Tag: alternative venues

This Is Why Your Audience Building Fails

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communities and Outsiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expanding the Circle

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


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

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

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

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

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

Dealing with Outliers

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature or Nurture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A theory of musical taste

Mason Bates’s Mercury Soul

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

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

A promo video for Mercury Soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned

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

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

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

Community Before Music

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

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

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

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

Forget Universalism

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

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

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

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

The MAYA Principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard is not Bad

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

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

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

Define Boundaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerts in the Park and Modes of Listening to New Music

An outdoor audience listening to Andy Akiho performing on steel pans along with double bass, harp, piano, mallet percussion, and drums in Bryant Park (Photo by Ryan Muir, courtesy Bryant Park Corporation)

[Ed. Note: Through the summer, composer/arranger/saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli has curated a series of free outdoor concerts in New York City’s Bryant Park. “Breaking Boundaries,” the final concert of the 2016 series which takes place on Friday, August 26, 2016, from 5 to 10 p.m., will feature cellist Inbal Segev, harpist Bridget Kibbey with violinist Kristen Lee and percussionist John Hadfield, the Kenari Saxophone Quartet, the Dan Tepfer Trio with SEVEN)SUNS, and Zimmerli’s own quartet. We asked Zimmerli to share his thoughts on why outdoor concerts are the ideal entry point for people curious about adventurous music.–FJO]

As a composer, I’ve had occasion to think a lot about how to listen to all kinds of music. I’ve pondered ways of hearing Bach fugues and Mozart sonatas and Schoenberg rows and Babbitt superarrays. As a teenager, I also transcribed lots of jazz solos— Bird, Coltrane, Miles, et al.— straining to hear the most fleeting nuances in their improvisations.

I taught ear training and musicianship courses at Columbia University for several years, watching students whose natural aural abilities—as well as their means of taking in and understanding organized sound—were about as singular as their fingerprints. And I’ve seen and heard audiences in concert halls of every shape and size react to all kinds of music, familiar and unfamiliar. Through all this experience, I’ve developed a sensitivity to the problems of listening to music in the 21st century.


Problems of Listening

Some problems of listening to contemporary music were poignantly outlined by Maia Jasper White in her soulful piece on NewMusicBox. Maia touched on the central problem of simultaneously satisfying people with wildly disparate levels of listening experience.

This is something that many composers really don’t sufficiently take into account. The divide between the new music connoisseur and the average person is larger than ever, and the vast majority of people just have no context or experience to be able to deal with music that’s on the knife-edge of contemporary composition. (I kid you not—there are music lovers out there who are so far from the fine distinctions in which we traffic as to not know what a piano is!) While those listeners may seem so far from our target audience as to be irrelevant—especially in this world of narrowcasting—it’s worth taking stock of the great distance contemporary music has travelled from the mainstream.

The split began gradually, as what we now think of as “classical” music grew away from its traditional base, took on the weight of a “tradition,” and ultimately became an academic discipline. Sonatas, rondos, and scherzos, originally organic outgrowths of popular dances, are now forms to be learned in school. With classical music’s increasing departure from its roots in popular culture came modernism. Twentieth-century composers, building on the past, wanted to transcend their predecessors, they wanted their increasingly complex notes and sounds to be heard and absorbed, their winding narratives taken in and comprehended in their entirety. In their search for purity, they wanted their pieces subjected to contemplation rather than applause—to the point that the practice was even entirely banned in Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances.

A similar trajectory has been followed in jazz, where what was once a dance/entertainment genre has ascended to the realms of high art. Simple forms like the rhythm changes and blues have come to be played in such an abstract way that even listeners with a very sophisticated understanding of classical music often have no idea of their underlying repetitive structures.  At the same time places like the Village Vanguard, once smoke-filled venues where music was played over a constant thrum of background chatter, have become churchlike spaces, where listeners take in the music in reverent silence.

More recently there’s been a backlash against the imposed silence of the art-listening experience. With the opening of spaces such as (Le) Poisson Rouge nearly a decade ago, venues began to be created where classical music could be re-positioned and re-connected to its past in an informal setting, where people could applaud freely and even chat, much as at a vintage jazz concert (though at the performances I’ve been at, they mostly don’t).

Instead of one view prevailing or holding sway, we now have a situation where a small number of incredibly knowledgeable experts coexist with a sprawling field of listeners whose level of commitment and knowledge is in inverse proportion to their numbers. How on earth can all these people be satisfied simultaneously?

Endsley and tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel during an outdoor concert in Bryant Park

Trumpeter Shane Endsley (left) and tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel (right) of the Ben Wendel Group during their performance at Bryant Park on June 8, 2015 (Photo courtesy Bryant Park Corporation.)

An Outdoor Solution

These thoughts were occasioned by the first concert I curated for New York’s Bryant Park this summer, as part of the IN/TERSECT festival. The idea for the series is to bring together new music from the jazz and classical domains. Each concert in the festival features five ensembles, either jazz or classical based or related, each playing new music, including for each evening one ensemble that had recently been granted a Chamber Music America New Works grant in either the jazz or classical categories.

I was quite enthusiastic when Ethan Lercher, the visionary behind IN/TERSECT, contacted me to curate the series, as I’d always loved Bryant Park. It’s so centrally located in Manhattan that I felt the concerts couldn’t help but attract attention, and indeed they have been exceptionally well-attended for new music events, drawing crowds of up to 2500.

The park is directly behind the New York Public Library, between 5th and 6th avenues and 40th and 42nd streets, and the stage faces a large lawn. There are chairs set up on the part of the lawn nearest the music, and the rest is free for blankets or for people just to lie down or play. The greenery, while manicured, manages to be totally welcoming—the low trees surrounding the lawn give the feeling of shelter from the urban streets. And the park is encircled by the most awe-inspiring urban architecture—look to the west and you see such storied 21st-century skyscrapers as the Bank of America building and the newly completed 7 Bryant Park, with its fabulous conical cutouts; the Grace building to the north, with its seductive outward curve, is a late-20th century precursor; to the south is the magnificent Radiator Building, designed by Raymond Hood, futurist architect of the ‘20s and ‘30s; and of course the New York Public Library, designed and completed over the first decade of the 20th century, sits in Beaux-Arts grandeur to the east. The buildings form a veritable compendium of aesthetic ideas of the last century, and thus provide an interesting context for hearing new music. It’s certainly an auspicious mélange for a festival that looks to bridge styles.

A Rich Sonic Experience

The concerts are necessarily amplified, which might dampen the enjoyment of those who think of classical music performances as one of life’s last pleasures to be completely unmediated by electronics. But Bryant Park has taken great pains—and has incurred great expense—to ensure a natural, rich sound in all areas of the park. They’ve invested in a very good mixing board, new speakers, and other equipment, and rent the best quality microphones available.

In addition, they took the step of hiring the legendary Tom Lazarus as an audio consultant for all three evenings. Tom is a recording engineer who worked for Sony Classical in its heyday, but he also has a sophisticated knowledge and understanding of jazz. Tom’s fantastic intuitive sense for sound, combined with a very high standard, has been hugely helpful in ensuring that everyone from the very front row to the back of the park had a completely naturalistic listening experience, with a full, well-blended sound.

In the second concert, for example, The Westerlies, an outstanding young brass quartet of two trumpets and two trombones that plays original music as well as covers of composers like Ives and Machaut, played with a gorgeous, velvety sound; their extremely nuanced, detailed performance came through the speakers immaculately. Even the notoriously-difficult-to-mic string quartet sounded very natural—the Argus Quartet’s passionately committed performance of Eric Guinivan’s String Quartet, and their exquisite rendition of Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 2, hit the public’s ears with a warm, full sonority.


Varieties of Listening Experience

I wanted to emphasize the quality of sound at IN/TERSECT to make the larger point that, for sophisticated listeners, the intense, focused concert experience remains available. True, there is ambient noise from the surrounding streets, but the amplification pretty well offsets that. On the first evening, we featured violist Andy Lin (of Amphion Quartet fame) and his sister Kelly, who played a somewhat intricate piece by Korean composer Alvin Tam; its every detail was available for connoisseurs to ingest.

On the other hand, you could just pass by and take in a few notes, listen from afar on the lawn, chat with a friend or wander off if you were getting bored or there was a part you disliked. With most new music concerts at destination venues, it’s very unusual to be able to dip your little toe in like this.

Andy Akiho performing on steel pans along with harp and double bass during the June 10, 2016 IN/TERSECT concert in Bryant Park

Andy Akiho and The Foundry performing during the June 10, 2016 IN/TERSECT concert in Bryant Park. Photo by Ryan Muir (courtesy Bryant Park Corporation).

Modes of Listening

New music has been as much about challenging modes of listening and perception as anything else. Schoenberg created his Society for Private Musical Performances out of a dissatisfaction with the traditional ways that audiences approached music. Schoenberg had a much higher standard of listening—in Style and Idea he disdains those who cannot easily take in both a main and subordinate theme simultaneously, and famously derides composers only familiar with half of Brahms’s complete output. Schoenberg’s concerts were places where a small but highly cultured, knowledgeable, and devout audience could gather and bring a tremendous, hitherto-unheard-of level of focus and intensity of listening to the concert experience.

That focus and intensity has gradually been institutionalized within classical and new music culture. Today there are any number of new music concerts where small audiences go to inspect music in great detail (based on an abundance of prior knowledge) that to the uninitiated would carry little meaning. And indeed, in so lifting the standards of listening, Schoenberg and his descendants have left huge swaths of humanity entirely behind.

What was most wonderful to me about the park experience was that all modes of listening were available simultaneously. Sure, you could sit in the front row and scrutinize Sandbox Percussion’s performance of Johnny Allen’s Sonata, with its multiple interpretive modes; you could revel to the minute details of Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet stylings or hang on every note of Chris Potter’s soloistic flights.

But at the same time there was no pressure to do any of the above. The ambient noise from the surrounding city streets is at a level that makes chatting with a neighbor not feel out of place in the back rows of the seating area, and there are many people who are spread out on blankets on the lawn, or even playing frisbee, as the music washes over them.

I guess Brian Eno beat me to this observation by a couple of decades, but—as someone who’s spent so much time on focused listening—I still believe there’s something really amazing about background music. Indeed—there’s something amazing about new music as background music. One of the most memorable moments during the first concert came for me when I took a full loop around the exterior of the park during the performance. Sandbox Percussion was playing a lovely piece by David Crowell, a very interesting young composer hailing from Alaska. As I was walking through the park, I thrilled to the sound—as did many seated on the lawn—of Crowell’s rhythms pinging serenely off of the surrounding buildings in stereophonic splendor. The content of the music was interesting but it almost didn’t matter; it was the simple fact of mallet instruments playing in concerted rhythm—mixing into and civilizing the chaotic sounds of the city—that was so sublime. The music that we often so minutely scrutinize, that we routinely talk about at levels of detail elusive to the everyperson: can it be that it all boils down to “Ahh, nice mallets pinging into the night air”?

I guess the answer to that is, “It depends.” It depends on who you are. It depends on your level of musical experience, on what you bring to the occasion. It depends on what you expect, what you want, what you think music could or should be. And, unlike almost any new music concert I’ve attended, the IN/TERSECT festival offered a rewarding experience for people with an amazing variety of those levels, those expectations, those desires.

Patrick Zimmerli

Patrick Zimmerli (photo by Maxime de Bollivier)

Patrick Zimmerli is a New York and Paris-based composer and musician. He has written and performed numerous works for jazz and classical musicians, among them jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, the Escher String Quartet, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, the Paris Percussion Group, and Bralizian vocalst Luciana Souza.

Space Matters: A Call for Community Action

Microphone on stage

Microphone on stage

Carnegie Hall. Covent Garden. The Louvre. Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame Cathedral. No doubt, venue matters. Watching baseball in Yankee Stadium is a completely different experience compared to watching a game at the local high school. A concert in Disney Hall is a different experience than at the downtown proscenium theater. Hearing a rock band in an arena is different than at the club down the street.

For thousands of years, we have built grand structures to honor what we deem most important—the temples of Greece, the Roman coliseum, the capitol building, and the concert hall. We have been consuming music in opulent European-style churches, gilded halls, and luxurious salons for hundreds of years. These settings lift up and support a musical art form built upon the shoulders of wealthy aristocrats and the social elite. These locations helped to elevate the music of the Western art tradition.

But times have changed. Symphonies now struggle to pack houses as their core demographic yearning for Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms has aged. Subsequent generations of symphony goers raised on electrified music are accustomed to the related changes in music venues—from huge sports arenas to intimate jazz clubs. In recent years, we have witnessed musicians producing concerts in even more nontraditional spaces—from suburban living rooms to dance studios. An even younger audience is increasingly more accustomed to an internet experience, and we’ve already seen live webcasting become a part of our space equation.

This quest for new spaces is valid and important but is not without challenge. The biggest obstacle for new music is the price tag. Traditional halls are extremely expensive to rent and often come with a high degree of associated labor expenses and financial risk. The typical individual composer, performer, or small organization has an uphill battle in finding traditional spaces that are affordable and available. Many of us also want to find spaces that are flexible and where a sense of intimacy can be created. To find this, we often look at multi-purpose venues that are not necessarily designed for acoustic music. This can create a wonderful atmosphere and intimacy with the performers but can be challenging when it comes to acoustic quality, location familiarity, and the need for additional equipment (lighting, pianos, percussion loading). We are also often competing for access with other groups such as the theater companies and dance troupes that typically use these spaces. Still others are crossing genre lines and performing in traditional jazz and rock venues to mixed results.

I have been getting the message for quite some time now that the new, adventurous, artistic music of today needs a new kind of concert hall that can lift up the sounds, honor the audience experience in the artistic process, and frame the work of a community of fearless music makers.   The bottom line: we need more dedicated spaces for music of the 21st century.

Nationally we are seeing this need met with a couple of different models. Venues like Le Poisson Rouge, Redcat, and National Sawdust are unique, dedicated music spaces outfitted with the latest technology that are hip, fun, and quality places to listen. But these are rare and special places. Privately owned venues provide an enterprising option for access to music but most need to make sure that the financial bottom line is always the first consideration. All too often, clubs are unwilling to take chances on new or developing shows, and we need more spaces to create access for all artists.

The artist consortium models like iBeam (Brooklyn), The Center for New Music (San Francisco), and Exapno (Brooklyn) are brilliant models that provide access to rehearsal and performance spaces, share resources, and build audiences using their collective power. Across the country we can work together to create more venues that honor the music and help audiences engage. Even now I am involved with creating a much needed physical space here in Seattle and know that much work lies ahead. Ultimately, the difficulty of pulling off this model is why it will be hard to scale this nationally—creating partnerships, finding adequate physical space, the time equity required, and the financial risk are just some of the barriers.

Every once in a while, we get a developer with vision (and often a financial incentive) to build into their plans a public performance space. The Seattle area has had several developers independently commit to taking this on and they have brought us 12th Ave Arts and Resonance Hall at Soma Towers. While these spaces are much appreciated, they are still not enough to impact the whole city, and there are few cities in the world that are experiencing the level of rapid growth and development that Seattle is. What more developers need is an incentive and a mandate.

Nationally, 28 of our state government’s have a Percent for Art program that funds public art at a percentage of the total cost for all new federal building projects. Many municipalities also have city ordinances that require new buildings to spend a percentage (usually around 1%) on art for the public benefit. We must work together as advocates to demonstrate the importance of contemporary performing space as well and find a way to sell the need for such support to a larger public.

Our formal symphony venues will continue to honor the standard Western European repertoire of the past, but we have grown beyond the 19th century-style hall. Our cities are changing rapidly and it’s time to pick up the cutting-edge contemporary performance space as a platform to honor the values of our society in the same way we continue to fund libraries in a digital age. With our collective action, I think it is easily within our grasp to begin to create a new kind of concert hall for the 21st century—bringing in new audiences, inspiring new generations through art and music, and building stronger communities. This is doable. This is my call to action.

Curation is Not a Form of Marketing

Since my first post in this series last week, I’ve been happily engaged in a number of discussions about the topic of curation and its role and/or use in new music. Opinions have ranged from people pouring out stories of their pursuit of these same ideals, to those voicing profound disagreement with the idea of any curation at all. What has most struck me about these many discussions is that the responses generally started from the unstated premise that the composer is the “artist” in this question of curation.[1] Even players, such as bass clarinetist Heather Roche, took this vantage point:

“This is fantastic. Curation = amazing. I love this idea of just “making artists’ dreams come true” as a curative principle (would absolutely be my approach, and perhaps with the competition it was my approach!). I approve of any encouragement that gets more musicians and festival directors, etc. to understand more about curation as a way to stop themselves from this principle of starting with a “theme” and then building a whole program around it. Themes are bad, people. Stay away from themes. Don’t do themes.”

It’s wonderful when players’ dreams include commissioning and collaborating with composers. It is equally vitally important to our art form, though, that any discussion about curation articulates the fact that performers are more than blank walls upon which masterworks are hung. Many of the most innovative minds in our field belong to performers, and the vibrancy of our art form consistently relies on their passion and precision. So when I say that I want new music curators concerned with “making the dreams of artists come true,” I mean something both wider and deeper than better programmed concerts with more opportunities for today’s composers.

Photo of a man sitting and playing a violin as audience members seated around the room listen.

What’s going on here? (All photos by Aaron Holloway-Nahum.)

In the same way that a museum’s curator can help a museum to reimagine its role and resources, we need people who find purpose in helping performers do the same. It’s no surprise that the International Contemporary Ensemble came up many times in my curatorial discussions this week, but more often than not this represented the limited viewpoint of the players being involved in choosing the music they play and running the ensemble itself. This is not the true curatorial accomplishment of ICE, and it is not where the most exciting opportunities for further innovation lay. ICE’s insight was that a flexible community of musicians could provide new, surprising, and exciting responses to the increasingly diverse questions about performance in our time. Their success should suggest to us that there exists an array of rewarding innovations to the concept of an ensemble, and indeed to performance itself. Curatorial thinking is vital to ongoing innovation in areas like this, and we are particularly in need of curators who encourage redefinitions of historically fixed ensembles such as the string quartet and orchestra.

A number of people, however, responded to my first post by pointing out that I had avoided the question of quality when it comes to asking these questions.

A screenshot from Facebook with a picture of Nick Sherrard and his quote which reads: “Interesting piece. You don’t make any quality judgements about the curators in that piece. It’s interesting that whilst ‘everyone is now a curator’ the professional (in the sense of paid) curatorial class have been encouraged into more and more specialized training. The result is a kind of middle management of taste making. To take it out of music for a second, we’ve seen so many new visual art galleries open in the UK in the last decade but there are few with a surprising curatorial vision. We’re at a point at which we need to celebrate provocative, remarkable, offensive, divisive curatorship. There isn’t enough of it about.”

Or, as a senior colleague commented:

Those who chose concert programmes and curate festivals etc. are often strikingly proud of their musical ignorance and lack of professional training in any musical field. Their choices are usually determined by such unartistic criteria as the amount of publicity this or that artist has already gotten and is therefore likely to get them. Or else a certain musical project will be chosen because it looks more publicity-friendly as it handles supposedly controversial subject matter…New music has remained refreshing, even internationally, precisely because it has not been dominated by the unmusical criteria of such so-called ‘middle men’…

Quality is a problem we all face, and new music is not served by a culture which consistently mislabels other practices as “curation” and then abandons the deeper and wider questions of curatorial practice to middle men and marketing departments.

One area where a higher quality of curatorial thought is required for new music is the growing practice of presenting new music in unusual venues. With the current rush toward “accessibility,” the fallacy here occurs when music intended for—and best served by—the focused attention of the concert hall, is parachuted verbatim into a venue with an entirely different culture and acoustic.

While more people might see it, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica would not have the same force as a piece of street graffiti as it does when presented in a gallery. Artworks are not disconnected from the space and context they are presented in, and nobody has a fulfilling experience (and nobody is converted to loving our music) if the music needs something (silence, a certain acoustic setup, the ability to focus) that the venue cannot provide. Similarly, we fail at any true development of our culture or outreach if a venue is calling out for new types of performance—and new possibilities for music itself—while we insist on the conventions of the concert hall.

A wide angle photo of Primrose Hill showing an open field with trees and lights in the background and city buildings in the distance.

Primrose Hill

It is also a missed opportunity. Take, as one alternative example, the London Contemporary Orchestra’s Imagined Occasions series from 2013. In the second of these concerts, the audience gathered at London’s Primrose Hill at sunset to hear Claude Vivier’s Zipangu. Following this, the audience walked from Primrose Hill to the Roundhouse while listening to Edmund Finnis’s Colour Field Painting, an electroacoustic “walking piece” that was especially commissioned for the event. Then, in the (somewhat) more conventional concert space of The Roundhouse, the audience sat and listened to four movements from Stockhausen’s KLANG – Die 24 Stunden des Tages as Conrad Shawcross’s Timepiece wove patterns of light above players dressed all in white.

There are other exciting and successful examples of this, but our current practice is still dominated by thoughtless parachutism[3]. Reimagining the concert experience in ways that fuse technology, movement, and space requires insightful curatorial thought, which is not a question of accessibility or marketing.

Our use of technology is another area where new music particularly needs our curatorial thought to grow to maturity. In my nightmares, we are headed toward a place where the greatest utilization of virtual reality in music will be the opportunity to attend Berlin Philharmonic performances of Beethoven in our living rooms. This is overstated (and life could be worse), but looking at the vast array of online and digital art being created, one can only lament the dearth of vibrant innovation we have had in this space so far.

Again, there are bright spots. This very week the London Sinfonietta and Kingston University launched an online platform called “co-curate” with the aim of inviting audiences to inspire and make contemporary art. Their first project will see members of the public respond to the brief “beauty in imperfection” prompt by uploading their own sounds, words, and still and moving images, which will then be gathered by composer Samantha Fernando into a multimedia performance in the Asylum Chapel.

There are some possible misnomers in how this website is titled. Uploading files is not “co-curating” a piece, it is contributing to a composition (if your files are selected). The artist doing the selecting (in this case Samantha herself) is not “co-curating” this piece, she is composing it.[2]

It is important to maintain that these are not the acts of curation, here, because what this platform is doing is using technology to reimagine what it might mean to be an audience, and what the relationship between an audience and composer can be. That is an interesting piece of curatorial practice and thought. We need curators to ask these questions in profound ways, so that profound answers can be brought to bear on our practice as performers and ensembles. The questions: “What work do you want to make that you can’t under current conditions?” and “What is it we need to change or accomplish so that these things can be attempted?” are not marketing decisions disguised as programming: they get at the heart of what it means to be an artist of our time.


1. In these next two essays there’s a lot of discussion about people playing different roles in new music. For the purpose of clarity, here I refer to composers as those writing instructions for performance (in any form/variety), and performers as those who execute those instructions. Composers and performers are grouped together under the term “musicians”, while the audience, is anyone who is observing these performances, both digitally and in-the-flesh. An individual can play more than one of these roles, but for the purpose of clarity I am treating the roles themselves as distinct.

2. Sifting through an array of possible inspirations while selecting some and discarding others, is an activity familiar to most composers.

3. The aforementioned practice of parachuting down to a (supposedly) unlikely or ‘new’ venue and playing repertoire there regardless of its best context.

Primrose Hill at Sunrise.

Primrose Hill at Sunrise.

Disposable Spaces, Plastic Music

I’ll be honest: I think that the burgeoning consumerism of the 18th century, and the resulting commodification of music into tangible, affordable circulating objects, was one of the main contributing factors behind the contemporary culture of musical canonization we all (myself included) love to critique. It was only a matter of time before the tangible accrued historical, mystical significance, and earned its own reliquaries in the form of “collected works” editions, the awe-inspiring concert halls of the 19th century, and, in the 20th century, “authoritative” recordings.

Which brings me to an environment for listening I have so far ignored. I suspect that many of the places we most often listen to music have little to do with any of the places I’ve mentioned in these posts; we hear mostly recorded music, and we likely hear it alone—in a car, through headphones, maybe through a set of speakers at home.

This kind of listening space is simultaneously ephemeral—in that it is fundamentally malleable—and monumental—in that its infinite repeatability aspires to cultural permanence. I can listen to the latest ICE album on any type of speakers while doing almost anything, and I can also listen to it repeatedly such that I have it memorized.

In fact, it is here, in the realm of recorded sound, that we can truly observe the difficulty (I won’t say impossibility) of ephemerality today. Live musical events of all kinds are usually recorded. Sometimes, those recordings become collectibles, like any Live at the Village Vanguard album. Ironically, this happens among some of the most self-consciously progressive communities of listeners as well, including Phish or Grateful Dead fans who trade (often bootlegged) recordings of particular concerts. Moreover, live events have long been forums for the promotion of recorded music. (I know better than to say CD sales…)
So, it’s fair to say that the ephemeral experience can far more easily be pushed into the monumental than the other way around, not merely by force of recordings and the like, but also by its very commoditization. Is it possible for music to be genuinely ephemeral when it is traded for money? The difficulty of answering this question should explain why Fluxus folks (have) had to be anti-commercial in order to fully embrace event-driven sound-art.

In the end, composers who want to hear more than one group’s interpretation of a piece, performers who want to perfect pieces until they are reliably repeatable under the stress of audience attention, promoters who want to put on events that will sell—we have collectively decided for understandable reasons that yes, disposable music is nice, but we’d really prefer to strive towards something more permanent. We’re afraid that, packaged disposably, music, like other comestible arts, might just be destined to turn to trash the next day—and with it, our opinions of ourselves, our abilities, our cultural heritage.
While I admire the investment in recycling, I don’t think it’s necessary to treat music the way we (hope to) treat our plastics. Performers and composers might feel stuck in a double bind here: They’d like to keep moving, always producing fresh works and events, offering their communities a stream of events on the edge of what’s new. (I don’t mean merely newly composed; I mean new to the landscape, which easily includes older, underperformed repertoire.) And yet it’s frustrating to get only one shot at a performance.
There are certainly those out there committed to experimental music and live manipulation of unrepeatable phenomena, but this is a minority aesthetic and remains unintegrated into the standard concert experience. One can find it in the new sounds of folks like Tim Feeney and Annie Lewandowsi, as well as in the fresh interpretation of ostensible “classics” by Tom Beghin or the resuscitation of no-longer-popular works by Marc André Hamelin. (In a poor, academic-speak imitation of Mike Myers’s “Coffee Talk,” I could throw out a remark here about the ways in which music education writ large reinforces only the most traditional skills of concert production, typically omitting any kind of improvisatory skill. Discuss.) I’ll leave with this thought: Because live presentation so often aspires to the perfection of recorded sound, a renewed commitment to the ephemeral requires a turn away from perfection itself. Does that mean lowering our standards? No, it just means changing them.

New England’s Prospect: May All Your Christmases Be Weird

A price tage at Weirdo Records
About the time the hip-hop cover of “Silent Night” that I heard over a store’s PA system sent me scurrying not for SoundHound, as it would have in years past, but rather for the exit, I realized that I was deep in holiday malaise. It was shaping up to be a dispiriting slog through December. Christmas was in trouble. So thank baby Jesus for Weirdo Records. And not just for the Monday concert series (called, unsentimentally, “The Series on Mondays”), although the December 16 installment was the occasion for this particular redemption. The place itself is a source of energizing, if off-the-wall, wonder.

Since 2009, when Angela Sawyer moved her online record-selling operation to a small, agreeably crowded storefront space in Cambridge’s Central Square, Weirdo Records has been an epicenter of noisemakers, musique concrète collectors, cult connoisseurs, found-sound aficionados, Fluxus progeny, circuit benders, and general musical crazies for the entire Boston area. The selection is a tribute to the virtues of browsing: I like to pride myself on my knowledge of off-the-radar rarities, but scanning these shelves is a wonderfully humbling and enlightening experience.
instructions on playing records backwards at Weirdo Records
Sawyer, herself a performer—as a solo artist, and as a member of Duck That!, Exusamwa, Pretty Peggy and the Lazy Babymakers, and other provocations—opens up the space to other adventurers every Monday. Usually one artist will curate a month’s worth of concerts, which often means showcasing long-standing collaborations. December’s shows were organized by—and around—Boston-based synth adept Peter Gumaskas; last Monday was an improvisation by Gumaskas and Jesse Cousineau, two-thirds of the group Triode. Even a duo made for a crowded stage in the space; display fixtures pushed up against the walls, patch cords hung from stacks of LPs. And even an unusually paltry three-person audience—Sawyer, Michael Rosenstein (another Boston-area modular synth guru), and an interloper, me—was transformed by the tight quarters into something respectable. And, anyway, the music made its own multitude.

The medium was electronic, but, compared to current digital practice, the means were almost pointedly corporeal: Jesse Cousineau seated among an old Roland Alpha Juno and a briefcase full of crosslinked effects pedals, Gumaskas kneeling before a magnificent home-built analog synthesizer. (Gumaskas’s is the type of machine that can, depending on one’s personal history, make one realize how pleasantly Proustian the sound of a fan-cooled power transformer can be.) It was the sort of set-up in which persnicketiness and unpredictability are as much a feature as a bug—another layer of moment-to-moment inspiration for the improvising musician.

Tools like that can often find their home at the line between music and sound art, but this performance was eminently musical—and not just because the feedback loops and oscillators tended to hang around the lower, diatonic-analogue neighborhood of the harmonic spectrum. Gumaskas and Cousineau have a sensibility and a knack for textures in constant, slow-sweeping motion, the transitions enticingly gradual and smooth. Again and again, the pair would build to a wall-of-sound climax, then pull back to something more transparent without letting the musical drama collapse. At one point, a thick, redolent stack of noise, saturated with seventh partials, suddenly gave way to a distant metallic wash dotted with cricket-like chirps, a decidedly, ravishingly symphonic effect.

The performance lasted for maybe a half-hour, and seemed shorter, culminating with a fade-out of enough delicacy that Gumaskas finally reassured everyone that, yes, the show was over. Performers and listeners—augmented by another local maven, Reed Lappin of In Your Ear! records, who snuck in halfway through—gathered to talk shop. I, the outsider, paid for some finds (Luc Ferrari! The Stark Reality Discovers Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop!). I headed out into the night, where the holiday lights had somehow reacquired their disposable but effervescent charm.