Tag: collaboration

The Compositional Collective: Crowdsourcing and Collaboration in the Digital Age


Image from Bigstock

From the “Festival in Two Worlds” hosted in the virtual environment Second Life to Eric Whitacre’s captivating crowdsourcing project Lux Aurumque and “telepresent” concerts hosted by Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Institute, new music enthusiasts and composers alike can explore the outer limits of collaboration in the digital age. Music technology explodes exponentially in the third millennium.

Composers have historically explored and exploited the latest tools to meet their own ends, quickly incorporating the printing press, the phonograph, and circuitry in their own musical creations.  Today, advances in internet development, robotics, virtual reality, and social networking usher in with them the next generation of compositional methods. Most of these tools require nothing more than a high-speed connection and a little bit of time to learn and use. The possibilities feel limitless.

Technology in contemporary music, however, also poses unique challenges—logistically, technically, and aesthetically.  Directly speaking to the challenges of crowdsourcing and technology in collaborative projects, co-founder of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra and founder of the Princeton Soundlab Perry R. Cook points out:

As with much technology-based music and art, the demand that each new piece be absolutely novel, or nearly unique, is higher than with acoustic/traditional art. Nobody would demand that a new string quartet use new technology and sound completely different from all other past string quartets, but an art piece that uses new technology seems to carry an extra burden that it use really NEW technology.

In the mad dash to explore new technical heights and dimensions, complaints about the musical value or even sheer purpose of works created solely to exploit technology come to light. The challenge for composers lies in creating lasting works that move past sheer novelty, although there is value in experimentation for experimentation’s sake.

What follows is a brief exploration of several collaborative projects which challenge conventional definitions of composition, and some of which would be impossible using only traditional means.

Crowdsourcing and Opera by You

For those unfamiliar with the concept of crowdsourcing, imagine the inner workings of a high-functioning beehive. Each member works on a specific task towards a collective goal. In the same way, artistic efforts involving crowd-sourced talent assign each member a specific creative task that benefits the collective efforts of the whole. Each musician works towards the final project.

Although primarily designed for independent film projects, Wreckamovie has sections designated for operas and music videos. A project leader sets up a free online account and posts images, video, and a blog about the opera. Then he or she designates individual tasks for writers, artists, musicians, and other key roles. Participating members join the production and upload materials for each task. While some productions require members to sign a talent release form, the Wreckamovie website includes legal text that specifies the voluntary nature of collaboration on the site. The majority of productions are based in Finland, but international productions like music videos and indie slasher films also use the service.

While collaboration at a certain level is integral to large-scale productions like opera and film, the creators of Opera by You produced an opera entirely created through crowdsourcing. The project was the brainchild of a group of Finnish artists including Markus Simon Fagerudd, Samuli Lane, Iida Hämeen-Anttila, Jere Erkkilä, and Päivi Salmi, and they used the website Wreckamovie.com to create an opera from scratch exclusively using crowdsourcing with the support of the Savonlinna Opera Festival. From concept to score to costume design, each element was tasked out to the Wreckamovie community and then completed by volunteer composers, artists, writers, and actors. Participants in the 400-member online crew each receive credit for their contributions.

Opera by You challenges ideas surrounding intellectual property and musical ownership. Several composers worked with Markus Simon Fagerudd on developing themes, orchestrating music, and editing scores.  The libretto is an eclectic mix of Dante’s Divine Comedy, political commentary, and cameos by famous historical figures like Mozart and Oscar Wilde. While Hämeen-Anttila finalized the libretto, the community developed plot ideas and twists, and literally put words in each character’s mouth. All community members signed a formal license agreement giving the Savonlinna Opera Festival property rights to Opera by You.

Free Will by Opera by You – record



Opera by You premiered July 21, 2012, at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Helsinki, Finland. The festival has also embarked on a new children’s opera called The Seal Opera, which has a libretto selected by the public using an online voting system. According to a 2011 press release, the winning libretto was created by elementary school children at the Helsinki European School. Over 6,000 participants voted for it online.

YouTube Collaborations

In 2008, YouTube, the London Symphony Orchestra, composer Tan Dun, and even the Hyundai Motor Company played key roles in a virtual experiment. Using YouTube.com as an online auditioning platform, aspiring amateur musicians competed online with professional musicians for a spot in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. In the end, thousands of musicians auditioned, and 101 instrumentalists made their way to the Sydney Opera House for a live performance.

The end result of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra seemed to be a mixed bag, with reviewers balking at the choice of program and lack of nuance in the performance.  In a March 21, 2011, review in the Los Angeles Times, Marcia Adair compared the final YouTube Symphony Concert to band camp concerts where the emphasis is on the experience and not the music. The YouTube Symphony Orchestra suffered from a lack of cohesiveness of sound that a few hasty days of rehearsal could not resolve.

Not all collaborative efforts using YouTube have involved willing participants. In 2009 Israeli composer and activist Ophir Kutiman developed the innovative ThruYOU online video series. Kutiman created video mashes using clips of musicians and vloggers on YouTube. Videos such as My Favorite Color and Mother of All Funk Chords involved dozens of short video clips tightly edited by Kutiman. The composer created complex musical compositions with each clip, using slick editing techniques and jazz arranging skills. Kutiman scavenged YouTube for each original clip, including everyone from bashful moms playing the organ to seasoned pros showing off their drum chops. Old rules regarding copyright were blatantly ignored, making the experiment controversial in some circles. The end result is raw, refreshing, and unique.

Ophir Kutiman continues to use technology as a means of expression and activism. His more recent 2011 video work, This is Real Democracy, demonstrates his trend towards political activism and shift away from purely musical pursuits.

Perhaps one of the most popular contemporary works using crowdsourcing and technology to date involves choral composer Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir and the viral rendition of his Lux Aurumque. Since his first successful YouTube video hit the internet, Whitacre has followed up with other Virtual Choir projects. The sleekness of production, the lush musical beauty of the works, and the gargantuan scope of a collaboration involving over 185 voices from a dozen countries have all helped launch Whitacre into a world of online stardom.

In a 2011 TED Talk, Eric Whitacre explained the simple beginnings for Virtual Choir. A choral student named Britlin Lucy uploaded a fan video for his work Sleep to YouTube. Inspired by the intimate sound and setting of the video, Whitacre uploaded a recording, sheet music, a piano track, and conducting video for Lux Aurumque to his blog and YouTube with a call for fifty singers to participate in a virtual ensemble video. The online auditions involved singers from all over the world.

Producer Scott Haines volunteered to cut the video and clean the audio, inserting clips of Eric Whitacre conducting the virtual ensemble, which is somewhat reminiscent of a scene from Superman 2. The high production quality of the first Virtual Choir project, in HD no less, does not compare to the second version, Virtual Choir 2.0 which involved over two thousands singers performing Whitacre’s Sleep in a virtual computer generated universe of interconnected spheres with a lone Whitacre at the epicenter.

More than a musical experiment, Whitacre’s Virtual Choirs explore and redefine community from a 21st-century perspective. Members experience a connectedness with strangers through this project. They reveal the possibilities of a more integral communication phenomena through social networking and technology that has only been imagined in the past. The musicians connected through space and time, if not through touch. During his Ted Talk, Whitacre described his virtual singers as “souls all on their own desert islands…sending electronic messages in bottles to each other.”

Telepresent Performance and The Telematic Circle

The concept of international “telepresent performances,” or collaborative performance occurring in tandem from different locations, has its beginnings in the late 20th century when the internet first reared its digital head. A paper by Ajay Kapur, Ge Wang, Philip Davidson, and Perry R. Cook called “Interactive Network Performance: a dream worth dreaming?” discusses the beginnings and practice of complex networked performances, including the projects like the GIGAPOPR, remote Internet 2 media events at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), and experiments at the Electrotechnical Laboratory in Japan. The article describes in detail earlier efforts to create global telepresent concerts such as work in the 1990s at Chukyo University of Toyota in Japan and at the USA/Japan Inter-College Computer Music Festival in Tokyo. Both of these efforts seem primitive compared to today’s sleek smartphone, virtual world, and multimedia video collaborations. For a technically detailed description of a few key collaborative projects like VELDT (Networked Visual Feedback Software) and The Gigapop Ritual, “Interactive Network Performance: a dream worth dreaming?” is a read well worth the head-scratching and technical wonder.

A quick look online will reveal that the concept of telepresent performances in real time has captivated the hearts, minds, and efforts of a number of composers and artists. The Internet2 community, a consortium of academic communities and researchers, has used technology for artistic pursuits like Trespassing Boundaries between Tel Aviv and New York University and the cross-continental simultaneous live performances of InterPlay: Hallucinations. Multicasting or webcasting has become popular not only in the Internet2 community but with independent musicians through publicly accessible live streaming sites like UStream.com.

Composer Pauline Oliveros first experimented with telepresent performances using an Internet2 connection. A performance in 2005 involved dancers in California and France interacting with Pauline’s improvisations at RPI. As Pauline improvised, video was simulcast to France and California. Dancers improvised with Pauline’s musical gestures and with each other. Several challenges—including latency and issues with a firewall in France—threatened the performance until the day of the concert. At the premiere, Pauline serenely began her dream-like improvisation, natural percussive instruments in hand, as dancers flung far across the globe interpreted her musical gestures with their bodies.

Today Oliveros’s Telematic Circle involves universities, musicians, and composers throughout the world and facilitates telepresent concerts with minimal latency using both the latest technology and what Oliveros describes as “low tech audio.” The group utilizes a combination of tools including Internet2, Apple’s iCHATav, Skype, and other audiovisual means of communication. By working together, the various institutions hope to learn how best to overcome technical issues regarding latency, logistics, and teleconferencing limitations that limit real time musical performance.

Vox Novus 60×60 and Macrocomposition

Inspired by musical efforts like The Frog Peak Collaborations Project and Guy Livingston’s Don’t Panic, composer and director of Vox Novus Robert Voisey developed the 60×60 project as a means to expose audiences to new music. The project utilizes technology and digital collaboration to create a unique concert experience that has had hundreds of performances globally, and, on its tenth anniversary, has presented music by more than 2,000 composers.

The concept for the 60×60 project is simple: Combine sixty one-minute electronic compositions into an hour-long new music concert experience.  With minimal funding, 60×60 survives directly as a result of pooled talent from composers from all walks of life. More than a random mix of works, 60×60 involves macro-composition, which Voisey describes as, “the act of creating a musical work incorporating several fully formed ideas or complete works.” And just as “ballet, operas, and movies are all perfect examples of many artists contributing to a greater artistic whole orchestrated by the ‘macro-artist’,” says Voisey, the Vox Novus 60×60 project involves this multi-layered method of composition in the same way with sixty smaller sections sifted and sorted musically by a macro-composer.

Technology plays a key role in contacting and recruiting musicians for 60×60. Vox Novus members send out numerous calls both on the 60×60 website and through active music groups like the International Alliance of Women in Music (IAWM) listserv and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Participating composers submit their one-minute works using an online submission engine. The 60×60 project has a number of mixes each year, and each mix typically generates hundreds of submissions. This type of large-scale collaborative project involving thousands of composers from every corner of the globe is only possible through contemporary methods of Internet communication.

Other Collaborative Projects

Random Acts of Culture

Supported by the Knight Arts Foundation, Random Acts of Culture combines flashmobs and social networking with classical music. While not a means to create new forms of music, Random Acts of Culture has used social networking to expose unsuspecting mall-goers to spontaneous performances of “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, works by Verdi, and Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. The performances are meant to create a sense of community as unsuspecting participants join in the performance, tweet live about the experience, or simply grab a few snapshots with their phones.

Bicycle Built for 2000

Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an Amazon site that essentially serves as an online marketplace for microtasking, project designers Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey commissioned over two thousand people from over seventy countries to make vocal recordings of a brief excerpt of the song Daisy Bell for the price of six cents a recording. The participants did not have prior knowledge of the grand end-scheme. The final result of Bicycle Built for 2000 may seem a somewhat nightmarish version of the original tune, but still stands as an interesting experiment of grand scale crowdsourcing.

And even more…

Crowdsourcing musical talent reaches outside the realm of experimental electroacoustic wizardry, with popular examples like Smule’s Glee, Thounds.com, Kompose.com, and collaborative projects in the virtual world of Second Life by composer Alex Shapiro. For those that have a love for Karaoke, I warn you that Smule’s Glee can get quite addicting.

Practical Applications

More than just a digital playground for the curious, the internet provides an exciting engine for creativity and change.

As a composer of limited resources, producing a full-scale opera seemed impossible to me, but the Internet provided the talent and resources needed for my current virtual opera project. Websites like Music Xray, Blogger, Twitter, and OurStage were ideal for setting up online auditions. Sites like Wreckamovie, LinkedIn, and Moviestorm added talented artists, graphic designers, and animators to the film crew. Unlike a traditional live performance, Libertaria: The Virtual Opera is animated with Machinima, an animation style using virtual actors in a computer graphics environment first popularized by the video game Quake. Minor animation tasks are set up for crowdsourcing through Wreckamovie, while a core group of “Machinimators” will work together on major scenes. The cast rehearses using Opera Rehearsal Album downloads at Bandcamp. Each Opera Rehearsal Album comes complete with scores, an updated libretto, and click tracks. The film crew has never met. Typically this type of production would be prohibitive for a single composer to write, compose, and produce. By tapping into the vast resources available online, previously impossible things are achieved.

The key to many crowdsourced collaborative efforts lies in making a cohesive and understandable musical experience out of the amassed materials. Like the macro-composer in the Vox Novus 60×60 Project or the designers for Bicycle Built for 2000 and Virtual Choirs 2.0, a master artist assimilates each individual entity into the final whole. In this way, even a project involving thousands can have a single purpose, a single concept.

The technology described here is already moving towards the realm of digital antiquity. The point is to create incredible music with the resources at hand, not to exploit the latest digital gadgetry for the sake of shock and awe. Technology invaded music centuries ago.

What are some practical ways you can use today’s technology in your next musical project? You can crowdsource your next opera, flashmob the local grocery store with a new oratorio, conduct international auditions through YouTube, or premier a string quartet virtually in Second Life. Use Thounds.com, Google+, or Twitter to bounce your musical ideas off of other musicians, or improvise a telepresent jazz concert in real time using Skype or your iPhone. Connect to musicians a hemisphere away and find the talent you are looking for. Contemporary technology opens new doors to musical creativity.


A special thanks to Pauline Oliveros, Robert Voisey, Päivi Salmi, and Perry R. Cook for providing additional insight into this topic.

Additional Resources:
Adair, Marcia. “Music review: YouTube Symphony Orchestra’s final concert.” Los Angeles Times. March 21, 2011.

Ajay Kapur, Ge Wang, Philip Davidson, and Perry R. Cook, “Interactive Network Performance: a dream worth dreaming?” Department of Computer Science (also Music), Princeton University, Music Intelligence and Sound Technology Interdisciplinary Center (MISTIC), and the University of Victoria (2005).

Pauline Oliveros. “Reverberations: Eight Decades.” 2012. Abridged version in upcoming Journal of Science and Culture (2012).


Sabrina Peña Young

Award-winning composer, author, and obsessive sci-fi buff Sabrina Peña Young composes multimedia works that have been presented throughout Asia, the Americas, Australia, and Europe. Her music has been heard in international film festivals, radio, electronic dance clubs, random boom boxes in France, and as not-so-pleasant-background music. Young’s recent projects include the post-apocalyptic Libertaria: The Virtual Opera, the Afro-Cuban multimedia oratorio Creation, and film scores including Rob Cabrera’s animated short Monica and Sean Fleck’s time-lapse film Americana. Young’s works have been heard at the Beijing Conservatory, ICMC, SEAMUS, Miramax’s Project Greenlight, Art Basil Miami, the New York International Independent Film Festival, Turkey’s Cinema for Peace, the Pulsefield Exhibition of Sound Art, London’s Angel Moving Image Festival, and other international arts venues.

Instruments for Playing Water

Recently, I’ve been working closely with the artist Katherine Kavanaugh as she has designed and built a sculptural installation using bamboo, water, a plexiglass pool, and copper. On Saturday, I’ll perform a new composition at the installation’s official opening that I’m creating along with three fantastic musicians: Jacqueline Pollauf and Noah Getz of Pictures on Silence, and Peabody student composer Benjamin Buchanan.

My concept for the musical performance involves playing the water and other parts of the sculpture directly, and also moving throughout the space in order to evoke a ritualistic sensibility and to involve the entire gallery in the staging. As part of our collaboration, Katherine and I spent a great deal of time considering what tools we would utilize to create the musical sounds. Although we never officially voiced this constraint, we decided to limit ourselves to further manifestations of the materials contained within the installation itself. Bamboo cut to various lengths functions as mallet, trumpet, resonator, and even bubble producer; copper bowls become percussive devices and tone generators; crystal goblets (standing in for plexiglass) add another pitched element and the ability to create melodies.

Last weekend, all the musicians gathered in the VisArts gallery in order to explore the completed installation for the first time. As we physically examined the sculptural materials in order to see what intriguing sounds could be generated from the objects at hand, our varying sensibilities and proclivities allowed each person to produce unique ideas that would eventually be woven into the final sound world. Our united efforts quickly began to merge into a composition that hopefully has a discernible shape and structure and will allow visitors to experience the art in a new light. The curator tells me that she plans to display a video of the performance running on a loop in the gallery in hopes that patrons will continue to conceive of the sculptural display as engendering sonic ideas through time.

Although in our discussions, Katherine and I had agreed that she would leave the performance implements visible in the gallery as part of the overall whole, I was delightfully surprised to find them officially displayed, complete with a tag identifying them as “Instruments for Playing Water.” Yes, that’s exactly what they are. And yet, I found that the mere act of affixing this label to the wall had elevated these devices—which had seemed so utilitarian to me only days earlier—to an integral part of the installation itself. I had once seen these objects as tools, but now in my mind they metamorphosed into sculptures. Of course, I still needed to use them in order to create music, but my relationship with these little devices had been inextricably altered. All because of a little sign on a wall.

Just as I aspire to use sound in order to enhance visitors’ perception of the sculpture, the installation itself intensified my sense of the meaning behind its constituent elements.

Making The Face

Face Rehearsal

The Face in rehearsal on August 21, 2012. Photo by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

The Face, my new multidisciplinary chamber opera premiering in Los Angeles on August 25, 27, and 28, has been in the works for more than seven years and involves an international team of creative artists. Most operas these days—especially new ones—have lots going on, so to call an opera “multidisciplinary” isn’t exactly surprising. In The Face, though, “multidisciplinary” is intrinsic and fundamental in several crucial ways. The principal extra-musical elements—poetic text, choreography, and film—are not intended as laminations but rather built deeply into the structure from the ground up. The Face is an intimate, intense psychological drama with a tightly woven musical narrative.

The libretto is by the poet David St. John, a colleague of mine (and now a good friend) at the University of Southern California. The text comes from his novella in verse, a cycle of forty-five poems also titled The Face (Harper Collins, 2004); it is indeed highly poetic, just what I was looking for. The language is concise, emotionally charged, colorful, and downright beautiful. I had previously set two of David’s poems in a piece commissioned by the Hilliard Ensemble (The Village: Two Poems of David St. John), and I had also been interested in his poetry for a number of years, so exploring the idea of a libretto from David St. John felt somehow inevitable. After the premiere performances of the Hilliard Ensemble piece in Europe, I approached him about collaborating on an opera. We had a meeting in late 2005 at which he proposed several possible ideas. His first choice by far was to use his recent novella, and he gave me a copy of the book to read. Both the poetic language and the dramatic possibilities immediately struck me, so I agreed. David created the libretto by following one of several narrative paths through the novella, a path which, in eleven scenes, focuses on the main character, a poet named Raphael, as he struggles with the recent loss of his lover and muse while juggling the demands of a Hollywood movie being made about his life and his increasing notoriety. A crucial element in the process of creating the libretto involved David asking me to identify passages in the cycle of poems which contained language that I, as the composer, was especially drawn to—and lines that David fashioned into a stunning libretto. David St. John has been an ideal librettist, a dream to work with.

Not surprisingly, quite a number of people in my world knew I was hard at work on an opera and that I was on the lookout for a stage director with a theatrical vision suited to this project. A young singer with whom I’d worked in Los Angeles, the French soprano Myriam Zekaria, was touring France in a revival of the opera Les Enfants Terribles (Philip Glass/Jean Cocteau), and she urged me to see the show in person. On a whim, I followed her suggestion and traveled to Paris and Lyon to experience the work of the theatrical production company—Heliotrope—who were working on this project. I was bowled over by the power of their artistic vision and promptly arranged a meeting with two members of the company: Paul Desveaux (director) and Yano Iatrides (director/choreographer). The meeting resulted in the birth of an artistic collaboration on The Face between two organizations separated by a large ocean—Heliotrope (based in Paris) and Firebird Ensemble (based in Boston). We subsequently decided that Paul Desveaux would create the dramatic and film concept for the work and that Yano Iatrides would direct and choreograph The Face. In addition, we added another two members of the Heliotrope team—Laurent Schneegans as lighting designer and Amaya Lainez as assistant director.

One of the things that engaged me most about the work of Heliotrope was their ability to fuse various elements onstage (lighting, dance, staging, poetry, and film). Many productions take a layering approach to multidisciplinary works, but I wanted to create an opera which integrated the elements in an organic way. Working with performers who do not come from a classical dance background fascinates Yano Iatrides. (She frequently choreographs works involving actors, street artists, singers, and comedians.) Her uncanny ability to instill in them an approach to movement, of “dancing the staging” in a way, is in part how she communicates her very unique dramatic vision on stage. This is far beyond blocking; our four singers embody the discipline of dance while singing new opera. Rehearsals each day start with an extended and rigorous session of movement training as the singers embark on a process of physical and emotional exploration of themselves and their characters. Stage direction and choreography follow naturally from this starting point as Yano begins working through various scenes from the opera. Breaks tend to feature what are evidently her three staples: coffee, cigarettes and air. Yano is intense, to be sure, but we all find her to be very lovable.

The process of obtaining visas for our international group of artists has been a huge hassle, to be sure, and several experienced opera people pointedly suggested sticking with a domestic team. We needed O-1 and O-2 visas requiring peer review from American professional unions, signed contracts, and extensive evidence of “extraordinary ability” in order for U.S. immigration to approve the applications, even for only temporary employment on our project. This required more than six months of work, and the seemingly inevitable procedural delays necessitated the considerable help of senatorial offices in Boston so we could get our team into the United States on time. (My advice: begin the process well in advance, use an immigration lawyer if possible, and keep pushing.) As it turned out, Yano Iatrides’s paperwork was completed in time for her scheduled flight from Paris, but Amaya Lainez was delayed six days. Our lighting designer is coming in on time later in the rehearsal period. The three weeks preceding our first day of rehearsal in Boston were quite harrowing as we, and especially our producer, Kate Vincent, were waiting for final visa approval and processing. In spite of all this, I don’t regret a minute of it, and that exploratory trip I made to France over spring break a few years ago to experience their work was well worth it.

Last but certainly not least in the “multidisciplinary” aspects of The Face is the film element. In this opera, Raphael’s lost beloved and muse Marina—a crucial character—is a silent role on film. Marina died in some terrible, unnamed catastrophe, and Raphael is unhinged. I knew from the beginning that Marina would be a “home movie” character and made space for her in the music, but neither David St. John nor I knew exactly how this film element would play out. Enter Anton Nadler, a young filmmaker who is active in New York and Los Angeles. Our story is set in Venice Beach and the movie-making world of Hollywood, so Anton seemed to me a perfect choice. The film of Marina can be imagined as a collection of home movies made some years ago by Raphael, and Marina plays to him and his camera in casual and intimate scenes. Anton Nadler shot the film in and around LA during a preview/residency of the opera at the University of Southern California on its Visions & Voices series last April. Jane Sheldon, the young Australian who is our soprano (Cybele) in The Face, also plays the silent role of Marina on film and adds to the poet Raphael’s (the British tenor, Daniel Norman) very considerable emotional confusion. The results are quite striking; the camera loves Jane, as they say. From early in the rehearsal period begun in Boston in late July, Marina was a presence on stage, a fifth character intrinsic to the staging.

A decidedly-not-insignificant aspect of this project is the fact that The Face has been produced outside of the world of traditional opera companies by Boston’s Firebird Ensemble and its founder and director Kate Vincent. I had worked with Kate and Firebird in recent years on several projects, including a recording, and Kate decided to take the opera on as a new adventure for her ensemble with Kate herself producing. The Face has an acoustic score without electronics and whiz-bang sound effects (though I admit we do have an electric guitar), so Firebird, with its superb musicians and chamber music ethos, was for me the ideal choice. Gil Rose, founder and artistic director of Boston Modern Orchestra Project and a respected champion of new music and new opera, came on board as music director.

In addition to creating this production of The Face, Kate Vincent and the Firebird Ensemble wanted to develop a significant educational component for the project. This has been achieved through the creation of an internship program for young people in the theater and music fields. We have given a group of students from theater schools, colleges, and universities from across the country the opportunity to assist and be mentored by the professional team. These students are now functioning in assistant roles for the stage director, producer, stage manager, repetiteur, film crew, and costume designer; three talented young singers serve as covers for the cast during the production.

One inevitable result of the Firebird Ensemble taking on The Face was that it has more than tripled Firebird’s operating budget for its tenth anniversary season. Los Angeles, where David St. John and I are based, seemed to be a logical choice for the premiere run. (We will do an additional concert performance in Boston, Firebird’s hometown, on August 31.) Working independently from an opera company is both challenging and freeing. A big company has a significant infrastructure and the financial resources to handle production, stage and musical direction, casting, and promotion, while a new music ensemble has to build this from the ground up. On the other hand, while a major opera company tends to focus on a full season of standard favorites with perhaps something from the 1940s onward and just maybe a premiere added in, a new music ensemble or small independent production company can dream and create independently. In addition, the scope of a project like this for a small organization such as the Firebird Ensemble has resulted in an enormous artistic investment on their part. On the production side, I as the composer have had direct input into the choice of the stage directing team, the cast, and the music director. I’ve been involved in decisions about staging, set, costume, publicity, marketing, lighting, personnel, travel, and myriad other details. While this process might not be for everyone, my deep involvement in every aspect of this opera and the experience of working with a passionate and exceptional collection of artists, singers, and instrumentalists from all over the world is an experience which I would not trade for anything. The Face has taken me seven years to create, and I want to follow its every step to opening night on August 25.


Donald Crockett

Donald Crockett

Donald Crockett is a composer, conductor, and chair of the composition department at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music where he also directs the USC Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble. His chamber opera, The Face will be performed at Los Angeles’s Aratani/Japan America Theater on August 25, 27, and 28, and at Boston Conservatory Theater on August 31, 2012.

Remembering Marvin Hamlisch (1944-2012)


Composer Marvin Hamlisch (left), lyricist Craig Carnelia (center), and actor John Lithgow during the recording sessions for the original cast album of the Broadway musical The Sweet Smell of Success. Photo by Chris Ottaunick, courtesy Craig Carnelia.

[Ed. Note: The unexpected death of Marvin Hamlisch earlier this month sent shock waves through the music community. One of only two people ever to receive an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony, and Pulitzer Prize (the other was Richard Rodgers), the New York City-born, Los Angeles-based composer, conductor, and pianist created scores for dozens of Hollywood motion pictures, as well as for five Broadway musicals (including the revolutionary A Chorus Line), and was also a mainstay on the podiums of symphony orchestras across the country. Lyricist and Former ASCAP President Marilyn Bergman, who together with her husband Alan Bergman first collaborated with Hamlisch on the theme song for the film The Way We Were, remembers Hamlisch as someone who “always had a smile on his face and in his heart […] He’d sit at the piano and his musical ideas would tumble out of him—one after another—a shower of notes.” We asked fellow theatre composer Craig Carnelia—who served as Hamlisch’s lyricist for two musicals, including Hamlisch’s last production on Broadway, The Sweet Smell of Success—to tell us more about what it was like to work with this important American music creator.—FJO]

So much has been written and will be written about my friend and collaborator, Marvin Hamlisch, that I have decided to write a piece that focuses on those recollections that are private, moments when we were alone, or if with others, situations where we were a team of songwriters or a pair of friends.

The Way We Worked

I met Marvin in the summer of 1997. We were introduced by producer Marty Bell, who was assembling talent to create a musical version of Sweet Smell of Success, a team that already included playwriting John Guare, and would later include director Nicholas Hytner.

At our first meeting, Marvin told me he wanted to write another “serious score” and that he preferred working “music-first.” I was delighted to hear both, and since I tend to work music-first when I write my own music, this method was most familiar to me. Marvin felt he was a better composer when not limited by the structure and cadence of a whole lyric before starting to compose. He preferred to free-associate and invent musically, using a few phrases of lyric, which then leaves the lyricist the job of matching all the rises and falls of pitch, intensity and nuance in the music that the composer has put there. I’ve always loved this part of lyric writing, and working with Marvin’s music, after so many years on my own, I was endlessly surprised by the game.

What “music-first” actually means is, we would have an idea of where a character should sing and why. Then I would explore how the character might express him or herself in words, usually a verse, or a few lines, at least a title. Often, I would come to a meeting with two or three different ways of approaching the same moment. Then we would sit together at the piano with a tape running, usually for an hour or so. But don’t let me mislead you. Marvin was the only one with his hands on the keys. I would sit on a stool to his right, most often with a cup of tea, made by Shirley, Marvin’s longtime housekeeper.

Marvin had the single most limited attention span of any adult I had ever met. But these hours were unique. When he was inventing music, his focus and concentration were extraordinary. He would look at the words I had brought in for 30 or 40 seconds and hear something in his head. His hands would then take over. After that initial “idea” phase in the composing, there seemed to be no time-lag between his continued musical impulses and his ability to simply play them. I would call it “confidence,” but even the presence of confidence would seem to acknowledge the existence of insecurity. It was something more primal than confidence that I saw in Marvin in these sessions, more like raw instinct. There didn’t seem to be any brain involved in this work, and along with that omission, a lovely lack of self-doubt and second-guessing. The first attempt wasn’t always his best, but it very often was. When it wasn’t, he or I would say, “Let’s go again,” or “I/you can do better,” and the second try would invariably be the one.

I would then go home, catalogue the tape, find the best variations and begin writing to them. We would then come back together to deal with structure, lyrics, refinements, questions, additional music, whatever was needed. I would go away again, finish the lyric, and we would have a song.

But in those first hours, when Marvin was inventing, I saw him at his finest. Focused, serious, happy, doing what he was undoubtedly put here to do.

On The Road

By the time I met Marvin, he was as famous for his concert work (solo concerts and “Pops” conducting with major symphonies) as for his composing. So I would often travel to wherever he was and stay with him for a day or two to work. About a month into our collaboration, he was conducting with the Pittsburgh Symphony and I spent two days with him there to work on a song. In the afternoon, we worked at the concert hall, but as evening approached, we walked back to the hotel for an early dinner and for Marvin to prepare for the concert. He was getting into his tux in the bedroom while I was writing on the couch in the living room.

Without warning, out leapt Marvin in his underwear, doing West Side Story-style ballet, shouting “Jerome Robbins!” After ten seconds, he switched styles: “Bob Fosse!” Then, the big finish: “Michael Bennett!” Then, he disappeared. Nothing in my life up to this point had prepared me for this floor show.

The Boys at the Beck

When you do a big show, it’s seldom the big moments that end up bringing you the greatest pleasure or sticking in your memory as the peak experiences. Sweet Smell of Success had peaks in abundance, but the finest of them was an afternoon when Marvin and I went to scout out the pit at the Martin Beck Theater to see if it was going to be large enough for the orchestral numbers and combinations he and orchestrator Bill Brohn had in mind.

We were let into the theater by the stage doorman. There was no one else there. No one. There were some general lights on in the house and, of course, a work-light on the stage. We first went down to the pit where we measured some dimensions. We talked about the optional extra musician (a guitarist) that Marvin and Bill were considering. We ended up not using a guitar for the show, but added one when Marvin and I produced the cast album for SONY. Then Marvin was imagining where each player would sit and how much space each instrument and all the doubles and triples would require. I became superfluous, so I took my superfluous self up to the stage.

We didn’t speak for the rest of our time there, probably ten minutes. I was looking out at the house and Marvin was “all business” in the pit. But we were happy, both of us, with the professions we had chosen, the show we were working on, and the partnership we had found. We tried to acknowledge as much as we walked together afterwards. The acknowledgement may have lacked the full understanding I’ve expressed here, but it had an immediacy and an impact that was unusual.

The New York Yankees

Many of you know that Marvin was a huge Yankees fan. Well, as it happens, so am I, and we were in the thick of our collaboration from 1997-2002, which were glory years for the team. Marvin had gotten Joe Torre and his wife some ringside seats for the heralded Streisand concert he had musical directed and this had cemented their friendship.

So when we would go to a game together, it usually included some dazzling perks, like sitting in the dugout for batting practice, or having the best seats for play-off and World Series games, or having dinner with Joe Torre.

But the best was Game 5 of the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks. 9/11 had just happened, you could still smell the burning in the air. There were warnings that the World Series was a likely “next target.” “Did I want to go?” “Hell, yes! I’m going.”

Ninth inning, Yankees down by 2, one man on, Scott Brosius hits a game-tying home run. The stadium went wild, as did Marvin and I. The Yanks went on to win the game in extra innings.

Marvin loved the Yankees, but what isn’t as widely known is, they loved him back.

The Ride

At our first meeting with director Nicholas Hytner, Nick made it clear that he was going to join us on Sweet Smell of Success. Also at the meeting were producer Marty Bell and bookwriter John Guare. After they all left Marvin’s apartment that day, he called me into the kitchen and opened a bottle of his favorite wine (the only time I ever saw Marvin drink). He poured a bit into 2 glasses, gave me one and proposed a toast: “Let’s enjoy the ride.” I can honestly say that on Sweet Smell of Success, we did just that.

And yet, I choose to close these remembrances with a lyric from our second show, Imaginary Friends. The song was never used in the play, but was to have been sung by Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy near the end of their lives.

I had a unique experience when writing this lyric. I was enjoying my time with Marvin’s music so intensely that I made the process of completing the lyric take two days longer than it needed to. I didn’t want it to end.

There is nothing clever
I have left to say
You and I
My oh my
Words fail me

Every past endeavor
Every livelong day
So much fuss
So much us
Words fail me

See the legends disappear
With a whisper
“I was here”
“I was here”

No more ties to sever
No more debts to pay
No more chat
‘Magine that
Words fail me

Will I be remembered well?
Did I matter?
Time will tell
Time will tell

Time to face whatever
Time to make our way
Catch the light
Say goodnight
I’m through here
I’m new here
Words fail me.

“Words Fail Me” lyric used by permission Copyright © 2002 A. Schroeder Int’l

Performing As Art

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been discussing how my recent adventures in music performance have engendered growth in my compositional vision and in my ability to advocate for myself. Before finally moving on to other topics, I’d like to consider one additional advantage I’ve reaped from this focus on playing live music: an enhanced connection to other art disciplines.

Ripple 2 by Katherine Kavanaugh

Ripple 2 by Katherine Kavanaugh

I’ve always been fascinated by the visual and literary arts—yes, I’m one of those people who has, in the words of Michael Cunningham, “swooned over sentences” (just as I trust that writers exist who have leapt with joy at harmonies)—and I consider music an integral part of the greater intellectual community. I frequently garner creative sparks for new pieces from works in other disciplines, and I find that the obsessions of non-musical thinkers often can provide incredibly fertile soil for germinating compositional ideas. Despite this willingness to engage with visual art works, I’d felt stymied in my abilities to collaborate across fields. On those few occasions when I’d been able to work with poets, choreographers, and visual artists, the relative slowness with which I compose had forced me away from true co-creation into an ultimately unsatisfactory exchange of final products. Instead of collaborative works, we found ourselves piecing together completed ideas from our different home fields in hopes that the juxtapositions might somehow create a coherent whole.

My current engagement with performing began as a way of overcoming these barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration. By responding to artistic impetuses with sounds that I was able to physically produce in the moment, I was able to share in the genesis of installations and events. My music became an integral part of the process of conceiving these artworks and the resulting creations felt truly collaborative. Currently, I’m happily working towards a September gallery opening at which I’ll be directing a team of musicians as we perform on a water-based gallery-sized installation by Baltimore artist Katherine Kavanaugh. As you can see from these photographs, the visuals will be stunning!

Ripple by Katherine Kavanaugh

Ripple by Katherine Kavanaugh

I’m finding that thinking as a performer in these types of situations can be liberating. If I were thinking solely as a composer, at this moment I would be physically nauseous at the thought of having about two months to produce an hour-long composition on an instrument that doesn’t exist yet. As a performer, I’m looking forward to exploring new sounds that can’t possibly exist in the concert hall and to interacting with an audience of art lovers in a unique setting. As an artist, I’m very excited to be able to create a new piece in collaboration with someone whose work I greatly admire, and I’m thankful that my newfound path has led me to these sorts of opportunities.

Between Sound and Science

The more I hang out with scientists and engineers—and this seems to happen more and more often these days—the more I feel like an incorrigible composer. No matter how much knowledge and lingo I absorb, it sometimes seems that our goals or areas of concern are fundamentally different. As a staunch proponent of collaboration between the arts and the sciences, this bothers me a great deal, and I’d like to get to the bottom of it if I can.

There are certainly artificial barriers between the two domains, built up over the years by mistakes and misconceptions. I’d like to place most of the blame for this on pop science journalism, usually created by people who seem to know little about science or music. For just a couple of recent examples, here’s one about pop music getting sadder and here’s one about the distribution of chords in more than 1300 popular songs. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to properly deconstruct these. Okay, fine, a couple prompts: 1) Are “Paperback Writer” and “Help!” really happy songs? 2) What kind of insights could be gained from an examination of the distribution of words in more than 1300 popular novels?

I’m being a little flippant here, but the point is that most musicians are probably less dogged and stubborn than me, and have better things to do than nitpick an argument, or look up primary sources to see how they’re misrepresented. So musicians tend to believe that this is representative of how scientists look at music, resulting in a great deal of skepticism and mistrust.

Conversely, researchers in music often ignore music theory on the grounds that it’s not rigorous or verifiable. But many of these researchers have not experienced firsthand the explanatory power of theory for all kinds of musical events, and spend much of their time developing sophisticated methods to reverse-engineer theoretical understanding, occasionally with very strange results. For example, automatic music genre classifiers that do well on certain data sets can be thrown off by small tweaks in equalization, suggesting that they are paying more attention to surface features like production or mastering, and not what we actually hear when we distinguish disco from country. A little music theory here could go a long way; just because it wasn’t created with scientific research in mind doesn’t mean it can’t be incorporated into a scientifically rigorous model or experiment.

Even if we bridged this gap, however, I’m still not sure musicians and researchers would see things the same way. Geraint Wiggins argues persuasively that scientists are in fact creative, but I wonder if they’re a different species of creativity. Put simply, scientists are interested in directed creativity that tackles a particular research problem or goal, whereas artists are interested in exploratory creativity where the destination is much less certain. These are not hard and fast categories, and there’s certainly some bleed-through; it sounds like Wiggins believes that scientists could stand to be a little more broadly imaginative, and artists would never finish anything if they weren’t narrowly focused at least part of the time. (This comes through in writing style, too; I can never seem to get into the idea of stating my thesis up front, preferring for it to develop gradually over the course of several paragraphs.)

Perhaps this is the greatest benefit to be had from collaboration between scientists and artists, this productive clash of perspectives. Even now, though, it’s hard to imagine what this collaboration should ideally look like. Should scientists be technicians, making cool stuff to artists’ specifications? Should artists be subjects, providing data for scientists’ publications? Both of these approaches are valuable and valid, but neither of them builds respect and trust. Should scientists and artists educate each other until we’re all comfortable in both domains? If so, are the end products of these collaborations still research projects and/or works of art? If they are something else instead, what are they? I’d be curious to find out.

The Procedural Hows and Theoretical Whys of SoundCloud.com

Part A: In Good Company

Sound Cloud LogoThe website in question is where you, right now, can go to listen to live recordings of New York’s Alarm Will Sound ensemble performing original commissions at the Mizzou New Music Summer Festival, including work by composers Clint Needham and Liza White.

It is where CHROMA, the London-based chamber-music group, posted the world premiere of Rolf Hind’s piece for featured clarinet soloist, “Sit Stand Walk.”

It is where the Brooklyn-based Sō Percussion made available excerpts from its Creation series of collaborations, including pieces by Tristan Perich and Daniel Wohl.

And it’s where London’s Barbican Centre has uploaded numerous Beethoven recordings by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under the baton of Kurt Masur.

It is not the website of a leading classical publication. It is not the online culture section of The New York Times or the London Guardian. It is not a digital offshoot of WQXR or NPR, or of big-eared KCRW for that matter.

No, it is SoundCloud.com, and it has quickly become, with good reason, the default go-to site for music hosting by all manner of musicians, not just aspiring pop stars and bedroom beatmakers, but also those involved in new and experimental composition and performance. The following overview is intended to provide an introduction to making use of SoundCloud, including some tips for maximizing one’s efforts, as well as some passing contextual and tactical thoughts on why SoundCloud has proved as popular and functional as it has.

Part B: Crash Once, Twice Shy

New music makers have numerous reasons for wariness before taking the time generally necessary to master yet another online music-hosting platform.

Why even try, when so many services have let you down before? All that fine-tuning of a personalized MySpace page, only for the user base to up and leave it like a ghost town? All that effort in uploading a project to Archive.org, only to discover that the tag processing is unwieldy? All that work getting music into iTunes, only to have track previews limited to 30 measly seconds, and to be left wondering how, other than linking, you might actually promote your music?

The issues with music-hosting platforms are cultural as much as they are technological. Viewed as a whole, the variety of barriers to having proper online representations suggest something akin to a digital-era conspiracy to keep complex music off the Internet.

Here are some of the hassles:

There is sound quality. At least since iTunes debuted and introduced a particularly low-grade format (128kbps) as an audio standard, the sonic compression of digital music has not suited the dynamic range of most music that doesn’t fall within the broadly defined realm of “pop.” Over time, the standard MP3 file sizes have, thankfully, enlarged (320kbps tends to be the norm), but online streaming is currently supplanting MP3 files, and frequently that means, indeed, a low-fidelity presentation of recorded sound.

There is categorization. Few if any online services handle the taxonomy and typology of adventurous music well. Most music websites have a field for the artist and a field for a song, and little to address the informational void. The sites are already living in a post-album world, and they do little to make nice with recordings in which things like composer and conductor and performers and soloist are important. On a particularly bright and cheerful day, one might consider the Internet a fascinating and massive experiment in New Criticism, every piece of music floating out there virtually free of context.

And there is the basic typographical matter. It’s something that so-called desktop publishing presaged, a situation in which corners are routinely cut in favor of oversimplified—and thus meaning- and pronunciation-altering—decisions regarding haceks and accent marks and umlauts.

SoundCloud.com doesn’t solve all these problems, but it does offer a solid and adaptable foundation for musicians to use to share their music.

Part C: Setting Up the Account Is Just the First Step

Here are some simple instructions on setting up and making use of a SoundCloud.com account.

Step 1: Sign up. You can do this by associating your new account with your Facebook account, or you can create an account directly on SoundCloud.com. The latter is recommended because there’s no significant benefit to the former. You can always associate the accounts later.

Step 1

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Step 2: Fill out your basic profile. The fields (City, Occupation, etc.) are straightforward. Here is one suggestion, though: strongly consider using a single word, or a phrase with no spaces, as your “profile” name. The profile name serves various purposes, including being your SoundCloud account URL. To join SoundCloud isn’t simply to access virtual real estate. It’s to participate (more on which in Step 5), and having a single memorable identity is key to making your presence on SoundCloud effective.

Step 2

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Step 3: Fill out your “Advanced Profile.” Keep your Description brief, maybe 200 words, tops—and consider using rudimentary HTML tags, such as <b></b> to bold key words and to structure the text. Enter URLs for essential web locations, and don’t overdo it. Your website, Twitter, and Facebook are likely sufficient. Enter too many, and your listeners won’t know where to click. You can use the <a href=”URL”></a> tag in your Description if you want to, for example, link to a record review or interview that appears on another website.

Step 3

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Step 4: Upload tracks. As with the creation of your account, the uploading of a track will require you to fill in various fields. They’re pretty straightforward (Title, Image, Type). There aren’t multiple fields for participants. However, the Description field allows for simple HTML, so you can use that space not only to list participants (performer, composer, etc.) but to link to their SoundCloud accounts or websites or both. Make note of that “Show more options” button: it pulls up a whole bunch of additional useful fields, including simple ways to add commerce links so you can sell the track or related material. The easiest way to go about this all is to set the track as Private until you’re happy with all the text and other details, and only then make it public.

Step 4

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Step 5: Participate. That bears repeating: Participate. Even if you’re employing SoundCloud primarily as a promotional tool, think of it as a party—you’re not going to meet anyone if you just stand there (unless you’re wearing a funny T-shirt, or blessed with remarkable cheekbones). These things take effort.

To begin with, “follow” people—follow musicians you work with; follow musicians you admire. Some will follow you back, and that will be the start of actually communicating on and through SoundCloud. You’ll find, in time, that you will look at the Following/Followed lists for people you like, and take a cue as to whose music to look at. Furthermore, the people whose music you do follow show up in your SoundCloud home page, so you will be kept abreast of their activity—not just what they post, but what they have commented on.

Also, embed your tracks elsewhere (on your blog, for example), and encourage others to do so. One of the beautiful things about SoundCloud is that it has elegant “players” that you can use to embed a track or a set of tracks into a post on another website. For example, the track below is from a project I recently completed, in which I got over 60 musicians to remix the first movement of the Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a, by Dimitri Shostakovich. The original recording was by the fine Los Angeles ensemble wild Up, who graciously provided the source audio for the project.

And, finally, be sure to comment on other musicians’ uploaded tracks—that is, see SoundCloud for what it is, not just a music-hosting platform, but a platform for communication and collaboration. Comments come in two forms: standard and “timed,” the latter of which appear at a distinct point along the chronology of the track. You’ll see the “timed” comments along the track just above.

Step 6: Dig in. There is far more you can do on SoundCloud. The coverage above is intended simply as an introduction. For example, you can create Sets of tracks that provide additional context. You can join Groups, which in addition to collating tracks by some semblance of shared cultural activity (field recordings, serialism, toy piano) provide for discussion beyond the confines of a single recording. There are Soundcloud apps that allow you to do additional things with and to your tracks. Everything described above is free, albeit with a space limit on data storage, but you can elect to pay for a premium account and access additional resources. (The limits to SoundCloud are worth noting. For one thing, this is all “fixed recordings.” If you specialize in algorithmic music, you’ll be posting finished recordings, not live generative sound. Also, SoundCloud is a business, and as such monitors what is posted; it is especially attentive to copyright violation, so if you tend toward the aggressively plunderphonic, be prepared to have your track removed—or your entire account for that matter.)

Step 7: Make it new. The structure of SoundCloud suggests itself as a neutral space. In many ways, it has defined itself as the anti-MySpace. Where MySpace became overloaded with design elements, SoundCloud keeps it simple. This simplicity suggests SoundCloud less as a place and more as a form of infrastructure—if MySpace was a city that never slept, SoundCloud is the Department of Public Works. Its elegant tool sets provide structure but don’t define or fully constrain activity. For the more adventurous participants, SoundCloud is itself a form to be played with. Some musicians have used the “timed comments,” for example, to annotate their work as it proceeds. Others have fun with the images associated with their tracks, posting sheet music or workspace images. Some create multiple accounts for different personas or projects. Others have used the limited personalization options to colorize the embeddable player and make it look seamless within their own websites and blogs.

It’s arguable that the most productive users of SoundCloud recognize the fluid nature of the service and post not only completed works, but works in progress. They upload sketches and rough drafts and rehearsals: this keeps their timeline freshly updated, helps excuse the relatively low fidelity of streaming sound, and further invites communication with listeners—many of who are fellow musicians themselves.

Ready to make some noise?

You can use platforms like SoundCloud to participate in NewMusicBox’s “Sound Ideas” challenges and easily share the music you create. Craft responses to prompts from:

John Luther Adams
Ken Ueno
Sarah Kirkland Snider
Sxip Shirey

Selections from submitted tracks will be featured in an upcoming post.


Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996. It focuses on the intersection of sound, art, and technology. He has written for Nature, the website of The Atlantic, Boing Boing, Down Beat, and numerous other publications. He has commissioned and curated sound/music projects that have featured original works by Kate Carr, Marcus Fischer, Marielle Jakobsons, John Kannenberg, Tom Moody, Steve Roden, Scanner, Roddy Shrock, Robert Thomas, Pedro Tudela, and Stephen Vitiello, among many others. He moderates the Disquiet Junto group at Soundcloud.com; there dozens of musicians respond to weekly Oulipo-style restrictive compositional projects. He’s a founding partner at i/olian, which develops software projects that explore opportunities to play with sound. He lives in San Francisco in a neighborhood whose soundmarks include Tuesday noon civic alarms as well as persistent seasonal fog horns from the nearby bay. He also resides at twitter.com/disquiet.

Old Friends

I was pleasantly surprised to open up NewMusicBox a couple of days ago and see James Falzone staring back at me—his face marking a great feature article about him written by Devin Hurd. The surprise was not only because it was a much-deserved spotlight on one of the special musical talents from Chicago, but also because I’ve known James since we were both undergrads at Northern Illinois University playing in the sax section of the Jazz Lab Band. He was a monster clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer from very early on, and I don’t think anyone back then would be surprised at how successful his career has become.

This has got me thinking about one of the well-worn mantras that I find myself continually repeating to my own students—you can’t have enough friends, especially while you’re a student composer. Speaking from experience, looking only towards the future and forgetting to take advantage of the opportunities that surround you in the present is an easy trap to fall into at any point in your life, but most of all during your student years. When you get to know someone over pizza and beers, as well as in late-night study sessions, it’s hard to imagine them—much less yourself—being a successful professional colleague with whom you can collaborate. Too often we focus so much on where we’re going that we forget that we’re already somewhere and miss opportunities that are literally sitting right next to us.

From the composer’s standpoint, it’s obvious that the performers around you (at any point during your career) are your best bet to write for, but the same sentiment is true for performers, who are often so focused on learning repertoire that they forget about the composers down the hall and the opportunity to have new music written for them early in their careers. Many of the professional composers I’ve talked to see this concept as a basic fact of musical nature—you may get a chance to work with other professionals down the road, but the colleagues who surround you early on will be the springboard for those future collaborations.

My own career as a composer would not be where it is if not for several friends who liked my music and took the chance to commission me to write for them. One commission by a trombonist friend of mine from undergrad days, Tom Stark, set in motion a series of works that have really expanded my career in the brass field, and just this evening I’ll be treated to the world premiere of a new work written for the violist Aurélien Pétillot and contralto Elizabeth Pétillot, for whom I have written numerous compositions and who have remained staunch advocates for my music. These relationships are so valuable, so necessary for any of us to not only gain recognition within the music community but to continue to work and thrive as creative artists that we neglect them at our peril.

Do you have any stories of collaborations with school friends that ultimately turned out to be much more down the road?

Singing Your Song

I’ve been working recently on a little diversion from my usual composing: a set of arrangements for a songwriter of my acquaintance for recording and eventual release. I’ve been turning his lo-fi demos into petite string quartets. Although I’ve written dozens of songs (and a little music for string quartet), it’s novel for me to be entrusted with someone else’s material and explicitly given free rein to push or pull it in whatever direction the tune suggests.

Since I started in several months ago, in fact, I’ve found that my desire to push or pull has grown substantially. I suppose this sense of widening latitude is simply an instance of the oft-observed phenomenon that creative activity is dependent on some kind of limitation, however loosely or rigidly defined. In this case, my limitation has mostly to do with meter and harmony; however, my collaborator made it clear that even those parameters are negotiable, and it eventually struck me that—so long as I accommodate his singing voice—the “purely musical” characteristics of the tunes needn’t constrict me any more than their less tangible aspects. I started to view the arrangements as glosses on the original demos that might unveil meanings that had been present—but latent—in them all along.

I’m sure I’m not the only composer who flinches slightly whenever “collaboration” is invoked as a buzzword (even as we recognize its value and, indeed, necessity). But taking part in one, especially one characterized by risk taking and mutual respect, is its own reward. The results—which of course I’m very eager to hear—will be a cool bonus too.