Author: David Smooke

Performing as Self-Advocacy

Last week in this space, I began discussing my recent forays into performing, in terms of my ambivalent emotional response to these opportunities and their influence on my current compositional voice. As I’ve pursued this path, I’ve found that it’s also been a fruitful avenue for self-advocacy, in obvious and surprising ways.

One of my reasons for beginning to perform publicly was in order to be able to present my own works. The ability to travel solo has opened up doors that otherwise might have been closed due to funding or time constraints. I can be available for venues that want to present my music but don’t have access to the money needed to hire ensembles that can perform my works or to dedicated musicians who already know pieces from my repertoire. I can interact directly with interested listeners, feeling viscerally those moments in my compositions that allow attention to wander or demand full concentration. As I expected, I can use these public performances to generate interest in my music.

Although I’ve enjoyed those obvious advantages of performing, the more unexpected benefits have been more interesting to me. First and foremost, I have appreciated the growth in the development of my own compositional voice—described last week in this space—engendered by these concerts. If that were the sole profit generated by this path, it would be enough reason to pursue it.

Additionally, I’ve found that my concertizing experience has helped me to communicate my ideas in three different ways: building trust with the musicians who are learning my notated compositions, demonstrating the techniques I use in these pieces, and giving performers a sense of my musical aesthetic.

I’ve found that many musicians with whom I’ve worked since I’ve begun performing have taken the time to listen to my solo performances before beginning to learn my music. Those who have done so have shown a greater understanding for the sounds I’ve sought in my music, and have been able to work more quickly towards my desired sound. They come to these rehearsals knowing when sounds should be so delicate that they break up, and can intuit the difference between those times when the indicated microtones are essential parts of exactly-tuned harmonies and when they are more gestural effects. Rehearsals can go more smoothly when these musicians arrive with some knowledge of the unnotatable performance practice associated with my compositions.

The hands-on experience of performance has also allowed me to physically represent those aspects of my music that defy notation. Instead of talking through how I’d like gestures to sound, I am more likely to pick up an instrument to demonstrate. When I incorporate unusual techniques that might be difficult to replicate, I can make videos of how they can be executed as part of the piece. Instead of asking others to guess exactly what I mean in my attempts at describing musical sounds through graphics and words, I can save time and energy by showing them.

Finally, all of these shifts have led to a greater level of trust with those people who are looking at new pieces for the first time. They know that I’ve stepped onto the stage myself in order to perform the types of seemingly silly gestures that they now see in their parts, and they take comfort in this fact. The knowledge that we are comrades in presenting my compositions makes them feel less exposed by the odd demands of this music. The musicians with whom I am working seem to feel more like collaborators in these unusual concert experiences than in the years before I wore the performing hat in addition to the composing one.

Performing as Composing

As regular readers of this column know, in the past few years I’ve begun to perform music in public for the first time. What began as accompaniment for performance art gradually developed into group improvisations and finally into unaccompanied shows and engagements as a concerto soloist. Emotionally, this process has been simultaneously incredibly difficult and rewarding.

As with nearly every aspect of my compositional life, I began this process by questioning my artistic reasons for following this path. Since I hadn’t studied any instrument regularly, I lacked the basic skill sets that are second nature to most professional musicians, and maintained an utter ignorance of proper practicing techniques and strategies to learn new repertoire. While most pre-teen musicians can far surpass my manual dexterity, I could bring two things to the table: an ability to hear and control musical structure in interesting ways, and an interest in producing unusual sounds. Over time, I began to realize that these latter interests allowed me to create performances that could fully express certain compositional ideas while being of interest to a small segment of listeners. The fact that I am horrible at the sorts of musical tasks at which most people excel opened up alternative paths for sonic exploration and forced me to create a sound that fully reflects my personality and compositional interests.

I find it incredibly difficult to step on stage in order to perform my own music. A huge part of me expects someone to point at me and shout “charlatan” or to at least boo vociferously and correctly. Of course, I had similar fears when I began teaching and only overcame them through years of experience, so that at this point in time I’m confident that I’ve thoroughly researched the course materials and their intellectual foundations and that I belong in front of a classroom. As a performer I still feel like an under-skilled neophyte, but I’m gradually coming to trust that I can provide a unique experience, that my unusual background and proclivities allow me to approach performance in a way that certain people will appreciate and that others will at least accept.

As a listener, the pieces that I most greatly treasure are those that create sound worlds that I’ve never heard before. While these original sounds can be produced through harmonic (especially microtonal), melodic, and/or rhythmic means, I have always been drawn most strongly to interesting timbres. My own performances have given me the ability to scratch this itch, to question the basic function of instruments in order to force them to produce sounds entirely different from those they were designed to create. I’ve found that I can augment the tinkling of the toy piano by bowing, strumming, and plucking it (among various other techniques) until it transcends its original purpose, and I similarly can explore other instruments. I had always wanted the sort of composer/performer relationship that would allow for collaborative conversations on how to experiment with the basics of performance itself, and now, by assuming both roles, I have created this relationship.

My ability to fully explore the subtle gradations of these instruments opened up surprising new possibilities for me. Not only could I create new timbral possibilities, but I also began to get a better feel for how these related to other musical parameters. By exploring the distinctions between the overtones created by playing specific notes at various volumes or in different ways, I could create new harmonic worlds. By shaping the excess noise produced by these unusual performance techniques, I found that I could create new types of melodies. Finally, I began to feel that my timbral, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic languages could emanate from a single source.

As I discovered these new methods of producing sound on my own instrument, I began to apply these techniques for exploration to my written compositions. Physically grappling with a violin or guitar allowed me to draw the same sorts of confluences between the musical parameters while composing for string-based ensembles. I learned how to ask better questions when approaching projects for ensembles that for practical reasons wouldn’t allow me unlimited access to copies of the instruments themselves or when my knowledge of the basic performance technique on the instrument was miniscule enough that such access wouldn’t be useful.

Thus, my newly discovered abilities as a performer have directly altered my compositional output and have provided me with an outlet for experimentation that I look forward to continuing to explore. For these reasons, I’ll continue looking for opportunities to step onstage, despite my deep-seated fears.

Adaptation and Transformation

1503 diagram of the brain

I tend to be a late adopter of technology. As I learned electronic music in the mid ’80s, I avoided the new sampling keyboards in favor of the antique Minimoog, and kept splicing tape long after nearly all my peers had jettisoned their razor blades and replaced them with sequencers. I remained attached to LPs and CDs (in turn) long after most people had shifted their musical collections into the new preferred formats. And I finally bought my first smartphone within the past year.

As I began to program this new device, I found the interface to be a little counterintuitive—things tended to flip when I wanted them to swerve and they scrolled when I wanted them to jump. I slowly transferred my contacts and calendars into this useful little computer, gradually getting a feel for how to manipulate it. After about three days, I began to have nightly dreams that I was programming my phone. During this time, I could sense new neural pathways developing as my brain began to attune itself to how it would need to function in order to unleash the power of the device. As I was adjusting, I’d enjoy little serotonin kicks when I’d properly navigate through a computing sequence. After about a week, I’d become fully acclimated to the new technology and it began to feel like second nature.

Although I recognized this process from several prior occasions, the period during which the smartphone controlled my dreams felt simultaneously gratifying and disturbing. It seems that whenever I attempt to learn a new skill quickly and obsessively, the process seeps through several layers of my subconscious during the period in which my brain adapts to allow success at the new task. When I began to dream of Tetris, I knew that I had crossed the line into tetrisoholicism and that I needed to quit cold turkey. Indeed, this ability for video games of all sorts to penetrate deep into my subconscious is the main reason why I avoid them, despite my belief that they can provide an extraordinarily fruitful platform for artistic exploration. Conversely, when as an adult I had to learn how to sight-sing and to take dictation of tonal music, I welcomed these somnambulistic practices as a sign that I was beginning to make connections between the sounds that I’d always heard and their theoretical labels. I could feel the shape of my brain adapting to be able to associate the visual phenomenon of how a V7 chord is represented on the page with its visceral need to resolve—an imperative that I still don’t feel when I hear Mm7 chords as part of blues progressions.

Our brains are remarkable in their ability to change their shape in response to stimuli. As we undergo these mutations, we become different people. I no longer hear tonal music in the same way that I did prior to my advanced training, and I cannot recreate my prior mental state. In a certain way, this ability has transformed me into a new person, someone who accepts the basis of Western tonal music and who feels that these tools are a central part of the aural experience. While I believe that this change has allowed me to gain more than I’ve lost, it’s important for me to recognize that I no longer hear music in the same way that I did before embarking on this path.

As I train myself to use new technologies, musical or otherwise, I need to bear in mind that each adaptation changes who I am at a very basic level. Each new neural pathway that I create makes me approach my art in a different way.

Two Composers


Throughout my life as a musician, I’ve always felt like two different composers: the person penning my current music and the creator of the idealized visions that exist only in the most crepuscular regions of my mind.

When I was beginning to learn this craft, I focused on developing my acoustic compositional chops and purposely avoided exploring many of the modes of inspiration that had led me to music in the first place. My hope was that this focus would allow me to gain the skill necessary to achieve a higher level of expression. When I eventually reached the point where I felt capable of knitting these various strands into a single artistic vision, I wanted the resulting music to be worth the effort. During this time, I set aside my years of working in theater to create music that could be presented within typical chamber concert settings. I avoided the electronic elements that had first led me to thinking of music as a creative endeavor in order to better understand the acoustics of traditional instruments.

Eventually, I developed enough aptitude that I began to feel comfortable weaving these basic inspirations into my public works. But the vagaries of daily life continued to stymie my attempts at vivifying my true inspiration until I eventually came to accept the fact that for me composing is like describing the shadows on the wall and that I will probably never see the true forms projecting these umbrae (and penumbrae) in my mind’s cave.

The current issue that has been fracturing my compositional inspiration is the difference between penning new pieces for others and developing improvisations that I will perform myself. For me, part of the process of notating ideas involves considering as many alternative universes for the composition as I can. At every moment, I attempt to envision the infinite possibilities for continuation so that when I lock into one particular time stream I can have some confidence that I’ve selected a wise option, that some factor necessitates the chosen form for the work. The final composition then exists as a singular entity. Even my works in variable forms are more properly considered labyrinths than mazes, because I try to create musical scenarios in which all the possible paths that might be followed in a performance lead to the same overall structure.

In my individual performances, I can create parallel realities by ensuring that each realization is completely unique. I tend to give myself several signposts that I know I will reach in an improvised composition, but force myself to continue working to find unique paths to traverse between these goals. The greatest advantage of this method is that it allows me to create a great deal of music very quickly. (Since I’m currently adding nearly 20 minutes of music to a solo set for a Wednesday performance, it’s impossible to understate the amount of comfort I’m currently deriving from this fact.) In addition, I often surprise myself by uncovering possibilities that had remained hidden, and the adrenaline of the performance can push me to overcome the limitations that had previously bound my imagination.

I think of these separate streams almost as if they’re the work of two composers. One person meticulously strives to create compositions that invite multiple listenings. The other ensures that no piece will be the same twice. Even though I’m a Gemini, I’m hoping that the god Janus more accurately reflects this situation since he presides over transitions and at the moment I think that the transitions in my compositions could use a little divine intervention.

Expanding Horizons

A view from the beachI spent most of my formative years dividing my time between Los Angeles and Idaho. The jagged mountain peaks and ocean waves of these Western landscapes shaped my ideals of natural beauty. As an adult, I’ve lived exclusively in the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest, which has forced me to begin to reconsider my relationship with the world around me.

While there are mountains above 5,000 feet in the middle of the city of Los Angeles, the highest point in the entire state of Illinois (where I lived for over a decade) is actually the top of Chicago’s Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. I’ve compensated by spending more time looking closely at the subtle details around me, learning to distinguish between the behavior of the various bird species found in my local parks and nature preserves, teaching myself to cherish my sightings of warblers the way I formerly treasured mountain tops. I’ve replaced the Pacific vistas of my youth with the more confined aesthetics of lakes, bays, and rivers.

These new obsessions have largely filled my need for natural beauty, and have shaped much of my music from the past several years; however, I recently began to feel hemmed in by the world around me. After a great deal of thought, I realized that this visceral sensation derived from my lack of recent exposure to wide open spaces. Since the Eastern U.S.—with its older and more rounded hills—has no mountain peaks that remotely replicate the youthful terrain of the Rockies, the Sierra Nevadas, or even the Los Angeles Mountains, I quickly settled on the idea of a vacation on the Atlantic coast.

My recent week staying on the island of Chincoteague, with daily trips to the neighboring Assateague Island National Seashore, alleviated all the pressure that had been building for many years. I was calmed by the mere act of standing on the coast looking out into waves with the knowledge that this vista extended as far as Portugal. I sensed my horizons expanding, recalibrating back to their original settings.

I am uncertain how this period of personal renewal will change my compositions, or even whether it will have any effect at all. But I am hopeful that this releasing of what has functioned as a pressure valve within my life will allow me to reconsider some of my recent musical obsessions. And since the ocean visit was so effective for me, I’m starting to plan towards a mountain trip as well. Hopefully, I will be able to keep this sense of expansiveness and boundless horizons as an active part of my life.

Speeding Up By Slowing Down

Twice in my life, I trained extensively for serious long distance running. When I was still a pre-teen, I joined my family in informal training with a former Olympic miler, and ran my first half marathon when I was 11 years old. Eight years ago, I began working towards my own marathons (while also finishing up my doctorate and adjunct teaching six days per week). Each time, the coaching I received derived from the basic belief that the only way to learn how to run fast is to run fast. I enjoy competition, especially its ability to allow me to push myself beyond what I had perceived previously as my own limitations, and I thrived on this speed and distance regimen. Until, as invariably happens, I got injured.

Similarly, my impatience and internal competitive drive has increased the level of difficulty involved in my learning to perform new musical repertoire. My will to push myself paradoxically left me covering the same ground year after year without improving my basic skill level on the instruments I studied. Instead of working to play pieces correctly, I would increase the speed until my mistakes would force me to stop. I also would practice for hours after sitting idly for days, leading to hand soreness that would re-set this unhealthy cycle. In short, my internal need to be good immediately had exactly the opposite effect over time.

As I researched techniques for distance training, I kept coming across stories of world record setters whose regimen consisted of huge daily doses of very slow jogging—or, in the case of the early 20th-century marathoners, walking—interspersed with limited and focused runs at race pace, and the rare bit of speed work at faster speeds. The slow work builds the endurance that allows them to maintain their fastest tempo on the rare occasions when speed is an absolute necessity.

Over the past few months, I’ve begun the process of re-learning how to run. Instead of the well-cushioned trainers of yesteryear, I’ve been wearing minimal shoes that have forced me to recalibrate my stride in order to reduce the wear on my knees. The resulting gait is quieter, more efficient, and—at least in my present condition—significantly slower. While each run is at a pace that I would have considered embarrassingly tortoise-like a few years ago, I believe that I’m building the sort of endurance that will eventually allow me to cover more ground than before while needing less recovery time between excursions.

When watching sporting events, the most successful athletes seem to be floating above the others, moving calmly and with directed purpose while the others flail about them. After performing exceptional feats, they often describe their process as being that of relaxing and letting things come to them. The famous “zone,” the state of mind that allows them to do things that appear superhuman, seems to be a place where things slow down.

I’m trying to apply this relaxed and steady approach to many different aspects of my life, and am finding that it’s allowed me to progress farther and faster than I had thought possible. I’m trying to put myself into a state of mind that will allow me to focus on the tasks at hand, to proceed at pace without feeling like I’m rushing myself. I’m trying to tend to those things that need immediate attention while allowing myself time to let everything else slowly percolate in the background. I’m hoping that there is an artistic equivalent of the zone and that the key to entering it is to move slowly.

New Music Capital

Atlas Theater

I’ve always empathized with underdog cities. I’ve resided in Second Cities for nearly all of my adult life, including Chicago (the official Second City), Philadelphia (which often feels like New York’s small stepbrother), and now Baltimore. Whenever non-locals refer to Baltimore, it’s often as part of the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area, but to these same people Washington, D.C. is simply the Capital or the Beltway. While Washington might boast the better museums (with the notable exception of Baltimore’s much treasured American Visionary Art Museum), a wider variety of restaurants, and greater notoriety in general, until recently Baltimore reigned as the undisputed regional champion of experimental music.

Even though Washington, D.C. could claim excellent ensembles like the Verge Ensemble and nationally recognized venues like the Kennedy Center, the city lacked good medium-sized venues committed to presenting experimental sounds. Without such homes, it was impossible to seed the grassroots development that would allow for a local scene to develop beyond this upper layer of excellence. Meanwhile, for years organizations like Mobtown Modern and the Evolution Music Series have been taking advantage of Baltimore’s wealth of welcoming venues to reach out to the audiences steeped in the traditions of embracing the unusual, embodied by local legends like John Waters and Frank Zappa. I could rest easily knowing that Baltimore’s new music scene far outstripped that of our larger neighbors to the south.

No longer.

Recently, the Atlas Theater concluded the first season of its New Music series, as curated by Armando Bayolo, and announced plans for their 2012–13 season. In the first year of this new concert series, the Atlas hosted such luminaries as ICE, Kathleen Supove, D.J. Sparr, and the Janus Trio, while continuing to bring all types of experimental music and art together for the third annual Intersections Festival. Next year their offerings will expand to include visits from So Percussion, Newspeak, Prism Saxophone Quartet, Maya Beiser, and Cornelius Dufallo, local favorites Pictures on Silence, and performances by their ensemble-in-residence, the Great Noise Ensemble.

This past season, I was able to attend three of the Atlas New Music series concerts: two as an audience member and one as a performer. Each presentation was hosted in the 262-seat Lang Theater, which features a proscenium stage that allows the audience to fan out around the musicians in a configuration that’s very wide and shallow so that every seat is in close proximity to the performers. The theater boasts acoustics that are very true and dry, and that project even the smallest sounds from the stage to all corners of the hall. The overall effect created by this space is an intimate feel that is excellent for chamber music, that allows for ample communication between performers and audiences, and for smaller crowds to provide a great deal of energy.

Last week’s visit by the Deviant Septet was a good example of what one can expect from performances on this series. Configured in the instrumentation of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, this new ensemble features some of the best new music performers around, veterans of such renowned groups as Alarm Will Sound and Signal. On this concert, they presented only two works: Histories, a collaboration between the ensemble and the composer collective Sleeping Giant, and The Rake, a “hip-hopera” by ensemble member Brad Balliett and Elliot Cole.

The performances were first-rate throughout. As one would expect from an all-star group like this, the individual players projected improbably complicated lines with ease and conveyed both usual and unusual instrumental sounds with conviction. Even more heartening was the cohesion they displayed in performance, a quality that could not be assumed from a relatively new and relatively large group performing densely constructed music without a conductor. While all the composers utilized the ensemble well in order to convey a variety of effects and affects, a personal favorite moment was the section of Histories penned by Christopher Ceronne. In this movement, the wind players exited the stage and dispersed in order to surround the audience literally with gestures that grew organically from breath sounds enveloping us like waves into grandly undulating chords, while accompanying lovely vibraphone chords and sparse string effects developed unpredictably and satisfyingly.

With such a promising season finale, I am very much looking forward to Atlas’ 2012–13 offerings. They are proving to be a very welcome addition to the region’s new music scene.

Repeat Audiences

If you’re reading this column, chances are that you love experimental music. You probably attend or perform on at least a dozen concerts every year and likely own an extensive collection of new music recordings. You viscerally enjoy this repertoire—at least a substantial subset thereof—and want everyone to share the excitement you experience when listening to it. You prefer orchestral or chamber music to pop songs, and while you accept that most people prefer to hear Justin Bieber over Heinrich Biber and the Engelbert Humperdinck of “After the Lovin” to that of Hänsel und Gretel, you simply don’t empathize with the appeal of the more recent of these pairs of artists. Of course, those of us who share this position reside outside society’s mainstream, but I take comfort in knowing that we can populate this remote neighborhood with people who share aesthetic predilections similar to our own.

Often, I find myself marveling at how difficult it can be for practitioners of new music to attract an audience. Since I’ve been in Baltimore, I’ve been at sublime concerts by world-class musicians with a mere handful of fellow listeners. It seems that a moderately successful local band can easily field audiences numbering in the hundreds or thousands, while even the best experimental performers can’t rely on attracting a mere dozen people to hear them while on tour. I often ask composition students to consider starting a band and touring instead of pursuing the path of writing down music, because the DIY option will allow them to reach more interested souls.

There are many factors that serve to limit the potential number of tickets we can sell for concerts of new music, from the comfort that we gain from the familiar to our isolation from the larger artistic community; from the competition of amplified concerts to the silly rituals of the classical concert. We can solve many of these problems, and many of the best contemporary musicians and ensembles revisit the elemental nature of their concert presentations in order to remove the unnecessary accouterments that limit their reach. Even so, it appears that each year experimental music continues to lose ground and to become further marginalized within our society.

One inherent problem with building an audience for new music is the very fact that the listeners want to hear music that is new to them. When we go to concerts by our favorite bands, we generally expect them to repeat the same dozen selections from their catalog over and over again. A local group can fill clubs in a single town several times a year without any changes to their set list; their followers often will take comfort in hearing replicated repertoire each time and will complain about any deviation from this norm. This ability to attract audience through repetition eases the process of filling seats because a limited but dedicated fan base will reliably appear multiple times to hear the same band play the same songs in the same city. Unfortunately, ensembles dedicated to experimental music cannot rely on this sort of repeat business. Fans of the new want to have unique experiences. They will flock in droves to unrepeatable grand spectacles of Xenakis in Central Park, John Luther Adams in the Armory, and Andriessen at the National Gallery, but they won’t go to hear the same repertoire twice. Paradoxically, even though these audiences require one-of-a-kind concert experiences, they are significantly more comfortable buying tickets when they know and trust the performers and composers.

This creates a practical difficulty for our new music organizations. They need to learn new repertoire for each concert or to visit new locales for each performance. Unlike a band that can learn a single set list and bring it to club after club, these ensembles must expend significant resources rehearsing or traveling before each public presentation. When these musicians find themselves in a place that’s new to them, the local denizens often are unaware of the reputation of the artists visiting their town, and can ignore opportunities to attend these concerts. Many promising projects never get off the ground due to their inability to attract enough followers.

While there isn’t a simple solution to this situation, each of us can play a small part in helping new music thrive in our communities. We can follow our local concert listings and can make an effort to attend performances by musicians who are unknown to us, especially when they are presented by organizations that we’ve come to trust. We can support the crowdfunding ventures of our favorite artists. When our area’s musicians tour, we can contact friends in the places they plan to visit who might be interested in hearing the concerts. And, when we hear transcendent music, we might consider attending a repeat performance.

Oh, the Ironing!

As I’ve discussed previously in this space, I took an unusual path towards a career in music. I didn’t perform music in any formal concert setting until I was well into my doctoral studies, other than a brief stint as an improvising (because I couldn’t read music) auxiliary percussionist in my high school orchestra and another as a tenor in my college choir. My interest in composing stemmed directly from my high school exposure to electronic music, and yet as an adult I’ve mostly avoided creating pieces with any synthesized elements. As an adult, this odd background has served me surprisingly well. Since I approach classical music from the perspective of an outsider, I can continue to question the basic assumptions that can detract from our experience of new music.

For the past several years, during the time that I’ve been teaching full-time at the Peabody Conservatory, I’ve been working towards filling the lacunae in my musical upbringing. Finally, I’ve set aside my fears and have begun performing. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in this regard to have quickly moved from someone with a remarkable dearth in performance experience to someone who has been able to play live with people whose musicality and warmth have moved me to my core (my favorites have included Susan Alcorn, Dave Ballou, John Dierker, Tim Feeney, Mike Formanek, Dana Jessen, Bonnie Lander, Courtney Orlando, Erik Spangler, and Ken Ueno—I’ve been a very fortunate son). Last week, I even premiered a new concerto of mine as toy piano soloist with a chamber orchestra.

As part of this new journey, I’ve gleaned several helpful pointers. Among the most surprising was this: before a big event, it’s important to take a few minutes to iron my shirt. I know this tip seems trivial to the point of ridicule; however, it’s actually an important part of my routine. At a premiere, a million things can go wrong, and I take great comfort in knowing that there is this one small aspect of the performance that I can control. I might miss an entrance (actually, I can pretty much count on missing at least one entrance), a wind instrument might experience a buildup of humidity, a string might break, a percussionist’s hands might slip while changing mallets, but at least my shirt will be clean and crisp.

For me, the simplicity of the task is a source of comfort in and of itself. It requires enough concentration that my mind can’t continue to obsess over the details of the upcoming event, and the rocking motion soothes my subconscious. The physical labor requires me to slow down, to take a moment to stop everything and to focus on something other than the music. Finally, this ritual allows me to gain confidence. The friend of mine who originally introduced me to the joys of ironing points out the importance of the following paradigm: Look the part, be the part.

Gentle reader, I’m curious as to what pre-performance rituals you’ve created in order to calm your nerves. What non-musical tasks help you to prepare for a performance?

Excuse the Geek Out, Part 2

Last week in this space, I began this current geek out on musical notation, partially in response to Alexandra Gardner’s question from two weeks prior: “How much information does a composer working today attempt to convey to musicians through a written score?” The trick appears to be in avoiding over- and under-specificity while notating our ideas in order to convey our main compositional goals. I believe that there is a direct correlation between the amount of abstraction and originality in the form of a new piece and the amount of information performers need in order to understand the composer’s intent.

Of course, if you ask ten different composers to tell you what musical parameters contain their main compositional ideas, you’ll likely be treated to ten different answers. For some, music making begins with the manipulation of pitches within the 12-tone equal temperament system and its performance equivalents. For these composers, the traditional notation system works quite well, as they can name the desired note and allow the performing musician to bring their musicality to bear in order to subtly re-tune, illuminating the underlying structure. Others eschew any consideration of specific notes in order to focus on timbral issues, while a third group pushes beyond the typical 12-note limitations to compose microtonal music in tunings that don’t map onto the typical grand staff. Issues of rhythm, instrumentation, performance techniques, form, and all other musical choices will find composers displaying a similar range of unique interests. For some, the traditional notation system will suffice perfectly well, while others will need to invent unique methods to convey their ideas.

Over the past few years, I’ve been changing my approach to musical notation. I began my compositional studies writing conventional scores by hand, but quickly moved into computer engraving. Even as I started to conceive of different ways that I might be able to convey my musical ideas more concisely, I allowed the limitations of the notation software (and in 1994, notation software was significantly more limited than it is today) to direct me down certain notational paths. As I have become more certain about my musical ideas, I’ve begun pushing against the constraints of the software, goading it along a path towards creating scores that convey these ideas as clearly as possible.

For years, I’ve been writing a great deal of slow music representing sonic landscapes with some recognizable natural elements and others that are distorted in order to convey a sense of alienation. I’ve wanted a free sense of rubato in which some events begin simultaneously while others are displaced against each other, and in which these occurrences might have different internal rates of speed or emotional character. In order to communicate these thoughts in traditional notation, my rhythms became more and more complex and difficult to count, but in rehearsal I often found myself exhorting the players to ignore the specificity of the rhythm in order to feel the natural ebb and flow that I so carefully notated. In the following two-measure example from a piece for two pianos and percussion, for example, I needed seven different subdivisions of the quarter-note pulse in order to notate the various proportions, while my main concerns were in the way that the start of gestures aligned and in their ability to represent individual sound sources juxtaposed by their proximity. In order to accurately perform this passage, most ensembles need to conduct as they play, thereby gaining accuracy in their entrances but losing any ability to truly conceive of their individual parts as independent of the surrounding texture.

Smooke Score: Example One

Example One (click image to enlarge)

Looking back to many pieces in time-line notation and also to works of Crumb in which instruments are notated in their own graphic space with arrows indicating points of congruence, I began to work towards a notational system that would allow the musicians freedom within their parts while maintaining the ability to synchronize where desired.

In a non-opera for three singers (each personifying a character) and string quartet from 2011, I began to codify this system. The following performance indication (Example Two) at the bottom of the first page of the score gave the players a sense of the relative length of each note. This new system allowed for a freely proportional rhythmic notation appropriate for the misremembered lullaby and landscape painting of the music itself. In Example Three (below), you can see how it came together to allow for synchronization and independently flowing lines. The performers were able to get at the musicality of the passage in a way that I found completely satisfying, creating a sense of unpredictable flow at independent speeds without needing to count obtuse rhythmic figures. They were able to spend more time listening and less time counting.

Smooke Score: Example Two

Example Two

Smooke Score: Example Three

Example Three (click image to enlarge)

The problem with the notation illustrated above was that I didn’t leave room for any gradation between slow notes lasting one second and notes performed as fast as possible. As I’ve continued to develop this system, I’ve worked towards the following chart:

Smooke Score: Example Four

Example Four (click image to enlarge)

I’ve been surprised at how well this new notational system has worked for chamber ensembles of various sizes. In the following passage (engraved by an incredibly talented student composer, Viet Cuong, who is graduating from Peabody with his M.M. this year and beginning his studies at Princeton in the fall) for guitar quartet, in which the middle two guitars are slightly de-tuned, I was able to ask the outer players to listen to each other as they repeat their harmonics gesture in order to avoid synchronization. They quickly were able to create an echoing effect. Meanwhile, the faster runs in the middle two guitars sound like a cadenza against this background, and they can be performed at various rates of speed depending on the skill level of the performing musicians. When I’ve tried to utilize traditional notation to exactly represent passages with similar approaches to time, the performers have found them to be prohibitively difficult to learn, and they have often necessitated a conductor.

Smooke Score: Example Five

Example Five (click image to enlarge)

With this new system, when I’d like passages to be exactly synchronized, I can simply give the players a tempo and invoke traditional rhythmic notation. As you can see in the excerpt below, the advantage of this system for me is that, even in those instances, an additional part can explode freely beyond the bar lines in complex proportional relationships with the prevailing pulse as created by the performer in the moment.

Smooke Score: Example Six

Example Six

For me, the final test of this notational system was whether it could be applied to a large ensemble with a conductor. Quite recently, I was able to create a score for a concerto for toy piano and 15 other instruments, with the assistance of the crack engraving skills of Viet. Instead of parts, we produced a specific score tailored for each of the players, highlighting their individual part and accommodating their page turns. In order to allow for variations of the form of the piece in performance, the middle section of the concerto creates what the conductor has called a “choose your own adventure” scenario. In this area, the toy pianist can opt for any of nine musical phrases, playing each in any order at least once and no more than three times. At the end of each phrase, the ensemble performs one of six responses. Example Seven shows the toy piano cadenza, and Example Eight depicts the orchestral responses.

Smooke Score: Example Seven

Example Seven

Smooke Score: Example Eight

Example Eight

This new notation allows me to focus on my main compositional ideas and to simplify those elements that are less important for me. While a first glance might lead a musician to find these scores frighteningly obtuse, I’ve found that this system has helped to speed up rehearsals and to lead towards performances that more accurately convey my compositional intent.

If you’re interested in hearing what this notation sounds like in action, the Atlantic Guitar Quartet and the Great Noise Ensemble will be premiering the latter two pieces discussed above this Friday, in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., respectively, and I’ll post examples to my website this summer.