Category: Columns

Vokas Animo (Performing Microtonal Choral Music: The End Product)

A photo montage of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performing Robert Lopez-Hanshaw's microtonal choral composition Vokas Animo

If you read my Performing Microtonal Choral Music articles earlier this year, you may remember that I threatened to post some video of my most recent choral and orchestral piece after its premiere. I am hereby making good on this threat.

Vokas Animo by Robert Lopez-Hanshaw
Music in 72edo, approximating 11-limit Extended Just Intonation.
Premiere performance at Tucson Music Hall, Sunday, January 26, 2020
Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Director: José Luis Gomez
Choirmaster: Bruce Chamberlain
Commissioned by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra
Text in Esperanto by William Auld, published as “Ju alten oni soras” (1951), used with permission of the Auld family.

The piece illustrates the essential parts of my approach to teaching microtonal choral music. I designed it, during composition, to exploit the easiest of those pathways. So, a motive that returns over and over in the piece is a two quarter tones, going the same direction, outlining a semitone. With very slight tuning changes, it generates a good number of different structures—and these tuning changes are much simpler for a choir to perform when all vocal parts are doubled by instruments, as they are here. Unfamiliar sonorities are anchored on either side by familiar ones, to provide reliable targets. And it was necessary for the choir to learn only a very few new intervals—chiefly the 7:6 subminor third, and (in two melodic instances and one harmonic instance) the 11:8 neutral fourth. Everything else was constructable from things the choir already knew.

Tuning changes are much simpler for a choir to perform when all vocal parts are doubled by instruments.

This approach extends to my view of the audience, by the way. In the words of Eugene Narmour, in The Analysis and Cognition of Basic Melodic Structures: “Gravity does not explain architecture, but architecture is subject to its law; likewise, perceptual laws do not explain music, but music cannot escape their influence.” The “laws” he mentions are not tied to a particular system, or else they’d be merely rules. Instead, they deal with things like our basic ability to track a melody, subconsciously aligning it with internalized sound categories such as scale degrees; and with the pattern of a built expectation followed by either confirmation or denial. You can do all kinds of things with those.

My background is in education. So this was, in a very real sense, a teaching piece. But it was also the highest expression of my artistic ethos that I’ve yet produced, and it tested the limits of my craft as a composer. So it is not “just” a teaching piece; it patronizes neither the orchestra nor the choir.

My next project is a piece for symphonic winds—also comprehensively microtonal—for a consortium of ensembles. There is interest in microtonality among regular musicians, not only the self-consciously modernist set. And it so happens that my priorities tend to produce music that could be called a gateway for nonspecialists, a path leading into ever stranger territory. So I embrace this!

There is interest in microtonality among regular musicians, not only the self-consciously modernist set.

And why be stingy? It’s time to spread it around. To that end, I’m also editing a collection of fingerings and playing techniques for all standard orchestral instruments and several auxiliaries, in a fine-grained microtonal system. That system is 72 tones per octave, or a step size of 16.7c. And yes, standard instruments can accommodate that! They did, after all, for vokas animo – as did the choir.

The book is called Practical Microtones, to be published in 2021. The contributors are too many to list here, but each is a lifelong performer on the instrument in question, and well-known in the microtonal and contemporary music world. I hope that it will help in the creation and performance of many more such gateway pieces.

In Praise of Unremarkable Music, Part 2

Toy Xylophone

In Part 1 of this article, I surveyed some common measures of success in music and discussed some observations on a social level of what music that doesn’t meet these measures might teach us. I proposed that one way to deal with these issues is to sidestep them—to embrace what is unremarkable about your music as an alternative to fighting the system. In Part 2, after examining unremarkable music from a personal level, I will argue that embracing the unremarkable in your music may empower you to achieve your goals.

Many of us have feelings about what is true, beautiful, or good in music which match the fervor most people hold only for politics or religion. I know I have on occasion felt viscerally offended by “bad” music.

I know I have on occasion felt viscerally offended by “bad” music.

Soberly considered, such reactions make no sense. It’s just sound. But it would be unwise to stifle your “musical conscience” on that account. That muse lives to remind you of your deepest musical values and messages. Perhaps ironically, identifying and owning your “musical conscience” is what allows you to embrace what is unremarkable in your own music—because it affirms that the unremarkableness of these features is not salient to the truth, goodness, and beauty you have to share.

But honoring your musical conscience can be challenging when surrounded by other artists, each with their own strong feelings and compelling visions. Even if you admire them, it is crucial to recognize that when other artists lambaste certain music—whether it’s by John Cage, Lennon, or Mackey or Joan Baez, Tower, or La Barbara—those strong feelings do not come from a place of “I am a dispassionate, knowledgeable observer whose opinions are objectively true.”

For the compliant and sensitive among us, this lesson would have been especially useful before college and grad school.

Still, as my teacher Murray Boren put it, “attending school is an admission of ignorance.” Every undergraduate composer has skills they must learn and unfamiliar repertoire they should experience. We need these skills and experiences to help us grow and refine both our musical consciences and our ability to articulate their messages.

Unfortunately, though our professors did have plenty to teach us, we generally were not experienced enough to distinguish their wisdom from their opinions. In academia, as in all musical subcultures, we learn that “people like us do things like this,” as Seth Godin puts it. By no coincidence then, the music that academia generally prizes as “remarkable” sounds a lot like the music that academia generally writes.

Though our professors did have plenty to teach us, we generally were not experienced enough to distinguish their wisdom from their opinions.

As a consequence of this dynamic, our training often unintentionally (though in some shameful cases quite intentionally) delivered the message, “Your music is existentially not good enough.” (“People like us DON’T do things like that!”) Indeed, a colleague of mine once quipped that the professorial feedback he received in a composition seminar amounted to “The problem with your piece is that you’re writing the wrong piece.”

David Rakowski’s “buttstix” catalogs the kind of neurotic and narrow-minded expectations too many of us heard and internalized during our time as students. For those who have yet to attempt it, it is an empowering exercise to exorcise your own list of “shoulds.”

For my part, I internalized that good music “should”:

  • use extended techniques and extreme registers
  • look rhythmically and texturally intricate
  • require virtuosic players, in both their technical dexterity and their musicianship and ensemble skills
  • avoid tonal and metrical references and focus on timbre and gesture
  • (or conversely) embrace the intersection of indie rock and post-minimalism
  • push aesthetic, technical, and disciplinary boundaries
  • not repeat itself within or between pieces
  • create new forms and systems for each piece
  • be obscure in its emotions and evasive about its extramusical connotations
  • dismiss or transcend culture-specific musical symbols or topics
  • have a sound intellectual justification for its pre-compositional plan or its compositional structures
  • be itself virtuosic in requiring exceptionally long hours, decades of study, and arcane technical skills to create (anything easy or instinctive is dismissible or, at least, suspect)

Now, none of this aesthetic agenda is problematic in itself. In fact, it describes a lot of music I admire by many colleagues whom I deeply respect. Aspects of it even describe things I value in my own music. But this agenda has the same relationship to my musical conscience as Amy Sherald’s portrait has to the real Michelle Obama. Sherald’s painting may capture one essential facet of Obama, but no painting can ever capture her living whole. Likewise, when I pressure myself to conform to those dead expectations, I cut myself off from my living musical truth.

The despondency and insecurity that comes from being cut off from your musical truth is the emotional counterpart to being offended by bad music. In both cases, your musical conscience is telling you, “You do not belong here.”

The despondency and insecurity that comes from being cut off from your musical truth is the emotional counterpart to being offended by bad music.

It is further calling you: not to a wholesale rejection of your colleagues’ and mentors’ opinions, but to greater discernment and integrity of your own. To say with confidence, “This is what matters to me musically. By these features, I know in my gut I have succeeded in speaking my truth. Accordingly, I trust the value of what I have to share—that some people will treasure it, even though others will find it unremarkable.”

Recently, a composer friend and I attended the concert of a famous cellist. At the intermission, we were relieved to discover we both felt he was overhyped. Yes, his renditions of the solo cello literature were good—but no more so than any top cellist from any world-class conservatory. It was only at the end when he played his self-arranged encore that, for the first time, the music felt honest. At that moment, it became clear, “This is what people hear in your playing.”

For me, this recital was a prime example of the power of unremarkable music. It helped bring into focus the thoughts and feelings I have had while slowly emerging these past six months from my post-dissertation, post-graduation haze. From this example, as I have pondered what I want to accomplish musically and how my music can make a difference, I realized two things:

First, “I am not yet as good of a composer as I hope to be”—that part was already obvious, but it was the next part that was liberating—“but I am already a far better composer than I need to be.”

Second, “I already have all the compositional chops I need to make an impact in music.”

My unremarkable music is good enough to matter.

My unremarkable music is good enough to matter. It’s potent enough to form communities, to influence lives, and even potentially to make a living. And so is yours.

A diatonic toy xylophone, each key is a different color.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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In Praise of Unremarkable Music: Part 1

Why did you start writing music? Now, what do you hope to accomplish? This year? This decade? By the end of your life?

In response to these questions, you might envision your music’s success according to a variety of measures:

  • The awards, press, and publicity it receives.
  • The size of audiences it attracts.
  • The money it makes.
  • The joy you had in creating it.
  • The degree to which it meets a performer’s need or fits their skill level.
  • The experience shared by those in the room when it is performed.
  • The appraisal of your colleagues and other connoisseurs.
  • The social impact it has.

Given your creativity, I’m sure you can come up with dozens of other metrics (and I’d be curious to hear them).

But it should be obvious that rarely, if ever, does a piece of music succeed across all these dimensions. Whenever we create music—whatever kind of music we write—we create something that is, at least in a few dimensions, unremarkable. Because individuals and groups value these various dimensions differently, no piece of music can be universal in its appeal or usefulness. Even Bach can be considered an also-ran by many people in many contexts. Thus, it is not intellectually or socially honest to ask, “Is Piece A better than Piece B?” without being able to identify the terms of comparison and explain why those terms matter.

Whenever we create music—whatever kind of music we write—we create something that is, at least in a few dimensions, unremarkable.

It may seem sacrilegious to suggest that our prized repertoire is not inherently more worthy than other music. It may further seem counterintuitive to consider that the uninteresting and mediocre, or even the lackluster and substandard, may help us achieve our goals better than our lodestars—not just as cautionary tales but as exemplars themselves.

What does unremarkable music have to teach us about achieving our goals?

On a social level, we all share a fundamental need for validation and belonging. Though some composers may be content to write for themselves, most of us write music because we want to connect with those around us. Regardless of whether we get paid, a large part of what we do constitutes a gift to our collaborators and communities. We hope our music may inspire, challenge, stimulate, touch, or delight those who hear it. When that gift is poorly received or rejected, it stings.

Most of us write music because we want to connect with those around us.

This sting can be all the worse because many of us hold ideals of meritocracy and social justice. We believe that the good and the marginalized should have at least an equal seat at the table as the powerful and the privileged. Further, we want to believe that our music has merit. When that merit is ignored—particularly because of structural discrimination—we feel a righteous sense of injustice.

But from what table does that injustice exclude you? And from what power? Indeed, to whose aesthetic values are you trying to appeal? Or whose opinions are you trying to influence?

Often, our success as composers is only loosely based on how good our music is. And as inarguable as the benefits of power and privilege may be, they hardly constitute the only way to create and sustain communities. Further, the powerful and the praised are not the only communities worth serving or creating. (On these points, see also Elliot Cole’s article “Questions I Ask Myself.”)

This, then, is what unremarkable music can teach us socially: our success as composers, however you want to measure it, reflects most strongly the quality of the relationships that our music fosters. As humanity’s most ephemeral artifact, music may catalyze these relationships, but it cannot constitute their substance. Inasmuch as your music enables you to make others feel seen, treasured, cared for, and empowered, it can be said to be doing its job.

We are not fundamentally composers: we are human beings who use music to love others.

Likewise, other people are not fundamentally our audience: they are human beings with a rich capacity to receive and reciprocate that love.

Whenever we connect with other people through our music, it constitutes only a part of the whole relationship. Even our ties to the so-called “great composers” have just as much, if not more, to do with the myths and institutions built around them as they do with their music. Why, then, do we insist that our professional status must stand or fall primarily on our scores and recordings? You would never communicate with your mother only via sheet music. So, too, we can only fully cultivate our professional impact through the stories we tell, the meals we share, the conversations we have, the memories we make, and so on.

You would never communicate with your mother only via sheet music.

It should be obvious that you don’t have to be stereotypically successful to do this. Anyone—the 17-year-old YouTuber, the part-time production music composer, the obscure grad student, the band teacher from Montana—can make an impact through these means.

Still, when that impact goes viral, it can leave some observers bemused, jealous, or defensive—an honest reaction, inasmuch as its roots go deeper than common pettiness. These roots tap into the implicit messages behind certain measures of success, messages about which relationships matter more than others. For many of us, it requires a great struggle to uproot our uncritical embrace of these values. Does the New York Philharmonic and its milieu truly matter more than the seventh graders of the Springfield Middle School Band and their families? Is the only route to financial security truly through becoming an A-list Hollywood composer?

Yes, attaining such stereotypical success through “remarkable” music will constitute impact and bring influence, and these are not unworthy goals. Yet unremarkable music can be subversive and transformative in ways that music of “merit” cannot achieve. Think of punk rock. Think, too, of educational and film music. Despite all the flack that these genres receive in some quarters, many of us became composers because we loved John Williams’s Star Wars scores or Eric Whitacre’s choral works. That these examples are wildly successful in some spheres but disparaged in others serves only to underscore my point: whose opinion matters?

This disconnect between impact and merit brings to mind the common aphorism, “One person’s trash is another’s treasure.” It, in turn, resonates with a “philosophical conundrum” in ethics that Agnes Callard explains in a recent essay:

Morality requires we maintain a safety net at the bottom that catches everyone—the alternative is simply inhumane—but we also need an aspirational target at the top, so as to inspire us to excellence, creativity, and accomplishment. In other words, we need worth to come for free, and we also need it to be acquirable. And no philosopher—not Kant, not Aristotle, not Nietzsche, not I—has yet figured out how to construct a moral theory that allows us to say both of those things.

To this conundrum in music, I propose an answer akin to Captain Kirk’s solution to the Kobayashi Maru: Sidestep the issue. Rig the test. Embrace what is unremarkable about your music. Cherish it. Prize it. Stop trying to be all things to all people. Stop trying to convince the haters.

Embrace what is unremarkable about your music.

This isn’t to say we should stop fighting for a more perfect world (never!). Still, in this present, imperfect world on a Tuesday afternoon, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “there are alternatives to fighting.”

Part 2 of this article will show how some of those alternatives emerge from identifying why unremarkable music bothers us personally.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

Photo by Sam Balye via Unsplash of a crowded classroom from the back of the room showing a diverse group of students

By Dave Molk & Michelle Ohnona

Making Whiteness Visible in the (Music) Classroom

Teaching Inequality: Problems with Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy” described how the near exclusive and yet unnecessary reliance on Western art music, institutionalized as white and as male, upholds white supremacy within the music theory classroom. In “Promoting Equity,” we present strategies on how to begin disrupting this normalization of whiteness, starting with making it visible. We should think of this disruption as a process rather than a product—antiracist describes actions, not states of being. To supplement the ideas presented here, we’ll also suggest additional resources in the conclusion that might help you in your own practice.

Naming: A Way to Begin (some reflections from Dave Molk)

As a white man, speaking of whiteness in the effort to de-center it runs the seemingly paradoxical risk of re-centering whiteness. Even in the midst of calling out unearned privilege, I reap its benefits—the presumed authority associated with this aspect of my identity ensures that my voice sounds louder and carries further than the majority of those who do not share it.

And yet, the problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression. Calling attention to an injustice forces a decision from those who practice willful ignorance: a decision between confrontation and conscious evasion. Naming is a way to begin, a way to make perceptible something that so often goes unrecognized. As whiteness becomes noticeable, it becomes noteworthy, and we can recognize its ubiquity as unnatural and intentional.

The problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression.

White people are overrepresented as faculty in the college classroom. The belief that race is a non-white problem, something that affects “others,” is itself a white problem with a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color. Whites are responsible both for this ignorance and for redressing it—claimed neutrality only masks our ongoing racism. There is no opt-out.

An antiracist approach must be intersectional—meaning that race, gender, class, sexuality, and other aspects of one’s identity where oppression exists are inextricable from one another. An antiracist approach names these forms of oppression and their manifestations inside and outside the classroom.

When I talk with my students about white supremacy in higher education, I name my whiteness. When I talk with my students about sexism in higher education, I name my gender. I acknowledge that I receive unearned privileges because I am an able cisgendered white heterosexual man and I name some of these privileges. I name the pressures I feel to stay silent and the perils in doing so. If I’m not willing to do this in front of my students, I can’t expect them to be willing to do it during the course of their lives, either.

Questioning the Curriculum

The process of developing an antiracist music theory classroom begins with reflecting critically on what we are doing in the classroom and why. What exactly are we teaching, both in terms of the immediate material and the underlying messages? Why are we including this particular material on the syllabus and why are we teaching it in this particular way? Whose goals does this actually serve, and what exactly are those goals? What disciplinary habits are we unquestioningly reproducing in our syllabi, teaching, and assessment methods? What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why? Ask these and similar questions at the start of each semester and continue to revisit them as the semester unfolds.

What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why?

Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

I. Centering the Student

To develop an antiracist music theory classroom, we should begin by acknowledging that the classroom is not a neutral space and that each of our students is a complex individual whose background knowledge, social identity, and relationship to music and music education is unique. Being able to connect with students from different backgrounds requires a flexibility in approach, an awareness of privilege and of power dynamics, and the understanding that these things matter. We can empower our students and encourage them to be active participants in their own education when we validate their musical experiences.

During our first meeting, I explain to students that I am not the sole source of knowledge for the course and that our work together will be more successful once we all realize that everyone has something valuable to contribute to our learning community. I state that there are no guilty pleasures in the classroom and that we will not self-deprecate. Hearing these messages said aloud helps students to understand that different musical backgrounds are a source of strength and that our class will work best when everyone feels comfortable contributing.

Questions to ask:

  •   Why do we presuppose that challenging our students is mutually exclusive with validating and empowering them?
  •   What is the relationship between the work we do in the classroom and the lives that our students and we lead outside it?
  •   What is actually necessary in what we teach? How are we defining necessary and who are we considering when we do this? What do our students actually do with this knowledge?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Create the syllabus with intention and invite feedback from a trusted colleague. Discuss pedagogical choices with students.
  •   Continue to ask who is included and who is not.
  •   Invite students to situate themselves in relation to the course material. Create opportunities for them to tell us what they need. Listen. Respond.
  •   Build trust and community by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We can’t expect students to be open if we are not open ourselves. Acknowledge the hard conversations. Empathize.

In Practice: Big-picture conversations

The classroom is not a neutral space.

To help students recognize that music is, in addition to “the notes,” a social and cultural product, I devote the majority of three classes each semester to a round-table discussion of big-picture ideas. I explain that, while I will facilitate as necessary, students should engage in dialogue with each other and not with me. These topics become reference points as we continue through the semester, and we keep these conversations going via online postings and explicit connections during lectures. The final paper asks students to continue realizing the political in the personal by situating themselves more deeply within these big-picture issues.

These discussions provide a way to begin uncovering pervasive biases and various forms of systemic oppression that influence our ways of thinking and modes of interaction. Even when I provide readings ahead of time to help students begin to think about these issues, I deliberately leave space in how to interpret the prompts. This allows students to approach the material from their own experiences and allows the class to learn how these big-picture issues can manifest in different ways. My role is to push us below surface-level engagement, to make visible the underlying assumptions. Teaching only the notes is a political decision with real consequences—in the absence of interruption, injustice replicates. The following are prompts that I use:

  • What makes music good?
  • What exactly is “the music itself”?
  • What is authenticity in music?
  • Disparities faced by women in music.
  • Connections between music, race, and racism.
  • The efficacy of protest music.

II. The Polystylistic Approach

A polystylistic approach uses the particular strengths of many different styles of music to create a sophisticated working knowledge of how music can be put together. Through a polystylistic approach, we also gain ways to talk about the social and cultural issues that are inseparable from music. Using examples from other genres within a pedagogic framework that still prioritizes Western art music is not the answer—inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy. While including “everything” is neither possible nor productive, we must be clear that the decision not to include a particular style is not a dismissal of that style.

Inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy.

If we restrict ourselves to a single genre, then we develop a monochromatic music theory. We forsake the opportunity to speak well about some musical phenomena and the ability to speak at all about others. Our understanding of what music is and what music can be will necessarily be limited by the aesthetics of the single style that we study, and we miss our chance to make music theory more relevant to more students.

Questions to ask:

  •   What is truly foundational knowledge and what is style-specific? How do we justify the inclusion of style-specific material in a basic theory curriculum? What is the explicit purpose of this style-specific material, is it warranted, and are we going about teaching it in the best way?
  •   If our students turned on the radio to a random station, could they engage with the music as a result of our pedagogy? Would they, as a result of our pedagogy, be dismissive of certain styles? Does our pedagogy disrupt such dismissive attitudes or reinforce them?
  •   If we require most/all majors and minors to take music theory, how can we convince them that music theory has value for what they do and who they are?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Be explicit about why we are teaching a polystylistic curriculum. Explain to students the traditional model and name its problems.
  •   Solicit suggestions from students for material to incorporate. Get to know what they’re into and help them to articulate reasons why they like it. Use the familiar to open doors to the new.
  •   Use moments when theory terminology breaks down to point out the shortcomings of theory, then work with students to create better ways to talk about the musical phenomena in question.
  •   Attend to inclusivity both in terms of genre and practitioners within genre.

In Practice: Sampling

To create the two-semester basic theory sequence I used at Georgetown University, I drew primarily from electronic dance music, hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, and Western art music. These were styles I had formal training in or had devoted significant time and effort to research. When developing a polystylistic approach, the point isn’t to arrive at the optimum mix of styles, but to use a plurality of style to decenter whiteness, to make the material more relevant to more students, to give students a more realistic idea of how music works, what music is, and what music can be, and to provide an entry point for talking about the social and cultural issues imbedded in the music.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, during which I recreate Daft Punk’s “One More Time” from Eddie Johns’s “More Spell on You,” I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style. Sampling lets us talk about a number of important musical topics that don’t come up in traditional pedagogy, including studio production techniques, sequencing, DAWs, riddims, breaks, royalties, and questions of legality, authorship, and ethics. These are more immediate and meaningful to my students than the voice leading norms of a particular style. They’re also more applicable to their careers, and are therefore more important for me to teach.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style.

I use the following guiding principles to contextualize our theory classroom, stating them during our first class and returning to them throughout the semester in order to emphasize their importance. Although we may find these truths obvious, we should still name them for our students—actually saying these out loud underscores the degree to which these points matter.

  • Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive.
  • The tools we use guide our interactions and shape our interpretations.
  • We don’t have a sophisticated way to talk about a lot of musical phenomena. These shortcomings belong to the tools we use and not to the material.

Putting It Together: The Blues

Willie Dixon’s composition, “Spoonful,” offers a number of intellectually rigorous ways to engage with both the musical elements that work within it and the social and cultural forces that work upon it. What musical elements tend to be foregrounded in “Spoonful,” and how do they function? How about a tune like “Blues for Alice”—what elements tend to be foregrounded and how do they function? What are the advantages to calling both “Spoonful” and “Blues for Alice” a blues? Is it possible to identify a prevailing blues aesthetic? How might we describe it? Define it? What do we learn about the blues specifically and about the concept of genre generally as a result of this process?

We might compare and contrast Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition of “Spoonful” with Cream’s. We might talk about differences in instrumentation, in the use of space, in guitar technique and tone, in the timbres of the drums, the organization, the energy, and eventually realize we’re not even beginning to scratch the surface of the musically important material presented in these two versions of the tune. We might wonder why this type of deep and engaged critical listening isn’t what we talk about when we talk about ear training. We might wonder about biases in traditional ear training and about ways to overhaul that component of traditional music theory pedagogy.

The blues lets us engage with issues of appropriation in ways more immediate and more relevant to students than would be possible using Western art music. In light of these two versions of “Spoonful,” we might ask our students, who can sing the blues, and why? Who should sing the blues, and why? Who gets to determine this? Again, why? What does it mean that Eric Clapton built his career on the back of black music even as he espoused racist vitriol? Is this something we can reconcile? Something we should? What does it mean to separate the art from the artist? Is it actually possible to do so? By allotting time and space within the classroom for students to wrestle with these issues in a musical context, we prepare them to recognize how these issues can manifest more generally.

Talking about the blues in the music theory classroom provides an organic way to bring big-picture ideas into the conversation. Angela Davis develops a constructive framework for thinking about classism, sexism, and racism in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism as she traces the development of black social protest through the music of the classic blues era and into jazz. Sharing with students the lyrics to “Prove It On Me Blues,” “Poor Man’s Blues,” and “Strange Fruit,” encourages them to understand the work of Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as simultaneously musical, social, and cultural. An introduction to this history lets students re-contextualize social protest as it manifests in other, more recent styles of music in the United States, both inside and outside black communities. We can, of course, talk about form, chords, scales, improvisation, and other elements that we tend to find in a music theory classroom when we talk about the blues. Indeed, we must—but we must also push these conversations further.

Concluding Thoughts

As educators, our failure to engage the potential of our classrooms to be sites of antiracist learning and practice is not only a question of social injustice. When we omit, overlook, or unknowingly disregard the work of musicians of color, we commit disciplinary injustice, and do a disservice not only to the students in our classroom, but to our discipline writ large. It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

We should ask how our pedagogy supports the development of critical thinking and engaging with difference, and how we might better incorporate this into our coursework. We should ask how social and cultural forces shape what we study in the classroom, how we study it, and how these forces impact our lives. We should ask how our coursework aligns with the goals of higher education, and why we remain complacent when it doesn’t.

We are all racialized within this society—conservatory and non-conservatory alike. When we abdicate our responsibility as educators to do this work in these spaces, in spite of significant institutional barriers, we ensure the ascendancy of injustice. The ability to step away is itself a mark of privilege that should be brought to bear on fixing the problem, not perpetuating it. We can all advocate within our spheres of influence to advance the cause of justice. The suggestions offered here are possible starting points for critical reflection about the work we do in the classroom and the reasons we do it. All work must have a beginning—may this be yours.

Suggested Resources

Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

Sara Ahmed’s “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism.”

James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers,” The Fire Next Time.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists.

The Combahee River Collective Statement (see also Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, How We Get Free).

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”

Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.

Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (original article)

Engaging Students
Philip Ewell’s “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.”

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Ethan Hein’s work on pedagogy, including “Toward a Better Music Theory” and “Teaching Whiteness in Music Class.”

bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

Lauren Michelle Jackson’s “What’s Missing From ‘White Fragility’” and everything she links to.

Adrienne Keene’s Introduction to Critical Race Theory course page.

Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist.

Gloria Ladson-Billings’ contributions to the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy.

Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider.

MayDay Group.

Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race?

The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education is a valuable starting point for finding important conversations, contributors, and resources for bringing social justice into the classroom.

Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Getting Your Hands Dirty (Performing Microtonal Choral Music, Part 2)

A series of three photographs of someone's year.

Emotionalist Preamble

As a choir director, the majority of my experience is with youth and amateur ensembles. Thus, I usually deal with a different set of concerns and priorities than many readers of NMBx might.

Choirs are in it for the community.

The first thing to know about choirs below the professional level is that, in my firm belief, we are in it for the community above all. There is pride in the technical execution, too, of course! But much more so, it’s about conveying emotion, and experiencing the same emotion, and thus creating and maintaining the bonds of community with each other and with an audience.

In addition, it is quite common to encounter experienced choral singers who have limited sight-reading ability, who rely instead on a finely developed skill at retaining and repeating melodies that they hear. The notation then becomes, as it was in medieval Europe, more of a memory aid than a set of explicit instructions.

Medieval Neumes

A facsimile of the manuscript for ‘Iubilate deo universa terra’ which shows a series of unheightened cheironomic neumes added to psalm verses. (Image in the public domain.)

The joy is that it brings the experience of communal music-making into the reach of a very large population. The challenge is that the director is very often, of necessity, a teacher. So, for amateur choirs, there is no guarantee that the singers will have the whole-score awareness that is a hallmark of elite ensembles; and for many, there is basically a guarantee that they won’t!

Why on earth would anyone try to bring microtonal music into this ecosystem? Well, for one thing, it will help hone everyone’s intonational awareness—which can be sorely needed. But, on its own terms: there are new worlds of emotion to be explored that are unavailable with 12 equal tones alone!

However, a director in this circumstance needs to sell the piece in question to a perhaps skeptical ensemble. Use your entire boundless enthusiasm to support the methodical techniques below. If the singers like you, they’ll give it a chance.

If the singers like you, they’ll give it a chance.

With all caveats out of the way, then, let’s get to the technical side.

The technical side

For teaching microtonal passages, I advocate a “bimodal, target-based” approach. I chose this name because I needed a title that was both accurate and impressive sounding for a paper proposal. (It worked.) But here’s what I mean:

Bimodal – Requiring an integrated awareness of both the horizontal and vertical aspects of every pitch change. That is, one must keep in mind a new pitch’s relationship to the pitch it just left, and also its context within the sonority in which it arrives. These are often independent.

Target-based – Relying on anticipating the familiar, whether melodic or harmonic, or indeed both. When this is done, intervening things can more easily fall into place, even half-unconsciously.

These two tactics are already necessary for being a good choral musician within standard repertoire, but it’s important to make them explicit when we’re working with microtonality. A useful step toward using them explicitly in microtonal pieces is using them explicitly for challenging tonal passages. So, a director might work on these tactics during the semester immediately before a microtonal piece is even on the program.

A tonal example of the bimodal strategy

One illustrative passage is in Poulenc’s O Magnum Mysterium. Among many intonational trouble spots in this piece, consider the tritone in the opening tenor, at 0:08 and a few times afterward:

Most singers can pull out a tritone, but it’s not a reliable interval.

Most singers can pull out a tritone, but it’s not a reliable interval. It’s not uncommon to need to be reminded what it sounds like, using Maria or the Simpsons theme as a mnemonic. (Here’s a heartwarming comment thread from the Simpsons video:)

A thread of Facebook comments in response to the tritone in The Simpsons theme. The messages read as follows: “; “lmfaoooo same”; “Me too, but I still don’t know what it is.”” width=”370″ height=”456″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-376411″ />

Even when they have it securely, each person will execute it slightly differently, especially when neither of the tones involved acts as a leading tone. The resultant group pitch can be fuzzy. And, because it’s a “dissonant” horizontal interval, there is often the expectation of a dissonance where it lands.

So, you sing it slowly, tune that chord on a long tone—and it becomes apparent that the “Cb” is in fact a B natural, the third of a G major!

The tenors are now, ideally, experiencing that trouble spot on two levels. In one sense, they’re singing a tritone up from the previous note. But in another sense, they are occupying a very clear “home” in the resultant harmony, a home which has nothing to do with tritone-ish-ness.

In microtonal music, it’s even more important to maintain these two separate levels. This is because such music inevitably calls for singing some unfamiliar horizontal intervals—and the singers’ natural instinct will be to land on a verticality that’s equally “unfamiliar,” i.e. dissonant, and this instinct is likely to be wrong. We will see the unfortunate fruits of this approach in a 1962 performance of the Kyrie from Julián Carrillo’s Misa a San Juan XXIII later in this article.

A note on targets

We now move on to the “target-based” part of the approach. In microtonal music, for example, if your choir needs to sing an unfamiliar chain of small intervals—then give them a rock-solid idea of the interval they are encompassing, and the intervening tones can almost unconsciously fall into place. They can be refined later, in a second step.

To reinforce how easy this can sound when modeled, here’s Jacob Collier blithely doing that sort of thing to a minor third:

(His full discussion of this really starts at 10:12, but come on, go watch the whole thing. The guy is so hip, it’s surreal.)

The target-based approach is not limited to melodically filling in familiar intervals. On a broader scale, it’s about providing a series of conceptual anchors throughout a piece—where singers can regain their footing, if they happen to lose it on the way. This can be target melodic intervals as above; but also target harmonic intervals to tune to (e.g. for entrances), or target chords.

The novelty here is that the targets need not be musically prominent within the piece—they can occur on weak beats, or at de-emphasized places within a phrase, etc. They only need to be already familiar to the singers, who can then use them to recalibrate. For example, an exotic cadential sonority might be the musical goal, but does not need to be the conceptual target—that role could be an adjacent, less important, more familiar sonority. Here’s an instance of that in a piece I wrote (which will be hosted on NMBx after its premiere on January 24):

An excerpt from the score of Robert Lopez-Hanshaw's microtonal choral composition vokas animo.

An excerpt from the score of Robert Lopez-Hanshaw’s microtonal choral composition vokas animo.

This goes from a Just A major chord, to a 7:9:11 in the harmonic series of B twelfth-flat (in my preferred 72edo notation). The latter is surprisingly easy to nail, because you’re leaving a very familiar place, each part moving basically by quarter step—a distance which can easily be practiced. The common tone also helps.

Building the scaffold

The other thing that should guide your microtonal teaching is the educational idea of scaffolding, or the “zone of proximal development.” All this means is that every new concept needs to relate to immediately adjacent concepts; and the adjacent concepts give rise to insight at the individual level.

For example: You don’t learn to read by someone telling you how to read. There is no way to do it except making the connection on your own between individual letter-sounds and the way they combine into words. Your grade-school teacher just provided the conditions for you to make that leap, by making you memorize the letter-sounds, then confronting you with easily decoded combinations (and then, not-so-easy ones).

The principle here is important. Despite the appeal of a “brute force” method, such as learning a piece by rote from a synthesized recording (newly easy to produce, due to technology!), that tactic will not succeed for most people—because they haven’t internalized the building blocks to make the new intervals “stick.” And many might be unwilling to make that huge technical leap in the first place; it’s not why they’re in choir.

So, we need to look at how we can provide the scaffolding.

There are two pathways, a Just Intonation path and an equal-division path.

We’ve already covered two important things, which happen in normal choral singing, and can be applied to microtonal singing. What now follows is a list of additional concepts, each building on the previous, and some resources to master them. There are two pathways, a Just Intonation path and an equal-division path.

Just Intonation Path: Expressive Intonation

Ironically, this path begins with the opposite of Just Intonation: “expressive intonation.”

None other than Ezra Sims, the great exponent of 72edo, was set upon the microtonal path by his undergraduate choral conductor, Hugh Thomas. Thomas insisted on his ensembles singing very high leading tones when resolving to tonics, and very low 4ths when resolving to 3rds, among other things. Under such influence, says Sims, “you are liable to find it hard ever again to believe (no matter how much the keyboard instruments may try to convince you it is so) that there is, for example, one thing which is G-sharp, one frequency that defines it for ever and ever, Amen.”

Expressive intonation, at its crudest, is very intuitive. (Exaggerate the tendency of the tendency tones!) So, if it can achieve the goal of knocking singers out of a fixed-pitch way of thinking, then it smooths the way forward considerably.

Actual Just Intonation

Fahad Siadat has a series of articles, to be continued, on the website of his publishing company, which introduce the subject of Just Intonation for choirs. Some fuller resources currently available include Harmonic Experience by W. A. Mathieu, which I mentioned in the last article; and The Just Intonation Primer by David B. Doty, which is rather more direct.

A practical choir director might choose only a few intervals to work on.

A practical choir director might choose only a few intervals to work on. Major thirds and harmonic 7ths are useful to start with, because they are easy to demonstrate. Bring in a cellist to play natural harmonics and compare them with the piano! Bring in a high-level barbershop quartet to “ring” some chords! At first, you’re just developing the idea that there are several available “flavors” for a given interval, each with a different function.

Use what’s relevant to the piece at hand. If your choir adds only the harmonic 7th to their vocabulary, then that’s enough to start working on Ben Johnston’s I’m Goin’ Away.

Quantifying Comma Shifts

Ross Duffin is well-known for his book on meantone and well temperaments, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (And Why You Should Care). But he also wrote a wonderful defense of, and method for, Just Intonation practice, which hinges on locating and using the syntonic comma. This is a very helpful way of thinking systematically about tuning 3rds, 6ths and 7ths compared to 4ths and 5ths. It is freely available here. He even includes exercises for practicing typical problematic intonation situations that can occur.

The Hilliard Ensemble and Nordic Voices regularly incorporate this basic system (different in the particulars) into their practice. If your choir sings Renaissance counterpoint one semester, looking at intonation through this lens, then the following semester could extend the microtonality further:

Extended Just Intonation

Now we get into the weird stuff. It is possible, with much repetition and a rock-solid reference, to memorize and reproduce intervals of the higher overtones of the harmonic series.

One possible reference is overtone singing (Fahad Siadat, personal communication), which—on a low fundamental—can reliably produce harmonics at least up to the 14th, and perhaps further. A retuned digital keyboard is another potential resource.

But there is a remarkable set of exercises available, too: Andrew Heathwaite devised a system for singing through every possible interval that occurs between members of a given group of overtone-based pitches, charmingly called Singtervals. Others have elaborated on this. It is surprisingly logical and intuitive, using a slight alteration of solfège syllables.

If a singer were to make listening to, understanding, and singing this type of matrix a part of their daily practice, they would soon be able to approach a strictly overtonal (or undertonal) piece like Henk Badings’s Contrasten without much suffering.

Quarter-Tone Path: In-Between Tones

We can use people’s ability to sing in between the pitches of a small and familiar interval to develop a true quarter-tone framework.

Starting again at the beginning of a different path, we can use people’s ability to sing equal-ish tones in between the pitches of a small and familiar interval, to begin to develop a true quarter-tone framework. At first, you could simply add an exercise to normal warmups: Sing F – Gb, then F – F quarter-sharp – Gb, and then the same in the opposite direction. The outer tones are, of course, easily checked on the piano.

The Tucson Symphony Chorus warming up prior to rehearsing my piece vokas animo.

Full 24-Tone Scale

Where it gets interesting is extrapolating this simple technique to all intervening positions in the chromatic scale. Robert Reinhart, who teaches music theory and aural skills at Northwestern University, assigned intermediate vowels to the quarter-tonal pitches between solfège notes, such as ra-reh-re-rih-ri for all varieties of the second scale degree re. He then designed—and used in the classroom—progressive exercises to train the ear on the new intervals. In many cases, these involve first singing known intervals; then filling in the gaps with quarter tones; and then ultimately singing only the altered pitches, while audiating the more familiar surrounding pitches.

This is just an extension of sight-singing pedagogy in movable-do systems! For example, to teach the pattern do-fa-la (difficult for beginners), one can repeatedly sing a major scale, and gradually remove the intervening tones re, mi and sol; first audiating them, and then making the cognitive leap to simply singing do-fa-la without any crutch.

Reinhart has presented on this subject and is currently working on a systematic collection of quarter-tone solfège exercises, graded by difficulty.

You, too, could use this basic framework to divide, say, semitones into groups of three sixth-tones—or whole tones into fifth-tones, if you’re singing Renaissance enharmonic music. The specific vowels in your extended solfège don’t matter that much, as long as they’re consistent.

Going Deeper: 72-Tone Scale

Julia Werntz is the current bearer of the 72edo aural skills tradition at the New England Conservatory, succeeding Joe Maneri. She teaches students to hear, perform, and compose with twelfth tones—that is, quarter-tones each further divided into thirds. Her class begins by developing a quarter-tone framework, and elaborates from there. The course textbook, Steps to the Sea, is both highly accessible (with plenty of audio examples) and readily available.

By the time we’re getting into twelfth tones, the Just Intonation and equal-division paths begin to merge.

By the time we’re getting into twelfth tones, the Just Intonation and equal-division paths begin to merge. For singers specifically, the simpler Just Intonation intervals correspond so precisely with pitches in the gamut of 72 tones per octave, that the difference—a maximum of about 5 cents, and usually under 3—is literally impossible to produce with the voice.

In fact, a recent study by Matthias Mauch et al. shows that, even for experienced singers, the Just Noticeable Difference and the median pitch production error on a given note both hover around 18 to 19 cents—a bit over an entire 12th-tone! The study dealt with solo melodic singing, and intonation accuracy can be somewhat higher in harmonic singing (especially in barbershop); but not by as much as you think.

(Different sources give different amounts for the Just Noticeable Difference in various contexts, and 5-8 cents is the usual value cited. But in the case of sung pitches, a little more chaos seems to reign.)

Thankfully, in case you were wondering, microtones really can be learned, and ear-training in 72edo really does have the effect of increasing pitch discrimination and production ability. It tames some of the latent chaos of music-making.

The End Result

If you’ve gone through all of this with your choir, then you’re obsessive, and they’re all saints.

If you’ve gone through all of this with your choir, then you’re obsessive, and they’re all saints. What you should really do is pick and choose among these possibilities, based on what’s going on in the piece itself. This is what I have done. But where I might not yet have used a particular technique myself, it has been field-tested by others. They all really do what they claim.

Potential Bad Results

As I promised earlier, here’s the first movement of Carrillo’s Misa:

This is not, shall we say, a touchstone performance. The singers may have assumed that the goal was an “other-worldly” sound, and presumably claimed enough success to release the recording. But unfortunately, they performed the whole score inaccurately, including what should have been the “this-worldly” parts.

They are pitchy from the very beginning. By 0:58, the tenor is an entire semitone flat compared to the others, leading to a sounding Ab major in first inversion, instead of the written C augmented chord. (When it happens again at 1:07, you can hear him drift upward to try to correct it.) In the music that’s in frame starting at 1:32, the poor Bass 1 sings written perfect 5ths as tritones, because he can’t get the lower note to go down far enough. And so on. If one heard this as an exemplar of microtonal choral singing, one might be forgiven for souring on the idea.

But despite the deficiencies of this particular performance, the piece was actually written in a way that could be easy to grasp—using the tactics I’ve outlined above. It could even work as a first venture into microtonality for a choir!

Here’s how I would approach it.

  • First, I’d add quarter tones to the warmups at the beginning of rehearsals—simply splitting a semitone. This happens constantly in Misa, so the choir would get a lot of mileage from just that exercise.
  • Then, also in warmups, we would build augmented chords and other whole-tone sonorities, like [046] and [024] in different inversions. These are Carrillo’s building blocks for the piece. They are somewhat uncommon as structural elements in conventional choral repertoire, so they would require reinforcement in order to be useful as targets.
  • Then, going to the piece itself, we would sing segments without the quarter tones that intervene, and make sure the choir has memorized the target whole-tone sonorities in their larger harmonic framework.
  • Finally, it’s time to insert the quarter tones. We would do this one part at a time, at first, to cement melodic awareness.
  • Now, the surprise! Carrillo helpfully puts all quarter-tonal changes in vertical alignment, other than some suspensions. The piece alternates between one 12-tone “world” and the complementary “world” in 24edo. So, the sonorities built by the altered pitches are generally familiar. The sonority at 1:11, on the second beat of the last measure in frame, is in fact an A quarter-flat major chord in first inversion—so it should sound like a major chord in first inversion! Everybody knows that sound.

All of this is entirely lost in the wailing, loosey-goosey intonation of this performance. I believe an accurate interpretation, on the other hand, would reveal a piece of extraordinarily different character than what’s presented in the recording: perhaps startling in just how accessible it really is.

Conclusion: Practicalities

Here are a few miscellaneous suggestions I can give about teaching microtones to choirs.

Use warmups to reinforce new musical concepts, if that wasn’t clear already. Why waste time singing major scales or arpeggios the whole warmup, when you could be practicing quarter tones by repetition, or building harmonic-series chords? This reduces the teaching time on the microtonal piece itself.

Absolutely do not play a tone cluster in place of an intervening tone, if you are modeling a microtonal melody on a standard piano. This does nothing for imagining the pitch (do we “hear” a D, when C-E is played? Hell no! So why would we hear a D quarter-sharp when D-Eb is played?), and it models a dissonance, which the choir will obligingly give you. Better to skip over the altered pitch—or better yet:

Model with the voice whenever possible. This is not only easier to follow than a keyboard, but it also demonstrates that the passage is, in fact, performable.

Retune the keyboard, if it’s digital. The task is now basically trivial, with available technology; but it may not be so for you personally. If that’s the case, and you’re a person who would read this, then you assuredly have friends who are big nerds like you, except with computers. You can ask them a favor or hire them to do it for you. BitKlavier is free software with an easy learning curve; if they can program in Max/MSP, then they should be able to use Pure Data without much fuss, which is also free; or you could shell out for PianoTeq Standard, which has professional-quality sound and very good microtonal tuning controls. There are many other options, but these are a start.

Working closely with your accompanist is critical, especially if any keys are remapped drastically! But again, if you’re a person who’s reading this, your accompanist is probably game for it.

Do all the normal choral stuff first – speak the piece in rhythm, aim for precise cutoffs, use expressive phrasing, interpret the lyrics – so that they realize how much they already know how to do.

Proper breath support is absolutely indispensable. Unfamiliarity causes uncertainty, and uncertainty causes improper support, and improper support creates sagging pitch and bad timbre, which makes the project infinitely harder. So, never lose sight of that bedrock of a well-supported sound and come back to it often.

You have to convey joy in the music.

Most importantly, you have to convey joy in the music. And isn’t that what it’s always about?

The Journey In (Performing Microtonal Choral Music, Part 1)

A 19-tone keyboard with 7 white and 12 black keys per octave. (Photo by Dan Pelleg)

Why would anyone expect a choir to be able to sing microtones? All the literature seems to be on their limitations. Everyone knows that choirs are devastatingly conservative, anyway. They, and their audiences, would surely revolt at the slightest hint of strangeness. There are some who celebrate this paradigm, saying that the limitations on the massed human voice have constrained choral music to a more traditional style in the face of modernity, and that it’s a good thing they have!

This obviously rules out microtonal music of any sort. That stuff is pretty weird.

Why would anyone expect a choir to be able to sing microtones?

But—of course—there are cracks in this theory. Looking beyond the Western choral paradigm, the world overflows with examples of formidable vocal control. There are Indian, Turkish, and Arabic singers, for whom a fundamental part of music is very tiny intervals, without which the very identity of a given melody would be compromised. The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, in particular, was not just an apt practitioner of these microtonal gradations in interval quality: she was the authority on proper intonation (see Farraj and Shumays, Inside Arabic Music, 2019).

And even within the Western music scene, there is the idea of Just Intonation: the pure arithmetical tuning of chords, as distinct from our modern 12-tone, logarithmic tuning. This has slowly worked its way into general choral consciousness over the last century or two, having been abandoned only relatively recently, post-Renaissance.

A Renaissance-era drawing of a monochord showing the placement of frets to correspond to various Just Intonation intervals.

A Renaissance-era drawing of a monochord showing the placement of frets to correspond to various Just Intonation intervals.

But, as many can attest who have professionally recorded themselves singing, the limitations of human pitch control are something to contend with. These limits are humiliatingly displayed by taking a look at what you thought was a pretty decent take, through pitch analysis software like Melodyne. Was I really that many cents off?

Composers may sigh and shake their head, thinking, “Sure, microtonal singing is possible. But unless I’m commissioned by Exaudi or Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart or Roomful of Teeth, it’s not going to happen if I call for it!”

Spoiler alert: it can. I am a choral composer and conductor, and I am also a microtonalist. I’ve recently had some successes with microtonal pedagogy for choirs, which will be the specific topic of the sequel to this article. After that, my piece vokas animo, for choir and orchestra in 72 tones per octave, will have a performance video posted to this site.

How could such a thing occur? My case might be especially unlikely. Until relatively recently, I had no exposure to ensembles like those listed above—small, professional vocal ensembles who routinely play around with extremely tiny intervals. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and never left. It’s a choir town, fed by the excellent and internationally recognized choral conducting graduate program at the University of Arizona; but it’s not exactly a hotbed of new music.

So this first article is about how I found microtonality, or how it found me, through collisions with writers and aspects of culture that are not, by and large, much associated with new music. It’s about how microtonal thinking influenced the music I made, and how that process came to inform the way that I now teach it to choirs. To normal singers.

Because, if I could learn it, why can’t they?

Beginnings: Rejecting Tonality

I came to music later than many of my colleagues. Before age 11, I didn’t even listen to it much. But by 14, I had picked up the guitar and learned some rock and flamenco songs from guitar tabs. At 16, I learned how to actually read music, and then worked through a secondhand harmony textbook while my friend was taking a music theory class. So I remember my struggles with the basics very clearly, and the triumphs as well. I can still taste the deliciousness of finding out about augmented 6th chords—like forbidden fruit! More fundamentally, I remember the visceral feeling when, in about 7th grade, my choir teacher first demonstrated a major chord in contrast with a minor chord on the piano. The difference was so powerful, yet so subtle! I couldn’t figure out what was changing.

Learning how these things were put together was electrifying. So on that background—with music still in its honeymoon phase, still bright and new—came my first introduction to microtones.

When I was about 16 or 17, a hyperlink on some forgotten website took me to, a manifesto written by Q. Reed Ghazala, on something called “circuit-bending.” He described how he would painstakingly, semi-randomly alter the guts of electronic toys so they produced new and powerful noises. I ended up on a page describing an object called the “Deep Photon Bassoon,” over which a player would wave their hand and produce theremin-like glissandos. But also, using the other hand, a player could do something which sounded insane to me: cause the pitches to resolve into steps—but in “arbitrary scale divisions (how many pitches might occur between octaves).”

This was the new coolest thing I had ever heard.

A 1989 Kawasaki toy guitar used in a circuit bending project - Image by Greg Francke

A 1989 Kawasaki toy guitar used in a circuit bending project – Image by Greg Francke – used under Creative Commons Attribution license

There was no YouTube quite yet. So, aside from the occasionally terrifying sound clips on Ghazala’s website, I only came across one other example of this during that period of my life. This was the guitar solo to The Doors’ “When The Music’s Over.” (The part in question starts a bit after 2’50”)

It sounded absolutely unmoored from everything around it, sounded like the guitarist was using a slide without regard for fret positions. I thought, “That’s it, that’s what arbitrary scale divisions sound like!”

Fifteen years later, it turns out that he didn’t use a slide. And it’s not really in “arbitrary scale divisions”—it just has plenty of microtonal bends. Still, the heavily chromatic and semi-aleatoric non-melodies, the oft-warped pitch, the ametrical rhythms, and the bizarre, alien timbre had combined to create a passage which emphatically divorces itself from the music that surrounds it.

Coming back to the specific case of microtonal choral music, we can directly compare the use of microtones in this solo—and the resulting polyphonic texture—to the first movement of Giacinto Scelsi’s 1958 compositon Tre Canti Sacri, especially during the second minute of the piece.

This is a piece in which gestures are king, superseding melody; and in which intervals are arguably used for their timbre, ranging in dissonance from pure unisons and 5ths all the way to fast-beating quarter tones. The atmosphere is tense and alien—a favorite atmosphere in 20th-century art music. And, though Scelsi’s piece is tightly focused, in contrast to Robby Krieger’s freewheeling solo(s), microtonality was used as a tool to achieve the same effect in each: to exit the tonal hierarchy, to momentarily free the listener from those associations.

This sort of thing might make a choir director nervous.

Tonal hierarchies are half of what singers use to produce pitches at all … But it needn’t be a non-starter.

After all, tonal hierarchies are half of what singers use to produce pitches at all, not having any keys on our throats. But it needn’t be a non-starter. First: there are rational ways to approach a piece like this, using what is familiar in the music as a support structure. And second: music which uses microtonality specifically to reject familiar structures rarely requires precise intonation to succeed.

In the Scelsi, much of the time, I would say that an error of even 30 cents or so in either direction—unacceptable in tonal contexts—would still convey the necessary information. (For a fascinating case study of this sort of thing in instrumental microtonal music, see Knipper and Kreutz, Exploring Microtonal Performance of ‘…Plainte…’ by Klaus Huber, 2013.)

Even in this excellent recording, we do hear such variation. For example: the quarter-tonal diad between Tenor 1’s B ¼-sharp and Contralto 2’s C natural in measure 17 (about 0:38) is virtually a unison, whereas the one in measure 45 (1:39) between Tenor 1’s E natural and Tenor 2’s D ¾-sharp is much wider, even approaching a semitone. Nevertheless, I am confident that few would accuse Neue Vocalsolisten of doing injury to Scelsi’s piece!

The Other Side of The Coin: Expanding Tonality

We return to a time before I had heard of Scelsi. I was just beginning to really study composition, and fortuitously stumbled across a book while housesitting for a family friend. This was Ernst Toch’s The Shaping Forces in Music. Published in 1948, the book is an engrossing (and largely ignored) attempt to find commonality of practice between tonality and atonality. But one section, only a few pages long, stood out. In this, Toch advocated microtonality as potentially compatible with all musical approaches. He even discussed how it might have provided a neat solution to a “problem” that Beethoven, of all people, ran into (at 6’03”):

In Toch’s words: “Around the advent of [bar 8]… [the] smooth rhythmical flow of the bass is balked for three beats, there being no more moving space left for the descending voice. …[T]he problem could be solved by the use of quarter-tones as shown.” Here is one of his potential solutions (he also changed the inner voices for clarity’s sake):

A score excerpt showing Ernst Toch's quartertonal reworking of a Beethoven bass line.

Ernst Toch’s quartertonal reworking of a Beethoven bass line.

And he suggested singing it as a practical means to experiencing it. “It is recommended that the quarter-tone passage of the bass be sung, while playing the rest of the voices on the piano. One will be surprised at the facility of the task, its novelty being sufficiently eased by its tangible logic.” For me, this was one of those quotes that stuck. I took Toch’s advice, later, writing unobtrusive microtonal basslines and vocal harmonies, whenever a particular tonal problem spot seemed to require a microtonal solution.

Shortly after encountering Toch, I went to a choral conference, and someone mentioned Just Intonation for choirs—as a tuning strategy for conventional music. It seemed arcane and I forgot all the cents offset values, though it was interesting.

I also took a strange class on building instruments out of scrap metal, for which the textbook was Musical Instrument Design by Bart Hopkin. (It’s an excellent book on “outsider” approaches.) That book discusses Just Intonation a bit, and most importantly for me, it has a tuning chart in the back. This compares 12-tone equal temperament with several other systems, both JI and different equal divisions of the octave. Harry Partch’s collection of 43 tones was included. I was amazed at the sheer variety of intervals that apparently made some kind of harmonic sense. (I didn’t actually hear his music until years later.)

With all this kicking around in my head, I started playing with a rock band, and we recorded an album. One particular take on guitar had an incredible timbre, but it also had an error, so we had to redo it. But I couldn’t duplicate the timbre! After extended frustration and tinkering, we discovered that the guitar on the first take had been slightly knocked out of tune; so the major third had been flatter than usual. When I had routinely re-tuned it for the overdub, that property was erased. So, remembering the Hopkin book, I tried tuning the offending string to the 5th harmonic; and lo, there was that timbre again! A weirdly resonant and supported sound for a major triad on overdriven guitar. I thought, “So that’s what Just Intonation does.”

Later, dense vocal harmony became part of the aforementioned rock band’s schtick, but we struggled to stay in tune in live situations. So, with the guitar experience in mind, I looked for some kind of reference to use to help us out. That turned out to be W. A. Mathieu’s Harmonic Experience, a manual for understanding Just Intonation in practice (and applying it to jazz harmony). The band didn’t end up using any of the exercises—more’s the pity!—but the book showed me how it could be necessary to shift sustained tones by tiny intervals, “commas,” in order to maintain pure tuning as the underlying harmony changed. But, more importantly for Mathieu, it discussed the bodily feeling of pure tuning. That’s the way to learn these new/old intervals.

And old they are. Nicolà Vicentino wrote pieces which encapsulate parts of both Mathieu’s and Toch’s thinking—in the year 1555. Here’s one of them performed by Exaudi:

This has both Just Intonation-esque aspects—very narrow major 3rds and very wide minor 3rds—and quartertonal-esque aspects, which resemble Toch’s insertion of intervening microtones in an otherwise chromatic line. In the middle of what we would now call a V-I progression in G, Vicentino places an “extra” leading tone between the F# and the G. Unlike Toch, he tunes a whole chord to this intervening tone. This happens at 0:18—see the score excerpt below (lyrics simplified).

Score excerpt of Nicolà Vicentino's "Dolce mio ben" showing microtonal intervals.

Score excerpt of Nicolà Vicentino’s “Dolce mio ben”

It’s not truly quartertonal, nor truly Just Intonation. It’s really in 31-tone equal temperament, whose modern standard notation slightly reinterprets all the chromatic and quartertonal accidentals; but it should still be clear what’s going on. Vicentino loves this type of figure, by the way, and it pops up all the time in his surviving microtonal music.

I had been exposed to two completely different philosophies of microtonality: Either escape The System, or help it to become somehow more itself.

So, well before I took the plunge and resolved to compose in microtones—and, in so doing, got up to speed with the voluminous literature and repertoire that’s actually out there—I had been exposed to two completely different philosophies of microtonality. Either escape The System, or help it to become somehow more itself. And on the surface, those categories seem to have held up pretty well, in terms of guidance for interpreting a given passage.

One thing, though, that I wish I had been able to read as a teenager is some sort of comprehensive overview of all the ways people have used microtonality in Western music. Until very recently, nothing of the kind seemed to be around—everything had its relatively narrow agenda, and was too technical for my teenage self anyway. As we’ve seen, I was left to gradually pick up an incomplete picture from here and there. But last year, Kyle Gann published The Arithmetic of Listening, and now none of us need suffer that fate.

That book is possibly the most important microtonal resource that exists today. This is because it is, indeed, a survey of many of the ways microtonality has been used; but it’s also an entire paradigm for how microtonality can be taught. Tuning concepts like Pythagorean, meantone, 12-equal, and Barbershop intonation are explored through the lens of gradually adding prime limits to the harmonic vocabulary. After the 13-limit is passed (with discussions of Ben Johnston, Toby Twining, and Gann’s own Hyperchromatica), the conversation branches off into equal divisions of the octave, covering not just what they are, but what they do. This includes the single most helpful introduction to Regular Temperament Theory that I’ve ever encountered, which will be a life raft for anyone who has attempted to swim in the turbid internet waters that cover this subject.

Kyle Gann’s The Arithmetic of Listening is possibly the most important microtonal resource that exists today.

There are things with which I disagree: his thumbnail analysis of Ezra Sims’ String Quartet No. 5, for example, is done exclusively in terms of edo-steps—despite also quoting Sims multiple times to the effect that his use of 72tet is meant to be harmonic (i.e. ratio-based). And the brief section on non-Western tuning systems is so thoroughly salted with disclaimers (such as “not to be taken as fairly representative of how those cultures understand their own music”) that it comes across as, well, a bit salty. And anyone looking for strictly atonal resources in this book will leave disappointed—the book does not much discuss organized ways of using microtonal structures without reference to a global or local tonic (i.e. 1/1). Still, despite these and other quibbles, The Arithmetic of Listening is the first book I would recommend to anyone who wants a serious introduction to microtonality. I wish the world had had it sooner.

The Facility of The Task

But back to the narrative at hand: the ways in which I first experienced microtonal techniques are very approachable for beginners, and I consider this a fantastic stroke of luck.

Why can you sing in-between pitches? Because they’re in between.

Why can you sing in-between pitches? Because they’re in between. You are leaving somewhere and arriving somewhere, and both of those places are fixed and familiar. When I recorded a Toch-ian “double leading tone” in a background vocal for a country song, it was totally natural in context, just a slight extension of a normal voice-leading thing that happens in pop styles. It hardly took any practice at all to get that take. Anyone can do it: and I’ve taught people to do it.

Why can you sing JI intervals? Because, as Mathieu said, they are felt as much as heard. For all that Just Intonation is a theoretical construct just like everything else, it remains true that it provides easy perceptual landmarks to hit. When you’re singing in tune, it locks—just ask a barbershop ensemble. They know how to sing a perfect 7/4: not because of the ratio, or because it’s 31 cents flatter than an equal-tempered minor 7th, or whatever. Plenty of those guys can’t even read music. They know because the chord rings, in a way that stands out from the results of other nearby tunings. So, why can’t the rest of us learn such new consonances? Some are a bit more challenging than 7/4, but many are not that much more challenging. And again, I’ve had some success teaching people who aren’t by any stretch avant-garde.

Outside of these applications (which, by the way, are already infiltrating pop music via such acts as Jacob Collier and They Might Be Giants), it is well for us to recall that there is a huge range of learnable intervals in the world—far more than the simpler Just Intonation ratios. Many cultures use intervals which correspond to no particular harmonic “landmark” at all. So, a precise tuning standard clearly needn’t be dependent on acoustic phenomena per se.

It’s harder to learn such inharmonic intervals—whether as part of a traditional but new-to-you system, or a novel one—but it is possible with support. I’ve helped people do this, too. It helps morale to remember that all of our familiar 12-tone intervals, with the exception of the octave, are in fact also inharmonic. So, the ones you grew up with are just as “unnatural” as the ones you’re trying to learn!

Combining these things into a unified approach is surprisingly intuitive. They can mesh well with standard choral techniques, if one is a little creative with the use of technology, the role of the piano, the role of the director’s voice. Much of it can be achieved with the same basic tricks that people use to teach diatonic and chromatic intervals to children. Using all this, and aided by strategies from Fahad Siadat, Ross Duffin, Robert Reinhart, and others, I’ve come up with a toolbox to teach a choir just about any microtonal piece—eventually.

I’ve come up with a toolbox to teach a choir just about any microtonal piece—eventually.

Teaching any challenging piece takes time. And there are some microtonal pieces which are a lot more formidable than others; but that’s true for any genre, microtonal or not. The point is, you can use these tools as an entry point to any piece, rather than looking at something like Ben Johnston’s Sonnets of Desolation and sinking into, well, desolation.

I hope more choir directors might see this and be inspired to invest the time in learning some microtonal repertoire with their ensemble. The rewards can be great: not just from an artistic standpoint, but also for the way microtonal awareness hones intonation skills for standard repertoire.

Tune in next time for a discussion of the actual rehearsal techniques!

Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy

A pair of eyeglasses and a pen on top of pages of music notation.

The musical case against rap is that in my view and the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody, and there is rhythm. And rap only fulfills one of these—the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, it is basically, effectively, spoken rhythm. And so it’s not actually a form of music, it’s a form of rhythmic speaking. And thus, so beyond the subjectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is it’s not music. (Ben Shapiro, 9/15/19)

During a recent episode of The Ben Shapiro Show Sunday Special, Shapiro invoked the authority of his “music theorist” father who went to “music school,” in order to dispel, in seemingly objective, fact-based fashion, the idea that rap is music. Shapiro’s criteria for what qualifies as music is absurd and his assertion that rap fails to meet this criteria is likewise absurd—but this is largely beside the point. The objective of these bad faith arguments isn’t necessarily to win or lose, but rather to perpetuate the notion that rap-as-music merits debate. Even entertaining the question undermines the legitimacy of rap by setting it apart from other musical styles about which we couldn’t imagine having such conversations.

We must reject Shapiro’s attempt to leverage the prestige of academia to do his dirty work for him. At the same time, we must consider the implications of his appeal to music theory. Shapiro wants us to focus on what music theory and music school suggest about rap-as-music—we should instead ask what his invocation of these institutions suggests about music theory pedagogy. Within these institutions, what do we learn about who and what is valued, and why?

Although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to Western art music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles.

Western art music is not a universal language. It does some things well, other things not as well, and many things not at all. And yet, although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to this style of music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles. Given this disconnect, how can we justify our near-exclusive reliance on traditional pedagogy, especially in situations where it isn’t necessary to do so? What biases do we create in our students when we declare Western art music to be mandatory knowledge for anyone pursuing formal studies in music? What biases does this reveal in us?

Let’s start with names.

Names create hierarchy. A course title like Music Theory 1: Diatonic Harmony explicitly designates harmony as the most important element of the course. Nor is this harmony in the general sense, but harmony specific to Western art music. There’s a real danger of elision, whether in perception or practice, so that music theory becomes just about harmony. Discussions of melody often come folded into larger discussions of harmony. The standard textbooks, despite grand gestures towards complete, everything-you-need-to-know musicianship, devote almost no attention to rhythm, beyond strict issues of notation. Other critically important musical elements, such as improvisation, timbre, and post-production, fail to make any meaningful appearance. This unwarranted prioritization of harmony as the essence, if not the totality, of the music theory core curriculum shapes the reality of what, within academia, is considered music, or at least music worth studying.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A myopic focus on Western art music severely distorts what music is and what music can be. The standard pedagogy relies on a value system whose metrics are based on subjective preferences but passed off as objective truths. Western art music is declared, without adequate justification, to be the necessary tool for understanding music at the most fundamental level. The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top, until recently considered the only music that merited institutionalization, perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

These are decisions made by people, no matter how compellingly they’re framed as divine decrees or natural phenomena, no matter how long-standing their historical pedigree. Teaching Western art music without acknowledging issues of canon-formation, cultural colonization, exclusion, and erasure ensures that these problems will continue. We are not exempt from interrogating the standard theory pedagogy, nor are we absolved from blame when we choose not to. The emergence of new musical styles and new technologies of music production are inconsequential—Western art music continues to be prioritized at the expense of all other modes of music creation. We need to understand this unwarranted privileging within the context of white supremacy.

White supremacy is the systemic centering of whiteness. It builds on an incorrect assumption of white racial superiority and functions to uphold white privilege. Whiteness is defined as the standard against which and on whose terms all others are measured and invariably fall short. When white is designated as normal, those who are not white are forever deemed not normal, no matter how hard they work or what they accomplish. Restricting the definition of white supremacy to a collection of bigoted individuals overlooks the myriad ways that institutionalized power in this country, whether social, political, legal, economic, or cultural, reinforces the primacy of whiteness.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral. The only reason Western art music is the benchmark by which other styles are validated or repudiated is because whites made it so. When Beyonce’s triads are as legitimate as Beethoven’s, reproducing without critique a system that excludes black music from the basic theory sequence is a political choice. This denial of the legitimacy of black music contributes to the ongoing denial of the legitimacy of black people. Injustice unchecked remains injustice.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach. Students need a broad musical foundation to prepare for advanced studies in the particular styles relevant to their interests and projected career paths. An antiracist approach to music theory recognizes that Western art music is not the pinnacle of human achievement, but simply one among many equally valid forms of artistic musical expression.

The stylistic evolution of any language depends on whose voices are seen as legitimate, on who is allowed to participate. That many of us have only recently become aware of just how pronounced the disparities in representation are within music theory testifies to the extent we have internalized the biases behind them. We who are white, who hold a disproportionate number of jobs in academia, tend not to notice whiteness because it is what we expect to find. This is a problem. Our condemnation of Ben Shapiro’s racist words does not absolve us of our own participation in and perpetuation of a racist pedagogy that normalizes whiteness. We must divest ourselves of the false conception that music can exist in a vacuum, devoid of context, independent of the people and the processes integral to its production. We must do better.

Western art music is not a universal language.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach.

As educators, we must be able to speak not just about what we teach, but also about why we teach it. We must ask ourselves who benefits from the current system, and who is harmed by it. A diverse student population in the classroom is not a prerequisite for concern about diverse student experience. Education is never politically neutral. As teachers and as students, as mentors and as mentees, our job is to question, to engage, to grow. We must all participate in our own education. We must all point out the ways that inequality and oppression manifest in what is presented as objective truth. The way things are is not the same as the way things have to be. We are each accountable for disrupting this narrative.

This is the first in a two-part series. The second essay will provide resources and suggestions for ways that we can begin incorporating justice initiatives into our music theory pedagogy.

How Working with Birdsong Brought Me to New Communities Beyond Music

Sand dunes

One never knows where the music will take you, especially if you are willing to explore new pathways. After the release of my recording Birdsongs, the conversations about the music included conversations on listening, walking in the woods, memories of experiences in nature, dreaming, climate change, and so much more. These are very different conversations than I usually have about my music, which are usually connected to a genre of music and other performer-composer-band leaders from that genre. I decided to explore the possibilities of the different realms and communities where this music might fit.

This is a field of study that combines music, culture, nature, eco-criticism, ethnomusicology, interspecies musicking and more.

In the years following the MacDowell residency, I conducted a lot of research on bird songs and on sound and the environment. I completed the Deep Listening Certificate program and joined the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology as well as a Nature Recordists group and had conversations with Bernie Krause and read his book The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in The World’s Wild Places. , I also read R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and The Tuning of The World as well as writings by Denise Von Glahn, including her book Music and the Skillful Listener. Through Denise Von Glahn’s writings, I learned about the field of Ecomusicology, and read Current Directions in Ecomusicology:Music, Culture and Nature by editors Aaron S. Allen and Kevin Dawe, which completely opened up a new field of possibilities for me. This is a field of study that combines music, culture, nature, eco-criticism, ethnomusicology, interspecies musicking and more. I immediately joined the Ecomusicology listserv group so I could be aware of what was going on. This one move created a new pathway for me for the next year that led to attending three conferences, the creation of a short documentary, and collaborations with new colleagues.

Prof. Sabine Breitsameter and Diane Moser standing together in a conference room.

Prof. Sabine Breitsameter and Diane Moser at The Global Composition 2018: Sound, Ecology and Media Conference, Media Campus Dieburg Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, Dieburg, Germany October 2018

The first conference I was invited to was The Global Composition 2018: Sound, Ecology and Media held at the Media Campus of Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, Dieburg, Germany, organized by Prof. Sabine Breitsameter, the director of the Master’s program International Media Cultural Work at Dieburg. To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect but was elated when at the welcome and keynote address, there was a message from R. Murray Schafer to the conference attendees, and it was now clear to me that this conference would be based on the concepts of acoustic ecology. But of course! Global composition is what Schafer constantly refers to in all of his writings, phrases such as “the world as a macrocosmic composition” and “the new orchestra is the sonic universe”. This would be the place where I would meet the global community that is involved with those concepts through art, music, therapy, urban planning, architecture, media, biology and so much more.

I met two people who I have long admired and for several years had only communicated with through email: Eric Leonardson and the wonderful sound artist Hildegard Westerkamp. Eric is a performer, composer, sound designer, instrument builder and the President of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology founded in 1993, an international association of affiliated organizations and individuals who share a common concern for the state of the world’s soundscapes. Hildegard is a composer, radio artist and sound ecologist, and in the early seventies joined the World Soundscape Project under the direction of R. Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University (SFU). She is a pioneer in the art of soundscape composition.

I had wonderful conversations with everyone there including three artists from New York: Suzanne Thorpe, a composer, performer, researcher and educator, who gave a presentation on how we listen, and how that listening helps us to connect with our environment, Ann Warde, a composer, sound artist, and independent researcher whose interactive sound installation Hidden Encounters gave us the sounds of the environment as we walked past, and Amanda Gutiérrez, who talked to us about the soundwalks she conducts in NYC, specifically for women of color, exploring social relationships and how women embrace the space.

This stirred my creativity into thinking about how we artists communicate about the environment and mobilize the community to action or at the very least, awareness.

My contribution was three-fold: an artist talk; a paper “Birdsongs: How music can engage, teach and transform the general public’s view of acoustic ecology and ecological awareness,” published in the conference proceedings; and a solo piano performance of a few of my Birdsongs at an old railway station in the town of Langstadt. At the beginning of this performance, I did my usual Deep Listening session, and when I asked the audience to vocalize their favorite bird songs, the response was amazing!

As I was working on the paper and presentation for TGC 2018, I received an email from Mark Pedelty in response to a comment I made on the Ecomusicology listserv, asking me if I would be on an artist panel for the Conference on Communication and Environment 2019 with the theme of Waterlines: Confluence and Hope Through Environmental Communication, presented by the International Environmental Communication Association. I said yes, and watched the emails pour in from all of the other participants, one of which would be Hildegard Westerkamp, whom I would soon meet in Germany. Our panel was titled: “Waterlines, Melody Lines, and the Environmental Imagination: Mobilizing Community through Music.” I planned to take Birdsongs there, talking and performing the music. But as the panel emails came to and fro, this stirred my creativity into thinking about how we artists communicate about the environment and mobilize the community to action or at the very least, awareness. Some panelists were communicating pollution and climate change with film, others through song, research papers, and soundscape compositions, and all of them were deeply involved with their communities. I knew what I wanted to explore, but it wouldn’t be until after TGC 2018, and had processed everything that I learned, that I would have a plan. The next step for my music would include field recordings and creating soundscape compositions, new territory for me as a composer, but I have been a big fan of those genres for years. I was ready to take a dive into that process.

I began going on bird hikes with different Audubon groups all over New Jersey as well as going out on my own, and I recorded everything.

The generosity of a dear friend who gave me a ZoomH6 digital recorder, helped me take that next step. I began going on bird hikes with different Audubon groups all over New Jersey as well as going out on my own, and I recorded everything. This was exhilarating and still is as I am continuing this process. Creating a soundscape composition was an entirely new experience for me. As I was I making my first field recording, I immediately began thinking of how our trio would improvise with the sounds, listening deeply to everything, feeling the tempo, rhythms, pitches and timbre of each sound. I wanted to create a soundwalk diary with the sound of footsteps here and there to give the feeling of moving from location to location.  As I wove all of those sounds together I was mindful of the arc and flow in the same way I would create an instrumental composition. The score I created for the trio is a timecode of events, but also suggestions of when to come in, what to do, along with with other ideas we implemented throughout our rehearsal process. My recording engineer, John Guth, whom I have worked with for over 30 years, gave me an incredible piece of advice; create a voiceover to guide us as we recorded with the soundscape track. This alleviated the necessity of watching the score and gave us more freedom to really listen to the sounds as we improvised.

Program Note for Diane Moser's composition Come Walk and Listen, April 17, 2019: "Improvisations with Bird Songs, Bird Calls, and the Sounds of Nature. Scored for Piano, Bass, Alto and C Flutes with Fixed Media. Boxed text represents actions or sounds. Parentheses with text rep[resent cues. There are key center suggestions for some of the improvisations, but these can also be flexible. The most important part is to listen to the soundscape composition, interact with those sounds and with fellow performers."

The first page of the text score for Diane Moser's Come Walk and Listen shows the first seven time cues for the pre-recorded soundscape and live trio.

Before I went to COCE 2019, I was invited to another conference presented by The International Society of Improvised Music. For this conference, I brought along the other trio members, flutist Anton Denner and bassist Ken Filiano. I talked about my Birdsongs music, played some of the MacDowell recordings, and we performed with the soundscape track. Interestingly enough, I met some like-minded improvisors who were also using field recordings and improvisation, specifically trumpeter Glen Whitehead. Before the conference we premiered the soundscape composition, now called Come Walk and Listen, on our Birdsong concert at the Cell Theater in NYC, improvising to the track with the graphic score I had created. Responses from the audience and the conference were very receptive and enthusiastic. Again we received comments like “listening to your music makes me listen differently.” When I asked what that means, I received responses like, “I didn’t think about genre, I just listen to the sounds and music, and it makes me feel at peace.” Conversations ensued about audience members’ favorite birds, climate change, memories of walking in the woods, and other artists who are expressing themselves with environmental themes.

I asked Dennis Connors, a brilliant photographer and videographer, if he would like to create a video to go with my soundscape composition and Birdsong Trio improvisations.

As I prepared for the COCE 2019, I asked my friend and colleague, Dennis Connors, a brilliant photographer and videographer, if he would like to collaborate with me and create a video to go with my soundscape composition and Birdsong Trio improvisations. Thankfully he said yes, and we began going out on video shoots as I continued to make field recordings. Some of those outings included getting up just before dawn so we could see the sunrise at our location, keeping the tripod steady with weights as the wind whipped around us and dressing in layers as it would be in the 30s in the morning and steadily get warmer throughout the day. We had some wonderful talks with those we met along the way, NPS rangers, Audubon groups, and people who were just curious about what we were doing. We had so many surprising moments; watching a Mute Swan defend his mate and her soon-to-be-born cygnets at Cape May Meadows, Egrets and Great Blue Herons whisking over the waters to look for the perfect place to stand motionless while they stalk their prey, American Oystercatchers defending their nests against intruders. I think our biggest surprise and thrill was the morning we arrived at Plum Island at Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area and found horseshoe crabs mating on the beach. It had been a full moon the night before, and high tide was winding down. As we recorded and walked the cove, we overturned the horseshoe crabs that had been flipped over by the waves, helping them back into the water. It was a very special moment.

COCE 2019 was an incredible conference. Two hundred and seventy-five people came from all over the world to share their environmental communication experiences. Our panel, which had grown in size, was now expanded into two panels and two different sessions. There were ethnomusicologists who shared their films of musicians from Haiti and Bangladesh singing and playing about their polluted environments and what to do about it and an ethnomusicologist who related the story of how the Columbia River flooded the town of Vanport, Oregon and played the song by Woody Guthrie that immortalized that tragedy. There was great diversity from the composer-performers there: Mark Pedelty presented two films, We Live in the Lake, a call to action about Lake Pepin’s (Minnesota) sedimentation crisis, a problem caused by climate change and unsustainable agricultural practices, and Loud, which deals with noise pollution in the Salish Sea and is part of a regional campaign to enforce stricter noise regulations and create additional marine sanctuaries in the coastal waters of Washington State and British Columbia. Both films featured music by his band The Hypoxic Punks. Dancer and musician Yan Pang, who collaborated with the Sichuan Opera to raise public awareness of pollution around local rivers, delighted us with her film Dancing Upstream: Current Issues of Environmental Awareness as Performance, while composer Justin Ralls shared excerpts of his opera Two Yosemities while James Spartz performed one of his songs and talked about songwriting and environmental communication. We heard excerpts of Brian Garbet’s composition concerning the Windsor Hum, a low-frequency phenomenon believed to originate at a steel mill on the American side of the Detroit River and we listened to Kits Beach Soundwalk, a soundscape composition by Hildegard Westerkamp.

Finally, I presented our film Come Walk and Listen:

Come Walk and Listen from Dennis Connors on Vimeo.

It goes without saying that through all the years of this journey I have been sharing what I am creating and experiencing with my students at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City and the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) MFA Music Composition Program in Montpelier, Vermont. I give lectures and workshops on bird songs and the composers who use them, interspecies improvisation, using the environment as a compositional tool, acoustic ecology, and a course from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on identifying and analyzing bird songs, and the importance of listening to the entire soundscape. From these lectures, students have been using bird songs and field recordings as a basis for their compositions, and it has been extremely gratifying to watch and listen as their work evolves.

It is amazing to see the transformation in their beingness just from listening deeply while walking in the woods and in the meadow.

I am also very fortunate to be able to perform and collaborate with two wonderful sound artists on our VCFA faculty, John Malia and Michael Early, using bird songs, soundscapes, and electronic processing during our performances. I also conduct workshops on “Deep Listening and the Music of Pauline Oliveros”, and in the summer months, I include a Soundwalk. After each Soundwalk, we talk about our experiences and it is amazing to see the transformation in their beingness just from listening deeply while walking in the woods and in the meadow.

A circle of benches in a clear in the middle of a forest in Montpelier, Vermont.

Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT.

What’s next? I am helping the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology organize their membership in the NYC area, I am collaborating with a visual artist, Sarah Haviland who creates amazing bird sculptures, and when I finish the Waterbirds project, I’ll be collaborating with a former student of VCFA who specializes in 3D audio to take the music to another level. My experiences with the Come Walk and Listen project has led me to perform and present it in four distinctly different ways; the film, the soundscape track, the soundscape track with processing and free improvisation, and the soundscape track with my Birdsong Trio. In my jazz performer-composer life, I would typically perform a composition, then arrange it for different ensembles or possibly workshop it with a student ensemble. With this new way of creating I think the possibilities are endless, and I am so enjoying the discovery and exploration of that process.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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My Journey With Bird Songs

A car approaching a wooden cabin

For the past 11 years, I have been working on incorporating bird songs into my music. When I say “my music”, I am talking about my improvisations, because all of the music I compose starts with improvisation, which I then sculpt into compositions. To me, this is a more “natural“ way to go, but then again, that’s been my approach my entire life. When the composition is set, I leave space for improvisations based on the bird songs, as well as motifs created from the surrounding soundscape. Six of my bird song compositions that are currently in my repertoire were originally created back in 2008 during a 5-week residency at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

I was completely seduced by the bird songs around my studio and decided to play around with them for just one afternoon.

The proposal I submitted for that residency had been to create a series of compositions for an improvisational duo with bassist Mark Dresser, for a recording session scheduled for late July. I also planned to work on a side project, which was a large work for my big band based on Pythagoras’s and Johannes Kepler’s “Music of the Spheres” concept. I brought two suitcases full of books for research to the colony. But when I opened one of my suitcases, a book I had recently bought, David Rothenberg’s Why Birds Sing, fell out of the suitcase. I didn’t remember packing that book! I also brought a book of Amy Beach’s piano music. That I did remember packing because she was an integral part of the success of the MacDowell Colony. I also had a small manuscript book in that suitcase, and for another unknown reason, out fell the letter I had received 11 years earlier, from Adrienne Fried Block, who at that time was writing Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944. You would think I would have paid attention to all of these signs from the universe, but no, I initially decided to stay the course with the Spheres side project. That only lasted a day. I was completely seduced by the bird songs around my studio and decided to play around with them for just one afternoon, then get back to work. One afternoon turned into the entire residency; I just had to play with those birds! When would I ever get another chance like this, to have a piano in the middle of the woods, and to play freely? Instead of reading about Kepler, I read David Rothenberg’s book every day, and went to the local bookstore to find Donald Kroodsma’s book with recorded bird songs, The Backyard Birdsong Guide and an illustrated copy of The Music of Wild Birds adapted from The Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Matthews, who wrote that book in 1904, in Campton, New Hampshire, less than 2 hours from the MacDowell Colony.

My designated studio was Delta Omicron, and inside was a beautiful Mason and Hamlin grand piano. I had a digital recorder and was able to put the microphone in a small window, covering it with a curtain to have a little separation from the piano, which enabled me to hear the birds clearly through my headphones. In this way I was able to adjust the volume I played on the piano so that the birds and I were balanced. I never saw them, so I was never sure who was singing what.

I improvised with songbirds … My goal was to become a member of their band, so to speak.

Every day for five weeks, I improvised with songbirds and any other creatures that made their voices heard, and recorded each session. My goal was to become a member of their band, so to speak. I listened deeply to their singing, and carefully infiltrated their ensemble. They, in turn, sang to me and with me and seemed to be okay that I was not only privy to their conversations, but would take part in them as well. We had a standing jam session time at around 10 a.m. each morning until lunch. Then they would retreat, and I would do some reading and listen to our recordings. They would come back out to sing with me around 4 p.m. until I left them for a swim in the local pond. There was also the after-dinner bird ensemble, and we would make music together, but not for long, as they had other business to attend to. In the evenings, I would listen to our recordings of the day, and make notes on the improvisations that would become compositions that I could play again and also perform with other musicians. 
As I listened, I made marks in the editing track and would decide on what to keep, sometimes switching sections around, but for the most part only editing what I considered “meandering” type improvisations as opposed to fully formed compositions through improvisation.

The view of the trees and foliage from the window of the cabin at The MacDowell Colony

The view from the window.

The first bird I began improvising with was the American Robin. In fact, the most well known song, Cheerily, Cheerily, seemed to creep into all of my improvisations. I slowed down the song just a bit, and lengthened the motif, and played around with it in garage band.

A page from an old book featuring music notation for a song based on the tune that the American Robin sings. The following text appears at the top of the page: Taking the Robin according to his average conduct, he is a noisy fellow! But there is a host of good cheer in his music which the discriminating writer in A Masque of Poets early discovered: In the sunshine and the rain I hear the robin in the lane Singing Cheerily, Cheer up, cheer up; Cheerily, cheerily, cheer up! These words fit the following music pretty well.

A page from The Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Mathews featuring Mathews transcription of the robin’s song set to music.

Over time, my improvisations on this theme became a singular line composition, much like the style of early Ornette Coleman, that I freely improvised. I gave it the title “If You Call Me, Then I’ll Call You” and dedicated it to Mark Dresser. The title rhythmically matches the first two measures, and it also represents what the robins use their songs for, calling each other, and what Mark and I have been doing for over forty years, calling each other.

Mark Dresser playing double bass and Diane Moser playing piano

Mark Dresser (bass) and Diane Moser (piano) at Klavierhaus (Photo by Dennis Connors).

Just before sunrise, the first bird I heard singing was the Hermit Thrush. The landscapers at MacDowell referred to the hermit thrush as a deep woods singer, and told me it was the first one singing at the break of day, and first one back into the woods just before sunset. Commonly known as the Nightingale of the Americas, this bird has an amazing set of songs and calls. It’s no wonder that Amy Beach composed two piano pieces based on these songs, one for the morning and one for the evening. She also had perfect pitch and could sit in the woods for hours transcribing bird songs. I have been playing her composition A Hermit Thrush at Eve for years, adding improvisation over her harmonic progression and using hermit thrush songs as a point of departure for improvisation. I have added my version below. Before you listen to the recording, check out the songs of the hermit thrush, and you’ll understand the brilliance of Amy Beach.

After hearing the hermit thrush and the american robin, the next two birds I would hear in the morning were the Black-Capped Chickadee, and the Chipping Sparrow. The Black-Capped Chickadee has a two note song and several calls, but it was the two note song that I was responding to, and the bird responded back with the same two notes. The chipping sparrow has two songs and several calls. The songs are long dry trills, one being faster than the other. I was hearing the faster one and he alternated his song with the black-capped chickadee. I began imitating both of them, improvising in between their songs and my imitations.

Here’s a recording of one of our sessions, right at the very beginning.

As I continued improvising, I integrated both of their songs into a bass line, and then began developing a melody with the two note song from the black-capped chickadee.

All of these improvisations went on for many hours, and other birds would join us for a moment or two.

Originally I had titled the improvisations “Me and the Chickadees”, but I changed it to “Hello” after reading about how bird songs have been set to mnemonics, using a syllabic rhythmic phrase. I decided that the two note song of the black-capped chickadee, a bird song I heard every morning, should quite obviously be called “Hello”.

The bird I had the most fun with was the chipping sparrow.

The bird I had the most fun with was the chipping sparrow. His dry trill and constant singing at regular intervals of time provided tempo and an ostinato for my improvisations. I used the age old technique of a repetitive note as an imitation of the chipping sparrows dry trill, and that became a “thread” for the composition, tying it together. Everything else evolved through improvisation. Think Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, or any number of compositions. “One Note Samba” by Antonio Carlos Jobim is another good example. As you listen to the recording below, you’ll hear the chipping sparrow, and a dark-eyed junco in the background who wanted to join in with us.

After editing the recordings, I began the tedious process of transcribing. For some pieces I transcribed note for note exactly what I had played. For others, I kept melodies, harmonies, bass lines, and motifs, using them as a jumping-off point for improvisation. I was able to transcribe two of my bird song compositions “Hello” and “If You’ll Call Me, Then I’ll Call You” before I left the MacDowell Colony. We recorded them on my return to New Jersey,  during that aforementioned recording session with bassist Mark Dresser and a few days later we performed them live in New York City at The Stone. (Our recording, Duetto, was released in 2012.)

I was staying true to what the birds and I had created.

One of the benefits of being a performer-composer are the ensembles that I lead, and other people’s ensembles that I perform with, where I can arrange the music I compose for any combination of instruments. Throughout these performances, I constantly referred back to my original recordings, making sure I was staying true to what the birds and I had created, and especially to the surrounding soundscape which was the palette for the compositions. I also created more space in the notated score for improvisation, but with the caveat that the improvisations needed to reflect the bird songs and the motifs. Thankfully, the musicians I performed with had a wide range of musical experiences and could untether themselves from the standard go-to licks, as we say in the jazz world.

I took a different approach for my next bird song composition, Birdsongs for Eric, a 20-minute suite for septet, based on the flute improvisations of the iconic jazz musician and composer, Eric Dolphy, commissioned for the “Eric Dolphy: Freedom of Sound Celebration Series”.

I discovered that in virtually every solo Dolphy took there were bird songs.

In 1962, Eric Dolphy told Downbeat magazine interviewer Don DeMichael, “At home [in California] I used to play, and the birds always used to whistle with me. I would stop what I was working on and play with the birds.” I can totally relate to that quote! Happens to me all of the time. 
The quote and Dolphy’s music inspired me to try a different type of process. With the help of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird site and their online Macaulay Library, I was able to study the birds in the area of Los Angeles where Dolphy grew up. I compared those bird songs with as many recordings of Dolphy that I could find and discovered that in virtually every solo he took, not to mention melodies he wrote, there were bird songs or motifs that clearly represented bird songs. I improvised with those bird songs for a bit, then chose the songs I wanted to incorporate into the composition and gave instructions to the musicians to base their improvisations on those motifs.

After all of this experimenting, I formed what I now call the Birdsong Trio, piano, bass and flute. We worked on the music for several years, performing here and there, and in 2016 I decided it was time to do a recording. I commissioned a graduate student that I was mentoring at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Kyle Pederson, a very talented composer, to compose a piece for this new recording. Kyle, who is from Minnesota, chose the song and calls of his state bird, the common loon, and titled his piece “The (Un)Common Loon”.

The recording session for the Diane Moser Birdsong Trio (Anton Denner, Ken Filiano, and Diane Moser) at Union Congregational Church in Montclair, New Jersey (Photo by Dennis Connors)

The recording session for the Diane Moser Birdsong Trio (Anton Denner, Ken Filiano, and Diane Moser) at Union Congregational Church in Montclair, New Jersey (Photo by Dennis Connors)

The result of these efforts was the release of Diane Moser: Birdsongs (Planet Arts Records), and little did I know the resounding effect this would have on critics, music fans, and students. We have had truly wonderful reviews from jazz, contemporary fusion, classical and rock music publications, and even a heavy metal blog! Evidence of the universality of not only music, but of bird song.

At the end of our concerts audience members tell me about their bird hikes, show me photos…

What has intrigued me about the reviews, is that not only are the reviewers understanding the music, but they are also talking about their own memories of listening to birds, the joyfulness of the music, and how it makes them feel relaxed. When we play our concerts, I begin with a short Deep Listening session with the audience, settling in, closing their eyes, thinking about their favorite birds, thinking about their favorite bird songs, and then I invite them to vocalize their favorite bird songs. I also tell them that they can continue the vocalization for as long as they want. As the audience is vocalizing, our trio improvises with them, and at some point we segue into Birdsongs for Eric.  At the end of our concerts audience members have told me they felt transformed, that they were listening differently, that they heard the music in a way they never heard before, and that they felt completely at peace. They often tell me about their bird hikes, show me photos, discuss articles they have recently read and so forth.
 To this day, I receive emails, postcards, photos, text messages, Facebook posts, and messages from my audience base about their experiences with birds and walking in the woods.

A landscape view of Cape May Point State Park showing a placard with a description of the area, an open field, and the sky.

Cape May Point State Park in Cape May,NJ

Recently I received a Faculty Research Grant from The New School for my new project called “Waterbirds: Environmental Dialogues Through Music”, which will include the creation of a 50-minute music composition for my Birdsong Trio, incorporating field recordings that focus on coastal and wetlands birds and their disappearing habitats in and around New Jersey and New York. This is a different approach for me towards creating music, but I am thoroughly enjoying it! Thus far, this project has me traveling the coast of New Jersey, making field recordings and going on bird hikes with the Bergen County Audubon Society, the Cape May Bird Observatory, and New Jersey Audubon. I was granted a research permit from the United States Department of the Interior to work with the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area in Highlands, N.J., where I spend lots of time. I’m amazed by the work that the Audubon groups, NPS, and US Fish and Wildlife Service are achieving on environmental clean-up, bird and bat habitats, education, land management, and so much more. I love the field-recording process and have already worked on one soundscape composition with my Birdsong Trio, which also includes a film. In part two of this series, I’ll share the film and other journeys I have made with bird songs.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Sealing the Deal: Signing the Contract and Completing the Collaboration

Two people photographed from the back walking on the left and right rails of traintracks in the country.

The previous articles in this series discussed how to find a writer to collaborate with, what to consider when deciding to work together, and the permissions and compensation that form the core of a text-setting agreement.

Assuming you are setting a completed text in a transactional partnership, you’re now ready to write up your contract, get it signed, and start composing. If the author is creating new text or your partnership is highly collaborative, you may want to discuss one final item to include in your written agreement: what happens if something goes awry?

Contingency Plans

If your partnership is highly collaborative, you may want to discuss what happens if something goes awry.

When new text is involved, the most important question is how to handle a complication in the delivery of the words. Though unlikely, it is possible that illness, incapacity, or other circumstances might delay your partner or even prevent them from writing the text. Should they be delayed, you could agree to an extended deadline and amend the contract accordingly. However, if an extended deadline is not possible within the constraints of the given project or if the author cannot complete the text even with an extension, you need a plan for how to dissolve the partnership.

Just as music commissioning contracts typically have a failure to deliver clause, agreements involving the creation of new text should have a similar stipulation. Essentially, such a clause states that if a person doesn’t provide the contracted materials by the agreed deadline and no extension has been granted, they will return any compensation they have received to date and release the other party from their contractual obligations. This creates a clear path forward in the unfortunate event that the author cannot finish the promised text.

Similarly, you should discuss what would happen if the composer is unable to complete the music as planned. While this doesn’t impact an author the way a problem in text delivery affects a composer, it does have implications for the life and profitability of the author’s work.

If the composer is given non-exclusive permission to set the text, the author/publisher is able to license other settings at any time—so one composer’s inability to complete their setting doesn’t render the words unusable. However, in cases with exclusive permission, failure to deliver the promised composition could mean those words might never be used in a musical work. To avoid that possibility, your contract should outline the circumstances—for example death, incapacity, or extreme delay—in which the author is free to license the text to another composer. You should also discuss whether those circumstances necessarily will entail a revocation of all granted permissions or simply convert the composer’s license to a non-exclusive one.

Failure to deliver the planned composition also has financial implications. If the agreement includes payment of upfront fee, the author/publisher would be compensated for their work regardless of whether the composer ever writes the music. When compensation comes as a share in future sales/rentals and/or performance royalties, the author/publisher would miss out on any income from the composer’s planned use of the text. So it is important to think about these possibilities when negotiating compensation.

A final contingency to consider applies to projects involving high levels of interdependency: how will you deal with communication delays or disagreements? Discuss what each person might do if the other is late in sending feedback or in responding to questions. Also figure out what you will do if you and your partner disagree about some aspect of each other’s work or about the project as a whole. It is best to decide up front who has the final say about the words, story (for dramatic works), music, or other aspects of the project should you be unable to reach an agreement about something.

An unidentified hand signing a paper contract on a table.

Image by Cytonn Photography (Nairobi, Kenya) via Unsplash.

Drafting the Contract

With any necessary contingencies discussed, you and your partner are now ready to formalize your agreement in writing. While an author/publisher may have a standard contract they use, I recommend composers have their own template ready. Even if you don’t end up using it for a given collaboration, it can be a handy reminder of points you may need to negotiate when using someone else’s template.

While an author/publisher may have a standard contract they use, I recommend composers have their own template ready.

If you’ve never worked with a writer before and aren’t sure what to include in a template, you can use the sample text-setting and collaboration agreements I’ve put together as a starting point. (Disclaimer: I’m not a legal professional, and I encourage you to consult a lawyer to look over your contracts!)

At a minimum, your contract should include the following:

1.) Names/contact information for all parties
2.) Which text(s) the composer will be setting
3.) What permissions are granted
4.) What compensation is promised in exchange
5.) Signatures from all parties

If the text is already written and the partnership is more transactional, nothing else would be necessary. When the author will write new text, details about their planned work (subject, length, form, genre, etc.) and deadlines for delivery should also be included, as should contingency plans. For more collaborative partnerships, points related to working process, communication, how artistic decisions will be made, and similar considerations also may be listed in the written agreement.

Always consider the first version of a contract to be a draft. If using your contract, give your partner time to review the agreement and consult a legal professional as desired. If someone else sends you a contract, you should similarly read through everything carefully and seek advice as needed. Commonly, additional discussion will be needed to clear up any questions or concerns about the first—or second or third—iteration of the contract and to revise as needed.

Finalizing the contract may be completed quickly, or it could take weeks. Make sure to allow time for this part of the process. Once everyone is satisfied with the terms, the parties will sign, and the agreement will become binding. Any changes after that point must be agreed upon by all signees in writing.

Navigating the Collaboration

After having “The Talk” and formalizing your agreement in the contract, both parties should have clear, realistic expectations about their responsibilities and how the collaborative process will play out. The contingency plans you’ve put together should help if things don’t work out as anticipated, and with any luck, you will have a satisfying, successful collaboration.

It is natural to encounter minor annoyances, conflicts, and other difficulties when working closely with another person.

However, that doesn’t mean everything will necessarily be perfect. It is natural to encounter minor annoyances, conflicts, and other difficulties when working closely with another person. If—or more likely when—something bothers you during your partnership, weigh the benefits of bringing it up against the possible waves it could create. Like in other personal relationships, you’re better off not sweating the small stuff.

If you do decide something is worth discussing, bring your concern to your partner in a respectful, non-accusatory manner. Listen to their thoughts on the issue, and work together to resolve the conflict. Similarly, if your partner comes to you with something that bothers them, don’t become defensive. Take some time to think it over and try to see your partner’s point of view. Then discuss the situation calmly.

Always handle bumps along the road with professionalism and compassion—balanced with a reasonable amount of self-advocacy. Remember, you respect each other as artists and people, and you are both committed to the project. Handle any difficulties in a way that gives your work the best chance for successful completion. Any lingering issues can be addressed when considering whether or not to work together again.

Two empty chairs on opposite sides of a table with place settings: water and wine glasses, silverware, and folded cloth napkins.

Photo by Matthieu Huang (Paris, France) via Unsplash

After the Collaboration is Done

Once the project is completed, you will need to manage certain on-going responsibilities. Where possible, you should notify authors of performances of the piece and share relevant materials such as recordings, promotional posts/articles, reviews, etc. You should also work with presenters to ensure the writer is acknowledged in publicity materials and concert programs.  Additionally, you should make sure that any performances are being reported to your PRO and credited appropriately, so that the author can receive their share of any royalties. Finally, if you agreed to share a percentage of music sales/rentals, you need to distribute those funds as outlined in the contract.

I recommend taking time to reflect on the collaboration once it is done.

Beyond keeping up with those duties, I recommend taking time to reflect on the collaboration once it is done. Each experience can reveal important insights about what to seek and what to avoid in future partnerships. You can get a better sense of who you are compatible with, what you want in an artistic alliance, what makes you uncomfortable, and what your deal-breakers are—all of which can help you be more aware and better prepared for successful collaborations in the future. You may even want to have a post-mortem discussion with your collaborator, so that you can benefit from their insights into the working process.

When reflecting (alone or with your partner), think about what you did and how you felt throughout the project, as well as how compatible you were with your partner. Consider questions like: What went really well and why? What can you do to help that happen again in future partnerships? What could have gone better and why? Is there anything you can do differently in “The Talk” or any changes you should make in your contract to improve your next experience? Approach these questions constructively, rather than looking to assign blame for anything that might not have turned out the way you wanted.

Based on your reflection and/or post-mortem discussion, you may decide you’d like to work with your collaborator again or that you want to try working with someone new—or both, since composer-author partnerships don’t need to be monogamous. You might tweak your contract template or note additional issues to bring up the next time you have “The Talk” with someone. You also may identify signs that you would or would not work well with someone, and be able to watch out for those when interacting with possible partners.

Collaborating is a lot like dating.

Collaborating is a lot like dating: you won’t want a serious relationship with everyone you meet, but there are compatible partners out there. The more you work with writers, the better you will get at finding those you will be compatible with and setting yourselves up for a mutually satisfying experience. Though it may take several attempts, you will find one or more people that turn out to be your soulmates. And finding those people is rewarding enough artistically, professionally, and socially to make trying and trying again worthwhile.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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