Category: In Print

Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?

The following excerpts are reprinted from Chapter Five, “Inventing Virtual Spaces for Music” of the book, Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? by Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter, pp. 164-170. Copyright (c) 2007 by the MIT Press. Used with permission of the publisher.

  • READ an interview with authors Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter.


    Prophetic visions of the future are sometimes found in the distant past, especially when brilliant minds anticipate what will be possible without being confined by their immediate reality. When Francis Bacon (1626) described the “sound houses” of his utopian college in his essay The New Atlantis, he was prophesying the electroacoustic world of contemporary music of the twentieth century:

    We have also diverse strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and, as it were, tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and deeper; yea, some rendering the voice, differing in letters or articulation from that they receive. We have means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.

    Without tools for creating an aural space, spatiality remained subservient to other compositional elements, such as rhythm, melody, timbre, and tempo. But with the evolution of advanced electroacoustic tools, Bacon’s seventeenth-century ideas, once merely footnotes to history, would be rendered into sound for ordinary listeners to hear; musical space became increasing fluid, flexible, abstract, and imaginary. This trend was most apparent in the second half of the twentieth century. From the perspective of electronic music, spatial design is an application of aural architecture without assuming a physical space. Musical space is unconstrained by the requirements for normal living, and musical artists are inclined to conceive of surreal spatial concepts.

    Like M. C. Escher’s painting of an imaginary space with interwoven staircases that simultaneously lead upward and downward, aural artists also have the freedom to construct contradictory spaces. As an analogy to a virtual aural space, [ M.C. Escher’s Relativity] has elements of visual spatiality, but the space itself could not exist. Similarly for an aural space, we can create sounds that appear to come closer without moving, or a spatial volume that is simultaneously large and small. Modern audio engineers and electronic composers, without necessarily realizing their new role, became the aural architects of virtual, imaginary, and contradictory spaces. Aural spatiality can exist without a physical space.

    By abandoning conventional norms defining music and space, modern artists created contemporary music. Although this class of music is considered by some to be an irreverent and unpleasant form of noise, the new rules of space are still worth investigating because they exist apart from the compositional creations that incorporate them. These rules are interesting both because they predicted the popular music of the late twentieth century and because they suggest future direction for the twenty-first century. Even if some twentieth-century contemporary music has not left an enduring legacy, the new rules of aural space are likely to survive in other aspects of our art and culture.

    The rule that requires musicians to perform in a tight cluster on the stage and listeners in predefined seats in the audience area is readily broken, as is the rule that requires both musicians and listeners to maintain a static geometric relationship throughout the performance. Moreover, when knobs on equipment can alter virtual spatial attributes, the rule that requires spatial acoustics to remain constant and consistent during a performance is also easy to transcend. In the world of virtual spatiality, acoustic space and sound location are no longer based on the laws of physics; acoustic objects can change their size and location instantly. Acoustic space and sound location have become as dynamic as the sequence of notes in the composition. As with all artistic rule systems, however, breaking old rules is easier than replacing them with meaningful new ones. A few decades is a very short duration for refining a new art form.

    A virtual space is not only a compositional element in music, but also an experience that can be extracted from music and then applied elsewhere, for example, to auditory displays in the cockpit of an airplane, the fictional spaces of computer games, or the dual audiovisual spaces of cinema. In these applications, there may not be consistency among the different sensory modalities. In some sense, with the ubiquitous technology of the twenty-first century, the experience of spatiality frequently dominates the experience of a physical environment. Space is no longer just a geographic framework (near-far, front-back, up-down) for positioning sounds relative to listeners. Space is no longer just a response to the acoustics of the environment. The older definition of cognitive maps of space as the internal representation of an external world, introduced in chapter 2, becomes fluid, plastic, and even more subjective. Aural architects of virtual spaces are manipulating their listeners’ cognitive maps.

    Artistic Dimensions of Space and Location

    Composers have always understood, both intuitively and consciously, that the location of the musicians contributes to listeners’ experience of a musical space. The hidden problem with positioning musicians throughout a space is that sound waves move comparatively slowly. Large acoustic spaces produce large delays, which displaces the temporal alignment of music arriving from different locations. Two notes beginning at the same time may arrive at a listener at different times. The spatial manifestation of time is an artistic issue for both listeners and performers, and as in advanced physics, time and space are related and connected concepts.

    When musicians are tightly clustered, the time for a direct sound to travel among them is small, and synchronization depends on their artistic skills alone. Conversely, when an orchestra is large and spread across the stage, the sound delay places a limit on aural synchronization. Because musicians separated by 20 meters (65 feet) will hear each other with a 60-millisecond delay, the visual cue of the conductor’s moving baton takes over the function of producing temporal consistency. When musicians in a large orchestra are perfectly synchronized in time, neither the conductor nor the listeners hear that temporal alignment because they are closer to some musicians than others. For example, a listener near the stage but far off to the left will hear a musician at the far right side of the stage with a delay after hearing a musician on the left, even though the two musicians are playing the same note at the same time. This problem is exacerbated if musicians are widely distributed throughout a large space.

    Composers can compensate for audio delay in several ways. Tight synchronization is not required if the composer includes a temporal gap, perhaps silence, between sounds originating from widely distributed locations. The location of the musicians, which depends on the particular geometry of a space, can then become a compositional component, although when the composition depends on a specific spatial organization, the music is not easily transported to other spaces without having to be adapted. For this reason and because it is less flexible than other options, composers have seldom manipulated the spatial distribution of musicians.

    With the advent of electroacoustics, perceived location and intrinsic audio delays were separated. For example, deploying individual microphones and headphones for each musician removes the intrinsic delays when they listen to their colleagues. Unlike air as a medium, electrified sound moves through wires instantaneously. The sound engineer is therefore free to electroacoustically reposition musicians anywhere in the virtual space, without destroying the synchronization among them. Two musicians separated by a distance of 50 meters (165 feet) can still be heard synchronously. Aurally perceived location has nothing to do with actual location; virtual spaces and virtual locations break the relationship between time and space.

    Anyone who creates a complete sound field that produces the experience of spatiality is functioning as an aural architect. Traditionally, sound sources from loudspeakers were viewed as injecting sonic events into a listening space, but with the advent of surround-sound reproduction, the sound field includes, and in some cases, replaces the experience of the listening space. This chapter traces the history and evolution of space in music, ending with the aural architecture of virtual spaces.

    Incorporating Location within Traditional Music

    Many of the spatial ideas found in contemporary music originated from an earlier period when musicians were occasionally distributed within the performance space. There is a long tradition of antiphonal music, a dialogue of call and response among distinct groups of musicians at different locations, which does not require tight synchronization or simultaneous playing. This style is found in the chanting psalms of Jews in biblical times, and in early Christian music dating from the fourth century. In the late sixteenth century, Giovanni Gabrieli extended the tradition of cori spezzati (divided choirs) as an adaptation to the unique architecture of Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice (Grout, 1960). The musical space was vast, and it contained two widely separated organs and choirs at opposite sides of the cathedral. Adapting to that uniqueness, composers at Saint Mark’s featured a dramatic use of antiphony between the halves of the double choir. The penchant to divide performers was also part of the Venetian polychoral tradition, started by Adrian Willaert and culminating with nine choral groups distributed throughout the cathedral (Mason, 1976). The refinement of cori spezzati represented a musical revolution, and also appeared in secular music of this and earlier periods, such as madrigals with echoes (Arnold, 1959). By the twentieth century, the use of spatially distributed musicians became less unusual and more innovative. Richard Zvonar (1999) cites numerous examples. Charles Ives, in The Unanswered Question (1908), placed the strings offstage to contrast with the onstage trumpet soloist and woodwind ensembles. He was influenced by his father, a Civil War bandmaster and music teacher, who had experimented with two marching bands approaching the town center from different directions. Henry Bryant then extended the idea in Antiphony I (1953) and Voyager Four (1963) with five ensemble groups placed along the front, back, and sides of the space. Three conductors were required.

    For modern composers, dispersing musical sources throughout a space is no longer revolutionary; location is an active component of a composition. Antiphony and spatial distribution evolved into a space-time continuum, which Maja Trochimczyk (2001) calls “spatiotemporal texture.” At any time, a musical voice could appear from any direction, and by intentionally sequencing attributes of space, time, pitch, and timbre, a voice can create the illusion of movement (changing position) and transformation (changing size). When used in this way, space is a musical dimension. Charles Hoag, in Trornbonehenge (1980), used thirty trombones surrounding the audience as an imitation of Stonehenge, and R. Murray Schafer, in Credo (1981), surrounded the audience with twelve mixed choirs. Extending the blending of musicians and listeners still further, Iannis Xenakis scattered 88 musicians among the audience so that the listeners are actually inside the music; in another of his compositions, musicians moved through the space rather than remaining seated.

    Based on traditional theory, music has a temporal and pitch structure, and within those dimensions, a composer manipulates musical voices so that they either fuse into a unitary whole or remain segregated as distinct elements-musical layers. Contemporary music, however, has added a spatial dimension. Composers now require new rules for manipulating fusion and segregation. The proliferation of compositions that manipulate space signifies a new form of sound imagery (Trochimczyk, 2001).

    An analysis of contemporary music is made even more complex by the addition of the two related ideas: incorporating the spatial dimension of voice location, and elevating sonic segregation over fusion and blending. During the last century, even without using space as an artistic element, Western music abandoned fusion as a prerequisite. Layered musical elements retain more of their perceptual identity when not fused. Space has become just another tool for creating musical layers. Maria Anna Harley (1998) analyzed spatial music in terms of perceptual principles that contribute to segregating musical elements. By drawing on Albert S. Bregman’s Auditory Scene Analysis (1990), she applied the principles of perceptual psychology to music. Spatial differences between sound sources that result in temporal differences at the ears augment the aurally perceived segregation of musical elements. Like differences in time, pitch, timbre, and attack, differences in spatial location are yet another means to enhance this segregation. In other words, similar but not identical sounds belong to separate musical layers when they are also spatially separated. Disparate locations de-emphasize fusion. Many modern composers, such as Bartok, Boulez, and Stockhausen, intuitively use this principle in their music.

    That twentieth-century music drifted away from fusion is consistent with spatial separation of sound sources. As a means of preventing fusion, Bryant (1967) used several artistic principles that derive from spatial separation. In one composition, he illustrated his concepts by distributing stringed instruments along the walls on the ground floor of a concert hall, as well as in the first, second, and third balconies, thereby creating a broad and intense wave of sound. Spatial separation preserved the clarity of contrasting layers, especially when different musical elements are in the same register. Because identical or harmonically related notes in two musical layers would typically fuse if not spatially separated, spatial separation afforded the composer greater musical flexibility by permitting increased complexity without concern for unintended confusion. Placing the performers below, above, behind, or to the side of listeners is not intrinsically interesting. Indeed, serializing the direction of music from a sequence of orientations or choosing an arbitrary geometric shape for performer location is, for Harley (1998), simply a failure to understand the new art. Spatial music is interesting precisely because, and only because, it allows combinations of musical elements that would otherwise be artistically weak without using spatial distribution. As if to prove this assertion, Trevor Wishart (1996) analyzed spatial movement in soundscape art, apart from a musical context, and came to a similar conclusion about space as a segmentation tool.

    In her summary of musical space, Harley (1998) concluded that “geometric floor plans and performance placement diagrams are integral, though inaudible, elements of the musical structure – as integral and inaudible as some abstract orderings in the domains of pitch and rhythm.” Spatial organization of sound sources and listener locations are components of music. Yet even when the musical score carefully specifies an organization in time and space, the composer is still constrained by the inherent inadequacy of human performers to achieve precision timing when physically separated.

    Consider two musicians located at different places but playing the same note on the same instrument. Using the concepts of Pierre Boulez (1971), there are four important cases that differ only in relative timing: simultaneous beginning and ending (fused), delayed onset of one musician’s note relative to the other’s but still overlapping (conjunctive interval), a small temporal gap between the end of one musician’s note and the beginning of the other’s (disjunctive interval), and a large delay between the two musicians’ notes (distinct sonic events). The fused case corresponds to a distributed choir singing in unison, and the last case corresponds to the historical use of antiphony. The middle two cases are interesting because they have the potential to create the perception of virtual movement, which Boulez calls “mobile distribution” or “dynamic relief.” In contrast, a fixed distribution or static relief represents a static state without kinematics. Timing has always been a critical dimension in composition, but timing combined with space becomes two-dimensional: spatiotemporal.

    This extra spatial dimension, in addition to preserving segregation of musical textures, offers other possibilities. A disjunctive interval can produce a sudden change in the aurally perceived location of a musician, and a conjunctive interval can produce smooth transition between the two locations, spice glissando. However, both effects are fragile, depending on the skill of the musicians to control timing, pitch, timbre, attack onset, and termination. And both effects depend on the location of the listener relative to the musicians. Musical movement is therefore an illusion, or a metaphoric allusion, rather than an imitation of a physical process. In addition to this change in perceived location, true motion of a sound source produces a Doppler frequency shift. Whereas physical motion in physical space has a reality, virtual motion in virtual spaces is an artistic prerogative.

In Conversation with Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter

  • READ an excerpt from Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?: Experiencing Aural Architecture by Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter.
    Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter

    Trevor Hunter: When I first picked up this book, I read the phrases “aural architecture” and “MIT press” and expected to find nothing but equations, diagrams, and footnotes inside. Instead, the topic is approached from a variety of different directions in a clear and direct fashion. Obviously this “phenomenon of auditory spatial awareness” is of great interest to you both, and has been for quite some time. What was the genesis of your interest in the subject?

    Barry Blesser: Both of us arrived at the phenomenology of auditory spatial awareness through very different paths over a 35-year interval. As husband and wife co-authors, we have been synthesizing a common viewpoint even though we started from polar opposites: hard science and engineering versus an interdisciplinary concept of space and culture. The foundation for the book was actually being formed during thousands of dinnertime conversations, since we both shared a strong interest in each other’s perspective. Neither of us ever lost our child-like curiosity. The whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. While Linda did her graduate work in interdisciplinary studies, looking back, I see clearly that I, too, had an interdisciplinary mentality. My PhD thesis was interdisciplinary and somewhat revolutionary within the narrow confines of an academic setting.

    Linda-Ruth Salter: My doctoral work, back in the golden age of environmental design, was in the interdisciplinary field of environmental psychology. I was fascinated with the interactions between people and the spaces they inhabited. In particular, I enjoyed looking at the symbolic and experiential meanings of various spatial designs. Having spent several years living in different countries, particularly Japan, I had come to appreciate the importance of cultural relativism. Ideas that we think of as universal truths are actually nothing more than a reflection of our particular culture. Concepts of space in Japan, how people relate to each other in space, are different than in other cultures. When we were done with the book, it was clear that many versions of “absolute truth,” especially in cognitive science, were actually cultural expressions of a particular group of people with a particular set of values. My PhD thesis, ‘”Sanctified Space and Urban Land Use in Boston,” gave me a deep appreciation for the complexity of how we experience space. While I was not at first aware of the importance of sound in experiencing a space, my 35-year association with Barry made me appreciate the importance of sound.

    In developing teaching tools for environmental psychology, I put together an environmental audit that focused on determining whether or not a space supports or interferes with a visitor’s goals for being in that space. For example, if an individual in a library is there for studying, the organization and design of the library must be helpful for achieving that goal. If, on the other hand, an individual is in the library for social purposes, is the library design helpful or obstructive for achieving that goal, and again in what ways? A design that supports studying would probably not successfully support socializing or hearing music.

    This kind of functional use-audit considers many aspects of a target space to determine success or failure of a particular environmental design in helping users achieve their goals. Spatial designs are experienced though all the senses. I focused on the sensory aspects of space because these components were usually not considered by designers. It gradually became clear that one of the most important sensory spatial components was sound. To stay with the example of a library, a quiet, non-reverberant space would be preferred if the goal is studying, and a lively, highly reverberant space would be preferred for listening to music. However, rarely were the sound qualities of a space consciously included in its design.

    TH: What was the bridge between those discussions and early research activities and this book?

    BB: I can trace the beginning of the book to a research fantasy that I entertained in the late 1960s while I was a graduate student at MIT: building a portable concert hall of the quality of Boston’s Symphony Hall. It was not possible then. The fantasy remained as a soft focus goal throughout my 40 year career, but it never disappeared. When I developed the world’s first commercial digital spatial simulator, the EMT 250, in 1976, it was clear that I was moving closer to that fantasy. Nevertheless, my career remained focused on audio engineering, with an emphasis on creating spatial experiences in music within the confines of the recording studio, simulating a real space.

    At the age of almost 60, I decided to write a paper that would put my career into a larger perspective. In 2001, The Journal of the Audio Engineering Society published my paper, “An Interdisciplinary Synthesis of Reverberation Viewpoints.” Even though it was very long, I had the feeling that the story was actually much larger than what I had written. I sent a book proposal based on the paper to MIT Press and they contracted me to write a book. I had no idea what the book would be about. Not only did I not know the answers, but I also had no idea about the questions. I simply wanted to write a book that could put my life into perspective. It was not initially written for any particular reader. And so began a research project that lasted five years: find all those disciplines and research fields that could contribute to our understanding of the phenomenology of auditory spatial awareness. It was only in the fourth year of the project that I realized that we lacked a common theme that would tie all the insights for dozens of disciplines into a coherent picture. And so the concept of aural architecture was born out of the struggle to make sense out of thousands of man-years of research and insights. For the first time in four years, and after some half-dozen draft manuscripts, it all made sense. As a concept, aural architecture was not obvious. We never found anyone else who had formulated the parallel to visual architecture.

    TH: Yet despite all this highly specialized research, your target audience seems to be the general reader.

    LRS: When Barry began to write about his experiences in the world of digital audio, he shared his writings with me. I consistently asked him to explain the point of his writing. In what way would this discussion interest the average reader? By consistently looking for cogent answers to this broader question, we arrived at a viewpoint that had direct relevance to all of us who appreciate the importance of sound. Fusing a multiplicity of disciplines into a consistent picture only took us five years! We now have a workable vocabulary that describes many of the issues that I first identified as being important in spatial experience almost 30 years ago. While the book project began as Barry’s intellectual adventure story, it evolved to become our collective vision. The book could not have been written by either of us alone.

    BB: There was also a secondary goal: to change the modern world’s under appreciation of sound. In order to get our message to a wide audience, the book was structured so that the reader did not need expertise in any particular field. As you observed, there are no equations, and there is no assumption that any prior knowledge is required to understand the ideas. We were not writing for our peers in a particular discipline, we were now writing for the wider audience: people with an intellectual curiosity about music, sound, space, and architecture. Human experience is something that we all share. Formal science is not necessarily the best way to understand such a phenomenon.

    LRS: The best form of environmental audit is participant observation: participating in, experiencing, and observing the experiences of others—in other words, examining the phenomenon of being in that space. Being in a space is a multi-faceted experience, and differs from person to person, time to time, goal to goal. Hence I realized the primacy of including phenomenological perspective in evaluating and understanding a space. When we are in a space, we are experiencing it; we don’t parse it into tiny pieces and measure it. Researchers in a particular discipline may segment and study components of experience, but they have no motivation for fusing those insights with those of other disciplines. Neither Barry nor I enjoyed the highly fragmented nature of modern academic research. For us it was too sterile.

    BB: Since neither of us belonged to a single discipline nor were we locked into a rigid institution that required peer approval, we could go explore any ideas that we though relevant. Every assumption was open to reexamination. Even in the context of spatial reverberation in music, we took a fresh look at the questions. While acoustic scientists and perceptual psychologist had already accumulated a large body of insight into the acoustics of concert halls, their views were too narrow and limited.

    Space in music was actually an historic accident of concert halls, which originated as a place to avoid rain and wind. Not every culture used enclosed spaces for their music. Concert halls were a solution to an amalgam of issues that could all be separated using 21st-century technology. A concert hall: (a) provides a place for everyone to sit together if they want to share a common experience, (b) protects the musicians and audience from distracting street noises and rain, (c) produces temporal spreading of notes that would have sharp onset and decay, such as a clarinet, and (d) envelops the listeners in a reverberation that itself then provides an aural stimulant. By separating the experience of a real space from the experience of spatial attributes, one arrives at the idea of “spatiality,” which is the experience of spatial attributes without there being an actual space.

    In the prevailing culture of the 1970s, the goal was to replicate the acoustics of a concert hall. From the perspective of modern music, performers and composers do not have to be restricted to something real, and most modern electronic music takes advantage of sounds that could not be created by vibrating strings and cavities. Why should musical space be restricted to a concert hall? Musicians need musical spatiality but not a particular reverberation corresponding to a particular seat in a particular concert hall. Aural architecture liberates musical artists to treat spatiality as an artistic component of their music.

    On a final note, by creating the concept of aural architecture, we were able to create the language bridges that connect the other disciplines. It all made sense when we were done. But neither of us understood the framework while we were active in our respective professional and research activities. The ideas in the book were simply not obvious to us even though we had thought about them for decades. We were biased by the hidden assumptions in our respective professions. As one gets older, one is more willing to take the risk of deviating from the conventional wisdom and paradigms of our colleagues. On the other hand, we tried to reconcile their contributions without being limited by them. The sum is always greater than the parts, and the parts were contributed by thousands of others, both formal science and folk wisdom.

    TH: You state at the end of Chapter 5 that “virtual spaces for music are no longer related to social spaces for people.” Could you speak further on that? Do you see any social consequences from this phenomenon?

    BB: After finishing the research for the book, it became clear that attitudes towards all forms of aural space are the result of social and cultural forces that are often unrecognized. Virtual spaces are a perfect example of a cultural shift that was enabled by advances in technology in combination with a rapidly evolving change in our social system.

    Originally, physical spaces and social spaces were essentially the same. Social spaces were, by definition, also physical spaces. Virtual spaces split all of the properties of classical spaces into independent components: (a) performance space is where the music originates, perhaps in a recording studio, (b) listening space is where the audience hears the music, perhaps on an iPod or surround-sound system in the living room, (c) reverberation is added as a musical element in the sound mixing studio, even though its acoustic properties could not be the result of a physical process in a physical space (d) the reproduction process, which is a key element in the experience of spatiality, is now individualized and dependent on the selected technology, (e) individuals listen in isolation when and where they like, (f) it is no longer possible for such music to be played in a concert hall if the goal is to make it sound the same as the recorded version; pop singers sometimes lip-sync to recorded versions when on stage as a result.

    The social consequences are not subtle. Music has become a much more a private experience than a manifestation of social cohesion. Moreover, even in a social setting, the music is sufficiently loud that listeners are functionally deaf to the social sounds of friends. In fact, the music produces aural saturation. Listeners only exist in the musical space; side conversations and emotional signaling are no longer possible. Listeners are isolated. Just as ballroom dancing gave way to independent gyrations, music moved from a shared experience to one that is highly individualized. Total immersion, whether a cause or result of social isolation, is widespread in many manifestations of our modern culture. Actually, we have a bimodal split. Globalization, the internet, email, and text messages connect all of us to thousands of individuals (expanding social connections) but at the same time, those connections are emotionally weak and without the personal intimacy of living in a small community based on communicating with body language and tone of voice. Music is no different. I doubt if there is a clear cause and effect relationship.

    Increasing loudness is a hallmark of this same virtualization. Acoustic music had natural limits regarding the amount of sound energy that could be created. Electronic amplification and earbuds have no such limits. Rather than stress the dangers to the auditory system from loud music, one can ask the reverse question: what is the payoff to raising the sound level? This question has perhaps a half-dozen answers that depend on the individual. Nevertheless, there is a payoff. In one study, there was the suggestion that intensity changes your brain in ways that parallel drug abuse. Some students showed clinical symptoms similar to drug withdrawal when deprived of loud music. The intensity changes the brain, as well as the emotional state of the listener. In fact, NYC began the process of making walking with earbuds illegal after three people were killed crossing the street. They were in their virtual musical space, but the trucks were in their physical space. Loud virtual music is like a science fiction “transporter” bringing the listener to other worlds. Similarly, virtual spaces are a key element in video games, which are also space transporters.

    The answer to the question “where are you?” is no longer obvious. We have a physical space, virtual space, visual space, aural space, tactile space, olfactory space, and so on—none of which have to be consistent with any of the others. Each has multiple types of spatiality: social, navigational, symbolic, aesthetic and musical. Without thinking about it, our culture changed ideas that had been assumed to be static and intrinsic.

    LRS: There is a mutually impacting, circular interaction that constantly occurs between technology and society. The components of a total social system include technology, the values held by members of the society, and various pieces of the social infrastructure that uphold the society. A change in any one of these components reverberates within the other components. It is meaningless to ask which came first, because the influence of change is taken up so quickly in all the components, and as Neil Postman pointed out, the changes are total. Postman gives as his example putting a drop of red dye into a beaker of clear water; the result is not a drop of red dye sitting at the bottom of the beaker—it is a beaker now colored red through and through. Systemic change cannot be predicted, and therefore cannot be controlled. It can only be observed and responded to with additional changes, which in turn produce other changes.

    It doesn’t really matter where we begin to look at this complex amalgam of change and response, so let’s look at the technological change represented by digitization of the music signal. We can follow the repercussions of this change into the manufacturing infrastructure, where we then produced globalized production through automation—based on additional technological changes—and cheap universal access to music—a resulting change in economics, that in turn produced changes in listening patterns, which went on to be expressed as changes in the values of the users and was additionally experienced through changes in the way musicians produce music.

    The end result is an individual listening to new kinds of sounds projected directly into the ear via an iPod and an earbud, thus creating aural privacy completely divorced from physical surroundings. To complete the isolation from the here-and-now, the music itself is spaceless: it is created by individual musicians working independently in a sound studio at different times, bolstered by audio effects created by an electronic machine that is not tied to any real spatial experiences. This continuous round-robin of change stops only when one piece drops away: when the technology again changes, or the values of the users change, or the social infrastructure no longer supports these events.

    Today, we are still exploring the implications of all these repercussive changes in sound. They have occurred so quickly, and are so thoroughgoing, that individuals do not even realize they are participating in these changes. We could bemoan all these changes—”why, back in my day”—but that gets tired quickly because it ignores the excitement that accompanies change. It also ignores the fact that these changes are irreversible: there is no going back, nor is there any desire to go back. There are possibilities galore available in each and every change that occurs, and opportunities for even more changes, in an almost endless cycle. Where artists and technologists chose to jump on, or off, this merry-go-round of change is up to them. In addition, we must realize the power of the users, who themselves can control change to some degree by jumping on or off the change ride.

    We can list only some of the changes we see today. Most are hidden to us. The most important thing is to avoid assigning a value to these changes, because valences are changing daily. What is perceived as a negative today becomes a positive tomorrow as the change is more fully integrated into society, and the new possibilities made available are explored and expanded. Humans are endlessly resilient and resourceful, and thus the societies we created are also. As an old-timer I may regret the hearing loss brought about by too-loud music, the isolation of the individual from her social and physical surroundings, the exhausting demand placed on the brain to process simultaneous auditory signals coming from both an earbud and the immediate environment, and the loss of control we experience when sounds intrude uncontrollably into our minds producing a kind of mind-garbage. But, it is really a lot more interesting and rewarding to catalogue and observe these changes, and their impact, and their experience, and the new changes that result.

    TH: You stated there is an under-appreciation of sound; even further, in the book you say there is a devaluing of all other senses in this visual-centric culture. This, as Linda points out, affects how we think of spatial designs, but not necessarily how we actually experience them. In practice, how limiting is this? How important is it to think of space in terms of all the senses?

    LRS: Very important! Each of our senses produces a different experience of a space. When we let any one sense become dominant, inevitably we experience the decline of functioning in the other senses. Life becomes mighty boring. That would be like eating the same food all the time, or listening to the same music all the time, or smelling the same flower all the time, or having the temperature at the same level all the time, or walking along the same path all the time.

    Evolution is about expanding possibilities, not limiting them. Humans are multi-sensory so that we can respond more effectively to changes in our environment. As we discussed above, changes are inevitable and the pace of change is accelerating. I am not prepared to throw out any one of my senses. Humans are pleasure-seeking animals, and I want all the pleasures evolution has given me to enjoy, and to use effectively in mastering my environment. That is, mastering my environment before the next change in any area of culture creates the next experiential tsunami.

    Technology is change; engineers are never content to leave things as they are. So, change becomes both danger and opportunity, and it is the artists who are in the best position to take advantage of these changes. Artists, by definition, explore and exploit new opportunities for expression and experience. In the area of values, they are both change agents and the recipients of changes. They abhor boundaries as being too limiting on their creativity, and thus, together with technologists, are the radical elements in society. Artists are eager to include all the senses, partly because as artists they pay attention to the experience of all the senses, and partly because they are always looking for the biggest and fullest experience.

    These days the visual has gained dominance, and we act as if that is all right with us. Perhaps one interpretation of our willingness to cede spatial design to those with a visual dominance is that we have taken back control of our spatial experiences via control of the sound we hear in those spaces. Perhaps we are saying: Mess around with how a space looks, we don’t mind, because actually we aren’t really here—we are in our own space created via our ears. We are listening to our own sounds; we have auditorally tuned into our own choice of place and have thus successfully tuned out the visually dominant designer’s choice of place. There are many places that I would be thrilled to be able to remove myself from, such as a subway waiting platform, or the checkout line of a crowded supermarket, or a school cafeteria at feeding time. Perhaps we are not limiting our use of all our senses; we are still fighting the issue of who will be in charge of determining which sense will be dominant, and technology has given us more weapons to use.

    The modern music world is well-integrated into other aspects of society. Music today is very closely connected to and comments upon daily experiences. It is also widely distributed among members of society. Today, music is integral to personal identity, cross-group communication, self expression and comfort. Young people now claim they could not function without their music. As we pay increased attention to our aural experiences in space, we find music is increasingly a companion to our experiences in space, whether that space is real or virtual. With the proliferation of personal listening devices and the easy availability of musical sounds on these devices, it will be increasingly difficult to isolate musical experience from spatial experience.

    BB: My favorite answer to this question is the example of an elegant restaurant. Consider being invited to dinner at such a restaurant with the president of your company. Because the relationship is somewhat formal, the natural social distance is perhaps three feet. If the acoustics in the restaurant are sufficiently corrosive, the acoustic arena may be so small that communicating requires a distance of only one foot, which corresponds to that of an intimate relationship. You are trapped into the choice of being functionally deaf at the natural distance or breaking the social taboo of being too close.

    My next favorite answer is very personal. Our family designed the aural architecture of our home using very simple methods. We removed the doors from all the common rooms on the first floor of our house, which allows everyone in the family to make a connection to all the other social events. Yet to keep the noise level relatively low, we used extensive sound absorption in the form of carpets and furnishing. As a result, we have an environment that matches our family’s value system: social connection without noise. But on the second floor, with its very thick walls and well fitted solid doors, we have aural privacy. Other families might choose a different design based on their values.

    In some older cultures, hearing was the number one sense modality, and vision was third. The second was actually touch. Sound provides an intimate connection for many reasons: the auditory system is wired deep in our cortex, we have no earlids to shut off sound, we respond to sounds even when we sleep, sound provides a sense of the interior of the source (be it emotions or construction), sound flows through cracks and crevasses to connect us with the events in our environment. These are properties of sound and hearing, but a culture (or individual) may or may not value such properties.

    Consider the progression of communications. At one time, all important conversations were done in person where the voice conveyed far more than just information. In fact, sound communication is often more a vehicle for emotions than facts. The telephone provides a way to communicate at a distance, preserving some of the attributes of person-to-person interactions. The cell phone is far worse than the old land line in terms of communicating nuances. One can often not even recognize who is calling. Text messages are such a primitive version of communications that the emoticon was invented to explicitly signal the real meaning of the message. As a culture, we have moved from the high intimacy of direct connection to the sanitized equivalent of visual text. It may well be that this shift is desirable in order for the recipient to reduce the intensity of communications.

    We may be inundated with text spam, but we are not yet inundated with aural messages. There are exceptions, of course. Public spaces such as supermarkets and airports sell the soundscape to advertisers, who know that you cannot shut off their messages if you are physically present, except of course to wear earbuds and create functional deafness. Designing the soundscape, which includes aural architecture, may well be rediscovered by those who seek to monetize it. There is a new technology yet to come: narrow beam loudspeakers that can be embedded in vending machines. If one adds a tracking system, such a system becomes auditory stalking. Sound is a great way to capture headspace because it is on 24/7.

    To go back to your question, each sense has special properties that contribute to our sense of where we are. But with the splitting of the senses, there may no longer be a unified sense of place.

Alex Ross—The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century

Alex Ross

NewMusicBox/Counterstream Radio InPrint Exclusive!

Alex Ross, critic for The New Yorker and author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century discusses the challenges of writing about recent musical history, especially when your intended audience ranges from expert musicologists to interested non-specialists.

READ exclusive The Rest is Noise bonus content.

LISTEN to the 45-minute interview.

Interview Transcript:

Trevor Hunter: You’re highly visible as a music critic, but for those who aren’t as familiar with the “Alex Ross Story,” how did you come be interested in this music, and what drove you write this book?

Alex Ross: Well, I grew up as really a sort of full-on classical music geek. I would say I listened exclusively to music from about 1750 to 1890, starting with Mozart and maybe a little bit of Bach, and ending with Brahms. That was where I was until I had a wonderful piano teacher who started introducing me to 20th-century music. His name was Denning Barnes, and he was a composer as well as a pianist. I remember the day he put the Berg piano sonata in front of me, and it was a door opening to another world with those rising intervals. From there I really very rapidly consumed the 20th-century music decade by decade, especially when I got to college. We had a huge LP library at my college radio station and so I went through Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok, and then I got into the post-war avant garde: Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Ligeti. I sort of gave myself an education while preparing programs for my radio show. One week it was Morton Feldman, another week it was Ligeti. I played the Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes on the air, which I think was something of an achievement—possibly the North American radio premiere, I don’t know. I wrote to Ligeti and he helped me find the LP of the piece. Unfortunately I later lost the letter that he wrote to me, which is a cause for regret. That was my story in terms of really falling in love with every stage of 20th-century music. Maybe not every single aspect of it—you sort of have your ins and outs with various composers.

When I started writing criticism, it was very important for me to concentrate on 20th-century music and contemporary music. I was also a composer up until age 18, and I could never finish any of my pieces. I would have a promising beginning to a string quartet, and then I just could never think of what came next, which is obviously an important aspect of being a composer—not just having one idea but knowing where it goes. I try to look at music from the composer’s point of view, and that’s really driven my criticism from the beginning. And so when the opportunity arose to write a book, I thought I had no choice but to write about the 20th century; it’s such an extraordinary body of work that is relatively little known, especially in terms of your average educated person who can tell a Picasso from a Jackson Pollack and has read widely in contemporary literature and knows the great books of the 20th century but will freeze up when you mention Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The thing is, they know the music, they know the sound of the music—they’ve been exposed to it in one form or another on film soundtracks, in concerts, or on CDs—but they don’t necessarily know where this music came from, and how it all fits together, and how one composer affects another or reacts to another. The most important thing I wanted to do with the book was to introduce people to this extraordinary, violent, chaotic, beautiful, sublime world of 20th-century music. I’m hoping as well that people who are already well-versed in the subject will find things to like in the book, and hopefully I’ve introduced a few novelties of my own to the already pretty compendious literature of 20th-century music commentary. But first and foremost, I wanted this to be a big, sprawling, hopefully absorbing cultural history that will draw people into the music world using the 20th century itself, the history itself, in a way to make the composer comprehensible.

TH: As mentioned, the name of the book is The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century. Where did that title come from?

AR: The title came to me years and years ago, and again it just seemed self-evident that I wanted to use that title for the book. It’s playing off, “The rest is silence,” Hamlet’s last words. People always have this sense that classical music ends sometime around 1900, dies out and dwindles into silence around that time, and that it is an art of the past. So calling the book The Rest Is Noise is sort of an ironic play on that. Also, confronting the perception many people have that 20th-century music is noise on first acquaintance, and it just sounds like pure sonic bedlam (and some of it intentionally is such). Yet there’s a whole aspect to it which is the opposite; I think some of the most purely beautiful music was written in the 20th century. So again, sort of ironically playing on that impression. I was also thinking of what John Cage said about any noise becoming beautiful if you listen to it intently enough, and the sense that one person’s noise is another person’s music and vice versa. These categories are very changeable, and if you go deep enough into this world then these noisy sounds can become very beautiful on second or third acquaintance.

TH: And the subtitle? I believe you even recently had a blog post about the difference between “Listening to the 20th Century” versus “Listening to the Music of the 20th Century.”

AR: That’s trying to get across this idea that it’s not just a book about music, it is about the century itself. I was also a part-time history major and literature major in college. I love history; I love big sweeping cultural histories especially. I wanted this book to be one of those. There’s a great deal of space in this book given not only to the composers, but to politicians, dictators, cultural functionaries, artists in other media, this whole surrounding landscape, and the cultural context in which the composers worked. I wanted to bring all that to life as vividly as possible; to talk about Winnaretta Singer, the Princess de Polignac, who hovered behind so much music of Paris in the 1920s, or Anatol Lunacharsky in the early years of the Soviet Union. Obviously, Stalin and Hitler play very large roles in the book. The chapter on music in Nazi Germany is as much about Hitler’s musical taste and trying to make sense of that as it is about Richard Strauss and Pfitzner and the composers of the period. And going on through the ’50s and ’60s, the Cold War and its effect on composers and how they reacted to it. So, with Listening to the 20th Century, I’m trying to get across that idea that this is a history of the 20th century through music.

TH: Throughout the book, the discussion of the differences arising in 20th-century music is often framed in terms of conflict—tonal vs. atonal, popular vs. intellectual. What made you focus on those dichotomies?

AR: Actually, a lot of the time I think I was trying to get past the dichotomies. I think the discussion in any given period often focused on these little debates, wars even, that broke out between composers of one camp, a sort of progressive or avant-garde camp often oriented toward more dissonant musical material versus those who are considered nostalgic, neo-romantic, conservative, and so on. So I laid all that out because I wanted to be true to how the music was being perceived by the actors on the scene at any given time. But then I wanted to push past that, and I think as a listener I’ve become very excited by composers who transcend those categories and seem to be in both worlds at once. Alban Berg comes to mind as someone who was able to integrate aspects of these seemingly irreconcilable camps, and Messiaen also, as someone who just rose above that conflict in a way. And yet, of course, I also admire those who were very idealistic and true to whatever so-called side of the conflict they were on. The purity of Schoenberg’s vision throughout his career is something to be admired because it was absolutely sincere; he had no choice but to write what he did. A lot of this vocabulary of conflict and combat comes from composers defending themselves against attack, and their own very deep-seated beliefs. I think in retrospect some of this very heated debated seems more amusing than anything else now, but of course it was taken very seriously at the time, so I wanted to do justice to it, and try to get at what was really at stake in some of these conflicts.

TH: Now, you stated in the acknowledgements that John Adams served not only as a subject for the book, but also as an inspiration for its style, and I was quite curious about that.

AR: I admire his music so much because it synthesizes many different aspects of the 20th-century musical story, and in this book I wanted to do the same thing, and to integrate and find compromises and a sort of pragmatic solution to a lot of these conflicts and stylistic issues that have arisen in the 20th century. But beyond that, I think I was just simply thinking of the day when I first came across an LP of Harmonielehre, sometime in college, and a little later Nixon in China, and I was so excited by that music. I just sort of said, “Oh, God!” when I heard the opening chords of Harmonielehre. It was a kind of music that I had somehow vaguely been hearing in my mind but couldn’t conceive of anyone writing down. It’s one of those uncanny experiences that you have. As much as anything, I think that led me to become a critic, because I felt the presence of someone writing music right now that just felt so incredibly important to me that I had to talk about it. So that was a big factor in my turning toward music criticism after college—my experience of his great early post-minimalist pieces.

TH: Speaking of Adams, you end the book with a discussion of Nixon in China. You begin the book with a discussion of Strauss’ Salome. A big centerpiece for the book is Benjamin Britten and Peter Grimes. Many have said that opera has made the transition into the post-romantic musical world with more difficulty than other forms. What made you use opera as a signpost for much of your book?

AR: It’s true; I kind of noticed that after it happened. It struck me that, wow, there’s a lot of opera in this book. It begins with Salome, there’s a big section devoted to Wozzeck; and actually both Berg operas I spend quite a bit of time on. And then Porgy and Bess and Lady MacBeth. Then it does come to a conclusion with Nixon in China, which I thought was neat because it allowed me, sneakily in a way, to have some of the major characters of the book take their last bows, because Adams quotes Salome in that opera. Of course there are allusions to Sibelius, and I worked in mentions of Schoenberg and Shostakovich as well, so it comes full circle in a way.

First of all for a book like this, which I’m hoping will reach a wide audience, describing an opera is a little easier than describing a purely instrumental piece because you can describe the plot, you can describe how the music reacts to turns of the plot, and it can be a bit more vivid to the uninitiated reader. But more than that, the operatic premieres and great events just sort of demanded to be talked about; I mean, Lady MacBeth caused the great explosion in Shostakovich’s career. Salome brought about this amazing scene that I describe at the very beginning of the book, where Strauss is conducting, Mahler is there, Puccini is there, Schoenberg came with six of his pupils, a kind of a class field trip for the second Viennese school. And there is this possibility that Hitler, age 17, made the trip to see it—he definitely was in Vienna the week before, and he later told Strauss’ son that he had gone to see Salome in Gratz. And whether he did or whether he said he did for some reason is unknown. But it’s an extraordinary congregation of a lot of the main characters from the first part of my book. So, opera just gave me these big set pieces that I could organize the book around. But you’re right. Shostakovich symphonies are performed all the time, but Lady MacBeth is still something of a rarity. Obviously, the Britten operas aren’t performed quite as often as they should be, although they’re certainly making headway. And then we have all this later 20th-century opera repertory that is hardly touched. The first John Adams opera has yet to be performed at the Met, which is an astonishing state of affairs. But, maybe just for that reason, it is important to emphasize the incredible importance of the 20th-century opera repertory.

TH: Your book follows a fairly linear timeline. The one exception that really jumped out at me was the discussion of Henry Cowell. That came near the end of the book, even after the discussion of most of John Cage’s music. Why did you choose to discuss Cowell in that late a chapter?

AR: There were some times where I reorganized the chronology a little bit. For example, in the fourth chapter, which talks about American music from Ives to Ellington, I don’t talk about Copland at all. Obviously that chapter focuses a lot on the period of the ’20s, and Copland was already a very big presence then. But I had this other chapter coming up on music in the New Deal period, in the ’30s and ’40s, and I just wanted to have all of the Copland material in one place, so I shifted him there.

I moved Cowell and the early 20th-century West Coast innovators to that very late chapter because there was a story that I wanted to tell about American music. In a way, I redo the whole 20th-century story from a different perspective, from an exclusively American perspective in that chapter. I start with Charles Seeger, and the lessons he gave to Cowell, and then from Cowell I go on to Lou Harrison and the early John Cage. Then I have Morton Feldman in there, who you might have expected to find in an earlier chapter. There is this very alternative maverick tradition, purely American, often West Coast-based vision of music, and I was talking about certain characteristics—such as music based on a drone or a repeating pattern, repetition and gradual change, and obviously going through LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Reich, and Glass, and building up toward minimalism. But it’s not just talking about that music as a prelude to minimalism, it’s about this chain of connections that goes all the way from the beginning to the end of the 20th century, and eventually shoots off into pop music, when Reich and Glass have their impact on Brian Eno and David Bowie, and when the Velvet Underground, one of the great rock bands in history, grows directly out of LaMonte Young’s ensemble. I just had so much fun writing this, actually. It was the most personally delightful chapter for me to work on because I felt that I was just riding this circuitous narrative from one end of the century to another. So that was why I positioned Cowell there, as one of the progenitors of this alternative, very non-European mode of writing music in which very often you find repetition of figures, as opposed to the constant variation and sustained development of figures that is so often prized in the European tradition, as well as in a lot of East Coast American music. So I think that’s the big difference between East and West Coast American Music. It could be exaggerated, and there are obviously many exceptions, but that story jumped out at me as one I wanted to tell.

TH: Your comments in the preface seem to indicate that you subscribe to a view of history as sort of a wave—in your words, an “unbroken continuum.” Yet your book necessarily deals with some larger than life individuals doing extraordinary and revolutionary things, which has tinges of the Great Man Theory instead.

AR: I think I tried to do both at once, without sounding wishy-washy about it. On the one hand, I wanted to talk about the big processes that flow through history—this idea that music seemed to often have a mind of its own—and then these great social and political forces that were obviously at work, driving musical change, and technological change. I track technological change throughout the book and show how that demanded new types of music at different stages of history. So there’s all that, and yet at the same time there is a lot of biography in the book and evocation of particular personalities. I might be guilty of a little “Great Man”-type mythologizing and romanticizing at times, but for me just both approaches are necessary. I can’t subscribe exclusively to one or the other, and I hope I’ve given as complete a picture as possible by taking these different tactics. In a way, the minimalism chapter is not so much about personalities as it is about a certain musical process that just keeps bubbling up in different places, and composers seize on it and run with it, whereas there are two chapters in particular which are almost exclusively biographical, chapters about Sibelius and Benjamin Britten. They demanded a different approach because they don’t really seem to fit into any particular larger school of 20th-century music; they stand a little bit outside of the main progressive currents of their period, and yet for me they’re hugely important. So somehow to do justice to them you have to take a more biographical and psychological approach. I also used them symbolically, representatively. There could have been chapters about many other composers, treating them the same way: Carl Nielsen, Vaughan Williams, Martinu, and Frank Martin. They’re all these somewhat lonely, off-by-themselves figures who so often get left out of the big 20th-century narrative. By insisting on Sibelius and Britten in that way, I was making a statement about a whole lot of other composers, and it killed me not to talk about so many of the others as much, whose music I really love.

There’s a really long list of composers who I wanted to write about, or did write about and ended up cutting because the book was at one point almost twice as long as it is now. Again, thinking of that reader who’s coming to this music for the first time, I was very conscious of not overwhelming him or her with too many names, too many works. Also, in dealing with composers such as Shostakovich, I can’t describe every one of his fifteen symphonies. I pick out several and leave the rest, hopefully to be discovered sometime later. A lot of the struggle, in terms of writing this book and getting it under control, was figuring out which composers and which works I could use to advance the story, to cover a certain period or certain scene adequately, and get to the next plane in the narrative, so I ended up making these pragmatic choices and not necessarily focusing on the works that I think are exclusively the greatest works in 20th-century history.

TH: Now, chronicling a century that is essentially still warm in its grave has its challenges. The further back you go, the more events are historically fleshed out. Approximately 65 to 70 percent of the book deals with music before 1945; roughly the same percentage of the recommended listening in the back does the same. Do you have plans to release subsequent editions of this book over time as the history of the recent past becomes clearer, or is the story you wanted to tell already encompassed in what you’ve covered?

AR: Well, this is something that I was conscious of as I went along that, yeah, the history of the early 20th century is a bit more nailed down, and you have perspective on it. And also the stories, in a way, are easier to tell. I mean, there’s such an explosion of music, after 1945 especially, and an explosion of different styles of music that it becomes quite difficult to get it all under control. And I struggled a lot with later chapters of the book and especially with the final chapter, where I attempt in relatively brief space to talk about what has happened in music after 1980 or so. And it’s really kind of hopeless. I just decided at a certain point, yeah, you can’t write history about events that are still unfolding and all I could do was to give what I call an aerial overview; a sort of rapid tour of some of the main trends that we see in music of the very late 20th century and the first years of the 21st century. Just give readers things to seize on and to check out and to discover because music is going to such extremes, whether of extreme complexity, extreme dissonance, or extreme tonality in the form of minimalism. People can have very violent reactions for it or against it, yet somehow in the early 20th century everything seems more consolidated. And maybe eventually over time the later 20th century will settle down in the same way and it will be very obvious—this is what we need to talk about and this is what we can ignore—but for right now it is a struggle to find a perspective on it.

Maybe at a certain point I could expand the later chapters of the book, especially the final chapter and give a more complete account of music of the last 20 years of the 20th century. But there’s only so much space and I thought the most important thing was to explain some of the fundamentals of 20th-century music vocabulary and especially focusing on Schoenberg and Stravinsky and, for me, Richard Strauss, and Sibelius and some others who are also very important. Then, in a way, once readers have been led into that world, they can go on from there and make their own discoveries. But it was just so hard to squeeze all of this between the covers of a book which I just didn’t want to be one of these things that you kind of start to experience wrist pain after a while and that feels like a brick in your backpack if you’re walking around with it. I wanted it to be a book that was a book and not a tome. So that was when I had to make some sacrifices.

TH: You’re certainly well versed in what’s called “old media” now, writing for the New Yorker, The New York Times, and now this book. But you also have a fairly prominent blog that many of our listeners will certainly know. How have you noticed that this internet phenomenon has affected both your work as a critic and how it might have affected the course of the book? It seemed to me at least, reading over the last couple of years, that you were working out some issues on the blog.

AR: I’ve had to devise a different style for the web, and I think blogs just demand a different kind of voice from print journalism. In a way, I feel I have a slightly different persona, whether it’s writing a book, writing a magazine article, or writing on the blog. Each medium demands a slightly different style and I’ve enjoyed coming up with this blogging voice, which is sort of more whimsical. You need to write brief posts—long form writing just doesn’t work as well for me on the internet—and aphorisms and quick cuts and rapid reactions to things. I don’t feel that that has bled over into my other writing, but it’s certainly affected how I view the musical world. I’ve discovered so much music on the internet; so many composers I’ve come to know by happening on their websites and checking out a few sound samples. Going on from there, reading composers’ blogs and performers’ blogs has led me into their world and let me see things from their perspective in a way that I couldn’t even get if I were sitting down and interviewing them. And then, of course, there’s this whole amazing phenomenon of being able to listen to opening night of the Bayreuth Festival on streaming audio or a premiere at the London Proms and so on and so on. The internet has made the contemporary music scene very global, and we can be aware of what’s going on musically in terms of all these composers. It becomes overwhelming quickly if you make any attempt to keep up with it. But for a critic, you know, it’s all unfiltered; there’s not a small group of publishers and performing arts organizations making choices about what you’re going to get to hear. You can make your own discoveries and sort of get around all that machinery. So that’s been a huge plus for me as a critic.

And in terms of developing the narrative of the book as I was writing the blog, I mean, it’s great that if a question arose that I couldn’t easily find the answer to, I would sometimes just ask it on the blog and see what I got, and I’ve gotten just amazing responses – emails from people all over. And you know, the amazing thing that’s been happening with the Schoenberg center where so much of Schoenberg’s life—his manuscripts, his correspondence—is there online. So I spent a few days doing research at the Schoenberg Center a few years ago, but I’ve been able to go back and continue to double check things and discover new documents, and that’s a brilliant decision on the part of the Schoenberg “people”, if you want to call them that, the family. Just to open all the doors. Here’s this composer who’s considered mysterious, inaccessible, difficult, hostile to wider audiences, and just welcome everyone in and sort of release the controls on access to this material. It’s quite surprising, or maybe not, that of all the major composers of the 20th century, Schoenberg, by far, is the one who has the most colossal web presence. I think that’s a great irony of musical history.

TH: Now you mentioned how the internet has allowed you access to other composers who you might not have otherwise heard about. After everything that you chronicled in your book, all the events and ideological battles that transpired, what interests you about today’s composers?

AR: Well, I like to think that I’m not favoring one particular school of thought or style over another. Increasingly as time goes by, I try to be pragmatic. Pragmatism is the philosophy of being in the world that makes the most sense to me and that means not being ideological, looking past ideological conflicts and making decisions, making judgments on a case-by-case basis. So hopefully I have no pre-set qualifications for music that’s going to interest me. There’s certain trends that do seem to be especially lively at the moment, and one of them definitely is young composers who’ve grown up with different aspects of pop music and are reacting to that and incorporating that, either on the surface of their music or sort of more down below. And I think minimalism and the consequences of minimalism are still playing out in a lot of ways and young composers rediscovering Reich and Glass and so on, on their own terms, and combining that with other aspects of musical vocabulary that are of interest to them. But then you have very young composers who’ve fallen in love with Ferneyhough and Lachenmann and are writing music in reaction to that but which may also have an improvisatory element to it or even rock. And so it’s just these surprising combinations, unexpected combinations that young composers are coming up with right now, which I think are really exciting to witness.

TH: How do you view your role and your purpose as a critic?

AR: Well, I’ve never identified very strongly with the classic, sort of old-school conception of the critic as this utterly objective, hard bitten observer of the musical scene who delivers judgments from on high. That’s not a voice that has a lot of appeal to me. When I was writing for the New York Times I was constantly troubled by the immediate overnight impact that the reviews could have, negative or positive, and that kind of power aspect to the critic’s role isn’t something that interests me so much. I find it more comfortable to think of myself as the color commentator rather than a play-by-play announcer, in terms of what’s going on in the musical scene and chiming in a little after the New York Times and other newspapers. Giving a second view, a third view on things—that’s a role I feel comfortable with. And in the New Yorker I also have this great gift of having more space and more time to develop my reactions to things so I don’t have to rush them to print; I can sort of mull it over and let a premiere sink in. I can go to the second performance, the third performance of a new opera, and I may end up changing my mind somewhat from my initial reaction. That just feels ideal for me.

I think after I’d been at the New Yorker for a few years, I started discovering this other role that I could have in terms of doing a little bit of education, a little bit of music appreciation. Hopefully not in the Walter Damrosch sing-along-to-Schubert-melodies sense of music appreciation, but something a little more up-to-date and sophisticated. Because the New Yorker has this great audience of people who read the magazine no matter what the individual articles are about and they trust that if it’s in the New Yorker, there’s got to be something vaguely interesting about it.

That’s obviously a lot to live up to. I have an obligation to be vaguely interesting, but it’s a great opportunity for classical music which is so often cordoned off in its own sort of weird little ghetto and separate from the rest of culture. Here I am in the mix, on the menu, alongside all the other cultural forms, and people will sit down and read a big piece about Morton Feldman, say, just because, well, it’s in the New Yorker. And that’s such a great opportunity. So, a lot of the time I am explaining some basic concepts as well as doing a little more in-depth analysis for those who already know the subject. And that’s exactly what the book is, too—trying to talk to both of those audiences at once. And there’s such a big gap. People say to me all the time, people who read the New Yorker say, well, I enjoy reading your articles but I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. And on the other side, if you were to approach a group of musicologist, they might say, well, I enjoy reading his articles but of course it’s all very simplistic and watered down for our tastes. So there’s this kind of big canyon between the connoisseurs and the experts and the whole huge mass of people who don’t know a whole lot about classical music but who are otherwise very culturally engaged and educated and so on. So as much as I can, I go back and forth between those two distinct audiences and try somehow to talk to them both at once—both in my magazine articles and in my book, too.

The Rest Is Noise: The Outtakes


Ed. Note: In the course of our interview with Ross, he mentioned that he’d been forced to trim portions of the book in order to keep the page count down. Intrigued, we asked if he’d be willing to share some of the unreleased material and, happily, he was willing to indulge us.—MS

Genre Wars in the 1960s and Beyond

(cut from Chapter 14, on minimalism and related phenomena)

In November 1963, the Beatles released a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” The first lines of the song announced, in so many words, that classical music was being swept aside by rock ‘n’ roll:

I’m gonna write a little letter
Gonna mail it to my local DJ
It’s a rockin’ rhythm record
I want my jockey to play
Roll over Beethoven, I gotta hear it again today

When the Beatles took up this song, it sounded like a novelty item—British boys playing an African-American rock ‘n’ roll number aimed at teen-agers. By the end of the sixties, when the band was wielding the sort of culture-shaping power that Beethoven attained only after his death, it was no joke. In 1963, the critic William Mann made the abrupt announcement that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were “the outstanding English composers of 1963.” Five years later, Deryck Cooke, the musicologist who made a performing version of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony, hailed the same songwriting team as “genuine creators of a ‘new music’,” denigrating the classical avant-garde in the same breath. None other than Leonard Bernstein declared that the Beatles’s best songs were “more adventurous than anything else written in serious music today.”

By the end of the sixties, the Beatles and other leading pop artists stood where Mahler and Strauss had been in 1906: they were on the mountaintop, speaking to the masses. For some reason, it proved psychologically necessary to diminish the symbolic power of classical tradition in the process, even if that music no longer provided commercial competition. A profound resentment of the tradition’s long-standing supremacy came into the open, and from unexpected sources. “I made ‘Bo Diddley’ in ’55,” the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Bo Diddley said, “they started playing it, and everybody freaked out. Caucasian kids threw Beethoven into the garbage cans.” Even in the basement spaces of avant-garde experimentation the rhetoric of rise and fall came into play. Wrote the Village Voice: “John Cage move over, the Beatles are now reaching a super-receptive audience with electronic soul.”

Around this time, for not unrelated reasons, waves of panic went through the classical world. Magazines and newspapers ran articles about the decline or even the imminent death of classical music. Newsweek proclaimed, “There exists a primal apathy toward classical music in America,” and said that “the crisis has been building quietly for nearly a decade, as Mozart and Bach have lost ground steadily to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.” Theodor W. Adorno, who had articulated the mission of the modern composer in his Philosophy of New Music, despaired not only of the avant-garde project but of the very survival of music as he knew it. In his last book, Aesthetic Theory, the negative dialectician threw out messages-in-a-bottle from the ghost ship of German art. “A latecomer among the arts,” he wrote, “great music may well turn out to be an art form that was possible only during a limited period of human history.” In his last years he trained his withering prose style on the Beatles themselves, attempting to deprogram those who believed, mistakenly in his opinion, that they were listening to a new form of musical art. The band offered nothing more than the “dilapidated expressive material of tradition, in no way overstepping the periphery of the establishment.” Tragically, Adorno himself fell victim to the shock tactics of the new pop culture. In April of 1969, a trio of female activists interrupted Adorno’s lecture “An Introduction to Dialectical Thought” by flashing their breasts in his face and taunting him with flowers. Coincidentally or not, he died a little over three months later. (It should be mentioned that the British writer John Coleman has alleged, in a book entitled The Committee of 300, that Adorno himself wrote the Beatles’s lyrics, as part of a mind-control experiment conducted by the Illuminati. For more on this unsubstantiated theory, see

Tensions between classical tradition and a rising pop vanguard had been simmering for the entire twentieth century, despite the many creative interchanges between the two. Back in 1913, Irving Berlin wrote a song titled “That International Rag” in which he anticipated (correctly, as it turned out) the vanquishing of Europe by true-blue American music:

London’s dropped its dignity So has France and Germany All hands are dancing to a raggedy melody Full of originality … Italian opera singers Have learned to snap their fingers The world goes round to the sound

Likewise, songwriters of the twenties made a point of jazzing up the classics, mocking the tradition’s self-serious poses. There were, however, scattered protests against the notion that classical music was some sort of monolithic establishment trying to fend off invading forces. Lawrence Gilman, of the New York Tribune, pointed out that the new pop artists had formed a formidable commercial empire from which classical musicians were increasingly excluded. “They,” he said, “are the aristocrats, the Top Dogs, of contemporary music. They are the Shining Ones, the commanders of huge salaries, the friends of Royalty, the Conservers, the bulwarks of the social order—they, and not the obscure composers and performers whose habitat is Carnegie Hall or Aeolian Hall.”

By the sixties, when jazz had entered its avant-garde period, the landscape had changed completely. To look at jazz from the perspective of twentieth-century composition is to experience a certain déjà vu: jazz seemed to be recapitulating classical history at an accelerated tempo. Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington were the classicists of jazz, equivalent to Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Orchestral swing, with its symphonic pretensions, mirrored the later Romantic period, the plump textures of Tchaikovsky and Brahms. Bebop was jazz’s modernist moment, its Schoenberg-Stravinsky revolution. The pop-music scholar Bernard Gendron, in his absorbing cross-disciplinary study Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, observes that the “Europeanization of jazz” generated much the same rhetoric that had accompanied the original modernist breakthroughs. Conservative critics attacked bebop’s “illusory notion of progress,” the spectacle of musicians “hectically swerving to avoid being out of date.” There was either a mockery of melody or “no melody at all.” Bebop’s defenders answered that this was a music in which “every note meant something”—an echo of Schoenberg’s dictum, “There are no non-harmonic tones.” Free jazz marked the point at which modernist impulses became consciously experimental. Finally came a period of retrenchment and recuperation, with Wynton Marsalis’s Ellington revival paralleling the neoclassicism of the twenties and the neo-Romanticism of the eighties and nineties. All the same, audiences dwindled. Rock eclipsed jazz as jazz once eclipsed classical.

Despite the various sonic adventures undertaken in the late sixties and early seventies by the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, and many others, rock music failed to enter a fully experimental, audience-alienating phase. Fans never had the feeling that their music had forsaken them, even if they became frustrated with the individual waywardness of artists such as Lou Reed, who released sixty-five minutes of electronic noise under the title Metal Machine Music, or, some years later, Radiohead, whose album Kid A prompted accusations that an iconic band had lost itself in esoterica. Nonetheless, rock has not proved immune to the inevitable ageing process: neo-classical tendencies in the form of imitations of 1965- or 1975-era sound production became widespread by century’s end. By comparison, the wildly varied activities of end-of-century composers provided evidence of health, in defiance of the pessimistic predictions that were renewed with each passing year, even as the doom-laden pronouncements of the late sixties yellowed in the files. But that’s a story for a later chapter.

Ives’s Universe

(This brief section was intended for an epilogue entitled “Five Last Songs,” in which I planned to discuss, in reverse chronological order, the final works of five major 20th-century composers: Messiaen, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Ives, and Richard Strauss. The book would have ended with Strauss’s words on his deathbed: “I hear so much music.” I opted for a shorter, less portentous epilogue instead.)

In 1898, the philosopher William James spent a weekend in Keene Valley, in the Adirondack mountain range of upstate New York. He spent many summers in the region and wrote of the landscape: “I doubt if there be anything like it in Europe. Your mountains may be grander, but you have nowhere this carpet of absolutely primitive forest, with its indescribably sweet exaltations, spreading in every direction unbroken.” Later, in 1898, James described his Adirondacks exaltation as nothing short of a spiritual experience, one that involved not a conversion to a particular mode of religious belief but instead an acceptance of the mere possibility of a state beyond the reach of the rational, political mind. “The sky swept itself clear of every trace of cloud or vapor, the wind entirely ceased, so that the fire-smoke rose straight up to heaven,” James recalled. “The moon rose and hung above the scene before midnight, leaving only a few of the larger stars visible, and I got into a state of spiritual alertness of the most vital description…” It was the sort of vision to which James gave special attention in his lectures on the Varieties of Religious Experience. There he spoke of “regeneration by relaxing, by letting go… [by] giving your little private convulsive self a rest, and finding that a greater Self is there.”

In an interesting coincidence, Keene Valley was the scene of a seminal event in the life of Charles Ives. There he had a vision of an enormous musical work that he would come to call his Universe Symphony, and that he never came within sight of finishing, perhaps because he knew from the outset that his vision was unrealizable. It was his old dream of a music rising up out of the earth: American, natural, universal. The symphony was to begin with a section titled “pulse of the Universe,” in which percussion instruments piled on layer upon layer of rhythmic pulses, all subdivisions of a slow pulse on a bell. This would be followed by a similar tower of harmony, representing “the body of the earth, from whence the rocks, trees and mountains rise.” In his most ambitious conception of the Universe Symphony, Ives envisioned from five to fourteen groups of instruments playing on separate hills or mountains. Each group would have its own home chord, assembled from a particular scale or system of tuning: “…perfectly tuned correct scales, some well tempered little scales, a scale of overtones with the divisions as near as determinable by acousticon, scales of smaller division than a semitone, scales of uneven division greater than a whole tone, scales with no octave, some of them [with] no octave for several octaves—but all with their root in a fixed tone, 32-foot, began [from] pedal A, 5th octave below.” One day, perhaps, some ambitious hamlet in New England will use unknown technologies to realize Ives’s full vision, in which voices of all races and traditions mingle over the drone of God.

CageTalk: Earle Brown Interview with Peter Dickinson


The following interview with Earle Brown took place in Rye, New York, on July 1, 1987, and is reprinted from CageTalk: Dialogues with & about John Cage edited by Peter Dickinson, pp. 136-145.
Copyright © by Peter Dickinson and published by the University of Rochester Press.
Used by permission of the author, publisher, and the Earle Brown Music Foundation.

  • READ an interview with author Peter Dickinson. 


    Earle Brown was born in Lunenberg, Massachusetts, in 1926 and died in Rye, New York, in 2002. He was one of the four principal members of the New York School of composers centered around Cage in the 1950s. He grew up playing the trumpet, largely jazz, and he studied in Boston—engineering and mathematics at Northeastern University, composition at the Schillinger School, and privately with the twelve-tone composer Roslyn Brogue-Henning. In the early 1950s, through the influence of artists such as Pollock and Calder, Brown pioneered graphic notation and open form, and, as his career developed, he was recognized as a leading avant-garde figure in both Europe and America. In the 1960s he worked for record companies, lectured at Darmstadt, taught at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and held visiting posts with American universities and organizations in Germany, Switzerland, and Holland.

    Brown first went to Darmstadt in 1958, but four years earlier David Tudor had played some of his earliest open-form pieces there.1 During 1958 Cage gave his three lectures at Darmstadt, the second of which included discussion of works by Brown, Feldman, and Wolff. In “Indeterminacy” Cage discusses Brown’s Indices (1954) and Four Systems (1954) for unspecified instruments. The latter has no score but is a diagram of rectangles that can also be read upside down or sideways. Cage must also have been intrigued to discover that performances could be superimposed and that there was no specified time-length.2

    In 1985, looking back at their association, Cage thought it was his love of theater that distinguished him from Brown, Feldman, and Wolff. He said Brown’s music “seemed to me, oh, more conventional, more European. He was still involved, you might say, in musical discourse (or soliloquy), whereas I seemed to be involved with theater.”3 It now seems hard to regard Brown’s work as in any way European, except in the serial techniques of his earliest pieces. Further, his derivation from the New York abstract expressionists and from jazz makes him a distinctly New World phenomenon.



    Peter Dickinson: When did you first become aware of John Cage?

    Earle Brown: My first wife, Carolyn,4 and I were in Denver, Colorado, and I had a studio for arranging and composition teaching—Schillinger5 techniques as well as jazz and pop. Carolyn was dancing with Jane McLean, and Merce Cunningham and John came through on a tour. I had heard about John before that but had no musical information at that point. Jane’s pianist had gone to New York, and he came back to Denver saying he’d met this weird composer and had been to a concert of really strange music. Merce gave master classes, which Carolyn took, and she impressed him mightily. We went to a concert of John playing his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano: that’s the first music I remember hearing. I was working with various notations, including the beginnings of my open-form developments. I thought the Sonatas and Interludes were gorgeous, but they had very little to do with what I was doing. There were a couple of parties at Jane’s studio where Carolyn and I met John and Merce. I remember the very first thing I said to him was, “Do you think your music has anything to do with Anton Webern’s music?” He looked at me and said, “What do you know about Webern?” Evidently, in 1951 it was very unusual for him to run into somebody in Denver who knew about Webern!6

    PD: You were ahead of John in providing notational opportunities at this stage?

    EB: Yes, that’s right. For one thing, I came out of jazz, so improvisation and flexible relationships among scoring, performers, and notation were very natural to me. I had done a graphic score in 1949–50 in Denver and had already been influenced by Calder’s mobiles, and that was the key to what became my open-form scores.

    PD: What happened to Cage around 1951—the upheaval when he wanted to get himself out of his music?

    EB: I don’t really know, and I’ve thought about it a lot. He once said to me that he came to a kind of crisis, not only in his music but also in his life.7 He had to accept either psychoanalysis or Zen Buddhism, and he didn’t believe in psychoanalysis [laughs] so he accepted Zen, and I think that was the whole turnaround point of his development of chance composition. I can’t say that definitively, but I don’t think he was joking. His earlier music up to the String Quartet shows choice, finesse, care, and detail until the acceptance of a philosophical point of view. When I first met him in Denver he was talking Zen and working on Music of Changes. Then he went deeply into bringing about music rather than composing it. That’s what you do when you don’t choose.

    PD: That’s the time when he was going to Suzuki’s lectures.

    EB: He started probably before I met him. Merce was struck with Carolyn’s dancing and John was really astonished at my music, so I think there was a kind of bipartisan desire to have Carolyn dance with Merce and me work with John. We came to New York in 1952, and I started immediately working on the electronic music project that we called Project for Music on Magnetic Tape, because we wanted to include all possible sounds.8

    PD: I don’t think you wanted to take yourself out of your music. Were you under any pressure to follow Cage’s views?

    EB: Oh no. He disagreed with me a lot. My music has a history through me being a trumpet player working with jazz combos, with a feeling of warmth toward the musicians. I believed it was possible to make scores that would allow flexibility and improvisation that would not be shoddy. John disagreed and thought you couldn’t trust the musician, who would play his favorite tunes. But he’d never been in an improvisation situation, and I knew there was a stage beyond quotation that was real creative music making at an instant level.9

    PD: If you get an Ornette Coleman, but for most people…

    EB: I was very idealistic and thought I could bring it about with classical musicians, and I have. I could play you things in my own music and not tell you whether they were written or not and you won’t be able to tell the difference. But I have guided rehearsals, and classical musicians react brilliantly. John didn’t believe that.

    PD: With the advent of chance in his works from around 1950, where is his personality?

    EB: I think Virgil [Thomson] said that no matter how John does it, it always sounds like John Cage. Lou Harrison was asked what he thought of Cage’s chance music. His reply was classic: “Personally, I’d rather chance a choice than choose a chance!” Very profound.

    John chose the elements like setting up a program, which is then activated by his chance procedures. The program describes the kind of outcome you will get. At that point the musical personality became more a sociological or philosophical one, but he still chooses the potential, the statistical outcome.

    PD: Another way the personality is assessed is through the public relations: he’s been news for a long time.

    EB: Yes. He’s a great publicist himself—I’m not saying that in a derogatory fashion. He makes news in a certain sense of being very audacious. If he were not in music but in sociology, it probably wouldn’t be quite so extraordinary. I think all the hullabaloo is because it’s so shocking in the art world that an artist does not choose to control the details, shape, and poetic aspects.

    PD: He’s gone so far as to say that art’s day is over.

    EB: He’s speaking for himself. Even though I respect and admire him and look back with fondness, we did argue and he would get angry with me because I’d tend to push him on a point of view I didn’t agree with. We never became unfriendly and still are good friends. We don’t see each other very often because we both travel so much. Since I first met him I’ve gone very much my own way. One of things that brought us together—Feldman, John, and myself—was a deep interest in the other arts. I’ve always been tremendously influenced by visual arts and literature. But we all have very distinct personalities. We differed at the beginning and continued to differ, but we still maintained this friendship.

    PD: What did it feel like to be part of what we now call the New York School in the 1950s?

    EB: There were the three of us—Christian Wolff was not around much. He was at Harvard studying classics. Morty, John, and I were together nearly every evening. John and I worked on opposite sides of a long table from ten in the morning until about five in the afternoon. John and I would talk. I’d push him a bit about my interest in my kind of thing, and I’d challenge him about chance. He used to say about the tape library we were working with that any sound in the world could go into the piece. I used to argue and say I’d think about sounds that couldn’t possibly go into these pieces! [laughs]

    In the fifties it felt like we were in this alone. John—fourteen years older than Morty and myself—already had some kind of reputation, but at that point his reputation in the standard academic world of composition in New York was very low. He was not getting invited to a lot of places like he is now. A lot of people just thought he was off his rocker!

    There was the feeling that we were doing things nobody else was doing—all three of us were on different tracks, which were compatible. Morty was never interested in chance composition or Zen; I was interested in Zen philosophy—Carolyn majored in philosophy at college—but Zen never influenced me. Most of the things I did were done for aesthetic experimental reasons to see if classical musicians could be brought into a more spontaneous world of music making. I had already written severe twelve-tone serial music, which Boulez saw and admired when he came to the United States in 1952. But I always wanted to bring about a balance between calculation and spontaneity, which is still the story of my life as a composer.

    We also felt very close to painters we admired. I was powerfully influenced by the immediacy and spontaneity of Jackson Pollock and Bill de Kooning.10 I wanted to bring the spontaneous gesture into music, and I finally did with the open forms. We were looking for a new way of musical expression.

    PD: So were you New York abstract expressionists?

    EB: Somebody called Philip Guston11 an “abstract impressionist,” and that’s certainly what Feldman is—sort of. Morty’s very quiet, very gentle, slowmoving, gorgeous things were completely different from what I was doing at that time, with broad gestures and intricate weblike musical results. John was influenced by Duchamp, who did chance music in 1913;12 Morty was influenced by Philip Guston; I was more influenced by Calder, Pollock, and de Kooning—the singular moment of the instant making of a sound-piece. We felt we were the sonic extension of potentials we inherited from James Joyce or Gertrude Stein, and I was much connected to Ives and Varèse. We were doing something that had to be done—to hell with it if nobody really pays attention at the moment!

    PD: There were other painters such as Rothko?13

    EB: We all had connections with Rothko, Feldman especially. In a certain sense it strikes me that Feldman’s music is the music of an imagist. His music from the early fifties until now has—kind of—the same image as Rothko’s paintings, working with different colors and orchestrations of a singular and single image. Whereas I want to try a lot of different things and go off in a lot of different directions. And John has stuck to composing music by chance all that time.

    PD: Are there any particular writers who were important?

    EB: To me the writings of Gertrude Stein—not so much her essays like Composition as Explanation or What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them? But her piece called Tender Buttons was one of the first things I ever set.14 We were all caught up in James Joyce, who was like a twentieth-century revision of the whole concept of continuity. I could make open form and John could compose by chance: one thing we shared was that anything can follow anything. In other words, you can start Finnegans Wake at any point and read around back to that point. What you get is a kind of circular whirl. We were the first musicians, maybe, to think of our sound worlds as an environment.

    PD: You mean it’s got to be circular to allow for something like the timescale of Stein’s The Making of Americans?15

    EB: That’s exactly it. Gertrude Stein once said, “Life is not built around a beginning, a middle and an end.” You’d never know when the middle is and when the end is. That influenced me in the whole concept of time. In my early notebooks I have written that the next thing to happen interestingly in music is a revision of the nature of continuity, rhetoric, and time.

    PD: None of the three of you went as far as La Monte Young in his Composition 1960 series—extreme gestures on a long timescale.

    EB: I think there are aspects of that in John and Morty and in my music too. The early 1952 and 1953 Folio graphic works of mine really are timeless. The instructions say they can be played by any number of instruments, any kind of instruments and/or sound-producing media, for any length of time. This fractures the idea that we have to have a beginning, middle, and end. We were quite consciously convinced that the Tchaikovskian, Wagnerian, and Schoenbergian way of speaking was not necessary. We didn’t need a telegraph or a message.

    PD: How does this affect normal concert giving? Some of John’s pieces have had a rough ride—the New York Philharmonic playing Atlas Eclipticalis in 1964, for instance?

    EB: I was there, and my Available Forms II was in that concert too.

    PD: What was the audience hostility like?

    EB: I was critical of John and used to argue with him. Up until 1958 I think John didn’t do anything that allowed the performer any latitude. He says he started doing indeterminate music with the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. Coming from a background of jazz and orchestral playing, I had a feeling that John was not giving enough information to the musicians to allow them to have the confidence to do what he imagined they might do. I told him they could take advantage of him tremendously—and they did. I’ve seen John so upset about orchestras in Europe and in this country. From my point of view, the conditions he presents to the musicians are ambiguous and in a certain way some of the things he does are insulting. I’ve seen the musicians revolt, as they did in that performance with the New York Philharmonic.

    I’ll tell you why. One of the things John did in Atlas Eclipticalis was give the musicians clusters of notes—maybe seventeen or twenty—and say “choose any five and play them.” The big mistake was his thinking, because he’d had so much experience with David Tudor, who was really a Buddha, that he was going to get eighty-five Buddhas in an orchestra. He was not dealing with what I knew to be the psychology of a group of musicians—and he didn’t recognize the acoustic difference between a viola and a trombone. What happened was that Jim Tenney16 was in front of the string section doing chance operations by manipulating potentiometers. Each player was miked with, say, five contact mikes going into one box. The rehearsal started out with the musicians being very careful and concerned. Then, after a little while they discovered that their microphone might be on or off according to a chance procedure. So the player could be playing his five notes with diligent application, then find his microphone was turned off! Over a period of time at that rehearsal, the players wondered why they were trying so hard if nobody could hear them, and they really got angry. It was naive to assume that the orchestra would go along with a philosophical idea that either you are heard or not and it doesn’t make any difference! He set up a contradiction. If you’re a Buddha you don’t care whether your selections are heard or not, but if you’re a musician…

    PD: He’s gone on doing it in other pieces such as Cheap Imitation, where he deliberately specifies a rehearsal schedule that would be impossible within the budget of a professional orchestra. Why does John attack the administrative structure like this? Or is he trying to convert people?

    EB: I don’t know if he’s that conscious of trying to convert them. He really wants to change the world, but, as he said in the subtitle to his Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).17 That’s what we used to argue about. Psychologically speaking, are you making rules and regulations that are compatible with the nature of a performer? You can’t be angry with them if you do not deal responsibly with their professionalism. There’s a big difference between John and Morty and me in that they both play the piano, which is not an orchestral instrument. I’ve sat in all kinds of orchestras playing the trumpet, and when I write my scores I do it from my knowledge and background as a performing musician, not as an idealist or a philosophical revolutionary.

    PD: John does want to change the world, but he’s obsessed with political issues and at the same time says he likes chaos. How does all this fit together?

    EB: Years ago I thought John would get away from writing music. Dealing with an orchestra is such a social institution. I like to work within their terms rather than put them in a situation that gets their backs up. He promised Schoenberg he’d be a composer so he applies these things to music, whereas chance procedures could be involved with a lot of things that didn’t involve eighty-five people.

    PD: His use of chance has also been applied to virtuoso pieces like the Etudes Australes.

    EB: And the Freeman Etudes for Paul Zukovsky18—one of the toughest pieces I ever had to sit through! But chance procedures can point to extreme virtuosity or ultimate simplicity—a piece that could be played in grade school.

    PD: Could one say that if sections of a composition are done by chance this can be absorbed, but if the whole thing is chance, then something is lost that is essential to communication?

    EB: No. I agree with John that communication is not only in the hands of the artist but also in the ear of the beholder. The mental inertia of most music-goers’ mentalities stands in the way of really understanding and appreciating my music—and John’s, Christian’s, and Feldman’s.

    I think it’s very difficult to integrate in a deterministic composition an area where the results are obtained by chance. Chaos is easy, but we have to realize that open-form and improvised music is not chance music. Otherwise all jazz would be chance music, and it’s not true. You are making a very fast decision in improvisation. When you hear a jazz solo, the next note you hear is not by chance, it’s through a whole web of procedures—history, imagination, extension, development, and taste. In my open-form pieces, when I lay out forty-eight possible sonic elements, which I have written, and the conductor can play element 33 followed by element 1, he is making a decision. I am very adamant that those things are not chance music. Chance has to have an exterior technique to eliminate the composer’s and the performer’s choice.

    PD: Would you, like Virgil Thomson, see this as very rigid?

    EB: John sets up these processes and is very disciplined and pure. But I think he made a miscalculation in 1957.19 Before that, the pieces were fixed by flipping coins, which operated on a chart of possibilities. Once the chance operation with the coins indicated that this sound will go here, that sound went there and the performer played it there.

    PD: What about the extreme of indeterminate spectaculars like Musicircus,20 where all those independent concerts are simply assembled under one roof? Is that liberating?

    EB: I don’t see that as very important. I think John’s most distinctive music is when he was really doing music by chance, before he allowed the performer’s subjectivity or aggression to come into the piece. Once he did that, the music becomes a little anonymous. I’ve heard such radically different performances of Concert for Piano and Orchestra that they are totally unrecognizable from place to place. People think, “He’s not serious about that, he just gave us this stuff and we can do anything we want with it.” Whereas actually John is very pristine with his concept of how this piece should be realized.

    PD: Is it at all like Stockhausen in Aus den Sieben Tagen, where he expects his players to fast for four days but doesn’t provide a single note?21

    EB: Well, I think that’s very pretentious. [laughs] Before John or Karlheinz or anybody else, I had these graphic scores and there are certain ways to bring them about. There are certain things I can control and some I can’t. I don’t make the mistake of criticizing the musician because he is doing something I didn’t prohibit him from doing. I think meditating or fasting, like a lot of John’s things, has more to do with psychology or sociology. One of the last serious discussions John and I had was at the time of my Available Forms 1 (1961), the first orchestral open-form piece. I said to John, “What you’re saying is that you’re not really interested in music but are writing experimental psychological and sociological works, experimenting with people’s minds.” And he said, “Yes, but you keep telling people what to do. You’re still interested in art, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes.” Everything I’ve done is about modifications of the way music is composed, performed, and conducted from an aesthetic point of view. John is more involved with the potentials of performers’ minds: whether he can get them to do what he wants them to do. His means are very inefficient—in some cases.


    1For details about Darmstadt in the 1950s see “Earle Brown,” in Richard Dufallo, Trackings: Composers Speak with Richard Dufallo (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 103–5.

    2John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 37–38, 52.

    3In Richard Kostelanetz, ed., Conversing with Cage (New York: Limelight Editions, 1988), 105.

    4Carolyn (1927–) and Earle Brown met Cunningham and Cage in Denver in 1951. She then studied with Cunningham in New York and first danced with his company in 1953. She took part in the premiere of Cage’s Theatre Piece at the Circle in the Square, New York, on March 7, 1960. Some sources cite this performance wrongly as May and not March, including Richard Dunn, ed., John Cage (New York: Henmar, 1962), 42. March is correct—I was there and reviewed that concert in the Musical Courier (May 1960, 36). Brown recalls his first meeting with Cunningham and Cage in Denver in James Klosty, Merce Cunningham: Edited and with Photographs and an Introduction (New York: Limelight Editions, 1986), 75–77.

    5Joseph Schillinger (1895–1943), Russian-born theorist and composer who moved to the United States in 1928. Brown studied at the Schillinger School of Music, Boston, from 1940 to 1946. See “Earle Brown,” in Dufallo, Trackings, 103–24.

    6Anton von Webern (1883–1945), Austrian composer, pupil of Schoenberg, whose works, with their fragmented aphoristic brevity, inspired both the post-Webern modernists and the avant-garde. In 1980 Cage told Joan Peyser that he would go to a Webern concert in the late 1940s “with my hair on end and sit on the edge of my seat. It was so completely different from anything I’d ever heard . . . he shook the foundation of sound as discourse in favor of sound as sound itself.” In Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 46.

    7See interview with Cage [Ed. Note: in CageTalk], chapter 1, 35.

    8Cage describes their laborious method of working in “Edgard Varèse,” Silence, 85.

    9Brown was consistent: “There’s no real freedom in John’s approach. I think that a really indeterminate situation is one where the self can enter in too. I feel you should be able to toss coins, and then decide to use a beautiful F sharp if you want to—be willing to chuck the system in other words. John won’t do that.” In Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art (New York: Viking, 1965), 74.

    10Jackson Pollock (1912–56), leading figure in American abstract expressionism; Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), Dutch-born abstract expressionist painter who moved to the United States in 1926.

    11Philip Guston (1913–80), American painter, initially and finally figurative, with an abstract phase in the center of his career.

    12Marcel Duchamp and his two sisters drew the notes of the scale at random from a hat and called the resulting composition Musical Erratum. Cage remembered this incident in 1989 as “a fairly simple but interesting way of working.” See John Cage, I–VI (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 50–51. However, Duchamp stressed, “Your chance is not the same as my chance, just as your throw of the dice will rarely be the same as mine.” In Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, 33–34.

    13Mark Rothko (1903–70), Russian-born American abstract expressionist painter.

    14Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914); Brown’s Tender Buttons for speaker, flute, horn, and harp (1953). Stein’s Composition as Explanation (1926) starts: “There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking.” What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them was delivered at Oxford and Cambridge in 1936 and published in 1940.

    15Written 1906–8 but not published until 1925.

    16James Tenney (1934-2006), composer, pianist, and theorist.

    17For a list of components see the interview with Lederman [Ed. Note: in CageTalk], chapter 6, 107n17.

    18Paul Zukovsky (1943–), American violinist and conductor. See interview with him, [Ed. Note: in CageTalk] chapter 15, 175.

    19With the indeterminacy of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra.

    20See “About Musicircus,” chapter 19, 211.

    21Stockhausen, Aus den Sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days), Vienna: Universal Edition UE 14790, 1968. The score consists of fourteen separate pieces, with indications about the attitude the performer should adopt toward playing but no musical notation.</p

A Conversation with Peter Dickinson

  • READ an excerpt from CageTalk edited by Peter Dickinson.

    Composer/pianist/author Peter Dickinson

    Frank J. Oteri: Since his death, there have been so many articles and books published about John Cage, to the point where it seems that no stones have been left unturned, yet your collection of interviews manages to offer several fresh perspectives. Perhaps being on the other side of the Atlantic has afforded some necessary critical distance from both Cage and his detractors here in the United States?

    Peter Dickinson: CageTalk is a British perspective on Cage, and I have drawn on sources collected over many years in the U.K. that may not be readily accessible elsewhere. Something similar could be done for Cage’s reception in France, Germany, or Italy, but his British exposure is longer, usually more critical and probably more detailed.

    FJO: What initially triggered your fascination with Cage?

    PD: Attending concerts at the Living Theater in Greenwich Village and meeting Cage himself around 1960 after I had been a graduate student at Juilliard. Of course, he was utterly captivating. I think my admiration for him emerges through CageTalk, even though I probed his intentions rather sharply in some of the interviews.

    FJO: Your relationship to the music of American composers was a formative influence on your own development as a composer. What made you decide to study in the United States?

    PD: My father had been to the U.S.A. before World War II for professional reasons—he was the contact lens pioneer Frank Dickinson. My family in Lancashire got to know Americans in the services based nearby during the war years. So when I planned post-graduate study, it seemed more enterprising to go to New York rather than follow others to Europe. I was one of the first British composers to do this.

    FJO: How did studying with American composers affect your own compositional identity?

    PD: At Juilliard I studied with the Dutch-American Bernard Wagenaar (I admired his compatriot Willem Pijper), came into contact with William Bergsma, and remember Charles Jones’s classes where I discovered Ives—the Concord Sonata and “General William Booth.” My sister, mezzo Meriel Dickinson and I later did many recitals including Ives and other American composers. These included Copland, Carter, Cage, and Thomson, and we made some first recordings. I was certainly affected by the lively atmosphere at Juilliard—my fellow students included Philip Glass and Peter Schickele—as well as what was going on in New York City. In the second of my three years in the US, I reviewed concerts for the Musical Courier—an unforgettable panoply of all the major orchestras at Carnegie Hall.

    FJO: Has Cage been an influence on your own music? If so, in what way?

    PD: Cage persuasively opened up everybody’s horizons so that one could approach or even embrace a kind of chaos in sound. The more dense passages of my larger works—such as the three concertos—reflect this, but I have never been able to relinquish control in the way that Cage did.

    FJO: What, in your estimation, are some of the key differences between American and European composers?

    PD: This is now a very complex question because there has been so much interaction for so long. By the mid-20th century—heard from this side of the Atlantic—the use of popular music by some American composers was a major defining feature. Copland said that was his intention in drawing on jazz idioms in the 1920s; Ives absorbed pre-jazz syncopations well before that; Carter has discussed a specifically American rhythmic sense in performance; Bernstein fulfilled Henry Cowell’s notion of “living in the whole world of music” more than Cowell himself. There was a celebration of diversity sometimes missing when European composers were involved in popular music where figures such as Weill and Maxwell Davies have given their references a sleazy or cynical connotation. More recently, popular elements in the music of John Adams come across in a positive way and have helped to create the wide audience response to what seems to be a specifically American personality. And the international public increasingly goes to Ives, Copland and Gershwin as well as jazz and musicals for their unique American qualities.

    FJO: I know that some people interviewed in the book, including Stockhausen have already pondered this question, but I wanted to turn it back over to you: Would a John Cage have been possible in Europe? Why or why not?

    PD: Very unlikely. And you can’t imagine a European Harry Partch either. Such figures arose from the wide open spaces: the open mind starting afresh, the absence of a dominating tradition. And Cage is a West Coast phenomenon affected by Eastern philosophy. There have been British eccentrics of an earlier generation who anticipated aspects of modernism before their compatriots: Cyril Scott, whose 1908 Piano Sonata No. 1 is almost Ivesian; Kaikhosru Sorabji, who forbade performance of his madly complex and dissonant works until the 1970s because he knew they would be played so badly; and Lord Berners, who was much admired by Stravinsky. Scott was also a writer of books on health and was interested in spiritualism. Sorabji’s ancestry was half Parsi. Berners made fun of almost everything. Unlike Cage, these composers have had little influence. There’s nothing as radical as the microtonalism of Partch and his homemade instruments or the incorporation of noise in Cage. Although there is a post-Cage generation represented in the U.K. by Cornelius Cardew and Gavin Bryars—and Cage affected young composers in other countries from his Darmstadt visits onwards.

    FJO: Cage was and in some ways continues to be a polarizing force in music, even among some so-called maverick composers—I’m reminded of Elliott Carter’s response when asked what he thought about John Cage: “I do not think about John Cage.” Why do you think his music and the ideas that generated it are so difficult for some people to acknowledge?

    PD: Most people find it difficult to turn themselves into Zen Buddhists and accept what Cage said he liked best—”the sound of what happens” regardless. As Kurt Schwertsik said in CageTalk, “You have to be in good shape to listen to Cage.” He meant, of course, the indeterminate pieces rather than the earlier and later fully notated works.

    FJO: But in a post-Cage musical universe, is there anything to rebel against? Can there still be new music?

    PD: Cage emerged when there was still a kind of consensus culture in Western classical music and a perceptible mainstream, which he was able to infiltrate lethally but disarmingly. That situation has now exploded into a kind of cultural fragmentation with masses of different publics all downloading their own favorite music. Often the way in which music or video is presented is the main thing—it was more than forty years ago when McLuhan said “the medium is the message.”

    FJO: In your introduction, you cite a rather nasty dismissal of Cage by a New York Times music critic who claimed that only four works by Cage would be remembered twenty years hence, all of them writings rather than musical compositions. Hindsight, of course, has proven this to be completely wrong; Cage has emerged as a canonic figure and record companies can’t seem to get enough of him. There are hundreds of Cage recordings including multiple versions of many of his works at this point. What would you say are Cage’s most important musical compositions?

    PD: This is an issue that emerges frequently in CageTalk. The extensive keyboard works—involving piano, prepared piano, toy piano—now fall within the 20th century repertoire. The percussion works were pioneering and are now an essential contribution. Even the string quartets get played. The notated number pieces of Cage’s last decade are a final testament unlike anything else. In between there are taxing virtuoso pieces based on chance operations such as the Freeman Etudes for solo violin, the Music for Piano series, and a large group of works that involve performers in making arrangements to create the piece. As Earle Brown’s interview in CageTalk shows, there are problems when this technique is applied to established groups such as orchestras, but players continue to find these tasks challenging and, as you say, there are more and more recordings—which speaks for itself.

    FJO: As the compositions of Cage veer ever closer to standard repertoire status, might it be possible for Cage to be viewed one day as a conservative composer that a subsequent generation will need to rebel against?

    PD: Not exactly, but the more extreme aspects of Cage could be seen as having done their job even if the universalist and multi-cultural aspects of his ideas remain relevant.</p

From Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto

The following excerpt is reprinted from the novel, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto (Fugue State Press, 2007) pp. 231-249; copyright © by Joshua Cohen. Used with permission of the author.

  • READ an interview with author Joshua Cohen.


    I was drinking BLACK LABEL but not too much to drive [. . .] and drove Downtown and alone, fueled-up with what liquor I had left in me to the Village Vanguard to hear some jazz music as I had promised a lover that I would as I had lately — since the minor accident of six-seven hours previous, the recital and my exclusion from my offspring’s success and jimmie-sprinkled-pistachio — resolved to keep all promises made to whatever extent that was possible,
    down to the Village Vanguard (impossible to find parking) to hear some American music you might know it as jazz, the absolute pinnacle of America’s musical achievement I once told Schneidermann who he was always too brilliant, cynical to agree — when Schneidermann he told me that even our out-of-proportion is out-of-proportion,
    that what Beethoven or his century would have known as snap rhythms, that dotted quarter notes becoming in our century swing, the triplet beyond the triplet that that has been America’s only contribution to world musical culture (and that it still isn’t much, according to Schneidermann),
    that this swing and these timbres, these bent or blue notes too, that these are the only musical advances that America it has ever given to the world is what I told him, and Schneidermann he agreed if just to shut-me-up so that he could listen — and it’s all thanks to the shvartzes! Schneidermann he said (and God! I told him a trillion times not to use that word!),
    that white Americans of European descent they have given nothing whatsoever, at all, to the universal language of music was what Schneidermann he often said and I agreed if just to shut-him-up from ranting about art and race in public,
    excepting me, Schneidermann he said, that is if I am an American Schneidermann he added as we entered, drunk, into the Vanguard, into the vestibule and down the red as my thrombosed external hemorrhoids
    stairwell of tongue,
    that night that we first heard an Orpheus, another Orpheus, a true shvartze Orpheus according to Schneidermann and as if that made or makes any difference,
    that night that Schneidermann he’d ducked the turnstile to subway Downtown to meet me (it was a Thursday, our old long-lesson-day)
    to hear a man that I had been hearing much about from a lover and had to admit that I was skeptical (the lover she had ears but not like she had thighs),
    here I was the musical mind that I was and I am perhaps not as transcendent as Mozart but certainly as parasitic as any Händel or Michael Jackson and taking listening-tips from a good pair of tits I told Schneidermann who he had agreed to meet me to mitigate the expected aural disaster as this lover she was off,
    out in the state of Lincoln for a Memorial Day Weekend, in Illinois visiting relatives (Chicago, she was related to an aunt who the glimmer of her existence was that she had slept and only once with Saul Bellow),
    Schneidermann and I we were there to hear and on her advice an under-appreciated saxophonist, and aren’t most of them?
    a tenor saxophonist who he was indeed great (though less than genius, especially with the mirrored sunglasses he wore and),
    this young man who he still had much time for growth, some potential only if, practice practice practice (while between sets Schneidermann he began telling me all about a dinner that he was once at in Paris, a fête he said hosted by the Conservatoire at which Schneidermann he was seated next to one Adolphe-Edward Sax, the son of the instrument’s inventor who he had recently sold his patent to SELMER and was — according to Schneidermann — occupied with the refinement of a never-finished or just never-perfected model of nose-flute, a sinuphone or at least Sax he told Schneidermann who he told me over whiskey-and-carbonated-cavities adding that at that time his French it wasn’t that great and so),
    a young man of much talent who he regularly went down into the subway tunnels to blow his brains out to the vaulted acoustics and was instead about six months after I, we, had heard him cover and two-drink-minimum at the Vanguard guarding what? he was flattened and at midnight by the F or was it the D train I had read in the paper? heard on the radio?
    the fate of this Pied Piper not of Hamelin, Lower Saxony, but of swinging Manhattan, N.Y. — but here the water’s too dirty for even the rats, and so they just scurry the underground tracks for mile after mile in corrupted circles much like the manic,
    Hosannahfied worship of us Jews around yet another member of the animal kingdom:
    this one a bird I remember well, one of the highlights of my musical life I often told Schneidermann who he took no offense,
    or seemed not to: this was the Bird, whom I played with the once or twice that I’ve ever deigned to play with others, to be accompanied, indeed to accompany , when I first — and unfortunately last — played with, more accurately I’ll even admit played for, this Bird Charlius parkerus
    who it was named Charlie Parker it was in the golden, gilded summer of 1950 and I was a new immigrant, was the greenest horn on the head of the year, here in New York, it was a session issued on 10”-LP as Charlie Parker with Strings
    also known as The Greatest African-American Musician Who Ever Lived Plays Some Incredible and Mind-Numbing Alto Saxophone to the Accompaniment of Old Fat Jewish Men in Stilted and Stifling Arrangements Arranged by Even Older and Fatter and Inconceivably More Jewish Men,
    specifically Mercury MG 35010, I played on some David Raskin-Johnny Mercer tune and don’t consult your liner notes because I wasn’t billed (I billed them),
    I asked in my best British accent not to be listed as on the session for professional reasons (on the recommendation of your father, Mister Rothstein, who he also got me the gig),
    instead I was a ringer there alongside my landsmen Sammy and Howie, Harry and Sammy who he was Sam to his friends, and don’t forget Zelly Smirnoff in the violin section playing second-fiddle — actually third — to the sounds that Parker he made, and what sounds!
    of a Bird pecking, squawking gorgeous his way out of this egg-on-your-face world, through the sky’s shell like when Parker he played this hall — dead Manny Albam or was it Manny Fiddler? or maybe just the drummer Shelley Manne he once told me — all of 1947 while I was still trying to get out of London (we all have our own shells, some larger and harder than others),
    and the tune three years later it was Laura — a standard to set all standards like the real-life Laura who she would sing (but Laura it wasn’t her real name, I just think of her whenever I hear the song and I don’t know why, probably has to do with Bird’s way with the blues, with Charlie’s genius and I say Charlie because he winked at me once between takes and she),      she loved to sing:
    would sing all day in a voice that was less a voice and more the whining of a menstruating showdog (her Galician aunt’s new assimilated pleasure, a poodle her daughter named Yenta),
    she was white, needless to say Jewish and, to tell the truth the only feature I can still recall of her face is her teeth, they were perfect, pearls yes and each perfectly proportioned,
    shaped as if they were after-dinner mints that God He’d mass-produced and expressly for the sweetening of her own tongue — her father he was one of the very few name orthodontists in the world, you’d be lucky to get an appointment next millennium if the world it still exists (I was always trying to get Schneidermann in for an appointment, to get him fitted for dentures, whenever I had secured one Schneidermann he always went and lost his shoes),
    and then there was her brother-in-law, a plastic surgeon,
    then equally renowned as the father-orthodontist, he did all the porn industry starlets,
    big-money circuit-strippers in from Melville, New York and but I’m getting ahead of myself because there’s Charlie Parker who’s dead just five years later, 1955 in the Uptown apartment of a Rothschild Baroness, patroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter no umlaut for her with whom Bird he was just relaxing, watching some primetime, varietyshow teevee as insipid as
    and this girl then that I was remembering, talking about — though not a Rothschild, not even a Warburg — she in some sense hated culture too, hated it like Göbbels did who he said (or was it Ronald Reagan?)
    that when he heard the word culture
    he reached for his gun, but it wasn’t a gun that killed her — she hated culture in the way that cultured people they always hate culture, the way that cultured people they deride that which they merely reference, always, must (as if they could do more, as if she was responsible for her culture, as if it wasn’t her parents, the immigrants):
    with her it was fiddling with a barrette while gnawing a lower lip as I serenaded her nude,
    her scratching too at the tattoo new to the inside of her thigh that only itched at her mind (it had been her aunt’s first husband’s Treblinka number, she’d told the Puerto-Dominican parlor owner it was still),
    yes, that’s how her end it begins, and if I had a whole string section at my disposal anymore I’d swell it for you now just as swollen as:
    but she wouldn’t listen to my music, to what she called my music, by which she meant so-called classical music,
    as if the canon it was mine to do with it what I will with no balances neither checks,
    as if I owned the last hundreds of years of the West, kept it under lock and key in my navel — as if it was my fault, as if all those hundreds of years and their geniuses (or aural mutants, or just syphilitics),
    that they were mine and only mine to apologize for and, well, instead she’d only listen to popmusic,
    to what she called popmusic, indeed to all popmusic and for hours on end and on almost every technology imaginable from almost every decade of the American Century her family — both sides, all — knew only 50 years of,
    she being at the time 25, playing and singing along to her popmusic for hours upon hours and at huge volumes,
    and she’d sing along in the shower too: in the blue and white tiled shower she sang if not the blues then the whites on that day,
    on that last day,
    singing along to popmusic in the shower, and soaping her new breasts — what rolling, luscious globes!
    cancer-hard worlds of tit! hulking implants just implanted by her brother-in-law, a plastic surgeon,
    the plastic surgeon if you’d asked around,
    and implanted for nothing, on courtesy, the family-plan:
    they were silicone back in the silicone-days, scars still ill-hidden before methods of enhancement they became perfectible,
    tucked under the booming, secreted beneath and in,
    scars in a strictly supporting role, holding up the swell and but who got their hands on the settlement money afterwards?
    her only next of kin that’s who, her sister older, less attractive, I never and of course her brother-in-law, the man who he’d installed the new breasts to begin with,
    singing along in the shower she was soaping and one of the implants it began to leak (the right one, playing opposite the heart),
    or maybe it had been leaking for awhile, who knew? was it over-vigorous soaping that brought it on?
    and the silicone it seeped into her blood, through her bloodstream, poisoning, and there — singing along to
    popmusic mid-soap, mild raspberry and Dead Sea salt soap — in the shower, this girl she had herself an aneurysm, silicone streamed to the brain, a clot and, well, she collapsed against the shower’s tile,
    skull cracked open against the soapdish,
    red-highlighted-hairline chipped and then the coma for eight weeks,
    life-support for 10,
    before the sister — and, again, the surgeon-in-law — they decided to pull the plug, and she died,
    and of course the sister she soon entered — initiated — a mass tort, class-action lawsuit whatever vs. the implant manufacturer,
    the maker of those sternum jellyfishes washed up on her palest shore (that weekend we did the Taj Mahal! the one they have down the Garden State Parkway),
    and of course she won, the lawyer he was an uncle, money into the plastic-in-law’s pocket and but I was there visiting her in the hospital Uptown, after she was dead but before the funeralhome and the grave, having just returned from a South American tour to a message left on my service I went to the hospital immediately, like taxi! taxi! like in the matinee movies but real, violincase still with me, and but no one had told me (this was 10 weeks later, after the shower),
    she hadn’t told anyone about me, evidently was embarrassed, of me over three times her age just stalking the ICU’s halls like a girlscout,
    a Pole candy-striping,
    an earnest-idiot mailman-letch,
    just searching room after room after room, pedophile! all for this great-titted girl almost one-quarter my age who she would remain that age and forever, was dead.
    I sat shiva alone and with my Schneidermann, at a café of habit and drinking brewed polymers for the practice, showed up at the funeral because I had nothing else to do that morning, then decided to go to buy a new suit because the one I was wearing, had worn to the funeral it was defiled, now it was tainted, ritually unclean and so I and with an hour to waste or waste me until Schneidermann,
    our matinee-movie-appointment (non-appointment),
    went to MACYS, MACY’S tried one on and and bought it,
    AMEX card cleared (the third one I tried),
    the one, actually the suitlike, shroudlike tuxtype one that I’m wearing right now, tonight,
    then went to my tailor, an old Jewish Schneider who due to his German ancestry was in point of fact really a Schneider as opposed to Schneidermann who due to his Hungarian life would more accurately be called a szabó,
    went to my own old Jewish tailor for 10 years (and everyone should have one),
    a great tailor his hands they’re still relatively intact (nine fingers),
    and steady but eight years he has already with Alzheimer’s, a Schneider born actually in Herr Doktor Professor Alois Alzheimer’s city, in Pforzheim at least the tailor he once told me that he remembered it, near Tiefenbrunn he once said to me who he knew, should have known but who the last few-five years he forgot — a Schneidermann himself and so maybe that’s why I felt significantly comfortable then in confiding to him my feelings, my thoughts all about this girl, her enhancements and so on and so forth as he stared at me kind if absent, then a refocus this Schneidermann he just stared at me deep as a wrinkle and I and finally just asked him like what?
    and Sol the Tailor he said that he knew me, that I was famous,
    I said great, because I don’t know myself, like who am I?
    and Sol the Tailor he said, well, aren’t you that actor? in that movie with that girl? haven’t seen you in anything for a while, my daughter she doesn’t take me that much anymore, since that one that you did when you played that private detective,
    or secretmost agent or,
    what have you been doing all these years? and I laughed, how couldn’t I thank him with money in advance as my answer, asked could I have cuffs on these? and then went to tell Schneidermann the real Schneidermann all about it but only after Schneidermann and I we had watched our matinee movie, which that funeral-day (Schneidermann’s Trauermarsch for 35 flutes and piccolo solo!) it was to be a selection from the horror genre, was a matinee Horror movie all about that popular phenomenon that they’re known as zombies, a matinee Horror movie in which people, the actors, they and incredibly enough rose from the dead, indeed rose from the dead and only to take revenge on all those who might have wronged them,
    were unbelievably stupid or ill-cast enough to have slighted them in life, which Schneidermann he said (afterwards over coffee and crêpes at this Uptown coffee-and-crêperie with an address as high as its price, Schneidermann he always loved that word couvert),
    which revenge-fantasy Schneidermann he said would entail for him first getting his bones up out of the ground,
    the humus Schneidermann he said wherever American and then buying a, oneway, ticket on an airplane — windowseat, if possible (Schneidermann he’d never flown before, ever) — direct to that landmass formerly-known as Europe, then upon arrival taking his unspecified revenge on for example the Director of Budapest’s Music Academy, his then-wife dead in Birkenau, a violinist in some Viennese schraml ensemble who had told him that his music it was the most worthless he had ever heard in all of his 65 musical years, Hitler *1889 †1945, said all this all the while squirming, shifting awkwardly like a worm with legs in his seat (on his stool),
    and so I asked him what was wrong, naturally! natürlich, Schneidermann he said that he had gone to the toilet this morning, that morning of the funeral and having no toiletpaper (only foil from candy and chip wrappers, Schneidermann he had had horrid experiences with them previous),
    and having no toiletpaper neither money to purchase more and how could he have?
    gone to the drugstore while he was still in the bathroom he shared with his entire floor (Schneidermann he like all Europeans said not bathroom but toilet)?
    Schneidermann he instead walked pants tied around his ankles with his shoelaces to his room, took one of his innumerable musical manuscripts, walked back to the shared-with-the-entire-floor bathroom and wiped himself with a musical manuscript, ink smeared with fecal scrape and seep and that since then his anus it was ripped and ripped hard, tract torn, seeping blood and burn and I instead asked — my true apprehension — what musical manuscript it was (later when he couldn’t find it, flushed clogged flushed, Schneidermann he said it was the first draft finale of this),
    and but Schneidermann he instead asked (a refusal for a refusal like his last real tooth for my own stained-authentic dentures),
    You really need another suit?
    Do you want money for toiletries? I asked him and Schneidermann he ignored, instead asked me all about Sol my suit-tailor,
    asked me about my other Schneidermann and all about his Alzheimer’s disease from Alzheimer’s hometown Sol he no longer remembers but always anyway describes, asked specifically what actor did he mean?
    when Sol the Suit-Tailor (Schneidermann he solfeggioed my Solschneider), when he said that you were that actor he meant which actor? which movie? and then screwed himself like a nail with legs up in his seat (on his stool),
    and I told him that I didn’t know, didn’t ask, never found out and asked him what do you think? well, who? and Schneidermann he said John Wayne with a yarmulke,
    I said thanks but no thanks and Schneidermann as he poured always more and never enough béchamel sauce on his crepes he said that that’s what technology does,
    that that’s primarily what technological progress it does as Schneidermann he insisted (Schneidermann he thought that after only one and truncated at that explanation of the http://www.Internet and so on that he knew it all):
    that it links you up in the minds of others, in the world, with those who look somewhat like you, those who might sound somewhat like you do,
    or what technology did, for awhile, Schneidermann he added,
    as half-educated people who they read the newspapers, who they watch the public teevee when it’s not on mute, how they talk!
    all about artistic DNA, how they talk about the genes of a style, about art evolving genetically and all,
    and then according to Schneidermann just airing his gums in earnest playing the role of parody, God!
    how they wait it out until sabbatical, take their minds over to Europe for a semester, to research their own excess — that that’s how they talk Schneidermann he said, ridiculous! over dinner, with the university paying, or on the company expense account but it’s all wrong! Schneidermann he once told me on another occasion (Schneidermann and I we were at the Museum of Modern Art):
    IT being the idea of an artistic code, an aesthetic genome, a helix shaped like a syphilis spirochete double-doubling in on itself,
    spinning out Klee or maybe you like Franz Kline-lines through space, way past the reach of the Museum’s seismographs, shattering through the fourth walls of lucite, God all this security! Schneidermann he said at the Museum, all this admission-fee and surveillance mishegas that Schneidermann he noticed at the Museum, and to see all these paintings by all these painters who they barely lived long enough to not starve to death (Schneidermann at 90 he still awaited his discovery, expected his true love the goddess Fama at every moment, kept the kettle on),
    forgot to tell you that Schneidermann, that you would think to ask how besides the infrequently offered because even less-frequently accepted loans from me, to ask how Schneidermann how he managed to survive at all in New York and its economy and I should tell you that, to reveal his secret that Schneidermann he loved but that it always shamed him to think about, to talk about it (but to who except me?),
    which Schneidermann he anyway didn’t but I should, tell you that Schneidermann he often moonlit off-the-books (Schneidermann he never read while he played), untaxed and for only $100 a night at a dive, well, at a luxury hotel, well — at the Grand but for him every place it was below his stature 30 short,
    and there Schneidermann he was engaged to perform and in America only there, it was his gig, steady, this playing piano, playing in his own words: whorehouse-don’t-shoot-the-piano-player-piano-playing,
    as Schneidermann he often reminded me much like Brahms himself did in the early, hard years before the Hungarian firebrand as Schneidermann he described him Remenyi saved him and how Brahms he thanked him by forsaking him after Remenyi he introduced him to Joseph Joachim who played the hell as the proverb goes out of Brahms’ Concerto,
    and, yes, this was nothing new to Schneidermann who he often played to, serenaded whores over there, filling-in for one Rezso Seress in Pest up near the Nyugati tér train station in his spare time, in his spare insomnia with the express to Romania pumping and thrusting at all hours of night and surely he slept with them for free, the whores, a house perk as Schneidermann he said, often for miscellaneous favors including but not limited to the purchasing of junk jewelry and molar-rotting sweets, and how in doing so, yes, by his own admission Schneidermann he was unfaithful to art by being faithful to his roof and to his stomach — in later years and established (meaning having been prolific for years but with little to no success after the opera-fiasco, and none whatsoever in America),
    there I was going to hear him three nights a week (Friday, Saturday and Sunday 9 p.m. to whenever his alcoholic tab it exceeded his musical take)
    playing the most filthy, gorgeous, uproarious, genius but still so-called cocktail piano imaginable at the bar or as the Management insists the Lounge of the Grand, whose owner is needless to say a huge fan of so-called classical or serious music and is probably, are you still? out there, here, tonight?
    Schneidermann he was there in the Lounge three nights a week 9 to Whiskey playing all the American-Jewish songbook, the American-Jewish liturgy, all the standards from the 20s, 30s and 40s, the classics you love to remember if not remember to love, all the showtunes, moviethemes, World War II lovesongs, X-mas songs in-season like now only if Schneidermann he was still around or alive by all the Jews and all the songwriters who they should have been Jews:
    all the Gershwins, Richard Rodgers, Hammerstein, Berlin who he was really and earlier Israel Baline and Cahn, like Cohen owes me however many dollars and so on, and playing them all not heartfelt, sentimental or anything like that but with pure irony, total sarcasm, with absolute holy enmity was how Schneidermann he played them and played down to them in the lobby-bar of the Uptown Grand,
    the Lounge, and Tony or just Ton or Tone with an e as it’s pronounced, that yes, he was the one who told me about this, the lobby-bartender there at the Grand’s lobby-bar (but not here tonight, not that he hates music but that after 20-plus years of working at the Grand he’s developed a hatred for the rich and so when off the job he tries to avoid them, lives like a King on his own in Queens),
    Tony or Ton or Tone who he still anyway likes me or pretends to, talks to me and listens to me or pretends to, who he anyway keeps me supplied with my
    VICODIN, my XANAX, my PERCOCET, ADDERALL too when my expoolboy he runs dry, keeps the medicinechest in my forehead stocked with my quite necessary painkilling, attention-getting medication far exceeding any of my prescriptions from upwards of 10 doctors now, sorry and but — once Tone he once told me that a nosegay of tipsy divorcées he thought that they were from Asbestosville, Iowa maybe who they were there, were staying in New York at the Grand on a splurge and how they just waltzed-in from the Lobby to the lobby-bar and in the wrong time-signature,
    drunk and staying upstairs on their entire monthly salaries, here in New York on a Broadway junket, and how they all asked Schneidermann who he was playing in the lobby-bar, all beechwood with a slight 3 a.m. stain,
    a bar like a vivisected violin — how they all and in unison asked Schneidermann to pleasepleaseplease play for their pleasure a song that you might know it’s entitled
    Somewhere Over the Rainbow and then at least according to Tone who I have no reason to doubt him he said that they laid three $20s on him, on Schneidermann — understand that three of Andrew Jackson equals one of Judy Garland in at least some economy — and Schneidermann said Tone, like Jesus, what did he do? he just returned their money, fished the three $20s out of his fluted frosted glass tipjar, Grecian urn then asked Tone like he was doing sports play-by-play he asked, what did he do?
    he, like Schneidermann he proceeded to play,      to play his 3rd Piano Sonata for them, no subtitle, one of nine piano sonatas that Schneidermann he ever acknowledged, would acknowledge I think but I’m not quite sure (have to sort out Schneidermann’s apartment, his whiskey bottles and their canon),
    played it and played it for them, and straight through — according to Tone they were enraptured, their first orgasms in decades he said when Tone he called me up in Maine from the lobby-bar’s telephone and held it up, aloft, a disembodied ear for me to listen through and, God! at 11 p.m. sitting on a heap of decaying gilded wicker my, an exwife she’d found at an antique market up in Maine and there! and still! there it was again like I hadn’t heard him Schneidermann in years: that great breaking,
    dish sound,
    his gut-wide tremolos,
    the silent gaping hells of his subtle, nuanced hesitations, and the volume! the sheer Old Testament power! a sonata that Schneidermann he later rededicated to president Harry Truman who’s on no bills because why not? after all, he was almost nobility, with him killing all of those would-be violinists, decimating what must have been hundreds of thousands if not millions of would-be Asian violinists that qualifies him at least for landed-gentry if not for sainthood I once told Schneidermann,
    but then again saints they don’t get dedications, do they? Schneidermann he added, not that they don’t merit them, but — especially not on what academics as various as they might be obscure would label,
    would feed the pigeonhole,
    would wrap for the refuse pile known as history as an atonal piano sonata of some serious complexity, some considerable technical difficulty (not that that makes it good, but):
    a more than worthy heir to the miniaturized efforts of Webern, not to mention Barraqué’s and Boulez’s best as Schneidermann he once told me without a hint of modesty one evening as I was treating as always at a fancy Frenchtalian restaurant that (I always treated, Schneidermann he always insisted that he was the treat),
    a piece in my opinion leaving even the sonatas of van Beethoven,
    even the whole entire output of that genius named Beethoven to the wiles of the Boston Pops and whichever homosexual’s conducting them this season, having signed his, her, contract with a fresh load of healthy sperm,
    dotting the line with certified undiseased sperm now that the treatments they’re so affordable, right?
    signing with the X of unfettered happiness and optimism — because as Schneidermann he said as the quite obviously homosexual waiter he brought us our entrees at that fancy Frenchtalian restaurant,
    because not even homosexuals are worth knowing as Schneidermann he said,
    because not even organ transplant donors are worth knowing, according to Schneidermann, because no one is interesting! because no one is different!
    or rather how Schneidermann he said that everyone is equal in their differences
    and how the waiter he just then fell into a Dead Sea of tears on his way back to the kitchen, but Schneidermann said, but he might be an actor, they all are — because you have to understand that Schneidermann, and I want you to understand that I’m making no excuses, that he and despite surviving all and surviving survival was a militant racist, you understand:
    hating everyone as they so deeply wanted, no, needed to be hated, and so everyone they were happy, Schneidermann and everyone else,
    that that was Schneidermann’s function in-the-world (Welt), his practical-utility (I forget the word auf Deutsch) — that according to Schneidermann all America it shouldn’t be a pleasant honey coloration like this $18 caramelized escargot appetizer that we’d had,
    no meltingpot with too many onions according to Schneidermann,
    added that the chef in this particular metaphor (like what’s multiculturalism, global-integration doing to our stomachs? sushi one night and deli the next? how are we becoming less like ourselves? or what, who, we should be? knew? Schneidermann he wanted to know, like why aren’t my bowel-movements the same in consistency and color as the bowel-movements of my forefathers?),
    that the chef at this particular Frenchtalian-restaurant-of-the-mind, well, it was one Francis Galton who was of interest, the founder of the science, non-science, of Eugenics, no, not a guy named Eugene who he set forth the future’s trash-heap, sewer war of natural children against the gene-enriched, genriched children about which Schneidermann he wanted to do an opera but never did,      like an update of West Side Story, María — normals vs. the genrich was his idea, Schneidermann’s, pipeline fantasies of genriched children leaving the naturals, the normals in the dust to be unfounded according to Schneidermann, who he was writing the libretto himself, Ticonderoga pencil on his four plastered walls:
    these children confounding everyone in their failure to succeed in the way that they were made, disappointing everyone, especially their grandfather:
    a scientist, non-scientist, named Francis Galton, founder of the science, non-science, of Eugenics, 1822-1911 he was the first modern proponent of sterilization, of eliminating the unfit and having the elite propagate with each other, an endogamy of the rich and famous, an endogamy of the gorgeous and genius,
    class incest his recipe,
    Galton the direct precursor of the Nazi’s 1933 Eugenic Sterilization Law which was unpopularly though necessarily repealed by genocide just in time for this old idea to seem American enough to be implemented, possibly even and subtly legislated:
    to have the elites breed with the lower classes,
    the minions not in the Jewish sense at all,
    to make them all unto the middle — which proposal according to Schneidermann it seemed to be a fixture of all too many utopias, dystopias if they exist, democracies and so on,
    like what’s the alternative? would anyone want to rouse the dozing ghost of Charles Fourier? of his Perfect Harmony? of the Third Reich? of Stalinism? I didn’t ask — and but speaking of entities no longer extant or just always of-the-mind, it was rather Verbinsky or Verbinski with an i that one of our quote unquote better music critics he was harping on to me about at a party given recently by some old fat widow of a real-estate magnate who her head it just seems like a mole on her neck,
    open for development (her husband dead he did strip malls as long as her waist it was wide),
    some old as fat widow with none of her own money who she calls me her friend, who she calls herself my friend because for years she just wanted me to, well, let’s say perform her and hello out there!
    we (me and this critic, remaining nameless but he’s probably here too, reviewing me, this, just following orders, doing his job like he was that night when),
    when whether as a joke or because he was drunk (homemade unicum a Hungarian cellist-conductor-friend had flown in, undrinkable despite its ideational VSOP),
    we were both drunk and I, I was harping on and on all about Schneidermann as I usually do to people, non-people, like that,
    to make unto them an example and instead this critic he said:
    ridiculous! your Schneidermann is at best a minor composer, my friend (I wasn’t his friend),
    the critic he said: never leave it to the performers, the interpreters to hand-out greatness, that Schneidermann he’s at most a footnote and a footnote only whether sharp or else flat (I then protested with zeal),
    and I don’t care what you say! this critic he said, I’m the safeguarder — his own drunk nomenklatur — of posterity! and I’ll tell you, me, that there are many more worthy and terribly overlooked composers out there, many more terribly underheard composers who are or they were equally if not more sad, tragic and genius!
    why, take Verbinski! (he spit out 1850-1907 as if dates are enough justification),
    take Verbinski for instance who he was born in 1850 into poverty and who died in 1907 in even greater poverty (which I would have to assume would make him the greatest genius),
    a genius if I’ve ever heard one and do you think that anyone plays him anymore? played him ever? I ask you, me, and I told him, drunk, that yes, that I’d once heard of a Verbinski, that a Verbinski yes he comes to mind, is somehow familiar but that I can’t quite place him, from who or from where (and you, Zeit, you probably thought that I was calling your bluff, or just playing along),
    don’t know where I had heard him or of him and maybe even from Schneidermann himself but that no I answered him the critic, no way, that he couldn’t be greater than Schneidermann, than my Schneidermann, it’s just not possible, I mean what about the piano sonatas? the nine string trios that they represent the height of that instrumentation ever, since K. 563, since the efforts of Webern and Schönberg at least (Schneidermann to me: string trios are string quartets that wrestle with angels, lose a limb, hobbled-quartets he once said, lamed-quartets)?
    the spring cassation music for seven horns in F, solo trumpet and baritone voice?
    that chorus for 12 children on that poem of Paul Celan’s, or Ancel’s as Schneidermann he often said, though not as much as he said Antschel,

    Die beiden Türen der Welt
    stehen offen:
    geöfnnet von dir
    in der Zwienacht

    but he the once a critic for a major metropolitan newspaper and always a critic (drunk),
    how he just insisted: VERBINSKI, VERBINSKI, VERBINSKI as if the name it was a product the critic he was selling and on commission ear-to-ear, and so the next hangover what did I do? I went to the library, nothing (I wouldn’t ask Schneidermann, pride his and mine),
    then asked the most knowledgeable musicologist known to me in the world, an older homosexual gentleman but that shouldn’t matter in Basel and, well, they both told me:
    that no, that sorry, that this Verbinski he never existed, no way, sorry again, no mention of him whatsoever anywhere or when and so even if he ever was then who could he be?
    that posterity or the history of posterity if you will that it’s just never that negligent, that sorry, and that your friend (non-friend),
    this critic who he was drunk on just two glasses the second his ashtray that he was just using a made up man to make his point,
    was trying to elicit feelings all about a man pulled out of the hottest air of his ass,
    out of any intellectual thinness, Verbinski a man who historically didn’t, who at least probably never even existed,
    like why should I care to cry about an invention? or has the world spun to the point where a symbol of artistic strife, failure, dedication, failure — ultimately — has to be conjured up, lied-about? like is the only way to embody the injustice of the world in a figure that isn’t, was never, in the world? of-the-world?
    a figure thought up and fleshed out — and under-the-influence — on the spot?
    and when we have the real thing, the true deal named Schneidermann who he’s just right around the corner, cinematically dimly-lit? Or was.<br

A Conversation with Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen
Photo by Ahron Weiner
  • READ an excerpt from Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto by Joshua Cohen.
    Frank J. Oteri: The InPrint section of NewMusicBox is geared toward a contemporary music-savvy audience and is usually devoted to a discussion of (and an excerpt from) a book that is specifically about music. So we’ve tweaked the paradigm a little bit here to feature your book, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, which is a novel. Your book seems tailor-made for a music crowd. Was that your target audience? Even the cover of your book is a reference to editions published by Schirmer.

    Joshua Cohen: “Tailor-made,” as you put it, is excellent praise, and apt, and I thank you for it: “Schneidermann” is, in German, the traditional surname of a Schneider, a tailor. This Schneidermann novel was made from the whole cloth of music—though, to thread this metaphor further, it was made to adorn “any body.” Its audience is anyone who can sit through, or stand, four hundred pages of prose that some have called “musical,” though others say incomprehensible, and asking too much.

    FJO: What do you think someone with a background in contemporary music might get from this book that others would not?

    JC: If you know “music,” or music theory, or instrumental practice, or score instructions in German, in Italian, you might get more of the esoteric joking, the insider punning—the vocabulary, the language. But in my experience, a background in music, as you put it, does not always translate to a background in, let’s say, biographical music: Knowing the technicalities of music is not the same as knowing the lives of musicians, of composers, and this book celebrates the life of music, musical lives, much more than it might observe theoretical thought.

    The difference would be, perhaps, the difference between music and musicology. Or, maybe, the difference between what’s been called “program music,” and the actuality, or reality, of such a program. I like the sea, I like all seas, more than I like La Mer. I am more interested in Schoenberg than in dodecaphony, though dodecaphony is a part of Schoenberg, and though Schoenberg—as a person, as a mind—is at least a twelfth or so of dodecaphony.

    This book is much more an analysis of death than it is a comparative analysis of the Requiem of, say, Berlioz and Verdi. Requiem, by the by, has no plural.

    FJO: The amount of detail specific to contemporary music composition found in Cadenza seems unprecedented in a work of prose fiction. Are you a composer? What is your own musical background?

    JC: I am not a composer, but I have written music—which might tell you everything you should know. I have studied music, both with musicians and on my own, but purely theoretically. I am practically inept, though I did play the guitar in restaurants and casinos and on a cruise ship for summer work. That said, I think of prose musically—and I think the greatest disaster of our “contemporary composed” prose is the sundering of subject and style. No one talks much about style anymore, in writing, in “literature,” and this is terrifying to me, both as a writer, and as a reader.

    “Music” is a subject, is the subject of my book, and that is why you are interviewing me here. If “music,” or “musical,” were merely my style, how many musicians would be interested in reading this, or in reading my book? To contrast: I listen to all music, not only to that concerned with literature. I’m not just sitting up late listening to the collected literary criticism of Schumann, or to those horrendous von Dittersdorf symphonies written after The Metamorphoses of Ovid.

    FJO: How much musical immersion did you engage in as preparation for writing the novel?

    JC: I wanted to write, all at once, between two covers, a novel that defined, through other lives, my feeling for music. It would be correct to say, then, that I have been preparing for this book for my entire listening life. Maybe pretentious. Might be inane. I read much about luthiery; I read a number of biographies, of musicians (Szigeti), of composers (Shostakovich), and autobiographies—but this was all, I think, for the detail, the confidence. I have always wanted to be a musician, and I wanted to exorcise that here. I think music is, perhaps, the greatest art, and it is not my art, and so I wanted to be done with it, all at once. Only after that, after Schneidermann, could the writing begin.

    FJO: Why was it necessary to you that the musical references in the book be so detailed and accurate?

    JC: Everything needs to be accurate, not just music, and not just the detail. This is a compositional principle. Because this interview will be read by musicians, maybe I can make an analogy: In a world lacking any standard, or commonality, of performance practice, would a composer today follow the example of Bach and leave his or her score without markings, without dynamics or bowings or the preciousness of instruction in a variety of European languages, say? Unless the idea was total interpretive freedom, or a form of “visual art,” the answer is no. To dance about architecture, for a moment: Mies van der Rohe’s popular “God is in the details” might be amended to “God is in the context.” Schneidermann, the composer, is a musician, a European, an American, and a Jew. He is not just made of music. I have to think he’s not just made of words.

    FJO: The principal characters in your book are an obscure composer named Schneidermann and the book’s narrator, Laster, who is seemingly a celebrated violinist and something of an amanuensis to Schneidermann. Are these characters modeled after anyone in the real world the way that Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus is something of a cross between Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg or Marcel Proust’s Vinteuil is probably Reynaldo Hahn?

    JC: Schneidermann is based, “loosely,” as it’s said, not on a composer but on an elderly Jewish man I once knew, resident of Tel Aviv and Prague. The model, then, is verbal, is one of thought. Musically, I intended Schneidermann to be an individual, an individualist. This means he is not a serialist. He has no system and he was made of no system. I was thinking a little of Bartók (the American poverty), and a little of an imaginary Mahler (the manner in which Mahler’s posterity has been infused with a perhaps false sense of Jewishness, of what’s been called, after the Holocaust, a Jewish identity). Ernest Bloch. Stefan Wolpe. Jews of that generation, mostly. I couldn’t make the character a reflection of any reality, because the idea of the book is the ideal of a type, of a way of talking, a way of thinking, and any correspondence I might create would distract, and might become a musical guessing game or parlor trick like “connect the notes,” or Biographical Bingo.

    Laster is also a type, even more so than Schneidermann, and his life is a virtuoso life, glamorized for the page from my own immaturely fanciful ideas of what it might be to be conflicted in the fulfillment of artistic expectations, and international fame.

    FJO: In the final analysis, your two old men are not particularly likeable: both are sexist, somewhat racist and terribly self-absorbed. Are these personality types perhaps part of the reason why this music does not appeal to younger, more P.C. intellectual types? You yourself are still in your 20s, which is shocking to me after reading this book.

    JC: I am 26, and pretentiousness is a great danger. Still, let me try. Schneidermann is racist, and sexist (or misogynistic) too, and also right, certain, and correct. Laster is as well. These two regard themselves as guardians of art—the last bastion of true “political correctness.” Their culture, European, Jewish, is now of use only as a corrective—to the American noise that surrounds. This is their suspicion. This is their fear.

    Their world is the West, or was, which, wars and genocide aside, is still, for them, pre-eminent. Their Bible is The King James Version of the Old Testament, which is better than the Koran, in terms of literary merit, perhaps, and in terms of moral merit, maybe. And, for them, too, “better” as a category exists. Without doubt such a conviction, taken to its extreme, becomes untenable, and hurtful. Western Art (as a form of what might be called, now, in America, “pretentiousness”) is dangerous because it is, above all, a world of ideas, of emotions, of values—not “Family Values” but those of, musically speaking, Beethoven’s Freude, which offers joy in return for nothing more than mere existence.

    Politics, though, and especially in America, which has perfected the political, is a world of a different equality. People my age were born into relativism—a twilight of ever tinier godlets, and less and less significant idols. The reaction to this, by Schneidermann and by Laster, is one of resistance. They do not like being historical. They do not like being displaced for the sake of appeasement. And this dislike, or disgust, makes them ugly, biased, and bigoted.

    Schneidermann, remember, survived the war. We all know black and white, and how those aren’t just two ways of imagining dualities, or a dialectic, but how they are, at the same time, the colorlessness of Nazi news reels. The West gave us Nazism, just as much as it gave us the art that the Nazis destroyed. Schneidermann knows this history, this decadent history, and he is reluctant to have survived it only to be told that his art, which damned him, which saved him, is only one of many arts, and that it deserves, empirically, no special primacy, or sentiment.

    He hates Asians, because many Asians play “his music,” and play it successfully, more successfully than do “his people,” his Jews. He hates homosexuals because their apparent freedom in the face of social norms forces him face his own inadequacies when it comes to living a completely free and realized life. And, lastly, he hates Jews, or people who say they are Jews, people who talk like Jews, people who walk like Jews, because when he was in Europe to identify yourself as a Jew was to identify yourself for destruction.

    He is afraid, is what. He fears American freedom. Most of my peers are afraid of hating that American freedom, thanks to what might be called political sensitivity, or the cult of correctness.

    To bring us back to our subject, though: Many of my peers do not, as you put it, find Western Art Music appealing, because they are free to not find it appealing. The culture once compelled them to listen to it, and to love it, but now that they have become, relatively, free from that compulsion they might feel that to capitulate now would be to politically surrender. This is all, though, unconscious, of course, buried deep.

    FJO: You mentioned that Schneidermann means tailor. Is your use of that name in the novel symbolic? What about Laster? (Also, I don’t recall either even being given a first name in the narrative.)

    JC: Schneidermann is symbolic of humble origins: a Jewish tailor’s son. Also, his life and his work are piecemeal, patchwork. He does have a first name, though – it’s buried, but there. As for Laster, he lasts – he speaks this cadenza aloud to the audience for hours, through the night. Gotteslästerer means a blasphemer, in German, a “mocker of God.” Laster is a vice, of a sort. The name is an anagram of the German rätsel, which means an enigma. But above all – I liked how they sounded.

    FJO: In an author’s statement by you that accompanied the copy of the book we were sent, you described the novel as being about the death of an art form – that specific art form being the composition of classical music. But there seem to be more composers now than at any other time in human history. Is classical music really dead, or has the media chosen to ignore it? What do you feel disconnects this huge amount of activity from large sectors of the general population?

    JC: This novel is about the death of an art form as meaningful, not practically, and that statement is, unfortunately, almost total bombast. The novel is dead, too, every once in a while. The implication, though, is obvious—what you call a “disconnect.” Such disconnect is this: Artists today, more than ever, must make for themselves, must gratify only themselves, because the audience is in another hall, probably dead themselves, or else watching a movie. This is wonderful, in its own way.

    Musically speaking, I meant music qua music was dead because no one (more bombast; read: very few) performs music on their own, plays on an instrument, for themselves, their own music, “classically,” or “composed.” This change is a wholly owned subsidiary of a greater change: There’s more to do and less mind-space, less mind-time, with which to do it.

    We all know all these arguments about art, and these arguments probably prevent us from appreciating art—we talk when we should listen. I apologize for that “author’s statement”—which was written while I was finishing the book, and was written in the voice, it seems, of Schneidermann himself. For publicity purposes. To make noise about music. I know what Schneidermann feels. What I feel is unsure—to me, wholly unknown.

    FJO: In your assessment, did composers in the 20th century lose touch with audiences by being too experimental?

    JC: Some did, others didn’t. It depends on personality, maybe. If you have a bald head and those bubble fish eyes of Schoenberg, and that ego—the whole world wants you to autograph their T-shirt. If you’re Ives and old and withdrawn, your audience—especially if posthumous—makes a fetish of your crankiness, your unwillingness to mother and coo. Though these approaches—if they can be called such—are different, are opposed, they can be brought together if we think about how those two composers thought about their own audiences, about “audience.” Both made no compromises, not many.

    If what you call experimental is genuine, is truly searching, then no touch is lost. We are entering the most false world possible—authenticity is to be prized, beyond price. “The Audience” is made of people like you and like me, and we are not liars, nor are we idiots. “The Audience” always finds its own way to the truth, though it takes time, though that time and its hardships often finds the artist dead, and without the appropriate lawyer.

    FJO: How is experimentation in music different from experimentation in visual art, which gained quite a bit of popularity? Or literature, which arguably is even more erudite than contemporary music? As a writer of experimental fiction, do you feel a special kinship with artists who experiment in other art forms such as music?

    JC: I don’t believe in experimentation. Rather, experimentation is often just trying to say what you want to say, what you need to say, in a way that isn’t blemished, or compromised. “Experimentation,” or the avant-garde, in visual art was popular because the visual is immediate, and not much thought is ever required from the amateur or the weekend speculator to attenuate emotionally, to assimilate and “respond.” Literature deals sooner with meaning, with intellectual or ideational content. And music is so abstract as to constitute either wallpaper or religion—theology. I feel kinship with anyone who says what they want to say, what they need to say, in the most perfect or perfected manner possible. I don’t like the language of progress in literature. I like to read an individual in history, but I don’t like to read an individual making history, or consciously trying to make history, because such an attempt almost always results in Babel, and, conversely, exposes such an individual artist as desperate product or relic of circumstance and abnormal psychology.

    FJO: I hope I’m not giving too much of the story away: in the novel, Schneidermann mysteriously disappears one afternoon in a movie theater. Is this a metaphor for so-called high art being displaced as a result of our society’s over saturation with popular culture?

    JC: It is. But it’s also a joke. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. What does a genius do today? He goes to the movies. He or she becomes a virtuoso of failure, and waste. That humor is humor about Kultur versus popular culture, doubtless, but it’s also humor turned inward: Schneidermann is very aware of his disappointment, of his own weaknesses. His predilections and their guilt attending have, almost, displaced his own sense of self.

    FJO: Ultimately it would be difficult to “give the story away” because it does not follow a traditional narrative form. The basic conceit of the novel is that the narrator speaks this text in lieu of playing the violin cadenza of the concerto that he is in the middle of premiering at Carnegie Hall. Of course this is unfeasible in reality, but it makes a great frame. What made you choose to structure the novel this way?

    JC: Why is this unfeasible? If a rapper decided to address his audience instead of singing, or rapping, would that be unfeasible? He would be booed, eventually, but Laster is booed. Would that rapper or singer be escorted from the stage by Security? I don’t know. The President of the United States would be interrupted, I’m sure, by his handlers, his aides. But a popular musician, or a movie actor? Their pulpit is their own personality. They last as long as they last.

    This book is a cadenza because, if it is a cadenza, it has an audience already: everyone’s already seated, within the pages, ready for reading, or not. It’s a novel written with no requirement for readers, perhaps. It’s sold out, before it begins. I was fascinated by the form, or non-form, or anti-form, of the cadenza. It seems like a period of grace, of temporary insanity. It has its conventions, but it has no rules. It has its history, but it has no practical progress beyond the individual—again, the personality. It lives, and dies, by its nightly practice—always different, always the same.

    FJO: Ideally, what would you like readers of your novel to walk away thinking about classical music and its manifestations in contemporary culture? Do you hope it would make more people interested in listening to this music?

    JC: Readers should read, and they should heckle and boo Laster on cue, and then they should reflect and find those cues and then they should think about them and ask themselves: why heckle, why boo, why jeer? And why exactly here? And why precisely now?

    As for music—I hope it makes more people interested in reading my books, because I don’t make any money from record sales, nor from this book of mine increasing attendance at concerts through a commission scheme, say, or from directing people to certain listening options or venues. The day that everybody became interested in art is the day that art would cease to exist: July 4th, maybe, whatever year sufficiently far in the future for me, for us, not to worry.

A Tribute to Charles Hamm—Composer, Historian, Educator

[Ed. Note: The American Music Center has awarded Charles Hamm its first Music Educator Award. In celebration of this award, we have put together a slightly-modified version of the “InPrint” Section of NewMusicBox. Typically, “InPrint” features an excerpt of a book about music that has been published in the past year and a brief interview with the book’s author. Here, in addition to a brief interview with Hamm, we offer several sections from his landmark 1983 text Music in the New World, since offering a single excerpt would not give readers unfamiliar with the book an opportunity to experience its broad range. Even still, the selections we are featuring only hint at the remarkable depth and breadth of Hamm’s writings about American music. On this page, we feature composer, educator, and AMC board member Janice Giteck’s personal thoughts on what Charles Hamm’s writings have meant to her and her students at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts. – FJO]

Charles Hamm (left) with John Cage

In 1984, Charles Hamm’s seminal book, Music in the New World, fell into my hands while I was researching at the Library of Congress. At the time I was looking for clues for scoring a documentary on women and textiles during America’s 1800s. Like most concert music composers twenty years ago, I was still mostly focused on European trends and a few famous American minimalists.

From a first reading of Hamm’s text, I became acutely aware of my general ignorance of the music of our nation. Nevertheless, to my delight, the author’s seductive storytelling style gave me a quick jumpstart to an understanding of the enfolding story of American music. In particular, I was taken by Hamm’s discussion of the ongoing hybridization brought about by exchanges between musicians of oral and written traditions. This is traced from the nation’s beginning with raucous improvising during church meetings in the colonies, right up to the blurring of music genres over the past few decades. What was confirmed for me by Hamm is that truly American music is always just coming around the corner (or the mountain!) It is founded in a tradition of change: immigration, migration, ethnic, and racial intermingling. Most potently, Hamm articulates that a great deal of American music is a byproduct of the monumentally complex relations between white and black cultures.

Inside Pages:

Music in the New World at times seems like a political mediator between popular culture and so-called “high art” music. At every turn, Hamm illuminates the intertwining of diverse musics: mountain music with church psalms, African slave rhythms with barnyard fiddling, the odd mixtures that produced the great American composer Stephen Foster, the banjo, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, minstrel shows, the business of Tin Pan Alley, Papago “chicken scratch” bands, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Laurie Anderson. Hamm also gives place and story to the rugged individualism that has “America” stamped all over it, such as the lineage of Ives, Cowell, Partch and Cage.

As a result of my film-composing project twenty years ago, as well as Hamm’s words prodding me to fully claim America as my homeland, I developed a college level music history course employing Music in the New World as the central text. While the course has certainly undergone changes of materials and approaches over the years, (recently there’s more class participation, films, and guests), the core text has remained Hamm’s book. I have yet to find another book which is as accessible and as visionary.

To this day, my students continue to be inspired by reading Charles Hamm. They become curious about their own personal musical cultures. They talk with their grandfathers about family sing-a-longs of yesteryear, memories of gathering around the parlor organ, piano, guitar, and accordion. For young Americans living in this very stressful present time, it is a boon to have a generative study of music made in America.

Comments about Music in the New World from Janice Giteck’s students this semester:

I appreciate how in this book, Music in the New World, Charles Hamm treats all musics: secular and sacred, popular and concert, equally. This approach has caused me to think not only about the past interplay between genres of music, but what effects such a dialogue between musics may have in the future. This view has allowed me to approach America’s music not as a static history but a work in progress.

– Samantha Bosch

I find it interesting that for so long, oral/traditional music of Native Americans and African Americans was not taken seriously or analyzed for its artistic quality. Because its form was so vastly different and far looser and more improvised than any music that Europeans were used to, it was seen then (and unfortunately is still seen today) as chaotic noise, with no real value because of its lack of harmonic structure. We’re so lucky to be at a point in history when music historians, such as Charles Hamm, recognize the need to treat the music of oral tradition, part of everyday life for tribes of Africa and early America, as though it is just as vital and as complex and as beautiful an art form as any notated form of classical music.

– Angela Moore


From Computer Models of Musical Creativity

Computer Models of Musical Creativity

The following excerpts are reprinted from Chapter Three, “Current Models of Musical Creativity” of the book, Computer Models of Musical Creativity by David Cope, pp. 51-60. Copyright (c) 2005 by the MIT Press. Used with permission of the publisher.

  • READ an essay about this and other recent music books published by the MIT Press.
    *Principle: Creativity should not be confused with novelty or comtivity.


    My afternoon walks often take me past a friend’s home. On one such walk, I found him busy scrubbing his driveway. We nodded greetings, and he complained about the horrible mess his oil-leaking car had made on his driveway, and how impossible it seemed to remove the stain. Rather than agreeing with him, I mentioned that I no longer had that problem. He eagerly asked what kind of detergent I used. I replied that what I used was better than detergent. By this time I had his undivided attention. I told him that I had decided to appreciate my oil stains as art—admiring the oil on my driveway like paint on a canvas. At first, he looked at me quizzically, to determine whether I was pulling his leg. I assured him that my change in attitude was real, and with the right light there were many extraordinary hues and images to be seen in these oil stains. Recently I passed his house and discovered him loosening the oil cap under his car. He told me that his detergent had mangled his “art,” and that he needed to seed it again.

    I recount this simple story because I believe it demonstrates how creativity can circumvent logic in order to solve problems. This story also demonstrates how important perspective is to creativity—surely many would argue that my solution here is simply illogical, not creative. They would be wrong. In fact, the programs I describe in this section should be gauged against this model, to see if they pose any true opportunities for creative output.

    Most research on creativity ignores the confusion that randomness poses to its recognition. On one hand, distinguishing a creative solution to a problem from a random solution to that same problem should be easy, and it usually is easy in scientific research. On the other hand, especially in the arts, random output often competes with creativity, at least in terms of novelty and surprise. Using computer programs to imitate creativity further confuses the issue, since computers process data so quickly and accurately that to some, their output is magical. In fact, the distinction between creativity and randomness had little relevance prior to the computational age, because random behavior and creative behavior seemed so apparently distinct. Since most computer programs that claim to create use randomness in some way, it is very important that we clearly define this term to determine whether or not what we are experiencing is the result of creativity, or simply a “random” shot in the dark. To complicate matters, we often use words such as random, unpredictability, chance, and indeterminacy rather freely in our speech and writings, without giving much thought to what they actually mean. Please indulge me, therefore, as I discuss in detail what I think random means, and whether it truly exists. In so doing, a number of important features of computational creativity will, I believe, become clearer.

    Clearly, we must not rely simply on perception for our definition of randomness, since not only will perception differ from one person to the next, but perception is often far from reality. Like creativity, randomness is a process, not a thing, a process that cannot always be discerned from output alone. Even scientists use the word random to mean several different things:

    …applied for instance to a single string of a thousand digits, random means that the string is incompressible. In other words, it is so irregular that no way can be found to express it in shorter form. A second meaning, however, is that it has been generated by a random process, that is, by a chance process such as a coin toss, where each head gives 1 and each tail 0. (Gell-Mann 1994, p. 44)

    One method scientists use to help define randomness is to test processes under identical conditions.

    The key to thinking about randomness is to imagine such a system to be in some particular state, and to let it do whatever that particular system does. Then imagine putting it back into exactly that initial state and running the whole experiment again. If you always get exactly the same result, then the system is deterministic. If not, then it’s random. Notice that in order to show that a system is deterministic, we don’t actually have to predict what it will do; we just have to be assured that on both occasions it will do the same thing. (Stewart 2002, p. 280)

    Of course, the fallacy with this description of randomness is its use of the word exactly. While all of the known variables may appear to be exactly the same, the unknown variables may not be the same. For example, when quantum theorists have spoken about absolute randomness—believing that they know the exact state of all of the variables—they have ignored the as-yet unproven, and thus incalculable, existence of dark matter and dark energy, important cosmological components necessary to account for the composition of the known universe. As well, according to many philosophers and scientists, no two initial states can have exactly the same conditions, since at least one known variable—time—will have changed, no matter what state the other conditions occupy. In short, no two experiments can ever have exactly the same initial conditions.

    What many people mean when they use words such as “random” is simply that conditions are too complex for them to understand what is occurring. The actual position, speed, and direction of a single atom in an ocean wave, for example, result from such incredibly complex competing and reinforcing processes that calculating these parameters seems impossible. This complexity may or may not actually involve randomness (I will speak about chaotic behavior momentarily). For most of us, then, using the word “random” really means that a process is simply too complex to sort out. We do not mean, at least in this instance, that the atom moves about without any cause and effect resulting from the energies and other atoms that surround it.

    Another common interpretation of randomness is without pattern. The numbers that follow the decimal point in π seem random to us simply because they lack repeating patterns—at least as far as humans have been able to ascertain. The number π is fixed, however, and represents (as Gell-Mann says) the shortest form in which it can be expressed. Likewise, the cosine function output in figure 3.11 apparently lacks repeating patterns and thus seems random. However, each time the formula that produced it is run with the same input, the same numbers appear in the same order as output.

    Programming languages provide so-called random processes that produce unpredictable results. However, computer randomness (often called pseudo randomness) is actually deterministic. The reason for this is that deterministic algorithms—the basis for all computation—produce deterministic outcomes. Whenever a programmer calls upon a computer language’s random function, that programmer is depending on the irrelevance of the data chosen to provide the sense of randomness. Given enough time and provided with the generating algorithm, programmers could accurately predict each new datum produced by computer pseudo randomness.

    In all three of the cases I have just described—complexity, lack of patterns, and irrelevance—apparent randomness arises not out of a lack of determinism, but rather out of a lack of perceivable logic. Indeed, Sir Isaac Newton, whose third law of motion describes determinism (Actioni contrariam semper et equalem esse reactionem, in Newton 1726, p. 14; translated as “to every action there is always opposed an equal and opposite reaction”—Cajori 1934, p. 13), would argue that ocean waves, π, and computer randomness all result from very deterministic causes.

    According to Newtonian mechanics, when we know the state of a physical system (positions and velocities) at a given time—then we know its state at any other time. (Ruelle 1991, p. 28)

    Therefore, according to Newton at least, none of what I have described here represents randomness; it is just that we perceive these various actions as random because we cannot, will not, or do not want to actually follow the deterministic processes that produced them.

    From the above examples, then, we could say that when we typically use the word “random,” we do not actually mean “without regard to rules” (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 1991, p. 1116); rather, we are simply expressing our lack of comprehension of the determinism present in the system we are encountering. Given enough time, we could predict the result of any process, no matter how apparently unpredictable it may seem. If this is so, then creativity is also predictable, for one assumes that it derives from a deterministic system, no matter how imposingly complex, lacking in perceivable pattern, or irrelevant the output of that system may be.

    However, I have just begun to describe the controversies surrounding randomness. The sciences of quantum physics and of chaos have recently provided arguments for the underlying indeterministic nature of the universe. Many scientists believe that randomness exists at the quantum level—the world of the very small. Richard Feynman, one of the proponents of such randomness, and an articulate spokesperson for QED (quantum electrodynamics), describes the quantum phenomenon thus:

    Try as we might to invent a reasonable theory that can explain how a photon “makes up its mind” whether to go through glass or bounce back, it is impossible to predict which way a given photon will go. Philosophers have said that if the same circumstances don’t always produce the same results, predictions are impossible and science will collapse. Here is a circumstance—identical photons are always coming down in the same direction to the same piece of glass—that produces different results. We cannot predict whether a given photon will arrive at A or B. All we can predict is that out of 100 photons that come down, an average of 4 will be rejected by the front surface. Does this mean that physics, a science of great exactitude, has been reduced to calculating only the probability of an event and not predicting exactly what will happen? Yes. (Feynman 1985, p. 19)

    However, there are two different views as to what has actually occurred here. According to the first, the photon is a part of an ensemble of photons, all of which are distributed through space. The overall intensity of this group of photons corresponds to our usual interpretation of groups of similar events: a probability distribution no more mysterious than an actuarial table or a human population census giving the distribution of ages or genders. If this viewpoint is correct, then the lack of predictability again describes only our ignorance, and nothing more, and the photon to which Feynman refers here is still behaving deterministically. However, a second view is also possible. According to this second view, we are not ignorant of anything, and quantum mechanics is complete in its description of individual events. The photons decide to enter the glass or bounce off it without cause, and prediction beyond probability distribution is now and forever impossible.

    Feynman sums up the apparent randomness of electron motion in this way:

    Attempts to understand the motion of the electrons going around the nucleus by using mechanical laws—analogous to the way Newton used the laws of motion to figure out how the earth went around the sun—were a real failure: all kinds of predictions came out wrong. (Feynman 1985, p. 5)

    Murray Gell-Mann agrees, adding that

    …the probabilistic nature of quantum theory can be illustrated by a simple example. A radioactive atomic nucleus has what is called a “half-life,” the time during which it has a 50% chance of disintegrating. For example, the half-life of Pu239, the usual isotope of plutonium, is around 25,000 years. The chance that a Pu239 nucleus in existence today will still exist after 25,000 years is 50 percent; after 50,000 years, the chance is only 25 percent; after 75,000 years, 12.5 percent, and so on. The quantum-mechanical character of nature means that for a given Pu239 nucleus, that kind of information is all we can know about when it will decay; there is no way to predict the exact moment of disintegration…. (Gell-Mann 1994, pp. 132–133)

    Of course, what Gell-Mann recounts here could be seen as testimony for human inadequacy, not testimony against determinism.

    It is also quite possible that objects which appear to disintegrate randomly actually move as the result of undetected internal pressures or delayed reactions to previous external actions that we cannot yet detect, or that we have overlooked because these objects are so small. We would not, for example, suggest that an amoeba moves randomly simply because there is no observable external action/reaction process involved in that motion.

    In the early 1950s, David Bohm led the chorus of those who followed Newton’s principles in a revival of the search for hidden variables as a cause for the apparent randomness we perceive. Using statistics, Bohm pointed to a key difference between classical and quantum mechanics called the quantum potential (see Wolf 1981, p. 200). In Bohm’s theory, the laws of physics are totally deterministic.

    Quantum indeterminacy is not a sign of anything irreducibly probabilistic about the universe, but a sign of the inescapable ignorance of the observer—human or otherwise. (Stewart 2002, p. 342)

    German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s 1927 uncertainty principle grew out of the notion that simply observing quantum-level mechanics disturbs the accuracy of any measurements of its mechanisms. In other words, observation itself may be the cause of the apparent randomness at atomic and subatomic levels. Brian Greene argues Heisenberg’s principle:

    Why can’t we determine the electron’s position with an “ever gentler” light source in order to have an ever decreasing impact on its motion? From the standpoint of nineteenth-century physics we can. By using an ever dimmer lamp (and an ever more sensitive light detector) we can have a vanishingly small impact on the electron’s motion. But quantum mechanics itself illuminates a flaw in this reasoning. As we turn down the intensity of the light source we now know that we are decreasing the number of photons it emits. Once we get down to emitting individual photons we cannot dim the light any further without actually turning it off. There is a fundamental quantum-mechanical limit to the “gentleness” of our probe. And hence, there is always a minimal disruption that we cause to the electron’s velocity through our measurement of its position. (Greene 1999, p. 112–113)

    This uncertainty principle means that no matter how accurately we measure the classical quantities of position and momentum, there will always be errors in our measurements.

    Predicting or determining the future of atomic objects would be impossible under these circumstances. This was called the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty or the Principle of Indeterminism. It had little relevance in the world of ordinary-sized objects. They were hardly bothered by disturbances produced through observation. But the uncertainty principle was serious business when it came to electrons. Indeed, it was so serious that it brought the very existence of electrons into question. (Wolf 1981, p. 115)

    Many quantum physicists counter these arguments by suggesting that randomness exists at the quantum—atomic and subatomic—levels, while cause-and-effect exists at larger-size levels as probabilistic certainties; thus, in a sense, they are arguing for both randomness and Newtonian (classical) mechanics. The problem with this dual model, of course, is that size—the very essence of such a model—is an arbitrary standard. From our perspective the atom is small and the universe is very large. To a being the size of an atom, the universe (if even observable) would seem monstrous and the quantum world would seem normal.

    Chaos theory appears at first glance to support the case for a kind of deterministic randomness. Chaos is the study of turbulent behavior in which some feel that incredible complexity makes predictability at the level of the very small scale impossible. James Gleick observes that chaos

    …brought an astonishing message: simple deterministic models could produce what looked like random behavior. The behavior actually had an exquisite fine structure, yet any piece of it seemed indistinguishable from noise. (Gleick 1987, p. 79)

    At first glance, this version of chaos resembles the notion of randomness occurring as a result of our inability to predict events when faced with great complexity. However, Stephen Kellert notes that

    …chaotic systems scrupulously obey the strictures of differential dynamics, unique evolution, and value determinateness, yet they are utterly unpredictable. Because of the existence of these systems, we are forced to admit that the world is not totally predictable: by any definition of determinism that includes total predictability, determinism is false. Thus begins the process of peeling away the layers of determinism that are not compatible with current physics, impelling us either to revise our definition of determinism or reject it as a doctrine. (Kellert 1993, p. 62)

    Chaos theory, however, does involve prediction. This prediction occurs as the result of something called the calculus of probabilities, long considered a minor branch of mathematics. The probabilities of chaos enlighten us to the predictability of events such as attractors, patterns that, given the right initial conditions, can be foreseen and even measured in advance of their occurrence.

    A central fact of the calculus of probabilities is that if a coin is tossed a large number of times, the proportion of heads (or the proportion of tails) becomes close to 50 percent. In this manner, while the result of tossing a coin once is completely uncertain, a long series of tosses produces a nearly certain result. This transition from uncertainty to near certainty when we observe long series of events, or large systems, is an essential theme in the study of chance. (Ruelle 1991, p. 5)

    The word “utterly” used by Kellert, and the phrase “completely uncertain” in Ruelle’s comments, characterize what I consider flaws in the arguments for randomness: arrogance. While I agree that we truly do not know why photons move in the way that they do, this lack of knowledge should not necessarily lead us to the conclusion that we therefore can never know, or that an entire canon of physics should be revoked.

    The bottom line for my own research is that randomness is not an engaging mystery, but a simple reflection of ignorance. Aside from the possible exception of quantum physics, randomness refers to behavior that is either too complex, too patternless, or too irrelevant to make prediction possible. None of these features seem to me to be associated in any way with creativity. In fact, while much of what we call creativity is also unpredictable, creativity often turns out in hindsight to be the most rational way to have proceeded. Reverse engineering even the most complex creative processes demonstrates this rationality. Randomness, on the other hand, perpetuates or even complicates problems—and should never be confused with creativity.

    Music Programs and Research

    Rather than describe individual music algorithmic composing programs, many of which may no longer be available by the date of this book’s publication, I have opted to discuss the basic principles of algorithmic composing programs and the degree to which each principle allows for, or models, creativity. The approaches I discuss here include rules-based algorithms, data-driven programming, genetic algorithms, neural networks, fuzzy logic, mathematical modeling, and sonification. Though there are other ways to program computers to compose music, these seven basic processes represent the most commonly used types.

    Before describing these basic program types, however, it may be useful to define the term “algorithm” as I will use it in this book. Algorithms are recipes, sets of instructions for accomplishing a goal. An algorithm typically represents the automation of all or part of a process. Importantly, there is nothing inherently inhuman about algorithms. To understand this, one has only to remember that deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)—the genetic basis of life—is an algorithm. Algorithms simply make tasks easier and, often, more bearable. If we had to repeatedly step through the processes of, for example, breathing, making our hearts beat, or blinking our eyes (all algorithmic processes), we would have no time to think about or do anything else.

    It is also important to differentiate between composers who use algorithms and algorithmic composers. While such a differentiation may seem polemic, it is critical to the computer modeling of creativity. Composers who use algorithms incorporate them to achieve a momentary effect in their music. In contrast, algorithmic composers compose entire works using algorithms, thus dealing with important issues of structure and coherence. The differences between these two seemingly comparable views resemble the division between so-called aleatoric and indeterminate composers of the mid-twentieth century. As Morton Feldman remarked: “You can see this in the way they have approached American ‘chance’ music. They began by finding rationalizations for how they could incorporate chance and still keep their precious integrity” (Schwartz and Childs 1967, p. 365). While I do not share Feldman’s vehemence in separating the two camps of aleatorism and indeterminacy, I do feel strongly that the differences between composers who use algorithms and algorithmic composers is substantial. In this book, I refer almost exclusively to algorithmic composers.

    Sixteenth-century print

    Figure 3.1
    A sixteenth-century print reflecting a competition between an algorist, on the left, and an abacist, on the right.

    Figure 3.1 is a sixteenth-century print possibly reflecting similar differences—a kind of competition between an abacist on the right and an algorist on the left. The abacist uses an abacus, an ancient tool designed as a kind of simple slide rule. By physically sliding beads (numerical representations) various ways, abacists can add, subtract, and so on. The algorist, on the other hand, manipulates standard mathematical equations or algorithms to compute the same results. If facial expressions are any indication here, the algorist holds the upper hand in this competition. For those believing that using algorithms to create music somehow removes imagination, inspiration, and intuition from the composing process, know that defining a good algorithm requires as much imagination, inspiration, and intuition as does composing a good melody or harmony. Neither good algorithms nor good musical ideas grow on trees.

    The musical examples that demonstrate the processes described in the following sections have been reduced to simple keyboard notation in order that they may be usefully compared with one another. Obviously many, if not all, of these examples could be far more elaborate, and each lasts significantly longer than shown. However, I did not want the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness in emulating creativity in some of the examples to eliminate the effectiveness of other examples, especially when the choice of which music was used was solely my own. Readers are encouraged to use the programs available on my Web site and listen to the related MP3 files, in combination with reading the descriptions of those programs, for a more “musical” interpretation of the techniques presented here.

    Many of the principles of the processes described here overlap. For example, mathematical models can be seen as sonifying abstract formulas. Cellular automata resemble mathematical models—and hence sonification—in that they graphically represent mathematical computations. Fuzzy logic is a type of mathematics. Neural network output results from the mathematical calculations in collaborating hidden units. As well, virtually any process can be described as some form of Markov chain. The processes described below also have substantial differences, as their definitions demonstrate. I have arranged these algorithmic processes into these particular categories to help delineate their different approaches to producing musical output.</p