Tag: academia

Teaching the Music of Now: A Mission, a Project, and a Conference

Research on Contemporary Composition Conference

Most of us who teach music history at the college level want to develop a curriculum that brings students right up to the present day. We know that the story of Western art music doesn’t end with the last chapter of the textbook, and we worry about accidentally teaching students that innovation and creativity in the field of composition are things of the past.

Many of us also seek to resist the canon. As historians, we are aware that the “important” composers enshrined in our textbooks are less significant than the diverse and complex musical landscapes in which they flourished. We are also increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that those “important” composers are almost all white men whose work was facilitated by their ability to take advantage of socioeconomic structures (and, in many cases, the invisible labor of their wives).

Finally, some of us are actively committed to introducing our students to the work of living composers. We are interested in expanding and challenging our students’ tastes, bringing new audiences to contemporary music, and helping students to understand how the art music economy works today.

The last chapter of the textbook was no particular help. I concluded the semester with the nagging concern that I had just taught my students about the end of art music.

These goals and concerns certainly occupied my thoughts the first time that I taught 20th- and 21st-century music history. It was 2013, and I was in my first semester as an instructor at the University of North Georgia. I taught a fairly conventional class that traced the emergence of major stylistic movements and focused on new ideas about how and why to write music. When I arrived at the end of the 20th century, however, I faltered. Where was this story going? The last chapter of the textbook—a scattershot survey of composers and works up to the early 2000s—was no particular help. I concluded the semester with the nagging concern that I had just taught my students about the end of art music.

In 2014, I set out to remedy this error. I designed a new research project for my students to complete over the course of the semester. Instead of asking students to research and write about music from the past, I paired each with a living composer. (I started with a roster of my own friends and acquaintances, although this project has since grown to incorporate a large number of composers whom I have never met.) Each student interviewed their composer and studied one of their compositions. At the end of the semester, students gave in-class presentations in which they introduced their colleagues to the composer and work, examined the economic and creative contexts of the composer’s labor, and positioned the work within the current musical landscape.

I was very pleased with the initial round of presentations. I saw my students doing their best work and making deep personal connections with the music they had studied. The next year produced similar outcomes. In 2016, therefore, I scheduled a Saturday symposium, put up posters, and invited the entire department to come see the talks. Although attendance was hardly overwhelming, the event sparked the imagination of my colleague, composer Dr. David Peoples. Why not develop a real conference around the topic of research on living composers and their work?

In November of 2017, the first annual Research on Contemporary Composition Conference (ROCC) took place on our Dahlonega campus. The one-day event brought scholars and composers from across the country and from abroad to present their work alongside my students. In addition, afternoon and evening concerts featured new compositions by members of the NACUSA Southeast chapter. In 2018, ROCC was expanded to two days and the event included an invitation for composers to submit electronic compositions or scores for performance. Participants enjoyed hearing about each other’s work and discussing their research, but they were particularly enthusiastic about the conference’s pedagogical component.

In 2019, therefore, we hope to include presentations by undergraduate students from other institutions, and I would like to strongly encourage music history educators to become involved with this endeavor. If you want to assign my research project in class, you can access the assignment here. However, we welcome undergraduate submissions on any topic related to contemporary composition, whether the work is completed independently, as a summer project, or as a senior thesis. We also continue to welcome submissions from scholars and composers. This year, ROCC will take place on October 26 and 27. The call for submissions can be found here.

Pursuing undergraduate research is a recognized High-Impact Practice—a pedagogical approach that has been proven to boost graduation rates and increase student success. I have demonstrated that this particular project has a positive impact on students’ knowledge of and personal investment in the work of living composers. Yet perhaps most importantly, my students tell me that participating in ROCC is a transformative experience. It changes the way that they think about themselves as musicians and scholars.

By completing original research and sharing it with the broader community, students don’t just learn music history—they help to write it.

By completing original research and sharing it with the broader community, students don’t just learn music history—they help to write it. Each develops a unique perspective and knowledge base that empowers them to shape the conversation taking place around contemporary composition. This is a thrilling experience. Too often, music history students are expected to memorize and regurgitate narratives that have been uncovered and enshrined by “real” scholars. When they become scholars themselves, they don’t just learn about the subject under investigation. They learn about the role of the historian and analyst. They learn that scholarship is subjective, contentious, slippery, and incomplete.

Researching contemporary music also teaches students something important about history. A survey course can easily convey the impression that “great” music is a finite resource generated by a handful of genius composers, each of whom built upon the achievements of the last, and that the composers who have been forgotten failed to earn a place in the repertoire due to their own shortcomings. Concert programming, performance curricula, and popular discourse all serve to reinforce this message. When students become researchers, however, the picture changes.

First, they encounter the extraordinary diversity of ideas, styles, values, objectives, and careers pursued by composers. If there is so much variety today, how can the past have been as monotonous as they are led to believe? They immediately understand that music has always been created from diverse perspectives.

Second, they gain first-hand experience with the vagaries of permanence. They see how a lucky break can thrust one artist into the limelight, while others of equal merit continue to work in the shadows. Where is the guarantee that the “great” composers of today will be remembered? The notion that permanence must be equated with genius becomes ludicrous.

Finally, by leading students to engage with contemporary music, educators can easily begin to address the diversity problems that plague the music history curriculum. There are plenty of non-male and non-white composers creating all kinds of music today, and it is not difficult to bring their voices and sounds into the classroom. Of course, this does not free us from our responsibility to address historical inequalities and to incorporate the contributions of sidelined composers from all eras. It is, however, an excellent place to start.

The Defeat of New Music

University of Arkansas

In this third post, I would like to delve into a narrative of what might have brought New Music to the serious impasse it finds itself at in the United States. Like any narrative, it is partial and incomplete. I acknowledge that there are other reasons that may have contributed to the obscuration of this type of music, but it seems to me that what I describe below had such a significant impact on the erasure of New Music that it deserves special attention.

The connection between contemporary music and academia in the U.S. is crucial in order to address New Music’s ramifications. According to Brigham Young University Professor Brian Harker, composition “found its rightful place as an intellectual proposition under the umbrella of ‘theory’ in virtually all college curricula of the early century.”[1] In this respect, “the emphasis was not on original work (…) but ‘on playing the sedulous ape’ to the best models of music literature in the attempt to know how if not what to write.”[2] Composition was thus subordinated to theory as a means to gain greater knowledge about existing music.

However, in the beginning of the second half of the last century, the relationship between theory and composition as intertwined academic disciplines was responsible for the eventual establishment of composition as a serious scholarly field in its own right. Composition gained its current academic status through a feeble connection to the empiricism that music theory and other disciplines more prone to scientism may appear to explore, despite the fact that composition may not be easily evaluated by means of academic structures associated with scholarly disciplines such as history or physics.

Composition gained its current academic status through a feeble connection to the empiricism that music theory and other disciplines more prone to scientism may appear to explore.

Milton Babbitt was a pivotal figure in accelerating this endeavor. With Roger Sessions, Babbitt prompted a number of young composers and theorists to explore a scientistic approach to music-making and analysis. This group would later be associated with the journal Perspectives of New Music. Harvard Ph.D. candidate Monica Hershberger has also suggested that Paul Fromm’s two seminars in Advanced Musical Study, which took place at Princeton in 1959 and 1960, might have “paved the way for the journal Perspectives of New Music and the founding of the Ph.D. in music composition.”[3] The seminars included lectures by Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter, Edward T. Cone, Allen Forte, Felix Galimir, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and others. Some of the titles of these lectures (“Polyphonic Time in the Music of Stravinsky,” “Form in Music”) should point to the close relationship between theory and composition that those musicians were trying to nurse. By virtue of its relation to consistent methodology, music theory was the pretext through which composition could be relatable to scientific developments and gain a similar status to the work that a number of logical positivists in U.S. academic circles fostered after World War II. It was precisely due to this connection that composition most likely evolved into harboring its own scholarly sphere. Ultimately, it appears that Babbitt was largely responsible for the creation of the Ph.D. in composition at Princeton.[4] And, for all we know, the justification of composition as a field that could be somehow compared to science is what led contemporary music to be embedded in U.S. academia.

My colleague Franklin Cox has described this type of “American modern music” as a form of Reductive Modernism:

Reductive Modernism (…) maintained most of the apparatus—most importantly the notion of aesthetic progressivism—of Modernism, but converted it into more testable and propagatable form, which was most easily done by functionalizing it and stripping it of all “fuzzy” residue, such as its immanent political aims, its moral pretensions, its delicately balanced tensions, its cultivation of tasteful critics and readers, and its redemptory (albeit highly conservative) aims. Often modeled on scientistic beliefs, it favored innovation as its own goal, and favored above all else technical and material innovation.[5]

The works of Babbitt and his acolytes may be processed through the lens of Reductive Modernism, since their authors did not seem to be concerned with the critique-based project of New Music that I introduced in the second essay of this series. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that perhaps it is not their music that is Reductive, but the academic discourse that they developed surrounding that music. Without delving too much into ontology and semiotics, I would propose that the actual sounds that shape music, regardless of the particular cultural context where they were created, may be perceived and processed in a wide variety of ways. Music is a cultural artifact that cannot be isolated from its socioeconomic context: it is not recognized as such through how it solely sounds, but rather by how it has been defined according to the specific material conditions during the time of its creation, the ways that it has been interpreted throughout historical change, and by whether it conforms (and to what extent) to the prevailing state of affairs. It would be unreasonable to imagine the sounds that belong to a particular musical context separated from the social, economic, cultural, and discursive conditions that led to the realization of those sounds in the first place. The alleged “Reductive Modernist” music that Babbitt and other East Coast serialists practiced (the sounds they produced) may actually be Reductive, but it is not Reductive only as a result of the way it sounds, but rather by both how it sounds and relates to global circumstances beyond the sonic domain.

Without having a desire to be polemical, I am afraid that this music has merely become the elitist entertainment of a shrinking upper-middle class that still can afford to go to college.

At any rate, the intricacies surrounding U.S. modern music had an impact on the perception of academic contemporary music on behalf of future generations. Babbitt’s proposal in “Who Cares If You Listen?,”[6] which suggests that modernist composers should seek refuge in the university’s ivory tower, is a paradigmatic example of an ideology of withdrawal. Because of Babbitt and others, contemporary music gained access to academia and did find some solace, but the price of admission was nevertheless very high. By fundamentally treating contemporary music as a field of scientistic exploration, this type of music neglected most of its bonds with modernity and its emancipatory project based on self-critique. This compositional discourse, which echoes the prioritization of newness for its own sake, has considerable potential to be subsumed under a complacent cultural logic by virtue of the discourse’s indifference toward treating music holistically. By not expanding music’s critical capacities beyond its internal qualities (structure), I am afraid that the East Coast serialists helped to build, perhaps unknowingly, a musical-academic culture that is unable to act counterculturally. The recontextualization of methodologies historically associated with the natural sciences into the realm of sonic creativity resulted in a positivist music that runs the risk of validating the status quo, thus helping to support some type of emancipatory stasis—the illusion of musical (and social) progress. The musical culture that the East Coast serialists nurtured not only has the potential to be satisfied with its own conditions due to its intrinsic tendency to glorify technology and its false promise of a better future, but also it is prone to become unfit to function as a force of critique. By disengaging itself from this facet of modernity, contemporary music fostered an environment where New Music became largely residual.

At present, contemporary music in U.S. academia has primarily become the space where young U.S. citizens can explore sound creatively without ever needing to consider that music may perhaps be more than a commodity. Without having a desire to be polemical, I am afraid that this music has merely become the elitist entertainment of a shrinking upper-middle class that still can afford to go to college. Perhaps from the very beginning, the project of New Music had already been defeated, but that does not mean it is dead.

The final essay in this series will suggest some paths for contemporary music practitioners to tackle the future.

1. Brian Harker, “Milton Babbitt Encounters Academia (And Vice Versa),” American Music 26, 3 (Fall 2008): 340–341.

2. Ibid., 341.

3. Monica Hershberger, “Princeton Seminars (1959 & 1960),” Fromm Foundation,

4. Hershberger has also suggested that Paul Fromm could have wanted Perspectives of New Music—a journal he helped establish—to “be a vehicle for the learned articles that would be the university composer’s response to the administration’s demand for the kind of articles faculty members in most fields write to get academic advancement.” (Arthur Berger, Reflections of an American Composer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 142–143). In this regard, Fromm might have been indirectly responsible for the creation of the Ph.D. in composition.

5. Franklin Cox, “Critical Modernism: Beyond Critical Composition and Uncritical Art,” in Critical Composition Today (Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2006), 145.

6. http://www.palestrant.com/babbitt.html.

Why I’m Not Getting a Doctorate

school bus

Photo by Gerry Dincher, via Flickr

I envy those who feel compelled to teach collegiate composition and music theory, who pursue a doctorate with this end goal in mind. Academia offers a stable career option for a composer: a salary, benefits, and possible tenure in a field that’s notorious for instability and little financial reward.

In the field of music, though, so many composers default to pursuing a doctoral degree and a teaching career without 1) considering the musical and general strengths that could augment their composing career outside of academia, or 2) asking themselves whether they excel at teaching or even enjoy it. I’ve witnessed numerous colleagues continuing on to a doctoral degree simply because it’s the next logical step, something to delay having to find a job.

I adored my time at the University of Southern California, where I received my master’s degree. My two years there felt too short in many ways, not because of the classes I’d taken, but rather because of the wonderful professors, abundant performance opportunities, and colleagues who quickly became lifelong friends. I was tempted to continue on to a doctoral degree at USC, but to do so would’ve been ultimately motivated by fear. While there is beauty in pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, my getting a doctorate would have been staying in school only to delay the inevitable, the “real world” that seems so terrifying as a student.

This “real world” is just as full of performance opportunities and outstanding mentors/colleagues as a university, though; it just takes a little more work to discover them. I made a pact with myself when I graduated with my master’s degree that I’d give myself three years to pursue whatever it would take to turn composing into a full-time career, and to evaluate the many forms in which that career could take shape.

If the arch of my career started to flatline or decline over the course of those three years, I decided, I’d consider going back to school. If my career continued to ascend at the same rate it had previously—which is to say, each year I had more performances than the previous year, or performances with higher-profile groups; or I made a little more money composing; or I simply felt more confident in my ability to ultimately make a living as a composer—I wouldn’t go back to school. If I could make it through those three years, I reasoned, I could make it through ten, or twenty, or whatever it took until my income matched my aspirations.

It’s been four years since I made the decision not to get a doctorate. I knew I’d have to find other sources beyond composing to support myself initially; I worked part-time as a nanny after graduating with my master’s degree, and more recently I’ve been teaching piano and composition to a small roster of around 15 students.

I do find it slightly ironic that after choosing not to apply for a doctorate—insisting I don’t want to teach for a living—I’m now teaching private piano and composition lessons. But the students I teach now, who range from ages 5 to 15, are passionate about piano and/or composition, and they are—most days—an absolute joy to work with. I run my own teaching studio; I control when and to whom I teach, and I’m on the path to making a living solely from composing by 2017.

I teach Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons/evenings, with one flexible student on Sunday mornings. This leaves mornings and Thursdays, Fridays, and weekends for composing and the business of composing. I continue to do what I’ve been doing since high school: applying to every composing opportunity I can find that excites me and offers the chance to advance my career.

I’m lucky that I love to write music for chorus, one of the few fields where a majority of ensembles actively program new music. Choosing a few years of making $25,000-30,000 a year in favor of ultimately supporting myself through composition has been well worth the trade-off to me: I am the one in control of how I spend my time. Filing taxes is never a fun activity, but this year I was happy to find that close to half of my income in 2014 was from composing. This percentage has been growing steadily every year.

I’ve made the decision to pursue composition as a full-time career, to align myself with this choice daily and pursue it whole-heartedly; so far, it’s working.

The Dilemma of the “Postmodern Avant-Garde”

“[eighth blackbird] were really cool, really nice. They really made me feel like an equal, even though it’s pretty clear that I’m not an equal.”
—Composer Jeremy Sment, ca. 2007, as quoted in John Pippen, “Toward a Postmodern Avant-Garde: Labour, Virtuosity, and Aesthetics in an American New Music Ensemble” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Ontario, 2014)

So, enough about how not to do the musicology of the present—on to those new paths I promised when I began this series. In today’s post and next week’s, I will present for your approval highlights from two recent musicological studies that, in my opinion, break methodological ground on their way to some mind-opening hypotheses about the structure of the contemporary art-music world. As we’ll see, each marshals an unusual array of evidence toward a new, counterintuitive conceptual parsing of today’s musical culture. In both cases, the framework can be boiled down to a single oxymoronic phrase that encapsulates the power of a fresh musicological idea to shake up long-held positions within the world of those who care about new music.
Disclaimer: These two vignettes are not the result of a systematic search through the newest literature, nor do they anoint one-of-a-kind musicological geniuses. (I don’t work for John D. and Catherine T.) These are two excellent young scholars doing interesting work of a kind being nurtured at many top institutions of higher musicological learning. But not my own institution—I thought it would be poor form to single out my own advisees or blow my own departmental horn. (Sorry, y’all at UCLA. Here’s an inside joke to make you feel special.)

The Ol’ Pomo Ro-Sham-Bo
Rock Paper And Vintage Scissors
To readers familiar with contemporary battles over contemporary aesthetics, the phrase “postmodern avant-garde” may sound odd, like a bad opening move in the extended game of rock-paper-scissors that often seems to monopolize trapped new music players: avant-garde smashes modern; modern cuts postmodern; postmodern covers modern; repeat until exhausted. This three-handed game is quite complex: postmodernism can be understood as both a negation and an extension of modernism; as either a (historicist, eclectic) reaction to the asperity and self-reflexivity of modernist aesthetics, or an even more radical resistance (by anti-art gesture) to entrenched aesthetic hierarchy and traditionalism. But the postmodern thereby re-enacts the historical revolt of the early 20th-century avant-garde, which deliberately shredded the pretensions of both traditionalism and modernism. And yet…that “avant-garde,” as its name reminds us, is also an affirmative desire, to be part of a (small) vanguard at the forefront of culture—the same desire that postmodernism, defining its essential position as belatedness, denies as a dangerous utopian fantasy. Ro-sham-bo.

In this context, talking about a “postmodern avant-garde” might well seem oxymoronic. But what at first glance appears self-contradictory might, upon closer inspection, disclose itself as a fundamental social tension within new music culture—or, rather, a tension between the ideals of that culture and the material reality of contemporary socio-economic structures.

You Had to Be There

“Postmodern avant-garde” is the coinage of musicologist John Pippen, whose freshly minted doctoral dissertation is built around a detailed cultural ethnography of the new music ensemble eighth blackbird. Pippen has done what any musicologist must do if he or she wants to escape from the endless ro-sham-bo of modern vs. postmodern: he has gone out and done actual research on the world of the people and institutions trying to survive playing new music. The originality of his work inheres in its detailed look at a single new music presenter as the group attempts to negotiate the complexities and contradictions of commissioning, performing, and promoting new music inside a small musical world still dominated by the canonical “classics” of the 18th and 19th centuries. Pippen has read concert reviews and their marketing materials; he has also interviewed the members of eighth blackbird, worked for them, attended concerts and rehearsals, talked to composers from whom they have commissioned, and even handed out questionnaires at a large public event in Chicago’s Millennium Park. His description of eighth blackbird’s world is thus “thicker” (in the Geertzian sense) than most; it allows him to grasp some of the most deeply rooted contradictions in contemporary musical life.

Pippen is not interested in asserting a causal relation between the modern, the postmodern, and the avant-garde, nor is he trying to fit these stances into an old-fashioned evolutionary narrative of works and styles:

Though I am not advocating for a complete abandonment of structuralist views, I do believe there is more to music than an accounting of the sonic qualities of works and their historical origins. Rather than simply summarize a series of aesthetic trends observable in new musical works, therefore, I have attempted to approach music as both object and practice.

As would any careful ethnologist, Pippen accepts that his informants are trying their best to find a “correct” mode of practice while harmonizing the conflicting imperatives inherent in their personal preferences and cultural position (what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has famously called the habitus). In this case, eighth blackbird’s “struggle” (explicitly named as such by one of its members in conversation with Pippen) is to balance the tensions between a performing ethos and a concert world still dominated by modernist ideas (virtuosity, the work, progress, structural listening) and the reality of a post-industrial knowledge economy dominated by superficiality, image making, emotional work, commodification, and branding.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Sextet

eighth blackbird

eighth blackbird
Photo by Luke Ratray

The tensions and contradictions are real. Pippen has been witness to some goofy interactions, as when the ensemble uses social media to create an illusion of nerdy intimacy with their followers:

One day in 2011 Tim Munro, the member generally in charge of the group’s publicity, shot video of Yvonne Lam and Nick Photinos as they worked out the bowing for a particular phrase, and posted the video on Twitter with the caption, “First bowing conversation of the season!”

This kind of promotionalism, in which eighth blackbird—a set of uncompromising new music virtuosos whose very name references one of the canonical moments of mid-century modernism—presents itself as “your friendly neighborhood sextet working hard—but always happily—as they get ready for their next sensational show,” might well be a turn-off for musical intellectuals. Pippen is not entirely taken with it either. He’s the one who recorded the self-deprecating comment from composer Jeremy Sment at the top of the page, evidence that just being “cool” and “friendly” does not erase hierarchies of power within the field of cultural production. I myself would add that presenting the hard, repetitive work of mastering difficult music as a kind of “fun” also fits into a neoliberal pattern where cultural workers exploit themselves under the sign of “doing what you love.”

The Struggle is Real

Crucially, Pippen is not particularly worried about whether the musical works eighth blackbird performs are themselves aesthetically progressive or reactionary; he sees the forces acting on the group as more eclectic than that, as “a particular mixture of modernist aesthetic goals, postmodern desires for accessibility, and fundamental concerns about the financial realities of the new music field.” This last concern is not one usually encountered in narratives of style history. In fact, this isn’t really a story about style at all; although Pippen uses the more compact term “postmodern avant-garde,” what he has uncovered is the social struggle to maintain a modernist avant-garde position within a cultural world dominated by the conditions of postmodernity.
A music historian of the old school would use the actions of eighth blackbird (and reactions to them) to determine whether there is a future for new music, and, if so, what part of the musical past such a future might most resemble. If that turns you on, go for it. The game of rock-paper-scissors is never ending. But the musicology of the present, under whose flag I have taken the liberty of enlisting John Pippen (if you disagree, please blame my reading, not his work), is less interested in declaring winners and losers in the game of history, and more sympathetic to the dynamics on the field of play at a given moment. Pippen’s summary take on eighth blackbird’s postmodern brand of avant-gardism seems, to me, very humane:

Here we find not the “anything goes” attitude described by [critics of postmodernism]. Rather, we find an acknowledgement of failure, a recognition of controversy and, in spite of all this, an ongoing commitment to the presentation of “difficult” music. This is not abject relativism. This is struggle.

Right on, brother. In my final post, I’ll feature another fascinating oxymoron taken from a recent study of the way university culture has figured in the development of late 20th-century musical taste. What would it mean to conceptualize an “elite popular music”? And would that concept help us navigate the dangerous passage between high and low musics in a post-hierarchical, omnivorous era of cultural consumption?

The Role Of College Teaching In The Life of A Creative Musician

The Grass is Greener

Photo by Scot Woodman on Flickr

“There’s no way I could come to your university and perform with your students. Academic institutions suck all the creative life out of me. I hate them. I try to avoid them as much as possible.”
“But William Paterson University is a creative place,” I responded. “We have a great New Music Series and an amazing jazz program and we do a lot of commissioning and improvising out there. I think you’d like the vibe.”
“Nope,” he said. “I appreciate your offer, but my experience with schools is that they are creativity killers. They’re just so conservative and backwards thinking. Thanks but no thanks.”

Sigh. Once again I found myself trying in vain to defend the profession of teaching music at the university level and the academic institutions that support it. I had offered this prominent New York City composer/performer a good fee, a nice sushi dinner, and the opportunity to have his piece performed by a dedicated group of students and faculty who would put months of preparation into it, but I was getting nowhere. I let it go and we talked about other things.

This musician’s attitude was particularly intense, but it wasn’t the first time I had encountered such resistance to academic institutions. Over the years, many of my friends and colleagues across the U.S. who are freelance musicians and specialize in contemporary music have told me that they dislike schools of any sort and they want nothing to do with them. They’ve either implied or stated outright that if I were really good at what I do then I would be able to make it as a freelancer and I wouldn’t need to teach. They believe the old adage of “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.”

At first I just shrugged this off as arrogant first-world thinking. I thought that in the interest of enhancing their street credibility, they could afford to discredit the system that helped them develop their skills, because in the end there was still plenty of money and work to go around. But after considering it more carefully I came to the conclusion that the issue is more complicated and subtle and deserves exploration. I’ll explain, but first, some background.


I’ve been teaching at the tenure-track college level for thirteen years. Even before I had my DMA from the Eastman School of Music in hand at twenty-six years old, I had landed a tenure-track job at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. I taught ethnomusicology and percussion there for three years (2001–2004) and then landed my current position at William Paterson University (WP) in Wayne, New Jersey, twenty miles west of New York City. At WP I teach percussion, contemporary music, Indian classical music, and improvisation. I was tenured in 2009 and am currently at the rank of Associate Professor.
I set my sights on a college teaching job when I was a freshman during my undergraduate years at the University of Michigan. I knew by then that my options were fairly limited in terms of making a living in the U.S. as a composer and percussionist. Most of my colleagues in the percussion area were trying to land jobs with orchestras. I’ve never found orchestral percussion playing particularly interesting, so I scratched that option off the list right away. The other possibility was a job playing percussion with a military band, but it was still basically an orchestral gig, so I scratched that one off the list too.

That basically left freelance work or college teaching. For me, college teaching was a better choice. To start, I’ve always enjoyed teaching. Secondly, I knew that it would take some time to find the right job and that I would have to jump through some hoops to tailor the job to what I wanted, but I also knew that when I got things where I wanted them I would have a stable income, good health insurance, and a solid retirement package. But here’s the salient point: those things really only mattered to me because they would give me the freedom to perform and compose the music I wanted.

Freelancing as a composer/performer never appealed to me for one simple reason: I’ve never wanted to play or write music that I don’t believe in. I knew that as a freelance percussionist I would need to play any and all gigs to survive—especially for the first decade or so I was in a city—which would likely include playing in bands for corporate gigs and bars, musical theatre shows, commercial recording sessions, and orchestral percussion gigs. As a composer I would likely need to write commercial music. I did all those things in the first few years I was working, but I did them knowing that it was just to round out my musical experience to make me a better teacher. I didn’t want to be doing them in the later part of my life.

Of course, I would never criticize anyone who has taken that path. Many of my colleagues have an agnostic attitude towards music. So long as they’re playing drums (or violin or whatever), they are happy, no matter what the style or situation. The same goes for many of my composer friends. I respect them greatly. After all, it’s very difficult to survive as a freelancer anywhere in the world. But I’ve always felt that it wasn’t the right path for me, and many others feel the same. My burning passion has always been experimental music and world music. [1] What I needed was complete freedom to pursue any musical direction I want, no matter the commercial value.

Of course, there are other ways to go about this. America has a long history of composers and performers working jobs unrelated to the music field in order to pay the bills. Charles Ives working in the insurance business, Philip Glass driving a taxi and working as a plumber in the early part of his career, and John Cage working a variety of jobs until he was nearly fifty years old are but a few famous examples. I also considered that option, but I couldn’t get the math to work out, both in terms of finances and time. If I worked just a few hours a day at Starbucks or another entry-level job I’d have the time and mental space I needed to pursue my artistic vision, but not the money. Everything I earned would get sucked into paying bills and I’d have nothing left over to invest in hiring good players to perform my music, make recordings, buy equipment, build press materials, etc.—the basic things you need to form a career. This is especially true in big cities like New York where the basic minimum wage has fallen far behind the cost of living over the last forty years. Steve Reich could drive a cab in the early 1970s and rent an apartment for $50 a month and save a bit of money to pay his ensemble members and release recordings, but that’s much more difficult now.
If I got involved with a more serious career like selling insurance or working as a lawyer I would have the money I needed, but not the time. I’m an incredibly energetic guy, but even I have my limits. Fifty hours a week at the office wouldn’t leave much mental space or physical energy for composing sessions, long rehearsals, and touring.

College teaching seemed like the perfect answer because the hours are generally much lower but the pay is reasonable. Most weeks I’m up at the University about three to four days. One of those days is quite long, from about 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., but the other days are shorter. On average I’d say my time teaching and attending to various administrative duties is about twenty to thirty hours a week, for about eight months a year.

There are two things about those hours that make them special, however. First, they are flexible. I tour many weeks each semester and it’s very easy for me to rearrange rehearsals, classes, and lessons. Second, I’m immersed in fascinating, quality music during those hours and I have the freedom to choose good repertoire. I pick the pieces I’ll conduct, I organize my classes how I like, and when working with students one on one in percussion or composition lessons I help them select the repertoire. I also have a laboratory at my fingertips to help develop my own music. That all gives me a lot of job satisfaction because I have some degree of creative control; I’m not just taking orders from someone.

However, lest you might be getting ready to write a letter to the Governor of New Jersey expressing your anger at lazy professors who only work twenty to thirty hours a week and enjoy a fat salary, let me put those hours in perspective. Those are only the hours I spend at the university. When you add in my composing time each day, my practicing, and several hours a day on email and the phone for hustling the various business aspects of my career outside the university (as well as the university administrative work), the hours top out closer to sixty or seventy, sometimes more.

Of course, college teaching jobs are hard to get. When my freelance musician friends make disparaging statements to me about college teachers being second-rate players or composers, I gently remind them that based on one’s performance recital and interview, getting a job usually means someone has beat out well over 100 applicants for a position—most of whom are freelancers. And being a successful university professor requires more than just teaching and playing skills. One must know how to interact with Deans and Presidents, apply for grants, and navigate the various administrative and political aspects of working in a large organization. Maintaining this balance is more difficult than it may seem and many people don’t have the knack for it.
There is something else many freelancers don’t know: being successful at a university gig and climbing the academic ladder has more to do with what you do outside the university than what you do inside. Once in a great while someone will be denied tenure because his or her teaching is bad, but usually someone is fired at the university because he or she didn’t have the ambition and vision to build a successful career outside the confines of the academic institution. This is a great boon to serious musicians who teach, as it justifies spending time away from the university while on tour or making plenty of room in one’s schedule for composing.

There are three basic criteria that promotion and tenure committees look at when evaluating a candidate. First, the quality of their teaching as measured through student and faculty peer evaluations. Second, the quality and quantity of a candidate’s professional life outside the university, and third is service to the university (committees, panels, etc). There are a few universities who bill themselves as “teaching” universities in which the teaching is the most important criteria and professional work doesn’t matter, but in general there is no question that one’s professional activity is what guarantees employment. “Publish or perish.” That is why most college professors are excellent players and composers. They have to be or they’ll lose their jobs.


But what about what that prominent NYC composer/performer said? Are university music programs conservative places that have little use for truly creative thinking?
Yes, sometimes they are!

I’ve spent hundreds of hours of my life sitting through faculty meetings and serving on various committees and in my experience university music departments are often risk-adverse. There are two reasons for this.
First, frequently updating curriculum (or simply letting students design their own with guidance from a professor, which is what I advocate) requires flexibility from the faculty. One must be willing to teach something different every semester and take on the role of adviser and collaborator rather than top-down mentor. However, many faculty are unwilling to do this, mostly out of ennui. Once many professors have become comfortable teaching something, they are unwilling to investigate new ways to apply their knowledge to a rapidly-changing art form. Unfortunately the classic image of the professor wearing the dandruff-covered sweater jacket, peering over reading glasses at ancient notes that he or she made decades ago (on paper no doubt) is all too alive and well.

There is little the students or other faculty can do about this. Unless a tenured professor does something illegal, the unions hold so much power it is nearly impossible to fire him or her. Indeed, this is the primary criticism people have leveled against the tenure system: that it fosters stagnation and only serves the professors. This is a fair criticism and one I’ve expressed many times (and I’m a tenured professor). But getting rid of tenure entirely would be very dangerous. That would put the employment of the faculty at the whims of higher administrators, most of who know virtually nothing about the field of music and are often quick to fire and hire people to serve their own career interests.

The solution is to keep the tenure system, but never guarantee life-long employment. Rather, one should be able to earn increasingly longer sentences of job security. So, for example, one could come up for review after one year, then two years, then four years, then perhaps every six or eight years for the rest of one’s career at a given institution. The reviews should have teeth and no matter how long someone has been at an institution he or she should sweat at the conclusion of each block, even if they’ve been there thirty years. This would force faculty to stay professionally active and keep refining their teaching and answering the challenge of working in a dynamic musical culture. This structure would be fairer to the students—who deserve professors who are professionally active—and it’s fairer to the majority of the faculty at any given institution who are burning the candle at both ends.

The other reason most university music departments are so risk adverse is because the canon takes on too much weight over time. The great composers of the past wrote so much great music and it takes so much time to get through even a fraction of it that it can be difficult for professors to figure out ways to balance a thorough education in the old masterpieces with more modern skill sets (e.g., music software literacy or world music awareness). Some schools have responded to this challenge by throwing out the old masterpieces all together and letting the students study whatever they want, which usually means pop music. This often falls under the guise of postmodernism. “Down with The Man!” “No more letting dead males dictate our aesthetics!”

However, those dead males wrote a lot of great music. Although I’d like to see more flexibility in curriculums, there is no question that working through the standard repertoire develops one’s technique better than anything else, and technique is important. One thing I’ve noticed after thirteen years of professional work with the best contemporary classical and jazz musicians in America is that without exception, the most creative players have a thorough grounding in the classics. A handful of them got it outside of school, but almost all of them procured it during their high school and university years. Indeed, I frequently hear “new music” by young composers who have eschewed the classic studies of counterpoint, orchestration, and harmony because it’s too “conformist” or some other such response. The results are dreadful and predictable: poorly orchestrated tunes that lack coherence. Even worse is the performer who has refused to grapple with the standard repertoire and has developed their “own thing.” Sloppy tuning, bad rhythm, and lousy tone are the primary results.

A basic working knowledge of the canon also gives one a key into a fraternity of professional musicians. It is basic musical literacy. For example, if you are a classical musician and you don’t know anything about the music of Palestrina or Stravinsky and you don’t know who Yo-Yo Ma is you won’t be able to communicate effectively with the best classical musicians working today. (And more importantly, you’ll have deprived yourself of some of the greatest music ever written and performed.)
One must be careful not to confuse conformity with discipline. Even though university music programs need to find more creative and dynamic ways to balance the study of the canon with the diverse skill sets needed to negotiate the modern musical landscape, studying the canon and developing a highly refined technique are still paramount. You can’t escape it. Studying the classical masterpieces of the past only fosters conformity if the professor insists that his or her students blindly imitate that music or interpretations of that music. (In the case of jazz this would take the form of stopping with the Abersold method. That is, getting to a point where you can imitate the great jazz musicians of the past, but can’t go any further.)

However, good teachers do much more than that. They open students’ ears and souls to the creative spirit underlying all great music and thus enable the transference of that creativity from one generation to another. What that New York City composer/performer that I quoted at the beginning of this article failed to understand is that at William Paterson University (and other quality music schools) we focus on the classics because that is the best framework for a young musician to gain the skills needed to perform all manner of modern music. That doesn’t make our institution uncreative or conformist. Quite the opposite: our dedication to creative music requires us to focus on the canon. Indeed, what we want for our students is for them to become the most creative musicians of their generation, but first they need some chops.

What music schools and departments need is balance, and I think art departments do it better than we do. Art majors start creating art from their very first day, in different mediums, while simultaneously studying the great classics through their art history courses. There’s no reason we can’t do this in music departments. Every music student in America should be composing, improvising, and learning music software as part of their university education, all the while studying Beethoven symphonies and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. As I said at the beginning of this section, this can be done in a way that maximizes each student’s individual interests and talents by letting them design their own curriculum under the guidance of a supportive mentor. It might take a bit more effort on the part of the professors, but the result would be a much more dynamic and relevant experience for everyone.


The big point that critics of college teaching fail to understand is that teaching music is more than just teaching music. Yes, of course a teacher has to teach a student how to hold a bow, or how to realize second-species counterpoint, or how to play a double-stroke roll, but it’s more than that. A good teacher connects the great musicians and musical works of the past with the present, while paving the road for the future. This doesn’t just mean technique, rather, it means connecting with the wildly creative spirits that flowed through each and every great musician of the past. This is one of the things I love about teaching: I regularly come into contact with wonderful music and by figuring out how to help other people plumb the depths of these sonic wonders I am refreshed. My passion for creative music is renewed time and again.

I also see people change. Over the course of four or five years my students become more sensitive, intelligent, and creative because of their contact with great music. Ultimately, it is these deeply spiritual experiences that motivate my teaching, not financial stability.

Each of us is a link in a chain that extends outwards to infinity in either direction. None of us were hatched from eggs yesterday (to borrow a phrase from J.M. Coetzee). We all owe a huge debt to those people who spent the extra hours with us to make our performing and composing that much better, and opened our ears and hearts and minds to the masterpieces of the past. Our teachers didn’t just give us employable skills, they deeply enriched our lives. We can repay this debt in many ways, but one of the most powerful is by doing the same for others. It’s a massive challenge, but ultimately a musical one.
Undoubtedly my attitude in this regard comes partly from my deep involvement with North Indian Hindustani classical music. In India teaching is held in high regard and even the most commercially successful performers (e.g., Zakir Hussain) make time in their lives for teaching. My gurus, the renowned Dhrupad masters the Gundecha Brothers, regularly bring their top students on tour with them. The students join them on stage and play the tanpura (the drone instrument) and often sing backup vocals. Teaching actually happens on stage, even for major concerts. When the show is over it is common for the teachers to quiz the students on what they just heard and for the students to ask questions about the performance, even very specific technical ones. Thus the teaching and the performing are seamlessly intertwined. The past, present, and future connected as one.
Of course, some people have no talent for teaching or interest in it. But their deficiencies or attitudes shouldn’t be twisted into virtues. As with most things in life, the reality is highly contextual and subtle, much more than the crude distinctions many people make between “teachers” and “freelancers.” Yes, there are some bad teachers out there, but there are also many wonderful teachers who are highly accomplished performers and composers outside of the academy. And yes, many college music programs are procrustean and need improvement, but they still serve an important basic function to give our future generations the basic skills they need to participate in creative music making at the highest levels.

There is nothing more important to the future of creative music than passionate and talented teachers. Let us all reevaluate the role of teaching in the realm of creative contemporary music, and let us be glad that many of us college professors are working tirelessly to inspire creative music-making in future generations.


1. I realize that I’m drawing somewhat of a line here between “commercial” music and “experimental” music, and I admit that that line is quite fuzzy and often doesn’t exist clearly at all. All music has both elements to it, but it is a matter of degree. There is quite a difference in intent—and I would say artistic effect—between the music of, say, Justin Bieber and Charles Wuorinen. No matter how clever one is in trying to erase that line and intellectualize the supposed similarities between Mr. Bieber and Mr. Wuorinen, the fact is that the audiences are different, the venues are different, composing and learning and performing the music is different, and the emotional experience of hearing the music is quite different. No disrespect to Mr. Bieber, but I much prefer Mr. Wuorinen’s music, or Mr. Cage’s music, or Mr. Reich’s music, or Ravi Shankar’s music, and it is that music and music that is created in that spirit to which I have devoted my life.


Payton MacDonald
Payton MacDonald is a composer/percussionist/singer/improviser/administrator/educator. He has created a unique body of work that draws upon his extensive experience with East Indian tabla drumming and Dhrupad singing, Jazz, European classical music, and the American experimental tradition. MacDonald was educated at the University of Michigan and Eastman School of music. He has toured the world as a performer and composed music for many different ensembles.

Defining Musical Quality

match stack
I will devote my entire final post here at NewMusicBox to quality. I’ve defined this word several ways. In my first article, I called it “an urgency and an intensity, a compositional concern and a social language to address it.” In the next post, urgency turned into need. I wrote about how need comes from within, not from outside pressure—a necessary thing can supply its own reasons for being. Artworks of necessity thrive in non-coercive social situations. In my second and third articles, I spelled out ways in which the neoliberal culture of coercive production changed new music. By defining quality against neoliberal labor conditions, I gave the word a social dimension. I cannot separate quality judgment from social critique. In this article, I want to expand quality into agency—a thing can only advocate for itself if it can speak.

I’ve spoken to many people who have different words for quality. Of course, I encountered quite a few people who considered displays of technique with form, pitch, or other musical parameters as indicators of quality. This type of quality judgment, though, gauges the education of a composer along some pre-written path. If I judge quality simply by technique, I tend to leave the weird, strange, or novel works by the wayside. A friend of mine said that quality music gives him the “ability to sense that the music isn’t an exercise.” He meant something more complicated than a technical evaluation—some pieces allow him to believe that the music exists for non-technical reasons. Many people I’ve talked to about this project name quality “seriousness” or “depth”—I repurpose these ideas for myself as “heaviness” or “gravity.” Some equate quality with arthood. Arthood, in this case, transcends music, it exceeds it—“that’s not just music, that’s a work of art.” Some people associated quality with a sense of disembodiment, with the feeling of being part of (or under the control of) something bigger than one’s body.

I associate quality with “heaviness.” I wish my music could somehow contain only barometric pressure, perhaps even less. I want to feel my music first in the heaviness of the air. I can’t measure this heaviness, but I can feel it. Quality music makes the air heavy. When I feel this weight, I don’t associate it with a physical quantity. Instead, I find myself face to face with some enormous thing, some collective project that exceeds my relationship to it. It’s huge—I sense its gravity.

Truly, music is “bigger” than the people who make it; it contains more mass. Pieces of music belong to storms of material—possibilities, concepts, notes, institutions, people, chairs, bodies, bows, strings, noises. I like to think that I act upon this material inasmuch as this material acts upon me. Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory or Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter both describe similar whirlwinds of capable objects, in which people (and our own internal assemblages of objects) participate. If I trick my brain a little, I can convince myself that out of music’s “big-ness,” parts of it—parts that aren’t even human—can act. I feel the heaviness of the air when giant globs of matter accrete, squish together, and move things with their gravity.

If the gravity metaphor feels unsatisfying, the “gaze” might be a nice alternative. If I listen to music and sense that a chaotic pile of nonhuman things somehow acts in concert, I have a very strange reaction. The subject-object relationship switches, I become an object to a process. Jacques Lacan calls this sensation “the gaze.” Instead of the heaviness of gravity, I feel the weight of something’s imposing stare.

Both gravity and gaze depend on the transition between a pile of stuff and a thing. Like many others before me, I call this process “emergence.” I like Elizabeth Barnes’s definition of emergence in her essay “Emergence and Fundamentality.” Paraphrasing, her emergent thing has two qualities. An emergent thing is “dependent”—music relies on an enormous quantity of parts and exists as long as these parts persist. An emergent thing is also “fundamental”—some music adds up to more than the sum of its parts. One can’t take music and break it down into a determining set of pieces.

To my ears, quality music emerges out of its context and becomes its own thing. It acquires some strange autonomy from its circumstances. I attribute quality to the sense of this transformation, to music’s tearing of its own constitutive fabric. I associate quality with the gravity consolidating musical goo into identity, or the pressure of being stared at (or through) by a piece of music. Take Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example—this thing exists almost in another dimension. It’s beyond music, beyond even being a cultural artifact. Timothy Morton might call it a “hyperobject”—a thing so huge that it exceeds our ability to really think about it. However, I’ve definitely experienced it, or at least a fragment or a flash of it during a committed performance.
Now, I don’t put forward this wacky ontology just because it allows me to judge things. Thinking this way raises some serious implications for the practice of music. First, it breaks the causal stream from composer to performer to music. Instead of composing or playing or listening to music, I participate in its preconditions. If musicians think of music as its own thing, like a ghost waiting for summoning, they change their orientation towards it. Sure, the composer and performer and listener roles can still exist, but they also drift towards each other—they require each other more. Everyone becomes a different type of listener equipped with different instruments of hearing. They can fail together. I don’t feel the heaviness of the air often. Many times, I don’t sense that a piece includes almost anything. If this is the case, then there must exist some conditions that prohibit music’s emergence.

Composers can create hostile work environments for music. Instead of writing music badly, composers can facilitate bad situations. For example, a composer may write a work riddled with notational mistakes or ambiguities. Such problems don’t destroy the music, they just make a performance situation harder or an informed audience member cynical. Deeper problems could include a lack of structural consideration, an overdisplay of musical rhetoric, whatever—they exist as problems only insofar as they stifle a performer’s comprehension or an audience member’s belief. Performers, in turn, can make a well-written piece into a bad piece. (They can also beat the odds and enable a poorly written piece to come into itself). Hierarchies dissolve into a statistical wash. One never ruins music on one’s own, but one can make things difficult. Quality means something entirely relational—everyone, at every stage, is implicated.

Larger, slow-moving institutional organisms affect this process as well. As I discussed at length in weeks two and three, new music’s infrastructure makes quality harder—it encourages the overproduction of works and performances. Neoliberal institutions require fungible commodities; music must assume an inert state. Music built to serve an economic end rarely prioritizes its own immanent needs. Performances that reify scores (build products) make simulacra. These performances signify themselves—they are empty, they do not add anything. Consequently, there is less stuff, fewer resources from which a music-thing might build itself. Institutions, compositions, and performances aren’t just filters, though—an outstanding and sensitive performance might introduce new stuff, dimension-crossing stuff, stuff in service to a collective project. A quality composition, in my eyes, unleashes a concentrated stream of stuff, where squashed molecules bash against their limits and into one another. An empowering institutional framework gives people time to make stuff together, to curate intentional stuff, to make their stuff public. A quality listener witnesses and testifies to the remaining stuff of music, the stuff that exceeds composers and performers. These forces spill against and over each other. There is no good or bad, only different types and degrees of empowerment and agency along a long and complex stream of actors.

Quality means empowerment. One doesn’t need to buy my musical ontology to believe that a piece of music is bigger than one’s own actions. Even the most hermetic composers (and I’m certainly among this crowd) have to own up to the fact that their music exceeds the capabilities of their solitary hands. By admitting this one, simple reality, composers and performers and institutions and listeners might realize that the entire community needs to find ways to empower its members. The community should start with music itself and move outwards. If the new music community recognizes the agency of music, its ability to affect people, places, and things, then it might account for just how much has been lost. Music is charged matter. It requires care.

I’d like to thank the dozens of people I interacted with over the course of this project. I won’t mention any of you by name (though I wouldn’t mind doing so!), but please know that the collectivity of our efforts over the past few weeks literally provided me with the meaning of quality.

New Music is Academic Music

Though new music’s project isn’t essentially academic, it lives the life of an academic organism. Its funding comes from academic sources or sources built for academics (grants, stipends, fellowships). Even its population looks, by and large, academic (perhaps especially those professors who most prominently bemoan musical academicization). Its housing is academic, its residencies are academic, and it often speaks in academic language. But most of all, new music’s attitude towards matters of quality is distinctly academic.

I was taught (in subtext) that Schoenberg initialized the academic turn. New music strode into the university once its increasingly complex material required a scholarly lens. The same conservatory whispers told me that post-war Darmstadt sealed the deal of new music’s tenureship. Here, composers turned their back on the audience, writing music more akin to jargon than art. Of course, Milton Babbitt’s over-referenced “Who Cares if You Listen” (a product of heavy editorial intervention) evidenced a project characterized by the insularity and elitism born of hyper-specialization.

Let me invert this narrative in economic terms. Essentially, two attitudes towards capitalism divided the 20th century.* The former Fordist regime was typified by considerable state regulation, mass production, a burst in organized labor, and a type of progress-driven modernism (surviving largely on economic racism and sexism). Neoliberalism, the second model, characterizes the last 40+ years—globalization, outsourcing, enormous financial institutions, and above all, privatization and deregulation. As I mentioned last week, neoliberalism still exhorts objectivity—its theoretical underpinnings rely on a hypostatized, ideal market.
Think of the early musical avant-garde in a Fordist light, as part of a social movement oriented towards standardization, progress, and nationalism. New music strode into the academy to serve a political function, to conduct state-sponsored research. In the institution, musical quality meant something very specific and objective—the degree to which the thing in question accomplished scientific or cultural progress.

Fordism’s state and university sponsorships eventually evaporated. Neoliberalism annexed the academy. Academia became a type of behavior, a different way of acting neoliberal, a coping mechanism. New music’s confident stride into academia had turned into a retreat. After all—where else could it go? As far as new music is concerned, especially in America, the state practically doesn’t exist. Similarly, new music has no market; it practices academic economics.  When a composer talks about the market, they reference a theoretical market, an aesthetics of the market. Resourceless, new music adopts capitalism and behaves as a university would within it. In place of a market, new music has a facsimile thereof, borrowed from academia—a trading post of social capital.

As I mentioned in my previous article, neoliberalism has a strange attitude towards quality. First, it dismisses it out of hand—I mentioned the techniques of “it’s a matter of taste” and “go about your own business” last week. Further, though, it creates economic conditions threatening to critical conversations. New music’s academics have lost their tenure-track jobs, or are entering a world in which such jobs absolutely do not exist. Job security demands verbal (and oftentimes musical) silence about matters of quality. Further, the constant need to publish pervades every level of academic life—at all costs, the academic composer must produce. Finally, neoliberalism quietly reintroduces objective metrics of quality compatible with academic overproduction. A para-language of quality—quality weighed in terms of social capital, quality as a type of potential energy. Can we organize a conference about this? Will this proposal win grants? Will this piece of music garner social media attention for this institution? Yes or no?

What about the enclave of “stylistically academic” music? Its changing values are not dissociable from neoliberal social norms, despite this genre’s commendably protective outlook. Against our economic introversion, my generation’s music often indulges in compositional self-promotion (our sometimes-insincere collective turn to vector graphics software, or our embrace of impressive electronics arrays). At a higher pay grade, Fordist remnants persist. Much of the older academic-style music does rely on a tacit collective colonialism: “this aesthetic best contributes to the progress of music.” This genre’s tenureships are perhaps the hardest to find—cautious professionalism every bit as requisite for survival. Both listless silence and eager networking cannot help but infiltrate any applicant class of composers, and I certainly can’t begrudge them for it.

If one wants new music to remain in the academy, how does one help to make it hospitable? How do we take its social behavior and make it contrarian, vital? How can we combat the characteristically academic forms of racism, sexism, and other discriminating obstacles to thought and speech? What economic models are permissive to tenure, or propose models of employment less threatening to critical discourse? Within our extant system, how can we re-establish safe spaces to talk about quality? Though this might require a radical change in the economies involved, I think this last stage is somehow the least impossible. If enough people agree that institutional dangers impinge upon the quality of their work, perhaps some momentum can gather. Though clubs and small social organizations have the danger of elitism, they can be great places for composers to share opinions and strategies. I also encourage any of you with composition students to use your studios in this way. I learn the most when I’m empowered to air my thoughts and pressed to explain them.

However, if one wants to find contemporary music a new home, where can it go? I would hate to watch new music proudly immerse itself in the market. (Personally, I hope that art can remain a space in which one can at least pretend to listen or look or learn from something in a way that escapes capitalist modes of entrainment.) Because I believe in human agency, though, I do also believe in margins—the frayed limits of the market, the zones not completely under its control. If new music must find a new home, it needs to do something incredibly extreme.

Personally, I’m conflicted. Though being an academic is the most comfortable way for me to “be capitalist” (a behavior in which I am often completely complicit), I look at my prospects for employment with great anxiety. The tremulous instability looming over my future makes me question the sustainability of my practice. Certainly the structure of new music must change drastically, re-evaluating its kinship with academic-capitalist behavior. Frankly, I think new music ought to remodel itself into art, taking the shape of a social organism whose funding comes in spurts from fringe and diverse places. I value the new music created out of small constellations of people, from long-term and close-knit partnerships, the new music whose instruments and raw materials reflect intimacy and care with their arrangement. New music needs a relevance borne of its own intrinsic, immanent urgency—a social structure powered by the need, not the professional compulsion, to make things. As a friend told me last week, one might even define quality as these conditions of production itself. I propose my definition of quality here: Quality means both a social environment conducive to the expression of immanent musical necessity and the discourse of this immanence itself. Quality judgment means social criticism and the affirmation of its preconditions.

I am building something. In my first post, I presented a dire situation. Here, I’ve drawn a fork in the road. My next two posts will deal exclusively with quality. In the first, I’ll talk about performance, etiquette, and resensitizing oneself to music. In the second, I’ll talk about “making the air heavy,” magic-eye puzzles, “believing that music isn’t an exercise,” and other ways I talk about quality with my friends and peers.

* For more in-depth analysis, check out David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Stanley Fish’s New York Times opinion column “Neoliberalism and Higher Education” relates this specifically to academia. I also can’t recommend anything higher than Elizabeth Grosz’s essay collection Time Travels, alongside the compendium New Materialisms (ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost)—both of which transformed my understanding of agency within a neoliberal world.

Neil Rolnick: Seamless Transitions

A conversation at Rolnick’s home in New York City
March 11, 2013–2:30 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Neil Rolnick is extremely soft-spoken and self-effacing, but for over 30 years he has helped to create a much changed musical landscape in the United States in terms of musical aesthetics and the application of technology in concert performance. Next month he will retire from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, where he has taught since 1981, founding the institute’s influential iEAR Studios shortly after his arrival. Yet Rolnick’s attitude about musical composition is the antithesis of an academic approach. While he deeply respects and loves a lot of modernist 20th-century music, he realized relatively early on that his own mind didn’t work that way.

Studies with Darius Milhaud at Aspen and Fritz Kramer, a musicologist based at the Manhattan School of Music, gave him his initial grounding in the fundamentals, but as a Harvard undergrad he chose not to study music and took literature classes instead, playing in rock and folk bands in his spare time. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, his earliest jobs after getting an undergraduate college degree were as a community organizer and counselor for teenagers in Vermont and as a hospital worker in Wyoming, where he got fired after attempting to unionize his co-workers. This was around the same time that commercial synthesizers first appeared on the market, and Rolnick was totally entranced by the possibilities of electronic music. So he went back to school, first studying with John Chowning, the legendary pioneer of FM synthesis, at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), and then later at IRCAM working alongside Pierre Boulez, whose musical worldview was less than simpatico. According to Rolnick:

It was like dropping into a history book. . . . Then I got there and realized that they’re all real people, just like you and me, doing things that they feel are right, and I’m actually capable of saying, “Well no, that’s not the right thing for me. No, I think some of those ideas are not O.K.” . . . They had designed the first digital synthesizer at IRCAM, and [Boulez] called me in to ask what I thought should happen with it. And I said, “Oh, well, it’s obvious. You should make this available to 15-year-olds.”—I was 30 at the time—“They will do things that you can’t imagine, and things that I can’t. This will be what they learn to make music on, and it’s going to change everything.” And he said, “No, no, no. It should go to Luciano [Berio]. It should go to Hans Werner Henze. It should go to Karlheinz [Stockhausen] and to Jean-Claude [Risset].” Those were the people who were going to make real music on it. And it didn’t matter really what anyone else did. And I said, “Wrong,” and he said, “You’re just too American.” And of course what I suggested is what Yamaha did. And I think it did change everything. . . . In fact, the stuff that I built at RPI was in direct reaction to what I saw at IRCAM.

Despite his deep immersion in technology, the human element has always been central to Rolnick’s music. He emphatically claims that he has never composed a piece of music that did not involve a live interpreter in its performance. (He acknowledged that he has done a few studio compositions to accompany live dancers.) And, as soon as it was possible to do so, the electronic components of his pieces were realized in real time as well. The way Rolnick has handled this aspect of the music has evolved along with the technologies he uses—ensembles featuring electronic instruments alongside acoustic ones, processing acoustic instruments electronically in real time, using laptops in a performance. But whereas there are detailed instructions for other musicians to perform whatever he asks them to play—whether precisely notated musical phrases or improvisation—the electronic component to his music has proven to be elusive to convey to others.

Perhaps an even more important human element to Rolnick’s music is the fact that many of his compositions have been a direct by-product of his life experiences—whether mowing the lawn for the legendary architect Walter Gropius, being overjoyed when his grandchildren moved into his neighborhood, losing the hearing in his left ear, or his extensive travels to places ranging from the People’s Republic of China to the Former Yugoslavia. Now that he is retiring from teaching, he’s hoping to have more time to spend with his grandchildren as well as to travel, but above all, to keep making music. Given his track record thus far, it will be very exciting to hear what he comes up with next.


Frank J. Oteri: In the booklet notes for one of your CDs, you made a statement that really resonated with me: you claimed that music, for you, was ultimately about communication. I thought that would be a great place to begin our conversation, because I’m curious to learn precisely what that means to you. How can you ensure that your music is communicating? Is some music more communicative than other types? What qualities make the music communicative?

Rolnick Working

Neil Rolnick at work.

Neil Rolnick: It has to do with putting things that really stick in people’s minds and that they can identify with into the music. The big jump for me had to do with having studied lots of 20th-century music and feeling like it was very important to be deep and difficult, but then realizing that my mind doesn’t really work that way. I seem to have a knack for writing melodies that stick in people’s ears, and after lots of studying that made me very embarrassed. But I figured that if I can express what I really hear, get it down on paper, and have it be played, that’s really the best that I can do. So communicating is really about being honest about what my feelings are, honest about what my ears hear, honest about what comes out musically, directly from heart and mind.

FJO: What’s interesting about you describing writing what you’re hearing in your head is that a few years ago you lost most of your hearing in one ear and it has changed the way you think about how other people perceive things. As somebody who is so sensitive about sound and hearing, that experience has fundamentally changed the way you hear. But you’re still writing music, and I personally don’t hear a before and after.

NR: I don’t think that there is, except there are some noisier processing things that I tend to do now that I didn’t do so much before. But that’s such a teeny-tiny change. I think the interesting thing is that it didn’t change the way that I hear in my head; it changed the way that I hear what’s outside my head.

FJO: There’s a wonderful passage in your piece Gardening at Gropius House where all of a sudden there’s this cluster that comes in. That sounded to me like the din you have described that you now hear all the time in your left ear.

NR: Yes, more or less. It’s partially what I hear in my left ear. It’s the din, but it’s also sort of symbolic for me—a distilling of this kind of modernistic reliance on texture without really having a melodic and harmonic content that compels me, this counterweight, which I don’t entirely discount because I really love some of that music.

FJO: I’d like to talk more with you about your relationship to modernism, but before we do, I’d like to know more about these recent pieces, which are essentially about the perceptual idiosyncrasies that distinguish experiences for people. You created a piece about your own experience of hearing loss and how you’ve dealt with it, MONO Prelude, but then you took it further in Anosmia, which is about other people’s sensory irregularities. To bring it back to wanting your music to communicate, how is it ever possible to know if something is communicating when, as you have explored in these recent pieces, everybody hears, sees, smells, tastes, feels differently from each other? What you are trying to communicate to others might not necessarily be the way they receive it.

NR: What I’m trying to communicate is what it is. What they receive in terms of how they hear, how they smell, how they see, is going to necessarily be different and that’s actually what’s so fascinating to me. The thing that I came away from this experience with is this realization that all of our perceptions are really different. MONO Prelude, the piece in which I tell the story of losing my hearing on my left side, is kind of the beginning of the frame. A project which includes scenes from the MONO pieces and Anosmia will hopefully be a whole evening with lots of emphasis on seeing as well as listening, framing how our different perceptions work and how our senses are never the same. I’m kind of picturing it as a staged oratorio or a non-linear opera. I’m talking to a director, Caden Manson, who has a group called Big Art Group, about working together.

FJO: What about the other three senses?

NR: Well, they’re in there. I haven’t figured out how to make them work in a performance situation, but I’m interested.
FJO: There are things that have certainly been done with wafting scents.

NR: I’m not sure that they really work. Taste and touch are things that I could imagine figuring out a way to do online where you’re not dealing with a proscenium situation, but rather where you come into peoples’ homes. People take their computers to bed to read; you know, you get very intimate with people. At that point, I can easily imagine really thinking about involving senses.

FJO: That’s so interesting because with a computer you can see any image and hear all music, but there’s no such thing as digital wine. And there’s no such thing as digital perfume, either. And then touch—

NR: —There are people working with haptic interfaces where you can have something that is a surface which is a lot of little points that can tell how strongly you press against them. I’ve seen some demonstrations of things like that. But at the same time, I don’t think that the digital-ness is really so important. The fact that we get these cool little pictures on our phones is as important as the fact that they’re ubiquitous and that they really do reach into the intimate parts of your life. So that’s much more interesting than this sort of high-tech aspect of the sound or of the sight. It’s more the fact that it comes into your life and your life is where you touch, where you smell, and where you drink stuff. It’s a connector. That to me is much more interesting than that you deliver it all through the screen.

FJO: So you’re willing to let other people have their own experiences rather than trying to control what experience they’re having?

NR: I don’t know that you have much choice. People have their own experiences. You may try to control everyone’s experience, but that’s ultimately not very successful.

FJO: So to take it back to that Gropius piece—I love the essay you wrote about it that’s online. What a phenomenal story! There was a whole generation of people who felt that they could and perhaps should change the natural order—whether it’s a wildly growing lawn, or how pitches are organized, or how sentences are constructed, or how colors combine on a canvas.

NR: And I think for anyone who’s going to be a musician, or a composer, or a poet or writer, or an artist of any sort, some of that is there. Right? Because otherwise you’re not doing anything. Even John Cage finding chance procedures. Although he said he’s not really controlling anything, he’s doing something; there is some result. There is some control—some arrangement for something to control something. At the same time, what Gropius was interested in doing was taking this field behind his house and really making it into a formal garden. And I, as a 19-year-old student who was his gardener, thought that the field was much more beautiful than the gardens he had around his house, or the dorms he had built at Harvard, or anything else. So why would I take this natural harmony and beauty and mess it up?

Neil 1977 Paris

Neil Rolnick in Paris, 1977

I had a similar musical experience when I was a graduate student. I spent a year and a half working at IRCAM. I was working with Boulez closely, and also with Berio, Jean-Claude Risset, and Vinko Globocar; it was like the heart of European modernism. When I left, it was partially because UC Berkeley said if I wanted to get my degree, I better come back because they weren’t going to give it to me from Paris. But it was also partially because Boulez finally said, “You’re too American. You should go back to America.” At first I took offense, and then I thought, “He’s right!” They had designed the first digital synthesizer at IRCAM, and he called me in to ask what I thought should happen with it. And I said, “Oh, well, it’s obvious. You should make this available to 15-year-olds.”—I was 30 at the time—“They will do things that you can’t imagine, and things that I can’t. This will be what they learn to make music on, and it’s going to change everything.” And he said, “No, no, no. It should go to Luciano. It should go to Hans Werner Henze. It should go to Karlheinz and to Jean-Claude.” Those were the people who were going to make real music on it. And it didn’t matter really what anyone else did. And I said, “Wrong,” and he said, “You’re just too American.” And of course what I suggested is what Yamaha did. And I think it did change everything.

FJO: What’s interesting is at that point in the development of electronic music, there really were two electronic musics. There were these laboratories at universities, research centers like IRCAM and Stanford where John Chowning, whom you also had worked with, has discovered the FM synthesis algorithm—really high-level scientific inquiry. And then there were pop musicians who played on synthesizers, like the Moog and the Buchla, which had recently become available on the commercial market. And for them, it was gear that enhanced their sound world. They created some weird, odd sounds that weren’t heard before, but it wasn’t really about scientific inquiry; it was about making something really cool.

Neil mid 80s

Rolnick with his gear in the mid 1980s

NR: It actually started out as scientific inquiry with Moog and Buchla because they were working with analog machines and they were trying to figure out how to do it. The work I did when I was a student working at Stanford, with Chowning and Andy Moore and other people there, was with computers; you had to run the math to figure out what really happens when you do FM synthesis in terms of being able to put out the equations. But when I finished that and finished IRCAM and got a job in 1981—the one I’m just leaving at RPI—the first thing I did was go out and buy a synthesizer. And I bought some analog stuff. I think I bought a Prophet-5 and some things. Then someone told me about the Synclavier. So I sold my analog gear and got a Synclavier for about ten thousand dollars; I convinced the bank that it was like investing in a violin. It was going to gain value, and boy was I wrong. But I got the loan and I had a job. Some of the people that I had worked with at Stanford came out to visit me and they saw this Synclavier, and they said, “Well, this is just a toy. You can’t do everything on it.” Because on the mainframe computer at Stanford, we could do everything. And my response was, “What I can do is practice on this. I can use it every day. I can spend hours practicing, just as though it were a violin or a piano or anything else. And so even though it can’t do everything, I can do a whole lot more with it, because I can really get to know it.” Again it’s that it sort of has an intimacy because it’s in my life on a daily basis.

FJO: You had this interest in communicating that goes all the way back, and you had this desire to get to know an instrument intimately, but you also had a fascination with studio electronic music which doesn’t exactly seem simpatico with those other things.

NR: I have two memories. One is when I was in college or shortly after college, playing in rock and roll bands, and listening to a recording and the tape being stretched. We’re all sitting around listening and then, all of a sudden, it gets really strange. And I was fascinated. I thought, “What’s going on here?” What I had played was interesting, but then what I heard back was completely different. I didn’t major in music in college—I was a literature major—but I played in rock bands and folk dance bands all the way through. Then I worked at different things, including being a rock musician for about four years, and then went back to school and was formally introduced to electronic music, and it was just the easiest thing I could ever imagine doing. I completely got how to do it, and I could immediately go in and make things happen that seemed fascinating and interesting. I was always a pretty bad piano player; I can play a bunch of instruments pretty badly. But as soon as I started working, first with analog electronics and then computers, it was just like, oh right, this is what I’m supposed to do.

FJO: You mentioned playing rock and folk. I also remember reading somewhere that your earliest musical memory was hearing Western swing—after all, you were born in Texas. So there was all this music going on in your life. But you weren’t really immersed in classical music. Then, all of a sudden, you were in an academic environment doing really heavy, experimental music. Now, many years later, you’re writing for orchestra and writing for string quartet, sometimes even without electronics. So you’re coming at it from having done these other things, rather than returning to it.

NR: Well, there’s a little place in the middle there, when I was—I don’t know—14 to 17. I studied with a music teacher who lived right around the corner from here, up on 187th Street and Fort Washington. His name was Fritz Kramer. He was a musicologist at the Manhattan School; he gave lectures for the Philharmonic on Wednesday afternoons. We lived in Connecticut, and I would come in and spend all Saturday with Mr. Kramer. We would do a piano lesson, 16th-century counterpoint, 18th-century counterpoint and chorale harmonizations, listen to Hindemith. I would do exercises in Hindemith-like counterpoint. And I would have to do imitations of whatever I was playing in the piano lessons—Bach fugues, Mozart sonatas, and what not. Then I would have to do 12-tone exercises. And my grandfather got me a small subscription to the Philharmonic, so I had to do an analysis of whatever I was going to hear at the Philharmonic.

The last year I did that, that summer I went and studied with Darius Milhaud at Aspen. So I had done some folk music before that, but I got really immersed in this heavy-duty music theory that sort of took over my life for about three or four years, then went to college and had an extended case of adolescence and played in rock bands a bunch. I had to learn to play simply, which really was the difficult thing. And then when I went back, it was sort of like “Which world am I in?” I remember when I played in rock bands thinking, “Well, that stuff I did with Milhaud and with Mr. Kramer—no one listens to that, no cares about it. It’s just all this heady, high-brow stuff. Being able to play in clubs and festivals where people bounce up and down and really obviously dig what you’re doing—that’s what it’s all about!”

But then I said, “Well, O.K., what do I really hear?” I was much more interested in something that was more intellectual and more challenging and more interesting to me than what I was doing with rock bands or with jazz groups. But I feel like I don’t really fit in the classical music world either, in some ways, because I think a lot of people listen to my stuff and say, “Oh, well that’s just like jazz, you know.” There’s improvisation sometimes, and there’s beats, constant rhythmic things. I guess that’s what I think about when I am communicating, it’s just a matter of saying what I really hear. Forget about the ear that doesn’t hear.

FJO: Yeah, we’ll get back to that later, but let’s stay with your earlier experiences a bit longer. You had these role models. Milhaud was a really solid composer who had a firm grounding in the Western classical tradition—counterpoint, sonata form—and he wrote tons of string quartets and symphonies. And the guy who did these composition exercises with you was also completely entrenched within old-school classical music.

NR: Absolutely.

FJO: But you abandoned that path. Instead, you do the rock and jazz thing and don’t even major in music as an undergrad. But then you decide to go back into music and so you work with John Chowning and then Boulez. That seems to me like the other extreme.

NR: I’d been living in Vermont. I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and I started out working in a hospital in Wyoming, where I got canned for organizing hospital workers. Then I moved to Vermont, and got a kind of community organizing/counseling job with teenagers there. I was playing in rock bands this whole time. Then I met a guy who was the local music teacher; he organized the school chorus, and they did plays and musicals. And I thought, “Gee, that’s what I want to do.” I tried to be a counselor. I tried to be a mechanic, or a taxi driver, or a carpenter. With all of these things, I discovered that if I really particularly wanted to do something crafty, like being a carpenter, it’s going to take me five or six years to really learn how do any of that really well, anyway. And, if I was going to take all that time, I might as well do what I really wanted to do, which was to be a musician. So I thought, “O.K., well, if I go back to school and I get a degree in music, then I can move out in the country and you know, teach at a high school or something, and that would be great. That would be wonderful.” So then I went to Berkeley and got swept up into all the interesting new music things that were happening in the Bay area.

Then I got this opportunity to go to Paris and work at IRCAM, and it was like I was dropped right in the middle of all these things I had been reading about from the time I was in high school. It was like dropping into a history book. I remember reading Boulez articles when I was in high school and studying Stockhausen. It never dawned on me that since they were the people that I read about in books that I could actually reject things that they did. Because that just wasn’t an option, you know. Then I got there and realized that they’re all real people, just like you and me, doing things that they feel are right, and I’m actually capable of saying, “Well no, that’s not the right thing for me. No, I think some of those ideas are not O.K.”

Neil late 80s credit Gisela Gamper

Neil Rolnick in the late ’80s, photo by Gisela Gamper

In fact, the stuff that I built at RPI was in direct reaction to what I saw at IRCAM. IRCAM was really based on the idea that there is this great musical tradition. Someone once asked if I was going to hear Boulez here because he was probably the last musician who saw himself as directly descended from Wagner, through Debussy off into the great future of contemporary music. But I really feel like music is about communication. It’s about doing something. It’s not about making great masterpieces. It’s about making music for people. I’m much less concerned about the great masterpiece problem, and much more concerned about making events happen, where people listen to music, and making music that people want to listen to.

FJO: At the same time, I wouldn’t sell you short; you’ve written some really terrific, formidable pieces that deserve to be widely appreciated.

NR: Well, I hope so, and that’s actually one of the things that I really am hoping that I can do now that I’m getting rid of academic life for myself—to really focus. I have a lot of pieces that I really like and that I feel should have much bigger audiences. And I have a lot of pieces that I’m intending to write, that I think should have bigger audiences. Even though I’ve been very productive all the time I’ve been a teacher, now that I don’t have to be a teacher, I think that I can maybe be productive on a level of getting the music out more.

FJO: To take it back one place before we bring it more into the present, one of the things that I found so striking about your earliest pieces—I’m thinking about Wondrous Love (the trombone piece for George Lewis) and Ever-Livin’ Rhythm—is that even though you were writing pieces with tape, there was always a live performer as a part of it. You didn’t do these tape pieces where you go to a concert and you’re sitting in the audience looking at just the two loudspeakers.

NR: I’ve never done that. At the very beginning, I wrote a couple of pieces like that, but they were for dance—one for Margaret Jenkins and one for a friend when I was in graduate school. It’s never made sense to me, that idea of acousmatic music where there’s no connection to what’s making the sound. It just isn’t interesting because it seems to me that when you play something and you make something, you want to have someone say, “Here is my gift. Here is what I can give you. And it’s beautiful, I believe it’s beautiful, and I hope you’ll think it’s beautiful also.” That requires a person, and so every time someone has tried to get me to do something like that, it’s not interesting to me. And I thought that from the very beginning. The first piece that I wrote with the computer was a percussion piece, Ever-Livin’ Rhythm, and it was about making a virtuoso. It was kind of thinking in terms of what would Zyklus be if Stockhausen could hum a melody? So there was all this sense of how to really make a virtuoso percussion piece that had one person playing–there were 42 instruments—and yet make it work. A lot of the early pieces took melodic material from other things and this actually used material from a recording of Ba-Benzele Pygmies from Central Africa that had an interesting nose flute hocketing rhythm. I used that as the basis for it. But it was something where you hear the rhythms, and you hear the melodies, and there’s the spectacle of the person playing it and making it work. I always think of electronics and technology as being a little gloss of magic on the sound. We all know that you can get anything out of loudspeakers, right? You can make any sound that you want. But if you have a live player, and the speakers are doing something that just makes it so what the player’s doing isn’t really possible, then that’s really kind of exciting for an audience.

FJO: I think there have been several important moments of transition for you. As I said to you before, I don’t really hear a before and after in your music as a result of your hearing loss, but I do hear a before and after between those early pieces and the pieces Real Time and À la Mode that were released on LP by CRI in the 1980s. I want to talk about that LP a bit because the cover is so striking.

NR: It was one of the very last CRI LPs.

FJO: CRI was a label that tended to have pretty staid covers. Sometimes, there wouldn’t even be a picture on the cover, just the names of the composers—usually three different composers. And maybe if you knew one of them, you bought the record for the one you knew. But here was a record of just your music with a picture of you on the cover in a suit, wieldng an AX-Synth and sitting on top of a fake, oversized piece of cake.
Rolnick CRI LP
NR: Yeah. Cheesecake. I’ve always felt humor is important, not taking yourself so seriously. One of the wonderful things that I’ve always loved about John Cage is that he was always smiling in his pictures. You know, you had Schoenberg, who was always frowning and looking very serious. And then you had Cage, who always had this big, silly grin on his face. You don’t have Shakespeare plays without Falstaff. If you’re going to really reflect life, you’ve got to have some humor. It’s too much to have without humor. That’s why we have it. So there’s that. And then it’s also using graphics and colors to frame what I’m trying to do. Real Time and À la Mode are an interesting pair of pieces because they’re where I got away from using samples of other people’s melodies and said, “I can just make my own up, and it’s O.K.” I started doing that with these ensemble pieces and then actually moved into doing that with electronic pieces and pieces with all sorts of different kinds of groups.

FJO: There’s another aspect to these pieces which is different as well. In the earlier pieces with electronics you had an acoustic player performing in real time with a pre-recorded tape of electronically generated sounds. But in these pieces, the electronic sounds are happening live alongside the non-electronic ones. Eventually you would find ways to integrate what the performers on the non-electronic instruments play with the electronics by having those performers trigger the electronics or having the electronics alter those acoustic sounds in real time. That’s a very different way of thinking about electronic music.

NR: Well, it all comes from the idea of performance and communication. I can play electronics as well as anyone. I can get on a stage and play things now using a computer or whatever, and feel like I can give as a good a performance as anyone can. And so it puts me in the place to communicate. One of the things that I learned when I was playing rock and roll and jazz was that it was great to be able to sit in with the band and have your role that you played. But at some point, if you really were trying to communicate your own ideas, you had to be able to get up and do it yourself without all the support. There was a point, I guess around the time that I did À la Mode and thereafter, when I did a bunch of solo pieces, some of which I still play now—things like Balkanization and Robert Johnson Sampler—and a bunch of others that I don’t play so much anymore. I could just go give a concert where I get up and play. Doing that really helped me define what my musical ideas are. Because if I can get up and do it, that’s what it is. I’m actually making it happen.


Neil Rolnick: A Robert Johnson Sampler performed at EMPAC (Troy, NY) on Feb 27, 2013.

FJO: Another part of it that I think speaks to how performers/interpreters of this music have evolved over time is that in the really early days of this stuff, you’d have the ensemble or the soloist who would do his or her thing—they didn’t touch any of the electronics—and you’d have the tape that’s playing those sounds. The next step is having players who are doing their thing, and you’re doing the electronics live with them. Then the next step is you’ve got the group and then you’re manipulating their sounds in real time. You’re affecting their sounds as well. But then the final part of that is working with players who are comfortable doing the electronics as per your intentions. They can do it without you.

NR: Well, there’s a before-ness in terms of setting it up for them. I have to make the stuff that processes them. But in the iFiddle Concerto that I did with Todd Reynolds, we actually set it up so that he controlled it. That was great. He’s going to play Gardening in Gropius House for the recording of it we’re doing in June. We haven’t really talked yet about whether I’m going to control things or he’s going to control things. So that’s a discussion that we have to have. The trade off is that while I actually love to give all the control over to him and let him play and switch things using foot pedals that I can set up, I also want him to be able to put his full focus on playing the violin. So I don’t know what the answer will be to that. But that’s always a sort of an interesting question to me.

The other thing I think about is how all of what I do is really about live performance. So when I croak, no one gets to perform this anymore. What happens? I’ve taught a lot of people, but I’ve really never taught anyone how to do what I do. So, I don’t know the answer to that one.

FJO: How much of the details of the electronic components in these pieces—which I imagine can’t really be conveyed via noteheads on staves—is actually notated? Is there a system?

NR: There is nothing notated. Well, not quite nothing. There are notes to myself—move to this preset, that set up—but what the things actually are is stuff that I do and I’ve never figured out how to notate it. So for all the big ensemble pieces and large pieces with single instruments or small groups, everyone else’s part is completely notated in great detail, but my part is just little numbers. I know how to do it, so I’ll do it. But I have no idea how to notate it; I’ve never figured it out.

FJO: Well, that’s not completely true because you sometimes include improvisation in your pieces.

NR: But it’s notated as it needs to be. Things go from places where I give some sort of parameters and just say, “Go!” to things being minutely notated. I’m very comfortable notating them as much as I need to. But I’ve never figured out how I notate what I do, so I don’t know what happens with that.

FJO: In terms of control versus lack of control versus improvisation: when you do the electronics for a piece versus somebody like Todd manipulating it himself, how much leeway does the performer have to manipulate sounds in a way that’s different from what you had originally envisioned? Because it’s not precisely notated.

NR: It’s pretty much the same kind of difference you would have in a completely notated piece. There’s phrasing and how you shape the gesture—I’m usually pretty clear about what I want the sound to be, or the overall gesture to be. Todd is the only person I’ve worked with who can do the manipulation all by himself. I’m pretty directive, but there’s some flexibility. Overall I kind of think my job as the composer is to tell everyone what to play, even if that means improvise some here.

FJO: There’s still something of a leap of faith involved in how performers will interpret what you tell them to play, as you point out in the program notes for the piece you wrote for Bob Gluck. You actually called it Faith, riffing on the double entendre since he used to be a rabbi. When you give a piece to somebody else, especially one that is somewhat open-ended, you’re kind of hoping they do something that’s in the spirit of your intentions.

NR: Well, that’s an interesting piece. There are two different kinds of processing that go on in it. One is that he plays and I process the sound; I do it all live on my computer. Then there are some sections where I give him a little controller which I’ve set up so that he can bring different synthetic sounds up and down, and he can trigger and play different loops and fade them in and out of each other. Then he’s supposed to be playing some on the keyboard, too. When we worked on that, it was a matter of me giving him directorial advice in terms of thinking about it as phrases and gestures; don’t think about going three or four minutes without stopping, make a phrase, explore one of the particular things I’ve got in there. You can select different ones each time. So he developed a way that he plays it. I’ve also done the piece with Kathy Supové and with Vicky Chow. They all play it really differently. Kathy really gets into the improvisational parts with the controller, completely different from Bob’s approach. And I like them both. I don’t have favorite children. But they’re really dramatically different. It’s partly because Bob is very enmeshed in the world of jazz; he plays a lot of jazz stuff and just did this book on the Mwandishi period of Herbie Hancock. Kathy is sort of more in the new music and free improvisation world. I don’t think any of it makes it any less of my piece as long as I’m comfortable with where they’re going with it.


Neil Rolnick: Faith, performed by Bob Gluck (piano) and Neil Rolnick (laptop computer) at EMPAC 2/16/2010.

FJO: But you said that you feel it’s your job as a composer to tell them what they’re doing, whether that means play these precise notes and rhythms or improvise here for a designated length of time. But you’ve also played alongside other improvisers in a more open-form type setting; I’m thinking of the group Fish Love That, which sounds very different from everything else I’ve heard that you’ve done, because it is a collective thing rather than just you.


Neil Rolnick’s Fish Love That: “Calypso” featuring Neil Rolnick, Todd Reynolds, Steve Rust, Andrew Sterman, Ron Horton, and Dean Sharp performing during a 1998 recording session for the Deep Listening CD. Video by John Jannone.

NR: That was a really interesting period. I initially got the group together that became Fish Love That to do a project called Home Game in the early ‘90s. Then I went away and spent about six months in Japan and got involved in playing with some traditional musicians there, and was suddenly feeling this lack of improvisation in my life. When I came back, I got the group together again with the idea that we would just meet once a month on stage and play. And that’s what we did. We started out doing monthly things at the old Knitting Factory, and then we moved to HERE and we kept it up pretty regularly for about, I don’t know, four or five years. Everyone brought pieces in. I brought pieces. Todd [Reynolds] brought pieces. And Andy Sterman would bring pieces in. So it was this slightly amorphous thing, but it wasn’t the main thing for any of us. It was just something that we all enjoyed doing. I really wanted it to be everyone’s, but then Todd and Andrew at several points said, “You should just be doing stuff of your own. You should be putting together this group to do your own work, instead of whoever’s work. Actually that would make more sense.”

The other thing that was happening is that I was working on a music theater piece for that whole five years with a group in midtown that supposedly produces things that go off-Broadway and Broadway. So at the same time I was writing this very tonal, directed stuff for people, many of whom couldn’t read music because a lot of Broadway people can’t. They just learn it all [by ear]. It was about the discovery of a drug that makes you feel like you’re in love and want to act on it. And how much money you could make on that, putting street drug dealers in competition with big pharma. The book and the lyrics were written by a friend of mine, Larry Beinhart, who wrote the book that the movie Wag the Dog was based on. He’s a quirky, wonderful writer.

Rolnick Desk

Neil Rolnick’s desk in his New York City apartment which looks out toward the George Washington Bridge.

I was also doing stuff at RPI. But that kind of all came to an end when I moved to New York City in 2002 and took very seriously the idea that what I want to do is just forget about this group that I’ve been trying to maintain and forget about the theater thing, just take a deep breath and say, “What do I want to write?” I had some money from a grant and I actually contacted a bunch of people that I had wanted to write for—Kathy Supové, Joan La Barbara, Tom Buckner, ETHEL—and said, “O.K., I got this money. You want a piece? If I write a piece, will you play it?” That’s kind of where I took the direction to what I’ve been doing ever since.

FJO: So the theater piece never happened.

NR: No. It had a lot of staged readings. It was a wonderful experience. I would love to see it happen. I think it’s a really cool piece.
FJO: Did you finish the music?

NR: Not only did I finish the music, I finished two or three times the music. I probably wrote about 50 songs for it, and it maybe has 20 in it. I keep trying to figure out places where I can get that done. But I also don’t know that I ever want to get into a situation where I’m not in control of the music, as was the case of developing this thing where there were group meetings. Does this piece work? Does that piece work? As we worked through it, I felt like the music got dumber and dumber, and less and less interesting. But it would be interesting to me to go back and try to make that really happen.

FJO: On your own terms.

NR: On my own terms.

FJO: So it was all straight-up musical theatre songs with a pit orchestra. No electronics?

NR: No electronics.

FJO: We keep coming to these places in your career where there’s a before and an after. This might sound utterly ridiculous, but I was aware of a before and after in 2002 because up until then you were Neil B. Rolnick and since 2002 you’re just Neil Rolnick. I’m particularly attentive to this kind of detail since I obsess over my own middle initial, so I have to ask you about it.

NR: That’s right. That’s because you don’t call me Neil B. Everyone calls me Neil. I got the feeling that I was just being pretentious. Again, it’s this feeling that what’s important is really directly communicating. At that point I also started referring to what’s going on in my life in my notes about the music: my grandkids being born, my feeling about being in New York City. That’s what’s important; that’s what I’m spending my time thinking about. I think that whatever you spend your life in comes out in what you write; at least for me it does. When I first moved to the city, I wrote a piece called Uptown Jump, and it was about the fact that my daughter and her family, including one grandson at that point, had moved from Brooklyn up to Washington Heights. So they made an uptown jump, and it changed my life in terms of interacting with a new generation in my family.

Rolnick Workstation

Rolnick’s grandchildren are always present at his workstation.

But that’s why the “B” got dropped. At a certain point, when I moved here, I said, “O.K., from here on, it’s real. No one calls me Neil B. Everyone calls me Neil.” I’m 65 now. I was 55 then. The move here was a lot about saying I wanted to start pulling away from academia. If I don’t put my full energy into making music, when the hell am I going to do it? This is my time. I think what I’m doing now is making another step in that same direction, saying, “O.K., I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to keep eating and keep putting a roof over my head.” Assuming that I can make that work, I should be able to spend the next however many years I’ve got making as much music happen and writing as much music as I can imagine. And at least at this point, I feel like I can imagine a lot.

FJO: A big challenge that could have gotten in the way of this, but actually hasn’t gotten in the way, was what happened with your hearing.

NR: I don’t think it’s in the way. You know, I would love it if I had my hearing back in my left ear, but everyone has things that challenge them, whether it’s physical or perceptual things, relationship things, or money things. There’s no prize for having problems. We all have problems. There’s only what you can do to react to them and grow out of them and make them into something positive in your life. I’d rather it didn’t happen, but stuff happens. I feel like it expanded things. I feel like the loss of hearing made me really have a whole new perspective on how we perceive the world. I never really thought about how different our perceptions were. I’ve built this whole piece that I hope will actually get produced in the full way that I imagine it. I keep feeling like the music I’m writing out of each of the changes that I go through is getting better, and more interesting, and deeper, and funnier, and more joyful, so that’s O.K.

FJO: After the hearing loss, you also finally wrote a string quartet with no electronics, Extended Family, which is an extraordinary piece but also a very extraordinarily traditional piece. It harkens back to centuries-old traditions in ways that a lot of your other music doesn’t. It’s multi-movement and the last movement is even a fugue.

NR: I love fugues. I love the way that they sound and the idea of them coming out of these other textures that I’m working in. But it’s something that I learned how to do when I was in high school. It’s just like playing with electronics. I can just do it.

FJO: I was wondering if hearing in mono has somehow realigned your musical priorities. Electronic music is all about exploring a very detailed level of distinctions with textures, timbres, and directionality. Perhaps other musical parameters are now rising to the forefront in your music. We all know what the sound of a string quartet is. You can’t necessarily make a new timbre with a string quartet, but you can do wonderful things within that timbre and emphasize other aspects of the music making. I’m wondering if there’s something to hearing the world a different way that now gives you the opportunity to say, “I appreciate this just for what it is.”

NR: When I started the piece, I thought it was going to be about my extended family, meaning my daughter’s family that lived here in Washington Heights with me, and the kids I saw all the time, and the community that I have around me here. Then it became about my actual extended family, as I spent a lot of time with my brothers and my sister, and my mother dying. Actually the previous string quartet that I wrote was about my father dying. I hope I don’t have to write too many more quartets about those sorts of things. But they were both very strong experiences for me. I was with both of them when they died. My hands were on them. Life and death are so much more interesting than thinking about electronics or not—the details of how the piece is going to come together. Often, when someone approaches me about writing something, they say, “And of course there’s a computer part.” And I say, “Yeah. There’s a computer part.” I was really interested in the idea of not working with electronics, because I’ve done so much.

With Extended Family, ETHEL wanted a multi-movement piece, so the five movements were the way it worked. Besides the fugue, which I think of as sort of bringing all the parts of the family together, the part of that piece that I really love the most is the central movement which is slow and basically has one chord that just hangs there. We get a very halting little melody that traces its way through it. That’s not a texture that I really think about. I’m sure that there are lots of string quartets that do that, but I wasn’t even thinking about texture. I was just thinking, “How do I capture this in sound?”

FJO: I imagine another factor that might have led to your writing a piece for ETHEL that doesn’t involve electronics is that a non-electronic piece is probably much easier to tour.

NR: Absolutely. The first string quartet that I wrote for ETHEL is Shadow Quartet. In cleaning out some stuff at school, I found a quartet I wrote when I was teenager, so it’s not quite the first, but it’s the first one that I would want anyone to listen to. When we put that together, it was at a weeklong residency up at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, and I had it all set up, so they were all controlling everything. I had them all with pedals, and they were bringing things in and out, controlling how much everything was happening, and switching between things. Then when it was done, they said, “Great, we would love to take this piece on tour, but we can’t take you on tour. So you have to figure out a way that we can do it without you.” And I said, “I can’t do that because it’s got to be interactive and I’ve got to do all this stuff,” and they said, “Then we don’t have to tour with it.” And I said, “But, but, but…” So since we were going to do a recording of the piece anyway for CD, we recorded it. We used a click track and we multi-tracked everything. Then I extracted their parts from the recording, and left only the effects. So if they played with that click track, it sounds exactly like I’m processing them live. And I had these wonderful discussions, particularly with some more doctrinaire electronic music people, about cheating. You really can’t do that. On the other hand, they probably did a hundred performances of Shadow Quartet. No one had a clue that it was not being processed live. And, in fact, it was processed live, because if I hadn’t processed it live, we wouldn’t have had the recording to put the click track on. So ultimately it doesn’t really make any difference to me; what I’m interested in is the music coming out.


Neil Rolnick: Shadow Quartet, First Movement: “Western Swing” performed by ETHEL (Cornelius Dufallo & Mary Rowell, violins, Ralph Ferris, viola, Dorothy Lawson, cello) at EMPAC (Troy, NY) on Feb. 16, 2010.

FJO: So you actually turned it back into one of those old school pieces for ensemble and tape.

NR: Yes, exactly. But it’s very different from the old school ones, because it’s got the impression that it’s all being generated by the instruments.

FJO: It’s sort of a Milli Vanilli approach to electronic music.

NR: Well, maybe. But if we go back to the idea that I can’t notate the things that I do when I’m playing and then what happens to this music, it is so important. The communication doesn’t happen because I’m sitting on stage mixing what’s going on with the electronics; it has to do with the instrumental performers up there playing for the audience and then these magical things coming up around them. I can make that happen so that they can take the piece out and tour with it.

FJO: You’ve traveled around the world a great deal over the years. You mentioned Japan during our discussion, but you also travelled extensively through former Yugoslavia as well as China and these travels have inspired quite a few of your pieces. Some of the remoter parts of the world that you’ve visited don’t have the same level of access to electricity that we have.

NR: When I was in China, one of the places that I played The Economic Engine was in this art area in Beijing called Qī Jiŭ Bā [“798”] which is in an area of old munitions factories. Artists moved into it, then the government decided it should become the official art area, so there are now lots of high end galleries from all over the world there. These people produced this thing and it was in one of the old buildings there. There was thick dust on everything. It was just this abandoned place that hadn’t been renovated. We had the whole top floor of this building, but there was no electricity. There was electricity in the plaza down below, so we ran an extension cord up four stories on the outside of the building and plugged in the sound system. I don’t need much electricity to do what I do. A laptop doesn’t take a whole lot and speakers don’t take a lot. But I also feel like I need the electronics for me to perform. If the music doesn’t require electronics, then like the string quartet, it can happen without me.

Of all of the places that I’ve been, the recent trips to China have been particularly interesting because China is not a kind of backward third-world country anymore. It’s got lots of really sophisticated things, and it’s been really interesting to see a kind of underground electronic music scene growing up there. I’ve gone there to do something with the conservatory or an official conference, and then there are these guys who are in their 20s and early 30s in clubs that are completely non-academic. It’s almost like two different worlds happening. I find the freshness of the young non-academic things really invigorating and exciting.

FJO: So now that you no longer have to do the day job of being at the RPI, you can actually travel even more.

NR: I hope so. That’s my plan. I’m in the midst of trying to see what comes up next. I’m working on saxophone and electronics pieces for Demetrius Spaneas. He’s done a lot of work traveling to Central Asia, so I’m looking forward to an opportunity to take that piece to Kurdistan and Tajikistan and all these places I’ve never been.

FJO: Bring your battery chargers.

NR: That’s right.

Other Hats

“Why would you even want to do that? What does that have to do with composing? Doesn’t that distract you from your other work?”

I’m not sure how many of my other colleagues get asked such questions, but I hear variations on this theme a fair amount. I have never been one to focus intensely on just one thing–for many years I was a woodwind doubler who enjoyed the challenge of learning as many different instruments as possible, for example. Fast-forward twenty years and I find myself “doubling” on a great many activities these days. I teach (both at the college and pre-college level), I conduct, I interview, I write (which still surprises me–never thought I’d be doing this), and over the past few years I’ve found myself being placed in administrative positions…which brings me to my current situation.

Every faculty member in academia is asked to take on various service roles; the risk of entire departments disappearing into their labs and studios is too great if this was not the case. Over the past three years or so, I’ve been involved in several campus-wide committees, including chairing the Faculty and Professional Affairs committee, which has allowed me to both advocate for my colleagues as well as improve things for everyone through awareness and legislative actions. While the workload on these service opportunities has not been overwhelming, they have made it challenging at times to keep all the plates spinning, as it were.

This year, however, has put me in a completely different position–I have agreed to serve as the chair of the University Senate, which forces me to find a balance between those important responsibilities and the many other facets of my career. It’s at this point that you are probably asking those questions I mentioned at the top of this column, which is entirely understandable. We have a new president this year, and the opportunity to actively improve many aspects of my institution was too great for me to turn down. While it has relatively little to do with composing on the surface, I am finding that my creative and organizational skills as both a composer and conductor are translating well to this new position; the similarities between convincing a performer to take part in a concert and convincing a colleague to take part in an important subcommittee are surprising. As for distractions, yes–hell, yes–it’s distracting just at the time that the visibility and nature of my composition projects have been increasing (timing is everything), but I have found over years of trial and error that my best work comes out of the white-hot, last-minute terror that comes with “not having enough time.” And to be honest, the administrative work, if anything, is much less stressful than composing.

One interesting (and sometimes frustrating) aspect of being a composer is the potential hybrid nature of our career models. It is not a rare thing to come across an artist who describes him or herself as a series of hyphenates: composer-conductor, composer-performer-educator, composer-IT professional, etc. While many career paths require one to have a diverse skill set, there are few paths that allow for, and in many cases encourage, an individual to pursue and engage in other careers simultaneously.

One might conclude that this is due to the difficult nature of making a living being solely a composer. I would agree that such an endeavor is challenging, but I have met and gotten to know such a large group of composers who do have thriving careers just composing–so that’s not the only mitigating factor here. Indeed, many from this group say that they compose because they literally cannot do anything else–it is the one profession in which they feel they can flourish.

My point here is that it is helpful for us to remember, wherever we are in our careers, that there is no one overarching and “correct” model for a successful career as a composer. For every example of a composer who devotes all of her or his time to writing music, there are others who have the capacity and aptitude to pursue a hybrid career–a fact that should be both accepted and encouraged.