Author: Tim Rutherford-Johnson

How to Exist: 20 Years of NewMusicBox

An interview takes place in a study-type room, with a man sitting on a couch, another man with his back to us sitting in a chair, and a woman in a blue dress behind the camera filming

Forgive me if I begin this look back at twenty years of NewMusicBox and its times by opening a different, older, but resolutely print magazine. In October 2000, about 18 months after NMBx’s founding, The Wire, the UK-based magazine for new and exploratory music, reached a milestone of its own: issue number 200. It marked the occasion with a directory of 200 “essential websites”: sites for record labels, venues, artists, discussion groups, and more. Nearly two decades later, the idea of trying to write down any sort of meaningful index to the web seems extraordinarily quaint; but at the start of the century, before Google transformed how we think about information, such things were not uncommon. Back then—and I’m just about old enough to remember this—it still felt as though if you put in a few days’ work, you could pretty much get a complete grasp of the web (or at least of that slice of it that met your interests).

Within The Wire’s directory, among a collection of links to 18 “zines,” sits NewMusicBox. Here’s Christoph Cox’s blurb:

Run by the American Music Center, an institution founded in 1942 [sic] “to foster and encourage the composition of contemporary music and to promote its production, publication, distribution and performance in every way possible,” NewMusicBox’s monthly bulletins do this admirably, and, with recent issues exploring topics as various as the relationship between alternative rock and contemporary classical, the funding of new composition, and the world of microtonality, regular visits are worthwhile.

NMBx’s presence on this list isn’t surprising. (Although I hadn’t looked at this issue of The Wire for many years myself, I was confident the site would be in there.) The online magazine of the AMC (and later New Music USA) has always been close to the forefront in online publishing. What is surprising—and just as telling—is that aside from a few websites devoted to individual composers (Chris Villars’ outstanding Morton Feldman resource; Eddie Kohler’s hyperlinked collection of John Cage stories, Indeterminacy; Karlheinz Stockhausen’s homepage-slash-CD store-slash-narrative control center stockhausen.org), almost no other sites in The Wire’s catalogue are devoted to contemporary classical music or modern composition. The sole major exception is IRCAM, whose pioneering, well-funded, and monumental presence (especially through its ever-expanding BRAHMS resource for new music documentation) gives an indication of the level NMBx was working at to have achieved so much so early on.

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Although NMBx was at the forefront of online resources in 1999, the idea of an online publication for contemporary American music had been circulating at the AMC for some time. A long time, in fact. In 1984—just two years after the standardization of the TCP/IP protocol on which the internet is built, and when the web was still called ARPANET—the AMC’s long-range planning committee wrote, “The American Music Center will make every effort to become fully computerized and to develop a computer network among organizations concerned with contemporary music nationwide.”[i] This seems like an almost supernatural level of foresight for an organization that was still at that time based around its library of paper scores. That is, until one recalls the number of composers, especially of electronic music, who were themselves at the forefront of computer technology. One of these was Morton Subotnick, a member of the AMC board and one of new music’s earliest of early adopters. Deborah Steinglass, currently New Music USA’s interim CEO, but back then AMC’s Director of American Music Week (and soon to become its Development Director), recalls a meeting in 1989—the same year that Tim Berners-Lee published his proposal for a world wide web—in which Subotnick introduced the potential of computer networks for documenting and sharing information to the board, whose members were astonished and incredulous.[ii]

From its beginnings, NMBx was about making composers heard.

Yet they were moved to take it seriously. Carl Stone, another composer-board member who was involved from an early stage, reports that early models were an ASCII-based Usenet or bulletin board-type system that would allow users to exchange and distribute information nationwide.[iii] This idea evolved quickly, and ambitiously. A strategic plan drawn up in 1992 and submitted in January 1993 states that during 1994, the Center would “create an online magazine with new music essays, articles, editorials, reviews, and discussion areas for professionals and the general public.” Alongside Stone and Subotnick, the early drivers of this interest in technological innovation included fellow board members John Luther Adams, Randall Davidson, Ray Gallon, Eleanor Hovda, Larry Larson, and Pauline Oliveros.

This is not to say that everyone at the AMC was an early adopter; Stone says that one of his main tasks was “to keep driving the idea of an online service forward. While it might seem obvious today, there was significant resistance to an online service in some quarters. Some people felt it would be dehumanizing, expensive. They couldn’t see the coming ubiquity of computers in our daily life.” A key role in maintaining this drive, Steinglass tells me, was played by the AMC’s Executive Director Nancy Clarke. Clarke, a music graduate from Brown University, had worked as a music program specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts before coming to the AMC in 1983. According to Steinglass, Clarke was very interested in technology and was sympathetic to the predictions of Subotnick and others. It was she as much as anyone who pushed for and implemented an online presence for the AMC.

The fruit of these discussions (and several successful funding bids written by Steinglass) was the launch of amc.net in the first half of 1995: the same year as online game-changers such as eBay and Amazon, but months before either. In fact, the AMC’s website (designed by Jeff Harrington) proved to be one of the world’s first for a non-profit service organization, a testament to the vision and ambition of Clarke, Stone, Subotnick, and the rest of the AMC board. By June 12, according to a letter from Clarke to the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust (one of the site’s funders), it was already receiving a respectable 20,000 hits a month.

Yet the goal of a web magazine devoted to contemporary American music—meaning all sorts of non-commercial music, from jazz to experimental, as well as concert music—remained incomplete. In that same June letter, Clarke lists the services amc.net was providing: they include a catalogue of scores held in the AMC’s library; a compendium of creative opportunities (updated daily); listings of jazz managers and record companies; a forthcoming database of composers, scores, performers, and organizations; and that mid-’90s online ubiquity, the guestbook. But no mention of a magazine.

The idea was reinvigorated in 1997. Richard Kessler arrived as the AMC’s new executive director and amplified the need for the AMC—and indeed other music information centers like it—to do more than offer library catalogs and opportunity listings. “We’re supposed to be about advocacy,” is how he describes his thoughts at that time. “And not just [for] composers, but also performers and publishers and the affiliated industry.”[iv] To achieve this, Kessler reasoned, the AMC needed to switch its attention away from its score library and towards ways to give a voice to composers across the spectrum, particularly those working at the margins of the established scene. “There are composers out there who, if they’re not published, people don’t know who they are or what they’re doing,” he says.

Planning documents and funding applications produced shortly after Kessler’s arrival in July 1997 discuss the development of “a twice-monthly web column” that would provide “first person” perspectives on American music by experts and practitioners within the field.[v] At this stage an online magazine does not seem to have been in anyone’s mind, although it was suggested that these columns would be supported by chat forums, links, and other materials. Kessler was clear about what he wanted this publication to do, whatever form it might finally take: it should give “a palpable, well-known voice to the American concert composer, broadly writ. I also wanted it to affirm the existence of those artists. Can you play a part in ensuring that those artists will exist in that [online] space? Not only for people to discover them, but also for the artists themselves to feel like they do exist.”[vi]

By late spring 1998, the “American Music: In the First Person” proposal had evolved into an idea for a multi-part online newsletter. Planning documents from May of that year introduce the idea of a monthly internet-based publication “serving as a communications and media vehicle for new American music.”[vii] These documents are aimed more generally at creating an “information and support center for the 21st century,” but the presence of the magazine is regarded as the “linchpin” in that new program.

After this, things moved quickly. On July 1, a conversation between Kessler and Steve Reich was published on the AMC’s website. This was the first of a series of interviews entitled “Music in the First Person” (and which still continue under the title of “Cover”): it is interesting to note how the “first person” of the title shifted from the author of a critical essay or column, as proposed in May, to the (almost always a composer) subject of an interview. In the same month, Frank J. Oteri was approached—and interviewed—for the job of editor and publisher of the planned magazine, a position he took up in November. NewMusicBox published for the first time the following year, on May 1, 1999, featuring an extended interview with Bang on a Can, an extensive history of composer-led ensembles in America written by Ken Smith, “interactive forums,” news round-ups, and information on recent CD releases.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments. The original “Music in the First Person” interviews that began in 1998 were published with audio excerpts as well as text—a heavy load for dial-up era online access. A year later, the April 1, 2000, interview with Meredith Monk introduced video for the first time. And on November 22, 2000, NMBx released its first concert webcast(!). This was a recording, made by then-Associate Editor Jenny Undercofler a week before, but the first live webcast came only a little later, on January 26, 2001—almost eight years before the Berlin Philharmonic’s pioneering Digital Concert Hall. The innovations continued: with its regularly updated content, comments boxes, and obsessive (and often self-referential) hyperlinking, NMBx was a blog almost before such things existed, and certainly long before anyone else was blogging about contemporary concert music. Composer and journalist Kyle Gann and I started our respective blogs in August 2003, although it was a little while before I wrote my first post about new music; Robert Gable beat us both by a month with his aworks blog. In fact, Gable introduced our particular blogospheric niche to the wider world in a post he wrote for NMBx in October, 2004; within weeks, Alex Ross had joined the fun, and the rest is …

Many early innovations were brought to the table by Kessler, who saw potential in webcasts, discussion groups, and more, but this is not to say that the early plans for NMBx didn’t also feature some cute throwbacks. Among them, plans for link exchanges (links to your work having a great deal of currency back then), and elaborate content-sharing schemes with external providers before YouTube, Spotify, and Soundcloud embedding made such things meaningless.

From its beginnings, NMBx (and the wider organization of AMC) was about making composers heard. In the late 1990s what this meant and how it might be achieved was still seen through a relatively traditional lens. One funding application mentions that in spite of recent advances in technology and society, “many of the challenges that faced the field decades ago remain more or less unchanged.” It goes on to list them:

  • the need for composers to identify and secure steady employment
  • the need to educate audiences and counter narrow or negative perceptions of new music
  • the need to instill institutional confidence about the importance of new music—whether from orchestras, opera companies, publishers, media, or record companies
  • the need to encourage repeat performances of new music
  • the need to secure media coverage of new music[viii]
At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version.

At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication and information sharing. In the same year as NMBx was launched, I joined the New Grove Dictionary of Music as a junior editor and ended up part of the team that oversaw Grove’s transition from 30-volume book to what was then one of the world’s largest online reference works. For several years after 1999, we were focused on making a website that was as much like the book as possible. (This was harder than you would imagine: Grove’s exhaustive use of diacriticals, for example, made even a basic search engine a far from simple task.) As far as maximizing the opportunities of the web went, this extended largely to adding sound files (that were directly analogous to the existing, printed music examples) and hyperlinks (analogous to the existing, printed bibliographies), along with editing and adding to the existing content on a quarterly basis.[ix] My experiences at Grove were echoed in NMBx’s office. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version; one planning document (perhaps trying to assuage the fears of the screen-wary) reassures that “anyone who wishes to download a copy of the magazine for printing and reading at a later date will be able to do so free of charge.”[x]

Clip from Billboard, 2001

Just a few years into the new century, however, things began to change in ways that hadn’t been anticipated, even by those at the forefront of technological application. Blogging in particular had revealed two powerful and unexpected abilities of the web: to complicate our understanding of truth and to amplify the functions of style, personality, and connections within the new media economy. In the second half of the decade, these were supercharged by the arrival of social media.

This changed what it meant to be heard. Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers—becoming audible through major performances, broadcasts, and publishing contracts—but about telling personal stories of identity and representation, and about shining a light outside of the mainstream. These changes were anticipated early on at NMBx—the forum discussions from that very first “Bang on a Can” issue centered on the subject of audience engagement—and continue to be reflected in its features.

Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers but about telling personal stories of identity and representation.

Oteri and Molly Sheridan, who replaced Undercofler as associate editor in 2001, have guided NMBx to its 20th birthday—a remarkable continuity of leadership for any publication, online or off! Along the way, they have directed many stages in its evolution—including several site redesigns—and launched many innovations. The major facelift came in 2006, and with it a move from monthly “issues” to a rolling schedule of articles and blog posts that was more in line with the stream-based style of the growing web. By now, NMBx was essential online reading for anyone interested in contemporary American music, and hot on the heels of this redesign came another enduring innovation: the launch of Counterstream Radio in March 2007. Advertised on its press release as “Broadcasting the Music Commercial Radio Tried to Hide from You,” Counterstream caught a mid-noughties trend for online radio stations, but has endured better than some others.

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Yet although Frank (currently composer advocate for New Music USA, in addition to his NMBx work) and Molly (now director of content for the organization more broadly) have always had a strong idea of the best direction for NMBx, the debates in its pages are often sparked by practitioners themselves. (From the beginning, readers were invited to participate in forum discussions around a wide range of field issues or tied directly to individual posts; some of my strongest early memories of NMBx are of the lively conversations that would take place below the line.) To that extent, the site remains focused on what composers want to read; and judging by some of the recurring themes in NMBx’s 20-year archive of articles and blog posts, what composers want to read seems to be: how to get your work heard; how to create (even write for!) an audience; and how to engage with modernity and/or technology.

Even more importantly, there have also been, from the start, debates about representation. Concert music has been slow to confront its problem with race, for example, but it has been part of the conversation at NMBx for years: perhaps appropriately, since as changes in representation have come, one must hope that new music will lead them. Musicologist Douglas Shadle’s recent article on “Florence B. Price in the #Blacklivesmatter Era” is a valuable contribution, but even more pertinent has been the voice NMBx has given to living composers of color—from the early interview with Tania Léon in August 1999 through to the most recent of all featuring Hannibal Lokumbe, with many opinion pieces like Anthony Greene’s “What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers” along the way.

NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well.

In areas like these, NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well. As someone involved in the world of new music not as a creator but as a critic, observer, and occasional programmer, features like these are immensely valuable to keeping an eye on my own privilege, and to pushing me to open up the margins of my own understanding. Greene’s observation that “new music has done very little to change the expected optics of classical music, which is why new music’s identity problem is what it is today” is a powerful caution against complacency.

To take another example of those optics, the subject of gender representation and the problems faced by women in the contemporary music world were first addressed pre-NMBx, beginning with Richard Kessler’s February 1999 interview with Libby Larsen. They have remained in the foreground ever since, suggesting that the question remains current, but very much unresolved. A search for “gender” in the NMBx archive brings up almost 200 items, yet this isn’t even everything—it leaves out Rob Deemer’s widely read 2012 list of women composers, for example. (Forty-one items have also been tagged with the word “diversity,” though this list is not a free-text search, and only goes back to 2012.) The debates at NMBx wove in and out of conversations in the wider world. In 2002, guest editor Lara Pellegrinelli—who had recently written for the Village Voice about the lack of women musicians involved in Jazz at Lincoln Center—published a series of posts by women musicians, each headed “How does gender affect your music?” (Jamie Baum’s response: “When asked if gender has had an influence on my compositions, my reaction was of surprise—surprise that I hadn’t been asked that question before, not in 20 years of performing.”) Blogger Lisa Hirsch’s extended article of 2008, “Lend Me a Pick Ax: The Slow Dismantling of the Compositional Gender Divide,” added essential concert and interview data to the debate, highlighting the difference between post-feminist fantasy and harsh reality; and composer Emily Doolittle, with Neil Banas, offered an interactive model to highlight “The Long-term Effects of Gender Discriminatory Programming.” A widely derided column in the conservative British magazine The Spectator of 2015 (“There’s a Good Reason Why There Are No Great Female Composers”) prompted a suitably damning response from blogger Emily E. Hogstad (“Five Takeways from the Conversation on Female Composers”) that deftly drew together several moments across both new and historical music, and in the wake of 2012’s International Women’s Day composer Amy Beth Kirsten enriched the discussion with a call for the death of the “woman composer.” This last article attracted more than 100 comments and extensive debate, but the one that attracted so much interest it briefly crashed NMBx was Ellen McSweeney’s “The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals in New Music Leadership and Innovation,” a nuanced response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and its applicability to the world of new music. Tying questions of both race and gender together was Elizabeth A. Baker’s remarkable intersectional cry, “Ain’t I a Woman Too,” from August last year.

Perhaps most indicative of all was Alex Temple’s 2013 piece, “I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?” Temple’s article (originally published on her own website) is explicitly a follow-up to other NMBx contributions on gender, two of which are mentioned in its opening paragraph. It adds layers of nuance to the debate, both around the question of male/female binarism, as well as the question of whether compositional style can be gendered. No, says Temple to this latter, but:

I have noticed that certain specific attitudes toward music seem to correlate with gender … While I don’t think of my work as specifically female, I do think of it as specifically genderqueer. Just as I often feel like I’m standing outside the world of gendered meanings, aware of them but never seeing them as inevitable natural facts like so many humans seem to do, I also tend to feel like I’m standing outside the world of artistic meanings.

In its combination of raw experience and careful self-reflection, Temple’s article is exemplary but not unique to NMBx; an equally honest and unmissable piece, this time on musico-racial identity, is Eugene Holley, Jr’s “My Bill Evans Problem.” For those of us—including me, I confess—who have found ourselves under-informed about trans issues, Temple’s article provided a welcome introduction: not only to the terms of that discussion, but also for its possible ramifications for artistic creativity and self-expression (articles published since, including Cas Martin’s “An Ode to Pride Month,” have added layers of their own).

The continuing presence of articles like these brings us back to the core purpose of NMBx as the AMC envisioned it back in 1997: to allow composers to feel like they exist. In 2019 that is not only a question of allowing composers to feel like they exist as composers, within the framework of institutional support and recognition, but as people, within the framework of a more humane, more complete understanding of what we are as a society. In recent years, one or two online publications have found ways to discuss difficult social questions within the context of contemporary music; it’s rarer still to see it done with the same level of peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge and experience. NMBx, built in the best days of the web, was there before them all.


In the twenty or so years since we started to pay attention to it, the internet has concatenated every part of our private and public lives. Art, culture, sport, business, and gossip no longer appear separately, like supplements in our weekend newspapers, but together, on the same screen as dinner plans, memes, and conversations with our friends. Since the advent of Twitter, different things have become even more closely braided within the same scroll-stream, units differentiated only by the volume at which they declare themselves from our screens: #ClimateCatastrophe, #FiveJobsIHaveHad, #WorldPenguinDay read three hashtags in close proximity on my TweetDeck right now.

This is not altogether a bad thing. In the 1980s and ’90s, before this whole online thing really took off, musicologists and critics would fret about the disassociation of classical “art” music from life, and of musicology from society. Popular music was better at inserting itself into and complementing people’s lives. Film, literature, and theater were also good at it. Yet music, it was argued, was somehow still regarded in the abstract. It was partly in response to this that the scholarly movement that came to be known as New Musicology was born, having as its aim the study of music within its social context, music as a social creation. Today, music inhabits very much the same space as everything else in our lives (just as music is increasingly made out of the components of those lives). NMBx’s blogs and features, which place the day-to-day stories of actual new music composers at the center of the discussion, are a perfect reflection of this. The internet, with its indifferent reframing of everything as #content, has played no small role in this change in how we see the world. Few people talk of New Musicology now. Not because its premises were wrong, but because they have become standard practice. In this, as in so much else, NewMusicBox has long been ahead of the curve. Here’s to existing, always.


Thanks to Jeff Harrington, Richard Kessler, Debbie Steinglass, and Carl Stone for sharing with me their recollections and documentation of the early days of NMBx and amc.net.

[i] Quoted in American Music Center, 1992: “The Arts Forward Fund: Request for Proposal,” n.p. (“Proposal Summary”).

[ii] Deborah Steinglass, email to the author, April 5, 2019. According to Steinglass, Subotnick “also talked about the future of transportation, and how the US would have highways filled with electric vehicles none of us would actually have to drive.”

[iii] Carl Stone, email to the author, April 10, 2019.

[iv] Richard Kessler, Skype interview with the author, April 5, 2019.

[v] I am grateful to Richard Kessler for sharing these and other documents with me, and for permission to quote from them.

[vi] Kessler, Skype interview.

[vii] American Music Center, 1998: “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century: An Action Plan.”

[viii] American Music Center, 2000: “A Proposal to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Support an Online Information and Communications Infrastructure for New American Music,” page 10.

[ix] I am happy to report that since my time at Grove – or Oxford Music Online as it is now known – these ambitions have expanded greatly.

[x] American Music Center, “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century,” page 5.

Commemoration Music: Narrating 9/11

Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 2009, separately from their 9/11 memorial program discussed in my previous post. Now one of the best-known post-9/11 works, it was not initially intended as such at all. The original request was for “a piece using pre-recorded voices,” following up on the idea behind Reich’s Different Trains, which the quartet had commissioned in 1988. The idea of using recordings from 9/11 only came to the composer several months later.[1] In its use of speech and concrete sounds to create melodies, harmony, and rhythm, it is similar to Different Trains. (In addition to Reich’s familiar speech melody technique, in WTC 9/11 the beep-beep-beep of a phone left off the hook provides both the tempo and an underlying harmonic pedal for the work’s first movement.) The structure of WTC 9/11 also resembles another Reich piece based on documentary material, the video opera Three Tales.

Different Trains, Three Tales, and WTC 9/11 all contain a two-part structure that moves from representation (of a traumatic event or events) to reflection, with an additional third part at either the beginning or the end. In the case of Different Trains, the trauma of the Holocaust represented in the second movement is prefigured in the first and reflected on in the third. In Three Tales, two traumatic events are represented: the explosion of the Hindenburg and the removal of indigenous inhabitants from Bikini Atoll. “Dolly,” the third part, considers the phenomena of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, using them as an opportunity to reflect on the merits and risks of technological advancement as described in the first two parts.

WTC 9/11 begins immediately with representation: after the beeping phone, the first recorded sounds heard are the voices of NORAD air traffic controllers tracking American Airlines Flight 11. They are joined by recordings from the New York City Fire Department and, in the second movement, testimonies from witnesses and survivors of the attacks. In contrast to Different Trains’ structure, now it is the third movement rather than first that extends the representation–reflection dyad, the third movement here evoking the realm of the spiritual with chants from the Psalms and the Torah, as well as the voices of two Jewish women who helped sit vigil (shmira) over the bodies of the Twin Towers’ dead until they could be identified and buried.

Robert Fink has shown how the repetitions and cyclical structures of minimalist and post-minimalist music resemble those of commercial television.[2] This is even more true of 24-hour news broadcasting, in which a finite amount of actual footage and information must fill long periods of air time: on September 11 itself, news channels even resorted to looping what little footage they had to make it fill the large amount of time the event’s importance seemed to demand.

Reich follows this pattern of repetition, sequencing, and flow, but applies a heavy editorial hand to his sources and their setting to construct an unambiguous emotional and affective narrative.

In WTC 9/11, Reich follows this pattern of repetition, sequencing, and flow, but applies a heavy editorial hand to his sources and their setting to construct an unambiguous emotional and affective narrative. This is especially clear in the first movement. The chosen samples broadly narrate the events that took place on September 11, 2001: planes hijacked, towers hit, emergency services scrambled, towers fall. This sequence is now extremely familiar, but in his chosen samples and his translation of them into music, Reich adds several layers of musical intensification: the retelling of the events themselves runs in parallel with a movement from speech to noise, an increase in harmonic dissonance, and an increase in rhythmic complexity. Each of these heightens the psychological and physical tension of the music, taking it into increasingly uncomfortable sonic territory. Two more narratorial devices further heighten this tension: the words themselves become increasingly panicked and personalized (from “It came from Boston” to “I can’t breathe”), and there is a steady shift of viewpoint from the air traffic controllers remotely observing the aircrafts’ movements to individuals trapped in the rubble of the towers.

All of this narrative exposition sets up movements two and three, in which the emotional aftermath is explored. In turning themselves to matters of shock, grief, understanding, and commemoration, these movements occupy similar territory to many 9/11 memorial works, including some of those I have discussed in this series of posts. What is unusual about Reich’s piece is that its emotional territory is given such a clear frame through the first movement’s recounting of events. For his One Sweet Morning (2010), commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to mark the tenth anniversary of the attacks (and written only a year after Reich’s piece), John Corigliano resolved to avoid any possibility of specific recollection, which might conflict with the recollections of his listeners. “So many in the audience of this piece will have images of the frightful day itself … burned into their retinas … How could I instruct the audience to ignore their own memories?”[3] WTC 9/11 contains no such ambiguity: its signs and their meanings are clear; its control of affect is complete.

If we turn back to Erika Doss’s categorization of monuments vs memorials described in my opening post,[4] we can see that WTC 9/11 occupies an unclear position in relation to that schema. The spiritual and emotional spaces opened up in its second and third movements are contemplative and memorial-like; they also focus on forms of private response, through the testimonies given in movement two and the vigils of movement three. However, the first movement unavoidably colors our response to the later two, so strongly does it determine the work’s emotional palette. This side of the work is more monument than memorial. There are aspects of heroism—the voices of the firefighters, for example. Its realistic presentation is more traditional, too. Most significant to this interpretation of the work are its overt emotional management, through the devices described above, and its shaping of a single historical narrative.

On this analysis at least, Reich’s musical language in WTC 9/11 represents an inversion of Michael Kimmelman’s diagnosis that minimalism (within public art) is the aesthetic best equipped to convey emotional ambiguity and flexibility. By drawing on the vocabulary of 24-hour broadcast news and using gradual processes to support a particular narrative drive, WTC 9/11 creates a sort of minimalist realism rather than an abstract space for contemplation. These tendencies have long been latent in Reich’s music and aren’t necessarily features of all minimal or post-minimal musical commemorations, but the case of WTC 9/11 suggests that musical responses to 9/11 can differ greatly from those in the visual arts. The success that WTC 9/11 has enjoyed suggests also that there remains a desire—in music at least—to seek stabilities and certainties within a musical and memorial landscape that can often prioritize transience, impermanence, and fluidity.



1. http://www.kronosquartet.org/projects/detail/steve_reich_new_work.


2. Robert Fink, “Going with the Flow: Minimalism as Cultural Practice in the USA since 1945,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, ed. Keith Potter, Kyle Gann, and Pwyll ap Siôn (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013), pp. 201–18.


3. John Corigliano, program note for One Sweet Morning (2010), www.johncorigliano.com/index.php?p=item2&sub=cat&item=120.


4. See also Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2010).

Commemoration Music: Working Out What’s Going On

Speculating in 2002 on what a memorial at the former World Trade Center might look like, The New York Times’s architecture critic Michael Kimmelman took a guess. “A memorial, as part of a mixed-use project, will in some way turn out to look Minimalist, Minimalism, of all improbable art movements of the last 50 years, having become the unofficial language of memorial art. What used to be men on horses with thrusting swords has morphed more or less into plain walls and boxes.”[1] And his prediction has proved largely correct: Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s Reflecting Absence is part of a mixed-use project (a memorial park and museum), with a minimalist aesthetic.

There is no real equivalent in music to the mixed-use space of public art, but the aesthetic of minimalism has been evident in musical memorials to 9/11 as well. Although an accidental tribute, perhaps the most well-known example is William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. Created a few months before September 2001 (and based on tapes recorded much earlier than this, in the early 1980s), Basinski’s recording of slowed-down Muzak, looped onto tape and then played back as the magnetic coating of the tapes (and the sounds it stored) began to disintegrate, seemed to capture perfectly the emotions of that day. Having not known what to do with these recordings of sonic collapse and decay since making them in July 2001, Basinski brought them out on the afternoon of September 11, opened the windows of his Brooklyn apartment, and played them as a soundtrack while he and his neighbors watched the plumes of smoke over lower Manhattan and “tried to work out what the hell was going on.”[2] In the evening he filmed the still-smoldering buildings as the sun set, later setting the footage to the first in The Disintegration Loops series, dlp1.1. The film was eventually purchased by the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

The Disintegration Loops are classic minimalism in a late-’60s style, even if their aesthetic of sentimental ruin and melancholic introspection is more 21st century in flavor.

Looped and layered, with a processual form that, once begun, is left to run its course, The Disintegration Loops are classic minimalism in a late-’60s style, even if their aesthetic of sentimental ruin and melancholic introspection is more 21st century in flavor. Other compositional tributes have been less minimalist in their approach, however. In contrast to trends within the visual arts there have, for example, been a large number of neo-Romantic responses in which emotional registers are more specifically articulated: among them John Corigliano’s One Sweet Morning, Robert Moran’s Trinity Requiem, and Karen Walwyn’s Reflections on 9/11. Even those works by composers of an ostensibly minimalist background have been rather more mixed in their style and aesthetic. In last week’s post I referred to how John Adams used harmony and orchestration to color his piece’s recitation of names, giving each a particular identity and providing his work with an overall emotional arc. In this post and the next, I want to look in detail at two more memorial pieces, both of them by minimalist (or at least post-minimalist) composers and both of them string quartets: Michael Gordon’s The Sad Park (this post) and Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 (next week).

Both pieces were also commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. In 2006, having been asked to play a concert at the Herbst Theatre where the founding charter of the United Nations was signed, and to do so on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the quartet devised a program that brought together the world’s music in an attempt to better understand it after 9/11. That program was arranged into three sections. The first comprised traditional music from Iraq, Iran, and Central and Southern Asia. The third drew more on the contemporary classical sphere, moving its geographical focus to Europe and North America. The second, and the concert’s heart, featured Gordon’s The Sad Park (as well as two works not directly related to 9/11: John Oswald’s Spectre and Kronos and Paolo Prestini’s arrangement of ‘Armenia’ by Einstürzende Neubauten).

In 2001, Gordon’s (and Julia Wolfe’s) son Lev attended nursery school in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from Ground Zero. Shortly after the attacks, one of his teachers, Loyan Beausoleil, began to make recordings of the children’s recollections of that day, and Gordon uses four of these (for example, “Two evil planes broke in little pieces and fire came”) as the basis for the four sections of his work.[3] Like Basinski on the roof of his apartment, these kids were trying to figure out the meaning of 9/11—albeit from a very different position of understanding—and this becomes the theme of Gordon’s piece.

Varieties of digital sound processing are applied to the four speech samples: in Parts 1 and 3 the samples are progressively time-stretched until their individual sonic grains can be heard (the first section of Part 3 also loops different fragments of the original sample); in Parts 2 and 4 different granular synthesis techniques are applied that compress or fracture the sample. In Part 4 the sample is also looped and given a stuttering, shaking effect. In all four instances, the original speech is taken in or out of recognisability using audible processes that morph it into sounds evoking howls or multitudes of anonymous, unrooted points of sound. Rather than—in quasi-surrealistic fashion—uncovering hidden, unconscious meanings within the original samples, the effect is to dwell on the psychological changes that take place in the course of repetition and recollection, in the obsessive rewriting and overwriting of memory that takes place immediately after trauma.

The effect is to dwell on the psychological changes that take place in the course of repetition and recollection, in the obsessive rewriting and overwriting of memory that takes place immediately after trauma.

The relationship between the sound samples and the string quartet writing is oblique. Although the strings are not an orchestration or transcription of the vocal sounds, there is a certain amount of harmonic complementarity between the two, placing both layers of the work in the same musical space. There are also some loose rhythmic correspondences. In Part 1, for example, the string music gradually slows in parallel with the sample’s gradual stretch, although it does so by stepwise shifts in meter rather than a gradual ritardando, and at a different pace to the electronics. (In Part 3 something of the reverse happens, with the quartet music becoming busier as the sample slows.) Gordon’s music also provides a general emotive palette that is, for the most part, tense, agitated, and anxious. Even when the music and speech act in direct dialogue (as in certain moments in Parts 2 and 3 when the music drops out for the speech to be heard clearly, before stepping back in), the emotional intent is relatively unspecified.

Nevertheless, the work is undoubtedly programmatic in its choice of samples: the references in the children’s speech are clear, even if made through the imprecise and uniquely inflected recollections of kindergarten children (“I just heard that on the news that the buildings are crashing down”). Yet beyond basic statements about the event, Gordon’s chosen texts impose no narrative, and neither does his music, which is minimalistically abstract in its use of disengaged processes and static tableaux. Only in Part 4 (“And all the persons that were in the airplane died”) do the musical cues become clearer. The shuddering looped sample (evoking sobs?) is set against dissonant rising glissandi, which give way to a furious final three minutes of heavily accented sawing, an unfettered release of energy, a final thrash, a question shouted into space, unanswered.

Unlike most post-9/11 works, The Sad Park is barely a memorial at all: its tone is not that of reconciliation. It is not a requiem, nor is it a “memory space” like On the Transmigration of Souls, with all the implications of security and psychological processes of acceptance that term suggests. Rather, it attempts to process the attacks’ immediate aftermath through simultaneous layers of mediation: the reactions of children too young to understand but old enough to recognize fear in the adults around them; the electronic processing that transmutes those words into any number of sonic symbols; and the extrapolation of this into a harmonic and rhythmic palette. What’s left is a rare portrait of doubt, anger, anguish, and bafflement that stands apart from the calming tone of official memorial style.



1. Michael Kimmelman, “Out of Minimalism, Monuments to Memory,” New York Times, January 13, 2002.


2. John Doran, “Time Becomes a Loop: William Basinski Interviewed,” The Quietus, November 15, 2012, http://thequietus.com/articles/10680-william-basinski-disintegration-loops-interview.


3. More of Beausoleil’s transcriptions are documented at www.youngestwitnesses.com.

Commemoration Music: Commemorating 9/11

If one were looking for an official “monument” among musical responses to 9/11, one might expect to find it in John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic early in 2002, it was written to be performed at a concert scheduled for September 18 that year, very close to the first anniversary of the attacks. The timing was a coincidence: the concert had already been planned with an original program of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Yet on realizing the date, the orchestra wrote to Adams to request a commemorative piece to replace the Stravinsky. (The fact that September 2002 also marked the official beginning of Lorin Maazel’s tenure as the orchestra’s music director only added to the significance of the occasion.) The orchestra had already found a public role for itself in the wake of the attacks, offering consolation to the people of New York in a remarkable performance of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem on September 22, 2001, that replaced the scheduled gala opening of the 2001-02 season with a benefit concert for the families of firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers, and in the actions of individual members, who had given ad hoc performances to mourners at the Ground Zero site.

Yet for all this, Adams’s piece is far from a typical monument. It may have garnered all the prizes available to it from the American musical establishment—including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and (in its recording by Maazel, the New York Philharmonic, New York Choral Artists, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) the 2005 Grammy Awards for Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, and Best Classical Contemporary Composition—but it sets itself apart from the declamatory, official statement. Instead, On the Transmigration of Souls turns toward the listening subject, opening up a contemplative space that seems to serve the needs of a mourning, traumatized listener more than to offer narratives of heroism, national redemption, or even vengeance. The attacks themselves—although present in many other examples of 9/11 music—are conspicuous by their absence; the closest allusion is the text “I see water and buildings,” the last words of one of the attendants on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower.

The piece turns toward the listening subject, opening up a contemplative space that seems to serve the needs of a mourning, traumatized listener more than to offer narratives of heroism.

The work’s construction is well documented but worth reviewing. As well as the orchestra, Adams uses a chorus and a pre-recorded soundtrack. The text, which is divided between the singing chorus and spoken recordings on the soundtrack (made by Adams’s friends and family), is compiled from the handwritten missing persons signs that sprang up in huge quantities around Ground Zero in the days after the attacks (photos of which were taken by the New York Philharmonic’s archivist, Barbara Haws), and the short “Portraits in Grief” obituaries that the New York Times ran every day for more than a year after, each one a miniature of someone who had died in the towers. The soundtrack contains a further layer: recordings of New York, made by Adams in the early hours of the morning walking round the city. This is played back through speakers placed around the audience, mixed with the sounds of the orchestra, to create an immersive musical experience that surrounds its listeners rather than simply broadcasts to them from the stage.

The tone of Adams’s work—contemplative, non-dramatic, focused on absence rather than presence—prefigures Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s Reflecting Absence memorial park, opened on the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2011, two vast square pools with surrounding waterfalls, sunk 30 feet into the footprint of the original towers. It also echoes Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC (1982), one of the most successful of all contemporary memorials. Cut into the ground, giving it a minimal vertical profile, Lin’s memorial comprises two long wedges of black granite (each around 250-feet in length), which meet at their widest edge at an angle of about 120º. The black walls are highly polished and reflect the image of their viewers. They are inscribed with the names of the 58,253 US veterans killed in the war, arranged in chronological sequence.

The immersive style of Adams’s piece also relates to Lin’s memorial. Much like Lin’s mirror-like granite, Adams’s field-recorded, spatially distributed soundscape folds the listener into the work. Spatiality radically subjectivizes music, since (unlike the flatter, theoretically “even” projection from the stage) everybody’s experience will genuinely be different depending on their seating position. There is no “ideal” position from which to hear, and therefore no projected ideology of right or wrong, definitive or flawed. (It’s worth noting, however, that in practice this aspect of the piece initially troubled Adams: of the work’s premiere he writes that “some listeners found themselves uncomfortably close to a loudspeaker while others, being too far away from the nearest one, barely could make out what was coming from them.”[1])

Likewise, there is no “right” way to engage with Lin’s memorial. Too large to take in at once, it must be viewed in a combination of detailed attention and generalized scanning. To witness the whole thing is to take part in an active experience that requires at minimum a walk along its 500-foot length. Despite the inclusion of a 60-foot flagpole at the memorial’s entrance and Frederick Hart’s bronze sculpture Three Fighting Men (both mandatory additions not included in Lin’s original design), Lin’s memorial does not privilege one reading over another: part of its success lies in the fact that it can be read as both an indictment of war and a tribute to its fallen heroes.

The use of names is important in both contexts. As Erika Doss suggests, within a memorial context, naming first and foremost creates a sense of social unity: “to be named is to be acknowledged.”[2] Lists of names are a prominent feature of contemporary memorial art, and great attention is paid to matters of sequence and inclusion or exclusion. (Should attackers be listed among the dead, for example? They aren’t in On the Transmigration of Souls.) Inclusion of a name can personalize a work of memorial and deepen its affective power. But names also enable lists, which provide a neutral ordering logic that can counter the “shattering disorder” of atrocity and trauma and that claims those names as a unified body. Adams steps gingerly between these poles. His soundtracked text, softly looping and layering names and appellations (“My sister,” “My brother”) echoes minimalism’s history, from the counting patterns of Glass’s Einstein on the Beach to the looping speech of Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, Come Out, and My Name Is. It also recalls the recitation of names that takes place on occasions such as the anniversary of 9/11. But Adams’s music is not completely passive: it responds to those names, giving them individual identity through changes in harmony and orchestration, so that they are not subsumed into an undifferentiated mass.

It is a quietly complex work; its underlying concept is, I believe, one of Adams’s most sophisticated.

The idea of the mass remains part of the aesthetic of Adams’s work, however, just as it is part of Lin’s. He has described how his initial difficulty in beginning the piece was overcome after watching amateur footage of the New York attack and seeing the clouds of paper falling from the top of the towers: “an image of millions and millions of pieces of paper floating out of the windows of the burning skyscraper and creating a virtual blizzard of white paper slowly drifting down to earth. The thought of so many lives lost in an instant—thousands—and also the thought of all these documents and memos and letters, faxes, spreadsheets and God knows what, all human record of one kind or another—all of this suggested a kind of density of texture that I wanted to capture in the music, but in an almost freeze-frame slow motion.”[3] This is almost an image of the sublime, in which the sheer number of documents and the mass of data they contain overwhelms and, in turn, becomes a means to absorb and come to terms with the horror of that day. This sensation is reflected in Transmigration’s use of document masses—the missing persons signs, the Portraits of Grief obituaries, the list of names—and its orchestration, “refracted and rendered into particulate matter.”[4]

Adams’s combination of soft orchestration, gentle harmonic palette, slow tempo, and steady intonation of phrases—“We will miss you … We all love you”—can verge on the sentimental: the mass can become too personalized. And the composer himself has expressed misgivings about the success of the work’s surround-sound element, something that may have been better achieved through more radical means. Nevertheless, it is a quietly complex work; its underlying concept is, I believe, one of Adams’s most sophisticated. Its greatest success lies in its adaptation of minimalist tropes of immersion, massification, documentation, looping, and repetition to create a neutral space that can record without moralizing. My next posts will prise open the function and limits of minimalism to commemorative music by comparing two contrasting but closely related examples.



1. John Adams, Hallelujah Junction (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008), p. 266.


2. Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2010), p. 150.


3. New York Philharmonic, “Interview with John Adams,” available at https://www.earbox.com/on-the-transmigration-of-souls/ (originally posted to New York Philharmonic website, 2002).


4. Adams, Hallelujah Junction, p. 266.

Commemoration Music: Memorials and Monuments

The final years of the 20th century witnessed a huge growth in public memorial art: what the Villard Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Andreas Huyssen, called a “memory boom.”

Huyssen, in the 1999 essay “Monumental Seduction” in which he uses this term, is referring in particular to practices in Germany—where, he argues, “a memory-mania of truly monumental proportions” focused on Holocaust monuments and memorial sites has taken place—but his words carry a much wider resonance. This recent “obsession with monuments,” he claims, “is only part of a much larger memory boom that has gripped not just Germany and … is much wider in scope than the focus on the Holocaust would suggest.”[1]

While a “memory mania” of similar scale may not have overtaken music over the same period—and in any case the function, meaning, and reception of music, even when commissioned by “official” institutions such as major orchestras or opera houses, differs greatly from that of public art—it is clear that musicians have been similarly fascinated with memory and commemoration over the last twenty years or so. In this short series of posts, I will look at some ways in which this has been expressed by American composers in the last couple of decades, what those expressions might mean, and what they might, in turn, have to say about the way in which we conceive of, articulate, absorb, and understand some of the difficult emotions associated with traumatic loss.

What might these works say about how we articulate and understand the difficult emotions associated with traumatic loss?

To begin with, I’d like to suggest some theories on what led to this increased interest in memory and commemoration, not just in music but in the other arts too. General pre-millennium anxiety played a part certainly, but more specific factors can be identified as well.

Often, just the simple passage of time was enough to activate renewed considerations of past traumas from artists born later or not immediately affected by them. This is a clear element of much public art and architecture: one thinks of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.; Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin; and Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also in Berlin. Yet its effects were also felt in music. Two notable examples, both dealing with the legacy and memory of the Holocaust from the perspective of Jews who are either too young or were too far away to have experienced it firsthand are Chaya Czernowin’s Pnima … ins innere (inspired by David Grossman’s novel See Under: Love) and Steve Reich’s Different Trains. Related to this, the growth in social liberalism that took place at the end of the 20th century forced encounters with contested pasts that activated new forms of commemoration. Two American memorials that might stand as examples are the Indian Memorial designed by John R. Collins and Alison J. Towers with sculpture by Colleen Cutschall at Little Bighorn National Monument in Montana, and Carla Stetson’s Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial in Duluth, Minnesota, erected in memory of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, three black men lynched in the town in June 1920.

There were also technical and aesthetic reasons for the resurgence of memory into contemporary culture. The shift from analog to digital media through the 1990s and 2000s, for example, certainly encouraged reconsiderations of cultural stability and the permanence (or otherwise) of the work. This has been a particular issue within music and is foregrounded in works such as Philip Jeck’s Vinyl Requiem or William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. Gérard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, another major work of the late 1990s, can be considered under similar terms: the anxiety here is not about the decay of media, but the slow death and disappearance of civilizations, yet the musical language of melancholy and disintegration is remarkably similar. Object permanence is also a theme of one of the most iconic visual artworks of the period, Damien Hirst’s “pickled shark,” The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Finally, music’s postmodern manifestations—ranging from the music of Helmut Lachenmann to that of John Zorn to the more recent adoption of remix practices—undermined the inherited norms of Western art music: the unities of the instrument, a legible stylistic history, and the fixed identity of the work itself. All of these contributed to preoccupations with transience and permanence, fluidity, and stability that were manifest and expressed in music in a wide variety of ways and that provided new musical vocabularies and aesthetics with which to confront trauma and commemoration.

Music’s postmodern manifestations contributed to preoccupations with transience and permanence, fluidity, and stability that provided new musical vocabularies and aesthetics with which to confront trauma and commemoration.

The art critic Erika Doss tracks many of these changes as they relate to public art in her 2010 book Memorial Mania.[2] In it, she juxtaposes the “memory boom” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries with the “statue mania” of a hundred years earlier, when between the 1870s and past the end of World War I thousands of statues and monuments were erected across the US, an obsession that eventually led the American Magazine of Art to complain wearily, in 1919, of “the plague of war memorials now sweeping over the land.”[3] With the later “memorial mania,” coming as it did after radical developments such as pop art, land art, and minimalism, Doss observes a shift in emphasis in such works from monuments to memorials. A precursor of this distinction is Oskar Hansen’s unrealized proposal (1958) for a memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Eschewing the vertical, declamatory structure of traditional monuments, Hansen proposed a horizontal tarmac path, slicing diagonally and precisely across the former camp, heedless of any buildings or other obstacles in its path. Untended, the rest of the camp would slowly fall into ruin and out of memory, but Hansen’s indelible scar, black, harsh, and confrontational would remain, demanding explanation, for decades.

Doss’s distinction between monument and memorial rests on the difference between history and its subjects. The former privileges grand narratives (of great men, military victories, national mythologies), the latter private affect. The former articulates and regulates an official history bestowed from the outside, or from above; the latter opens a space for the viewer to enter and negotiate their own relationship with that history. It’s a distinction between cold, hard facts and the feelings of real people: memorial art, reflected Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times in 2002, “is therapeutic, redemptive, and educational.”

While 9/11 drew artistic responses that were both official and/or traditional, most works made in reference to the attacks or their victims took the form of emotionally open-ended, even ambiguous commemoration.

As I have said, many of these elements were in place in both music and art long before the end of the 20th century. Yet it was an event of the early 21st that drew many of them together into sharp and terrible focus: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. While 9/11 drew artistic responses that were both official and/or traditional, most works made in reference to the attacks or their victims took the form of emotionally open-ended, even ambiguous commemoration: Kimmelman above is writing in January 2002, on proposals received for the World Trade Center site in New York.

Music was no exception to this mode of response, and many compositions written in the wake of the attacks have taken the form of memorials rather than monuments, to adapt Doss’s terminology. Heroism is rarely a feature, although there are exceptions, among them Christopher Theofanidis’s 2011 opera Heart of a Soldier, based on the true story of Rick Rescorla, a Vietnam veteran who was second vice president of corporate security at Morgan Stanley, and whose World Trade Center evacuation plan is believed to have saved almost 2,700 lives that day. Neither are overt narratives of national identity or forms of emotional management. Although he uses the term “memorial” slightly differently to Doss, John Adams’s declaration about his own response, On the Transmigration of Souls, is representative: “I want to avoid words like ‘requiem’ or ‘memorial’ when describing this piece because they too easily suggest conventions that this piece doesn’t share. If pressed I’d probably call the piece a ‘memory space’.”

In my next posts I will look a little more closely at some of these musical responses, and it is to Adams’s piece that I will turn first.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press). He edited the most recent edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, and blogs about contemporary music at johnsonsrambler.wordpress.com.



1. Andreas Huyssen, “Monumental Seduction,” Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, ed. Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1999), pp. 191–206.


2. Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2010).


3. Charles Moore, “Memorials of the Great War,” The American Magazine of Art, 10(7), 1919, p. 233; quoted in Doss, ibid., p. 28.

New Music and Globalization 4: Archipelagos

Norway islets

Photo by Sigfrid Lundberg, via Flickr.

In this series of posts, I have considered various models of globalization and how they might have influenced, or be read in, the aesthetics and techniques of various contemporary music practices. Having considered hybridization, networks, and flow, I would like to finish in more speculative territory, inspired by the late post-colonial theorist Édouard Glissant.

Born in Martinique in 1928, Glissant was one of the most important and original of Caribbean thinkers. (He died in 2011.) Drawing on the legacy of slavery, the experience of colonialism, and the geography of the Caribbean, he developed a theory of globality that not only celebrated diversity, but also emphasized the inevitable and desirable opacity of human and community interactions. Globality, in Glissant’s terms, was the contemporary experience of the world as “both multiple and single,” distinct from globalization, which he described as “uniformity from below,” driven by “multinationals, standardization, [and] the unchecked ultra-liberalism of world markets.”[1] Such a world prefers unpredictable heterogeneity to homogenizing synthesis.

Glissant refers to the Caribbean archipelago, a melting pot of local cultures within a wider shared identity, as a model for understanding this new global reality. The concept of the archipelago has subsequently been taken up within the visual arts to describe the phenomenon of works or exhibitions that exceed the bounds of a singular presentation. Tim Griffin, art critic and executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen, gives the example of Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Utopia Station.[2] Although originating at the Venice Biennale, where it was first shown in 2003, Utopia Station also consisted of interlinked yet isolated presentations that took place around the world and over subsequent years. It is an example, too, of the nomadic practices I mentioned in my previous post—the idea of the archipelago is closely tied to the idea of mobility. Comprised of such numerous iterations, each of them only partial, it was unlikely that any individual (other than the artists themselves) would ever experience the complete Utopia Station, giving the whole a structure comprised of isolated fragments that are not designed to form a complete whole. This, the artists suggest, reflects Glissant’s concept of globality not as a unifying force, but as a marker of plurality and difference that resists standardization and homogenization.

As well as plurality, then, the archipelago concept refers to a world that is too large and too multiple to be comprehended in its entirety. The idea suits the biennial and exhibition structures of the visual arts well, yet a trend within music in the late 20th and early 21st centuries towards works that are similarly large and/or multi-part in scale and form suggests that some of the same concepts are spilling over.[3] Robert Ashley’s operatic cycles (the only comparison in terms of scale I know of to Stockhausen’s much more commonly discussed LICHT cycle) are an example. The seven parts of Perfect Lives—themselves part of a trilogy of opera cycles that also includes the trilogy Atalanta, and the tetralogy Now Eleanor’s Idea—are structured somewhat like an archipelago in that each is self-contained, but also relates to a larger whole. When the New York City-based performance collective Varispeed gave site-specific restagings of Perfect Lives in Brooklyn and Manhattan in 2011, they highlighted this dimension of the work. The cycle’s fundamental unity as a series of TV broadcasts was broken by relocating each episode to a different site around New York, with the associated ruptures in continuity, audience, and so on.[4]

Varispeed’s Perfect Lives adaptation connects its multiple sites along a linear—even narrative—trajectory. As with Utopia Station, the expectation is that few audience members will follow that path from beginning to end, but this does not affect the coherence of the work. Craig Shepard’s On Foot takes the same principle, but puts the journey closer to the heart of the conception. Between July 17 and August 17, 2005, Shepard hiked across Switzerland, walking for between two and nine hours a day for a total of 250 miles. Each day he wrote a new piece, which he performed outdoors at 6 p.m. wherever he was on a pocket trumpet he carried throughout the journey. Shepard’s walk was a wholly personal, private one: there is no expectation with a work like this of any continuous audience, even between two consecutive days’ pieces. In this way the world of the work is even more internally fragmented, even as its form as a journey from point A to point B is entirely coherent.[5]

Seth Kim Cohen’s Brevity is a Sol Le Witt (2007) takes the union of time and space one step further. It is described by the composer as “possibly the longest composition ever written for continuous performance by live players.”[6] During a concert, one member of the ensemble must play a single note of their devising. This note is then “transcribed” by another player according to a structured form. A postcard description is also sent to the composer. For the next concert, the previous player of the single note becomes the transcriber, and someone else plays a single note. This process continues until 99 notes have been performed and transcribed. For the 100th concert the transcriptions are to be distributed among the players and then played simultaneously. Built into this fantastically rich concept is a conflation of space and time (as the 99 geographically and temporally distinct notes are compressed into a single performance event) and an acknowledgement of the impossibility of truly knowing the experiences of others through the bureaucratic yet inherently imperfect transcription process. It stands therefore as an ideal, if somewhat abstracted, representation of Glissant’s concept.

Seth Kim Cohen’s Brevity is a Sol Le Witt (2007)

Seth Kim Cohen’s Brevity is a Sol Le Witt (2007): form for transcription.

Lisa Bielawa’s two Airfield Broadcasts work more like geographical archipelagos, with things happening in the same moment but dispersed spatially. The two pieces were written for disused airfields that are now public parks: Tempelhof in Berlin, the site of the Berlin airlift; and Crissy airfield in San Francisco. Each used hundreds of musicians, who moved around the spaces—both of them very large—according to Bielawa’s compositional plan, grouping and re-grouping as subsidiary ensembles throughout the course of the work. Both pieces used audibility, spatial distance, and ensemble coordination as parameters, elements that Bielawa has explored before in smaller site-specific works such as The Right Weather (2003–4), for members of the American Composers Orchestra distributed around Zankel Hall in New York, and Chance Encounter (2007), for 12 musicians in “a transient public space.”

In one section of Tempelhof Broadcast, for example, two groups of ensembles are arranged such that the ensembles within each group can hear one another, but far enough apart that they can’t hear the other group. From onsite experiments Bielawa calculated this distance to be about 250 meters, although this varied depending on the prevailing wind direction and whether the instrumental sounds were high or low. Both parameters extended into her compositional design. Each ensemble group had a lead ensemble, which gave audible cues for when the other ensembles should enter with their material (assigned from a list of possibilities according to the players’ proficiency). Although the two ensemble groups could not hear each other, anyone standing between them could listen to their antiphony, uncoordinated between the two groups. This is where a final ensemble stood, a group of trumpets, which gave a signal to both group leaders for the end of this section. Space, therefore, directly influenced temporal form.[7]

In between such sections, the hundreds of musicians followed Bielawa’s carefully pre-planned choreography, gradually spreading further apart and finally leaving Tempelhof park altogether and continuing to play in the surrounding streets. As they did so, the aural unity of the work gradually dissolved. The composer suggested at the time that one way to listen to the work would be to take to a bike and cycle around the park, like many of its day-to-day users, either following a single ensemble or sampling several in sequence.

Bielawa’s movement plan

Bielawa’s movement plan: Each dot is an ensemble, color coded by type. Screenshot from “Tempelhof Broadcast Animation.”

In all of these examples, our experience of contemporary globality is figured through the balance of the work’s internal heterogeneity and overall wholeness, the relationship between multiplicity and singularity, the diagonal intersection of time and space, and the state of continuous transition between spaces. Few such works can be experienced in their entirety, but that is partly the point; they act as a corrective to our uniquely modern assumption that—given advances in travel, communications, and media technology—we can know the whole world.

***
[1] Édouard Glissant, trans. J. Michael Dash, untitled fragment, part of Les périphériques vous parlent, available at http://www.pointdironie.com/in/31/english/edouard.swf; this quotation at http://www.pointdironie.com/in/31/french/anglais.html. Quoted in Tim Griffin, “Worlds Apart: Contemporary Art, Globalization, and the Rise of Biennials,” Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, ed. Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 11.

[2] Griffin, “Worlds Apart,” pp. 11–13.

[3] It may also be found in architecture, in Rem Koolhaas’s notion of “bigness”.

[4] Varispeed’s performances are detailed in Gelsey Bell, “The Story of the Huge Face of an Arrangement: Varispeed’s Adaptation of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives,” Tempo, no.268 (2014), pp. 6–19.

[5] Shepard revived the idea for On Foot: Brooklyn in 2012. Here, however, the walks took place weekly between February and May, and Shepard invited others to walk with him. The relationship between space, time, and reception is therefore different in this case.

[6] See: http://www.kim-cohen.com/projects/brevity_home.html.

[7] Bielawa explains this section in a short video produced as part of the supporting documentation for Tempelhof Broadcast: http://vimeo.com/57372658.

New Music and Globalization 3: Embodiment and Mobility

Pamela Z performing at Ars Electronica

Pamela Z performing at Ars Electronica 2008 in Linz, Austria
Photo by rubra (Courtesy of Ars Electronica)

In many ways, the composer-performer-electronic artist Pamela Z is a quintessentially 21st-century musician. Her work is created from digital and prosthetic technology, in particular the BodySynthTM MIDI controller;[1] it moves fluidly between genres and media; and it often addresses the subject of global mobility. Her titles Voci, Baggage Allowance (an example of the sort of net-music discussed in my last post), Parts of Speech and, in particular, Gaijin, all point towards topics of travel, language, and foreignness.

In Gaijin (2001), written after a six-month residency in Tokyo, Z explores the theme of foreignness. (“Gaijin” is Japanese slang for foreigner.) In “Nihongo de hanasoo” (“Let’s speak Japanese”), she reads headings from a Japanese language textbook against a sonic backdrop of Japanese phonemes and other (non-verbal) vocal loops. Other movements include an application for a United States green card and texts in multiple languages about identity and alienation. Across the piece, the key is the gaijin’s awareness of her fundamental outsidership, and her attempts to mitigate this. Where true assimilation is not possible, encounters become negotiations between relatively opaque entities.


Rather than attempting a synthesis, Z’s music highlights—and perhaps even celebrates—difference. Through her use of digital delays to loop and layer her own voice, and her virtuoso changes between vocal styles (a particular feature of Voci), she presents identity as a matter of polyphony, sometimes between irreconcilable parts. Considered on an intercultural level, this is a view in which places and people retain their unique definition, regardless of the difficulties this may entail.
In her study of site-specific art One Place After Another, the art historian Miwon Kwon characterizes the life of the contemporary artist:

Typically, an artist (no longer a studio-bound object maker; primarily working now on call) is invited by an art institution to produce a work specifically configured for the framework provided by the institution (in some cases the artist may solicit the institution with a proposal) … There follow repeated visits or extended stays at the site; research into the particularities of the institution and/or the city within which it is located (its history, constituency of the [art] audience, the installation space); consideration of the parameters of the exhibition itself (its thematic structure, social relevance, other artists in the show); and many meetings with curators, educators, and administrative support staff, who may all end up “collaborating” with the artist to produce the work. The project will likely be time-consuming and in the end will have engaged the “site” in a multitude of ways, and the documentation of the project will take on another life within the art world’s publicity circuit, which will in turn alert another institution to suggest another commission.[2]

Kwon is talking here about visual artists, but replace the words “site” and “institution” with “performer” or “performers” and she could equally be describing the activities of many contemporary composers, whose outputs are often determined by the series of musicians they engage with or are commissioned by to produce new work.

It seems that the increasing prominence of one-off grants, residencies, and so on within the economy of new music—as opposed to more stable sources of income from publication, performance, and recording rights (or, looking further back, patronage)—is encouraging a certain nomadic practice among composers, much like that of visual artists, especially among those unwilling or unable to support their work with full-time academic positions. Z’s own CV, like that of many of her peers, is full of references to exhibitions and awards given across the US and internationally. Such nomadism is in turn contributing to an increase in works that are composed for specific performers or ensembles (as well as for specific locations or occasions, although these are less common). It is then a logical step for the composer to work closely with those performers, in a more or less collaborative spirit. And at this point the performer starts to take on the characteristics of one of Kwon’s sites.
The rise of the performer as “site” is a product of several late-century forces: as well as the economy of new music that I have just mentioned, there is also the increasing autonomy of new music ensembles and their need to establish a unique brand (read: repertory) for themselves; the legitimacy that performer collaboration suggests—a seductive riposte to the stereotypical ivory-towered modernist and a more general turn across the arts towards an interest in site, collaboration, and process as practice.
The rise of these forces since the late 1970s or so has paralleled an increase in the number of composer–performers. The template was largely established in New York from Fluxus, through the early minimalists, and on to Downtown artists from Laurie Anderson to John Zorn. Yet despite its local origins, it became a model that has proved useful to composers in the more nomadic 21st century. If composer–performer collaborations have become a paradigm today, it should be no surprise that as their careers become more globalized and decentered, many composers and performers are combining the two roles: becoming their own “sites,” in fact.

This revived relationship of composer to performer may in part be a consequence (and often a welcome one) of the pressures and enabling vectors of modern-day globalization, but what does it mean when an artist like Z takes on the role of both composer and performer, when she becomes the “site” for her own work? What happens when her compositional work is guided by the particularities of her own biography, the grain of her voice, the movements of her body?
George Lewis has connected Z’s work to that of the West African griot, a sort of oral historian, musician, poet, and storyteller:

Z is part of a generation of women sound artists, including Laurie Anderson, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Sarah Peebles, who reassert the human need for exchanging stories in a logocentric culture that has privileged written over oral modes of discourse, and that, reflecting its valorization of land and property rights, has favored a transient, atemporal notion of space over historical time.[3]

Lewis describes a world comprised of difference and exchange, one that is made out of histories and the personal, rather than the grand narratives or formal structures determined by (largely masculine, capitalist, Western) societies. By making herself the site, Z, and artists like her, not only captures something of the transnational mobility of contemporary artists (as well as, in much less comfortable terms, that of the exile, immigrant, or refugee), but also embodies (and highlights) its temporary resolution in this place or the next. She becomes the site, the site itself becomes transient. Z’s work, suggests Lewis, articulates a critique of our age’s obsession with space and location over time and story, and thus of globalization and its ideal of mobility itself.

***

[1] An electronic performance device that uses electrodes attached to the skin to read muscle movement and effort, which can then be translated into MIDI commands. See http://www.synthzone.com/bsynth.html for further details.
[2] Miwon Kwon: One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 46.
[3] George E. Lewis: ‘The Virtual Discourses of Pamela Z’, Diaspora Memory Place, ed. Salah M. Hassan and Cheryl Finley (Munich: Prestel, 2008), pp. 266–81, at p. 268.

New Music and Globalization 2: Networked Music

Interface for John Roach and Willy Whip’s <em>Simultaneous Translator</em>

Interface for John Roach and Willy Whip’s Simultaneous Translator

Globalization today is almost synonymous with the internet. The net has not only enabled globalization’s modern-day form, but also, in its early days at least, served as its ideological model: thanks to the network, the world would become one of universal access to culture and resources, flat hierarchies, and the smooth and unimpeded flow of information.

That ideology spilled over into the first experiments in net-art and net-music in the early 1990s. As musicians began to experiment with the net itself, however, it soon become apparent that these hopes were far from realized or, in some cases, actually unattainable. In this post, I want to take a look at how networked music has addressed those early ideals and come to terms with their shortcomings. The question of information flow has received the most attention, so I will focus on it first.
It didn’t take long before the ideal of unimpeded global communication ran up against the realities of bandwidth, buffering speeds, and browser capabilities.[1] Even setting these limitations aside for future solution, we can’t get around basic physics. As Álvaro Barbosa has calculated,[2] even if data were to travel at its maximum speed, the speed of light, across a perfect network with unlimited bandwidth, the delay between two opposite points on the globe would be at least 65 msec—or more than three times longer than what the human ear will perceive as simultaneous. This has a direct impact on music: acceptable synchronization between geographically remote performers, such as an orchestra might easily achieve on stage, is not possible. Because such synchronicity is a founding value of most “good” musical performances, it was soon clear that net music would have to build itself on new foundations.

Bill Duckworth's Cathedral in its first incarnation

Bill Duckworth’s Cathedral in its first incarnation

Latency—the unavoidable delay of a networked system—is now accepted by net musicians, and either worked around or incorporated as a feature of their art. The Japanese-American artist Atau Tanaka is among those who have given most thought to this. In works like NetOsc (1999), written for the Sensorband trio of himself, Edwin van der Heide, and Zbigniew Karkowski, he considers latency as the “acoustic resonance” of the net, analogous to the resonance of a cathedral. (The analogy inadvertently points to one of the first, and most acclaimed, works of net-music, William Duckworth’s Cathedral, launched in 1997.) John Roach and Willy Whip’s Simultaneous Translator (2007) uses live data about the lag of router-to-router transactions across the net to shape certain musical parameters. Of course, by the 1990s musical innovations in open form, free improvisation, aleatory, parametrical composition, acousmatic music, and so on were well enough bedded in for there to be no real need for dramatic innovations in musical form or technique. The battles that made networked music aesthetically possible, at least, had all been fought.

When it comes to considering the web as a flat, non-hierarchical landscape, an important early work is Randall Packer’s Telemusic #1 (2000), made in collaboration with Steve Bradley, Gregory Kuhn, and John Young. As Packer describes it, one of the principal concerns of Telemusic #1 was “dissolving the spatial and temporal constraints of the performance environment and transforming the World Wide Web into an unseen ensemble of audience participants.” Performance of the work takes place in two spaces simultaneously: the physical performing venue and cyberspace. Online participant-listeners could navigate a 3D Flash environment populated by bits of text. Clicking on a text would trigger an audio sample of those words, which would be processed live and projected or streamed back into the physical and virtual spaces. (In the physical space, these texts were spoken aloud.) Participant-listeners would then hear a composite of the activities of themselves and everyone else participating in the work. The idea was developed further in Telemusic #2 (2001). Here, each participant-listener’s IP address was used to create a unique sonic identifier, making it possible to hear the virtual space as a plurality of individuals, rather than an undefined homogeneity.

Packer's Telemusic pieces

Packer’s Telemusic pieces: Screenshot of texts on the ‘telematic condition’

In net-works like these (and these are just two, relatively early, examples among many), art becomes about constructing an environment that the user enters, rather than delivering a precisely conceived message.[3] Packer expresses his own vision of this future utopia as follows: “Innovations in multi-user gaming, chat rooms, teleconferencing, MUDS and so on, point to new opportunities for radically new compositional forms for the online experience, a form of music that is no longer dependent on the location of the audience member, or even the location of the performance space.”[4] This is analogous to the shift that took place in site-specific art over the same period, from the 1970s and ’80s to the 2000s, although in music’s case it was driven as much by technological expediency as political critique.

Packer’s vision is seductive, and it may well come to pass in some form. He is not alone in thinking it. (Although it is interesting that more than a decade on it hasn’t, in spite of the accelerating pace of technological change.) Yet his vision is built upon the principle of technological sophistication, and therefore privilege. This brings me to the final ideal that I listed at the start of this post: universal access. This has proved the hardest issue to resolve, and appears to have received the least attention, at least among those artists that I am aware of. The fact is that engaging in net art—whether as a participant or creator—requires certain privileges that remain far from universal: a good quality computer and high-speed internet connection (or access to a relatively well-appointed gallery where such a work may be installed), sufficient leisure time, and appropriate physical abilities to work whatever interface there may be.

It is no coincidence that despite the ideology of access, net art’s key developments remain centered around North American and European research institutes like CCRMA at Stanford and SARC in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Until net composers address this question, net music must surely remain an incomplete metaphor for contemporary globalization.

*

[1] Helen Thorington’s article “Breaking out: The trip back,” published in Contemporary Music Review, 24(6) (2005), pp. 445–58, gives an excellent survey of the early history of networked music. An indication of the technical challenges connected to networked music can gained by reading the publications of the SoundWIRE research group at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. See: https://ccrma.stanford.edu/groups/soundwire/publications/.
[2] Á. Barbosa. “Displaced Soundscapes: A Survey of Network Systems for Music and Sonic Art Creation.” Leonardo Music Journal, 13 (2003), pp. 53–9.
[3] See Pierre Lévy. “The Art and Architecture of Cyberspace.” Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, ed. R. Packer and K. Jordan (New York: Norton, 2001).
[4] Randall Packer. “Composing with Media: Zero in Time and Space.” Contemporary Music Review, 24(6) (2005), pp. 509–25, at p. 524.

New Music and Globalization, Part 1: Silk Road and Global Collaborations

Silk Road Ensemble

Silk Road Ensemble
Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography

There is little doubt: the particular phase of globalization we are living in (forged from a combination of post-Cold War politics, digital networks, global finance, free market ideology, and cheap travel) has had a major impact on the forms and presentation of art, music, and literature. Within the visual arts, this is a major topic of critical interest, and is widely seen to be manifest in the explosion since 1989 of art biennials. The form of the biennial, as a festival-like exhibition of work from around the world, certainly reflects some aspects of the global experience: the mixing and curation of international artists, the touristic approach to culture, and the boundaryless flow of international capital.

There isn’t really an equivalent in—for want of a better word—art music, even though many of the same structural changes apply. (World music is better served through projects such as WOMEX and WOMAD.) For all their strengths, new music festivals like Tanglewood or the Bang on a Can Marathon can’t attract the same sort of money (and therefore glamour and press attention) as the Whitney, São Paolo, or Venice biennials. Art, through the biennial, can become particularly symbolic of the flow of global capital—often concretely too, as works are bought and sold. Music, as a time-based art form rooted in experiences rather than in objects, cannot attract the same level of capital investment. When it does reflect the flows and structures of globalization, it therefore tends to bring other dimensions out.

In terms of curatorial impact, perhaps a closer analogy to the art biennial might be found among new music ensembles. Single concerts don’t do the same thing and new music festivals, unfortunately, don’t have the same impact. Ongoing projects, however, in which repertories can be collected and developed, in which a sense of global mobility can be projected through international tours and residencies, and for which financial support and prestige can be built up over time, offer a closer comparison.
One example is the Silk Road Project, founded by Yo-Yo Ma. With Ma as its chief advocate, Silk Road is capable of attracting a level of capital, interest, and prestige that is possibly unique in new music. In large part this is due to Ma’s superstar status, but there is also a correlation with the group’s commitment to a globalized, multicultural vision that operates outside of the usual channels of new music, and there is a case to be made that the “global music” angle that Silk Road promotes opens doors in ways that more conventional, “abstract” compositional approaches cannot do.

Kojiro Umezaki

Kojiro Umezaki
Photo by C Taylor Crothers

The Silk Road Project was founded in 1998 to “promote innovation and learning through the arts.”[1] At the heart of the concept is the network of ancient trading routes from India and China to Europe, which acts as “a modern metaphor for sharing and learning across cultures, art forms and disciplines.”[2] Two years later the Silk Road Ensemble was formed, a variable collective of around 60 musicians, artists, and storytellers that performs music in accordance with the Silk Road ethos. The ensemble’s members come from more than 20 countries, many of them along the Silk Road itself. They bring with them the instruments and traditions of their own countries—from the gaita bagpipes of Galicia as played by Cristina Pato to Kojiro Umezaki’s Japanese shakuhachi—taking in the instruments and musical styles of southeast Europe, Central Asia, North Africa, India, and China along the way.

The composers involved with the group are similarly diverse in origin. The ensemble has commissioned more than 80 original works and arrangements, most of them from composers originating from outside the conventional Western repertory. They include figures like the Azerbaijani Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, the Argentinean-born Osvaldo Golijov, and the American Vijay Iyer, all of whom have substantial careers beyond their Silk Road work. However, others are little known outside of this context, composers such as the Lebanese Rabih Abou-Khalil, the Tajik-Uzbek Alisher Latif-Zade, or the Mongolian Byambasuren Sharav.
The ethos of the Silk Road Project (with the ensemble as its most tangible manifestation) is built upon the principles of cultural exchange, learning, and understanding. As Ma explains it, modern-day cultural fragmentation can be resolved through the sharing and passing on of knowledge. In musical terms this might be accomplished by something as simple as adjusting your ear to the nuances of a new kind of scale, or a new rhythm. Music, as a flexible, intangible medium, is well suited to this sort of transformative synthesis, but the sympathetic adjustment Ma talks about acts as a metaphor for a more substantial kind of global harmony. Ma’s model is one of transparency, in which progress is achieved through the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, within a collaborative creative process.

When it appears on stage, the Silk Road Ensemble is a model of harmonious unity: despite the national costumes and range of instruments on display, the emphasis is on togetherness and coordination, audible through the music itself, and visible in the relaxed body language and constantly exchanged glances and smiles of the players.


But while Silk Road’s music is enjoyable, its goals laudable, and the musicians’ skills impressive, hybridization of this sort is not a perfect model for understanding or addressing the issues of modern-day globalization through music. At the heart of its model is the notion of collaboration, but as the scholar Timothy D. Taylor has observed, “collaboration” has become an ideology in world music, since at least Paul Simon’s controversial Graceland: “The term frequently appears as a sanitizing sign when western musicians work with nonwestern ones, making their music safe for mass consumption.”[3] Against the background of hybridizing collaboration, differences get softened, he argues, “making Others and their cultural forms desirable in new ways.”[4] As musicians are expected to alter their original sound in order to conform to international expectations, others are expected to produce hybrid musics. The result, reflected in the respective sales of field recordings versus hybridized world music, is that music that is hybridized—like Silk Road’s—is received as more authentic. This is what a global music is supposed to sound like, and so engaging with that process comes to be seen as a more authentic gesture than sticking to your (isolated) roots. As Taylor puts it again, “World musicians may not be expected to be authentic anymore in the sense of being untouched by the sounds of the West; now it is their very hybridity that allows them to be constructed as authentic.”[5]

For all its merits, then, Silk Road’s ideal of global interconnectedness is not without its problems. (I should mention that the biennial model is also much criticized.) This post is the first of four looking at the impact of globalization on the aesthetics of new music. In my remaining three I will look at some alternative approaches, and how they have made their way into the work of other American musicians.

*

[1] Silk Road Project website: http://www.silkroadproject.org/.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Timothy D. Taylor: Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 129
[4] Ibid., p. 126.
[5] Ibid., 144.

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Tim Rutherford-Johnson is writing a book on music since 1989 for University of California Press. He lives in London and blogs at johnsonsrambler.wordpress.com.

The Influence Engine: Steve Reich and Pop Music

When Steve Reich’s new work for ensemble, Radio Rewrite, was given its world premiere by the London Sinfonietta earlier this month (it was subsequently premiered in the U.S. by Alarm Will Sound on March 16), I was asked to provide a program essay on the influence Reich has had on popular music, and vice versa. Radio Rewrite takes material from two songs by the British rock band Radiohead—“Everything in its right place” from their 2000 album Kid A, and “Jigsaw falling into place” from 2007’s In Rainbows. So the theme of popular/classical cross-influence pretty much jumps out at you.

Indeed, it’s a subject I’ve investigated before, in 2011 for another London event, “Reverberations: The Influence of Steve Reich,” a two-day celebration of Reich’s influence on classical and especially popular musicians. But on both occasions it was a subject about which I felt uncomfortable writing. Reich’s development—from his student works, through the early tape and phasing pieces, to masterworks like Music for 18 Musicians and beyond—does indeed run in parallel with the development of popular music from the 1960s to the 2010s. Many claims are made for his influence on pop, rock, house, techno, and even rap. And there are points of convergence, certainly. But such claims are often made by stakeholders in a narrative of Reich (and/or minimalism) as the savior of Western classical music from its serial/avant-garde(/European) doldrums.

I’ve come to think of this reception mechanism as a kind of “influence engine,” almost as self-generative as Reich’s own early music. Reich’s promoters want to hook him into the popular zeitgeist; non-classical musicians are happy to play along. Popular music appears to gain credibility; new music appears to gain relevance. As long as the “influence” of Reich’s music can be traced back up the chain, the narrative will keep feeding itself.

But there are two risks to leaving the engine running unchecked. First, that we perpetuate a trickle-down theory of musical influence, in which the best bits of popular music are presented as originating only in high (white, Western) art. And second, that classical music can only be validated by the impact it has had on popular culture. We need to ask: How much genuine contact is involved here, and how much wishful revisionism?

Jonny Greenwood playing Electric Counterpoint in Krakow

Jonny Greenwood playing Electric Counterpoint in Krakow
Photo by Tomasz Wiech for Krakow Festival Office. Used with permission.

The Reich Meme
Minimalism’s breakthrough in the mid-1970s coincided with the height of disco. As Robert Fink notes in Repeating Ourselves[1], the premiere of Music for 18 Musicians in March 1976 came just a month after the release of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s 17-minute groundbreaker “Love to Love you Baby.” Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach received its premiere that summer in Avignon.

The release in 1978 of Music for 18 Musicians on the hitherto jazz-only label ECM catapulted Reich and minimalism from the galleries and lofts of New York City into the wider consciousness. Magazines like Billboard and Rolling Stone reviewed the disc—which sold more than 10,000 copies—and the overlap between Reich and popular culture became a serious topic. A live performance of the piece that year sold out the Bottom Line club in New York; just months later, a Rolling Stone feature on Glass attempted to argue that minimalism was a precursor of the disco style. In 1984 an article in Harper’s magazine even referred to Reich’s music as a form of “higher disco.”

It is certainly possible to read (as Fink has done) 18 Musicians in conjunction with disco. They share common features: a sprawling scale, a formal language of extended and repeating climaxes and releases, techniques of layering and cross-fading, and a relentless adherence to the beat. And there were occasional individuals—Arthur Russell, for example—who played with their feet in both camps. Yet how much Reich and disco really knew of each other is beside the point. What is clear is that both were attuned to similar musical and technological currents: Afro-diasporic beats; the technology of the turntable, tape loop and cross-fader; and the possibilities of accumulative and layered musical forms.

There were more easily documented, if less high-profile, points of contact with popular music earlier in the decade. Perhaps the most important of these was Brian Eno’s discovery of It’s Gonna Rain in the early 1970s. Eno began experimenting with out-of-phase tape loops with the King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, resulting in the albums No Pussyfooting and Evening Star, and what came to be known as “Frippertronics.” In 1973 he saw Steve Reich and Musicians at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the influence on Eno’s post-Roxy Music work can be documented through solo albums like Another Green World, Discreet Music, and the Ambient series, as well as his work as a producer. In fact, 1973 proved to be a key year, since it also saw the release of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, both enormously influential carriers of minimalist DNA.
In 1976 David Bowie attended the European premiere in Berlin of Music for 18 Musicians. He was working with Eno on his Low album at the time, and the pulsing marimbas and vibraphones of that album’s “Weeping Wall” are an unmistakable homage. Bowie was far from the only rock musician to have felt minimalism’s influence. The Who had already quoted Riley’s arpeggiated keyboard style on “Baba O’Riley”, a track written in 1969 and released in 1971, and Reich’s technique of building up textures through closely spaced canons can be heard throughout prog rock. At its electronic fringes, references to Reich are most pronounced: especially brazen is Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a Real Train,” which was used as the theme to the film Risky Business.

Links between Reich and popular music continued through the 1980s, but the most recent and enduring phase of cross-influence was launched a decade later. The Orb’s sampling of Electric Counterpoint for their 1990 single “Little Fluffy Clouds” simply made explicit the sympathy between late ’80s/early ’90s rave culture and Reich’s glittering, pulse-driven soundscapes. Rave’s biggest act, Orbital (who themselves drew on Reichian timbres in the keyboard riff of “Lush 3” and the layered pianos of “Kein Trink Wasser”), paid a technical homage in their arch use of phasing speech loops for the intro and outro to their second (“Brown”) album of 1993.

Yet musical tastes and ambitions had changed since the ’70s. Electronica and minimalism were bridged in the ’90s by the general desire for individual self-sublimation that permeated popular music of the time, from rave to Nirvana. The attraction of Reich’s music now was its glowing mass, the total dissolving of surface into texture, the effacement of the individual. This idea had already been thematized in the 1970s and early ’80s by Kraftwerk, on albums such as Autobahn, The Man-Machine and Computer World. But in the late ’80s and into the ’90s it was everywhere, on albums as diverse as U2’s The Joshua Tree (produced by Eno), My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II.

Towards the end of the century, as techno matured and its producers became more self-reflective, a new genre—minimal techno, or microhouse—was born. The Reich Remixed album of 1999 may have been devised by Nonesuch records to attract a crossover audience to its Reich discography, but it still struck a chord. Producers had begun to create a new form of techno that was more attuned to minute processes of variation and evolution. Several of them, including Carsten Nicolai, Richie Hawtin, and Nobukazu Takemura, have acknowledged the influence in particular of Reich’s early music. Takemura (a contributor to Reich Remixed) samples Four Organs on his Assembler/Assembler 2 album. Hawtin’s Concept series of 12 inches focused with Reichian obsession on single rhythmic ideas; these were later “remixed” by Thomas Brinkmann into new rhythmic configurations by using a custom twin-arm turntable to play the record against itself. Brinkmann himself has taken Reich’s phasing technique to an extreme on his X100 record, which consists of just a click, a tone, and a bass kick recorded on two slightly out of phase grooves for the duration of one LP side. The Reich meme had morphed once more, into the validation for a hyper-modern aesthetic of automatism.

Origins

Before he met Terry Riley in 1964 and began working with tapes and tape loops, Reich claimed three major influences on his music: Bach, Stravinsky, and jazz. The last of these was most influential, particularly the playing of John Coltrane, whom Reich saw play many times at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop club in the early 1960s.

Reich was fortunately placed to be able to see, as an open-minded composition student, the unfolding of one of the great individual creative periods in 20th-century music. Watching Coltrane, along with players such as Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison, forge a jazz revolution must have been a little like sitting in on the Beatles’ sessions between Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper, or flat-sharing with Stockhausen in the mid-1950s.

Of course, Reich has acknowledged the influence of Coltrane many times. In particular, he has mentioned the importance of his 1961 Africa/Brass album, and listening back it’s not hard to hear why.
Africa/Brass
Africa/Brass was Coltrane’s first recording (of seven) for the newly formed Impulse! Records. Around this time, Coltrane’s palette of influences opened up considerably. North Indian music, via Ravi Shankar, had already led to Coltrane replacing chord changes with one- or two-chord drones (most famously on the album My Favorite Things, the last he recorded before beginning the Africa/Brass sessions). He had also begun to listen to West African, particularly Ghanaian, music. Hints of structural concepts borrowed from West African drumming also start to appear on his version of the “My Favorite Things” standard, in which sections are repeated until the leader plays a musical cue signaling everyone to move on to the next section.

While preparing for Africa/Brass, Coltrane listened to many African records for rhythmic inspiration. This was partly an urge to get away from the strictures of 4/4 time, but it also contributed to Coltrane’s broader project to move jazz improvisation away from pre-determined changes. By dropping the changes, the musical focus shifted from harmony and towards rhythm and melody. Elvin Jones capitalized on this opportunity to fashion a unique playing style that was indebted to West African drumming. Coltrane used his new freedom to focus on melodic creativity. “I had to make the melody as I went along. But at least I’m trying to think of a melody, I’m not referring to the chords to get the melody.” For the avant-gardist Ornette Coleman, another important influence on Coltrane at this time, this change in emphasis took on political connotations: “not referring to the chords” was an issue of authorship and ownership.

The “African-ness” of this shift runs deep. As documented by Steven Feld[2], Coltrane has become an inspiration to Ghanaian jazz musicians like Nii Noi Nortey, Nii Otoo Annan, and Ghanaba (Guy Warren), who see in him a kindred, diasporic spirit. Nortey says, in Feld’s book:

And the drummers, all them drummers [Jones, Rashied Ali and others], were playing something nearer to what I heard in Africa, in terms of complexities and tonalities and all kinds of things. I heard more of the African things in these drummers. I heard the drums overlapping and hooking up like our drummers do, and over that I can hear Coltrane as a drummer playing the saxophone, working his rhythms too. … He stopped playing all those chord changes and reduced them to one or two, which is also very African, because we tend to move at that level of keeping the music simple.

In many respects—its patterns of repetition, flow, and rupture, and its emphasis on the beat—Africa/Brass is typical of the music of the African (particularly West African) diaspora. To these Coltrane adds modality, an emphasis on massed sound, harmonic stasis, and a way of building form by adding or subtracting layers. We might recognize in these many of the planks of Reich’s minimalist style. Even details such as unison signals to mark the changes between sections are present and have, as we have already seen, their origins in Ghanaian drumming.

In fact, Reich wasn’t just listening to Coltrane at this time. Like the saxophonist, he was also listening to records of African music—conceivably the same ones, even. The timeline is unclear from Reich’s various biographers, but he certainly knew African music in the early ’60s while at Mills, and may have even discovered it in the mid-1950s while studying at Cornell. In 1962, he was taken to the Ojai Festival by his Mills teacher, Luciano Berio, who was the festival’s composer-in-residence. Here he heard Gunther Schuller talk on the subject of African music.

Schuller made reference to A. M. Jones’s seminal study of Ghanaian drumming, Studies in African Music, which Reich bought immediately. In its second volume, Jones’s book sets out some of the first complete transcriptions of Ewe drumming pieces, and Reich gladly immersed himself. Now he was able to see how the music that he (and presumably Coltrane) had been listening to was constructed. West African music, via Coltrane’s jazz and Jones’s transcriptions, was now imprinted on his imagination. When he traveled to Ghana for real, nearly a decade later, he writes of his visit not as a discovery, but as “basically confirmation: that writing for acoustic instruments playing repeating patterns of a percussive nature was a viable means of making music, and had an ancient history.”[3]

The Influence Engine
Music for 18 Musicians
A tangled web soon emerges when one begins to lay out the explicit or implicit relationship between Reich and popular music.[4] A feature of that web is its increasing circularity: the chains of influence rarely extend in single, straight lines, but tend to loop through a small number of nodes. At the start, those nodes are perhaps John Coltrane and Ghanaian music. A later one might be Giorgio Moroder; Brian Eno can certainly be added, as well as Kraftwerk and Mike Oldfield. The Orb, to name just one act, couldn’t have happened without these latter three. As the decades pass, new nodes are added, but the loops continue to pass up the chain. Since the late 1980s and the self-awareness of music history brought about by CDs and digital distribution, curious artists are more easily able to follow these chains of influence back as far as they like.

And those artists keep coming back to Reich. So in recent years we’ve seen Reich perform with Kraftwerk (Manchester Velodrome, 2009); billed alongside Orbital, Richie Hawtin, and Riccardo Villalobos (the aborted Bloc festival, London, 2012); programmed beside Lee Ranaldo, Tyondai Braxton, and Owen Pallett (Reverberations, London, 2011); and performed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (Kraków, 2011). And Reich himself flirted with the idea of writing 2×5 for Radiohead, before turning his attention fully to their music with Radio Rewrite.

I find the resilience of this phenomenon interesting. Why the urge to keep returning up the chain? And why is Reich, not Coltrane before him, or any of those rock and dance musicians in the 1970s from just after he established his style, that chain’s eternal endpoint? The answers to those questions say something not only about Reich’s music, but about our response to it and how we rationalize minimalism’s place within music history.

For those stakeholders I mentioned at the start of this article—critics, marketers, record companies, performance venues, ensembles, and the composer himself—the benefits are clear: the story of Reich’s influence on popular music helps him assert a position against Schoenberg, serialism, and all that. For the composer, it is a way to position himself within a canon of classical forebears who kept open the window between popular and classical music: Josquin, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ives, Weill, and Bartók are among those names he has mentioned in this context. (NB: His own teacher, Berio, composer of Folk Songs, Coro, and Sequenza XIII, and arranger of Beatles songs, does not make this list.) For popular musicians there are prestige and validation, should they want them. There is a cachet of a sort in being able to claim an aesthetic lineage from an esteemed classical composer.

The influence engine encourages us to view Reich’s music as the fountainhead of so many subsequent styles. Yet I wonder if it might not be more fruitful to think of its persistence as a result of its basis in an Afro-diasporic template—that is structured around repetitions, breaks, and accumulation, and prioritizes rhythm and melody—derived from Coltrane and other musicians, and that itself underpins much black music from blues to rap. In Music for 18 Musicians and other works, Reich brilliantly crystallized that template into something that, as history has shown, could inspire in many different directions at once. He took the biggest step in the chain I have described. Perhaps it will require a similar act of creative reception to refresh our understanding of Reich’s place in recent music history.

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1. Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (University of California Press, 2005)

2. Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra (Duke University Press, 2009)

3. ‘Hebrew Cantillation as an Influence on Composition’ (1982), in Writings on Music, 1965–2000, ed. Paul Hillier (Oxford University Press, 2002), p.106

4. Ross Cole unpicks a number of threads from Reich’s San Francisco years in “‘Fun, Yes, but Music?’ Steve Reich and the San Francisco Bay Area’s Cultural Nexus, 1962–65,” Journal of the Society for American Music, vi (2012), 315–48

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Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes on contemporary music for a number of publications, including his blog, The Rambler. His new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Music was published in September.