Author: John Pippen

What Do You Think?

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologist at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

A couple of years ago I attended a concert that included a piece by the composer Fred LaMar (a pseudonym). After several months of fieldwork in the Chicago New Music scene, I had recently become fixated on asking a simple question: what do you think? I would ask this of fellow concert-goers and whenever an acquaintance knew the piece I was interested in, so I was eager to hear people’s reactions to LaMar’s work. After this show, a respected performer responded to my question by asking, “You’re not a friend of Fred LaMar, are you?” I was not, and we engaged in a detailed discussion of what she saw as the piece’s failings, as well as other aspects of the performance she didn’t like.

How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation?

Such conversations have remained a subject of curiosity for me. In my research, I routinely conduct taped interviews, but these can’t capture or exemplify all the interesting conversations I have had while doing my fieldwork. Many times, detailed conversations about aesthetics and labor came about naturally while walking around town or during a chance meeting. I couldn’t always prepare for such an encounter, and when I have attempted to solicit negative reviews during more formal interviews, the results are frequently stale or intensely private. How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation? How do our relationships mediate our critical perspectives? What happens when someone you respect does work you don’t like? I want to consider these questions with regard to both printed and spoken reviews of concerts. By looking at how we speak about these issues, we can begin to see how musicians move back and forth between ostensibly social and aesthetic concerns, and demonstrate how these two areas are deeply interwoven domains.

As I’ve attempted to formulate what it is that interests me about these conversations, I’ve turned to anthropological research on gossip. It’s not that every response to “What do you think?” constitutes gossip, but sometimes it does, and it can be hard to tell the difference. (I know, I know, the adage about only saying it if you would say it in front of someone, but the fact is some people are more open to criticism than others. I didn’t always have a strong relationship with the criticized or the criticizer, and presumption is riskier than abstention.) Since the 1950s, researchers such as Erving Goffman have argued that intimate conversations often have as much of a theatrical “staged” quality as public discussions. We shape our conversation to its context. Even our most intimate iterations are mediated by concerns about place and impact, though they remain authentic. We can lower these stakes in part by feigning ignorance of a subject, as noted by ethnomusicologist Henry Kingsbury. In his book based on ethnographic research in an elite music conservatory, Kingsbury described the question “What did you think of the Beethoven?” as a way to judge not only the talent of Beethoven and his performers, but of the speakers. More recently, Niko Besnier has argued that gossip is crucial to understanding the make-up of a given community, arguing that “exclusion from gossip is one of the primary means through which groups define outsider status.” Gossip, he argues in his book Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics, is central to “how people construct and maintain a sense of localness.” Viewed with a sense of community in mind, “What do you think?” can serve to announce our relationships with the musicians in question. It can locate us in relationship to the broader community, as having more or less insight or talent (a la Kingsbury), or as being a trusted confidant (as in Besnier). Responding to “What did you think of the Reich?” with “I just don’t like music with so little melody” could risk placing you outside the community, in opposition to widely accepted views. In contrast, a more nuanced response, “I think Reich’s music stopped being good about seventeen years ago” might have the opposite effect. Your response also varies according to your place. Maybe you really don’t like music with the kinds of melodies Reich employs, but you don’t want to say so in front of the wrong people. Giving your opinion of melody is thus an intimation, a sign that you trust your interlocutor to keep your confidence.

Photo by Andrew Robles

Photo by Andrew Robles

In my fieldwork and interviews, “What do you think?” provided many people with an opportunity for expressing support. When I asked people what they thought, opinions were often given with various caveats or protective phrases such as, “First of all, I generally think Rebecca is a fantastic soloist and a great musician. But …” Many of the people I spoke with in the Chicago scene and elsewhere were eager to demonstrate their respect for the work required to produce a given performance. At each point in the conversation, interlocutors attempted to ascertain the rationale for the work in question. Why did this performance happen here in this way by these performers? Often, more intensely negative opinions appeared with more caveats, especially when disparaging respected figures. Indeed, this type of construction—a critique delivered after an expression of support—has, for me, become almost cliché. I encounter it frequently in press reviews of the groups I study. Eighth Blackbird is routinely praised for excellent performances while the same writer will deride the piece performed (check out Anne Midgette’s 2016 review of Eighth Blackbird’s “Ghostlight” program for a good example).

Sometimes, such constructions emerged after especially damning criticisms. In a recent concert review for Cacophony magazine, for example, Jen Hill took the vocal ensemble Quince and composer Luis Fernando Amaya to task, writing:

The concert began with a conservative program […] that relied on simplistic subtlety in terms of purpose and approach, in that any possibility of risk or consequence was masked by a metaphorical (and at one point, very real) veil of restraint. [This performance] objectifies the female bodies on stage and makes a theatrical mess of an otherwise pleasant listening experience.

That word “pleasant” recalls other back-handed compliments I’ve read over the years. Take, for example, this scorcher from a 2011 Eighth Blackbird concert review:

No need to return to Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire, a listenable but inconsequential concerto written for eighth blackbird. They gathered around the Steinway at the beginning of the piece and the end, bowing and striking the piano strings to pleasant effect.

In the comments posted to the Cacophony review, Hill responded to critics, “i have great respect for all performers and composers and staff involved in this festival and have no intention of passing judgement on their skill, commitment, or character.” And yet judgment was passed on the work, a move that at least raises some questions about character, especially when criticism includes accusations of misogyny.

Why support those we criticize? Or the reverse, why criticize those we support?

Why support those we criticize? Or the reverse, why criticize those we support? Why do many of us feel the need to suss out works and our opinions? I posed this question to a friend, who responded, “Because it’ll make the work better. All this stuff involves innovating, trying to do something different.” In new music, it can be hard to know when somebody’s on to something or when we’re just excited for someone. Sometimes the distinction doesn’t matter, but often it does. There’s a point, I think, where your honest opinion matters more than your friend’s feelings. The opposite is also true, as was demonstrated to me repeatedly in fieldwork. “What do you think?” was rarely a simple question in the new music scenes I’ve studied. Especially when forming new relationships, as I did over and over again in the course of my fieldwork, sharing critical perspectives helped me engender a sense of trust and openness. Finding people who shared my critical views enhanced our relationship, and I needed those relationships for my work. When I could be honest with someone, I was able to have richer conversations, to open up, and—most importantly—to relax and stop analyzing everything I was doing while I was doing it. It helped make the long hours feel less like an intrusion and more like a shared experience.

Photo by Nik MacMillan

Photo by Nik MacMillan

Critiques and gossip both illustrate that, at least for the people I have worked with, new music is a rather contingent endeavor. An artist’s status, veracity, and execution were often points of debate. Even a group as successful as Eighth Blackbird ultimately risks a lot when they undertake a project. Groups with a larger budget and full-time employees cannot afford to fail in the same way that the part-time Ensemble Dal Niente can. This is important to remember amidst all the hyperbole around entrepreneurship. New music is a culture that tends to romanticize risk, and I think we ought to push back on that romanticizing. For all its aesthetic innovation, new music remains a job for many people. For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question. A consensus of failure had the potential to be a truly devastating realization, especially when a project cost a lot of money and involved multiple donors.

For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question.

Attending to this type of talk complicates how we support each other. It demonstrates that negative feedback relies on a sense of trust and implicit support, as has been noted by Ellen McSweeney in an essay titled “Can a Concert Review be an Act of Love?”:

I’ve realized that for me, writing about other people’s artistic work is actually an act of service. More than that: it is an act of love…. when I look back at my best concert reviews, I can see their devotional qualities. I never wrote about music that I didn’t like, or didn’t care about. Thus, my music writing is an expression of the fact that I really see this artist, that I believe in this artist, and that I want to shine a light on what this artist offers the world.  And when I called out Chicago new music sexism, or Beethoven Festival dysfunction, or an unexamined trope in Amy Beth Kirsten’s work, it was much like the process of telling a close friend that they’re wrong.

I don’t think I love everybody I talk about, but I do care about most of them. When I don’t care about something, I tend to talk about it very little (though when I really hate something, I might talk about it more).

One last thing about “What do you think?”: The levels of mediation I have outlined here demonstrate how much the people I’ve worked with rely on each other. The scene is small, or at least it is felt to be small. “What did you think?” is thus usefully combined with that other ubiquitous question in new music, “Do you know so-and-so?” To return to my opening example, I wonder what would have happened if I had been a friend of Fred LaMar. How would my conversation have been different? I think three counter questions would shape my reaction to another’s criticism of my imaginary friend’s piece. First, what did I think? This question often takes me a long time to figure out, and can change after I have a good talk with another listener. Second, who am I speaking with? The answer to this question determines how honest I can afford to be. Finally, did my interlocutor acknowledge in some way the work required to produce the work?

Determining the qualities of a piece of music of almost any kind remains deeply social for me and for many others. Most of us, I think, arrive at our opinions in dialogue with our friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and critics. Sharing our experience of music goes a long way to shaping our experience of that music. Even when we think something is bad, talking about it can still feel really good.

Musicians at Work: Ensemble Residencies as Social Relationships

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

Over the last few decades, many American schools of music have embraced the repertoire and missions of new music ensembles. DePauw, Oberlin, Eastman, Mills College, and even Indiana’s Jacob’s School of Music have opened their doors to the new generation of composers and performers creating new music today. While this is hardly news to the readership of NewMusicBox, it marks a significant change in attitude among American higher education institutions. Take, for example, musicologist Susan McClary’s assessment from 1989 that “both popular and postmodern musics are marked as the enemy, and there is still considerable effort exerted to keep them out of the regular curriculum.” Nine years later, Robert Fink summarized his take on the influence of classical music’s institutions thusly: “For the first time, the production and consumption of contemporary art music has broken quite free of institutionalized classical music.” Fink was writing about groups like the Bang on a Can All-Stars and their proclivity for performing outside the hallowed spaces of leading institutions.

In contrast to these dour proclamations, today’s schools of music increasingly view new music as a vital and attractive addition to their education mission. A manifestation of this shift is the ensemble residency. Academies across the country routinely hire musicians to teach students both the art and business of professional new music-making. Last year, I had the opportunity to explore the interaction between ensembles and institutions. I spent time with three groups at different schools: Third Coast Percussion at the University of Chicago, the Playground Ensemble at Metropolitan State University Denver, and Eighth Blackbird at the Curtis Institute of Music.[1]

I begin with a scene from my fieldwork in Chicago with Third Coast Percussion:

It’s 5:25 p.m. and Third Coast Percussion is running through their music. The quartet has spent most of the day here, in their studio space on Rockwell Avenue in Chicago, collaborating with composer Jonathan Pfeffer. The composer prefers to write music for people he knows well, and he spent the last two days experimenting with the group and discussing how the piece might work. Pfeffer left a few hours ago, and the quartet has since moved on to music for an upcoming concert. A brief pause occurs after they finish the piece, the members gathering their thoughts.

“We kind of settled into a tempo, and I think we should just roll with that” says Peter Martin. David Skidmore observes that the crescendo at measure thirty could grow louder. They discuss the dynamics and phrasing for a few minutes, but at some point, without my realizing it, the conversation drifts to the old Nickelodeon show, You Can’t Do That on Television. This type of break is not uncommon for these good-humored performers, but it lasts only a few minutes.

“We should, like, take a day off,” David says.

“Like in 2017?” replies Robert Dillon, a sarcastic grin spreading across his face.

The joke is funny, but rings true. The past week had been especially busy, with residency activities at the University of Chicago, a rehearsal with the Chicago Youth Symphony, and collaborative project with Pfeffer. Besides late night meals and occasional rehearsal jokes, the four percussionists have gone without a break for about nine days, often working long hours and hauling equipment from one locale to another. Phones are always close at hand as members check the progress on upcoming projects, contracts, and gig schedules. After laughing off Rob’s joke, they run the piece again, this time with the lights out as they’ll perform it.

Composer Jonathan Pfeffer working with Third Coast percussionist David Skidmore on the Kalimba.

Composer Jonathan Pfeffer working with Third Coast percussionist David Skidmore on the Kalimba.

I describe this scene in detail because it is typical to a work routine found among Third Coast Percussion, Eighth Blackbird, and the Playground Ensemble. Long days of work followed by rehearsals for quickly approaching gigs was common to all three ensembles. Performers often strove for a high level of musicianship that requires focused attention and lengthy rehearsals of difficult music. Humor was used frequently to lighten the mood, but nothing could stop the relentless approach of deadlines.

When every moment has potential meaning, it can be hard to relax.

These musicians are, to invoke the buzzword of our time, “entrepreneurs.”[2] They “create success” for themselves, an approach touted by arts consultant Astrid Baumgartner. They innovate, collaborate, and embrace what psychologist Carol Dweck dubs the “growth mindset.” Obstacles are transformed into creative guidelines, and programs created to attract audiences with enticing themes. Entrepreneurialism is celebrated by many in the arts scene, but the reality is less sunny than the image often projected by consultants and administrators. Because it valorizes flexibility, opportunism, and social relationships, entrepreneurialism demands constant work. When every moment has potential meaning, it can be hard to relax.

Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird work together.

Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird worked together in the summer on creating a special touring show for the upcoming season. From left to right: Third Coast Managing Director Liz Pesnel, percussionist David Skidmore, eighth blackbird percussionist Matthew Duvall, and production manager Rachel Damon.

And work is constant in a small flexible ensemble. During my fieldwork with these three groups, I saw people working at all hours of the day, often leaving one site to report to another. Even breaks could be filled with work: phone calls to arrange the details of an upcoming gig, meetings with collaborators or students, or attending the premier of a friend’s piece. In one case, I sat down with two musicians for a casual lunch and they started discussing an approaching show, prompting one musician to quip, “Sorry to make this a work lunch!” The flexible nature of these ensembles, a seeming hallmark of the new music scene today, requires constant attention to the dozen or so obligations that, like plates spinning on poles, are poised to fall without warning. A grant application is due. Did you send me that budget? Can you help set up chairs for a second? I need to practice that one part. We have a concert and need some spoken notes. Could you prepare something?

Within the residency, tailoring is the working method of the flexible ensemble. Like consultants in the business world, these musical entrepreneurs maintain an influential if somewhat ambiguous relationship with host institutions (Sennett, 2006). At each residency, musicians designed projects (concerts, presentations, and teaching activities) that were somehow tailored to the needs of the institution and the abilities of the ensemble. Work included a variety of teaching and performing activities, as dictated by the nature of the institution and the contract for the residency. This tailoring required regular communication between ensembles and institutions, a somewhat challenging prospect depending on the number of people involved on each side of the consultant relationship. Furthermore, an ensemble’s impact upon an institution was confined by the temporary nature of the residency itself. None of these musicians were actually full-time faculty members, and their ability to shape institutional policy and goals remained limited by their transience. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that ensembles have a strong and infectiously positive impact upon an institution’s students.

In addition to economic and logistical support, residencies provide crucial symbolic capital.

For all three groups, residencies are a major part of professional life and economic livelihood. The two touring ensembles—Third Coast Percussion and Eighth Blackbird—rely heavily on residencies for their income. Residency activities such as teaching and master classes are often important offerings used to secure gigs within the network of music institutions. Such work varies greatly in length, ranging from a few hours of teaching, lecturing, or coaching all the way to weeks of activities spread out throughout the year (or years, as in the case of Eighth Blackbird’s Curtis residency). For the Playground Ensemble, a single residency provides limited financial support, but gives the group access to percussion equipment, rehearsal space, and performance venues.

Cellist and Playground Ensemble member Richard vonFoerster gives feedback to the composer.

During an open reading session for student compositions, cellist and Playground Ensemble member Richard vonFoerster gives feedback to the composer.

In addition to economic and logistical support, residencies provide crucial symbolic capital. The currency of artists for some time, symbolic capital takes the form of prestige and reputation. It is, in essence, the value of your name. Ensembles leverage relationships, prizes, grants, and endorsements from critics and other influential taste-makers to secure future work. The prestige ascribed to a given institution serves as a sort of sociomusical business card in conversations with insiders and outsiders, as Third Coast Percussion member Robert Dillon told me of their Notre Dame residency:

There’s nothing better than being able to go somewhere and say that you’re tied to this larger reputable institution. For people who know nothing [about new music], if we walk in someplace and say we have ensemble residency at the University of Notre Dame, it’s like, “Wow, you guys must be great!” And if you’re talking to presenters or managers, then they know the person who runs the [DeBartolo] Performing Arts Center [at Notre Dame], and so that’s even better.

Members of all three ensembles described a similar view of residencies. The prestige and respect perceived to be held by the institution was, in effect, transferred to the ensemble and provided evidence of the ensembles’ legitimacy and respectability (see further Kingsbury, 1988 and Cottrell, 2004).

Like other aspects of flexible artistic labor life, residencies are developed through and contribute to social relationships. They allow ensembles to foster new contacts and project ideas. During fieldwork, I witnessed plans for future projects flourish in institutional spaces. Students told me about the important lessons they had learned from musicians, and teachers and administrators hailed residencies as part of a broader shift in institutional culture. This was especially true at Curtis, where composition faculty and director of the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble David Ludwig had spearheaded a broader shift in curriculum. In an interview with me, Ludwig described a new emphasis on teaching Curtis students:

how to be self-motivated, how to have artistic intellectual curiosity and apply that to being in the community and to engaging people. It shows a very different way of thinking […] because the school wouldn’t have even thought of that pre-internet, pre ideas of engagement.

Within this context, Eighth Blackbird figured in many ways as a model for the socio-musical entrepreneurs Curtis now seeks to create. Along similar lines, Prof. Peter Schimpf, Chair of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Music, described his vision: “I want Metro to be sort of a hub [of musical activity].” Playground, for Schimpf, offered a new music spoke, as it were, on this hub of musical offerings.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency. From left to right: Lisa Kaplan, Yvonne Lam, Nick Photinos, Matthew Duvall, Michael Maccaferri, and former member Tim Munro.

At all three institutions, ensemble members became, to varying extents, part of the educational life and community of the institution, carving out nooks and crannies, as it were, for themselves and for interaction between themselves and students. These types of social relationships were viewed by all as highly valuable when considering the overall value of the residency. The residencies thus reified these relationships into contracted work.

For over thirty years now, musicians, arts workers, and presenters have been building a vibrant scene of musical activity that provides much needed reform to classical music and an alternative to the stodgy programming common within classical music. Creating this scene requires constant energy, constant work, and constant maintenance of social relationships. Projects and programs must be tailored to unique needs, tweaked after they start, and thrown out when they falter. Though rarely examined in the popular press, residencies are an important site in the production of the new music culture so many of us love.

John Pippen

John Pippen

John Pippen teaches courses in ethnomusicology, jazz, and music and culture at the College of Wooster. His primary research has been an extended ethnographic study of the new music scene in Chicago. Pippen has presented his research at meetings of the American Musicological Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Society for American Music, and College Music Society, among others.

1. For this publication, I have omitted specific details because of the sensitive nature of musicians’ networks. An important issue that remains to be fully explored in the academic literature, musicians often prefer to keep the details of gigs (fees, contracts, struggles) out of public view.

2. Many in new music are wary of this term, as am I. I have spoken to musicians of varying stature who express sincere doubts about the accuracy of the way Baumgartner and others use “entrepreneur.” Others are hesitant to invoke a term they view as connected with neoliberalism (a view I share).