Tag: communication

Everyone Has A Story

Macdowell Colony Bench

A few years ago I had an “Aha!” moment with a work of literature; Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Growing up, I must have seen this play three or four times, produced by my school, by other schools of childhood friends, summer camp—it’s a classic. But it never grabbed me; I found it melancholy, boring, and grew to rather dread the possibility of yet another production of the thing. So of course, on the day I arrived for a stay at the MacDowell Colony in 2008, a few of the writers in residence had scheduled (for after dinner entertainment) an informal reading of Our Town, which Wilder had worked on at MacDowell in 1937. Although at first I cringed at the thought, I got sucked in (friendly people, nice wine, these things happen), and a group of us sat around a roaring fireplace with our glasses of wine, picked character names out of a hat, and read the play out loud from start to finish.

By the end of the play I was speechless and near tears, having finally realized how beautiful and utterly human the work was. How could I possibly not have appreciated this before? The power of the story, which we had tapped into that night, had not faded a bit in the 70 years since its creation. When we were finished, we all sat in silence for a minute to let it all soak in. Being inside the play and reading those words out loud helped me “get it.” I don’t think I will ever forget that experience. From there I became more interested in Wilder’s other works, and I especially treasure a wonderful book of letters illustrating the—what seems quite unlikely—friendship of Wilder and Gertrude Stein.

Given that it took several rounds to fully appreciate a work of art written in my native language, it seems reasonable to suppose that there are times when it might require a similar, if not greater effort to find a doorway into a work of music. Andrew Ford makes this point (among several) in his wonderful recent essay “Why We Need Music.” That the rungs of the ladder to fully appreciating the abstract art of music include spending some extra time with music that one might not “get” upon first listen, so that it can reveal its secrets. This doesn’t work every time, and it’s perfectly fine to not “like” a piece of music if it has been given a chance and still not worked out. However, you never know unless you try. What if you just weren’t ready to discover what is special about that work until now?

Music, like literature, visual art, and so on, is the way some of us tell our stories and share our experience of life. It is not always laid out in a way that others want, or that anyone expects. Whether it is constructed from a 12-tone row or a three-chord chorus played on electric guitar doesn’t matter. In the end, the issues that we tend to fuss and fume about (at least in this space) melt into insignificance at the realization that regardless of how it is measured or evaluated, music is a form of communication. As those who choose to tell our stories in this very conceptual medium, we can be examples to others who may not experience it quite so directly by being open to, and making an effort to accept the creations that cross our paths. Regardless of our own feelings about whatever that work might be, there is bound to be someone out there—probably more than one person—who can relate to that story, or experience their own “Aha!” moment. Who knows, that person might be you.

Ring of Fire

Indulge me in a thought experiment.

We’re at a high school in a wealthy exurban district. It’s standardized test season. The stakes are high: Competitive merit-based scholarships hang in the balance. But all is not as it seems; little do the teachers know that a ring of students have organized a scheme to cheat on the exam. One student in particular is the beneficiary of this scheme. He’s no fool, and he probably could have achieved a very strong score on his own if he hadn’t been so busy with other obligations, but in this case he’s leaning heavily on answers provided by his friends. His buddies all do OK—none of them wind up digging ditches after graduation—but this particular student, who boasts not only formidable test results but also a compelling and exotic narrative of the sort that admissions personnel can’t resist, wins a hefty scholarship to attend a prestigious school.

When the ring is eventually exposed, the promising trajectory our successful student seemed to be on is spoiled, maybe permanently. His friends are in trouble too, but in the context of the scandal they come off looking more like saps than like diabolical cheaters. However, mustn’t we ask whether the system that stratifies rewards and opportunities so pitilessly, one whose legitimacy is supposed to rest on its meritocratic process but plainly doesn’t, deserves to have most of the fingers pointed at it?

I don’t like Osvaldo Golijov’s music. I think his musical identity-politics synthesizes and presents a phony solution to the real political problems of globalization. (Almost all writings by or on Golijov, including the Amarillo Symphony program note Rob Deemer mentioned in his comprehensive and very fair post last week, will bolster this impression.) However, in the past I always had to give him his props: He did well for himself in a field whose upper echelon admits very few. The institutions who raised him up on their shoulders and offered him lavish paydays saw something in him, evidently, that they found value in. For better or worse, they wanted Golijov.

But they didn’t get him, as it turns out: They got his well-meaning friends, who must be even more embarrassed than Golijov by this whole squalid thing. The foundation of the mainstream contemporary music economy is that famous composers can get enormous consortium commissions because arts organizations acknowledge them as singular, integral creative subjectivities. In other words, large classical music organizations—businesses accountable for dozens if not hundreds of livelihoods apiece—are willing to deal with a composer who misses deadlines and blows off projects because he putatively has something unique and meaningful to say that a (relatively) wide audience ought to hear. My hope is that this situation prompts arts organizations to have a good hard think about this notion: It would probably be much cheaper, not to mention fairer, to commission Michael Ward-Bergman next time.

Truth and Consequences

The very concept of artistic originality is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before Beethoven, composers considered themselves craftspeople. Mozart’s position in the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg was officially above the cooks but below the valets, and Bach produced a cantata a week for over two years, in addition to his other composing and performing duties. (When I think about this latter fact, it completely boggles my mind, because I don’t think I could copy a score and parts by hand for a cantata a week, much less with a quill pen, while actually composing the work itself.) While earlier composers were writing for specific occasions with no expectation that their works would survive that single performance, the Romantic era ushered in a newfound obsession with originality of voice and the idea of artistry as being born out of original creative obsession. This 19th-century notion of artistic value continues to hold sway.

It’s important to remember the central position occupied by the concept of the composerly voice in discussions of artistic merit when considering the current discussions around the borrowing within Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus. Already, many people have weighed in on the issues raised by Golijov’s indebtedness to Michael Ward-Bergeman’s Barbeich, including Rob Deemer’s “A Real Mess,” an excellent assessment of the situation complete with an easy-to-follow history of the commission on NewMusicBox, Anne Midgette’s “From Pastiche to Appropriation,” and Alex Ross’s “The Golijov Issue.” If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, I suggest that you read all of these well-reasoned and objective articles about a difficult issue: whether Golijov’s creative sins reach the level of artistic crimes. Of course, I’m not accusing Golijov of an actual crime. Indeed, it appears that he very careful assured himself of operating within the letter of the law, including crafting an agreement with Ward-Bergeman that remains satisfactory to both parties. Still, I maintain that Golijov’s approach to Sidereus was wrong and that the new music community should continue to pressure him to openly address the situation.

I have known Golijov’s music for over 20 years. When I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing the music of their doctoral students in an orchestration/composition class led by Crumb and on their graduate student recitals. The skill and creativity among the student composers continually astonished me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the new works by such students as Jennifer Higdon, Pierre Jalbert, and Robert Maggio. To me, Golijov’s music stood head and shoulders above all the others, and I became such a strong fan that I even asked him for recordings of etudes that he composed for our class. When I stumbled upon the Kronos Quartet recording of his Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, the way that he updated the Klezmer sound with beautiful extended techniques and evocative string writing renewed my adoration of his music. Soon thereafter, I began to read about his La Pasiòn and was happy to discover that his music was reaching a wider audience. However, when I finally was able to hear the piece for myself, I was left feeling very cold about the whole experience. I could understand how the collaborative nature of the work might excite others, but to me it felt like the Venezuelan and contemporary classical elements never cohered and that the whole was less than the sum of its parts. For me, all of his music that followed had a similar issue in that the pieces appeared to be style amalgamations rather than composed works. For years, I kept trying to find the spark that had first kindled my love for his music, but each new work left me feeling colder and colder.

La Pasiòn functioned as a collaboration in which roughly half of the artistry of the work derived from the incredible performances of the Luciana Souza and the Schola Cantorum de Caracas. The nature of the work seemed clear: Golijov brought these amazing performers into the concert hall sphere and surrounded them with musical materials that allowed them to express their excellent musicality. That they stood on stage and performed as part of the piece helped to maintain the central notion of the work as one that unified various, seemingly disparate elements.

To me, the central problem with Sidereus is that Golijov now seeks to hide the contributions of his collaborative artists. In essence, he utilized Ward-Bergeman as a ghostwriter in the tradition of Robert Ludlum’s posthumous novels or an “as told to” autobiography. This practice is widely accepted in literature and shouldn’t be problematic in the slightest, except in situations like Charles Barkely’s 1991 “autobiography” Outrageous, co-written by Roy S. Johnson, which Barkely maintains misquoted him in several passages. The distinction is this: no one ever would consider Ludlum for a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and no ghostwritten autobiography would be eligible for a National Book Award. Golijov has enjoyed extraordinary accolades from organizations like the MacArthur Foundation and the Grammy Awards, while not being honest about the amount of responsibility he bears for the works under his name.

At this moment, I must believe that Golijov was aware that his borrowing was wrong and that he tried to hide it. First, although he does credit Ward-Bergeman in a program note available on the Boosey website, he does so in a manner that is entirely misleading. Golijov writes:

For the “Moon” theme I used a melody with a beautiful, open nature, a magnified scale fragment that my good friend and longtime collaborator, accordionist Michael Ward Bergeman came up with some years ago when we both were trying to come up with ideas for a musical depiction of the sky in Patagonia. I then looked at that theme as if through the telescope and under the microscope, so that the textures, the patterns from which the melody emerges and into which it dissolves, point to a more molecular, atomic reality. Like Galileo with the telescope, or getting close to Van Gogh’s brushstrokes.

To call this misleading is somewhat generous, for when you listen to the two pieces side by side the later work orchestrates the melody and accompaniment without changes to the melody itself, to the harmony, or even to the arpeggiation pattern, but with an additional introduction and coda. Golijov eschews such basic variation techniques as ornamenting the melody or interpolating passing harmonies between the structural chords. When I try to imagine the sort of compositional techniques Golijov describes in his program note, I keep returning to one of my favorite works of the 20th century, a piece that takes a traditional melody and puts it through exactly the sorts of processes Golijov describes, the second movement of Olly Wilson’ s masterpiece A City Called Heaven.

In addition, in 2009 Golijov “wrote” a commission for WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Inaugural Concert for Ethel and Michael Ward-Bergeman called Radio. In this interview and performance John Schaefer believes that the work was composed specifically for the event while Golijov nervously laughs a little as he credits Ward-Bergeman and Jeremy Flower as collaborators who “not only are performing but also were creating perhaps the best parts of the piece” (at the 55 second mark of the linked video). That he credits both of these artists similarly adds yet another disturbing layer, for it makes me wonder if the interesting electronics layered in the introduction of the piece, beginning at the 4:04 mark of the linked video, were created by Flower or by Golijov. When you listen to the now-famous music beginning at 6:44, you will undoubtedly realize that not only was Sidereus an unoriginal work, it was not even a new Golijov composition.

The fact that Golijov continues to change the title of the piece as it moves through its various orchestrations forces me to believe that he intended to cover his tracks, to hide the fact that he continues to recycle the works of other composers while taking credit for their work. I hope that he addresses these issues soon and that we continue to discuss the issues of what we expect when we commission an original work from a single composer.

A Real Mess

It’s not often that contemporary concert music gets involved in a public controversy—there’s really not much room for it, since most of the artists aren’t known well enough to get noticed by the mainstream media even if they are involved with anything controversial. I was impressed at the dust-up at NPR that happened a couple of weeks ago when Houston-based composer Marcus Maroney took NPR’s All Things Considered to task for their definitions and handling of the musical term “appoggiatura” in a discussion of Adele’s song “Someone Like You,” after which NPR’s music specialist, Rob Kapilow, inartfully dismissed Marcus’s concerns as being overly “fussy” and “pedantic”.  This, I thought, was some pretty high-profile dueling between two composers in the public spotlight.

What a difference a week makes.

Such back-and-forths seem quaint in contrast to the past week’s debacle surrounding Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus overture, the ten-minute work commissioned by 35 orchestras in celebration of the preeminent orchestra administrator Henry Fogel. The firestorm that was set off by two friends attending an orchestra concert in Eugene, Oregon, and the resulting article in the Eugene Register-Guard over the weekend has brought to light a panoply of issues whose ripples are still moving quickly throughout the music community and may have ramifications far beyond the individual situation.

Here’s a timeline:

—2008/2009: Osvaldo Golijov was commissioned by a consortium of 35 orchestras, to celebrate the retirement of Henry Fogel as the president of the League of American Orchestras. Orchestras reportedly submitted anywhere from $1,500-$4,000 to take part in the commission.

—Oct. 10, 2010: Sidereus, a ten-minute overture, is premiered by the Memphis Symphony and begins a 35-concert tour around the country. Currently listed by Boosey & Hawkes as having had more than 60 performances to date under conductors such as Marin Alsop, Jeffrey Kahane, Christopher Eschenbach, and Carl St. Clair. (Program notes from the Amarillo Symphony performance)

—Feb. 16, 2012: NPR music critic Tom Manoff and trumpeter Brian McWhorter decide to attend the Eugene Symphony concert to hear the Haydn trumpet concerto, but are taken aback by the performance of Sidereus, which sounds identical in many ways to a chamber work both men had been recording and editing—Barbeich by accordionist/composer Michael Ward-Bergeman (a long-time Golijov friend and collaborator).

—Feb. 18, 2012: An article by Bob Keefer in the Eugene Register-Guard outlines both Manoff’s and McWhorter’s concerns about the work. Golijov remains silent on the issue while Ward-Bergeman emails Keefer and explains that there was an agreement between the two composers on the use of Barbeich in Golijov’s work. It is still unclear as to whether or not any of the participating orchestras were made aware of this—at this point that is doubtful.

Keefer’s first article was published midnight Saturday, and the story quickly swept through the Twitterverse and Facebookland in a ferocious yet peg-legged manner. As it took some time for the audio files to become easily located, initial reactions were mixed and were based primarily on pre-existing attitudes toward Golijov, for whom such accusations were not exactly out of left field; his use of quotations and pastiche in his work had been both a signature and an albatross for the award-winning composer. Once listeners were able to compare the two works (and scores of both works were also available online), it did not take long for the reactions to increase exponentially.

By Wednesday, Keefer had published a second article pointing towards more examples of Golijov’s habits of using music written by others in his own works, Alex Ross and Anne Midgette had written their own takes on the situation, and the blogosophere vacillated between attempting a defense and sharpening their knives. I myself penned a reaction on Facebook which I will get to in a bit; suffice it to say, there has been a lot written about this debacle over the past few days with little new information coming forward after the initial two articles by Bob Keefer; Golijov is keeping silent (a fact that I can attest to, having tried both his publisher and his own e-mail address) and most other actors in this tragic case are giving muted, if any, responses.

As I mentioned before, this circus has dredged up a number of issues that are awkward, sensitive, and volatile; one could draw a close comparison between the various reactions to this controversy and Mika Brzezinski’s reactions to the topic of trans-vaginal ultrasounds in Virginia on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, vacillating between not wanting to talk about it and outright anger at the myriad of wrongs being displayed. I shall do my best to touch on at least a few of the more important issues, keeping in mind that this story is not yet finished.

First off—Sidereus was not composed by Osvaldo Golijov. To quote my own aforementioned post on Facebook:

The issue here goes to the very heart of what it means to ‘compose’ a musical work. From my perspective, there are four primary creative musical activities one can do as far as setting music to paper (improvisation is something else entirely). Those activities are:

—Transcription (setting a pre-existing work to a new instrumentation; nothing new is added or removed from the original).

—Orchestration (creatively setting a pre-existing work to a new instrumentation; the orchestrator has the freedom to interpret the emotional or artistic intention of the work and add material where needed to demonstrate that intention—see Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition)

—Arranging (creating a new musical work using a pre-existing work as a springboard; many times arrangers will create elaborate and unique settings of well-known works to show their own interpretation of the original—see Gil Evans arrangements of Porgy & Bess for Miles Davis)

—Composition (Creating a musical work from original material; pre-existing material can be used within the composition, but not as the overarching concept for the work unless stated—see many composers’ use of folk songs in their compositions, as well as Ives’ Variations on ‘America’)

… [Sidereus] is a work that falls somewhere in between an orchestration and an arrangement. Even the peripheral that does not quote Barbeich out right is chordal and ephemeral in nature—Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Greensleeves has more original material in it than this piece.

I started out as an arranger years before I began to compose and have a strong sense of where the line is between each of those four activities. If one is commissioned to “compose” a new work, then it should be assumed that the ultimate goal of the commission would be to have a newly created work to perform and not an orchestration or arrangement from another artist’s portfolio. These terms and other, more negative terminology (“theft,” “plagarism,” “borrowing,” etc.) are extremely important to be careful with since they not only can be used incorrectly to great effect but also can serve to further confuse the actual issues at hand.

As mentioned previously, there does seem to be a pre-existing agreement between Golijov and Ward-Bergeman, so there indeed was no theft. Why Ward-Bergeman would allow Golijov to basically orchestrate his own Barbeich is unknown; from reactions I’ve seen from both Anne Midgette and others who have worked with Golijov in the past, it could be that Ward-Bergeman was so used to Golijov’s penchant for appropriation and pastiche that he didn’t seem to see any need for concern.

It is indeed that penchant for appropriation that has allowed the current situation to become so exasperating. Midgette’s article states, “That people are getting outraged about this simply means that they are unfamiliar with Golijov’s modus operandi.”  In other words, because Golijov has had success with collaborations that blurred the lines of who-wrote-what, as well as attempted to use works without attribution or recompense in the past (as we are finding out to a much greater degree than previously known), we should not be surprised that he has created a well-crafted and orchestrated arrangement of his friend’s composition while taking sole credit for the work. I have a problem with this line of reasoning. Whether or not he’s done it before, it should be something for which he could and should be called out; if he had received more blowback when he stepped over the line in the past, perhaps his habits may have improved. To be clear—if others hadn’t enabled him by allowing that modus operandi to flourish, this week might be less hectic.

What all of this seems to be boiling down to is two ideas: terminology and expectations. Terminology, as in Marcus Maroney’s pleas to NPR, can be extremely effective when used correctly, but can do much harm if used without care. If the title of the work was Fantasia on Barbeich or Sidereus: Musings on a Theme by Michael Ward-Bergeman or even just listed the entire work Barbeich (and not just the “melody”) as being an integral part of the composition Sidereus, Golijov would not be in as much hot water today as he finds himself.

Now for expectations…where to begin? The enormous expectations that the consortium and audiences have placed on Golijov after his many awards and successes could be seen as a factor. Same with his own expectations on himself to do well, which seem to both turn him into a perfectionist and force him to take shortcuts when the reality of the deadline rears its ugly head. But his expectations that no one would uncover his ruse due to the lack of knowledge about Ward-Bergeman’s music are just as troubling; remember, Eugene’s performance occurred after the work was performed over 60 times previously and was slated to just have a few more performances before it completed its tour of all of the consortium orchestras. The odds of the public knowing about the true ingredients of the work were extremely small, and one finds it both ironic and fitting that Golijov has another composer—Franz Joseph Haydn—to blame for getting caught.

Finally, there are the expectations on all composers, which are similar to those placed upon writers, filmmakers, and artists, as well as journalists; the expectation that that information that you convey is original unless attributed accordingly. In music this can be extremely tricky, because so many of us use portions of other works as ingredients in new works. How extensive these portions are and how integral they are to the overall concept of the piece in question are important considerations for each composer to weigh if they choose to go down this path, and if this entire episode can become a learning experience for all in the finer points of collaboration attribution and the ability to properly designate the true nature of a creative musical work, then (hopefully) some good may come of it.

So what are we left with from this debacle? The fact that a well-known composer is accused of ethical improprieties and is either afraid to address the issues in public or is being sheltered from the public firestorm by those who may be enabling his creative habits. The fact that many supporters and detractors were plenty comfortable with passing judgment before even hearing the works in question. The fact that not a single orchestra has said anything negative about this situation so far. And finally, the fact that the speed and ferocity with which the classical music blogosphere dug into this story reflects how far our by-the-minute media attitudes have soaked into our consciousness. I do hope some good can come out of this, if from nothing other than learning from the mistakes of others and generating some positive discussion that will help us all in the future.

To Infinity and Beyond

This post comes to you courtesy of Alex Gardner, whose thoughts last week on the fleeting nature of musical time (and, in particular, its urgency for compositional clarity) got my brain-motor running. Per Adorno, time is the problem of music: The way we choose to fill that time—nay, e’en to conceive of it—will necessarily define, to a great extent, who we are as composers.

Baltimore composer William Kleinsasser remarked once that it’s within a composer’s capability only to set up certain possible aesthetic encounters for an audience within a given period of time. Naturally there’s no shortage of strategies when it comes to constructing and deploying these possible aesthetic encounters: In the comments area of
Alex’s post, we identified just one axis along which these strategies might be situated—clarity versus ambiguity. One composer’s approach is to minimize noise, so to speak, by sharpening and refining the piece’s content; another’s is to maximize signal by cramming the piece’s attic full of junk.

We could have a lengthy conversation about these two contrasting means to lay a musical minefield—or about any other contrasting means framed by some other imagined dimension of music besides the one I mentioned above. The possibilities really are endless, which to me is a bit daunting: The more I think about what can happen in a piece of music, and about how many different ways there are to formulate and rationalize and structure and challenge and critique and embrace and magnify and problematize and thematize and reify these things, the less sure I can be that anyone else is liable to apprehend music the same way I do—or, for that matter, that I’ll apprehend a piece the same way one day as I do the next. As I’ve said before, I think that the actual substance of a piece of music (itself a construction) accounts for a much-overestimated slice of a listener’s experience when hearing it. There’s an infinity of ways to listen to music, sure—but this is just a simplified way of saying that there’s an infinity of ways to talk about listening to music, and to think about the infinity of ways of talking about music, and to talk about the infinity of those ways of thinking about the infinity of those ways of talking about music.



On Monday I participated in a very nice event at my alma mater that included readings of poetry and fiction, a photography presentation, and performances of two of my semi-recent compositions. As the readings unfolded, I felt slightly envious of the writers, who could simply hold their books and read to the audience themselves, and the photographer, whose wonderful pictures were exhibited in the art gallery. In contrast, presenting my music involved bringing four musicians to the campus (superb musicians who did a brilliant job), organizing a number of rehearsals, and, once we arrived, arranging for music stands, a PA system, cables, etc. And then—POOF!—the music was finished.

This is always how it happens. I know this, and yet there are still times when I feel surprised at how quickly the moments pass. It’s especially pronounced when I am performing myself; when I am working the laptop in one of my electroacoustic pieces, I am focused in such a way that I don’t actually “hear” the piece as the audience does. There have been many times when one of those performances ends, and I have to ask the other musicians, “How did it go?”

I am continually struck by the fleeting nature of a musical performance relative to the amount of human labor involved in making a single performance happen. This is not at all to suggest that making music is more work than writing a book or making works of visual art—they all involve a tremendous amount of effort. With artists who produce a physical product such as a book or a painting, however, there arrives a point at which the thing is done and can be directly experienced by nearly anyone from that point on. But in the time-based medium of music, there always has to be that additional layer of translation in linear time. Given that, when I’m composing something I always try to keep in mind the thought, “Okay, you have (for instance) eight minutes to say what you have to say, so make whatever that communication is as sparklingly crystal clear as you can!”

Sometimes if I think too hard on this issue, the whole scenario becomes completely ridiculous—like when you stare at a written word for a while and it suddenly looks as if it’s spelled all wrong—and I wonder, why on earth do this composing thing? It makes no sense. However, in the end, those moments of performance are for the musicians and the listeners to soak in. When someone says that a performance made them think about something in a different way, or gave them an idea, or that it made them forget about whatever was bothering them, I know that creating such ephemeral chunks of time in space is absolutely worth the effort. They are focused reminders that every single moment is unique.