Category: Articles

NewMusicBox Mix: 2017 Staff Picks

 

This isn’t meant to be just another 2017 “Best of” list. Rather, New Music USA being all about the discovery of new sounds, staffers here like to celebrate the end the year with a shout out to a track that caught their ears and hung on for any number of good reasons. Don’t see a 2017 favorite of yours? We hope you’ll tell us more about it below in the comments so we can all give it a listen.

Follow the links for further listening and to add the albums to your own collection.

Happy Holidays from New Music USA!!


This Is The Uplifting Part

Natacha Diels: Child of Chimera
Ensemble Pamplemousse

ALBUM: ..​.​This Is The Uplifting Part
Parlour Tapes+

Purchase via Bandcamp / USB

I love that Pamplemousse’s collective musicmaking is utterly virtuosic and serious but also light and often playing with humour. It elevates the concept of new music while simultaneously questioning its very underlying fabric. This is also the *only* physical media I’ve bought this year. It comes as a usb stick nestled in a laser-cut bamboo “cassette tape.”

–Eileen Mack, Junior Software Engineer


Passionate Pilgrim

Brad Balliett: My Flocks Feed Not
Oracle Hysterical/New Vintage Baroque

ALBUM: The Passionate Pilgrim
Via Records

Purchase via Amazon / iTunes

I caught the CD release show for this album at National Sawdust and was completely entranced by the mix of materials used to create its unique soundworld. With period instrument and modern timbres, words that feel timeless, and musical language that cuts across eras, it was easy to enter this world and hard to stop exploring it (especially with the voices of Majel Connery and Elliot Cole in my ear). Passionate Pilgrim remained in rotation for me for weeks after the show, and I’m excited to revisit it again as part of this year-end reflection.

–Molly Sheridan, Director of Content, and Co-Editor, NewMusicBox


Memory Bells

Night Foundation: Memory Bells

ALBUM: Memory Bells
Lobster Theremin

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

Grab that eggnog (or adult beverage of choice) and chill with some seriously lush downtempo from the Night Foundation—a.k.a. the Miami-based Richard Vergez—crafted with love, hardware, real tape loops, and a trumpet.

–Eddy Ficklin, Director of Platform


Glorious Ravage

Lisa Mezzacappa: Shut Out the Sun

ALBUM: Glorious Ravage
New World

Purchase via Amazon / iTunes

Lisa Mezzacappa’s album Glorious Ravage, featuring the stunning vocals of Fay Victor and an ensemble of incredibly talented musicians and improvisers, took me on a far off journey through the lens of largely forgotten female explorers. Mezzacappa transforms the words of these female explorers into song and also developed visuals for the live performance. Although I wasn’t fortunate enough to see the live performance, the music itself is completely captivating. I still feel I need at least a few more good listens through the whole album to really get my ears and mind around the music, but this makes the work all the more rewarding. I particularly enjoyed Shut Out the Sun. If you’re looking for a taste of this inspiring work, it will be well worth your time.

–Kristen Doering, Grantmaking Associate


Hushers

Kate Soper: Songs for Nobody: “III. Song”
Performed by Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble

ALBUM: Hushers
New Focus Recordings

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

Choosing just one track from one recording is just so difficult—I’m not a “favorites” kind of person. Who’s my best friend? I have many friends and I love them all. So I want to say a special shout out to Fabian Almazan for his really superb recording Alcanza, and I urge everyone to give it a listen. Meanwhile, I love the Quince ensemble’s pure and compelling vocal sound. I also adore this Kate Soper song, and together, this is a nearly perfect recording—at least as perfect as art could ever be!

–Deborah Steinglass, Director of Development


Okónkolo

Yosvany Terry: Okónkolo (Trio Concertante)
Bohemian Trio

ALBUM: Okónkolo
Innova Recordings

Purchase via Amazon / iTunes

The title track from The Bohemian Trio’s debut recording, Okónkolo (Trio Concertante), springs a joyous escape from the porous walls of the genre prison. How to label this? Who cares! It’s crafted with expertise, performed with seemingly spontaneous precision, and a blast to listen to.

–Ed Harsh, President and CEO


Wake in Fright

Uniform: The Light at the End (Cause)

ALBUM: Wake in Fright
Sacred Bones

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

“The Light at the End (Cause)” is a standout track from Uniform’s 2017 Wake in Fright. Making the most of electronic and analog tools to produce ear-splitting, heart-pounding noise, the NYC duo has imbued a recording with the strength of a live show. This track, and dare I say the entire record, is worth a listen.

–Madeline Bohm, Software Engineer and Designer


Soft Aberration

Scott Wollschleger: Soft Aberration
Karl Larson, piano; Anne Lanzilotti, viola

ALBUM: Soft Aberration
New Focus Recordings

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

A beautiful, slow meditation delicately and deftly handled that will only further reward with repeated listening.

–Scott Winship, Director of Grantmaking Programs


Knells II

The Knells: Poltergeist

ALBUM: Knells II
Still Sound Music

Purchase via Bandcamp / Amazon / iTunes

“Poltergeist” by The Knells really stood out to me this year amid the sea of new releases. I love the blending of genres to create something totally unique, and the music video is awesome.

–Sam Reising, Community Platform Strategist and Grantmaking Manager


Composer's Collection: John Mackey

John Mackey: Foundry
North Texas Wind Symphony conducted by Eugene Migliaro Corporon

ALBUM: Composer’s Collection: John Mackey
GIA Composer’s Collection

Purchase via Amazon / iTunes

The latest addition to the exceptional GIA Composer’s Collection series is surprisingly the first commercial CD release devoted exclusively to the music of John Mackey and features 12 stunning examples of the wonders he works in the wind band idiom. There are many treasures in this two-disc collection, but the piece I’ve pressed the replay button to hear the most is Foundry, a relatively brief (just 4 ½ minutes) 2011 “grade 3” piece (for what that means, read Garrett Hope) that was originally written for a consortium of junior high school and high school orchestras. Here the usual mix of winds, brass, and percussion are augmented with a wide array of found objects; ideally a group of 12 percussionists are asked to strike piles of metal, pipes, wood, and mixing bowls, as well as to whack a whip. Written nearly a century after Iron Foundry, Alexander Mosolov’s famous orchestral paean to Soviet industrial accomplishments, Mackey’s piece is less about work and all about play. Junior high school is one of my worst memories, but I’d re-enroll today if I was given a chance to participate in a performance of this!

–Frank J. Oteri, Composer Advocate, and Co-Editor, NewMusicBox

This Is Why Your Audience Building Fails

How do we increase the audience for new music? This is a never-ending debate, but virtually all of the standard answers assume that we need to be more inclusive, breaking down barriers for newcomers. From “people should be allowed to clap between movements” to “our next concert celebrates the work of composers from Latin America,” the common thread is evangelical: if we make the culture of new music welcoming to a broader range of people, new audiences will be won over by the universal artistic truth of our music.

This attitude is more or less unique to new music. Sure, every struggling indie band wants to play to larger houses, but the default boundaries of the audience are predefined, usually along class or ethnic lines. Country music has never seriously attempted to break into the African-American market (despite some important black roots). Norteño music does not worry about its lack of Asian American artists. Arcade Fire has probably never tried to partner with the AARP. Even Christian rock, which is fundamentally about evangelism, flips the relationship around: music to spread belief, versus belief to spread music.

So why do we put inclusivity at the center of our audience building? I suspect it is largely a reaction to our upper-class heritage: after all, our genre wouldn’t exist without the 19th-century bourgeoisie and 20th-century academia. Through openness, we hope to convince people that we’re really not that stuffy, that our music can have a meaningful place in people’s lives even if they aren’t conservatory-trained musicians or white upper-middle-class professionals.

Greater inclusivity isn’t an audience-building strategy—it’s an audience-building outcome. For most musical genres, it is the exclusivity of the community that is the selling point.

Working toward greater diversity in new music is necessary and right. The problem is that we’re putting the cart before the horse. Greater inclusivity isn’t an audience-building strategy—it’s an audience-building outcome. Making inclusivity the focus of strategy actually hurts our efforts. All we do is muddle classical music exceptionalism with easily disproven assumptions about musical taste, in the process blinkering ourselves to certain truths about how people use music in pretty much any other context.

And what do we get for our efforts? The same small audiences of mostly white, highly educated music connoisseurs. If we truly want to cultivate both meaningful growth and meaningful diversity in new music audiences, we need to take a step back and examine how people choose the music they listen to.

Communities and Outsiders

For the vast majority of people, music is—whether for better or worse—strongly connected to tribalism. It’s sometimes hard for us to see this as musicians because we treat sounds and genres the way a chef explores varietals and cuisines, each with unique properties that can be appreciated on their own merits.

Yet very few non-musicians relate to music in this way. Usually, musical taste is intertwined with how the listener sees him- or herself in the world. People choose their music the same way they choose their favorite sports teams or their political affiliations: as a reflection of who they want to be, the beliefs they hold, where they feel they belong, and the people they associate with.

In other words, musical taste is about community building—an inclusive activity. But whenever you build a community, you also implicitly decide who isn’t welcome. Those boundaries are actually the thing that defines the community. We see this clearly in variations in average tastes along racial or ethnic lines, but it’s just as important elsewhere: comparing grey-haired orchestra donors to bluegrass festival attendees, or teenagers to their parents, for example.

For most musical genres, it is the exclusivity of the community that is the selling point. Early punk musicians weren’t trying to welcome pop music fans—they actively ridiculed them. Similarly, nobody involved in the ‘90s rave scene would have suggested toning down the bold fashion choices, drug culture, and extreme event durations in order to make the genre more accessible.

Or consider the R&B family of genres: soul, funk, Motown, hip-hop, old-school, contemporary, etcetera. These are the most popular genres in the African-American community, at least partially because these genres are theirs. They made this music, for themselves, to address the unique experiences of being black in America. Sure, other people can (and do) enjoy it, make it, and transform it to their purposes. But only because everyone acknowledges that this is fundamentally black music. When Keny Arkana raps about the struggles of the poor in Marseilles, we don’t hear the legacy of Édith Piaf or Georges Brassens or modern French pop stars. We don’t hear the Argentine roots of her parents or other South American musical traditions. What we hear is an African-American genre performed in French translation.

The video for Keny Arkana’s “La Rage,” clearly influenced by African-American music videos.

In contrast, when genres get co-opted, like rock ‘n’ roll was, like EDM was, they lose their original communities. When we hear Skrillex, we think white college kids, bro-y sales reps, or mainstream festivals like Coachella—not the queer and black house DJs from Chicago and Detroit who pioneered EDM. Similarly, when we hear Nirvana or the Grateful Dead, we don’t hear the legacy of Chuck Berry or Little Richard. As exclusivity disappears, the music ceases to be a signifier for the original group, and that group moves on to something else. Community trumps genre every time.

Expanding the Circle

Things aren’t completely that clear cut, of course. There are black opera singers, white rappers, farmers who hate country music, grandmothers who like (and perform) death metal, and suburban American teenagers who would rather listen to Alcione than Taylor Swift. In addition, a lot of people like many kinds of music, or prefer specific music in certain contexts. We thus need a portrait of musical taste that goes beyond the neolithic sense of tribalism.

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The first point to note is that communities of taste, like other communities, are not mutually exclusive. There are friends you would go to the gym with, friends you’d invite over for dinner, work friends you only see at the office, and so on. Some of these groups might overlap, but they don’t need to.

Similarly with music, there is music you’d listen to in the car, music you’d make an effort to see live, dinner music, workout music, wedding music, and millions of other combinations. Again, sometimes the music for one context overlaps with another, but it doesn’t necessarily need to. As such, while people make musical taste decisions based on tribe, we all belong to many overlapping tribes, some of which use different music depending on the context.

Film is one of the clearest examples of this contextual taste at work. Why is it, for instance, that most people don’t bat an eyelash when film scores use dissonant, contemporary sounds? Because for many people, their predominant association with orchestral music is film. As I’ve written before, when uninitiated audiences describe new music with comments like “it sounds like a horror movie,” they’re not wrong: for many, that’s the only place they’ve heard these sounds. Film is where this type of music has a place in their lives, and they hear atonality as an “appropriate” musical vocabulary for the context.

In addition, film gives us—by design—a bird’s-eye view into other communities, both real and imaginary. It’s a fundamentally voyeuristic, out-of-tribe medium. We as an audience expect what we hear to be coherent with the characters on the screen or the story being told, not necessarily with our own tribal affiliations. Sure, we definitely have communities of taste when it comes to choosing which films and TV shows we watch. But once we’re watching something, we suspend our musical tastes for the sake of the narrative.

Thus, when the scenario is “generic background music,” film offers something in line with our broad societal expectations of what is appropriate for the moment—usually orchestral tropes or synthy minimalism. However, when the music is part of the story, or part of a character’s development, or otherwise meant to be a foreground element, there’s a bewildering variety of choices. From Bernard Herrmann’s memorable Hitchcock scores, to Seu Jorge’s Brazilian-inspired David Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic, to Raphael Saadiq’s “all West Coast” R&B scoring of HBO’s Insecure—anything is possible as long as it makes sense for the taste-world of the narrative.

Dealing with Outliers

Lots of people have tastes that deviate from societal norms and tribal defaults, including (obviously) most of us in new music.

All that aside, we still need to explain the outliers: the death metal grandma, the young American Brazilophile, the black opera singer… Lots of people have tastes that deviate from societal norms and tribal defaults, including (obviously) most of us in new music.

In a case like the suburban teenager, it might be as simple as curiosity and the thrill of exoticism. But when we turn to examples like the black opera singer, things get more complicated. Making a career in European classical music is incredibly hard, no matter where your ancestors come from. But black people in America also face structural challenges like systemic racism and the high cost of a good classical music education in a country where the average black family has only one-thirteenth the net worth of the average white family. Making a career in music is never easy, and it doesn’t get any easier when you try to do it outside of your tribe’s genre defaults. Yet despite the challenges, there are clearly many black musicians who have persevered and made careers for themselves in classical music. Why did they choose this path through music?

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The standard explanation leans on exceptionalism: classical music is a special, universal art form that has transcended racial lines to become a shared heritage of humanity, so of course it will be attractive to black people, too. That doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, though. Rock ‘n’ roll is at least as universal. If it weren’t, Elvis Presley wouldn’t have been able to appropriate and popularize it among white Americans, and rock-based American pop wouldn’t have inspired localized versions in basically every other country in the world.

Jazz also has a stronger claim at universalism than classical music. Multiracial from its beginnings, incorporating both black and white music and musicians, then gradually broadening its reach to meaningfully include Latin American traditions and the 20th-century avant-garde—if there is any musical tradition that can claim to have transcended tribal barriers, it is jazz, not classical music. No, musical exceptionalism is not the answer.

Maybe this is an affirmative action success story then? I doubt that’s the whole explanation. Black Americans have been involved in classical music at least since the birth of the nation—a time when slavery was legal, diversity was considered detrimental to society, and polite society thought freedmen, poor rural hillbillies, and “clay eaters” were a sub-human caste of waste people not capable of culture. That environment makes for some strong barriers to overcome, and to what benefit? It would be one thing if there were no alternatives, but there have always been deep, rich African-American musical traditions—arguably deeper and richer than those of white Americans, who mostly copied Europeans until recent decades (after which they copied black Americans instead).

I asked a handful of black classical musicians for their perspectives, and their answers shed some light. Their paths through music varied, but everyone had mentors who encouraged their passion for classical music at key stages, whether a family member, a private instructor, a school teacher, or someone else. In addition, they all got deeply involved in classical music at a young age, before they had the maturity and self-awareness to fully comprehend how racism might play a role in their careers. By the time they were cognizant of these challenges, classical music was already a big part of who they were. They felt compelled to find their place within it.

W. Kamau Bell recently shared a similar story about his path into comedy in this Atlantic video.

These anecdotes provide a partial answer, but we still don’t know where the initial inspiration comes from, that generative spark that leads to an interest in a specific instrument or type of music. For example, cellist Seth Parker Woods tells me that he picked the cello because he saw it in a movie when he was five. Something about the cello and the music it made struck him powerfully enough that a couple of years later, when everyone was picking their instrument at school (he attended an arts-focused school in Houston), he thought of the movie and went straight to the cello. To this day, he remembers the film and the specific scene that inspired him. I was similarly drawn to percussion at a young age, begging my parents for a drumset, acquiescing to their bargain that “you have to do three years of piano lessons first,” and then demanding my drums as soon as I got home from the last lesson of the third year.

Nature or Nurture

There is something fundamental within certain people that leads us to specific instruments or types of music. And thanks to science, we now know pretty conclusively that part of the reason for this is genetic, although we don’t yet know a whole lot about the mechanics involved.

Now, before we go further, let’s be very clear about what genetics doesn’t do. It doesn’t preordain us biologically to become musicians, and it doesn’t say anything about differences in musical preference or ability between genders or ethnic groups. Simplistic mischaracterizations of that sort have been responsible for lots of evil in the world, and I don’t want to add to that ignominious tradition. What genetics does do, however, is provide a plausible theory for some of the musical outliers. It’s that extra nudge in what is otherwise a predominantly cultural story.

A major contributor to our understanding of music genetics is the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Started in the late 1970s and still going today, it has tracked thousands of sets of twins who were separated at birth and raised without knowledge of each other. The goal of the study and similar ongoing efforts is to identify factors that are likely to have a genetic component. Since identical twins have identical genomes, we can rule out non-genetic factors by looking at twins who have been raised in completely different social and environmental situations.

Most twin-study findings relate to physical traits and susceptibility to disease, but the list of personality traits with a genetic component is truly jaw-dropping: the kinds of music a person finds inspiring, how likely someone is to be religious, whether s/he leans conservative or liberal, even what names a person prefers for their children and pets.

And we’re not talking about, “Oh hey, these two boomers both like classic rock, must be genetics!” No, the degree of specificity is down to the level of separated twins having the same obscure favorite songs, or the same favorite symphonies and same favorite movements within those. In the case of naming, there are multiple instances of separated twins giving their kids or pets the same exact names. Moreover, it’s not just one twin pair here and there, the occurrence of these personality overlaps is frequent enough to be statistically significant. (For more in-depth reading, I recommend Siddhartha Mukherjee’s fascinating history of genetic research.)

It would seem that our genome has a fairly powerful influence on our musical tastes. That said, the key word here is influence—scientists talk about penetrance and probability in genetics. It’s unlikely that composers have a specific gene that encodes for enjoying angular, atonal melodies. However, some combination of genes makes us more or less likely to be attracted to certain types of musical experiences, to a greater or lesser degree. That combination can act as a thumb on the scale, either reinforcing or undermining the stimuli we get from the world around us and the pressures of tribal selection.

The genetics of sexual orientation and gender identity are much better understood than those of musical taste, and we can use those to deduce what is likely going on with our musical outliers. Researchers have now definitively located gene combinations that control for sexual orientation and gender, measured their correlation in human populations, and used those insights to create gay and trans mice in the lab, on demand. In other words, science has conclusively put to rest the nonsense that LGBTQ individuals somehow “choose” to be the way they are. Variations in sexual orientation and gender identity are normal, natural, and a fundamental part of the mammalian genome, just like variations in hair color and body shape.

When it comes to homosexuality in men, the expression of a single gene called Xq28 plays the determining role in many (though not all) cases. When it comes to being trans, however, there is no single gene that dominates. Rather, a wide range of genes that control many traits can, in concert, create a spectrum of trans or nonbinary gender identities. This makes for a blurry continuum that might potentially explain everything from otherwise-cis tomboys and girly men to completely non-gender-conforming individuals and all others in between.

When it comes to the genetics of musical taste, we’re likely to be facing something similar to the trans situation, in that individuals are predisposed both toward a stronger or weaker passion for music and a more or less specific sense of what kind of musical sounds they crave. All professional musicians clearly have a greater than average predisposition for music, since nobody becomes a composer or bassoonist because they think it’s an easy way to earn a living. Likewise, certain people will be drawn strongly enough to specific sounds that they’re willing to look outside of their tribal defaults, both as listeners and performers.

Let’s reiterate, however, that genetics plays second fiddle. One hundred years ago, classical music enjoyed a much broader base of support than it does today, which suggests that tribalism is the bigger motivating factor by far. If things were otherwise, after all, musical tastes would be largely unchanging over the centuries, and I wouldn’t need to write this article.

musical-taste-diagram

A theory of musical taste

Mason Bates’s Mercury Soul

Enough with the theorizing. Let’s turn to two specific new music events that make sense when viewed through a tribalist lens. Both are events that I attended here in San Francisco over the past year or so, and both were explicitly designed to draw new crowds to new music.

Mason Bates’s Mercury Soul series is at one end of the spectrum. Taking place at San Francisco nightclubs, the Mercury Soul format is an evening of DJ sets interspersed with live performance by classical and new music ensembles, all curated by Mason. These types of crossover concerts were instrumental to his early career successes and led to a number of commissions, many with a similar genre fusion twist. He is now one of the most performed living American composers.

A promo video for Mercury Soul.

When Mason’s work comes up in conversation, there is often reference to blending genres, breaking down barriers, and building audiences for new music. Yet Mercury Soul is a textbook example of the evangelical trope: bringing classical music into the nightclub with the assumption that clubbers will be won over by the inherent artistic truth of our music. Given the arguments presented above, you can see that I might be skeptical.

Let’s start with even just getting into the venue. As I was paying for admission, I witnessed a group of 20-somethings in clubbing apparel peer in with confused looks. Once the bouncer explained what was happening, they left abruptly. People come to nightclubs to dance, so when these clubbers saw that the context of the nightclub was going to be taken over by some kind of classical music thing, their reaction was, “Let’s go somewhere else.” Maybe they thought the concept was weird or off-putting. Or maybe they didn’t really get it. Or maybe they thought it was a cool idea but they just wanted to go dancing that night. It doesn’t really matter, because if you can’t get them in the door, you’re not building audiences.

Wandering into the venue, I saw something I’ve never seen at a nightclub before: multiple groups of grey-haired seniors milling around. Of the younger crowd, many were people I know from the Bay Area new music scene. There were obviously attendees who were there because they were regulars, but more than half the room of what looked like 200-300 people were clearly there either for Mason or one of the ensembles who were playing.

The evening unfolded as a kind of call and response between Mason’s DJing and performances by the ensembles, often amplified. During the live music segments, people stood and watched. During the electronic music segments, they mostly did the same. People did dance, but the floor remained tame by clubbing standards, and the lengthy transitional sections between DJing and instrumentalists gave the evening a feeling of always waiting for the next thing to happen. The DJ portion lacked the non-stop, trance-inducing relentlessness that I loved back in my youthful clubbing days, yet the live music portion felt small in comparison—and low-fidelity, as it was coming through house speakers designed for recorded music. As is often the case with fusion, both experiences were diluted for the sake of putting them together. The end result didn’t feel like audiences coming together, it felt more like classical music colonizing another genre’s space.

That was my experience, but maybe it was just me? I attempted to interview Mason to get his take on the impact of Mercury Soul, but we weren’t able to coordinate schedules. However, in speaking to people who have been involved as performers, what I experienced was typical. Mercury Soul has gotten some positive buzz from the classical music press, but reactions from the non-classical press have been tepid at best, and interest in the project remains firmly rooted within traditional new music circles.

Communities of musical taste are not particularly concerned with what the actual music is, so why couldn’t a community develop around genre mashups in a nightclub?

To be fair, this doesn’t imply that the concept is doomed to failure. I could certainly see Mercury Soul evolving into a unique musical experience that has appeal beyond the simple act of genre fusion. As I’ve argued above, communities of musical taste are not particularly concerned with what the actual music is, so why couldn’t a community develop around genre mashups in a nightclub?

In other words, the music is not Mercury Soul’s problem. Rather, the problem is that Mercury Soul hasn’t tried to foster a community. Instead, it makes all the standard assumptions about audience building, which means that, best case scenario, members of the taste communities being thrown together might perceive the experience as an odd curiosity worth checking out once or twice. In the end, therefore, Mercury Soul’s true community is neither clubbers nor new music aficionados—it’s arts administrators and philanthropists desperate to attract younger audiences.

SoundBox

In contrast, let’s look at the San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) SoundBox series. These events take place in one of the rehearsal rooms at Davies Symphony Hall, which is converted into a sort of warehouse party space, with multiple elevated stages, video projection screens, lounge-style seating, and a bar. The entrance is from a small rehearsal door on the back side of the building, and the room is not used for any other public performances, so everyone who is there has to come specifically for SoundBox. Initially, SFS also made a conscious decision to omit its brand entirely from the events, so most attendees were not aware of the SFS connection before they arrived.

Each program is curated by a prominent musician, many composers among them, and the repertoire is almost entirely new music, performed acoustically (or with live electronics) from a stage, as it normally would be, and accompanied by custom video projections. The performers are drawn from the SFS roster, and they present multiple short sets throughout the evening. During the sets, people sit or stand quietly and listen to the music. The rest of the time, they mill about, chat, and get drinks from the bar. When I went, there were about a dozen or two of my colleagues from the new music scene present, but the rest were people I didn’t recognize, most of them in their 20s and 30s.

Two thirds of SoundBox attendees are new each time, the vast majority are under 40, and very few are SFS subscribers.

In terms of reception, SoundBox could not be more successful. There are two performances of each show, with a maximum capacity of 400 people per evening. I spoke with a friend who works for the Symphony, and he told me that SoundBox always sells out—in one case, within 20 minutes of the tickets going on sale. And this with no marketing budget: low-cost online promotions and word of mouth are the only way they promote the events. Two thirds of SoundBox attendees are new each time, the vast majority are under 40, and very few are SFS subscribers.

Contrast the messaging of SoundBox’s promo video to that of Mercury Soul.

Unlike Mercury Soul, SoundBox starts out by defining a community: it’s a place for culturally inclined music lovers to discover new, stimulating experiences. SoundBox then presents its music as a sort of rare gem worth expending a bit of effort to unravel, in the same way a winery might offer guided tastings of rare vintages. As a result, the event ends up feeling exclusive and mysterious, as if you are part of an elite group of in-the-know art connoisseurs. Whereas so many new music events give off the desperate air of trying too hard to be cool—“Look, we perform in jeans! We don’t mind if you clap between movements!”—SoundBox doesn’t have to try. It just is cool, appealing to the same type of confident cosmopolitanism that has allowed modern art museums to draw enthusiastic crowds far in excess of most new music events.

Despite its successes in building new music audiences, however, SoundBox has failed to meet SFS’s objectives—ironically, for the same reasons as Mercury Soul. The Symphony wants SoundBox to be a sort of gateway drug, encouraging a younger crowd to attend its regular programming. Yet despite an aggressive push to market to SoundBox attendees, my contact tells me there has been virtually zero crossover from SoundBox to SFS’s other programs. To further complicate things, SoundBox is a big money loser. An audience of 800 people paying $45/ticket and buying drinks seems like a new music dream, but it doesn’t pencil out against the Symphony’s union labor commitments, which were negotiated with a much bigger orchestral venue in mind.

This is not a failure on a musical level, but it is a failure in SFS’s understanding of audience building. SoundBox met a strong and untapped demand for a sophisticated, unconventional musical experience, and it created a community of musical taste around it, quite by accident. But it’s a different community from that of the orchestral subscriber, focused on different repertoire, different people, and a different experience. The fact that it is presented by SFS is inconsequential.

It’s more than a bit ridiculous to assume that the same people who come to hear Meredith Monk in a warehouse space will be automagically attracted to a Wednesday night concert subscription of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart.

To recap, then, Mercury Soul fails to encourage 20-something clubbers to seek out new music because it doesn’t create a community of taste. On the other hand, SoundBox does create a community of taste, but it’s one that is interested in coming to hear Ashley Fure or Meredith Monk in a warehouse space. More importantly, it’s a community that has no preconceptions about how this music is supposed to fit into their lives, which allows them to deal with it on its own terms. With that context in mind, it’s more than a bit ridiculous to assume that those same people will be automagically attracted to a Wednesday night concert subscription of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart. That is a music most SoundBox attendees associate with their grandparent’s generation, performed in a venue that has strong pre-existing associations that don’t help.

Lessons Learned

We live at a time that is not especially attuned to musical creativity. All the energy spent on audience building is a reaction to that. I have a couple of friends who are professional chefs, working in our era of widespread interest in culinary innovation. When I ask them about the SF restaurant scene, they complain that too many chefs chase fame, recognition, and Michelin stars instead of developing a unique artistic voice.

As a composer, I only wish we had that problem. Yet the situation was reversed in the mid-20th century, when works like Ligeti’s Poème symphonique could get reviews in Time Magazine but culinary culture was being taken over by TV dinners, fast food, artificial flavoring, processed ingredients, and industrialized agriculture.

Whatever the reasons for the subsequent shift, our task is to find ways to bring musical creativity back to the mainstream. Looking at the problem through the lens of communities of taste offers some insights into what we might do better:

Community Before Music

People will always prioritize their taste communities ahead of your artistic innovation. That means you either need to work within an existing community, or you need to fill a need for a new community that people have been craving.

The first solution is how innovation happens in most pop genres: musicians build careers on more mainstream tastes, and some of the more successful among them eventually push the artistic envelope.

With new music, this doesn’t really work. On the one hand, the classical canon is not an ever-changing collection of new hit songs but rather an ossified catalog of standard works. On the other, the more premiere-focused world of new music is a small community—that’s the problem to begin with.

So we are left with finding untapped needs and creating new communities around them. SoundBox proves that this is possible. It’s up to us to be creative enough to uncover the solutions that work in other contexts.

Forget Universalism

Despite my critiques of classical music exceptionalism, there are good reasons why new music should endeavor to become a truly post-tribal, universal genre. Those reasons have little to do with the music itself and everything to do with the people making it.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of new music is that we attract an extremely diverse range of practitioners who are interested in synthesizing the world’s musical creativity and pushing its boundaries. What better context in which to develop a music that can engage people on an intertribal level?

That said, this is not our audience-building strategy, it’s the outcome. The way we get to universalism is to create exclusive taste communities that gradually change people’s relationships with sound. First we get them excited about the community, then we guide the community toward deeper listening.

This is similar to what is known about how to reduce racial bias in individuals. Tactics like shaming racists or extolling the virtues of diversity don’t work and can even further entrench racist attitudes in some cases. However, social science research shows that a racist’s heart can be changed on the long-term by having a meaningful, one-on-one conversation with a minority about that person’s individual experiences of racism. By the same token, to get to an inclusive, universal new music, first we need to get people to connect with our music on the personal level through exclusive taste communities that they feel a kinship with.

The MAYA Principle

Problems similar to new music’s lack of audience have been solved in the past. Famed 20th-century industrial designer Raymond Loewy provides a potential way forward through his concept of MAYA: “most advanced yet acceptable”. Loewy became famous for radically transforming the look of American industrial design, yet he was successful not just because he had good ideas, but rather because he knew how to get people warmed up to them.

One of the most famous examples is how he changed the look of trains. The locomotives of the 19th-century were not very aerodynamic, and they needed to be updated to keep up with technological advancements elsewhere in train design. In the 1930s, he began pitching ideas similar to the sleek train designs we know today, but these were very poorly received. People thought they looked too weird, and manufacturers weren’t willing to take a chance on them.

Therefore, he started creating hybrid models that resembled what people knew but with a couple of novel features added. These were successful, and he eventually transitioned back to his original concept, bit by bit, over a period of years. By that time, people had gotten used to the intermediary versions and were totally fine with his original. He repeated this process many times in his career and coined MAYA to describe it.

I think the accessibility movement in classical music has been one of the biggest arts marketing disasters of all time.

What I like most about MAYA is that the last letter stands for acceptable, not accessible. I think the accessibility movement in classical music has been one of the biggest arts marketing disasters of all time. It gives nobody what they want, dilutes the value of what we offer, and associates our music with unpleasant experiences.

Loewy got it right with acceptable. He was willing to challenge his audiences, but he realized that they needed some guidance to grapple with the concepts he was presenting. We in new music similarly need to provide guidance. That doesn’t mean we dumb down the art, it means we help people understand it, in manageable doses, while gradually bringing them deeper.

Hard is not Bad

Often in new music we are afraid to ask our audiences to push themselves. That’s a mistake. People like meaningful experiences that they have to work for. The trick is convincing them to expend the effort in the first place.

To get there, we start with the advice above: build communities, then guide people into greater depth using MAYA techniques. Miles Davis’s career illustrates this process beautifully. He didn’t start out playing hour-long, freeform trumpet solos through a wah-wah pedal; he started out identifying the need for a taste community that wasn’t bebop and wasn’t the schlocky commercialism of the big band scene. This led him toward cool jazz, where he developed a musical voice that propelled him to stardom.

After Miles had won over his community, however, he didn’t stop exploring. He expected the audience to grow along with him, and many of them did. Sure, plenty of jazz fans were critical of Miles’s forays into fusion and atonality, but he was still pulling enough of a crowd to book stadium shows. There’s no reason new music can’t do the same, but we have to be unapologetic about the artistic value of our music and demand that audiences rise to meet it.

Define Boundaries

Since new music is trying to build audiences that transcend racial and class boundaries, we need to be super clear about who we’re making music for and who we aren’t. “This music is for everybody” is not a real answer. We must explicitly exclude groups of people in order to be successful community-makers. It is my sincere hope, however, that we can find ways to be effectively exclusive without resorting to toxic historical divisions along racial and class lines.

Here’s one potential example, among many, of how that could work. I’ve argued before that the “eat your vegetables” approach to programming is dumb. There is rarely any good reason to sandwich an orchestral premiere between a Mozart symphony and a Tchaikovsky concerto. Conservative classical audiences don’t gradually come to love these new works, they just get annoyed at being tricked into sitting through a “weird” contemporary piece. New music audiences for their part are forced to sit through standard rep that they may not be particularly passionate about. Nor does this schizophrenic setup help build any new audiences—you have to be invested on one side or the other for the experience to make any sense to begin with.

So instead of trying to lump all this music together, a new music presenter might decide that audiences for common practice period music are fundamentally not the same as those drawn to Stockhausen or Glass or premieres by local composers. Armed with that definition, the presenter might then choose to create an event that would be repulsive to most orchestra subscribers but appealing to someone else, using that point of exclusion as a selling point. Thus, an exclusive community of taste is created, but without appealing to racism or other corrosive base impulses.


Big-picture questions like how people develop musical taste tend to get glossed over because they are so nebulous. But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.

To close, I want to say a brief word about my motivations for writing this piece. Even though this is a fairly lengthy article, I’ve obviously only scratched the surface. The writing process was also lengthy and convoluted, dealing as we are with such a broad and opaque issue, and at many points I wondered if it was even possible to say something meaningful without a book-length narrative. Yet I feel that this subject is something we collectively need to wrap our heads around.

Big-picture questions like how people develop musical taste tend to get glossed over because they are so nebulous. But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. As musicians and presenters, we make decisions based on theories of musical taste every day, whether or not we articulate our beliefs. Taste is, in a sense, the musical equivalent of macroeconomics: hard to pin down, but the foundation of everything else we do.

My hope with this piece is that we can start talking about these issues more openly, drop some of the empty rhetoric, and stop spinning our wheels on the dysfunctional approaches of the last 40 or 50 years. Paying lip service to inclusivity is not enough. If you’ve read this far, then chances are you believe like I do that new music offers the world something unique that is worth sharing as broadly as possible. We desperately need to get better at sharing it.

The Art of Play

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

“How can I make the act of creating new art feel less like work and more like PLAY?”

I’ve been asking this question a lot—with my students, with my collaborators, to myself. It’s a question that I return to when I feel stuck—creatively and productively – as an artist and a teacher. My investigations into this question have often been noisy, lopsided, awkward, occasionally flatulent, and—on the whole—a source of profound joy.

I’m excited to be able to share with you a few ways I’ve tackled this question, and I’ve offered a few (incredibly specific) questions of my own, in the hopes of learning more about how YOU use play in your life, work, and art.

Making things BY myself, FOR myself.

It took a while to come to terms with the fact that for me composing might actually be a messy, disjunct assemblage of ideas. Why not just make something you feel like making?

Back in high school, I learned how to make music in broad, crude, strokes, by recording myself playing instruments, making strange sounds, and layering them together in ways I found interesting. Over time, for whatever reason, it settled in my head that composing was supposed to be a different kind of activity—quiet, thoughtful, cerebral, methodical. It took a while to come to terms with the fact that for me composing might actually be quite different—a messy, disjunct assemblage of ideas. In rediscovering this process, I recalled the importance of simply making things that seemed interesting, whether they would be shared with people or not. These sketches could be non-musical, too—a video of funny faces, a painting of Hank Williams, a cube made out of mirrors. Why not just make something you feel like making?

What would you try doing, out of sheer curiosity, if you knew nobody needed to see/hear it?

Making things WITH people.

Sometimes, in moments of creative weakness, I get fixated on the idea that a “score” is not only a necessary means of making music, but a very specific type of means, like a blueprint. But a score can be so many other things, right? A puzzle. A Choose Your Own Adventure book. A cake recipe. An invitation to a costume party. A map without a key. A random sequence of numbers. A series of hand gestures. A water balloon fight. A matchbook. A clock. While going off in shamelessly speculative directions as to what a score could be, it occurred to me that a score is not really the interesting thing about making art, however; it’s people. So perhaps, I thought, making music directly, with people, all together, might lead my collaborators and I to creative terrain that the interface of a score couldn’t—a kind of creative space where everyone was collectively testing, discovering, and building new ideas together.

This led me to my current obsession—using games as a way to create new pieces. I’d been employing simple theater and music skill-building games in my elementary school classroom—after all, who doesn’t like to play games?—but had never tried using this strategy to create things with adults. I found that by setting up simple rules and interactions between people, my collaborators and I could develop interesting, surprising, and often quite beautiful relationships and ideas. Not only could these games be used to make works that combine media (sound, acting, movement, visuals)—they could be used to make work with just about anyone, from professional musicians to a classroom of kids. How cool is that? I’m in love with the idea that people of vastly different levels of experience could create something together through the simple act of playing a game.

How could you create a piece WITH people, as a group, without needing to write anything down?
What are some “games” that you play regularly in your work? In your process? In your life?
Could somebody else play these games with you?
Could somebody else use ideas from your “playbook” to make something of their own?

Making things FOR people.

Oh—a score can also be a gift box!

Wanting to make something with people who live far away presents a compelling challenge. I got excited about the idea of incorporating distance into the process of such collaborations by making pieces that were simply boxes filled with stuff. A box could contain anything—instructions, written music, cryptic symbols, magazine clippings, bubble wrap, knick-knacks, etc. A box could be like a little ecosystem, or a junk drawer, following any sort of logic or non-logic. A box could contain surprises, traps, secrets. The idea was that a person receiving a box could make a composition of their own from the contents within, and maybe even send me a box in return so I could do the same. (Some wonderful folks have done this.) But what if the box gets lost in the mail? What if the recipient hates everything in the box? What if the recipient chooses to ignore it, or forgets to open it? I had to accept all of these as possible outcomes, and it led me to think about the idea differently—as a gift, a gesture of love, goodwill, appreciation for someone, from me to them, in the form of art.

Clay box examples

Some sample boxes Clay has created. What would you put in yours?

If you made an art gift for someone, what would that look like?
(For a family member? For a colleague? For a stranger? For anyone and everyone?)

Making things WITH KIDS.

Getting a job teaching elementary school music has profoundly changed how I make things. When I started teaching, I immediately asked the question: how can I make projects collaboratively with these kids and give them the tools to make new art of their own? The complex array of challenges that such a question presents, I think, is what got me thinking about play in the first place.

A class of third graders listened to nine notes by Beethoven and drew what they thought it looked like. These drawings were interpreted by a professional string quartet.

Every year, I ask my students to make their own “note”—a recorded sound with their voice and a corresponding image to represent that sound.

What could you make with a classroom of 8-year-olds as your collaborators?

Asking questions with lots of answers.

Among many things, working with children got me thinking about “the art of the art assignment” (a title I am stealing from a book that I’d highly recommend). How could a simple prompt—a question, a task, a challenge—serve as a springboard for creativity? Presenting such questions to people, and collecting answers—in the form of sound, video, words, thoughts—has always been inspiring to me, and I take tremendous joy in sandboxing with the material folks are kind enough to send my way. This culminated most recently in me mailing a sound “workbook” to volunteers from all over the country, containing twenty simple exercises that could be interpreted on any instrument. Some examples:

Exercise No. 1—Say hello. Sing hello.
Exercise No. 6—Devise a situation in which your instrument unintentionally/accidentally makes sound.
Exercise No. 9—Describe “home” in three sounds.
Exercise No. 16—Write down a secret you’ve never told anyone – match the syllables to notes on your instrument; perform. (Destroy copy; save recording.)
Exercise No. 20—“The sound of ___.”

I was overwhelmed by the creativity and beauty of the responses and am slowly (oh, so slowly) building little collages out of my colleagues’ responses to each exercise.

What are some challenges / tasks / questions that might inspire you to collect things?
If you designed an art scavenger hunt for people, what would it look like?
If people designed an art scavenger hunt for you, what might THAT look like?
What could you do with the things you collect?

Ok, enough about me. How do YOU find ways to play in your creative practice?

Burnout is a b****. Let’s avoid it.

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

I would wake up, and it was there. I went about my day, and it was there. I would let my head hit the pillow in exhaustion at the end of the day, and it was still accompanying me. This low-level, ominous feeling had been following me around for months — contaminating every loud and quiet corner of my life. I even avoided counting the number of months that I consciously knew it was there. It started out as just feeling a little “off” or a little more worn out and wearied after each day of normal life-in-music tasks. Then, that dark cloud began to make its grim presence more known. I couldn’t shut it out because it was tied to everything that I loved. That feeling whispered to me in the darkness, “You’re not enough. Nothing you do matters. But don’t tell anybody that you feel this way because they won’t trust you with their projects.” I tried to do everything I knew to recharge: I cut out drinking, worked out more often, ate tons of vegetables, actively practiced self-care, and – most importantly – doubled-down on my work. My heritage is so full of that Midwestern, Protestant work ethic that it seeps from every pore. That tradition taught me, “If you’re feeling dull or distressed, just work harder.”

I started to get nervous. It wasn’t working. That dark cloud was getting darker. The fog was creeping into my practice and performance. It was creeping into my teaching. It was making it difficult to write and to record podcasts. I went to conferences and felt elated only to come home and feel even more defeated. I had to admit it: I was in total burnout.

I felt so sure. Now I don’t know…

“I can’t be burned-out,” I cried to myself. “My identity is built around being productive. I am a person who gets shit done.” Nevertheless, I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t getting stuff done. I was not being productive. I needed to find that part of myself again. I needed to find the part of myself that created more energy by practicing, teaching, and writing. How do you create that energy? How do you reconnect with the ambition that drives you with greater productivity? Was it lost for good? Was this the moment that I begin to slip away slowly from my lifelong passion?

Getting mired in small tasks without a big vision kept me incessantly “busy” but accomplishing very little.

“I don’t know what singing even looks like in my thirties,” I confided to a friend. “I felt really sure about what it looked like in my twenties. It looked like taking every job and getting lots of experience. It looked like a perpetually full calendar.” She asked, “Well, what do you want it to look like?” I whispered, “I don’t know.” I should have realized then that this would be the key to reconnecting with my productivity. Clarity. Clarity is the key. I had stopped dreaming up my audacious goals and had gotten stuck in the minutiae of “getting things done.” Getting mired in small tasks without a big vision kept me incessantly “busy” but accomplishing very little.

Planning for a remarkable life

In an early 2017 episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, Ferriss interviewed Debbie Millman, the incredible designer and founder/host of Design Matters, who described an exercise she calls “Your Ten-Year Plan for a Remarkable Life.” Millman recalled this exercise that she completed in a very early class session with Milton Glaser and that she now teaches her own students. He asked his students to write a detailed description that lists what their life would look like ten years from now. Then, he instructed them to read their essay every year. Millman also reminisced about finding her own essay from that class many years after she wrote it while moving house. She realized just how many goals she had planned for herself in that exercise that came to fruition.

You may be thinking, “A goal-setting exercise, Megan? Really? How mind-blowing…” But, stick with me. Remember that dark ominous cloud from earlier in this post? It wasn’t the vegetables, bubble baths, or motivational Pinterest quotes that helped me escape its path and rediscover my productivity mojo. It was this.

Working backwards from your major milestones

I started teaching a goal-setting exercise in my “Make It Rain” music business workshops before I stumbled across the Debbie Millman episode. However, this exercise shares some very similar points. The most important takeaway is to, “imagine yourself in the future.” For my goal-setting exercise, we start 20 years in the future. It is, at the time of this writing, the end of 2017, and 2018 is just around the corner. Let’s imagine you’re using this goal-setting exercise as a stand-in for your run-of-the-mill New Year’s resolutions. I like to plot this out on a timeline, an example of which you can see below. But you should pick the visual representation you like best.

career milestone timeline

First, look twenty years into the future. In 2038, who do you want to be? It is time to dream big. Think about where you will be in your life and career. What are the seemingly impossible goals that you would like to have accomplished? Then, the ten-year point on the timeline is a mixture of seemingly impossible and “highlights of a career” goals. This is the part in which you think about “what kind of legacy do I want to leave in my field or for my family?” Before we get to this goal-setting exercise in my workshops, I teach participants about what I consider the four levels of a career: generalist, specialist, expert, authority. We discuss how to strategically level-up from each one of those categories. The difference between your ten-year goals and your goals twenty years in the future is the difference between your goals as an expert in your field and your goals as an authority. An expert has a solid track record in handling complex, higher risk/higher profile projects and usually works with industry-leading clients. Let this help you brainstorm goals that have to do with complex projects and industry-leading collaborators. An authority receives honors and awards by professional peers for contribution to thought leadership. This could help you brainstorm goals that would fundamentally change your industry. Experts author seminal books on industry-related topics, perform (or speak) at leading national and international festivals/conferences, and influence a large fan/supporter base. An expert is also able to pick and choose work and enjoys “celeb status.” The easiest way I find to explain this is that an expert is someone who a reporter “inside the field” turns to for their opinion. An authority is someone who a reporter “outside the field” asks to comment on their general domain. You can hear it now, “Hmmm, I want to write a piece about opera. I’ll ask Renée Fleming…”

I had begun to believe that those big goals weren’t available to me anymore.

As a personal note, when I returned to this exercise feeling utterly defeated by burn-out, this was the most difficult part of the exercise to do. I had pages of notes for things that needed to happen in the next few months. But thinking about my twenty-year goals? I was left with a big blank. I had lost sight of my biggest vision. I had lost sight of who I wanted to be in the farther future for the sake of the dopamine high of crossing off a to-do list in the now. In fact, I had begun to believe that those big goals weren’t available to me anymore. If you haven’t been in that place, I hope you never have to experience it. If you have, please take even more time to dream up the most unbelievable, extraordinary, and astounding goals for your life. I want you to skip past the step in which others would say, “Who do you think you are?!” and march right on through to the point at which they might just faint in astonishment.

The halfway point

The five-to-six-year point of the goal timeline is where we identify the halfway point to those larger goals. When I have workshop participants complete this part of the exercise, we try to pinpoint the halfway milestones to big goals. For example, I will have some students suggest that they want to win a Grammy Award in ten to twenty years. We will often discuss that it is more likely to be considered for a Grammy when you have had a decent amount of recording experience in your history. But just recording regularly doesn’t make you magically ready to take home some hardware from the ceremony. Some of the things we also discuss include: writing/playing works about which you are deeply passionate, increasing your technical skills to be recording ready, finding a recording engineer you trust, working with a label, becoming a voting member or getting sponsored by two voting members, programming with a strong vision that still falls within the guidelines, and much more.

If you aren’t clear on the reasons you want to accomplish your seemingly impossible goals, then the work on the path to reaching that goal is going to feel burdensome.

What are the halfway points to your seemingly impossible goals? Can you achieve even more clarity on the most desired aspects of those goals? What I mean here is, is it important to you to win a Grammy because you love recording music? Or, do you want to win for different reasons? If you aren’t clear on the reasons you want to accomplish your seemingly impossible goals, then the work on the path to reaching that goal is going to feel burdensome.

Two-year goal actualization

You can take as many “business of music” courses as your heart desires, but nothing will be useful to you unless you know the trajectory you want to take. That is why we start at the farther end of the goal timeline. It’s the big goals that help us plan the course along the way. Now, our two-year goals are where the “rubber meets the road,” so to speak. Your five-to-six-year goals hopefully began to look a little more realistic or timely to you. That’s a good sign.

If you’re like me, the two-year goals are where motivation starts to kick back in after I’ve scared the beejezus out of myself with the wildly ambitious goals. These begin to look like actual SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound. I had a student reveal to me that one of her big, audacious goals was to be an EGOT winner. (EGOT is an acronym for “Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony” in reference to persons who have won all four awards.) We talked about how her two-year goal actualization would be full of auditioning and gaining experience in all four of those areas. It’s a rare honor to receive all four of those awards. To do so, you need to be undeniable in all of those arenas. You can’t avoid learning about how television gets made and focus all of your energy on stage acting if your big goal is to be an EGOT winner. Take a moment, now, to outline your two-year goals in alignment with your overarching “Who do you think you are?” career-spanning goals.

Quarterly goals with metrics

Finally, we’re getting closer to the here and now. Take your journal, or piece of paper, and sketch out the quarters between this moment and your two-year goals. In each one of those quadrants, give yourself a handful of assignments that you know will help you achieve the two-year goal(s) you wrote down. Remember our students who wanted to win Grammy awards? Maybe their quarterly goals include:

  • Make a repertoire plan that will progressively work toward the type of repertoire to be recorded.
  • Do an internship in a recording studio to learn more about the process.
  • Make a professional studio recording of a specific upcoming performance/recital.
  • Network (make sure to identify a specific place, specific event, or specific people) with audio/video recording professionals to learn more about who to have on my recording team in the future.
  • Record every practice session or performance to get used to listening to myself on recordings.
  • Listen to those recordings on the first weekend of every month.
  • Make a plan to post new recordings after the listening session.
  • Sit in on an editing session with specific friends or mentors to learn the process.
  • Ask specific friends or mentors for advice on working with labels, producers, and engineers.

None of these quarterly goals seem particularly difficult or challenging when we write them out like that. But, surely, you can think back to a time when you were dragging your feet because you just didn’t know where to start on a big project or a specific action didn’t make it onto your calendar. You had the big end goal in mind, but you didn’t know how to strategically plan out the micro-actions to get yourself there.

Busyness is no longer my currency

I scroll through social media and can see that I was never alone in these challenges. I find that many of my colleagues are suffering burnout. Their dark clouds are stifling all of the positive feelings they initially brought to their music careers. The signs are jumping out at me through the screen. There are many Type-A, workaholic, checklist-or-die types in our field. We wear our “busyness” as a badge of honor. We lament our low wages, lack of sleep, and wearing of seventeen hats even as we glorify this martyrdom in ourselves and others. Achievement for the sake of achievement is a chimera. Instead of slowly drifting away from the field, I found a way to recommit to my larger vision and passion again. I hope that you’ll do this exercise many times. I hope that you’ll do this exercise to keep you clear and sane. Finally, I hope you’ll do this exercise well before you desperately need it.

On Starting

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

Starting is difficult.
Do I start at the beginning?
Do I start in the middle?
Do I start at the end?


Let’s start: on July 1, 2007, I launched a podcast project called 60×365 for which I composed and posted a new one-minute composition every day for a year. In an interview with NewMusicBox at the conclusion of the project, I shared some early reflections about its impact on my creative practice:

One thing that excited me right away was knowing that this project would force me to compose a lot more. Making a new piece every day is a huge commitment. Like many of my colleagues, I was having trouble finding time everyday to sit down to compose at all. I had hit a mental block on a couple of projects and felt like I was stuck in a rut. 60×365 presented a way to try out some new ideas while developing some discipline and routine in my creative life.

Now, ten years later, my practice has further evolved. The experience gained from 60×365 continues to guide my work.


Imagine a blank sheet or a blank screen or the silence waiting for sounds.
Now imagine a composition that is nearly done, needing just one more idea.
Which is more difficult?


I think about productivity quite a lot, looking for ways to be more organized, more efficient, more motivated. I’ve read about and experimented with different systems (Getting Things Done, Personal Kanban). I’ve tried different apps (Remember the Milk, Trello, Habitica). Sometimes the systems and strategies work for me, and sometimes they don’t. Often they work for a while, then gradually fall away and the search for a new tool, a new hack, a new methodology begins. It’s easy to get lost in this search, using it as an excuse to put off the actual work. One must be careful with this search. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of contradictions and caveats:

Over time I have assembled a mashup of tools and systems that help me to stay organized and keep track of various projects and deadlines. Knowing what work needs to be done does not automatically motivate me to start working, however. A tidy to-do list does not help me confront the reality that the music I imagine composing is very different from the music I sketch at the start of a session.

So I keep searching and I begin to understand that what I’m really searching for doesn’t exist. I want to discover the magic combination of planning actions and productivity apps that result in an effortless efficiency in the face of creative projects. While certain combinations do make it easier to organize and track projects, no combination changes the reality that good music takes hard work.


Do I compose better first thing in the morning?
Do I compose better late at night?
Do I compose better when I have one long session?
Do I compose better when I split it up into multiple shorter sessions?
The unhelpful answer to all of these questions is “sometimes.”


There are two principles that I’ve developed to guide my practice. The60×365 project helped me identify these, and hard work since then has cemented them as foundational elements of my working routine. They are not focused on motivation or inspiration. They are not organizing principles subject to the whims of a given day. They are:

1) Start with anything and work from there.
2) Throw out anything that isn’t working, without prejudice.

The first principle emphasizes composing over thinking about composing. Thinking about the work is not the same as engaging with the work. The decision about how to start can get in the way. Starting with anything is better than not starting. I know how to work, and am not afraid to do the work once I’m in it.

The second principle supports the first. Being ready to throw out something that doesn’t work means that there is no wrong place to start. Every moment spent composing is a chance to learn more about composing. The more we learn, the better we become.

Allow me to illustrate with two anecdotes.


We face the challenges of starting all the time. We face it in all parts of our lives. Even something as trivial as doing the laundry has the challenge of a start.
A pile of clothes in the basket waits to be washed.
A pile of clothes in the dryer waits to be folded.
An idea waits for your sounds.
Half-finished sounds wait for one more idea.


The biggest challenge of 60×365 was finding an idea for each day. Without an idea I was unsure how to start composing. Many days I had to use the basic constraints of the project (a one-minute electronic composition, due today) as enough to get started, and trust the skills developed over years of practice to create the finished composition. October 1, 2007 was one of those days.

There are many different ways to start. That day I started by going to the Freesound Project and downloading their “random sound of the day.” It was a hi-hat loop by John Scott. With no real plan, I loaded it into my DAW and poked at it in different ways until an idea began to emerge. After a number of experiments, I could see what the music wanted to be. At that point, I took a break to make an evening cup of tea. (This is part of my process, letting the subconscious mind take over for a little while.) When I returned, I knew what to do and worked to pull the whole piece together.

I’ve found this to be true again and again: get past the difficulty of starting by simply starting. How to do that looks different every time, so there’s no secret trick to it. Sometimes starting looks like the situation I just described: make a random choice and develop the music from there. Sometimes it looks like starting with something easy, or with something challenging. Different projects, different moments, require different solutions. The only consistency is that starting is the transition from merely thinking about composing to actually composing.


There’s no time to wait for inspiration.
There’s no such thing as a problem that solves itself.
There’s no substitute for putting in the work.


Morneau graphic

Image by David Morneau

A little context is required for this next anecdote. In early 2016, I began to collaborate with composer Melissa Grey. We quickly discovered that we work very well together, in part because we approach the craft and discipline of composing in very similar ways, which includes our separate discovery and embrace of these principles. Our collaborative working method takes many forms, from improvising to drawing large maps by hand to composing side-by-side at one computer. This particular story of working with Melissa is about the creative freedom that comes from a willingness to discard ideas that aren’t working.

Recently, we were preparing for a major performance that would combine some of our existing music with new compositions. We had created a map and structural plan for the show and were working to fill in the details. On this particular day we had tasked ourselves with composing a short remix. We knew the constraints of the task: use the tracks of the source composition, sketch it in a single day to remain on schedule. There had been a brief conversation the day before about one possible idea. Because it was my turn to drive the laptop, I setup a new session and made a quick loop of a recorded voice as an approximation of our idea.

After listening, to it Melissa remarked that it sounded mediocre and derivative, which it did. We began to revise and adjust, looking for the way forward. Before frustration could take hold, Melissa looked at the clock and said, “Let’s give it another hour, then we’ll start fresh with a different approach.” That was a freeing moment for us. The pressure of dealing with this particular loop was taken away by the decision to set a time limit and then discard if it still didn’t work.

An hour later, we realized that we had eliminated the original loop almost entirely. The music before us was very different from the original idea. Several hours later, we had shaped and refined and polished the sketch into its unexpected and charming form. The willingness to discard the original idea freed us to follow the music as it developed.

In this case, there was no need to explicitly discard anything. The absolute willingness to start over allowed us to explore and experiment. There was no pressure to get the idea right at the beginning. We gave ourselves the luxury of discovering the right idea as we worked. This was a powerful moment.

Morneau graphic

Image by David Morneau


In economics, sunk cost is a cost already incurred that cannot be recovered. “So far, I’ve spent eight hours composing from the initial concept.”
The sunk cost fallacy is making a decision that too heavily weights the sunk cost against future benefit. “Even though the initial concept is not working the way I’d imagined, I can’t start over without losing those eight hours.”
Instead, consider: “I’ve gained eight hours of experience composing, and I can start over right now with the benefits of this experience to aid me.”


Here at the end, the goal is to compose, which is very different from thinking about composing or planning to compose or making a to-do list of all the bits that need to be composed. Start from anywhere, so long as you start. Be ready to throw everything away and start again. How you practice these principles will depend on who you are, and it will vary from day to day and from project to project.

60×365 helped me discover and articulate these principles. Collaborating allows me to continue refining them. Working well teaches me to work well. There is no shortcut around that reality. Embrace it: work hard and good work will follow.

When Everything Utterly Sucks

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

Somewhere in the homestretch of writing a new composition, I inevitably become convinced that the entire piece is garbage. By now, when I start a new piece, I know that this Day of Utter Suckitude is coming; it happens no matter how much I’m loving the piece, or how smoothly the writing has gone thus far. I become convinced—temporarily, falsely—that not only is there nothing redeemable about this awful piece, but that composing itself is meaningless, I’ve committed myself to a worthless career, and I’m a bad composer. I become briefly convinced that perhaps I should seek out another job, one where at least I’d be getting free health insurance.

I know exactly how ridiculous this all sounds written out, but that doesn’t help me reason it away in the moment. This feeling usually lasts 24 hours, or at most a couple of days. Each time, it feels like I’ll never escape

The Day of Utter Suckitude is different from the small, nagging instinct that a section of music would be better if I re-wrote it. That voice can be trusted. You can recognize the Day of Utter Suckitude because it encompasses an entire piece, finds nothing good about any of your work, and sends you into an anxious tailspin. Sometimes the Day of Utter Suckitude manifests so suddenly it gives you composing whiplash; you’ll wonder how a piece that seemed brilliant a week ago has become something you’re now certain you should destroy as quickly as possible.

“I’m pretty sure this piece is my last commission ever, because who would ask me to write anything else after hearing this garbage?”

During the Day(s) of Utter Suckitude, someone you know will ask how your writing is going. Because you have chosen this career—you got yourself into this mess—you may not respond truthfully. You’ll want to say: “Terribly! It’s going terribly. The piece sucks, and I’m pretty sure that everything I do is devoid of meaning.” You’ll want to say: “I’m pretty sure this piece is my last commission ever, because who would ask me to write anything else after hearing this garbage?” You’ll wonder if this is the curse that comes with having your dream career: that for a few days during the creation of each new piece, you’ll loathe everything about your work. You don’t feel as if you can confess any of this to another person, however, unless you’re talking to another composer who is also a very good friend, so you grit your teeth in response. You say something like, “It’s… going. It’s fine.”

Even writing this essay, I can feel it coming; tomorrow, when I re-read the current draft, I will decide that it, too, is the worst thing I’ve ever written. I know that later, by draft four, I’ll have moved past that feeling; I’ll have revised a great deal, and it’ll feel like it belongs to me again. This particular brand of panic always passes, and the piece pulls through every time. When I’m done, it may not be my favorite thing I’ve ever written, but I’ll have fallen back in love with it.

Sometimes when I’m stuck in the worst part of my composing process, I think about the start of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride. You enter a dark room and a door slides shut behind you. As the room lowers—it’s secretly an elevator—a narrator explains that the room has no windows or doors, which “offers you this chilling challenge: to find a way out!” Of course, he says, “there’s always my way.” You look up to discover that the ghostly narrator has hanged himself from the ceiling rafters—dark for a children’s ride, no?—but then a hidden side door opens, and you’re free to move onto the actual ride itself.

Give yourself a moment and then search for a solution, and that door you couldn’t see at first, a way back into the piece, a way to move forward, appears every time.

This is the goal when we’re stuck: to find a way out. Even if I’ve convinced myself that I write bad music and no matter how much I temporarily loathe whatever I’m working on, that hidden door always opens. You don’t need extreme measures, either. You give yourself a moment and then search for a solution, and that door you couldn’t see at first, a way back into the piece, a way to move forward, appears every time.

Each Day of Utter Suckitude is like anxiety: it mimics the feelings of actual physical pain and actual disaster, but it isn’t any of these. It can’t be solved, at least not immediately, by pushing yourself harder. Like anxiety, it may not have a permanent antidote and there may be no quick-fix solution. The only way out is, usually, to acknowledge the feeling, to greet it like an old acquaintance you don’t particularly like—“Hello, good to see you, but now I have to excuse myself”—and then to step away.

Step away from the desk

Step away from the desk
Photo by Taduuda

Right now, I’m in the thick of this with a piece I’m writing. I have the sensation that what I’m working on is not very good, is in fact maybe the worst thing I’ve ever written. I know that after I’ve fleshed it out and revised the orchestration, after I’ve edited it multiple times, I’ll have changed my mind. The first rehearsal I attend will be like greeting an old friend I actually like: I’ll see all of its flaws, sure, but I’ll also love it in a way that can’t be erased.

But here, right now, I hate this piece with all of my being, and as usual, that makes me wonder if perhaps I’m very bad at writing music. I have to remind myself that this is the process. In my non-composing life, too, I experience anxiety, but I’ve learned to remind myself that I am in anxiety when it happens. It is temporary; it will pass. Here, writing this piece, I am not the process; I am in the process, I am passing through it, and it is passing through me.

I am not the process; I am in the process, I am passing through it, and it is passing through me.

Instead of letting “bad” days derail the composing process altogether, I’m learning to recognize when to push through and when to be gentle with myself and let the piece rest. Whether I push myself to keep composing or decide to take a break, my process is not disrupted. One bad day won’t derail the process; it is the process, and a single bad day or even a bad week of composing doesn’t ultimately have any bearing on how good a finished piece will be.

Embracing a routine where you hate your own work seems a little ridiculous. You may want a book on getting rid of the doubt entirely, a list of “10 Ways to Be Productive” that leaves no room for days where you loathe what you’re writing. You may reason that if you just optimize your time, determine an ideal morning schedule, and make a really effective to-do list, you should be able to skip over the stage where it feels like everything you write is wrong.

But composing, or any artistic pursuit, is a practice. In this kind of practice, as any musician knows, there is a stage where you’re confronted with your own inadequacy, followed by a stage where you meet your own faults without resistance. That’s the sweet spot, and that’s where you begin to improve. In the practice of composing, that brief, late-game feeling that everything we’ve written is garbage might have a purpose after all. It can lead us to finish the piece strong, to shore up its weak spots and make our way confidently to the double bar.

So much of our instinct when we’re stuck is to want to push through, to work through the doubt as fast as possible, to try to outrun it. But once you’ve learned your process, you’ll know what’s coming. You’ll know when to push through and when to give a piece 12 to 24 hours to marinate on its own before you return to it. I can’t drag you out of the really bad days with good advice. I can only tell you to trust your process, even—especially—when the process feels like doubt, like failure. This, too, is part of the process, but you know what comes next. You know what follows feels like falling back in love. You know that if you wait here just a moment longer, you’ll always find a way out.

Creative Productivity Challenge Dec 4-8, 2017

How is it that some composers and performers are simply more productive than others? Why are some artists able to get so much more done? Is it a matter of genes? Of motivation or confidence? Of how our brains are wired?

We all grew up with stories and examples of wildly prolific artists—Mozart, Picasso, Joyce Carol Oates. What’s worse, interviews with artists tend to glamorize the first flash of inspiration and the finished masterpiece, avoiding the often protracted slog in between: the setbacks, self-doubt, wheel spinning, wrong turns, and all the attempts to give up.

When our work is stalled, we may blame it on our lack of time and support, our distractions, negative self-talk, perfectionism, procrastination, and fear. (Or at least I do.)

And it’s easy to imagine that other artists have all this figured out and that for them, creative work is a joy and ideas and solutions come easily. While this may be the case for some lucky bastards, all too often, artists struggle alone and isolated.

Creative productivity is a topic that’s often avoided because it’s connected to other sensitive mysteries such as talent, inspiration, self-esteem, and potential. Some folks don’t want to look too closely at their creative work habits for fear this will bring up the very demons they turned to music in the first place to avoid. One way or another, we all have demons that need to be faced.

This week, we’re courageously diving into the deep end to examine how artists get creative work done, despite inner critics, day jobs, and low self-esteem.

This week is your opportunity to explore strategies to help you work at your best and access the flow state more often. We’ll be focusing on ways to organize ourselves, our time, and our ideas to make more room for the muse to show up. We’ll look at how we tap into inspiration and how we get past what Steven Pressfield terms Resistance, the force that can prevent us from realizing our potential.

News flash: there’s no magic bullet, no “one size fits all” solution. But there are tools and resources and we’ll be sharing them—along with stories to illustrate our common struggles and triumphs.

During NewMusicBox’s Creative Productivity Theme Week, join us for a special 5-day challenge to help you boost your artistic output, get more done, and make the new year your best yet. A host of writers are contributing posts this week and we’ll have a daily FB live discussion (12 noon ET, 9 am PT) to focus on key challenges and the strategies many artists have used to overcome them.

We’ll be looking at mindsets, focus, and work habits that help boost productivity, creativity, and confidence. But the conversation needs YOU—your participation. We’re crowd sourcing a creative productivity toolbox so tune in and speak up! Let’s help each other as a community of creatives.

As we head into a new year, this is an ideal time to get real about the obstacles that have held us back. It’s time to re-tool. Let’s set ourselves up to make 2018 a year of creative breakthroughs.

Let’s get our creative productivity on!

As in our previous theme week iterations—focused on education, mental health, creativity, and music and money—we’ll be exploring broadly.

We hope you and lots of others will get involved in Creative Productivity week: reading, thinking, commenting, sharing, discussing.

New posts and video coming every day this week! Check back here for the full index.

Here’s A Plan

Over the course of my first three essays this month, I’ve offered my perspective on our new music enterprise during a tumultuous period that has pushed me to ask some pretty fundamental questions. How do we keep developing our work in the face of challenging circumstances? What kind of career options can we hope to have upon reaching mid-career? And what future is there for a composer whose drive for independence keeps his or her work outside the mainstream, institutional systems of support? It certainly is a puzzle, and this process of writing and sharing has helped me start putting some of my pieces together. In this fourth and final essay, I will try to sketch out some possible paths for continuing, and even renewing, a rewarding artistic practice for this next phase of life.

“Music is under threat, and any opportunity we have to fight back is an opportunity well worth pursuing.”

A couple of weeks ago I asked a friend, who is a jazz critic, for some advice. I was considering taking on a substantial writing project that paid almost nothing and seemed only tangentially related to the rest of my musical life. I had in fact pitched this project, but I had my doubts: Why would I want to spend hours writing a lengthy piece about a kind of music I am not directly involved with, for little to no compensation? What would I stand to gain? His response was illuminating, and I think it speaks to the conditions under which many of us, myself included, continue to labor as composers of new music. Here was the jazz critic’s response: “We are in a battle! Music is under threat, and any opportunity we have to fight back, to promote the good stuff that’s happening, is an opportunity well worth pursuing.”

Suffice it to say that I accepted the assignment, just as I continue to accept the self-assigned task of composing my own “new music” through good times and bad. With or without a proper career or support system, we must go on. The health of our culture depends on it. Among the many useful items of insight and advice to be found in Lou Harrison’s Music Primer, which the composer wrote in 1970 is this:  “As one American foundation report expressed the matter, the composer himself subsidizes the art of music. It is only common sense then for the composer to find out for himself exactly how much he can afford.” Like it or not, for many of us this observation is as true today as it was in 1970. And it would seem that, given the increasing downward mobility of the majority of our population, since at least 1970, we are able to afford less and less. What can we do?

While we can’t bring back the cheap rent, abundant loft spaces, and free time that helped us to form our own independent ensembles, we do have the internet. One of the most compelling and timely music projects to have crossed my path in recent years is composer Eve Beglarian’s A Book of Days. Though she began the project in 2001 as a kind of practice through creating a piece for each day of the year, over the last two years she has been transmitting the diverse works in this collection via email and the web to friends and subscribers. Some of the works are short, some are long. Some are electronic, others are acoustic, and some include video and imagery. While her style and approach may not appeal to everyone, the format and transmission of her work in this way seems to me an excellent, and economical, example of effectively using the tools of our time to both shape a compositional practice and transmit it to an audience. There are many other creative and compelling uses of the internet that can help serve new music, and this must continue to be a point of focus.

We have it within us to adapt and invent in miraculous ways.

Another recent project that suggests an alternative model is Craig Shepard’s On Foot. Upon moving to New York and quickly confronting the twin obstacles of lack of workspace and lack of free time, the composer came up with a novel solution. Recognizing that he spent a good deal of time every day commuting to and from work, he resolved to walk to and from work each day, thereby creating three hours of usable creative time to compose. It worked, and this routine eventually grew into a practice that formed the basis of the larger project known as On Foot that included outdoor public performances, lectures and multimedia presentations, and the publication of a book and CD. In this way, Craig responded to his circumstances and found a productive way to continue his work, despite the obstacles.

What these two examples suggest above all, is that we have it within us to adapt and invent in miraculous ways. This doesn’t mean we can’t continue to write and present according to traditional models. In fact we probably have more accomplished performers to potentially work with today than ever before. But increasingly, the expense and initiative of a major composition falls directly to the composer, who must figure out “exactly how much he can afford.” Here again we have the internet to help, with all of the fundraising tools it offers. While you didn’t learn this in music school, you can learn to be your own fundraiser, and succeed. You should try, and you should support others who use these tools. I know in the beginning of this new era I found it difficult to accept that all my friends wanted my money to help make their concert happen. But gradually I have come to accept that I must help, however I can. We are in a battle and we need to support one other more than ever. Next time you get a Kickstarter email from a colleague, pitch in a few bucks. It might make all the difference, and with luck, that support will return to you when you need it.

Music is who we are, and we must keep fighting for our right to create it.

In sum, invent! Music is who we are, and we must keep fighting for our right to create it. For my own part, I am beginning to find my way towards a new musical practice that I hope will sustain me into middle age. It’s a mix of new technologies and old ways, and is the product of a lot of listening and writing and talking about music. It’s not exactly what I imagined when I was a young composition student, and it may not be what you would call a career, but it’s my music and gives my life meaning, and right now, I can afford it.

On Big Questions of Creativity and Intention

or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Zuckerberg’s machine.

As with other areas in the many realms of public discourse these days, there are times when, for me, taking a gander at the old quotidian chit-chat stream on Facebook has just become unbearable.  It’s OutrageBook in these trying times, or LookAtMeWinningBook, which it’s now been for years, with a cast of players who are more or less successful in navigating the subtle side of the #winning game that varies depending on your own feed.  Once in a while, still, it’s DesperationBook, with an alarming call for help nestled in there after LookAtWhatBabyFedPuppyBook posts (that might just be my very helpful personal algorithms at work, knowing what I will definitely click on), but we’re in an era of savvy self-marketers who are constantly improving our posts Content™ and protecting our online fake persona Brand™.  Facebook is not for musings on self-harm (or even, yes, suicide, back in the day) anymore. Now we know better, somehow: that’s just not what our friends? Audience™ wants to see.

Too cynical?  Sure it is.  Also it isn’t really the point of this missive.  We each have our own way with each of these soc med platforms. Twitter has turned into Land Of Dark Thoughts Quickly Typed in recent months, for example, although I don’t deny the geniuses in our midst. But it has seemed that for the entire 2010s thus far, Facebook has been a place for composers and co. (whether to chat, laugh, share work, share opportunities, discuss musical issues, discuss politics, fight like hell) to come together.  The same is true for actors, string players, academics, doctors, and bankers, to some extent, I’m assuming.  But for composers, or for the several hundred spread over six continents whom I’m FBfriends with, at any rate, it has functioned as one of the relevant gathering places for those of us who couldn’t make it to the show last night. Our lot, as a rule, doesn’t congregate.  The quartet or troupe or surgery team needs to be in the room, together.  We work best alone, no matter what TV comedy writers have to say about the creative process, and we know that from years of trying to write with a hangover.  We don’t, en masse, otherwise come together.  Maybe this place is our water cooler.

For composers, Facebook has functioned as one of the relevant gathering places for those of us who couldn’t make it to the show last night.

For me personally, I can safely * though not proudly * say that a day going by without me checking FB has been a rarity in the last five years.  I’m a freelancer who works from home, and so in that time, my days of not leaving the house or speaking to another person (esp. while in deadline/work-trance mode) have outnumbered my no-social-media days by the dozens or hundreds.  I say, without too much embarrassment, that most of my hours are spent in solitude, never more so than in the past few years since I’ve moved to a new city.  I go on Facebook and the like to dial in.  I very much suspect that I’m not the only professional scribbler to do so.   Even so, this recent sour mood at the virtual party felt like just too much, so several weeks ago and a bit on a whim, I quit, cold-turkey style, for a full seven days.  Apps off phone, bookmarks flicked away.  I realized what an incredible habit I’d acquired, but also that after three days, I felt just fine about what I didn’t know about everyone else.  I missed #metoo and #notallmen entirely.

A lower case f (the Facebook logo) surrounded by a collection of pills and tablets.

But what to do when it was time to log back in?  I headed straight for one of my old personal standbys, SnarkBook, announcing that I was back and did you miss me and that I was so happy not to have missed anything!  Since then, I’ve not reloaded apps or pages so as to make them easy to get to, and have remained pleased with my Newly Distant Daddy involvement.  But on day two, without really giving it too much thought, I went to an old trope in terms of my posts:

A screenshot of a Facebook Post by Sean Shepherd from October 25, 2017 at 5:25pm. The full text of the post is printed directly below in the body of the article.

Here’s a composer question for composers:

Looking back on all of your work, and trying to be objective about it*, do you feel that the pieces that had some special emotional significance to you while you were writing them resulted in (objectively*) better music?

Are the ones we want to be the best really the best?

*understood as probably not possible

I find that the “composer question for composers” post pops up every few days, somewhere on my feed, although sometimes in statement form.  Generally, it’s coming from a fairly personal place for the author, although some like to rouse the rabble and say something #controversial once in a while. Although as I say, I read a lot of outrage from people who appear to agree with each other these days, so the “Beethoven(/Brahms/Mahler/Boulez) sucks” comments, being too hot to touch (even if they are about dead people who really can’t hear them) have been on the dwindle.  Instead, they range from shoptalk to the downright philosophical in terms of content (the threads that veer into style can turn into 500-comment monsoons and are just downright poisonous. Sad!).  My occasional forays into the genre seem no different.  Whether off the top of the noggin (“Just heard Copland Dickinson Songs – still genius! I’d forgotten. Had you?” or a musi-business bone-to-pick thing), or a strongly worded, fiercely grandstanding COMPOSED POST about gender and programming, I realize: Okay, yes I do want to talk about this stuff sometimes.   And whenever that seems apparent, from anyone, it seems like the group is eager to jump in.

I found the response to my composer question for composers, after a week away from AngryBook, to be unexpectedly delightful.  In addition to the many composers, those who could relate—writers, performers, and others—also joined in, almost immediately.  I asked and ran—never really offering my own thoughts—and returned after some time only find a whole world of perspective.  Over the next 24 hours, there were more than 50 comments, from the casual “Nope” to the poetic, with sprinkles of the typical self-congratulation and snark we can surely expect from any bunch of composers so gathered.  Yet, it has also dawned on me: never have I been in a seminar or lecture room where so many would speak so freely.

Never have I been in a seminar or lecture room where so many would speak so freely.

This was especially interesting to me in this case, given my hasty choice and inclusion of several words that I know very well will shut a room full of composers right up.  Words like “objective,” “best,” and “emotional” are hot, hot words amongst us, a group that would disagree as to their meaning before even getting into their usage.  Had I really formulated a Serious Question for Serious Thought And Conversation, I would have likely afforded myself the time to, well, basically dodge the question.   Aye!—there’s the rub.  Facebook isn’t the place for formal questions and stilted answers, both designed to impress our colleagues (and besides, I’m well out of grad school. * taps mic *  Is this thing on?). These words were about me—me, a composer.  Hey, you, a composer, what are your thoughts?  And hi, it’s your old pal Sean. Use all the dangerous words you want; it’s only Facebook.  Let’s communicate, right here in public.

A tasseled graduation cap atop a blue box containing a white lower case f (the Facebook logo).

“Best” in music is a danger word.  My conservatory education, which at times consisted of preposterously idiotic nuggets—such as “Brahms is the best and also Tchaikovsky is not the best”—presented as some kind of acceptable canonic knowledge, is a constant reminder for me of danger words like best.  Six minutes after my post, John Glover, who I’ve known since he was 18 and I not too much older, was on to me.  “Asking to make the ‘best’ is usually a recipe for disaster. The only thing I find consistently helpful is maintaining a feeling of softness and curiosity.”  Andrew McManus soon sought further clarification: “Do you really mean ‘the best’ piece, or ‘the most successful at accomplishing the goals of that particular work’?”

It occurred to me: yes, “best” is a dangerous word, and I don’t often use it when talking about other’s work.  (Is Daphnis Ravel’s best work? Yes. Is Gaspard Ravel’s best work? Yes. Useless, even to throw opinions around with.) But also: yes, I most definitely mean “best” when I’m talking about my own.  I have a best piece (perhaps, but not necessarily, my most significant piece), and that is how I choose to think about it.  I’m thoroughly aware that within my own body of work, I can point to “good” and “bad” moments as I choose to see them, and for the sake of my work, I most certainly apply scrutiny and criticism to everything I make.   I do let it bog me down, I do wish I could be better at the job, and I most certainly wish my best was better—I’m an optimist in the hope that my best does in fact get better.  It’s an important part of my daily working process—making “good” work to feel good about the work I make.  But I’m also old enough to see that we eventually just become more aware of our own limitations.  And yet I hear John’s message and Andrew’s context loud and clear—a little softness and curiosity could go well with all that awareness.

Predictably, though, throughout the discussion, the hotter, deeper buzzword-topic—that big one—was emotion.  Again, my minds drifts back toward my education—music and emotion; emotion and music—this could get out of hand so very quickly!  I also think of the 15 years that I sat in seminar rooms with mostly straight white men and all of my years of weekly lessons with teachers who were nearly all straight white men, and how comfortable I felt in discussing my emotional world and its connections to my attempted artmaking.  Which is to say: I was not.  Usually they, also, were not.  But I was lucky with those men. Once in while we were able to open up, and I could talk about what I was really talking about. Thank god for that.  But much more often there were other things that were easier to discuss—for Xenakis, design, for Messiaen, harmony, etc. Talking about the Greek War of Independence or a deeply held Catholicism could get messy and speculative and VERY not-objective.  Let’s look at the notes!

For a performer, dealing with emotion is an intrinsic part of one’s education. On stage, emotion will not be denied.  We each have seen all manner of trajectory in front of our eyes—from good to great to sublime, from bad to worse, general lethargy, general mania—guided simply by responding to a performer’s emotional state in live performance.  Their training in channeling the energy for the better begins as soon as they pick up a bow.  But as a general topic of interest to composers, it’s one of the (many) uncomfortable subjects we, in general, choose to leave off the syllabus.  As a result, when a composer says they are not emotionally connected to the work they make, I tend to believe them.  Emotion is for others. We’ve just been diligently putting notes on a page, by ourselves, for months. Please, anyone else, emote away!  With passion, please!

Emotion is one of the (many) uncomfortable subjects composers, in general, choose to leave off the syllabus.

On the question of a personal emotional connection to the music during composition, there were great guns in the conversation threads throughout, first from Dalit Warshaw: “I find that one’s perspective toward one’s music is constantly in flux, and that—when revisited after a respite of (even) years—new wisdoms, about one’s self, the nature of one’s writing, continually emerge… Re your question: I’ve wondered the same thing, and do tend to think it may be the case, perhaps because, when deeply in touch with one’s emotions, one is perhaps also more in touch with one’s creative intuition and inner freedom. The trick, I think, is to be like a Method actor in finding the emotional sincerity in every work one writes.”  Alan Fletcher agrees with the idea of flux over time, writing “very often the pieces I doubted most in composition reveal themselves to me as better than I thought—not always, though. And pieces I am enthusiastic about during composition come to seem too obvious, or something…. I’m not talking about the motivation for the work, just the impression I have of how well it’s going. But I do find a correlation with works written from a deep emotional impulse and works that end up satisfying me in the end.”

Reynold Tharp is acutely aware of this turbulent connection.  “My best pieces are the ones in which I had some kind of strong emotional engagement with the compositional process and the desired affective or expressive character,” he says.  “Also often they’re the pieces during which I oscillate the most between thinking they’re great and thinking they’re awful as I’m working on them. If I don’t have an emotional connection with the idea of the piece or what I feel I can do within the limits of the project or medium, it will almost always end up being a weaker piece. Of course, even the more strongly felt pieces all have their flaws too…”  John Mackey has found his balance by looking outward, writing, “I think my best two pieces are the two that I wrote about loss—but not my own. Putting myself into an empathetic place about somebody else’s loss gave me just enough distance to still approach the pieces with craft first, rather than simply emoting on the page.”

For Clare Glackin, the process is not easy to pinpoint, saying, “I think it comes down to what I call “essence”—kind of hard to define but I use this word to describe the soul of a piece—the specific mood or aura or thing that the piece is expressing that’s hard to put into words. The things I’ve written that have been most emotionally significant to me have stronger essences. And to me a stronger essence almost always equals a better piece, as long as the composer has the skill to realize their intention. Without a specific essence, the music might be decent but it is more generic and boring than it would be otherwise.”

I do believe the stakes change with the task/piece at/in hand, and Matthew Peterson’s comment resonated for me and brought the conversation back to earth a little: “I always have to like and be enthralled in some way by what I create, but it’s hard to write a funky, weird baritone sax solo ‘from the heart’ or some sort of inner investment.”  It reminded me that we can’t always be sure what we are or aren’t saying or how from the heart we really are.  I recently heard a piece for the first time in years, one I finished in 2011 in the wake of a mutually devastating breakup with a longtime boyfriend.  In no way connected in my mind at the time, the first thing that occurred to me upon hearing it again: “Whoa Nelly, that is some real Breakup Music™!”  Jefferson Friedman hit that nail on the head:  “Not to be reductive, but honestly all the best ones were about a girl.”

Are the pieces we want to be the best really the best?

And what of the answers to my million-dollar question?  Are the pieces we want to be the best really the best?  A sea of noes flooded the comments early on.  Marcos Balter went further: “Actually, my best ones are almost always the ones I composed the fastest, without thinking much of them.”  But the yeses began to balance the scales; Felipe Lara wrote that, for him, “my favorite ones of mine are the ones I work on the hardest—sort of opposite of Marcos.”  Felipe and I also share the same attending secondary fear.  If the answer is yes, that the pieces we are the most ambitious about, or attached to, confused/rattled by, are in fact for us, the (non-objective) best—is it only because we want them to be?

A group of seven rectangular box-shaped crayon sticks in different colors (from left to right: red, orange, yellow, light green, sky blue, dark blue, and purple); a white lower case f (the Facebook logo) appears on the front of the penultimate one (the one in dark blue).

Like others in ComposerBook land, I wrote the post simply because I was confronting the question myself.  I was going through something (part of a bigger story for me as I’ve struggled with blocks and with finishing “special” pieces for special occasions for several years now).  I reached out into the ether and found more perspective and commiseration (including from those I’ve barely met in person, or haven’t seen in many years) than I should have reasonably expected.  Social media, as it’s slowly morphed and grown up and changed, has guided our online behaviors as well.  This was a normal day online in 2017, yet wouldn’t have been possible even in the FB of 2009, when it was five years old.  For all the aggravation Facebook can cause, and I’m not stepping anywhere near the global/political issues that are coming into focus here, I can see that my relationship to this community of my colleagues is partially facilitated by the daily feed.  If I were pressed about it, I’d say: yes, I’m glad it’s around.

For all the aggravation Facebook can cause, I’m glad it’s around.

In the end, did I find an answer for myself?  No.  I don’t know if the pieces I truly want to be good really are good simply because that’s what I want.  However, I know that for me it’s not about what others like or don’t about it.  I definitely am okay with holding the outsider opinion on a piece of my own (and yes, many of us certainly have), whether it’s thumbs up or thumbs down.  I like the Mies van der Rohe line, “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good.” It fits my temperament and ideas about why I should do this and not some other thing with all the remaining solitary-ish days of my life.  Best, though, is yet another category.  If we really only have one best piece, or moment, or gesture, or note in our whole lives, then the likelihood of us writing it today is low.   How relaxing—what a relief!  I’ll do as well as I can today and try (and fail) not to obsess too much about it. Then I’ll just click right here and see what’s new on Netflix…


Sean Shepherd, an occasional contributor to New Music Box since 2006, is currently in deadline/work-trance mode on a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Delays as Music

As I wrote in my previous post, I view performing with “live sound processing” as a way to make music by altering and affecting the sounds of acoustic instruments—live, in performance—and to create new sounds, often without the use of pre-recorded audio. These new sounds, have the potential to forge an independent and unique voice in a musical performance. However, their creation requires, especially in improvised music, a unique set of musicianship skills and knowledge of the underlying acoustics and technology being used. And it requires that we consider the acoustic environment and spectral qualities of the performance space.

Delays and Repetition in Music

The use of delays in music is ubiquitous.  We use delays to locate a sound’s origin, create a sense of size/space, to mark musical time, create rhythm, and delineate form.

The use of delays in music is ubiquitous.

As a musical device, echo (or delay) predates electronic music. It has been used in folk music around the world for millennia for the repetition of short phrases: from Swiss yodels to African call and response, for songs in the round and complex canons, as well as in performances sometimes taking advantage of unusual acoustic spaces (e.g. mountains/canyons, churches, and unusual buildings).

In contemporary music, too, delay and reverb effects from unusual acoustic spaces have been included the Deep Listening cavern music of Pauline Oliveros, experiments using the infinite reverbs in the Tower of Pisa (Leonello Tarbella’s Siderisvox), and organ work at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NY using its 7-second delay. For something new, I’ll recommend the forthcoming work of my colleague, trombonist Jen Baker (Silo Songs).

Of course, delay was also an important tool in the early studio tape experiments of Pierre Schaeffer (Etude aux Chemin de Fer) as well as Terry Riley and Steve Reich. The list of early works using analog and digital delay systems in live performances is long and encompasses many genres of music outside the scope of this post—from Robert Fripp’s Frippertronics to Miles Davis’s electric bands (where producer Teo Macero altered the sound of Sonny Sharrock’s guitar and many other instruments) and Herbie Hancock’s later Mwandishi Band.

The use of delays changed how the instrumentalists in those bands played.  In Miles’s work we hear not just the delays, but also improvised instrumental responses to the sounds of the delays and—completing the circle—the electronics performers respond to by manipulating their delays in-kind. Herbie Hancock was using delays to expand the sound of his own electric Rhodes, and as Bob Gluck has pointed out (in his 2014 book You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band), he “intuitively realized that expressive electronic musicianship required adaptive performance techniques.” This is something I hope we can take for granted now.

I’m skipping any discussion of the use of echo and delay in other styles (as part of the roots of Dub, ambient music, and live looping) in favor of talking about the techniques themselves, independent of the trappings of a specific genre, and favoring how they can be “performed” in improvisation and as electronic musical sounds rather than effects.

Sonny Sharrock processed through an Echoplex by Teo Macero on Miles Davis’s “Willie Nelson” (which is not unlike some recent work by Johnny Greenwood)

By using electronic delays to create music, we can create exact copies or severely altered versions of our source audio, and still recognize it as a repetition, just as we might recognize each repetition of the theme in a piece organized as a theme and variations, or a leitmotif repeated throughout a work. Besides the relationship of delays to acoustic music, the vastly different types of sounds that we can create via these sonic reflections and repetitions have a corollary in visual art, both conceptually and gesturally. I find these analogies to be useful especially when teaching. Comparisons to work from the visual and performing arts that have inspired me in my work include images, video, and dance works.  These are repetitions (exact or distorted), Mandelbrot-like recursion (reflections, altered or displaced and re-reflected), shadows, and delays.  The examples below are analogous to many sound processes I find possible and interesting for live performance.

Sounds we create via sonic reflections and repetitions have a corollary in visual art.

I am a musician not an art critic/theorist, but I grew up in New York, being taken to MoMA weekly by my mother, a modern dancer who studied with Martha Graham and José Limon.  It is not an accident that I want to make these connections. There are many excellent essays on the subject of repetition in music and electronic music, which I have listed at the end of this post.  I include the images and links below as a way to denote that the influences in my electroacoustic work are not only in music and audio.

In “still” visual art works:

  • The reflected, blurry trees in the water of a pond in Claude Monet’s Poplar series creates new composite and extended images, a recurring theme in the series.
  • Both the woman and her reflection in Pablo Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror are abstracted and interestingly the mirror itself is both the vehicle for the reiteration and an exemplified object.
  • There are also repetitions, patterns, and “rhythms” in work by Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Sol Lewitt, M.C. Escher, and many other painters and photographers.

In time-based/performance works:

  • Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, is a dance choreographed in 1982 by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. De Keersmaeker uses shadows with the dancers. The shadows create a 3rd (and 4th and 5th) dancer which shift in and out of focus turning the reflected image presented as partnering with the live dancers into a kind of sleight-of-hand.
  • Iteration plays an important role in László Moholy-Nagy’s short films, shadow play constructions, and his Light Space Modulator (1930)
  • Reflection/repetition/displacement are inherent to the work of countless experimental video artists, starting with Nam June Paik, who work with video synthesis, feedback and modified TVs/equipment.

Another thing to be considered is that natural and nearly exact reflections can also be experienced as beautifully surreal. On a visit to the Okefenokee swamp in Georgia long ago, my friends and I rode in small flat boats on Mirror Lake and felt we were part of a Roger Dean cover for a new Yes album.

Okefenokee Swamp

Okefenokee Swamp

Natural reflections, even when nearly exact, usually have some small change—a play in the light or color, or slight asymmetry—that gives it away. In all of my examples, the visual reflection is not “the same” as the original.   These nonlinear differences are part the allure of the images.

These images are all related to how I understand live sound processing to impact on my audio sources. Perfect mirrors create surreal new images/objects extending away from the original.  Distorted reflections (anamorphosis) create a more separate identity for the created image, one that can be understood as emanating from the source image, but that is inherently different in its new form. Repetition/mirrors: many exact or near exact copies of the same image/sound form patterns, rhythms, or textures creating a new composite sound or image.  Phasing/shadows—time-based or time-connected: the reflected image changes over time in its physical placement with regards to the original and creating a potentially new composite sound.   Most of these ways of working require more than simple delay and benefit from speed changes, filtering, pitch-shift/time-compression, and other things I will delve into in the coming weeks.

The myths of Echo and Narcissus are both analogies and warning tales for live electroacoustic music.

We should consider the myths of Echo and Narcissus both as analogies and warning tales for live electroacoustic music. When we use delays and reverb, we hear many copies of our own voice/sound overlapping each other and create simple musical reflections of our own sound, smoothed out by the overlaps, and amplified into a more beautiful version of ourselves!  Warning!  Just like when we sing in the shower, we might fall in love the sound (to the detriment of the overall sound of the music).


Getting techie Here – How does Delay work?

Early Systems: Tape Delay

A drawing of the trajectory of a piece of magnetic tape between the reels, passing the erase, record, and playback heads.

A drawing by Mark Ballora which demonstrates how delay works using a tape recorder. (Image reprinted with permission.)

The earliest method used to artificially create the effect of an echo or simple delay was to take advantage of the spacing between the record and playback heads on a multi-track tape recorder. The output of the playback head could be read by the record head and rerecorded on a different track of the same machine.  That signal would then be read again by the playback head (on its new track).  The signal will have been delayed by the amount of time it took for the tape to travel from the record head to the playback head.

The delay time is determined by the physical distance between the tape heads, and by the tape speed being used.  One limitation is that delay times are limited to those that can be created at the playback speed of the tape. (e.g. At a tape speed of 15 inches per second (ips), tape heads spaced 3/4 to 2 inches apart can create echoes at 50ms to 133ms; at 7ips yields 107ms to 285ms, etc.)

Here is an example of analog tape delay in use:

Longer/More delays: By using a second tape recorder, we can make a longer sequence of delays, but it would be difficult to emulate natural echoes and reverberation because all our delay lengths would be simple multiples of the first delay. Reverbs have a much more complex distribution of many, many small delays. The output volume of those delays decreases differently (more linearly) in a tape system than it would in a natural acoustic environment (more exponentially).

More noise: Another side effect of creating the delays by re-recording audio is that after many recordings/repetitions the audio signal will start to degrade, affecting its overall spectral qualities, as the high and low frequencies die out more quickly, eventually degrading into, as Hal Chamberlin has aptly described it in his 1985 book Musical Applications of Microprocessors, a “howl with a periodic amplitude envelope.”

Added noise from degradation and overlapped voice and room acoustics is turned into something beautiful in I Am Sitting In A Room, Alvin Lucier’s seminal 1969 work.  Though not technically using delay, the piece is a slowed down microcosm of what happens to sound when we overlap / re-record many many copies of the same sound and its related room acoustics.

A degree of unpredictability certainly enhances the use of any musical device being used for improvisation, including echo and delay. Digital delay makes it possible to overcome the inherent inflexibility and static quality of most tape delay systems, which remain popular for other reasons (e.g. audio quality or nostalgia as noted above).

The list of influential pieces using a tape machine for delay is canonically long.  A favorite of mine is Terry Riley’s piece, Music for the Gift (1963), written for trumpeter Chet Baker. It was the first use of very long delays on two tape machines, something Riley dubbed the “Time Lag Accumulator.”

Terry Riley: Music for the Gift III with Chet Baker

Tape delay was used by Pauline Oliveros and others from the San Francisco Tape Music Center for pieces that were created live as well as in the studio, with no overdubs, which therefore could be considered performances and not just recordings.   The Echoplex, created around 1959, was one of the first commercially manufactured tape delay systems and was widely used in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Advances in the design of commercial tape delays, included the addition of more and moveable tape-heads, increased the number of delays and flexibility of changing delay times on the fly.

Stockhausen’s Solo (1966), for soloist and “feedback system,” was first performed live in Tokyo using seven tape recorders (the “feedback” system) with specially adjustable tape heads to allow music played by the soloist to “return” at various delay times and combinations throughout the piece.  Though technically not improvised, Solo is an early example of tape music for performed “looping.”  All the music was scored, and a choice of which tape recorders would be used and when was determined prior to each performance.

I would characterize the continued use of analog tape delay as nostalgia.

Despite many advances in tape delay, today digital delay is much more commonly used, whether it is in an external pedal unit or computer-based. This is because it is convenient—it’s smaller, lighter, and easier to carry around—and because it much more flexible. Multiple outputs don’t require multiple tape heads or more tape recorders. Digital delay enables quick access to a greater range of delay times, and the maximum delay time is simply a function of the available memory (and memory is much cheaper than it used to be).   Yet, in spite of the convenience and expandability of digital delay, there is continued use of analog tape delay in some circles.  I would simply characterize this as nostalgia (for the physicality of the older devices and dealing with analog tape, and for the warmth of analog sound; all of these we relate to music from an earlier time).

What is a Digital Delay?

Delay is the most basic component of most digital effects systems, and so it’s critical to discuss it in some detail before moving on to some of the effects that are based upon it.   Below, and in my next post, I’ll also discuss some physical and perceptual phenomena that need to be taken into consideration when using delay as a performance tool / ersatz instrument.

Basic Design

In the simplest terms, a “delay” is simple digital storage.  Just one audio sample or a small block of samples, are stored in memory then can be read and played back at some later time, and used as output. A one second delay (1000ms), mono, requires storing one second of audio. (At a 16-bit CD sample rate of 44.1kHz, this means about 88kb of data.) These sizes are teeny by today’s standards but if we use many delays or very long delays it adds up. (It is not infinite or magic!)

Besides being used in creating many types of echo-like effects applications, a simple one-sample delay is also a key component of the underlying structure of all digital filters, and many reverbs.  An important distinction between each of these applications is the length of the delay. As described below, when a delay time is short, the input sounds get filtered, and with longer delay times other effects such as echo can be heard.

Perception of Delay — Haas (a.k.a. Precedence) Effect

Did you ever drop a pin on the floor?   You can’t see it, but you still know exactly where it is? We humans naturally have a set of skills for sound localization.  These psychoacoustic phenomena have to do with how we perceive the very small time, volume, and timbre differences between the sounds arriving in our ears.

In 1949, Helmut Haas made observations about how humans localize sound by using simple delays of various lengths and a simple 2-speaker system.  He played the same sound (speech, short test tones), at the same volume, out of both speakers. When the two sounds were played simultaneously (no delay), listeners reported hearing the sound as if it were coming from the center point between the speakers (an audio illusion not very different from how we see).  His findings give us some clues about stereo sound and how we know where sounds are coming from.  They also relate to how we work with delays in music.

  • Between 1-10ms delay: If the delay between sounds is used was anywhere from 1ms to 10ms, the sound appears to emanate from the first speaker (the first sound we hear is where we locate the sound).pix here of Haas effect setup p 11
  • Between 10-30ms delay: The sound source continues to be heard as coming from the primary (first sounding) speaker, with the delay/echo adding a “liveliness” or “body” to the sound. This is similar to what happens in a concert hall—listeners are aware of the reflected sounds but don’t hear them as separate from the source.
  • Between 30-50ms delay: The listener becomes aware of the delayed signal, but still senses the direct signal as the primary source. (Think of the sound in a big box store “Attention shoppers!”)
  • At 50ms or more: A discrete echo is heard, distinct from the first heard sound, and this is what we often refer to as a “delay” or slap-back echo.

The important fact here is that when the delay between speakers is lowered to 10ms (1/100th of a second), the delayed sound is no longer perceived as a discrete event. This is true even when the volume of the delayed sound is the same as the direct signal. [Haas, “The Influence of Single Echo on the Audibility of Speech” (1949)].

A diagram of the Haas effect showing how the position of the listener in relationship to a sound source affects the perception of that sound source.

The Haas Effect (a.k.a. Precedence Effect) is related to our skill set for sound localization and other psychoacoustic phenomena. Learning a little about these phenomena (Interaural Time Difference, Interaural Level Difference, and Head Shadow) is useful not only for an audio engineer, but is also important for us when considering the effects and uses of delay in Electroacoustic musical contexts.

What if I Want More Than One?

Musicians usually want the choice to play more than one delayed sound, or to repeat their sound several times. We do this by adding more delays, or we can use feedback, and route a portion of our output right back into the input. (Delaying our delayed sound is something like an audio hall of mirrors.) We usually route only some of the sound (not 100%) so that each time the output is a little quieter and the sound eventually dies out in decaying echoes.  If our feedback level is high, the sound may recirculate for a while in an endless repeat, and may even overload/clip if new sounds are added.

When two or more copies of the same sound event play at nearly the same time, they will comb filter each other. Our sensitivity to these small differences in timbre that result are a key to understanding, for instance, why the many reflections in a performance space don’t usually get mistaken for the real thing (the direct sound).   Likewise, if we work with multiple delays or feedback, when multiple copies of the same sound play over each other, they also necessarily interact and filter each other causing changes in the timbre. (This relates again to I Am Sitting In A Room.)

In the end, all of the above (delay length, using feedback or additional delays, overlap) all determine how we perceive the music we make using delays as a musical instrument. I will discuss Feedback and room acoustics and its potential role as a musical device in the next post later this month.


My Aesthetics of Delay

To close this post, here are some opinionated conclusions of mine based upon what I have read/studied and borne out in many, many sessions working with other people’s sounds.

  • Short delay times tend to change our perception of the sound: its timbre, and its location.
  • Sounds that are delayed longer than 50ms (or even up to 100ms for some musical sounds) become echoes, or musically speaking, textures.
  • At the in-between delay times (the 30-50ms range give or take a little) it is the input (the performed sound itself) that determines what will happen. Speech sounds or other percussive sounds with a lot of transients (high amplitude short duration) will respond differently than long resonant tones (which will likely overlap and be filtered). It is precisely in this domain that the live sound-processing musician will needs to do extra listening/evaluating to gain experience and predict what might be the outcome. Knowing what might happen in many different scenarios is critical to creating a playable sound processing “instrument.”

It’s About the Overlap

Using feedback on long delays, we create texture or density, as we overlap sounds and/or extend the echoes to create rhythm.  With shorter delays, using feedback instead can be a way to move toward the resonance and filtering of a sound.  With extremely short delays, control over feedback to create resonance is a powerful way to create predictable, performable, electronic sounds from nearly any source. (More on this in the next post.)

Live processing (for me) all boils down to small differences in delay times.

Live processing (for me) all boils down to these small differences in delay times—between an original sound and its copy (very short, medium and long delays).  It is a matter of the sounds overlapping in time or not.   When they overlap (due to short delay times or use of feedback) we hear filtering.   When the sounds do not overlap (delay times are longer than the discrete audio events), we hear texture.   A good deal of my own musical output depends on these two facts.


Some Further Reading and Listening

On Sound Perception of Rhythm and Duration

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1972 lecture The Four Criterion of Electronic Music (Part I)
(I find intriguing Stockhausen’s discussion of unified time structuring and his description of the continuum of rhythms: from those played very fast (creating timbre), to medium fast (heard as rhythms), to very very slow (heard as form). This lecture both expanded and confirmed my long-held ideas about the perceptual boundaries between short and long repetitions of sound events.)

Pierre Schaeffer’s 1966 Solfège de l’Objet Sonore
(A superb book and accompanying CDs with 285 tracks of example audio. Particularly useful for my work and the discussion above are sections on “The Ear’s Resolving Power” and “The Ear’s Time Constant” and many other of his findings and examples. [Ed. note: Andreas Bick has written a nice blog post about this.])

On Repetition in All Its Varieties

Jean-Francois Augoyard and Henri Torgue, Sonic Experience: a Guide to Everyday Sounds (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014)
(See their terrific chapters on “Repetition”, “Resonance” and “Filtration”)

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Ben Ratliff, Every Song Ever (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
(Particularly the chapter “Let Me Listen: Repetition”)

Other Recommended Reading

Bob Gluck’s book You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band (University of Chicago Press, 2014)

Michael Peter’s essay “The Birth of the Loop
http://preparedguitar.blogspot.de/2015/04/the-birth-of-loop-by-michael-peters.html

Phil Taylor’s essay “History of Delay

My chapter “What if your instrument is Invisible?” in the 2017 book Musical Instruments in the 21st Century as well as my 2010 Leonardo Music Journal essay “A View on Improvisation from the Kitchen Sink” co-written with Hans Tammen.

LiveLooping.org
(A musician community built site around the concept of live looping with links to tools, writing, events, etc.)

Some listening

John Schaeffer’s WNYC radio program “New Sounds” has featured several episodes on looping.
Looping and Delays
Just Looping Strings
Delay Music

And finally something to hear and watch…

Stockhausen’s former assistant Volker Müller performing on generator, radio, and three tape machines