Author: David Smooke


I don’t feel like writing anything this week, much less this column. Last Monday, a very dear friend of mine was murdered while returning home from choir practice, and ever since then, everything just feels wrong.

Peter Marvit

Peter Marvit

I feel most sorry for those of you who never had the opportunity to meet Peter Marvit, because he was one of the very best people I have ever known. Equal parts compassionate, funny, and intellectual, Peter was loved by an incredible variety of people from all vocations and walks of life. His outfits alone—which were based around Hawaiian shirts with obliquely matched loud, wide, and short ties—literally brightened up every room he entered, but belied the incredible depth of empathy and intelligence that he brought to all of his conversations.

A scientist by vocation and a member of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, Peter was the best sort of music lover. He went to great lengths to seek out new experiences, and wanted to approach the most interesting art works on their own terms. No matter how obtuse and difficult the presentation, Peter was able to find the core values being expressed. I loved talking with him about his listening experiences because he generally would couch his opinions as the sorts of questions that would teach me to hear the music I love in new ways, and that often would drive me to reevaluate my own assumptions and biases. He also was the sort of friend who would trek from Baltimore to Philadelphia or New York to hear a premiere, where he would happily ensconce himself in the front row in order to concentrate deeply on the sounds with unwavering attention.

While I mainly want to hole up and to shut out the world until the pain subsides, I’ve been obliged to attend to those many aspects of my life that simply can’t wait. Classes need to be taught, meetings attended, and students advised, among the myriad other duties of my day job. In addition, I am finishing a piece that I must get to the player by the end of the month, and so I’ve found myself forced to sit down to face my own music.

I was quite surprised to discover that the only time that I’ve been at peace for the past week has been while composing. For me, this music that I’m writing appears to encompass the gamut of my emotions—the loss and also the fond memories of the friendship that was important enough to mourn the loss. At the moment, I’m finding that those things I am unable articulate in words can appear freely in the tones themselves. It’s possible that no one else will hear these sentiments, but the process of encoding them into this new work has begun my healing process.

Peter Marvit with Sparklers

At times, my conservatory classes have segued into discussions of why we pursue music at the highest level and how this activity fits into society as a whole. We innately grasp the power of art or we wouldn’t be there, and yet it can be surprisingly difficult to describe the vise-like grip in which music holds us. As I search for my own answer to these issues, I no longer feel as though I’m groping in the dark. If the act of creation can provide solace even in the face of a tragedy as immense as this one, then it truly is a powerful undertaking, one to be treasured, as essential as any other thing that provides sustenance.

Big Paper

Composing can be difficult. Even during those relatively rare and much coveted periods when my brain overflows, with notes spewing forth in surprisingly pleasing orders, I can find it quite challenging to block off enough time to sit uninterrupted in order to vivify those ideas. Since I move back and forth between several different workspaces—each of which presents its own challenges—it’s been essential for me to create rituals that allow me to quickly take over an unfamiliar room. Generally, my first stage of composing involves physically writing out my ideas in pencil on paper, and so I carry the tools of my trade in a very light plastic portfolio case, ready to emerge at a moment’s notice. If you look inside this envelope, you’ll find a .9mm mechanical pencil, an equally large eraser, a 15-inch straight edge with cork backing (so it doesn’t smear the graphite markings), and 11×17 staff paper. Lots and lots of large staff paper.

Tools of the trade

Everything that I need to compose, on a desk that I’m only using for the day.

Several years ago, I created my own paper with blank staves barely large enough to allow me to create legible music, and with just enough vertical space between them for my relatively long-winded performance markings. I use 11×17 paper so I can photocopy it anew each time I run low on supplies (and since I long ago lost my original file and copy, the quality of my staff lines has gradually deteriorated over time), in landscape layout so I can notate up to twelve parts on a single page and see the music run horizontally for a gratifyingly long time. When I compose for large ensembles, I either handwrite a short score, waiting until the computer transcription to see all the parts on separate staves, or I forgo my usual paper in favor of a vertical layout.

For me, the main advantage of this large paper is that it allows me to view big swaths of musical materials at a single time. In solos and small ensembles, I can fit several minutes’ worth of slow music onto a single page, and even for a piece as large and complex as my 20-minute toy piano concerto I was able to notate the entire work on a mere 14 sheets. This feature allows me to lay out entire compositions on the lid of a piano or across a desk, freeing me up to view potential confluences between distant events that I might have otherwise missed. In addition, when I want to create a visual representation of my musical plan, I find that I can sometimes roughly map the form for a new piece on a single piece of paper. Finally, when I’m in the process of sketching new ideas, the large paper permits me to separate different types of materials into their constituent categories while keeping all the various motives for a composition in one place.

The key challenge that often leaves composers afraid of enacting the switch to big paper is how to transport these bulky pages. While students used to purchase large portfolio cases, which they carried around conservatories as a badge of honor (at least I did), our current need for laptop computers and other items that don’t easily fit into such containers makes this solution less viable for our contemporaries. Instead, I simply fold my paper so it fits into an envelope built for 8.5×11 sheets, using a draft page in the middle so the graphite doesn’t smear: a simple solution, but one that is only feasible for composers who don’t worry about the relative condition of their handwritten drafts.

If you’ll excuse me, it’s probably time for me to turn away from the computer and towards the big paper.

Score head

Another advantage of the large paper is that I can hide behind it.

Instruments for Playing Water

Recently, I’ve been working closely with the artist Katherine Kavanaugh as she has designed and built a sculptural installation using bamboo, water, a plexiglass pool, and copper. On Saturday, I’ll perform a new composition at the installation’s official opening that I’m creating along with three fantastic musicians: Jacqueline Pollauf and Noah Getz of Pictures on Silence, and Peabody student composer Benjamin Buchanan.

My concept for the musical performance involves playing the water and other parts of the sculpture directly, and also moving throughout the space in order to evoke a ritualistic sensibility and to involve the entire gallery in the staging. As part of our collaboration, Katherine and I spent a great deal of time considering what tools we would utilize to create the musical sounds. Although we never officially voiced this constraint, we decided to limit ourselves to further manifestations of the materials contained within the installation itself. Bamboo cut to various lengths functions as mallet, trumpet, resonator, and even bubble producer; copper bowls become percussive devices and tone generators; crystal goblets (standing in for plexiglass) add another pitched element and the ability to create melodies.

Last weekend, all the musicians gathered in the VisArts gallery in order to explore the completed installation for the first time. As we physically examined the sculptural materials in order to see what intriguing sounds could be generated from the objects at hand, our varying sensibilities and proclivities allowed each person to produce unique ideas that would eventually be woven into the final sound world. Our united efforts quickly began to merge into a composition that hopefully has a discernible shape and structure and will allow visitors to experience the art in a new light. The curator tells me that she plans to display a video of the performance running on a loop in the gallery in hopes that patrons will continue to conceive of the sculptural display as engendering sonic ideas through time.

Although in our discussions, Katherine and I had agreed that she would leave the performance implements visible in the gallery as part of the overall whole, I was delightfully surprised to find them officially displayed, complete with a tag identifying them as “Instruments for Playing Water.” Yes, that’s exactly what they are. And yet, I found that the mere act of affixing this label to the wall had elevated these devices—which had seemed so utilitarian to me only days earlier—to an integral part of the installation itself. I had once seen these objects as tools, but now in my mind they metamorphosed into sculptures. Of course, I still needed to use them in order to create music, but my relationship with these little devices had been inextricably altered. All because of a little sign on a wall.

Just as I aspire to use sound in order to enhance visitors’ perception of the sculpture, the installation itself intensified my sense of the meaning behind its constituent elements.

Truth, Skepticism, and Art

In the comments section of my post from last week, Philipp Blume suggested that well-founded skepticism would be a beneficial element that can help to promote intellectual growth. While I agree that it’s important for students to learn to distinguish fact from fiction and that they need to understand that their teachers and textbooks can lead them astray, I found myself viscerally wanting to deny the role of doubt in education. As I vacillated between responses that supported and disagreed with his comment, I realized that the only way for me to reply to his well-considered observation would be to consider the nature of truth, how to be skeptical in a humanistic manner, and how to incorporate these values into the art of music.

This election season appears to be bringing us closer and closer to a postmodern paradise in which all truth is relative. Each day seems to arrive with news of another disagreement on basic facts, ranging from a grand parsing of exactly what noun was being substituted by the pronoun “that” (an instance of what Daffy Duck famously called “pronoun trouble”) to the economic impact of various legislative proposals. As our political leaders and contenders for office work to define statistical analyses and the public record in ways that suit their agendas, constituents can find themselves unable to determine reality from fabrication. Beleaguered journalists cede their attempts to determine the comparative veracity of each statement and instead report the claims from each side, peppering their articles with quotations of the standard dualistic ripostes.

On the surface, the best response in this sort of environment is to adopt a lack of credulity as our neutral stance. Every argument has an equal and opposite counterargument, and each can seem equally valid or invalid. Therefore, we preserve our independence and sanity by doubting every assertion. We assume mendacity as the order of the day and refuse to believe anything said within the political discourse. The problem with this reaction is that it equivocates between things that are unequal in value. Some statements contain more grains of truth than others. Sometimes the candidates engage in pure prevarication.

Sports provide a welcome safe haven during these times. Events that are timed seem to exist in a state of pure objectivism that allows us to compare achievements across eras and locales. If I tell you that I ran a two hour and 50 minute marathon, that simple fact conveys a world of information and allows you to place me within a hierarchy among every person who has ever participated in a timed marathon distance race. If I tell you instead that my marathon personal record is four hours and one minute, my commensurate standing shifts into an entirely different stratum. The world record in the 100-meter dash is 9.58 seconds, and anyone can mark off an equivalent distance and measure their skill in relation to this standard. But even in these instances relativism can creep in, as some marathons are run on more challenging courses and wind-aided sprints don’t count towards the certified records. Lines become blurred still further when performance-enhancing drugs come into play, as I can recall Lance Armstrong winning seven Tours de France titles that have been redacted from the official archives. In an almost-Stalinistic redrafting of history, when cheating is unearthed after the close of an event, the recorded results no longer match the outcome on the field itself. Even so, team feats achieved without fraud are preserved as they originally occurred. A perfect game in baseball is an inviolate accomplishment; even in that singular instance when a blatant umpiring error prevented the final out, the game was archived as a one-hitter for the pitcher in question—in this case, Armando Galarraga. Those people who witnessed the game can tell beautiful stories, but the chronicles of baseball history are unambiguous.

Our understanding of particle and quantum physics can lend further credence to a philosophy of relativism. The experience of time itself is a comparative phenomenon, begging the question of exactly how we even define 9.58 seconds. Seemingly solid objects in actuality contain vast amounts of space between their constituent molecules, and photons can act as waves or particles depending upon whether or not their action is being observed.

In such a mysterious universe, many people ask whether objective truth is achievable and knowable. I would argue that the answer to this question is a vigorous “yes.” Even though the activity of electrons is mysterious, we know enough about this behavior to predict the properties of subatomic matter with enough certainty to run the computers on which this article is published and distributed. While it’s theoretically possible to move through time the way we move through space, our limited ability to control time allows for standards like seconds and minutes to remain constant measures of human experience.

I would argue that objective truth is not only distinguishable, but that it should be valued and treasured. As citizens, we should strive towards the sort of skepticism that allows us to remain impartial as we determine the authenticity of the evidence laid out before us. We should attempt to learn how to discriminate between comforting falsehoods and well-authenticated facts. We should teach ourselves how to evaluate scientific theories that have little corroboration as distinct from those that have been corroborated until their margin of error is infinitesimal.

But as artists, we can embrace the impossibility of true surety. Music exists in that liminal zone where our experience of time is truly relative, and we should revel in our ability to alter audiences’ subjective experience of the passage of minutes and hours. Sounds operate beyond the realm of meaning, allowing for a piece of music to encompass as many personal interpretations are there are listeners and performers. We have the rare ability to engage honestly in those aspects of life that are emotional and intuitive. We should treasure this capacity for authentic relativism as a special aspect of our artistic lives, but should limit its role to our creative acts. In our quotidian existence, we should welcome skepticism as a path to discerning truth.

More Tips on Learning

As August draws to a close, I find my focus turning away from my independent projects and towards the beginning of a new school year. Gloriously unscheduled days devoted to compositional contemplation gradually yield their thrall as syllabus tweaking and course scheduling clamor ever more loudly for attention. During these periods, I ask myself what I consider to be the most important aspects of each class, and exactly what I hope students will gain from our time spent together in the classroom. As I prepare the ingredients towards creating what I aspire to be a worthwhile intellectual experience, I reflect on how I can improve my teaching. I also keep returning to everything I’ve learned about how to be a better student. I find it somewhat ironic that I gained many of my best lessons on the latter topic only through my experiences on the other side of the desk, and I hope that I can help new generations avoid my copious errors.

Two years ago at this time, I offered some guidelines for composers about to embark on their first graduate degrees. Although I still agree with the three basic pieces of advice I proffered at the time, this year I would like to add some further guidelines for students about to commence a new year of learning.

4) Know exactly why you are enrolled in school. If you are working towards a diploma in music composition or performance, then you might be tempted to think about your studies as a vocational degree and to focus solely on your lessons and new pieces. In that case, you could have possibly saved tens of thousands of dollars by engaging in private tutorials and music making without participating in a degree program. You should only enter into academia if you intend to take advantage of the opportunities for intellectual engagement offered by these programs—including the vast research libraries and the constant contact with numerous peers and colleagues—that are less accessible to independent scholars. This self-awareness can help you to become an active participant in planning a course of study uniquely designed to help you achieve your goals, wherever they may lead you.

5) Remain curious about everything. The more you learn, the more you will be able to say as an artist. We can find inspiration for new works in bird songs, quantum mechanics, contemporary poetry, biological structures, economic theories, and in any other bit of knowledge. We create new avenues for self-expression whenever we develop a profound understanding of any aspect of the world around us. Sometimes our interests develop over time, and those subjects that once seemed boring and arcane can become sources for our most transcendent creations. These unforeseen enthusiasms can often become great treasures.

6) Remember that learning is a full-time job. While you’re in school, the search for knowledge needs to be both your vocation and avocation. If you only attend class and peruse the assigned readings, then your understanding will lack context and mastery. Meet with your professors beyond the classroom to talk through interesting insights that you might have gleaned beyond the class discussions. Gather your peers to deliberate over the further implications of new concepts and how they might apply to your lives. Go to art, theater, film, and literary presentations sponsored by your institutions or available in your general community. Attend lectures on non-arts topics that are open to the general public. Whenever possible, travel to those events that interest you but take place beyond your immediate area.

Best of luck on embarking on what I hope will be a most excellent year of learning!

Narrative Drive

A few months ago, I went to a concert to hear a piece by an old friend of mine. Although I hadn’t seen him in several years, our shared experiences from a summer music festival secured a bond that we happily renewed over music and drinks.

He reminded me of a dinner from our student days at which I had, according to him, pontificated at length about how I was drawn solely to music that told a story and that evinced a strong narrative drive. After vociferous protestations that he couldn’t possibly be talking about me, because I certainly would never have ruined a quiet repast with blathering about wonkish musical ideas, I finally accepted that his memory was probably accurate. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past several months tracing the steps on this aesthetic journey because not only did I have no recollection of this conversation, but the views that I had espoused seem very different from my current predilections.

At the time, I was obsessed with the idea of music as conveying meaning. Although I understood that it’s impossible for absolute music to be universally denotative, I always undergirded my compositions with a hidden yet specific story. I hoped that my beginning with a theatrical element would allow individual listeners to experience the music as a drama. By refusing to reveal the generating narrative, I hoped that each person who heard the piece would find a distinct story within the musical details.

With each new piece, I attempted to create a beautiful Aristotelian arc that would also have a unique structure. Over time, I began to realize that the surface variations between pieces disguised an internal anatomy that was shared across my entire output. Meanwhile, I kept finding myself drawn to preexisting music that deviated from conventional compositional designs. I became fascinated with songs containing unusual codas that shift the mood in unexpected ways and might end up doubling the length of the song itself. I returned over and over again to other tunes quilted together from verses, choruses, and bridges that don’t seem related to each other. I began listening to pieces that change subtly over great spans of time, and compositions that vacillate unpredictably between quiet repose and horrific outpourings. These seemingly anomalous works led me to reconsider my definition of what constitutes good form.

As soon as I began to think about form beyond the traditional models, I found a teeming mass of great art created outside of these molds. These abnormalities date at least all the way back to The Odyssey, which describes most of Odysseus’s adventures as a tale within a tale sung by the hero himself, a character we don’t even meet until Book V (of XXIV). Eventually, I realized that aberrant structures are truly normative, that the standard forms exist mainly as theoretical constructs and are rarely evinced in interesting and successful works of art.

This realization allowed me to liberate myself from my erroneous belief as to what constitutes good storytelling. Instead of forcing my ideas to follow from exposition inexorably to dénouement, I began to permit myself to create individual models that allow the materials to express themselves more fully and freely. The music still tells a story, but the telling doesn’t always need to be linear. I might enjoy the feeling of inevitability as one idea flows into the other, but I no longer slavishly adhere to logical development as the only way to create narrative drive.


As I write this, the Olympic closing ceremonies are concluding. I adore these sorts of grand spectacles, which seem to evoke the spirit of the early Soviet productions that I used to read about in my theater theory classes (and which defied any true visual realization in my youthful imagination). Each Olympic host nation tries to outdo the previous presentations in a sort of creative arms race that has reached recent culminating points in the precision of the Beijing games and in the whimsy of this London edition. I eagerly anticipate watching what the organizers in Rio de Janeiro will unveil in 2016 as I’m sure the show will reach yet another apex of sound and color.

Rock shows have enjoyed an increase in production values that mirror the trends in these athletic ceremonies. Once considered the province of only the most accomplished acts playing the largest stadiums, giant video screens offering closed circuit broadcasts of the on-stage proceedings are now considered de rigueur for most acts. Elaborate multi-million-dollar modular sets provide grandiose backdrops that dwarf the performers and can travel from city to city as part of a world tour. As we buy our tickets, we have come to expect that the arena rock experience will include theatrical staging that will augment the musical performance itself.

These giant productions have led to the new phenomenon that for me greatly detracts from the concert-going experience: that of pre-programming most of the actual music for the show into offstage computers. Of course, live musical acts have long incorporated performers who were hidden from the audience (including most famously Ian Stewart, a keyboardist who was one of the original members of the Rolling Stones and who played with them for decades, but who was relegated to an offstage station for most of that time since their manager Andrew Loog Oldham thought that Stewart didn’t look like a rock star). New technical capabilities allow performers to use computers to standardize the quality of the show as it travels from place to place, adding pre-recorded sound filed into the audio feed so the onstage performers provide a small fraction of the actual concert sound. Sometimes the audience doesn’t notice this enhanced sound as it can blend seamlessly into the onstage proceedings, allowing for a small ensemble to create orchestrated textures and to reproduce the production values associated with their studio albums as they move from venue to venue.

When the ratio between live and pre-programmed music shades towards the latter, I believe that this creates a serious problem. Sometimes the live performance can feel as if a karaoke singer has been pulled out of the local bar and shoved onstage. Even worse is when they are visibly lip synching, or when the onstage musicians play air guitar as they clearly can’t hear themselves over the computerized din surrounding them.

I think an opportunity has arisen for acoustic musicians— especially those who perform chamber music—to fill the void created by the computerization of the pop music spectacle. In unamplified concerts, listeners understand the direct correlation between the physical movements of the people onstage and the sound they hear. They can feel a direct human link to the overall proceedings, without any dilution created by the involvement of disembodied machines. Surely there is an audience that craves the sort of purity of expression that arises from this unadulterated experience.

While I adore a grand spectacle, I also cherish small statements. Both paths can lead towards transcendent experiences, but only if we understand which way is more appropriate for our artistic ideas. When we attempt to create a giant tree from the seeds of small flowers, or vice versa, we lose an opportunity for beauty. I’m eagerly anticipating the Super Bowl halftime show and the next Olympic ceremonies, but in the meantime I also will appreciate the quiet statements from local chamber halls.

Weird Ears

In a recent New Yorker magazine profile of Bruce Springsteen, David Remnick quotes Springsteen’s longtime friend and guitarist Steve Van Zandt as he describes their early attempts to cover the pop songs they were hearing on the radio:

“Bruce was never good at it. He had a weird ear. He would hear different chords, but he could never hear the right chords. When you have that ability or inability, you immediately become more original. Well, in the long run, guess what: in the long run, original wins.”

As someone who grew up with a pair of weird ears, I found this description to be heartening.

Ear Anatomy

When I began exploring music, I experienced difficulty in playing the music of others. My inability to remember exactly what I had heard caused me to warp the tunes that I tried to copy. As I consistently failed in my attempts to replicate a style or a specific song, I began to realize that I actually preferred the new sounds that resulted from these missteps. I was unable to clone the pre-existing styles and this lack of skill became the basis for everything that followed. My music sounded original because I was constitutionally incapable of creating anything else.

Throughout my student years, I attempted to embrace my special background while simultaneously working to gain the skill-set shared by most other musicians. Although I didn’t need to worry that my compositions would mirror my favorite pieces from the repertoire, I also felt that there was a great gulf between the sounds I wanted to create and those that emanated from my earnest attempts at notation. Performers found that my compositions presented them with odd challenges and that they tended to be difficult to learn in inexplicable and unpredictable ways. Originality was never a problem for me, basic facility was.

Decades of training allowed me eventually to gain aptitude in typical musicianship; however, as my weird ears matured, they continued to resist strolling along the primrose paths prepared by others. Once I finally was able to clone music of the past, I began to see new possibilities for exploration that had been closed to me before. Having become somewhat competent at fully processing equal temperament chords and metronomic pulses, I realized that my musical ideals existed outside these systems. When I began, I was equivocating between the sounds I knew existed and the ones I wanted to hear; the training allowed me to understand that I had always sought something distinct from the music surrounding me. I had always assumed that my weird ears were a handicap; they turned out to be an advantage.

As a teacher, I try to keep this lesson in mind. Some students operate on a different level from the others, hearing music in unique ways. I believe that it’s important for them to fully grasp the typical theories, if only so that they may understand the enemy against which they someday will rebel. But at the same time, I try to learn from the way that they approach the repertoire, to hear the connections that seem obvious to them but evade the rest of us. These exceptional people can provide insights that have eluded the millions of normal ears that have previously assessed these compositions. The performers with weird ears can create innovative interpretations, and the similarly endowed scholars can refresh our analytic viewpoint.

It’s easy to award accolades to students who walk the straight and narrow path, who excel within the parameters established by their professors. It can be difficult to determine whether a new idea represents a brilliant re-thinking of centuries of precedents or a simple misunderstanding of the foundations of the field. People with weird ears generally try to function normally within society, but are unable to be anything other than original. Hopefully, Steve Van Zandt is right and in the long run original wins.

Infecting Materials

I have a bit of a tendency to tip towards obsessiveness. (At this point, I probably should pause for a moment to ask those people who know me well to stop guffawing at my understatement. Okay? May I continue?) When a restaurant joins two tables, I’m the sort of person who finds it difficult to sit down until I’ve assured myself that the corners match perfectly. I can find myself distracted while attempting to converse with certain people unless I’m aligned correctly with them. I react viscerally against documents with two spaces after each period, and spend a great deal of time and fruitless energy encouraging my students to employ one-inch margins in their papers. In short, I enjoy exploring the minutiae of arcana and believe that exactitude is a virtue.

At times, I believe that this character trait helps my composing. I enjoy spending the time necessary to align all the elements in my scores, and I treat the process of eradicating engraving errors as a moral imperative. I attempt to take the care necessary to consider the physical nature of the instruments for which I’m writing in order to ensure that every gesture can be produced. When I am able, I question the basic assumptions of our musical tradition, including our tuning, notation systems, and performance practice.

More often, I find that my obsessiveness detracts from my attempts at artistry. While following any specific musical path, I can focus on what’s directly in front of me without seeing the opportunities beckoning on the periphery. As I direct my ideas to flow easily from one point to the next, I lose the ability to surprise and delight. Inevitability begins to function like a juggernaut, crushing all obstacles as it proceeds inexorably towards its goal. When I was younger and was attempting to compose fast groove-based music, I kept finding myself creating rhythmic drive by placing attacks consistently on a single rhythmic level so that once I established (for example) a sixteenth-note pulse, an event would occur at every sixteenth-note interval until I reached the ends of phrases. Although I knew that the pulse would remain firmly established in the absence of such specificity, I continued to build these unrelenting lattices throughout those compositions.

As I grew more aware of my innate tendencies, I began to build the opportunity for serendipity into my compositional process. If I make a copying or transcribing error, I question whether the pattern alteration should be construed as a mistake or as an improvement. Duchamp considered his great glass “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” unfinished until movers dropped and shattered it, and he painstakingly glued the shards back into the frame. With visible cracks now veining the entire piece, he felt that the design was finally completed. I attempt to channel the spirit of Duchamp in order to accept even those accidents that seem disastrous at first blush as possible windows opening towards new opportunities.

Moving beyond fortuitous mistakes, recently I’ve begun teaching myself to infect my materials. After indulging my initial tendency to build a progression by obsessively revoicing a single interval, I now might take the resulting fragments and mutate it. At first, I can subtly add one or two sonorities that appear to play by my harmonic rules, but with a second interval now creating a genetically modified chord. This new creation can then reproduce either naturally into other similar harmonies, or can undergo further transgenic manipulation, creating ever-newer chords. Simple manipulations that alter a single characteristic of a gesture suddenly open up entirely new worlds populated with musical organisms that might sound alien to the initial idea, allowing me to move along paths that my obsessiveness might have otherwise eschewed as unrelated to my initial ideas. In so doing, I’m hoping to awaken the possibility for delightful surprise.

Performing As Art

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been discussing how my recent adventures in music performance have engendered growth in my compositional vision and in my ability to advocate for myself. Before finally moving on to other topics, I’d like to consider one additional advantage I’ve reaped from this focus on playing live music: an enhanced connection to other art disciplines.

Ripple 2 by Katherine Kavanaugh

Ripple 2 by Katherine Kavanaugh

I’ve always been fascinated by the visual and literary arts—yes, I’m one of those people who has, in the words of Michael Cunningham, “swooned over sentences” (just as I trust that writers exist who have leapt with joy at harmonies)—and I consider music an integral part of the greater intellectual community. I frequently garner creative sparks for new pieces from works in other disciplines, and I find that the obsessions of non-musical thinkers often can provide incredibly fertile soil for germinating compositional ideas. Despite this willingness to engage with visual art works, I’d felt stymied in my abilities to collaborate across fields. On those few occasions when I’d been able to work with poets, choreographers, and visual artists, the relative slowness with which I compose had forced me away from true co-creation into an ultimately unsatisfactory exchange of final products. Instead of collaborative works, we found ourselves piecing together completed ideas from our different home fields in hopes that the juxtapositions might somehow create a coherent whole.

My current engagement with performing began as a way of overcoming these barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration. By responding to artistic impetuses with sounds that I was able to physically produce in the moment, I was able to share in the genesis of installations and events. My music became an integral part of the process of conceiving these artworks and the resulting creations felt truly collaborative. Currently, I’m happily working towards a September gallery opening at which I’ll be directing a team of musicians as we perform on a water-based gallery-sized installation by Baltimore artist Katherine Kavanaugh. As you can see from these photographs, the visuals will be stunning!

Ripple by Katherine Kavanaugh

Ripple by Katherine Kavanaugh

I’m finding that thinking as a performer in these types of situations can be liberating. If I were thinking solely as a composer, at this moment I would be physically nauseous at the thought of having about two months to produce an hour-long composition on an instrument that doesn’t exist yet. As a performer, I’m looking forward to exploring new sounds that can’t possibly exist in the concert hall and to interacting with an audience of art lovers in a unique setting. As an artist, I’m very excited to be able to create a new piece in collaboration with someone whose work I greatly admire, and I’m thankful that my newfound path has led me to these sorts of opportunities.