Category: Analysis

Style Points

Assorted spices on wooden background
Sometimes, you go to a concert—or you go to a movie, or you read a book—and it feels a little like the whole thing has been engineered to appeal to your own proclivities and penchants. Back on August 7, my wife and I had a date night, and we went up to Rockport to hear The Bad Plus—pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King—joined by saxophonist Joshua Redman. (The official billing was “The Bad Plus Joshua Redman,” a nice, opportunistic asyndeton with kind of a Who’s Next feel.) It ended up being a 90-minute plunge into one of my particular obsessions: musical style. Redman’s usual style is a lot more straight-ahead post-bop than The Bad Plus, which tends toward something akin to a romantically lush lyricism filtered through a box full of Rush and King Crimson records. The styles mesh, though: the trio lending a deep, power-chord foundation to Redman’s twistier flights, Redman sailing through the trio’s modular pulses with squalls of virtuosity. And all four share a tendency to continually cross-examine their own styles, as well as everybody else’s. This was the first concert of a brief tour, so, especially on new material, the stylistic negotiations were still ongoing—never contentious, but noticeable. The pleasure of the experience—the excitement of the experience—was that of investigation and query more than that of gloss and consensus. Which is, of course, a style, and a stylistic decision, in itself.

I think about style a lot. I always have. And I tend to think about it in a somewhat interrogatory fashion—poking at it, messing with it, taking it apart and putting it back together. So I tend to like music, and musical performances, that do the same thing. And I’ve come to realize that it’s a bit of an odd thing to like.


Throughout the concert, I kept flashing back to another piece of music, very different music: Lukas Foss’s Solo, a piano work from 1981. When I was studying with Foss, he liked to bring out this piece for group seminars; I heard him analyze his way through it at least twice. It’s great for that sort of thing, at least on the surface: all the gears are in plain sight, as it were. And yet it is also elusive. Most music, fast or slow, loud or quiet, presents itself, makes itself the focus of at least some kind of attention while it’s being performed. But Solo, every time I’ve heard it, seems to hang back from that sort of engagement, just sort of strolling around the periphery of my musical cognition. And a lot of that has to do with how the piece alternately engages and ignores style.
Solo opens with a 12-tone row, played twice so you’ll get it:

All score samples taken from Solo: for Piano by Lukas Foss. Copyright © 1982 by Pembroke Music Co. A subsidiary of Carl Fischer, LLC. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

And, almost immediately, the serial structure begins to unravel with a bit of misdirection:
Those bell-like tones in the left hand are a feint: for three notes, they reiterate the row, but then go on their own way. The right hand is doing the opposite—Foss starts reordering the row, bit by bit, beginning with the first two pitches. The first section of Solo ends up filled with rearranged and almost-but-not-quite row forms, little tweaks of pitch order so that seemingly same initial conditions produce different results. Eventually, the stream of notes starts yielding verticals, almost always certain intervals: fourths and fifths, seconds and sevenths:
Those intervals sound an awful lot like the sorts of intervals that pop up in a lot of phase-based minimalism, the friction of diatonic motives as they swirl and collide. They’re supposed to. Just as, at the beginning, Foss references serial modernism without really writing any serial modernism, now he’s referencing Reich-style processes without any such process—and in a chromatic context.

After building up to a keyboard-spanning climax, Foss drops in three theatrical coups. The first one is the most hidden, and maybe the most outrageous: the music turns around and backs up through ten pages’ worth of pitch material, rearranged among the hands and the piano’s range, but otherwise scrupulously retrograde. You want a row operation? Here’s a row operation. The bulk of the structure is a massive symmetry, but the musical surface betrays none of it—or all of it, as it blithely churns along, the notes ever-circling but the rhetoric placidly constant.

The second comes after that long mirror exhausts itself and the original row-theme returns in polyrhythmic guise. Suddenly, the music’s motor keeps seizing on thick, jazzy chords, finally giving in to them with a quirky little groove:
This bit of pop music—that’s how Foss thought of it, and referred to it—is the arrival point for all that has come before, and yet it feels almost defiantly casual, impulsive.
The last coup comes at the very end—or, as Foss would have it, after the very end:
The final chord hits, but in its echo, we get that opening row one more time. Let Foss explain:

The score has the word ‘Fine’ written a bar before the end: the last bar is like an appendage or an error—the piano playing on without its master or the phonograph needle returning to the opening automatically, as the engine stops.

Foss, I remember, was exceptionally pleased with this ending. He was always proud of particularly clever or provocative things he had come up with, but this one went a little further, I think. Because Solo, in a way unlike any other piece I know, is a piece about style—modernism, minimalism, classical, popular—but written from an eclectic’s standpoint, outside style. The music is semiotically backwards: the stylistic signals show up too late, after the music is already going. It’s like those row forms in the piece’s opening section, constantly rearranging themselves in an attempt to keep up with the tonal allusions Foss wants to make, the theory trying to chase the music down. To listen to Solo is to experience that, but in the arena of category. Our sense of style is always playing catch-up to our sense of sound. Which is why that extra bar is, maybe, the key to the piece. It’s all twelve chromatic pitches, ready to spin out again. It could go off in some completely different direction. It probably will. The whole piece, Foss seems to say, the whole of music, is always there, outside of ourselves. We catch glimpses of it, and we call it style.

Redman and The Bad Plus were doing something of that, too, enough to trip my amygdalae into conjuring up memories of Foss and his tricks. The group ended up going in a few Foss-like directions, even—that “pop” progression at the culmination of Solo is not too far from the sort of power-chord-but-then-again-no changes that Bad Plus originals often feature. But mostly it was a common attitude, the kind of generously restless curiosity that easily slips back and forth across the line between celebrating a style and subverting it.

That sounds great, doesn’t it? In fact, it can be deeply uncomfortable.


Societally speaking, this summer has felt awfully polarized. It seems like all the old dichotomies—black/white, rich/poor, right/left, east/west—have reared their heads in earnest. It seems like it, anyway. Maybe it’s just, confronted with an acceleration of the continual parade of the human capacity to behave abominably toward each other, we fall back into perceiving those dichotomies, because they give us something to hang on to. They let us make sense out of what, if we’re being really honest, we ought not to be considering as sensible. Even the ones that are closer to the truth than not can be a little too comfortable, providing a seemingly ready explanation that can obviate necessary action. Like so many other games involving language and categories, such categorization gives the illusion of absolving us, just enough.

I would hardly put musical stylistic categories into that, um, category. They can be somewhat useful. They can be undeniably fun. They can also cause undeniable trouble, but it’s relatively minor trouble, in the grand scheme of things. And it would be ridiculous to make any utopian claims to their existence or elimination.

But I will propose that there is something particular about style, and stylistic boundaries, that’s going on in contemporary culture. I don’t think it’s robust enough to call it a rule. A tendency, maybe. But it’s this: as style has become more pluralistic, it’s become less subtle. Looking around, listening around, culture is as stylistically non-hegemonic as I’ve ever experienced, anyway. But parallel to that is a kind of greater semiotic compartmentalization: the vast majority of cultural artifacts I encounter keenly announce their stylistic allegiance early and often.

This has been going on for a while. I was recently re-reading Retromania, Simon Reynolds’s study of the increasing weight of pop-music history, and he touches on this sort of thing in his discussion of the rise in the 1980s of what he calls “record-collection rock.” “Most really interesting bands have a map of their taste buried within their music for obsessive fans to dig out,” Reynolds writes. “But what was different was that the taste map was getting ever more explicit and exposed, to the point where the aesthetic coordinates were right there on the surface of the sound.” I would say that’s become a prominent feature of all cultural media. And non-cultural media, too. Remember the early days of the World Wide Web—when the evangelists were so sure that having more viewpoints and more voices would reduce extremism and promote consensus? Yeah, that didn’t happen. Instead, philosophies attained traction in as much as they could be efficiently signaled. Too long; didn’t read. Having that many voices meant that we could find the ones who agreed with us and hunker down.

Maybe that’s why I think that music that goes beyond mere stylistic pluralism, music that actually unscrews the back of the stylistic box and starts ripping out the wires, is getting more rare—and is a harder sell. The Bad Plus are pretty much their own brand now, but they got a fair amount of grief in their earlier days, just because no one could put a clear label on just what it was they were doing. Jazz? Rock? Ironic? Sincere? That it could be all of that and more took some time to sink in. A lot of the sort of new music we talk about in this space is in the same boat. Foss’s music, for instance: stylistically speaking, what do you call something like Solo, beyond a catch-all like “eclectic”? And (not incidentally) when was the last time you heard it?
It’s fascinating to hear the recording of Foss himself playing Solo. Looking at the music on the page, one might assume that it called for a steady, mechanically even performance, in line with the minimalist-ish textures and repetition that make up so much of the piece. (There’s a six-page stretch of the score that’s completely devoid of phrasing, articulation, dynamics—any expressive markings at all.) Foss, though—it’s ruminative dynamics and rubato all the way, the music and the tempo undulating almost throughout. The effect is somewhere between an early-Baroque prelude, a high-Romantic character piece, and a wayward Errol Garner introduction.

Foss probably wasn’t trying to make those connections; then again, such connections were second nature to him. You could always count on him to hone in on the avant-garde surprise in the oldest repertoire and the thread of tradition in the newest—finding, in the nuts-and-bolts pleasures of craft, the common ground between disparate musics. That seems like an attractive goal, but it also runs right into every psychological defense we have. Because it’s a reminder that a lot of other things we think of as inevitable, as set in stone, as just the way things are, really aren’t—which means the onus is on us. The music doesn’t make the style. We do. And that goes for the rest of the world as well.

Trauma, Meaning, and The Quietest of Whispers

Evan Ware in front of a train

Evan Ware. Photo by Megan Hill.

“Trauma is being pushed passed the boundary of where you are able to go,” composer Evan Ware told me when we discussed his latest piece, The Quietest of Whispers. The work is a 40 minute-long symphony for small orchestra, sculpted from Ware’s experience as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The Quietest of Whispers addresses this part of his life obliquely: he wrote the work not to confront his abuse, but rather to share his story of survival. “As much as [the piece] is about my own experience,” Ware insists, “it’s also an invitation for other people…to be able to experience issues of trauma and the path through the trauma.”
This message is embedded in almost every detail of The Quietest of Whispers, from its title to its use of symphonic form. “It couldn’t be anything but a symphony,” he explains, “to talk about the recovery from childhood sexual abuse is extremely emotional, and it needs a huge vessel to contain that emotion.” However, Ware’s symphonic model carries with it a seemingly significant drawback: it is an instrumental genre, which, as he recognizes, makes the meaning of The Quietest of Whispers slippery.

Along these lines, two similarly themed works I know have texts which help to anchor the meaning of their symbolism. Aaron Alon’s quadrophonic, electroacoustic piece Breaking The Silence uses audio testimony from four male and female abuse survivors to document many sides of this issue (WARNING: this piece contains explicit content). Dennis Tobenski’s Only Air, for soprano and orchestra (a chamber version of which received its New York premiere on May 4), is a more traditional vocal work dedicated to the memory of five boys who committed suicide after being repeatedly targeted by homophobic bullies.

The texts Alon and Tobenski set help to solidify their music’s meaning such that it seems unlikely, particularly in the case of Breaking the Silence, that someone would interpret these works as relating to something other than their given subjects. However, the magic of this music comes from its non-textual symbolism, such as the solo soprano part in Breaking the Silence meant to “imitate a simple children’s song, one that a young child might actually invent herself.” In this regard, Only Air, Breaking the Silence, and The Quietest of Whispers all use prominent solos as a potent symbolic trope.

These passages are rich with vivid musical imagery that serves each work’s overall message. For example, the trumpet solo in The Quietest of Whispers embodies Ware, a former trumpeter, through a melodic anagram of his first name. I feel the solos not only reflect the composer’s intent, they also help their audience connect more intensely with their music. Solo instruments can act as a musical avatar for individual listeners and give them a point at which to enter into and communicate with the musical work at large. Such a connection, if it takes place, can result in an extremely meaningful listening experience; this outcome is hard to predict or depend on, however, particularly in instrumental works like The Quietest of Whispers.

Excerpt of musical score for Evan Ware's The Quietest of Whispers

Score excerpt from The Quietest of Whispers showing the musical anagram imbedded in the trumpet melody in m. 561. © 2013 by Evan Ware and reprinted with his permission.

Ware is fully aware of the challenges he faces in communicating the subject of his piece through the medium of a wordless orchestral work but is not daunted. The piece is deeply imbedded with musical symbolism designed to reflect his experience. Perhaps the most salient of these elements is the anagrammatic trumpet solo noted above, but the music’s deeper structure also works to embody its subject matter. The piece starts with anxious, unsettled ideas that move towards stability before a dramatic interruption—the representation of Ware’s abuse and its effect on his development. From here, the piece swirls, seeking confidence, the appearance of which is signaled by the entry of the solo trumpet’s theme and the arrival of A major, the piece’s “home key.”

The highly detailed and multi-layered manner in which Ware realizes his compositional intent reminds me of Bunita Marcus’s string quartet The Rugmaker, which Jenny Olivia Johnson profiled in a 2010 NewMusicBox article. Johnson writes, “The order in which Marcus accessed her memories of her father molesting her can be mapped upon the specific order of musical events in The Rugmaker.” The work’s string of highly symbolic gestures and passages evoke the constellation of memories through which Marcus navigated as she faced new recollections of her childhood trauma.

While the representative depth of these pieces’ materials and forms is certainly impressive and illuminating, many questions remain regarding instrumental works’ ambiguous meanings. For example, Ware suggests that his piece is an invitation for an interpretative dialog between his listeners’ experiences and his music’s ingrained symbols. Yet, even if we accept this premise, how do we evaluate the way pieces of music, and their composers, foster the formation of listeners’ interpretations? Can listeners draw meanings that are “more” or “less” appropriate?

Obviously, understanding a work’s background before one hears it can limit some of this chaos—at least this was my experience with The Quietest of Whispers. Ware and I spoke regularly about the piece in the months leading up to its premiere. The piece blew me away, but I knew what it was about before I heard a note. This knowledge galvanized my listening experience, but I wonder if being informed this way is necessarily the best circumstance when hearing a piece for the first time. To this end, Jenny Olivia Johnson suggests that, in some cases, an awareness of the events or experiences crystallized in a given composition does not always improve a listener’s understanding.

I sympathize with this argument, particularly as it applies to tragic or extremely personal works such as The Quietest of Whispers. With this kind of piece, the propriety of a listener’s response becomes charged. It is one thing to misread the depiction of lust in Strauss’ Don Juan, but failing to grasp—or, worse, to be moved by—the tragedy of Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3, the reverence of Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, or the trauma of The Rugmaker and The Quietest of Whispers can seem embarrassing, if not disrespectful to the composer. It would seem if a work’s subject is left unexplained, at least for the first listen, these expectations are removed. In such a case, audience members could base their responses on how the music makes them feel, not how they think they should feel, or how they think the composer wants them to feel.
To be clear, I do not mean to suggest Tobenski, Alon, Ware, Marcus or any other composer feels their work deserves a certain response based on its extra-musical associations alone. The scene I have just painted is simply an impracticable, rhetorical idyll designed to explore an interesting question: do certain pieces place more interpretative pressure on listeners than others and why? While we certainly need more space to fully contemplate this issue, I think it is fair to suggest that it is the responsibility of the composer, not the listener, to make a piece of music live up to the profundity of its subject matter. Then again, I’m not sure that kind of imperative matters much if musical meaning is so hard to control in the first place.

Ware, at least, holds a firm position on this topic: while he aspires to what The Quietest of Whispers could mean, he has no interest in designating what it should mean. The autonomy of interpretation on which he insists reminds me of a point in our conversations when he described his abuse as “a framework you can’t get out of.” After working for years to overcome these constraints, it makes sense that he emphasizes freedom in this way. Perhaps more than anything else, the tale of survival represented by The Quietest of Whispers testifies to the way Ware has reconciled the trauma he experienced as a child.

Evan Ware listening to rehearsal of his music

Composer Evan Ware in rehearsals before the premiere of The Quietest of Whispers last March in Ann Arbor, MI. Photo by Megan Hill.

Who is Creative Placemaking? New Music, Integrity, and Community

Who Is Creative Placemaking?

Billboard graffiti spotted on North Avenue in Station North, Baltimore. Photo by Molly Sheridan

The living, breathing practice of new music brings together many diverse and symbiotic stakeholders. They range from performing artists to composers, from presenting organizations to scholars, and from technical crews to administrators, all striving to create contemporary aural art that challenges, enlivens, and illuminates our human experience. Yet at the end of each day, there is a dirty little secret that each career shares. No matter the specialty, all participants aspire to eat, pay their bills, and enjoy some security and comfort from the labor of bringing new music into our world. This, of course, requires cold hard cash and conversations about funding are rarely pleasant ones. Money from advocacy organizations is in short supply and involves immense competition nationwide. When I see the phrase “many fine projects go unfunded” in grant guidelines, it takes on the ring of gallows humor.

In the past four years, however, a new cash spigot has been cranked open for contemporary arts funding across the nation. Titled “creative placemaking,” this approach purports to culturally and economically reinvigorate American “places” of all stripes, rescuing them from their derelict status through the arts. If current arts policy trends continue, then new music’s institutional vibrancy might depend on how it fits into this rubric, interfacing with communities on levels rarely considered in the past such as neighborhood pride, commercial impact, and livability. But new music should be wary of the covenant that creative placemaking offers, both to artists and audiences, while not losing sight of how the music of our time truly does change our thinking about places and the people in them.

The Dynamics of Place and New Music

The groundwork for thinking about place enjoys a breadth and depth from disciplines as diverse as ecology, geography, history, sociology, political science, anthropology, and philosophy. There are now musical perspectives being added to the fray, ranging from musicologists such as Holly Watkins to composers like Chris Kallmyer writing for NewMusicBox.[1] I tend to think of places as locations—with boundaries that range from fuzzy to rigid, and from vast to confined—imbued with cultural and social energy, both locked up in our memories and being constantly reimagined. But as American philosopher Ed Casey argues, places are things that individuals and collectives are able to experience in real time.[2] Only through the experimentation wrapped up in our daily tests and trials are places altered in substantial ways.[3] By this measure, few human activities empower us to experiment in and with places more than the arts, and in particular, newly wrought pieces and works. Newness is confrontational, newness is the unexpected variable, newness celebrates dynamic, living places: we stumble across new art, often unexpectedly, and discover parts of ourselves yet unknown. Not many would find this idea contentious, but here is the rub: how each contemporary art sub-discipline recasts place(s) in our imagination is another matter entirely.

Paintings, sculptures, photographs, buildings, urban grids, and maps—the list goes on—each organize our world in a way that focuses, endures, and reinterprets. People congregate around buildings, they linger in the aura of sculptures, they frame photos for their intimate living spaces. But what about a new piece of music? How does the music of our time—so fleeting, so temporal, yet so drastic—initiate a change in one’s sense of place, especially through a commission and/or a world premiere? I think new music has a place problem for a number of reasons, stemming in large part from its transitory nature.
First, new music idioms often exemplify styles, technical grammars, or an individual composer’s ethos far more than they center our thinking on a particular city, street corner, building, or even a site in nature. For instance, consider: if a newly composed piece by a native of Provo, Utah, is crafted to memorialize everything she adores about her beloved hometown, how might a listener draw a distinction between it and the aural profile of any other mid-sized American city (even with program notes in tow)? How is Provo-ness truly “made” in a notated or aural setting, as opposed to or separate from Sioux Falls, South Dakota-ness? This is no mockery of Provo’s desirability, but rather a claim that new music artifice and architecture fogs the engrossing idiosyncrasies of particular places, rendering them untranslatable in a listener’s engagement. Similarly, let us ponder the example of a new work for percussion ensemble earning wide acclaim: Augusta Read Thomas’s quartet Resounding Earth for pan-Asian bells and other metal resonators. While the work was conceived and largely composed in Chicago, I think concertgoers are much more likely to experience this piece as a diverse way to play with the possibilities of percussion arrays, rather than, say, connect it as a postmodern commentary between the Windy City and Bangkok, Thailand. New music is deeply cosmopolitan, a jumble of cross-conversations in different shapes, sizes, and sound worlds all fixated on how to add clever new tools to the composition workbench. The where, the place, is simply ancillary.

Second, as delighted as many new music specialists are to discredit or dethrone the Western canon of the past 300 years, perhaps a baby has been thrown out with the bathwater: the canon’s affection for place in the historical imagination. Even the most progressive among us still speak about the Western canon in a way that relies on places and their positions in time, frozen if only for a moment: the two Viennese schools with their transformed complexions; Ives’s idyllic Connecticut; Monteverdi in Venice; and so on. New music simply does not encapsulate places and their epochs as intimately as its earlier, canon-bound brethren. Listening to a piece of electronic music from the mid-1980s by Xenakis, my heart does not wander to IRCAM. When I sit in the audience for a graduate student composition concert, my ears do not perk up because, despite the disparate geographic origins of the composers, all of these works were newly written in Cincinnati and I can hear that plainly. Even watching a production of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin, I am not transported to romanticized scenes of medieval France or other exotic locales conjured by the troubadour poetry that Saariaho and her librettist drew from.

Third, we must consider how the lifeblood of new music—world premieres, sometimes commissioned, sometimes not—alter the dynamics of place. World premieres have had the power to color or disrupt our sense of place, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in the Vienna of 1824, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in the Paris of 1913, Barber’s Adagio for Strings over NBC radio in 1938, or even John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls in the New York City of 2002. Yet such monumental unveilings are few and far between. The majority of pieces that receive a world premiere, often regardless of a composer’s fame and a commission, are never performed again. When we think of a new music world premiere changing a place, we must acknowledge that it likely only has one chance to do so, like a blaze that burns quick and bright before exhausting its fuel. Another hypothetical: does a work written in a log cabin in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, have much to say about the distinctive qualities outside the hall of its birth in, say, Gainesville, Florida? Such pieces are vagrants, effortlessly being uprooted and transplanted from their birth locales into countless other neighborhood spaces hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Indeed, if nothing is lost from a work’s effectiveness when it is inserted into the context of a radically new place, one begins to wonder whether there was anything grounding the piece at its point of origin. This is unlike contemporary trends in other mediums that lean towards the hyper-local. For instance, a mural on a highway overpass, or on the side of a derelict factory, gives voice to the hopes, aspirations, or tough luck of that place, in that moment of the place’s memorialization.
However, I think the music of our time has two yet unmentioned assets that stir us to ponder places. First, new music never sits still, new music is nimble. A great many contemporary art mediums and their works that celebrate place(s) are purposefully designed to be walked past, congregated around, or remain passively integrated with our daily routine, from building facades to oblique outdoor sculptures. But I think, to their detriment, they often acquire a leering sort of quality—like gargoyles on the side of a cathedral, inert, mute, and unmovable—as people, ideas, trends, and indeed, the places themselves, dynamically shift around them. One phrase of Ed Casey’s that particularly struck me is that “places not only are, they happen.”[4] New music, at its core, sidesteps and subverts grand displays and unchanging monuments. New music happens. This idea is akin to earlier exhortations about how people fundamentally experiment with or “try out” places. Musical premieres in particular are experimental events with dangerous flirtations: they are born, flicker briefly and provocatively, and then extinguish themselves, with a reckless disregard for your desire that they might linger longer (or in some unlucky cases, end sooner). Creators, performers, and listeners are beckoned like moths to that flame of a musical premiere in a way which asks us to try out the world, to try out places old and new when time is of the essence.

Second, new music happens and changes place(s) through the collaborative breadth and depth of the individuals and groups that come together to realize it. This is a glorification of process, not product. New music highlights the fact that places are more than just brick and mortar, and indeed, the people who invest themselves in the curation of beautiful, frightening, and provocative things alter a place’s complexion far more than items plastered or girded onto our landscape. For instance, almost every world premiere requires demanding conversations involving compromise, sacrifice, and contested artistic integrity, with bargains struck amongst the creator(s), interpreter(s), and the technical conditions of the performance setting. This is the reciprocal cultivation of artists-in-communities, as well as artist communities themselves. One result of these immersive, sometimes exhaustive collaborative endeavors is that talents are honed which can then be re-inserted into countless other places that crave new and adventurous arts.

A great example of this is Omaha Under the Radar, a contemporary arts festival co-founded by soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett that launched for the first time from July 10-13, 2014. After making the rounds of the Chicago and New York new music circles, DeBoer Bartlett transitioned back to the region of her birth and brought her artistic and organizational acumen in tow. Omaha Under the Radar performances will take place in venues as varied as bohemian bars, art galleries, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and a rock club, with an emphasis on Omaha interpreters performing the works of Omaha creators. In conversation, DeBoer Bartlett made clear that artistic homogeneity is a nigh impossible feat in Omaha: the scene is simply too small to remain cloistered within new music, as happened when she gigged in Chicago and New York. Rather than performing to the same 40 new music specialists (“big music scenes are just small towns”), she now challenges stagnant presumptions hand-in-hand with theater, dance, jazz, and visual artists. But, she insisted, her artistic poise in Omaha is largely thanks to her earlier pilgrimages to the larger new music meccas. If the vagrancy of new music works prove detrimental to their impact on places, then the opposite holds true for composers and performers: it is precisely their nomad status that gives rise to places as conglomerates of adroit people, rather than as graveyards for piles of material objects.

Under the Radar Omaha

Omaha Under the Radar
Photo by Karjaka Studios

With a deeper understanding of new music’s diverse dynamic involving place, it is now time to pull apart how these ideas relate to or diverge from creative placemaking as an arts strategy, a regime with the potential to either transform or starve the long-standing institutions of new music.

Creative Placemaking as Musical Policy and Practice

“Creative placemaking” was originally coined in a white paper for The Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a leadership forum jointly brought about by the United States Conference of Mayors, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Architectural Foundation in 2010. Authored by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, creative placemaking’s intellectual inspiration is the New Urbanism that professes to prioritize mixed-income, pedestrian-focused city experiences with diverse economic, social, and political interactions brought about by close human proximity. Creative placemaking’s adaptation of New Urbanist principles in the white paper harnesses a glossy vocabulary for characterizing the importance of the arts:

“[T]hese…locales [chosen as incubators for creative placemaking] foster entrepreneurs and cultural industries that generate jobs and income, spin off new products and services, and attract and retain unrelated businesses and skilled workers…. Instead of a single arts center or a cluster of large arts and cultural institutions, contemporary creative placemaking envisions a more decentralized portfolio of spaces acting as creative crucibles…. arts and culture exist cheek-by-jowl with private sector export and retail businesses and mixed-income housing, often occupying buildings and lots that had been vacant and under-used….”

Although “placemaking” itself is hardly novel, the prescriptions present in Markusen and Nicodemus’s white paper initiated a re-alignment of the funding landscape for the arts across America. The NEA began an entirely new grantmaking program titled “Our Town,” centered on the creative placemaking enterprise with awards ranging from $25,000 to $200,000. Most significantly, a new collaborative umbrella organization christened “ArtPlace America” emerged in 2011. ArtPlace America pools the resources and capacities from a “who’s who” of six banks, eight federal agencies, and 14 of the great American mega-foundations. With the most recent awards ranging from $33,000 to $750,000, and a ballpark median of $280,000, ArtPlace America commands the attention (and salivation) of culture institutions across the nation. In my resident state of Connecticut, the Connecticut Office of the Arts adopted creative placemaking wholesale in their competitive grantmaking. This is the first state in America to undergo such an arts funding gestalt shift towards creative placemaking, and will likely not be the last.
ArtPlace America
On the national level, in a noisy and competitive marketplace of disciplines, institutions, and projects, this situation is hardly rosy for new music. As part of ArtPlace America’s most recent grant awards for 2013-2014, no organizations or projects with formal commitments to new classical, jazz, or experimental music, American or otherwise, were selected. This is not to say that creative placemaking organizations like ArtPlace America snub new music in its entirety, but of the 134 grants made so far in ArtPlace America’s first three years, I only identify three that grapple with any music in a tangible way: Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island, to draw resources to the impoverished West End; the Memphis Music Magnet to revitalize the Soulsville, USA neighborhood of Memphis; and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Center to encourage economic growth in the Tremé neighborhood.

As the arts funding puzzle shifts dramatically under the rubric of creative placemaking—from symphony orchestras to dance companies, and from museums to arts councils—the programs, services, and fundamental kind of art being made will necessarily change to enhance an organization’s competitiveness. This is not a situation that new music stakeholders should take lightly. While there is much to conceptually celebrate in the mixed-use landscape trumpeted by creative placemaking, we must interrogate the desired outcomes of this initiative. Creative placemaking’s ideal ends are not experimentalism, artistic integrity, arts education, I think, or even arts accessibility. The advancement of arts concerns (the arts qua arts) are mere means at various segments in the creative placemaking food chain: the ultimate aim of this policy project is robust economic growth. The language trumpeted by ArtPlace America, in particular, heralds an uneasy sheen of neoliberal corporatism and, in places previously abandoned by economic opportunity, the threat of creeping gentrification. Creative placemaking’s loudest selling points in the literature include “increased economic performance,” “captur[ing] new revenue,” and “creat[ing] a place where business wants to be,” a nomenclature that yokes artistic activity as a mechanism for the growth of capital. Notice, the three previous music examples within ArtPlace America’s grant portfolio all function as magnets for industry and investment, rather than herald any intrinsic meaningfulness for artistry.

My reservations about creative placemaking are hardly isolated. Ian Moss and Roberto Bedoya independently describe how creative placemaking projects, even in light of their slippery relationship with measurable outcomes, deserve the scrutiny of other neighborhood uplift crusades: do they initiate displacement as the community becomes “more desirable,” property values increase, and long-time residents—the very people whose cultural backgrounds creative placemaking purports to celebrate—depart or are marginalized en masse? Moss loosely characterizes this phenomenon as the “Arts Colonization Process” wherein the artists flock, a hip reputation follows, and there goes the neighborhood. Megan Wilson’s superb recent analysis of ArtPlace America’s 5M Project gone awry in the SoMA neighborhood of San Francisco reinforces and fleshes out many apprehensions, particularly regarding how the perennial funding desperation faced by city agencies and community arts organizations pushes them towards Faustian bargains they might not otherwise entertain.

This trial for the artistic purposefulness of new music, compelling institutions and creators to bend their objectives and voices to suit the narrow financial framework of those with creative placemaking purse-strings, is born out through two specific examples. The first is an artist collective specializing in composer and performer role-switching workshops, located in an up-and-coming American city and anonymous here for their protection. Through a local family foundation focused on creative placemaking strategies, they receive funding and access to a rehearsal and performance space on one floor of a formerly deserted downtown office building. But the stipulations of the grant bind and inhibit far more than they inspire, or, in the words of the collective’s artistic director, “lots of grants [in this city] are for work being done in unconventional spaces, but they’re unconventional because they suck.” The director bemoaned the lack of a suitable theater or hall for concerts, where good recordings can be obtained and artistic and production facilities are in place. In this instance, a new music organization that was lucky enough to capture creative placemaking largess had to substantially adjust its core capacities and institutional image to meet the dictates of its benefactor.
The second example comes from new music group Clocks in Motion, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Clocks in Motion is comprised of current and former students from the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Music, cobbling together financial resources from a wide variety of piecemeal sources. The ensemble conducts aggressive outreach work, such as performing accessible and engaging new music for the “at risk” children of the after-school Allied Neighborhood Center and instructing young students in composition, culminating in the ensemble’s premiere of their works. But will the outreach, accessibility, and learning project of ensembles like Clocks in Motion be stymied as resources are shunted away from such endeavors, towards those that lay the foundation for commerce as conceived by creative placemaking? Despite the inventive nature of their engagement activities, Clocks in Motion simply does not fit the parameters prescribed as “proper” creative placemaking: they do not generate desire for new investments of capital, they do not foster pedestrian activity or the spontaneous gathering of people, and they do not perform or rehearse in some token light-industrial site. But how can you tell them they do not change the place they call home?

Clocks in Motion's education work

Clocks in Motion’s education work


What are we left with? First, while this article is not a call to arms, I think we as new music acolytes must make the case, both publicly and privately, that the music of our time can and does color the complexion of places, both for ourselves and for citizens from all walks of life. The mechanisms for change may involve the seductiveness of world premieres, the collaborative skill-building that grows reciprocal artist communities, or countless other avenues I did not enumerate. But just because our art is not planted on soil, bolted to concrete, slathered on a surface, or able to collect dust and grime, that does not mean it lacks the power to shape memories and imaginations about the locations close to our hearts.

Second, creative placemaking in its current outlook is unimpressed by new music’s efficacy as a mercantile powerhouse and, as a result, devalues its presence in the palette of contemporary arts practices presently available. Whether these decisions are deliberate individual acts by well-meaning grant panelists with a checklist in front of them, or the result of some collective unconscious, I would rather not speculate. But in practice, creative placemaking sets up a sieve that new music tends to slide right through, owing largely to new music’s fixation on technique, its disconnect from a historical imagination or canon, and the ephemeral nature of world premieres.

Third, I am not advocating for a wholesale rejection of the creative placemaking project, but rather, a cautious negotiation of how, when, and where new music creators, performers, and institutions sign on the dotted line for funding and logistical support. There is a very tangible risk (one faced by all non-profits and artists, to some degree) that new music will bend to the wind and adjust its creative potential to suit where the money happens to be flowing. Program choices, the sizes and types of ensembles being formed, the complexion of music being composed, the locales in which works are performed, education design, the conversations through which we engage our communities: these all stand to be yoked to creative placemaking if resource desperation takes hold.

Finally, the demonstrated risk of gentrification through creative placemaking, and this initiative’s overt wealth-accumulation project—with vague or nonexistent guidelines on how to grow such wealth in an equitable manner—means that there must be a social justice component to how new music interfaces with creative placemaking. This is surely the case in the locations where creative placemaking is deliberately having a disproportionate impact, such as up-and-coming cities seeking to raise their national profiles (Omaha, Madison, Kansas City, etc.) or ones that are on the mend from deindustrialization (Detroit, Pittsburgh, etc.). From Omaha Under the Radar and Clocks in Motion, to the anonymous artist collective and countless others, new music will have an integral role to play in the recovery and celebration of these communities if we continue to shout, loudly and bravely, about how this art we have dedicated our lives to engages with both the least and most comfortable among us, and gives new voice to the vitality of the places we invest in and call home.


1. Holly Watkins, “Musical Ecologies of Place and Placelessness,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, 2 (2011): 404-408 and Andrew Leyshon, David Matless, and George Revill, “Introduction: Music, Space, and the Production of Place,” in The Place of Music, edited by Andrew Leyshon, David Matless, and George Revill (Oxford: The Guilford Press, 1998).

2. Edward Casey, Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) p. 24.

3. Ibid, pp. 30-31

4. Edward Casey, “How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena” in Senses of Place, edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1997) p. 27.
Additional Works Cited
Leyshon, Andrew, David Matless, and George Revill. “Introduction: Music, Space, and the Production of Place.” In The Place of Music, edited by Andrew Leyshon, David Matless, and George Revill, 1-30. Oxford: The Guilford Press, 1998.

The Score Has Got You By the Short Hairs

By Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

By Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When you think about it, the concept of music notation is pretty weird. Imagine if Andy Warhol had received commissions not for paintings, but rather for paint-by-number templates, to be realized by each art interpreter on their own canvases. Of course, we all know why music developed a notation system, but a recent email exchange with French composer Sasha Zamler-Carhart reminded me of the importance of not taking our practices for granted. Assumptions are baked into every aspect of music notation, often layered one on top of the other, and they color the kinds of music we can make.

Any notation system is about trade-offs: certain elements are emphasized over others for the sake of not overwhelming our human minds with their finite capacity for detail. After all, you could theoretically employ waveform print-outs as music notation, but that’s way too much detail to be useful in most performance contexts. By necessity then, the priorities of your practice inform its notation. But as soon as your notation exists, it throws its priorities right back in your face and informs your practice, more or less to the same extent.

Make too many wrong assumptions about a notation and you’ll quickly dig yourself into a hole. On the performing end of the equation, you’ll totally miss the point when it comes to wide swaths of repertoire, delivering lackluster interpretations that fail to reflect either the composer’s intent or your expressive talents. As a composer, you’ll limit your sound world to a small set of symbols—as the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail—or conversely you’ll make it unnecessarily hard for performers to realize ideas that don’t fully fit the notation you’re using. So whether as performer or composer, you’ll have basically become the score’s whipping boy: conforming your music to the notation’s limitations instead of conforming the notation to your artistry.
New Music, Early Music


French composer Sasha Zamler-Carhart

French composer Sasha Zamler-Carhart

In our exchange, Zamler-Carhart told me about his compositional practice, the frustrations he had as a student, and how he came to find his voice as an artist. For him, the problem lay in the seemingly uncontroversial advice his teachers offered on how new music works in the “real world”:

  • You won’t get much rehearsal time
  • Make your scores as clear as possible so ensembles can play your pieces after a few readings
  • The best interpreters are technical virtuosi and perfect sight-readers

Yet Zamler-Carhart wasn’t satisfied with the results he was getting. Eclectic by temperament, he also studied early music, and in that genre he came across a set of practices that better resonated with his aesthetic:

  • Music is rehearsed and reworked “endlessly until it sounds beautiful”
  • If the music is worth performing, the time and effort required to realize the score are immaterial
  • The best interpreters are those who bring “flawless elegance” to their playing

Zamler-Carhart has taken these principles to heart, and they have informed his practice ever since. Consequently, he prefers not to “work with musicians unless they can give me a lot of time (I mean weeks and months, not hours).” Once in rehearsal, he refines his interpretations orally, teasing out nuances via performance practice instead of ultra-precise notation, and this allows him to have meaningful exchanges with interpreters who are not new music specialists.

In Zamler-Carhart’s thinking, this works because performers who deal primarily with the music of the past expect a “triangular” relationship between notation, interpreter, and performance practice. There is the assumption that some of the information required will not be in the score—not that anything goes, mind you, but rather that sources outside of the printed page are necessary. Zamler-Carhart simply leverages this set of expectations. In his words:

Many early music performers are not used to seeing lots of dynamic and articulation markings in a score. They expect those elements to be part of performance practice and to be conveyed in rehearsal. An over-specific score can discourage them and give them the impression that the music is more difficult than it really is. Once in rehearsal, however, they will probably accept any change in dynamics, articulation, timbre and even tempo as part of normal rehearsal information, and they will incorporate that into their performance.

Naturally, Zamler-Carhart’s approach has certain implications: when he chooses to rely on oral performance practice, he also de facto excludes the resulting piece from much of the new music mainstream. The American Composers Orchestra is unlikely to spend “weeks and months” rehearsing a single piece with a single composer, so if you want to write orchestral music, the “early music” model is not for you. But that doesn’t mean it has no value. Too often we assume that the standard notational model and the performance practice it entails is the only path (or at least the unquestionably superior path). This isn’t true, and when you look closer, you’ll find that it comes with its own trade-offs and restrictions.

Realizing this, Zamler-Carhart has successfully used a range of notations (and non-notations) for his pieces, from a one-line vocal staff with neumes to modernist graphic scores, and from (selective) traditional notation to orally transmitted music to be learned solely by ear. He has even changed notational systems mid-piece when appropriate. However, what he does notdo is turn the score into some kind of musical crossword puzzle: his choices are always based on the idea of making it as easy as possible to realize the musical vision at hand.

Excerpt from Zamler-Carhart’s oratorio Sponsus (2012)

Excerpt from Zamler-Carhart’s oratorio Sponsus (2012), using a single line and neumes. He explains, “The piece is in fact polyphonic, but the polyphony can be realized from a single line so there’s no need to notate each voice.” Posted with permission.

The Right Tool for the Job

Percussionist Steven Schick

Percussionist Steven Schick in performance.

When it comes to building a career, the best musicians navigate the biases inherent in music notation in one of two ways: either (1) they restrict themselves to repertoire that works with their notational preferences, or (2) they switch notations based on the task at hand.

Percussionist Steven Schick provides a great example of the second approach. Earlier in his professional life, regular recital tours and prodigious quantities of new repertoire were central to his practice. On one end of the spectrum, he earned a reputation for his masterful interpretations of famously complex pieces such as Brian Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet (written for Schick in 1991) and Xenakis’s Psappha. On the other, he served as percussionist for Bang on a Can, performing works by David Lang, Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen, and other composers of the minimalist or post-minimalist vein.

These repertoires are not notated in the same way—indeed, there is significant variation even within each. The score to Reich’s Drumming is traditional yet sparse, and the phasing for which the piece is famous is simply described in text. Bone Alphabet, alternately, takes Cold War–era notational specificity to its extreme, with articulations and dynamics in virtually every bar, nonstop nested tuplets, and constant meter changes. Psappha, on the other hand, eschews traditional notation entirely in favor of a series of grids and tablatures.

Over the last decade, Schick’s musical priorities have evolved and so have the notational practices employed. He now focuses on collaborative, large-scale projects developed in tandem with composers, directors, instrument builders, writers, and other artists over an extended period of time. Take Schick Machine, his collaboration with Paul Dresher. A one-man, concert-length theater piece scored largely for invented percussion instruments, Schick Machine tells the fantastical story of a “mad scientist” percussionist who tinkers with instruments in his garage. Schick moves across a stage cluttered with dozens of custom-made instruments, narrating and performing as he goes, often to humorous effect. At certain moments the storytelling dominates, while at others the narrative gives way to purely instrumental “numbers” that feature specific groupings of percussion instruments. There are no breaks in the piece and the performance lasts over an hour.

Notating a piece like Schick Machine poses clear logistical challenges. Of course, you could detail every movement, gesture, speech, and musical figure with diagrams and staff notation. But would such a score convey the priorities of the piece? If the goal were to create a piece that gets played on every high school percussion recital the world over, perhaps. But that’s not the point—I mean, just look at the title. The piece is meant for Schick alone; the score only needs to be precise enough for him to remember how to realize a performance. Thus, they didn’t bother with a traditional score. Schick explains:

The piece was derived from improvisations and is still pretty largely improvised. There is a script and a sort of standard performance video that we made at the Mondavi Center…I use them together in lieu of a score.

At best, going through the motions of Cold War notational practice would have been a waste of time and a distraction. At worst, it would have “downsampled” the artistry of the piece, flattening the nuance of the Dresher/Schick vision into a long and complex series of approximations. Now, I am by no means arguing that Schick has rejected traditional notation entirely—he is still more than willing to read a score written in the new music fashion. But it is a testament to his creative talents that he can shift gears when the music demands it, as it does for this piece. A lot of musicians, even at the highest level, can’t do that.
Breaking the Unwritten Rules

JACK Quartet

JACK Quartet. Photo by Henrik Olund.

Of course, you can have a successful music career focusing entirely on a single notational practice, whether new music specificity, early music ambiguity, structured improv, standard orchestral practice, or whatever. But you still need to understand the priorities of your notation. There are always unwritten rules, and there are consequences to violating them.

A few months ago, I saw a Facebook exchange between a handful of composers who are in the same graduate composition program together. One of them had written a piece that is played at a single dynamic level throughout. As such, he had simply written f at the start of each part and left it at that; there were no further dynamics and no cautionary indications. Of course, the first thing the performers asked in rehearsal was, “Where are the dynamics?” His response was a snotty, “At the start of the piece.” Technically, the composer was using traditional notation correctly, but new music practice requires more specificity than he provided. The interpreters knew that most contemporary scores have a lot of dynamic detail, so without a cautionary indication, it is entirely reasonable for them to assume there had been a printing error.

Performers can, of course, get along fine without dynamics, but you can’t just assume they’ll figure out what you want—you need to point them in the right direction. Zamler-Carhart did just this with his St. Francis String Quartets, written for the New York-based JACK Quartet. The scores have virtually no dynamics, articulations, or tempo marks. Not unexpectedly, the quartet was a bit surprised at first, but they were willing “to engage with the piece and understand the logic of why, for example, a passage would be soft or loud even if it doesn’t say so… even with a concert looming.” For Zamler-Carhart, the experience was fulfilling and “the challenge improved the quality of performance.”

These exceptional cases aside, some skill in interpreting unwritten conventions is required even for the most banal of notational practices. Take the tenuto. Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider posted this question on Facebook awhile ago:

Poll of performers/conductors/composers: when you see a tenuto mark (horizontal dash over a note) without a slur, do you think of it as a request to alter the dynamic or the duration? (And if you’re a performer, tell me which instrument you play.)

Her query inspired 62 responses and a spirited debate that was never resolved. Answers ranged from “a color change” to “emotional pressing” to shorter duration, longer duration, a slight dynamic accent, “more weight,” and many other contradictory statements. The fact of the matter is that you can never get a single, objectively right answer to this question, because the tenuto has evolved as a sort of open-ended placeholder, begging to be repurposed. The only thing you can really say is that it means that something in the music should change.

Stuck Inside the Box

Taking notational practice for granted can hold you back in important ways. When I was a composition student at UC San Diego, we had a residency with the Arditti Quartet, perhaps the foremost interpreters of modernist string quartet repertoire and its diaspora. But their virtuosity in that genre doesn’t mean they excel at everything else quartet-related.

During the course of the residency, Irvine Arditti made it fairly clear that he has (or had) certain blind spots when it comes to notational practice. In particular, he seems to have bought into the Cold War ideal that the score is the music, objectively and completely. On several occasions he responded to requests for a change in interpretation with, “We’re just playing what’s in the music,” implying that the quartet’s interpretation was correct and that the composer had made a mistake in notation.

Yet my fellow composers and I, debriefing over beers, couldn’t help but feel that something was missing, that there was a degree of one-dimensionality to their playing. One of my colleagues later had his piece performed at June in Buffalo by another quartet of less lofty reputation, and he vastly preferred that interpretation to the Arditti’s. The other quartet was willing to take the time to learn how his notation worked and how to interpret the musical ideas that underlay it. Consequently, they realized it more faithfully.
Irvine Arditti might counter that we had all just written shit pieces. (You can decide for yourself, at least for my piece; their rendition is embedded below.) At numerous points throughout the residency, he complained that there were no young composers doing anything interesting anymore: the best of their works were bad copies of Lachenmann, and the worst were just plain bad.

I don’t think that’s the problem. Rather, the issue is that Irvine Arditti acts as if there were only a single, objective notational practice. Since he refuses to interpret notation in any way other than the Lachenmann/Stockhausen/Xenakis model, is it any surprise he can’t find nuance in other types of scores? The young composers he calls derivative probably are—I don’t doubt he knows Germanic post-serialism like nobody’s business. But move outside of that comfort zone, and he loses the ability to assess other styles on their own terms. Anything he is not willing to decipher becomes “not well written” and anything he can decipher is by necessity derivative. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nor am I the only person to notice the effects of this blind spot on the Arditti Quartet’s interpretations. Their Beethoven renditions haven’t exactly met with critical acclaim, after all. Reviews like the following are typical:

…for most of the concert they seemed more concerned with just getting the notes together than with interpretation. This was especially, almost painfully, evident in the opening work, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in B-Flat Major, Op. 133. Beethoven, of course, is not exactly in the Arditti’s wheelhouse. But that’s still no excuse for iffy intonation, long stretches of uninflected dynamics, and questionable articulation.

If there were really only one objective way to use notation, this shouldn’t have been possible for a quartet of the technical caliber of the Arditti. Yet that’s what they served up. The Ardittis are perhaps the greatest string quartet interpreters of the Cold War modernist repertoire and its offshoots. Unfortunately, they are middling interpreters of everything else, because they assume all music works the same way.

Naturally, there are many successful paths between the Arditti Quartet and Zamler-Carhart’s ever-shifting notation. Nor am I advocating that everyone structure their careers like Steven Schick. But we as musicians in the classical tradition use notation pretty much all the time, and it’s worth reflecting on how that changes us. I don’t fault Irvine Arditti for liking the kind of music he likes, or for sticking to a single performance practice. But it is undeniable that his approach to notational practice has influenced his career.

Music notation is not the tabula rasa we pretend it to be. It is rather a tool for expressing specific kinds of sonic ideas, to specific kinds of people, for specific reasons. You don’t need a fancy graphic score or some kind of alternative tablature to completely transform the priorities of a notation, you just need a performance practice. If we ignore the unwritten aspects of notation, we’re likely to come away dissatisfied. If we keep them in mind, conversely, we’ll be more successful at creating music that speaks to us, whether as composers or performers.


Aaron Gervais

Aaron Gervais
Photo by Tracy Wong

Aaron Gervais is a freelance composer based in San Francisco. He draws upon humor, quotation, pop culture, and found materials to create work that spans the gamut from somber to slapstick, and his music has been performed across North America and Europe by leading ensembles and festivals. Check out his music and more of his writing at

Jazz Audience Development: The Gender Factor

International Sweethearts of Rhythm

The saxophone section of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, one of the most successful all-women jazz big bands from the 1940s, from the website for the documentary film, The Girls in the Band.

Growing the audience for jazz has long been the most critical issue facing the music.  Writing about jazz for nearly forty years has provided me with certain perspectives from a purely music standpoint.  Presenting jazz performances, including curating concerts and festivals for over 30 years, has brought an interesting balance to those perspectives.  Critics often discount audience and staging factors in their calculus.  I’ve often wished more of my writing colleagues had a broader sense of what it takes to bring the music to the stage and, even more importantly, a healthier respect for the critical issue of jazz audience development, audience being such an essential part of the entire equation.

With jazz as with other forms of music that require a deeper listening immersion from its consumers, there is often plenty of conversation wondering aloud why there isn’t a healthier listenership—lack of exposure being the go-to causal factor.  Much of the “Oh jazz, po’ jazz, woe is jazz…” conversation that always hovers around the music may focus on some perceived lack of advancement on the part of the current generation of musicians, a certain sense of stylistic stasis.  Still another part of that diagnoses may focus on suspicions related to the fact that today’s jazz musician has arrived largely from the academy, as if to suggest that the perceived absence of the old oral tradition of jazz mores passed down via the relative informality of “the street” is problematic.  The issue for still others breaks down to the loss of the traditional record industry structure, or the scarcity of jazz on the terrestrial airways.

It’s certainly not for lack of arriving musicians.  Somehow the music continues to attract future generations of players.  We continue to encourage and produce more than enough capable, even stimulating new jazz artists.  The biggest issue remains the need to develop the jazz audience, to produce new generations of listener/consumers to meet the supply of the musicians who continue to grow the ranks of jazz players.

As an educator I’ve often been fascinated by the responses of students to this music, the great majority for whom this is a new phenomenon.  Teaching jazz history and related courses mainly to non-music students, I stopped counting how many students for whom the course represented their first exposure to jazz.  “This course opened up a new world of music for me…” is a common response to their first exposure.  So perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle missing in jazz education is educating new audiences, providing jazz insights and exposure to the people who will comprise future audiences.  While so many young aspiring musicians are learning to play the music in jazz education classrooms, only a small percentage will eventually play the music professionally.  So perhaps they’ll be the future audience core.  But frankly, not even that desired nucleus is enough to grow the jazz audience to levels that will better sustain the music’s artistry.

Casual observation of the audience for jazz reveals that it is predominantly male, which also reflects the average jazz band personnel, though there is an emergent corps of women on the bandstand.  The most hopeful element of that shift is in the increased ranks of female instrumentalists.  The vocal ranks of jazz have pretty much always been female-dominated, dating back to the old days of the “girl singer” and the all-male big band; meanwhile the ranks of jazz instrumentalists has always been overwhelmingly male.  Shifting hats for a moment from the journalist-observer to the curator-producer concerned with audience development to justify the presenting work, one wonders aloud whether consumers witnessing more women on the bandstand might ever translate to an increase in women in the jazz audience.

Given the more welcoming portals of the music academy–versus the almost completely male-centric academy of the streets where so many of the greats cut their teeth–women are arriving at a fair pace.  No longer is the scene like that described by trombonist Frank Lacy at a recent Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival during an onstage interview, where the specter of Melba Liston playing her trombone in an audacious manner in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was such an unusual inspiration.

Leading pianist-composer Geri Allen told Jazzwise magazine (Nov. 2013) in a group interview with her ACS trio mates, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding, “I remember hearing Terry Pollard – the great pianist from Detroit – when I was a teenager, and that moment changed my life.  She was totally focused and brilliant.”  In the same piece, Spalding remarked, “Women have made a profound contribution to jazz, one that can sometimes be overlooked.  Seeing an all-female trio playing at the highest level and headlining major festivals will offer huge inspiration and encouragement to younger female players.”

Clearly the rising gender parity of instrumentalists on the bandstand is an inspiration to other women to perform the music, but the question remains open as to whether their presence can equally translate to women in the audience for the music. Attend any jazz performance and, unless there is a celebrated vocal element onstage, the audience will likely be predominantly male.  This leaves one wondering if more women would turn out in numbers parallel to the female turnout for vocalists in exchange for the promise of women instrumentalists onstage, particularly in leading roles.  I recall positively thrilled women in the audience for performances by saxophonist Tia Fuller’s uplifting and fashion-forward all-women quartets.  Just recently a performance by the very special Spring Quartet, which included three prominent jazz bandleaders—Jack DeJohnette on drums, Joe Lovano on saxophones, Esperanza Spalding on bass—plus Leo Genovesse on piano and keyboards raised similar questions.

From the standpoint of a keen audience and performance observer, that Saturday evening at the Warner Theatre in downtown D.C. was remarkable on several fronts.  The audience was robust for what I suspected would be an evening of original, uncompromisingly creative music given DeJohnette and Lovano’s well-established proclivities.  That expectation may have been different from that of many audience members, particularly since the audience demographic reflected what one would more likely experience at one of Spalding’s concerts than, say, a DeJohnette or Lovano gig.

The Spring Quartet performed several knotty originals, like Spalding’s “Hystaspes Shrugged,” Lovano’s “Le Petit Oppurtune,” and DeJohnette’s “Priestess of the Mist, ” including lots of edgy, near freely improvised passages.  Questions were raised as I gazed around the audience and spotted an unusually high number of women and African Americans (that audience equation a topic unto itself).  My sense was that both audience factors were owed primarily to the presence of Spalding in the band.  Likely a certain percentage of the audience came anticipating Spalding’s winning mix of instrumental virtuosity and precocious vocal exploits related to her own recordings.  I’d hazard an educated guess that some entered the theatre not realizing that in this instance the bassist was part of a cooperative ensemble.  The evening featured only one sung performance, a wordless ingredient in Spalding’s original composition that was decidedly different from the flavors of her Grammy-winning recording.
Despite what for some may have been a disconnect between ticket-buying expectations and onstage evidence, there was no mass exodus between tunes, nor was there any sense of audience disappointment in the air.  Audience response was enthusiastic throughout the evening.  Contacted later Lovano remarked, “That was a great audience in D.C., we really felt inspired.”  I was motivated to wonder aloud whether the presence of exceptional female instrumentalists like Spalding on the bandstand, regardless of the creative content of the performance, might conceivably beckon additional women to a given jazz gig.  Following the Spring Quartet concert the buzz in the lobby was palpable, including overhearing a multi-cultural klatch of women marveling at Spalding’s bass facility, with not a discouraging or disappointed word related to pre-concert expectations.

Thus encouraged, for a purely anecdotal, small sample perspective I posed the following question to an informal group of women who are ardent observers of jazz and frequent audience members, including musicians, music educators, and professional women in other walks of life: Would an increased number of women on jazz bandstands be one means of growing the number of women who attend jazz performances?

Twin Cities-based editor and music writer Pamela Espeland feels the most important element in encouraging more women to attend jazz performances lies in the audience composition and the basic environment in which the music is performed. “It matters if you walk into a club and the crowd is all or mostly men.  So maybe it’s partly about making a venue more attractive to women,” Espeland submits.  Bassist-vocalist Mimi Jones, who frequently attends her husband, pianist Luis Perdomo’s performances, believes the manner in which women on the bandstand comport themselves has much to do with their impression on women audience members and a subsequent desire to attend performances.  “There tends to be a different type of energy added to the mix making it really fun to experience if she is throwing down as hard as the guys in the band,” Jones asserts.  “Women also like to study other women by nature.”

Sarah Wilson, a musician and administrator at the Levine School of Music in the D.C. area (formerly at the Thelonious Monk Institute), spoke from an education perspective on the prospects of not only increasing women in the audience but on the bandstand as well. “I think having young female students see female jazz musicians on stage definitely makes them more interested in participating, not just attending,” she suggests. “They see someone like themselves onstage, which makes them think it’s something they could do.”

Pianist/composer/bandleader Michele Rosewoman recalled her experiences interacting with parents of impressionable youngsters.  “I have had many mothers and fathers tell me that they brought their daughters out to see me perform, or that they wanted to do so, because they felt it would inspire their daughters and offer them an example of how they can and should be all of and whatever they wanted to be.  Often, these parents are concerned with showing their daughters alternatives to traditional female roles in society and countering the images that mass media pounds into their heads,” Rosewoman asserts.  “I am always struck by the way women in the audience so often express that they are moved to see me on stage holding my own with all male musicians and even more expressive of a personal pride they feel to see me at the helm,” she says, mirroring Mimi Jones’s assertion that not only seeing women on the bandstand is inspiring to women audience members, but witnessing women holding their own among their male counterparts is potentially the biggest thrill for women audience members, inviting their return as ticket consumers.

Meanwhile some women in the music business expressed healthy skepticism about whether an increase of women on the bandstand would attract increasing numbers of women in the seats.  “Any woman I have ever turned on to jazz has been floored by the beauty, sexiness, and confidence that exudes from the men truly playing this music,” says music publicist Kim Smith.  “They are turned on by that.  The only exception was Alice Coltrane, who raised the bar higher than any woman ever has and makes women cry just as hard as a man.  I can only speak about the women I have personally turned on and it is still the case.”
Robin Bell Stevens, executive director of the Jazzmobile organization, sees no correlation between women on the bandstand and increased numbers of females in her audiences.  “My audiences come for the music.  Personally I have never observed any indicators to imply that gender makes a difference; it doesn’t for me, a lifelong jazz enthusiast,” offers Robin.  When this writer suggested that perhaps Ms. Bell Stevens comes from a somewhat altered perspective on this question since jazz is in her blood–her dad was the late Ellington bassist Aaron Bell–she admitted that might be a factor in her thinking.

From the newest generation of women jazz instrumentalists is the saxophonist Melissa Aldana from Chile.  Aldana, who won the Thelonious Monk Competition prize (the first woman instrumentalist to do so), is blessed with a rich tenor saxophone tone and a deeply communicative sensibility with her male band mates. She deferred a bit from the other respondents, offering a more general and philosophical perspective on the question.  “I think that one thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other.  Music transcends genders, age, and cultures, and people that love jazz are ones that are going to be the supporters.”
But musician-composer-educator Monika Herzig, who is a Jazz Education Network (JEN) board member as well as a contributor to NewMusicBox this month, was enthusiastic in her affirmation that more women instrumentalists on the bandstand would translate into more women in the audience: “An absolute yes; for social reasons it’s easier to identify with the performers, for musical reasons the musical product will be transformed, for psychological reasons it feels more like a community–and the performers will become role models for the audiences.”  Fellow music educator and JEN founding member Mary Jo Papich suggests a more basic sensibility, that audience members may tend to gravitate towards artists “like them” on the bandstand. “The band should look like the audience they want to attract,” she says.

Cultural anthropologist Jennifer Scott, with whom this writer collaborated on a Brooklyn Bed-Stuy jazz oral history project, spoke of her level of anticipation for who is on the bandstand as a potential additional attraction.  “If I know in advance that there will be a woman vocalist or instrumentalist in the band, it’s an added draw, and the same for most of the women I know.  Self-identification goes a long way.”  But she’s uncertain about those audience members not similarly immersed in jazz.  “As for those [women] who don’t typically go out to hear jazz, I’m not so sure that would be the case, because I’m not sure why they don’t go hear jazz in the first place.”
Last May during their annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, an event originated by the late jazz renaissance man Dr. Billy Taylor out of his profound desire to uplift women’s profile on jazz bandstands, the Kennedy Center announced that henceforth the festival would no longer be completely woman-centric.  Festival MC and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater was outspoken from the podium regarding her dismay over this decision (a sentiment shared by some in the audience as catcalls indicated).  On the other hand there are those who feel such an event is in essence a sort of ghetto-ization of women on the bandstand.

In her reflections on our basic question, longtime jazz and arts administrator and presenter Sara Donnelley eruditely included such events in her consideration.  “Women are undoubtedly appreciating the increased inclusion of women both in bands and leading them.   I also agree that women need not be singled out in “women in jazz” fests.  The organic increase of women populating [jazz] bands just makes the music broader, more realistic, and adds staging that is more visually interesting,” she said, mindful of aesthetic factors that might appeal to potential women audience members.

So what’s your take: Would an increased number of women on jazz bandstands be one means of growing the number of women in attendance at jazz performances?

Fair Trade for Sheet Music

I’m an entrepreneurial composer. I’ve never shied away from the fact that I have good business sense, and I’m always looking for ways to use that sense to further the cause of my music and of new music in general. Over the years, I’ve owned and operated eight separate businesses, most of which relate to music, all of which have had significant impacts on my career, and seven of which I still run.

In my currently active businesses, I act as composer, publisher, engraver, vocalist, web designer, retailer/distributor, and writer. As a vocalist, I specialize in 20th and 21st century art songs since I love performing new works and feel a deep commitment to helping promote the music of my peers. I’ve been designing websites since 2005, and it’s partly through running this business that I’ve come to learn what I have about conducting my musical businesses.

In 2010, I founded a company, which is a digital retailer/distributor for self-published composers. The site is intended to be a centralized hub for composers to be able to sell their works, and for performers to find scores outside of the traditional publishing system. The service currently represents 25 composers and over 300 of their scores. Right now I’m in the process of redesigning the site and attempting to more fully automate the ways that I accept new composers and new scores.
I’m fascinated with the business aspects of the arts, and a new and exciting business idea is just as likely to keep me awake late into the night as a new and exciting musical idea is.
Creating an Economy

Deep Sea Food Chain

Deep Sea Food Chain by Bruce Mahalski. Photo courtesy of Pieter Pieterse on Flickr.

I’m really excited to have put a new pricing structure into effect on my website because it allows me to place a value on my scores that I can feel confident about. In a world that increasingly relies on the economy of free, it’s important to establish that some things aren’t free, and in fact have an actual dollar value associated with them.

I sincerely believe that we, as a society, can’t claim to value something—be it an object, a service, or our culture in general—if we refuse to ascribe an actual price to it or to some part of it. As my web design business grows, I realize more and more that those clients who pay a higher design fee inevitably value my time more, and treat me with more respect. And so must it be with what we do as composers and performers. We must know our worth, relative to any given situation, and be prepared to ask for what we deserve. Or, in those instances when we charge less than we should, make it clear that we’re working at a discounted rate.
This isn’t to say that we should never do anything or give anything away for free, or that we should always charge the highest fee possible—on the contrary, it’s to say that we must know when free is detrimental to our growth and the growth of other composers. Giving a score to a performer friend, or writing a little birthday ditty for free won’t break the bank, and it’s not going to cause the world to walk all over us. But to allow large institutions—or even small venues—to continue to bully us into accepting “exposure” or “experience” as payment has to stop. So, too, must the practice of organizations and ensembles offering us the vague half-promise of a performance if we pay them so much for their consideration, send them a free score, then—on the off chance that our work is selected for performance—provide parts free of charge, and cover the complete costs of our own travel, lodging, and food because the organization requires our attendance as a requisite for performance.

There are times when free or discounted are appropriate; and there will be times when each of us takes on a project or participates in a festival or series of workshops where we’re not paid for our time or reimbursed for our expenses, but we get something larger out of the experience. But in the long run, we have to accept the fact that artistic fulfillment doesn’t pay the bills. It’s possible to be artistically fulfilled and still get paid: one does not preclude the other.

We also need to accept that the concert music world is a micro-economy that is comprised of a number of smaller sub-economies (orchestras, chamber ensembles, opera companies, new music concert series, etc.), and that it also overlaps with other, often larger, micro-economies (academia, film, advertising, etc.). Our micro-economy, like so many others, is fairly fragile while at the same time remarkably robust.

Fragile, because our contributions to society/culture/education/community are often seen as either unnecessary or frivolous—luxuries that can be foregone when people decide they don’t want to pay for them anymore. Or, as is more often the case, provided gratis when people can’t or don’t want to pay for them anymore.

Fragile, because we’ve made ourselves almost completely dependent on the largesse of the moneyed few rather than forging our own financial paths and bolstering our micro-economy with solid financial planning and institutional/administrative dynamism (as opposed to what Terry Teachout’s has described as “administrative sclerosis”).

Yet robust, because our community is made up of individuals and organizations that want our art to survive and flourish, and are willing to do whatever it takes to make that so.

Unfortunately, it’s what makes us so robust that ultimately leads to our fragility. We’re willing to work for free…so why should anyone pay us?

Our reliance on granting organizations and the privately wealthy to maybe give us some funding—almost always with strings attached—has crippled our industry. We’re also crippled by the ridiculous fact that most of us refuse to see concert music as an industry in the first place. The court of the Esterhazys is gone. We’re on our own now, and government and institutional funding is dwindling because we’ve allowed ourselves to be marginalized, internalizing the ideas that a) what we do is not truly important in a global sense, and b) we’re above thinking about money because we’re Artistes and should not trouble ourselves with such mundane and vulgar matters.

We’re not above it, and we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we are. We’re each surrounded by people who value what we do, and it’s those people who can help us to rebuild and reshape the industry of concert music into one that values itself and stops apologizing for needing to be paid. We need to be an industry whose practitioners go out into the world with a confident sense of purpose and cultural relevance, who don’t rely solely on long-shot institutional or government funding or alms from the rich, and who aren’t either terrified or disdainful of basic business practices.
We can spare a little of our creativity and a little of our time to forge new paths to revitalize this industry that people keep saying is dead. Concert music will never die, but wouldn’t it be nice to get it off of life support?

Fair Trade


Photo courtesy of Keith Fahlgren on Flickr.

While our cultural/educational/societal/whatever-al contributions are too often seen as unnecessary luxuries (that people are unwilling to actually forego), we also live in a society in which a significant number of people value fair trade coffee and are willing to pay more so that workers in that industry are paid a living wage (or close to it). It is not my intention to belittle the efforts of fair trade organizations, or to put the well-being of coffee pickers and traders (and workers in other fair trade industries) beneath that of composers living in the First World, but rather to point out that it’s worth the added expense of a score or a concert ticket if the composer or performers are paid fairly. In fact, we should be proud to pay composers or performers what they’re worth instead of continually shaming them into accepting a lower fee—or no fee at all—because we can’t bring ourselves to budget properly, or to actually place a true value on the efforts of these highly trained artists.

I’m curious to know what would happen if an organization advertised the fact that it pays its artists and collaborators fees that are respectful of the artist’s work. To me, it would demonstrate a deeper commitment to the arts than any mission statement ever could.

What We Can Learn from Novelists

Lots of Books

Photo courtesy of zimpenfish on Flickr.

I follow the book publishing industry very closely and am a devoted reader of several blogs written by authors who are in the vanguard of self-publishing, and I can’t help but see the parallels between our industry and theirs.

Traditionally published (or legacy published, as is the common nomenclature amongst “self-pubbed” writers) novelists receive the bulk of their income from advances. An “advance” is a payment against future sales (technically: an advance against future royalties), and sometimes covers more than one book. The advance is, on one hand, technically a loan to the author that assumes a certain volume and velocity of sales of the books under contract (this loan is rarely called in if the book doesn’t sell well); and on the other, it’s a gamble on the publisher’s part that the books will recoup the publisher’s investment and earn additional royalties. The majority of legacy-published authors often don’t earn much beyond their advance, and the book goes out of print after the first run. Historically, rights eventually revert back to the author, who may then either find a new publisher for the book or publish it themselves.

Traditionally published composers receive the bulk of their income from commissions. Or teaching. Or anything but score sales. Traditionally published composers receive no advance against sales because music publishers are unwilling to guarantee a single sale. Composers receive $1 upon signing a contract with a publisher because contract law stipulates that there must be some monetary “consideration” involved in such transactions. Awesome.

Legacy published novelists retain many rights when they sign contracts with a publisher—all non-North American rights, translation rights, and movie/TV option rights remain with the author upon signing a contract. A novelist may license her work, or some part of it, to publishers in other countries or to production companies for a limited time to possibly turn her work into a movie or TV series. (If the production company fails to create a movie, etc., within the stipulated timeframe, the company must re-license the work, often for a larger fee.)

Composers, upon signing with traditional publishers, usually hand over worldwide rights to their work. In perpetuity. Royalty rates for print sales are stipulated in the contract (typically a measly 10%, with many contractual opportunities for the publisher to pay less), but no other rights reside with the composer, including the right to arrange the work.
Self-published novelists earn no advance. The bulk of creative income comes from book sales, though they, too, have licensing options, and production companies are increasingly seeking out self-published authors because they’re easier to work with than legacy publishers.

Self-published composers walk the line between traditionally published composers and self-published novelists. On the one hand, they make the bulk of their income from commissions, but have the option to earn income from sales, although they’re unlikely to have anything near the sales volume or velocity of a self-published novelist, who has the Amazon/Kindle/B&N/Nook/Kobo/Sony/Smashwords/etc. platforms at her disposal. Self-published composers need to do significantly more work to stay afloat than indie writers; but compared to traditionally published composers, they earn a significantly greater income from significantly fewer sales.

One need only look at Alex Shapiro, John Mackey, or Stephen Paulus—to name but a few—to see a self-published composer who belongs to the industry of concert music: excellent artists who aren’t afraid or disdainful of doing business. So in that spirit I’d like to share my own thought process on how I price my music.

Coming Up With a Viable Price Structure for Sheet Music

Cash Register

Photo courtesy of Cheon Fong Liew on Flickr.

As a mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I recently put a new price structure into effect for my music. This past fall, I redesigned my website, as I do every few years. One of the biggest changes I made was to remove the “Store” page in favor of emphasizing commerce on the “Works” pages themselves. Every piece that I have ready to be printed and shipped, or at the very least downloaded, has a picture of the score cover with pricing information, links to buy print and digital copies, and sample pages.

Along with the reworking of the site came a necessary reworking in my pricing structure. My former price structure was…well…completely unstructured. I had based my prices more on a feeling of what I should charge than on anything concrete or measurable, which led to near-paralysis for days and weeks on end as I agonized over pricing every piece. For years, I didn’t put a dollar amount on a lot of scores, leaving them instead to be dealt with later.

I’d known for years that I should base my prices on what it costs me to print them, but that meant that I had to figure out my printing solution. Was I going to invest in the equipment to do it all myself and figure prices according to my supplies and time, or was I going to farm it out to an existing print company and base my prices on theirs? The former would cost much more up front, but would save money in the long run. It also would take considerable time, especially learning the processes on the front end. And every mistake would cost both time and money. Plus, the equipment and supplies would take up room that I just don’t have in a New York City apartment, which I share with my partner (also a composer with lots of gear) and our three cats (one of whom loves paper more than any other plaything). In the end, I decided to go with an outside company. In various areas of my life, I’ve become increasingly predisposed toward saving time and aggravation by letting experienced professionals do work that I may not be able to do correctly, or that may take far too much time to learn to do properly. Even though the costs may be somewhat greater, the peace of mind is well worth it.

So I sent out a request for quotes from a company I’ve worked with before and went to town on a new spreadsheet to calculate costs and profit based on the estimates I received.

A little over two years ago, I posted a little essay on my own blog on taking a practical approach to pricing. I stand behind the sentiment, but the math is a little complicated. I’ve since simplified (and in some cases, corrected) the math, which I’ll share with you below.

Now, mind you, this is for print scores—we’ll deal with digital later on.

Component Parts of Our Equation

There are a few things we need to consider when pricing scores:
1) What it costs to print each score
2) What discount we need to offer distributors
3) How much we want to make on each score, after the distributor takes their discount

Overhead costs are the simplest to figure: it’s a fixed amount given to us by our printing company. Or, for those who print and bind their own scores, it’s what it costs us in supplies per score, plus a rate for time spent. And because we likely want our scores to be sold by various retailers/distributors, we need to offer them a certain percent discount, which is standard practice. This discount is typically around 40% (give or take 10%), which will work perfectly for our purposes. We need to build this amount into our prices because a) we don’t want to have to reprice everything once we find an interested distributor, and b) we don’t want to be caught unawares and be forced to give a discount that causes us to sell scores at a loss, and c) we can’t undercut a distributor’s price.

This last point is incredibly important. While it may seem natural in a world driven by competitive pricing to offer the most attractive price on your own site and to price lower than your distributors, in this situation it’s not only misguided, it’s quite simply unethical. Distributors (I use the term loosely here), including brick and mortar retailers like your local music store or digital retailers like Theodore Front or SheetMusicPlus or (shameless plug) NewMusicShelf, are not competition—any sale that you make through a distributor is not instead of a sale that you could have made on your own site, it is in addition to any sales that you may make on your own site.

It’s very bad business practice to undercut the prices that you yourself have set for a distributor by offering scores at a lower rate on your site. It is also wildly unprofessional to publicly discourage people from making a purchase at a distributor’s site instead of on your own. You might offer a “value add” to purchases made on your site (signed copies, discounts on pieces not offered through the distributor, etc.), but to discourage sales from other vendors is a no-no. Every store or site that offers your works is additional visibility for you, and could lead to sales and a wider knowledge of your work. If you start behaving badly toward your distributors, they will—and should—stop selling your work.

Finally, we have to decide how much we want to make per score AFTER the distributor’s discount. This means that if we sell 10 copies to Such-And-Such Music at 40% off, and we’ve already spent $4.00 per score for printing, we need to figure out how much we want to have earned from this sale. It also means that if you sell the score yourself, you’re getting both your regular profit AND the 40% that you would otherwise lose to a distributor.

This minimum profit amount can be a fixed amount or a percentage.

Maybe you want to make $4.00 per score for short song sets, $10.00 for medium-length chamber works, or $0.75 per copy of each choral score. These numbers are a little arbitrary, but I chose them because I find $4 to be generally appropriate for a “short” work, and $10 to be appropriate for a “medium-length” work.
Or you could say that you want to make 25% of the gross price. On a score that sells for $10.00, you’d make $2.50.
Whatever you charge, the amount should be enough to be fair to you, but not so much that it makes the overall price prohibitive to customers.

The Math
So for those of you who paid any sort of attention in algebra class, you know that this is a simple matter of solving for X.
Cost + Distributor Discount + Profit = Price
C + D + P = X

We know what our cost is going to be because we did our homework with our print company. For our example, printing and binding totals $4.00 per score. We also know that our distributor discount is 40% of the final price (40% of X). Which means:
4 + 0.4X + P = X
OK, we can already simplify this to:
4 + 0.4X + P – (0.4X) = X – (0.4X)
4 + P = 0.6X

Now, depending on which sort of profit you’re going for, the way we solve for X changes. There are two equally viable ways to approach this equation.

1. A Fixed Profit Approach
If we want to make $5 on this piece, then:
4 + 5 = 0.6X

9 = 0.6X
9/0.6 = 0.6X/0.6
X = 15
Which makes our discount $6.00
Cost (4) + Discount (6) + Profit (5) = $15
So to figure your price, simply add your printing costs and your fixed amount profit and divide by 0.6.

2. A Percent Profit Approach
If we want to make 30% on each sale, then:
P = 0.3X
4 + 0.3X = 0.6X
4 = 0.6X – 0.3X
4 = 0.3X
4/0.3 = X
X = $13.33
You profit is $3.99, and your discount is $7.99
For good measure, let’s just round up to 13.50 so that:
Cost (4.00) + Discount (5.40) + Profit (4.10) = 13.50

The percentage route is the easier way to calculate. Essentially, all you do is add up your two percentages – 40% and your profit percent, subtract both from 100%, then divide your cost by the remaining percent. (With a 30% profit, 40% + 30% = 70%, meaning that your cost is 30% of the overall price – divide your cost by 0.3)
Then I prefer to round up to the next quarter, because, really, thirty-three cents is silly.

Postage and Digital Delivery

Mail at JFK Airport

Photo courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Flickr.

Postage is another area that requires a little bit of thought. As with printing and binding, there are multiple elements to consider: postage costs, supplies, and the time you’ll spend putting everything together and standing in line at the post office. While some composers may feel as though they don’t want to add any more onto what people are already paying them, these aren’t expenses that you should just eat. Any time you incur an expense in the process of making a sale, that expense gets passed on to the customer in some manner. Either you build that expense into the price itself, or, as with postage and handling, you tack on an additional fee to cover your expenses. Always remember the second part of that phrase: handling.

Digital delivery and all digital payments also require solid consideration. You won’t spend an hour standing in line at the post office with digital scores, but, unless you’ve automated your web store, you’re going to spend time fulfilling the order, following up to make sure the file arrived, and possibly sending it again if something went wrong in transit. And whether you use PayPal, Square, Intuit GoPayment, Google Checkout, or any other digital payment solution, you’re going to encounter transaction fees. As with postage, you shouldn’t eat those fees. You can build them into your prices, or you can add a surcharge for digital payments. There are some great tools out there to help.

Pricing Digital Scores

The accepted wisdom for pricing digital downloads of scores is to halve the price of a printed score. And for once, I’m not going to buck tradition. Shocking, I know. There are a few cases where I think that half is a little off, and I’ll adjust accordingly; but mostly, I think that half is fair. Another option, however, is to remove the print cost from your print score price, which can knock off between 30% and 40%.

Check Your Work

It’s really easy to be uncomfortable about putting price tags on your work. It can feel like you’re asking way too much one second, then far too little the next. The thing that’s kept me sane is comparing my prices to those of other self-publishers, and to traditional publishers as well. As I figured out my formula, I could check if I was missing the mark by seeing where I fell compared to works of similar instrumentation and duration.
In the end, I think I’ve found a very happy place—not least because I’ve managed to keep the subjective elements fairly limited.

For Performers

For any non-composing musicians who’ve managed to stay with me this far, you can see how prices are what they are for concert music scores. A 28-page score that costs $5.30 to print can cost you $17.50 because of the various considerations along the way. And printing is not always this cheap, especially when the composer/publisher insists on using higher quality materials and knowledgeable printing/binding services.

Remember that everyone in the chain needs to come out ahead at the end of the day. A 40% discount for retailers/distributors allows your local music shop or services like SheetMusicPlus and Theodore Front to stay in business. And a 20-30% profit per score for a self-published composer isn’t all that much—about $5.20 in the case of the $17.50, 28-page score. Given the average composer’s sales velocity…let’s just say that 30% won’t pay the rent.

Moving Forward



Some important resources that you should keep as close to your keyboard as manuscript paper. Photo by Dennis Tobenski.

What my formula does is to remove the consideration of how hard I worked on the composition of the piece or any subjective notions of the value of the music itself with objective, concrete numbers based on the real costs of paper and ink and staples. The formula takes your actual costs, and figures in profit for you and profit for the people you do business with: the printer gets paid, the distributor gets paid, and the composer gets paid. If any portion of that seems unfair or wrong to anyone, they need a radical realignment of their values.

Meanwhile, those composers who give all of their music away for free, or who purposely undercharge severely for scores and/or commissions, need to realize how much damage they’re doing to the rest of us who intend to make a real go at being a composer for a living. We’re not living/working in a vacuum—we are all part of a community, and we each have real responsibilities toward one another. One of those responsibilities is to not damage another composer’s livelihood. By acknowledging your responsibility to your colleagues and peers and placing a real value on your work, you train performers and organizations to value others’ works accordingly.

The fact that we can’t reasonably unionize puts us at a severe financial disadvantage in many respects. Experienced, talented film composers who used to be able to make a living on a solid handful of films each year are being driven from the field in droves because so many—typically young and inexperienced—composers are undercharging (often because they’re bullied into doing so, or because they want to get their foot in the door). Increasingly, filmmakers think that “exposure” and a “credit” make up for seriously underpaying a composer to score a 90-minute feature. A troubling number of ad agencies feel no embarrassment when asking for free music for a campaign that they’re being paid to create. By taking these jobs, all that these composers are actually doing is vying for first place in the race to the bottom. Only the top few can command any sort of reasonable fee, while everyone else suffers. Filmmakers, ensembles, performers, and organizations learn quickly that they don’t have to do as much fundraising, they don’t have to budget as much for artists, they don’t have to value our work…because we don’t value it ourselves.
So I challenge you composers to revisit what you charge for scores and commissions, and make a point of thinking of yourself as part of a larger community toward which you have a number of important responsibilities. Stop offering all of your works for free. Stop being disdainful and/or terrified of basic business practices and put them to use. Learn how you can use those practices along with your abilities as a creative person to advance the cause of the music that you write and the cause of new music in general.

We’re all in this together.


Dennis Tobenski

Dennis Tobenski, photo by Kaity Volpe

Dennis Tobenski is a composer, vocalist and web designer living in New York City, as well as the founder of and the writer of The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business. Only Air, his 20-minute work for high voice and orchestra that memorializes the LGBT teens who have taken their own lives due to bullying was premiered in April 2013 by the Illinois State University Symphony Orchestra, and will be presented again in March 2014 by The Secret Opera in NYC. On February 18, Dennis will be presenting a program of love songs by gay American composers with pianist Marc Peloquin as a part of the Composers Now Festival.

Digital Audio Workstations: Notation and Engagement Reconsidered

DAW screen cap
First, a benign observation: the overwhelming majority of the music currently emanating from living room speakers, or being heard from passing car stereos, first passed through digital audio workstation (DAW) software of some shape and style. DAWs like Pro Tools, Audacity, Ableton, and GarageBand are generally defined by their use of sequenced tracks containing either sonic waveforms or MIDI code. Yet they are largely invisible to most musicians and listeners, unless one reflects on how digital audio is created and mediated on a day-to-day basis. When we think of a new work’s creation, we imagine a score being poured over by a meticulous hand, eventually realized with lyricism and aplomb by performer(s) of equivalent musical intuition and skill. We pay fleeting attention, if any, to the subsequent inscription and manipulation that occurs in the studio after both the composer and performer have gone out for drinks at the end of the recording session. Indeed, despite an engineer or producer’s best attempts, a new work cannot pass transparently through a DAW; there are always stopgaps, enhancements, deletions, and tweaks being exerted that, I think, fundamentally color the recorded piece as separate from the composer’s instruction and the performer’s execution. This begs the question of how best to characterize the DAW’s everyday impact on our musical world.

Whether a musical work began its life within a DAW (as is the case with computer or electroacoustic music), or only passed through one with minor alteration prior to public distribution, these software tools touch nearly every auditory creation with aspirations beyond a sidewalk corner, bedroom studio, or recital hall. But I would like to take their influence one step further. Not only do DAW software products mediate recorded sound, but these very same tools can be thought of as a form of digital music notation. I broadly define digital notation as any computer-generated system that inscribes information capable of being rendered musical, including but not limited to software that employs some version of conventional staff notation. In the same way we give latitude to the printed graphic scores of Cornelius Cardew, Iannis Xenakis, or Brian Eno as legitimate notation, the DAW’s world of sequenced tracks and waveforms deserves a similarly appreciative study. The fact that DAW software has utility as a performance or recording tool should not prejudice us against its additional notational qualities. Neither should the fact that DAWs are frequently used in tandem with other notational styles when realizing a work.
Xenakis Score
Two real-world situations hopefully add weight to our re-thinking of DAW software as notation. First, when a composer like Matthew Burtner creates a piece of computer or electroacoustic music through a DAW interface, with no originating staff score, should we simply say that Burtner’s piece lacks notation? Or that this music falls outside the boundaries of what notation can accomplish? Second, consider an error-prone session with a chamber group trying to record a new work by a composer like Brian Ferneyhough. By the end of the day, almost never does the recording engineer have a single unblemished take from the work’s beginning to end. More often than not, a hodgepodge of clips cutting across movements or rehearsal letters will need to be sewn back together in the DAW and made to sound convincing, both to Ferneyhough and the eventual listener. Separate versions of the work now exist: the original manuscript showing the composer’s lofty aspirations versus the listener’s reality, a sonic Frankenstein arranged within a DAW that compiles the engineer’s best approximation. Which format has a more legitimate claim as the work’s true inscription? Instead of throwing up our hands in despair at either situation, let’s expand our thinking and our musical toolbox by including DAW software, warts and all, as a digital notation.

A final clarification: the term “digital notation” is frequently thought of as encompassing only those tools of the 21st-century instrumental composer, Finale and Sibelius. Yet Finale and Sibelius are far more akin to conventional DAW software than they are to ink and manuscript notation. In fact, they represent just one fork in the road of the DAW’s development, employing the same sequenced tracks and playback capabilities as progenitor software products while sacrificing waveform sounds in favor of MIDI and virtual instruments. Since the first DAW’s unveiling in 1978, we see the incorporation of similar structural principles into later digital notation products such as Finale, initially released in 1988. Indeed, contemporary DAW software like Logic Pro, seamlessly blending tracks with either MIDI staff notation or waveforms in the same composition, show the re-convergence of these two design paths. Perhaps joining “staff” software like Finale and “non-staff” software like Audacity together under the same notational umbrella seems unintuitive or even bizarre. But I counter that our understanding and classification of digital music notation should rely on how we engage with the medium rather than on the look of the “score” rendered through pixels. In what ways do we take for granted, on an experiential basis, how composers sculpt and explore the sound materials within DAW notation? By briefly exploring three core structural features of most DAWs–waveforms, sequenced tracks, and rapid playback–I want to make the case that this style of digital notation (Finale et al. included) enables a remarkable creative work process for a composer that deserves greater consideration.

Logic Pro screen cap

Logic Pro screen capture

Starting with Max Mathews’s first 1957 forays into the MUSIC-N programming language, the 1960s and ’70s found those individuals experimenting with computer-generated sound being able to specify individual aural events with a revelatory level of ultra-fine resolution. One could now stipulate with great precision the digital synthesis of musical parameters such as pitch, duration, envelope, and harmonic content. Csound, shown here, is a contemporary incarnation of these composition principals. A looming challenge soon arose for the early developers of digital music notation: how, in spite of this high-resolution processing, could a larger series of musical ideas be represented with clarity in the context of an entire composition? Italian electronic music composer Giancarlo Sica summarized a hopeful new method: “…a musical performer must be able to control all aspects [of a digital notation] at the same time. This degree of control, while also preserving expressivity to the fullest extent, allows continuous mutations in the interpretation of a score.” Waveforms, track sequencing, and rapid playback are precisely the DAW’s answer to this outline for increased digital notation flexibility.

CSound screen capture

CSound screen capture

The waveform is the first feature of DAW notation that I believe is taken for granted: how exactly does a composer engage with waveforms as opposed to our standard symbolism of staves, bars, notes, and accents? Waveforms serve as representations of sonic loudness over time with either craggy (quick attacks and decays, with short sustains) or smooth (slow attacks and decays, with long sustains) linear shapes. They flaunt the edges, curves, and dips of a performer’s dynamic treatment of audible content. Furthermore, they fulfill Sica’s earlier blueprint by being able to stretch apart and compact on a whim, displaying a microsecond of curvature or minutes of slow growth in rapid succession. Yet while waveforms provide exactness in the realms of amplitude and duration through visual peaks and valleys, the vital categories of pitch and harmonic content become inaccessible. Waveforms in DAW notation dramatically re-prioritize the musical dimensions to which composers have been traditionally most attentive, trading pointillistic melodic lines and chordal clusters for the attack, sustain, and decay of long, homogenized statements. They blend together formerly discrete notes as they resonate into and out of one another, with punctuation determined largely by phrase and cadence. In essence, our original melodic line becomes a single gestural sweep. Composers must then express themselves in this medium by sculpting a waveform’s dynamic development via fades and contour trims. Through tweaking sonic envelopes like these, waveforms in a DAW notation environment lead composers to think of musical movement in spatial or even topographical terms, rather than through traditional contrapuntal or harmonic mindsets. When a composer manipulates a waveform as the building block of a DAW’s musical dialect, I would describe it as far more akin to working pottery on a lathe or carving a block of ice than a typical composition metaphor such as painting with brushstrokes on a canvas. The same cannot be said for Finale’s species of MIDI-intense DAW notation, as a composer can’t zoom deeper into a quarter-note and discover more musical information to massage. Ultimately, this is a core distinction between a composer’s engagement with waveforms versus staff notation: waveforms enable a practically limitless editing capacity within each topographical gesture, whereas staff symbols are bound by both their discreteness from one another as well as their individual immutability. Again, one simply cannot chop away at the interiors of a quarter-note to render a different sort of sound.
Waveforms, in turn, strongly inform the next feature of DAW notation taken for granted: track sequencing. Track sequencing was developed in order to solve the especially thorny problem of showing relative musical time in digital notation, especially when there are a large number of sound events packed into a relatively short segment. A thickly composed section of a musical work may be pulled apart and laid out on a plane of such tracks that are then stacked on top of one another, or sequenced, to show simultaneity and density of texture. One might understand track sequencing as analogous to the look and feel of a printed orchestral score in conventional staff notation. Yet within such a score, one ratio of detail is maintained throughout the entire work. A conductor is unable to “zoom” in and out to examine micro-fine aspects of a particular instrumental voice, while also limiting the cues and visual influence of the other instruments that bleed into view. In contrast, DAW notation accomplishes precisely this feat while grappling with global and local representations of time across often immense distances. Time-flexible track sequencing, in tandem with our topographical waveforms, enable the composer to almost effortlessly rove and leap between far-flung sections, both making pin-prick edits and rendering gaping holes in the curves of the sounds. The ease of this direct work with the sequenced materiality of the waveform prompts critic and composer Douglas Kahn to opine that, beyond merely writing with sound, users of DAW notation initiate a “word processing” of sound. He describes how “workstations can cut and paste at sub-perceptual durations… they can pivot, branch out, detour, and flesh out… there is no restriction to duration… no necessary adherence to any form of [musical] interval. [DAWs] are very conducive to admixture, stretch, continua, and transformation.” I would like to run with Kahn’s word processing metaphor and apply it specifically to how we overlook the way composers currently manipulate music through the track sequencing of DAW notation. The fluidity and depth with which we sculpt digital music acquires a kind of invisibility, just like word processing, once we become comfortable in the DAW ecosystem. It is as if the composer were tangibly poking and prodding the waveform’s topography without numerous layers of idiosyncratic and technological mediation.

The final feature of DAW notation largely taken for granted involves its rapid playback capacities. A familiar console of controls–fast forward, play, stop, pause, and rewind–exists as a universal feature on DAW products and facilitates constant repeatability with even greater flexibility than a cassette player or a VCR. Once the composer zeroes in on a given segment of interest, the playback of the composition can be locked between these segment’s boundaries. An audible portion can then be looped and a brief, five-second moment may be repeated and tweaked ad infinitum. With this playback tool working in tandem alongside visual variables such as track sequencing and waveform editing, the act of listening itself becomes an inseparably notational component of software like Audacity and even Finale. To clarify: printed notation was formerly necessary as a means to preserve and later create organized sound. Now, listening is on equal footing with sight in our experience of digital notation, generating a sort of feedback loop whereby audible sound is able to dictate its own trajectory in a much more embedded way than a composer might accomplish by sitting with a sketch at the piano. This of course suggests a different sort of notation entirely: one that is multi-sensory at its very core. A single waveform gesture in DAW notation provokes dual stimuli as its visual content translates almost seamlessly into an aural dimension and vice-versa. Through the dogged playback and repetition of a particular musical segment, there is an uncanny synesthesia between sight and sound. Such episodes must certainly cause difficulty: how do I tell where one sense ends and the other begins in a musical experience mediated by DAW notation? This is the third and most pressing aspect, I think, of our creative process largely taken for granted.

I hesitate to point to explicit stylistic changes that result from a composer’s use of DAW notation in lieu of ink and manuscript paper. This trepidation stems not only from the wild diversity of musical genres that employ DAW notation, but also the varying creative stages in which this software is utilized as well as the countless product permutations that mix and match the variables I just described. Rather, my point is that crucial aspects of this ubiquitous music notation technology escape our attention unless we look at them through the lens of compositional engagement. First, waveforms encourage a breadth and depth of musical control, in a topographical style, not available to discrete note values whether they be printed on a page or displayed as a MIDI veneer. Second, track sequencing permits shifting focal points of reference that in turn enable a hyperactive editing style akin to word processing. This is a situation that non-DAW notation precludes through limited visual flexibility. Third, the DAW’s rapid playback controls allow listening to mingle with and meld into the visual parameters of digital notation, as if waveforms were now tangible gestures with a physicality we can toy with beyond the pixels of the computer screen. This is, of course, to say nothing of the tactile interaction that composers experience when they employ a mouse and keyboard while listening to and sculpting the building blocks of DAW notation. Ultimately, DAW software distinguishes itself from other notational styles as a synesthetic tool akin to word processing in its application. In fact, it is a notation whose design parameters, inspired by Sica’s call for relentless flexibility, unite so seamlessly that they retreat from the user’s attention rather than become more apparent, especially as a composer grows increasingly comfortable with their use. The pervasive invisibility of DAW notation in our routine contact with sound and media compels us to shine a critical light on this ingenious device for the inscription and birth of new music.

Morton Subotnick’s Sidewinder

Sounds can evoke both the familiar and the unfamiliar. The familiar can be altered or reinvented into new forms. There is no clear line here between the referential and non-referential. Sounds can suggest something of the real world without actually being about a particular object, place, or personality. In Morton Subotnick’s imagination, electronic music gained accessibility and playfulness, a potential source of interest and joy for listeners of any age or musical experience, like creative cartooning, painting on a canvas, or taking a trip to a “please touch” museum. “Hold” a sound in your hands, stretch it, change it coloration at will, use it create a kind of language, and allow it to unfold in time.

The early works of Subotnick were among my guilty pleasures as a high school senior. At the same time, I had begun to listen to Stockhausen’s Hymnen (1966-67) and Mantra (1970) and some of the Columbia Princeton recordings. I appreciated the rigor and austerity of these works, but it was Subotnick’s Touch (1969) and Sidewinder (1970/71) that provided aesthetic enjoyment. The music was alive, organic in its flowing movement, and—particularly appealing to me—playful. The sounds were so distinctly electronic, the rhythms lively and dynamic, the textures continually unfolding, and the music steadily self-revealing. The music reflected a refreshing aesthetic sensibility—and also an innovative means of making music.

Enter the Buchla!

When Subotnick (with Ramon Sender) commissioned Donald Buchla to design what became the Buchla Box, his goal was an artist-friendly compositional tool that didn’t depend upon recorded sound. Invented in the 1930s, the tape recorder had helped spawn a new way to make music. In the early 1950s, composers in France, Argentina, Germany, Japan, the United States, and other countries were beginning to assemble collections of recorded sounds, cutting and splicing bits of tape, sometimes played backwards or at different speeds. Radio stations—equipped with oscillators, filters, amplifiers, and simple audio test equipment—became workshops for composers to create works using electronically generated and processed sounds.

In practice, these approaches were simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting due to the long, arduous process. Subotnick, working at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s, sought to find a new and more intuitive means of generating and assembling electronic sounds into compositions. Subotnick’s idea was to create something akin to a real-time sonic painting canvas, rather than an electronic musical instrument. The process of its development by Don Buchla, initially a spinning light wheel to create waveforms and then a modular system with integrated circuits, is described in the Spring 2012 issue of Computer Music Journal.

Buchla’s Series 100 (“The Modular Electronic Music System,” conceptualized by Subotnick as the “Music Easel” and later known as the “Buchla Electric Music Box,” “Buchla Box,” or more commonly “the Buchla”) applied the principle of voltage control to shape sound and light, audio and visual media alike. Among its features were a pressure sensitive touch plate (not a keyboard) and a sequencer, each sending voltages that would control frequency, filter parameters, amplitude, and other parameters depending upon the choice of module. Simultaneously in Trumansburg, New York, a few hours northwest of New York City, Robert Moog was at work designing what he indeed saw as a modular electronic musical instrument, from the start featuring a keyboard. (There is a detailed chronology of Buchla’s various developments on the website for Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments .)

Subotnick’s goal was to devise a system that had no inherent bias based upon existing models of musical instruments. Speaking as the conceptual thinker behind the Buchla, in an interview with the author, Subotnick recalls:

It was my idea to create—I didn’t use this term, looking back on what I was thinking back then—a unique, expressive, gestural, analog computer. Something that was neutral so that everyone could make whatever they wanted. The neutrality was in the following form: if you look at the Moog, which was a year or so later, envelopes were thought of as amplitude envelopes, and they were associated with the voltage controlled amplifier that a tone would go through, and you would control whether it was a pizzicato or a sustained or whatever it was supposed to be. [He was] thinking of an [acoustical] instrument, and music.

My idea of an envelope was something that changed in time, voltages that changed in time. So Buchla’s idea then was to separate the voltage from the audio, make voltage something that was cheap and easy to use. So you could gang these up and use them for moving sounds across space. We used it for dimming lights. It didn’t matter what it was. Anything that changed in time was an envelope, but it was not associated with anything. It could be used … that’s the analog computer aspect of it. Everything was designed to stand alone, so you could interface anything with anything you wanted to interface with it.

The idea of voltage banks, “ganging them up,” was not part of the Buchla 100, as Subotnick recalls, “The banks didn’t come until I used it for a while. In fact, though, the idea was right, the implementation was too simple at first, not enough controls, both in and out. I was amazed at what we didn’t account for that Don and I began to understand. This got corrected in the Buchla 200.”
The Buchla prototype was ready for the 1964-1965 season, but was little used prior to Subotnick’s departure for New York in 1966. His theater piece Play 4 (1966) was the only work for the Buchla that Subotnick completed in San Francisco.

Subotnick in New York

Once in New York, Subotnick became one of two artists-in-residence at New York University’s School of the Arts. The position that initially brought him east was musical director for Lincoln Center Repertory Theater, but the position didn’t provide sufficient salary to support his family. Lincoln Center Rep director Herbert Blau spoke with Robert Corrigan, founding dean of New York University’s new School of the Arts (now the Tisch School of the Arts), resulting in the position at NYU. A composer/artist-in-residence would fill a gap in the curriculum, which at the time lacked a music component. Subotnick was joined by two artists-in-residence: first, kinetic sculptor Len Lye, and for the second academic year, visual artist Tony Martin who had been his colleague at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Reunited in New York, Subotnick and Martin also collaborated in the development of the multimedia sound and light shows of the Electric Circus, a Greenwich Village discotheque.

Subotnick’s position was open-ended. New York University easily agreed to his main condition: an off-campus studio of his own to be built around the Buchla. A suite of studios was opened upstairs from the Bleecker Street Cinema in the center of Greenwich Village. This was a neighborhood of cafés and folk, rock, and jazz music venues. Notable artists living or performing in the neighborhood visited the studio, among them Andy Warhol associate Isabelle Collin Dufresne (Ultra Violet), members of the Grateful Dead, Lothar and the Hand People, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and Angus MacLise, Maureen Tucker, and other figures connected with the Velvet Underground. Composers Toshi Ichiyanagi and—as one of Subotnick’s studio assistants Richard Friedman recalls—Steve Reich also stopped in.

Subotnick recollects: “I was really a celebrity in New York for a couple years and the studio became a famous underground thing that suddenly hit the news. People felt like they were part of something. It was a big moment in their lives and they’ve hung onto it in ways that I’ve forgotten. I moved along and kept being me. New York is the marketplace for the arts. It’s not a place where young people could easily experiment because anything you did took on an importance that would tend to squelch a kind of freethinking [and experimentation]. It was the whole scene that makes individuals capable of doing what they do… During that period, New York was really hot. Even if everything you did wasn’t out there for everyone to know, you imagined that it was.”
In retrospect, one of the most important features of Subotnick’s residency was his use of young studio assistants. This act of generosity sparked and nurtured the early composing careers of Maryanne Amacher, Rhys Chatham, Michael Czajkowski , Brian Fennelly, Ingram Marshall, Charlemagne Palestine, Eliane Radigue, David Rosenboom, Laurie Spiegel, and others, among them composer/instrument builder Serge Tcherepnin. But the artist residency didn’t last beyond its initial three-year funding.

Silver Apples of the Moon: Physical and Musical Gestures

Silver Apples of the Moon

The original LP cover for Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, released on Nonesuch Records in 1967.

The pedagogical legacy of the NYU studio is overshadowed by its status as the space where Mort Subotnick initiated his series of Buchla compositions. First to be completed in the Bleecker Street studio was Prelude 3 (1966) for piano and electronics. This was followed by the three works commissioned by major record companies, Silver Apples of the Moon (Nonesuch, 1967), The Wild Bull (Nonesuch, 1968), and Touch (Columbia, 1969). Subotnick subsequently left New York in the fall of 1969 to participate in the founding of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). There, he continued the series with Sidewinder (composed in 1970, released in 1971 on Columbia), Four Butterflies (Columbia, 1974), Until Spring (composed in 1975, released in 1976, on Columbia Odyssey), and an epilogue, A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (Nonesuch, 1978).

“The idea for Silver Apples,” Subotnick recalls, “was a series of sonic gestural environments that would have no real connection [to one another]… I know it’s at this point a kind of cliché concept, but I saw it as a trip, in all senses of the word; a bunch of different trips. You’d have a whole set of experiences in the desert. Suddenly, a cold breeze comes in and you find yourself floating in a lake and you have that experience. Suddenly, you find yourself in a pristine stainless steel room, somewhere, that’s very shiny, and echo-y. So you have an experience. I didn’t take drugs, so I wasn’t tripping. But it was like that and I think that was part of the reason it had its flair. I was trying to imagine a hundred years from now—up until then, records were that, records of a performance. You would go to a performance. You wouldn’t listen in your living room… I was trying to imagine what that world of the future was going to be—when you could just listen, without orchestras, what kind of music would you listen to?”

Touch LP

The original LP cover for Touch (1969), Subotnick’s first album on Columbia Records.

In each of his Buchla works, Subotnick was particularly interested in translating physical gestures, such as finger motions, in real-time, to shape musical and other artistic gestures. “I think that there is always a physical element in gesture, whether you’re physically moving your body [or not]. I think gesture is a physical thing. More than that, it has to do with how things change in time. That’s the essential quality in it. And that became the cornerstone for everything I did. Back in the ‘50s, it was one of the reasons I moved into image, lights, dance, all of these things. I felt that music was the pure form of gesture, that it represented what I called energy shapes in time. I’m still working on it.” Touch sensitivity, on the Buchla touch plate, became an important element in Subotnick’s compositional approach.

To work on Silver Apples of the Moon, Subotnick created random processes on the Buchla, which he manually refined, to generate sequences of musical material. He selected material from these to construct the composition. Subotnick’s subsequent compositions completed on the Buchla at CalArts, however, drew upon a new, more directive approach to crafting gestures that he subsequently developed. Extensive documentation is available of the finale in the series, Until Spring. It was for the creation of Sidewinder that some of the key processes used in the composition and realization of that later work, particularly the use of control voltages, were developed. It was also just the second in the series, following Touch, to be realized in quadraphonic sound.

Sidewinder as a Fuller Realization of Subotnick’s Vision for the Buchla


The original LP cover for Morton Subotnick’s Sidewinder, released on Columbia Records in 1971.

To create Sidewinder, Morton Subotnick continued to generate musical materials, “sound events,” by running Buchla sequences. The principle of shaping gestures using a pressure sensitive touch plate continued. The innovation was Subotnick’s use of “control tracks,” information encoded and stored on tape, to direct the performance of these materials. The scheme was “designed to give the composer greater precision and the opportunity to add, modify, and rearrange his material without affecting the whole fabric.” Thus, “a composition could be laid out in time, envelope, overall amplitudes and spatial position. The details could be filled in later with far more modules on hand to control each individual event.” The implementation of control tracks originated with the first envelope follower, developed by Don Buchla while Subotnick was in New York. The composer recalls: “I called Don and asked for a way to use my voice to control voltages and he built me the envelope detector.”

By using control tracks the composer could design the patches, generate sounds, and subsequently adjust the tempo, attack and decay of notes and sounds. Subotnick would sing or hum into a microphone, which would be translated into performance information (control data) by the Buchla’s envelope follower. This module tracked the changing amplitude of his voice. Those shapes could be applied to changes over time of any musical parameter—not just amplitude. Subotnick would then set the assignment of sounds to multiple channels (to be placed in different speaker locations), and mix several tracks down to stereo, allowing him to add more tracks beyond the capabilities of a tape recorder of the day.

What I ended up with was deciding that one could compose segments of a piece of music with one’s voice and finger pressure in which you are only encoding the meaningfulness, and later you could do this one-minute section in one minute, or you could take five minutes to that same segment—but very quick. And then take three months to take little bits and pieces of it to see how you want that to be realized. So, for instance, I could take, with just my voice, I’m thinking now of an opening for something or a section [hums quietly, with most of his emphasis on articulation, not melody]. And then I could build an entire piece in this way. And not even be concerned with what it’s going to sound like. Just what I wanted it to feel. And so, I ended up doing that.

By the time of Sidewinder I had developed techniques, and by the last ones the techniques were quite complete, in which I would record my voice and finger pressure, put them on a track of tape and then decode them into control voltages and then break up a second of one of those, or three seconds of another one, and put it on leader [tape without information] and work on it for two weeks, not worry about the whole thing, just that. But when you take the leader out, you still have your performance, but you have perfected every sound along the way. And that’s how I ended up working.

Don [Buchla] developed the envelop detector for me to do this—the idea then was I could get another step where my voice would go to an envelop detector and a very high sine tone would then get recorded onto a tape, along with other sine tones of different pitches—I could get five or six. The early ones had my voice on the tape. The later ones had a sine tone that was moving with my voice. I don’t think that anyone, to this day, does anything like that. The ability to be able to do that in real time and break it up into little pieces is still something that I can’t do on the computer. You can come close, but you can’t really do that. You don’t have an equivalent to control voltage in a computer.”

These ideas are elaborated in Subotnick’s program notes for the CD re-issue of Until Spring. More recently, in 2008, after using new computer technologies to revisit Until Spring as a live performance work, Subotnick noted: “The problem was I didn’t have a big enough pallet that I could do everything at once. It had to be broken up into little pieces. Now we’ve got the pallet, so I do it in real time, using two microphones, and various kinds of other control devices I can work with.”

Speaking with Electronic Musician, Subotnick elaborated on how he made use of control tracks while creating Sidewinder: “I might have a vocal on one track [translated using an envelope detector into control voltages], and then I would be controlling oscillators through a comb filter so I could get three different pitches with my three fingers using touch-plate sensors. This way, I might end up with four sets of control voltages and two tracks of tape.”

Subotnick’s patches could also be replayed in a multiplicity of ways, adding lights, live performers, additional material, and in new order and spatial locations of speakers. Electronic compositions moved from the domain of sounds structured permanently to events that could be performed at will. The 2004 DVD presentation of Sidewinder (Mode) includes not only a surround sound version, but also a liquid light show created by Tony Martin to visualize the work. Subotnick’s work with control tracks culminated with Until Spring and A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (1978), which the composer called his “favorite.”

Sidewinder: Conceptually and Musically

In his program notes, Subotnick described Sidewinder as “virtual grooves,” akin to the grooves of an LP, “in orbit throughout space.” They “would periodically pass through the room, like a solar system where different musics are planets and the room is the sun. Each orbit had a different length and timing and the music in each was a distinct entity. As the orbit allowed its music to pass through the room, the music would be heard and would be blended with whatever orbit was playing its music at the time.”
Personally, I prefer to think of this music as akin to a car road trip, new sights continually appearing on the horizon, blending in my imagination with what immediately surrounded the car and had recently passed, fading and giving way to the events waiting to come. My experience of the music is more in line with Subotnick’s own description of Silver Apples of the Moon: “I saw it as a trip, in all senses of the word.”

Sidewinder introduces us to a cast of “sonic characters.” Deviating from inherited traditions of electroacoustic music in which sounds are described in strictly sonic rather than referential terms, I have given them suggestive names. My rationale is tied to the magical way in which Subotnick’s sonorities exist somewhere between the referential and the abstract. The opening sound sequence, after which this work is named, is highly suggestive. Whether or not the work is in fact simply about the sounds themselves rather than forming a dramatic narrative, is beside the point. One can choose—or choose not—to read in a story line, or multiple story lines. I personally prefer not to do so, instead allowing my imagination to take me at each listening.

1. “Rattler” is a continuously changing sequence suggesting its title.
2. “Stoomp” consists of clearly articulated, individual resonant sound pulses.
3. “Rev” is a brief sequence of reverberant sounds, suggestive of a jungle environment. The structure of the sequence will be described within the narrative.
4. “Sound Mass” is a two-note sound cluster; one low frequency and one higher, a perfect fourth apart.
5. “Worble” is a sound cluster with a noise component, frequency modulated.
6. “Helicopter” is a complex sound approximating the title I’ve given it.
7. “Pluck” is a high frequency blend of plucked string and xylophone sonorities.
8. “Kalimba,” suggests a bent metal, twanging sound, beginning with a kalimba-like attack, heard at lower and middle frequencies. Subotnick himself thought of this sound as a jaw harp. It “was made before there was a Q filter. This was a patch that even Don Buchla was surprised by.”
9. “Pulsing Mass” consists of two layers: mid-frequency jaw harp/wah-wah-like filter shifting cluster, and a rumbling, lower frequency sound mass. The machine-like qualities of the sound masses contrast with some of the more organic sounds of this work, like “Rattler.”

Sidewinder CD

Mode’s 2004 CD re-issue of Sidewinder offers a 24-bit remastered stereo mix by the composer from the original analog master tapes. It was also issued on a DVD featuring 5.1 surround sound as well as a liquid light show created for the work by Tony Martin.

The original recording of Sidewinder includes two versions of the piece. The basic patches used to create the sounds are the same, but each realization—how the actual sonorities are shaped and structured—is quite different. Listening closely to each version enables a greater appreciation for the flexibility Subotnick gained by using his control voltage system. Notice, for instance, the variety of ways a sound can be treated—with respect to articulation, tempo, spatialization, and other features—within different sequences.

The description offered here as a listening aid treats the version of Sidewinder originally released on the first side of the recording. The reader is encouraged to listen closely, first without the narrative provided here; listen again with these notes, and then listen to both versions relying solely on your own ears. My narrative description suggests one possible mode of analysis. This approach is supported by Subotnick’s own similarly personified characterization of one of the sounds on side two: “Wild Alley Cats… they are scary cries. I had a fear of cats in those days.”
The overarching structure of side one of Sidewinder, 14:40 in duration, is divided into two sections: part one, which for two and a half minutes features a sound suggestive of a rattle snake (after which the piece is named, albeit given after its completion) and then, after a twenty-four second transition, part two, just under twelve minutes long, in which sequences of plucked metallic sonorities weave in and out, juxtaposed at times with dense sound masses.

In version one, the opening sound “Rattler” continues throughout the opening two and a half minutes. There are two subunits of equal duration within that time period, first a series of contrasting sound events juxtaposed with “Rattler,” and then a subsection “Sound Mass” that begins at 1:13.

“Rattler” is heard alone for the opening half minute, joined at 0:37 by “Stoomp,” and then, at 1:06, a brief sequence “Rev” (reverberant). Within the contrasting sounds of “Stoomp,” we first hear the resonant “Stoomp” pulses, and then longer sustained, modulated sounds, at 0:41-0:45, followed by quiet white noise panning back and forth. At 1:00 the pulses briefly return. The brief sequence “Rev” (1:06-1:09) is organized into a four-beat measure. A high frequency shimmering sound functions as an appoggiatura, leading to a low pitch with sharp attack on count one—its shimmer sustains throughout the measure—followed by short duration higher-pitched sounds on beats 2, 3, and 4.

The subsection “Sound Mass,” heard while “Rattler” continues, consists of two parts, “2 note mass” and, at 1:48, “Worble.” The latter has two subsections, “Worble” (alone, with “Rattler”) and “Helicopter.” At 2:32, “Rattler” fades, as “Worble” and “Helicopter” continue for a brief transition, joined by third layer of sound mass, frequency modulated at gradually changing rates, as part one of Sidewinder concludes.
In part two, we are first introduced to “Pluck” and “Kalimba,” sonorities that define this section, beginning at 2:56. At 5:21 we hear a bass marimba-like sonority and, at 5:50, “Sound Mass” and “Helicopter” predominate and then fade. “Pulsing Mass” follows, at 6:45. There is a hint of “Kalimba” beginning at 7:10. Sustained high frequency sounds, with slow attack and short decay, join starting at 7:20.
The balance of the work is “Kalimba Plus,” beginning at 7:38. The first of three subsections joins the “Pulsing Mass” and “Kalimba” sounds, followed at 8:38 by “Lively Mix” and, at 11:21, “Delicate Kalimba.” The first subsection opens with a continuation of “Pulsing Mass.” There are two layers of massed sounds, with the mid-frequency filter-shifting cluster predominating, subtly changing, and growing much louder at 8:30. At 7:47, high frequency sounds return, slow attack, long sustain, and short decay. Low rumbles are heard at 8:00. Brief “Kalimba” sequences appear in 7:38-7:52, 8:02-8:10, 8:20-8:27, and 8:33-8:40, when they become lost in the mix.

“Lively Mix” begins at 8:54 with a dramatic increase in amplitude levels. The wah-wah filter-shift sound mass predominates, continually changing in shape and emphasis. “Kalimba” and marimba sound sequences join in the fray. At 9:30, the volume level and density of activity drops markedly. The wah-wah sound mass continues, quietly, with sequences of “Kalimba” and bass marimba sonorities continuing to unfold.

The concluding section, “Delicate Kalimba” begins at 11:21. The sound masses drop away, leaving on their own the kalimba-like sound and other sonorities, which suggest knocking on hollow wood. The sequences of activity rise and fall in volume and energy levels, allowing space for quiet, unpredictable contrapuntal lines to unfold. At 12:36, emerging from relative silence, we hear a dramatic increase in activity and volume, with panning between speakers. The level of activity periodically thins and then thickens, the sequencer lines seemingly engaged in conversational dialog. The sounds suddenly cease at 14:32, leaving eight seconds of silence to conclude the piece.
In the liner notes to Until Spring, Subotnick describes his work as “sculpting with sound… placing sound into an imaginary ‘space canvas’ in front of me… molding the color of the sound… transforming the harmonic content… to begin to shape it like the beginnings of some strange visceral language…shaping the sounds into contours of pitch…bending pulsating points along an imaginary time line…” I find this description to aptly capture the nature of the creative process within Sidewinder.
What distinguishes Subotnick’s work of this period from many of its electroacoustic music predecessors is this notion of a “visceral language.” I do not experience Subotnick’s sounds as, to use composer Pierre Schaeffer’s term object sonore (sound objects). I do not experience them as objects at all. In this way, Subotnick reopened the aesthetic conversation. For Subotnick, sounds represent sonic materials to be freely sculpted like highly elastic, multidimensional clay. Rhythm and melody find their place as useful musical ideas, albeit treated very broadly. A metric pulse appears one moment and disappears the next. Or a series of beats can morph into a gesture that rapidly speeds up and coalesces into a complex sound mass. Its components can be placed anywhere in space and moved at will. Physical gestures can be translated into musical gestures; viewed as different manifestations of the same phenomenon, just as a dancer’s body movement and a series of musical sounds can convey the same arc of motion in space and time. Morton Subotnick’s music from the late 1960s and early 1970s opened a refreshingly imaginative world of sound. The listener can take a hint from the title of Subotnick’s third Buchla work, as sounds you can “touch.”

Except where noted in the text, all quotations in the text are from interviews by the author conducted in person as well as via telephone and email between August 2006 and May 2013. For further reading, the following texts, which greatly helped with the research for the present article, are highly recommended:
David W. Bernstein, The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Buchla and Associates. 2010.
Joel Chadabe, Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1997.
T. Darter and G. Armbruster, The Art of Electronic Music (a compilation of articles from Keyboard Magazine, 1975–1983). New York: Quill, 1984.
Robert Gluck, “Silver Apples, Electric Circus, Electronic Arts, and Commerce in Late 1960s New York,” in Proceedings of the 2009 International Computer Music Conference, pp. 149–152 (available online).
Robert Gluck, “Electric Circus, Electric Ear and the Intermedia Center in Late-1960s New York,” in Leonardo 45:1 (2012).
Robert Gluck, “Nurturing Young Composers: Morton Subotnick’s Late-1960s Studio in New York City” in Computer Music Journal 36:1 (2012).
T. Holmes, Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2012.
B. Murphy, “Morton Subotnick,” in Electronic Musician, July 2007 (a href=”″ target=”_blank”>available online).
T. Pinch and F. Trocco, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002.
A Discography of Morton Subotnick Recordings Mentioned in this Essay:
Silver Apples of the Moon (1967) and The Wild Bull (1968), Wergo, WER CD 2035.
Touch (1969) Wergo CD 2014-50. (It is also included on Volume 1: Electronic Works Mode CD 97.)
Subotnick, M. 2001. A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (1978) on Volume 1: Electronic Works, Mode CD 97.
Sidewinder (1970/71) and Until Spring (1974/75), both included on Volume 2: Electronic Works Mode CD/DVD 132.
Four Butterflies in Volume 3: Electronic Works Mode CD/DVD 237.

The World Beyond the Classroom: SFCM Nurtures Community Creativity and Optimism

The school year has begun anew at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with a fresh class of students, but a remarkable group of recent graduates exhibits no sign of floating despairingly at sea, idly wondering how to move on with their lives. They aren’t chasing orchestra auditions or applying for an endless stream of competitions either. In the past several years, the San Francisco new music community has been energized by a wave of performers emerging from SFCM who are deeply, and in some cases exclusively, committed to the creation of new work, supported by a tightly knit network of composer peers and mentors. And while there certainly has been no shortage of composers and new music performers coming out of schools across the country, the concentration of commitment to new music and the interconnectedness of the network coming out of SFCM in recent years has been exceptional.

Virtual tour of atrium at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s new building
It is not a coincidence that the school relocated to a new facility in 2006. Previously situated in a foggy residential area which felt isolated and well removed from downtown, the school’s move to a new glass-filled building with a large, open atrium represented a major identity shift for the institution. The new building is located just off one of the main city crossroads, around the corner from Davies Symphony Hall, the War Memorial Opera House, and City Hall. Not only has the proximity benefitted the students, who are more integrated into the city’s daily cultural activity; the city’s audience has become more aware of the school’s activity in turn—getting to the conservatory’s performances has gotten immeasurably easier due to the location and is therefore more appealing.

One result of this integration into the city center has been a noticeable reconfiguration of the community of new music makers in San Francisco. The local influence of SFCM alumni has been growing for several years: the multi-genre Switchboard Festival, now in its 7th year, was founded by SFCM graduates (Jeff Anderle, Ryan Brown, and Jonathan Russell), as was alumna Minna Choi’s fabulously flexible Magik*Magik Orchestra, which gave the West Coast premiere of Jonny Greenwood’s string orchestra piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver to a sold-out audience in 2008. And though the focus is not on new music, Classical Revolution—founded by Charith Premawardhana in 2006 and designed to increase chamber music’s accessibility by placing performances into a broad range of non-traditional spaces—now boasts over 30 chapters internationally and exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit that has been internalized by many of these recent graduates.
But in the last couple of years several new music ensembles with their roots in the conservatory have reached a new stage in their development, growing up together almost as a collective in close collaboration with an intergenerational community of composers. Among these groups are the Living Earth Show, Mobius Trio, Friction Quartet, and Nonsemble 6, all of whom are commissioning and pioneering new work. The unusual concentration of activity begs a look at how this environment nurtured this development.


Nonsemble 6 in costume for Pierrot Lunaire

Nonsemble 6 in costume for Pierrot Lunaire
Photo by Irwin Lewis, Corsetry by Autumn Adamme/Dark Garden

In speaking to members of each of these four ensembles, there is an admirable sense of entrepreneurship, empowerment, and self-motivation across the board. Soprano Amy Foote, who co-founded Nonsemble 6 with clarinetist Annie Phillips, says simply, “I wanted these opportunities, so I created them!” This self-possessed sentiment is echoed by her colleagues in other ensembles: the lesson that it is possible and even necessary to make things happen for oneself has clearly hit its mark. Nonsemble 6 first began to take shape in 2009, when Foote and Phillips approached the chamber music faculty with the idea of performing Pierrot Lunaire. The request was green-lighted, and the school helped them to fill out the ensemble with Justin Lee (flute), Kevin Rogers (violin), Ian Scarfe (piano), and Anne Suda (cello). Since then, the group has memorized and staged the work, and has toured the production in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. In continuing support of their efforts, SFCM also presented them on their newly established Alumni Recital Series last season. In the meantime, Nonsemble 6 has begun to commission new works, specifically with the goal of developing staged monodramas where the instrumentalists are equal theatrical participants with the vocalist. (A current project is wishes, lies, and dreams by fellow graduate Danny Clay, with a libretto developed in writing workshops for children aged 8 to 12, led by Foote and Clay at Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia.)
A milestone in Nonsemble 6’s development, which was later shared by the Mobius Trio, was the school’s choice to have them represent SFCM at the Kennedy Center’s Conservatory Project, a performance series hosted by the Center to showcase the nation’s top musical talent. Nonsemble 6 was given the opportunity to present their production of Pierrot Lunaire in Washington in 2010; the Mobius Trio performed on the same series the following year with a program of works written for them that included Persian Dances by SFCM composer Sahba Aminikia. Both groups cited access to this national platform as a major opportunity and motivator to hone their work.

Mobius Trio

Mason Fish (left), Robert Nance, Matthew Holmes-Linder
Photo courtesy of Mobius Trio)

While Nonsemble 6 had the canonic Pierrot Lunaire to launch their group, the Mobius Trio—classical guitarists Mason Fish, Matthew Holmes-Linder, and Robert Nance, all protégés of David Tanenbaum and Sérgio Assad—had no established repertoire to draw on, and therefore had to build an entire catalogue of music for themselves from scratch, a situation that Tanenbaum points out has been the case for guitarists since Segovia’s time. Through an interdepartmental program at the school called Doublespeak developed by the guitar and composition chairs (Tanenbaum and Dan Becker, respectively), 20 composers were paired with guitarists to create new works, yielding 150 minutes of music for guitar. Doublespeak was modeled on an existing, successful program at SFCM called the Viola Project, begun in 2004 by string department chair Jodi Levitz and Becker. In addition to the benefits that composers gain from working in-depth with instruments that might not get a lot of their attention otherwise, both Tanenbaum and Levitz have spoken of the deeper sense of identification with a piece that performers gain while working on music written expressly for them. “Students would make extreme efforts to stretch their technique to new heights to perform ‘their’ works,” Levitz says. “This made me realize the power of ‘ownership’ of a work.“ Thanks in part to Doublespeak, the composer base that had experience writing for classical guitar was enlarged, and the trio went to work commissioning not only their peers, but also their teachers.

The integration of faculty members into this community, not only as mentors but also as collaborators, has been particularly gratifying to observe. Becker has an obvious, deep-rooted affection for his composition students and their performer colleagues alike, and has himself composed works for several of these groups. Sérgio Assad, who with Odair Assad forms the awe-inspiring Assad Brothers guitar duo, doesn’t simply coach or advise Mobius; he agreed to produce their first album and is writing for the ensemble as well. Students speak gratefully of Becker and Luciano Chessa, who is on the music history faculty, hosting informal listening parties in their homes. As a performer himself, Chessa has worked with The Living Earth Show and is writing a new work for Nonsemble 6.

The Living Earth Show

The Living Earth Show at Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland

The Living Earth Show—Andrew Meyerson, percussion, and Travis Andrews, electric guitar—started in 2010 out of Meyerson’s realization that the most musically rewarding path for him would be “to commission new works and play things that wouldn’t otherwise be played.” The duo, which has an album scheduled to be released on Innova this fall, has also had three works written for them by faculty members. When asked to describe the support that he and The Living Earth Show have received from the administration and faculty, Meyerson uses the words “endless,” “loving,” and “seemingly unconditional”—terms more commonly applied to one’s favorite grandmother than the administration of an institution.

In addition to the duo, Meyerson co-founded the annual Hot Air Music Festival in 2010, a full-day new music marathon event that takes place at the conservatory each spring. (Last year there was also an off-site Hot Air After Party concert at the Hotel Utah, a saloon dating back to 1908 that regularly presents independent music in the South of Market area, where Mobius, Living Earth, and the Friction Quartet shared the bill.) With Becker as a faculty sponsor, the organizers of the festival received academic credit as an independent study project, free space provided by the school, and some PR assistance. Building on the model of the Switchboard Festival (which is independent of the school, though founded by alumni) and Becker’s own experience producing OPUS415 marathons with his Common Sense Composers’ Collective, the Hot Air Music Festival was launched, allowing Meyerson and his co-founders the experience of entrepreneurship within a supported environment.

The Friction Quartet is one beneficiary of Hot Air’s greenhouse: founded by violinist Kevin Rogers and cellist Douglas Machiz, Friction wanted specifically to play John Adams’s String Quartet and programmed it for Hot Air in 2012. (In addition to Rogers and Machiz, the quartet includes violinist Otis Harriel and violist Pei-Ling Lin.) According to Rogers, a number of people came to hear that work specifically, and their performance, which was then posted on YouTube, brought them to the attention of other composers, who began contacting them. Among those writing for the group now is Becker, who is collaborating with Friction on a major project for Bay Area dance luminaries Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton titled A Show of Hands, which Friction will perform live with Garrett+Moulton Productions in October.

Rogers’s interest in contemporary music began well before coming to SFCM. He speaks of becoming familiar with Penderecki and Berio before Beethoven, and cites the experience of hearing the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet’s recording of Black Angels as an inspiration.** With this existing interest in new music, Rogers (who was the violinist assigned through the chamber music program to the Pierrot Lunaire ensemble that has now become Nonsemble 6) is grateful that his teacher Bettina Mussemeli was “willing to get her hands dirty and explore” contemporary works with him that she didn’t know herself. Likewise, he also credits conductor Nicole Paiement, who directs both the school’s new music ensemble (a student ensemble) and Opera Parallèle (the conservatory’s resident professional new music ensemble, which recruits students to perform with professionals) for sharing her “infectious energy for new music.”


Now that they have graduated, all of these ensembles fully embrace the idea that their paths forward require them to be enterprising and to take on the responsibility of cultivating their own paths. As Mason Fish of Mobius points out, “To come out of college with direction like this is rare.” The school has also recognized the need to continue developing this ethic in their current students: Switchboard and Sqwonk Duo co-founder Jeff Anderle, Magik*Magik founder Minna Choi, and Nonsemble 6 co-founder Annie Phillips are teaching a two-semester graduate-level course this year titled “Musical Startups,” developed by Anderle and the Dean’s office at SFCM. Phillips says the curriculum will include information about “how to found a project, structure it in a way that makes sense, and other practical business” skills. As each ensemble has found, the division of labor has tended to emerge organically, as individuals tap into natural skill sets to further each group administratively.
Nonetheless, the barriers they are now encountering outside the conservatory environment are painfully familiar. About fundraising, Rogers says simply, “We don’t know how to do it.” Mobius’s Nance notes, perhaps jokingly, “90% of my time for Mobius is admin.” As for Nonsemble 6, Foote adds, “I know that there’s a learning curve… There’s a lot we don’t know about the ins and outs of certain institutions. It takes years before you learn that, let alone how to write a good budget, a good proposal. We need support from people who know these organizations.”

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To help guide these young ensembles through this transitional period, the newly formed Center for New Music, founded by Adam Fong and Brent Miller, has stepped in to provide guidance and access to an infrastructure that disappears once students have graduated. Fong, a composer himself who worked as Other Minds’ associate director prior to starting the Center, says that behind the Center is the idea that a community working together helps everyone thrive. “We’re very fortunate in the Bay Area to have not just one, but multiple generations of leaders in contemporary music who are very present and active,” Fong says. “We work in such a small niche of the musical world that it behooves us to think collaboratively, to work together, to function as multipliers of each other’s artistic impact.”
The Center, which just opened last fall in San Francisco’s still developing mid-Market district, is a performance space, a rehearsal space, an office space, a meeting space—in short, an area that allows young artists and artists without an established infrastructure to work and experiment. The Center has also begun to offer workshops on grant writing and other administrative tasks, as well as provide consulting to select ensembles, including the Mobius Trio who are appreciative of the fact that Fong and his colleagues are willing to share the “stuff you don’t learn in school” in their regular meetings.

Fortunately the school’s new music community is aware that it provides a web of support as everyone tries to find a successful transition into their professional performing careers. Foote speaks of her hope that the “community will build support for itself,” with ensembles and composers “legitimizing each other.” “Together we form a conglomerate, a collective,” she says. “Finding a way to congeal these groups together will help us all out.” Meyerson of The Living Earth Show expresses a similar sentiment, saying, “I can’t really imagine a healthier and more creatively rewarding sense of camaraderie among students, faculty, and staff.” Indeed, the interconnectedness of this community, fostered by the environment at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has proven itself to be amazingly fruitful, yielding dozens of new scores which are getting committed performances from excellent musicians. Our job now is to continue nurturing this environment of creativity and optimism.

When I asked how the new music community can help extend the wave of energy currently in motion, Meyerson said, “I think the only support we could ask from the established new music community is to check out our recordings and shows, and check out more if they like it.” Websites for some of the emerging ensembles and composers who are part of this community are listed below.
Anthony Porter | Classical Revolution | Danny Clay | Friction Quartet | Joseph Colombo | Kevin Villalta | The Living Earth Show | Magik*Magik Orchestra | Mobius Trio | Nonsemble 6 | Sahba Aminikia | Sqwonk | Switchboard Festival

**(Disclaimer: I work for the Kronos Quartet, and Dan Becker has also developed a mentoring program for his composition students who observe rehearsals and have access to Kronos’ Artistic Director David Harrington. Some students have written and arranged works for Kronos, and some performers mentioned are receiving mentoring advice from Harrington as well.)

Music, MOOCs, and Copyright: Digital Dilemmas for Schools of Music

I first heard about Coursera a year ago when I was carpooling to a gig with my friend Kate. She told me about a personal finance class she was taking. The class was free, the course materials were really great, and she was attending every Saturday.
“Oh wow!” I said. “So where’s the class?”

Turns out, the class was online. Kate was enrolled in a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) at Coursera, one of the internet’s largest providers of online classes. Although I didn’t know it at the time, MOOCs are one of the biggest hot-button acronyms in education today. They’ve been hailed as both a revolution in access to information and a harbinger of corporatized educational doom.
Calarts MOOCs
At first glance, the opportunity to take free online courses from some of the country’s most prestigious universities—Coursera partners with schools like Stanford, Princeton, Rice, and Yale—sounds great. My friend Kate represents a relatively noncontroversial MOOC student: an educated adult taking a class in a non-university, not-for-credit setting. She’s what proponents of MOOCs would call a “lifelong learner,” and an ideal beneficiary of free, high-quality online education.
But for some educational stakeholders, organizations like Coursera—which is for-profit, funded by venture capitalists, and doesn’t classify itself as an institution of higher learning—represent a threat to higher education as we currently know it. MOOCs are particularly controversial when they are offered for credit in the setting of a university degree program. Holding up MOOCs as a fast, cheap alternative to a traditional college education—which for most American students comes with a heavy price tag—could result in a two-tiered class system in which rich students get face time and poor students get screen time.

MOOCs also raise concerns about attempting to replace or devalue real, live university professors. California legislators recently rejected a controversial bill which would have outsourced some entry-level state university courses to for-profit companies like Coursera and Udacity. The bill was uniformly opposed by professors in the California State University system.

In light of all this possibility and controversy, I was interested to learn that my alma mater, the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University, had become involved with the MOOC wave. I reached out to Cynthia Cyrus, my former dean and musicology professor who is now associate provost for undergraduate education. Cyrus has a career-long passionate interest in scholarship’s presence on the web. When she first arrived in the provost’s office in 2011, hardly anyone was talking about MOOCs, she said. Since then, MOOCs have become the focus of a national education debate, and Cyrus has helped oversee and develop the university’s partnership with Coursera. Cyrus described the work as exhilarating. “It’s not very often,” she noted, “that someone gets to start a whole new division of the university.”

In my conversation with Cyrus, I learned a great deal about the particular copyright challenges that schools of music face when it comes to using recordings and other media in the context of online learning. We also discussed how Vanderbilt is choosing to relate to the complex ethical questions that MOOCs raise, offering a window into the important decisions that higher education institutions across the country are making.
Berklee MOOCs
Ellen McSweeney: Vanderbilt initially wanted to have five Coursera offerings—one from each school. Is the Blair School of Music course up and running?

Cynthia Cyrus: One of the Blair School faculty is lined up and ready to teach for Coursera, and that was supposed to be one of our first five offerings. But the copyright questions in music are so much a higher hurdle to cross over that we haven’t actually brought that particular course to fruition.
Some of the other schools teaching for Coursera try to skirt copyright issues by linking to things on YouTube. But Vanderbilt’s policy is that if it’s a violation of copyright in one arena, simply linking to someone else doesn’t get us out of that moral dilemma.

We’re trying to be really mindful about the ways in which musicians are compensated as we move forward in this digital medium.

EM: What would your ideal solution be for the copyright issues that music MOOCs are facing?

CC: The strategy that I’d really like to see come to fruition is for Coursera to do negotiations with one or more of the music aggregators to say, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get access to the iTunes list, where students could listen for free during the course and then purchase it later if they’d like?” This is similar to what’s been done with textbooks. That’s my ideal, whether it’s iTunes or Naxos or maybe even a BMI or ASCAP relationship. I think it would be best for all concerned if we have a broad musical catalog to draw on for these teaching purposes.

The second model, which will be [Vanderbilt’s] default if we can’t get Option A to work, is to simply negotiate copyright for each and every example that the faculty member wants to use. But that’s a huge amount of money and a large amount of work. Last year, with no staff supporting the Coursera project, that was simply not an option, which is why the Blair course is still on hold.

EM: Face-to-face university professors can use musical examples without copyright concerns. Why aren’t the use of musical examples in Coursera considered fair use? Is it because the Coursera is for-profit?

CC: It’s not just that they’re for profit, but also that they haven’t defined themselves as an institute of higher education. There is no case law to determine whether there is fair use in this area, and nobody wants to be the one to provide the case law! But there’s a real need, not just for Coursera, but many different providers of intellectual knowledge, to be fluent in the idioms of 21st-century culture that aren’t in any of the protected categories under U.S. law. There’s a real absence of legal framework for handling these kinds of issues.

That’s one of the reasons, if you look at the Coursera course list, there’s quite a list of things that can be taught without copyright-protected musical examples. Faculty members must deliberately restrict what materials they use as illustrative examples.
It drives me nuts a little bit. Without structural and legal support, we’ve categorized an entire area of culture as being off limits for MOOCs. And I have issues with that, coming from a school of music. Although it does remind me that there’s a reason that I like to work on [materials created by] dead people! The 15th-century nuns are not going to object to what I’m out there printing.

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EM: There are major ethical concerns surrounding MOOCs—about who’s funding them, who’s taking them, and whether they’re trying to replace higher education altogether. Where does Vanderbilt stand on those questions?

CC: Vanderbilt is treating Coursera as outreach, as a means of global penetration, and as a way to reach out to alumni and support continued engagement with the university community. None of our classes are available here for credit, and that’s an important distinction.
The model that the state of California was contemplating is worrisome on a couple of levels. First of all, using one school’s intellectual capital to meet your own institutional agenda is a way of ceding your authority as an institution of higher education. Coming from my faculty background, that makes me uncomfortable. The idea of taking, for example, our one-credit nutrition course out of the Vanderbilt environment and having another institution say, “Boom, you complete that course, you get one credit!” is problematic. That needs to go through a university’s faculty governance. Faculty should always be the ones to determine whether a course is meeting their educational vision. Here at Vanderbilt, we haven’t asked any of our faculty to review the MOOCs in a for-credit environment. That’s not what a Vanderbilt degree is about.

While none of our Coursera offerings are for-credit, faculty can use materials developed for Coursera as part of their face-to-face courses. Faculty have been able to do “flipped” classroom teaching, which means that students do passive learning—like watching lectures—at home. Professors then use class time for group activities and active learning that hasn’t always been possible, given the constraints of the schedule.

We’ve also done quite a bit of experimentation with what we call “wrapping,” in which a Vanderbilt professor can use a MOOC as part of their own course content. Professor Doug Fisher did this with one of [Coursera cofounder] Andrew Ng’s courses. Doug taught a class that was “wrapped” around Ng’s lectures. Doug’s course drew on those as a body of common knowledge and a jumping-off place for the students.

The crux of the issue is that what one does in a college class is more than acquire content. MOOCs are great for the content part, but the community insights, the ability to synthesize material, those higher-order processes happen because you are studying a common area. They are not themselves the common area of study. And the thing we know from longitudinal studies of students is that they don’t remember the content, but they do retain the intuitions that they developed while working through that content. That’s the part that we could lose when schools are relying too heavily on digital media.
EM: What do you see other schools of music doing with their MOOC offerings?
CC: Berklee College of Music has a number of Coursera courses, and they have opted mostly for subject matter that doesn’t require too many copyright-protected musical examples: Jazz Improv, Intro to Music Production, Songwriting, Intro to Guitar. There are a variety of music courses out there, but each one of them has had to invent its own solution to the copyright problem. Schools of music are not yet working cohesively as a team to get these issues worked out.
Curtis has a course live now on Beethoven Piano Sonatas, and another one on Music History through Performance that goes live in October. There, I think, they are probably capitalizing on out-of-copyright works. I don’t know what their solution would be for the 20th or 21st century. With older repertoire, they have to worry about performer permissions, but they don’t have to worry about the permissions of composers.

EM: Right! I’m writing this article for a contemporary music community audience, and realizing that we may have particular barriers to participating in the MOOC wave.

CC: Right. It is entirely possible that when we get into pulling courses together, people will be generous with permissions. However, most of the people we negotiate permissions with are lawyers. It’s not the musicians saying yes, I want to compromise and be part of this social good. We’re dealing with lawyers. To me, lifelong learning audiences need to and want to be engaged with the musical details of the music that they’re choosing to hear live. But it’s awfully hard to get through the hurdles of how to get that up and online without stepping on somebody’s toes.