Category: Analysis

Lessons from the Outside: A Venture Capital Firm for New Music

cash ideas

Cash Week - sm

One of the sessions I attended at the New Music Gathering in Baltimore this year covered commissioning new works. It was an engaging session to an overflow audience, and many interesting thoughts came out of it. But I want to focus on just one of them.

Among the attendees were new music champions Arlene and Larry Dunn. At one point, Arlene asked how audience members—not the performers or the show organizers or composers, etc., but the people who listen—can participate in the commissioning of new works.

This is a question that I think is worthy of deeper and ongoing consideration and exploration by anyone involved in building an audience or a scene. Many of the ways in which music is produced separate audiences from the opportunity to directly support the creation of new works. This is the case in popular music as well as other genres. There are organizations that collect money from audiences in order to produce and package music experiences, but few paths for direct participation by fans in the music’s invention.

Thinking about Arlene’s question, there are some popular platforms such as Kickstarter and Patreon. But anyone who has run a Kickstarter campaign can tell you that the work involved in successfully funding in this way can be exhausting. Moreover, there are questions about how sustainable Kickstarter might be. After all, how many times can an audience be tapped in this way each year, and how many times can the organizers expend the effort required?

Patreon sort of handles the sustainability side by being built with the idea of ongoing payments vs. Kickstarter’s one-time cash infusion model. But the Patreon subscription model doesn’t easily align with the commissioning of a single work. A work is more like a product, while Patreon is built to fund a process.


What if, in an effort to make a better answer for Arlene’s question, we examine potential futures that don’t exist right now but could? My Bonnie Jones Grant, which funds my music-making activity, involves helping organizations handle challenges strategically. Why not use some of the techniques from the business and finance world to see if we can come up with something?

Scenario Planning

One tool that is used by people who think deeply about business and the future is called scenario planning. It’s mostly just a serious term invented so that the guys and gals in suits don’t feel silly saying, “We’re doing some daydreaming over here during our corporate retreat.” While a little more rigorous than plain old daydreaming, it’s not terribly daunting either.

Ultimately, it’s a game that goes more or less like this: Identify some variables that you suspect are important, get some understanding of what influences those variables, outline several possibilities for what the future might look like based on what you understand of the variables, build a set of plans so that your organization is prepared to deal with this potential future reality. Bonus points are awarded for any data or existing models/behaviors from other fields that can be applied to any of these steps.

Also, it’s one of those hippie games that doesn’t have a winner. It’s either fun and productive or it isn’t. (I suppose some people do win if the future they identify comes to pass and, because they’ve played this game, they are prepared for it.)

Most importantly, this is a game anyone can play and there are no single right answers. We could all play this game and come up with a wide variety of very creative answers to Arlene’s question. And it’s a question that anyone who makes music should be happy to answer: how can audiences directly support the creation of new work?

An Example

I’ll run through my own short version of scenario planning on this so long as you all agree to remember that this will be just one potential solution. You may come up with something equally or more viable if you play this game as well.

Variables that I suspect are important in examining the future of funding new works are: Desire of audiences to participate at all, desire of audiences to participate directly, desire of audiences to feel a part of the process/some ownership. There are other variables as well that, for the sake of not boring people, I’m not going to get into in this piece.

Is there anything we can observe that points at these variables? Well, there’s the existence of Kickstarter and Patreon, two platforms with active users facilitating the creation of new work through direct participation. There are also commissioning clubs, which serve as an example of audience members self-organizing to fund the production of new work.

We also have Arlene’s question, a sign that there is someone who is interested in these things but wants to be closer to the generative side of the equation. She doesn’t necessarily want to wait for a composer, performer, or presenter to start the process.

Other things we can observe are that there are many boards for arts organizations which contain people who may have similar motives and desires to those expressed by Arlene.

In terms of trends, many pixels have been darkened in an effort to inform us that millennials are particularly interested in social action and direct participation. Perhaps the Kickstarters and Patreons of today are really just the tip of an iceberg for activating this generation as they move into positions of greater authority and influence.

But Kickstarter and Patreon rely on producers to initiate the commissioning activity. And commissioning clubs may lack some of the formalized structure necessary for larger scale and longevity. Are there other existing models where non-producers fund people/organizations to produce something?

cash ideas

Yes, of course. This is how many businesses are created. A group of investors pool some money together and provide it to a business so the business can make something (more money, usually). There are several different ways this happens. There are models where lots of people put in money and don’t think about it while a manager invests it (i.e. low/non-existent participation from the people putting up the money). And there are models where the people who put money in are very, very involved, sometimes selecting and altering the management of a company for example.

What’s useful about examining how business funds creation is that it provides a currently functioning model in which money is already flowing for the development of new things. It also shows that there are several ways this can be done for low-involvement and high-involvement.

Perhaps there’s a future in which someone like Arlene becomes an investor in a fund that is actively pursuing the creation of new works. It could likely work in a way similar to existing venture capital funds. Perhaps there are a handful of managers that seek out and vet potential projects.

We could go further with this analogy, I suppose. Venture capital isn’t a grant. The investment is expected to return something to the investors. So there’s ownership. Perhaps there is some exchange of ownership of the musical product that is funded which is transferred to the investors. Just as in business today, this sort of arrangement would not be acceptable for everyone. But for some, it might.

I discussed this idea, just as a thought exercise, with a composer friend of mine: considering that many startups receive significant investment and aren’t actually expected to profit for some time, what if music had that same luxury? What if our hypothetical venture capital for new music was putting up a million bucks for the creation of a new work with the idea that creators would make something worth more than a million bucks over the next few years?

Thinking in this way broadens the scope of what we’re doing as music makers beyond a single premiere presented to a handful of friends, or even a large audience. It asks us to consider greater potential for what we’re doing, which is good.

I’ll call this my potential future for Arlene’s question: Groups of audience members who collectively organize to fund the creation of new music. Each group has an agreement amongst itself regarding the kinds of things it funds and the kind of ownership stake it asks in the resulting work. There would likely be an ecosystem of groups like this catering to different audience members’ interests and skills.

There are benefits in this approach beyond money. For example, since the people participating in our potential music venture capital fund have a stake in the success of the work, they may be more willing or able to provide non-tangible assets: making crucial introductions, facilitating access to rehearsal/launch/performance spaces, and media connections. (The breathless coverage of technology startups is largely a function of the venture funding mechanism in common use in that industry.)

There is also benefit to the participants in the venture fund. Meeting and working together for vetting and successful launch of music projects allows for a deeper and richer interaction among capable people. There can also be value in gaining skill at identifying and incubating emerging projects.

For the greater new music scene there are benefits as well. Any new music venture firm that becomes capable of supporting the launch of several projects will likely come to the conclusion that they can improve the chances of success by providing physical space for the development of multiple projects, much like co-working spaces in business. There are probably several things like this which would benefit from the pooled resources of the fund. In addition, increased interaction between music makers on several different projects may also improve chances of success.

A successful venture firm of this sort could alter the geography of the new music scene as well. Silicon Valley is the site of the startup economy because that is where the venture capital resides. Originally, it was less expensive than existing business centers like New York. Put several new music venture organizations with rehearsal/development spaces in a place outside the traditional centers of operation, and the geography of innovation within the field will tilt as well.

It is these larger issues, like geography of innovation, which will likely attract a new audience to the concept and to the music. It is common for smaller second- and third-tier cities to try to develop innovation centers or business incubators. The ability to influence the generation of a new industry would be attractive to individuals who are looking for the benefits of an increase in the number of innovative thinkers and creators in their town.

Certainly the whole “innovative music makers are going to make your town awesome” line of thinking isn’t completely obvious to everyone. But it’s obvious to enough. The success of Austin as both a music city and a technology city is well known and studied in civic policy circles, for example. There is a conference called Music Cities that is focused on precisely these kinds of issues.

What sort of things would need to be in place for this kind of thing to occur in new music? First up would likely be a collection of investors in a position to invest without significant anxiety over losing their investment. These people already exist, it’s just that they are captured more by business venture capital at the moment.

Creators would have to develop broader visions for their work, which includes functional revenue streams. The stereotype is that musicians only care about “The Art,” but I know enough musicians to know the stereotype is not entirely true. Even beyond that, in business it is extremely common to have a partnership in which one of the partners is the product/creative person and the other is the operations/business person. Some venture capitalists won’t invest unless there are at least two people for this very reason.

In other words, creative teams and projects may need to expand their individual capabilities or take on additional team members to fill this need. So perhaps another sign of the potential future outlined above would be noticeable leadership positions in ensembles and composer teams that consider deeply issues of revenue stream generation. I’ve read at least one recent article promoting retiring the myth of the solitary genius composer, so perhaps there is movement in this direction already.

Just One Potential Future

The idea of a venture capital model for the creation of new works is just one possible answer for Arlene’s question at the New Music Gathering. Hopefully enough readers are now so outraged by this idea that some will take up the task of creating a different potential future and sharing it with us. Or perhaps some people will get to work assembling the first version of this new way to create new music.


Gahlord Dewald

Gahlord Dewald
Photo by Mira Steinzor


Gahlord Dewald is a musician specializing in acoustic, electric, and synthetic bass frequencies. He is currently commissioning new works for solo double bass with or without electronics. He delights in sharing new music with small audiences in Burlington, Vermont, where he lives. You can learn more about his work at

Stay Tuned: Celebrating Ben Johnston’s 90th Birthday with his 10 String Quartets

[Ed. Note: Today, March 15, 2016, is the 90th birthday of maverick American composer Ben Johnston. To celebrate this major milestone, the Kepler Quartet—which has spent the last 14 years working closely with Johnston to learn and record his music—has finally completed their third and final installment of the world premiere recordings of his entire oeuvre for string quartet on New World Records which will be released on April 15, 2016. Though Johnston’s ten string quartets are thoroughly idiomatic and often extremely beautiful, his music offers some unprecedented challenges to would-be interpreters. For more than half a century, Johnston has eschewed today’s common practice tuning of equal temperament in his music and has instead explored just intonation (intervals tuned to precise numerical ratios) which derives from the overtone series. Most of the quartets use intervals as complex as those derived from the 13th harmonic in the overtone series, but one quartet goes as high as the 31st harmonic. Another quartet, the Seventh—christened “the Mount Everest of String Quartets” by Kyle Gann and a work which has never been previously performed let alone recorded—contains more than 1200 distinct pitches. This is a hundred times the amount of tones that most string players are ever asked to play. So how did the Kepler Quartet tackle this music? We asked the quartet’s second violinist, Eric Segnitz, who was also the producer of the recordings, to offer his personal perspective on the process. We’ve also included some short video clips featuring Ben Johnston and the members of the quartet as well as a brand new video clip that was recorded during the final recording session.—FJO]

Video by Ross Monagle
Ben Johnston has been called a genius, a hero, a visionary. And by the standard criteria, that is all true. New advances in a domain of knowledge? Check. Sacrificing or not compromising for personal concerns, achieving feats of ingenuity for the greater good? Check. Able to envision past, present, and future in a parallel universe that recognizes beauty as it already exists? Check. He even dares you to go on that journey with him.

This year marks composer Ben Johnston’s 90th birthday, and the passage of fourteen years since the Kepler Quartet (in which I play second violin) began to record the entire cycle of Johnston’s ten string quartets. Much has been written about Johnston’s music, so I will concentrate here on the history of these recordings.

By virtue of our recording project, the Kepler Quartet has had a privileged window into the essentially spiritual quest in Johnston’s music. At age 90, a full fifteen years after he stopped writing music, Johnston has come to a place in his life where his main goal is to have a positive impact on his environment. He has come to embrace a philosophy that there are two ways to live. He has forsaken the so-called “hero’s journey”—a linear approach to life that mirrors melodic values, in favor of another, richer way of being: to work towards pure, honest relationships with others by using a vertical, harmonic approach concentrating on perfect intervals, the advantage being that it produces less discord, increased resonance, and maximum clarity—to borrow the title of the 2006 book of Johnston’s collected writings.

This harmonic approach cannot be achieved at our society’s breakneck pace. It requires deeper consideration, more serious engagement, and—above all—slowing down. I remember when I was coached by Rudolf Kolisch and Zoltan Szekely, the respective founders of the Kolisch and Hungarian string quartets, the groups that first brought the Schoenberg and Bartók quartets to the public. Besides being awestruck, I remember thinking at that time, “Man, are these guys slow!” They were ultra-methodical, and could spend three days on the opening of a Mozart string quartet, or two months staring at a Bartók score before picking up an instrument. Those were memorable experiences, but also ones that could drive a headstrong, career-anxious youth nuts.

Now I understand.

As St. Thomas Aquinas put it: “It is better to enlighten than merely to shine.”

By necessity, the Kepler Quartet is not currently a performing quartet. We have been a stealth unit, secluded in a remote church in the middle of a cornfield, rehearsing with the composer to make recordings. We’ve needed to approach these works much as they were written: contemplated intuitively, at a distance from society, with the belief that what is “normal” does not apply—not with this music.

Ben Johnston and the members of the Kepler Quartet

Ben Johnston (bottom left) with the members of the Kepler Quartet. Brek Renzelman and Karl Lavine (top row), Sharan Leventhal (middle row). and Eric Segnitz (bottom right). Photo by Kae Hubred.

St. Tom again: “It is better to give the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.”

The cover of the Kepler Quartet's first CD devoted to the music of Ben Johnston (New World Records 80637-2).

An excerpt from String Quartet No. 4 “Amazing Grace” (1973) as performed by the Kepler Quartet: Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz (violins), Brek Renzelman (viola), and Karl Lavine (cello). From the first disc in the series, Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 9 (New World Records 80637-2) released in January 2006. Streamed with permission.

Whatever possessed us undertake a task of such Brobdingnagian proportions? We premiered the Tenth Quartet in 2002, working with Johnston on a concert series for the Milwaukee-based new music group Present Music. The collective gasp of the audience after each movement sent a clear message. Similarly, anyone who has played his Fourth Quartet (“Amazing Grace”) will tell you, as the final variation begins, a life-affirming catharsis occurs–one of the special moments in music, like the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony when all hell breaks loose. What is behind that? How can that possibly happen? What musician wouldn’t want to know more about that? When you discover that Johnston’s Fourth Quartet was conceived entirely (harmony, rhythm, structure) based on a specific set of organic ratios, it’s even more mind-boggling. And when you learn that the work was written in response to a personal crisis, it takes on a universal quality. Our collective and individual relationships with Ben were very natural from the beginning; he had so much to give, and we had so much to learn.

Did we know it would take fourteen years? Obviously not. The project started as an impulse to record the work we premiered. We talked to ten record labels. Seven were interested, and a few suggested that we do the entire cycle. The consensus was that somebody had to do it, but that early in the project no one really had any idea what they were talking about. (Our code name was Project Rabbit Hole.)

Kepler Quartet: Ben Johnston’s String Quartets 1, 5, and 10 from Jon Roy on Vimeo.
This project could never be done again, certainly not with the direct guidance and mentorship of the composer. Three of the members of the quartet live in Wisconsin; Brek Renzelman and I both live in Milwaukee and Karl Lavine lives in Madison. Early in the project, Johnston and his wife Betty relocated to a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, to be closer to their son Ross. Ever since then we’ve had constant access to Ben’s intellect and generosity—a resource that can never be replaced.

Other groups, however, now have these recordings made under his guidance as a resource. We’ve already begun to see the effects. Someone once told me that if something can be measured, it can be made. The recordings provide information—and encouragement—for other groups to explore these compositions.  An incredible oeuvre of music, once largely inaccessible, is now available to the world, an open secret. Judging from breakthroughs in the past thirty years, we can anticipate rapid advances in technology, education and performance standards—it all goes hand-in-hand.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the La Salle, Concord, Fine Arts, Walden, New World, Stanford, Composers, and Kronos quartets for the tremendous work they’ve done on Johnston’s music. They are our heroes! We’ll be another link in that chain now, and feel honored to be part of the continuum.

St. Francis of Assisi wrote: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

The cover for volume 3 of the Kepler Quartet's recordings of the complete string quartets of Ben Johnston (New World Records 80730-2).

A sneak preview from the first movement of the world premiere recording of “the Mount Everest of String Quartets”—String Quartet No. 7 (1984)—performed by the Kepler Quartet. From the final volume of the series, Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, and 8 (New World Records 80730-2), which will be released on April 15, 2016. Streamed with permission.

A good starting point is to explain our process, and why it has taken four people fourteen years to do this. Kyle Gann half-jokingly referred to the Seventh Quartet as “the Mount Everest of string quartets.” We understand his analogy; each quartet is a steep and rocky climb, often exhilarating, and the more we learned (the higher we climbed), the slower we got.

First, we do the math.

That is, we translate pitches from the score into numerical cent values.  I’d always heard about the correlation between music and arithmetic;  I understand it better now. Johnston devised an ingenious notation system for Just Intonation which is practical yet defiant. It always reminded me of a quote by William Blake: “I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s; / I will not Reason or Compare: my business is to Create.” Johnston’s notational symbols tell the harmonic function of the note as well as the exact number of cents, which can be measured with a standard electronic tuner. But the performer needs to decipher as many as seven different pitch qualifiers per note, in an assortment of configurations, depending on how high Johnston has composed in the overtone (or undertone) series (as opposed to the usual single half-step,  sharp #  or flat b). Understanding exact pitch relationships is essential, which meant preparing from scores only—we never read from individual parts.

Then we listen.

This required commissioning MIDI realizations of these scores. Luckily, we’ve connected with Andy Stefik and Tim Johnson, who have vast expertise working with digital synthesis. The materials they created for us never served as a guide in rehearsal or recording, but were used individually by each member. In general, MIDI is nasty to listen to, but in this case it functioned as a can-opener for the brain. When we would hear one, we would realize the extent to which we had to unlearn all those years of tempered-scale indoctrination, and open up the mind to new possibilities. After all, we named our group after Johannes Kepler, the astronomer and mystic who intuited the leap from Pythagorean musical intervals to predicting the elliptical orbit of the planets.

Johnston SQ8 rehearsal snippet from Jon Roy on Vimeo.
Of course we rehearse.

Not as easy as it sounds, especially when the players and composer live in different cities around the country and have to coordinate busy freelance schedules, not to mention personal lives. The rehearsals generally are a lot of slow tuning and hard listening, more balancing of chords than I’d ever dreamt possible.  Each new quartet presented its own unique and intricate Gordian Knot. At times we became entangled ourselves, but eventually, the solution would emerge. We consulted with Johnston constantly, which entailed many philosophical discussions, because the pitches are only byproducts of the emotional nuances Johnston sought. Always, there was philosophical underpinning to those emotions, and always, Johnston helped us to find it.

Johnston’s critiques were always leavened with large doses of humor—which is an integral part of his music and personality—and social commentary. In one breath, he talks about world events, and in the next, about what is happening on the working farm where he lives with his wonderful caregiver and her large, bustling family.

Then we start recording, but in our own way.

We’ve had a no-holds-barred approach to making these recordings. We would tackle a phrase in multiple ways, to satiate any self-doubt. We have what we call a “three-drink-minimum,” always recording three times as much material as we need. There were so many things to remember at these sessions and a few things to forget. Our earliest recording sessions at an indie rock venue featured a rat rustling in a paper bag, a beer keg completely emptying onto a carpet, and noisy snowblower repairs in July!

The CD cover for the Kepler Quartet's second volume of string quartets by Ben Johnston (New World Records 80693-2).

An excerpt from Ben Johnston’s only quartet in 12-tone equal temperament, Nine Variations a.k.a. String Quartet No. 1 (1959) performed by the Kepler Quartet. From the 2011 CD Ben Johnston: String Quartets 1, 5, and 10 (New World Records 80693-2). Streamed with permission.

Intonation has always been the highest priority in these recordings because that’s what defines Johnston’s masterpieces. But everything else had to be right to create a cohesive artistic statement.We’ve taken seriously our mission of accurately documenting these works the way Johnston conceived them. I remember when we began the First Quartet, I asked if Johnston wanted a Webernian crystalline approach or a more full-throated romanticism. He raised his eyebrows and said, “Both. I want it all!” When asked about production values, Johnston replied that he sees these recordings as reinventing the art of chamber music. It’s “more like a film than a stage play.” There is some hyperbole in his words, but also some truth—no Pixar magic, just a lot of hard work to make the best recordings we can. We’ve come to view in a positive light the fact that Johnston’s quartets demand scrupulous attention to detail. There’s more to consider about this music on many different levels, and it’s all good.

Engineering is critical.

I brought some studio experience to the project, though it mostly falls into the category of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” We’ve been extremely lucky to have had another genius as a full partner in this endeavor. Ric Probst is a brilliant engineer, cajoler-in-chief, and something of a psychologist as well, managing all our quirks, keeping things moving, bringing perspective to the table. Throughout the project, he cheekily skewered the digital editing process, and our classical pretensions, using his unusual and lengthy background to do so—a reminder of where this stuff fits on the spectrum. Once, when we were caught up in some frustrating minutiae and badly needed perspective, he said, “I remember editing Bootsy Collins hits in Cincinnati, and having bits of reel-to-reel tape spread on the floor in front of me.” Then, nodding at a computer running ProTools, “This is [expletive deleted]!” The man’s great ears, great skill, and wry wit saved the day many times. No one deserves more credit or thanks than Ric.

At this point, I’ll take a moment to thumb through my Kepler flip book and introduce the three indomitable spirits whose sacrifice and devotion have made this possible. I met our first violinist, Sharan Leventhal, when we were in high school youth orchestra together. I remember my first impression: “She’s such a brilliant player; she doesn’t even seem to play the same instrument as the rest of us!” I met the violist Brek Renzelman just after he graduated from Indiana University, when he won a titled position with the Milwaukee Symphony. He’s been the glue for the quartet, in both a musical and administrative sense; the most conscientious “inner voice.” For ten years, cellist Karl Lavine was my comrade in the trenches for Kevin Stalheim’s Present Music; we played 60 different programs of new music together. During Karl’s tenure with Present Music, Brek was also a regular, and Sharan guested frequently. As a foursome, we performed a lot under the Present Music banner, and even recorded the Kamran Ince quartet Curve for Innova during that period.

And then came the Big Bang for our project: the premiere of Johnston’s Tenth Quartet in 2002.

While scouring a music library looking for something else, I found the score to Johnston’s Tenth Quartet. Research revealed that not only had the piece never been played, but that it hadn’t even been commissioned! A very good omen if you believe that real art is “what you are compelled to do.”

I timidly phoned Johnston, who was newly retired from the University of Illinois and living in North Carolina, and I invited him to Milwaukee. He graciously accepted even though he’d only previously worked with more established quartets. It still strikes me as an act of blind faith for him to have entrusted a nascent, unknown group with an important premiere, much less the recording of his entire quartet cycle.

Fast-forward fourteen years.

St. Augustine: “The reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”

The final step: going public.

When we are done with recording and engineering, the record label finishes the process: mastering the disc, preparing the notes and packaging, and distributing. Once again, we’ve had the very best of luck to end up on New World Records working with the visionary Paul Tai. He understood the importance of this project way before we did, and steered us clear of obstacles many times, with unwavering patience. The future of this music is in good hands.

St. Gregory: “The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things.”

The composition of these ten quartets spanned a 36-year period in Johnston’s life. Modest man that he is, he would never claim saintly status—or genius/hero/visionary status for that matter. But it’s hard not to notice the constant evolution and steady growth through all ten quartets, moving ever closer to his altruistic ideal of the harmonic way of living.

The very first quartet was written before he composed exclusively in Just Intonation and shows him to be a masterful composer already, one who kept adding tools to his toolbox. About that constant evolution—whoever commissioned a piece thinking it would be like his previous work was in for a surprise. Johnston seems to have spent his whole life asking the big questions, seeking answers anywhere and everywhere. And yet that rock-solid Johnston DNA is found in every note that he wrote from the first quartet onward.

If our project had indeed been a film, it would have had a large ensemble cast, each member with a significant role to play. It took a whole network of idealistic people to make this happen: the composer, the quartet, the engineer, recording studio and venues, fiscal agent, record label, publisher, MIDI mavens, arts organizations, funders and fundraisers, media specialists, advocates, caregivers, family members, and especially, our spouses—those with us and those departed. They have been most generous, patient, and constant, the true saints of this project.

We fervently hope listeners will take the time to delve into Johnston’s music. It’s a wonderland waiting to be explored—a new way of hearing that will never leave you. Not a rehearsal passed without a moment when four seasoned professional musicians had to lay down their instruments, and just say, “Wow!”

Pondering the completion of this recording project, stray thoughts led me to a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

One great poem should be born of
the sum of all your poems, recording
more than the surface reality, more than
“what’s passing by the window.”

Find the further reality, if there is one.

It’s not up to Johnston, or the Kepler Quartet, to say what that further reality might be. We’ve shared our particular window. Now we all get to sit back and be astonished by whatever happens next.

I once asked Johnston how he had gravitated towards studying with people of such disparate aesthetics as Harry Partch, Darius Milhaud, and John Cage and managed to incorporate influences from jazz and folk music to serialism, from Gurdjieff to Catholicism, from Renaissance music to rock opera, to achieve something so intensely personal. His reply was very telling. “Well,” he said, “I just wanted to invite everybody to the party!”

From all of us, happy 90th birthday, Ben! Thank you for inviting us to the party.

Ben Johnston and Eric Segnitz.

Ben Johnston and Eric Segnitz. Photo by Kae Hubred.


A note of thanks to the Wisconsin Alliance for Composers for acting as our fiscal agent throughout the project. And thank you to all the wonderful supporters of this project—foundations, our Kickstarter family of contributors, private donors—and special thanks to two angels who have asked to remain anonymous for now.


Additional links worth exploring

There’s some essential information on Just Intonation in “An Introduction to the String Quartets of Ben Johnston” by Sharan Leventhal, originally published in American String Teacher (Volume 64, Number 3, August 2014).

Perhaps the best overall introduction to Ben Johnson is to watch him present his own 101-minute autobiographical lecture “Who am I? Why am I here?” on April 15, 2006 at Scripps College in Claremont, California, during the 2006 Microfest, an annual festival of microtonal music in Southern California.

More details about Ben Johnston’s book of collected essays, Maximum Clarity, is available in Frank J. Oteri’s 2007 conversation with Ben Johnston on NewMusicBox.

The Kepler Quartet’s website includes more detailed biographies of individual quartet members.

Booklet notes by Bob Gilmore for the previous two New World CD releases are reproduced here and here. And here is a link to Kyle Gann’s notes for the upcoming third release.

Finally, Jon Roy has maintained a fascinating blog about Ben Johnston called A New Dissonance which documents the preparation, rehearsal, and recording of these string quartets and also collects other online Johnston resources.

What to Ware? A Guide to Today’s Technological Wardrobe

Circuitry for Salvage
Circuitry for Salvage

Circuitry for Salvage (Guiyu Blues), 2007. First version of design, housed in VHS tape box. 12 probes for linking to dead circuit board to be re-animated. Rotary switches select frequency range of each of six oscillator voices. Photo by Simon Lonergan.

At some point in the late 1980s the composer Ron Kuivila told me, “we have to make computer music that sounds like electronic music.” This might appear a mere semantic distinction. At that time the average listener would dismiss any music produced with electronic technology—be it a Moog or Macintosh—as “boops and beeps.” But Kuivila presciently drew attention to a looming fork in the musical road: boops and beeps were splitting into boops and bits. Over the coming decades, as the computer evolved into an unimaginably powerful and versatile musical tool, this distinction would exert a subtle but significant influence on music.

Kuivila and I had met in 1973 at Wesleyan University, where we both were undergraduates studying with Alvin Lucier. Under the guidance of mentors such as David Tudor and David Behrman, we began building circuits in the early 1970s, and finished out the decade programming pre-Apple microcomputers like the Kim 1. The music that emerged from our shambolic arrays of unreliable homemade circuits fit well into the experimental aesthetic that pervaded the times. (The fact that we were bad engineers probably made our music better by the standards of our community.) Nonetheless we saw great potential in those crude early personal computers, and many of us welcomed the chance to hang up the soldering iron and start programming.[1]

The Ataris, Amigas, and Apples that we adopted in the course of the 1980s were vastly easier to program than our first machines, but they still lacked the speed and processor power needed to generate complex sound directly. Most “computer music” composers of the day hitched their machines to MIDI synthesizers, but even the vaunted Yamaha DX7 was no match for the irrational weirdness of a table strewn with Tudor’s idiosyncratic circuits arrayed in unstable feedback matrices. One bottleneck lay in MIDI’s crudely quantized data format, which had been optimized for triggering equal-tempered notes and was ill suited for complex, continuous changes in sound textures. On a more profound level, MIDI “exploded” the musical instrument, separating sound (synthesizer) from gesture (keyboard, drum pads, or other controller)—we gained a Lego-like flexibility to build novel instruments, but we severed the tight feedback between body and sound that existed in most traditional, pre-MIDI instruments and we lost a certain degree of touch and nuance[2].

MIDI no longer stands between code and sound: any laptop now has the power to generate directly a reasonable simulation of almost any electronic sound—or at least to play back a sample of it. Computer music should sound like electronic music. But I’m not sure that Kuivila’s goal has yet been met. I still find myself moving back and forth between different technologies for different musical projects. And I can still hear a difference between hardware and software. Why?

Most music today that employs any kind of electronic technology depends on a combination of hardware and software resources. Although crafted and/or recorded in code, digital music reaches our ears through a chain of transistors, mechanical devices, speakers, and earphones. “Circuit Benders” who open and modify electronic toys in pursuit of new sounds often espouse a distinctly anti-computer aesthetic, but the vast majority of the toys they hack in fact consist of embedded microcontrollers playing back audio samples—one gizmo is distinguished from another not by its visible hardware but by the program hidden inside a memory chip on the circuit board. Still, whereas a strict hardware/software dialectic can’t hold water for very long, arrays of semiconductors and lines of code are imbued with various distinctive traits that combine to determine the essential “hardware-ness” or “software-ness” of any particular chunk of modern technology.

Some of these traits are reflected directly in sound—with sufficient attention or guidance, one can often hear the difference between sounds produced by a hardware-dominated system versus those crafted largely in software. Others influence working habits—how we compose with a certain technology, or how we interact with it in performance; sometimes this influence is obvious, but at other times it can be so subtle as to verge on unconscious suggestion. Many of these domain-specific characteristics can be ignored or repressed to some degree—just like a short person can devote himself to basketball—but they nonetheless affect the likelihood of one choosing a particular device for a specific application, and they inevitably exert an influence on the resulting music.

I want to draw attention to some distinctive differences between hardware and software tools as applied to music composition and performance. I am not particularly interested in any absolute qualities inherent in the technology, but in the ways certain technological characteristics influence how we think and work, and the ways in which the historic persistence of those influences can predispose an artist to favor specific tools for specific tasks or even specific styles of music. My observations are based on several decades of personal experience: in my own activity as a composer and performer, and in my familiarity with the music of my mentors and peers, as observed and discussed with them since my student days. I acknowledge that my perspective comes from a fringe of musical culture and I contribute these remarks in the interest of fostering discussion, rather than to prove a specific thesis.

I should qualify some of the terms I will be using. When I speak of “hardware” I mean not only electronic circuitry, but also mechanical and electromechanical devices from traditional acoustic instruments to electric guitars. By “software” I’m designating computer code as we know it today, whether running on a personal computer or embedded in a dedicated microcontroller or Digital Signal Processor (DSP). I use the words “infinite” and “random” not in their scientific sense, but rather as one might in casual conversation, to mean “a hell of a lot” (the former) and “really unpredictable” (the latter).


The Traits

Here are what I see as the most significant features distinguishing software from hardware in terms of their apparent (or at least perceived) suitability for specific musical tasks, and their often-unremarked influence on musical processes:

    • Traditional acoustic instruments are three-dimensional objects, radiating sound in every direction, filling the volume of architectural space like syrup spreading over a waffle. Electronic circuits are much flatter, essentially two-dimensional. Software is inherently linear, every program a one-dimensional string of code. In an outtake from his 1976 interview with Robert Ashley for Ashley’s Music With Roots in the Aether, Alvin Lucier justified his lack of interest in the hardware of electronic music with the statement, “sound is three-dimensional, but circuits are flat.” At the time Lucier was deeply engaged with sound’s behavior in acoustic space, and he regarded the “flatness” of circuitry as a fundamental weakness in the work of composers in thrall to homemade circuitry, as was quite prevalent at the time. As a playing field for sounds a circuit may never be able to embody the topographic richness of standing waves in a room, but at least a two-dimensional array of electronic components on a fiberglass board allows for the simultaneous, parallel activity of multiple strands of electron flow, and the resulting sounds often approach the polyphonic density of traditional music in three-dimensional space. In software most action is sequential, and all sounds queue up through a linear pipeline for digital to analog conversion. With sufficient processor speed and the right programming environment one can create the impression of simultaneity, but this is usually an illusion—much like a Bach flute sonata weaving a monophonic line of melody into contrapuntal chords. Given the ludicrous speed of modern computers this distinction might seem academic—modern software does an excellent job of simulating simultaneity. Moreover, “processor farms” and certain DSP systems do allow true simultaneous execution of multiple software routines. But these latter technologies are far from commonplace in music circles and, like writing prose, the act of writing code (even for parallel processors) invariably nudges the programmer in the direction of sequential thinking. This linear methodology can affect the essential character of work produced in software.
    • Hardware occupies the physical world and is appropriately constrained in its behavior by various natural and universal mechanical and electrical laws and limits. Software is ethereal—its constraints are artificial, different for every programming language, the result of intentional design rather than pre-existing physical laws. When selecting a potentiometer for inclusion in a circuit, a designer has a finite number of options in terms of maximum resistance, curve of resistive change (i.e., linear or logarithmic), number of degrees of rotation, length of its slider, etc.—and these characteristics are fixed at the point of manufacture. When implementing a potentiometer in software, all these parameters are infinitely variable, and can be replaced with the click of a mouse. Hardware has real edges; software presents an ever-receding horizon.
    • As a result of its physicality, hardware—especially mechanical devices—
      often displays non-linear adjacencies similar to state-changes in the natural world (think of the transition of water to ice or vapor). Pick a note on a guitar and then slowly raise your fretting finger until the smooth decay is abruptly choked off by a burst of enharmonic buzzing as the string clatters against the fret. In the physical domain of the guitar these two sounds—the familiar plucked string and its noisy dying skronk—are immediately adjacent to one another, separated by the slightest movement of a finger. Either sound can be simulated in software, but each requires a wholly different block of code: no single variable in the venerable Karplus-Strong “plucked string algorithm”[3] can be nudged by a single bit to produce a similar death rattle; this kind of adjacency must be programmed at a higher level and does not typically exist in the natural order of a programming language. Generally speaking, adjacency in software remains very linear, while the world of hardware abounds with abrupt transitions. A break point in a hardware instrument—fret buzz on a guitar, the unpredictable squeal of the STEIM Cracklebox—can be painstakingly avoided or joyously exploited, but is always lurking in the background, a risk, an essential property of the instrument.
    • Most software is inherently binary: it either works correctly or fails catastrophically, and when corrupted code crashes the result is usually silence. Hardware performs along on a continuum that stretches from the “correct” behavior intended by its designers to irreversible, smoky failure; circuitry—especially analog circuitry—usually produces sound even as it veers toward breakdown. Overdriving an amplifier to distort a guitar (or even setting the guitar on fire), feeding back between a microphone and a speaker to play a room’s resonant frequencies, “starving” the power supply voltage in an electronic toy to produce erratic behavior. These “misuses” of circuitry generate sonic artifacts that can be analyzed and modeled in software, but the risky processes themselves (saturation, burning, feedback, under-voltage) are very difficult to transfer intact from the domain of hardware to that of software while preserving functionality in the code. Writing software favors Boolean thinking—self-destructive code remains the purview of hackers who craft worms and Trojan Horses for the specific purpose of crashing or corrupting computers.
    • Software is deterministic, while all hardware is indeterminate to some degree. Once debugged, code runs the same almost all the time. Hardware is notoriously unrepeatable: consider recreating a patch on an analog synthesizer, restoring mixdown settings on a pre-automation mixer, or even tuning a guitar. The British computer scientist John Bowers once observed that he had never managed write a “random” computer program that would run, but was delighted when he discovered that he could make “random” component substitutions and connections in a circuit with a high certainty of a sonic outcome (a classic technique of circuit bending).
    • Hardware is unique, software is a multiple. Hardware is constrained in its “thinginess” by number: whether handcrafted or mass-produced, each iteration of a hardware device requires a measurable investment of time and materials. Software’s lack of physical constraint gives it tremendous powers of duplication and dissemination. Lines of code can be cloned with a simple cmd-C/cmd-V: building 76 oscillators into a software instrument takes barely more time than one, and no more resources beyond the computer platform and development software needed for the first (unlike trombones, say). In software there is no distinction between an original and a copy: MP3 audio files, PDFs of scores, and runtime versions of music programs can be downloaded and shared thousands of times without any deterioration or loss of the matrix—any copy is as good as the master. If a piano is a typical example of traditional musical hardware, the pre-digital equivalent of the software multiple would lie somewhere between a printed score (easily and accurately reproduced and distributed, but at a quantifiable—if modest—unit cost) and the folk song (freely shared by oral tradition, but more likely to be transformed in its transmission). Way too many words have already been written on the significance of this trait of software—of its impact on the character and profitability of publishing as it was understood before the advent of the World Wide Web; I will simply point out that if all information wants to be free, that freedom has been attained by software, but is still beyond the reach of hardware. (I should add that software’s multiplicity is accompanied by virtual weightlessness, while hardware is still heavy, as every touring musician knows too well.)
    • Software accepts infinite undo’s, is eminently tweakable. But once the solder cools, hardware resists change. I have long maintained that the young circuit-building composers of the 1970s switched to programming by the end of that decade because, for all the headaches induced by writing lines of machine language on calculator-sized keypads, it was still easier to debug code than to de-solder chips. Software invites endless updates, where hardware begs you to close the box and never open it again. Software is good for composing and editing, for keeping things in a state of flux. Hardware is good for making stable, playable instruments that you can return to with a sense of familiarity (even if they have to be tuned)—think of bongos or Minimoogs. The natural outcome of software’s malleability has been the extension of the programming process from the private and invisible pre-concert preparation of a composition, to an active element of the actual performance—as witnessed in the rise of “live coding” culture practiced by devotees of SuperCollider and Chuck programming languages, for example. Live circuit building has been a fringe activity at best: David Tudor finishing circuits in the pit while Merce Cunningham danced overhead; the group Loud Objects soldering PICs on top of an overhead projector; live coding vs. live circuit building in ongoing competition between the younger Nick Collins (UK) and myself for the Nic(k) Collins Cup.

David Tudor performance setup

  • On the other hand, once a program is burned into ROM and its source code is no longer accessible, software flips into an inviolable state. At this point re-soldering, for all it unpleasantness, remains the only option for effecting change. Circuit Benders hack digital toys not by rewriting the code (typically sealed under a malevolent beauty-mark of black epoxy) but by messing about with traces and components on the circuit board. A hardware hack is always lurking as a last resort, like a shim bar when you lock your keys in the car.
  • Thanks to computer memory, software can work with time. The transition from analog circuitry to programmable microcomputers gave composers a new tool that combined characteristics of instrument, score, and performer: memory allows software to play back prerecorded sounds (an instrument), script a sequence of events in time (a score), and make decisions built on past experience (a performer). Before computers, electronic circuitry was used primarily in an instrumental capacity—to produce sounds immediately[4]. It took software-driven microcomputers to fuse this trio of traits into a powerful new resource for music creation.
  • Given the sheer speed of modern personal computers and software’s quasi-infinite power of duplication (as mentioned earlier), software has a distinct edge over hardware in the density of musical texture it can produce: a circuit is to code as a solo violin is to the full orchestra. But at extremes of its behavior hardware can exhibit a degree of complexity that remains one tiny but audible step beyond the power of software to simulate effectively: initial tug of rosined bow hair on the string of the violin; the unstable squeal of wet fingers on a radio’s circuit board; the supply voltage collapsing in a cheap electronic keyboard. Hardware still does a better job of giving voice to the irrational, the chaotic, the unstable (and this may be the single most significant factor in the “Kuivila Dilemma” that prompted this whole rant).
  • Software is imbued with an ineffable sense of now—it is the technology of the present, and we are forever downloading and updating to keep it current.       Hardware is yesterday, the tools that were supplanted by software. Turntables, patchcord synthesizers, and tape recorders have been “replaced” by MP3 files, software samplers, and ProTools. In the ears, minds, and hands of most users, this is an improvement—software often does the job “better” than its hardware antecedents (think of editing tape, especially videotape, before the advent of digital alternatives). Before any given tool is replaced by a superior device, qualities that don’t serve its main purpose can be seen as weaknesses, defects, or failures: the ticks and pops of vinyl records, oscillators drifting out of tune, tape hiss and distortion. But when a technology is no longer relied upon for its original purpose, these same qualities can become interesting in and of themselves. The return to “outmoded” hardware is not always a question of nostalgia, but often an indication that the scales have dropped from our ears.


Lest you think me a slave to the dialectic, I admit that there are at least three areas of software/hardware crossover that deserve mention here: interfaces for connecting computers (and, more pointedly, their resident software) to external hardware devices; software applications designed to emulate hardware devices; and the emergence of affordable rapid prototyping technology.

The most ubiquitous of the hardware interfaces today is the Arduino, the small, inexpensive microcontroller designed by Massimo Banzi and David Cuartielles in 2005. The Arduino and its brethren and ancestors facilitate the connection of a computer to input and output devices, such as tactile sensors and motors. Such an interface indeed imbues a computer program with some of the characteristics we associate with hardware, but there always remains a MIDI-tinged sense of mediation (a result of the conversion between the analog to digital domains) that makes performing with these hybrid instruments slightly hazier than manipulating an object directly—think of controlling a robotic arm with a joystick, or hugging an infant in an incubator while wearing rubber gloves. That said, I believe that improvements in haptic feedback technology will bring us much closer to the nuance of real touch.

The past decade has also seen a proliferation of software emulations of hardware devices, from smart phone apps that simulate vintage analog synthesizers, to iMovie filters that make your HD video recording look like scratchy Super 8 film. The market forces behind this development (nostalgia, digital fatigue, etc.) lie outside of the scope of this discussion, but it is important to note here that these emulations succeed by focusing on those aspects of a hardware device most easily modeled in the software domain: the virtual Moog synthesizer models the sound of analog oscillators and filters, but doesn’t try to approximate the glitch of a dirty pot or the pop of inserting a patchcord; the video effect alters the color balance and superimposes algorithmically generated scratches, but does not let you misapply the splicing tape or spill acid on the emulsion.

Although affordable 3D printers and rapid prototyping devices still remain the purview of the serious DIY practitioner, there is no question that these technologies will enter the larger marketplace in the near future. When they do, the barrier between freely distributable software and tactile hardware objects will become quite permeable. A look thru the Etsy website reveals how independent entrepreneurs have already employed this technology to extend the publishing notion of “print on demand” to something close to “wish on demand,” with Kickstarter as the economic engine behind the transformation of wishes into businesses. (That said, I’ve detected the start of a backlash against the proliferation of web-accessed “things”—see Allison Arieff, “Yes We Can. But Should We?”).

Some Closing Observations

Trombone-Propelled Electronics rev. 3.0, 2005. Photo by Simon Lonergan.

Trombone-Propelled Electronics rev. 3.0, 2005. Photo by Simon Lonergan.

I came of age as a musician during the era of the “composer-performer”: the Sonic Arts Union, David Tudor, Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Sometimes this dual role was a matter of simple expediency (established orchestras and ensembles wouldn’t touch the music of these young mavericks at that time), but more often it was a desire to retain direct, personal control that led to a flowering of composer-led ensembles that resembled rock bands more than orchestras. Fifty years on, the computer—with its above-mentioned power to fuse three principle components of music production—has emerged as the natural tool for this style of working.

But another factor driving composers to become performers was the spirit of improvisation. The generation of artists listed above may have been trained in a rigorous classical tradition, but by the late 1960s it was no longer possible to ignore the musical world outside the gates of academe or beyond the doors of the European concert hall. What was then known as “world music” was reaching American and European ears through a trickle of records and concerts. Progressive jazz was in full flower. Pop was inescapable. And composers of my age—the following generation—had no need to reject any older tradition to strike out in a new direction: Ravi Shankar, Miles Davis, the Beatles, John Cage, Charles Ives, and Monteverdi were all laid out in front of us like a buffet, and we could heap our plates with whatever pleased us, regardless of how odd the juxtapositions might seem. Improvisation was an essential ingredient, and we sought technology that expanded the horizons of improvisation and performance, just as we experimented with new techniques and tools for composition.

It is in the area of performance that I feel hardware—with its tactile, sometimes unruly properties—still holds the upper hand. This testifies not to any failure of software to make good on its perceived promise of making everything better in our lives, but to a pragmatic affirmation of the sometimes messy but inarguably fascinating irrationality of human beings: sometimes we need the imperfection of things.


This essay began as a lecture for the “Technology and Aesthetics” symposium at NOTAM (Norwegian Center for Technology in Music and the Arts), Oslo, May 26-27 2011, revised for publication in Musical Listening in the Age of Technological Reproduction (Ashgate, 2015). It has been further revised for NewMusicBox.


Nicolas Collins

Nicolas Collins

New York born and raised, Nicolas Collins spent most of the 1990s in Europe, where he was visiting artistic director of Stichting STEIM (Amsterdam) and a DAAD composer-in-residence in Berlin. An early adopter of microcomputers for live performance, Collins also makes use of homemade electronic circuitry and conventional acoustic instruments. He is editor-in-chief of the Leonardo Music Journal and a professor in the Department of Sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His book, Handmade Electronic Music–The Art of Hardware Hacking (Routledge), has influenced emerging electronic music worldwide. Collins’s indecisive career trajectory is reflected in his having played at both CBGB and the Concertgebouw.



1. Although this potential was clear to our small band of binary pioneers, the notion was so inconceivable to the early developers of personal computers that Apple trademarked its name with the specific limitation that its machines would never be used for musical applications, lest it infringe on the Beatles’ semi-dormant company of the same name—a decision that would lead to extended litigation after the introduction of the iPod and iTunes. This despite the fact that the very first non-diagnostic software written and demonstrated at the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park, California, in 1975 was a music program by Steve Dompier, an event attended by a young Steve Jobs (see (accessed on February 21, 2013).

2. For more on the implications of MIDI’s separation of sound from gesture see Collins, Nicolas, 1998. “Ubiquitous Electronics—Technology and Live Performance 1966-1996.” Leonardo Music Journal Vol. 8. San Francisco/Cambridge 27-32. One magnificent exception to the gesture/sound disconnect that MIDI inflicted on most computer music composers was Tim Perkis’s “Mouseguitar” project of 1987, which displayed much of the tactile nuance of Tudor-esque circuitry. In Perkis’s words:

When I switched to the FM synth (Yamaha TX81Z), there weren’t any keydowns involved; it was all one “note”…  The beauty of that synth—and why I still use it! — is that its failure modes are quite beautiful, and that live patch editing [can] go on while a voice is sounding without predictable and annoying glitches. The barrage of sysex data—including simulated front panel button-presses, for some sound modifications that were only accessible that way—went on without cease throughout the performance. The minute I started playing the display said “midi buffer full” and it stayed that way until I stopped.

(Email from Tim Perkis, July 18, 2006.)

3. Karplus, Keven and Strong, Alex. 1983. “Digital Synthesis of Plucked String and Drum Timbres.” Computer Music Journal 7 (2). Cambridge. 43–55.

4. Beginning in the late 1960s a handful of artist-engineers designed and built pre-computer circuits that embodied some degree of performer-like decision-making: Gordon Mumma’s “Cybersonic Consoles” (1960s-70s), which as far as I can figure out were some kind of analog computers; my own multi-player instruments built from CMOS logic chips in emulation of Christian Wolff’s “co-ordination” notation (1978). The final stages of development of David Behrman’s “Homemade Synthesizer” included a primitive sequencer that varied pre-scored chord sequences in response to pitches played by a cellist (Cello With Melody Driven Electronics, 1975) presaging Behrman’s subsequent interactive work with computers. And digital delays begat a whole school of post-Terry Riley canonical performance based on looping and sustaining sounds from a performance’s immediate past into its ongoing present.

Why Pastiche Has Taken Over Music


“Mashups of the Mona Lisa” created by Dave Winer, via Flickr CC

The predominant ideology in composition today, across all genres, is rooted in pastiche. Most composers in the new music community aren’t consciously thinking about this, but we’re involved all the same. I mean, just look at the names: new complexity, neo-romanticism, post-minimalism—three of the broadest trends in contemporary music, all with echoes of pastiche baked right into their labels. Of course not everyone is writing “in the style of” or explicitly quoting other pieces, but the desire to build perceptible bridges between musical traditions is nearly universal.

And it’s not just in classical composition. Virtually all of the most celebrated new art of our time, across genres and disciplines, whether high art or populist entertainment, relies to some extent on pastiche. You will find a healthy serving of the stuff in everything from the music of Jennifer Higdon to Nico Muhly to Thomas Adès, not to mention Taylor Swift, the Star Wars movies, and the memes in your Facebook feed. Pastiche clearly strikes a chord with the cultural zeitgeist of the moment.

Now before we get any further, pastiche is a broad term and there’s certainly disagreement on what it should mean. I’m most interested in the sense of “appropriation designed to be recognizable.” That is the type of pastiche that has taken over art, with an emphasis on “recognizable.” Clearly artists have always taken ideas and materials from other sources—how could we not?—but never before have we so celebrated the attribution of those sources.

In previous decades, society’s archetype of a great artist was the solitary genius who creates strikingly original work (supposedly) out of thin air. To expose one’s sources was frowned upon, because it gave the lie to the myth. Today, society seems to have the exact opposite set of priorities: art that borrows liberally and obviously from other sources generates the most praise.

Christina's world meets UFO

Image created by AK Rockefeller, via Flickr CC

A changing of the ideological guard

What we’re witnessing is essentially an ideological shift. Music critic and composer Kyle Gann got me thinking about this with the accidentally incendiary update he posted to his blog in late 2015. In it, he complains that young composers today produce nothing but tepid, middle-of-the-road work devoid of ideological backbone. It’s just “kids these days” nonsense, but he does manage to demonstrate just how far society’s priorities have mutated.

All artistic ideologies (or at least those that make an impact) arise as a response to the values of a society. Consider, for example, the rise of serialism (as a way of understanding music, not just as a compositional technique). Although today serialism is often associated with rigidity, its success stemmed from its flexibility, from the many ways it resonated with the concerns of Cold War-era composers. It was, among many things, a reaction against fascism, a reflection of democratic ideals, an outgrowth of 20th-century scientific optimism, and a way to professionalize music and bring it into academia.

During its heyday, serialism and its ideological relatives allowed composers to create music that harmonized with their views of the world and how they saw themselves within it. But the world is always changing, and the ideals of serialism eventually became disconnected from the concerns of a majority of composers. Slowly, gradually, other ways of understanding music took over in a messy, overlapping process that is hard to see in action but that becomes visible in hindsight.

It’s important not to oversimplify this narrative: serialism was never the only game in town; it was always one strand within the larger modernist project, which in turn faced competition first from traditionalist and neo-classical ideas, then from postmodern philosophies as well as paradigms arising from jazz, folk, rock, and other popular genres.

So just as we can’t pinpoint the exact moment that serialism lost its dominance in new music, or bebop in jazz, et cetera, et cetera, it’s hard to say exactly when pastiche became king (as a way of understanding art, not just as a technique). But king it is, and to an extent rarely seen for past ideologies. Its dominance holds true across an extremely wide swath of art making, from the most commercial Hollywood movie to the edgiest new music concert.

On the makings of a blockbuster

Let’s start with film, since the rise of pastiche is especially visible there. One of the most straightforward tests is to look at whether the top-grossing film of each year is an original story or relies on references to past work, then compare the relative numbers of “original” vs. “derivative” films over time. This should tell us something about broad societal preferences.

To simplify things, let’s look at sequels and remakes, which by definition fall into the “derivative” category and can be spotted without doing too much cinematic background research. Yes, you could reasonably argue those don’t count as true pastiches, but they do undoubtedly fall within an ideology of pastiche—a pastichism—where people prize references to past art over original artistic expression. Sequels in particular are telling, because Hollywood’s decision to continue investing in a pre-existing storyline, as opposed to striking out with something new and fresh, is a good barometer of our collective appetite for derivativeness.

Commercial film has always been a derivative format, so we would expect to see a certain baseline number of sequels, remakes, and dyed-in-the-wool pastiches. However, we see a virtual takeover starting in 1999. In the 17 years since then, only one of the #1 blockbusters, Avatar, has not fallen into the sequel or remake category. And of that exception, Avatar director James Cameron has described the film as a pastiche of sci-fi stories he read as a kid.

By contrast, if you look at the previous 17-year span, there were only 6 remakes or sequels. Everything else was original drama. And the trend holds true no matter how you slice the data. Look at the decadal average from 1965 to 2015, and we see more or less equal numbers of original vs. derivative top-grossers, with a slight uptick in originals in the 1980s. If you look in 15-year increments, it’s even more clear. At the turn of the millennium, boom, everything changes.


So is pastiche just a corporate marketing ploy?

I doubt it. Marketers in the commercial arts sector have certainly picked up on our newfound obsession with pastiche, but they didn’t create it. Why would they bother? Commercial art marketing isn’t about artistic expression, it’s about the path of least resistance to your wallet. There was no clear trend toward pastiche in previous decades (in fact, the ‘80s saw a trend toward original work, at least in film), and especially given the powerful analytical tools provided by online streaming, it’s never been easier for the commercial arts to follow rather than lead.

Turning to pop music, this is exactly what we see. The major labels invest a lot of money into streaming data analysis, looking for the next big hit or rising indie band. In interviews, major label execs speak to a strong listener preference for pastiche. All of the most popular stuff is derivative-sounding music that combines elements from other well-known sources, whether in the form of genre fusions like “country rap” or stylistic tributes like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”

Most listeners today are not that adventurous: they like music that sounds familiar. But perhaps more shocking: most listeners are less adventurous than even the record execs used to believe. Prior to the streaming data era, Top 40 radio played twice as many unique songs per day. The commercial music industry has reduced the variety in its radio rotations as a response to online streaming data.

That’s certainly not the story of payola-style boosterism foisting ever more crappy music upon us. It’s the story of a listening public that wants to hear the same thing repackaged over and over again with slight variation. Of course, none of this is to say that people can’t appreciate unfamiliar music given the right context, but our default preferences have moved more strongly than ever toward pastiche.

Spotting pastichism in art music

An ideology of pastiche is equally present in new music, although often in more subtle forms than we see in Top 40. Nevertheless, “appropriation designed to be recognizable” is a visible trend for a wide stylistic range of composers, in contrast to Stockhausen’s “always waiting until I’ve found something that I had never imagined before” or Lachenmann’s “rigidly constructed denial.” I present for your consideration a few choice excerpts from music reviews:

[Jason Eckardt’s] piece ‘After Serra,’ a musical response to the sculpture of Richard Serra, moves toward a reconciliation of uptown and downtown. — Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe

Fausto Romitelli’s 2001 “Amok Koma”… Rock elements merge with the timbrally sweeping tactics of the French “spectral” style, to coolly entrancing ends. — Josef Woodard, Los Angeles Times

Stylistically, the Philadelphia-based [Jennifer] Higdon comes down firmly on the side of tonalists, but she also knows her way around a spiky dissonance. Reminders of many a 20th-century composer may float to the surface of the concerto from time to time… — Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

[Nicole Lizée’s] “This Will Not Be Televised,” is a work for turntablist and chamber orchestra… fragments of old recordings are scratched and pitch-shifted, leading the acoustic ensemble on a merry chase through a fractured but brightly colored soundscape… — John Schaefer, eMusic record review

Mohammed Fairouz’s “The Named Angels” is a smooth cocktail of Middle Eastern dance tunes and film-noirish Minimalism. Ken Ueno’s “Peradam” offers a heady brew of harmonies flickering with microtones, harmonics and vocalizations that draws heavily on the individual talents of the versatile Del Sol [Quartet] players, which in the case of the violist Charlton Lee includes eerily accomplished samples of Tuvan throat singing. — Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times

I could go on and on. Recognizable appropriation is everywhere in new music; the only question is which materials we’re combining.

The death of originality?

To be clear, I certainly don’t think any of this means we are less creative than previous generations of composers. Pastiche sometimes carries pejorative connotations, but those stem from another time when the ideology of “hide your sources” was still dominant. Today’s “attribution designed to be recognizable” is a source of tremendous originality.

To my ears, one of the greatest modern practitioners of this new pastichism is British composer Richard Ayres. Consider, for example, his No. 35 (Overture) for two pianos, euphonium, and timpani, which flits rapidly between a wide range of stylistic references, oversized gestures, and extended techniques:

Ayres’s music is often funny, but it is also strikingly earnest and devoid of irony. His is a complex, nuanced oeuvre: some of it is very intimate and fragile, some bombastic and silly, almost all of it unafraid to show its seams, much of it uncomfortably at odds with modernist aesthetics. And most importantly for our purposes, there is nothing else that sounds like Ayres. He’s one of the most distinctive voices in composition today.

In my own work, I’ve found pastiche-inspired thinking to be a conduit for creativity. It focuses the development of the piece, and it provides an “in” for the audience: a baseline of understanding that helps them relate to the artistic project on its own terms. Sometimes the appropriation itself serves as the main focus of the development, but it doesn’t have to; sometimes it’s just a supporting character that connects the dots.

My Concerto for Mozart Piano Videos falls at one extreme, where appropriation sits center stage. It is a pastiche of concerto form structural elements, Mozart piano music, and the experience of listening to music on YouTube. In preparing the piece, I took Creative Commons–licensed videos of amateur pianists playing Mozart, chopped them into short clips, and mapped a clip to each note of the standard piano range. I then wrote a concerto for orchestra and keyboard soloist that uses this audio-video sampler as the solo instrument. The result is a whirlwind of recontextualized associations, all pivoting around rubato piano figures.

A piece like Who Made the Inch of Grass (piano and erhu), on the other hand, shows the “supporting role” side of appropriation. Given the way the erhu is built, there’s a danger that you just end up writing a violin part that gets played on an erhu, instead of actually writing for the erhu. I didn’t want that; I wanted the music to be idiomatic to the erhu in a way that was also non-idiomatic to the violin. So I focused on the erhu’s tradition of ornamentation, which includes various types of vibrati and glissandi not typical for violin. Nothing else in the piece is borrowed, and the musical development doesn’t specifically reference other artists or styles. However, the ornamentation of the erhu part is taken from the instrument’s traditional repertoire.

In both cases, pastichism led me to new and fulfilling types of musical development I might not have considered otherwise. It also seems to stand out for audiences. Despite the very different approaches to appropriation above, listeners of those two pieces (and others relying on pastichism) have predominantly shared reactions that stem from pastiche thinking. For the concerto, people speak (not surprisingly) about the novelty of the setup but also about how the Mozart source material was completely transformed in their minds. For the erhu piece, people remark on how the instrument seems to fit so naturally within the context of a piano duet, despite its non-Western heritage.

Why is this happening?

Until recently, I hadn’t thought of framing my work or that of my peers in terms of pastiche, but now that I have, I see it everywhere. Which of course raises the question: why is this happening? Broad societal trends are invariably complex, so I won’t pretend to have any kind of a comprehensive answer, but here are a few preliminary theories:

Access. Information technology has given us instant access to more music of more diverse types than at any point in history. As we’ve seen above, this hasn’t translated into broader musical palettes for the majority of listeners, but it has for those of us who really care about sound, like composers. It makes sense then that we would draw upon this diverse cultural history to inform our work.

Noise. Music is everywhere; it’s virtually inescapable in everyday life. That makes the experience of hearing music less special. Nobody today would throw things and boo like they did at the premiere of The Rite of Spring. The bigger problem is that people simply don’t notice music washing over them; everything unfamiliar simply becomes so much noise. And composers aren’t immune. As a reaction to this collective numbing, we are increasingly attracted to the use of familiar elements that can cut through the indifference and serve as a sort of Trojan horse for our artistic ideas.

Biology. There are limits to what the ear can hear and the mind can process. As I’ve written previously, this puts an expiry date on experimentalism in music. We have long since passed the point where composers and instrument-builders could come up with sounds never before heard. Technologies like Max/MSP will continue to improve, performers will gain better fluency with extended techniques, but the sounds of 100 years from now will not be unrecognizable to us in the way the sounds of today would have been 100 years ago. It’s impossible. We’ve already heard all the sounds the human ear can hear. All there is left to do is combine them in new ways.

Plurality. Despite the Donald Trumps of the world, we are—on the whole—much more accepting of the perspectives of others than we were in decades past. It is not socially acceptable to be openly racist or sexist, nor to privilege the Western canon over other musical traditions. As a result, our composing becomes more self-conscious and seeks on some level to be respectful of other traditions, often by giving them attention in our creative thought.

Nostalgia. Perhaps due to a combination of the above, nostalgia is very popular right now. While traveling recently for a performance, I crashed at a friend’s place. He was excited to show me his collection of ‘80s cartoon VHS tapes, valuable because of their kitsch appeal and the obsolescence of the media format. Similarly, the resurgent popularity of vinyl is tied to a nostalgia for a time where you couldn’t access all the world’s music instantly and had to make conscious choices about what you were going to listen to.

DJ Culture. We’ve had at least a couple of decades to get comfortable with the idea that musicians who combine the recordings of other musicians in novel ways are in fact creative artists in their own right. Beyond that, social media memes and other online collage genres have made the act of creative appropriation a common cultural experience. Perhaps these developments make us more receptive to the idea that there are valid artistic paths outside of the 20th-century “hide your sources” mentality.

Who knows whether the current attribution trend will end up being a historical blip or the beginning of a long-lasting aesthetic shift. Regardless, its cross- and intra-disciplinary pervasiveness suggests that we’ve made a definitive break with the ideologies of the 20th century. I don’t think we can “go back” to the values of modernism and “hide your sources” any more than the traditionalists of the 20th century could go back to the world of 19th-century Romanticism.

Half a century ago, Marcel Duchamp stated: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution.” Today, we’ve taken that philosophy a step further by blurring the lines between spectator and artist, transforming the act of spectatorship into a fundamental part of the artistic process.


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

The Forgotten Man: Teo Macero and Bitches Brew

Miles Davis and Teo Macero standing together each wearing a white shirt and a tie; Miles is also playing trumpet
The gatefold LP cover for Bitches Brew which attempts to create a visual analog to the music on the album.

The complete LP gatefold for Bitches Brew featuring the art work of German painter Mati Klarwein which attempts to create a visual analog to the music on the album.

There is so much to hear in this music, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album.

Each side comes to an end, but the music never seems to conclude. There’s only so much information that a physical recording medium can hold. But the durational restrictions of a vinyl LP were less important for Bitches Brew than the design and intention of Miles’s music making. The music on the album doesn’t conclude because it doesn’t formally resolve, and Miles didn’t want it to resolve.

That’s how Miles was playing with his quintet at the time, with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea at the electric piano, Dave Holland on bass, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. That band’s live sets were one continuous stream of music. They would start with a recognizable theme—often it was “Directions”—and follow with solos. But instead of returning to the head and reaching a final cadence, Miles would play a musical cue that would turn the band immediately to the next tune. The constant, roiling group interplay was as vital as the soloing, which itself was more a part of the texture than a showcase for one individual. Pace, pulse, and mood were always flowing and always malleable, and the music stopped only when the set came to an end.

Bitches Brew captures that experience. But the music that is closest to the live sets makes up less than half of the album: three of the four tracks on the second disk—“Spanish Key,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and “Sanctuary”—were central to the band’s repertoire. The rest of the music was new, played for the first time at the recording session and made with a concept new to not only jazz but to music across all genres.

The first disk is similar in sound but entirely different in method and teleology. In fact, it is music entirely without teleology. And Miles didn’t make it by himself; it was the product of a unique compositional collaboration between the trumpeter and his longtime, essential producer at Columbia Records, Teo Macero. That disk, with “Pharoah’s Dance” on the A side and “Bitches Brew” on the obverse, was played by Miles and the musicians in the studio, and then composed by Macero in a manner that was unprecedented and still, forty-five years later, has been barely explored by others.


Macero (October 30, 1925 – February 19, 2008) was by background a musician and a composer, but by training he was an audio engineer; at Columbia Records, he was an in-house composer, arranger, and producer. He worked with some of the great musicians of the 20th century, and shaped and directed essential jazz and pop albums by Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus (both of whom he signed to the label), Dave Brubeck (the Time Out album), Johnny Mathis, and Tony Bennett. He also produced an album of music by Alan Hovhaness, as well as the soundtrack to The Graduate and original cast recordings for many Broadway shows. As an independent producer in the 1970s and ’80s he worked with Herbie Hancock, Michel Legrand, Vernon Reid, The Lounge Lizards, Robert Palmer, and many other musicians.

As a musician and composer, he co-founded the Jazz Composer’s Workshop with Mingus and had a friendship with Edgard Varèse—there’s even a rumor that Macero helped Varèse prepare the tape for Poème électronique. While there’s no documentary evidence to confirm that, Macero paid his way through Juilliard by working as an engineer in the school’s recording studio, he had the skill and experience to make that a tantalizing possibility, and he did visit the composer and at least observe some of Varèse’s work on the piece.

Miles Davis and Teo Macero standing together each wearing a white shirt and a tie; Miles is also playing trumpet

A Columbia Records promotional photo of Miles Davis with Teo Macero

Macero’s most important work was with Miles Davis, with whom he worked intimately as a producer from 1959 (beginning perhaps with part of the Kind of Blue session, though that is unclear) through Davis’s retirement in 1975, and then with the first few comeback albums for Columbia. There’s no direct line connecting Macero’s own music and the realization of Bitches Brew and other albums. Macero was a professional but with little lasting distinction as a composer or performer. He played the saxophone in the manner of Warne Marsh, though nowhere near as well, and experimented with composition in the Third Stream style. (Miles called some of those efforts “sad,” and judging by the album Explorations, with Macero, Mingus, and accordionist Wally Cirillo, he was right.) There are also some solid but unremarkable film scores, and the exploratory One-Three Quarters for chamber group and two pianos, recorded on the New Music in Quarter-Tones album, part of David Behrman’s “Music in Our Time” series for Columbia. (And a passing thought for the downside of the end of the big labels: during the 1960s, Columbia issued albums by Davis, Mingus, Monk, Bob Dylan, Glenn Gould, Stravinsky, Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, Leonard Bernstein, Behrman’s series, etc., et al. There won’t be anything like that again.)

Even before Macero started work as Miles’s producer, his critical ear and skill with the razor blade, splicing block, and tape were already established in jazz history. He produced Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um album, one of the greatest recordings in the history of the music, by editing the original tapes. The full master take of the opening track, “Better Git It in Your Soul,” has an extra chorus for Booker Ervin’s tenor sax solo. Ervin wanders around for the chorus, warming up, tossing out discontinuous ideas that never amount to anything interesting. Once the second chorus comes around, Ervin is in full swing and launches what is, at least on the LP release, a cooking solo, made hard-hitting by its concision. Macero lopped off the first chorus—and over a minute total—and is responsible for how tight and effective that track is.


The cover for George Grella's book about Bitches Brew which shows the LP cover in the top right corner.

Read more about Bitches Brew in George Grella’s book about the album for the 33 1/3 series.

At the Bitches Brew session, Miles had music for the band to play. Along with the music the core quintet had been playing, keyboardist Joe Zawinul brought in “Pharaoh’s Dance,” and Miles had some sort of sketch for “Bitches Brew.” That’s how he liked to work when he was experimenting. Beneath the public style, popular superstardom, and communicative playing, Miles was essentially an avant-garde/experimental musician. The musicians on the Kind of Blue album didn’t see what they were going to play until they arrived at the recording studio. By August 1969, the date of the Bitches Brew recordings, Miles was using the minimum of notated materials. He even cut out harmonies from Zawinul’s piece, leaving what he felt were the essentials: there is one chord, which at times is no more than a B pedal tone, and one spare, syncopated, repetitive theme that doesn’t first appear until almost 17 minutes into the 20-minute track.

But there’s no way to know when Miles first played that theme in the studio, in real time. The entire first disk of the album is a non-real time tape composition by Macero, and the material he had to work with was the recording session tapes. Miles and Macero kept the decks rolling while Miles had the band play various short passages, lay down different versions of the groove, and come together for extended stretches of ensemble playing that featured his own soloing, that of Shorter, and numerous conversations between bass clarinet player Bennie Maupin, guitarist John McLaughlin, and the keyboardists Corea, Zawinul, and Larry Young. The same is true for the 27-minute title track on the second side. The piece is even more substantial when you take into account that the track “John McLaughlin” on the first side of the second disk is a straight edit that came out of the recording of “Bitches Brew.” Miles and Macero had gone into the studio thinking that “Bitches Brew” (at the time not the title track, the initial intention was to call the album Listen to This) would be something of a four-part suite—e.g. they were thinking in terms of form. But the form in the studio, as played by the musicians, was nothing like the form that Macero gave the music in the editing process. The results were so far separated from the experience of the sessions that neither Maupin nor Zawinul realized what the record was when they first heard it after its release.

That Bitches Brew is so impressive is a testament not only to Miles’s great playing, his under-appreciated leadership and musical direction, but also to Macero’s compositional thinking. This was a new kind of music, using tools and idioms of musique concrète, aleatory, improvisation, jazz, rock, and funk, and creating new forms and structures around contemporary ideas about tonal harmony. Macero had all this material at hand in the form of feet of recording tape with instrumental passages. But how did those get spliced together into complete wholes?

Macero gave “Bitches Brew” a clear, simple form, guided by the original structural idea: a malevolently atmospheric fanfare leads into a bass vamp that continues for almost the duration of the side, interrupted only by returns of the fanfare. One of those repeats is a direct tape copy of the music heard at the start of the track; the other is a different, real-time stretch of the musicians playing the phrase. The track ends with another copy of the opening fanfare, which dissipates to nothing. The musicians didn’t play anything that created a sense of an ending, that wasn’t in the cards, so Macero’s edit brings the music to a place past which it doesn’t continue. Neither he nor Miles cared about any kind of formal conclusion.

But Macero did more than just put the tapes into some kind of shape. At about ten and a half minutes in, Miles, soloing, spits out a strong, short, rhythmic phrase, and Macero used a series of edits to repeat and extended the phrase, using a fragment of it recursively, making Miles sound like he is obsessively circling a musical idea, turning it in space, before he dismisses it and moves on. It’s quite a moment, musically rich and conceptually mysterious, one musician turning another musician’s improvisation, after the fact, into a composition. With the goal of creating an album that sounds like the band playing live, but which also displays deliberate, ex post facto compositional decisions, what kind of terms exist for this type of music making? Alchemy is the word.

Although “Pharaoh’s Dance” is the most heavily edited track on the entire album, a tour de force of critical listening and tape composition. “Pharaoh’s” opening is a sequence of edits, all short, that build an ABCBCABC structure. This was done entirely with the razor blade—in real time, the band was playing a vamp, punctuated by Holland playing a rising, arpeggiated B chord. The circularity of the playing, after Macero took it apart and reassembled it, produces music that has the unique, uncanny combination of a repetitive drone set inside a linear timeline. The intro leads into the meat of the performance, group interplay and solos, and the bulk of the track maintains the complexity of music made without the conception of linear time—without a structural or formal need to move from one bar or chord to the next—arranged into the linear sequence that tape splicing physically demands.

The track is both free form and concrete, improvised and composed, and there are brilliant edits that anchor musical events and create the unequalled and mysterious force of the record. At about eight minutes in, an edit cuts out a vamp that is losing energy and returns the opening material. Or something like it, but hauntingly different—the band is continuing the phrases from the start of the track, but they are somewhere farther along, in real time, though not in the album/listening time. The close listener remembers the music, yet the sensation of the music is extracted directly from the past and inserted into the present, dislocating the listener from the stream of time. If sonata form returns music transmuted by the experience of intervening time, the changes that time wrings on Bitches Brew do not come from the musicians, they take place entirely inside the listener’s mind. (The editing on the second disk is much lighter and directed towards getting the best out of the performances. “Voodoo” is a straight take. The edit on “Sanctuary” splices together two different takes to make an extended reverie on Wayne Shorter’s harmonically and emotionally ambivalent tune.)

This short stretch of music manages to both extend the duration of the piece while also seeming to go back to a moment in time that has long passed. Macero’s technical skill means the music keeps flowing, and his compositional thinking produces an effect that is unlike anything else in music, recorded or live. It also challenges, again, how we think about and describe the compositional process and its results. Macero wasn’t making a tape piece, any kind of pastiche or collage, he was producing an album by another musician. But Miles wanted to make part of the album in this manner, to play raw material and have his musical partner turn it into something that never existed in the studio. It’s a record of a band playing music that was never heard in real time. It’s a concept that, through praxis, plays with time in deeply mysterious ways. And it’s a complete artistic statement that, through its process, discards form, while managing to sound organic and logical. There is no one answer to what Bitches Brew is, but one truth about the album is that it is Teo Macero’s greatest composition.

Teo and Miles standing in front of the Columbia Records recording at night

Teo and Miles in front of the Columbia Records recording studios in 1971. (Creative Commons)


George Grella, Jr. is the author of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew for the 33 1/3 Series of books. He is the Music Editor at the Brooklyn Rail, publishes the Big City Blog, and writes for the New York Classical Review, the American Record Guide, and Music & Literature.

New Music on Vinyl: Everybody Loves It, But It Doesn’t Make Much Sense

Dj Turntable On Vinyl Background

The vinyl resurgence should be great for new music, right? After all, who buys records in 2015? Nerds. Curious, acquisitive types. People with a thing for the timeless artifact. Those who are willing to seek out sounds beyond those that the streaming services are ready to deliver right to their earbuds. And the very fact that some music lovers are spending their money on physical editions of music after more than a decade of gorging on ones and zeros has to be good news for people who sell music, doesn’t it?

As so often in life, the answer is complex, but not encouraging. Everybody loves vinyl, but it doesn’t really make financial sense.

It’s an agonizing problem, because vinyl is booming. In 2014, sales of new LPs jumped 52 percent from the year before, and sales in the first quarter of 2015 spiked 53 percent from the same period last year. Sales of new vinyl still only make up about 7 percent of album sales overall, but it’s the only format where album sales are still growing, as streaming continues to shred the market for physical music.

There is a cadre of record buyers for whom new music titles constitute sweet finds—or at least older new music does. Just four or five years ago, used albums by composers from the 20th-century avant-garde might have gone straight into the dollar bin, according to Cory Feierman, manager of Academy Records Annex in Brooklyn. * Now they can fetch big bucks. Robert Ashley albums, for example, sell well, and quickly, Feierman says. New vinyl reissues of mid-century electro-acoustic figures such as Pierre Schaeffer dot bins, and then disappear.

And new music labels are releasing new vinyl, too. Founded in 1982, Innova Records has been around long enough to have issued its first releases on LP and then watched as vinyl gave way to the compact disc. “There was a long gap in time before our next vinyl project was produced,” says Chris Campbell, operations director at Innova. “Over 20 years, in fact.” New Amsterdam Records started out in 2008 as a label offering CDs and digital downloads, but it started doing LPs for certain titles in 2013. “We started printing vinyl because we had fans requesting it regularly, and our musicians wanted to see their albums on vinyl,” says label manager Michael Hammond. (Both Campbell and Hammond are composers, and both have issued their own music on vinyl.)

But of Innova’s more than 500 releases to date, only nine are currently available on LP. New Amsterdam has released 73 recordings in less than a decade of operation, but it has only released 10 of those on LP so far.

browsing records

Uncool as CDs may be to a swath of music consumers these days, they retain certain advantages over vinyl. Analog purists can talk about ineffable “warmth” all they like, but CDs reproduce perfect digital sound every time across a far wider frequency range. (Despite all the clucking about the inevitable decay of the compact disc, the majority of CDs produced in the ‘80s, near the dawn of the format, still play just fine.) They also can offer up to 80 minutes of uninterrupted playing time—about double what the two sides of an LP will hold with reasonable audio fidelity—and obviate the need to break up a longer piece of music across more than one side, or more than one record.

And as quiet as it’s kept, CDs still sell, as do digital downloads. And when they do sell, they’re profitable.

Vinyl, on the other hand, is a finicky, expensive boondoggle from a practical standpoint. The grooves that give vinyl its sound, and its soul, must be physically produced and replicated, and “it’s a bit fussy in terms of how it’s made, how it’s cut,” Campbell says. From mastering the recording to creating a stamper to pressing copies, “there are myriad places along the way where it can go wrong,” he adds, and all those steps add up in time and cost, even if they all go right. The boom in vinyl has meant that the few working pressing plants—literal relics in a digital age—are forever backed up, leading to long lead times and unpredictable delays.

All of which contributes to a ratio of cost to benefit that vinyl loses to CDs or downloads “hands down,” according to Hammond. Producing a CD costs maybe $1.50 per unit. Producing an LP in a typical small-label 500-copy run can cost $6 or more per LP. Vinyl weighs more, and is thus more expensive to ship, and it gets damaged in shipment more easily than CDs. “And if it doesn’t sell, then you have giant boxes of records sitting around your warehouse!” Hammond says.

Every small label feels these pains right now. Innova operates as a nonprofit, but jazz label Pi Recordings does not. Pi co-founders Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang have only pressed two titles on vinyl to date, strictly because of concerns over cost versus profit. “Our wholesale profit margin is over $6 on CD sales, and maybe $2 at best for vinyl,” Wang says. “After you pay the artists their royalties, there is literally no profit left.” Since most artists still create albums with CD length in mind, issuing an LP version that sounds decent means making a double album, which makes the pressing far more likely to lose money than make any.

There is one bright spot to selling LPs, according to Rosner. Stores can return CDs that don’t sell for credit with their distributor, and those unsold copies eventually find their way back to labels, but “stores cannot return vinyl,” Rosner says. If LPs can be sold to distributors or stores, no big boxes of records will find their way home again to haunt the label’s warehouse.

But first labels have to sell their LPs, and niche music on a niche format tends to move slowly. Academy Records in Manhattan still stocks mostly CDs with only a handful of new titles on LP. Asked about top-selling new music titles on new vinyl, manager Frank Vogl cites a recent recording of Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus released by Austrian vinyl-only label God Records. It sold four copies in a month.

Mode Records still has LP copies of the first recordings it released in 1984. The label embraced CDs when they came along, and it continues to release titles on digital formats to this day, but it has yet to take up vinyl again. Founder Brian Brandt says he loves vinyl, personally, and doesn’t rule out releasing LPs again in the future, but it’s hard to get around the fact that “it doesn’t actually make financial sense.”

Brandt adds that the rise of streaming and the erosion of paid downloads and physical media sales represent a far bigger dilemma than to press or not to press. “Something has to give soon, because at the rate things are going, many independent labels will not survive this economic downturn in music sales,” he says. “And, unlike other depressions in the music business that I’ve experienced over 30-plus years of doing this, I don’t see any light at the end of this economic tunnel. Vinyl is unlikely to be the answer to that problem.”

Still, there are ways in which it appears vinyl does make sense for new music, if you squint. After all, the LP has returned at this late date in part because it’s a somewhat unwieldy physical product—larger and heavier than a CD, more fragile and particular, more of an objet d’art than a mere unit sold. In a world of data steams, “vinyl is a way to frame up the value of music,” says Campbell.

An LP still has a collectible, almost fetishistic value that a CD just doesn’t for many at this point. It carries a particularly strong appeal at the merch table, according to Hammond. A number of variables go into the decision to press vinyl, he says, and one of them is “whether or not the artist will be playing a lot of shows—vinyl sells at concerts.”

Rrose performing James Tenney

Rrose performing James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion in New York, and the cover of his recording of the work.

Contemporary composition can sell pretty well in certain circumstances. Earlier this year, Further Records released an LP of two recordings (studio and live) of James Tenney’s piece Having Never Written a Note for Percussion and sold out of its 500-copy run within months. The label specializes in electronic music, and sales were fueled no doubt by label followers and by fans of the performer, a techno producer/DJ known as Rrose, a.k.a. Seth Horvitz, who earned an MFA in electronic music from Mills College. In addition to distributing copies to record stores through the usual channels, the label took orders, and pre-orders, through Bandcamp, the current standard for one-to-one music sales. On a more bootstrapping front, crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the rest could also offer the potential for composers to solicit presales for, and fund production of, vinyl releases.

While selling records is important, it can’t be the only consideration for composers, performers, or even the labels themselves—especially since new music has never been a huge seller in any format. “My experience is that, from a business perspective, running a record label in 2015 in general doesn’t make sense, no matter what format you’re selling,” Hammond jokes.

CDs and downloads may make more money, but “vinyl as a format has an undeniable and lasting appeal,” he continues. “The historicity, the charm, the ritual of removing a record from the sleeve, flipping it over, looking at the artwork.”

And in the end, composers don’t do what they do for short-term gain. They’re making art, ideally, music meant to outlast listening formats, and even lifespans. At Innova, composers themselves pay for vinyl pressings, and the reasons they do so vary. “Some of it is marketplace-driven,” Campbell says. “Some artists know that their audience would love to sit and listen to a needle go through grooves. Some of it is purely for the joy of creating a kind of art object. How beautiful! Motivations and driving factors can be more than just the bottom line.”

* At the writer’s request, this sentence has been updated. See discussion here.

Lee Gardner

Lee Gardner has been writing about music and film for more than 25 years. He is the former editor of Baltimore City Paper, and is currently a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Vertical Performance

An excerpt from Michael Gordon’s Van Gogh directed by David Herskovits, designed by Lenore Doxsee, and performed during the Bang on a Can Summer Festival at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts by the Bang on a Can All-Stars with guest violinist/vocalists Eliza Bagg and Charles Yang on July 25, 2015.
Are there limits to multitasking onstage? That question came to mind while watching Michael Gordon’s chamber opera Van Gogh during the Bang on a Can Festival at MASS MoCA this past summer.

In it, each of the eight instrumentalists is called on to simultaneously play—with razor-sharp precision—a rhythmically complex score, sing text that doesn’t easily sync with it, and do a modicum of acting. The Bang on a Can All-Stars and two guest musicians—violinist/vocalists Eliza Bagg and Charles Yang—met the challenge with stunning dynamism, leaving one both wondering how they did it and wishing for more of this “vertical” artistry. Beyond virtuosity, it packs an emotional wallop. When the instrumentalist is the singer and actor, it’s easier to engage with the story than when the artistic impulse is spread between two or more performers.

It helped that the amplified and hypnotic six-movement work is based on Van Gogh’s brutally direct and celebrated letters, most of them written to his brother Theo. The letters draw us inside the tortured soul of an artist grappling with insecurity, ambition, and—ultimately—mental illness. Gordon says he decided to write Van Gogh because of his “total love and obsession” with the letters, attracted by their pain, rawness, and honesty. In fact, this piece is the fourth iteration and outgrowth of a work first performed in 1988—a vehicle for five musicians and voice—and best known in the eight instrument/three independent singer version recorded in 2007 by Alarm Will Sound. Only this year did Gordon decide to assign the vocal lines to the instrumentalists. And that seemed possible because the performing nucleus this time would be the intrepid and category-defying Bang on a Can All-Stars, which he, along with Julia Wolfe and David Lang, co-founded. In addition, the two main roles, for violinist/vocalists, would be filled by young, classically trained musicians who seem, more than ever, to straddle musical worlds. Gordon sensed that with all the musicians coming out of conservatories with one foot in the “indie scene,” he’d find the people he needed.

Singing while playing an instrument is as old as musical performance itself, and remains the dominant vehicle for pop and folk musicians. But with the advent of “serious” or “concert” music in the 17th century, vocal and instrumental parts grew more complex and these roles separated. In recent times, some composers have attempted to recombine them. Frederick Rzewski’s De Profundis (1992) requires the interpreter to recite Oscar Wilde’s famous letter from prison to Lord Alfred Douglas while navigating a broad range of keyboard techniques. George Crumb’s trio Vox Balaenae (1971) requires the flutist to speak into the flute and—like the pianist and cellist—wear a black half-mask. Singing while acting is the basis of opera and musical theater. But ask the singer/actor to add an instrumental line—even where physically possible—and eyebrows will rise.

Extramusical elements add to the mystique of George Crumb’s 1971 flute-cello-piano trio Vox Balaenae, which is one of his most widely performed compositions. The performance above, which took place at Montreal’s Salle Claude Champagne on April 17, 2011, features Camille Lambert-Chan (flute), Stephane Tetreault (cello) and Philippe Prud’homme (piano)
The brain doesn’t like to multitask. Most serious instrumentalists don’t like to sing onstage. They may have sung in chorus or solfege class, and may sing in the shower, but the spotlight is something else. Ensemble singing requires accurate pitch and appropriate tone. Some voices you want to hear; some, not so much. When a musician opens his or her mouth, it’s hard to anticipate what’s going to come out: it could be Maria Callas or Bob Dylan or your tone-deaf plumber.

Adding to the stress, stage direction may take the singer/instrumentalist away from his or her music stand, requiring that the instrumental parts be memorized.

For centuries of “serious” music-making, there’s also been resistance to doing more than what one has been trained to do. Until quite recently, if you asked a professional clarinetist to read a line of spoken text in a performance, he’d probably bristle and show you his contract.

But just as boundaries between musical genres have blurred, so have boundaries between what performers are willing—and able—to do.

Van Gogh was not Gordon’s first work mining vertical performance. In the mid-1990s, he wrote Weather for string orchestra, conceived and staged by Elliot Caplan, sections of which featured the musicians of Ensemble Resonanz in choreographed movement. In 2008, Gordon, Wolfe, and Lang co-composed singing in the dead of night, a 45-minute piece for eighth blackbird in which the instrumentalists move through choreographed steps they took part in creating. (A year later, eighth blackbird, always game to experiment, premiered Steven Mackey’s Slide, an innovative music and theater work in which singer/actor/librettist Rinde Eckert plays a fictional research scientist whose fiancée has abandoned him. Heartbroken, he reminisces about an experiment he conducted using projected images of photographic slides to explore the fallibility of human perception. The instrumentalists—including Mackey, who played electric guitar in the premiere—all additionally do a modicum of singing, acting, and choreographed movement. More recently, eighth blackbird premiered another work that completely blurred the lines between music, dance, and theater—Colombine’s Paradise Theatre by Amy Beth Kirsten.)

Some Historical Precedents for Multitasking Performers

Whereas Gordon had his Van Gogh musicians multitask in an experimental departure—“it was all very let’s-see-if-this-works,” he claims—by the mid-20th century Harry Partch had made a clean break from the role-specific direction of Western music, embracing instead “corporeal” music, whereby all music-making would involve singing, acting, and dancing. It’s built on the vocal and verbal music of the individual, stemming from chant in ancient Greek, Asian, and African cultures. In Partch’s large theatrical works, including his magnum opus Delusion of the Fury (performed in New York City this past summer by the Cologne-based ensemble MusikFabrik as part of the Lincoln Center Festival), the chamber musicians onstage function also as singers, actors, and dancers, creating a fantasy world enhanced by lighting, costumes, and makeup. Although Partch started with stories based on Japanese and Indian folk tales, he wrote in the preface to the two-act work that “words cannot proxy the experience of seeing and hearing.” The work is more of a staged concert in which theater intervenes more and more. The theatrics sometimes obscure the storyline, but the dramatic effect, arising from the music, is powerful. The instrumental setup, comprised of Partch-designed instruments, is the dominant scenery. The musicians play from memory a score suffused with strong motor rhythms. Heiner Goebbels, director of MusikFabrik’s Delusion, says he thinks of Partch’s theatrical works as a door between the two types of music with which the composer grew up: classical and pop—the music of the Beatles and the Beach Boys in particular. Like Gordon in Van Gogh, Partch in Delusion is after raw musical qualities conveyed with precision. In both works, the voices and instruments are amplified.

In order to realize Harry Partch’s magnum opus Delusion of the Fury, the Cologne-based ensemble MusikFabrik functioned onstage as singers, actors, dancers, and instrumentalists performing on replicas of Partch’s instruments created specifically for their performance.
Decades after Partch, the composer John Eaton, in what came to be known as “pocket operas,” consolidated the roles of instrumentalist, singer, and actor because he was unsettled by the way contemporary musicians played complex works with “no concept of the human dimensions trying to be expressed.” Eaton wanted to get the performers involved, he said, “with story elements, with acting, with being somebody.” In a NewMusicBox interview with Frank J. Oteri, Eaton pointed out that composers like Bach and Handel, aware of the total continuum of music and theater, broke with conventions of their time and were willing to do “whatever got the job done.” Since they’re less focused on singing than standard operas, Eaton thinks of these works as “romps” or “dramatic works” for instrumentalists.

Like most of his “operatic” works, John Eaton’s 2010 Benjamin Button, based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story which also inspired the 2008 motion picture, directly involves the instrumentalists in the onstage narrative.
The living musician most associated with multitasking might be Meredith Monk. Coming of age in 1960s New York, she initially attracted attention with her extended vocal techniques but has built a 50-year career dedicated to an interdisciplinary approach to performance. Mixing idiosyncratic movement and three-octave vocalizing (along with stage design, film, and video), Monk creates dreamscapes that cross cultural boundaries. She says she works “in between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theater becomes cinema.” Though her works require its performers to vocalize and move, Monk might consider this less “multitasking” than, as in the music of Partch, the expression of a single artistic impulse.

In Meredith Monk’s Turtle Dreams (1983), Monk and the other members of her vocal ensemble–Robert Een, Andrea Goodman, and Paul Langland–create a totally immersive experience through singing, dancing, and acting.
But while many composers have created vital work that requires multitasking performers, those pieces seem less a precedent for Gordon’s new version of Van Gogh than director John Doyle’s productions of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company (London and New York, early 2000s), where the actor/singers onstage also function as the orchestra. At first you think: who knew there were so many first-rate actor/singers who could play instruments that well? Then: how do they do all these things almost simultaneously? In these productions, the story was dominant—the sets and costumes were what one would expect of musical theater with high production values. And though considered by some blasphemous for its rearrangement (with Sondheim’s permission!) of the composer’s original orchestral score, these “vertical” performances of Sweeney Todd and Company powerfully projected Sondheim’s musical intent. (Sweeney won a Tony for Best Musical Revival.) The instrumental lines, delivered center stage rather than arising magically from a pit or offstage orchestra, drew the ear in a fresh way. The consolidation of singer/instrumentalist in a single individual has sometimes been the consequence of limited budgets. But limitation can be liberating, and lead to revelation.

In John Doyle’s 2005 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, singer/actors double as instrumentalists to create a seamless synchronicity between theater and music.
Adapted by Composer for Multitaskers

Gordon decided to assign the Van Gogh vocal parts to the instrumentalists simply because, he says, nowadays there are musicians who can handle it. Of course, those who can do it well, and in a particular style, are rare. Gordon says he wrote everyone he knew and asked, “Do you know any female violinists who sing, or female singers who play violin?”

“You can’t put your finger on what you’re looking for, but when it appears in front of you, you know,” Gordon mused. What he was looking for appeared in the form of Eliza Bagg, a prospective Bang on a Can festival fellow, a violinist who had transitioned into a vocalist specializing in indie and early music. The other part was performed by Charles Yang, a hotshot violinist who, in his YouTube-posted arrangement of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” seems a cross between Paganini and Freddie Mercury. Both were initially concerned that their voices weren’t the right type. Gordon assured them he didn’t want trained voices. He wanted real and raw voices—floaty, breathy, bluesy, and rock voices, where appropriate to the text.

They auditioned for Gordon separately, then were tried together. They won the roles. As the score was still in flux, Yang asked that his part be more violin than voice; Bagg, just the opposite. Gordon happily accommodated. Flexibility was key. Gordon made changes in the score even on the day of the performance. Vocal parts, originally concentrated on the violins, were spread among the other performers.

Gordon’s music is difficult to learn. Though rooted in repetition and groove, it’s rhythmically complex and often without readily discernible patterns. The ensemble writing is layered and polyrhythmic, and doesn’t synchronize easily. Naturally, the Van Gogh vocal parts added another layer of complexity. At times, the musicians are asked to play triplets while singing eighth notes, or to sing triplets over duples. “It’s like rubbing your tummy and patting your head,” says All-Star cellist Ashley Bathgate. Or translating French to English while typing in Spanish. It can be done, but it doesn’t come naturally.

Practicing slowly isn’t sufficient. “Because your voice is part of your body, you can get very distracted by it,” Bathgate says. “When I think about the line I’m singing, the cello line will go out of tune. If I focus on the cello sound, my voice goes out of tune or cracks.” The solution was to hone one part—typically the one where you’re more at home—until it became virtually automatic. Then add a layer on top.

More traditional singing—intoning, with or without words—establishes a visceral connection between the performer and audience. When you sing, you’re naked—even with a cello in front of you. (Contemporary composers seem particularly drawn to female cellists in this role. Perhaps it’s the lure of the treble voice and baritone instrument, perhaps the comfortable distance between the voice and where the cello sound is produced. In recent memory, I’ve heard Alisa Weilerstein, Maya Beiser, and Sol Gabetta hum or whisper while drawing a bow across the string.) Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields calls on two of the Bang on a Can All-Stars—electric guitarist Mark Stevens and Bathgate—to sing while playing extended solos. Gordon admits that the success of Anthracite Fields may have influenced his decision to write vocal parts for the All-Stars in Van Gogh.

Once composers know you can sing, they write parts for you,” Bathgate says. It becomes part of your arsenal.

Acting: The Biggest Stretch

Professional musicians are trained to create sound. With sufficient dedication to a project, contemporary musicians will deliver any sound the score asks for—even where unusual techniques, like vocalizing, come into play. But acting is often beyond their purview. For them, what might seem a simple stage direction—walking across the stage, for example—can be tougher than navigating a thorny score.

Two weeks of rehearsal were set aside for Van Gogh. In the first, the musicians worked toward impeccable ensemble. In the second, the stage director, David Herskovits, came to add theatrical touches: props, lighting, and movement.

Herskovits began by explaining his vision to the musicians and eliciting feedback. He had a specific game plan, but was diplomatic and flexible. The musicians tried things for him. The universal goal was to make the work sound as good as possible.

The stage direction consisted largely of broad brush strokes to set a scene or stimulate the imagination—scribbling letters, crumpling papers, crossing the stage to peer at the audience—but all had to be precisely coordinated with the music. Any action that would undermine the score was scrapped or modified.

Herskovits would say something like: “You have ten minutes of rest here. Can you pretend you’re writing something, then crumple the paper and throw it?”

At least once, the response was: “Well actually, I’m changing instruments and cuing singers, and it’s not a good time.”

Herskovits backed off, then asked another: “How about you?”

David Cossin, the Bang on a Can All-Stars percussionist, said that writing a stage direction in his part made it easier to embrace: “Instead of ‘play cymbal,’ it was ‘throw paper.’”

Judith Kogan leaning against a harp.

Juilliard-trained harpist Judith Kogan, who has won prizes on pedal and folk harp and is proficient on baroque triple harp, has performed with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Orchestra of St. Luke’s. The author of Nothing But the Best: The Struggle for Perfection at the Juilliard School (Random House, 1987), she has won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for her music journalism.

Are Unions Relevant to New Music?

Musicians at peaceful demonstration on Union Square, New York

Source: iStockphoto

Virtually all the new music musicians I know are left-leaning and pro-labor, yet much of the new music field is non-unionized. Why is that? The AFM and other unions play a significant role in the realm of larger, more traditional music making—orchestras, musicals, film recording, opera, et cetera—but they are far less visible when it comes to performances of new music. In the Bay Area, where I live, AFM local 6 lists only one new music presenter with a collective bargaining agreement.

Size is probably part of the equation, since a handful of orchestras is easier to unionize than the ever-shifting ecosystem of small chamber ensembles more typical in new music. But it goes beyond that. The AFM certainly represents chamber musicians, and it has initiatives designed specifically for smaller groups, such as its Fair Trade Music program. Yet most of the new music musicians I interviewed for this piece held a dim view of the musicians’ union, and many had experienced hostility from their AFM locals.

Clearly something is pushing us apart, and I think it boils down to conflicting agendas. Any union’s top priorities revolve around securing decent wages and working conditions for its members. Those are, without question, important considerations for musicians in any genre. But new music practitioners also have a third priority: advancing the cause. Nobody just happens to fall into new music because of all the great gigs that came their way. We choose new music despite the fact that it’s a hard slog, because we want to champion the art form. So when push comes to shove—and new technologies have created a lot of shove—we sacrifice pay or benefits.

I’d very much like to see more music unionization; both in our genre and across the board. Musicians of all stripes are facing strong downward wage pressure, and a lack of collective action is only making things worse. But for the AFM to win over the new music community, the realities of why we make music will need to be better accommodated.

What makes an occupation unionizable?

To better understand our situation, it’s useful to look at where unions enjoy the greatest successes. Most union-friendly occupations have the following characteristics:

  • Clearly defined roles
  • Static employer–employee relationships
  • Proven business models
Fast food workers strike

Fast food workers strike in Richmond, Virginia
Photo by Bernard Pollack, via Flickr

That’s why coal miners, fast-food workers, teachers, sanitation personnel, home health aides, and orchestra musicians are good candidates for unionization. If you’re a garbage truck driver, you’re unlikely to show up one day and find yourself designing a new waste treatment facility. Similarly, if you’re the principal bassoonist in an orchestra, your job is not likely to involve playing the viola part or planning the marketing strategy for the next concert season.

Now consider a profession like dentistry. Most dentists are not unionized, and that’s because the majority are self-employed or work as associates in small practices. Professional lobbies like the American Dental Association are a better fit for their needs, which typically revolve around regulatory overhaul and dealing with the insurance market more so than collective bargaining.

Still, there’s nothing intrinsic about dentistry that precludes unionization. If the growth of multi-office, corporate dentistry continues, we might expect to see more collective bargaining in that field. After all, dentists have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and the business model doesn’t change dramatically from dentist to dentist—everyone basically has the same teeth. The only missing element is an employer with multiple dentist employees. Look at the parallel world of the hospital, where healthcare personnel are increasingly classified as employees. There you’ll find increasing unionization, in contrast to the general anti-union trend in American society.

Like dentistry, music affords us many possible working arrangements. That’s why it’s not enough to say a violinist is a violinist, so you should all join the union. If you’re playing for a Broadway musical, then yeah, it makes sense: fighting for a union contract will be good for you and for all future pit musicians. But if your grad school buddy asks you to join a fledgling ensemble dedicated to promoting new music for harpsichord…well, the choice isn’t so obvious.

The “sharing economy” of new music

Musical employment tends to be piecemeal, but especially so in new music: multiple part-time ensemble gigs, some teaching, perhaps grant writing or administrative/logistical support, another music gig that’s less inspiring but pays better, and so on. Musicians often collaborate with each other on different projects, sometimes swapping roles depending on who’s leading.

Zoom in on any one new music ensemble and it might resemble a traditional employer–employee setup, but that’s misleading. If Suzie plays in Johnny’s string quartet, Johnny plays in Frederica’s Pierrot ensemble, and Frederica and Johnny both regularly perform solo sets on Suzie’s recital series, can anyone really be said to be the employer? It’s better to think of these musicians as colleagues who collaborate on whatever opportunities present themselves.

In this sense, the production of new music resembles “sharing economy” businesses like Uber and AirBnB more than it does the employer–employee world of the symphony. More specifically:

  • A need isn’t being well provided by existing institutions
  • There are people with the expertise, resources, and time to fill that need
  • The need can be filled without necessarily making it into a full-time job

Let’s compare our hypothetical harpsichord ensemble to Uber:

Uber vs Ensemble

One major difference, of course, is that Uber and AirBnB have become wildly successful on a commercial level—enough that they cause negative ripple effects. The City of San Francisco is opening an Office of Short Term Rental Administration and Enforcement to deal with the shady landlords who evict tenants to rent apartments on AirBnB. Uber is facing a class-action lawsuit as to whether its drivers should be considered employees or contractors.

It’s worth remembering, however, that those negative effects are problems of scale, not design. There’s nothing inherently evil about renting out that extra room in your apartment to a backpacking college student. It’s only when the AirBnB market gets big enough to push tenants out of their apartments that we have a problem.

We would do well to think about unionization in new music along similar lines. There may come a point when your new music ensemble becomes successful enough that it would be unethical to oppose unionization. But in the scrappy, small-scale production environment more typical of our genre, you’re not really dealing with the traditional employer–employee model of the union. It’s more like a fluid group of like-minded professionals, or an employee-owned worker cooperative.

For the love of money

None of this is to imply that, hey, you should always take the gig, because new music! There are plenty of poorly run and exploitative organizations that build their successes on the backs of overly accommodating musicians. While researching this article, I interviewed Bruce Fife, president of AFM local 99 in Portland. He had this story to share:

“…major nonprofit in Portland, advertising for live music, told musicians that as a nonprofit, they couldn’t afford to pay. As is usual, they said it would be great exposure for the musicians. This, from a nonprofit that did over $20 million in revenue, $2 million in net profits in FY14, and has $39 million in net assets.”

But on the flip side, there are also a lot of talented people out there with great ideas but little financial backing, especially among early-career, emerging musicians. The standard AFM shtick is that collective action gives musicians increased leverage against employers—which is true. A union contract would be extremely beneficial when dealing with an organization like the nonprofit Bruce described. But not every gig is like that. What happens in the more typical new music scenario where the role of employer is essentially honorific?

If we insist that every self-producing ensemble or upstart music festival provide a full union ride, it means only organizations with pre-existing financial support will be able to produce anything. True, the AFM does sometimes grant exceptions for specific use cases, but the application process is bureaucratic and requires a new petition for each project. That’s not the best use of time for emerging musicians trying to hustle together something amazing with limited resources and bandwidth. And what if your local decides not to grant your exception, or doesn’t respond in time for your production?

In actual practice, emerging musicians with an interest in new music quickly learn that the AFM has little to offer them. If they played by the union rules, there would be precious few opportunities for them to work in our genre. While they aspire to a level of career success that would command union rates, they’re not willing to stop making the music that matters to them in order to get there. Yet somehow this basic fact gets lost in recruitment appeals from the AFM.

Collective action: you’re doing it wrong

collective action megaphone

Photo by Molly Sheridan

A couple years ago, Tom Olcott of local 802 wrote a piece calling out several New York new music ensembles for not being unionized. He also listed several union members in good standing as counterexamples, including the New York Pops and the Mostly Mozart Festival. Unfortunately, his argument was apples to oranges in the extreme. Orchestral pops and the music of Mozart—these are widely known and artistically conservative genres. They appeal to a broad audience, with a market that was established long before either of those presenters came onto the scene. So while the repertoire undoubtedly has value, I’m pretty sure no one plays in the New York Pops because they feel that Rodgers and Hammerstein are underappreciated by society.

New music, on the other hand, is basically evangelical: we’re hooked on the thrill of new, unorthodox repertoire, so we toil to build awareness and expand audiences for living composers, to push the boundaries of musical experience, to make art that might someday, if we’re lucky, add something new and unique to the cultural heritage of humanity. But there’s no pre-existing market for the unknown and the unproven—by definition. So unless the American political climate becomes much more supportive of state-sponsored arts funding, new music organizations will have to continue operating on shoestring budgets, below union standards. They have no other choice.

The kind of musicians who gravitate toward new music will always choose love of the repertoire over financial considerations. But that doesn’t mean new music is anti-union. Comments like the following were typical among the musicians I interviewed for this piece:

“Organized labor is the reason that music is where it is.”
“We are 100% in support of an organized labor system that can accommodate our reality.”
“I try really hard to pay as close as I can to AFM standards.”
“Union scale is a benchmark that we quote to all presenters.”

Nor is the AFM completely unsympathetic. In my interview with Bruce Fife, I asked what he thought a group of young composers with a limited budget should do if they wanted to throw together an ad-hoc ensemble to perform or record some of their pieces:

“Anybody can approach their local board or the IEB to request waivers or considerations or promulgated agreements to make those kinds of things work so they accomplish what the goal is….To me it’s always about what’s going to happen to that music, how is it going to be utilized, and are the musicians being fairly compensated for the use.”

I think this emphasis on usage is probably the best way to bridge the gap between traditional union mandates and the needs of the new music community. Bruce described how a similarly “sideways” approach worked in Seattle, where that city’s local fought for better loading zone access at nightclubs instead of focusing solely on wage considerations.

The AFM will get more sympathy from new music if it concentrates on helping musicians and presenters develop practical usage agreements that meet the needs of all participants, instead of insisting on pension contributions, minimum scale, and secondary market considerations more applicable to the film industry. Not that wages and re-use fees aren’t important, but downward price pressure in music is a complicated and pervasive issue. When even star economist Paul Krugman admits to being confounded by the economics of music, we’re unlikely to solve the problem by towing the traditional party line.

There is a lot of useful work that can be done to strengthen the standing of musicians outside of the wage issue. This in turn will bring more musicians into the union fold and give the AFM greater lobbying clout to tackle the big economic trends. But nothing’s going to happen so long as young musicians entering new music see the AFM as an institution that is incompatible with their aspirations.

Potential solutions

Here are two ideas that would immediately improve this situation. First, I propose that the AFM abolish scale and simply provide average and median fees paid for similar engagements, in similar genres and markets, over the past five years.

The problem with something like a minimum scale is that it can be twisted into a glass ceiling. No matter how high or low you set the rate, music presenters without a collective bargaining agreement can use it as a justification to pay something lower: “Well, we’d really like to pay that rate and we’re trying hard to get there, but the economy blah blah blah, so right now the best we can do is X.”

By providing averages instead of scales, the AFM would torpedo this sleezeball approach. Employers would have to justify their offers based on what others are actually paying, giving musicians much firmer ground to stand on than some bleeding-heart appeal to fairness. “You should be paying union scale, because that’s the right thing to do” becomes “Why would I work for you at half the rate those other venues are paying?”

My second suggestion is that the AFM create genre-specific, graduated paths toward full union compliance. At some point, all musical employers of a certain size should be providing decent wages, pensions, and benefits; it’s just not always feasible for a new organization on a shoestring budget. So instead of forcing emerging musical employers to work outside the union fold until they can afford full participation, start looking at what musical organizations of a similar scope are doing, then develop best practices and a roadmap for growth. As long as the employer stays within the bounds of what’s acceptable given its mandate and stage of development, it would get the stamp of compliance from the union.

There would be a path for a string quartet playing new music, and a different path for one playing wedding gigs; a blueprint for a regional pops orchestra, and one for a film scoring orchestra. And naturally, the requirements for each group would change over time. In the beginning of an organization’s existence, obligations would be few and benefits would be many. As the organization grows, financially and otherwise, more stringent requirements would kick in. The new music ensemble that tours internationally and has steady operational funding should absolutely be held to a higher standard than a self-funded group that is putting on its first show. If the successful group can’t provide the types of benefits and support that similar groups are providing, it should rightly get heat from the union.

Naturally, there are details to work out before either of these suggestions could be put into practice, but they’re not insurmountable. I know we can do better than a system where an entire class of pro-labor musicians feel that the musician’s union doesn’t apply to their careers. None of my ideas are all that radical, nor are they meant to be a rigid, unchanging formula for all time. I’m just trying to get the ball rolling, because I want new music to have as many allies as possible. What a shame that the AFM isn’t among the most important.


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

Positive Power: Develop the Growth Mindset of Success

Independent Thinking

It’s hard being a professional composer or performer! The field is flooded with talent, traditional opportunities are highly competitive, and the career path is not clear. Many changes in the music industry, technology, and the way that audiences interact with and access music have made it harder for musicians to be noticed and create sustainable careers. On the other hand, the brave new world of technology and social media, along with more creative ways to make, perform, and disseminate music and interact with new audiences, have opened up opportunities for the entrepreneurial artist.

Given the competitive nature and complexity of today’s musical landscape, it’s no wonder that musicians feel intense pressure to excel and often worry how to make it.

You are taught to go for perfection, and you inevitably feel judged on the quality of your work. However, you probably judge yourself more harshly than any music critic or panelist or audience member would, which can give rise to self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence—exacerbating the perception of the need to be “perfect.”

This creates a lot of stress that can take its toll over the long term. Yet today’s artists can benefit from a life-changing concept from positive psychology on how to deal with these pressures as they make their way in the world: the growth mindset.

What’s on your minds?

Let’s first examine what’s on the minds of the many musicians with whom I have the privilege of working when they begin to doubt themselves and think that they have to be perfect and outdo the competition.

“I am going to die at this performance because I just don’t have what it takes.”

“Every time I write for a new instrument, I feel hopeless because it will never be as good as it needs to be.”

“I totally blew that competition. I’m just a loser.”

“I’ve got to be better than everyone else in order to succeed.”

“If only the ensemble had played my piece better, we would have gotten good reviews. Now my career is going nowhere.”

Which of these sounds familiar to you?

Do you notice all those harsh judgments, permeated with an underlying fear of failure, despite your training and your talent? These thoughts create a lot of stress that can wear you down over time.

Happily, you are not doomed by these thoughts because they are only perceptions and not the truth.

In fact, you have the ability to change those thoughts and adopt a new mindset to approach challenges in the spirit of growth and experimentation, as opposed to perfectionism and fear of failure: the growth mindset of success.

The Growth Mindset of Success

The growth mindset is the brainchild of Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University whose research on the mindset of success is documented in her eminently readable book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

According to Dr. Dweck, your success turns on how you view your talent and intelligence:

Growth Mindset

The growth mindset stems from a belief that your talent and intelligence are the starting point and that success comes as a result of effort, experimentation, learning, and persistence. Those with a growth mindset are more resilient, work harder, embrace collaboration with others, and achieve greater success than those with a fixed mindset because they are motivated by the desire to grow and learn. You reach out to others for help. You examine the strategies that work and keep building on them. You discard the strategies that don’t work. And you keep the faith, no matter what!

Fixed Mindset

Those with a fixed mindset believe that you are either born with talent and intelligence or you are not, which means you cannot change how talented or smart you are. As a result, you are afraid to take risks and rock the boat because you might make a mistake—which would prove that you really are not talented. Those with the fixed mindset are locked into perfectionism. They tend to play it safe and avoid experimentation. They also shy away from asking others for help, which they perceive as sign of weakness and further proof of a lack of talent and intelligence.

The fascinating conclusion of Dr. Dweck’s research is that those with a fixed mindset are less “successful” than those with a growth mindset. And with some work, you can overcome those fixed-mindset thoughts and develop the growth mindset with a four-step process.

Young plant

How to Develop the Growth Mindset in Four Steps

Step 1. Become Aware of Your Fixed-Mindset Thoughts

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge that we all have fixed-mindset thoughts. The key is to recognize when the fixed mindset arises because that is the first step in a four-step process of change:

Musicians encounter the fixed mindset in many different situations:

  • Writing a new piece
  • In competitions and auditions
  • On stage in performance
  • Teaching
  • Alone in the practice room
  • Comparing yourself to other professionals whom you perceive to be “better” than you
  • Procrastinating for fear of not being good enough
  • Networking and having to meet new people

Pay close attention to the situations that trigger your fixed-mindset thoughts. Write them down or make a record of them over the next week so that you know exactly when to expect these negative thoughts. Notice the words that crop up in your mind that represent your fixed mindset, such as:

  • I’m not good enough.
  • I’ll never make it.
  • This is way too hard.
  • I give up.

Step 2. Affirm Your Choice to Change

Once you become aware of the situations that trigger the fixed mindset along with your fixed mindset thoughts, the next step is to convince yourself that you have the power to change.

Weigh the Evidence

One strategy is to look for evidence that supports and negates your fixed-mindset thought.

Suppose you have just left a difficult rehearsal and are thinking, “I just don’t have what it takes to make it. I’m such a loser.”

What evidence supports this thought?

  • I did not play as well as I wanted.
  • I didn’t win the last competition that I entered.

How about the evidence that negates this thought?

  • One tough rehearsal does not doom me to failure.
  • After a rough rehearsal, I work really hard and I don’t give up.
  • I am committed to figuring out a better way.
  • I played beautifully at my last recital.
  • I enjoy a challenge.

By doing this exercise, you are challenging that initial fixed-mindset thought and reaffirming your commitment to overcoming your obstacles and working hard towards creating success. This is the growth mindset at work!

Document your successes

Another exercise that affirms the growth mindset is a success journal where you document your successes and outline the process you used to create that success. Not only is the list a great reminder that you have in fact experienced success, but it also shows that success comes about through hard work, focus, persistence, learning from mistakes, and resilience.

Step 3. Answer with a Growth-Mindset Voice

The third step in adopting the growth mindset is to answer your fixed-mindset thought with a growth-mindset thought:

What can you say in response to the fixed-mindset thought?

  • I’ve done it before and I can do it again.
  • I am committed to handling this situation.
  • What can I learn from this?
  • What will I do next time?

You can find the right words from your success journal.

Another technique is to imagine what you are like at your best. Think about an actual experience of optimal performance, such as your last wonderful musical performance, the terrific piece you wrote last month, or a heavenly improvisation session. What are you like in this situation? Write down the words that describe you at your best and use those words to replace your fixed-mindset thoughts.

Step 4. Take a Growth-Mindset Action

The fourth step in changing from a fixed to a growth mindset is to take an action that reaffirms your commitment to growth. What are some actions that you can take?

  • When you hit a snag, keep going and don’t give up.
  • Explore a new way of overcoming your challenges and come up with new and better strategies.
  • Clear your mind by taking a break and doing something that restores your energy—such as exercise, a coffee break, or a phone call with a friend.
  • Reach out to colleagues and mentors for suggestions on how to improve.

The process of change takes practice. The good news for musicians is that you all know the process of practicing for improvement! So use those same skills to practice replacing the voice of the fixed mindset with the words of the growth mindset.

Rainbow Colored Toy

How Musicians Can Use the Growth Mindset to Overcome Challenges to Success

Let’s examine how other musicians have used the growth mindset to overcome many of the common mental challenges to being successful.

  1. Music Performance

Music performance is filled with opportunities for self-doubt and the fixed mindset. How can you use the growth mindset to overcome the fear of not being good enough and the perceived need to be perfect?

Often, it involves identifying the specific challenge and coming up with a new approach.

One musician, who was thoroughly discouraged by mistakes he made during an orchestra rehearsal, realized he was setting unrealistic expectations for himself with the following self-talk:

“I should be better than this. I don’t deserve to be playing principal with an orchestra of this caliber.”

While his fixed mindset caused him to doubt his talent, he reached out to a friend who had more experience as a principal and learned what it took to be a confident performer, thereby changing his entire approach. This led him to be very satisfied with his performance at the final concert.

Another musician was able to overcome her fear of “messing up” by adopting a growth strategy of being “upfront about my lack of experience coupled with being ready to learn something new,” finding that this “has always led to positive results.”

Another musician used the growth mindset to stop thinking of herself as not good enough:

“I can respond to the voice that paralyzes or frightens me with the voice of the growth mindset, by…access[ing my] best self, or thinking of ways a challenging situation can help me grow.”

  1. Auditions and Competitions

Auditions and competitions can easily trigger a fixed mindset with the inevitable comparisons to others. The growth mindset can help to change one’s approach to these stressful situations. A musician who successfully learned how to adopt a growth mindset shared how much more “good” energy he felt with a growth mindset, which helped to attract many more people to his world than with a fixed mindset. He also reframed the word “impossible” as “simply a word and not a state of being” which enabled him to clear his mind about competition.

Instead he perceived himself as follows: “I’m possible. No matter how the rest of the auditions pan out the remainder of the year, I know that going into my work and life with a growth mindset really opens my eyes to so many more ideas and opportunities than I see in a fixed mindset.”

  1. Career progress and success

Where you stand in your career is another area that is ripe for fixed-mindset thoughts. It is easy to look to other musicians whom you perceive to be farther along in their careers and feel that you “should” be at a certain point. This is understandable but not helpful! In fact, an old boss of mine used to say, “There is nothing more misleading than the score at half-time.”

So think about where you stand now, where you want to go in your career, and what you have to do now in order to get there. If you think of music as a life-long journey, you can instead believe that you are not there “yet” and, with hard work and persistence, you can learn what it takes to achieve the success you are aiming for. This is another manifestation of the growth mindset that Dr. Carol Dweck has spoken about in her TED Talk entitled “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve. ”

  1. Learning from others and being open to their suggestions

The fixed mindset tells you that asking others for help is a sign of weakness and proof that you lack talent. This type of thinking can inhibit you from reaching out to colleagues, friends, mentors, or teachers and locks you into using the same unhelpful strategies. That is one reason that those with the fixed mindset tend to peter out and not achieve success in the long run.

Instead, using the growth mindset can encourage you to seek help from others, play for and show your work to your colleagues, and embrace the collaborative process since you are able to hear suggestions as learning experiences—as opposed to feeling that others are judging you and that you are simply not good enough.

  1. Networking and Public Speaking

Today’s musicians need to reach out to others by creating larger networks of support, as well as speaking to audiences during and around performances. Both of these situations easily lend themselves to fixed-mindset thinking.

Many musicians I know are afraid of networking since they think that they have to “sell themselves.” With that concept of networking in mind, they understandably avoid these situations, particularly if they think that they are not worthy. Yet I think of networking as developing a network of mutually supportive business professionals over the long-term without expecting immediate results. Networking is also an opportunity to learn from others. The growth mindset can help you to reframe networking so that you can approach other professionals.

Another area that gives rise to a lot of fear is public speaking. Many musicians tell me that their discomfort with public speaking stems from anxieties about being judged, not having anything to say, and feeling inadequate to address an audience. However, public speaking is increasingly important in today’s music world as a way of engaging audiences and bringing new people into our orbit. One of my musician students was able to overcome his fear of public speaking by thinking of it as “jumping into a cold pool. Things will always feel more comfortable once the jump is made, but it is taking the first step that is the hardest. The only way to get better, as with many things in life, is to do just do it and learn from my mistakes to grow.”

  1. Thinking big and taking action

I encourage musicians to articulate big dreams like creating one’s own ensemble, going on a world tour, or writing for orchestra. Thinking big can be scary when you perceive the vision as impossible to achieve: a classic fixed-mindset thought. With the growth mindset, you can overcome feeling overwhelmed by breaking down big goals into smaller shorter-term goals and concentrating on taking steps that you can achieve now towards that big goal. This will enable you to experience small successes on which you can build as you work on your long-term goals.

In my experience, musicians with the fixed mindset tend to be single-minded in their goals. Someone with a growth mindset is much more flexible and positive about taking steps, regardless of size, in order to achieve an end goal gradually, being more realistic about the process, and allowing himself the freedom to thrive.

Indeed, one of my students found that while she was excited about her big goals, it was the tangible actions that reaffirmed her commitment to growth:

“The very act of breaking a goal down and taking action is antithetical to the fixed mindset. SMART goals are tangible recognition that eventual achievement comes through a process, rather than a sudden windfall, and that we must persevere and take actions step-by-step, rather than expecting ourselves to be immediately capable of something difficult.”

  1. Being flexible and dealing with the unpredictable

Things do not always go as planned and the growth mindset can help you to stay positive and deal with the last-minute changes that inevitably crop up.

For example, what happens when your plans for a rehearsal are upset by last-minute substitutions? The fixed mindset would slow down the music making and instill stress in the other players for fear that the rehearsal won’t be perfect. Yet a growth mindset can help you to keep a cool head, remain open-minded, and trust your substitutions and improvisations in order to roll with the punches and make great music.

Moreover, the growth mindset enables you to accept that things do not always go as planned and that even when one’s expectations are not met, there is always room for improvement. This lesson applies to schoolwork, performances, compositions, working towards one’s musical career goals, and nurturing personal and professional relationships. You are able see life in a more positive light, to realize the potential for growth, and to accept what is out of one’s control.

The same spirit of acceptance and growth can come in handy for those who experience injuries and other setbacks. Using the growth mindset can help you to reframe this experience and be grateful that you can still teach or write music and spend time advancing your career and developing new skills.

The musical life is fraught with challenges that can create a great deal of mental anguish. Yet, by changing your approach and adopting the growth mindset, you can embrace a process to deal with and overcome the obstacles that you may encounter in your career to create something of value to yourself and to society at large.


Astrid Baumgardner

Astrid Baumgardner
Photo by Adrian Kinloch

Astrid Baumgardner, JD, PCC, a professional life coach and lawyer, has the privilege of working with supremely talented world-class early-stage musical artists at the Yale School of Music, where she heads the Office of Career Strategies and teaches career entrepreneurship. Baumgardner is also president and founder of her coaching company, Astrid Baumgardner Coaching + Training, where she coaches musicians and creative business professionals. Baumgardner guest lectures at conservatories, leadership academies, and universities and writes a popular blog on career entrepreneurship. Read more about her work here.


Digital to Analog: The Needle and Thread Running Through Technology

Daphne Oram making hand-drawn inputs to the Oramics apparatus. (Via.)

Daphne Oram making hand-drawn inputs to the Oramics apparatus. (Via.)

This is a picture of Daphne Oram, demonstrating the technology she invented: Oramics. Oram (1925-2003) learned electronics as a studio engineer at the BBC in the 1940s. She composed the first all-electronic score broadcast by the BBC—in 1957, for a production of Jean Giradoux’s Amphitryon 38—and, a year later, co-founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. A year after that, dismayed at the BBC’s lack of enthusiasm for her work (which may be sensed in the fact that the Workshop was not allowed to use the word “music” in its name), she struck out on her own and began to develop Oramics.

Oram’s conception was a radical union of audio and visual. It was a synthesizer, but one in which the input was hand-drawn patterns on strips of 35mm film. The strips of film rolled past photoelectric sensors, and the resulting currents were converted to sound. The avant-garde possibilities of sound-on-film had been explored previously—by Oskar Fischinger, for example, or Arseny Avraamov and his Soviet counterparts (the latter well-chronicled in Andrey Smirnov’s essential study Sound in Z)—but Oramics was more ambitious, more innovative. Oram’s machine ran up to ten strips of film at once, controlling not only pitch, but amplitude, waveform, and various filters. Sound-wise, it was miles ahead of the voltage-controlled analog synthesizers of the time.

HB Oram 2This is a picture of my daughter playing with the Oramics app, an iOS-based simulation. It was released in 2011, to coincide with a special exhibition at London’s Science Museum. Oram’s original apparatus was on display—now behind glass, no longer functional. Oram had stopped working on Oramics in the 1990s, after suffering a pair of strokes; by then, the advance of electronic music had left her and her machine behind. To consider why is to, perhaps, get close to something about the nature of technology, our relationship with it, how decisions about it in one place and time shape attitudes in another place and time.

Fair warning: this article is going to take the scenic route getting to its destination—more suite than sonata. But that I should feel compelled to give such a warning is not irrelevant. Because the real question is why some things are at the center, and why some things are peripheral, and how those things get to where they are. And a good starting point for answering that question is another technology: clothes.


The Great Masculine Renunciation, M division.

The Great Masculine Renunciation, M division.

One of the great geologic-level events in the history of fashion was first named by the British psychoanalyst J. C. Flugel in his 1930 book The Psychology of Clothes. The event was, as Flugel put it, “the sudden reduction of male sartorial decorativeness which took place at the end of the eighteenth century”:

[M]en gave up their right to all the brighter, gayer, more elaborate, and more varied forms of ornamentation, leaving these entirely to the use of women, and there by making their own tailoring the most austere and ascetic of the arts. Sartorially, this event has surely the right to be considered as ‘The Great Masculine Renunciation.’ Man abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful. He henceforth aimed at being only useful.

Flugel attributed the Great Masculine Renunciation to the spread of democratic ideals in the wake of the French Revolution: with all men now theoretically equal, male fashion converged on a kind of universal neutrality. In other words, according to Flugel, the more utilitarian style of fashion spread outward from the middle class, mirroring the rise of middle-class economic power.

Flugel was, perhaps, too optimistic. David Kuchta, in his book The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity: England, 1550–1850, traces the origins of the Great Masculine Renunciation much further back, to the 1666 introduction of the three-piece suit by Charles II. Sobriety in dress was first a symbol of masculine, aristocratic propriety. Only later would the style be adopted by the middle class, in order to criticize aristocratic wealth and assert their own political power; in turn, the upper class would re-embrace the style in their own defense. Both sides, at the same time, accused the other of being insufficiently modest in their dress, of embodying not masculinity and prudence, but effeminacy and indulgence.

And note: it is entirely a parley between middle- and upper-class men. Kuchta concludes:

The great masculine renunciation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was thus less the triumph of middle-class culture; rather, it was the result of middle-class men’s appropriation of an earlier aristocratic culture, of aristocratic men’s appropriation of radical critiques of aristocracy, and of a combined attempt by aristocratic and middle-class men to exclude working-class men and all women from the increasingly shared institutions of power. (emphasis added)

What really solidified the Great Masculine Renunciation was the great geologic-level event in the history of technology: the Industrial Revolution. What was once a symbol of judiciously wielded privilege now became a symbol of efficiency, of diligence, of devotion to productivity. The uniform of economic and political power could also signify a complete congruence of work and life. Anthropologist David Graeber, in a recent article, put it this way:

[T]he generic quality of formal male clothing, whether donned by factory owners or functionaries, makes some sense. These uniforms define powerful men as active, productive, and potent, and at the same time define them as glyphs of power—disembodied abstractions.

Dress for the cog in the machine you want to be.

A couple of months ago, I was at the annual Fromm Foundation concerts at Harvard University, which featured the International Contemporary Ensemble, for which the group opted for outfits that, while realized in individual ways, still hewed close to standard new-music-ensemble dress. In fact, the few nods in the direction of rebellion—some bright leggings here, some gold-studded boots there, ICE founder Claire Chase’s metallic silver jacket—mostly just reinforced how closely the performers still orbited the standard all-black contemporary music uniform.

I’m not sure exactly when it became standard (a day of hunting through a few decades of archived newspaper reviews yielded precious little record of what performers were wearing—something, I realize, that might very well be symptomatic of what this article is discussing), but that all-black uniform has held sway for at least thirty years, which is not insignificant. Concert dress had long since conformed to the ideals of the Great Masculine Renunciation, so it makes sense that avant-garde concert dress would go even further in realizing those ideals: more stark, more neutral, more sober. And 20th-century avant-garde music, to an unprecedented extent, was a process-based movement—serialism to minimalism and everything in between—so one might expect its interpreters to take their fashion cues from the similarly streamlined and orderly world of the factory and the assembly line. But there’s something else going on with that parade of all-black, I think, and it is a bit of fallout from technological advance. And advance isn’t really the right word, in this case. We think of technological innovation as always being expansive, opening up possibilities and dimensions. But technological innovation also contracts dimensions. And the shadow of one of those contractions survives in all those black clothes.

One of the most sweeping changes wrought by audio recording and broadcasting technology was that, for the first time ever, music was no longer, by necessity, a visual as well as an aural experience. Music had always been only heard in live performance—which meant the listener was there, looking as well as hearing. (Even exceptions—Vivaldi’s female choristers singing behind a screen or Wagner’s enclosed pit orchestra or the like—were more like unusual variations of the visual context.) But with recordings and radio, the visual portion of musical performance disappeared. All one had was the sound. The technology decoupled eye and ear.

It is, actually, akin to the Great Masculine Renunciation. The process is the same: reduce a given media—and remember, as Marshall McLuhan was fond of pointing out, clothes are just as much a form of media as any other—to its discrete components, isolate what is essential, streamline it into its most basic, direct form, cast away everything else. In this case, you have two media changing in tandem: concert dress evolved toward this extreme neutrality in order to better mimic the non-visual experience of music that recordings and radio increasingly made the norm. You could even argue that the music itself started to amplify this evolution, ever more focused on sound, how the sound is organized and produced, techniques and presentation styles following the sonic impetus toward abstraction. It echoed the favored toolbox—scientific, industrial, political—for making sense of what was turning out to be a very complicated world: divide and conquer.


Pythagoras; woodcut from the Wellcome Library, London.

Pythagoras; woodcut from the Wellcome Library, London.

The purest expression of philosophical allegiance to the sound-only experience was and is acousmatic music. The term was invented by Pierre Schaeffer, the French musique concrète pioneer, to describe the experience of hearing musique concrète, or any other sonic experience in which the source of the sound was hidden. The goal of acousmatic experience was to stop thinking about how the sound was produced and start noticing the sound itself, qualities and textures that might be elided or ignored in an audio-and-visual presentation. Schaeffer likened it to Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher, supposedly lecturing from behind a veil in order to focus his students’ attention on the substance of his teachings. Thus, Schaeffer insisted, the modern technology of electronic sound reproduction was simply a recreation of ancient experience: “[B]etween the experience of Pythagoras and our experiences of radio and recordings, the differences separating direct listening (through a curtain) and indirect listening (through a speaker) in the end become negligible.”

Does it change the nature of Schaeffer’s thesis to note that the Pythagorean veil probably didn’t exist? The earliest references to it come long after Pythagoras’s time and make the veil more allegorical than real—an exclusionary implication, dividing Pythagoras’s followers into those who really got what he was teaching and those who didn’t. (Brian Kane has unraveled the Pythagorean veil—and much else—in his book Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice.) Then again, Schaeffer’s real, acknowledged philosophical reference point wasn’t Pythagoras. It was the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology is not an easily summarized thing, but at its core is the act of examining what exactly we perceive in order to bring to light ways we organize and narrate our perceptions. One of the better descriptions of the phenomenological process was given by Husserl’s disciple Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his 1945 Phenomenology of Perception:

It is because we are through and through compounded of relationships with the world that for us the only way to become aware of the fact is to suspend the resultant activity, to refuse it our complicity…. Not because we reject the certainties of common sense and a natural attitude to things — they are, on the contrary, the constant theme of philosophy—but because, being the presupposed basis of any thought, they are taken for granted, and go unnoticed, and because in order to arouse them and bring them to view, we have to suspend for a moment our recognition of them…. [Phenomenological] reflection… slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice[.]

It’s easy to see how Schaeffer’s acousmatic idea transfers this process into the realm of sound, veiling the relationship between a sound and its production in order to reveal how much of the sound’s nature gets lost in our compulsion to categorize it.

Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? But beneath that bright, objective surface is a nest of problems that can reiterate the sorts of presuppositions that phenomenology is meant to exorcise. Feminist interpretations of phenomenology, for instance, face the difficulty of Husserl’s idea of intersubjectivity, the assumption that other people will perceive and classify the objective world in much the same way I will. As it turns out, the “I” in that sentence is not incidental. As scholar Alia Al-Saji has written:

The consciousness that results is not only an empty, pure ego, it is also a universalized (masculine) consciousness that has been produced by the exclusion of (feminine) body, and hence implicitly relies on the elision of sexual difference. The phenomenological method’s claim to “neutrality” thus appears rooted in a form of double forgetfulness that serves to normalize, and validate, the standpoint of the phenomenological observer.

Johanna Oksala, similarly, acknowledges the suspicion “that the master’s tools could ever dismantle the master’s house.”

This might seem far away from the actual experience of music. But the thing to keep in mind is that to make some definition of the “actual experience” of music is, almost always, to make a claim of neutrality—to privilege one aspect of music (usually the sensual and aesthetic sense of timbre and rhythm and syntax) over another (usually the ramifications of the societal conditions under which the music is created or performed). And it runs into the same problem: who decides what’s essential? Every single categorical division I’ve been talking about—plain and fancy, sound and vision, parts and whole, past and present, musical and extra-musical—is similarly implicated. We call some kinds of dress sensible and some ostentatious because long-dead men (and only men) were locked in competition for who would be in and out of favor, and broadcast their convictions via the media of clothes. We analytically divide every human activity into component parts because the mechanical demands of industrial development got us in the habit. We separate aspects of musical performance by sense because a particular form of technology first did it for us, decades ago. We make divisions along lines that we never laid down.


From Daphne Oram, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics (1972).

From Daphne Oram, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics (1972).

Daphne Oram was temperamentally disinclined to make such divisions. Her work on Oramics turned into something resembling a new-age quest, a search for enlightenment at the boundaries of technology.  In 1972, Oram published a short book called An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics. It is, on the one hand, a chatty, primer-like overview of basic ideas of sound synthesis and electronic music, but one that, at every possible opportunity, analogizes and anthropomorphizes its subject on the grandest possible scale:

In every human being there will surely be, as we have said, tremendous chords of wavepatterns ‘sounding out their notes.’ Do we control them by the formants we build up… by tuned circuits which amplify or filter? Are we forever developing our regions of resonance so that our individual consciousness will rise into being—so that we can assert our individuality? In this way does the tumult of existence resolve itself into a final personal waveshape, the embodiment of all one’s own interpretations of the art of living?

What emerges over the course of the book is that Oramics was conceptually inseparable from Oram’s critique of technology itself—but that technology could, indeed, dismantle and rebuild its own house.

If the machines, which replace the human interpreters, are incapable of conveying those aspects of life which we consider the most human, then… the machines will thwart the communication of this humanity. But need machines be so inhuman? Could we so devise a machine that, in the programming of it, all those factors which are deemed to be the most ‘human,’ could be clearly represented?

Her positive answer was the development of Oramics. Her vision of technology was—to put it as she might—one of additive, not subtractive, synthesis.

Oram ended up on the margins of the perceived mainstream of innovation, even as she pursued her uniquely holistic conception of technology. One can speculate as to why. She was too far ahead of her time for the BBC, and, perhaps, too far out of time for the electronic music community at large. Her machine was never finished. (“It is still evolving all the time,” she wrote, “for one lifetime is certainly not long enough to build it and explore all its potential.”) She had an all-or-nothing attitude—toward her work, her employers, her colleagues. She could be exacting, stubborn, single-minded, and other adjectives that would probably sound somewhat less pejorative if she had been a man.

But Oram also never got her due because she was singular, in a way that all the technocracies that make up society, explicit and implicit, couldn’t quite encompass or process. (“My machine does not really fit into any category,” she admitted.) For all her technological prowess, Oram was the opposite of what gets assigned technological value. She was integral. She was non-repeatable. She was non-modular. She was indivisible.

In the first article in this series, I wrote:

I’ve found that one really fascinating question to ask myself while listening to music that utilizes technology—old technology, new technology, high technology, low technology—is this: What’s being hidden? What’s being effaced? What’s being pushed to the foreground, and what’s being pushed to the background?

Oram is a reminder that it’s not just what gets pushed to the background. It’s also who.