Tag: communication

In Praise of Unremarkable Music: Part 1

Why did you start writing music? Now, what do you hope to accomplish? This year? This decade? By the end of your life?

In response to these questions, you might envision your music’s success according to a variety of measures:

  • The awards, press, and publicity it receives.
  • The size of audiences it attracts.
  • The money it makes.
  • The joy you had in creating it.
  • The degree to which it meets a performer’s need or fits their skill level.
  • The experience shared by those in the room when it is performed.
  • The appraisal of your colleagues and other connoisseurs.
  • The social impact it has.

Given your creativity, I’m sure you can come up with dozens of other metrics (and I’d be curious to hear them).

But it should be obvious that rarely, if ever, does a piece of music succeed across all these dimensions. Whenever we create music—whatever kind of music we write—we create something that is, at least in a few dimensions, unremarkable. Because individuals and groups value these various dimensions differently, no piece of music can be universal in its appeal or usefulness. Even Bach can be considered an also-ran by many people in many contexts. Thus, it is not intellectually or socially honest to ask, “Is Piece A better than Piece B?” without being able to identify the terms of comparison and explain why those terms matter.

Whenever we create music—whatever kind of music we write—we create something that is, at least in a few dimensions, unremarkable.

It may seem sacrilegious to suggest that our prized repertoire is not inherently more worthy than other music. It may further seem counterintuitive to consider that the uninteresting and mediocre, or even the lackluster and substandard, may help us achieve our goals better than our lodestars—not just as cautionary tales but as exemplars themselves.

What does unremarkable music have to teach us about achieving our goals?

On a social level, we all share a fundamental need for validation and belonging. Though some composers may be content to write for themselves, most of us write music because we want to connect with those around us. Regardless of whether we get paid, a large part of what we do constitutes a gift to our collaborators and communities. We hope our music may inspire, challenge, stimulate, touch, or delight those who hear it. When that gift is poorly received or rejected, it stings.

Most of us write music because we want to connect with those around us.

This sting can be all the worse because many of us hold ideals of meritocracy and social justice. We believe that the good and the marginalized should have at least an equal seat at the table as the powerful and the privileged. Further, we want to believe that our music has merit. When that merit is ignored—particularly because of structural discrimination—we feel a righteous sense of injustice.

But from what table does that injustice exclude you? And from what power? Indeed, to whose aesthetic values are you trying to appeal? Or whose opinions are you trying to influence?

Often, our success as composers is only loosely based on how good our music is. And as inarguable as the benefits of power and privilege may be, they hardly constitute the only way to create and sustain communities. Further, the powerful and the praised are not the only communities worth serving or creating. (On these points, see also Elliot Cole’s article “Questions I Ask Myself.”)

This, then, is what unremarkable music can teach us socially: our success as composers, however you want to measure it, reflects most strongly the quality of the relationships that our music fosters. As humanity’s most ephemeral artifact, music may catalyze these relationships, but it cannot constitute their substance. Inasmuch as your music enables you to make others feel seen, treasured, cared for, and empowered, it can be said to be doing its job.

We are not fundamentally composers: we are human beings who use music to love others.

Likewise, other people are not fundamentally our audience: they are human beings with a rich capacity to receive and reciprocate that love.

Whenever we connect with other people through our music, it constitutes only a part of the whole relationship. Even our ties to the so-called “great composers” have just as much, if not more, to do with the myths and institutions built around them as they do with their music. Why, then, do we insist that our professional status must stand or fall primarily on our scores and recordings? You would never communicate with your mother only via sheet music. So, too, we can only fully cultivate our professional impact through the stories we tell, the meals we share, the conversations we have, the memories we make, and so on.

You would never communicate with your mother only via sheet music.

It should be obvious that you don’t have to be stereotypically successful to do this. Anyone—the 17-year-old YouTuber, the part-time production music composer, the obscure grad student, the band teacher from Montana—can make an impact through these means.

Still, when that impact goes viral, it can leave some observers bemused, jealous, or defensive—an honest reaction, inasmuch as its roots go deeper than common pettiness. These roots tap into the implicit messages behind certain measures of success, messages about which relationships matter more than others. For many of us, it requires a great struggle to uproot our uncritical embrace of these values. Does the New York Philharmonic and its milieu truly matter more than the seventh graders of the Springfield Middle School Band and their families? Is the only route to financial security truly through becoming an A-list Hollywood composer?

Yes, attaining such stereotypical success through “remarkable” music will constitute impact and bring influence, and these are not unworthy goals. Yet unremarkable music can be subversive and transformative in ways that music of “merit” cannot achieve. Think of punk rock. Think, too, of educational and film music. Despite all the flack that these genres receive in some quarters, many of us became composers because we loved John Williams’s Star Wars scores or Eric Whitacre’s choral works. That these examples are wildly successful in some spheres but disparaged in others serves only to underscore my point: whose opinion matters?

This disconnect between impact and merit brings to mind the common aphorism, “One person’s trash is another’s treasure.” It, in turn, resonates with a “philosophical conundrum” in ethics that Agnes Callard explains in a recent essay:

Morality requires we maintain a safety net at the bottom that catches everyone—the alternative is simply inhumane—but we also need an aspirational target at the top, so as to inspire us to excellence, creativity, and accomplishment. In other words, we need worth to come for free, and we also need it to be acquirable. And no philosopher—not Kant, not Aristotle, not Nietzsche, not I—has yet figured out how to construct a moral theory that allows us to say both of those things.

To this conundrum in music, I propose an answer akin to Captain Kirk’s solution to the Kobayashi Maru: Sidestep the issue. Rig the test. Embrace what is unremarkable about your music. Cherish it. Prize it. Stop trying to be all things to all people. Stop trying to convince the haters.

Embrace what is unremarkable about your music.

This isn’t to say we should stop fighting for a more perfect world (never!). Still, in this present, imperfect world on a Tuesday afternoon, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “there are alternatives to fighting.”

Part 2 of this article will show how some of those alternatives emerge from identifying why unremarkable music bothers us personally.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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“This event is probably not unique”: On communication and metaphor in Robert Ashley’s Improvement

Stage performance with teal backdrop

Editorial note: The text of this article has been corrected. Though the Varispeed Collective (Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons) has worked deeply with the music of Robert Ashley previously, this production was performed by a larger vocal ensemble which also includes Amirtha Kidambi. Mimi Johnson, through Performing Artservices, produced the opera, and Tom Hamilton served as music director.

The opening words of Robert Ashley’s Improvement are a bit of a head-scratcher: “To continue, I must explain an idea that I am inadequate to communicate in the music.”

Continue what? It’s the first line of the opera. And communicate what? If he didn’t think himself capable of communicating via music, why write an opera, of all things?

Over the course of the next 88 minutes, seven voices attempt to communicate this unexplainable idea alongside an orchestral accompaniment consisting of a MIDI-controlled synthesized harmonic environment. The issue of communication was a concern for the composer throughout his life. Ashley, who was born in 1930 and died in 2014, composed “television operas” and other experimental theatrical works employing a vocabulary of ordinary folks mumbling, humming, chanting, and occasionally singing. Ashley conveyed quotidian experiences, such as getting old or getting divorced, in a United States vernacular woven through with grandiose metaphors and allegories: at the end of his prerecorded opening narration to Improvement, he intones, “For the sake of argument, Don is Spain in 1492 and Linda is the Jews.”

Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) is Ashley’s first in a series of four operas exploring the experiences and consciousnesses of a collection of ordinary Americans: Don, Linda, Now Eleanor, and Junior Junior. The tetralogy is “based on the notion of a sequence of events seen from different points of view.” In Improvement, the seven vocalists converse with each other in question-and-answer sessions (“Do you have a ticket?” “Yes.” “Do you have baggage?” “Yes.”), interrogating each other Inquisition-style, and adopting different identities when the narrative demands it. The vocalists shift seamlessly from their roles as named individuals to Greek-chorus-style delivery, whispering and echoing underneath. The result is at times laugh-out-loud funny, as when Linda gets a ride from the “Unimportant Family” (“my name is unimportant, and this is my wife, whose name is unimportant, and our two lovely children, whose names are unimportant.”) Other moments are eerie, and still others are imbued with a profound sense of loss and isolation. But the opera never loses its sense of momentum, of getting the listener from one place to another.

Ashley’s works sometimes have the feel of a code waiting to be cracked….An entire article could be written about a deceptively throwaway line.

Ashley’s works sometimes have the feel of a code waiting to be cracked. Even though the texts burble along in a seemingly haphazard fashion, they are arranged according to Ashley’s careful cosmology. An entire article could be written about a deceptively throwaway line such as Mr. Payne’s comments in Improvement that “still words would be useless, if the sound were not the meaning” or “The world moves on the air of music. There’s nothing like it. It’s the only thing we had before automobiles as four-dimensional.” Mr. Payne represents Ashley’s philosopher muse Giordano Bruno (who was burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600), and his character betrays much of Ashley’s complicated approach to language and communication. Words can be helpful, but are most helpful when they are sounded out loud; music can convey the meaning of words while also transporting you from point A to point B.

Which is ultimately what Ashley’s music does so effectively. Ashley was more interested in the process of musical communication than in its end product. His metaphors and allegories aren’t nonsensical or tongue-in-cheek operatic devices; they illustrate the interconnectedness of human experience across geographies and temporalities and encapsulate human sensation on a much broader scale than a story concerned only with individuals locked into a specific place and time. For these reasons, I must disagree with Ashley: he is possibly one of the only composers who is adequate to communicate “in the music.” Ashley’s operas remind us that sound is metaphor—they make us hear what music really is: sounds that are meant to communicate something beyond themselves.

Improvement, which Ashley wrote in 1985, was first recorded in 1991. The first version existed only as a recording, with the vocalists doubling their own voices in live performance. The most recent production of the opera (presented to sold-out houses February 7–16, 2019, at The Kitchen in New York City) was reconstructed over a period of two years by producer Mimi Johnson (Ashley’s widow) and music director Tom Hamilton (Ashley’s longtime collaborator). (Production information and libretto available here.) Although the subsequent operas in the tetralogy were first performed live, Improvement first existed as a recording (upon which live productions had to be based) for almost 30 years. The assumption being that “this piece was not going to be performed live in concert,” Hamilton told me—ostensibly because it was the first in a tetralogy that its creators suspected would not be of interest to venues or live music programmers. Although some of the original tracks were found for the 2019 performance, some of them weren’t, which meant that the opera essentially was reconstructed from scratch.

Johnson, as producer, was involved in the process from start to finish. She told me that “the orchestra and voices had been mingled irrevocably,” and so both components of the opera had to be recreated. In the first version, the singers were doubling their own voices—which meant they could occasionally take a breath during a live performance, knowing their own voice would be doubled. But according to Johnson, “the new version is 100% live,” with only a click track in the vocalists’ ears to keep the beat. This presentation maintains the sound world of the original, but also imbues Ashley’s opera with a new sense of expressiveness: unexpected sighs or syllabic emphases or vocal inflections resulting in twists of humor or jolts of sadness.

Ashley’s libretto does not specify these sorts of things. His timings are exact down to the second —Improvement runs precisely eighty-eight minutes: no more, no less—but he granted musicians the freedom to interpret the stories and conversations and ramblings however they chose. Ashley’s textual narratives are inextricable from his musical scores: typically, there is one row for each line of the libretto, with columns indicating extratextual information, such as which vocalist should be speaking, a tonality on which the vocalist should be centering their speech, and how many beats per line and beats per minute. In the case of Improvement, the chorus is presented in all caps, solo voices are lower case, and Ashley indicated that “all lines for chorus begin on the first beat” and “underlined syllables fall on the beat and are somewhat accented.”

The team rehearsed the opera five days a month for roughly two years. The cast members—Gelsey Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons—were not strangers to Ashley’s oeuvre, having performed in the 2011 remounting of That Morning Thing and in Ashley’s last opera, Crash. Gelsey Bell, who was tasked with reincarnating the role of Linda (originally played by Jacqueline Humbert), explained in the New York Times: “There’s been a moment in this process where I stopped listening to the recording and just saw what came out of me. My voice is different from [Humbert’s] in many ways, and so there are certain things that sound more natural and sincere coming from me: a slight change in the way I’m handling timbre, a slight change in the way I handle ornamentation in certain scenes.”

Gelsey Bell in Robert Ashley's Improvement (Don Leaves Linda)

Gelsey Bell in Robert Ashley’s Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) at The Kitchen, February 2019. © Al Foote III

When I sat in on a rehearsal in January, the performers seemed equally as concerned about doing justice to Ashley’s work as they were about adhering to their own personal sense of creativity and musicality. After Hamilton brought their attention to a problematic moment (line 614, in which Linda sings “right at the airline ticket counter” with chorus) the group hashed it out, with Bell ultimately deciding to “just do it the way I’ve been doing it” and the others making slight rhythmic modifications so as not to throw off the overall flow of beats and syllables and sentiments. Simons then began sifting through a box labeled “Bob’s ties,” selecting shirt and tie combos for McCorkle, Pinto, and Ruder before the three male cast members went out to get haircuts together. The cozy rehearsal space reverberated with warm excitement, mingled with a touch of silliness and a touch of reverence.

The performers did not need to attempt to communicate Ashley’s presence from beyond the grave; he could do that for himself. The only voice that was carried over from the first version was Ashley’s own: at three different moments in the opera, Ashley’s narration crackled through the air, slamming our ears and hearts with the weight of something that seemed much more solid than invisible sound waves. “I am inadequate to communicate in the music,” the voice ironically claims, but Ashley’s operas are so much more adept at communicating than “traditional” opera. The conversations, mumbled soliloquies, and half-remembered songs within Ashley’s operas refuse to objectify the sung voice. Instead they allow the spoken or sung voice to communicate universal concerns and human experiences within the immediacy of the sound waves themselves.

Ashley’s cosmology always concerned itself more with communicating big ideas through a focus on particular microcosms of American life. Ashley’s musical language reflects this interest in escaping traditional conceptions of time. As he himself put it in an interview with Kyle Gann:

The only thing that’s interesting to me right now is that, up to me and a couple other guys, music had always been about eventfulness. And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. … There’s a quality in music that is outside of time, that is not related to time. And that has always fascinated me. … That’s sort of what I’m all about, from the first until the most recent. A lot of people are back into eventfulness. But it’s very boring. Eventfulness is really boring.

In focusing on the sound rather than the event, Ashley’s music communicates events and entities and ideas beyond the sound. Ashley’s resistance to musical “events” imbues the entirety of Improvement, in which Don and Linda’s breakup (and their subsequent airport mishaps) represent suffering on a much larger scale and across a much grander scale of time.

Ultimately Don and Linda’s breakup is irrelevant. It’s not about Don leaving Linda; it’s about violence and persecution as central themes to human existence. Through repetition of words and sounds, Ashley makes us hear how Linda’s situation—even while isolating and alienating for her—is just another variation on the repetitive nature of human experience. When the “Unimportant Family” picks up Linda after she gets left by her husband, she is reminded that her discomfort—in the van, in her new life circumstances—does not make her special, no matter how lonely or isolated she might feel:

This ride is uncomfortable, I know.
…there is a certain wornness about it,
and this wornness makes the
passenger uncomfortable,
reminding him or her that this
event is probably not unique.

Bell’s rendering of Linda’s suffering was so apt, managing to capture the sadness of Linda as an individual as well as the sadness one goes through even while realizing that others have gone through it too. She is able to express this while also conveying the allegory of Linda’s role as a metaphor for much “bigger” and more abstract ideas.

And so Improvement, as an eighty-eight minute “event,” does not exist for the sake of sounds becoming ideas or vehicles for linguistic communication. As Ashley himself stated in the libretto for Improvement, “music has no calories.” Instead, the sounds become communication itself as they direct our ears to what exists beyond these sounds happening in this moment in time. They help us to see and hear and think beyond ourselves. Improvement is not “about” Linda and it’s not even really “about” the persecution of the Jews by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. It’s about how the event of heartbreak ultimately can be kind of funny and mundane—because there’s a certain wornness about it, because it’s probably not unique. It’s about how the universal can exist within the particular. It’s about the conveyance of human suffering with musicalized sound.

The Collaborative Studio: Suggestions for Your Next Recording Project

So far throughout this series on the recording studio and the collaboration within, I have provided a primer on what producers are and what they do, my process of producing non-classical music, how classical music production differs from non-classical, and ways in which classical music production could evolve with contemporary composition trends. For this last post, I’d like to offer up five suggestions for those who may be new to the studio experience—either as a producer or performer—or for those who would like to take their future projects in a new, collaborative direction.


A point that deserves to be reiterated is the importance of communication in creating a healthy and successful collaborative environment. This means talking through ideas, providing feedback, asking questions, as well as being an active listener. Communication is a two-way channel. Not only is it important for you—whether you are the producer or the artist—to communicate your thoughts, but it is equally important to listen to others involved. As the producer, this is crucial for creating a strong working relationship. I have been in sessions where the producer only gave orders and hardly listened to the artist’s ideas. It creates a bitter relationship and a hostile environment in which no creative process could ever be fruitful.

From the producer’s perspective, listening to the artists you are working with will give you a better understanding of what it is they are trying to achieve. If you are working with musicians who are not as familiar with studio processes, their ideas may not work out the way they are imagining. However, listen to their ideas to help them achieve the end goal they are envisioning. For performers, it is important to go into a project understanding that the producer is there to help you achieve the best outcome possible. Listening to your producer and offering feedback only strengthens the project and deepens your understanding of what is possible in the studio.

Trust your team (i.e. don’t take your engineer for granted)

Part of the communication process I listed is to ask questions. What I mean by this is that, specifically as a producer, you should not feel like you need to have all of the answers. In a studio session, you are collaborating with a team of professionals. Whether it be performers, songwriters, or engineers, each person has a wealth of knowledge to contribute that you may or may not have. Take advantage of these resources and ask questions. Every composer knows how important it is to consult with performers about the extensions and limitations of their abilities on an instrument. This is the same for producers; ask questions and learn about fields you may be unfamiliar with. If a performer needs to adjust their tone to better sit in the mix, defer to their expertise on the instrument and ask what options there may be.

On more than one occasion, my engineer has provided invaluable insight that changed the course of the session and created a better end result. There have been times in which I was so focused on the musical material of a song that I wasn’t thinking about the sonic impact of each section. Suggestions about which areas of the sonic spectrum were lacking have pushed me to change the way I approach a section—sometimes by writing new parts to complement existing parts, other times by omitting parts I thought were necessary but realized were just a distraction. All this is to say, never take engineers for granted. They are more valuable than just turning a few knobs and hitting record. Even if they’ve only been in the role of engineer, they’ve been in the room with countless other producers and performers. They may just have a few tricks up their sleeves.

Have a plan (but don’t get too tied to it)

When preparing to produce a project, I always begin well before the first day in the studio. This includes doing research, studying references, studying scores, pre-production, and general conversations with the performers about what it is they are wanting to do stylistically. I always come to the first day of recording with a plan. This plan isn’t always extremely detailed, but it is an aid in organizing the upcoming sessions to ensure that everything gets done in a timely manner. The reason I tend not to prepare an overly detailed itinerary is because these plans almost always change once recording begins. It is valuable to be flexible and not get tied to a set way of doing things. These changes come about once a solid workflow is established and it is evident where the most time will be necessarily spent. However, having the initial plan will help you stay organized once things are set in motion and pieces of the schedule begin to move around. Performers will look to you to lead the way and get things rolling in the studio, and having a strong start sets you up for a successful and organized project. One of the roles of a producer is to maintain organization and keep the artists on track to meet their deadline. Doing your research ahead of time and having a foundational understanding of what the artist is wanting to achieve will keep you from wasting time during the recording process.

From the artist’s side of things, one way to help prepare for your studio sessions is to have at least an initial reference for what you are wanting to achieve sonically. Your references can be a combination of sources and they don’t necessarily need to all be things that you like. Knowing what it is you don’t like is also a helpful resource for the producer and engineer. Having an idea to get the conversation started is a great way to begin the pre-production process.

Push boundaries

One thing that I often see get lost in the studio is the spirit of exploration and experimentation. Of course, time and budget constraints can limit what people will be able to do, but, for those who are willing, the studio is an ideal environment for pushing boundaries. In a studio setting, you have the luxury of being able to hear an idea come to life in real time, and nothing is permanent if you don’t want it to be. As a producer for non-classical artists, I love offering up suggestions that are outside of the box. Sometimes they stick and sometimes they get shot down, but if an idea is easily executable there is no harm in trying something new and seeing what sort of creative impetus spawns from it.

In the previous post, I talked about ways in which contemporary classical production might evolve. Take some of these ideas or come up with your own and try them out. Maybe it won’t work, and that’s okay. I have no shortage of ideas that were left on the studio floor because they just didn’t work out, but there was no harm done. I take those experiences and learn from them. Sometimes I tweak the ideas until they finally do work, and other times I just move on entirely.

Trust yourself

Not only is it important to trust your team, but you must also trust yourself. If you’ve established a solid foundation of communication between all parties, you shouldn’t feel apprehensive about speaking up when something doesn’t sit right with you or you have an alternative idea. In a healthy collaborative setting, respect between all parties should be strong enough to hear out and work through any ideas presented. Ideas will never come to life if they aren’t presented in the first place.

As a performer, being in a studio and surrounded by studio equipment can sometimes be intimidating. We have years of experience as musicians, and all of these experiences are different from one another’s. Studio production teams are small and every person plays an integral role. Your knowledge and strengths make you a unique expert in your field. The engineer will handle the equipment, the producer will take care of organization and management, and the performers will know their instruments better than anyone else in the room. Know your field and know your limitations; you will have a team of people there to fill in any gaps and to support you and the project till the very end.

Emotion, Through Music, As Weather

In this article, I will leave emotion ungraspable; I do not wish to speak about it definitively. Rather, I would like to focus personally on the relationship, in my life, between music and emotion, blending these two unique realms into one cohabitating discussion. What is emotion? Singularly, I do not know, but combined with music, I do have some feelings…

The secrets behind emotion have been long sought. In 1962, psychologist Robert Plutchik wrote about emotion that “there is serious question about the reliability and meaningfulness of the verbal report. In the history of psychology, it has been pointed out many times that introspecting about our own emotions often changes them.”[1] The emotional appeal of music has been equally enchanting. In ca. 397 C.E., Saint Augustine wrote, “I must testify for myself that when I am moved more by the music than by its meaning, I feel this offense should be punished, and wish I had not listened to the cantor […] But you, Lord my God, hear me, heed, look on with pity, and heal me, before whom I am made a riddle to myself, which is the symptom of my sins.”[2]

And finally, in 2008, scientist Daniel Levitin embraced mystery in his explanation of music:

Scientists are in the business of wanting proof for everything, and I find myself caught somewhere in the metaphorical middle on this issue. As a musician, I’m reminded on a daily basis of the utterly ineffable, indescribable powers of music. […] Our scientific theories have to be able to reconcile this common experience and the strong intuition that music is—dare I say it?—magical.[3]

Emotion—a thing that Robert Plutchik found impossible to scientifically report—is expressed through music in a way that a daring Daniel Levitin called “magical,” and what a conflicted Saint Augustine called a “riddle.” Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music. Like Levitin and Augustine, I am baffled too.

Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music.

In the 1970s, composer John Cage used the weather to describe artistic process, observing that “many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead, they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.”[4] Like Cage’s use of this creative and non-technical definition, I will similarly use the weather as a way to discuss emotion expressed through music. This article will move like weather. And like a forecast, I hope to address what swirls around.[5]

Swirling air represents the meeting of diverse parts. Robert Plutchik acknowledged that there is a difference between “laboratory studies of pure, momentary emotions” and the “persistent mixed emotions of clinical experience.”[6] That is to say, the real-world application of emotion deals primarily in mixtures of emotions, rather than single, pure ones. Weather on Earth is complex, too: a mixing of cold and warm fronts, rainy on some days, stormy on others, partially rainy, partially stormy, partially cloudy, or partially sunny on others still. And there is no piece of music that is all any one emotion either. Good memories can be rendered only partially good through the loss of innocence; many find a deep comfort and contentment in feeling sadness. Emotion in music is an array of moving parts.

Like weather, emotions in music swirl wildly around. As disorienting as this whirlwind may be, we must never forget how fortunate we are to have the skies, the clouds, rain, thunder, lightning, and most importantly, the sun. The sustaining love of the sun is, after all, what makes all of this possible.

Nebulous as my approach may be, I hope this discussion will enrich our understanding of music, emotion, and our own selves. While I do not claim to hold technical qualifications to discuss the weather or emotional psychology, I do intend to write from my own experience, with sincerity and imagination. In the following sections, I will attempt to bring emotions to life, expressed in music, and retold as weather.

Clouds (Sadness)


Image: Mila Young

Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.

Clouds can weigh you down: clouds can make you question the existence of the sun. When I was finishing grad school abroad, I received news from back home that my parents were divorcing. I went into a state of depression. I remember going to the practice room, taking scores out of my bag, placing them on the piano, closing the lid, resting head on my arm, and crying on my own shoulder. I would cry for hours, then pack up and leave, never touching a single key of the piano. I ended up having to reschedule my final degree recital, which in turn (through a string of incidents that would take too much space to describe), led me to an unexpected move back to the United States…

Clouds can make you question the existence of the sun.

…but clouds can also give you focus: clouds can give you a reason to not lay in the sun. When I moved back to the United States, I was left without a job, without a place to live, and without work. I was still paying rent for an apartment overseas that I was not living in, and I was struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship. I was deeply saddened by the circumstances. But, I met this dark time with fearless abandon, playing as many concerts as possible, and working tirelessly to rebuild my career in a new country. My own disenfranchisement fueled my desire to succeed.

Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.

Rain (Tears)

A cloud in the sky can lead to rain. But tears are not just a singular cause-effect; rather, it is the grand accumulation of weight that becomes simply too heavy for a cloud to hold.

I remember the first time I heard my mother sing. She sang “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. I played the chords at the piano while she sang and played the melody with her right hand next to me. I was giving her a piano lesson, and I didn’t specifically ask her to sing, she just did it on her own. My mother brought me to tears because it was a rare joy to hear her shy, untrained voice sing without the least sense of self-consciousness. The song will never again be the same to me.

Rain is a fundamental process to the recycling of the vital element of water. Although rain is the losing of something, we need it to live.

Lightning (Shock)


Image: Elijah Hiett

Often before rain is the initial shock of lightning. The electricity of a storm is stunning—when it strikes, we are unable to do anything to counter its intensity. We can’t run towards, nor away, from lightning. Shock is the arrestation of movement, it is a primal reaction to first contact with something mysterious, powerful, and possibly dangerous.

The memory of a performance of a piece I wrote, called Accord, affected me deeply. At the first massive, crashing tone cluster that interrupts the sound of a tuning violin, I witnessed a gut reaction from an audience member in the front row. The listener’s arms, shoulders, and legs seized up, and the head pulled back as the neck tightened. The hands shot up reflexively towards the ears to cover them…

I immediately felt guilt and remorse. I was responsible for this lightning strike. I wrote this gesture in hopes that it would grab people’s attention—and I succeeded—but at what cost? As an emerging composer, I had often strived to grab attention as quickly as possible, and at any cost. It is the treasure hunt for the loudest, fastest, most terrific possible sound. (Or similarly, the softest, slowest one.)

But in this treasure hunt for the most shocking sound, I inadvertently flipped a sonic middle finger to the audience member. Did this terrifying and anxiety-inducing sound make this person into a fan of my music, or new music in general? It is doubtful.

Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously.

Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously. After seeing what my music had done to someone, I vowed to strive to genuinely affect listeners for the better, rather than to use shock as a ploy to garner attention at a most hollow, visceral level.

Storm (Anger)


Image: Michal Mancewicz

If lightning is the initial shock of potentially dangerous force, then the storm is the realization of that force. The storm is violent and intimidating. The storm is rain in excess.

Anger is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block.

But there is little for me to say about storms in and of themselves: I have never used anger as a motivator in listening to or playing music. I personally find within me very little creativity that is fueled by anger. For me, anger is not a profound and sustaining enough emotion to fulfill me expressively as an artist. It is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block. Anger is real, but for me, it must ultimately lead to something proud, hopeful, and ecstatic. This is the art I seek. The glorious arrival at “The Great Gate of Kiev” after “Baba Yaga” in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The “Cheerful and Thankful Feelings After the Storm” in the final movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The way Nina Simone completes the second half of the song “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life.” Anger should not go unacknowledged, but it should also be overcome with something more hopeful, peaceful, and productive.

Tornado (Disorientation)

A tornado takes the land and blows it about. A tornado is disorienting, but it can also create bliss.

I, in fact, take pleasure when I am unable to identify the key center, the meter, or the exact instrumentation of a piece of music: Since my career in music relies upon my ability to identify the aspects of music as quickly and efficiently as possible, the moments where I simply do not know give me great joy.

On one occasion, I saw this same joy in a six-year-old student who was having trouble identifying the note A on the keyboard. The student, whom I will call Lance, started on C and counted out loud up the C major scale. “C, D, E, F, G…” And when Lance reached G, he would accidentally go on to “H” and then “I” and then “J.” I stopped him just before the note E became an “L” and told him that the notes on the keyboard reset at “G,” that the next note after “G” is “A.” Perhaps I explained it poorly the first time, because when Lance tried again, he made the same exact mistake, and again, I corrected him. I wanted to let him try as many times as he needed to get it right, but Lance would get it wrong over and over again, always going from “G” to “H” to “I” to “J.” After about 15 minutes of this, I became nervous that Lance would become frustrated with his failures. But he did not. Instead, he grew happier with each try. There was something comforting to his realizing that there were such mysteries that enchant the keyboard of the piano, that after “G” some “magical riddle” occurs, leaving him in a state of wonder. Eventually, I’m sure Lance will learn to not be disoriented by the challenge of moving from “G” back to “A.” And when he does, I hope he finds a new mystery from which to achieve bliss.

Clear Skies (Innocent Love)


Image: Crawford Ifland

I know now that the color blue in the sky is a refraction of the sun’s rays on the dust in our atmosphere. A clear day is really not clear at all—it never was. But I still have the memory of thinking how open and free the world is on a clear day.

The version of Western music that I learned, both academically and casually, was rooted in the glorification of great men, and in my youth, I fell to this template’s allure. I idolized the music of Great Men, and truly, with all my heart, believed they were better-than-human: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Wagner, Prokofiev, Morton Feldman. But, upon closer examination, Bach sounded like a neglectful husband, Mozart seemed like a dysfunctional man-child, Chopin seemed like a caustic friend; Schumann seemed mentally ill, Wagner seemed anti-semitic, and Prokofiev seemed unnecessarily mean-spirited. And, based on some recent allegations, Morton Feldman seemed to be a sexual predator. Evidence shows that all of them were people, for better or worse.

While not a note of their music has changed, the innocent love I once had for these brilliant musical minds can never be regained. My personal overcast—clouds saturated with the knowledge and wisdom of life—have now permanently shrouded the music, re-painting the images of these fallen heroes into a murkier, more realistic, shade of humanity. It is sobering to realize the skies are no longer clear, and that they perhaps never were.

Certainly, Lance can be a lesson to us: While knowledge is power, there is still great bliss in not knowing. Ignorant, innocent love is indeed powerful. But ignorance and innocence are meant to be lost. My perspective on my innocent love is so different from the emotion as I remember it. Now, my past is viewed with the special lens a more informed perspective affords. But my pure feelings of love in the past were important, and they still travel with me.

Innocent love is a type of love you can only have once, and I am thankful for the formative memories it gave me.

The Sun (Sustaining Love)

I love the sun. The warmth of the sun is essential, and we must always acknowledge this. No matter the weather, we rely on the warmth of the sun to survive. The sun is a sustaining love.

Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.

My sustaining loves in music are only a handful of composers: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, Schumann, and just individual pieces of Schubert, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and a few others. Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.

As I grow out of innocent love, I am starting to really see the true loves for who they are. Some innocent loves are not sustainable—a bright street light is no star. But, many of the musical loves that sustain me now were once innocent loves too: Not all innocent love is ignorant.

The sun is the mightiest source of inspiration. No matter the weather, we can always say, “Thank goodness for the sun.” And thank goodness for emotions. And thank goodness for music.

Rain (Tears) continued

rain with doll

Image: Rhendi Rukmana

Briefly revisiting the rain, I would like to highlight some of the musical moments in my life that have brought me to tears—a necessary physical overload of emotion.

There are so many more that have faded with time. But, at least the ones I remember can be recorded. There is a beautiful, sustaining love that runs through all of these memories—perhaps this is why I remember them, and perhaps this is why they made me cry.

  • The first time I ever heard an orchestra live: An open rehearsal of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier
  • The funeral service for my childhood friend, Shumie, who committed suicide. I do remember music, but I don’t remember what it was.
  • I was taking a piano lesson with my teacher in grad school, and had just broken up with my significant other.
  • I was in a practice room, playing a section of Jerome Kitzke’s Sunflower Sutra. It was the section titled “Canticle for Mary.”
  • After finishing the first run-through of my debut album, Rounded Binary.
  • The first time I heard my mother sing, singing “Across the Universe” by The Beatles.
  • Later, in private, after playing for my fiancee’s mother who was dying of cancer. We played and sang “Let It Be” by The Beatles.

…I have just said the unspeakable. I have shared my deepest emotions with a general public. Does this make you uncomfortable? Why? Are we, as a culture of humans, unable to plainly and unapologetically articulate our emotions with one another? Within the arts, the domain charged with expressing the beauty in humanity, why is this such a challenge? What is this barrier, and why is it there?


still lake

Image: Dmitry Ermakov

How and why were the sun and the stars in the sky created; how and why are emotions and music what they are? One cannot answer this without asking a more fundamental question about the origin and purpose of human existence. According to Aristotle, “the soul” is “one of the hardest things to gain any conviction about.”[7] Charles Darwin felt that in studying human expression, “close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”[8] To Oscar Wilde, “The final mystery is oneself.”[9] The list of brilliant people who were baffled by their own self is long…

The further I discuss this, the more I am baffled by the mystery of emotion, and by humanity itself. There are really no words: while experientially known, these subjects are uniquely ungraspable through discourse. So then, we must be content with beauty that is imprecise—the beauty of weather, the beauty of emotion, and the beauty of the whole of humanity—and humbly appreciate that music can in some ways express it.

1. The Emotions, by Robert Plutchik.

2. Confessions, by Saint Augustine.

3. The World in Six Songs, by Daniel Levitin.

4. In Empty Words, John Cage writes, “Many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.  In the case of a table, the beginning and end of the whole and each of its parts are known.  In the case of weather, though we notice changes in it, we have no clear knowledge of its beginning or ending.  At a given moment, we are where we are.  The now moment.”

5. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed writes, “Emotions don’t make the world go round. But they do in some sense go round.”

6. The Emotions.

7. In De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle writes, “In general, and in all ways, it is one of the hardest of things to gain any conviction about the soul.”

8. In The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin writes, “The study of Expression is difficult […] When we witness any deep emotion, our sympathy is so strongly excited, that close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”

9. De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde.

What Makes Music Matter?

A few weeks ago NewMusicBox posted my list of “Questions I Ask Myself” and, in the weeks since, it has led me into many big conversations with old and new friends that have both confirmed and challenged the feelings I shared. In many of them, I found myself struggling to make some point about what makes music matter, what mattering is. I was feeling a conviction growing inside but every time I tried to put it into words, it came out confused, facile, or worse.

I sat down to write, hoping that thinking slowly would help me figure out what I’ve been trying to say. Whether or not I’ve succeeded, I’m sharing it with you here in the hope that these conversations will continue.

What makes music matter?

Here are some of the things that I think of first:

  • its cultural or historical position
  • special qualities of its form/content
  • its ambition, scale, or scope
  • if it won prizes, was recorded, or was heard by lots of people
  • if someone important wrote it and important people play it
  • if it does something nobody has ever done before
  • if people agree that it’s the best

But when I consider the music that actually matters to me, the reasons are different:

  • I’m invested deeply in it, either by playing, studying, writing, or teaching it
  • it matters to someone I care about and they brought it into my life with infectious enthusiasm (wrote it, taught it, shared it)
  • it’s part of the life of a community that I care about
  • it gives me a particularly vivid and intense interior experience; it makes my eyes go wide
  • it inspired a sense of freedom and possibility and added fuel to my own creative drive
  • it gave me comfort or strength at a time when I needed it
  • it reconnects me with some time or place or person in my past

The mismatch between these two lists suggests that I have some fundamental misunderstanding about what music is. The items from the first list aren’t irrelevant. They set the public conditions for an encounter and multiply the possibilities of one. But they’re abstractions. The “mattering” is private, concrete, and rooted in life—labors, relationships, joy and heartache, private epiphanies and shared experiences.

A personal sketch (maybe you can relate): I spent some years in a very focused music school culture where it’s just a given that certain music really, really matters. I left, and the world felt like a desert. My constellation of heroes and monuments was unknown. My arguments (often from List #1) for their importance failed to move others. Temporary gatherings of fellow desert-wanderers made me feel like myself again. Other concerns grew—family, justice, politics, money—and my art, which once had real traction in my insulated culture, seemed to pass through them like ghost arms.

I was indignant for a while. The indifference of the world to List #1 offended me. I felt a duty to spread the culture I had joined. Exciting phrases included “educational outreach,” “let’s play it in a bar,” and “what if babies just grew up listening to Boulez and thought it was normal.” I framed my evangelism as a service, as if having big ears for difficult music constitutes some kind of moral force.

Really, I was just trying to make the world more comfortable for myself. Green my desert my own shade of green. Turn the people around me into people like me. Recreate the conditions in which what I do matters.

I still want to matter, of course. We all do, and it’s good that we do. It’s better for everybody if we make a life in which our efforts, creations, and passions aren’t just for us. But I misunderstood “mattering” by confusing List #1 with List #2.

List #1 is all just variations on being impressed, which, as an actual experience, compared to the deep web of life and love in #2, is pretty thin soup. But I think that the real trap of #1 is that it required me to identify with a specific culture: respect certain authorities, share certain opinions, subscribe to a certain narrative of history. If my work matters because it’s, let’s say, “a new synthesis of serial and minimal techniques,” without a shared ideology to prop up those words, it doesn’t matter. It is a scary and isolating position to hang my identity on, because as soon as I meet someone who doesn’t share that culture, I might stop mattering. It’s more comfortable to gather with people who believe what I believe, and the need to proselytize becomes almost existential.

Meaning is not bestowed, it is made; it grows out of personal investment, subjective experiences, quality relationships, and community life.

Instead of depending on an abstract culture, reasons #2 identify that value comes from the actual experience of building meaning, often with others. Meaning is not bestowed, it is made; it grows out of personal investment, subjective experiences, quality relationships, and community life. This shift in my thinking has been liberating because it’s all in my control. I don’t have to wait for prizes or recognition for my efforts to matter. My work doesn’t have to fit into a narrative of history. It doesn’t have to be the first or the best. And I’m not trapped in a single culture: we can create meaning together over anything as long as we dig in, work hard, and care about it together.

I want to give you an example. The most meaningful piece of music to come through my life last year was a song. It was written by one of my students, and it matters not just to him and me but to a musical community that I feel very lucky to get to be a part of. It’s in a prison up the river from where I live.

This community is really good at making music matter. We make it matter by wanting it badly and working hard at it. It’s rare and hard won. We’re 32 students and a handful of teachers who meet twice a month, and we’re in our fourth year. Our students are learning to play violins and cellos, keyboards and guitars, saxophones and drums, most of them with uncommon verve and dedication. They’re learning theory and notation. They’re writing songs, big band charts, string quartets, and an opera. We put on concerts and play in each other’s bands. I get to teach a little bit of everything, and I have never worked with students more motivated to learn.

“Music has the power to create community” is something we hear a lot, but I admit that the idea had become a kind of a pious formula to me and had lost, if not its meaning, much of its force. Now I have a vivid example. Our students tell us that it gives them new purpose and identity, a new way to think about themselves, a new way to be together inside, and also to relate to their families outside. “We don’t really have anywhere else to practice positive relationships, practice trusting each other, being vulnerable and opening up, but we can do that here” is a sentiment I have heard in many variations. This is now my personal gold standard of music mattering.

I want to tell you about this song and the man who wrote it. I’ll call him Ned. I want you to have a sense of what he’s like. He’d be the first to tell you: from the outside, he is grouchy, negative, dark, and cynical. He’s prickly and keeps other people away. He always finds the downside. If you point out something good, he’ll turn it inside out. If you invite him to do something, he’ll tell you he can’t (but he probably can).

Here’s how I know music has power: it took 20 minutes of playing guitar together for him to let his guard down. He’s also smart and artistic and sensitive. He’s a novelist and a poet. He somehow quietly learned music notation and chord theory without me noticing. You give him a compliment and a challenge, and it’s like the sun comes out. His grumpy facade is just a hardness that gets him through the day.

He had a creative explosion last spring. One week, I couldn’t have even told you whether or not he’d actually absorbed the theory and notation classes I’d been leading. The next week, he’s written out a lead sheet for a song — I remember it had a wild melody that arpeggiated every chord. I tell him that melodies usually stay within an octave and have more steps than leaps; the next week he’s revised it and written another. Then another. By the end of the semester, he’d written ten.

If my ideas of value were based on List #1, I’d consider this all sweet but not worth much. The songs weren’t innovative. They didn’t have “high quality” form or content. Maybe someday he’d write something truly great, but he’d have to work a long time at it for any of it to matter. (The idea feels so wrong to me that even typing these words makes me want to explode.)

I said the song isn’t innovative, but I take it back. From a historical perspective, sure. But that perspective completely contradicts our lived experience and dehumanizes actual people.

I said the song isn’t innovative, but I take it back. From a historical perspective, sure. But that perspective completely contradicts our lived experience and dehumanizes actual people. For him, and for those of us cheering him on, this song was an absolute breakthrough. It’s called “The Me You Can See.” I asked him last week if he’d be OK with me sharing it with you, and he said yes. Here’s the chorus:

The me you can see
Is not the real me
It’s just the me
I allow you to see

The me you can see
Is not the real me
It’s not the me
I wanted to be

The melody is plaintive, earnest. He wrote a special part for a cellist he’d started playing with more. The song is so open, so vulnerable, so true about himself, so self-aware. That he would want to open up like this with me or to other men in the program was significant and risky, because it compromised the identity he’d constructed to survive in prison. He went ever further: he wanted to share it with everybody. He asked me to sing it for a big “general population” crowd at one of our concerts. It was the greatest performing honor I think I’ve ever had.

If I had gone into this situation with a mission to champion new music culture through education, it wouldn’t have happened…. I’d tell myself I was pushing him out of his comfort zone (for his own good), but really I’d just be pushing him into mine.

If I had gone into this situation with a mission to champion new music culture through education, it wouldn’t have happened. I might have assigned him a flute solo with a limitation on the number of pitches, with Musica ricercata as a model. I’d be pushing him to find new sounds on his guitar. I could have easily left him feeling embarrassed by his confessional poetry, triads, and simple arrangements, as I used to feel when I brought songs to teachers. I’d be saying, “Well, if you’re into songs you should really listen to Wolf or Björk…” I’d tell myself I was pushing him out of his comfort zone (for his own good), but really I’d just be pushing him into mine. I probably would have stifled something really important in him.

Thankfully my agenda wasn’t “champion new music culture,” it was “connect with this person.” Music gave us something in common. It was a way to spend time together, to care about something together. You might argue that this demotes music from sacred art object to mere social instrument; I say this is what makes it matter at all.

What would happen if we gave ourselves to people instead of ideologies?

What would happen if we could let go of our anxiety about not being the first or the best?

What would happen if we dropped the idea that art is justified not by its position in culture or history, but by the actual experiences of real people?

What would happen if we measured our success not by the quantity of people who hear us, but by the depth of the experience we have shared?

On Contemporary Performance Practice, Melancholy, Subtle Activism, and Failure

Amid the careening-toward-the-floor subtle baseline depression of an election season, particularly of this election season and running up against the ominous and unlikely but possibly tragic end to that season, I’ve found it hard to begin putting digital pen to paper, even for a moment.

So let’s start here, with the quote that opens Sydney Pollack’s Frank Gehry biopic:

Is starting hard? You know it is. I don’t know what you do when you start, but I clean my desk. I make a lot of stupid appointments that I make sound important. Avoidance. Delay. Denial. I’m always scared that I’m not going to know what to do. It’s a terrifying moment. And then when I start, I’m always amazed. I say, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.”

And let’s begin with failure.

On Failure

I was re-reading Alex Ross’s article on Morton Feldman recently and thinking about frailty, failure, error, and ultimately vulnerability in our field—in classical music and new music. It’s my feeling that creating situations of intense vulnerability is at the deepest core of great artmaking. There are so many examples where watching things simply fall apart in front of our eyes, hearing things rip apart, moves us—even to tears.

Entire cultures of meaning are built on this kind of melancholy. In Japan, the negative notion of “depression” (kokoro no kaze—a cold of the soul) had to be supplied in the 1990s by the U.S. pharmaceutical industry because before that only the idea of melancholy (mono no aware—the pathos of things) existed there. This melancholy was one of day-to-day transcendent awareness of the transient in all things. It was a state full of not just pathos, but also of revelatory mindfulness, a savoring of flaw, and a state that was cherished for its closeness to God. Can you imagine us now, in the DSM-6, reclassifying depression as a danger not because of how it incapacitates, but because our deep melancholy, being so beautiful as it drew us closer and closer to the divine, might take us out of this world completely? How that would change all of us, and for the better.

It’s a wonder then that this vulnerability, this beautiful frailty, and the melancholy that goes along with it, has been systematically and near wholly removed from our musical practice. Or maybe conversely, due to our collective lack of adaptability, it’s no wonder that we’re experiencing difficulty envisioning the future for our art, forging the immediate paths forward, and taking steps down those paths.

Vulnerability is the future of our art.

Where we’ve closed people out of our practice—closed rehearsals, kept our lips shut in performance, bottled up the audience’s ability to respond to us and capture our spirit in real time, preserved the canon at the expense of innovation, created scarcity by locking audiences out of our halls with exorbitant prices of admission, draped our bodies in dogmatic 18th-century religious garb, slammed the door shut on digital reproduction and on the free trade of recorded musical ideas, become isolated from the depths of current theater/dance/contemporary art because of our intense attachment to the “known,” and based our institutional financial models on the whims of individual philanthropists rather than a response to the market—we must change course, and we must let them in. Everybody. Right now.

Here’s how failure, how vulnerability, plays in: it let’s us be who we are in the moment—a bunch of humans together in a room, simply sharing something, a beautiful thing, and something we made together. The ensemble, the score, the equipment, the space, the circumstance of this exact moment in time, and the audience—all absolutely integral to the experience, and all central to what we’re all making in the moment, together.

If your blood is in the water, if you make a mistake, they’re on to you and they’re going to rip you apart.

In classical music our built-up notions of perfection, from pre-conservatory education forward, teach us to erect immense walls between us and (as they teach us) people who would hurt us. People who are out to get us. People who are not us. Outsiders. It’s totally paranoid.

I remember an experience that I had in school, one that I’ve shared with a number of collaborators who echo the story from their own experience. I was working out an issue in my conducting and my score study, and a teacher said, “They’re like wolves, like sharks: orchestral musicians. And if your blood is in the water, if you make a mistake, they’re on to you and they’re going to rip you apart.”

With formative experiences like that, it’s no wonder that literally every classical musician I know—from the “most important-job-holding, deeply invested in the conservatory tradition orchestral player” to the “most deeply invested in experimental music, improvisation, and a willingness to try anything at any time without any prep, on no sleep and an eleven hour car ride, with two kids in the back seat, six-big-mac-wrappers-and-two-empty-mcflurry-containers-on-the-floor-in-the-front-passenger-seat-type player”—all share, somewhere down there, an instilled sense of fear about our community, about the ghosts of history and our teachers and, most profoundly, about their own collaborators.

What this fear has inspired in all of us is a resistance (to some large or small degree) to exposing our own vulnerability, to exposing our error, our rough edges, and our deeply held beliefs about our value vs. the difficulty we’re having collectively with being a market-driven art object. We are having trouble with our history (immediate and ancient), with how white and male we are, with the things we can change and those we can’t. We’re having trouble with adaptability of spirit—and adaptability of business plan.

We’ve been spending so many decades concerned with being perfect that we somehow forgot to ask: What can we give to people? Our ideas, our art, ourselves (with our deep longings and blazing brilliance and stubbed toes and flaws the likes of which the earth has always known but yet still we feel as if no one has ever been as flawed as us, so please don’t tell anyone)—what do we want to share with people? What can we give of ourselves, as we are, right now?

I’ve made a habit of reading a bit before I go to write each day, and these days that reading period is full of Jungian philosophy. Recently I came upon this passage from Mysterium Coniunctionis concerning our search for the Other, in our relationships and (ultimately, if we get things right) in ourselves:

In nature the resolution of opposites is always an energic process: she acts symbolically in the truest sense of the word, doing something that expresses both sides, just as a waterfall visibly mediates between above and below.

This mediating third, the space between us and what we’re looking for (the Other), is a space that holds immense, boundless power. While we seek to find something in a relationship, it is actually in this third space where both sides, inherently present, are activated. This space is the thing itself.

In the conversation about music, musicians, and our relationship to perfection, I believe that mediating third space is Failure.

We look at the mountain, the score and the situation, at all the hurdles—wrought with self-judgement and external judgement—and we see only technical perfection at the summit. In classical music, we want to move through difficulty with expedient ease and arrive at a place wrapped in the cozy blankets of comfort. Missing all along: the thing itself, the real art which is made of difficulty and struggle. The moments in which we are forced to deal with something that we don’t want to deal with, that’s the moment I’m interested in. The moment we, against all better judgment, leap from the cliff and truly trust one another to leap as well (also where we simply trust ourselves to have, years prior, pre-loaded our parachute correctly). That’s the right moment. The right pursuit. And, I believe, it’s the future.

Courting the “Lay” Listener

dating music

I am on a date, and he asks me, “What do you do?” I tell him, and if he is not scared away, we go to my car and I play him select recordings of my music. I am notably vulnerable, and he is just calm. Then, I ask him what he thinks. The reaction is routine.

Whether it’s him, a family member I have not seen in a while, or an old friend from high school, upon hearing my work, they may describe my music as “beautiful” or “relaxing.” These are not bad terms, but my heart cries that they cannot fully digest what I and my collaborators have made—the inspiration, the obsession, the hours of self-doubt, the days of rehearsal, and the anticipation. And what they experience is just, “Mmm.”

Do they hear the intricacies? Do they experience the seduction of a modulation or harmonic parenthesis? Do they feel the tension created by suspension or sense the folding of time created by contrapuntal rhythms or melodic heterophony?

I fear not. They may not have learned how to listen to this genre of music.

Maybe it’s my failure as a composer to be plain enough. It’s conjecture, but they probably listen to music organized by regular beats and loops and jams. Or perhaps, they would appreciate it more deeply if my music were delivered in timbres to which they were accustomed, i.e., electronics.

Declassifying “Classical”

My dates commonly make the comment, “All of my friends that listen to ‘classical’ music, are those who have formally studied music.” And there’s the rub!

It is a little disheartening that everybody, including “classical” musicians, has the need to grasp for terms like “classical,” “concert,” or worse, “art” music. Is there not a tacit air of aristocracy or bourgeoisie to the concert-going community? I know that what I do and with whom I do it are privileges, but our products ought to be more publicly digestible.

“Classical” is a problematic blanket term for Baroque, Renaissance, Romantic, and contemporary music performed by choral, symphonic, wind band, and chamber ensembles. What is more, these classifications are blanket terms in themselves! And, I understand that we credit composers, not “artists,” for creation, but why is there so much compartmentalization?

Overwhelmingly, I prefer music on acoustic media. Of course, it is a matter of taste, and my taste is influenced by classically oriented ears. It is not to say that I do not appreciate more mainstream genres of music, but I certainly have an affinity for artists with some classical background, e.g., Regina Spektor, Sara Bareilles, and the Québecoise Béatrice Martin of Cœur de pirate.

Bridging the Gap

On a personal note, until grad school, my background was predominantly choral and vocal, and my listening was limited. I had only a moderate appreciation for symphonic music. But after a year of orchestration seminar, a semester on the history of orchestral “masterworks,” and a semester on Mozart’s string quartets, my ears were utterly transformed. I discovered colors, layers, and movement that I did not acknowledge before. How had I gone all these years not truly hearing the music?

Very plainly put, this is yet another push for music education as core curriculum because the study of music is fundamentally the study of listening. And we are all missing out when children are neither readily exposed to nor invited to participate in musicmaking.

Two years ago, I met the director of choral activities at the University of Washington, Dr. Geoffrey Boers, when he came to Texas to clinic the All-State Choir, and I was fortunate to hear him speak on choral music programming. He suggested, and I paraphrase, that folk and pop music is in fact contemporary “classical” music—that it is as appropriate for an ensemble to sing an arrangement of the Beatles or Elton John as it is for them to sing Brahms or Britten.

Months later, I attended a choral convention in Seattle, in which his Chamber Choir performed. Their program, themed “Stars,” consisted of works from a variety of eras: a Monteverdi madrigal, a 20th-century avant-garde piece by Ingvar Lidholm, and a contemporary work by Eric Barnum. But the most memorable song was their finale, Boers’s choral arrangement of “Lippy Kids” by the British artist Elbow. The director withdrew from the podium, and the choir, dispersed around the stage, revealed a tenor at the mic and another chorus member at the piano. As their soulful singing built, the choir raised their hands, holding reflective stars, and became a full portrait of the night sky.

The addition of a non-“classical” arrangement was deeply moving. Having witnessed others in tears, I know the singers connected with the listeners. Perhaps the solution we seek is such programming, which offers a fusion of genres to inhabit the same time and space. So, all of us can appreciate the music a little more deeply.

What musicians create serves many purposes, but it is all in vain if we are not genuinely connecting with the listeners. We owe it to ourselves to deepen their listening and to maximize our communication.

Lost in Translation

Composing concert music is a conversation with the composer and the audience, like it or not. Your captive audience members can understand what you want to say or completely miss your idea and in some cases insert their own, which can be a little vexing.

But for some work outside of that medium—including film and especially advertising—the relationship is completely flipped. Instead, a composer is tasked with writing music the audience wants. The only problem being that it’s an audience that has trouble parsing what it wants in the first place.

In the work that I do for my music production company, Found Objects, we’re often tasked with bridging this gap. Most everyone we work with is very open about how hard it is for them to talk about music, so we all know we’re in a relationship based on both translation and trust. They trust we’ll translate their ideas into music and we try our hardest to get that right.

To do this, I’ve learned to take a step back, go along for the ride, and constantly keep an eye out for what really needs to happen.

My favorite anecdote to demonstrate the difficulty people have in explaining what they need from a composer is a project I did a year and a half ago. The producer and creatives from the advertising agency had settled on a track for a big online commercial. The track was an interesting orchestral piece that had mixed meter and an evolving chord progression that led to a triumphant climax. It was curious that they chose that track out of the 10 options we had sent them, but it was exciting that something so different was beating out the typical ad style. The team focused on how they liked the piece’s build and strong resolution and how well it paired with the arc of the emotion of the spot. All I did was make a few minor adjustments in preparation for their presentation to the clients, who are the decision makers for the product. Everyone was in a good place but the reaction from the client was awful. I could hear it in their voices when the advertising agency team called me afterwards. The producer needed to fix the problem ASAP.

I wasn’t in the meeting (we never are), so I’m not sure what the client had said exactly. But the producer had to take these comments and relay them to me, making their best effort at providing some guidance. They struggled with how to interpret these directions as they weren’t musicians and they could only speak in broad terms. The word I got was that it didn’t sound “finished.”

Here begins the translation: finished how? It could be a logistical thing like the mix sounded weak. Maybe some of the elements felt stiff and too computerized. Or it could be musical. That it doesn’t have enough material in it. It’s not developed enough.

Well, as it was written for full orchestra and we didn’t plan on contracting 20 string players, we relied on a lot on sampled instruments. So we brought in a violinist to add the nuances of a real string player to back up the sampled strings. We worked on the percussion to achieve a more ‘live’ sound in the mix.

We went through another round of revisions with the producer and creatives and we provided multiple options for the same piece. Exploring different openings and endings. One started with piano, another started with a simple solo violin line, another started with a moving flute line, etc. The work was progressing and I felt we were communicating effectively.

Nevertheless, we hit the wall once again. It’s not “finished” enough.

Ninety-five percent of the time we work remotely through conference calls and emails as many people are working on multiple projects and are either taxi-ing around the city or flying around the country. Found Objects on the other hand is very stationary because we have tons of gear packed into our studios. We can’t move this stuff. But let’s make this communication even stronger. Come in and let’s hash this out in person.

We all sat down in my studio and played back the track on high quality speakers with a big screen. This is what I had and this is road we had all traveled. One of the creatives turned to the producer anxiously and said something to the effect of, “It needs to sound more like this.” Hitting play on their laptop an indie rock instrumental with acoustic guitar, drums, and some piano came out of the tinny speakers.

What I wrote was a thousand miles away from this and there was no way I would be able to turn this into that.

Ok, ok, ok. We had provided 10 options 2 weeks ago, including some songs in that style. Why did we spend all of this time going the wrong way? Well, as we discovered while talking through our problem, they liked the arch of my piece but the sound of this other song they had found on Spotify sounded more ‘finished’ because it was cleaner and clearer, certainly it was because it didn’t have a 40 piece orchestra sound.

Sure enough, I put up one of the tracks we sent in the indie rock style and it worked perfectly for them. With some shaping and extending, we finished the job promptly with an indie instrumental song – instead of a full orchestra piece.

Looking back, this is certainly something to laugh at and it hasn’t happened since, but it clearly showed to honest failure of communication that can happen with music. There are so many options, so many things to like and dislike in any one piece of music, that it can be overwhelming to anyone.

It can happen whether you’re telling someone else’s story or your own.

An Experience Created by Rules

In The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anna Anthropy defines a game as “an experience created by rules.” While the rules themselves can be simple, the interaction between them is generally more complex, and this is partly what makes games interesting. Anthropy uses the schoolyard game of tag as an example, which has an extremely simple set of rules and a huge range of possible situations not strictly dictated by the rules.

This got me thinking: By this broad definition, is a piece of music ever a game? Certainly some pieces of music seem to have game-like properties, proceeding according to an internal logic which could be expressed as rules. Phase shifting in minimalist music, in particular, has a similar relationship to simplicity and complexity, where you can understand the process and still be surprised by the musical results of that process.

Writing music, too, is often like a game. The exercise of four-part voice leading is certainly mediated by rules–or are they guidelines? Regardless, considered as a game, its reward structure seems to be broken, because you can follow all the rules and still generate a musically bland result. What makes a Bach chorale compelling seems to have an orthogonal relationship to the rules. Does this mean we’re missing some rules, playing the wrong game, or is it something mysteriously else that we should be considering?

Maybe writing music is more like simultaneously writing and playing a game: generating sets of rules, deciding if they are fun or not, accepting or rejecting them, and then starting over. When rules create beauty, you win!

What about listening to music? Some composers embed secret data in their musical materials, like the A-B-H-F motive hidden in Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. From a narrative gameplay point of view, solving this puzzle is extra satisfying because it contains an emotional revelation about the life of the composer (A.B.) and his semi-clandestine affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (H.F.). But this game, too, is kind of broken, since you’re unlikely to make this discovery from listening alone. It’s really only possible through research and score study, which isn’t accessible to most listeners. However, you can certainly enjoy listening to the Lyric Suite while blissfully unaware of these undercurrents, as generations did before Berg’s motivic agenda was revealed. So, there’s a kind of disconnect between music-as-music and music-as-game that seems unbridgeable.

Nonetheless, I think that certain aspects of my composing have been informed and enriched by my experience with games. One thing games excel at is exploring issues of choice or player agency. I think about listener agency a lot, and ways to give listeners multiple valid paths through a piece. This is hard, and I’m not sure it’s even something music is very good at! A great deal of music seems to be more cinematic or novelistic in its aims, subtly or overtly guiding you to particular emotional points of inflection, which might be roughly analogous to narrative peaks and valleys. I’m not knocking this approach at all–it works!–but I’m always looking for ways to make music a more ludic experience, where the listener is presented with choices. (And I’m interested in narratives, too, that have that ambiguity.)

The danger of this approach is that the result may come off as thematically confused or oversaturated. Games are always negotiating this trade-off. Some opt for a more cinematic experience, with a linearly constructed series of set pieces, while others are more like a sandbox where players are free to explore. But I find myself often dissatisfied with the pure sandbox experience; on some level, when engaging with a work of art I want to be guided by a strong authorial voice.

In music, counterpoint is the most obvious way to introduce multiple paths while maintaining that authorial control. But establishing equality between the voices in a contrapuntal texture is difficult; at any given time, one voice usually dominates. Textural or stylistic counterpoint, where two or more “complete” musical settings are simultaneously or subsequently juxtaposed, is another way to bring about a kind of ambiguity. It also introduces what I might call “counterpoint of meaning,” for lack of a better term. When Charles Ives’s Second Symphony quotes “America the Beautiful” in the midst of an otherwise unfamiliar musical landscape, are we meant to take it sincerely or with a dose of bitter irony?

This game, too, requires culturally transmitted information–we have to know the tune–but at least that knowledge is easier to come by.

An Open Letter to Performers of New Music

Dear Sirs and Mesdames, and kids of all ages (from the newest Brooklyn upstart to the great-grandpappy major ensembles alike):

Look. We composers make loads of mistakes—we’re often prone to dreaminess, given to sloppy page-turns, and obsessed with details of musical structure while largely oblivious to the more practical realities of performing our gnarly-ass music. The best among us welcome frank criticism, which leads us to become the kinds of collaborators who are sensitive to the needs of performing musicians.

I’ve been guilty of some pretty grave errors in my own early dealings with ensembles, but all in all I consider myself fortunate to have had the chance to benefit from the gift of honest feedback. Likewise, I have a particular pet peeve about something that even many fine and well-established ensembles seem to do on occasion: not letting composers know when performances of our music take place.

Here’s why it’s so important for ensembles to make sure they keep living composers apprised of performances of their own works: performances are as much the bread and butter of a composer’s career as the performer who actually brings the new work to life onstage. They are the reason we make notated scores at all, as it’s easy to do without performers entirely with today’s technology, if that suits a composer’s temperament. Performances are the artistic, social, and commercial center of the composer’s world, something that we work tirelessly to secure and endlessly appreciate. So not clueing in living composers to a performance of their work (via the composer’s publisher, manager, or personal website) more or less deprives us of a chance to properly support the performance, while the performing organization at least gets to program a composition it (presumably) deemed worthy of performance.

Composers need to be informed of performances, first and foremost, to adequately report them to ASCAP or BMI. Each year licensed venues pay a flat fee for the use of all BMI- and/or ASCAP-licensed music, and the royalties collected by these organizations are then disbursed to composers on a regular basis. Even for those of us who don’t collect very much, every little bit helps and I know more than a few composers who were personally spurred on to succeed when they received some of their first royalty checks. Not ensuring that composers are paid fairly for their contributions—especially for those of us who are the youngest and least established—would be just the same as the composer walking off with part of the performer’s performance fee, or forcing the ensemble to spend countless hours re-taping confusing page-turns, when that should have been the composer’s responsibility.

Performances are also a social opportunity, especially when a composer is performed by musicians he or she has not met previously. It’s a chance to notify local friends, colleagues, and possibly critics of the event, and a chance for the composer to contribute to filling seats with word-of-mouth and publicity. More than a few times I’ve found out about a performance of my music after the fact, only to think, “Damn, I would have liked to support both the ensemble and my piece with a few invites, a well-placed phone call, or a pre-concert talk, but they didn’t give me a chance!” So performers who neglect to be in touch with living composers about their programming plans are just shooting themselves in the feet.

Composers also know that performances are where impressions (and connections) are made, and where curious supporters will often make a critical decision on whether or not to go forward in approaching composers for new work. Again, this is crucial for our most junior colleagues and I hate to think about how differently my own career might have panned out had I been left out of the loop for some of the initial performances that established my greenhorn reputation.

In my experience, most ensembles and performers of new music are at least aware of these points; it’s just that when push comes to shove, this detail can easily get lost in the shuffle. Informing the composer is both the right thing to do, and it’s also the course of action that maximizes the advantages of performing new music in the first place. I take it you guys didn’t start playing new music just because of the awesome accidental placement and glamorous paychecks, right?

With sincere regards and admiration,

A Composer Who Cares