Tag: culture

“Splendid Sonority and Vivid Expressiveness”: The Theremin before Sci-Fi

A photo of a female conductor circa 1930

Most people who haven’t heard of the theremin have heard it, usually in old science fiction movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (or spoofs like Mars Attacks). The instrument has a reputation as an oddball, by virtue of its unusual method of playing without touch (players control pitch and volume by moving their arms in proximity to two antennae), its notoriously slippery chromatic sound, and its association with all things alien and strange.

Yet the instrument was popular with U.S. audiences well before its appearance in sci-fi films. A significant surviving reception history documents recitals and concerts during the ’30s and ’40s, often given by women, known as “thereminists,” who played the instrument professionally or semi-professionally. Years before Hollywood cemented the theremin’s association with the alien or otherworldly, critics heard different qualities in its sonority: emotional expressiveness and excessive sentimentality.

This history isn’t widely known or taught, but it reveals much about how electronic musical sound takes on meaning and significance. While we might take for granted that the instrument’s touchless technique and new electronic timbre would naturally register with early listeners as alien and strange, contemporary reviews and commentary upend such assumptions and reveal the extent to which sonorities take on meaning in specific contexts, and in relationship to specific bodies.

A Theremin for the American Home

RCA Victor began producing the first commercial theremin in 1929 after leasing exclusive rights to the patent for a two-year term from its inventor, Leon Theremin. The company marketed the theremin as an instrument for the home, hiding its working parts—oscillators, vacuum tubes, and circuit board—in a polished wooden cabinet. Working with Theremin (an amateur cellist himself), RCA engineers shaped the instrument’s tone to evoke a cello in its mid-range and a violin at the top, sonorities they presumed would appeal to consumers.

RCA Victor theremin brochure c. 1930

RCA Victor theremin brochure c. 1930

RCA launched a campaign to familiarize audiences with the instrument’s sound. Department stores and music retailers across the country advertised demonstrations and concerts, and a series of weekly radio programs on NBC featured theremin renditions of popular repertory of the day and classical melodies like Camille Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan.” RCA marketed the instrument as a pathway to instant musical gratification for the amateur, promising that anyone could play it “without musical knowledge or training of any sort … without tiresome or extended ‘practice.’” The theremin (RCA hoped) would become “the universal musical instrument,” the piano’s heir apparent in millions of American living rooms.

Claims of universality notwithstanding, this campaign primarily targeted middle and upper-class white women, a demographic frequently associated with (and compelled to take on) domestic music-making and most likely to select music technology purchased for the home. Although men frequently played the theremin in demonstrations and broadcasts, RCA Victor’s promotional material almost exclusively pictured women playing the instrument. In Madison, Wisconsin, the local Ludlow Radio company sponsored several theremin concerts by a Mr. Lennington Shewell, but otherwise emphasized female use. The company launched a search for a “mystery co-ed” at the University of Wisconsin, alleging a gifted thereminist lived among the student body (no record of such a student survives). The local Capital Times gamely took up the publicity stunt, running an image of Ludlow’s office manager Charlotte Hilton with the instrument—although she admitted she did not know how to play it.

“Seek Mystery ‘Co-ed’ who Plays Theremin," Capital Times front page, Madison, Wisconsin, October 19, 1930

“Seek Mystery ‘Co-ed’ who Plays Theremin,” Capital Times front page, Madison, Wisconsin, October 19, 1930

Despite RCA Victor’s marketing efforts, the theremin was a flop: the company sold only 485 models and abandoned the instrument just two years after its launch. Any number of factors contributed to the theremin’s commercial failure, not least of them the instrument’s $230 price tag (roughly equivalent to $3,300 in 2018), which made it a luxury item at the start of the Great Depression.

RCA Victor’s most notorious blunder, though, was its gross misrepresentation of the instrument’s learning curve. It is incredibly difficult to play tonal melodies on a theremin: with no tactile interface and the entire chromatic spectrum available, the instrument lacks any readily apparent means to make a clear break between intervals, and requires a player’s hand to remain absolutely still in order to hold a steady pitch. Try to pick out even a simple melody on a theremin, and you’ll find yourself fighting a battle against continuous glissandi and poor intonation.

Thereminists and their critics

Despite these technical challenges, in the decades following the theremin’s commercial failure a small number of performers, most of them white women, concertized on the instrument in the U.S. and Europe. Among these, Clara Rockmore remains the most celebrated. A former child violin prodigy, Rockmore took theremin technique and virtuosity to a new level, developing a complex fingering method she adapted for each piece she performed. She carefully curated a repertoire for the instrument drawn mostly from works for violin and cello, with slow tempi and a great deal of step-wise motion that minimized the large pitch slides to which the instrument was prone. A typical program included works like Joseph Achron’s Hebrew Melody, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera, and César Franck’s Cello Sonata in A Major. Her career included national tours as the opening act for Paul Robeson and a performance with the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski.

Clara Rockmore performs “The Swan” accompanied by her sister Nadia Reisenberg

Throughout her career, critics lauded Rockmore’s virtuosic playing and sophisticated musicianship. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers in Rockmore’s hands, describing its tone as “warm” and “rich” and comparing it to the cello, violin, and human voice. They heard a “splendid sonority and vivid expressiveness” and a “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone in Rockmore’s playing. To this day, she remains influential among thereminists.

Yet critical response to Rockmore and the theremin was not universally positive. A rhetoric of noisiness threads through this early reception history, employed by (mostly white, mostly male) critics to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. During the ’30s and ’40s, when concert thereminists like Rockmore were active, critics often complained about their “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento. There is a practical explanation for such complaints: without the use of these techniques, it is next to impossible to locate pitches, or to create even the impression of accurate intonation, on the theremin.

Critics, however, did not limit themselves to practical questions about technique. Many turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking “excessive” chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. Writers for the New-York Tribune and Modern Music compared the theremin’s sonority to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena,” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such comparisons are inseparable from the (frequently female) bodies that, in concert with the theremin, produced such sounds.

A few prominent figures in the American new music community at the time were particularly vehement in their criticism. In 1932 Marc Blitzstein wrote in Modern Music that the theremin’s “tone color remains lamentably sentimental, without virility. The most perfected [model], like a cello, exposes most brutally the cloying sound.” John Cage complained about concert thereminists in a 1937 talk (later published in the collection Silence). “When Theremin provided an instrument with genuinely new possibilities,” groused Cage, “Thereminists did their utmost to make the instrument sound like some old instrument, giving it a sickeningly sweet vibrato, and performing upon it, with difficulty, masterpieces from the past. Although the instrument is capable of a wide variety of sound qualities…Thereminists act as censors, giving the public those sounds they think the public will like. We are shielded from new sound experiences.”

The deficiencies commentators like Cage heard in the theremin’s sonority were not simply a response to the sound itself, but to the bodies and performance practices of thereminists like Rockmore. Composers of Western art music have long used “excessive” chromaticism to aurally mark women, and the thereminists’ frequent use of vibrato and portamento easily mapped onto the stereotype of the overly powerful and expressive operatic soprano. Meanwhile, new music proponents like Blitzstein often attacked traditional Western repertory in gendered terms as they sought to define a properly “virile” new music of their own. And we cannot dismiss the impact that the image of a woman performing held then (and holds now): such a vision can provoke both admiration and outrage.

Clara Rockmore

Photograph of Clara Rockmore (c. 1930s) by Renato Toppo, courtesy of The Nadia Reisenberg / Clara Rockmore Foundation

“Serious” and “Beautiful” Electronic Music

It is composers like Cage who stand as towering figures in electronic music—not performers like Rockmore—and it is his take on the theremin that you’re likely to encounter in a book on the subject. Rockmore held entirely different opinions on the aesthetics of electronic musical sound. Looking back on her career in a 1977 interview with Bob Moog, she lamented that:

From the beginning of electronic instruments, the interest of composers,…builders, and performers, is that of a search for eerie, new or strange sound effects….Modern composers are shying away from melody, frankly because I don’t think they know how to write really beautiful melody….Now they make sound effects and noises when they write.

Rockmore also lamented what she saw as Hollywood’s devaluation of the theremin’s sound to a sonic cliché. She complained that Hollywood exploited the theremin for its “weird noises…you were supposed to be frightened by the sounds. That was not what I wanted to add to. I just wanted to be a serious musician…play Bach!” John Cage might have belittled Rockmore’s repertoire choices as “censorship,” but for her, playing “masterpieces from the past” was a way to confer legitimacy on her chosen instrument.

Contrasting Rockmore’s words about the theremin’s sound with Cage’s demonstrates how their relative positions of power and vulnerability influenced their discussions of electronic musical sound. Both were musicians in elite spheres—one traditional, the other avant-garde. Both worked in niche musical areas and proselytized for their chosen work. Both, at least publicly, disdained musical sounds they did not like or found threatening to their own careers.

Cage is often praised for his commitment to artistic freedom, and it is his definition of freedom—freedom from tonality, from traditional repertoire—that has been taken up and promoted by most electronic music historians. Yet in the case of the theremin, Cage argued for the restriction of performance practices, and historians use his words to explain why thereminists are not properly part of electronic musical history. Rockmore had a different take. When explaining how the theremin fit in the broader electronic music scene, she said, “The theremin is just another musical voice that the artist can feel free to do with what he can.” It is time we expand our own notions of musical freedom. Our histories will only grow richer when we do.

“Underground” Electronic Music

A black and white brochure photo of a Telharmonium

Electronic musical sound saturates our sonic world. Check the pop charts any week, and you’ll hear sounds clearly identifiable as electronic in almost every track. We expect to hear these sounds, and rarely consider their presence, let alone their significance. Given their ubiquity, it’s clear that electronic sounds matter—but how? What do they mean to us? How did they become so valuable and so popular?

If you go looking for answers to these questions in the pages of electronic music histories, you are likely to read a story like this: in the middle of the 20th century, avant-garde composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen pioneered various techniques, ideas, and sounds that eventually led to a digital revolution in the 1980s, when electronic music exploded and came to dominate popular music.

Among other problems with this narrative: popular electronic music existed well before the experiments of these “great men.” Thousands of people in the U.S. witnessed electronic musical sounds played on early electronic instruments long before the celebrated midcentury experimentalists. Each of these instruments offers a history with its own answers to questions about encounters between audiences and new electronic sounds.

Crowd in Telharmonium Hall

Crowd in Telharmonium Hall, A. B. Easterbrook, “The Wonderful Telharmonium,” Gunter’s Magazine (June 1907)

Telharmonium Hall

The instrument that first introduced U.S. audiences to electronic sound was an enormous machine that drew accolades during two short seasons in New York City: the Telharmonium. Invented by Thaddeus Cahill and installed in the city from 1906 to 1908, the instrument occupied two floors of “Telharmonium Hall” at Broadway and 39th Street. In the basement sat half an acre of machinery, including switchboards, tone mixers, and dynamos—the large electrical generators that produced the instrument’s sound. Telephone wires carried the sound upstairs where receivers, somewhat amplified by simple paper cones, piped the music to audiences. Two, three, or sometimes four performers played the instrument’s hodgepodge of interfaces, including multiple keyboards, pedals, and switches.

Telharmonium Hall opened in 1907 to critical and popular success. During its first season, tens of thousands of people attended concerts there. The hall also offered subscription services a century before streaming platforms like Spotify came to dominate music consumption. Some of the city’s most lavish cafes and hotels, among them the Café Martin and the Waldorf Astoria, became subscribers, as did private individuals like Mark Twain. The Plaza Hotel went so far as to wire every guest room for Telharmonic service.

Laudatory accounts appeared everywhere from McClure’s and The New York Times to Scientific American and Literary Digest. “It is wonderful,” said Alfred Hertz, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, “and I believe in telharmony as an art of music.” Famed tenor Enrico Caruso foresaw a musical “revolution,” and journalists agreed, predicting the end of the orchestra, a new era in musical appreciation, and the improved health and family life of Americans (at least some Americans) who would now have music, day and night, “on tap.”

Dinner from the Future

“Dinner from the Future” (depiction of an “ideal” family experiencing Telharmonium music, piped through their lamp, during dinner)

“Purer and Better”

For proponents of the instrument, the Telharmonium was an ideal vehicle for revolutionary changes in music production and consumption because of the quality of its tone, widely perceived as “pure” and even “perfect.” Purity has long been associated with whiteness. Rhetoric about racially “pure” musical aesthetics and sounds was already decades old by the 20th century, and was exacerbated by anti-immigrant policy and sentiment. “Purity” was central to a nationalist voice culture movement of teachers and musicians that thrived in the U.S. from around 1880 to 1920. Scott Carter, who has documented the movement, notes an obsession with pure vocal tones, rooted in racist beliefs about vocal clarity and anxiety over non-white immigrants.

Within the new science of acoustics, which Cahill carefully studied, purity of tone had a similar racial component. Tara Rodgers notes that acousticians like Hermann von Helmholtz equated “notions of the sine wave as ‘pure’ and ‘lacking body’ with whiteness and scientific objectivity,” and timbral variations away from this norm with “material embodiment (e.g. raced, gendered, classed) and transgressive pleasures.” Cahill designed the Telharmonium to produce and combine sine waves and to create various timbres, and touted the instrument’s tones as being “purer and better than those of the orchestral instruments.”

Journalists happily took up this talking point about the instrument’s sound, describing it as particularly pure in review after review. The Telharmonium’s audiences and commentators were almost exclusively middle- and upper-class white people, and while it’s impossible to know whether the average listener heard the instrument’s sound as pure, it is safe to say that they experienced it through the lens of their racial experience. White audiences were used to having all kinds of products marketed to them as “pure” (and therefore healthy and superior)—from soap to food to medicine. Telharmonic music was for this population: created and sold in elite white spaces, consumed by white audiences, and widely described as sounding white.

Telharmonium Performers

Telharmonium Performers, Ray Stannard Baker, “New Music for an Old World,” McClure’s Magazine (July 1906)

Insiders and Outsiders

Nowhere does a journalist or marketer make the whiteness of the Telharmonium’s sound explicit; as Jennifer Stoever points out, when whiteness is the racial default, its sonic qualities are rendered inaudible. Yet one New York Times story—“An Invisible Rival for the Hurdy Gurdy”—comes close, pitting the Telharmonium’s sound against music made by a pair of immigrant street musicians.

During the Telharmonium’s brief time in New York City, the number of Italian and Eastern European immigrants in the city and nation was rising rapidly. Then as today, overblown fears about immigrants fed—and were fed by—racist stereotypes and discourses about citizenship (at the time, these immigrants were not considered white). In “An Invisible Rival for the Hurdy Gurdy,” a pair of street musicians—“two swart Italians, man and wife”—set up their barrel organ just outside Telharmonium Hall during a performance. In the story, as the husband begins to crank “a syncopated air” out of the instrument, his wife stops him, crying, “Somebody in dis-a place ees playing da bigga org” and pointing to Telharmonium Hall. The “Sicilians,” The Times reports, “were awed. They realized that against the massive tones that came from the building their instrument offered a thin and hopelessly unentertaining substitute for such rival music—although theirs had the merit of being real.”

Yet awed as they were, the musicians themselves posed a threat to the order within Telharmonium Hall: the sounds of their barrel organ disrupted the concert. In response, the hall’s manager, who had been giving a demonstration of the instrument, directed the players to begin a performance of Robert Schumann’s “Träumerei,” assuring the audience that this would “put an end to the hand organ.” As predicted, the performance silenced the street musicians into awestruck and dumb appreciation.

Every aspect of this New York Times story carefully designates the Telharmonium as an instrument fit for white bourgeois society, using the immigrants on the street as a foil that drives the point home. The bodies inside Telharmonium Hall (both the “society folk and prominent New Yorkers” in the audience and the management) are racially unmarked, and therefore white, unlike the “swart” immigrants outside. The “great massive tones” and the comparison with the pipe organ connected the Telharmonium to Western art and sacred music traditions, while the sounds of the street musicians registered as disruptive noise rather than music. The Telharmonium’s repertory—mostly slow, lyrical “classical” and popular melodies—likewise drew on white Western traditions in contrast to the “syncopated” music of the street musicians, which easily could have been a popular ragtime tune with roots in Black musics.

Even the “unreal” status The New York Times assigned to the Telharmonium’s music appears as a (racial) merit that signals a freedom from materiality, not unlike the supposed immateriality of sine waves. In describing its sound as “unreal,” the author emphasizes the ephemerality of music emitted by hidden sources beneath Telharmonium Hall and transmitted over wire. In contrast, the physicality of the street music is almost excessive. Its means of production—the barrel organ and its player—are not only visible but conspicuous, marked as outsiders by their speech and skin.

At the Telharmonium keyboard

At the Telharmonium keyboard, A. B. Easterbrook, “The Wonderful Telharmonium,” Gunter’s Magazine (June 1907)

The End of Underground Music

After the promise of the Telharmonium’s first season, the instrument’s fortunes nosedived. Unable to navigate the enormous legal and logistical challenges of delivering music via telephone wires to subscribers across the city, the instrument’s financial backers extracted themselves from the project and Telharmonium Hall closed permanently in the spring of 1908.

Even if the Telharmonium’s backers had managed to create the infrastructure the instrument required, its success was hardly guaranteed. Despite the accolades from the white press, the instrument was notoriously inept with popular music of the day like ragtime. While the Telharmonium offered performers an array of controls for dynamic expression and timbre, Cahill seems to have thought little about how the instrument handled music that relied on rapid rhythms and clear attacks.

The Telharmonium’s history points us to a version of electronic music history rich with meaning and uncomfortable truths about how musical sound comes to matter to us. Its brief popularity suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that we have long located profoundly human qualities in electronic musical sound. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the humanity we find there is a deeply troubled one, rooted in our nation’s ongoing struggles over race, identity, and belonging.

The Defeat of New Music

University of Arkansas

In this third post, I would like to delve into a narrative of what might have brought New Music to the serious impasse it finds itself at in the United States. Like any narrative, it is partial and incomplete. I acknowledge that there are other reasons that may have contributed to the obscuration of this type of music, but it seems to me that what I describe below had such a significant impact on the erasure of New Music that it deserves special attention.

The connection between contemporary music and academia in the U.S. is crucial in order to address New Music’s ramifications. According to Brigham Young University Professor Brian Harker, composition “found its rightful place as an intellectual proposition under the umbrella of ‘theory’ in virtually all college curricula of the early century.”[1] In this respect, “the emphasis was not on original work (…) but ‘on playing the sedulous ape’ to the best models of music literature in the attempt to know how if not what to write.”[2] Composition was thus subordinated to theory as a means to gain greater knowledge about existing music.

However, in the beginning of the second half of the last century, the relationship between theory and composition as intertwined academic disciplines was responsible for the eventual establishment of composition as a serious scholarly field in its own right. Composition gained its current academic status through a feeble connection to the empiricism that music theory and other disciplines more prone to scientism may appear to explore, despite the fact that composition may not be easily evaluated by means of academic structures associated with scholarly disciplines such as history or physics.

Composition gained its current academic status through a feeble connection to the empiricism that music theory and other disciplines more prone to scientism may appear to explore.

Milton Babbitt was a pivotal figure in accelerating this endeavor. With Roger Sessions, Babbitt prompted a number of young composers and theorists to explore a scientistic approach to music-making and analysis. This group would later be associated with the journal Perspectives of New Music. Harvard Ph.D. candidate Monica Hershberger has also suggested that Paul Fromm’s two seminars in Advanced Musical Study, which took place at Princeton in 1959 and 1960, might have “paved the way for the journal Perspectives of New Music and the founding of the Ph.D. in music composition.”[3] The seminars included lectures by Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter, Edward T. Cone, Allen Forte, Felix Galimir, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and others. Some of the titles of these lectures (“Polyphonic Time in the Music of Stravinsky,” “Form in Music”) should point to the close relationship between theory and composition that those musicians were trying to nurse. By virtue of its relation to consistent methodology, music theory was the pretext through which composition could be relatable to scientific developments and gain a similar status to the work that a number of logical positivists in U.S. academic circles fostered after World War II. It was precisely due to this connection that composition most likely evolved into harboring its own scholarly sphere. Ultimately, it appears that Babbitt was largely responsible for the creation of the Ph.D. in composition at Princeton.[4] And, for all we know, the justification of composition as a field that could be somehow compared to science is what led contemporary music to be embedded in U.S. academia.

My colleague Franklin Cox has described this type of “American modern music” as a form of Reductive Modernism:

Reductive Modernism (…) maintained most of the apparatus—most importantly the notion of aesthetic progressivism—of Modernism, but converted it into more testable and propagatable form, which was most easily done by functionalizing it and stripping it of all “fuzzy” residue, such as its immanent political aims, its moral pretensions, its delicately balanced tensions, its cultivation of tasteful critics and readers, and its redemptory (albeit highly conservative) aims. Often modeled on scientistic beliefs, it favored innovation as its own goal, and favored above all else technical and material innovation.[5]

The works of Babbitt and his acolytes may be processed through the lens of Reductive Modernism, since their authors did not seem to be concerned with the critique-based project of New Music that I introduced in the second essay of this series. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that perhaps it is not their music that is Reductive, but the academic discourse that they developed surrounding that music. Without delving too much into ontology and semiotics, I would propose that the actual sounds that shape music, regardless of the particular cultural context where they were created, may be perceived and processed in a wide variety of ways. Music is a cultural artifact that cannot be isolated from its socioeconomic context: it is not recognized as such through how it solely sounds, but rather by how it has been defined according to the specific material conditions during the time of its creation, the ways that it has been interpreted throughout historical change, and by whether it conforms (and to what extent) to the prevailing state of affairs. It would be unreasonable to imagine the sounds that belong to a particular musical context separated from the social, economic, cultural, and discursive conditions that led to the realization of those sounds in the first place. The alleged “Reductive Modernist” music that Babbitt and other East Coast serialists practiced (the sounds they produced) may actually be Reductive, but it is not Reductive only as a result of the way it sounds, but rather by both how it sounds and relates to global circumstances beyond the sonic domain.

Without having a desire to be polemical, I am afraid that this music has merely become the elitist entertainment of a shrinking upper-middle class that still can afford to go to college.

At any rate, the intricacies surrounding U.S. modern music had an impact on the perception of academic contemporary music on behalf of future generations. Babbitt’s proposal in “Who Cares If You Listen?,”[6] which suggests that modernist composers should seek refuge in the university’s ivory tower, is a paradigmatic example of an ideology of withdrawal. Because of Babbitt and others, contemporary music gained access to academia and did find some solace, but the price of admission was nevertheless very high. By fundamentally treating contemporary music as a field of scientistic exploration, this type of music neglected most of its bonds with modernity and its emancipatory project based on self-critique. This compositional discourse, which echoes the prioritization of newness for its own sake, has considerable potential to be subsumed under a complacent cultural logic by virtue of the discourse’s indifference toward treating music holistically. By not expanding music’s critical capacities beyond its internal qualities (structure), I am afraid that the East Coast serialists helped to build, perhaps unknowingly, a musical-academic culture that is unable to act counterculturally. The recontextualization of methodologies historically associated with the natural sciences into the realm of sonic creativity resulted in a positivist music that runs the risk of validating the status quo, thus helping to support some type of emancipatory stasis—the illusion of musical (and social) progress. The musical culture that the East Coast serialists nurtured not only has the potential to be satisfied with its own conditions due to its intrinsic tendency to glorify technology and its false promise of a better future, but also it is prone to become unfit to function as a force of critique. By disengaging itself from this facet of modernity, contemporary music fostered an environment where New Music became largely residual.

At present, contemporary music in U.S. academia has primarily become the space where young U.S. citizens can explore sound creatively without ever needing to consider that music may perhaps be more than a commodity. Without having a desire to be polemical, I am afraid that this music has merely become the elitist entertainment of a shrinking upper-middle class that still can afford to go to college. Perhaps from the very beginning, the project of New Music had already been defeated, but that does not mean it is dead.

The final essay in this series will suggest some paths for contemporary music practitioners to tackle the future.

1. Brian Harker, “Milton Babbitt Encounters Academia (And Vice Versa),” American Music 26, 3 (Fall 2008): 340–341.

2. Ibid., 341.

3. Monica Hershberger, “Princeton Seminars (1959 & 1960),” Fromm Foundation,

4. Hershberger has also suggested that Paul Fromm could have wanted Perspectives of New Music—a journal he helped establish—to “be a vehicle for the learned articles that would be the university composer’s response to the administration’s demand for the kind of articles faculty members in most fields write to get academic advancement.” (Arthur Berger, Reflections of an American Composer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 142–143). In this regard, Fromm might have been indirectly responsible for the creation of the Ph.D. in composition.

5. Franklin Cox, “Critical Modernism: Beyond Critical Composition and Uncritical Art,” in Critical Composition Today (Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2006), 145.

6. http://www.palestrant.com/babbitt.html.

Become Listening

singing bird

Image by Caroline Granycome, via Flickr

After discussing in my previous posts the role of the creative act as a revolutionary force and the role of nature as a possible means of recovering our elemental imagination, I’d like to delve deeper into the natural world to consider the soundscape. Coined by composer R. Murray Schafer, the soundscape has become something of a cultural and scientific phenomenon. Composers such as Schafer and writers such as Bernie Krause urge contemporary listeners to take off their headphones and venture into the sonic environment of nature where the natural soundscape is a “tapestry,” an “orchestra”—or, in the words of Schafer, “a huge composition going on all the time.”

Here in North America, our initiation into natural sound often begins with birds. However, while listening to individual sounds in an environment, we cannot take for granted that every sound is present within a larger, holistic entity. This “biophony” is nested within specific environments. It was on walks and hiking trips listening to birds that I first imagined the possibilities of music growing out of the soundscape, of nature as some kind of musical utterance. It was while immersed in natural sound and experience that I came to believe that by engaging with the soundscape we may make an honest contribution to restoring humanity’s relationship with the natural world. It was while listening to birds that I came to believe that the origins and evolution of human music reside within the landscapes and soundscapes of the animate earth.

As composers, our creative existence draws upon elements of our own sonic worlds, metaphors upon metaphors, translating experience upon experience. Our experience in these sonic environments shapes our auditory awareness and guides our creative journey as sound artists. Some composers abstract sounds from their original source, manipulating them into wonderful textures and meanings. Others use sound in a more primal form, performing in the soundscape or using natural sound that has been carefully integrated within human-generated sound.

At this point, the idea of listening to our environment as music can be considered a venerable tradition within our musical culture. From Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète to Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises, John Cage’s radical ventures into the aesthetics of sound to R. Murray Schafer’s egalitarian and ecological philosophies: deeply listening to the world around us has established itself, in the words of Barry Truax, as a “useful, if not absolutely necessary condition for living in a sonically balanced environment.” And in this balance, the voices of women have provided some of the best role models for engaging with nature. Pauline Oliveros points out that “deep listening is a lifetime practice…deep listening involves going below the surface of what is heard and also expanding to the whole field of sound…this is the way to connect with the acoustic environment and all that inhabits it.” Composers such as Hildegard Westerkamp and Emily Doolittle creatively inhabit the natural acoustic worlds of birds, animals, forests, and human communities. All share a sense that the soundscape is a place where the cultural and aesthetic boundaries between music and nature, and nature and humanity, are blurred—where listening can change moral, spiritual, social, and environmental conditions. Like all aspects of the Anthropocene, we have come to sonically dominate our environments, silencing many voices. Rachel Carson articulated this in the sonic metaphor of Silent Spring. More than fifty years later, many bird populations around the United States are again in decline. Olivier Messiaen famously considered birds the greatest musicians. How many of their songs do you know? How many would you miss if they were gone?

As musicians, our ability to spatially discern sound, mimic and create sounds, hear relationships between sounds, and to devise metaphors and meanings in sound are all drawn upon the sonic geography of the earth. Author Steven Mithen hypothesizes the possible evolutionary origins of music by suggesting that language was preceded by something neither wholly linguistic nor musical but represented by an anagram he coined: “Hmmmm”—holistic, multimodal, manipulative, musical, and mimetic. The last two, I believe, have special significance. Many indigenous traditions around the world from Papua New Guinea to the Central African Rainforest to Oregon and Alaska incorporate holistic, multimodal, and mimetic approaches in their musical cultures. Author Ellen Dissanayake argues in her book Homo Aestheticus that art and music are fundamental to human evolution. Neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel writes of the Pirahã, a small tribe in the Brazillian Amazon, explaining, “Members of this culture speak a language without numbers or a concept of counting. Their language has no fixed terms for colors. They have no creation myths, and they do not draw, aside from simple stick figures. Yet they have music in abundance.”

If the worlds experienced by humans are so diverse, creating such distinct cultures, how much more diverse must be the worlds of other species, of birds and whales and the beings beyond our own sensory perception? Yet, just as we share genetic and elemental origins and characteristics, we too must share cultural characteristics and elements. These are what E.O. Wilson calls biophilia, the connections human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life. It is not a coincidence that our word “culture,” which signifies human spiritual, intellectual, and creative growth, also signifies biologic and organic cultivation. Ecology goes beyond linear causation; it is about complex relationships, infinite connection. Song may not evoke meaning on its own; it, too, is about relationships, contexts, and connections.

According to phenomenologist Merleu-Ponty, our immediate experience in the world is an experience of reciprocal encounter—of tension, communication, and commingling, a process that draws us into relation. Just like any organism, our bodies and our senses have evolved in interaction and reciprocity with our environment and the other-than-human life world, what we call nature. Just as our bodies have co-evolved themselves in union with our surroundings, so too has our consciousness co-evolved out of the sounds of the living world.

It is with these understandings that we depart on our journey of discovery. Our environments resonate deep within us. The rich diversity of music around the world is a result of people living for millennia in harmony with their own physical and cultural geographies. The sounds of the animate earth—the birds, the wind, the animals, the water, the air, and the people—all contribute to the music of place. Even in places where musicians have little or no intimate experience of the natural world, there are still qualities of music unique to specific places, regional musics that speak to cultural environments. But how did the sounds and rhythms of the earth influence the birth and growth of these traditions? How does our experience of particular natural environments influence the music we make? And how might a closer listening and examination of traditions within nature contribute to a renewal of our own culture within the nature world? We are ready to rediscover these questions with renewed perspectives and fresh ears. In a world saturated by sounds, genres, gizmos, machines, and numerous “electronic hallucinations,” our capacity to truly step out of the world we’ve created can be daunting. It takes incredible courage, concentration, and discipline to meditate and deeply listen. John Muir recommended we take long, quiet walks in nature, frequently employing the metaphors of music to describe his sensual experience in the natural world. As composers, if we bring our innate skills into the experience of nature we realize, as Muir said, that going into nature is like going home.

Imagine the cultural transformation that could unfold if all composers made a conscious effort to listen deeply to nature and formulated their own imaginative response. The world of the soundscape is a wellspring of creative knowledge and potential. Perhaps, Pauline Oliveros, leaves us with the most enigmatic, yet inspiring advice, citing the holistic and symbiotic aspects of the “life practice” of deeply listening: “It’s an offering and a possibility…It comes back to listening again. If you’re listening, you’re not wandering; when you’re listening, you listen. You are listening. You become listening.”

Recovering Our Elemental Imagination

Old growth forest

Landscape is the culture that contains all human culture. — Barry Lopez

Imagine a city where every rooftop is a garden, every building a home to different plants and animals as well as people. A city filled with monumental parks, where agriculture and recreation are combined. The rivers in this city teem with life and the sky is filled with birds. Now imagine in this world, this garden city, what music would be made—ringing out amidst the soundscapes of birds and animals, winds and waters.

Everything we have in our civilization is grown or extracted from the living earth. This includes our ideas, our culture, our arts, and our music. No matter how removed from the living, dynamic non-human world we feel, we will never escape this truth. How this truth influences our creativity, and how creativity influences our capacity to live this truth is a pivotal question.

From an animistic perspective, the imbalanced relationship between human civilization and the earth is the clearest source of our social ills and distress—climate change, resource depletion, chronic and epidemic illness, and all forms of structural and physical violence. Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our culture tends to hypnotize itself, reflecting us back upon ourselves. It is all too easy to forget the landscape which contains us. This ecological crisis then becomes a cultural crisis.

This past spring I had the opportunity to stay as an artist-in-residence at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Founded in 1948, it is the most studied forest in the world. Sponsored by the National Forest Service, Oregon State University, and copious grants, the goal in the Andrews forest is both complex and utterly simple: study the forest ecosystem over time and use this knowledge to inform our relationship with it. This mandate has illuminated vast scientific insights and controversial ideas of policy and purpose. The Andrews forest is home to some of the last remaining old growth forest in the world (500-800 year old trees), and it inspires many long-term studies and programs as a result. One such program is the Long Term Ecological Reflections (LTER), an international project documenting how “humans and the forest change over time.” The LTER project in the Andrews Forest, which began more than a decade ago, is scheduled to last 200 years, from 2003-2203.

Being part of a creative project that will outlive you is deeply humbling but not unfamiliar to a composer. Our education is steeped in cultures of the past, informing our own creations. Staring up at a tree whose life spans nearly the entirety of Western music history does make one wonder. To be present in a forest is to be present in a place of primal creativity. When we are in nature, we infuse ourselves with the creative energies of the life around us. Many composers have embedded this energy within their work. Beethoven, Sibelius, Takemitsu, Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, and many others all held the natural world as an integral part of their creative journey. Takemitsu even said, “Music should have a profound relationship with nature,” and you need not be in Yosemite or an old growth forest to commune with it. The natural world is all around us. Like any practice, the more time and energy you devote to it, the more insights, experiences, and visions you will receive. The more we infuse the energy and experience of nature into our own imagination and music, the more vibrant and nourishing our cultural relationship with the earth will be.

Like music, our experience in nature is often intuitively understood. I’ve noticed while hiking or just meditating in the forest, ideas and potentials come to me with inspiring clarity. Whether they are creative solutions to a piece or life-long career projects, ideas enter lucidly into view. These are visions. In the presence of ancient trees it is easier to remind myself that I am merely a “vessel” (to quote Stravinsky). These visions do not originate in me nor am I the end of their journey.

Old growth forest

Trees in an old growth forest in some ways never die, spending half their existence as slowly rotting logs. Here the ancestors are not in the sky but among the living. These are nature’s epic poems, they are what scientists call “biologic legacies”—they are the culture from where we originated and, once our exhausted civilization finally collapses, like the tree we too will sink back into the earth. Theodore Roosevelt said that when he heard of a species gone extinct it was like “some great work of art had been lost”; when we lose a species, we lose the ability to learn from and grow with that being. Just as the arts speak to us across time with wisdom and insight, so does the natural world. When we deny ourselves the experience of communing with the natural world, we sever our connection to this creative potential and story.

In the forest we find a metaphor for our own relationships; art itself is a receptacle of experiences and relations passed down over generations. The composer creates a mythical sonic landscape, places which inspire and enrich our experience. Composers inspired by each other interact in communal creativity. The same is true when we experience nature. The indigenous peoples of the Northwest sacrificed a tree and carved into that tree animals stacked on top of one another—a clear metaphor for the ecological relationships inherent in the culture of the forest. Art and nature combine to tell a communal story. When a tree is transformed into a totem pole, such a tree is an honorable ambassador between human culture and the natural world.

Imagination, scholar Harold Goddard observed, “is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two—as if the birds, unable to understand the speech of man, and man, unable to understand the songs of birds, yet longing to communicate, were to agree on a tongue made up of sounds they both could comprehend—the voice of running water perhaps or the wind in the trees. Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets.”

Could music be such a mediator to heal and reawaken our senses to the greater culture of life? Shall we create music and art that reinforce the values of the civilization we have now or a different one we shall create? It was Orpheus who led the trees and beasts with song, and whose lyre soothed the fiercest spirits, whose music swayed the Argonaut’s ship away from destruction. Seek out your own elemental imagination, create the music of your own garden city.

Everything is real. There is no audience.



Contrary to annual fundraising-letter wisdom, I do not believe that music is a universal language. The immense variety of musical styles, systems, and genres performed around the world challenge our belief in a universal aesthetic. Do you immediately understand the use of Indian ragas? If you really stop to think about it, do you truly understand the complexity of Brian Ferneyhough’s music?

Music is a learned language, and it is a language that even as composers and musicians we must continue learning in order to stay literate. Even within the European “art” music tradition, can each music student write a fugue for transposing instruments? Furthermore, performing is a learned behavior. The understanding of music written and performed is not gifted to us at birth—otherwise music schools would have a much harder time collecting tuition!
Many in our community might argue, “Even if I don’t understand how to write a fugue, it doesn’t mean that I don’t understand music.” That is where we are making the distinction. Music performance isn’t just for those who understand the mechanics of music composition. Music and performance are relational. The fact is not that one understands the music but rather that one understands how the sounds heard, or produced, or written relate back to us. Music professionals are called to know more and that is why we endeavor to understand more of the language. Why is the sound organized in that fashion? Why does that chord make me feel that way? Performance is for all of us because it is generative not only for our own human capabilities but for our cultural system.

In my series of posts so far, I have argued that music performance is entirely for the performer and then alternately for the audience. What if music performance isn’t an either/or situation but really a both/and? It is both for the performer and the audience. In fact, it is larger than both because it is for the composer, the performer, and the audience member alike. Here’s the best part: the “and.” The act of performance is a special kind of social action—even at its most basic levels.
As Shakespeare’s famous line reminds us, we each have a part to play. When, at the end of a performance the conductor turns to the audience to gush, “You’ve been really great tonight!” I think we’ve all rolled our eyes at some point thinking, “Really?” Yes. You were there. You showed up. You actively listened and thus participated in this dialogue between musician and listener—a dialogue that is an inextricable aspect of the musical performance. You played your part.

The art object by itself is neither art nor non-art: it becomes one or the other only because of the attitudes and feelings of human beings towards it. Art lives in men and women… the processes of sharing become as crucial to the semiotics of music as the sonic product.
—from Music, Culture, and Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking

We each have a reason for going to a performance. The terror of classical music marketers everywhere is that more audience members forget why they go to these performances in the face of all of their other options. It is true that some people go to a performance quite literally just to be seen. But we must consider the multitude of other reasons. Composers go to hear their musical ideas come to life. Musicians perform on stage to realize the fullest expression of their craft. Listeners go for escapism, for education, and possibly even for epiphany. The fact remains that each person in the performance space has a personal reason to be there. The very reason that performance is both/and instead of either/or is because we are all there to play our own parts.
Finally, there is no truer act of civil society than for all of the parties involved to voluntarily show up to a concert hall and exchange in ideas that are broader than the facts and figures of commerce. Music expresses the experience of individuals in society. Yes, there are examples of music performance bringing about social change. But, on an even more basic level, the act of presenting an idea through the arts that is being actively considered by another listening human is extremely valuable. At a time when polite discourse seems threatened at every turn, musical performance is an event wherein conflicting ideas can be corporately considered. Musical performance is an opportunity for each of us to further shape our own ideas and the society in which we live.

It was absolutely reductive to think of music being solely either for the performer or for the audience. This is a both/and situation because we all get something different out of it. We are all there to play our own parts: performer, listener, and composer. The essential thought of this argument is that there should never be two groups: the music-makers and the listeners. There are simply participants in the musical performance. Everything is real. There is no audience.

Monumental Listening

Truth be told, many people are turned off by opera houses and orchestra halls—or if not turned off, then shut out. These places are expensive to attend, and their formality can seem forbidding. The previous post discussed venues for musical entertainment in the abstract, as if grand municipal spaces set the standards to which all performers and audiences aspire. They don’t, at least not consistently for a whole population of listeners.

As promised, in this post I want to deal with contrasting sorts of venues and their economic and cultural implications. As many of us might intuitively recognize, there are several types of opposites to this kind of space. One venue might be lavish but intimate and differently arranged for every performance, for instance, while another might be large and informal. I suggest that we consider the attributes of spaces along several axes: monumental/ ephemeral, large/intimate, and lavish/everyday. As I’m a fan of a well-placed chart, here is one. I’ll stick to monumental settings in this post and talk about the four parallel categories of changeable settings later.
monumental settings
The venues listed here are ones that, by virtue of the types of institutions they are, lend a sense of longevity and worth to the music played there. When art museums and galleries host concerts, for instance, the spectator confronts ample opportunities for cultural connection between art forms—which may explain why such places are so popular among audiences—and thereby accepts visual analogues to the music she hears; she may indeed find herself encouraged to envision that music similarly framed and immortalized in the imaginary halls of musical works. (A valid question here is: what of sound art in these spaces? That kind of presentation has a ephemeral quality that I’ll address next time.)

One question I have, and that I think is worth considering particularly with regard to the performance of contemporary music: is it possible to communicate this sense of permanent value outside of a lavish setting? Is lavishness one of the chief preconditions for our enshrinement of cultural objects?

Let me answer that question by explaining (and perhaps questioning) the right-hand column. Parades are fairly straightforward to explain in this context. They are obviously commemorative, organized but informal gatherings that pull the music played there into a function that is simultaneously fleeting and monumental. You may not experience that combination of marching steps and John Williams/Carly Rae Jepsen medley ever again, but it sure captured the spirit of Thanksgiving, particularly when followed by the floating Snoopy.
The placement of amphitheaters here is more problematic. As we use them today, they immortalize works and cultural events perhaps even more vigorously than orchestra halls.While the programming for Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion resembles that of its indoor equivalent for the Chicago Symphony down the street,it also demonstrates the space’s role as a gathering place to celebrate historical grandeur—like fireworks and the “1812” Overture on July 4—as well as municipal milestones, like the Blackhawks’ NHL championship last year or, years ago, an entire childhood’s worth of Bulls’ wins. (I can only imagine how the space would be put to use should the Cubs ever break their losing streak. An event like the Messiah sing-along but with Mahler 2?)

But it’s arguable how truly everyday these outdoor arenas are. Functionally, as public, bucolic gathering places, their most obvious ancestors are London’s 18th-century pleasure gardens at Vauxhall or Ranelagh, which boasted one of the largest and earliest indoor amphitheaters. Though the crowds here were typically economically mixed, if we can trust iconographic evidence, the gardens themselves represented municipal economic vitality in much the same way as Chicago’s Millennium Park does today, with its Frank Geary-designed articulation of theurban picturesque. (Vauxhall also boasted a marble statue of Handel, one of the earliest public commemorations of a composer.) Despite the absence of chandeliers and plush carpets, this kind of space, I would argue, seems designed for a similar audience as orchestra halls. I also presume that it’s not the least lavish kind of place we could imagine. Venues with mundane architecture and modest views, like fairs and temporary festivals, attract equally large crowds but rarely serve to commemorate in quite the same way.

Rotunda at Ranleigh T Bowles 1754

“Rotunda at Ranleigh T Bowles 1754.” Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Aside from amphitheaters and parades, there aren’t many even marginally everyday performance spaces that monumentalize works, particularly in the small scale. The only possibility is the home, as it hosts music-learners’ efforts to participate in hallmarks of Western music.I myself remember feeling a measure of accomplishment when I got to play “piano classics” both for myself and for my family. Theodor Adorno, in 1933, saw in the domestic performance of four-hand piano music a kind of intimate monumentality, in which “many a work, which in their orchestral grandiosity ring out in vain under many exertions, reveal themselves only to the timid gesture of memory [i.e., four-hand performance], which shares with them the secret of participating as a humane human in the life of society.”

I created the chart above in order to capture the varied opportunities for confronting monumentality in music. My goal was not only to encourage us to be aware of the cultural undercurrents communicated to us by various venues, but to take all venues equally seriously as places to listen collectively. It turns out that “the appearance of theatricality,” as Alexander Rehding might call it, is so crucial to the performance of cultural permanence that a certain manifestation of largess and wealth is a notable precondition for the communication of monumentality. Surely that precondition excludes populations of listeners.
What, then, are the contexts for more disposable musical experiences? Are they any more or less inclusive? To be continued…

Towards a More Visceral Living

For the next four weeks, I’ll be contributing a series of articles on fields outside music—from mycology to experimental art—and considering how they may impact music and our process of making and responding to work as performers, composers, listeners, and thinkers. I’d like to delve into other fields in an effort to understand how other disciplines meet the challenges we face.
Writing these posts has come at a self-reflective time for me, having recently relocated to San Francisco from Los Angeles, my home for the last seven years. In trying to meet some new people in my new town, I went to a listening party with some fantastic local composers and performers. The music shared was smart, fun, and diverse: excerpts from new groups like Dawn of Midi, icons of early hip-hop, and just intonation masterworks. But while walking home I had a nagging set of questions about my experience discussing music with a group of musicians: To what end are we sharing these musical works? For growth and development? Is this the best way to nurture our work as post-graduate performers and composers? What experiences evolve our methods and challenge our ideas?

John Cage

A man and his mushrooms.
Photo by James Klosty

Cage’s perennial question comes to mind: “Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school? Are the people inside the school musical, and the ones outside the school unmusical? ” I aim to extend Cage’s comment into the real world of learning and primary experience: Does studying music teach us more than working in a factory would teach us about music? What if my San Francisco friends had gotten together to knead dough and bake loaves of bread rather than listen to recordings? Would learning about and exercising a specialized labor lead us to be more or less musical people? Would it change the way we make our work?

I wonder what unexpected growth and development would arise through a collective study of carpentry, meditation, motherhood, performance art, Japanese architecture, olfaction, butchering, wood chopping, and long-distance running. The potential for discoveries about the self seem palpable, helping to develop our process of making music in form and substance, attitude and approach.

John Cage himself lived this potentiality as an accomplished mushroom hunter. He said in his 1954 essay “Music Lover’s Field Companion” that “much can be learned about music by devoting one’s self to the mushroom.” Cage hunted mushrooms his whole life, for a time supporting himself by selling foraged ‘shrooms to New York restaurants and speaking at mycology conferences. His experiences walking the woods and bearing witness to his environment informed his work as a music-maker and thinker in ways we can never fully appreciate. One may try to say that that finding a mushroom is like discovering a melody, but identifying a mushroom is far more complicated/different/unexpected than we’d expect as outsiders. However, make yourself an insider to a community of mycologists and you will find that the diversity of cultural knowledge accumulated in such a mundane act is deep and varied like our own tradition, going back thousands of years, connecting us to people who have gone before and are here no longer. The activity is simultaneously ancient and strikingly modern, perhaps because of the heightened focus and presence needed to seek out mushrooms.

In sussing out these ideas, I was eager to dump on our community of theorist-composers as possible culprits to a music made in the vacuum of academia. I know that this is harsh and wrong, but in conveying this to Matt Sargent, a professor at Bard College and my longtime friend, he reminded me that a deliberate study of counterpoint and four-part writing is an asset, not something to criticize. A more generative way of learning may lead towards an additive knowledge base that accumulates ideas rather than sheds them. We should live counterpoint and woodworking, orchestration and animal husbandry. We won’t die if we hold two contrary thoughts inside of ourselves, and this dissonance leads to the real interest in our work. I often feel that without a detailed study of our music we become lost but, even worse, with only a detailed study of our music we become boring.

Reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve found much to learn from studying fields beyond music. I originally trained as a trumpet player and moved to making experimental sound works in non-traditional spaces. To support myself through a period after my MFA, I educated myself in wine and cheese, working as a devoted wine merchant and cheese monger for many years in Los Angeles. I think that working in wine deepened my sense of listening and lineage, developing in me a more emotional attachment to the history of the music. I now try to reach into the terroir of the sound, as one seeks to understand the source and cultural lineage of a particular wine or cheese: the land, the weather, the minds of the people making it—what they ate, how they lived, how they carried themselves, how they matured as men and women working in a varied and complicated environment. Wine helped me to allow for complications in my own work, which has become increasingly site-based. Furthermore, selling wine to the uninitiated has deepened my empathy with the audience, helping me to understand how people feel when they walk into a wine shop or are introduced to a new winemaking tradition. It has fundamentally changed the way that I make music, and changed the way I see myself and the experience of making music for others.

Embracing a more complicated visceral living through firsthand experiences and outside fields can lead us to unexpected ends. I hope we use our music to examine these living ideas, adding to our cultural knowledge along the way.


Chris Kallmyer

Chris Kallmyer
Rasers Photography

Chris Kallmyer is an artist who works in sound installation, composition, performance, and electronic music. He has presented work at the Walker Art Center, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the Hammer Museum, the Getty Center, REDCAT, Machine Project, and other spaces in America and Europe. His work sits on the fringes of music and contemporary art, often engaging sound through touch, taste, participation, and process. Chris works with Machine Project, is a member of wild Up, and earned his MFA in music from the California Institute of the Arts.

An Expanding Paradigm

steel drums

Photo by Sasithon Pooviriyakul (2010)

When So Percussion started out, we had three prohibitions:  no improvisation, no playing our own music, and no hand drums. Initially, the impetus for these boundaries was an attempt to define ourselves as a hardcore new music group made up of virtuosi.  We’ve since violated all of those rules in spades, although we work hard to perpetuate that original mission.

It wasn’t that we didn’t respect these categories. Actually, we established the hand drum rule specifically because we had so much respect for expert players of congas, tabla, and djembe. We felt that there would be no reason for anybody to come out to hear us pretend to play instruments that other performers had so thoroughly mastered.

The restrictions on composing and improvising had a similar genesis: other musicians spent many years on these crafts, just as we hunkered down honing our chamber music skills. We had an urgent need and desire to be among the best at what we did.  I think these early rules were actually helpful, because we needed a lot of time to devote to chamber music with scores.  We were trying to build a new vocabulary of interaction, a way of listening and rehearsing that took years to dial in.

Eventually, as school days morphed into the beginnings of a professional career, these restrictions made less and less sense.  The hand drum rule fell away quickly, and it is this peculiar prohibition that sparked my thoughts for this article. Almost every instrument we play as percussionists is borrowed from another culture, so one has to either find a way forward in playing them that feels good, or else give up completely.  We came to believe that it’s largely a matter of taste, that the context in which they appear is paramount.

I asked my colleague Josh Quillen, who studied steel drums both in Trinidad and in the United States, how he grapples with including those instruments in So Percussion’s music. His reply:

I rarely reference my cultural knowledge of Trinidad when playing steel drums within So Percussion. It actually helps me to avoid any baggage in that context (and mainly assumptions put on the instrument by others) and to help push me past what I know about the instrument.  Instead, I rely solely on what I learned about how to play the instrument.
With that said, if you’re going to use the instruments in a traditional manner, I say go for it, but that’s where you need to have some background in it in order to do so with any sort of credibility.  I feel good about teaching a steel band and recording traditional calypsos because I have a background in it, and I still work closely with people who are steeped in the culture, and are still teaching me about the instrument and its background.

Here’s a quick sample of the second movement of Steve Mackey’s It Is Time, written for So Percussion in 2009.  Steve and Josh worked hard together to capture the essence of the steel drums, while never letting the music descend into cultural parody.

As Josh mentions, another way to reconcile incorporating an instrument into your music is to find a way to use its sound and quality as an abstract resource, stripping it of most stylistic references.  Many European modernists such as Xenakis discovered new qualities in borrowed instruments, such as the thumping yet warm sonorities of congas and bongos played with sticks in the “Peaux” movement of his massive sextet Pleiades.  In this case, the instruments are incorporated with many other kinds of drums into a new composite instrument, and the manner in which they are played bears little resemblance to their original context.
I feel that as long as we are not pretending to play the specific kind of music that those hand drums were originally used in, or casually mimicking that music, there is nothing wrong with incorporating the sounds of the instruments into the already messy and diverse palate of the percussion ensemble.

As Josh also outlines, one of the most effective ways to feel at ease about knowing how to include an instrument or a tradition into your music is to study it!  If you’ve ever spent time getting your butt kicked by a Balinese Gamelan master who is requiring you to memorize extremely long melodies by ear, or exposing yourself to the fathomless depths of complexity embodied in the talas of Hindustani music, or playing with 120 other steel drummers at Panorama in Trinidad, it is nearly impossible for you to condescend to that music, or to incorporate it carelessly into your own music.

The issue of cross-cultural dialogue isn’t only relevant to crossing geographical boundaries.  Sometimes even collaborating within sub-cultures has its own negotiations, where effort is required to find common ground and articulate mutual expectations.
In 2005, we struck up a relationship with the duo Matmos, who have been steady collaborators ever since.  In the broader sense of culture, we had a lot in common: we spoke the same language, had all grown up in and been educated in the same country, etc.  We diverged in one key area, which was that Drew and Martin of Matmos had not had any formal training in classical music.
But their music was fascinating!  They bowed rat cages, made tracks out of liposuction sounds, and somehow blended the curiosity of musique concrète (which they are extremely aware of) with a smile-inducing and infectious feel for making great beats.  We loved the conceptuality and natural musicianship of their music, which we first got to know through their work on Bjork’s Vespertine album.

Their musical culture has its own rules and expectations, some of which they purposely break.  I quickly realized that I knew very little about that culture, just as they didn’t know much about the endless Beethoven and Monteverdi that I was listening to in order to prepare for my doctoral exams at Yale.

I distinctly remember talking to Martin about some of their favorite music, as I was genuinely curious.  He rattled off so many names I had never heard of that I just asked him to boil it down to the Matmos influence essentials, the first five things I should listen to.

He said, “You mean, like Kraftwerk?”
I said, “Who is Kraftwerk?”

He looked at me like I had just landed on planet Earth.  He might as well have said to me, “Who is Mozart?”
Martin and Drew’s instrument layout in performance reads like a time capsule of the past 30 years of electronic music.  They hang on to reliable instruments that they love, refusing to clean the slate every time a new technological update is available.  Over years of conversation and experimentation with them, we have started to incorporate some of those instruments in our music as well.  Without their influence and knowledge, I’m not sure we would have felt comfortable with the baggage of a Korg or V-Synth suddenly appearing in our percussion ensemble.

There is an organic process in bringing cultural perspective to what you do.  No rule or blanket theory is going to address everything that’s possible:  we have too many interweaving contexts to sort out a unified approach.    As a young group, So Percussion sought a concrete definition of what made us a new music group, and an answer to why that category mattered. It seemed to us that jumping into all of these other ponds would be confusing or messy.  In truth, it probably has been.  And it has not always been successful!

But it has been worth it, at least to us. Here’s a performance of Water, a piece that we wrote together with Matmos.  It incorporates both Matmos’ electronic elements and Josh’s steel drum playing.

Commissioning Music and Stuff

A "pile" of notes from Electric Blue Pantsuit for violin and electronics.

A “pile” of notes from electric blue pantsuit for violin and electronics.

A performer friend and I were recently daydreaming about new possibilities for music commissioning—of chamber music, in particular. She gets frustrated with the long waits involved in seeking grant support for commissioning fees; planning as much as two or three years in advance for something that may or may not actually come through. While I know quite a few composers who have organized consortia of instrumentalists who all chip in money to fund a commission, I always feel slightly uncomfortable about the idea of asking performers to pay for a new piece, when it seems like they should be receiving a fee (and a good fee, to boot) to perform a new work (or any work, for that matter).

My performer friend talked about how great it would be if commissioning music were more a part of everyday life. For instance, if a person commissioned a chamber work as a birthday gift to a partner, or if a community group commissioned a piece as part of an event. While this certainly does happen, it’s not nearly as frequent an occurrence as commissioning a work of visual art, which is fairly commonplace in some circles. What if it became perfectly normal for the tax accountants of wealthy people to say, “You need to rack up a few more beefy expenses this year. How about commissioning some music? Here’s a list of organizations that can help you do that. Go for it!” Or, as my colleague Molly Sheridan has suggested, given that most people of any social stratum have no idea how to go about commissioning a piece of music (the actual piece as opposed to a recording) or other work of art, what about something along the lines of Etsy.com for composers and musicians?

Like I said, daydreaming. In a way, I understand why these scenarios are not realities. People like stuff. Stuff that can be touched, held, hung on a wall, enjoyed by passers by. I like stuff, too. Although in my world music very much counts as “stuff,” the reality is that music is constructed of air and imagination. As physical as it may seem, music can never be touched. However, a physical recording can be touched, as can a score. When Joanne Hubbard Cossa retired from the American Music Center, as a gift she received a box full of notes and score snippets from many of the composers who had been supported by AMC over the years. That was an amazing gift; beautiful, personal, and so interesting. Not exactly music, but the stuff of music.

I wonder if commissioning music would become a more widely accepted activity if, in addition to the music, there was a bit of stuff involved? An autographed score might come with a commission as a matter of course, possibly with a recording at some point, but what if the composer also included some of her or his own earlier scribblings and notes? I realize that in-process twiddlings can be very personal and many composers don’t care to share them, but that material is also something that people outside the process really like; it helps them understand a little bit of how the music comes together. One of the reasons I try to document a bit of the composing process through photos of my music “piles” is because it can provide a little something physical to associate with all of that air. People seem to genuinely enjoy it, and it also serves to gently coax listening in to the actual music.
The biggest question is, of course, how to reach the people who would partake in the commissioning process. Are there any tax accountants out there reading? It’s time to start planting seeds… lots of seeds.