Author: MarekPoliks

Defining Musical Quality

match stack
I will devote my entire final post here at NewMusicBox to quality. I’ve defined this word several ways. In my first article, I called it “an urgency and an intensity, a compositional concern and a social language to address it.” In the next post, urgency turned into need. I wrote about how need comes from within, not from outside pressure—a necessary thing can supply its own reasons for being. Artworks of necessity thrive in non-coercive social situations. In my second and third articles, I spelled out ways in which the neoliberal culture of coercive production changed new music. By defining quality against neoliberal labor conditions, I gave the word a social dimension. I cannot separate quality judgment from social critique. In this article, I want to expand quality into agency—a thing can only advocate for itself if it can speak.

I’ve spoken to many people who have different words for quality. Of course, I encountered quite a few people who considered displays of technique with form, pitch, or other musical parameters as indicators of quality. This type of quality judgment, though, gauges the education of a composer along some pre-written path. If I judge quality simply by technique, I tend to leave the weird, strange, or novel works by the wayside. A friend of mine said that quality music gives him the “ability to sense that the music isn’t an exercise.” He meant something more complicated than a technical evaluation—some pieces allow him to believe that the music exists for non-technical reasons. Many people I’ve talked to about this project name quality “seriousness” or “depth”—I repurpose these ideas for myself as “heaviness” or “gravity.” Some equate quality with arthood. Arthood, in this case, transcends music, it exceeds it—“that’s not just music, that’s a work of art.” Some people associated quality with a sense of disembodiment, with the feeling of being part of (or under the control of) something bigger than one’s body.

I associate quality with “heaviness.” I wish my music could somehow contain only barometric pressure, perhaps even less. I want to feel my music first in the heaviness of the air. I can’t measure this heaviness, but I can feel it. Quality music makes the air heavy. When I feel this weight, I don’t associate it with a physical quantity. Instead, I find myself face to face with some enormous thing, some collective project that exceeds my relationship to it. It’s huge—I sense its gravity.

Truly, music is “bigger” than the people who make it; it contains more mass. Pieces of music belong to storms of material—possibilities, concepts, notes, institutions, people, chairs, bodies, bows, strings, noises. I like to think that I act upon this material inasmuch as this material acts upon me. Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory or Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter both describe similar whirlwinds of capable objects, in which people (and our own internal assemblages of objects) participate. If I trick my brain a little, I can convince myself that out of music’s “big-ness,” parts of it—parts that aren’t even human—can act. I feel the heaviness of the air when giant globs of matter accrete, squish together, and move things with their gravity.

If the gravity metaphor feels unsatisfying, the “gaze” might be a nice alternative. If I listen to music and sense that a chaotic pile of nonhuman things somehow acts in concert, I have a very strange reaction. The subject-object relationship switches, I become an object to a process. Jacques Lacan calls this sensation “the gaze.” Instead of the heaviness of gravity, I feel the weight of something’s imposing stare.

Both gravity and gaze depend on the transition between a pile of stuff and a thing. Like many others before me, I call this process “emergence.” I like Elizabeth Barnes’s definition of emergence in her essay “Emergence and Fundamentality.” Paraphrasing, her emergent thing has two qualities. An emergent thing is “dependent”—music relies on an enormous quantity of parts and exists as long as these parts persist. An emergent thing is also “fundamental”—some music adds up to more than the sum of its parts. One can’t take music and break it down into a determining set of pieces.

To my ears, quality music emerges out of its context and becomes its own thing. It acquires some strange autonomy from its circumstances. I attribute quality to the sense of this transformation, to music’s tearing of its own constitutive fabric. I associate quality with the gravity consolidating musical goo into identity, or the pressure of being stared at (or through) by a piece of music. Take Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example—this thing exists almost in another dimension. It’s beyond music, beyond even being a cultural artifact. Timothy Morton might call it a “hyperobject”—a thing so huge that it exceeds our ability to really think about it. However, I’ve definitely experienced it, or at least a fragment or a flash of it during a committed performance.
Now, I don’t put forward this wacky ontology just because it allows me to judge things. Thinking this way raises some serious implications for the practice of music. First, it breaks the causal stream from composer to performer to music. Instead of composing or playing or listening to music, I participate in its preconditions. If musicians think of music as its own thing, like a ghost waiting for summoning, they change their orientation towards it. Sure, the composer and performer and listener roles can still exist, but they also drift towards each other—they require each other more. Everyone becomes a different type of listener equipped with different instruments of hearing. They can fail together. I don’t feel the heaviness of the air often. Many times, I don’t sense that a piece includes almost anything. If this is the case, then there must exist some conditions that prohibit music’s emergence.

Composers can create hostile work environments for music. Instead of writing music badly, composers can facilitate bad situations. For example, a composer may write a work riddled with notational mistakes or ambiguities. Such problems don’t destroy the music, they just make a performance situation harder or an informed audience member cynical. Deeper problems could include a lack of structural consideration, an overdisplay of musical rhetoric, whatever—they exist as problems only insofar as they stifle a performer’s comprehension or an audience member’s belief. Performers, in turn, can make a well-written piece into a bad piece. (They can also beat the odds and enable a poorly written piece to come into itself). Hierarchies dissolve into a statistical wash. One never ruins music on one’s own, but one can make things difficult. Quality means something entirely relational—everyone, at every stage, is implicated.

Larger, slow-moving institutional organisms affect this process as well. As I discussed at length in weeks two and three, new music’s infrastructure makes quality harder—it encourages the overproduction of works and performances. Neoliberal institutions require fungible commodities; music must assume an inert state. Music built to serve an economic end rarely prioritizes its own immanent needs. Performances that reify scores (build products) make simulacra. These performances signify themselves—they are empty, they do not add anything. Consequently, there is less stuff, fewer resources from which a music-thing might build itself. Institutions, compositions, and performances aren’t just filters, though—an outstanding and sensitive performance might introduce new stuff, dimension-crossing stuff, stuff in service to a collective project. A quality composition, in my eyes, unleashes a concentrated stream of stuff, where squashed molecules bash against their limits and into one another. An empowering institutional framework gives people time to make stuff together, to curate intentional stuff, to make their stuff public. A quality listener witnesses and testifies to the remaining stuff of music, the stuff that exceeds composers and performers. These forces spill against and over each other. There is no good or bad, only different types and degrees of empowerment and agency along a long and complex stream of actors.

Quality means empowerment. One doesn’t need to buy my musical ontology to believe that a piece of music is bigger than one’s own actions. Even the most hermetic composers (and I’m certainly among this crowd) have to own up to the fact that their music exceeds the capabilities of their solitary hands. By admitting this one, simple reality, composers and performers and institutions and listeners might realize that the entire community needs to find ways to empower its members. The community should start with music itself and move outwards. If the new music community recognizes the agency of music, its ability to affect people, places, and things, then it might account for just how much has been lost. Music is charged matter. It requires care.

I’d like to thank the dozens of people I interacted with over the course of this project. I won’t mention any of you by name (though I wouldn’t mind doing so!), but please know that the collectivity of our efforts over the past few weeks literally provided me with the meaning of quality.

Performing Quality

String quartet
Last week, I talked about how new music shares its business structure with the academy. This economy runs by accumulating social capital; it builds complicated networks of people and distributes privileges among them. To keep growing, its economic body must churn out unsustainable heaps of new works and performances. This system compels constant productivity; its rhythm of overproduction overpowers any expression of quality. These overproduced goods, though, don’t arrive at concerts for sale – instead, they filter through concerts and emerge as recordings. In this form, musical products re-enter new music’s stock exchange of grants, residencies and other academic resources. Instead of an artistic end in themselves, concerts represent just one stage of a complicated, circular production line. Unlike in popular music, for example, new music sets aside an entire class of artists for the exclusive task of public presentation. Since concerts cost listeners time, money, and space, performing musicians alone are left to account for an audience’s investment. To me, the weird division of labor between composing works and playing concerts puts musicians in a difficult position. Performers have become new music’s coerced mouthpiece of accountability.
The student summer festival provides the clearest case study for this skewed power dynamic. I admit to gratefully experiencing many of the most profound musical moments of my life at such events. However, broadly speaking, student festivals exist to mill social capital. Applying and attending costs a significant sum, matching or exceeding what most undergraduate and graduate students might earn in a month. Students such as myself exchange money for futures – once I accumulate enough social capital, I have the opportunity to invest in better and better festivals.

Emerging composers buy into their own exploitation. Most festivals involve an anti-commission: composers pay to write a piece. From my experience, I’ve been assigned an average of two to three months between acceptance and arrival to write a work that I myself have financed. At the festival, these pieces receive their premieres under stressed and compressed conditions. One works with little rehearsal time and overtaxed performers to populate sprawling end-of-the-week concerts. Composers don’t care too much about these concerts, though. Instead, they invest their money and labor for something more economically substantial.
The student summer festival produces recordings, the commodities exchanged between festival trading posts. The live-ness of performance may wink out as soon as a concert ends, but its recorded objectification is hard and exchangeable. Student composers distribute these recordings with the hope of ensuring further performances, which get recorded and recirculate. Musicians traffic in recordings too, but because players themselves are the makers of sounds, they assemble recordings with greater autonomy. These commodities form the basis for public conversations with older, established faculty members. A masterclass is a formalized introduction, a site of exchange. Here, and at many other places within this system (with other students, with administrators, and with the name of the festival itself), participants trade in their recordings for social capital.
Festivals differentiate modes of labor: performers labor to play, composers have already labored to write. Both schedules are separated. This division of labor alienates performers from their work. Performers suffer through unsatisfying concerts, knowing that composers only appreciate their effort inasmuch as it can circulate as a standalone, exchangeable entity. Further, musicians undertake such staggering workloads, performing new and unfamiliar works, that they cannot possibly find the time or energy to express themselves as artists. The crammed rehearsal schedules designed by festival administrators prevent real composer-performer interactions. I think of this as an artifact of classical museum culture, treating living composers like long-dead historical figures. In exactly that way, composer and performer workdays tend to only overlap at such a late stage that a composer can’t possibly make any edits. Now, this pattern of behavior doesn’t only apply to the festival scene. The social gulf between composers and performers pervades the entire new music superstructure, from three-day university residencies to the highest order of orchestra commissions. The composer-performer discursive divide is perpetuated, if not caused, by the distributions of labor incurred by compulsory overproduction.

The student festival format affects young creative lives. It inures composers and performers to the rhythm of overproduction; it prepares them for the academic economics I discussed in last week’s article. It trains young composers to build commodities – to create works of similar length and duplicability, written during crammed timelines and with minimal conceptual and notational risk. It teaches young performers that music pre-exists performance and has nothing to do with concerts. One cannot separate festivals from the economy of new music, and I find myself in a similar position to last week, asking – “would new music, as I know it, exist at all without this infrastructure; is it desirable or possible to abandon it?”
If new music stays in the student festival, it ought to rethink its programming. These summer weeks should focus on composer-performer time – for example, they could consist only of lessons and discussions, with no compulsory concerts apart from whatever one might feel moved to do. Perhaps concerts might not be recorded, so that recording might not be performance’s end objective.  Recordings can happen elsewhere, in spaces designed for recording, such that the process doesn’t alienate performers from their labor. The idea of the recording-focused, lengthy, and premiere-oriented festival concert needs to change.


The overproduction of pieces and concerts injures performance practice. Because composers need more and more commodities to enter circulation, performers encounter an excess of new music. Many musicians have the discipline and training to keep their heads above water, but how can one think about artistry when performing piles of premieres? Quoting a young new music pianist friend of mine, “If I want to play new music for a living, I have to play all new music, including the music I don’t believe in.” He describes this process as one of desensitization, a feeling echoed by many young performers I interviewed. Performance quality suffers.  Last week, I described quality as the immanent necessity of a thing, its ability to supply its own reasons for coming into being. Overproduction hurts quality—it makes one act because one must, not because one needs to.  Overproduction makes one ignore quality—another young pianist described her festival experience as one of “train[ing] myself not to think about quality anymore.” I also know many performers who don’t think like this, who don’t have to, or who think around it, but the problem my friends pose is hard to ignore.

Of course, fatigue and desensitization don’t just result from a surplus of new pieces. Contemporary performance has to enter into real markets in ways that composition just can’t. Though it often seems like new music events consist exclusively of one’s peers, concerts provide the few and far between openings of the new music world to the outside. Performers speak to publics much more diverse and often much harder to convince than those found in academia. The performance infrastructure suffers from a more normative type of neoliberal behavior than the academic modality. One must advertise, sometimes with the music itself, in order to survive. Advertising is legitimation, it makes something appear necessary whether or not it is. Performance has the difficult task of dressing commodities made for private markets in the guise of public goods. New music happily accepts – its internal tautology persists.


I’ve outlined a social system as bleak and deterministic as it is ripe with exceptions and faultlines. I do sense that my dystopia of new music is neither exclusively mine nor completely inconceivable, particularly within the United States. However, no such system is absolute or objectively the case. Likewise, no musical score is essentially an instrument of capital, nor is any performance essentially a hopeless act of advocacy for a cold, dead thing. The absoluteness of this disciplinary divide is every bit as abstract and ideal as it is an institutional reality.

Glimmers of necessity inhabit even the most compulsory scores. Some composers exercise their agency in the margins. Many performers tell me that just knowing “where the piece came from” (why it was—not why it had to be—written) helps them sensitize themselves to it, helps them make their performance feel itself necessary. From, during, or after such conversations, a composer’s internal insistences might exceed their subconscious and enter the material of the work itself. Performers, too, should involve themselves – performers are artists! If a musician feels empowered, they should ask composers about quality, “What about this piece is important to you?” Most of all, players should exercise curatorial agency, they should look for and through composers for the reasons one performs. Concerts can be spaces for performers to truly make things of necessity. Concerts can be well-curated and intentional sites for public discussion. Concerts can be compositional ends in themselves. Through a stream of interleaved activity, necessity communicates itself forward, inward, and outward.

Next week I will finally devote an entire article to quality itself. As I write, this concept grows clearer and clearer in my mind. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard hundreds of conversations about musical quality, and I look forward to reporting the plurality of my findings.

New Music is Academic Music

Though new music’s project isn’t essentially academic, it lives the life of an academic organism. Its funding comes from academic sources or sources built for academics (grants, stipends, fellowships). Even its population looks, by and large, academic (perhaps especially those professors who most prominently bemoan musical academicization). Its housing is academic, its residencies are academic, and it often speaks in academic language. But most of all, new music’s attitude towards matters of quality is distinctly academic.

I was taught (in subtext) that Schoenberg initialized the academic turn. New music strode into the university once its increasingly complex material required a scholarly lens. The same conservatory whispers told me that post-war Darmstadt sealed the deal of new music’s tenureship. Here, composers turned their back on the audience, writing music more akin to jargon than art. Of course, Milton Babbitt’s over-referenced “Who Cares if You Listen” (a product of heavy editorial intervention) evidenced a project characterized by the insularity and elitism born of hyper-specialization.

Let me invert this narrative in economic terms. Essentially, two attitudes towards capitalism divided the 20th century.* The former Fordist regime was typified by considerable state regulation, mass production, a burst in organized labor, and a type of progress-driven modernism (surviving largely on economic racism and sexism). Neoliberalism, the second model, characterizes the last 40+ years—globalization, outsourcing, enormous financial institutions, and above all, privatization and deregulation. As I mentioned last week, neoliberalism still exhorts objectivity—its theoretical underpinnings rely on a hypostatized, ideal market.
Think of the early musical avant-garde in a Fordist light, as part of a social movement oriented towards standardization, progress, and nationalism. New music strode into the academy to serve a political function, to conduct state-sponsored research. In the institution, musical quality meant something very specific and objective—the degree to which the thing in question accomplished scientific or cultural progress.

Fordism’s state and university sponsorships eventually evaporated. Neoliberalism annexed the academy. Academia became a type of behavior, a different way of acting neoliberal, a coping mechanism. New music’s confident stride into academia had turned into a retreat. After all—where else could it go? As far as new music is concerned, especially in America, the state practically doesn’t exist. Similarly, new music has no market; it practices academic economics.  When a composer talks about the market, they reference a theoretical market, an aesthetics of the market. Resourceless, new music adopts capitalism and behaves as a university would within it. In place of a market, new music has a facsimile thereof, borrowed from academia—a trading post of social capital.

As I mentioned in my previous article, neoliberalism has a strange attitude towards quality. First, it dismisses it out of hand—I mentioned the techniques of “it’s a matter of taste” and “go about your own business” last week. Further, though, it creates economic conditions threatening to critical conversations. New music’s academics have lost their tenure-track jobs, or are entering a world in which such jobs absolutely do not exist. Job security demands verbal (and oftentimes musical) silence about matters of quality. Further, the constant need to publish pervades every level of academic life—at all costs, the academic composer must produce. Finally, neoliberalism quietly reintroduces objective metrics of quality compatible with academic overproduction. A para-language of quality—quality weighed in terms of social capital, quality as a type of potential energy. Can we organize a conference about this? Will this proposal win grants? Will this piece of music garner social media attention for this institution? Yes or no?

What about the enclave of “stylistically academic” music? Its changing values are not dissociable from neoliberal social norms, despite this genre’s commendably protective outlook. Against our economic introversion, my generation’s music often indulges in compositional self-promotion (our sometimes-insincere collective turn to vector graphics software, or our embrace of impressive electronics arrays). At a higher pay grade, Fordist remnants persist. Much of the older academic-style music does rely on a tacit collective colonialism: “this aesthetic best contributes to the progress of music.” This genre’s tenureships are perhaps the hardest to find—cautious professionalism every bit as requisite for survival. Both listless silence and eager networking cannot help but infiltrate any applicant class of composers, and I certainly can’t begrudge them for it.

If one wants new music to remain in the academy, how does one help to make it hospitable? How do we take its social behavior and make it contrarian, vital? How can we combat the characteristically academic forms of racism, sexism, and other discriminating obstacles to thought and speech? What economic models are permissive to tenure, or propose models of employment less threatening to critical discourse? Within our extant system, how can we re-establish safe spaces to talk about quality? Though this might require a radical change in the economies involved, I think this last stage is somehow the least impossible. If enough people agree that institutional dangers impinge upon the quality of their work, perhaps some momentum can gather. Though clubs and small social organizations have the danger of elitism, they can be great places for composers to share opinions and strategies. I also encourage any of you with composition students to use your studios in this way. I learn the most when I’m empowered to air my thoughts and pressed to explain them.

However, if one wants to find contemporary music a new home, where can it go? I would hate to watch new music proudly immerse itself in the market. (Personally, I hope that art can remain a space in which one can at least pretend to listen or look or learn from something in a way that escapes capitalist modes of entrainment.) Because I believe in human agency, though, I do also believe in margins—the frayed limits of the market, the zones not completely under its control. If new music must find a new home, it needs to do something incredibly extreme.

Personally, I’m conflicted. Though being an academic is the most comfortable way for me to “be capitalist” (a behavior in which I am often completely complicit), I look at my prospects for employment with great anxiety. The tremulous instability looming over my future makes me question the sustainability of my practice. Certainly the structure of new music must change drastically, re-evaluating its kinship with academic-capitalist behavior. Frankly, I think new music ought to remodel itself into art, taking the shape of a social organism whose funding comes in spurts from fringe and diverse places. I value the new music created out of small constellations of people, from long-term and close-knit partnerships, the new music whose instruments and raw materials reflect intimacy and care with their arrangement. New music needs a relevance borne of its own intrinsic, immanent urgency—a social structure powered by the need, not the professional compulsion, to make things. As a friend told me last week, one might even define quality as these conditions of production itself. I propose my definition of quality here: Quality means both a social environment conducive to the expression of immanent musical necessity and the discourse of this immanence itself. Quality judgment means social criticism and the affirmation of its preconditions.

I am building something. In my first post, I presented a dire situation. Here, I’ve drawn a fork in the road. My next two posts will deal exclusively with quality. In the first, I’ll talk about performance, etiquette, and resensitizing oneself to music. In the second, I’ll talk about “making the air heavy,” magic-eye puzzles, “believing that music isn’t an exercise,” and other ways I talk about quality with my friends and peers.

* For more in-depth analysis, check out David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Stanley Fish’s New York Times opinion column “Neoliberalism and Higher Education” relates this specifically to academia. I also can’t recommend anything higher than Elizabeth Grosz’s essay collection Time Travels, alongside the compendium New Materialisms (ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost)—both of which transformed my understanding of agency within a neoliberal world.

New Music’s Quality Problem

quality control

Photo courtesy of Eduardo on Flickr.

Whenever I come across a new music community post about the so-called “audience problem,” I think to myself: isn’t that a little entitled? What makes composers feel so deserving of an audience? It seems like the entire audience problem debate stubbornly looks outward, asking questions about marketing, “outreach,” and accessibility, all the while carefully avoiding some seriously necessary self-examination. Instead of an audience problem, I think new music has a quality problem.

I know this word might seem a little old-fashioned, conservative even, but its disappearance has left some still-unrepaired holes in our language. I’m not arguing for any sort of “objective quality”—it’s hard to defend black-and-white binaries after postmodernism. (Even those binaries one might put at either pole of a continuum.) Likewise, it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that quality is culturally constructed, and that its indices might change from generation to generation. However, though postmodernism afforded some suppleness and relativity, its norms were quietly and insidiously eroded by late-stage (or neoliberal) capitalism’s very objectivity-oriented standards.

The present antimodernism, at its outset so strongly critical of binary logic, has started to look an awful lot like its structuralist predecessor. Instead of good/bad, present mores yield to profitable/unprofitable or popular/unpopular.* Worse, because new music culture thinks it has left such binaries behind, it lost those rich discursive weirdnesses one finds orbiting around absolutes in an inabsolute world. Defensively, it lost the words to talk about quality and then, sadly, the energy to conceptualize its increasing fuzziness.

I hear the phrase “it’s a matter of taste” quite a lot. What a prohibitive position—it sounds like “our differences in perception present irreconcilable differences and we should stop talking now.” “Taste” and “quality” strike me as entirely different forces. Taste brings into the room all those alliances one makes with the world, the ways one forms an identity. Of course, I don’t really have control over my taste—I inherit it generationally, biologically, culturally, from role models and archetypes, and from social and political modes of control. I can, however, establish some critical distance between myself and my taste. If I can’t, if I am unable to separate myself at least a little bit from the things I identify with, then I must live in some kind of agenciless misread-Foucauldian nightmare. Quality means something different, something exactly about the agency one exercises between oneself and one’s identity. I can think of few things more subjective than this space, but at the same time I think it’s possible and important to talk about it.

Another prohibitive conversational barrier comes in directives to “focus on one’s own work instead of interfering in others’.” I find this particular rhetorical strategy absolutely incompatible with the way most composers justify their existence. If I tell myself, constantly, that my musical work is incredibly and unquestionably socially important, why is its content inconsequential? Like “it’s a matter of taste,” this also invites a conversation about agency. I believe that music wields its own power, separate from the human agency of its composition and performance. Because music affects people, albeit invisibly, the new music community must find a way to meaningfully address the responsibilities of composition, performance, and curation. As I see it now, the greater community I cherish lacks any mechanism of accountability—it proliferates discourse, tirelessly circulating around the unfalsifiable idea that subjectivity somehow means incommunicability.

Quality is an urgency and an intensity, a compositional concern and a social language to address it. Surely we can speak of musical necessity without reverting to old and bankrupt black-and-white. I will write three more posts for NewMusicBox, increasingly attempting to open doors to a “discourse of quality”—a mode of talking, abstractly, weirdly, about our musical agencies. Next week I will address elitism, power, and the broader structural impediments to music-world conversation.

* WQXR’s report entitled “In a Rough Job Market, More Conservatories Stress Business Skills” reveals this type of objective thinking better than almost anything. David Cutler, University of South Carolina Professor of Musical Entrepreneurship, proposes the following:

“[…P]erhaps part of the recital requirement might be: you need to get 200 people there to get an A, or 150 people there to get a B.” Students might also be graded on how they can rethink the presentation to include multimedia or other visual elements.

Note the quiet reintroduction of objective metrics, posed in the guise of postmodern flexibility, when it comes to evaluating art.


Marek Poliks

Marek Poliks

Marek Poliks (b.1989) writes chamber music at Harvard University, where he works towards a PhD. His music mines for expressivity in threadbare spaces, exhausted resources, and absolute vacuum. He studies with Chaya Czernowin, but recent primary teachers also include John Luther Adams, Rick Burkhardt, Roger Reynolds, Steven Takasugi, Hans Tutschku, and Amnon Wolman. Prior to this, he undertook the majority of his education with his mentor Josh Levine at Oberlin College and Conservatory.