Author: Multiple Authors

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting Part 4: The Framework

A space telescope image of a distant galaxy.

By Brin Solomon & Aiden Feltkamp

This is Part 4 of a four-part series. We strongly encourage you to read Parts 1, 2, and 3 before continuing.

Preamble

We’re almost done. Having laid out some trans theory and heard from trans practitioners, we’re about to lay out a framework for responsible trans casting in singing theater.

We intend this to be a minimal framework, in two senses. First, we have kept the number of guidelines to a minimum, balancing thoroughness with flexibility to produce something that is clear and concrete while also being adaptable to a wide variety of on-the-ground circumstances. Second, however, we want to emphasize that this is not a maximum standard to aspire to, but a minimal bar that must be reached. Following this guide cannot guarantee you will make good trans representation, but it will hopefully help you avoid making bad trans representation.

We recognize that as culture changes, so do the boundaries between the acceptable and the reprehensible.

We recognize that as culture changes, so do the boundaries between the acceptable and the reprehensible. Swastikas mean something different on contemporary US white-supremacist rally flags than they did in 12th-century Buddhist iconography. We know how things stand where and when we are; we do not know how things are in every single other place, nor can we anticipate how things will change in the future. We offer this guide to those who share our cultural context; writers working outside it will need to adapt it to the specifics of their own surroundings.

Please don’t refer to this as the Feltkamp-Solomon Test or any similar moniker. We may be the two people putting these words in this order, but this guide has grown from innumerable conversations, formal and informal, with other trans people over the course of years of our lives. This document is inseparable from the community it emerges from.

That said, we are under no illusions as to the unity of trans communities. We anticipate that other trans people will disagree with us—indeed, the writers do not even agree with each other on all things trans related. We welcome this disagreement and look forward to engaging with it. We offer this guide as part of an ongoing conversation, an attempt to publicly draw together numerous threads into a document for others to remark upon, critique, and add nuance to.

In particular, we know that not all trans people will agree that cis people have any business writing trans characters at all.[1] While we are sympathetic to this position, and while cis writers’ track record is far from exemplary here, we feel we must disagree. Trans actors need jobs. Cis writers should not be exempt from the work of dismantling transphobia. The stories you see shape the worlds you can imagine, and we do not wish to encourage cis people to keep imagining worlds in which we do not exist. To forbid cis writers from writing trans characters is, in some ways, to forbid cis writers from imagining trans people as real, complex human beings, which, we feel, casts trans people as an unknowable Other. We find this profoundly dehumanizing.[2]

Cis writers should not be exempt from the work of dismantling transphobia.

This obviously raises the much larger issue of which writers are “allowed” to tell which stories. Discussions of this question frequently lack even a rudimentary understanding of structural power imbalances between marginalized and non-marginalized groups. This lack inevitably dooms them to confusion. To put it bluntly, asking who is “allowed” to write which stories without analyzing the power imbalances at play is rather like doing a harmonic analysis by looking only at the bass drum part—you’re simply missing critical information.

Analyzing the underlying power imbalances reveals facile accusations of having unfair double standards—if cis actors can’t play trans characters, why can trans actors play cis characters?—for the vacuities that they are. These purported equivalencies fall flat because cis people and trans people are not equivalently situated in society: cis people have far more structural power. Trans actors cannot have stable careers if they aren’t cast by cis directors. Trans writers cannot reliably get their work produced without cis producers. Trans artists of all stripes depend on the support of cis-led institutions. The most prominent stories about trans lives, stories that have real consequences for how safely we are able to live those lives, are overwhelmingly created and controlled by cis people. In all cases, the reverse is not true. Until this changes—until we root out transphobia at every level, dismantle these pervasive inequities, and create a society truly founded on Justice—it is absurd to propose there is any double standard to questioning cis writers’ ability to write trans characters without also questioning trans writers’ ability to write cis characters.[3] Build utopia, then we’ll talk.

This brings us to the scare quotes we have been putting around “allowed.” That phrasing crops up often, but it is fundamentally misleading. There is no all-powerful trans cabal whose permission you must secure before undertaking a new work. No one can stop you from writing whatever you want. Indeed, judging by Tootsie’s Tony nominations and American Opera Projects’ continued pride[4] in Three Way, you may even be richly rewarded for it. The success of these shows (and many others like them) should put to rest any fears from cis people that they will not be “allowed” to write about trans people.

If you do not care whether your art hurts people, we cannot help you.

A better framing of this question is to ask not who is allowed to write what, but who is able to do so without hurting members of a marginalized group. If you do not care whether your art hurts people, we cannot help you. Nor can we help you if you refuse to believe trans people when we tell you what hurts us. But if you do care, and if you are willing to listen, we hope that the guide below will help you tell trans stories responsibly.

The Framework

This framework has two tiers. The first tier is a bar to clear—any production that cannot meet it may be presumed transphobic with no further analysis. The second tier is a series of questions, each of which is a common red flag. The more you answer yes to, the more likely your show will hurt trans people. If you answer no to all of them, you are likely fine. If you answer yes to all of them, you should almost certainly not proceed as planned.

There is a difference between playing with a single match over your kitchen sink and playing with a flamethrower in a propane factory.

As will be discussed at more length below, it is possible to handle most of these things well, and we certainly don’t mean to imply that any show that does any of these things must, necessarily, be transphobic. But there is a difference between playing with a single match over your kitchen sink and playing with a flamethrower in a propane factory. Handling these things well is difficult, and cis people, not having lived these experiences, are starting at a considerable disadvantage. Attempt them at your peril.

A space telescope image of a distant galaxy

Tier 1: The Bar To Clear

Any trans character in your show must be played by a trans actor, and, where applicable, that actor’s assumed gender at birth must match the character’s assumed gender at birth.

Any trans character in your show must be played by a trans actor

The reasons why it is unacceptable to cast a cis actor in a trans role have been covered extensively elsewhere, so we will not reiterate that reasoning here. If you still feel that you do not understand why this is important, we ask that you simply believe us when we tell you what we need.

The second clause, however, requires explication. In recent years, there have been several instances where a trans man, for example, has been hired to play the role of a trans woman. We are surprised that cis people need to hear that men and women are, in fact, different, but here we are: Men and women are different, and one cannot simply be subbed in for the other. As Brin has articulated elsewhere, doing so not only confuses cis people about what basic terms like trans man mean (thus undoing countless painstaking educational efforts by trans activists) but also encourages audiences to misgender the actor, the character, or both.

Human beings are complex creatures, however, and we wish to respect that complexity. Insisting that an actor’s gender exactly match their character’s would trample this complexity, potentially forcing, for example, a transmasculine actor to hide his nonbinary identity lest he be precluded from playing a trans man in a new show. Such rigidity would also give rise to interminable, unanswerable disputes about whether, say, a transfeminine agender person is the same gender as a transfeminine neutrois person, disputes that would only grow more intractable when it comes to contemporary actors playing historical figures. While grouping trans people by gender assumed at birth may, understandably, be uncomfortable for some, we believe that this approach strikes a reasonable balance between respecting the differences among different kinds of trans people and allowing for the multifaceted fluidity of specific individuals.

That said, there are many situations where a character’s assumed gender at birth may be nonexistent or irrelevant. Your show may involve a Biblical angel, the Personification of the Abstract Concept of Forgetfulness, or a singing loaf of bread—all cases where gender assumed at birth does not apply. Or your show may involve a character that must be nonbinary, but whose gender assumed at birth does not matter to the drama at hand.[5] Your show may well read differently depending on whether you cast an AFAB or an AMAB actor in such cases, just as your show may read differently if you cast a bombastic actor to play your villain or a calculating one. Every individual actor will bring a unique energy to the roles they play; that energy will naturally be shaped, in greater and lesser ways, by many different aspects of their being. We cannot anticipate every possible production of every possible show; we trust creative teams to know what they need in their actors for the dramas they are creating to make sense.

Tier 2: The Ten Questions

These ten questions represent the most frequent and pernicious possibilities of bad trans writing.

Tier 1 had more to do with casting than writing. In Tier 2, we’ll reverse that. These questions are not presented in any particular order, and nor do they exhaust the possibilities of bad trans writing. We included ten questions because ten is a round number, and we included these ten because they represent the most frequent and pernicious tropes that the actors and writers interviewed for this series complained about. Here they are:

  • Is it a coming-out story?

Coming-out stories are important, but they’re also massively over-done, and their prevalence makes it seem like transness is something unfamiliar that must always be explained. These stories usually imply that coming out and transitioning are tidy, finite processes, and they also limit our ability to imagine trans people living rich, long lives after telling everyone we’re trans. There’s so much more to us than these initial announcements.

  • Is the trans character deadnamed, misgendered, or otherwise subject to transphobic violence? Are they sexually assaulted?

Obviously, conflict is the heart of drama, and conflict more or less requires characters having bad things happen to them. But there’s a difference between an ordinary plot-related bad thing—a natural disaster, a surprise betrayal, untrammeled arrogance—and a bad thing brought about because of a character’s transness. Basically, we want you to imagine transness not as a source of suffering, and trans people not as tragic figures who inevitably wind up getting raped.

  • Are the trans character’s emotions explained or excused by hormones?

Hormones may alter our emotional landscapes, but testosterone doesn’t make someone an aggressive monster, nor does estrogen make someone a weepy mess. Trans people on and off hormones experience a full range of emotions and can control our reactions to them; trans characters shouldn’t be let off the hook because hormones are making them “emotional,” and nor should their emotions be dismissed as “just a side effect of hormones.”

  • For transfeminine characters: Does the trans character commit sexual assault?

It is a core plank of many transmisogynistic attacks that trans women are inherently sexually predatory. While some real-life trans women do commit sexual assault, just as some real-life cis women do, it is extraordinarily difficult to depict this in fiction without strengthening the idea that all trans women are inherently predatory threats.[6]

  • Do we know more about the trans character’s genitals than the cis characters’ genitals?

Cis people tend to fixate on our genitals, stripping away every other aspect of our personhood to obsess over what’s between our legs. If you’re writing a sex farce, it may be appropriate to mention a trans character’s genitals, but if we don’t know whether the cis men in your show are circumcised, or if the cis women shave their pubic hair, we shouldn’t know anything about the trans character’s junk.

  • Is the realness of a trans character’s gender made contingent on medical interventions?

It’s obviously abhorrent to say that a cis woman isn’t a “real” woman because her body is the wrong shape and she hasn’t gone to a doctor to change it. Similarly, trans people aren’t less “real” if we never step into a hospital or swallow a pill.

  • Does the trans character exist primarily to teach the cis characters a lesson?

The archetypal example here is probably Angel[7] from RENT: A larger-than-life figure whose unshakable authenticity inspires the other characters to be truer to themselves and embrace living in the moment. This frames trans people as primarily existing for the benefit of cis people, and denies us the possibility of having goals we pursue for our own sakes. A very concrete red flag is if the trans character is called “brave” merely for existing.

  • Is “being trans” the character’s only defining feature?

Trans people are just as individual as everyone else, with interests, projects, and goals that have nothing to do with being trans.[8] Flattening out that individuality to write a role whose defining traits begin and end with being trans not only paints trans people as an interchangeable monolith, it’s also just bad writing. Your characters should be characters—rounded creations with depth and nuance, not a collection of half-baked stereotypes thrown together in a rush.

  • Does the trans character die?

Stories where trans characters die re-enforce the idea that trans existence is tragic, doomed to come to an untimely end. Imagine us living, and living well, instead.

  • Is there only one trans character in the show?

If writing one trans character is hard, writing two is easier. When there’s only one trans person on stage, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll be seen as representing All Trans People Ever. Having multiple trans people on stage diffuses this tendency and helps root the characters’ traits in the individuals themselves rather than in their demographic. In fact, you could do a lot worse than filling your entire cast with trans people—we do like to hang out together, after all!

Again, these questions do not exhaust the catalogue of transphobic tropes. Some runners-up that didn’t make the final list:

  • Is the trans character’s violation of Western gender norms tied to moral deviancy?
  • Is your only trans character an antagonist?
  • Does the trans character transition for deceptive purposes?
  • If the trans character is nonbinary, is their assumed gender at birth the topic of speculation from the other characters? Are they treated as a 50/50 mix of masculinity and femininity?
  • Is transness conflated with drag?

Still, the above reflect issues that were repeatedly raised by those interviewed for this series, as well as issues that the authors have encountered frequently and perniciously in our own lives. If you can say no to all of them, you’re off to a solid start.

The Secret Third Tier: Sensitivity Readers

By this point, gentle reader, you have probably realized that this guide is not a cut-and-dried checklist that can be mechanically applied to greenlight your work. Indeed, we do not intend it to be. As has been emphasized throughout this series, responsible trans representation must always be grounded in trans communities. We, the authors, can speak to our own communities, but we cannot speak to all trans communities, potentially including the specific trans community (or communities) your work engages with. You will need to engage with members of those communities directly.

Many trans people from all different backgrounds offer their services as sensitivity consultants.

Fortunately, there’s a framework for this. Many trans people from all different backgrounds offer their services as sensitivity consultants (also called sensitivity readers). The specific details will vary from situation to situation, but the underlying relationship is the same: You hire[9] them to read your script, and they tell you where you’ve gone wrong in telling the story you’re trying to tell. Ideally, this should be an ongoing relationship that lasts for most of the writing and development process, though they need not be consulted for every single line edit. Some actors may be willing to serve this role in addition to acting in your show, but this is emphatically not part and parcel of an actor’s job; any actor who steps into this role in your production should be compensated and credited appropriately.

It bears repeating that you should be looking to hire someone who is part of the community you are hoping to represent. If you are telling a story about a black trans woman, don’t hire a white sensitivity reader. If you’re writing a transmasculine character, don’t hire a transfeminine person. As has been emphasized again and again in this series, trans people are anything but monolithic; we cannot simply be swapped out for one another like interchangeable assembly-line parts. If you cannot find anyone who’s part of the community you’re hoping to represent, you may not be the person to tell this story. To put it bluntly: If you aren’t connected in any way to the community you’re hoping to write about, you will almost certainly not be able to write about it responsibly. Gently but firmly, we suggest you set your sights on something else. “Kill your darlings” applies to entire projects, too.

We wish it went without saying, but experience shows this needs to be said too: Once you hire this person, you need to actually listen to what they tell you. The point is not to add a team member as a pro-forma publicity stunt and then proceed with your original plan. The point is to change your show—potentially all of your show—in response to their feedback. If you blanch at this, if there are parts of your show that you cannot bear the thought of parting with no matter how insistently and adamantly you are told they are harmful, that is a sign you are not ready to do this work.[10] Please don’t write about us. The show you produce will almost certainly do more harm than good, and more harm from cis people is the last thing that trans people need.

A Brief Aside on Character Flaws

If the only flaws you can think to give a trans person are textbook transphobic tropes, we gently suggest that you may need to expand your imagination.

Whenever members of a marginalized group ask for more sensitivity in how they are portrayed in media, they are invariably charged with censoriously advocating for flat, flawless characters who are bastions of goodness and who never have anything bad happen to them ever. To take that from this piece would be a gross misreading of our position. By all means, write messy, flawed trans characters who get thrown into conflict with themselves, other people, and the world. But if the only flaws you can think to give a trans person are textbook transphobic tropes, and the only conflicts you can imagine us facing stem directly from our transness, we gently suggest that you may need to expand your imagination.

A Longer Aside on Trans Creators

It may happen, gentle reader, that you see a trans creator making art that has several red flags in it per the list of questions above. Indeed, you may even see a trans creator make art that does not even clear the initial hurdle we propose. You may then feel an urge to critique this work for its transphobia.[11]

Please don’t.

For starters, as stated explicitly above, answering yes to any of the questions on our list does not automatically make a work transphobic, it just makes it far more likely that the resulting work will be transphobic. Having lived as its targets, trans creators have an insider’s knowledge of how transphobia works, and thus have an automatic bonus in navigating these issues deftly on stage.

That said, in and of itself, being trans is no guarantee of getting it right. Sometimes trans people, wittingly or not, make deeply transphobic art. Even more likely, we may create art that some trans people find reprehensible and other trans people find responsible. We’re not a monolith, any more than any other demographic is.[12]

Being trans is no guarantee of getting it right.

In cases where there’s no community consensus—and, frankly, even in cases where there is a strong community consensus—against a trans-led project, we urge you to stay on the sidelines. By all means, share trans-written critiques if you find them compelling, and, if you are in a position to, offer trans people a platform to discuss such works, but think twice (or, really, three or four times) before diving into the fray yourself.

Trans people are constantly critiquing other trans people, and also constantly discussing how public to make these critiques, knowing that there are cis people out there who will gleefully leap on any chance to say negative things about trans people, not as a means of pursuing justice, but simply so they can give their transphobia a veneer of social acceptability. There is just too much hurt here for critiques from outsiders to be effective. Your energies will be better spent on building a world where we are not a community perpetually at siege.

A space telescope image of a distant galaxy.

Towards Transphilia: What Are Cis Roles, Anyway?

So far, this series has more or less tacitly ceded the premise that almost all singing theater roles in existence are cis roles, even where we have argued that trans people should be cast in them.

Strictly speaking, this is not true. Certainly, the vast majority of singing theater roles are either men or women,[13] but it’s quite rare that these roles are specifically cis men or women. The text of Don Giovanni may be quite clear that Don Ottavio is a man, but it tells us precisely nothing about his genital anatomy. We may feel quite confident that West Side Story’s Anita is a woman even as we know nothing about what assumptions people made about her gender when she was born. The vast majority of theatrical roles cannot accurately be described as cis because they do not contain the information necessary to apply such a label.[14] The perspective shift called for by trans liberation goes beyond opening “cis” roles to trans performers, it requires dismantling the notion that these roles were ever cis to begin with.

Some may object that, even if these roles aren’t explicitly marked as cis by the text of the show, the creators certainly thought of them as cis, because it would be “unrealistic” for trans people to occupy, say, the status of a minor noble in 1600s Seville, or a core member of a group of Puerto Ricans in New York City in the 1950s.

This is silly.

First, we reiterate that historical conceptions of gender were often quite different from those in the present.[15] If you actually do the painstaking work of exploring the historical record instead of making assumptions about it, you will find many instances in which someone who lived a life that resonates with contemporary trans experiences was accepted and embraced by members of their community. Such figures include those with prominent, high-status positions in society—their stories are not confined to the societal margins,[16] though they do exist there as well.[17] If you exclude people who could now be considered trans, your show isn’t historically accurate, even if the original creators didn’t explicitly envision this possibility.[18] Trans people can be dignified nobles, scrappy underdogs, dashing rogues, romantic leads. None of these things are implausible; they are our past and present realities.

Singing theater is inherently unrealistic. In reality, people do not spontaneously burst into song.

And anyway, singing theater is inherently unrealistic. In reality, people do not spontaneously burst into song. They do not perform elaborate choreography to leitmotif-laden dance breaks. They do not hold for applause after particularly bravura turns. The unreality of singing theater is among its chief joys.

We also disregard creators’ intentions all the time. If Così fan tutte can survive being transported to Coney Island and Les Misérables to the present day, casting a male actor to play a male character shouldn’t ruffle any feathers just because of the assumptions people may have made about the meaning of said actor’s body.

Clearing away these stale preconceptions opens the door to imagining a world transformed. There is no inevitability to trans- and cisness.[19] Both are predicated on the act of assuming an infant’s gender based on their genital configuration. Stop making that assumption, respect the nested infinitudes of human variety by treating individuals as individuals, as they are instead of as you think they should be, and these categories will melt into air. To be sure, there will still be people who desire to change their names, their pronouns, their bodies, but there will not be trans or cis people per se. There will just be people, choosing of their own accord how they wish to move through the world.

There will still, probably, be men and women, too, but those two genders will no longer be seen as two complementary halves of a system with no other parts, nor even as two ends that anchor a spectrum, but as two pinpricks in a vast, radiant nebula, popular ones, perhaps, but no more central than any other mote, nor any less fractaline in their variable complexity. We do not know exactly what this world will look like, but on a clear day, you can almost see its outlines dawning on the far horizon.

This calls for both individual and societal change, and our society, in its present form, is deeply invested in binaries of all kinds, gender chief among them. There will be active, sustained resistance to making these changes, resistance that will not be swiftly overcome. This is the work of lifetimes. Imagining the destination is only the start.

Unlearn the lazy shortcuts that use binary genders to bypass genuine characterization.

And yet it is a necessary start. We invite you to join us in this collective endeavor, in imagining this world into existence. Unlearn the lazy shortcuts that use binary genders to bypass genuine characterization. Write characters in your shows, rounded and messy and deeply human. Make room for the unruly wild array that genders and bodies come in, without forcing this exquisite natural chaos into artificial, sterile boxes. Cast trans people in everything, and don’t remark on it, because it shouldn’t be remarkable. It’s that simple. It’s that hard.

We look forward to seeing what you make.

A space telescope image of a portion of the Milky Way Galaxy

Further Reading

There is always more to say. We expect that trenchant critiques of this series will emerge, and regret that we cannot link them here. In the meantime, here are some avenues to explore:

 

Notes


1. As a middle ground, some suggest that cis writers should write stories that include trans characters but that are not about the experience of being trans. This solid guiding principle underlies much of what follows, but the boundary line between these categories is vague, and we believe greater specificity is required.


2. We see no point in pretending this isn’t an unwinnable double bind: Some trans people will be upset with you if you do include trans characters in your work, and some will be upset with you if you don’t. Sometimes, these will even be the same people.


3. For a lengthier discussion of how things that are just can look unfair when analyzed outside of the pertinent context, see part ten of this extended essay on rape culture.


4. In a recent e-mail newsletter, American Opera Projects described Three Way as one of their “favorite operas.”


5. And indeed, it’s a fairly common trans experience to be friends with a nonbinary person whose gender assumed at birth you do not know.


6. There isn’t an exact counterpart here for transmasculine characters. This asymmetry stems from a variety of factors that are too thorny to go into here. Those wishing to explore this in more depth are encouraged to read Julia Serano’s discussion of effemimania in Whipping Girl and Jay Hulme’s breakdown of how transphobes target trans men.


7. Angel’s precise gender is a matter of some dispute. We feel comfortable reading her as a transfeminine person written by a rather clueless cis heterosexual who died before he could revise a messy draft, but we recognize that others may disagree.


8. Brin, for example, is teaching themself 1920s shorthand and enjoys baking bread, while Aiden loves reading historical fiction and doing Zelda cosplay. Both of us also write opera.


9. And note, we do mean hire, with money. In a theatrical context, you should also strongly consider giving them credit in scripts, scores, and programs. If you run an organization that develops new works, we urge you to budget a sensitivity reader for new works as needed.


10. Depending on the circumstances, it may be worth it to give the sensitivity reader contractual veto power lest their advice be utterly disregarded.


11. These remarks apply exclusively to instances where a cis person, as a cis person, critiques a trans person, as a trans person, for transphobia. It is of course permissible for, say, a black cis person to critique a white trans person for racism.


12. See, for an easy example, all the cis women fighting against abortion access.


13. Or, better: The vast majority of characters are referred to with either he/him/his or she/her/hers pronouns (or the equivalent in the language of the work) — many characters are never directly described as “a man” or “a woman” by themselves or any other character.


14. The most obvious case in which we might have this kind of information are women who get (or fear getting) pregnant. Yet even this may not be conclusive, depending on the setting of the production—uterus transplants are not unheard of, after all.


15. Indeed, we should be as cautious about calling historical figures cis as we are about calling them trans. This contemporary language has been developed in a contemporary context; applying it outside that context is almost invariably reductive and misleading.


16. And it’s not like there’s no history of Puerto Rican trans people working on the streets of New York City.


17. Unsurprisingly, the reception histories of these figures are complex. They are often written about in sensationalized, exploitative ways, and their own words and actions are often erased in favor of equating their “real” gender with their genitals.


18. If, instead of historical accuracy per se, you’re going to insist on being accurate to the creators’ intentions, no matter how historically inaccurate those intentions were, you’re in for several worlds of trouble. In many cases, those intentions cannot be determined with certainty, but even when they can, we cannot necessarily adhere to them. After all, the creators of Don Giovanni intended it to be performed by 18th-century European singers in an 18th-century European theater for an 18th-century European audience, none of which you’re going to be able to find today. If you’re flexible enough to allow a soprano born and raised in Boise in the 21st century to play Zerlina, you’re going to need a convoluted argument indeed to argue that that same soprano should suddenly be disbarred from the role just because some people mistakenly thought she was a boy for a while.


19. We wish to reiterate here that these concepts were developed in a specifically Western cultural context, and everything we are saying here is limited to that context, too. The relationship between Western projects of trans liberation and projects like decolonization that seek the broader undoing of Western hegemony are complex, to say the least.

The ACO Underwood Readings’ Blog: The Morning After

name
The American Composers Orchestra in action:
George Manahan conducts the 2010 Underwood Readings
Photo by Tamar Muskal

 

[Ed. note: Last week we featured play-by-play blog posts from three participants in the American Composers Orchestra’s 2010 Underwood readings: Tamar Muskal, one of the featured composers; French hornist Danielle Kuhlmann, one of the musicians in the orchestra; and José Serebrier, one of the two participating conductors.

Each have had a chance to ruminate a bit on what transpired this past weekend and offer some further thoughts.—FJO]

 

Tamar Muskal, composer

May 22nd was the second day of the ACO Underwood Readings, which began with three workshops, back to back, from 9:00am until 1:30pm. First, we met with Jim Kendrick, Acting President of EAM (European American Music), who talked about intellectual property and copyright law. Then, we discussed music publishing with Norman Ryan, Vice President of EAM. We also met publicist Christina Jensen who talked about publicity and promotion.

From 1:30 until 5:00pm mentor composers Robert Beaser, Derek Bermel and George Tsontakis, conductors George Manahan and José Serebrier, and various ACO personnel discussed broad issues of form and aesthetics, and how to approach orchestral writing. We received valuable feedback about our previous day’s readings, and discussed what worked or didn’t work in our pieces and why. The discussion ranged widely: from small details, such as the use of A-flat and A-natural in a melodic line within the same measure, to broad issues like form and orchestration. At the end of this session, each composer met briefly with her or his conductor to discuss musical moments that didn’t quite work. It’s never too late to revise.

At 8:00pm we began our second reading session, which like the first was open for the public. This year for the first time, the ACO read through every piece on both days: on the first day, each piece received about half an hour of rehearsal time, and on the second, the orchestra polished each piece for about 5 minutes before giving one last run-through, which was recorded.

Even though the second session was a rehearsal, and so players were dressed casually, there was an exciting feeling among the composers and the audience. It was 8:00pm, concert time, and the event was very well attended. But after two full, busy days, our journey was coming to end—this was our last chance to hear our compositions. The discussions with the conductors earlier that day were very productive. I expected that my piece would sound better than it did on the first day, but was not prepared for such a big improvement! I felt the same way when I heard each of my colleague’s works. The players had a better understanding of the musical and technical needs of our pieces, and perhaps having the reading in the evening, with an audience, had an affect on the players as well. It felt more like a concert than a casual orchestral reading.

So, was it traumatic after all, as composer Derek Bermel suggested? Yup… Was it worth it? Yes, highly recommended!

 

Danielle Kuhlmann, French hornist

What an exciting weekend! It was such a pleasure to work with our new music director, George Manahan! The readings are interesting, because it is difficult to assess the pieces out of context. Normally, we would play a program of classical or romantic music with perhaps just one contemporary work. Or, we would have a well balanced mix of new music covering an entire program. I thought it was interesting that most of the works read this weekend were big, intense works with a lot of energy. This is great, and very exciting writing, but big writing means lots of playing. I think we were all starting to “feel it” by the end of the night (especially the brass section)!

It was wonderful to meet with the composers and their mentors and conductors to discuss the pieces. They probably feel like they are under a giant microscope in that little room, but it is all to help them grow individually and to benefit music in general. We try to give helpful tips to make a better experience for the performers and the audience as well as the composers themselves. It usually comes down to very simple issues: a note out of range, a computer’s ill-spaced bars, the size of the page. These are easily corrected hiccups. It was nice to be able to say that it was just a technical error, that the music itself is quality.

I was impressed by the writing, especially a few of the composers who both challenged the brass instruments and still wrote comfortably for us. We were never bored this weekend, and that is fantastic. I look forward to future readings and the progress of all of the involved composers.

 

José Serebrier, conductor

I am now rather far from New York. The brilliant Costa Rican National Symphony asked me to conduct their 90th anniversary concert. I sort of had to commute with New York in order to be able to do the Underwood readings with the ACO. I am delighted to have done it, and I believe completely in the cause. Paul Underwood deserves so much credit for making this opportunity available to emerging composers. Also, it is one of the most important, significant services the ACO can offer.

One thing is the printed page, but every composer experiences surprises when listening to the actual thing in a live performance, even today, with the benefit of computer, electronic performances never do justice to the music.

I was thrilled to see how such a complicated event was made to run so smoothly by Michael Geller and John Glover, and their skeleton staff. My heart was warmed to observe the good will of the musicians. These are all stars. What they did is fantastic, to read seven new works, each with enormous technical challenges. In two short sessions they managed to give a very good impression of the works. My sincere gratitude to each of these wonderful artists. I hope to write again, longer impressions, with a little more time, but now I better get to the rehearsal of La Mer.

Guess Who’s Invited to the White House?

Since Barack Obama’s inauguration, many in the arts community have pondered what the change in leadership might mean for our field. It’s clear that the new president has some interest in music—he’s got Jay-Z on his iPod and even handpicked “long, strange trippers” The Dead to play at the Mid-Atlantic Inaugural Ball in D.C. But looking past the meeting of tye-dyes and power ties, what does this mean for cultural policy?

There are a few early indications that the new administration recognizes that arts and culture have an important role to play in American life: the June concert with the Marsalis family and Paquito D’Rivera among others, the poetry night at the White House in May, the country music evening in July.

To be sure, the frequent presence of artists in the White House provides us with reason to be hopeful that the new administration will be a good partner for the arts community. But taking advantage of this opportunity will require a dramatic rethinking of the way we engage with policymakers. The previous eight years were spent playing political defense against an administration with little interest in investing in the arts. Now, we’re faced the no less important challenge of transitioning from an oppositional movement to one that’s more proactive. A movement grounded in big-picture thinking, with a vision for how innovation and creativity can rebuild our nation. A movement that understands the role arts will play in shaping a new social agenda.

Because of an uncoordinated government infrastructure, the arts community has, over the years, come to view public policy as highly agency-specific. We’re good friends with the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, but have until recently been strangers at places like the White House, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Copyright Office. And, though the NEA has long been the most visible symbol of our government’s commitment to art and culture (or in some cases, lack of), its miniscule budget means that its actual impact is largely symbolic and generally limited to touring, presentation, and participation in the traditional and classical disciplines. Yet the entire field continues to grow, necessitating a broader view of policy and public funding for the arts.

In its first six months, the new administration has modeled a more holistic approach to policymaking that prizes innovation and seeks ways to improve conditions for all Americans. There’s a renewed focus on inter-agency collaboration and a sharing of ideas and resources to find creative solutions to our many problems as the nation struggles to repair itself in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

How large a role can the arts play in affecting meaningful change? Well, a lot of that depends on how we make our case.

Which isn’t always easy. For example, when the FCC was giving away new full-power non-commercial stations in 2007, it was next to impossible for the average artist or community organization to figure out how to apply. The FCC website is complex and difficult to navigate, so funders, public interest, service and advocacy organizations raced against the clock to assist folks like the Milwaukee Symphony and free103point9 with learning about the opportunity, navigating a lengthy application process, and eventually, in the case of free103point9, winning a construction permit (Milwaukee’s application is still pending). The benefit to engaging, however, is immeasurable. A new classical station in Milwaukee to replace the one recently lost has the potential to transform, support, and energize local communities around arts and culture. Such an outcome would make the effort well worth it.

We need a fresh kind of thinking to recognize new opportunities. Take the administration’s prioritization of broadband deployment—part of the stimulus package and potentially a very powerful example of how we can rethink the role of creativity in our society. Currently, the National Telecommunications and Information Association is working alongside the Rural Utilities Service (which is in turn, part of the Department of Agriculture) to distribute four billion dollars in grants to build out broadband to underserved populations. Meanwhile, the FCC has been tasked with developing a national broadband plan that will, by necessity, not only include infrastructural build out, but also plans to increase adoption. And what attracts people to community centers, libraries, and internet cafes to access broadband? What would inspire a rural user to more frequently log on at home? The answer (or at least one of them) is content. In the face of current economic challenges, this could represent a powerful opportunity for the arts and cultural sector.

There are still hurdles. Unlike in 2007, when we had a year’s notice to mobilize around the FCC’s radio spectrum giveaway, the window for this round of grants—which are fast tracked for August 15 as part of the stimulus—is impossibly brief. Considering our current infrastructure, it’s hardly enough time for the arts community to develop strategic partnerships and respond with anything resembling purpose or coordination. That’s why we need to proactively engage with a broader array of federal agencies and departments, with the hopes of being better positioned as new opportunities arise.

Although we’ve been conditioned to a compartmentalized view of policy, new political and economic realities present an opportunity to work towards a more integrated (and hopefully more sustainable) ecosystem: one where culture, creativity, and artists are valued across the board—from the Department of Agriculture to the FCC. But how do we get there? What information might policymakers need from our community to make arts and culture more central to broader domestic goals?

In order to take advantage of new opportunities for the arts in this new era of governing, here are some next steps to consider:

  • Develop the flexibility to respond to opportunities more quickly and be willing to take bigger risks. That means dedicated time and funds.
  • Map potential partnerships and opportunities across all the federal agencies, and share the information in coordinated fashion with the entire field.
  • Learn from those who have already created bridges between the arts and other communities—particularly around policy. Explore coalitions to help advance the arts with unfamiliar agencies.
  • Invest in research that documents the impact of policies and offers the background policymakers need to understand how the arts fit into the bigger picture.

If these ideas sound like luxuries we can’t afford, think again. Every day, the future is shaped a piece at a time, as policies are put in place that will define the landscape ten years from now. Given the administration’s more integrated view toward policymaking, we can’t afford not to participate.

We now have an administration that has shown it’s willing to listen to artists. How far we take this opportunity is up to us.

***
Jean Cook is the interim executive director and Casey Rae-Hunter is the communications director of the Future of Music Coalition, a national nonprofit organization that works to ensure a diverse musical culture where artists flourish, are compensated fairly for their work, and where fans can find the music they want.

Is Anyone Listening? (from The New Music Theater)

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The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body by Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

 

The following chapter is reprinted with permission from the authors and the publisher from The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body by Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 360-375).

  • PLUS: Read a conversation with New Music Theater co-author Eric Salzman.If it goes on like that I will get tinnitus!
    an elderly lady overheard during the intermission of a contemporary music concert

     

    Who is the audience?

    Looking at photographs taken at performances we can sometimes catch a glimpse of the audience. Happenings, performances in galleries or on streets, on canals, and in natural settings often show performers mixing with the audience, creating a special form of street theater. Galleries that host performances are typically rather small so the public ends up standing or sitting on the fl oor with the performer or performers in the middle. Sometimes it is not easy to differentiate performers from audience purely by dress, but in other cases the distinction is clear. The audience photographed during an “action” by Yves Klein in 1960 Paris shows elegantly dressed members of society watching two nudes covered with blue color dragging themselves around on paper.

    A picture that shows the grand staircase during intermission at the New York Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s gives us a good idea of the dress code of the day. In contrast, more recent audiences, dressed informally, have been willing, even anxious, to get involved as participants or at the very least as documentarians of public performances.

    In the traditional theater, the audience completely disappears into the black of the auditorium as the theater lights go down and stage lights come up and seal the distinction between the performers and the performed-to. The proscenium arch, the “missing fourth wall” of realistic theater, the bright lights of the stage, and the unreal costumes all create a picture—a picture in motion to be sure—that stands out in opposition to the invisibility of the audience, huddled and immobilized in the auditorium.

    At another extreme, we might have a work in which the performers disappear into the audience. In Dick Raijmaakers’ The Fall of Mussolini, the audience is put on a scaffold or catwalk above and around the performance space. Many new theaters today have multipurpose or modular stages in which the floor or parts of it can be moved so that the audience/performance relationship can be changed as needed. Ironically, these once-utopian possibilities are more widely available but much less used or appreciated than they once were. The Italian architect and librettist Valerio Ferrari1 presented a concept for an opera house in which audiences would be placed alongside a stage in the form of a huge descending spiral. Stockhausen had a truly utopian vision for a hall with the public suspended in midair and the music diffused in 360 degrees and three dimensions. Audiences today seem to divide into those who prefer very conventional situations in the traditional proscenium theater and those who patronize the type of event that reinvents everything anew with each piece.

    Dealing with the audience in a new piece or production is not only a philosophical or ideological issue but also has its practical limitations. Fire laws or other security regulations apply in almost every theater in Western countries and this often becomes a subject of dispute between artist and producer. Switch off the emergency lights? Place objects in the emergency or fire lanes? Block the exits? Are there specific materials, actions, or sounds that could harm, injure, or discombobulate the audience? Break the law and the police or fire department may come and close down the theater!

    Some companies, like the Catalonian La Fura dels Baus, are specialized in performance actions for which the audience is actually warned to wear waterproof clothing. This is certainly one form of the breakdown between performance space and audience space. Blue Man Group sells certain seats with a warning attached and also issues protective gear against flying paint.2 More recently the audience has started to become part of the performance, both participating in and documenting the event on digital and mobile phone cameras. In general, however, the rules and regulations of public gatherings, intended to be protective of public security and wellbeing, are limiting. As everywhere, it is hard to say where security ends and overprotection starts. The problem is complicated by the enormous differences in audiences with respect to what they will tolerate. In some cases, a quiet whisper will evoke protests whereas thousands of people at pop concerts pass the time socializing, eating, drinking, screaming, and so forth. A case of serious injury at, say, an interactive performance could lead to major problems for the responsible producer or artist. It has happened at pop concerts with very negative aftereffects. There are no special art exemptions in civil law.

    All this has been said to demonstrate that a work of performance art of any kind does not exist in a vacuum. It takes place in a specific time and place. Although the piece itself might remain the same, a given performance in a certain place with a certain audience may totally change its reality.

     

    What brings audiences into the theater?

    Opera in its heyday was the top of the market, but nowadays opera houses, although still working with big budgets, have a lot of competition from cinema, pop concerts, dance clubs, and home media. The once-popular theater in the round and thrust stages were intended to give a more vivid immediacy to the performances—the updated version of the old bourgeois theater whose aim was to overwhelm rather than to partner with the public. Ironically, some once-progressive theater companies are now stuck with these thrust stages and no-longer fashionable theater-in-the-round theaters.

    In many—perhaps most—of those cases, the audience is treated as if it were something fl uid and easy to manipulate, easily timed and programmed, docile and willing to be led by the nose. But like the reality of the performance itself, the reality of audiences is actually complex, paradoxical, and constantly changing. In a series of performances of the same piece, it is a commonplace that different audiences react very differently.

    The group psychology of audiences is not very well understood. The public sometimes behaves as a “stupid mass” and sometimes as a distinct intelligent individual. Performers commonly talk about this after a show, noting whether the audience was noisy or quiet, in a good mood, responsive, inspiring or slow, heavy, and unresponsive. Sometimes they will even note specific individuals who behave in unexpected ways. “You have been a wonderful audience” is a common remark from pop performers that causes the audience to cheer and increases the public’s regard for the performer. Opera divas go even further than this, blowing kisses to their fans, bowing and kneeling, retrieving bouquets, and so forth. This is all part of the highly differentiated and complex art form of classical opera that also has a highly structured public and a set of rituals that controls the relationship between performer and audience. This begins when people buy their tickets (sometimes sleeping overnight in sleeping bags outside the opera house) and continues on the inside through the very structure of the opera house interior. Parquet, parterre, loges, ranks, and standing places all create a stratified temporary society inside the theater, inversely reflecting the society outside (the lower seats are the most expensive).

    Other elements of operatic ritual are the socializing at intermission; the applause, which is counted in curtain calls (or, in modern theaters without a curtain, by the number of times that the stage lights are brought down and up); and the post-performance stage door lineup for autographs and glimpses of the stars. The collecting of recordings, photos, souvenirs, and memorabilia also provides a way the public can participate in this performing arts culture.

    This traditional culture of theater and opera does not depend on specific works and seems naive and easily penetrable. Not surprisingly, there have been many attempts to change it, but the system has proved to be more resilient and audiences more adaptable than expected. In some cases, audiences have come to acknowledge and accept the challenge in a very passive way. As a result, a situation has developed in which an opera house will play an extremely difficult avant-garde piece in front of an accepting opera audience, which simply goes through its normal pre-programmed reactions. There is not only no scandal but all the components of audience behavior are now identical to those at any opera performance!

    As the costs of live performance go up and the public turns more and more to mass media, the situation for all the performance arts becomes more and more diffi cult. Unless there are big names involved, producers are willing to take fewer and fewer risks. The only questions that are asked are those that concern self-preservation, and in fact, the operatic system itself has become—with built-in redundancies and safeguards—a method for self-preservation.

    In music criticism and musicology, it has become a habit to speak about music as if it were some kind of product. But music, of all the arts, is the least like a product and the most like a social action based on a process of transmitting and giving something. It is only in the smaller and more flexible music theater that these questions can be asked openly: What is given and to whom? What does the creative artist have to offer?

    The historical past of music making shows a mixture of functionality (masses, cantatas) and entertainment (concertos, court opera, shows, pop music). One defi nition of a classical period in music would be a time when Mozart could write La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte almost simultaneously; in short, when usefulness, entertainment value, and artistic quality were in some kind of balance. In all cases, there is always an addressee, someone to whom the work or the performance is dedicated. It might be a god or a royal patron. It might be all of humanity or just the customers drinking at the bar before or after the performance.

    Who is watching whom? The audience is watching the performers but the performers are also watching the audience. Performers are always dealing with the public in ways that the creators or producers of the work they are performing do not necessarily appreciate or understand. What contact do performers have with their audience? In the archaic spectacles, described by Christopher Small in his book Musicking, the answer is, quite a lot. Small shows how strongly the audience in African culture is (or was) connected to the performers and musicians. Performances in most of the great ancient or traditional theaters may continue for many hours—even days—and take the form of a huge party in which everyone, even children, participate. In Indonesian and Balinese theater—at least before performances became tourist attractions—the line between public and participants was not always so well defined, and the inhabitants of entire villages may take part in certain events. John Cage used to note that in Bali there was no word for “art.” Another characteristic of this kind of “musicking” is that the repertoire can, has, and does change over time, a fact not always taken into account by musicological purists.

    Individualization and specialization in European theater has produced specific art forms for specific publics; at the same time, it has annihilated forms of expression without an audience and, on the flip side, it has not permitted or it has inhibited specific audiences to generate their own forms of expression. There are exceptions to this. One is children’s theater, which is mostly music theater, mostly educational, and likely to be funny and playful, reflecting the way adults imagine children’s minds. Unfortunately, children nowadays, even at the earliest ages, discover television as well as computer and video games and tend to regard them as being much more fun than theater or music. There is not yet, in a society where the image of the young, beautiful, and dynamic is everywhere, much of a concept of theater for the old.

    In the Americas, other exceptions are made for the urban poor and for immigrant audiences. What was once called “race music” turned out to be jazz, blues, gospel, and its progeny (up to and including hip-hop). Black and Hispanic theater is important in New York and California and has always been open to musical theater forms. There is even a movement to create hip-hop opera and music theater. Bobos (American Music Theater Festival in 1993) by Ed Shockley and James McBride is an early example, and there is now a Hip-Hop Theater Festival.

    There are many paradoxes here. The stressed young urban professional dresses up for a couple of hours to go to a performance of a classical opera. But why? It is much easier for her not to dress up (or to dress down) and go to a nearby auditorium where there are plenty of seats and where, often at a lower price, she can meet her peers and see or hear something new in pop music. But perhaps this does not match the social aspirations of her peers or the unconscious desire to affi rm traditional culture and the status quo.

     

    Local or/and global

    Many questions about audiences need to be asked. To whom is contemporary opera/music theater addressed? What might a potential audience for new music theater be interested in? Nineteenth-century society, originally addicted to amusements and escapes, turned to various forms of realism with the work of Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg, Verga, Dreiser, and others, work that reflected “real” problems and “real” tragedies. Verismo in opera was not far behind. Nowadays, however, theater presents itself in laboratory costume—in vitro so to speak—as a series of proposal for discussion. This attitude is connected to our vaunted knowledge explosion. Some spectacular remote events are now transmitted immediately into our homes and form pieces of a large puzzle. The result is that our knowledge of the world is as much global as it is local even though most of this is useless ballast in our minds, a mixture of curiosity and voyeurism. The commercial possibility of live, local performance, as contrasted to global media transmissions, is limited and tends to be ignored by the media. What claims can be made for live theater (let alone live music theater)? Does it really help promote a better understanding of the world or is this merely the kind of educational approach that audiences dislike?

    It is very characteristic of music theater to be local but widespread. When NewOp was founded in 1992, it brought together composers, writers, and producers of new music theater from different parts of the world who did not necessarily even know each other or each other’s work. The globalization of music theater was, perhaps, an inevitability in a movement that had popped up in many places but had deep roots only in few. Increasingly, electronic (or, more correctly, digital) media have begun to dominate a mass music scene that absorbs and fuses everything available for sale on the global market. National trends and characteristics are losing their profile as European Community policy promotes quick exchange, artistic discussions, and cross-national projects. The trend is towards the application of free-market policies, which ensure that even the arts have to follow the economic rules, a very problematic path at best. The issue then becomes—for free-marketeers and arts bureaucrats alike—what art organizations and art works can be sold across the widest markets, a principle that tends to put at a disadvantage, or ignore entirely, small local institutions and local cultural conditions. These rules have put control into the hands of a few managers who tour one production or a selection of artists within the carousel of festivals that are often the only way to get in touch with nonmainstream performance art. The globalization represented by NewOp or by the Munich Biennale resulted in a music theater that is necessarily a form of Zeitoper and has an audience that is widespread in the Western world and in Westernized cultures although not necessarily numerous anywhere in particular.

     

    Audiences, media, and performance space

    When we talk about media, a distinction has to be made between media that is part of the work under discussion and media that functions as the performance space by acting as the conveyor of the performance itself. Performance space in this latter sense includes theater as well as radio, television, and film. Performance media within a performance might include video, cassette tape, computers and mini-computers, even CD-ROMs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, computer games, mobile phones, headphones, and mini-computers. Some of these are already well-known components of music theater and other performance arts; others might seem more peripheral. Nevertheless, it is perfectly feasible to introduce music theater to such media or vice versa. Joshua Fried, a New York composer, has a series of “headphone-driven” pieces involving performers who respond not to written-out music but to what they hear on their headphones. In his Headphone Follies, not so much a performance as an installation, it is hard to tell who are the performers and who is the audience. In International Cloud Atlas, Mikel Rouse’s score for Merce Cunningham’s eyeSpace (2006), each member of the audience has an individual Ipod and listens to a different random shuffl ing of the tracks (there are 3,628,800 possible permutations).

    The computer game Lara Croft, in a series called Tomb Raider 2, is placed in and around the Venetian opera house La Fenice and the dramaturgy of the game, which lies between cinema and theater and depends on the ambience of this traditional opera building (where many contemporary pieces have been premiered), pushes us to think about future possibilities. In this last example, the social aspect of live theater is essentially nonexistent although the interactive functionality of the game transmits the feeling of a live performance. King Ludwig II of Bavaria or on occasion the Pope might have constituted the entire audience for an operatic performance, but the proverbial command performance is available only to such exalted personages. Now, however, the transmission techniques of electronic media have made performance-on-demand for an audience of one perfectly feasible and there can also be performances without performers or in which the spectator is the only actual performer. Interactivity and interactive media put a question mark on a lot of traditional assumptions. Is interactive game playing creative in any meaningful sense or is it merely “interpretation” (the creative role presumably belonging to the developer of the game)? This leads to the question of whether an audience can be (or can be made to be) creative at all. This question was posed in the 1960s and early 1970s in the so-called Wandelkonzerte (“wandering audience concerts”) of Ladislav Kupkovic in which groups of performers and audiences were organized to move inside compounds or even throughout a city. This differs from those public art performances, happenings, and installations in which the art activity merges into the fl ux of everyday urban bustle and becomes nearly indiscernible from real life. The audiences at such events do not deliberately gather at a certain time in the expectation of a performance but are simply passers-by who happen on some action or performance and have either a fragmented idea of what is going on or no idea at all.

    The public space, where the performance is free of charge, can draw in people who otherwise never would enter a theater. The street or subway (underground or metro) musician, the clown, the break dancer, and the living statue are performing theater literally without the theater building. Most outdoor performance venues are places where people gather and such places are often chosen for their qualities of landscape or architecture. What is missing is the frame and the dedicated audience; after all, anybody can be on the street and nobody is excluded. Perhaps these can be viewed as positive aspects of street performance. On the negative side, there is the likelihood that such performances will be simply overlooked by the very people who might be most interested. And, although street musicians are common enough, elaborate ensemble musical theater performances on the street or in the subway are, for many reasons, rare and difficult to carry off effectively.

    Performances in the ancient open-air theaters of Greece and Rome took place in daylight.6 Renaissance theaters were brought indoors but they used permanent sets that represented the street—as if the outside were being brought inside and plays were still being played in daylight. Curiously, many modern open-air performances in Italy, often played in antique ruins, reverse this situation and bring the proscenium and set design of the closed theater back out into the open, generally competing with, disregarding, or even blocking out the surrounding landscape (and most often, with the aid of modern outdoor stadium lighting, performing at night). The ancient theaters were built to integrate nature and landscape into the theater performance. These performances had to conquer and hold their audience’s attention by being surprising or suspenseful. Otherwise the audience would prefer to eat, drink, and chat (as it still does—or did until recently—in provincial performances of ultra-familiar operas in Italy). The baroque and rococo court theaters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries developed the art of the changeable set within the picture opening provided by the proscenium stage. The public was separated from the stage by the orchestra placed at ground level. However the relatively small size of the theaters and the horseshoe design of the théâtre à l’italienne meant that no one was very far from the stage, and sightlines and acoustics were generally good for everyone. The bourgeois opera houses that followed, although on a much larger scale, carefully imitated the court theaters in such matters. The rigidity and hierarchy of the seating arrangements and the ritual of theatrical procedures was preserved along with the increasingly traditional repertoire. Curiously enough, although most concert music and classical opera is quite profane in its nature, a religious aura is preserved in these performance rituals, perhaps a relic of the time when such events actually had a religious significance. Performances in lofts, galleries, and abandoned industrial buildings can be said to lie in between the rigid traditions and rituals of formal theaters and the unspecific float and rush of street theater.8 In all these situations, there are different expectations and different limitations.

    To a certain degree, audience response is based on expectation, which is, in turn, based on prior knowledge. How does an audience get to know something about what they are going to see and hear? In this secondary and preliminary layer of communication lies the biggest problem of all art forms that do not have the consecration of institutionalization. Before the performance and its actual unfolding in time, there is a kind of pre-performance, a background event that prepares, publicizes, helps, and even promotes the understanding of the art work or the performance that has yet to appear. This may take the form of press releases, journalism, public relations, advertising, promotion, media coverage, or any number of other methods of binding a new work or performance to its potential public. Without the older coherence of a society where certain agreed-on languages, codes, and rituals are a well-established habit, the traditions for understanding may be blurred or missing and the activity of public relations9 has to take their place. It represents a deep difference between those who claim that a new piece should be understandable at first sight without pre-information and those who say the opposite.

    Berio said that his pieces for the opera needed the opera house and the opera public and he even went so far as to seat provocateurs in their midst. At the time—the 1960s—opera audiences were still coherent entities with predictable behavior, which made scandals easy to program. When the social and intellectual background of the theater- or operagoer is calculable, the assumption can be made that certain notions, themes, and texts will be recognized and understood. When those assumptions are no longer valid or when theater happens outside its protected areas (protected in the sense that there is a certain understanding and behavior to be taken for granted), problems of intelligibility arise.

    There was a major discussion in the avant-garde as to whether there could be any kind of musical underpinning to new work without some connection to history. For Scriabin there was a metaphysical message in the concept of synesthesia; the audience became humankind itself, which had to be saved by listening to and watching his compositions. Twentieth century artists and authors, particularly in Europe, have often employed a language that feeds directly into that “second layer,” the explanatory bytext, the row of footnotes. Does this actually win over the audience or, on the contrary, does it create resistance? Such ideas can be stimulating, surprising, and inspiring, but it is not always the case that a great idea makes for a great musical or theater evening.

    Why can’t a work be self-explanatory? Why should a piece of music or a play need to be explained in simple words when the work itself is so highly complex or disturbing? Has the common denominator of theater consumers been lowered so much that the public cannot understand anything but the simplest discourse any more? Is the discourse of contemporary art too specific? Are new art, music, theater, and opera destined only for a specially trained audience?

    When art and music represented the wealth of governments, they aimed at universality. Haydn said, “The whole world understands my language,” and by and large that was true (of course, “the whole world” was a much smaller place back then). In most of the arts, universality was closely connected to mimesis but in music it depended on something else. Perhaps there is something innate or “hard-wired” in human beings when it comes to music. Or perhaps it was the connection to folk art and to a popular culture that has always favored music. We all react to the sound of the human voice, and in most cultures, vocal music is dominant. Where instrumental music comes to the fore, there is rhythm, perhaps equally hard-wired. Rhythm is connected to dance, and like the structure of the instruments themselves, rhythm has both a physical component and mathematically defi nable characteristics that make for hard-fact realities. Even with all the variety that twentieth- and twenty-first-century music has shown, the psycho-physiological meanings of distinct intervals and kinetic rhythms continue to exist and have not yet been by any means replaced by other compositional concepts.

    By the late nineteenth century, the leading masters of musical composition, many of them opera composers, developed different strategies to avoid or postpone the tonal cadence. We might well ask if this had anything to do with the social-political evolutions or revolutions of the same period. A cr for freedom was coming from colonialized peoples, subjugated minorities, Afro-American slaves, workers in heavy industry, prisoners, Jews in the European ghettos, and so forth. But who was crying to be liberated from the tonal cadence?

    The cadence might be considered as the mimetic element in music. This harmonic-melodic and rhythmic pattern has a double importance to musical composition. It defines formal sections as well as whole pieces by setting the basic tonality and creating movement away from the center and back again. The play of tonalities and associated rhythmic movements create movement through expectation and, increasingly, by defeating expectation. Whole forms, notably the famous sonata form, are based on this. So are theatrical structures although we are less likely to be concerned about the tonalities of operatic scenes. Die Zauberflöte is, in a larger sense, indubitably in E-fl at major, but unless the overture is performed as a separate concert piece, that fact is not generally noted. In any case, the cadence is part of the power of traditional opera and a point of connection between the arcane arts of composition and the musical comprehension of the public. In effect, it was the link between purely musical form and the power of music to drive a theatrical narrative. As this power slowly ebbed away, a hole was created in the fabric of music, which has not yet been repaired.

    No one would deny the importance of the core structure of tonality in Western art music. But is it just a relic from another, more hierarchical period, when politics and social organization were similarly organized? Can it be called a reign of musical terror or musical oppression with meaningful political parallels? It was certainly the product of a dynastic era of absolute monarchs and baroque social hierarchies, and as they disappeared, the reign of tonality seemed to become progressively weaker and weaker. Do the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the advent of meritocracy have esthetic applications? The parallels, however simplistic, are irresistible, especially since we know that the breakdown of the old order and the beginning of the breakdown of tonality and the cadence are almost simultaneous historic events. In an age of pluralistic democracy, wouldn’t any sound have the right to be played and heard in the widest context? In fact, this has actually proven to be the case. It is ironic that when innovation is everything and any new sound imaginable is a possibility, the term music itself becomes fuzzy (any sound or complex of sounds can be “music” if we so name it) and the notion of new music itself becomes a paradox.

    There is another factor here, a twentieth-century addition to the political and social change of the previous century. This is the intrusion of technology into the process. The near-universality of amplified and loudspeaker sound long ago replaced acoustic sound transmission as the norm of musical culture. Although classical opera might seem to be the least affected of all the arts, it hardly escapes the omnipresent and democratic reign of audio—and now also video—technology. New halls and opera houses are built to sound like high-quality audio recordings. Performers learn music and musical interpretation as much by listening to recordings as through written music. Formerly rare and obscure repertoire becomes familiar to both performers and audiences. Difficult or unfamiliar contemporary music becomes much easier for performers due to the presence of examples that can be imitated or learned by ear. Through recordings, the history of music is pushed back and forth through the centuries and extended horizontally around the globe.

    Only new, unperformed music seems to escape this and presumably must be learned in other ways. But even this is no longer completely true. New music is now often recorded before it is performed for an audience. Composers, even when writing for the voice, can routinely mock up electronic versions of their music for learning and rehearsal purposes, a scheme that is enormously aided by the portability and relatively low cost of modern sound systems and digital audio computing.13 In addition to creating sound and music, sound systems make available any sound that can be or has been recorded; such sounds are not only available for direct musical use but they can also be sampled for further use and processing. With the intervention of microphones, amplifi ers, and sound modifi cation devices—nowadays mostly computer programs—any sound can be recorded, synthesized, processed in multiple dimensions, reworked, distributed, and redistributed.

    All of this has had a huge influence not only on new music but on musical culture in general. This infl uence extends from pop music through all the layers of classical and contemporary music and is a major factor in new music theater as well. The new universality of a musical culture where everything can potentially enter the world-scene through media and mass media has produced a new complexity and new levels of overload. It has also produced a reaction, a strong countercurrent that favors “acoustic” music, the nonamplification of voices, the paring-down of vocabulary, and the kinds of neo-tonalities represented by minimalism and its offshoots.

    This even has social and political ramifications as it did in Marxist days. The double-bind of total democratization may bring and even require a simplification of language. Looking at the avant-garde of the twentieth century from the vantage point of the early twenty-first, we can see how and why much of modernism was transitory. The utopian plan for a new society with potentially total freedom inside an anarchic but peaceful social order simply collapsed. Is there a new cultural order that will come to replace the old? What is certain is that change continues and that it is reflected in new audiences and new relationships between audiences and the performing arts, with music theater most certainly in the front lines of change.

Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?

The following excerpts are reprinted from Chapter Five, “Inventing Virtual Spaces for Music” of the book, Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? by Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter, pp. 164-170. Copyright (c) 2007 by the MIT Press. Used with permission of the publisher.

  • READ an interview with authors Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter.
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    Prophetic visions of the future are sometimes found in the distant past, especially when brilliant minds anticipate what will be possible without being confined by their immediate reality. When Francis Bacon (1626) described the “sound houses” of his utopian college in his essay The New Atlantis, he was prophesying the electroacoustic world of contemporary music of the twentieth century:

    We have also diverse strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and, as it were, tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and deeper; yea, some rendering the voice, differing in letters or articulation from that they receive. We have means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.

    Without tools for creating an aural space, spatiality remained subservient to other compositional elements, such as rhythm, melody, timbre, and tempo. But with the evolution of advanced electroacoustic tools, Bacon’s seventeenth-century ideas, once merely footnotes to history, would be rendered into sound for ordinary listeners to hear; musical space became increasing fluid, flexible, abstract, and imaginary. This trend was most apparent in the second half of the twentieth century. From the perspective of electronic music, spatial design is an application of aural architecture without assuming a physical space. Musical space is unconstrained by the requirements for normal living, and musical artists are inclined to conceive of surreal spatial concepts.

    Like M. C. Escher’s painting of an imaginary space with interwoven staircases that simultaneously lead upward and downward, aural artists also have the freedom to construct contradictory spaces. As an analogy to a virtual aural space, [ M.C. Escher’s Relativity] has elements of visual spatiality, but the space itself could not exist. Similarly for an aural space, we can create sounds that appear to come closer without moving, or a spatial volume that is simultaneously large and small. Modern audio engineers and electronic composers, without necessarily realizing their new role, became the aural architects of virtual, imaginary, and contradictory spaces. Aural spatiality can exist without a physical space.

    By abandoning conventional norms defining music and space, modern artists created contemporary music. Although this class of music is considered by some to be an irreverent and unpleasant form of noise, the new rules of space are still worth investigating because they exist apart from the compositional creations that incorporate them. These rules are interesting both because they predicted the popular music of the late twentieth century and because they suggest future direction for the twenty-first century. Even if some twentieth-century contemporary music has not left an enduring legacy, the new rules of aural space are likely to survive in other aspects of our art and culture.

    The rule that requires musicians to perform in a tight cluster on the stage and listeners in predefined seats in the audience area is readily broken, as is the rule that requires both musicians and listeners to maintain a static geometric relationship throughout the performance. Moreover, when knobs on equipment can alter virtual spatial attributes, the rule that requires spatial acoustics to remain constant and consistent during a performance is also easy to transcend. In the world of virtual spatiality, acoustic space and sound location are no longer based on the laws of physics; acoustic objects can change their size and location instantly. Acoustic space and sound location have become as dynamic as the sequence of notes in the composition. As with all artistic rule systems, however, breaking old rules is easier than replacing them with meaningful new ones. A few decades is a very short duration for refining a new art form.

    A virtual space is not only a compositional element in music, but also an experience that can be extracted from music and then applied elsewhere, for example, to auditory displays in the cockpit of an airplane, the fictional spaces of computer games, or the dual audiovisual spaces of cinema. In these applications, there may not be consistency among the different sensory modalities. In some sense, with the ubiquitous technology of the twenty-first century, the experience of spatiality frequently dominates the experience of a physical environment. Space is no longer just a geographic framework (near-far, front-back, up-down) for positioning sounds relative to listeners. Space is no longer just a response to the acoustics of the environment. The older definition of cognitive maps of space as the internal representation of an external world, introduced in chapter 2, becomes fluid, plastic, and even more subjective. Aural architects of virtual spaces are manipulating their listeners’ cognitive maps.

    Artistic Dimensions of Space and Location

    Composers have always understood, both intuitively and consciously, that the location of the musicians contributes to listeners’ experience of a musical space. The hidden problem with positioning musicians throughout a space is that sound waves move comparatively slowly. Large acoustic spaces produce large delays, which displaces the temporal alignment of music arriving from different locations. Two notes beginning at the same time may arrive at a listener at different times. The spatial manifestation of time is an artistic issue for both listeners and performers, and as in advanced physics, time and space are related and connected concepts.

    When musicians are tightly clustered, the time for a direct sound to travel among them is small, and synchronization depends on their artistic skills alone. Conversely, when an orchestra is large and spread across the stage, the sound delay places a limit on aural synchronization. Because musicians separated by 20 meters (65 feet) will hear each other with a 60-millisecond delay, the visual cue of the conductor’s moving baton takes over the function of producing temporal consistency. When musicians in a large orchestra are perfectly synchronized in time, neither the conductor nor the listeners hear that temporal alignment because they are closer to some musicians than others. For example, a listener near the stage but far off to the left will hear a musician at the far right side of the stage with a delay after hearing a musician on the left, even though the two musicians are playing the same note at the same time. This problem is exacerbated if musicians are widely distributed throughout a large space.

    Composers can compensate for audio delay in several ways. Tight synchronization is not required if the composer includes a temporal gap, perhaps silence, between sounds originating from widely distributed locations. The location of the musicians, which depends on the particular geometry of a space, can then become a compositional component, although when the composition depends on a specific spatial organization, the music is not easily transported to other spaces without having to be adapted. For this reason and because it is less flexible than other options, composers have seldom manipulated the spatial distribution of musicians.

    With the advent of electroacoustics, perceived location and intrinsic audio delays were separated. For example, deploying individual microphones and headphones for each musician removes the intrinsic delays when they listen to their colleagues. Unlike air as a medium, electrified sound moves through wires instantaneously. The sound engineer is therefore free to electroacoustically reposition musicians anywhere in the virtual space, without destroying the synchronization among them. Two musicians separated by a distance of 50 meters (165 feet) can still be heard synchronously. Aurally perceived location has nothing to do with actual location; virtual spaces and virtual locations break the relationship between time and space.

    Anyone who creates a complete sound field that produces the experience of spatiality is functioning as an aural architect. Traditionally, sound sources from loudspeakers were viewed as injecting sonic events into a listening space, but with the advent of surround-sound reproduction, the sound field includes, and in some cases, replaces the experience of the listening space. This chapter traces the history and evolution of space in music, ending with the aural architecture of virtual spaces.

    Incorporating Location within Traditional Music

    Many of the spatial ideas found in contemporary music originated from an earlier period when musicians were occasionally distributed within the performance space. There is a long tradition of antiphonal music, a dialogue of call and response among distinct groups of musicians at different locations, which does not require tight synchronization or simultaneous playing. This style is found in the chanting psalms of Jews in biblical times, and in early Christian music dating from the fourth century. In the late sixteenth century, Giovanni Gabrieli extended the tradition of cori spezzati (divided choirs) as an adaptation to the unique architecture of Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice (Grout, 1960). The musical space was vast, and it contained two widely separated organs and choirs at opposite sides of the cathedral. Adapting to that uniqueness, composers at Saint Mark’s featured a dramatic use of antiphony between the halves of the double choir. The penchant to divide performers was also part of the Venetian polychoral tradition, started by Adrian Willaert and culminating with nine choral groups distributed throughout the cathedral (Mason, 1976). The refinement of cori spezzati represented a musical revolution, and also appeared in secular music of this and earlier periods, such as madrigals with echoes (Arnold, 1959). By the twentieth century, the use of spatially distributed musicians became less unusual and more innovative. Richard Zvonar (1999) cites numerous examples. Charles Ives, in The Unanswered Question (1908), placed the strings offstage to contrast with the onstage trumpet soloist and woodwind ensembles. He was influenced by his father, a Civil War bandmaster and music teacher, who had experimented with two marching bands approaching the town center from different directions. Henry Bryant then extended the idea in Antiphony I (1953) and Voyager Four (1963) with five ensemble groups placed along the front, back, and sides of the space. Three conductors were required.

    For modern composers, dispersing musical sources throughout a space is no longer revolutionary; location is an active component of a composition. Antiphony and spatial distribution evolved into a space-time continuum, which Maja Trochimczyk (2001) calls “spatiotemporal texture.” At any time, a musical voice could appear from any direction, and by intentionally sequencing attributes of space, time, pitch, and timbre, a voice can create the illusion of movement (changing position) and transformation (changing size). When used in this way, space is a musical dimension. Charles Hoag, in Trornbonehenge (1980), used thirty trombones surrounding the audience as an imitation of Stonehenge, and R. Murray Schafer, in Credo (1981), surrounded the audience with twelve mixed choirs. Extending the blending of musicians and listeners still further, Iannis Xenakis scattered 88 musicians among the audience so that the listeners are actually inside the music; in another of his compositions, musicians moved through the space rather than remaining seated.

    Based on traditional theory, music has a temporal and pitch structure, and within those dimensions, a composer manipulates musical voices so that they either fuse into a unitary whole or remain segregated as distinct elements-musical layers. Contemporary music, however, has added a spatial dimension. Composers now require new rules for manipulating fusion and segregation. The proliferation of compositions that manipulate space signifies a new form of sound imagery (Trochimczyk, 2001).

    An analysis of contemporary music is made even more complex by the addition of the two related ideas: incorporating the spatial dimension of voice location, and elevating sonic segregation over fusion and blending. During the last century, even without using space as an artistic element, Western music abandoned fusion as a prerequisite. Layered musical elements retain more of their perceptual identity when not fused. Space has become just another tool for creating musical layers. Maria Anna Harley (1998) analyzed spatial music in terms of perceptual principles that contribute to segregating musical elements. By drawing on Albert S. Bregman’s Auditory Scene Analysis (1990), she applied the principles of perceptual psychology to music. Spatial differences between sound sources that result in temporal differences at the ears augment the aurally perceived segregation of musical elements. Like differences in time, pitch, timbre, and attack, differences in spatial location are yet another means to enhance this segregation. In other words, similar but not identical sounds belong to separate musical layers when they are also spatially separated. Disparate locations de-emphasize fusion. Many modern composers, such as Bartok, Boulez, and Stockhausen, intuitively use this principle in their music.

    That twentieth-century music drifted away from fusion is consistent with spatial separation of sound sources. As a means of preventing fusion, Bryant (1967) used several artistic principles that derive from spatial separation. In one composition, he illustrated his concepts by distributing stringed instruments along the walls on the ground floor of a concert hall, as well as in the first, second, and third balconies, thereby creating a broad and intense wave of sound. Spatial separation preserved the clarity of contrasting layers, especially when different musical elements are in the same register. Because identical or harmonically related notes in two musical layers would typically fuse if not spatially separated, spatial separation afforded the composer greater musical flexibility by permitting increased complexity without concern for unintended confusion. Placing the performers below, above, behind, or to the side of listeners is not intrinsically interesting. Indeed, serializing the direction of music from a sequence of orientations or choosing an arbitrary geometric shape for performer location is, for Harley (1998), simply a failure to understand the new art. Spatial music is interesting precisely because, and only because, it allows combinations of musical elements that would otherwise be artistically weak without using spatial distribution. As if to prove this assertion, Trevor Wishart (1996) analyzed spatial movement in soundscape art, apart from a musical context, and came to a similar conclusion about space as a segmentation tool.

    In her summary of musical space, Harley (1998) concluded that “geometric floor plans and performance placement diagrams are integral, though inaudible, elements of the musical structure – as integral and inaudible as some abstract orderings in the domains of pitch and rhythm.” Spatial organization of sound sources and listener locations are components of music. Yet even when the musical score carefully specifies an organization in time and space, the composer is still constrained by the inherent inadequacy of human performers to achieve precision timing when physically separated.

    Consider two musicians located at different places but playing the same note on the same instrument. Using the concepts of Pierre Boulez (1971), there are four important cases that differ only in relative timing: simultaneous beginning and ending (fused), delayed onset of one musician’s note relative to the other’s but still overlapping (conjunctive interval), a small temporal gap between the end of one musician’s note and the beginning of the other’s (disjunctive interval), and a large delay between the two musicians’ notes (distinct sonic events). The fused case corresponds to a distributed choir singing in unison, and the last case corresponds to the historical use of antiphony. The middle two cases are interesting because they have the potential to create the perception of virtual movement, which Boulez calls “mobile distribution” or “dynamic relief.” In contrast, a fixed distribution or static relief represents a static state without kinematics. Timing has always been a critical dimension in composition, but timing combined with space becomes two-dimensional: spatiotemporal.

    This extra spatial dimension, in addition to preserving segregation of musical textures, offers other possibilities. A disjunctive interval can produce a sudden change in the aurally perceived location of a musician, and a conjunctive interval can produce smooth transition between the two locations, spice glissando. However, both effects are fragile, depending on the skill of the musicians to control timing, pitch, timbre, attack onset, and termination. And both effects depend on the location of the listener relative to the musicians. Musical movement is therefore an illusion, or a metaphoric allusion, rather than an imitation of a physical process. In addition to this change in perceived location, true motion of a sound source produces a Doppler frequency shift. Whereas physical motion in physical space has a reality, virtual motion in virtual spaces is an artistic prerogative.

Downloading Pro or Con: It’s Not About Ethics; It’s About Storage

Molly: A funny thing happened on my way to make a record purchase this morning. Over my 8 a.m. coffee, I had read that an artist I’m particularly interested in had a new album out. Clicking over to iTunes, I entered it into the little search box, fully expecting to have the thing downloaded and ready to soundtrack my commute in just a few minutes. My excitement hit an immediate wall—iTunes did not offer this album. Ack! What to do? I could order it, but that would mean finding my credit card, filling in all those little shipping info lines, and waiting—waiting maybe two whole days!—before it arrived. I could go to an actual store, but probably wouldn’t have the chance until next week. I’m no technologically inclined early adopter, but I realized with a start that I haven’t even set foot in a real record store in over a year. I’ve completely adopted the whole online system and didn’t even realize it. It was just that easy, and that’s why it works.

Do I miss having an ever-expanding shiny wall of CDs? Not for a minute. My iPod and PowerBook together weigh in at about six pounds and travel too often to ever need dusting.

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Frank: There was a really great piece of music I heard via a legally-downable MP3 on a web site a few weeks ago, but already it’s fallen out of my memory. I could try to retrace all my steps web-surfing to try to find it again but it could take hours, hours that would be much better spent listening to records.

Nowadays I frequently encounter composers saying, oh you can hear my music on my website. But rarely do I find myself listening to entire pieces. (A good deal of the time the measly amount of a composition featured on a site curtails the listening experience for me.) It does seem that MP3s have spawned a listening culture that has less respect for listening to a composition from start to finish. Of course, this already started with the fast forward button on CD players, which is probably still why I’m so attracted to LPs since lifting and dropping needles is harder to do than just letting the music play out. Nowadays, unless something is 100% compelling—and ultimately what is?—it’s just too easy to tune it out and move onto the next thing, ultimately never truly listening to anything.

For what it’s worth, I haven’t been in a real record store (one that sells LPs) in… 2 days, and already I’m feeling a bit shaky from the withdrawal.

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Molly: Two quick points…

A satisfying online music life requires investing in equipment and a delivery system that works seamlessly for you. My father has never used an ATM card—still visits a teller and writes checks to pay his bills. For him, the convenience of never having to keep track of due dates or scramble for stamps has not yet outpaced his discomfort with the machinery involved in online bill-pay.

And it’s funny that Frank mentions music on composer websites—I love it when someone directs me to tracks on their site. If I hear a composer’s name that’s unfamiliar, it’s usually in reference to something else I’m reading or listening to at that very moment. Again, I want to be able to go directly to a site and listen to a piece by this new composer yet to be tested by my ears. Hopefully, the composer will have picked a work from his or her catalogue to share with the world as a calling card and just put the whole thing online so I’m getting a complete picture. Even one track is worth so much more that a simile-filled description. I’ll listen, and if I like, I’ll probably be passing the link around to friends and fellow bloggers. And I’ll probably be looking to give up another $9.99 to download an album. This means I can go from unfamiliar to potential fan in under five minutes.

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Frank: As an advocate for the new, far be it from me to get in the way of progress, but sometimes progress can feel like walking off a cliff. I happily check out music people point me to online all the time, but I draw a distinction between that casual encounter and a real listening experience, which is something I believe a listener can have as much from a recording as a live concert experience. And, I too plunk down money for things I discover online, I’m just patient enough for Amazon or whomever else to deliver them to me in a physical form.

I am a tad bit worried that in our desire for instant gratification, nothing has lasting significance. Part of the joy of having amassed a record collection for over 25 years is being able to constantly refer back to things, something much easier to do when you live amongst the records and see them all the time at home. Something about safely hiding the music away in a hard-drive feels like putting dirty laundry in a drawer and forgetting ever to wash it again. For the record, I refuse to keep my CDs in drawers or binders for the same reason.

Also, in the true confessions department, I don’t pay my bills online although I’ve started phoning them in from time to time since the rest of New York City always seems to be waiting online every day I need stamps at the post office.

American Contraband: Alternative Rock and American Experimental Music

Jason Gross and Steve Smith
Jason Gross and Steve Smith
Photo by Melissa Richard

Much as it might bewilder major record companies and fundamentalist critics, rock isn’t only background music for TV commercials and cherished momentos for teenybopper spend-a-thons. It’s a lot more (and a lot less). About five years after Elvis started strumming “That’s Alright Mama” for Sam Philips, Buddy Holly was crafting intricate string arrangements for his singles. A few years after that, Phil Spector was molding the music into “teenage symphonies.”

With Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Who’s rock operas and the song cycles of the Moody Blues, and King Crimson’s groundbreaking In the Court of the Crimson King, England seemed to have opened the floodgates for rock’s wholesale appropriation not just of classical sounds, but of classical structures. But earlier still, in California, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys had actually set the stage for Sgt. Pepper with the unprecedented studio expermentation of Pet Sounds, while Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention had already proven that modern classical composers such as Varèse and Stockhausen were fair raw material for a savvy rock band.

And still it continued… the Velvet Underground emerged from the Dream Syndicate of LaMonte Young and Terry Riley to provide still another modern alternative, while the Grateful Dead took guitar sounds into uncharted territory and began to use the recording studio itself as a mind-altering substance on Anthem of the Sun. Rock had come quite a way from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” True, part of this freedom meant the retro-excesses of Yes and ELP, not to mention such radical missteps as Deep Purple’s Concerto for Rock Band and Orchestra. But it also meant a crop of wildly creative artists had their eyes opened to the expansive potential inherent in the melding of rock and more formal compositional structures.

All over the United States today, there are rock bands who are continuing to blur the lines between the accessibility of commercial popular music and the sonic experimentation of non-commercial music. While New York’s Sonic Youth garnered a great deal of press for their recordings of works by John Cage, Pauline Oliveros and other mavericks last year, their music has been pushing the envelop for almost 20 years. Similarly, the work of San Francisco’s Negativland owes as much, if not more, to post-Cagean tape experimentation than it does to American popular culture. While bands like L.A.’s Djam Karet and Michigan’s Larval continue the maximalist timbral palette of progressive rock, Boston’s Binary System, and Chicago’s Tortoise incorporate minimalist processes in their work. Portland’s Sun City Girls and Boulder’s Thinking Plague function more like composer collectives than traditional rock bands, and Nick Didkovsky, leader of the totalist rock band Doctor Nerve, is also a member of the Bang On A Can All-Stars. Perhaps nobody blurs these lines more than Elliott Sharp, a composer who has been creating music in between the boundaries of downtown experimental music and rock for several decades.