them unfamiliar again. We need to unteach, as well as teach.

In my experience as both student and teacher, I’ve realized how it’s only too easy to resort to explanation rather than confronting the mysterious, and to privilege those concepts—and those musical works—which are easy to teach over ones less yielding to analysis. Helping students work through problems is certainly part of the point—but so, too, is making students aware of problems they never considered. A great teacher must both illuminate the world for his or her students and, at the same time, return parts of the illuminated world to a certain amount of mystery and confusion.

Although I still have very much to learn about being a teacher, it occurs to me that the first part of the equation—explication—is fairly obvious, while the second part—challenging precisely those areas of thought that seem pat and already clearly understood—is much more difficult to understand, much less apply in practice. Teachers—as well they should—often derive much satisfaction in helping students achieve clarity or a particular goal, like completing a composition; but perhaps (myself included) teachers at times require greater sensitivity to the fact that revealing unnoticed complexities that shake up a student’s world view (and—gasp!—deleting measures rather than producing more) are also a kind of progress; both modes of teaching must come into play for any student to develop critical thinking skills and develop as a budding artist.

Many young composers have already had significant experience teaching, both in and outside of academia and often while they are still students themselves. The next generation of teachers are our best hope for a better musical future; here’s hoping they did better than my teachers did, and better than I am able to do now. But if that is to be the case, I strongly suspect that such an improvement won’t be the result of better expository techniques, but the result of a deeper understanding that some mysteries need to remain unexplained, and some useful models called into question. After all, the students of the future need to find new and better models; they need learn from silence as well as explanation, from the rests as well as the notes.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

Looking for more Education Week content? Go to the index.

As a beginning teacher, I was always quick to fill the blackboard with squiggles—clear evidence that teaching has occurred!—and I never asked questions to which I didn’t already know the answer. It was only gradually that I came to see the value in occasionally leaving a few questions open and few loose ends dangling unattended, just begging for some curious student to grapple with; and only after many misgivings that I came to see how inducing a certain kind of cultivated confusion could be just as helpful as explaining certain confusions away.

If I have one specific hope for the next generation of teachers, it’s that they come to redress this inherent imbalance in teaching better than my own generation and the generation who taught me. To paraphrase Aldous Huxley: “Let them be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging their ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.”

Preparing for Takeoff

Boeing B-47B

Public domain, from commons.wikimedia.org

Since I’ve been writing for NewMusicBox, each year around the beginning of school I’ve tried to share some words of perspective with composers just beginning their college education, including one post suggesting reasons not to enroll in a composition degree program. But today I want to address my back-to-school post not to the dewy-eyed incoming fresh people, but to those students embarking on their final year(s) of academic study.

For many music students, there’s a sense of shock and, occasionally, panic at the thought of reaching the end of the road following years of musical study—a journey that likely began long before college, ending in a black hole of uncertainty as many musicians begin to confront the first years of their not being students that they can remember. This is one of the frequently disconcerting parts of careers in music, and making the successful transition from student to young professional can be the single most difficult period of any musician’s life.
While the road of student life does end, it’s only as a runway does: as a necessary path to greater things above and beyond. After spending a great deal of time talking over this particular issue with participants in this summer’s Fresh Inc Festival, I want to share some thoughts on the most important things to keep in mind while transitioning out of student life:

    • Presentation matters. It’s not an afterthought or some kind of fancy icing distinct from substance. Presentation is intimately connected to the way you and your music will be perceived and evaluated—from clean, well laid out parts that help you get the most out of rehearsals, to an articulate and human preconcert talk, to a website that’s clear and easy to navigate. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the substance of your work will carry itself, as it takes work to project that substance to others and help it come across.

 

    • Music is only one small part of the big picture. You’ll also need writing skills if you want to blog or express your vision to a grant panel; math and software skills if you want to run an ensemble’s finances; knowledge of electronic equipment for your shows; and development skills if you want to be able to raise money for your projects. Try reading through any staff directory for an orchestra or opera company, taking note of all the different roles and tasks to be accomplished. It’s not a bad template for planning out one’s own first projects. It’s also a reminder of how much takes place behind the scenes in order to bring music to new audiences. Develop a broad skillset, and you’ll always have plenty of options for achieving your goals, as well as making yourself useful to others.

 

    • Engagement is key. Whether it’s through posters at a local venue, posts on social media, or outreach activities at a local library, engaging your fans and potential audience members is a must. Finding (and better, creating) your own networks of followers and collaborators is crucial for long-term development and sustainability. Music is one of the most social professions, and you need to start engaging the larger musical community early and often if you want to have your finger on the pulse.

 

  • Cultivate a definition of success that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Everyone’s idea of success is obviously different, and it’s more likely than not that your own criteria for success will shift subtly or dramatically throughout a life in music. Be ready for and open to everything; things don’t usually happen the way we expect them to, and we make the most of opportunity when we throw out the script and open up to what’s going on around us. Most of all, avoid the types of success that come at the expense of others in favor of success that uplifts everyone it touches—the kind of success that comes from having given rather than having taken. When you are able to take pride in the achievements of others rather than treating all colleagues as competition, there’s a lot more to be gained and absolutely nothing to lose.

 

Sounds Heard: Brooklyn Rider—A Walking Fire

With the Kronos Quartet celebrating their 40th anniversary this season, a survey of new music’s current crop of innovative young string quartets reveals a diverse array of ensembles who specialize in unique niches of the music scene. Whereas the original Kronos Quartet lineup performed works by Lutoslawski along with Glass and world music, today’s younger generation quartets seem split between groups like the JACK Quartet—who have defined themselves by a commitment to experimental modernism—and, on the other hand, groups like this disc’s Brooklyn Rider, an ensemble with a predilection for the vernacular and chops steeped in the musical anthropology of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble (of which the gentlemen of Brooklyn Rider are all members).

Brooklyn Rider had enormous success with their previous Seven Steps release, a recording which paired Beethoven’s monumental C-Sharp Minor String Quartet with a group-composed composition that reflected and expanded upon that masterwork’s varied musical facets. Brooklyn Rider thrives in the realm of world music and folk traditions, yet they’ve always sought to tie this impulse into their considerable classical chops—all while at the same time cultivating the ensemble as a kind of composer collective led by violinist/composer Colin Jacobsen.

In this case, Bartók’s Second String Quartet is the glue that holds this new album together, with that work’s blend of folk sources defining the album’s musical core. The Bartók is flanked by two new compositions by present day composer-performers that further burnish Brooklyn Rider’s reputation for hip collaborations that shed light on our relationship to our roots.
Ljova’s Culai (2011-12) wears its Romanian gypsy influence proudly, finding a nice balance between an offhanded, improvised feel and carefully orchestrated gestures that mark Ljova as composer with craft and ingenuity to burn. The work’s central movement—inspired by the stylings of gypsy vocalist Romica Puceanu—is catchy, harmonically pungent, and rich in character. Brooklyn Rider brings a suitably rustic quality to the work—knowing when to lay off of their classical side is one of the group’s strongest suits. “Love Potion, Expired” is easily the fieriest movement, a scampering tarantella that’s as fun and exciting a romp as you’re likely to hear on string instruments. Even the work’s more low-key “Funeral” movement is animated by mournful slides that wring every last bit of sentiment from the scene; Ljova and Brooklyn Rider are a great pair, and I hope to hear more of their collaborations. Ljova inhabits pop miniatures with a sense of care and orchestrated gesture that adds layers of punch and expression to simple textures, which in turn is what Brooklyn Rider’s interpretations offer the attentive listener.


Colin Jacobsen’s Persian-laced Three Miniatures (2011) expands on a tradition of miniature paintings in which epic scenes packed with emotion and action are rendered on tiny surfaces. As something like Brooklyn Rider’s resident composer, Jacobsen has been developing with each new offering and this is perhaps his strongest and most persuasive composition to date: a series of microcosms that encapsulate powerful feelings and gestures, while never seeming overblown or overwrought.

Brooklyn Rider seems to thrive on miniatures and established quartet masterpieces in equal measure, and here Jacobsen serves up a series of movements grounded in ostinato patterns, most obviously in the first movement, “Majnun’s Moonshine.” The suite’s slow movement, “The Flowers of Esfahan,” drifts in like perfumed air, its vivid imagery of nocturnal gardens and birdsong unfolding naturally in trills and runs, demanding passagework that Brooklyn Rider makes effortless and delicate. This is one of the album’s most arresting tracks, and one in which Jacobsen’s potential and personality as a composer is given the most room to blossom into something truly unique and satisfying. The concluding movement, “A Walking Fire,” seems to reach the limits of Jacobsen’s ostinato-based approach but in a glorious way, revving up the intensity over a variety of harmonic and textural shifts.
Like many newly minted compositions for Brooklyn Rider, this one is bite-sized and unrelentingly poppy—which, after the Bartók, struck my ears as refreshing. The particular genius of Brooklyn Rider has been the way in which the group manages to connect established masterworks to new projects that capture the pop infatuation, diversity, and more informal spirit of the group’s namesake borough. A Walking Fire makes a telling argument for the validity of this approach, with an infectious toe-tapping quality that pervades both the Bartók masterwork and the lighter offerings which set it so cleverly in relief.

Manufactured Innocence

MilkTape1
Another musician recently alerted me to the existence of Milktape, which is the latest in a recent parade of 21st-century products masquerading as relics of simpler times. The gist is that the device resembles a cassette tape but is actually a 128 MB flash drive, with space for the equivalent of about 15 mp3 files. Milktape retails at $15 for a single cassette, with the small consolation that it comes with a blank case cover and stickers.

I don’t exactly need to point out that Milktape is a preposterous rip-off; savvy consumers could purchase a 20 GB flash drive off of eBay or from discount retailers for about the same price. But the point (or conceit) is that you can’t store thousands of songs on Milktape, but are forced to choose carefully. The manufacturers of the device are obviously hoping that nostalgia for actual mix tape sharing—a laborious process that provided a great way for children of the analog age to share part of themselves with a friend or crush—will be worth $15 to a culture immersed in a glut of retro-nostalgia.
Milktape2
On one hand, I completely understand the poignancy of the mix tape ritual and the desire to return to that deeply felt, handmade aesthetic that characterizes the loving sloppiness of dubbed mixes and hand-scrawled notes. It’s a sincere desire that comes from recognizing that something about the digital age is not quite satisfying to human beings, from recognizing that we crave an experience that is more vivid, tactile, and expressively rich rather than one that is merely efficient. But I also can’t help but think this attempt to return to a simpler time presents its own breed of problems and contradictions; that cute little faux-cassette still has to be plugged into your laptop’s USB port, and its contents dragged and dropped into iTunes. There’s simply no way to even approximate the user experience of Ye Olde Mix Tapes, and the resulting experience strikes me as emotionally manipulative and singularly unfulfilling.

Will people drop $15 on one of these novelty items? I don’t know, but I’m curious: Will consumers pay an absurd price for the mere pretense of an obsolete experience which has removed all functional traces of that which is affectionately obsolete? Milktape refers back to a beloved experience, without replicating anything that made that experience special and loveable to begin with, and adds a layer of pretense where previously none existed. Am I right to be so perplexed by this product, or does the device possess some redeeming quality that’s eluding me?

Don’t Glom!

glom (slang):
v. glommed, glom•ming, gloms
v.intr.
To seize upon or latch onto someone, e.g. “The composer glommed onto the conductor and wouldn’t leave her alone until the conductor was completely sick of him!”

Composer Stacy Garrop and I are just now gearing up for the 2013 Fresh Inc Festival, where we’ll be working with members of Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble and a bunch of cool young performers and composers interested in honing their entrepreneurial skills. So as we prepare to talk to a whole lot of people about all the confusing aspects of navigating the professional world, I decided that I ought to share my number one networking tip. It flies in the face of much conventional wisdom, but it is also likely to come as good news to composers for whom “networking” remains a dirty word.

Some years ago, another composer and I (both peers) were attending rehearsals for the same music event, and by chance we had some limited contact with the conductor. My colleague became very excited by the tantalizing closeness of this “big fish” conductor and resolved to hound her every chance he got, to little avail. Meanwhile, I had kept polite and more or less quiet, until at the eleventh hour said conductor approached me and asked where I was off to next—a golden opportunity, as it turned out that I would be missing her performances in order to fly to a recording session with a group that the conductor really liked. I saw my pushier colleague’s jaw drop as the conductor handed me a note with her address, requesting that I send her a recording as soon as possible.

This incident, perhaps more than any other in my life, made clear to me that the conventional “pushy” tone of much networking and PR is rarely successful other than when dealing with mass media. In real, human, one-on-one relationships, people don’t want to perform/record/commission your music because they are trying to give you something you want; they decide to take action because doing those things becomes something that they want.

Taken by itself, this seems incredibly obvious. But almost all composer networking strategies I have seen—as practiced by actual composers, and as preached by many well-meaning service organizations—ignore this essential truth. That is why strategies involving asking (or worse, begging) people to help out your career hardly ever work: by preempting another person’s process of coming to know your music with a direct request, you cancel out your only chance of causing that person to “get it” for themselves.

Most people (and especially musical gatekeepers such as administrators and conductors) want to discover something new and exciting for themselves, rather than being told (or asked) to like something—just think, how many times have you tuned into a TV show or listened to an artist you knew nothing about, solely because someone said, “Hey, you should totally check out X, it’s great!” If you do think you have been moved by such a pitch, it’s likely because you were instead enticed by some reported or perceived detail of the new experience that made you want to jump onboard for a whirl. Once you create a sense of obligation in another person, you’re creating a situation where you’re causing that person to choose between what they want and what you want, and I don’t need to tell you how that usually plays out.

It’s much better to allow the other person to arrive at what you are hoping for as their own idea: this is how true interest and loyalty are born! Not every time, but it’s the only way that the possibility of strong and sincere interest remains open. In my above anecdote, my recipe for a successful encounter was: 1) don’t glom onto that poor beleaguered conductor; 2) wait until asked about my own activities; and (now here is the hardest part) 3) make sure to be busy and active, no matter the scale, so that when asked you have interesting and truthful things to report about yourself. Honestly, it really doesn’t matter what those accomplishments and activities are, as long as you are sincerely invested in them.

I don’t want to knock letting people know what you want, as especially among closer acquaintances and friends one has to make people aware of what they can do to help—but only if they have already shown a predisposition to do so. Similarly, the quid pro quo is absolutely ubiquitous in the music world, especially in academia where there are resources available that are often considerable (at least for composers). But trading opportunities (while helpful at times) is just a business transaction born of convenience and need rather than true support and commitment. “Operator” types who overuse this particular move may seem to have everything going for them, but often they are cheating themselves by devoting too much energy to relationships that will cease to be fruitful once the institutional budget goes away.

So for all those composers who have always said, “I hate networking. I find it gross, and I am not suited for it!”, I feel for you. You’re on to something. It’s easy to get a little annoyed and more than a bit jealous when we are often surrounded by others so aggressively glad-handing, glomming onto anyone who could advance their careers with oppressive and transparent attention; and assuming the worst, we often grumble while feeling a combination of offense at boorish behavior along with a secret desire that if we could just be more like that, we’d enjoy more of whatever we currently lack. Above all, don’t glom! Don’t fall for it just because everyone else is doing it and because you are afraid of being passed up! This kind of fear warps personalities and exudes desperation; everyone can tell when they’re dealing with someone who speaks from a secure place.

There is a quite a bit that can be said about making a life and career in music, and one of the happier consequences of our wired age is that on the whole, most composers seem increasingly well-versed in many entrepreneurial skills. However, it seems like the need to allow others the chance to form their own impression of your work is likely the most consistently overlooked facet of making connections in the music world. The majority of the time when networking isn’t working well and it feels gross and sketchy, it’s because it is gross and sketchy to pressure strangers for favors they have absolutely no reason to consider. But concentrate on being someone who is active and interested, and others will surely take note even if you haven’t pressed a soon-to-be-discarded CD into their hands.

Sounds Heard: Derek Bermel—Canzonas Americanas

Following a recent release of Derek Bermel’s music for full orchestra (the excellent album Voices on the BMOP Sounds label), this new collection focuses on Bermel’s work for that quintessential contemporary sinfonietta, Alarm Will Sound. Led by artistic director and conductor Alan Pierson, AWS’s one-on-a-part instrumentation has provided a proving ground for a generation of eclectic and beat-friendly composers, to whom Bermel has become something of a (youthful) elder statesman. While Bermel’s music shares many characteristics with that of the 30-something Brooklyn scene, it’s undeniable that his distinct style in many ways harkens back to Copland and Bernstein’s generation and that era’s fascination with American folk and jazz sources. This collection of Bermel’s music provides a helpful point of entry for those curious to know just what has made this composer so consistently stand out: his music’s fusion of quasi-minimalist beat-based sensibilities with a dizzying diversity of popular and/or indigenous sound sources from across the globe.

AWS’s instrumentation would seem to provide ideal expression for Bermel’s musical ideas. While I have always enjoyed his works for standard chamber ensembles and full orchestra, it’s in these compositions for a large confederation of soloists that his knack for utilizing extended techniques and vividly complex textures really comes to the fore. Pierson and AWS turn in performances that throb with crisp intensity when called for, while also displaying sensitivity to the many timbral colors that make Bermel’s music pulse, zing, and shimmer. The title selection, Canzonas Americanas, pairs the ensemble with Brazilian singer Luciana Souza, who conjures up an intimate sound that is the ideal fit for Bermel’s genre-hopping music. Originally commissioned by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Canzonas blossoms from its opening solo violin figure into a bustling, Andriessen-esque passage without skipping a beat. Bermel’s facility in fusing the simple lyricism of folk sources to more hard-edged and propulsive textures is one of his music’s most attractive qualities, and he illuminates a vast expanse rarely traversed by composers today—making him an eclectic in the most meaningful sense.

Three Rivers first struck me as being akin to Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs and other works from the mid-century “Third Stream.” But whereas many of Bernstein’s compositions in this genre seem almost too neatly contained within their assumed jazz-inflected style, Bermel assumes the guise of jazzy gestures in order to go way beyond anything resembling the Paul Whiteman variety of safe (if charming) pops fare. The three rivers of Bermel’s title refer to three streams of music, initially introduced in succession but eventually piling up in a gloriously raucous climax. Wild drum solos and off-kilter wind licks let us know we’re listening to something that sounds a bit like jazz, yet the familiar gestures of jazz have been transformed and transfigured into something entirely Bermel’s, in way that pays homage to the sound of Mingus and Gil Evans while creating something wholly independent of their influence. At his best, Derek Bermel is a composer who is always reaching beyond himself, pushing past stylistic limitations rather than simply confirming them. Three Rivers is one of the album’s best calling cards, and the members of AWS swing with a surprising lightness rarely heard in their heavier rhythmic playing—a capability that I do hope more composers will exploit.

Natural Selection features baritone Timothy Jones in the album’s most significant foray into vocal writing. Utilizing everything from speech to slides to gospel inflections, Bermel’s vocal writing makes use of the full expressive range of the male voice, especially some vulnerable falsetto moments that Jones pulls off perfectly, giving a performance that almost doubles as a dramatic reading in its subtle characterizations. The texts by Wendy S. Walters and Naomi Shihab Nye are nothing if not moody, and Bermel exploits this to maximum effect, with a cinematic or even noir-like sound that has tinges of the grotesqueness of cabaret—all resolving in the beautifully simple final song, “Dog,” with its Native American inflections both tender and unexpected.

Hot Zone begins with an affable and funky riff, inspired by Bermel’s study of the West African gyil—a small marimba-like instrument that Bermel studied in Ghana (and whose at times jarring pitchiness colors the sound of the piece). Meanwhile Continental Divide ventures into an almost spectralist, klangfarben-y territory not elsewhere explored on the album, the piece’s offhand jazzy licks subsumed into ominous crescendi. The oldest work recorded here (1996), it hails from Bermel’s days of study with Louis Andriessen and features abrupt transitions along with a more driving motoric sense. The work is colorful, bracingly dissonant, and quirkily toe-tapping—yet at the same time, I’m glad that Bermel eventually progressed from this approach to a style that is markedly tolerant of lyricism and more delicate gestures. It’s the tension and points of contact between Bermel’s affection for beats and grooves and the simplicity of folk-like song that often make his music so persuasive.

This recording is a sonic safari at its core: our chance to follow Derek Bermel’s contact with other peoples and traditions, and the impact of these lived experiences as they play out in music. As an album that shows a composer always reaching outside of his own culture and experiences for inspiration, it’s remarkable that Bermel’s offerings feel so distinctly personal and homemade. Despite their myriad sources and origins, each work on this disc reveals a composer totally in touch with his own social and artistic goals. It’s the most impressive release of Bermel compositions to date, performed by some of the most committed advocates of the composer’s artistic vision.

Band-stration

Shenandoah Conservatory Wind Ensemble concert

Shenandoah Conservatory Wind Ensemble concert

Last week it was finally time to hear my very first piece for wind ensemble premiered at Virginia’s Shenandoah Conservatory, the first of many milestones on my outsider’s journey into the Wide World of Winds. The director of the conservatory’s wind ensemble, Damon Talley, is a true friend to composers in that he is one of the most active commissioners of new band works from composers not typically identified with wind and brass music. These projects are undertaken to introduce fresh repertoire into the band world while connecting a new generation of composers with opportunities to compose for band.

The piece I wrote was something like my five-year-old self’s idea of a cool band piece—completely silly and boisterous, with lots of crazy sounds including extended techniques (slide pop, anyone?) as well as the addition of whoopee cushions, bags full of trash, and other items that never would have found their way into a standard orchestra piece. Not surprisingly, it was a fun and freeing process; and I would echo Rob Deemer’s suggestion that once you go brass, you never go back!

There is a whole lot about the experience of composing for band that makes me excited to try writing another wind piece—things that are totally unique to the band world and that I’ve found to be encouraging and/or exciting from a composer’s point of view. Below are some of my own rookie observations about the process:

Wind bands are generally much more flexible configurations than symphony orchestras. First of all, most “concert band” music implies sections of like instruments, while “wind ensemble” generally indicates a more lithe ensemble of soloists each playing a unique part. Heck, there’s even the realm of “symphonic winds” for those looking to double up on orchestral performances, or for those sickos who have something against the euphonium (a fine and noble instrument, if there ever was one!). Within each sub-genre, there’s a lot of flexibility as well. It’s cool to be able to change instrumentation several times during the course of composing a new piece, as desired chords and voicings begin to suggest that the piece might need four trumpets rather than three; it’s an interesting game of give-and-take that’s not possible to such an extent in the world of orchestral scoring.

The band world is almost completely centered within colleges and universities, with talented high school ensembles and associated premieres both receiving a good deal of attention. For a composer, this means no union contracts and their associated doubling fees, tons of rehearsal time, and access to solid funding sources. You absolutely don’t have to be an academic to interface with the band world—yet the band world confers many of the advantages of academia.

As John Corigliano (whose Circus Maximus is one of the major recent entries to the wind band canon) has previously written, the wind band world is not dominated by critics and reviewers, so both audiences and band directors tend to form their own opinions about the music rather than seeking external validation. There is no “cool thing everyone is doing right now and woe to the composers who don’t play into that stylistic narrative”—in fact, I was heartened to see that the band world seems wide open to all possibilities, without any prior commitment. It would be difficult to identify a more charitable and diverse genre of music than that of wind band.

While we’ve all heard band works scored in the thick, well-doubled mid-century tradition, it’s now more accepted to score band works with a light or heavy touch as the situation demands. Check out “he’s so hot right now!” band composer John Mackey’s classic blog post about the differences between band and orchestra for more on this—he captures these two ensembles’ respective traits better than anyone.

Last but not least, since the performers of wind band music are almost always students, writing new music for band allows composers to come into contact with new generations of young people and provides young people with greater opportunities to work with living composers. This has to be my favorite thing about band music and the possibilities it holds for future generations when it comes to appreciating the music of our time.