Tag: education

Hindustani Music: Let It Go

zoom recorder
During Hindustani vocal lessons, my audio recorder is always close at hand. At the start of each lesson I usually turn it on and nudge it across the floor towards my teacher, strategically positioning it to pick up more of her mellifluous rendition of each phrase she sings, and less of my tentative attempt to recreate it. Each week, I pore over these recordings as I practice. With fingers poised over the keyboard shortcut for the five-second audio rewind, I repeat each little patch of notes over and over, listening for the tiniest nuances of each phrase my teacher has sung.

My training began in Western music, as a pianist, where practicing meant observing each detail in the score of a pre-existent composition, and drilling it incessantly until I was able to render it without error or hesitation. So when I began to study Hindustani music, I treated the recording of each lesson the way I would have treated the score of a Beethoven sonata, meticulously learning and memorizing each phrase, with all its subtle twists and turns, exactly as it was sung by my teacher.
It took me years to realize that most Hindustani musicians do not practice this way. As I know now, Hindustani practice is closer to an act of meditation than Western practice is. It begins just as a meditation session might—vocalizing on the tonic note of a drone[1], establishing a firm connection with the central pitch from which all subsequent material flows. The practice of Western music requires an actively focused mind that allows a musician to dip into a piece of music at any point and immediately contextualize the material, or repeat tiny passages out of context to increase accuracy or speed. However, Hindustani practice requires a different, looser kind of focus. As the mind sinks deep into an exploratory flow, each phrase blooms organically from the previous one, bringing the essence of the raag[2] slowly into focus. The recording of a lesson, then, is simply a suggestion of how and where each phrase can be opened up—the material that comes into that suggested space must be generated spontaneously.

A great deal of emphasis is placed on spontaneity in Hindustani music. The word khayal which is the term for the dominant style of Hindustani vocal music (since the 18th century), has been translated in English as a “thought,” “opinion,” or “notion”—in Hindi, the term always carries the additional implication that such a thought has come spontaneously to mind. During a khayal performance, phrases are created in the moment, and the singer fashions the structure of the work in real time, in front of the audience. The shelf life of any given phrase is only as long as it takes to become sound and leave the singer’s lips. The singer never revisits it exactly[3], nor is it put into any concrete notation for others to recreate. Once it has been uttered, it is gone.
In Western art music, if composers work through many iterations of a passage of music, it is often for the purpose of finding the “best” one—the one that will be preserved through notation and will be reproducible by generations of musicians to come. I have always felt that part of my job as a composer is to capture the most ephemeral moments so that they are available to be experienced again and again. I find it so difficult to let a beautiful phrase pass undocumented. I remember being at an incredible performance of the renowned singer Begum Parveen Sultana in Delhi when, about halfway through the concert, the audience began applauding after every phrase she sang. Every single phrase. She deserved all of it and more—every note was absolutely stunning. And even as I relished each moment, half of my mind was panicking, thinking, “I should be recording this right now. Why didn’t I bring a recorder? This is too amazing not to be preserved.”
zoom recorder
I felt the same sense of panic at a recent lesson. My teacher[4] was singing a variety of possible variations of one phrase, and I was repeating them, one at a time. We went back and forth at least ten times, after which I paused my trusty recorder and we chatted for a moment. When we returned to singing variations on that phrase, it took me about a minute to realize the recorder wasn’t on—I could already feel those undocumented variations slipping from my mind.

As I reached for the recorder, she stopped me. “Don’t fixate on recording every single thing. If you record these variations, they will stay inside the recorder—they will never find their way into you.” I was taken aback for a moment. Of course they would find their way into me, because I would spend the next week meticulously learning and memorizing every single one of them.
It took me weeks to realize what she meant, though. Hindustani music is about developing flexibility, a malleable working relationship with a raag. It’s true, few singers reach the level of Parveen Sultana, where every phrase that comes to mind demands an ovation. But by letting go of this rigid learning approach, I was also opening my mind to a state where it could create without inhibition, which is something I have struggled to achieve in my life as a Western musician. Without the constriction of a ruler to constantly measure myself against, the directions I could take in my explorations were endless. As my teacher so beautifully phrased it, “Music is a vast ocean—every day we stand at the shore and dip our toes into the water.”[5] Perhaps a few of the directions could tap beautiful areas I would never have traversed. And then, letting even these new, beautiful phrases go in order to stay in the creative flow would allow me to explore even more deeply. Practice does, of course, have an important element of refinement, but it is only through a balance with this boundless exploration, that the creative spirit of the art is truly engaged.
The glorification of letting go is much more common in all areas of Indian tradition than in the West. Many Indian holidays end with fire or water: hundreds gather to watch huge effigies of Ravana go up in flames; throngs of people carry statues of Durga through the streets to immerse her in the river. The release of the celebrated objects is embedded deeply into the celebration itself.

Similarly, the concept of canon as we know it in the West does not exist as such in Hindustani music. I was surprised to learn, as I studied with different teachers, that most compositions (the small portions of fixed music that guide the rest of the spontaneous elaboration) were created either by my teachers or their teachers. There are very few compositions that every Hindustani musician will know, that have been handed down exactly through the ages. Hindustani notation is, at best, a shorthand that will help someone who already knows a composition to recall it. But it can hardly capture the full breadth of the music and therefore cannot be relied upon as a learning tool. And it is just as well: the limited scope of notation is an accurate reflection of its importance in the tradition.
However, the fact that there is no reliable form of written preservation means that the onus is on each performer to reestablish the tradition in every performance. For this reason, the Hindustani tradition has not evolved as rapidly as the Western tradition has. For instance, the khayal style of singing came to prominence around the time of Bach and has, to the best of our knowledge, been executed using the same basic structural principles ever since. In that time, Western music has gone through so many changes, so many eras and movements. Because Western music is so meticulously notated, we don’t need new composers to preserve the tradition as much as innovate upon it. In fact, the establishment of stature in the Western canon is contingent upon innovation. However, if Hindustani musicians were to alter the basic structure of their tradition this drastically, it would immediately lose its grounding and context.

It is the constant reaffirmation of this tradition on the larger, structural level that allows complete freedom on the local level. The structure is designed to invite the audience in, to teach the ear as the performance unfolds, and to do so organically, through the unique direction and character of the performer.

It is still the most difficult thing for me, as a Western-trained musician, to practice letting go. It takes patience and determination to detach from the first beautiful notes I create or hear, to focus on the entire ocean instead of the water that is touching my feet. But to the extent that I have been able to let go, both the music I create and my musical experience itself have become that much richer.


1. The drone is created either by an instrument called the tanpura, which the singer strums as s/he sings, or in the modern day, is created by a shruti box, or even an incredible iPhone app called iTablaPro that is widely used, even among professional musicians.

2. It is difficult to define the term ‘raag’ in Western musical terminology, but I have recently taken to calling it a “scale with personality”. It is somewhere between a scale and a collection of characteristic melodic motives which are used to generate a wealth of improvised material.

3. With one notable exception—often the first portion of a composition is repeated exactly to anchor the music after an improvised phrase. However, this is a short phrase of a few notes, that serves as a beacon in a sea of improvisation.

4. In last week’s post, “Recitals of Gratitude,” I spoke about my late teacher Lakshmi Shankar. Currently I study with Saili Oak Kalyanpur, which is who is quoted here.

5. Oak attributes this beautiful saying to her teacher, Ashwini Bhide Deshpande. It should be noted, though, that Hindustani musical literature is full of beautiful, poetic sayings like this, which Hindustani musicians quote often. Some of my favorite musical quotations come from the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

Back to School: Five Articles to Get the Semester Started Right

Card Catalog
1. Found: Three Examples of 21st-Century Music

What three scores could adequately represent the musical innovations of the past 10-15 years? Composers have become comfortable choosing from the musical smorgasbord that has accumulated over the past several centuries, so making a list is a challenge. But is it a fool’s errand?
text books
2. Anthologies and the Problem of Pre-Fab Teaching
Not to put too fine a point on it, but to teach only the composers discussed in someone else’s textbook, chosen by someone else’s narrative, would surely be an impoverished and lazy approach to pedagogy. What if we take anthologies as the beginning of discussions, not the ending?
Education and Debt
3. Buyer Beware: Education Debt
Every spring, music schools across the country celebrate commencement. There are processions and ceremonies, brunches and barbecues. Young, talented students have performed recitals of demanding repertoire, gained valuable ensemble experience, and passed through the gauntlet of theory, ear training, and music history. Commencement speakers advise graduates to be bold, creative, and persistent as they begin their careers. During this time, few commencement speakers will breathe a word about what will happen in precisely six months’ time, when the first student loan bill arrives on graduates’ doorsteps. That particular milestone will occur without fanfare, but represents a life-changing reality of its own.
4. Student Learning in the Music School
Given that each music professor achieves his or her expertise in a highly idiomatic way and must impart that expertise in a highly idiomatic way, how does one measure learning across a cohort of music school students?
New ideas
5. Inviting Possibilities for New Music and Music Education
How would you feel if you heard your own or a colleague’s music mashed up with the latest Katy Perry or Kendrick Lamar track? Can you envision yourself video conferencing with a group of elementary school or university students who recently posted video clips of themselves discussing new music on YouTube or who admitted that they would like to try transforming a piece from the genre into electronic dance music? These questions hint towards possibilities that some may find problematic and that others may consider appropriate and beneficial for new music, musicians, and students.
Education Week
Extra Credit!! Review last year’s full week of education-related content in case there’s a pop quiz at the faculty mixer.
How We Learn Now
Fresh learning methods have opened up exciting possibilities when it comes to advancing music education and introducing new ears to new work, so we invited our regular contributors plus some special guests to each pick up a thread in this huge concept and tell us about a piece of this story that’s important to them.

New Music Opportunities for Young Students Grow in Missouri

Multiple C.O.M.P. winners Menea Kefalov and Ande Siegel of Ladue Middle School, Ladue

Multiple C.O.M.P. winners Menea Kefalov and Ande Siegel of Ladue Middle School, Ladue

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – Lao-tzu

Though becoming a composer or musician is a long journey, students who want to learn classical music or jazz at least have a well-defined path to follow. Take lessons on an instrument; join an ensemble or two at school; supplement that with additional performance opportunities in church, a community band or orchestra, and whatever else might be available; and a young musician can get familiar with basic concepts, techniques and repertoire in an orderly and systematic way.

While only a few may follow that path all the way to become professional musicians, many others will stay on it long enough to become the sort of adults who listen to jazz or classical radio, purchase concert tickets and recordings, and so on. Small wonder, then, that classical and jazz organizations of all sorts have gotten involved in education in a big way.

In contrast, for a younger student who wants to compose or perform new music, the path seems much murkier, or even non-existent. Until they get to college, most young musicians simply don’t get a chance to work on much contemporary music, and performance opportunities for the work of composers younger than 18 also are comparatively rare.

With music programs in many school districts already operating on tight budgets, most don’t have the resources to expand beyond what they’re already doing. But here in Missouri, educators and musicians have been developing some new ways to cultivate the composers and new music performers of the future.

The first effort is part of the Mizzou New Music Initiative (MNMI), an array of programs at the University of Missouri’s School of Music intended to make the school a center for the creation and performance of new music. While most of the Initiative’s programs are for undergraduate and graduate students at Mizzou, it actually began nine years ago with the Creating Original Music Project (C.O.M.P.), a university-administered statewide competition for student composers from grades K-12.
C.O.M.P. is open to public, private, parochial, and home-schooled students, but each student who applies must have the signature and sponsorship of their school’s music teacher. Not-for-profit groups, such as community agencies, churches, and after-school programs, also can sponsor entrants in partnership with the school music teacher, as can private teachers and other musical mentors.

The students’ work must be original—no arrangements or improvisations based on existing pieces—and teachers and/or mentors may only assist students in notating or recording the pieces.

Students in the elementary school division (grades K through five) can submit works in one of two categories, Songs with Words and Instrumental. For middle school students in grades six through eight, the categories are Fine Art Music (which includes work for string quartet, piano solo, solo instrumentalist with accompaniment, and similar) and Popular Music (rock, country, folk, hip-hop, alternative, etc.).

The high school division (grades 9 through 12) also has Fine Art Music and Popular Music categories, and adds one for Jazz. (There’s also an “Other” category, though the judges—faculty members from the School of Music—can move a work to another category at their discretion.)

Students in the Fine Art categories must submit notated versions of their work, while the entrants in the other categories may submit notation or recordings.

Composers of the top three works in each category win plaques and cash prizes for themselves and their schools, and are invited to perform their work (or have it performed, if an ensemble or additional instruments are required) at the C.O.M.P. Festival, an all-day concert held on a Saturday in April on the Mizzou campus in Columbia.

Hearing their works performed in concert is an exciting opportunity for the kids and their parents and teachers, and the event and the awards provide some strong positive reinforcement for their creativity. For the past two years, the concert audio also has been streamed live on the internet via the School of Music’s website, allowing friends, relatives, schoolmates, and neighbors who couldn’t make the trip to Columbia to hear the performance.

HyunJun (John) Yoo of West Middle School, Columbia, a multiple C.O.M.P. winner, with Jeanne Sinquefield Ph.D of the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation

HyunJun (John) Yoo of West Middle School, Columbia, a multiple C.O.M.P. winner, with Jeanne Sinquefield of the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation

Many of the high-school age winners then go on to attend the Missouri Summer Composition Institute (or “C.O.M.P. Camp”), which is open to students entering grades 9-12 and entering college freshmen. Students who wish to participate must submit scores of original works, and a total of 16, split into “advanced” and “intermediate” divisions, are invited to participate in a week-long program held on the campus in June.

C.O.M.P winners who are selected can attend the program free of charge on scholarships designated for that purpose, while others pay a $100 fee for the week. While they’re at camp, the students get composition lessons from Mizzou faculty and graduate students, participate in various other enrichment activities, and compose a piece to be premiered at the end of the week by a resident ensemble.

Meanwhile, a couple of hours to the east in St. Louis, a joint project between the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound and the Community Music School of Webster University is giving student musicians ages K-12 the opportunity to learn about and perform the work of living composers, experiment with extended instrumental techniques, and more.

AWS, nominally based in New York though the members live all over the country, has been coming to Missouri since 2010 to serve as the resident ensemble for the Mizzou International Composers Festival, which is held each July as the signature event of the Mizzou New Music Initiative. In 2012, with funding from the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, which also funds the MNMI, Alarm Will Sound began offering a “St. Louis season” of performances at the Sheldon Concert Hall and other venues.

Then in 2013, select members of AWS began coming to St. Louis in between concerts to work with students at the Community Music School of Webster University, which offers a variety of music classes and lessons for students of all ages on Webster U’s campus in suburban Webster Groves.

AWS oboist Christa Robinson, who had experience teaching elementary school students, worked with the CMS faculty to develop a curriculum for a series of monthly sessions designed to accommodate 12 to 15 students.


At the end of the year, the CMS students, who ranged in age from 7 to 17, joined Alarm Will Sound for their final concert of the season at The Sheldon. They performed Steve Reich’s Clapping Music side-by-side with AWS musicians and on their own presented John Adams’s Short Ride In a Fast Machine, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Fast Blue Village 2, Vinko Globokar’s Laboratorium, and David Biedenbender’s Schism, which was written originally for AWS to perform at the 2011 Mizzou International Composers Festival.

The program has now been formalized as a regular class that will meet every two weeks beginning this fall. Alarm Will Sound members will continue to come to St. Louis once a month to teach the group, with CMS instructors using the alternate sessions to answer questions, review concepts, and practice techniques and repertoire.

In a couple of years’ time, the goal is to have what AWS Managing Director Gavin Chuck calls “Alarm Will Sound Jr.,” an ongoing new music ensemble coached by members of AWS.  In addition, this year Chuck and Robinson also plan to get the CMS students playing some works composed by past and present C.O.M.P. winners, tying the two programs together and giving the student musicians and composers the opportunity to develop peer-to-peer relationships.

While C.O.M.P. necessarily is a work in progress as well, it’s an encouraging sign that two past winners of multiple C.O.M.P. awards now are on full composition scholarships at Mizzou, taking the next steps on a path that could lead them to careers in music. While there’s no way to know exactly where they and their peers will end up, these two programs at least have helped get their journeys off to promising starts.

The Improvisation Continuum

Face the Music’s 2013-14 season concluded with a collaboration between the experimental music theater group thingNY and six students. The goal was to create, over three intensive improvisation sessions, a group-composed piece that would be performed together at the Queens Museum. FTM Managing Director Vasudevan Panicker and I selected six students—three girls and three boys—who had a clear interest in improvisation and/or in theater and who seemed game. The result was In Space, which was performed around the Panorama at the museum.

Face the Music and ThingNY "huddle" prior to the premiere of In Space

Face the Music and ThingNY “huddle” prior to the premiere of In Space
Photo by Haley Shaw

Paul Pinto, one of thingNY’s founders, reflected that while the Face the Music players were advanced, they tended to “all try and do their own thing” because they hadn’t worked together previously as an improvising ensemble. I commented that some of the students were disappointed because the resulting piece was very structured, when they had expected to engage in a massive open-ended jam session. (ThingNY and FTM started the first intensive with just such a jam session). This “is a useful way to get to know each other’s styles,” Pinto commented, but his goal was to use improvisation as a means to an end; in other words, as a tool for group composition. Improvisation as a technique, he points out, is different from improvisation as a piece; and furthermore, there are very few truly improvised pieces. Pinto told me that he feels most improvised pieces in the classical canon are really notated pieces that include improvisational elements. “A truly improvised work is freely improvised—every time is completely different.”

Pinto’s point about using improvisation as a means to an end echoes Panicker’s assertion that improvisation falls on a continuum: from completely free improvisation on one end, to creating an “improvised feel” within a fully notated piece on the other.  I would classify the student experiences that I have described as largely falling within the categories of “improvisation as a means to an end” in the sense of planning a group composition, or “classical pieces that include improvisational elements.” There is some truly free improvisation that happens when students get together and jam, but it isn’t something that we cultivate as an end in and of itself.

So, from an educational standpoint, what kind of improvisation should we be teaching? This seems to depend somewhat on the age group and skill level of the students involved. Both Pinto and Martha Mooke, who served as our first-ever composer-in-residence at the Special Music School this season, have had successful experiences teaching even very young students to improvise, but my area of expertise and interest falls in the pre-college realm. Based on my own observations, I would say that all pre-college students could benefit from improvisation experience prior to entering college or music school; it seems to have very tangible benefits.

In talking with Panicker, Mooke, and Pinto, they were strikingly aligned in their observations about the benefits of improvisation for students: it teaches collaboration; it teaches self-expression; and, most of all, it teaches listening.

As a former ear training teacher myself, I have to reflect on the fact that there is more deep listening happening in a well-run improvisation session than in many conventional ear training classes. I believe that this is at least partly because it places it in a high-stakes context that pairs listening with opportunities for self-expression.

An advanced improvisation student might become expert at identifying stylistic characteristics, Panicker mused, and using these as compositional tools.  It occurs to me, though, that this is itself a form of listening, because it is involves incorporating elements of music that the students have listened to in other contexts.

Violinist Ruby Pine performs In Space at Queens Museum

FTM violinist Ruby Pine performs In Space at Queens Museum
Photo by Haley Shaw

There are also a couple of “best practices” when introducing students to improvisation that seemed evident to all of us. One: the instrument tends to get in the way. In essence, the more facile a student is technically, the more prone they are to getting stuck, at least initially, because the options for self-expression are so vast that it’s hard to know where to start. In a workshop that the jazz quartet Gutbucket did for the SMS High School students last December, I saw them conduct an entire improvisation exercise in which they restricted the students to the use of one note; it was liberating for many of the students.

And this brings me to the second of the best practices: students need limits. Well, we all know that students need limits—especially Paris Lavidis, who had a habit of starting Quartet: This Side Up rehearsals with an exercise he calls “59 Seconds of Passionate Improv”—but, kidding aside, the right limiting parameters can make or break an improvisation environment.  “Everyone needs to be able to contribute, and follow, in a group improvisation,” Pinto pointed out, and the selection of good barriers can aid in making that happen.

In general, Face the Music tends to run ahead of itself and now we have to figure out where the next step lies in the area of improvisation. Do we go off in search of an improvisation curriculum? Do we write one? Maybe neither—or not yet, anyway.  In 2014-15, Improv Hour will continue—rechristened with the catchier name of Sound Bite Orchestra—and Panicker is going to lead them down some curricular-looking paths, introducing the techniques of Conduction (Butch Morrison) and Sound Painting (Walter Thompson).  But other than that, we will continue to program pieces that include improvisational elements and see where this leads.

Before closing this blog post by stepping up onto my usual soapbox, I should mention that there is a deep thread of “improvisation friendliness” that runs through the foundation of the Special Music School, and I secretly credit this with the fact that Face the Music got started at all. When SMS was founded back in 1996, it was based on (to my mind) a pair of strange bedfellow methodologies: on the one hand, the rigorous pre-conservatory path inherited from the Soviet special music school system; and on the other, the self-expression-encouraging philosophy of the Dalcroze School of New York. So along with a demanding program of instrumental skill-building, using (mostly) a well-trod line-up of dead composer pieces, students at SMS have always received a dose of improvisation in their theory classes, thanks to Anne Farber, Sean Hartley, and Cynthia Lilley. It’s no accident, in my mind, that some of the kids most excited, as young children, by improvising on the five-note xylophone, later become the kids who groove out to Artificial Life.

But now, the soapbox: students who improvise, in a rigorous context, become better musicians sooner; and the sooner, the better. Why are we waiting until students self-select to go to music school to introduce these ideas? It often seems that they are introduced haphazardly on the college level, as a quick ticket to vocational viability, and that’s often way too late. By introducing improvisation as a central part of the pre-college training of every young musician, we might achieve twin goals. One, we might produce card-carrying virtuosos who can express themselves in an authentic and unique way in front of interested and engaged audiences. Two, by encouraging self-expression earlier, we might encourage a greater diversity—even just brain diversity—in the students who decide they want to deal with the headaches of life as a professional musician, and our resultant cultural life could be much richer as a result.

Okay, peeps, want to take a crack at that? What experiences have you had with students and improvisation? Am I off in left field?

An Rx for Improvisation

Reina Hondo improvises

Reina Hondo improvises with Nikki Richards at Grammy Career Basic Training.

Face the Music and its spiritual sister, the Special Music School High School, give me a fairly regular dose of thrills. Of course, every teacher experiences them—the breakthrough moments—but I sometimes feel like I get an extra kick when a kid proves that there’s obviously so much life in an art form frequently declared dead.

When I first started FTM, I picked Terry Riley’s In C as one of our first pieces. Not a terribly original choice, perhaps, but I needed something that would work for the hodgepodge instrumentation that had come together. Once the kids learned the cells, we faced two persistent and related problems: Racing Through the Piece and the Wall of Sound.  It took over a year (not kidding) to work out these problems, and I remember the breakthrough rehearsal clearly. We had not yet managed to stretch the piece longer than 20 minutes, and then suddenly it was 45 minutes long. People were dropping out to listen to each other! They were trading motives! Finally, the improvisational element of the piece had taken hold. When we finished, the students cheered—they knew something profound had shifted. (And then the performances started getting longer and longer and longer…one famously clocked in at 90 minutes, held outside under a very hot sun.)

Fully notated music took hold of the group for the next few years—the thrill of discovering that kids could play that weird triplet rhythm at the beginning of Yo Shakespeare drove many of my repertoire choices—but we finally came back to improvising in the fall of 2010 with Cuban Impressions by Gregor Huebner. That work includes improv breaks for both a solo quartet of players and the accompanying orchestra, and there is a largely improvised Latin percussion part. It was a “toe in the water” experience for me and the players. Some of the students really enjoyed improvising, and for them the experience of hearing/watching Huebner improvise when he worked with the group was enough to stimulate them to new creative heights. For other students, there was clearly a need for more “support,” as they say in educational circles.

Though we undertook a couple of additional improvisation-related projects in 2011-12 (including one of our first serious student pieces, Zachary Detrick’s Blisters on My Fingers), it wasn’t until we collaborated with ICE on Artificial Life 2007 by George Lewis in January of 2013 that the improvisation bug really took hold of the ensemble. Fortunately, by this point I had been joined in running the ensemble by Vasudevan Panicker, our first managing director who is himself an accomplished improviser and composer.
“That was the piece where we were like, ‘Holy crap!’” Panicker responded when I asked him whether the students had gone farther than we had expected. Though eventually the project resulted in two very sophisticated performances—one with ICE and one with the Queens College Percussion Ensemble—initially he experienced some of the same difficulties that I experienced with In C. “At first it was loud and monotonous, with everyone playing at the same time,” he remembered. “And then eventually it became a piece with form, and dynamics, and even recognizable ‘themes.’”

The students were so enthusiastic about the project that Face the Music created “Improv Hour” during the 2013-14 season. This was an hour at the end of every Sunday night rehearsal during which students of different levels and backgrounds gathered to work on pieces that involved a significant improvisational component. Improv Hour served two purposes: it allowed us to further explore the educational uses of improvisation, and also it allowed students to get their feet wet in the world of new music without being tied down to some of the technical challenges inherent in much modern repertoire.

Improv Hour was Panicker’s project, and over the course of the year they worked on music he wrote (____van____, and Check No Eye), as well as charts by Miles Davis and Daniel Bernard Roumain. The spring semester was spent developing an interpretation of Rajesh Mehta’s visually stunning score for Songlines’ Jewels: Energy of Musicality, known to all of us more colloquially as “Triangle Piece” for the large triangle that forms part of the score. The Hour brought together students with all different backgrounds (classical, jazz, and rock) and with a wide range of technical and reading abilities. In spite of that, the group emerged as perhaps one of the crowning successes of the 2013-14 season; I joke with Panicker that, even when held up against the orchestras and the jazz band, his project was the one that emerged with the strongest sense of group identity.

The 2013-14 season turned out to be a banner year for improvisation because the opening of the SMS High School offered me an excellent opportunity to dig into the topic in the context of a music curriculum embedded in the school day. Partly thanks to a grant from the organization Composers and Schools In Concert, we welcomed Martha Mooke as our first-ever composer-in-residence. Mooke is a violist/composer/improviser whom I had come to know through a couple of workshops she had given to Face the Music students during the previous two years.

SMSHS studied and performed a few of Mooke’s pieces, including her string quartet Quantum and Ode to Ganymede, for chorus and instruments. Also, thanks to CSIC, Mooke wrote a brand-new work for the entire 9th grade class entitled SMSHS, which included a substantial improvisational component. Basically at a point right before the recapitulation, three of the pianists engaged in free improvisation over a whispered accompaniment in the rest of the orchestra.

Mooke has acknowledged that it was a challenge to get the three pianists to open up.  Once students reach a certain level of training, she commented, they become afraid of making mistakes. “That’s a learned habit, and it’s hard to overcome,” she admitted. “But once you open up the creative possibilities, and allow the player to explore his/her own voice, you are helping them to access their own toolbox, even if they think they don’t have the vocabulary or the tools.”

One of the violinists in the quartet that played Quantum was Reina Hondo, a shy SMSHS 9th grader who had first graced my doorstep as a Face the Music student a year and a half before.  Quantum includes instructions for the players to improvise within certain parameters. Hondo’s experience with Quantum was complemented by the opportunity to play Gregor Huebner’s Concierto Con Violin Latina with Face the Music. The piece, which has five movements, includes improv breaks for the soloist in each. We divided it up among three soloists (Hondo, Sophia Steger, and Paris Lavidis), and Hondo took the substantial middle movement.

In the first performance, Hondo successfully improvised, but it seemed like her solo licks mimicked those on Huebner’s recording, which she had studied. On the other hand, when we repeated the piece at a performance in June, her solo breaks were original, full-throated, and confident. It was a stunning transformation. She wrote to me about the experience: “Improvising cannot be good at first but it can be good the second time if you try it for yourself.” I should add here that her violin concerto experience was paralleled by that of several other students last year, including the other soloists on the violin concerto, Charlotte Whatley (the soloist on Huebner’s Cello Concerto), as well as the members of Quartet: This Side Up (who played Huebner’s improv-heavy Third Quartet).

In the spring, SMS High School was invited to perform at the day-long Grammy Camp Basic Training event produced each year by the Grammy Foundation. We were there to perform some music by Mooke as part of a set she had designed (to smash some classical stereotypes) that included a Bach excerpt, a rapping cellist, and an improvising student violist. At the end of the event, all of the students in the auditorium had the chance to take turns improvising over a chorus of “Brave” (originally recorded by Sarah Bareilles) featuring vocalist Nicki Richards and the Fordham High School All Stars.

Because this took place towards the end of a rather long day, I was out in the hallway checking my email—those of you who know me, roll your eyes here—when I heard this tremendous violin lick broadcast over the speakers. I looked at the monitor and saw that it was Reina Hondo! Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I enjoyed the fact that at that moment, she was smashing not one but two clichés: that of the “straitlaced classical musician” and the “quiet Asian girl.” But also, it was proof of a tremendous journey that she had made, partly as a result of her experiences in Face the Music and at the SMS High School.

What Lies Ahead For Teenage Composers?

Last week, I presented to you a handful of my Face the Music and Special Music School students—young composer-performers who are profoundly talented and who are lucky enough to be immersed in educational environments that support their creative development. Alongside private instruction on an instrument and in composition, these students have regular music theory and history classes, as well as frequent opportunities to have their pieces workshopped and performed both by peers and, in many instances, by professionals as well.

Paris Lavidis playing during a Face the Music concert at the David Rubinstein Atrium.

Paris Lavidis playing a Face the Music concert at the David Rubinstein Atrium. Photo by Haley Shaw.

I believe that this merry band of students has the power to change the music world as we know it, but I fear the “bump” when they leave this environment and explore college options. Will the post-secondary world continue to foster their leadership potential? Particularly because I’m currently involved in high school development (the Special Music School expanded into high school grades last year), I really worry: how will these “over-educated” young composers approach the college experience?
I am far from expert in these matters, so please humor me as I explore this topic. I recently voiced my concerns to Aaron Jay Kernis (composer, Yale professor, founder of the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, and—full disclosure—an SMS/FTM parent). Here’s how Kernis described to me three paths that he sees as possible for a young composer:

The university (liberal arts) undergraduate: Lots of intellectual stimulation but possibly fewer high-level players ready to take on the challenges of playing new works

The conservatory undergraduate: Focused music study and plenty of high-level players to take on complex music, but less in the way of interesting cross-disciplinary endeavor

The “renegade” or autodidact: Attends college with no regard to musical study; skips college altogether
This all makes sense. But let’s play God for a moment and pre-suppose that talents like the ones I describe have the potential to completely transform the music world, catapulting classical music into a vital part of a larger social and cultural dialogue. I am thinking here of future Nadia Boulangers, future Howard Hansons. With that mindset, what would we want to see these kids “get” in college? How about:

* Continued development of the artistic voice, with an eye towards…
* Growing a self-sustaining artistic career
* Skill development as necessary to support this
* A wealth of experiences, active and passive, musical and otherwise
* Access to inspired teachers and excellent players
* Freedom and resources to be able to carry out some independent projects

Neither the conservatory nor the university covers all of those areas equally. For instance, while the liberal arts environment undoubtedly provides more in the way of diverse intellectual stimulation, it does not, on the whole, give young composers access to a sufficient number of high-level players and performing opportunities. “I fear that if highly experienced young composers are suddenly deprived of contact with performers at a roughly equal level that they may be ‘fishes out of water,'” Kernis writes.
Also, the liberal arts environment may not be quite as rosy as we conservatory graduates would paint it; collaboration between academic areas can be sporadic and teaching can focus less on “essential questions” and more on content loading, depending on the specific school. Finally, as Kernis points out, composers can end up with insufficient time to actually compose because of a heavy course load; a conservatory can provide more focused time for this crucial work.

On the other hand, conservatories have the reputation of being…well…conservative. As Conrad Tao, my composer/pianist colleague and friend, describes it, the conservatory is a “closed world…where people play discrete roles.” Never mind crossing disciplines; it may be difficult for a composition major to even perform on a concert, as an instrumentalist, to say nothing of pursuing a six-month project studying Indian classical culture. Furthermore, the teachers of “legitimate” instrumental and vocal majors may discourage students from playing works by their colleagues.

However, composers who avoid the conservatory experience could be depriving themselves of the chance to forge relationships with colleagues that could be crucial— from an artistic standpoint as well as from a professional standpoint. And here’s another big concern: composers who avoid the conservatory environment are forgoing the opportunity to develop as musical thought leaders at this powerful age. This affects not just the composers, but also their instrumental and vocal peers.

I believe that we want young conservatory musicians to be working with their composer colleagues as a deeply integral part of their training. For one thing, it will increase the skill level of everyone concerned. It also fosters collaboration—perhaps a whole art unto itself—that teaches young people most of what they need to know about working in the professional world today.

Zachary Detrick playing at the New York Philharmonic Biennial.

Zachary Detrick playing at the New York Philharmonic Biennial. Photo by Haley Shaw.

Ideally, having talented composition students in conservatories at the undergraduate level improves the music itself and pushes our conversation about music, as an art form, to the next level. I’m not just idly fantasizing about the next Leonard Bernstein, either—I’ve seen these conversations already happening among my students on the middle and high school levels. (Thanks to the internet and the rise of “nerd culture,” the Rite of Spring has now become the secret password to some pretty heady conversations, online and off, about music and where it is heading).

Owen Carter playing a Face the Music concert at the David Rubinstein Atrium.

Owen Carter playing a Face the Music concert at the David Rubinstein Atrium. Photo by Haley Shaw.

“Composers are in a unique position to ask the big questions,” Tao agreed during our conversation. “Music has the ability to interface with larger societal issues, and I would enjoy a day when musicians think about themselves in a social context.” Composers have an advantage over instrumentalists in approaching these questions, he thinks, partly because there is less rigidity concerning teaching methods.
However, I suspect—and again, I expect to get responses to this post that contradict me—that conservatories will need to flex more in order to adequately meet the needs of deeply creative composers, at least on an undergraduate level. A traditional bachelor’s degree in music is not going to give a student who is writing symphonies and performance art, at 13, what he or she needs in order to become a composer who can change the world.
What do you think?

School’s Not Out for Summer

On June 24 I attended one of the most amazing new music concerts of my personal “season.” Over the course of two hours, I heard two major works by John Adams—his well-loved Hallelujah Junction and also a brand-new arrangement, for two pianos, of Fearful Symmetries—a new work for solo piano (Dark Halls), a new work for violin and piano (Gesualdo In Love), a major new work for two pianos and percussion (Greek Dances), and a comic but well-structured performance art piece (Sonata for Prepared Piano and Unprepared Pianist). An average night in New York, you say? Hardly. The performers were all composers and the average age was fourteen. This took place at the Kaufman Music Center, where I have made my joyful home for the past ten years, where I am music director of the Special Music School (NYC’s K-12 public school for music nerds), and where I started and grew Face the Music (NYC’s new music ensemble for teens and younger kids).

Face the Music

Members of Face the Music transport some piano mechanics home after a performing arts fair in Brooklyn.

For me, the delight of this concert wasn’t the obvious: well-prepared music, new voices, interesting harmonies. It was that all five of the composer/performers involved—Owen Carter, Paris Lavidis, Kyrie McIntosh, Sofia Belimova, and Zachary Detrick—had independently produced and rehearsed the concert. I felt as if I had stepped into a reincarnation of the Society for Private Musical Performances. Furthermore, it wasn’t as if these folks were starved for new music activity. Owen, Paris, and Zach are all members of Face the Music, which gave 41 concerts this year—and in fact, all of them wrote pieces for the group this season. In June alone, Zachary (who is 15) had a piece premiered (by the Special Music School High School Orchestra) as part of the New York Philharmonic Biennial, and had a different piece performed by Face the Music as part of Make Music New York; Owen (who is 14) had a repeat performance (by Face the Music) of his quirky orchestral piece Sequester as part of a concert at St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery; and Paris (who is 13) premiered his new theater-music piece 21 Ways to Say Grace at the Queens Museum.

And then there’s the fact that these young composers are not yet done for the summer—for some of them, indeed, the summer is a chance to finally get down to the business of writing more. I asked each of them to detail for me what they had written since school let out, and then their plans for the summer. Their answers are at the bottom of this post, but to summarize, they included the completion of violin concerti and chamber symphonies, and the creation of improvised works for piano, astronomy-inspired orchestral tone poems, and operas.

What is going on here? Is this just a bunch of amazing prodigies? Is Jenny just bragging (again)?

Sure I am bragging, a little. But to consider these young people prodigies doesn’t really do them justice. At best, the concept of a composition “prodigy” is slippery. At worst, it gives us permission to write off the broader implications of the concert anecdote I began with. Because here’s what I believe it proved: that teenagers, armed with a good musical education and an environment supportive of new music, will find it completely natural to write, rehearse, perform, and then write some more.

The reason I see it as proof has to do with the many kids I’ve seen over the past ten years come into Face the Music and find that, coupled with a good basic music education, they had all the tools necessary to start creating music in a way that I had previously assumed was the sole provenance of college students. Technology, of course, has made the idea-to-performance time much faster for young people, but this doesn’t totally explain the complete naturalness of this mini creative explosion.

It all sounds lovely, until I point out that if in fact these middle and early high school students are entering territory previously (or currently) tread only by college undergraduates, then what are they going to do in a few years when they turn 18? What is the best option for a student who has received a solid and complete education, academically and musically, through their pre-college years? Is there anything that will really fit the bill, or will these young students stimulate a new approach to compositional study on the college/conservatory level?

That will be the explicit subject of next week’s post, but in the meantime let me leave you with a sampling of my students’ responses to my question of “what are you working on this summer?” plus links to performance video from the June 24 concert.
From Owen Carter, who made the two-piano arrangement of Fearful Symmetries:

Since the end of the summer I have been writing for the FTM [Face the Music] call for scores, a piece called 82 Eridani. This is a piece that reflects the life of a G, F, or A type star. This pulls together two major interests of mine: astronomy and composition. This piece is for a middle-sized orchestra with the addition of saxophones, but a few future projects I had in mind would be smaller chamber works. Specifically, I wanted to write a piece about the western United States, because I am traveling around this summer and have been very interested in it.

Here is a screen shot of 82 Eridani:
82 Eridani
From Paris Lavidis, the composer of Greek Dances and Sonata for Prepared Piano and Unprepared Pianist:

After the completion of my Violin Concerto, written for soloist Brian Krinke, I began to revisit [my] completed works such as Chamber Concerto No.1, Chamber Symphony, and String Quartet No. 2, with the hope of revising them for performance. I also began my Violin Sonata No. 1 and a big band tune clusterfuck, and completed Symphonic Dances, an arrangement of a two-piano piece premiered recently. Also, I premiered the semi-improvised Sonata for Prepared Piano and Unprepared Pianist, as well as 21 Ways to Say Grace, a musical dialogue happening over (and making fun of) a suburban family dinner.
During the summer, I will complete Violin Sonata No. 1 and will write music to accompany a poem written for this purpose by Henry Nelson. In addition to that I will write a visually oriented dance suite for cellist Camille Dietrich, and I hope to begin my 2014 master project, a three-act randomly generated opera set in a dentist’s office, a Costco, and the Nevada desert. The opera is for two singers and an extra and tries to capture social dynamics, as opposed to the overrated aesthetics of notated music.

Here is a screen shot of the first movement of Paris’s Violin Sonata No. 1:
Violin Sonata No. 1
From Sofia Belimova, the composer of Gesualdo In Love:

Since school let out, I have been arranging and revising a piece called Train that I wrote earlier this year. I was hoping that it would be possible to offer it to Face the Music to play. My composition plans for the summer include writing a two-piano piece/concerto in case an opportunity like the one we had on June 24 comes up again.

From Zachary Detrick, the composer of Dark Halls:

Since the end of classes for the 9th grade, I have completed the first draft of Chamber Symphony No. 2. This five-movement work is a follow-up to a piece written for the Metropolis Ensemble in 2012. In addition, I am working on a piano quintet called 240 for myself and Quartet This Side Up, a string quartet that is part of Face the Music. It features John Cage quotes and extended techniques. Also, I continue work on my long-term project Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an opera inspired by my deep love for Lewis Carroll. I will be attending the Summer Composer’s Intensive hosted by the American Composers Orchestra and Yamaha Artist Services.

Here is a screenshot from the Alice opera:
And from Kyrie McIntosh, pianist on Greek Dances and also a composer:

Being a pianist as well as a composer, I enjoy writing for and playing around with my instrument. I have always been interested in improvisatory works—an area of music I haven’t really explored in concert yet. It has been said that Liszt improvised off themes, ideas, or even objects chosen from a hat during concerts. I have been improvising ever since I could stand at the piano, and I think it would be fun to try it out in front of an audience. I think improvisation is an important way of connecting with the audience and letting them catch a glimpse of who you are. This summer I am working on including improvisation in my piano works.


Finally, links to the June 24 performance. The second pianist on the Adams works is Vasudevan Panicker, who during the other 167 hours of the week is Face the Music’s managing director. Thanks to Achilles Lavidis for the video:
John Adams, Hallelujah Junction
Paris Lavidis, Greek Dances
Paris Lavidis, Sonata for Prepared Piano/Unprepared Pianist
Sofia Belimova, Gesualdo in Love
Zachary Detrick, Dark Halls

Games Played: FRACT OSC

For better or worse, rhythm games that require you to synchronize your actions with a beat are by far the most common form of music-themed video games these days. But this is not by any stretch of the imagination the only way to integrate music into gameplay, and a few interesting game-like things have been taking other approaches recently, like the meditative SoundSelf or the hybrid synthesizer/game console Ming Mecca. This kind of music game isn’t common enough yet to constitute a movement or even a trend, but maybe it’s the germ of one.

FRACT OSC's world

The synesthetic world of FRACT OSC

FRACT OSC is the latest and one of the most exciting additions to this fledgling genre. It describes itself as a “musical exploration game inspired by synthesizers,” and that’s pretty accurate. The game places you in an abstract neon landscape somewhere between Myst and Tron, and the environment is peppered with various kinds of music-making machinery. The gameplay is divided about half and half into puzzles that require manipulation of the environment, and music sequencer puzzles where you’re arranging melodic patterns. The first kind of puzzle, where you’re moving around boxes and redirecting lasers and such, will be familiar to anyone who’s played this sort of game before. But it’s admirable how smoothly the environment will audibly respond to your efforts, adding a layer or two to the ambient soundtrack as you get closer to a solution. This adds to the sensation that you’re in a world literally made of sound, that music is woven into the fabric of its reality.

Sequencer puzzle

One of FRACT OSC’s many music sequencer puzzles

But it’s the music sequencer puzzles that intrigued me the most. These puzzles present you with a piano roll-style display that lets you compose simple melodic and harmonic patterns which get more intricate as the game progresses. Without spoiling the game too much, what I admired most about these sections was how they guide the player to create certain kinds of musical structures, but without dictating specific solutions. For example, I might need a dotted, syncopated rhythm to progress, but the exact timing of that pattern might be open to interpretation. Most impressively, the game manages to convey all of this wordlessly, through carefully constructed audio and visual cues. Another nice touch is that the patterns you’ve created then later appear on other surfaces in the game, underlining the fact that you’re not just an observer in this world, you’re a maker.

As a music teacher (and perpetual student of sorts), I was inspired by the sense of balance in gently guiding the player, which is the same kind of balance I strive for in lessons and classes. Teaching composition is especially tightrope-y in this way. Saying “this is the way things need to be” doesn’t help a student think for themselves, but providing no direction is, of course, no help at all. It’s not unlike the dilemma that a game designer faces—you want to give the player some agency, but you also don’t want them to miss all the wonderful set pieces you’ve created for them.

I couldn’t help but think to myself as I was playing: could this kind of music puzzle be used as an educational tool to help students navigate their own creative processes? So much of composition is already about balancing possibilities and limitations. While it certainly might pique someone’s curiosity to learn more about music, I would stop short of saying that FRACT OSC is educational in its current form. But I can imagine similar strategies that could potentially illuminate ordinarily challenging musical concepts. We could see puzzles based on a visual rendering of the harmonic series, or a synesthetic representation of functional harmony.


Even the edges of FRACT OSC’s world are populated with discoveries

While the puzzles are the real meat of the game, the world they are situated in is much larger geographically, and you can find yourself wandering fruitlessly from time to time, searching for the next thing to solve. At first I was put off by this, until it suddenly took on metaphorical resonance. Creativity, too, is full of wandering, full of countless, often frustrating detours into cul-de-sacs and dead ends that you thought were highways. To be successful creatively, you have to be okay with this often-circuitous journey. You have to accept getting lost—and this is what the game was seeming to say to me, too. It helps that FRACT OSC’s meanderings take place in such a scenic and animated environment—while searching you might stumble across a breathtaking, surreal vista, or glowing pink crystals and green geodesic domes that emanate reverberant tones, or a fairy circle of levitating oscillators. The game is full of discoveries like this.

FRACT OSC advanced settings

Some of the studio’s “advanced settings”

FRACT OSC also has to walk a fine line between between being too trivial for musicians and too opaque for non-musicians, and this is most apparent in the game’s “studio,” which brings together all the oscillators and modulators that you unlock as you play the game into a reasonable facsimile of a digital audio workstation. You can make credible electronic music with this studio, and export the result as a WAV file or YouTube video, but the interface has some obvious limitations. For instance, the piano roll is pentatonic, there’s no automation to speak of, and you’re stuck with a few preset drum patterns. Still, the synths themselves sound great and are satisfyingly tweakable, especially after unlocking the “advanced” settings, which include a variety of options for filters, LFOs, waveshaping, and envelope shaping. For expert knob twiddlers, you can even get pretty noisy and experimental if you’re so inclined. It made me wish that the synths were available as a VST or AU plugin that could be incorporated into the context of professional audio editing software.

In the meantime, FRACT OSC is something of curiosity that is likely to delight musically inclined video game fans and perplex others. I only hope that it gains enough traction to inspire similar efforts from other game designers.

Tilting the Frame: Notes on an Alternative Education

In looking at our community of musicians, I see a lot of folks freshly graduated from school and flailing wildly (socially, financially, artistically). This is happening in the art world as well, but I’ve seen the art community react more quickly to create support for these post-graduates (is this the right term?) than our own musical commune. (As a note, I’m for the dissolution of the boundaries between the two communities and surround myself with thinkers and makers from both.) I’ve found more support from the experimental art community than the musical community in terms of performance opportunities as well as in the critique of my work. Why is this? One of the reasons is that my work is fairly unconventional, but the other is that the visual art world has thought about this issue and developed ways to cope, to grow, and to invite people into the conversation of reckless making at the intersection of art, music, and performance.

If our aim is to become smart and savvy makers of sound and performance, what models can be adopted from other fields to encourage the development of new works, new ideas, and new musics hitherto unknown? How can we best support the newest generation of composers, performers, sound artists, and thinkers?

We already have a few key models of post-graduate support: the residency, mentorship, the peer-to-peer relationship, and the community surrounding a performance venue. But how can we do better for our graduates? In what ways can we encourage an environment where musicians can extend the self through experimentation, focused critique, and social support? With this question in mind, I’ve collected as examples three of my favorite art and food groups that have successfully incubated new ways of thinking about collaboration and making work in a dynamic way.


Machine Project
Form: Storefront // Collective // Alternative Space
Location: Echo Park, Los Angeles, CA
Founded in 2003 by Mark Allen
Full disclosure: I’ve worked closely with Machine Project since 2008 as an artist and curator, collaborating with Mark Allen and Elizabeth Cline on projects at their storefront location and at neighboring museums. The thing that I find interesting about Machine Project is how it encourages our community of artists, musicians, scientists, designers, and makers to create works in a highly permissible environment where failure is embraced as part of the process. In contrast to our typical practice in music where the composition is finished before the concert, Machine Project would be more interested in finishing the piece with the public at the concert. At Machine, my work is often critiqued by a group of my peers, and curated into performances that yield surprising and exciting results. Works at Machine often elicit a reaction that is a mixture of surprise, intrigue, and awkwardness. It offers artists the chance to make experimental works with the public, or experiment with the public on art itself. And on a personal level, in dispersing a sense of authorship and folding my name into the Machine Project heading, I’ve acquired anonymity in which to experiment and try new things that I wouldn’t normally take on myself.

Description of an event at Machine Project
Infantcore: Experimental music by babies for adults. Mark Allen came up with this idea to have babies perform experimental music, and in conversation I thought that this would be best accomplished with video tracking, by someone like Scott Cazan (a tech genius and experimental musician). For this event, Scott created motion tracking software that converts the baby’s movement into sound. The music is really dense, beautiful, and rigorous, and created by unknowing toddlers crawling across a “Storefront Plaza” created by the artist, Nate Page.
Infantcore was a technically and logistically complex idea that needed to be implemented in a matter of weeks,” Cazan explains. Coming from a what if question about experimental music by babies, he had to create a musical solution for the work that correlated to babies and their movement. “In the end perhaps the most interesting outcome was the relation between the intense music indoors being created by the infants and the infants themselves unassumingly peering back at their parents through the glass.
“The babies were called and the software was written in the course of a few days, and then more babies than we had imagined showed up and made some bleak music.”

The Main House at Mildred’s Lane.

The Main House at Mildred’s Lane.
Photo by Fritz Haeg

Mildred’s Lane
Form: artists’ residence, pedagogical summer program, radical experiment in living, and site for creative exchange and learning deep in the woods.
Location: on 96 Acres in Northeast Pennsylvania
If Machine Project operates a bit like a hyperactive, open-source think tank for ideas and events, Mildred’s Lane works from a meditative set of aesthetics that govern their communal living in rural Pennsylvania. Mildred’s Lane is an ongoing collaboration between J. Morgan Puett, Mark Dion, their son Grey Rabbit Puett, and their friends and colleagues. In an attempt to sidestep the omnipresent debates about what art/design/architecture is, the group works deep in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania to create a collaborative artist colony that investigates a complex mashup of art-making and life-making. The work manifests as installations, a small-run press, and private and collective performances set deep in the woods.
What I find so interesting about Mildred’s Lane is that the space operates a bit like some of the established musical retreats in the Northeast, but with a more experimental ethos: They are focused on the everyday and allowing time and space for experimentation–much like a traditional residency, but I get the sense (having never been there) that there is something very special about the place in the way it’s able to captivate the imagination of the artist. They have created an antiquated and highly curated environment that lets life into the work through a kind of farmstead commune that cooks together, binds books, makes art, writes music, takes walks, and breathes. By offering this alternative present they have found a unique way of asking questions such as: Where is the future of art and society going? What do we really need in our 21st century?

A Bookbinding workshop at Mildred’s Lane.

A Bookbinding workshop at Mildred’s Lane.
Photo by Fritz Haeg

Cook it Raw
Form: Annual Chef Retreat and Meal
Location: International, site-based
Created in 2009 by Rene Redzepi and Alessandro Porcelli
In the Japanese prefecture of Ishikawa in 2012, 15 chefs from around the world were invited to meet for the fourth installment of Cook it Raw. Over the course of a few days, the chefs researched local sake at a distillery, went foraging in the forest (for mushrooms, wild wasabi, sorrel, yams, and parsley), went to a fish market to observe the seafood industry, and finally hunted ducks using traditional Japanese nets. On the final day, each chef then prepared a plate in a multi-course meal for an audience of 50, using the materials foraged and collected over the course of the week.

“You don’t come here to learn, but you learn. You don’t come to teach, but you teach.” – Quique Dacosta, chef

What makes it unique?
Cook it Raw is a peer-to-peer model that takes a group of chefs through firsthand experiences with food that reach into the ancient rituals of eating and embrace the modern avant-garde of microgastronomy. A group of equals is collectively put into new and possibly uncomfortable positions, during which they learn about local practices in food production, foraging, and cooking. This model disarms the avant-garde chefs, stripping away their established egos and inviting them to re-evaluate their culinary instincts. A big part of Cook it Raw seems to be the lasting impact that this three-day intensive leaves on the chefs, encouraging them to be mindful of their own local food culture.


Missing from this particular article are all of the alternative spaces that continue to do more for the musician, helping the work to grow in new and unexpected ways. I often wonder what incubators are yet to be created, however. What spaces are yet to pop up and serve the community in a new way that engenders new work, new ideas, new forms? Each one of the groups above have answered this question in a different way, seating themselves on the fringes of their respective worlds and engaging young artists in fresh ideas. The learning that arises through actually making work is invaluable to those looking to learn, grow, and evolve their process (compositional, performative, or other). For now, I hope each musician can act as an amplifier for their community, organizing platforms to help evolve the work through sharing both publicly and privately.

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.