Author: egreen

Disposable Spaces, Plastic Music

I’ll be honest: I think that the burgeoning consumerism of the 18th century, and the resulting commodification of music into tangible, affordable circulating objects, was one of the main contributing factors behind the contemporary culture of musical canonization we all (myself included) love to critique. It was only a matter of time before the tangible accrued historical, mystical significance, and earned its own reliquaries in the form of “collected works” editions, the awe-inspiring concert halls of the 19th century, and, in the 20th century, “authoritative” recordings.

Which brings me to an environment for listening I have so far ignored. I suspect that many of the places we most often listen to music have little to do with any of the places I’ve mentioned in these posts; we hear mostly recorded music, and we likely hear it alone—in a car, through headphones, maybe through a set of speakers at home.

This kind of listening space is simultaneously ephemeral—in that it is fundamentally malleable—and monumental—in that its infinite repeatability aspires to cultural permanence. I can listen to the latest ICE album on any type of speakers while doing almost anything, and I can also listen to it repeatedly such that I have it memorized.

In fact, it is here, in the realm of recorded sound, that we can truly observe the difficulty (I won’t say impossibility) of ephemerality today. Live musical events of all kinds are usually recorded. Sometimes, those recordings become collectibles, like any Live at the Village Vanguard album. Ironically, this happens among some of the most self-consciously progressive communities of listeners as well, including Phish or Grateful Dead fans who trade (often bootlegged) recordings of particular concerts. Moreover, live events have long been forums for the promotion of recorded music. (I know better than to say CD sales…)
So, it’s fair to say that the ephemeral experience can far more easily be pushed into the monumental than the other way around, not merely by force of recordings and the like, but also by its very commoditization. Is it possible for music to be genuinely ephemeral when it is traded for money? The difficulty of answering this question should explain why Fluxus folks (have) had to be anti-commercial in order to fully embrace event-driven sound-art.

In the end, composers who want to hear more than one group’s interpretation of a piece, performers who want to perfect pieces until they are reliably repeatable under the stress of audience attention, promoters who want to put on events that will sell—we have collectively decided for understandable reasons that yes, disposable music is nice, but we’d really prefer to strive towards something more permanent. We’re afraid that, packaged disposably, music, like other comestible arts, might just be destined to turn to trash the next day—and with it, our opinions of ourselves, our abilities, our cultural heritage.
While I admire the investment in recycling, I don’t think it’s necessary to treat music the way we (hope to) treat our plastics. Performers and composers might feel stuck in a double bind here: They’d like to keep moving, always producing fresh works and events, offering their communities a stream of events on the edge of what’s new. (I don’t mean merely newly composed; I mean new to the landscape, which easily includes older, underperformed repertoire.) And yet it’s frustrating to get only one shot at a performance.
There are certainly those out there committed to experimental music and live manipulation of unrepeatable phenomena, but this is a minority aesthetic and remains unintegrated into the standard concert experience. One can find it in the new sounds of folks like Tim Feeney and Annie Lewandowsi, as well as in the fresh interpretation of ostensible “classics” by Tom Beghin or the resuscitation of no-longer-popular works by Marc André Hamelin. (In a poor, academic-speak imitation of Mike Myers’s “Coffee Talk,” I could throw out a remark here about the ways in which music education writ large reinforces only the most traditional skills of concert production, typically omitting any kind of improvisatory skill. Discuss.) I’ll leave with this thought: Because live presentation so often aspires to the perfection of recorded sound, a renewed commitment to the ephemeral requires a turn away from perfection itself. Does that mean lowering our standards? No, it just means changing them.

Music in a Time of Snapchat: Ephemeral Contexts


Photo by Damien D. via Flickr

Early in the evenin’ just about supper time
Over by the courthouse they’re starting to unwind.
Four kids on the corner trying to bring you up.
Willy picks a tune out and he blows it on the harp.
Down on the corner, out in the street
Willy and the poor boys are playin’.
Bring a nickel, tap your feet.
—“Down on the Corner,” John Fogerty

If Lorde wants us to recognize our desire to be royalty, John Fogerty, I think it’s fair to say, engages with the image of the wandering everyman. Not only is the music of “Willy and the poor boys” the cheapest kind of music to consume—later in the song he refers to paying pennies, which even in 1969 would have been a bargain—but it’s happening outside, at the most ephemeral kind of venue. You don’t wear your ball gown to hear music on the street, and you certainly don’t need to shut up to listen. You don’t get a ticket, and that nickel’s going in a hat.

And yet how many of our listening experiences are truly ephemeral? Is Fogerty’s vision a rare bird in the current musical landscape? Let’s examine disposable music and its settings more closely.
ephemeral music settings
So many fun venues, so many question marks. I consider settings to be ephemeral if they allow for a flexible set-up, places where the experience is changeable, both from day to day and within a given performance. The music may or may not be made in the same area of the room—if there is a room—for every group, and the audience is free to circulate around the space and to talk, sometimes oriented towards the music and sometimes not. These spaces are often functional, the music often occasional.
Weddings might be easy to overlook as musical events, despite the fact that almost every individual who considers herself a musician has played at least one. (In fact, I’d venture to guess that many people earn more from weddings than from new music gigs.) A wedding is one of the few types of events everyone encounters that regularly involves live music, whether it’s the typical Wagner and Mendelssohn (a compositional odd couple if there ever was one) or adaptations of Harry Potter and Star Wars themes. (Yes, I’ve really experienced that.)

So, weddings are ephemeral musical occasions (despite the swarm of cameras aiming to capture the experience for posterity). The other ephemeral spaces might be the most obvious examples, and yet are problematic on close inspection. As far as the listening experience is concerned, places like bars and fairs have the distinct advantage that a spectator can go to the bathroom instead of being confined to her seat while someone wails for four hours about magic jewelry. The current paragon for the ephemeral and everyday is perhaps Le Poisson Rouge, a space in New York City that uniquely embodies flexibility both in its physical layout and in its offerings.

But again, as with the monumental, I’m not confident about most examples of this lower right category. Bars are typically not all that flexible; LPR is the exception. Partly because of how bars are constructed, there’s usually a designated performance and seating area. It can take a large capital investment to create a flexible set-up; at most bars, you’re happy if you encounter a Manhattan bathroom’s worth of performance space. Moreover, I suspect that what many hope to hear at bar concerts is the next big thing; they want to get in on the ground floor of a lasting, valuable, potentially monumental trend. Either that or they want to drink.

Whether an outgrowth of Romanticism or changes in dominant musical venues themselves (from sacred to secular, first of all), attentive, “philosophical” listening reigns hegemonic in the popular conception of musical listening. These ephemeral spaces are not only flexible in their use of space and freedom for the audience; they redefine listening itself. One can still have a valuable musical experience, these venues suggest, while ordering a drink, chewing an hors d’oeuvre, or making conversation. Ironically, listeners in these contexts have just as much in common with pre-19th-century listeners as those in some monumental contexts discussed before: they experience music, like Beethoven’s Serenade or Mozart’s divertimenti—or even operas and masses—as occasional ornament. We often forget, when we bring such works into the concert hall, how fundamentally occasional they were.
It’s possible, then, that the reason why ephemeral spaces are difficult to pinpoint is that they are spaces largely without repertoire. Some of the music originally written to be read (rather than performed) in flexible spaces—Lieder, 18th- and early 19th-century chamber music, a great deal of keyboard music—has disappeared. (When was the last time you heard early Mozart violin sonatas or Zumsteeg songs other than on recordings?) Other repertoire of these spaces has been stolen by the monumental, transplanted to larger, more formal arenas.

While it might not be immediately clear what music, aside from that of Willy’s band and similar, works in a place where your audience might not pay full attention, a number of groups and associated composers have, whether consciously or not, begun to fill this gap. This is a list that many of us know: first, Bang on a Can, then the NOW Ensemble, Victoire, and others.
It’s fair to say that we yearn for more opportunities to enjoy music in these less formal spaces—the critical attention that these groups have gotten implies that kind of yearning at least to me. In order to create these opportunities, we may need to become more comfortable with the non-serious listening associated with those places. Give out crinkly candies at the door, with stern reminders about “no shushing” during the performance. We might just be thanked for our heedless hearing with a more vibrant musical landscape.

Monumental Listening

Truth be told, many people are turned off by opera houses and orchestra halls—or if not turned off, then shut out. These places are expensive to attend, and their formality can seem forbidding. The previous post discussed venues for musical entertainment in the abstract, as if grand municipal spaces set the standards to which all performers and audiences aspire. They don’t, at least not consistently for a whole population of listeners.

As promised, in this post I want to deal with contrasting sorts of venues and their economic and cultural implications. As many of us might intuitively recognize, there are several types of opposites to this kind of space. One venue might be lavish but intimate and differently arranged for every performance, for instance, while another might be large and informal. I suggest that we consider the attributes of spaces along several axes: monumental/ ephemeral, large/intimate, and lavish/everyday. As I’m a fan of a well-placed chart, here is one. I’ll stick to monumental settings in this post and talk about the four parallel categories of changeable settings later.
monumental settings
The venues listed here are ones that, by virtue of the types of institutions they are, lend a sense of longevity and worth to the music played there. When art museums and galleries host concerts, for instance, the spectator confronts ample opportunities for cultural connection between art forms—which may explain why such places are so popular among audiences—and thereby accepts visual analogues to the music she hears; she may indeed find herself encouraged to envision that music similarly framed and immortalized in the imaginary halls of musical works. (A valid question here is: what of sound art in these spaces? That kind of presentation has a ephemeral quality that I’ll address next time.)

One question I have, and that I think is worth considering particularly with regard to the performance of contemporary music: is it possible to communicate this sense of permanent value outside of a lavish setting? Is lavishness one of the chief preconditions for our enshrinement of cultural objects?

Let me answer that question by explaining (and perhaps questioning) the right-hand column. Parades are fairly straightforward to explain in this context. They are obviously commemorative, organized but informal gatherings that pull the music played there into a function that is simultaneously fleeting and monumental. You may not experience that combination of marching steps and John Williams/Carly Rae Jepsen medley ever again, but it sure captured the spirit of Thanksgiving, particularly when followed by the floating Snoopy.
The placement of amphitheaters here is more problematic. As we use them today, they immortalize works and cultural events perhaps even more vigorously than orchestra halls.While the programming for Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion resembles that of its indoor equivalent for the Chicago Symphony down the street,it also demonstrates the space’s role as a gathering place to celebrate historical grandeur—like fireworks and the “1812” Overture on July 4—as well as municipal milestones, like the Blackhawks’ NHL championship last year or, years ago, an entire childhood’s worth of Bulls’ wins. (I can only imagine how the space would be put to use should the Cubs ever break their losing streak. An event like the Messiah sing-along but with Mahler 2?)

But it’s arguable how truly everyday these outdoor arenas are. Functionally, as public, bucolic gathering places, their most obvious ancestors are London’s 18th-century pleasure gardens at Vauxhall or Ranelagh, which boasted one of the largest and earliest indoor amphitheaters. Though the crowds here were typically economically mixed, if we can trust iconographic evidence, the gardens themselves represented municipal economic vitality in much the same way as Chicago’s Millennium Park does today, with its Frank Geary-designed articulation of theurban picturesque. (Vauxhall also boasted a marble statue of Handel, one of the earliest public commemorations of a composer.) Despite the absence of chandeliers and plush carpets, this kind of space, I would argue, seems designed for a similar audience as orchestra halls. I also presume that it’s not the least lavish kind of place we could imagine. Venues with mundane architecture and modest views, like fairs and temporary festivals, attract equally large crowds but rarely serve to commemorate in quite the same way.

Rotunda at Ranleigh T Bowles 1754

“Rotunda at Ranleigh T Bowles 1754.” Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Aside from amphitheaters and parades, there aren’t many even marginally everyday performance spaces that monumentalize works, particularly in the small scale. The only possibility is the home, as it hosts music-learners’ efforts to participate in hallmarks of Western music.I myself remember feeling a measure of accomplishment when I got to play “piano classics” both for myself and for my family. Theodor Adorno, in 1933, saw in the domestic performance of four-hand piano music a kind of intimate monumentality, in which “many a work, which in their orchestral grandiosity ring out in vain under many exertions, reveal themselves only to the timid gesture of memory [i.e., four-hand performance], which shares with them the secret of participating as a humane human in the life of society.”

I created the chart above in order to capture the varied opportunities for confronting monumentality in music. My goal was not only to encourage us to be aware of the cultural undercurrents communicated to us by various venues, but to take all venues equally seriously as places to listen collectively. It turns out that “the appearance of theatricality,” as Alexander Rehding might call it, is so crucial to the performance of cultural permanence that a certain manifestation of largess and wealth is a notable precondition for the communication of monumentality. Surely that precondition excludes populations of listeners.
What, then, are the contexts for more disposable musical experiences? Are they any more or less inclusive? To be continued…

The T.A.R.D.I.S. of Opulence

Lincoln Center

Every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom / Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room. We don’t care; we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.—Lorde, “Royals

Lorde gets that, despite our most vivid imaginative efforts, most of us “will never be royals.” Her 2013 hit anthem (written by the artist and Joel Little) speaks to a public whose music represents a distant life of luxury and apathy, a public that uses its cultural products as a way to envision economic escape.

I’d like to ask to what degree those of us who participate as audience members in other registers of American culture are encouraged to use our musical experiences to imagine ourselves as royalty of a different era.
Unlike Lorde, I’m less concerned with how “every song” conjures this imaginative exercise and more concerned with the role of venues in this conjuring. While we hear music in a variety of contexts, live presentation continues to affect our experience of music and—even more so—of communities and their collective culture. When we listen together, the space in which we convene affects our impression not only of the sound but of ourselves.

I suspect that readers experience musical liveness most often by purchasing tickets to events wherein they sit or stand as a group for two to three hours focused on a sonic focal point.(Don’t worry: I will address other contexts for listening in later posts.)
This kind of event has its roots in court spectacle. The earliest public concerts were presented in spaces which were themselves established as cosmopolitan translations of royal theaters—in Paris, Berlin, London, New York, Boston, and the rest. One of Liszt’s notable early concerts in 1838, for instance, was at La Scala in Milan, a place built to accommodate its royal patrons and originally called “Regio Ducal Teatro alla Scala” (The Royal Ducal Theater [at the site of the former church, Sancta Maria della] Scala), and whose red and gold sparkling interior is now a yardstick for modern nostalgic opulence. Going back further, Paris’s first concert series, the Concert spirituel (1725-1790), was presented at the Opéra, a court-turned-public space originally built for lavish royal entertainment in the city. Though it burnt down later in the century, we can presume that its shimmering decor and lush furnishings rivaled the best of Versailles. According to one contemporary observer, it was “one of the most royal and commodious” venues in France.

The list (and a more complex history) could go on. Nearly every European and American city of note in the 19th century built such a theater. Why? Many reasons: inter-city competition, demonstration of wealth and prosperity, investment in municipal and cultural infrastructure, a desire to capitalize on the affluence generated by new industries, and a push to support the booming noisily-wrapped-candy industry. (Almost) all of these can be boiled down to this: in the same way that court concerts and theatrical events served a dual purpose of entertainment and self-aggrandizement, reflecting the wealth and grandeur of the sponsor back to her and out to her peers and rivals,these new spaces for public concerts provided a space for music while simultaneously connecting their audiences to the imagined luxury of the past. They were designed to augment their public’s sense of self-worth, historically and financially.

Recall the crystal chandeliers, lush carpets, and enormous Chagalls of Lincoln Center. Its fountain seems lifted from Versailles. Or picture the Kennedy Center’s mid-century monumental marriage of marble modernism with the ceilings of an airplane hanger. I know that these iconic places are merely one type—one extreme type—of venue for musical entertainment. But these are the public icons for the arts, places we have all been (or at least can recognize)—places that, no matter whether we believe in their viability and worth or not, we hope to attend at least once in our lives as a kind of rite of passage into a community of listeners and patrons.
Add to that experience of wealth and grandeur the fact that most music we hear in these venues is old—beyond ancient, in the parlance of 18th-century citizens, for whom music from a previous a generation had the stink of Camembert gone bad—and you’ve got quite a potent cocktail: music that transports us to the past in a vessel that communicates how rich we should like to be when we get there.

Taken as a whole, these kinds of events are to music what the big white wedding is to love and commitment: whether you participate or not, the dress, décor, and behavior of that kind of event are the standards for public expression in our cultural imagination. For merely the price of a concert ticket, you can spend two hours feeling like you really are that prosperous and enlightened. Instead of driving a Cadillac in your dreams, you’re sponsoring your own orchestra.

What is gained and lost in each of these kinds of spaces? What kinds of musics are designed for an experience outside of the T.A.R.D.I.S. of opulence? Is there even a way to listen to this music collectively without being transported to a different time and place—and class? In the next posts, I’ll explore a wider variety of spaces, some at the opposite end of the spectrum—think CCR’s “Down on the Corner” rather than Lorde’s “Royals”—the music of those spaces, and their effect on our economic self-conception as audience members. Some musical experiences are presented as fleeting, others as permanent, some as intimate, others as grandiose. The underlying goal is to take as many contexts for listening as seriously as possible, including those not designed for serious listening.


Emily H. Green

Emily H. Green is an assistant professor of musicology at George Mason University. Her thoughts on the social function of music and its print culture appear in a number of places, including most recently as a short story here. She is also active as a performer on historical and modern keyboards.

Anthologies and the Problem of Pre-Fab Teaching

booksIt’s easy to see anthologizing as the first step on the road to canonization. When a contemporary piece is placed in a collection of the type to which Rob Deemer has by now famously contributed, it gets transmitted as a stable, printed score, and finds itself positioned adjacent to music that traditionally qualifies as monumental—large-scale, orchestral, German—and at the end of a perceived narrative of progress, decadence, decay (and rebirth?). It becomes a Work, and might as well be stamped with a morose likeness of Beethoven and brushed with a patina of dust and sauerkraut.

The anthology, in this view, is deeply problematic, and much of the criticism of Rob’s choices operates from this position. Those who remark on the dearth of European composers on his list, for instance, project a sense of indignation that a whole category of artists might not be considered worthy of immortalizing. Those who complain about the lack of improvised music (more on that below) and examples of other techniques betray a concern that nonstandard creative approaches will not be recognized as skillful.

More problematic than the anthology, in my view, is what this kind of critique assumes about the activity of history and theory pedagogy. The unarticulated assumption is that the anthology will be used in the service of a narrative of great works and geniuses, a kind of chronological tour of the Classical Music Hall of Fame, and that those contained inside the paper walls are proven masters, while those without aren’t worthy of attention.

One way to soothe the outrage is to recognize another function of the anthology, to view it as an aid to a particular type of teaching: as an outline of a context-driven narrative. What if we take anthologies as the beginning of discussions, not the ending? I don’t mean, exclusively, the kinds of discussions happening on NewMusicBox; I mean discussions in the classroom. Anthologies provide examples of trends, and provide students—and, more importantly, educators—with starting points on various topics. They will always be inadequate representations of musical praxis, and their inadequacy should be a regular source of conversation: Why does the collection contain so few women composers? So few non-European composers? Why isn’t there more organ repertoire? More saxophone repertoire? More kazoo music? Why is there only German art song? Why is there so little popular music? So little non-Western music? Some of these questions are easier to answer than others, but they—and many more—are all worth articulating in the classroom. Moreover, I venture to guess that every anthology compiler wishes desperately for this type of inquiry to take place.

card catalogThis is the crucial connection between anthologies and another of the controversial topics explored in previous NewMusicBox columns (Rob’s included): when probing questions are not encouraged, those types of voices that are typically absent from the telling of history—the non-male, non-European, queer, or generally unprivileged—will only continue to be absent. The more we teach history and theory as a study of great musical works and discrete moments of genius, the less satisfied those who raised objections to Rob’s post will be, and the more we all stand to lose.

Take the complaint about the lack of improvised music among Rob’s choices. This is a fair criticism, particularly as improvisation has a long history. In fact, it’s fair to say that, in the very long tradition of social music-making, strict notation is the exception. Yet, ironically, examples of improvised practices do not often grace the pages of anthologies, in part because of logistical difficulties. Though a significant part of Mozart’s and Bach’s musical activity, for instance, we can only guess at the exact form of each composer’s on-the-spot larger-scale creations. Furthermore, when printed in an anthology, even the music that would have been improvised, like a cadenza or operatic embellishment, ends up looking fixed, for the anthology, in subsuming everything under one heading, problematically suggests that all music approaches the printed page in the same way.

If a history teacher doesn’t take the trouble to situate works in the context of the performance practices, institutions, nations or courts with which they are associated, students are deprived not only of broad cultural knowledge, but of an opportunity to be informed about non-musical reasons for certain parameters of musical style. (An example might be John Cage’s famous anecdote about the reasons behind the piano preparations in Bacchanale.)

Not to put too fine a point on it, but to teach only the composers discussed in someone else’s textbook, chosen by someone else’s narrative, would surely be an impoverished and lazy approach to pedagogy; anyone who knows enough to run a history or theory course knows more repertoire than that which is contained in an anthology, and could formulate valid objections to the contents of any textbook.

It has been articulated in the comments to Rob’s piece, but it’s worth saying again: bravo to Mark Evan Bonds for attempting to keep the anthology so current, and bravo to Rob for being so open about the reasons for his choices. It’s up to the rest of us to do the real work: to place these pieces in context, and make our complaints into curricula.

The “I” in Dedication

A thought experiment: you’re a performer, opening a score for the first time. On the first page of music, in small print, just under the title, a phrase catches your eye: “To Milton Babbitt.” Really? “Oooh,” you might think, or, “Yikes!” But deeper reactions follow. “What’s the story here?” you wonder. You reflect on the composer’s biography: Was she a student of Babbitt’s? Did she go to Juilliard? Could she have met him elsewhere? But—wait—how old is this composer? Perhaps she was not a student but more of a peer. Perhaps the dedication represents one link in a chain of reciprocation between the two composers. Did Babbitt dedicate something to her as well? Or maybe he helped advance her career somehow?

Later, your process of learning the piece is haunted by Babbitt’s spectral (ha?) shape. You arrive at a passage of registral saturation, and that unmistakable round head with horn-rimmed glasses provokes other questions: Could he have written this? Or at least inspired it? You begin to wonder if your performance of certain passages should be informed by your experience with Babbitt’s music. You realize, of course, that it probably already has been.

Now imagine a similar scenario in which the exact same piece is dedicated to Philip Glass. You would pose the same questions about the composer’s biography and reciprocation (and would again stifle an “Oooh!” or “Yikes!”). But your process of learning the piece would probably change; the hovering spirit of Glass would highlight other musical characteristics and would inform your interpretation differently. Where you might before have seen quasi-serialist gestures, for instance, you might now find vaguely tonal, fragmentary arpeggios.

Though they might seem at first blush superficial and fleeting, the inquiries prompted by dedications in this kind of mental exercise are in fact deeply revealing. It’s not so radical to claim that music involves multi-layered communication between the composer and performer (assuming the two don’t exist in the same body), between the audience and the performer (assuming there is a performer), and between the composer and the audience. The dedication introduces a calculated human element into all of these interactions. It presents a persona, carrying all sorts of implications regarding a composer’s personal and professional associations as well as the work’s musical content, and inviting those who interact with it to view the composer and the piece in a broader context than they might otherwise.


What is a dedication?

You might ordinarily think of the dedication as the product of an older economy, a Western European one in which composers were supported by Renaissance Men of Importance in short dresses and tights—and you’d be right. In recognition of patronage, or as a way to seek future sponsorship, composers offered written works usually to individuals from the court and clergy.

Like most cultural practices, the dedication did adapt to changes in power structure. Most interestingly, in the later 18th century, approximately at the time that crowns—or at least tights—went out of style, composers began to dedicate works to each other. Some of you might know, for instance, Mozart’s string quartets (K. 387, 421, 428, 458, 464, 465) for Haydn (1785) or Beethoven’s Op. 2 piano sonatas for Haydn (1796). Most 19th- and 20th-century composers, in fact, dedicated at least one work to a peer or teacher.

Beethoven 3 Sonatas for harpsichord or pianoforte

Ludwig van Beethoven, 3 Sonatas for harpsichord or pianoforte, op. 3 (Vienna: Artiaria, 1796). By permission of Brian Jeffrey and Tecla Editions

And thus the modern musical dedicatory practice was born: composers now offer works to many types of recipients, including commissioning groups or patrons, friends, family, performers, and fellow composers.

Of course, not every dedication looks like a dedication. Some come encoded in titles, like John Cage’s For M.C. and D.T. (1952) or Conlon Nancarrow’s For Yoko (1980), some look like birthday presents, like Lou Harrison’s An Old Times Tune for Merce Cunningham’s 75th Birthday (1993) or Stucky’s Ai Due Amici for Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg (1998). Still others, including William Bolcom’s Three Dance Portraits (1986), whose movements are riddles connected to names of the composer’s friends, or many of Lou Harrison’s gamelan works, seem to be portraits, but function simultaneously as offerings, musical sketches given as gifts and cousins of the homage, which is again another form of non-dedication dedication.


Who reads dedications?

Most important to remember about this shape-shifting kind of gift is that it is a public one. There are many ways to honor a peer: one could sneak some sort of musical reference to him or her into the fabric of the piece, one could present a manuscript copy with a personal note, or one could even hide an inside joke in the title of a work. By contrast, the dedication represents a choice to make a very visible gesture. It becomes a prominent part of the text of the work, apparent to performers, and often spectators as well.

So who reads the dedication? The dedicatees of course, but also, well, you, as a member of the public audience. Who are you? Well, if you’re reading this article, then you are some sort of music consumer. You are probably involved with music in some way, as a composer, performer, or informed spectator, which means that you are at least periodically invested in the making of and listening to music. And in these activities, if you read scores for any purpose, then you’ve seen a dedication. Furthermore, particularly for those non-dedication dedications disguised as titles, you don’t even need to see a score (if there is one); you might learn of them in programs or elsewhere.


Why dedicate?

Dedications to patron-like figures were designed to acknowledge financial support, so why offer a piece to a non-paying figure, especially a peer? That’s a big question that one could fill a book trying to answer. Here are a few theories.

First, dedications have private or semi-private purposes; they are intended to communicate something, usually some species of gratitude, to their recipient. One common sentiment is the acknowledgement of teaching; many composers have offered works to mentors. One of the historically most discussed examples, for instance, is Beethoven’s dedication to Haydn, a gesture famous as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. It was common around 1800 for composers to label themselves as students when dedicating to a teacher, usually with a phrase like “student of x.” Beethoven, however, chose not to mark himself as a “student of Haydn,” a fact that, by some second-hand accounts, made Haydn uncomfortable, presumably because the lack of such a label seemed a denial of—or at least an ungrateful attitude towards—the composer’s mentorship.

In general, though, dedications to teachers do seem to communicate appreciation, and are usually offered fairly early in a composer’s career. Examples include: Schoenberg’s op. 1 lieder (1898) “to his teacher and friend,” Alexander Zemlinsky; Harold Shapero’s String Quartet (1941) to Walter Piston; David Lang’s Grind to a Halt (1996) to Jacob Druckman; and Ken Ueno’s Apmonia (2004) to Bernard Rands.

Apmonia dedication page, by Ken Ueno

Copyright © 2004 by New Jack Modernism. Used by Permission.

But dedications communicate to a public audience as well. First, they reveal biographical information and tell (or begin) stories about the dedicator. They entice the audience to investigate the relationship between the dedicator and dedicatee, whether there was one or not. Take Elgar’s op. 36 “Enigma” Variations. Dedicating the work “to my friends pictured within” and labeling each variation with initials and nicknames, Elgar tempts his audience to reconstruct his social circle. In fact, he may as well have titled them the “Please Solve Me Variations” given the speed and enthusiasm with which many of these riddles were deciphered. (Of course the central enigma, the theme of the work, remains unsolved.) Many other offerings are more overtly suggestive: Satie’s memorial Élégie for Debussy (1920) is explicitly marked in honor of “an admiring and pleasant friendship of thirty years.”

Most importantly, the dedication doesn’t only imply the existence of a relationship; it causes the audience to probe that relationship, searching for clues about the circumstances surrounding the offering itself. It’s like a sophisticated game of connect the dots, in which we see the outline of an interaction and are invited to fill in the details. That’s why the “Enigma” Variations are so irresistible; they openly activate our investigative instinct. And like most kinds of play, the dedicatory game is, on a deeper level, an empathic exercise, one wherein the reader imagines himself in the composer’s subjective space, attempting to envision the variety of scenarios that might have resulted in a personal or professional connection.


No really, why dedicate? (The cynical answer)

The fact that composer-to-composer dedications became common alongside the development of the modern musical economy is no mistake. Since the mid- to late 18th century, when they were decreasingly able to earn support from patrons, composers have had to find creative ways to appeal to a consuming public and to distinguish themselves in a marketplace increasingly crowded with their competitors’ wares. Some have used clever titles (much of Satie’s catalogue comes readily to mind), some have used unique instruments, perhaps in an attempt to jump early onto a bandwagon (such as the late-18th-century vogue for the glass harmonica or the mid-20th-century infatuation with the theremin); one could even argue that experiments with compositional techniques and form were in part an attempt to attract positive criticism, though that’s a leap that would require another article to justify.

This particular type of dedication was similarly designed to catch the consumer’s eye, as was especially evident in the 18th and 19th centuries when title pages were more crowded and elaborate. Today, dedications are printed almost exclusively on the first page of music in small print, whereas before approximately 1875, the dedicatee’s name rivaled that of the composer, as both appeared centrally on the title page in large and ornate script. Advertisements also often mentioned dedications, making this small bit of text even more likely to influence consumers’ purchasing decisions.

When Andreas Romberg, an early-19th-century violinist and composer, wrote to his publisher in 1801, his excited language pushed the promotional power of his dedication to Haydn: “This dedication will surely not be unappreciated by you, as it will doubtless promote the sale of the works.  Now tell me if we don’t understand our public—or rather, the world!” The dedication, Romberg boasts, would help sales and would reveal an unparalleled knowledge of the marketplace.

These days, dedications are rarely used in the service of publishers’ advertisements, but that doesn’t mean they go unnoticed. Cleverness will always attract attention, which is why witty dedications might endear the audience to their authors and thus serve an obliquely promotional purpose, whether intentional or not. It probably comes as no surprise that three eminent wordsmiths—Erik Satie, John Cage, and David Rakowski—boast a few such examples: “I dedicate this work to myself” reads the first page of Satie’s Prélude de La porte heroique du ciel (1894); Cage’s book Silence (1961) is “To Whom It May Concern,” and Rakowski’s piano etude no. 94, Knocksville (2010), is playfully dedicated “at” Harold Meltzer.

Knocksville, by David Rakowski

Copyright © 2010 by CF Peters Corporation. Used by permission.

But the claim of legacy constitutes a clearer and more common brand of self-promotion.

In 1854, for instance, Liszt offered his B-minor Sonata to Schumann, who was at that time a prominent composer in the Germanic tradition. Liszt, on the other hand, had not yet composed a sonata or any other type of work that would have been considered Beethovenian. The public offering to Schumann, therefore, would have signaled Liszt’s wish both to ally himself with this Teutonic tradition and to be validated by Schumann’s (or his disciples’) approval.

Particularly when a younger composer dedicates to a more established figure in this way, the implication of approval bleeds easily into one of influence. And what, after all, is more promotional in the music world than the claim of impressive professional associations? Is this not the reason for so much of the standard rhetoric in concert programs and website bios?


The “I” in Dedication

It may seem too cynical to suggest that composers manipulate the dedication, a seemingly intimate gesture, for financial gain. But whether or not we like to admit it, composers often need to be business people, and this involves, in part, crafting unique public personas as much as any other class of individuals with a public face: actors, television personalities, politicians (alright, maybe not as much as politicians).

Interestingly, one of the most important characteristics for a composer to project is that she is not a business person. After all, few consumers want to think of music as a commodity, a product engineered for success on the marketplace. That’s generally a buzz-kill for the musical experience.

The composer-to-composer dedication, it turns out, is a good antidote. An apparent window into the personal and professional interactions of its author, this kind of offering gives the consumer the impression that he or she is glimpsing an inner life, an authentic selfhood invested in friendships, mentorships, and overall sincerity. Moreover, it implies not a financial transaction, like a commission, but an aesthetic communion, one in which musical ideas and influence has been shared.

There is some evidence that composers themselves view their dedications in this way. Steven Stucky, for instance, suspects that his increased tendency to dedicate in recent years reflects an attitude “less formal and more personal.” Ingram Marshall has also characterized his offering of Vibrosuperball (1975) to John Adams as a “personal” one. For Ken Ueno, the inspiration is at once musical and intimately cooperative. “The Utopia, that is my imagination for what might be,” he says, “is expanded by new vistas revealed to me by what my most trusted virtuosic collaborators can make real.  The dedications to my pieces honor that history of collaboration.” Something similar is true for Rakowski. Many of his dedications honor those to whom he feels indebted for the concept or motivation for particular works, like piano etudes nos. 52, Moody’s Blues (2003), and 54, Pedal to the Metal (2003), both to Rick Moody, or 82, F This (2007), to Marilyn Nonken and Ueno.

So, if composers prefer to think of their dedications as private gestures between friends, and consumers tend to view them that way as well, why argue that they serve any other purpose? Because something more happens upon their reception. The composer’s public image changes. Consumers are drawn to contemplate a Venn diagram of affections and influences that may have affected the creation of the work.

This small bit of text packs a punch, then. It projects an image of a composer inspired by her peers, grateful for her friends, and indebted to her predecessors. It says, in its author’s voice, “I am true, I am genuine, I collaborate, I appreciate tradition.” And this is music to our eyes.



Emily Green

As an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow, Emily H. Green is a musicologist on the faculty at the Department of Music at Yale University. Her work on dedications and musical consumerism has appeared in Eighteenth-Century Music and the Journal of Musicological Research. She is also active as a pianist and fortepianist.