Tag: discovery

Quick Cuts for Big Ears

A crowd of people outdoors

Attending the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville is a delicious game of choice and chance, forcing you to pick between such things as overlapping performances by Rhiannon Giddens, Theo Bleckmann, and Joan La Barbara—and that’s just the first night! But with only a week to go until the kickoff of the 2019 edition of the festival (March 21-24), decisions will need to be made, so we’re combing through the schedule and getting excited to consume as much music as we can cram into our ears (and the hours available each day).

Meanwhile, we’ve been digging through our archives and revisiting the amazing conversations we’ve had with some of this year’s featured artists to get ready for what’s ahead.

The time Joan La Barbara gave us a masterclass in extended vocal techniques

(“The Unexpected Importance of Yes” 3/1/06; @ Big Ears here)

These are things to play with; they’re just ways of experimenting. These are the beginning rudiments of extended vocal techniques. What I want to give to you and what I want to give to every singer is just to play with voice, just play with it and see what else it can do. There are all sorts of wonderful things and if you listen to the music of other cultures you’ll hear very, very different uses of the voice.

The time Gabriel Kahane told us the tale of the golf sweater, the crumpled letter, and the Tupperware container of chocolate chip cookies hidden in the back of the closet

(“NewMusicBox LIVE! Presents” 8/4/15; @ Big Ears here)

The time Meredith Monk spent an hour sharing personal stories and trading ideas about music with Bjork

(Radical Connections, 3/16/07; @ Big Ears here)

Counterstream Radio OnDemand: Meredith Monk and Björk


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The time Wadada Leo Smith explained how to leave room for personal interpretation

(“Decoding Ankhrasmation” 5/1/12; @ Big Ears here)

I have all kinds of music, but I use the specific language that I have to experiment with instruments and people, sometime extracted from their history, sometime using their history as well. Most things that artists do will find this course.

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The time Carl Stone showed us how to make music on a laptop using MAX (in the year 2000)

(“Intellectual Property, Artistic License and Free Access to Information in the Age of Sample-Based Music and the Internet” 11/1/00; @ Big Ears here)

[nm_stream_boxes ids=”271023, 147595, 274129″ title=”More from Stone on intellectual property and the creative experience:”]

The time Alvin Lucier offered us some excellent advice on evaluating new music

(“Sitting in a Room with Alvin Lucier” 4/1/05; @ Big Ears here)

I’m not interested in your opinions, but I’m interested in your perceptions.

With an admittedly overwhelming number of options to explore, last year I took festival founder Ashley Capps’s advice when selecting from among the myriad options:

The art of fully enjoying the festival experience is to “be here now” as they say, and once you make your decision, to go all in and be fully immersed in what that experience has to offer.

It was guidance that held up under the pressure of so many great performances in 2018. We’ll be reporting from the festival again live this year via our social channels if you want to follow along, or get a taste of what’s to come right now with our 2019 Big Ears Playlist.

The Tennessee Theatre

The Tennessee Theatre, Big Ears 2018. Photo: Molly Sheridan

The Case for Radio

Car Stereo

“Is radio dying?” I’ve been hearing this ominous question for years, especially in the context of the plethora of digital music platforms—Spotify, Pandora, our personal music collections, YouTube, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and many more. Can good old-fashioned radio continue to thrive among the other options out there? I believe the answer is yes; radio is evolving, not dying, and there are foundational principles of radio that can’t compete with fancy new technologies.

On February 7 I hosted Musochat, a weekly new music Twitter conversation (Sundays at 6 p.m. PT) to discuss related topics with this passionate online community. You can read the entire summary here, but since I didn’t chime in with my own answers I’d like to share them here.

Do you still think of “radio” as on-the-dial only? If not, how do you define it in this day and age of digital platforms?

It’s definitely not on-the-dial only, but in order for it to be radio, it must be a unique channel of music curated by a human that cannot be paused, skipped, rewound, or altered in any other way. This includes terrestrial/HD radio, their online streaming simulcasts, and continuous streaming channels like KING FM’s Second Inversion, WQXR’s Q2 Music, and New Music USA’s Counterstream Radio. Some people mentioned Pandora in their responses, so I added the sub question, “Do you think Pandora is radio?” I say, “no,” as Pandora’s model is opposite to my definition of radio: the infinite channels are not unique, they are generated by a computer, and the listener can control the experience.

What is your #1 most used music platform and why?

Outside of my office, where it’s the endless wealth of new music new releases (roughly 70% on physical CDs and 30% digital files) for airplay consideration on Second Inversion, my go-to platform is radio. Since I spend so much of my work week choosing music for other people to listen to, I take immense pleasure in consuming playlists that other humans have curated when I’m on my own time. I listen terrestrially if I’m in my car or at home and stream the audio on my phone if I’m walking or bussing, and I rotate between Seattle’s public radio stations, including KPLU (jazz), KEXP (a little bit of everything), KBCS (folk & bluegrass), KING FM (classical), and KNHC (pop and dance remixes). I value that I can count on these stations to help me discover something new almost every time I tune in. I’d also define radio as a community of listeners hearing the same thing at the same time and the ethereal bond that I have with who-knows-how-many other people at any given moment is another fundamental reason why I love radio.

If you could change one thing about your #1 platform to make it better, what would it be?

I’m tempted to say nothing, because what I love about radio is its reliable unpredictability. Unrelated to the audio product, I would love to see a space where listeners can chat about what they’re hearing in real time to turn the aforementioned ethereal bond into a more tangible bond.

How much talk do you want to hear when you’re listening to music?

Not a lot but definitely some. Roughly 60-90 seconds of historical or anecdotal information is ideal for me. The human voice is something that radio uses in a meaningful way that other streaming tools such as Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube don’t offer. This furthers my case for radio being a reliable source for learning, discovery, and context.

Research shows that the #1 core value for classical radio is “to relax.” Does this apply to you? If not, what is yours?

And to clarify, this applies to audiences of major market classical radio stations which typically play mostly Baroque through early 20th-century repertoire from the Western canon. For me, classical music can be relaxing, but I don’t listen to it to relax. I listen with intent, focus, and an analytical ear and hope to feel something, whether it’s good or bad. If I don’t feel anything, I turn it off. From the peanut gallery on Musochat—most people firmly said, “no,” and offered some great answers: to engage, to get pumped, to discover, to think, to question existence, “to kick my brain into gear” (@EdWindels), “to ponder new sounds in a more solitary setting than a concert” (@ursulasahagian), to be thrilled, stimulated, excited. While I wasn’t surprised to hear the lack of agreement with relaxation amongst a group of adventurous listeners, I was thrilled to see such a wide variety of very strong values for radio.

How much does the actual video content matter in YouTube videos? Do you use it mostly for the audio?

I brought this question up because video has become a presence in the evolution of radio. As people are choosing to stream radio stations on devices with screens, creating a visual reflection of the station’s mission is a natural step. This is one way for radio stations to infuse their identity into additional content that can be spread across widely used platforms, such as YouTube or Vimeo, and embedded into social media.

I think the video content does matter, tremendously so (“Like, if you’re gonna have a video you gotta make it worthwhile, even if it’s just a great performance video” @sammelnicomposer chimed in), but YouTube has become very saturated with content that doesn’t actually have any video, e.g. a still image of a CD cover, a headshot of the composer, or a nature shot. This does not constitute a proper video experience for me, so I tend to use YouTube as an audio search tool. If there is a well-produced video attached, I’ll save it to watch again later, tweet it, or e-mail to a friend. Good videos should be shared actively and put on a pedestal and at KING FM and Second Inversion, we’re trying to set the standard for what classical music videos can and should be.

If you were in charge of a new music radio show, 24/7 stream, or podcast, what would you include? List 1-3 things—general or specific.

Since I am in charge of such a thing, I’ll say that with Second Inversion, I’m most excited to present a wide variety of musical flavors, brief spoken introductions from passionate voices (composers, performers, advocates), and on-demand content (videos and live concert recordings). Common answers included current performances from cities all over the world, diversity (music from non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-cisgender composers), strong opinions, humor, interaction, and emerging composers who don’t already have national recognition. I’m proud that all of those are already integral parts of Second Inversion’s programming, and we’ll continue to include them as time goes on.

To recap this interview with myself, there’s no doubt in my mind that radio will continue to be one of the many valuable media consumption options. The human-curated element and innate community of radio is unique to the medium and something that you simply cannot get with an algorithm-based streaming aid (Pandora), nor a searchable music database (Spotify). In this day and age, radio has evolved with digital technology such that you can stream a radio station in your city, seek out another station that offers content you prefer, or maintain the connection to your hometown station if you move to a different city. At KING FM, we’re proactively thinking about what the “21st-century radio announcer” is, and it’s not just someone behind a microphone in a booth. That’s still part of it, but producing creative audio content, having active voices on social media, and engaging with the community are important pieces of the puzzle, too. I’m even more assured about radio’s ability to keep reinventing itself and adapt to changing trends, with research to be conducted by Station Resource Group (SRG) in the coming years.
If you don’t share my optimistic outlook or feel like you’ve lost touch with your local radio stations, I encourage you to visit one of them today online and check out what they’re doing. Are you surprised? Positively or negatively? Either way, I’d love to know your take on the state of radio and its future.

Lessons Learned


Photo by Michael Coghlan, via Flickr

Very few of us ignited our passion for music through critical thinking. Instead, small moments of enlightenment—flashes of understanding informing our future actions and ways of thinking—fanned the flames of initial interest into whatever inferno our obsession currently takes. It’s the primal urge to create, wherever it comes from, that remains at the center of what we do. And, no matter how we propose to articulate where we are and what we think, we are always coming from that place.

To that end, I see my series of posts this month as an opportunity to focus on my own essential moments of enlightenment and how they continue to affect the outgrowths of my work and philosophy, while steering away from articulating aesthetic, formal, and timbral concerns that live only on the surface of my thinking. In essence, I want to try to discover how the large lessons I’ve learned influence the way I think about and make music.

Natalie Lowrance was my piano teacher from ages ten to eighteen, when I decided to concentrate on trumpet. Mrs. Lowrance was a great teacher in the mold of so many great, underappreciated teachers. She uttered no magical phrase that changed the way her students viewed the world. She did, however, attempt to find an entry point for each one of us—to stoke our interest in music by speaking on our level and listening to what we had to say, creating an atmosphere in which one of those formational moments of enlightenment could be possible. For example, my first period of musical obsession came upon hearing a recording she gave me of Maurizio Pollini playing Schoenberg. It was not music she liked, but she recognized that it was resonating with me. We spent years talking about Schoenberg’s work frankly. We disagreed often, but always made the effort to logically back up our arguments and respect the other’s experience and opinion.

This experience changed the way I learn and is a model of how I want to engage with those around me. It is easy to believe that we are enriching ourselves, and those around us, by becoming living content providers: aggregators that provide information with a few simple comments and very little space for dissenting opinions. But, to provide the kind of entry points that allow other humans to spark a passion for music, we need to supplement this simple presentation of material with some shading of our humanity. We must create context by interacting with others to share the raw data by relating it to our own histories and opinions.

Essentially I’m suggesting we concentrate on the humanity of music by taking part in real discussion. By this, I do not mean “educating the unwashed masses” from a perceived aesthetic high ground, nor do I mean a forum in which everyone’s opinion is correct just for having been uttered. I mean beautiful, bloody, human arguments in which we listen, consider, reconsider, disagree, change our minds, or stick to our guns. Any discussion on any topic will do, as long as the end result is an exchange of ideas in which all participants leave with more to think about than when they entered. To that end, my editorial work with www.soundamerican.org is based on experiments with how to achieve this level of real discussion through a single-curator online publication.

What’s the lesson learned? Embracing the moment of discovery—recognizing what it is and sharing the knowledge we gain from it with others through one-on-one interaction—is an essential affirmation of our individuality and the way we grow as a community. Our main goal as human beings should be to seek out and experience as many of these flashes of understanding as possible. As individuals in a culture, we should strive to be an active participant in creating a collective atmosphere in which these sparks ignite more musical ideas.


Nate Wooley

Nate Wooley
Photo by Vera Marmelo

Nate Wooley was born in 1974 in Clatskanie, Oregon, a town of 2,000 people in the timber country of the Pacific Northwestern corner of the U.S. He began playing trumpet professionally with his father, a big band saxophonist, at the age of 13. His time in Oregon, a place of relative quiet and slow time reference, instilled in Nate a musical aesthetic that has informed all of his music making for the past 20 years, but in no situation more than his solo trumpet performances. He has performed regularly with such icons as John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, Eliane Radigue, Ken Vandermark, Fred Frith, Evan Parker, and Yoshi Wada, as well as being a collaborator with some of the brightest lights of his generation like Chris Corsano, C. Spencer Yeh, Peter Evans, and Mary Halvorson.