Tag: analysis

Classical Music Has Open Data Sets?

Back in October, the Washington Post offered some blog coverage of Suby Raman’s first big data and the arts post. While the dramatic headline made it sound like Raman had written a death knell for opera, what he’d actually done was taken reams of detailed data about the Metropolitan Opera’s performances and analyzed it for trends. Because he’s a composer, he knew what to look for in the data and what would matter to people. Because he’s a programmer, he knew how to handle the big data set itself.
In that data, he found a lot of really interesting stories to tell–not about the death of opera itself, but about how the Metropolitan Opera has been producing more and more works by dead composers. As the repertoire has solidified, the average age of a composition has gone pretty far up. At New Music USA, we find that less than awesome, and we’re grateful for the clear explanation, complete with charts and graphs and labelled axes. (The labelled axes are incredibly important.)

The chart from

The first of 10 charts created by Suby Raman based on data culled from Metropolitan Opera performances over the past century.

Some of the criticism lobbed at Raman in, mostly, various comment threads, attacked him for only looking at this one opera company instead of the entire field. That position completely misses the reality of what data science in the arts is actually like. Suby Raman didn’t pick the Metropolitan Opera out of a hat, try to say it’s a representative opera company, or argue that it’s more important than any other house. He picked it because they’re the ones who released all their historical data in a neat and usable package. Here’s his own disclaimer:

About the data: data was acquired from the Met Opera Database, in a timeframe from 1905 to present. One “performance” is a night of an identifiable opera performance. Opera performances data was scraped from the HTML and matched up to scraped composer/opera data from Wikipedia. The process of scraping/matching may have introduced some error.

Data may be big and getting bigger, but it’s not exactly thick on the ground in the performing arts. There is no IMDB for string quartets, composers, ballets, or even plays (though in theater there are some who are trying to make one). Where clear data sets exist, there’s a lot we can learn from them, and we should definitely encourage our big institutions to make more of their data transparently available to the public. A better headline for that Washington Post piece might have been “Holy crap, even the Metropolitan Opera is opening up their data?”
While the data available for analysis are limited in scope, they are still valuable, and Suby Raman did some great science by being clear about the limitations of his method, and about how more could be done with more information.
Plus he used a lot of animated gifs in that blog post. Who doesn’t love a good animated gif?
If you want more evidence of Raman’s competence to analyze data in the performing arts, check out the disclaimer text from his most recent blog post. This one’s on the gender diversity of major American orchestras:

Note: Dataset is 1,833 unique orchestra performers, taken from current orchestra roster pages. “Laureate” and “Emeritus” musicians were not included. “Top 20 Orchestras” was defined as the top 20 orchestras ranked by base salary. Librarians and other personnel were not included; you guys are fantastic, but this just examines musicians. I will post the dataset to GitHub in a few days, check here for the link.
Because of variances in doubling vs. unique performers, “ancillary” instruments like piccolo, English horn, etc. were included in their more common section (flute, oboe, etc).

He’s brought both a good knowledge of data scraping and a good knowledge of the inner working of orchestras to the job. I can think of few data scientists with the music background to let them do this. My one quibble, and it is not insignificant, is that there isn’t anything in here about how the gender of each player was determined. Was it by name? By appearance? It probably wasn’t by self-identification, and there do seem to be only two kinds of gender in this analysis, which is its own problem. But the stories Raman is trying to tell here are also clear, also compelling, and also a strong, evidence-based call for change. One particularly good point, revealed by proper analysis like this, is how many principal flutists are men, despite most flutists in the study’s orchestras being women. Wow. This post only does have one animated gif, though.
Did I mention that Raman also writes music?

Noise Reduction

While I was working on my doctorate at the University of Texas, a fellow musicology student told me once that if anyone could make sense of the state of contemporary music, it would have to be composers. She was saying that, in effect, most theorists and musicologists didn’t even know where to begin because the field had become too large, too diverse, too diffuse. Since then, I’ve heard fellow academics state similar concerns along with the common disinclination to point to any specific name, work, or musical trend (better known as “let history sort it out”). Anne Midgette illustrates both concepts in her end-of-year Washington Post column “This year’s bounty of CD’s: a reader’s guide“; not only does she colorfully describe the challenge of navigating the onslaught of new recordings as “like trying to drink from a fire hose,” but she decided to forgo making her own “Top 10 (or 15 or 100) Recordings of 2013” list and instead crowdsourced her readers’ picks.

Of course, how we communicate today—either directly via email, indirectly via social media, or passively through websites—only amplifies this growth and diffusion. Concert announcements, event invitations, and collaboration shout-outs were already commonplace when Kickstarter and Indiegogo ratcheted up the chatter considerably. There is nothing wrong with any of these endeavors in and of themselves, but as more and more composers, performers, presenters, and managers clamor for attention, the overall result becomes as blended and indistinct as Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room.
While the echo chamber that I describe here is not the optimum, neither is an overly selective environment within which a privileged few who have a megaphone, be it through a newspaper, radio, website, or recording label, intentionally or unintentionally serve as tastemakers. Is it possible to find a balance between the two? I hope so.

Some might say that the new music community, even with all of its sub-groups, comprises such a thin slice of the overall “classical music” pie (much less the overall music pie) that there is little worth in trying to improve the situation—that one might as well let those in obscurity remain and work harder to intensify the spotlight on those who already reside in it. They very well may be right. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel the need to explore the possibilities, if for no other reason than to find a solid balance between a focused understanding of today’s new music and a broad accessibility to as many creative artists as possible, irrespective of style, locale, or pedigree.

Where could this exploration lead? I’m not sure yet, but it is what I shall be undertaking in the upcoming year. My weekly columns here at NewMusicBox over the past three years have been one of the richest and most unforeseen treasures of my career to date. I now look forward to delving into important issues within our art form and our community at a much greater depth and breadth than I’ve been able to do so far and to the vigorous and enlightening discussions that might result.

Signal to Noise

I promised myself I wouldn’t take the bait dangled by Dan Asia’s screed against John Cage, but it’s turning out to be hard to resist. So instead I’ll try to write about it in the most oblique way I can without being too obtuse.
When a work is interpreted, it experiences a death, a closing off of possibilities. I am not saying that this death is a good or bad thing–more like an inevitable, necessary part of observation and interpretation.

When you say that a work of art must simultaneously nourish the mind, body, and emotions, you are imposing a very strict definition that excludes a great deal of value. What if music could express things other than what we already know it to express? If we allow this possibility, we must also accept the value of experimentation, even in the face of failure.

And even if you refuse to question the holy trinity of mind/body/emotion, it is completely nonsensical to consider it a basis for objective evaluation. To do so requires believing that the mind is situated outside the mind and the body is situated outside the body. As if emotions were free-floating abstracts, little clouds of vapor that drift from person to person.

As attractively fanciful as this notion is, it isn’t particularly rigorous.

I think I know what is at the root of these recurring rants, these rashes of irascibility against Cage et al. We have a massive signal-to-noise ratio problem. Cage prefigured this problem to an extent, though I suspect he underestimated the extent of its repercussions.

There are far too many things to listen to, so our listening must be curated. We can choose to take a role in this curation, but our range of action is limited by our attention span, our reserves of vigilance. So many things are constantly demanding, cajoling, pleading for our attention–many of them with questionable ulterior motives. The Western canon and its implied values, for example.

The haters see Cage as exacerbating this problem, as cluttering the already cacophonous landscape. For me, he brings that problem into sharp relief, making it more manageable. When I am listening to a good performance of a Cage piece I feel that I have agency, that I have control over my body, mind, and emotions. Or at least, that the possibility exists.
I am pretty sure that Cage would not have approved of this sentiment, or this phrasing.

The Role of Analysis

Yesterday, a friend and colleague posed the following question to a group of composers: “How important do you feel analysis of your work is for its performance?” As someone who has given this issue a great deal of thought, I was happy to weigh in with my opinions; I’m hoping that NewMusicBox readers might have different takes on this issue and will share their thoughts in the comments section.

Personally, I believe that analysis is essential in that it helps performers to differentiate between essential compositional details and those areas where they can take liberties. I want each person who takes the time to engage with my works to forge their own path through the music and to create a unique interpretation. The challenge is that music notation can be an insufficient guide in directing them towards the aspects of the score that lend themselves to subtle deviations from the notes on the page. For example, some microtonal areas of my pieces must be exactly tuned in order to create a specific harmony with its subtle colorations, while I design other similarly notated passages in order to express a deviation from the equal tempered norm without expecting that the resulting harmonies will be precisely realized. Generally, a cursory analysis of the speed of the gestures along with their relative frequency and relationship to the surrounding material suffices to help distinguish between gestures that require exactitude from those that allow for more variance.

I also am wholly convinced of the stupidity of composers when it comes to our own works. When we create new pieces, we need to focus on microscopic details as we select the little black dots that best convey our grand emotional aspirations. This myopic approach ideally allows us to construct compositions in which all parts relate beautifully to the whole while expressing something greater than the sum of these constituent elements. No matter how carefully we consider all of the specific components of our compositions, once these little worlds leave our desks other people will invariably discover relationships that had eluded our initial understanding. In less successful works, our carefully hidden ciphers will be orphaned by a lack of interest in unveiling their underlying design. In more successful works, the efficacy of the whole will far surpass the sum of the systems on which it is based. In either instance, the ability of the final product to convey its own message functionally obliterates the intent of the composer. The music speaks for itself.

To me, the best collaborations are with those performers who learn enough about my music to create their own unique interpretation. As I compose a new work, I generally hold a single performance in my head, and I hope that the premiere will convey that vision. After the premiere, I hope that performers will be able to express their own thoughts about the piece, within the framework of my composition. I treasure those moments when I feel that a work that I created can be a vehicle for communicating someone else’s inner life. I believe that effective analysis is the best path for determining how best to remain true to the composition itself while creating a new work of art through each performance.