Tag: compositional aesthetics

Material Witness

Paint Swatches

It is an uncanny experience to encounter an earlier version of yourself. I recently did a book reading at which the presenter introduced me using an old biographical blurb, obviously culled from some vintage corner of the internet. I know it was old because I had, when writing it, spent a fair portion of it advertising myself as a composer, which is something I stopped doing a while ago.

But, suddenly, there was that younger, aspiring-composer version of myself onstage with the current version of myself, the one who writes criticism and books, who talks about music more than he creates it. Obviously, I’m a different person than the one I was trying to promote with that obsolete bio. But how am I different?

It turns out there’s at least one way I’m very different, musically speaking. I’ve stopped worrying so much about material.

Lately, I’ve been reading Full of Noises, the new book of conversations between composer Thomas Adès and critic Tom Service. Among the many opinionated assessments—Adès is nothing if not deeply, thoughtfully opinionated—this exchange, about Giuseppe Verdi, caught my attention:

Verdi… is very difficult for me. It’s such poor material and it’s often badly put together. I’m talking about the operas as whole works. Simon Boccanegra is like a bad joke. It’s catastrophic from the point of view of plotting and artifice and pacing. Everything about it is wrong. It could hardly be worse. Yet it has this strangely powerful effect if it’s done well…. The drama’s very ineptness seems to force him into being inspired.

Is there a damage-limitation side to writing opera?

To doing anything. The line is very thin. Verdi does have a raw native cunning, more in the better operas. And that means that the poverty of the material is exposed, and I hate it all, and it is inessential. But I look at it in fascination, and I think: why is it that, despite everything, he can make a single moment that is so incredibly strong?

That is, I realized, a very composer-ish thing to say.

It’s fair to say that my own estimation of Verdi is several orders of magnitude higher than Adès’s—I love even the most dramatically ludicrous of his operas. But the fascination that Adès talks about: I recognized that immediately from that time I first become enamored of Verdi’s music, a time when I was still pouring all my effort into composing. Because there are plenty of passages in Verdi’s operas where the material not only seems pedestrian, but almost filler: Verdi isn’t even doing anything to the material. It churns along, a conveyor belt of basic harmonies for the libretto to ride. It does nothing except move forward in time. It just goes.

As a composer, those sections baffled me—because, as a composer, the wherewithal of musical material occupied a lot more of my headspace than it does now. But Verdi, after all, knows his best material, and the audience does, too: it’s always framed and spotlighted in total and solitary focus. As for the rest—that has a lot to do with the operatic traditions that Verdi initially mastered. Italian opera had fairly strict patterns of how things should go: the recitative-cavatina-cabaletta scene constructions, the progression of solos and ensembles and choruses. Once you stop paying attention to the actual material, you hear how Verdi is manipulating that, modifying and otherwise recombining the way the opera goes in order to alternately amplify and paper over the dramatic events into a convincing flow. If the going is what makes the dramatic effect, then the material is secondary—even a distraction. (If you’re trying to slip an outrageous plot contrivance past an audience, the last thing you want is for them to be paying too much attention.)

This is important: I’m not criticizing Adès. He’s actually demonstrating how good a composer he is. One of the most important tools for a composer to develop is an intuition about material, about its possibilities for manipulation and development. If you don’t have that, you’re just stumbling around a dark house every time you sit down to compose. Adès is right: a lot of Verdi’s material is, from that standpoint, pretty weak. But Adès is primed to notice that because he spends so much time evaluating and manipulating material. Verdi had that intuition, too, but, from the beginning, he was also working in an environment that forced him to develop a theatrical intuition as well. He knew when he could substitute in one for the other. In a way, he had an intuition for when he could get away with ignoring his intuition about material.

Critical intuition is not unlike compositional intuition, but the polarities are reversed. It’s reactive. One notices whether or not one is having a worthwhile experience, and then tries to hone in on why. It’s still a matter of analysis, of breaking down information and extrapolating from it, but more in the manner of an autopsy than a diagnosis. (This is in no way disparaging the critic’s profession. I was a huge Quincy, M.E. fan as a kid.) And, besides, I will still turn on the materialist-intuition part of my brain in a concert sometimes, often when presented with new music. It’s a convenient shorthand for a mismatch between means and ends: the piece goes on longer than the material can sustain, things like that. It’s just that, now that I’ve had enough practice turning off that intuition, I can see and hear how it’s not necessarily the material, or even the choice of material, that makes or breaks a piece of music.

Cloth Swatches

I’ve also started to notice how much that compositional selection bias favoring material has shaped the past century’s worth of new music and attitudes toward it. For instance, I don’t think it’s accidental, or contradictory, that I am a fan of both Verdi and hardcore serialism. In terms of material, they both exist in a provocative gray area, very often deliberately de-emphasizing the material: Verdi by diluting it, serialism by making it so ubiquitous, in the form of the rows that permeate every aspect of the music, that it becomes a neutral ground for other musical events. I was reminded of the musical critique that, somewhat disorientingly, turns up in the prologue of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked:

In the case of serial music, however, such rootedness in nature is uncertain and perhaps nonexistent…. It is like a sailless ship, driven out to sea by its captain, who has grown tired of its being used only as a pontoon, and who is privately convinced that by subjecting life aboard to the rules of an elaborate protocol, he will prevent the crew from thinking nostalgically either of their home port or of their ultimate destination…. It is not a question of sailing to other lands, the whereabouts of which may be unknown and their very existence hypothetical. The proposed revolution is much more radical: the journey alone is real, not the landfall, and sea routes are replaced by the rules of navigation.

This is interesting because it is both too materialist, in the musical sense, and not materialist enough. It ignores the increasing care with which serialist composers chose their base materials, constructing rows based on their potential for varying levels of perceptual absorption into the experiential whole. (See: late Schoenberg.) But it’s also one of those criticisms that’s largely true, but only pejorative because of a particular set of assumptions: in this case, assumptions about the necessity for musical material to be in and of itself musically communicative. Serialist music is, at least on a basic level, all about the journey. But, then again, existing and unfolding in real time, isn’t all music?

Last week, pianist R. Andrew Lee, a specialist in minimalist and post-minimalist music, had an article with the nicely contrarian title “Minimalism is Boring (and That’s OK).” In it, he talked about the experience of performing Jürg Frey’s Klavierstück 2:

The bulk of the piece consists of 468 repetitions of a perfect fourth, E4-A4, which takes nearly 7.5 minutes to complete. This, by all accounts, is boring, but practicing this piece and working so very hard to maintain a steady tempo and dynamic has rewired my ears. In playing 468 fourths (with the pedal held down), a swirl of overtones becomes audible. The immediacy of the attack fades out of consciousness and overtones become steady drones, fading in and out with the subtlest changes in my playing.

Suddenly, I can no longer avoid the complexity of sound that surrounds me. Before, I was able to focus and listen this way when desired, but now sounds seem to leap into my awareness. The portable air compressor I own produces a shocking number of pitches, and when I’m upstairs and the house is quiet, I can hear a rather low hum, the source of which I have yet to discover. I am surrounded by complex, beautiful sounds, and while that has always been the case, I couldn’t avoid them now if I tried.

I like this because it encapsulates how minimalism and other process-music is inextricably linked to serialism, even as much of it was posited as a direct reaction against it. It’s getting at the same effect serialism was getting at: shifting your attention away from the communicative content and potential of the material to all those other parameters of music. Serialism does it by constructing the material into a self-effacingly complex canvas, minimalism by stripping away everything but the material, to the point that it disappears in plain sight. (And, yes, I think there’s compositional intuition behind Frey’s choices, as basic as they might seem: Why that interval? Why that octave? Why that many repetitions?)

The comparison also hints at the strange nature of compositional intuition about material. Neither serialism nor minimalism comes about without some type of intuition on the part of the composer, yet that same intuition would find fault with the opposite style: a minimalist might criticize serialism for burying the material under so much permutation, a serialist might criticize minimalism for not recognizing the material’s developmental potential. And yet, from outside such intuition, both styles, when realized with well-developed intuition, arrive at oddly similar perceptual landings.

Wood Swatches

The long dialogue between composer Adrian Leverkühn and the Devil at the heart of Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus is much concerned with compositional intuition. The Devil, noting that the advent of modernism has created a context in which traditional musical harmonies are as shocking as any dissonance, posits that, in terms of material and intuition, the tail is now wagging the dog: “[T]he right of command over all the tone-combinations ever applied by no means belongs to you.” Leverkühn sticks up for intuition, “the theoretic possibility of spontaneous harmony between a man’s own needs and the moment, the possibility of ‘rightness,’ of a natural harmony, out of which one might create without a thought or any compulsion.” The Devil will have none of it: “It is all up with it.”

What to do? Cut a deal with the Devil. His bait? A new, fully formed intuition, one with the immediacy and power of madness:

This is what I think: that an untruth of a kind that enhances power holds its own against any ineffectively virtuous truth. And I mean too that creative, genius-giving disease, disease that rides on high horse over all hindrances, and springs with drunken daring from peak to peak, is a thousand times dearer to life than plodding healthiness.

Is the Devil’s pitch only a sophistic ruse? Even the most mathematical of musical developments would still require that the composer make a fit between the material and the method. But I think that Leverkühn and the Devil are also dancing around something else: the fetishization of compositional prerogative, the notion that compositional choices come from a privileged place. Might composers put faith in their intuition about material as a bulwark against obsolescence, or even commodification? Would they even know that they were doing it? I admit that, even to me, the idea is counter-intuitive, but maybe, at its core, all that focus on material, on its evaluation and winnowing, quietly intersects with another, more basic intuition: survival.

My (       ) Generation


In the fall of 1996 while I was a graduate student at Mills College, the esteemed composer Frederic Rzewski visited the music department to lecture and meet with students. At that time I already had some acquaintance with the composer and his work, having previously enrolled in a year-long seminar in 20th-century music he gave at CalArts (where he was a visiting artist and I was a student), and thus I had some sense of his style and biases as an artist and teacher. However, on this occasion, during a free-flowing discussion that followed his lecture on Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, I was caught off guard by his unambiguous contempt and disregard for the composers of my generation. Among the more discouraging points he made about us was the assertion that none of us were ultimately going to become composers. We would become bankers and lawyers or something, but not composers, and frankly, he said, “It doesn’t really matter.” Later, while driving Rzewski to his hotel in San Francisco, something I had volunteered to do prior to his arrival, we continued the conversation and it was here that he said something to the effect of “composers born between 1960 and 1980 are a sad, sad bunch.” While I confess that I don’t remember the exact years he referenced, it was clear that I and all of my fellow students were most definitely within these boundaries.

Certainly this was some tough medicine, especially coming from such a titanic figure as Frederic Rzewski, who seemed to me to represent perhaps the highest level of accomplishment and erudition an American composer could hope to attain. To say that I was crestfallen would be an understatement but, as a student with aspirations to be a composer, I found a way to ultimately ignore his disapproval and dire predictions and continue on the path to composerhood. I simply wrote off his opinions as those of a cranky, bitter man.

I ultimately did become a composer, of some description anyhow, which is to say I continue to create new works that are regularly performed, and that recordings of my work are produced, occasionally residencies and grants are awarded, and music continues to be the focus of my life. In the years following my student days, I simply ignored the assertion that my generation was a “sad, sad bunch.”

But recently I have begun to think that perhaps Rzewski had a point. For one thing, as I have continued to carve my path as a composer, it seems to be an increasingly lonely road, particularly bereft of composers my own age. I have regular contact with many older composers, and increasingly many younger ones, but apart from a few close composer friends from my student days I seem to have very few peers of my own generation. I was born in 1966 and that puts me in the era of “Generation X”. Routinely, however, it seems I attend new music concerts that include works by composers born in the ’40s, ’50s and ’80s, (and even recently the ’90s) or sometimes including some from the late 70s, but rarely performances that include works from those born in the heart of Generation X—which here we’ll define as 1963-1980. Of course, they are out there; I do actually know some of them, and no doubt readers of this column will know of numerous others. But relative to the generations before and after, it seems that there is a shortage of Gen X voices out there.

Composers, and creative people generally, are perhaps more inclined to think of their lives as unique and outside of cultural trends. That is in fact what most of us aspire to, at least in part: To be outside of trends. For much of my life, I have done my best to differentiate myself, in my life and my work, but at a certain point it started to become clear that the circumstances of my life, particularly my musical life, were part of a larger pattern that many of my peers shared. Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s compelling and insightful exploration of success, Outliers, as I did recently, helped underscore for me the extent to which our lives are shaped by larger cultural forces beyond our control. As Gladwell explains in the opening chapter, aspiring Canadian youth hockey players born earlier in the year (and therefore older, bigger, and stronger than those born later in the year) have an advantage because the league determines eligibility by year. It is a clear example of how statistical factors play into the outcomes of our lives. Exploring some of the sociological literature concerning generational patterns offers additional food for thought.


When it comes to patterns regarding Generation X, it’s worth noting that there are in fact fewer of us. The U.S. birth rate began a steady decline beginning around 1960, reaching a low point during the mid ’70s before climbing again throughout the ’80s. So this might help explain why there seems to be a paucity of composers born during this period. My generation succeeded the great Baby Boomers, the generation who enjoyed growing up in perhaps the greatest, most affluent, and most self-fulfilling era in American history, since victory in World War II led to a post-war economic expansion the likes of which the world had never seen. Boomers had great advantages and great opportunities and exploited them with great gusto, leading right up to what author Tom Wolfe described as “The Third Great Awakening,” which is essentially what the ’60s were: a time of intense social revolution and experimentation. Unfortunately for Gen X, this revolution was not so much about us. In fact, the radical changes of the ’60s, and the sexual revolution in particular, began to unfold amid the invention and eventual widespread use of the birth control pill, and with it the beginning of a dramatic increase in the divorce rate. Attitudes towards children and child rearing went through a sea change, leading to what some have described as the “neglected generation.” Remember latchkey kids?

The revolution of course, ran its course, and while there was great and important social change and growth-in-awareness, the America of our childhood was also somewhat of an impoverished land of broken dreams and broken families. As a result of this sequence of rather wild cultural swings, Gen X’ers are almost equally rooted both in the utopian impulse that defines our parents’ adulthood, and also its almost equally spectacular failure. We were thus brought up in a world of lowered expectations and downward mobility, the first generation to do worse than its parents, or so it has been said. Not too much later, with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, a new conservative era was about to begin, largely closing the books on the “Great Awakening” and its aftermath, and it is in this gap, this wrinkle, that the broader Gen X identity was forged, that of the self-absorbed, underachieving slacker. While there may be some truth in this stereotype, what the classic Gen X personality is arguably really expressing is a kind of indifference, to both radical rebellion and to traditional roles and paths. The prototypical Gen X’er is skeptical, cynical, and self-effacing and not surprisingly, many of this generation have followed unusual, non-linear paths in life, often without attracting much notice. This would seem to fit the broader profile of Gen X composers whom, I have suggested, appear to be missing.

But are we really that different from the generations before and after us? While admittedly the very idea of a “generation” is somewhat problematic, as it is both difficult to establish clear boundaries as well as to identify a common experience among its members, I would say yes, in both cases, it has been different. As the writer Jeff Gordinier argues in his influential 2008 Gen X manifesto X Saves the World, Gen X rebelled strongly against the grandiosity and super-achieving zeal of the Boomers, as well as to our own rather downbeat circumstances, by identifying more with the fringe and the low profile. The Milennials, or Generation Y in turn rebelled against this under-the-radar, disengaged, alternative ethos of the X-ers by returning to, and even one-upping, the Boomer ethos of high achievement and seeking the limelight. While sharing many personality traits with the Boomers, this generation is also a statistically big generation, much bigger than X, and they are sometimes called “echo-Boomers.” Given this larger context, is it surprising that we don’t hear much about Gen X composers?


It isn’t just a matter of our personality differences and smaller demographic profile that has kept Gen X composers out of view, it is also an issue of timing. Looking at, for example, the trajectory of minimalism can perhaps encapsulate in microcosm, the larger Gen X experience. Minimalism has been the dominant musical movement of the past fifty years. It began with composers of the so-called Silent Generation – all of the major originators, Riley, Glass, Reich and Young having been born in the 1930s. If you were in Lower Manhattan during the late 60s and early seventies you might have been aware of this exciting new development, but most everyone else only caught on later. Boomer composers like John Adams (b. 1947) or Paul Dresher (b. 1951) emerged from music school just in time to catch the wave and develop a spin on this emerging language while it was still new. Soon afterward another wave took shape as exemplified by the Bang on a Can composers, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, all of them younger Boomers (b. 1956, 1957 and 1958 respectively) who also adopted minimalism as their own, emerging in the 80s as the idiom was beginning to reach mainstream audiences and widespread critical acceptance, reaping perhaps the final harvest of this once revolutionary seed. But as Generation X emerged on the scene throughout the 90s, this movement had grown stale, and composers who were still kicking minimalist ideas around were seen as, well, just not that interesting.

In this way our story echoes another chapter from Gladwell’s Outliers that explores the rise of the high-tech billionaires such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy and others, all of whom were born on or around 1955. In this story timing is everything and Gladwell concludes that all of these success stories were at least in part the result of having been born at the right time to take full advantage of an emerging technology. Sure, there were some high-tech success stories that followed, even some from Gen X like Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Yahoo’s David Filo, and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin. But just as with composers, particularly those associated with minimalism and its offshoots, as the Gen X years arrive we see fewer success stories, and those that do succeed are far less prominent and newsworthy than their Boomer predecessors. Once again, they are out there, but somehow their voices are either absent from the public sphere, or just plain muted.

Of course not all Gen X composers were or are writing in a minimalist idiom, but if we were to take an informal survey of some of the more prominent composers of this age group, what I think we would find is somewhat of a muddle of conflicting influences and styles with no real significant innovations or discoveries. There is no signature movement or style of this group as there is with the Boomers, which, as I have suggested, is really a second phase of minimalism, or post-minimalism. The Millenials, I would argue, have coalesced around a new style that fuses classical and contemporary pop music in new ways that might be characterized as “post-classical” or “indie-garde.” Sure, there are interesting, talented and accomplished figures among them, but as a group, Gen X composers seem caught in the same wrinkle of ambivalence, between rebellion and tradition, that characterizes their generation as a whole. I might posit the Gen X sound as “a little bit of many things, but nothing in particular.” Is this part of the reason for our absence, the fact that we have no distinctive sound of our own? Is ours’ the sound of “a sad, sad bunch”?

Maybe I am in denial, but I for one am not ready to accept such a blunt and dour assessment of me and my fellow Gen X composers. While clearly we have our challenges–we’re downwardly mobile, there aren’t many of us, we are skeptical, ambivalent and self-effacing and our timing is off–and as a group remain a dim presence, we are now entering middle-age and perhaps our star may yet rise. We could be late bloomers about to finally make a lasting mark. Maybe. But another view has it that–and this again echoes that of Gordinier in X Saves The World–without even knowing it, we have been having an important influence on our culture all along, we just haven’t made a big deal about it. I don’t know if this is true, and maybe time will tell. Perhaps you, the readers, know some important Gen X composers out there that the rest of us have overlooked. I would love to learn about them.

Dan Joseph

Dan Joseph is a free-lance composer based in New York City. For the past fifteen years, the hammer dulcimer has been the primary vehicle for his music and he is active as a performer with his own chamber ensemble, The Dan Joseph Ensemble, as well as in various improvisational collaborations and as an ocassional soloist. He is also the producer and curator of the monthly music and sound series Musical Ecologies at The Old Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

The Choices We Make

An article published earlier today in the Independent initially caught my attention because of the provocative headline that ArtsJournal used to link to it this morning—“Why Are Next Generation Artists So Conservative?.” Politicians are probably the only people who use and abuse terms like progressive and conservative more than folks engaged in aesthetic debates about the arts. Curiously, the author of this article, former editor Adrian Hamilton, writes about politics even more than he writes about visual art.

According to Hamilton’s assessment of the 2012 edition of the ICA’s New Contemporaries exhibition in London (which has been showcasing emerging artists since 1949 and which helped launch the careers of David Hockney and Damien Hirst), the young artists that were selected are more concerned with “craft and their ambitions to become professional” than with “being revolutionary.” I’ve heard the exact same comment made about many millennial composers. But such assertions are difficult to corroborate since determining whether something is “revolutionary” or “reactionary” at this juncture is as subjective an undertaking as determining whether something is “beautiful.”

MTAs Abstract Expressionism

Do you think the following visual image is progressive or reactionary? Actually, the answer is not so simple.

It has been more than 45 years since jazz composer/trumpeter/bandleader Don Ellis challenged the status quo of so-called musical progress in his polemical Downbeat magazine essay, “The Avant Garde is not Avant Garde” (June 30, 1966). Ellis claimed that musicians who were continuing the previous decade’s experiments were as reactionary as the musicians who were not experimental, if not more so. Now, more than half a century later, it’s hard to argue that recent music that sounds like early free jazz or Darmstadt-style serialism is any more contemporary than music that sounds like ’40s era Swing or romantic-era orchestral music. Even so-called post-modernism feels old-fashioned at this point. However, if the aesthetic directive of post-post-modernism, for lack of a better moniker, is that you can do whatever you want, terms like progressive and conservative ultimately no longer have any meaning. All of it is somehow both yet also neither.

But there are lots of other reasons why Hamilton’s critique generated a bit of cognitive dissonance for me. Hamilton hinted that this year’s equal gender balance among the artists selected (which already seems off since there were works by 29 artists exhibited, an odd number) might be because all three of this year’s judges were women. This was irritating on a variety of levels. While he might have been suggesting that gender parity tipped the scales in favor of women artists, the notion that anything besides gender parity would be acceptable at this point is somewhat ludicrous. Then again, I continue to see concert programs that unashamedly list works exclusively by male composers and I’ve yet to see a program that only included works by women that wasn’t somehow specifically designated as being dedicated exclusively to women. Perhaps more disturbing, however, was Hamilton’s suggestion that the fact that this year’s adjudicators were three women “may also (or may not) help to account for the fact that the majority of artists are concerned with the personal rather than public.” Does anyone have any idea what that actually means?

But the comment that gnawed at me the most was his explanation for why these artists did not meet his standards for progressive brilliance:

[T]here is really no reason why you should find your voice in your early twenties. It’s a 20th-century assumption that creativity comes before the craft rather than the other way round. Nobody in previous centuries would have signed up to that.

I’m now in my late 40s and every time I begin composing a new piece of music, I hope that a new idea emerges. The last thing I ever want is to be forced into patterns dictated by a voice that I was supposed to have found upon “maturing.” It is my hope that none of these artists “find their voices” but rather continue to explore in this wonderful environment where anything and everything is possible.

The Role of Analysis

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

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

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

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


Like most people who write music, I have invested a large portion of my life in learning the craft of composition. In order to create the best work possible, I have studied how different instruments produce noise and how their repertoire exploits those sounds; the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of works by a variety of musicians; and the influence of science, politics, and other arts on the voice of specific composers, among many other seemingly esoteric pursuits. Along the way, I’ve clued into many tricks of the trade, the sorts of sonic figures that inexorably elicit predetermined responses. Loud fast repeated notes with syncopated accents convey excitement while slowly evolving hushed harmonies suggest peaceful contemplation. Most composers can quickly describe several of these gestures along with pieces that exploit them to their utmost.

These stock figures became clichés because they work. Since we immediately recognize their efficacy, they tempt us to abscond with them and assimilate them into our own pieces. When we do this, they reward our efforts by evoking exactly the reactions that we intend, but when I’ve followed this path my resulting efforts have always felt less than adequate to me. These compositions objectively work, but to me they smack of plagiarism, feeling foreign to my personal artistic voice. And so I’ve tried to move away from the time-honored gestures towards more personal solutions.

Over the course of my creative career, I’ve discovered several individual artifices that are less widely shared but produce similar results. Certain performance techniques, harmonic progressions, and shifts in mood that define specific formal structures began to feel oddly detached to me, as if they were dropped in for effect from other works of mine instead of emanating from the heart of the composition itself. Other gestures—some birdcalls, other harmonic progressions and approaches to formal structure—seemed more essential to my personal voice even when they crop up in many of my pieces.

Recently, I’ve been trying to strip all the tricks out of my music. I’ve been attempting to lay bare the essence of my musical expression, to write exactly the sounds that need to be there without layering any of the personal or universal contrivances that I’ve often resorted to in moments of doubt. The resulting compositions feel much more personal to me, and also much more exposed.

Last weekend, I attended the premiere of a new work of mine for solo piano. In many ways, this piece represents the culmination of the first stage of this compositional direction: it obsesses over a single musical idea without resorting to any of my typical devices that assure listeners will find it interesting. It presents my basic ideas with all adornment removed, naked for everyone to hear.

I was shocked to find that I was more nervous than at any premiere in many years, even though I had worked with the pianist and knew that he would perform beautifully. My heart raced, my breathing grew shallow and fast, and afterwards I was a bit shaky for several hours. I attribute this to the vulnerability I felt in revealing the essence of my artistic thoughts, but I find it difficult to pinpoint from where this defenselessness emanated. Afterwards, I realized that my emotional state wasn’t affected by the positive or negative reactions of any individual (and I did sense strong responses along both tracks), nor from the collective audience. My fear seemed to arise from the thrill of danger itself, from the awareness that I was revealing aspects of myself that had previously remained hidden and was doing so in the most public way possible. It was like being unmasked.

In the end, I found this experience of artistic nakedness to be utterly exhilarating. I have never thought of myself as a thrill jockey, and yet I am very much looking forward to further adventures in this type of risk-seeking behavior.

Narrative Drive

A few months ago, I went to a concert to hear a piece by an old friend of mine. Although I hadn’t seen him in several years, our shared experiences from a summer music festival secured a bond that we happily renewed over music and drinks.

He reminded me of a dinner from our student days at which I had, according to him, pontificated at length about how I was drawn solely to music that told a story and that evinced a strong narrative drive. After vociferous protestations that he couldn’t possibly be talking about me, because I certainly would never have ruined a quiet repast with blathering about wonkish musical ideas, I finally accepted that his memory was probably accurate. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past several months tracing the steps on this aesthetic journey because not only did I have no recollection of this conversation, but the views that I had espoused seem very different from my current predilections.

At the time, I was obsessed with the idea of music as conveying meaning. Although I understood that it’s impossible for absolute music to be universally denotative, I always undergirded my compositions with a hidden yet specific story. I hoped that my beginning with a theatrical element would allow individual listeners to experience the music as a drama. By refusing to reveal the generating narrative, I hoped that each person who heard the piece would find a distinct story within the musical details.

With each new piece, I attempted to create a beautiful Aristotelian arc that would also have a unique structure. Over time, I began to realize that the surface variations between pieces disguised an internal anatomy that was shared across my entire output. Meanwhile, I kept finding myself drawn to preexisting music that deviated from conventional compositional designs. I became fascinated with songs containing unusual codas that shift the mood in unexpected ways and might end up doubling the length of the song itself. I returned over and over again to other tunes quilted together from verses, choruses, and bridges that don’t seem related to each other. I began listening to pieces that change subtly over great spans of time, and compositions that vacillate unpredictably between quiet repose and horrific outpourings. These seemingly anomalous works led me to reconsider my definition of what constitutes good form.

As soon as I began to think about form beyond the traditional models, I found a teeming mass of great art created outside of these molds. These abnormalities date at least all the way back to The Odyssey, which describes most of Odysseus’s adventures as a tale within a tale sung by the hero himself, a character we don’t even meet until Book V (of XXIV). Eventually, I realized that aberrant structures are truly normative, that the standard forms exist mainly as theoretical constructs and are rarely evinced in interesting and successful works of art.

This realization allowed me to liberate myself from my erroneous belief as to what constitutes good storytelling. Instead of forcing my ideas to follow from exposition inexorably to dénouement, I began to permit myself to create individual models that allow the materials to express themselves more fully and freely. The music still tells a story, but the telling doesn’t always need to be linear. I might enjoy the feeling of inevitability as one idea flows into the other, but I no longer slavishly adhere to logical development as the only way to create narrative drive.

Excuse the Geek Out, Part 2

Last week in this space, I began this current geek out on musical notation, partially in response to Alexandra Gardner’s question from two weeks prior: “How much information does a composer working today attempt to convey to musicians through a written score?” The trick appears to be in avoiding over- and under-specificity while notating our ideas in order to convey our main compositional goals. I believe that there is a direct correlation between the amount of abstraction and originality in the form of a new piece and the amount of information performers need in order to understand the composer’s intent.

Of course, if you ask ten different composers to tell you what musical parameters contain their main compositional ideas, you’ll likely be treated to ten different answers. For some, music making begins with the manipulation of pitches within the 12-tone equal temperament system and its performance equivalents. For these composers, the traditional notation system works quite well, as they can name the desired note and allow the performing musician to bring their musicality to bear in order to subtly re-tune, illuminating the underlying structure. Others eschew any consideration of specific notes in order to focus on timbral issues, while a third group pushes beyond the typical 12-note limitations to compose microtonal music in tunings that don’t map onto the typical grand staff. Issues of rhythm, instrumentation, performance techniques, form, and all other musical choices will find composers displaying a similar range of unique interests. For some, the traditional notation system will suffice perfectly well, while others will need to invent unique methods to convey their ideas.

Over the past few years, I’ve been changing my approach to musical notation. I began my compositional studies writing conventional scores by hand, but quickly moved into computer engraving. Even as I started to conceive of different ways that I might be able to convey my musical ideas more concisely, I allowed the limitations of the notation software (and in 1994, notation software was significantly more limited than it is today) to direct me down certain notational paths. As I have become more certain about my musical ideas, I’ve begun pushing against the constraints of the software, goading it along a path towards creating scores that convey these ideas as clearly as possible.

For years, I’ve been writing a great deal of slow music representing sonic landscapes with some recognizable natural elements and others that are distorted in order to convey a sense of alienation. I’ve wanted a free sense of rubato in which some events begin simultaneously while others are displaced against each other, and in which these occurrences might have different internal rates of speed or emotional character. In order to communicate these thoughts in traditional notation, my rhythms became more and more complex and difficult to count, but in rehearsal I often found myself exhorting the players to ignore the specificity of the rhythm in order to feel the natural ebb and flow that I so carefully notated. In the following two-measure example from a piece for two pianos and percussion, for example, I needed seven different subdivisions of the quarter-note pulse in order to notate the various proportions, while my main concerns were in the way that the start of gestures aligned and in their ability to represent individual sound sources juxtaposed by their proximity. In order to accurately perform this passage, most ensembles need to conduct as they play, thereby gaining accuracy in their entrances but losing any ability to truly conceive of their individual parts as independent of the surrounding texture.

Smooke Score: Example One

Example One (click image to enlarge)

Looking back to many pieces in time-line notation and also to works of Crumb in which instruments are notated in their own graphic space with arrows indicating points of congruence, I began to work towards a notational system that would allow the musicians freedom within their parts while maintaining the ability to synchronize where desired.

In a non-opera for three singers (each personifying a character) and string quartet from 2011, I began to codify this system. The following performance indication (Example Two) at the bottom of the first page of the score gave the players a sense of the relative length of each note. This new system allowed for a freely proportional rhythmic notation appropriate for the misremembered lullaby and landscape painting of the music itself. In Example Three (below), you can see how it came together to allow for synchronization and independently flowing lines. The performers were able to get at the musicality of the passage in a way that I found completely satisfying, creating a sense of unpredictable flow at independent speeds without needing to count obtuse rhythmic figures. They were able to spend more time listening and less time counting.

Smooke Score: Example Two

Example Two

Smooke Score: Example Three

Example Three (click image to enlarge)

The problem with the notation illustrated above was that I didn’t leave room for any gradation between slow notes lasting one second and notes performed as fast as possible. As I’ve continued to develop this system, I’ve worked towards the following chart:

Smooke Score: Example Four

Example Four (click image to enlarge)

I’ve been surprised at how well this new notational system has worked for chamber ensembles of various sizes. In the following passage (engraved by an incredibly talented student composer, Viet Cuong, who is graduating from Peabody with his M.M. this year and beginning his studies at Princeton in the fall) for guitar quartet, in which the middle two guitars are slightly de-tuned, I was able to ask the outer players to listen to each other as they repeat their harmonics gesture in order to avoid synchronization. They quickly were able to create an echoing effect. Meanwhile, the faster runs in the middle two guitars sound like a cadenza against this background, and they can be performed at various rates of speed depending on the skill level of the performing musicians. When I’ve tried to utilize traditional notation to exactly represent passages with similar approaches to time, the performers have found them to be prohibitively difficult to learn, and they have often necessitated a conductor.

Smooke Score: Example Five

Example Five (click image to enlarge)

With this new system, when I’d like passages to be exactly synchronized, I can simply give the players a tempo and invoke traditional rhythmic notation. As you can see in the excerpt below, the advantage of this system for me is that, even in those instances, an additional part can explode freely beyond the bar lines in complex proportional relationships with the prevailing pulse as created by the performer in the moment.

Smooke Score: Example Six

Example Six

For me, the final test of this notational system was whether it could be applied to a large ensemble with a conductor. Quite recently, I was able to create a score for a concerto for toy piano and 15 other instruments, with the assistance of the crack engraving skills of Viet. Instead of parts, we produced a specific score tailored for each of the players, highlighting their individual part and accommodating their page turns. In order to allow for variations of the form of the piece in performance, the middle section of the concerto creates what the conductor has called a “choose your own adventure” scenario. In this area, the toy pianist can opt for any of nine musical phrases, playing each in any order at least once and no more than three times. At the end of each phrase, the ensemble performs one of six responses. Example Seven shows the toy piano cadenza, and Example Eight depicts the orchestral responses.

Smooke Score: Example Seven

Example Seven

Smooke Score: Example Eight

Example Eight

This new notation allows me to focus on my main compositional ideas and to simplify those elements that are less important for me. While a first glance might lead a musician to find these scores frighteningly obtuse, I’ve found that this system has helped to speed up rehearsals and to lead towards performances that more accurately convey my compositional intent.

If you’re interested in hearing what this notation sounds like in action, the Atlantic Guitar Quartet and the Great Noise Ensemble will be premiering the latter two pieces discussed above this Friday, in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., respectively, and I’ll post examples to my website this summer.

Some Recent Silences

It is 60 years ago. We are in a little concert hall just outside Woodstock, New York. The back wall of the hall is open and overlooks the Catskill Mountains. Onto the small wooden stage walks the pianist David Tudor. He sits at the piano, glances at a stopwatch, and closes the lid over the keyboard.

In No Such Thing as Silence, Kyle Gann asks the following questions of John Cage’s 4’33”:

How are we supposed to understand it? In what sense is it a composition? Is it a hoax? A joke? A bit of Dada? A piece of theater? A thought experiment? A kind of apotheosis of twentieth-century music? An example of Zen practice? An attempt to change basic human behavior?[i]

Maverick Hall and grounds.

Maverick Hall and grounds, setting of the premiere performance of John Cage’s 4’33” on August 29, 1952. Photograph by Dion Ogust. Used with permission of Maverick Concerts, Inc.

Or might it be none of these? 4’33” is often regarded as an end, a philosophical cul-de-sac, but over the course of six decades the negation of music has proved fertile ground for many composers. This appears to have been particularly true in the last 20 years or so, as though the noise of the avant garde’s war of words had itself to subside into silence before we could appreciate 4’33” on its own terms.

This article attempts to survey some recent silent compositions, but it can only hope to provide a brief overview. For a start, I am interested in the legacy of 4’33” as a composition (not a piece of sound art, a Zen koan or a proto-Fluxus happening). For all their merits, I find these latter forms somewhat insensitive to silence’s rhythmic, dynamic, expressive and structural possibilities. Sound art and happenings are capable of many things, including a reconsideration of time and duration of which Cage may well have approved,[ii] but retaining what Christoph Cox calls “the protocols of performance and composition” has its advantages too, and it is these I want to investigate.

Program from the premiere performance of Cage's 4'33" at Maverick Hall.

Program from the premiere performance of Cage’s 4’33” at Maverick Hall. Used with permission of Maverick Concerts, Inc.

The three movements of Cage’s score undoubtedly present a structured event and demand a listening situation with a defined start and finish, and a degree of internal differentiation. Cage later described that the internal structure of each movement had further been composed by adding together silent durations determined by the I Ching. The only difference between 4’33” and a “regular” work, then, is the absence of notated sound to articulate this form, but this is just a matter for the performer’s interpretation. A lot of emphasis is placed on the fact that 4’33” is the opening up of music to the non-intentional. This is undoubtedly one aspect of it, but my starting point is how these small intentions give unique shape to this particular silence.

Since Cage, silence itself has proved a remarkably resilient and heterogeneous material. The Swiss composer Jürg Frey has spoken of “many different silences: silence between sounds, before you hear a sound and after you’ve heard a sound. Silence which never comes into contact with the sounds, but which is omnipresent and exists only because sound exists.”[iii] The potential variety of silent composition is easily demonstrated by comparing two scores (both available online) by another Swiss composer Manfred Werder and the Russian composer Sergei Zagny: Werder’s 20061 (of 2006) and Zagny’s Metamusica (of 2001). Werder’s describes, in three short lines, a performing/sounding situation; Zagny’s is written as though conventional piano music, with clefs, staves, bar lines, rhythms, articulation marks, etc., but no actual notes. The former seems to be directing its attention to how the music should be realized; the latter to the what.

Zagny belongs to a generation of Moscow-based conceptual artists, poets, and experimental musicians that includes the poet Lev Rubinstein, the artist Dmitri Prigov, and the director Boris Juchananov. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s he composed a number of text-based or graphical scores that deal with musical performance practice. Metamusica confronts such concerns in typically radical fashion. The look of the score recalls absurdist pranks like Erwin Schulhoff’s “In futurum” (part of which may be seen here), but closer inspection reveals that it is a copy of Webern’s Variations for Piano, op.27, just with the notes removed. In fact, Zagny leaves only holes—not even rests—where Webern’s notes should be. It’s a Webern-shaped space, with all the Webern taken out. When read “correctly,” according to its time signatures and so on, the score is incomplete and not really performable. Instead, it is meant to be projected on a screen to an audience, who fill in the gaps and realize the music mentally. The rhythms and dynamic markings (and the presence/absence of the Webern original) are clearly meant to direct those realizations.

A more high profile counterpart to Zagny’s conceptualism may be found in Stimmen…verstummen… (“Voices…fall dumb”) by his Russian contemporary, Sofia Gubaidulina. The complete ninth movement of this orchestral work is a cadenza for solo conductor. The rhythm conducted is a reduction of the work’s overall form, and Gubaidulina places an almost mystical emphasis on this movement. It is, she states in the score, “the real main theme of the symphony, its inmost sense.” Answering the question of whether this movement can be recorded, she answers in the affirmative: “If this higher sense is really being realized [that is, the higher sense created by the conductor’s silent gestures], the tape machine will surely record and reproduce it.”

Examples of musical “dumb theatre” can be found in considerably more complex musical circumstances, and even the very densely notated scores of Klaus K. Hübler and Aaron Cassidy contain miniature pools of silent music within rich sonic surroundings. Their scores notate different performing actions independently—so fingering separately from breath and embouchure on a wind instrument, for example. As a consequence, fingers may be operating in the absence of breath to sound the instrument. (See Benjamin Marks’s performance of Hübler’s Cercar for trombone for an example.) A discourse is set up between sounding and non-sounding notes, both of which act on a level playing field as far as notational intention is concerned.

This brings us to the halo of silence that surrounds any performance act. Brian Ferneyhough’s Unity Capsule for solo flute (1971) begins with 15 seconds of “absolute silence and lack of movement” (to quote the score), and many works by Gerhard Stäbler similarly load their silences. In White Space for voice and string quartet, for example, the musicians silently prepare a single gesture, before holding themselves in an extended state of anticipation. We are back to that Woodstock theater and the tense atmosphere that must have been created as the audience waited, fruitlessly, for Tudor to play a note.

The works described above all rhythmicize a silence, but in his Némajáték (Veszekedés 2) (Dumb-Show (Quarrelling 2)) for piano, from Book 1 of the Játékok series, György Kurtág goes further than all of them and gives it a dynamic shape too. So this short piece begins with three notes played forte, followed by a double-sforzando cluster chord, despite the fact that the accompanying rubric specifies that the piano’s keys should be touched only very lightly, “without moving any of them.” “The gesture is very important, just beyond the sound (a gesture for the crescendo, another one for the accelerando…),” Kurtág has said of this piece.[iv] This is an extension of the idea that every performance act takes place within the context of the surrounding silence, with which it partners in creating an artistic sound.

The pieces of Játékok are full of indications that are either unrealizable or unsoundable, but nevertheless precisely demanded—crescendos under sustained piano notes, needlessly crossing hands, single notes played by two hands at once, and so on—Dumb Show is an extreme example of Kurtág’s habit of bringing the physical gestures of performance to bear on the music’s interpretation. Incidentally, modern day performances of Schulhoff’s “In futurum” replicate Kurtág’s model, even though Schulhoff’s piece was composed nearly 60 years previously. (One such performance may be viewed here.)

Tudor quietly raises the lid of the piano, and lowers it again. The second movement begins, and rain begins to fall.

The composers so far mentioned have approached composition of or with silence from a relatively conventional point of view. That is, through the creation of a score, which is to be realized within a relatively standard performance context (that is, in a concert hall or similar space, with close attendance to the events described by the notation) or with the composer retaining control of the musical content of the work. One of the better-known lessons of 4’33”, however, is the extension of musically valid sounds beyond this arrangement. Werder has concerned himself more than many with composing the situation within which music—or at least sounding events—may take place.

Since 2005 he has devoted himself to works that are titled only with a year, and a superscript number for each piece within that year. For convenience, I will call these “date pieces,” although there are few connections between them other than the titling convention and their notation as short, aphoristic texts. The first, 20051, is perhaps the simplest in conception (although not necessarily in realization), and the closest to 4’33”. Its score simply reads:




( sounds )[v]

In subsequent works, Werder refines this conception, in the process proving its potential subtlety. 20062 adds just two letters, but in doing so radically changes the possibilities for realization:


a time


( sounds )

In contrast to the freedoms of 20051, two possibilities are narrowed down: several events (places) occurring simultaneously (a [single] time); or a single event that takes place across a series of performance spaces—perhaps processing between each.

20061, on the other hand, is almost Baroque by comparison. Not only is the performance space quite specifically designated, but for the first time the presence of a performer(s)—and hence a divide between stage and audience—is specified:

a place, natural light, where the performer, the performers, like to be

a time


( sounds )

Werder’s later works in this series introduce specific sounding objects (as in 20086), or short literary quotations that hint similarly at musical possibilities. As an ongoing project they represent a virtuoso set of variations on some of Cage’s original premises.

Werder belongs to a group of mostly Central European composers associated with the Wandelweiser Edition publishing house and record label, without whom no discussion of silence in contemporary composition would be possible. Members of the group include Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben, Michael Pisaro and, among its founders, Kunsu Shim. For many of them, composition is an exploration of the region that asymptotically approaches silence. Houben, for example, refers to music existing “‘between’ appearance and disappearance, between sound and silence, as something ‘nearly nothing’.”[vi] The score of Werder’s for one or a few performers simply stipulates “a lot of time. / a few sounds. / for itself simple,” which he describes as “a framework focusing rather on an acoustic exploration of the surroundings…I think the sound events operate primarily as articulations affecting the listener’s quality of perception of the surroundings.”[vii]

In his history of Wandelweiser, Pisaro describes Shim’s understanding of 4’33” and its importance to the development of the Wandelweiser group:

For Kunsu, the music of Cage, and of those who worked with him and followed in his wake was felt to be more radical and more useful than the writing: because it had so many loose ends and live wires still to be explored (something I would also later encounter with other Wandelweiser composers). Thus 4’33” was seen not as a joke or a Zen koan or a philosophical statement: it was heard as music. It was also viewed as unfinished work in the best sense: it created new possibilities for the combination (and understanding) of sound and silence. Put simply, silence was a material and a disturbance of material at the same time.

In their different ways, the Wandelweiser composers have devoted themselves to following those loose ends, often much further than Cage might have expected. Pisaro refers to Shim’s expanding space in limited time for solo violin (1994), for example, which requires bow movements of such slowness that they truly produce sounds on the edge of audibility. In one two-hour performance of the piece, Pisaro reports, it was 20 minutes before he could make out any sound at all; after which his sense of hearing had become so attuned that those sounds that were produced began to take on an extraordinary richness. Realizations of Werder’s for one or a few performers have taken place over days, bringing the musical performance far closer to the passage of real life than the four and half minutes performed by Tudor in 1952.


Los Angeles, Downtown, 4thStreet / Merrick Street, Parking Lot Images (above and right) from Peter Ablinger’s Listening Piece in Four Parts (2001). The composer states: “I performed the 4 parts on 4 different days during December 2001, mostly alone with my wife Siegrid by putting 20 chairs on 4 different places. The chairs have been removed after about 2 hours at each place. But the 4 places remain – now as a piece of music – for all who are aware of this fact.” Images and text provided courtesy of Peter Ablinger.

Although not a member of the Wandelweiser group, Peter Ablinger was a sympathetic friend and has explored his own path around silence. Whereas most Wandelweiser music (at least that I am aware of) begins from a performance situation, and extends this to extreme lengths in order to interrogate our listening experience, Ablinger starts from the other side of the proscenium arch, with the listeners themselves. Much—perhaps all—of his varied output across multiple media may be thought of as tackling the circumstances of listening. Those works grouped under the title “Seeing and Hearing” are explicitly described as “music without sound,” for example, and consist of series of abstract photographs arranged in related groups. Two-Part Invention (2003), from this group, exists as a set of directions (a score?) for creating and displaying a set of 32 photographs. “Seeing and Hearing” exists within a larger subset of works, titled “Listening Pieces.” These include “transition pieces,” such as Passing a tunnel (2011) and Listening Piece in 2 Parts, in which the listener is required to listen to “the change from the large room to the small one,” and then “the change from the small room to the large one.” Others are “chair pieces,” in which ordered arrangements of chairs are set out in specific locations: the auditorium-like arrangement invites attentive listening, but no further directions are provided. “Not the sound, but the listening is the piece,” states Ablinger. The place of the work becomes important: the surrealistic use of chairs in spaces such as parking lots, fields, or beachfronts has an effect on place similar to that of Cage’s durational framing on time: the space where the chairs are (and hence the sonic environment that can be heard while sitting in them) becomes separated from the adjacent spaces and sonic environments, and thus sounds differently.[viii]

By aestheticizing and compositionally organizing the sonic environment, Ablinger’s transition pieces cross into the territory known as soundwalking. This is another large field, and can only be summarized in this article.[ix] Broadly, it involves the composition and notation—through sets of written instructions, maps, etc.—of walking journeys through or among acoustically significant spaces, and instructions on what to listen to and how in the environments encountered. (In fact Werder’s 20062 might be interpreted as a soundwalk.)

In the work of Hildegard Westerkamp, soundwalking overlaps with the political and social values of acoustic ecology: “Unless we listen with attention,” she states, “there is a danger that some of the more delicate and quiet sounds may pass unnoticed by numbed ears and among the many mechanized voices of modern soundscapes and may eventually disappear entirely.”[x] The importance of acoustic ecology, that is, the preservation of endangered natural sounds, was recently explored in a New York Times article by Kim Tingley, and a greater awareness of our sonic environment is undoubtedly a legacy of 4’33” and those who have picked up its ideas.

Tudor lifts the keyboard lid one last time, and his performance is over. The rain has stopped, but sounds from the Catskill Mountains outside the auditorium can still be heard. The applause begins.

In her article “Soundwalking,” Westerkamp provides instructions for her reader to take on their first soundwalk. Towards the end of these, she writes:

So far you have isolated sounds from each other in your listening and gotten to know them as individual entities. But each one of them is part of a bigger environmental composition. Therefore reassemble them all and listen to them as if to a piece of music played by many different instruments. Do you like what you hear? Pick out the sounds you like the most and create the ideal soundscape in the context of your present surroundings.[xi]

Cage’s silence, and his opening up to environmental sounds was undoubtedly radical but, as we have seen, the possibilities for further exploring the composition of silence may be limitless. David Dunn, a composer and renowned acoustic ecologist, has developed the idea of composed listening to one logical conclusion. Beginning once more from 4’33” and its implications, he writes:

What has seldom, if ever, been discussed is the actual meaning of the composition as a cognitive process and its literal implications for music and its epistemological foundations as a human discipline. …What I have been imagining is that beyond the event horizon of 4’33” is a different universe of musical perception where composition might be based upon or at the least inclusive of an awareness of the primacy of mind, where an emphasis is placed upon the processes of perception and not materials. Purposeful Listening In Complex States of Time is my attempt at exploring the boundary of this concern for composition as the organization of perception rather than the manipulation of the material basis of sound.

Sample page from Purposeful Listening In Complex States of Time for solo listener.

Sample page from the score for Purposeful Listening In Complex States of Time for solo listener. Provided courtesy of David Dunn.

Purposeful Listening in Complex States of Time (1997–8; score here) contains no sounding events, in spite of its great level of detail. Instead, it specifies and orchestrates the cognitive listening state of its performer/audient. The following parameters are specified: level of attention (sky, body, ground), direction of attention (left, right, forward, behind, all round), proximity of listening attention (adjacent, near or distant), and time of event listened (present, past/remembered, future/imagined, non-specific). Further marks indicate the duration of each respective listening state (moving between them at a relatively fast tempo), and transitions between states. This is clearly an extension of the soundwalking idea (and that of Zagny’s Metamusica), in that the score’s instructions are directed towards the listener. But Dunn pushes those instructions beyond the level of an amateur or casual audient to professional-level engagement. The complexity of Purposeful Listening’s notation demands dedication and rehearsal. The level of aural attentiveness it elicits is far greater than that achieved by 4’33”, no matter how carefully one listens during that work. Its cognitive richness (and perception and organization of the sounding environment) is correspondingly far greater. Silence may take many different forms, but Dunn’s may be the most compositionally sophisticated and multi-layered of them all.


i. Kyle Gann, No Such Thing as Silence (Yale University Press, New Haven: 2010), p.11.

ii. On this point, see Christoph Cox: “From Music to Sound: Being as Time in the Sonic Arts,” originally published as “Von Musik zum Klang: Sein als Zeit in der Klangkunst,” in Sonambiente Berlin 2006: Klang Kunst Sound Art, ed. Helga de la Motte-Haber, Matthias Osterwold, and Georg Weckwerth (Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2006), pp. 214–23; Eng. trans. available here.

iii. Quoted in Dan Warburton, “The Sound of Silence: The Music and Aesthetics of the Wandelweiser Group,” available here.

iv. Sleevotes to Nicolas Collins: A Call For Silence, Sonic Arts Network, 2004.

v. Many of Werder’s date pieces may be downloaded from Upload .. Download .. Perform . Net.

vi. Houben, “Presence–Silence–Disappearance,” available here.

vii. James Saunders, ed., The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music (Farnham, Ashgate: 2009), p. 354

viii. On a related theme, please see Chris Kallmyer’s “Sonic Cartography and the Perception of Place,” available here.

ix. A good introductory history is John Levack Drever, “Soundwalking: Aural Excursions into the Everyday,” in Saunders, ed., The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music.

x. Hildegard Westerkamp, “Soundwalking,” Autumn Leaves, Sound and the Environment in Artistic Practice, ed. Angus Carlyle. Paris, Double Entendre: 2007, p. 49. Available here.

xi. Westerkamp, “Soundwalking.”


Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes on contemporary music for the Guardian, INTO, Tempo, and his blog, The Rambler.

Tearing Myself Away

By the time this essay is posted (Monday, April 23, 2012) I will be flying halfway around the world from New York City to Hong Kong to visit my in-laws, whom I have not seen in three years. The technological breakthroughs of the past 100 years have certainly made everyone on this planet increasingly more connected. But even in the advanced high-tech world of the early 21st century, getting from NYC to HK is still quite an undertaking—my direct flight will last more than 16 hours.


Dominick Argento signing copies of his memoirs prior to a performance during the University of Maryland’s ten-day Argento extravaganza.

Before arriving in Hong Kong and disappearing from NewMusicBox for the next two weeks (I won’t be back on these pages until Monday, May 7), I wanted to share some observations gleaned from this past weekend. Not content to take just one trip, I prefaced my Hong Kong vacation with a journey to College Park, Maryland, to attend the first couple days of a ten-day Dominick Argento marathon taking place at the University of Maryland. I managed to catch performances of two Argento operas while I was there. The first, the absurdist Postcard from Morocco, from 1971, is somewhat reminiscent of the zany theatrical antics of Richard Foreman and also seems to foreshadow Paul Griffiths’s libretto for Elliott Carter’s What Next?. The other, Miss Havisham’s Fire, is a sprawling Great Expectations-derived melodrama which has remained its composer’s favorite opera despite its critical failure during its initial run at New York City Opera back in 1979. It was great to finally see both of these works for the first time. It was also very gratifying to see a university pull out all the stops to honor a living American composer.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the weekend for me was hearing Dominick Argento talk about his compositional aesthetics during two pre-performance discussions. I jotted down a few of his quips thinking they might provide for some interesting debate here.

1. Over the years Argento has had a preference for setting prose instead of poetry (i.e. letters, diaries, etc.) According to him, poetry is written “to be exposed” whereas many of the texts that have attracted him over the years are more private musings. And, as a composer, he acknowledged that he feels freer when setting prose since poetry “has rhythms that need to be honored.” I’ve always thought that prose also makes specific rhythmic demands.

2. Argento also explained that he rarely revises older pieces because “when you revise an older piece it’s like sewing up a garment with the wrong color thread; no matter what you do, there will be a patch.” So, what then to do with a work that you feel very strongly about but which doesn’t completely work for you now?

3. Argento suggested that composers should try to write their own libretto when working on an opera, because that way they can always write to their strengths. Yet, for me, what gives most operas their depth is that they are almost always the creation of more than one person. Of course, there have been some extraordinary exceptions to this rule, but still.

4. Argento explained his devotion to Miss Havisham’s Fire, despite its poor reception, claiming that composers’ favorite pieces are usually the ones that failed. I’m curious to know what other folks here think about this one in particular.